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.

…that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness…

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Ash Wednesday is not a day for high self-esteem.

In the centuries-old tradition of Lent, we strange Christians begin this forty-day season of penitence, preparing for the joy of Easter by submitting – however hesitantly – to the uncomfortable but undeniable fact that we, ALL of us, are really just passing through.

Ash Wednesday 1“You are dust,” the priest reminds each one of the assembled, one by one.  And just to make the point clear, ashen dust is smeared on each forehead in the sign of a cross.  “…And to dust you shall return.”

(That’s in normal times, of course, not Covid times.  This year, that little uplifting ritual is self-imposed.  As the priests marked each others’ foreheads above masked-faces, virtual worshippers in today’s scattered ceremonies worldwide were encouraged to mark and remind themselves and all those loved ones who may have been worshipping with them.)

Whoopee!

That dismal exercise is meant to set the stage for a reflective, more intentional and “penitent” Lent.  Today’s virtual service began — like any other year — with no introductory fanfare of any kind, no processional music, no opening acclamation or liturgical response; just a silent slow procession through the (for now empty) church sanctuary.

For me, the opening collect of Ash Wednesday paints a distressing portrait of humankind’s depraved state and utter need for redemption:

Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made and forgive the sins of all who ae penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Before we are smudged with ashes and once again given our yearly instruction regarding our dusty ancestry and legacy, the Ash Wednesday liturgy calls for the Celebrant to pray with words lifted from Psalm 51, beseeching God to “create and make in us new and contrite hearts” while we go about “worthily lamenting our sins” and “acknowledging our wretchedness.”

And yet, amidst all this lamentation, there are reminders not just of our desperate need for redemption, but thankfully God’s eager yearning to offer it.

Thus, for all its solemnity and breast-beating, Ash Wednesday’s liturgy is an invitation, and a glorious one at that.

If I can somehow focus my feeble five-second attention with a faithful more-focused intention for the next forty days (thankfully we get Sundays off), then such a Lenten journey just might crack open a mysterious door a little wider.  Lord knows what is on the other side of that door.  On this side is the fervent hope of a “perfect remission and forgiveness” from an “Almighty and Everlasting God” who indeed “hates NOTHING”…not even a frenetic and distracted and sometimes disillusioned cynical lawyer who too-often seems more concerned with finding answers instead of just accepting gifts.