Chalk Messages

A few weeks ago, the Katy trail in Dallas had messages chalked on its concrete. There were many variations, all colorful and well-lettered, and with some wit. The first one I saw said (this from memory) “You can be strong without eating animals.” There were a number of other messages, all of them encouraging a rethinking of eating flesh or dairy. I was not offended. I like witty vegans, and I appreciated this stealth overnight campaign which itself did no harm.
    The next day the messages were clean gone; there had been rain and, one supposed, they were just washed away. As I was meditating on all this, I saw a reddish cardinal on the side of the trail. It was pecking at an insect that was trying to get away, but the cardinal prevailed.
    Score: Vegans 1, Bug-Eaters 1.
---
    I was having a salad one evening for supper, and a dinner companion looked at my plate. “Oh,” he said, “that’s what food eats.”
    Bonus point for the carnivores?
---
    This is a true story; I have a book of his published letters. Sydney Smith was a witty Church of England clergyman of the 19th century and a real socialite. Sent to the country for his health, he wrote about the pains of his exile to a city friend. I’m stuck out here, he said, where all sorts of “birds fly around, uncooked.”
    I think that makes it a four-way tie between vegans, bug-eaters, carnivores, and clergy.
---
    The original plan, it seems, had all living beings eating only fruits and vegetables and seeds and grass. Animals, birds, fish, and humans did not eat each other, nor did any living thing “that creepeth upon the earth.” There is also a suggestion that the purpose for which animals and birds came into existence was to become friends of the original, solitary human. Yet in short order that was seen not to work, and so the human’s friend was extracted from within himself, the woman whose sameness-in-difference brought delighted recognition from the man. The fall, however, brought into the world the need for rule and judgment. An early sign of this is right after the flood (Genesis 9:2-6), where the execution of punishment for murder is put into human hands.
    What is a very deep mystery is that, at the very same time as human beings were made political, they were given permission to eat animals. The binding together of human beings seems to require the strong differentiation of humans from the other living beings. I do not know why this is the case. I sense that the Bible has a deep and difficult truth here.
    Nonetheless, it is clear that the Bible is ambivalent at best about meat-eating. The permission to do so seems to be a concession. As Jesus said about divorce: the law permits it because you have hard hearts. But at the beginning it was not so.
---
    Out & About. The date for the fall theology lecture is Sunday, October 28, at 6 p.m. at Incarnation, Dallas. The topic is about rules and exceptions, and I will use assisted suicide as a way of getting at the problem. Suicide is wrong, and the Christian tradition holds rather strongly that we should not assist someone else who wishes to bring about her or his own death. But we can also imagine rather difficult cases, and so we wonder about breaking the rules—that maybe, sometimes, it would be okay. The reception that follows will illustrate the same rule-and-exception quandary, for while it is unlikely to feature meat or even fried grasshoppers, we do expect cheese.

I'm Not Interested in Excusing; I'm Interested in Forgiving

     I heard it at a funeral, a time for honesty. At death it’s over; there is nothing more we can do or say with the departed: and so, both rightly and wrongly, we feel guilt. With regard to this person who has died, there are things we did that we ought not to have done, and things we did not that we ought to have done. And it hurts to face the hard fact: there is nothing for us to do.
    The preacher was taking us down into this scary territory, and he was not letting us off the hook. Which is to say, he was showing there’s no alternative to honesty in these places. I thought of an earlier death, and of people saying to me that I should feel proud, that I had cared so well for my beloved for so long—and I thought, if only they knew the truth, they couldn’t say that.
    It’s partly true that we can explain things, and partly true that explanations can excuse. We had limited knowledge. We did the best we could with the time we had. We know that no one is perfect. We cut ourselves some slack.
    As we should! But it’s also true that we “cut some slack” only because we are (in addition to being finite creatures) sinners.
    It’s not the whole truth about us—what was said to me was partially true. Yet part of the truth of us remains that we are sinners. The pain of death is indeed, in part, the pain of sin.
---
    The preacher said a lot of other things. But he did not say that it’s all okay because God understand us. Yes, it is true that God understands every action of ours; he knows our motives better than we do; and he loves us. Still, that’s not what the preacher said.
    Instead he said: God forgives. Forgiveness is not just understanding; forgiveness is not excusing. It’s making right. It’s fixing. It’s restoring relationships.
    God forgives from the cross, from the point of death, from the cruciform impression that sin makes upon perfect humanity. And there he asks us to do the same.
    You’re standing at the grave, and you say: I love you, and I forgive you.
    You’re standing at the grave, and you say: I love you; please forgive me.
    You’re standing at the grave, and Jesus makes this exchange of forgiveness possible, and honest, and real.
---
    Those Frenchies: Since writing last week’s blog, I have learned that the translation of the Roman Catholic liturgy into French, just like that into English, recently was revised. From 1966 until last Advent, French Catholics said “Do not submit us to temptation” (Ne nous soumets pas à la tentation). That line was changed to “Do not let us enter into temptation” (Ne nous laisse pas entrer en tentation)—thus explaining why it was emphasized on the poster seen in the French church. It is, of course, a petition that is notoriously difficult to interpret (in any language); I take it to be asking God to grant us the gift of perseverance so that we remain faithful to the end of our days.
    It remains remarkable (and it seems to me almost mystical), that the Lord’s Prayer, and nothing else, would be what a visitor first sees when visiting that church.
---
    Out & About. I am preaching at All Souls’ Church in Oklahoma City this weekend, Aug. 18-19: Saturday at 5:30 p.m., and Sunday at 8 and 10 a.m.

12345678910 ... 4950

The Rev. Canon Dr. Victor Lee Austin is the Theologian-in-Residence for the diocese and is the author of several books including, "Losing Susan: Brain Disease, the Priest's Wife, and the God who Gives and Takes Away."