Wednesday, February 28, 2007

A Guest Reflection

I haven't been doing my work for Versus Populum because I've been obsessing over a task I've undertaken in my church: I'm leading a four-session study of Genesis 1-3 -- one which tries to read the text anew and to unpack things that may be new to people. (I'm trying to avoid a "distillation" of the Genesis "meaning" into simple concepts such as "creatio ex nihilo" -- which, frankly, is not supported by the text -- or "Fall" -- which I think needs to be defined rather carefully.

It's a lot of fun -- even though it's proceeding in a kind of sporadic way: For various reasons, some involving scheduling and others resulting from God's gift of a foot of snow last weekend, we've ended up meeting every other week -- something that makes for difficulty in maintaing continuity.

The point, though, is that I've been thinking about little else than Genesis. I've been exploring the Hebrew, a real stretch for me in that I can barely decipher the script, let alone analyze the words. (Thank God, sincerely, for good lexical aids.) I've been reading von Rad (even though I didn't plan to read commentaries) and Colin Gunton and Westermann because they are scintillating and beautifully written pieces of work. (With respect to the Gunton work, which is basically a historical study of the Christian doctrine of "creation": I didn't anticipate getting excited reading about the Christian response to Thales and Plato. But I am.)

I'll get back to harumphing shortly, however. There are too many things going on.

For now, however, I can't resist posting (and I hope it falls within the fair-use doctrine in copyright law) this recent offering from the Marty Center at the U of Chicago -- it's biweekly e-mailed "Sightings," to which you can subscribe by following the link at the end of the piece. The Ted Haggart fiasco has given me a crick in my neck from shakling my head in amazement, outrage, open-mouthed shock at the stupidity of the deal. Here, Jack Stackhouse provides some good
insight into a decent, non-celebrity model for ministry that takes into account human frailty without adopting an everything-goes approach (which is where the American Church seems to be heading).

Without further ado:



Wounded Healers

-- John G. Stackhouse, Jr.

By now we've all heard the latest about Ted Haggard, former pastor of New Life Church in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and former head of the National Association of Evangelicals. Brother Haggard -- and, as a fellow Christian, he is my brother -- was found to have been having sexual relations with a male prostitute in Denver. He resigned in disgrace, and has since been in counseling.

According to the February 6 issue of the Denver Post, the four pastors in charge of overseeing New Life Church in the wake of this disaster made a surprising -- to some, an astonishing, and to others, an absurd -- announcement. One of them, Rev. Tim Ralph of Larkspur, Colorado, was quoted as explaining Haggard's three-year relationship with the man in these terms: Haggard "is completely heterosexual. That is something he discovered. It was the acting-out situations where things took place. It wasn't a constant thing."

Columnists have had a field day with this recent announcement, of course, with many wondering what stresses could possibly drive a "completely heterosexual" man into the arms of a male lover. Others have simply gotten the story wrong, saying that Haggard is claiming to have been "cured" of homosexuality in just three months, rather than the years that might be expected for rebuilding such a basic component of one's personality -- if indeed such a thing is possible at all. The media circus continues.

In all of this, I am reminded of the late Henri Nouwen, the superb spiritual writer who taught at Harvard and Yale before spending his last years in pastoral service at L'Arche, Jean Vanier's community for the developmentally disabled. Nouwen also wrestled with homosexuality -- "wrestled" with it because his religious beliefs, like Haggard's, diagnosed it as a deformation of the personality.

Also like Haggard, Nouwen maintained a position of spiritual advisor to many. His sexual difficulty did not disqualify him from offering his
considerable gifts to others -- nor should Haggard's have kept him from pastoral service.

Unlike Haggard, however, Nouwen refused to engage in preaching or public activism against homosexuality. He avoided, that is, any risk of incurring the taint of hypocrisy, which is a far more serious problem -- in the Bible and in the public eye -- than is homosexuality.

Nouwen gave us the lovely phrase, the "wounded healer." Some have exploited this term -- as all lovely things are vulnerable to exploitation -- to suggest that you can be entirely comfortable with all manner of sins and still be a spiritual leader. You can be proud, you can be lustful, you can be greedy, you can wrathfully dismiss dissenting colleagues, and on down through the seven deadlies -- but hey, you're a "wounded healer" and darned popular -- in other words, "blessed in your ministry." So it's okay, right?

No, says Nouwen, by word and by example. Serve, yes, offering your God-given talents to make God's beloved world a better place. But serve out of consciousness of your wound, which means to serve in humility, in compassion, in patience. "There but for the grace of God go I."

Nouwen's insight is that, clergy or not, we must not wait to become perfect before we help others. We can help them, that is, precisely as fellow sufferers, with genuine fellow feeling -- but also with a strong and clear sense of our limitations. And even if you've never been a fan of Ted Haggard, nor of the populist celebrity-evangelicalism that he exemplifies, you can still cultivate sympathy for him, for his family, and for his church.

And, thanks to Brother Nouwen, we can also better recognize that our wounds may not be healed right away, nor even over months or years. According to Nouwen's theology, God may well allow some of those wounds remain a while -- for as we endure their pain, their shame, and their debility, we may be given the gift of remembering just how needy each of us is, and how great the possibilities of restoring love.

John G. Stackhouse, Jr., is Sangwoo Youtong Chee Professor of Theology and Culture at Regent College.
The current Religion and Culture Web Forum features "The Earth Charter as a New Covenant for Democracy" by J. Ronald Engel. To read this article, please visit:
Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Lutheran Romani?!

I can hardly deny that I am both narrowly educated in matters of the world and painfully naive as to my own families' cultures. I mean I don't know very much -- say, compared to Sister Dash, who's a fiend on her Swedish identity -- about my Norwegian and Icelandic heritage, let alone my Bohemia-Czech-Slovak-Polish side. So I was surprised and delighted to run across this article about Lutheran Romani (otherwise known as "gypsies") in Transylvania/Romania.

Now, I have no personal investment in Transylvania (although I'd really like to master that "Dracula" accent!), but the Romani (or Romany) are another matter: A family legend, presumed factual, is that the Penas family ended up in Bohemia because their gypsy travels brought them there. There is support for such a story, too. For example, my Fulbright-Fellowship-winning uncle was unable to trace the family back in Bohemia and Eastern Europe much beyond the days before they moved to the States. And our name is a Greek-related name, meaning "poor" (when Jesus says "blessed are the poor" the word translated "poor" is "penas" -- pronounced "pen-ace," which is how some in the family tree pronounce it): I had a Greek doctor in Illinois who took great delight in greeting me in Greek and addressing me as the "beggar," because in modern Greek our patronym refers to the gypsy-beggar. So there is circumstantial evidence that there is "gypsy blood" in these, my veins.

Now I find out that some maybe-distant cousins are fellow Lutherans. How exciting is that? For me: quite!

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Ted Haggard

It's a great relief to me personally that Ted Haggard is "completely heterosexual" according to the team of loving pastors that has been overseeing his recovery. See here. It's also a great relief to me that the loving pastors overseeing his recovery have counseled him to leave his home area and to give up church work -- where he might have expected some sort of support during his time of reconciliation and healing -- in favor of secular employment in some other area of the country. (Same article.) It would likely be a bad example for the 14,000 members of New Life congregation and the National Association of Evangelicals to have ever before their eyes a human being who must struggle with sin and malfeasance and the consequences thereof. And God forbid that they actually be called on to understand the struggle and perhaps to forgive.

It is, of course, only natural that a person with as much psychological baggage as the (formerly Rev.?) Mr. Haggard carries to be encouraged to seek a career (along with the wife to whom he was unfaithful) in psychology. It's good to know that the universe is still filled with irony.

And now, if I could dislodge my tongue from my cheek, I'd get on with other business.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Church and World: A Sermon

Friend Art Halbardier preached at Mount Olive Sunday, on the Gospel text wherein Jesus preaches in his home synagogue and ruffles a few feathers. (Art is a member of Mount Olive, and he was substituting for the pastor, who was on vacation.) For his focus, Art raised the charge, "When the Church rises up to be the Church, the World rises up to be the World."

It was an eloquent, quietly urgent bit of preaching. And it powerfully made the point that to live faith is not to be at ease in the world we live in. It was wonderfully Hauerwasian, which Art said he did not intend (but so what, eh?).

Hauerwas says that the world needs the Church to be the Church so that the world knows that it is the world. (That is SO Hauerwas, I think.) The Church is not simply the religious aspect of living a regular life in the culture; the Church is the new culture, its own culture, brought into being, modeled, and enabled by the Triune God. The "world" is that which has not yet been won over to the ways of God. And we shade the borders between the two at our own peril -- as Art suggests.

I commend his sermon to you (even though I don't often recommend sermons). You may read it here.