Posted on: January 27th, 2015 Running Zen (Self-forgetfulness)

Please. I’m not one of those mealy-mouthed new agey types.

However, I do think that long distance running is (or can be) zen. It can be “done zen” or “performed zen.” Notice that here, as in the title of this blog post, “zen” is an adverb (though it can also be a noun or an adjective).

How so? I’ve been pondering this, actually, for about a year. When I ran my first (and most recent) marathon, I realized during about the 20-mile mark, when I was tempted to “give up” and stop running on that unusually warm & humid Texas February day, that I was free to continue running.

You see, early in my adult running career, I realized that I was free to stop running. As one whose distance running is a form of meditation or contemplation, I realized, in the spirit of Fr. Thomas Keating who describes contemplation as a “mental vacation,” that the worst thing I could do was to put pressure on myself to continue to meditate / run. (Yes, for me running and meditation are the same.) There is no shame, I realized, in setting out for a 10 mile run and then “quitting” at the 3-, 5-, 7-, or whatever-mile mark.

I wanted my running to be a kind of rest, a kind of exploration, a kind of play. To stifle that by a kind of exertion of my will power did not seem to promote the kind of contemplativeness I was seeking to cultivate. Hence, I exulted in my “freedom to quit.” If I felt like walking home for the second half of my run, I did it, and I sought to make that walking time, too, a time of prayer.

But then (before my first marathon) my inner world took another turn: I discovered the joy of working the Twelve Steps. One of the key emphases of this spiritual tradition of lived, practical wisdom is that one’s own will-power is not the answer. It is not the answer to overcoming addiction. It is not the answer to finding deep freedom. It is not the answer to becoming happy or satisfied.

Now, this breakthrough served to confirm my previous embrace of the “freedom to quit.” But (in the context of the rest of steps and the culture of the Twelve Step community)  it also served to drive deep into my being an additional “lesson” which I had assented to intellectually but perhaps not embraced holistically: the humility of self-forgetfulness.

Not only is reliance on my own will power a death knell, but so also is one’s obsession with (or even consciousness of) self.

“How do I look?”

“How am I doing?”

“Do people like me?”

“Am I succeeding?”

So much of personal happiness is learning to wean oneself off of such habits.

And so it is that, when I was running my first (and most recent) marathon, and I desperately wanted to quit, I was cognizant of my “freedom to quit.” But then I immediately had another, instinctual realization. If I was free to quit, then I was also free to keep going.

Put it another way. One might assume that if a runner has true humility then she will not allow herself to quit. That would be soft; that would be self indulgent.

My “first breakthrough” was that this assumption is false, and that, actually, that kind of self-reliance is arrogant and self-centered, relying as it does on the strength of one’s own will power. Thus, the truly self-actualized, spiritual person / runner will paradoxically embrace her freedom to quit.

I still believe this, but what I realized in my “second breakthrough” was that sometimes when one quits, this, too is a form of self-obsession 0r self-consciousness. If I totally forget myself, then continuing to run (mile 10, mile 12, mile 22, etc.) is just as “available” an option, just as live-giving an option, as is quitting the run.

True, there is no shame in quitting. But, just as truly, there is no bondage in continuing to run. Once my self is transcended (this takes place moment by moment, nanosecond by nanosecond), at one level it does not matter if I quit or continue.

Hence I might as well continue.

This is a little window into my psychological experience of running. And this is why I say that running is, or can be, zen.

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Posted on: November 1st, 2014 Dostoevsky, Desire, & Seduction

In Notes from the Underground we see that for Dostoevsky desires (including sordid ones) cannot successfully be eradicated or stamped out. Instead they can be transformed through seduction. Thus the Underground Man quips: “So change them, seduce me with something else, give me a different ideal.”

In this spirit, Socrates in the latter books of Plato’s Republic tries to “seduce” Glaucon out of his tyrannical tendencies and aspirations by appeal to the superior pleasure of the philosophical life.

So also Aidan Kavanagh says, “Liturgy exists not to educate, but to seduce people into participating in common activity of the highest order, where one is freed to learn things which cannot be taught.” (Having said this, I might want to quibble with Kavanagh’s use of “educate,” seeking to show how it is quite compatible with seduction. Education as ex-duco, a kind of “drawing out” from the deep reservoirs of anamnesis, a la St. Augustine, etc.)
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Posted on: October 31st, 2014 All things for Good (Recovery Style)

“… God works all things together for the good of those who love him, and are called according to his purpose.” Romans 8:28

Anyone who has ever come along side someone who is suffering, or anyone who has struggled themselves, knows about the double-edged sword of these words from St. Paul. On the one hand they can be a wellspring of deep, invincible encouragement. One the other hand, though, they can sometimes feel like a “trite ditty,” a “pat answer.”

Nowhere is the latter edge of the sword more painful than when engaged in discussions with people who are deeply skeptical of the Christian Faith, especially when such suspicions are fueled by arguments about suffering and injustice in the world.

Why do shitty things happen, anyway, in a world that a good God supposedly made and loves?

Enter a recent experience I had with a group of fellow travelers who were huddled around the 12 steps of life-giving wisdom. (Yes, I’ve had the transformative gift of traveling with these broken, nonjudgmental, humble, joyful folks for a while now.) The passage we were focusing on was an autobiographical “testimony” offered by a poor, black, sexually used and abused woman who had finally, miraculously found the gift of sobriety.

She goes into great detail about the hopelessness, pain, and suffering that she went through on her way to hitting “rock bottom.” Sentences and clauses like this: “Now I had gotten to the place where I would wake up with black eyes and not know where I got them….”

But the real zinger of the chapter is this: “It was [in prison] that I found out what [recovery] was…. Today I thank my Higher Power for giving me another chance at life and … being able to help another [person who is in need].”

When I was huddled up with those secular saints meditating on this story and these words, all of the sudden it hit me: twelve step recovery proves that Romans 8:28 is true! For countless folks who were at the end of their rope, God used their darkest hours to rescue them, to restore them to sanity and health, to life and peace. This poor, black, sexually used and abused woman, who has now found true liberation, is just one of them.

And so am I.

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Posted on: October 23rd, 2014 Old People Pretending to be Young

I am 42 years old. I’m an old man. Worse, I’m a middle-aged man. Deal with it. (Yes, I’m talking to myself.)

I’m much too old, for example, to write a subversive shard of provocative bricolage, assembling an argument about why Millenials are leaving the Church in droves (while claiming to be one of them).

May God grant me the grace & peace to admit who I am, to be comfy in my own skin.

Then, and only then, will there be a modicum of hope  that “young people” — who these days often call me “sir” — will look to me as a leader, will consider me a resource for navigating the turbulent cultural waves of our time. (Such leadership will then be a “bonus,” not a motive for striving to be at peace with myself.)

In an culture in which “agism” is the last acceptable “ism,” I’m over it. I think I’m legit (hopefully in a humble way) … whether you feel the need to call me “sir” or not.

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Posted on: August 19th, 2014 If I don’t control my appetites …

If I don’t learn to control my appetites, I will end up drunk in a ditch on the side of the road.

If I don’t learn to control my appetites, I will get type two diabetes and probably die of cancer at an early age.

If I don’t learn to control my appetites, eventually my wife will leave me and I will lose my ministry and my kids will grow up damaged and dysfunctional.

All of this (and more) I believe. After all, “… the fruit of the Spirit is … self-control….” (Gal 5:22-3).

But if one wants to control her appetites, then maybe it would be a tad helpful to know what an appetite actually is. (For appetites manifestly are not controlled by “trying harder.”)

Enter Thomas Aquinas, who has some very interesting things to say about appetite and the larger issue of desire.

By the way, as an Anglican priest I’d be remiss not to mention that our Book of Common Prayer is replete with references to desire, not least the Collect for Purity: Almighty God, unto whom all hearts be open, all desires known, and from whom no secretes are hid: cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of thy holy spirit, that we may perfectly love thee, and worthily magnify thy holy name: through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Indeed, desire is what the Christian life is all about. (John Piper gets this right with his “Christian Hedonism,” in my opinion, albeit in a truncated way which leaves much to be desired — no pun intended.)

For example Thomas insists that, though all people do not choose God, all people do nevertheless desire God.

He also teaches that if a thing exists, then it has appetite. So rocks have appetite, as do trees, earthworms, chimps, human beings, angels (what Thomas sometimes, in a more metaphysical mode, calls “intelligences”), even God himself. Appetite is the tendency that a thing has to “complete” itself, to strive for its telos.

For Thomas the appetite, like the external sense organs of eye, ear, nose, etc., are passive. They require an object if they are to be “activated.” But the object required to activate or to “ignite” the appetite is no ordinary object. It is a fusion of various “inputs,” the result of a chain of psychic steps which include sense impression, synthesis by the common sense, and “intention.”

What, you ask, is an “intention?” For Thomas an intention is a kind of psychic apprehension (performed in nonrational animals by natural instinct, and in humans by the evaluative faculty known as the vis cogatitiva) by which an object is imbued with self interest. That is, a lamb grasps by natural instinct that a lion is a threat; a human being (who happens to be an entrepreneur) grasps that a market opportunity will create wealth which will lead to creaturely comfort.

More on appetite forthcoming. For now, if you want to control your appetites, perhaps you should know what they are, and how they work.

For more, see Nicholas Lombardo, The Logic of Desire: Aquinas on Emotion, ch. 1.)

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Posted on: June 25th, 2014 Mysticism & Temperament

There is a common assumption that mystics are born, not made. That they just appear in the the world with a certain calm, peaceful kind of temperament or natural disposition. As if the main ingredient in learning to tap into the deep wells of reality is a naturally tranquil life of the soul.

Nothing, however, could be further from the truth. I am convinced that the best mystics are the temperamentally addicted, afflicted, bi-polar, anxious, ADD, and vicious.

For starters, take the Buddha. Did he live a life of smooth tranquility prior to enlightenment? On the contrary, his story bears witness to the kind of turmoil that (necessarily?) precedes true spiritual peace: exclusion, isolation, fear, doubt, struggle.

Exhibit B: St. Bernard of Clairveaux. In his introduction the life of Bernard, Jean LeClerq emphasizes that Bernard’s temperament was competitive, vindictive, arrogant (due to his profound giftedness), and harsh. Yet, in the crucible of his many years of ascetic experience, his egotistical self gave way, and was transormed into to something sweet and beautiful … something strangely unique with its own distinct and savory flavor, as only a true saint of the Church can be. For Bernard, writes LeClerq, misery called unto mercy.

Finally, consider Thomas Merton, and the story he narrates in his autobiographical The Seven Story Mountain. Anyone who has read it will know that Merton was an arrogant, lustful, self-centered prick … by nature. But over time, and with many struggles, God transformed him into the kind of man who could write mystical prayers and passages like the world has never known. And who could tell the story of his transformation — the good, the bad, and the ugly — with honesty and humility.

So, what kind of person makes a good mystic? What kind of person, more than anyone else, ought to begin the practice of meditation? Not the calm. Not the serene. Not the self-controlled. On the contrary, show me a mystic who has plumbed the mysterious depths, and I will show you someone whom, almost certainly, was previously an unvirtuous ball of filth and fear who could barely make it through the day.

Real spiritual peace never comes easy. True mystics have had to “fight for it.” And that is very good news.

 

 

 

 

 

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Posted on: May 31st, 2014 Ascension: the Fluid Body of Christ

I’ve been thinking about the Feast of the Ascension (celebrated this year on May 29) lately. The Prayer Book’s collect for Ascension reads:

Almighty God, whose blessed Son our Savior Jesus Christ

ascended far above all heavens that he might fill all things:

Mercifully give us faith to perceive that, according to his

promise, he abides with his Church on earth, even to the end

of the ages; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and

reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory

everlasting.  Amen.

How do you think about the Ascension of Christ?

I think that, in the contemporary church, there are three different ways of thinking about this redemptive-historical event. First, most people are just confused. After all, it seems so weird that Jesus would start floating up into the sky, eventually transcending the ability of the disciples to see him.

Second, however, and better, many people assume that Jesus is going “up to heaven.” That is understandable, but this view is definitely strengthened when coupled with the idea that Jesus is ascending to his throne, which is “in heaven,” at the right hand of his father.

A third view, suggested by the liturgical calendar itself, is that when Jesus ascends, he is going away in order to send down the Holy Spirit onto the Church on the day of Pentecost. (Indeed the collect of the day on the seventh Sunday of Easter, after Pentecost, might encourage this view, with its petition to God to “send us the Holy Spirit to comfort us.”)

Notice, however, what the collect for Ascension above actually says: Jesus ascended that he might fill all things. I cannot help but think that this is sacramental language. Remember the ancient dictum which is utterly scriptural: “Christ is the sacrament of God; the Church is the sacrament of Christ.” It is this Church with whom “he abides … on earth … until the end of the ages.”

Why did Christ ascend to a transcendent “place,” why did he ascend into a transcendent mode of being? Precisely so that he could fill all things. When his body disappears, it becomes all things. It saturates all things. All things in a mystical way become charged with divine presence. Not only does this point to the eacharistic elements as tokens of all creation, but it also suggests that all material creatures are divine. As the fathers of the church said, “When Christ was baptized in the Jordan River, he sanctified all water.”

I know that this is a strange thing to think about. But our collect for Ascension invites us to think about it, and to meditate on it. Christian truth is indeed strange. Strange and beautiful.

Note: this article is inspired partly by Graham Ward’s chapter “The Displaced Body of Jesus Christ” in his Cities of God. See also here.

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Posted on: April 10th, 2014 Bringing the Church to the World (Stations of the Cross)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Posted on: March 20th, 2014 St. Paul’s Foul Mouth (& Grace)

After a really rich & profound time of Bible study last night with some dear brothers & sisters, I got to thinking — it’s been a while since I’ve thought about this — about St. Paul’s penchant for strong, offensive language which crops up in the NT at least twice.

“… I consider [all that stuff I used to care about, before I met Christ] to be loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and consider them to be shit, in order that I may gain Christ.” (Phil. 3:8)

“But if I, brothers, still preach circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been removed.  I wish those who unsettle you would castrate themselves!” (Gal 5:11-12)

Think about it. We have around a dozen letters which Paul wrote, and on not one but at least two occasions, perhaps in the heat of passion, he blurts some kind of acerbic overstatement which would have to be censored from the letter, if it were read in public today. (Granted, much of this has to do with our contemporary cultural sensibilities, derived as they are from cultural milieus such as Victorian England, but still.)

Does Paul have some sort of issue (anger, maybe?) here? Maybe.

But what’s interesting to me about both contexts above is that Paul is involved in a discussion about the grace of God which has come to him (in some sense) “apart from the law” (cf. Rom 3:21). Apparently he feels quite strongly about such matters.

The second implication for me has to do with language, and how those who follow Christ are to speak and write. The point is that what matters is not so much how successful we are in avoiding “four letter words” and so on, but rather, do we use our language and our words to promote goodness, truth, beauty, and the _shalom_ of others?

In this light it is helpful to think about Isa 64:6: “… all our ‘righteous deeds’ are like ‘bloody menstrual rags'”. Ouch. Really, Isaiah? Perhaps that’s a bit overstated? A bit unnecessary?

Not when it comes to the importance of the free grace of God, over and against the Pharasaical / Judaizing tendency we all have (it is the human condition; this is Luther’s — and Kierkegaard’s — “sickness unto death”) to depend on our own “righteous” performance.

There is no doubt in my mind that St. Paul, participating in the tradition we see in Isaiah, was speaking (writing) faithfully in the somewhat shocking language he uses in the references above.

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Posted on: March 13th, 2014 Sins I’m Giving Up for Lent: None

I recently did a “thought experiment” on my Facebook page.  I asked the question (to my 1000+ “friends”), “What sins are you giving up for Lent?” In parentheses I added the qualification, “trick question.”

I really did not think that many people would “fall for it,” or “take the bate.” Frankly, I thought that folks would (rightly) object to such a public display of a personal, spiritual matter.

Now I won’t list for you the various answers, but suffice to say that folks chimed right in with a battery of sins, some of which you could guess.

Think with me, however, about the trials which Jesus experienced in that dessert of temptation in Matthew 4. Jesus was offered three things by the Tempter: bread, power, and health. My question for you is: are these things sinful; are these things sins?

No! These are good things! And it’s the very same for you & me this Lenten season. The things you are giving up: chocolate, beer, coffee, whatever … these are not bad things. They are not sins.

We are not called to give up sinful things for Lent; we are called to give up sinful things all the time, every day.  During Lent, what we are called to “say no” to is good things: chocolate, beer, bread, power, health. But the question remains, “Why?” Why should we say “no” to these things if they are so good?

And the answer is the same for us as it was for Jesus. God wants us to have all of these things in abundance: chocolate, beer, bread, power, health … but he wants to give them to us as gifts, not as things grasped. And so you see, we’re not actually saying “no” to them; we are saying “not yet.”

See, all of these things being offered  to Jesus by Satan … in each case, the “carrot” being dangled before Jesus was something which was already his by God’s promise.

When the devil offers bread to the famished Jesus, imagine what was running through Jesus’ mind. “Hmmm … what would a kingdom based on feeding miracles look like? A ministry of providing bread out of nothing could blaze a trail right to the king’s throne, with throngs of followers supporting me. Then I could finally restore the fortunes of Israel and God’s people.” See, Satan was offering Jesus a shortcut to the Kingdom. But Jesus said “no.” By faith & the HS – the very same resources you & I have, by the way – Jesus determined not to grasp his kingship, but to wait for it as a gift.

Jesus understood “the logic of the gift” — that God was always going to give him the bread, the power, the health anyway … so why grasp after it? Why do what Adam did in the garden? Better to have a little patience and humility now, and then receive all good things as a free gift from the giver of all good things.

By saying no to chocolate (or whatever) in Lent I am not really saying no to chocolate. I am saying “not now” to chocolate. And by saying “not now” to chocolate, I am saying “yes” to God, and I am waiting on his good gifts.

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Posted on: February 26th, 2014 Running the Race (Letting Go)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Posted on: January 13th, 2014 Becoming a “People of the Book”

This is an article I wrote for my church‘s newsletter, “The Crucifer.”

If you were to walk down hallways of Christ Church, through the nave from the guild hall, you would come to my office, where, on the wall by my office door, you would see the sign: “Matt Boulter, Assist. Rector for Evangelism.” I still have to rub my eyes every time I see it; it seems too good to be true!

Though at times I feel that such a title is an impossibly huge title to fulfill, I do have a deep longing to bring people into Christian community, into a Christ-patterned way of life.

The Bible, oddly enough, is both a barrier to and a catalyst for such an endeavor. It represents both a challenge to and an opportunity for authentic evangelism.

It is a barrier and a challenge for folks on the outside of Christian community, who Christ calls to come and taste and see that the Lord is good. To enter into authentic relationship, leaving their tired isolation behind. This is because for most people in our world, the Bible is boring at best. At worst it is stifling or even oppressive.

I feel much sympathy for people who hold this view of Scripture, for they are simply imbibing the presentation of the Bible which they have been given.   All to often in our modern world (both outside the church and inside) the Bible is presented legalistically, sentimentally, or reductionistically.

Legalistically, as if the Bible were primarily a list of “do’s” and “don’ts,” rules to follow in order to earn “brownie points” with an angry God. Sentmentally, as if the Bible were a kind of therapeutic self-help book whose main purpose is to fill our hearts with warm feelings of blissful affection. Reductionistically, as if the Bible were a book which attempts to give an accurate history of the world or of certain peoples. (On this last view, both those who affirm the Bible’s historical accuracy as well as those who deny it fail to realize that historical accuracy is modern preoccupation which is quite foreign to the original writers and readers.)

Instead, what I’m all about is giving folks a taste of a very different kind of Bible. I believe (together with the great majority of pre-modern saints) in a Bible which is a world unto itself. I believe in a Bible which prefigures this community called the Body of Christ. I believe in a Bible which requires a life-long journey of learning to live well in order to begin to understand. I believe in a Bible which I cannot master, but which masters me, ordering and centering my life on the pattern of the death and resurrection of Christ.

I believe that the task of evangelism includes inviting people to reimagine the Bible, and the life which it narrates.

 To learn more about how our fathers and mothers in the faith regarded the Old and New Testaments, join Father Matt on the 3rd floor of Christ Church for his class “People of the Book: a Biography of the Bible,”or podcast the classes at http://fathermatt.libsyn.com/

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Posted on: November 26th, 2013 “So, What’s your Dissertation About?”

The following is an article I wrote for my church‘s newsletter, The Crucifer.

It happened again this week, just like it does every week.

 

Once again this week a dear friend in Christ and parishioner at Christ Church asked me about the academic side of my life. Often the form this question takes is “So, when do you finish up?”

 

What a joy it is to be engaged in real relationships within the body of Christ, and yet it is slightly awkward to explain to folks “Well, basically, it’s going to be a long time til I finish, especially since I just started the program a year ago.” Words cannot express the deep gratitude I have to the good people of Christ Church for enduring with me this long journey.

 

The form the question often takes, however, is, “So, what’s your dissertation about?” That’s how it happened this last week. So, I thought I’d take a few of paragraphs in the current issue of the Crucifer to articulate some thoughts about, and plans for, my doctoral dissertation.

 

I want to write about late medieval nominalism, which I regard – I’m just gonna come out and say it – as a bad thing.

 

You see, the medieval period is fascinating because, on the one hand, it is an extension of the classical world (think Plato & Aristotle), but with the radical infusion of biblical revelation and the ongoing response to that revelation which is called theology (think the Church Fathers & St. Augustine). At same time, it is an anticipation, in seedling form, of the modern era, the age of secularism. (For example in Umberto Eco’s novel The Name of the Rose various of the Franciscan monks are rightly portrayed as men of modern, scientific knowledge and critical thinking … men who deplore baseless superstition.) Hence my bourgeoning interest in things medieval: this period is the joint or nexus which, infused with biblical revelation, connects the classical world of antiquity to the secular world of modernity.  

 

Now, what about “nominalism?” What in the world is that? As the name implies, it has something to do with “names” (which for premoderns basically means “words”) and hence with language. In the development of late medieval nominalism a suspicion began to emerge that the words (and categories) we use to talk about the things in the world have no real connection to those things. Rather, they are sort of “made up” or “constructed.”

 

Now, that might seem hopelessly abstract to you, but consider a very pressing contemporary issue. Just this week Illinois (by no means a “blue state”) became the 19th state to opt for full recognition of “same-sex marriage.” Now, there are layers upon layer to the complicated and taxing issue of gay marriage, but one of them has to do with language. Is the word “marriage” simply a human construct? What about the words “male” and “female”, which appear in Genesis 2?

 

If we “made up” those terms and their meanings, then surely we can revise them. If they are merely humanly invented, then surely they can be humanly re-invented.

 

A late medieval nominalist, if he were consistent, would heartily affirm our culture’s current willingness to re-invent the meaning of terms which historically have been regarded as crucial to the underpinnings of the political well-being of society.

 

If we can trace the development of late medieval nominalism, however, then perhaps we can expose its false assumptions and its arbitrary moves. This, then, could go a long way to restoring the connection between our words and the things they refer to out there in world God made, his good creation which, while fallen, is redeemed in Christ.

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Posted on: October 28th, 2013 Reasonable Sacrifice

 

And here we offer, and present unto thee, O Lord,

Our selves, our souls and bodies,

To be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice…

 

One month ago in my Crucifer article I wrote about the need, as we minister to others, to “let God be God.”

 

Closely connected to this idea is the need to be “wise as serpents.” Yes, Christ calls us to be “innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16), but I find that, among those who endeavor to minster to people in the name of Christ and for the sake of the Gospel, few of us are truly “wise as serpents.”

 

 I know many people who engage in ministry who are well intentioned but whose “innocence” verges on naiveté.

 

To wise is, among other things, to promote longevity, to prepare for the future, to live life in ways that are sustainable. Practices that lead to “burnout” are not wise. And yet we live in a culture in which “burnout” seems to be the default mode. Burnout in the federal government. Burnout in the global economy. Burnout in marriage. Burnout in the good earth God gave us.

 

What does it mean to be a reasonable sacrifice? Week in and week out, as these words, spoken from the altar, flow out of my mouth, as they echo in my mind, I am reminded of the need for ministers of the Gospel, including all baptized Christians (though the clergy must model this), to be “wise as serpents.”

 

This language in our Eucharistic Prayer is borrowed from Romans 12, where St. Paul calls us to “present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship.” The word “spiritual,” here, is the Greek adjective here is related to the noun logos, which means (among other things) “reason.”

 

As the baptized priests of the new covenant of Jesus Christ, who are given a “ministry of reconciliation,” we must sacrifice for others. We must give our lives away, and “spend” them on others. All of this is true, and all of this matters deeply. The Christian life is not simply a life of luxury; it is a life of sacrifice, and even a life of suffering for and with our suffering Lord.

 

A minister who “sacrifices reasonably,” however, will know when to rest and when to serve. When to go  to the hospital to visit a sick brother or sister at midnight and when to be with his kids. When to say “yes,” and when to say “no.” When to push and when to relax. When to ask, and when to not ask. All of this is a matter of wisdom.

 

And the things about wisdom, is gained only by experience. Life. Failure. Trial-and-error.

 

I’m very mindful of the many ministers at Christ Church who are not ordained, who sacrifice daily for the sake of the Gospel, and for others. These men and woman are truly awe-inspiring.

 

Let us take Christ as our model. Christ who truly sacrificed for others, by putting their needs before his own. Christ who knew when to say “yes,” and when to say “no.” Christ who was innocent as a dove, and wise as a serpent.

 

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Posted on: October 10th, 2013 Charles Taylor & the “Two Speeds”

In A Secular Age Charles Taylor discusses the issue of the “two speeds” in the church. That is, at least since the rise of monasticism & St. Benedict, there has been in the church a kind of distinction between the ordinary “lay people” (Lat. laicus) and the more “spiritually advanced” members of holy orders, religious and “secular.”

What Taylor is doing in this book is (among other things) giving a kind of genealogical account of what intellectual and cultural developments led to the kind of secular world in which we live, in which (for example) atheism seems more obvious to people than historic Christian faith. The question is “How did the secular world come to be?”

One of the developments which Taylor points to is the attempt on the part of various and sundry reform movements, particularly throughout the medieval period, to “flatten out” the various distinctions among “religious” people and the ordinary secular folk. Of course, a primary movement like this is the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century.

Now anyone familiar with Taylor will know that he is not given to brash, unqualified positions. Rather, especially in a work like this one, he tries to be descriptive and nuanced. Thus it is at times a challenge to discern the precise role he imputes to such movements, let alone to detect his final evaluation of them.

And yet, it is difficult to resist the c0nclusion that such reform movements played a complicit role in the rise of the modern world, and to the extent, then, that this book is a subtle and complex critique of modern secularism, such movements are viewed with suspicion.

This account resonates with me. It is easy for me to lay much blame for the contemporary marginalization of theology and church at the feet of the Reformation in particular, although for many years I subscribed to the opposite view that the original Protestant movements (and subsequent communities which were loyal to them, such as British Presbyterianism) could be viewed as a kind of “counter-Enlightenment,” almost like a reformed & renewed version of medieval Christendom.

Yet this has not been my position for several years now, at least since my conversion to Anglicanism. I cannot now resist the temptation to view the 16th century Reformation as an essential ingredient of the rise of western modernity, and Taylor’s point about the Reformation’s attempt to flatten out the “two speeds” makes a lot of sense to me.

And yet, I do agree with John Milbank and others in Radical Orthodoxy that this is an example of a movement which – however destructive and ill-conducted – was in fact reaction against a real problem in the Catholic Church. That is, the ultimate cause or problem is, as always, within the Church’s “own house.” (Note that RO and similar movements are, when at their best, not just a critique of modern secularism but also of the conditions within the church and within Christendom which gave rise to modern secularism.)

In other words, even if Taylor is right to criticize the flattening out of the two speeds, it does not follow from this that the “dual speed arrangement” was legitimate in medieval Christian culture. Rather, the resources were always there in the Church, perhaps, to overcome this false dichotomy and to empower all the faithful to live the life of Christ to the fullest, in the deepest possible ways. (Two possible counterpoints would be what some would regard as the failure of halakhic Judaism, and Paul’s injunction to celibacy in I Cor 7.)

To this end, I appeal to Scripture, namely the Psalms and the “new covenant” which is described in Jeremiah 31 and Hebrews 10.

The psalms are replete with a celebration of delighting in the law of the LORD, and this certainly does not seem to be limited to some “higher class.” Rather, all people chanted such Psalms as Psalms 19 and 119 in the gathered assembly of the Temple (note that it is the simple who are made wise by the law in Ps 19:7):

Psa. 19:7       The law of the LORD is perfect,
reviving the soul;
the testimony of the LORD is sure,
making wise the simple;

Psa. 119:1     Blessed are those whose way is blameless,
who walk in the law of the LORD!
Psa. 119:18     Open my eyes, that I may behold
wondrous things out of your law.
Psa. 119:29     Put false ways far from me
and graciously teach me your law!
Psa. 119:34     Give me understanding, that I may keep your law
and observe it with my whole heart.
Psa. 119:44     I will keep your law continually,
forever and ever…. (ESV)

In addition it is difficult for me to envision some kind of “remedial level” of spirituality as compatible with the “new covenant” language of Jeremiah 31, which implies a full penetration of intimate “cutting” in covenant with the Spirit of God.

“And they will not teach each other or say to one another ‘know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest.” (Heb 8:11, quoting Jer 31:34, NRSV)

Seems like “one speed” to me.

 

 

 

 

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Posted on: September 28th, 2013 Strange Table Fellows (Real Social Space)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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Posted on: August 20th, 2013 (Struggling to) Let God be God

God has been showing me many new things of late, but for months now there is one truth, one dimension of reality, which seems to be dogging me, as if the Holy Spirit is really trying to get my attention.

Do you remember those passages (there are several of them), contained in the four Gospels, in which “the crowds” – it’s interesting how in the Jesus stories “the crowds” functions virtually like a major character in the plot – are following, chasing after Jesus? In the stories we find Jesus walking around embodying the Kingdom of God in his person, in his words, in his deeds, and quite reasonably the crowds of fellow Jews flock to him and pine after him, looking for a blessing, looking for encouragement and help, looking for relief.

And time and time again, what does Jesus do? How does he react to these throngs of hurting and broken people who are in desperate need? Time and time again, not always, but certainly most of the time, Jesus the Good Shepherd and Great Physician does something which, if one stops and ponders it, is mind boggling.

Time and time again, he runs away from them. He avoids him. If they are going one direction, Jesus heads inthe other direction. He hides from them. He tries to escape from them.

Why does he do this? He does it in order to be alone. In order to seek his Father’s face. In order to find rest. In order to be in God’s presence. In order to regroup. Perhaps we could say, “in order to keep, or to regain, his sanity.”

As one who is set apart for ministry in the church (that means I’m supposed to “help people,” right?) I find this riveting. This is food for thought. This is fuel for reflection and a new paradigm for what it means to serve God in the world.

Because – think about this with me – who is it that is in those crowds? Of whom do those swarms of people consist? If we imagine these stories as they invite us to imagine them, we begin to realize that those crowds are saturated with people who are hurting beyond measure. Those crowds are full of the same kinds of people who have seemed to be filling my life recently. People who are on the brink of divorce; people who will literally die if they don’t get medical attention; people who are on the brink of mental and emotional breakdown.

Think about it. Jesus was being pursued by people on the brink of death and divorce, and he fled from them. He could have “saved” them, but he did not. What this means is that their marriages actually ended in bitter, painful divorce. They really died. They really had mental breakdowns and collapses.

What in the world is going on? When you stop and think about it, it is pretty amazing. It prompts an epiphany of how – and why – we do ministry.

At the end of the day, I must stop trying to “save” everyone and everything. I must let God be God.

If the one person in the history of the human race really could solve everybody’s problems, then surely those of us who cannot should stop trying to, stop pretending that we can.

In the intense, daily work of Gospel ministry, I, we, must finally let God be God. 

 

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Posted on: May 2nd, 2013 Anyone Remember Stephen Covey? (Technique, Disclipline, & Happiness)

Few books have I read more than three times. One of them is certainly Mere Christianity by CS Lewis. Another, however, is a book I poured over in college, not so much because, like Mere Christianity, it deeply fed my soul, but rather because it was a real challenge (at the time) to know quite what to make of it. The book was The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, by the Mormon Stephen Covey. Not only did my Navigators “discipler” invite me to read this book with him, but later I read it as member of a small team of missionaries in Mexico City with Campus Crusade for Christ.

One of the things that always sort of blew my mind when discussing the book with people (and I’ve had similar experiences in other contexts) is the ease with which people apparently implemented the book’s principles and techniques. Years later, in retrospect, I now realize that what was so intriguing to me about the book was the counterfeit nature of its technique: in an inchoate way I was noticing how technique is a cheap copy of true discipline, true ascetical practice.

For example, one of the little “exercises” (actually more like a “task”)  you are supposed to do, in implementing the first principle (“Begin with the end in mind”)  is to craft a purpose statement not just for your business or your educational program of study, but for your life. Wow. That’s a really tall order. I remember that for many folks their life’s purpose statement had to do with the laudable intention of helping other people.

Now it’s not my aim to create a mission statement for my life in this blog post. Rather, as I was driving into class today I was asking myself, “Now, why are you doing a PhD again?” What I realized is that doing a PhD in philosophy actually allows me to reflect more deeply on what it is that, as a pastor, I think I am (supposed to be) doing.

Am I supposed to be making people feel better? Am I supposed to be solving their problems for them? Am I supposed to be dispensing “truth” into their minds?

And the answer gradually came to me: ultimately, I’m undertaking this crazy academic endeavor which requires tons of sacrifice on the part of many loved ones because I sense that my vocation is to convince people that if they will worship God with their whole lives, then they will achieve “happiness,” or what Aristotle calls eudaimonia and what St. Thomas calls beatudo. If they worship God they will begin to participate in a way of living which is truly “supernatural” and mystical.

Now there are lots of barriers to this goal, lots of “plot complications” in getting people to see the truth and importance of this claim. My studies allow me to “bone up” and to become proficient in dealing with some of these complications or barriers.

For example, there is the barrier of thinking that the way we know things is through the assimilation of information. People think that if they only had the right information, then they could implement the right strategies, take the right steps, and all would be well. And here we are, again, back to the issue of technique versus discipline.

I hope to come back to this later, but for now, I note that technique is individualistic and immanently contained, as if the outcome was totally dependent upon one’s own actions. Discipline, however, is necessarily communal and merely a preparation for the grace of God to flow into our lives.

 

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Posted on: April 20th, 2013 Church Planting (Episcopal Ruminations)

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

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

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

This is what we need, IMO.

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Posted on: March 26th, 2013 Supreme Ct. on Gay Marriage: First Response

First blush response on the proceedings of the Supreme Court proceedings of Hollingsworth vs. Perry (available here): it is  astonishing how feeble the arguments of Mr. Cooper (representing the State of California in its opposition to gay marriage) seem, in the face of Justice Sotomayor’s cross examinations.

I am not saying that I agree with Sotomayor; I am saying that, clearly, in contemporary American culture, secular reason (that is reason which excludes the relevance of theology, which presupposes revelation)  has the upper hand.  It’s as if you hear the premises of Mr. Cooper and think to yourself, “there’s no way that’s going to fly.”

As many of us have been saying for years, this is a process that is already set going at the founding of the United States.

The point here, for now, is that this decision is a clarion call for Christians clearly to recognize that the US Constitution, and the political principles which undergird it, while it has been a limited “force for good” in the world, is, at the end of the day (like all forms of heresy) no friend of the Christian Church.

I would feel guilty for spending time on this, were it not for the fact that I plan to write my term paper on Thomas Aquinas and Law on this very issue.

 

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Posted on: March 22nd, 2013 Beer, _Purgatio_, & the End of Lent

Almost every day, I have the joy of talking to a Christ Church parishioner who comes up to me excitedly and tells me about a new beer they’ve discovered. Wow! What a wonderful and interesting life I get to live!

For the fifth Lent in a row, however, I decided once again to do the barely thinkable: I decided to give up all alcohol for Lent. This, year, however, I did something even more unheard of: I went “Eastern Orthodox style,” meaning that I continued my fast even on the Sundays in Lent! (Did you know that a faithful Orthodox Christian lives about 40% of each year, about 40% of his or her entire life, fasting in one form or another?)

It has truly been an amazing experience. Not only have I lost ten pounds without changing a single additional variable. Not only am I sleeping better. Not only is my budget that much closer to being responsible. But, in addition to all of that, my prayer life has improved, and that is what I want to talk to write about in this blog post.

St. Augustine, in Book VII of the Confessions, has a life-changing epiphany when he “discovers” the “books of the Platonists,” or what today we would call the “neoPlatonists.” From those books he learns that God is “simple:” without body, without spatiality, not subject to time or to change. But also from those books he begins to incorporate an ancient insight of mysticism (shared, again, by the tradition of Eastern Orthodoxy): that God reveals himself to the human soul in an experience which many mystics (including St. Augustine) call “divine illumination” or the “divine light.”

Now, when Augustine or someone like Symeon the New Theologian or indeed the neoPlatonist Plotinus speaks of this divine light, they always stress the importance of purity. In fact, neoplatonism injected into the stream of Christian tradition, inherited by the ancient monastics, the three-fold way of purification – illumination – unification.

Think about this “purification” like this. The human soul / mind / heart is like a multi-layered onion. You might think of the outermost layer of the onion as the noise which floods into our ears daily in the car, at home, in the coffee shop, or wherever. Beneath that external noise we have the many distracting thoughts which occupy our mind. Beneath that layer are the concerns and worries of our life (finances, health, etc.). Deepest of all one might find a painful and disturbing layer of damage caused, for example, by hurtful words spoken or things experienced in our childhood.

All of these “layers” essentially serves as distractions or barriers to the experience of the “divine light” of God in our innermost being. The goal of purification, then, not unrelated to the fasting of Lent, is to rid ourselves of the noise, to rid ourselves of the distractions of life.

This Lent I’ve experienced something of this purificaton, more this year than ever before. My “theology of the fruit of the vine” has not changed! I believe in myrth, conviviality, and feasting! I still wear beer t-shirts (even during Lent!). Young people still gather on my front porch after church and enjoy new, riveting beverages.

But my heart and mind are also captivated by the benefits of living without strong drink. It is a very small price to pay for deeper intimacy with my Lord.

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Posted on: March 5th, 2013 No, I’m not “fine” (Lent)

Back in the day, when I was a little crazier than I am today, I preached a sermon at Emanuel Presbyterian Mission, a multi-ethnic church plant in which I was a founding co-pastor, in which I said this:

 When you walk up to me and ask me, “How are you doing?” don’t expect me say, “Just fine.” I’m not “just fine.” I’m worse than that, and I’m better than that. In fact, when you come up and ask me how I’m doing, don’t be surprised if I respond, “I’m dying and being resurrected.”

Turns out that this sermon created quite a reaction in our young and growing diverse congregation, and from that point onward, when someone would approach a member of our community and ask them how they were doing, it was not uncommon to hear, “I’m dying and being resurrected … it’s the only way to fly.”

The gospel lesson from this last Sunday (Lent III), Luke 13:1-9, is an unusual passage. There are a great number of passages in the four gospels which are intended to encourage the downtrodden, the comfort the afflicted, and to encourage the down and out. Indeed we have a Lord who is constantly drawn to the outcast, whose heart beats to lift up the lowly.

But the Gospel lesson for Lent III (in Year C) is no such passage. If you are feeling discouraged today, this passage is not for you, for this passage (one of a small number of such passages in the Gospels) is aimed at the upbeat, the successful, those who are meeting their goals.

Jesus looks at these people, and tells them to repent. What?! Repent from what? These folks are not like the woman caught in adultery (John 8) who is suffering some rather nasty consequences of her sin. These people have not robbed a bank; they have not even kicked the cat or uttered a four letter word!

So why does Jesus Christ tell them to repent? In this passage we realize that sin is not breaking the rules. When one breaks the rules (whether it in terms of drink, sex, anger, or whatever), this is a mere symptom of something deeper. It is this “something deeper” from which we are called to repent. As Soren Kierkegaard said, “Sin is the attempt to build my life on any foundation other than God.” It is from this tendency that we are called to repent.

And, indeed, this is the point of Lent. Lent is the practice of weaning ourselves off of our dependence on false foundations. Lent is about repenting as a way of life, in the spirit of Martin Luther, the first of whose famous 95 Theses was “All of life is repentance.”

I’m reminded of what Richard Foster shared with some of us in his talk at the Renovation Tyler conference this last weekend. First thing in the morning, he lies on the ground, facing upward. He spreads his arms out in the cruciform shape of the cross, and recites Galatians 2:20 out loud:

 I have been crucified with Christ, and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me. And the life which I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and delivered himself up for me.

What a powerful way to learn repentance not just when we are feeling down and desperate but in every day, every moment, of our lives.

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Posted on: February 20th, 2013 Lent: Saying “No” to the Divider

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

In the great 19th century German legend Faust, we meet the scholarly Dr. Faust in his study, struggling to figure something out, to discover some great scientific breakthrough. And then all of the sudden, a sinister and mysterious being called Mephistopheles appears out of nowhere in his study. Now, in the previous scene of the story Mephistopheles – a kind of Satanic or demonic figure – is seen in heaven dialoging with God, engaging God in a wager that he, Mephistopheles, can tempt God’s favorite human, Dr. Faust, and cause Dr. Faust to enter into a pact with himself, thereby betraying God.

And so here Mephistopheles is, in Dr. Faust’s study, and sure enough, Dr. Faust gives in: he agrees, by actually signing a contract with a few drops of his own blood. The terms of the contract? Faust will serve Mephistopheles for all eternity in hell, if Mephistopheles will just give him everything he wants before he dies.

Now, I won’t ruin the story for you by telling you how it turns out, but suffice to say that something similar is going in the story from Luke’s Gospel (chapter 4) about the temptation of Jesus, but with one key difference: the great tempter in this story today is not named “Mephistopheles;” he is named simply “The Devil.”

At first glance that might not seem too terribly important to you, but then you might notice that this character is explicitly named in this little story not once, not twice, but three times. It’s as if he is named three times, once for each of the three temptations which confront the famished Jesus … Jesus who is full of the power of the Spirit (having just been baptized in chapter 3) and who has just been led into the desert by that same spirit for the explicit purpose of being tempted.

What’s going on in these three temptations? Well, I think that by mentioning “the devil” 3 times, Luke is actually giving us a big hint, for the word “devil” in Greek has a very simple meaning: it means “the one who divides;” “the divider.” Who or what is the devil? Well, there’s a lot about the devil I’m not too sure about, but this I know: the devil is one who divides the things and the people that God has put together, and that, my friends, is a huge clue as to the nature of these temptations here in this desert in Luke chapter 4.

What is Jesus tempted with here? Three things: bread, power, and health. Now, let me ask you question: are these 3 things – bread, power, and health – are these bad things? No! They are good things! And it’s the very same for you & me this Lenten season. The things you are giving up: chocolate, beer, coffee, whatever … these are not bad things.

We are not called to give up sinful things for Lent; we are called to give up sinful things all the time. We are called to give up bad things in our baptism: this is the normal Christian life. During Lent, what we are called to “say no” to is good things: chocolate, beer, bread, power, health. But the question remains, “Why?” Why should we say “no” to these things if they are so good?

And the answer is the same for us as it was for Jesus. God wants us to have all of these things in abundance: chocolate, beer, bread, power, health … but he wants to give them to us as gifts, not as things grasped. And so you see, we’re not actually saying “no” to them; we are saying “not yet.”

Jesus understood “the logic of the gift” — that God was always going to give him the bread, the power, the health anyway … so why grasp after it? Why do what Adam did in the garden? Better to have a little patience and humility now, and then receive all good things as a free gift from the giver of all good things.

In Lent we are refusing the false dichotomies, the short cuts, and the cheap thrills of the Divider. We are saying “yes” to God, and saying “yes” to God’s gifts. We are saying “God, I want you now, and I really like chocolate and beer and all that good stuff, but I am willing to wait for it in your time, and in your way.” (And you know what? Chocolate tastes so much better when it comes as a gift and not something grasped. And it’s the same way with sex, with power, with health, and with everything else God has made.)

Don’t choose between God and God’s good gifts. Say “yes” to both, and wait for the gifts in God’s good time.

What God has joined together, let no one divide.

 

 

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Posted on: February 14th, 2013 Delighting in the Arcane

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

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

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

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

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

Hence my encouragement at the above quotation.

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

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Posted on: January 28th, 2013 St. Augustine’s Basilica of Peace

On the architecture and the spatial layout of the Basilica Pacis (Basilica of Peace) at Hippo, where St. Augustine ministered, William Harmless writes,
Its ruins were excavated in the 1950’s, and its floor plan – 41 yards long, 20 yards wide – makes it one of the largest churches uncovered in Roman North Africa. It lay on the outskirts of town, away from the central marketplace with its old pagan temples. The first thing one would have noticed upon entering Augustine’s church was the flicker of flames from small oil lamps, filling the interior with a golden glow. The basilica’s floor, like that of many ancient churches, was inlaid with bright-colored mosaics. There were no pews. The congregation stood, men on one side, women on the other. Services could draw packed audiences. “The great numbers,” Augustine once noted, “crowd right up the walls; they annoy each other by the pressure and almost choke each other by their overflowing numbers.” The altar, unlike that found in medieval and many modern churches, stood in the center of the nave and was surrounded by wood railings. At the basilica’s far end [east end, I am guessing] was a semi-circular apse, lined with stone benches where the presbyters sat. At the apse’s center, slightly elevated, was the bishop’s seat (cathedra). From here Augustine presided and preached.
– Harmless, William, S.J. Augustine in his own Words Washington, DC: Catholic UP, 2010.
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