Will you persevere in resisting evil…?

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(AUTHOR’S NOTE: For the five weeks of Lent 2021, special focus will be given to each of the five individual questions in “The Renewal of the Baptismal Covenant”)

Will you persevere in resisting evil, and when you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?

Rather than the five word response written in the Prayer Book, “I will, with God’s help,” I sometimes want to respond with another (lawyer-like) five words: “Depends on what you mean.”

After all, this second individual question in the Renewal of the Baptismal Covenant is filled with rich and powerful words, capable of all manner of subtle nuances and deep complex meaning…a veritable paradise for anyone sporting a Juris Doctorate on their wall.  It is impossible to consume it all in one quick reading or hearing (or even in one blogpost) when it is placed, as it is, being just one in a repetitive litany of questions. Each phrase is power-packed with a verb or noun layered with an almost endless variety of meanings and insights:

Persevere. Resist. Evil. Fall. Sin. Repent. Return.

In a way, this question is reminiscent of one of those “Recycling” posters, with big arrows flowing in a continuing clockwise circle.  Note that the question does not ask whether each of us will resist evil; the writers knew better.  Rather, the liturgy calls for a individual commitment to persist in efforts of resistance. The question presumes human frailty, not asking “if you fall into sin” but “when.” And then there’s the use of the term “fall” as if my “falling” into sin is like my tripping by accident over an unseen branch on a dark walk outside, as opposed to my willfully choosing to flop headlong into the deep end of a pool. The cycle continues by the commitment to “repent and return to the Lord.” The stage is then set for the endless battle of our “persistence and resistance” to begin anew.

Of all these words, though, “evil” is the one that probably gets the most attention, at least it gets mine.  It is one of two “E-words” that in my experience tend to make us Whiskeypalians really uncomfortable. (“Evangelism“ is the other one, if you are wondering, and I’m not sure which one ”wins” the top prize.  Mention either during the Sunday coffee hour, and you’ll likely begin to see folks start looking at their watches.)

Most Christians in most mainline Protestant churches shy away from the topic of evil.  It tends to conjure up images of street corner preachers shouting about the “evil” practices of things they don’t like and/or don’t understand, or “The Church Lady” character years ago on SNL (“Hmmmm. Could it be…SAAAAY-TIN?”).  There can be other comic extremes of spooky talk surrounding nasty looking gremlin-like figures who melt when shown a crucifix, or holy water is sprinkled on them.

All these images miss the mark, I think, and distract me with comedy and comfort from a plain truth that, even if I don’t like to consider it, I ignore at my extreme peril.  Evil exists.  Evil is real. And evil thrives most when ignored and left alone, unnamed for what it is

In his 1983 book, “People of the Lie: The Hope for Healing Human Evil,” author and psychiatrist Scott Peck defined evil as “that which kills or suppresses life or the life force,” and noted that it often disguises itself in a “mask of self-righteousness,” a narcissistic self-image that denies and refuses to acknowledge any personal flaws, instead manipulating or “scapegoating” others. Unlike mere mental health disorders in which a person has a disease of the brain which makes a person less able to recognize their own personal fault, evil according to Peck is a non-biological disorder of the mind. The evil person not only is able to recognize the harm being inflicted and his/her part in it, but justifies it and at some level enjoys it. Although mental illness is certainly involved, an evil personality has different deeper qualities and other characteristics.

The central tool of human evil is “the lie,” the ability to deceive others and one’s self into believing an alternate reality. The biggest lie of evil is the willing and willful deception of self, in which the evil person chooses to believe he/she is not wrong nor really is capable of wrong, and rejects and even attacks any evidence suggesting it. Interestingly, our Lenten liturgy in Morning Prayer confronts that lie head-on, reminding us of John’s words in his first letter: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” (1 Jn. 1:8)

Regardless of whether one accepts Peck’s theories and conclusions, the good news is that the Lenten liturgy also asks us to ponder the verse that immediately follows John’s warning. Yes, we deceive ourselves whenever we think we are not fully capable of doing horrendous evil given the right circumstances, “But if we confess (acknowledge) our sins, God who is faithful and just will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

When I was in law school, I had the opportunity to spend a week with Peck at Kanuga Center in Hendersonville, NC. (I later learned this happened while he was writing “People of the Lie.”) He lectured one evening on his psychiatric observation of evil. I remember being disturbed by his conviction, coming from someone as rational and logical and fact-driven as anyone I’ve ever met, that a true malevolent force outside of science is actively working in humanity. Ultimately though I was comforted by his even stronger conviction – also driven by rational logic and facts as he saw them – that a real force of Love (which he saw especially through the life and ministry of Jesus and “Christ crucified”) had forever conquered it.

“The War against Evil has been won,” he told us. “We are just in a mopping up operation.” We just need to be persistent about it.

For the means of grace, and the hope of glory…

Palm Sunday is the last Sunday in Lent, and ushers in the most solemn and sacred week in the Christian calendar.  For most Christians around the world, this Palm Sunday and “these 40 days and 40 nights” of Lent in 2020 have been the most disturbing, perplexing and challenging of our lifetimes.

Folks that know me, know that I am an unapologetic Anglophile.  For me, there has always been something radiant and powerful about the English language, with words well written and spoken well, that can bring power and breathe life and somehow touch the soul.  And so yesterday on this most extraordinary Palm Sunday, it was not only appropriate but perfectly timed for Queen Elizabeth II to speak well a few words extraordinarily well written.  For only the fifth time in her long reign, HRM addressed

Palms and Daffodils 1

Passion Sunday 2020…the year palms were daffodil stems, and hosannas were shouted online.

her nation on a day that was not Christmas Eve.  She candidly shared her concerns about the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic, and acknowledged very dark and difficult days lay ahead. Yet, with the authority of a woman who has lived through many dark days, she assured them of brighter days beyond.

While the Queen may have been speaking only to her (mostly) united kingdom within the United Kingdom, her words carried much-needed Truth far beyond British borders:

I hope in the years to come everyone will be able to take pride in how they responded to this challenge. And those who come after us will say the Britons of this generation were as strong as any. That the attributes of self-discipline, of quiet good-humoured resolve and of fellow-feeling still characterise this country. The pride in who we are is not a part of our past, it defines our present and our future…

While we have faced challenges before, this one is different. This time we join with all nations across the globe in a common endeavour, using the great advances of science and our instinctive compassion to heal. We will succeed – and that success will belong to every one of us. 

We should take comfort that while we may have more still to endure, better days will return: we will be with our friends again; we will be with our families again; we will meet again.

Simple. Direct. Sparse.  Every word, practically every comma, packed with pregnant meaning.  Even with pauses for the compelling videos that accompanied her remarks, the entire message took barely four minutes.

The words of well written liturgy can also bring surprising and powerful impact, often at times when mysteriously they seem most needed.  Liturgy, at its very best, often uses the same type of succinct language to pack a punch that can alter not only one’s outlook on the day, but also at times the course of one’s life.

A few hours before the Queen spoke yesterday, I had one such moment while “attending” with a dear friend a Palm Sunday service being broadcast (as almost all are now) over the internet.  While it would be an exaggeration to say it was life changing, it nonetheless reminded me — in just eleven words and twelve syllables – of the assurance that we on this lonely planet are not left to face this worldwide disease alone:

… We bless you for our creation, preservation,
and all the blessings of this life;
but above all for your immeasurable love
in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ;
for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory. 

There, quietly tucked away in the middle the General Thanksgiving toward the end of the Rite of Morning Prayer, was a phrase that I suspect I’ve read, said, heard and prayed a thousand-plus times in my 64 years.  Never have those sublime words “means of grace” and “hope of glory” resonated more than in this unusual “online” worship on this most unusual Palm Sunday morning.

Throughout human history, despite the bitterly abundant examples of cruelty and depravity and greed that we humans are fully capable of inflicting upon one another, it IS true – and I think more evident than not – we humans also exhibit compassion and caring and sacrifice.  Last week was the 52nd anniversary of the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. who spoke of the “long arc of history” and how it bends toward justice.   When I contemplate such things, I often talk of “my better days” and how on those days I am blessed to believe such things might in fact be true.  And I might even be led, on particularly blessed days, to conclude that this human tendency must somehow be influenced by a Loving Creator.  And on those rare times, like on a Palm Sunday morning, I am offered a glimpse that perhaps — against all common sense and reason – this Loving Creator passionately and intensely and intimately loves ME.  It is a notion that feels like the deepest of all desires, yet often more than I can bear.

Regardless of any of that, one thing I do know is I’m not nearly a good enough lawyer to argue persuasively against the truth of the indomitable nature of the Human Spirit.  Time and time and time and time again it has prevailed.

The Queen, in her sovereign resolve, reflected that “though self-isolating may at times be hard, many people of all faiths, and of none, are discovering that it presents an opportunity to slow down, pause and reflect, in prayer or meditation.”  And so it has been during this strange Lent of 2020, and so it will be during this Holy Week, and throughout the spring season ahead in weeks that we Christians call “Eastertide.”

I heard someone say the other day say that it is times such as these, where there is turmoil and distress and fear, and a dreaded sense of hopelessness, that God seems to do God‘s best work.

There are countless examples in the Scriptures, from Joshua to Jonah to Joseph and dozens of others, where the darkest of days turn bright and out of death comes new life. The biggest and best such example, of course, is the story of this Holy Week, and its triumphant entry of Jesus into Jerusalem leading to bitter betrayal and ghastly crucifixion, but ultimately turning into everlasting life that has forever changed the world.

We humans indeed mysteriously do have and have had (and, perhaps, been given) throughout the centuries “the means of grace, and the hope of glory.”

Stay tuned.

 

 

 

The General Thanksgiving  (BCP Morning Prayer, Rite 2)

Almighty God, Father of all mercies,
we your unworthy servants give you humble thanks
for all your goodness and loving-kindness
to us and to all whom you have made.
We bless you for our creation, preservation,
and all the blessings of this life;
but above all for your immeasurable love
in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ;
for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory.
And, we pray, give us such an awareness of your mercies,
that with truly thankful hearts we may show forth your praise,
not only with our lips, but in our lives,
by giving up our selves to your service,
and by walking before you
in holiness and righteousness all our days;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit,
be honor and glory throughout all ages. Amen.