Thursday, December 30, 2010

Sergei Bulgakov on the Incarnation

Sergei Bulgakov (1871-1944) was an eminent Russian Orthodox theologian. Here is something he wrote about the Incarnation:

God wants to communicate to the world his divine life and himself to "dwell" in the world, to become human, in order to make of humankind a god too. That transcends the limits of human imagination and daring, it is the mystery of the love of God "hidden from the beginning in God" (Eph 3:9), unknown to the angels themselves (Eph 3:10; 1 Pet 1:12; 1Tim 3:16). The love of God knows no limits and cannot reach its furthest limit in the fullness of the divine abnegation for the sake of the world: the Incarnation. And if the very nature of the world, raised from non-being to its created state, does not appear here as an obstacle, its fallen state is not one either. God comes even to a fallen world; the love of God is not repelled by the powerlessness of the creature, nor by his fallen image, nor even by the sin of the world: the Lamb of God, who voluntarily bears the sins of the world, is manifest in him. In this way, God gives all for the divinization of the world and its salvation, and nothing remains that he has not given. Such is the love of God, such is Love.

Such it is in the interior life of the Trinity, in the reciprocal surrender of the three hypostases, and such it is in the relation of God to the world. If it is in such a way that we are to understand the Incarnation--and Christ himself teaches us to understand it in such a way (Jn 3:16)--there is no longer any room to ask if the Incarnation would have taken place apart from the Fall. The greater contains the lesser, the conclusion presupposes the antecedent, and the concrete includes the general. The love of God for fallen humankind, which finds it in no way repugnant to take the failed nature of Adam, already contains the love of stainless humankind.

And that is expressed in the wisdom of the brief words of the Nicene Creed: "for our sake and for our salvation." This and, in all the diversity and all the generality of its meaning, contains the theology of the Incarnation. In particular, this and can be taken in the sense of identification (as that is to say). So it is understood by those who consider that salvation is the reason for the Incarnation; in fact, concretely, that is indeed what it signifies for fallen humanity. But this can equally be understood in a distinctive sense (that is to say, "and in particular," or similar expressions), separating the general from the particular, in other words, without limiting the power of the Incarnation nor exhausting it solely in redemption. The Word became flesh: one must understand this in all the plenitude of its meaning, from the theological point of view and the cosmic, the anthropological, the Christological and the soteriological. The last, the most concrete, includes and does not exclude the other meanings; so too, the theology of the Incarnation cannot be limited to the bounds of soteriology; that would be, moreover, impossible, as the history of dogma bears witness....

The Incarnation is the interior basis of creation, its final cause. God did not create the world to hold it at a distance from him, at that insurmountable metaphysical distance that separates the Creator from the creation, but in order to surmount that distance and unite himself completely with the world; not only from the outside, as Creator, nor even as providence, but from within: "the Word became flesh". That is why the Incarnation is already predetermined in human kind.
Translated by Andrew Louth, "The place of theosis in Orthodox theology," in Partakers of the Divine Nature (Christensen and Wittung, eds., Baker Academic 2007).

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Incarnation as the Reason for Creation

For the fifth day of Christmas, a little something from Charles Williams. Referencing Duns Scotus, Williams suggests:

The Incarnation is the point of creation, and the divine 'reason' for it. It pleased God in His self-willed activity to be incarnate. But obviously this union of Himself with matter in flesh did not necessarily involve the creation of other flesh. It would have been sufficient to Himself to be Himself united with matter, and that 'united with' means a union very much beyond our powers to conceive; more than a union, a unity. Even now, in spite of the Athanasian Creed, the single existence of the Incarnate Word is too often almost Gnostically contemplated as an inhabitation of the flesh by the Word. But it is not so; what he is He is wholly and absolutely, and even in His death and in the separation of body and soul He remained wholly and absolutely one. His act could have been to Himself alone. He decreed that it should not be; He determined creation; He determined not only to be incarnate, but to be incarnate by means of a mother. He proposed to Himself to be born into a world.

This decree upon Himself was the decree that brought mankind into being. It was His will to make creatures of such a kind that they should share in that particular joy of His existence in flesh. He bade for Himself a mother and all her companions; perhaps the mystery of the mortal maternity of God was greater than that, but at least it was that. It was the great and single act of active love, consonant with nothing but His nature, compared to which the Redemption (if indeed He were infinitely to maintain all souls alive) was but a sheer act of justice. Our flesh was to hold, to its degree, the secrets of His own.
"Natural Goodness" in Selected Writings p. 107

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Does God Pass Gas?

When our oldest daughter, Sara, was a little girl of around six, she took ballet. I sometimes drove her to ballet lessons in our old Volkswagen Beetle. Once, as Sara pulled her seat belt and shoulder harness on, it made a slight hissing sound. This prompted her to observe, “It sounded like the car passed gas.”*

Being the kind of dad I am, I replied, “I thought it was you.”

“Dad, I don’t do that anymore.”

“Sara, honey, everyone passes gas.”

“Yeh, I guess so. But God doesn’t.”

“No. Probably not. But, I expect Jesus did when he lived on earth.”

“Dad, they didn’t do that back then!”

I assured her that they did and that such has always been part of being human and having bodies. From there I offered a brief lesson on the wonder of God becoming a body in the person of Jesus which included all the usual things that go with having a body. Including passing gas. The fact that God not only made her body, but took on a body himself meant that her body – all of it – was beautiful and blessed. Even if it was sometimes kind of funny.

God "abhors not the Virgin's womb" we sing in the carol, God abhors not the messiness of mere humanness. As Rodney Clapp observes in Tortured Wonders:

In St. Augustine’s estimation, the human is “an intermediate being,” created and poised between the beasts and the angels. . . Godlike in some regards, animalistic in others, we can find our intermediate being incongruous, mysterious, and self-contradictory. It can appear monstrous as well as wondrous, and sometimes it is not easy to tell which.

It is central to the Christian confession that Jesus Christ entered and embraced our intermediacy. A truly Christian spirituality, then, must not flee from earthiness. It will make some sense of and help us inhabit our in-betweenness. In other words, we are spiritual creations not just in our churches and dining rooms, but in our bathrooms and on our sickbeds. Christian spirituality comprehends not only the sparkle in our eyes but the grime under our fingernails. p. 177

A traditional Christian spirituality . . . insists on embracing our physical creatureliness entirely, from head to toe and in between. The spiritual and the scatological meet and, however odd, are not at odds. This spirituality, sweats – and breaks wind. But Christian spirituality also takes the body more seriously than does postmodern spirituality. The body in all its physicality is real. It is not merely a sign or instrument to be manipulated for surface effect. It is a true, honest body inside as well as out. It is a body so true and central to human being that it will, transformed, be borne into eternity. p. 188

Similarly, Charles Williams:
The body was holily created, is holily redeemed, and is to be holily raised from the dead. It is in fact, for all our difficulties with it, less fallen, merely in itself, than the soul in which the quality of the will is held to reside; for it was a sin of the will which degraded us. Selected Writings, p. 117

Among other things, this means that to truly celebrate the miracle of Christmas:

- we cannot treat or think of the body - ours or others' - in all its earthiness as something ugly or repulsive. The Incarnation affirms the fundamental goodness of being human with all our vulnerability and awkwardness. There is no human body, however unusual, and no aspect of authentic human experience, however mundane, that is not blessed and honored by the divine enfleshment.

- we cannot hope to fully engage the divine while ignoring our embodied neighbors. This is true in general. It is also true in worship. Christian worship is an embodied, full-sensory affair involving the embodied members of the body of Christ gathered together.

- we cannot neglect the bodily needs of our neighbors.

- we cannot pretend that hurting another body is ever other than sacrilege.

- we cannot pray for someone without "putting skin on our prayers" by doing what we can do to tend to the need ourselves in the name of Christ in whose name we pray.

A good Christian axiom, taking the Incarnation seriously, might be: “Don’t try to be more spiritual than God.” It is an axiom worth remembering as we celebrate the Feast of the Incarnation. Merry Christmas.

*This story is shared with Sara’s permission. She is now 28.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

God’s Translation & Ours

A sermon on John 1:1-18 for Christmas Day/First Sunday of Christmas

Translation can be a tricky business, and if those who are translating are not fluent in both languages the results can be humorous. Here are some examples of some mistranslations to illustrate how translation can be difficult:

A hotel sign from a hotel in Tokyo: “Is forbidden to steal hotel towels please. If you are not person to do such thing is please not to read this.”

In a Bucharest hotel lobby there is this sign: “The lift is being fixed for the next day. During that time we regret that you will be unbearable.”

In a Hong Kong supermarket: “For your convenience, we recommend courteous, efficient self-service.”

Again in Hong Kong, outside a tailor shop: “Ladies may have a fit upstairs.”

And again in Hong Kong, a dentist has this sign: “Teeth extracted by the latest Methodists.”

A laundry in Rome has this advertisement: “Ladies, leave your clothes here and spend the afternoon having a good time.”

At a Copenhagen airline ticket office there was this sign: “We take your bags and send them in all directions.” That’s not mistranslation; that’s just honesty in advertising.

A doctor in Rome has this advertisement: “Specialist in women and other diseases.”

And, lastly, my favorite. In an Acapulco hotel there is this sign: “The manager has personally passed all the water served here.”

Translating is tricky business. I’m sure that if we went to Italy and spoke Italian they would have all kinds of funny stories about how our fractured attempts at speaking Italian didn’t come off quite right. The same would be true in Mexico or Hong Kong. Translation is a difficult thing from any language to another.

I wonder if one way to look at what we celebrate during Christmas season – the Feast of the Incarnation – is to think of it as God’s translation: “In the beginning was the Word. And the Word was with God. And the Word was God" (John 1:1) "And the Word became flesh and lived among us, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). God has spoken in human terms in the life of Jesus. Jesus, not just in his teaching, but in his concrete, fleshly life – the things that he did, the things that he taught – every living moment was a translation of the idiom of God in heaven, of the life of the Trinity, into the language of a human life. Jesus is a translation into human, fleshly terms of the life of God. God spoke the language of "Heaven" in “Human”.

Because of our sin, our brokenness, our ignorance, we don’t even speak human all that well, let alone the language of Heaven. Our human is broken human at best, sometimes barely understandable. A heavy accent of sin, of fear, of selfishness, of violence and hatred inflect our human. Not just our speech, but our attempt to live humanly. But, Jesus as the truly Human One, he is the human who speaks Human fluently.

In that sense, understanding Jesus as fully God and fully human is to understand that he is the one fully bilingual person. He speaks the language of the kingdom of God, the language of the life of the Trinity, fluently. But he also speaks human fluently. And he speaks both simultaneously, not the way we usually think of bilingualism where one might speak Spanish in one context and then English in another. It’s not that sometimes Jesus is speaking human and sometimes Jesus is speaking Heaven. The miracle of the Incarnation is that he speaks both at the same time. When he is being most human, Jesus is speaking the idiom of the Trinity, the idiom of Heaven, in fleshly terms. And, when Jesus is being most Godlike, he is speaking fluent human the way we are all created to speak it - to live it. Jesus’ life is the vocabulary of both Heaven and the truly human. The vocabulary of his life, his faithfulness, his obedience, his love, his joy, his peace is the vocabulary of Heaven lived in the flesh and the vocabulary of the flesh lived in the context of God.

We will never speak more than broken human this side of the kingdom, let alone speak the language of Heaven with anything like fluency. But we are invited by God’s grace, and through the Holy Spirit speaking in us and through us, to learn to speak true human and true Heaven. In coming as the true Word, Jesus has made a way for us to be that true word as well – the body of Christ speaking the language of the kingdom in a world that desperately needs to hear it.

When I was in seminary, there was a table in the refectory called the “mesa Espanol” – the Spanish table. There, faculty and students would gather at lunchtime to practice their Spanish with one another so they could become more fluent. The church is like the “mesa Espanol.” We gather week by week (and during the week) to practice the language of the kingdom of God. It is the language we hear spoken in the life and teaching of Christ, the Word of God. As we practice with one another, and as we seek to speak and live that word in the world around us, by God’s grace we become more and more fluent.

Translation from Human to Divine is tricky business. But, the day will come - God has promised - when we will be gathered up into the very life of God and we too will begin to be bilingual – speaking truly human, speaking truly God. The Incarnation is God translated into human that we might be translated into God. That is the promise of the Incarnation. It is the promise of Christmas.

Here are a couple of interesting passages from the New Testament in the King James (Authorized) Version:

By faith Enoch was translated that he should not see death; and was not found, because God had translated him: for before his translation he had this testimony, that he pleased God.
- Hebrews 11:5

Giving thanks unto the Father, which hath made us meet to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light: Who hath delivered us from the power of darkness, and hath translated us into the kingdom of his dear Son: In whom we have redemption through his blood, even the forgiveness of sins. - Colossians 1:12-14

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Doubt Your Doubts

Unless we are willing to doubt our doubts, our doubts are just excuses to avoid the implications of believing.

Collect for the Feast of St. Thomas the Apostle
Almighty and everliving God, who strengthened your apostle Thomas with sure and certain faith in your Son's resurrection: Grant us so perfectly and without doubt to believe in Jesus Christ, our Lord and our God, that our faith may never be found wanting in your sight; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

Little Floaty Things That Say "No"

Why do you believe in God?

Saturday, December 18, 2010

God's Yes

John Lennon was murdered twenty years ago this month. I am reminded of a radio interview I heard in the wake of that tragedy in which Lennon recalled how he met Yoko Ono. He had been invited by friend to a conceptual-art show. He found one piece of the exhibit particularly intriguing. It was a step ladder that led to a magnifying glass hanging from the ceiling. Lennon climbed the ladder. He looked through the magnifying glass at a placard taped to the ceiling which had one tiny word on it – yes. Moved by this small declaration of hope, Lennon found the artist – Yoko Ono – and the rest, as they say, is history.

Tomorrow’s gospel begins to move our attention from anticipation of Advent season to the celebration of the actual advent of Jesus who is also Emmanuel, God with us. Like that hopeful word that so moved John Lennon, the word God spoke in speaking the Word into the quiet of Mary’s womb, into the insignificant manger in little Bethlehem, and hence into the world, was God’s “Yes” to humanity. The Incarnation affirms the fundamental goodness of being human with all our vulnerability and awkwardness. There is no aspect of authentic human experience, however mundane, that is not blessed and honored by the divine enfleshment. At the heart of it all is not silence or indifference, but an exultant and relentless Yes. God has created us to hear that yes and in the Incarnation declared us unequivocally worthy of his attention and fellowship.

To be sure, from our earliest days, humans have responded by ignoring or rejecting God's Yes and preferring to speak our own yes to ourselves for ourselves. But we are unable to speak yes on our own and our self-referential yes invariable fragments into myriad no's resulting in the incoherence of sin. To the obstinate “no” of human violence, selfishness, pride, and greed – of all that refuses God’s Yes – we hear a terrifying and resolute “No!” Our “no” and God’s “No!” finally meet in Jesus on the cross. The human no is answered by God’s No! and, in the resurrection of Jesus on Easter morning, God’s fundamental Yes to humanity (indeed, to all creation) is reasserted.

In the end, we will only be able to hear God’s Yes if we are first willing to hear the No! to all that in us contradicts that Yes. That is the way of repentance of which we have already heard in Advent. Faith is our yes in response to God’s Yes proclaimed in Jesus Christ. As the 20th century Swedish theologian, Gustaf Aulen, wrote, “In spite of timidity, faith is the soul’s audacious yes to God” (The Faith of the Christian Church, p. 29).

There are but two commandments:
1. You shall say, “Yes” to the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.
2. You shall speak “Yes” to your neighbor as you yourself have heard “Yes” spoken to you.

May we prepare to hear again God’s Yes spoken in Jesus, God with us, come to save his people from their sins. "For in him every one of God's promises is a "Yes." For this reason it is through him that we say the "Amen," to the glory of God" (2 Corinthians 1:20).

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Cry of a Tiny Babe

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Picture from here.

The gospel for this Sunday has me thinking of of the lyrics of another fine song by Bruce Cockburn:

Mary grows a child without the help of a man
Joseph get upset because he doesn't understand
Angel comes to Joseph in a powerful dream
Says "God did this and you're part of his scheme"
Joseph comes to Mary with his hat in his hand
Says "forgive me I thought you'd been with some other man"
She says "what if I had been - but I wasn't anyway and guess what
I felt the baby kick today"

Like a stone on the surface of a still river
Driving the ripples on forever
Redemption rips through the surface of time
In the cry of a tiny babe

The child is born in the fullness of time
Three wise astrologers take note of the signs
Come to pay their respects to the fragile little king
Get pretty close to wrecking everything
'Cause the governing body of the whole land
Is that of Herod, a paranoid man
Who when he hears there's a baby born King of the Jews
Sends death squads to kill all male children under two
But that same bright angel warns the parents in a dream
And they head out for the border and get away clean

Like a stone on the surface of a still river
Driving the ripples on forever
Redemption rips through the surface of time
In the cry of a tiny babe

There are others who know about this miracle birth
The humblest of people catch a glimpse of their worth
For it isn't to the palace that the Christ child comes
But to shepherds and street people, hookers and bums
And the message is clear if you've got ears to hear
That forgiveness is given for your guilt and your fear
It's a Christmas gift you don't have to buy
There's a future shining in a baby's eyes

Like a stone on the surface of a still river
Driving the ripples on forever
Redemption rips through the surface of time
In the cry of a tiny babe
- Bruce Cockburn, Cry of a Tiny Babe (Nothing But a Burning Light)

I appreciate the humanness of the first verse. Given they were real flesh and blood people, I can imagine the conversation between Mary and Joseph going something like this. The second verse is a stark reminder that many continue to suffer at the hands of despots and death squads. And that even when we want to do right, as did the "wise" astrologers, evil is close at hand (Romans 7) and we often come pretty close to wrecking everything. The last verse is particularly moving with its affirmation that there is a future shining in this Baby's eye giving us each a glimpse of our worth and the promise of forgiveness. And the refrain is evocative. The disruption of a stone splashing into a still river and redemption ripping through the surface of time cautions against the temptation to sentimentalize and domesticate the Christmas story. Something fundamentally disruptive occurs in the Incarnation. And that is where the hope is. In a world such as ours, something - some One - has to disrupt the usual flow of things to bring redemption.

Here are some comments on the song from Cockburn himself which can be found here:
'Cause the governing body of the holy land is that of Herod, a paranoid man, when he hears there was born a baby King of the Jews, sends death squads to kill all male children under two.' I wanted to put it into terms people can relate to now, because the story itself is so familiar, that its been reduced to traditional images that really work against our understanding of it as a human story. A story that happens to people. You know Joseph's got a saint in front of his name and Mary's got a halo. Those images are so entrenched in people's minds. The fun part of writing a song about it was to crack those images and try to see through to the lives of the people who were directly affected by those events."
-- from "Bruce Cockburn an Update" by Lahri Bond in the June/July 1992 Dirty Linen

I wanted to write a Christmas song. I went at it like trying to tell the Bible story but put it in modern terms. Like the Goddard movie "Joseph and Mary". I thought the story in the Bible is such an interesting story, but you forget how interesting it is because it's held up as a cliche so much to us. And over the years people have lost their humanity, who are in the story, and they've become larger-than-life figures. And I just thought it would be interesting to play at putting them in a human context. So Mary becomes a little bit shrewish and has a little bit of an attitude. The classic Mary figure, the Madonna - the original Madonna - is a far cry from any young Jewish mother I've ever run across [Laughs]. So I wanted to get it into something that people could relate to.
-- from "Closer to the Light with Bruce Cockburn" by Paul Zollo, SongTalk, vol.4, issue 2, 1994.

We've tended to lose sight of the reality of that story, of the immediacy of that story because it's so tied up in historical baggage. Mary is always the Madonna with a blue vale and everything. But in the story Mary is a woman who finds herself pregnant and can't explain it to anyone, especially Joseph who's kind enough not to want to see her executed but is sort of trying to extricate himself from the situation. You figure what must have been going through their heads at that time, I wanted to do a song that would address that fact-the humanity of the people involved.
-- from "Bruce Cockburn: The Soul of a Man", by Michael Case, Umbrella magazine, year unknown.

Collect for Advent 4:
Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation, that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a mansion prepared for himself; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
- Book of Common Prayer, p. 212

Friday, December 10, 2010

Waiting For A Miracle

The appointed lessons for Advent 3 have put this song in my head all week.

Look at them working in the hot sun
The pilloried saints and the fallen ones
Working and waiting for the night to come
And waiting for a miracle

Somewhere out there is a place that's cool
Where peace and balance are the rule
Working toward a future like some kind of mystic jewel
And waiting for a miracle

You rub your palm
On the grimy pane
In the hope that you can see
You stand up proud
You pretend you're strong
In the hope that you can be
Like the ones who've cried
Like the ones who've died
Trying to set the angel in us free
While they're waiting for a miracle

Struggle for a dollar, scuffle for a dime
Step out from the past and try to hold the line
So how come history takes such a long, long time
When you're waiting for a miracle

You rub your palm
On the grimy pane
In the hope that you can see
You stand up proud
You pretend you're strong
In the hope that you can be
Like the ones who've cried
Like the ones who've died
Trying to set the angel in us free
While they're waiting for a miracle
- Bruce Cockburn Waiting for a Miracle (Singles 1970-1987)

The season of Advent reminds us that we live between two miracles: The miracle of the Incarnation (with all the attendant miracles of Jesus' conception, life and teaching, atoning death on the cross and resurrection on Easter) and the miracle of the restoration of all things when "peace and balance are the rule."

Remembering and celebrating the penultimate miracle we now live waiting with anticipation for the ultimate miracle of restoration and transfiguration. In the meantime, it can seem "history takes such a long, long time." Though the brightness of those two miracles sheds light into our present darkness, we still only see as through opaque glass and "rub our palms on the grimy pane in the hope that we can see." We rub away at the recognition that the proud, the mighty, and the rich continue to have their way at the expense of the lowly. We rub away at the realization of our own weak hands, feeble knees, fearful hearts. Like, John, languishing in Herod's dungeon, we sometimes find ourselves uncertain.

And yet, in the light of the former miracle, we live trusting that the One who gave sight to the blind, caused the lame to walk, cleansed lepers, enabled the deaf to hear, raised the dead, and brought good news to the poor has not abandoned us. He is present to us by his Spirit whose presence joins the two miracles, making them one. Thus, it is not so much that we live between two miracles as that we live in the midst of one great miracle. But, it is God's miracle, performed in God's time. In our smallness, we sometimes have a hard time seeing it and living into it. Which is why, I suppose, patience is understood to be the root of all the virtues. And we can be patient because we know we are living in the midst of an unfolding miracle.

Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord. We are waiting for a miracle.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Renk Health Clinic

St. Barnabas, Glen Ellyn, IL has been supporting the ministry of our sisters and brothers in the Diocese of Renk, of the Episcopal Church of the Sudan. Among the things we've supported is a Health Clinic. The clinic is directed by Dr. Paul Deng Kuol. There is a midwife, Sister Ruth Kur. And there is a pharmacy. The clinic sees as many a 100 patients a day for such things as treat malaria, diarrhea, a range of parasites, bronchitis and other lung ailments, HIV/AIDS, etc.
Dr. Paul
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For the last six years St. Barnabas has sponsored a fund-raising concert of eclectic music (several of our members are professional musicians and we invite some friends of the parish to perform as well). With the help of a matching grant, we have raised $12,000-16,000 dollars each year. These funds go directly to the purchase of medicine, vaccine, and vitamins. They also help to fund the salary of a midwife. The clinic is one of only a few in aregion in which the healthcare system is dismal. It is one of only 719 or so health clinics in southern Sudan for a population of 8.26 million people. And there is only one doctor for every 10 clinics.

Our support of the Renk Diocese Health Clinic addresses three of the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs):
Goal 4: Reduce child mortality rate
Goal 5: Improve maternal health
Goal 6: Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases

Sister Ruth, midwife
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Because of the approaching January 9 referendum, there is a possibility that for a while after the referendum the clinic will not have access to the resources available in Khartoum. And since Renk is on the main road from the north to the south, they are anticipating an influx of displaced persons forced to leave the north. Therefore, we want to send funds to for the clinic before the end of December. So, we are selling tickets early. We are also selling gift cards that people can give as Christmas presents. Check out GIVE SMART - three ideas for making your charitable donations count by one of our members.

The Clinic Pharmacy
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So, I know that there are lots of good causes out there, but I invite anyone who would like contribute to doing so. If you are interested in helping us help out the health clinic, you can send donations to

St. Barnabas Episcopal Church
22W415 Butterfieled Rd.
Glen Ellyn, IL 60137

Your gift will save lives and offer hope.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Before the Boom (and beyond) - an Effervescent God?

From an editorial in today's New York Times:
Astronomers and astrophysicists have given us insight into what happened in the first trillionths-of-a-second after the Big Bang, nearly 14 billion years ago. But the current cosmological hypothesis is that before the Big Bang there was nothing.

Now Roger Penrose, the eminent British mathematician, is arguing that there is physical evidence that may predate the Big Bang. In a recent paper, he and his co-author, the physicist V. G. Gurzadyan, describe a pattern of concentric circles detected against the universal backdrop of cosmic microwave radiation generated by the Big Bang. These circles, they say, may be gravitational waves generated by collisions of superbig black holes before the Big Bang.

The two scientists go even further, claiming that the evidence also suggests that our universe may “be but one aeon in a (perhaps unending) succession of such aeons.” What we think of as our “universe” may simply be one link in a chain of universes, each beginning with a big bang and ending in a way that sends detectable gravitational waves into the next universe.

The argument is highly controversial. But if the circles the two scientists have detected stand up to further examination — if they’re not the result of noise or instrumental error — it could radically change the way we think about our universe. And the notion is no more radical than that of some cosmologists who argue that our universe is only one in a multiverse — a possibly infinite number of co-existing, but undetectable, universes.

The question is: What do we do with these possibilities? Our answer is to marvel at them and be reminded, once again, that we live in a universe — however we define it — that contains more wonders than we can begin to imagine.

I played with this idea a bit in my second post on this blog: An Effervescent God? It gives new meaning to "He counts the number of the stars and calls them each by their names. Great is our LORD and mighty in power; there is no limit to his wisdom." (Psalm 147:4-5)

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The partisan mindset

Ross Douthat wrote this in an essay in yesterday's New York Times:

Is there anything good to be said about the partisan mindset? On an individual level, no. It corrupts the intellect and poisons the wells of human sympathy. Honor belongs to the people who resist partisanship’s pull, instead of rowing with it.


Wednesday, November 24, 2010

What I said at the Mosque

I was invited last Sunday to be among the speakers at an event at a local Ahmadiyya mosque on How to Promote Peace, Love, and Harmony in a Diverse Society. Here is what I said:

Thank you, Imam Kauser and members of the mosque, for hosting this event and for welcoming us to your place. I am honored to have been invited to share some thoughts on how to promote Peace, Love, and Harmony in a Diverse Society. It is an important topic that needs attention in a world in which there is so little harmony.

I want to begin, somewhat counter-intuitively perhaps, with diversity and difference. I do not think we do ourselves any favors by denying the reality and the significance of our differences. In fact, I think we need to start by recognizing and honoring our differences.

Some differences don’t matter all that much – what sports team we support. Others matter more – our political convictions. Some differences, like race, have a tragic history in this country. Differences between nations lead to the odd situation in which Muslim and Christian Americans fight together in battle against other Muslims and Christians of different nations. And there are differences of faith which are themselves too often a source of disharmony.

How do we pursue peace, love, and harmony in a diverse society? I suggest we are talking about hospitality which is a central virtue in both Christianity and Islam. In the New Testament, we are encouraged, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels” (Hebrews 13:2).

But hospitality requires that we have a place into which we welcome others. That is why acknowledging our differences matters. It is only if I know the place where I am and can recognize the contours of my place that I can be hospitable. That is true of our homes. It is true of this mosque. You have welcomed us to your place. It would not be right for me to walk around this place with my shoes on or treating casually what you consider holy. It is similar when you have visited St. Barnabas. And it is true of the “place” of our respective faiths with their peculiar understandings of God and life.

We see things differently. We understand God differently and those differences are important. I expect that Muslims have difficulty with ideas such as the incarnation in which God in some mysterious way became human, or that the Messiah died on a cross to reconcile us to God, or that God is somehow three persons yet still one God. To be honest, Christians sometimes find these mysteries baffling. And no doubt there are elements of Islam that Christians find hard to accept. We must begin by acknowledging and honoring those differences rather than pretending they are not real or do not matter.

So, what I have to say I say as one whose place is that of Christian faith – not as an American, not as a liberal or conservative, not as a generic spiritual person (I don’t believe such a thing exists), but as a Christian. I am confident our Muslim neighbors have your own way of coming at this.

How should Christians engage non-Christians? We begin with Jesus. Today we celebrated Christ the King Sunday. It is an audacious thing for us to claim Jesus Christ as King. It is a provocative thing. Because we do not just claim that Christ is King of Christians but of everyone, indeed, of the world. The fundamental Christian affirmation is, “Jesus is Lord”. But, Christians do not always live out the implications of this affirmation. We have been good about claiming Jesus is the way. But we have been less good about tending to the way Jesus is.

And, what is the way Jesus is? In short, it is the way of self-emptying love. Jesus tells us to love our brother and sister within the Church. Indeed, even to speak derisively of one another places us under judgment (Matthew 5:22). Jesus also tells us to love our neighbor as ourselves (Mark 12:31). You, members of the mosque, are our neighbors and if Jesus is the Lord and his is the way, as a Christian, it is incumbent upon me to love you. But, Jesus goes even farther and commands that we love our enemies, do good to those who hate us, bless those who curse us, and pray for those who abuse us.(Luke 6:27-28). Brothers and sister, neighbors, and enemies – that does not leave anyone beyond the obligation to love.

So what does that look like in this context? In 1 Peter 3:15 of the Bible, we are told that if we reverence Christ as Lord in our hearts, we should, “Always be prepared to make a defense to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is in you" and, very importantly, it adds “yet do it with gentleness and reverence.” We are not to be bashful about the hope that is in us and the particular faith on which it is founded. But, we are commanded to be gentle and reverent. As the great Anglican theologian, Richard Hooker wrote, “There will come a time when three words uttered with charity and meekness shall receive a far more blessed reward than three thousand volumes written with disdainful sharpness of wit.”

Because we are all created by God and in the image of God, we must treat one another with due reverence. In the end we are connected to one another by the God who created us all. Here is another quote from Richard Hooker: “God hath created nothing simply for itself, but each thing in all things, and every thing each part in other have such interest, that in the whole world nothing is found whereunto any thing that is created can say, ‘I need thee not.’”

So, my Muslim neighbors, I am happy to come to your place – your physical place to be sure – but more significantly, the place of your hope and faith. Show me around. You might even invite me to stay. And I welcome you to visit the place of my hope and faith. I may invite you to stay. We can engage one another, discuss and even debate our differences. We might learn from one another. Sometimes we will agree. Other times we might walk away shaking our heads convinced that the other is just plain wrong. But, if we do it with reverence and gentleness, we will be practicing a hospitality that leads to harmony even as it acknowledges and respects our differences.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

If Christ is King . . .


This Sunday is the Feast of Christ the King. Claiming that Jesus Christ is King is pretty radical. And it is a claim that raises questions about where our true loyalties lie.

I once saw a woman wearing a t-shirt that I found disturbing and very telling. It was a white t-shirt that had JESUSAVES written across the front. I believe he does. But that was not the only message on the shirt. All the letters were blue except for those in the middle - USA - which were red. [A similar shirt is here] It was a telling icon of the confused syncretism of many Christians in America. Who saves? Jesus? The USA? Or, are the two so emotionally entwined in our imaginations that we can't tell the difference? It is an illustration of Stanley Hauerwas' assertion that for many Americans, the nation is their true church. For many Americans, America is the social body to which their ultimate allegiance is pledged regardless of what religious affiliation they formally claim.

Patriotism might not always be idolatry. A distinction must be made, however, between holding dear or celebrating the particular culture and history of a place/people and the sort of nationalistic exceptionalism that too often gets expressed. Even if patriotism is not always idolatrous, Christians should be wary of its appeal and suspicious of those who appeal to it to shepherd them in one direction or another. If Jesus Christ is the King, Christians need to beware of the temptation to confuse that King with other entities, including Uncle Sam, who would claim the kind of loyalty and emotional attachment that belongs to him alone. If Christ is King, do we have any business pledging allegiance to anything or anyone else?

Related posts:
Idolatry of a Certain Sort
The Impossibility of Religious Pluralism

Sunday, November 14, 2010

A Parable Regarding the Kingdom of God

There was once a mother who decided to bake a batch of cookies. She knew that she could bake the cookies all by herself and it would be quick, easy and simple. But the mother invited her child to join in the endeavor knowing that if she invited the child to participate in baking that it would not be quick, simple or easy. In fact, if the child was a part of the process there was likely to be flour on the floor, eggshell in the batter, and perhaps, spilled milk on the counter. It would be a much messier project. But the mother invited the child to participate with her because part of the point of the project was to include her child in the very act.

I suggest God is like that.

God has promised to
create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight. I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and delight in my people; no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress. No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days, or an old person who does not live out a lifetime; for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth, and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed. They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat; for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands. They shall not labor in vain, or bear children for calamity; for they shall be offspring blessed by the Lord— and their descendants as well. Before they call I will answer, while they are yet speaking I will hear. The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox; but the serpent—its food shall be dust! They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the Lord. (Isaiah 65:17-25)

And God could do that all alone, with a snap of the fingers. Like the mother baking cookies, God does not need our help. So why doesn't God just do it? Why the delay in the final establishment of ultimate justice, freedom, and peace? Why are there still children of calamity? Why is there still weeping? Why are hurting and destruction still so common? Why are the wolf and lamb not eating together? I suspect it is because the God we know through the Bible desires our partnership, our participation in addressing "the evil powers of this world that corrupt and destroy the creatures of God" (Book of Common Prayer, p. 302). God has made space in the world for us to take part in the new creation, to take part in His mission. "If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us." (2 Corinthians 5:17- 19)

It is not our task to make the kingdom of God happen. But neither are we to check out of the realities of life in this world and passively wait for God to act. Christians are called to be a people who live now in anticipation of the kingdom, who bear witness to the kingdom of God's beloved Son in the midst of a world still under the dominion of darkness (Colossians 1:13), and who know that
To work for healing, restorative justice - whether in individual relationships, or anywhere in between - is a primary Christian calling. it determines one whole sphere of Christian behavior. Violence and personal vengeance are ruled out, as the New Testament makes abundantly clear. Every Christian is called to work, at every level of life, for a world in which reconciliation and restoration are put into practice, and so to anticipate that day when God will indeed put everything to rights. (N. T. Wright, Simply Chrtistian, p. 226)

Along the way, no doubt, our participation has been and will be imperfect - egg shell in the batter and spilled flour are part of the risk God appears willing to take for the sake of including us in the ministry of reconciliation in God's new creation kingdom.

Saturday, November 6, 2010


Comments are most welcome here. After hearing that some people have had a hard time leaving a comment, I've reconfigured the setting. We'll see if that makes it easier. And we'll see if I get more comments as a result.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Idolatry of a Certain Sort?

I voted on Tuesday. While I usually vote Democratic, I am registered as an independent and voted a split ticket this time around. For representative to congress, I voted for a pro-life, enviromentalist Democrat. Given the local politcal realities and the fact that his own party did little to support him, this candidate was unlikely to be elected. And he wasn't. Still, I was glad to have the opportunity to vote for someone who messes with the given categories.

Messing with the categories is something Jesus did. It seems to me that if the church is going to be faithful it needs to do the same. At the very least, the church needs to take care not to fall into the trap of identifying with one or another set of political, social, or cultural categories and prejudices.

This has me wondering.

In his book, “The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart”, Bill Bishop writes,
We now live in a giant feedback loop,” says Mr Bishop, “hearing our own thoughts about what's right and wrong bounced back to us by the television shows we watch, the newspapers and books we read, the blogs we visit online, the sermons we hear and the neighbourhoods we live in.

I wonder about the Episcopal Church's participation in this sorting.

I am concerned that General Convention and our national leadership have a propensity to collude in this sorting by creating an Episcopal “brand” that is decidedly reflective of and geared toward one “sort” of American. We have cultivated a specifically “liberal” ethos in which certain sorts of people are culturally more comfortable than other sorts. When we speak on public policy and social issues, we invariably endorse what is already the standard liberal/progressive position. One starts to wonder if TEC as a whole or its leaders can distinguish a gospel imperative from a liberal prejudice. We risk a sort of idolatry in which whatever else we might or might not be willing to say about God, we are pretty sure God is our sort of God - a Big American Liberal In The Sky.

No matter how much theological gloss we give it, the predictability of our Liberal/Progressive positioning leaves many of our members – and potential members – not so much challenged by our “prophetic witness” as wondering if we are not just the church of a certain sort of American (sub)cultural identity. The result is not conversion, but alienation. If the challenge only ever goes in one direction, we end up congratulating ourselves for how uncomfortable our Jesus is for some sorts of people while actually making Jesus safe for us and our sort of people. Consequently, we screen out a certain sort while only truly welcoming another sort. Such sorting compromises our catholicity and our ability to welcome people of all sorts and conditions to respond to the good news of what God has done – and is doing – through Jesus Christ.

Unless we are content for our identity to be that of chaplain to one sort of American, i.e., the 22% that self-identify as liberal, we need to rethink the way we engage political and other issues. We might first of all acknowledge that people can agree on a goal (reducing poverty, for example) while disagreeing on the politcal means to achieve that goal. If we believe we must make political statments, we would do well to focus more on the goals and less on specific policies. And, if we want to avoid the idolatry of a certain sort, we would do well to mess with the categories.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Feast of Richard Hooker

Collect for the Feast Day of Richard Hooker
O God of truth and peace, you raised up your servant Richard Hooker in a day of bitter controversy to defend with sound reasoning and great charity the catholic and reformed religion: Grant that we may maintain that middle way, not as a compromise for the sake of peace, but as a comprehension for the sake of truth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

From Hooker’s Of the Laws of Ecclesial Polity:
There will come a time when three words uttered with charity and meekness shall receive a far more blessed reward than three thousand volumes written with disdainful sharpness of wit.
Preface 2.10

When we are not able to do any other thing for men's behalf, when through maliciousness or unkindness they vouchsafe not to accept any other good at our hands, prayer is that which we always have in our power to bestow, and they never in theirs to refuse.

And here are a couple more Hooker quotes for which I unfortunately don't have a reference:
God is no captious sophister, eager to trip us up whenever we say amiss, but a courteous tutor, ready to amend what, in our weakness or our ignorance, we say ill, and to make the most of what we say aright.

God hath created nothing simply for itself, but each thing in all things, and every thing each part in other have such interest, that in the whole world nothing is found whereunto any thing that is created can say, “I need thee not.”

Friday, October 29, 2010

On Healing Prayer

I had a conversation recently with someone concerning the effectiveness of prayers for healing. That conversation prompts me to post this piece that I wrote a while back:

We pray regularly to God to “comfort and heal all those who suffer in body, mind, or spirit; give them courage and hope in their troubles, and bring them joy of your salvation” (Prayers of the People, form IV, BCP 389). Many of our churches hold regular healing prayer services. Some others offer prayers and the laying on of hands for healing at some point during the regular Sunday Eucharist. What do we expect when we pray for God to heal someone?

When thinking of healing prayer, we want to avoid presuming too much on the one hand and assuming too little on the other. We do not presume to have God figured out such that our prayers bind God to particular responses, whether healing or otherwise. Nor do we assume that God cannot, or will not, act. Rather, prayer (for healing and in general) is our placing the totality of our lives in the reality of God's mercy and grace where all is gift.

Therefore, we pray with expectancy, believing that God hears, that God cares, and that God responds. How that "works" is wrapped in the mystery of God's hidden wisdom. Miracles happen, but we cannot control their occurrence. It is not something we control by getting the formula right. That is the difference between prayer and magic.

I had a friend in college who had cerebral palsy. Every now and then, someone would suggest to him that if he prayed with more faith he would be able to get up out of his wheelchair and be healed. I have another friend who was told when his son’s mental illness was not healed that it was likely because of some secret, unconfessed sin in his family. Such attempts to explain why healing doesn’t happen in the way expected, suggest a magical notion of prayer.

I wonder if such attempts to explain the apparent lack of healing aren’t motivated by a desire to protect a certain way of understanding God – as a sort of lucky rabbit’s foot there to protect us from all harm. There must be some “reason” why someone who prays to God does not receive the healing they desire. Otherwise, how can I hope God will deliver me from the changes and chances of life? This way of thinking not only reduces prayer to a magic formula, it suggests a God who is parsimonious with his mercies. But, the God we know in Jesus Christ is mysterious, not stingy.

We do not pray for healing because we believe that God is supposed to remove every tragic element of life according to our timetable. Short of his Kingdom, we all will die in need of healing and forgiveness. Even those who can claim spectacular healings of one kind or another still live in the reality of human brokenness and sin. Everyone Jesus healed, including Lazarus, continued in this veil of tears until they experienced whatever terminal illness or accident that took their life. As with them, whatever healing we experience, as with whatever forgiveness we experience, is but a foretaste of that ultimate wholeness God has promised us through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Healing prayer is one way we seek to enter into that promise and place ourselves in its light.

Because we are Easter people, we believe the restoration of creation has begun in the death and resurrection of Jesus and the giving of the Holy Spirit. We do not presume that God must respond in the ways we want or that there is a formula by which we can induce God to act in particular ways. But, in light of the resurrection, we can assume God acts in our lives. We live into that promise and pray and hope for anticipatory healing and forgiveness as we await with expectancy the fullness and wholeness of resurrection.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Zacchaeus and The Pilgrim

A sermon on Luke 19:1-10

In the summer of 1987, I taught English for five weeks in China. While there, I had the chance to visit Mount Tai which, according to tradition, is the holiest mountain in China. It is a remarkable place. There is a wide staircase carved into the rock from the base of the mountain all the way to its peak. For centuries, millennia even, pilgrims have been coming from all over China to climb those steps.

As you climb the steps, there is a growing sense of age and history. Along the way, there are places where poetry and quotations of Chinese classics have been carved into the faces of cliffs and even behind waterfalls. There is a plaque commemorating the visit of an emperor that dates back two thousand years. At the top of the mountain, there is a Buddhist monastery and shrines dedicated to various Taoist deities. It was the first time I had ever been to anything like an official pilgrimage site.

Walking up the stairs of Mount Tai, one sees trees with rocks wedged into the branches. Each rock represents a prayer brought to the mountain. Sometimes there are two, three, or four rocks of different sizes lined up like sparrows on a branch. Pilgrims wedge their prayer rocks into the branches of the trees of Mount Tai hoping that maybe here their prayers will be heard and change will happen. They are poignant reminders of human need and the universal desire for heavenly help.

Zacchaeus went on a sort of pilgrimage. He didn't travel far. He didn't climb a mountain. But he did climb a tree. He was an unlikely pilgrim. A tax collector, he was willing to sell out his own people to make a buck. He sided with the forces of occupation and oppression. Hardened and cynical, he knew the way things work. Words like goodness, love, and justice were only words. They had no currency in his line of work. You have to look out for number one. That's what Zacchaeus had done. And he had done it well, thank you very much. He was no petty tax collector. He had been employee of the month so often he was given his own franchise. If you could say "Bah! Humbug!" in Aramaic, it might have been his motto. No, Zacchaeus was not a likely pilgrim - or a likely candidate for change. Certainly, his neighbors had written him off.

Yet, somewhere in the back of his mind, or the bottom of his heart, there is a nagging, a sense that all is not right. There is brokenness and guilt behind the cynical mask. Somewhere he has lost his way - if he ever had a way that was not already lost. He has grown weary of his life, but sees no way out. He is alone. He is lost.

Then, along comes this man, Jesus, a man with a reputation for changing lives, for healing, and for restoration. Can change happen here? Can this man do it? Zacchaeus is still unsure. It is as much a surprise to himself as to anyone that he finds himself perched in a sycamore tree, wedged in its branches like a prayer.  Zacchaeus has come seeking Jesus. He is on a pilgrimage.

But, Zacchaeus is not the only pilgrim in the story. He is not even the primary one. Jesus is also on a pilgrimage. "The Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost." Jesus, the Word made flesh, came into this world on a pilgrimage. Like all pilgrims, Jesus came seeking something important. But, unlike other pilgrims, he came not to seek the holy out of personal sense of need, but to bring his holiness and wholeness where it was needed. Like a pilgrim visiting a series of shrines Jesus came to the sisters Mary and Martha. He came to a bent and broken old woman. He came to the blind man and the leper. He came to the Samaritan woman. He came to the children. He came to a man whose wealth and comfort made him numb to the needs of the poor. Jesus was on a pilgrimage. The destination of that pilgrimage was the broken and the lost, the possessed and the dispossessed, the outcast and the one who casts out, the oppressed and the collaborator. The son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost. Zacchaeus has come seeking Jesus. But before Zacchaeus was seeking Jesus, Jesus was seeking Zacchaeus. And now, Zacchaeus is tree'd.

To his surprise (and everyone else's dismay) he hears Jesus say, "Zacchaeus, hurry and come down. For I must stay at your house today." There was something in that voice, something in the eyes that made the invitation impossible to refuse. Maybe it was the shock of being loved when he had become so unlovable. Maybe it was a sense of judgement in the presence of one so good. Maybe it was the realization that they are two sides of the same coin.

Whatever it was it caused the beginning of a change. Zacchaeus was reconnected with his neighbors. He was reconnected with God. And the combination of those two connections disconnected him from his attachment to his wealth. He paid back those he had cheated at 400% interest. He gave half of the rest to the poor. Zacchaeus had been lost, but now he was found. He had been lost, but now he was saved.

Each of us has also come on a sort of pilgrimage this morning. Like Zacchaeus, we haven't come far. Like Zacchaeus, we have come to see Jesus. It is into his cross-shaped tree that we wedge our prayers. We bring our brokenness, our lost dreams, our lost innocence, our need. We bring our hopes for change, for connection, for forgiveness, for healing. Perhaps here change can happen.

But here also, the real pilgrim is still Jesus. The destination of his pilgrimage is each of us. Before we thought to seek him, he has come seeking us. He looks to each of us and says, "Hurry and come down, for I must stay with you today." The risen Lord still comes to seek out and to save the lost. To seek out and to save you and me.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Against Bullying

I arrived in 7th grade a short and scrawny farm kid. I was the object of some bullying. One day in gym class another kid, O., grabbed me and dropped me to the floor. O. was one of those guys who was two or three years ahead of the rest of us in physical development. He dropped me to the floor and wrapped me up in a headlock. Into my ear, he said, "I could break your neck." Unable to move or resist, the only defiant thing I could think to do was reply with a dare, "Then do it." He eventually let go.

Besides being a scrawny, I suppose I was odd in other ways. A bit of a geek, I read books about history - things like ancient Rome and the career of Napoleon Bonaparte (a little guy who did big things). In 8th grade, another bigger guy, A., picked me out for verbal abuse in English class. One day, he walked by my desk, looked at me with disdain and said, "Where'd you get that sissy shirt, Gunter?" Actually, he used a word rather less delicate than "sissy". It doesn't sound like much, but it hurt enough to make an impression. I don't remember many things from 8th grade. But I remember that.

In 9th grade, I checked out a book on tennis from the school library. While I was walking through the hall with the book in hand, a guy who had picked on me before came up from behind. Observing the book, he snidely offered, "You'll never play tennis, Gunter." "Why", I wondered, "does someone who hardly even knows me want to say such a thing?"

None of this was all that bad compared to the bullying others have experienced. But, coupled with a less than affirming relationship with my father, it was bad enough. It got better. I began to catch up physically. I ran track and played football. I gradually became more sure of myself (very gradually it seemed at the time). And, most significantly, I became more deeply aware of God's love revealed in Jesus Christ which put whatever others thought or did in a different light.

Those experiences have given me deep empathy for others who are victims of bullying and abuse whether verbal or physical. There are lots of reasons people are bullied: physique, weight, gender, race/ethnicity, perceived personality quirks, etc. Over the last few weeks we have been reminded that gays and lesbians (and those assumed to be so) are often targets of particularly nasty bullying. That needs to be addressed. And it needs to stop.

I continue to have good deal of ambivalence, not to mention confusion, about how Christians should make sense of gay and lesbian sex. I am frustrated by the way it has been handled in the Episcopal Church. But, of this I am sure: Christians must speak out against bullying whoever the target is. And, given the heat generated by debates over homosexuality in the church and beyond, we have a particular obligation to be clear that bullying of gays and lesbians is unacceptable. That means some Christians need to temper their rhetoric and take into account the flesh and blood reality of the lives of those about whom they are talking.

In the end, bullying - whoever the target and whatever the reason - is not just about how kids are treated in school. And it is not a problem for the schools to solve. The problem is with the coarseness of the general discourse in the adult world. When our political, ecclesial, and other public discourse is full of disdain, disrespect, ad hominem attacks, exaggeration, and distortion; we are contributing to a culture in which bullying is acceptable. And that is a culture of death. Sometimes literally. We can do better. Those who accept Jesus as Lord are commanded to do better.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Of Mercy and Banana Peels

A Sermon on Luke 18:9-14

I suspect that Jesus would have liked slapstick comedy. You know, the Laurel and Hardy sort of humor. You remember. Laurel will be eating a banana and throw the peel on the ground. And you know, as soon as you see Hardy walking up the road what’s going to happen. It’s the pratfall, the trip, the rug pulled out from under your feet, the banana peel in the way. Jesus seems to have a predilection for that sort of thing, continually pulling the rug out from under our feet or tossing banana peels in our path.

His parables are often like banana peels tossed on the pathway to moral self-satisfaction. This morning’s parable, in particular, is such a banana peel. It’s a familiar story – the Pharisee and the Tax Collector praying at the temple. In fact, it’s so familiar it has lost some of its edge for us. We already know who is the good guy and who the bad guy. Jesus’ original hearers would not have been so sure.

The Pharisees were not known as necessarily self-righteous or righteous in any way other than the way we all hope to be righteous. The Pharisees were lay people who had a passion for seeking after God’s heart, for living according to the Torah – for living faithfully so that all Israel might be redeemed. Tax Collectors, on the other hand, everyone knew and no one liked. Even under the best of circumstances few people are excited when they see a tax collector coming. But in a time when you are occupied and oppressed by a foreign nation, tax collectors are even worse. Not only are they taking some of your money away to run the government, but the government they are taking money to run is a foreign occupier. Tax collectors would have been seen as the collaborators. The last thing you would want your son to grow up to be would be a tax collector.

And so in the parable we have the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. The Pharisee prays to God, recounting all the good things that he has done – good things that everybody would have recognized as good things. He fasts. He tithes. He is a regular worshipper. All the things that we hope to be ourselves. Of course, as he is praying and recounting all the good things, he has one eye open to those around him. The Pharisee prays with peripheral vision, looking to either side at those who might not quite measure up to his standards: all the rogues, the prostitutes, thieves, adulterers, and, maybe even especially, this tax collector (we all know what sorts of people they are). The Pharisee is confident that he is on the right track, that he is dotting all the i’s and crossing all the t’s.

The Tax Collector, on the other hand, as everyone would have known, is all undotted i's and uncrossed t's. And he knows it. He prays the only honest prayer he can pray, “God have mercy on me, a sinner.”

The Pharisee is a moral, upright person. He is on the straight and narrow. But it is on that straight and narrow that Jesus tosses his banana peel, and the Pharisee who has every reason to think that he is right with God slips on the peel and falls. Meanwhile, the Tax Collector who has every reason to think that he is out of sorts with God goes home justified.

And I suspect those who heard Jesus tell this parable slipped on the banana peel as well. What kind of a morally uplifting story is that? Not the kind of story you want to tell your children. They might take it seriously. The just person is condemned and the contemptible person is justified? Jesus doesn’t even suggest that the Tax Collector went home to live differently. He only throws himself on God’s mercy.

The point is not that being a tax collecting collaborator is a matter of indifference to Jesus. The point is that the Pharisee is in as much need of God’s mercy as is the Tax Collector. As are we all. And, of course, we all get that now. Don’t we?

There is a third person implied in this parable. This person is praying as well, and watching both the Pharisee and the tax collector. We are the third person. If we’re not careful, there is a banana peel in our path as well. How often do we observe the Pharisee and say, “Thank you God that I am not self righteous, like that Pharisee"? We all slip on the banana peel sooner or later. We measure ourselves against others. Whether it is the righteous and the unrighteous, the holy or the unholy, the mature or the immature, the sophisticated or the unsophisticated, the just and the unjust, we all fall into the trap of keeping score. Thank God I am not like that liberal. Thank God I am not like that conservative. Thank God I am not like that fundamentalist. One way or another, we are usually pretty sure that we are the ones who get it. We are the ones who are superior. We are the ones who are on the side of the angels.

Again and again Jesus tosses a banana peel on our path to moral superiority, our own exalted opinion of ourselves. We are reminded that we don’t know as much as we think we do. We are reminded that we are not as good as we like to think we are. We are reminded that our perspective is not God’s. We are reminded that we often slip into our own version of Phariseism. We slip and land on our backsides. By God's grace we are humbled and reminded, yet again, that our only honest prayer is, “God, have mercy on me a sinner.” In fact the only prayer that is anything other than stammering, and the only deed that is anything other than stumbling, is the one that begins and ends with, “Have mercy on me, a sinner.”

You may have heard the story of the man who dies and goes to the pearly gates where he is met by St. Peter.

Peter says, “Before you get in, you have to pass this little test. You have to make sure you have scored enough points to get in. You have to get one hundred points.”

The man thinks that should not be too hard because he has, after all, led a very good life. So he says to St. Peter, “Well, first of all, I was married for 57 years to one woman and was faithful from the very beginning until the very end.

Peter says, “That’s impressive. That’s one point.”

Then the man says, “Well, I also was a regular at church, Sunday in and Sunday out."

Peter gives him another point.

The man tries again, “I tithed.”

Peter says, “Well, that’s pretty good, too. That’s another three points.”

“Did I tell you that I also volunteered for the youth group for five years? Do you know how many lock-ins that is?”

“Four points.”

The points are not adding up very fast.

The man begins to despair. He says, “Well, how about this? How about this? I prayed regularly, and in lots of different ways. I did centering prayer. I did lectio divina. I even prayed in tongues! I led prayer workshops!”

St. Peter says, “Impressive. Another two points.”

Finally, the man beats his breast in despair and cries out, “At this rate the only way that I’ll get into Heaven is by the mercy of God!”

Peter smiles and says “One hundred points!”

The first word for Christians is grace and the last word for Christians is grace; and every day, along the way, is grace, grace, grace. That’s not good news for the Pharisee in us who wants to keep score. It is very good news for the Tax Collector in us who can only pray, “God have mercy on me, a sinner.”

Watch out for those banana peels.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Is a Covenant UnAnglican?

It is often asserted that Anglicanism is not confessional in the same sense as are other churches of the Reformation. By extension, it is argued anything like a covenant would be foreign to the Anglican spirit. While it is arguable whether the Articles of Religion are more or less like a confession, the more interesting question is why they never had the same significance for the Church of England as confessions like the Augsburg (Lutheran) and Westminster (Presbyterian) have had for other traditions. I submit that this was because one of the main rationale for confessions was provided elsewhere.

Confessions serve as symbols of belonging which give particular communities a shared identity. As such, they are sources of cohesion and delineate communal boundaries. Every community has such symbols of cohesion and boundary. The Church of England did not need a “robust’ confession because it had another source of identity and loyalty – the crown (or more broadly, the insipient nation-state that was England). It is not so much that the C of E chose not to go the confessional/covenantal route as it is that it chose a different route – covenanting with the state. This Erastianism – the doctrine that the state is supreme over the church – is our tradition’s original and besetting sin.

The Church of England was unique among Reformation Churches in being formed primarily as a national church. The primary motivational belief was the belief in national sovereignty and national sovereignty over the church. When Elizabeth I made her famous statement about not making windows into men’s souls, she was simply declaring the crown’s part in this covenant. The state would not concern itself with what you believed in your heart of hearts as long as you were willing to participate in the common worship of the state church, thus declaring your ultimate loyalty to the state and fulfilling your part of the covenant. Even when it was required, subscription to the Articles might have had more to do with this sign of loyalty to the crown/state than to the particulars contained therein. The C of E “tolerated” more religious eccentricity than some churches whose covenants were more confessional, but that diversity never included disloyalty to the crown. That would be breaking the covenant and thus a sort of heresy.

This covenant with the state and its Established Church has been the gravitational center around which the parties within the Church of England moved together. Establishment still makes the classic balance more or less possible in England, but it is losing its gravitational force as England becomes more and more secular and pluralistic.

Of course, after the American Revolution, the Episcopal Church was not an officially established church. But, it was a key player in the unofficial, but de facto, Protestant establishment that was dominant in the United States up until the middle of the 20th century. That, along, perhaps, with a certain class affinity provided common ground enough to hold its various sub-groups together more or less. But, both class affinity and de facto establishment have come undone in the wake of a more pluralistic, increasingly post-Christian, and socially fractured context. In such a situation, what is the center that holds the sub-traditions (Evangelical, High Church/Catholic, Broad Church/Liberal, etc.) of classic Anglican comprehensiveness in anything like balance? What exists to deliver us from our own version of Erastianism in which we are fundamentally an American church (albeit, increasingly - and even more parochially - a liberal/progressive American church)?

A formal covenant might not be the only way to provide cohesion to a body as large and varied as is the Anglican Communion. But, in a post-established, post-colonial, post-Christendom, post-modern era; if we are to have a Communion instead of a loose collection of national or culture-specific churches, we need to pay careful attention to how we insure that we are able to recognize each other as speaking the same language – albeit with different accents.

I support the idea of an Anglican Communion Covenant, but not because I want to assure some sort of conservative ideal of a halcyon past. Rather, I think it is a plausible and faithful next move of the trajectory we have been on for the last 50 years as the Anglican Communion has become more aware of itself. A transnational/transcultural Communion helps us bear witness to the kingdom of God in which nation, race and culture are no longer definitive. It helps guard us against the idolatry of nation or culture or ideology. Such a witness will be harder, if not almost impossible, to offer or receive if we cease to belong to each other and dissolve into several “coalitions of the willing”.

The evolution of the Anglican Communion has provided a context for rethinking our Erastian heritage and what it means to be the Church. One way or another, in a post-Christendom, post-colonial context our Anglican heritage will be reworked. A trans-national communion of mutual respect, accountability, and responsibility to one another across the boundaries of nation and culture is the trajectory of our evolution. It is a faithful trajectory for a church that confesses to believe the Church to be one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. I do not think that trajectory takes us toward a Roman Catholic model. It does challenge modern notions of nationalism and individualism.

The question, ultimately, is not whether or not we will have a covenant of some sort. The question is whether or not that covenant will be explicit or implicit and whether it will be global or more “provincial”. And will it be able to offer a challenge to our more parochial loyalties to nation, culture, and class.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

CampFAB 2010

In June 2010, St. Barnabas, Glen Ellyn held its second annual CampFAB (Fine Arts & Bible). It is our homegrown version of VBS. We have Bible lessons every day. But we also want to celebrate the beauty and joy of creativity. So, besides the Bible lessons, the campers (age 4 - 12) sang, danced, wrote stories, learned improv acting, painted, did photography and videography, etc. CampFAB is mainly staffed by members of St. Barnabas. This year's theme was Life on the Vine. Here is the video the kids put together under the direction of Scott Wetle:

From the Media Center of the Diocese of Chicago web site.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Stanley Hauerwas on Naming God

In yesterday's sermon, I quoted Robert Jenson's "definition" of what Christians mean when we use the word "God." This morning, I came across this fine essay by Stanley Hauerwas which he begins with that same quote. It is at the Religion and Ethics page Australian Broadcast Company's web site.

Here it is:

"God is whoever raised Jesus from the dead, having before raised Israel from Egypt." This is the hallmark sentence of Robert Jenson's Systematic Theology. It is an elegantly simple but dauntingly deep sentence, which took Jenson a lifetime of theological reflection to write.

To write such a sentence requires that we discipline our presumption that we know what we are saying when we say the word "God." For it turns out that we are most likely to take God's name in vain when we assume we know what we are saying when we say "God."

Indeed, one of the ironies of the recent spate of books defending atheism is the confidence these "new atheists" seem to have in knowing which God it is they are sure does not exist. They have forgotten that one of the crimes of which Romans accused Christians - a crime whose punishment was often death - was that Christians were atheists.

The Romans weren't being unreasonable. All they wanted was for the Christians to acknowledge there were many gods, but Christians were determined atheists. Christians were atheist because they assumed the primary problem was not atheism but idolatry. Idolatry, moreover, has everything to do with thinking that you know God's name.

In The City of God, Augustine even argues that the reason the Roman Empire had fallen on hard times was because the Romans worshiped corrupt gods. He assumed rightly that there is a direct correlation between the worship of God, the character of our lives and politics.

Augustine argues, therefore, Rome fell because the people of Rome lived immoral lives by emulating the immorality of their gods. Needless to say, Augustine's account of idolatry was not well-received by the Romans themselves.

So depending on which god or gods the new atheists think they are denying, they might discover that Christians are not unsympathetic with their atheism.

For example, it should not be surprising that in a culture which inscribes its money with "In God We Trust," atheists might be led to think it is interesting - and perhaps even useful - to deny god exists. It does not seem to occur to atheists, however, that the vague god which some seem to confuse with trust in our money cannot be the same God who raised Jesus from the dead, having before raised Israel from Egypt.

This is but a reminder that the word "god" can be very misleading, particularly for those who worship the One who raised Jesus from the dead and Israel from Egypt. For the word "god" can invite us to confuse the One who raised Jesus from the dead with the general designation "god" used to describe the assumption that something had to start it all.

Those who assume "god" is the designation we use for naming the assumption that something had to start it all also think that such an assumption implies there has to be more to life than birth, sex, and death. Many who believe in such a "more" often agree with the new atheists that there is little evidence that such a "more" exists, but they nonetheless refuse to deny its possibility.

Moreover, they assume that such a "more" has many names, for to think otherwise is to risk intolerance.

But the Scriptures constantly remind us that naming God matters. For instance, God asks Moses to bring his people, the descendents of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, out of captivity in Egypt. God - who seems to have been reading Jenson's Systematic Theology - tells Moses that he should tell the Israelites that Moses has been sent to the people of Israel by the God of their ancestors, that is, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

But Moses, who knows the Egyptians well, knows that escaping from Egypt is going to be a risky business. Moses knows that those whom he is asked to rescue will want some assurance that Moses is authorized to undertake the dangerous business of escaping from Egypt.

At the very least those that he has been asked to lead will want to know the name of the One that he serves. So Moses asks God for some identification to which God responds, "Tell them, 'I am who I am has sent Moses to them."

"I am who I am" (or as some have translated, "I will be present to whom I will be present") I suspect was not a reply that pleased Moses. But it has been an unending delight for Christian theologians and philosophers to reflect on the metaphysics of God's existence.

Aquinas, for example, thought that God's response rightly suggests that only in God are existence and essence inseparable. Put in more colloquial terms, this means only God can act without loss. For Christians it is, therefore, never a question about God's existence, but rather what it means for all that is not God to exist.

"I am who I am" may be a helpful metaphysical response, but it is not a name. At best, as philosophers like to say, "I am who I am" is a grammatical remark that suggests God is known by what God does. "I am who I am," therefore, is but another way to say you know all you need to know if you know that God is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

It is as if God is saying to Moses "Tell them not to worry. Just as I have been there for Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob so I will be there for you." In effect God is saying, you can trust me but you cannot possess me.

We, like the people of Israel, would like to think we get to name God. By naming God we hope to get the kind of God we need, that is, a god after our own likeness. We can make the "more" that must have started it all after our own image.

But God refuses to let the people of Israel - or us - assume that we can name the One who will raise Israel from Egypt. Only God can name God. That, moreover, is what God does.

"God also said to Moses, Thus you shall say to the Israelites, 'The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob, has sent me to you': This is my name forever, and this my title for all generations." God's name is YHWH, but it is a name that Israel could not say.

That God's name could not be said indicates that God's name is a holy reality sharing in God's holiness. To know God's name is to know God. As Karl Barth observes, "'I am that I am' can scarcely mean anything else than just I am He whose name proper no one can repeat is significant enough; but the revealed name itself by its wording is to recall also and precisely the hiddenness of the revealed God."

The burning bush that is not consumed wonderfully displays Barth's point that the very revelation of God, God's unrelenting desire to have us know him, means we must acknowledge that we cannot know God.

Moses could not help but be drawn to the fiery bush. How could the bush be on fire yet not be consumed? He drew near, but the Lord called to Moses - named Moses - out of the burning bush telling him he was on holy ground. He was to remove his sandals and come no closer. Moses did as he was told hiding his face, fearing to look on God.

For if God is God, how could we hope to stand before God? How could we hope to see God face to face, and live? The burning bush was not consumed, but we cannot imagine that confronted by this God we could see God and live.

Israel knew that there was no greater gift than to be given God's name, but that gift was a frightening reality that threatened to consume her. Israel, who would be tempted by the idolatrous presumption she possessed God's name, rightly never forgot she could not say God's name.

Israel could not possess God because God possess Israel.

For Christians, we believe we have been given God's name. We believe we can say the name of God. Paul in his letter to the Philippians tells us:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality of God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death -
even death on a cross.

Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

The fire that burned but did not consume the bush is Jesus Christ. Just as the fire did not consume the bush, so our God has come to us by becoming one of us.

Yet the humanity of the one he became was not replaced or destroyed. Rather our God is incarnate. Our God is the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. There has never been a time that God has not been Trinity.

The God that came to Moses in the burning bush, the God who called Moses to deliver his people, the God who gave Moses his name, is Trinity. Only this God can be very God and very man.

The God we worship is not a vague "more" that exists to make our lives meaningful. The God we worship is not "the biggest thing around." The God we worship is not "something had to start it all." The God we worship is not a God that insures that we will somehow get out of life alive. The God we worship is not a God whose ways correspond to our presumptions about how God should be God.

That God has come near to us in Christ does not mean that God is less than God. God is God and we are not.

Yet we believe that the God we worship has made his name known. We believe we have been given the happy task of making his name known. We believe we can make his name known because the God we worship is nearer to us than we are to ourselves - a frightening reality that gives us life. We believe that in the Eucharist, in the meal of bread and wine, just as Jesus is fully God and fully man, this bread and this wine will, through the work of the Spirit, become for us the body and blood of Christ.

To come to this meal in which bread and wine become for us the body and blood of Christ is to stand before the burning bush. But we are not told to come no closer. Rather we are invited to eat this body and drink this blood and by so doing we are consumed by what we consume becoming for the world God's burning bush.

By being consumed by the Divine Life we are made God's witnesses so that the world may know the fire, the name, Jesus Christ.

God is whoever raised Jesus from the dead, having before raised Israel from Egypt. There is no God but this God.

Stanley Hauerwas is Gilbert T. Rowe Professor of Theological Ethics at Duke University. His most recent book is Hannah's Child: A Theologian's Memoir (Eerdmans, 2010). In 2001 he was named "America's Best Theologian" by Time magazine.