"Send out Your light and Your truth, that they may lead me, and bring me to Your holy hill and to Your dwelling." Psalm 43:3

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Sermon for Proper 24, year C

Preached at St. Martin of Tours Episcopal Church, Chattanooga, TN, on October 16, 2016.

Proper 24, Year C
Jer. 31:27-34 + Ps. 119:97-104 + II Tim. 3:14-4:5 + Lk. 18:1-8

In the Name of God, + Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Last Sunday, we observed a blessing of the animals, in honor of St. Francis of Assisi, whose feast the Church commemorates on Oct. 4. In my home growing up, there was a plaque, which had on it a quote attributed to St. Francis: "Preach the gospel at all times, and if necessary, use words."

I must tell you that, as both an introvert and an Episcopalian, my gut response to that quote is: Whew! What a relief--I don't have to say anything!

And I'm tempted to hear part of our Jeremiah reading this morning along the same lines:
No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, 'Know the LORD,' for (already) they shall all know me--alright! God's got it taken care of, so I guess I don't really need to do anything.

Of course, if I'm honest, I know that this vision of a future in which everyone knows God intimately, is not our present reality.

I do believe that all life comes from God and is sustained by God, so that, as St. Paul put it when he preached in Athens, "indeed, God is not far from each one of us, for in him we live and move and have our being"--and yet Paul still preached, precisely because the Athenians, pious as they were, did not know God.

A state of knowing God apart from the teaching of others is also not true to our own experience: all of us came to faith through the teaching and witness of others--parents, friends, family.

No one comes to know God in isolation from other human beings. God chooses to be known, not only in the inner person, but in the lived witness of human relationships.

And that's really what our epistle this morning is about. For the past few Sundays, we've been hearing from the Second Letter to Timothy. This short letter presents itself as being written by the apostle Paul at the end of his life. He's imprisoned in Rome, and believes his execution to be imminent. In these circumstances, he writes "to Timothy, my beloved child."

In his opening, Paul says, I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice, and now, I am sure, lives in you. Timothy was a leader in the church, having been appointed by Paul with the laying on of hands, and Paul urges him throughout the letter to be bold and unashamed in proclaiming the gospel. He is concerned to remind Timothy to guard the good treasure entrusted to you, with the help of the Holy Spirit who lives in us. Paul has passed the teaching down to Timothy, and Timothy must also pass it on to others.

Which brings us to the passage we just heard. Reminding Timothy again of the trustworthiness of those who taught him, and of the power of the divine Scriptures to equip him, Paul issues a solemn charge in the presence of God: Proclaim the message.
With endurance, with patience, whatever the circumstances, proclaim the message.
It's a message Paul summarizes more than once in this letter, as we heard last week:
Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David--that is my gospel.

That's it, in essence: Jesus is the Messiah--the anointed one of God has come, and has defeated death by his resurrection. That's the good news. We can make it incredibly complicated (and, in fairness, I don't believe we will ever in this life fully plumb the depths of that gospel) but that's it in summary:
in Jesus Christ, God has come among us and has defeated death so that we might live.

Now I know that among us Episcopalians, to talk about proclaiming the message, to talk about evangelism,
is often to talk about nervousness, even anxiety.

Perhaps there is a way out? After all, if Timothy was an overseer in the early Church--in other words, what would eventually develop into the office of bishop--then perhaps "proclaiming the message" is really just the job of the ordained? Well, it's true that evangelism is explicitly part of the work of ordained leaders in the church, but it is not limited to them. Fundamentally, the solemn charge to proclaim the message is given to every disciple of Jesus.

Recall what we say together as a congregation in the baptismal rite when the celebrant bids the assembly to welcome the newly baptized:
"We receive you into the household of God. Confess the faith of Christ crucified, proclaim his resurrection, and share with us in his eternal priesthood."
To be welcomed into the church is to accept this solemn charge. We do so explicitly in our baptismal covenant when we affirm that, with God's help, we will proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ.

By word and example--not one without the other.
Which brings me back to that quote attributed to St. Francis. I'll go ahead and apologize now for ruining this quote for some of you--but there is no record of Francis ever saying or writing that we should seek to preach the gospel without using words. Probably the closest confirmed source is in one of the monastic rules that Francis wrote for the brothers, wherein he tells them to "preach by their deeds"--which is to say, their way of life should align with what they preach. The context is important--the Franciscans are friars--essentially, monks who live among the people for the purpose of ministry and preaching.

As for Francis (who was never ordained), he preached constantly--he travelled throughout Europe and even to Egypt during the Crusades to preach to the Muslims. And, if we are listen to the popular traditions about him, his preaching did not stop with humans, but extended even to the birds and other animals. For Francis, as for St. Paul, to be a disciple of Jesus was to preach the gospel.

So, for us today, how are we to faithfully proclaim the message?

I think it is understandable that we feel, in some sense, nervous, when we contemplate the charge that is ours--to be ambassadors for God. That is an awesome responsibility. And yet God has not given us a spirit of fear, but a spirit of power, and love, and self-discipline. So we should take heart and shoulder the work in confidence, for like Timothy, faith lives in us by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. God has, in fulfillment of Jeremiah, put the divine law within us and written it on our hearts. But not only is God's word within us by the power of the Holy Spirit, God's word is also written for our eyes to see and our ears to hear. It is the God-inspired Scriptures that train us in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.

However one understands this often-quoted verse about the divine inspiration of Scripture, the message and very life of the Church has always been bound up in these sacred pages. To have an understanding of the Bible as God-inspired, literally, God-breathed, is to recognize the enthusiasm of the Psalmist who sings,
Oh, how I love your law!
     all the day long it is in my mind. . . .
I do not shrink from your judgments,
     because you--God--you yourself, have taught me.

Friends, we live in a society in which fewer and fewer of our neighbors know the Lord. Perhaps they have heard the message, and think it is not for them. Perhaps they have been deeply wounded by those who claimed to bring the gospel, but whose message was one of death rather than life. Or perhaps (and this will only become more true with time, I think), perhaps they simply have never heard the message faithfully proclaimed.

Do we believe that we have a gospel--good news--for them?

Pray for grace to heed the charge to proclaim the message,
to know the strength of the Holy Spirit within you,
to grow in learning the sacred writings that are able to instruct you in salvation,
so that you may carry out your ministry fully.

And so that when the Son of Man comes, he may find faith on the earth. 


Sermon for Proper 23, year C

Preached at St. Martin of Tours Episcopal Church in Chattanooga, TN, on October 9, 2016.

Proper 23, Year C
Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7 + Psalm 66:1-11 + 2 Timothy 2:8-15 + Luke 17:11-19

In the Name of God, + Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus' feet, and thanked him.

In these two short verses, we have as accurate and succinct a summary of the Christian life as we may hope to find. It is a life made whole, turned to God in praise and adoration. And at its pinnacle is gratitude, thanksgiving, eucharist.

We who come together Sunday by Sunday to give thanks to God should be well prepared to live a life a gratitude--to live grounded with a spirit of thanksgiving--in a world that often seems to spin with a careless thanklessness. But it is, I think, too easy for all of us to get caught up in that busy forgetfulness.

I recently heard a story on the radio about a man who embarked on a fascinating endeavor. A.J. Jacobs has made a name for himself as a writer who dives into extreme projects (for example, reading The Encyclopedia Britannica in its entirety), and then chronicles the experience. In the story I heard, Jacobs was being interviewed about his book The Year of Living Biblically. For a full year, he made it his goal to follow every single rule in the Bible as literally as possible. For Jacobs, a secular Jew, the project resulted in any number of amusing situations. (For instance, he carried around in his pocket several small pebbles, so as to be prepared to stone an adulterer, should the need arise.) However, Jacobs also described the project as being transformative, more profoundly so than he had found to be true for any other of his previous projects.
Though still not, strictly speaking, religious, Jacobs now describes himself as a reverent agnostic. That sense of reverence is bound up with a life of thanksgiving.

"I feel I'm a lot more thankful," Jacobs said. "I think about the hundred little things that go right every day, instead of focusing on the three or four that go wrong."

As Christians, we believe that the world and all that is in it, is the gift of God.
God created, and continues to create, not out of necessity, but out of love.
The whole created order is pure gift.
The life that animates us, from conception to death,
and every heart beat and breath in between,
     is the very breath of God, given to us.

How does one respond to such a gift?
How can one respond with any adequacy?

In Psalm 116, the Psalmist ponders,
How shall I repay the LORD for all the good things he has done for me?
and then immediately vows
I will lift up the cup of salvation and call upon the Name of the LORD . . .
I will offer you the sacrifice of thanksgiving.

From the very earliest times, Christians have seen in this Psalm a foreshadowing of the Eucharist--the Church's great thanksgiving. "Eucharist," of course, is simply the Greek word for "thanksgiving."

Which is why a variant of that word appears in our Gospel this morning:
He prostrated himself at Jesus' feet and thanked him.

Thus it is that this Samaritan leper, a double outcast, provides such a beautiful image of the Christian life in microcosm. Estranged and cut off, he comes to Jesus, crying out for mercy. In his compassion, Jesus heals him--fully.
     When, at the end of our Gospel, Jesus says, "your faith has made you well,"
     this is not only a reference to physical healing.
     This phrase could just as accurately be rendered, 
     "your faith has delivered you, has saved you."
     The effect is total healing, wholeness.

And the man's response to this healing?
He turns,
     he gives praise and glory to God,
          he falls on his face at the feet of Jesus, and gives thanks.

This morning, we gather here as the people of God. By the waters of baptism we entered the family of God that is the Church. Turning from sin, in those waters we died with Christ that we may now live with him. Estrangement and division were buried in those waters. And in gratitude we come together here, as God's people the world over gather every Sunday. We lift up our hearts, our inmost being, to God in praise. We give God glory. We adore the risen Lord.

And we offer our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving
to God who created us,
who delivered us,
who sends us out into the world in perfect peace.


Monday, October 5, 2015

The Creed: Thoughts from DuBose and others

In conversations about liturgical revision (which, unfortunately it seems, will indeed be happening sooner rather than later in the Episcopal Church), one persistent topic is the place of the Nicene Creed in worship. According to the Book of Common Prayer (1979), it is to be said by all in public worship on every Sunday and Major Feast. Some would prefer we not say it as often, and some think we should not have to say it at all! At a recent forum on Prayer Book revision, the Rev. Ruth Myers "described the Nicene Creed as 'a stumbling block for many,' and wondered if a creed is necessary during the Eucharist." Several thoughtful priests and lay persons have been discussing this online. From my perspective, here are some highlights:

Fr. Robert Hendrickson writes:
In order to be included in something then something must have some sort of definable shape, belief, boundary, norm, or pattern. The notion that if we recite the Creed on Sundays then we are excluding someone somehow misses an essential point – excluding them from what?
For all the talk about inclusion in the Church the sad thing to me is that this has become a cheap thing – we are too often not including people in anything more challenging, life-changing, or controversial than a New York Times subscription. The only thing the Church includes anyone in is in the life, death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ – the mystery at the heart of the Creed.
(read the rest here)

Fr. Christopher Arnold, in relating a story about a parish discussion he once took part in, writes:
The younger generations, on the other hand, felt more cordial about the Creed. I’ll divulge that I was in this group. For several of us, the Creed was something concrete and positive, a constructive statement of faith. Unlike the older Christians in the room, the younger ones had been raised in secular and skeptical surroundings. Many of our peers were dismissive or hostile towards Christianity, preferring Buddhism, neo-Paganism, or nothing. We spoke about how we had struggled to arrive at the faith that the Creed summarized. To stand and declare it on a Sunday was to affirm again the faith that we had discovered to be life-giving. I remember one young woman saying that she didn’t agree with everything in the Creed, but she respected that the Creed represented the faith of the wider church, and she was working hard to join it.
My point is not to say that one group is right and another wrong, but to draw attention to how our feelings about parts of the liturgy are possibly cultural pendulums swinging through their arcs. If the Creed is removed because one generation feels uncomfortable with it, how will the next generation get a chance to see if the Creed is necessary for the support of their faith?
(read the rest here)

And two reactions in the comments section following Fr. Chris's post:
Without the faith of the creeds, and the strong identity it ideally inculcates, even in the midst of disagreement with it, a church becomes either a poorly run social service organization, so wasteful that it should be shut down, or a boring fraternal organization, and deserves the death that ultimately awaits it. (Fr. Jody Howard)
The fact (that) the Episcopal Church is relatively hospitable to skeptics doesn’t mean that we don’t intend to be a branch of the one holy catholic and apostolic Church. Those who accept our relative open-mindedness and hospitality ought not to ask those of us who affirm the historic faith without hesitation to deform the liturgy by removing the Nicene Creed. (Fr. Bill Carroll)  

In reading and reflecting over all this, I was reminded of something I recently read by William Porcher DuBose. In his 1911 lectures at the University of the South (later published as Turning Points in My Life), DuBose stated:
All the truth of the Church is not yet mine: there are points of it that I know to be true, because I have been all the time approximating to them; but I am still waiting, and shall probably die waiting, for them to become true to me. Truth is not an individual thing; no one of us has all of it--even all of it that is known. Truth is a corporate possession, and the knowledge of it is a corporate process. It enters slowly and painfully into the common sense, the common experience, the common use and life of men. There is a corporate, catholic, Christianity, actually extant on this earth, which no one or no set of us holds all of, or perfectly even what we do hold ... the full actualization of  Christianity will come only with the fruition of the world's destiny, in the end of the ages. When a man learns that, he will be modest either about his own truth or about impugning other people's truth.
It is this very understanding of truth, and of the truth of the Christian faith, which led DuBose to comment specifically on the Creed, and its place in the Church:
I can accept the Church's, or the Catholic, Creed; and could with good conscience accept it, even though it were not yet all my own creed, or though I could not see my way to ever making all the incidents or details of it my own. Shall Christ not be mine, and I His, because I cannot see all the steps of my way to Him?--or all the steps of His way to me?  ...  We may confess the faith as the Church's faith and profess the life as the Church's life, but to start out with saying that either of them is all personally ours is either ignorance or hypocrisy.  On the one hand, therefore, I would say that for one to suppose that, because the general or catholic creed of the Church is not in every point and particular, in every interpretation or understanding of it, his own personal and actual creed, he has therefore at once to teach or preach against it, or else to avow and proclaim his dissent as to read himself or be read out of the Church, is illogical and unreasonable. And on the other hand, I should say that for the Church to require and demand that, ipso facto and instanter, her fully developed and complete creed should be ex animo and in every jot and tittle the personal and actual creed of every member, or of any member, is equally irrational and impossible. There ought to be, at the least, as much of divine patience and tenderness on the part of the Church toward the incomplete and even the willful believer, as there out to be of modest deference and obedience on the part of the individual believer to the reasonable and rightful authority of the Church. 
DuBose's own reasonable and nuanced thought in this regard has helped me to be more honest and charitable when it comes to discussing the Creed with those who are uncomfortable affirming it (or parts thereof)--but his approach simultaneously affirms, I believe, the fundamental importance of the Creed as "the Church's faith," faithfully leading us into the completeness of truth, though as yet "no one of us has all of it." It is for this reason that I believe the '79 Prayer Book was right to restore the confession of the Nicene Creed at the celebration of every Sunday Eucharist (previous Prayer Books had allowed for its occasional omission, provided that it was at least said on principal feast days).

Lastly, DuBose's understanding that "truth is a corporate possession" is reinforced by the '79 Prayer Book's restoration of the plural form ("We believe in one God ..."), which is true to the original language of the Creed (previous Prayer Books had read, "I believe ... "). The wisdom of this language was demonstrated to me recently when a clergy friend was recounting an experience he had as a young ordinand. Nearing ordination, he admitted to his spiritual advisor that he did not think he could in good conscience fully affirm a particular article of the Creed. His advisor replied, "Affirm it, and I will believe it for you, and you may trust that one day you will believe it, too." This, to me, is a beautiful illustration of Charles Williams' idea of "coinherence." So, for example, when St. Paul writes that we are to bear one another's burdens (Gal. 6:2), there is a deep spiritual truth discerned--we are, mystically and truly, bound together in Christ, in all things. And so one now truly, like Christ, suffers with and for another, rejoices with and for another, believes with and, at times even believes for, on behalf of, another who is in the midst of doubt. And so the Church, composed as she is of such diverse individuals, is increasingly being brought to unity in and by Christ, as she confesses, "We believe ..."  

Peace of Christ.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

A Rejoinder on the Essential Catholicity of the Episcopal Church, and the Importance of Relationships

While searching, out of curiosity, for Episcopal Church parishes that have altars set against the east wall, I stumbled upon an Orthodox blog post regarding an event about which I previously wrote (here). The event served as an opportunity for that blogger to opine that "the Episcopal 'Church' is simply apostate," that ecumenical dialogue between Orthodox and Episcopalians should cease, and that Orthodox jurisdictions should no longer recognize Episcopal sacraments, including baptism. Further elaboration followed in the comments. Given that opening volley, and considering the premium that I place upon incarnate relationships (according to which, I often question the value of relatively impersonal conversations online), I'm not sure that I had any real cause to comment; for whatever reason, I felt compelled to do so.

My response became too extensive for a mere comment, so I have posted my thoughts here (with an invitation, of course, to the originator of the criticisms to read them and respond, if he is so inclined). I offer them without animosity as the reflections of one who desires greater understanding, charity, and unity among Christians of varying traditions.

The assertions with which I must contend, and my responses:

"The simple truth is we have no idea what is happening in (Episcopal) baptisms. We don't know what is being said, what is being intended, and so on. In theory they are bound by the Book of Common Prayer. In practice this is often not the case."
I should begin by saying that I view adherence to the BCP as of utmost importance, and while it's true that we have priests who don't do this as strictly as they should (and as they are bound by their ordination vows to do), it must be said that such aberrations are exceptions, despite the press they receive. I think this is even truer with regards to the baptismal rite; as a lifelong Episcopalian, I've witnessed a fair number of baptisms, and I've never seen (or heard of) one that would be considered invalid according to the doctrine and practice set forth in the BCP. At a minimum, the baptism must be "with water, 'In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit' (which are the essential parts of Baptism)" (1979 BCP, 313). Any baptism meeting this basic criteria is recognized as valid by the Episcopal Church as constituting "full initiation by water and the Holy Spirit into Christ's Body the Church. The bond which God establishes in Baptism is indissoluble" (BCP, 298). Accordingly, the Episcopal Church does not re-baptize, and firmly argues against a theological understanding of baptism which would necessitate such a practice.
     As for baptisms administered in the Episcopal Church, in addition to meeting the above essentials, they are normatively in accordance with the full baptismal rite contained in the Prayer Book. In that rite, the candidate renounces Satan, evil, and sin, and affirms Jesus Christ as Savior, Lord, and the one upon whom all hope is cast. The candidate proceeds, with the whole assembly, to affirm the faith in the words of the Apostles' Creed. After prayers, the candidate is baptized in the Triune Name, and anointed with Chrism ("you are sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ's own forever"). Then the newly baptized is charged by the whole assembled household of God to "Confess the faith of Christ crucified, proclaim his resurrection, and share with us in his eternal priesthood." (BCP, 301-308). One may dispute the finer points of the BCP rite itself, but I must contend that it is simply unjustified to state that "we have no idea what is happening" in Episcopal baptisms--what is happening, with near if not actual universality in such baptisms, is the rite as contained in the authorized liturgy of the Episcopal Church.

"There is no real article of faith to which one must subscribe to be (an Episcopalian)."
See above. To me, this criticism sounds like a stereotypical Roman Catholic (or generally Western) criticism of Eastern Orthodoxy: "How can anyone be sure what those Orthodox really believe? They have no Pope! They have no systematic catechism! They are so enamored of divine mystery! It's just too messy!" It can indeed be messy, but that by no means negates the deep substance to be found in a tradition. To be baptized or received into the Episcopal Church is to affirm the ancient Creeds, and to submit to be continually formed by the liturgy of the Church as authorized in the BCP, which is the clearest and most authoritative source of "the doctrine and discipline" of the Episcopal Church. If one has questions about the faith professed by the Episcopal Church, read the BCP. Again, one may quibble over various details, but I don't see how anyone could claim that the BCP as a whole is not a formulary that is elegantly and powerfully catholic and reformed, solidly orthodox, and unambiguously Trinitarian. (And it's so handy, too!)

"Are there Christians in TEC? Certainly. But the organization itself is not Christian . . ."
Again, see above. This reminds me of conversations in my younger days among evangelical Protestant friends:
"So, do you think it's possible for a Roman Catholic to be a Christian?"
"Well, I guess so, if they have accepted Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior. But I don't know why they would continue to stay in that pagan, idolatrous 'church.' They should find a real church that's Bible-based."
"So, do you know many Roman Catholics?"
"Well, not really. But I just read this book by a former Catholic who got saved, all about what Catholics really believe . . ."

"And of course the few who are as a matter of personal faith still Christian are in full communion with the likes of Jack Spong. You are who you are in communion with."
To begin with, I should say that I'm no fan of John S. Spong. I tend to be pretty generous, but having read some of his stuff, I honestly don't know how (or why) he maintains a Christian self-identity. I should also note that some of his ablest critics have been his fellow Anglicans, including the recent Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams (he truly took him to task for his "12 Points"--look it up for a good read). There are still Episcopalians who seem interested in what he writes, but in my experience they are generally older and of decreasing number (i.e. Spong's heyday, to the extent that he had one, has come and gone). But more to the point, I would speak to the claim that "you are who you are in communion with." If that is how communion works (i.e. negatively, the "worst" of us infecting the "best" of us), then no doubt we are all, in every tradition, hopelessly lost. But there is a sense in which I agree--I believe that by God's grace in the sacraments (particularly Baptism and Eucharist), Christians are brought into union with one another in ways no less real for our inadequacy to describe the mystery. I would not say, though, that "I am who I am in communion with"; rather, I would assert that I am becoming, that I am being transformed more and more into the likeness of Christ, and into greater union with God and God's people.

To conclude, I would reiterate that I think relationships are key--if a Christian from a different tradition finds it inconceivable that an Episcopalian could be both sincere and well-grounded in his personal Christian faith and also convinced of the essential catholicity of the Episcopal Church, I would encourage such a one to seek to develop some relationships with some actual Episcopalians. I myself have been greatly blessed by my involvement in the Eighth Day Institute, a local ecumenical endeavor founded by a devout Orthodox layman and supported by the local Orthodox Cathedral of St. George (Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America). It is a truly remarkable and wonderful source of Christian fellowship and education.

Ephesians 4:1-6
Pax Christi.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Derek Olsen on Catholic Anglicanism: Christology and Sacramental Theology Matter

Dr. Derek Olsen, who blogs at haligweorc, recently posted some thoughts on the future of Anglo-Catholicism in the Episcopal Church. In response to a comment on that post, he offered another clarifying post. As I've come to expect, he nails it: 

What do I care about? Resurgent Arianism in the church really bothers me; approval and promotion of teachers who suggest that Jesus was just an enlightened revolutionary teacher rather than God Incarnate bothers me. Casual modalism bothers me. Indeed, causual modalism implying that Jesus has no role as Creator or Sanctifier further reinforces Arian tendencies. Insidious Gnosticism and the notion that the faith is about an individual’s intellectual assent to a set of ideas rather than the communal living of embodied beliefs bothers me. Disconnecting the sacraments from a life of discipleship bothers me. The Eucharist is a sacrificial meal of reconciliation that draws us deeper into our baptismal vows and commitments. It is a sign of and for the baptized community and those who wish to receive it should be invited into the community through the font. Concerns about Christology have real, practical, pastoral implications; sacramental theology matters in how we see God at work in the world around us. This isn’t a “superior version of the faith”—it’s the faith as we’ve been taught it. I have a duty to teach it to my children and, by extension, to have confidence that the other members of the church who are teaching my children hold it too.

Read it all here.

Peace of Christ.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Heschel: The Supremacy of Pathos

From The Prophets, by Abraham Heschel:

"The central achievement of biblical religion was to remove the veil of anonymity from the workings of history. There are no ultimate laws, no eternal ideas. The Lord alone is ultimate and eternal. The laws are His creation, and the moral ideas are not entities apart from Him; they are His concern. Indeed, the personalization of the moral idea is the indispensable assumption of prophetic theology. Mercy, grace, repentance, forgiveness, all would be impossible if the moral principle were held to be superior to God.  God's call to man, which resounds so frequently in the utterances of the prophets, presupposes an ethos based, not upon immutable principles, but rather upon His eternal concern. God's repenting a decision which was based on moral grounds clearly shows the supremacy of pathos." 

Frankly, it is a thought provoking passage for me, because the pathos of God is something I sometimes struggle with. I must admit that my image of God (and, I think, the Church's understanding of God from a very early date, and hence the image most Christians have) has been formed for better or worse not only by Holy Scripture but by ancient Greek ideas of God (not popular Greek religion, but the philosophers). Specifically, Greek ideas about God's immutability (i.e. "unchangeableness") can be supported by some specific verses, but looking at the whole of Scripture I think it is not possible to state confidently that God is "unmoved." In other words, God as depicted in the Bible does indeed seem to change his mind, to "relent concerning calamity" out of his mercy and love for us, notwithstanding the demands of strict justice.

This is seen particularly in the prophets, where God often seems overcome by pathos. We may say that this simply represents a human attempt at understanding the infinite God, but it is Scripture nonetheless, so I feel compelled to attend to it. A great example is Hosea, where the recurring image is one of "God, the jilted husband"--an emotional image if ever there was one! A climactic passage comes in Hosea chapter 11. After ten chapters of indictment against Judah and Israel for unfaithfulness justly deserving God's imminent wrath (occasionally punctuated by seemingly contrary assertions of tenderness), the LORD declares, "How can I give you up, O Ephraim? How can I surrender you, O Israel? . . . My heart is turned over within me, all my compassions are kindled. I will not execute my fierce anger, I will not destroy Ephraim again" (Hos. 11:8-9).

At the risk of sounding crude, the image of God in Hosea strikes me as almost "hormonal," which is not how I would ordinarily think of God. Yet, as Heschel argues, without the supremacy of the pathos of God over immutable moral principles, there would be no mercy, forgiveness, grace--and so I must confess profound gratitude for such pathos! 

Friday, February 27, 2015

Herbert: Welcome Dear Feast of Lent

Welcome dear feast of Lent: who loves not thee,
He loves not temperance, or Authority,
     But is composed of passion.
The Scriptures bid us fast; the Church says, now:
Give to thy Mother, what thou wouldst allow
     To ev'ry corporation.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

It's true, we cannot reach Christ's forti'th day;
Yet to go part of that religious way,
     Is better than to rest:
We cannot reach our Savior's purity;
Yet are we bid, Be holy, ev'n as he.
     In both let's do our best.

Who goeth in the way which Christ hath gone,
Is much more sure to meet with him, than one
     That travelleth byways:
Perhaps my God, though he be far before,
May turn, and take me by the hand, and more
     May strengthen my decays.

Yet Lord instruct us to improve our fast
By starving sin and taking such repast,
     As may our faults control:
That ev'ry man may revel at his door,
Not in his parlor; banqueting the poor,
     And among those his soul.

~opening and closing stanzas of "Lent," from George Herbert's The Temple

From the start, George Herbert's poem is apologetic. He assumes that there is a need to justify to the reader the benefit and appropriateness of this penitential season. It is a reasonable assumption, for who loves discipline, penitence, and soul-searching? Yet, we are reminded "the Scriptures bid us fast"--there are numerous and significant examples of fasting in the Bible, including the example of our Lord (Mt. 4:2, Lk. 4:2) as well as his specific injunction (Mt. 6:16-18). And since we do not dispute the general appropriateness of granting authority to those people or organizations to whom it is lawfully due, how much more willing should we be to honor, in the case of spiritual discipline, the authority of the Church, wherein we have been born to new life?

However, dutiful obedience is not the heart of the poem. Rather, Herbert sees the Lenten season as a gift, "an occasion" (he says in another stanza) of which "true Christians should be glad." Indeed, he begins rather provocatively by calling Lent, the Great Fast of the Church, a "dear feast." In what sense is Lent an opportunity and a feast? It is an opportunity to emulate Jesus, and in so doing to meet him. We do not travel the Lenten road of discipline for the purpose of self-improvement, but to identify with and meet Jesus; "Who goeth in the way which Christ hath gone, is much more sure to meet with him." And Lent is a feast, not for the body, but for the soul. Herbert's final stanza alludes to Isaiah 58, in which the LORD describes a true fast:

Is not this the fast that I choose:
    to loose the bonds of injustice,
    to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
    and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
    and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
    and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
                                  ~ Isaiah 58:6-7

In thus "banqueting the poor" we banquet also our souls. Those who choose to enter into the wilderness for these forty days may be apprehensive, and that is understandable. But it is in the wilderness that we may expect to find our Lord. And choosing intentionally to starve our incessant preoccupation with ourselves and our desires, which is after all our natural inclination, frees us to turn our energies to bless others. And so we both fulfill God's desire that we care for one another, and find that it is in such care that we are truly made full.

"Welcome dear feast of Lent."

Peace of Christ.  

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

A Christian Reflection on Abortion: Welcome, Relationship, Responsibility

When I saw the headline in my Facebook feed about a church "celebrating abortion" I half expected what I would find. "Of course. Abortion. Kansas. The Episcopal Church. Of course." Much as I love the Episcopal Church, there is no denying that we have a particular knack for majoring in really terrible PR (and that not due solely to ignorant or hostile press, though there is that). And oh, Kansas--nary a dull moment for the culture wars!

The parish church that is hosting the event in support of a local Planned Parenthood clinic (which provides women's health services, but not abortions) is one with which I am personally acquainted. Though I have never been a member there, my family and I have attended services occasionally, as well as diocesan and community events there. It has been a place of blessing for us, a community in the household of God in which sincere love and discipleship are evident. I can say that confidently as one who has experienced it as a reality. Accordingly, I was disappointed (though not surprised) by the inflammatory invective that a quick online search turned up: one columnist allowed herself to speculate wildly about parishioners as neo-Moloch worshipers ecstatically tossing children to the flames.1 Separately, a YouTube activist introduced his video by referring to the parish as an "apostate yoga practicing baby-killing loving church" (alright, I did have to chuckle at that one). Such characterizations can only come from people who apparently have no desire to see "the other" as anything but fanatical. There seems even to be no hint of their viewing "those people" as perhaps well-meaning but misguided--no, they are nefarious apostates bent on evil. No shades of gray here. It is a way of thinking not so far removed from the oft-heard accusation that pro-lifers don't actually care about preventing abortions but simply want to control women's bodies.

Though steering well clear of such rhetoric, the view from the other side in this case is not so generous as I had hoped for. I don't find particularly helpful a statement such as, "The Episcopal Church says you can form your own opinion about reproductive justice and you can be against it or for it."2 Such language feebly attempts to give an impression of open-mindedness while asserting that there is nevertheless an obvious right answer. While I don't subscribe to a post-modernism that admits of the futility of being able to assert anything (the gospel certainly makes assertions, and the Christian life is a way of life demanding decisions, not merely an intellectual exercise), still I do acknowledge that there are many exigencies of human life which are complex and upon which thoughtful people disagree. Political rhetoric from left and right notwithstanding, abortion is such an issue.

I think it is unfortunate that this issue has become so politicized that it is difficult to have meaningful conversation about it. Both sides speak in loaded language, the simplistic language of politicians seeking to win the votes of citizens who don't have time for the complicated details. But such should not be the language of the Church. As Stanley Hauerwas has said, “The church must refuse to use society’s terms for the abortion debate. The church must address the abortion problem as church.”3 In my own attempt to think through the abortion problem outside of the truncated parameters in which it is typically framed, I would describe myself generally as pro-choice and anti-abortion (though undermining a mutually exclusive view of the terms, I am aware that I am still using the language of the debate; it's a start). And in fact, such a designation is consonant with the public stance of the Episcopal Church: General Convention Resolution A054 states the Church's opposition to government action that would abridge “the right of a woman to reach an informed decision about the termination of pregnancy.”4 Such decisions are too complex, important, and morally fraught to be decided by partisan legislators. However, the same resolution boldly proclaims that “all human life is sacred from its inception until death,” and therefore “all abortion (has) a tragic dimension.” Accordingly, the Church states that "we emphatically oppose abortion as a means of birth control, family planning, sex selection, or any reason of mere convenience." In light of this, a woman with an unplanned pregnancy should expect the full support, in counsel and resources, of the Church. That is easier to say than to do.

In his essay, "Abortion, Theologically Understood" Stanley Hauerwas makes the argument that Christians should not understand the abortion debate as one of rights (i.e. "right to life" vs. "right to choose"), but of responsibility. And responsibility is difficult, risky, costly. It may mean Christians working to profoundly change structures in our society so that women can feel confident about having the support to give birth to a child in difficult circumstances. But even closer to home, it may mean Christian communities being willing to make real sacrifices to welcome life into the world, radically offering hospitality both to "unwanted children" and to the women upon whom society, in the name of privacy, would dump the total burden of responsibility. What such a welcome would look like would vary: it could mean more Christians being willing to adopt, or to welcome pregnant women into their own homes, or parishes taking communal responsibility for the long-term care of women and children. In any event, it would not be easy, but such is the call to welcome life as a gift of God. The Church also must ever offer grace and forgiveness, and to seek to be understanding of the frailty of human nature and the sometimes overpowering sense of circumstance. The resources of the Church significantly include her liturgical life: among the authorized liturgies of the Episcopal Church are "A Rite of Repentance and Reconciliation for an Abortion" and "A Liturgy of Lament and Remembrance," as well as associated litanies and prayers.5 I believe such pastoral services represent the right approach in what is a difficult and extremely important ethical issue.      

I don't mind saying that I would not be comfortable supporting a fund-raiser for a Planned Parenthood clinic on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade. Whether intended or not, it seems to imply a celebration of abortion that is bound to invite controversy, and any work around this issue should be concerned to de-escalate sensationalism. But I don't have all the answers. And so, criticisms notwithstanding, I won't condemn a church parish that is seeking to build upon relationships in their community to enhance women's health and options, and so decrease the market for abortions. On the contrary, it represents an attempt by a particular community of Christians to address the complex realities of human life in their local context. And knowing that particular community of Christians, I am willing to trust that they are acting prayerfully and according to the dictates of a conscience formed by a life of discipleship to Christ. Different churches will come to different conclusions about how they can best minister to their own communities, but I do believe that concrete local involvement and grace-filled pastoral care should be hallmarks of the work of the Church regarding such issues. The demonization or dismissal of "the other" will help neither women nor those they carry in their wombs. But building relationships and being willing to make costly sacrifices for the good of one's neighbor are steps along the way of our Lord.

LORD, you have searched me out and known me;
     you know my sitting down and my rising up;
     you discern my thoughts from afar.
You trace my journeys and my resting places
     and are acquainted with all my ways.
Indeed, there is not a word on my lips,
     but you, O LORD, know it altogether.

For you yourself created my inmost parts;
     you knit me together in my mother's womb.
I will thank you because I am marvelously made;
     your works are wonderful, and I know it well.
                                                   ~ Psalm 139:1-3, 12-13

The God who is Creator of us all has made us to be known. May the whole Church receive wisdom and courage to step out boldly to forge relationships, even when costly. It is only in community, in knowing one another, that we may hope, by God's grace, to approach the justice of the Kingdom of God.
Peace of Christ.

1. American Thinker
2. The Wichita Eagle  
3. "Abortion, Theologically Understood" from The Hauerwas Reader, Duke University Press 2001
4. Archives of the Episcopal Church
5. Enriching Our Worship 5