Responding to Evil – Biblical and Eastern Christian Perspectives

There is no minimizing or ignoring the fact that reports of evil actions are swirling about the Catholic Church in the USA, many of them are true, at least in essence. It is also true that the perpetrators are apparently largely in the past, for the reason these evils have come to light is that the worst perpetrators were brought to court and/or have been dealt with by the Church (that is, most of the perpetrators were active before 2002, when the Dallas Charter came into force). Many of the perpetrators are dead and others are retired. (May any who have committed indictable crimes quickly be indicted!) Most (one hopes) of what remains to cause scandal (beyond the fact that men still bound by evil will always manage to evade even the best screening processes and get into the church) is that at least some in the hierarchy seem to have covered up the activities of some of the perpetrators (and only further investigation will show whether it was through a widely-shared ignorance of what today is appropriate response or whether it was through deliberate covering up for their own purposes) and ignored the activities of some others, even promoting them within the hierarchy. Now so far as I have read those accused in this latter category did not do anything illegal (like sexually abusing minors or rape of adults), but are accused of things that are totally immoral and destructive of the human person (such as using their positions of power and authority to gain sexual favors from younger men, who were nevertheless above the age of consent, even if vulnerable due to other factors). This is more difficult to tease out, for one does not have the help of the courts and their ability to both force and protect testimony, one has to realize that many of the victims (some of whom may have turned into perpetrators) may still be active in clerical ministry and so may be reluctant to put their careers on the line, and some who have information cannot testify due to the seal of the confessional (although (1) both victims and perpetrators probably seek out confessors who do not know them, (2) many confessions are anonymous in that the priest does not see and could not recognize the one confessing, and (3) any priest graced as I am forgets most confessions – my experience is not only that I ask God to take the “folder,” the memory, from me, but that after an hour or more in the confessional I cannot remember who said what, except in the rare situation of someone who deliberately seeks me out as a confessor and then confesses face to face and reminds me of their previous history – in other words, if brought to court I could almost always say, “I have no idea if they confessed to me and, if they did, what the content of the confession was,” not that I would divulge information anyway). I am also convinced that the actions being requested by the USCCB will, in the end, bring closure, if not justice (when it comes to sexual abuse, even of adults, justice is a very relative term, for no penalty can restore the spiritual, mental, and sometimes physical health of the victim), but in Rome’s slow and careful manner (which is no more slow and careful than that of, say, a grand jury, although it would operate under a different law). If I fear anything, it is that premature resignations and retirement of prelates (or those alleged to have been involved in predatory homosexual groups) will short circuit careful investigation. If a state law has been broken, the courts can pursue the retired (assuming that the statute of limitations has not run out and that the person is capable of standing trial, mentally and physically), but if it is church law, the ability to force testimony and cross examine those no longer in active ministry is much more limited, for, so far as I can see, the only penalty available is the most severe, removal from the clerical state. In other words, the immediate satisfaction of someone’s resignation under pressure (which often does not include an admission of guilt on the principle issue) may preclude “getting to the bottom” of the issues. On the other hand, there is a final judgment, and God’s justice will prevail – nothing is done in hiding that will not eventually be known.

In the midst of this turmoil, I am more concerned about calls for anger, even rage, and angry demands of church authorities for this or that action, often immediate action, and often by means of pressure tactics within the church. I am not concerned about those actions coming from outside the Church, for that is not my area of responsibility (as Paul makes clear in 1 or 5). Those in the world will use the methods of the world. But I am concerned when they come from within the Church, and I have heard several instances of precisely that, stemming from even level from the lay to the episcopal. I am concerned because I do not see such calls as spiritually healthy for any of those involved, nor as witnessing to the kingdom of God. Why is this?

Let us start from the beginning. In Holy Scripture the first sin is that of Eden and it starts with a demonic temptation that leads “the woman” to examine the “fruit” (that functions as something of a negative sacrament as the tree of life is a positive sacrament) and see it as desirable. In other words, it is what would later be called the sin of gluttony. Now it is true that after this reference there is another reference to the fruit as something “to be desired to make one wise” (RSV), which previously has been described by the snake as “being like God,” so there is merit in the Western Church making pridethe first of the seven deadly sins, but the fact that the roots of gluttony are mentioned first are why the Eastern Church puts gluttony as the first of the eight (evil) thoughts. The demonic gains control through the seemingly lesser gate (“I know that I should not eat it because it is too much, or prohibited, or otherwise improper to eat) and then continues to distort the person. The relationship with God is broken by shame and guilt, and the sexual relationship of man and woman is distorted, and finally in chapter 4 we come to angerand violence. By Genesis 6 violence fills the earth. Whichever end on starts at, Eastern or Western, there is a chain of dominoes falling, if not in the primary individuals, then in the succeeding generation(s), and somewhere in the middle there is anger. Psychologically, the hormones and neural firings of anger are not that different than those of fear, sexual arousal, or other intense emotions. In fact, if any of those responses are triggered, and if the context changes, one can slip from intense anger into intense sexual arousal (or fear) and vice versa. Indeed, physiological excitement, such as running or other more intense exercise, can also turn into or exaggerate such emotions via a trigger event. It is fascinating how the Holy Scriptures are at least subliminally aware of this.

Anger itself does not get good press in Holy Scripture. While the Hebrew Scriptures would take quite a discussion (especially since the words for “enemy” and “anger” can indicate opposition to someone and not just emotion), there are too many references to deal with in this post. Instead look at the New Testament. Jesus’ demonstration in the Temple is often cited as “righteous anger,” but I agree with N. T. Wright that it is best interpreted as an acted-out destruction of the Temple that resulted in the relatively brief cessation of sacrifices showing the ultimate result of the people’s behavior, the destruction of the Temple – it is a prophetic demonstration much like Jeremiah’s shattering of a piece of pottery. Jesus does “look around with anger” once (but not in all the synoptic gospels), although he does not act on the feelings. And he does name things clearly, sometime negatively. But, just as we never see Jesus laugh, we also never see him giving in to anger (or fear). He seems to calmly go about doing what he is called to do, even if he has to deal with internal struggles, feelings, and temptations. Anger, in fact, shows up in many of the vice lists in the New Testament as something that either disqualifies one to inherit the kingdom or as something that one is to do away with. Anger, if it is not to become sinful, is something that one should deal with before sundown. And, of course, there is James 1:19 – 20, “19 Know this, my beloved brethren. Let every man be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger, 20 for the anger of man does not work the righteousness of God.” (RSVCE) Slow down; listen; silence (although at times one must speak truth calmly); and slow to anger. But the “slow to anger,” seems to mean: deal with anger before it comes to expression, “for the anger of man does not work the righteousness of God.” In other words, for James there is no righteous indignation, justified expressions of anger (and Jesus speaks to that as well in Matthew 5), or other ways we condemn angry outbursts in others but claim that ours is justified, even righteous.

There are many reasons for this condemnation of anger. First, anger is ceding control to the emotions, which certainly in Eastern thought means that the “noetic mind” has lost control. Second, anger is opening the gate to the demonic that seems to operate most easily on the emotional level. Third, anger disturbs our peace and focus on God, so we are no longer listening to divine instruction. Fourth, anger has no place for love, mercy, or forgiveness, the characteristics of Jesus. It is, in fact, a characteristic of the demonic, seen in James 3 and 4, but also elsewhere in both the New Testament and Patristic thought. It is also an injury to the self: one person has sagely said, “Anger is what we do to ourselves when someone else hurts us.”

Now, I am not suggesting for a moment that forgiveness means saying that something is OK or allowing a person to continue their evil behavior if we are in a position to non-violently hinder it. Instead, forgiveness is releasing the person to God, handing the issue over to God, and letting God be the judge (think of Jesus on the cross in Luke or Stephen about to be stoned in Acts); anger is taking judgment into our own hands, whether verbally, in the demands that we make on others to act, or physically. Forgiveness is active in that it hands the matter to God and trusts God to act in his time and his way. It may be that God asks us to interpose ourselves, to sacrifice ourselves, in the situation; i.e. to absorb the evil into ourselves, as Jesus did on the cross. But that sacrifice is not passive; it is active. The death of Jesus shattered the gates of hell, the blood of the martyrs brought down much of the violence of Rome, and Pope John Paul II’s trip to Poland, not to accuse others, but to announce the kingdom, triggered the fall of the communist regime. Yet one does not do this to be effective, for that is mere pragmatism, but because it is the way of love. One does it because one is conformed to Jesus.

Love is the seeking of the good of the other as other. That is a high demand. What would someone like the Elder Thaddeus say? He lived through WW II and Tito’s Communist regime, so he was not ignorant of evil. Nor were all of the monks he dealt with saints. He would say, first, that one should be sorrowful for the other, saying, “What is he or she thinking?” Their thoughts have been taken captive, the demons are in control, they are headed in a bad direction – this calls for prayer for the person and mourning over their sad state. And this calls for repentance, both repenting for the individual and repenting for one’s own sins, which, however seemingly small, open a crack in the wall to evil forces. We all participate in the sins of the few, even if it were just an improper joke, for instance, or an angry word. This is one side of the response of love, prayer and fasting, both for the individual and for how our imperfections (even those unknown to us) are part of the great system that weakened our brother or sister. This calls for seeking the gift of tears.

The other side of love is calling upon the name of Jesus. In Eastern Christian thought this would be the Jesus Prayer. We lift up our hearts to God and call upon the name of Jesus, calling upon him to act in us as well as in “them,” delivering us and them from the bondage brought about by the demons.

Finally, there is a need for openness, not the opening of the confessional, for that is between the individual and God, but a transparence about our actions: in the type of case cited above, stating publicly that so and so has been relieved of duties until the charges made against them are adjudicated. Of course, that also means stating that so and so has been cleared of charges and return to ministry, if that is indeed the outcome, or stating that he or she has been permanently suspended from ministry/assigned to a life of prayer and penitence/removed from the clerical state. And, we should also be clear in our minds and, as appropriate in our communications, that the victim assistance coordinator is offering the victims, whether below or above the age of majority, whatever care and assistance they desire and can receive.

The Scripture says, “Rebuke not an elder, but entreat him as a father” (which I think is better than the RSV of 1 Tim 5:1).  The trial-by-internet, demands for this or that reform – angry demands at that, and calls for resignations are surely rebuke and worse. And it goes on to say, “Never admit any charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses” (1 Tim 5:19 – Paul is presented as writing to an apostolic delegate in this whole passage – he, Paul’s representative, is not to rebuke, but entreat; he, Paul’s representative, is to not accept any charge until it rises to Old Testament levels of evidence (presumably, as defined by Pharisaic interpretation, for Susanna, among other works had made Jews aware that witnesses needed cross examination and other safeguards). And, yes, Paul goes on to say, “As for those [in context, elders] who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear” (1 Tim 5:20), so there is a place for public “rebuke” by the highest church authorities (since the passage is addressed to Timothy), but only after due process, clear indication that the behavior was a serious breach of love (which is what all sin is) and that it was “persistent,” not an accident or slip.

I do believe that a serious investigation, a calling of witnesses and looking through documents, needs to be done – in private, so that those against whom charges do not stand up are not irreversibly slandered resulting in their inability to minister effectively. Let there be careful oversight so that any investigation is clearly on the up and up. I do not believe that any investigation carried out under Church sponsorship will be accepted by the world, for even if all the investigators were laymen and laywomen of the highest level of training in investigation, the fact that they were appointed (and presumably paid) by the Church would injure their credibility before the world. I do not believe that any reform could totally eradicate all abuse by clergy (the Dallas Charter has been revised at least 3 times as it is), for men whose hearts are captured by evil (before or after ordination) will continue to offend, if not in terms of the law, at least in terms of Christian morality; that is human nature. Reform is an ongoing process, yet people will always slip through. Furthermore, since our sins (angry outbursts, internet porn, gluttony in its many forms, etc.) will continue to weaken the whole, including the priesthood, perfection cannot be reached until we all are perfect. Yet I believe that proper safeguards, most of which are in the Dallas Charter, will minimize the incidences. Sadly, each incident, however isolated, will bring up the whole mess again in people’s minds, especially in the minds of those outside the church. I do believe that prayer and fasting, tears for our sins and the sins of others, and humble tearful petitions to the higher authorities to take what action for reform that they can, is the way forward at all levels of the church: anger, war (except in prayer), demands, political pressure, and the rest are reactive and therefore systemically counterproductive and the use of the ways and means of this age, and therefore spiritual counterproductive. Furthermore, they only strengthen the demons, as the Eastern writers would say.

For the most part, with such prayer, repentance and tears in the background, let us get on with what I hope is “business as usual” – spreading the good news, catechizing those who turn to Jesus, and drawing closer to God, even as we admit that we do so with egg on our face.

 

 

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The Elder Thaddeus Meets Edwin Friedman: What do they have to say to the latest clergy sexual abuse revelations?

We live in anxious times with all types of black and white thinking, herding, and other anxious behavior described by Rabbi Edwin Friedman in Failure of Nervein 1996 (he was writing on it when he died ini 1996, for the work is posthumous), although one should probably read his classic Generation to Generation first, for that focuses on the church/synagogue. However, if one reads Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives: The Life and Teachings of Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica, one discovers that a lot of the ideas that Rabbi Friedman expresses in terms of Bowen Theory or, broadly speaking, psychology, the Orthodox spiritual tradition knew about for centuries, although they expressed them in their distinctive Christian terminology. I shall weave them together here against the background of the interim report of the grand jury in the Pennsylvania clergy sex abuse scandal that first hit the news three days ago, for I think that these wise men have a lot to say.

I first noticed the that the interim report was out when I saw a new bulletin flash on my Apple Watch. I did not bother to follow the bulletin, for I knew two things: first, that there would be a lot of highly anxious comment and reaction, and, second, that it would be a day or two before enough of the facts had been digested that one could formulate a calm, nonreactive response. It was not that I was not interested, although in many ways it was “more of the same” hitting a new area of the country – we had seen those issues crop up in Ireland, Boston, and numerous other places around North American and Europe – it was that I knew that we would not really know what the report said for some days and that it would take more days to think through the issues. But Pennsylvania was special to me. I had lived near Pittsburgh from 1976 to 1982. Two of our children were born there, and one is buried there. I had seen sexual abuse scandals hit the church there, although it was the Episcopal Church and the sexual abuse of vulnerable adults. I had been called back to Pittsburgh (my diocese of canonical residence as an Episcopal priest) in late 1995 for mandatory sexual abuse prevention training. Furthermore, my father had lived in Philadelphia for years, starting in 1921, so the eastern part of the state raised feelings for me as well. Yet in a sense this scandal was an advance over older ones. This time the news was about a grand jury investigation. That sounded good, for perhaps there would be some approximation of justice, even if there were no indictments yet, since it was an interim report. Still, this was not victims coming forward with allegations that had not been carefully examined or which were denied by Church leadership. This was a grand jury investigation with the relative safeguards and protections that such entails and the relative certainty that indictments and convictions would eventually come.

But these are anxious times – the last election cycle should have shown that in spades – and this interim report raised lots of anxiety, even if no one has been found guilty in open court yet, or even indicted. The news cycle demands immediate response, despite the fact that the report was long, detailed, and, I should think, a painful read (as a seminarian I know confirmed from his reading of the first 90 pages). It took reading, thinking, praying, consultation, and, I would hope, weeping. The Elder Thaddeus would focus on the praying and weeping, for one is not only weeping for the wounds of the abused, but also for the lost souls of the abusers (or, he would say, the demonic entrapment of those men). Yet the news cycle was demanding immediate statements and action, for in a week, perhaps in two or three days, there would be another emotional issue demanding anxious attention. So, the commentators made their anxious reports and people responded. Within an hour or so, perhaps minutes, of the first headlines on my watch Facebook posts started to flash up. A Scott Hahn post on another subject was interrupted by an anxious comment about how one could go to such a church. Comment was everywhere. What one noted was that it did not appear that anyone commenting had actually read the report, but rather they were relying on the news reports, perhaps their favorite news commentator. One also noted that the comments either had no solution, or else had no realistic solution. Within the church there were calls for lay rebellion against the bishops (a good American response to many things – toss the government out) or perhaps departure from the church or even the total investigation of the church by law enforcement personnel. Conservatives blamed it on homosexuals (although even the first news reports noted that there was heterosexual abuse, and, besides, pedophilia is different from homosexuality), and more liberal people were quick to blame lax bishops for a “coverup.” Of course, there were no appeals to history further back than the 1940’s, the earliest dates included in the interim report. There was no asking (that I saw) as to whether a particular course of action fit the canonical structure of the church, Catholic theology, or biblical teaching, within the church, or whether, in Protestant or Protestant-like calls to abandon the church (or atheist calls to abandon the faith) there was not an ignoring of the dirty laundry in their own basket (the rate of sexual abuse in evangelical churches and groups that work with youth such as the Boy Scouts is about the same as it is in the Catholic Church, at least according to any study I have read and my discussions with professional counselors). There were, of course, condemnations of the Vatican and bishops, including the USCCB, for not giving a quick response.

The fact is that the Vatican and the bishops, or at least some of them, were reading the report, consulting historical precedents, consulting with one another, and probably also asking what had or had not been done in this or that particular case. What is clear is that two days later the Vatican did make a statement and it was calm, not sensational, and empathic. Within three days more than one cardinal, including the president of the USCCB had made statements. Again, they were statements that showed calm deliberation. I did not see any quick fix solutions. There were calls for background psychological checks and the like on seminarians – but these are already in place and have been in place since something like 2002, the date of the earliest form of the Dallas Charter (later revised in 2005, 2011, and 2018). Now perhaps there are some dioceses that manage to get around the Charter and its call for mandatory sexual and physical abuse prevention and detection training (in my diocese one also must take an update module every quarter), background checks, and psychological evaluation. I was a vocations director for 3 years and what I saw was the Dallas Charter audit process being taken seriously, background checks being made for anyone in contact with children or youth (and a single felony conviction for anything meant a fail), and psychological evaluations that were read with some care. Furthermore, all of this was required by the seminary before admittance. In the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston the same is true for applicants for the permanent diaconate. They also do marriage evaluations and home visits. And let us be clear, if any diocese is getting around such requirements, there should indeed be appropriate discipline. But, as the Vatican statement noted, the reported abuse in the interim report of the grand jury ended about 2002. Horrible as all that stuff beforehand was (and for those still living, is), it sounds like Virtus training with its mandatory reporting requirements and the associated background checks actually worked in most cases. You will never reduce the incidence to zero in a fallen world, but it looks like the incidence was reduced significantly. The histrionic demands for change might better be focused on clearer implementation, although at times it gets a bit paranoid as it is. And such anxious enforcement is what one would expect in an age such as ours, and the anxious atmosphere is caught by the children, which means that in “solving” (as best one can) one problem we can create another, anxious, fearful children.

We should note that the Vatican (and the USCCB to the degree that it is involved in enforcement, although that is not its core canonical role) is in a bit of a bind. First, the cases mentioned in the interim report go back to 1940, and if a relatively new priest were 26 years old in 1950, he would be 94 today. A seven-year-old victim from 1950 would only be 75. The victim might well be living, but the perpetrator is less likely to be living. The bishop who mishandled a situation in 1975 would also likely be deceased today. In other words, of the 301 priests mentioned and the bishops who may have heard about the abuse, a good percentage would no longer be in active ministry and some would be deceased. They would be difficult to investigate and of course could not be prosecuted. Second, in those situations in which prosecution by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania is possible, whether of perpetrators or of failure to report by the bishop (which I take it would be the bishop’s legal issue), the Catholic Church must keep its nose out (other than turning over requested documents and encouraging those who were not confessors to the accused to testify), for fear of prejudicing the case or being seen as interfering with the course of justice. This means waiting until indictments are handed down and prosecuted. I do not hear anyone recognizing that there are limitations on what can be done now by bishops or the Vatican. I am sure that anyone against whom a creditable accusation is brought will be immediately suspended from ministry and lose their faculties, as I have seen in other situations, but conclusive Church judgment would have to follow the final judgment of the courts. This is not the immediate response that is being clamored for.

Finally, when a relatively long historical period is involved, one has to realize that best practices and community standards change over time. I was a military chaplain in the US Army Reserve serving with regular units in Germany in the mid-1970’s. I did a lot of what I called, “Pre-divorce counseling,” i.e. counseling soldiers whose wives had left for the USA who really did not have many options. I used the best tools I available, in particular Rogerian techniques, but more than once I felt like I had had a morning of failures. In the late 1980’s and early 1990’s I did more training in counseling. It was then that I learned about family systems, among other things. I talked with my teacher about how guilty I felt in the light of my new knowledge about how I had treated those soldiers. “Peter,” the response was, “those tools did not exist back then. They were created in the mid-1980’s.” Likewise, what was best practice and wisest pastoral practice in the 1960’s or whenever might well be “coverup” or “failure to report” today. We know now that pedophiles are very likely to reoffend; we realize now that keeping abuse quiet so that the victim and their family not suffer “shame,” actually sticks the victim with ongoing inner shame. The awareness of these insights came at various times before, say 1990, but they did not come all at once and did not come all over. I did not hear of them in my counseling training in an evangelical seminary in the late 1960’s. Therefore, the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh, mandated by the Church Insurance Corporation, made me fly from Vancouver to Pittsburgh in 1995 to get updated. And I am sure that there were similar updates for Episcopal bishops. Once I was “updated,” I could be held responsible (although in my case I had picked up a good deal of the information half a decade earlier in counseling training). The long and short of this excursus is that to determine the culpability of a bishop or pastor in a “cover-up” one has to determine not just what was the law at the time (the law tends to lag behind psychological and pastoral knowledge), but what were the best practices of the time – even if now we know that they were absolutely flawed. A physician the bled a patient in 1780, resulting in a patient’s death, might be just doing his duty to the best of his knowledge. A physician who did that in 1980 would be guilty of malpractice and more. Obviously, the place in the historical development of the understanding of predation where a given event took place has to be looked at in determining moral culpability (legal culpability would be more interested in what the laws were at a given time).

Where does Edwin Friedman come into this discussion? The above was written to, first, lay out a bit of history and then explore the complexities of the issue. The point was to slow down the processing, lower the emotional level, and give control over to the thinking brain versus the limbic system. Only as this happens can we get out of the cycle of anxiety and reaction in which we live.

What I see in the statements [which you can download here] by Daniel Cardinal DiNardo, president of the USCCB, who was a young priest in Pittsburgh back in the 1970’s, and Cardinal Burke speaking for the Holy See, and also those of Cardinals Dolan and O’Malley, shows the effect of dialing down emotion and doing more analytical thinking. That included indicating where the Church could have done better, what the Church has done with respect to three clergy named in the interim report who were ordained in New York, and what the Church plans to do in the near and longer-term future, which, interestingly, includes using lay experts to help in setting up confidential reporting structures and producing independence from a bishop against whom complaints might be lodged. The emotional tone is sadness. The diction is clear and logical. The documents are clear about when what can be done – there are no promises of Nirvana in the immediate future, but of step-by-step progress.

I think that Elder Thaddeus would agree with Friedman’s concerns, if he could understand the language. The Elder Thaddeus’ language is that of prayer. As we become agitated we become fascinated by the details of the situation, even voyeuristic. We have lost focus on God and are giving, in his terms, the demons an entrance through our noetic mind. The use of the Jesus Prayer will help defeat the demons and return out focus to God and enable us to meet our duties in the situation with calmness, peace, and divine grace. The Elder Thaddeus lived through both World War II and Tito’s communist rule, so he has some credibility when it comes to calmness, peace, and divine presence in the midst of turmoil.

More importantly, what can we do that would facilitate a genuinely Christian response?

First, as Edwin Friedman would say, we need to be less anxious people ourselves. If we are living in fear and anxiety we can never function as a healing presence. The Elder Thaddeus would say that our anxiety and anger are giving the demons a channel into our mind. Our disturbed thinking will affect others through the spiritual world. We have to deal with this problem through prayer, including asking for God delivering grace. Then we will be able to pray in peace and tears for both the victims and the perpetrators. Rather than judging the perpetrators or being angry, we should be asking, “What are/were they thinking?” We realize that they have been taken victim themselves through their lack of watchfulness and are trapped in the chains of the devil. Whereas some would speak of addictions, the Elder Thaddeus sees the spiritual forces behind the addictions. In other words, he has reversed the foregrounding and backgrounding of the Epistle of James (James focuses on the human, but then in Jas 3 and 4 he points to the demonic behind it).

But that means asking where the demons are taking us captive. That means asking where our responsibility lies. For instance, the use of pornography is rampant in at least the North American Church. But when you participate in this, you are participating in the abuse of the men and women involved (and even if they are themselves profiting, they are at the same time being abused, caught in a web of evil). What are you doing to stop this? Is appropriate blocking software installed if this is even a bit of a problem for one or if your devices can be accessed by minors? Is it clear that your household has a zero-tolerance policy? And can you explain why to your children, if you have them? My point is that while we are not in a position to do anything about those “really bad guys” out there, we may well be enabling by being involved in a culture of sexual laxity. It is no accident, I suspect, that this scandal came to light at the 50thanniversary of Humana Vitae. Widely ignored by some Catholics and misunderstood by others, this document does point to the heart of a healthy sexuality. And that is the trick – stressing the positive so that the negative seems less attractive or at least shows up for what it is. The demons are doing pretty well in getting the focus off Humana Vitae. Other examples of this type could surely be found.

Another piece of advice on this is to turn off the TV. You do not need it. When the various public media are doing their job, they are reflecting our anxieties back on us, amplifying them. Edwin Friedman discusses this in Failure of Nerve. No, you do not need to be informed. That is a lie unless you are in the news business or are required to prepare a digest for your boss. For most of us a headline or written weekly digest is enough, and even that is not necessary all of the time. If you see a discussion on Facebook, skip it. And do that especially if it has a video attached. While I disagree with parts of his analysis, Marshall McLuhan did point out that some media immerse us in them and others require us to work to supply part of the content. When you see a commentator on TV talking breathlessly or with great graveness about a situation, perhaps with pictures being flashed up from times to time, you are getting his or her emotions as well as whatever analysis they give. You are getting visual cues, including body language, and audio clues, including voice tone. You are also getting emotive words. “This is terrible.” “This is intolerable.” Etc. Your anxiety level raises. You feel you must do something. But you are functioning out of your emotions, not out of your intellect. You do not yet have all the facts. In fact, one of the insidious parts of modern society is the denial that there are facts: if I like it, it is true, and if I do not like it, it is “fake news.” But that is a statement of like and dislike, for no checkable facts have been adduced. If I applied that type of reasoning to scripture, it would have as many holes in it as Jefferson’s Bible. So, watch out for media that involves all of our senses and can end run our thinking to get directly our feelings. Generally, print is better than visual media, and print with footnotes giving sources is the best. But do not drop your guard. Footnotes can give an appearance of authority without being accurate unless one actually reads them and checks the documents they refer to. Also look for emotive trigger words in print. I have seen pamphlets for radical groups (the radical right in this case) that were quite misleading and very emotive. Chick Comics is another example that comes to mind. So, limit media, use a print article that you can analyze (And ask what evidence did he/she give for that statement?), and avoid TV period. We have a TV in our apartment, but only used it for TV during Hurricane Harvey, and then turned it off after a bit for it was just keeping us stirred up. Basically, we use it to play videos by Bishop Robert Barron or Metropolitan Kallistos of Diokleia, among others. We have free TV on our AT&T devices, 30 channels worth. I doubt I ever use it. I have the package because it gives us unlimited high-speed data and also works in Canada. I do not have the time for the other noise, nor do I want to go through the effort needed in quieting my emotions after listening to some commentator. I do not want to be part of the problem by living in a stirred-up state.

Second, sexual abuse is a boundary violation. Usually it is more about control than about sex. Always it removes boundaries. What are we doing in our sphere to preserve boundaries and not cross beyond people’s comfort zones? If we can break one boundary in the name of Jesus, we open the person to the breaking of more boundaries. Let me give some examples of limits and then of ways that limits are crossed. I am Virtus trained. I know that I can give side hugs, but not front hugs. I know that I can high five a child, but not touch their rear end. And the list goes on from there. I also know that I should not touch anyone unless they agree to it (or in an emergency, I suppose I might grab a person who was falling without asking permission). So if I am praying for someone, I ask, “May I lay my hand on you . . . ?” I indicate the place I want to lay my hand unless it is obvious (such as the top of the head in the rite of the anointing of the sick). I do not touch unless I am given informed consent, so to speak. I am creating a culture in which the person knows, whatever culture they are from, that their personal boundaries will be respected. Our Christian communities have not always been that careful. We do that as a group (“Everyone hold hands and lift them up!”) and we do it individually, for I have seen people who assumed they could lay hands on a person, perhaps many hands, without taking either their physical condition or their comfort into account. I am glad that John Wimber made it clear in the Vineyard movement that one asked before laying hands anywhere. And I wish that before people said, “Let’s join hands” or the like, they made it clear that those uncomfortable should feel free to participate in their own way. I once brought a man to a charismatic meeting in an ecumenical setting. The man was from a culture in which people did not touch. At one point in the meeting the leader instructed all to join hands and lift them up. When a woman beside him took his hand that did just that, the man walked out of the meeting and never returned to a charismatic meeting until the day of his death. That was a boundary violation. Not chargeable abuse, but a step in that direction. And especially since it was a woman, the man probably felt unfaithful to his wife. I doubt it crossed his consciousness, but he may also have felt sexually stimulated. It was abuse and experienced as abuse. I cringe when such things are encouraged in charismatic circles with the implications that one is not open to the Spirit without such. The German charismatic movement I knew did not need this to be open to the Spirit (and I saw a lot of Spirit there). Furthermore, the spirit that one opens a person to in this way may not be Holy Spirit. Are our communities, prayer groups, or personal behavior grooming people for sexual abuse – totally without our intending to? Do people leave feeling abused?

I might add that kneeling, standing, and sitting, even prostrating, are different in that they are non-contact and individual. But I personally often preface a liturgy (if newcomers are there) or (in the Episcopal Church where it was licit) added to the liturgy, permission to do otherwise. Rather than “meekly kneeling upon your knees,” I might say, “meekly kneeling as you are able.” But this is being appropriately inclusive. It becomes abusive if in your heart you judge someone who does not kneel or take some other posture you think that they should. They sense this judgment and feel the peer pressure. That is what the Elder Thaddeus would say.

Third, honor and support your leaders. If you do not like your leaders, leave that to God. St Augustine dealt with the issue of unworthy leaders in his discussions about the Donatists. St. Francis certainly dealt with unworthy leaders, not by criticizing them, but by showing deep humility. David had every reason to do Saul in, for Saul was unrighteous seeking his life (“stand your ground”), but instead he would not touch “God’s anointed.” Likewise, when Elijah was told that there were 7,000 who had not bowed the knee to Ba’al, he was not told to organize them to overthrow Ahab. If I cannot understand why a bishop did this or that, I say to God, “Father, I do not understand this, but I leave the situation in your hands. You are the judge of all the earth, not me. Show me how to live in peace and humility in the situation.” If charges are brought against a bishop, I pray, “Father, I pray that it is not so, but if these charges are true, may you bring about your type of justice your way.” Then I leave it. God is the judge, and I am not. That is what James says (Jas 4:12). If I were appointed to a commission to that had the responsibility of discipline, then that would be another issue. But praised be to God, I am not and am very very unlikely ever to be. I want to find something to respect in every leader; maybe, then, God will find something to respect in me.

I might add that I have worked in a small Chancery. I have seen what a bishop does. I did not always understand all he did or does (after all, he does not have any occasion or requirement to explain everything to me), but I did understand that I could not do the job better than he, that I could not do the job at all. I wonder why there are people out there who seem to think that they could? Thanks be to God that as a married priest I will never be a bishop!

Fourth, this is the time to raise your giving. And I am serious about that. On the one hand, your pastor and bishop need funding to go smoothly while they could be distracted by the issues of abuse, especially if you are in a diocese directly affected. On the other hand, they need extra funds to deal with the situation. Every diocese has a VAC, a Victim Assistance Coordinator. (My wife was a VAC for a year or two.) If there is a situation of abuse, whether by clergy or by a lay person working for the church, including volunteers, the first thing that is done is that the legal authorities are informed, the second is that the diocese is informed, and when the diocese is informed the VAC springs into action, doing what they are trained to do and hoped they never would do. The VAC contacts the victim and offers help. Now the VAC may well be a trained counselor themselves, but what they offer is usually not their counseling (since they are an agent of the diocese) but that of a trained professional independent of the diocese. However, the diocese pays. There may be other expenses due to the abuse (what if the victim goes into deep depression and cannot work?), other professionals needed (perhaps the abuse created a situation that needs medical treatment), and all that is arranged for. Furthermore, even if the diocese did everything “according to the book,” the diocese may still be held liable and end up paying damages. Therefore, regardless of whether or not the bishop accepts the offer, an offer such as, “Bishop, a group of us realize that there are expenses involved in connection with the Safe Environment office/ office of the VAC, whatever happens in the end concerning this case. Can we help you raise funds or raise funds ourselves to support these remedial activities without burdening the diocese or sapping the DSF? We would want to do it in such a way that people know that the DSF still deserves their support, that this is over and above. And we want to do it in such a way that it is double-blind, that the diocesan officials, much less the victims, will not know who is contributing and those contributing will only know that the funds are going towards expenses connected with the general situation.” The Bishop may feel he must turn the offer down, but I suspect that even if he did that, he would in private thank God in joy and thanksgiving for the support his people in a time of loneliness and criticism.

There are other issues that could be covered and other things that could be said. But I wanted to show that situations such as this could and should be met with a less-anxious, thinking response/ with a response the comes from the peace of God and is rooted in prayer and love-in-action.

I know of Edwin Friedman’s work because I have done post-graduate study at an institute that he founded and have taught what I learned. I know the Elder Thaddeus’ teaching because for some reason I happened to have purchased his book months ago, simply due to its title, and happened to have finished reading it this week. It was a happy coincidence.

Rabbi Friedman, thank you for showing us the way to a more thinking, more differentiated response.

Elder Thaddeus, thank you for showing us the teaching of the Holy Fathers. If you are indeed where I expect you are, pray for us.

 

 

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The Gift of Miracles and Series Summary

Again, notice that this series is rooted in biblical studies, although it is illustrated through the lives of the saints and informed by pastoral experience. Furthermore, this series as a whole was intended for cell group teaching, not as a polished, footnoted article. Some illustrations used in the oral presentation have been left out to preserve the privacy of those they involve. Little literature is cited.

The gift of miracles

As we conclude this series, we will say less about miracles, for in some ways it is a more general category under which healing is a specific instance. Therefore, there is a certain amount of “see above” that is assumed in the discussion of miracles.

  1. There are times when one is in a situation in which God wants to act visibly, and normally he acts through a person. He may choose us to do be the person.
  2. These are times when the rightness of the kingdom breaks through and overcomes the wrongness of a this-world situation and does so in an observable manner.
  3. There are (at least) three ways that we may receive the gift
    1. We are seeking the Lord about a situation and God tells us (with an inner impulse in most cases) what to do. Think of Hezekiah facing the Assyrian army, and God’s speaking to the praying Hezekiah through Isaiah. Perhaps Peter’s walking on the water is similar case.
    2. We experience a situation, usually unsought, and, in that situation, God gives us an inner impulse to act. I think of David upon seeing Goliath. Or Paul with the demonized girl in Philippi.
    3. We have an inner knowing (or perhaps a clear vision) that we are to do something, perhaps because we know what Jesus would so in that situation, and act, perhaps without knowing what God will do or is doing. Think of Zechariah going home (after first asking for evidence) and having sex with his wife and then naming the infant son according to the vision. Or think of Mary saying, “Be it unto me . . .”
  4. Healing is certainly related to the working of miracles, for we as Christians normally exercise care of the sick, and sometimes in doing this we are called by office or divine impulse to pray for healing. But most of the time the healing impulse is shown in ordinary medical care. The same is true in many of the other circumstances in which miracles take place.
  5. We should not demand or even necessarily expect a miracle. God normally works through his people as they demonstrate his love and show the fruit of transformed lives. God also works through nature and angelic intervention. God is sovereign, so he determines when he will work within the “natural” and when he will reveal the underlying “realer real” through what we call miracles. We should expect a miracle when God has indicated to us that he chooses to work that way. The demand of the miracle reveals either underlying mistrust of God or a trying to get the universe to revolve around us.
    1. One interesting example in Scripture is two prophets who were both dealing with the situation of an overwhelming foreign invasion.
    2. Hezekiah is told by Isaiah to trust God and expect God to intervene to defeat the Assyrian army.
    3. Zedekiah is told by Jeremiah to surrender to the Babylonian army (and Jeremiah had told the people numerous times earlier that surrender was the proper course) – no miracle would be forthcoming.
    4. Both men had heard God accurately.

Summary:

We have argued several theses in this series on the Holy Spirit:

  1. All followers of Jesus have the Holy Spirit, but they are often not quiet enough to experience the Spirit nor uncluttered enough from passions to hear him over the noise nor courageously obedient enough to follow his direction
  2. The best way to experience the Spirit more is to go into quietness and, in holiness of life and submission of spirit, request needed tools for tasks God has given you or laid on your heart. This reception may come in a peak experience, but no peak experience is needed.
  3. There are (at least) three dangers in seeking the gifts of the Spirit
    1. If they are sought without holiness of life, one may indeed experience them, but they have “twist” in them that damages the Church and others and usually leads to pride and a moving away from God.
    2. If they are sought by though the use of “means,” such as repetition of nonsense syllables to get one “started” in tongues or intense prayer until some phenomenon happens or “prophecy” that forces one into the mode of the group, then they are likely pseudo at best and possibly abusive. We are trying to force God into our mode rather than fit into God’s mode. We saw that earlier in the evangelistic methods that did indeed bring some people to true faith, but also left a sea of “born again” people with no signs of having been born again and no lasting faith commitment. Yet these were inoculated against later faith commitment since they had “had the experience” or “prayed the prayer.”
    3. If they are sought to validate one’s ministry or to confirm one’s commitment to Jesus as Lord or for public validation, they actually weaken true faith, which is based on knowing a person, not on having power. We are looking at the wrong “world” and often want power in the wrong “world.” [This is why Thomas Aquinas was not impressed with the eucharistic miracles of his day, “Quiquam esse, non es corpus Christi” – they might point to the reality of transubstantiation, but the real body of Christ was “under the species of” bread, not flesh – it took trust in Christ’s words, not sight.]
  4. We have seen that the gifts of the Spirit fade into one another, that the line between prophecy, discernment of Spirits, knowledge, and wisdom is rather fluid – indeed the line between prophecy and teaching is rather fluid and vague. The fact is that all the gifts come from a relationship with the same God and Christ through the same Spirit. We categorize them, or try to, but in fact they are simply a following of the direction and guidance of Jesus through the Spirit, so the categories are artificial, to help us understand what the Spirit is doing through us. Some gifts in particular seem to come and go: e.g. Paul’s ability to heal through sweat bands or whatever was “extraordinary,” unusual in the church as a whole and unusual for him in particular. A person may raise the dead once or so, but mostly presides at funerals.
  5. We have seen that some people are characterized by certain forms of the working of the Spirit, often forms that become vocations. So, some are evangelists and others are prophets and others are teachers and others are pastors (although there is a discussion as to whether teachers and pastors are separate). Some of these gifts seem to be associated with certain offices, such as that of presbyter and episcopos. Some gifts are not so associated, so none are said to be healers or tongues speakers or miracle workers. Some gifts are never said to be remunerated, such as prophecy, and others may be in some cases, such as teaching.
  6. While because we are experiencing the divine in an immediate manner there are dangers in spiritual gifts, especially those of pride and seeking power, we need these gifts for the good of the church and of humanity. Therefore, seek God, seek Jesus, seek intimacy with the Trinity, and simply expect spiritual gifts. They should be a “well, of course, for he wanted to do x,” not something that is sought. If we seek God in all humility and are open to his acting through us, then spiritual gifts will manifest through us, whether or not we notice it happening.

 

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Gifts of Healing

The previous blog post had to do with the gift of faith as the gift of trust, which is based on relationship with the one whom one trusts. We examined this from a number of perspectives and noted that it was basic to a number of spiritual gifts; now it is time to apply it in a single area, that of the gifts of healing. As usual, I will add my caveat that I come at this as a biblical scholar, so I am looking at the various gifts from an exegetical perspective. And, yet, I am and have been also a pastor and practitioner, so it is important to know my background (in brief) to understand how I apply the biblical material.

I first encountered effective prayer for healing in Germany, first in a story from the history of the Plymouth Brethren-Baptist theological school where I taught, then in my encounters with Roland Brown and Helmut Ahlvers, and finally in my dean’s experience of healing (the last two being part of the Ruferbewegung, a German charismatic movement primarily in a Baptist context). This was the same period in which we became deeply influenced from the classic Christian spiritual tradition, starting with the desert fathers and continuing into the present. But I did not participate in healing prayer yet, or, if I did, I did so peripherally.

This non-practice changed with my ordination as an Episcopal priest in October 1979. On the Monday after that Saturday God spoke to me, pointing out that praying for the sick was part of my “job description” (Jas 5:14-15) as a presbyter. I realized that I had been avoiding praying for healing out of fear, but now I had no excuse. As a result, my first Eucharist as an Episcopal priest was a small midweek healing Eucharist at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Sewickley PA. I did not experience anything special other than nervousness (it was my first time at the altar on my own as well as the first healing Eucharist I had been at) – I simply went “by the book” (Book of Common Prayerand James 5:14-15) – and the one person there who was ill was indeed healed (but would not mention the fact to me for three months). We would later learn about, and Judy would experience, healing in a Camps Farthest Out at Messiah College at which Francis and Judith MacNutt were the speakers. And still later we would have a lot of experiences with John Wimber and his associates. And, of course, there was reading, lots of reading. That is the background from which I approach the gifts of healing.

Healing, which was not unknown in the Hebrew Scriptures, was a characteristic of the ministry of Jesus, which he passed on to his official delegates (i.e. apostles) in Mark 6:13 and parallels. Both Peter and Paul in Acts parallel the healing ministry of Jesus with multiple people healed (including by strange means – Peter’s shadow and Paul’s sweat bands), and in each case at least one dead person was raised. Others participate as well, with Ananias of Antioch being of special note. In other words, while Peter and Paul were the most famous, there is no indication that healing was limited to their actions. Paul refers to multiple gifts of healing in 1 Cor 12:9, so apparently he did not know it as a single gift, but as a differential gift. And James makes it a normative function of presbyters in Jas 5:14-15:

14 Is anyone among you sick? He should summon the presbyters of the church, and they should pray over him and anoint (him) with oil in the name of the Lord, 15 and the prayer of faith will save the sick person, and the Lord will raise him up. If he has committed any sins, he will be forgiven. [1]

So, we cannot overlook this gift. Yet that still leaves questions on how it functions.

First, faith is involved in healing, but primarily the faith of the one praying. In the teaching on faith it was noted that no one other than Jesus is said to have trust or faith in 2/3 of the healings of Jesus. So, while there are situations in which the one being healed trusts in Jesus (such as the woman with a hemorrhage – although that trust seems more in the power of his clothing than in who he was), in most situations Jesus is the only one said to have faith. Trust or commitment or faith on the part of the one who is ill may be helpful, even very helpful, but it is not said to be essential. Likewise we do not find faith or trust attributed to the blind man at the Beautiful Gate of the Temple or in Aeneas, or any number of others who were healed through the agency of the various Apostles. Finally, James attributes trust or faith to the presbyters, “the prayer coming from trust,” not to the person who is ill (who may be so ill that he or she is not even conscious of what is going on).

What, then, is faith or trust? It is trust in a person, namely, in Jesus and his Father. The content of this trust is determined by what one hears in the relationship. Faith is a gift, but the gift comes from contemplation or listening prayer. Since such prayer requires quiet and calmness, inner recollection is also the requirement of effective prayer for healing.

Second, what is the nature of healing? Health is the condition in which every part of the human being is in right relationship to its Creator and therefore to every other part of the person and the creation. Health is a systemic or networked condition. One can talk about spiritual health in which the whole person or group of persons are in right relationship to the Creator God, social health in which the person or group of persons are in right relationship to persons or groups of persons, emotional health in which the inner emotional components of the person are rightly related and are under rational and spiritual control, and physical health in which the various chemicals, cells, organs, and systems of the person are in right relationship and therefore functioning as designed. Health also includes freedom from the influence of dark spirits (de-demonization is closely connected with healing in both the gospels and Acts). Therefore, when it comes to healing, any one of these systems (and probably more aspects of the person than these systems) may be the root or may be God’s priority. That makes listening prayer very important, for otherwise we will not know what the Father is doing and will instead be vainly chasing down rabbit trails of our own priorities. Furthermore, there is a time to die for every person, and while we may discuss this with the Father if we discern that this is what happening, praying for physical healing will not be effective, no matter how many Scriptures we cite to God or how many people “storm heaven” (a rather offensive expression, for it suggests that human beings must overcome or manipulate God, rather than submit to him).

Some examples may illustrate the principles above and given perspective to seeing what the Father is doing. Example one: I was visiting a pastor whose wife was very ill, but before praying for her, we were talking with a person who was struggling with bereavement. As I was listening to the person, with another part of me listening to God, I heard, “Prepare [the pastor] for [the death of his wife].” The pastoral conversation went well, and I could see that the pastor was listening carefully. Later I prayed for that pastor’s wife, phrasing my prayer so it would commend her to God and lay a foundation for what was coming, without shutting out short-term healing. That was God’s healing, and God would later have me walk that pastor through two years of grief recovery, which was also his healing. Example two: I was praying at a conference and a woman I knew brought a baby to me, asking me to pray for the healing of the infant’s eyes so it would not need glasses. I knew that the baby had a deVere neurological disorder that would make it difficult to keep glasses on it. And I sensed within that the request was what the Father was doing. I prayed, and years later the person does not wear glasses. But in my reason had I not listened I would have prayed for healing for the neurological disorder, which was not what the Father was doing. Example three: during the “clinic” phase of a talk by some rather flamboyant women speakers a father came up to them and said that his seven-year-old son thought that he heard God say that God wanted to heal ears. The women responded by getting the boy up on the stage (so he could reach adult ears) and announcing that he would be praying for ears. As people in need lined up for prayer the child placed his hands on their ears and said simply, “Jesus, please heal. Jesus, please heal.” I do not think that he ever said it more than twice. In each case the person was visibly touched by the power of God, which was not the sort of thing that was going on at that workshop. I guess that in his simple trust that boy had heard what the Father was doing. Final example: I was teaching a workshop on healing prayer and other spiritual gifts. I asked people to be quiet seek God and then asked if anyone had impressions that God had given them. A woman I knew from a seminary class I taught raised her hand and said, “I see someone’s right arm. It is pink except at the elbow, where it seems to be purple, like it was throbbing.” Immediately, someone two rows in front said, “That’s me” (while using their left arm to hold up their right). There were two healings when that young woman prayed for the person with the problem elbow: the elbow was healed, and that young woman learned that pictures she had been getting all her life were God’s way of communicating with her.

This means for me that when I am in a group of people praying excitedly and often insistently for a person, claiming this and commanding that, I often step back, perhaps looking away, trying to find that quiet center in which I hear God. “Father, show me what you are doing?” And if I get an impression I think may be God, I then step back into the group and at a break quietly pray according to that impression. Otherwise I simply raise the person up to God and hold them quietly there, letting his healing light shine through them or his healing love soak into them, although I may not know what is being healed. So, keep in mind, “No my will but yours be done” and “Your kingdom come, your will be done,” and any number of other passages that make listening to God the key to effective healing prayer.

The order is: holiness (cleaning and quieting the house) – intimacy/listening – prayer

So, third, healing will be wholistic, although some parts of it may not be complete until the resurrection of the dead. The person presents their symptom, which may seem to be a great need or just a serious bother. The Father may point to a demonic influence behind the disease and its symptoms. The Father may point to an emotional issue, such as resentment, anger, or failure to forgive the person in forgiveness, and that may lie behind the physical disease or be at the root of the demonic influence. In other words, all systems are inter-related. And only the wisdom of God can see which needs to be healed in what order. Furthermore, there are interrelationships among people, people groups, and social systems. What if prayer for a certain set of symptoms in a given person is related to the social system within which they ministered for years or the environmental destruction their wider society is still engaged in? We are far too individualistic in our thinking when it comes to healing. The failure to listen and then respond is probably a major reason why a lot of prayer and healing is all “sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Faith that I work up in myself or that is faith in what I want God to do or what I am sure on the basis of this verse or that verse that God must do if I claim that verse is not the faith of James.

James also speaks of anointing with oil, which Mark says is what the Twelve also did. This tells us that healing prayer can be sacramental, but this sacramental prayer is only mentioned in connection with the original Twelve and presbyters, who in the New Testament are appointed by an apostle or an apostolic delegate. It seems to be as if the oil is a liquid line back to Jesus and as if the physical act is something like laying the hands of Jesus on the person and thus is done “in the name of” or “on behalf of” “the Lord.” Whereas laying on hands may be an act of solidarity, a physical expression of love, the oil seems to be more a connection to Jesus himself, done at his command. I personally use oil often, but always within the liturgical form. Yet I do it with confidence, for I am “following the book,” i.e. doing what I was taught by James and also doing what I am authorized to do through ordination by a bishop in line with the apostles. I anoint “in persona Christi capitis.” That, of course, does not mean that other means of healing prayer will not be effective, but that this form is the form that presbyters are taught by James to use.

Finally, note that for whatever reason certain people effective in praying for certain issues. It may be that they have a particular sympathy for such people. It may be that the Spirit can flow through them most easily in that way. It may be that they have a particular gift of trusting for healing in that area. It is important to be aware of this, for knowing that some have one gift of healing and others have another helps bind the body together and we get the right person of prayer with the right person with disease. We often like to claim the verse (out of context), “I can do all things through him who strengthens me,” as if we did not need others or were Superman/Superwoman (without the tights). That is not how God usually works. In fact, he works most frequently through weakness.

How, then, are gifts of healing received? Through intimacy with God and caring for others. Go about one’s business of seeking intimacy with God, living a life of prayer, and doing good to all. When one encounters someone with physical need, gently retreat to one’s inner room and ask the Father to show you what he is doing. If you have no clear impression, hold the person up to the Father’s healing light and let his loving care soak in. Or, if one is a presbyter, use the anointing oil and trust that Christ’s touch will in fact be effective. If you have an impression, whether a vague impression on the heart, an inner word, or a visual picture, follow that guidance, but do so with humility and gentleness. You may indeed receive a gift of healing for this instance. Or you may find that in many such instances God gives you that gift. Or it may be a more general gift. Whatever you experience, do not go beyond the pace of grace, the level of trust you have, the revelation that you are being given, but do not be afraid to ask for more. Know that whatever God does, he does out of love, out of seeking the good of the person and the wider group. And we are simply weak and ignorant agents, children before the Father, who get to work with him, but who often do not understand the wider picture that he sees.

[1]Confraternity of Christian Doctrine. Board of Trustees, Catholic Church. National Conference of Catholic Bishops, and United States Catholic Conference. Administrative Board, The New American Bible: Translated from the Original Languages with Critical Use of All the Ancient Sources and the Revised New Testament(Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, 1996), Jas 5:14–15.

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The Gift of Faith

[Note that this is a quick draft of my teaching for Tuesday June 11. I would like to rework it, but in a sense that will happen as I apply this to healing and miracles in the coming weeks.]

The first continuum of spiritual gifts that we looked at was the cognitive-speech spectrum that took in less cognitive or less understandable speech such as glossolalia and its interpretation, that which comes in the middle and is semi-cognitive or understandable, such as prophecy and the discernment of spirits, and that which at least in its reception by others is most understandable, such as expressions of wisdom or knowledge, or the teaching/exhortation gift in general. Now we are turning to a second continuum of spiritual gifts that of affecting the physical world in which we live. In this case the continuum is something of a tree, starting with faith as its roots or trunk and branching out into gifts of healing and mighty deeds (1 Cor 12:8-10). Again, remember that these are only examples that Paul lists to give variety, not a complete list, and also remember that Paul never defines these gifts, and in practice they probably shade into one another. Finally, since prophecy, among other speech gifts is often a speech-act, a speaking that effects what it speaks (much like sacramental speaking), it too shades into these gifts affecting the physical world, almost as if the two sets crossed over each other, indicating two vectors on a graph.

Faith in the New Testament is in essence a commitment to a person and therefore to the truths that the person reveals. The Greek term is a term of trust and commitment. If it is followed by an “in” (and there are two words in Greek for this) or the dative case, usually with a personal object, it means trust that person, entrust oneself to that person, or give one’s allegiance to that person, all of which imply following their directions or obeying them. In the New Testament this person is God or Jesus.

There is also a believing that or trust that, which is a commitment to certain data, usually about the person in whom one trusts or revealed by the person in whom one trusts. One takes on that person’s perception of reality, not because one perceives the reality, but because one trusts the person who reveals. This is why “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen,” (Heb 11:1) for our trust in the promiser or revealer gives us assurance. So “by faith we understand that the world was created by the word of God . . .” because we trust in the God who revealed that he spoke that word. My point is that even the “believe that . . .” is based on trust in a person.

Faith is therefore not opposed to deeds, but requires deeds, or it is not faith. If I am committed to a person, I do what pleases them or what they request, particularly if they are in authority. And if I trust a person, I follow their directions, even if I cannot see the result when I step out onto the diving board or jump off the cliff (as in The Silver Chair in the Chronicles of Narnia). If I will not do that, then I show that my professed commitment/trust/faith is a sham. That is, I show how right it is that, as James says, “Faith without works is dead.” If I profess a creed that says that Jesus is Lord, but will not obey him, then my so-called faith is empty.

Now that does not mean that I am not nervous in taking the risk that is entailed in faith. A friend of mine (Gary Best) used to tell the story of his having been a physical education instructor (while I reduced the story to writing, the book available now is Naturally Supernaturally) and, while watching youth swimming in a pool had his mind wander to faith. He is alone on a diving board over the pool. “Jump,” says God. “But there is no water in it!” Gary protests.” “Right. You jump, and I fill.” You hesitate. “I’m good with water. Remember the Red Sea, the Jordan River, and, Oh, yes, I made the oceans.” Your hands are clammy, you feel a bit sick in your stomach, but you eventually close your eyes and jump – that is faith – and there is a splash as you hit the water. You swim to the edge, climb out, and God says, “Do it again.” As you obediently go back to the diving board, you hear the water draining out of the pool. And this continues. In fact, when you get comfortable with trusting God on the lower diving board, he moves you up to a much higher one, and the cycle begins again.

We can go on and one discussing this topic. There is a common faith because there is a common Lord whom we trust and who has revealed his perception of himself and the universe to us. Abraham trusted God or entrusted himself to God and that was expressed in obeying what God told him to do. Because this is trust in God, he does not need to have full knowledge, but acts on what he knows and eventually is brought to the point that he does have the heir God had said he would, yet still needs that trust to be committed to the fact that that one son would become a multitude.

Initially faith or commitment comes from “what is heard” and “what is heard comes by the preaching of the Messiah.” (Rom 10:17) But even that hearing is a gift from the Holy Spirit and is empowered by the Holy Spirit so that it sinks into our heart. Faith is at root a gift, not dependent upon the persuasiveness of human argument, although the Spirit may use that human argument and give it the power to convince.

Now there are about 372 references to “faith” or “believe” in the New Testament, and we shall not cover them all in this post. But it is important to grasp that this relationship of trust is behind all of the gifts of the Spirit and all of the New Testament signs and wonders. It is not that the person who is healed or who experiences the miracle believes or has faith. In only 1/3 of the healings in the New Testament is the person healed said to have faith; in almost all of the other 2/3 it is Jesus or the one who represents Jesus who is said to have faith or who acts in what seems to be trust in God. Likewise, in the stilling of the storm the disciples definitely do not have much trust in Jesus – Jesus calls them “no faiths” in Mark and “little faiths” in Matthew. But Jesus is calm and collected, for he knows what the Father wants to do, so he speaks a word that would be utterly risky and even nonsense to us, and the storm stills. He does not seem surprised, for he trusted the Father and of course if he acted on that trust in the speech-act what the Father said would happen would indeed happen.

That means that it is not the faith of the person being healed that is important, or even that of his or her friends and relatives – although it is wonderful if that is there, and even a mustard seed of faith is powerful – but it is a question of whether the Holy Spirit has given a calm inner trust to the person who is praying or who is speaking the word of command.

I come from a faith tradition, that of the Plymouth Brethren. There were heroes of faith in that movement, such as George Müller of Bristol (and my own paternal grandmother who worked in a Müller-inspired orphanage in England), and others more contemporary to my time, whom I knew in my youth. I also knew men and women of faith in Germany, including the American Baptist pastor from Chicago, Roland Brown. But the essence of faith in all of these people was that they trust God/Jesus out of a personal relationship. They were, in a sense, contemplatives, for they spent time in prayer, including silent prayer, worshipful prayer, and listening prayer. They knew God and knew when they were in tune with him and when they were not.

 

This was also at root the theological basis of the early Vineyard movement in the USA (and elsewhere). The music was music of intimacy with God, music that brought one to stillness, adoration, and quietness. There was a hunger to get to know God better. And then as one got to know him, one would or should do what he told one to do, for one had caught his heart of love. In any given situation one should “seek the Lord” until like Jesus one saw “what the Father was doing,” and then with whatever level of trust one had, one could, as directed, step out and do whatever he requested (e.g. engage in the speech-act). One “did the stuff,” such as feeding the hungry, caring for the needs of the poor, healing the sick, proclaiming the good news, and all that other “stuff” that Jesus and his Church did and that he still wishes to do in the world today.

Faith, then, is the basic gift behind all the gifts to act in the world. It is the gift given to the child, who does not get it that he or she cannot “do it” or that “it is impossible,” but just acts in obedience with the parent doing the rest. It is rooted in the humility that one does not have ability in oneself, but that because Jesus has all power, whatever he says one can do.

The gift of faith, then, is more general than gifts of healing or miracles. George Müller started his ministry with faith for evangelism, faith that God would provide funds without his having to ask for them, and faith for healing. Later, after the Brethren movement developed a doctrine of gift cessationism, he no longer had faith for healing, but retained his faith for the other two works of God (which were not mentioned in any spiritual gifts list). In other words, his trust in God and what God wanted to do shifted, but in those areas in which he retained trust, he still saw miracles happen.

Thus the gift of faith is in essence contemplative. One has to spend time in quiet with God until one has dealt with relational barriers and is in a position to hear “see what the Father is doing” or “hear what the Father [or Jesus] is saying.” In other words, one cannot just quote this or that verse (usually out of context) and “claim it” because on thinks that God must do what he said he will do. On the contrary, in the quiet one spends time with God, realizes where God wants one to “step off the diving board,” and then, acting from that trust that the Holy Spirit has put in one’s heart, one can quietly step out in that direction and do whatever it is that the Father wants one to do under the leadership of Jesus. That may be walk on water, or it may be feed or house the poor in a way that demands means that one does not have, or it may be step out in evangelism, or it may be multiply loaves and fish, or it may be speaking a word of healing, or it may be housing and educating hundreds of orphans, or it may be planting new communities of Christians.

What is clear is that whatever it results in, “faith” is trust, it is relational, and it contemplative, and it is Trinitarian. When it loses these characteristics, it becomes either a type of magic or “sound and fury signifying nothing.”

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Prophecy and Teaching, genuine and false

Prophecy abounded in the ancient world around Israel, as well as in the first century world of the early Christians. It ranged from the more mantic and ecstatic prophets, such as the prophets of Ba’al (or, more properly, the Ba’alim, since they were plural), and the oracle at Delphi, who breathed fumes coming from a crack in the earth, to those who read the stars or the entrails of sacrificial animals or other signs built into nature to those versed in the traditions and teachings of the deity and could advise on how to manipulate or please the deity or atone for transgressions. The lines between these were blurry, and often various types of prophets/astrologers/magicians were combined. We often see them in groups, whether in Persia, Babylonia, or Egypt. Every court had its prophets of one type or another, as did temples and other cultic locations.

Israel was no different in its need for and use of prophets, although at its best it only used prophets of Yahweh and rejected augury, “magicians,” and soothsayers. These Yahweh prophets also came in various types, parallel to the nations around Israel. Israel had its mantic or ecstatic prophets; i.e. those singing, dancing (and we would say tongues-speaking), groups that were discussed previously under the heading of glossolalia. Israel also had prophets associated with the pre-royal (Shiloh and Samuel’s sanctuaries, for instance) and royal sanctuaries, north and south, and with the royal court – men like Gad or Nathan spring to mind. In the north Ahab had his court prophets, although for the most part these were Ba’al prophets. The king (and others) needed advisors and knowledge of what God (or in the case of Ahab, the gods) had in mind. (This phenomenon, of course, produced the danger that the prophet would prophesy what the king wanted to hear, since he was paid by the king. There are parallels in priests and pastors to royalty or national leaders today.) There is also evidence that prophetic groups carried on, updated, and exegeted the traditions of Israel. While the priests were charged with teaching (and thus the shrine would become a center of official tradition interpretive and scribal activity), the prophet was the one who showed the relevance of the old traditions today: “you are experiencing this drought because you violated these terms of the covenant, and so now do this as an act of repentance.”

We know the most about Israel’s writing prophets because, well, they wrote, although we can see some of the same characteristics in prophets that did not write. What we see in these prophets in general is usually an initial call-vision (Jeremiah 1, Isaiah 6, Ezekiel 1-2, etc.), followed by a series of revelations. The revelations might be visionary, parabolic (some actions that the prophet needed to perform, sometimes without understanding the purpose until after the action was done), inspired interpretation of history (which is why the so-called historical books are called the “former prophets” in Hebrew and which is why Isaiah and Jeremiah both include historical narratives), or oracular (which may be because the prophet heard the oracle from God or that the prophet expressed in poetry the impressions from his God-given altered state of consciousness God). The prophetic books are about two-thirds poetry, i.e. shorter oracles joined together into larger books. The visions and oracles often contain plays on words of various types, or plays between words and visions. That is in part of what makes them cryptic (and difficult to translate – that Hebrew for a “basket of summer fruit” and “end” sound similar, but in English translation one wonders how God gets from “summer fruit” to making an “end” of Israel). They are generally about the immediate present or future of the prophet: Ezekiel prophesies about the fall of Jerusalem that was only 20 years in the future as a maximum, and probably much closer in time than that. Isaiah 7 prophesies about the destruction of two hostile kings within three years or so. Amos 7:17 tells a senior priest that his wife would be a prostitute in the city and he would die in exile, which in a world in which the average lifespan was 40 years would indicate an event not too far distant. Generally, one finds a near-fulfillment if one reads the prophet against the background of the world around them (the failure to do that being one of the pitfalls in interpreting the Hebrew scriptures). Prophets were also intercessors, for they prayed for the people and often were given instructions in response to their prayers. All of this can be checked out in the basic biblical studies literature on the scriptural prophets.

While most prophets we know about were men, there were also some women we know about who were prophets, such as Deborah and Huldah, and in both cases the women were married. We do not hear whether the prophetess Miriam was married. There is no indication that these women were any different in character than the male prophets – they probably had some type of call-vision, and they probably spoke in oracles, for instance, but if they were at all numerous, only a few of them made it into the historical record. Given early and virtually universal marriage in Israel, it is probably that few of the female prophets were part of prophetic bands, although some may have been.

In the New Testament prophecy is at the root of the gifts of the Spirit. The New Testament narrative starts with a prophet (and perpetual Nazirite, like Samuel), John the Baptist, who was not so much the restoration of prophecy (there were several prophets we know of in the Second Temple period, such as one of the Hasmonean kings and Honi the Circle Drawer, so the myth of “400 silent years” is indeed a myth), as the start of prophecy associated with the advent of the Messiah and his resultant rule. Therefore, Jesus was taken to be a prophet for he, like John, called people to repentance, and, like Elijah-Elisha, worked miracles (although virtually none of his were judgment miracles). He also engaged in some parabolic actions, such as the so-called cleansing of the temple. Because he did not fit any one prophetic model, people were confused as to whether he was the reincarnation of a particular prophet or the prophet predicted in Deut 18 or John the Baptist come back to life. But all the guesses were prophetic.

With the advent of the Holy Spirit, prophetic speech becomes rooted in the church. The Hebrew Scriptures are reinterpreted in the light of Jesus (narratively this starts happening in both Acts 1 and 2), the people are called to repentance, and the sentences of God are announced (Ananias and Sapphira, for example). Prophecy is clearly Paul’s most favored gift in 1 Cor 14, even if, because of the mixed nature of human beings, it must be discerned or sifted.

Against this background, what is prophecy? It is at root delivering a message from God in a manner in which God directs. One is “speaking forth,” which can mean foretelling, but usually does not mean foretelling and is more likely to be revealing what actually is. It is often simply telling the person or group how God sees a situation and calling them to deeper commitment. It is not exegesis of the scriptures, the passing on of tradition, for it has an immediacy in speaking from God rather than a mediated speaking from God that is found in laying out the scriptures and tradition. At the same time, the prophet may use the scriptures, reading them at a different level than the exegete does.

Who prophesies? First, in the New Testament all believers are potentially prophets, fulfilling Moses’ wish that all God’s people prophesy, and the Joel citation cited in Acts 2 (in which the scripture is altered so that the prophetic gift is emphasized). Thus, prophecy (in the Christian sense) can be given to anyone who follows Jesus. But there are those in the church who were so characterized by prophesy that they were called prophets. They are mentioned in Acts 13, for instance, and in Eph 4, as well as in 1 Cor 14 (where only two or at most three are to prophesy before there is a pause for evaluation by the leaders of the community). We do not hear of these people having a call-vision and we do not hear of their full-time work being prophesy (then again, most of the Hebrew prophets seem to have had other jobs as priests, or, in Amos’ case, as a shepherd). That does not mean that some did not have call-visions and that none did serve full-time as prophets (although the latter is less likely than the former), but it does mean that the New Testament writers did not feel it necessary to state such experiences as qualifications. It is clear that prophets were still around at the end of the first century and into the second century, not just John of Patmos, the writer of Revelation, but the sometimes-traveling prophets mentioned in Didache 11 and the prophets mentioned in the Shepherd of Hermas. Later, while not called prophets, many of the great saints as well as named monastic leaders exhibit the gift of prophecy. This gift has certainly never ceased, even in groups that believe it has ceased (I know of instances in the Plymouth Brethren movement in which prophetic phenomena were expressed, but, of course, never called prophecy).

How does prophesy come about? It is based in a soul that is quiet and has drawn near to God in a listening attitude, although sometimes God chooses to override our “noise” and speak anyway. Like all spiritual gifts, it usually originates in an impulse from the Spirit, a revelation. This may be an auditory or visual “vision” (and in works like Ezekiel this vision was at times shared by others, at least in part, so it could be external or internal), but it is often a quiet word within. Sometimes it is a heightened awareness of something external, such as seeing a flower and suddenly thinking of it as a parable from God. The same can happen with scripture, when one “sees” something in scripture that may have nothing to do with the context, but is God using the scripture as a means of speaking to the people. It may be a numinous dream, such as Joseph had in Matthew 1 and 2 or Paul had in Acts 16:6. Each of these is a form of revelation, but revelation is only the first step in prophesy.

The next part is the interpretation. What does this mean? Some people have received revelation all their lives but have never realized it was God and so have never paused to reflect on and interpret it. Sometimes the meaning is clear, but sometimes it is not. When Paul was in the storm-tossed ship, the divine messenger he experienced, probably in a dream (although, the case of Peter in Acts 12 shows that one may see a divine messenger at night and think it is a dream, when it is in reality an objective event) gave him an explicit message for those on the ship. But the dream-vision in Acts 16:6 could have been a temptation to leave Asia Minor or a divine call to leave Asia Minor for the Iberian Peninsula. Paul, either due to an immediate inward knowing or due to reflective, listening prayer, took it to mean the latter, perhaps after mutual discernment with the others in his company. I have heard very prophetically gifted people get accurate revelation, but give it the wrong interpretation, for they jumped too quickly to the conclusion of what it meant and did not take it to prayer or discernment with others. That is why good prophetically gifted people are humble, and humility is an important part of delivering prophetic words. “I believe that God wishes me to tell you (whether the “you” be individual or group) . . . Does that make any sense to you?” is a good way of delivering a prophetic word. One may, perhaps, speak with more boldness if a group has prayed through a word and believes it is indeed a word from God, although even then there is the danger of “group think” – groups have their collective prejudices and ideas. It is not just individual people who are fallen and fallible and may mix in “their stuff” with a true word from God.

Part of the interpretive discernment is whether the revelation (perhaps with interpretation) is for oneself or for others, and if it is for others, is it to be shared privately or in a public setting? Failure to ask the “who is it for” question has led to many a true divine revelation being used in a harmful manner. The rule of love is important. Along with this there comes the question of when the word should be shared, which we turn to next.

Finally, there is timing. Some prophesies were to be “sealed up” for some period of time, while others were to be spoken immediately. One sees that in Revelation, where the messages of the seven thunders were sealed and were not to be communicated, but Revelation as a whole was to be communicated to the seven churches immediately, for the time of its fulfillment was “soon,” and the churches needed its encouragement to stand during trial. I had finished speaking at a conference in England and had set the group to praying for and ministering to one another, when, turning from cleaning off the white board I had used, I saw a group on the far side of the room. I had no idea what they were praying about. I had the impulse within, “Tell that man that God loves him.” I protested in my heart, “That is so banal. Everyone knows that truth. Am I making this up?” But the impulse persisted, so I walked slowly up to the group and took in what was going on, deciding that I needed to risk that this was God’s word. At an appropriate break in the prayers, I said, “I have the impression that Jesus wants to say to you that he loves you . . .” (and perhaps I said a bit more). The man collapsed to the ground in tears. “Oh,” I thought, “I guess that was from God.” It was so commonplace. It was clearly not false, but still so common. But I had God’s timing right (for once) and the word struck home like an arrow from a well-aimed bow. Therefore, the one with the impulse that contains revelation and interpretation must also pray that God will give him or her the timing and the means of delivery. Usually the delivery is verbal, but, like Agabus in Acts, it may be acted out (he took Paul’s belt and tied up his own hands and feet and then gave a verbal interpretation).

Finally, as noted above, prophecy needs evaluation or discernment. Paul speaks about this as group action in 1 Cor 14. In the Torah both Deut 13 and Deut 18 give tests for a prophet (Does the message accord with the Torah? Does any predictive element come true? Notice that even if a predicted sign or wonder takes place, the message is to be rejected if it does not accord with the Torah.) In Didache 11 two tests are given: (1) does the prophet live an ethical life; does he live what he teaches, and (2) is the prophet profiting from his prophecy? If he tries to do that, reject him or her and his prophecy, no matter how deep or spiritual it may seem. The same is true in Shepherd of Hermas, Mandate 11, for there it is clear that a prophet should not accept remuneration nor should he or she allow themselves to be used as diviners, i.e. they should not respond to people who come to them asking for a word from God. This was what happened in 1 Samuel, for instance, when Saul goes to Samuel asking about his lost donkeys, after having been assured by his slave that the slave had a bit of money, apparently enough for proper remuneration of a “seer” in those days. Elisha would later refuse a gift from Naaman, setting a standard that continues into the New Testament and beyond: one does not make a living from prophecy; the prophet should not profit from his prophecy. Of these tests, the most important is that of the godly life, which flows through all the literature. If the prophet does not live what he or she teaches, then reject them as a prophet, or reject the prophecy if it is a person who only occasionally prophesies. If the prophet is ungodly, then absolutely reject what they prophesy, for it will be tainted, even if there is a core of truth. Holiness of life is fundamental, for otherwise the whole of the prophetic word is twisted. It may be a true word, but it will be warped in some way.

This differentiates the prophet from the teacher. The elder who labors in teaching is especially to be given a full wage (1 Tim 5:17-18 – the word for wage or financial remuneration and for honor is the same in Greek and double is often used for “full” in Scripture). Prophets are never said to be remunerated. Perhaps this is because teaching and preaching take more preparation and are more time consuming, not leaving time to do other work. Perhaps this is because teaching often required copies of the Scriptures and the like, which were expensive. Whatever the case, the teacher is to be remunerated. It is not that teaching is not a spiritual gift, one associated with knowledge and wisdom. I have often been teaching and, as usual, drawing things out on a whiteboard or chalkboard and realized that I had written on the board something that I did not know beforehand. I would, after the class, copy what I had written on the board to, first, check it out and, second, incorporate it into later teaching. And there are times when I will say something while giving advice to a student or perhaps someone in the confessional, and afterwards will think, “Did I say that? That was so wise. Where did it come from?” Or someone will tell me that something I said changed their life, and I cannot even remember saying it. That is where the words of wisdom and knowledge show up in teaching, but such phenomena do not mean that there is not a lot of preparation and study (and prayer) involved. God often builds on the foundations that have already been laid. (The word of knowledge that is often spoken of in charismatic circles is usually a prophetic word, a visual or auditory revelation that initiates the prophetic person’s approach to the person or initiates a prayer for healing.)

Prophecy is a powerful gift, and that is why Paul valued it so much. At the same time, it can be very abusive. I have heard a lot of junk prophecy (perhaps because the timing was off, perhaps because it was for the person and not for the group, perhaps because it was just junk). I have experienced and seen abusive prophesy. Those tests of life and the discernment of others are very important for it to stay healthy. But when it is healthy, it can build up and strengthen the community and bring people to repentance in powerful ways. In fact, a good deal of what we find in the Patristic writers is probably prophetic. Maybe when we get together after this age, we will get a chance to ask them, “How did you get that teaching?” Then we will know from their answer whether I am right about that or not.

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Glossolalia, the most misunderstood

Recently the Domestic Expression of the Brothers and Sisters of Charity has been focusing on three topics stemming from the Leadership Gathering in April: clustering (getting closer together), vocations (gathering more who are called), and renewal in the Holy Spirit. My previous post of cell group teaching gave an overview of the gifting of the Holy Spirit. This post starts focusing on some of the gifts and graces of the Spirit. Remember that the previous post noted that any of the gifts of the Spirit that are exercised without the holiness that the Spirit leads us into will be perverted and become destructive. Also note that the perspective taken here is basically a biblical studies and historical approach, although with some pastoral observations.

 

While the lists in the Pauline and Petrine letters are not complete, but are examples shaped to the context of the argument in which they are included, we see clearly that: The Word Gifts are on a continuum: least comprehendible (by both speaker and hearer) to most comprehendible. The diagram below pictures this, and the fact will become clear as we continue.

Glossolalia/Interpretation —–  Prophecy ——  Teaching/Exhortation 

Glossolalia.

The first word gift, the least comprehendible, is glossolalia, which we encounter, first in an extended discussion in 1 Cor 12-14 and then in Acts 2. It raises a number of questions, which we shall take up one at a time.

 

First, is it non-language, ecstatic sounds? From a biblical historical point of view, one does find ecstatic non-language group speaking in scripture, but only in the early exilic/ pre-exilic former prophets, who attribute it to an earlier time and context. For example, one finds it in 1 Samuel and 1 Kings in the prophetic bands (the groups are still present in 1 Kings 18:13), which are probably the same as the “sons of the prophets.” While we do not hear of any content to the prophecy in Num 11, it is clear in 1 Sam 10 that the prophetic band stimulated what is normally identified in modern scholarship as glossolalia by energetic singing or chanting, accompanied by musical instruments (1 Sam 10:5). This was the means used to induce the ecstatic experience. The experience could be catching (at least when the Spirit was involved), for in 1 Sam 10:10-11 Saul “catches” it as the Spirit comes upon him and he starts to do the same thing. The experience of singing and processing seems to have included dancing (as in David’s “dancing before the Lord”) and/or laying on the earth in ecstasy (as Saul does in 1 Sam 19:20-24 – notice that Samuel is presiding over something when Saul comes up angrily and then involuntarily joins in), with both associated with “nakedness” or indecent dress (which might simply mean the removal of one’s outer garment, which one wore when out of the house and not doing physical labor, but then falling to the ground and dancing in which one kicked up one’s skirts, might both produce at least flashes of indecent exposure). While this is called “prophecy”, that is because it was the original meaning of a term that later shifted its meaning, for 1 Sam 9:9 indicates that the original meaning of “prophet” [Heb nabi’] was associated with such behavior and “seer” [Heb ro’ē] was associated with what we normally associate with biblical prophecy. Later, perhaps by the exile, the ecstatic behavior drops out of favor, and the term “prophet” comes to mean what we associate with the writing prophets (Elijah – Elisha seeming to form a transition). The term “seer” stopped being used. This type of ecstatic speaking was not unknown outside of the Hebrews, for in 1 Kings 18:26, 28-29 we find Ba’al prophets dancing around their altar (derisively called “limping” by the prophetic author of 1 Kings) and cutting themselves (when dancing alone did not do it) and prophesying (derisively called “raving,” for it was ecstatic speech, not understandable speech). While these references are all biblical, one would see something of the same in Ancient Near Eastern texts describing pagan practices. That, of course, should be a warning, for apparently-glossolalic-type utterances are not necessarily Christian (or ancient Israelite), but the altered states of consciousness can be induced by the same means in many contexts. But this is not what the New Testament means by glossolalia or “speaking in tongues.”

 

Second, what does the New Testament mean by glossolalia? It means speaking in a language not known to the speaker. This is clear in all New Testament references. In Acts 2 the 120 started spontaneously speaking in languages that they did not understand (since they were probably all Greek and/or Aramaic speakers), but which the those who visited Jerusalem recognized as their native languages (although a traveler would normally speak Greek). In his long discussion of glossolalia (which was being abused in Corinth) Paul in 1 Cor 13:1 groups glossolalia under the rubric of language, human or angelic. And in 1 Cor 14 Paul’s argument assumes that the language can be interpreted (i.e. that it is a language), even if the ability to do that is a divine gift. Finally, as Andrew Wilson points out in Christianity Today, in the Fathers it is also assumed that glossolalia is a language, even if unknown to the speaker or the group to whom he or she is speaking (without the spiritual gift of understanding it). Thus, what the New Testament is talking about and what the Church experienced over the centuries is a linguistic phenomenon, speaking in a language unknown to the speaker, even if the language involved was angelic.

 

Third, how common is glossolalia? In Acts it is a common, but not unique, mark of the filling with the Holy Spirit and thus part of Christian initiation for many people, with it either preceding or following immediately upon baptism. But in Acts it is notthe only or necessarymark of the filling with the Holy Spirit, nor is it a mark of re-filling with the Spirit even in Acts. Prophecy, joy, and other such expressions are equally marks of the filling with the Holy Spirit. Glossolalia seems to be common, as if the joy and inner experience of the Spirit can only find expression in Spirit-given words, but it is by no means unique. In Acts 19 Paul asks whether the people in a group had been filled with the Holy Spirit upon conversion, so he expected some experience, but he does not ask if they had spoken in tongues. In fact, 1 Cor 12:30 Paul argues that not all speak in tongues (the form of the question with Greek indicates a negative answer, “All do not speak in tongues, do they?”). In fact, Paul’s argument as a whole in 1 Cor 12 is against the idea that ever believer can or should speak in tongues/ use glossolalic speech, for there are varieties of gifts and no one has all of them. Finally, pastoral experience shows that some people who deeply desire to speak in tongues never do, despite prayer, coaching, and other means of “getting them started.” There is the further danger that if one by using “means” induces glossolalic-like speech in a person whom the Spirit is not gifting, since it is not coming from the Spirit, it must be coming from some other source, at best fleshly and at worst demonic.

 

Fourth, since we are talking about the genuine gift, how is it received? There are situations when someone, during an overwhelming spiritual experience, starts to spontaneously speak in tongues (“like a turkey gobbler” was how John Wimber put it). Yet, while one can pray for such overwhelming spiritual experience, i.e. pray for revival, trying to induce it or making it normative would be unwise at best and dangerous at worst. More often someone, upon reading or hearing about the gift and praying with relation to it, develops a desire to speak in tongues and/or receives an inner impulse to do so. In that case, opening their mouth, giving breath, and starting to speak what “comes to mind” will quietly start the gift. That is, normally the person’s will must be joined to the divine impulse, for otherwise they remain with the longing and never fulfill the longing. Let us make it clear: the person is in no way “out of control.” Thus, according to Paul (1 Cor 14), they can stop and wait for translation (or request that gift) or stop speaking in tongues altogether, for the gift is under the control of the speaker. The key element in this is the inner divine impulse – one feels an impulse within oneself that one recognizes as indicating that it is time to speak in tongues, yet even if the impulse is there, when it becomes evident that there is no translation, there is no sin in refraining. Furthermore, all gifts of the Spirit remain “giftsof the Spirit” and are under control of the Spirit, who can gift or not give whenever he wishes – they are never “my gift” that I own whatever the Spirit may want. I may, due to my personality or how God made me, frequently, even normally, be used by the Spirit in one or another area of gifting, but that do mean that I “own” it. In order to keep the gift genuine, I must be listening to the quiet voice of the Spirit within and resist jealousy if I see someone else being used in that area of gifting when the Spirit is not choosing to use me.

 

Fifth, Paul says that in a public assembly/ public gathering glossolalic speech should always be interpreted (or the person should be silent). Interpretation/ translation (when it is a spiritual gift) is likewise an impulse to speak, but in the known language. This impulse comes to a person who has understood what the glossolalic message means, not because they understand the language in general, but because they understand this instance by means of the Spirit. Furthermore, it is easy for a person to confuse the impulse to translate with the impulse to speak a word of prophecy on their own. In that case, the spoken message is not connected to the glossolalic message, which is not healthy. It is not healthy because prophecy should be weighed or evaluated by the leaders of the community rather than simply accepted (again, see 1 Cor 14), and if it is masked as the interpretation of a glossolalic message, it may seem authenticated by that fact and therefore not interpreted. This danger is greatest when excitement and emotions are running at a high pitch in a gathering.

 

Finally, we come to the “so what?” question. What is the significance of or reason for glossolalia? First, it is a sign that God is gathering all the nations (thus Pentecost in Acts 2 has people from nations around the Roman world hearing the good news). The sign is a dual sign, for it is both that God is sending the good news to all nations and that God is speaking to us through people of other languages (i.e. a reversal of Babel). Second, it is therefore a sign of the universality and catholicity of the Church, especially since we have to work together to understand it – some must interpret what someone else says. God breaks down the linguistic/ national barriers to form a universal community. Third, it is also a tool that God sometimes uses to proclaim his good news to people we otherwise could not communicate with. I had a woman in a church I pastored who was a nurse and who had the impulse to “speak in tongues” to a patient who did not speak English. The patient brightened up and started speaking enthusiastically back in their own language. At a pause, the nurse started again to speak in tongues, and so a back and forth conversation ensured, evening when the nurse had finished her duties and needed to go on to see other patients. It was clearly understandable and meaningful to the patient; the nurse had no idea what it was about, other than that she had obeyed God and thought she heard something like “Jesus” and “Christ” in what she was saying. And she never received the impulse to speak that way again to a patient, even to the same patient, whom she next saw on her way out of the hospital after discharge. These things do happen, even if, at least in our culture, they are rare. (Early Pentecostal missionaries sometimes rushed to the mission field without bother with language training, assuming that since they spoke in tongues this would be their normative experience. The results were disastrous.) Finally, it may be used in prayer to express what we cannot express in our own words, although the only scripture (Rom 8:23-24) speaks of our “groanings,” not glossolalia, while the Spirit sights in a way beyond words. But it is true that Christians have lifted up their hearts to God using repeated phrases that keep them focused, such as the Jesus Prayer or the prayers of the Marian rosary, and in the recent Pentecostal and charismatic movements group glossolalia has replaced such prayer. But, of course, such groups assumed that every “Spirit-filled” Christian could “speak in tongues,” which Paul denies. And sometimes, like with the Corinthians, there seems to be the assumption that the non-rational is better than the rational. So, while there are times when a group or someone within a group can only say, “Abba, Father,” (from Rom 8), or “Hallelujah,” or “Jesus,” or some other phrase, and for some this will be an appropriate time to glossolalia, the New Testament says nothing about the use of glossolalia in such instances. In my experience, it is also often manipulative when someone tells a group to lift up their voices in tongues, for it both raises the gift to an importance that Paul denies it has and makes those who do not have the gift feel second-class. And it may make those who do exercise that gift feel manipulated, for the impulse is not coming from the Spirit within but from someone without.

Much more could be said about this topic, but enough has been said to think about. We need to move on to the more understandable gifts of the Spirit, which will be the topic of my next post.

 

 

 

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