Wednesday, December 28, 2016

No Condemnation III

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by Henk Hart

"The Way," by Henk Hart

In today’s blog I am still looking for the way to a place where love fills all, especially when in our time darkness is so overwhelming nd hate so common. So one more time the picture of a way into and through the storm.
I can accept that at some time in history people were convinced that a true church would exercise discipline. I cannot accept that at the same time love was overlooked as a mark of a true church. Next year we remember 500 years of Reformation. This would be a great time to remove discipline as a mark of a church’s authenticity and replace it with love. Scripture seems to recommend it.

Aboriginals are our neighbours, mosques are built next to churches, Africans in hunger and fear flee to Europe, Western countries become xenophobic, the rich steal prosperity from the rest, crimes against humanity are seen on the internet as they happen. These irreversible events and many others first breed fear and confusion, then give rise to violence and hatred. Aboriginals are locked up, mosques are set on fire, Africans drown as they flee, neighbours rise up against neighbours, innocents are murdered. Fifty years ago Martin Heidegger said that in a world so rudderless only a god can save us. But where do we find such a god? In Taiz√© they sing: ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est. God is where love is. Which is where? What’s the way?

The Christian church knows where, the Christian church knows the way. Love, love divine, can heal a world so broken. And God’s choice strategy for making such love visible, for showing the way, is in the community where Jesus seeks to be embodied: the church. In many ways God’s love for the outcasts of the world has always been visible there when sanctuary is offered, when the poor and the homeless are cared for, when places of healing for the sick are built, when prisoners are visited, when strangers are welcomed. These acts of mercy all embody love. Sadly, however, church-love has boundaries. Officially, doctrinally the church has made no full transition in Christ from Exodus 34 to John 8. In the church the jubilant and boundlessly generous, forgiving God of Exodus 34:6 remains bound to the guilt of the guilty pursued for generations in vs 7. When Jesus writes a new law in the sand: no condemnation, the church does not follow.

When John 1 speaks of the incarnation as full of grace and truth, he echoes Exodus 34:6 and does not include vs 7. God’s chesed and emeth, when read in Christ, are without condemnation in Jesus. In the church God calls people to show love divine in all its fulness. But the church practices discipline as a mark of its authenticity. Priests are de-frocked, parishioners are barred from communion, homosexuals are not welcome. So, after 500 years of Reformation, is it time for love to replace discipline and to allow the church to bear witness to Jesus’ no condemnation? In John’s gospel resurrection is forgiving sins, made more emphatic in Jesus’ saying: when we do not forgive, some will remain without forgiveness. That's Jesus’ challenge: Forgive sins and leave no one unforgiven (20:23).

Faith in the resurrected Jesus does not happen in affirming belief in the resurrection, but calls for living the resurrected life of forgiving. Jackie Pullinger, the missionary in Hong Kong who worked with addicts, explains in her book Chasing the Dragon that in her mission no addict falls off the wagon too many times and will then be told: this was your last time. Climbing back on is the never ending rule. Love has no limits, no boundaries, no conditions. In our world in turmoil the ubiquitous bill board slogan that Jesus saves might speak more eloquently in an invitation to trust the God who loves all and condemns none. The God whose church makes love its breath.

The church that continues the incarnation we celebrated at Christmas is not meant to be God’s police or court of law. Truth and reconciliation are a different way to resolve derailment. Armies, jails, electric chairs, or litigation do not heal. Redeeming love welcomes the prodigal home. There are no conditions. Open arms, new clothes, and a banquet authenticate God’s eternal intent. Our world needs the surprise of love’s generosity. A church that loves and never condemns would be a light on a hill in our pitch dark world.

The church, in offering people the sacraments, offers means of grace without cost. If someone has transgressed, what could better show the love of God than receiving these means of grace? So what message goes forth if transgression forfeits access to these means? Even if there is a plausible Scriptural argument to justify such discipline, can the argument be stretched to allow the church to put fences around the love of God? When Scripture speaks of that love its language sometimes testifies to the paucity of words to fully make known that incomprehensible love. Who has the authority to make that love subject to discipline?

A church aiming to fully embrace God’s love would be known in finding creative ways to walk together with transgressors to find healing, to walk together as fellow transgressors experiencing God’s love. Bearing one another’s burdens without condemnation fulfills the law of Christ, honors the new commandment to love one another. Would not such a church be amazing? Would not resurrection become believable? Would not brokenness begin to heal?

The most prevalent response to evil in our culture is to demand punitive justice, revenge, just deserts. If there is transgression in the church, is the response different? Unfortunately the rules require discipline, because theologically a just God demands punishment. But the prophet Hosea affirms that in God’s view, punishment is too human (11:9). God withdraws from punishment. “For I am God, and not a man—the Holy One among you.” As the prohet sees it, when we affirm God’s holiness with discipline, we assert our human nature. A holy God, quite differently, withdraws fierce anger. As Leonard Cohen sang in his last song:
... it's written in the scriptures
And it's not some idle claim.
Discipline as a mark of the true church has very deep roots and a long history. But next year’s commemoration of 500 years of Reformation could be an occasion to review this teaching. The original view found support in a particular time in history. Today's changed world could lead to confessing love as the prime mark of a true church. May 2017 spread more light and joy. Happy New Year.

This piece is part of the Ground Motive project From Henk's Archives.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

No Condemnation II

by Henk Hart

"The Way," by Henk Hart

In our stormy times little seems as important for all people, all faiths, all cultures, especially all leaders as finding a way forward. So I stay with last week’s picture of a visible way in a distant darkness.
My explosive experience of love’s unfathomable depths ten years ago, my subsequent puzzling discovery that in the Christian tradition there is a measure of hesitation about love’s centrality in the universe, followed by my coming to understand Scripture as embracing the unbounded fullness of love, resulted in many notes in my archives. Is the way of the Spirit clear? Is my understanding of it Biblical? Today I continue exploring where the spirit leads. Does the way ahead hold promise?
In Jesus we see the triumph of love over condemnation as the direction in which rule pointed but did not make manifest. Jesus, says the opening of John's gospel, embodies the grace and truth that stayed covered in the law of Moses as his glory. In Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus (John 3:16 and 17), we see God’s ultimate intent made unambiguously clear: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son, that whoever trusts in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” No wonder that in this gospel, 8:11, we find Jesus saying to the woman about to be stoned for adultery according to Moses: “I do not condemn you.” With his finger, the way God had written the commandments, he wrote the new commandment in the sand. Then he said: “sin no more.” Meaning?

A crucial place in the New Testament echoes Jesus’ refusal to condemn the woman. Romans 8 verse 1 says: “there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus....” We are encouraged to trust not only that in Christ we are not condemned, but also that we do not condemn. Verses 33 and 34: “Who will lay charges, who will condemn?” Instead we are invited to become children of God, to say Abba to God, to become like Jesus, the first child who does not condemn. In the New Testament the parent-child relation becomes the preferred metaphor for God’s relationship to us, setting the tone for the ruler-subject relation. God’s love finds a way to deal with broken rules. The son-of-David walks redemptively with David’s rule-breaking subjects. And we enter into that child-parent relation, not surprisingly, through suffering. Read 16 and 17: “The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.” Jesus’ “no condemnation" is God’s new way: we bear the transgressions of others as followers of the suffering servant, to make visible that God in Christ does not condemn when we, in the way of Christ, enter into the space of the cross.

For many Christians this is hard to believe. If we are called to sin no more, how can we, so it seems, allow people to sin and get away with it? But being heirs with Christ doesn’t mean we ignore sin. Not to condemn is not an invitation to condone. We deal with sin in the way of Christ, trusting the no condemnation. Gal. 6:1-2 calls us to bear one another’s transgression as our burden. Burden bearing is cross bearing. “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” Fulfilling the law of Christ is fulfilling the law of love which demands that we give our life for the other. The Noachite covenant: if you take a life, yours will be taken also, moves beyond that rule to give deeper expression to its direction. The rule’s direction was God’s affirmation of life. In Christ this becomes: if someone has gotten lost in abusing God’s gift of life, we are invited to give ourselves as burden bearers. Our neighbor's burden is light, because we bear with and for our neighbor. We bear our neighbour’s cross, we tolerate. This is not a toleration of indifferent letting be. The toleration of Jesus is the space of “qui tolle peccata mundi,” who bears the sins of the world. Telling people to “sin no more,” as the way to read Jesus not condemning the woman, misses the point. Rather, we experience the “no condemnation” when, in the community of faith, we enter into that space to experience God’s way of dealing with sin. In that space we find the power to sin no more.

The new Jerusalem at the end of Revelation gets its light from a source other than the created lights. “The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp.” We will reflect the glory-light of the Lamb when we share in his sufferings, that is, if we bear with him. From here on in the only rule we know is the rule of the Lamb, the only power we know the power of suffering love.

“Sin no more” does not mean: stop breaking rules. We can’t do that, as God observed after the flood. God found another way for us to live: no condemnation, no more flood, only the light that shines from the Lamb. That empowers us to seek life in the direction of no condemnation by trusting that life will emerge in that direction. The life of faith is turned into a different direction, not away from but toward the God who does not condemn when we break the rules. That allows us who do break the rules to turn in God's direction and thus to sin no more. To repent from sin becomes: turn to trust God’s “no condemnation.” To sin no more is to live in faith, to trust that though we continue to break the rules, there is no condemnation. Condemned rule-breakers will continue to seek life away from or against the rules. But if God has a way of life that can’t harm us even if we miss, we’ll want to seek that way. Rules that have lost their power to condemn now can indeed direct us to life. This, in truth, is Advent’s grace.

This piece is part of the Ground Motive project From Henk's Archives.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Religion, Faith, and Atheism: The Phenomenology of the Abyss

by Joe Kirby

In Precarious Visions, sociologist Peter Berger argues for a distinction between “religion” and “faith.” “Religion” refers to the understanding of social reality that we inherit from being raised in this or that culture, and which we have a tendency to view as equivalent to reality itself. “Faith,” by contrast, refers to the realization of the contingency of our society, the realization that our own particular social world is not grounded in the nature of reality, but that we are rather all akin to actors playing roles in an enormous social drama. For Berger, the essence of Christianity lies not in “religion” but in “faith,” as the shattering personal encounter with a reality that transcends our parochial social world:
The confrontation with the living God … strips men of their alibis and disguises. The aprons of fig leaves spun with the lies of institutional ideologies cannot cover man’s nakedness as God seeks him out of his hiding places. In this, indeed, all men are the children of Adam, who said, “I heard the sound of thee in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself” (Gen. 3:10).
As an approach to the story of the Fall, this coincides with a Hasidic interpretation from Martin Buber’s Hasidism and Modern Man: the fall does not occur when Adam eats from the fruit, but rather when he hides from the presence of God afterwards, and the beginning of the path to redemption occurs when Adam speaks the words “I hid myself,” thereby recognizing what has occurred. For his part, Berger interprets this hiding from God in terms of the construction of a “religion,” which is often used to justify the killing of others:
[God] has not recognized the sovereignty of our card-house institutions or the extraterritoriality of the moral hiding places which men have concocted among themselves. He steps into the palace of the king and the judge’s chambers, ignoring the royal mantle and the judicial robes, and addresses the naked man underneath the costume as He addressed Adam: “But the Lord God called to man, and said to him, “Where are you?” (Gen. 3:9). And as kings and judges renounce their human brotherhood with their victims, pointing to the immunity of their office, God will address them in words no different from those addressed to Cain: “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground” (Gen. 4:10). (Precarious Visions, 192)
Here, the socially conditioned justifications whereby we condemn our fellow humans, often in the name of the God of “religion,” are destroyed by the God of “faith.” Beneath the social role, as represented by ritually prescribed clothing, the king and the judge are nothing more than naked human beings, and they will ultimately be obliged to bear personal responsibility whatever they have done.

Peter Berger published Precarious Visions in 1961. Just six years later, however, in The Sacred Canopy, he repudiated the distinction between “religion” and “faith,” arguing that modern sociology shows how the God of “faith,” who calls to the naked human from the abyss beneath our cultural world, is actually just another instantiation of the God of “religion” – a further example of culture grounding its own parochial moral judgments in the nature of reality. This means, according to Berger, that the problem faced by Jeremiah concerning “how to distinguish genuine and false prophecy,” the “terrible doubt that apparently plagued Thomas Aquinas as to whether his own belief in the arguments for the existence of God may not after all be a matter of “habit,” as well as the “tormenting question of numberless Christians … of how to find the true church,” are all rendered moot by the “vertigo of relativity” to which the science of sociology exposes us.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

No Condemnation I

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by Henk Hart

"The Way," by Henk Hart

The Hebrew word for the law of Moses is torah, pointer of the way. New Testament Christians still referred to themselves as people of the way. Their way was, however, not a law given once and for all but a way of life shown by the Spirit. Our country side roads are often visible in the landscape for many miles. In our difficult times, like in the stormy scene in the picture, we need to see our way ahead. The way for our times, I trust, can become known when we follow the Spirit in love.
A longstanding, persistent, and tenaceously held understanding of love in the Christian tradition resists accepting love as the core of the entire relationship between God and creation and even more as the whole of the relation between God and people. This outlook seems based on a fear that if love is all, evil does not get its due, God’s justice is denied. In this multi part blog, going back to the early ’90’s, I share my struggle with this ambivalent attitude to love by focusing on a traditional reading of the expression “sin no more” in the encounter between Jesus and the woman caught in adultery.
When Jesus addresses the woman caught in adultery after no one threw the first stone, he says: “Neither do I condemn you; sin no more.” Often people read “sin no more,” as a fence around “neither do I condemn you.” If in an encounter with evil we want to honour that Jesus does not condemn, someone will likely remind us: “Yes, but he also says ‘sin no more.’” Yes, but! We don’t move, don’t learn to fully accept that God in Christ does not condemn us, don’t fully trust the incarnation we celebrate at Christmas.

From early on in the Bible we can read how God, in crucially evil-laden situations, will do anything at all for our good. The story of the fall seems utterly judgmental. Adam, Eve, the ground, and the serpent are all cursed. Adam and Eve are naked and ashamed. In this now evil world they have become vulnerable. God knows it’ll take time to robe them in white. So what happens? “The Lord made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them.” God provides cover and shows the basic divine intent for dealing with transgression: I am your protector. In Genesis 2 God provided a helper. In Genesis 3, that resolve to help remains firm also after the fall. Advent begins here.

The flood story in Genesis 8 shows similarities. Noah’s family survives the flood. He brings an offering. “The Lord smelled the pleasing aroma and said in his heart: ‘Never again will I curse the ground because of man, for every inclination of his heart is evil from his childhood.”’ Evil is written all over us with indelible ink. It won’t wash out with water from a vessel of wrath. But God’s intent as protector remains visible. With condemnation as approach, incurably evil people will all be wiped out. But so will their pleasing aroma. And since God loves the smell of us, there’ll be no more total curse. The covenant is renewed. Life-preservation becomes the heart of it! Do not kill one another. God will hold you accountable

Israel’s struggle with the tension between divine protection and human accountability is vivid in 2 Samuel 13 and 14. The covenant with Noah, the demand for an accounting, is the theme of this story. Israel now has a king. God becomes known to Israel through its kings. Look at 14:17 or 20, “my lord the king is like an angel of God in discerning good and evil.” But kings are concerned with power struggles and with law and order. How does God fare in being representated by the king?

In the story, David’s son Amnon raped his sister Tamar and is then killed by his brother Absalom. The dead brother’s blood must be avenged. To escape death the murderer goes into exile. What does David do? David the king is also David the father. The king struggles for power, maintains order. The father loves Absalom. Look at 13:39: “the spirit of the king longed to go to Absalom.” But as keeper of order in the kingdom David could not go. In this situation a mother finds wisdom in her heart. In 14:14 she says: “Like water spilled on the ground, which cannot be recovered, so we must die.” She knows the human condition. She also knows God’s deepest intent. She continues! “But God does not take away life; instead, he devises ways so that a banished person may not remain estranged from him.” She knows God can find a way: skins for protection after the fall, no more total condemnation after the flood. She sees the deeper intent in the covenant with Noah: God’s love for our life. She dares to read God’s rule in depth. In 14:11 she challenges David to “invoke the Lord his God to prevent the avenger of blood from adding to the destruction....” The avenger represents God’s rule. But she knows the God behind the rule, the God who seeks life at every cost, the Protector. The rule is torah, shows a way of love. She persuades the king to listen to his father heart. In 14:23, “Joab ... brought Absalom back to Jerusalem.” But the prodigal son could not yet come home. Finally, in 14:33, “the king summoned Absalom ... And the king kissed Absalom.”

What the rule calls for is not what God finally wants. The rule, as torah, points in a direction beyond itself. But if we lose the direction out of sight, our inability to keep to the rule threatens us. The rule then freezes and no longer shows where it points. We fear that if we don’t keep the frozen rule we invite chaos. Judgment, discipline, and punishment beckon as safeguards of the rule. Trusting a father’s compassion seems to turn against us. Our story bears that out. The son on whom the father had mercy turns against the father. In 15:1 the son covets the position of the father, “In the course of time, Absalom provided himself with a chariot and horses and with fifty men to run ahead of him.” That’s just what scares us about choosing compassion over condemnation. Absalom turned around and instead of sinning no more he sinned some more. If David’s love had been tough love, we might think, he would have executed Absalom and by thus obeying God’s rule would have saved his kingdom. This son of David did not count equality with his father as something to forego, but rather to go for. He had not read Philippians 2 and did not humble himself. Absalom spoils the “no condemnation.”

David and Absalom are not a good picture of Father and Son. In this realm of earthly rule and control, power is the real issue. In this world the prophets continually have to remind kings that God is protector of the vulnerable. The raped sister is a mere footnote. In David and Absalom’s story Israel struggles with two sides they have seen in God: the avenger of blood, the God who takes rules seriously; and the protector of life, the God who smells our aroma and longs to guarantee our life. Next week we will get closer to Christmas when incarnation becomes “no condemnation” and “sin no more” is the new torah.

This piece is part of the Ground Motive project From Henk's Archives.

Wednesday, December 07, 2016

Advent in Newtown

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by Henk Hart

"Reading the skies and the times," by Henk Hart
In various places in the gospels Jesus expects us, since we are able to tell from a red morning sky that a cloudy day is coming, to also be able to read the signs of the times. The blog that follows is a shorter version of a piece I wrote following the Newtown massacre at Sandy Hook elementary school in which I tried to read the signs of those times.
The Newtown massacre happened on my 77th birthday. That was in the same time period during which the previous two blogs on Love/love were written. What might this cataclysmic event tell us about Love and love? I am sensitive to sevens as spiritually significant numbers, so I needed no prodding to start wrestling with the darkness and the sorrow of Newton. What emerged was a reading of December 14, 2012 as a story in advent.
In the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament love summarizes all God's hopes for us. Sometimes love is not only an attribute of God but simply is God. To seek God's love in Jesus leads to being filled full with the fullness of God, says Ephesians. But in the history of the Christian church we find a persistent and dominant portrayal of love tempered by, especially, punitive justice. God does ask us to love one another, it is said, but also wants us to be just toward evil. The favoured interpretation of the cross of Jesus as substitutionary atonement brings together God's judgment on evil with God's love. In that tradition believers, too, must deal justly with evil. In line with major theological traditions, we are expected to practice love tempered by justice. This differs, however, from a more Biblical seeking of justice as rooted in love. Instead, in the traditions, we must both love and be just. Love and justice are taken as different but equal.

After some centuries of secularization in our culture, love of God and neighbour were not at the centre of our lives. The West pursued self interested individualism among law abiding citizens and a punitive justice system for those who transgress. The grace and mercy of God, along with God, are absent from the public square. The Christian witness to love proved too weak to survive the erosive powers of secularization. The historic marks of the true church promoted by the Reformation do not include love.

All the more surprising, therefore, is the rather sudden and marked reappearance of compassion as an essential practice in unexpected places. Significant examples are three recent films that in profoundly moving ways tell stories of love as the singular road along which to journey toward redemption. They were rewarded with high honors, as I mentioned in an earlier blog.

These strikingly exceptional as well as powerful films are not the only surprises. Scholar and writer Andrew Solomon very recently published his 10 year study of severely handicapped children, Far From The Tree, and concludes that love motivates and characterizes the bond between parents and such children. His 700 page book (with an additional 250 pages of notes, bibliography, and index) was met with a chorus of enthusiastic reviews in the press and on television. The Toronto Public Library, original owner of just over 40 copies now increased to 110, has a waiting list of 500 eager readers. People seem to hunger for a kind of love affirming those who are other than and different from ourselves.

These special sources from which our culture can learn about redemptive love are not in any technical sense theological. When I keep my heart open, I experience signs of a possible return to compassion everywhere. I specifically interpreted the indescribably horrible massacre at Newtown as scene of love and compassion, courage and hope. The responses of all kinds of people, especially parents of the dead, were very unlike events we have come to know from earlier such tragedies. So Newtown made me wonder whether darkness can be so deep that a deeper darkness cannot be imagined? Is there a darkness so utterly devoid of light that moving deeper into this darkness leads to light, the light at the end of darkness?

The many, many previous mass killings have often been dominated by dark thoughts of justice: judgment, revenge, retaliation, punishment, and condemnation. The Mennonite parents in Columbine stood out when they lived their faith in forgiving. People didn't understand parents could be like that. But responses in Newtown seem different. There too, people struggle to find a word for the depth of darkness, the unfathomable depth of anguish that brought all the world to tears. It reminded me of Rachel weeping for her children who were murdered to keep the Light from coming in. This time the response, even from parents of dead children, was so widely marked by compassion, so lifted up by love, that the darkness seemed to begin to recede; as though more darkness were unimaginable and darkness at its limits turned people irresistibly toward the light. Imagine a conservative American town inviting Muslims to join in a public inter-faith memorial of the dead. Imagine the state's Governor urging the mourners to have compassion.

We could, with reason, be cynical about breaks in the armour of weapon enthusiasts. Do corporations divest themselves of gun stocks because light has reached them or because it makes market sense? But my inclination is to see, all around us, living testimony of the Light that no darkness can hold back. Maybe this season's days devoid of light and malls filled with songs of light helped provide a setting for hearts pierced by Newtown's sorrow to be opened to receive the Life of Light called Love.

This piece is part of the Ground Motive project From Henk's Archives.