Posted on: May 26th, 2022 A Psalmic “Koan”

In my morning prayer time today (in Psalm 119), I came across the following two lines:

  • “I have sworn to keep your … judgements.” (Ps 119:106)
  • “O LORD … teach me your … judgements.” (Ps 119:108)

Now, what is going on here? How can the Psalmist—or you or I—presume to be able to keep God’s judgements (v 106) when we need to be taught what they are (and hence clearly do not even know what they are)?

Now, there’s obviously a whole lot going on here … and I am by no means trying to cast aspersions upon the Psalm or to suggest any incoherence.

If anything is undermined here, it is any facile presumption that keeping God’s judgements, being faithful to him, is a straightforward or obviously clear endeavor.

What are the judgements of the LORD? The koan-like character of these lines reminds us that knowing them is the task of a lifetime. Yes, we must commit ourselves to faithfulness, but even as we do that, and with God’s grace, more is unfolded to us. More is revealed.

In the Christian life, there is no easy compliance.

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Posted on: April 1st, 2022 Deep Hope within the Episcopal Church

It is easy to get discouraged in the Episcopal Church for a whole variety of reasons. Yet, these two videos (this one and this one)—which, somehow, had escaped my notice—are so, so good.

In the first one Ellen Davis speaks of Scripture as that which prompts God’s people to begin to imagine and speak in primordially refreshing ways.

In the second one Bishop Curry refers to the sacrament of Holy Eucharist as “the sacrament of unity,” that which can heal our deepest estrangements.

Therein lies my hope, in this fragmenting, VUCA culture. Thanks be to God!

(I’m grateful to the Society of Scholar-Priests for the role they played, I think, in making these vids a reality.)

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Posted on: January 18th, 2022 Running & Hexis

Like a lot of folks, I grew up with a parent who frequently emphasized to us kids the importance of habits, both good (like brushing your teeth) and bad (like picking your finger nails).

Habit. Its meaning seems obvious: some repeated action that ends up become second nature, or perhaps—to invoke a contentious adjective—rote. That word “rote” connotes something unthinking and lifeless, mindlessly habitual.

I suppose that many in the West have assumed they grasp the sense of “habit” ever since Thomas Aquinas, following older Latin translations of Aristotle (William of Moerbeke?), made habit a bedrock virtue of Christian maturity. The term they used, habitus, was their Latin translation of choice for the Stagirite’s original hexis.

But is hexis, in Aristotle’s mind and usage, really what we mean by “habit,” with it connotations of static lifelessness? With Joe Sachs, I think not. Sachs, in his introduction to his English translation of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, writes

… what defines hexis is that it is not a passive state but an active condition, a way in which we hold ourselves, having taken hold deliberately of the feelings and dispositions that are in us merely passively….

An example comes from my decades-long experience of long-distance running. While on a long run, say 10 or 12 miles, I embrace a variety of postures and attitudes. For example, I frequently give myself “permission” to run slowly. (In fact, sometimes I will see how slow I can possibly run, in a runner’s version of the “slow cooking” movement.) Other times I run at a very comfortable pace. Sometimes I sprint. But sometimes

I try to hold a moderate pace, maybe for a specific number of minutes, or perhaps for a specific distance. For me this is probably just under an eight-minute-per-mile pace. When I do that—not exactly “pushing myself to the limit,” but also not lackadaisically “coasting”—what am I doing? I’m “holding myself” actively in a certain, constant state. It requires intentionality; it requires exertion. And if one engages in this activity for months, years, decades, it can become kind of, sort of, automatic, although never simply passive.

When I run in this way, I often meditate on Aristotle’s notion of hexis.

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Posted on: August 10th, 2021 Running thru the Tough Times (as a Priest)

When I was in seminary (the second time, as an Episcopalian, not the first time, as a Presbyterian) a wise priest counseled us students: “You will find it quite helpful in your ministry always to have three important relationships: one with a therapist, one with a confessor, and one with a spiritual director.”

Strong words. Words which, received with mild skepticism back then, I embrace and affirm today. Nevertheless, I have not always lived up to them, for rarely over my two decades of ordained ministry have I had relationships with all three types of counselor at the same time.

What I have had during the past two decades (and before) is the gift of running.

While I doubt that I have another marathon in me, and while the Texas summer months always threaten to derail me (I admit it), running remains a lifeline for me. This is true in general, but it has been more especially true lately, over the past year-and-a-half (ish).

Is it just me, or have the last eighteen months or so seen a level of anxiety previously unknown? Granted, the pandemic is not World War II or the Great Depression, but there’s no doubt that it has brought with it a kind of malaise and dread which even those previous trials did not exude.  

During it all (I include not the pandemic in isolation, but the multitude of effects it has wrought) I have run.

For me running is not a form of exercise; it’s a way of being present with myself.

Running is like contemplative prayer. Nay, it is contemplative prayer. In it I come face to face with my fears, my anxieties, my guilt, my obsessions, my sins, my worries.

Just as in contemplative prayer, on my runs, I’m confronted with all of these “enemies” (to use the language of the Psalms, for example, in Ps 59:1). They just “pop up” in my head and heart, accusing me, tormenting me. It’s quite a problem, in the heat of the moment. Our secular world’s solution? Distraction (usually by way of entertainment or social media) or escape (often through drugs or alcohol, or, less destructively, medication).

But for beings who would be spiritual, there is a better way.

“The way out is the way through,” says the old Buddhist maxim.

Running is my main way of “going through.” Through the pain, through the fear, through the anxiety.

Christ undergirds this image, for his “way out” was the ultimate “way through.” Through the cross, through death, to indestructible life.

I have a feeling that, in my struggles with anxiety, I am not alone. (Indeed, I know that I’m not: I’m a pastor, and I know my sheep!) What are your ways of coping, of dealing with the onslaught, especially during the pandemic? I’d sincerely like to know. (Email me!)

“The way out is the way through.” Thanks be to God for the “throughness” of the cross!

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Posted on: August 3rd, 2021 Who may dwell in your tabernacle?

The purpose of this short post is simple: to articulate how and why the Psalms speak of Jesus Christ.

While all of the Psalms are christocentric—in fact according to the Book of Hebrews Jesus is the one who sings the Psalms—Psalm 15 is a particularly apt example, for it requires a kind of perfection in order for one to experience God’s presence.

“LORD, who may dwell upon your holy hill?” Who can rest in your peace and enjoy your presence?” Only she who is blameless. Only the one who speaks the truth in a completely authentic manner. Only one who never gives into the temptation of wrongful financial gain.

Who has done these things? Absolutely no one.

Who has done these things, has kept the law blameless, from the heart? No one. No one, that is except for the man Jesus Christ.

So who may enjoy God’s presence? Who is the one for whom God’s temple is open and available? Only Jesus Christ … and those who are found in him, who are united to him by faith, who are members of his body, having been buried with him in death, and raised with him in newness of life.

Why may enjoy the life-giving presence of God? Those who are mystically in Christ.

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Posted on: January 21st, 2021 Schelling, Augustine, Remembering

Grant Kaplan on Schelling: “The Urmensch adam was ‘connected with the divine consciousness’ and ‘in immediate communion [Gemeinschaft] with the creator.’”[1]

One could, and should, spend costly time and effort of thought trying to imagine, to imaginatively discover, what this “immediate communion” with God—this direct and surely intimate relationship between man and God—was like.

I have often used as a sermon illustration the image of my daughters running to me after getting home from work, unlocking the front door, running up to me, jumping up onto me, screaming: “Daddy! Daddy! You’re home!” This, to me, is a dim intimation of what such intimate, loving communion with God must have been like in the Garden of Eden.

For Augustine (as a good Platonist), this is the primal memory which determines man more than any other. The pilgrimage of the Christian life, for him, is the process of recollecting, uncovering, getting back into touch with, this primal memory of communion with God in the garden.

For the Psalmist (especially in Psalms such as Ps 119, and within that especially in sections such as He, Waw, Zayin, Heth, and Teth), this is the point of the law, of meditating on God’s law day and night, with one’s “whole heart,” Ps. 119:34, 58 (BCP). To meditate on God’s torah, I have come to believe, is, at the deepest level, to dwell on God’s words to Moses (and the people of Israel) in Exodus 19:

You have seen what I did to the Egyptians,

How I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself.

Now therefore if you obey my voice and keep my covenant,

You shall be my treasured possession out of the all the peoples.

Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be to me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.

These are the words that you shall speak to the Israelites.

It seems to me that here, we see God’s heart for humanity. Here, perhaps more than anywhere else in Scripture, we get a glimpse of the direct, intimate communion between God and man in the Garden.   


[1] Kaplan, Answering the Enlightenment 86a.

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Posted on: December 9th, 2020 Thoughts on Self-awareness

For my entire adult life, I have loved to run, mainly long distances. Currently I am running about 30 miles per week. 30 miles a week of prayer, silence, solitude, breathing, taking in the light, listening to and for God.

Especially for my long runs, I will occasionally drive to White Rock Lake in Dallas (about 75 miles away from my home in East Texas), where there is a lovely running path encircling the lake. On a cool winder day with blue skies and sunshine, it is truly glorious.

I’ve been running around the lake for about 7 or 8 years now … nowadays about once a month (but in a previous stage of life I’d do it more like once a week). Lately—the last five or six times—I have noticed a cyclist who whizzes past me (and every other runner and walker on the trail) who, near the top of his lungs, yells out, with loud Texas drawl “HOWDY! GOOD MORNIN’!” This is something I have “noticed”—how could one not notice?—or, rather, something with which I have been confronted, almost in the form of an audible assault.

I am sure that this man is well-intentioned. Yet his blaring, booming “greeting” is also, at least for me, somewhat irritating.

This man—I am confident in asserting—lacks self-awareness.

What is self-awareness?

I do not have a technical definition in mind to share with you. And yet, having thought about this for over a decade now, I believe that I do grasp the essence of it. Self-awareness is the sensitivity one develops, the ability to see that certain of their actions—actions which are purportedly for the benefit of another—are actually performed for their own benefit, in order somehow to make themselves feel better.

Conversely a lack of self-awareness manifests itself when one fails to see this, to perceive this, to appreciate this.

When I was a small boy my dad (whom I love dearly, beyond words) used to put his hand on my head and rub my hair, drastically re-arranging it. “Good boy,” he’d say, as he rocked my head back and forth, turning my blond locks into a tussle of messiness. Then, with a couple more pats on the head (as if I were a canine), he’d say again: “Good boy.”

Now, I love my dad! He (like the cyclist) was well-intentioned, in a way. And yet … as he expressed or emoted his feeling of affection for me, did he really have my own good in view?

Or the cyclist: as he whizzes past the runners and belts out his morning greeting for all of Dallas to hear, is he truly motivated by a desire for the good of his neighbor?

Or, rather, is he actually doing something, performing an action, somehow for the benefit on himself? (Perhaps to call attention to himself, perhaps to be able to think or feel better about himself?)

I see this same tendency in myself frequently. Even with my dog or my cat—to return to the issue of semi-fierce caressing of hair or fur—I sometimes think, “Am I doing this for their good, or is this supposed to make me feel better?”

Even if the latter is my true motivation, it is good, at least, to be aware of it.

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Posted on: July 10th, 2020 Notes on sin, death, sacrifice (a brief sketch)

If there is a contradiction between modern evolution and orthodox Christian theology, it goes something like this:

Christianity (the biblical story) says that humans die (and suffer disease) only because of sin (e.g., Rom 8:10). But evolution says that animal and biological death was a necessary condition for the evolutionary emergence of the human being.

This seems like a contradiction (or something like it), because in order for both the biblical story and evolution to be true, one must must hold that without sin, a death-filled process led up to the emergence of a creature who was never going to die, who was never “intended” to die.

Unless. Unless what my friend Nathan Jennings implies in his book Liturgy and Theology is true. For there he suggests that what God has always wanted (and had always wanted) from humanity is sacrifice, including self-sacrifice. Just as Paul in Rom 12 urges Christians to “present your bodies as living sacrifices,” so also Adam (not intended merely literally) was always supposed to lay down his life in sacrifice to God (and others?). Then and only then, could God raise the human up (or resurrect the human) to an even higher kind of life.

(Nathan develops this idea, among other ways, in terms of the significance of the creation of the human on Day 6, and making some connections about eating.)

If this is right, then it means that we can have both evolution and the biblical story, for death has always been part of God’s plan. For lower creatures, it was part of the process leading up to Adam; for Adam (or humans) it was intended to be in the form of pre-resurrection self-sacrifice.

In conclusion, then, we can say that what the Fall (or the entrance of sin into the world) brings about not death, not even human death. Rather, it brings about involuntary human death.

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Posted on: March 21st, 2020 Peterson on Church & Prayer

This paragraph from Eugene Peterson’s The Contemplative Pastor is so good I must quote it in full.

I remembered a long-forgotten sentence by George Arthur Buttrick, a preacher under whom I sat for a year of Sunday … sermons while in seminary: “Pastors think people come to church to hear sermons. They don’t; they come to pray and to learn to pray.” I remembered Anselm’s critical transition from talking about God to talking to God. He had written his Monologion, setting forth the proofs of God’s existence with great brilliance and power. It is one of the stellar theological achievements in the West. Then he realized that however many right things he said about God, he had said them all in the wrong language. He re-wrote it all in [the] Proslogion, converting his Language II [discursive language] into Language I [the language of intimacy]: first person address, an answer to God. The Proslogion is theology as prayer.

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Posted on: February 20th, 2020 Augustine on passionately returning to God

This section of the Confessions (XII.ix.10) blows my mind (not least b/c it occurs in nestled within a rigorous interrogation of the cosmology presented by the Book of Genesis).

May the truth, the light of my heart, not my darkness, speak to me. I slipped down into the dark and was plunged into obscurity. Yet from there, even from there, I loved you. “I erred and remembered you” (Ps 118:76). “I heard your voice behind me” (Ezek 3:12) calling me to return. And I could hardly hear because of the hubbub of the people who know no peace. Now, see, I am returning hot and panting to your spring. Let no one stand in my path. Let me drink this and live by it. May i not be my own life. On my own resources I lived evilly. To myself I was death. In you I am recovering life. Speak to me, instruct me. I have put faith in your books. And their words are mysterious indeed.

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Posted on: January 10th, 2019 Bird Box, “Deaths of Despair,” & the Gospel

It’s been eight decades since Albert Camus dropped the famous bombshell in the playground of Western culture that the only “serious philosophical question” left for us to ponder is: why not suicide?

What was in 1940 a radical, subversive scandal (and not just in 1940: I remember reading the Stranger, mesmerized, on the campus of UT Austin in a beautiful, melancholy courtyard, during a tumultuous rainstorm in 1995) is, near the end of the first quarter of the 21st century, well, mainstream, bourgeoisie, maybe even blah.

Hence Jay Asher’s 2007 novel Thirteen Ways to Die. Hence a 2015 National Academy of the Sciences report that, for the first time in a century, the mortality rate among “middle aged, white Americans” was on the rise, due to suicide and other “deaths of despair.” Hence the 2016 film “Suicide Squad” (with the sequel planned for later this year). Today, suicide is not edgy and dopamine-producing; if anything it’s banal.

But if its banal, its definitely not pleasant to watch. If one is in doubt about this claim, one only has to watch the 2018 Netflix hair-raiser Bird Box, starring, among others Sandra Bullock and John Malkovich.

Pleasant, no. But disturbing to the point of provoking existential self-examination, yes. There is so much about this film to discuss, but in this brief piece I’d like simply to address one aspect of the film, one assumption that it makes (this being your requisite spoil alert).

In the film, during which one suicide after another takes place, the viewer learns that the motivation behind each decision to end it all lies the root reality of fear and regret. Some quality of the evil “something” which victim after victim sees triggers within them the hyper-intensified memory of something beyond traumatizing, some kind of anguish (remembered or imagined) too agonizing to bear. With dreadful tears of dread, one character after another decides to end it all, with absolutely zero regard for who might suffer from their loss or who might witness the tragedy.

Indeed, the salient assumption in the film is that a typical human life lived in Western society will eventually be filled with such traumatic regret or horror. That is, after spending decades of one’s life in the cesspool of human civilization, the typical adult life (or soul) will be so saturated with guilt, fear, and despair that eventually, and given the right triggers, the thought of continuing to live becomes tortuously unbearable.

The film presupposes, that is, not simply that human life is not worth living, but that it is a given that, in the main and over time, normal human fear, shame, and guilt will accrue to the point of no return and no redemption. (It’s kind of like an alternative version on the level of the individual, of the dark, negative assumptions of modern philosophy at the level of the political.)

This assumption on the film’s part explains the role of the two small children (“Boy” and “Girl”) in the narrative. Since they they have only lived in the hellish wasteland of humanity for a mere four or so years, they have up to this point in their lives accrued a far smaller amount of emotional baggage of the heart, in comparison to their middle aged counterparts. Hence they are able to do things and perform tasks which older characters cannot.

The burden of this modest post is not to take issue with this assessment: it does seem plausible—a mere logical consequence, even—in today’s secular, nihilistic world.

Rather, I’d like to remind my readers, and above all myself, that there is a better way. It is called the way of the Gospel. The way of the Good News of Jesus Christ.

The astonishing thing about the Christian Gospel is that it does not live in fear (much less in denial) of the horror of the very real tragedies that exist within us and outside of us. On the contrary: Psalm 88 is utterly devoid of redemption, as is the service of Good Friday (for example, in the Book of Common Prayer). There is a time and a place for horrific, gut-wrenching grieving. Christians are not shiny-happy people.

And yet, when a believer embraces the dark side of reality within her and without, what does she find? She finds God. A Deity of Despair. A Lord of Languish. A Christ, anguishing and then dead, pinned and afixed like a tortured specimen, on a Roman torture device called the cross.

This is the better way, for in the life one who has been crucified with Christ (Gal 2:20), this gruesome darkness is not the end, but the beginning. (For him, in this limited sense despair can be delicious, as Martin Luther taught.) As the story goes, Christ did not remain on the cross or in the tomb.

The senseless suffering, guilt, and pain, it turns out, is not the end. Yet it absolutely must serve as the beginning. The beginning of a new life, victorious over despair.

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Posted on: December 26th, 2018 Priesting from the Between

What follows is a talk I recently gave at a conference in Dallas. 

I. Ministering from the Middle: the Dangers of Priesthood.

I want to begin today with a quick story, a story about my wife Bouquet and my 15-year old daughter Bella. That’s right: Bella is 15 years old, which means that she is in the throes of puberty, right in the middle of those glorious teenage years.

In all seriousness, she is a wonderful, blossoming, young woman, full of love, humility, and kindness. And yet, there is one area of real disagreement with her mother: piano lessons. After about eleven straight years of nonstop piano lessons, Bella really wants to quit piano lessons. There’s only one problem: her mother / my wife.

Her mother / my wife … who is also my best friend, my closest advocate, and … someone with whom I don’t really look forward to crossing swords. And yet, I also see where Bella is coming from. And so, here I am, caught in the middle.

And speaking of being caught in the middle, that’s actually a feeling / position that I’m fairly well acquainted with. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that I’m a middle child, but I always seem to find myself … in the middle. When I was a church planter in urban Austin in the early “aughts,” I found myself in the middle of the “Mother Church” / “Sending Church” on the one hand, and the church plant—that rag tag group of misfits who were newcomers and outsiders to the tradition—on the other. So many messy issues. From the point of view of the Mother Church: “why do the kids cry in church so often?” “When will these new members finally start carrying their weight financially?” … And from the perspective of the church plant community: “Why are the elders so cold and standoffish? Why won’t they let us do such and such? Why are they so uptight and controlling?”

And by the way it’s pretty much the same in my current role. About 21 months ago Christ Church in Tyler, Texas opened the doors of a second campus, a second worshipping community called “Christ Church South.” Last fall over 30 adults were confirmed / received by the Bishop. A year before that, almost none of them could spell “Episcopalian.” The issues between the “established community” of Christ Church in Downtown Tyler on the one hand, and Christ Church South (the second campus) on the other are quite similar to the issues and dynamics I experienced in Austin … and once again I find myself smack dab, right in the middle. More often than not I see both sides. I get both sides. And I find myself called—in the sense of vocation—to mediate and to minister from the between.

And while I do have the conviction that, all things being equal, I need to support my wife over my daughter, and that that should be my “default position,” nevertheless I’d be lying if I denied that, well, I usually feel caught in the middle.

And, by the way, I am not complaining. Because you see, this position of “in between” is exactly where a priest is supposed to be situated. Biblically, it is the vocation of the prophet to stand above the people, to proclaim a message from God on high. In contrast to this, it is the special calling the priest to stand in between the people and God, and to advocate (through prayer) for the people, with dirt on one’s hands, in deep solidarity with the people.

Now I said I’m not complaining … but in all seriousness and candidness, well, the fact is that it is not easy, ministering from the middle, mediating from the between.

Another example of finding myself in the middle has to do with the sexual / identity gender wars which are raging in our culture and also in our Church (the Episcopal Church). At Christ Church South we have recently “lost” folks—folks have left the church community, both because we are (supposedly) too liberal and because we are (supposedly) too conservative. For some, we are too liberal because most folks in the community—including me at times—are openly critical of Trump, and we are too conservative b/c the leadership of Christ Church in Tyler—including myself—refuse to perform gay marriages.

And my first point today is that this position of being in the middle, ministering from the between … it’s dangerous, is it not? I mean, it’s so easy to lose ppl on both sides … or perhaps more importantly, it’s so easy to fear losing ppl on both sides.

And yet, I am convinced—at least in my better moments, perhaps my more sober[1] moments—that this kind of community—a community that mediates from the middle—is what the world truly needs.

Two quick caveats, BTW.

  1. By “middle,” I don’t mean “moderate”. I don’t think that Jesus or any of the apostles were simply moderates, and for me personally the thought of being moderate makes me wanna throw up in my mouth a little bit. By “middle,” or “in the between” or “from the between,”[2] I mean:
    1. a neither-nor position
    2. a both and position
    3. a tertium quid position that is “off the map/spectrum”
    4. a position able to hold different people / factions / parties together. Able to hold them together, or at least to hold out hope of holding them together.
  2. Secondly, there is a resonance here with what it means to be embodied, as in the body of Christ. Super briefly, did you know that for the Greeks, sight is primary; for the Hebrews hearing is primary; but for the Christians, touch is primary?
    1. Aristotle on how touch proves the soul;
    2. Christianity and touch, b/c of the Eucharist.

This way of ministering from the middle, priesting from the between, is not only difficult, it is also painful. My experience is that it is painful in similar ways that marriage is painful.

And yet, our world is (literally) dying for non-ideological community. You see, the Body of Christ is between “love of one’s own” (like Polemarchus in Book II of Plato’s Republic, or like the tribalism of Donald Trump) on the one hand, and ideological pseudo-community on the other. By ideological pseudo-community I mean something like a political party (where ppl hang out together b/c they agree on some positions), or something like a country club (the causes of association which sociologists can describe). But, as Peter Leithart argues in Against Christianity, the church is not like that at all—not like either of those forms of pseudo-community. Rather, it is like marriage and family.

Speaking of marriage, here’s a question for those of you who are married: do you always agree with your spouse? Do I always agree with my wife? She might say “We need to put our children in public schools,” and I might say, “No: we need to put them in Christian schools.” What if this disagreement turns out to be intractable? Do I then have right to look and her and say “I’m out”? Is it a faithful option for me to be like, “My way or the highway.” No, its not. Not, at least, if my marriage is to be a Christian one.

See, I think that the Church is like that. And that is the way I try to be a priest: to model that, to foster that, to allow God to bring that about. And no one said it would be easy.

And one of the reasons it isn’t easy is because this is the path which resists the temptation of control. As Sarah Coakley writes in her book God, Sexuality, and the Self (in a riff on John Milbank), “theology is the discourse of unmastery.”

Nowhere do I fear losing control more than with the issue of gay marriage in the church. Nowhere am I tempted to try to re-assert my own control of the situation than when it comes to issues around homosexuality and homosexuals in the church. If I do nothing else here at this conference, perhaps the Holy Spirit is prompting me to make that specific confession. Gay issues scare the beJeezus out of me.

II. Ministering from the Middle: the Desire of the Priesthood.

And that leads me to my next point: not just the danger of the priesthood, but the desire of the priesthood. Not just the danger of the priesthood, but the allurement of the priesthood.

Because you see, when I confess this fear in my life, well, fear is an emotion. It is what premodern thinkers, including folks like Jonathan Edwards, would call an affection.

And rather than be in denial about such feelings and emotions and issues of the heart and passions, I actually believe God wants me to lead with them.

I’ve been an ordained presbyter in the church for almost two decades, and during that entire time when people come up to me on the street and ask, “Why did you decide to become a pastor?” my stock answer has always been, “Because I love books, and I love people.” But more recently I have been realizing that the priesthood, for me, is such a gift b/c it allows me to lead with the heart.

Here’s another confession for you. If I’m honest, I have to admit that I’ve always wanted ppl to think that I’m smart. Sadly for me, then, the one consistent piece of feedback I’ve always received as a priest is not “Father Matt, you are so smart.” Unfortunately for me, people just don’t very often tell me I’m super intelligent. But what they do tell me—this is consistent over a period of two decades—is that I’m passionate.

Being a priest is great becaus it allows one to lead with the heart. There aren’t very many other careers / vocations[3] that allow you to lead with the heart. But the priesthood does. Thanks be to God. What a reason to rejoice!

After all, CS Lewis says that the Faith is more “caught than taught” (that’s why he speaks of “the good infection.”) Aidan Kavanaugh says that the liturgy is not something that one learns, but rather that one is seduced into. This is why in our Episcopal College Community in Tyler, our ministry to University students, in our leadership meetings we talk about how we want to go “like this.” We want to live lives out of which the aroma of Christ wafts. We want our community to be on which smells like the body and blood of Christ.

Now, if I’m right about the priority of desire,[4] then one implication is that dead orthodoxy is not an option; it is to be avoided at all costs, like the plague.

OK, well how can we be orthodox w/o being dead? Well, I agree with Sarah Coakley’s answer: by contemplation. (Mysticism: the conviction that God wants us to experience God.)

… Prayer … is the chief context in which the irreducible threeness of God becomes humanly apparent to the Christian. It does so because—as one ceases to set the agenda and allows room for God to be God—the sense of the human impossibility of prayer becomes more intense (Rom 8:26), and drives one to comprehend the necessity for God’s own prior activity in it. Strictly speaking, it is not I who autonomously prays, but God (the HS) who prays in me, and so answers the eternal call of the “Father,” drawing me by various painful degrees into the newly expanded life of “Sonship.” There is, then, an inherent reflexivity in the divine, a ceaseless outgoing and return of the desiring God; and insofar as I welcome and receive this reflexivity, I find that it is the HS who “interrupts” my human monologue to a (supposedly) monadic God; it is the HS who finally thereby causes me to see God no longer as patriarchal threat but as infinite tenderness; but it is also the HS who first painfully darkens my prior certainties, enflames and checks my own desires, and so invites me ever more deeply into the life of redemption in Christ. In short, it is this “reflexivity in God” this Holy Spirit, that makes incarnate life possible.–Sarah Coakley, God, Sexuality, and the Self, 42.

See, because contemplation leads us to lose control, it means that we become vulnerable. (Notice I did not say “exhibitionist.”)

  1. The priority of mythos (b/c it is correlated with desire, as CSL teaches in MBF).

A final point about contemplation / mysticism. Mysticism means not just that there is something beyond the physical, but also that the supernatural (which means “beyond the physical”) is more real. [rings of Saturn photo: now more than ever, the truth of neoplatonim just became much more plausible.] Paul Tyson, Returning to Reality.

Put the whole thing a different way. We’ve been discussing the issue of desire. You know what the best word for desire is? Thumos. This is Plato’s favorite term for desire. But it is not a desire for external goods, or bodily goods (like when your leg itches and you scratch it, or the desire for food & drink). No: thumos is the desire for … something else.

Thumos is the desire to belong; the desire to be wanted; the desire for relational intimacy.

Sally Field Oscar Award speech (1985, Places in the Heart):

“I want to say thank you to you. I have not had an orthodox career, and more than anything I’ve wanted your respect. The first time I won an Oscar I did not feel it, but this time I feel it. And I can’t deny the fact that you like me. Right now. You like me!”

And the crowd just goes crazy with applause. The kind of applause that Sally Field deeply deeply craves. The kind of applause that she, in this very speech, is admitting that she craves. 

Each one of us has what I call a “thumatic sweet spot,” where we desire and long to be touched. Not physically, of course, but spiritually.

And of course, thumos can also be warped & twisted. Our thumatic sweet spot can become an idol.

For an alcoholic, the thumatic sweet spot is not just romancing that first drink, but actually getting smashed. For an egomaniac narcissist, it is hearing words of affirmation all the time. For our Schnorkie* Janie, it is getting her belly rubbed while I make eye contact with her and say, “Good girl.”

But here’s the deal: the thumatic sweet spot is not bad. It’s how God made us. CS Lewis talks about it his essay “The Inner Ring.” In that essay he describes our need to “be one of the essential people” and “to be on the inside.”

What Sarah Coakley is saying in God, Sexuality, and the Self is that contemplative prayer is a way—I think she would say it is THE way—to satisfy one’s thumatic sweet spot. And I totally agree with her.

Each one of us has a “desire beneath the desire.” Beneath the alcoholic’s desire to change the way she feels through drink, she desires God. Beneath the narcisist’s desire to be affirmed and stroked all the time is his desire for God.

And this leads me to my third and final point (in addition to the danger of the priesthood and the desire of the priesthood): the open-endedness of the priesthood.

See, the priest gets to engage ppl in a process of satisfying their desire beneath the desire.

For me the very best part of the priesthood is that we get to come alongside others and lead them in this journey. We get to lead them, serve them, and submit to them. It is a journey of danger and a journey of desire. But the good news is that it is a journey into God. And that means that it is open-ended.

III. Ministering from the Middle: the Open-Endedness of the Priesthood (CONCLUSION)

This journey into God, this way of being Christians and human on the way … It’s more like an itinerary and less like a map. A life lived between origin and destination. One more story for you. Story about Burt & Ricky. [story abt danger, desire, & open-endedness]

  • I already mentioned that some ppl left Christ Church South b/c I am not prepared to perform gay marriages.
  • Well, Burt is a real leader in our community. Confirmed last fall; has found real community at CCS. He has found a family. His life has been transformed by Christ-in-community in ways that I don’t have time to discuss.
  • But here’s the deal: Burt’s brother is a married gay man. His mother is a married lesbian. Right now, he is struggling, b/c he wants to bring them to our church. He wants to share with them what he has found.
  • But he is worried that the church is not a safe space for them.
  • So what am I doing about this? Here’s what I’m doing: I invited Burt to read the Coakley book with Ricky, another friend of mine who is probably “orthodox” on gay issues, but also super open tempermentally, the kind of friend who immediately makes you feel safe.
  • Now, here’s my point: I do not know how this is going to end. Will Burt leave the church? Will I change my mind on gay marriage? Will there be totally different alternative that I cannot know imagine? All of those are real options.

See, in some ways, the situation is unworkable and intractable. But as we heard from Justin Welby last night, what do we do in situations that unworkable and intractable? 

We allow ourselves to be transformed. And, see, there’s the open-ended part, and there’s the contemplation part. Because what are we being transformed into?

We are being transformed into God, and that, friends, is a journey that never ends.


[1] By sober here I don’t mean “abstinent wrt to alcohol.”

[2] And this language of “the between” comes from an Irish catholic philosopher named William Desmond, whom I highly recommend.

[3] No, I’m not saying that “vocation” and “career” are synonymous.

[4] And that’s what I’ve been trying to convince you of for the last few minutes: the priority of desire, that in some sense, desire is more important, or more fundamental than reason. “What the heart desires, the will chooses, and the mind justifies or rationalizes.”

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Posted on: September 18th, 2018 Human Parts, Wholes & Souls: Some Clarfications

This past Sunday at Christ Church South we had a really fun “Sunday School” (aka, “Christian Formation”) Class during the 10AM hour, right before the service of Holy Eucharist. Fun, and riveting. It was a lively discussion, and I admit that some of what I said, some of the “dopamine bombs” I dropped, may have caused a bit of confusion. Hence some clarification might be in order.

Let me back up a bit.

Last year at Christ Church South, 31 adults were confirmed (or received, or “reaffirmed”) into the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Way of following Christ. What a joy it is to “do life” and to walk with Christ, together with these brothers & sisters in Christ, these new friends who share in our Eucharistic community!

And yet, Christ Church (in Tyler, Texas) exists and functions in the midst of a particular cultural context. One dimension of that context is that East Texas is what you might call the “Bible Belt,” or a particular region in the “Bible Belt.” This means that the dominant cultural assumptions in East Texas are shot through and penetrated by (a watered down) conservative, Protestant life theology.

Now, this is not all bad. Even conservative, Protestant fundamentalists are sisters and brothers in Christ, and, as a fellow follower of Christ, I rejoice in our common fellowship in the Lord. To be sure, the purpose of this blog post is not to denigrate or to insult these fellow believers in any way.

And yet, in order for me to clarify a couple of points which came up in last Sunday’s class, I must differentiate my position from some convictions which are held in some quarters of the conservative, Protestant, evangelical world. There are two areas, in particular, which I have in mind: the relationship between the human soul and body, and the issue of dichotomy versus trichotomy vis-à-vis the human soul.

First, the human soul and its relationship to the human body. Now, I don’t have time to write an entire tome on this issue (nor do I desire to do so). The specific claim I made yesterday, in the context of robust discussion surrounding the question of what “happens” to the soul after the death of the individual human person, is that the Hebrew language—the language in which (what Christians call) the Old Testament was originally written—has no term for soul. (Ironically, during the liturgy, the congregation read Psalm 116:1-8 together, and in one of these versed the word “soul” is used!)

I do not deny that English translations of the OT employ the word “soul” to translate a certain Hebrew term. Nor am I arguing that such a move is an erroneous translation.

The Hebrew term which is often translated as “soul” is the Hebrew nephesh. As is often the case, here it is wise to go back to the beginning of our story, and to attend to the very first (or at least one of the first) instance(s) of this term in the Hebrew Bible. I have in mind Gen. 2:7: “Then the LORD God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature.” The phrase “living creature” here is the Hebrew nephesh haya. (The term nephesh is the same term which pops up in Ps 116:8.)

Gen 2:7, by the way, is “riffed on” by Paul in 1 Cor 15:45: “Thus it is written, ‘The first man Adam became a living being’; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit.” Here Paul is saying that Christ is kind of like the “new and improved Adam.” Now, the word for “being” here is the Greek term psyche (as in “psychology,” the logos of the soul). Paul translates—or rather he quotes the Greek Septuagint (LXX) translation of—nephesh in Gen 2:7 as psyche.

Paul uses a Greek concept, that of the individual human soul, the psyche, to communicate the truth of the Hebrew Scriptures. This kind of thing happens all the time in the apostolic teaching of the apostles, contained in the NT. It is worth remembering that it is the Greek LXX which the apostles—including the Gospel writers—authoritatively quote.

But the point is that psyche is a Greek concept. It is different from the Hebrew nephesh, which really means something closer to “life” or “creature” or “living thing.”

This is what I mean when I claim that the Hebrew language—unlike Greek—contains no term for our concept of soul. There is an important point to grasp here, and it bears upon questions such as “what happens to the soul after one dies?” To “cut to the chase” in this brief blog post,  that the Hebrew Bible has no concept of the soul is a cautionary warning, in my opinion, that we ought to beware of certain overemphases on the idea of the soul “going to heaven” when one dies. This is especially true when it comes to the sustained stress of St. Paul, a brilliant first century Jewish thinker who understood the Greek mind and also sat at the feet of Gamaliel, precisely on the resurrection of the body, not least in 1 Cor 15, the very context in which he quotes Gen 2:7.

The second point of clarification has to do with trichotomy versus dichotomy.

It was Charles Schofield, associated with the history of Dallas Theological Seminary, in the notes of his Schofield Study Bible, who did much to popularize the idea that the human person consists of three fundamental “parts:” body, soul, and spirit. I am confident that Pentecostal and charismatic emphasis on the indwelling of the Holy Spirit also plays into this, along a separate but related trajectory of thought and Christian culture. The result: most folks in East Texas just assume this position—that the human person is trichotomous—to be true.

And yet, none of the church fathers held this view. Neither did Thomas Aquinas. Neither did CS Lewis. Now, maybe Schofield and the Pentecostals are correct, and the weight of premodern Christian tradition is wrong … but I seriously doubt it.

The truth, in my opinion, is that there are many “parts” to the soul: spirit, heart, mind, will, memory, imagination, etc. But this does not undermine the fact that, in its most fundamental constituent parts, the human person is dichotomous, having only two parts: body and soul. Just as the body has many “subparts” (head, neck, torso, kneecap, eardrum), so does the soul (will, memory, etc.).

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Posted on: September 18th, 2018 Rite of Reconciliation: a Revival

This article (written by me) was published in the Crucifer, the semi-monthly newsletter of my parish, Christ Church (Tyler).

On page 446 of the beloved Book of Common Prayer, we read that “The ministry of reconciliation, which has been committed by Christ to his Church, is exercised through the care each Christian has for others…. The Reconciliation of a Penitent [the official name of the rite under discussion] is available for all who desire it.”

Further, on page 317 of the same Book of Common Prayer, we read:

And if, in your preparation [for Holy Communion] you need help and counsel then go and open your grief to a discreet and understanding priest, and confess your sins, that you may receive the benefit of absolution, and spiritual counsel and advice, to the removal of scrupal and doubt, the assurance of pardon, and the strengthening of your faith.

My experience as an Episcopal priest over the last eight years of ordained ministry in this church is that precious few parishioners in our Episcopal parishes makes use of this resource in the BCP, to their detriment. After all, as the Anglican dictum goes, “All may; some should; none must.”

And yet, my main point in this super brief Crucifer article is a “report” of sorts from the ground, from the “trenches.” Over the past several months, we here at Christ Church have seen the number of Confessions (to a priest) skyrocket. We are seeing “revival” of sorts of the Rite of Reconciliation. It is so very encouraging.

Most encouraging of all? On average the folks making use of this rite are under age 30. Thanks be to God! May this encouraging sign for the future only increase and continue.

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Posted on: May 12th, 2018 Desire above Reason (and Desire)

Any any student of philosophy knows, Plato and Aristotle both had accounts the human soul such that the soul can be seen as consisting of three basic “parts.” What’s more, even though the two renditions differ in important ways, in each case the respective thinker argues that, in some sense, human reason is “above” desire. That is, both Plato and Aristotle think that the flourishing of the human individual involves some kind of “program” in which reason’s  proper role is to somehow manage, control, oversee, or discipline human desire in all its manifold variety.

It has taken me a long time to grasp a certain way in which this picture, nevertheless, gets “tweaked” in an important way, at least by the mainstream neoplatonist tradition, and I’m shocked that I have not explicitly blogged about this before.

According to neoplatonism, and in particular Christian neoplatonism, while it is true in terms of traditional “faculty theory” that it is the  job of rationality to keep human desire in check, what’s equally true is that there is an additional kind of “desire” which is “above” both psychic faculties of reason (logos; ratio) and desire (horexis; epithumia; thumos). (Somewhat related to this is this.)

Now, why does all this matter, and why should you care? Two reasons: mythos and mysticism.

First, mythos. More and more, I’m convinced that for the Christian mythos is privileged over logos. That is, it is the Christian story into which we as Christians are called super deeply to delve. With the Feast of the Ascension ringing in my imagination (and its amazing collect), it is truly mind blowing to affirm that Christ ascended into the clouds, and then continued to rise beyond the ability of the disciples to see. Where did he go? The answer to this question, it seems to me, stumps rationality. And yet, it makes for a really good story, which is a way of saying that mythos is closely connected to desire. It is myth, over and over again throughout Christian intellectual history (according to folks like Bonaventure and CS Lewis) which supremely is able to stimulate (and satisfy?) Christian desire.

Second, mysticism. My nifty nutshell “definition” of a mystic is one who is convinced that God wants us to experience God. Not primarily to think about him, but to experience him. If this is the case, if the mystic is correct, then the central role of desire in the Christian life, occupying a position even superior to that of reason, is a very big deal.

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Posted on: March 20th, 2018 Intimacy & the Priority of the Heart

Surprising though it may sound to some readers, I feel like, over the past six months, I have had something of a personal revolution. It is a revolution of the heart, in more ways than one.

About six months ago I was exposed to a couple of lectures by an Episcopal priest and church historian named Ashley Null. Null’s area of expertise is the theology of Thomas Cranmer, including the latter’s late medieval influences (such as Richard Rolle, Erasmus, and Lady Margaret Beaufort). Null points out that during this time in the history of England, waves of Gospel revival were washing up onto the shores of England.

Folks during this time were rediscovering not just Scripture, but how to savor Scripture. How to let the Scripture seep into the soul and to provide comfort, healing, peace, even deep spiritual pleasure. How to let the Scriptures be, for us, “comfortable words.”

It is in this context, Null points out, that Cranmer came to embrace and to promulgate a maxim which apparently originated with that disciple of Martin Luther, Phillip Melanchthon. The maxim is this: “What the heart desires, the will chooses, and the mind justifies.” What the heart desires, the will chooses, and the mind justifies.

How did this maxim prompt a “revolution of the heart” in my own life? Somehow, I feel that God used it—together with several other things happening in my life at around the same time—to allow me to experience intimacy with God. All I can say is that I began to experience intimacy with God in a new way, right about the same time that I had this “discovery.”

You see, despite many years of struggle to gain clarity on such matters, not until a few months ago did I really understand the priority of the heart, and why it matters for the Christian life. Recently I have been putting it like this: God wants to satisfy our desires. God wants to satisfy our desires, not through food or sex or strong drink or entertainment or vacations. God wants to satisfy the desires of our heart, rather, through intimate communion with him.

It is the strangest thing. Strange both in its simplicity and at times in its evasiveness. It is strange that I did not really “get” this until the ripe old age of 45!

I have noticed two primary qualities which are connected to this newfound intimacy with God. The first is that, based on my experience, I can say that intimacy with God is almost the same thing as intimacy with myself. I have been reminded of the words of St. Augustine, that God is “closer to me than I am to myself” (interior intimo meo, see Confessions III.6.11). Somehow, over the past few months, as I have been spending time with God in a new way, I have also been spending time with myself in a new way.

The second quality which has accompanied this newfound intimacy is the return of childlike wonder. The experience of a childlike enjoyment of “mundane” reality, of simply existing, or being embodied, or breathing. Simply being a creature of God, always in relationship with God, is the absolute antithesis to boredom.

“What the heart desires, the will chooses, and the mind justifies” shows us the priority of the heart over the will and the mind. This is how God made us. We are fashioned for intimate communion with him. That the world, the flesh, and the devil conspire to thwart and ruin this intimacy is a painful near-tragedy. And yet, greater is he who is in us than he who is in the world.

For you and for me, intimacy awaits.

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Posted on: February 27th, 2018 Yearning for Justice

This morning (Monday, February 19, 2018) is one of those mornings when my head is still spinning from the previous Sunday, that is, yesterday. You could say “my head is still spinning” or “my brain is fried.” You see, the work of pastoral ministry, the privilege to serve in this way, is as precious a gift as I can imagine. And yet, it is A LOT of work (blood, sweat, and tears)! Five services yesterday, scores of conversations / “life stories” with individual folks, two sermons, untold needs of people texting & messaging (some of whom are truly in dire straits). A wise priest once told me, in all seriousness, that a typical Sunday of active pastoral ministry is the equivalent of a 40-hour work week. What a joy, and what a burden. Throw into the mix the joyful responsibility of daddyhood and husbandom, and truly, it makes one’s head spin.

I suppose one reason for my heightened sense of being stretched today is the intensity of this past week: not just Ash Wednesday, but Diocesan Council (Thursday through Saturday, in beautiful Waco, Texas).

Ah, Diocesan Council.

I can tell you that, for me, every year this gathering is mainly an encouragement. I love seeing friends new and old. I (usually) love hearing the Bishop’s vision. Often Council is something of a mixed bag, though, and I suppose this year was no exception, for I witnessed, yet again, a tendency to reduce to the role of a priest (or, indeed, a Christian) to that of a “Social Justice Warrior” (SJW).

And yet, justice is a huge part of what we are called to as the Body of Christ. After a long day of Council presentations geared toward motivating us clergy and lay leaders to engage in social justice warfare (along the lines of community organizing and “Black Lives Matter”) I found myself sitting around the dinner table with trusted allies in ministry. One colleague wisely reminded us that, in the New Testament, the term for “justice” is the same exact term as that of “righteousness.” In the other words, in the mind of the apostles, there is no distinction between “righteousness” and “justice.” This is a truth which progressive SJW’s would do well to heed.

And yet, the kind of racial reconciliation on display at Council truly stirs up a deep yearning for justice within me. It is what my church planting (and yes, community organizing) work in Austin during my 30’s was all about. It is why, together with key leaders of Christ Church, I cannot give up on working with the Episcopal Health Foundation’s office of Congregational Engagement to bring holistic justice to Smith County, fraught with challenges though this work be.

Finally, it is why I’ve been so deeply encouraged by a recent development within our college ministry, which I would like to share with you, dear reader. Thanks to one deeply engaged leader in our parish, the leadership of our Episcopal College Community recently had a ground-breaking lunch with a leader of Texas College (among others). Then, this past Friday, Ian Hyde (our Christ Church College Missioner) along with Mr. Uriah Johnson (one of our gifted lay leaders, involved as both a youth mentor and a college mentor), met again with this Texas College representative, along with one of her local leaders. So, now, the ball is rolling with Texas College, a historically black college here in Tyler. God willing, this will bear fruit, resulting in many Kingdom centered relationships of love with our neighbors in North Tyler.

If that happens (and I’m full of biblical hope that it will), it will be an answer to a long and passionately held yearning for justice, indeed.

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Posted on: February 21st, 2018 Reverencing the Altar: Why?

Why do we reverence the altar?

Why, in “liturgical churches,” do we bow in front of, or before, the altar (which is also a table) of God, upon which the Body and Blood of Christ are given to God’s people?

One of the greatest joys of my life personally is the opportunity to share the sacramental-way-of-being-Christian with folks who have never known. With folks who have never been exposed to the life of a Eucharistic community which centers itself on the sacramentalism by which God puts his life into us (as CS Lewis says).

Why do we reverence the altar?

Much of the time, when it comes to questions like this, there is no single correct answer. With the liturgy things are not always systematically black & white.

And yet, for me there are two reasons why we bow (or genuflect) before the altar. One is metaphysical and the other is practical.

The metaphysical reason is that we are bowing before the King of the Universe, who is present at the altar. How is he present at the altar? He is present at the altar in a sacramental way. This is true when the Body and Blood of Christ are on the altar; it is true when the people of God are surrounding the altar; most of all (in my opinion) it is true because of the aumbry or tabernacle, in which the consecrated elements are kept for later use. and which is located somewhere behind (or sometimes to the side) of the altar.

Interestingly, Christ Church South does not have an aumbry. That is OK; we are one church on two campuses, and Christ Church Downtown does have an aumbry. So, in my sacramental imagination, when I bow before the altar at Christ Church South (say, on a Thursday afternoon when I am in the worship space getting tasks done), I am actually bowing in the presence of the aumbry at Christ Church Downtown. This is something like what Charles Williams would call metaphysical co-inherence.

Secondly, however, reverencing the altar is practical. This is just as important as the metaphysical reason for bowing or genuflecting. It serves as a reminder, which seeps down into my “muscle memory” and my bones, that I need not be in a hurry. Because of Christ and the Gospel, I can rest. I can pause and give thanks. Every bow is like a little prayer. In a world in which time is both insanely scarce and efficiently commodified, this practice or habit is like a miniature “mental vacation” (to borrow a phrase from Fr. Thomas Keating). For me, it’s a little taste of leisure.

Those are my reasons for reverencing the altar. The last thing to be said is that some Episcopalians (brothers & sisters in my own church) never reverence the altar. And that is OK. Here as elsewhere, the Anglican dictum “all may, some should, and none must” is apropos.

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Posted on: November 1st, 2017 Psalm 1 (Gender, Justice, Disenchantment)

Last Sunday the psalm appointed for the day (according to my church’s lectionary) was Psalm 1, which begins like this: “Happy are they who have not walked in the counsel of the wicked….”

I want to call attention to that first pronoun, the grammatical subject of the first sentence, “they,” for this translation is not a literally accurate rendering of the original Hebrew, which says, “How blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked….” Rather, the committee of scholars who decided to render the Hebrew ha ish (“the man”) by way of a gender neutral pronoun in English, “they.”

Many biblical scholars of Psalms hold that Psalm one, in the original context of the Hebrew Scriptures, was extremely important, in that it gave its readers (who were also worshippers, since the Psalter is something like the original hymnbook of the covenant community of God’s people) an imaginative portrait of the ideal Israelite, that is, of the Messiah, of whom King David—who, in the ancient Hebrew imagination, was a type or a kind of foreshadowing of the Messiah. Together, with Psalm 2, Psalm 1 stands at the head of the entire Psalter, and (among other things) says to the reader / worshipper: “When the Messiah comes, he will keep his heart pure; he will not participate in unjust schemes; he will be stable and trustworthy … and, just to give you a picture of what that is like, look at King David.” (Of course, the Psalter “knows” full well about David’s sin, and that is part of the point: we are to “look past” David to the true Messiah.)

This is what our king is like. He is the source of our hope and peace and security. He is the one in and from whom my identity ultimately derives. He is the one after whom we are to pattern our lives, in mimetic love.

But notice what happens when the “he” at the beginning of the Psalm is transformed into “they.” This “they” which departs from the original “ha ish” not just in terms of gender (it is no longer masculine), but also in terms of number (it is no longer singular). Suddenly, the Psalm is no longer about a great king, an imaginatively construed messiah-like figure who is supposed to be the object of our contemplation. Suddenly, the Psalm is reduced to a mere moralistic formula for us to follow. It is as if it is now saying, “Do you want to be happy? Then do these things, and don’t do these other things.”

A formula which, of course, is true as far as it goes, but which is still a far cry from the original intent of the Psalm.

Am I saying that gender neutral pronouns are never to be implemented? No.

Am I saying that Psalm 1 is more applicable to males than to females? Obviously not.

What I am saying is that language (and translation) matters. It shapes our thinking. It forms our assumptions. By the providence of God, our thoughts are constrained by “the prison house of language.” We should admit that in making this shift, God’s people have lost something important.

Something which is no longer mysterious, no longer beautiful, no longer transcendent. Now, as thinkers like Henri de Lubac and Charles Taylor would say, things have become immanent and disenchanted.

Is it worth it? Is the justice which has been upheld in this re-translation worth the loss of mystical enchantment? Or perhaps might there be a better way?

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Posted on: October 17th, 2017 Beauty for its Own Sake: Eating & Eucharist

Have you ever asked yourself, “What is good, and how can I know?”

In Book III of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle teaches (according to Joe Sachs) that there are three “levels” of goodness: utility, pleasure, and beauty (in that order).

Let’s apply this hierarchy to the human activity of eating. I find that people eat for different reasons.

Some people eat merely for nutrition. I call this approach to eating “the food-as-fuel” approach. Fitness freaks in the 1990’s who advocate a diet of mainly rice cakes, runners who eat “runners goo” to maintain energy levels on a long run, or weight-lifters who consume whey as a means to increase muscle mass: these are all forms of eating as utility. Here one eats as a means to some other end, an extrinsic end: weight loss, added muscle mass, etc.

Others east for pleasure. For Aristotle, this motive is superior to utility, for eating for pleasure is an activity which is a means to an end which is intrinsic to the activity itself. Here one eats because food is delicious and tasty. One drinks, for example, because beer is pleasurable. The Christian tradition gives Aristotle a “high five” for advocating pleasure, and arguing not only that it is good, but that it is better than mere utility.

Finally, however, we come to what, for Aristotle, is the most noble level of the good: beauty. You see, body builders eat for utility; hedonists and “foodies” eat for pleasure. But there is one other group of people, one other “tribe,” which consists of folks who eat not for utility and not for pleasure, but for beauty.

Beauty itself.

This tribe is called the Christian Church, the Eucharistic community, the people of God. When we feast on the body and blood of Christ at the Table where Christ is the host and we are the guests, where God and man at table are sat down, we eat not for utility, not for pleasure, but for beauty.

Elsewhere in the Ethics Aristotle teaches that beauty is, in essence, completion. It is that of which nothing is lacking, nothing is needed. In the harmony of all its parts, it is complete and perfect. It is for this that Christians eat at the holy altar. Here, we eat not to get more physical energy, and not because the elements taste so good. Rather, it is here that the cosmos is completed in all its parts: God and man, heaven and earth, nature and supernature.

All of this is included in the ritual of Holy Eucharist, when we chew on and swallow the Word made flesh, and injest his body and blood. Not by ourselves, but with each other.

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Posted on: September 30th, 2017 The Halls of my Monastery

I used to hate hospitals. Not only did the various odors (both sterile and grotesque) molest me in the extreme, but I spent an inordinate amount of time in hospitals as a child and adolescent. I had at least three major stints in hospitals in my pre-adult years, due to a variety of ailments.

But about eight years ago, when I underwent C.P.E. (Clinical Pastoral Education), the “pastoral care training program” which priests must undergo as a prerequisite to ordination, my feelings about hospitals began to change. Perhaps due to the head of this program at Christus Santa Rosa Hospital in downtown San Antonio, I realized that hospital ministry can be a form of prayer.

That summer, as I was introduced to the practice of contemplative prayer and began to weave that “means of grace” into my life, I began to realize that the halls of that hospital were like the corridors of a monastery. As I paced up and down the those hallways, passing patients and family members and doctors and staff members, not only could I lift their burdens and trials up to the Lord, but I could also practice other kinds of prayer as well. I could focus on the rhythm of my breathing; I could listen for the “still, small” voice of the Holy Spirit; I could meditate on an ancient form of prayer or on a passage of Scripture.

And now, all these years later, this epiphany has proven to be a very real blessing in my life. The main reason has to do with my own anxious tendencies.

You see, more often than not, when I pass through that revolving door at Mother Frances Hospital, or when I pass that big water fountain on my way in to the East Texas Medical Center, I am under pressure. More often than not, I am in a hurry. Perhaps it is 7:15 and I told my fourteen year old I’d be home at 6:30. Maybe I have additional folks to visit in different locations. Maybe it’s late on a Saturday afternoon and I am way behind on my sermon preparation for the following Sunday. Or maybe it has simply been a frustrating afternoon, and I am worn out and ready to call it a day.

Whatever the source of my stress, what happens on these hospital visits is extraordinary. I almost want to say that it regularly saves my life. When I enter the building, I am stressed, but when I leave I am grateful and at peace. Why? Because of what I experience in that monastery. The suffering of the members of the Body of Christ. The extreme burdens that family members and loved ones are carrying. Most of all, I experience the faith, hope, and love of real Christians as they throw their lives upon the Good Shepherd who knows what it is like to be in pain and to suffer loss.

On my way out of the monastery / hospital, inevitably I have a spring in my step. I’ve been reminded of what really matters, and it’s not my petty concerns. I’ve tasted and experienced the reality of Christ, in the bodies and souls of members of the Body, and “through the features of men’s faces.”

 

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Posted on: August 14th, 2017 “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 puts 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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Posted on: August 10th, 2017 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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Posted on: August 5th, 2017 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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Posted on: July 11th, 2017 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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