Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Vulnerable Love of God

On the 7th day of Christmas, something from William Placher on the vulnerable love of God incarnated in Jesus:
To read the biblical narratives is to encounter a God who is, first of all, love (1 John 4:8). Love involves a willingness to put oneself at risk, and God is in fact vulnerable in love, vulnerable even to great suffering. God’s self-revelation is Jesus Christ, and, as readers encounter him in the biblical stories, he wanders with nowhere to place his head, washes the feet of his disciples like a servant, and suffers and dies on a cross–condemned by the authorities of his time, undergoing great pain, “despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity” (Isaiah 53:3). Just this Jesus is the human face of God, not merely a messenger or a prophet but God’s own self come as self-revelation to humankind. If God becomes human in just this way, moreover, then that tells us something of how we might seek our own fullest humanity–not in quests of power and wealth and fame but in service, solidarity with the despised and rejected, and willingness to be vulnerable in love.
Narratives of a Vulnerable God, p. xiii

Friday, December 30, 2011

Jesus = the very face of God

We continue to commemorate the mystery of the Incarnation on the 6th day of Christmas:

Scottish theologian Thomas Torrance tells about how, as a young army chaplain, he held the hand of a dying nineteen-year-old soldier, and then, back in Aberdeen as a pastor, visited one of the oldest women in his congregation–and they both asked exactly the same question: “Is God really like Jesus?” And he assured them both, Torrance writes, “that God is indeed really like Jesus, and that there is no unknown God behind the back of Jesus for us to fear; to see Jesus is to see the very face of God."
William Placher, Jesus the Savior, p. 21 (quoting Torrance, Preaching Christ Today, p. 55)

There is a phrase associated with two of the greatest Anglican thinkers of the last generation, Michael Ramsey and John V. Taylor: ‘God is Christlike and in him there is no unChristlikeness at all'. What is seen in Jesus is what God is; what God is is the outpouring and returning of selfless love, which is the very essence of God’s definition, in so far as we can ever speak of a ‘definition’ of the mystery.
Rowan Williams, Tokens of Trust, p. 70

It is because of Jesus that we grasp the idea of a God who is entirely out to promote our life and lasting Joy. . . Here is a human life so shot through with the purposes of God, so transparent to the action of God, that people speak of it as God's life 'translated' into another medium. Here God is supremely and uniquely at work.
Rowan Williams, Tokens of Trust, p. 57

Thursday, December 29, 2011

His secret beauty on our own scale

On the 5th day of Christmas:
One of the most convicting aspects of Christianity, if we try to see it in terms of our own day, is the contrast between its homely and inconspicuous beginnings and the holy powers it brought into the world. It keeps us in perpetual dread of despising small things, humble people, little groups. The Incarnation means that the Eternal God enters our common human life with all the energy of His creative love, to transform it, to exhibit to us its riches, its unguessed significance; speaking our language, and showing us His secret beauty on our own scale.
- Evelyn Underhill, The School of Charity

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

God Endured What He Decreed

The fourth day of Christmas, Holy Innocents, calls to mind these thoughts from Dorothy Sayers and Charles Williams:

Dorothy Sayers:
What does the Church think of Christ? The Church’s answer is categorical and uncompromising, and it is this: That Jesus Bar-Joseph, the carpenter from Nazareth, was in fact and in truth, and in the most exact and literal sense of the words, the God “by whom all things were made.” His body and brain were those of a common man; his personality was the personality of God, so far as that personality could be expressed in human terms. He was not a kind of demon pretending to be human; he was in every respect a genuine living man. He was not merely a man so good as to be “like God”—he was God.

Now, this is not just a pious commonplace: it is not a commonplace at all. For what it means is this, among other things: that for whatever reason God chose to make man as he is—limited and suffering and subject to sorrows and death—he [God] had the honesty and courage to take his own medicine. Whatever game he is playing with his creation, he has kept his own rules and played fair. He can exact nothing from man that he has not exacted from himself. He has himself gone through the whole of human experience, from the trivial irritations of family life and the cramping restrictions of hard work and lack of money to the worst horrors of pain and humiliation, defeat, despair, and death. When he was a man, he played the man. He was born in poverty and died in disgrace and thought it well worthwhile.
- The Greatest Drama Ever Staged, The Whimsical Christian

Charles Williams:
The original act of creation can be believed to be good and charitable; it is credible that Almighty God should deign to create beings to share His Joy. It is credible that he should deign to increase their Joy by creating them with the power of free will so that their joy should be voluntary. It is certain that if they have the power of choosing joy in Him they must have the power of choosing the opposite of joy in Him. . .

He could have willed us not to be after the Fall. He did not. Now the distress of creation is so vehement and prolonged, so tortuous and torturing, that even naturally it is revolting to our sense of justice, much more supernaturally. We are instructed that He contemplates, from His infinite felicities, the agonies of His creation, and deliberately maintains them in it. . . The whole creation groaneth and travaileth together. (Romans 8:22)

This is a creation then that ‘needs’ (let the word be permitted) justifying. The Cross justifies it to this extent at least–that just as He submitted us to His inexorable will, so He submitted Himself to our wills (and therefore to His). He made us; He maintained us in our pain. At least, however, on the Christian showing, He consented to be Himself subject to it. If, obscurely, He would not cease to preserve us in the full horror of existence, at least He shared it. This is the first approach to justice in the whole situation. Whatever He chose He chose fully, for Himself as for us. This is, I think, unique in the theistic religions of the world. I do not remember any other in which the Creator so accepted the terms of His own terms–at least in the limited sense of existence upon this earth. It is true that His life was short. His pain (humanly speaking) comparatively brief. But at least, alone among the gods, He deigned to endure the justice He decreed.
- The Cross (from Charles Williams: Selected Writings, chosen by Anne Ridler)

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Stupendous Theme of Christianity

For the 3rd day of Christmas, here is some more from E. L. Mascall (1905-1993):

“The stupendous theme [of Christianity is] that God’s ultimate purpose for the human race and for the whole material universe is that they should be taken up into Christ and transformed into a condition of unimaginable glory, and that it is for this that God took our human nature, in which spirit and matter are so mysteriously and intricately interwoven.” The Christian Universe, p. 109

Monday, December 26, 2011

The Humanity of Christ

For the 2nd day of Christmas, here is something from E. L. Mascall (1905-1993) on the humanity of Christ:

“It was human nature, not a human person, that God the Son united to himself when he became man. Thus, both the state of fallenness and the state of redemption appertain in the first place to the human race as such, and then to individual men and women as members of it; and this does not mean that God is not interested in us as individuals, but that he is interested in us as the kind of individuals we are, namely members of one another.” The Christian Universe, p. 104-105

Sunday, December 25, 2011

God contrived to make himself born

"In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son." Hebrews 1:1-2

"God, being unable to make himself known, contrived to make himself born."
- Paul Claudel (1868-1955), La Rose et le Rosaire, cited in I Believe in God, p. 69

"God does not give us explanations; we do not comprehend the world, and we are not going to. It is, and it remains for us, a confused mystery of bright and dark. God does not give us explanations.; he gives us a Son. Such is the spirit of the angel's message to the shepherds: 'Peace upon earth, good will to men . . . and this shall be the sign unto you: ye shall find a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, and lying in a manger.'

A Son is better han an explanation. The explanation of our deaths leaves us no less dead than we were, but a Son gives us a life in which to live."
- Austin Farrer, Christmas sermon, A Faith of Our Own, p. 34

". . . but we see Jesus . . ." Hebrews 2:9

It is because of Jesus that we grasp the idea of a God who is entirely out to promote our life and lasting Joy. . . Here is a human life so shot through with the purposes of God, so transparent to the action of God, that people speak of it as God's life 'translated' into another medium. Here God is supremely and uniquely at work. - Rowan Williams, Tokens of Trust, p. 57

"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. . . The true light that enlightens every man was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world knew him not. He came to his own home, and his own people received him not. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God."
- Gospel of John 1:1-12

"The mystery of the humanity of Christ, that He sunk Himself into our flesh, is beyond all human understanding." - Martin Luther, Table Talk

"If the thing happened, it was the central event in the history of the world." - C. S. Lewis, Miracles, chapter 14, par. 2

Friday, December 23, 2011

The promise of our quickening

A poem by Scott Cairns:

Christmas Green
Just now the earth recalls His stunning visitation. Now
the earth and scattered habitants attend to what is possible:
that He of a morning entered this, our meagered circumstance,
and so relit the fuse igniting life in them,
igniting life in all the dim surround.
And look, the earth adopts a kindly affect. Look,
we almost see our long estrangement from it overcome.
The air is scented with the prayer of pines, the earth is softened
for our brief embrace, the fuse continues bearing to all elements
a curative despite the grave, and here within our winter this,
the rising pulse, bears still the promise of our quickening.

Scott Cairns. Compass of Affection: Poems New and Selected (Brewster, Mass: Paraclete Press, 2006 pp.136.)

Thursday, December 22, 2011

At the back of our own heart

Some thoughts on Christmas from G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936):

No other birth of a god or childhood of a sage seems to us to be Christmas or anything like Christmas. It is either too cold or too frivolous, or too formal and classical, or too simple and savage, or too occult and complicated. Not one of us, whatever his opinions, would ever go to such a scene with the sense that he was going home. He might admire it because it was poetical, or because it was philosophical, or any number of other things in separation; but not because it was itself. The truth is that there is a quite peculiar and individual character about the hold of this story on human nature; it is not in its psychological substance at all like a mere legend or the life of a great man. . . . It does not exactly work outwards, adventurously, to the wonders to be found at the ends of the earth. It is rather something that surprises us from behind, from the hidden and personal part of our being. . . .It is rather as if a man had found an inner room in the very heart of his own house, which he had never suspected; and seen a light from within. It is as if he found something at the back of his own heart that betrayed him into goodness.
- The Everlasting Man

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Greetings, favored one!

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"Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you." Can you imagine what it would be like to have a messenger of God show up in your room and speak these words to you? (Luke 1:26-38)

I love this painting of the Annunciation by 20th century African-American painter, Henry Ossawa Tanner. I especially like the way the angel Gabriel is represented. Rather than a man with wings, here we have a beam of light. It has about it something of the eerie mystery that I expect comes with such an encounter with the Holy. It reminds me of the way C. S. Lewis represents angelic beings in Out of the Silent Planet (writing after Tanner painted, but as far as I know unaware of this painting). Except that in Lewis’ telling, the “eldila” appear slightly off-center - but this is because it is our world that is askew being bent by sin.

I also appreciate that Mary looks more like a young Mediterranean peasant girl than in most renditions. There is a gritty realism to it. She looks like maybe Gabriel woke her up to greet her in God’s name. Her bed is unmade. And she really looks like she is perplexed and pondering what sort of greeting this might be.

And what a greeting it is: "Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you." What an affirmation of God’s care and delight. Insignificant though she might have been considered in her society, God notices and cares. However unimportant she might have thought herself to be, God delights in her. God favors her. It is the word we all long to hear.

But there is more to God’s favor than affirmation. When the God Mary knew through the stories of her people favors someone, it involves a call. God favored Abraham. God favored Moses. God favored David. God favored the people of Israel. The affirmation in every case was accompanied by a call to participate in God's mission. And so it is with Mary. No wonder she pondered what sort of greeting this might be.

And the part she was being called to play in God’s mission of redemption was daunting indeed. Which is why the other part of the initial greeting is just as important as the affirmation and call of God’s favor: “The Lord is with you." Much is being given to Mary and much is being asked of her. But the one who has favored her is also with her to give her strength to see it through. And nothing will be impossible with God. The angel continues, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.”

Still, the angel – along with angels, archangels and all the company of heaven – awaits her reply. Will she dare to receive this word in her heart? Will she dare to conceive this Word in her womb? With Mary’s response, "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word" human willingness is freely united with the will of God. Perhaps Tanner is right to have Gabriel beaming perpendicular. Perhaps in this one moment, in this room, with the response of this young woman, hope and history rhyme, heaven and earth are in sync, and the world is unbent. And the Baby she will bear will be the Unbent One, perfectly embodying the peace and joy of God’s favor.

The story doesn’t end there of course. Mary’s role in the story will get complicated. There will be confusion and heartache. But, the Lord will be with her along with God’s favor.

And so it is with us. Mary is considered the prototypical disciple – the elder sister of all believers. If she is, then we should be able to hear the word she heard as being spoken to us as well. What if we knew ourselves to be addressed every morning with,
"Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you" and "Do not be afraid for you have found favor with God.”? If what Christians believe about Mary’s son is true, then that is precisely what God is saying to you and to me each day. Whatever else the voices around us or within us are saying or not saying, God has declared his favor toward us in being made flesh. In spite of the bentness, in spite of sin and brokenness, God is with us and has addressed all that is bent in the world and in us.

As with Mary, God’s favor toward us is also a call to mission – to love God and to love and care for one another, to be bearers of forgiveness and healing. And, as with Mary, all the angels in heaven rejoice when we respond, "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word."

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Indiana Beats Kentucky, the Magnificat &Turning the Corner

Sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent, 12/11/11
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11, Canticle 15 (the Magnificat),
1 Thessalonians 5:16-24, John 1:6-8, 19-28

Today we are wearing rose colored vestments because it is “Gaudate” Sunday, the traditional name for the third Sunday in Advent. Gaudate is Latin for “rejoice!” [put on Indiana University cap] And there was much rejoicing in the Gunter household last night as the unranked and unheralded Indiana University basketball team upset the # 1 ranked University of Kentucky. There was much cheering and shouting and dancing in front of our television.

You need to know a little bit of the context to understand why this is such a big deal and how I think it can help us understand what is going on in the Magnificat we hear readd moments ago. First of all you need to know that in the state of Indiana basketball is the closest thing to religion outside of church. And even that distinction gets blurred.

More particularly, you need to know that my Alma mater, Indiana University which has a proud basketball heritage has fallen on hard times. A few years ago we had a coach who broke some recruiting rules and was fired. The result was the disintegration of the program. The program seemed lost and hopeless. A new coach was hired, but the last three years have been hard. We have won a total of 28 games in those three years when you might hope to win about that many in one year. You also need to know that Kentucky is one of our archest of arch rivals. And we have only won two of the last fourteen games against them and haven’t won at all for eight years. You also need to know that Leslie’s brother-in-law attended Kentucky – so every year for a long time I have had to endure the inevitable post-game phone call in which he rubbed it in again and again.

So, when Indiana got the ball back with five seconds to go and trailing by two points, it looked like things might continue as usual. Instead, an Indiana player dribbled the ball down the court, drove toward the basket, stopped and tossed the ball back to another player. Then, as time was about to expire, that player shot the ball from beyond the three-point line. The buzzer sounded. And the ball swished through the basket for the win! Incredible! There was indeed much rejoicing throughout Hoosierland.

This one victory doesn’t mean my team will win the championship this year. There are losses and disappointments ahead. But there is new hope that a championship is in our future. Defeating Kentucky was a sign that we have turned the corner.

And I think that gets at something like the exuberant joy in Mary’s song. Mary lived in a time when it seemed Israel was lost and hopeless. Ruled by a corrupt and ruthless king who in turn was a servant and toady of the Roman Empire, Israel was on a long losing streak. And there was a sense that the people were not only oppressed politically and economically but confounded spiritually as well. But, now, Mary knows that the baby she carries in her womb is the evidence that God has remembered his promise of mercy. Israel will be delivered. Things will not continue as usual. The corner has been turned. And she rejoices. My joy at Indiana's improbable three-pointer-at-the-buzzer victory is but a slight hint at the overwhelming joy that evoked Mary's song.

Mary's song, the Magnificat, is overflowing with gratitude and expectation. It is also steeped in the spirit of the Old Testament. In the Magnificat we see that before she was the grace-full Mother of God, Mary was a faithful daughter of Israel. She sings in harmony with other prophetic women of Israel – Miriam, Deborah, Hannah, Judith.

And it's the same tune as the other Hebrew prophets and sages. It is in continuity with the passage from Isaiah 61 which we read this morning in which the prophet promises good news to the oppressed, the binding up of the brokenhearted, liberty and release, the proclamation of the year of the LORD's favor, and comfort to all who mourn.

“My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,
my spirit rejoices in God my Savior;
for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.”

“He has mercy on those who fear him
in every generation.
He has shown the strength of his arm,
he has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones,
and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has come to the help of his servant Israel,
for he has remembered his promise of mercy,”

God has remembered his promise of mercy. Repudiated are the proud, the mighty, and the rich who have hoarded power and wealth at the expense of others’ access to the goods of life. Exalted are the lowly and the hungry, the poor, and the powerless.

This is the song Mary sang to her cousin Elizabeth. And I expect she sang and taught variations of this song to her children. Is it any wonder that her son (stepson?), James, urged that “religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”? (James 1:27)

And Jesus, while the Son of God, was also the son of Mary. And his preaching and teaching echoes with the same themes that inspired his mother. His inaugural sermon in Nazareth is on Isaiah 61. Jesus read the passage, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing." (Luke 4:18-21).

Jesus says it is the poor in spirit and the meek – the lowly – who will be blessed. Another time he says that it is the poor, the hungry, and those who mourn who are blessed. And he warns the proud and powerful of woe coming their way. Our most fundamental problem is spiritual. And Jesus came to address that. But our spiritual problem gets played out in political, social, and economic realities. Jesus, like Mary, addresses those as well.

Jesus challenges us to receive him in our hearts as Mary received him in her womb. Jesus challenges us to choose whether or not we will become, like Mary, lowly in spirit. Jesus challenges us to decide whether or not we will side with those who are lowly and with those who hunger.

The baby Mary bears will fulfill God’s promise of mercy and scatter all that is contrary to that mercy. And so she rejoices and sings. It will get more complicated. She will experience confusion, disappointment, and heartache as her son grows up and is eventually tortured and killed by the mighty. But she knows that with his coming the corner has been turned for Israel and salvation has begun. Since his coming the world has experienced much confusion, disappointment, and heartache. But we know that with his coming the corner has been turned for the world and salvation has begun. And, personally, each of us will, from time to time, experience confusion, disappointment, and heartache. But we know that with his coming the corner has been turned for us and salvation has begun. We know that God's program for us and for the world is not lost or hopless. It is pregnant with promise. And so, with Mary, we can sing,
"My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,
my spirit rejoices in God my Savior;
for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant."

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Time Keeps on Slippin' into the Future

Sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent, 12/4/11
Isaiah 40:1-11, Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13, 2 Peter 3:8-15a, Mark 1:1-8

[Singing (but probably not very well)] “Time keeps on slippin’, slippin’, slippin’, into the future.”

I’ve been thinking about this pop song by the Steve Miller Band from my college days in the 1970’s. It’s a pretty decent Advent song. In Advent we remember that we are in between times – between the coming of Jesus which we will celebrate during Christmas and his return in the future. As Advent people we are shaped by what God has done in the past and oriented toward what God has promised to do in the future.

Time is slipping into the future and it is a future full of promise. It is God’s promise of a new heaven and a new earth. That is the promise of the prophets, especially Isaiah:

The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid, and the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. . . . They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea. - Isaiah 11:6&9

And he will destroy on this mountain the covering that is cast over all peoples, the veil that is spread over all nations. He will swallow up death for ever, and the Lord GOD will wipe away tears from all faces, and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth; for the LORD has spoken. It will be said on that day, "Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, that he might save us. This is the LORD; we have waited for him; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation. - Isaiah 25:7-9

For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth; and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind. But be glad and rejoice for ever in that which I create; for behold, I create Jerusalem a rejoicing, and her people a joy. I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and be glad in my people; no more shall be heard in it the sound of weeping and the cry of distress. . . . The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox; and dust shall be the serpent's food. They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain, says the LORD. - Isaiah 65:17-25

And it is the promise at the end of the Book of Revelation:

Revelation 21:1-5
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband; and I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away." And he who sat upon the throne said, "Behold, I make all things new.

Revelation 22:2-3
through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. There shall no more be anything accursed,

The promise God has given us, the promise we celebrate in Advent, is not pie in the sky by and by when we die. It is not that we will some day escape earth and go to some other place where bodies and creation are no more. Christianity is not about escaping this material world – a world God created and declared good – Christianity is about God making all things new, it is about transfiguration and transformation. It is about this creation renewed into a new heaven and a new earth.

The resurrection of Jesus is the promise that, whatever our fate after we die between now and then, in the end we will likewise be resurrected on the last day to live forever in a new earth in which heaven and earth have become one and the glory of the Lord covers the earth like the waters cover the sea. When Jesus taught us to pray,
“Thy Kingdom Come,
Thy will be done,
on earth
as it is in heaven”
That is what he meant. In that prayer we claim and anticipate the promise that time is slipping into the promised future of God when heaven and earth are made one.

Which brings us to this morning’s lesson from 2 Peter (2 Peter 3:8-15a).

The early followers of Jesus understood that with his resurrection the kingdom of God had been inaugurated. But, they had expected that meant that the fullness of the kingdom result soon after. But it didn’t. The letter of Peter counters that concern by zooming back and reminding us of the big picture, “Do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day.” God’s promise is sure and Jesus is the first fruits of that promise, but God measures time differently than we do. By God’s reckoning, 2011 is just early dawn of the third day.

The author goes on to point out that, “The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you.” Our God is a patient God. The season of Advent encourages us to practice a corresponding godly passionate patience.

God is patient, “not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.” Repent of what? Of all that contradicts the promise of all that is out of place in the new heaven and new earth – all violence, greed, dishonesty and deceit;
all idolatry, unfaithfulness, envy, and enmity;
all disharmony and all that contradicts the gospel that is peace and life,
all that is not love.

Time keeps on slipping into the future and “the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed.” This imagery calls to mind (mine anyway) the process of refining silver. Silver ore is full of things that are not silver. In the process of refinement, the ore is put in a crucible and dissolved with fire. Then all dross and impurity is removed. The silver is the same, but it is made new. And so it will be with the new heaven and the new earth.

It is good to be pure silver. But I suspect the ore does not appreciate the heat. Nor does it readily part with the dross it considers its own. But, as Paul warns us, “each man's work will become manifest; for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work which any man has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If any man's work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.” (1 Corinthians 3:13-15)

Everything that is done will be disclosed and all that contradicts the purpose of God’s new creation will be dissolved. “Since all these things are to be dissolved in this way, what sort of persons ought you to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set ablaze and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire? But, in accordance with his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home.

Only God can bring about the new heaven and new earth. We can only live in faithful anticipation of the “Day of the Lord.” As we await the new heaven and new earth what sort of people should we be? People of holiness and godliness – which means people living like Jesus. We live waiting with eager anticipation and hastening the coming of the day of God. We allow the Holy Spirit to shape our lives and our life together such that the righteousness of the new heaven and new earth is at home here and now.

When mercy and truth meet
the righteousness of the new heaven and new earth is at home.

When righteousness and peace kiss
the righteousness of the new creation is at home.

When there is forgiveness and reconciliation
the righteousness of the new heaven and new earth is at home.

When there is healing, repair, or restoration
the righteousness of the new heaven and new earth is at home.

When justice, freedom, and peace are advanced
the righteousness of the new heaven and new earth is at home.

When the goods of this creation are made more available to more people
the righteousness of the new heaven and new earth is at home.

When this creation is tended with care
the righteousness of the new heaven and new earth is at home.

In every act of nurturing and mentoring
the righteousness of the new heaven and new earth is at home.

In every act of creativity
the righteousness of the new heaven and new earth is at home.

In every act of generosity
the righteousness of the new heaven and new earth is at home.

In every act of kindness
the righteousness of the new heaven and new earth is at home.

In every act of love
the righteousness of the new heaven and new earth is at home.

Such anticipations of the new heaven and new earth will last forever. All else will be dissolved.

German theologian, Jurgen Moltmann wrote,
Heaven and earth are waiting to become God's house, for everything created has been made for love. God's Spirit is in them all and throws them open for God's future. God finds no rest until everything he has created has returned home to him, like the prodigal son in the parable

This means that God is still restless in history until the world becomes his sanctuary and he can enter into all things and find a home there. (Jesus Christ for Today's World, p. 133)

Time keeps on slipping into the future.

“Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish; and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation.”

Previous: Second Coming, Parousia, and Rapture

Friday, December 2, 2011

Second Coming, Parousia, and Rapture

In an ealier post of a passage from the Catechetical Lectures of Cyril of Jerusalem was this phrase, "we shall go out with the angels to meet the Lord and cry out in adoration: Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord." The phrase caught my eye because I had just read something about this in N. T. Wright's book, Surprised by Hope.

In the religious circles I grew up in there was lots of emphasis on “End Times” and a particular understanding of what it meant to believe in the Second Coming of Christ. I remember seeing wall charts that had the chronology of the Last Days with descriptions of the events leading up to and immediately following Jesus’ return. It was assumed that his “return” meant that those who belonged to him and were ready would be caught up into the air, rescued from this world which would be destroyed, and removed to heaven. And it was clear that you were in trouble if you weren’t ready. We sang songs like “I Wish We’d All Been Ready” and worried about being left behind when true Christians were caught up in the rapture. It is a way of understanding things that has a potent hold on the imaginations of many Christians in America. I am convinced it is a mistaken understanding.

In an essay that can be found online, Wright takes on the popular notion of "rapture" as an escape of the redeemed from this world:
The American obsession with the second coming of Jesus — especially with distorted interpretations of it — continues unabated. Seen from my side of the Atlantic, the phenomenal success of the Left Behind books appears puzzling, even bizarre[1]. Few in the U.K. hold the belief on which the popular series of novels is based: that there will be a literal “rapture” in which believers will be snatched up to heaven, leaving empty cars crashing on freeways and kids coming home from school only to find that their parents have been taken to be with Jesus while they have been “left behind.” This pseudo-theological version of Home Alone has reportedly frightened many children into some kind of (distorted) faith.

This dramatic end-time scenario is based (wrongly, as we shall see) on Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians, where he writes: “For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a shout of command, with the voice of an archangel and the trumpet of God. The dead in Christ will rise first; then we, who are left alive, will be snatched up with them on clouds to meet the Lord in the air; and so we shall always be with the Lord” (1 Thessalonians 4:16-17). (Farewell to the Rapture)

In Surprised by Hope, Wright fleshes out why he thinks Rapture theology is mistaken:
Scholars and simple folk alike can be lead astray by the use of a single word to refer to something when the word in its original setting means both more and less than the use to which it is subsequently put. In this case the word in question is the Greek word parousia. This is usually translated "coming," but literally means "presence"- that is, presence as oppose to absence.

Wright points out that at the time the New Testament was written, parousia had two meanings in non-Christian discourse. One was "the mysterious presence of a god or divinity, particularly when the power of this god was revealed in healing." (Surprised by Hope, p. 128)

The other meaning
emerges when a person of high rank makes a visit to a subject state, particularly when a king or emperor visits a colony or province. The word for such a visit is royal presence: in Greek, parousia.

. . . .

Suppose [Paul and other early Christians] wanted to say that the Jesus who had been raised from the dead and exalted to God’s right hand was the rightful Lord of the world, the Emperor before whom all other emperors would shake in their shoes and bow their knees in fear and wonder. And suppose they wanted to say that, just as Caesar might one day visit a colony like Philippi or Thessalonica or Corinth (the normally absent but ruling emperor appearing and ruling in person), so the absent but ruling Lord of the world would one day appear and rule in person within this world, with all the consequences that would result. The natural words to use for this would be parousia. (p. 129)

Wright continues
When Paul speaks of “meeting” the Lord 'in the air,'” the point is precisely not – as in the popular rapture theology – that the saved believers would stay up in the air somewhere, away from earth. The point is that, having gone out to meet their returning Lord, they will escort him royally into his domain, that is, back to the place they have come from. (p. 133)

And that seems much more likely to have been Cyril's meaning. In fact, aside from being biblically suspect, it is extremely rare to find anything like the rapture theology that has so shaped the imaginations of many American Christians expressed in the early or medieval church. It does not become widespread until after 1800 and even then, as Wright indicates, only in certain segments of Americam Christianity. It hardly represents classic Christian teaching. And it tends to obsure, if not outright deny another basic aspect of classic Christianity that Cyril also alludes to: the hope that "the created world will be made new."

Next: Heaven and earth made new
Previous: Cyril & Wright on Judgment

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Cyril & Wright on Judgment

I've been thinking about the last post on Cyril on the Twofold Coming of Christ. Three things intrigue me about the passage given that I am just about finished with N. T. Wright's, Surprised by Hope.

1. Cyril's affirmation that "he (the returning Lord) will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead."

2. Cyril's phrase, "we shall go out with the angels to meet the Lord and cry out in adoration: Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord" which has implications for how he understood the second coming.

3. Cyril's expectation that "the created world will be made new."

I'm going to post something about each of these over the next few days with reference to the writing of N. T. Wright whose approach strikes some as novel but which is actually not just biblical, but consistent with theologians of the early church like Cyril.

Judgment: The idea of judgment is unpopular with contemporary Americans. It is unpopular in general, but particularly when it comes to the idea that God might judge us. It must be admitted that that is partly do to some bad teaching and preaching in churches in which God has been portrayed as angry and vindictive, prepared to destroy the world and send many people to hell imagined as a sort of eternal torture chamber. I do think that is bad teaching and preaching. Still, that God (or Jesus, the Son) judges is a basic article of Christian belief. We do affirm in the Creed that he will come to judge the living and the dead. Note though, that in the Bible, God's pending judgment is usually longed for as good news. And if we think about it, some sort of judgment is necessary. As Wright writes,

Judgment is necessary – unless we are to conclude, absurdly that nothing much is wrong or, blasphemously, that God doesn’t mind very much.
. . . .

God is utterly committed to set the world right in the end. This doctrine, like that of resurrection itself, is held firmly in place by the belief in God as creator, on the one side, and belief in his goodness, on the other. And that setting right must necessarily involve the elimination of all that distorts God’s good and lovely creation and in particular all that defaces his image-bearing human creatures. . . . There will be no barbed wire in the kingdom of God. And those whose whole being has become dependent upon barbed wire will have no place there either.

For “barbed wire,” of course, read whichever catalog of awfulnesses you prefer: genocide, nuclear bombs, child prostitution, the arrogance of empire, the commidification of souls, the idolization of race. (Surprised by Hope, p. 179)

In the Bible,
all the future judgment is highlighted as good news, not bad. Why so? It is good news, first, because the one through whom God’s justice will finally sweep the world is not a hard-hearted, arrogant, or vengeful tyrant but rather the Man of Sorrows, who is acquainted with grief; the Jesus who loved sinners and died for them; the Messiah who took the world’s judgment upon himself on the cross. Of course, this also means that he is uniquely place to judge the systems and rulers that have carved up the world between them, and the New Testament points this out here and there. Surprised by Hope, p. 141)

How do we put all that together? With fear and trembling and great caution. We should beware the "cheerful double dogmatism . . . both of the person who knows exactly who is and who isn't 'going to hell' and of the universalist who is absolutely certain that there is no such place." (p. 177). It is also possible to acknowledge God's judgment without getting lost in naively literalistic images of the eternal, pain-filled fires of hell.

I find this intriguing from Cyril, "Look, the Lord almighty will come, and who will endure the day of his entry, or who will stand in his sight? Because he comes like a refiner’s fire, a fuller’s herb, and he will sit refining and cleansing." Might that be a way of understanding the judgment Christ brings - refining and cleansing? Each person? Creation? History? If so, we might note that however unpleasant to the ore, the process of refining is neither permanent nor the point. The point is purification.

I've attempted to make sense of this elsewhere with the idea of "hopeful universalism". Though I should note that N. T. Wright explicitly rejects that idea, I still think it has merit - if we avoid false confidence and complacency.

In any event, it is a good thing in Advent to take stock of the barbed wire in our lives and ask ourselves if our lives - body, mind, heart, and soul - are hospitable to the Prince of Peace whose advent we anticipate.

Next: Second Coming, Parousia, and Rapture

Monday, November 28, 2011

Cyril on the Twofold Coming of Christ

A little something from Cyril of Jerusalem (313-386) for Advent:

We do not preach only one coming of Christ, but a second as well, much more glorious than the first. The first coming was marked by patience; the second will bring the crown of a divine kingdom.

In general, whatever relates to our Lord Jesus Christ has two aspects. There is a birth from God before the ages, and a birth from a virgin at the fullness of time. There is a hidden coming, like that of rain on fleece, and a coming before all eyes, still in the future.

At the first coming he was wrapped in swaddling clothes in a manger. At his second coming he will be clothed in light as in a garment. In the first coming he endured the cross, despising the shame; in the second coming he will be in glory, escorted by an army of angels.

We look then beyond the first coming and await the second. At the first coming we said: Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. At the second we shall say it again; we shall go out with the angels to meet the Lord and cry out in adoration: Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.

The Saviour will not come to be judged again, but to judge those by whom he was judged. At his own judgement he was silent; then he will address those who committed the outrages against him when they crucified him and will remind them: You did these things, and I was silent.

His first coming was to fulfil his plan of love, to teach men by gentle persuasion. This time, whether men like it or not, they will be subjects of his kingdom by necessity.

The prophet Malachi speaks of the two comings. And the Lord whom you seek will come suddenly to his temple: that is one coming.

Again he says of another coming: Look, the Lord almighty will come, and who will endure the day of his entry, or who will stand in his sight? Because he comes like a refiner’s fire, a fuller’s herb, and he will sit refining and cleansing.

These two comings are also referred to by Paul in writing to Titus: The grace of God the Saviour has appeared to all men, instructing us to put aside impiety and worldly desires and live temperately, uprightly, and religiously in this present age, waiting for the joyful hope, the appearance of the glory of our great God and Saviour, Jesus Christ. Notice how he speaks of a first coming for which he gives thanks, and a second, the one we still await.

That is why the faith we profess has been handed on to you in these words: He ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father, and he will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.

Our Lord Jesus Christ will therefore come from heaven. He will come at the end of the world, in glory, at the last day. For there will be an end to this world, and the created world will be made new.

-- Catechetical Lecture XV

Friday, November 18, 2011

Christ the King

It is good to remember with some regularity that when God contemplates the USA it is unlikely that the cockles of the divine heart are warmed any more than when contemplating, say, Latvia, Thailand, or Tunisia. And probably no less.

Christ the King Sunday is a good time for such a reminder

Radical Centrist Manifesto X
Centered in the Body of Christ,
Part 3: Faithfulness, Loyalty & Allegiance

[Some of what follows has appeared elsewhere on this blog, but I want to include it in this series on Radical Centrism]

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?

My point is not that America is bad – at least no more than most other powers of this world. Stanley Kubrick once said, "The great nations have always acted like gangsters, and the small nations like prostitutes." One can find examples of America falling in there somewhere. As one can with every nation. On the other hand, anti-Americanism can also become an idol.

There are plenty of reasons for someone living in America to be grateful. And America has also done quite a bit of good in the world. But there are reasons for people in just about every country of the world to be grateful for their land, history and culture. And every nation, tribe, and people, also has things in its history and character of which to repent. There is something distinctive about every country, but none is “exceptional” in the sense of being beyond the normal ambiguities of this world.

Being centered in Jesus Christ and claiming him as King and Lord means pledging our allegiance to “another country”. We are citizens of heaven and of the kingdom of God (Philippians 3:20, Ephesians 2:9). Where our true citizenship lies is a question both the religious right and the religious left in America tend to get wrong. Baptism is our naturalization into a nationality other than that into which we are born (1 Peter 2:9). The creed is our pledge of allegiance. And Eucharist is the characteristic privilege and responsibility of citizenship that shapes us as a people and calls us to live as members of the body of Christ with each other and in the world. As William Cavanaugh writes in Torture and Eucharist: Theology, Politics, and the Body of Christ:

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

The Church is a body of people who are citizens of another country centered in Jesus Christ and his kingdom. That Christians all too often subsume Christianity under other loyalties does not negate the responsibility to seek to get our loyalty (that to which we are faithful) straight. What Christians can do about that is remember that Christ is King of kings and Lord of lords and be free of undue concern with the principalities and powers knowing that Christ has triumphed over them (Colossians 2:15). Christians have another King and should beware of giving their heart and loyalty to any other principality, power, or nation.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Austin Farrer, Radical Centrist

Austin Farrer (1904–1968) was one of the most brilliant and original British theologians of the previous century. Rowan Williams, the current Archbishop of Canterbury, has described Farrer as “possibly the greatest Anglican mind of the twentieth century.” He was a friend of J.R.R. Tolkien, Dorothy Sayers, and C. S. Lewis. Farrer took the last sacraments to Lewis before his death and preached at his funeral. He wrote scholarly books on theology, but also more popular and devotional books. His collections of sermons are edifying. He should be more widely read than he is. He is another theologian who cannot be easily identified as either "conservative" or "liberal" but undeniably centered in Jesus Christ.

The following is from a wonderful little book of reflection on the Apostles' Creed, Lord I Believe: Suggestions for Turning the Creed into Prayer:

Though God be in me, yet without the creed to guide me, I should know neither how to call upon God, nor on what God to call. God may be the very sap of my growth and substance of my action; but the tree has grown so crooked and is so deformed and cankered in its parts, that I should be at a loss to distinguish the divine power among the misuse of power given. Were I to worship God as the principle of my life, I should merely worship myself under another name with all my good and evil. Lord I Believe, p. 14

Friday, November 4, 2011

Thomas Merton, Radical Centrist

Here is the meaning of faith in the New Testament, and in the early history of the Church: the willingness to sacrifice every other value other than the basic value of truth and life in Christ. Christian faith in the full sense of the word, is not just the acceptance of “truths about” Christ. It is not just acquiescence in the story of Christ with its moral and spiritual implications. It is not merely the decision to put into practice, to some extent at least, the teachings of Christ. All these forms of acceptance are compatible with an acquiescence in what is “not Christ.” It is quite possible to “believe in Christ,” in the sense of mentally accepting the truth that he lived on earth, died, and rose from the dead, and yet still live “in the flesh,” according to the standards of a greedy, violent, unjust and corrupt society, without noticing any real contradiction in one’s life.

But the real meaning of faith is the rejection of everything that is not Christ in order that all life, all truth, all hope, all reality may be sought and found “in Christ.”
- Thomas Merton, Life and Holiness, p. 99-100

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Loving Your Neighbor in an Age of Compassion Fatigue

It has been a rough ten years. Last month we marked the anniversary of the attacks of 9/11. Subsequently we saw the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. We have been assaulted by images of war in Iraq and Afghanistan. There was the Indian Ocean Tsunami. And massive earthquakes in Haiti, Pakistan, China. More recently, there was the earthquake and tsunami in Japan with the resulting damage to nuclear facilities. Many of us have watched many of these events unfold before our eyes either live or nearly live. In addition to all of this, over the last three years or so, we have been confronted with a global and national – not to mention, personal – financial crisis.

Add on the stories we each know of family, neighbors, friends, and fellow church members who are struggling with disease, family issues, work difficulties, etc. and it all starts to feel overwhelming.

Even if you are not in the midst of such troubles yourself, knowing about them can become a cumulative burden on your spirit.

I wonder if this isn’t a main contributing factor to the sense I get from talking to people that many of us feel harassed by life.

Information technology and social networking mean we are more connected than ever to the rest of the world. This means we are aware of more pain, suffering, and disappointment than ever.

It takes a toll. I wonder id our whole society isn’t experiencing a mild form of Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. Or more accurately, perhaps, the related condition of “compassion fatigue”. Compassion fatigue has traditionally been associated with people in the helping professions – doctors, nurses, therapists, police officers, social workers, etc. But, with the increased connectivity and access to images and information, I think it has become more generalized.

The symptoms are:
•disturbed sleep
•intrusive thoughts (unwelcome involuntary thoughts, images, or unpleasant ideas that may become obsessions, are upsetting or distressing, and can be difficult to manage or eliminate)
•outbursts of anger
•hyper-vigilance (constant scanning of the environment for threats)
•and a desire to avoid people who we know are hurting or who you know will disturb your equilibrium.

Sound familiar? I suspect many of us have experienced several of these over the last few years. And they seem pervasive in our society. I suspect that this explains in part the increased polarization we see all around us. It also explains the pervasive cynicism, anger, and hopelessness.

Some researchers have suggested that all of this leads to a sort of “psychic numbness” that diminishes our ability to engage those around us and the world with compassion. We are tempted to resort to a hunker down mentality and become insular or to throw up our hands in resignation that nothing can change for the good.

And yet, as Christians, we must resist this tendency even as we acknowledge its reality and power. In his summary of the Law, Jesus enjoins us to, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” That is a call to compassion, a call to care. How might we respond to that call while avoiding compassion fatigue?

Let us first of all admit that loving our neighbor is not always easy. Not just because some neighbors are hard to love, but because of the nature of love itself. To love someone means to make ourselves available to them –available to their hopes and joys, their need and their fear. That also means we make ourselves vulnerable to their hurt and sorrow. That is the inevitable consequence of love. As C. S. Lewis wrote in The Four Loves:
To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one. . . . It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.

The cumulative effect of that vulnerability is what leads to compassion fatigue.

How do we avoid becoming weary or cynical or withdrawing into our own small private worlds? How do we continue to be available and vulnerable in love toward our neighbor in an age of compassion fatigue?

• I suggest it begins with the first commandment – “Love the Lord your God with all your heart mind and soul.” When we orient everything in our heart, mind, and life toward God who is working all for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose (Romans 8:28) the hard realities in our lives and the world around us are put in perspective. We love God first of all because God is worthy of love. But, because we are made for that love, orienting our lives toward the love at the heart of it all is the foundation of our health and strength.

• Make it a priority to carve out time each day for plant yourself next to streams of living water as the psalmist encourages us this morning (Psalm 1). That means pray. Certainly pray about the things that concern you. But I encourage you to practice the prayer of silence. Be still and know that the Lord is God (Psalm 46:10). Listen for the still small voice of God. Calm and quiet your soul, like a child quieted at its mother's breast (Psalm 131:2)

• And don’t just pray alone. Do not neglect to meet together, as is the habit of some, but come to worship where we reorient ourselves toward God and encourage one another” (Hebrews 10:25).

• Keep Sabbath. Take extended time to rest and focus your attention on God. Try this. On Sundays, do not watch the news, do not go on the internet, and rest from the worries of the world. God will continue to tend the world while you rest. Do something restorative – read, walk in the woods, exercise, knit, make something, etc. Some researchers suggest that our capacity for compassion is finite and will become depleted if not restored. Among other things, Sabbath is a means of restoring that capacity.

• Acknowledge your own vulnerability. You are a limited, finite creature. You are not God. Only God, who is love, can be infinitely available and vulnerable in love. Our capacity for compassion is limited and can become drained. You cannot give all of yourself all the time to everyone. And sometimes it is OK and necessary to step back for a time. Know when you’ve had enough.

• Remember that God bears it all and bears it with you. You are not alone. Jesus said, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light." The burden is light because he bears it with you.

• Do what you can and trust the rest to God. Focus your care. Again this is part of accepting our creatureliness. We cannot do everything everywhere. So it helps to decide what we can do and focus on that. Our involvement with the Sudan is an example of this. We cannot address all the needs of the world or even I the Sudan. But, God has placed the people of Renk and Maban in our path and we can do some things for them. And doing that allows us to trust God to rise up others to care for Haiti, Japan, or elsewhere. Doing something somewhere also frees us from despairing of feeling helpless. This is true locally and personally as well. If we are careful not to take on more than we can manage, we can manage, with God’s help, what we are called to take on. In doing so, we can still remain open to People and situations that aren’t already on our radar while discerning what we are called to do and letting go of the rest.

• Find someone to talk to about the hard stuff but who will encourage you. “Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing” (1 Thessalonians 5:11). “Bear one another’s burdens and thus fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:1).

• Don’t dwell on the negative. Don’t allow yourself to get in a rut of rehearsing all that is bad in the world or the wrongs that have been done to you. “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things (Philippians 4:8).

• End each day naming the good – in your own life and in the world. Give thanks to God for at least three three things. “Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” (1 Thessalonians 5:18)

Jesus enjoins us to love our neighbor as ourselves. That is difficult and perilous thing as we make ourselves available and vulnerable to caring in a world full of tragedy and disappointment. But, by the grace of Christ’s Spirit working in us and through us we can continue to love our neighbor even in an age of compassion fatigue.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Love your neighbor

"The Christian path is a slow and often painful schooling under the tutelage of Christ, as we learn to welcome the nearness of one neighbor after another."
p. 34

Jesus said, "`You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.' This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: `You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets." Matthew 22:27-40

"We belong to Jesus completely, in body as well as spirit, because he has become our neighbor through his own radical availability, even at the price of his own life: 'You were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body' (1 Corinthians 6:20). But if we belong to Jesus, then we also belong to one another: we cannot have Jesus as our neighbor without also having each other. The Christian task, then, is to find the appropriate ways to live out the fact that we do not belong to ourselves alone. The Christian life is shaped by this challenge and to address it is to devote oneself to the 'affairs of the Lord' (1 Corinthians 7:22)." p. 50

"Our availability to one another can be very frightening, even in the light of the gospel. But we find our help in Jesus, who is God’s yes to our nearness and its sanctification. We profess belief in a savior who drew near to us and suffered the abuses to which that nearness exposed him. The purpose of the Incarnation was not to rescue us from nearness or from the body, but to set our nearness right. Through the Incarnation the Word of God has become our neighbor. As our neighbor, Jesus reveals to us what nearness looks like when it is not corrupted by sin, and bestows on everyone who receives him the experience of a redeemed and justified nearness. We are encouraged by this experience to begin, not naively yet with hope, to embrace our nearness with one another." p. 31

Except for the passage from Matthew, the quotes are from Christian Households: The Sanctification of Nearness by Thomas Breidenthal (now Bishop of Southern Ohio)

Friday, October 14, 2011

C. S. Lewis on Roman Catholicism & Anglicanism

A couple of years ago, the Pope proposed an "Anglican Ordinariate" (Anglicanorum Coetibus) making it easier for disaffected Episcopalians to become Roman Catholic by allowing such "converts" to maintain some Anglican forms of worship. At the time, someone asked me, somewhat tongue in cheek, if I was considering taking the pope up on his offer. I replied that I wasn't, because, among other things, I could not accept as formal dogma some of the Roman church's recent theological innovations, e.g., the Immaculate Conception of Mary (1854), Papal Infallibility (1870), and the Assumption of Mary (1950). Of course, this was intentionally impish given that the Episcopal Church, and the Anglican Communion more generally, has sometimes been accused of theological innovation. There is much that I appreciate about Roman Catholicism and have benefited greatly from reading R. C. scholars, theologians, and writers on prayer and spirituality. And, frustrated as I am sometimes with some tendencies in the Episcopal Church, it has its attractions. Still, there are parts of the package I cannot bring myself to accept. I am in many ways a catholic minded Anglican. But, there is more than one way to be catholic.

I was thinking about this as I read an entry on Anglican vs. Roman ways of being "catholic" at The Curates Desk, a fine blog by Fr. Robert Hendrickson of Christ Church, New Haven, Connecticut.

I was also reminded of this letter from C. S. Lewis to a correspondent enquiring about his views of the Roman Catholic Church and the Anglican Church (I have spelled out some words Lewis abbreviated):

My position about the Churches can best be made plain by an imaginary example. Suppose I want to find out the correct interpretation of Plato’s teaching. What I am most confident in accepting is that interpretation which is common to all Platonists down all the centuries: What Aristotle and the Renaissance scholars and Paul Elmer More agree on I take to be true Platonism. Any purely modern views which claim to have discovered for the first time what Plato meant and say that everyone from Aristotle down has misunderstood him I reject out of hand.

But there is something else I would also reject. If there were an ancient Platonic Society existing at Athens and claiming to be the exclusive trustees of P’s meaning, I should approach them with great respect. But if I found that their teaching in many ways was curiously unlike his actual text and unlike what ancient interpreters said, and in some cases could not be traced back to within 1000 years of his time, I should reject these exclusive claims: while still needing, of course, to take any particular thing they thought on its merits.

I do the same with Christianity. What is certain is the vast mass of doctrine which I find agreed on by scripture, the Fathers, the Middle Ages, modern Roman Catholics, modern Protestants. That is true ‘catholic’ doctrine. Mere ‘modernism’ I reject at once.

The Roman Church where it differs from this universal tradition and specifically from apostolic Christianity I reject. Thus their theology about the B. V. M. [Blessed Virgin Mary] I reject because it seems utterly foreign to the New Testament: where indeed the words ‘Blessed is the womb that bore thee’ receive a rejoinder pointing in exactly the opposite direction. Their papalism seems equally foreign to the attitude of St. Paul towards St. Peter in the epistles. The doctrine of Transubstantiation insists in defining in a way which the New Testament seems to me not to countenance. In a word, the whole set-up of modern Romanism seems to me to be as much a provincial or local variation from the central, ancient tradition as any particular Protestant sect is. I must therefore reject their claims: though this does not mean rejecting particular things they way.

. . .

Hooker (Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity) is to me the great formulation of Anglicanism. But the great point is that in one sense there is no such thing as Anglicanism. What we are committed to believe is whatever can be proved from Scripture. On that issue there is room for endless progress.
From a letter to Lyman Stebbins, May 8, 19454 in The Collected letters of C. S. Lewis, Vol 2. (the recipient become R.C. anyway)

I mostly agree with Lewis. His approach is my default position. But, I wonder if it is altogether possible or desirable for a church to avoid all innovation or development in theological or biblical understanding. Lewis himself notoriously rejected the idea of one innovation, the ordination of women, which I accept as a faithful extension of the gospel. And this is something the Roman church rejects as well.

Perhaps the question is not simply whether or not innovation is faithful, but which innovations are faithful, how is their faithfulness discerned, how are they adopted once discerned, and where does the authority lie to do so? The Roman Catholic Church has some relatively clear answers to those questions. The lack of clear answers to those questions is straining the "bonds of affection" in the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

If Necessary Use Words

Today is the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi, the much-loved, but often sentimentalized and misrepresented saint. The phrase, "Preach the gospel everywhere; if necessary use words," is often ascribed to Francis. It's a popular phrase. The problem is, there is no eveidence Francis said it.

Of course the wisdom of that particular saying does not depend upon its source. And I do not think it is without wisdom. Many of us have been on the receiving end of words spoken in the name of the gospel by someone whose life or attitude did not "preach" the gospel. Our lives must bear witness to the good news of Jesus before our words about that good news can make any sense. But to suggest that the gospel can be preached without ever using words is deceptive. We ought to be able to tell the Story that makes the story of our lives make sense. That requires words as well as actions.

If we use this saying attributed to St. Francis as an excuse to never speak words of the gospel to others, it is rather like saying, as one wag has it, "Feed the hungry; if necessary use food."

And if we attribute only this saying to Francis, we will misrepresent the fact that he, himself, actually used words -- and used them boldly -- to preach the gospel.

Here is a story from the life of Francis of Assisi (emphasis mine):

The people of Gubbio, a town north of Assisi, were troubled by a huge wolf that attacked not only animals but people, so that the men had to arm themselves before going outside the town walls. They felt as if Gubbio were under siege.

Francis decided to help, though the local people, fearing for his life, tried to dissuade him. What chance could an unarmed man have against a wild animal with no conscience? But according to the Fioretti, the principal collection of stories of the saint’s life,

Francis placed his hope in the Lord Jesus Christ, master of all creatures. Protected neither by shield or helmet, only arming himself with the sign of the Cross, he bravely set out of the town with his companion, putting his faith in the Lord who makes those who believe in him walk without injury on an asp… and trample not merely on a wolf but even a lion and a dragon.

Some local peasants followed the two brothers, keeping a safe distance. Finally the wolf saw Francis and came running, as if to attack him. The story continues:

The saint made the sign of the Cross, and the power of God… stopped the wolf, making it slow down and close its cruel mouth. Then Francis called to it, “Brother Wolf, in the name of Jesus Christ, I order you not to hurt me or anyone.”

The wolf then came close to Francis, lowered its head and then lay down at his feet as though it had become a lamb. Francis then censured the wolf for its former cruelties, especially for killing human beings made in the image of God, thus making a whole town into its deadly enemy.

“But, Brother Wolf, I want to make peace between you and them, so that they will not be harmed by you any more, and after they have forgiven you your past crimes, neither men nor dogs will pursue you anymore.”

The wolf responded with gestures of submission “showing that it willingly accepted what the saint had said and would observe it.”

Francis promised the wolf that the people of Gubbio would henceforth “give you food every day as long as you shall live, so that you will never again suffer hunger.” In return, the wolf had to give up attacking both animal and man. “And as Saint Francis held out his hand to receive the pledge, the wolf also raised its front paw and meekly and gently put it in Saint Francis’s hand as a sign that it had given its pledge.”

Francis led the wolf back into Gubbio, where the people of the town met them in the market square. Here Francis preached a sermon in which he said calamities were permitted by God because of our sins and that the fires of hell are far worse than the jaws of a wolf, which can only kill the body. He called on the people to do penance in order to be “free from the wolf in this world and from the devouring fire of hell in the next world.” He assured them that the wolf standing at his side would now live in peace with them, but that they were obliged to feed him every day. He pledged himself as “bondsman for Brother Wolf.”
(as told by Jim Forest in The Ladder of the Beatitudes, p. 116-117)

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Holiness and the Spiral Dance of the Liturgy

Over at Haligweorc, Derek Olsen poses some interesting questions. He writes, "In the Hebrew Bible, worship is intimately related to encountering the holiness of God and its potentially lethal consequences. Not only can worshiping the wrong way (Numbers 16) or wearing the wrong clothes at worship (Exodus 28:1-43) get you killed, merely touching holy things even for a good purpose can get you killed too (2 Samuel 6:6-7)."

"The biblical text contains a strong sense of holiness as a tangible power—a potentially deadly power. As has been written here before, early medieval Christianity also nurtured a strong sense of holiness as tangible power no doubt drawn from these biblical texts."

Olsen asks these questions:

"What do we do with it? I think most often we dismiss these narratives and write them off as either 1) primitive perspectives reflecting a view of God we don’t believe in any more, or 2) manipulative texts written by a privileged group who use tales of divine punishment as a means of bolstering their own hegemony."

"Are those the only two options? Should we expect more from our encounters with holiness?"

I think these are good questions. My response is that 1) and 2) are not the only two options. Nor do I think they are particularly good ones. As Derek implies we should expect something more from encounters with holiness than I suspect we typically do. But just what should we expect from such an encounter?

I don't know. And that is why it is so unnerving. Among other things, God's holiness is about the otherness of the divine. It is an otherness that confounds all our efforts to make God useful for our personal or public agendas. It is an otherness that confounds our every presumption. It is an otherness that also confounds our tendency to create domesticated idols of God. As C. S. Lewis famously wrote of Aslan, God is good, but not tame. In fact it is the absolute goodness of God that is another wild, unpredictable, unnerving aspect of God's holiness. What I do expect from ecountering the holiness of God is transformation. Indeed, only transformation will make any of us able to bear it.

Whatever we make of the passages from the Old Testament referenced above, they remind us that God is not our heavenly buddy. Nor is God a warm, fuzzy, spiritual affirmation of our perceptions of our own inherent swellness. When we encounter the holiness of God we encounter an awe-full Power, Goodness, and Beauty. Over and over again in the biblical record those who encounter it respond with fear. We do well not to take it lightly.

And it is not only about being sinners in the hands of an angry God. Our sinfulness does make us unable to bear the presence of the Good. But, also, fragile as we are, we cannot endure the presence of the Power. And, weak as we are, the glory and splendor of the Beauty is unbearable. I suspect that even without the problem of sin, we would have to be transfigured just to bear the Beauty of God. I think Dante is onto something in the Paradiso. Beatrice, now among the blessed, has been transformed and "transhumanized" by grace and incorporated into the presence of God. She has been "inGodded". Because she now has taken on some of the glory, she withholds her smile from Dante because the sheer, awesome beauty and joy of it would burn him to a heap of ashes. But Beatrice also represents the promise that we too can be transfigured to bear and enjoy the holy presence of God.

To be sure, as the author of Hebrews assures us, in Jesus we have a High Priest who is able to sympathize with our weaknesses, and one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. So, we can with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need (Hebrews 4:15-16). But the same author also warns, "It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God (Hebrews 10:31) and says, "let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe; for our God is a consuming fire" (Hebrews 12:28-29).

Here is something I have posted before about how the liturgy recognizes this:

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

Annie Dillard famously warns against presuming that God is tame:

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

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

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

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

Monday, September 19, 2011

More on Forgiveness from Charles Williams

Last week I posted an extened quote from Charles Williams' essay on The Forgivenss of Sins. I like Williams. Reading him regularly conjures the feeling of Christmas. Here are two more quotes from the same essay, which can be found here.

Forgivenesss is not normally a thrilling or an exciting thing. The metaphor which our Lord used has a particular aptness--it is the taking up, the carrying, the Cross, not the being crucified: it is the intolerable weight of the duty, and not its agony, which defeats us--'the weight of glory'. p. 192-193

. . . .

Many reconciliations have unfortunateley broken down because both parties have come prepared to forgive and unprepared to be forgiven. Instruction is as badly needed in this as in many other less vital things; that holy light which we call humility has an exact power of illumnination all its own. p. 193

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Heroic Sanctity of Forgiveness

Heroic sanctity is required perhaps to forgive, but not to forgive is ordinary sin. There is no alternative; the greatness of the injury cannot supply that. It becomes–an excuse? No, a temptation: the greater the injury, the greater the temptation; the more excusable the sin, the no less sin.

The injury done to many in this kind of war is greater than the injury done to one in private, but the result, from a Christian point of view, cannot be other. That must be, everywhere and always, the renewal of love.
- Charles Williams.

Charles Williams (1886-1945) was a member of the Inklings, the literary discussion group that included J. R.R. Tolkien and C. S Lewis. He is a favorite of mine (see here). He was an editor and author of several strange but wonderful “supernatural thrillers”. He was also a lay theologian – mostly self-taught, idiosyncratic, but orthodox. He wrote several theological books and essays. His writing style is not always easy to follow, but what he has to say is almost always wise, evocative, and worth the trouble.

The following is from a book he wrote, On Forgiveness of Sins, which he dedicated to the Inklings. It was originally part of a series of books that included The Problem of Pain by C. S. Lewis. It was published in 1942, in the thick of World War II. The point he makes is no less challenging or pertinent for Christians today:

Forgiveness of all injuries is demanded of the Christian because of the nature of our Lord, and it is demanded entirely. The phrase ‘things that cannot be forgiven’ is therefore to him intellectually meaningless. But it may in fact mean a good deal all the same. It is true that few of us are, fortunately, in a position to understand that meaning; no injuries of which the forgiveness seem unbelievable have ever been done to us. But probably there are at the present moment more persons alive in Europe than for many generations to whom such injuries have been done. . . . The massacres, the tortures, and the slavery, which have appeared in Europe of late that have impressed themselves upon us. In the ruined homes of Rotterdam–or indeed of England–among the oppressed thousands of Poland, there are those to whom the phrase ‘things that cannot be forgiven’ has fearful meaning. Must they nevertheless be forgiven? They must. Must vengeance, must even resentment, be put off? It must. There is certainly a distinction between the desire for private vengeance and the execution of public justice. But there is no excuse for concealing private vengeance under the disguise of public justice. . . .The injury done to many in this kind of war is greater than the injury done to one in private, but the result, from a Christian point of view, cannot be other. That must be, everywhere and always, the renewal of love. But in such states as we are now considering, that renewal means little less than heroic sanctity. It is upon such heroic sanctities that the Church depends–depends in the sense that they are the rule, its energy, and its great examples. . .

Heroic sanctity is required perhaps to forgive, but not to forgive is ordinary sin. There is no alternative; the greatness of the injury cannot supply that. It becomes–an excuse? No, a temptation: the greater the injury, the greater the temptation; the more excusable the sin, the no less sin.
He Came Down From Heaven and Forgiveness of Sin, p. 165-167