Friday, April 20, 2007

Sin & Virtue

Sin is asserting one’s individuality at the expense of others. Virtue is asserting one’s individuality on behalf of others.
---Tobias Haller BSG

I deeply admire Father Haller. He is not only an excellent theologian, but he’s a damned fine poet---and he has a sense of humor as well. In my experience, that’s a pretty rare combination of traits and I always find something to think about on his blog.

So when I saw his latest post, I felt compelled to give the assertion I quote above some serious thought.

I confess that it makes me squirm.

Now that is probably a good thing. If there is one truism about people of faith, it is that they are far better able to point out other people’s sins than to accept responsibility for their own. I am acutely aware of this tendency, and I try very hard not to fall prey to it.

But there is something about Fr. Haller’s distinction between sin and virtue that leaves me feeling hopeless. That distinction convicts me, because I have recently made a choice to assert my individuality in a way that will perpetually be at the expense of others. In the contrast Fr. Haller has drawn, I see no forgiveness or possibility of redemption for me---as long as I assert my own needs, I will forever be in a state of sin.

I’m not sure what to do with this notion.

To be sure, I doubt Fr. Haller had any specific sin in mind when he wrote that---and I actually think it may be a good guideline for moral decision-making. I’m just uncomfortable with the theological implications of making a sinful choice.

Is it possible, in that bipolar world, to “turn, then, and live?” (Ezekiel 18:32)


Liberals are often accused of promoting a happy-clappy God who is no longer interested in individual sin. I know some folks like that, but not many. I believe most people are aware of their sinful tendencies and their sinful acts, even if they would prefer to overlook or excuse them.

Having been reared in a fundamentalist church with a strong Calvinist streak, I have the opposite problem. I tend to obsess about my own sins. The grace I have found in the Gospel wars with my deeply rooted fear that God really is a vengeful tyrant, just waiting to zap me for my transgressions—which, I regret to report, are many.

This is one liberal who takes sin very seriously indeed.

I believe God is deeply wounded by my sin, and that His most earnest desire is that I turn from it and live the life He is calling me to live.

So is the choice as stark as Fr. Haller makes it out to be? What do you do when you find yourself having to choose between sin and virtue as he has defined them? If you step off the “right” path, can you ever undo your choice to assert your individuality at the expense of others? Once the damage is done, is the sin ever reparable? And who decides at what point the cost to others rises to the level of “sin”?

Other questions come to mind, as well. What, exactly, is “the good of others”? Who determines it? What does it mean to assert your individuality on behalf of others? Does that mean you engage in some kind of positive action? Or do you simply deny yourself whatever it is that you want if that desire might affect someone else negatively?

And do you have any right to your own happiness at either pole?


I suspect that much of the way we respond to those questions has to do with the culture in which each of us was reared—and our gender.

Fr. Haller’s definitions of sin and virtue reflect what I see as a “feminine” perspective. The two choices are both defined in terms of the needs of others—which is a way of looking at the world that the vast majority of women in the world would recognize immediately. The perspective that the needs of others trumps one’s own desires is one that women are generally expected to embrace without question—or risk being branded “unnatural.”

Most women I know were taught from the cradle that virtue consists of giving up what you want so that others can have what they want. Thus, your own personal level of misery becomes a measuring stick for your virtue.

Maybe this is the reason I reacted so strongly to Fr. Haller’s definitions. They seem too close to an injunction to give up yourself completely for the sake of others—that one’s own good is found only in subjugating who you are so that others can be happy.

Yet I claim to follow a Savior who did just that—gave himself completely for the sake of others, to the point of death.

Jesus clearly did not relish this idea, however, or he would not have begged God to spare him from such a fate. He resigned himself to his suffering, but he did not embrace it. Is there a message for us in that?

If we want to be virtuous, are we called to give up ourselves completely? To whom? And for how long? Do we have to suffer for years and decades and lifetimes in order to “prove” our virtue and our commitment to God?

And if we reject that model, how do we show repentance for our sins?

I wish I knew the answers to this post full of questions. I invite you to jump in and help me figure it all out.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Six Weird Things About Me

Hedwyg has tagged me and bade me disclose six weird things about myself. Those who know me will attest that limiting the list to six is difficult, but I did my best:

  1. I am 43 years old and I still cannot sleep with my hand hanging over the edge of the bed, for fear that something will grab it in the night.

  1. The term “liturgical dance” literally makes me shudder. (Even TYPING it makes me shudder…)

  1. I believe that all things necessary to salvation can be found in the poems of Emily Dickinson, Mark Jarman, and e.e. cummings. Throw in Mary Oliver, Pablo Neruda, Sharon Olds, Wendell Berry, Jane Kenyon, Rumi, and Sandra Cisneros and you’ve got a party!

  1. I believe it is unutterably rude to try and sell things to people—especially things they have not indicated they want. Needless to say, my career as a salesperson was short-lived…

  1. I am Southern—and I do not like grits, greens of any sort, or pecan pie. I also believe that people who put sugar in cornbread, or mustard in barbecue sauce, are an abomination unto the Lord.

  1. I have a weird prejudice, bordering on the pathological, against asking other people to do things. So although I am truly thrilled that Hedwyg tagged me, I won’t tag anyone else. The buck/meme stops here.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Drinking the Divine

I believe in the Real Presence.

According to Wikipedia:

The Real Presence is the term various Christian traditions use to express their belief that, in the Eucharist, Jesus Christ is really (and not merely symbolically, figuratively, or by his power) present in what was previously just bread and wine.

I don’t know whether this belief will sound strange to you or not. If you are Catholic, or a high-church Episcopalian, it probably won’t.

But it still seems strange to me—even now, over a decade after I first began to experience… something…in the Eucharist.

I grew up in the Church of Christ. If you aren’t familiar with that particular branch of Christendom, just imagine a Southern Baptist Church without any instrumental music or choirs and you’ve got the idea. (One of these days, I’ll write a treatise on the whole instrumental music thing. If you didn’t grow up in the CofC, it will seem very bizarre to you.)

In a nutshell---Middle class, very white, male-dominated, fundamentalist, and certain that they are the only ones going to heaven.

The CofC is unique (to my knowledge) among fundamentalist churches in that it offers communion every Sunday. It is presented as “The Lord’s Supper”—a memorial meal, rather than a direct experience of the divine. When I was growing up, it consisted of matzo crackers and thimble-sized plastic cups of Welch’s grape juice. I would be greatly surprised if that has changed.

The Lord’s Supper was a key part of our worship service each Sunday, and it always seemed important to me. As in almost all Christian churches, participation was reserved to those who had been baptized. The CofC acknowledges only “believer’s baptism”—meaning that you have to be old enough to profess your faith publicly—so your “first communion” (not that they would call it that) usually comes in your early adolescence.

I was baptized at a Wednesday night service when I was 13, and I can still remember the excitement of being able to take the Lord’s Supper for the first time the following Sunday.

What I remember most was the unusual taste of the matzo—no salt.

When I came to the Episcopal Church in my early 30s, it immediately felt like home to me—in spite of the presence of an organ and choir (not to mention the fact that a woman was leading the service). Communion was the same—or at least I thought so initially—and it was the central piece of the worship. Comfortable. Familiar. Important.

But something began to happen to me when I partook of the body and blood of Christ in the little grey stone church that had called me in out of the spiritual wilderness. Something different. Something unusual. Something that was almost inexplicable, and made me wonder whether anyone would believe me if I even tried to explain it.

As we sang the “Alleluia” after the consecration, and the priest said “The gifts of God, for the people of God,” the air around me grew electric. The hair on my arms and the back of my neck began to stand on end. I got goose flesh all over my body.

Eleven years later, it still happens. Not every time—if I am very tired or distracted by my children or my worries, it may not. But most times it does. It doesn’t seem to matter who celebrates the Eucharist, either. I have felt it in churches I have only visited once, after mediocre sermons that did not move me and music that didn’t do much for me either.

I do not believe that what I experience is my mind playing tricks on me. I also do not believe that it is magic.

I believe that what I experience is holy—that it is, indeed, the presence of God, making Herself known to us in the breaking of the bread and the waterfall of wine into the chalice.

And I have come to believe that this is possible because intention matters. I think now that, surrounded by the faithful who long for true communion with the One who made them, the priest’s belief in what she is doing interconnects with the Divine will-to-be-known and creates something amazing and life-giving and wonderful.

I believe that experience is reciprocal, as well. Author Nora Gallagher writes of her experiences as a lay Eucharistic minister at Trinity Episcopal Church in Santa Barbara, California:

Each person takes a sip of wine, then leaves of smudge of lips or lipstick on the cup’s silver rim. I wipe it off with a purificator, turn the cup, and serve the next person. Normally, I like the rhythm of serving, cleaning, and turning (the motion is like that of a bartender polishing a glass, but today I’m absorbed by those traces of lips. I find them hard to erase…

…In the midst of the prayer, I remember an article about Mary Leakey and the footprint of an ape she found in Africa preserved in a stretch of mud. From the imprint of the heel, Leakey concluded the ape had walked upright: she was Lucy, the first human ancestor. Each smudge on the cup, each trace of lips, is like that mark in the mud, I realize, a distinctive human print that remains, or stubbornly wishes to remain, on the eternal, after it has been drunk and passed on.

Things Seen and Unseen: A Year Lived in Faith

I experience God in the Eucharist—and I believe that God experiences me, as well. For it is at that point in my week that I am most open to God’s presence. Surrounded by the community of faith that I love, eager for the connection to God to be renewed in a way that I can feel it.

When I press my lips to the chalice, I am drinking the Divine.

And as the wine burns a trail down my throat, God enters into my life in ways I cannot explain. My lip prints on the chalice bind me to Her—more tightly than any chains could ever do. These are the chains of love, and the binding is welcome.

The experience is all the more meaningful because it is embedded in the most mundane human actions—eating and drinking—and the most common materials.

We live in a complex age that prizes the intricate and the complicated. We sneer at things (and people) we consider to be “simple”—priding ourselves on our advanced state of development. Even our food is fancy.

For example, our local food critic recently raved about the “marine sweetness of crabmeat against the earthy sweetness of taro root in cakes delicately crusted in Panko” (whatever that is), but you don’t hear much about the meat-n-three down on the corner. Lowly bread and wine wouldn’t even register on the scale.

It is almost a scandal—over and beyond the crazy theological aspect of it—that God would deign to reveal Himself in ordinary bread and cheap wine. Why…those things are available to just about anyone!

Kind of like grace.

As the priest looks into my eyes and chants “Corpus Christi custodiat te in vitam aeternam,” I give thanks for the bread and the wine and I feel the grace. Know that I am beloved of God. Touch eternity.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

One Year Later

One year ago today, I posted this. That post came the day after I nearly committed suicide--a day when I literally heard God telling me "Stop! You do not have to do this. You do not have to live this life. There are other options."

It's the only time God has ever said anything to me directly.

One year ago today, I made the decision to leave my marriage. It is the hardest, most agonizing decision I've ever made. It has hurt my ex and my children, and I will have to live with the knowledge that I have caused such great pain for the rest of my life. I shoulder that knowledge as the penance I must pay for what I have done.

But I will LIVE with it. Today, as I look out and see the beauty of another North Carolina spring all about me (pollen notwithstanding), I find it hard to believe that, 12 short months ago, I found the thought of death preferable to the life I had.

When I wrote about Lazarus, I was wrestling with whether I had the courage to come out of my old life. Despite the hopeful ending of that piece, the warm darkness of the tomb seemed the place to stay until that moment when God called to me and stayed my hand. I could not imagine walking out into the sunshine. I feared the pain I could cause, the disapproval I would face, and an uncertain future.

We all know that sunlight can be both blessing and curse. In truth, the sun is not always kind to me---a strawberry blonde who can get a sunburn if she stands next to a light bulb for too long...nor to my children, who are always the palest people on the beach. (I should have bought stock in Coppertone years ago...)

But my life is lived in the sun now. I will always bear the responsibility for my part in the pain---but I have learned to feel joy again, and this helps to balance the weight of the sadness I've caused. My future, like everyone else's, is uncertain---but I have one, because I am still here to build it.

I had planned to write a treatise on the Atonement, but that topic seems to have overwhelmed the blogosphere this week, so I won't.

But the hope I have found in Jesus--in a Redeemer who hangs on the cross and forgives the unforgiveable without even being asked--is the story of my life this Holy Week.

Whatever Jesus did on the Cross--however salvation works--the words "Father, forgive them" are the anchor of my faith. One year later, I am grateful to be here to feel the grace of those words pouring into my life.

My messy, screwed-up, sin-filled, joyous, beautiful LIFE.