I have been thinking about a recent experience. Late last year, I asked my bishop about the study resources he draws on in his preaching. Now, I should have known better. My bishop is quite a scholarly guy and so he recommended a biblical software package called Logos. I dutifully signed up and purchased Logos 6 (Anglican version of course) software, on monthly installments. I felt that this was quite an investment and that I needed to get the most out of it. However, I could not make it work for me. I mean, it’s a complex software and it takes time to know how to get into all it has to offer, which is truly exhaustive. That was one challenge. More significantly, I just didn’t find its resources useful for my sermon prep. I have come to the conclusion, not for the first time, that I am not a scholarly preacher.
I found all the background information on text a little tangential to my main interests. I am interested in text as it relates to exploring the chasm into which the biblical author’s intended meaning falls, as the result of translation of a word from Hebrew or Greek into English. Languages have equivalent words, but equivalent words often do not convey equivalent emphasis or meaning. But overall, when it comes to interpreting Scripture, I am a broad brush-stroke kind of preacher. It’s the intuitive impression of the text, filtered through the prism of my own, and my community’s preoccupations and experiences that seems to be the grist for my preaching mill.
So I finally had to admit that Logos 6 was not for me. Relinquishing my scholarly presumptions to struggle with my pride, I have come, not for the first time, to a realistic acceptance of who I am. My Parish Administrator came to my rescue. She offered to wrangle with Logos 6 customer services to extricate me from the installment plan. She’s good at that sort of thing!
I am putting aside for a moment that fascinating vignette, giving us access into the struggles of the Israelites in the wilderness, that comes to us from Numbers 21:4-9. Turning first to the readings from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians and John’s Gospel, both appointed for Lent 4, I find myself struggling with my own knee-jerk reactions to the text.
From my broad brush-stroke vantage point, the Scriptures often communicate a worldview that fails to translate well into my own 21st century way of looking at things. The tone of both Paul and John in these readings evokes negative feelings in me, feelings of being lectured by the voice of authority, telling me that because of my miserable worm-likeness God has deigned to throw me the carrot of salvation, but only as long as I tow the line and stay within the fold of the elect, or as John puts it among: those who believe in him are not condemned, but those who do not believe are condemned already.
Biblical worldviews, for there are many, to my 21st century mind can communicate the feel of a predominantly, hierarchical, patriarchal- which kind of goes with hierarchical, and exclusionary perspective. I mean that so often it’s childlike (unquestioning) obedience that’s required to make sure we find ourselves among those who are included and not among those excluded. This worldview contrasts with my broad bush-stroke encounter with the spirit of Jesus’s teaching. Jesus’ emphasis is less on obedience and more on metanoia – turning of the heart. It is less about exclusion and more about God’s invitation, for all are included.
The scholar and the pastor
As a preacher, I feel I am knowledgeable, but the purpose of my knowledge is always pastoral in application. The scholar has a primary interest in the text. Logos 6 was not of great use to me because my interest is less in the text itself, and more in the impressions the text gives, and the reactions it evokes in us, its hearers. My passion lies in taking the impressions and intuitions that emerge from my 21st century shaped encounter with the Tradition, something I deeply cherish, in order to render it accessible to my community’s 21st century mindset so that our lives too, may be enriched by its timeless wisdom.
Getting to the point
My opening section has taken the form of a kind of self-examination, and it enables me to neatly segway into an examination of the next spiritual practice, which the Prayer Book mentions as necessary for keeping a holy Lent – self-examination and repentance.
It was Socrates who said: the unexamined life is not worth living! The Christian spiritual tradition is certainly in agreement with Socrates on this score. Yet, it is also part of our human nature to shield ourselves from too much self-examination, because it’s often painful.
Self-examination and repentance
The Prayer Book invites us to keep a holy Lent through self-examination and repentance. Oftentimes self-examination is the path to repentance. Repentance is the doorway to our liberation from the pain and shame of the past.
Most Episcopalians think of confession either as the General Confession in the liturgy, which is communal not individual confession or as the Roman Catholic practice of going to confession. In the Book of Common Prayer, we have a rite called the Reconciliation of the Penitent. Contrary to common knowledge the practice of going to confession has always had an important place in Anglican spiritual practice. Cranmer talks about the need to seek ghostly counsel from the priest. The difference between Anglican and Roman practice is that the Prayer Book understands going to confession or Reconciliation, as a spiritual and pastoral practice. This is in sharp contrast to the Roman view of confession as being reinstated to a necessary (juridical) state of grace in order to receive the sacraments.
At certain points in life, we are led to a reflection on the deeper currents that flow beneath the surface of our lives. These currents are fed from deep wellsprings of spiritual and emotional energy that hold the potential to enrich our sense of connection with God, with ourselves, and with other people. A paradox of life is that our strengths and weaknesses, joys and sorrows often flow from the same source. Beneath the surface of our living we also find feelings of shame, guilt, and the pain of relationship loss and failure.
The Sacrament of Reconciliation is designed to aid us when we feel stuck; when we sense that something is blocking the reworking of pain into gain. Unlike modern counseling which brings a psychological framework to bear on self-examination, Reconciliation brings a forgiveness framework to bear on our internal reflections. The real problem is not whether God forgives us. The real stumbling block is our inability to forgive ourselves!
Human beings are at heart relational, and so there is a limit to how far we can get by simply talking to ourselves or even talking to God within the privacy of our own minds. When we can’t make progress on our own, what is needed is to be able to talk to another person. The Sacrament of Reconciliation provides the confidential space for opening ourselves to the healing grace of God, mediated through the ministry of a priest representing the living Body of Christ.
Painting with a broad brush
My attention is riveted by the implications of the story about the infestation of the Israelite camp by venomous serpents in Numbers 21:4-9. It seems that in response to their endless grumbling, God’s patience comes to an end. He punishes the Israelites by sending an infestation of poisonous snakes among them, with the result that many of them die.
God instructs Moses to cast in bronze an (graven) image of the snake and raise it up at the heart of the camp. Anyone with snakebite has only to look up at the image, in order to be healed. The real snake kills. The image of the snake of bronze heals. The connection between the two lies in the source of death also being the source of life. This is what I mean by a spiritually, homeopathic solution. The image works like a psycho-spiritual vaccine, healing through exploiting its associations with the source of the poison.
Our potential to be healed and to experience joy flow from the same place as the source for much of our pain and suffering. This is the paradox of human emotional life and is not dissimilar to the realization that our main strengths are not different from our fundamental weaknesses. For us, Jesus is raised upon the cross, not as an allopathic (combative) condemnation of sin, but as a homeopathic source for our healing. As we explore self-examination in preparation for repentance, we encounter a loving Christ who feels with us in our weakness because he too, knows first-hand, the vicissitudes of the heart.
When we bring our self-examination and our earnest desire to be liberated from the pains and shames of our past into the shadow cast by Jesus of the cross, we are not submitting to an experience of condemnation, a kind of spiritual snakebite. We are opening ourselves to being healed by the one who not only knows of our suffering, but is well acquainted with the sources of our grief. For as the prophet Isaiah says: by his stripes we are healed.
The theology of Reconciliation of the Penitent in the Episcopal Church can best be summed up as: all may, none must, but some should, make their individual confession. Some people find the Reconciliation of the Penitent to be a valuable and regular part of their spiritual formation. For others, it is a remedial and healing action taken at particular times in pursuance of a healthy pastoral care. Either way, this Lent why not consult with a priest near you?