Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Episcopal Parish Revises Baptismal Liturgy to be Interfaith Inclusive

Back in April of this year, I noted how Kevin Thew Forrester, the then bishop-elect of Northern MI, had arrogated to himself the authority to revise the liturgy for Holy Baptism by rewriting the Presentation and Examination of the Candidates for an Easter Vigil. This was just one of the many problems that derailed his election from receiving the consent necessary for his consecration as a bishop.

I probably shouldn't be surprised, but illegal revision of the Baptismal Rite has happened again, this time at Church of the Holy Trinity in New York City. Beginning with an explanation for the revisions followed by highlights of the revised liturgy, here's what I learned about what happened from Facebook (I've omitted the child's name):

On the Second Sunday of Advent, Holy Trinity, Manhattan, baptized an infant girl named N., whose parents are from Sri Llanka and whose godparents represented the different world religions of Sri Llanka. One of the godparents, moreover, described himself as an atheist. All of the godparents expressed a commitment to support N. as she followed the Way of the Christ. Working with the parents and godparents, Holy Trinity revised the Presentation and Examination of the Candidate in the Baptismal liturgy of The Episcopal Church's Book of Common Prayer so that the godparents could answer with authenticity.

Presentation & Examination of the Candidate
N. is blessed by the love and care of godparents whose faith traditions are Buddhism, Christianity and Hinduism. Out of respect for their faith commitments, and with gratitude for their spiritual commitment to N. who will follow the Way of the Christ, the questions posed to the parents and godparents during the examination will be interfaith.

Will you support N. and her parents in seeing that the child you present is brought up in the Christian faith and life, and that she will gain a wider understanding of our companions in faith?

Will you by your thoughts and witness help this child to grow into appreciating this diverse world and a blessed creation?

Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?

Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?

Do you renounce all sinful desire that draw you from the love of God?

Do you turn to a spirituality on earth?

Do you put your trust in humanity’s grace and love?

Do you promise to honor the faith that is in you, serving as a vessel of love?

The Baptismal Covenant, BCP, p. 304

Prayers for the Candidate, BCP, p. 305

The prayers will include a reading from The Crescent Moon: Child Poems by Rabindranath Tagore. The poem "Benediction," originally written for a baby boy, has been adapted for N.

Read by N.
Bless this little heart,
this white soul that has won the kiss of heaven for our earth.
She loves the light of the sun, she loves the sight of her mother's face.
She has not learned to despise the dust, and to hanker after gold.
Clasp her to your heart and bless her.
She has come into this land of an hundred cross-roads.
I know not how she chose you from the crowd, came to your door,
and grasped your hand to ask her way.
She will follow you, laughing and talking, and not a doubt in her heart.
Keep her trust, lead her straight and bless her.
Lay your hand on her head, and pray that though the waves underneath
grow threatening, yet the breath from above may come
and fill her sails and waft her to the haven of peace.
Forget her not in your hurry, let her come to your heart and bless her.

Hymn 296 (v. 1-2), We know that Christ is raised, Engelberg

During the hymn, the Altar Ministers, Candidate, Parents, and Godparents process to the Font.

We know that Christ is raised and dies no more.
Embraced by death he broke its fearful hold;
and our despair he turned to blazing joy.

We share by water in his saving death.
Reborn we share with him an Easter life
as living members of a living Christ.

Thanksgiving over the Water, BCP, p. 306

The Baptism, BCP, p. 307

The towel used at the Font for today’s Baptism is a hand-knitted gift from the Knitting Circle of Holy Trinity to the newly baptized.

Hymn 296 (v. 3-4), We know that Christ is raised, Engelberg

During the hymn, the Altar Ministers, Candidate, Parents, and Godparents return to the crossing.

The Father’s splendor clothes the Son with life.
The Spirit’s power shakes the Church of God.
Baptized we live with God the Three in One.

A new creation comes to life and grows
as Christ’s new body takes on flesh and blood.
The universe restored and whole will sing:
Alleluia! Amen.

Anointing with Chrism (Holy Oil), BCP, p. 308

Welcoming the Newly Baptized, BCP, p. 308

The fitting place to start is by noting the problem of authority the revisions raise. Deacons, priests, and bishops make solemn vows in the ordination rite "to conform to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the Episcopal Church" (The Book of Common Prayer, pp. 513, 526, & 538). When I first started blogging, I made these observations about this solemn vow:

The “Oath of Conformity” represents a deeply countercultural commitment. For as fashionable as it is for many bishops, priests, and deacons to take a stand on any given issue because their conscience dictates it [or to revise liturgies in order to be more "welcoming" and "inclusive"], we clergy have promised to be conformists. We have solemnly promised that the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the Episcopal Church over-rides individual conscience by setting the boundaries for what is and what is not normative. As a consequence, we clergy have voluntarily given up our “right” to ecclesial disobedience.

Prayer Book revision falls under the authority of General Convention alone. This means that clergy who take it upon themselves to alter the language of the liturgies in The Book of Common Prayer are both rejecting the norms of the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the Episcopal Church in favor of the private judgment of individual conscience and changing the Church's core theology. This constitutes a particularly serious violation of ordination vows for a tradition which places as high of a value on common prayer as we do.

These general points should be born in mind as we take a closer look at selected portions of the Facebook posting.

One of the godparents ... described himself as atheist.

I'm really not sure how an atheist can make the renunciations and the act of adherence, and also make the Baptismal Covenant promises, as a godparent. After all, the first half of the Baptismal Covenant is the Apostles' Creed, and the first of the Baptismal Covenant promises is to "continue in the apostles' teaching and fellowship" (The Book of Common Prayer, p. 304). In an earlier posting entitled "All of the Baptismal Covenant," I wrote this about that particular Baptismal Covenant promise:

Before we say what we promise to do as Christians, we first say what we believe as Christians. The doing follows from the believing. And it's no accident that the very first thing we promise to do is to "continue in the apostles' teaching and fellowship," and there's no better summary of the apostles' teaching than the Apostles' Creed. So while the doing of our faith may take "progressive" forms, we only get to that doing by first giving ourselves in faith and trust to the orthodox faith of the Church.

The first and most elementary thing the orthodox faith of the Church articulated in the Apostles' Creed says is this: "I believe in God." An atheist cannot say this with authenticity.

Speaking of authenticity brings me to the next problematic part of the explanation for this revised liturgy:

Holy Trinity revised the Presentation and Examination of the Candidate in the Baptismal liturgy of The Episcopal Church's Book of Common Prayer so that the godparents could answer with authenticity.

According to this explanation, the theological content of the Presentation and Examination of the Candidate has been revised in order to accommodate the views of persons who, due to their religious faith (or lack thereof), do not accept the tenets of the Christian faith. The idea here seems to be that respecting the integrity of atheists and other faith traditions requires us to change the core content of our tradition. We'll see how that plays out in the following revisions of the liturgy (the revised portions are in bold, and for comparison's sake, what the Prayer Book actually says is in bold italics).

Will you support N. and her parents in seeing that the child you present is brought up in the Christian faith and life, that she will gain a wider understanding of our companions in faith?

Will you be responsible for seeing that the child you present is brought up in the Christian faith and life? (BCP, p. 302)

An accurate understanding of other faith traditions is a laudable and a necessary goal in our increasingly pluralistic world. And it's one that can be accomplished in many ways. But this change in the wording of the Presentation makes "a wider understanding of our companions in faith" perhaps the central meaning of "the Christian faith and life." In addition to the issues of authority and revision already flagged, I think it would be better to cover the concern for achieving this wider understanding under the baptismal covenant promise to "respect the dignity of every human being" (BCP, p. 305). Indeed, such a concern is an excellent one to flag in pre-baptism instruction. But for heaven's sake, we don't have to change the content of our faith to show respect for other people's beliefs, nor do we have to try and accommodate everybody else's views to achieve this goal! That sounds more like codependent people-pleasing than genuine inter-religious engagement.

Will you by your thoughts and witness help this child to grow into appreciating this diverse world and a blessed creation?

Will you by your prayers and witness help this child to grow into the full stature of Christ? (BCP, p. 302)

Depending on how they are understood and enacted, appreciating diversity and creation are good things, to be sure. But notice what's missing in this revision. Christ has been edited out of the picture, as has our call to be formed into the "full stature" of Christ. The revision turns away from a promise to assist the baptized in substantive Christian formation and towards an open-ended, ill-defined notion of diversity appreciation. It's at this point that this revision begins to change the faith of the Church into something less than fully Christian.

That change bears fruit in the revised three-fold act of adherence:

Do you turn to a spirituality on earth?

Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Savior? (BCP, p. 302)

Do you put your trust in humanity’s grace and love?

Do you put your whole trust in his grace and love? (BCP, p. 302)

Do you promise to honor the faith that is in you, serving as a vessel of love?

Do you promise to follow and obey him as your Lord? (BCP, p. 303)

It's hard to imagine a starker contrast between the revised liturgy and the Prayer Book liturgy, or a more clear-cut evasion of what is central to the Christian faith and life: namely, Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. This is all the more interesting in light of the fact that the renunciations - which state the overwhelming magnitude and unmanageable character of the problem of sin and evil - are retained. But the answer to the problem of sin and evil in this act of adherence has been fundamentally changed, which, in turn, alters the magnitude and unmanageable character of sin and evil.

For instance, instead of turning to Jesus as savior - as the one who alone has power greater than ourselves to save us from the powers of sin, evil, and death - this revised liturgy locates salvation in "a spirituality on earth." I'm not sure exactly what that means, as the term "spirituality" is notorious for meaning pretty much anything anyone wants it to. Presumably, it might mean becoming Christian, or Jewish, or Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, etc. But as my posting entitled "Preslianity: Religious Devotion to Elvis Presley in America" demonstrates, "spirituality" and/or "religion" can hardly be circumscribed within the limits of the great religious traditions alone. That, too, is part of what it means to live in an increasingly pluralistic, interfaith world. Whether or not there are any limits to what this liturgy asks the Church to affirm and embrace when it comes to such interfaith diversity, no matter how far off the reservation such diversity may take us, is an open question.

In a subtle way, changing the language from turning to Jesus Christ and accepting him as savior to embracing "a spirituality on earth" suggests a common essence view of religion according to which the world’s religious traditions are basically all saying the same thing. So it doesn't really matter which "spirituality on earth" you choose, just so long as you choose something. And so things like creeds, liturgies, doctrines, dogmas, ritual practices, ethical norms, etc., are non-essential to the true, essential core that all religions share in common. I detected this view of religion at work in Kevin Thew Forrester's Trinity Sunday sermon, and in my posting entitled "Zen Christian" I noted some of the serious problems such a view entails. I hear echoes of this common essence view between the lines of this revised liturgy. That would, in part, account for why such "non-essentials" as the affirmations of Christ as Lord and Savior have been edited out of this revision in favor of things more "universal" and "trans-historical" (such as "vessel of love") that purportedly are affirmed by the core of all religious traditions.

Continuing with the rest of the act of adherence ...

Instead of putting our whole trust in Jesus Christ's grace and love, this revised liturgy has us putting our trust in humanity's grace and love. This revision has the merit of at least being clear and unambiguous in its shift away from a theocentric or Christocentric to a humanocentric understanding of conversion and salvation. But making this shift also entails rejecting a theological anthropology which understands humanity as essentially fallen (perhaps even infected by Original Sin) and in need of healing and redemption, in favor of one which envisions human beings as essentially good (perhaps there are echoes here of Matthew Fox's Original Blessing?). Little wonder, then, that the previous act of adherence turned away from the language of Jesus Christ as Savior, for if we are essentially good, there's really nothing we need to be saved from. Perhaps the problem is a lack of sufficient understanding and compassion. I must say that I find this an incredibly naive understanding of human nature, and one which doesn't make much sense in the aftermath of the unspeakable horrors of the 20th Century.

Finally, and consistent with the previous two acts of adherence, the revised liturgy edits out language of promising to follow and obey Jesus as Lord in favor of promising to serve as "a vessel of love." Like the vague term "spirituality," the word "love" is, at best, ambiguous when unmoored from the substantive particularities of the Christian faith and from the One who alone perfectly models what true love is and who alone has the authority to command us to act accordingly. But perhaps that's the point: to move away from the scandals of Christian particularity for the sake of embracing trans-historical, disembodied principles. How ironic that such a revision was used during a season of the Church calendar year when we look forward with hope and expectation to God coming to us in the flesh as a very particular, historically, culturally and religiously-grounded human being.

This revised act of adherence brings to my mind one of H. Richard Niebuhr's most succinct and blistering criticisms of theological liberalism as a religion devoted to "a God without wrath [who] brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross" [The Kingdom of God in America, (The Wesleyan University Press, orig. 1937; 1988), p. 193].

Given the substantive theological changes made in this revision of the act of adherence, it's hard to know what to say about the rest of the liturgy remaining mostly intact. That strikes me as theologically schizophrenic, at best. At least Kevin Thew Forrester's revision of the baptismal liturgy was more consistent insofar as it changed the renunciations, too.

In light of the ways in which this case echoes the case of Kevin Thew Forrester earlier this year, I'll close with something I said in response to those commenting on my posting "'Buddhist' Bishop-Elect Revises Liturgy for Baptism":

The Forrester case is, indeed, a wake-up call that the Episcopal Church has been infiltrated by both bad and heretical theology at all levels. It may not be as pervasive as the more stringent doomsayers cry, but it's there and, left unchecked, will spread and come to seem more and more "normal." We need to build on the unified opposition across the spectrum in this case to start saying "No!" in other cases.

This posting is my modest contribution to saying "No!" to Church of the Holy Trinity's unauthorized revision of the baptismal liturgy and the theology which fuels it. And it's also a way to say that we can engage in respectful interfaith dialogue and cooperation - even worship - without throwing the Christian baby out with the bathwater.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Of the Incarnation

O God, who wonderfully created, and yet more wonderfully restored, the dignity of human nature: Grant that we may share the divine life of him who humbled himself to share our humanity, your Son Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

The Book of Common Prayer, p. 252

Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Word Became Flesh

John 1:1-18

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was in the beginning with God. 3All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

6There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 9The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. 10He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. 12But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

14And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. 15(John testified to him and cried out, ‘This was he of whom I said, “He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.” ’) 16From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. 17The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.

Selected commentary from The Orthodox Study Bible:

1:1 In the beginning recalls the creation but speaks of the Creator Himself. As Gen. 1:1 introduces the original creation, by itself an incomplete existence, this verse reveals the new creation, a fulfilled and complete existence.

Was the Word (Gr. logos): Was indicates existence without reference to a starting point. Therefore, In the beginning was the Word emphasizes (1) the Word's eternal existence in the Father without beginning, and (2) His oneness with Him in essence. Logos signifies wisdom and reason as well as word: the Creator. ("Creation" is Gr. logikos, participating in the Divine Word.) With the Incarnation, the Logos full participates in human nature.

The Word was with God: With in the Greek shows that the Word, the Son, is (1) a distinct Person from the Father, and (2) in communion with the Father.

The Word was God: The OT prophets saw the Word of God as the presence of the Lord. This phrase reveals He is not only from the Father, He is coequal and coeternal with the Father: one in divinity with Him. "I and My Father are one" (10:30). Some mistranslate this phrase "the Word was a god" to propagate their heresy that the Son is a created being, not fully divine. Such a translation is unwarranted and false.

1:3 The Word is co-Creator of all things with the Father (Gen. 1 and Ps. 33:6, 9), not merely the "instrument" or a "servant" of creation. Will, operation, and power are seen to be one in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Through Him shows the Word is not included in all things created by the Father. His eternal birth is by generation from the Father, whereas the works of creation are made. Thus, the heavens and the earth are the works of the One who made them, while the Son alone is born from the Father. Even when He comes in human flesh, the Word forever remains God, the Creator.

1:4 As the Divine Word incarnate, Christ is also the source of life and enlightenment. Because the Word is God, He is life: only God has life in Himself.

And the life was the light: By seeing and participating in Christ's life believers become light and children of light (12:36). Moses saw this light in the burning bush (Ex. 3:2), Isaiah saw it in his heavenly vision (Is. 6:1-5), and Peter, James and John saw it on the Mount of Transfiguration (Matt. 17:2). In the Divine Liturgy at Easter, light breaks forth from the night at the proclamation of the Resurrection: "Come, take light from the light that is never overtaken by night. Come, glorify Christ, risen from the dead."

1:5 Darkness: the satanic wickedness which actively opposes the light. Though the world has embraced darkness (3:19), the Word freely offers light to all. ... Darkness will oppose the light, yet cannot defeat the light.

1:9, 10 The true Light, Jesus Christ, enlightens every person, but the world refuses to receive and live in this light, and does not know Him (v. 10).

1:14 The Word became flesh: Here we turn to the humanity of Jesus. The Word became man without ceasing to be fully God: the mystery of God incarnate! He assumed complete human nature, both a physical body and a rational soul - everything we are, except for sin. As God and man in one Person, Christ accomplishes a redemption that fully heals and saves fallen humanity. He dwelt among us: "We" are the disciples, the people of God, pilgrims in this transient world. In the OT, God's glory, His radiant power, dwelt ("tabernacled") in the temple. Here, the eternal Word in His divine glory comes to dwell in the midst of humanity through the Incarnation.

We beheld His glory: The glory of the Word which the Apostles beheld was the manifestation of the very presence of God, shown in His words and deeds (2:11), and more fully beheld in His Transfiguration and His Resurrection.

Only begotten of the Father: The Son was eternally born from the Father; the Son has no beginning but He has His source in the Father. He is called Only Begotten because there is no other born from the Father. Thus, the Son Himself is God.

Full of grace and truth: This phrase qualifies not only "the Word" but also "the glory." Grace is Jesus' uncreated energy manifested to us through His lovingkindness and redeeming love. Truth includes His faithfulness to His promises and covenants, and the abiding reality of His gifts. By His grace and truth we enjoy a life in union and communion with God through Christ.

1:16 And of His fullness we have all received: Because Christ is God by nature, God's uncreated grace filled His human nature, thus deifying it. In union with Christ's deified humanity, we participate in the fullness of grace. Through Christ, God's children become gods by grace (10:34, 35), without ceasing to be human by nature. As metal thrust into the fire takes on the heat of the fire without ceasing to be itself, so human nature immersed in God's uncreated grace and truth becomes godlike without ceasing to be human.

The Incarnation and the Christian Doctrine of Salvation

Underlying the conciliar definitions about Christ as God and man, there are two basic principles concerning our salvation. First, only God can redeem us. A prophet or teacher of righteousness cannot be the redeemer of the world. If, then, Christ is to be our Saviour, he must be fully and completely God. Secondly, salvation must reach the point of human need. Only if Christ is fully and completely a man as we are, can we men share in what he has done for us.

It would therefore be fatal to the doctrine of our salvation if we were to regard Christ in the way that the Arians did, as a kind of demi-God situated in a shadowy intermediate region between humanity and divinity. The Christian doctrine of salvation demands that we shall be maximalists. We are not to think of him as "half-in-half". Jesus Christ is not fifty per cent God and fifty per cent man, but one hundred per cent God and one hundred per cent man. In the epigrammatic phrase of St Leo the Great, he is totus in suis, totus in nostris, "complete in what is his own, complete in what is ours."

Complete in what is his own: Jesus Christ is our window into the divine-realm, showing us what God is. "No one has ever seen God; the only-begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, has made him known to us" (John 1:18).

Complete in what is ours: Jesus Christ is the second Adam, showing us the true character of our own human personhood. God alone is the perfect man.

Who is God? Who am I? To both of these questions Jesus Christ gives us the answer.

~ Bishop Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way Revised Edition
(St Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1995), p. 73.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

In the Bleak Midwinter

Looking Deeper at the Meaning of Christmas

Peter Kreeft invites us to take a deeper look at the meaning of Christmas by recovering an ancient, four-fold approach to Biblical interpretation:

Modern interpreters often argue about whether a given Scripture passage should be interpreted literally or symbolically. Medieval writers would question the “either/or” approach. They thought a passage could have as many as four “right” interpretations, one literal and three symbolic.

These were: (1) the historical or literal, which is the primary sense on which the others all depend; (2) the prophetic sense when an Old Testament event foreshadows its New Testament fulfillment; (3) the moral or spiritual sense, when events and characters in a story correspond to elements in our own lives; and (4) the eschatological sense, when a scene on earth foreshadows something of heavenly glory.

This symbolism is legitimate because it doesn’t detract from the historical, literal sense, but builds on and expands it. It’s based on the theologically sound premise that history too symbolizes, or points beyond itself, for God wrote three books, not just one: nature and history as well as Scripture. The story of history is composed not only of “events,” but of words, signs and symbols. This is unfamiliar to us only because we have lost a sense of depth and exchanged it for a flat, one-dimensional, “bottom-line” mentality in which everything means only one thing.

Let’s try to recapture the riches of this lost worldview by applying the spiritual sense of the Christmas story to our lives. For that story happens not only once, in history, but also many times in each individual’s soul. Christ comes to the world — but He also comes to each of us. Advent happens over and over again.

Read it all.

The Incarnation: Startling and Essential

Stand to Reason Blog offers some interesting thoughts (attributed to Harry Reasoner) about the Incarnation:

The basis for this tremendous annual burst of gift buying and parties and near hysteria is a quiet event that Christians believe actually happened a long time ago. You can say that in all societies there has always been a midwinter festival and that many of the trappings of our Christmas are almost violently pagan. But you come back to the central fact of the day and quietness of Christmas morning - the birth of God on earth.

It leaves you only three ways of accepting Christmas.

One is cynically, as a time to make money or endorse the making of it.

One is graciously, the appropriate attitude for non-Christians, who wish their fellow citizens all the joys to which their beliefs entitle them.

And the third, of course, is reverently. If this is the anniversary of the appearance of the Lord of the universe in the form of a helpless babe, then it is a very important day.

It's a startling idea, of course. My guess is that the whole story that a virgin was selected by God to bear His Son as a way of showing His love and concern for man is not an idea that has been popular with theologians. It's a somewhat illogical idea, and theologians like logic almost as much as they like God. It's so revolutionary a thought that it probably could only come from a God that is beyond logic, and beyond theology. ...

So it goes beyond logic. It is either all falsehood or it is the truest thing in the world. It's the story of the great innocence of God the baby - God in the form of man - and has such a dramatic shock toward the heart that if it is not true, for Christians, nothing is true.

Read it all.

Of course, accepting Christmas graciously and accepting it reverently are not mutually exclusionary. And I'm not sure I can buy the assertion that if the Incarnation is not true, then, for Christians, nothing is true. Saying it that way strikes me as more hyperbolic than helpful. It would be more accurate to say that if the Incarnation is not true, then the other claims made by the orthodox Christian faith are not true.

On that point, I agree with the Rt. Rev. Frank E. Wilson:

The Incarnation is the central fact of the Christian faith. Without it Christianity falls to the ground. That is why Christians have proclaimed it, defended it, fought and died for it since the very beginning of Christian history [Faith and Practice Revised Edition (Morehouse, 1967), p. 76].

I think that we so often emphasize the atonement and/or the resurrection of Jesus that we overlook the importance of the Incarnation in God's work of salvation. I find Orthodox bishop Kallistos Ware's perspective helpful on this point:

The Incarnation ... is God's supreme act of deliverance, restoring us to communion with himself. ...

The Incarnation of Christ ... effects more than a reversal of the fall, more than a restoration of man to his original state in Paradise. When God became man, this marks the beginning of an essentially new stage in the history of man, and not just a return to the past. The Incarnation raises man to a new level; the last state is higher than the first. Only in Jesus Christ do we see revealed the full possibilities of our human nature; until he is born, the true implications of our personhood are still hidden from us. Christ's birth, as St Basil puts it, is "the birthday of the whole human race"; Christ is the first perfect man - perfect, that is to say, not just in a potential sense, as Adam was in his innocence before the fall, but in the sense of the completely realized "likeness". The Incarnation, then, is not simply a way of undoing the effects of original sin, but it is an essential stage upon man's journey from the divine image to the divine likeness. The true image and likeness of God is Christ himself; and so, from the very first moment of man's creation in the image, the Incarnation of Christ was in some way already implied. The true reason for the Incarnation, then, lies not in man's sinfulness but in his unfallen nature as a being made in the divine image and capable of union with God [The Orthodox Way Revised Edition (St Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1995), pp. 70-71].

May you know the blessings of our Lord's Incarnation by growing more and more into the divine image and likeness.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Archbishop of Canterbury's Christmas Sermon

Here's an excerpt from the Most Reverend and Right Honourable Rowan Williams' Christmas sermon delivered today at Canterbury Cathedral:

This morning's reading from the Letter to the Hebrews begins with the boldest and most unambiguous statement possible of what's new and different about Christmas. God has always been communicating with humanity, in any number of ways; but what we need from God is more than just information. The climax of the story is the sending of a Son: when all has been said and done on the level of information what still needs to be made clear to us is that the point of it all is relationship. God speaks at last through a Son, so that we can grasp the fact that really knowing God, really responding to his Word of promise and life, is a matter of relationship. It's becoming God's child. And the consequence is that we ourselves learn to speak and act in such a way that others want to share that relationship.

The Son, says the writer to the Hebrews, is the heir of all creation; the Son is the lifegiving principle of all reality; the Son radiates and reflects the unimaginable beauty and light of the source from which he comes. When the Son is born among us, what happens is that this unlimited, unending torrent of light and glory, of intelligence and order and loving contemplation is poured into the container of a human mind and body. Through what he then does in that human mind and body, the possibilities for human life are changed for ever, and we are invited into the same place in heaven that the Son occupies for ever - the place that St John's gospel defines as ' nearest to the Father's heart'. And the letter-writer triumphantly claims that our human destiny is thus to be even closer to God than the angels are. Christian poets and thinkers have often imagined the angels looking at us with amazement - such very unpromising material, such limited capacities, such a genius for self-deception and pettiness, yet promised such a future.

Relationship is the new thing at Christmas, the new possibility of being related to God as Jesus was and is. But here's the catch and the challenge. To come into this glorious future is to learn how to be dependent on God. And that word tends to have a chilly feel for us, especially us who are proudly independent moderns. We speak of 'dependent' characters with pity and concern; we think of 'dependency' on drugs and alcohol; we worry about the 'dependent' mind set that can be created by handouts to the destitute. In other words, we think of dependency as something passive and less than free.

But let's turn this round for a moment. If we think of being dependent on the air we breathe, or the food we eat, things look different. Even more if we remind ourselves that we depend on our parents for learning how to speak and act and above all how to love. There is a dependence that is about simply receiving what we need to live; there is a dependence that is about how we learn and grow. And part of our human problem is that we mix up this entirely appropriate and lifegiving dependency with the passivity that can enslave us. In seeking (quite rightly) trying to avoid passivity we can get trapped in the fantasy that we don't need to receive and to learn.

Which is why it matters that our reading portrays the Son in the way it does - radiant, creative, overflowing with life and intelligence. The Son is all these things because he is dependent, because he receives his life from the Father. And when we finally grow up in to the fullness of his life, we shall, like him, be gladly and unashamedly dependent - open to receiving all God has to give, open to learn all he has to teach. This is a 'dependency' that is utterly creative and the very opposite of passive. It is a matter of being aligned with the freest activity we can imagine, God's eternal love, flowing through us.

Read it all.

St. John Chrysostom's Christmas Homily

Many consider St. John Chrysostom (circa 344-407), Bishop of Antioch and Constantinople, as the greatest preacher of the early Church and one of the greatest of all time. Below is one of his Christmas homilies (slightly abridged). Christmas blessings to you all!

Behold a new and wondrous mystery. My ears resound to the Shepherd’s song, piping no soft melody, but chanting full forth a heavenly hymn. The Angels sing. The Archangels blend their voice in harmony. The Cherubim hymn their joyful praise. The Seraphim exalt His glory. All join to praise this holy feast, beholding the Godhead here on earth, and man in heaven. He Who is above, now for our redemption dwells here below; and he that was lowly is by divine mercy raised.

Bethlehem this day resembles heaven; hearing from the stars the singing of angelic voices; and in place of the sun, enfolds within itself on every side, the Sun of justice. And ask not how: for where God wills, the order of nature yields. For He willed, He had the power, He descended, He redeemed; all things yielded in obedience to God. This day He Who is, is Born; and He Who is, becomes what He was not. For when He was God, He became man; yet not departing from the Godhead that is His. Nor yet by any loss of divinity became He man, nor through increase became He God from man; but being the Word He became flesh, His nature, because of impassability, remaining unchanged.

And so the kings have come, and they have seen the heavenly King that has come upon the earth, not bringing with Him Angels, nor Archangels, nor Thrones, nor Dominations, nor Powers, nor Principalities, but, treading a new and solitary path, He has come forth from a spotless womb.

Since this heavenly birth cannot be described, neither does His coming amongst us in these days permit of too curious scrutiny. Though I know that a Virgin this day gave birth, and I believe that God was begotten before all time, yet the manner of this generation I have learned to venerate in silence and I accept that this is not to be probed too curiously with wordy speech. For with God we look not for the order of nature, but rest our faith in the power of Him who works.

What shall I say to you; what shall I tell you? I behold a Mother who has brought forth; I see a Child come to this light by birth. The manner of His conception I cannot comprehend.

Nature here rested, while the Will of God labored. O ineffable grace! The Only Begotten, Who is before all ages, Who cannot be touched or be perceived, Who is simple, without body, has now put on my body, that is visible and liable to corruption. For what reason? That coming amongst us he may teach us, and teaching, lead us by the hand to the things that men cannot see. For since men believe that the eyes are more trustworthy than the ears, they doubt of that which they do not see, and so He has deigned to show Himself in bodily presence, that He may remove all doubt.

Christ, finding the holy body and soul of the Virgin, builds for Himself a living temple, and as He had willed, formed there a man from the Virgin; and, putting Him on, this day came forth; unashamed of the lowliness of our nature’. For it was to Him no lowering to put on what He Himself had made. Let that handiwork be forever glorified, which became the cloak of its own Creator. For as in the first creation of flesh, man could not be made before the clay had come into His hand, so neither could this corruptible body be glorified, until it had first become the garment of its Maker.

What shall I say! And how shall I describe this Birth to you? For this wonder fills me with astonishment. The Ancient of days has become an infant. He Who sits upon the sublime and heavenly Throne, now lies in a manger. And He Who cannot be touched, Who is simple, without complexity, and incorporeal, now lies subject to the hands of men. He Who has broken the bonds of sinners, is now bound by an infants bands. But He has decreed that ignominy shall become honor, infamy be clothed with glory, and total humiliation the measure of His Goodness.

For this He assumed my body, that I may become capable of His Word; taking my flesh, He gives me His spirit; and so He bestowing and I receiving, He prepares for me the treasure of Life. He takes my flesh, to sanctify me; He gives me His Spirit, that He may save me.

Come, then, let us observe the Feast. Truly wondrous is the whole chronicle of the Nativity. For this day the ancient slavery is ended, the devil confounded, the demons take to flight, the power of death is broken, paradise is unlocked, the curse is taken away, sin is removed from us, error driven out, truth has been brought back, the speech of kindliness diffused, and spreads on every side, a heavenly way of life has been ‘in planted on the earth, angels communicate with men without fear, and men now hold speech with angels.

Why is this? Because God is now on earth, and man in heaven; on every side all things commingle. He became Flesh. He did not become God. He was God. Wherefore He became flesh, so that He Whom heaven did not contain, a manger would this day receive. He was placed in a manger, so that He, by whom all things arc nourished, may receive an infant’s food from His Virgin Mother. So, the Father of all ages, as an infant at the breast, nestles in the virginal arms, that the Magi may more easily see Him. Since this day the Magi too have come, and made a beginning of withstanding tyranny; and the heavens give glory, as the Lord is revealed by a star.

To Him, then, Who out of confusion has wrought a clear path, to Christ, to the Father, and to the Holy Ghost, we offer all praise, now and for ever. Amen.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

An Arabic Christmas Carol

"A voice from the unheard voices of the Christians of the Middle East who have been witnessing to faith in the Savior since His incarnation in their midst."

A Christmas Message from Bishop Shannon Johnston

"May your Christmas, indeed, be holy this season, and know Jesus as a part of your life."

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Don't Say "Merry Christmas," Say "Happy Holidays"

That's what Dr. John Stackhouse, who holds the Sangwoo Youtong Chee Chair of Theology and Culture at Regent College in Vancouver, Canada, says in an essay published at NationalPost.com. He writes:

I’m a Christian and I love Christmas. That’s why each December I greet shop clerks, tradespeople, dentists, and everyone else I happen to meet with "Happy Holidays" and not "Merry Christmas."

And why, as a Christian, does he do this?

... “generic goodness” is what Christmas has become for most Canadians. We're now a nation largely of Christians and sort-of-Christians and occasional Christians and ex-Christians and anti-Christians. Christmas thus has metamorphosed into whatever anyone wants it to be. “It’s all about family,” some say, while others coo over “the miracle of a baby’s birth.” Christmas means love and generosity and just being a little nicer to people. The vaunted “Christmas spirit” is whatever we happen to value as the highest and best in human nature.

Christmas is about the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob becoming a human baby at a particular time and place. This baby was not merely a symbol: He was to be the Saviour, the one and only Saviour needed by his people, Israel, and indeed by the rest of the world. The angels, shepherds, and wise men came to adore this unique infant King, not merely smile and nod at each other about yet another cute kid.

Christmas is therefore a Christian holy day that, when understood properly in its Biblical context, offers indeed a great commemorative feast in stark contrast to the spun sugar of the Santa Claus myth. But it’s not a feast to everyone’s taste and certainly not everyone will be partaking of it this year. So let’s not talk as if everyone will.

Read it all.

Remembering the Least of These

"Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me" (Matthew 25:40).

My friend Tim Jones, an Anglican priest, made headlines
the other day in his sermon when he counseled the desperately poor to shoplift rather than resort to burglary, prostitution, or suicide. The debate over that counsel has been rather intense. I Googled "Tim Jones shoplifting" and the search engine came up with 35,400 results. Check it out for yourself.

Tim served in my diocese for several years before returning to England. During that time, I got to know him as a friend, a man of integrity, and a good priest. Whether he's right or wrong in this particular instance, he and his family have my prayers.

Whether Tim is right or wrong, one thing is certain: the Christian tradition places a high value on serving the poor and the needy. For in what we do or fail to do to "the least of these," we do or fail to do to Jesus himself.

The excerpt below from a Christmas sermon entitled "God With Us" by Anglican priest
Edward Bouverie Pusey drives the point home far more eloquently than I can. I offer it on this eve of Christmas eve in the hopes that we will all remember the least of these who live among us, and stand ready to seek and serve Christ in them.

If we would see [God with us] in his sacraments, we must see him also wherever he has declared himself to be, and especially in his poor. In them also he is “with us” still. And so our church has united mercy to his poor with the sacrament of his Body and Blood, and bade us, ere we approach to receive him, to remember him in his poor, that so, loving much, we, who are otherwise unworthy, may be much forgiven; we, considering him in his poor and needy, may be permitted to behold him; and for him parting with our earthly substance, may be partakers of his heavenly. Real love to Christ must issue in love to all who are Christ’s, and real love to Christ’s poor must issue in self-denying acts of love towards them. Casual almsgiving is not Christian charity. Rather, seeing Christ in the poor, the sick, the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, we must, if we can, by ourselves, if not by others, seek them out, as we would seek Christ, looking for a blessing from it, far greater than any they can gain from our alms. It was promised of old time, as a blessing, “the poor shall never cease out of the land,” and now we know the mercy of this mysterious blessing, for they are the presence of our Lord. “The poor,” he saith, “ye have always with you, but me ye have not always,” not in bodily presence, but in his poor, whom we shall ever have.

The poor of Christ are the church’s special treasure, as the Gospel is their special property, the church the home of the homeless, the mother of the fatherless. The poor are the wealth, the dowry of the church; they have a sacred character about them; they bring a blessing with them; for they are what Christ for our sake made himself. Such as them did he call around him; such as they, whether by God’s outward appointment, or by his Spirit directing men’s choice, the poor, rich in faith, have been the converters of the world; and we, my brethren, if we are wise, must seek to be like them, to empty ourselves, at least, of our abundance; to empty ourselves, rather, of our self-conceit, our notions of station, our costliness of dress, our jewelry, our luxuries, our self-love, even as he, on this day, emptied himself of the glory which he had with the Father, the brightness of his majesty, the worship of the hosts of heaven, and made himself poor, to make us rich, and to the truly poor he hath promised the kingdom of heaven. The hungry he will fill, but those in themselves rich, he will send empty away. Year by year there is more need; the poor are multiplying upon us, and distress on them; gigantic needs require gigantic efforts; in these our towns, our church is losing its best blessing, that of being the church of the poor; we know not too often of their existence. Our fair houses are like painted sepulchers, hiding, by a goodly outside, from our sight, the misery, and hunger, and cold, and nakedness, which we love not to look upon, but which will rise in judgment against our nation, if we heed it not.

Realize we that they are Christ’s, yea, that we approach to Christ in them, feed him, visit him, clothe him, attend on him, and we shall feel (as saints, even of the noble of this world, have felt) that it is a high honor to us to be admitted to them. Such as can, would gladly devote their lives to them. We all should treat their needs with reverence, not relieving them coldly, and as a form, but humble ourselves in heart before their patient suffering; welcome the intercourse with them, as bringing us nearer unto Christ. In them he comes to us, in them we visit him; in them we may find him; he in them and for them intercedes for us with the Father. In them he who gave them to us, the means and the hearts to relieve them, will receive our gifts. He, before men and angels, shall acknowledge as done to him, what for his sake, we did to them.

From They Still Speak: Readings for the Lesser Feasts, edited by J. Robert Wright (Church Hymnal Corporation, 1993), pp. 168-170.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Nothing Is More Embarrassing Than Being Religious

Especially if you are a Christian.

At least that's what Ada Calhoun says in a recent article for Salon.com. After reading her article and noting the 'progressive' company she keeps, and bearing in mind the things I've read and heard about in places beyond the Bible Belt where I live, I can't say I'm surprised.

Here's a teaser from her article entitled, "I am a closet Christian":

It was Sunday morning in my scruffy Brooklyn, N.Y., neighborhood, and I was wearing a dress. Walking to the subway, I ran into a friend heading home from yoga class. She wore sweats and carried her mat over her shoulder. "Where are you going so early all dressed up?" she asked, chuckling. "To church?" We shared a laugh at the absurdity of a liberal New Yorker heading off to worship.

The real joke? I totally was.

Inside the church, it's cool and quiet. I read the Collect of the day in the Book of Common Prayer, which urges us: "While we are placed among 
things that are passing away, to hold fast to those that shall
 endure." My recent layoff no longer seems like the end of the world. I take Communion and exchange the peace and listen to the sermon. As I'm walking back up the aisle, I feel reoriented and calmer, the indignities of the week shift into perspective.

These moments are not only sacred; they are secret. Outside, on the steps of the downtown Manhattan church, I think I see someone familiar coming down the sidewalk, and I bolt in the other direction.

Why am I so paranoid? I'm not cheating on my husband, committing crimes or doing drugs. But those are battles my cosmopolitan, progressive friends would understand. Many of them had to come out -- as gay, as alcoholics, as artists in places where art was not valued. To them, my situation is far more sinister: I am the bane of their youth, the boogeyman of their politics, the very thing they left their small towns to escape. I am a Christian. ...

But also, increasingly, I wonder: When I'm getting a ride from some friends and they start talking about how stupid religious people are and quoting lines from "Religulous," do I have an obligation to point out how reductive and bigoted they're being, the way I would if they were talking about a particular race? Increasingly I wonder if I should pipe up from the back seat and say, "Excuse me, but these fools you're talking about? I'm one of them."

Read it all.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Onward, Christian elephants?

A friend brought this story posted on the Archdiocese of Colombo's website to my attention today:

In July 2008 a severe persecution of Christians broke out in the Indian state of Orissa. A 22 year old nun was burnt to death when angry mobs burnt down an orphanage in Khuntpali village in Barhgarh district, another nun was gang raped in Kandhamal, mobs attacked churches, torched vehicles, houses of Christians destroyed, and Fr. Thomas Chellen, director of the pastoral center that was destroyed with a bomb, had a narrow escape after a Hindu mob nearly set him on fire. The end result saw more than 500 Christians murdered, and thousands of others injured and homeless after their houses were reduced to ashes. Recently a strange and dramatic event took place in Orissa, which has many people talking and wondering.

In recent months, herds of wild elephants have begun to storm villages that are home to some of the worst persecutors of Christians during the troubles. In one village, where in August a year ago the Christians had to run for their lives while their homes were being destroyed by rioters, a herd of elephants emerged from the surrounding jungle exactly one year later, in July 2009, at the same time of the day of the attack.

These elephants first attacked a rock crusher machine owned by a key leader of the persecution movement. They then went on to destroy his house and farms.

Hundreds of villagers have been forced to take shelter in camps in the Indian state of Orissa after repeated attacks by a herd of elephants.

Seven people have been killed and several others injured in attacks by a herd of 12-13 elephants over the past few weeks in Kandhamal district.

Over 2,500 people living in 45 villages have been affected by the attacks, district chief Krishen Kumar said.

It is, however, unclear why this herd of elephants migrated from the Lakheri sanctuary in a neighbouring district. He said the herd had travelled some 300km into Kandhamal, and even entered a town in the district. Wildlife officials were camping at the site of the attacks and trying to find out why the elephants had come out of their sanctuary. The villagers say elephants attack their areas in herds, causing heavy destruction.

Gaining momentum, they rampaged through other non-Christian homes, demolishing gardens and singling out the home of persecutors, leaving Christian homes untouched.

These strange attacks have spread, and according to a report, the elephants have already destroyed more than 700 houses in 30 villages, and killed five people. Nobody in this area has seen or even imagined the unique appearance of a herd of wild elephants such as this. The elephants are not ordinary elephants; they appear to be on a mission.

Typically, smaller elephants enter a village first, appearing to survey the community. They then rejoin the larger herd, and larger elephant soon follow and get the job done.

The ministry partner in India stated “We think that it might have something to do with the avenging the blood of martyrs. In fact the fear of God has fallen on the local people, who have labeled these elephants “Christian elephants.”

With little help coming from the administration, the villagers have taken to road blockades. "The elephants have destroyed crops and selected houses. But officials too express helplessness. "There is no permanent habitat of elephants in Sundargarh. They come from Bihar, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand where their habitats have shrunk. But is not clear how and why these elephants reached Orissa.

I'm really not sure what to make of this ...

Sunday, December 20, 2009

O Little Town of Bethlehem

In just a few days, Episcopalians and other Christians will be singing the words of the poem written by Episcopal priest Phillips Brooks that are so familiar to us in the hymn "O Little Town of Bethlehem."

Check out this lovely rendition:

Fr. Stephen, an Orthodox priest who blogs at Glory to God for All Things, offers thoughts on this hymn that change how I hear otherwise familiar words. He writes:

Phillips Brooks, the Anglican priest who wrote the hymn, “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” offered a very rich phrase with his observation, “How silently, how silently, the wondrous Word is given…” The ubiquitous sound of Christmas music has accompanied me into almost every store and restaurant since late November. At its best, the music is quiet and reverent. At its worst, the music jars the mind with every imaginable form of cultural distortion. Thus my thoughts have turned to the silence of the Word.

The silence of the Word made flesh is a crucial aspect of the Incarnation. Though Christ taught – it is not as Teacher that the Church knows Him best: He is certainly not to be compared to other religious figures who are primarily known for their teaching. It is Who He is, and what He did and does that distinguish Him as Lord and Savior. Even the words spoken by Him need to be received into the silence of the heart, according the fathers of the Church.

In a very noisy season, it is worth pausing for silence – listening for the silence of the Word. Spoken into our hearts, the Word again “takes flesh,” as we hear Him in obedience.

My response to Fr. Stephen took a more personal turn than I initially expected:

It may be a bit odd to say this in such a forum, but serving as an Episcopal priest these days, and knowing what I do about Eastern Orthodoxy (and with a brother who converted to Orthodoxy), there’s a part of me that wishes I had simply been born Orthodox. I’m mindful of a clergy colleague who (speaking of moving from one parish to another) said, "The grass is always browner on the other side." Nevertheless, in spite of the messiness that surely exists in your neck of the ecclesial woods, there's that part of me that wishes the dogmatic core of the Christian faith laid out so clearly in historic creeds and Ecumenical Councils were just not up to revision and/or second-thoughts in my neck of the ecclesial woods. Not that everyone within Anglicanism (broadly conceived) is doing that, but it can and does happen more often than I would have initially expected. It can really be painful at times.

That may be why I felt the need to respond to your posting in the first place. Perhaps, at this juncture in my own discernment, I take some comfort and hope in reading an appraisal from a brother in Christ, who is also an Orthodox priest, of an Episcopal priest's lyrics for a beloved Christmas hymn, even as I continue to struggle with what it really means to be faithful to our Lord and the inheritance we have received in my neck of the ecclesial woods. In the midst of the back-and-forth bluster of Left vs. Right within the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion, what do I need to hear in the silence?

Please pray for me, a sinner.


Veni, veni Emmanuel

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Advent and Repentance

"Bear fruits worthy of repentance" (Luke 3:8 NRSV).

I've written before about the penitential dimension of the Advent season, and so I was interested to see that Joe had posted some thoughts on repentance (borrowed from Fr. Michael Marsh's blog Interrupting the Silence) over at The Byzantine Anglo-Catholic. As Joe rightly notes:

Advent was originally a penitential season, not a period of pre-Christmas frenzied shopping. Penitence still predominates in the eastern churches.

It's also true that many of us in the West tend to associate penitence and repentance with shame and guilt trips. So the Fr. Marsh's thoughts on repentance provide a helpful and healthy corrective:

  • is as much or more about our heart as it is about our actions.
  • is returning our gaze to God.
  • is changing the direction of our life in order to face, see, and receive our coming salvation.
  • is turning our life around.
  • is to choose a new life.
  • is not just about changing behavior--it is a change of mind, a change in direction, a change in attitude, a change in our way of being.
  • is the recognition that our self-sufficiency is inadequate.
  • is a search for life which is realized in personal communication with God.
  • is not simply about improvement in behavior or even being perfect, a psychological feeling, or strengthening our will. It is, rather, a change in our mode of existence by which we cease to trust in our own individuality.
  • is not individual feats or works of merit but a cry of trust and love from the depths of our abyss.
  • is our true Christmas preparation.
  • is how we cooperate with God in our own salvation.
  • is refusing to continue to settle for less than what God is offering.
  • manifests our desire for God.
  • is our response to God's desire for us.

Here are more thoughts on repentance from Orthodox writer Frederica Mathewes-Green's book The Illumined Heart: The Ancient Christian Path of Transformation:

Talk of repentance makes modern-day Christians nervous. We are embarrassed by the stereotype of old-fashioned preachers hammering on sin and making people feel guilty. We rush to assert that Jesus isn't really like that, he came out of love, he wants to help us. He knows us deep inside and feels our every pain, and his healing love sets us free.

This is one of those truths that run out of gas halfway home. The question is, what do we need to be healed of? Subjectively, we think we need sympathy and comfort, because our felt experience is of loneliness and unease. Objectively, our hearts are eaten through with rottenness. A hug and a smile aren't enough.

We don't feel like we're rotten; if anything, we feel like other people treat us badly. One of the most popular myths of our age is that if you can claim to be a victim, you're automatically sinless.

A second popular myth is this: We're
nice. Being nice is all that counts in life, right? Isn't it the highest virtue? Even granting that doubtful assertion, a more honest self-assessment would reveal that we're nice when we're comfortable and everything is going our way. Anybody can be nice under those circumstances. As Jesus noted, even sinners do the same, yet our God is kind even to the ungrateful and the selfish. That sort of kindness is a standard we rarely intend, much less meet.

Finally, there's the ever-popular conviction that we're still better than a lot of other people. Christians should know better than this; God doesn't judge one person against another, he doesn't grade on a curve. Yet we find it desperately hard to believe that we're really, truly sinners, because we see people so much than us every day in the newspaper. In comparison with them we're just so gosh-darn

The problem in all these cases is that we're comparing ourselves with others, rather than with the holy God. Once we get that perspective adjusted, repentance can come very swiftly. And once we really decide that it is God himself we want to approach, repentance comes to feel like a clarifying, tough-minded friend.

Repentance is the doorway to the spiritual life, the only way to begin. It is also the path itself, the only way to continue. Anything else is foolishness and self-delusion. Only repentance is brute-honest enough, and joyous enough, to bring us all the way home.

Repentance as both the only way to begin and to continue the spiritual life makes it an especially appropriate theme for Advent, the beginning of the liturgical calendar year. And thus it is fitting that on this, the third Sunday of Advent, we pray:

Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and, because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Rising Religious Syncretism

Drawing on a report issued by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, New York Times columnist Charles Blow writes about the rise of religious syncretism in American culture. The report, Blow notes, "points out that many Americans are now choosing to 'blend Christianity with Eastern or New Age beliefs' and that 'sizable minorities of all major U.S. religious groups' said that they have had supernatural experiences, like encountering ghosts." He continues:

For the first time in 47 years of polling, the number of Americans who said that they have had a religious or mystical experience, which the question defined as a “moment of sudden religious insight or awakening,” was greater than those who said that they had not. ...

Twenty percent of Protestants and 28 percent of Catholics said they believe in reincarnation, which flies in the face of Christianity’s rapture scenario. Furthermore, about the same percentages said they believe in astrology, yoga as a spiritual practice and the idea that there is “spiritual energy” pulsing from things like “mountains, trees or crystals.” Uh-oh. Someone’s God is going to be jealous.

Surprisingly, in some cases, those who identified themselves as Christian were more likely to believe these things than those who were unaffiliated. ...

The report is further evidence that Americans continue to cobble together Mr. Potato Head-like spiritual identities from a hodgepodge of beliefs — bending dogmas to suit them instead of bending themselves to fit a dogma.

Read it all.

Leaving aside Mr. Blow's reference to "Christianity's rapture scenario" (which is an example of heretical doctrinal innovation par excellence), it's not surprising to see this phenomenon on the rise within our highly individualistic, consumer culture. In fact, we've seen it rear it's head within the Episcopal Church this past year in the case of Kevin Thew Forrester, the former bishop-elect of the Diocese of Northern Michigan (see my postings here and here). And then there's the case of Dr. Ann Holmes Redding, the now-defrocked Episcopal priest who made the Muslim profession of faith and claimed to be both a Christian priest and a practicing Muslim.

For many, religious commitment is more akin to choosing items from a menu or surfing the Internet. We individually pick and choose what we want to order and we go on-line wherever we fancy. Perhaps we resonate more with these words ...

"No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature. Good and bad are but names very readily transferable to that or this; the only right is what is after my constitution; the only wrong what is against it" [Ralph Waldo Emerson from "Self-Reliance" (1841)].

than we do with these:

"I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me" (John 14:6).

I think we can expect to see religious syncretism rise in popularity. And we can count on the Church continuing to face the challenge of proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ in the midst of the deeply taken-for-granted belief that each individual's preferences are the highest court of appeal for religious truth.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Misusing the Cross in Pastoral Care

Some rather challenging thoughts on the alleged pastoral misuse of the language of "bearing one's cross" from Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder.

One universal demand which the church as an agency of counsel and consolation must meet is the need of men and women of all ages for help in facing suffering: illness and accidents, loneliness and defeat. What more fitting resource could there be than the biblical language which makes suffering bearable, meaningful within God's purposes, even meritorious in that "bearing one's cross" is a synonym for discipleship? Hosts of sincere people in hospitals or in conflict-ridden situations have been helped by this thought to bear the strain of their destiny with a sense of divine presence and purpose.

Yet our respect for the quality of these lives and the validity of this pastoral concern must not blind us to the abuse of language and misuse of Scripture they entail. The cross of Christ was not an inexplicable or chance event, which happened to strike him, like illness or accident. To accept the cross as his destiny, to move toward it and even to provoke it, when he could well have done otherwise, was Jesus' constantly reiterated free choice. He warns his disciples lest their embarking on the same path be less conscious of its costs (Luke 14:25-33). The cross of Calvary was not a difficult family situation, not a frustration of visions of personal fulfillment, a crushing debt, or a nagging in-law; it was the political, legally-to-be-expected result of a moral clash with the powers ruling his society.

John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Marriage is not Holy Matrimony

Tobias Haller has written a nice blog posting that rightly distinguishes between marriage and the sacrament of Holy Matrimony:

[There is a] subtle distinction between Holy Matrimony and Marriage. The terms really ought not be used interchangeably, though they often are. However, marriage, properly speaking, is a human phenomenon (as part of the creation; and as many believe, thus instituted by God). Even given that source, there is wide variability to the form of marriage in many cultures and countries, through time and space, including the Jewish tradition out of which the Christian tradition grew. In many respects the Christian understanding of marriage was as much influenced by prevailing Roman custom (and law) as it was by Jewish understandings.

Holy Matrimony, or “Christian Marriage” is a particular subset of these various forms of marriage. The Canons of the Episcopal Church (I.18.1) attempt to preserve this distinction, limiting Holy Matrimony to marriages that are “entered into within the community of faith,” that is, within the church. (As a side note, I will point out that the BCP rubric, page 422, allowing “Christian marriage” in which only one of the parties is a Christian, pushes the envelope considerably, and is arguably discordant.)

The Exhortation at the opening of the Celebration and Blessing of a Marriage, on the other hand, supports the distinction, noting that “marriage” has existed since the Creation, but that what the assembled body has “come together” for is Holy Matrimony. The Catechism, page 861, continues this clarification by stating, “Holy Matrimony is Christian marriage.” ...

Thus our church recognizes the existence of
marriages which do not come under the law of our church as Holy Matrimony.

Read it all.

I note that Tobias points out the following rubric on page 422 of The Book of Common Prayer:

In the Episcopal Church it is required that one, at least, of the parties must be a baptized Christian ...

I've always found this rubric to be rather odd. How exactly does our Church expect an unbaptized person to live into a vocation whose vows deepen and contextualize the meaning of our baptismal covenant vows and which (as I understand Holy Matrimony) signifies a particular response to our Lord's invitation, "Follow me"? And on what grounds do we allow the unbaptized access to the sacrament of Holy Matrimony, but not to the sacrament of Holy Eucharist?

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Death of Our Cat: 2

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Just a little over 3 months ago, we lost our cat Nellie. We knew that was coming and it was still hard. But now we've lost Charlie, too.

My wife sums it all up so much more beautifully than I can at her blog:

This morning we are mourning the loss of Charlie who died unexpectedly at the vet's. He was being treated for a respiratory infection, and we thought he might be able to come home today. Everyone, including his doctor, is shocked. ...

Charlie was such a wonderful kitty. He came to us a few months before the April tornado. He was outside when the tornado happened, and we missed him for several days until he came running back one day with a half purr, half meow. He didn't seem to hunt too many animals-- moles, anoles, and geckos mostly. I don't think he ever caught a bird. He didn't like dogs, but he grew to like Bailey. They greeted each other with a nose kiss each morning, and Charlie rubbed up against Bailey's legs. He purred for everyone in the family, even Bailey. He purred when you looked at him. We will miss him dearly.

Read it all and see her pictures of Charlie.

I loved Nellie, but Charlie converted me to being a true cat lover. He showed up one day in early 2008 and decided that we were his family. And right from the start he was the sweetest cat I can imagine. He was ridiculously affectionate, loving to be held like a baby and purring in response to just being around us. And, of course, we spoiled him rotten.

I dreaded having to tell my son and daughter about Charlie's death when they got home from school today. It would've been easier to have a root canal without anesthesia. They're doing okay, but we all feel wounded and grief-stricken.

Death sucks. The "last enemy," indeed (1 Cor. 15:26).

Monday, December 7, 2009

What May We Hope?

"In striking contrast to the dispensationalist Rapture scenario - which is preoccupied with the question 'What must we fear?' - the expectation of the Second Coming is really about the Christian response to the question, 'What may we hope?'"

Q. What is the Christian hope?
A. The Christian hope is to live with confidence in newness and fullness of life, and to await the coming of Christ in glory, and the completion of God's purpose for the world.

Q. What do we mean by the coming of Christ in glory?
A. By the coming of Christ in glory, we mean that Christ will come, not in weakness but in power, and will make all things new.

The Book of Common Prayer, pp. 861-862

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Problem with "Mere Christianity"

Every now and again, I hear Christians suggest that we do well to downplay the distinctiveness of who we are as inhabitants and inheritors of distinctive traditions so that we can be more welcoming to visitors and/or more palatable to our ecumenical partners.

As Episcopalians, for instance, why sling incense and sing the Eucharist at a principal service on a Sunday when doing so may alienate visitors for whom incense and chanting are akin to making an appearance in an episode of the X-Files without prior warning?

Or if we're exploring a deeper relationship with our United Methodist brothers and sisters (which I wholeheartedly support for many reasons, not the least being that I was baptized as a Methodist), why in the world would we make a big deal about using real wine instead of grape juice in the Holy Eucharist? Or why would we insist on the importance of the historic episcopate for the validity of Holy Orders and sacraments? Aren't things like that just barriers to what's really important and to what we share in common, namely, the "mere Christianity" of believing in Jesus as Lord and Savior? In other words, don't these boil down to non-essential theology?

Assistant professor of Reformed theology at Western Theological Seminary J. Todd Billings maintains that "we jettison 'non-essential' theology at our own peril." Here's part of what he writes about this:

The phrase mere Christianity can be misleading, suggesting we can act independently of traditions that guide our interpretations of the Bible. It's quite American to position ourselves above tradition, Sometimes even denominational churches do this by hiding their theological distinctives, thinking they will narrow the pool of potential parishioners. If you take Presbyterian out of the church name and avoid teaching about predestination and the sacraments, more people will come, right?

A friend of mine has a daughter-in-law who attends a large nondenominational church. My friend sent her the Heidelberg Catechism to introduce her to his Reformed theological tradition. Her response surprised him. She wrote back saying that her nondenominational church uses the Heidelberg Catechism all the time. It is one of her church's key resources for educating people in the faith. Consider the irony: While many Reformed churches push their own catechism to the side, this large nondenominational church discovers the same catechism to be a profound tool for teaching the Christian faith. Still, both churches illustrate problems with mere Christianity.

One church claims to be nondenominational instead of naming its tradition. The other fails to uphold its explicitly named tradition.

Sometimes churches go further than downplaying their unique beliefs. So-called divisive doctrines get pushed to the side as non-essentials, even when they are truly important: For several summers while I was in high school, I served overseas with a team of other teenagers with an interdenominational, evangelical mission organization. During orientation, the leaders set ground rules. We should preach the gospel, participate in Christian worship, fellowship, and so forth. But we should not speak about the sacraments. Although we celebrated the Lord's Supper, we were to avoid discussing its significance. Is it a sacrament or an ordinance, a memorial or a true receiving of the body and blood of Christ? These questions were off-limits. The team regarded Christians as more "spiritual" if they voiced no strong opinions on the Lord's Supper.

Yet doctrines aren't "dispensable" because they provoke controversy. Consider how the early church debated Christ's identity as true God and true human. Even such a central teaching hasn't been immune to dispute. So when it comes to an issue like the sacraments, silencing voices of conviction is not the way forward. Instead, honest yet charitable discussions about our differences can deepen faith. We should not jettison disputed doctrines just because they can be divisive.

While theological traditions highlight differences among us, they don't have to harden us to one another. And they can give us a wealth of resources from which to grow in our faith and help us face the challenges of today's world.

Read it all.