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.

Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship…

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Ash Wednesday was a week ago. The Ash Wednesday liturgy, unlike Pentecost or the service of Baptism or a few other major dates in the church calendar year, does not include the litany for a “Renewal of Our Baptismal Covenant.” I’m thinking maybe it should.

As I’ve written before in another blogpiece on this WithGladness.org site, the reciting of the “Baptismal Covenant” is our liturgy’s way of focusing particular attention on what it means to “practice” Christianity, to put it in motion, to DO something rather than study or contemplate or believe something. This litany of renewal asks eight things of the congregation, and although the first three questions are indeed big and broad “creedal” belief statements, the last five…oh yes, those last five…are personal, individual, me-and-God questions. They cut right to the heart of what each individual Christian should do, how to “walk the walk” and not just “talk the talk.”

Suffice it to say, I “don’t” more than I “do.” I “talk” more than I “walk.” But maybe that’s kind of what Lent is all about, I’m thinking.

This season of Lent, of course, is a “penitential” season.  To repent, in the original Greek (metanoia) meaning of the term, has more to do with a sense of rethinking things, of turning or readjusting, rather than eating dirt and worms and beating a Bible shouting how sinful everyone is.  In that sense, penitence is a synonym for renewal.

Thus, it seems that Lent is the perfect time to focus more intently on those five personal questions posed while renewing our baptismal covenant. And, as it so happens, those five questions fall quite nicely, thank you, within the five full weeks of Lent between Ash Wednesday and Passion Sunday, leading to Holy Week and Easter.

Many years ago, my home parish (Christ Church Charlotte) had a series of five Wednesday dinners, with each dinner focusing on one of the five personal questions in the Baptismal Covenant.  (I have to pause here…Just the mere notion of folks gathering together in one large space for a simple meal, six to eight at a table in close unmasked conversations discussing an evening lecture, seems so foreign during this time of Covid, a vague nostalgic recollection of a distant forgotten past.)   I can’t say that I remember anything in particular about any of those dinner speakers, but I do remember that just the exercise of focus, that attention to intention, was a good thing.

So maybe it’s also a good thing – and a good time – to bring it back. If somehow I can mind my “intention” during this Covid-Lent with any sort of decent “attention” to this goal, we will see what musings develop. 

Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers? 

This first personal question in the Baptismal Covenant liturgy is presumptive, and that’s a bit comforting. The “Will you continue” presumes that I have been doing any of these things in the first place. The reality is I start and stop. A wonderful friend recently reminded me that when it comes to actually practicing such practices contemplated here, I’m probably in the same camp as 99.99% of Christians. That is, almost all of us do try, now and then, to follow these good spiritual habits, more or less. But very few might venture to say their efforts are near enough.

At times, I can be a pretty close follower of Paul’s letters and Peter’s preaching and even John’s poetic ramblings, especially if those times happen to be full of desperation and crisis. (It ain’t for nothing that Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.”) Most of the the time though, I am not in a depraved or desperate crisis — or maybe just not self-aware enough to recognize it — and so most of the time, I “follow” those practices…but at a safe distance.  

After all, cautious southern privileged white-guy lawyers tend to like safe distances. That is especially true when that white-guy lawyer feels he might be getting “too close” to God, and maybe even more true if that guy is a life-long Episcopalian. We of that “frozen chosen” tribe can often make a habit of keeping a close-but-cautious distance, getting really good at practicing that faithful-but-safe stuff.

Lent just may be that time to venture — at least with a big toe if not a full headlong plunge — into the less safe. Perhaps intentionally living into this first covenant question and “testing the waters” of these faithful practices might even lead to a state of creative and fully-alive tension, what Frederick Buechner has called “holy recklessness.”

To devote one’s self to the habits suggested in that first personal question, to “continue” engaging the lessons of scripture, fellowship in the church, the breaking of bread secular and sacred, and in praying “the prayers” both corporate and public as well as personal and private… Well, that is probably a good place to start.

We’ll see how it goes.

…and respect the dignity of every human being.

This past Sunday was the Day of Pentecost. Although it does not get near the same attention as Christmas or Easter, the “Feast of the Pentecost” is also nonetheless a “principal feast” which is Whiskeypalian-speak for “big freakin’ deal.”

Always the eighth Sunday after Easter and the fiftieth day of the Easter season (hence, the term “pente”), Pentecost Sunday is that time when the church pays homage to the Holy Spirit, the third and most mysterious part of our very mysterious triune God.

The liturgy of Pentecost calls upon worshipers to “renew their baptismal covenant,” a series of eight questions all designed to walk believers through, in essence, what it means to be a Christian. The first three probe our doctrinal beliefs about the three entities of the Holy Trinity…Father, Son, Holy Spirit…Creator, Redeemer Sustainer. These questions are basically the restating of traditional creedal dogma — profound and deep…and (for me at least) utterly eye-glazing.

THE HOLY SPIRIT AT WORK? A sheriff in Michigan, after confronting protesters of George Floyd’s murder and police brutality, removed his helmet, put down his baton and asked, “What do you want?” They replied, “Join us!” And so he did. “I want to make this a parade, not a protest,” he said.

The next five questions, though, are anything but mind-numbing. The word “believe” is gone. These questions are all about commitment and action. They cover a wide array of habitual worship and fellowship, personal accountability, faithful witness and loving service. I have heard these five questions through the years countless times in countless ceremonies, but it was on THIS particular Pentecost Sunday of 2020 that the last question grabbed me by the proverbial collar, tossing a big ole boulder into my otherwise quiet and comfortable pond of Sunday morning solace:

“Will you strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being?

Is there is ANY question more relevant for a Christian today in June 2020?  I am writing this at a time when God’s world is burdened not only by the global pandemic of the COVID-19 coronavirus, but also in the last 10 days a different type of pandemic.  It is a global illness no less compelling, now brought front and center, laid bare in the aftermath of the horrific killing of yet another black man at the hands of a white police officer.

I am not sure I will ever be smart enough to know just what it was about this particular needless waste of precious life, but the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis last week has unquestionably struck a common nerve worldwide.  Maybe it was because of everyone on edge cooped up in quarantine.  Maybe it was because, during this pressure-cooker of isolation, we had seen images of Ahmaud Arbery and Breanna Taylor being gunned down just weeks before.  Maybe it was because, more than anything, the image of a nonchalant white officer, hands in pockets and knee on neck, draining life out of a handcuffed black man on the pavement provided the sickening but perfect metaphor for too much racism rampant in too many places.

Whatever it was, we are now seeing daily and nightly massive protests in big cities and small towns in every state of our nation.  Americans are not alone in our outrage, as people of all stripes and types have assembled all over the world.  A match has been thrown on kindling that has been building and drying for decades, even centuries.  The fire of “enough is enough” has been lit and now seems ablaze beyond extinguishing.  A Spirit is moving, and in the best of hearts with the best of callings, it seems during this Pentecost indeed Holy.

And all of it, all of the discord and strife and pent-up frustration, seems rooted in what this fifth and final directive of our faithful covenant to “respect the dignity of every human being.”  Because, it seems to me, it is precisely the lack of respect, the lack of acknowledging even the existence much less the dignity of EVERY human being that has led us to this point.  And it is that same lack of respect that is the biggest hindrance to our ability to heal.

So how shall I manifest this respect? How shall I “strive for justice and peace among all people”? Like most folks (or at least I think I am not totally alone when I think this), I’m not exactly sure. I will engage lovingly with those who are different from and differ with me, write checks and give as I can, volunteer as I can, and (as the limitations of my MS might allow) maybe even march.

The only certainty is that I will falter and stumble, literally perhaps, and figuratively for sure. I’ll backtrack, make mistakes or — worst of all — let other less important pursuits take over. But I do believe my path forward to helping to make a broken world at least a little more whole requires the commitment to “strive” for it, just as that final question of our “Baptismal Covenant” asks.

The only answer I can only utter, with resolve and all the certainty and uncertainty contained in it, is the five-word response to each one of the last five covenant questions:

I will, with God’s help.