Monday, January 28, 2008

MS Diocesan Council Resoundingly Reaffirms the Uniqueness and Lordship of Jesus Christ

You won't find this headline at other websites that routinely attack the Episcopal Church for purportedly being apostate and/or heretical. But it really is worth noting and celebrating how all of this turned out. I've written previously of my concerns regarding a proposed resolution on this topic. So the turn of events at the 181st Annual Council of the Episcopal Diocese of MS meeting in Natchez this past weekend was, in my view, downright providential.

The Resolutions Committee recommended adoption of the proposed resolution. After initial statements by two of the sponsors, but before a debate could begin, a retired priest - the Rev. Craig Gates - offered this substitute resolution:

Whereas, the Diocese of Mississippi meeting together in the 181st Annual Council reaffirms the uniqueness and lordship of Jesus Christ by saying the ancient Creeds of the Christian Church both in their opening service and in the closing Eucharist, in the traditional Anglican way of uniting our voices in communal prayer; and we affirm this uniqueness and lordship of Jesus Christ each and every Sunday in our Church’s celebration of the Eucharist and daily in the Offices of Morning and Evening Prayer; we therefore Resolve to remind each Episcopalian to be mindful of the power of these corporate affirmations of Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior and commend each member of the Church to carry the Good News of Jesus Christ’s saving Grace to the world outside the door of our Churches.

This substitute resolution clearly affirms the uniqueness and lordship of Jesus Christ in language that does not entail the kinds of problems I've noted in my earlier posting. In addition, the substitute resolution affirms the sufficiency of the historic creeds and our worship using The Book of Common Prayer, thereby reaffirming a classical Anglican orthodoxy over and against the confessionalist overtones of the proposed resolution.

I'm pleased to say that Council almost unanimously voted in favor of the substitute resolution (I think I saw only two persons in the convention center holding up opposition cards). And the author of the proposed resolution spoke in its favor on the floor of Council. The orthodox faith of the Church as conveyed by the historic creeds and the Prayer Book was resoundingly reaffirmed by a Council comprised of clergy and laity that represent the fullness and diversity of the theological spectrum. That's a noteworthy and hopeful sign for the Church.

Friday, January 25, 2008

181st Annual Council

I'm off to Natchez for the weekend to attend the 181st Annual Council of the Diocese of Mississippi. In addition to the usual business, my rock/blues band RUBRIXX (comprised of four Episcopal priests) will play for the dinner dance tomorrow night.

"Almighty and everliving God, source of all wisdom and understanding, be present with those who take counsel in Natchez for the renewal and mission of your Church. Teach us in all things to seek first your honor and glory. Guide us to perceive what is right, and grant us both the courage to pursue it and the grace to accomplish it; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen."
The Book of Common Prayer, p. 818

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

What's in a Resolution?

In an earlier posting I cited a proposed resolution for the Annual Council of the Episcopal Diocese of Mississippi and talked about how that resolution suggests that the liturgies, prayers, and creeds of The Book of Common Prayer are (for some) no longer a sufficient basis for affirming the uniqueness and lordship of Jesus Christ. Something more is needed. And perhaps, for some, that something more starts with affirming the text (and perhaps also the subtext) of this resolution:


2008 – 1: Affirmation of Uniqueness and Lordship of Jesus Christ

Submitted by: The Rev. Chris Colby, The Rev. Alston Johnson, and The Rev. George F. Woodliff III.

Be it resolved that the 181st Annual Council of the Diocese of Mississippi reaffirms the uniqueness and lordship of Jesus Christ in this diocese and "that Jesus is the only perfect image of the Father, and shows us the nature of God" {BCP, p. 849} and that "Holy Scripture doth set out unto us only the Name of Jesus Christ, whereby men must be saved." [BCP, p. 871]

Explanation: In previous times such a resolution would have been unnecessary. However, a perceived drift toward universalism in the Episcopal Church is leading us away from the historical Faith we have received. It is, therefore, necessary at this time to reaffirm the uniqueness and lordship of Jesus Christ and the scandal of particularity of the cross. What does it mean to be a Christian? It means to turn to him "and accept him as your Savior." It means "to put your whole trust in his grace and love." It means to "promise to follow and obey him as your Lord." [BCP, pp.302-303] This is our faith, and sometimes it is necessary to be reminded "whose we are." [cf. 1 Corinthians 6:19-20] In the words of Bishop Gray, "I cannot deny the uniqueness of Jesus Christ, and it is him alone that I call the Lord of my life." [Bishop's Address to the 178th Annual Council.]


There are some problems with the wording of this resolution which I want to briefly note, problems that undermine the purported intention of putting forth the resolution in the first place.

For starters, the resolution calls on Council to reaffirm the uniqueness and lordship of Jesus Christ “in this diocese.” Note that this wording limits the reaffirmation of Jesus’ uniqueness and lordship within diocesan boundaries. As a consequence, this resolution carries a henotheistic connotation. Drawing on the work of H. Richard Niebuhr, theologian Lonnie Kliever describes henotheism as a form of faith in which “some social unit (family, nation, church, civilization, or even humanity) fulfills the function of god by conveying value to and requiring service of its members” [H. Richard Niebuhr (Hendrickson Publishers, 1977), p. 88]. The henotheistic connotation of this wording subtly subordinates the universality of Jesus’ lordship to the ecclesial social unit of the Diocese of Mississippi.

As a consequence, this resolution performatively contradicts itself. In the very act of asking Council to reaffirm the lordship of Jesus Christ, it henotheistically denies the lordship of Jesus Christ. In other words, the wording of this resolution reduces Jesus’ lordship to one among many possible lordships by construing Jesus’ lordship as normative only within the boundaries of the diocese of Mississippi. It tacitly acknowledges the possibility of other lords in other dioceses. An evangelical saying provides an orthodox counterbalance to this resolution’s henotheistic connotation: “Jesus Christ is either Lord of all, or he’s not Lord at all.”

Even if the wording of this particular part of the resolution is changed to affirm the universal lordship of Jesus Christ, there are still serious problems. For example, the explanation for this resolution cites “a perceived drift towards universalism in the Episcopal Church.” The popular motto notwithstanding, perception is not necessarily reality. It would be helpful for the resolution to cite empirical evidence that establishes that this drift is more than a mere perception and is, indeed, a verifiable reality. Lacking such empirical support, this resolution falls into the fallacy of converse accident, which is “the fallacy of considering certain exceptional cases and generalizing to a rule that fits them alone.”

Here are some examples of this fallacy:

“I interviewed ten people on Main Street in Greenwood on Friday night, and they all stated they would rather be there than watching TV. I conclude that the folks in Greenwood don’t like to watch TV on Friday night.”

“The USDA policies for farmers are worthless. Why I know a guy who collects thousands of dollars for not planting wheat and spends his spare time at the race track.”

“As I drove to work this morning, not one car which was turning had its turn signal on. I conclude that drivers in Jackson are not trained to drive very well.”

The following could serve as an example of this fallacy at work in the Episcopal Church:

“In his books and lectures, Bishop Spong has repeatedly denied the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. And in an interview with Time Magazine, Presiding Bishop Katherine Jefferts Schori denied the biblical affirmation that Jesus is uniquely the way to God. It’s clear that the Episcopal Church rejects core tenets of the Christian faith.”

To be sure, it is troubling when church leaders either explicitly or perhaps more subtly deny core tenets of Christian faith. That’s particularly so with respect to clergy. Considering the vows clergy make to conform to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the Episcopal Church, there should be accountability for openly, consciously, and repeatedly violating that vow. However, lacking overwhelming empirical evidence that conclusively demonstrates that such non-conformist views are shared by the majority of Episcopalians, it is fallacious to use these instances as representative of the entire Episcopal Church. (Let me hasten to add that if anyone has done the empirical research that conclusively demonstrates the contrary, I would very much like to see it.)

In the third place, the explanation for this resolution claims that we are drifting away “from the historical Faith we have received.” The qualifier “historical” means “belonging to the past, not of the present” [The Concise Oxford Dictionary 7th Edition (Oxford University Press, 1982), p. 472]. The qualifier "historical" thus stands in contrast to the qualifier “historic,” which connotes a connection between the faith of the past and its relevance for the present. Unfortunately, by speaking of “the historical Faith,” this resolution characterizes Christianity as a dead relic from the past.

And finally, this resolution’s explanation says that “sometimes it is necessary to be reminded ‘whose we are.’” The reality is that we are “sometimes” reminded of who Jesus is on a regular basis – every Sunday, in fact, when we hear the scriptures read, recite the Nicene Creed, and participate in the Eucharistic Prayer. And those of us who observe the discipline of Morning and Evening Prayer are “sometimes” reminded of “whose we are” by reaffirming the uniqueness and lordship of Jesus Christ on a daily basis.

Knowing and valuing the clergy who are co-sponsoring this resolution as colleagues and friends, I’m confident that they do not personally intend to propagate the theological problems and errors inherent in this resolution as worded and explained. But the wording of a resolution for a Church council matters. And this resolution’s wording entails numerous problems and errors that should disqualify it from hitting the floor of Council as written.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Killing George Herbert

“If you meet George Herbert on the road – kill him!”

Thus says the ThreeMinuteTheologian over at a new blog called “Killing George Herbert.” Here’s what the site is all about:

The shadow of George Herbert’s parish ministry lingers still in the Church of England, with its completely unreasonable expectations upon its clergy today. A realistic assessment of the context of Herbert’s life is accompanied by a cool and clear-sighted exploration of the difficulties of parish life today, with a call for a more sustainable pattern in the future.

Here are some snippets from what’s been posted thus far:

For three hundred and fifty years the Church of England has been haunted by a pattern of parochial ministry, based upon a fantasy and untenable for more than a hundred of those years. The pattern, derived from a romantic and wrong-headed false memory of the life and ministry of George Herbert, finally died on the South Bank of the Thames in the mid 1960s … and nobody noticed.

____________

But why kill George Herbert? What possible danger can the saint of Bemerton, courtier, poet and parson, pose to Christian ministers today? Is there really something more than sneering clerical cussedness going on here?The answer lies in the way that Herbert has been, and continues to be, used as an exemplar, the exemplar for the English parson. Whether you are High Church, Low Church, Evangelical, Charismatic, whatever, Herbert is portrayed as the prototype of the pastor, teacher, preacher, almoner, negotiator, gentleman, scholar. He is Ur-Vicar, the Echt-Rector.

____________

It seems that we need to get to grips with the man behind the myth. We need to learn a little more about this Angel Gabriel in Jacobean clothes.

I think it's true that Herbert's portrayal of pastoral ministry is highly idealized in The Country Parson. That's not necessarily such a bad thing. But perhaps it's worth considering that this portrayal has, in the words of the ThreeMinuteTheologian, exacted great "personal cost ... in the lives and emotions of the clergy of the Church of England today."

I'm not in a position to adequately assess that claim, but I do find this site interesting and am curious what others think about it.

So do read it all.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Called to Witness

Sermon for the 2nd Sunday after the Epiphany
RCL, Year A: Isaiah 49:1-7; Psalm 40:1-12; 1 Corinthians 1:1-9; John 1:29-42

While in seminary at Sewanee, one of our professors was a Lutheran who loved to poke fun at a commonly perceived Episcopal attitude towards evangelism and witnessing. He’d say: “If you awaken an evangelical Christian in the middle of the night, and you tell him that there’s one person on the other side of the world who’s never heard about Jesus Christ, he’ll immediately jump out of bed, throw on some clothes, hop on the next plane, travel across the world, and tell that person about Jesus. But if you awaken an Episcopalian in the middle of the night, and you tell him that there’s one person on the other side of the world who’s never heard about Jesus Christ, he’ll roll over in bed and say, ‘We’ll talk about it at the next Vestry meeting.’”

Granted, these are stereotypes. Not all evangelicals and not all Episcopalians are like this. And, in fact, there are many evangelicals within the Episcopal Church.

Nevertheless, there’s truth to the claim that, for many Episcopalians, words like “evangelism” and “witnessing” are kind of scary. Rightly or wrongly, we Episcopalians have a reputation for being uncomfortable with sharing something as personal as faith in God and Jesus Christ. For some of us, that may be because words like “witness” and “evangelism” conjure up images of street preachers and fiery fundamentalists lugging heavy black Bibles and harassing passers by with threats of fire and brimstone. I can personally attest to how distressing and scary receiving that kind of zealous attention can be.

But our personal discomfort and our fears don’t serve the mission of the Church. And this is because evangelism lies at the heart of the Christian faith.

Just think about it. If the people who had experienced something life-changing in the presence of Jesus hadn’t gone out and told somebody else about it – and if that person hadn’t gone out and told somebody else – and if nobody had cared enough to write down what they had experienced in the gospels and letters of the New Testament – well, we wouldn’t know anything about Jesus, would we? And we certainly would not be gathered in this beautiful church this morning, for there would be no such thing as the Church, much less St. Andrew’s Cathedral.

Without evangelism, Christianity would have been stopped dead in its tracks. And so evangelism – bearing witness in our words and deeds to Jesus Christ – is vital, not only for the survival of the Christian Church, but even more importantly, for the power of God to transform people’s lives with forgiveness and resurrection hope.

In this morning’s Gospel reading, we see evangelism in action. John the Baptist was born for one reason: to witness to the coming of the Christ. And that’s what he’s doing when he proclaims to the people, “Look, here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” John’s witness to Jesus arouses the curiosity of two of his disciples. So they leave John and start to follow Jesus. And they start telling people that they’ve found the Messiah. The words of one individual set off a chain reaction, forming a small group of disciples that would later grow into a world-wide Church.

Today’s reading from Isaiah also addresses witnessing and evangelism. After raising the people up out of exile, God commissions Israel to be a servant community. And the purpose of this service is not simply “to restore the survivors of Israel.” God has something bigger in mind. God has a plan for the entire world. And so God commissions Israel to be “a light to the nations.” God wants Israel to spread the good news of salvation “to the ends of the earth.” This evangelical mission of witnessing to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is the sole purpose of Israel’s existence. And so Isaiah puts these words in the mouth of the servant community Israel: “The LORD called me before I was born, while I was still in my mother’s womb he named me.”

The mission of Israel and the mission of the Church share this in common: we are called to boldly testify to God’s salvation in a world desperately seeking good news. God called us to do this before we were born. We hear it in Jesus’ parting words to the disciples in Matthew’s Gospel in a passage often called “The Great Commission”: “Go … and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (Mt. 28:19-20 NRSV). We each receive this commission when we are baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus. And we see it clearly stated in our Baptismal Covenant promise to “proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ” (BCP, p. 305).

Evangelism – bearing witness to Jesus in our words and deeds – is not an option for any Christian. Quite the contrary, it’s a direct command from our Lord. And in the sacramental rite of confirmation and the regular renewal of our baptismal covenant, each one of us has solemnly vowed to obey that commandment.

So what does this look like? What are we called to do as evangelists?

John the Baptist and Jesus show us the way. John shows us how important it is to publicly speak up for what we believe about Jesus. He shows us how important it is to point to Jesus and to then get ourselves out of the way. “Behold, here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” “Here is the one who’s more important than me.” “Here is the one who reveals the true nature of God as love and mercy.” “Here is the one who has changed my life; he can do the same for you, too.”

And then there’s the example of our Lord himself. When two of John’s disciples ask where he’s staying, Jesus issues this invitation: “Come and see.”

Come and see: our task as evangelists is really that simple. It’s about welcoming and hospitality. It’s about actively inviting others to come and see Jesus. Come and see Jesus in the fellowship of this faith family we call St. Andrew’s Cathedral. Come and see Jesus in the liturgy and music of our worship. Come and see Jesus in our Sunday school programs for children, youth, and adults. Come and see Jesus in the Wednesday night suppers and programs. Come and see Jesus in the many, many things we’re doing to enrich each other’s lives and to reach out in love and compassion to the needy in our community. Come and see Jesus. And be changed.

There’s a contemporary translation of a passage from Matthew’s Gospel I’d like to share with you. It speaks directly and beautifully to what evangelism and witnessing are all about.

Jesus said, “Let me tell you why you are here. You’re here to be salt-seasoning that brings out the God-flavors of this earth. If you lose your saltiness, how will people taste godliness? Here’s another way to put it: You’re here to be light, bringing out the God-colors in the world. God is not a secret to be kept. We’re going public with this, as public as a city on a hill. If I make you light-bearers, you don’t think I’m going to hide you under a bucket, do you? I’m putting you on a light stand. Now that I’ve put you there on a hill-top, on a light stand – shine! Keep open house; be generous with your lives. By opening up to others, you’ll prompt people to open up to God, this generous Father in heaven” (Mt. 5:13-16, The Message).

Indeed, God is not a secret to be kept. The God we know in Jesus Christ is a gift to be given and received with great wonder and joy. And you and I have the high calling and the privilege of sharing that gift we have already received.

So may we therefore go forth and generously share the mystery and the hope of our faith, asking God to continually inspire our witness to Jesus Christ, “that all may know the power of his forgiveness and the hope of his resurrection” (BCP, p. 816).

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Basic Assumptions for Conversation in Christian Community

Dr. Kathleen Henderson Staudt shares Bishop Mark Dyers' “basic assumptions for conversation in Christian community.” I think these are worth pondering and implementing for all Christians who desire to change the current ecclesial ethos of distrust.

1. Assume that “My partner takes the Bible as seriously as I do.” That is part of who we are as Christians: we are grounded in Scripture. Do not mistake differences in interpretation for differences in desire to be faithful to Scripture.

2. Listen with a Christlike heart. Be guided by 1 Corinthians 1, where Paul urges Christlike conversations between schismatic bodies.

3. Be radically honest on what you believe and why you believe it, and let the other do the same. Bishop Mark pointed out that in Ecumenical conversations the point is not to be “nice” but to be truthful. That is the best way to acknowledge our ultimate common ground in Christ. He quoted Orthodox theologian John Zizoulas, a longtime friend partner in ecumenical conversation, who insists that our unity is grounded in our love for one another, in the church of the Triune God.

4. While you are listening, also pray for the person who is speaking: pray for discernment. Be open to the possibility that maybe they are correct.

5. Practice forgiveness and reconciliation as a habit. Think about and discuss how we forgive and find reconciliation with one another.

6. Should the other attribute to you evil intentions, take a deep breath and pray. Who is setting the agenda? Do not let them be your environment. Reach down, find the Christ within you, and only then, speak.

7. Practice daily intercession, as part of a group that meets regularly for conversation and prayer. Covenant to pray for one another daily.

8. Be guided by the Benedictines, who know that they do not agree with each other AND that they have to live together.

Read it all.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Made, Not Born

Formerly the Dean of the Chapel at Duke University, William H. Willimon is a United Methodist bishop who serves in North Alabama. A prolific writer (a clergy colleague once described him as "a man with no unpublished thought"), Willimon has written dozens of books, including Remember Who You Are: Baptism, A Model for Christian Life (Upper Room, 1980), Calling and Character: Virtues of the Ordained Life (Abingdon, 2000), Pastor: The Theology and Practice of Ordained Ministry (Abingdon, 2002), and Sinning Like a Christian: A New Look at the Seven Deadly Sins (Abingdon, 2005). He has also coauthored books with theological ethicist Stanley Hauerwas, most notably Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony (Abindgon, 1989), Lord, Teach Us to Pray: The Lord's Prayer and the Christian Life (Abingdon, 1996), and The Truth About God: The Ten Commandments in Christian Life (Abingdon, 1999). He blogs at "A Peculiar Prophet."

Willimon is also a gifted preacher. He preached the sermon below at Duke Chapel on the 1st Sunday after the Epiphany in 2001. In it, he expounds a wonderful theology of baptism and of Christian faith as a gift that I think is consistent with our understanding in the Episcopal Church.





I remember casually remarking to my mother, “The only course I took in high school that did me any good, the only course that I use everyday, without which my life would be quite different, was typing.” I meant it. “Then, you should be grateful that I made you take typing,” my mother responded. “What?” “Yes, you hated it, did not have aptitude for the course, wanted to drop it, but I told you we had already paid the $25 for you to take typing and you were staying in typing. You should thank me,” said my mother.

Isn’t it curious? Somehow I forgot that typing was not my choice, not my personal achievement, but a gift. Something that was decided for me rather than by me.

We don’t enjoy thinking of ourselves that way. We like to think that we are the captains of our fate, the masters of our souls. I am what I decide. I am who I choose to be. I am self-fabricated.

But in more honest moments, like the one I had with my mother, we are forced to admit that our lives are mostly gifts, a sum of decisions made for us rather than by us. One day Jesus turned to his disciples and said, “Remember, you did not choose me, I chose you” (John 5:16).

I say all of this because in just a few moments we are going to engage in an unnatural act. We’re going to bring forward a couple of infants. We are going to say some words over them, douse them in water, and call them “Christian.” In our cultural context, this is odd.

We are like the old man who was asked, “Do you believe in infant baptism?” “Believe in it?” he replied, “Hell, I’ve seen it!” Well this morning, live in our sanctuary, you are going to see it.

I dare say that most of us think of our Christianity as something we decided. We say, “Since I gave my life to Christ.” “Since I decided to be a Christian.” “Since I accepted Jesus as my personal Savior.” But none of this particular faith is self-derived. Somebody had to tell us the story of Jesus, had to live the faith before us, had to serve as our exemplar. We Christians call it grace, a word that means simply, gift.

I know that is why I am a Christian. I might like to tell you that I am a Christian because I made a careful study of all the world’s religions, carefully comparing their beliefs and ethical systems and decided that Christianity was superior. Therefore I am a Christian.

But no, I am here because I was put here. When I was about six months old, after a big dinner, we gathered on a Sunday afternoon in grandmother’s living room and, using a big silver bowl of my grandmother’s, a preacher named Forrester baptized me. Made me a Christian. I don’t necessarily think that is the way baptism ought to take place. But despite any reservations you may have about the liturgical propriety of my baptism, at least you have to admit that it worked. Here I am, telling you the story of what was done to me, a story that I did not think up myself, but one that was laid over my life. Christians believe we are Christians, not primarily because of something we do, or decide, think or feel, but rather because of something that God in Jesus Christ does to us, something that the church lives before us and tells to us. We call it grace.

Tertullian, one of the crabbiest of the early church fathers, once said in a sermon, “Christians are made, not born. Christianity does not come naturally. You don’t get Christians out of people’s loins [something I would never say in a sermon!], you get Christians out of the baptismal font.” This faith is not primarily a matter of digging down deep within yourself, thinking it through, closing your eyes and trying real hard to believe. This faith is something that is told to you, given to you, lived before you, a gift.

What I am saying is that, in a few moments, when we baptize these babies, they look a lot like we did, not only in our infancy, but also throughout our lives with Jesus. None of us ever gets so smart, so faithful, so adept at discipleship, that we can do it for ourselves. We are always helpless, needy, dependent, as far as our relationship with God is concerned, just like a little baby in its mother’s arms. And our baptism is a sign, among other things, that God loves us enough to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. As Paul said, “Jesus Christ died to save sinners,” (Rom. 6:6).

In Jesus Christ, we, sinners that we are, did not choose him, rather he chose us. And this is why Luther could speak of baptism as the Christian’s great comfort in life and in death. There is nothing very comforting about being told that your relationship to God is dependent on your being perfect. You aren’t perfect. Luther said that baptism is a comfort because it is a reminder that God helps us in ways that we cannot help ourselves. In times of doubt and distress, Luther said that it is a great comfort to remember your baptism. He would say that we must, during difficult times, touch our forehead and say, baptismatus sum. “I am baptized.” Luther said that the same God who made promises to us in baptism will keep those promises, will hold on to us, will bring us home. This is true comfort.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t always think like a Christian. I don’t always feel like a Christian. I certainly don’t always act like a Christian. But that is not the basis of my relationship with God. That relationship is based not on me, and what I do, but on God and what God does. So when you are having trouble being a Christian, touch your forehead, remember your baptism, and remember that you are a Christian because we told you so.

In her wonderful autobiography, An American Life, Annie Dillard tells about her experience of the persistence of baptism. Annie Dillard was a smart young thing. By age seventeen, she had read through most of the books in her branch of the Pittsburgh Library. After reading widely in philosophy, including Nietzche, she decided that Christianity was a bunch of hooey. She therefore resolved to have her name removed from the role of her church, to have nothing more to do with Christianity.

But she went down to the church, and demanded that her name be removed from the roll of Shadyside Presbyterian. A kindly old assistant pastor listened to her and then said that he would have her name removed. “Is that it?” she asked. “That’s it,” he replied. “So my name is off the roll,” she asked. “Yep, you want it off the roll, it is off the roll.” “So I’m no longer a Christian?” she asked. “I just said your name was no longer on the roll of the church,” said the preacher. “You are still baptized. I know what you want, but who knows what God wants of you?” “What is that supposed to mean?” she asked. “We’ll see,” replied the old pastor.

Annie then walked out the door of the pastor’s office and made her way down the hall. She overheard the pastor mumble to himself, “She’ll be back.” She wheeled around, stormed back into his office and demanded, “What did you say?” “Oh, I just said that I expect that you’ll be back,” he replied. “No I won’t! It’s my life. And this is the way I want to live it. I’m not going to be back!” she shouted. “Okay. We’ll see,” he said. Annie Dillard said she stormed out, really perplexed by the old man’s attitude. Then she said, “I am forty-five years old as I write this. Through a circuitous path, I find myself still in this faith. I’m back.”

Remember your baptism and be thankful.

Bishop Wright on Scripture, Gnosticism, and the Jesus Seminar

New Testament scholar and Anglican bishop of Durham N. T. Wright is at it again, this time in an interview with The Wittenburg Door.

Here's his response to the question, "Why do we need the Bible?"

The Bible is here to equip God’s people to carry forward His purposes of new covenant and new creation. It is there to enable people to work for justice, to sustain their spirituality as they do so, to create and enhance relationships at every level, and to produce that new creation which will have something of the beauty of God himself. The Bible isn’t like an accurate description of how a car is made. It’s more like the mechanic who helps you fix it, the garage attendant who refuels it, and the guide who tells you how to get where you’re going. And where you’re going is to make God’s new creation happen in his world, not simply to find your own way unscathed through the old creation.

Here's what Wright says about the dangers of interpreting scripture through the lens of personal experience:

Experience is a slippery slope philosophically and spiritually. It’s a fog in which all sorts of worlds can bump together. Now, no one wants to go to extremes. Some lines are drawn in the sand. For example, no one in their right mind would endorse mass murder. But we need to follow a path of wisdom and have standards.

When you come into the life of the Church, there is a way of life followed there. There are codes of conduct. It’s like when you come into someone’s home. You take off your muddy boots when you enter the house.

You don’t take tea and pour it down someone’s back. There are standards in how we live together. Experience needs to be affirmed, redirected, and rebuked by God’s authority. Because of our propensity to self-deception, we constantly need to check against scripture, whether we are allowing the word of God’s grace in the gospel, and God’s reaffirmation of us as made in his image, to validate what is in fact an idolatrous and distorted form of humanness. When, through letting scripture be the vehicle of God’s judging and healing authority in our communities and individual lives, we really do “experience” God’s affirmation, then we shall know as we are known.

Here's his brief take on the popularity of The DaVinci Code and The Gospel of Judas:

What we can see in this current passion for Gnosticism is a hunger for spirituality and purpose. We have to ask why our culture is so hungry for different kinds of spirituality. Also, the appeal of second century Gnosticism is that people in our culture are eager to find anything to rebuke or replace traditional Christianity. This myth—what I call “the new myth of Christian origins,” according to which Jesus was just an ordinary person who taught a new type of spirituality, that He didn’t die for our sins or rise again—is what’s lurking behind the Jesus Seminar. Many people in our culture don’t like traditional Christianity and are eager to find anything else at all to go with instead.

And this is Wright's explanation for calling the Jesus Seminar a "fantasyland":

They want to liberate the Bible from poor, oppressed fundamentalists. The Seminar has had to reinvent itself after the death of Robert Funk. Its new project is to tackle the origins of Christianity. But most scholars who have written about Jesus—whether they are Jewish, Christian, agnostic or whatever—never signed on to the Jesus Seminar in the first place. Most have held aloof, rightly seeing it as a wacky distraction from serious scholarship. Only a few great minds, like Dom Crossan, Marcus Borg and Walter Wink have stuck with it in the hopes of making something good out of it.

You can read the entire interview here.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Distorting the Reality of the Episcopal Church

In a brief comment posted on another blog, Fr. Tony Clavier takes on the myths about what the Episcopal Church is "really" all about and the elites who peddle such distortions. It's a welcome corrective to agenda-driven attempts to take a handful of odd and/or extreme examples or statements by certain individuals and then use them as though such examples represent the whole Episcopal Church. It simply won't do to paint with a broad brush that characterizes every single Episcopalian as though we've all been drinking Spong-Aid. In the absence of overwhelming and irrefutable empirical evidence to the contrary, that's an instance of the fallacy of converse accident - the error of generalizing from atypical or exceptional instances.

Here's what Fr. Tony says:


TEC isn’t what some of its leadership and most vocal “sound byte” parsons, purple or not, would have the world believe it to be. It isn’t even that which its House of Bishops sound as if it well could be. The tragedy is that so many have been cowed by the suggestion that to oppose those who advance an odd religion is to be a bigot or a moral coward. The peddlers of the new religion have not won their battles by using cogent argument and logical deduction let alone Holy Scripture, but by serving a diet of sentimental twaddle and moral blandishment.

Yet if surveys are to be believed 70% of our communicants have no part or parcel in this agenda. They love their parish church and the name “Episcopal”, distrust the diocese, largely because dioceses are often run by purveyors of packaged programs which seldom work and of regulation upon regulation which have no basis in Canon Law - ask a search committee - and disown many of the policies of HQ. The term “815” is not often looked upon with devotion.

The tragedy is, as I say, that the faith and devotion of our parishioners, the ones who keep the doors open and pay the bills is discounted and the sound and fury of a small elite is judged by Anglicans abroad to be that which ordinary Episcopalians believe. It ain’t so, except perhaps in hot house parishes to be found largely on the East and West coast of this country.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Is Common Prayer Sufficient?

“Praying Shapes Believing.” That motto sums up the importance of liturgy or common prayer as the glue that holds the Church together. It’s a fitting motto for the Anglican tradition, of which the Episcopal Church is a part. It's one factor that accounts for our shying away from binding confessional or dogmatic statements in favor of the central importance of The Book of Common Prayer (in its many revisions in England, the United States, and elsewhere).

“Praying Shapes Believing.” It’s a motto that lies at the heart of the Prayer Book tradition. But from the beginning, it’s a motto that not everyone has been willing to accept without qualification.

It seems that not everyone trusts that when others say the words in the Prayer Book, or when they say they really meant what they said, that, in fact, they really did mean what they said they meant when they said those words as printed in the Prayer Book.

Take, for example, a proposed resolution asking a diocese to reaffirm the uniqueness and lordship of Jesus Christ in the face of “a perceived drift towards universalism in the Episcopal Church.” Apparently, saying the words that affirm the uniqueness and lordship of Jesus Christ in the liturgies of the Daily Office and every Sunday in the liturgy of the Eucharist is no longer sufficient. The Collects, the Creeds, and the Eucharistic Prayers are not enough. Yes, you said the words printed on the page. Yes, you're willing to say that you really meant what you said when you said those words printed on the page. But do you really believe it? And are you willing to demonstrate to “our” satisfaction that you do, in fact, really believe it?

Perhaps a resolution like this signals that, for some in the Episcopal Church, common prayer no longer works. Implicitly if not explicitly, they claim that we need something more. What would that “more” look like?

Perhaps a resolution like this is also a sign that some are pressing for an as-yet-defined post-Anglican or post-Episcopal Church. Would such a Church really be something new and different than what’s already available in the “religious marketplace”? Or would it be one that looks and feels a lot like churches that already exist – churches, for instance, that require members to assent to confessional or dogmatic statements rather than being content with the sufficiency of common prayer?

“Praying Shapes Believing.” Is that really enough?

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Division Because of Jesus

A line from the Gospel reading from John appointed for today’s Daily Office struck me. In the wake of Jesus’ invitation to the thirsty to come to him and drink, people in the crowd offer rival and incompatible interpretations of his true identity. To which the evangelist offers this brief observation:

“So there was a division in the crowd because of him” (John 7:43).

These words resonate against the background of conflict and division taking place within the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion. It’s a tragic irony. For it’s the same Jesus we all follow and we all respond to. But instead of bringing us together, our understandings of discipleship and our responses to Jesus’ claims divide us and create conflict.

It’s a story that repeats itself in every age. Just look at the conflict between Peter and Paul. Or the split between the Church in the East and the West. Or the splintering of the Church in the wake of the Reformation.

Jesus divided people from the start. And from the beginning, conflict has been central to the Church’s identity.

Why should it be any different in our time?

Monday, January 7, 2008

Baptism by Torture

William Schweiker is an ordained minister in the United Methodist Church, Director of the Martin Marty Center, and Edward L. Ryerson Distinguished Service Professor of Theological Ethics in the University of Chicago’s Divinity School. As his faculty profile states, Schweiker’s work “engage[s] theological and ethical questions attentive to global dynamics, comparative religious ethics, the history of ethics, and hermeneutical philosophy.”

In a recent essay entitled “Baptism by Torture” written for the online publication "
Sightings" (sponsored by The Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago), Schweiker critically examines the religious roots and dimensions of waterboarding as an interrogation practice. I think that Schweiker’s perspective is an important one to note in the midst of the ongoing “debates” over our nation’s use of interrogation practices considered by many to be torture.

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Baptism by Torture

by William Schweiker

Religious practices have often been tied to violence and torture, but this connection is often hidden within public discourse. That is the situation now in the United States with the debate about waterboarding, the religious meanings of which have yet to be articulated and explored.

The candidates in the current presidential campaign have taken starkly different stances on the practice of waterboarding. Some condemn the practice as outright torture; others have refused to condemn the practice if in an extreme case it could save millions of American lives. The topic has been divided into two separate but related questions: is waterboarding a form of torture, and, however torture is defined, are there situations in which waterboarding and other practices are justified?

The argument for possible justification turns on several assumptions: that we could infallibly know that someone had vital information that would in fact save millions; that torture would extract this information without distortion; and, finally, that if the information was secured truthfully and infallibly, it could be put to use in good time. None of these assumptions is warranted. Expert opinion and empirical evidence concur that torture is an ineffective means to gain reliable information. The scenario of the lone knower of the facts whose torture would save millions of lives is the stuff of bad spy movies and bad exam questions in ethics courses. In terms of the question of definition, matters are both legal and visceral. International conventions provide ample guidelines, and, as more than one commentator has noted, if waterboarding is not torture it is not clear what else to call it, the Bush Administration's penchant to alter definitions notwithstanding.

Less often observed is that the practice of waterboarding has roots in the Spanish Inquisition and parallels the persecution of Anabaptists during the Protestant Reformation and the Roman Catholic Counter Reformation. Why did practices similar to waterboarding develop as a way to torture heretics—whether the heretics were Anabaptists or, in the Inquisition, Protestants of any stripe as well as Jews and witches and others?

Roman Catholics and Protestants alike persecuted the Anabaptists or "re-baptizers" since these people denied infant baptism in favor of adult baptism. The use of torture and physical abuse was meant to stem the movement and also to bring salvation to heretics. It had been held—at least since St. Augustine—that punishment, even lethal in form, could be an act of mercy meant to keep a sinner from continuing in sin, either by repentance of heresy or by death. King Ferdinand declared that drowning—called the third baptism—was a suitable response to Anabaptists. Water as a form of torture was an inversion of the waters of baptism under the (grotesque) belief that it could deliver the heretic from his or her sins.

In the Inquisition, the practice was not drowning as such, but the threat of drowning, and the symbolic threat of baptism. The tortura del agua or toca entailed forcing the victim to ingest water poured into a cloth stuffed into the mouth in order to give the impression of drowning. Because of the wide symbolic meaning of "water" in the Christian and Jewish traditions (creation, the great flood, the parting of the Red Sea in the Exodus and drowning of the Egyptians (!), Christ's walking on the water, and, centrally for Christians, baptism as a symbolic death that gives life), the practice takes on profound religious significance. Torture has many forms, but torture by water as it arose in the Roman Catholic and Protestant reformations seemingly drew some of its power and inspiration from theological convictions about repentance and salvation. It was, we must now surely say, a horrific inversion of the best spirit of Christian faith and symbolism. Is it the purpose of the United State nowadays to seek the conversion, repentance, and purity of supposed terrorists and thus to take on the trappings of a religious rite? The question is so buried behind public discourse that its full import is hardly recognized.

In the light of these religious meanings and background to waterboarding, US citizens can decide to reject any claim by the government to have the right to use this or other forms of torture, especially given connections to the most woeful expressions of Christianity; conversely, they can fall prey to fear and questionable reasoning and thus continue to support an unjust and vile practice that demeans the nation's highest political and moral ideals even as it desecrates one of the most important practices and symbols of Christian faith.

I judge that it is time for repentance, the affirmation of new life, and the humane expression of religious convictions.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Epiphany Reflections


Below are some reflections for the Feast of the Epiphany from a website called "Preachers' Exchange." You can read the entire reflection here.

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[Epiphany] is the day, not of the three kings, but of Christ’s revelation. Our God is reaching out to all people, especially those considered outsiders and strangers—like the three Magi.

The gospel reminds us that not all will see and respond to the light. The Magi see it and respond; Herod, advised by the chief priests and scribes, should have seen and accepted God’s light, but instead, rejected it. The irony of today’s gospel is that those who were closest in religion and tradition, who knew the scriptures and prophecies about the messiah, who, in a way, did have the light, did not see or respond to it. While those who were complete outsiders, when they saw the light, got up and followed it to the Christ child.

Epiphany is the feast of those called by God’s grace to leave behind the familiar and accustomed and to go searching for Christ in, what seems to be, the most unlikely places. Where will we find him and what gifts shall we bring when we discover Christ in our world? In place of frankincense, we could advocate for poor families, especially for single parents and the newborn. There are 25 million poor children in our otherwise-wealthy country, and untold numbers throughout the world. In place of gold, we could contribute to help those at shelters for homeless families, or international programs for children and the aged. In place of myrrh, we could visit the sick and dying.

The gospel story tells of a light in the sky that guides the foreigners to Christ. We don’t have the star; but grace is continually given to help us find Christ. God’s grace does what the star did for the Magi, it guides us to the out-of-the way places where Christ can be found. The Magi came bearing the types of gifts one would bring to royalty in a palace. But today Christ isn’t found in a palace; he isn’t rich, he is poor. The Epiphany reminds us that each day Christ manifests himself to us in the world’s lesser places and in surprising people. Those are the places to go looking and bearing gifts—starting with the most important gift, ourselves.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

The Christ of Our Life in Faith

Occasionally, the words of an author leap off the page and strike a chord in the depths of our souls. Such was the case today when I came across the passage below written by H. Richard Niebuhr. Somehow, Niebuhr's words go to the heart of the reason why - even during those parts of my life when I was most distant from and even hostile towards the Church - I could never entirely turn my back. And perhaps, too, why I eventually heard a call to the priesthood.

Here's the passage:

The Christ of our life in faith is not simply the historic individual Jesus, though he is that too, but he is the inner personal companion who as person is present in the memory and expectation of the believer. He is acknowledged as person. The Christian who can say, "It is no longer I that live but Christ who lives in me" (Gal. 2:20), may be few and far between, but those Christians are numerous who can make the second part of the statement in some such form as this: "Christ is the personal companion who has been engrafted into my personal existence so that I cannot and do not live except in this companionship. I am untrue to him, I deny him, but he does not let me go and I cannot let him go."

H. Richard Niebuhr, Faith on Earth: An Inquiry into the Structure of Human Faith, edited by Richard R. Niebuhr (Yale University Press, 1989), pp. 104-105.

Friday, January 4, 2008

The Cross and the Lynching Tree

I came across this address entitled "Strange Fruit: The Cross and the Lynching Tree" in the current issue of Trinity News. It was originally presented at Harvard Divinity School as the Ingersoll Lecture on October 19, 2006 by James H. Cone. Cone is Charles A. Briggs Distinguished Professor of Systematic Theology at Union Theological Seminary. A leader in the Black Theology movement, Cone is the author of numerous books and articles, including A Black Theology of Liberation (1970), God of the Oppressed (1975), and Martin and Malcolm and America: A Dream or a Nightmare (1991).

This is a powerful address that's worth reading and reflecting upon. (You can watch Cone's address at Harvard Divinity School here.)

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One has to have a powerful religious imagination to see redemption in the cross, to discover life in death and hope in tragedy. “Christianity,” Reinhold Niebuhr wrote, “is a faith which takes us through tragedy to beyond tragedy, by way of the cross to victory in the cross.” What kind of salvation is that? To understand what the cross means in America, we need to take a good long look at the lynching tree in this nation’s history — “the bulging eyes and twisted mouth,” that “strange fruit” that Billie Holiday sang about, “blood on the leaves and blood at the root.” The lynched black victim experienced the same fate as the crucified Christ.

The cross and the lynching tree interpret each other. Both were public spectacles, usually reserved for hardened criminals, rebellious slaves, and rebels against the Roman state and falsely accused militant blacks who were often called “black beasts” and “monsters in human form” for their audacity to challenge white supremacy in America. Any genuine theology and any genuine preaching must be measured against the test of the scandal of the cross and the lynching tree. “Jesus did not die a gentle death like Socrates, with his cup of hemlock…. Rather, he died like a [lynched black victim] or a common [black] criminal in torment, on the tree of shame” (Hengel). The crowd’s shout, “Crucify him! (Mark 15:14), anticipated the white mob’s shout, “Lynch him!” Jesus’ agonizing final cry from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34) was similar to the Georgia lynching victim Sam Hose’s awful scream, as he drew his last breath, “Oh my God! Oh, Jesus.” In each case, it was a cruel, agonizing, and contemptible death.

The cross and the lynching tree need each other: the lynching tree can liberate the cross from the false pieties of well-meaning Christians. The crucifixion was a first-century lynching. The cross can redeem the lynching tree, and thereby bestow upon lynched black bodies an eschatological meaning for their ultimate existence. The cross can also redeem white lynchers, and their descendants, too, but not without profound cost, not without the revelation of the wrath and justice of God, which executes divine judgment, with the demand for repentance and reparation, as a presupposition of divine mercy and forgiveness. Most whites want mercy and forgiveness, but not justice and reparations; they want reconciliation without liberation, the resurrection without the cross.

As preachers and theologians, we must demonstrate the truth of our proclamation and theological reflection in the face of the cross and the lynched black victims in America’s past and present. When we encounter the crucified Christ today, he is a humiliated black Christ, a lynched black body. Christ is black not because black theology said it. Christ is made black through God’s loving solidarity with lynched black bodies and divine judgment against the demonic forces of white supremacy. Like a black naked body swinging on a lynching tree, the cross of Christ was “an utterly offensive affair,” “obscene in the original sense of the word,” “subjecting the victim to the utmost indignity.”

In a penetrating essay, Reinhold Niebuhr wrote about “the terrible beauty of the cross.” “Only a tragic and a suffering love can be an adequate symbol of what we believe to be at the heart of reality itself.” The cross prevents God’s love from sinking into sentimentality and romanticism. “Life is too brutal and the cosmic facts are too indifferent to our moral ventures to make faith in any but a suffering God tenable.” The gospel of Jesus is not a beautiful Hollywood story. It is an ugly story, the story of God snatching victory out of defeat, finding life in death, transforming burning black bodies into transcendent windows for seeing the love and beauty of God.

The church’s most vexing problem today is how to define itself by the gospel of Jesus’ cross as revealed through lynched black bodies in American history. Where is the gospel of Jesus’ cross revealed today? Where are black bodies being lynched today? The lynching of black America is taking place in the criminal justice system where nearly one-third of black men between the ages of 18 and 28 are in prisons and jails, on parole, or waiting for their day in court. One-half of the two million people in prisons are black. That is one million black people behind bars, more than in colleges. Through private prisons, whites have turned the brutality of their racist legal system into a profit-making venture for dying white towns and cities throughout America. One can lynch a person without a rope or tree.

The civil rights movement did not end lynching. It struck a mighty blow to the most obvious brutalities, like the lynching of Emmett Till and the violence of the Ku Klux Klan. But whenever society treats a people as if they have no rights or dignity or worth, as the government did to blacks during the Katrina storm, they are being lynched covertly. Whenever people are denied jobs, health care, housing, and the basic necessities of life, they are being lynched. There are a lot of ways to lynch a people. Whenever a people cry out to be recognized as human beings and society ignores them, they are being lynched.

People who have never been lynched by another group usually find it difficult to understand why blacks want whites to remember lynching atrocities. Why bring that up? That was a long time ago! Is it not best forgotten? Absolutely not! The lynching tree is a metaphor for race in America, a symbol of America’s crucifixion of black people. It is the window that best reveals the theological meaning of the cross in this land. In this sense, black people are Christ-figures, not because we want to be but because we had no choice about being lynched, just as Jesus had no choice in his journey to Calvary. Jesus did not want to die on the cross, and blacks did not want to swing from the lynching tree. But the evil forces of the Roman State and white supremacy in America willed it. Yet God took the evil of the cross and the lynching tree upon the divine self and transformed both into the triumphant beauty of the divine. If America has the courage to confront the great sin and ongoing legacy of white supremacy, with repentance and reparation, there is hope beyond the tragedy — hope for whites, blacks, and all humankind — hope beyond the lynching tree.

How Not to Grow the Church

Here are 15 helpful hints from the Episcopal Church Building Fund for stopping church growth dead in its tracks. You may recognize a few of them.

  1. Don’t ask people what type of worship experience they think might help them to know God. And if you make the mistake of asking, under no circumstances should you provide them with that. Be very cautious of worship that actually engages people deeply and gives them an experience of God’s presence.
  2. Ignore the fact that most people don’t listen to organ music in their cars. Continue to avoid all other varieties of music that make people’s souls sing. Turn your back on the fact that if it’s on their iPod, it speaks to their souls.
  3. Keep worship didactic, not experiential. Do not create different environments for different experiences. Do not use multimedia, drama, or the participation of youth in important liturgical roles.
  4. Don’t address the issues that keep your parishioners up at night or demonstrate how Scripture might be relevant. Avoid using sermons as an opportunity for transformation and enlightenment.
  5. Post welcoming signage but shy away from actually inviting a friend to church.
  6. Insist on a one-flavor, mono-cultural congregation. Diverse congregations can upset traditional identity. Even though we live in a multicultural world, insist on a mono-cultural church. Avoid demographic reports.
  7. Don’t start a new style of service. The entrepreneurial ethic is too hard: Who wants to work on Saturday and Sunday night in addition to Sunday morning? Instead, sit down and read a book on clergy wellness.
  8. Never share your faith story. There’s no reason to think that someone who doesn’t belong to a church has experienced God’s presence or longs for it. Don’t risk talking about your or their faith story.
  9. Pay no attention to numbers. It’s more important for small closed groups to fancy themselves rich in vitality than to worry about evangelism and the 79% of the population that do not attend a faith community of any kind. Don’t waste a moment worrying whether your children, their friends, and your neighbors have a meaningful engagement with a faith community.
  10. Assume that spiritual transformation is only for seminarians. Water down the Gospel for kids, and keep them busy with insipid activities and crafts. Pretend kids have no complexities in their lives with which they struggle.
  11. Don’t advertise expert speakers on topics such as raising teens or caring for older parents. This would have relevance to the wider community and they might overwhelm you on Sunday.
  12. Don’t organize teams of parishioners to provide pastoral care. Provide hit-or-miss care based on last century’s assumptions about membership and commitment to the parish.
  13. Insist that stewardship is about funding the budget not about challenging people to be stewards. Resist information that indicates that younger generations are less likely to fund institutions and more likely to fund specific ministries.
  14. Insist on “real” pledge cards and checks. Don’t offer the option of giving online.
  15. Don’t treat people like real members unless they pledge and attend every Sunday.

The truth behind each of these cheeky statements reflects an environment and mission for the Episcopal Church that has changed. Has your behavior?

Source: Congregational Builder (August 2007), p. 1.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Love 2008

The music for this is a bit cheesy, but what Ilana Yahav can do with sand is amazing.

The Saving Name of Jesus

Sermon for the Holy Name of Our Lord Jesus Christ

It’s a ritual that all expecting parents go through: picking out a name for the coming child. There are lots of ways to choose names these days. You can go on-line and find lots of baby name websites that tell you the origins and meanings of hundreds of names. They’ll also give you a list of names that currently are the most popular. Or you can opt for the more traditional approach of naming children after living or deceased family members.

Today, we commemorate the naming of a baby boy. The Feast of the Holy Name honors the day nearly 2,000 years ago on which a baby Jewish boy was circumcised and given the name Jesus. In the book of Leviticus, the Law of Moses requires that every male child be circumcised on the eight day from birth (cf. Lev. 12:3). This was typically a festive occasion, with family and friends joining together to witness the naming of the baby.[1] And so, when it comes to the ritual that fulfils the Law, Jesus was no different than any other baby Jewish boy.

But, of course, as Christmas Day and the Christmas season remind us, Jesus was actually very different from all other baby boys. The “Prologue” to John’s Gospel reveals the sacred mystery we celebrate during this holy season: that in Jesus of Nazareth, humanity and divinity are wed into one Person. In Jesus, God “became flesh and lived among us” (Jn. 1:14 NRSV). And as a consequence of the Incarnation, the name Jesus becomes “the sign of our salvation” [Collect for “The Holy Name” in The Book of Common Prayer, p. 213].

The word Jesus comes from the Hebrew Jeshua, or Joshua, which means “Jehovah is salvation.”[2] This is why the 1st chapter in Matthew’s Gospel records the angel of the Lord telling Joseph that Mary “will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Mt. 1:21 NRSV). In Greek, the name Jesus is also connected to the verb “to heal.”[3] The name Jesus carries many meanings, including Savior, Redeemer, and Healer. And as the Gospels show us, those meanings get carried out in concrete words and deeds in the life, death, and resurrection of our Lord. And so on the Feast of the Holy Name, we join with Christians from the earliest days of the Church to the present in honoring the Name of Jesus.

We honor and venerate the Name of Jesus, not because there’s some hidden power in the letters that comprise it. We honor and venerate the Name of Jesus because, when we say that name, and when we bring that name into our minds and treasure it in our hearts, we are invoking the reality, and the power, and the mystery of the Incarnate and Risen Lord. Spoken or prayed with reverence, the Name of Jesus expresses our faith that Jesus was not merely a divine being who appeared human, or an ordinary human being who merely claimed to be divine. Jesus was a flesh and blood man who was also the divine Son of God.

The Name of Jesus taps into the mystery of the Incarnation, a mystery captured in the words of a great Christian hymn: “What wondrous love is this that caused the Lord of bliss, to lay aside his crown for my soul” (Hymnal # 439). To think that God could love the world so much that He would voluntarily give up everything associated with being God – including power and the right to mete out just desserts for sin … That God would voluntarily assume the fullness of our humanity, sharing in everything it means to be human, including fatigue, pain, loneliness, fear, and death, yet excluding sin …[4] And that God would do all of this to heal us from sin and to deliver us from death in spite of the fact that we have never done anything to merit such grace … All of this, and more, is what the Name of Jesus signifies. So it’s little wonder that the Name of Jesus plays such a central role in historic Christian faith and practice.

We see it in the New Testament. As when Peter boldly proclaims before hostile Jewish authorities that “there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved” than that of Jesus (Acts 4:12 NRSV). Or when John tells us that he wrote his Gospel “so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name” (Jn. 20:31 NRSV).

We find the Name of Jesus front and center in the Eastern Orthodox tradition with its emphasis on the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Concerning the power of Jesus’ name as invoked in this prayer, one of the Eastern saints says:

“It is a prayer and a vow and a confession of faith, conferring upon us the Holy Spirit and divine gifts, cleansing the heart, driving out demons. It is the indwelling presence of Jesus Christ within us, and a fountain of spiritual reflections and divine thoughts. It is remission of sins, healing of soul and body, and shining of divine illumination; it is a well of God’s mercy bestowing upon the humble revelations and initiation into the mysteries of God. It is our only salvation, for it contains within itself the saving Name of our God, the only Name upon which we call, the Name of Jesus Christ the Son of God.”[5]

We also see the central role of the Name of Jesus in the Western Catholic tradition in which devotion to the Holy Name through the reverent invocation of Jesus is believed to provide “help in bodily needs,” to give “consolation in spiritual trials,” to “protect us against Satan and his wiles,” and to serve as a fount for “every blessing and grace for time and eternity.”[6]

One bishop sums it up by saying that “the power of God is present in the Name of Jesus.”[7] We should thus be very mindful of how we use and invoke the Holy Name of Jesus, lest, by taking the Name of the Lord our God in vain, we misuse its power to the peril of our souls. We should invoke the name of Jesus, not lightly or frivolously, but reverently and prayerfully. We should invoke the Name of Jesus regularly and repeatedly, allowing it to bring us into deeper intimacy with the One who shared our humanity that we may partake of His divinity. For in the Holy Name of Jesus we find all of the treasures and the mysteries of our salvation and of God’s extravagant, costly love for the whole world.

[1] Lesser Feasts and Fasts (New York: Church Publishing, Inc., 1998), p. 114.

[2] “Origin of the Name of Jesus Christ,” by A. J. Maas, at http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/08374x.htm, accessed on January 1, 2008.

[3] Ibid.

[4] See Bishop Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way Revised Edition (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1995), p. 75.

[5] St. Simeon of Thessalonica, quoted in The Art of Prayer: An Orthodox Anthology compiled by Igumen Chariton of Valamo, translated by E. Kadloubovsky & E. M. Palmer, and edited by Timothy Ware (London: Faber & Faber, 1966), pp. 88-89.

[6] See “Holy Name of Jesus” by Frederick G. Holweck at http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/07421a.htm, and also “Devotion to the Holy Name” at http://fisheaters.com//holyname.html, both accessed on January 1, 2008.

[7] Bishop Kallistos Ware in The Orthodox Church, quoted at http://www.tlig.org/rosaryorth.html, accessed on January 1, 2008.

A New Beginning

Appropriate thoughts for the New Year from the late Henri Nouwen.
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A new beginning! We must learn to live each day, each hour, yes, each minute as a new beginning, as a unique opportunity to make everything new. Imagine that we could live each moment as a moment pregnant with new life. Imagine that we could live each day as a day full of promises. Imagine that we could walk through the new year always listening to a voice saying to us: “I have a gift for you and can’t wait for you to see it!” Imagine.

Is it possible that our imagination can lead us to the truth of our lives? Yes, it can! The problem is that we allow our past, which becomes longer and longer each year, to say to us: “You know it all; you have seen it all, be realistic; the future will be just another repeat of the past. Try to survive as best you can.” There are many cunning foxes jumping on our shoulders and whispering in our ears the great lie: “There is nothing new under the sun … don’t let yourself be fooled.”

When we listen to these foxes, they eventually prove themselves right: our new year, our new day, our new hour become flat, boring, dull, and without anything new.

So what are we to do? First, we must send the foxes back to where they belong: in their foxholes. And then we must open our minds and our hearts to the voice that resounds through the valleys and hills of our life saying: “Let me show you where I live among my people. My name is ‘God-with-you.’ I will wipe away all the tears from your eyes; there will be no more death, and no more mourning or sadness. The world of the past has gone” (see Revelation 21:2-5).

We must choose to listen to that voice, and every choice will open us a little more to discover the new life hidden in the moment, waiting eagerly to be born.

Here and Now: Living in the Spirit (Crossroad, 1994), pp. 16-17.