Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Judgment, splinters, and restoration

Not too long ago, there was a meme going around about "how liberals read the Bible."  Various versions were in circulation, but all of them showed an open Bible, which had been so heavily highlighted with a sharpie that the only words legible were "judge not."

It's a clever meme, and up to a certain point, it has a point. Obviously, Jesus said a whole lot of things besides "judge not." If you're going to follow Jesus, it's not enough to simply refrain from judging people. You also have to refrain from murder and name-calling and envy and sexual immorality, and if you manage to catch the guy who stole your coat, you have to offer him the shirt off your back.

But... you also have to "judge not."

You really, really, do.

The sharpie-highlighter meme seems to imply that the injunction to "judge not" only exists as a sort of blackout poetry, where the meaning is largely unrelated to the intentions of the original text.

But if you peel back the layers of sharpie, the context doesn't mitigate this command one jot or tiddle. It's part of a discourse on the importance of loving sinners, and "judge not" is pretty accurate summary phrase for the entire passage.

If you think that it's hard to reconcile this whole not-judging thing with the intense ethical demands laid out in Scripture, you're in good company. Jesus insisted that his teachings were a fulfillment of the law, and didn't water it down at all, but he never did manage to convince the top Torah scholars. I'm convinced that Jesus is right, but I have to admit that it can be really hard to see what he's getting at. Like the magic eye pictures that amazed us in junior high, sometimes it jumps out at me in breathtaking 3-D, and sometimes I'm stuck staring blankly at a hopelessly incoherent jumble.

But at the times when I can see it and the times when I can't, it's still there. All of it. Jesus calls us to walk the hard, narrow road of holiness, and he doesn't even allow us the sweet consolations of judgmental self-righteousness.

I get why the scribes and pharisees might not have been able to see what Jesus was saying, and even if they did see it, I get why they might have killed him for it anyway. Jesus' teachings are hard words. They're the words of eternal life, and I don't know who else to go to, but they are very hard words indeed. Everyone should count the cost before deciding to pick up a cross and follow.

Of course, theories abound about how Jesus' teachings are not really as hard as they seem. I've often heard it said that because Jesus follows the not-judging discourse with the illustration of the log and the speck, he didn't really mean that we aren't supposed to judge, but merely that we're supposed to deal with our own sin first.

The problem with this theory is that I've never had much success in removing splinters by yelling at them. I'm getting pretty good at dealing with splinters, mostly because I've had a lot of experience with them. Who knew that all those childhood cactus encounters would come in so handy? Still, it's a delicate task, requiring understanding and precision. When my kids come to me with splinters, I try to figure out how the splinter got there in the first place, so that I can guide the offending fragment out through the same path. Sometimes a salt paste will help the swollen flesh recede, and sometimes I put a dab of glue over the splinter, so I that I can peel it away when the glue dries. Every splinter is a little bit different, but for all of them, if you're harsh and impatient, you're apt to drive it in deeper. Worse, you might break off the visible portion, leaving the rest of it buried and inaccessible.

So while it's true that once you've removed the plank from your own eye, you're supposed to help other people with their splinters, you simply can't accomplish that by judging them. Condemnation is just as ineffective against splinters as it is against sin. We are not seeing clearly if we think that having been saved by grace we can go on to save others through our condemnation and judgment.

The lesson of the woman caught in adultery is not that good behavior will earn us the privilege of throwing stones, and the lesson of the log and the speck is not that we should start judging as soon as we become unaware of our own sin.

Thanks be to God, Jesus empathizes with all our temptations, and even though he's amply qualified to cast the first stone, instead he chooses to drive our accusers away so that we can go and sin no more.

We should do likewise.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Shall I wear the ashes of my zeal?
The branches that I wave become a cross,
and in a week of week of weeks grow dry as tinder,
consumed until the flames die out at last,
and all my striving turns again to dust.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Counting the cost

Grace is what transforms us.

The law can't do it. Rules and punishments can't do it.

As Christians, we know this. It's one of the core assertions of the gospel. I've never, ever heard anyone claim to follow Jesus while denying the superior power of grace over law and punishment...

Unless we're talking about parenting. Or politics. Or any other sphere in which we might be the ones handing out grace or judgment.

It's easy to get excited about grace when it's just between us and God. It gets a lot harder when it's between us and other people.

Because grace isn't cheap. Grace means that somebody has to get on a cross.

It is much easier to be on the receiving end of grace than the giving end, but it's a package deal. Forgive us our tresspasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.

If you want to follow Jesus, you have to take up your cross, and embrace the cost of grace.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

I drag my weary bones up the flight
Of steps to the pteradactyl skeletons.
Dangling from the ceiling, to the right,
There's also a mammoth, assembled with cables and pins.
I'm sure there's a very good reason why he's flying.
These things are too great and too marvelous for me.
I have not quieted my soul, but I am trying,
Which I suppose is why I come to the museum to see
How much we know. After years of digging,
There's really quite a lot one can piece together.
The displays are supported by very strong rigging,
But despite the sturdy steel cables, it's hard to say whether
Any given model will hold for long.
We've never met the monsters with their flesh still on.

Monday, March 16, 2015

of your mind
with words not your own.
Make them your own. Choose them wisely.
Choose wiser words than your accidental mutterings.
You can't choose your own words except
by choosing others.
Set your sail
to choose 

Friday, March 13, 2015

Personal... but more than personal

When we first started exploring Catholicism, I knew that there were certain elements of my Protestant heritage that I needed to be careful not to lose. I've been given a wonderful foundation of Scriptural knowledge, powerfully undergirded by the idea that Biblical literacy is for everyone. This is something I want to carry with me into Catholicism.

 I initially assumed that the emphasis on an intimate relationship with God was another such distinctively Protestant virtue, but as we've visited a half dozen different parishes over the past months, we've been very surprised at what we've observed. Everywhere we go, we're finding Catholics who are absolutely obsessed with encouraging everyone to have an intimate relationship with God. Moreover, they have some really great advice about it, too, and my prayer life is growing by leaps and bounds.

Catholic spirituality is very different from what I expected, and I found the discrepancy puzzling. What on earth was going on?

I think at least part of the answer lies in the multiple meanings of the word "personal."

I had always heard that one of the main differences between Protestants and Catholics is that Catholics don't value a personal relationship with God as much as Protestants.

If we mean "personal" as opposed to "impersonal," then this is a bizarrely counterfactual claim to make of a church that is so focused on intimate union with Christ.  But if we mean "personal" as opposed to "corporate," then this really is a legitimate area of disagreement. Protestants place a higher value on personal conscience and private interpretation, while Catholics place a higher value on church authority and the communion of saints. This isn't to say that Protestants don't value the communal aspect of the faith, but simply that they believe that Catholics place a dangerously excessive emphasis on it. Likewise, Catholics believe that the Protestant focus on individual autonomy is unhealthy and out of balance.

Protestants are wary of too much emphasis on saints and church authority because they don't want to let anything get in the way of intimate union with Christ. Catholics, on the other hand, make a huge deal out of both the church militant and the church triumphant precisely  because they believe that union with God's people is indispensable to union with Christ himself.

This is a legitimate disagreement, and there are solid arguments on both sides. But it's important to remember that for both Protestants and Catholics, union with Christ is the goal.

Obviously, Catholicism and Protestantism alike can all too easily  devolve into a set of rote religious practices. That's a problem we must all guard against, and faithful Protestants and faithful Catholics do guard against it. In all branches of the faith, the Christian life is all about being drawn up into the richly relational life of the triune God, and our disagreements are merely about how best to promote that end.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Embrace your blindness. Savor each intricate contour
Of the darkness you inhabit. Listen and feel,
Voraciously attentive to what you know,
Content within it's limits. Man the master
Can only rule within tight fixed bounds.
Manage your business wisely, and when you wander,
Bear in mind the things you do not know:
Each stranger on the road may be your father.