Saturday, January 28, 2012

Episcopal Church Slogan Indulges Dismissive Parody

Recently on Facebook I came across a poster that says: "The Episcopal Church: Resisting Fundamentalism Since 1784 (Like Jesus resisting the Pharisees since the First Century!)"

Calling this "a dreadful poster" that is "utterly appalling" and which makes him embarrassed to be an Episcopalian, J. Michael Povey notes at least two historical inaccuracies:

First: We have not resisted fundamentalism since 1784. Fundamentalism as a major factor in American Protestantism did not emerge until the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Second: The assertion that Jesus ”resisted the Pharisees” is a rather simplistic interpretation of scripture. What we see in the gospels is that Jesus had disagreements with some of the Pharisees.

"We are to be pitied," Povey continues, "if the best we can say about fundamentalists is that we resist them." And he rightly notes that a cheap shot like this poster's slogan "feels good, but it does nothing to build up (edify) the people of God."

In my neck of the Episcopal woods, this sort of thing often crops up in the form of Baptist bashing. Perhaps it's partly because Episcopalians in Mississippi are vastly outnumbered by Baptists and we sometimes feel defensive about being different and in the minority. I also know many Episcopalians who were raised in the Southern Baptist Church who had dreadful experiences, some of which can only be described as spiritually abusive. Then again, some of the reasons for Baptist bashing may come from the hubris of actually believing that we are more enlightened than they are, and so from the heights of our intellectual and moral superiority we feel entitled to dish out dismissive judgment. There are, of course, many reasons to disagree with the Southern Baptists and other Christians. And there are all kinds of reasons to be grateful for discovering the riches of the Anglican tradition in this small part of the Anglican world we call The Episcopal Church. But it reflects poorly on who we are and what we actually stand for as Episcopalians when the best we can do is bash other Christians with whom we disagree.

Fr. Tony Clavier has also noted the historical inaccuracies in the slogan "Resisting Fundamentalism since 1784." And he also points to an irony at its heart:

A particular church which seeks to describe itself as existing over against some other form of Christian expression narrows itself, in fact becomes as reactionary as the body from which it distances itself. The slogan is sectarian.

Fr. Tony then offers some fine thoughts on "conversion to" vs. "conversion against," what Anglicanism at its best offers, and how we might engage in a more positive and faithful form of evangelism:

One understands that many converts to Anglicanism in America enter our red doors to escape forms of Protestantism in which they have felt oppressed and constrained. Fair enough. Similarly many converting from Roman Catholicism to Anglicanism are driven by similar motives. Again, fair enough. Yet one hopes and prays that their conversion is conversion to rather than conversion against. One also hopes that their aversion to elements in their former church homes isn’t a means of avoiding disciplines which are merely Christian in the odd belief that Anglican churches are places where one may believe anything or nothing, or worse still places where their secular political and social beliefs are embraced unquestioningly. Our Liturgy, our Creeds, our submission to Holy Scripture as God’s revelation demand a positive and yes a submission of mind and heart and lifestyle. When we perhaps clumsily proclaim that Anglicans have no theology of their own, we say something important but not something vague. We embrace the faith of the Church with a capital C. When we state that human language cannot fathom the mind of God we don’t mean that God has failed to reveal in Jesus all we need to know and believe for our salvation. If God has not so revealed himself he is not a God to worship and adore.
Anglicanism offers and presents at its best the way of salvation which takes seriously not merely selected proving texts from the Bible, nor a religion which panders to local political opinions and parties, but fundamentally -there’s that word – foundationally or basically a vision which takes seriously the Church, the ministry, the sacraments and a treasury of spirituality, personal and communal through which cultures, races, nations may apprehend and embrace the Gospel of Jesus the Lord. It seeks not merely to offer a way of death or after death, but a way of life which embraces the whole person in their context. Anglicanism at its best is not dismissive but admissive, neither belittling intelligence nor confounding what we sometimes patronizingly term a simple faith.
If we are to recover our patrimony we must tell our story without indulging in dismissive parody. We have no title to superiority, called as we are to servanthood, compassion and mercy, to be reconcilers in a divided nation and world rather than contributors to division and arrogance. Can we not rather advertise ourself as “The Episcopal Church, Telling the Story of Jesus since 1784″?

In our Baptismal Covenant, we have promised to "proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ" and to "seek and serve Christ in all persons." This poster's slogan breaks both of those promises. And so J. Michael Povey and Fr. Tony are right: in telling our story and affirming what is good about The Episcopal Church, we can do better than indulge dismissive parody of other Christians.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Phillips Brooks: Preaching About Christ vs. Preaching Christ

"[There] is an immense amount of preaching which must be called preaching about Christ as distinct from preaching Christ. There are many preachers who seem to do nothing else, always discussing Christianity as a problem instead of announcing Christianity as a message, and proclaiming Christ as a Saviour. I do not undervalue their discussions. But I think we ought always to feel that such discussions are not the type or ideal of preaching. They may be necessities of the time, but they are not the work which the great Apostolic preachers did, or which the true preacher will always most desire. Definers and defenders of the faith are always needed, but it is bad for a church, when its ministers count it their true work to define and defend the faith rather than to preach the Gospel. Beware of the tendency to preach about Christianity, and try to preach Christ. To discuss the relations of Christianity and Science, Christianity and Society, Christianity and Politics, is good. To set Christ forth to men so that they shall know Him, and in gratitude and love become His, that is far better."

~ Phillips Brooks (1835-1893)

Monday, January 16, 2012

Sermon for the Second Sunday after the Epiphany

It’s a day I’ll never forget.

It was an October afternoon back in 2005, and I was sitting in my office at Church of the Incarnation in West Point, MS. The phone rang, and when I answered the voice on the other end said, “Hi Bryan. This is David Luckett.” Now, for those of you don’t know, David was the interim dean of this Cathedral at that time, and he was someone I knew had had a rich history of ministry in this diocese, a priest whose experience and character command respect. But I didn’t really know David, so I had no idea what in the world he was doing calling me. With a bit of cautiousness in my voice, I responded, “Oh, hi David. What’s going on?” To which he replied very succinctly and directly: “We’re looking for a canon priest for the Cathedral. When can you be here?

With just a handful of words from a man I hardly knew, my life was turned upside down. In an instant, everything changed. And looking back at that time and at the years since, I can honestly say that David’s phone call that day was more than just a phone call. It was a call from God to serve as a priest in a new place. And while that call initially scared the dickens out of me, I am so grateful that I said “yes” in response.

Wouldn’t it be great if God’s call to us was as clear and distinct as a phone call? Wouldn’t it be nice if we could always know with reasonable assurance, if not 100% certainty, exactly what God wants us to do with our time and talents at any given moment in our lives?

I’ll bet that most of the time, we don’t hear God’s voice the way I did in that phone call from David Luckett. Or take this morning’s Old Testament reading, in which the young boy Samuel very clearly hears the voice of God, but even then he has no idea that it’s actually God reaching out to him. In an almost comical scene, he keeps waking up Eli, mistakenly thinking that it’s the old priest summoning him. And even Eli is slow on the draw. It takes three times before it finally dawns on Eli that it’s actually God speaking to the boy. Only then can Eli provide guidance for Samuel, instructing the boy to open himself to God with words that could serve as a prayer: “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening” (1 Samuel 3:9).

There are several things about this story that we do well to note as we seek to hear God’s word in our lives. For starters, it’s no accident that Samuel hears God speaking when it’s late at night and the day is done. God rarely shouts at us. Instead, God’s is often a still, small voice in the midst of a world filled with noise, chaos, and confusion. So, in the words of an old prayer, it’s when “the busy world is hushed, and the fever of life is over” that we can most clearly discern God speaking in our hearts, inviting us to seek His face.

This has tremendous practical implications for we who live in the age of continuous and instant Internet and smart phone access. It’s perhaps no understatement to say that many of us are addicted to text messaging, web surfing, and Facebook status updating. And I say that as someone who loves to check out what all of y’all are up to on Facebook. I am watching you!

The technology is not bad or evil, but if we’re not careful it can distract and insulate us from the things of the Spirit. If we want to cultivate a deeper sense of God’s presence in our lives – if we yearn to have a clearer sense of just what God wants with us – we simply have to make time and space for it. It doesn’t happen all by itself. We have to turn off the TV’s, the computers, the phones, and the iPods, entering into stillness and silence, opening our hearts and minds to God.

“Be still, and know that I am God” we read in the Psalms. It’s not easy to be still. It’s hard work to enter into silence. It may push some of us beyond our comfort zones, and that can be scary. But that’s the place to begin. And over time, we may just discover that our discomfort with silence and stillness gives way to a deepening sense of peace, security, and God’s abiding presence.

“Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”

What if, in the silence of our hearts, we hear something in response to that petition? How do we know it’s really God’s voice and not just our own desires and aspirations that we’re hearing?

“Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God” (1 John 4:1). That’s good counsel from the first epistle of John. For the truth is that we are not our own best guides.

Is what we think we’re hearing from God consistent with Holy Scripture, God’s Word Written? Is it consistent with the teachings and example of Jesus Christ, God’s Word Incarnate? Answering those two questions is critically important! But even then we can deceive ourselves into believing we’ve heard God’s voice when we really haven’t. We can be masters of self-deception.

And so, like Samuel, we need someone like Eli to help keep us on track when it comes to discerning whether or not we’re really hearing God’s Word. A spiritual director, a clergy person, or just a good friend – someone we can trust, someone we can confide in, and someone who is not only compassionate but also willing to offer honest feedback and to hold us accountable – we need such people in our lives. Sometimes they can see things we can’t. And sometimes they can hear the still, small voice of God when we’re listening to some other voice.

Of course, we can never rule out the possibility that – like a life-changing phone call on an otherwise ordinary afternoon – God’s call can come out of the blue at an unexpected time and in an unexpected way. The God revealed to us in Holy Scripture is a God of surprises. God has a way of catching us off guard, coaxing or at times even pushing us into places and among people we’d never expect. If we find ourselves in such a place and it scares the dickens out of us – well, it could be God telling us something. But even then, we do well to test the spirits.

The bottom line is there’s no fool-proof way to insure that we’ve really heard God’s voice or that what we think we know of God’s will is, in fact, God’s will. As finite and fallible beings, we cannot claim absolute certainty. Thomas Merton put it well: “ … the fact that I think I am following [God’s] will does not mean that I am actually doing so.” But Merton is also right to add: “But I believe that the desire to please [God] does in fact please [God].” And the words we sang in today’s Sequence Hymn remain true: “Jesus calls us; o’er the tumult of our life’s wild, restless sea, day by day his clear voice soundeth, saying, ‘Christian, follow me.’”

By bracketing out the noise of our busy lives, entering into stillness and silence, testing the spirits, and remaining open to surprises, our task is to listen so that we can really hear the clear voice of Jesus calling us. For in our Baptisms, our Lord claims our lives and our loyalties for Kingdom work. Whether as lay or as ordained persons, each of us has a unique calling and a special place in that work. May God give us the grace to hear that call that we may give our hearts completely in service to the One who loves us more than we can possibly imagine.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Spiritual Revitalization and the Non-Negotiable Book of Common Prayer

Over at the Daily Episcopalian, Dr. Derek Olsen has offered excellent thoughts on how to revitalize the Episcopal Church during a time of institutional decline and cultural change. The core of his prescription? More liturgy! And in the midst of other changes that may need to happen, an uncompromising commitment to the 1979 Book of Common Prayer.

Here's an excerpt from the essay that suggests how Derek develops all of this:

... many of our people know the Book of Common Prayer as the book that our Sunday services come from. I’ll challenge this mindset in a moment, but this much at least ought to be the case. The Sunday services that Episcopalians experience should be common because they should proceed in common from the Book of Common Prayer. Whether it ought to be or not, Sunday morning is our main scheduled moment in the cultural eye. Deciding to monkey with the services in order to appear relevant doesn’t look relevant, it looks desperate. While I realize that the reverend clergyperson might have had a flash of insight on Thursday night that involves changing everything around to make some point about something going on in the news or culture, consider that not everyone else might share or appreciate that insight. Consider that the couple on the brink of divorce or the mother who just heard of the death of a neighbor’s son, might not be feeling your whimsy at the moment. We have enough things in our life and daily surroundings that change on a constant basis. Click over to the CNN website and the stories will be different from what was there just 5 minutes ago.

We need some constants too.

One of the most consistent and enduring images of God in the Psalms is the rock. What if our church could witness to that aspect of who God is by at least providing the stability of common prayer?

I’m not saying the book is perfect. There are certainly some things that I’d change if I had the chance. But recognize this: 1) it is an authentic expression of the historic Western liturgy that has nourished literally millions who have come before us. 2) It is an authentic expression of the English devotional experience. (The importance of this is not that it’s English, of course, but that it is a rooted, embodied, inherited tradition that has been embraced and passed on by a diverse group over a period of centuries—not just dreamed up by a few people last week.) 3) It is an authentic expression of historic Anglican liturgy that balances reform of Western norms with Scripture and the theological and spiritual practices of the Early Church. That’s actually quite a lot of things going for it—and it’s more things than would be going for most services either you or I would dream up.

Most people I know don’t go to church on Sunday morning to experience the rector’s latest exciting innovation; they go to church because they hope to experience God and to get a concrete sense of what it means to live out love of God and love of neighbor. Using the book doesn’t guarantee any of this, but it is a big step in the right direction.

Frankly, I don’t care if you’re “into” Quaker spirituality and so want to cut out some of the prescribed prayers and have us sit in silence then; I’m “into” Anglican spirituality, and I’d appreciate it if you did what the book says to do. Perhaps I’m a little touchy on this topic, but I’ve seen too many places where Sunday morning deviations from the book are about the rector inflicting the twists and turns of their own spiritual journey on the congregation. If we want to get serious about being the Episcopal Church then I suggest we would do well to get serious about our core messages and principles and—by canon as well as plain ol’ good sense—these are in the book. As a layperson, I see the book as a contract. It may not be exactly what I want, but it’s an agreed-upon corpus of embodied theology that we have all given assent to. I promise to use the book, and I expect that the clergy will do the same. This is a benefit that we offer those who come seeking—a place of stability in a culture that desperately needs it.

Derek continues by noting how the Prayer Book provides "a full integrated spiritual system that is intended as much for the laity as the clergy," that can "bring the practitioner and their community into a deeper relationship with God" through the disciplined recollection of God by means of (among other aspects of the Prayer Book) the Daily Office. This is a critically important reminder of the need to bring each day captive to Christ through the Daily Office since, after all, the Daily Office is a means of grace. Derek writes:

In the liturgical round, the Book of Common Prayer gives us specific moments to stop and orient our time and ourselves around the recollection of God. As a result, one of the most important parts of the book is the Daily Office section that provides forms for prayer at morning, noon, evening and night. These prayer offices are our fundamental tool for disciplined recollection; they provide the foundation for our spiritual practice. This foundation, then, is punctuated by the Eucharist on Holy Days (at the least). And, conceptually, this is how we should view Sundays—not the day of the week on which we go to church—but as a Holy Day which recurs on a weekly basis.

This liturgical round lies at the heart of Christian spiritual formation - the process of making, nurturing, and sustaining disciples of Jesus Christ - and thus is central to the identity and work of the Church. Derek sums up the implications very well:

Much of the talk I’ve heard about how effective or energetic a parish is seems oddly institutional. That is, the discussions seem to focus on what sort of programs are run out of the building, what sort of activities the institution supports. But that’s only part of the story. The other part that is harder to quantify yet no less important is how the faith is filtering into the everyday lives of the people in the parish. When the strengthening effects of the sacraments, when daily recollections of God impel a person to stand up against questionable business practices in the office or against a bully in the schoolyard, the Gospel is being lived entirely apart from what programs are housed in the church edifice. ...

For me, this is where the church lives or dies. Are we forming communities that embody the love of God and neighbor in concrete actions? Not just in what programs the institution is supporting, but are we feeding regular lives with a spirituality that not only sustains them but leads them into God’s work in a thousand different contexts in no way related to a church structure? Are our parishes witnessing to their members and to the wider community in their acts of corporate prayer for the whole even when the whole cannot be physically there? Therefore this is why, when we worry about the fate of the church, my answer will be a call for more liturgy. Not because I like to worship the worship, but because of the well-worn path to discipleship found in the disciplined recollection of God that the liturgy offers.

My firm belief is that if membership is a problem, our best move is to head for spiritual revitalization. People who are being spiritually fed, challenged, and affirmed by their church will be more likely to show it, to talk about it, and to invite their friends and neighbors to come and see it for themselves. This won’t—it can’t—fix all situations, but even if it doesn’t, spiritual revitalization is what the Church is called to be about.

Derek is right that this will not and cannot solve all of our problems. But there's no doubt in my mind that he's pinpointing things essential to revitalizing the Episcopal Church: a non-negotiable commitment to "the spiritual system of our Book of Common Prayer," "the common prayers agreed upon there," and "the structure of the church that we have received."

There's no way I can begin to do justice to Derek's excellent essay in this posting, so be sure to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest it all.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Rising Spiritual Apathy

According to some recent polling data, there's a growing segment of the American population that could be described as the "spiritually apathetic." Writing for USA Today, here's how Cathy Lynn Grossman frames the data:

When Ben Helton signed up for an online dating service, under "religion" he called himself "spiritually apathetic."

Sunday mornings, when Bill Dohm turns his eyes toward heaven, he's just checking the weather so he can fly his 1946 Aeronca Champ two-seater plane.

Helton, 28, and Dohm, 54, aren't atheists, either. They simply shrug off God, religion, heaven or the ever-trendy search-for-meaning and/or purpose.

Their attitude could be summed up as "So what?"

"The real dirty little secret of religiosity in America is that there are so
many people for whom spiritual interest, thinking about ultimate questions, is minimal," says Mark Silk, professor of religion and public life at Trinity College, Hartford, Conn.

According to the polling data:

•44% told the 2011 Baylor University Religion Survey they spend no time seeking "eternal wisdom," and 19% said "it's useless to search for meaning."

•46% told a 2011 survey by Nashville-based evangelical research agency, LifeWay Research, they never wonder whether they will go to heaven.

•28% told LifeWay "it's not a major priority in my life to find my deeper purpose." And 18% scoffed at the idea that God has a purpose or plan for everyone.

•6.3% of Americans turned up on Pew Forum's 2007 Religious Landscape Survey as totally secular — unconnected to God or a higher power or any religious identity and willing to say religion is not important in their lives.

Citing David Kinnaman, author of You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving Church ... and Rethinking Faith, Grossman summarizes the "So Whats" like this:

They're uninterested in trying to talk a diverse set of friends into a shared viewpoint in a culture that celebrates an idea that all truths are equally valid, he says. Personal experience, personal authority matter most. Hence Scripture and tradition are quaint, irrelevant, artifacts. Instead of followers of Jesus, they're followers of 5,000 unseen "friends" on Facebook or Twitter.

And Kinnaman himself says this: "'Spiritual' is the hipster way of saying they're concerned with social injustice. But if you strip away the hipster factor, I'd estimate seven in ten young adults would say they don't see much influence of God or religion in their lives at all."

Read all of the USA Today article.

Many years ago, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams wrote the following:

And if there is one thing I long for above all else is that the years to come will see Christianity in this country able to capture the imagination of our culture, to draw the strongest energies of our thinking and feeling into the exploration of what our creeds put before us.

If Kinnaman is right that the "So Whats" represent seven in ten young adults, then the church has her work cut out for her when it comes to capturing imaginations in ways that not only bring people to Christian faith, but that also address the serious issues of mainline church institutional decline!

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Truth, "Postmodernism," and Classical Anglicanism

In the following video, Fr. Jonathan (who blogs at The Conciliar Anglican) offers a helpful perspective on the nature of truth in a "postmodern" context and thoughts on the importance of classical Anglicanism:

Early in the video, Fr. Jonathan says that classical Anglicanism "is the Gospel," and he goes on to say that classical Anglicanism "is not just a way, but the best way of coming to know the truth about Jesus Christ that's revealed in Holy Scripture and the witness of the early Church."

Later in the video, after noting that many cradle Episcopalians/Anglicans understand and present the faith in ways that deviate from tradition, here's how he answers the question, "What is classical Anglicanism?"

Classical Anglicanism is the faith of the early Church, the faith that we see reflected in the early Church Fathers and the Councils of the Church, the faith that was brought by early Christians to the British Isles, a faith that was then restored to the British Isles by St. Augustine of Canterbury in the year 597, a faith that had to again then be restored to the Church of England at the time of the Anglican Reformation in the 16th Century, a faith that produced many martyrs in the centuries after, not just in England but around the world, and a faith that is explained, that is put forward, that is expressed in the 39 Articles of Religion, the Catechism, and, most especially, in The Book of Common Prayer. And if that is not the Anglicanism that you've been taught, then it's not classical Anglicanism. And it may not be the Gospel either.

The video is also up on Fr. Jonathan's blog in a posting entitled "My truth, your truth, and a cheap shot at Pat Robertson."

Watch it all!