Sunday, October 30, 2011

Celebrating Halloween as Faithful Christian Witness

A while back I shared a piece entitled "Halloween is Christian - Wonderfully So!" by Shannon Johnston (who is now the Bishop of Virginia, but was the rector of All Saints' Episcopal Church in Tupelo, Mississippi when the piece was first written). Turning to the Church's liturgical calendar, Bishop Johnston connects Halloween to All Saints' Day and the truth of Christian baptism, summing it all up like this:

Halloween is the time when Christians proclaim and celebrate the fact that Satan and the occult have no power over us and cannot disrupt our relationship with our Lord and Redeemer, as long as we live faithfully to Christ. We show this by making fun of such pretenders, lampooning them in their face. This is why our costumes and decorations certainly should be witches, devils, and ghosts. In the victory of Christ, Christians are privileged to do this and we must not be timid about it!

Bishop Johnston's piece is a fitting response to those who insist that Halloween is Satanic and that Christians should therefore shun it. Quite the contrary, Halloween is a wonderful opportunity for Christians to bear witness to the heart of our faith in a risen Lord.

I recently came across some reflections on Halloween by an Orthodox Christian that complement Bishop Johnston's thoughts very well:

Every year, on Hallowe’en, I sit on the front porch of my house with a bowl of candy, a box of beeswax candles, and a large icon for the Feast of All Saints.

Every child who comes to the house gets a piece of candy, and may also light a candle and place it before the icon. Very few kids (even the jaded teenagers) turn down the opportunity.

For those who ask, I tell them that the meaning of the word “Hallowe’en” is “the eve of the Feast of All Saints”.

If they press me on the point, I tell them that they can think of the true meaning of Hallowe’en as being that, because of Christ, they can dress up like ghosts and goblins and whatnot, because we do not need to fear those things any longer.

I wish I had a few photos of the kids in Satan masks, lighting a candle and placing it before the icon…

I love the idea of lighting candles to place before an icon for the Feast of All Saints. And I'm now more pleased than ever that my 8-year-old son plans to dress up for Halloween this year as the Grim Reaper!

A comment at another blog sums it all up nicely: "Death is real. The body will rise. And Christ mocks Hell."

Saturday, October 29, 2011

A Grim Milestone for the Episcopal Church

More bad news about the elephant in the Episcopal Church's living room, this time from The Courier Journal:

The Episcopal Church has marked a grim milestone when it reported membership has dipped below 2 million within the United States for the first time in decades.

It had 1,951,907 stateside members in 2010, down 3 percent from the previous year, according to its research office.

Membership has been steadily declining since the 1960s, when it and several other historic Protestant denominations were at the peak of their membership and cultural influence. There have been long-running debates over the causes of the declines. Theories include liberal trends in theology and/or sexuality, the wearisome fighting over those issues and the declining birth rates of the denominations’ largely white, better-educated membership.

Read it all.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

St. Paul Did Not "Invent" Christianity

Greg Carey, professor of New Testament at Lancaster Theological Seminary, has written a brief essay that effectively shuts down the absurd thesis that St. Paul invented a new religion called Christianity. In the process, Carey undermines the false dichotomy of "the religion of Jesus" vs. "the religion about Jesus" (with the former being somehow "better" and more "authentic" than the latter). He writes:

It's not rare to encounter people who claim that Paul "invented" Christianity. The basic idea is that Jesus taught a pure and ethical form of Judaism that focused on God and gracious living, while Paul developed a religion that worshiped Jesus rather than God. Though this idea literally makes no sense historically, it's gotten a lot of run. Even the occasional serious academic book "blames" Paul for perverting Jesus' message in inventing Christianity.

One easily appreciates the appeal of this position. In the first three Gospels -- Matthew, Mark and Luke -- Jesus speaks continually about the kingdom of God. He does not ordinarily speak about himself. In the fourth Gospel, however, Jesus talks about himself all the time. Even ancient Christians recognized this phenomenon. Writing around the year 200, Clement of Alexandria described John as "a spiritual Gospel" on the grounds that it relayed not the literal history of Jesus' career but its spiritual and theological significance. How did followers of Jesus move from a religion focused upon Israel's God and God's kingdom to a religion devoted to the person of Jesus? For many, the Apostle Paul fills that gap.

However, every bit of evidence we possess demonstrates that Paul did not, in fact, invent Christianity. Let's begin with how Paul came to follow Jesus in the first place. The book of Acts claims that Paul, having already persecuted some believers in Jesus, has a visionary encounter with the risen Christ. Paul himself describes that encounter as an "apocalypse," or a revelation. In any event, Acts agrees with Paul that the new apostle turned for support to a community of believers that already resided in Damascus.

If Paul invented Christianity, how did that community in Damascus come to exist? Paul's "conversion," as some call it, occurred within just two or three years of Jesus' death -- and already communities of Jesus followers were spreading beyond Judea and Galilee into Samaria, Syria and other parts of the ancient Mediterranean world.

Moreover, a look at Paul's missionary career debunks the notion that Paul invented Christianity. Having joined the believing community at Damascus, Paul later goes on to Syrian Antioch. The believing community there -- Acts refers to them being called "Christians" -- supports Paul and his partner Barnabas in their missionary activities (Acts 11:19-26). Obviously, the church would not have supported Paul if his teachings represented a radical departure from what they already knew. ...

So we have a pattern. From Damascus in southern Syria, to Antioch in northern Syria, to Ephesus in Asia (today, Turkey), to Rome and hopefully on to Spain, Paul extends his missionary work to embrace the entire northern Mediterranean rim. As he does so, he relies upon churches located in major cosmopolitan cities to support his mission. All of these churches existed prior to and independent of Paul's mission, yet they support him. This could not be the case were Paul inventing a dramatically new interpretation of Jesus.

Read it all.

I note also C. S. Lewis' thoughts from 1947 on that "most astonishing misconception [that] has long dominated the modern mind on the subject of St. Paul" to the effect that "Jesus preached a kindly and simple religion (found in the gospels) and that St. Paul afterwards corrupted it into a cruel and complicated religion (found in the epistles)." Lewis addresses that misconception in his introduction to J. B. Phillip's translation of the New Testament epistles entitled Letters to Young Churches. You can read it in my posting entitled "Impeaching and Banishing St. Paul."

Monday, October 24, 2011

Hanging Out with Brian McLaren at Clergy Conference

The blogging well has been running a bit dry lately, so I'm hoping that taking a few days away from the parish for our annual clergy conference at the Duncan M. Gray Episcopal Camp and Conference Center will provide rest and renewal, and perhaps some inspiration for future postings.

I note that this year's speaker for clergy conference is Brian McLaren, the founding pastor of Cedar Ridge Community Church, a leader in the so-called Emergent Church movement, and the author of such books as A Generous Orthodoxy and A New Kind of Christianity. Given the controversy that McLaren has stirred up in some quarters, it will no doubt be interesting to spend a day with him.

To be honest, I'm frankly not sure why so many Episcopalians groove on McLaren's work. What's he got that's so spectacularly awesome that others don't have? And my hermeneutic of suspicion kicks in whenever I hear folks talk about our need for a "new" kind of Christianity. Besides the fact that such language sounds a bit Spongian, all too often the "new" Christianity on offer is not any newer than Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment critiques of traditional Christian faith and practice. Plus, talk of a "new" kind of Christianity can come dangerously close to throwing out the baby of the Church's core faith with the bathwater of non-essentials. (Note, for instance, Scot McKnight's review of McLaren's A New Kind of Christianity in which he concludes: "I read this book carefully, and I found nothing new. It may be new for Brian, but it's a rehash of ideas that grew into fruition with Adolf von Harnack and now find iterations in folks like Harvey Cox and Marcus Borg. For me, Brian's new kind of Christianity is quite old. And the problem is that it's not old enough.")

My reservations notwithstanding, I plan to listen to what Brian has to say. And I'm particularly interested in what he thinks might be the best approach to addressing the elephant in the Episcopal Church's living room.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

N. T. Wright on the Implications of Baptism for the Christian Life

I share below an important passage from Anglican bishop N. T. Wright's book Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense. In it, Bishop Wright briefly teases out the practical implications of Holy Baptism for the Christian life. He touches on the sometimes painful renunciations and surprising rediscoveries we face when we live into our baptisms. And he discusses the difficulties of morally discerning and differentiating those aspects of our lives that need transformation from those which can be affirmed and celebrated as they are, our need to be in relationship with sources of wisdom beyond ourselves, the role of rules in the Christian life, and the joy of following a different path from the world's. An entire book could be written to flesh out what this passage entails. Actually, it has been written ... by Bishop Wright. It's called After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters. But perhaps more of that another time.

Christian living means dying with Christ and rising again. That ... is part of the meaning of baptism, the starting point of the Christian pilgrimage. The model of pilgrimage is helpful, since baptism awakens echoes of the children of Israel coming out of Egypt and going off to the Promised Land. The whole world is now God's holy land, and God will reclaim it and renew it as the ultimate goal of all our wanderings.

We begin our pilgrimage with the death and resurrection of Jesus. Our goal is the renewal of the presently corrupt creation. This makes it clear that the route through the wilderness, the path of our pilgrimage, will involve two things in particular: renunciation on the one hand and rediscovery on the other.

Renunciation. The world in its present state is out of tune with God's ultimate intention, and there will be a great many things, some of them deeply woven into our imagination and personality, to which the only Christian response will be "no." Jesus told his followers that if they wanted to come after him they would have to deny themselves and take up their cross. The only way to find yourself, he said, is to lose yourself (a strikingly different agenda from today's finding-out-who-I-really-am philosophies). From the very beginning, writers like Paul and John recognized that this isn't just difficult, but actually impossible. We can't do it by some kind of Herculean moral effort. The only way is by drawing strength from beyond ourselves, the strength of God's Spirit, on the basis of our sharing of Jesus' death and resurrection in baptism.

Rediscovery. New creation is not a denial of our humanness, but its reaffirmation; and there will be a great many things, some of them deeply counterintuitive and initially perplexing, to which the proper Christian response is "yes." The resurrection of Jesus enables us to see how it is that living as a Christian isn't simply a matter of discovering the inner truth of the way the world currently is, or simply a matter of learning a way of life that is in tune with a different world and thus completely out of tune with the present one. It is a matter of glimpsing that in God's new creation, of which Jesus' resurrection is the start, all that was good in the original creation is reaffirmed. All that has corrupted and defaced it - including many things which are woven so tightly into the fabric of the world as we know it that we can't imagine being without them - will be done away. Learning to live as a Christian is learning to live as a renewed human being, anticipating the eventual new creation in and with a world which is still longing and groaning for that final redemption.

The problem is that it is by no means clear what to renounce and what to rediscover. How can we say no to things which seem so much a part of life that to reject them appears to us to be the rejection of part of God's good creation? How can we say yes to things which many Christians have seen not as good and right but as dangerous and deluded? How can we ... avoid dualism on the one hand and paganism on the other? Somehow we have to work out which styles of life and behavior belong with the corrupting evil which must be rejected if new creation is to emerge, and which styles of life and behavior belong with the new creation which must be embraced, struggled for, and celebrated.

This takes nerves of steel, and a careful searching after wisdom. We are to be informed by the life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus; by the leading of the Spirit; by the wisdom we find in scripture; by the fact of our baptism and all that it means; by the sense of God's presence and guidance through prayer; and by the fellowship of other Christians, both our contemporaries and those of other ages whose lives and writings are ours to use as wise guides. Listing all these in that fashion makes them sound as if they are separate sources of teaching, but in reality it isn't like that. They work together in a hundred different ways. Part of the art of being a Christian is learning to be sensitive to all of them, and to weigh what we think we are hearing from one quarter alongside what is being said in another.

Only when we have set all that out quite clearly can we ever speak of "rules." There are rules, of course. The New Testament has plenty of them. Always give alms in secret. Never sue a fellow Christian. Never take private vengeance. Be kind. Always show hospitality. Give money away cheerfully. Don't be anxious. Don't judge another Christian over a matter of conscience. Always forgive. And so on. And the worrying thing about that randomly selected list is that most Christians ignore most of them most of the time. It isn't so much that we lack clear rules; we lack, I fear, the teaching that will draw attention to what is in fact there in our primary documents, not least in the teaching of Jesus himself.

The rules are to be understood, not as arbitrary laws thought up by a distant God to stop us from having fun (or to set us some ethical hoops to jump through as a kind of moral examination), but as the signposts to a way of life in which heaven and earth overlap, in which God's future breaks into the present, in which we discover what genuine humanness looks and feels like in practice. ...

We have lived for too long in a world, and tragically even in a church ... where the wills and affections of human beings are regarded as sacrosanct as they stand, where God is required to command what we already love and to promise what we already desire. The implicit religion of many people today is simply to discover who they really are and then try to live it out - which is, as many have discovered, a recipe for chaotic, disjointed, and dysfunctional humanness. The logic of cross and resurrection, of the new creation which gives shape to all truly Christian living, points in a different direction. And one of the central names for that direction is joy: the joy of relationships healed as well as enhanced, the joy of belonging to the new creation, of finding not what we already had but what God was longing to give us. At the heart of the Christian ethic is humility; at the heart of its parodies, pride. Different roads with different destinations, and the destinations color the character of those who travel by them.

~ N. T. Wright, Simply Christian (2006)

Saturday, October 15, 2011

The Daily Office as a Means of Grace

After posting some of R. R. Reno's thoughts in a piece entitled "Bringing Each Day Captive to Christ Through the Daily Office," I am pleased to see BC over at Catholicity and Covenant sharing some of Richard Hooker's defense of the daily reading of scripture in the Daily Office as a means of grace. It's not just the sermon alone that conveys the Word of God. And it's not just the dominical and ecclesial sacraments that convey grace. The daily reading of scripture in the offices of Morning and Evening Prayer also has a sacramental character.

I'm also thankful that BC points us to a posting at The Rector's Corner that offers a good introduction to the Daily Office. There we read:

The heart of the Daily Office consists of the Psalms and the Lessons. This is the “illuminative” face of prayer par excellence. When considering the vastness of the Scriptures, it can be daunting, though: “Where to start?” one might rightfully ask. A solution sometimes suggested is to start at the beginning of the Bible and go to the end. This can be useful for some people, but most find it impossible to maintain and/or mystifying in the extreme. It also means that one does not get to the Gospel for quite a while.

Fortunately, the Church has an easier and more practical answer available.

That answer is the lectionary, "an orderly and extensive reading of the Bible" with selections from the Old Testament, the New Testament epistles (sometimes the Book of Revelation), and the Gospels appointed for each day of the Church calendar year.

Reading the Bible in accordance with the lectionary and in the context of the liturgies of Morning and Evening Prayer is a disciplined yet powerful way to encounter the living Christ in our daily lives. And, as The Rector's Corner notes, the canticles - the songs of praise read or sung in thankful response to the scripture readings - help to facilitate that encounter:

The canticles ... provide a response to the lesson just read. They remind us the scriptures are not “data” to be consumed but encounters with God, moments of transformation to be pondered and integrated into our full being.

The Latin for "office" is officium meaning "service" or "duty." And so the Daily Office is one's Daily Service or Daily Duty. The ordination vows do not explicitly require clergy in the Episcopal Church to read the Daily Office, but it is one of the most reliable and deeply Anglican ways to fulfill the promise to "persevere in prayer." And while it may seem that approaching one's prayer life as a "duty" to fulfill in accordance with fixed liturgical forms in The Book of Common Prayer is old-fashioned, legalistic, and even lifeless, my experience has been just the opposite. After 15 or so years of trying to be faithful to the Daily Office, I have discovered it to be a spiritual anchor and a lifeline to God.

I have also discovered that the fixed character of the liturgy coupled with the movement through books of the Bible offers an important way to move me beyond an introspective preoccupation with myself. The Daily Office serves as a vehicle of transcendence, opening me to the grace and presence of the God who utterly surpasses all that I can think or imagine, and who is yet closer to me than my own breathing. From time to time, there can be surprises when a well-known canticle or collect, or a scripture reading that just happens to be appointed for this particular day, speaks directly to something I'm struggling with or going through. I don't know if that would have happened if I had been trying to make it happen. But it's a powerful reminder that, as the Prayer Book's catechism puts it, "God still speaks to us through the Bible," and not just through the Bible, but also through the whole of the Daily Office.

I give thanks for the gift of the Daily Office as part of the bedrock of my faith and spiritual practice. And I commend it to you.

If you are interested in learning more about how to observe the Daily Offices of Morning and Evening Prayer, read the above-cited posting at The Rector's Corner entitled "Day by Day we praise you: an introduction to the Daily Office." Also check out "The Daily Office Tutorial" at Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi. I also recommend reading Derek's posting "Promoting the Daily Office" at haligweorc. You can also pray the Daily Office online at St. Bede's Breviary and at The Daily Office from the Mission of St. Clare.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

The Inclusive Gospel

Given all of the rhetoric about "inclusion" in the Episcopal Church these days, and with the reminder that one of the grounds of accusation against the Bishop of South Carolina is his attack on the "false gospel of Indiscriminate Inclusivity," it's important to clarify what it means to say that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is inclusive. To that end, I find the following statement helpful and faithful to the biblical witness:

Everyone is accepted in Christ, but no one is affirmed as they are.

The Left tends to emphasize the first part of this sentence while ignoring, minimizing, or denying the second part.

The Right tends to emphasize the second part of this sentence while ignoring, minimizing, or denying the first part.

The challenge for the Church is to proclaim a genuinely inclusive Gospel by affirming the truth of the whole sentence.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Remembering That I'll Be Dead Soon

"Remembering that I'll be dead soon is the most important tool I've ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything - all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure - these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart."

~ Steve Jobs (February 24, 1955 - October 5, 2011)

CEO of Apple Computer and of Pixar Animation Studios

Quote taken from a Commencement Address
delivered at Stanford University on June 12, 2005

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Why We Resist Christianity

"People try to persuade us that objections against Christianity spring from doubt. The objections against Christianity spring from insubordination, the dislike of obedience, rebellion against all authority. As a result, people have hitherto been beating the air in their struggle against objections, because they have fought intellectually with doubt instead of fighting morally with rebellion."

~ Søren Kierkegaard, Journal
quoted in Works of Love (c. 1847)

"This is my endlessly recurrent temptation: to go down to that Sea (I think St. John of the Cross called God a sea) and there neither dive nor swim nor float, but only dabble and splash, careful not to get out of my depth and holding on to the lifeline which connects me with my things temporal. It is different from the temptations that met us at the beginning of the Christian life. Then we fought against admitting the claims of the eternal at all. And when we had fought, and been beaten, and surrendered, we supposed that all would be fairly plain sailing. This temptation comes later. It is addressed to those who have already admitted the claim in principle and are even making some sort of effort to meet it. Our temptation is too look eagerly for the minimum that will be accepted. ... For it is not so much of our time and so much of our attention that God demands; it is not even all our time and all our attention; it is ourselves. For each of us the Baptist’s words are true: 'He must increase and I decrease.' ... What cannot be admitted–what must exist only as an undefeated but daily resisted enemy–is the idea of something that is 'our own,' some area in which we are to be 'out of school,' on which God has no claim."

~ C. S. Lewis, "A Slip of the Tongue" (1956)
in The Weight of Glory

"Precisely because the voices of offense and fear dominate our responses to the gospel, we need to shed illusions. To put the matter bluntly, the problem with traditional Christianity does not rest in the fact that the so-called modern mind is too sophisticated, too scientific, too worldlywise to believe. Rather, the problem is that we do not want to believe. We want a 'gospel' that affirms our increasingly fragile self-images. We want a 'gospel' that helps us remain stable and unchanging in a world full of threatening forces that might sweep us away. We do not want repentance. We do not want transformation. In short, we do not want what Christianity teaches."