Thursday, January 27, 2011

No Obligation to Explain, No Responsibility to Whitewash

In a blog posting entitled "and yet love happens," Orthodox Christian Molly Sabourin offers brief but profound reflections on giving up the need to feel obliged to explain or justify her Christian faith in the face of death and suffering, and on giving up attempts to make sense of injustice with pat answers. When Molly writes about coming to a place where one can "make peace with the Mystery that is God," I am reminded of the calm joy that exudes from the apostle Paul's letter to the Philipians, a letter written in the midst of imprisonment, failure, suffering, and the shadow of possible death. I continue to long for that joy and peace in my own life as a baptized Christian and as a priest serving during a time of great change, upheaval, and division within Anglicanism.

I feel no obligation anymore to explain God, or why I believe in the Resurrection of Christ despite the universality of death and suffering. I won't pretend that suicide bombers, plane crashes and children with cancer don't make my insides crawl with horror. The truth is I have no real answers to give, and that any I concocted would be speculative at best. Being confronted by tragedy is like a bucket of ice water to the head. Death and suffering, the way they breathe all hot and heavy down my neck, won't let me sleep, or forget that I am vulnerable - just as vulnerable as any and everyone else - to having my comfortable little existence shred to pieces in a heartbeat.

I feel no responsibility to whitewash the pain of being broken with glossy euphemisms proposing that sense can be made of injustice. Thirteen years ago I surrendered my opinions and dependence on reason to the ancient teachings of the Church - I retired my time consuming (wasting?) quest to figure things out (Who, what, where, when, why is God, exactly?) and learned through the sacraments to make peace with the Mystery that is God and His mercy, the Holy Trinity, salvation. And now I'm no longer in the mood for a debate about the peripherals, not when the end is all around me and my only real source of courage is, mysteriously enough, self-denial. No, I will not try and appease your anger, your disillusionment, your doubts, but God help me weep with you when you weep and love you, serve you, just exactly as you are, lest the monsters, pride and despair, sink their teeth into my soul.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

This World is a Sick Man

"This world is a sick man, whom sin has made sick, for sin is a sickness, and to scorn sinners is to scorn the sick. With prayer our healer walks around the grievously sick patient, with prayer he walks and with prayer he heals and makes whole. Do not scorn sinners, but pray for them. Feel pity and compassion for every creature, but do not condemn. Expand and deepen your soul with prayer, and you will begin to cry over the mystery of the world bitterly and vehemently. Make your heart prayerful, together with your soul and your mind, and they will become inexhaustible fountainheads of tears for all mankind. The most reverend man of prayer has made his whole soul prayerful, together with his spirit and mind: and he feels the sins of all sinners as though they were his own, and he repents for all sins as though they were his own, as he weeps and sighs."

Friday, January 21, 2011

Contemporary vs. Apostolic Christianity

Sifting through papers the other day, I came across notes on a contrast between contemporary versus apostolic Christianity. I don't recall the source from which I obtained it (for some reason I didn't write it down).

No doubt, some will view the contrast here between "contemporary" and "apostolic" forms of Christianity as too simplistic. And to some degree, there's truth in that objection. Reality is always more messy than the ideal types we construct to try and get a handle on it.

However, if it's true that the Episcopal Church drinks a bit too deeply from the wells of such counterfeit gospels as the Therapeutic, Judgmentless, and Social-Club gospels (among others), then this contrast is at least worth pondering.

Bracketing for the moment whether one is better than the other, which one of the following seems more familiar in the preaching and teaching you typically encounter in the Episcopal Church?

  1. Descent: we pull Christ down into our mess and ask him to fix it for us.
  2. "Christ for us."
  3. Focus on the realization of human aspirations (self-realization).
  4. Content with a "relationship" with Christ.

  1. Ascent: we strive to grow in the image and likeness of Christ.
  2. "Christ in us."
  3. Focus on the deification of humanity (theosis).
  4. Through waging war against the passions (e.g., through fasting and ascetic struggle), strives to achieve union with Christ.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Counterfeit Gospels

In a posting over at Kingdom People entitled "Which Counterfeit Gospels are Most Prevalent Today?", Trevin Wax shares several of the counterfeit gospels he considered while writing his book Counterfeit Gospels: Rediscovering the Good News in a World of False Hope.

Therapeutic Gospel: Sin robs us of our sense of fullness. Christ’s death proves our worth as humans and gives us power to reach our potential. The church helps us find happiness.

Formalist Gospel: Sin is failing to keep church rules and regulations. Christ’s death gives me an agenda, so I can begin to follow the predescribed forms of Christianity.

Moralist Gospel: Our big problem is sins (plural) and not sin (nature). The purpose for Christ’s death is to give us a second chance and make us better people. Redemption comes through the exercise of willpower with God’s help.

Judgmentless Gospel: God’s forgiveness does not need to come through the sacrifice of His Son. Judgment is more about God’s goodness, not the need for human rebellion to be punished. Evangelism is not urgent.

Social-Club Gospel: Salvation is all about finding fellowship and friendship at church. The gospel is reduced to Christian relationships that help us enjoy life.

Activist Gospel: The kingdom is advanced through our efforts to build a just society. The gospel’s power is demonstrated through cultural transformation, and the church is united around political causes and social projects.

Churchless Gospel: The focus of salvation is primarily on the individual, in a way that makes the community of faith peripheral to God’s purposes. The church is viewed as an option to personal spirituality, or even an obstacle to Christlikeness.

Mystic Gospel: Salvation comes through an emotional experience with God. The church is there to help me feel close to God by helping me along in my pursuit of mystical union.

Quietist Gospel: Salvation is about spiritual things, not secular matters. Christianity is only about individual life change and is not concerned with society and politics.

If there are counterfeit gospels afoot in the Episcopal Church, my experience suggests that we tend to gravitate towards the Therapeutic, Judgmentless, Social-Club and Activist Gospels.

You can take a poll on Trevin's website to indicate which six out of these nine you think are the most prominent here.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Saved by Hope, Love, and Forgiveness

"Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore, we must be saved by hope. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore, we are saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore, we must be saved by the final form of love, which is forgiveness."

Hat tip to New York Times op-ed columnist David Brooks.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

That Our Lives May Become Epiphanies of Christ for Each Other

Over at Interrupting the Silence, Fr. Mike Marsh offers beautiful reflections in a posting entitled "Becoming Epiphany." Here's part of what he writes:

When we think of the Epiphany we probably most often think of the star and the magi or wise men. But the Epiphany is a feast of our Lord’s life. It is a feast about Jesus not the star or the magi and their gifts. The star and the magi are simply our guides or pointers to Christ. The Epiphany celebrates the manifestation of Jesus’ divine nature and this takes place through his humanity. It is through Jesus’ humanity that we see God.

In celebrating the Epiphany we are asking God, who by the leading of a star manifested his Son to the peoples of the earth, to lead us to God’s presence where we may see God’s glory face to face, that Christ may be manifest in us, and our lives may be a light to the world. Not only are we illumined by the light of Christ we become illumination and our lives become epiphanies of Christ for each other.

In the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Epiphany is often called the Theophany and the focus is on the baptism of Jesus. Over at Glory to God for All Things, Fr. Stephen Freeman offers rich reflections in a posting entitled "The Mystery of Theophany." Here's part of what he writes:

At Theophany, the waters of the world are revealed to be both Hades and the gate of Paradise. In Christ’s journey within and through the Church, everything is revealed to be such a place. You are my entry into Paradise as clearly as you may also be my entry into Hades. Love alone reveals things for what they are, and transforms them into what they were always intended to be. It is the gift of God.

Epiphany and Theophany blessings to you all!

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Assaulting Christmas

Just in time for the Twelfth Day of Christmas, Cindi Ross Scoppe describes ways in which our consumer culture has so transformed the celebration of Christmas that the very idea of Christmas as a season that lasts for twelve days seems absurd to many people, even to many Christians. Here's some of what she writes in an editorial entitled "The assault on Christmas":

On the third day of Christmas, I awoke to the sound of a “Morning Edition” host ridiculing the grocery stores that were still — still — playing Christmas music. ...

I went grocery shopping on the seventh day of Christmas; the folks at NPR would be relieved to know there was no Christmas music to be heard. Outside the grocery store, I ran into state Education Department spokesman Jim Foster, who complimented my Christmas attire and asked, “How much longer can you wear that?” When I said, “Until January 5,” he repeated my answer, but with a question mark at the end.

During the first seven days of Christmas, people indulge my extended celebration. But by the eight day, you're expected to move on; it's a whole new year. Out with the old. ...

James Cutsinger, director of undergraduate studies at USC's Department of Religious Studies, suggested that in addition to the fact that the nation is mainly Protestant, and non-liturgical, "This ever-increasing commercialization of the holiday means that virtually all the emphasis is placed on a lengthy build-up - beginning not merely with Thanksgiving but even Halloween - and all that's left afterward are the after-Christmas sales and New Year's Eve parties."

Scoppe also notes a delightful irony:

It’s quite fashionable to complain about retailers imposing on Thanksgiving and even Halloween with their Christmas merchandising. Even more fashionable in some circles is complaining about all the politically correct (one of the very few correct uses of that hackneyed insult) talk of “holiday trees” and “holiday cards” and the “holiday break.” I don’t disagree with either complaint. But how many of those same people join in the secularization, trampling over Advent — which historically has been and for some remains a penitential season — and ignoring all but the very first day of Christmas?

It's a great editorial, so read it all.

[Related sidebar: A member of the altar guild just asked me if we were still in Advent!]

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams on the Bible

The much-maligned Archbishop of Canterbury has wise words to share about the Bible:

The Bible is how God tells us what He has done, what He is doing, and what He will do. And one of the most important things we can realize about the Bible is that it is concentrated on the action of God, not as something that happened long ago, a matter of historical record, but as something that is continuous day-by-day. Because the God we meet in the Bible is the God we meet now.

Watch and listen to it all:

I think that Baby Blue gets it right:

"The church has listened to the Bible," Rowan Williams says in this video from Lambeth Palace, "and the Bible has echoed in the life of the church." He says it's not the Bible that hold us together, but the Holy Spirit for conversion and transformation by Jesus Christ. This is a very good talk and it's not just what he says that resonates, but also how he says it. His audience is broad. It is worth seriously pondering by all sides of the division in the Episcopal and Anglican churches in the United States, especially as we remember this year the magnificent gift to the world of the King James Bible.

But with so much at stake in an ecclesial culture war that continues to escalate the politicization of the Church, will anyone on either side of the Anglican divide really listen to what one critic calls "the Rudderless-Rowan"?