Friday, July 15, 2005

Bearing One Another's Burdens

A certain brother had sinned, and the priest commanded him to go out from the church. But Bessarion rose up and went out with him, saying, "I too am a sinful man."
-The Sayings of the Fathers
The Church today gives lip service to the fact that "we're all sinners in need of redemption," especially in conservative circles, but the idea is hardly ever acted upon. I recently read a collection of sayings of the desert fathers and I was pleasantly surprised to see that they had a real sense of bearing one another's burdens.

I knew the desert fathers (and mothers) had led very austere lives, and I expected spiritual insights, but because of their austerity, I didn't expect compassion, yet I found it in abundance. The chapter on fornication, for instance, is almost entirely about how monks being tempted to lust is natural and should be counseled accordingly (that is, not harshly).

One of the stories tells of two monks who went in to town to sell the mats they had made and to buy bread. When they separated, one of the monks fell into temptation and committed fornication. When they came together, this monk told the other to go back to the monastery alone for he had sinned and was no longer worthy. The second monk said, "Not so, my brother, for when we parted I also fell into temptation and fornicated. Let us go back and confess to the abbot together and do penance." Though this monk hadn't actually sinned, he said that he had so that he could share in his brother's burden.

There's a Jewish tradition that Abraham is more righteous than Noah because Abraham stood up on behalf of the righteous in Soddam. But Moses, according to this tradition, is more righteous than either because he took a stand with the wicked so that God would not destroy them.

This, it seems to me, is almost entirely lacking in the Church today. Who is willing to incur even ill reputation on behalf of another?

I'd been planning to write something about this for a few days, and when I came across the Carl Braaten controversy seemed to me to illustrate the issue. I'm not conceding that it is sin that needs to be shared in that case, but the need to stand together is clear. I want to make clear that I do not think that standing together with gay and lesbian Christians is equivalent to standing together with the wicked. But if we should stand together with the wicked, how much more should we stand with the persecuted. And yet Christians are refusing to do so in the name of "maintaining the traditions of the Church."

It seems to me to be too much about saving face.


Badger539 said...

"Tell me, I pray thee, how fares the human race; If new roofs be risen in the ancient cities: whose empire is it that now sways the world?"

I take it that you too have discovered Helen Waddell's wonderful book. How wonderful it is that such treasures remain in print in an age where religious publishing is dominated by vulgarity.

I am not familiar with the controversy you mention. Are the forces of reaction (Such as the IRD) financing dissent in your denomination too?

Andy said...

Yes, it is the Waddell version that I read. It's a truly remarkable book.

If you click the Braaten link on the original post it will take you to a copy of an open letter he wrote. He doesn't actually mention the sexuality issue, but it's clear there.

I couldn't say what forces are moving the controversy in the ELCA, but I know it isn't going well. My synod (Oregon) recently voted to become a Reconciled in Christ synod, but unfortunately my congregation doesn't like that and is making noise about withdrawing from the ELCA.

I really hate the idea looking for a new church....

*Christopher said...

Melancthon, the elders are filled with anecdotes and sayings of compassion...I've blogged on them quite a bit...check out In the Heart of the Desert by Fr. John Chryssavgis.