Monday, December 31, 2012

Hope, Joy, & Dignity Rooted in Christmas

On the seventh day of Christmas, something from another great theologian/Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey (1904-1988):

It is because we believe God has an answer to man’s predicament, the answer of the Word-Made-Flesh at Bethlehem, that we have hope, and, having hope, are rejoicing once again at Christmas.

Christians for whom this hope is a reality have been able to rejoice even when they have been in the word’s darkest places. It is It was in prison in Rome with the prospect of death awaiting him that St. Paul wrote, “Rejoice in the Lord always and again I say, rejoice . . . In nothing be anxious, the Lord is at hand.”

The proof of our Christian hope is the existence of men and women who have lived by it, and have radiated its joy even in dark and heartbreaking circumstances.

Our rejoicing at Christmas is not an escape from life’s grim realities into a fancy realm of religion and festivity. Rather it is a joy that, as we face and feel the world’s tragedy, we know that God has an answer, an answer for mankind to receive. In a word, this is a time of hope. 

Christmas says: Christ has taken humanity to himself, and so every man and woman and child in the world is loveable and infinitely precious. And, in response, men and women can treat each other–whatever their race or color–in the light of Bethlehem; or they can, in rejecting the human dignity of their fellows, reject their own dignity too.
(from Through the Year with Michael Ramsey, Margaret Duggan, ed.)

Eighth Day of Christmas: As Rain Falls on the Earth

First Day of Christmas: How God Brings His Love to Bear

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Jesus = Something that's Going on Eternally

This year, the sixth day of Christmas falls on the first Sunday of Christmas. The lessons of the lectionary appointed for Episcopalian churches this Sunday include John1:1-18. Here is a video reflection on that pasage by Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury (the text is below as well):

It's a slightly strange way to start a Gospel you might think. We expect something a bit more like the beginning of the other Gospels: the story of Jesus's birth perhaps or his ancestry, or the story of Jesus's arrival on the public scene.
But at the beginning of St John's Gospel what St John does is to frame his whole story against an eternal background. And what he's saying there is this: as you read this Gospel, as you read the stories about what Jesus does, be aware that whatever he does in the stories you're about to read is something that's going on eternally, not just something that happens to be going on in Palestine at a particular date.
So when Jesus brings an overflow of joy at a wedding, when Jesus reaches out to a foreign woman to speak words of forgiveness and reconciliation to her, when Jesus opens the eyes of a blind man or raises the dead, all of this is part of something that is going on forever. The welcome of God, the joy of God, the light of God, the life of God - all of this is eternal. What Jesus is showing on Earth is somehow mysteriously part of what is always true about God. 

And that's why it's central to this beginning of John's Gospel - that he says the light shines in the darkness and the darkness doesn't swallow it up. How could the darkness swallow it up? If these works of welcome and forgiveness, of light and life and joy, are always going on, then actually nothing can ever make a difference to them.
And that's why at the climax of this wonderful passage, St John says, the Word of God, the outpouring of God's life, actually became flesh and blood. And we saw it - we saw in this human life the eternal truth about God. We saw an eternal love, an eternal relationship; we saw an eternal joy and a light and a life.

So as we read these stories we know that nothing at all can make a difference to the truth, the reality, they bring into the world. This is indeed the truth; this is where life is to be found. And this explains why at the end of St John's Gospel, he famously says that if we tried to spell out all that this means, there would be no end of the books that could be written.

So in the light of that overflowing joy and everlasting truth, I wish you every blessing and happiness for this Christmas and the year ahead.

Seventh Day of Christmas: Hope, Joy, and Dignity Rooted in Christmas
First Day of Christmas: How God Brings His Love to Bear

Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Ultimate Truth About God

For the fifth day of Christmas, I have another quote from William Temple who I quoted on the third day of Christmas. There he said that Jesus, as the incarnation of the eternal Word, is the self-utterance of God. Here he offers more of what that means:

The life of Christ is a momentary manifestation of eternal truth; and it is God for us as a devotional exercise to sometimes to read the Gospels, turning all the past tenses into the present, and to remember that what we read there is an expression, quite strictly, under all conditions of the time and place in which the expression took place, of what is always true. And the culmination of this utterance is the Passion. The ultimate truth about God and His relation to the finite spirits is this, that ‘when He is reviled He reviles not again, and when He suffers, He threatens not’.
(About Christ, SCM Press LTD, London, 1962, p. 63)

First Day of Christmas: How God Brings His Love to Bear

Friday, December 28, 2012

On Rachel's Lament and Not Looking Away

The fourth day of Christmas is the Feast of Holy Innocents rooted in the story of Herod’s slaughter of baby boys of Bethlehem in an attempt to annihilate the infant Jesus as recounted in the second chapter of the Gospel of Matthew. It is also a reminder that many little ones continue to suffer and die due to hunger, disease, neglect, abuse, and violence.

Fleming Rutledge is an Episcopalian priest and renowned preacher and author. Her blog, GenerousOrthodoxy, is a fine resource. The following is taken from one of her sermons, Monsters at the Manger. In the sermon she refers to a sermon preached by a Roman Catholic priest, Father Lucic, at a church in Sarajevo during the siege and bombardment there in the 1990’s:

The priest’s final words were, “Jesus teaches us that human judgments are not the last judgments, that human justice is not the last justice, and that power that humans exercise over one another is not the final power”

How can we believe this? How can we go on singing “Joy to the world, the Savior reigns,” in view of the fact that the monsters continue to devour our children with undiminished ferocity?

The Christmas story is anchored to our lives and to the wickedness of this world by the grief of Rachel, “weeping for her children, refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.” The authors of Scripture did not turn away from the unimaginable suffering of children. God the Father did not turn away. Jesus did not turn away. We see in his death on the Cross and Resurrection from the dead the source of our conviction that “human judgments are not the final judgments, that human justice is not the final justice, and the power that humans exercise over one another is not the final power.” But we must keep Ivan Karamazov’s protest in our minds every day. The nativity story might as well be about reindeer and snowmen for sure, if it has nothing to say about the small victims. I believe that by putting Rachel’s lament at the heart of the Christmas story, Matthew has shown us how to hold onto faith and hope until the Second Coming. Only as we share in the prayers and the laments of bereaved families, not looking away, can we continue to believe that the savior reigns even now in the faith and tenacity of Father Lucic and all those who continue to stand for humanity in the face of barbarity. Only by attending to the horrors of this world can we continue tossing the words of that great eighteenth-century hymn-writer Isaac Watts;

He comes to make his blessings known
Far as the curse is found
(Hymn, “Joy to theWorld”)

For only a faith forged out of suffering can say with conviction that the angels and monsters will not coexist forever, that Muslims and agnostics and Christians and Jews will be drawn together in ways we cannot yet imagine, that the agonies of victims will some day be rectified, and that the unconditional love of God in Jesus Christ will be the Last Word.

Here is a performance of a boys' choir illustrating the tragic reality that a child dies every three seconds around the world:

Fifth Day of Christmas: The Ultimate Truth About God

First Day of Christmas: How God Brings His Love to Bear

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Jesus = the Self-utterance of God

The third day of Christmas is the Feast of Saint John the Evangelist. In the magisterial prologue to the Gospel of John, we are given a cosmic background to the Christmas story:

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. There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came for testimony, to bear witness to the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness to the light. The true light that enlightens every man was coming into the world. 1He 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; who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father. John bore witness to him, and cried, "This was he of whom I said, 'He who comes after me ranks before me, for he was before me.'") And from his fulness have we all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known.

Here is a brief reflection from Archbishop William Temple (1881-1944):

The Word became flesh. The Word did not merely indwell a human being. Absolute identity is asserted. The Word is Jesus; Jesus is the Word. And it is said that the Word became flesh because “flesh is that part of human nature commonly associated with frailty and evil; commonly, but not necessarily. In Jesus the flesh is the completely responsive vehicle of the spirit. The whole of Him, flesh included, is the Word, the self-utterance of God.

Fourth Day of Christmas: On Rachel's Lament and Not Looking Away

First Day of Christmas: How God Brings His Love to Bear

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Jesus = Peace

The second day of Christmas is the Feast of Saint Stephen, deacon and first martyr of the Church. Stephen's last words before he died were a prayer for those who were stoning him, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” Thus, he proved himself worthy to bear the name of Christ who commanded, "But I say to you that hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you" (Luke 6:27-28) and who himself prayed from the cross,  "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do" (Luke 23:34).

As we celebrate the coming of the Prince of Peace and sing of peace on earth, good will to all, we would do well to embrace the daily witness/martyrdom of peaceableness. Here is something along those lines from Gregory of Nyssa ( c.335-386):

He is our peace, who has made both one. Since Christ is our peace, we shall be living up to the name of Christian if we let Christ be seen in our lives by letting peace reign in our hearts. He has brought hostility to an end, as the apostle said. Therefore, we must not allow it to come back to life in us in any way at all but must proclaim clearly that it is dead indeed. God has destroyed it in a wonderful way for our salvation. We must not, then, allow ourselves to give way to anger or bear grudges, for this would endanger our souls. We must not stir up the very thing that is well and truly dead, calling it back to life by our wickedness.
But as we bear the name of Christ, who is peace, we too must put an end to all hostility, so that we may profess in our lives what we believe to be true of him. He broke down the dividing wall and brought the two sides together in himself, thus making peace. We too, then, should not only be reconciled with those who attack us from without, we should also bring together the warring factions within us, so that the flesh may no longer be opposed to the spirit and the spirit to the flesh. Then when the mind that is set on the flesh is subject to the divine law, we may be refashioned into one new creature, into a man of peace. When the two have been made one we shall then have peace within ourselves.
The definition of peace is that there should be harmony between two opposed factions. And so, when the civil war in our nature has been brought to an end and we are at peace within ourselves, we may become peace. Then we shall really be true to the name of Christ that we bear.

When we consider that Christ is the true light far removed from all falsehood, we realize that our lives too should be lit by the rays of the sun of justice, which shine for our enlightenment. These rays are the virtues by which we cast off the works of darkness and conduct ourselves becomingly as in the light of day. Then, when we refuse to have anything to do with the darkness of wickedness and do everything in the light, we ourselves shall also become light and our works will give light to others, for it is in the nature of light to shine out.
But if we look upon Christ as our sanctification, then we should keep ourselves free from all that is wicked and impure both in thought and in deed and so prove ourselves worthy to bear his name, for we shall be demonstrating the effect of sanctification not in words but in our actions and in our lives. 

As  a bonus for thr Feast of Saint Stephen, here is one of my favorite songs of the season:

Third Day of Christmas: Jesus = the Self-utterance of God

First Day of Christmas: How God Brings His Love to Bear

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

How God Brings His Love to Bear

To kick of the twelve days of Christmas, here is something from Austin Farrer (1904-1968), one of the great Anglican theologians of the 20th century and a friend of C. S. Lewis who preached at Lewis' funeral:

How can I matter to him? we say. It makes no sense; he has the world, and even that he does not need. It is folly even to imagine him like myself, to credit him with eyes into which I could ever look, a heart that could ever beat for my sorrows or joys, and a hand he could hold out to me. For even if the childish picture be allowed, that hand must be cupped to hold the universe, and I am a speck of dust on the star-dust of the world.
Yet Mary holds her finger out, and a divine hand closes on it. The maker of the world is born a begging child; he begs for milk, and does not know that it is milk for which he begs. We will not lift our hands to pull the love of God down to us, but he lifts his hands to pull human compassion down upon his cradle. So the weakness of God proves stronger than men, and the folly of God proves wiser than men. Love is the strongest instrument of omnipotence, for accomplishing those tasks he cares most dearly to perform; and this is how he brings his love to bear on human pride; by weakness not by strength, by need and not by bounty.

The Second Day of Christmas: Jesus = Peace

Monday, December 17, 2012

Gollum's Choice or, What is Your Precious?

"A life is either all spiritual or not spiritual at all. No man can serve two masters. Your life is shaped by the end you live for. You are made in the image of what you desire."  
– Thomas. Merton

I saw the Hobbit movie yesterday. Though it has its shortcomings (and longcomings, given its length), I enjoyed it. But then, as a Tolkien and Peter Jackson fan, I wanted to enjoy it.

I'm reposting an old sermon that explores questions of heaven and hell playing off of one of the characters in the movie:

Smeagol was once a hobbit-like creature. A hobbit is an imaginary creature invented by J. R. R. Tolkien who wrote the The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Short 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 bright and shiny ring. He returned to the surface and showed the ring 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 such 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 because of the odd gulping noise he makes. When we first meet Gollum, formerly Smeagol, in the story, he lives on a small island in the middle of a lake at the dark heart 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”. And we can possess whatever we choose to be 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 judgment. 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 ultimately either mold us into something glorious or warp us into something terrible. That molding or warping begins now and continues eternally.
C. S. Lewis says much the same thing in his essay, The Weight of Glory:

It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you say it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree helping each other to one or the other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilites, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all of our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations – these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.

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.”

Friday, December 14, 2012

When the World Will End

Last year, the end of the world was much in the news as Harold Camping predicted May 21 as the day of Doom. He was wrong.

Now there is much talk about the Mayan calendar and the speculation that because it only runs through December 21, 2012, the end is near.

I expect to wake up on December 22, 2012, as I did on May 22, 2011, with the world still going on pretty much as it has.

I am confident about this because I am an Episcopalian. And as an Episcopalian I know when the world is going to end. It is really quite simple and, because I care, I am going to let the world know so everyone can plan ahead.

There is an elaborate set of rules for determining the date of Easter each year. Helpfully, there are Tables for Finding Holy Days in our Book of Common Prayer beginning on page 880. The Prayer Book even saves us the trouble of applying those rules by listing future Easter dates in the following pages.

And here it is . . .

The Book of Common Prayer has dates for Easter through 2089, but no further. Therefore, I predict the end of the world will come on or after April 3, 2089.

Remember, you heard it here first.

Actually, anyone wondering about the end of the world would do well to consider the following:

Jesus said, "But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only." (Matthew 24:36)

And Paul wrote, "For he says, 'At the acceptable time I have listened to you, and helped you on the day of salvation.' Behold, now is the acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation." (2 Corinthians 6:2)

See also: C. S. Lewis and the World's Last Night

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

In the meantime, we wait – together

I had the opportunity to hear Elie Wiesel speak a few years ago. He shared this story which seems appropriate for Advent:

Abraham Heschel, the great Jewish rabbi and theologian of the last century, was once invited to speak at an ecumenical gathering of Christians. Rabbi Heschel said, “We Jews await the coming of the Messiah. You Christians believe the Messiah has already come but you await his coming again. In the meantime, we wait – together. When the Messiah comes, someone, no doubt, will ask him, ‘Have you been here before?’” Then Rabbi Heschel added, “I hope to be standing right next to him so I can whisper in his ear, ‘Don’t answer.’”