Wednesday, October 27, 2010

C. S. Lewis on Becoming Little Christs

"Strive to enter through the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able" (Luke 13:24).

As I meditated on these words from Jesus in the Gospel reading assigned for the Eucharist today, I compared them to the parallel passage in the Gospel according to Matthew: "Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it" (Matthew 7:13-14).

All of this reminded me of a chapter in C. S. Lewis' Mere Christianity entitled, "Is Christianity Hard or Easy?" Paradoxically, the answer is "both."

Here's what Lewis writes about this paradox in that chapter:

Christ says, 'Give me All. I don't want so much of your time and so much of your money and so much of your work: I want You. I have not come to torment your natural self, but to kill it. No half-measures are any good. I don't want to cut off a branch here and a branch there, I want to have the whole tree down. I don't want to drill the tooth, or crown it, or stop it, but to have it out. Hand over the whole natural self, all the desires which you think innocent as well as the ones you think wicked - the whole outfit. I will give you a new self instead. In fact, I will you Myself: my own will shall become yours.'

Both harder and easier than what we are all trying to do. You have noticed, I expect, that Christ Himself sometimes describes the Christian way as very hard, sometimes as very easy. He says, 'Take up your Cross' - in other words, it is like going to be beaten to death in a concentration camp. Next minute he says, 'My yoke is easy and my burden light.' He means both. ...

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.

So what is the point of it all? Here's how Lewis puts it:

... the Church exists for nothing else but to draw men into Christ, to make them little Christs. If they are not doing that, all the cathedrals, clergy, missions, sermons, even the Bible itself, are simply a waste of time. God became Man for no other purpose. It is even doubtful, you know, whether the whole universe was created for any other purpose.

And again: "Every Christian is to become a little Christ. The whole purpose of becoming a Christian is simply nothing else." And yet again: "God became man to turn creatures into sons: not simply to produce better men of the old kind but to produce a new kind of man." Lewis continues: "It is not like teaching a horse to jump better and better but like turning a horse into a winged creature. Of course, once it has got its wings, it will soar over fences which could never have been jumped and thus beat the natural horse at its own game."

Much of the fourth book of Mere Christianity resonates with the Eastern Orthodox idea of theosis or deification, "the process by which a Christian becomes more like God" (The Orthodox Study Bible). It is a process that is both hard and easy. It's hard because we have to strive to enter through the narrow door. We have to work and not be lazy. We have to submit completely to Christ by dying daily to our "natural" selves and its inclinations (which can sometimes feel so much a part of who we really are that we couldn't imagine a life worth living without them).

As difficult and painful as all of that can be, Lewis insists that it's easier than "trying to remain what we call 'ourselves'" - the kind of persons enslaved to our inclinations and desires - while simultaneously trying to live morally virtuous, holy lives. It just doesn't work. Surrendering to Christ, letting go and letting God, is easier than going it on our own. And, according to Lewis, in this total surrender we find our true and lasting happiness. He writes:

He said (in the Bible) that we were 'gods' and He is going to make good His words. If we let Him - for we can prevent Him, if we choose - He will make the feeblest and filthiest of us into a god or goddess, a dazzling, radiant, immortal creature, pulsating all through with such energy and joy and wisdom and love as we cannot now imagine, a bright stainless mirror which reflects back to God perfectly (though, of course, on a smaller scale) His own boundless power and delight and goodness.

"The process," Lewis acknowledges, "will be long and in parts very painful." But the end of that process is what it means to become little Christs.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Critics Charge that Title IV Revisions Signify Strategy in Ecclesial Culture War

While I'm not a canon lawyer, things I've been reading and hearing about the revisions to Title IV (the disciplinary canons of the Episcopal Church) are troubling. C. Alan Runyan and Mark McCall's essay "Title IV Revisions: Unmasked," for instance, unpacks in great detail the following claims:

The revisions [which go into effect on July 11, 2011] certainly will change the character of the disciplinary process making the disciplinary landscape appear less formal, speedier and more pastoral. However, these goals mask other very unsettling realities of the new disciplinary process, more suggestive of another pastoral analogy: a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

Unmasked, these revisions do not simply change the form of the process in ways that dramatically alter Clergy’s due process but they also make very significant changes to the substantive discipline of Clergy, as well as to the very polity of TEC as it relates to the Dioceses, Bishops Diocesan and the Presiding Bishop.

Read it all.

In an article for The Living Church entitled "Revisions to Title IV Are Bad Law," G. Thomas Graves III writes as follows:

[The Title IV revisions] enable a bishop (and the presiding bishop) not only to serve as policeman writing the citation, but also to sit as a member of the three-person board (or grand jury) that will be appointed to replace a duly elected standing committee.

Any resemblance to due process as we understand it in this country has been eliminated from Title IV, including protection of ordained clergy against self-incrimination. Clergy must now “testify and cooperate”; they must “self-report” an offense; and they will no longer hear Miranda warnings. As rewritten, Title IV works to the advantage of those who currently hold authority within TEC. With a change in regime, however, it could easily become an instrument of control by those they oppose. Good law should serve all parties, not simply whichever group may be in power. ...

In the Anglican Communion today, we hear a great deal about the autonomy of the provinces. This "necessary" autonomy, a term introduced by the Episcopal Church, underpins the authority of the Episcopal Church to act as it has — unilaterally, bringing much discord to the entire Communion. In this light, it is ironic that within our own province the bureaucrats and lawyers that gather in New York City attempt to reverse this flow of power when it is to their benefit, claiming, and now legislating, that the province is the supreme authority over each and every diocese. ...

As Runyan and McCall describe it, “the most revolutionary aspect” of the revised Title IV is its granting the presiding bishop the same authority over other bishops as these bishops now have over the diocesan clergy under their jurisdiction. There is no question that this provision of the canon purports to create authority that is not constitutionally available. The church’s Constitution prohibits any bishop from functioning in the jurisdiction of another bishop.

The revised canon, however, gives the presiding bishop control over any disciplinary matter "in which the member of the clergy who is subject to the proceedings" is another bishop. And the presiding bishop can moreover initiate charges —imposing restrictions on a diocesan bishop "at any time" and "without prior notice," in the language of the amendment.

Again, I'm not a canon lawyer, but if even half of what Runyan, McCall, and Graves say about the Title IV revisions is true, it really should be cause for concern for all Episcopalians, regardless of where one stands on the theological spectrum in relation to the hot-button issues du jour. For this suggests a willingness to revise and use the Church's canons as weapons in the ongoing ecclesial culture war within the Episcopal Church to not just get conservatives out of the way, but to "eliminate" any clergyperson who is not fully on board with the agenda of whoever happens to be in power.

But is that really an accurate reading of the Title IV revisions? Are Runyan, McCall, and Graves right to sound the alarm?

Friday, October 22, 2010

Stanley Hauerwas: How Real is America's Faith?

Sometimes we hear people say that the United States is the most religious nation among developed nations. And in spite of increasing multicultural diversity, some insist that we are a "Christian nation."

Well, in a recent piece for The Guardian, theological ethicist Stanley Hauerwas slams the very idea that Americans are more religious (much less Christian) than people in countries like Britain. Instead, Hauerwas contends that the "religion" most of us Americans espouse is that of autonomously choosing who or what constitutes "god," and then using what that "god" purportedly gives us (a nation that guarantees freedom of choice, for instance) to justify our freedom to choose the "god" of our choosing. In the end, all of this comes down to utilitarian religion and self-fulfillment.

Here's part of what Hauerwas writes:

Even if more people go to church in America, I think the US is a much more secular country than Britain. In Britain, when someone says they do not believe in God, they stop going to church. In the US, many who may have doubts about Christian orthodoxy may continue to go to church. They do so because they assume that a vague god vaguely prayed to is the god that is needed to support family and nation.

Americans do not have to believe in God, because they believe that it is a good thing simply to believe: all they need is a general belief in belief. That is why we have never been able to produce interesting atheists in the US. The god most Americans say they believe in is not interesting enough to deny, because it is only the god that has given them a country that ensures that they have the right to choose to believe in the god of their choosing. Accordingly, the only kind of atheism that counts in the US is that which calls into question the proposition that everyone has a right to life, liberty, and happiness.

America is the exemplification of what I call the project of modernity. That project is the attempt to produce a people that believes it should have no story except the story it chose when it had no story. That is what Americans mean by freedom.

The problem with that story is its central paradox: you did not choose the story that you should have no story except the story you chose when you had no story. Americans, however, are unable to acknowledge that they have been fated to be "free", which makes them all the more adamant that they have a right to choose the god that underwrites their "freedom."

A people so constituted will ask questions such as "Why does a good god let bad things happen to good people?" It is as if the Psalms never existed. The story that you should have no story except the story you chose when you had no story produces a people who say: "I believe that Jesus is Lord – but that is just my personal opinion."

Read it all.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Scripture as a Bottomless Well

"It is not possible, I say, not possible, ever to exhaust the mind of the Scriptures. It is a well which has no bottom."

~ St. John Chrysostom, Homilies on the Acts of the Apostles 19.5

Monday, October 18, 2010

From the Lips of Children

Since St. Andrew's Cathedral is part of the Congregations for Children in Mississippi, we annually observe a "Children's Sabbath" to highlight not only the plight of children in our state but also to shed light on the many outreach ministries we support that make a difference in the community.

As part of the liturgy, children served as lectors and as the Prayers of the People intercessor. Each one did an outstanding job. My 10-year-old daughter read the New Testament epistle lesson:

As for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.

In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I solemnly urge you: proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching. For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths. As for you, always be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully (2 Timothy 3:14-4:5).

I've been struck by each of the epistle readings from Paul's letters to Timothy that we've been hearing over the past several Sundays. At times, it's been like hearing a message addressed to me personally. And so it was very special to hear my daughter read these words from 2 Timothy before the gathered assembly in the Cathedral.

The whole passage assigned for yesterday is powerful. But I was particularly moved (almost to tears, actually) to hear the words of the opening sentence of the lesson in my daughter's young but confident voice: "As for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus." I was powerfully reminded of my own childhood - how I spent time daily reading the gospels and the epistles and how, by the time I was 13, I had read the entire Bible. And in a way I cannot explain, hearing her read these words (and the rest of this passage) was like receiving confirmation that in spite of struggles and questions, I am, indeed, called to be a priest.

The word of the Lord in this passage of scripture came to me from the lips of my own child.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Episcopal Church Offers a "Seusscharist"

Perhaps you've heard of the clown Eucharist. Or the U2charist. Or, for that matter, the pirate Eucharist.

Now there's a new spin on the sacrament:

Here's what's posted about this event on the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh's website:

With brains in your head and feet in your shoes
Please come to Calvary from any direction you choose.

Friday, October 22 will be the day.
Fun is waiting, so get on your way.

We'll have a light supper and share together
A little Seuss fun, no matter the weather.

A movie, and popcorn, and stories, too.
We'll finish with a Seusscharist designed just for you.

Five thirty is the time that we will start.
We know you will join us, if you are smart.

Weezie is the one that you should call
She'll take reservations for family, friends and all.

Age is no limit, bottom or top.
We know that our gathering won't be a flop.

Have any questions you'd like to ask?
Just call Adele. She's up to the task.

Calvary Episcopal Church
315 Shady Avenue
Pittsburgh PA 15206

Robert S. Munday, Dean of Nashotah House Theological Seminary, clarifies why this trivialization of the Holy Eucharist is a serious matter in a blog posting entitled "Pittsburgh's 'Seusscharist' sacrilege":

Now, before someone calls me a GRINCH for casting aspersions on this program, let me be clear about my reasoning. The Eucharist is to proclaim the Lord Jesus Christ's death, whenever we eat the bread and drink the cup, until He comes again. That is its message, and that is the meaning. It needs no other metaphor. Dressing it up in other garb can only obscure—not enhance—its message and its meaning.

The concept of a sacrilege teaches us that "sacred objects are not to be treated in the same way as other objects." That's the point of the matter. And no, this kind of display (Clown Eucharists and Seusscarists) isn't what the Apostle Paul means when he calls the preaching of the Gospel foolishness in I Corinthians. ...

"Therefore, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. A man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup" (I Corinthians 11:27-28). Literally interpreted, this text means that we should not approach the Eucharist with impure motives or unconfessed sins against God and our neighbor, thereby having little regard for the presence of Christ in the Eucharist. But does it not also mean that, when it comes to the Eucharist, we shouldn't be clowning
around? We are dealing with holy things in the Eucharist, when God in the flesh died for the sins of humankind.

Amen, Dean Munday!

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Off to Clergy Conference

I'll be taking a bit of time off from blogging as I'm about to head to my diocese's annual clergy conference at the Duncan M. Gray Episcopal Camp and Conference Center.

It's always a good thing to gather with my fellow presbyters and my bishop, and it's fitting that for at least part of the time our deacons will also be present. There's sufficient diversity in theological and political perspectives among the clergy in this diocese to serve as a reminder that, the current powers-that-be notwithstanding, the larger whole of the Church transcends any particular (much less partisan) point of view.

I'm pleased that the Very Rev. Kevin Martin, dean of St. Matthew's Episcopal Cathedral in Houston, Texas, will be joining us. I'm hoping he'll help us address issues relating to mission, evangelism, and mainline decline.

And I've also heard that we may talk about the Anglican Covenant. Given the largely left-of-center legislative majority currently running the show at General Convention, I believe that the Covenant is dead in the Episcopal Church. But the kinds of issues it raises about autonomy and communion remain vitally important.

Between Kevin's work with us and the controversy the Anglican Covenant inevitably raises, this should make for some interesting conversations!

Thursday, October 7, 2010

A Promiscuously Permissive, User-Friendly Jesus

It is odd that we have made even Jesus into such a quivering mass of affirmation and oozing graciousness, considering how frequently, unguardedly, and gleefully Jesus told us that we were sinners. Anyone who thinks that Jesus was into inclusiveness, self-affirmation, and open-minded, heart-happy acceptance has then got to figure out why we responded to him by nailing him to a cross. He got there not for urging us to "consider the lilies" but for calling us "whitewashed tombs" and even worse.

Yet it is perhaps not such a mystery that we have attempted - Scripture be damned - to produce a promiscuously permissive, user-friendly Jesus. ... Our situation is that we view our lives through a set of lies about ourselves, false stories of who we are and are meant to be, never getting an accurate picture of ourselves. Through the "lens" of the story of Jesus we are able to see ourselves truthfully and call things by their proper names. Only through the story of the cross of Christ do we see the utter depth and seriousness of our sin. Only through this story that combines cross and resurrection do we see the utter resourcefulness and love of God who is determined to save sinners (Romans 3:21-25).

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

A Modernist in the Church of England

U2 - Rejoice

This is one of my favorite cuts from U2's second and most explicitly Christian album "October." In a 2005 speech, here's what Bono (the lead singer) said about the album as a whole: "Can you imagine your second album—the difficult second album—it's about God?"

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Privileging Autonomy Over Communion Violates the Baptismal Covenant

Over the last several months, I've benefited greatly from reading blog postings by my clergy colleague in the Church of Ireland over at More Than a Via Media. I particularly appreciate his emphasis on generous Anglican orthodoxy, and also on communion as an essential mark of what it means to be the Church.

In a recent posting entitled "Unam, sanctam, cathólicam - to be church is to be in communion," More Than a Via Media expresses pain and sadness over the following declaration in favor of autonomy over communion by Fr. Mark Harris on his blog Preludium:

Should The Episcopal Church find itself without cognate churches, close relatives, sister churches, etc, in various parts of the world so be it. If TEC withdraws and no new affirmation of connection takes place, and the Anglican Communion goes on without us, so be it. Short term autonomy is not the end of the story, for it is in Christ that we are united, not in the broken churches of Christendom.

As a catholic-minded Anglican, I find More Than a Via Media's brief response persuasive. You can read it here.

I think More Than a Via Media is right to note that Fr. Mark's willingness to privilege autonomy over communion departs from the Nicene Creed's affirmation "We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church" in favor of an ecclesiology in which the "we" of the Creed becomes a "we" that purportedly receives Christ outside of "the koinonia of the ecclesia" and "apart from the proclamation and sacraments of the ecclesia." And I think this pushes us in the direction of violating one of the vows we routinely make in the Baptismal Covenant: the promise to "continue in the apostles' teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers" (The Book of Common Prayer, p. 304).

The language of "apostles' teaching" primarily refers back to the first full half of the Baptismal Covenant: the Apostles' Creed. Reciting the Apostles' Creed, each baptized Christian affirms belief in "the holy catholic Church." In his book The Creed: What Christians Believe and Why It Matters, Luke Timothy Johnson notes that the word "catholic" "means both a universality of extent and an inclusiveness that embraces differences within a larger unity." This means that "the catholic church is the one that exists everywhere, rather than simply in one place." And as an ecclesial principle, "catholicity asserts the general over the particular in any argument about the nature of the church."

Rather than affirming the general over the particular, Fr. Mark's willingness to privilege autonomy over communion amounts to asserting the perspective of a particular faction currently in the legislative majority within the Episcopal Church over the general perspective of the larger whole of the Church, thereby departing from the Creed's understanding of what it means to be "catholic." But departure from what the Creed means by "catholic" means violating one's Baptismal Covenant vow to continue in the apostles' teaching insofar as this teaching entails embracing the meaning of "catholic."

In addition to violating the promise to continue in the apostles' teaching, privileging autonomy over communion also violates the promise to continue in the apostles' fellowship. By "apostles' fellowship," the Baptismal Covenant refers to "historical continuity with the lives of the apostles - above all in teaching and morals" (Luke Timothy Johnson, The Creed). The language also signals communion by intimate participation (koinonia). Faithfulness to living more deeply into such intimate fellowship requires accepting shared norms and clearly articulated boundaries as the conditions that make such a common life possible. Privileging autonomy at the expense of communion undermines koinonia by setting aside the diversity, interdependence, mutual responsibility, and mutual accountability of such a common life in favor of an increasingly isolated, like-minded "church."

By promising to continue in the apostles' teaching and fellowship, we promise to live our identity as members of the Body of Christ. This means not only serving God's people within the Episcopal Church, but also serving and fostering relationship with the larger whole that transcends the Episcopal Church. Faithfulness to the Baptismal Covenant requires every Episcopalian to work for deeper and more intimate communion with all Christians, and especially with Anglicans worldwide. That's true even when we disagree with our brother and sister Anglicans, and even when we don't like them.

If this is what it means to be faithful to the Baptismal Covenant and to mean what we say when we recite the creeds, then privileging autonomy over communion renders the promise to continue in the apostles' teaching and fellowship and the affirmation of the Church as one, holy, catholic, and apostolic disingenuous.

NOTE: Due to technical problems, the owner of More Than a Via Media had to terminate that blog, so the links to that site no longer work. His new blog is called Catholicity and Covenant.