"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, December 29, 2012

John Donne: On the Wholeness of Christ's Redemptive Work

From a sermon by John Donne:
Only to Christ Jesus, the fulness of time was at his birth; not because he had not also a painful life to pass through, but because the work of our redemption was an entire work, and all that Christ said or did or suffered, concurred to our salvation: as well his mother's swathing him in little clouts as Joseph's shrouding him in a funeral sheet; as well his cold lying in the manger as his cold dying upon the Cross; as well the Unto us a Boy is born as the It is finished:  as well his birth as his death is said to have been the fulness of time.  
Peace, and happy Chistmastide. 

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Catherine of Siena: On the Virgin and the Incarnation

Saint Catherine of Siena writes:
If I consider your own great counsel, eternal Trinity, I see that in your light you saw the dignity and nobility of the human race.  So, just as love compelled you to draw us out of yourself, so that same love compelled you to buy us back when we were lost.  In fact, you showed that you loved us before we existed, when you chose to draw us out of yourself only for love.  But you have shown us greater love still by giving us yourself, shutting yourself up today in the pouch of humanity.  And what more could you have given us than to give your very self?  So you can truly ask us, 'What should I or could I have done for you that I have not done?'  I see, then, that whatever your wisdom saw, in that great council of yours, as best for our salvation, is what your mercy willed, and what your power has today accomplished ...
O Mary, I see this Word given to you, living in you yet not separated from the Father -- just as the word one has in one's mind does not leave one's heart or become separated from it even though the word is externalized and communicated to others.  In these things our human dignity is revealed -- that God should have done such and so great things for us.  
And even more: in you, O Mary, our human strength and freedom are revealed, for after the deliberation of such and so great a council, the angel was sent to you to announce to you the mystery of divine counsel, and to seek to know your will, and God's son did not come down to your womb until you had given your will's consent.  He waited at the door for you to open to him ... 'Here I am, God's servant; let it be done to me as you have said.'
The strength and freedom of the will is clearly revealed, then, for no good nor any evil can be done without that will.  Nor is there any devil or other creature that can drive it to the guilt of deadly sin without its consent.  Nor, on the other hand, can it be driven to do anything good unless it so chooses.  The eternal Godhead, O Mary, was knocking at your door, but unless you had opened that door of your will, God would not have taken flesh in you.  Blush, my soul, when you see that today God has become your relative in Mary.  Today, you have been shown that though you were made without your help, you will not be saved without your help, for today God is knocking at the door of Mary's will and waiting for her to open to Him.
Peace, and a blessed Christmastide!

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Christ, Have Mercy

Thus says the LORD:
"A voice is heard in Ramah,
Lamentation and weeping.
Rachel is weeping for her children;
She refused to be comforted for her children,
Because they are no more."
~Jeremiah 31:15

In the day of my trouble I sought the Lord;
     my hands were stretched out and did not tire;
     I refused to be comforted.
~Psalm 77:2

Last Friday afternoon, as the details of the Newtown tragedy were being learned, it was difficult to know how to pray.  My wife said that her initial impulse was to pray for peace and comfort for the victims' families.  But that didn't feel right; no, she said, they have to weep and mourn now, to be angry and confused, to give full vent to their grief.  To do otherwise would be both unhealthy and simply wrong.  There is a time for grief, as the Preacher of Ecclesiastes well knew.

The Psalmists knew it also.  They did not hide or explain away their human emotions.  In the Psalms we have the full range of human emotion, the good, the bad, and the ugly.  Often, in the course of a  Psalm we experience a time of confusion, sorrow, or anger that eventually comes through to a conclusion, and there is confirmation of God's faithfulness, and closure.  Psalm 73 is an excellent example of this.  But sometimes, there is no comfort, there is no closure.  Psalm 88 is one continuous, soul-crushing lament, with scant comfort to be found.  The Psalmist begins,

          O LORD, my God, my Savior,
               by day and night I cry to you.
          Let my prayer enter your presence;
               incline your ear to my lamentation.
          For I am full of trouble;
               my life is at the brink of the grave. 

And those are the most hopeful lines in the Psalm.  It pretty much goes downhill from there (way downhill, actually, all the way to the abyss).  By the end of the lament, the Psalmist seems as forlorn as ever.  He closes,

          Your blazing anger has swept over me;
               your terrors have destroyed me;
          They surround me all day long like a flood;
               they encompass me on every side.
          My friend and my neighbor you have put away from me,
               and darkness is my only companion.

Over the weekend, I was looking through the burial rites in The Book of Common Prayer.  It is my opinion that the burial rite, as laid out here in the anthems, the prayers, and the Scripture readings, is a masterwork of liturgy.  I think one would be hard-pressed to find anything that presents the Christian hope so accurately, beautifully, and powerfully.  That said, as I was reading through the prayers and Scriptures in light of the tragedy in Newtown, I confess that I didn't feel very comforted.  I tried, in some small way, to imagine how I would feel as a father whose young child was suddenly, brutally, and senselessly taken from me.  I don't think I would want to hear words of comfort.  I am fairly certain that I would not want anyone telling me that God will comfort those who mourn, that He is good to those who wait for Him, that I should not lose heart, for the things seen are only temporary.  Truthfully, I can hardly begin to imagine the anguish those parents are going through right now.

I think my wife was right when she determined that what she could do, and what all Christians should do, is to be sad.  Rather than to choose not to think about it, or to pray that the pain will simply go away, we should weep with those who weep.  The Apostle Paul counsels the same.  And is this not the central message of the Incarnation, that God in Christ enters our world, becomes truly human that He may fully embrace the human suffering that is an inescapable aspect of our humanity?  At the grave of Lazarus, Jesus wept with those who were weeping.  Looking to Jesus, our exemplar in all things, let us do the same.

But it is still difficult to know how to pray.

Lord, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.


Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Reflections on Isaiah Chapter One

Therefore, the Lord GOD of hosts,
The Mighty One of Israel declares, 
"Ah, I will be relieved of my adversaries,
And avenge myself on my foes.
I will also turn my hand against you, 
And will smelt away your dross as with lye,
And will remove all your alloy.
Then I will restore your judges as at the first,
And your counselors as at the beginning;
After that you will be called the city of righteousness,
A faithful city."
~Isaiah 1:24-26

A couple of things in this passage grabbed my attention during Evening Prayer yesterday.  First, God fights His own battles.  Second, He purifies His unfaithful people (a painful process) in order to bring them again to a place of faithfulness.

Regarding the first observation, I'm reminded of Archbishop Michael Ramsey's words: "Whenever exponents of the Christian faith treat it as something which we have to 'defend' like a beleagured fortress or a fragile structure they are making God to be smaller than he is."  These words resonate with me, as I observe the incessant "culture wars" into which many Christians continue to insert themselves.  I presume that they do so with the best of intentions, but I have felt for some time now that this does more harm than good.  I don't hear many people these days saying, "See, how these Christians love one another!", but rather wondering what piece of controversial legislation we will support or oppose next.

In times such as these, I tend to gravitate toward the words of wise Gamaliel in Acts chapter 5.  When the Sanhedrin is considering how to respond to the "threat" of the preaching of Peter and the apostles, Gamaliel counsels, "Stay away from these men and let them alone, for if this plan or action should be of men, it will be overthrown; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them; or else you may even be found fighting against God."  Sounds like good advice to me, given the disrepute which we have brought upon the Church in the eyes of so many by now openly aligning ourselves with this political messiah, now taking our stand on this issue upon which the very existence of our civilization depends, now railing in the name of God against this cultural shift.  Unfortunately, no sooner do I settle comfortably into Gamaliel's advice, confident that I have chosen the better way, than I am reminded of the oft-quoted words of Edmund Burke: "All that is needed for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing."  Well, shoot.  Those words resonate with me as well, though in a way that weighs uncomfortably on the shoulders of my timid, be-at-peace-with-all-men soul.  I think of men like William Wilberforce, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King, Jr., Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and many others.  I think of the prophet Amos, who cried out, "Hate evil, love good, and establish justice in the gate!"  So, how to remedy this conflict between simply trusting in the ultimate triumph of God's truth and the duty of publicly aligning myself with that truth?  How do I quietly and peacefully "leave room for the wrath of God" while also faithfully proclaiming God's truth in the face of sin and injustice?  Well, the answer is ... ha! yeah, I don't know.  But I'm trying to find that place.

Something I can say with confidence, though, is that the Christian life is a life of hope.  Even in suffering and hardship, when the walls are crumbling, when it seems that we have been abandoned, the Christian lives in hope.  It may be that this time of pain and uncertainty is "the smelting away of (our) dross."  For myself, I think of the on-going struggles within Anglicanism.  I don't know how the shape of the Church will change in the years to come, and things certainly can look bleak at times, but I am convinced of the never-failing love and faithfulness of God, who is ever purifying and renewing His people, that we may be "a faithful city".


Thursday, November 29, 2012

"The Monk is Not an Anachronism"

I just recently began reading The Rule of Saint Benedict, the fifth century classic of Western monasticism.  I'm kind of surprised it's taken me this long to get around to it, since I've been fairly enthralled with the idea of the monastic life since I was a kid.  During my most recent excursion to Eighth Day Books, I bought an edition published by Vintage Spiritual Classics, and the following is from the preface by Thomas Moore.
"The emphasis in The Rule on contemplative practices gives it its exceptional value and, of course, over the centuries has inspired many reformers, organizations, and individuals to create fresh ways of being contemplative.  The Rule refers to the chanting of the psalms as the Opus Dei, or Work of God, and for the monk it is certainly true that common prayer, carried out in a spirit of contemplation and with beauty, is his or her central work ...
"The combination of being aware of the divine presence everywhere, chanting the Divine Office with special care to art, praying briefly but devotionally, reading contemplatively, and treating manual labor for the community as a part of spiritual practice -- all these five daily give life a special quality, a tranquility and calm that are difficult or impossible to find in the non-monastic world.  It seems true that ours is still an age of anxiety, not a psychological problem but an existential condition created by the busy, productive, and unthoughtful style of modern work, play, and home life. ...
"The monk is not an anachronism, nor is The Rule of Saint Benedict antique and irrelevant.  It is modern life, rather, that is not in accord with the fundamental needs of the human heart.  From the viewpoint of the human soul, our modern style of living is the irrelevancy.  By not enjoying a genuine common life and by not giving ourselves a degree of contemplation, we wound our need for emotional quiet and for meaning.  And so it is appropriate to return to this ancient sketch of an alternative life, to reread it and discuss it, and, with imagination and reflection, bring its spirit into the workplace, the home, and the city, where it could transform a culture of anxiety into a community of peace and mutual regard."
To that I say a hearty "amen."  And as Moore suggests, I hope occasionally to "discuss" The Rule here on this blog, insofar as I'm given grace for some insight, or simply to voice questions.  A happy Saint Andrew's eve!

Sunday, November 25, 2012

An Anecdote

Not too long ago, my parish was in the process of searching for a rector.  One of the individuals who we invited to come for an interview and introduction to the church and community was a middle aged, single man.  To be honest, he struck me as kind of weird.  He was socially awkward, not in a shy way, but in a forthright, not especially tactful sort of way.  His mannerisms were unusual, and he seemed to have some slight "ticks" (for lack of a better word).  He also held, in my opinion, some rather unconventional views about religion and society generally.  I'm sure all that sounds horribly judgmental, and I think probably most people who live lives of great devotion to God don't come across as "normal"; nevertheless, such was my perception of him.  A number of parishioners had gathered at the church for dinner and introductions, with a formal interview to follow the meal.  During the course of the evening, he related to us a period in which he had experienced something of a crisis of faith.  He had felt unsure of his vocation as a priest, and so he went and spoke with his bishop.  He told his bishop that he felt he was "part Christian, part Buddhist, and part agnostic" or something like that.  His bishop's response was, "Well, that sounds Episcopalian to me."

The next morning, I was one of several parishioners who met with our guest at a local diner for breakfast.  I happened to sit next to him, and he inquired about my background.  I told him that I grew up in the Episcopal Church, in a generally conservative atmosphere.  My parents, as well as many members of the parish in which I was raised, are fairly evangelical.  His quick response was, "Wow.  That's really unusual" or words to that effect.  Needless to say, I was a little piqued, but I didn't say anything.  Inwardly, I was defensively thinking, "Well, you obviously don't know what you're talking about.  The Episcopal Church is a very diverse body.  You've just spent too much time on the West Coast (a native Californian).  You need to get out more."  That was my thought at the time.  Now, over a year later, well ... I don't know.  I feel I've learned quite a bit since then (as I've been actively seeking to learn) about TEC, and it's self-proclaimed diversity.  Certainly my reaction to his comment was presumptuous for a twenty-something whose firsthand experience of the Episcopal Church has been almost entirely confined to a single Midwestern diocese.  Maybe the circumstances in which I was raised were, in fact, unusual.  Maybe I'm the one who needs to get out more.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Unity, Grief, and Hope

Oh, how good and pleasant it is,
     when brethren live together in unity!
It is like fine oil upon the head
     that runs down upon the beard,
Upon the beard of Aaron,
     and runs down upon the collar of his robe.
It is like the dew of Hermon
     that falls upon the hills of Mount Zion.
For there the LORD has ordained the blessing:
     life for evermore.
~Psalm 133

I haven't really wanted to write about South Carolina.  I've been pretty downhearted every time I've thought about it.  It's kind of shaken my faith.  I haven't really wanted to write about anything for the last few days, but it's this that continues to occupy my thoughts, so I'm going to get them out here.  (Disclaimer: the disillusioned, long-winded rambling will now commence.)

I'm grieved.  I'm not really surprised, but that doesn't mean I'm not still confused.  I'm grieved that the church I love is continuing to tear itself apart.  It is a church that, I believe, has historically had a fairly unique calling to be a church of restoration and reunion, a church with a truly comprehensive vision, that embraces mystery and diversity in certain matters of faith because it believes that to do anything less would be dishonest and  would ultimately miss God, the incomprehensible mystery who yet lived with us as one of us, and lives also within us.  Clearly, we don't have God figured out, and we don't have all the answers (that should be obvious enough, despite the strident righteousness on display by both "sides").  As Archbishop Rowan Williams has said, "It takes the whole Church to know the whole truth."  I believe that strongly.  And so I'm grieved, because I'm watching that comprehensive vision fade farther into the background with each new schism.

I'm angry that this entire debacle has become one of opposing "sides".  I don't want to be a part of either side.  I don't want to be part of a church that is so confident in the rightness of its orthodoxy in the face of "heresy" that it feels justified in committing the sin of schism (surely one of the greatest heresies of all), and celebrates the fact that it will no longer have to be constantly battling to uphold the pure faith in the midst of all these liberal Christians, so-called, since most of them are apostate anyway and have chosen to lead TEC down a path that can only end in extinction.  "We're moving into a new and brighter future.  We don't need them."  I don't want to be part of a church that is so intent upon being a "prophetic witness" (and is so confident that it cannot but be so), that it is increasingly willing to set aside 2,000 years of Church tradition, and even the Holy Scriptures themselves, in order to "listen to what the Holy Spirit is telling us today" (or is that my own heart I hear?), a church that only tolerates a diversity of beliefs until one becomes too insistent on taking seriously that old idea of Scripture as truly foundational, even over and against the prevailing winds of the times in which we live, in which case we won't really be too sorry to see you leave, just so long as you don't try to steal our property as you go.  "We're moving into a new and brighter future.  We don't need them" (or much of the global Anglican Communion, it would seem).  But now there are many members, but one body.  And the eye cannot say to the hand, "I have no need of you"; or again the head to the feet, "I have no need of you."

I want to be part of a church that truly welcomes all types and conditions of people: Catholic, Evangelical, and Liberal; male and female; black and white; single and married; gay and straight; young and old; left, right, and every point in between.  I believe that Christ's one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church is indeed catholic: proclaiming God's whole truth, to all people, everywhere and at all times.  How can we fail to  recognize the breadth, height, and depth that Church must comprise?  Obviously, such a Church will have more than enough opportunities for disagreement on any number of issues.  But such a Church will consist of members who all find unity in Christ, who gather at the Eucharist to be nourished with spiritual food in the sacrament of Christ's body and blood, who, whatever differences they may have, still look at one another in love and recognize and affirm a brother or sister in the Lord.  My fear is that such a Church is ceasing to exist in North America today.  I still pray that it is not too late to preserve such a vision of the Church, but these last few days have not been encouraging.
The whole thing is a ghastly horrible witness.  As some have rightly pointed out, the church is reflecting the very worst of the partisanship of the current secular culture, when it should be witnessing to the bankruptcy of such power politics by showing a better way.  And sadly, I suppose we can expect the litigation battles over property to soon get underway.  I know what the canons say, and I don't care; it's uncharitable to the point of spite.  I say this to your shame.  Is it so, that there is not among you one wise man who will be able to decide before his brethren, but brother goes to law with brother, and that before unbelievers?  Actually, then it is already a defeat for you, that you have lawsuits with one another.  Why not rather be wronged?  Why not rather be defrauded?  And yet, I wonder: who cares?  I mean, how many people are even at all aware of what has recently transpired in South Carolina?  For all the church's seeming desire to be "relevant", on the cutting-edge of social justice, interfaith dialogue, biblical criticism, or whatever, we seem to be becoming more and more irrelevant.  Approach the man on the street and ask him what he thinks of the Episcopal Church, and it's a safe bet you'll get a blank stare (also likely he wouldn't even know how to pronounce the word "Episcopalian" if you showed it to him).  So, does all this even much matter?  I don't know; maybe it doesn't, at least as regards our witness, or lack thereof.  But it sure as hell grieves me.  And I'll be presumptuous and say that it grieves our Lord as well, and so, by extension, should grieve all His followers.  Would that some among our leaders would step down from the righteousness grandstand and issue a call for some intentional humility among all our people.  Blow a trumpet in Zion, consecrate a fast, proclaim a solemn assembly, gather the people, sanctify the congregation ... Let the priests, the LORD's ministers, weep between the porch and the altar, and let them say, "Spare Thy people, O LORD, and do not make Thine inheritance a reproach, a byword among the nations."    

It's times like these that almost make me wish I could relapse into the "personal relationship", individualist Christianity that has become so prevalent in the American church: just me and Jesus; what do I care about South Carolina and the nasty politico-theological battles of TEC?  But I can't do that.  I would be deceiving myself, and I know it.  Give me Jesus, yes, but I can't pretend that I can just leave this whole church thing alone, as if it were optional, there as a help for those who want it.  No, I was baptized into Christ, and made a member of the household of God.  For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.  Well, we're having some domestic turmoil, but I don't intend to leave the household, and I certainly won't close my eyes and imagine that the household itself doesn't exist.

I've read somewhere that the Church itself is a sacrament, even and especially in its brokenness.  In its brokenness, the Church points continually to the One who can make us whole.  Our institutions, both ecclesial and secular, will fail us; we ourselves, as individual humans, will fail.  All the more reason to lift our eyes to that One; in Jesus Christ alone is our hope.  I believe this.  And maybe it's foolish of me to choose to be still hopeful.  Maybe I need to take off the blinders and stop the wishful thinking.  I honestly don't know.  But I do choose to live in hope.  Not just the hope that all will ultimately be made well in God, regardless of whether or not the Episcopal Church continues as a faithful witness to the gospel, for I believe that is a point indisputable.  No, I choose also to hope and pray that this tradition in which I have been raised in Christ will indeed continue, and will yet experience healing and renewal.  If we are faithless, He remains faithful, for He cannot deny Himself.   May it be so.

Show us your mercy. O LORD,
     and grant us your salvation.
I will listen to what the LORD God is saying,
     for he is speaking peace to his faithful people
     and to those who turn their heart to him.
Truly, his salvation is very near to those who fear him,
     that his glory may dwell in our land.
Mercy and truth have met together,
     righteousness and peace have kissed each other.
Truth shall spring up from the earth,
     and righteousness shall look down from heaven.
The Lord will indeed grant prosperity,
     and our land will yield its increase.
Righteousness shall go before him,
     and peace shall be a pathway for his feet.
~Psalm 85

O God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, our only Savior, the Prince of Peace: Give us grace seriously to lay to heart the great dangers we are in by our unhappy divisions; take away all hatred and prejudice, and whatever else may hinder us from godly union and concord; that, as there is but one Body and one Spirit, one hope of our calling, one Lord, one Faith, one Baptism, one God and Father of us all, so we may be all of one heart and of one soul, united in one holy bond of truth and peace, of faith and charity, and may with one mind and one mouth glorify you; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.
~ no. 14, a prayer For the Unity of the Church        

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Wm. Temple: "There is the Church"

This past Tuesday was not only Election Day, but also the feast day of William Temple in many Anglican Church calendars.  This is a happy coincidence, given Temple's advocacy for a truly Christian social vision (there is an excellent post over at the blog Catholicity and Covenant that contrasts the broadness of his vision with the poverty of our current political discourse).

William Temple was Archbishop of Canterbury from 1942 until his death in 1944.  A gifted teacher with an infectious laugh and an encyclopedic knowledge, he seemed to be a respected authority in nearly everything.  He was also one of the principal leaders of the early ecumenical movement, a fact for which I find him  particularly interesting.  This is because I claim the title of ecumenist as integral to my identity.  I think the same may be said of Temple. Here he is from a sermon given at the opening of the ecumenical Edinburgh Conference of 1937 on Faith and Order (which he chaired):
"But I know that our division at this point is the greatest of all scandals in the face of the world; I know that we can only consent to it or maintain it without the guilt of unfaithfulness to the unity of the Gospel and of God himself, if it is a source to us of spiritual pain, and if we are striving to the utmost to remove the occasions which now bind us, as we think, to that perpetuation of disunion."
That disunion was obviously a source of "spiritual pain" to Temple, laboring as he did to bring about greater understanding and genuine union among the various scattered branches of the Church.  In typically Anglican fashion, he viewed his own tradition as having a special vocation to this ecumenical calling.  The Anglican church has long sought to provide a via media, a middle way of being the Church which claims the best of both Protestant and Catholic tradition in a comprehensive vision.  This is difficult (as the present troubles of the global Anglican Communion readily testify), and often the Anglican way devolves into mere compromise for the sake of peace, rather than comprehensiveness for the sake of truth in all its richness.  Even in such a state, however, Temple responded to critics thus: "We have learnt from a full experience that nearly always peace is the best way to truth."  And given the vision before us (i.e. humanity in all its diversity made one in Christ's holy, catholic Church), should we not expect this way to be difficult?

I find my own ecumenism well summarized below.  In one of his essays on the subject, Temple wrote:
"The unity of the Church of God is a perpetual fact; our task is not to create it but to exhibit it.  Where Christ is in men's hearts, there is the Church; where his spirit is active, there is His Body.    The Church is not an association of men, each of whom has chosen Christ as his Lord; it is a fellowship of men, each of whom Christ has united with Himself. ... We could not seek union if we did not already possess unity.  Those who have nothing in common do not deplore their estrangement.  It is because we are one in allegiance to one Lord that we seek and hope for the way of manifesting that unity in our witness to Him before the world. ... It is not by contrivance and adjustment that we can unite the Church of God.  It is only by coming close to Him that we can come nearer to one another."
Here is wisdom.  Ours is to exhibit the unity which already exists but is hidden beneath the internal and secondary disputes which we so love to magnify.  Temple certainly did not seek to whitewash or brush aside the significant differences in practice and theology held by the various churches; his was not a "lowest common denominator" vision of the Church.  But even those differences pale in significance with the real unity we possess in Christ.  It is there; we must find ways to embrace it, for ourselves and the world.


(Incidentally, I've so far mostly read about William Temple.  I'd like to read the man himself, but I'm not sure where to start.  Any suggestions would be appreciated.)  


Friday, November 2, 2012

I Believe in the Communion of Saints

These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised.  God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.  Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders, and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.  Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.     ~Hebrews 11:39-12:2

Almighty God, you have knit together your elect in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of your Son Christ our Lord: Give us grace so to follow your blessed saints in all virtuous and godly living, that we may come to those ineffable joys that you have prepared for those who truly love you; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, in glory everlasting.  Amen.
~Collect for All Saints' Day

As Christians, we do not pilgrimage through this world alone.  Indeed, the writer to the Hebrews implies that we cannot walk alone.  "Only together with us would they be made perfect."  We are all bound together, saints on earth and in heaven; ours is not a gospel of rugged individualism, far from it.  It is in Christ that we find true freedom, yet paradoxically this new life is one in which we are bound, not only to Christ, but to one another.  We cannot separate ourselves from those saints who have gone before us, even if we would sometimes wish to do so.

On All Saints' Day, we do more than simply remember those saints of old.  To sit and "remember"  someone (in the popular understanding of the word) may indeed be very edifying, but one does not commune with another by simply thinking about them.  On All Saints' Day, the Church on earth is called to remember the reality of this true communion, this fellowship, which we are prone to neglect because it extends beyond our limits of time and space.  This does not make it any less real; indeed, we might say it makes it more real.  We are "bound together in Christ by sacrament, prayer, and praise," as the catechism in The Book of Common Prayer reminds us.

The writer to the Hebrews continues to expound this truth with the famous words about the "great cloud of witnesses" that surrounds us.  In one sense, we are not the primary actors here; it is they, the saints who have gone before us, who are watching us, encouraging us, and aiding us by their intercession, we who have still our race to run and so need the assistance.  Incidentally, I increasingly find odd the Protestant antipathy towards praying for the intercession of the saints.  Yes, prayers to the saints can be overemphasized to the point of distraction and even harm (we must remember to "fix our eyes on Jesus"), and I think the Protestant stance is ultimately a reactionary one against such overemphasis.  But unless one is inclined to deny the very concept of the communion of saints (which would be odd, indeed), how is asking for the intercession of the saints in heaven so different from asking for the intercession of my brothers and sisters now on earth?  Well, in one respect at least, it is different: we might logically expect the prayers of those who "are before the throne of God" to be particularly efficacious.

The reality of the communion of all saints of the Church is beautifully summed up in the following prayer, one of the collects "Of a Saint" from The Book of Common Prayer.  It draws heavily on the language of the Epistle to the Hebrews.      Peace.

Almighty God, by your Holy Spirit you have made us one with your saints in heaven and on earth: Grant that in our earthly pilgrimage we may always be supported by this fellowship of love and prayer, and know ourselves to be surrounded by their witness to your power and mercy.  We ask this for the sake of Jesus Christ, in whom all our intercessions are acceptable through the Spirit, and who lives and reigns for ever and ever.  Amen.   

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

In What Sense is the Bible the Word of God?

"For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.  And there is no creature hidden from His sight, but all things are open and laid bare to the eyes of Him with whom we have to do."
The Epistle to the Hebrews, 4:12-13

We recently read the above passage from Hebrews as part of the Sunday lectionary.  There are a great many passages of Scripture that speak of "the word of God" or "the word of the LORD".  This verse  from Hebrews is one of the more oft-cited references by Protestants, who almost uniformly would interpret "the word of God" here as referring to the Bible itself.  That interpretation could certainly be contested, based on the context of the passage (and other such passages, as well).  But for Christians of all traditions, the idea of the word of God is central to our theology and identity, and that idea is frequently strongly linked with the Holy Scriptures.  So, in what sense may we speak of the Bible as the word (or Word) of God?

In his Reflections on the Psalms, C.S. Lewis wrote,
"Naivete, error, contradiction, even (as in the cursing Psalms) wickedness are not removed [from the pages of the Bible].  The total result is not 'the Word of God' in the sense that every passage, in itself, gives impeccable science or history.  It carries the Word of God..." 
F.D. Maurice, an influential nineteenth-century English priest and theologian, preferred to view the Bible as "the history of God's Word".  I like that.  I share with Lewis and Maurice a discomfort with the prevalent Protestant assertion that the Scriptures are the very Word of God.  I would rather assert that the Bible is the revelation of the Word of God.  That Word of God is Jesus Christ, the Divine Logos, the eternal, living, and active Person of the Trinity, and not to be confused with words written and bound in a book.  As revelation, the Holy Scriptures are indeed divinely inspired, and both Old and New Testaments, seen in the light of Christ, bear witness to the supreme and central revelation of God in the person of Jesus.  I accept that they are "the rule and ultimate standard of the faith" (Lambeth Conference, 1888), "containing all things necessary for salvation" (Articles of Religion).  But the fact remains that the Bible is a collection of books, written, edited, and collected by men, and subject to the influences of the various historical, cultural, and religious contexts in which the books were written.

I firmly believe that the Holy Bible is the divinely inspired revelation of God's Word, but the Very Word of God cannot be constricted and contained within a leather-bound cover, any more than God in all His fulness can be comprehended within the mind of man.


Saturday, October 20, 2012

Redeemable Me (or, Not Totally Depraved, After All)

Lord, we pray that your grace may always precede and follow us, that we may continually be given to good works; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.  Amen
Collect for the Season after Pentecost, Proper 23 

I was thinking about the Incarnation, and about its implications for the way we view the stuff of this earth, particularly our very selves.  In the Incarnation, God has embraced us, His earthy creatures, and this has profound implications for the way we view all manner of things, from our physical bodies to our approach to worship (I blogged about this previously  here).  As I was reflecting over this, I was reminded of something my priest said in a homily a while back.  She spoke of God as viewing humanity (and all creation) as good, at least enough so that we are 'redeemable'.  This is evidenced by the Incarnation, the ultimate and total embracing by God of His creation in Christ.

A further thought then occurred to me.  I don't consider myself a Calvinist, and I should note that I haven't done a lot of deep, scholarly study of Calvin and his theology.  Alright, actually, I can remember TULIP (my powers of information retention are impressive, are they not?).  And what does the 'T' stand for? Total Depravity!  That's pretty strong language, if you ask me.  If 'total' means 'entire', 'absolute', 'through and through', and 'depravity' means, well, 'depravity', then what does it mean to speak of God first loving us, 'while we were yet sinners'?  If we sinners beloved of God are truly and absolutely rotten to the core, sin-saturated beyond even any semblance of good,  then wouldn't we be correct to speak of God as loving that which is depraved?  And is that not a kind of perversion in itself, to love the perverse?  

Now, don't misunderstand me.  I certainly acknowledge that we all (that's right, I'm not just going to politely speak for myself) are beset by sin; we make choices that cause pain for ourselves and others and separate us from each other and from God.  I'm not down with a bland 'I'm o.k., you're o.k.' theology.  I would also say that we are ultimately dependent upon God for all good, for He is the source of every and all good.  But as regards how far we've fallen, I think I would have to draw the line somewhere before we get to 'total depravity.'  I would rather say that we are out of joint, mixed up, not right; as C.S. Lewis put it, 'something has gone wrong'.  But not totally.  God did not leave us entirely without the capacity for good (that should be obvious enough), but created us free, with the ability to choose the good or the evil.  That is not the same as the ability to unite ourselves to God through our own unaided efforts.  But, rather than conceiving of God as loving someone (or something, really) so totally and sickeningly depraved that we may well question the rightness of such love, it makes more sense to me to understand God as loving me, despite my sins, knowing the purposes for which He intended me, and able yet to see the potential my soul retains, however deeply buried it may be.  In the Incarnation, God says 'yes' to that buried good within each human soul.  We are not so far gone as to be beyond redemption.

I'm aware that the great minds and mystics of the Church have wrestled with such questions down through the centuries, plumbing the depths of both mind and spirit in the process (I'm also aware that I am not nearly so well-acquainted with the fruit of their labor as I should be), and so my thinking out loud here may just be so much pretentious rambling.  But, seeing as how I've plodded along this far, I may as well wrap up with a little flirtation with heresy.  I read a statement once (can't remember the source now) along the lines of there being a streak of Pelagianism that runs all through the history of Anglican spirituality.  Well, maybe so.  But then, maybe Pelagius was misrepresented, after all.  Maybe this is what he was getting at.            

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Yeah, I'd Like to Be a Priest

A few nights past I had a conversation with a friend who is an ordained Lutheran pastor.  I was sharing with him my experience of the last year and a half, as I've been "seeking to discern a call" to ordained ministry.  I've always felt awkward simply trying to articulate what it is I'm doing, this path of discernment, prayer, study, reflection.  "Seeking to discern a call" is how I usually phrase it; it sounds serious, but not too pretentious, or so I've supposed.  My friend asked what I could point to as an indicator that I should be an ordained minister.  There's no single thing upon which I can put my finger, just my abiding love of the church, and my interest in and affinity for all things ecclesial, my desire to serve Jesus faithfully, as well as a desire for work that is vocation, in which I can find fulfillment (something that seems increasingly absent in my current job), and in which I can help others in ways that are truly meaningful.

During the course of our conversation, he said something which I found very helpful.  He said that in his church tradition one would not really speak of being called to be a pastor until such time as a local congregation actually called upon the individual to come and serve them as pastor.  Not everyone who starts down the road to ordination actually becomes ordained, and there are those (teachers, chaplains, etc.) who are ordained but serve the church in ways other than as pastor of a local parish.  I could be ordained and discover that I am not, in fact, called to be a parish rector (I don't really see that being the case, but I am aware of that possibility).  This was not really news to me, but it was the language of "being called" in the context of our conversation that has been helping me think about things in a different light.  Maybe I should stop trying to be so pious about all this, like I know what I am talking about.  Maybe I should just be honest, naivete and all, and say simply, "I'm thinking about becoming a priest; I think I'd really like it."

Some time back, another friend of mine, an Episcopal priest, shared with me a story from when he was in the beginning stages of the ordination process.  He was at an interview with one of the professors of the seminary that he was seeking to be admitted to.  After being asked repeatedly why he was seeking ordination, my friend finally answered, somewhat in desperation, "I just know I want to be a priest."  I'm not sure that I've quite reached it yet, but I feel I'm pretty quickly moving to that place.  So, there it is: I think I'd like to be a priest.



Friday, October 12, 2012

Ramsey: Be on the Godward side of every human situation

I'm currently reading Michael Ramsey's The Christian Priest Today.  The book is written for priests, and those considering the priestly vocation, but the following passage is a great admonition for any follower of Christ.  This is from chapter three, Man of Prayer.
Amidst our contemporary tensions between traditional modes of prayer and the newer forms of secular spirituality, it helps to recapture the simplest meaning of our Lord's high-priestly intercession: to be with God for the people.  Anywhere, everywhere, God is to be found.  In your daily encounters with people, God is there: you can recollect him, you can be with him, you can share your doings with him, you can shoot arrows of desire from your heart to his: and all this will be for the people's sake.  You can be on the Godward side of every human situation; for the Godward side is a part of every human situation.  But you are unlikely to have the power to be on the Godward side of human situations if you think that it can be done by a kind of shallow secularized activism.  This is the fallacy that does so much damage at the present time.  The truth is that you will have the awareness of God and the power to be on the Godward side of human situations only if you carry with you into the day's ups and downs an "interior castle" of recollection drawn from your times of quietness and eucharist and scripture.  There is no by-passing the Psalmist's wisdom, "Be still and know that I am God", and there is no by-passing the example of our Lord whom Simon Peter found praying alone in a desert place a great while before day.  You will not try to be wiser than the Psalmist, or wiser than our Lord.

Heavenly Father, in you we live and move and have our being: We humbly pray you so to guide and govern us by your Holy Spirit, that in all the cares and occupations of our life we may not forget you, but may remember that we are ever walking in your sight; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Changing Culture, Changing Worship?

I just finished reading Opening the Prayer Book, by the Rev. Jeffrey Lee.  It's part of "The New Church's Teaching Series."  It's the second book of the series that I've read (The Anglican Vision by James E. Griffiss being the other), and so far I've been pleased.  They are well-written as to style, and short enough to read fairly quickly, while remaining very informative.  They're popular, not scholarly, but I've never felt like I'm just reading an expanded version of a visitor's welcome pamphlet; the books strike a good balance between basic introduction and in-depth study.  I recommend.

In the last chapter of the book, Lee writes of "looking toward the future".  He notes succinctly that "One of the identifying marks of the Anglican way is its willingness to engage the realities of contemporary experience."  I would certainly agree.  But's it's another statement from the chapter that I've been chewing on.  Writing about change and revision to the prayer book (something of a continuous reality if we look at history, as Lee documents earlier in the book), Lee references a quote from the late Leonel Mitchell: "Language changes.  Culture changes.  Our worship is conditioned by both and must change in order to remain the same."

This is a thoughtful and challenging statement, and one with a couple of things to unpack.  First is the assertion that our worship is conditioned by language and culture (which, unarguably, are forever changing).  This may seem a bit threatening.  After all, is not our faith "an anchor of the soul, a hope both sure and steadfast", as the writer of the letter to the Hebrews puts it?  Consequently, Paul writes to the Ephesians that "we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves."  For myself, the idea of a culturally-conditioned worship brings to mind (to borrow from Niebuhr's typologies) the "Christ of Culture", ever-changing (one might say even manipulated), according to the shifting currents of society; not a happy vision, as I see it.  However, I think this is an overreaction.  To say that worship is conditioned by language and culture is not to say that worship is at the mercy of either.  It is, rather, an acknowledgment of what, on reflection, is quite obviously true.  The Christian faith, perhaps more than any other, has at least one foot firmly standing on the ground of this earth, for the whole of our faith points to this Man who walked the dusty roads of first century Palestine.  In the Incarnation, God enters our world and its culture.  Jesus lived within a specific and historically identifiable culture, and while He certainly challenged that culture, to maintain that the early church was not conditioned by its cultural setting is surely an exercise in self-deception.  Likewise, to read the Bible without a basic grounding in the varied cultural and historical backdrops that inform it is to choose to miss out on whole layers of understanding.  The culture in which we twenty-first century Christians live is much changed from that of the first century Roman world.  Not surprisingly, the church has undergone changes as well.

Which brings us to the second assertion of Mitchell's: our worship must change in order to remain the same.  Even the most cursory study of the history of the church will reveal that the church has evolved and changed in many ways over the course of two millennia, with the exception of the Eastern Orthodox (just kidding; sort of).  This in itself is not surprising.  What Mitchell proposes is, I think, a unique way of explaining such change.  On the one hand, it seems reasonable to say that the changes we observe in the church's worship are simply due to the influence of a changing external culture.  While Mitchell acknowledges this to an extent (as per the first assertion), he also claims that there is a very intentional logic behind the change.  The church intentionally changes the outward form of worship in order to keep alive the spirit that lies behind the form.  As the church, we are called to render worship faithfully unto God, and I certainly believe that there are right and wrong ways to do so; a change in the church's established forms of worship is no flippant thing.  But the church is not called only to worship.  As Jesus reveals in His 'high-priestly prayer' to the Father, even though we are not of the world, we remain in it.  And it is in this world that we are also called to follow the way of Our Lord: to love our neighbor, to seek the lost, to make disciples, to stand in opposition to the injustices of the kingdoms of this world, to embrace the cross.  If a particular form of worship, which  empowered the faithful to do these things in another place and time, is no longer serving to facilitate this call, why should that form of worship not change?  Indeed, is it not necessary that it change "in order to remain the same", that is, to continue to enable the church to proclaim and live the Gospel?

The real question, as I see it, is neither to determine whether or not our worship is conditioned by culture, nor whether it should change.  The question is: How do we take part in a continual, intentional renewal of worship in a way that facilitates the mission of the church today while also preserving the integrity of the faith we have received?  At what point does a well-intentioned, missional attempt to change the form of our worship cross the line and begin to erode sound doctrine and the foundations of the faith?  Are there areas in the church today where this line has already been crossed?

What do you think?


Sunday, September 30, 2012

Ye Holy Angels Bright

I couldn't resist posting this.  We sang no. 625, "Ye Holy Angels Bright", by the seventeenth century Puritan Richard Baxter, as our dismissal hymn in church today.  I was familiar with the tune (it's a great one, Darwall's 148th; I posted a video below), but it was the words that struck me.  I'm not sure I'd ever really listened to them before (or at least they had never so impressed me).  Such a beautiful hymn, and a stirring image of the communion of saints, both those "blessed souls at rest" and we "who toil below".  It is a communion that is not bound by space or time, and that includes also all the angelic host of heaven (as we were reminded yesterday, the feast of Saint Michael and All Angels).
Peace to you, and grace to "bear thou thy part" in the coming week.

Ye Holy Angels Bright
by Richard Baxter, revised by John Hampden Gurney

Ye holy angels bright,
Who wait at God's right hand,
Or through the realms of light
Fly at your Lord's command,
Assist our song, for else the theme
Too high doth seem for mortal tongue.

Ye blessed souls at rest,
Who ran this earthly race
And now, from sin released,
Behold the Savior's face,
God's praises sound, as in his sight
With sweet delight ye do abound.

Ye saints, who toil below,
Adore your heavenly King,
And onward as ye go
Some joyful anthem sing;
Take what he gives and praise him still
Through good or ill, who ever lives!

My soul, bear thou thy part,
Triumph in God above:
And with a well tuned heart
Sing thou the songs of love!
Let all thy days till life shall end
Whate'er he send, be filled with praise.


Saturday, September 29, 2012

Praying with Saints and Angels on Michaelmas

Everlasting God, you have ordained and constituted in a wonderful order the ministries of angels and mortals: Mercifully grant that, as your holy angels always serve and worship you in heaven, so by your appointment they may help and defend us here on earth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.
~Collect for Feast of Saint Michael and All Angels

A short excerpt from Opening the Prayer Book, by Jeffrey Lee.  In Chapter Seven: Liturgy in Action, Lee writes about the intention behind the 1979 Book of Common Prayer to more fully realize the very reality proclaimed by the prayer book's title: namely, that the work, worship, and prayer of the church is to be primarily communal, not private.  It is certainly true that we are often less than resoundingly successful at living truly communal Christian lives, and Lee acknowledges that we often miss the mark.  I myself am aware of critics (and have to an extent shared in their concern) who allege that the variety of options in the current prayer book actually serves to undermine the unity of the church, that the diversity means we are in fact no longer a church of common prayer.  For this reason, I find Lee's assessment fascinating and helpful.  He writes that the 1979 prayer book "may look like prayer books from earlier times, but it is actually a resource library for pastoral liturgy", with the attendant necessity that every individual parish must be actively involved in determining how they will live into that liturgy.  The worshiping community does not simply open to a certain page and read straight through a single, standard set of prayers, hymns, and offerings.  Rather, the format, or "shape" of the liturgy is standard, while many details remain to be determined at the parish level.  Thus, we might say, the local community comes to have a sense of meaningful ownership in the liturgy.  Here is Lee writing about the communal reality of prayer.
We gather for common prayer.  In the last several decades, liturgical reformers within Anglicanism and among Christians in general have sought to reclaim a more vigorous understanding and practice of the communal dimension of Christian prayer.  For the Christian, in a real sense, there is no such thing as private prayer.  In fact, the word "private" shares a root with "deprivation" - privatio in Latin is to deprive.  This is not to deny the importance of times of personal prayer; but even personal prayer is fundamentally ecclesial in nature.  When Christians pray, they do so with the church, not in isolation, even if they are alone:  we pray always "with Angels and Archangels, and with all the company of heaven" (BCP 362). 
Peace, and happy Michaelmas!


Sunday, September 23, 2012

E. B. Pusey: On Love

Grant us. O Lord, not to mind earthly things, but to love things heavenly; and even now, while we are placed among things that are passing away, to cleave to those that shall abide; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.
~Collect for the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

A final post taken from the writings of Dr. Edward Bouverie Pusey.  Pusey was regarded as a great preacher, not for his oratory, but for his depth and zeal.  His passionate love for God, and his desire to see that love imparted throughout the church, is readily displayed in the following.

Faint not, any who would love Jesus, if ye find yourselves yet far short of what He Himself who is Love saith of the love of Him.  Perfect love is Heaven.  When ye are perfected in love, your work on earth is done.  There is no short road to Heaven or to love.  Do what in thee lies by the grace of God, and He will lead thee from strength to strength, and grace to grace, and love to love ...
Think often, as thou canst, of God.  For how canst thou know or love God, if thou fillest thy mind with thoughts of all things under the sun and thy thoughts wander to the ends of the earth, and thou gatherest them not unto God?  Nothing (except wilful sin) so keepeth men tepid and lukewarm and holdeth them back from any higher fervour of love, as the being scattered among things of sense, and being taken up with them away from God.
Bring all things, as thou mayest, nigh to God; let not them hurry thee away from Him.
Be not held back by any thought of unworthiness or by failures, from the child-like love of God.  When we were dead in trespasses and sin, Christ died for us; when we were afar off, Christ recalled us; when lost, Christ sought us; how much more may we reverently love Him, and hope that we are loved by Him, when He has found us, and we, amid whatever frailties, would love Him by Whom we have been loved!
Be diligent, after thy power, to do deeds of love.  Think nothing too little, nothing too low, to do lovingly for the sake of God ... 
"Charity never faileth."  How then is all lost, which tendeth not to love!  O abyss of love, torrent of pleasure, life of them that believe, paradise of delights, comfort of our pilgrimage, reward of the blessed, root of all good, strength in all strife, rest in all weariness!  Why will ye "labor for that which is not bread", and toil for that which satisfieth not; why seek for pleasures which perish in the grasp, and when tasted, become bitterness; why heap up things ye must part with, or why love vanities, when ye have before ye love which cannot weary, cannot sate, cannot change, cannot fail; for Love is the Essence, the Bliss, the Being, the Glory of God; and this may be yours for evermore.  God in Whom are all things, Who is All-Goodness, willeth that ye love Him eternally, and be eternally filled with His Love, and enter into His Joy, the Joy of the Everlasting Father in His Co-Equal Son through the Spirit, of Both Proceeding, the Bond of Both, and that ye should rest in the Bosom of His Love, and His Love rest upon you and fill you for ever.  Will ye not then cast out now, for these few years, what hinders in you the Love of God, that ye may have for ever His Love which passeth all understanding, and be one with God, being filled with the Love of God Who is Love?
E. B. Pusey, Parochial Sermons, volume II 


Thursday, September 20, 2012

E.B. Pusey: Holy Communion

Among the many ways in which he influenced the course of Anglican spirituality, Dr. Pusey was one of the foremost advocates for a return to a doctrine of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist (I recently published a blog post on the same).  An indication of both the effectiveness of his preaching and the opposition he faced on this issue in 19th century England is the fact that he was barred from the pulpit for two years after preaching what the leadership of Oxford University considered to be a dangerous and erroneous sermon, "The Holy Eucharist, a Comfort to the Penitent".  The following excerpt is from another of his sermons on the subject of the Holy Communion.

The Holy Supper is not a gazing up into heaven after Christ.  No thoughts of Christ, however holy; no longings after Him, however sanctified; no wish to be with Him, however purified; no thoughts on His cross and Passion and Precious Death, however devout; no devotion of self to Him; no acknowledgment of Him as our Priest, Prophet, King, and God; no setting Him up in our hearts as (with the Father and the Holy Ghost) the One Object of our love; no reliance upon Him as the only Anchor of our soul, however real, comes up to the truth.  We ought to meditate on Him, long for Him, desire to be with Him, rely on Him, devote ourselves to Him; pledge ourselves to obey Him, and do what we have pledged.  We should look for His coming, avow Him, be ready in all things, in suffering as in joy, to be partakers with Him, partakers of His Cross, and Death, and Burial.  All this we should be at all times, but all this does not make us yet partakers of Him, for man cannot make himself a partaker of Him; He must give Himself.  As He gave Himself to the Death upon the Cross for our sins, so in the Holy Eucharist must He, if we are to be partakers of Him, give Himself to us.  We have of Him only what He giveth.  All Christian graces, although His work, are but messengers to prepare the way before Him.  Hope but putteth us in that expectant, longing state which He rewardeth; Faith but openeth the door to receive Him; Love or Charity but cleanseth the chamber of our hearts, which He is to inhabit; Repentance but breaketh the heart, and maketh it that contrite or broken spirit, wherein it pleaseth Him to dwell, but all this is not yet He.  He, "the Bread of Life which came down from heaven" must come down also into our hearts, if we are to be partakers of Him.  The Communion is not a mere going up of our hearts to Christ, but a coming down of Him to us.
E. B. Pusey, Parochial Sermons, volume III 

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

E.B. Pusey: The Hidden Life

Edward Bouverie Pusey was one of the leading voices of the Oxford Movement, the greatly influential catholic revival in the Church of England in the nineteenth century.  In anticipation of his feast day (today, 18 September), I spent some time over the weekend perusing a book entitled The Mind of the Oxford Movement, edited by Owen Chadwick.  Great stuff, timely and challenging; in fact, I had intended to simply post a short excerpt from one of Pusey's sermons, but I couldn't make up my mind.  In consequence, I'll be sharing a few selections here over the next few days.  To begin, here is Pusey speaking of "the hidden life":
As this hidden life is obtained by deadness to the world - "ye are dead and your life is hid with Christ in God" - so, by that deadness, is it to be cherished, maintained, perfected.  Death to the world is life to God; the life in God deadens to the world.  By Baptism we were made partakers of Christ's Death, that we might henceforth share His Life ... The less we live for things outward, the stronger burns our inward life.  The more we live amid the distractions of the world, the less vivid is the life of the soul.  The more we live to things unseen, the less hold will this world of sense have over us.  The more we make anything seen our end, any thing short of approving ourselves to God, the more will our hidden life decay.  It matters not wherein we are employed, but how.  We may in the most sacred things forget God, or in the most common things serve Him.  We may be promoting His Truth, and ourselves be but the unfruitful conduit through which It flows to water the earth; or we may in the meanest things of this earth be living to His Glory and thereby promoting it.  Everything seen, even the outward Coming of God's Kingdom, may make men lose sight of God; in every meanest duty the quickened eye may see Him the Invisible.  Self-denying duty, love, and contemplation, together advance this hidden life.  Alone, self-denying duty were austere and hard; love were weak and faint; contemplation but imaginative or sensual.  Together, self-denial deadens the flesh; deeds of love soften the spirit; contemplation fixes the soul upon God ...
This, then, is our office; to see how, day by day, we may be ourselves more hidden from the world, that we may be more with God; how to discharge our duties in it, so as more to forget ourselves and remember God only; to consider this only, how they may be done, so as best to please Him; how self may least mingle in them; to seek no bye-ends of our own, no applause of men, nor our own; rather to seek how we may escape men's praise, that we may win God's; escape men's sight and be seen by our "Father Who seeth in secret" only, and have that in store with Him, which He, "in the last day", "will reward openly"; to be content with the least; desire no more than we have; be thankful to escape the snares of those who have what we have not; be glad, if it may be, to have less, that others may abound; to disburden ourselves of wealth by giving to Christ's poor; forget self in others, love others in God; seek only to be "buried with Christ" from this world and its vanities, hidden in His Tomb, so that all the show and pomps of this world may but flit around us as unreal things, but not catch our gaze, nor draw our hearts, which have been "buried with Him" and are now "risen with Him."
E. B. Pusey,  from Sermons  during the season from Advent to Whitsuntide 

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

A Prayer for the Human Family

With a desire both to enrich my prayer life and to become more immersed in the spirituality of The Book of Common Prayer, I have just recently begun praying through the various numbered "Prayers and Thanksgivings" during my times of daily prayer.  As it happened, today I prayed number three, For the Human Family.  It seemed especially appropriate today, on the anniversary of the September 11 attacks.

O God, you made us in your image and redeemed us through Jesus your Son: Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that, in your good time, all nations and races may serve you in harmony around your heavenly throne; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Christ in the Eucharist

"For My flesh is true food, and My blood is true drink.  He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in Him."
~ John 6:55-56

With the successive gospel readings from the sixth chapter of John over the past several Sundays, I've been thinking about Jesus as the Bread of Life.  Of course, every Sunday we believe that we gather to partake of this Bread in the Eucharist (i.e. the Lord's Supper, the Mass, Holy Communion),  "the holy food and drink of new and unending life in him", the sacrament whereby we are strengthened by God's grace and drawn into closer union with God in Christ.  The power and consolation of this central act of our worship has been made more real to me of late, as I've been consciously seeking to open myself more willingly to the Spirit and grow closer to Jesus.  I believe that in these earthy gifts of bread and wine, by God's grace I encounter the real presence of Christ.

It is curious to me that so many Christians lay such emphasis upon negating a sacramental theology of the Eucharist, that is, in stressing that "these are only symbols, and we only do this 'in remembrance'; there is no special grace or power to be received here" (incidentally, it's my understanding that the Greek word anamnesis has significantly deeper meaning than our English remembrance, a meaning that imparts living into the reality of a past event, not merely thinking about it.  I really need to learn Greek one of these days; I can only imagine how much it opens up the Scriptures).  Apart from the very early and continuing tradition of the church (a line of argument which unfortunately may not carry much weight with many Protestants) there is the testimony of Scripture.  I would even say that a view of the Lord's Supper as memorial only, to the point of denying the real presence of Christ, is not grounded in the Bible, but rather in a reaction to the perceived abuses and/or excesses of the church of the middle ages.  To be sure, there was much need for reform and renewal in the church of the sixteenth century, and it was in this context that the Protestant traditions were born.  Unfortunately, it is still the reactionary context in which many continue.  

But what do the Scriptures say?  In the synoptic gospels, Jesus speaks with little elaboration, "This is my body ... this is my blood."  Paul writes about the imperative of not drinking "the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner" in a passage that seems to make clear that we partake of a powerful spiritual reality in this meal, a reality that unites us truly, not just symbolically.  "Is not the cup of blessing which we bless a sharing in the blood of Christ?  Is not the bread which we break a sharing in the body of Christ?  Since there is one bread, we who are many are one body; for we all partake of the one bread."

And then there is Jesus as the Bread of Life in John's gospel.  Jesus says, "I am the living bread that came down out of heaven; if anyone eats of this bread, he shall live forever; and the bread also which I shall give for the life of the world is My flesh."  The crowd is incredulous; "How can this man give us His flesh to eat?"  I can imagine them arguing and scratching their heads, trying to make sense of it: "Well, this guy is obviously crazy! ... No, no, he must be speaking metaphorically ... Surely, you don't think he actually means what he is saying?"  And Jesus answers: "My flesh is true food, and My blood is true drink.  He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in Him."  The message is not to be taken literally (Jesus is obviously not advocating cannibalism), but neither is this mere metaphor.  Here is a reality that goes deep, beyond what is seen, beyond what can be comprehended  rationally.  But it is a reality that gives eternal life and affects the union of man to God.  This is indeed a mystery, sacramentum.  The crowd, not surprisingly, responds, "This is a difficult statement; who can listen to it?" and many abandon him.

It is a difficult statement, and a hard thing to which Jesus calls us.  For, as my priest pointed out in her homily this morning, it is not only life to which Christ calls us, but death also, death to ourselves and the corruption of the world.  We eat of the Bread of Life even as we share the Cup of His Passion.  In the Eucharist we turn away from the dying things of this world, and take hold of that which is real.

We Christians separate ourselves from one another over so many things.  But it is truly sad that the very act which Our Lord commanded and gave us to draw us to Himself and one another in unity, has become such a cause of division.  Yet I believe that the Eucharist remains as God intended it, a sacrament of grace and union, and that He will even still draw us together around His table, that we who are many may find ourselves one in Christ. I pray that God hastens the day.  Peace.

And we earnestly desire thy fatherly goodness to accept this our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving, whereby we offer and present unto thee, O Lord, our selves, our souls and bodies.  Grant, we beseech thee, that all who partake of this Holy Communion may worthily receive the most precious Body and Blood of thy Son Jesus Christ, and be filled with thy grace and heavenly benediction; and also that we and all thy whole Church may be made one body with him, that he may dwell in us, and we in him, through the same Jesus Christ our Lord; 
By whom, and with whom, and in whom, in the unity of the Holy Ghost all honor and glory be unto thee, O Father Almighty, world without end.  AMEN.
 ~from Eucharistic Prayer II, Rite I, BCP  

Thursday, August 16, 2012

In Honor of Our Lady

O God, you have taken to yourself the blessed Virgin Mary, mother of your incarnate Son: Grant that we, who have been redeemed by his blood, may share with her the glory of your eternal kingdom; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.  Amen.
~Collect for the Feast of Saint Mary the Virgin

The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin  Mary
(El Greco)
In the liturgical calendar, August 15 is a major feast in which the Church honors Mary, the Mother of Our Lord.  In the Roman Catholic tradition, the day is known as the Assumption of Mary, referring to the belief that Mary was assumed bodily into heaven when her earthly life was ended.  Essentially the same doctrine is held in Eastern Orthodoxy, where the feast is called the Dormition (i.e. falling asleep) of Mary.  In the Anglican tradition, the day is simply known as the Feast of Saint Mary the Virgin (or some similar title), since the Assumption is not a doctrine promulgated in Anglicanism, though there are certainly Anglicans who hold the belief.  In any event, Anglicans appropriately recognize the place of unique honor which Mary has been granted by virtue of her humble obedience to God and integral role in the central event of all history.

Dormition of the Theotokos

I like the following excerpt from Lesser Feasts and Fasts, as I think it well expresses our via media within the Church universal on this point:
Mary, Queen of the Apostles
"Later devotion has claimed many things for Mary which cannot be proved from Holy Scripture.  What we can believe is that one who stood in so intimate a relationship with the incarnate Son of God on earth must, of all the human race, have the place of highest honor in the eternal life of God."
The text concludes by referencing a verse of the hymn Ye Watchers and Ye Holy Ones:

O higher than the cherubim, 
More glorious than the seraphim,
Lead their praises, Alleluia!
Thou bearer of the eternal Word, 
Most gracious, magnify the Lord,
Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia,
Alleluia, Alleluia!

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

A Saint for Today

O God of the prophets, you opened the eyes of your servant Dominic to perceive a famine of hearing the word of the Lord, and moved him, and those he drew about him, to satisfy that hunger with sound preaching and fervent devotion: Make your Church, dear Lord, in this and every age, attentive to the hungers of the world, and quick to respond in love to those who are perishing; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.
~Collect for Feast of Saint Dominic, Priest and Friar

Saint Dominic was born in Spain in the late twelfth century.  As the founder of the Dominican order of friars, he had a profound influence on the Church and world of the middle ages (the Dominicans, of course, continue as a religious order today).  But he is a timely example for our own day, as well.  The Dominicans, or Order of Friars Preachers, were organized in large part for the purpose of increasing the spiritual scholarship of the Church through study and devotion to the fundamentals of the faith, and then sharing the fruit of that study through preaching and teaching.  As a religious order, the friars adhered to a vowed rule of life, which was lived out within a dedicated community.

I believe that the Church today has a great responsibility to focus upon the same needs to which Dominic was called: the study and teaching of true doctrine, and the formation of Christian community.  The need for a focus upon learning and devotion to the essentials of our faith (both through catechesis and continuing formation) is ever present, but it seems especially critical now for the Episcopal Church.  I think it is difficult to argue with the opinion that in recent years there has been a consistent trend within much of the leadership of the Episcopal Church to downplay the place of Scripture and Christian tradition in favor of cultural relevance and experiential knowledge.  I don't wish to sound melodramatic, but I do believe the future of the Episcopal Church depends on a renewed devotion to the catholic, apostolic faith which we proclaim every week in our recitation of the Creed, but which I fear fewer and fewer Episcopalians are expected to understand or greatly value.

As for the need for Christian community, I believe this is one of the great challenges of our day.  Relationship is the reality for which humanity is intended.  Relationship lies at the very heart of God, the Ultimate Reality, as beautifully and mysteriously revealed in the doctrine of the Trinity.  It is into that relationship, and into relationship with every created thing, that God calls us.  In our world today, we pride ourselves on being more connected than ever before.  Through the marvels of technology, we can follow events on the other side of the globe in real time, and instantly chat with friends thousands of miles away.  And yet, how many of us know our neighbors next door?  I believe that the Church is being called to remind us of what we seem to be quickly losing in this most modern era.  The Church, which maintains that the greatest event of all time is not to be expected with the next Apple technology, but rather happened two thousand years ago in the coming of One who calls us into unity with God, is well suited to call us now back to the reality for which we were made: the love of God and the love of neighbor.  It is a call to meaningful, loving relationship in community, made to a world that is nothing if not busy.

Finally, it should be noted that Dominic did not simply seclude himself in an ivory tower, content to studiously delve the depths of doctrine.  He preached what he studied, and practiced what he preached.  Dominicans vow themselves not only to a life of study and preaching, but of poverty as well.  In the language of the prophet Amos, today's collect speaks of Dominic perceiving "a famine of hearing the word of the Lord," which references his call to preaching by alluding to another famous episode from his life.  While the young Dominic was a student at university in Castile, a severe famine struck the region.  In response, Dominic sold all he had, including his beloved books, for the relief of the suffering.  He is reputed to have said, "I will not study on dead skins when living skins are dying of hunger."

May God grant us grace and wisdom to partake of the riches of saints such as Dominic in our own day.


Saturday, August 4, 2012

Why Believe in God?

Then it seemed as if men must proceed from light to light, in the light of the Word,
Through the Passion and Sacrifices saved in spite of their negative being;
Bestial as always before, carnal, self-seeking as always before, selfish and purblind as ever before,
Yet always struggling, always reaffirming, always resuming their march on the way that was lit by the light;
Often halting, loitering, straying, delaying, returning, yet following no other way.
But it seems that something has happened that has never happened before: though we know not just when, or why, or how, or where.
Men have left GOD not for other gods, they say, but for no god; and this has never happened before
That men both deny gods and worship gods, professing first Reason,
And then Money, and Power, and what they call Life, or Race, or Dialectic.
The Church disowned, the tower overthrown, the bells upturned, what have we to do
But stand with empty hands and palms turned upwards
In an age which advances progressively backwards?
~T.S. Eliot, from The Rock 

I talk to myself quite regularly.  Sometimes in my head, sometimes out loud as I go about some daily chore, alone until my wife walks in unexpectedly to get a kick out of my 'conversation.'  I've often asked myself the question, 'Why do I believe in God?'  And in my mind I've reasoned and reflected a good deal in an attempt to answer that question.  The fact that I don't know if I've ever really had this conversation in response to a friend actually inquiring about my faith reflects rather poorly, I'm afraid, on my life as a witness to Christ.  But, in any event, despite the fact that I feel a Christian responsibility to be prepared always to give an account for the hope within me, what I believe is in fact of the utmost importance to me, and simply for that reason alone it is something I think about a lot.

However, as T.S. Eliot points out, ours is the Secular Age.  Increasingly, the Christian today is asked not, 'Why do you believe in Jesus?', but simply, 'Why believe in God at all?  Haven't we now moved beyond the need for all the superstitious fables and stifling oppression of religion?  We know so much more now; we can figure out the answers to all the questions on our own.  We don't need God anymore.'

Well, it is certainly true that many of the old mysteries that the ancients ascribed to God because they could do nothing else have now been answered by the incredible advances in human knowledge over the last few centuries in particular.  And it is also sadly true that institutions of religion have often been usurped by humans to enrich and empower themselves at the expense of others.  But I don't see how these facts discredit God, unless one is looking for reasons to not believe (in which case, any reason, no matter how poor or unbiased, will do).  And while I fully expect that human knowledge will continue to advance, I must be honest in stating that I also believe emphatically that we never will get it all figured out, this side of heaven.  I suppose one could view that as pessimism; I simply view it as an obvious truth (I'm also pretty optimistic, as regards our ultimate destiny; that's for another post).  For all the truly remarkable gains of the modern era, in science, medicine, and technology, I don't know that the human creature has really changed that much.  Modern Man may have it better than Ancient, or Medieval Man, but I think this is due to changes in the institutions and structures which are part and parcel of our modern world, and the comparatively favorable conditions in which so many of us now live.  I don't think Man has undergone a gradual, biological change, and is now fundamentally a better creature.  I think we are as selfish, conflicted, confused, and depraved as ever (well, I can at least speak for myself), it's simply easier to hide from these realities of our interior selves now, since the structures of our society generally satisfy our necessities and restrict our baser instincts (although note what barbarity inevitably results when enlightened Modern Man, even in the form of 'a good American boy', is forced to face the horror of a war zone).  And besides, now more than ever we can keep ourselves distracted with so many other things; reflection, not least of which over the state of one's own spirit, is not something we can afford to be bothered with at the speed with which we now move.

So, no, I don't think we will ever build heaven on earth.  And yet, here is the remarkable thing: we keep trying.  We have these ideas, these ideals: justice, peace, beauty, love, all in perfection.  And yet we never experience these things fully, so how did we come to conceive of them in this way at all?  And why do we continue to grasp for that which we have never been able to take hold of; for all we know we never will get there.  From whence springs this desire?

A while back I read a passage from Evelyn Underhill's book The Spiritual Life.  It's a great little book, and can be read in a sitting or two; I highly recommend it.  When I first read the passage below, I sat up, and my mouth dropped open.  Or maybe that's just how I felt; it made an impact.  Underhill is talking here about prayer, but I find in her words the ground of my belief in God.  At the risk of sounding presumptuous, I felt like I was reading my own thoughts.  But she states them with greater eloquence than I could hope for, so I'll close this post now with her words.  Peace.

"Prayer means turning to Reality, taking our part, however humble, tentative, and half-understood, in the continual conversation, the communion, of our spirits with the Eternal Spirit; the acknowledgement of our entire dependence, which is yet the partly free dependence of the child.  For prayer is really our whole life towards God: our longing for Him, our 'incurable God-sickness', as Barth calls it, our whole drive towards Him.  It is the humble correspondence of the human spirit with the Sum of all Perfection, the Fountain of Life.  No narrower definition than this is truly satisfactory, or covers all the ground.  Here we are, small half-real creatures of sense and spirit, haunted by the sense of a perfection ever calling to us, and yet ourselves so fundamentally imperfect, so hopelessly involved in an imperfect world; with a passionate desire for beauty, and more mysterious still, a knowledge of beauty, and yet unable here to realize perfect beauty; with a craving for truth and a deep reverence for truth, but only able to receive flashes of truth.  Yet we know that perfect goodness, perfect beauty, and perfect truth exist in God; and that our hearts will never rest in less than these.  This longing, this need for God, however dimly and vaguely we feel it, is the seed from which grows the strong, beautiful, and fruitful plant of prayer.  It is the first response of our deepest selves to the attraction of the Perfect; the recognition that He has made us for Himself, that we depend on Him and are meant to depend on Him, and that we shall not know the meaning of peace until our communion with Him is at the center of our lives."