Sunday, May 22, 2011

Father, Into Your Hands I Commend My Spirit

    Psalm 31 In te, Domine, speravi
In you, O LORD, have I taken refuge;
let me never be put to shame; *
deliver me in your righteousness.
Incline your ear to me; *
make haste to deliver me.
Be my strong rock, a castle to keep me safe,
for you are my crag and my stronghold; *
for the sake of your Name, lead me and guide me.
Take me out of the net that they have secretly set for me, *
for you are my tower of strength.
Into your hands I commend my spirit, *
for you have redeemed me,
O LORD, O God of truth.
My times are in your hand; *
rescue me from the hand of my enemies,
and from those who persecute me.
Make your face to shine upon your servant, *
and in your loving-kindness save me.

The Psalms are part of the core of both Jewish and Christian worship. The Psalms were used in the Temple which stood in Jesus’ time, as well as in the synagogue. Among Christians, the Psalms are the biggest component of the Office, a form of prayer going back to the early centuries of Christian life, and which form the daily liturgical prayer of clergy, religious, and many laity. The first few verses of Psalm 31, our Psalm for this Sunday in the Revised Common Lectionary, were at one time recited every night as part of Compline, the last prayer of the day, prayed before retiring, in the non-monastic Western Office. Jesus himself quoted from the Psalms often, and perhaps the most striking example of this is the fact that of the seven utterances recorded in the Gospels as being his last words from the Cross, two are quotations from the Psalms, and the last words he cries out before his crucifixion in Luke’s gospel are taken from today’s Psalm – “Into thy hands I commend my spirit.”

This past week, there has been a lot of talk about Harold Camping’s prediction that the Rapture would occur yesterday, on May 21. This prediction, which was proven false yesterday, was based on a false sense of security using erroneous methods of biblical interpretation. Camping’s followers were certain that they would be taken out of the world, leaving all the unbelievers to face five months of terrible judgment before being annihilated. On the Family Radio website, there is actually a tract claiming that there is “infallible proof” from the Bible that May 21 is the date.

Sociologists tell us that apocalyptic predictions are much more common during times of economic upheaval and uncertainty, so it is not surprising that Camping attracted so many followers. But the view that we can know with absolute certainty that we will be raptured out of this world on a particular date stands in sharp contrast with verse 15 of Psalm 31, “My times are in your hand”. We have no control, ultimately, over what will happen in our lives. Certainly, there is much that we can do that will most likely make our lives better, and many things that will make them worse. But in an instant, our lives can change dramatically, be it through illness, accident, death of a loved one, the actions of loved ones – over whom, let’s face it, we have no control, as much as we might like to pretend otherwise. But the promise of scripture is not that God will miraculously change the circumstances, but that God will be with us no matter what we face.

And this is shown very dramatically in our Lord’s last words from the cross, taken from verse 5 – “Father, into Thy hands I commend my spirit.” The night before, Jesus prayed “Father, if thou be willing, remove this cup from me: nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done”. And the cup was not removed from him, and he was executed on the cross. But to the end, he maintained his trust in God, no matter the circumstances, commending his spirit into the hands of God the Father at the end. And so we are called to do. Not to seek a quick exit from our troubles, not to ignore them, but to trust God to be at our side as we go through them, so that we can pray with Jesus, “Into Thy hands I commend my spirit.”

Saturday, May 21, 2011

The Rapture

Today was supposed to be the day for the rapture, according to Harold Camping, the leader of Family Radio, who arrived at the date through a whole series of confusing and complicated mathematical equations based on Biblical passages. So far, none of the earthquakes that he predicted have materialized, and it seems pretty clear that his predictions have been proven wrong. A lot of people – myself included – have been ridiculing his predictions and celebrating his failure.

But there is a tragic component to this – he has thousands of followers, who have quit jobs, spent their life savings spreading his message, and in general, ruined their lives. They will have to pick up the pieces of their lives and try to rebuild. Worse, many of them have children, who have been subject to abuse and neglect as part of this. I have read stories about teenagers despondent over the fact that their parents refused to save for college in light of the end of the world, and children told point blank by their parents that they would not be going to heaven.

And this breaks my heart, because I experienced the abusive effects that sometimes come from religion as a child. While my father, a minister in the Southern Baptist and Assemblies of God denominations at different points in my childhood, never predicted a specific date (although he did once say, around 1974, that he was quite certain that the rapture would take place no later than 1977), he did preach an imminent end to the world, and I was exposed to books and movies that graphically depicted the horrors that unbelievers left behind would experience. On numerous occasions, I woke up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat, from a nightmare where I was one of those left behind. Sometimes, I would find myself alone in the house, not knowing where my parents were, and would experience a panic attack, convinced that they had been raptured while I had been left behind. On one such occasion, my father thought it would be fun to play a prank, ignoring my hysterical upset cries, and jumped out and scared me, and although I begged and pleaded with him never to do that again, he just laughed it off as a fun joke. (I did not tell him that the specific source of my fear was being left behind after the rapture, but his lack of empathy for my obvious fear and panic is not something I would recommend as a parenting technique.)

When I was eight, I was sick with a cold, flu, or some common illness, and stayed home from school. My father gave me a book on divine healing that morning written for adults by Hobart Freeman, a minister in the charismatic movement, and told me to read it and pray for healing. Later that afternoon, when he asked if I had read it, I told him I had not, because I did not feel well. He said that I obviously wanted to be sick, because if I wanted to get well, I would read the book and pray and believe and be healed. I later learned that because Hobart Freeman’s followers did not seek medical care because of his teaching that it was sinful, several children and others had died, and as a result he was put on trial for negligent homicide. Ironically, before the case came to trial, he himself died from a serious illness for which he refused medical treatment.

When my father was removed by congregational vote from his pastorate, something that occurred in four different churches over the course of my childhood, about the time I was nine, he received information from the denomination (at that point, the Assemblies of God) about a number of congregations that were open. I remember that he, my mother, and I would discuss them. One did not sound very ideal, and when I said so, my father yelled at me that if I kept refusing openings God was giving us, we wouldn’t find a new church, and it would be my fault. (Later, as a teenager, when they learned I was gay, my father again blamed me for his not being able to be called to a church, saying that God was punishing us for my sin.)

These experiences were very damaging to me, and although I was ultimately able to find a way to experience a non-abusive and healthy form of Christian faith, it was an unnecessarily arduous journey, and there are scars that remain. And others who have experience abusive religion have not been so fortunate.

Religious abuse can undoubtedly occur in many religious contexts, but I think there is a special danger in communities which claim infallibility for their teachings and who have strong leaders who exercise that infallibility. In the case of the fundamentalist churches in which I was raised, the Bible was considered to be the inerrant word of God, and the preachers who interpreted it were often put on a pedestal and given a lot of power over their parishioners’ lives. Fortunately for the congregations he served, my father’s sometimes combative personality led them to reject his authority, and the Baptist doctrine of soul competency – the ability of every believer to interpret the Bible without a mediating authority – and Pentecostal view that the Spirit can work and speak through all who have received the baptism of the Spirit were able to act as counterbalances to my father’s abusive preaching.

It is my hope and prayer that as we consider this latest failed apocalypse, we will give some thought to the ways in which religious faith can be abusive, and do all in our power to remove those abusive aspects from ourselves and from our own faith communities.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Book of Exorcisms

Deacon Michael Shirk has put together a Book of Exorcisms, published by Rene Vilatte Press, our jurisdiction's publishing concern. It is an exquisitely typeset, hardbound book. Here is purchase information:

The following is the Preface I wrote for it.

The Independent Catholic Christian Church, along with many other jurisdictions in the Independent Sacramental Movement, maintains the use of the traditional minor orders, including that of Exorcist, as steps in the journey toward the priesthood. One of our priests, Mother Sandra Hutchinson, as she prepared to be ordained an Exorcist, had this to say: “Of all the minor orders, this is the one that intimidates me the most. Evil is real, and this is a direct challenge to it. But God is real too, I know that. And I'm looking forward to it as well." And that sums up the order pretty well – we must acknowledge the reality of evil – in ourselves, in others, in the fallen world. But we must also acknowledge the sovereignty of God, recognizing that God is able to overcome evil. In Christ’s victory over sin, death, and evil through the Crucifixion and Resurrection, God has, once for all, triumphed over evil. The war is over – God has won, and evil has lost. But battles remain, and as those called to serve God in ordained ministry, we must be ready to confront evil in order to do the work God has called us to do, through the power and authority of Jesus Christ.

The rites in this book, which Deacon Michael Shirk has prepared, contain liturgical acts of exorcism. This book is intended to be given to the person being ordained as an Exorcist as the act of ordination. These rites are of two kinds: first, ritual exorcisms that take place during the blessing of certain created things, such as holy water, and the exorcisms that take place to prepare a person to receive the sacrament of Holy Baptism; and second, the extraordinary exorcism of a person who is obsessed or possessed by demons, traditionally called an “energumen”. In the Independent Catholic Christian Church, anyone who has been ordained to the minor order of Exorcist, and certainly all Bishops, Priests, and Deacons, may perform the first class of exorcisms, the ritual exorcisms. The exorcism of an energumen should only be undertaken by a Priest under the direction of the Bishop, except in case of emergency.

We are grateful to Deacon Michael Shirk for compiling the rites in this book. It is my hope and prayer that this book may assist the clergy of this jurisdiction and others in confronting and ridding the world of evil.

+Timothy Michael Cravens Feast of St. Gabriel the Archangel, 2011

Presiding Bishop

Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Road to Emmaus

Luke 24:13 - 35 And they told what things were done in the way, and how he was known of them in breaking of bread.

O God, whose blessed Son did manifest himself to his disciples in the breaking of bread; Open, we pray thee, the eyes of our faith, that we may behold thee in all thy works; through the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (BCP)

Most of us are aware of the popular “Footprints” poem, in which a person looks back along the beach and sees a couple of sets of footprints, and asks God, “Whose are the second set of footprints?” and God replies, “Those are mine, my child”. When the person looks back and sees that for the more difficult sections of the walk, there is only one set of footprints, they ask God, “Why weren’t you there with me during the more difficult sections?” God replies, “I carried you in my arms during those sections, my child”. It’s sappy, for sure, but it raises an interesting spiritual truth – often, we are unable to recognize the actions and presence of God while they are happening, and can only see them when we look back over our lives.

In today’s gospel, we have a similar situation. The disciples are scattered and in chaos. For three years, they had been following Jesus, whom many had thought to be the Messiah, and then their hopes were dashed when he was arrested and executed by the Roman authorities. But after a few days, several of the women who followed him claimed to have seen him alive, and then others went and found an empty tomb where he was buried. Cleopas and another disciple were on the road to Emmaus discussing all of this, when a stranger joined them, who seemed to be the only person in Jerusalem and the surrounding area who had not heard. Astonishingly enough, he began to discuss the scriptures with them, explaining how the death and resurrection of Jesus fulfilled prophecies and had to happen the way they did to fulfill God’s plan.

Then, as they turned aside at Emmaus, he began to leave them, but they persuaded him to turn aside and share a meal with them. And then, he took bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to them – and suddenly, their eyes were opened and they recognized him as Christ, and then he left them. Like the person in the Footprints poem, they were only able to perceive his presence as they looked back and remembered how their hearts had burned as he explained the scriptures to them, and how they had recognized him in the breaking of the bread.

We are presented in this reading with at least three ways in which Christ comes to us. First, rather implicitly in this passage, he comes to us when we are gathered as a Christian community. The two disciples were together talking about Christ, and he joined them, and was present with them in the discussions of the scriptures. Of course, it is good for us to read the Bible alone, and we will be blessed by this practice if we engage in it regularly, but scripture is the church's treasure, and it is in our gathering together to read it, to hear it expounded through preaching, and to meditate on it that it will bear the most fruit. In addition to being present in our common life and in the scriptures, Christ is known to us in the breaking of the bread – the Eucharist.

But like the disciples, we may not always be conscious of Christ’s presence in these three means of grace, or in others. Life in community is difficult at times. We may find the scriptures hard to engage. And we are not going to have a mystically transcendent experience every time we receive Communion. But if we engage these spiritual practices over time, we will be able to look back, and realize that our hearts burned within us, that Christ was known to us in the breaking of the bread, and that through the difficulties of life, Christ carried us in his arms. As we continue in the Easter season, may we deepen our faithfulness to these practices.

Lord Jesus, stay with us, for evening is at hand and the day is past; be our companion in the way, kindle our hearts, and awaken hope, that we may know you as you are revealed in Scripture and the breaking of bread. Grant this for the sake of your love. Amen. (BCP)

Thursday, May 12, 2011

There can be nothing disordered about lifelong, committed covenanted love: Marriage, Religion, and Law

The following paragraphs will be included in a forthcoming academic book about church-state relations in a chapter on marriage equality. I will post more details once it is published.

The Independent Catholic Christian Church believes that Jesus Christ came to abolish the alienation and isolation separating people from God and one another. One source of this alienation is the rigid classification of people based on sex, sexual orientation, or parentage. We believe that ALL are invited by Christ to participate fully in the life of the church, regardless of sex or sexual orientation. We see this beautifully articulated in Galatians 3:28 -- "There is no longer Judean nor Greek, there is no longer slave nor free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus." Our interpretation of this is that all Christians are to be treated equally as regards the sacraments -- which means that all marriages between two baptized persons entering into lifelong covenant are sacramental. There can be nothing disordered about lifelong, committed covenanted love -- and to declare as "disordered" a marriage because the partners are not of the "right" sex or ethnic heritage is to repudiate one of the central messages of reconciliation in the Gospel.

The Independent Catholic Christian Church is a creedally orthodox, scripturally based, and in many ways fairly traditional church. For our legislators to enshrine into law the doctrines of other churches and deny ours is to establish the Roman Catholic, Southern Baptist, and Mormon denominations, among others, as quasi-official state religions and to deny our church the right to the free exercise of ours. As people of faith who are very serious about our walk with Christ and our prayer lives, we deserve to have our voices heard equally with those of the Religious Right, who do not have a monopoly on the serious practice of religion. Every religious community should have the right to determine its own policies regarding who may and may not be married–I once met a rabbi who, in responding to my question about whether she would marry same-sex couples, replied without missing a beat "As long as they're both Jewish"–but the state should offer civil marriage to all adult couples willing to commit their lives to one another, regardless of their religious affiliation or lack thereof.

Saturday, May 07, 2011

Easter Vigil Sermon

Readings: Gen. 1:1 - 2:4a; Gen. 7:1 -5, 11-18; 8:6-18; 9:8-13; Gen. 22:1-18; Ex. 14:10-31; 15:20-21; Ezekiel 37:1-14; Romans 6:3-11; Matthew 28:1-10

Our lives are defined by our stories.

I have two cats, whom I adopted when they were six. Charles quickly adapted to his new home, because his story is that humans are there to pet him, feed him, give him treats, and entertain him. He often sits in on premarital sessions with couples planning to get married, and will sit with new people who enter the apartment. Once, when our priest in Boston was being ordained to one of the minor orders that were part of her journey to the priesthood, we held the ordination in the chapel in my home, and eight people were there. As we gathered in my living room before the service, Charles sat in the middle of the room, clearly convinced that the gathering was in his honor.

In contrast, Allie lives by a story that tells her that humans are out to SKIN HER ALIVE!!! She spent the first two weeks in her new home behind the refrigerator, and the next two weeks on top of the kitchen cabinets. It was six months before she stopped cringing in fear every time I walked in her direction. And she would run under the bed any time another person besides me entered the apartment. Clearly, there was some trauma of some sort in her past that has caused her deep distrust of people.

Like my cats, our lives are defined by our stories.

We may believe that our lives are defined by the abuse we received at the hands of a parent or significant other. We may believe our lives are destined to follow the script of our illnesses, our limitations, our flaws. We may believe that the mistakes we have made – the sins we have committed – determine the end of our stories.

Our lives are defined by our stories.

But something interesting has happened in the three years Allie the tabby cat has lived with me. People have stayed in my guestroom who have been kind and gentle to her, and by the next morning, she has slowly begun to walk up and rub up against them. More recently, she has even begun to remain in place when friends who are frequently here have gently leaned over to pet her (or in Fr. Joseph’s case, brush her hair). She even came and smelled the boots of one friend who came over for the first time, and rubbed her head against his jeans as he gently scratched her ears. She has begun to accept, however tentatively and hesitantly, that perhaps her story is not that humans are out to SKIN HER ALIVE!!!, and that she must run and hide lest they succeed, but rather that humans are there to feed her, give her milk, pet her, and take care of her.

I love the Easter Vigil because of the salvation history we hear in the readings from the Old Testament. Some of the best stories in the Old Testament are in there. We hear how God created the heavens and the earth, and that it was good, and then created humankind, and it was VERY good. We hear how, despite the wickedness that led God to destroy humankind, a remnant was saved, and that God made a covenant with humankind never to destroy the earth in that way again. We hear how God delivered the Israelites from slavery by bringing them across the Red Sea. We hear how God asks Abraham to sacrifice his only son – a son that Abraham and Sarah only received in advanced old age, after they had given up all hope – and that Abraham was ready to make the sacrifice, but the angel of the Lord stopped him at the last moment, and provided another sacrifice. We hear how Ezekiel, depressed in seeing a valley filled with dry bones, was given a vision of the bones connecting to one another to form skeletons, and then saw those skeletons being covered with muscles, and sinews, and flesh, and skin – and then he saw those bodies filled with the spirit of God so that they might LIVE once again.

And we know that those stories are not just about people who lived thousands of years ago, those stories are OUR stories.

And then the lights come on, and the alleluias ring out, and we hear that marvelous epistle reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans – all of us who have been baptized into Jesus Christ have been baptized into his death – and that, just as God raised Christ from death to new life – so we will be raised from death to new life as well, both in our daily lives, and at the end of time, when we will experience the physical resurrection that Christ experienced that Saturday night nearly two thousand years ago. And the gospel describes the women discovering that Christ is no longer in the tomb, but alive, when he appears to them. And then we experience his living, risen presence through the gifts of his Body and Blood in the Eucharist.

But these are not just stories that we hear in church and forget about, no – these are TRUE stories that change OUR stories.

Our stories are no longer just stories of death, sorrow, sickness, sadness, sin – although they are still there. Our stories are now stories of how we experienced these thing – and then our lives are transformed into new lives of triumph over sin, sickness, death – because we have been made part of the victorious risen Christ through baptism. And these new stories RE-define our lives -- from stories of defeat into stories of victory.

My tabby cat Allie is not very bright – and she’s just a cat – but even she has begun to accept that her story has changed from a story of fear to a story of love.

As we begin this joyful Easter season, may we embrace our new stories of life and resurrection lived through the one True Story of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Alleluia, Christ is risen – He is risen indeed, Alleluia!