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

Friday, September 9, 2011

Creedal Minimalism

No reference is made to the Devil or devils is included in any Christian Creeds, and it is quite possible to be a Christian without believing in them. I do believe such things exist, but that is my own affair. C. S. Lewis, Answers to Questions on Christianity in God in the Dock, p. 56

Radical Centrist Manifesto IX. Centered in the Body of Christ,
Part 2: Centered in the Creed, iii

Given what has come before in this series, it should be clear that I take being centered in the Creeds to be essential. I am wary of those who would replace the Creed with their own “vague, indefinite religious apprehensions” or their own not-so-vague religious apprehensions. I agree with the great Anglican bishop, Charles Gore (1852-1932), that we should be “conspicuously orthodox on the great fundamentals of the Trinity and the Incarnation” and “accept the ecumenical councils as criteria of heresy" (Roman Catholic Claims).

But, I am also wary of over-definition beyond that. If the Creed is the fundamental and central summary of the faith, then other things are less fundamental and less central. I am suspicious of the tendency among some to elevate almost their every conviction and pious opinion to “creedal” status. We want to avoid an "unrestrained development of the individual judgment which becomes eccentric and lawless just because it is unrestrained." But we should also avoid "a dogmatism that crushes instead of quickening the reason of the individual, making it purely passive and acquiescent." (Gore, Roman Catholic Claims).

In fact, I am something of a creedal minimalist.

One cannot reduce Christian faithfulness to just believing and living the Creed with integrity. Gore also said, “There are, indeed, features in the common faith, such as the belief in atonement, in sacramental grace, in the inspiration of Scripture, which are only slightly or by implication touched on in these formulas of faith; but at least in what they contain they represent what has been universal Christianity” (The Permanent Creed and the Christian Idea of Sin). Still, it becomes problematic when we try to make one or another understanding of atonement or sacramental grace or inspiration of scripture, etc., definitive. The Church of the ecumenical councils did not presume to define such things with exactness and neither should we. Which is not the same thing as saying they do not matter.

The Creedal outline is at the center. Other Church teaching and discipline radiate out from that center in concentric circles of importance. We will have disagreements about how near the center this or that might be. But, let us debate with passionate patience and humility, taking into account that we all only see as though through a glass darkly.

This does not mean that all disagreements are equal or that all beliefs on matters beyond the Creed are acceptable. I am not shy about weighing in on such things and others. Still, questions, new interpretations of scripture or tradition, and proposed rethinking of various matters of faith will arise among the Church's members. More than we like to believe, much of our interpretations of scripture and tradition can only be provisional. This side of the kingdom they will be incompletely understood, let alone lived. It is part of the Church's vocation in every generation to wrestle reasonably, in the light of scripture and tradition, with whatever questions arise and discern the range of faithful disagreement.

The church - every church - has always had to balance unity and plurality. Perhaps it goes back to a more basic challenge to be both catholic and one while also seeking to be apostolic and holy. In any event, any community has to find its balance while seeking to honor each. While easy appeals to diversity and inclusivity can be cheap and even deceptive, it is also true that the Anglican tradition has typically chosen to error, if it does, on the side of plurality. It is one of the things I find appealing - if sometimes frustrating as well - about the Anglican way.

On any number of issues, I would love to have all Christians (or all Anglicans, or all Episcopalians, or all members of St. Barnabas) agree with my conclusions about what is and is not most faithful. I am inclined for example to agree with Lewis in the quote above. But, as a radical centrist, I am willing to live, even if uncomfortably, with considerable disagreement – and disagreement is inevitable – even on things that I think are fairly near the center as long the disagreement is anchored in the Creed and an honest engagement with scripture and tradition.

No doubt there are problems with such an approach (and I would truly appreciate folk pointing them out). It makes for less clarity and means that fewer things are settled. But the history of division in the body of Christ is also problematic and compromises our witness to the gospel as much as any lack of clarity on theological and moral particulars does.

The great Anglican bishop, Jeremy Taylor (1613-1667) – one who saw the devastation over-certainty and over-definition can do to the church and its witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ – wrote a treatise, (Discourse of the Liberty of Prophesying) in which he pointed out the difficulty of perfect consensus on interpretation of scripture and tradition and argued for the legitimacy of any church that subscribed to the Creed. He was arguing for such liberty within the context of what should be allowed to be legal within the boundaries of the state rather than within the particular body of the Church of England. But, I think it is consistent with the Anglican tradition to expect a basic creedal fidelity while allowing considerable liberty beyond that.

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Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Not a Hobby

This is the sermon I preached ten years ago on September 9, 2001. The sermon I preached on the Sunday after the attacks of 9/11 is here.

Not a Hobby
St. Barnabas Episcopal Church, Glen Ellyn, Illinois
Luke 14:25-33

It was a tough week for religion in the news. On Monday, another Palestinian suicide bomber blew himself up in an attempt to maim or kill others. Then, there were Protestants verbally harassing and stoning little Catholic girls on their way to school in Northern Ireland. The Taliban Islamic government of Afghanistan was also in the news bringing some relief workers to trial, accusing them of seeking to spread Christianity. And then yesterday, we heard about rioting in Nigeria between Moslems and Christians in which at least 50 people have been killed so far.

It makes you wonder if you want to have anything to do with religion or “god stuff” if it’s that problematic. Maybe those who say that religion has done more harm than good in history are right after all.

I’m wondering because in this morning’s gospel Jesus calls us to a radical kind of loyalty. What kind of loyalty is he calling us to? To God? What kind of “god”? No doubt each situation is more complicated than this, but in one way or another in the past week we have seen people kill or attempt some sort of violence in the name of God. Or, at least, loyalty to an idea about “god” was involved.

Is it right to do such things, to kill or be killed in the name of God? The question sounds preposterous to us. One reason, it sounds preposterous to us is because in western society we have become immunized to the power of faith. Culturally, and all too often, personally, we tend to think of religion as a sort of hobby, one step above stamp collecting or bird watching. Some people are into stamp collecting. Some people are into bird watching. Some people are into Christianity. Others are into Buddhism or something else. But it is all more or less a matter of private preference, a hobby. Certainly, it is nothing you would kill someone over, nothing you would risk dying for. Don’t those people in Palestine and Northern Ireland and Nigeria and Afghanistan and everywhere else get that? Don’t they understand this is not a matter of life and death?

Or is it? Is it wrong to kill or die in the name of God? The more I thought about it this week, the more it occurred to me that it is actually a rather interesting question. I’m not sure the answer is altogether obvious. If "god" is the ultimate reality, the ultimate and final good, what else would be worth killing or dying for? If I won’t kill or die in the name of “god”, why would I kill or die for the sake of something less? If not for “god”, why for country? What about ideology, justice, or freedom? Or, as Jesus questions so offensively this morning, family?

For whom or what are we willing to kill? For whom or what are we willing to die? What is worth the ultimate sacrifice of my own life or the responsibility for taking someone else’s? To what or to whom do I pledge such allegiance? If we can answer that set of questions we will get pretty close to what “god” really is for us. Whatever it is to which I am willing to give over that kind of allegiance or loyalty, that kind of sacrifice, is my “god” whether or not I call it religion.

Is it O.K. to kill in the name of God? Ultimately, it depends on what “god” we are talking about, what "god" we are seeking to follow and please. To what or to whom do I pledge such allegiance?

Since their inception, nations and governments have demanded the ultimate sacrifice from their citizens. When your nation says "Go to this place and kill these people", you are expected to obey – to kill and to risk being killed. Others have done the same in the name of abstract ideas such as justice and freedom. More often than not, a varnish of god-talk is added to all of these to lend legitimacy.

I don’t know if the suicide bomber did what he did for “god” or country, or justice, or revenge, or some combination of these. I don’t know enough about Islam to know how he might have thought what he did was pleasing to Allah. I know that not all Moslems would agree with him.

I do know a little bit about Jesus. Following Jesus rules that kind of thing out. You don’t have to be an absolute pacifist to read Jesus and find that his way is not the way of violence. It is hard to justify killing in the name of the one who said, “Turn the other cheek.” It is hard to justify killing in the name of the one who said, “Love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you.” His is not the way of retribution. His is not the way of meanness. Whatever else the Protestants who were hurling invective and stones at the little Catholic girls thought they were doing, they were not following the way of Jesus.

Though, tragically, it has been done; killing in the name of Jesus and the God we know through Jesus is an oxymoron. To die in the name of Jesus and the God we know through him is a different matter. In fact, that is the point. When he says, “Count the cost. Decide now whether or not you are going to be able to finish the building,” that’s what he has in mind. Following Jesus into the heart of God is no hobby.

In this morning’s reading from the Gospel of Luke, Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem and he knows what is in store for him there. He is on a mission, but it is a mission that he knows ends only one way. It ends in his death. He is on his way to Jerusalem, the center of power – political and religious power – and he intends to throw a wrench in the works. He intends to throw a wrench in the usual way of things, the way of intimidation and oppression, the way of coercion, the way of control, the way of violence. More than throw a wrench into the works, Jesus intends to be the wrench in the works to upset the usual machinery of violence and bondage. Ultimately, he came to free us from fundamental bondage of sin and death. But his croos is also a challenge to the myriad ways sin and death are manifest in this world and a call to resist them.

To those who are following him, he lays out his agenda pretty clearly. “If you think you are following me in some sort of victorious parade in which we are going to march into Jerusalem, take things over, kick the Romans out, and set the temple worship straight, you’ve got the wrong guy. If you want to follow me into Jerusalem, take up the cross and follow me. Take up the cross and prepare to die.” To follow Jesus is to follow him in that mission, the mission to upset the usual way of things – the way of things we see on the nightly news and in the morning paper.

Sometimes that might mean actual martyrdom. There have been places and times when people have literally died for the sake of that mission. There are people in the world now for whom that is a day-to-day possibility. But for most of us, most of the time, it is the daily martyrdom of dying to self and learning to live in love for the other. That, too, is taking up our cross and following Jesus.

There is only one cross. Sometimes people talk about “their cross to bear” as if each of us had his or her own individual cross. “I have this problematic child and she is my cross to bear.” Or, “I have this illness and that is my cross to bear.” Or, “I am in this relationship where I am being abused and that is my cross to bear.” That is a misappropriation of what Jesus is calling us to. Taking up your cross and following Jesus is not resigning yourself to being abused and trapped in a situation beyond your control. It is a call to servanthood not servitude. Taking up the cross of Christ is choosing freely to follow him in his mission of resistance, his mission of proclaiming mercy and grace. There is only one cross, and it is the cross of Christ. Ultimately, he bears that cross with us. He is on the cross with us and before us.

Jesus challenges us to put all other loyalties in the context of his mission, all other loyalties in the context of the cross. When Christians marry, they marry with that mission in mind. Marriage is one place and one way we can serve the mission. We can learn to love. We can learn to give totally of ourselves. We can create space where the stranger is welcome and generosity is given. If we choose to be single, we choose to be single for the same reason, because sometimes being single is the best way to serve the mission. If we choose to have children that, too, is not something that just happens. That’s something we do because having children is a way of witnessing to the mission, to the kingdom, and to raise up new disciples, new witnesses. All loyalties – families, friends, nation – are redefined in the context of that ultimate loyalty to the way of Jesus, the way of the cross.

Jesus does not say "focus on the family;" he says "focus on the cross." And there are no precious moments on the way of the cross. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “The cross of Christ destroyed the equation that religion equals happiness.” That might be overstating the case just a bit. As we sang in the opening hymn (483), the cross is also our life and our health. It is the way of grace, the way of joy. But certainly the call to take up our cross destroys the equation that religion - at least religion that is true to Christ - equals sentimentality and nostalgia. It also destroyed the equation that religion is compatible with the way of violence and control.

The way of the cross is the way of Jesus and it is the way to which he calls us. It is the way of dying to self and living toward the other. It is the way of servanthood. It is the way of reaching out to the stranger, of proclaiming God’s favor, God’s mercy. Those of us who have experienced that mercy are called to embody it to those who do not yet know it. We are called to be the peace of Christ, not just to pass it, but to be it. We are called to be people of forgiveness, people who know how to love our enemy, people who know what it means to welcome the stranger. Protestants welcome Catholics. Catholics welcome Protestants. Christians welcome Jews. Christians love and welcome Moslems.

We are called to a life of resolute kindness and peace. It is the way of the cross. It is the way of Christ. It is a call to resist all that says "no" to the goodness of God’s creation and to the worth of each person. It is a call to be, in ways small and great, wrenches in the usual way of things, to break up the machinery of the way things usually go. It is a call to creatively and effectively disrupt the cycle of violence. It is a call to live lives of gentleness, kindness, peace, and justice in a world of violence and hate. It is a kind of martyrdom. It is not a hobby.