Sunday, November 30, 2008

Yes, Young People Do Like Traditional Liturgy

Thus says Luiz Coelho in an article of the same name posted at "The Daily Episcopalian" over at Episcopal Cafe. A young adult (in his late 20s), Coelho challenges the idea that the way to attract young people into the Church is by incorporating aspects of popular culture (rock bands, acoustic music, etc.) and by making the liturgy more informal. Instead, he contends that more of today's young people are attracted to traditional forms of liturgical worship and he offers some reasons for why this might be the case.

Here's an excerpt from his essay:

I can still remember quite vividly the Saturday before the end of the Lambeth Conference, where I served as a steward. We were invited to a special plenary session at which bishops and their spouses had the opportunity to talk to some of us concerning why we, as young people, still wanted to be members of the Church (In fact, my estimate is that around half of us are following the ordination path and most of the others are actively involved in some sort of Church ministry). It is no secret that churches in general (especially in Western societies) are increasingly losing members of young age, and I could understand that for many of those bishops, it was very vital to hear the voice of the those young women and men who seemed to be so proud of their faith. Maybe what they had to say would help them rescue the unchurched and provide stable growth to their dioceses.

We had, unfortunately, very little time, and only four stewards (out of almost sixty) were chosen to speak for us. They did a good job, but some points, in my opinion, were not touched at all. And since I am in my late twenties, and can still be considered a young adult, I think it would be a good idea to push this conversation forward and foster a discussion on one of the aspects I see young adults articulating more and more interested in: traditional liturgy. And, I fear, many of our bishops have not realized the incredible potential behind this single fact.

The Lambeth Stewards' Program helped me catch a glimpse of Anglican Youth worldwide. We came from many different countries, backgrounds and social statuses, and we comprised two main generational groups (18-25 and 25-35). However, I noticed that many of us shared a very distinct appreciation for traditional liturgy. Moreover, a disproportional percentage among us -if compared with the amount of parishes compatible with such worldviews- were especially fond of Anglo-Catholic liturgy and ancient Church Music. Yes, I know many probably think we were just “Church nerds”, but these numbers match somehow the data I had before from Episcopal/Anglican youth both in Brazil and in the USA.

What I perceive more and more is that a sizable amount (and in some environments, the majority) of us prefers “old-fashioned” liturgy, and it is not rare to find youth discussing the beauty of an east-facing Mass, the dignifying simplicity of Anglican chant or the pity that Festal Evensong is almost unheard of nowadays. It may also come as a surprise for some to learn that such an interest in traditional liturgical matters is not necessarily attached to conservatism. In fact, among young adults it usually holds hands with an inclusive and socially liberal, yet credal, theology. Even in the few cases where I have ran into theologically conservative and liturgically traditionalist young Anglicans, they have seemed to me to be much more charitable to divergent ideas and more apt to accepting diversity, or even a peaceful co-existence in different Churches, or Church bodies.

One reason behind the popularity of this “movement” among young people is simple, and Derek Olsen beautifully opened the discussion here. I would add a second thought, though; many young Anglicans are attracted to traditional liturgical forms because they offer stability. We have been born in a fast-paced world, and in a short period of time have seen the rise and fall of countries, regimes, technologies, musical styles, fashion trends and even Church movements. At the same time, most of the cultural norms our mothers and fathers fought to liberalize do not apply to us anymore, and only God knows how they are going to be within some years. The world is freer, and it is changing so fast that sometimes it seems to be in a free-fall. The Church, to many of us, is the last glimpse of stability that exists in this post-modern society, and the certainty that its language has managed to be the same for all these years is a key factor for two reasons (among several):

- First, it puts us in an (even more) special relationship with the Communion of Saints, who throughout the ages have used the same responses, anthems and hymns to worship the Triune God;

- Second, because it is a wonderful metaphor of God's unchanging love and care for humankind. No matter what happens – hunger, fear, war, depression or loneliness – the Church, our safe refuge, will be there with a very familiar and easily recognizable embrace expressed in its magnificent and Christ-centered liturgy.

Read it all.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Black Friday Body Count

I woke up this morning to a story that is both a tragedy and an outrage. It happened early yesterday morning at a Wal-Mart in Green Acres Mall in Valley Stream, NY. Here's an excerpt from the New York Times article:

The throng of Wal-Mart shoppers had been building all night, filling sidewalks and stretching across a vast parking lot at the Green Acres Mall in Valley Stream, N.Y. At 3:30 a.m., the Nassau County police had to be called in for crowd control, and an officer with a bullhorn pleaded for order.

Tension grew as the 5 a.m. opening neared. Someone taped up a crude poster: “Blitz Line Starts Here.”

By 4:55, with no police officers in sight, the crowd of more than 2,000 had become a rabble, and could be held back no longer. Fists banged and shoulders pressed on the sliding-glass double doors, which bowed in with the weight of the assault. Six to 10 workers inside tried to push back, but it was hopeless.

Suddenly, witnesses and the police said, the doors shattered, and the shrieking mob surged through in a blind rush for holiday bargains. One worker, Jdimytai Damour, 34, was thrown back onto the black linoleum tiles and trampled in the stampede that streamed over and around him. Others who had stood alongside Mr. Damour trying to hold the doors were also hurled back and run over, witnesses said.

Some workers who saw what was happening fought their way through the surge to get to Mr. Damour, but he had been fatally injured, the police said. Emergency workers tried to revive Mr. Damour, a temporary worker hired for the holiday season, at the scene, but he was pronounced dead an hour later at Franklin Hospital Medical Center in Valley Stream.

Four other people, including a 28-year-old woman who was described as eight months pregnant, were treated at the hospital for minor injuries.

Detective Lt. Michael Fleming, who is in charge of the investigation for the Nassau police, said the store lacked adequate security. He called the scene “utter chaos” and said the “crowd was out of control.” As for those who had run over the victim, criminal charges were possible, the lieutenant said. “I’ve heard other people call this an accident, but it is not,” he said. “Certainly it was a foreseeable act.”

But even with videos from the store’s surveillance cameras and the accounts of witnesses, Lieutenant Fleming and other officials acknowledged that it would be difficult to identify those responsible, let alone to prove culpability.

Some shoppers who had seen the stampede said they were shocked. One of them, Kimberly Cribbs of Queens, said the crowd had acted like “savages.” Shoppers behaved badly even as the store was being cleared, she recalled.

“When they were saying they had to leave, that an employee got killed, people were yelling, ‘I’ve been on line since yesterday morning,’” Ms. Cribbs told The Associated Press. “They kept shopping.”

A caption under a photograph at AOL Money & Finance showing people lined up outside of the store reads: "Within hours of the trampling death of a Wal-Mart employee, Valley Stream, N.Y., customers had lined up behind crime scene tape, waiting for the retailer to reopen."

A description for a video of the aftermath taken with a cell phone camera says: "Crazy Black Friday Shoppers Stampede a man to death, then laugh and make jokes in the background."

They kept shopping.

They waited for the retailer to reopen.

They laughed and made jokes in the background.

It sounds almost trite to say that this shows the deadly character of greed and consumerism run amuck, but given the absolute disregard for human life displayed by this mob in their rush to shop, what else can be said?

Friday, November 28, 2008

Advent Conspiracy

It's hard to believe, but Advent begins the day after tomorrow. In preparation for one of the most complex and (in many ways) misunderstood seasons of the Church calendar year, I thought I'd do what many others in the blogosphere are doing: share the Advent Conspiracy Promo Video.

By way of context, it helps to know that Advent Conspiracy describes itself as "an international movement restoring the scandal of Christmas by substituting compassion for consumption." Here's what they say on their website's homepage:

The story of Christ's birth is a story of promise, hope, and a revolutionary love.

So, what happened? What was once a time to celebrate the birth of a savior has somehow turned into a season of stress, traffic jams, and shopping lists.

And when it's all over, many of us are left with presents to return, looming debt that will take months to pay off, and this empty feeling of missed purpose. Is this what we really want out of Christmas?

What if Christmas became a world-changing event again?

Welcome to Advent Conspiracy.

Worship Fully

Spend Less

Give More

Love All

Now for the video:

For more, check out the Advent Conspiracy website.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Thanksgiving Day

A General Thanksgiving

Accept, O Lord, our thanks and praise for all that you have done for us. We thank you for the splendor of the whole creation, for the beauty of this world, for the wonder of life, and for the mystery of love.

We thank you for the blessing of family and friends, and for the loving care which surrounds us on every side.

We thank you for setting us at tasks which demand our best efforts, and for leading us to accomplishments which satisfy and delight us.

We thank you also for those disappointments and failures that lead us to acknowledge our dependence on you alone.

Above all, we thank you for your Son Jesus Christ; for the truth of his Word and the example of his life; for his steadfast obedience, by which he overcame temptation; for his dying, through which he overcame death; and for his rising to life again, in which we are raised to the life of your kingdom.

Grant us the gift of your Spirit, that we may know Christ and make him known; and through him, at all times and in all places, may give thanks to you in all things. Amen.

The Book of Common Prayer, p. 836

Monday, November 24, 2008

The Gospel in Three Minutes

Today I came across an interesting video in which James Choung (author of True Story: A Christianity Worth Believing In) summarizes the Gospel in 3 minutes. I generally am not a fan of this sort of thing, in part because something so short almost always tends to grossly oversimplify. But this video is quite good. In fact, it could almost be taken as a summary of the main thesis of N. T. Wright's book Simply Christian.

Check it out:

Then check out the sequel:

In an interview with Christianity Today, Choung explains why he calls his diagram "The Big Story":

I call the diagram the Big Story because it sums up the plot points of the larger story in which we live and breathe. The most essential parts are the phrases: designed for good, damaged by evil, restored for better, and sent together to heal. They follow the biblical narrative: creation, fall, redemption, and mission.

And he continues:

These tools obviously aren't magic wands that will automatically cause someone to pledge allegiance to Jesus. But they are aids that offer a clear explanation in a memorable format. And when we're nervous, having something to hold on to will help us be clear in what we present. Even if we don't use the tools themselves, they give us helpful reminders to know what's essential in a presentation and what's not.

I think of them as modern-day iconography. Icons and stained glass windows helped preliterate Christians understand biblical stories and themes. Evangelism diagrams have the same function today: they help us understand the core message of the faith.

For more, go to Choung's blog "Tell It Slant".

Monday, November 17, 2008

Doctrine and Dogma

I used to teach a section of an Adult Inquirers’ Class on “Creeds and Doctrine.” In that section, I made a distinction between two terms that are often used synonymously: doctrine and dogma. And I found Richard P. McBrien a helpful resource for making that distinction:

Critical reflection on faith is what is known as theology. According to the classic definition of St. Anselm of Canterbury (d. 1109), theology is “faith seeking understanding” (fides quaerens intellectum). But theology is not the only outcome of faith. In the face of perceived threats to the purity and integrity of the faith or to the unity of the faith-community, the pastoral leadership of the Church on occasion chooses among competing theologies to formulate normative rules that might guide the Church’s preaching, catechesis, and formal teaching. These normative rules are called doctrines (literally, “teachings”). Doctrines that are promulgated with the highest degree of solemnity, that is, as definitive rules of faith, are called dogmas (literally, “what is right”). All dogmas are doctrines, but not all doctrines are dogmas [Catholicism, New Edition (HarperCollins, 1994), p. 20; emphasis in text].

Doctrines and dogmas set the boundaries that provide the “rules of the game” for what it means to be a Christian. The Church can no more do without doctrines and dogmas than football or baseball can do without sidelines and rules for playing. This is not merely a matter of maintaining order. At a more basic level, this has to do with establishing and sustaining the values and convictions that comprise the Church’s religious identity as Christian (as opposed to some other possible identity). And it also has to do with articulating (however imperfectly) what the Church believes is true.

Derek the Ænglican offers further thoughts on the distinction between doctrine and dogma that I find quite helpful. (The context of his discussion includes reflections on Mariology and responses to the comments of others from an earlier posting, which I am not citing here.) He starts out with observations that, to my mind, uphold a generously orthodox understanding of the Christian faith:

Doctrine is what may be held; dogma is what must be held. To put it another way, it’s possible to have a doctrinally minimalist Christianity and to still have it recognizable as orthodox Christianity. For example, it’s possible to lop off many of the doctrines and practices relating to the saints and the sacraments and still be “Christian” as described by the Scriptures and the Creeds.

I think it’s a lot more fulfilling and a lot more fun to have these, but I’ll recognize Reformed and Baptist folk as fellow members of the mystical Body even if they don’t sing the right antiphons on the Benedictus for the feast of St Ethelreda. But “dogma” means that it must be held in order for it to be a valid Christianity. A “dogma” is the kind of thing that if you went, in the Spirit, to an orthodox mother and father who died before its establishment and asked, “Hey, do you believe X”, they’d respond, “Well, of course—but that’s so obvious we’ve never had to say it…”

And to further clarify, Derek writes:

When a doctrine is defined as dogma, Christians are obligated to believe it. It is not optional. … Those who deny the divinity of Christ are denying dogma; this puts them outside of the faith. Those denying the resurrection of the dead are denying dogma; this puts them outside of the faith as well.

Derek then addresses the relationship between holding the correct doctrines and dogmas and what it means to hold the Christian faith:

For me, faith is not a body of beliefs to be held. Holding the Christian faith does not consist of checking the correct boxes on a list of dogmas. … Being a Christian is about consciously living out the relationship that Christ facilitated (through incarnation, death, resurrection, ascension, and his continued presence with us) and proclaimed (in both his words and works) concerning God. It’s embodying the life hid with Christ in God. Holding right beliefs is important because we make choices about how we live based on what we believe. An intellectualist view may say that ticking the right dogma box is what matters. I’d heartily disagree—that’s a beginning, not an ending. We don’t hold doctrines because they assure us of our salvation, we hold them because they ground fundamentals about the relationship that we’re living within. To hold incorrect views is to mistake the nature of the relationship and thus to err when we try to live that relationship out. This, in my view, is what’s problematic about deny Christ’s divinity or the resurrection of the dead. They’re not wrong because they’re lacking the check mark, but because the relationship will be skewed in ways that it should not be.

I particularly appreciate the emphasis here on the practical effects of holding incorrect views. That’s not because I have little concern for truth beyond practical effects (nor am I saying that Derek lacks such a concern, either). Rather, it’s because a pragmatic approach that focuses on consequences or effects of beliefs shifts the focus away from the intentions or motives of the persons holding the view(s). And that’s a helpful way of avoiding one of the nastier sides of the history of Christian thought: attacking the person of other Christians rather than (or in addition to) the views they hold. The Baptismal Covenant vows to “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself” and to “respect the dignity of every human being” are just as relevant in our debates over doctrine and dogma as they are in any other arena [The Book of Common Prayer, p. 305].

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Problems with the Church

I just started reading an interesting book by C. Kirk Hadaway, the current Director of Research at the Episcopal Church Center. It's entitled, Behold I Do A New Thing: Transforming Communities of Faith (The Pilgrim Press, 2001). I've not gotten very far into the book, but already I'm struck by several passages.

For starters, there's Hadaway's understanding of a religious institution (as opposed to a secular institution or a social club):

"What is a religious institution? Although opinions differ greatly on this matter, I accept the definition that religious institutions are those that connect or relate the everyday world (the immanent) to a reality that is behind, beyond, or subsumes our world (the transcendent). Religious institutions allow the individual to experience transcendent reality in the midst of everyday existence" (p. 9).

Hadaway continues by arguing that, in light of this understanding of religious institutions, most churches in North American are more secular than religious:

" ... many churches in the United States, Canada, and the rest of the Western world are not very religious. Western rationalism, in general, and Protestantism, in particular, militates against the experience of the mystery of God. Mainstream Protestant churches often intellectualize the connection between the transcendent and the immanent; conservative evangelical churches tend to replace God's mystery with mechanistic formulae and causal logic. These are extreme examples, of course, but where in North American Christianity does one see much emphasis on mystery, the spirit, religious experience, or communion with God? These are probably most evident among Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, Episcopal, Pentecostal Holiness, African American, and some Unitarian Universalist churches. Even the rapidly growing seeker-sensitive megachurches seem to have little that is religious in their worship. Most combine moral lessons and self-help in an entertaining package. Not much mystery there!" (p. 9).

"Many churches in the West are not very religious." Is this a fair charge?

Then there's Hadaway's distinction between the purpose of the church and the purpose of for-profit corporations and social clubs:

"What distinguishes the purpose of a church from that of a for-profit corporation, or even a social club? I prefer straightforward language, so I will turn again to a statement from Peter Drucker: 'The business of the church is to change people; the business of a corporation is to satisfy them.' That is, I believe, a statement that should be taken to heart by every church leader. It forces each of us to ask the question, 'are people being changed (transformed) in my congregation?' If the answer is no, then my church has a different purpose, and that purpose is probably to satisfy people" (p. 11).

I think that Hadaway is on-target here. It is, indeed, all too easy for the church to fall into the trap of "customer satisfaction" rather than transformation. But what exactly constitutes "transformation" and how do we know it's happening? Perhaps Hadaway begins addressing those questions as he continues:

"Of course, to change people or transform them begs the question of what they should be changed into. The obvious answer is that they should be changed into disciples who are open to the spirit of God and live a life of faith, vocation, and reconciliation in God's Realm. Thus, transformation is intentional and directed, rather than haphazard. It is also embodied and incarnational. People change, because all things change, but in most cases the church isn't much of an ingredient for personal change, much less the catalyst. The church can be both a catalyst for transformation, as people experience God through transcendent worship, and a place of formation, as people become part of a community of faith" (p. 11; author's emphasis).

The church can be these things, but Hadaway maintains that "in most cases" the church fails. Is he right? What other catalysts of transformation and places of formation are taking the church's place?

Friday, November 14, 2008

Consecration of Samuel Seabury

Today on the Church calendar we remember the consecration of Samuel Seabury as the first Bishop of the Episcopal Church, the historic ties between the Episcopal Church in the United States of America and the Episcopal Church in Scotland, and God's goodness in bestowing upon us "the gift of the episcopate" [Lesser Feasts and Fasts (Church Publishing, p. 453)].

James Kiefer summarizes the story quite nicely:

A crucial date for members of the Episcopal Church in the United States of America is the consecration of the first Bishop of the Anglican Communion in the United States. During the colonial era, there had been no Anglican bishops in the New World; and persons seeking to be ordained as clergy had had to travel to England for the purpose. After the achievement of American independence, it was important for the Church in the United States to have its own bishops, and an assembly of Connecticut clergy chose Samuel Seabury to go to England and there seek to be consecrated as a bishop.

However, the English bishops were forbidden by law to consecrate anyone who would not take an oath of allegiance to the British Crown. He accordingly turned to the Episcopal Church of Scotland. When the Roman Catholic king James II was deposed in 1688, some of the Anglican clergy (including some who had been imprisoned by James for defying him on religious issues) said that, having sworn allegiance to James as King, they could not during his lifetime swear allegiance to the new monarchs William and Mary. Those who took this position were known as non-Jurors (non-swearers), and they included almost all the bishops and clergy of the Episcopal Church in Scotland. Accordingly, the monarchs and Parliament declared that thenceforth the official church in Scotland should be the Presbyterian Church. The Episcopal Church of Scotland thereafter had no recognition by the government, and for some time operated under serious legal disabilities. However, since it had no connection with the government, it was free to consecrate Seabury without government permission, and it did. This is why you see a Cross of St. Andrew on the Episcopal Church flag.

In Aberdeen, 14 November 1784, Samuel Seabury was consecrated to the Episcopate by the Bishop and the Bishop Coadjutor of Aberdeen and the Bishop of Ross and Caithness. He thus became part of the unbroken chain of bishops that links the Church today with the Church of the Apostles.

In return, he promised them that he would do his best to persuade the American Church to use as its Prayer of Consecration (blessing of the bread and wine at the Lord's Supper) the Scottish prayer, taken largely unchanged from the 1549 Prayer Book, rather than the much shorter one in use in England. The aforesaid prayer, adopted by the American Church with a few modifications, has been widely regarded as one of the greatest treasures of the Church in this country.

Here's a brief excerpt from Bishop Seabury's 1789 work entitled An Earnest Persuasive to Frequent Communion:

The general practice in this country is to have monthly Communions, and I bless God the Holy Ordinance is so often administered. Yet when I consider its importance, both on account of the positive command of Christ and of the many and great benefits we receive from it, I cannot but regret that it does not make a part of every Sunday's solemnity. That it was the principal part of the daily worship of the primitive Christians all the early accounts inform us. And it seems probable from the Acts of the Apostles that the Christians came together in their religious meetings chiefly for its celebration. (Acts 2:42, 46; 20:7). And the ancient writers generally interpret the petition in our Lord's prayer, "Give us this day," or day by day, "our daily bread," of the spiritual food in the Holy Eucharist. Why daily nourishment should not be as necessary to our souls as to our bodies no good reason can be given.

If the Holy Communion was steadily administered whenever there is an Epistle and Gospel appointed, which seems to have been the original intention - or was it on every Sunday - I cannot help thinking that it would revive the esteem and reverence Christians once had for it, and would show its good effects in their lives and conversations. I hope the time will come when this pious and Christian practice may be renewed. And whenever it shall please God to inspire the hearts of the Communicants of any congregation with a wish to have it renewed, I flatter myself they will find a ready disposition in their minister to forward their pious desire.

In the meantime, let me beseech you to make good use of the opportunities you have; and let nothing but real necessity keep you from the heavenly banquet when you have it in your power to partake of it.


Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Random Holy Land Photos


Olive Tree in Galilee

Align Center

Mosaic at the Church of the Beatitudes, Galilee


Boat on the Sea of Galilee



Virgin and Child
(Chapel at the Notre Dame Hostel, Jerusalem)

Two Americas

Chris Hedges has written a fascinating and disturbing account of two Americas: a minority America that is print-based and literate, and a majority America that is image-based and illiterate. I'm not sure that I completely buy Hedges argument or the pessimism it entails, but I think he's on to something that should give thoughtful Americans - and thoughtful Christians - pause.

Here are some excerpts:

We live in two Americas. One America, now the minority, functions in a print-based, literate world. It can cope with complexity and has the intellectual tools to separate illusion from truth. The other America, which constitutes the majority, exists in a non-reality-based belief system. This America, dependent on skillfully manipulated images for information, has severed itself from the literate, print-based culture. It cannot differentiate between lies and truth. It is informed by simplistic, childish narratives and clichés. It is thrown into confusion by ambiguity, nuance and self-reflection. This divide, more than race, class or gender, more than rural or urban, believer or nonbeliever, red state or blue state, has split the country into radically distinct, unbridgeable and antagonistic entities.

There are over 42 million American adults, 20 percent of whom hold high school diplomas, who cannot read, as well as the 50 million who read at a fourth- or fifth-grade level. Nearly a third of the nation’s population is illiterate or barely literate. And their numbers are growing by an estimated 2 million a year. But even those who are supposedly literate retreat in huge numbers into this image-based existence. A third of high school graduates, along with 42 percent of college graduates, never read a book after they finish school. Eighty percent of the families in the United States last year did not buy a book.

The illiterate rarely vote, and when they do vote they do so without the ability to make decisions based on textual information. American political campaigns, which have learned to speak in the comforting epistemology of images, eschew real ideas and policy for cheap slogans and reassuring personal narratives. Political propaganda now masquerades as ideology. Political campaigns have become an experience. They do not require cognitive or self-critical skills. They are designed to ignite pseudo-religious feelings of euphoria, empowerment and collective salvation. Campaigns that succeed are carefully constructed psychological instruments that manipulate fickle public moods, emotions and impulses, many of which are subliminal. They create a public ecstasy that annuls individuality and fosters a state of mindlessness. They thrust us into an eternal present. They cater to a nation that now lives in a state of permanent amnesia. It is style and story, not content or history or reality, which inform our politics and our lives. We prefer happy illusions. And it works because so much of the American electorate, including those who should know better, blindly cast ballots for slogans, smiles, the cheerful family tableaux, narratives and the perceived sincerity and the attractiveness of candidates. We confuse how we feel with knowledge. ...

Political leaders in our post-literate society no longer need to be competent, sincere or honest. They only need to appear to have these qualities. Most of all they need a story, a narrative. The reality of the narrative is irrelevant. It can be completely at odds with the facts. The consistency and emotional appeal of the story are paramount. The most essential skill in political theater and the consumer culture is artifice. Those who are best at artifice succeed. Those who have not mastered the art of artifice fail. In an age of images and entertainment, in an age of instant emotional gratification, we do not seek or want honesty. We ask to be indulged and entertained by clichés, stereotypes and mythic narratives that tell us we can be whomever we want to be, that we live in the greatest country on Earth, that we are endowed with superior moral and physical qualities and that our glorious future is preordained, either because of our attributes as Americans or because we are blessed by God or both.

The ability to magnify these simple and childish lies, to repeat them and have surrogates repeat them in endless loops of news cycles, gives these lies the aura of an uncontested truth. We are repeatedly fed words or phrases like yes we can, maverick, change, pro-life, hope or war on terror. It feels good not to think. All we have to do is visualize what we want, believe in ourselves and summon those hidden inner resources, whether divine or national, that make the world conform to our desires. Reality is never an impediment to our advancement.

Read it all.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Monks Brawl in Church of the Holy Sepulchre


The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Old City of Jerusalem is one of the holiest sites in Christendom. In 326 A.D., the Emperor Constantine commissioned the building of a church over the site that was believed to be Jesus' tomb. And according to Christian tradition, it marks the spot of both Jesus' crucifixion at Golgotha and his resurrection. It also houses a stone slab which, according to tradition, is where Jesus' dead body was laid after being taken down from the cross.

Oversight of the church belongs to five different Christian groups: the Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholics (Franciscans), Armenians, Coptics, and Ethiopians. The peace between these different Christians is maintained by the Status Quo, which was issued by Abdul Mecit in 1852 and later reaffirmed by the Crimean War treaty. It defines the privileges enjoyed by the different clergy groups in both the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and in the Church of the Nativity.

In practical terms, this means dividing each of these churches into different spaces that are assigned to each group for their worship. That can be difficult to maintain, since it's easy to overstep one's assigned boundaries and encroach on somebody else's turf. And even when the boundaries are observed, one of the results is liturgical cacophony. If you go very early Sunday morning to the Holy Sepulchre, each of the Christian groups are conducting separate but simultaneous worship services. And each tries to be louder than the other. (According to a fellow pilgrim who attended early Sunday morning while we were in Jerusalem, the Franciscans had the upper hand here because they have the organ, which was played very loudly and drowned out everything else.)

In order to insure the Status Quo, a Muslim family in Jerusalem was given the key to the Holy Sepulchre. To this day, a representative of this family opens the church every morning and locks it each evening.

The divisions and competitive spirit between the five Christian groups tend to insure that badly needed repairs almost never get started or completed at either the Church of the Holy Sepulchre or at the Church of the Nativity. There's no fire exit at the Holy Sepulchre because the Christians can't agree on where to put it. A ladder placed on a ledge of the church back in the 19th Century is still there because no one can agree on who has the authority to take it down. Scaffolding climbs the side of the Holy Sepulchre which, according to our tour guide, has been there as long as he can remember (and he has to be in his 50s). It's quite possible that both churches could literally cave in with nothing being done to prevent it.

In spite of it all, the pilgrims continue to be touched by the presence of the Holy here. When I visited just a couple of weeks ago, the Holy Sepulchre was so crowded with pilgrims from all over the world that it was difficult to even move (much less get many good pictures). That didn't stop pilgrims from prostrating themselves and venerating the holy sites inside the church, often with deep, heartfelt emotion. It was a moving scene.

Early this Sunday morning, there were expressions of a different sort inside the church. Here's an excerpt from the story in today's Jerusalem Post:

Police rushed into one of Christianity's holiest churches Sunday and arrested two clergyman after an argument between monks erupted into a brawl next to the site of Jesus' tomb. The clash broke out between Armenian and Greek Orthodox monks in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, revered as the site of Jesus' crucifixion, burial and resurrection. 
It began as Armenian clergymen marched in an annual procession commemorating the 4th-century discovery of the cross believed to have been used to crucify Jesus. It ended with the arrival of dozens of riot policemen who separated the sides, seizing a bearded Armenian monk in a red-and-pink robe and a black-clad Greek Orthodox monk with a bloody gash on his forehead. Both men were taken away in handcuffs. 
The feud revolves around a demand by the Greek Orthodox to post a monk inside the Edicule - the ancient structure built on what is believed to be the tomb of Jesus - during the Armenian procession. The Armenians refused, and when they tried to march the Greek Orthodox monks blocked their way. 
"We were keeping resistance so that the procession could not pass through ... and establish a right that they don't have," said a young Greek Orthodox monk with a cut next to his left eye. The monk, who gave his name as Serafim, said he sustained the wound when an Armenian punched him from behind and broke his glasses. 
Father Pakrat of the Armenian Patriarchate said the Greek demand was "against the status quo arrangement and against the internal arrangement of the Holy Sepulcher." He said the Greeks attacked first. 
Archbishop Aristarchos, the chief secretary of the Greek Orthodox patriarchate, said his monks had not initiated the violence. "I'm sorry that these events happened in front of the Holy Sepulcher, which is the most holy religious monument of Christianity," he said. After the brawl, the church was crowded with police holding assault rifles and equipped with riot gear, standing beside Golgotha, where Jesus is believed to have been crucified, and the long smooth stone marking the place where tradition holds his body was laid out.

Here's video footage of the "unholy slugfest":

Christians beating each other up right next to the site where tradition says that Jesus was crucified! And monks, at that! If this weren't such a sad and pathetic witness to the world, it would be comedic, like a scene out of a Monty Python movie.

By stark contrast to the behavior of these monks in one of the holiest sites of Christendom, our tour guide (who was an Arab Christian) told us several times that Christians who live in the Holy Land almost never refer to themselves by denominational affiliation. They don't say, "I'm Roman Catholic," or, "I'm Greek Orthodox," or, "I'm Anglican," etc. Instead, he said that they simply refer themselves as Christians. If I remember what our guide told us correctly, Christians comprise about 1.5-1.8% of the total population in Israel, a number which decreases yearly. So as Christians become more and more a beleaguered minority in the Holy Land, most of them see little to be gained by competing with each other. And so they emphasize what they share in common. "We are Christians."

Perhaps the monks at Holy Sepulchre could learn a thing or two from that.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Holy Land Cats

I made one feline friend and saw many other potential friends while traveling in the Holy Land.


A friend doesn't want me to leave Tiberias.


Guarding a view of the Western Wall.


Jerusalem cat.


Hanging out in the Old City of Jerusalem.


Catching a nap in the Old City of Jerusalem.


The face of wisdom.

Scrawled on a Jerusalem Wall

Heading to the Western Wall, I saw this scrawled on a wall in the Old City of Jersualem:


By contrast, check out what I saw on the Palestinian side of the wall while leaving Bethlehem:


As we got closer to the checkpoint, our bus driver told us to put our cameras away. Otherwise, I would have gotten a shot of the graffiti art next to this one. It depicted a face looking out over barbed wire, and the words beneath the picture said: "To exist is to resist."

Friday, November 7, 2008

Religion is Ridiculous?

I have not yet seen the film "Religulous," but I am sufficiently familiar with comedian Bill Maher's anti-religious diatribes to know that his views on religion all-too-often fall into the fallacy of converse accident. Writing a review of the film for Sightings, social psychologist David G. Meyers makes this and many other observations in ways that are well worth reading.

Religion is Ridiculous?

by David G. Meyers

Ridiculous, and worse. So say the new atheist books: In God is Not Great, Christopher Hitchens does not mince words, calling religion "violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism and tribalism and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children." Now Bill Maher's movie Religulous lampoons the plausibility and social effects of all religion, ominously concluding that the world will end if religion does not end. But I suggest that social science data point to a different conclusion than do the new atheist anecdotes of hypocritical and vile believers.

Many in the community of faith gladly grant the irrationality of many religious fundamentalists - people who bring to mind Madeline L'Engle's comment that "Christians have given Christianity a bad name." But mocking religious "nut cases" is cheap and easy. By heaping scorn on the worst examples of anything, including medicine, law, politics, or even atheism, one can make it look evil. But the culture war of competing anecdotes becomes a standoff. One person counters religion-inspired 9/11 leader Mohammed Atta with religion-inspired Martin Luther King, Jr. Another counters the genocidal crusades with the genocidal atheists, Stalin and Mao. But as we social scientists like to say, the plural of anecdote is not data.

Maher and the new atheist authors present anecdote upon anecdote about dangerous and apparently irrational religious behavior, while ignoring massive data on religion's associations with human happiness, health, and altruism. The Gallup Organization, for example, has just released worldwide data culled from surveys of more than a quarter-million people in 140 countries. Across regions and religions, highly religious people are most helpful. In Europe, in the Americas, in Africa, and in Asia they are about fifty percent more likely than the less religious to report having donated money to charity in the last month, volunteered time to an organization, and helped a stranger.

This finding - that the religious tend to be more human than heartless - expresses the help-giving mandates found in all major religions, from Islamic alms-giving to Judeo-Christian tithing. And it replicates many earlier findings. In a Gallup survey, forty-six percent of "highly spiritually committed" Americans volunteered with the infirm, poor or elderly, as did twenty-two percent of those "highly uncommitted." Ditto charitable giving, for which surveys have revealed a strong faith-philanthropy correlation. In one, the one in four Americans who attended weekly worship services gave nearly half of all charitable contributions.

Is religion nevertheless, as Freud supposed, and Maher's film seems to assert, an "obsessional neurosis" that breeds sexually repressed, guilt-laden misery? Anecdotes aside, the evidence is much kinder to C. S. Lewis's presumption that "joy is the serious business of heaven." For example, National Opinion Research Center surveys of 43,000 Americans since 1972 reveal that actively religious people report high levels of happiness, with forty-three percent of those attending religious services weekly or more saying they are "very happy" (as do twenty-six percent of those seldom or never attending religious services). Faith (and its associated social support) also correlates with effective coping with the loss of a spouse, marriage, or job.

Maher would surely call such religiously-inspired happiness delusional. But what would he say to the surprising though oft-reported correlations between religiosity and health? In several large epidemiological studies (which, as in one U.S. National Health Interview Survey, follow lives through time to see what predicts ill health and premature death) religiously active people were less likely to die in any given year and they enjoyed longer life expectancy. This faith-health correlation, which remains even after controlling for age, gender, ethnicity, and education, is partly attributable to the healthier lifestyles (including the lower smoking rate) of religious people. It also appears partly attributable to the communal support of faith communities and to the health benefits of positive emotions.

These indications of the personal and social benefits of faith don't speak to its truth claims. And truth ultimately is what matters. (If religious claims were shown to be untrue, though comforting and adaptive, what honest person would choose to believe? And if religious claims were shown to be true, though discomfiting, what honest person would choose to disbelieve?) But they do challenge the anecdote-based new atheist argument that religion is generally a force for evil. Moreover, they help point us toward a humble spirituality that worships God with open minds as well as open hearts, toward an alternative to purposeless scientism and dogmatic fundamentalism, toward a faith that helps make sense of the universe, gives meaning to life, opens us to the transcendent, connects us in supportive communities, provides a mandate for morality and selflessness, and offers hope in the face of adversity and death.

David Myers is a professor of psychology at Hope College and author of A Friendly Letter to Skeptics and Atheists: Musings on Why God is Good and Faith Isn't Evil (Jossey-Bass, 2008).

Gracious Acceptance

Every now and then, familiar words in scripture or liturgy stand out and speak with new force and meaning. That's been my experience with a phrase in the post-communion prayer we typically use on Sundays and for the daily Eucharist. Here's the prayer in its entirety:

Eternal God, heavenly Father,
you have graciously accepted us as living members
of your Son our Savior Jesus Christ,
and you have fed us with spiritual food
in the Sacrament of his Body and Blood.
Send us into the world in peace,
and grant us strength and courage
to love and serve you
with gladness and singleness of heart;
through Christ our Lord. Amen.

As with so many of the prayers in The Book of Common Prayer, there's a lot to unpack here. But what stands out for me today is the phrase: "you have graciously accepted us."

Sometimes it's hard to believe that's really true.

For some Christians I know, the question remains open as to whether or not God accepts them. After all, if they've sinned and haven't repented, what hope can there be for them? They live in anxiety and perhaps even fear of what awaits them on the other side of death. An assurance of salvation eludes them.

In stark contrast, this post-communion prayer affirms that we aren't merely tolerated by God, or even just accepted ("sure, okay, you can tag along"), but graciously accepted. And so this phrase suggests to me that God genuinely desires us, that God wants to be in communion with us, that God is our friend, that God is the One we can fully trust as benevolent and merciful. That's the God we see in Jesus Christ, and that's the God we worship in our Prayer Book liturgies.

And so this post-communion phrase reaffirms what for me is one of the most powerful statements in The Book of Common Prayer: "The bond which God establishes in Baptism is indissoluble" (BCP, p. 298). What more ringing affirmation that we are accepted as living members of Jesus Christ could there be than one which says that no matter what we do or fail to do, God remains faithful to us and gracious toward us? And that the truth of our gracious acceptance is grounded in our baptisms and reaffirmed with every reception of the Holy Eucharist?

"You have graciously accepted us." That's a phrase worth praying over and over again until its truth sinks deep into the marrow of our bones.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Bishops 'Soften' Burial Service

Googling around the Internet this morning, I came across a fascinating article in The New York Times published September 15, 1922. It's about actions of General Convention. I've reproduced much of it below (part of the first paragraph got cut out of the photocopy available on-line). I've also included some other parts of the article regarding divorce and remarriage, as well as a memorial calling for the Episcopal Church to work towards "conversion of the Jews." What a different world it was back then!


Cut Out References to "Worms" and "Beasts" in the Episcopal Ritual


Vote to Permit Reading of Service at Funerals of Suicides and Unbaptized Adults

Special to the New York Times.
PORTLAND, Ore., Sept. 14. - The House of Bishops of the general convention of the Episcopal Church rescinded today the age-old law that the church's burial service cannot be read by an Episcopalian clergyman at the funeral of a suicide, an unbaptized adult ...

If the House of Deputies concurs, hereafter a suicide can be buried with the same ritual as the person who dies a natural death.

The rubric, eliminated by a vote of 47 to 43, reads:

"Here is to be noted that the office ensuing is not to be used for any unbaptized adult, any who die ex communicate or who have laid violent hands upon himself."

The chief argument in favor of the change was that the man who took his own life was out of his mind and God alone was his Judge.

Two prayers for the dead in the funeral service were agreed to almost unanimously. The only opposition expressed was that of Bishop Reese of Georgia, who said that some of the bishops did not want to have to pray for the dead. It was explained that the prayers were to be "permissive."

Reference to Worms Cut Out

On the ground that it was not a comforting thought, the phrase, "and though after my skin worms destroy this body" was omitted from the second sentence in the burial ritual. Some of the Bishops wanted to cut out the whole sentence, which begins, "I know that my Redeemer liveth," but it was finally voted, 54 to 34, to substitute the following:

"I know that my Redeemer liveth and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth, and, though this body shall be destroyed, yet shall I see God, whom I shall see for myself and mine eyes shall behold."

It was voted to change the words, "Thou fool" in I Corinthians, xx., which is part of the service, to "Thou Foolish Man," which is the language of the American revised version.

All reference that it was "pleasing" to Almighty God to take any one out of this world was cut out of the burial service.

The verses in First Corinthians, Chapter XX., which mentions "Beasts," were eliminated.

The predominating aim throughout the burial service revision has been to soften what are considered harsh parts of the service and make it more comforting to the bereaved.

A memorial from the women's auxiliary of the diocese of Pennsylvania asking that the Episcopal Church inaugurate work for the conversion of the Jews was referred to the Council of the Episcopal Church. Suffragan Bishop Garland of Philadelphia said the Episcopal Church was the only one which did not do such works. ...

Bishops Adopt Divorce Canon

The House of Bishops adopted late this afternoon the canon prohibiting any divorced communicant of the Episcopal Church from remarrying, or any communicant from marrying a divorced person, the one exception being the innocent party where the divorce was granted for infidelity.

Bishop Mann of Southern Florida introduced a resolution which would deprive such persons as knowingly break this canon of the sacraments of the Episcopal Church, except in case of imminent death. The resolution was referred to the Committee on Canons.

At a great mass meeting this evening Bishop Rowe of Alaska, was presented with a purse $71,000, the income of which is to be used for missionary work in Alaska. The presentation was in honor of his silver anniversary as a missionary in the frozen North.

The House of Deputies adopted today a resolution condemning the Ku Klux Klan.

The deputies late this afternoon threw out the word "obey" in the marriage ceremony. This makes this resolution final, the House of Bishops having taken similar action yesterday. All women, however, who get married by Episcopal ministers in the next three years will have to take the vow of obedience to their husbands, as none of these changes in the Prayer Book becomes effective until the next triennial convention.

The Rev. Dr. Craig George Stewart of Evanston, Ill., reminded the deputies that this was the twentieth century, and that the idea of a wife obeying her husband had no place in life today. One deputy remarked that the Lord did not take a bone out of the man's head or his foot to make the first woman, but out of his side, thereby showing that the wife was to be a helpmate, with full equality.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

What Kind of Christian Am I?

Here are my results from the test:

You Scored as Roman Catholic

You are Roman Catholic. Church tradition and ecclesial authority are hugely important, and the most important part of worship for you is mass. As the Mother of God, Mary is important in your theology, and as the communion of saints includes the living and the dead, you can also ask the saints to intercede for you.

Roman Catholic


Neo orthodox


Evangelical Holiness/Wesleyan




Classical Liberal


Modern Liberal




Reformed Evangelical




Saturday, November 1, 2008

The Mount of Beatitudes

The Gospel reading for All Saints' Day this year in the Revised Common Lectionary is Matthew's version of "The Beatitudes." How cool is it that just over a week ago I was visiting the Mount of Beatitudes in Galilee? While nobody knows with certainty exactly where Jesus delivered the "Sermon on the Mount" (assuming, of course, that he delivered it all at one time in one setting), this particular site has been visited by pilgrims for more than 1,600 years.

Getting our bearings.

The Church of the Beatitudes.

Looking up inside the church.

Crucifix inside the church.

A nun keeps watch at the church's entrance.

Blessed are those who obtain authorization to attend worship,
for they shall be included.

A view of the Sea of Galilee from the Mount of Beatitudes.

The Sea of Galilee

I spent my first week on pilgrimage in Israel in Galilee. I found myself gazing again and again at the Sea of Galilee. Its serene and majestic beauty spoke deeply to me. It was amazing to think that here, along the shore of these waters, is where Jesus' ministry began.

Here are a few of my photos of the Sea of Galilee.

Looking down from Arbel Cliff.

On the shore at Capernaum.

Setting sail on a Sunday morning.

Looking back at Tiberias.

Heading out into deeper waters.