Want to be Perfectionists?

This sermon was given at Queen Anne Baptist Church on Sunday, February 19th, 2017. While not mentioned in this sermon, the 75th anniversary of EO 9066 – the internment of Japanese American Citizens because of their ancestry was very much in my thoughts as I wrote this sermon last week. We must resist anything like that ever happening again.

I’m posting this sermon because it was well received by the congregation, and because it feels timely. Ideally all sermons should meet those criteria, but being honest – they do not. I am very interested in your feedback.

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I never thought I was a perfectionist until I got my first A- in seminary. I’m not disputing the grade – the work I did and the constraints of the class lead to me earning an A- in that course. Far worse than the first one, though easier to take, was the second one. I don’t dispute that one either, but I have to admit that the fact that I no longer have a “perfect” GPA is something I struggle with. By the way, this is not a round-about form of humble-bragging – my 3.963 GPA really has kept me up at night before, and it really does bother me.

Some of you are probably thinking about doing what many of my close friends do when I complain about this – rolling your eyes and wondering if I have any real problems. This can be a real problem though. After I got my first A-, I went through about a week where I really struggled with self-doubt. After all – if I really was called by God, and I really wanted this – how could I do less than the best? Finally my best friend sat me down and asked me if I knew who Voltaire was.

“French Philosopher?” I guessed more than remembered.

“Close enough. Voltaire popularized a saying that you’ve probably heard before – but now you need to take it to heart. ‘The perfect is the enemy of the good.’

As we talked, he pointed out that what I was doing was good. I was answering my call, I was striving to live faithfully, and my work was all in preparation for what would come after seminary. I was in danger of falling into what psychologists call the “Nirvana Fallacy,” – essentially, if it can’t be perfect, why should one even attempt it? “But perfection is something we strive asymptotically for,” he told me. Don’t worry – I had to look that one up too – an asymptote is a mathematical term for two lines which come ever closer together but never touch. We strive for, and get, ever closer to perfection, but we’ll never actually achieve that perfection.

At the beginning of the Hebrew Scripture today, God asserts that the people of Israel should be holy, because God is holy. The many laws that God lays out for them – not just the 10 major commandments, but the hundreds of smaller ones are also part of the covenant between God and Israel. It is a covenant based on love – that is shown most clearly by the commandment that comes at the end – “You shall love your neighbor as yourself…” Jesus himself identifies this along with “You shall love the Lord your God with all your being,” as the greatest commandments out of all the law. Indeed, he tells us that all the other commandments of God are contained in these two.

Why spare the edges of the field from the harvester’s scythe, and some grapes still on the vine? Love. Why should we not steal or lie to one another? Love. Why should we not short someone the things they have justly earned in their labor? Love. Why should we judge fairly? Why should we work to not hate? Why not profit by exploiting our neighbor? Why not cast out those who cannot see or hear? Why not exact frightful vengeance for every wrong? Love. Love. Love. Love. Love. All of these things are active – love is not a passive thing. One must intentionally act, or choose not to do a negative thing, which is an action, too. God wants his people to be holy – and I think it’s pretty clear the best way to even approach that is through actively loving one another.

Jesus calls us to perfection in the piece of the Sermon on the Mount we read today. He echoes some of the admonitions we have from Leviticus, making it even clearer that we are to turn from vengeance, and from loving only those in our own community. “Be perfect therefore, as God in Heaven is perfect.” Jesus admonition that we are to love even those who hate us is a challenge – a call to holiness.

God’s perfect love is the very essence of holiness. I am working on loving those who love me, as completely as I possibly can. And I don’t know about you, but I often fail to return love when hate is directed at me. Our country, in these politically tense and divided times, doesn’t make it much easier. Particularly when I feel hate being directed at me, I want to lash back in kind. I’d like to blame some permanent defect of personality, or to just claim it is impossible – but it isn’t. There are times where I have managed to not return hate for hate. But in all honesty, I found myself yelling when I was cut off in the parking lot the other day. The other person couldn’t even hear me – and I screamed anyway. They probably had no idea they cut me off in the first place – and I screamed anyway. Even if they had heard me, how would it have helped? And I screamed anyway.

And if I can’t master not screaming in a parking lot – perfect love is a long way off. Loving those who hate us is, to put it mildly, difficult. It’s so easy to let the Nirvana fallacy prevail: I can’t possibly love like God, so why even try? I find it difficult to take some of the outrages I see lying down. And responding in Love means never pushing back, right? “Turn the other cheek,” we are told. Except this was one of the most revolutionary things that Jesus advocated – non-violent resistance meant to reshape the entire world.

Rome ruled Israel, and Roman citizens had all the power in these times. A Roman citizen could force a person from Galilee or Israel to bear their burdens for a mile, or make them give over their coat, or even strike a non-citizen without penalty. And if the Palestinian did react with violence, it was an offense punishable by execution. It is easy to hate people who could do that to you – they could very reasonably be described as enemies. Jesus is now telling the people of Galilee and Israel that they cannot hate those who persecute them. Jesus is telling us, we are to respond with active love instead.

Kids, I hate to break it to you – but when your parents are disciplining you – they are doing it out of an active love. When one of my children does something wrong, I have to respond according to the age of that child. There are things you simply cannot explain to a three year old – you just have to “take my word for it,” or if the situation is urgent – slap their hand away from an open flame. But as children get older, you try to impress upon them how their actions affect them or those around them. You show them that their actions may have caused harm or inconvenience to themselves or another. You impress on them how wrong they were, either through consequences of punishment, or more indirectly by letting them face the guilt and shame of how their actions have affected those around them.

Letting the cognitive dissonance of how the actions of a Roman citizen affected a Galilean as a person – forcing them to see how their oppressive action actually harmed another human being – was a radical act. By turning the other cheek, one forces the person doing the hitting to understand the impact of that initial blow. By handing over one’s tunic and standing naked before the person stealing your coat, one forces them to see the wrong of taking your clothing. By carrying the load the second mile, one forces the person who made the demand to see how far out of the way they are taking you, the cost of the burden they have placed on your shoulders. This defiant love is active love – it is forcing someone doing harm to see the costs of the harm they are doing. It was, it is, a radical act of defiant love – and not at all the passive “let people walk all over you” that “turn the other cheek” is so often interpreted to be. Love in the action of non-oppositional resistance, it returns power to the person who was hurt, and changes the relationship from one of oppression to instruction from the bottom to the top of the power structure. It turns us into people who help others become who God created them to be, without putting us in a place of judgement or power over someone else.

Resisting, my friends, is what we are called to do. We are called to resist the patterns of a society that tells us we must take what we can, hate those who hate us, and let retaliation be our first thought when we are wronged. We are called to actively feed those who are hungry. We are called to be honest. We are called to help those who are differently abled. We are called to love our own people, and even our enemies. We are called to an active love.

The trap we face, the greatest temptation is to say “we can never achieve that, so why try?” It certainly gives us an excuse to stop being active. We can let our inability to love perfectly be the enemy of our ability to love with all we have. We can passively let the Heavenly Realm in the here and now – the realm Jesus calls us to build – slip through our fingers by NOT acting. We figure our version of the heavenly realm isn’t going to be perfect if it’s made by us. And that’s true. We cannot create it alone. We are called to actively love – as God actively loves us. God makes the difference, Christ shows the way, and the Holy Spirit gives us the will to try. Want to be perfectionists? Love. Love. Love. Love. Love. And God will make that perfect.

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Programmed to become weaker…

“The greatness of humanity is that we are programmed to grow, and we are programmed to become weaker.”

One of the first major theological papers I had to write in seminary was on creation. In that paper I took the position that all of creation – including the lives of people – was to the greater glory of God. Free will was a necessary component of that – for in being able to not worship God, the act of worship becomes that much more significant when we do make that choice. Similarly, the relationship we choose to have with God is more important when that relationship is voluntary and not a programmed requirement. I was all down with the lack of programming in humanity by God.

The first time I heard Jean Vanier say this, I was a bit disturbed. It seemed to me that the process of being programmed countered this understanding of Doxologizing voluntarily. But as I thought about it more, I saw it as God providing opportunity to engage in this thing that we are made for in a new way – by entering in relationship with each other, by acknowledging our limits, by being challenged to look at our own lack of agency and power – to look beyond it – and perhaps see God in a new way, or see the God in fellow person in a new way. It is not a program that robs us of free will, it is one that allows us to engage the Glory of Creation because of our very finitude.

The Theonomous Person

Michael Hrynuik, in examining the L’Arche communities for ways to help us understand God and each other better, points out that our understanding of what makes a person whole in modern Western Culture (or at least modern culture influenced by standard Western European thought processes) is primarily defined by autonomy: self-sufficiency, self-determination and self-possession. Indeed the isolation of the self is a process that has been developing in the Western world for quite sometime. The importance of “I” over “We” has been stressed and over expressed for the last two hundred years or more.

Without building too heavily on – and getting distracted by – the idea that the growth of the nation state began us on this road to individualism by separating us in entirely new ways than we had been before – certainly our country could be identified by not just our growing isolationistic tendencies (much more pronounced in the last two years than before), but also the nationalist fervor which has been built into every aspect of our life together – including theological – for the last two hundred or so years. I’m not saying that the US doesn’t have the right to have a unique identity or that we shouldn’t be proud of it. I am saying that for Christians in America, when we use our national identity to justify standing further apart from those suffering injustice and marginalization, we betray part of the opportunity that our nation affords us, and that our Christian faith demands of us.

“Become Weaker,” which Jean Vanier suggests, is difficult for us to contemplate. Protestant Work Ethic has us believe that those who do not work should not benefit. Capitalistic thought, as taught to the masses, certainly reinforces this idea. The unique attitude of the L’Arche community – which emphasizes relationship as primary and important in life and understanding of God – that we become closer to God as we become more dependent on one another is challenging to me. Even with two sons on the Autism spectrum I look for how I can help them contribute to society even when I realize that they may always require some level of help to function in that society.

L’Arche’s model suggests that rather than being defined by our autonomy we are in fact defined by our relationships with others. Not just other people, but by our relationship with God: Theonomy. Just as the image of the Trinitarian God is one “of the Three Persons who are always seeking to go beyond Themselves, toward the Other, receiving each Other from each Other” (Hryniuk, Theology, Disability, and Spiritual Transformation: Learning from the Communities of L’Arche, Cambria, New York, p. 249), so we are engaged in a dynamic relationship with God. The theonomous person is in “personal communion with self, others, and God.” Our very identity is found in these perichoretic and fully mutual relationships.

And perhaps this is where “Become Weaker” is useful advice. It certainly opens us up to relying on these relationships in a way we did not before by insisting that we do rely on others for the things we require. It is difficult for me to contemplate, because it is so antithetical to the way that I have been thinking all my life. Following Jesus requires revolution not just without but within as well. May I continue to revolutionize my thinking as I pursue theonomy and dynamic relationship with my fellow human beings.

Trinity and Relation to the Divine Being

One of the first sermons I ever had to do was a sermon on John 1 to a church that didn’t necessarily ascribe to Trinitarian theology. Being someone who was implicitly Trinitarian in my perception of God, this forced me to review the concepts a bit more thoroughly than I had previously. I made myself consider if I really was Trinitarian, or if that was an ideology I had just ascribed to because of my Church of Origin. Ultimately for myself, what I found was that the Trinity as a model of the divine was a necessary thing for me, because it is in Jesus (and his being a full and equal part of God) that I come to know God best. The incarnation of God as a human being had implications to the ways that I thought about God. This was a God willing to up-end the order of creation thus far to enter into a more complete relationship with us. An act of radical inclusivity from the divine being who did not demand assimilation from us, but instead became like us to include us in relationship.

Let me be clear – I’m not saying God didn’t have relationship with humanity before the incarnation – I’m saying that the incarnation is how I find a grounding of my relationship – and the directive for how to live out my faith in a way that reflects the magnificent love that God has for all God’s children. I believe that we reflect God, and that the Trinity and the internal relationship or economy of God is one example of how we do so.

Catherine LaCugna points out that “Each Theology is one reading of the economy, one interpretation of God’s self revelation in Jesus Christ.” (La Cugna, God For Us: The Trinity and Christian Life, Harper San Francisco, p381). Certainly the conversations I have had with my fellow students on the Trinity have shown this to be the case. Each of us has a slightly different understanding of God – a unique perspective based on not just the relationship each of us has with God, but also our relationships with the communities around us. Where we did agree was that in the relationship of God within Godself, and the relationship of us to each other, there was at least some minimal echo.

I find that in Inclusion the reality of God’s love is revealed. In standing in solidarity with the marginalized – not an assimilative erasure of identity to make us the same, but an act of courageous inclusion which celebrates our differences as well as our core identity as the collective children of God – God’s plan for the Heavenly Realm becomes ever clearer. We strive imperfectly for a relationship of dynamic tension where as individuals we contribute based on our uniquenesses and our fundamental similarities, and where as community we bless each other in our samenesses and our individual gifts. Yes, I admit – its a bit paradoxical – but I also believe that is another way in which we reflect God – we are each a small paradox, in relationship with each other and with the ultimate paradox – the eternal God who loves us, three and one all at once.

To manifest the will of God, we must be in relationship not just with God, but with each other because that IS the will of God. LaCugna puts it this way: “…the exclusion of even a single person is contrary to God’s providential plan.” May we continue to learn and grow so that we may accept each other and each of our uniquenesses better, based on the similarities we share.

Margins, Liminal Spaces, and Liberation

“Even the margins have margins.” – Bishop Yvette Flunders

One of the most wonderful parts of being at the American Baptist Seminary of the West is the diversity of the student body. Interim President Nick Carter recently shared that the student body is (and hopefully I’m remembering these percentages right), 38% African American, 38% Asian, 12% Caucasian, and 8% Hispanic. This is particularly helpful when engaging theologies which are not centered on white experience and ideas.

Perhaps the most exciting moment in my first year at ABSW was in the Intro to Theology course taught by Professor Grandison, when we began talking about Liberation Theology. I was so excited because I recognized this theology – a theology of centering the experience of an oppressed or powerless group, as opposed to the dominant theological narrative which is centered in Western (European Colonial) experience. The First Baptist Church of Berkeley lived out a LGBTQ Liberation Theology. It was not perfect in this endeavor, but it did center narratives that included experiences that were not the dominant narrative – cisgendered (though that term wasn’t in use then), heteronormative, male, and white. By centering narratives of women, of non-binary gendered people, of trans people, of gay and lesbian and queer people, new ways of understanding the Word (both scripture, and the incarnate Word as Jesus Christ) as siding with the oppressed, and liberating not just the oppressed (from second tier status to a status of equitable position) but also the oppressor (from limiting mindsets which prevent identifying the full humanity of others, and also denying their own full inclusion in humanity because of this separation).

Even more exciting than being able to put a name to this theology, however, was the realization that there were many iterations of Liberation theology – narratives that were from the point of view of Hispanic, Black, Feminist, Korean, Indian, African, and more. ABSW became a perfect school in that as we began to engage Black Liberation Theology, I was able to glean a deeper understanding by engaging in discussion with my fellow students who were Black. I learned that Liberation theology was nuanced, and there was a difference between Black Liberation and Womanist Theologies, because the experience of Black Women in the church was different and unique compared over and against the experience of Black people as a whole. When I encountered Minjung (Korean) Liberation theology – I could speak with my fellow students who were from Korea, who had an experience both in their country of origin, and here in America that I never will. I had classmates across the LGBTQ spectrum in the wider GTU, and my encounters with them helped me see that for all that we had made progress, there were still new and painful ways to marginalize people. Every encounter with another facet of Liberation theology helped me grasp more and more of the amazing depths that were the lives, experiences and encounters with the living God, from the perspectives of others. It is a deep pool – you could dive down for your entire life and not reach the bottom.

As my conversations and friendships with my classmates grew more and more intense, I came to see how important the inclusion of people who are very different from myself was. Because when it comes down to it, we have more in common with one another as Children of God than we have differences. And what differences we do have, God gave to us – they are meant to be celebrated and shared. I see it as being a way that God helps us to better understand Godself and the universe. If we are willing to share our understanding, our encounters, our vision not just of God and Christ, but also the Heavenly Realm and how it should be manifested in the here and now, and we are really willing to listen, there is a chance that more of God will be revealed to us.

In order to foster an environment where someone can talk about something as important as what Tillich called the “Ultimate Concern,” we should practice Radical Hospitality, and Radical Inclusion. Inclusion is a difficult concept to practice, because the easiest form of Inclusion means getting others to adapt to the dominant group’s idea of normal or typical. Radical Inclusion turns this on its head by decentering any idea of normal and instead creating a dynamic of acceptance of everyone for who they are, as they are, without conformity being required. It means thinking about how people who have atypical needs are included. It means thinking about how to make someone who is on the margins feel comfortable – not just in words, although definitely in the words that we use (preferred pronouns are a good start in this direction) because they are important, but also in our actions, our spaces, and our patterns of worship, and our conversations. It means focusing on alternative narratives to the dominant, white, male, Christian, cisgendered, heteronormative – not because there is nothing of worth in that perspective, but because that perspective is already so pervasive, that people are silenced when the “normative” opinion is asserted. In so doing, I can help build liminal spaces, spaces “between” the “main stream” and the margins, spaces we can all occupy. These liminal spaces, sacred as all liminal spaces are in their very nature, become critical to the process of Radical Hospitality, and Radical Inclusion.

The challenge for me in Radical Inclusion and Radical Hospitality is that it means often I must be silent if I want to learn. That is difficult, really almost painful for me – I like to talk. I like to talk through ideas until I understand them better. But silence can be how I practice Radical Hospitality in a space where people on the margins are present. Creator God, grant me patience so I may learn.

Docetism, Justin Martyr, and the Logos Afire

As I read Olson and English’s Pocket History of Theology for my Constructive Theology course at ABSW, I find myself drawn to the heresies and theological struggles of the early church. Some I find more palatable than others. Below is my No and then my Yes to the ideas I found expressed in the extremely rapid but serviceable overview that the Pocket History provides of the early church fathers and heretics’ theologies.

NO – “In Gnostic teachings, Christ became an immaterial spiritual messenger sent down from the unknown and unknowable God to rescue and bring home the stray sparks of his own being that had become trapped in material bodies.” (p.10) I can appreciate that the Gnostics were struggling to reconcile their understanding of divinity as expressed by Greek philosophy (divine logic as the True God behind all creation) and Jesus Christ, but their rejection of all things earthly pushes them too far out. There are many people pushing back and forth here, the Gnostics, the Apologists are simply the most obvious.

I find myself objecting to Gnosticism or at least Docetism on a fundamental level. There was no seeming to the incarnation of Christ. The full humanity of Jesus is incredibly important to me. If Jesus merely seemed to be human, than there is nothing worth striving for myself, because at least according to Docetic thought, my fleshly body renders me hopelessly trapped in corruption. But it is in Jesus the human, fully incarnate of Jesus the Logos of God, that I find my way to glimpsing the divine. I cannot wrap my head around the infinite, but by embracing finitude – by being fully human – Jesus allows me to view God, and perhaps comprehend some small part of endless love, unceasing compassion, and unending mercy. If that was a mere seeming – than there is no understanding to be gleaned in the life and works of Christ – they are as incomprehensible as the infinite night sky.

YES – “Justin was one of the first Christians to explain the Logos and Spirit concept in relation to [God] using the analogy of fire. The Son’s (Logos’s) generation from [God] in no way diminishes [God] because, like fire kindled from fire, ‘that from which many may be kindled is by no means made less, but remains the same.’” (pp. 15-16) Justin Martyr writes this in rejection of Gnostic ideals, and as an apology (explanation) to non-Christians of Christian theology – specifically to explain the incarnation of the Logos – a direct reference to the opening of John’s Gospel. While neither the Gospel, nor Martyr’s theology are explicitly Trinitarian, they are a step on the way to Trinitarianism.

For me this strikes quite close to home, as Justin’s focus on this mirrors some revelation I had of my own. The second sermon I had to preach in seminary was to a non-Trinitarian church on the opening to John’s Gospel. I focused on the idea of fire, not just as the Logos (or divine logic) but also drawing in the parallel frequently found in mystical faith traditions of envisioning the divine as Love and that love as fire. Just as the Greek Philosophers viewed the sparks from the divine fire to be that which allows humanity to have the power of reason, mystical traditions across not just Abrahamic, but also Near and Far Eastern religious thought have viewed the sparks of the divine loving God as being that which allows us to love. For the Greek philosopher to exist in a pure state of logic and philosophy was perfection. For the mystic, to exist in a pure state of love for all of creation was (is) perfection. Of course, as humans we will never quite accomplish that – but that renders the striving all the more noble. I hold that the divine fires of logic and love are the twin driving forces which render us capable of creating the Heavenly Realm in the here and now on earth. Together, our heads and our hearts lead us with mercy and forethought to building a better tomorrow for our children.

Perhaps I’m too enamored of my own theological musings, but almost two full years after parsing these ideas to write the sermon then, it still rings true to me now. I wonder what I’ll think 10 years from now, or 20. Hopefully, regardless of my opinion on Logos, fire, and Docetism, I will still be striving for a better understanding of the infinite God, unending love, and unceasing mercy, using the incarnation of Jesus as guide post and inspiration to help me as I strive to help build that Heavenly Realm in the here and now.

Writing For The Soul, Hope, and Metaphor (at best)

I write fiction from time to time. I make no comments on the quality of such fiction – usually of the speculative kind – but I found that I am surprisingly nit-picky about the ideas I use. When I’m deep in the flow of it all, or the inspiration, if you prefer, I can be brought up short by running into a gap in my story. I have friends who just keep plowing on, and are able to write the next part of the story. I cannot. Until I have resolved the jump from one idea to the next, I cannot keep writing. This has lead to days where I have been unable to write because I cannot form a specific sentence to accomplish the transition from one plot point to the next. Often, when I’m able to resolve the transition, it is when I’m able to hunker down and provide undivided attention to my story – making the leap from simply getting out the idea, from casually writing, to a feverish intensity where my story gains all my focus.

Writing for academic purposes actually hits me a bit differently. There I have an outline, and that helps me bridge the gap. But I also structure my environment differently. When I’m writing for my own pleasure and (perhaps one day) profit, I just plunk down and write in the midst of my family, not segregating myself from them except perhaps for my level of distractedness. When I am working on a paper for school – I make sure to clear a space in my schedule and in my home to be able to write with fewer interruptions.

But there is an inexactness that I experience when I’m writing about the divine – when writing theology – that I simply do not experience when I am writing fiction or even non-fiction about the real world. Part of this is the simple understanding that I cannot completely encapsulate God in words. If I could, there would be a disheartening finitude to my ultimate concern. All writing about anything truly divine is at least to some degree, done in metaphor. Even Jesus recorded parables instead are full of assertions: “The Kingdom of Heaven is like a woman who has lost a coin…” Let’s be honest, if Jesus used metaphor to describe divine things, the best we can hope to do is the same. Sometimes that is frustrating because it feels like what I’m writing is false – and perhaps deliberately so – as I’m only catching one corner of the divine personage, one angle, that I happen to glimpse in the moment.

So I take well the admonition from Stephanie Paulsell in her “Writing as a Spiritual Discipline,” where she says: “We need the audacity to believe that our writing matters, to stick with a difficult task, to live a life that makes room for the discipline of writing. We also need the humility to know that our writing must always be under revision, to do slow, painstaking work with no immediate external rewards, to be writing to seek and receive the critical response of others. Allowing writing to focus our attention, we may have our capacity for attention honed and increased.”

The thing that I have found most helpful with my academic and theological writing is how it has forced me to more clearly articulate my half notions into full notions. To be able to communicate my understanding of the divine, however limited it may be, I have to get my idea sharp enough in focus to lay it out in a way that someone else can follow my logic. The side effect that Paulsell suggests of having my attention increased comes on the reverse side of the writing – it is not an after effect of the writing but an effect generated by the discipline of reading other ideas, growing my vocabulary and focus and creating the associated synthesis of ideas to express my own perspective. My attention grows as a result of exposure, and leaves me just a bit more perpetually aware, a bit more attentive as I challenge myself to find just the right words to express my thoughts.

This discipline is something that I have to forgive myself for failing in, and rededicate myself to often. It is too easy in a busy life to let my attention be split or fully diverted, to shirk the time needed to be set aside for writing and focusing my ideas. It is easy to let the internet, or a show, or my family demand my time – “spending my time” as if I am not instead choosing what I make priority. There is a way to strike a balance – I say this in hope because I have not managed it for longer than a week or so myself – between the discipline of being fully present for my family and being fully present for my writing.