Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Baptized into Eucharist

A Sketch of an Argument for the Logic
of the Traditional Discipline

Introduction & PART I – Baptism and Jesus’ Disciples at the Last Supper

PART II – Inclusion vs. Renewal and Incorporation

PART III & PART IV – Community vs. Association & Fellow Citizens

PART V – Under Judgment

PART VI & PART VII – Transformation & Whose Table?

PART VIII – Hospitality


Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Virginal Conception and Other Preposterous Things

It has become traditional this time of year for some clergyperson or theologian to confidently declare that “modern” people can no longer believe in such a thing as the virginal conception (virgin birth) of Jesus. It goes against the way we know things work.

The virginal conception does seem preposterous. It always has. I doubt Joaquim and Anne found it any less preposterous when their daughter first tried to explain it to them. I don't believe it glibly. I've had and will have my reservations, questions, and doubts about this and other aspects of the Creed. But, I figure, once you believe in something as preposterous as resurrection or that God loves you and is able to do something about it, you're in for a pound, you might as well toss in the penny.

But, preposterous as the virginal conception sounds, I find other things more preposterous and harder to accept given how we know the world works:

Jesus is the measure of all things? The turn-the-other-cheek guy from Nazereth who got himself crucified?

I must love my enemies and pray for them, repaying evil with good?

We are expected to live nonviolently in such a world as ours? Peace is always better than violence?

Forgiveness is always better than revenge or resentment?

Money is "unrighteous" and dangerous to my soul? That my best investment is to give it all away?

All people are created equal? Is there any other "truth" that is less self-evident or more easily contradicted by reason and scientific evidence? The closest I can get to that is we are all of us equally created in the image of God, equally loved by God, and equally the objects of Christ’s redeeming. It’s still pretty hard to believe from a purely empirical perspective.

Humility is a virtue?

Heck, believing that the Mystery at the heart of it all chose to become incarnate in a particular time and place from a particular girl named Mary without the usual male contribution is a relative piece of cake. In truth, most of the time I am only able to entertain these other preposterous things precisely because I believe God has done something so preposterous as being born of the Virgin Mary.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Baptized into Eucharist, Conclusion


The Eucharist is the central sign and practice of the body of Christ. The normal way of becoming a member of that body is through baptism. To reserve Eucharist for those who are baptized does not limit God. As Luther insisted, Jesus – risen and ascended – is present everywhere and can surprise us in our cabbage soup if he so desires. While he is free to surprise anyone anywhere, the promise the Church claims is that he will not surprise us by not being present to his body, the Church, as Redeemer and Judge in the waters of baptism and in the bread and wine of the Eucharist. God is free to surprise us by working outside the norms as has surely happend with some who have participated in the Eucharist before being baptized (cf. Take This Bread by Sara Miles).

Because God remains free to surprise us there is no need for hyper-vigilance to protect the purity of the Eucharist. But if we are not to be hyper-vigilant, that doe not mean that distinctions and norms are irrelevant or unnecessary. The discipline of reserving Eucharist for those already baptized is not about protecting anyone’s purity. It is about maintaining the very boundaries of identity that make a place in which to be formed as a community that can actually practice hospitality.

It is also about being honest about who we are called to be as the members of the body of Christ, what kind of God we have gotten caught up with. It is about being respectful of the real otherness of those who are not yet committed to the loyalties and commitments of this communion.

The body of Christ is a Eucharistic community with all that that entails and we are baptized into Eucharist.

Baptized Into Eucharist, PART VIII

PART VIII – Hospitality

1. Who is the Host and Who the Guest?

The practice of inviting all to the Eucharistic table without regard to baptism is often expressed in terms of “radical hospitality”. Hospitality is certainly a basic gospel virtue. The God revealed in the history of Israel and the ministry of Jesus is an hospitable God. We are encouraged to “welcome one another, therefore, as Christ has welcomed [us], for the glory of God.” (Romans 15:7). While that particular exhortation is about members of the body of Christ welcoming one another, the author of the Letter to the Hebrews encourages a broader hospitality, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels” (Hebrews 13:2). Hospitality is thus unquestionably an essential mark of any church. But it is not clear that opening Eucharistic fellowship to the unbaptized is necessarily a good means of practicing such hospitality or that it is actually hospitable or all that radical to do so.

Thinking of the Eucharist in terms of hospitality calls for some reflection on who is the host and who the guest when we gather at the altar. The ultimate host of the Eucharist is, of course, God. But this is not the generic “higher power” as each one understands it. Our divine Host is revealed in the self-giving love of the Trinity, manifested on the cross in the sacrificial self-giving of Christ. To eat at the table of this Host is to participate in the life of this God who wills to reconfigure us in the image of Christ.

Along with being guests responding to the invitation of God, the penultimate host of the Eucharist is the body of Christ that is re-membered in the practice of Communion. But, to host anyone we must have a sense of identity and place:

A welcoming place is rich with stories, rituals, and a history. It is valued, and nurtures life. It is never simply a physical space, but a place alive with commitments and relationships.

Boundaries help define what a household, family, church or community holds precious. However, the modern world is deeply ambivalent about boundaries and community. Although we yearn for home and a place to belong, often we find ourselves more comfortable with empty space where we can “sing our own song” and pursue our own plans. Hospitality is fundamentally connected to place – a space bounded by commitments, values, and meanings. Part of the difficulty in recovering hospitality is connected with our uncertainty about community and particular identity.
- Christine Pohl, Making Room, p. 135 -136

If we are not clear about our own identity and the identity-forming nature of the Eucharist, we have nothing to offer but what Henri Nouwen named “a bland neutrality that serves nobody” (Reaching Out, p.99). It confuses mere pleasantness for deep hospitality. And since it avoids the scandal and offense of particular, bounded identity it is not very costly or radical.

If the penultimate host of the Eucharist is the Church, who is the guest? In a word, God. Paradoxically, in the Eucharist, the baptized are both guest and host and the divine Host is also the divine Guest. We invite the Holy Spirit to descend upon the gifts that they may be the Body of Christ and his Blood of the new Covenant”. Because the Guest is nothing less than the Holy Mystery at the heart of all, we pray that we might be sanctified by the same Holy Spirit “that we may faithfully receive” this Guest in the “gifts of God for the people of God”. It is significant that in the gospels Jesus is rarely the host, but rather most often the guest at the table of others. And as Zacchaeus and Simon the Pharisee discovered hosting Jesus brings us face to face with the expectations of Jesus. As those incorporated into the community of hosts through baptism, we have some inkling of who our Guest is and what expectations that Guest places upon the community that seeks to keep his company.

If, as has been argued above, participation in the Eucharistic feast entangles us in particular loyalties and implicates us in a web of mutual expectations and accountabilities, then inviting people to participate who are not already so entangled and implicated by baptism and without alerting them is neither faithful to our own identity nor respectful of their otherness.

2. Hospitality in a World of No Place

Elizabeth Newman has observed that

a pervasive feature of late modernity: a gnawing homelessness, a lack of a sense of place. If we are truly to envision and embody a faithful hospitality, we must see how deeply our current understanding and experience of “home” and “place” have up to now perverted us from living a profound hospitality.
- Elizabeth Newman, Untamed Hospitality, p. 34

This is particularly true in contemporary America where our hyper-mobility means few of us live in the communities in which we were raised, surrounded by and connected to family and neighbors with whom we have long history and a sense of place characterized by particular customs and traditions. Absent that sense of place, we are reduced to detached individuals roaming context-less space as tourists and consumers. The public space of the shopping mall is the clearest manifestation of this condition, but it is pervasive. We have been deeply formed to think of ourselves as individuals and trained to be consumers living in space but with no sense of real place. If we are not careful, our worship will reflect and reinforce that formation and that training.

Worship informed by such assumptions will be unable to offer Christian hospitality, a practice that relies on a sense of place, a shared tradition, one in which we are not strangers in the universe (or to each other) but part of God’s good creation, created so that God might love us and so that we might I return love God, each other, the stranger, and even the enemy.” - Newman p.44

In such an environment, what does our practice of Eucharist signify? Inviting anyone to participate wherever they are on their spiritual journey reinforces the ideology of the individual-as-consumer. It signifies that a church is like other public spaces where individual consumers go to satisfy a felt need. The church is then like a sort of religious restaurant with spiritual food on the menu catering to individual customers who come and go through its public space. Is it really all that costly or radical? Should it not rather signify that here is a place where people belong to one another with mutual obligations and to God who gives them an identity as members of a diverse body with many members and many gifts reinforced by the Communion Meal? As William Cavanaugh suggests:
[M]uch of what passes for Christianity in our culture today is addressed to fulfill the spiritual needs of individual consumers of religion. . . . The practice of the Eucharist is resistant to such appropriation, however, because the consumer of the Eucharist is taken up into a larger body, the body of Christ. The individual consumer of the Eucharist does not simply take Christ into herself, but also is taken up into Christ.
- Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire, p. 54

Church buildings function both as public space and the space where the body of Christ takes place. As public space, church buildings are open to many people coming and going – sometimes literally as tourists. But, of course, other times as servants and those who are served, as visitors and seekers, as those in need shelter, food, clothing, etc. It is space where the Christian community practices (or should practice) costly hospitality.

But the hospitality the members of church practice in the public space is rooted in the place of the body of Christ “made” in baptism and Eucharist. The community so made should be practicing among itself a hospitality – a hospitality of radical responsibility for, and accountability to, one another in light of the gospel. That we treat fellow members of the body of Christ more like acquaintances than with the deep hospitality due sisters and brothers is a scandal that makes inviting everyone to the communion rail seem trite.

Next: Conclusion

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Earth is the Lord's

“You formed us in your own image, giving the whole creation into our care, so that, in obedience to you, our Creator, we might rule and serve all your creatures.”
- Eucharistic Prayer D, Book of Common Prayer, p. 373

As the leaders of the nations deliberate in Copenhagen, may they make wise decisions and firm commitments to address global climate change. And may we all seek to be better stewards and servants of God's creation.

At St. Barnabas, we have made reusable grocery bags with this logo available as one small effort to be good stewards:

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Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Recipe Diem – Receive the Day

On Thanksgiving Day we acknowledge our dependence. ~ William Jennings Bryan

One of my favorite prayers in the Prayer Book is one from the Order for Compline:

O God, your unfailing providence sustains the world we live in and the life we live: Watch over those, both night and day, who work while others sleep, and grant that we may never forget that our common life depends upon each other's toil; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. Book of Common Prayer, p. 134

It is a reminder that the world in which we live, the lives we live – all that we are and all that we have – is all the sheer gift of God. It is not something we can seize or hold. We can only receive and give thanks. This receiving is not passive but rather an active attentiveness to each moment as the irreplaceable, intimate gift of God. We thank God who wonderfully created us and still more wonderfully redeems us. It is no accident that the central practice of the Church is the Eucharist the root meaning of which is thanksgiving.

The prayer from Compline is also a reminder that we are dependant on each other’s toil. The notion of an autonomous individual, rugged or otherwise, is a false one. It is fundamentally absurd. We are born into, and dependent upon from start to finish, a web of relationships. We always and only live at the hand of others. Part of the discipline of active, attentive gratitude is giving thanks for everyone else. Margaret Visser writes, “Gratitude is always a matter of paying attention, of deliberately beholding and appreciating the other.”

Thanksgiving is a good reminder to be paying attention and deliberately beholding and appreciating others as we acknowledge our dependence. So, this Thanksgiving, thank God for his unfailing sustaining providence. And thank all those other folk on whose toil your life depends. Thank family and friends. But also thank everyone who had a hand in making your Thanksgiving feast possible: those who planted, those who harvested, those who processed and packed, those who drove the trucks and those who loaded and unloaded the trucks, those who stocked the shelves and those who checked out the groceries. Thank the power company electrician who makes sure the power gets to your home – sometimes in inclement weather. And thank sister turkey and brother pig for the sacrifice of their lives for your nourishment. And thank all who participate in one way or another in the web of mutual dependency.

Of course, the third Thursday of November is but a particular, public reminder of our dependence on God and one another. May we learn the discipline of active attentive gratitude day in and day out. Recipe diem.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Baptized into Eucharist, PARTS VI & VII

PART VI – Transformation

The sacraments can be understood as where the body of Christ “happens”. In baptism a new member of the body is “made” by incorporation. In the Eucharist the body happens in more ways than one. It is the feast by which we remember the life, death, and resurrection of the one whose historical body was broken for us. It is the feast in which the bread and wine become for us the body and blood of Christ. And it is also the feast by which the body of Christ, the Church, is both re-membered and fed on the body of Christ in the bread and wine.

This understanding of Eucharist as transformation is expressed on page 316 of the Book of Common Prayer, “[I]n these holy Mysteries we are made one with Christ, and Christ with us; we are made one body in him, and members one of another.” To partake of the Eucharist is to submit to the process of being both ingodded and inothered. This is what Augustine was getting at in his well-known exhortation, “Behold what you are. Become what you see: the Body of Christ, beloved of God.” (Homily 57, On the Holy Eucharist). Augustine adds that when we consume the body of Christ in the bread and wine, we do not so much transform that food into our bodies, as we are transformed by it into his body.

Participation in the Eucharist is not simply about experiencing God’s consolation. It is that. But it is much, much more. It is about transformation. It is part of our conversion process on the way to what the Eastern Christian tradition calls theosis – our being made capable of being “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 2:4) - capable of bearing the absolute love, goodness, beauty, and joy of God. We expect to be transfigured, or as Dante would have it, transhumanized into glory.

We cannot, and dare not, expect that transformation, while good and desirable, to be easy or painless. Indeed the imagery of scripture suggest otherwise. Through Jeremiah, God promises, “Therefore, thus says the LORD of hosts: ‘Behold, I will refine them and test them, for what else can I do, because of my people?’” (Jeremiah 9:7, Cf. Zechariah 13:9 & Malachi 3:3). I suspect that, however wonderful the image of beautiful silver, shining brightly might be, the ore does not necessarily welcome the heat of the crucible. In John 15:5, Jesus says, “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.” But, before that, in verse 2, he promises, “Every branch of mine that bears no fruit, God takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit God prunes, that it may bear more fruit." We rejoice in the promise of more fruitful lives. But, does the branch necessarily welcome the pruning? In truth, we do people a disservice if we invite them to the Eucharistic table as if there was no promise (and warning) that it entails refining, pruning, and transformation.

PART VII - Whose Table?

It is sometimes suggested that since the Eucharistic table is God’s table it is not for us to decide who can participate. But, given the logic of the liturgy, one might more reasonably suggest, that because it is God’s table, we should not be glib in our own participation nor in inviting others to participate. Indeed, one might wonder if an open invitation is not more presumptuous in its certainty of our own adequate knowledge and goodness, or at the very least, that it presumes a particularly cheap grace. It suggests a notion of God that is altogether domesticated and sentimental.

Annie Dillard famously warns against presuming that God is tame:

“On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping God may wake someday and take offense, or the waking God may draw us out to where we can never return.” - Teaching a Stone to Talk

If, as we often claim, we “believe what we pray” (lex orandi, lex credendi – the rule of prayer is the rule of belief), we would do well to attend to the logic of the liturgy which suggests a certain caution in coming to the Lord’s Table. As Moses drew near to the strange sight of the burning bush, he was commanded to remove his sandals for he was on holy ground. Just so, symbolically as we move through the Eucharistic liturgy, we stop periodically to remind ourselves that we are approaching holy ground and that doing so is an awesome thing. The One into whose presence we are coming is awe-inspiring and, while not wholly unknown, remains a mystery beyond our comprehension. We are aware that in our ignorance, we are like children playing with nitroglycerine. We are also aware of our failure to live lives of love and truth and trust, and thus of the distance between us and God. As noted before, the Exhortation found before the Rite of Holy Communion found in the Book of Common Prayer warns against coming to the Eucharistic table unprepared.

The liturgy is like an elaborate spiral dance in which we symbolically circle around and around the altar drawing closer and closer to the great mystery of the Eucharist. At intervals along this spiral dance, we stop to "take off our sandals" and acknowledge our ignorance and sinfulness. And we ask for God’s mercy as we proceed deeper into the holy mystery. In the Collect for Purity, we ask God to cleanse the thoughts of out hearts that we may perfectly love God and worthily magnify his holy Name. And we dance a little closer. Then we sing the Gloria, the Kyrie, or the Trisagion; each of which asks again for God’s mercy. And we dance a little closer. After hearing God’s word read and proclaimed, we confess our sins against God and our neighbor and receive the promise of God’s forgiveness. We exchange the peace, recognizing that we cannot go to the altar of the Prince of Peace unless we are being and making peace ourselves. And we dance a little closer. In the Sanctus we declare that we know the one in whose presence we are is holy. And we dance a little closer. Before the breaking of the bread, we say the Lord’s Prayer in which we again ask for forgiveness. And we dance a little closer. Again and again, we acknowledge that we do not really know what we are up to, that the One with whom we are dealing is holy, and that we are ignorant, sinful and broken people in need of mercy. By God’s amazing grace we are invited and encouraged to “with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16). But that confidence is born in baptism and is not the same as presumption. Our liturgy reminds us that we are all always in need of mercy if we are to gather in the Presence.

As "stewards of the mysteries of God" (1 Corintians 4:1), it is indeed the Church's vocation to see that those who come to those mysteries are aware of what they are doing and assure that they are prepared through initiation into those mysteries via baptism.

Next: PART VIII, Hospitality

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Baptized into Eucharist, PART V

Before the Rites of Holy Eucharist in the Book of Common Prayer there is An Exhortation to examine our lives that we might "share rightly in the celebration of those holy Mysteries." The Exhortation reads in part:

But, if we are to share rightly in the celebration of those holy Mysteries, and be nourished by that spiritual Food, we must remember the dignity of that holy Sacrament. I therefore call upon you to consider how Saint Paul exhorts all persons to prepare themselves carefully before eating of that Bread and drinking of that Cup.

For, as the benefit is great, if with penitent hearts and living faith we receive the holy Sacrament, so is the danger great, if we receive it improperly, not recognizing the Lord’s Body. Judge yourselves, therefore, lest you be judged by the Lord.

Book of Common Prayer, 1979, p. 316

Though not often read, this exhortation is part of our formal understanding of what we are about in participating in Eucharist.

PART V – Under Judgment

Participating in the Eucharist entangles us in particular loyalties, responsibilities, and accountabilities. There are expectations placed on the eucharistic community and its members. Are they living in communion with one another as the body of Christ such that partaking of his body and blood makes sense? Are they living together into the deep reconciliation God is working in Christ? Are they bearing one another’s burdens? The burden of one another? Is their common life reflective of scriptural mandates like those in Matthew 5 – 7, Luke 6, Romans 12, Philippians 2, Ephesians 4? Is their life together “a sign of Christ’s love to this sinful and broken world, that unity may overcome estrangement, forgiveness heal guilt, and joy conquer despair”? To participate in the Eucharist is to enter into such expectations. With such expectation comes judgment.

1 Corinthians 11 emphasizes that partaking of the Lord’s Supper carries with it serious expectations. That text is about how those who take part in the feast of Christ treat each other as members of the body of Christ. That is what discerning the body means. Unless we take seriously our belonging to one another and caring for one another, we have not discerned the body and our communion is false and our claim to be in communion with Christ, suspect. Thus the Eucharist is as much an act of commitment and accountability as is baptism.

The parousia is to be a time not only of redemption but of judgment, when the “world” – meaning that part of creation which refuses the sovereignty of Christ – will be overthrown. As the sacrament which anticipates the parousia now, the Eucharist is also placed in the context of judgment. Those who do not “discern the body” and become a member of Christ risk condemnation along with the forces that oppose Christ. The failure to “discern the body” refers not only to the body on the table but the ecclesial body as well.

William Cavanaugh, Torture and Eucharist: Theology, Politics, and the Body of Christ, p. 235

Beyond the responsibility for, and accountability to, one another as members of the body of Christ into which we are absorbed in the Eucharist, there is a call to mission. To partake in the Eucharist is to participate in the passion of Christ. It is not a matter of simple passive receiving. Feeding on the body “broken for you” and drinking from the cup, “shed for you” implicates us in the mission to be ourselves broken and poured out for the sake of a hungry and thirsty world. As our Lord told James and John, baptism and Eucharist go together and both implicate us in his life and passion. (Mark 10:35 – 45).

To share in the Eucharist is to be entangled with the body of Christ and the mutual obligations and expectations that come with that belonging. Baptism initiates us into that belonging and the pre-baptismal catechumenate prepares us for the obligations and expectations of belonging. Eucharist nourishes us in that belonging and calls us to live into it ever more deeply.

The fact that many who are baptized members of the Church do not understand the responsibilities that go with discerning the body is a shortcoming of the Church’s catechesis. The fact that all too often the Church does not live into those responsibilities is a scandal that places it under judgment. Inviting people to partake of the Lord’s Supper without being clear about the expectations laid on those who participate places them under a particular judgment unawares and is neither responsible nor particularly hospitable.

Next: PART VI - Transformation & PART VII - Whose Table?

Monday, November 16, 2009

Baptized into Eucharist, PART III & PART IV

"No unbaptized person shall be eligible to receive Holy Communion in this Church." Canon I.17.7 of the Constitution & Canons of The Episcopal Church

This canon affirms that the communal expectation and practice of the Episcopal Church regarding Holy Communion is in communion with the "one, holy, catholic and apostolic church." Here are parts 3 & 4 of my ongoing sketch of a defense of the expectation and practice of this canon.

PART III – Community vs. Association

The Eucharist is a communal meal, hence its other name, Holy Communion. That communion is not simply a matter of our communing with God. It is also an expression of and means toward the communion of the gathered body of Christ.

It is consequential whether we believe the divine-human drama centers on the individual or on community and relationship. While not strictly a matter of either/or it does matter where we put the emphasis. Are we essentially individuals who associate with other individuals for one reason or another or are we persons shaped in community in which case belonging is essential?

Historically, Christianity has emphasized community and belonging. Part of the Church's rejection of Gnosticism has to do with the latter’s appeal to esoteric knowledge focused on individual enlightenment separate from the communal traditions and communal disciplines.

In an American, post-Enlightenment context shaped by the ideology of individualism, the difference between real community and an association of individuals can be hard to appreciate. Inviting anyone to partake of the Eucharist, “wherever they are on their spiritual journey” puts the emphasis on the individual and her or his personal spiritual journey rather than on our being members of one another with responsibility for, and accountability to, one another. The Church cannot counter the ideology of individualism by reinforcing that ideology in its central communal practice.

The God we come to know in the history of Israel and the mission of Jesus always works through a people. Christianity is about belonging to a people shaped by particular ways of being and believing. Our communion is not just an individual spiritual encounter, but communion with, and commitment to, a very physical body gathered in space and through time.

PART IV – Fellow Citizens

That belonging is belonging to one another. It is also belonging to “another country”. We are citizens of heaven and of the kingdom of God (Philippians 3:20, Ephesians 2:9). One of the things we need to look at more carefully is how we understand ourselves in a post-Christian/post-Christendom context. Another reason inviting the unbaptized to Communion is problematic is that it seems to be, ironically, a Christendom move in a post-Christendom situation. Under Christendom, the Church acted as the chaplain of a (presumed) Christian society which included everyone. When, out of long habit, the Church continues that role in a post-Christian context, the distinctive practices, disciplines, and beliefs that are the marks of membership become an embarrassment. To continue to serve as society’s chaplain, it becomes imperative to minimize the particulars of Christian discipleship and emphasize the generic spiritual journey of all citizens of the larger society.

Where our true citizenship lies is a question both the religious right and the religious left in America tend to get wrong. Baptism is our naturalization into a nationality other than that into which we are born (1 Peter 2:9). The creed is our pledge of allegiance. And Eucharist is the characteristic privilege and responsibility of citizenship that shapes us as a people and calls us to live as members of the body of Christ with each other and in the world. As William Cavanaugh writes in Torture and Eucharist: Theology, Politics, and the Body of Christ:

In the Eucharist one is fellow citizen not of other present “Chileans” [or Americans] but of other members of the body of Christ, past, present and future. The Christian wanders among the earthly nations on the way to her eternal patria, the Kingdom of God. The Eucharist makes clear, however, that this Kingdom does not simply stand outside of history, nor is heaven simply a goal for the individual to achieve at death. Under the sign of the Eucharist the Kingdom becomes present in history through Christ the heavenly High Priest. In the Eucharist the heavens are opened, and the church of all times and places is gathered around the altar. p. 224

The Church is a body of people who are citizens of another country and the Eucharist is one of our constitutive practices. It incorporates us into a body whose loyalties are often at odds with other loyalties. That Christians all too often subsume Christianity under other loyalties does not negate the responsibility to seek to get our loyalty (that to which we are faithful) straight. It is also incumbent upon us to be honest with others that participating in the Church’s characteristic citizenship meal entangles them in particular loyalties, responsibilities, and accountabilities.

Next: Part V - Under Judgement

Friday, November 13, 2009

Baptized into Eucharist, PART II

A couple of years ago, I was invited to serve on a panel at Seabury-Western Seminary discussing the practice of inviting those not yet baptized to the Eucharist. I was asked to serve as one committed to the traditional discipline of not doing so. This is the second post of a series of reflections prepared for and growing out of serving on that panel.

PART II – Inclusion vs. Renewal & Incorporation

Jesus famously welcomed sinners and outcastes into his movement. But, it is easy for moderns to ignore the particularity of Jesus and his ministry in ways that are misleading. Simplistic modern appeals to his inclusiveness miss some of the contours of what Jesus was about. He was not a generic spirit person teaching universal truths about God to generic people. Nor was his summons simply inclusive without context or expectation.

There is no reason to suppose that Jesus did not accept the particularly Jewish belief that God had chosen and called Israel to bless the nations even as he recalled Israel to that mission and ultimately fulfilled it himself. Nor was his summons to enter the kingdom a generic welcome of any and all regardless of repentance and the embrace of particular commitments (Luke 15:1-10).

Jesus’ movement was a Jewish renewal movement. His mission was to “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 10:6, 15:24). His words and actions need to be understood in that context. Whatever symbolic fellowship meals he shared were limited to those already members of the covenant people of Israel. They make sense, as several parables indicate, as prophetic enactments of the wedding banquet of Yahweh and Israel. They took place in the context of the story of Yahweh’s courtship of Israel. Jesus welcomed the outcastes of Israel and called all Jews to repent of their neglect of their particular call to be holy and to be the light of the world. From within Israel, he gathered around himself a renewed Israel represented by the call of twelve disciples paralleling the twelve tribes.

Though Jesus showed interest in and compassion toward Gentiles and hinted at their eventual incorporation, he did not gather them into his movement. As one would expect of an observant Jew of his time, there is no indication that he ever ate with Gentiles - outcaste or otherwise. There is no reason to suppose that the multitude that was fed miraculously was anything other than a Jewish multitude. It was the fragments of Israel that Jesus gathered into the baskets of his movement.

It was only after Easter and Pentecost that the Church, as a New Israel, was understood to be open to Gentiles as it became more and more clear that the old divisions had been overcome by the breaking in of the Kingdom of God through Jesus’ death and resurrection and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Now Gentiles, as the “wild olive branches,” were welcome to be grafted onto the “cultivated olive tree” of Israel, and become part of the New Israel (Romans 11:17-24). Thus the Church is not a generic faith community, but an extension of a particular people. Gentiles were welcomed, but only by means of repentance and baptism through which they were identified with Christ and incorporated into his body, the Church.

Baptism early on came to be seen as analogous to circumcision by which new members are incorporated into the covenant community (Colossians 2:12-13). Given the parallels between the Passover meal and the Lord’s Supper, baptism would be the logical expectation of those who wished to come near and keep the feast of this people of the new covenant (Exodus 12:48). It is about the formation of a people with normal boundaries and normative practices. To miss this is to make Christianity less Jewish than it is.

Next: PART III – Community vs. Association & PART IV – Fellow Citizens

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Baptized into Eucharist

A Sketch of an Argument for the Logic
of the Traditional Discipline


When we are baptized into Christ, we are made a member of his body, the Church. As the body of Christ, the Church is called to witness to and be a sign and foretaste of the kingdom of God. The central sign and practice of this body is the Eucharist. In the Eucharist, the body of Christ, the Church, is nourished by the body of Christ in the bread and wine. We remember what God has done in Christ and anticipate God’s restoration of all things in Christ. And we participate in Christ and are nourished by his body and blood. The Church is thus a Eucharistic community living in remembrance and anticipation, nourished by its participation in Christ along the way. But, partaking of the body of Christ in the Eucharist also entails judgment. Is the community - and its members - living eucharistically as the body of Christ?

It is the ancient understanding of the Church that this act of remembrance, anticipation, and participation only makes sense as a practice of those who have been baptized into Christ. And that has been the traditional discipline of the Episcopal Church. Some in the Episcopal Church, though, question this traditional understanding and discipline. Thus, it has become the practice in many places to "open" Eucharist to the unbaptised. While this is well-meant, I suggest that such a practice undermines what the Church and Eucharist are about.

What follows is a sketch in several parts of a defense of the logic of the traditional discipline of expecting those who partake of the body of Christ in the Eucharist to be baptized members of the Church which is the body of Christ and living into its discipline.

PART I – Baptism and Jesus’ Disciples at the Last Supper

One question that is often posed is whether or not the disciples gathered around Jesus at the Last Supper were themselves baptized. The answer is that, in all likelihood, they were. Andrew was certainly a follower of John the Baptist (John 1:40) and thus presumably baptized. Even more significantly, Jesus is recorded as baptizing (John 3:26), or at least having his disciples baptize (John 4:1). Whether by John or after responding to Jesus' call, they were baptized before the Last Supper. And, of course, significantly, Jesus himself was baptized.

John's baptism is arguably irrelevant to subsequent Christian practice and we see the early Church understanding it as inadequate (Acts 19:1-7). But, the evidence that Jesus – or at least his disciples on his behalf – baptized those who wished to respond to his call suggests that Jesus was not bashful about making distinctions between those who responded to his summons and those who did not and marking that distinction in public ritual.

While the practice of baptism has its roots in John's and Jesus' practice, it is somewhat other. Since we are baptized into Christ's death and resurrection and in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; our baptism is not the same as John's or even that of Jesus and his (pre-Easter) disciples. It is an Easter event. And it is the risen Jesus who commands his followers to make disciples and baptize. Our baptism – and our baptismal discipline – has its roots in the historical practice of Jesus, but it is different in as much as it is an Easter event.

The same is true for the Last Supper. It was the Last Supper, not only because it was the last meal for Jesus before his execution, but because there had been other meals before. But, like Baptism, the Eucharist participates in the Resurrection. Whatever symbolic meals Jesus might have shared in during his ministry, the Eucharistic meal is more than a repetition of what Jesus did before the crucifixion. It is an Easter event. It is a participation in Jesus’ resurrection and an anticipation of our resurrection and the new heaven and earth. Baptism is how we are incorporated into the resurrection, or, at the very least, into the body of witness to the resurrection, and logically precedes the typical meal by which we are nourished in the resurrection life.

Next: PART II – Inclusion vs. Renewal & Incorporation

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Immortality or Eternal Life?

In a provocative essay for the New York Times, philosopher Todd May suggests, “This is the paradox death imposes upon us: it grants us the possibility of a meaningful life even as it takes it away.” He begins by pointing out that, as essentially forward-looking creatures, the finality of death offends us. But, he goes on to argue that without death, life would lose its shape and become formless. He alludes to a story, Immortality, by Jorge Louis Borges in which immortal beings become unconcerned with their lives or surroundings. Immortality, which he characterizes as one damn thing after another would be boring.

Once you’ve followed your passion — playing the saxophone, loving men or women, traveling, writing poetry — for, say, 10,000 years, it will likely begin to lose its grip. There may be more to say or to do than anyone can ever accomplish. But each of us develops particular interests, engages in particular pursuits. When we have been at them long enough, we are likely to find ourselves just filling time. In the case of immortality, an inexhaustible period of time.

I suppose he’s onto something. If immortality is just mortal life extended indefinitely there might not be much to commend it. Our limited mortal selves cannot bear immortality in that sense. Borges gets at this. As does Anne Rice in the desperate and lonely immortality “lived” by the vampire, Lestat. Living forever in the sense of life as we know it is less attractive than might be assumed at first.

But, as a Christian, I have to say that is not my hope. Mere immortality is not the same thing as eternal life. The Bible is surprisingly circumspect in describing just what eternal life means. But there are hints.

First of all, the Christian hope is not to avoid death. Death is indeed the hard reality under whose shadow we live. But, we confess that the one who is Life itself entered into that hard reality and took it upon himself and died a mortal death on a cross. Still more, we confess that Life transformed the reality of death through resurrection. So, now the shadow of death is the shadow cast by the cross with the light of resurrection glory shining from beyond.

Because we hope for resurrection, our hope is not for our exhaustible and exhausting lives extended over inexhaustible time but for life transformed. Thus, one of the most enduring images of that hope is the prophet Isaiah’s vision of the Peaceable Kingdom in which all that makes it a curse for so many to be born is transformed into health and harmony. Similarly, the vision of the New Jerusalem in the Revelation to John points to the healing of all that corrupts and destroys along with all within and without that keeps us from complete and mutual joy. Our hope is for all creation, perhaps all of history – and us in it – to be transformed.

We do not hope for this life extended beyond death. Rather, we expect to be transfigured, or as Dante would have it, transhumanized. We expect to be “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 2:4) capable of enjoying God who is Eternal Life and capable of being in-joyed by God.

Our passions and interests are limited because we are finite and the things we love are finite. But, if our loves and desires can be caught up in the love and desire that is God, they become endless and endlessly desirable. The great fourth century theologian, Gregory of Nyssa, put it this way

Because there is nothing above to break the impetus of the soul, and because the very nature of the good is to attract those who look up toward it, the soul rises always, extending itself forward through the desire of heavenly things, as the Apostle says [Philippians 3:13], and its flight will lead it always higher. Desirous as it is never to renounce the summits which are above itself, and in view of what it has reached already, the soul is given a movement of never-ending ascension, and it finds always in its past achievements a new energy for soaring higher; for spiritual activity alone has the propriety of nurturing its strength while expending it, and not to lose, but rather to increase it through exercise.
(The Life of Moses II 225 – 226)

Unlike mere immortality, the Christian vision of eternal life is not just an extension of this life which would surely become tedious if not altogether unbearable. Beings of such immortality would understandably sooner or later become unconcerned with their lives and surroundings. But eternal life is receiving the capacity for eternal joy and enjoyment. In eternal life there is no boredom or loss of interest and passion.

We get a glimpse of this in those saints who have been able to love the finite things and people of this world as icons through which they have loved God who is infinite and infinitely desirable. Seeing things and people as icons of the Eternal, the saints have engaged their eternal desirability. By God’s grace, following the example of the saints, we can hope not just for immortality beyond death, but for foretastes of eternal life even now. And we can begin to engage our lives, the lives of others, and our surroundings as means by which we enjoy and are enjoyed by the God of Eternal Life. In so doing, perhaps our capacity for passion, interest and caring will be nurtured even while being expended, and increased through exercise – preparing us for eternal life.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

All Saints Sunday -- 11/1/09

Every now and then I visit the Wade Center at Wheaton College. I like to sit and read and sometimes work on a sermon in the museum there. The museum

showcases memorabilia and rotating wall displays which highlight selections from our collection of books, letters, manuscripts, and artifacts” related to seven British authors: Owen Barfield, G.K. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis, George MacDonald, Dorothy L. Sayers, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Charles Williams.

There are some big items: an actual wardrobe from C. S. Lewis’ childhood home (complete with fur coats and a sign warning that the Wade Center will not be responsible for any one who might try to enter), a desk from his office at Magdalen College of Oxford University, and the desk on which J. R. R. Tolkien wrote The Hobbit. In display cases, one can see a pair of glasses once owned by Dorothy Sayers; a pipe and tea mug that belonged to Lewis along with a mug that he likely used for other beverages; and the honorary MA diploma awarded by Oxford to Charles Williams along with the mortar board he wore upon receiving that diploma.

I confess that for me it feels like a pilgrimage destination, a shrine full of holy relics. Except for Barfield who I have not read, each of these authors has inspired and nourished me spiritually. Each has expanded my imagination, which is another way of saying each has enhanced my capacity for faith, love, and wonder. When I am there I feel their presence and my faith is encouraged.

As you know, I am particularly fond of Charles Williams. Though he is not an officially recognized saint, his effect on those who knew him gets at what all the saints are about.

The poet, W. H. Auden, who attributed his conversion to Christianity to Williams, wrote,

for the first time in my life I felt myself in the presence of personal sanctity. I had met many good people before who made me feel ashamed of my own shortcomings, but in the presence of this man . . . I did not feel ashamed. I felt transformed into a person who was incapable of doing or thinking anything base or unloving.

"Transformed into a person who was incapable of doing or thinking anything base or unloving" is another way of saying sanctified or made holy. The saints we celebrate on Saints days and today, on All Saints, are those Christians who stand out as exhibiting exemplary holiness. Which is to say that by God’s grace they are particularly transparent to God’s goodness. Saints are fragrant with the aroma of heaven. That transparent goodness and fragrant aroma changes those with whom they have contact.

And even more is changed. Upon learning that his friend had died, C. S. Lewis wrote that when he tried to combine the idea of death with the idea of Charles Williams he found that "it was the idea of death that was changed."

The saints anticipate – embody even – a glimpse of the splendor of resurrection glory. A glory that is stronger than death.

Because the glory of God is stronger than death, those who have been received into the fullness of that glory are never completely removed from us. Though they have "ascended the hill of the LORD" and "stand in his holy place" having received their blessing and reward from the King of glory, they continue to encourage those of us still making the ascent up the hill of sanctification. We are knit together in a great fellowship with them with threads stronger than death.

Among other things, this is what is meant when we affirm in the Apostles' Creed that we believe in “the communion of saints”. Those who God has "tested and found worthy of himself", those who he has refined like gold, still shine forth in our midst. The saints "run like sparks through the stubble" of this world igniting our imagination and our expectation of another world where all will be made new and the stench of sin, disease and death will be no more. They enhance our capacity for faith and love. Through them the Holy Spirit can transform us and inspire in us the desire to be persons who are incapable of doing or thinking anything base or unloving.

And so we rejoice in their fellowship and run with endurance the race that is set before us that we might, together with them, receive the crown of glory that never fades away.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Does it Feel Like Christmas?

I'm back from the St. Barnabas men’s Bible Study in which we are currently studying the Gospel of Luke. This morning we read and discussed chapter 2.

I was reminded of a personal test of authenticity for things I read that occurred to me while I was in seminary. If, while I am reading (or listening to) something, I sense Christmas in it, that is a sign that the author/speaker is on to something. I think I first became aware of this when, while reading something by Karl Barth, I felt the thrill I feel when hearing Christmas horns, bells, or carols. I know it sounds trite and potentially sentimental. It is certainly idiosyncratic. But, here is what I think it is about:

In the Christmas story, particularly Luke 2, there is a vision of God that is at once expansive and intimate. It is also full of hope and promise – expectancy even. There is the intimacy of the holy family huddled in the stable coping with a newborn but without the usual resources of home and extended family. There are the down and out shepherds working the night shift doing work no one else wanted to do. Yet the God of the universe is intimately engaged in each of these homely settings. And more, these intimate scenes are caught up in the great expectation of God’s promise to bless the nations and resolve the enmity between humans and God and humans and each other. It reaches a crescendo when the shepherds are bathed in the glory of the Lord and the angel announces extravagant good news that a savior is born. "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom he is pleased!" There is fear and awe, but there is also the thrill of hope and possibility, of a great promise about to be fulfilled. O little town of Bethlehem, the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight!

This is a God who is intimate yet expansive, a God who is both immanent and transcendent, a God who dares to show up as a vulnerable baby, a God who makes good on his promises, a God who delivers. If, when I am reading theology or hearing a sermon or even reading a novel, I sense echoes of such a God, I take notice. When I don’t sense such echoes – when I don’t feel Christmas – I also take note. Some theologians, authors, and preachers suck Christmas right out of the room.

I first made the connection reading Barth, but it is certainly also true of C. S. Lewis, Charles Williams, Dorothy Sayers, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Frederick Buechner, Rowan Williams, Julian of Norwich, Augustine, Dante, Graham Greene, Dostoevsky, and others.

Have you ever felt that thrill of Christmas while reading or hearing someone? Who was it?

Friday, October 30, 2009

Thankful for the Profile of St. Barnabas

I am feeling particularly grateful for St. Barnabas after reading this wonderful post by The Postulant on Things you will never, ever see in a parish profile

(but would warm my heart):

"We are looking for a rector who will guide us into more traditional worship."

"Our favorite sermons offer Catholic theology with evangelical delivery."

"Adult education at Saint Ethelred's follows the C.S. Lewis rule: after reading a new book, we never allow ourselves to read another new one till we have read an old one in between."

"Our previous rector refused to devote adult education time to any study of the works of Spong, Pagels, Borg, and the like. We agree with this stance but remain disappointed that he did not also burst into derisive laughter at the very mention of their names."

In fact, such parishes exist. When I was applying for the position of rector of St. Barnabas, this is very much what the profile indicated. If the last one was not exactly in the profile when I applied, it will certainly be fitting for whatever profile is put together when the search is on for my successor. I even confess to the occasional burst of derisive laughter.

The quote from Lewis comes from his wonderful introduction to On the Incarnation by Athanasius. This text is scheduled to be the topic for our Adult Christian Training series led by Rodney Clapp on Sunday mornings in Advent.

I hope The Postulant is wrong that such church profiles are rare. Rare or not, I am continually grateful for the congregation of St. Barnabas where it seems rather normal.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

A "Whiskey Priest" Church

Below is one of the meditations I offered as chaplain at General Convention 2006. It seems just as pertinent now.

The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene is one of the great novels of the 20th century. Set in Mexico in the 1930’s during a period of revolution, its protagonist is the last Catholic priest in a state where the Church has been outlawed. But this outlaw priest proves an odd protagonist. He is a “whiskey priest” who is usually either drunk, hung over, or yearning for the next drink. He also has sired a daughter in a village in the mountains. On the run from the police, he first appears in the story about to catch a river boat to escape to safety in another state. Cowardly, morally suspect, and self-interested, the Whiskey Priest is hardly exemplary.

And yet. The priest’s attempts to escape are foiled by his own sense of obligation to his sacramental ministry. Though often with a sense of regret or resentment even, he does hear confession, baptize, and administer Eucharist. While he is in many ways self-interested, the priest is also self-aware and convinced of his own failure. And though he is convinced he is a failure, it is clear throughout the novel that he has indeed ministered to many. In spite of himself, it seems the Spirit never abandons him. By the end of the story, it is clear that, while his witness is mixed, the priest has indeed borne witness to the gospel.

It is a story of God’s amazing grace as he uses one dissolute priest to demonstrate his power and glory. It gives hope to all of us who, while perhaps less obviously dissolute, are nonetheless able to carry on only because we live under the Mercy. It is one of the handful of books that have truly changed me.

The protagonist in The Power and the Glory is also a good metaphor for the Church. We would like to imagine the Church striding through history like a hero or a saint. But, if we are honest, we must admit that the Church has ever staggered through history like the Whiskey Priest – all too often drunk on (worldly) power and sin, cowardly, less than faithful, self-interested, etc. But, while it has never been more than a Whiskey Priest, it has, by the grace of God, never been less. In spite of all its shortcomings, it has borne Word and Sacrament to the world. And it has also raised up exemplary saints – known and unknown. As with Graham Greene’s priest, we know that in spite of its shortcomings, the Spirit does not abandon the Church and God’s power and glory are present in and through it. But only and always by God’s grace, not its own heroic or saintly purity.

And there’s the rub. The compulsion and presumption to create a pure Church, whether that be pure in holiness or pure in teaching or pure in justice – however and by whomever any of those is defined – is rooted in either pride or impatience (or both). If we continually expect and demand that the Church stride through history like a hero-saint we will continually be frustrated by its actual plodding through history like a Whiskey Priest. But we will also miss the opportunity to learn what it means to live by God’s power and glory rather than our own. We will miss the fact of God’s sheer grace. I wonder if the refusal to accept and love the Church as a corpus permixtum – a mixed body of sinners and saints – is not rooted in our own unwillingness to see ourselves as simul justus et peccator – simultaneously righteous and sinful. We only ever live under the Mercy.

The Whiskey Priest has no such illusions about himself. As a result, he ends up exhibiting those basic gospel virtues, humility and charity – virtues that continue to be shaped even, and perhaps especially, in a Church that, like the Whiskey Priest, bears the Good News in spite of its all too evident imperfections.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Autumnal haiku

Behind my face
an amber leaf mosaic
carpets this pond's floor

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Pope's Provision for Roamin' Anglicans

Episcopal News Service:
Pope announces special provisions to accept former Anglicans in Roman Catholic Church
His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI has announced his plans to allow provisions that would accept groups of former Anglicans who wish to convert to the Roman Catholic Church, according to an Oct. 20 press release
from The Vatican.

The press release announced the preparation of an Apostolic Constitution that would allow such converts to enter full communion with the Catholic Church while preserving elements of Anglican spirituality and liturgy. Under the terms of the Apostolic Constitution, the release said, "pastoral oversight and guidance will be provided for groups of former Anglicans through a Personal Ordinariate, whose Ordinary will usually be appointed from among former Anglican clergy."

The constitution would also make provisions for married former Anglican clergy to be ordained as Catholic priests, the release said.

There have been so many headlines over the last several years suggesting this or that development was a game-changer or the beginning of the denouement of the Anglican agonies, I’ve become rather jaded. I don't know exactly what to make of this latest "big event". For one thing my sensibilities are more high church than Anglo-catholic so there is a lot of subtext that I am sure I am missing. But, it does not seem that big a deal to me. And it all seems kind of sketchy until further details come from the Vatican.

I am sure this will be received as good news by some. It seems aimed primarily at groups like the Traditional Anglican Communion and the Anglican Church in America which split away from the Anglican Communion a long time ago and some other traditionalist Anglo-catholics including a handful of bishops in the Church of England.

It might make it a little more palatable for some who find union with Rome appealing but don’t want to give up the elements of Anglican worship and spirituality that have nourished them. This might make “converting” from Anglicanism to Roman Catholicism easier to do as groups. But there have been individuals who have made that move for years. This might make it easier for some, but I doubt they are many. Already it has gotten a very lukewarm response from the bishop of Fort Worth, where one might expect this to get some play.

Married (male) priests would be able to transfer into such an ordinariate but will subsequent ordinands be expected to live under the Latin discipline of celibacy? Since 1980 there has been a pastoral provision for married Anglican, and, for that matter, Lutheran clergy to become Roman Catholic priests on a case by case basis. So that is not all that new. Married bishops would not be allowed to continue to be bishops and married priest could not become bishops. That might dampen the enthusiasm of some.

Would those clergy transferring in need to be reordained – suggesting that their prior ordinations and subsequent sacramental ministries were invalid? That would be hard for some to swallow.

I expect this is likely a bigger deal – and potential problem – for the Anglican Church in North America in its attempts to form an alternative to the Episcopal Church than for the Episcopal Church itself. Women's ordination is already surfacing as problem there in light of Christ Church, Plano's defense of the practice. Now, the division between conservative Anglo-Catholics and conservative Evangelicals could be highlighted (the distinction between traditionalist Protestants and traditionalist Anglo-catholics has more religious nuance than the New York Times was up to recognizing). Even if not many of the more catholic-minded in the ACNA confederation are likely to take the Vatican up on its offer, this could have the potential to aggravate not-so hidden tensions.

I think it is also likely to be a bigger deal for the Church of England where the Anglo-catholic party is stronger and more Rome-ward leaning than in the church in America. And where they are currently having a row over female bishops. But, what effect it might have there is hard to tell. Of course, if it is significant, the whole Communion might feel the ripples.

I don't think it is going to make that much difference except for the most Roman Catholic of Anglo-catholics. But, even then, as the Bishop of Fort Worth noted there are Anglo-catholics who find some of the Roman church’s recent doctrinal innovations hard to swallow.

It would be a tragedy if the Anglican Communion or the Episcopal Church lost a robust Anglo-catholic presence. I hope this does not further the erosion of that presence. I hope I am right that this is not likely to draw large numbers from our fold.

The fact is there have always been some Anglicans who have found the Roman Catholic Church compelling for one reason or another. On the other hand, there have always been Roman Catholics who have found the Anglican tradition, including the Episcopal Church, compelling for one reason or another. I suspect we Anglicans hold our own in this back and forth and will continue to do so even if there is an Anglican ordinariate in the Roman Catholic Church.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Out of the Whirlwind, the Wild God Speaks

It was not unusual in the spring when I was growing up in northern Indiana for our family to head down to the basement as we awaited further news on the radio concerning a tornado alert. It usually came to nothing, at least for us directly. But, April 3, 1974, when I was in the 10th grade, was different. The warnings had been broadcast and we headed into the basement. After a time, my father and I went up and out onto the front porch to get some sense of things. We did not see a tornado. But it was clear there were tornadoes around. You could feel it. Something in the barometric pressure made things feel weird, uncanny. The sky was like a big bruise, one big swirling cloud of purple and yellow. It rained mud that day.

It was later that we learned that tornadoes had struck nearby in the small town of Atwood where my dad’s aunt and uncle lived. Both their house and my uncle’s metal shop had been hit. Thankfully, Uncle Virgil and Aunt Jewel were OK (and, by the grace of God, there were no tornado fatalities). I went with my father the next day to help with the clean up. I had never seen such destruction. The fields along the way into Atwood were littered with debris. Whole stands of trees were tilted in the direction the winds had blown. The town itself looked like a bombed out war zone. Fallen trees and branches blocked the streets. Houses were collapsed into themselves. Some looked like they had been blown apart. It was a potent vision of the awesome power of natural forces.

When the LORD answers Job out of the whirlwind, it is not some wispy dust devil, but the raw, wild power of a tornado. I expect the hairs on the back of Job’s neck stiffened and his skin pimpled with the feel of the uncanny wildness of God’s presence. The “fear of the LORD” was no puzzling abstraction. It is no warm, fuzzy, domesticated God who answers Job’s lament, but the wild God of the wild creatures of this wild creation. And, notoriously, he doesn’t so much answer Job’s lament as put that lament in its proper, larger context.

While this does not address our curiosity about the way things go – why bad things happen to good people and often enough good things seem to happen to bad people – I think it is the beginning of any news that can be called good. The world is a wild place. In creating the world in which we live, God makes space for us and for all creation to be free. That means God also makes space for us to make a mess of it, to make a mess of one another, to make a mess of ourselves. And it means there is space for things like cancer cells and tsunamis. It also means that the God who creates such a world must be as wild as the wildness it contains. Why does God have to make so much space for freedom? Why does God tolerate so much suffering and injustice? Why has God created such a world? If God is at the heart of it all – the Creator and Sustainer – God is not off the hook.

Which is, of course, the point of the gospel. On the cross, God himself is on the hook. Out of the whirlwind, God speaks a Word into the mess that we have made of the world. And God enters into the wildness of the world God has created. God is wild. The Lion of Judah, as C. S. Lewis reminds us, is not a tame lion. And when that Lion appears in human history as the Lamb of God given for the ransom of many, the Lamb enters into our wildness to be slaughtered. On the cross, God in Christ takes on the pain and suffering of the world. The world’s passion becomes Christ’s passion. God transforms that passion into the promise of resurrection. There is the promise that we too will be transformed – the suffering of the world will not be lost, but gathered up and transformed in resurrection. By his wounds, we will be healed. And so will be the rest of creation which eagerly awaits being set free from its bondage to futility and decay.

We live in a world of great suffering and great injustice. As Job knew, it can be a hard place to live. It can be a hard place to believe in God – especially the generic God of human imagination. But the God we know in Jesus Christ is not a God of our own imagining. The God we know is the God of the whirlwind and the cross. Karl Barth wrote, “God earns the right to be God in this world on the cross.” God earns the right to be God in this world - with all its pain, suffering, injustice, and tragedy – on the cross. French poet, Paul Caudel, wrote, “Jesus did not come to remove suffering, or to explain it away. He came to fill it with His presence.” Jesus does not explain suffering. He fills it with his presence and the promise of its transformation in the final resurrection of which his is the foretaste.

It does not resolve all the questions, or remove all the pain, or eliminate all the anger that can come with living in a wild world. But a God wild enough to create and sustain such a world as ours and wild enough to pour his love out on the hard wood of the cross is wild enough to absorb our questions, pain and anger. Such a God is also able to evoke our wonder, love, and praise.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

An Effervescent God?

This Sunday's lectionary passage from Job already had me thinking about how much bigger, more mysterious and unimaginable God is than we usually think. But, then, thanks to Dean Nick Knisely I read this article about the emerging theory that there is not just one universe but many and thus we live in a "multiverse":
If we live in a multiverse, it's reasonable to ask how many other distinguishable universes we may share it with. Now physicists have an answer.

One of the curious developments in cosmology in recent years has been the emergence of the multiverse as a mainstream idea. Instead of the Big Bang producing a single uniform universe, the latest thinking is that it produced many different universes that appear locally uniform.

One question that then arises is how many universes are there. That may sound like the sort of quantity that is inherently unknowable but Andrei Linde and Vitaly Vanchurin at Stanford University in California have worked out an answer, of sorts.

Their answer goes like this. The Big Bang was essentially a quantum process which generated quantum fluctuations in the state of the early universe. The universe then underwent a period of rapid growth called inflation during which these perturbations were "frozen", creating different initial classical conditions in different parts of the cosmos. Since each of these regions would have a different set of laws of low energy physics, they can be thought of as different universes.

What Linde and Vanchurin have done is estimate how many different universes could have appeared as a result of this effect. Their answer is that this number must be proportional to the effect that caused the perturbations in the first place, a process called slow roll inflation, and in particular to the number "e-foldings" of slow roll inflation.

Of course, the actual number depends critically on how you define the difference between universes.

Linde and Vanchurin have applied some reasonable rules to calculate that the number of universes in the multiverse and have totted it up to at least 10^10^10^7. A "humungous" number is how they describe it, with no little understatement.


Linde and Vanchurin say that total amount of information that can be absorbed by one individual during a lifetime is about 10^16 bits. So a typical human brain can have 10^10^16 configurations and so could never disintguish more than that number of different universes.10^10^16 is a big number but it is dwarfed by the "humungous" 10^10^10^7.


How profound is that!

Pretty profound, I'd say.

J. B. Phillips, in his classic, Your God is Too Small, suggested that we need to broaden and deepen how we imagine God. That was true when we thought there was "just" the universe with its billions of galaxies and billions and billions of stars, with its vast distances and immense age. How much more so, if we live in a multiverse? Somewhere in the Confessions, Augustine suggests the world is like a sponge floating in the middle of the Sea that is God. As I recall, he dismisses this as idle speculation.

Still, I wonder. Presumably, God is bigger and older than all universes in the multiverse. And while 10^10^16 configurations literally boggles the human mind, God knows the intimate details of each and delights in each even as we believe he delights in our world. Perhaps one way to try to understand this is to imagine God as something like an eternal effervescent Sea of Champagne in which bubbles of universes are constantly being created and eventually bursting or coming to whatever end universes come to.

It might be too clever by half and even border on being cute, but an "effervescent" God captures something of the celebration and delight we believe to be at the heart of it all while allowing for the possiblity of a multiverse.

But, that might be just as idle, and idolatrous even, as imagining the world as a sponge in the middle of the sea. Maybe it's better to just be boggled, praise the Lord God of the multiverse, and leave it at that, and avoid being one who "darkens counsel by words without knowledge".

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Enter into the Expectation

If I was going to produce a Jesus movie, it would be something like the movie, Pleasantville. You might recall that this movie is about a boy who is a devoted fan of an old ‘50’s TV show called “Pleasantville”, modeled after something like “Father Knows Best”. Of course, it’s in black and white.

Early in the movie the boy, played by Toby McGuire, and his sister are magically translated into the world of Pleasantville. It is a world in black and white, dull and boring. But, the brother and sister remain in color, coming as they do, from the real world.

As they spend time in Pleasantville, the color that they bring begins to catch and other people begin to take on color. Of course, it’s a Hollywood movie so color comes from passion and any kind of passion will do. But I like the idea of the movie. Something like that might come close conveying the effect Jesus had on his contemporaries.

The world as we know it is in many ways a world of various shades of gray. Into this world comes one who is in color, one who brings the color of the kingdom of God, who is the color of Heaven. He begins to touch people. As he touches them, they take on the color of the kingdom. He invites them to enter into the expectation.

Jesus touches the man oppressed by a legion of demons and, as the shades leave him, he begins to take on new color. Jesus touches the woman with the hemorrhage and no longer is the color bleeding out of her life, but she begins to be filled with new life, new color. He touches Zaccheus and the walls that separated the tax collector from his neighbors begin to fall like the coins falling out of his purse into the hands of the poor. He enters into the expectation. Jesus touches a blind man and sets him free to see in living color – and more than just the hand in front of his face.

Everywhere he goes Jesus touches people and they take on the color of the kingdom. They take on the color of love and peace, truth and joy, freedom and justice. And he gathers around himself people who have heard the invitation and have entered into the expectation that the color of the kingdom will cover the world and fill every person.

As people of the expectation, the church is a conspiracy to smuggle the joy of God’s kingdom into the world, to proclaim it and to begin to live it in anticipation. As people of the expectation, the church is the base of resistance against all that stifles or opposes the joy of God’s kingdom in the world.

We are people of the expectation. What does that look like? To begin with, it means we take seriously Jesus’ commitments as he expresses them in his inaugural address. In his inaugural address, Jesus declares his commitments in reading from Isaiah: commitment to the poor; to the oppressed; to those who are blind and left out. He proclaims a new administration of God’s favor in the world. Whatever else that might mean, spiritually or metaphorically, it means that to follow him as people of the expectation is to begin now to seek justice, to seek relief for the poor, to bring sight to those who are blind and release to captives.

It also means we expect Jesus to show up in the midst of the church, in the midst of our own lives, and in the deep recesses of our own hearts. It means we pay attention and expect that Jesus might show up just around the next corner in the world around us. We expect Jesus to show up and to touch us and to change the pale gray corners of our lives into the color of his kingdom.

Enter into the expectation.