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This past Sunday, The Reverend Mary Luck Stanley gave a sermon on John 5:5-9:
One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be made well?” The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.” Jesus said to him, “Stand up, take your mat and walk.” At once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk. Now that day was a Sabbath.
Mary made an excellent observation in her sermon, highlighting the fact that a major turning point in this passage is the moment when the ill man finally makes and gives voice to the decision to be made well. By asking the man if he wanted to be made well, Jesus showed him respect and care, giving him hope, while also still leaving the power of choice entirely within the man’s hands. Instead of telling the man what he needed, Jesus asked what he needed–what he wanted.
Do you want to be made well?
The poignancy and painfulness of this struck me hard and has lingered with me ever since. The tragedy of many diseases is that they can suck away much more than simply our physical health. Like a parasite’s self-defense mechanism, the disease strikes out not only against our physical selves, but against our emotional and psychological selves as well, often keeping people from wanting anything at all, let alone wanting to be made well.
What many people don’t realize until they themselves are sick is that it takes energy to want things. It takes energy to decide to eat, to decide to go out with your friends or spouse or children. It takes energy to call your mother for help. It takes energy to schedule a doctor’s appointment. It takes energy to want to take care of ourselves. And more than these, it takes a true and sincere understanding that we are worthy of these desires. We are worthy of other people’s help, attention, and time. We are worthy of being made well.
When I suffered from depression as a young woman in college, I was stunned to discover that I no longer recognized myself. Who was I? Where had I gone? Surely this person who couldn’t eat, couldn’t leave the apartment, couldn’t hardly work up the energy to get dressed in the morning—surely this person wasn’t me. And this denial only made things worse. It only further fed the disease that daily convinced me everything was worthless and that I, the person who was no longer even Katie, was at the very bottom of the worthless pile.
It wasn’t until my father came and visited me in person, physically reaching out to pull me up and remind me what I was capable of, that I felt strong enough to want things again. To want to be made well.
I imagine my father’s face when I think of Christ reaching out to this man at the pool of Beth-zatha, reaching out to this man and reminding him that he can stand and walk and be made well. All he has to do is the hardest thing in the world: He must want to be made well.
Through his words and actions, Christ tells this man here at Beth-zatha, Don’t worry. You aren’t alone. I, too, want you to be made well. You are worthy of me and my help. You are worthy of being made well.
As we continue the healing ministry passed on to us from Jesus, we too can use our words and actions to show others that they are worthy of being noticed, reached out to, and cared for. They are worthy of being made well.
Origen: Heretic or Saint?
By The Rev. Mark Stanley
For the first time in my life, I am presenting a resolution to the Diocesan Convention–a resolution on the topic of the early church theologian, Origen of Alexandria. I realize that it is pretty nerdy, but it has been bothering me that such a brilliant man was never canonized as a saint. Many early church scholars, including Henri Crouzel, SJ (Professor of Patristics at the Catholic Institute of Toulouse and the Gregorian University in Rome), have asserted that Origen has been “unjustly branded a heretic” (Oxford Companion to Christian Thought, pg 503). Trying to correct this wrong, I am presenting a Resolution at the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland’s Convention on May 13, 2016 for Origen of Alexandria to be included in the Episcopal Church’s calendar of “saints.”
Born to Christian parents in 185 AD, Origen spent the first part of his career as a teacher in Alexandria, Egypt. During the persecution of Christians by the Roman Emperor Septimius Serverus in Alexandria in 202, in which his father was killed, teenage Origen desired martyrdom but his mother prevented him from leaving the house by hiding his clothes. Because of his Christian faith, Origen chose to lead a strict ascetic life of fasting, prayer, and voluntary poverty. According to the historian Eusebius, Origen supposedly even castrated himself because of his misinterpretation of Matthew 19:12. (Recent scholars have questioned the truth of this story, however, speculating that this may have been just a rumor circulated by his detractors.) In 250 AD, during a later persecution, Origen was imprisoned for being a Christian and cruelly tortured, after which he survived only a few years.
Refusing to deny his beliefs, Origen’s willingness to undergo personal suffering gave witness to his dedication to Christ. Origen, who was renowned for the breadth and depth of his scholarship, wrote influential works in the fields of theology, textual criticism, biblical commentary, preaching, and spirituality.
Hundred of years after the death of Origen, the Emperor Justinian instigated Origen’s condemnation and had many of his works burned. In 553 AD, the Fifth Ecumenical Council at Constantinople seems to have condemned Origin as a heretic. That this council actually condemned him is both “enigmatic and problematic” (Philip Esler, The Early Christian World, Volume 2, pg 262). The Catholic Encyclopedia (volume 11, pg 308) even states that Origen “does not deserve to be ranked among the promoters of heresy.”
Scholars today call Origen “the church’s first systematic theologian” and “the foremost biblical scholar of the early church.” Saint Jerome proclaimed Origen the “greatest teacher of wisdom and knowledge after the apostles.” Yet many of Origen’s works did not survive due to his condemnation several centuries after his death. This needs to be corrected. Some of this later criticism comes from Origen’s wide ranging philosophical speculation at a time when Christian orthodoxy was still forming. It is problematic to label as heresy Origen’s theories about the pre-existence of souls or the Son being inferior to the Father (which he may not have actually claimed) since the church at that time did not yet have official teachings on these matters.
Unfortunately some of the accusations against Origen were actually due to misunderstandings of his writings as well as the attribution of later speculations by his followers to him. Another point of controversy is Origen’s concept of Apokatastasis, that all creatures (even the Devil) could ultimately be reconciled with God. While scholars today debate whether Origen truly taught a version of Universal Salvation, Origen’s emphasis on the patience and enduring mercy of God, rather than on Divine punishment, might be seen in our own day as not heresy but as Good News. The great Anglican historian Henry Chadwick puts it this way, “If orthodoxy were a matter of intention, no theologian could be more orthodox than Origen, none more devoted to the cause of Christian faith.”
Origen is deserving of a place on our liturgical calendar with his rare combination of scholarly genius and a saintly life dedicated to Christ. The next step is a Resolution recommending Origen be included in the next edition of A Great Cloud of Witnesses: A Calendar of Commemorations. Then, on to the General Convention of the Episcopal Church in 2018 to work for final approval from the national church.
Origen scholar, The Rev. Dr. Rebecca Lyman, states, “if anyone represented Anglican rationality, love of scripture, and holiness of life, it is Origen.”
Time away for reflection: not urgent but important
–The Rev. Mark Stanley
“So many things in life are urgently tugging at us,” my conference leader said, “that we have to make sure we also focus on things that are not urgent but are very important.”
These wise words came at the beginning of a weeklong Clergy Conference I attended in Arizona. The event is called CREDO and it is paid for by the Episcopal Church’s Pension Plan. I feel so grateful for the time to hear presentations on personal health, vocational discernment, spiritual practices, and long-term financial planning.
In all these topics we were invited to begin by ruminating on big questions like, “What are my deepest core values?” and “Where do I sense God calling me?” The answers to these sort of questions don’t come fast (at least not to me) but need time set aside for reflection, prayer, and focused conversation. Part of the gift of this week was being with Episcopal priests from across the country, laughing and worshiping and supporting each other in our interior explorations.
It is a rare experience to have a whole week of structured time and expert support to work on long-term life and work goals. But now that I am back to “real life,” I don’t want to forget that reflection and discernment on life’s big questions is an ongoing process.
May we all try to find time in our busy lives to think about the big questions in life and to focus on things that are not urgent but still vitally important.
Practice in Practice: Yoga
“I need to look good without my shirt,” said Brandon, my dear friend.
This is the statement that got me into a yoga studio, or frankly a gym of any sort, after a nearly two decade hiatus from indoor fitness. My friend Brandon is a professional dancer, and he had just landed a part in the ensemble of The Producers. Our practice began five months prior to opening curtain and opening his shirt.
I had been active for the two decades riding bikes through the woods and on roads as a weekend cycling warrior. I was not unhealthy in the minds of many, but I was not a specimen of fitness either. Knowing that rigor is always easier with a partner, I took Brandon up on the offer and bought a Groupon for my first visit to a yoga facility. I had no idea how my body and mind would change with this friendly gesture.
The first thing I noticed was the space. Why am I going to a studio and not a gym? Why does the space smell like a walk through a State Park? Why is the music so serene and mind stretching? Why is it so hot?
Next I noticed the format of the class. Why is the instructor overly friendly with her voice? Why does my session start with “setting an intention”? Why does the experience begin with my eyes closed and finding my breath?
Then I noticed the power of being stationary. Why is mimicking a raven so hard? Why am I floating on one foot, bent over, arms at my side trying to look like a jet in flight? Is anyone else having a hard time standing still?
And why does my teacher thank me for sharing my practice?
After confronting this experience several times it dawned on me that that the answer to all of these questions is rooted in one simple fact: Yoga is all about practice.
The space: Yoga takes place in a studio because you go there to refine a craft. It’s not about mindless running in place or curling a weight seventy-three times. In yoga you work on form, an act of the mind and the body. It smells so good—yes, probably in part to hide our human aroma,—but more importantly, to refresh our minds. The sounds of the room impart a sense of exploration and encourage an inner and outer reaching. And it’s hot because your muscles are more elastic in a warm environment. The entire environment beckons us to explore.
The class: Your teacher is so kind because we need encouragement in our moments of struggle to execute. The tenor of his or her voice lets you know that it is not only okay but it is right to try. There will be no judgement here by you, by your peers, nor by your instructor. You start your session by setting an intention because practice is most effective with a purpose. Our breath is a reminder of our humanity, our starting point. You find your breath to find yourself. Your breath melts mental dams. The class empowers us to try.
Being stationary: It can be difficult to see the value of being at rest. How often do we take the moments we need to understand our present condition? Our minds, our mouths and our bodies are constantly in motion. This is why it is so hard to pose like a raven or fly like a plane. Our brain and our muscles need to train to be quiet, to be at rest, and to hold ourselves up in new positions. When we are at rest in mind, body, and spirit we have no idea if the other is better or worse than we. We only know of our own condition and our own place in the universe. We are free from judgement of ourselves and others. Being stationary gives us freedom to be ourselves.
My practice of yoga has been incredible for my whole being. I am more flexible. I am stronger. I am more open. The spirit of the experience has allowed me to reach more. With the start of a new year, I have set my intentions. They are more ambitious goals than I would have set even a year ago. And more importantly, I have given myself the freedom to practice so that I will be ready to perform and achieve them!
What will you reach for in 2016? Are you ready to give yourself the opportunity to practice to get there?
And yes, Brandon found his form for opening night!
What if God made a New Year’s resolution?
Around New Year’s everyone starts putting together lists of goals and plans for the next 365 days of their life. Of course, many of these goals often fail to see fruition the way we’d like, but even in these cases of “failure,” I believe that the goals themselves were (and are) still worth making.
Goals, resolutions, and plans—these are the stuff of hopefulness. These are the stuff of making us stronger and more imaginative, more energized and more human. By the very nature of making New Year’s resolutions, we’re taking time to not only acknowledge the weaknesses in ourselves, but also to imagine how we might work to grow stronger. It’s a mixture of humility and vision (and the desire for transformation) that, to me, fits very naturally as a lead-up to the next major Christian holiday: Easter.
In Eastertime, we’re forced to face the ugliness that can come from humanity: the ugliness that persecuted and executed Jesus Christ, the ugliness that still ravages our communities today in the forms of racism, sexism, violence, and inequality. But then we’re also shown that we have the power and love within us to transcend this ugliness, because we’re given this power in the form of a new chance, a new life in Christ, our eternal New Year’s Day.
Sometimes I wonder what kind of New Year’s resolutions God might have, if God ever had any. Would God strive to intervene more or choose to intervene less in the world? And what would Christ’s resolutions be? To work new miracles here on Earth, or would he go to distant planets? To heal the world of its persistent, self-inflicted pains? To overturn yet more tables?
For me, it’s often more self-concerned things that make my list: the classic wish for weight loss and fitness, the desires to read more, play more, make more money, do all the things the advertisers say I ought to be doing. But when I take a moment to consider what a resolution could actually look like, what it could truly mean if given the kind of power and desperate love that was put into God’s resolution to save and forgive us through Christ, I find myself humbled all over again.
The power to create resolutions is the power to try and envision a new and better world for ourselves and others. And though this imaginative, hopeful muscle is one that more and more people seem to be losing now in a day and age that’s rife with talk of war and terrorism, it’s a muscle that becomes all the more precious precisely because of such times and talk.
What are some of your resolutions, and what kinds of resolutions do you wish the world-over might make for itself this year?
The Poet, the Spider, & God
I have long been a dedicated reader of Wendell Berry, both his poetry and his essays, and often turn to his work whenever I feel a struggle in my soul for a moment of peace and wilderness.
His poem “The Peace of Wild Things,” especially, has always held tremendous power for me:
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water …
Poetry in general holds a great deal of the stuff of God for me, reminding me to be mindful, present, and appreciative as I move through a world filled with the Creator’s wonder and mystery.
The Bible itself—like many sacred texts from around the world—is packed with poetry, from the psalms to the Song of Solomon. I suspect that this is not simply because of poetry’s popularity at the time of the sacred texts’ inception nor because this was the only art form available to its authors. Rather, I suspect that the use of poetry points to the fact that there are some things, some ideas and inspirations, that simply cannot be accurately conveyed through purely literal and linear forms of storytelling. Knowing this, it makes perfect sense to me that so many authors have turned to poetry to help them better capture in words the rapturous sensations and experiences of God’s presence in the world.
Another poem that continuously arrests and inspires me is Walt Whitman’s “A Noiseless Patient Spider”:
A noiseless patient spider,
I mark’d where on a little promontory it stood isolated,
Mark’d how to explore the vacant vast surrounding,
It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself,
Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them.
And you O my soul where you stand,
Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them,
Till the bridge you will need be form’d, till the ductile anchor hold,
Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.
Returning to this poem, I’m struck with the sensation of some gossamer thread of my own soul finally catching somewhere. I’m struck with a moment of peace in the midst of my constant web-weaving and thread-throwing. I’m struck by the strange power of God to speak to me afresh through the work of poets long-dead, unknown, or faraway.
I’m struck with a newfound appreciation for not only the mysterious, wonderful works of God, but for the gift of poetry that so faithfully reminds me that these catching-places are wonders deserving of constant pause, recognition, and gratitude.
Where are your catching-places? Do you find that poetry helps bring you back to these spots and moments, or is it something else—some other art, exercise, or discipline—that grabs your attention and reminds you of the beautiful wilderness of God?
All Hallows’ Eve: A Time for Remembering
I’ve been thinking a great deal about death lately. Not only is it the week of Halloween, but I’ve also recently had more than a few friends suffer through major surgeries, vehicle collisions, and severe illness. And so maybe it’s because of these events and meditations that I’ve also been feeling especially grateful to have such a life- and living-centered faith. For although many focus on the torment and violent death of Christ, it is important to also constantly remind oneself of what it was he was dying for. To my mind, Christ was not simply a sacrifice, but a man who died for his dedication to the love, life, and eternity of the world. The legacy of Jesus then, for me, has always been a life-centered faith. A faith where the mysterious God empowers us to conquer death, where all things are interconnected and eternal rather than isolated, linear, and full of endings.
Despite this legacy, however, the Christian Church, like many religions, has left in its wake a tremendously bloody history thanks to the failings, fears, and prejudices of its practitioners over the centuries: persecution of countless men and women as witches, the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, and many other instances of war, terrorism, conquest, and “cleansing.”
As Halloween is nearly upon us, it strikes me as a strangely ideal time to pause and give a moment of remembrance to those who have suffered and to those who continue to suffer at the hands of people who claim to be acting in the name and service of God.
To aid you in this, I leave you with a prayer from Michel Quoist’s classic meditation, Prayers:
Grant me, Lord, to spread true love in the world.
Grant that by me and by your children it may penetrate a little
into all circles, all societies, all economic and political
systems, all laws, all contracts, all rulings;
Grant that it may penetrate into offices, factories, apartment
buildings, movie houses, dance halls;
Grant that it may penetrate the hearts of men and that I may
never forget that the battle for a better world is a battle of
love, in the service of love.
(Quoist, pg 103)
Photo by Jessica Sexton, OSP Youth Minister
Spanking Is Not The Way
Jesus advocated a non-violent approach to difficult situations. He taught us to turn the other cheek, to love our enemies, and he told his disciples to put away their swords at the time of his arrest (Matt 5:39, 5:44, 26:52). While Christ’s teachings on non-violence can be applied to international warfare, and adult interpersonal conflicts, I would like to focus on an important family issue – the spanking of children.
A 2013 Harris poll showed that 81% of Americans approve of parents spanking their children. Of course, parents want to correct the youngsters put into their care. Everyone can agree that discipline needs to take place in order to help our children grow and mature. One option is to use physical punishment. Sometimes the biblical verse, “Spare the rod, spoil the child” (Proverbs 13:24), is thrown into the mix.
Is spanking a violent act? Certainly not all these physical punishments are the same. Slapping a child in anger is different from a dispassionate and limited spanking. But can parents be moved beyond this one way of providing discipline, deciding that they will find more effective and less damaging ways of teaching children how to behave?
There are many secular reasons not to spank children. Both the American Academy of Pediatrics and The American Psychological Association assert that spanking can emotionally harm both parents and children, and that it is one of the least effective methods of discipline. (To see more from these sources, visit: http://www.apa.org/monitor/2012/04/spanking.aspx or http://nospank.net/aap4.htm)
Pediatrician Dr. Bill Sears writes that “hitting models hitting” and teaches children that violence is the way to solve problems. He advocates other avenues of discipline that have much better outcomes.
In the last few years, we have grown in awareness of the dangers of domestic abuse. If spouses should never hit each other, can we get to a place where can agree that it is also unacceptable for anyone to physically hurt their children? Shouldn’t the basic human right to not be hit or slapped by another person be the same for both adults and children?
That much used “spare the rod” verse can be interpreted in a variety of ways. The “rod” (shebet) can be used for guiding and protecting rather than hitting. More than that, Jesus modified the eye-for-an-eye culture of his day with a message of non-violence. He offers a challenging but ultimately more life-giving path of compassion and refraining from ever hurting others.
For all these medical, psychological, and biblical reasons, Christian parents may want to rethink their use of corporal punishment in favor of using more effective and less damaging forms of discipline. After all, the word discipline actually means “teaching” and there are many non-violent ways to teach so that children will learn to become kind, compassionate, and loving like Jesus.
—The Rev. Mark Stanley