Thursday, September 27, 2007

Words of Wisdom

In the wake of the recent House of Bishops meeting in New Orleans, I came across these words of wisdom from Fr. Tony Clavier. I appreciate and welcome Fr. Tony's efforts to put things into proper perspective.


Those of us who deplore the methodology of General Convention infallibility still cannot give up the essential catholicity and liberality of Anglicanism merely because we managed to be born at a time in which the Province in which we serve seems good at erring and straying. Nothing is for ever except God and His purpose.

I am convinced that one of the great errors of this generation is that we all believe that we are stuck in a moment of time, believe that what now is is crucial and that we must fix it now or God will lose and the church fail. This is a lie from our father below.

Now if TEC [The Episcopal Church] abolishes its formularies, creates a liturgy incapable of grace-bearing, and annuls ministry, then that’s quite another matter. For now patient faithfulness is the calling of some of us, as best we can, under the mercy.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

What is the Church For?

I just read a really fine essay over at Episcopal Café by Dr. Kathleen Henderson Staudt about the purpose of the Church. Citing the writings of Evelyn Underhill, Dr. Staudt nicely unpacks what it means to speak of the Church as the people (laos) of God - an identity that all of us, whether lay or ordained, share in common by virtue of our baptisms. (If you're interested in learning more about Evelyn Underhill, check out the website for The Evelyn Underhill Association.)


What is the Church For?

Kathleen Henderson Staudt

What is the church for? In a 1938 lecture series on the BBC, collected in her book The Spiritual Life, the British writer and retreat leader Evelyn Underhill answered the question in a way that has challenged the church for the past century:

The Church is in the world to save the world. It is a tool of God for that purpose; not a comfortable religious club established in fine historical premises. Every one of its members is required, in one way or another, to cooperate with the Spirit in working for that great end: and much of this work will be done in secret and invisible ways. We are transmitters as well as receivers. Our contemplation and our action, our humble self-opening to God, keeping ourselves sensitive to his music and light, and our generous self-opening to our fellow creatures, keeping ourselves sensitive to their needs, ought to form one life, mediating between God and His world, and bringing the saving power of the Eternal into time.

Underhill appropriately focuses on the church’s mission in and for the world; to her mostly Church of England audience, she is challenging the image of the Church that became comfortable during the long centuries of what Loren Mead has labeled the “Christendom” paradigm, when most people were nominal Christians, even churchgoers, and the mission of the Church was seen as being overseas, far away and directed toward people distinctly “other” than the people in the pews. Mission was done by the institution; for the people in the pews, church attendance was a regular social obligation, to be taken with more or less seriousness depending on one’s particular spiritual needs and dispositions: to be part of a church was to support “a comfortable religious club.”

But Underhill recognizes that the institutional model, the “comfortable religious club,” is not a true embodiment of what the Church is called to be. Rather, each of us has a part to play in the mysterious work of God in the world, the Spirit’s work to restore, reconcile and heal. Her work focuses on the spiritual practices of the individual as guaranteeing the health of the “cells” in the Body of Christ on earth. For her, ordinary Christians, each of us pursuing the work that has been given us, are the ones who carry out the saving work of the Church, “bringing the saving power of the eternal into time.” In this short paragraph she lays out a theology of the ministry of all God’s people – the laos (λαός) – in the world.

Underhill’s image of the Church in the world invites what I might call a “poetic” way of looking at the church, the people of God – seeing the Church as a kind of work of art that communicates something to the world. It might seem that our disputes in the Anglican community about whom we may ordain and who decides how we should read Scripture have little to do with the ministry of the people in and for the world, but actually, poetically, they are important. Because we are an ordered church, our disputes about who we are and how we serve the world have focused, for the past 50 years, on whom we ordain. This may be appropriate to some extent since the ordained leaders of the Church do function as “metonymies” for our corporate identity – they are the parts standing for a whole. So if we claim to be an inclusive community, living and proclaiming the gospel in and for the world around us, it makes sense poetically that our visible leaders should reflect the diversity of the world we live in and the world we serve.

If the world looks at us as a corporate body and sees inclusiveness in our leadership and our practice, then we are communicating something about the hospitality of God. If they see us finding ways to stay together in Christ while holding a diversity of views, that is a revolutionary witness for our deeply polarized times. On the other hand, if all that the world sees is fighting and schism and mutual recrimination, then we are losing track of our real identity and purpose.

I turn to Underhill’s description of the purpose of the church in my prayers for the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion at this time, remembering that we are part of something much bigger that we believe God is trying to do through us, the people of God, in the world. I take comfort, too, from a beloved hymn we sing pretty often these days, and appropriately so – not least because its title reminds us of who we are: “The Church’s One Foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord”. I was particularly glad that it was part of the Commencement liturgy at Virginia Seminary last June:

Though with a scornful wonder, men see her sore oppressed
By schisms rent asunder, by heresies distressed
Yet saints their watch are keeping.
Their cry goes up,”How long?”
And soon the night of weeping will be the morn of song. (Hymnal 525)

These words remind us that our tradition’s vision of the church as a “mystical body” is meant to give strength and energy to us as we try to live up to being the “Church visible -- the Communion of Saints “in the world to save the world, a tool of God for that purpose.” This vision does not deny that we have struggles and divisions. But both Underhill’s writing and the hymn call us back to awareness of our greater purpose and calling. It is a vision that sometimes seems improbable, but it is one that we are called to return to and refashion in our own generation, as faithfully as we can.

Dr Kathleen Henderson Staudt teaches courses in literature and theology at Virginia Theological Seminary and the University of Maryland, College Park. She is the author of At the Turn of a Civilisation: David Jones and Modern Poetics and Annunciations: Poems out of Scripture. Her blog is at

Hitchens' Book is Not Great

William C. Placher is professor of philosophy and religion at Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Indiana. A Reformed theologian, he’s written numerous books, most recently including The Triune God: An Essay in Postliberal Theology (Westminster John Knox Press, 2007).

In a Christian Century book review, Placher takes on Christopher Hitchens'
God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (Twelve Books, 2007). In comparison to Hitchens' militant atheism and sweeping generalizations about religion, Placher's approach is both critical and balanced. I think it's a fine model for how mainstream Christians can and should respond to extremism - whether it's religious or atheistic.


Fighting Atheist

William C. Placher
The Christian Century
September 18, 2007

After you have written books attacking Henry Kissinger and Mother Teresa, what is left, really, but to write a book attacking God—or rather, since God does not exist, attacking all who believe in God? So Christopher Hitchens, the brilliant bad boy of Anglo-American high-culture journalism, must have concluded.

Though now an American, Hitchens still writes in the best tradition of British polemic—clever, vicious and very funny. No sense of political correctness, moreover, restrains him: Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism—you name it; they are all stupid, and all dangerous.

In olden times, he argues, when ignorance abounded, there were excuses for being religious: "The scholastic obsessives of the Middle Ages were doing the best they could on the basis of hopelessly limited information." But now science has provided us with correct ways of understanding the world, and thus "religion spoke its last intelligible or noble or inspiring words a long time ago." Arguments from the order of the universe to the existence of God collapse in the light of modern science. Appeals to revelation are absurd once we know that there are many different purported revelations.

Judaism, Hitchens writes, rests on an ancient text whose barbaric laws and false history far outweigh its "occasional lapidary phrases." Also, "the 'new' testament exceeds the evil of the 'old' one." Jesus probably did not exist, and the center of his story is in any event appalling: "I am told of a human sacrifice that took place two thousand years ago, without my wishing it and in circumstances so ghastly that, had I been present and in possession of any influence, I would have been duty-bound to try and stop it. In consequence of this murder, my own manifold sins are forgiven me, and I may hope to enjoy everlasting life."

Islam, he continues, is a fraudulent mixture of bits of Judaism and Christianity. Hinduism has done India terrible harm. The British were about to grant the country independence anyway, but Gandhi turned what could have been a healthy secular movement toward a modern state into a disastrous attempt to return to the values and customs of the ancient Indian village. Buddhism fries the brain: "The search for nirvana, and the dissolution of the intellect, goes on. And whenever it is tried, it produces a Kool-Aid effect in the real world."

Hitchens insists that religions are not just silly but also dangerous. Jews, Christians and Muslims are always fighting on behalf of their faiths. Sri Lanka is torn apart by Hindu-Buddhist violence. Your own religious neighbors may seem friendly enough, but do not trust them: "Many religions now come before us with ingratiating smirks and outspread hands, . . . competing as they do in a marketplace. But we have a right to remember how barbarically they behaved when they were strong." And do not think those days are over: "As I write these words, and as you read them, people of faith are in their different ways planning your and my destruction." Religion poisons everything.

To be sure, religious folks do good as well as evil. Hitchens particularly admires Martin Luther King Jr. But at the core of what King taught, Hitchens maintains, were simple human values; King expressed them in Baptist sermons because that was the language shared by the people with whom he was communicating. On the other side of the ledger, Hitchens admits that nonreligious regimes, like Stalin's and Pol Pot's, can do terrible things. But they do so only to the extent that they become quasi-religions, with sacred texts, absolute authorities and measures for condemning heretics. "Totalitarian systems, whatever outward form they may take, are fundamentalist and, as we would now say, 'faith-based.'"

It would be hard to find the standard arguments against religion presented in livelier form than they are in God Is Not Great. The book reads quickly, and even for most religious people grunts of annoyance will be balanced by regular laughter. Hitchens has not forged such a successful career without knowing how to entertain. Nevertheless, this is a flawed and frustrating book.

First—how to say this politely?—it is full of mistakes. George Miller, we are told (actually it was William Miller), founded a new sect in upstate New York in the 1840s, but the group soon disappeared. More than 20 million Seventh-day Adventists will be surprised to hear it. Hitchens reports in an excited tone, "One of Professor Barton Ehrman's most astonishing findings is that the account of Jesus' resurrection in the Gospel of Mark was only added many years later." Well, it is Bart rather than Barton (names are not Hitchens's strong point), and scholars generally recognized long before Ehrman was born that the ending of Mark is a later addition.

T. S. Eliot was an Anglican rather than a Roman Catholic. The Talmud is not "the holy book in the longest continuous use." Solipsists are people who doubt the existence of a world outside themselves, not people who are ethically self-centered. The ontological argument is not even close to the silly syllogism described on page 265. Hitchens writes that it is "often said that Islam differs from other monotheisms in not having had a 'reformation,'" then he goes on to correct that claim. But sure enough, 11 pages earlier he himself had said, "Only in Islam has there been no reformation."

And so on and so on.

The errors are particularly disturbing because so much of Hitchens's argument rests on statements that the Catholic Church teaches such and such, the archbishop of Canterbury said this, Muslims believe that. Most of these claims are simply unsupported assertions; when no sources are cited, one cannot help wondering if someone so sloppy with his facts might make up some of his quotations as well.

The second frustration of reading this book, at least for a theologian, is that its author seems not to have read any modern theology, or even to know that it exists. He does cite C. S. Lewis a few times and mentions Bonhoeffer with respect (implying that Bonhoeffer had stopped believing in God by the end), but in general his sources for contemporary Christianity are Pat Robertson, Billy Graham and Tim LaHaye. Of Barth or Tillich or Rahner—or their equivalents in other religious traditions—he has not a clue. When Hitchens wants to discuss modern interpretations of the Bible, he turns to Mel Gibson (really!).

Suppose I watched Bill Nye the Science Guy on TV, read the first three Web sites that popped up when I Googled "quantum mechanics," talked to the junior high science teacher who lives down the street, and then wrote a book about how superficial contemporary physics has become. Readers might reasonably protest that I should have read or interviewed some of today's leading physicists before jumping to such a conclusion.

Similarly, when Hitchens dramatically announces that parts of the Bible are not literally true, one wants to say that Origen figured that out and decided what to do about it roughly 1,800 years ago. Many theologians are thinking in interesting ways about the relation of science and faith. Thoughtful historians try to sort out how much of the inspiration of "religious warfare" has actually come from religion, and how often religion has just been the excuse for people who wanted to fight anyway.

I do not mean that there are always clear answers to the issues Hitchens raises, much less that the religious side would always win the debate. My point is simply that among serious people writing about these matters, the argument has often advanced a good many steps beyond where Hitchens is fighting it—so however good his basic questions are, and however enjoyable his style, it is hard to take his contribution to the conversation seriously.

So here is a puzzle. When I went to buy this book, the first bookstore was sold out, and the second had a rack of God Is Not Great surpassed only by the stacks of Harry Potter. No doubt good writing deserves readership, and Hitchens can certainly write. In the age of talk radio and Fox News, the complaint that he often gets his facts wrong may be an old-fashioned objection. But something more, I think, is at stake. Similar books by Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris are selling nearly as well.

Many Americans today are scared of religion. Radical Islamic terrorists threaten the safety of major cities. George W. Bush assures us that God has led him to his Iraq policy. The local schools, under pressure, avoid teaching evolution. The Catholic archdiocese of Los Angeles is selling off property to pay victims of priestly sexual abuse. One trembles to think that many people get their picture of faith from the "Christian channels" on television. No wonder religion has, in many quarters, a bad reputation.

I think many of us—I do not mean just trained theologians, but ordinary folks in churches, mosques and synagogues as well—have found ways to be religious without being either stupid or homicidal. We are, as the cover of the Christian Century puts it, "thinking critically, living faithfully." Not enough of our nonreligious neighbors know enough about what we believe. We need to speak up.

Repeatedly Hitchens cites some horrible thing that some religious folks did or said and then notes that mainstream religious leaders did not criticize it. Although I do not always trust his claims, I suspect that in this case he is at least partly right. Too many of us have been too reluctant to denounce religious lunatics, and because of our reluctance we risk arousing the suspicion that we are partly on their side.

Hitchens ends his book with an appeal to his readers to "escape the gnarled hands which reach out to drag us back to the catacombs and the reeking altars, . . . to know the enemy, and to prepare to fight it." Shouldn't one of the lessons of this book have been that comfortable intellectuals should be more careful of using words like fight? Fundamentalists of one sort or another, after all, urge their followers to fight the evils of secularism and atheism. As the battle lines are drawn between the two extremes, it seems to me that folks like those who read The Christian Century need to put aside our obsessively good manners and shout, "Hey! Those aren't the only alternatives! We're here too!"

Monday, September 24, 2007

N. T. Wright Interview

This is a great interview with one of the world’s foremost New Testament scholars (hat tip to Fr. Chris Epperson). In addition to discussing his book Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense, Wright offers thought-provoking insights into the biases of the historical-critical approach to scripture, the popularity of Gnosticism, and the mission of the Church.


Mere Mission

N.T. Wright talks about how to present the gospel in a postmodern world.

Interview by Tim Stafford, posted 1/05/2007

N.T. Wright is a world-renowned New Testament scholar—author of Jesus and the Victory of God, The Resurrection of the Son of God—and bishop of Durham in the Church of England. He is also a keen observer of culture. Christianity Today senior writer Tim Stafford caught up with Wright as he drove from meetings at Windsor Castle to his diocese in Durham. They talked about communicating the gospel in a post-Christian society.

Your book Simply Christian speaks to people outside the faith, in what must be a conscious imitation of C.S. Lewis's Mere Christianity. What made you want to write to that audience?

I suppose I've always wanted to say to my contemporaries in the wider world, "This stuff matters; it's life transforming; it's world transforming." Much of my academic life has been spent exploring underlying issues, particularly about the central events in the gospel. But now it really is time to say, "So what does it mean?"

Because I've done all that historical work, my view of the gospel and how it works out in the real world has been deepened and enriched in all kinds of ways that I would never have guessed 25 years ago when I was starting out writing about Jesus. So in Simply Christian there's a lot about justice, what it means to be human in the mandate to work, the putting to rights of God's world, generating beauty, alleviating poverty, working with ecology. Thirty years ago I would have said those were secondary issues.

There's an old evangelical saying, "If he's not Lord of all, he's not Lord at all." That was always applied personally and pietistically. I want to say exactly the same thing but apply it to the world. We're talking about Jesus as the Lord of the world—not the Lord of people's private spiritual interiority only, but of what they do with their money, with their homes, with the wealth of nations, and with the planet.

Lewis's Mere Christianity presents itself as inescapably rational. It's an apologetic that traps you in its logic, a very modern approach. But you present a different kind of rationality that seems more attuned to a postmodern world.

I'm quite sure that Lewis would be rather cross at being told that he was some kind of modernist, because his self-description was that he was the last surviving dinosaur from the pre-Enlightenment period. But he was an Oxford-trained philosopher from the early years of the 20th century, and he was conscious of the need to explain things to people who thought in a certain way.

I'm sure Lewis would say he was talking about something that would blow apart the assumptions of modernity, nevertheless addressing people who were within those assumptions. In the same way, I wouldn't want to be thought of as a postmodern writer, but I'm addressing people who live in that world.

And if the argument has a compelling force, it's not the force of A plus B equals C, where there's no escape. I want you to try seeing yourself as part of the picture that we've painted. Or try humming one of the parts of this symphony that we're writing, and see if it doesn't make an awful lot of sense while nonetheless being very challenging. And that's the apologist's dilemma, that if you simply address the God-shaped blank that people think they've got, the God you end up with is the God shaped by the blank. The real God specializes in taking the blanks in people's lives and pulling and tugging and turning them into a new shape.

One of Lewis's classic maneuvers is this: Jesus said he was God, and you either believe that or that he was a madman on the level of someone who thinks he is a poached egg. It's a powerful argument that has had a strong effect on a lot of people, but modern source criticism of the Bible has undermined the idea that Jesus claimed to be God.

My major work has been designed to refute the wilder claims made by some so-called historical critical scholarship. Because now we see only too clearly that the whole historical critical movement was not, as it tried to claim, a neutral, objective, scientific account of the Gospels. It had its own agendas that were heavily driven by the philosophy of the Enlightenment. The movement really started out with the assumption that if there is a God, this God does not intervene in human affairs. In other words, the Enlightenment has already settled Lewis's question one way. It has decided that any Jesus who said John 14:6, "I am the way, the truth, and the life," would be completely out of his skull. Therefore, Jesus couldn't have said it, because we know he was a good man and we want to follow him for other reasons. It becomes a circular argument. Lewis breaks into the circle by simply ignoring the critical possibility.

You put less emphasis on Jesus' claims to be God-come-to-earth, and more on his forceful activity, doing what only God can do.

It is possible to say more or less all the orthodox Christian affirmations, but to join them up in the wrong story. It's possible to tick the boxes that say Trinity, Incarnation, Atonement, Resurrection, Spirit, Second Coming, and yet it's like a child's follow-the-dots. The great story—and after all the Bible is fundamentally a story—we've got to pay attention to that, rather than abstracting dogmatic points from it. The dogmas matter, they are true, but you have to join them up the right way.

There's a certain kind of modernist would-be orthodoxy, which uses the word God in something like the old Deist sense. He's a distant, absentee landlord who suddenly decides to intervene in the world after all, and he looks like Jesus. But we already know who God is; now I want you to believe that this God became human in Jesus. The New Testament routinely puts it the other way around. We don't actually know who God is. We have some idea, the God of Israel, or of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the Creator God. But until we look hard at Jesus, we really haven't understood who God is.

That's precisely what John says at the end of the prologue: No one has ever seen God; the only begotten God who is in the bosom of the father, he has made him known. John's provided an exegesis for who God is. And in Colossians 1 as well, he is the image of the invisible God. In other words, don't assume that you've got God taped, and fit Jesus into that. Do it the other way. We all come with some ideas of God. Allow those ideas to be shaped around Jesus. That is the real challenge of New Testament Christology.

What happened with the Enlightenment is the denarrativization of the Bible. And then within postmodernity, people have tried to pay attention to the narrative without paying attention to the fact that it's a true story. It's the story of Creator God with his world. The great biblical story is fundamentally not like a parable of Jesus, which is true whether or not there was a farmer who had two sons. The overarching story of who Jesus was, the story of God and Israel and the coming of Jesus, has to have a historical purchase on reality. Otherwise, it is colluding with the very Gnosticism it is opposing. This particular story is about the Creator and the real world; it's not about a God who is only interested in our interior reflections or our spiritual progress, the Gnostic worldview.

I've just written a book on the Gospel of Judas. I wanted to write the book because the people who published the Gospel of Judas make the most extraordinary and grandiose claims for it and for the whole worldview of Gnosticism that it represents. They're trying to claim that this worldview beats orthodox Christianity hands down. [They say] orthodox Christianity is boring and dull and miserable and restrictive, whereas Gnosticism is exciting and dynamic and vibrant and countercultural. I'm fascinated at why all sorts of people in America and elsewhere badly want this to be true.

What do you make of the popularity of this stuff?

The Gnostic conspiracy theory says that orthodoxy hushed up the really exciting thing and promoted this boring sterile thing with Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. And of course there's a great lie underneath that. In the second and third centuries, the people being thrown to the lions and burned at the stake and sawed in two were not the ones reading Thomas and Judas and the Gospel of Philip and the Gospel of Mary. They were the ones reading Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Because the empire is perfectly happy with Gnosticism. Gnosticism poses no threat to the empire. Whereas Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John do. It's the church's shame that in the last 200 years, the church has muzzled Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John and turned them into instruments of a controlling, sterile orthodoxy. But the texts themselves are explosive.

But why has Gnosticism become so attractive just now? What is it about our times?

When does Gnosticism flourish? In the middle and late second century, what's just happened? The failure of the second Jewish revolt in A.D. 135. Jewish people who have clung fiercely to their Scriptures, as the desperate side of hope when everything seems to be going wrong, have lost. Then the failure of the Bar Kochba revolt, and Rabbi Akiba himself is killed, and what are you going to do? Well, you can go off and be a pagan. Or, in this wonderfully cynical way, you can take your own Bible and read it upside down. So Cain becomes the hero and Abel becomes the villain. And the God who made the world is a bad god, so you tell the story of the creation of the world as the Fall.

Jewish Gnosticism emerges out of that failure, and is sustained at a time when the imperial power of Rome has stamped on Judaism and is now doing its best to stamp on Christianity. So you say, there is no hope in the world, the world is a dark place run by evil, wicked forces who have no fear of God, no sense of spirituality. Therefore, the only thing is to turn inward.

Now, look at the rise of the great powers in the 20th century and situate the rise of Freudian and Jungian psychology within those movements. People are looking outside, and it's chaos. People are doing awful things. You say there must be very interesting things going on inside. One of Carl Jung's famous sayings was, "Who looks outside dreams; who looks inside awakens." That's 20th-century Gnosticism. When you get the rise of the modern American empire, the post-Holocaust world and all the anomie of modernity, people are asking, "What is it all about?" Gnosticism seems to many people like a place to find something good about oneself in the face of a hostile world.

[Like the second century,] we have neo-paganisms of the Right and the Left. On the Right you've got war and money, Mars and Mammon, calling the shots. If you oppose the necessity of going to war, you're not quite sane. And if you say you've just been offered a job at double the salary but you're going to stay with what you are doing, people will look at you as though you are mad, because the money imperative is just assumed to be all important. It's not just that they disagree or think you're stupid, they just cannot understand what you're talking about.

And the same paganism is on the Left. Obviously sex, the goddess Aphrodite, makes demands. To resist those demands for whatever reason is just assumed to be completely incomprehensible. Somebody falls in love with the wrong person, off they go, and it's just a shoulder-shrugging thing. Of course you've got to do that because this is the imperative, this is what our culture is all about.

How do you see the church's mission in this context?

For generations the church has been polarized between those who see the main task being the saving of souls for heaven and the nurturing of those souls through the valley of this dark world, on the one hand, and on the other hand those who see the task of improving the lot of human beings and the world, rescuing the poor from their misery.

The longer that I've gone on as a New Testament scholar and wrestled with what the early Christians were actually talking about, the more it's been borne in on me that that distinction is one that we modern Westerners bring to the text rather than finding in the text. Because the great emphasis in the New Testament is that the gospel is not how to escape the world; the gospel is that the crucified and risen Jesus is the Lord of the world. And that his death and Resurrection transform the world, and that transformation can happen to you. You, in turn, can be part of the transforming work. That draws together what we traditionally called evangelism, bringing people to the point where they come to know God in Christ for themselves, with working for God's kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. That has always been at the heart of the Lord's Prayer, and how we've managed for years to say the Lord's Prayer without realizing that Jesus really meant it is very curious. Our Western culture since the 18th century has made a virtue of separating out religion from real life, or faith from politics.When I lecture about this, people will pop up and say, "Surely Jesus said my kingdom is not of this world." And the answer is no, what Jesus said in John 18 is, "My kingdom is not from this world." That's ek tou kosmoutoutou. It's quite clear in the text that Jesus' kingdom doesn't start with this world. It isn't a worldly kingdom, but it is for this world. It's from somewhere else, but it's for this world.

The key to mission is always worship. You can only be reflecting the love of God into the world if you are worshiping the true God who creates the world out of overflowing self-giving love. The more you look at that God and celebrate that love, the more you have to be reflecting that overflowing self-giving love into the world.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Shrewd and Subversive Wisdom

Sermon for Proper 20, Year C
Jeremiah 8:18-9:1; Psalm 79:1-9; 1 Timothy 2:1-7; Luke 16:1-13

“I can’t believe that this story came from the lips of our Lord.”

That was purportedly the response of St. Augustine to the parable we just heard.

The Parable of the Dishonest Manager is a story that has challenged Christians from the time of the Church Fathers up to the 21st Century. And for good reason: it’s not initially clear why Jesus tells it or why he commends the dishonest manager as a role model for his disciples.

It’s reasonable to find it puzzling and to wonder, “What in the world is going on here?” So let’s take a closer look.

A man entrusted with managing a lot of property gets called on the carpet by the owner. We’re not told exactly why. Maybe he was stealing from the owner and cooking the books to hide his tracks. Regardless of the reason, the owner says, “I hear that you’re mismanaging my property. I want a complete audit of your books. And oh, by the way, you’re fired!”

It’s a moment of crisis for the manager. What’s he going to do to insure his future? He can’t beg or become a day-laborer. So he comes up with a brilliant plan. He brings in the owner’s debtors one by one, and cuts their debts in as much as half. That’s a shrewd move in a society predicated upon reciprocity, for now the debtors owe an additional debt to the manager. Once he’s unemployed, they are obligated to help him out once. It’s shrewd, but it’s also fundamentally dishonest. In fact, it’s theft.

So why, then, does Jesus exhort his disciples to follow the dishonest manager’s example by “mak[ing] friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth” (16:9)? Is Jesus really advocating immoral or illegal behavior?

When confronted with conundrums like this, it helps to remember an age-old principle of biblical interpretation: any given part of scripture must be interpreted in light of the whole of scripture. We’ll go off track if we isolate this passage and read it as though it stands alone. But if we are guided by the principle of reading the part in relation to the whole, we have to look at the larger context in which Jesus tells this strange story.

When we do that, we see that this is just one of many parables that Jesus tells in response to the Pharisees and the scribes. They’ve been grumbling about Jesus’ lifestyle of hanging out and eating with sinners, tax collectors, and other riff-raff. Last Sunday, we saw Jesus’ response to this grumbling in the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin. And immediately prior to today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus tells one of the most famous and beloved stories in the Bible: the Parable of the Prodigal Son. The message there is clear: God loves sinners, the outcast, and the marginalized; God sees the good in them; and God seeks them out to bring them into the Kingdom. That’s the preface to the parable we hear today.

But there’s more to the larger context. At this point in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus and his disciples are on the move. They’re getting closer to Jerusalem. The shadow of the cross looms larger and larger. There’s a palpable sense of urgency that thickens with each succeeding chapter. An impending crisis lies just over the horizon, and there’s no time to waste on anything trivial.

Read in the light of this larger context, the Parable of the Dishonest Manager is no longer a story about business ethics, much less helpful advice for happy living. In fact, it’s not really about the morality of the dishonest manager’s actions at all. Given the larger context in which Jesus tells this story, it’s about how we as disciples respond to crisis when we’re confronted with a situation that doesn’t allow for easy answers.

Instead of being paralyzed, the manager takes bold, decisive action. Thinking on his feet, he exhibits a kind of practical wisdom that helps him navigate a way forward when there appears to be nowhere to go. And Jesus finds that quality admirable.

The scandal of the parable is that Jesus highlights something good, something worthy of emulation, in someone that almost all of us would judge as a morally bad person. There are several things we can learn from this.

For starters, we can’t write anybody off as completely beyond the pale. Yes, there are bad people in this world who do bad things. We would be foolish and naïve to believe otherwise. But that doesn’t mean that everything about such persons is bad. There can still be redemptive qualities about them, qualities that Jesus can see and that, as his disciples, we should be on the lookout for as well. In fact, - and again, this is part of the scandal of this parable – the way bad people do some things might offer lessons that we who try to be good Christians can learn from.

On that score, I think that Jesus is telling his disciples – including you and me – that we need to be well-versed in worldly wisdom. Instead of separating ourselves from the riff-raff of this world, writing off the non-religious and the morally suspect as though they have nothing to teach us, Jesus tells us – and offers his own lifestyle as a model – that we need to be fully in this world but not of this world. We need to cultivate the same kind of thinking-on-your-feet practical wisdom that we see in the dishonest managers and the Tony Sopranos of this world. Not so that we can become what they are, but so that we can take the ways of the world they know so well and use them to turn the world on its head – working with the Holy Spirit to effect the kind of transformation that helps to usher in a little bit of the Kingdom of God come on earth as it is in heaven.

I recently came across some thoughts about all of this from Jim Wallis, the evangelical Christian activist whose organization Sojourners champions the cause of the poor and the marginalized. Jim talked about how in some cities, gangs ruthlessly defend their territory, with drug lords marking off a neighborhood as their own. In response, Jim said: “I want churches to learn from these guys. I want some inner-city churches who will say, ‘This is our turf and we control this neighborhood … and we are going to do what’s necessary to make sure you don’t trample our turf.”

As an illustration, Jim talked about an inner-city church in Detroit whose neighborhood was overrun by drug dealers. In response, the church could have shut down and moved to a safer neighborhood. But instead, they posted some of their elderly ladies on each corner of the church property in foldout lawn chairs, armed with video cameras. Overnight, the neighborhood began to change. Mind you, these women had no idea how to work the video cameras. But the drug dealers didn’t know that. And so these church women beat the drug dealers at their own game.

That’s shrewd and savvy. That’s the kind of thinking-on-your-feet-for-the-Kingdom practical wisdom Jesus is talking about.

Like those church women in downtown Detroit, Jesus challenges us to face the crises of our world head-on, utilizing – when necessary – worldly wisdom to subvert the ways of the world for the sake of God’s Kingdom. Jesus calls us to make it clear that this city of Jackson is God’s turf, and that we Christians who make St. Andrew’s our home will do anything necessary to make sure that the unholy trinity of poverty, racism, and elitism don’t trample God’s turf.

If it means anything to be "The Cathedral in the City," it at least means that.

That’s why we support and participate in so many outreach ministries. From Stewpot to Habitat for Humanity to Meals on Wheels and the Breakfast Club, the opportunities to seek and serve Christ right in our own backyards are quite literally legion.

Yes, the harvest is plentiful. But my friends, it’s also true that the laborers are few. And so, in support of the letter Dean O'Connor sent every parish household last week, I also invite you to prayerful discern how to get involved in our parish’s outreach efforts.

We need you. We need your commitment of time, talent, and treasure. We need your hands and your feet. We need your bold and decisive action. We need your shrewd, subversive wisdom.

Jackson is crying out.

And Jesus calls us to respond.

Friday, September 21, 2007

A Season of Repentance

As the House of Bishops meeting continues in New Orleans, with many Episcopalians/Anglicans anxious as to the outcome and what it might mean for the continuation of the Anglican Communion, I think it's appropriate to remember that there is still a larger world facing serious problems that put our own (important as they are) into a different perspective.

To that end, I'm sharing
an open letter written by Duke University Divinity School professor of New Testament Richard B. Hays. It was first published in The Christian Century (August 24, 2004). A United Methodist, Hays stands firmly on the conservative side of the aisle when it comes to whether or not the Church has the freedom or the authority to bless same-sex unions. But in this letter, he passionately pleads for the Church to stop fighting over human sexuality so that we may address issues of war and violence. Although written 3 years ago to United Methodists, it remains relevant to the Church Universal - and for an Episcopal Church whose time and energy has been so consumed by the issues around human sexuality that we have (for the most part) neglected to put even half of the same time and energy into other serious matters.


A Season of Repentance: An Open Letter to United Methodists

Richard B. Hays

A PROPOSAL: Let us stop fighting one another, for a season, about issues of sexuality, so that we can focus on what God is saying to the church about our complicity in the violence that is the deepest moral crisis of our time. And let us call the church to fasting and prayer in repentance for the destruction our nation has inflicted upon the people of Iraq.

One might have expected that the recent General Conference, held in Pittsburgh April 27-May 7, would voice concern and sorrow about the cycle of violence that has been exacerbated by our nation's invasion of Iraq. I was not present at the General Conference, but insofar as I have been able to determine, the highest legislative body of our denomination had nothing at all to say about the war, except that, according to the denomination's official Web site, "during the last minutes of the conference, delegates approved a resolution supporting calls for a full investigation of alleged abuses of Iraqi prisoners by the U.S. military."

This cautious call for investigation (an investigation urgently necessary, to be sure) was relegated to the conference's final moments, but the assembly found ample time to debate for many hours a stream of resolutions and actions dealing with homosexuality, judicial procedures for charges against gay clergy, same-sex marriage, and so forth. Not surprisingly, the press reports on the General Conference concentrated almost entirely on these "sexy" issues. Insofar as the conference turned its attention to "social" issues, the most important ones seemed to be whether to boycott Taco Bell and Mount Olive Pickles. Am I alone in believing that we are straining at gnats and swallowing a very large camel?

The Presbyterians, at their just-completed General Assembly, passed a powerful resolution declaring the U.S. military action in Iraq to be "unwise, immoral and illegal." By contrast, our denomination is asleep at the hour of crisis--or are we just distracted by the battle over sexual issues? Is it any wonder that President Bush (a devout United Methodist), receiving no clear word from his own church on these matters, is able to persist in his present course of action with no visible moral compunction?

Here is the moral crisis in which we find ourselves. Within the past two years, the United States has launched a preemptive war, in flagrant disregard of traditional "just war" criteria, on Iraq. This military action has killed at least 10,000 Iraqis, the great majority of them civilian noncombatants. This is more than three times the number of people killed in the tragic attacks of September 11, 2001. Additionally, at this writing, more than 900 American soldiers have died in Iraq. And these fatality counts do not begin to include the many thousands seriously wounded and maimed, on both sides of the conflict.

The justifications proposed by the president and other leaders have proven false: no weapons of mass destruction have been found, Iraq was not involved in the September 11 attacks, and it had no role in sponsoring al-Qaeda. The fact that American soldiers were systematically torturing and humiliating Iraqi prisoners of war in Abu Ghraib prison is merely one painful symptom of the reckless manner in which this entire action has violated international law, despised human life, alienated allies and fostered enmity around the world.

Despite the emergence of these facts, at no time has the president acknowledged the misguidedness of this invasion; at no time has he or any other national leader, of either political party, called the nation to apologize or repent for these violent and highhanded acts. (Instead, the religious rhetoric that we hear in the public sphere is almost always self-justifying, seldom calling us to prayerful examination of our actions and motives.) Nor--here lies the greater shame--has our church spoken out in any effective way. A few of our bishops have made clear public statements against this war, but the church as a whole has not followed their lead.

Because we have remained almost completely silent, we are tacitly complicit in these actions.

As Christians, what shall we say to these things? We are called to serve a Lord who taught his followers to turn the other cheek when attacked and to love their enemies. We should also recall the passionate exhortation of St. Paul: "Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God.... Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good" (Rom. 12:19). At the heart of our call to be Jesus' disciples is our call to be peacemakers (Matt. 5:9). Yet we fail repeatedly. The gospel diagnoses our true condition: "Their feet are swift to shed blood; ruin and misery are in their paths, and the way of peace they have not known" (Rom. 3:15-17, quoting Isa. 59:7-8).

And so we are called also to repentance. "If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (1 John 2:8-9). How can it be that our church has failed to call the attention of President Bush to these central teachings of the faith he professes? And how can we fail to enter into deeply penitent grief over the killing and torture that have been done in our name?

I am fully aware of the possible complexities of ethical debate over how the New Testament's teachings might apply to international affairs in a post-9/11 world. But my point is that at present we are not having the debate at all. In the United Methodist Church, we say nothing about the horrifying violence in Iraq, while at the same time we exhaust ourselves going around in circles debating issues of sexuality.

To be sure, both sides in the sexuality debates believe that important moral issues are at stake. But, as C. S. Lewis memorably suggested in The Screwtape Letters, one of the devil's favorite tactics is to distract our attention with nominally good causes from the matters of first importance, so that we continue on the gradual road to hell.

I am afraid that our attention has been distracted in just this way, on both sides of the sexuality debate, from serious moral reflection on the issue of war. And so we remain blind to the violence in our owl hearts, a violence that surfaces in displaced form in our in-house wars over sexuality: theological conversation is supplanted by name-calling, power struggles and manipulation of the press.

In view of the present necessity, I make the following proposal. Between now and the next General Conference in Fort Worth (2008), let us refocus our priorities. Instead of obsessively debating sexual politics, let us first devote our energies to prayerful reflection on the teaching of Jesus against violence and for peacemaking.

To do this, we will have to leave some of our current debates unresolved and, nonetheless, welcome one another as brothers and sisters. If we can join bands together and raise our voices in calling the church and the nation to prayer and repentance, it will offer a surprising and powerful witness to a world desperately needing alternatives to violence. Wouldn't it be a wonderful thing to pick up the newspaper and read, "Methodists table sex debate, call nation to repent of war"?

As precedent for this proposal, I offer Paul's counsel to the Roman Christians that they should put aside their differences over clean and unclean food--that they should stop judging and despising one another--so that they could bear witness, as Jewish and gentile believers together, to the reconciling purpose of God. "Let us then pursue what makes for peace and mutual upbuilding. Do not, for the sake of [sex], destroy the work of God" (Rum. 14:]9-20).

There were sharp moral differences among the Roman Christians, serious questions about what God required. The stakes were high, but Paul refused to join the power struggle on one side or the other. Instead, he urged them, "Welcome one another, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God" (Rom. 15:7).

The affirmation of the church's unity at the conclusion of General Conference was a good starting point. But that unity will mean little unless we can bear witness together to "the gospel of peace" (Eph. 6:15). Let us then think of this next quadrennium as an extended fast, renouncing the acrimony that has clouded our discernment. The chief purposes of a fast are to clear our heads and hearts, to practice the discipline of detachment from what we suppose to be our needs, and to focus on hearing God rather than lobbying for our own agendas. Perhaps if we can take the measure of our own compromised sinfulness in matters of war and peace, we will find it possible to return to our conversation about sexuality later, and to see one another with new eyes as forgiven sinners, fellow witnesses to the one gospel of Jesus Christ in a violent and broken world.

During the past year, I have made lecturing trips to South Africa and New Zealand. In both countries, the first question repeatedly asked me by people in the churches, of all different theological stripes, was: "How can the Christians in America fail to speak out against this war?" In view of my own denomination's timid and faithless silence, I hardly knew what to answer. If we could together seek God's mercy for the chaos our nation has unleashed, I dare to hope that we might in time be able to offer a better answer to the nations, as well as to the One to whom we must ultimately render an account.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Victor Wooten Plays "Amazing Grace"


Spiritual Formation Website

Browsing around the web today, I came across what looks like a very interesting website dedicated to Christian spiritual formation. It's called "Metamorpha." Here's what they say about themselves:

We want to bring Christians together on this site to become an interactive community of formation and growth. Our goal is not just to inform but to take part in the forming and building of communities whose desire is to grow with Christ. We want Metamorpha to be a place of deeper, more authentic, and more relevant conversation and community, not just a place where people talk at, near, or even around one another. We hope that you will prayerfully consider taking part in the depths of our ministry – participating in prayer exercises, working through the disciplines in your own life, and sharing your story with fellow travelers on the journey.

Check it out.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Ten Ways Jesus Showed Love

I came across this posting on Beliefnet today, and thought it was worth sharing. It's adapted from Stephen Post's Why Good Things Happen to Good People (Broadway Books, 2007).


Jesus expressed his great love for people in ten dramatic ways. The gospels show us his immense compassion for the suffering, his attentive listening presence, and his energetic celebration of the lives around him. Here are ten ways Jesus demonstrated agape – the Greek word for unconditional, self-sacrificing love – and what we can learn from him.

1. The Way of Compassion
Jesus is depicted in the gospels as a healer who responded to the needs of the suffering even on the Sabbath and was roundly criticized for this by the authorities. He responded to those who would otherwise have been stoned to death. Compassion was perfectly captured in his parable of the Good Samaritan, a man who responded immediately and directly to a wounded man bleeding by the side of the road. Nothing could make him act in a way contrary to compassion – not a busy schedule or social stigma, as in the case of the Samaritan woman most others would not talk to. Jesus just did what compassion requires, whenever and wherever.

2. The Way of Attentive Listening
In interacting with others, Jesus was extraordinarily attentive, showing a humble willingness to respond in depth to what others had spoken. In his many healings, people cry out to him in need. Simply by listening and a touch, he offered them hope and wholeness. He listened carefully to his enemies and responded to them thoughtfully. He had immense patience with his disciples even when he had every reason to be impatient.

3. The Way of “Carefrontation”
Jesus was a master of caring confrontation. He practiced nonviolent resistance to evil, and it was his teaching and example that would inspire Gandhi and the great African-American Christian leaders of the civil rights movement. Jesus asked Peter to put down his sword; he said that those who live by the sword die by it. But he also confronted spiritual hypocrites and the many moneychangers who had set up shop in the Temple. He was constantly challenging people to think and act lovingly, and this meant that he had often to take the risk of confrontation when he saw destructive attitudes and behaviors around him.

4. The Way of Generativity
Jesus didn’t just help people. He inspired others to do so, and encouraged helping behaviors. Jesus devoted much of his time to making everyday people like James and Peter, ordinary fishermen, into paradigms of agape love. His life can best be understood as a light that has passed the power of agape love down through the ages, from generation to generation, through the church and beyond.

5. The Way of Celebration
There are so many times in the New Testament when Jesus celebrates. He attended a wedding feast, he was regularly criticized for drinking a bit of wine with his disciples, and he fed the five thousand. Jesus said that he came that we might have life, “and have it more abundantly” (1 John 10:10).

6. The Way of Humor
There are innumerable moments when Jesus expressed humor. The British theologian C.K. Chesterton, in his classic work, Orthodoxy, concluded that mirth was “the hidden virtue of Jesus.” C.S. Lewis wrote that “joy is the serious business of heaven.” The Quaker theologian Elton Trueblood, a chaplain at both Harvard and Stanford Universities, wrote The Humor of Christ in 1964 to “challenge the conventionalized picture of a Christ who never laughed.”

7. The Way of Creativity
The parables of Jesus are works of creative brilliance. The great stories of agape love are three: The Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son, and the Widow’s Mite. The first describes the power of compassionate response to echo down through the ages; the second captures the unconditional love of a father even after he has been insulted by his son in every way imaginable; the third shows how much it means when someone who has almost nothing gives a small contribution. Jesus loved people through improvising stories galore, for he was a literary genius. He was also creative in resolving ethical disputes, offering Solomonic resolutions. He had an unusually free creative mind.

8. The Way of Reverence
Jesus had immense reverence for nature and spent much time in quiet natural settings or on the sea. He constantly showed reverence for the hearth, for the everyday life of the family. While no religious leader had yet bestowed equal status on children, Jesus welcomed them and made them prototypes for those who would enter the Kingdom of Heaven. He respected women in ways that were unheard of at the time. He respected the downtrodden, the blind, the lepers. His respect for life was universal.

9. The Way of Loyalty
Jesus was loyal to Peter after Peter denied him. Even when rejected he was loyal, as in his lament over Jerusalem (Matthew 23:37). He was loyal to the will of God when, before his death, he prayed, “Lord, let this cup pass from my lips; nevertheless, not as I would but as you will.” And there was never anyone, however maimed or ill or rejected, whom he did not affirm in loyalty long after everyone else had negated them.

10. The Way of Forgiveness
Jesus of Nazareth brought forgiveness into the Western world. The great prayer of Christianity states: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Jesus asked men ready to throw stones to forgive a woman who had committed adultery. He always taught forbearance and recommended that we avoid judging one another because we all have faults. As he died on the cross, his last words were, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

Monday, September 10, 2007

Credo: Taking Refuge

Wading through some of Rowan Williams’ academic writing is rather like trying to plow through a bad translation of Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time. I find myself constantly stopping and asking myself, “What in the world is he saying?”

That’s fortunately not the case with one of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s latest publications: Tokens of Trust: An Introduction to Christian Belief (Westminster John Knox Press, 2007). Put together from talks given at Canterbury Cathedral in Holy Week 2005, Williams writes: “I have tried to keep some of the conversational style of the talks; and I have also tried not to take too much for granted about what readers might or might not know about the Bible or the Church’s history” (p. vii). I think that Williams succeeds admirably on both counts.

In the first chapter entitled, “Who Can We Trust?,” Williams describes what it means to articulate Christian belief using the classical creeds in a way that I find refreshingly helpful. Here’s what Williams writes:

We say, ‘I believe in one God, the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth.’ The form of words might initially remind us of questions like, ‘Do you believe in ghosts?’ or ‘Do you believe in UFOs?’ – questions about something ‘out there’ whose existence is doubtful, where the evidence is hotly disputed.

But, although there are unfortunately many, both believers and unbelievers, who treat the words like this, this wasn’t at all what they originally meant. In John’s Gospel (the ninth chapter), Jesus asks the blind man he’s just cured whether he ‘believes’ in the Son of Man. He’s certainly not asking (as he might ask about the Loch Ness monster) whether the man is of the opinion that the Son of Man exists; he wants to know whether the former blind man is ready to trust the Son of Man – that is, Jesus in his role as representative of the human race before God. The man – naturally – wants to know who the ‘Son of Man’ is, and Jesus says that it is him; the man responds with the words, ‘I believe.’

He believes; he has confidence. That is, he doesn’t go off wondering whether the Son of Man is out to further his own ends and deceive him. He trusts Jesus to be working for him, not for any selfish goals and he believes that what he sees and hears when Jesus is around is the truth. Hence the radical difference from ‘believing’ in UFOs or the Loch Ness monster. To believe in these doesn’t make that much difference to how I feel about myself and the world in general, and it has nothing to do with whether the Loch Ness monster is reliable or not. If it existed, it would undoubtedly be useful to know if it was a creature of dependable and regular habits, but that isn’t what we have in mind when we talk about believing in it.

The words at the beginning of the Creed, in contrast, do make a difference in how the world feels and you feel. They are closer to the formula used by Buddhists when they make a statement of faith: ‘I take refuge in the Buddha’ – the Buddha is where I belong, the Buddha is what I have confidence in to keep me safe. And the Creed begins to sound a little different if we begin here.

‘I believe in God the Father almighty’ isn’t the first in a set of answers to the question, ‘How many ideas or pictures have I inside my head?’ as if God were the name of one more doubtful thing like UFOs or ghosts to add to the list of statements about the furniture of my imagination. It is the beginning of a series of statements about where I find the anchorage of my life, where I find solid ground, home (pp. 5-6).

If Williams is right, then this is the heart of what we’re saying when we affirm 'belief' in God and in Jesus Christ using the words of the Creed:

Credo in Deum.

I believe in God.

Meaning …

I take refuge in God.

God is where I belong.

God is the One whom I have confidence in to keep me safe.

God is the anchorage of my life.

God is where I find solid ground, home.

Credo in Jesum Christum.

I believe in Jesus Christ.

Meaning …

I take refuge in Jesus.

Jesus is where I belong.

Jesus is the One whom I have confidence in to keep me safe.

Jesus is the anchorage of my life.

Jesus is where I find solid ground, home.

Friday, September 7, 2007

William Stringfellow and the Bible

Fr. Jones of "The Anglican Centrist" has posted an interesting essay over at Episcopal Cafe about Episcopal lay theologian William Stringfellow who "lived, advocated and worked as he did based on his deep commitment to living under the Word of God in the Bible."

Here's an excerpt from Fr. Jones' essay:

According to Stringfellow, the curious abandonment of the Bible by the Church began as a Modern Western phenomenon, with the intellectualization and academic specialization of biblical study. In their exceeding zeal to be regarded as intellectual equals by a secular intelligentsia, Mainline Protestant clergy and faculty put 'objective scholarship' ahead of 'faithful engagement' with the Word of God in the Bible. In good modern rationalist fashion, they began to look at the Bible as a container of intellectual or philosophical propositions to be analyzed and understood – as if the Bible were no different than the writings of Marx, Plato or Buddha.


Stringfellow argued that Christians ought not primarily to think of the Bible as something to be dissected, figured out, and discussed as if it were a dead frog on a lab table – or an encyclopedia of ancient concepts. Rather, he argued that the Bible should be engaged with by living people in living ways – for in and of itself the Word of God is living and active.

Yes, to Stringfellow, the Bible is the Word of God, and as such is a thing not dead, but a Word militant, free and alive. Christians should be focused on living within the Word of God in the Bible in this world. Our primary vocation as Christians, therefore, regarding that Word of God, is to be open to it, to listen to it, and to live it – to live humanly and biblically as he would say. Yet this kind of open listening to the Word of God in the Bible – is the very thing we modern people are no longer very good at. Stringfellow says we can't listen to the Word of God in the Bible because we are not particularly good at listening to anything outside ourselves.

But this is the key for the faithful Church in Stringfellow's eyes.

Read it all.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Spong Screed

Episcopal Cafe has posted "an unfortunate letter" written by retired Bishop John Shelby Spong to Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams.

The letter is as arrogant and intolerant as anything I've seen from folks like the Archbishop of Nigeria Peter Akinola.

So besides putting on public display Spong's liberal fundamentalism, I think this letter is a perfect illustration of how the far Left is little more than a negative mirror image of the far Right.

Read it all.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Richard Dawkins vs. Alister McGrath

I've posted before on Anglican priest and theologian Alister McGrath's criticisms of militant atheist and scientist Richard Dawkins.

Today, I've come across an hour-long video of Dawkins interviewing/debating McGrath.

Don't miss it!

Monday, September 3, 2007

Institutional Religion and the Jesus Way

Ever since I first read one of his books in seminary, Eugene H. Peterson continues to be one of my favorite Christian writers. I'm consistently impressed by Peterson's gift for breaking open familiar passages and stories in the Bible in ways that bring out new insights and depths of meaning that I had never considered before.

I'm now almost finished with Peterson's The Jesus Way: A Conversation on the Ways that Jesus is the Way (William B. Eerdmans, 2007). In a nutshell, the book's thesis is that the means and the ends of the Christian life are intrinsically connected. We cannot reach the end or goal of the Christian life using just any old means we like; rather, we must use the means revealed to us in the deeds and person of Jesus. As Peterson puts it: "If we want to participate (and not just go off in a corner and do our own thing), participate in the end, the salvation, the kingdom of God, we must do it in the way that is most appropriate to that end. We follow Jesus" (p. 7; author's emphasis).

Considering the many other alternative ways available in our world (which Peterson focuses on in the second half of the book), this thesis sounds deceptively simple. But you don't have to get too far into the book before it becomes clear that the Jesus way of discipleship is far more demanding than many of us may have bargained for.

I've read numerous books and articles by Peterson, and thus far this is my favorite. Every chapter - and almost every page - offers so much food for thought and contemplation that I find it difficult to even begin offering a review of the book as a whole (perhaps, after completing it, I'll find the time and energy for that).

Instead, I want to highlight something I read earlier today in the chapter entitled "The Way of Caiaphas." Peterson writes:

We live at a time when there is a lot of ... anti-institutionalism in the air. "I love Jesus but I hate the church" is a theme that keeps reappearing with variations in many settings (p. 230).

This is becoming more common as our culture and society become increasingly post-Christian. And, as Peterson points out, there are lots of intelligent reasons why people end up rejecting the Church as an institution. "Religion," Peterson rightly notes, "is one of the best covers for sin of almost all kinds. Pride, anger, lust, and greed are vermin that flourish under the floorboards of religion. Those of us who are identified with institutions or vocations in religion can't be too vigilant. The devil does some of his best work behind stained glass" (p. 230). Whether it's clergy sex scandals or the current acrimony threatening to splinter the Anglican Communion (or any number of other sins of omission or commission), we don't have to look far to find warrants for thinking that we can embrace Jesus but reject the Church.

But that's a conclusion that Jesus won't let us get away with. Peterson rightly says that "it is interesting to note that Jesus, who in abridged form is quite popular with the non-church crowd, was not anti-institutional. Jesus said 'Follow me,' and then regularly led his followers into the two primary religious institutional structures of his day: the synagogue and the temple" (p. 230). And Jesus did that in spite of the fact that both of these institutions were riddled with imperfection, corruption, and sin - just like religious institutions today.

Some of Peterson's concluding comments are worth pondering:

A spirituality that has no institutional structure or support very soon becomes self-indulgent and subjective and one-generational. A wise and learned student of these things, Baron Friedrich von Hügel thought long and hard about this and insisted that institutional religion is absolutely necessary, being an aspect of the incarnational core that is characteristic of the Christian faith (pp. 231-232).

I think this is correct. But I would add more. For at least one of the things we mean when we affirm in the words of the Nicene Creed that we believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church is that the Church is not epiphenomenal to Christian faith. The Church as an institution is not an afterthought, but rather indispensable to the way of Jesus. Yes, it's messy and frustrating and difficult. But it is just as much at the core of the Christian faith as the incarnation and resurrection of Jesus. Indeed, to separate Jesus and the Church - affirming the former while rejecting the latter - is not merely a rejection of the Church as an institution; insofar as that same institution is also Christ's risen Body and an extension of the Incarnation, to reject the Church is also to reject the Jesus Way.

Peterson's reminder that Jesus - critic that he was of the religious establishment of his day - did not take the Essene route of separating himself from institutional religion, but rather led his followers into the synagogue and into the temple, comes at a time when increasing numbers of people find the Church irrelevant. And it also comes at a time in the life of the Episcopal Church and global Anglicanism when it is all too easy to be cynical about the ways and means of the institutional Church.

I don't have any easy answers to either of those challenges. But I am grateful to Peterson for showing why it won't do to turn our backs on the Church if we want to follow Jesus.

Collect for Labor Day

Almighty God, you have so linked our lives with one another that all we do affects, for good or ill, all other lives: So guide us in the work we do, that we may do it not for self alone, but for the common good; and, as we seek a proper return for our own labor, make us mindful of the rightful aspirations of other workers, and arouse our concern for those who are out of work; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

The Book of Common Prayer, p. 261

Sunday, September 2, 2007

The Marks of Humility

Sermon for Proper 17, Year C
Jeremiah 2:4-14; Psalm 81:1, 10-16; Hebrews 13:1-8; Luke 14:1, 7-14

Former heavy-weight boxer James “Quick” Tillis is a cowboy from Oklahoma who made Chicago his home back in the early 1980s. He still remembers his first day in the Windy City after his arrival from Tulsa. “I got off the bus with two cardboard suitcases under my arms in downtown Chicago and stopped in front of the Sears Tower. I put my suitcases down, and I looked up at the Tower and I said to myself, ‘I’m going to conquer Chicago.’ When I looked down, the suitcases were gone.”

Sometimes when we think more highly of ourselves than we should, we lose a part of ourselves.

The Christian tradition affirms that the antidote to pride is the virtue of humility. And that humility is necessary for making progress in the Christian life. So it’s a bit disconcerting that humility has acquired a bad rap over the years. Too often, when we think of a humble person, we think of somebody who won’t stand up for themselves. We think of someone who’s willing to put up with manipulation and abuse without complaining. There’s a tendency associate humility with being weak and passive, as though humble persons are always being nice and agreeable even when others are kicking them in the teeth.

But nothing could be farther from the truth.

After all, the same Jesus who embodies all of the virtues we’re called to emulate – including humility – denounced the Pharisees to their faces as hypocrites and forcefully drove the moneychangers out of the Temple. We can hardly accuse Jesus of being a doormat for the world to wipe its feet on.

So what exactly is humility? Today’s gospel reading gives us a place to start.

At a dinner party thrown by some not-so-humble Pharisees, Jesus gives an illustration of humility. He says that if an undistinguished guest arrives early at a feast and takes the best seat in the house, and then an important person shows up, the host will ask the undistinguished guest to give up his seat to the important person. Losing his seat in front of everybody will make that guest feel as embarrassed as the heavy-weight boxer whose luggage was stolen from right under his nose.

The whole situation can be avoided, Jesus says, if you choose the lowest place. That way, if something happens, you have only one way to go and that’s up. Instead of shaming his listeners by saying, “You should be more humble!”, Jesus appeals to their sense of dignity and their desire to be respected and honored. It’s as if Jesus is saying, “It pays to be humble.” And why? It’s really not about getting a better seat at a dinner party, but rather about making it easier to cultivate intimacy with God. And intimacy with God gives us a self-worth and a purpose that nothing and no one can ever take away.

This morning I want to focus on four things we can say about the virtue of humility.

First, humility is about perceiving the truth. And the most basic truth of all is one that seems so obvious, and yet also one that we forget almost every single day: God is God and we aren’t. God is the Creator and we are the creatures. As the scripture says, we human beings are dust, and to dust we shall return (cf. Genesis 3:19). So it’s no accident that the word “humility” is related to the word “humus,” meaning “ground,” “soil,” and “earth.” Rightly grasping the truth about God and ourselves, humility brings us down to earth. Humble persons are well-grounded. They don’t see themselves as too important and they don’t take themselves too seriously.

With his sense of humor Winston Churchill is a good example. Once Churchill was asked, “Doesn’t it thrill you to know that every time you make a speech, the hall is packed to overflowing?” “It’s quite flattering,” Churchill replied. “But whenever I feel that way, I always remember that if instead of making a political speech I was being hanged, the crowd would be twice as big.”

A second point about humility is that it serves as a Golden Mean between the extremes of self-exaltation and self-denigration. It’s obvious that humility is incompatible with arrogance. But humility is also not the same thing as humiliation. Humble persons don’t think of themselves as worthless. So humility doesn’t turn up its nose at owning and celebrating gifts and talents. Humility is balanced. Humble persons rightly see and appreciate both their weaknesses and their strengths.

In the third place, humility entails freedom from bondage to self. William Temple, a former Archbishop of Canterbury, once put it this way: “Humility does not mean thinking less of yourself than of other people, nor does it mean having a low opinion of your own gifts. It means freedom from thinking about yourself one way or the other at all.”

There are few prisons worse than preoccupation with self. “How do I look?” “Am I doing this right?” “What do other people think of me?” “Is anybody listening to me preach?” It’s an endless, vicious circle of self-centeredness that exacerbates self-doubt and buttresses low self-esteem. Humble persons, by contrast, are free from these obsessions. They have nothing to prove. They are content with who and what they are. They simply do their best and leave the outcome in God’s hands.

And finally, humility opens our hearts to practice the radical hospitality of Jesus. Just imagine what it would be like to really put into practice Jesus’ teaching at the end of today’s Gospel reading. What if, instead of inviting friends of the same social and economic standing to dinner parties, we really did invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind to feast at our tables? What if we were willing to take the risk of opening – not just our church – but our homes to the marginalized and the outcast of our city? What would that be like?

Well, if we can trust Jesus it would be like a little bit of the kingdom of God come on earth as it is in heaven. But that’s only possible when we practice humility – the humility we see in Jesus, the one who, by emptying himself of all claims to divine privilege, had nothing to prove to anybody else, and was therefore free to serve a suffering humanity.

The virtue of humility gives us the gifts of seeing the truth, avoiding extremes, knowing real freedom, and practicing kingdom hospitality. Humility helps us to not take ourselves too seriously so that we can focus on the things of God – things like serving the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. It makes our hearts and minds more and more receptive to being shaped in the image and likeness of Jesus Christ, who came not to be served, but to serve. And it instills a deeply rooted conviction that our ultimate security is found in a God most clearly revealed in the self-sacrificial love and joy of Jesus.