Monday, May 31, 2010

O Captain! My Captain!

Kendall Harmon posted this powerful poem by Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819 – March 26, 1892) today over at TitusOneNine. Originally written in 1865 after Abraham Lincoln's assassination, Whitman's poem can also serve as a fitting tribute to all who have served our nation in the armed forces, especially those who gave their lives.

O CAPTAIN! my Captain! our fearful trip is done;
The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won;
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring:
But O heart! heart! heart!
O the bleeding drops of red,
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.

O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells;
Rise up—for you the flag is flung—for you the bugle trills;
For you bouquets and ribbon’d wreaths—for you the shores a-crowding;
For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning;
Here Captain! dear father!
This arm beneath your head;
It is some dream that on the deck,
You’ve fallen cold and dead.

My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still;
My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will;
The ship is anchor’d safe and sound, its voyage closed and done;
From fearful trip, the victor ship, comes in with object won;
Exult, O shores, and ring, O bells!
But I, with mournful tread,
Walk the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Good News of the Trinity

On this Trinity Sunday, our curate preached a fine sermon and joked that curates everywhere get the preaching assignment today. (I note that one of her friends asked on Facebook if there's a rector anywhere in the Episcopal Church preaching today.) It is perhaps a bit curious that so many of us would rather not preach Trinity Sunday. A hermeneutic of suspicion might suggest that this is because too many of us do not believe in this particular dogma and we don't want to publicly "out" ourselves. While there are certainly cases that boldly venture off the dogmatic reservation, I actually think it's because most of us recognize the centrality and critical importance of this teaching for the Christian faith and we don't want to get in the pulpit and make a mess of it.

Over at his blog "Into the Expectation," Fr. Matt Gunter does anything but make a mess of this dogma. Indeed, he offers theologically profound and practical insights into the core of our faith that are worth reading and contemplating. Here's an excerpt:

The triune nature of God is one of the central mysteries of Christianity. But mystery is not the same as conundrum. Nor is it the result of a presumptuous desire to explain more than can be explained. Quite the opposite. Historically, the impetus to clarify some understanding arose in reaction to those who, like Eunomius, claimed to define the essence of God. Theologians like Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Gregory of Nyssa (Basil and the latter Gregory, under the influence of their sister, Macrina) reacted against such presumption. Collectively known as the Cappadocians, they argued that all we can really know of God is what God has revealed in Jesus and the Holy Spirit. What God is beyond that is unknowable. We do not use trinitarian language for God out of presumption. It is just that, as Rowan Williams has said, “It is the least worst language for God we have.”

The doctrine of the Trinity is the result of Christians living and praying with the reality of Jesus Christ breaking in on their lives, inviting them to participate in God’s life. It is the result of Christians experiencing the reality of the Holy Spirit empowering and enabling their participation in God’s life. The doctrine of the Trinity springs from the experience of Christians who knew from the history of Israel that God was one, but who, in the invitation of Jesus Christ and the experience of the power of the Spirit, came to understand that it was not that simple. God turns out to be more complex. God is love, dynamic love within God’s self – a friendship dance.

This is good news because it means that who God is cannot be separated from what God does. God has done something in the sending of the Son, Jesus Christ. God does something in the giving of the Holy Spirit. In that sending and giving we know God. But we are not just given some information about God. Rather, in sending the Son and giving the Spirit, God sends and gives God’s very self. No doubt there is more to God than we can hope to understand. But what Christians claim is that when God reveals himself, God reveals himself truly. Whatever more there is to God, it will not contradict what we know of God in Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit.

The doctrine of the Trinity means that at the heart of it all is relationship. Descartes got it wrong when he said, “I think, therefore I am.” It is truer to say, “I am related, therefore I am.” Or, better yet, “I am loved, therefore I am.” When Jesus summarized the law as loving God and loving neighbor, he was simply saying that this is the way it is at the heart of it all. Love – mutual giving, sharing and receiving – is at the heart of it all. The Father, Son and Holy Spirit exist through relationship with each other. Because that relationship is at the heart of it all, the quality of our relationships matters. Love matters. Relatedness matters. Community and communion matter. Connectedness is woven into the very fabric of things.

The doctrine of the Trinity is also good news because it means there is room for otherness. If there is “space” within God for the Son to be other than the Father, and the Spirit to be other than the Father and the Son, then there is space for us to be other than God. God makes space for creation and for us in it. Understanding God as Trinity means understanding God as involved in, but not overwhelming, everything. There is room for real freedom. We can celebrate our unity and diversity, not as a contemporary cliché, but as a reflection of what it means to be created in the image of God. God is one, but one in whom there is intimate otherness.

Read it all.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Lax Communion Discipline

Occasionally I share snippets from Fr. Stephen's blog "Glory to God for All Things." Formerly an Episcopal priest, Fr. Stephen now serves as an Orthodox priest. I find that he consistently offers thought provoking, spiritually profound, and theologically sound reflections, not just on what it means to be Orthodox, but on what it means to be a Christian.

A couple of weeks back, Fr. Stephen posted thoughts on communion discipline that caught my attention. Here's some of what he wrote:

... the rapid disappearance of communion discipline across much of Christianity in the latter half of the 20th century became as well a rapid re-interpretation of the sacrament and the radical exaltation of the individual over the Church. I have several reflections to offer in this vein.

First – the rapid disappearance of communion discipline meant the disappearance of boundaries. Nothing in the Church any longer said, “No.” With this, the Christian life itself loses definition. “Communion” with Christ becomes a purely subjective event, itself stripped of meaning because of the lack of boundaries. If there is no “No,” neither can there be a “Yes.” The Garden of Eden, paradise of perfection, contained a single “No,” one boundary. And yet that boundary alone defined communion with God. In not eating of that tree, Adam and Eve could live in obedience. Every other meal takes on its meaning of blessed communion because it is eaten in obedience. With the act of disobedience and the destruction of the only boundary given by God, every tree becomes a potential tree of death. Indeed, Holy Communion itself can become a Cup of Death according to St. Paul’s admonitions in 1 Corinthians.

Second – with the abolition of boundaries, communion ceases to be a struggle, and loses the ascesis that is essential to a healthy Christian life. Communion with God is a gift from God – but like the Kingdom of God, the “violent take it by force” (Matt. 11:12). This rather odd verse is a reference to those who pursue God in such a way that it is not inappropriate to use the word “violent” to describe it. St. John the Baptist’s ministry was marked by his fasting and struggles in prayer. It is such efforts that are “violent” in the Christian life. It should be normative in the Christian life that the holy mysteries are approached with ascesis. Rather than approaching God with an attitude of entitlement (“this is my communion”) we approach struggling against sin in our life: repenting, confessing, forgiving, fasting. In a Christian life they are acts of love.

Read it all.

This resonates with me as I reflect on my own relationship with the sacrament and the ways in which I sense an approach in the Episcopal Church to the Eucharist that implicitly views receiving it as a kind of entitlement (even going so far, in some cases, to argue for giving communion to the unbaptized - an issue about which I've written before). I don't hear much preaching or teaching on what is required for us to receive, although it's right there in the Prayer Book catechism:

Q. What is required of us when we come to the Eucharist?
A. It is required that we should examine our lives, repent of our sins, and be in love and charity with all people (BCP, p. 860).

It's put even more starkly in the "Exhortation" at the beginning of Rite I. There we are called upon to "remember the dignity of that holy Sacrament" by carefully preparing ourselves prior to receiving, using "the rule of God's commandments" to examine our lives and conduct for the sake of naming and repenting of our sins, "with full purpose of amendment of life, being ready to make restitution for all injuries and wrongs done by you to others," and "being ready to forgive those who have offended" us with the intention of reconciliation (BCP, pp. 316, 317). Talk about struggle and ascesis! That's very hard work. Do many of us really do it every week before receiving?

And do we really take seriously the view that, if we fail to do this hard work, the sacrament can be dangerous? Note again the language of the "Exhortation" (which echoes the apostle Paul):

For, as the benefit is great, if with penitent hearts and living faith we receive the holy Sacrament, so is the danger great, if we receive it improperly, not recognizing the Lord's Body. Judge yourselves, therefore, lest you be judged by the Lord (BCP, p. 316).

The apostle Paul even goes so far as to tell the Corinthians: "For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves. For this reason many of you are weak and ill, and some have died" (1 Corinthians 11:29-30 NRSV). Killed by the Eucharist! Who would believe it possible?!

A few years back, in an Inquirers' Class on the sacraments, I talked about the need for self-examination and preparation in line with what the catechism teaches. One person objected. She thought the whole point of the Eucharist was that, in spite of our sins, God accepts us just as we are. So why should we have to bring repentance into the picture?

True, God accepts us as we are, even going so far as to send His son to die for us before we had even thought about repentance (cf. Romans 5:6-8). But it's also true that God loves us too much to let us remain as we are. "Lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called," the apostle Paul reminds us, and "do not grieve the Holy Spirit" (Ephesians 4:1, 30 NRSV).

Fr. Stephen is right. When it comes to the Eucharist, we need discipline. We need boundaries. We need ascesis. Our Anglican heritage teaches this, as well.

Could it be that, like the church in Corinth, one of the reasons why the Episcopal Church is so mired in conflict is because of our increasing laxity when it comes to discipline, boundaries, and norms? And could it be that our lax communion discipline is a sign or a symptom of a spiritual malady we need to diagnose and proactively treat? If so, what would that look like? What would we need to do differently?

Monday, May 17, 2010

Sermon for the 7th Sunday of Easter

RCL, Year C: Acts 16:16-34; Psalm 97; Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21; John 17:20-26

Click here to listen to the sermon.

About five years ago, I got up one Saturday morning and drove from West Point, MS to Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church in Memphis. After much study, prayer, and spiritual counsel, my brother received the sacrament of Chrismation as the outward and visible sign of his conversion to Greek Orthodox Christianity. It was a powerful moment in my brother’s life, and also in my own. For years, I doubted that he would ever return to the Christian faith in any tradition. We had shared many conversations about his journey, and, in ways that only hindsight reveals, my own fascination with facets of Orthodox spirituality and theology connected with his search. In the mystery of God’s Providence, I played a role in my brother’s conversion.

Mixed with my joy, however, was a deep and abiding sadness. For my brother’s conversion to Orthodoxy means that he and I are now spiritually separated from each other. We are not in communion. Indeed, from what my brother has told me, if he were to take the sacrament of communion from me – or from any priest or pastor in any non-Orthodox Church – he would thereby excommunicate himself from his Church. That’s how real and how serious the separation between us is.

Having received my brother’s permission to share all of this, I hasten to say that I do not mean to suggest anything negative about his faith or his Church. I remain profoundly grateful that he has found a renewed faith in Christ in a tradition which, at its best, is profoundly mystical, beautiful, doctrinally sound, and life-changing. No, I share all of this simply to say that I know from personal experience that our Lord’s prayer “that they all may be one” remains painfully unfulfilled.

Many others experience the reality of Christian disunity as painful. And for persons both within and outside of the Church, it can also be a stumbling block to faith and an impediment to mission. C. S. Lewis put it about as forcefully as anyone: “Divisions between Christians are a sin and a scandal, and Christians ought at all times to be making contributions towards reunion.” Speaking before 200,000 people at a Mass in India, the late Pope John Paul II said: “The past and present divisions [among Christians] are a scandal to non-Christians, a glaring contradiction of the will of Christ, [and] a serious obstacle to the church’s efforts to proclaim the Gospel.” And William Reed Huntington, an Episcopal priest who lived in the late-19th Century, put it even more succinctly when he wrote: “union is God’s work, and separation devil’s work.”[1]

Regardless of whether or not our Lord uttered the exact words that we hear in today’s Gospel reading, it is undoubtedly true that the unity of his followers was something near and dear to Jesus’ heart. And so it no doubt breaks his heart to see the many ways in which we who claim to follow him are divided from each other.

Compounding the tragedy is the fact that divisions among Christians all too often mirror the divisions that rock our world. Liberals vs. conservatives, Democrats vs. Republicans, FOX vs. CNN, rich vs. poor, public vs. private, Arab vs. Jew, white vs. black … the list could go on and on. The division of the Church into mutually exclusionary denominations – and perhaps even more distressing, the extent to which individual denominations are torn by internal strife and dissension – compromises and, at times, undermines the credibility of our witness to the Gospel. “How,” a skeptic might ask, “can we take any of this Christianity stuff seriously when Christians can’t even get along with each other? Why should we believe what they have to say when they act just like everybody else?”

One proposal for achieving greater unity is to affirm a biblical Christianity freed from the accretions of later tradition. But a “lowest common denominator” approach doesn’t really work, or surely it would have done so by now and our Lord’s prayer “that they all may be one” would be fulfilled. Reducing important theological matters to the status of non-essentials simply won’t do.

Take, for example, something as foundational as baptism. Does the practice of baptizing infants say something profoundly true about grace and the meaning of the Gospel, or should baptism be administered only to those who are old enough to make a profession of faith in Christ? Or what about the Eucharist? Is it an ordinance or a sacrament, a memorial meal or a true receiving of the body and blood of Christ? Or what about Church governance? Are bishops ordained in apostolic succession essential to what it means to be the Church? Some Christian traditions say “yes, absolutely,” while others don’t even have the office of bishop and can’t understand why there could possibly be any fuss about it. Then there’s the Bible – is it the literal, inerrant, infallible Word of God, or should it be understood in other ways? Is it admissible to use scholarly approaches to interpreting the Bible, or does that somehow betray its sacred character by treating it as just another collection of merely human texts?

How we answer these and other questions matters, for the answers define things as basic as the meaning of the Gospel and what it means to be the Church. As history shows, different answers can lead to schism. And so our Lord’s prayer for the unity of his followers collides head-on with the reality that the Church is broken and divided, and oftentimes over sincerely and passionately-held convictions.

It’s tempting to simply give up on unity and retreat to the comfort and safety of fellowship with Christians who think and worship like us. But we cannot so easily dismiss our Lord’s fervent prayer “that they all may be one.” For, as one biblical scholar rightly notes, “Unity is not an extra; it is the essence of what it means to be Christian.” If unity matters so much to Jesus that it’s one of the last things he asks for before his death on the cross, it should matter to us, too.

Our Lord’s prayer for unity is so important that our Prayer Book defines the mission of the Church as that of “restor[ing] all people to unity with God and each other in Christ” (The Book of Common Prayer, p. 855). This is one of the many reasons why we engage in ecumenical dialogue and why we seek opportunities for shared mission and ministry across denominational lines. And it’s why we enter into relationships like the Covenant for Common Life that our bishop signed with Bishop Hope Morgan Ward of the MS United Methodist Conference last year. St. Andrew’s Cathedral continues to explore ways of living into that covenant relationship with Galloway United Methodist Church. And we are grateful for the fruits that relationship has already borne and may yet bear in the months and years to come.

In addition to ecumenical endeavors, each time we gather for Sunday worship we say, in the words of the Nicene Creed, that “We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.” We believe in one Church. That’s a bold and even defiant claim to make in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Making that creedal statement, we are saying “no” to the status quo of a divided Christendom. And we are affirming that the Church – broken and divided as it appears, and comprised of frail, sinful human beings as it surely is – nonetheless remains “the triune God’s chosen instrument for the work of transforming the world.”[2]

It’s unlikely to happen in our lifetimes. And quite frankly, it probably won’t happen before the life of the world to come. But I believe that our Lord’s prayer will be answered. The unity of Christ’s Church will be revealed. And when all people are restored to unity with God and each other in Christ, the pain of separation will be lifted just as surely as the sting of death will be eradicated. In Christ, there is neither Protestant nor Catholic, Anglican nor Orthodox, Baptist nor Methodist, Presbyterian nor Lutheran … nor any other denominational or sectarian identity. For the promise of the Gospel is that, when the time is right, “everything in heaven and on earth … [will] be brought into a unity in Christ” (Ephesians 1:10 REV). When that time comes, all of us will gather around the table with our Lord. And on that day, I hope to share the feast with everyone who loves Jesus in the joy of full communion with all the saints of God, including my brother.


[1] William Reed Huntington, The Church-Idea: An Essay Towards Unity [1870] (Houghton Mifflin Co., 1928), p. 2.

[2] Luke Timothy Johnson, The Creed: What Christians Believe and Why It Matters (Doubleday, 2003), p. 255.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

All Religions are Not the Same

Back when I was in college, it was cool to think of the world's religions as different paths all leading to the same destination. I sometimes hear this view espoused by otherwise well-educated persons who may have even taken the introductory religious studies class when they were in college. Makes one wonder what exactly they were reading.

Stephen Prothero, Boston University professor of religion and author of numerous books (including the recently published God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World - and Why Their Differences Matter), argues that this way of thinking about the world's religions is not only misleading but dangerous. In a recent article adapted from God is Not One, Prothero put it like this:

At least since the first petals of the counterculture bloomed across Europe and the United States in the 1960s, it has been fashionable to affirm that all religions are beautiful and all are true. This claim, which reaches back to “All Religions Are One” (1795) by the English poet, printmaker, and prophet William Blake, is as odd as it is intriguing. No one argues that different economic systems or political regimes are one and the same. Capitalism and socialism are so self-evidently at odds that their differences hardly bear mentioning. The same goes for democracy and monarchy. Yet scholars continue to claim that religious rivals such as Hinduism and Islam, Judaism and Christianity are, by some miracle of the imagination, both essentially the same and basically good.

This view resounds in the echo chamber of popular culture, not least on the “Oprah Winfrey Show” and in Elizabeth Gilbert’s bestseller, “Eat Pray Love,” where the world’s religions are described as rivers emptying into the ocean of God. Karen Armstrong, author of “A History of God,” has made a career out of emphasizing the commonalities of religion while eliding their differences. Even the Dalai Lama, who should know better, has gotten into the act, claiming that “all major religious traditions carry basically the same message.”

Of course, those who claim that the world’s religions are different paths up the same mountain do not deny the undeniable fact that they differ in some particulars. Obviously, Christians do not go on pilgrimage to Mecca, and Muslims do not practice baptism. Religious paths do diverge in dogma, rites, and institutions. To claim that all religions are basically the same, therefore, is not to deny the differences between a Buddhist who believes in no god, a Jew who believes in one God, and a Hindu who believes in many gods. It is to deny that those differences matter, however. From this perspective, whether God has a body (yes, say Mormons; no, say Muslims) or whether human beings have souls (yes, say Hindus; no, say Buddhists) is of no account because, as Hindu teacher Swami Sivananda writes, “The fundamentals or essentials of all religions are the same. There is difference only in the nonessentials.”

This is a lovely sentiment but it is untrue, disrespectful, and dangerous.

The gods of Hinduism are not the same as the orishas of Yoruba religion or the immortals of Daoism. To pretend that they are is to refuse to take seriously the beliefs and practices of ordinary religious folk who for centuries have had no problem distinguishing the Nicene Creed of Christianity from the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism from the Shahadah of Islam. It is also to lose sight of the unique beauty of each of the world’s religions.

But this lumping of the world’s religions into one megareligion is not just false and condescending, it is also a threat. How can we make sense of the ongoing conflict in Kashmir if we pretend that Hinduism and Islam are one and the same? Or of the impasse in the Middle East, if we pretend that there are no fundamental disagreements between Judaism, Christianity, and Islam? ...

I understand what these people are doing. They are not describing the world but reimagining it. They are hoping that their hope will call up in us feelings of brotherhood and sisterhood. In the face of religious bigotry and bloodshed, past and present, we cannot help but be drawn to such hope, and such vision. Yet we must not mistake either for clear-eyed analysis.

When it comes to safeguarding the world from the evils of religion, including violence by proxy from the hand of God, the claim that all religions are one is no more effective than the claim that all religions are poison. As the New Atheists (another species of religious lumpers) observe, we live in a world where religion seems as likely to detonate a bomb as to defuse one. So while we need idealism, we need realism even more. We need to understand religious people as they are — not just at their best but also their worst. We need to look at not only their awe-inspiring architecture and gentle mystics but also their bigots and suicide bombers.

Read it all.

Also, watch this video in which Prothero talks about why we need to know and respect the differences between religions.

All told, Prothero's work is a helpful antidote to rising religious syncretism.

Friday, May 14, 2010

A Thought Experiment

Let's say that we have a church which excels in forming persons who "live the questions," who keep their theological options open while downplaying the normative character of doctrine and belief, who approach scripture and tradition through the lens of a hermeneutic of suspicion, who tend to equate "inclusiveness" with permissiveness and "relevance" with accommodation to the shifting winds of culture, who readily think of the Christian life as one which promotes their particular social, economic, and political values and ideals, and who understand Jesus as one way among many other valid ways.

Is such a church capable of producing confessors or martyrs?

Anglican Church Credentials

"For while the Anglican church is vindicated by its place in history, with a strikingly balanced witness to the Gospel and Church and sound learning, its greater vindication lies in its pointing through its own history to something of which it is a fragment. Its credentials are its incompleteness, with the tension and the travail in its soul. It is clumsy and untidy, it baffles neatness and logic. For it is sent not to commend itself as 'the best type of Christianity,' but by its very brokenness to point to the universal Church wherein all have died. Hence its story can never differ from the story of the Corinth to which the Apostle wrote. Like Corinth, it has those of Paul, of Peter, of Apollos; like Corinth, it has nothing that it has not received; like Corinth, it learns of unity through its nothingness before the Cross of Christ; and, like Corinth, it sees in the Apostolate its dependence upon the one people of God, and the death by which every member and every Church bears witness to the Body which is one."

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Is Western Christianity Suffering from Amnesia?

Diana Butler Bass thinks so:

In the 1990s, I taught history and theology at an evangelical college, a place where the students were serious young Christians. One day, lecturing on the medieval church and the Crusades, I explained how in 1095 Pope Urban II launched a holy war against Muslims. Most of the students took notes. One young woman, looking very worried by the idea of Christians starting a war, shot up her hand. "Professor," she began, clearly wanting to blame Roman Catholics for the affair, "what did the Protestants say about this?"

"Well," I answered slowly, "there were no Protestants in 1095." I did not have the heart to tell her that Protestantism would not exist until more than four hundred years later.

Puzzled, she blurted out, "But where were they?"

At the present juncture of history, Western Christianity is suffering from a bad case of spiritual amnesia. Even those who claim to be devout or conservative often know little about the history of their faith traditions. ...

Thus we inhabit a post-traditional world - a world of broken memory - in which some tell history badly, others do not know it at all, and still others use history to manipulate people to their own ends.

Read it all.

Among the many reasons why the Church is in decline, one may well be because we suffer from amnesia. We don't remember who we are, even though we run through the anamnesis (remembrance) of the liturgy every Sunday. And in many Episcopal Churches, we think we graduated from Christian education once we got confirmed, or we now rely on the latest publications by pop-scholars to hit the shelves of Barnes & Nobles. So it's not surprising that when it comes to the basics of the Christian faith (as opposed to one's personal opinions about all matters religious or "spiritual"), too many of us are failing Christianity, and thus ill-equipped to offer reasons for the hope within us.

Monday, May 3, 2010

The Terrible Thing

"The terrible thing, the almost impossible thing, is to hand over your whole self - all your wishes and precautions - to Christ. But it is far easier than what we are all trying to do instead. For what we are trying to do is to remain what we call 'ourselves', to keep personal happiness as our great aim in life, and yet at the same time to be 'good'. We are all trying to let mind and heart go their own way - centred on money or pleasure or ambition - and hoping, in spite of this, to behave honestly and chastely and humbly. And that is exactly what Christ warned us you could not do. As He said, a thistle cannot produce figs. If I am a field that contains nothing but grass-seed, I cannot produce wheat. Cutting the grass may keep it short: but I shall still produce grass and no wheat. If I want to produce wheat, the change must go deeper than the surface. I must be ploughed up and re-sown."