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.