Monday, September 27, 2010

Anything That Is Really Christian

Continuing my C. S. Lewis kick, here's another quote that sounds like it could have been written yesterday.

"You will find this again and again about anything that is really Christian: every one is attracted by bits of it and wants to pick out those bits and leave the rest. That is why we do not get much further: and that is why people who are fighting for quite opposite things can both say they are fighting for Christianity."

God is Whoever Raised Jesus from the Dead

Stanley Hauerwas, the Gilbert T. Rowe Professor of Theological Ethics at Duke Divinity School, has written an interesting essay entitled "Naming God" in which he discusses the perils of assuming we know what we mean when we use the word "God."

Here's a teaser:

... one of the ironies of the recent spate of books defending atheism is the confidence these "new atheists" seem to have in knowing which God it is they are sure does not exist. They have forgotten that one of the crimes of which Romans accused Christians - a crime whose punishment was often death - was that Christians were atheists.

The Romans weren't being unreasonable. All they wanted was for the Christians to acknowledge there were many gods, but Christians were determined atheists. Christians were atheist because they assumed the primary problem was not atheism but idolatry. Idolatry, moreover, has everything to do with thinking that you know God's name. ...

For example, it should not be surprising that in a culture which inscribes its money with "In God We Trust," atheists might be led to think it is interesting - and perhaps even useful - to deny god exists. It does not seem to occur to atheists, however, that the vague god which some seem to confuse with trust in our money cannot be the same God who raised Jesus from the dead, having before raised Israel from Egypt.

This is but a reminder that the word "god" can be very misleading, particularly for those who worship the One who raised Jesus from the dead and Israel from Egypt. For the word "god" can invite us to confuse the One who raised Jesus from the dead with the general designation "god" used to describe the assumption that something had to start it all. ...

The God we worship is not a vague "more" that exists to make our lives meaningful. The God we worship is not "the biggest thing around." The God we worship is not "something had to start it all." The God we worship is not a God that insures that we will somehow get out of life alive. The God we worship is not a God whose ways correspond to our presumptions about how God should be God.

That God has come near to us in Christ does not mean that God is less than God. God is God and we are not.

Yet we believe that the God we worship has made his name known. We believe we have been given the happy task of making his name known. We believe we can make his name known because the God we worship is nearer to us than we are to ourselves - a frightening reality that gives us life. We believe that in the Eucharist, in the meal of bread and wine, just as Jesus is fully God and fully man, this bread and this wine will, through the work of the Spirit, become for us the body and blood of Christ.

Read it all.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

The Most Progressive Man

"We all want progress. But progress means getting nearer to the place where you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turning, then to go forward does not get you any nearer. If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man."

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk Blasts Liberal Anglicanism

One can only wonder what was going through Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams' heart and mind as he listened to the address that Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk (who also serves as chairman of the Moscow Patriarchate's Department for External Church Relations) delivered to the Nicean Club at Lambeth Palace on September 9. Here is some of what the Metropolitan said:

At the time of the Council of Nicaea, the Church was united in East and West. But at the present time, there is a multitude of communities each of which claims to be a church even though approaches to doctrinal, ecclesiological and ethical issues among them often differ radically.

Nowadays it is increasingly difficult to speak of ‘Christianity’ as a unified scale of spiritual and moral values, universally adopted by all Christians. It is more appropriate, rather, to speak of ‘Christianities’, that is, different versions of Christianity espoused by diverse communities.

All current versions of Christianity can be very conditionally divided into two major groups – traditional and liberal. The abyss that exists today divides not so much the Orthodox from the Catholics or the Catholics from the Protestants as it does the ‘traditionalists’ from the ‘liberals’. Some Christian leaders, for example, tell us that marriage between a man and a woman is no longer the only way of building a Christian family: there are other models and the Church should become appropriately ‘inclusive’ to recognize alternative behavioural standards and give them official blessing. Some try to persuade us that human life is no longer an absolute value; that it can be terminated in a mother’s womb or that one can terminate one’s life at will. Christian ‘traditionalists’ are being asked to reconsider their views under the slogan of keeping abreast with modernity.

Regrettably, it has to be admitted that the Orthodox Church and many in the Anglican Church have today found themselves on the opposite sides of the abyss that divides traditional Christians from Christians of liberal trend. ...

Today the Orthodox-Anglican Dialogue itself has come under threat. It is especially lamentable because this dialogue has had a long and rich history, beginning with the numerous talks at various levels held between Orthodox and Anglicans from the
17th century. ...

We are concerned about the fate of this dialogue. We appreciate the proposal Archbishop Rowan Williams made this year to exclude from the dialogue those Anglican churches which failed to observe the moratorium on the ordination of open homosexuals. But we regard this proposal as not quite sufficient to save the dialogue from an approaching collapse. The dialogue is doomed to closure if the unrestrained liberalization of Christian values continues in many communities of the Anglican world. ...

We have studied the preparatory documents for the decision on female episcopate and were struck by the conviction expressed in them that even if the female episcopate were introduced, ecumenical contacts with the Roman Catholic and the Orthodox Churches would not come to an end. What made the authors of these documents so certain? There was a second controversial statement. The same document argued that despite a possible cooling down in relations with Catholics and Orthodox, the Church of England would strengthen and broaden its relations with the Methodist Church and the Lutheran Churches in Norway and Sweden. In other words, the introduction of the female episcopate ‘will bring both gains and losses’. The question arises: Is not the cost of these losses too high? I can say with certainty that the introduction of the female episcopate excludes even a theoretical possibility for the Orthodox to recognize the apostolic continuity of the Anglican hierarchy.

We are also extremely concerned and disappointed by other processes that are manifesting themselves in churches of the Anglican Communion. Some Protestant and Anglican churches have repudiated basic Christian moral values by giving a public blessing to same-sex unions and ordaining homosexuals as priests and bishops. Many Protestant and Anglican communities refuse to preach Christian moral values in secular society and prefer to adjust to worldly standards.

Our Church must sever its relations with those churches and communities that trample on the principles of Christian ethics and traditional morals. Here we uphold a firm stand based on Holy Scripture. ...

What can these churches say to their faithful and to secular society? What kind of light do they shine upon the world (cf. Mt. 5:14)? What is their ‘salt’? I am afraid the words of Christ can be applied to them: If the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men (Mt. 5:13).

We are aware of the arguments used by proponents of the above-mentioned liberal innovations. Tradition is no authority for them. They believe that to make the words of Holy Scripture applicable to modernity they have to be ‘actualized’, that is, reviewed and interpreted in an appropriate, ‘modern’ spirit. Holy Tradition is understood as an opportunity for the Church to be continually reformed and renewed and to think critically.

The Orthodox, however, have a different understanding of Holy Tradition. It is aptly expressed in the words of Vladimir Lossky: ‘Tradition is the life of the Holy Spirit in the Church – the life giving to every member of the Body of Christ the ability to hear, accept and know the Truth in its inherent shining, not in the natural light of human reason’. ...

Summing up, I wish to assert that today we have new divisions in Christendom, not only theological but also ethical. Regrettably, many Christian communities, which once maintained fraternal relations with the Orthodox Church for many years and were in dialogue with it, have shown themselves to be incapable or unwilling to assume obligations stemming from our dialogue. We accompany our reactions to these developments with assurances of respect for the right of all churches and communities to make decisions which they deem to be necessary. Yet, at the same time, we state with sadness that neither the official dialogue nor the most valuable relations and contacts in the past have kept some of our Anglican brothers and sisters from steps which have taken them even farther away from our common Christian Church Tradition.

Read it all.

No doubt, those on the "liberal" side of things in the Episcopal Church will find much to object to in the Metropolitan's address. It is quite frankly inexcusable, for instance, that he fails to get the name of the Episcopal bishop of New Hampshire correct, calling him "Jim Robertson" instead of Gene Robinson. Others may find in the Metropolitan's words a lack of pastoral sensitivity to the feelings and faithfulness of LGBT Christians.

Nevertheless, as a catholic-minded Anglican who cares about the "common Christian Church Tradition" and for whom aspects of Eastern Orthodoxy have played an important role in the Christian journey, the Metropolitan's statement saddens me. My sadness is compounded by the fact that I have a brother who converted to Orthodoxy. Insofar as the Metropolitan's words can be taken to represent the views of many if not most leaders within Orthodoxy, the divide between us is that much broader and deeper.

It may be true that Anglican-Orthodox dialogue has been dying for some time now. Even so, the Metropolitan said that "we continue to be fully committed to the dialogue with the Anglican Church [sic] and will do our utmost to keep this dialogue going." But the overall forcefulness of his address suggests that meaningful dialogue is, in fact, dead with Anglican provinces like the Episcopal Church, and perhaps also that the nails have been hammered into the coffin.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Sermon for the 17th Sunday after Pentecost

RCL, Year C, Proper 20: Amos 8:4-7; Psalm 113; 1 Timothy 2:1-7; Luke 16:1-13

[Listen to the sermon here.]

“When I have money, I get rid of it quickly, lest it find a way into my heart.”[1]

Those words come from the 18th Century Anglican priest and founder of Methodism, John Wesley. And there’s evidence to show that he really meant it.

When Wesley started teaching at Oxford University, his initial salary was 30 pounds per year.[2] That comes to about $46 these days, but it was a lot of money back in Wesley’s day. Wesley’s living expenses came to 28 pounds. So he gave 2 pounds away to the poor. The next year his income doubled to 60 pounds per year. But because he still limited his expenses to 28 pounds, Wesley gave away 32 pounds to the poor. The third year he earned 90 pounds, and he gave away 62. Eventually, Wesley’s income had grown to a little over 1,400 pounds. By that point, Wesley needed only 30 pounds to live on, so he gave away 1,370 pounds to the poor and needy. That’s over $2,100 dollars, a huge sum back then!

When I first read about this, my knee-jerk response was, “Wow, this is extreme and unnecessary. Just think of all the things Wesley could have done for himself with all of that money.” But as I’ve reflected on our Lord’s teaching concerning money and possessions, Wesley’s actions seem more faithful than crazy. Perhaps Wesley was motivated by Jesus’ words we’ve heard this morning:

“No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth” (Lk 16:13).

Learning from Jesus, John Wesley understood that money and possessions can tempt us to absolute loyalty. If we’re not very careful, they can become our masters, distorting our relationship with God and other people. To avoid that, Wesley gave away what he didn’t need to those who did need it.

This morning is not the only time we’ve been confronted by Jesus’ teaching on money and possessions of late. You may recall the gospel reading from just a couple of weeks ago when Jesus said, “none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions” (Lk 14:33). And if you were in church on a Sunday back in August, you may remember Jesus telling a parable about a rich man who built up a stockpile of wealth to insure a life of comfort and ease, only to suddenly die, leaving behind new, large barns filled with crops standing as monuments to irrelevance. In a prefatory remark to this parable, Jesus said, “One’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions” (Lk 12:15). Elsewhere in Luke’s gospel we hear Jesus say, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” (Lk 18:24-25).

It’s an inescapable fact: throughout the gospels, but especially in Luke, the topic of money and possessions occupies a central place. Indeed, Jesus has more to say on this topic than perhaps any other. And if we add to Jesus’ teaching the concern of Jewish prophets like Amos for the ways in which wealth can lure us away from God and desensitize us to the sufferings of the poor, then we cannot afford to neglect the spiritual power money and wealth possess for both good and evil. As the apostle Paul sums it up in his first letter to Timothy: “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil” (1 Timothy 6:10).

Even though such concerns regularly surface throughout the Bible, many churches remain silent about the dangers of inordinate love of money and possessions. As Christian ethicists have noted, “Our defenses are so firmly entrenched that it is very difficult for us to simply listen to these [biblical] texts without qualifying, spiritualizing or dismissing them.”[3] But for the sake of our spiritual health and moral formation, we need to face the truth. And the truth is that we live in not only one of the wealthiest and most powerful nations on earth; we also live in a culture in which we are routinely bombarded with enticements to buy into a way of life that gives inordinate value to money and possessions, a consumer culture that thrives on the creation of new and often false “needs” and the cut-throat competition required to fulfill those “needs.”[4]

Depending on how deeply we conform to the values of this cultural way of life, Jesus’ teaching on money and possessions may sound a dissonant, counter-cultural note. But it’s a note we need to hear. For the deeper truth of biblical teaching on this topic is this: having money and possessions is not in itself sinful, but money and possessions can be dangerous distractions from following Jesus as Lord and Savior. Inordinate love of money and possessions can give us a false sense of security grounded in the illusion of self-sufficiency. It tempts us to believe that we are the ultimate owners and masters of our lives, as though we can live our lives “on our own resources rather than upon God’s generosity and mercy.”[5] And if we fall for that temptation, we can end up misusing money and possessions in ways that hurt ourselves and others.

Talking about money and possessions as potentially dangerous may sound scary. But we will have missed something critically important if we walk away from worship today feeling fearful or guilty. Jesus did not come to lay heavy burdens upon us or to make us feel unworthy of God’s love and mercy. Quite the contrary, Jesus came that we might have life and have it in abundance.

As stewards of material goods, we have a moral obligation to provide those things needful for ourselves, our families, and our community. So is there a way to use money and possessions that’s consistent with the life in abundance Jesus offers us? Is there an antidote to the dangers posed by money and possessions that can help us use these resources as God intends?

Christian tradition provides a tried and true answer to these questions by telling us that the antidote comes through practicing the virtues of hospitality, generosity, and simplicity.[6]

Hospitality is the practice of opening our hearts, our churches, and even our homes to welcome and embrace anyone who shows up by offering safety, refreshment, and respect.

Hospitality leads quite naturally to generosity, the practice of opening our hands, our wallets, and our cupboards to help feed, clothe, and shelter anyone in need, especially the hungry, the naked, and the homeless, regardless of whether or not the world thinks they are deserving.

And then there’s simplicity, the practice of using only what we truly need to sustain our lives by conserving limited resources and restricting our pursuit of luxury goods. Practicing simplicity, we are mindful that accumulating possessions we really don’t need all too often comes at the expense of others being unable to acquire those basic goods necessary for sustaining life. The virtue of simplicity reminds us that how each of us lives affects the well-being of countless others.

St. Francis once said: “Proclaim the gospel always. If necessary, use words.” It’s hard to imagine a better example of this than persons who practice hospitality, generosity, and simplicity. Practicing these virtues not only re-orients our relationship with money and possessions in ways that keep us in right relationship with God and our neighbor. Practicing these virtues also proclaims a message. In a world driven by competition, greed, and excess, persons who practice hospitality, generosity and simplicity proclaim the gospel by their actions. They bear witness to an alternative way of life. It’s a way of life that transcends the divisions and struggles of this world by pointing to the coming of God’s kingdom. And it’s a way of life supremely exemplified in Jesus Christ, the one who sets the example of godly life for us all.

Our call is to be faithful stewards of our money and possessions, acknowledging that all we have belongs to God, and then using these resources to minister to a hungry, hurting world in Jesus’ name. As we answer that call, may we know the joys of abundant life that come through practicing hospitality, generosity, and simplicity. And may we be reassured that in the midst of things that are passing away, we do indeed hold fast to those things that shall endure.

[1], accessed September 15, 2010.

[2], accessed on September 15, 2010.

[3] Glen H. Stassen and David P. Gushee, Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context (InterVarsity Press, 2003), p. 414.

[4] Ibid., p. 426.

[5] Philip Turner, Sex, Money & Power: An Essay in Christian Social Ethics (Cowley, 1985), p. 89.

[6] Ibid., p. 88ff.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Centrality of the Cross

On his blog "Into the Expectation," Fr. Matt Gunter offers some thoughts on this Feast of the Holy Cross that are worth pondering. He writes:

So much god-talk strikes me as little more than sentimental fancy or the projection of our own prejudices onto the cosmos. A lot rhetoric about god sounds like an "opiate of the people" as Karl Marx famously charged. As such, it is ephemeral and hard to hold onto.

But, then there is the cross. If, as Christians profess, God, in some mysterious way, hung on a particular cross in a particular time and a particular place, there is something to hold onto. The idea that the One at the heart of it all - the creator and sustainer of all things - entered into the physical reality of sin, suffering, and death and addressed that reality on the cross is what creates and sustains my ability to believe in God at all. The cross anchors me. It keeps my faith from becoming detached from the hard realities of this life. It also anchors God in the sense that it gives God a basic definition that challenges all expressions of faith as flights of fancy. Whatever else we might say about God, if it neglects the reality of the cross, it not really God we are talking about.

Be sure to also check out the quotes Fr. Matt shares on the centrality of the cross for authentic Christian faith.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

My Hero

This Foo Fighters song makes me think about firefighters rushing into buildings about to collapse, and the other extraordinary things ordinary people did nine years ago today - and continue to do.

9/11 Irony

The following meditation was published in Forward Day by Day nine years ago today.

Philippians 1:27. Live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.

It is hard to live in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. Just as you sit down to begin dinner, the phone rings. It is hard to resist wanting to jump right through the line and strangle the telemarketer. Or just as you head for the express checkout at the grocery, one of Christ’s beloved pushes past you with 56 items. And a checkbook. With no checks. You obediently await your turn to board the plane and discover some other child of God sitting in your seat and there is no empty seat for you to move to. A flight attendant appears, another of God’s beloved, and berates you for not being seated and buckled in and announces to the world how you are holding up departure.

It is the small, everyday events of life that most test our manner of living worthy of the gospel. Major emergencies, disasters, traumas, catastrophes—these can draw out the best in everyone. This is a good thing, of course, because those are times when we all need to work together for God’s people and make it through. But wouldn’t it be nice if people just treated everyone the way they would like to be treated?

Orthodox Reflections for 9/11

In a blog posting at the end of last month, Orthodox priest Fr. Stephen Freeman offers reflections appropriate for this anniversary of horror and heroism:

The pain of our memories is something of a false memory, in that it will not last forever. Only memory that is grounded in the End of things – memory that is eschatological – has true significance. There are forces that are seeking to re-write history at this very moment. There are false believers who imagine that acts of violence can shape the outcome of history.

This is not so. The outcome of history took place in the Resurrection of Christ. Regardless of whatever madness we may imagine year by year, the Resurrected Christ is at the center of all things, He is the Alpha and Omega. He cannot be seen with eyes of hatred and anger. That vision is normatively given to the pure in heart. ...

For tears to be wiped away, they must also be shed. For the dead to rise again, they have to die. To remember the truth is, finally, to remember the End of all things when the Truth shall be revealed. The former things – which were always distortions – will pass away. What remains will abide forever.


Thursday, September 2, 2010

Evangelicals Going Gospel on Glenn Beck

Southern Baptist Russell D. Moore doesn't mince words about shock jock FOX superstar Glenn Beck and the Restoring Honor Rally he held last week in front of the Lincoln Memorial. Here's a taste:

The news media pronounces him the new leader of America’s Christian conservative movement, and a flock of America’s Christian conservatives have no problem with that.

If you’d told me that ten years ago, I would have assumed it was from the pages of an evangelical apocalyptic novel about the end-times. But it’s not. It’s from this week’s headlines. And it is a scandal. ...

It’s taken us a long time to get here, in this plummet from Francis Schaeffer to Glenn Beck. In order to be this gullible, American Christians have had to endure years of vacuous talk about undefined “revival” and “turning America back to God” that was less about anything uniquely Christian than about, at best, a generically theistic civil religion and, at worst, some partisan political movement.

Rather than cultivating a Christian vision of justice and the common good (which would have, by necessity, been nuanced enough to put us sometimes at odds with our political allies), we’ve relied on populist God-and-country sloganeering and outrage-generating talking heads. We’ve tolerated heresy and buffoonery in our leadership as long as with it there is sufficient political “conservatism” and a sufficient commercial venue to sell our books and products.

Too often, and for too long, American “Christianity” has been a political agenda in search of a gospel useful enough to accommodate it. There is a liberation theology of the Left, and there is also a liberation theology of the Right, and both are at heart mammon worship. The liberation theology of the Left often wants a Barabbas, to fight off the oppressors as though our ultimate problem were the reign of Rome and not the reign of death. The liberation theology of the Right wants a golden calf, to represent religion and to remind us of all the economic security we had in Egypt. Both want a Caesar or a Pharaoh, not a Messiah. ...

Where there is no gospel, something else will fill the void: therapy, consumerism, racial or class resentment, utopian politics, crazy conspiracy theories of the left, crazy conspiracy theories of the right; anything will do. The prophet Isaiah warned us of such conspiracies replacing the Word of God centuries ago (Is. 8:12–20). As long as the Serpent’s voice is heard, “You shall not surely die,” the powers are comfortable.

Read it all.

Matthew Lee Anderson, another conservative evangelical, also has pointed things to say about Beck:

Beck has no genuine moral authority. He is only saying to the faithful precisely what they want to hear, reconfirming their deepest intuitions about the world, and challenging them to do precisely nothing that they weren’t going to do already.

That seems to play particularly well with evangelicals because the message that we should rededicate ourselves to God is one that evangelicals are particularly good at hearing–for our neighbors. They are the ones who seem to stand in real (and perpetual) need of such a rededication, and we seem only too happy to remind folks of it as often as we can.

Read it all.

Apparently, not all conservative Christians are buying Beck's "gospel."

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

C. S. Lewis on the Clergy

Any number of times on this blog, I've expressed my inability to fully understand why someone would want to worship in a church whose liturgies and creedal statements affirm tenets of Christian faith which he/she rejects. I once put it like this:

If someone says she has to hold her nose to say the Creed, that she doesn't believe that Jesus is both fully human and fully divine or that he was really raised from the dead, or that God is three persons in one essence, or that Scripture is anything more than a merely human artifact, etc., etc. - well, at some point the question must be asked: why would such a person want to worship in a tradition whose history and Prayer Book liturgies affirm all of the things she denies? Why would such a person voluntarily promise to continue in teaching which she rejects or even finds offensive?

All Episcopalians, lay and ordained, have made a vow in the Baptismal Covenant to live within the boundaries of orthodox teaching. So it's a serious matter for laypersons to espouse heterodox or heretical views as though they are equal to the faith of the Church. But I am particularly befuddled when Episcopal clergy become free-thinking innovators. For clergy have not only promised to continue in the apostles' teaching and fellowship in the first of the Baptismal Covenant vows; they have also promised to conform to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the Episcopal Church in their ordinations.

Of course, not everyone shares my inability to grasp (much less embrace or even celebrate) such deviations from conforming to the doctrinal norms among the clergy. But in my Internet travels today, I was pleased to discover an Anglican from the not-so-distant past who shares my concerns and expresses them far better than I have. Here's what C. S. Lewis once wrote about and to the clergy:

It is your duty to to fix the lines (of doctrine) clearly in your minds: and if you wish to go beyond them you must change your profession. This is your duty not specially as Christians or as priests but as honest men. There is a danger here of the clergy developing a special professional conscience which obscures the very plain moral issue. Men who have passed beyond these boundary lines in either direction are apt to protest that they have come by their unorthodox opinions honestly. In defense of those opinions they are prepared to suffer obloquy and to forfeit professional advancement. They thus come to feel like martyrs. But this simply misses the point which so gravely scandalizes the layman. We never doubted that the unorthodox opinions were honestly held: what we complain of is your continuing in your ministry after you have come to hold them. We always knew that a man who makes his living as a paid agent of the Conservative Party may honestly change his views and honestly become a Communist. What we deny is that he can honestly continue to be a Conservative agent and to receive money from one party while he supports the policy of the other.

I think that Lewis is right: at bottom, it all comes down to honesty and integrity.