“Heals over Head”–Fr. Greg Boyle

We are all part of a movement to put first things recognizably first. This movement is about heals over head. It is far easier for [an organization] to compile of menu of services … than it is to create a community of tenderness, a community so loving and so welcoming that everyone feels like they are wearing a parachute. A place, a geography, where we all decide to make a decision to live in each others’ hearts.—Father Greg Boyle, Founder & Director, Homeboy Industries.

I’ve heard plenty of speeches in my day, but the words above constitute what is for me perhaps the most moving “oratory experience” I’ve ever had.

This speech was the culmination, or the final plenary event, of a two-day conference at Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles which I had the honor and joy of attending this past week, together with two dear friends, D.G. Montalvo and David Dickerson. We were attending this event at the invitation of the Episcopal Health Foundation of the Diocese of Texas, in hopes that it would benefit us here at Christ Church as we partner with the E.H.F. in hopes of increasing the holistic peace and justice of our community.

Allow me to unpack the most salient phrases in the snippet above. First, “recognizably first.” When Fr. Greg uttered these words, it “cut me to the quick.” In other words, I became deeply convicted of the need, not just to state that justice is a priority for us at Christ Church (including Christ Church South), but to make that priority recognizable, visible, clear. It must be obvious to anyone who visits us on Sunday morning that we are a community where Christ binds us together: not class, not race, not affinity.

Second, “heals over head.” I could talk about this one for hours. A huge part of my “spiritual / intellectual biography” is the issue of “reason vs. desire”: which is privileged? For Aristotle it is reason’s job to discipline the human being’s passions and desires. And yet, Christian Neoplatonism responds (I’m painting with insanely broad brush strokes here) by pointing to a “higher” kind of desire which, in turn, woos, summons, and directs reason itself. Father Greg is clearly one who affirms the priority of desire / feeling / passion over reason. Hence, “heals over head.” In the same vein he stresses that “a community tenderness is harder [and more important] than a menu of services.” In other words, for Fr. Greg, nothing can be more important than love (which, after all, is a kind of desire). Nothing can be more important than relationship, intimacy, “living in each others’ hearts.” This is the foundation of Homeboy. Good thing, too, since this is also the foundation of the Kingdom of God.

Last phrase to unpack: “parachutes [instead of backpacks].” Father Greg’s goal is to make the “homies” among whom he lives and works feel like they are wearing parachutes, and not backpacks. At first I was not sure what he meant by this. It was either David or DG who helped me “get it.” A parachute softens one’s landing; a burdensome backpack, in contrast, only weighs one down all the more. The goal here is to facilitate a soft landing, for any homie who is falling to the ground. Soft landings, instead of crashing & burning.

How is this facility accomplished? Only by a community which put first things recognizably first. Only by a community in which the members truly live in each others’ hearts. Only by a community of tenderness which privileges healing over headiness, and gives people parachutes and not heavy burdens of condemnation.

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Rigorous Honesty: Ps 139 & Truth-telling

The first paragraph of ch. 5 (“How it Works”) of Bill W.’s Alcoholics Anonymous is riveting and crucial:

Rarely have we seen a person fail who has thoroughly followed our path. Those who do not recover are people who cannot or will not completely give themselves to the program, usually men and women who are constitutionally incapable of being honest with themselves. There are such unfortunates. They are not at fault; they seem to have been born that way. They are naturally incapable of grasping and developing a manner of living which demands rigorous honesty. Their chances are less than average.

If I ask myself, “am I (constitutionally) capable of being honest with myself?” … well, that is not an easy question for me to answer. I think I am … but I also think it is important for me to open myself up to the possibility of self-deception.

Enter Psalm 139, verse 6: “Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?”

When I cultivate an awareness of God, of the Holy Spirit, deep within me, it allows me to be honest with myself. It allows me to sit in silence and not need to pretend to be anything. Instead of pretending to be something, I can simply be. I can be comfortable with myself.

Because in that moment, who am I trying to impress? The Holy Spirit? That would be really dumb. I can simply be, simply sit in silence, with my feelings, with my body, with my sense perception, with a biblical passage or a word or a mantra echoing in my heart.

Now, sitting in silent meditation is not the only way to cultivate rigorous honesty. And if this practice occurs in a vacuum, cut off from other spiritual practices, it will be especially “ineffective.” Really, I think that the progress which results from meditation has to do with presence. When I practice being present in presence of the Holy Spirit in silent meditation, it gives me the “spiritual muscles” to be present with others: my spiritual director, my sponsor, my wife, my friends, my parishioners, complete strangers I encounter on the street, etc.

But it all begins, and ends, with rigorous honesty.

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Baptism & Richard Dawkins

In eight short days I will have the staggering privilege of initiating (at least) five precious human beings created in God’s image into the holy community of the Body of Christ through the mysterious waters of Holy Baptism. (How the cosmos arranged itself to allow for this state of affairs is beyond me.)

Now, I have been intrigued by baptism for quite a while. In fact, if I were to make a list of the top ten reasons I left evangelical Christianity for the Anglican Way (embodied in the Episcopal Church, in the Diocese of Texas), somewhere on that list would be baptism. In particular, the teaching about Baptism contained in the Book of Common Prayer, on page 298 of which we read:

Holy Baptism is full initiation by water and the Holy Spirit into Christ’s Body of the Church. The bond which God establishes in Baptism is indissoluble.

Thanks be to God that, in my mid thirties, I finally found a community of people who believe this crazy teaching. Crazy, but necessary.

Necessary, that is, if secularism is not true, not the “be all and end all.” Necessary if God is real and there is more to existence than “matter and energy.” Necessary if real truth and beauty are grounded in a metaphysical reality which transcends human wants and needs.

Necessary, but crazy. Why “crazy”? Because it flies in the face of so much “evidence.”

I mean, just look (as a good friend of mine would say) at Richard Dawkins. Dawkins, who was of course baptized in the Church of England as an infant, but who as an adult has attacked the Christian faith as vociferously as anyone in modern history.

What about him? Surely, my friend argues, he is proof that baptism is not some ontologically real and efficacious transformation that grafts one permanently into the life of God … right?

Well, what if that’s not right? What if we take page 298 of the BCP at face value? What if, since Richard Dawkins was baptized many decades ago with water and the Holy Spirit, God has “sealed [him] by the Spirit in baptism, and marked [him] as Christ’s own forever,” as the Celebrant confesses in the actual service of Holy Baptism in the Episcopal Church? What if, on the basis of this sealing and marking, together with all that they entail, and together with the context in which they find their larger meaning, God has promised to bring Richard Dawkins finally back to himself, at some point and in some way which right now is unclear to us?

After all, it seems to me, the alternative is untenable. For if Baptism (together with all that it entails, and together with the larger context in which it finds its meaning) does not save, then secularism is the case, and we Christians should, finally, put all this religion stuff and “God talk” to sleep.

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Mystical Ecstasy & Alyosha’s Mini-arc

I am grateful to be the recipient of a world-class education in the history of Western thought at the University of Dallas’ Institute of Philosophic Studies, where I was initiated headlong into many of the great classical texts of the Western canon, many of which I had never before read, including Hesiod’s Theogony, Dante’s Comedia, and Hobbes’ Leviathan, just to name a few.

The final class in this sequence of core courses is “Hegel, Nietzsche, and Dostoevsky,” in which we read (among other texts) The Brothers Karamazov. Or, were supposed to have read.

I confess publicly, and for the first time, that I simply did not (have time to) read this very long tome that semester. Such is the life of a full-time priest, working in a city 90 miles away from his academic institution, to which he was commuting (during the period of his coursework) on average twice per week.

The guilt from such an omission was almost unbearable, and it is a miracle that I got through that course (one of three grad courses I was taking at the time). Which might be why I firmly resolved to make The Brothers Karamazov the first major text I would read, once I had successfully gotten both coursework and comprehensive exams under my belt. Hence, I am reading it now, and what a stimulating read it is!

One feature of the text to which my attention has been drawn is the structure of Book Seven, entitled, “Alyosha.” Breifly, I summarize this structure, this narrative arc of character development, as follows:

  • §1, “Odor of putrefaction.” Here, Alyosha stumbles spiritually at the scandalon of religious scorn and hypocritical gloating on the part of a certain religious faction. Basically, there is a party of monks at Alyosha’s monastery who despise the holy starets, Father Zosima (Alyosha’s beloved mentor and father in the faith), and who longs for his downfall and ruination. Of course the members of this faction, led by one Father Therapon, have their religious justifications. But it is this religious scorn, and not the absence of a certain hoped-for miracle (the lack of deterioration of the now deceased Father Zosima’s remains) which causes Alyosha to spiral downward into a tailspin of spiritual and emotional blackness.
  • §2, “Here’s an opportunity.” Enter Rakitin, that “careerist seminarian” who embodies the worst kind of sanctimonious, fraudulent bigotry. Rakitin stumbles upon Alyosha just as the former has been laid low emotionally, and is literally lying on the ground near a tree, trying to get his head screwed back on straight, attempting to recover from the emotional blow dealt by those who have been publicly denigrating Zosima, in light of his death and decomposition. Rakitin skillfully takes advantage of Alyosha, tempting him to “act out” and give in to his incipient anger and woundedness. First, Rakitin tempts Alyosha with food (sausage), then drink (vodka), then sex (the intriguing and beautiful prostitute Grushenka). Alyosha, in a state of weakness, gives in to his seducer Rakitin.
  • §3, “A spring onion.” In the rooms of Grushenka, who seems to be deeply taken and captivated by the youngest of the three Karamazov brothers Alyosha (who is pretty much the same age as the seductress), the narrator employs the image of a spring onion to symbolize the wonderful effects of love for the other. Grushenka narrates a Russian fable involving the giving of an onion from one person to another, and how this small act of kindness can save a person from Hell. Grushenka, who knows full well that she is a grave sinner who stands guilty before God and man, testifies that she knows the joy of giving a spring onion to someone in need. Alyosha, who up to this point has been tight-lipped and awkward in Grushenka’s room, immediately recognizes her humility and this spiritual seed of life to which she has born witness. And it is just this, this brilliant flash of grace flowing from the heart and lips of this humble sinner, this shard of love born of true poverty of spirit, which revives the stricken Alyosha, acting as a sort of “smelling salt” which quickens him to return to his true spiritual nature. Finally, his head is screwed back on straight, and he has now come to his senses.
  • §4, “Cana of Galilee.” Now that Alyosha has been restored to his true self by the (unintended) ministrations of Grushenka, he is now liberated truly to enjoy God and life. Returning to the monastery, he encounters the saintly Father Païsy, who continues to read the Gospels over Father Zosima’s open coffin, as he has been doing for hours and hours. Slowly Alyosha falls into a peaceful sleep and experiences a vivid dream about Jesus and Mary at the wedding of Cana, even as the words of John 2 proceed from the mouth of the venerable monk. Alyosha, asleep before the remains of his loving mentor even while remaining on his knees, is now awash in the mystical, peaceful vision of Christ he is now experiencing. Eventually he awakes, and the lines which follow are among the most arresting I have ever read:

[Alyosha’s] soul, brimming with ecstasy, was yearning for freedom, for wide open spaces. Overhead, stretching into infinity, was the heavenly dome, full of silent, shimmering stars. From the zenith to the horizon stretched the forked outlines of the faintly visible Milky Way. A cool, silent, motionless night had enveloped the earth. The white towers and gilded cupolas of the monastery church gleaned in the sapphire light. The splendid autumn flowers in the bed around the house were dormant for the night. The silence of the earth seemed to merge with the silence of the heavens. The mystery of the earth appeared to reach out to the starts. Alyosha stood gazing. Suddenly he fell to the ground, as though stunned.

He did not know why he was embracing the earth. He could not explain to himself why it was that he wanted to kiss it with such abandon. To kiss the whole of it, and yet he kept kissing it as he wept and sobbed, drenching it with his tears, and passionately swearing to love it, to love it forever and ever. ‘Drench the earth with the tears of thy joy, and love these thy tears….’ These words echoed in his soul. What was he weeping about? Oh, in the ecstasy he was weeping even for those stars which shone upon him from infinity, ‘and he was not ashamed of his passion.’ It was as though the threads of all God’s countless worlds had converged in his soul, and it quivered upon contact with these distant worlds. He wished to forgive everyone for everything, and to ask forgiveness, oh, not for himself but for others. ‘They would then ask forgiveness for me,’ were the words that echoed in his mind. But with each passing moment, he became distantly, almost palpably aware, that something as firm and immutable as the vault of heaven was entering his soul. An idea seemed to be taking possession of his mind, and it would be for his whole life and for eternity. He fell to the ground a weak adolescent, but when he rose to his feet he was a hardened warrior for life, and he recognized this in a flash of ecstasy. And never, never in his whole life, would Alyosha be able to forget this moment. ‘Someone visited my soul on that occasion,’ he would repeat later, firmly believing his own words.

Three days later he left the monastery, in accordance with the instruction of his deceased starets, to ‘go out into the world.’

What to make of this trajectory, culminating in these haunting words of mystical ecstasy? I can think of six things.

  1. This book, in the context of Dostoevsky’s larger story, is a wonderful example of how the Gospel of Jesus Christ, makes us more fully human. To quote St. Irenaeus, “The Glory of God is the human being, fully alive.” Christians are / ought-to-be more fully alive than anyone else, and this vignette points to that fact.
  2. Alyosha, when faced with fierce temptations, did not give in. Why did he not give in? Only because he was rescued by love, the love of the sinful prostitute Grushenka. Still, what would have happened had he slept with her? Would he have experienced the joy of hearing the Gospel flow from the lips of Fr. Païsy? I doubt it. There is something about not ruining the story which makes for spiritual elation, once the temptations have subsided.
  3. Suffering leads to ecstasy, and this ecstasy involves the passions. This vignette is an “argument” for privileging the passions over reason, even while admitting the necessity of the latter.
  4. I find it interesting that, in Dostoevsky’s rendition of Alyosha’s experience here, we find an emphasis on the whole: the cosmic dimensions of salvific reality. God is way bigger than we normally realize. So is Christ. So is the cosmos.
  5. Alyosha’s mystical experience leads to and includes gospel reconciliation. We find him deeply impacted by the idea of forgiveness, which I think is probably the primary theme of this entire book.
  6. This kind of experience, which entails a movement from adolescence to adulthood, leads to full maturity in Christ (see Eph 4:13).

All in all, this is a riveting chunk of text, one that will stay with me (I dare say) for the rest of my life!

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Ascension: All things full of Christ

This time of the church year is a rich one. Here we are, nestled between Ascension (my favorite feast) and Pentecost. Why did Christ ascend?

In one sense, it was to bring the entire world back to the Father. In other sense, it was to pour the Holy Spirit out upon the Church and “all flesh” on the Day of Pentecost.

But there is another sense, as well. One of the two collects for the Ascension in the Book of Common Prayer says that Christ “ascended far above all heavens that he might fill all things.” What does it mean to say that Christ, post-Ascension, now fills all things?

Well, I don’t know, but I do know that when you look at your brothers or sister in Church, you are looking at someone filled with Christ.

I don’t know, but I do know that when you encounter a stranger on the street, especially if they are down and out or strung out, you are looking at someone filled with Christ.

I don’t know, but I do know that the “bread” and the “wine” of Holy Eucharist are full of Christ.

I don’t know, but I do know that the Church father said that when Jesus was baptized in the River Jordan, he sanctified all water.

I don’t know, but I do know that St. Gregory of Nyssa said that, when Jesus gestured toward some bread and said, “this is my body,” he could have just as easily gestured toward a tree branch and said the same thing.

I don’t know, but I do know that a life of prayer, meditation, and “sobriety” (1 Peter 4:7) can train, sensitize, and condition one to experience the mystical reality of God, mediated by and through the things of creation, which mediate the presence of Christ.

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How to talk about the Benedict Option (Prolegomena)

Which of the following visions for humanity is more accurate, more true, more desirable: A or B?

A: “Human beings are meant to enjoy deep, relational, holistic communion with one another.”

B: “Human beings are meant to co-exist with one another through the mechanisms of tolerance.”

How should we discuss Rod Dreher’s proposal of the Benedict Option? Even before the book is widely analyzed, I predict that most of the discussions will take place at a level that is unhelpfully superficial. People will talk about, for example, whether Christianity is “for the culture,” or “against the culture” employing the categories bequeathed by the 2oth century liberal Protestant Richard Niebuhr.   Yet few will dig deeper, and question the assumption that both of those stances share: that Christianity (assuming that this really is “a thing”) is separable from culture in the first place. The real need is to question the assumption that the Body of Christ (assuming that this really is “a thing”) is ever, in reality, acultural.

Aristotle wrote long ago that “knowledge of opposites is one and the same,” by which he means that two opposing species of intellectual positions often reduce down to the same common genus. Keynsian economists and members of the “Austrian School” both agree on a fundamental shared principle: the validity of political economy. But what if it is precisely this underlying assumption, this common genus, which needs to be questioned?

I will never forget a conversation which I had with a Tibetan Buddhist in the mid 1990’s. I was an undergrad  at U.T. Austin, and I was dialoging with a new friend of Asian descent. As an evangelical who had tacitly inherited a sort of “common sense realism” view of the world, I was asking him about what he regarded as true and false. But the discussion, over and over again, hit a brick wall. Since he would not, even from the very beginning, acknowledge my distinction between “true” and “false,” we hit one dialogical roadblock after another. More recently I found myself sitting on a bench in discussion with a practicioner of Harikrishna … and although the intervening two decades did supply me with more wisdom and better conversation skills than I had as a college sophomore, nevertheless I was reminded all over again of the stark contrast, the fundamental divide, between the Eastern and Western worldviews, or visions of reality.

It is no coincidence that religions such as Buddhism and Harikrishna are far more accepted in our American culture today than they were in the late 20th century. Part of their new plausability, I think, is that they are radically counter-cultural. People realize that our flattened out, “disenchanted” secular lives are neither sustainable nor desirable. Desperate times call for desperate measures, or to quote Seal (thus dating myself yet again), “We’re never gonna survive … unless we get a little crazy.”

The teachings of Jesus, and the apostolic commitments of his followers about the Body of Christ vis-a-vis the systems of Ceasar, are crazy and strange at root. Dreher is operating out of a conviction that when one grasps the Faith aright, it is “made strange.”

It is precisely its “crazy” counter-culturalism which draws me to Rod Dreher’s vision. Many of us share the conviction, pace David Brooks, that Christianity is also, at root, radically counter-cultural. (Does this mean we can no longer go to Starbucks or that we are obliged to opt out of Netflix or boycott SXSW? No, not necessarily.)

Yet David Brooks and many others assume a tacit agreement, an easy compatibility, between secular, political liberalism on the one hand and the Christian religion on the other. (So much so that some can speak of “American civil religion,” and some even still regard it as a viable option.) Of course this assumption is not prima facie absurd: after all, both Locke and Jefferson were good Anglicans.

But it is precisely this assumption which needs to be questioned. It is an assumption laid bare by books such as Alasdair MacIntyre’s 1981 After Virtue, John Milbank’s 1991 Theology and Secular Theory, and Charles Taylor’s 2007 A Secular Age. (These books, with balanced, rigorous erudition, reveal how deeply the disease has penetrated, just how deep the rabbit hole goes.) All three resonate with the strange reality of  the “two cities” which Augustine develops in his magisterial City of God. Brooks, in opposition to all four, sees an easy compatibility between the City of God and the City of Man. At the very least all sides should admit that he stands in deep opposition to St. Augustine. St. Augustine, whose strangeness rivals that of a Tibetan Buddhist, from a modern American perspective.

It is this assumption of easy compatibility which David Brooks (like Niebuhr before him) holds in his article and adopts from a secular vantage point, but never questions.

I’d argue that historic, catholic Christianity differs from modern secularism kind of like harikrishna differs from common sense realism: they operate on entirely different registers of reality.

What would it look like to question this assumption of the validity of modern secularism? For starters, it could look like asking the the above question, Which is more desirable for humanity: A or B?

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Lent: Commending the (Anglican) Faith

One part of my Christian journey which I have not spoken of very much ocurred as my tenure as an evangelical Presbyterian minister was drawing to a close. As much as I loved and still love that tradition, I knew that I needed to make a change. Why? Because with every fiber of my being I longed for a church which was more mysterious, more beautiful, more sacramental.

And so it is that, over a period of about a year, I had lunch with a priest in the Orthodox Church (a former Methodist minister). During that time I was exploring this ancient way of faith, which is so different from the church I grew up in, so different (you might say), from “your grandma’s church,” that it is barely recognizable.

To put it a different way, when you worship in an Orthodox church, it is almost like you are on another planet, in a different reality, in a different dimension. The worship is just so utterly foreign. From the perspective of a native Texan who grew up Baptist, it seems more like Hinduism than it does like “First Baptist.”

Therein lay its attraction. As the church in American & in the West continues its free fall of decline, I firmly believe that what people crave and long for is mystery. Something different from their normal, everyday experience. (Hence the sadness and pitifulness of the efforts of some churches to make their worship “relevant for modern people.” Yuck!) This is why so many people in western culture, for the last few decades now, have been flocking to Eastern religions, and even the popularity of yoga fits into this trend. Sadly, so many folks nowadays are totally ignorant of the historical rootedness, within Christianity, of “eastern” practices such as contemplation and mysticism.

Even though I ultimately opted for Anglicanism over Orthodoxy, these instincts have stayed with me, and this is where the liturgical and sacramental life of the church is such a gift for people today.

Nowhere is this more true or pertinent than in the liturgical seasons of the church year, and in particular during Lent. And this brings me to the main point of this Crucifer article: what a joy it is to witness the epiphanies which occur when “newcomers” discover our sacramental and liturgical life. When they discover it, begin to practice it, and go deeper into it. (The desire to see more of this kind of discovery is why we themed our college ministry, several years ago, “A New Way of Being Christian that is Very, Very Old.”)

Thanks be to God that dozens of individuals and families, right now, are coming to experience and appreciate and love the practice of Lent, that so many new folks attended our Ash Wednesday services this year, that over 30 adults at Christ Church South have expressed interest in Confirmation Preparation in the Fall, etc.

It is a joy to commend the Anglican Way to a culture which simply does not know. I remain convinced, today more than ever, that what our fragmenting culture needs, at the deepest level, is a connection to Jesus Christ which is stable, grounded, beautiful, communal, sacramental, and mysterious.

“A new way of being Christian that is very, very old!”

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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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God: Beyond Emotion(s)
What follows is adapted from an email I sent to a friend, who asked a question
about whether God is angry.
Dear Beth (not my friend’s real name),

Sorry for the delayed response!

You wrote:

“Does God’s goodness require an emotive anger toward his enemies?

We at least see an active anger, right? I think I’m following your argument regarding “being” as incompatable with anger.
Some might argue that anger is a product of anxiety. And God is Not anxious or anxiety itself.”

I am going to answer your questions in a very tight, stodgy, crusty, cold, dry way, rooted in medieval metaphysics (of the Thomistic sort), but I think this is a very helpful approach, b/c “shocks” us out of our modern, secular, western, individualistic assumptions, particularly our assumptions about God.

In other words, I am convinced that we need to hear about how ancient & medieval Christians thought about God, partly b/c it reminds us that our thinking is so often too small, too constricted, too much like the capitalist, technocratic, managerial world we live in.

So here we go.

As you yourself indicate in your question, you are asking a question about emotion, specifically about whether God has emotion(s), including the emotion of anger.

Guess where our English word “emotion” comes from? It comes from the Latin, ex-motus. (The “x” drops out b/c the Romans did not like certain kinds of consonants between vowels.) Ex-motus: a motion away, or a movement out of. At any rate, emotions are a kind of motion. And motion is a kind of change, specifically change in location. (I’m simplifying a bit, but, still, I think I’m speaking accurately for the purposes of this conversation.)

Now, for someone like Thomas Aquinas (and the vast majority of the tradition, including Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Hooker, de Luback & Balthassar would agree with him), it is very important to realize that God does not change. In my opinion this position is also utterly biblical.

Here is where it gets kind of dense, and difficult for us to wrap our minds around.

The reason God does not admit of any change or motion has to do with what change and motion are–they presuppose and “rely upon” time. And time, whatever it is, is a created thing. Hence, if God experiences or undergoes emotion, then God is a temporal being.

Plus, if you say that God changes, then (to the pre-modern mind) this implies a state in God which is less than perfect. And this is something we want to avoid thinking of or believing. The reason an acorn changes into an oak tree (so Aristotle, upon whom Thomas relies, would say) is that it lack perfection. Once it achieves its status as an oak tree, however, then it becomes “perfect” (or at least more perfect), b/c it has now achieved its God-given purpose, packed into nature, to become an oak tree.

Similarly, if you say that an elderly person’s muscles have atrophied–and this is a kind of change or motion opposite that of the oak tree, a kind of “devolution” away from “perfection”–then you imply that the person is “not perfect” in the opposite way of the acorn. You might say that that the acorn is “pre-perfection,” whereas the old person’s muscles are “post-perfection.” In both cases, the reality of change implies a lack of “perfection” in time. But this is not applicable to God: he is never “less than perfect” in this way.

(Note: the Greek word for “perfect” is teleotos, or something like that. This word is cognate with the word telos, which means, end or purpose, as in “The chief end of man is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.” My point here is that, when modern ppl like you & me think about “perfection,” we bring lots of assumptions which the pre-moderns did not share. For example, when I say “perfect” in the paragraph above, I am not implying anything like John Wesley’s supposed idea of “sinless perfection,” a state of sinlessness in man. That is not what we are talking about. Rather, we are talking about a state in which a being is “living into,” or achieving, its purpose. This is what the ancients & medeivals thought of as perfection.)

So … that is my attempt to show that God does not have emotion(s). Hope it makes sense.

Now, having said all of that, I do agree that the holiness of God requires that, since man has sinned and the fall has happened and there is evil and injustice, etc., in the world, God is absolutely in opposition to all of that. This is one reason (not the only reason) why the Bible (and the liturgy) speaks of the wrath of God. That is true. However, a) There must be some sense in which God does not have enemies: every creature that was made was made by him! b) This “wrath” cannot be essential to God. It is not true of God, in himself, or from all eternity, or apart from the creation of the world.

One last thought. I’d argue that this way of seeing God is “beyond emotion” is what allows us to resist the temptation to make God in our own image, kind of a sentimental God. Banish that thought!

Also, this way of thinking allows us to see human emotion as a participation in something “bigger and greater” in God. Our emotions, joy, sadness, etc., are not the same thing as what happens in God, but they are analogous participations in the Triune Life of Father, Son, & Holy Spirit. Example: our experiences of pain are a faint, dim intimation of what the Father must “feel like” when the Son moves away from him in the Perichoretic Dance.

Perichoresis (from Greek: περιχώρησις perikhōrēsis, “rotation”) is a term referring to the relationship of the three persons of the triune God (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) to one another. Circumincession (later circuminsession) is a Latin-derived term for the same concept. – wikipedia

Creation is “theomorphic” or God-shaped, but God is not anthropmorphic. We do not make God or conceive of God in our own image.

That’s it. God bless you today!

Peace,

Matt+

PS Yes, if we say that “God is anxious,” we must say that “God is anxiety himself,” which follows from the doctrine of divine simplicity. (The bulk of my email above is related to divine simplicity, but I’m attempting there to “break it down” a bit more for you.)

PSS Here’s a blog post about the term “emotivism” as well as emotion in general.

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God is not Angry

In a previous post, I wrote:

Thomas, in question 3 of the Summa, adumbrates the simplicity of God: that God’s existence is his essence, and that God has no (non-metaphorical) predicate that is not also his essence. If we can say “God is good,” for example, then it is necessarily true that God is goodness. So also for “one,” “beautiful,” “real,” etc.

Now given the doctrine of divine simplicity, the same move can be made with respect to anger. That is, if God is angry, then it necessarily follows that God is anger itself.

From here it follows that if God is not anger itself, then it is not the case that God is angry.

Now I’ve never known of a theologian willing to claim that God is anger itself. And there are many reasons for this, not least that this would “reify” or “hypostasize” anger, giving it an ultimate, uncreated ontological status completely independent of the Fall (of man & angels).

But do you see what’s going on? Since we know that it is not the case that God is anger itself, it necessarily follows that God is not angry.

Does Scripture (and the liturgy) speak of “the wrath of God?” Yes, it does. However, it is important to keep that strain of thought in its proper (marginal) place. It is true only in a distant and radically derivative sense. (I need to think more about this.)

One last note: notice that all of this presupposes the simplicity of God. In other words, it assumes the classical doctrine about God that, in particular, he is in no way subject to temporality (pace the likes of that “open theist” Greg Boyd and that “process theologian” Alfred North Whitehead and all their respective followers), which is wholly and completely a created thing. Otherwise, this line of thinking, which demonstrates that God is not angry, fails.

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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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Christ Praying in Men: the Atmosphere of Prayer

“But yet I would be able, after not so many months, to realize what was there, in the peace and the strength that were growing in me through my constant immersion in this tremendous, unending cycle of prayer, ever renewing in its vitality, its inexhaustible, sweet energies, from hour to hour, from season to season in its returning round. And I, drawn into that atmosphere, into that deep, vast universal movement of vitalizing prayer, which is Christ praying in men to His father, could not help but begin at last to live, and to know that I was alive. And my heart could not help but cry out within me: “I will sing to the Lord as long as I live: I will sing praise to my God while I have my being. Let my speech be acceptable to Him: but I will take delight in the Lord.” — Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain (Orlando: Harcourt, 1998), 331.

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Aristotle, Nature, & Original Sin

Those who know me (in a theological or intellectual context) know that I have never been overly drawn to discussions of topics that typically excite ardent Calvinist types. Examples of such topics: predestination, “total depravity,” original sin.

The reason for my reticence: I have long suspected, ever since my time at a prominent Reformed seminary in the late 1990’s) that most folks who have straightforward and forceful views on such matters are, quite simply, full of shit. This is especially true for “evangelical types,” and I can say that my experience over the last two decades has borne this out.

One reason it is so difficult not to be full of shit on these issues is the extent to which they are historically conditioned. They are the result of centuries of intellectual development, mainly in the “Latin speaking West.”

And so it is that I have never lost much sleep getting dragged into heated debates about Original Sin. My preferred mode of engagement is simply to agree with my Reformed, Anglican, and Catholic auctores and to assume that they were right, for example, to oppose and condemn Pelagianism.

But, now, enter Aristotle. In his introduction to the Nicomachean Ethics Joe Sachs helpfully points out a basic point in the ethical system of the Stagirite. Pace those who equate virtue with habit (thanks, Hippocrates Apostle), Sachs rightly emphasizes that the point about habit (Gk. hexis) for Aristotle is that, once we acquire them through the process of habituation, their purpose is to allow us to see reality truly for what it is.

This is because, for Aristotle, the universal experience of mankind is that, initially, our vision of reality is blocked or distorted when we exit the womb. The purpose of the newly acquired habits, then, is to counteract the already existing habits of selfishness and impulsive indulgence with which every one of us is born.

Think about Edmund at the beginning of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, when he is trapped by the irresistible allure of Turkish Delight. His vision of reality is distorted. He cannot think straight. He is in bondage to his desire. Aristotle agrees with the mainstream Christian tradition in the West that, simply put, we are all like Edmund (at least initially).

Once this gnarled vision of reality is cleared up for us, the distortion having been corrected, we are free to engage our faculties to develop right desire and right reason in our quest to attain true and abiding virtue and character.

But notice what has happened. The way Aristotle thinks about the initial state of the postnatal human being is strikingly close to the description of traditional Western Christianity, as for example enshrined in Anglicanism’s Thirty-Nine Articles:

IX. Of Original or Birth-Sin.
Original sin standeth not in the following of Adam, (as the Pelagians do vainly talk;) but it is the fault and corruption of the Nature of every man, that naturally is engendered of the offspring of Adam; whereby man is very far gone from original righteousness, and is of his own nature inclined to evil, so that the flesh lusteth always contrary to the Spirit; and therefore in every person born into this world, it deserveth God’s wrath and damnation. And this infection of nature doth remain, yea in them that are regenerated; whereby the lust of the flesh, called in Greek, φρονημα σαρκος, (which some do expound the wisdom, some sensuality, some the affection, some the desire, of the flesh), is not subject to the Law of God. And although there is no condemnation for them that believe and are baptized; yet the Apostle doth confess, that concupiscence and lust hath of itself the nature of sin.

Another point on which the Stagirite and the Christian tradition agree: the natal is not identical with the natural. In other words, this “default setting” of selfishness and impulsiveness with which a baby is born, for Aristotle as for the Bible, is not truly natural. For Aristotle “the natural” is precisely that vision alluded to above, the attainment of which is the negation of the vicious habits hardwired into us at birth. The truly natural for Aristotle, is the full flourishing, the full, active, fulfillment of what it means to be human.

A selfish person (be she Donald Trump at a political debate or a screaming two-year old, grabbing its favorite toy away from its infantile colleagues in the playgound) is not natural. A natural person–one living in accord with nature (or for Christianity, creation)–is someone who has achieved the enduring “higher pleasure” known as eudaimonia, or happiness. This is the purpose of human nature, this is the “functional concept” (Alasdair MacIntyre) of the human being. (A pox on both your houses, Thomas Hobbes and John Locke.)

This is why Aristotle suggests that the achievement of virtue or character is “a second nature.” It is just as “natural” as the “first nature.” Much more so, in fact.

It is here, finally, that Christianity “one ups” Aristotle, for the Christian realizes that the “second nature” of Aristotle is really the “third nature,” and that this third instantiation is really a return to the first. Virtue and character restore us to the original nature, the original righteousness which God wove into his original, creational design.

 

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Ministry, Margin, & Gleaning

The Old Testament from Last Sunday (the 5th Sunday of Easter) struck me deeply.

Here is a common experience for this preacher: after having spent (on Saturday and very early Sunday morning) hours of study, prayer, thought, and rhetorical preparation for my sermon in the 11:05 Epiphany Eucharist, I find myself sitting in the chancel pew in the Christ Church nave at the 7:30 Eucharist on Sunday morning. I’ve been focusing intently on my sermon, with its particular emphases rooted in a particular text, but now it is time to worship the Living God.

The faithful lay reader begins with the Old Testament lesson, and I begin to notice a different theme, a different image, a different tone than the one(s) I have been pounding home in my own sermon prep. Even though it often barely registers the first time through, this is the first nudge from the Holy Spirit that God is way bigger than I forgetfully assume. Then Father David (or Father Keith) mounts the pulpit. A typical experience is that those faint images from the lay reader’s voice–which had barely registered–are then handled deftly and persuasively by the preacher, and I am left undone. Often times tears begin to roll down my face.

I had been focusing on X, but it was Y which the Holy Spirit wanted to press into my bones. It is not that X was bad or unworthy; it is simply that God is bigger than my heart/mind, and I that am not in control.

I don’t remember what X was for me last Sunday; but I do remember Y.

Y was: gleaning. From Leviticus 19.

When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien. I am the LORD your God.

What are the ways I tend to “strip the vineyard bare?” What are the ways I forget about margin? The margin which allows me to work less, which allows others to thrive? I think about my car, my body, my family, my ministry.

I don’t want to romanticize ancient Israel’s practice of gleaning, and I am still prayerfully listening to what this might mean. But I do want to become so mature in Christ (Eph. 4:13) that I have some good stuff left over. That I am not continually “spent,” so that others can enjoy. That I remember that while hard work is good, it is not ultimate. My hard work is an act of obedience and worship, but at the end of the day, God must grant the harvest. God must make things grow. God must make everything OK.

Not reaping to the edges of our metaphorical (or literal) fields is an action, a little ritual, which reminds us that our hard work, our astute planning, our laborious attention, is penultimate at best.

Maybe the Pentateuch knows that for most of us, “workaholism” is a bigger danger than laziness, or that we have a tendency to oscillate between the two, or that most of us assume the paradigm of “working for our salvation.” And so it wisely gives us a golden mean for which to strive: not too little work, and not too much.

May God help me, and all of us, to become more like an ancient Israelite in this way, and less like a 21st century, capitalist-individualist American. May God help me, and all of us, to practice in our lives the ancient wisdom of gleaning.

 

 

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Intersubjective Ecclesiology

Today I experienced the Episcopal Church (in my diocese, the Diocese of Texas) at its best.  Today a small army of saints was newly confirmed and received, the Gospel of the Risen Christ was clearly preached, and the Kingdom of God was extolled and celebrated.

All this leads me to reflect on my church, and my place in it.

I am a traditional Christian. I am in a real sense deeply catholic, committed to the teaching of the apostles. And yet, my church–the Episcopal Church and the Diocese of Texas–seems (to my mind) to be drifting away from that foundation in some important ways.

Am I tempted to leave this church, to walk away and find greener pastures elsewhere, more doctrinally faithful to the apostles? Yes, I am.

And yet, what I am compelled to admit after today–a day of rich fellowship and joyful love with the saints–is that I can no more walk away from my church than I can walk away from myself.

Why would I say such a thing? I say it because this church is my very self.

In this lecture David Bentley Hart argues (at about the 19-minute mark) that the traditional doctrine of eternal damnation in hell presupposes something like Cartesian subjectivity. That is, to think that my loved ones can burn eternally in hell but that I can remain free and clear of those flames assumes that my soul is “buffered” (to invoke Charles Taylor’s) terminology, and this, in turn, is something like Descartes’ (or Kant’s) notion of the individual subject.

But this is not Christian. To view the soul or the human self in a way which resonates with Christian assumptions is to recognize that my soul is formed by, in, and with others. My soul is the product of a whole web of influences, personalities, convictions, perspectives which I did not invent, but rather which I inherited from others. That is, my soul is enmeshed with the souls of many others. My soul is not distinct, but “porous.” It overflows into the souls of others and vice-versa.

To embrace this is to embrace intersubjectivity.

My soul is intersubjectively enmeshed with the souls of countless others. But chiefly among these “countless others” are those with whom I share Christ’s body and blood week in and week out. Chiefly those with whom I am “one body”–the Body of Christ–in the most concrete ways possible. In the most basic, visible ways possible.

I am talking about my church. The visible Body of Christ with whom I am in communion. The Diocese of Texas. This is the community of souls with whom my soul is enmeshed.

I might not “agree” with the majority. Praise God! I get to demonstrate that the love of Christ is not conditioned by agreement, but is bigger and deeper!

I can no more leave these saints than I can leave myself. Literally.

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Faith becoming Sight

I have been meditating lately on Psalm 48:8: “As we have heard, so have we seen, in the city of our God.”

You see, faith is a “hearing thing”: it comes to us, as St. Paul reminds us in Romans 10:17, “by hearing.” His reminder that “we walk by faith and not by sight” (2 Cor 5:7) confirms the same point. Yet even though all this is true, and even though the book of Hebrews reminds us that “faith … is the conviction of things unseen,” nevertheless Psalm 48:8 presents us with the opposite perspective.

Yes, faith is a “hearing thing,” and, yes, we are called to walk by faith and not by sight. Nevertheless Psalm 48:8 reminds us that, in addition to all that, God desires that the contents of our faith also become visible. “As we have heard, so have we seen” means that the oracles of God, the promises of God, have now become manifest in the “real world,” the world of our sense perception, laid bare for all to see, to the glory of God. There is a time and a place for this, too. The heart of a Christian longs to see the things of faith become visible. The follower of Christ longs for the Kingdom of God—the reign of God—to become palpably present in the daily lives of men, women, and boys and girls. When this happens, faith has “become sight;” the word of God has become visible, palpable, seen.

I want to point to two examples of “faith becoming sight.” The first is Promise Academy, located in the building of New Days Community Church in North Tyler, near the corner of Broadway and Gentry. At this brand new school, in its very first year, the promises of God and the longing of God’s people are becoming visible. Here, at Promise Academy, hope is being provided for a handful of little ones (right now, the school only consists of Kindergarten; God willing, first grade will be added next year). At this school, a small number of mainly black and Hispanic kindergartners are learning how they are fearfully and wonderfully made, how God’s ways are the best ways, how trust and obedience in the God who loves them will bear fruit in their lives. All this is becoming visible: in their facial expressions, in the life of their families, in the physical beauty and orderliness of their lives (both in the classroom and out).[*]

My second example is a very different one, but one no less breathtaking: Christ Church South. The groundbreaking ceremony we experienced last week … this, too, is an example of “faith becoming sight:” a new Temple for the worship of God is being erected right in front of us! A new House of Prayer for all people and for a burgeoning community of friends in faith is being raised up, for all the world to see. Not only is God’s creation being transfigured from glory to glory, but sacred, sacramental space is being consecrated and set apart. Fr. David’s “message” at the perimeter of the construction sight “nailed it:” just imagine how many generations of lives will be impacted for the cause of Christ and the sake of the Kingdom.

All this in a contemporary world wracked by division, addiction, and heartache. A sign of visible hope, a leading indicator of Gospel victory. By the grace of God alone.

“As we have heard, so have we seen, in the city of our God.”

 

[*] To learn more about Promise Academy, please visit http://promisetyler.org/

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Anglican Primates 2016 (my thoughts)

This last week the Anglican Primates Meeting occurred in Canterbury, and the meeting has attracted much attention.

For background, see here and here.

Two thoughts (since folks have been asking me):

  1. This is a welcome development, because for the Episcopal Church to think that we can “have our cake and eat it, too” is a travesty. What the primates did is to send a signal to the Episcopal Church that certain decisions  we have made having to do with marriage and its redefinition will now bring about certain consequences. We will now no longer be able to tell our global partners in ministry to “bugger off” and that we are going to do our own thing, and still expect that we will be able to be “warm and fuzzy” with them. We can no longer do that. This is a good thing, because in any real relationship, actions have consequences. Show me a relationship in which actions do not have consequences, and I will show you a superficial relationship, which isn’t really real.
  2. It just became a lot easier to imagine a time in the near future when the Episcopal Church will not be part of the Anglican Communion.

As always, the thought of Ephraim Radner in this area is worth considering, and I agree with it wholeheartedly.

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Incurvatus in se

In one of his earlier works, the Lectures on the Romans, Martin Luther drew on highlights from Augustine to introduce theology to an extraordinary image for understanding the experience of being a sinner. ‘Scripture,’ Luther tells us, ‘describes man as so curved in upon himself that he uses not only physical but even spiritual goods for his own purposes and in all things seeks only himself.’ (Luther’s Works, vol. 25, p. 345, see also pp. 291-92). What Luther means is  (i) that despite our best efforts to get beyond ourselves, to love and serve others to the best of our ability, human beings find it impossible to escape the gravity well of self-interest, and (ii) we are often unconscious of this fact, even as it in fact drives our behavior. Luther quotes Jeremiah 17:9: ‘The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately corrupt–who can understand it?’

— Quoted from The Mockingbird, vol. 6, p. 35.

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Epiphany & the Strange Gift

What is the strangest birthday gift you have ever received?

What if someone gave you the gift of a tombstone for your birthday? How about a coffin?

As I said in a sermon on the 4th floor this past Sunday, if one is in their 20’s, with decades of life in front of them, they might interpret such a gift as a bizarre joke. But if you are in your 70’s or 80’s, with only a few more years of this life to look forward to, then such a present would surely provoke distress and offense.

As Fr. David hinted from the Christ Church pulpit this last Sunday, the gift of myrrh—gifted by the three Magi to the baby Jesus on that day long ago—is a strange gift indeed. A spice or ointment used for embalming the dead, it points directly to the death of this Baby. Here in the presence of the Mother of God, it foreshadows the cross of Christ, the arrow which will pierce her own heart (Luke 2:35).

There is so much going on in Matthew’s presentation of these exotic Magician-Kings from the East. In addition to the foreshadowing of the cross, this story also startles us into the realization that Christ came to form a new global community, a new international family, composed not just of Jews and Gentiles, but also of “civilized” and “barbarian.” For not only were these three strange pilgrims not religious authorities; not only where they not rank-and-file Jewish worshippers; they weren’t even Roman citizens. They were literally from the edges of the earth, from way outside “the grid.” And yet in Matthew’s story they are the first to bow down and worship the Jewish Messiah.

These are just a couple of reasons why, for me, the Epiphany is my favorite feast of the Church. A couple of reasons why, too, we named our new community within Christ Church “the Epiphany Community.”

As we observe the final Epiphany (January 6) before launching Christ Church South, I am full of awe and excitement. Awe that God has been faithful; excitement for the coming season of mission and ministry.

I am mindful that the mission of Gospel love in the world is unstoppable. As we continue to commend the love of Christ to all kinds of folks in Tyler and East Texas, God will bless our efforts, even though the results will not look like what we expect. It will be an astonishing surprise.

Here, too, we find a clue from Matthew’s story in chapter 2 of his Gospel. Imagine what was going on in Mary and Joseph’s hearts and minds that night. They have finally found a place to lay their weary bodies. A firm bed from which to enter into the travail of childbirth. At this point Mary and Joseph have literally had their world turned upside down, and their heads are spinning. They don’t “know which way is up.” Neither would I, had I experienced all of that: the visitations from the angels, the unexplainable pregnancy, the near divorce, the forced migration. Surely they were on the brink of a nervous breakdown or worse.

And then, after the crying newborn has been safely delivered, as Mary’s pain and discomfort finally recedes, they look up, and what do they see? An astonishing surprise. A multitude of shepherds surrounding three strange Kings from the East, bowing down to worship their child, bearing lavish gifts of grace and abundance.

At that moment, their struggling trust was vindicated, and they knew that God powerfully at work in their lives. It was wild. It was crazy. It was uncontrollable. But it was from the Lord.

As it was for them on that first Epiphany, so may it be for us in ours.

Happy New Year!

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Trump, Marwa Balker, & Identity Politics

In this story, CNN.com reports on an “open letter” (in the form of a Facebook post) by California college-student Muslim Marwa Balker.

Ms. Balker is responding to the recent, deplorable comments by Donald Trump on the Muslim community in the United States.

Obviously Trump is an idiot. It is, however, Ms. Balker’s comments which I think need to be examined, precisely because the ideology they display is much more insidious, as proven by the fact that CNN holds her comments up as an example of model political speech.

Addressing Mr. Trump, Balker states: “Being Muslim does not make me any less American than you are.” That this statement seems natural and noble is obvious to anyone living in Western society in the 21st century.

However, one of my leading theological / philosophical lights, Michel de Certeau (sort of the Christian version of Michel Foucault) would say that Balker is reducing the difference of another to the same, to a false identity.

She is attempting to constitute one thing (American identity, identity as a U.S. citizen) as the whole. Certainly Trump is performing a different version the same attempt; of course “radical Islam” tries to do the same; admittedly the Church historically has been guilty of the same project.

For de Certeau, however (as articulated in his article “How is Christianity Thinkable Today?”) this move, this strategy, is not authentically Christian. de Certeau would call this “a false universalism that functions as a mask.”

When I say that I am a Christian first, a Texan second, and an American third, this is the sort of issue I am trying to allude to.

Ms. Balker is plainly an American first and a Muslim second. My stance, on the contrary, is that the only possible universalism is that of the “concrete universal” (Heidegger), in which difference is not eclipsed but lived with and engaged. Authentic Christianity, that is, life within the Body of Christ, really does make such an approach possible. The Christian church is the only (possible) concrete universal I know of.

As de Certeau points out, the existence of the four Gospels demonstrates the founding importance of admitting intractable difference: the Gospel of Mark is not saying the same thing as the Gospel of John.

Theology, as Milbank says, is (or can be) the “discourse of nonmastery.”

Modern liberal political philosophy, of the kind that Ms. Balker has swallowed uncritically, cannot make this claim; nor does it want to.

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Running (with a “light touch”)

A couple of nights ago I had a wonderful conversation with my 73 year old dad (who had a stroke a week ago). We talked about a devotional book that he (and my whole family) read called _Jesus Calling_.

What a blessing this book has been for us. The entry for Nov. 15 reads thus:

Approach problems with a light touch. When your mind moves toward a problem area, you tend to focus on that situation so intensely that you lose sight of Me. You pit yourself against the difficulty as if you had to conquer it immediately. Your mind gears up for battle, and your body becomes tense and anxious. Unless you achieve total victory, you feel defeated.

There is a better way. When a problem starts to overshadow your thoughts, bring this matter to Me. Talk with Me about it and look at it in the Light of My Presence. This puts some much-needed space between you and your concern, enabling you to see from My perspective. You will be surprised at the results. Sometimes you may even laugh at yourself for being so serious about something so insignificant.

You will always face trouble in this life. But more importantly, you will always have Me with you, helping you to handle whatever you encounter. Approach problems with a light touch by viewing them in My revealing Light.

Blessed are those who have learned to acclaim you, who walk in the light of your presence, O Lord.
—Psalm 89:15

“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”
—John 16:33

My godly father went on to speak about how he has _never_ approached life, or life’s problem’s this way. Instead he has always attacked any problem “directly and head on,” trying to fix things immediately and to exercise full control. But now, on the other side of a stroke, he was able to appreciate this wisdom at a deeper level.

What an opportunity, we went on to contemplate together, to let God show us new ways, new paths, new approaches to life, new ways of being. Whether you are 73 or (like me) 43.

Today on my 10-mile morning run, after a rainy morning during which I worked, studied, and wrote at a coffee shop for about four hours (waiting for the rain to end), I was thinking about this “light touch.” I was mindful that this is how it is with running, too. At various points along this morning’s ten mile run, with the sky now dazzling blue with the sunlight dissolving the last vestiges of cloud, I thought about and meditated on the fact that distance running requires a “light touch.” Neither bulldozing forward with brute force, nor procrastinating on your ass waiting for the perfect conditions to run.

Instead, “running with a light touch” is a lot like what the ancients meant by practical wisdom (phonesis; prudentia). As I plan to articulate in a future blog post, the ability or “know how” to live–or to run–with a “light touch” is analogous to driving with a good set of shock absorbers. Shock absorbers which can respond to the bumps and potholes of life. Phronesis is the wisdom to know that sometimes the truths of theory (epistemescientia) don’t link up, don’t precisely “map onto” the rough-and-tumble of life completely smoothly and  without remainder.

Hence, we must run and travel and live “with a light touch,” trusting in God and holding our theory / plans / knowledge very loosely as we travel down the road of life, as wayfarers in transit to our final destination which is God.

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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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Nietzsche & “Family Values”

When was the last time you heard a pastor or a conservative politician in America invoke the notion of “traditional family values”? Examples of this kind of rhetoric abound, and one quick example is this.

Question: if 19th century atheist philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche could hear someone (a pastor, a politician, a “think tank”) invoke this rhetorical phrase, what would he say? I’m pretty sure he’d say: “I won!”

In his editorial introduction to Nietzsche’s _Beyond Good and Evil_, Rolf Peter Hortsmann provides the following summary of three Nietzschean bedrock convictions as expressed in this book (pp xvi – xvii):

  1. “Life is best conceived of as a chaotic dynamic process w/o any stability or direction.”
  2. We have no reason whatsoever to believe in any such thing as the “sense” or “value” of life, insofar as these terms imply the idea of an “objective” or “natural” purpose of life.
  3. Human life is “value-oriented” in its very essence – that is, w/o adherence to some set of values or other, human life would be virtually impossible.

Commenting on this summary, Hortsmann continues: “Where the first conviction is supposed to state an ontological fact, the second is meant to be an application of the ontological point to the normative aspects of human life in particular. The third conviction, though somewhat at odds with the first two, is taken by Nietzsche to reveal a psychological necessity.”

Values, then, are for Nietzsche a way of coping with the senselessness of life.

Now, as Allan Bloom states in this lecture, no-one in the United States talked about “values” before Nietzsche; he introduced this language and rhetoric into our culture. Why, then, do conservative, evangelical Christians adopt a category which has as its foundation atheistic nihilism? Why do they speak of “values,” as in “traditional, family values”?

The answer to that question is complicated, but for me the most penetrating analysis would have to deal with the fact that evangelicalism, in addition to its frequent historical ignorance, long ago jettisoned the Church’s traditional language of the objective Good which is mediated by and embodied in the formation of virtue. It has become a thinly-veiled secularism.

If you lose the language and tradition of virtue (and by the way “virtue” was totally absent from my senior-year ethics class at a prominent Evangelical seminary in the year 2000; instead we focused entirely on “what the Bible teaches”), then you lose any objective basis for morality. And if you lose that, then right-and-wrong devolve into something like preference.

“My tribe’s ‘preference’ over yours:” this is not far from today’s culture wars. That the partisans in this struggle often resort to bullying and might-makes-right tactics (on both sides, including the “Christian Right”) is yet another symptom of the underlying source of the illness: that modern American evangelicalism has “given away the farm” to secularism.

 

 

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Bonaventure & “Affective Experience”

In Bonaventure’s _The Soul’s Journey into God_, the Seraphic Doctor offers a regimen for how the soul can come to mirror God, a suggested path for what this might look like.

In this context he says that such an achievement “is more a matter of affective experience [of the inner senses] than rational consideration.”

What might this affective experience of the inner senses mean? What is “inner sense,” anyway?

Without getting too bogged down in pre-modern faculty theory, recall that Aristotle and his medieval followers believed in a faculty of the soul called the “common sense.” This faculty or power is what allows a person to coordinate various sensory input. For example, consider an ice cube. If one holds the ice cube in her hand, she perceives by the sense of touch that it is cold, but she _also_ perceives by vision that it is grey in color, and cubical in shape. But how does she know that the cold thing and the cubical thing are one and the same thing? She knows this, thanks to the work of the inner sense power called the common sense.

Now, although for some early modern thinkers such as Descartes the common sense receives its input prior to the work of the memory and the imagination, for scholastic thinkers such as Thomas and Bonaventure, the common sense is situated _after_ the memory and the imagination. What this means is that the work of his faculty is not limited to the coordination of various sense stimuli, coming from diverse organs of the outer sense (e.g. eyes and skin). Rather, the common sense also imbues the object of thought with qualities supplied by memory and imagination. Surely it is here, in the memory and the imagination, where the “affections” which Bonaventure stresses, originate.

I thought of an example. Suppose you had a bit too much to drink last night. Suppose you drank a bit too much vodka, and you are a bit hung over. Suppose, further, that you just finished a 7 mile morning run, and you are very thirsty. You look up and you see two bottles, both containing clear liquid. For the purpose of this analogy assume that neither bottle has a label on it. You know that one bottle contains vodka, and the other one water.

Notice that the sensory input coming from you eyes as they gaze upon the different bottles is identical. That is, the eyes perceive no difference between the liquid contained in the two bottles: in both cases it is clear and colorless. Yet when you focus on the bottle of vodka you are repulsed, and when you focus on the bottle of water, you are so attracted to it that your mouth waters, impelling you finally to pick up the bottle, open the lid, and gulp down its contents.

What accounts for the difference between your different perceptions of the two bottles of clear, colorless liquid? It is not your vision or any other external sense power. The difference is “affective:” your perception is altered by the “inner sense power,” the “faculty” of “common sense,” which combines features of the two liquids, supplied by the memory and the imagination, with your visual perception of them.

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