Month 3 of Mission: Progress (& Great Teammates)

As we enter into our third full month of mission and ministry at Christ Church South, I’d like to give you an update on how I see things developing. I have two main points in this article: one about progress and another great leadership.

First, progress. I will never forget the first five Sundays at Christ Church South: the two soft launches the grand opening, Christmas Eve pageant & Christmas Day, and then New Years Day. Five weeks of craziness! Holy craziness, for sure, but craziness nonetheless.

Back then I did not even know how to turn on the lights. (I’m being serious here: the “stage lighting” for the altar, pulpit, and lectern in pretty important, and I did not know how to operate those lights for the first month and a half of CCS’ life. Kind of a problem when multiple people approach you & ask, “Fr. Matt, you’re in charge here, right? Can you help us turn on the stage lighting?”!)

I’m thankful to say that we have made all sorts of progress, by the grace of God. Everything from operating manuals for various pieces of technology, to a well-thought out customary for our acolytes, to best practices for baptisms, to managing the flow of traffic at the altar rail, to how best to host a reception in the Great Hall, details concerning our newcomer ministry. Every single, week, we make progress.

We are even in the process of creating a Christ Church South Wedding Customary, which will be seamlessly consistent with our Christ Church Downtown Wedding Customary. There are three weddings in our Christ Church South community coming down the pike! (Note: we will not have funerals at CCS for the time being, since we do not have a good space for receptions.) Have you ever heard the maxim, “Progress not perfection”? Much wisdom there. As long as we can improve our game every week, I am very happy!

Second, though, I want to mention the Christ Church South Ministry Council. This is a group of about 10 or so saints who are truly rolling up their sleeves, making huge sacrifices, and engaging in this ministry at the deepest level, in all areas. We had a “regrouping meeting” about a week ago on a Sunday after church. I just wanted to touch base with them, encourage them, thank them, and give them an opportunity to air any grievances with me.

At that meeting I was shocked. Not only were these dear “lay-priests” not burnt out & exhausted, they didn’t even have any major “grievances!” As a matter of fact, they were all super encouraged by what God is doing in our midst. They are having the time of their lives, and they are thankful!

Is their work hard and costly? They would certainly say that it is. But they would also say that it is well worth every second this labor of love.

Thanks be to God!

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Month one (of Mission)

No Nerd Alert on this One! Normal People are encouraged to read! (-:

Have you ever seen the film Saving Private Ryan? The opening scene is pretty unforgettable (even if quite violent). For several minutes, what the viewer sees is a non-stop barrage of bullets in slow-motion, being fired by Nazi machine guns on a Normandy beach on D-Day in World War II. The bullets are coming at the American soldiers, seemingly from every direction, and it is all that the Allied soldiers can do just to keep pushing forward, attempting to “dodge the bullets,” hoping somehow to emerge unscathed or at least still breathing.

At the risk of sounding melodramatic, this is kind of how I felt (if only a little bit) about month one of Christ Church South. After two soft launches, a Grand Opening, a Christmas Pageant, a Christmas Day Eucharist, and a New Years Day service—all in a building that was previously untouched and unused—I (quite literally) still do not know how to turn the lights on! (At least not in every room!)

I realize that sounds strange, but it is true enough. There were so many “moving parts,” so many untested procedures, so many potential issues, so many unanswered questions, so many partially trained acolytes, so many new visitors whose names were not yet known … at times it did feel a bit chaotic.

And yet, we made it! And it was most assuredly a Holy Chaos, for many, many people tasted the Kingdom of God and the love of Christ in a new way.

I knew that the first month of launching Christ Church South would be intense. No surprise there. More difficult to anticipate was how wonderful it would be. How all the “troops” would perform tirelessly and with grace (way too many to name!). How satisfying it would be to preach in a new venue. How so many visitors would come as a result of the big sign, of the emerging building, and of personal invitation. (I am certain that we have had over sixty visiting household units so far.)

And now … now, comes the real moment that I have been waiting for. For now, it is time to do the real work. Now that we have successfully launched (by the grace of God), our true labor begins. The real work of the Gospel. The mundane, day to day activity of the body of Christ.

Praying with the saints. Encouraging the sheep. Unleashing many gifts. Empowering leadership. Giving away power. Inviting the outsiders in. Making disciples. Teaching. Preaching. Baptizing. Celebrating. Singing. Kneeling. Bowing.

Truly, all of that is what I have been waiting for. And the reality is, it is anything but mundane, for it satisfies the deepest longings of the human heart, and it is, by the power of the Holy Spirit, ultimately unstoppable.

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Ode to Two Lakes

It has been a while since I blogged about running. Even longer since I’ve blogged running trails.

But, alas, something happened on Saturday, as I was heading home to Tyler from San Antonio, through Austin. What happened is this: while doing a pretty short, 6 mile run at Lady Bird Lake (formerly known as “Town Lake”), I had a mystical experience. What I mean is that my heart and mind were soaring as I ran past multitudes of beautiful people made in the image of God, ran through slanted beams of light and oxygen-rich breeze which entered my body, ran over packed granite gravel onto which my feet rhythmically pounded and trod. As I my friend Richard likes to say, “I felt alive.”

Without waxing too Annie Dillard, I noticed birds and turtles and bugs and leaves and ripples. And bridges, rail road tracks, and running shoes.

I focused on my breathing, in and out, in and out. I prayed the Jesus Prayer “automatically.” I gently struggled to let go of distractions and concerns. I gave myself a mental vacation.

Town Lake is the perfect blend of nature and culture. I’ve longed believed that the best possible physical space for a human being is a cultivated garden, a blending of nature and culture. And the best kinds of gardens, in turn, are urban ones, which are open to the public and provide opportunities for “real, social space.” (Not private gardens, or country clubs, or gated communities.) Beautiful, urban spaces, where you belong just because you are human.

For me, this is what Town Lake is. This is what, for about two decades, has made it conducive to mystical experiences for me.

And this brings me to White Rock Lake in East Dallas, where I ran this morning, and where I’ve been running about once a week for about four and a half years now.

Now, White Rock Lake is no Town Lake. Still, it’s pretty great. And yet sometimes I do feel as if it has saved my life. There are so many things I truly love about Tyler (especially the rich community we have, and the church we belong to–both the people and the buildings!), and yet, there simply is not the same kind of urban running culture that exists in Austin. (Running on a sidewalk or in a neighborhood is simply not as conducive to mystical experiences as is a good urban trail, such as the Wissahickon Trail in Phillie.) And so it has been a true blessing to have White Rock Lake about 75 miles away, en route to the University where I am a PhD student.

I am thankful!

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Catastrophe & Clarity

For the last couple of days, ever since the election of Donald Trump to the office of President, I have felt like a character out of a Walker Percy novel. Whether Binx Boling in The Moviegoer or Will Barrett in The Last Gentleman is more apropos does not matter. In either case, the character gains a certain clarity from an impending (or presently occurring) crisis.

Have you ever heard the phrase, “Nothing clarifies the mind like one’s impending death?” The dynamics of these characters’ lives is not far from that sentiment. Truly, Binx and Will could be called–to borrow a Percian phrase–“last gaspers.”

To what catastrophe do I refer in my own life? I am talking about the above mentioned election of a tyrannical thug to the office of U.S. president. It is crisis of the highest magnitude, even if, like a molotov cocktail, it might end up providing a much-needed rupture within a system that is badly broken.

The clarity which this catastrophe has brought in my own life is as follows. I render it in the form of a (more or less real) dialogue between me and a good friend, “N.”

Me: I feel like the election has allowed me to “put my finger on” perhaps the main reason why I’m drawn to the Roman Catholic Church, and will probably, at the very least, die Catholic. It is this: I currently have (almost) no “ideological” comrades in my church. There is not a significant community in my church to whom I can look and say “we are united in being ‘for the world, against the world.'”

N: That is okay. Ideology is mere opinion. As Anglican / Episcopal Christians who are also presbyters in the Church,  we are united in something thicker than ideas. We perform the divine service!

Me: Ah, yes! Thanks for reminding me of what is so easy to forget! Keep saying stuff like that to me please, bro. I do get it, and agree. But it’s so damn hard sometimes. But I do need to say that I do not regard Catholic Social Teaching as a mere ideology. And I guess that’s what I have in mind. It’s possible that I need to be in a church where I am in solidarity with others who uphold Catholic Social Teaching. Against the modern left, and against the modern right.

N: We have a similar catholic social teaching extending back to Richard Hooker. Let’s re-own that together.

My friend has a really good point. We Episcopalians (who are, of course, also Anglicans) do have a steady stream of social thought which finds a foundational  starting point in Hooker’s Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, and which flows like an underground current through many and diverse thinkers such as John Neville Figgis, William Temple, F.D. Maurice, Kenneth Kirk, William Stringfellow, John Hughes, Rowan Williams, and many others.

Why is it, then, that this tradition, this stream of social thought, is so little known, much less understood? Why is it that when you do a Google search on “Anglican Social Teaching,” hardly one hit even registers? Things are not much better when you search on “Anglican Social Theology.”

Hence, my moment of clarity. (We will see if I still have it a year or so, when I finish my PhD.) I am actively thinking about, praying about, and discussing with trusted friends who are mature in habit, heart, and mind, the possibility of launching an endeavor after I finish my PhD.

After all, if our Anglican tradition is worth belonging to, then it is worth developing, fighting for, “living into,” and commending to a hurting world which in so many ways has lost its way.

I am prayerfully considering starting, even while remaining a humble parish priest, an NGO / “think tank” / community of research and promulgation, a project to inculcate Anglican social teaching within our crumbling Western culture. This endeavor would include a community of prudent scholars who would  develop and catalogue that body of Anglican social thought which exhibits the poverty of the modern partisan left and the modern partisan right.  If I said that the last page of Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue, where he speaks of “waiting for a new St. Benedict,” together with the “Benedict Option” which takes this single page as a source of inspiration, were not ringing in my head and heart as a faint source of inspiration, I’d be lying.

Hence, my decision yesterday to purchase the domain name anglicansocialteaching.org.

Prayerfully, we shall see what happens. For now, I’m enjoying the clarity.

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Dog Collar in the Classroom

This morning is a typical morning for me. For three and a half years now I have been rising from my cozy bed (which I share with a snuggly friend) at around 5:00 AM, gathering up my strength and heading westward down I-20 for Dallas. As I sit in the Starbucks in Terrell at 6AM this morning, I wonder what Tylerites I might run into. About half the time—I’m here every Tuesday and Thursday, without fail—I will see a friend from the Rose City in this highly caffeinated place.

And when they see me they are sometimes taken back. “Father Matt,” they say, “I almost did not recognize you: I’m not sure I’ve ever seen you without the collar.”

Ah, the collar; usually we clergy call it the “dog collar.” It is one of the true joys of serving as an ordained minister in this Church. As I Presbyterian minister (which I was for almost a decade) I rarely if ever wore one. A few people have asked me over the years “What does it mean?” to which I reply that it is an ancient symbol that reminds us of our slavery to Christ, that we wear the yoke of this slavery daily on our bodies.

And yet, I almost never wear my collar in Big D. (when I pose as a scholar every Tuesday and Thursday). Why not? Several reasons: first, I am not in my “parish:” there are tons of other Episcopal priests in Dallas, and I am content to let them bear that visible burden. Second, though, I use this time to “roll incognito,” to take a break of being a public, institutional servant of Christ, instead choosing to withdraw into a more anonymous mode. I cannot lie: these windows when I am “off duty” as a priest have been a real gift these past three and a half years. Day in and day out (on Tuesdays and Thursdays) I study and read and write for hours on end in solitude, knowing that the exigencies of pastoral ministry lie dozens of miles away to the east, just over the Smith County line. (It is an oft forgotten fact that even smart phones are equipped with “off” buttons.)

In terms of my doctoral coursework, however, I am beginning to see the light at the end of that tunnel, for, incredibly, my degree audit form indicates that my class requirements are almost complete, which is one reason I have begun to focus on that other requirement (though less formal) for the PhD student in the humanities: teaching college courses. Thanks be to God, I learned yesterday that I will be teaching 20 – 40 freshmen at the University of Texas at Tyler in an introduction to philosophy class this coming spring semester.

Should I wear my dog collar in the classroom? Even though I can make an argument in both directions, I do intend to do so. (I asked the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences if that would be OK, and he said he has no opinion, and there are no official policies concerning this.) Why? For the inverse reasons why I do not wear it in Dallas. At UT Tyler I will be in the parish. There are no other Episcopal churches or ministers who can lay claim to that mission field called UT Tyler any more than I can. And since I will be in Tyler, I will be “on duty.”

Last but not least, I will channel the power of that symbol as I stand before those wet-behind-the-ears freshmen, for I remember what it’s like to sit where they sit. I remember what it is like to be at the big university, away from mom & dad, wondering what in the world is true, what is worth believing in, what is worth living for. And how in the world could I know? Was it even possible to know anything? My philosophy professors at that other U.T. in that other fair Texas city were not pastorally helpful to me, to say the least. Their goal, it seemed, was to dismantle my faith by any means necessary.

I do not intend to proselytize these students as I give them their first gourmet sampling of the philosophical spread next semester; that would be irresponsible and inauthentic. Instead, I will let this ancient symbol of Christ speak for itself.

 

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Peregrination, Friendship, & Subjectivity

Warning: this post is intended only for philosophy geeks, or those who’d like to become philosophy geeks.

A dear friend, with whom I have been traveling the Christian journey of faith seeking understanding for two decades, asked me to explain how I understand what Kierkegaard means when he says that the human subject is infinitely negative. So here goes:

Hegel writes, “[t]his Substance is, as Subject, pure, simple negativity.” (Preface to the Phenomenology of Spirit, § 18)

Twenty years ago in a course on Kierkegaard and Derrida, I was deeply struck by the phrase, in connection with Kierkegaard, “infinite, negative subjectivity.” Turns out, however, I had no idea, metaphysically speaking, what it actually meant.

But I think I’m getting it now.

It is helpful for me to start with a Parmenidean insight. Parmenides, in absolute denial of the meaningfulness or the value of sense experience, states that being must necessarily be one, since nonbeing is not able to be countenanced. That is, it is not the case that multiple object exists, since in this case a kind of nonbeing would obtain: the A is not B. The horse is not the giraffe, and so on.

The cup on my desk is not the same as the pen on my desk. As cup, it is not pen. That is to say, with respect to the (essence of the) pen, the cup is not. It is “negative” with respect to the pen.

But as Dr. Wood said in class recently, it is not of the cup’s essence that it be “negative” with respect to every other object. (That is, the cup has a definite, individuated determination.) However, for “human awareness” (Dr. Wood’s words), this negativity is of its essence. That is, subjective consciousness has no essence other than it is not this or that or the pen or the cup or Socrates. (Unlike the cup, it has no definite, individuated determination.) It has no essence in this sense. It is empty. And yet, we deny that it does not exist. It does exist, also that it has no essence other than infinite negation.

One last note: this is (the logical outworking of) Cartesian subjectivity; it is the subjectivity which Foucault (along with Nietzsche) rejects.

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Gospel for Doubters

It has been my great joy & privilege over the last few months to get to know Matt Magill of The Magills. My favorite Magills song by far is “Yes.”

Is there a love for me?

Can you deliver me?

Will you remember me?

Have you forgiven me?

The answer is always “yes.”

The answer is always “yes.”

If you’re askin’ … you’re already blessed.

What great news, especially for folks plagued by doubt & guilt.

Reminds me of Tim Keller: “A sense of God’s absence is a sign of his presence.”

And Thomas Merton: “Prayer is the desire to pray.”

And CS Lewis: “Do you doubt that you are one of the elect? Say your prayers, and rest assured that you are.”

And don’t forget Keller (again): we must learn to doubt our doubts.

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Burrell on Islam

According to David Burrell the Five Pillars of Islam are:

  1. Confessing that God is one and that Muhammad is God’s prophet (the shahada);
  2. Communal ritual prayer, five times daily;
  3. Fasting during the lunar month of Ramadan, which ends with …
  4. … an annual obligatory almsgiving;
  5. For those able to do so, making the pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in their lifetime.

(Earlier this week I had lunch in Tyler (Texas) with a new Muslim friend, and he confirmed the accuracy of this list.)

Burrell, whose successful career as an academic theologian took something of a detour a couple of decades ago when he made it his personal mission to educate himself as deeply as possible in the area of Islam, makes some compelling points in this article which Christians and seculars alike in the United States would do well to heed.

First, and this is a major theme in Burrell’s work, is that historically the connections between medieval Christianity and Muslim thought were intimate and productive:

… many Western medieval thinkers, notably Thomas Aquinas, reached out to understand Islamic thinkers, especially to learn from their philosophical reflections. That out reach … reflects the fact that the Islamic cultural renaissance in tenth-century Baghdad had anticipated the touted medieval Renaissance in the West by a full two centuries. While Europe was passing through the Dark Ages, Islamic culture in what we call the Middle East was at its peak. Medieval thinkers in the West learned their astronomy, medicine, mathematics, and philosophy from the East, and its practitioners were Muslims.

Why this intimate and productive connection? Burrell shows that it is due to the confession of (the first part of) the shahada: “God is one.” This implies that “all-that-is comes forth freely from God, and that all power in the universe is God’s power, however much we may be impressed with our own. But the relation of the universe to the One on whom it depends so utterly and so intimately is quite beyond our capacity to understand, short of a ‘mystical unveiling.’” So a shared commitment to the doctrine of creation is what binds Islam and Christianity together, at least historically (for someone like Thomas Aquinas).

The ineffability of God’s relationship to the creation, though, leads to another feature of Islam which Burrell helpfully points out: for Islam “… orthopraxy is more important than orthodoxy.” This orthopraxy is deeply communal:

In Islam, individual rights are decidedly subordinated to the well-being of the community, with the consequent effect on the various roles the community assigns to its members. It is here that the image of Islam can chafe Western sensibilities, especially in those Western societies that combine a so-called rights doctrine with a capitalist consumer culture. Yet just as personal affluence usually buys a relative dispensation from communal obligations–a fact even Islamic society has not avoided–we can readily imagine why Islam is so attractive to those members of a society who taste little of its affluence and privilege. In those sectors of our own society where the spirit of capitalism is most starkly displayed in the lucrative but destructive commerce of drug dealing, the communal bonds of Islam and its inherent discipline offer not only welcome protection but a protest against a dominant ideology that has marginalized entire sectors of society in the name of individual rights and economic success. In its communal life, Islam affords a genuine alternative to a liberal society’s libertarian drift, and to the illusory freedom it touts, a freedom utterly beholden to powerful interest groups. If the phrase “common good” has ceased to function in our standard political vocabulary, it needs to become embodied in integral communities. In the United States, Islam has emerged as a viable one in our midst. Islam is the fastest growing faith worldwide, and in recent years has made striking advances in North America, particularly in the United States among African-Americans.

Burrell has several other compelling points in this article, but for me this one hits most deeply, for how could a Christian possibly disagree that, in the midst of a fragmenting culture in which entire cities and neighborhoods are left to rot in the cold, Islam embodies a welcome option in favor of peace, in favor of biblical shalom.

The “individual human rights” of our democratic, late-capitalist, American culture are killing us. In a culture characterized by Fifty Shades of Grey, in which neighborhoods in your own city are dominated by pimps and meth dealers, Islam is at the very least a welcome “co-belligerent” (to use an old phrase coined by Francis Schaeffer).

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Kool-Aid Institutional & Familial

For many traditional Episcopalians confirmation is somewhat normal. It is a familiar event, a familiar notion, a familiar thought. It is just something that one does in the course of one’s normal life. It is mainstream.

Indeed, what a blessing that for many this is the case. And yet for whole other large swaths of contemporary culture, nothing could be more bizarre and foreign than participating in a “special worship service” in which a man dressed in flamboyant robes with a pointy hat that looks like something from a comic book lays hands on you and claims to have brought you into …

… into what? Into an institution?

Now, I happen to believe that institutions are a good thing. Without institutions life unravels. Without institutions individuals are left exposed to the potentially oppressive manipulations of state power. Institutions are among the “mediating connections” that bind people together in society. All of this is very “meet and right.”

And yet, the specific characteristic that leaves many in our day with an anti-institutional taste in their mouths is that, all too often, the true motive for institutional activity is mere self-preservation. Why have a meeting? Why have a membership drive? Why raise money? Simply to promote the institution and its survival.

And so it is that, when scores of new friends from all across Tyler & East Texas (most of whom are “young” by Episcopal Church standards) have entered into the hallowed halls of Christ Church over the last three or four years to see what has been going on here, they are confronted by many and diverse aspects of an institutional life that it is foreign. There is a foreign hierarchy. There is a foreign vocabulary. There is a foreign, maze-like building. There are foreign gestures and traditions. There is a foreign ethos and culture. All of these foreign dimensions teeter on the brink of reinforcing the suspicion that one has just entered into … the bowels of an institutional monster.

And yet, there is so much more. You see, my mind is blown that people are “drinking our Kool-Aid.” But what they are drinking is not so much the new hierarchy and tradition and gestures. I do believe in all of that fantastic stuff, and I am confident that, over time, they will, too. But the main thing that folks are imbibing is not a new institution but a new family.

A new family that sticks together. A new family that is messy. A new family that is honest. A new family that does not agree on everything, but is absolutely committed to doing life together. A new family in which Christ is loved & served but not forced onto people. A new family where believing follows belonging.

All of this is both classically Anglican / Episcopalian and “postmodern.” It is “a new way of being Christian that is very, very old.”

Our new members of Christ Church who confirmed last Sunday … for many of them they are joining not so much a new institution, but a new family.

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Bringing the Church to the World (Stations of the Cross)

Several years ago when I was on the church staff of a vibrant and growing Presbyterian church in Austin, I had the opportunity to join a small group in studying a powerful and thought-provoking book called Bringing the Church to the World. The author of this work, one of our most beloved and respected theologians / ministers / spiritual leaders, is the Anglican Bishop-scholar N.T. Wright.

The title of the book says it all. Wright’s vision for the Kingdom of God and its expansion is limited neither to a movement of solitary individuals who have a “personal relationship with Jesus,” nor to a political agenda for secular justice, but instead it has everything to do with a new kind of community. A community where justice and mercy are real. A community where broken sinners sacrificially serve one another out of love. A community that is ordered according to a biblical pattern. A community gathered under the Word-based Gospel of grace, centered on the ritual body and blood of Christ.

For more than a decade now, this has been my vision, too. I have started calling it the “bread-and-wine-community.” I believe that you, reader, are called to “do life” with your “bread-and-wine-community,” the one you gather with (and as) on Sunday, the Day of Resurrection, the first day of the week. These are the people whom, first and foremost, you live with, suffer with, serve with, and love with.

This is why Robert Finney, yet again, “made my day” the other day when he stormed into our office with a slightly frazzled facial expression that screamed, “Oh no … what have I just gotten myself into!?”

He proceeded to tell me about the leadership network meeting of Christian campus ministers he had attended earlier that day, where plans were made for to reach out to the university community at U.T. Tyler for Easter and Holy Week (to the extent that these evangelicals, bless their hearts, know what Holy Week is). The other campus ministers quickly made plans to share the gospel message with strangers by various means including the distribution of “Gospel tracts” which encourage people to make a decision for Christ, to give their lives to Christ.

Now I believe in evangelism. I have done street preaching (more than once) on college campuses, including here in Tyler. No question, God can use and has used tracts given to strangers (even outside the context of relationship) to bring new life.

And yet, Robert sensed the need for something deeper. Something more rooted in the ancient ways of the people of God. Something which fits out College Community motto: “a new way of being Christian that is very, very old.”

And so he volunteered to organize a Stations of the Cross exhibit on campus during Holy Week. This “makes my day” for all sorts of reasons. Not only is this practice rooted in the history and beauty – have you seen the icons which Christ Church uses for the Stations? – of the catholic church, but it “brings the church to the world.”  It takes a practice not of some individual but of the church and it invites people in. It allows people to “belong before they believe,” to “taste and see” that the Lord is good.

Please keep Robert, me, and our Epiphany college community in your prayers this season as we bring the church to the world, and invite people into a new way of being Christian that is very, very old.

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Running the Race (Letting Go)

To be honest, I’ve never been a huge “fan” of the saying “Let go and let God.”

I vividly remember the summer of 1995, when I lived with a dear couple for the summer in Austin, a couple who were missionaries from Cuba doing a Hispanic, Spanish speaking church plant in Austin.

Now, I dearly loved this couple … so much that when Jaime died suddenly a few years later, I flew back to Austin from Philadelphia (where I was in seminary) to attend his funeral. Their faith was so real, so vibrant, so child like in its simplicity. And, of course, the life of an older couple depending on donors for their financial support provides many “faith challenges,” many opportunities to trust God.

And so, when Jaime y Luisa would talk that summer about “letting go and letting God,” I got it, and I appreciated what they were trying to say. And yet, the whole time I kept thinking to myself, “Yes, but there’s so much more to following Christ than just letting go. What about hard work? What about discipline? What about obedience?”

Fast forward the tape (or the mp3 file) to February 2014. I am exactly twice as old as I was that summer with the Echevarrias. I have been around the block a few times, and I have the bumps, scrapes, and scars to prove it. In particular, through some dear friends involved with the practice of the Twelve Steps formulated by Mr. Bill Wilson in the mid 20th century (with, by the way, the help of an Episcopal Priest in New York, the Rev. Sam Shoemaker), I have come deeply to appreciate the wisdom of the third step:

We made a decision to turn our wills and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.

Not only have I grown to appreciate this maxim and the profound truth behind it, but God in his mercy is putting me in situations where I have no option but to put it into practice.

For example, running a 26.2 mile marathon a few days ago. Trust me, my will power alone was radically impotent to carry my body (what St. Francis affectionately called “Brother Ass”) across that finish line. As I smashed three times into “runner’s walls” which I could not imagine getting through, trying harder was the absolute wrong strategy. “Digging deeper” was a death knell. Every time the well-intentioned bystanders would cheer us runners on with words like “you can do it!” I had to screen out such advice with something like mental earplugs.

No, I emphatically could not do it. Left to my own resources there was absolutely no way I could “fight the good fight, finish the race” (2 Tim 4:7). My own will power was impotent, pathetically insufficient.

My only choice was – and is – to “turn my will over to … God.” Thy will be done … on earth, in heaven, in my life.

For me, this is what running is all about. Running, and the rest of life as well.

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Golf and Frisbee Golf. And Church.

I have a certain affection for the East Porch at Willow Brook Country Club (thanks, Trey & Peyton!).

And yet, in my 41 years I have never really been much of a golfer.

I have, however, been thinking about golf today. Golf, and frisbee golf.

Let me back up and tell you a bit about my day. I spent a couple of hours this morning reading a book written by one of our speakers at this year’s Diocese of Texas Clergy Conference, a priest in the church who also teaches at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, named Dwight Zscheile (pronounced like “Shylie”).

People of the Way is a thought provoking and sobering book. In the first couple of chapters alone Zscheile brings out such useful concepts as:

–    The “vernacular principle,” according to which we Episcopalians should embrace our rich heritage of “translating the church’s life into the language of the people,” a principle which might lead me to adopt terms such as “schedule” instead of “rota.”
–    The “benefactor paradigm,” according to which “those with power, privileges, and resources do good works on behalf of others, yet retain their superior status.” This paradigm stands in direct opposition to the way of Jesus. Tim Keller describes an opposite approach, one in which “the essence of the Kingdom is the giving away of power,” an approach much closer to what Zscheile recommends in his book.
–    “Strategic, managerial solutions” which we hope will “solve the church’s problems.” Zscheile writes that “Strategy operates from a posture of strength to remake one’s surroundings according to one’s own needs and desires.” Such ways and means, Zscheile suggests, are a thing of the past.

Much of the book is a serious and intense grappling with the Episcopal Church’s struggle to deal with its loss of “the legacy of establishment,” the golden age of the Anglican Church in America, which climaxed in the mid 1960’s, during which the Episcopal Church commanded respect and wielded influence in the surrounding culture.

As such, the book grapples with the issue of class. Zscheile forthrightly admits that, in the church’s zeal for “equal rights” (the most recent example of which is the fight for “full inclusion” of LGBT folks) we are still more “classist” than ever.

And now, back to my modest thought(s) about (frisbee) golf.

On my five mile run today in Lindsey Park I ran past some Frisbee golfers, probably in their early 20’s. They looked like they were having fun, clad with tattooes, smoking I-don’t-want-to-know-what, laughing, and drinking cheep beer in tin cans.

And yet, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that, despite the class difference between them and the denizens of the WBCC East Porch, what the two classes have in common runs much deeper than that which divides. Yes, I am thinking about the imbibing of beer. (!) But much more than that, both groups have a longing for community, an urge to connect, and a need for love and acceptance.

Is it possible to do church, to make Eucharist, with both groups? For the love of God and the world, I hope and pray that it is!

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Strange Table Fellows (Real Social Space)

One of the deepest joys & privileges of my life is the opportunity to oversee the work of planting and growing a college ministry on the campuses of Tyler, working hand-in-hand with Robert Finney. What we are beginning to see in this ministry is that, sometimes, the Gospel of Jesus Christ makes very strange “table fellows.”

In Acts 13 St. Luke gives us a beautiful image of the church at Antioch. He tells us that, among the leadership of this missional work, there was a striking degree of diversity. The elders of this church consisted of a hodge podge mix of folks from one end of the ideological / socio-economic spectrum to the other, including “Manean, a member of Herod the ruler,” on the one hand, all the way down to “Simeon who was called “Niger”). Note that “Niger” connotes dark skin, which meant then largely what it means now: not just social difference, but social inferiority. (This pecking order of dysfunctional brokenness seems to be well nigh universal: my wife Bouquet can tell you how, in her home country of Laos, lighter skin is highly favored, and I can verify that the same thing holds in Mexico.)

And yet, here they both are in Antioch, both Manean and Niger, serving side by side as utter equals in Christ to build and extend the Reign of God in Jesus Christ.

Presbyterian minister Timothy Keller points out that we see something similar Acts 16, where the Gospel meets and redeems both a financially successful, single,  entrepreneurial woman named Lydia, and a slave girl being trafficked by her abusive pimp.

Sometimes you just have to laugh. Robert and I spent a few minutes “busting a gut” this week, just reflecting gratefully on the motley crew of young people God is bringing to us. Students from a frankly fundamentalist background who carry all sorts of assumptions about Christianity and the world, sitting right next to students who literally have never heard of King David or Abraham, and who flirt with alternative sexualities.

And yet I am utterly convinced that this is what ministry in this time and in this place must look like.

Theologian John Milbank calls it “real social space,” where you belong at the table, not because you agree on some issue (predestination, gay “rights,” vegetarianism, or whatever) but because you are made in God’s image and Christ Jesus shed his blood for you on the cross.

This is how the missionary activity of the apostolic era is portrayed in the Book of Acts; this is how it must be engaged in today, when the culture is in many ways remarkably similar to that of the Roman Empire of the first few centuries after Christ.

In our Epiphany College Community we are, by the grace of God, introducing students to “a new way of being Christian that is really, really old.”

 

 

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A Grand, Heart Felt, Merry-Old English “Thank You!”

I have many, many reasons to be grateful. God in his faithfulness has showered my life with one blessing after another.

And yet, there is one gift I have recently received for which I must express thanks.

Bouquet and I had a wonderful trip to England earlier this summer. In addition to getting to Oxford to present a lecture at an academic conference, we had the opportunity to re-connect with some specific things which are truly life-giving to us: medieval history, Christian mystery, bucolic country sides, and plenty of time to stroll around (around Oxford, the Cotswolds, Salisbury, and London) and just be together.

The conference at Oxford was a success, and I felt like I did well in my first academic lecture to a group of peers and colleagues. In Oxford we stayed at St. Stephen House, a seminary founded during the Anglo-Catholic “Oxford Movement” of the 19th century, for the training of Anglican clergy and which is a part of Oxford University, and there Bouquet got to hang out with a group of pastors from all around the world who were studying CS Lewis. In Bourton-on-the-Water in the Cotswolds I went on a glorious 12 mile run through the meadows and ancient streets which I will never forget. In Salisbury we lingered at Old Sarum for hours and just reflected on God’s work in the world and in our lives. In London we worshipped at St. Paul’s (a 5 minute walk from our “hotel,” a glorified college dorm at the London School of Economics).

All in all the trip was wonderfully rejuvenating professionally (I’m hoping that my presentation will be published), pastorally (it was great just to observe how the clergy in England carry themselves), and personally (we ate lots of savory Indian food!). Our imaginations were kindled and our hearts and minds quickened. I had a sense that the Church of England is alive and that the Gospel continues to penetrate the culture. The sermon at St. Paul’s (as well as the worship at St. Mary Magdalene, Oxford) were Spirit-filled. At St. Paul’s there must have been 750 worshippers in attendance, from every conceivable tribe, tongue, nation, and people … listening attentively to a sermon about learning to live like Jesus Christ.

But the main point is that none of this would have been possible without our true family, the people of God at Christ Church (not Christ Church, Oxford but Christ Church Tyler). It would not have been possible without my bishop and my rector who allowed me to enroll in a PhD program. It would not have been possible without several friends who supported us financially and spiritually. It would not have been possible without the vestry’s generous gift of a continuing education fund. There are just to many people to thank!

Most of all, of course, we give thanks to God in Christ Jesus.

Thanks be to God!

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Church Planting (Episcopal Ruminations)

For a while I’ve been convinced that what the church planting edge of the Episcopal Church should do is become more “eastern orthodox.” The Episcopal Church needs to be “strangified” for newer generations. Hence, this.

And yet … please take 3 mins and watch this video. This is the kind of church plant that I find compelling and viable.

Why? B/c there is a strong, clear, passionate, authentic Gospel-driven vision which is being proclaimed & articulated boldly by gifted, intense leaders.

This is what we need, IMO.

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Delighting in the Arcane

I recently stumbled across something which truly animated my soul (to dabble in prolixity). ‘Tis the following, one of “twenty-four theses of Radical Orthodoxy:”

As much as the secular, most pietisms are disliked since, as advocating the ‘spiritual’ they assume there is a secular. Radical Orthodoxy rejoices in the unavoidably and authentically arcane, mysterious, and fascinatingly difficult. It regards this preference as democratic, since in loving mystery, it wishes also to diffuse and disseminate it. We relish the task of sharing a delight in the hermetic with uninitiated others.

Wow. I’ve long sensed myself to be something of an evangelist. Not the kind, of course, that stands on the corner of a crowded and intersection and preaches at the volume of many decibels (though I have done that … recently!).

Rather, I’m the kind of evangelist who cannot conceive of pastoral ministry, or any other way of being human, apart from building communities of worship in which people come to participate in “real social space,” centered on Christ, belonging just because they, we, are human. (How Holy Baptism relates to this must be addressed in a separate post.)

And yet I confess that I have always felt a certain tension between, on the one hand, this urge, this conatus, to commend a message and to invite into deeper community, and, on the other hand, my theology which resists the attempt to dumb anything down, to “be relevant,” or to make the Gospel easier or more palatable.

Hence my encouragement at the above quotation.

Suddenly it all makes sense. As CS Lewis reminds us, human beings are designed to praise and laud Something Bigger than Oneself, and this is necessarily a social phenomenon. We cannot sing the praises of a good film or a rich red wine by ourselves … at least not fully. We must tell someone else; we must share the experience.

And yet, the experience we must share must be “bigger than oneself,” lofty, grand, great, unattainable. It must be beautiful in mystery. It cannot be easily grasped or conveniently assimilated.

So it is that, paradoxically, the difficult, ineffable way of theology and the divine, advocated by such personae as CS Lewis, GK Chesterton, Rowan Williams, and those involved in Radical Orthodoxy lends itself most “naturally” to the zeal of the evangelist.

 

 

 

 

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Why St. Augustine?

I wrote this short piece for my church newsletter, the Crucifer.

For my Christian Formation class this Spring, we are studying the Confessions of St. Augustine. I thought I’d take a few minutes and explain why we have decided to look at this magisterial work. I can think of three reasons which have motivated this decision.

First, the Confessions narrates a story about exit and return. You see I frequently have parents and grandparents from Christ Church approach me with heavy hearts, burdened by the perceived lack of interest in spiritual things on the part of their children and grandchildren. In fact, even in my previous denomination (a very evangelical denomination) studies have shown dramatic trends of young adults leaving the church, a new reality leading to the sobering realization that even the most evangelical denominations in the US are declining numerically.

And yet, on page 298 of our Prayer Book, it states that the bond which God establishes in baptism is indissoluble. Which means that those who, like the prodigal son of Luke 15, journey far away from God’s people into what St. Augustine calls “the region of dissimilarity” can be prayed for, with the expectation that they will return. (This primeval pattern of exitus et reditu runs deep throughout the western tradition, beginning with Odysseus’ journey in the Odyssey and can even be seen in God the Son’s journey from and back to his eternal Father.) It is just this kind of prayer which St. Augustine’s godly mother, Monica, engaged in for decades. At times it looked hopeless, and yet Augustine’s is a story of eventual return to the God who calls us home, thanks to the fervent and persevering prayers of his faithful mother.

Second, the Confessions narrates the story of a man who was living in, and interacting with, a highly pluralistic culture. The young Augustine was passionate in his search for truth, a search which would take him through the Stoicism of Cicero,  then through the dualism of Manicheanism,[*] then through neo-Platonic philosophy, and finally to the eventual landing point of Christian theology. What is interesting, however, is that Augustine believed that both Cicero and Neoplatonism were redolent with God’s truth. He considered Cicero a “righteous pagan,” and neoplatonism as a prologue to the Gospel. In fact, Augustine’s last words were a quotation of Cicero!

This situation could not be more relevant to our own time, and to the lives of many Christ Church folks (and to their friends and loved ones) as they make their way in a highly pluralistic world in which we constantly face such influences as the rise of neo-paganism, a cultural development which will only intensify in our increasingly connected global information age.

Finally,  the Confessions is a story which deals, in a brutally honest way, with the disturbing and often perplexing nature of human desire. In fact, this is perhaps the most interesting point of all for me personally. Why, do you think, Augustine eventually rejected these competing world views and eventually embraced the Good News of Jesus Christ? It was not simply because he found them to be rationally less compelling than the Christian story. Rather, it was because he continually failed to live up to the ethical and moral standards which they taught. Stoicism, Manicheanism, and Neoplatonism all commended lifestyles of the highest moral caliber, and Augustine simply could not live up.

Not until he dealt with his desires (for sex, for food and drink, for fame) could he finally begin to live a life of satisfaction and coherence. As he prays near the beginning of the Confessions: “Lord, you made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in You.”



[*] The heretical system of Manicheanism was dualistic in that it taught that good and evil are equally ultimate in the universe.

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Top 5 “Austin-ie” places in Tyler, TX

5. Chuy’s & Taqueria el Lugar. [tie]

4. Stanley’s BBQ.

3. What about Kabob.

2. The crappy-but-awesome patio in the back of the Sports Zone.

1. The Boulter Home (aka, “The Hallows”).

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Self-Awareness (& Community)

 I also posted this brief article on the website of St. Basil’s (Austin).

“Know Thyself.” It is impossible to overstate the importance of this maxim, carved over the entrance to the Temple of the Oracle at Delphi, to the mind of Socrates, to the heart of Jesus, to the daily, practical reality of living as a Christian.

Which is why a central part of the formation which anyone seeking Holy Orders in the Episcopal Church will undergo is an emphasis on “self-awareness.” Self-awareness, for example, of one’s “bedside manner,” the way one “comes across” to those she is ministering to, or simply interacting with. The way I respond to another – a friend, a spouse, a co-worker –  “in the moment” can reveal volumes (and layers) about what’s going on deep inside of me.

But, equally, self-awareness is the solitary discipline of examining one’s own life: one’s motivations, attitudes, tendencies, and habits. Ancient Christians practiced the discipline of examining the conscience, in which, perhaps before bed time, one slowly “replays” the videotape of the day. Why did I say that to this person? Did I really harbor that grudge? Did I really drink that much at that party? How can I choose to live better tomorrow?

It’s not about beating yourself up; it’s not about a “guilt trip.”  It’s about being honest, and taking the first steps toward honesty. The kind of honesty which is best achieved in relationship with a trusted friend or spiritual director who has traveled further down the road than I. The kind honesty which my “addictive self” tends to hide from. The kind of honesty which is forged only in a community of love, service, and mutual submission.

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Let It Slide (Everything But Christ)

The following is an article I wrote for the newsletter of my church.

Last night while driving home to Dallas I got a call from a dear parishioner who is struggling mightily with a personal situation. “Father, Matt,” he said through the tears, “you are my only friend. I need to talk to you.”

Now, last Sunday in the nave I preached a sermon based on Jesus’ interaction with the rich man in Mark 10. Jesus, the Great Diagnostician, immediately and astutely puts his finger on the one thing which is keeping this law keeper out of the Kingdom. For this man, the barrier happens to be money. His money is the thing, the idol, the “precious,” which is displacing the “one thing needful,” the Lord Jesus Christ, from the center of his life.

In the face of all this, Jesus lovingly (Mark is at pains to point out) looks at him and calls him to let his money slide. Just let it slide. For me the tragedy of this story is that, given the opportunity for true freedom, this law keeping rich man walks away in bondage. He is unable to the let the Lord of the Whirlwind turn his life upside down, thereby restoring true order to his life.

He is unable to let Jesus center and structure his life. He does not understand what our Old Testament less from Amos last Sunday says: “Seek the Lord and live.” He does not understand that God’s ways are the best ways because we were designed to “run” on God, like a car is built to run on gasoline (not chocolate milk). He fails to see that when we “seek the morning star,” to quote CS Lewis, we get “all things thrown in” like a gift.[1] Gifts, which are free, are given to (and by) free men & women, but this man walks away from Jesus in bondage.

What I did not have time to address in my sermon on Sunday was the “how.” How do we let Jesus de-center and re-center our lives?

Here is, again, where, I think of CS Lewis. You see, what we need to do is to fall in love with Jesus, and this happens by a kind of “good infection.” The whole reason we are developing a network of neighborhood groups at Christ Church (I continue to think that his is the most important work we are doing) is to create the environment for people to “get infected.” It happens, often over a period of time, in community centered on love.

Have you ever noticed that when you fall in love with someone (if you are married think about your spouse) your whole life is turned upside down? You begin to see everything in light of the loved person. He or she is not an activity or a task that you squeeze into your already-over-committed schedule. Instead, certain things slide, but everything gets better.

This is how it is with Jesus, and this, really, is what my friend who called last night truly needs. It is what we all need. A relationship with Christ, catching flame in the context of a community of friends centered on love.

Be careful, though: your world might be turned upside down. Such is the life of true freedom.



[1] This quotation comes from the book A Severe Mercy by Sheldon van Aucken.

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Dark Roast & Dieties in Small Town Texas

“F*&K YOUR GOD.”

As I strolled up to the patio door of the local Starbucks this morning, these are the words, graffiti’d onto the brick wall, which greeted me.

Now, this kind of thing would never happen in Austin, or, for that matter, in most quarters of the western world. But in Tyler cultural “Christianity” is still identified with the status quo.

I used to think that the status quo had been endlessly deconstructed. Then I moved to Tyler. (The first thought that popped into my mind upon focusing on the graffiti, juxtaposed as it was with the ominous “666,” was, “Really? People still do that?”)

Now make no mistake: the “street urchin” teenagers (for that is how they are known in these parts — for me this is sort of a term of endearment) who scribbled this intended blasphemy on those coffee fortress ramparts are to be pitied and chastened, not least for their immaturity and brazen arrogance.

I must admit, though, that I agree with them. And so do all the Old Testament prophets, St. Paul, Pseudo Dionysius the Aereopagite, Thomas Aquinas, and many others.

Because the god of Green Acres Baptist Church is not the God which Moses encountered in the bush that was burning, yet not consumed. The god of Green Acres, more often than not, is the god wrapped in the American flag, the god who backs the Republican party, the god who sanctions suburban middle class values.

Indeed, the god of Christ Church is, all too often, not the God which appeared to Abraham in the middle of a dream as a smoking cauldron and promised, in essence, that if he were to break covenant with his people he would be torn from limb to limb. The god of Christ Church is the god who prefers the country club to the Salvation Army and the county jail, the god who discourages any kind of emotional outbreak of praise, the god who prefers establishment to marginalization.

The god of liberal protestantism (embraced, for example, by many of my clergy friends in town) is not the God who is both loving and holy, in both the Old and New Testaments. The god of liberal protestantism is the god who equates christian discipleship with secular revolutions and arbitrary, ideological notions of “justice.”

In fact, the god of Matt Boulter — so would say Denys the Areopagite and many others throughout Christian history — is not the God who is both a “still small voice” and a “mighty rushing wind.” The god of Matt Boulter is the god of intellectual curiosity, the god of theory over practice, the god of convenience. For these, if I am honest, are what I worship.

And so therefore Green Acres Baptist, Christ Episcopal, purveyors of liberal theology, and Matt Boulter all must repent. We must repent of breaking the first commandment by multiplying the number of gods we exalt above God. Deeper still, we must repent of breaking the second and third commandments by claiming that those gods are God.

The Buddhist tradition beckons toward the apophatic Christian tradition (that is, the “way of negation” or the via negativa) by saying “If you find the Buddha, kill it.” In the same way, the God of Scripture and Tradition is the God who is always above and beyond: beyond language, beyond being, beyond our reach (intellectual or otherwise). If you think you have grasped God, you be can be certain that you are wrong. We can speak of God only indirectly or “sideways,” and that for two reasons: incarnation and worship.

Incarnation: the Word became flesh and lived among us. The Logos became man, so we can speak of this Man Jesus Christ. In speaking of him, so Christians claim, we are speaking about God.

Worship: it is true that our language about God is problematic, but these complications, slippages, and false motives evaporate in true worship. When we worship God, we are not so much speaking about God. We are speaking to him.

“I love you. I worship you. You are my everything.” This is the language of praise. This is the heart’s deepest desire.

Then and only then, when we sing and speak to God, can we finally speak truthfully about him.

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Tragedy & Comedy, Intertwined: Thoughts on _Bernie_

I don’t know if you have seen the film Bernie yet, directed by renowned Austin film maker Richard Linklater. (I’m grateful to two Christ Church parishioners in particular for urging me to see the movie, despite the fact that Bouquet and I had not seen a movie in a theater by ourselves for four years!). If you have not seen it, I urge you to do so.

When you see this movie, which tells the story of an infamous 1996 crime in Carthage, Texas, you will see a work of art which, though at times uncomfortably dark and dry (be warned!), is a masterful exhibit of “comedy and tragedy, all intertwined.”

These words – “art and tragedy, all intertwined” – are, according to a May 2012 Texas Monthly article about the film by journalist / screen writer Skip Hollandsworth, the words uttered by Linklater right after witnessing the trial and conviction of Bernie Tiede in San Agustine, Texas in 1998. The story of Bernie’s life and times in Carthage is just that: comedy and tragedy, all intertwined, as the film and its dozens of real-life East Texas locals wittily and subtly portrays.

As Christians who gather regularly to confess our faith in the words of the Creed, we, too, have our own story of comedy and tragedy, of tragedy and comedy. Like Bernie Tiede, the man Jesus Christ was delighted to serve others. Like Bernie Tiede, the man Jesus Christ was drawn particularly to the down and out, the destitute, the marginalized. Like Bernie Tiede, the man Jesus Christ knew what it was like to be tried, found guilty, and punished under the law.

Unlike Bernie, however, the man Jesus Christ was no people pleaser. He knew the difference between niceness, which is not a fruit of the spirit, and kindness, which is (Galatians 5). Unlike Bernie Jesus walked around his city as a free man who was not in bondage to the conventions and mores which others assume to be “normal” and “natural.” Unlike Bernie, Jesus was innocently convicted of a trumped up charge, levied against him by a kangaroo court. Unlike Bernie Jesus could not be held in the chains of bondage, but instead rose victorious over death and imprisonment.

I never expected to be living in Tyler watching a film by Linklater (who directed some of my favorite films, some of which take place in Austin) about East Texas. What is most profound about the film is that he allows us to laugh at our East Texas selves without falling into cynicism or despair. There is something about life in Carthage (and Tyler) which is sad and superficial, and at the same time precious and profound.

In this way the film and life are like the story of Scripture. For here nothing is sugar-coated, Nothing is glamourized. Instead human life and culture are taken for what they are.

And what are they? They are tragic and comic. They are good, fallen, and redeemed. They are bound up not with the life of Bernie, but with the life – and the death – of Jesus Christ.

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“So you wanna be a Doctor?” (PhD FAQ’s)

What follows is an article I wrote for The Crucifer, the bi-weekly newsletter of Christ Church (Episcopal) in Tyler, Texas.

As many of the good people at Christ Church already know, I (Matt) have been admitted to the PhD program in philosophy at the University of Dallas (a Roman Catholic school about 80 miles down the road), to begin formal study this fall. Since many folks have been asking me about this development, I thought it would be a good idea to address some of these issues in this issue of The Crucifer.

Why in the world would you want to enter a PhD program? In Ephesians 4:11, St. Paul looks at the elders in the church at Ephesus and says, “Some of you are called to be prophets and apostles, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers.” Ever since my college years at the University of Texas at Austin, I have had a burning passion for what I can only call “evangelism.” By this, however, I really don’t mean standing on a street corner and preaching (although I have done this!). I don’t mean handing out tracks to strangers. I don’t mean inviting people to come forward in a worship service or a “revival” to “make a decision” for Christ. Rather, what I am referring to is a deep desire to engage the secular mind. This is why I want to do a PhD, and this is why I want to do it in philosophy (as opposed to, say, theology). Where did the secular world come from? How did it come about that most Americans assume that “religion” is a private matter of one’s own inner emotions and preferences? If people in our culture view themselves primarily as autonomous consumers, is this the best way to live? These are the kinds of questions I hope to discuss and to write about, in a more rigorous and public way than I could without this degree program.

Why the University of Dallas? There are two reasons, primarily. First, UD is one of a handful of universities left in the US which emphasizes the “great books” of the western canon of thought. As a doctoral student in the humanities at UD I will take six core courses with grad students from the politics department and the English department in areas such as Plato and Aristotle, Homer and Virgil, and Augustine and Aquinas. Since I firmly believe in the importance of tradition, this opportunity is very appealing to me. Second, in PhD studies it is definitely true that what matters is not only “what you know, but who you know.” What matters more than anything else is who your advisor / mentor is. Enter Professor Philipp Rosemann, who I met “randomly” at a party in Dallas two summers ago. Rosemann is a well-published medievalist in the same post-structuralist vein as I, and for some reason he took an immediate interest in me, inviting me to converse with him in his office, assigning me books to read and discuss, and offering to support me in my doctoral application and research.

What does this mean for your role at Christ Church? One of the most amazing aspects of this opportunity has to do with my work as Assistant to the Rector at Christ Church here in Tyler. The bottom line is that my doctoral work will not affect my role at Christ Church and in the Epiphany Community. Beginning in the fall, I will commute to Dallas for classes twice a week on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and my studying will (in the main) be limited to those days. It will be a grueling routine, but I feel confident that it will be well worth it. Father David (along with Bishop Doyle) has been very supportive in this decision, and in fact I think that for our ministry here locally it will have no downside. On the contrary, I think I will find it so rejuvenating that it will fuel and inspire my ministry in all sorts of ways.

How long will this program take you to complete? My anticipation is that I will be taking classes for four years, followed by preparing for comprehensive examinations, followed by writing and defending my dissertation. So I predict that I will be finished with my coursework at the end of the spring semester of 2016, at which point I will have much more flexibility.

 

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Rite of Burial: an Easter Liturgy

I had a powerful experience this past week.

You see, I am an Episcopal priest. It is no secret that the average age of the Episcopal Church is significantly older than the average age of the population in general.

And so it is that I do lots of funerals. “Lots,” here, means perhaps one every six weeks.

Last week I performed a burial service for a man who was baptized at my parish many years ago but was living in Dallas. He was in his early 60’s and died from a sudden heart attack while jogging.

At his funeral in Tyler not one family member was present; instead I was surrounded by about fifty friends who came to grieve and celebrate. Fifty friends together with his 9th grade Sunday School teacher from our parish.

Today I received a letter from his brother, his brother who has been incarcerated for years. He thanked me for performing the service, and went on to explain that, at the exact time of the service, he was reading the Order for Burial, worshipping with us, hundreds of miles away from his prison cell.

And here is how he closed his letter: “There is a little noticed page in our Book of Common Prayer that is really helping me get through this, page 507. Check it out. May the Lord be with you.”

Here is what appears on page 507 of the Book of Common Prayer:

The liturgy for the dead is an Easter liturgy. It finds all its meaning in the resurrection. Because Jesus was raised from the dead, we, too, shall be raised.

The liturgy, therefore, is characterized by joy, in the certainty that “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from teh love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

This joy, however, does not make human grief unchristian. The very love we have for each other in Christ brings deep sorrow when we are parted by death. Jesus himself wept at the grave of his friend. So, while we rejoice that one we love has entered into the nearer presence of our Lord, we sorrow in sympathy with those who mourn.

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PhD App: Intellectual Autobiography (rough draft)

Dear scholarly friends, I would invite your critique and assessment of this, below, as a part of my application to begin PhD studies in the Fall of 2012. Thanks in advance.

Had one asked me in the early 1990’s why I wanted to study philosophy as an undergraduate at the University of Texas I probably would have responded (having been raised in a fundamentalist environment but having cut my teeth in high school on CS Lewis) with an answer having to do with wanting defend the truth of the Bible.

At some point, however, during my junior year of college, in the middle of Louis Mackey’s class on Kierkegaard and Derrida, I began to realize that my entire paradigm of truth and reality needed reframing. Up to that point I had assumed (or been taught to think) that “the good guys” where those who, like Plato and Aristotle, Descartes and Kant, could be construed as affirming some theory of “absolute truth” … which meant that the “bad guys” were the detractors of absolute truth: those evil “relativists.”

What Mackey’s class showed me is that, in fact, both “absolutism” and “relativism” are human constructs, and, as such, are open to deconstruction. That is, both are susceptible to relativization in light of what Kierkegaard calls the Absolute Paradox. Both are equal and opposite instances of a false dichotomy, what Aristotle calls “contrary propositions within a common genus.” For this (at the time) 21-year old Texan, this was an earth-shattering realization, one which would serve as a “litmus test” for all subsequent philosophical and theological considerations.

My desire to “defend the truth of the Bible,” in other words, overlooked the necessity of interpretation as itself an issue. My stance was too simplistic.

In exposing this false dichotomy Professor Mackey (author of Kierkegaard: a Kind of Poet and Peregrinations of the Word: Essays in Medieval Philosophy) showed me the power of “tertium quid thinking.” As for relativism and absolutism so also for socialism and capitalism, idealism and realism, liberalism and conservatism, etc. In this way Mackey set me up perfectly for the study of both Reformed theology and Radical Orthodoxy, and by the end of his class I knew that was I needed to do next was to study theology.

At Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia in the late 1990’s I was immersed in the biblical texts (in Greek and Hebrew) and in the venerable, rigorous tradition of Reformed theology. It was there and then that I began deeply to reflect on the relationship between diachronism and synchronism, between the “messiness” of biblical testimony and systematic theology, between God’s unfolding actions in history and God’s extra-temporal life. I am forever grateful for the Reformed emphasis on covenant as a structuring device for the relationship between God and God’s people. To this day I stand in deep respect of Calvin, while at the same time distancing myself from (historic) Presbyterianism’s affirmation of Augustine’s “soteriology” over his “ecclesiology.” Even at Westminster I was beginning to see that ecclesiology (and therefore liturgy and sacrament) are central.

Both in terms of covenant and ecclesiology I began to discern a certain priority of the corporate over the individual. John Zizioulias and others convinced me that, in fact, there is so such thing as a solitary human individual, but that, rather, we are all persons, by definition structured for relationship and community.

Near the end of my time at Westminster I was introduced to Radical Orthodoxy. Both as a non-fundamentalist critique of secular modernity and as a “non-identical repetition” of ancient and medieval tradition (most notably Augustine and Aquinas), this movement continues to display the necessary resources to move theology into the post-Christendom future, thereby creating the conditions (to invoke Alasdair MacIntyre) for a new Saint Benedict-like culture which could provide a beautiful and compelling alternative to the secular, market-driven nihilism of our disenchanted world.

Most of my grappling with Radical Orthodoxy has occurred in the context of pastoral ministry, thinking about the church’s role in the world we inhabit. I am convinced that what the world needs to see is a community whose life has been made more human by Christ. This involves what Milbank describes as “a more incarnate, more participatory, more aesthetic, more erotic, more socialized, even a more ‘Platonic’ Christianity.”

Over the decade (roughly) since seminary, I have stayed fresh intellectually, not only in an intentional effort to remain viable in light of desired PhD work, but also simply because it is the only way I know to live. I must be reading; I must be learning; I must be dialoging with others. Hence, in the intervening period since my M.Div. I have learned two classical languages (I find that language learning provides one with a certain heuristic insight into all sorts of connections in a way that few other endeavors do). I have studied at an Episcopal seminary as a part of my transition from Presbyterianism into Holy Orders as a Priest. I have read MacIntyre, Hauerwas, Milbank, Hadot, Foucault, Marion, Zizek, Peter Candler, and Judith Butler, along with many others. I have interacted, in person and electronically, with renowned scholars and movement leaders. All along the way, I have blogged, not so much to reach others but for my own cognitive wellbeing. My blog has proven a powerful way for me to process my thoughts, to chronicle my journey, and to interact with others who are grappling with similar issues.

Finally, I must stress my liturgical formation in the catholic tradition, particularly as a priest at the altar. If Catherine Pickstock is correct that, at the end of the day, liturgical language “saves” all human language, then surely the practice of the liturgy is paramount. Serving at the altar, performing the liturgy, celebrating the Eucharist over the last year has habituated my total person in deep and mysterious ways. It has allowed me to participate in the ecstatic life of God not only with my mind but also with my body. Liturgical language is “system” of signs performed in and with our bodies.

If Pierre Hadot is correct that – for an important stream of tradition which weaves its way from the pre-Socratics, through Plato and Aristotle, through Neo-platonism (Plotinus, Proclus, Iamblicus), and finally into the Church (East and West, ancient and medieval) – philosophy is “a way of life,”  then truly to be a philosopher commits one to concrete habits, material practices, and spiritual exercises. This, then, is the philosophico-liturgical life into which I have been called, from which I explore the world, and in which I continue my journey of fides quarens intellectum.

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