Partners in Health: 20th Anniversary Appeal

For 20 years, Partners in Health has provided free medical services to the poorest communities around the world, while lobbying developed nations for more equitable access to medication and technology. Their website states, “Our mission is to provide a preferential option for the poor in health care.”

Millions of people are dying of treatable, preventable diseases such as malaria, AIDS and TB because medications are unaffordable or countries lack the infrastructure for traditional means of foreign-aid delivery to be effective. PIH’s innovative “community-based care” shows dramatic results where other programs have failed. Their aid workers make a hands-on, intensive personal commitment to their patients, helping them adhere to treatment regimens and addressing other non-medical problems that interfere with their care. For PIH, fighting disease in poor communities involves larger issues of social justice, including access to education, clean water, shelter, sanitation, and economic opportunities.

Some inspiring stories from their website:

Profile: Haitian AIDS patient delivers treatment and truth
More than 13 years ago, Denizard Wilson was diagnosed with AIDS. Soon he was too sick to continue working in Port-au-Prince, too poor to afford medical care, fearful that time was running out. Then he moved back to his hometown in the Central Plateau and went to PIH for treatment. “Since I have been with PIH, I have never been sick again,” he says today.

A doctor’s journal: bringing hope to patients in LesothoMathabo Posholi was too weak to sit up in bed when Dr. Jonas Rigodon first visited her. Eight months later, she is up and about and eager “to talk to people who have HIV and tell them that they have to take their medicine.”

To donate to their 20th anniversary appeal, click here.

I also recommend Tracy Kidder’s book about PIH founder Dr. Paul Farmer, Mountains Beyond Mountains.

Christian Mood Swings

When I became a novelist last year, I decided to start having emotions. Bad idea. My characters experience higher highs and lower lows than I’ve generally allowed myself in “real life”. I thought that because it wasn’t “really happening to me” I could enjoy the upside without the downside. Wrong again. 

Something that happened around the same time was that God answered my prayer (chuckling in His size-40 sleeve all the while) to remove my fear of being incinerated by contact with Him. Nowadays, when I read “Is not my word like fire, says the LORD, and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?” (Jeremiah 23:29), my response is more “Awesome, dude!” than “Yikes – where do I hide?”

Since I opened the doors of my creativity and my prayer life to let the storms sweep through, amazing things have happened. My writing has taken on new degrees of honesty, depth and mission, and my zeal to know God has increased. BUT…a lot of the time I feel like the Holy Spirit’s chew toy. Shake shake shake, plop. Tossed in a corner. I suppose that changing my temperament from constant low-grade gloom to manic-depressive is an improvement in terms of productivity, but when the post-prophetic emptiness descends, I remember why I resisted our culture’s veneration of impulsive emotion for so long.

In short, I have become addicted to peak experiences. I’m writing because I need the high of creation, or to escape from the flatness of everyday life. I drift from church to church seeking the thrill of spiritual fervor, while knowing that I will never be in a real relationship with the people who are worshipping beside me, because I don’t feel safe with their church’s worldview.

Today’s thumbnail bio at The Daily Office was of Jeremy Taylor, a 17th-century Anglican bishop and chaplain to King Charles I, who wrote this extraordinary prayer for the visitation of the sick, as found in the Book of Common Prayer:

O God, whose days are without end, and whose mercies cannot be numbered; Make us, we beseech thee, deeply sensible of the shortness and uncertainty of human life; and let thy Holy Spirit lead us in holiness and righteousness all our days: that, when we shall have served thee in our generation, we may be gathered unto our fathers, having the testimony of a good conscience; in the communion of the Catholic Church; in the confidence of a certain faith; in the comfort of a reasonable, religious, and holy hope; in favour with thee our God, and in perfect charity with the world. All which we ask through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Wait a moment — we’re supposed to want to be aware of the emptiness of mortal life? This can be a blessing, not just a pathology? As my Buddhist husband has often told me, even negative emotions feel much better when you stop resisting them as a violation of your imaginary entitlement to constant happiness.

And so I ask myself: Do I really long to see and speak the truth because it is God’s truth, or only because it is cool and exciting? Some truths are not fun. They’re not even scary in an exciting way. Feelings of pointlessness and spiritual darkness are also part of the package, because life is indeed short and uncertain, and evil is real.

I have been revived by the emotional freedom of charismatic and evangelical services, and will probably always dip into that world for occasional spiritual rebooting. However, I’m also coming to appreciate the discipline provided by the traditional liturgy, how it makes space for the widest range of experiences through the Scriptures yet holds them in a framework that prevents a single passion from filling the entire field of vision. This striking juxtaposition from the August 10 Morning Prayer service is a perfect example:

1 O LORD, my God, my Savior, *
by day and night I cry to you.
2 Let my prayer enter into your presence; *
incline your ear to my lamentation.
3 For I am full of trouble; *
my life is at the brink of the grave.
4 I am counted among those who go down to the Pit; *
I have become like one who has no strength;
5 Lost among the dead, *
like the slain who lie in the grave,
6 Whom you remember no more, *
for they are cut off from your hand.
7 You have laid me in the depths of the Pit, *
in dark places, and in the abyss.
8 Your anger weighs upon me heavily, *
and all your great waves overwhelm me.
9 You have put my friends far from me;
you have made me to be abhorred by them; *
I am in prison and cannot get free.
10 My sight has failed me because of trouble; *
LORD, I have called upon you daily;
I have stretched out my hands to you.
11 Do you work wonders for the dead? *
will those who have died stand up and give you thanks?
12 Will your loving-kindness be declared in the grave? *
your faithfulness in the land of destruction?
13 Will your wonders be known in the dark? *
or your righteousness in the country where all is forgotten?
14 But as for me, O LORD, I cry to you for help; *
in the morning my prayer comes before you.
15 LORD, why have you rejected me? *
why have you hidden your face from me?
16 Ever since my youth, I have been wretched and at the point of death; *
I have borne your terrors with a troubled mind.
17 Your blazing anger has swept over me; *
your terrors have destroyed me;
18 They surround me all day long like a flood; *
they encompass me on every side.
19 My friend and my neighbor you have put away from me, *
and darkness is my only companion.

Glory to God the Creator,
and to the Christ,
and to the Holy Ghost;
as it was in the beginning,
is now, and ever shall be
world without end. Amen. Amen.

After all that, we are called to praise. Whether or not we feel like it. There is a sanity to that command that comforts when emotions fail.

Inmates’ Access to Religious Books Threatened

From the government that brought you Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo…Not content with violating the Eighth Amendment, our prison system is taking aim at freedom of religion, too. reports on new federal regulations that would remove thousands of religious books from prison libraries:

From behind bars, many prisoners turn to religion to fill the void in their lives. Frequently, prisoners’ pursuits dovetail with the prison system’s goal of rehabilitating the convicts in its care; at the end of their incarcerations, if prisoners leave with a better understanding of right and wrong, so the thinking goes, they’ll be less likely to return in the future.

But that logic has come under fire recently by a federal rule change implemented in May limiting prison libraries under the domain of the U.S. Bureau of Prisons from carrying no more than 150 titles dealing with any single religion.

The new policy, while rooted in a desire to prevent religiously-motivated militancy from taking hold in federal penitentiaries, has struck some – particularly Jewish prisoners and officials with the Chabad-Lubavitch Aleph Institute – as odd, considering that many traditional Jewish texts like Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah legal code are now off limits. The rule is being challenged by Jewish, Christian and Muslim prisoners in a class-action law suit.

“Inmates in prison are searching for a sense of spirituality; they are looking to adjust their lives,” said Ron, who spent the past two years and seven months as an inmate at the Federal Correctional Institution in Yazoo, Miss. As with all of the other prisoners and former prisoners interviewed for this story, Ron requested that his last name not be used.

“Inmates are looking to help themselves and search for ways to rehabilitate,” he added. “Most people on the outside do not hear the cries for help from inmates. Many have very little family contact, [and] there is an atmosphere of hopelessness.”

Surprisingly, according to Ron, who was the leader of his prison’s makeshift Jewish community, most prisons are not built with rehabilitation in mind. With the exception of the odd meager job, inmates could, if they so desired, sit around and do nothing all day. Some take the time to plot future crimes or harbor resentment at a system they blame for keeping them incarcerated, he asserted.

Prisoners’ constitutional rights are more limited than those of ordinary citizens, for security reasons, but even so, the regulation should not withstand a constitutional challenge, assuming that the judges obey precedent rather than politics. I would actually argue this as an Establishment Clause issue, not only a Free Exercise issue.

A good case can be made that the regulation fails the second and third prongs of the Supreme Court’s test for Establishment Clause violations in Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971): it is not neutral between religious and secular content (treating religious literature differently from other books that potentially contain extremist political ideas), and it creates excessive governmental entanglement with religion (determining what sect a book is assigned to — e.g. are you going to have 150 Protestant and 150 Catholic books, or just 150 Christian books? if the latter, how do you allocate that quota among 1,000+ denominations?).

I don’t discount the danger of radical Islam spreading in a disaffected prison population, but an overbroad crackdown on all forms of “religion” sacrifices one of the very freedoms that we are fighting for.

Meanwhile, readers, clean out your basements and donate your old books and literary journals to your local prison library. And I mean good books, not just drugstore paperbacks. Prisoners are looking for something of substance to fill their days. I might pick jihadism over Jackie Collins if those were the only two options on the shelf.

Suffering for the Wrong Reasons

The Christian life is not an easy one…but then, what life is?

“Life is real, life is earnest, and the grave is not its goal,” wrote Longfellow in “A Psalm of Life”. Prophets and preachers can be stung to harshness at the thought of people wasting that one precious life on trivia, when they could be growing in the knowledge and love of God. But I also see a lot of Grape-Nuts religion; woe to you who prefer Frosted Flakes to a bowl of unsweetened gravel, because you are still selfish enough to want God to make you happy. 

That is not the God I am encountering in the Gospels and the Psalms. God is always making promises to people, very concrete ones involving food, shelter, the birth of children, and livestock, as well as the ones we can reframe as acceptably “spiritual”, like justice and salvation. “I came that they might have life, and have it more abundantly.” (John 10:10)

The issue of homosexuality puts this kind of “No pain, no gain” religiosity on display.  Requiring gays to be celibate — the last-ditch response now that the existence of an unchosen, unchangeable gay orientation can no longer be denied — imposes a suffering far greater than lack of sex. It is about depriving a whole class of people, through no fault of their own, of even the hope of a loving family life. Not even single straight Christians, who are remaining chaste until marriage, face this certainty of a lonely future.

The typical response by celibacy advocates is to sidestep all appeals to compassion by saying that every Christian is called to suffer and sacrifice. This is my cross, this is yours, end of discussion. Chris at Betwixt and Between deconstructs this position admirably in his August 6 post; boldface emphasis mine (scroll down; the permalink feature is not working for me right now):

At heart, Christianity is NOT a sado-masochistic religion. It’s not about suffering for suffering sake. Or even “giving up” something. It’s about “responding unto”. It’s about response to the God who is love.

But some straight Christians and gay celibates can sure turn Christianity into that when discussing what is good for gay Christians in general. It often happens through an argument from the extreme case (celibacy) to every particular case….

All too often I run into posts across the internet about gay people and our needing to “give up something”, take up our cross, meaning that we’re automatically called to celibacy in toto. That a little more suffering is a good thing in and of itself even when nothing shows for it. But Christianity is not about suffering for suffering sake, or that a little more suffering will get you closer to God, after all, at heart, our faith makes clear that suffering can destroy and we can do nothing of ourselves to get us closer to God, rather God draweth nigh to us amidst the sundry realities of life, especially in our suffering….

Good and WISE spiritual discernment and direction knows that we have to be careful in determining another’s call or what from they are called to abstain, and even more careful in making carte blanche generalizations for an entire class of persons in this regard, and particularly so, it seems that while it is suspect to draw conclusions from gay individuals who claim celibacy is NOT their call and partner, it seems many heterosexuals are quick to glom on to those gay individuals who claim it is the call of every gay person simply because it’s working for those gay persons….

It’s my opinion that such efforts to make such determinations are ego-driven rather than driven by a concern to love the other as ourselves or to bring them the Good News of Christ Jesus and let the response be truly a working out of God in the gay person’s life. And this egoism can be hidden under all sorts of pious declarations and considerations.

In the case of gay people, I think the want to tell all gay people their calling is celibacy by virtue of being gay, is at heart, so that these people don’t have to deal with the uncomfortable reality of another orientation existing and making space for that orientation as ordinary even if abnormal statistically with appropriate means for the vast ordinary majority in that class to live as such with the possibility of growing in love and virtues. It’s about ego. Even when they see virtues arising from the vast majority of gays who will simply cut down the middle–just like them, in partnership. Give it up! Because the law says… It’s stifling to behold.

It’s like the bottom-line basis by which we discern is taken out from underneath us–fruits of the Spirit (virtues), and stamped on, simply because we’re told, the extreme (celibacy) would show that we truly loved God and would do us better because God requires more of us. And if we have to suffer a bit more. Oh, well! Quit that intimacy with your partner, and then we know you love God. But what if the relationship shatters and virtue slides away? I’ve seen this happen in ex-gay situations when one of the partners gets “saved”. No answer. Or some damn platitude, “Well God has a better plan…” Or another smarm about suffering. But that’s the whole point. Such argument from the extreme to the most of us who are ordinary and not gifted in celibacy can destroy. It’s bad spiritual direction and poor pastoral understanding.

Instead, what is good for us is ascertained by the extreme (celibacy)—well the Desert Elders did some claim for example so why can’t you gays, rather than recognizing most will likely find themselves, just like straights, needing a middle path….A path, partnership, that even many of those, who advocate that we are automatically called to the extreme, recognize leads to virtues. Many who say we should nonetheless take on an extra helping of suffering simply to suffer or to appease God because God calls us to give up the good (for what purpose in toto isn’t clear besides maintaining the rules) nonetheless admit that such partnerships show virtues. Perhaps that which is pleasing to God isn’t simply to increase suffering, but doing that which in a particular life leads to holiness?

…The danger in all of this is that gays will come to understand that the God of Jesus is a body-soul divider, opposes the Spirit to the flesh, a Manichaean God so often the image I get from straight people who make such suggestions but wouldn’t deign to turn that same suggestion on themselves (nor do they offer an equivalent to they’re generalized, “well heterosexuals suffer too” response when queried) or from the gay people who it seems have a vocation to celibacy so they universalize their vocation to all gay people (or the worst, apparently straight people called to celibacy who then have lots of suggestions for the gays while making snide comments about our parnterships)—not some tricky slide, well I give up x, y, z, so you need to give up partnership, but a humanizing, we’re more similar than different in this so most likely and reasonably speaking not all of you would be asked to give up partnership. It’s an argument from the extremes, that ironically, is at odds with monasticism in its healthiest forms and its focus on practice–that most practice will be in the middle not on the edges. To suggest that all gay people should be just like the Desert Elders or monastics is an extreme arguing into practice for the general population–of gays in this instance.

Instead, a blanket policy makes life easier—for the straights and the gay celibates who advocate this. And connecting that policy to the cross gets such people off the hook of examining what looks an awful lot like sado-masochism. Asking of an entire class of people what they wouldn’t ask for themselves, and being unable to think in terms of the particular in ways that would be unthinkable for straight people. The rules say, and so it goes… You will need to suffer a little more because…God needs appeasing. While we have tangible and good things in our lives, we’ll tell you about all of the non-existant ones you’ll inherit in the next. But instead in following Jesus, what we’re giving up is the story these people have told us about ourselves, and that puts us in some difficult jams. We get plenty of crosses coming our way by doing so everyday. The suggestion that we don’t already face crosses simply by living life is a form of blindness to what gay people face just for existing and living in ordinary ways.

I could understand this argument from the extreme if always and everywhere gay partnership failed to blossom in virtues or positively led to vice. But even many of these folks admit it doesn’t. Virtues arise. Which tends to tell us that the desire itself is not the problem, but rather what we choose to do with it, just like heterosexuality. And that those of either orientation given the GIFT of celibacy are not “giving up” but “responding unto” in the will God has for them rather than tending to put God and humans at odds, in competition.

In his 1974 tome On Being a Christian, renegade Catholic theologian Hans Kung helpfully distinguished between seeking suffering for its own sake (a misunderstanding of the cross) and bringing forth spiritual fruit from the suffering that inevitably comes our way:

Following the cross does not mean copying the suffering of Jesus, it is not the reconstruction of his cross. That would be presumption. But it certainly means enduring the suffering which befalls me in my inexchangeable situation — in conformity with the suffering of Christ. Anyone who wants to go with Jesus must deny himself and take on himself, not the cross of Jesus nor just any kind of cross, but his cross, his own cross; then he must follow Jesus. Seeking extraordinary suffering in monastic asceticism or in romantic heroism is not particularly Christian.

…It is likewise not a true following of the cross to adopt the Stoic ideal of apathy toward suffering, enduring our own suffering as unemotionally as possible and allowing the suffering of others to pass by while we remain aloof and refuse to be mentally involved. Jesus did not suppress his pain either at his own or at others’ suffering. He attacked these things as signs of the powers of evil, of sickness and death, in the still unredeemed world. The message of Jesus culminates in love of neighbor, unforgettably instilled in the parable of the good Samaritan and in the critical standard of the Last Judgment: involvement with the hungry, thirsty, naked, strangers, sick and imprisoned. (pp.576-77)

In my opinion, what makes universal gay celibacy a false cross is that the sacrifice benefits no one. Unlike chastity before marriage, it is not preparation for a relationship of mutual self-giving and fidelity. Unlike priestly or monastic celibacy, it is borne in solitude and shame, not in an honored role that provides alternative channels for that person’s loving generosity to express itself. It’s throwing away a resource rather than using it where it is most needed. It’s the cross for the sake of the cross, without salvation or resurrection. Jesus called people to sacrifice not so they could prove something to God with their unhappiness, but so that others could be happy as well. Sacrifices with no justification beyond formal obedience to reasonless commands should be looked upon with suspicion. “For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Book Notes: Feminism Without Illusions

Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, Feminism Without Illusions: A Critique of Individualism (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991).

This book by the late lamented historian would have saved me from becoming a Republican had I discovered it when I was in college (1989-93, so it could have happened). Fox-Genovese rejected the entire way that the “canon wars” were framed at that time, and argued that “potential lies not in the repudiation of [gender] difference but in a new understanding of its equitable social consequences.” (p.256) 

Conservatives in the 1990s defended the universality of Western Civilization, and its democratic-individualist ideal of knowledge that could be approached on equal terms by everyone, regardless of “race, class and gender” (the Holy Trinity of political correctness in my youth). The liberals at that time often sounded like determinists, reading texts only through the lens of the author’s, or their own, biological and economic classifications. This paradigm foreclosed communication between groups, and diversity of opinion within them.

However, individualism also has an ironically homogenizing effect when pushed to its limits. It’s liberating to be told that you can be a person first and a woman second. But if I don’t in some sense read this text as a woman, am I reading it as me? Or am I aspiring to become a disembodied intellect — the bargain that male-dominated civilization has typically demanded of women in exchange for access to the republic of letters?

Fox-Genovese saw excesses of individualism on both sides of the canon wars. Conservatives plucked writer and reader out of their personal histories and communities, disguising the power imbalances that affected interpretation. Liberals overshot in the other direction, breaking down the very idea of a common culture into a subjective chaos of individual voices, and ignoring the liberating potential of women’s identification with something beyond their gender. 

In Fox-Genovese’s view, feminism needs to honor women’s experience of two-ness, instead of forcing women to choose between gender and other aspects of their identity:

The principal feminist responses [to gender inequality] have consisted in a celebration of difference and in a denial or repudiation of it. Feminist consciousness, confronting the massive legacy and present power of male culture, has tended either toward female separatism, with an emphasis on essentialism, or toward integration, with an emphasis on androgyny….

Sooner or later all feminists are compelled to face the inescapable, gut-wrenching angers that inform the aspirations of women, too long cast as impure, inferior and inadequate and cast out from the sanctuaries of truth, knowledge, and the Word. This current in any feminism fuels female resentment of male prerogative and encourages women to accept one another’s (and their own) pain. But when this anger crystallizes in separatist tendencies, it easily slips into indiscriminate attacks on “male knowledge” and “male values.” It seeks beginnings in imagined pre-patriarchal utopias, histories in heresy, and futures in gynocentrism….

Another feminist current, seeking to escape the anguish of anger, aspires to the “purer” spheres of androgyny: the true word knows neither male nor female, nor does the rational polity, the equitable task, or the order of the just….Indeed, any vigorous individualism carries androgynous overtones….

The categories of individual, citizen, and artist refer to the self-conscious being, the political being, and the creative being in such a way that the attributive takes priority over the substantive — becomes the substantive. And once being is identified with its attribute and becomes in some sense categorical, being comes to be understood primarily as the unit of a system. Any variety of physical being (male, female, tall, short, black, white) may, theoretically speaking, occupy the category, for individuals become interchangeable. Or so traditional conservatives have always insisted in reproaching radical egalitarians….

[Androgyny feminism] too closely resembles the model of the angels, or of rational politics, or of the occupational possibilities of multinational capitalism. It abstracts too much from the varieties of life in different human bodies, proposing homogenization of the ways of being — of male and female — rather than advocating free access to social and cultural categories for very different beings. (pp.226-28)

I chose conservative individualism over collectivist feminism in college because the intellect seemed like a much more level playing field than the vagaries of the body, popular sentiment or sisterly goodwill. I was smart and therefore unpopular, and whatever feminine wiles I might have had, I was afraid to use, because the callous sexual precociousness of my peers seemed light-years away from my private dreams of romance. The touchy-feely educational environment of the 1970s allowed for a lot of arbitrary favoritism by teachers and cliquish bullying by students, factors that turned me off to emotion-based, particularist philosophies. Impersonality was my friend. I wanted a system where I would get an honest wage for honest work even if nobody liked me.


Even now, when I have the power to choose which collectives I belong to, and therefore the privilege to sentimentalize connectedness and particularism, I am conflicted about how much my gender matters to my identity. The traditionally “feminine” aspects of myself are the ones I feel most self-conscious about, because I see them as signs of weakness: my preference for the domestic over the corporate realm, my love of luxury, my emotional sensitivity and volatility, and what we will tactfully call avoirdupois. The traits I am most proud of are “masculine”: my analytical mind, my independence, my outspokenness, my aggression in debate, my impatience with “relationship drama”.

One reason I support gay rights so passionately, in fact, is that my attraction to men feels more essential to my personality than the shape of the body I happen to be in. It’s only the luck of the draw that I’m a straight woman and not a gay man! Many women would say that their identity-formation was very much a gendered experience. That wasn’t true for me, and so for a long time feminism turned me off, because it seemed to invalidate a childhood and adolescence in which I was pretty much a floating brain in a jar. Pleasurable experiences of being female were largely unavailable to me then (except for clothes-shopping!). Being told to have warm fuzzy feelings about the Goddess only increases my anxiety that there is a template for female normalcy that I will never fit. I guess I am still an individualist after all — more comfortable expressing my physical side than before, but unwilling to let anyone turn my body into a symbol of values I didn’t choose. 

Support Mthatha Mission in South Africa

Jesse Zink, a young man who grew up in our Episcopal parish, preached an amazing sermon today about his upcoming stint as a missionary in South Africa. Jesse will be working at the Itipini medical clinic in a shantytown outside Mthatha, which was the capital of the largest apartheid-era black “homeland” and is still one of the poorest parts of the country with one of the highest rates of HIV and tuberculosis. You can follow his progress (and make donations) at his blog Mthatha Mission.

In his sermon, he reflected on the mixed history of Christian missions and how the word “missionary” can be reclaimed for a less colonialist, more service-oriented way of living out the gospel in a foreign culture:

I read the Bible as a whole, a complete piece of divinely-inspired literature that – while contradictory and confusing in many places – tells a couple consistent messages throughout. The message I hear most frequently is evident in this morning’s Gospel. Jesus says, “one’s life does not consist in the abundance of one’s possessions” and warns those who “store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.” We can summarize this message by paraphrasing what is often associated with a president: “Ask not what you can do for yourself; ask what you can do for God and God’s people.” God has created us, knows each one of us, and has blessed each of us with a unique set of gifts, not to enrich ourselves and store up treasures on earth but to enrich God’s fallen world and make it more like God’s perfect creation. That is no small task and not one that we accomplish in a day, a week, a month, a year, or even a lifetime. It is a task we shall never see the conclusion of. But it is a task to which we must devote our lives all the same.

Since we each have different gifts, we fulfill this godly duty in different ways, in a way that fully expresses the diversity of the Body of Christ metaphor Paul uses in his epistles. But we are united by one theme: service. I define service as the act of putting the needs of others ahead of the needs of oneself. We have our own desires and wishes, of course, and we shouldn’t deny them, but our orientation needs to be primarily outwards, towards our brothers and sisters in Christ, and not inwards, enriching only ourselves.

It is this attitude that has drawn me first to Nome, Alaska where for the past two years I have worked as a news reporter at a public-service radio station there, broadcasting to Alaska Natives in Western Alaska, who live in what are frequently termed “third-world conditions.” And it is an attitude that made me search for something like YASC. But when I found out that I would be a missionary of the church if I joined YASC, I paused. Why not stay in Nome or anywhere on this continent and continue to be a contributing member of society? Why not join some other secular service program, like the Peace Corps, which I seriously considered after college before opting for grad school? Why not run as far away from the dreaded m-word as possible? What theology of mission could I arrive at that would allow me to reconcile my belief in service with my hesitation at, say, the Great Commission?

…When Christian fervour for overseas mission work began to reach a critical mass in the early 19th century, the focus was on the “missions of the church,” that is, the hospitals, schools, and churches around the world that various parts of the church in the rich world supported. “Mission” is rooted in the Latin word that means “sent” so it made sense to focus on these discrete outposts of people who had been sent from their homes. While this is likely where the negative view of missionaries began, we should also recognize there were as many kinds of missionaries as there are kinds of Christians and many were kind and loving types who prayfully served their new communities.

Over time, however, this focus changed and people began speaking about the “Church’s mission.” The question became, What is the church doing all over the world and how can we all participate in that one mission? The Episcopal Church, for once in its life, was ahead of the game and in 1830 declared that every member of the church was a member of the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society of the Protestant Episcopal Church of the United States of America, which remains our official title today and which means all of you are missionaries as well. Everyone participates in mission.

But focusing on the “Church’s mission” forgot an important element: God. So the focus in the last few decades has been on “God’s mission” and the question that is central to this is, What is the mission of God that the church and its members can participate in? The church is not the same all over the world, which is what the “Church’s mission” idea seemed to imply, but God’s mission is.

God’s mission is, and always has been, one of reconciliation, that is, bringing people to each other and bringing people to God. At Creation, God created Adam and Eve to be in relationship with each other and in relationship with their Creator. They, of course, fell away from that relationship, setting the model we continue to follow today. The reading for Hosea this morning is a reminder of the numerous times Israel fell away from God but also the equally numerous times God called those same sinful people into closer relationship with God, in the spirit of what Hosea calls God’s “warm and tender” compassion.

But God decided the work of reconciliation needed a human face and so took human form as Jesus Christ, who reached out to everyone but particularly the down-trodden, the outcast, and the forgotten and sought to bring them into loving relationship with their world and God. In the remainder of the New Testament, God’s message spreads beyond Israel as people are sent into the world to seek to reconcile our fallen world to God’s creation.

It is a testament to the challenge of this reconciling task that our mission is the same now as it was then: to do that work of reconciliation with the power of the Holy Spirit and the knowledge of Revelation and the Resurrection, that what is old can be made new again and that what is dead can be re-born. I’ll save my exegesis of the Great Commission for another time but it is this theology and this history that has made me comfortable with the idea that I am now a missionary. The point of performing this service mission in a religious context as opposed to a secular one is that it is rooted in and affirming of the faith that is the fundamental driving force behind the desire to serve….

Jesse’s sermon filled me with hope as an example of the Episcopal Church via media at its best: Public service not as a substitute for faith in Jesus, but as the natural and beautiful expression of that faith. Confession of Christ as Lord as the foundation for all we do, but not as a substitute for actually feeding his sheep. My prayers are with him.

A Saint of Emotional Intelligence

Today is the feast day of John-Baptist Vianney, about whom James Kiefer at The Daily Office writes:

Jean-Baptiste-Marie Vianney (better known as the Cure’ d’Ars, or curate of Ars — now Villars-les-Dombes) was the son of a peasant farmer, born in France in 1786, three years before the beginning of the French Revolution. He wished to become a priest, but his studies were hindered, first by the poverty of his family, next by the anti-religious policies of the Revolutionary government, and finally by the wars of Napoleon. He was not a particularly bright student, and struggled hopelessly with Latin. He was 29 when he was finally ordained, his superiors having decided that his zeal and devotion compensated for his “academic underqualification.”

He was sent as curate to the small and obscure village of Ars-en-Dombes (now called Villars-les-Dombes (46:00 N 4:50 E),about 30 kilometers northeast of Lyon (formerly Lyons, 45:46 N 4:50 E), where he proved an unexpectedly brilliant preacher. He campaigned vigorously against drinking, dancing, and immodest dress, but became chiefly known for his skill in individual counselling. He was blessed with extraordinary psychological insight, and knew when to tell someone, “You are worrying too much about your sins and failing to trust in the mercy of God,” and when to say, “You are not worrying enough about your sins and are treating the mercy of God as a moral blank check.” He would often tell people, “Your spiritual problems do not lie in the matters you have mentioned, but in another area entirely.”

Many people came away convinced that he must be a mind-reader. As his fame spread, people came for hundreds of miles to hear him preach (close to 100,000 in the last year of his life) and to receive his private counsel (he ended up spending eighteen hours a day hearing confessions). The work was exhausting, and three times he undertook to resign and retire to a monastery, but each time he felt bound to return to deal with the needs of his congregation. He died “in harness” at the age of 73, 4 August 1859.

I’m tempted to wonder whether Father Vianney’s lack of aptitude for academic theology blessed him with extraordinary fluidity in tailoring his message to the individual’s spiritual imbalances. The Bible contains apparent contradictions or inconsistencies of emphasis (e.g. Paul’s “by grace alone” versus James’ “faith without works is dead”) that cannot be crammed into a perfectly neat theological system, but that widen the Scriptures’ applicability to every type of audience.

Similarly, in the gospels, Jesus himself is perpetually surprising, at one point proclaiming even stricter moral laws than the Pharisees, at another point forgiving and touching the outcast sinners. So is this religion about moral perfection or moral anarchy? When we abstract out the dynamic initiative of God and His personal relationship with each of us, we have no way to balance these competing principles, and we develop a heartless or mindless theology that overcompensates in a particular direction.

My friend the writer Elise Chase expressed this insight well in an as-yet-unpublished essay about John 14:6 and the possibility of salvation for non-Christians (boldface emphasis mine):

Jesus tells us that belief is crucial [to salvation], but it is often unclear from his words which is more important–theological understanding, or inarticulate trust. What is clear is that his call to commitment is so radical, even outlandish, that it runs counter to our deepest autonomous instincts, and nothing short of God’s own intervention in our hearts can make such commitment possible. This alone should make us hesitate to spell out too precisely just what we must do from our human end to be “saved”. Yet if we throw up our hands and say we have no role in the matter, there are all those other passages in scripture that seem to suggest our human failure to recognize who Jesus is, and to follow him, has enough impact on the heart of God that he suffers genuine pain.

There is so much paradox, even ambiguity, when we set text against text! If each word in scripture is the way God intends it to be, then I can’t help thinking this paradox is there for a reason. Perhaps God doesn’t want us to be too rigid in our understanding of exactly how the salvation provided by Jesus “works”, in an operational sense; maybe the Bible’s very mystery has a pastoral function. We have enough passages promising God will be faithful to his “chosen” ones that, as believers, we are given assurance about our eternal security in him. When it comes to where others may stand with him, though, tension between the themes of God’s sovereignty, on the one hand, and his desire that everyone might come to salvation, on the other, cautions us not to set categorical boundaries around God’s grace….

In the end, I can’t help believing, agape love, which is always rooted in Jesus, inevitably trumps doctrine. “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor. 13:15). Yes, doctrine is necessary as a pastoral tool: to ground us in clear thinking, to anchor us in commitment to Jesus as Savior and Lord, to give us assurance that he has already accomplished everything necessary for our salvation, and it is not up to us. But when obsession with doctrine snarls and entangles us, making us regress spiritually and inhibiting us from loving God and those around us, surely it is better to loosen our grip, at least for the moment, on the propositional tenets that are doing this damage.

Desktop Inspirations

Glimmer Train, a leading magazine of literary fiction, asked in a recent survey for the inspirational quotes that their readers have tacked up on their desk to motivate them to write. The full list is here (PDF file). Some of my favorites:

“If you can’t piss people off, why write at all.” (anonymous)
“I write to discover what I know.” (Flannery O’Connor)
“The hard is what makes it great.” (Tom Hanks in the movie “A League of Their Own”)
“One reason for writing, of course, is that no one’s written what you want to read.” (Philip Larkin)
“Have the courage to follow your talent to the dark place.” (anonymous)
“A man must love a thing very much if he not only practices it without any hope of fame and money, but even practices it without any hope of doing it well.” (G.K. Chesterton)
“Start writing — the answer will come to you.” (fortune cookie; I have this one taped to my computer too)

Quotes from my desktop:

“Concentrate not on protection, but on reducing your vulnerabilities.” (another fortune cookie)

“He who waits to do a great deal of good at once, will never do anything.” (Samuel Johnson)

“Live in joy — even with all the facts.” (source unclear; I’ve seen a version of it attributed to Wendell Berry)

What’s on your list, readers?