Friday, July 30, 2010

Joy-Smuggling Servants of the God of Joy

Here is a bit from the beginning of Smoke on the Mountain, An Interpretation of the Ten Commandments in terms of to-day, a book by Joy Davidman whose husband was C. S. Lewis. Though the language is a bit dated and Euro-centric, the main point remains pertinent:

There is a tale told of a missionary in a dark corner of Africa where the men had a habit of filing their teath to sharp points. He was hard at work trying to convert a native chief. Now the chief was very old, and the missionary was very Old Testament – his version of Christianity leaned heavily on thou-shalt-nots. The chief listened patiently.
“I do not understand,” he said at last. “You tell me that I must not take my neighbor’s wife.”
“That’s right,” said the missionary.
“Or his ivory or his oxen.”
“Quite right.”
“And I must not dance the war dance and then ambush him on the trail and kill him.”
“Absolutely right!”
“But I cannot do any of these things!” said the chief respectfully. “I am too old. To be old and to be Christian, they are the same thing!”

Not a very funny story, perhaps; there is too bitter a point in the laugh. For, if all the truth were told, how many of us in our hearts, share the chief’s confusion?

How many thousands picture Christianity as something old, sapless, joyless, mumbling in the chimney corner and casting sour looks at the young people’s fun? How many think of religion as the enemy of life and the flesh and the pleasures of the flesh; a foe to all love and all delight? How many unconsciously conceive of God as rather like that famous lady who said, “Find out what the baby’s doing and make him stop”?

That is, how many of us both inside the Church and out have reduced the good news out of Nazareth to a list of thou-shalt-nots?


We are in danger of forgetting that God is not only a comfort but a joy. He is the source of all pleasure; he is fun and laughter, and we are meant to enjoy him. Otherwise our Christianity is no better than [the chief’s impression of it].

God is "the source of all pleasure; he is fun and laughter, and we are meant to enjoy him." Or as the Westminster Shorter Catechism I learned as a youth puts it:
Q. 1. What is the chief end of man?
A. Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.

Our hope as Christians is that it all ends in joy. But, too often we come across as insecure, cramped moralists, and political scolds. There are "conservative" and "liberal" versions of this rather joyless presentation. But, the Good News we have received is "of a great joy which will come to all people." And our Lord's message was given that "my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full".

We are meant to be agents of that joy in the world around us. The mission of the Church is to live in expectation of, and enact in anticipation of, the joy of God's kingdom. Our mission is to smuggle some of that joy into a world that is often rather joyless. Here are two videos that might serve as metaphors for the Church in mission.

What if Christians acted in the world such that those who heard our words and witnessed our behavior looked on with the surprise, wonderment, and joy of the onlookers in these videos? Jesus came singing the song and dancing the steps of the joy of the kingdom of God. He gave us his Holy Spirit to choreogragh and direct our efforts. When we act as peacemakers, offer forgiveness and mercy, when we seek reconciliation, offer a word of kindness and understanding, speak the truth in love, serve the poor or work for justice, create beauty, etc. we are anticipating the joy of God's kingdom. Everytime we make a defense of the hope that is in us with reverence and gentleness or tell others about the joy we know in Jesus we are bearing witness to the Good News.

That doesn't mean we should live in "blissed out" denial of the difficult realities of our lives and those of others. Nor does it mean that we never ask difficult or awkward questions, that we do not persist in resisting evil or renouncing the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God. But, even then, if it is not clear that our words and actions are born of and lead to joy, we will appear to those around us like the missionary appears in Joy Davidman's story and risk reducing the Good News out of Nazareth to a list of thou-shalts and thou-shalt-nots. If God is indeed the source of all pleasure; if he is fun and laughter, and if we are meant to enjoy him; should we not be first and foremost, smugglers of that joy into the world around us?

Monday, July 19, 2010

Baptism & Eucharist in The Living Church

The folks at The Living Church deftly edited something for the magazine that I posted a while ago about the logic of expecting baptism to precede participation in the Eucharist. They've also posted it in its entirety at their web site (here).

Though to some this might seem an esoteric or insignificant issue, I suggest that it is not and try to show how it makes a difference in how we think about who we are and what we are about as the Church, the body of Christ.

I hope you'll to read it and leave a comment. Does it make sense? Is the argument persuasive? If not where and why not?

If you want, the less edited, more overgrown, version is here.

By the way, if you are inteterested in things Episcopalian and Anglican, I encourage you to subscribe to The Living Church. You can read about the magazine here. Not everything in the print version shows up online and it is worth the subscription.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Summer Haiku

On a summer breeze
Wings, rainbow brilliant, sail
Laden with daydreams.

Monday, July 12, 2010

John Updike on the Apostles' Creed

Alone at Morning Prayer in the church this morning, as I affirmed the Apostles' Creed, I was reminded of this from John Updike:

I call myself a Christian by defining 'a Christian' as 'a person willing to profess the Apostles' Creed.' I am willing, unlike most of my friends – many more moral than myself – to profess it (which does not mean understand it, or fill its every syllable with the breath of sainthood), because I know of no other combination of words that gives such life, that so seeks the crux. The creed asks us to believe not in Satan, but only in the 'Hell' into which Christ descends. That hell, in the sense at least of a profound and desolating absence, exists, I do not doubt; the newspaper gives us its daily bulletins. And my sense of things, sentimental I fear, is that wherever a church spire is raised, though dismal slums surround it, and a single dazed widow kneels under it, this Hell is opposed by a rumor of good news, by an irrational confirmation of the plenitude we feel is our birthright.
Quoted without citation in The Faith is Still There by David H. C. Read

One might wish for something a bit more robust from Updike. I do. Still, I find his almost wistful believing poignant. And there is something beautiful about the idea that a lonely voice professing the creed opposes the powers of Hell with a rumor of good news and "an irrational confirmation of the plenitude we feel is our birthright". Of course, that plenitude is our birthright, but we traded it for the lentil stew of our sin and idolatry.

For something more robust from John Updike there is his poem, Seven Stanzas at Easter.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Reason and its Discontents

There was much discussion a month or so ago on the House of Deputies/Bishops listserve about the interpretation of scripture and the use of reason in that interpretation. Curiously, if not unsurprisingly, it became clear that for many it was not so much a question of how we reason with scripture, but how our reason stands over against scripture as an independent source of authorizing wisdom. I was reminded of this which I posted elsewhere a couple of years ago. I'm reposting it here:

It is no secret that interpreting scripture is not as straightforward as many have thought or would like to think. It is also true that the voices of tradition do not speak as one and sometimes vary a great deal. While both of these observations can be over played – neither is simply incoherent – one must acknowledge that both have their obscurities. But what about reason, that third source of authority to which Episcopalians and other Anglicans often appeal? There are some in the Episcopal Church who speak as though reason is the more straightforward reliable, and, ultimately, authoritative of the three. Is it more straightforward and reliable than scripture or tradition? In a word, no.

Simply saying, "The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it" doesn't work. But, "Jesus came to take away our sins not our minds" is no more helpful and raises just as many questions.

First, it suggests that somehow our minds and our reasoning are unaffected by sin. But, our ancestors did not think so. Lancelot Andrewes, Richard Hooker's contemporary and ally, said of reason, "[T]his light hath caught a fall . . . and thereupon it halteth." It is not to be rejected, and grace can "make it up" but, unaided, it cannot get us very far.

John Donne, who had much in common with Hooker wrote in one of his poems:
Reason your viceroy in mee, mee should defend
But is captived, and proves weak and untrue.

More forcefully, William Temple (that most Anglican of Anglicans) wrote, ". . . reason itself as it exists in us in vitiated. We wrongly estimate the ends of life, and give preference to those which should be subordinate, because they have a stronger appeal to our actual, empirical selves . . . It is the spirit which is evil; it is reason which is perverted; it is aspiration itself which is corrupt." Nature, Man, and God p. 368.

Second, it ignores the fact that what we find reasonable is shaped by our historical, cultural, and personal location. And any reasoning is part of a tradition of reasoning with a peculiar history rather than some abstract universal accessible to all clear-thinking people. As such, all reasoning is biased and those biases are subject to unveiling and critique.

Third, reason tends to get invoked in ways that are self-serving. As Curtis White writes in The Spirit of Disobedience, "Let's face it: clear thinking is anything that proceeds logically from my assumptions." I have wondered if that is not what the old motto, "The thinking person's church" has really meant. Curtis also quotes Benjamin Franklin, "So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do."

Fourth, talk of reason assumes we know what "reason" is and what it looks like. It is true that the seminal Anglican theologian, Richard Hooker, maintained an essential role for reason in understanding God and life lived light of that understanding. But, it is clear that what Hooker and those who followed him meant by reason (along with those he followed like Thomas Aquinas and the earlier church theologians like the Cappadocians - Macrina, Basil and the two Gregories) meant something quite different from what it has come to mean for us. For them, reason was reflective of, and oriented toward, God. Reason was part of a richly textured, multifaceted, imaginative, theocentric way of seeing and being in the world that included revelation -- in creation generally and in the church's teaching grounded in scripture particularly. That is different from the detached and secularized reason that the Enlightenment elevated to the point of superstition.

Appeals to reason are at least as contingent and uncertain as appeals to scripture or tradition. What we need to do it seems is explain to ourselves and one another what we think we are doing when we appeal to any of these or any combination of them. What makes such an appeal faithful and how does it keep us honest with ourselves, one another, and God?