Thursday, March 31, 2011

John Donne

Today is the Feast of John Donne, one of my favorites. Donne was a great poet, priest, and preacher of the 17th century. In case you are unfamiliar with him, here's a taste:

"Confession works as vomit . . . an ease to the spiritual stomach - the conscience."

"No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were: any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee."

A Hymn to God the Father

WILT Thou forgive that sin where I begun,
Which was my sin, though it were done before?
Wilt Thou forgive that sin through which I run,
And do run still, though still I do deplore?
When Thou hast done, Thou hast not done;
For I have more.

Wilt Thou forgive that sin which I have won
Others to sin, and made my sins their door?
Wilt Thou forgive that sin which I did shun
A year or two, but wallow'd in a score?
When Thou hast done, Thou hast not done;
For I have more.

I have a sin of fear, that when I've spun
My last thread, I shall perish on the shore;
But swear by Thyself that at my death Thy Son
Shall shine as He shines now and heretofore:
And having done that, Thou hast done;
I fear no more.

Sonnet Fourteen

Batter my heart, three-person'd God ; for you
As yet but knock ; breathe, shine, and seek to mend ;
That I may rise, and stand, o'erthrow me, and bend
Your force, to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp'd town, to another due,
Labour to admit you, but O, to no end.
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captived, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be loved fain,
But am betroth'd unto your enemy ;
Divorce me, untie, or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

Death be not proud, though some have called thee

DEATH be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not so,
For, those, whom thou think'st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poore death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleepe, which but thy pictures bee,
Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee doe goe,
Rest of their bones, and soules deliverie.
Thou art slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poyson, warre, and sicknesse dwell,
And poppie, or charmes can make us sleepe as well,
And better then thy stroake; why swell'st thou then;
One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Rose Sunday

This Sunday is Rose Sunday, also known as Laetare Sunday or Refreshment Sunday. It is a day of joy in the midst of Lent, a season of mourning and pentitence. The historical background for this sudden joyful note during the penitential season lies in the ancient practice of traditio symboli (the handing over of the "symbol" of the Apostle's Creed to catechumens) on the Wednesday before the fourth Sunday of Lent. By extension the Fourth Sunday of Lent became a day of joy for all Christians. Thus it is a day in which the disciplines of Lent, while not being abandoned altogether, are relaxed.

Pope Innocent III (1216) said in a sermon, "On this Sunday, which marks the middle of Lent, a measure of consoling relaxation is provided so that the faithful may not break down under the severe strain of Lenten fast but may continue to bear the restrictions with a refreshed and easier heart."

As a sign of this refreshment, the clergy often exchange the penitential purple vestments for more festive rose-colored vestments.

Rose Sunday is a reminder that even in Lent we are Easter people and even when we are most aware of our weakness and sin, we are people living under the mercy and in the grace of God.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Michael Ramsey Concerning Unity

The Church Times, an English church news paper, has published "The Anglican Covenant: a Church Times guide." It provides a collection of essays for and against the proposed Anglican Communion Covenant. It ends with an annotated Covenant which is quite helpful.

This is a nice compliment to the Study Guide to the Anglican Covenant published last month by the Anglican Communion office.

The whole thing puts me in mind of something from Michael Ramsey who was a widely respected theologian and the fondly remembered Archbishop of Canterbury from 1961-1974:

A word about unity. In the seventeenth chapter of St. John it is recorded that Christ prayed for the unity of his disciples. If you are trying to be a Christian, I am sure you are concerned about that. But notice also that, in the same prayer, Christ prayed for his disciples that they become holy, sanctified; and he also prayed that they might learn truth – “sanctify them in the truth.”

Unity, truth, holiness: the three are inseparable. Because of its connection with truth, Christian unity cannot be based on theological vagueness or indifference. And as for holiness, the implication that we are drawn into that togetherness with one another which Christ desires if we are also being drawn into that togetherness with him which is our call to be saints.

Re-union, then, goes with the recovery of truth, and with the reconcecration of lives. Each is urgent in its demands upon us. Neither of these however can be faster than the others; and there is a divine urgency and a divine patience.
(Introducing the Christian Faith, p. 76)

The re-union Ramsey referes to is ecumenism across Chritian traditions, but it seems relevant to nurturing "union" within the Anglican Communion over against the scandal of disunion or schism.

A basic challenge to the unity and faithfulness of any Christian body is how to live together in light of both the divine urgency and the divine patience.

I also wonder if we are able to make the distinction between the classic comprehensiveness of the Anglcian tradition and the "theological vagueness or indifference" against which Ramsey warns.

Thursday, March 24, 2011


"Repentance is no more than a passionate intention to know all things after the mode of heaven."
- Charles Williams, He Came Down From Heaven, p. 60

Friday, March 18, 2011

Where is Your Precious? (on Judgement & Hell)

I planned to post the following (adapted from an old sermon) sometime during Lent well before I heard of Rob Bell's new book, Love Wins and the attendant controversy about it. I haven't read the book so this is not a response, but it does apparently touch on some of the same themes.

Where is Your Precious?

Smeagol was a hobbit. A hobbit is an imaginary creature invented by J. R. R. Tolkien who wrote the “Lord of the Rings”. Short, human-like creatures with hairy feet, hobbits have been described as a cross between a rabbit and an English country gentleman. One day, Smeagol and a friend were fishing in a river. His friend fell into the water and swam or sank to the bottom of the river where he saw a ring, a bright and shiny ring. The friend grabbed the ring, came back to the surface of the river and showed it to Smeagol. It happened to be Smeagol’s birthday and he asked his friend, or rather demanded of his friend, the ring as a birthday present. The friend refused for he had already given Smeagol his birthday present. Smeagol strangled his friend, took the ring and put it on his finger.

It was a magical ring. When he put it on he was invisible. But it was also a cursed ring and it began to warp Smeagol. It warped him so that he began to find the sun too hot and too bright. He took shelter in the caverns of a mountain. When we first meet him in the story he is no longer known as Smeagol, but has been warped into a strange creature called Gollum. Gollum, formerly Smeagol, lives on a small island in the middle of a lake at the dark center of a mountain. There, he eats raw fish and speaks to his ring, which he calls, “My Precious”. Isolated from all other creatures, Gollum is alone. He is alone, that is, except for the ring - his "Precious".

I have wondered if maybe hell is like what happened to Smeagol. God, in His fierce mercy, gives us freedom - freedom to choose our “Precious,” whatever is our Precious - money, possessions, power, prestige, pleasure, etc. - to the bitter end. And beyond. What we choose for our Precious will either mold and shape us into something more beautiful and more human or it will warp us into something much less, like Gollum. That molding or warping continues beyond this life and God will allow us to continue to fall in on ourselves and our precious forever if we choose.

Scripture warns us that our choices have consequences and there will be judgement. In Hebrews 12:25 there is this stark warning. “How much less will we escape if we reject the one who warns us from heaven?” And, lest we think it’s just some peculiarity of the exhortation to the Hebrews, in the gospels, Jesus warns as well. In Luke 13, Jesus warns, “Strive to enter through the narrow door.” “There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” The warning of judgment, whether we like it or not, (and I don’t particularly like it) is a part of Jesus’ message. And it shows up repeatedly and in each gospel. It is a mistake to try to make Jesus less offensive by denying that judgment is part of his message. The Jesus of the gospels warns of judgment. We ought not to ignore it or wish it away.

It is also a mistake, however, to take the images of hell too literally. Christians throughout history have managed to understand that the images of heaven in the Bible are metaphorical. Very few Christians die believing that when they awake they will pass through literal pearly gates and walk literal streets of gold and live in literal mansions with a cubicle for each of us. We understand that those images are metaphors pointing to something greater than we can imagine. But somehow Christians have not been able, usually, to see same metaphorical interpretation of hell. We always seem to take the pictures of hell quite literally - a literal lake of fire in which people burn in agony forever and ever if they choose wrongly. We are familiar with those images. Paintings and graphic descriptions have impressed them on our imaginations. The warning is to be taken seriously, but let’s not mistake metaphorical imagery for literal description. If the images of heaven are metaphorical, then so are the images of hell.

A bit of an aside: Such images of hell are not unique to Christianity. Those who say that we should ignore the differences between religions and just get down to that which they all have in common always intrigue me. They ignore the problem that one thing nearly every religion has in common is hell. There are Buddhist paintings of hell that are every bit as graphic and discomforting as anything described by Dante or depicted by Hieronymus Bosch. Such images of hell make God out to be a cosmic torturer.

It is also a mistake to morbidly dwell on hell. In spite of the impression some have given, hell is not the main point of Christianity. Too often the threat of hell has been used to scare people in order to control them. The primary reason for Jesus’ coming was not to scare the hell out of us. The primary reason for Jesus’ coming was to prepare a way or us and to point us towards the kingdom of God. As Charles Williams wrote, "The order of purging is according to the seven deadly sins of the formal tradition of the Church. The Church is not a way for the soul to escape hell but to become heaven; it is virtues rather than sins which we must remember." (The Figure of Beatrice, p. 157)

Still, we should not be complacent about the warning of judgment that we have in scripture. It is a warning that comes from Jesus. It would be a mistake to assume that God is just such a nice guy that he could never really judge us severely. Or that he merely says, “All-y, all-y, in come free!” While it is possible to make too much of hell, it is also possible to make too little. The judgment is real. There is no room for complacency.

Jesus is instructive. Asked a theoretical question in Luke 13 about how many will be saved, Jesus, as is his wont, refused to get into the theoretical or speculative. Instead, Jesus’ answer to the question makes it personal. “Don’t worry about how few or how many make it to heaven. If it ends up that only a few get in, that is God’s business. If it turns out that God, in his incredible grace and mercy, makes a way for all to enter, that also is God’s business.” Jesus says, “You strive to enter through the narrow door.” He makes it personal. Don’t worry about the particulars of what it’s like. Don’t worry about who else is in or out. You strive to enter the narrow door. Choose today who is your Precious. Our choices matter in the short run and in the long run. We can choose wrongly. We can choose that which will warp us. It does matter how we live. It is not a matter of indifference whether we live lives of self-giving love or lives of self-absorption. We can choose our Precious, and in the end God may just allow us to live with whatever has been truly precious to ourselves - eternally. Our choice of what (or who) is our Precious will either mold us or warp us. That molding or warping begins now and continues eternally.

The Christian conviction is that Jesus also matters. Jesus did not come to scare the hell out of us; instead he came to show us what is eternally Precious. Indeed, he came to be our Precious. Our problem is, among other things, that we, in our sinfulness and our ignorance, find it difficult to recognize or receive what is truly Precious. There are many things vying to be our Precious. Jesus comes to break into our willfulness and ignorance and say; “I am your Precious. I am the way to all that is precious.”

But more than just showing us what our Precious is, Jesus frees us to pursue it. Our problem is more profound than just ignorance. We are born addicted, like crack babies, to things that are not our true Precious. Jesus Christ, on the cross and in his resurrection, breaks the bondage of that addiction, frees us to choose our true Precious - to choose him. Jesus is our Precious.

Being a hopeful universalist*, I still hope that (back to the analogy) maybe even Gollum, isolated and alone on the island at the dark and lonely center of the mountain, is not completely abandoned. Perhaps Jesus is still sitting beside him saying, “Smeagol, come back. Repent.” Maybe that’s what it means when we claim Jesus descended into hell. I hope that Dante was wrong when he wrote that over the gates of hell it reads, “Abandon all hope you who enter here.” I wonder if the God we know in Jesus Christ ever completely abandons hope. Is it possible that not even hell is God-forsaken?

The warning is real. The promise is also real. Our hope is real. In Hebrews we read that we have received a kingdom that cannot be shaken and therefore we do not need to be morbidly fearful of hell. We can give thanks. But in reverence and in awe, because we remember that our God is a consuming fire. Our choices matter. Jesus comes to us day by day, comes to us today, and says, “Choose today to enter in through the narrow door. Choose today who is your Precious.”
* "Hopeful universalist" is a term I learned from my seminary professor, Charlie Price. It is distinct from what might be called a “simple” or “complacent” universalism. Holding that no one can ultimately end in hell is as presumptuous as presuming to know exactly who ends there. It presumes on God’s freedom to judge. It also denies the glory and awfulness of human freedom. A hopeful universalist, on the other hand, while acknowledging God’s judgement, hopes that, in his relentless love, as demonstrated in Jesus, God never completely abandons the objects of that love. Hopeful universalists in the church’s history would include Clement of Alexandria and Gregory of Nyssa among the early theologians. More recent examples are C. S. Lewis, Karl Barth, and Hans Urs Von Balthasar.

Scripture support for such a view might include passages such as Psalm 139:7-8, I Corinthians 3:11-15 & 15:22-28, Colossians 1:20, 1 Timothy 2:4, 1 Peter 3:19, 2 Peter 3:9. While these “hopeful” verses point to the wideness of God’s mercy, they do not allow for complacency.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Being by nature born in sinne (or Why Original Sin is a Goodly Doctrine)

This Sunday, many Episcopalians will recite the Great Litany as part of their worship on the First Sunday of Lent. It is a stark recitation of our failure to live into God's goodness and a pleading for deliverance. It is a reminder that Christianity is a salvation religion: it assumes that there is something dreadfully wrong with us and the world and that we require deliverance from beyond ourselves.

The tendency among some Christians to minimize the radical nature of sin is not very helpful. Nor is it reflective of what Christianity in the Anglican tradition has taught:

What is the inward and spirituall grace [of baptism]?

A death unto sinne, and a new birth unto righteousness: for being by nature born in sinne, and the children of wrath, we are hereby made the children of grace.

That is from the Catechism of the Scottish prayer book of 1637 (the one according to which Samuel Seabury (the first bishop of the Episcopal Church in the United States) was ordained and on which ours is based). The same Catechism is found in the 1559 BCP (the Elizabethan Prayer Book used by Her Majesty as well as Lancelot Andrewes, Richard Hooker, John Donne, and others of the formative period of Anglicanism).

And there is A HYMN TO GOD THE FATHER by John Donne

William Temple 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.

Actually, a sort of good news is hidden in the Christian doctrine of sin - even that "awful" doctrine of original sin. To believe in original sin is to believe that the way things are is not the way things are meant to be. It is to believe that sin is not the truest thing about us. It is to believe that violence, selfishness, and will to power are not "natural" but aberrations of God's original intent which precedes our fall into complicity with evil.

While, the philosophical Liberalism of the Enlightenment - from which what we popularly call "liberalism" and "conservatism" are both descended - is notoriously optimistic about human nature, it is actually based in something less than hopeful. As John Milbank points out in Liberality vs Liberalism:

[Liberalism is] based, in a Manichean fashion upon the ontological primacy of evil and violence: at the beginning is the threatened individual, piece of property, or racial terrain. This is not the same as an Augustinian acknowledgment of original sin, perversity and frailty -- a hopeful doctrine, since it affirms that all pervasive evil for which we cannot really account (by saying for example with Rousseau that it is the fault of property or social associations as such) is yet all the same a contingent intrusion upon reality, which can one day be fully overcome through the lure of the truly desirable is transcendent goodness (and that itself, in mode of grace, now aids us). Liberalism instead begins with a disguised naturalisation of original sin as original egotism: our own egotism which we seek to nurture, and still more the egotism of the other against which we need protection.

Original sin is, ironically, a hopeful doctrine because it declares that the way the world is and the way we are is not the way the world or we are meant to be. And we are not stuck with the sinfulness of our egotism, violence, and unlove.

Sin is pervasive, not just around us but in us. As such it is not something for which we only seek forgiveness but something from which we hope to be delivered and healed. The really good news is that God does not only forgive us for our sin, perversity and frailty, but promises to heal and strengthen us. In the prayer of absolution, we ask not only to be forgiven, but strengthened in all goodness. There is no room for cheap grace or moral complacency. We are called to repent and seek to be holy as we live into the promise that God will make us so.

Good Lord, deliver us.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Unconditional Love vs. Love Without Expectation

Lent, among other things, is a reminder that the unconditional love of God is not the same as love without expectation.

Friday, March 4, 2011

The Fierce, Relentless Love of the Divine She-Bear (Ash Wednesday)

“We entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God . . . Now is the acceptable time; now is the day of salvation!”
- 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10

If you’ve ever watched The Wild Kingdom or Animal Planet or some equivalent you know that you never want to get between a she-bear and her cub. The she-bear loves the cub. The she-bear desires for the cub to grow to maturity. The she-bear will protect the cub.

In dealing with our sin, the God we know through Jesus Christ is like a she-bear dealing with whatever comes between her and her cub. God, like that she-bear, loves each of us, desires our good and opposes anything that comes between us and him.

The hard part is that very often what comes between us and God is ourselves, or at least ways of being to which we have grown almost inextricably attached. We can expect that when the Great She-bear comes after that which is between her and the cub, that part of us that is between our true selves and God might be uncomfortable.

God’s judgment and God’s fierce love are really two sides of the same coin. God is passionately and relentlessly committed to us. And God is passionately – to the point of anger – opposed to all that comes between him and us. That is judgment.

We say in the Creed that Jesus Christ will come again to judge the living and the dead. Jesus comes into the world asking hard questions of what life is about. Where are we headed? To whom or to what are we loyal? How do we treat one another? Do we seek the good of the other, or do we seek to use the other towards whatever good we think is ours? Our answers to those questions matter. We will be judged.

But, we also know that the one who will judge has also come as reconciler. Are the two contradictory? I don’t think so. Because we know Jesus as reconciler, we know something of what it means for him to be judge. We know that Jesus knows us better than we even know ourselves. The one who entered fully into the reality of human life knows each of our lives more deeply than we can hope to know ourselves. And, therefore, when he judges he takes into account all factors, all contingencies. We also know that the one who is the judge is passionately and relentlessly committed to us. Jesus, our reconciler, is on our side. His judgments are in that context.

But if he’s passionately and relentlessly committed to us, he is also, like a she-bear, passionately and relentlessly opposed to all that comes between us and the life he calls us to with his Father. That, of course, is what we call sin – anything that comes between us and God. That is where anger and judgment come in. Love that knows no anger is not real love. If you love someone and they are being hurt, you cannot be dispassionate. If God is dispassionate, or merely sad, when parents abuse their children, or when we abuse one another, or when the poor are oppressed, his love doesn’t mean much. God’s love means that he is fiercely opposed to and angered by those things that separate us from his love and from all others who he loves. He promises to deal with what separates us. Jesus will come again to judge.

The question in Lent is, “Are we going to let Jesus – reconciler and judge – have his way with us or are we going to try to have our way with him?” Jesus will come again to judge. I entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. Now is the acceptable time; now is the day of salvation! During this season of Lent, especially tonight on Ash Wednesday when we are reminded that our time is short and we don’t know how short it is, let us commit ourselves anew to offering up to God whatever it is in us that comes between us and him. Let us avail ourselves to the fierce, relentless love of the Divine She-bear.