Monday, February 11, 2008

The First Epistle to Patti

My friend Patti recently became a member of the Church of God for All People, which is a Catholic church affiliated, not with the Pope in Rome, but with the Catholic Apostolic Church in North America (CACINA). Here is my epistolary response:

Hi Patti,

You mentioned the church the other day - I didn't realize from the name (The Church For All People) that it was a Catholic church (which is why I was wondering about what you were believing these days . . . ) - it's not a traditional name for a catholic church, even in the Catholic Apostolic Church in North America, though it is inspired by Isaiah 56:7:

". . . my house shall be called the house of prayer, for all nations.
(from the Douay-Rheims transalation)

Other translations are closer to the name used:

King James: ". . . mine house shall be called an house of prayer for all people."

American Standard Version: ". . . my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples."

New American Standard Version: ". . . My house will be called a house of prayer for all the peoples."

I'll be honest with you, I have seen storefront pentacostalist churches called The Church of God For All People and I kind of thought you might have gone off in that direction.

In any event, if you've found a spiritual home, that is a really good thing. I've gotten theologically unraveled over the past few years, and my own faith has been reduced to the kind of essence that is closer to Unitarian Universalism than it is to Catholicism. The bankruptcy of Roman Catholic moral theology when it comes to LGBT issues has caused me to question every other thing I used to accept in my faith, even though it has since adolescence always been more a matter of a suspension of disbelief than a true belief.

I ask myself the question - "what must I believe?"

I think, like Thomas Jefferson, that even if the resurrection and ascension are not literally true, that does not change the essence of what Jesus taught. As I see it, Jesus did not have to be anything other than a human being to be a Son of the Father. And as Jesus was, we are all Children of God, children of a *loving* God.

Catholics tend to view the Resurrection as the central motif of the faith - that Jesus died for our sins and then conquered Death. I don't see that as the central message any more. To me the central message of Christ's teachings is summarized in the distillation of the commandments: "Love God above all, and love your neighbor as yourself."

This wasn't original - other Rabbis had made the same expression in their teachings even before Jesus - but that does not detract from the simplicity and beauty - and the essence that we have to actually love ourselves in order to love our neighbors, which is something often lost when religion gets distilled into the negative expressions of 'thou shalt not' and focuses on sin and damnation. Calvinists, Puritans, some Evangelicals and a lot of Conservative Catholics focus too much on religious formalism and the technicalities of 'sin' and, like the stereotypical New Testament Pharisee, their focus on the minutiae of religious observance causes them to ignore the Spirit of the Law (note: The Pharisees were the direct predecessors of modern Rabbinical Judaism - not all Pharisees were the way they are negatively described in the Gospels, either, though the most Orthodox Jewish sects today still do have the tradition of rigorous observance of every one of the 613 commandments) - this only gets to be problematical when the interpretation of what constitutes strict observance creates injustice or harm.

Jesus set the example of healing the sick on the Sabbath, a technical violation of the Law. We also see the way Jesus interprets the Law in the story of the Good Samaritan - Luke 10:29-37:

29 But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, 'And who is my neighbor?'

30 In reply Jesus said: 'A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead.

31 A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side.

32 So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.

33 But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him.

34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, took him to an inn and took care of him.

35The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper. 'Look after him,' he said, 'and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.'

36 'Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?'

37 The expert in the law replied, 'The one who had mercy on him.' Jesus told him, 'Go and do likewise.'

The first two (the priest and the levite) to pass the man on the road did not stop because they thought the man might be dead, and the literal understanding of the Law meant they would be 'unclean' if they were to touch the body. But the Samaritan, whose beliefs were more flexible and less legalistic, looked to the essence of the Law - and went to help this person who he didn;t know, but was his 'neighbor' nonetheless.

For me, my faith is not centered on sin and death, or on life after death - to me, that doesn't matter. What matters is what I do in this life to be love others as I love myself. Being human, this has always been difficult. It's actually easier for those who live in community than it is for those who are out in the world. But even for them, it can be difficult.

Jesus sets the bar higher than I can touch:

In Proverbs 25:22-23, King Solomon is reputed to have stated:

21 If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat;
if he is thirsty, give him water to drink.
22 In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head,
and the LORD will reward you.

Jesus, ever the good scripture scholar, sees the admonition to feed, clothe and comfort our neighbor very seriously (our enemy is our neighbor, too! - and the 'heap burning coals on his head' is understood by some scripture scholars to be a bad translation of a metaphor meaning more that the enemy will feel shame for being the enemy, having previously harmed someone who returns good treatment for the bad that the enemy has done.

Jesus incorporated this idea of being responsible for doing good in the face of evil. The admonition that we should turn the other cheek is an example of this understanding (Luke 6:):

27 "But I tell you who hear me: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you,

28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.

29 If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also. If someone takes your cloak, do not stop him from taking your tunic.

30 Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back.

31 Do to others as you would have them do to you.

32 "If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even 'sinners' love those who love them.

33 And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even 'sinners' do that.

34 And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even 'sinners' lend to 'sinners,' expecting to be repaid in full.

35 But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked.

36 Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

(Also see Matthew 5:39 for a similar synoptic rendering.)

Yet, Jesus understands that those who do not take the responsibility for their neighbor's plight will be the ones who will be treated as the goats at the time of Judgment (see Matthew 25:31-46). In Romans 12, Paul the Apostle, also a scripture scholar in his own right, connects the dots between turning the other cheek and ministering to our enemy's needs:

9 Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good.

10 Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honor one another above yourselves.

11 Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord.

12 Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer.

13 Share with God's people who are in need. Practice hospitality.

14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.

15 Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.

16 Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.

17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody.

18 If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.

19 Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God's wrath, for it is written: 'It is mine to avenge; I will repay,' says the Lord.

20 On the contrary: 'If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.'

21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

The translation comes out the same in both places (but the sense of the phrase is still more one of making the enemy feel bad for having done bad things - a burning feeling of shame that is only metaphorically like coals burning in (rather than on) the head.

Too often, my frustration with those on the Religious Right who despise and revile me makes me feel like calling for retribution - but all I will do is point out their error and pray that they will feel that burning shame before it is too late and the Lord judges them to number among the goats.

I do try to make the world a little better place. I take the things I do seriously in that regard, whether it's trying to get human rights laws passed to protect our people, or to get the county executive to issue that executive order, or have the county police establish a policy that will insure appropriate treatment of trans prisoners. I have tried to do *something* for homeless LGBT teens - not nearly enough, though - that bar is awfully high. I can only hope that the things I can do are good and try to do better.

Anyway, I am not trying to say that you shouldn't believe in the literal Resurrection and Ascension - there is nothing at all harmful about having those beliefs, after all. I don't see how these beliefs (or the Immaculate Conception, the Assumption, the literal Virgin Birth, or the Ever-Virgin doctrine, etc. etc.) really matter in our every-day lives. In our daily existence, the essence of being Christian is to love God, love our neighbors (including those who hate, despise and revile us in God's name), and love ourselves.

God loves you.

God loves us all.



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