Friday, December 30, 2011

God Was Uniquely Present in Jesus

"In this real flesh-and-blood man, Jesus of Nazareth, God was uniquely present in the world. This man was not just a great teacher of profound truths about God and the secret of a happy, successful life. He was not just a revolutionary political leader with a vision of a more human and just society. He was not just a great moral hero for us to imitate as best we can. He was not just a very godlike personality, the model of a truly spiritual life. Nor was he just the founder of a religious club later called the church, where religious people with a common interest in him come together to admire him and admire themselves for admiring him. To know this man is not just to know a very great, very good, very wise, very spiritual human being. It is to know God. His very name is 'Jesus,' which in Hebrew means 'God helps' or 'God saves' (Matt. 1:21). He is the 'Christ,' the 'Messiah,' the 'Anointed One' of God. He is the 'Son of God' (Mark 1:1). His miraculous birth is a sign of the fact that where he comes from, who he is, and what he does cannot be explained in terms of the ordinary process of human life and history. This man comes from God. What he says and does is God's word and action. He is 'Emmanuel,' God-with-us (Matt. 1:23)."

~ Shirley C. Guthrie, Christian Doctrine (1994)

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

E. L. Mascall on God's Ultimate Purpose

“The stupendous theme [of Christianity is] that God’s ultimate purpose for the human race and for the whole material universe is that they should be taken up into Christ and transformed into a condition of unimaginable glory, and that it is for this that God took our human nature, in which spirit and matter are so mysteriously and intricately interwoven.”

Musical Interlude with Mumford and Sons: "Awake My Soul"

"In these bodies we will live, in these bodies we will die
Where you invest your love, you invest your life"

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Responding to the Incarnation: A Sermon for Christmas Day

After hearing that beautiful account of our Lord’s birth, and the angelic fanfare accompanying it, what more is there to say? The story preaches itself. To add anything to it almost feels like taking the “merry” out of Christmas.

It reminds me of something a Christian educator once told his students. He said: “A deep instinct has always told the Church that our safest eloquence concerning the mystery of Christ is in our praise. A living Church is a worshiping, singing Church; not a school of people holding all the correct doctrines.”

To be sure, correct doctrine is vitally important. Like a compass that always points north, statements of correct doctrine like the Nicene Creed point us in the right direction, keep us on track, and protect us from losing our way. And so we will affirm this day that the One who is God from God, Light from Light, and true God from true God did as a matter of historical fact become incarnate from the Virgin Mary and was made man.

But the mysteries of God’s truth, beauty and goodness cannot be contained by rational explanations or dogmatic statements. And so centuries before the Church hammered out orthodox doctrine about Jesus, the Church was on its knees with bowed heads and on its feet with outstretched arms in the wonder, love, and praise of worship.

On the day of our Lord’s nativity, we’re on our surest and safest ground, not in saying something profound or trying to figure it all out, but in doing what the multitude of the heavenly host and what the shepherds did: glorifying and praising God.

Worship: what other response can there be to the impossibly good news that God the maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen, has been born of a woman as a helpless baby boy, a real flesh and blood human being? What other response is appropriate when we come face to face with the incredible truth that God chooses, not to be a distant deity, but to come among us as one of us? That God comes, not in the power of vengeance, but in the vulnerability of love? That in the Person of Jesus Christ God assumes our humanity in all of its frailty and limitations so that what is assumed may be healed and so that we may be united with the God who loves us more than we could possibly imagine?

Worship. Praise. Thanksgiving. That is the Church’s response to the glorious mystery of the Incarnation of God in the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. And that’s why we’re here today: to join our voices with angels and archangels and with all the company of heaven who forever sing praises in response to good news of great joy.

For today we celebrate the joy of a wedding. In the birth of Jesus, humanity and divinity marry each other. In the Incarnation, God and man form “one flesh” for all eternity. In the birth of Jesus, God lowers Himself to our level and raises us up to His. On this day, heaven comes down to earth and earth rises up into heaven. And we who have been baptized into the Incarnation – into that wonderful and sacred mystery of Christ’s Body the Church – we, too, partake of His divinity. We, too, are citizens of a heaven that perfects rather than negates the body and the earth.

Anticipating this moment, St. Bernard of Clairvaux said:

"A physician is coming to the sick, a redeemer to those who have been sold, a path to wanderers, and life to the dead. Yes, One is coming who will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea, who will heal our diseases, who will carry us on his own shoulders back to the source of our original worth."

My friends, that One has come with the birth of Jesus. What else can we do in response, but fall to our knees in worship, raise the cup of salvation in thanksgiving, and sing with the heavenly host and with the saints both living and dead: “Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might, heaven and earth are full of your glory.”

So come, let us adore him, Christ, the Lord.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Musical Interlude with The Band: "Christmas Must Be Tonight"

Come down to the manger, see the little stranger
Wrapped in swaddling clothes, the prince of peace
Wheels start turning, torches start burning
And the old wise men journey from the East

How a little baby boy bring the people so much joy
Son of a carpenter, Mary carried the light
This must be Christmas, must be tonight

A shepherd on a hillside, while over my flock I bide
On a cold winter night a band of angels sing
In a dream I heard a voice saying "fear not, come rejoice
It's the end of the beginning, praise the new born king"


I saw it with my own eyes, written up in the sky
But why a simple herdsmen such as I
And then it came to pass, he was born at last
Right below the star that shines on high


Lyrics and music by J.R.Robertson
© 1977 Medicine Hat Music

A Physician is Coming to the Sick

"A physician is coming to the sick, a redeemer to those who have been sold, a path to wanderers, and life to the dead. Yes, One is coming who will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea, who will heal our diseases, who will carry us on his own shoulders back to the source of our original worth."

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

From Doubt to Perfect Belief: Thoughts on St. Thomas' Feast Day

Today on the Church calendar we remember St. Thomas the Apostle. Drawing on Lesser Feasts and Fasts and the New Book of Festivals and Commemorations, here's part of what we read about St. Thomas at For All the Saints:

The Gospel according to John records several incidents in which the apostle Thomas appears, and from them we are able to gain some impression of the sort of man he was. When Jesus insisted on going to Judea, to visit his friends at Bethany, Thomas boldly declared, “Let us also go, that we may die with him” (John 11:16). At the Last Supper, he interrupted our Lord’s discourse with the question, “Lord, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?” (John 14:5). After Christ’s resurrection, Thomas would not accept the account of the other apostles and the women, until Jesus appeared before him, showing him his wounds. This drew from him the first explicit acknowledgment of Jesus’ deity, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28).

Thomas appears to have been a thoughtful if rather literal-minded man, inclined to scepticism; but he was a staunch friend when his loyalty was once given. The expression “Doubting Thomas”, which has become established in English usage, is not fair to Thomas. He did not refuse belief. He wanted to believe, but he wanted to be certain that what the others had seen was not simply an apparition or a vision, that the one whom they had seen was actually the same crucified Jesus, that God had actually raised him from the dead. Thomas serves as a witness to the bodily resurrection of the Lord in a Gospel that bears witness to the Word made flesh. For this reason, Jesus gave him a sign, though Jesus had refused a sign to the Pharisees. And yet, the Lord’s rebuke: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe” (John 20:29), demonstrates that the sign itself does not create faith, that faith would come by the hearing of the word of those who bore witness to the crucified and risen Jesus as Lord and Messiah.

I sometimes think we Episcopalians make too big a deal out of doubt. It's almost as though doubt - not really being sure about much of anything when it comes to the Christian faith, remaining in a state of indecision about belief in basics like the Person and Work of Jesus Christ, the Atonement, the Resurrection, the Trinity, etc. - is a virtue to be encouraged, nurtured, and sustained, while the strong conviction of belief is discouraged as somehow anti-intellectual and even a kind of "fundamentalism."

To be sure, honest doubt is as much a part of the life of genuine faith as trust and loyalty. Lord knows, we all go through times in our lives when what seemed sure and certain yesterday feels up in the air today. This is one of the reasons why I appreciate the Prayer Book's emphasis on the objective character of Baptism: "The bond which God establishes in Baptism is indissoluble" (The Book of Common Prayer, p. 298; emphasis added). The reality of my status as a member of the household of God transcends my feelings and subjective faith state at any given moment in time. And so William Willimon gets it right:

I don’t know about you, but I don’t always think like a Christian. I don’t always feel like a Christian. I certainly don’t always act like a Christian. But that is not the basis of my relationship with God. That relationship is based not on me, and what I do, but on God and what God does. So when you are having trouble being a Christian, touch your forehead, remember your baptism, and remember that you are a Christian because we [the Church] told you so.

But falling back on what God does as opposed to what I do is no excuse for cultivating doubt as though belief about the basics of the Christian faith doesn't really matter. As Matt Gunter of Into the Expectation has noted: "Unless we are willing to doubt our doubts, our doubts are just excuses to avoid the implications of believing."

It seems to me that one of the reasons why John's Gospel highlights Thomas' doubt is precisely to move us beyond a place of staying stuck in doubt to a place where we can not only doubt our doubts but also embrace belief in the risen Lord and the implications such believing has for how we live our lives. The language of the Collect appointed for St. Thomas' Feast Day is relevant to this point:

Everliving God, who strengthened your apostle Thomas with firm and certain faith in your Son’s resurrection: Grant us so perfectly and without doubt to believe in Jesus Christ, our Lord and our God, that our faith may never be found wanting in your sight; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

To believe in Jesus Christ as our Lord and our God "perfectly and without doubt" such that "our faith may never be found wanting" in God's sight: that is the end for which we strive. And that is the end in which we find the true fulfillment of our lives.

Monday, December 19, 2011

R.I.P. Ruth Spivey Gray

Today is a sad day for Episcopalians in the Diocese of Mississippi, for today we bury a truly remarkable lady: Ruth Spivey Gray. When I think of what it means to be a saint of God, Mrs. Ruthie is at the top of the list. Here is her obituary as published on The Clarion-Ledger website:

Ruth Spivey Gray, 83, of Jackson died Thursday, December 15, 2011 at St. Dominic's Hospital after a lengthy illness.

Funeral services will be Monday, December 19, at 2 p.m. at St. Andrew's Episcopal Cathedral in Jackson with burial following in Canton Cemetery. Visitation will be from 3 p.m. until 5 p.m. on Sunday, December 18, at St. Andrew's and from noon until 1:30 p.m. on Monday prior to the funeral service. Sebrell Funeral Home in Ridgeland is handling arrangements.

Mrs. Gray was born March 10, 1928 in Canton, the daughter of the late Lloyd Gilmer and Ruth Miller Spivey. She attended the University of Mississippi, where she was president of Tri Delta Sorority and a member of Mortar Board.

She was a lifelong Episcopalian and a fifth generation Mississippian. Throughout her adult life she gave her time and energy to a variety of concerns, especially the cause of reconciliation of the races in Mississippi. During the turbulent decades of social change in Mississippi, she joined her husband, Duncan M. Gray, Jr., in his public involvements in civil rights and human rights causes while living in Cleveland, Oxford and Meridian before moving to Jackson when he became Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Mississippi in 1974.

She was a strong supporter of public schools during the integration crisis and served as citywide PTA president in Meridian during a critical time of transition. She continued to be involved in citizen lobbying efforts on behalf of public schools throughout her life. Other civic involvements included leadership positions with the Girl Scouts, president of the Meridian Symphony League, consumer representative to the Mississippi State Board of Nursing, and service on the Jackson Planning Board.

Within the Episcopal Church she was involved in numerous Diocesan outreach ministries and sang in parish choirs for over 21 years, a reflection of her lifelong love of music.

She was especially interested in Camp Bratton-Green, the diocesan summer camp, serving as a staff member for more than 20 years. She had a lifelong love of the outdoors and enjoyed leading her family and friends in exploring the mountain trails near the home she helped design at Sewanee, Tenn.

But above all, she will be remembered most as a devoted wife, mother, grandmother and great-grandmother.

She is survived by her husband, the Rt. Rev. Duncan M. Gray, Jr., of Jackson; two sons, the Rt. Rev. Duncan Gray III (Kathy) of Jackson and Lloyd Gray (Sally) of Tupelo; two daughters, Anne Finley (Mack) of Adams, Tenn., and Catherine Clark (Shelton) of Nashville, Tenn.; a brother, Lloyd Spivey, Jr., (Ebbie) of Canton; ten grandchildren, four great-grandchildren; and a host of nieces, nephews and cousins. She was preceded in death by her sister, Marie Anne Spivey Lloyd (Thames).

The family expresses its gratitude to all who provided care and support throughout her illness, especially the congregations of St. Andrew's Episcopal Cathedral and St. James' Episcopal Church.

The family requests that in lieu of flowers, memorials be made to Camp Bratton-Green at Duncan Gray Center, 1530 Way Road, Canton, MS 39046.

Mrs. Ruthie's husband is the Rt. Rev. Duncan M. Gray, Jr., another hero of our diocese and of the larger Church. You can read a transcript of an interview with him on the Civil Rights Documentation website here. You can also watch a video interview about his time as rector of St. Peter's Episcopal Church in Oxford, Mississippi that includes Bishop Gray's experience with the 1962 riot on campus concerning James Meredith's entrance to the University of Mississippi. Also, there are two books about Bishop Gray, Jr. that are definitely worth reading: Will Campbell's And Also With You: Duncan Gray and the American Dilemma, and Araminta Stone Johnston's And One Was a Priest: The Life and Times of Duncan M. Gray Jr.

There's no doubt in my mind that Mrs. Ruthie played a critical role in Bishop Gray, Jr.'s ministry and in his civil rights activism. And her gentleness and compassion touched countless lives with the love of Christ. St. Francis is purported to have once said: "Preach the Gospel always. If necessary, use words." Mrs. Ruthie's life was a sermon that proclaimed the Good News of God in Christ. That remained true even during the most difficult times of her illness. Her suffering is now over. May she rest in peace and rise in glory.

"How great will your glory and happiness be, to be allowed to see God, to be honored with sharing the joy of salvation and eternal light with Christ your Lord and God ... to delight in the joy of immortality in the Kingdom of Heaven with the righteous and God's friends" ~ St. Cyprian

Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Episcopal Church of Sudan Backs Away from the Episcopal Church USA

I'm saddened and concerned by the news from the Episcopal Church of Sudan. Peter Carrell at Anglican Down Under sums it up:

The Anglican church in Sudan (i.e. the Episcopal Church of Sudan, with more members than all Episcopalians/Anglicans in the USA) has come out boldly and clearly and stated it is recognising ACNA [Anglican Church in North America] as a fully orthodox church. At the same time it is distancing itself from most of TEC, and disinviting PB Jefferts Schori from coming to visit the ECS.

Nicholas Knisely at "The Lead" on Episcopal Cafe puts it like this:

Archbishop Deng Bul, the Primate of the Episcopal Church of the Sudan, has written to the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church to withdraw her invitation to visit Sudan this spring. He cites the Episcopal Church's support of gay and lesbian Christians as the cause.

Here's the letter Archbishop Bul sent to Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori (h/t TitusOneNine):

The Most Rev Katharine Jefferts Schori
Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church
United States of America

Thursday 15th December 2011

Dear Bishop Katharine,

Advent greetings to you in the name of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

It is with a heavy heart that I write you informing you of our decision as a House of Bishops to withdraw your invitation to the Episcopal Church of the Sudan (ECS). We acknowledge your personal efforts to spearhead prayer and support campaigns on behalf of the ECS and remain very grateful for this attention you and your church have paid to Sudan and South Sudan. However, it remains difficult for us to invite you when elements of your church continue to flagrantly disregard biblical teaching on human sexuality.

attached a statement further explaining our position as a province.


--(The Most Rev.) Dr. Daniel Deng Bul Yak, Archbishop Primate and Metropolitan of the Province of the Episcopal Church of the Sudan and Bishop of the Diocese of Juba

Part of the attached statement explains the reasons for withdrawing the invitation as follows:

We are deeply disappointed by The Episcopal Church's refusal to abide by Biblical teaching on human sexuality and their refusal to listen to fellow Anglicans. For example, TEC Diocese of Los Angles, California in 2010 elected and consecrated Mary Douglas Glasspool as their first lesbian assistant Bishop. We are not happy with their acts of continuing ordaining homosexuals and lesbians as priests and bishops as well as blessing same sex relations in the church by some dioceses in TEC; it has pushed itself away from God's Word and from Anglican Communion. TEC is not concerned for the unity of the Communion.

The Episcopal Church of Sudan is recognizing the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA) fully as true faithful Orthodox Church and we will work with them to expand the Kingdom of God in the world. Also we will work with those Parishes and Dioceses in TEC who are Evangelical Orthodox Churches and faithful to God.

We will not compromise our faith on this and we will not give TEC advice anymore, because TEC ignored and has refused our advices.

We have many Sudanese members of the cathedral I currently serve. I have no idea how or if this will affect their feelings about the Episcopal Church USA. Our cathedral has also been contemplating a medical mission to South Sudan, and my diocese is involved in efforts to raise money to build a Cathedral for the Diocese of Bor. Will this decision adversely affect those initiatives or even shut them down? Or will my diocese and/or cathedral be deemed worthy of inclusion among "those Parishes and Dioceses in TEC who are Evangelical Orthodox Churches and faithful to God?"

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Musical Interlude with Johnny Cash: "The Man Comes Around"

And I heard as it were the noise of thunder
One of the four beasts saying come and see and I saw
And behold a white horse

There's a man going around taking names
And he decides who to free and who to blame
Everybody won't be treated all the same
There'll be a golden ladder reaching down
When the Man comes around

The hairs on your arm will stand up
At the terror in each sip and in each sup
Will you partake of that last offered cup?
Or disappear into the potter's ground
When the Man comes around

Hear the trumpets, hear the pipers
One hundred million angels singing
Multitudes are marching to the big kettledrum
Voices calling, voices crying
Some are born and some are dying
It's Alpha and Omega's kingdom come

And the whirlwind is in the thorn tree
The virgins are all trimming their wicks
The whirlwind is in the thorn tree
It's hard for thee to kick against the pricks

Till Armageddon no shalam, no shalom
Then the father hen will call his chickens home
The wise man will bow down before the throne
And at His feet they'll cast their golden crowns
When the Man comes around

Whoever is unjust let him be unjust still
Whoever is righteous let him be righteous still
Whoever is filthy let him be filthy still
Listen to the words long written down
When the Man comes around

Hear the trumpets, hear the pipers
One hundred million angels singing
Multitudes are marching to the big kettledrum
Voices calling and voices crying
Some are born and some are dying
It's Alpha and Omega's kingdom come

And the whirlwind is in the thorn tree
The virgins are all trimming their wicks
The whirlwind is in the thorn tree
It's hard for thee to kick against the pricks

In measured hundred weight and penny pound
When the Man comes around

And I heard a voice in the midst of the four beasts
And I looked and behold, a pale horse
And his name that sat on him was Death
And Hell followed with him

© 2002

Friday, December 16, 2011

Christopher Hitchens Turns the Tables on a Liberal Protestant

Christopher Hitchens, the British journalist, "New Atheist," and author of God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, has died. While I've posted a number of things critical of the New Atheists on this blog, I am truly sorry for Hitchens' illness, suffering and death. And I wish to offer prayers for his friends and loved ones as they mourn their loss.

I also wish to note that, in spite of the ways in which Hitchens misrepresented religion, Matt Kennedy is right: "Factually speaking [Hitchens] understood the implications of the gospel far better than the average liberal protestant." I note, for example, this exchange between Hitchens and Unitarian minister Marilyn Sewell (my comments are in italics):

Sewell: The religion you cite in your book [God is Not Great] is generally the fundamentalist faith of various kinds. I’m a liberal Christian, and I don’t take the stories from the scripture literally. I don’t believe in the doctrine of atonement (that Jesus died for our sins, for example). Do you make any distinction between fundamentalist faith and liberal religion?

Hitchens: I would say that if you don’t believe that Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ and Messiah, and that he rose again from the dead and by his sacrifice our sins are forgiven, you’re really not in any meaningful sense a Christian.

Preach it, brother Hitchens!

Sewell: Let me go someplace else. When I was in seminary I was particularly drawn to the work of theologian Paul Tillich. He shocked people by describing the traditional God—as you might as a matter of fact—as, “an invincible tyrant.” For Tillich, God is “the ground of being.” It’s his response to, say, Freud’s belief that religion is mere wish fulfillment and comes from the humans’ fear of death. What do you think of Tillich’s concept of God?”

Hitchens: I would classify that under the heading of “statements that have no meaning—at all.” Christianity, remember, is really founded by St. Paul, not by Jesus. Paul says, very clearly, that if it is not true that Jesus Christ rose from the dead, then we the Christians are of all people the most unhappy. If none of that’s true, and you seem to say it isn’t, I have no quarrel with you. You’re not going to come to my door trying convince me either. Nor are you trying to get a tax break from the government. Nor are you trying to have it taught to my children in school. If all Christians were like you I wouldn’t have to write the book.

Notice how quickly Sewell changes the topic of conversation after Hitchens undermines the false dichotomy of fundamentalist faith vs. liberal religion with a single sentence! Of course, Hitchens is wrong about one thing: St. Paul did not invent Christianity. But Hitchens' statement that a core concept of Tillich's theology has "no meaning - at all" humors me. It reminds me of a story (I don't know if it's true) about a time when Karl Barth was visiting New York City. Tillich was teaching at Union Theological Seminary at the time. There was a really thick fog one day, which prompted Barth to say: "I see that Professor Tillich is thinking."

But back to the interview:

Sewell: Well, probably not, because I agree with almost everything that you say. But I still consider myself a Christian and a person of faith.

Hitchens: Do you mind if I ask you a question? Faith in what? Faith in the resurrection?

Sewell: The way I believe in the resurrection is I believe that one can go from a death in this life, in the sense of being dead to the world and dead to other people, and can be resurrected to new life. When I preach about Easter and the resurrection, it’s in a metaphorical sense.

Hitchens: I hate to say it—we’ve hardly been introduced—but maybe you are simply living on the inheritance of a monstrous fraud that was preached to millions of people as the literal truth—as you put it, “the ground of being.”

In response to Sewell saying that while she agrees with almost everything Hitchens says she is still "a Christian and a person of faith," Hitchens turns the tables by asking Sewell simple, direct, and probing questions that go to the heart of Christianity: "Faith in what? Faith in the resurrection?" Well, sure, if by "resurrection" you mean a metaphor rather than an historical event that really happened to a person called Jesus of Nazareth. Hitchens will have none of it as he suggests that Sewell's liberal Christianity lives "on the inheritance of a monstrous fraud." One gets the sense that while Hitchens hated religion per se and thought of all forms of Christianity as "a monstrous fraud," he was particularly impatient with watered-down versions of Christianity that revise or evade the substantive truth claims of the Christian faith.

Read all of the interview.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Keeping the Catholic Faith

"Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the Catholic Faith. Which Faith except everyone do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly."

Thus we read in the Athanasian Creed.

C. S. Lewis, in his introduction to Sister Penelope Lawson's translation of St. Athanasius' On the Incarnation, acknowledges that this ominous sounding part of the Athanasian Creed has been a stumbling block for many. And he offers a perspective that may serve as a corrective to misunderstandings:

St. Athanasius has suffered in popular estimation from a certain sentence in the "Athanasian Creed." I will not labour the point that that work is not exactly a creed and was not by St. Athanasius, for I think it is a very fine piece of writing. The words "Which Faith except every one do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly" are the offence. They are commonly misunderstood. The operative word is keep; not acquire, or even believe, but keep. The author, in fact, is not talking about unbelievers, but about deserters, not about those who have never heard of Christ, nor even those who have misunderstood and refused to accept Him, but of those who having really understood and really believed, then allow themselves, under the sway of sloth or of fashion or any other invited confusion to be drawn away into sub-Christian modes of thought. They are a warning against the curious modern assumption that all changes of belief, however brought about, are necessarily exempt from blame.

"The operative word here is keep; not acquire, or even believe, but keep."

If Lewis is right, then it's important to clarify some of the relevant meanings of the verb "to keep." Drawing on, I note the following.

"To keep," meaning:
  • to hold or retain in one's possession; hold as one's own
  • to maintain (some action), especially in accordance with specific requirements, a promise, etc.
  • to associate with
  • to observe; pay obedient regard to
  • to conform to; follow; fulfill
  • to observe (a season, festival, etc.) with formalities or rites
  • to guard; protect
  • to maintain or support
  • to take care of; tend
  • to remain in (a place, spot, etc.)
  • to maintain one's position in or on
  • to continue to follow
  • to continue unimpaired or without spoiling

Each of these strikes me as a fitting way to unpack what it means to keep the Catholic Faith.

One of the most overlooked of the Baptismal Covenant promises is also relevant:

"Will you continue in the apostles' teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?" (The Book of Common Prayer, p. 304)

"Will you continue in the apostles' teaching?" That could be rephrased to say, "Will you keep the apostles' teaching?" in the senses of "to keep" noted above. The phrase "apostles' teaching" points back to the first full half of the Baptismal Covenant: the Apostles' Creed, which here serves as the summary of the Catholic Faith into which we are baptized. So while we do not use the Athanasian Creed in the formal worship of the Episcopal Church, our Baptismal Covenant expresses a similar intention: to keep the Catholic Faith by maintaining and supporting the apostles' teaching, remaining in it, conforming to it, and guarding and protecting it.

This is another reminder that it's not just clergy who live under vows. Lay Episcopalians are also bound by vows to keep the Catholic Faith. And so all of us - lay and ordained - are bound by solemn promises to discern whether or not how we are living, and whether or not any given course of action contemplated by the Church is in keeping with the Catholic Faith of apostolic teaching.

This Baptismal Covenant promise also links continuing in the apostle's teaching with continuing in the apostles' fellowship. Given this linkage (which has a biblical warrant in the first letter of John), breaking with apostolic teaching entails the consequence of breaking apostolic fellowship. And that consequence is not benign.

St. Hippolytus once wrote: "The world is a sea in which the Church, like a ship, is beaten by the waves, but not submerged." Breaking apostolic fellowship is like jumping off the ship into the stormy sea. Far better to remain in the boat by continuing in the apostles' teaching and keeping the Catholic Faith!

Monday, December 12, 2011

Bishop Spong: "Shifting the Paradigm"

I see from the Episcopal Divinity School Fall 2011 newsletter that Bishop Spong gave a lecture in St. John's Memorial Chapel back on October 21 entitled, "Shifting the Paradigm - From Rescue to Expanded Life." Here's some of what the newsletter article reports:

In his address, Spong declared Christianity's "old symbols increasingly are bankrupt ... [and] the new symbols have not yet fully arisen so that they are recognized." He compared the present day with that of Augustine, Aquinas, or the 16th-century Reformers - a moment of "paradigm shift" that "calls for the death of what has been and the birth of what is to be - and that is never a comfortable time." In particular, he said, the titles "savior," "redeemer," and "rescuer" applied to Jesus in liturgies, hymns, and sermons have "become bankrupt, useless, and even distorted ... I think all of them have got to go."

"What is the problem with these titles?" Spong asked. "They all imply a particular definition of human life, which I think is false. ... [W]e are constantly insulting our humanity out of a particular theological frame of reference. We are beggars approaching God. We are telling God how unworthy we are." Such a theological construct, said Spong, is "simply not true. ... It is therefore bad anthropology, and no one can build good theology on bad anthropology."

"Our problem is not a fall into sin," maintained Spong. "It is that we have not yet achieved our full humanity."

The source of acts of evil, said Spong, is found in humanity's survival instinct, "the evolutionary baggage that every one of us carries." Because it is part of human nature, "our only hope is that we are lifted beyond it. We have to be called, we have to be merged into a humanity that somehow finally escapes survival as our driving force."

Words like savior and redeemer and rescuer "simply lock us into the old paradigm," Spong argued. Instead, telling the story of Jesus "as the source of love calling us to love beyond every boundary, to love wastefully, to give it away, to never stop and count the cost: that's a new image of what it means to be human."

I won't waste time by critically assessing any of this (others have done that work quite well with regard to Spong's published writings). But I will say that Bishop Spong is the voice of one crying out in the wilderness of an increasingly post-Christian society. Instead of saying, "Prepare the way of the Lord," however, Spong declares a different message: "Catch the wave of the 'paradigm shift' by purging the Church of creedal Christianity and classic consensual ecumenical teaching. Then, exercising the authority of your own private judgment, and for the sake of being 'relevant,' create something new to replace the old, dull, dead dogma."

By contrast to Spong's project, note these words from the preface in Thomas Oden's Classic Christianity: A Systematic Theology:

I wish to provide neither a new interpretation of old ideas, nor a new language that is more acceptable for modern sensibilities. Rigorous accountability to the ancient teachers themselves is a large enough task, without adding to it other heavy burdens. If that seems irregular, it can be viewed as a response to a prevailing excess, one that inordinately emphasizes self-expression, often exaggerated in current self-importance. I do not pretend to have found a comfortable way of making Christianity tolerable to vanishing forms of modernity. I present no revolutionary new ideas, no new way to salvation. The road is still narrow.

I do not have the gift of softening the sting of the Christian message, of making it seem light or easily borne or quickly assimilated into prevailing modern ideas. I do not wish to make a peace of bad conscience with dubious "achievements of modernity" or pretend to find a comfortable way of making Christianity expediently acceptable to modern assumptions. If Paul found that "the Athenians in general and foreigners there had not time for anything but talking or hearing about the latest novelty (Acts 17:21), so have I found too much talk of religion today obsessed with novelty.

I am dedicated to unoriginality. My aim is to present classical Christian teaching of God on its own terms, undiluted by modern posturing. I take to heart Paul's admonition: "But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned! As we had already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted [par o parelabete, other than what you received from the apostles], let him be eternally condemned [anathema esto]!" (Gal. 1:8, 9; emphasis added by Oden).

Truly, the difference between Spong and Oden is a difference that makes a difference!

I'm reminded of something James Griffiss wrote in his book The Anglican Vision: "I believe ... that our [Anglican] history and foundations demonstrate a pattern of continuity and change - continuity with the tradition of the gospel we have received in Christ and, at the same time, a willingness to interpret and understand that gospel as changing situations might require." Spong's project repudiates continuity for the sake of change. By contrast, I think that Oden's book embodies continuity in ways that enable faithful interpretation of the gospel in changing situations. (I would say the same thing about Luke Timothy Johnson's The Creed: What Christians Believe and Why It Matters.)

So yes, let's shift the paradigm. But let's shift it away from "progressive" attempts to drive the Church off the Christian reservation. Instead of novelty and "relevance," let's focus on continuity and faithfulness to the dogmatic core of the Christian faith. For, as Dorothy Sayers once put it, "It is the neglect of dogma that makes for dullness. The Christian faith is the most exciting drama that ever staggered the imagination of man - and the dogma is the drama."

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

St. Nicholas of Myra: Punching Heretics in the Face

Today is the Feast Day of St. Nicholas, Bishop of Myra. Among many noteworthy aspects of his life, I note the following from the now defunct Lesser Feasts and Fasts: "As a bearer of gifts to children, his name was brought to America by Dutch colonists in New York, from whom he is popularly known as Santa Claus."

St. Nicholas is, of course, quite a different person from the Santa Claus who has become the patron saint of Western consumerism. And for Christians who find the very idea of "heresy" unsavory, and for whom taking the idea of heresy seriously may be the last remaining heresy, St. Nicholas should be deeply problematic. I note the following from an article entitled, "The Historical St. Nick: Santa Claus Punched Me in the Face":

St. Nicholas, hardened by his imprisonment under Diocletian, knew how to handle himself in a fight. Modern forensic facial reconstruction of the relic-skull of St. Nicholas, now in Bari, Italy, reveal a stout man with a bent nose, the result of several breaks. Being the genuine man of his roots, St. Nicholas didn't leave his common ways behind when attending to Church matters.

Constantine convened the Council at Nicaea in 325 to settle the Arian controversy. During a heated debate with Arius, Nicholas, indignant at Arius' unyielding obstinacy, punched him in the face. Though secretly thankful, the emperor had no choice but to strip Nicholas of his bishopric. ...

Generous to a fault, the real St. Nicholas spent his life in service to his community. He defended his faith even if it meant a punch in the face. If you get boxing gloves for Christmas, the giver knows the history of the broken-nosed Bishop of Myra.

While I admire St. Nicholas' willingness to defend the truths of the Christian faith as though something vital and precious is at stake, I do not condone the use of violence against persons because they espouse heretical views. Other saints have also been willing to defend the faith, but without the use of violence. So perhaps both those who don't like the idea of heresy as well as those who think it's important to distinguish heresy from orthodoxy can agree: in our commemoration of St. Nicholas, we do well to note that not everything about the man can be commended as worthy.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Advent Video Downplays the Penitential Character of the Season

Thanks to the Anglican Curmudgeon for highlighting the following video about Advent:

I appreciate this video's emphasis on Advent as a season of "expecting, waiting, hoping and praying." But in differentiating Advent from Lent, the video raises concerns when it says that Advent is "about hope not repentance." In a previous posting I've addressed the question "Is Advent a penitential season?", with more thoughts on the penitential character of Advent here.

As noted in my previous postings on this topic, downplaying or denying the penitential character of Advent flies in the face of the liturgy. Today, the second Sunday in Advent (RCL Year B), is a good example. Here's the collect appointed for this day:

Merciful God, who sent your messengers the prophets to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation: Give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

I note also in today's epistle reading from 2 Peter the admonition to "strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish," as well as John the Baptist's proclamation of "a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins" in today's Gospel reading from Mark.

Advent: it's about hope and repentance.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Musical Interlude with Luka Bloom: "Exploring the Blue"

I go down into the water
And dive as deep as man can go
Into those dark places
Watch the underwater flow

Exploring the blue
Exploring the blue
Exploring the blue
In search of you

Here I stand by the mountain
And I look up to the sky
Knowing it's a matter of having to climb
Above this place these clouds lie

Exploring the blue
Exploring the blue
Exploring the blue
In search of you

It may be high
It may be low
Where I think you are
That's where I'll go
That's where I'll go
That's where I'll go

I go down into the water
And dive as deep as man can go

© 1992 WB Music Corp./
Luka Bloom Music ASCAP

Thursday, December 1, 2011

G. K. Chesterton: "Man can be defined as an animal that makes dogmas"

"Man can be defined as an animal that makes dogmas. As he piles doctrine on doctrine and conclusion on conclusion in the formation of some tremendous scheme of philosophy and religion, he is, in the only legitimate sense of which the expression is capable, becoming more and more human. When he drops one doctrine after another in a refined scepticism, when he declines to tie himself to a system, when he says that he has outgrown definitions, when he says that he disbelieves in finality, when, in his own imagination, he sits as God, holding no form of creed but contemplating all, then he is by that very process sinking slowly backwards into the vagueness of the vagrant animals and the unconsciousness of the grass. Trees have no dogmas. Turnips are singularly broad-minded."