Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Faith = Things in Their True Colours

Austin Farrer (1904-1968) on Faith:

Without the readiness of faith, the evidence of God will not be accepted, or will not convince. This is not to say that faith is put in the place of evidence. What convinces us is not our faith, but the evidence; faith is the subjective condition favourable to the reception of the evidence.

When an unbeliever hears what we have just said, he takes it that faith is an irrational makeweight to turn a scale weighted by reason on the other side. He evidence for God, he thinks, is intrinsically unconvincing; it is made to convince by the introduction of a selfish and infantile prejudice. Faith believes what she wishes to believe. The believer remains unshaken by the accusation. To him, the evidence is intrinsically and of itself convincing, but only under conditions which allow it to be appreciated. Faith supplies the conditions. Seeing is believing; but visible evidence is itself of no force in pitch darkness. If the scene is flooded with cunningly selected rays of multi-coloured light, illumination may provide nothing but illusion. If the scene is lighted with good plain sunlight, it gets a chance to reveal itself.
Saving Belief, p. 22

The evidence of faith is that it convincingly shows us things in their true colours; having once seen man in God, we know that we have seen man as he is; we can never again believe another picture of ourselves, our neighbours, or our destines.
Saving Belief, p. 26

Thursday, January 5, 2012

The whole life of Christ was a continual Passion

On this 12th and last day of Christmas our attention begins to turn toward the life lived by the one whose coming we have been celebrating. Here is something from the great Anglican preacher and poet, John Donne (1572-1631):

The whole life of Christ was a continual Passion; others die martyrs but Christ was born a martyr. He found a Golgotha (where he was crucified) even in Bethlehem. Where he was born; for to his tenderness then the straws were almost as sharp as the thorns after, and the manger as uneasy at first as the cross at last. His birth and his death were but one continual act, and his Christmas day and his Good Friday are but evening and morning of one and the same day.
- The Showing Forth of Christ, a Christmas Sermon (The Showing Forth of Christ, Sermons of John Donne, selected and edited by Edmund Fuller)

And here is one of Donne's poems exploring a similar theme:

Upon The Annunciation and Passion Falling Upon One Day.
(March 25th, 1608)

Tamely, frail body, abstain to-day; to-day
My soul eats twice, Christ hither and away.

She sees Him man, so like God made in this,
That of them both a circle emblem is,
Whose first and last concur; this doubtful day
Of feast or fast, Christ came, and went away.

She sees Him nothing, twice at once, who’s all;
She sees a Cedar plant itself, and fall;
Her Maker put to making, and the Head
Of life, at once, not yet alive, yet dead.

She sees at once the Virgin Mother stay
Reclused at home, public at Golgotha;
Sad and rejoiced she’s seen at once, and seen
At almost fifty, and at scarce fifteen.

At once a Son is promised her, and gone;
Gabriell gives Christ to her, He her to John;
Not fully a mother, She’s in orbity [bereavement];
At once receiver and the legacy.

All this, and all between, this day hath shown,
Th’ abridgement of Christ’s story, which makes one–
As in plain maps, the furthest west is east–
Of th’ angels Ave, and Consummatum est.

How well the Church, God’s Court of Faculties
Deals, in sometimes, and seldom joining these!

As by the self-fix’d Pole we never do
Direct our course, but the next star thereto,
Which shows where th’other is, and which we say
–Because it strays not far–doth never stray;
So God by His Church, nearest to Him, we know
And stand firm, if we by her motion go;
His Spirit, as His fiery pillar, doth
Leade, and His Church, as cloud; to one end both.

This Church, by letting those days join, hath shown
Death and conception in mankind is one;
Or ’twas in Him the same humility,
That He would be a man, and leave to be;
Or as creation He hath made, as God,
With the last judgement, but one period,
His imitating Spouse would join in one
Manhood’s extremes: He shall come, He is gone;
Or as though one blood drop, which thence did fall,
Accepted, would have served, He yet shed all,
So though the least of His pains, deeds, or words,
Would busy a life, she all this day affords;
This treasure then, in gross, my soul, uplay,
And in my life retail it every day.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Tortured Wonders Restored

On the 11th day of Christmas, here is something from Tortured Wonders: Christian Spirituality for People, Not Angels by Rodney Clapp:

The Anglican poet George Herbert, in his eloquent way, got it just right. We are together and each of us “once a poor creature” simply lost and self-destructing, yet also “now a wonder” remembered and revisited by the Spirit. We are a wonder tortur’d in space/Betwixt this world and that of grace,” the grace of a new heaven and a new earth, of creation whole in all its parts. Christian spirituality, then, is spirituality for tortured wonders. (p. 23)

. . .

The incarnation acknowledges that the human being is a creature of great value that has been seriously wrecked–but insists that (unlike a wrecked automobile) neither the whole nor any part of it can be rejected or forgotten. Even damaged, bent, and distorted, the human being retains inestimable worth: as a whole and in its parts. (p. 38)

. . .

In Christ God assumes or takes humanity into God’s self. Orthodox Christian spirituality denies that humanity, whatever its powers and aspirations, can save itself from its own wreckage, its own self-destruction. Yet it is true humanity, or humanness, that will be saved. The original creation, though marred in and by sin, will not be tossed away and forgotten, as a potter might trash inferior clay and move onto a new and different clay pit. Nor will God forget about the human project altogether. . . . Humanity will be assumed and resumed, restored to its pristine wholeness and reset on the path to the maturation and fullness of that wholeness. (p. 40)

Tortured Wonders is a fine book on spirituality in light of the Incarnation. That means, among other things, that it takes seriously the essential fact that we are bodies.

Here is the whole poem by George Herbert (1593-1633) from which the title of Clapp's book is taken:


BROKEN in pieces all asunder,
Lord, hunt me not,
A thing forgot,
Once a poor creature, now a wonder,
A wonder tortured in the space
Betwixt this world and that of grace.

My thoughts are all a case of knives,
Wounding my heart
With scattered smart ;
As wat'ring-pots give flowers their lives.
Nothing their fury can control,
While they do wound and prick my soul.

All my attendants are at strife
Quitting their place
Unto my face :
Nothing performs the task of life :
The elements are let loose to fight,
And while I live, try out their right.

Oh help, my God ! let not their plot
Kill them and me,
And also Thee,
Who art my life : dissolve the knot,
As the sun scatters by his light
All the rebellions of the night.

Then shall those powers which work for grief,
Enter Thy pay,
And day by day
Labour Thy praise and my relief :
With care and courage building me,
Till I reach heav'n, and much more, Thee.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

God’s Favor, Joy, and Peace Born in Our Midst

Today is the 10th day of Christmas. Here is the sermon on
Luke 2:1-20 I preached on Christmas eve:

Imagine someone who knew little or nothing about Christmas trying to make sense of it given the mixed messages in American pop culture. Imagine for example, a Chinese exchange student who has just returned home after one semester here. He has been here for a little over half of December. He has seen lawn decorations. He has heard Christmas music at the mall. Maybe he’s seen a Christmas special or two on television. Let’s imagine his name is “Hu Zher”. How might Hu Zher try to describe the Christmas story to his friends back home who similarly know next to nothing about it? Given the competing stories and images floating around, maybe something like this:

A celestial being appeared on top of a tree to some shepherds announcing the auspicious birth of a boy-child of great destiny. The celestial being was so bright and colorful as to make a deep impression on the shepherds. They immediately cut down a tree and decorated it with lights. Ever since, Christians put trees in their homes as a memorial of this event and the birth of the boy-child, Jesus.

Jesus was born in a stable with a cow, some sheep, a donkey, and a deer with a bright red nose.

The baby Jesus is full of magic and glows. In his presence the animals talk, the deer flies, and piles of snow come to life and dance and sing and play.
Sages from far away came to honor the destiny child. They knelt before him and offered him gifts. The most famous sage who came to kneel before him was from the far north. He wore a fur-lined red suit. He brought a large bag of gifts for the baby Jesus. In return, the baby gives him the red-nosed deer. And ever since, in honor of this event, that sage, Santa Claus, who appears to be something like one of the immortals, roams the earth in December to give gifts to good children.

The baby was born to deliver people from a mean green monster called a Grinch who wanted to steal people’s joy.

Unlike Hu Zher, most of us are able to keep the several competing stories associated with Christmas a little less garbled and confused. But there are other stories that compete for our attention as well at this time of year. The pervasive story of consumption insists that our happiness – and the happiness of those we love – depends on buying and having the right things. More personally, many of us have been given stories about ourselves that might play more loudly this time of year – stories about our own inadequacy, our being unlovable, or our never quite measuring up. These stories can also confound our ability to hear clearly the Christmas story and leave us feeling garbled and confused.

Other things make this season feel garbled and confused. We hear about peace, and love, and the hopes and fears of all the years. But, the frenetic pace of the Christmas rush makes for little peace. We hope things will turn out wonderfully at our Christmas gatherings, but fear they won’t. And often enough, our gatherings remind us of the fragility or brokenness of our relationships, of our love.

I wonder if December isn’t just an intensification or a condensation of the condition of our lives more generally. The story of our lives is full of hopes and fears, of deep yearning for love and peace and joy. But often our lives and the world around us seem as garbled and confused as Hu Zher’s version of the Christmas story.

If we look at the ungarbled version of Jesus’ birth as recorded in the first two chapters of Luke, we have a sort of condensation of the whole gospel. They are a sort of overture of the essential themes that will be played out in the rest of the story of Jesus. This is particularly true of the angelic appearance to the shepherds: “An angel of the Lord stood before the shepherds, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.’” After declaring this good news and sending the shepherds to Bethlehem to see for themselves, the angel is joined by a heavenly choir singing, "Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!" And there we have a summary of the gospel. Through the angel, good news is made known to us that God favors us and has come to us as savior bringing peace and joy.

The first thing the angel says to the shepherds is the first thing God or God’s messenger always says when appearing to humans: “Do not be afraid.” We are finite creatures vulnerable to loss and pain and death. Confusion, fear, and anxiety – real and imagined – are part of our natural condition. At times they seem overwhelming, casting a shadow over our lives. But into the midst of our fear and anxiety, Jesus is born bringing the promise that God is with us in all things to strengthen and encourage and, ultimately, to deliver us from all that we fear. And nothing – nothing – can separate us from the love we know in Jesus. If this story is anything like true we can begin to live beyond fear. Brothers and sisters, hear it clearly tonight and carry it in your hearts forever: Do. Not. Be. Afraid.

But why do you suppose the shepherds were terrified in the first place? Given that they were probably not the most pious characters, maybe they felt the way we feel when we see a police car in our rear view mirror – have I done something wrong? And isn’t that often how we think about God? A cosmic ‘gotcha’ moment would be terrifying. But I wonder if it was something else: the glory of the Lord shown round about them. To be engulfed in the glory of the Lord would mean being engulfed in overwhelming power and goodness. But it would also mean being engulfed in the splendor of unbearable beauty and joy. I suspect Dante has it right when he suggests that being in the presence of those like the angel of the Lord, or in Dante’s case, Beatrice – to be in the presence of those who are saturated with divine glory would undo us. It is the bright, unbearable splendor of God’s beauty, goodness, and joy that overwhelms and terrifies the shepherds. Part of the good news the angel brings is that that beauty, goodness, and joy has been born in Bethlehem and this baby will make it possible for us to bear, and enter fully into, God’s beauty, goodness, and joy.

This is good news to all people. In Jesus, God has shown his favor – his loving, tender, attention. "For God so favored the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:16). God favors you. God cherishes you. God delights in you. God favors you and desires goodness, joy, and peace for you. Ponder that in your heart. God has demonstrated his favor towards us by being born in the midst of our sin-garbled and confused world as Savior, Messiah, and Lord that we might have life abundantly and eternally. That is good news of great joy for all the people.

This is good news of great joy. Jesus said he came that his joy may be in us, and that our joy may be full (John 15:11). God desires for you to be full of joy – not mere happiness or pleasure, but the deep and abiding sense of well-being knowing that life – your life – is good. With Jesus comes the promise that all that is unjoy in our lives and in the world can be undone.

This is good news of peace. Jesus said, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid” (John 14:27). It is telling how often Jesus says “Peace be with you” or “Go in peace” or encourages people to focus on “the things that make for peace” (Luke 19:42). God desires peace for you and for the world – deep and abiding personal peace and contentment of spirit as well as peace between people and the end of violence. With Jesus comes the promise that all that is unpeace in our lives and in the world can be undone.

We will not go too far afield if we understand sin as the attitudes and behaviors in us and in the world that block, deny, or diminish joy and peace from our own selves and from one another. It is to address the unjoy and unpeace of the world, that Jesus was born. In Jesus, God’s favor, joy, and peace are manifest and made available to us. He has come to save us from all that is in us and all that is in the world that keeps us from entering fully into God’s favor.

We are like the shepherds – good news has been brought to us. The scriptures, the saints, and other witnesses are our angels. We can again and again go to the One born in our midst. His favor, joy, and peace can be born in our hearts, shape our lives, and transform our world. If you have never knelt before him, I encourage you tonight to come. If it has been a long time since you knelt before him, I encourage you tonight to come. And may we all, like the shepherds, leave tonight glorifying and praising God for all we have heard and seen. Let us make known what has been told to us. May his light shine in the garbled darkness and confusion of this world.

In the light of this story the stories of our lives become less garbled and confused. In the light of this story, new light shines on all other stories. All good stories reflect something of the light of the good news of great joy contained in this story – including those stories that compete with it this time of year, the stories that confused Hu Zher. For all who have felt like Rudolph – outcasts who have been laughed at, called names, and been excluded from joining in any “reindeer games,” you are welcomed into God’s favor, joy, and peace. For all who have felt frozen, cold, or lifeless, new life is possible. And all that is within us and in the world that blocks, denies, or rejects the favor, joy, and peace of God – all that is Grinch-like – can be transformed. Our hearts can expand threefold and more. Let there be no confusion. This story, the story of the birth of Jesus, is the assurance of God’s favor and the promise that all that is unjoy and unpeace is undone.

And that is good news of great joy for all the people.
Merry Christmas.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Transformation from the Inside by Divine Participation

Something from theoretical physicist and Anglican priest/theologian John Polkinghorne for the 9th day of Christms:
Human redemption comes through divine involvement, and not by an act of divine magic. The incarnation is the narrow point in which the large claim of universal salvific validity stemming from a particular life and death must balance. The human condition is such that it cannot be dealt with simply be an authorized representative (the Hebrew idea of shaliach), however inspired, but it requires actual divine participation. It is therefore essential, if Jesus is Savior, that God is fully present in him throughout. In Athanasius' words, 'He became man that we might become divine,' so that we might share in the life of God and consequently that the life of God might be in him. Yet the Redeemer is not a gnostic Christ imparting the secrets of divine wisdom, who could indeed be a heavenly figure in human disguise. The mystery of our redemption is something altogether deeper than that. It proceeds, not from the outside by illumination, but from the inside by participation. We need transformation, not information.
The Faith of a Physicist, p. 135

Sunday, January 1, 2012

The Holy Name

The 8th day of Christmas, the Feast of the Holy Name:

You shall call his name Jesus for he shall save his people from their sins. (Matthew 1:21)

Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:9-11)

Ah! Ah! That wonderful Name! Ah! That delectable Name! This is the Name that is above all names, the Name that is highest of all, without which no one hopes for salvation. This Name is sweet and joyful, giving veritable comfort to the human heart. Verily the Name of Jesus is in my mind a joyous song and heavenly music in my ear, and in my mouth a honeyed sweetness. Wherefore no wonder I love that Name which gives comfort to me in all my anguish. I cannot pray, I cannot meditate, but in sounding the Name of Jesus. I savour no joy that is not mingled with Jesus. Wheresoever I be, wheresoever I sit, whatsoever I do, the thought of the savour of the Name of Jesus never leaves my mind. I have set it in my mind, I have set it as a token upon my heart. What can one lack who desires to love the Name of Jesus unceasingly?
Richard Rolle (1290-1349)

Collect for the Feast of the Holy Name:
Eternal Father, you gave to your incarnate Son the holy name of Jesus to be the sign of our salvation: Plant in every heart, we pray, the love of him who is the Savior of the world, our Lord Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.
Book of Common Prayer, 1979, p. 213