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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Liturgy & “the Linguistic Turn” of the 20th Century

In his Literary Criticism Terry Eagleton summarizes (as he alone can do) broad swaths of intellectual development by writing:

The hallmark of the “linguistic revolution” of the 20th century from Saussure to Wittgenstein to contemporary literary theory, is the recognition that “meaning” is not something that is simply “expressed” or “reflected” in language: it is actually produced by it.

For several years now I have been preaching that the same can be said, mutatis mutandis, for liturgy and doctrine or belief.

This epiphany, for me a kind of “liturgical turn,” is a preeminent reason why I needed to leave evangelicalism (in my case, conservative Presbyterianism, which certainly thinks that liturgy should express right belief instead of form or produce right belief) and move to a thoroughly liturgical, sacramental tradition.

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My Approach to Christian Ministry

One of the things Episcopal priests get to do is to pray for and discern folks who God might be calling to ordained ministry in the church from our local congregations. We need more priests and deacons! With that prayer in mind, and in expectation that the Holy Spirit is raising up and equipping new leader for the Church, I offer these thoughts on pastoral ministry.

Christian ministry should be incarnational. What is the incarnation? It is God moving into our neighborhood. It is God, in the person of Jesus Christ, becoming one of us. It is God beginning to look like one of us. Where is Jesus now? Yes, he is seated, according to the Creed, at the right hand of the Father. But he is also here with us, present to the world and in the world in the form of his Body, the Church. Incarnational ministry means continuing the mission of Jesus in all of its downward mobility (Phil 2). A particular leader in this area is John Perkins.

Christian ministry should be rooted in the heart. Proverbs 4:23 tells us that “out of the heart flow the issues of life.” In a world racked by addictions and bondage of all kinds, the Church must resist the temptation to preach a counterfeit gospel of quick-fixes and of self-help, a merely external and moralistic perversion of the truth. Instead, we must preach the reality that when the heart changes, everything changes: where your feet take you, what your eyes look at, what your imagination is captured by. The reality and the hope of real change, from the inside out. A strong pioneers in this area: Larry Crabb.

Christian ministry should be subversive, resisting and challenging the world’s confusion of status quo religiosity with the visible, communal life of the Church. What is assumed here is that religiosity is the basic commitment of the human heart: the urge to compare oneself with others, the tendency to garner self-esteem through one’s own status or accomplishments, the drive to worship oneself as hero. The church must challenge these assumed and habitual patterns in both the individual and in the larger society, deeply mired in what one thoughtful psychologist describes as “the standardized heroics of mass culture.”* Leaders in this area: Tim Keller, Rowan Williams, Eugene Peterson.

Along these same lines, Christian ministry should be patterned after the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Suffering is not optional for the Christian (Acts 14:22). At the same time, it is not an end in itself, embraced merely for its own sake. Suffering is the darkness before the light, the pruning before the beautiful rose blossoms. It is God’s way of turning us sinners into something great. As in the very life of Christ, it is the prerequisite for new life. According to Walter Brueggeman, the Psalter shows us the Gospel pattern of “orientation – disorientation – new orientation.” Only this kind of thinking, embracing the darkness of Good Friday, the death of the grave, can we give the world a compelling and liberating way to cope with, indeed to triumph over, the evil, brokenness, and nihilism which plague us. Some pioneers in this area: Soren Kierkegaard, Martin Luther, and St. Francis of Assisi.

Christian ministry should be cosmic in scope. The good news of Jesus is not intended simply to make us feel better about ourselves. Its primary purpose is not to show us how to “go to heaven when we die.” Our articulation of it must not imply that the “real action” of the Christian life is having a private relationship with one’s own, personal Jesus. Not less than this, the Christian faith is much more: it is an eschatological hope for the human race and the entire world. In the cross of Jesus Christ God has proven himself faithful to his own promises, promises to “fix the Adam problem,” to heal humanity and the entire cosmos of the ravages of sin and death.  These promises take the form of a covenant, and the “real action” of the Christian life must be portrayed as a lived response to the question “How can we find our place, how can I find my role, in God’s grand drama of bringing salvation to this hurting world?” remembering all the while that “out of the heart flow the issues of life.” A pioneer in this area: Bishop NT Wright.

Christian ministry should be contemplative. Not only does this way of being help to identify distractions for ministry (my own attitudes, assumptions, agendas, etc.) but it also brings God’s healing presence to my tendency to rely on my self-constructed identity, what some theologians would call “my false self.” Pioneers in this area areThomas Keating; James Finley.


* Sam Keen, in his foreword to Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death.

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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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On Humility & Courage (by Tarah Van de Wiele)

What an excellent little piece by my brilliant friend Tarah Van de Wiele.

In it she wittily defends the “pure,” theoretical character of academic theology.

I would only add, as a priest involved in academic study myself, that, in addition to the three justifications she gives for her continued pure research, theology is prayer.

Every time Tarah looks up a dusty old term in some thick lexicon, every time she penetrates into the dense obscurity of a footnote, every time she takes notes on her reading … she is busy at the work of that transformative catalyst called prayer or contemplation.

This contemplative dimension of study is important for me in particular because of the affect it has on my preaching, my prayer, my pastoral conversation, my service at the altar. Not so much in terms of new information factoids, but more in the sense of letting the connections, the fecundities, settle down into my soul.

One last point. Is this kind of contemplative transformation “practical?” Certainly not in terms of our secular world. However, for those called to and gifted for this kind of labor, it provides the sort of motivation, clarity, and power which God does, indeed, use to change the world.

 

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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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Beer to the Glory of God

Of the many times I have been proud to be Episcopalian, a few truly special moments come to mind. My ordination to the priesthood at the hands of two dearly beloved bishops. The opening Sunday of the Epiphany Eucharist, when I got a vision for what is possible. My chance to meet with the Most Reverend Archbishop Benjamin Kwashi of Nigeria.

And then, there is this:

shota_house_beer

Way to go, Nashotah House!

For more on this vital means of grace, see here.

 

 

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Statement of Intent (PhD Application)

In studying at the University of Dallas at the doctoral level, I hope to marshal the resources of the catholic western Christian tradition, particularly those of Aquinas but also Augustine, and bring them to bear on matters of contemporary thought.

I have come to see that the assumptions of today’s contemporary society are products of ideological forces which blow in the cultural “air” we breathe. These ideologies, in turn, are rooted respectively in a prior ontology. Hence, dealing with modern philosophy (genealogically or otherwise) is a matter of first importance. Identifying and understanding the arbitrary developments in the history of western thought which have given rise to these various ideologies, and pointing them out to others, becomes urgent.

I see three movements in the history modern philosophical thought in the west:

  1. The Cartesian attempt to found objective knowledge through the establishment of a stable subject.
  2. Kant’s building upon this foundation, giving rise to his “Copernican Revolution” in which the creation[*] becomes even more remote from the mind of man due to the conclusion that nothing of the creation can be known apart from the a priori structures of reality which imposed upon it by the knowing subject. (A subplot in this movement away from creation is the “second wave” of distancing in the thought of Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche, all of whom in their own ways posit forces external to the human subject which determine our assumptions, choices, and actions, and habits.)
  3. The postmetaphysical turn to language brings us up to the present moment, with dissident voices such as the neoHegelian Marxist Slajov Zizek resisting the likes of poststructuralist “hangers on” such as Judith Butler, the former attempting to bring us back to (a Hegelian) ontology.

To each of these chapters of the story, how would Thomas Aquinas respond? Where does he stand in opposition? In what ways does his thought affirm each movement, perhaps in a qualified way, perhaps with a “yes, but …”?

Of course, this effort on my part will require that I also (perhaps first) address issues surrounding the interpretation of Thomas himself. Is my current approach (imbibed from the font of Fergus Kerr and Henri de Lubac, filtered primarily through the prism of Radical Orthodoxy) the most compelling, the most comprehensive, the most historically attentive, the most theologically grounded?

For example, many people today have specific notions of their bodily self-image which are (arguably) empirically destructive (eg, perceptions of being fat or assumptions about sexual identity or practice). Where do these ideas and perceptions come from? They are not necessary; they are not (when scrutinized critically) obvious. This, it seems to me, is a significant “grain of truth” in the work of Judith Butler, for example. But what are the ideologies which hand us our self-images viz a viz our bodies?

Further, what are the ontologies in which these ideologies (and counter-ideologies) are rooted? This, it seems to me, is the first step in developing the resources to resist (some of?) these ideologies, and in this way to “be transformed by the renewing of [our] minds” (Romans 12:1-2).

My suspicion is that a non-foundationalist, yet deeply traditional, reading of St. Thomas would greatly help in this endeavor. Exactly how, however, I do not yet fully know.



[*] I intentionally use the theological term “creation” implying that philosophy without presupposing theology is a lost cause.

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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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Christian Nation? The Founders on Religion

I highly recommend James Hutson’s book of quotations, The Founders on Religion.

Reading it I realized (or rather, was reminded) that, of the six most influential founders of the US (John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and George Washington), two were Unitarians (Adams and Jefferson), and one was a deist (James Madison), one was an all-out nonbeliever / non churchgoer (Franklin).

That leaves only two of the six as remotely resembling the historic Christian faith. (Note: of these six, four were Episcopalian!)

Is it any wonder that the landscape of American Christianity (to say nothing of the Episcopal Church!) today is so muddled? The more things change….

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Becoming Like Jesus (Renovare & Spiritual Formation)

Note: this article is also on the Epiphany Tyler website.

Do you desire to be more holy? Do you have a longing to be more like Jesus?

My wife Bouquet is from a land locked country (Laos). I myself grew up in the Texas Panhandle, a region about as remote from the life of sea and sailing as I can possibly imagine. Therefore neither my wife nor I have much experience at all in sailing (although the idea of sailing quite intrigues me!).

When Canon John Newton (our Diocesan Canon for Lifelong Spiritual Formation) was at our parish a few weeks ago, he used an excellent analogy to describe the life of the Christian. He likened our spiritual life to sailing on the open sea. No matter how hard the captain of a vessel wishes that the wind would blow, there is absolutely nothing he can do to make it blow. So what does he do? The only thing he can do is to put of the sails, and create the right conditions for wind-propelled motion.

In the same way, Canon Newton reminded us, in our spiritual lives, we cannot force the Holy Spirit to do his work of transformation in our lives, changing us into the likeness of Christ. Rather all we can do is to “put up our sails” and let the Spirit blow. After all, it is the nature of the open sea for the wind to be blowing. It happens naturally, organically.

Now, of all the amazing speakers I heard at our diocesan clergy conference last week, none was more thought provoking, none more deeply encouraging, than Christopher Webb. Chris, the President of Renovare, spoke to us of the “means of grace.” After, all, in our office of Morning Prayer, we read “We bless thee for … the redemption of the world … the means of grace, and the hope of glory.”

What are these “means of grace?” Much like the action of “putting up our sails,” when we practice the means of grace (prayer, bible study, fellowship, worship, and various other disciplines) the wind of God, the breath of God, begins to move in our lives.

Webb clarified: “The means of grace are not disciplines that make us into more holy people. They are disciplines or practices that make our lives as open possible to the grace of God, so that we can stop trying to make ourselves into more holy people, and let God do it instead.”

Such is the deep, rich, practical theology behind spiritual formation. Would you like more of this? I have two invitations for you.

    1. Consider joining a Christ Church neighborhood group in the Spring. In those groups we will be going though the book of one of Chris Webb’s colleagues at Renovare: The Good and Beautiful God by James Bryan Smith. These books are packed with wisdom and practical steps to make us more like Jesus. When read in community … sit back, and feel the Spirit blow.
    2. Consider attending (and bringing a friend or two!) my Christian Formation class on Sunday, November 13. The title of this event is  “Christian Spiritual Formation: Becoming Apprentices of Jesus – A Conversation with Fr. Matt and Lyle SmithGraybeal, the coordinator of Renovare, on small groups and the theology behindThe Good & Beautiful book series by James Bryan Smith.”

 

“Becoming Apprentices of Jesus.” This is what we are about at Christ Church, under the leadership of our Bishop and our Rector.

Our Sunday morning classes, our emerging small group ministry, our worship, our prayer, our fellowship … transformative means of grace which allow the Spirit “naturally” to blow through our lives!

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Wine in the Morning

One of my consistent findings over the last few years (including over a decade now in pastoral ministry) is that few topics stir up more interest than the topic of alcohol and drinking. This is true for sermons, blog posts, lectures, as well as just casual conversation.

And so it is that I have found myself marveling over the past year or so (ever since I was ordained as an Episcopal Priest) at the mirthful, exuberant experience of drinking wine in the morning.

Now, I only do this once per week, mind you.

And in fact, it only happens on Sunday mornings (though I’ve heard of priests for whom this experience occurs in a more quotidian fashion).

But every Sunday morning, with few exceptions, over the last year or so, I have drunk wine in the morning. And not sissy wine. Not “small” wine. Rather, 18% alcohol (that’s 36 proof!) Tawny Port.

And, interestingly enough, it only happens at the altar of the cosmically propitiatory sacrifice of Jesus Christ for the sins of the world. That is, it only happens at the table of eschatological feasting, where, with all the saints and angels, we celebrate the victory of God over all our enemies, sins, and fears. That is, it happens only at the Marriage Feast of the Lamb.

Now, granted, when I drink wine on Sunday mornings, I’m not drinking it alone. Far from it: there are masses of co-celebrants who drink in the tangy-sweet liquid of surprising joy. However, I am left to consume all that remains in the chalice, that vessel the beauty of which is solely designed to laud the priceless nectar it contains.

And so there I stand, Sunday after Sunday, at this altar / table of torture / joy, called on to consume all the blood / wine that remains in the sanctified goblet. And consume it I do, Sunday after Sunday.

Sometimes there is not so much left.

Sometimes, however, two of the largest gulps I can manage are required to do the job, and on these Sundays, my head swims with mystery.

The mystery of love made drink, the mystery of wine made blood, the mystery of a God who chooses to intoxicate his Beloved as a way of making them more sober, more sane, more serious about what Life is all about.

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Tourist or Participant? (Religious Art & the Church)

At the gracious invitation of the Tyler Museum of Art, I recently gave a lecture there entitled “Christians Then & Now: Religious Art and the Christian Church.” This event was held in conjunction with the exhibit, “Object of Devotion: Medieval English Alabaster Sculpture from the Victoria and Albert Museum.”

Abstract: “When it comes to approaching Christian art, there are really two different approaches. The first is the approach of the spectator, the tourist, someone viewing the art from the outside, as if the art were an object, an inert item. That is one approach, and it is an approach which I am going to suggest is connected with what one thinker calls ‘the disenchantment of the modern world.’ The other approach is that of the participant, the member, the one who belongs. What I suggest is that that approach … might have something to do with the ‘re-enchantment’ of the postmodern world.”

You can podcast the talk here.

(Note: the audio quality on the first couple of minutes is not great. My apologies.)

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The Fecundity of Walter Ong

I am currently in the final stages of discerning a possible opportunity to begin doctoral work at the University of Dallas under the esteemed postmodern medievalist Phillip Rosemann. As a part of our ongoing dialogue designed to culminate in a final decision (mutually discerned) to apply to this program or not, Professor Rosemann invited me to read Orality and Literacy by Walter Ong. In so doing he correctly perceived, on the basis of our discussions so far, a great interest on my part for texts and authors related to genealogy, or the intellectual developments which have led western society and culture down the road it has taken in particular toward secularism and modernity.

I must say that the Ong book is among the most original books I have read in a while in its fecundity and heuristic value, rivaling even Pierre Hadot’s work in its ability to shed light upon our cultural and intellectual predecessors, showing how they viewed the world and why.

Whereas much of Hadot’s work focuses on the “schools” of ancient philosophy (Stoicism, Epicureanism, etc.) and shows how they organically lead to major historical strands within Christianity, Ong takes as his point of departure the “pre-literate” culture makers of the Homeric poets and bards, whose description of the world, as is the case with all pre-literate (ie, oral) thought leaders, is decisively shaped and determined by the form of their discourse. In a world which knew nothing of writing (let alone an alphabet or still less moveable type and the printing press) their description of the world was cast in terms of formulaic units of text (eg, repeated patterns of subjects, verbs, and objects), repetition of events, epithets (eg, “crafty Odysseus,” “the wine-dark sea,” “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob”). Just as important, their “genre” (to be horribly anachronistic) was epic narrative, which we would identify as closely related to poetry, given its conformity to strict patterns of meter or scansion.

This book reminds me of the phrase of Alfred North Whitehead who spoke of the “simplicity on the far side of complexity.” The explanatory power of Ong’s thesis (which builds on the work of, among others, Marshall McLuhan, Eric Havelock, and Milman Parry) to explain why the ancients described their world they way they did is staggering. For example, there is the simple matter of memory (a topic given ample attention by Ong). Why did the ancients rely so heavily of formulaic expressions, epithets and repetition in their rendition of important events? (Why, for example, is there so much repetition, say, in the creation accounts of Genesis 1 and 2 or in the Abraham cycle of the same book?) Why, further, did they not cast their reports in ways more amenable to the modern, “scientific” mindset? Before one delves into complex matters of historical development, there is the simple fact that they were just trying to remember the account being given. Think about life with no writing at all: of course “tools” such as repetition, formula, and epithet would be of great value. (Note that I am here presupposing that the Bible has an oral provenance which precedes its being committed to writing in the Hebrew language. This is an assumption shared by Ong.)

To take this a bit further, consider again the structure of the creation account of Genesis 1. Why is it structured in terms of six days? Given Ong’s thesis, it would be a great mistake not to include in one’s answer to this question that the communal guardians of the story were simply trying to remember an ancient narrative, to continue the story in the living memory of the people. This is the case regardless of whatever else one might want to argue about the creation story of Genesis 1, any account of Genesis 1 (seeking either to undermine it or to bolster its validity) must take these factors into account.

Briefly I want to list some other areas to which this book is particularly relevant:

I have already hinted at the area of Biblical criticism.

I have already alluded to the genealogical import of the book.

Plato. Ong highlights the deep ambiguity in Plato’s posture toward writing as opposed to orality: in the Republic he banishes poets from the city but then in the Phaedrus and elsewhere he extols the beauty and value of oral dialogue, complaining that writing will lead to a loss of memory.

Rhetoric. Ong shows how, paradoxically, rhetoric both presupposes writing (Aristotle could have never developed the loci communes without the mental structure afforded him by writing) and is eclipsed by (that especially intense form of) writing (known as alphabet-based moveable type). The Romantic movement, itself utterly dependent upon moveable type as well as a level of interiority which only a deeply literate culture could achieve, was the nail in the coffin of rhetoric.

Depth Psychology. In a fascinating discussion of Freud, Ong shows how the depth psychology which he spawned is utterly dependent upon literary developments which could only be achieved in a highly literate culture, for example the development of the round character. (The characters of oral narrative are by necessity “flat,” eg, Odysseus, Adam, Abraham.)

Derrida. In addition to interacting with Derrida’s reading of Plato viz a viz speech and writing (a crucial issue explored in Catherine Pickstock’s After Writing), Ong masterfully, provocatively, and simply shows that what Derrida does is to downgrade oral discourse so that he does not have to deal with it. If orality is stricken with the metaphysics of presence, then Derrida is liberated to deal only with the written text, and to attempt to argue that the text is all there is. Page 162 is the best (and most concise) summary of Derrida I’ve seen.

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Soul Friends (Belonging before Believing)

I recently reviewed George Hunter’s The Celtic Way of Evangelism.

The Celtic way of evangelism was all about bringing people into a new kind of community, through such practices as radical hospitality as well as “soul friends” (anamchara). Soul friends would engage the visitor or stranger in “the ministry of conversation,” and involvement in small groups of fellowship. In all these ways and more, the Celtic Christians practiced evangelism in a way which many “postmodern” Christians have come to embrace, that is, in recognition that many times “belonging precedes belief,” that before many people can begin to believe in Jesus, they must feel that they belong to a community of his followers.

This kind of evangelism, based in a ministry of hospitality, is (among other things) what we are doing in the Epiphany Community of Tyler.

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Rob Bell’s _Love Wins_ in retrospect

So in my effort to review every chapter of Rob Bell’s _Love Wins_ I only succeeded in blogging about four of the chapters (although I did read the whole book).

This effort of mine took place in the context of a discussion group here in Tyler centered on the book, and on the issues raised by the book.

The discussions of this group of friends has enabled me to hit upon a “simplicity on the far side of complexity,” which, in some ways is what this blog is about in its entirety.

I’m not at all sure if believe in the salvation of _individuals_ at all. (Full disclosure: I’m not sure if I even believe in the _existence_ of individuals!)

What I DO believe in (sometimes this is the only thing I believe in) is THE CHURCH of Jesus Christ. The One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church of Jesus Christ.

I believe that this community of members of the Body of Christ is the New Humanity, and in that sense, which I think is biblical and ancient (though not modern, not secular, and not “scientific”), I am a “universalist” in the sense that it is this “new human race” that God is saving.

I strongly suspect that this is how St. Paul thought;  I am certain that this is how a great many church fathers (Ireneaus, Origen, Augustine, Gregory of Nyssa) thought.

I think that Rob Bell is sort of “groping” toward something like this way of thinking, and this is why, on the whole, I really appreciate (and largely agree with) _Love Wins_.

Now, this is actually a radically different worldview from what most people hear about or think about or consider to be “Christian,” but, really, this is where I am coming from, and I think this is rooted in the tradition.

It is from this perspective that I have trouble at times with concepts such as “heaven” and “hell” in the normal way people speak of such things.

If human beings are actually not “individuals” but rather (as John Zizioulas thinks) members of community (that is, without relational community we literally do not exist … exactly like the persons of the Trinity, which I suppose is my “starting point” for all thought) … then it makes no sense to speak of “going to heaven [or hell] when you die.”

Rather, what makes ALL KINDS of sense is to speak of “new creation,” and “new heavens and new earth,” which is actually what the New Testament (along with NT Wright) does in fact speak of, if only people would actually read it.

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Summer Reading (2011)

Books I intend to to read this summer:

1. Walter Ong, Orality and Literacy

2. Pierre Hadot, Philosophy as a Way of Life

3. Pierre Hadot, What is Ancient Philosophy?

4. Charles Taylor, A Secular Age

5. Roland Allen, The Spontaneous Expansion of the Church

6. Andrew Davison & Alison Milbank, For the Parish

7. Rowan Williams, Dostoevsky: Language, Faith & Fiction

8. Susan Howatch, The Wonder Worker

9. Phillip Blond, Red Tory

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“They’re just trying to sell you stuff.”

Last night I had some sweet time with my Bella, my seven year old daughter has who perhaps done more for my theology than anyone over the last few years. (See here and here.)

You see, Bella attends a private school locally which, while virtuous is so many ways (not least the truly rigorous education balanced with a good measure of fun and play) is populated with children and teenagers, who, quite frankly (and unlike what is the case at City School, where Bella attended in Austin), are on the upper-most rung of the socio-economic ladder.

Of course this is not all bad. We are unspeakably grateful for the opportunity to send our kids to All Saints, and often times money brings cultural richness. However, it does pose some real challenges.

Recently Bouquet and I have noticed that Bella is getting more pretentious, that her values are shifting a little, in some subtle (or not so subtle) ways.

Last night we spent some wonderful time in the backyard around our outside fire pit (it was cold last night in Tyler!) and talked about things like being rich and being poor, and how some Christians in the past (namely the Puritans) prayed that God would spare them from both extremes.

With that conversation ringing in my mind, I spent some time this morning in Terry Eagleton’s Reason, Faith, and Revolution.

The passage from Eagleton which really hit me aroused in me the intensity I often feel (I am tempted to use the word “anxiety,” but I believe that Jesus has risen from the dead!) when I think about Bella’s future in this culture of narcissism, nihilism, and non-sustainable consumerism.

It is difficult for me not to think that Bella (to say nothing of her own children) will grow up in the twilight of the western culture and civilization. Such cultural decline in the west is not bad, but it will be painful for many.

And it reminded me of a conversation she and I have had over the last couple of years about television, internet, and other forms of media. She has questioned Bouquet’s and my privleging of PBS over other television networks, including our decision not to purchase a version of cable TV service other than the bare minimum (which, by the way, we purchased for the sole reason of obtaining PBS, not available here without a basic cable package).

When explaining to her my suspicion and aversion to various forms of media and entertainment such as signing up for free videos from disneychannel.com, etc., she found one argument particularly compelling:

“They’re just trying to sell you stuff.”

Through email marketing, pop-up ads, irritating and vile commercials … they are just trying to sell you stuff.

I’m so grateful that she found this argument compelling, and it made her question and begin to “see through” the glitz and glamor of Selena Gomez and the Jonas Brothers. Such attraction is full of illusion and deception, she began faintly to grasp.

Born in 1972, I still find it a rather novel concept that media entertainment is about profits, not art. And yet, this is more and more the case, and this is a part of the larger “narrative” I want to inculcate into my daughter.

If I were to take a month off to develop this narrative one text on which I would rely would be the following quotation from Eagleton, which reminds me that:

– Conservative American culture is frequently naively complicit in supporting some of the very worst tendencies and underlying forces in our culture, forces in which the principalities and the powers are utterly owning us. For example, the assumption that form and content are able to be separated without damaging content (examples: Wal-Mart, megachurches, contemporary music).

– Subtle mistakes at the beginning of the Enlightenment in the west are now rearing their full-grown, ugly heads, with demonic furor. (example: the nation-state is now a merely surveillance organization to promote the untrammeled profitability of global capitalism.)

– This narrative (which one might call post-modern) of resisting worldliness through a recognition of the baselessness of consumerism needs to be developed more and more rigorously families and churches, such that it is foundational to how we think and live. That is, only the church has the resources to withstand and resist the onslaught of late capitalist nihilism which will continue to come down the pike, until, to adapt a phrase from the late Neil Postman, we entertain and consume ourselves to death.

– Bouquet and I need to work hard to develop real, authentic relationships between our family and those who are economically struggling.

… the chief threat to enlightened values today springs not from feng shui, faith healing, postmodern relativism, or religious fundamentalism. As usual, it springs from some of the fruits of Enlightenment itself, which has always been its own worst enemy. The language of Enlightenment has been hijacked in the name of corporate greed, the police state, a politically compromised science, and a permanent war economy. The economic individualism of the early, enlightened middle classes has now spawned into the vast corporations which trample over group and individual rights, shaping our destinies without the slightest popular accountability. The liberal state, founded among other things to protect individual freedom, has burgeoned in out time into the surveillance state. Scientific rationality and freedom of inquiry have been harnessed to the ends of commercial profit and weapons of war. One vital reason why the United States has declared open-ended war on terror is to ensure a flow of open-ended profits for a large number of its corporations. An enlightened trust in dispassionate reason has declined to the hiring of scholars and experts to disseminate state and corporate propaganda. Freedom of cultural expression has culminated in the schlock, ideological rhetoric, and politically managed news of the profit-driven mass media.

Rational or enlightened self-interest brings in its wake the irrationality of waste, unemployment, obscene inequalities, manipulative advertising, the accumulation of capital for its own sake, and the dependence of whole livelihoods on the random fluctuation of the market. It also brings with it colonialism and imperialism, which scarcely sit easily with enlightened values. Political individualism, intended to safeguard us from the insolence of power, results in a drastic atrophying of social solidarities. The vital Enlightenment project of controlling Nature, which frees us from being the crushed and afflicted victims of our environment, has resulted in the wholesale pollution of the planet. In claiming the world as our own, we find that we have ended up possessing a lump of dead matter. In asserting our free spirits, we have reduced our own bodies to pieces of mechanism. – Terry Eagleton, Reason, Faith, and Revolution, p 71 – 72.

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Tomorrow: Death (Maundy Thursday Sermon)

John 13:1-15

Maundy Thursday – A

“Tomorrow: Death”

If you knew that you were going to die tomorrow, what would you do?

Would you take the day off from work and be with your children? Would you clear your schedule so that you could be alone with your husband or wife for several hours? IF you are a single person, would you try to make some sort of statement, maybe create some art, paint a picture, of what is most important to you?

In tonight’s story from John 13, Jesus has realized that his hour has come. He realizes that the time has come for his exodus (as Luke’s Gospel puts it), his departure from the world and back to his father.

You see, from the beginning of John’s Gospel John has been telling us that God’s glory would be revealed in the climax of Jesus’ life.

In John 2, for example, right after Jesus turns water into wine (and note that both water & wine re-appear for us tonight, both in our Gospel lesson and in the rituals we perform tonight) his well-intentioned mother wants Jesus to display his glory.

And how does Jesus respond? He looks at his mother and tells her, “My hour has not yet come.”

My hour has not yet come. The hour for my glory, the glory of the Father, to be displayed and lit up for all to see … has not yet come.

This same thing happens again and again in John. People look at Jesus, and they begin to get a little glimpse of his glory, and then the text says, “but his hour had not yet come.”

Chapter 7: “No one laid a hand on him, because his hour had not yet come.”

Chapter 8: “No one could arrest him, because his hour had not yet come.”

But then in chapter 12, right before tonight’s story, something new happens. Out of the blue, some Greeks, some Gentiles, show up and want to hang out with Jesus. Then, right at that moment, Jesus realizes that his hour has finally come.

And so we come to this fateful night. He knows his hour has come. He knows that his entire life and ministry and all the conflict which has been provoked … he knows that it is coming to a head, and he knows it is coming to a head, tomorrow.

If you knew you were going to die tomorrow, what would you do?

His disciples were expecting a normal Passover meal. They had done this before, and here they were with their rabbi, and they were about to enjoy this annual ritual meal together.

And then Jesus does something completely unexpected. He gets up from the table, disrobes, puts a towel around his waste, and begins to wash their feet.

His disciples are dumbfounded: what is he doing? Not only is this not part of the Passover liturgy, but … um, rabbis don’t do this sort of thing. In fact, not even slaves do this!

In that world, slaves were the absolute bottom rung on the social ladder, but even they were given the dignity, even slaves had rights. It was unlawful for a man to require a slave to wash your feet. That was just too demeaning, too gross, too debasing.

And yet, this is precisely what Jesus does. And for his disciples, it does not compute. His action will not fit into their grid, it will not fit into their categories.

Why not? Why didn’t they get it? Why didn’t they get what Jesus was doing?

Yes, his behavior is unexpected for a Passover meal. Yes, this behavior is bizarre to say the least for a rabbi. And so they were sort of shocked & flabbergasted.

But the scriptures lead us to a deeper reason as well, a deeper reason for their lack of comprehension. In his book Death on a Friday Afternoon, Richard John Nuehaus puts it this way:

“To those accustomed to living in a world turned upside down, setting it right cannot but appear to be turning it upside down.”
As Jesus began to perform the most grotesque act they could imagine, it looks like the world is being turned upside down.
But that is because they themselves are living upside down, living in an upside down world.
And so are we. You and I, like them, live in a world where might makes right, where the appearance of success matters most, where weakness and dependence are shunned and excluded and ridiculed.
But Jesus comes, he does this, and he is showing us true reality. He is showing us how things are in his family. He is showing us what life is like with his father and the spirit. He is showing us how to live.
If you knew you were going to die tomorrow night, what would you do?
Tomorrow night, Jesus is going to die.

And what does he do? He humbles himself, he lowers himself, to the level beneath the slave. He gives up his rights. He serves his friends. He serves you and me. He served us to the point of death.

And then he looked at them, he looks at us, and he says, “Go and do likewise.”

Tonight, we will ritually participate in this act of service. Even though it is not nearly as scandalous for us as it was for them, it’s still kind of awkward.

As you do this, join me in ask God to make us humble. Ask God to make you loving.

But more than that, I invite you to do something else. I invite you to thank him for his humility. Thank him for turning the world right side up.

Receive his love for you.

You know why? You can never serve others until you let him serve you. You can never love others until you let him love you.

What would you do if you knew you were going to die tomorrow?

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Questioning our Worship (Part VIII): “C’mon, is the Bread really the Body of Christ?”

This is part 8 of a 10-part series.

Over the years as I have had an ongoing conversation with Isabella, my seven year old daughter who is a budding theologian, about what is going on in the sacrament of Holy Eucharist, particularly in “the service of the table,” the communion service.

After all, Bella and I wonder, what is going on with the bread? Why do we call it “the Body of Christ?”

One way we have discussed this, which has been particularly fruitful and enjoyable, is in terms of the “three givings or gifts of the Eucharist.”

First God gives to us, the human race also known as “Adam,” the good gifts of grain and grape, and this is the first “giving,” the first gift, the gift of creation.

Now grain and grape are good, but God has asked us (see Gen 1:28-30) to take them, and to make them even better, to transfigure them, bringing them “from glory to glory.” And so, we, human beings created in God’s image, take the grain and the grape, and we transfigure them into bread and wine. In obedience to God, we (“Adam”) cultivate the earth.

Now, in the Eucharist, what do we do with this bread and wine? We don’t eat and drink it, at least not yet. What we do is we give it back to God. Think about all the language of “offering” in the Communion service: “… these, thy holy gifts, which we now offer unto thee …”; “… and here we offer and present unto thee …” This language of “offering” brings out the oblationary aspect of the Eucharist.

And this is the second giving, the second gift. God receives our gift and then, what does he do with it?

Now, bread and wine are good. But God takes these gifts, he transfigures them, bringing them to a better state of glory, and now they “become” something even better: the body and blood of his Son, Jesus Christ.

Now, keep in mind that, historically, there are three different senses of “body of Christ.” There is 1) the “typological body” (the soma typicon) which was “literally” nailed to a cross and “literally” buried in the grave, etc. Then there is 2) the “true body” (corpus verum) which is the Church, the living members of the Body of Christ. Finally there is 3) the “mystical body” (corpus mysticum) of the consecrated bread of the Eucharistic Rite.

Is this consecrated bread “really” the body of Christ? It is, indeed. It is his body because is it ritually connected to his “typical body” and to his “true body” the Church, the “living stones” gathered at the feast. Because of the first two “bodies of Christ,” the bread is more than just bread. It is a sacrament of the whole world, already but not yet transfigured and transformed into the very life, the very body, of Christ.

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Invitation to a Holy Lent

Rarely do I post my sermons onto my blog. However, I am doing so in this case, partly due to several conversations I have had over the last couple of days.

I preached this at the 6PM Ash Wednesday service at Christ Church. The epistle was 2 Cor 5:20b – 6:10 and the Gospel was Matt 6:1-6, 16-21.

A couple of nights ago something happened that seems to happen to me about, oh, once a month on average.

An that is, I had an intense bout with insomnia. It was me against insomnia, and I lost. 1AM, 2AM, 3AM … the clock keeps ticking until … until the sun comes up and with it my 3 year old daughter.

Now, I’m not saying that a night without sleep is the worst thing in the world. Certainly compaired with shipwrecks, beatings, imprisonments, riots, and hunger … an occasional night of insomnia is not that bad.

St. Paul was no stranger to these things and more. Why does he mention them in today’s epistle reading from 2 Corinthians? What’s more, why does he speak of these things as if they are somehow something which comes from the hand of God?

Is St. Paul some kind of massocist? What’s going on?

We get a hint near the end of today’s reading, where he begins to throw out several different paradoxes of the Christian life:

  • how, somehow in the midst of his sorrow, he finds deep and profound joy
  • how his life is shot through with death, and yet in the midst of the death he is more alive than he ever thought possible.
  • how he is poor & dispossessed, but somehow in the midst of this poverty he is is rich;

See, these are the paradoxes of the Gospel: riches in the midst of poverty; joy in the midst of sadness; life in the midst of death.

How can these things be? Is this just crazy talk?

One of my favorite films of all time is The Neverending Story….

You see, brothers & sisters, Jesus Christ is not just some guy that we read about. The life of Jesus is not some narrative that we hear about every Sunday or even read about in a dusty old book.

Rather, the narrative of Jesus – his life, his suffering, his death, his resurrection – these are things that we inhabit. His story is a something that we get sucked into.

His life becomes are life; his suffering becomes our suffering; his death becomes our death; his resurrection becomes our resurrection.

Henry Nouwen puts in this way in his book The Selfless Way of Christ. [Quote Nouwen.]

And don’t you see? This is the first reason why we do Lent. It is a way of learning, little by little, to die. The church fathers spoke of the Christian life as preparing for a good death.

Because, you see, apart from death, there is no such thing as resurrection. This is why we give things up during Lent. This is why we intentionally make our lives a bit more difficult, a bit more inconvenient. It is a way of entering into the sufferings of Christ. It’s a way of sharing in his sufferings & death, that we might share, also, in his indestructible life.

But there is a second reason why we do Lent. And you heard it a moment ago from Deacon Stine’s mouth, and it is this: “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”

The question of Lent is this: what is your treasure? Is it your career? Is it your body image? Is it having healthy children? Is it food & drink?

What is your treasure, really? What is your pearl of great price, the thing that if you lose it, you can’t be happy. When you lose it, all of the sudden it gets kind of hard to breath. When you lose it, you begin to act like Gollum in the LOTR, or like an alcoholic who can’t find an open liquor store.

What is your treasure?

The wisdom of Lent is that the Church (beginning about 1100 years ago) is making a way for us to wean ourselves off of all earthly treasure. It is a way of ridding our lives of the stuff that does not really satisfy.

You see, we’re talking about desire. I’m reminded of CS Lewis who said that our problem is not that our desires are too strong (though this is the charicature of Christianity that the world dispenses to people). Our problem is that our desires are too weak. We are far too easily pleased.

We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, we are like ignorant children who want to continue making mud pies in a slum because we cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a vacation at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”

What are we doing in Lent? If you think about it, it’s the opposite of massocism. It’s really the cultivation of desire. True desire. Strong desire. Rightly ordered desire.

In Lent, we are weaning ourselves off of the stuff that doesn’t satisfy. We are learning to depend on God. We are learning to rest in him, to lean on him. To make him our one thing needful.

Only then can his power come into our lives. Only then can we gain the strength to resist temptation and live like THE FREE WOMEN & MEN WE WERE CREATED TO BE.

Only then, as we participate in his suffering & death, we will rise with him, entering into his indestructible life.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the HS, Amen.

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Bridge Beer, Bridge Church

I suppose that one of the things I learned from my almost 4 years as a Starbucks barista was the fun of introducing customers to new things: new coffees, new pairings, new ways to drink tea, etc. (Actually, I have always loved to do this. Even when I was a little kid I liked to experiment with drinks, for example & 7Up — not Sprite — with various fruit juices, and then share my new discoveries with sisters and parents.)

Recently here in Tyler, an area somewhat beer-challenged (though I love many things about Tyler!), I have enjoyed sitting at a bar somewhere, and starting a conversation with a Bud Light drinker (for example).

“Bartender, give him a Fireman’s Four on me, please,” followed by a discussion about the ways this beer is superior to his former go-to.

Another good beer in this situation would be New Belgium Sunshine Wheat, but, alas, I’ve not seen that one (especially on tap) in these parts, east of Dallas.

In other words, Fireman’s Four and Sunshine Wheat are good examples of bridge beers which can help a person transition from beer which, having little redeeming value, can only be called “cheap” to a truly wonderful beer, rich in flavor and full of body.

Another good bridge beer is Shiner Bock. I have seen many a beer drinker enhance their quality of life by moving from cheap beer to robust stouts and porters by way of Shiner. (Shiner Bock to Shiner Black to a good stout is a natural trajectory.)

Now, just as there are bridge beers, so also there are bridge churches. In my journey the PCA was just such a church. I was blessed to get a taste of liturgical and sacramental worship in the PCA in Austin while still retaining the sense that I was rooted in the evangelical world.

But over time (to make a long story short) I needed more. I needed to go deeper. I needed the full experience, the full body, the full depth of layer and subtlety.

Now, as an Episcopal priest, I have the joy and privilege to be forming a new worshiping community of young people in the context of an Episcopal Church (kind of like a church plant but with fewer of the intense challenges that accompany that monumental project).

One of the things going on with the “Epiphany Eucharist” is this idea of bridge worship. What we are trying to do here is to provide access to the liturgy and sacramental life of the church for folks for whom this way of worshiping the Triune God is quite foreign and awkward.

Just as (for Calvin) God “lisps” in the Incarnation, so also we are wanting not to “dumb down” the liturgy, but rather to implement creative ways of making it more accessible, more reachable, more natural.

Just as a Bud Light drinker usually has trouble going straight to Old Rasputin or Young’s Double Chocolate Stout or Dogfish Head Raison d’etre, so also many folks have trouble going straight from secular culture or megachurch culture (which are basically the same thing, I think) to the Rite I Eucharistic Liturgy.

I would love nothing more than if, after a year or two of folks worshiping with us in the Rite III Epiphany Service, they were to come up to me and say, “You know, I have really enjoyed and grown from this Epiphany Eucharist over the last many months, but I think I would like to try that Rite I Service downstairs.”

“Great!” I would respond, thinking to myself all the while, “mission accomplished.”

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Anglican1000 Conference: some modest thoughts

A couple of friends have asked me to share my thoughts about this conference.

Anglican1000 is a yearly church planting conference (which just ended) which was held at Christ Church Plano, a parish in the northern suburbs of Dallas which left the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas a few years ago. (The rector, David Roseberry, who planted the church in the mid-1980’s and grew it to become the largest parish in the entire Episcopal Church when it exited that church body, then led the church into the Anglican Mission in the Americas, and then subsequently changed affiliations to the ACNA.)

Some thoughts:

1. Praise God for the missional energy and excitement which is spreading in this group. The planting of biblically-based local churches can only be good.

2. It was kind of a surreal experience, on the other hand, being in the midst of a group of folks who are forming a reactionary or alternative church body, in opposition to a more liberal one. This was the air in which I lived and moved and had my being for about a decade in the Presbyterian Church in America, including several years as a pastor. The temptation for such a new body to define themselves against the “apostasizing ones” is absolutely undeniable, as is the potential arrogance and self-congratulation which go along with that.

3. It was also surreal to hear Tim Keller in this group. Keller’s rich, nuanced, thoughtful, culturally savvy theological engagement (which I have been studying for a decade) was soaked up by them like parched desert soil soaking up a shower of life-giving rain.

4. I noticed a tendency in the group (there were perhaps 500 church planters and other interested parties in attendance) to push for a more confessional Anglicanism, something I had known about previously at a more theoretical level from Dr. Philip Turner, who has argued against a confessional framework against Stephen Noll from Trinity School for Ministry. Several folks with whom I spoke explicitly argued for this, the need for a more confessional commitment as something that will bind the church together in unity. I continue to think, however, that this is not classically Anglican, and, quite frankly, that this makes this group tantamount to the PCA (especially since one can find great liturgies all throughout the PCA).

5. Connected to #4 above, this conference has deepened my commitment to catholic liturgical practice as the only way the Church can withstand the onslaught of modernity. (To play devil’s advocate for a moment, the strongest argument against this posture is the global south: that is, a non-liturgical christianity could well outlast and outflank modern secularism by continuing to take root in Africa and other 2/3 worlds countries, which then continue to bring this evangelical faith back to the post-Christian west.) It is clear that for these Anglican brothers and sisters at this conference, it is not the liturgy which binds the church together in unity. As a result one sees wildly divergent ways of worshipping among the church plants and a longing for a more robust commitment to confessional standards.

5. I did attend one workshop during the conference put on by a group in New England (led by Bishop Bill Murdoch) that is embodying a “new monastic” way of practicing intentional community that was truly encouraging, motivating, and inspiring. God willing, I will implement some of these practices in my ministry, and the worshipping community that God is forming, in Tyler.

All in all, I am grateful to God for doing a new thing in this group, and that “denominational” disputes cannot stop the work of God in the world. However, as a liturgical catholic Christian who embraces a “communion ecclesiology” (along the lines of Rowan Williams, Radical Orthodoxy, the Windsor Report, and John Zizioulas) who enjoys the oversight of a godly bishop, I am glad I am not directly numbered among them.

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Irrational Drinking

In light of a good convo with a friend last night, and in light of our upcoming “Monster’s Ball,” I thought I wd repost this, from St. GK.

“The sound rule in the matter would appear to be like many other sound rules–a paradox. Drink because you are happy, but never because you are miserable. Never drink when you are wretched without it, or you will be like the grey-faced gin-drinker in the slum; but drink when you would be happy without it, and you will be like the laughing peasant of Italy. Never drink because you need it, for this is rational drinking, and the way to death and hell. But drink because you do not need it, for this is irrational drinking, and the ancient health of the world.” –”Omar and the Sacred Vine,” Heretics

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Nigeria & Eliza Griswold’s _The 10th Parallel_

About a month ago I heard a podcast of “Fresh Air” with Terry Gross in which she interviewed both Eliza Griswold, daughter of former Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold, as well as Jeff Sharlet, author of The Family and 2010 Blandy Lecturer at the Seminary of the Southwest.

Sharlet has an article in this month’s Harper’s on homosexuality in Uganda called “Straight Man’s Burden” which is interesting reading.

After hearing the interview I purchased the book and started reading, largely to prepare myself for the upcoming visit to Christ Church Tyler of the Most Reverend Benjamin Kwashi, an Anglican archbishop in Nigeria. (God willing, I also have the amazing opportunity, at the Archbishop’s request, to travel to Nigeria next summer with a group from Christ Church.)

I plan to blog on this book over the next few days. For now, here’s a great quotation (from page 11):

Today’s typical Protestant in an African woman, not a white American man. In many of the weak states along the tenth parallel, the power of these religious movements is compounded by the fact that the “state” means very little here; governments are alien structures that offer their people almost nothing in the way of services or political rights. This lack is especially pronounced where present-day national borders began as nothing more than lines sketched onto colonial maps. Other kinds of identity, consequently, come to the fore: religion above everything – even race or ethnicity – becomes a means to safeguard individual and collective security in this world and the next one.

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