Friday, December 30, 2011

A Late but Merry Christmas


Although it is already long past Christmas day, I don't plan to let the season go by without comment. It has been a good time for me, and a great ending to the secular year. I am spending the time with my family and preparing to take canonical exams for ordination next week. It has also been an exhausting time, and so I am not going to write a long post. Instead, I am just going to post two unrelated quotes that have been on my mind this Christmas season.

It surpasses all thought, it amazes, it confounds, to think of God becoming man; the Infinite enshrined within the finite, the Lord of all blended with His servant, the Creator with His creature! It is a depth of mystery unsearchable. We must shrink with awe when we pronounce it. Of old they fell down and worshipped, when, in our Creed, they uttered it― “God was made Man.” It was an unimaginable condescension for God to create. From Eternity, in Eternity, (since it had no beginning), He was Ever-blessed, Love loving Love in the Holy Spirit, Who is the Bond of Love and Unity. He was, in Himself, All-perfect. He needed nothing, changed not. And yet, in that He created, He did a new thing, and formed those who needed Him, as though He needed them. He formed them to serve Him Who needed them not, and He accepted their service. It was much, as Scripture saith, to “humble Himself to behold the things which are in Heaven and earth.” But that He, Who was Perfect in Himself, should take into Himself something without Him; that He, Who is All in all, should add something to Himself; that He Who is a Spirit, should take into Himself that which was material; in a word, that God (if we realize to ourselves what that word God is) should take into Himself what is not God; one must stand speechless with awe at so amazing a mystery. How must we be amazed and scarce believe for joy, to think that that which He so took was man, ourselves, our fallen, sinful, in Him Alone unsinful, unsinning nature. - E.B. Pusey, From a Christmas sermon on Philippians 2:5-7 entitled "THE INCARNATION, A LESSON OF HUMILITY."
And then there is this little Gem from Karl Barth. It is not particularly about Christmas, but about the cross, and Christmas, too, points us towards the cross.
Now certainly something needs to be said about human sins and errors. Yet it ought to be said from the standpoint of sin forgiven and error removed. Sin undoubtedly has to be taken seriously, but forgiveness even more seriously. For either forgiveness is the first word, or it is not true at all. Sin must be spoken about only as the Sin which is taken away by the Lamb of God. - Homiletics, 52.
And that, I think, is a pretty good explanation of the meaning of Christmas, after all, that is why Jesus was born.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Horror, the horror...

I can't even tell you how happy this makes me...

if you don't get it, go read more Calvin and Hobbes.

Monday, December 12, 2011

All Things Upside Down, or Men, Women and The Magnificat


At the moment, I should really be writing something more directly connected with the overwhelming number of final papers I need to hand in next week - but a man can only spend so much time checking the formatting of his footnotes before he needs a break.

I continue on my Auden kick, and I am reading through For the Time Being his extended poem written in the form of a Christmas oratorio. I figure it's good preparation for Christmas.
Reading that poem, together with this excellent post over at Without A Map, and some personal conversations with the wonderful author of that blog, has got me thinking again about the really extraordinary role of Mary in the history of Salvation.
One of the most striking passages so far is the "Temptation of St. Joseph."
The words of the 'Narrator' are a really amazing meditation on the relationship between Mary and Joseph, and the relationship between Men and Women generally.

The temptation of St. Joseph was the temptation to doubt Mary's fidelity when he discovered that she was pregnant, and to divorce her. In Eastern icons of the nativity, there is often an image of St. Joseph in the corner, conversing with an old man who represents the devil. Somehow, Joseph overcame his doubts, and did not send Mary away. I'm sure that God sending Gabriel (who probably got more work in this one six month period around 4 BC than he had since the book of Daniel) to drop him a line helped with this. Anyway, all of that is just by way of background. Here's what Mr. Auden has to say.
For the perpetual excuse
Of Adam for his fall - "My little Eve,
God bless her, did beguile me and I ate,"
For his insistence on a nurse,
All service breast and lap, for giving Fate
Feminine gender to make Girls believe
That they can save him, you must now atone,
Joseph in silence and alone
While she who loves you makes you shake with fright,
Your love for her must tuck you up and kiss goodnight.

For likening Love to war, for all
The pay-off lines of limericks in which
The weak resentful bar-fly shows his sting,
For talking of their spiritual
Beauty to chorus girls, for flattering
The features of old gorgons who are rich,
For the impudent grin and Irish charm
That hides a cold will to do harm,
Today the roles are altered; you must be The Weaker Sex whose passion is passivity.
Auden focuses in on something that is present in the gospel narratives, but which is, at least in my experience, rarely commented on. Mary is often presented as a meek and passive figure, the essence of some kind of idealized femininity. But this, it seems to me, is hardly biblical. Mary is passive in a certain sense - the incarnation was God's initiative, obviously, but Mary's willingness to participate in the whole plan was not a passive decision in the sense that she just sat there and watched things happen. She took it upon herself to endure outrageous difficulty, to be the bearer of the eternal word of God - to risk being the object of mockery and outcast. She even risked her life - Joseph could have had her stoned. Mary became the protagonist and hero of this small story within the wider gospel narrative.
And Mary seems to have known that God was working in her, and turning all things upside down. I say she seems to have known it, because the Magnificat, her own hymn, is full of this imagery.
My soul doth magnify the Lord,
and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior.
For he hath regarded
the lowliness of his handmaiden.
For behold from henceforth
all generations shall call me blessed.
For he that is mighty hath magnified me,
and holy is his Name.
And his mercy is on them that fear him
throughout all generations.
He hath showed strength with his arm;
he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He hath put down the mighty from their seat,
and hath exalted the humble and meek.
He hath filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he hath sent empty away.
He remembering his mercy hath holpen his servant Israel,
as he promised to our forefathers,
Abraham and his seed for ever.
The Magnificat is not the hymn of passive femininity - it is a battle hymn. The whole theme of it is that God has chosen the weak, the poor, the foolish things of this world as the instruments of his salvation. Ultimately, of course, we see this reversal in the cross, where the death of Christ, becomes his victory. In God's plan it is the weak and the poor who will be exalted, the slaves who will save the masters, and the woman who will save the man.
Mary herself is a remarkable instance of this kind of reversal. She describes her self as "a handmaiden" - a female slave. And in that society, there really wasn't a lower rank than a female slave. Mary was poor, obscure, and a woman, and after God made her the mother of his Son, a woman who was regarded as an adulteress.
She was the lowest of the low, but God made her, after her son, the most important player in the whole drama of salvation. Mary, the obscure Jewish girl, is in the words of the Eastern hymn, the "Champion Leader" of the Church. Joseph has a part to play in all this, of course, but it is not the role of leader. He is the passive one, the man who must stand by and be the servant to his wife and the child she carried.

So what does that mean? I don't know exactly. The gospel turns everything upside down - especially human power structures, and that includes gender roles. I don't think that men and women are interchangeable, and I think there are real differences between the sexes which go beyond the obvious and merely physical. For the sake of full disclosure, I should admit that I am even ambivalent about Women's ordination. Still, no anthropology can claim to be Christian if it privileges men over women, or ignores the fact that in the gospel there is an inherent critique of gender roles.

I am not going to attempt here to come up with an anthropology that does justice to the biblical picture of men and women. Plainly, it is a big topic, and it raises all sorts of issues in the life of the Church (Women's ordination being the most obvious), so for now, I am just going to be content to raise the issue, and welcome thoughts and comments.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Incompleteness of Anglicanism

Archbishop Michael Ramsey, 100th Archbishop of Canterbury, is certainly one of the patron saints around here, even if his picture isn't up on the side bar.
His book, The Christian Priest Today, has been an important book for me in considering my own sense of calling. He was also another "Barthian Catholic," which is one of the descriptors I would use for myself these days.
This year, I have had several opportunities to dip into his classic book, The Gospel and The Catholic Church. I was really prepared for it by reading Eastern Orthodox ecclesiology - thinkers like Zizioulas, Dumitru St─âniloae and Thomas Hopko - and have discovered that Ramsey speaks especially to many of my own concerns, with his dual commitment to Ecumenism and to the Catholic order of the Church.
Here is what Lord Ramsey had to say about the place of Anglicanism in the broader Church.
While the Anglican church is vindicated by its place in history, with a strikingly balanced witness to the Gospel and the Church, its greater vindication lies in its pointing through its own history, to something of which it is a fragment. Its credentials are its incompleteness.
Anglicanism is a mess, and it always has been. It is broken, but its brokenness also points to its vocation. What Anglicanism has to offer the wider Church is not just a slightly more liberal Catholicism, or a slightly more liturgical Evangelicalism. Rather, Anglicanism's gift is its peculiar witness to both the unity and the brokenness of the Church, and to the final hope that all who confess Christ may one day be one. And Anglicanism has the potential to stand as an authentic via media between Catholicism and Protestantism, not as a compromise, but as a bridge, calling the whole Church into a greater realization of the unity we have in Christ.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Advent Poetry

I am on a W. H. Auden kick after having seen Allan Bennett's The Habit of Art, about Auden and Benjamin Britten, performed recently. So to celebrate Advent, here is an excerpt from the Advent section of his poem, "For the Time Being."

Alone, alone, about a dreadful wood
Of conscious evil runs a lost mankind,
Dreading to find its Father lest it find
The Goodness it has dreaded is not good:
Alone, alone, about our dreadful wood.

Where is that Law for which we broke our own,
Where now that Justice for which Flesh resigned
Her hereditary right to passion, Mind
His will to absolute power? Gone. Gone.
Where is that Law for which we broke our own?

The Pilgrim Way has led to the Abyss.
Was it to meet such grinning evidence
We left our richly odoured ignorance?
Was the triumphant answer to be this?
The Pilgrim Way has led to the Abyss.

We who must die demand a miracle.
How could the Eternal do a temporal act,
The Infinite become a finite fact?
Nothing can save us that is possible:
We who must die demand a miracle.

Friday, December 2, 2011

The Internet is for Platonists

*WARNING: This post is really just a series of random thoughts. Do not attempt to extract a thesis from it*
I do not have the nerve to even hazard a guess at how many hours I spend online each week. It is doubtless vastly accelerating the progress of myopia, and for some reason it really bothers me to think about how much of my time is spent in the company of my decrepit iBook G4 (This little trooper has lasted since before Mac started using Intel).
Now, don't get me wrong, I love the internet and technology and all that, and if Facebook, Blogger, Gmail, and the archives over at First things disappeared tomorrow, I would be in a very bad mood. On the other hand, I might get more actual work done.
I have just been thinking recently, how the internet, and electronic media have transformed the idea of place. Not so long ago, your life and interests were confined to a relatively small geographical area. Now, much of my social interaction, on a daily basis, is with people on the other side of the country. If I were a teeny bit more cosmopolitan, it would include people on the other side of the globe. There is something bizarrely disincarnate about the internet. It takes flesh and blood people and turns them into pixels and information. I wonder, how will this effect our theology in the next few generations? It seems to me like it might exert a pressure in a generally idealist direction. What will it do to our whole notion of place? I tend to be sympathetic to the Eucharistic ecclesiology of Eastern thinkers like Zizioulas, but place plays an essential role in that ecclesiological scheme, with the bishop understood as the head of the Church in a given place. What does place even mean anymore for most of us? If the most important parts of our life are not lived within the limits of a physical place, does it make sense that the Church's structure should be determined by those limits? Why not have dioceses determined by affinity, as the ACNA seems to be doing for the most part? But then, does the concept of a diocese become evacuated of its real meaning? These are not, I think, merely academic questions. They seem to me to be highly relevant to a number of churches, most notably the emerging ACNA, but also the Orthodox churches in this country, as they continue their task of trying to achieve a unified Orthodox church.
All this just because I spend too flippin' much time on Facebook.
Maybe I'm crazy, I don't know, but the medium is the message and all that...

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Memento Mori

I am really pleased, generally speaking, that we wear white for requiems these days, what with Christ having trampled down death by death... still, I have to admit, old black requiem vestments are among the coolest looking pieces of religious garb. I just can't resist posting a link to these images of a high mass set from Daniel Mitsui's blog. The set is from Chimay, the abbey much beloved of beer drinkers everywhere (mmmm... Chimay).
As a note, Mr. Mitsui is doing a delightfully bleak series of posts (perhaps for the penitential season of Advent) on Christian art dealing with death, which I highly recommend. It appeals to my inner goth.
h/t: Eve Tushnet

Monday, October 31, 2011

The Hidden Reign of God and the Long Defeat

It has been a while since I posted, and I sincerely wish I had more time to post on the blog. I am afraid this semester has been a bit overwhelming, though, so I can't promise that posts will become more frequent until winter break rolls around. I do have some substantive posts in the works, which I hope to be able to work on in the next month, but we will just have to see. In the mean time, here is a sermon I preached yesterday at the church plant where I am blessed to be doing my field work. It is not my best work, stylistically speaking, but I am relatively happy with the content.
This sermon focuses on Revelation 5:1-11, and while there is a lot there, I chose to focus simply and directly on the message of the cross. It wasn't an 'evangelistic sermon,' but the more I think about preaching, and the more I try to live the Christian life, also the more convinced I become that it is vital to keep preaching the gospel to Christians. We never stop needing the word of the cross.



The book of Revelation is an amazingly popular book of the Bible. There are an amazing number of movies made based on the book of Revelation, or using images from the book of Revelation. Everybody knows that 666 is the number of the beast, or has heard of the four horsemen of the apocalypse, even outside the Christian church. Inside the Church, everybody has an opinion on how to interpret revelation, and the timeline for the end of the world.
There are some denominations where they spend a lot of time reading Revelation, so a lot of you are probably pretty familiar with the book if you are from one of those denominations. I, however, grew up an Anglican, and the truth is, Anglicans are kind of nervous about Revelation. We read it, but we don’t talk about it much. Which means, I can’t claim to really understand the book of Revelation. I’m even a little intimidated by it, as a preacher. It’s confusing, its filled with monsters that sound like something out of a Godzilla Movie, and it’s tempting to get bogged down in explaining what each head on each monster, or each jewel on God’s throne signifies. For example: Just who are these twenty four elders? What are the four living creatures with eyes “within and without,” and what does that even look like? Or what does any of this have to do with the Left Behind series, the Soviet Union or who ever it is we’ve decided is the Anti-Christ this week?
Now I have my own theories about the end times, and I could tell you about them, but I’m not going to do that. I think with Revelation, the best course is to begin with the big picture, with the obvious things that God is saying. So I am going to set aside all the detailed questions, and try to preach a very simple sermon on Revelation 5. So what is going on in this part of Revelation? In the first three chapters, John records a series of letters to series of letters to seven Churches, recording messages to them from the risen Christ, when he is caught up into heaven.
And it is there that he sees the vision of the Lamb who was slain. And this vision needs to be set in some context. John is called up into heaven, through an open door, and the scene that he meets in heaven is the throne of God, surrounded by all the host of heaven - most notably the twenty four elders with golden crowns, four living creatures with eyes all over, and uncountable Angels as well. There are a lot of interpretations of what these figures mean, but what I find most convincing is the view that the elders represent all the redeemed people of God, and the living creatures represent his rule over all of creation.
The image of God surrounded by these twenty four elders would have suggested the typical images of Caesar surrounded by kings, which is part of why this scene in God’s throne room is central to John’s vision. One of the overarching questions of the book of Revelation, maybe the overarching question, is who is really in charge? who reigns and is worthy of worship and honor? is it God or the forces of the world, like the dragon? The Beast? Or more concretely, Caesar and the Roman Empire?
We aren’t left in suspense. From the beginning the answer is clear: it is God who reigns, and God who rules over time and history and the whole world. It is God who sits enthroned, and who is worthy to receive honor and glory, because it is God who “Created all things and by his will they existed and were created” (Rev. 4:11). That’s the context we need to have before we can understand chapter 5. God reigns, and God is in control. This isn’t a statement about what will be, but a statement about how things are already. God already reigns, and already governs all things, despite all contrary evidence.
And their is abundant contrary evidence. An honest assessment of the world demands that we admit: it doesn’t look like God is in control. And St. John seems to have been completely aware of this. When we come to chapter 5, St. John sees that God, seated on his throne, is holding a scroll. The first thing we see in chapter 5 is a desperate search of the entire universe for someone who can open this scroll. When St. John realizes there is no one, no human being, animal or angel, who can open this scroll he starts to weep. Which, frankly, seems like kind of an over reaction. Why is this scroll so important?
Well,The scroll is another symbol that is disputed, but again, its basic meaning is pretty clear. Most of the book of Revelation is about what happens as each seal on the scroll is opened, and God’s rule and God’s judgments are enacted in history. What St. John, understood, somehow, was that if there was no one to open this scroll, then God doesn’t really rule in the world after all.
He talks about this search of heaven and earth in one sentence, but I think it must have taken a good deal of time; he probably doesn’t tell us what he saw, because we all know basically what there was to see. If we go looking for signs of God’s reign in the world, our search will be mostly disappointing. In this world There’s violence, wars and rumors of wars, injustice and corruption. We’ve already mentioned Caesar, who would have been an obvious enemy of God in John’s time, but there are still world leaders who have divine pretensions, who feel entitled to treat other people like they own them.
Even the natural world seems to be out of control. Think of all the people killed by disease, or those killed, randomly to all appearances, by natural disasters just this past year or so. The Tsunami in Japan, the earthquakes in Haiti and New Zealand, tornadoes and devastating heat in the Midwest.
Just to make it a little worse, it’s not as if being a Christian makes life much easier. And we all know that persecution continues to be a reality for Christians around the world. All of us at Trinity go to school with a number of student from Africa, who could tell you first hand about being persecuted for their faith.
Even if we don’t experience outright persecution, we all face pressure to turn away from Christ, and we can find plenty of other things to worship. We could worship the State; we could worship America, or some ideology, or we can just worship our appetites, and most of the media attempts to get us to do. When the last election happened, there were a lot of people who seemed to be worshiping one of the candidates. Or if we’re the pious sort, we could do something really dangerous like worshipping the Church, or even the liturgy.
But speaking for myself, and maybe for others as well, what I think I struggle with more than anything, isn’t any of these things. All of them are external. What really worries me is that Even when I look at myself, it is not always clear that God is in control. Our hearts are “deceitful... and desperately sick” as Jeremiah says, and even when we desire to do good we do evil, even after we come to faith in Christ. We all have the experience that St. Paul describes when he says “I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing” (Rom 7:19). When St. John went searching for someone who could open the scroll, and bring God’s rule in the world, he found no one. Not even the holiest of Saints, who could do it. So, whether we look at the world outside, or at the depths of our own hearts, God does not seem to rule.
Like St. John, If we look for God’s reign, we wont find it anywhere, unless we look to the cross. We only understand God’s rule and judgment when we realize that that they are exercised in the Lamb that was slain.
When the scroll in God’s hand is opened, both divine judgement and salvation are accomplished. In all the world, there is only one person who can open the scroll and exercise that divine authority: The Lion of Judah, who has conquered, and when we actually see the Lion of Judah, he is not what we expect - not a mighty conqueror, but a lamb, and a slaughtered lamb at that.
And it is precisely because of his sacrifice, his death, that Christ Jesus, the Lamb of God is qualified to open the scroll and to rule. Echoing their hymn to God seated on the throne the elders and the living creatures praise the lamb and say “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God” (5:4).
God’s ultimate act of authority in the world isn’t a show of force, as we might expect and hope, but instead it appears as a show of weakness. Because in the Cross, God actually judges all the evil that there is in the world. The judgement is that when the one really righteous person, when God himself comes into the world, our response as human beings was to kill him. St. John in his gospel says “This is the judgment: the Light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than the light...” (John 3:19). God has judged all of us in the cross of Christ. He has done more than that, though. He’s taken the judgment on himself. It was Jesus who bore the brunt of our punishment and our sin. And through faith, we have been let in the secret though, and we know that the cross leads to the Resurrection. The Lamb has been slain, but he has also been raised. God has judged Jesus, but he has also vindicated him, by raising him from the dead. And if we know that we have been Judged in Jesus, we also know that we have been vindicated and forgiven in him. “If we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him” (Rom 8:6).
What does this mean for God’s people in the world then? First, it means that God really is in control, despite all the evidence, because God has already overcome sin and death in the cross. God does reign in the world, but he reigns from the cross. His reign is mostly hidden because that is the nature of the cross. God’s reign isn’t by force, but but by grace.
Secondly, it means that we have victory with God in Christ, but following our Lord, our victory is generally hidden. One of my favorite authors, J. R. R. Tolkien, once said “I am a Christian... so that I do not expect ‘history’ to be anything but a ‘long defeat’ — though it contains... some samples or glimpses of final victory.” This isn’t pessimism, but simply recognizing that most of our experience in this life is the experience of the cross, and that doesn’t mean that we are failing or that God has abandoned us. It may mean just the opposite, that we are being given the chance to witness to God’s victory in the Cross, and that God is very near to us.
And this is true even when we look at the state of our own souls. In fact, the closer we come to Christ, the more we will become aware of how inadequate we are, how little God seems to rule in our hearts and in our lives when we examine ourselves. The most sanctified people probably think the least of themselves, but then again, they also spend the least amount of time thinking of themselves. Because God calls us to repentance, which means to turn away from ourselves, and turn our eyes towards the cross. That’s precisely what our sanctification consists of; it’s not so much a matter of trying to sin a little less each day, or of trying to make ourselves a little better, but of constant repentance, turning away from ourselves and towards Christ.
even if we practice spiritual disciplines like fasting, or rules of prayer, they aren’t useful primarily because they make us better people, but because they make us realize how much we need God. They make us look away from ourselves and towards what Christ has done on the cross, and that is how we come to love God more. We don’t love God in the abstract, by just thinking about how good he is; we love the God who sent his only Son to die for you and for me. When we believe that, when we know it with all our hearts, our lives can’t help but be transformed.
Because when we look towards Christ, we see that God truly does reign, that he truly is worthy of glory and honor and praise. And like the Elders in John’s vision, we can only fall down in worship, offering our crowns back to the one who gave them to us in the first place.
In the Name of the + Father...

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Trinitarian Reflections After a Zen Encounter (Part 2).


Well, here is my follow up to the post I wrote 2 months ago, entitled: "Trinitarian Reflections after a Zen Encounter (Part 1)," from about two months ago..This piece is very incomplete, and I still need to develop my thoughts on these issues more clearly, but I also thought I owed any one who is taking the time to read this blog a follow up my previous post. In the previous post, I focused on the incarnation, and discussed the sacraments, worship and the difference between the sacred and secular. The context for these discussions was a set of critical remarks I heard about Christianity, during an interfaith discussion group hosted by a Zen Temple. In this post, I try to focus more on the Trinity and outline some ways in which I think that a strongly Trinitarian spirituality can help us to approach Zen. I am not really saying much that is original here (at least I don't mean to),
In the previous post I mentioned two critiques of Christianity, and responded to the first. The second was as follows:
Christianity begins with the individual, and is primarily concerned with individual salvation. The starting point for Christians is: how can I as an individual escape the wrath to come? Asian religions generally, and Confucianism in particular, are far more oriented towards the group; family, city, nation, world, etc. The individual’s identity is derived from those around him. Christianity, therefore, is basically individualistic.
My basic response is that the Trinity, which together with the Incarnation, is one of the central mysteries of Christianity, totally excludes individualism. It may be that there are individualistic Christians, but the Christian God is not a monad. Unlike Buddhism, Christianity teaches that God is personal, but God is not a single person, because such a being is finally unthinkable. To be a person is always to be in communion with other persons.

The practical meaning of this is that "individual salvation" is something of an oxymoron. As human beings we are made in the image of the Trinity, and so we can only be saved - in fact we can only really be human - by being in communion with others and with God. To be a human being fully alive we must pour out our lives in obedience and love to God, and service to our neighbors.

Fr. Thomas Hopko expresses this remarkably well in an article commenting on the command to "Love your neighbor as yourself."
So, “love your neighbor as yourself.” However, in certain modern editions of the Bible, I have seen this translated as, “You shall love your neighbor as you love yourself.” But that’s not what it says. The best English translation of that passage from Leviticus is, “You shall love your neighbor as being your own self.” Your neighbor is your true self. You have no self in yourself.
An “individual” is a person who refuses to love. When a person refuses to identify in being and value with “the least,” even with “the enemy,” then the person becomes an individual, a self-enclosed being trying to have proper relationships — usually on his or her own terms. But again, we would say that the person only comes into existence by going out of oneself into communion with the other. So my task is not to decide whether or not I will be in relationship with you but to realize that I am in communion with you: my life is yours, and your life is mine. (From Living in Communion, available here. Emphasis mine)
The Christian life consists in emptying ourselves, in taking up our crosses daily and denying ourselves out of love for our neighbors. This is what we see in Christ's life, his offering up of himself to the Father, for the sake of humanity, and the foundation of the Christian life is the Trinity, in which the persons give themselves totally in love to the others. If this were not God's nature, then he would not be truly a God of love, and certainly he would not be the sort of God who went to the cross for the sake of his creatures.

What is surprising though is that this distinctly Christian understanding of reality resonates deeply with the Buddhist doctrine of Sunyata or Emptiness. There have been several excellent articles and books written on precisely this comparison. To my knowledge the best of these books is The Emptying God: A Buddhist-Jewish-Christian Dialogue with Masao Abe on God, Kenosis and Sunyata, edited by John B. Cobb, Jr. and Christopher Ives.

Buddha taught that "All beings are without a self." Everything which exists is "empty" or insubstantial. Buddha's teaching was specifically directed against the Hindu teaching of his day, which said that one could eventually reach the realization that the Atman, or self, is actually identical to Brahman, the ultimate reality (i.e., God). Buddha, in contrast, denied that there is any such thing as Atman which could be identified with ultimate reality.

Instead of having some core element of their being which is their "self" all beings exist only as part of a web of relations. So I am, because I am a son, a brother, a person living in a particular place (relationship to other objects in space) and time (relation to other objects as they change). As Raimundo Panikkar explains it
[A] person is a citizen with respect to the civitas a creature with respect to the Creator, and so on, but the very character, complexion, intelligence, will, and so on - any accidents that would seem to belong to this individual as "substance" - are actually nothing but relationships distinguishing this person from other similar groupings of attributes. (The Silence of God: The Answer of the Buddha. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1990. 136-137)
The Buddhist assertion is that there is nothing underlying these relationships, that is, there is no substance which has relationships to other substances, rather relationships constitute substances. Panikkar terms this "radical relativity." At the heart of all beings there is no stable foundation, no substance upon which accidents rest, but only Sunyata or emptiness. The Buddhist Heart Sutra succintly says "That which is form is emptiness, that which is emptiness form." Some interpreters take this to be a kind of Nihilism

But this is incorrect, because Sunyata does not indicate that everything is illusory or meaningless, but that all beings are interdependent, rather than self-sufficient and isolated. Further, Sunyata is not a mere nothingness or void. "In the realization of true Sunyata, form is ceaselessly emptied, turning into formless emptiness, and formless emptiness is ceaselessly emptied and forever freely taking form. This total dyamic movement of emptying, not a static state of emptiness, is the true meaning of Suyata" (Masao Abe. "Kenotic God and Dynamic Sunyata" in The Emptying God. 28). At least in theory, this understanding of Sunyata should not result in nihilism, but in compassion and openness to others, because part of what emptiness means is precisely self-negation for the sake of the other. In Mahayana Buddhism, the Bodhisattva even forgoes Nirvana for the sake of others.

Sunyata understood in this sense is not so far from the quote above from Fr. Hopko: "Your neighbor is your true self. You have no self in yourself." The true self is found only in communion, in giving our lives and ourselves for the sake of others. We are called to lay down our lives, which could certainly sound rather depressing and Nihilistic, but paradoxically Jesus says: "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life" (John 12:24-25 ESV).

In other words, it is only through "emptying" ourselves that we can really come to live. Dying to ourselves, for Christians, does not entail a process of depersonalization, as in so many pagan mystical systems. Instead, by dying to ourselves, we actually become more ourselves. Christians learns this not from an experience of Sunyata, but through the Cross of Christ, and in the revelation of the Trinity.

In God, being is communion (apologies for stealing from John Zizioulas), and so our lives, too, are communion, and we only live in relation to others. Panikkar, in the work already cited, goes so far as to say "the Trinity is radical relativity par excellence" (The Silence of God. 141). Realizing of course, that Panikkar was not totally orthodox as a Christian thinker, I still think this point is rather helpful, because it shows clearly how much Christians can sympathize with the Buddhist understanding of Emptiness.

I will venture to say, therefore, that Christianity is able to embrace the insights of Buddhism on this point, because these same insights are also found in Christian tradition. I am not advocating syncretism, or coming up with some kind of Zen Christianity. Rather I am suggesting that the truths experienced by Buddhists are already present in Christian faith, that the Trinity both includes and surpasses the truth of Sunyata.
That is all I have to say for now, but I expect I will return to some of these ideas in later posts.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

On the Road Again

Okay, I feel this is obligatory.



Well, now that's out of the way.
In any case, it has been a little bit since I posted up a substantial post, and I think it will be a few days before I write anything really solid for the blog; still, I wanted to give my good readers an update on my present whereabouts and activities. I am done with my internship, having preached one last time at St. James Church, Las Cruces this past Sunday.
The last two or three weeks of my internship were quite intense with lots to do, and some of it still to be done. I had to write a sermon, visit a church in El Paso, and get my apartment deep cleaned before leaving. Also, I had to finish putting my various projects in order, including finishing up the Altar Guild Manual, Customary and Pastoral Care Manual for St. James (I was revising the first two, and composing the last. Next year's intern will pick up where I left off).
I am still processing all the things that happened during the internship, but it was a really great experience, and I think it is one of the best things I have done for my formation as a seminarian so far.
I made new friends, and I learned a lot just from talking to different rectors, and even a couple of bishops, including Bishop Lamb, the retired Bishop of Northern California, who was serving as interim rector of one of the parishes I visited.
I was reminded numerous times during the internship of my weakness and God's strength, and I am very grateful for that.
It has also given me a lot to think about as I process what is going on in the Episcopal Church. I don't write about that much on this blog, mainly because I think there are plenty of Blogs that deal with TEC/ACNA politics already, and do a better job than I possibly could. I am, however, painfully aware of the storms raging within the Anglican Communion right now, and all of us within TEC have to deal with the present troubles as best we can.
I will say that the Diocese of the Rio Grande is much more liberal leaning than my home diocese of Albany, although I was in an evangelical parish. I have spent my whole life in conservative dioceses, so it was eye opening to talk with more liberal leaders. Amongst other things, it convinced me that most of the "two gospels" rhetoric which comes from conservative Anglicans, and which I have even employed from time to time, is overblown.
I will probably have more to say about that at length.
For now though, I am a bit to tired to right about such deep subjects. I set out from Las Cruces yesterday, and stayed in Albuquerque for the night. Right now, I am sitting in a Starbucks in Amarillo, TX. I am probably going to stay here (in Amarillo, not Starbucks) for the night , even though I would like to get further, but I am afraid I am just so tired that pushing myself would not be a good idea. Besides, there are not a lot of big cities between here and Oklahoma City, and I am not sure how long I would have to drive before I found a good motel. Anyway - more updates to follow.
Pax Tibi

Monday, July 25, 2011

Quiet Adventures in a Border Town

I am winding down from a very good, but very draining week. I spent said week in Columbus, NM at a ministry called Our Lady of Las Palomas (OLLP). Included is a picture of where I was staying at Compassion House, the retreat center of OLLP. Columbus is a very small village, with a population under a thousand, right on the US/Mexican border. Poncho Villa raided the village in 1916, and but as far as I can tell, things have been relatively quiet in Columbus since then. This last year a number of town officials were arrested for selling guns to various Mexican drug cartels, and most have plead guilty. Columbus is also very poor. They have no police force as of a few months ago, instead relying on the county sheriff's department for law enforcement, the public library is open three afternoons a week and paved roads are the exception. I was sent there by the priest in Demming, the nearest good sized town, to see the ministry at OLLP, which St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Demming supports, and to assess "how we can build Christian community in Columbus." I felt a bit like an ecclesiastical scout, and despite the fact that I had no idea how I was supposed to approach this assignment, I had a very rewarding experience. Let me try to explain what OLLP is, and what I was trying to accomplish there.
OLLP has this mission statement on their website:
"Our Lady of Las Palomas is a multi-faith multi-cultural community of contemplation, prayer and action committed to the life of simplicity, presence, and service in right relationship with God. We are a beyond borders interfaith community with people of the United States and Mexico participating in a cooperative community of justice and sustainability"

In fact, OLLP functions as a sort of umbrella organization which encompasses a number of ministries, mostly in Palomas, Mexico rather than in the village of Columbus. Palomas is directly across the border from Columbus, and there is a lot of traffic back and forth. I was discouraged from going across the border during my time there, and followed that advice, and so did not see the ministry there first hand. Palomas is not a safe place right now, for reasons which are obvious if you have been following the progress (or lack thereof) of the Mexican drug wars.
OLLP supports, through classes and donations, the work of The Border Cooperative/ La Cooperativa. The Cooperative works to train women, mostly in Palomas in skills like weaving and jewelry making so that they are able to start their own businesses and attain a degree of independence.
They also support the Hunger Project, a feeding ministry in Palomas.
OLLP itself was also founded to be an interfaith retreat center. I must confess I had some difficulty with this aspect of the ministry, but I am not going to go into it now.
At this point OLLP has relatively little outreach in Columbus itself, although there is sometimes a midweek service, when local Episcopal/Anglican clergy are available for it.
They are at a point of transition in their ministry, because the Rev. Deacon Kris Lethin and his wife, the Rev. Judith Lethin, the real visionaries behind the ministry, are not able to devote all their time to it right now, but divide the year between ministry here in New Mexico, and in their native Alaska.
I was asked to see what was needed in Columbus, to go around talking to people, to see what the needs are in Columbus, and come up with some ideas for how OLLP could accomplish this. I was also asked to consider whether it would be worth the time and resources to try planting
I was initially horrified by this task. First of all, I had only about four and a half days to do this, had little idea what to expect going in, and I am terrible at just starting up conversations with strangers.

What surprised me most about my time there was that I found that God really did send me the people I needed to talk to. I enjoyed the whole process of getting to know the town, and thinking of ways to build community. By the time I left I felt a real affection for the place, and wished I could spend more time there and actually put some of my ideas for building community into action. Columbus is the sort of town that is so small that everybody really does know everybody else, and you can sit at the patio of the one hotel in town and quickly get a good sense of the state of local politics.
Columbus does have spiritual needs, including getting some kind of clergy association established.
It will need to do a lot of healing, I imagine, given the recent arrest of so many officials. Among those arrested were the Chief of the now dissolved police force, and the mayor, so yes, times are tough in Columbus.
I wont go into detail just now about my thoughts on how OLLP should get involved in Columbus, because I have been asked to prepare a report for the Deanery and for the board of OLLP. I have not submitted that yet, and I don't think it would be appropriate to state all my thoughts publicly here, before sharing them with the kind people who sent me to Columbus in the first place.

What I will say is that God gave me a lot to think about in my time there. I found that I was really drawn to idea of ministering in a poor town like Columbus. In addition, I saw proof that if God puts me in a place to do ministry, he will also give me the means to accomplish that ministry. He will send me the people I need to talk to, and give me words to say. I knew this already, but it was deeply encouraging to see it in action. It was, as I said, a draining experience, because it was so new and different, but it was a real blessing to see God's faithfulness in action.

I will also add, that I think that the most effective thing that OLLP could do for Columbus is simply to be a presence there. I think that if OLLP was able to establish some sort of intentional, semi-monastic, community in Columbus, which would just be a model of prayerful, gospel centered community, it would do a great deal of good for the place. More active ministries would, of course, develop from this, but prayer and presence are the place to start.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Further Reflections after Summer Camp


I got back to Las Cruces yesterday, from a long week at Camp Stoney. As I have observed before, I am not a natural summer camper. If you have ever seen the film "Adams Family Values" the camp sequence summarizes my own basic feelings about camp very well.
However, for this week, I tried to put my own grumpy, introverted prejudice against all things Summer camp aside, and judge the camp on its own merits.
Overall, I think the camp is doing a good ministry.
There were certainly things I would do differently if I were setting up the structure of the camp, but I want to share one deeply moving thing that happened at the end of camp.
We were not expecting to be able to have a final Eucharist, but a priest was able to come at the last minute. Before the Eucharist there was an Agape meal. The agape meal was simple, with the kids sitting around tables arranged in the shape of a cross, and a lot of candles scattered about.
The kids were asked to read a lot of verses about love, and one of the counselors explained the meaning of agape love.
We sang some worship songs (I am not a big fan of worship music, but these were all reverent and well known songs) and as the evening went on, it got darker, and finally the only light in the room was the candles.
It was already pretty dark when the kids were asked if they would give any testimonies they might have. It was at this point, that things became heart breaking. One of the first kids to speak up was a little boy, maybe twelve years old who talked about how he had heard God's voice holding him back during a suicide attempt. And many of the kids had similar stories. These were young kids, from difficult backgrounds, and almost all of them had gone through far more suffering in their lives than I have ever had to face. I confess, I was crying by the end of the night.
I was grieved and outraged by the pain these children were going through. I don't want to sound pretentious, but I thought of the Brother's Karamazov and Ivan's anguished discussion with Alyosha, about suffering, and with Ivan I wondered how anything could ever possibly justify or rectify the suffering that these children have in their lives.
And the only response I have is to cling to the cross and to the Eucharist, where the Lord's death is proclaimed until he comes again, where God is with us in the most small and hidden of forms.
And when it came time for the Eucharist, which was very simple, just following the so called "Rite III" in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, the priest celebrating for us paused to explain that as Episcopalians we believe that Christ is really present in the Eucharist, feeding us. At the fraction, he pauses again to explain that the fraction signifies Christ's broken body, but also our brokenness which is made whole by Christ's. It was the best thing I think he could have said to those kids.
I had the honor of helping distribute communion, and I am deeply grateful for it.
"If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” John 6:51

Friday, July 15, 2011

Liturgy and Anglican Catholicism.

I dislike the use of the terms "Catholic" and "Evangelical" to designate parties or forms of Churchmanship. To the extent that one is Christian one is both Evangelical and Catholic. However, I don't have a better set of terms so I will use the accepted terms "Catholic" and "Evangelical" to designate two of the major forms of Churchmanship within Anglicanism.
I had an enlightening conversation with a more Low Church friend recently.
We are classmates, both preparing for ordained ministry in the Anglican Communion, and both of us expect to be Church planters. My friend was asking how it could be possible to incorporate all three streams of Anglicanism (Catholic, Evangelical and Charismatic) into a Church plant - especially if such a plant was based on small groups.
Catholic worship generally requires more resources than Evangelical or Charismatic, and so, my friend reasoned, the Anglo-Catholic tradition is less feasible in a small parish or church plant. From some conversations I have had, I think a lot of people also believe that Anglo-Catholic parishes are not accessible to the poor or less educated. I think that the history of the Ritualist movement shows that this is false. After all, the SSC began in the London Docks, where Charles Lowder would preach on the streets and break up drunken brawls. It was as bad as any urban slum today. But I digress.

It dawned on me during this conversation that most Anglicans think that Anglo -Catholicism is fundamentally a matter of Liturgical preference or worship style. But Anglo - Catholicism is not fundamentally about liturgy. It is a theological position not a liturgical preference. My friend was surprised by this, and I realized that I had not articulated the point so clearly before.

A knowledge of the the Oxford Movement makes this obvious though. It is a well known fact (among those who care about such things) that E. B. Pusey celebrated the Eucharist in cassock, surplice and hood to his dying day. Pusey even distanced himself from the SSC because he was not completely sanguine about the ritualism of the Society.
Some of the theological distinctives of the catholic movement as I understand them are:
  • The Church is understood to have a historical continuity which is manifested visibly in the ordered life of the Church (Bishops, Priests, Deacons and Laity).
  • A belief in the efficacy and importance of the sacraments.
  • The Church is primarily a worshiping and Eucharistic community. That is, the Eucharist is the central act of worship, and from this act of worship flows the whole life of the Church. The Eucharist is "source and summit" of the Christian life, to quote Trent (something I don't usually do). This is a somewhat different emphasis from the Evangelical view, which tends to see the Church primarily as entrusted with the task of evangelism. Of course, worship and evangelism are not mutually exclusive.
  • The Scripture must be read in the context of the Eucharistic Community of the Church. This is another way of saying that Anglo - Catholics recognize the authority of Tradition.
  • Anglicanism is understood as an expression of the one Church. In other words, Anglo - Catholics do believe that we must be catholic first and Anglican second. Anglicanism is a valid expression of the catholic Church to the extent that it is possible to be faithful to the tradition of the universal Church within Anglicanism. Many of us, myself included, think that it is actually easier in some ways to be faithful to true catholic tradition within the Anglican tradition than within the Roman Church.
  • Anglo-Catholicism does not necessarily entail a wholesale rejection of the reformation. I for one, think Cranmer's highly Reformed homily on "lively faith" gives excellent expression to the Biblical doctrine of justification.
It is in fact possible to hold to all these distinctives while practicing any number of liturgical styles. One of the most formative times in my spiritual life was spent worshiping in a little Anglican Church with very simple low church worship, but catholic theology, which was manifested in the teaching, and various other ways.

Now I think that most Anglo-Catholics would agree that some liturgical styles give better expression to catholic theology than do others. I don't know what theology is expressed by clown Eucharists, for example, but it's certainly nothing catholic in any meaningful sense. There is a reason that ritualism grew from the Oxford Movement, but my point is simply that Anglo-Catholicism, if it is anything worth while, is more than a merely aesthetic movement. Rather, it is a theological and pastoral movement, with aesthetic and liturgical implications. I think this is important to remember, especially for those of us like myself, who have some interest in planting churches, or those who are in poorer parishes. We will necessarily have simpler liturgy, but there is no reason why our churches cannot be fully catholic in doctrine.

We have everything we need for catholic worship contained in the historic Anglican liturgies.
Significantly, one of the principles of the Oxford movement was strict loyalty to the BCP. If it comes right down to it, we don't need smells and bells to have fully catholic worship; all we need is the church gathered together in a place, faithfully maintaining apostolic teaching and fellowship, and celebrating the sacraments.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

On Mary and the Church


I have been thinking a lot about Mariology of late - at least since May, when I read a bit by Henri deLubac on Mary and the Church. Until fairly recently I tended to think of Marian devotion as a relatively unimportant part of the Church's life. It has always been important to my personal, private devotional life, but I thought that it really was only a private matter. I am beginning to change my mind.

Even Karl Barth observed that Mariology and Ecclesiology are directly correlated. It is part of catholic tradition to identify Mary with the Church. This is more than just a metaphor. It is true that Mary is only a member of the Church, but a member who stands for the whole in an irreducibly unique way. In some sense, every member of the Church has a unique role, but that is especially apparent in the person of Mary, because only one member is the Mother of God. When Jesus Christ took human flesh, he did not take on human flesh in general, he took flesh "of the virgin Mary his mother," a Jewish woman with a specific address somewhere in Nazareth of Galilee.

Mary's uniqueness is especially important. Marian doctrines are really doctrines about the incarnation. This is well known, and has been repeated many many times by Catholic apologists, but it bears repeating here. For example, Mary is called Mother of God, because otherwise Jesus is not God, and we are not saved.

Now granted, Mary had a unique function, but we may ask: So what? Isn't it the function, or office "Mother of God" which is really important, rather than the individual person Mary? Once Mary's gives birth to Jesus, there is really nothing more to say about her.

This, so far as I can tell, is the attitude of many who reject devotion to the Mary.
But I can think of no attitude more contrary to the meaning of the incarnation. To think that way about the economy of salvation, is to reduce persons to merely functional, interchangeable individuals of a set. Part of what the incarnation proves is that the particular and the individual matters to God. Persons are not ciphers, they cannot be reduced to their functions, and God does not deal in mere generalities -he most certainly does not save generalities - he deals with persons.

If Mary is reducible to a function, then so perhaps is her son. It is not just Jesus' function as atoning sacrifice which is important, it is his identity as the unique Son of God. Or perhaps the best way to put this is that function and person are inseparable. Jesus is an irreducibly unique person, and so is his Mother.

And the unique person Mary of Nazareth stands at the place of continuity between the old and new covenants. She is both Israel, and the Church. She is the first person to accept the coming of the Messiah, responding in faith to the word of God. There was a time when it could be said, quite literally, that Mary was the Church. Before anyone else, Mary accepted God's Word, and was saved by faith in Jesus Christ. She was the faithful remnant of Israel. She had the prophetic work of presenting the Word of God to the world, and she did it more perfectly than any prophet before her. She proclaimed God's word in the Magnificat, but she brought forth the only begotten Son who is the true Word of God.
She walked in faith beside her Son, and though she seems at time to have misunderstood him, she was among those who stayed with him to the last. She shared in his sufferings (I should note I do not mean to imply that Mary's sufferings added something to Christ's, nor do I accept the Roman Catholic doctrine that Mary is Coredemptrix. She shared her son's sufferings in the same way we all must if we also hope to share in his resurrection). In Mary's fruitful virginity we also see the greatest expression of God's work of bringing life from barrenness, a pattern seen in women like Sarah, Hannah and Elizabeth, but most perfectly in Mary. Mary's life, in short, recapitulates the whole life of the Church.

This only makes sense, of course, if you have a sacramental view of reality, in which individual objects become the places where greater spiritual realities are embodied and revealed. Mary stands for the Church in a way which is more than merely metaphorical or symbolic, but which is almost sacramental.

Mary's role as Mother of God places her in a unique relation to the Body of Christ, in every sense of that term. She is the one from whom he takes his humanity - the same humanity which saves us and to which we are united by baptism and Eucharist. If the Church is truly the Body of Christ, then Mary is also mother of the Church.

Of course, in a basic and utterly central way, all Christians are equal in Christ. But the equality we have in Christ does not mean that we do not have distinct roles. I think this is clear from the metaphor of the body which St. Paul uses to such great effect, and I think it is also part of what is going on in John's gospel when Jesus gives his Mother over to the care of the beloved disciple. In the shadow of the cross, Jesus is establishing his Church, and the church takes the form of a new families. And in families, people have different roles. Mary's role is that of mother, and by virtue of our membership in the Church, Mary is our mother, whether we acknowledge it or not.

Marian devotion shapes the way we think of the Church then, because we can look to Mary to understand how the Church should look. First of course, there is Mary's title of Virgin. Mary's virginity, as I already mentioned, seems to me to be the climax of a long drawn out theme in scripture. Sarah, Rachel, Hannah and Elizabeth gave birth from barrenness - God can create life where hope seems lost. But in Mary God's power is shown even more strikingly. In the case of the other women, childbirth was unlikely, but not quite impossible, but in the case of Mary God leaves no doubt that it is his power which brings life from barrenness.

If Mary is the exemplar of the Church, then it is this sort of fruitful virginity which is to characterize the Church's life. This of course, is the same truth which is also revealed in the cross. It is God's power to bring life from death.

If we really believe that Mary has a unique role in the Church, then so do other members of the body. The Church isn't just a democratic society in which every member is identical and interchangeable functionary, it is a family in which each member is unique and irreplaceable. I think this will also incline us towards a catholic view of Church order, in which there are necessarily orders in the Church.

In addition (and I will have to see if I can find precisely where Barth said this) as Barth pointed out, where there is Marian devotion, synergism follows. Mary is the symbol, and the instance of humanity cooperating with God for salvation. Her choice of obedience undoes Eve's choice of disobedience. Meditating on Mary's life, we are likely to come to a synergistic view of salvation.

There is a great deal more to say about Mary and the Church, but I am not going to try and list all of it now. For one thing, we could go through the whole Magnificat, looking at exactly how Mary describes herself; her humility and lowliness are major themes. Also, there is what seems to be her characteristic activity of contemplation, of keeping all the things she sees in the life of her son, and pondering them in her heart. We can ask what it means for the Church to "treasure up all these things and keep them in her heart?" (Luke 2:19, paraphrased).

And of course, it is still worth asking, what form devotion to Mary should take. It is one thing to meditate on the lives of the saints, and another to invoke the saints, asking for their intercession. Perhaps we could restrict our Marian devotion to simply thinking about Mary - not actually speaking to Mary. I doubt this approach is plausible though. If we believe that Mary is our mother, then it would be a very strange family in which the children only thought fondly of their mother, but never spoke to her. This would be odd, because to know another person means more than just knowing about them; it means having a living relationship with them, communicating with them, empathizing with them, and having an interest in them precisely as another person, as a "thou" to be addressed.
If, as I have suggested in this post, it is important for the life of the Church that we be conscious of the Blessed Virgin as a person, that awareness must somehow grounded in a living relationship with her.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Summer Camp

Well, this is shaping up to be a somewhat difficult week. I am at Camp Stoney, where the diocese of Rio Grande holds its summer camps. The camp is a good ministry, but I am reminded once again that I don't really do well with Summer camps. I have never enjoyed silly activities, and while I know that they shouldn't, it just makes me uncomfortable to do goofy songs with hand motions (e.g. a blessing, complete with shark fin hand motions, to the Jaws theme music).
Again, I know that everyone is doing it, and it's just for fun, but I still get embarrassed. It's an introvert thing. Camp was not designed for introverts.
Besides which my ritualist tendencies just make me cringe at worship music like "Drop Kick me Jesus." I might enjoy camping if we were doing actual wilderness activities, but that is not really how summer camp works.

One of the serious challenges is that I am not sure exactly what my position here is - I am not a counselor, but I am about the same age as the counselors and I am not clergy. I think my main job is to observe the ministry being done, and learn what I can from it. I know there will be a lot of times in ministry when I don't know exactly what is expected of me, so this too, is a learning experience.

This week they are doing "Grace Camp."
The ministry of Grace Camp is a good one, and I am glad to get to see it. The kids are almost all from difficult backgrounds, many of them with one or both parents currently incarcerated. They are good kids, and I am glad that they have a place where they can come, and just be told about how much Jesus really does love them. To my surprise, I rather like working with the kids.

I am also trying to keep up with my other work, researching Churches, writing the pastoral care manual for St. James and calling people I need to call.
This Thursday, if all goes well, I shall be meeting with the bishop. I am looking forward to getting to talk with Bishop Michael, and I think it will be a good conversation.

My reading list continues to go well and to grow. I have numerous people telling me about books I should be reading, which makes it difficult to keep up. I have finished The Great Gatsby, Slaughterhouse 5 and The Celebrant, a novel about the Martyrs of Memphis. The Martyrs were Anglican Nuns and priests who stayed in Memphis in the late 19th century to treat the sick and dying during one of the cities periodic yellow fever outbreaks. This last novel was particularly moving because the Sisters of St. Mary, now reside in my home diocese of Albany.
I am now reading Philip K. Dick's book Valis. PKD was a fascinating writer, but you can tell that he was beyond mere eccentricity and into insanity by the time he wrote Valis. The book is mostly auto-biographical, and what is fascinating is how self aware he seems to have been about his mental illness. He seems to have know that whatever the nature of his religious experiences (which are at the center of the novel), they were mixed with a heavy dose of mental illness, but he does not seem to have been able to sort out what was insanity and what was something more.
For those of you who don't know much about PKD, here is a link to R. Crumb's comic book bio of him. I am not a big fan of Crumb, but this is an entertaining way to get the background on PKD's stories.

I will be writing some more theologically oriented reflections, occasioned by interesting conversations I have had. But those reflections will take a bit more time to formulate, and for now, my time is limited.
Pax Tibi

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Trinitarian Reflections after a Zen Encounter (Part 1).



Not too far from my apartment in Las Cruces there is a small Zen temple. It is almost a store front place, but it is well arranged. The abbot is a friendly and pleasant fellow, an American who was taught by a Japanese priest. I have an ongoing interest in Zen, and Buddhism generally, so whenever I find out there is a Zen center near by I go and visit it.

This particular Zen center has a couple of weekly groups that meet for discussion, including an Inter-faith discussion group that meets on Monday nights. The abbot invited me to come to this group, and since I am thoroughly open to interfaith discussions, I accepted. This was about a week ago now. The topic for the evening was Confucianism, and I found that overall the tone of discussion was respectful, the comments intelligent and the conversation productive.

Christianity came up only in passing, but often enough that I could get a sense that everyone there had certain fixed notions about Christianity. Two ideas in particular came up repeatedly. Christianity was contrasted with Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism, which, it was asserted, do not divide the world into the sacred and the profane. Christianity by contrast divides the world into the sacred and profane, or secular. What is done in Church is sacred and important. God is more present to us at certain times and places, such as in Church at the Eucharist. There is sacred and secular time (for example, the daily office).

Also, Christianity begins with the individual, and is primarily concerned with individual salvation. The starting point for Christians is: how can I as an individual escape the wrath to come? Asian religions generally, and Confucianism in particular, are far more oriented towards the group; family, city, nation, world, etc. The individual’s identity is derived from those around him.

To both of these ideas I want to say, “in a way yes, and in a way no”.
In simplified form, my responses to these critiques of Christianity are as follows.
Christians cannot divide the world simply into sacred and secular. The incarnation means that God is with us, dwelling among us. God becomes present in the everyday realities of human life, in the person of Jesus Christ. This means that there is no aspect of human life so trivial that God does not care about it, and so we as Christians must seek and acknowledge God in every aspect and moment of our lives.

Secondly, Christianity is the only religion I know of in which God is a community. God is Trinity and not a monad. Part of what that means is that individualism is totally excluded. A person alone is no person; if that is true for God how much more so for his creatures.

Now, here is my answer in a more complicated, and possibly less helpful form.

I think that in orthodox Christian theology, there is a dialectal relationship between the sacred and secular, the material and spiritual, the transcendent and immanent.

John Henry Cardinal Newman said that if he had to name the central idea of Christianity, he would say it was the Incarnation, and I think he was correct. The incarnation is an inexhaustibly rich idea, with many implications. Part of what the incarnation means, is that there can be no clear dividing line between the sacred and the secular. God in his transcendence becomes present to us in our finitude. Jesus Christ is both fully God and fully man, and God who dwells in light inaccessible, also dwells among us in the everyday circumstances of human existence.

The same God seated between the Cherubim, who was hidden from access in the Holy of Holies was also held, as a helpless child in the arms of his mother, grew up in a backwater of the Roman Empire, worked in the carpenter’s shop, got tired, hungry, sweaty and had to perform even the most apparently meaningless of necessary tasks like eating, drinking and relieving himself. I am not trying to be crass, but to make the point that even the unpleasant and trivial aspects of human life are sanctified by the incarnation.

If our lives are suffused with a deep awareness of the reality of the incarnation, then we cannot relegate God’s presence to particular times and places. God is present in everything and all circumstances, and we are called to "Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances" (ESV 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18). Our whole life must become a witness to the presence of God.

Anything less is frankly Gnostic, not Christian. In Gnosticism, there is not only a division but an opposition between the material and spiritual, the sacred and secular. The God of the Gnostics is blissfully unconcerned with the unpleasant realities of material existence. Not so the God of the Bible. I do grant that there are many Christians who are poorly catechized on these maters, and who don't really live in a way that fits the implications of the incarnation. That is a matter of insufficient instruction though, and not a matter of a basic flaw in Christian thought.

Why then do we have "sacred times" and "sacred places"? In Catholic and Orthodox tradition, certain objects (relics) are even understood to bring us closer to the presence of God or the saints. If God is everywhere present and filling all things, how can God be more present at some times and places? I don't have a complete answer, and as I recall St. Augustine addresses this question to some extent in the first book of the Confessions and more or less concludes that it is a mystery, and I doubt I can do better. Still, two thoughts do occur to me. They may be contradictory, or at least in tension. Judge for yourself.

First, designations of sacred time, like the practice of saying Morning and Evening Prayer, or keeping the Sabbath holy, are not intended to limit the presence of God to particular times and places. Quite the opposite. By setting aside certain times to focus on God, I become more aware of God the rest of the time. "Sacred time" is really a way of constantly returning and remembering God's presence. We have special times for doing that, partly as a concession to our weakness as human beings. Unless we have periodic reminders we tend to forget God's presence. So having sacred times does not mean that other times are less sacred, but rather all of time is sanctified by means of constantly returning and remembering God's presence. The same can be said of Sacred places.
Even Buddhists, Confucians and Taoists implicitly concede the need for this sort of constant return and reminder. After all, Buddhists have temples and sacred places, and devote a certain amount of time to meditation each day.

At the same time, while it may seem to contradict what I have just said, I think there is some sense in which God is truly closer to us at certain times and in certain places. For one thing, being material beings means that we live in time and in place. For material beings to be is to be in a given place and time. If God is going to communicate himself to his creation without violating its very nature (i.e. destroying it) he must do so in a particular place and time. Jesus Christ, the ultimate revelation of God, was a particular individual human being, born of a particular woman on a particular day.

Sometimes, people try to make the incarnation into merely an idea. I think Hegel started this trend. On this interpretation, the incarnation merely signifies the unity of the immanent and transcendent. It is not necessary, according to this interpretation, to believe that Jesus Christ, the particular individual, was the unique instance of this union. That, it seems to me is to miss the point. If the Transcendent is to be united to the immanent, the material and the particular, without simply absorbing the material and particular, it must be united at a particular time and place. Otherwise, we are back at Gnosticism and saying that the material does not matter.

And it seems to me that the only way to hold together the particular and the universal, the immanent and transcendent, is through a robustly sacramental theology and spirituality. In the sacraments God is revealed to us in material elements of Bread, wine, water and oil, precisely in their materiality. The bread and wine of the Eucharist are a sign, but they are not merely a sign. God is particularly present to us in these ordinary things, because God was really present in the particular man Jesus Christ, and because God wishes to be present to us as particular persons who are living in a particular place and time.

Now I don't think that means God is absent at other times, but it certainly means that somehow, mysteriously, his presence is first there in the sacraments. Jesus Christ is present everywhere, because he was first present in Nazareth of Galilee. Similarly, all times and places can become sacred, because certain times and places are sacred first. All our meals can become sacred and sacramental acts, but only because of the sacred meal of the Eucharist. Again, this means, that in some way there are truly sacred times and places, which are really more sacred than others, but it does not mean that the rest of time is somehow unimportant. Its importance is derivative and dependent, but not non-existent.

So far, as you may have noticed, my reflections have been more incarnational than the Trinitarian. That is why this post is only part one. Of course, the incarnation and Trinity are closely connected, with the Incarnation leading us into the Trinity. I will try to share some more explicitly Trinitarian reflections in part 2.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Reflections after a week (plus a sermon!)

After a week in Las Cruces, I think I can say that I like it here. I am situated comfortably in an apartment just across the street from the NMSU campus, with a Starbucks on one corner and an Indian restaurant on the other - joy! I have acquired a library card and a bank account. Since books are slightly more important to me than food, I am quite happy with the library card. And the library is excellent. They have an extraordinarily good collection of videos too, which is nice. Nerd Moment: They have massive amounts of Anime! I am finally working my way through the whole Cowboy Bebop series. As convenient as Starbucks is, I prefer the cafe I am sitting in now, which is about half a mile from my apartment - it would be walking distance if it were under 100 degrees Farenheit. It is called Milagro, they roast their own beans, and the place has the perfect coffeehouse atmosphere. The barista is suitably tattooed and pierced, and I am watching a gentleman sitting out on the patio, painting in mixed media. I must also confess that I am eavesdropping on a conversation about Anarchist political theory (or lack thereof?). I plan on making this comfortable little corner of Bohemia into my second home for the duration of my stay in Las Cruces.

The internship itself is also going well. So far I enjoy working with Fr. Nick and the other staff here. I have been researching the history of the Parish and the area. A major task for me during the internship is learning to assess different parishes. This is going to be of enormous help to me in the course of my career, I am certain. I will be traveling to different parishes, as I have already mentioned, and preparing a sort of report on each. The idea is to figure out what the strengths and weaknesses are at each parish, what areas it needs to grow in, etc. This isn't the sort of thing that gets taught in Seminary, but it is important. I have known a lot of clergy, and not one is without a story of some occasion when they were simply blindsided by some unexpected conflict in a parish. Inevitably, looking back, they describe these disasters as the sort of things which could have been avoided fairly easily if they had just know what signs to look for.

I also had the chance to meet Bishop Michael Vono, the relatively new diocesan. There was a pleasant get together for the deanery clergy, and I was invited - I was also put on the spot and asked to say grace for the dinner. I am told that Bishop Vono is a moderate liberal. He had some comments about the current divisions in the Anglican world, and I found his remarks very gracious. I also found him to be very personable, and he seems to be interested in church planting. I will have the chance to talk with him at greater length later during my internship.

I also preached this morning. I always enjoy preaching, and I think it went well today, although the readings were rather difficult. I have very cranky theological objections to having more than one Eucharist a day in a parish, but two services does give the preacher the chance to improve a bit on the sermon the second time around. I got some very helpful tips from Fr. Nick afterward, and I expect that my preaching will improve greatly by the end of the Summer.

In any case, here is the sermon I preached today.
The readings were Proper 8, year A. (N. B. St. James still uses the BCP lectionary, not the RCL)
Isaiah 2: 10-17, Romans 6: 3-11, Matthew 10: 34-42 and Psalm 89: 1-4, 15-18.

The Peaceful Sword of Christ.

Last week, I had the adventure of driving across the country from New York to Las Cruces. Most of you have probably been on at least one long road trip in your life and you know that on road trips you see lot of interesting billboards. I saw billboards for the Jesse James wax museum, billboards for Churches, and at least one that just said Jesus in really big capital letters.
But the most interesting billboards I saw were in Missouri along the I-44. There must have been at least twenty billboards for the Precious Moments Chapel. You all know the precious moments figures? they’re the little figurines with the big eyes, sort of child like, designed to make you feel warm and comfortable and sentimental. There’s a whole industry around them. Figurines, greeting cards, posters, you name it. And, apparently, somewhere just east of Joplin Missouri, there’s a whole chapel with Precious Moments figurines portraying scenes from the Old and New Testament.

I found myself wondering, as I saw billboard after billboard advertising the precious moments chapel, how they would portray some of the biblical stories. Because, as I’m sure you have noticed, there are some of the stories of the Bible that are anything but cosy or comforting. For example, I doubt that any of the readings for this Sunday made it into the Precious Moments Chapel. In the Gospel reading, Jesus goes out of his way to avoid being comforting or cosy.
It is as if Jesus knew perfectly well that people were expecting him to be comforting, easy going - a cuddly messiah - and he wanted as quickly and decisively as possible to disabuse them of that notion. “Do not think that I came to bring peace on Earth” he tells his disciples “I did not come to bring peace but a sword.” If Jesus had a press secretary - which fortunately he didn’t - he would have pulled Jesus aside at this point and asked him “What are you thinking, Lord? you’re supposed to be the prince of peace! People want nice pastel pictures of you looking meek, and mild, and comforting, maybe holding a lamb - and definitely not holding a sword.”
Now Jesus’ disciples had every reason to expect that Jesus had come precisely to bring peace. When he was born the Angels declared peace on Earth good will towards men; The prophet Isaiah had said that Jesus would be called “Prince of Peace” (Isa. 9:6), and St. Paul, in the letter to the Ephesians, refers to the message of Christ as the gospel of peace. It seems like Peace, is very much something Jesus came to bring.
How can the gospel of Peace bring division that “sets a man against his father” and “a daughter against her mother”? Jesus did come to bring peace, but it was not the kind of peace that his disciples, or anyone else expected. There are at least two kinds of peace to be had. The World’s peace, and God’s peace.

The world makes us a lot of offers of peace. It offers us the false peace of not being challenged, or pushed beyond where we are comfortable. Some people wanted Jesus to bring that kind of peace - they wanted Jesus to just be just the meek and mild saviour, who didn’t really ask much of them, who made them feel warm and comfortable all the time. They wanted the peace of not being bothered. Or some people wanted a more expansive peace, a political peace. Jesus and his disciples lived under the rule of the Roman empire, and Rome prided itself keeping the peace. Rome could keep peace in its empire, but it was a peace that was always backed up by violence. Rome had the biggest military force in the world and no qualms about using it. People would behave themselves for Rome because they knew that if they got out of line Rome would destroy them.

Rome stands as a good example of this World’s kind of peace; a peace maintained by violence and by fear. Many many people in Israel wanted Jesus to bring this kind of peace. They expected the Messiah to establish Israel as the center of an earthly empire where God would reign. They imagined the same kind of peace which Rome offered, just with Israel holding all the power.
That is the kind of peace which Jesus most emphatically did not come to bring. He brought a different kind of peace from anything that the world knew or expected. Rome ruled by the sword, and Jesus said he came to bring a sword, but his sword was very different from Rome’s.

If you look on the cover of your bulletins there’s an icon (See above). I don’t know how much you may know about icons, but they usually show some event from the life of Christ or the lives of the saints. I love Icons, because they don’t just show how an event would have looked if you saw it in person; instead they use symbols to show something about what that event means. I think this Icon shows what kind of sword Jesus came to bring.

This Icon is the Resurrection. Jesus is bursting from the tomb, victorious, and powerful, and in his hand he’s holding his cross like a weapon - like a sword, in fact. Obviously, Jesus didn’t really come out of the tomb carrying his cross. The point the icon makes is that the Cross was the weapon that Christ used to overcome the world, the flesh and the devil. The cross was the sword by which Christ brought God’s peace.

This gives us a clue as to how different God’s peace is from the World’s. Rome also used the cross as a weapon to keep peace, by putting those people who disturbed the peace onto a cross. Jesus used the cross as weapon by being the crucified one. Unlike the World, Jesus doesn’t keep the peace by overpowering his opponents, but by suffering at their hands and for their sakes.
Jesus’ victory and his peace don’t come through violence - but the sword of the cross still divides people. St. Paul asks us “Do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ were baptized into his death? Therefore we were buried with him through baptism into death.” And this is the most fundamental division that there can be between people. We’ve either died with Christ or we havn’t.

St. Paul continues by telling us to consider ourselves “dead to sin, but alive to God in Jesus Christ.” To be dead to sin means we aren’t defined by any of the things of the World. Not by our age, race, intelligence, wealth, family or any of things the World normally uses to say who a person is. Maybe most importantly, we are no longer defined by our sins and our failures. Those things are as meaningless to a baptized person as they are to a dead person. To live to God means that we are defined only by our relationship to the Father through Jesus Christ. In Jesus we have peace with God. And it isn’t like the World’s peace, because God’s peace is not a peace kept by force or threats of violence, but by the selfless love of Christ on the cross.

If we live our lives as if we really believed this, trying to take up our crosses daily and lead Christ like lives, we will find that we encounter conflict. Because living in light of Christ’s death and Resurrection is a threat to the World’s kind of peace. Effectively, we say that the world has no hold on us. The world will try to convince us that we are wrong, that it still has some claim on us. One tactic the world uses is to tell us there is something called an “ordinary person.”
The world tells us we are just ordinary people. The people sitting next to us in Church are just ordinary people. All of us still have to go to work, still get tired, sick and old. We aren’t special to God, and we are still just caught up in the same hectic mess of the world that we knew before we ever met Jesus. Really, the world says, nothing has changed. And this is a very convincing lie. Because we do still look like ordinary people, even to ourselves.

Even though we have new life in Christ, that life is hidden until Christ’s return when we will be changed in a way that the whole world can see. It takes faith to see as defined by our relationship to God, who we can’t see, and not by the daily pressures of the world. It takes faith to realize that in God’s eyes there is no such thing as an ordinary person. C. S. Lewis said once “the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship. . . you have never met a mere mortal.” The only way to look at things this way is by constantly reminding ourselves of how God sees us, through prayer, worship and reading the bible.

When we look at ourselves and others in this way, with the eyes of faith, we have the real peace that Jesus came to bring. And when we look at other people in faith, trying to see them the way God does, that peace we have from God spills over into our relationships with other people - even people who look impossible to get along with by worldly standards.

This kind of peace is very different from the world’s peace. It is a peace based on love, not force; it is a peace that we can have even when the whole world is falling apart around us and is anything but peaceful, because it doesn’t come from the world. It is a peace so different from the worlds, that in the blessing at the end of our Sunday services it is called the peace that passes all understanding. The world can’t understand this kind of peace, but faith can grasp it. When those around us see a kind of peace in us that they can’t explain, it is one the most powerful witnesses we can give to the truth of the Gospel, because it shows that there is something God can give that the world can’t give or take away.

When we leave Church today, may we walk out into the world, armed with the sword of the cross, and may the peace of God become visible in all our lives as our proof that Christ has overcome the world.
Amen.