Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Original Sin, oh dear

I just read this in the Texas Episcopalian:

"Does the Episcopal Church believe in original sin?" a woman once asked Albert Mollegen, a professor at our seminary in Virginia. "Believe in it?" Molly replied; "why, madam, we practice it daily."

Original sin is one of the hot debate topics at the aforementioned seminary. Both sides have points. One says that God created as very good, and that therefore original sin is bogus. Plus, they say, our knowledge of biology far surpasses what the ancients knew, and therefore this whole original sin is just malarky.

On the other hand, proponents of original sin ask us not only to look scriptures (especially Paul) to find evidence for original sin. What is more, they say, look at the world, look at yourself, of course we're sinful.

I have a slightly nuanced perspective. Original sin has an unfortunate title. Many moderns disregard this doctrine of the faith because "original" for them means the sin committed by Adam and Even and passed on through their progeny to us.

Now come on, that's just making a caricature of it.

I say that we are born into this world with structures, with a society, that means that cannot not sin. It's just impossible to rise out of this system of turning away from God. I mean, have you looked at the greed inherent in our economy today. Need I say more?

But, of course, there is one more nuance. As Martin Luther, this original sin does not come to us by works. No, this sinfulness is entirely alien from our nature. But because of this corrupted world, where it is easy to choose the wrong, original sin implants itself upon us.

Only by Christ's divine initiative can we ever hope to be set free from this damnable (I mean this is the most literal sense) state. It is because Christ does not will this state for us. And indeed, Christ is powerful enough to set us free from this state. The act of worship and prayer is acknowledging and giving thanks for this divine salvation.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Moses' Death and our Life

The following is a response to a question I received about Moses' death on Mt. Nebo as recorded in Deuteronomy 34. This passage states that Moses only saw the promised land before he died there. The person who asked me this had some good inquiries. However, I would recommend that he read all five books of the Torah (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) and then Joshua. Many answers to his questions will be found there. But the crux of his questions was: Wasn't it a jerk thing of God to let Moses die without entering the promised land?

I think there are lots of great lessons to be gleaned from the entirety of the Exodus narrative. First of all, there is no arguing that Moses did a lot. However, one can never say that he did a lot for God. Because, the fact of the matter is, I don't think we can ever do anything "for" God. We can do things on God's behalf, we can do things because we are compelled or called by God, and we can do things for other people for God's sake. But I do not think it is possible for us to do good things to God, as if God needed our help. If one wants to say that Moses did a lot for the Israelites, I have to agree completely. Moses (working as God's agent) led them out of Egypt, advocated for them in the Wilderness, and eventually led them to the Promised Land.

Second, the time in the Wilderness was a a great time for Moses and God. It was there in the Wilderness, that God actually made himself known to Moses. The exodus narrative makes it clear that Moses actually encountered God face to face. I don't think Moses had to enter the Promised Land to receive all the benefits of God's great blessing, Moses received it in person. What is more, I think it is clear that the best time for God with the Israelites was in the desert. It was here that the Israelites depended absolutely on God for their very lives. It was not a jerk thing to do to let Moses die in the Wilderness, but instead it was a way of preserving and ending the great time God had with the Israelites.

Third, the Promised Land didn't turn out to be all that great. Wars had to be fought and there were divisions within the tribes of the Israelites, just to name two things. Moses actually died in a good state, the text does not make it sound like Moses was bitter at all. I think this is an interesting insight into American culture, we want satisfaction and we want it now. Moses died without ever being in the Promised Land, but he never belly-ached about it. Instead of looking at it through our eyes that are only sated through greed and lust for possessions, we should see this is as an incredible blessing for Moses; that his task of advocating for the Israelites through the desert was over.

Fourth, this passage is ripe with Biblical allusions that one who is not a Christian has difficulty picking up. Moses died when he was 120 years old. The year forty has lots of significance throughout the Bible (the Israelites' forty years in the wilderness, Moses' forty days on the mountain, Jesus' forty days in the wilderness), and for Moses to die at three times that number represents an even higher state of perfection. Second, it was on a mountain that Moses first encountered God in the burning bush and it was on a mountain that God gave the law; so it is only fitting that is on a mountain that Moses should die. Moses' death on the mountain is not some unkind action from God, instead it is symbolic of Moses' very close relationship with God (see the second point above).

Fifth, this whole passage, and indeed the whole Bible, is not about people, but it is the witness of God's love for us. Therefore, when we read that Moses died and nobody knows where his gravesite is it means that God's deliverance and providence through the wilderness is more important than the actions of Moses. Once again, this shows how unChristian American thought is. As Christians, we live and we die in God (Romans 14:8). We are not concerned about ourselves, as Moses was not concerned about himself. Unfortunately, secular culture so turns our minds inward that we begin asking questions like: "Why did God let Moses die on Mt. Nebo?"

These are just some of my thoughts. They are not very coherent.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Let's get ethical

Five hours of studying Christian Ethics makes your head spin. And the funny thing is, I don't feel that much more ethical. I could bore you to death with terms like "nonmalificence" and "autonomy," but do I really know how to apply those to my life?

It's also strange to talk about clergy/penitent relationships. Where do I draw the line? What does the phrase "the seal of confession is morally absolute" mean? Because wouldn't it be more moral to alert the authorities if somebody confessed their intention to commit a future crime that would harm somebody? But if I do that, what kind of precedent am I setting? What does that do to other people who may want to confess something to me? Without that seal of confession in place, you just cannot be honest with yourself and with your Creator.

Monday, March 16, 2009

I Hate Rollercoasters

Ever since I was forced onto my first amusement park ride when I was a kid, I have hated rollercoasters with every living bone in my body. I despise the dizzying drops when your stomach is about to fly out of your throat. And I especially hate the anticipation of climbing, because what goes, must come down.

So little wonder that I hate these kind of days with diabetes. I'll give you the run down. I woke up 85, right on the money, couldn't ask for better. After breakfast, it was 481, that's five times higher than it should be. Needless to say, I felt like crap. Then, what goes up must come down, and crashing down it did, to 35. Just 5 points away from blacking out. Then a good solid reading after lunch/before dinner, 109. Then a whopping 287 after dinner. What a crappy day...

When your blood sugar is low, all sorts of crazy things happen. You can't think straight, your hands shake, you start sweating. The problem is, that because you aren't thinking straight, you don't think to check your blood sugar. Oh yeah, and you can't exercise when you're low because you might pass out.

Then, when your blood sugar is high, you feel like a big bundle of anxiety and ache. You can't concentrate, but it's different because you just get angry. And you're super thirsty, because your body is dehydrated. And then you pee a lot, because your body is dehydrated. Oh yeah, and you can't exercise when you're high because, strangely enough, that can shoot it even higher. And then, if you're really high (like 481), you have to pee on a stick to make sure that your body isn't going into starvation mode. (anybody want to try diabetes for a day?)

But the worst, the absolute worst part, is after you've fixed your blood sugar. When you're high, you take more insulin. When you're low, you eat sugar. But after that, your head just starts pounding. Because of the rapid change in the levels of sugar in the body, my head just goes beserk. It pounds and aches.

So today was one of those days.

So I hope I don't have too many of these days. Not only are they just crappy days, but too many of these days and my whole body will just fall apart. Heart disease, stroke, blindness, and loss of limbs and teeth are just some of the results of lifetime with diabetes.

And to add a theological reflection to an otherwise dreary blog, this is exactly the reason I hope in the resurrection. Don't give me any of this "spiritual restoration" malarky, or that the disciples just "resurrected" Jesus through their fond memories of him. No, try on diabetes for a day. And then you'll understand the hope of the actual, bodily resurrection. For some of us, it's the only hope we have.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Baa Baa Blacksheep

That annoying children's tune, "Baa Baa Black sheep" asks the poor outcast farm animal if he produces any wool. "Yes sir, yes sir," is the answer, "three bags full." Of course he produces wool, he's still a sheep.

Why, yes, me as the black sheep of my family, I still produce wool. As the political outcast of the Abbotts, believe it or not, I too have reasons for my blackness. This blog will just give you a few samples of the finest wool that I produce. And while you're at it, try this wool on, everybody looks good in black.

First, and of incredible importance to those of us living with fatal genetic diseases, an executive order banning federal funding of stem cell research signed under the previous President will be overturned today. Finally, the government is working on behalf of those with lupus, Parkinson's, Type I Diabetes, and macular degeneration. Wasn't it Jesus who said that the lame will walk and the blind will see?

Second, I don't believe that the wealthiest 1% of Americans should be taxed less than the rest of us. For instance, how is it that Warren Buffett pays a smaller taxation rate than his receptionist?

Third, I believe that gay and lesbian couples have every right to be recognized as a union by the state. They should be allowed to pursue their "life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness." I do not think it is the state's perorgative to dictate morality and pass legislation that effectively bans 10% of the population from their rights as laid out in our Declaration of Independence. In the same breath, I ask for the further separation of church and state. Let the religious bodies define marriage, let the state make civil union a right for all people.

Lastly, I think the death penalty is abhorrent. Under the eighth amendment, the state does not have the right to inflict cruel of unusual punishment. Furthermore, it actually costs more to execute a convict than it does to imprison them for life. The error of margin is much too large in our judicial system. Too many innocent people have been executed unjustly. However, let me make myself clear. This means that we have to have tougher prison policies. We must not let hardened criminals back into society and we cannot let private contractors run our prisons as they do in Texas.

As a final comment, I have come to these political beliefs not because of Barack Obama or because I'm a young idealist. I have come to believe these principles because I am a Christian. After all, it is our God who ate with sinners, touched the outcasts and diseased, and allowed himself to die.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

The Ten Commandments

One of my ideas for this blog is an opportunity to do some brain-storming for upcoming sermons. Therefore, if you read this, please comment on what I write and how you feel about it. This is a really great opportunity for everybody to read what I am thinking and for me to get some honest feedback.

With that in mind, I begin my thoughts on Exodus 20:1-17, the passage containing the giving of the Ten Commandments to Moses. I think it's easy for a lot of us to think of these ten laws as rigorous rules that are meant to remind us of how sinful we are. We read them and say to ourselves, "I truly am a despicable sinner." Well, yes, that is the hard reality of life. Martin Luther said that the Ten Commandments serve as a way to recognize our unrighteousness. And really, that's not as far-fetched as it seems. Take a look at a newspaper, and you'll see that the world is pretty screwed up. Human beings are born into a sinful world and cannot not sin.

What's more, are the Ten Commandments as arbitrary as some accuse them of? Even modern day atheists have a system of morality that is loosely based on these precepts found in Exodus 20. "Doing good for goodness' sake" is very similar to the last six commandments: honor your parents, don't kill, don't steal, don't commit adultery, don't lie, and don't be envious of your neighbor. So the Ten Commandments don't stand in judgment of the world, because the world would be screwed up even if we didn't have them.

So what are the Ten Commandments for? If we know that we are messed up as individuals and as societies, and if we know that we can never truly live up to the expectations of all ten of these laws, why do we pay attention to them? Indeed, a very good question. Especially when some creative moralists come up with scenarios where honoring father and mother will lead to allowing child abuse or stealing food is allowable to survive.

Yes, but all of these cases are often obscure cases. And I believe that good, thinking, Christians will have to exercise their God-given faculties of judgment and reason to sort through these ethical dilemmas.

But the deeper purpose of the Ten Commandments is that they serve as guideposts. They are markers that we know are true, not because they are simply in the Bible, but because we know in our guts that they are right (as I said, even Richard Dawkins has a system of morality loosely based on these principles).

There are two parts to the Ten Commandments. The first four, you shall have no other gods before, you shall not make any idols, you shall not invoke with malice the name of the Lord, and remember the Sabbath, are all guides to a right relationship with God. They remind us that God is our Creator, the only one worthy of our praise; we can rest in him. They tell us that God's name is holy, and that it contains a power that should be wielded with prudence. These four commandments orient the compass of our lives to a loving and right relationship with God.

The second six commandments are ways for us to live in right relationship with other people. We recognize the fact that our parents brought us into this world. It recognizes the fact that lying leads to deception and living false lives. The commandments not to covet and not to steal are to remind us that we are to live with our rightful property, and that we need to respect other's property.

But then, of course, as I write about these, it sounds like they are all pretty easy to follow, right? When you put them in modern terms, the Ten Commandments don't sound all that daunting (it's hard to picture Charlton Heston coming down the mountain with tablets that say "Don't sleep around").

Yet we recognize that we break these commandments, sometimes there are days when I feel like I have broken all ten of them. What then? Are we sentenced to hellfire and brimstone because we can't live up to this set of rules?

Thanks be to God that we are under the law of grace. We do not deserve it, but we are given it freely. While we try with every ounce of our might to live holy lives, there are times when we fall short. The grace of God is that those sins are covered up. But this not some cheap grace, no, this is costly grace. It costs us our entire lives for we are to pledge ourselves to God. We must always seek grace and be open to it.

Sorry for these lengthy musings on the Ten Commandments. Fortunately, my sermons are often better than this undirected prose. But please, if you managed to read all the way to the end, post your comments. I would appreciate them.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

The Day of my Birth

When you are a kid, your birthday has this magical aura about it. You go to the store with your parents and pick out the cake with the football goalposts on it. Then you invite all of your friends to go play mini-golf with you. You are showered with all the coolest toys from your family. Then we had the special celebrations at the Abbott house when the entire family would celebrate the birthdays of me and my sister. Fond memories, but things have changed.

Is it the dread of getting older that makes me shrug off celebrating my birthday? I don't think so, because I haven't even hit the quarter century yet. And it's not that I don't like partying with my friends. Everybody knows I love a good time and a cold brew with my buds. Maybe it's just the realization that I have things to do, and March 5th will be just like any other day.

I'll wake up and share an enjoyable breakfast with "The Breakfast Club." Then I'll head over to the chapel in the morning. Nothing new, just the routine. I'll probably work out and have lunch. I have Systematic Theology in the afternoon followed by spiritual direction. After that I'll have dinner and probably just read and do some schoolwork. What a routine day.

Don't get me wrong, I still get those feelings on important days. That tingling you get in your bones on your birthday as a kid, that unstoppable giddiness and that uncontrollable grin, well, all those feelings just come on other days.

Because that feeling you get when you're a kid, I now understand that feeling to be holy. Holiness is when you have this deep-down gut-level sense that something of incredible importance is being celebrated. When you're a kid, your birthday is holy and set aside because the whole world turns their attention to you. People sing, candles are lit, there's a feast, all of your friends come over.

But for Christians, we do all of these things for the most important day, Easter. It really has all the workings of a fancy birthday party. We are remembering a day of great importance. Friends come in from far and wide to celebrate. We have great food and sing and rejoice and get to light one really huge candle in church. And though it may not be cake, it's definitely a memosa after church and a great big feast of ham and all the fixings.

So I appreciate all of the birthday cards and the wishes for a good year. But the day of Easter is when I celebrate my new-birth. For when the tomb was found to be mysteriously empty on that Sunday morning, I was given new life.

Thanks be to God.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Texas Independence Day

Happy Texas Independence Day! Today we not only celebrate the greatest state in the Union, but we honor those who fought to free us from the yoke of oppression and tyranny.

At the Virginia Theological Seminary, we too pay homage to the Lone Star.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

It's Snowing, Again

It's snowing, and it's March 1st. Oh how I wish I was back in the Lone Star State right now. Soaking in the warmth and the hospitality. For those who live in the frozen north, the cold has created a permafrost in their souls.

But to travel south is to be alone. To be outnumbered. To continue my sports analogy from yesterday, have you ever played a sport when you are down one player? Like, 5 on 4 basketball? Or have you ever raced somebody on a motorcycle when all you had was a tricycle?

Well, if you have, welcome to the life of a Texas Democrat. Outnumbered, every time, no matter how hard you play the game. Sure we've had some great heroes (do the names Johnson or Rayburn ring a bell?), but they weren't enough to make it an even playing field. The sheer number of conservative Texans consigns all of us liberals to second-place every time. The silver medal is great, but don't we all have our eyes on the prize?

It's hard for me to figure all this out. Why do poor Texans still vote for the Republican party? Why do they self-impose higher taxes for themselves and tax-cuts for the top one percent? Do the social issues, like abortion and stem-cell research, cause Texans to vote this way?

Of course these are all complex answers with even more complex answers. The history of racism and the shift of power from the old Dixiecrats to the pro-segregation Republicans is one reason. Xenophobia and the immigration issue is another. The centrality of the energy industry within our state is yet another reason. Conservative Christianity is definitely another reason.

But there is one thing we Texas Democrats must remember in the midst of our frustrations. These people are voting with their best intentions. Though we may not agree with them, labeling them as bigots or rednecks doesn't help our cause. It adds fuel to the fire and only stirs up the right-wing voting bloc. Just as I despise the term "bleeding heart liberal," I can't imagine my conservative friends enjoy the ridicule they received during the end of the most recent Presidential administration.

While I don't even pretend to have a solution, I think that there is a way we can think about this. As so many Texans are Christians, we have some common ground where we can begin the conservation of non-polarized politics. Let's use the language of faith and scripture to understand one another and the positions we hold. Let's recognize the tension within our Bible concerning issues of homosexuality and immigration (read Deuteronomy, it'll blow your mind). If Christians point to their scriptures to enforce their argument against homosexual unions, then we must also consider the scriptural arguments for accepting the strangers and aliens into our midst.

What is more, Texas Democrats and Republicans will learn that we have much in common. We are grounded in faith and rooted in scripture. Democrats will learn that Republicans aren't all unthinking Fox News drones. Republicans will learn that the brand of the Democratic Party in Texas isn't the same as the brand of the Democratic Party in Massachusetts.

What is more, we have to look to our common Texas history for solutions. We must consider the tenacity of Sam Houston in the fight for independence, but also his reluctance to secede from the Union. We must remember that those who fought and died for our independence (which we celebrate tomorrow) were called "Texians." We are not fully Anglo or fully Hispanic, we are a wonderful blend, "The Rainbow People of God." Davy Crockett comes to Texas with the words "Y'all may go to hell, and I shall go to Texas." But now our brothers and sisters in humanity are fleeing their personal hell for this great land of ours.

Come friends, both right and left, let's pray together, read scripture together, worship together, live in harmony together. We will need courage and commitment from everybody to answer the questions that will define the 21st century.