Archives: 4 Epiphany

Why You Don’t Have a Conscience

We all want to “do the right thing.”

We want to make ethically and morally sound decisions. (Most of the time.)

But how do we know what the right thing to do is? How do we decide?

Most of us rely on vague intuition mixed with general social pressure.

We basically try to do what everyone else does.

Some of us have a highly developed inner moral voice that cracks the whip and dangles us over the fiery flames of hell.

This usually comes from early (sometimes abusive) religious training that focused more on strict and rigid moral codes than God’s loving forgiveness.

Most people “do the right thing” out of shame, wanting to be liked, or fear of punishment.

That doesn’t seem like a very sound foundation for living a good life, especially one that abounds with joy, peace, patience, and the other fruits of the Spirit.

As Christians we rely on conscience to help us make moral choices.

But most of us have not taken the time as mature adults to reexamine whatever childhood images we had of “the still small voice.”

Conscience is not just the internalized voice of the parent or the authority figure. That’s a child’s vision of conscience.

It’s a good place to start—we all learn how to care for other people by coming up against structure and boundaries as children.

But moral decision-making as adults should have a spiritual character deeper than a memorized set of rules.

(And many times, those most obsessed with “the rules” use them mostly to build up their own power and beat others down with shame.)

So how do we explore conscience as adult actors in a moral universe? Continue reading

Fish Out of Water

The thing about being a fish is that you don’t know that you’re swimming in water.

The thing about being an American is that you don’t know you’re addicted to success.

For the fish, the water is its whole world.

It does not even register on whatever primitive consciousness the fish may have that it is in this liquid medium, and that there is another whole world of air and space that exists outside of it.

Unfortunately for the fish, he can’t survive outside of the water, so he’s probably better off not knowing about the world of air.

We humans are in a similar situation.

From virtually the day we are born, we are taught to orient ourselves toward success.

As we learn to walk and talk, we receive praise for each new word and each new step.

As we grow up and go to school, we learn how to get the affirmation and attention we need by conforming to the expectations of adults and peers.

And as adults, we climb the career ladder, try to make more money, get a bigger house, take more impressive vacations, get more promotions.

We count each trophy our children earn and tick off each box on their college prep resumes.

There’s nothing wrong with this orientation toward progress per se.

In fact, it helps us accomplish a lot of good things in our lives.

If we didn’t value and strive toward success, we never would have learned to walk and talk and read and get into college or get a job.

We need success to get the basics of life taken care of.

But just like the fish, there is a whole world outside this water of success orientation that we don’t know about. Continue reading

Shoving Jesus Over a Cliff and Other Bad Habits

Here’s a heads up for all you aspiring preachers out there. Don’t ever be snotty about a scripture passage or someone will challenge you to preach on it.

That’s what happened to me.

I arrived at 4 Epiphany and the 1 Corinthians 13 passage came up.

I immediately groaned, visions dancing through my head of skimpily dressed bridesmaids and questionably sober groomsmen staring off into space while this text was read at weddings I’ve officiated and attended.

My inner cynic popped up—overdone! Trite! Boring!

A friend immediately called me on it.

1 Corinthians 13 is a beloved scripture. If you think it’s so dumb, why don’t you preach on it?

Well, I couldn’t let a challenge like that pass me by.

And he’s right. It is a beautiful scripture, that’s the reason it has been so used so many times that it has become clichéd.

It’s theologically sound, and considering many of St. Paul’s works, quite pastorally sensitive.

I just have such a hard time stepping back and appreciating it for what it’s worth.

Even in my mind when I think of it, I recite it like a bored teenager: “Love is patient, love is kind, love is not envious or boastful, blah, blah, this is dumb, I’m going to update my facebook.”

This is exactly the moment when visitors to our congregation could rightfully ask, “And this woman is a priest?”

Yes, I am, and clergy are not immune to being unable to value the treasures that are right in front of them.

We have a perfect example of the phenomenon in our gospel today, when Jesus’ hometown friends and family try to throw him off a cliff. Continue reading

Things We Don’t Talk About: Jesus and Mental Illness

Today is Superbowl Sunday, that festival of all the sacred American traditions: football, junk food, and most of all, commercials.

If you think of the Superbowl as a high holy day of secular American culture, you will notice that people are much more demonstrative at this ritual than they are in most churches.

Even stoic, polite Episcopalians lose their inhibitions when their favorite team is down to 4th and goal with one minute to go.

Nor am I innocent of devotion to this American religion. I may be a priest of the Episcopal church first, but second, I love football.

I mean, I really love football, in the most undignified way possible.

I used not to care about sports at all, and then once I got to college and had a big state university team to root for, I started to get interested. Four years of college plus three of graduate school transformed me into a rabid fan–win or lose, rain or snow, you’ll find me in the stands for a home game and in front of the T.V. for any team I can watch.

I have to watch myself or I’ll be one of those crazies who paint their stomachs and scream like banshees into the camera on the front row of the stands.

What makes people act so crazy at sports events?

And why do we find this type of behavior perfectly normal and acceptable in this particular context?

Anyone who painted their stomach and screamed random slogans at church or in the office or at the grocery store would be thought to be insane.

And we Americans do not do well with insanity.

You can have almost any medical problem in the world and still be taken seriously and treated like a human being, except for mental illness.

Why is that? Continue reading

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