Posted on: January 15th, 2013 Why St. Augustine?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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Posted on: December 31st, 2012 Self-Awareness (& Community)

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

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

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

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

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

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Posted on: December 26th, 2012 We’re all heretics, but Bill O. more so

In a recent “screaming match,” Bill O. claimed that “Christianity is a philosophy.”

What’s crazily ironic is that he is right, but not at all in the sense in which he means. What he means, it seems clear, is that Christianity is a belief system which functions at the level of ideas, and which is basically a set of private preferences which people have a “right” to express, given that (supposedly) the majority of Americans are still Christians in some abstract sense. At least this much can be gathered from this silly “interview,” linked to above.

What is ironic is that O’Reilly is spot on in stating that “Christianity is a philosophy,” at least according to Peter Leithart’s book _Against Christianity_, in which Leithart argues that what the apostles, whose words are recorded in the New Testament, were describing is not a belief system or worldview which one has in one’s head, but rather a set of commitments to Jesus as Lord which then binds one into a particular community of fidelity to one’s brothers and sisters. That is, the Gospel of Jesus Christ refers to a way of life, a set of commitments, and a particular community called “the body of Christ.”

Hence, Leithart is able to label “Christianity,” which (in Latin-based languages such as French, Italian, and Spanish) as an “-ism,” a gnostic-like heresy. Bill O., who technically is Roman Catholic, would thus be an adherent to this heresy.

None of this is actually that surprising, since the privatization of the Gospel is the heresy of our time. As such both of the talking heads in this interview participate in it.

I only have one real question from watching this video. It is pretty obvious me to that what motivates Bill O. to display his colorful antics (such as using the word “butt” as well as alluding cynically to his own exclamatory use of “Jesus Christ”) is the desire to boost ratings for the ultimate purpose of increased advertising profit. Hence he is in no way arguing in good faith, and should not be taken seriously. That is, Fox News is a pathetic cultural joke far less respectable than the kind of sophistry against which Plato and Aristotle combated.

Please note that I would say the same thing about msnbc, although one must admit that the latter is largely free of the hypocrisy which characterizes Fox.

My only real question is this: does Bill’s interlocutor (David Silverman, president of American Atheists), whose position is far more rational than Bill’s but equally partakes in the illusion of secular reason, take himself to be seriously engaging in public discourse? Or is he, too, self-consciously participating in the antics of ideological consumerism?

 

 

 

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Posted on: October 20th, 2012 Let It Slide (Everything But Christ)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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Posted on: October 2nd, 2012 Becoming a Lover of Wisdom

I’ve been encouraged over the last six weeks as I have preached six consecutive sermons rooted in the Letter of St. James, no doubt the most striking example in the New Testament of what is called “wisdom literature.”

As a junior in college at the University of Texas, I purchased a book, on the recommendation of a professor, entitled The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, edited by Robert Audi, and this book has been a invaluable resource over the years. And yet, this morning when I opened it up to the “w” section in search for the entry on “wisdom,” I was saddened to find only a gaping void, no entry for this term in between “_____” and “Wittgenstein.”

Saddened, but not surprised, for we live in a culture which values wisdom about as much as a rock star values humility. The causes of this cultural disdain are manifold, but I’m grateful for Fr. David’s recent emphasis, from the Christ Church pulpit, on the inverse relationship between wisdom and information, the latter of which our contemporary culture has a glut unparalleled in the history of civilization.

What is wisdom? On this perennial question the antique Greek tradition largely agrees with the ancient oracles of the Old Testament. For both traditions wisdom is concerned with how to live well. That is, there is a focus on the here and the now, on bodily, day to day existence, on the things in life which lead to happiness.

Happiness. The classical tradition of moral virtue calls it eudaimonia (a word which combines the senses of “good” and “spiritedness”). Happiness is what Jesus is getting at with his “beatitudes;” in fact, the beatudo is the Latin translation of the Greek eudaimonia. Happy is the man or woman who is humble and pure, happy are those who make peace in a destructive and divisive world (Matthew 5). This, Jesus is saying, is living well. This, James confirms, is true wisdom, true sofia.

Jesus’ perspective here is utterly Jewish: hochma (“wisdom”) is essentially knowing how to do things in the world in a “successful” (or “happy”) way. For example, a wise gardener or farmer understands principles of how the soil works, such as crop rotation. A wise parent knows how to bring about obedience without provoking or abusing. A wise communicator knows how to speak in such a way as to convince without condescending.

I tell my daughters that “God’s ways are the best ways.” They lead to life and health and peace. (Notice that I did not say “a lack of suffering.”) When we listen attentively, and “submit humbly to the Word implanted within us” (James 1:21), “it will go well with [us], and we will live long in the land” (see Eph 6:3).

This is true wisdom. This is living well in the world which, after all, God made. This is why it is so sad that “wisdom” does not even appear in a book which purports to be about philosophia (the love of wisdom).

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Posted on: August 20th, 2012 Naked Bodies, “Feelings,” & the Buffered Self

In his A Secular Age Catholic Canadian analytic philosopher Charles Taylor gives a detailed genealogical account of the rise of “the buffered self” (ie, an experience of personal subjectivity in which one’s fundamental identity is fixed, walled-off from external forces such as ghosts, black magic, peer pressure, and social convention, and which is seen as the result of one’s own self-disciplined character formation; the opposite of the buffered self is “the porous self”).

Taylor’s account is detailed and multi-faceted. Much of it concerns the emerging “rage for order” which we see in Latin Europe in the early medieval period, together with the concomitant shift from ethical “praxis” to ethical “poesis” — ie, a shift away from the older idea (which we find in the classical tradition of moral virtue — that we can nurture character through the practice of working out our inherent, god-given human telos, to the idea that we can impose an external ideal upon the human person and through discipline … not unlike, according to Taylor, to the modern scientific approach to exploiting the natural resources of the earth).

However I want to focus specifically on Taylor’s account of our relationship with the body and the culturally constructed ways of experiencing it, or “disciplining” it, which begin to emerge sometime around 1500. What emerged gradually is what Taylor calls “the disengaged, disciplined stance to self.” (A Secular Age, 136)

The stance is “disciplined” in the ways I allude to above. The goal is to impose an ethical ideal upon the human person, much as the goal of a black smith is to impose an external ideal (for example, a sword) upon a formless piece of metal. (Influential here are Stoicism, Descartes, and the “Christian” neo-Stoic Lypsius.)

The stance is “disengaged” in that there emerges a separation between the “self” on the one hand, and a “certain modes of intimacy … and bodily functions” on the other (A Secular Age 137). This disengagement from certain bodily functions gives us an utterly concrete case of the rise of the buffered self.

Early books of etiquette admonish people not to blow their nose on the table cloth. A book of 1558 tells us that it is not a “very fine habit” when one comes across excrement in the street to point it out to another, and hold it up for him to smell. People are told not to defecate in public places. (138)

Taylor also documents the practice of the aristocracy regarding nakedness. It would not be uncommon, just before this period, for a duchess or baroness to expose her naked body to a servant, for one would feel shame while naked only in the presence of someone of a higher rank. “Kings would dress in the company of their courtiers; they would even sit on the “chaise-percee” [a commode chair] in company.” (140)

From here naked exposure and open bodily functions move to becoming taboo outside of a small circle of intimate relations. But this expectation is not “natural,” not written into the foundation of the universe, not a matter of natural law. Rather, it is learned and culturally conditioned. Taylor situates this development within the shift in early modernity to a more disciplined stance, in which the “true self” (that which is totally incorporeal in the human being, a kind of “ghost in the machine”) is distanced from and seeks to suppress or hide all exposure and contact to undisciplined, raw nakedness and unrefined creaturely performances.

This distancing or buffering goes hand in hand with a shift in how we understand “intimacy,” which here comes to refer to the dimension of shared feeling. This sense of intimacy “is part of our modern concept … in an age where the having of certain profound and intense feelings comes to be seen as central to human fulfillment. At this point in Western history, Taylor writes, “We are on the road to our contemporary age, where creating a harmonious household, having children, carrying on the line, no longer define the point of marriage, but this finds its main goal in an emotional fulfillment which is identified as one of the central human goods.” (141)

I think that this absolutization of feelings plays a central role in the inability of our contemporary western society to produce human beings who can successfully raise children (to allude to Stanley Hauerwas). That is, this absolutization of feelings, which plays a key role in the rise of the modern buffered self, is deeply relevant to the issues of divorce and “same sex unions,” two intimately connected issues, even if only the latter is currently under public discussion (within the church and without).

As an example, I appeal to  the rhetoric in a video of Bishop Gene Robinson (appearing on “Frost Over the World,” in conversation with the more traditional Anglican priest Lynda Rose) who appeals to his feelings and to some “inner core” of the identity of gay and lesbian people.

Please note, I find much of what Bp. Robinson says, but I’m trying to isolate one facet here of the gay issue — the absolutization of the “feelings” of the buffered self — and I think that his discourse is a good example of this. This “inner core” of (experience-derived) identity is, all too often, presented as inviolable, and it seems to trump scripture, tradition, and reason.

 

 

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Posted on: August 8th, 2012 This Present Moment

Renowned Zen master and Nobel Peace Prize nominee Thick Nhat Hanh is perhaps the greatest teacher of Zen Buddhism of our time. In You are Here the preface begins in this way:

Breathing in, I know that I am breathing in.

In this simple statement is the essence of Buddhist practice. You can build a satisfying and fruitful life on it. You can help yourself and others. You can experience the world as pure and joyful. You can even become enlightened.

Breathing in, I know that I am breathing out.

… You [can] discover how far this simple act of mindfulness can take you….. You [can] learn how Buddhist meditation will help you to harness your natural insight, wisdom, compassion, and so transform your life and benefit those around you.

For a practitioner of Zen meditation, the point of this “breathing meditation” is to be fully present in the present moment. Not to be plagued by guilt about the past, not to be anxious about the risks of the future, but to be fully present, right here and now.

In his Philosophy as a Way of Life, Pierre Hadot shows how the members of early Christian monasticism inherited and “baptized” the spiritual practices which were shot throughout the “neo-Platonist” movement of the centuries before and after Christ. Philosophers such as Proclus and Plotinus, as well as the “schools” of the Stoics and Epicureans, would work to attain a kind of inner peace, using three spiritual exercises in particular: meditation on one’s own death, examination of conscience, and breathing exercises to attain full presence in the present moment.

Both Zen and Christian contemplation (I think, for example of James Finley’s excellent book Christian Meditation) are saying, “Don’t waste your life. Don’t be everywhere but here. Open your eyes to the mysterious beauty that is all around you in the ordinary, miraculous world. Train yourself to be so calm (as expressed in the phrase “mind like water”) that you can “hear” the still, small voice of God.

“Be still,” the Psalmist writes, “and know that I am God.”

It is hard, nay, impossible, to do this in a life full of distraction and worry. Both Zen, and the more comprehensive Christian tradition of contemplative prayer create a path, a way, a Tao, for one to get more in touch with self, world, and God.

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Posted on: July 14th, 2012 Dark Roast & Dieties in Small Town Texas

“F*&K YOUR GOD.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Posted on: July 13th, 2012 Benedict’s Rule: Children vs. “Hired Hands”

In her commentary on The Rule of St. Benedict, Joan Chittister writes,

To be a member of a Roman family, the family whose structures Benedict understood, was to be under the religious, financial, and disciplinary power of the father until the father died, whatever the age of the children. To be disinherited by the father was to be stranded in a culture in which paid employment was looked down upon. To be punished by him was to lose the security of family, outside of which there was no security at all. To lose relationship with the father was then, literally, to lose one’s life [italics mine]. Chittister, OSB, Joan. The Rule of Benedict: Insights for the Ages (New York: Crossroad, 2008), 21.

There is a connection here with the story of the “prodigal son,” from Luke 15. In that passage the to-be-inherited-land which is coveted by both sons is referred to as “bios,” or the Greek word for biological life.

The implications here for the manifold biblical teaching on “inheritance” (Gen 48:6; Nu 16:14; Nu 18:23; Dt 15:4; Ps 16:6; Eph 1:11; Col 1:12; Heb 11:8; 1 Pet 1:4) are vast. (Too vast for me to begin to write about here!)

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Posted on: June 21st, 2012 How to “stick it” to the Divider

As any number of folks in the Epiphany Community can tell you, the etymological meaning of the word “devil,” which occurs in Scripture a total of 34 times, literally means “the divider.” The devil loves to take what God has joined together in his good work of creation, and to rip it apart.

Which is why, for St. Paul in his letter to the Ephesians, God in the Gospel is all about taking what sin (and the devil) has torn asunder and “putting it back together again.” Fixing it. Making it into what, from the very beginning, it was supposed to be.

Indeed, as NT Wright has noted (in a recent lecture delivered to the students at Wheaton University) the letter to the Ephesians evokes at least four different divisions (wrought by sin, etc.) which God in the Gospel is working to repair and restore.

First, God is reuniting heaven and earth (Eph 1:10). Once upon a time God and man enjoyed each others’ intimate presence in the evening cool of the garden. Can you imagine? God being as present, indeed, more present, than your spouse, your parent, your loved one? And then, when the unspeakable had happened, man began to do what we all now do: he hid from his lover. What is the Gospel? It is the good news that God is reuniting heaven and earth … that, as the wonderful song says,

When at last this earth shall pass away,
When Jesus and his Bride are one to stay,
The feast of love is just begun that day.
God and man at table are sat down.

Second, God is reuniting giftedness and work. Have you ever had the horrible realization, when thinking of your own work, “I’m just not good at this?” Have you ever sensed that there is a terrifying mismatch between your work and your gifts? In the face of this common dread, St. Paul says that “we are [God’s] workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Eph 2:10). Part of what’s going on here is the often neglected truth that, for the Christian, your work is bigger than your career. That is, each one of us is called to and specifically gifted for work, service, in the Body of Christ. God is faithful, if we ask him, to give us our daily bread. Beyond earning a paycheck, though, we can achieve deep satisfaction in the labor of Christ’s vineyard.

Third, God is reuniting Jew and Gentile, and every racial division which separates us. In Paul’s vivid imagination, the church “the multi-splendored wisdom of God … now … known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” (Eph 3:10). The book of Ephesians stresses the reconciling work of Christ to break down “the dividing wall of hostility” (2:14) which isolates Jews from Gentiles, and vice-versa. In our day we can be assured that if there is now no enmity between between Jew and Gentile, then there is definitely no necessary division between Hispanic and Anglo, between black and Asian, etc. For, as Paul states, elsewhere, we are “all one in Christ” (Gal 3:28).

Fourth, God is reuniting male and female. In chapter five of Ephesians Paul has been speaking at length about the relationship between husbands and wives. Even while advocating an egalitarian “mutual submission” between husband and wife, he also commends a certain hierarchical structuring of the marriage bond. This structure is meant to reflect the relationship between our “head,” Christ, and his “body,” the Church. As for Christ and the Church, so also for every husband and wife within the economy of God’s community.

Do you want to “stick it” to the devil, the “divider?” Then get on board with God’s reconciling project. It is called “the Gospel of Jesus Christ,” and it is uniting all things in heaven and on earth.

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Posted on: June 8th, 2012 My Approach to Christian Ministry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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Posted on: May 15th, 2012 The Ups & Downs of Scripture & Liturgy

Many people are familiar with the saying “What goes up must come down.”

Fewer, however, have deeply meditated on the upward & downward motion which pervades the Christian narrative. For example, only after Christ is “lifted up” on the cross is he then is he lowered down into the depths of the earth, into Hades or Sheol, which many interpret as a kind of descent into Hell. And then, three days later, he is up again, risen victorious, for his disciples and (according to 1 Corinthians 15) a great multitude of 500 to see.

Now I am not one of those Episcopalians who seems to think that Eastern religions such as Buddhism are something we Christians should emulate. However, it does seem to me that this “down – up” pattern of the death and resurrection of Christ constitutes two halves of a larger whole, kind of like the pattern of the yin and the yang. The are stiched together, metaphysically, so to speak. You can’t have one without the other. They infuse and saturate each other with meaning.

This down – up pattern has been given the name of “Paschal Mystery” by the Church: what goes down must come up. And what comes up must first have gone down. Without death there is no resurrection life. Without the dark night there can be no sunrise. Without pruning no beautiful rose blossoms.

But as we approach the Feast of the Ascension (in our tradition considered one of the seven principal feasts of the Church) and the Day of Pentecost, it seems to me that there is another “yin-yang” pattern here, as well. Another “up – down” reality which is worthy of contemplation. In the Ascension Christ ascended up into the heavens and vanished from our view / presence. Why did he do this? Why did he go up?

In John 16:7 Jesus tells his disciples, “Unless I go away the Paraclete will not come to you.” Unless he leaves, that is, the Holy Spirit will not be poured down upon all flesh. In a similar vein in John’s resurrection story when Mary Magdalene tries to hold on to her risen Lord, he rebukes her saying, “Do not hold onto me, for I have not yet ascended to my Father” (John 20:17). It is as if he is saying, “Mary, don’t try to tie me down; I must go up. It is good for you and for the world that I go up. Only if I go up, can something even better come down.”

We who benefit from the entirety of the Christian canon realize that this “something better” is the gift of the Holy Spirit, poured down onto the Church on the Day of Pentecost. This Spirit, St. Paul tells us, is “the Spirit is the Lord” himself (2 Cor 3:17) and the Book of Acts speaks of the Holy Spirit as “The Spirit of the Lord.” That is, when the Spirit descended onto the Church, it was also Christ himself descending onto the Church, coming down and entering our hearts in a fresh, new, powerful way.

Without the downward descent of Good Friday, there can be no victorious burst of Easter resurrection. Without the upward vanishing of Ascension, there can be no downward outpouring of the Spirit of Life.

So here’s a “homework assignment.” The next time you are at church, look for this “up down” imagery in the liturgy. How many times in the Liturgy are things of various kinds elevated and or brought down?

Everything from the Sursum Corda (“Lift up your hearts / we lift them up unto the Lord”) to the manual actions of the Presider at the Table (notice how many times things are elevated or raised) contributes to this pattern in our lives. Look for it. Study it. It is worthy of contemplation.

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Posted on: May 10th, 2012 Human Rights as a Sub-issue of the Gay Debate

My short summary of Alasdair John Milbank on human rights:

Prior to modernity, “rights” (Latin iura) were seen as the participation of persons in relationships of mutual, free associations in something objective. But with the advent of liberal political thought, rights become absolutely grounded in the subjective self in isolation from others. American political precedent is built upon these modern assumptions. Hence, “gay marriage” is perfectly rational in an American context which is built on the foundations of modern, liberal political thought.

I would add: if one is not prepared to challenge the foundations of American political theory (including the US Constitution), then one should not complain about gay civil “marriage.”

Two caveats here:

1. I do not mean to imply that the meaning of the word “marriage” (which is a sacrament of the Church) can be redefined. Indeed, I wonder why secular people even care about something called “marriage,” if not for financial reasons based in the tax code of the US. Thus, the church ought to disentangle itself from the state when it comes to marriage.

2. None of the above discussion applies to decisions within the Church with respect to issues around “homosexuality.”

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Posted on: April 27th, 2012 On Humility & Courage (by Tarah Van de Wiele)

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Posted on: April 16th, 2012 Jeremy Taylor & Gay Issues

Yesterday in my Christian Formation class at Christ Church I made the case that the Bible is not as clear as I used to think on matters of “homosexuality.” Next week I will argue, however, on the basis of Romans 1 as well as the “narrative arc of Scripture,” in harmony with the consensus of catholic tradition, that same sex practice should not be sanctioned by the Church.

Hence, same sex issues are on my mind & heart today. It is in that context that I read this morning in my personal study time this excerpt from Jeremy Taylor‘s A Sermon on the Marriage Ring:

Nothing can sweeten felicity itself but love. But, when a man dwells in love, then the breasts of his wife are pleasant as the droppings of the hill of Hermon, her eyes are fair as the light of Heaven, she is a fountain sealed, and he can quench his thirst and ease his cares, and lay his sorrows down upon her lap, and can retire home to his sanctuary and refectory and his gardens of sweetness and chaste refreshments. No man can tell, but he that loves his children, how many delicious accents make a man’s heart dance in the pretty conversation of those dear pledges; their childishness, their stammering, their little angers, their innocence, their imperfections, their necessities, are so many emanations of joy and comfort to him that delights in their persons and society.

But he that loves not his wife and children feeds a lioness at home, and broods over a nest of sorrows; and blessing itself cannot make him happy; so that all the commandments of God enjoining a man to “love his wife” are nothing but so many necessities of capacity and joy. She that loves is safe, and he that loves is joyful. Love is a union of all things excellent; it contains in it proportion and satisfaction, and rest and confidence.

Could an analogous sermon be preached at a same sex “wedding?” Hard (for me) to imagine. Perhaps my horizons need to be broadened? I’m open. Skeptical, but open.

I also was reminded this morning that Taylor staunchly resisted the “pro-divorce” views of that Presbyterian Puritan John Milton.

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Posted on: March 19th, 2012 Lent & Learning the Language of Virtue

On Tuesdays at Christ Church during Lent we have been considering “The Virtuous Life: Learning to Love like Jesus,” a series rooted in I Corinthians 13.

In what the speakers have talked about I would venture that much more has been said about “love” than about “virtue.” I would suggest that there are several reasons for this, but one reason is that we think we know a thing or two about love, but when it comes to virtue (that ancient and medieval teaching about character formation) we are (to some extent, anyway) at a loss.

We live in a culture which has totally lost sight of this ancient tradition of virtue. Even in most quarters of the Church today we have basically no clue as to how someone like Aristotle, Augustine, or Aquinas (or, indeed, someone like St. Paul) would answer the question “How is Christian character actually formed in a person?”

Indeed, even in my senior ethics class at the evangelical seminary I attended to become a minister, the word “virtue” went unmentioned. Instead, the focus was on “What do the Scriptures teach about morality?” Now, that is a good question, but even when one figures that out, one is still left with the question, “OK, but how?”

How can I put God’s Ways into practice? Because sometimes I know the right thing to do, but I don’t do it. And it’s funny how I’ve noticed the same tendency in my children! We are well intentioned, but actually doing the right thing is something totally different.

To take matters a level deeper, the goal of Christian virtue is actually not even about “doing the right thing.” Much more important is the goal and the practice of becoming the right kind of person. The kind of person who can live well in this world and (therefore) in the world to come.

For these reasons and more I am grateful for our Neighborhood Groups at Christ Church where we are intentionally forming communities where virtue can be learned. So much of the work here (to allude to Dallas Willard and his disciple James Bryan Smith, whose book The Good & Beautiful God we are reading in our groups) has to do not only with “switching out our narratives” but also with adopting a new set of practices and disciplines.

Because without new disciplines, there can be no new habits. And without new habits, there can be no new virtue.

NT Wright gives a powerful illustration of virtue in his book After You Believe. On January 15, 2009 US Airways Flight 1549 flew into a large flock of geese, some of which were sucked into the jet engines of the plane, causing it to lose all power and hence to plunge downward toward the densely populated Bronx, New York. Captain Chesley Sullenburger III had less than two minutes to take action which would save the lives of hundreds of people. The problem is that with less than 120 seconds, there is not enough time to consult a pilot manual, to ask advice from your copilot, or even to formulate a plan. Good thing Capt. Sullenburger had formed unbreakable habits during his decades of flying. In less than two minutes he had to flip dozens of switches, disengage the auto pilot feature, get the nose of the plane down for maximum gliding, and perform dozens of other moves which eventually enabled the plane to land safely along the Hudson River, thus saving hundreds of lives.

Not everyone will be put in such a situation, but we are all faced, eventually, with tests of our character. When that time comes, virtuous habits are what God graciously uses to save us, and to save the day.

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Posted on: February 15th, 2012 Rite of Burial: an Easter Liturgy

I had a powerful experience this past week.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Posted on: February 7th, 2012 Beer to the Glory of God

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

And then, there is this:

shota_house_beer

Way to go, Nashotah House!

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

 

 

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Posted on: January 3rd, 2012 The Gospel According to (the Feast of the) Epiphany

If ever there were a perfect text for the meaning behind the feast of the Epiphany, surely it is the Third Song of Isaiah (Canticle 11, BCP p. 87), taken from Isaiah 60.

Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has dawned upon you.

For behold, darkness covers the land; deep gloom enshrouds the peoples.

But over you the Lord will rise,  and his glory will appear upon you.

Nations will stream to your light,  and kings to the brightness of your dawning.

Your gates will always be open; by day or night they will never be shut.

They will call you, The City of the Lord,  The Zion of the Holy One of Israel.

Violence will no more be heard in your land, ruin or destruction within your borders.

You will call your walls, Salvation, and all your portals, Praise.

The sun will no more be your light by day; by night you will not need the brightness of the moon.

The Lord will be your everlasting light, and your God will be your glory.

Darkness covers the land; deep gloom enshrouds the peoples. When Mary and Joseph were en route from Nazareth to Bethlehem it was surely the case that darkness and gloom were in control. God’s people sensed that they were still in exile, that “restoration” was a cruel joke, that the false gods and oppressive powers had the upper hand. Into this milieu a totally new kind of king was born.

Nations will stream to your light; kings to the brightness of your dawning. As Anglican New Testament scholar NT Wright ceaselessly points out, this “business” about the “nations” began way back with Abraham. It was then, with Abram (as he was then called) that YHWH first announced that his work in and through his covenant people was to bless the whole world, all nations on the earth. “In you,” God promised the Father of our Faith, “all the nations of the earth will be blessed.” And so it is, that when we see these strange magician-kings bearing gifts to and worshipping the babe in the manger, we are literally seeing the fulfillment of that prophetic thread which is woven throughout the Old Covenant Scriptures.

They will call you the City of the Lord, the Holy One of Israel. Duke New Testament Scholar Richard Hays, in his Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul, writes persuasively that the fulfillment of the Old Covenant occurs not simply in the man Jesus Christ but also in his Body, the Church. The New Covenant ecclesia (the Greek word for “church”) in which God’s people meet, no longer in Central Zion Proper, but now decentralized  all over the globe, is this “City of the Lord.” When black people, white people, rich people, poor people, conservative people, liberal people, etc. etc. gather in Eucharistic fellowship with the Baptized Faithful, it is then that the “nations [are streaming] to your light.”

The Sun will no more be your light by day; by night you will not need the brightness of the moon. When I tuck Bella and Ellie into bed each night, just after we finish our prayers, they always remind me to turn on the nightlight (which sometimes turns out to be the light in the bathroom next to their room). However, on those rare occasions when these little girlies persuade me (or their Mommy) to sleep with them all night, this infantile need for a nightlight disappears. In the very same way, St. John tells us in his Apocalypse, “And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.” (Rev. 22:5, ESV)

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Posted on: November 26th, 2011 The Three Comings of Christ (Advent, 2011)

Have you ever noticed how, in the Christian Faith, so many things come in “three’s”? Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Peter, James, and John.  Faith, hope, and love.

Another “Trinitarian triad” which is especially relevant at this point in our church year is found in the Memorial Acclamation of our Eucharistic Prayer:

Christ has died.

Christ is risen.

Christ will come again.

I’ve long reflected on our confession of this “triple event” in terms of Advent, a time when we prepare for the coming of Christ. (Note that, in Latin, the verb venire means “ to come,” and the prefix ad means “to” or “toward.”) It points, I think, to the reality of the three “comings” of Christ, all of which require our preparation. Christ came; Christ comes; Christ will come again.

First, Christ came. He came to our hurting and broken world 2000 years ago as baby boy, born to a young teenage girl in Palestine. He came to an afflicted people, in desperate need of something, someone, to put their hope in. This first coming, when the God-man walked upon the pages of historical time and space, is something catholic Christians actively re-member every year in Advent. We relive it, we reimagine it, we prepare for it. When it comes to this, the “first coming” of Christ, what is going on is that we are preparing for the remembrance of a past event (not unlike the annual preparation for one’s wedding anniversary).

But, second, Christ comes. Every Eucharist, every time the Word is read, in fact every moment of our lives, God in Christ approaches us in loving relationship. This is true on so many levels we scarcely have time or space to discuss it. In my Christian formation class this year during Ordinary Time we spent many weeks discussing and practicing a form of prayerful reading called lectio divina, and this is why: Christ is always present, and yet the challenge and need is for us to develop and cultivate an awareness of that presence. Hence, we pray. We meditate. We contemplate. We wait. We listen. “Be still,” the Psalms instruct, “and know that I am God.”

Finally, Christ will come again. This we confess at every Eucharist in the words of the Nicene Creed: “He will come again to judge the living and the dead.” No man knows the hour, and few should claim to know the manner, but that he will return, we are absolutely certain. And though the details are hazy, we are told that he will come like a thief in the night. (1 Thes 5:2) Therefore, St. Paul admonishes, “let us not sleep, as others do, but keep awake, and be sober.” (1 Thes 5:5) Sounds like preparation to me.

All of this reminds me of a quotation from Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes: “We imagine the past, and we remember the future.” The past, the first coming of Christ, is an event which renews and redeems the world, simultaneously bringing Israel’s story (for us, the Old Testament) to its anticipated climax. It is no ordinary event. It is the “axis mundi,” the pivot of history. It is, at the same time, the climax of our story, yours and mine. When we read about God’s people in the Old Testament, we are reading about our community, our selves. This is an event we are imaginatively to re-inhabit.

The future, in turn, is something we “remember,” for we have already been told how it will end. Putting aside all of those dense, thick commentaries on the Book of Revelation for a moment, we do see in the last two chapters of our Story a renewed community, celebrating the ultimate victory of God and his Lamb. We know, in other words, “who wins” in the end, and we know that our destiny is sure: to rest in and to enjoy our Three Person God forever with all his Saints.

We imagine the past; we remember the future. In so doing we are enabled more and more to live fully into the present moment, in which Christ comes to us continually and without reservation.

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Posted on: November 3rd, 2011 All Saints & The Greatest Pleasure on Earth

My wife (quite the Inklings scholar) reminds me that, while Tolkien wanted the circle of friendship between him, Lewis, and few others to remain small, Lewis wanted it to be large and expansive. It is tempting to want to read Anglican and Roman approaches to church into these postures.

Happy All Saints (the better to celebrate, I offer the following quotation)!

In each of my friends there is something that only some other friend can fully bring out. By myself I am not large enough to call the whole man into activity; I want other lights than my own to show all his facets. Now that Charles [Williams] is dead, I shall never again see Ronald’s [Tolkien’s] reaction to a [specific kind of] joke. Far from having more of Ronald, having him “to myself” now that Charles is away, I have less of Ronald. Hence true friendship is the least jealous of the loves. Two friends delight to be joined by a third, and three by a fourth, if only the newcomer is qualified to become a real friend…. In this, Friendship exhibits a glorious “nearness by resemblance” to Heaven itself where the very multitude of the blessed (which no man can number) increases the fruition each has of God. For every soul, seeing Him in his own way, doubtless communicates that unique vision to all the rest. (The Four Loves)

Perhaps this is why Lewis, in another All Saints quotation, asks “Is any pleasure on earth so great as a circle of Christian friends by a fire?” (Letters of CS Lewis)

Perhaps, too, this is why ++Rowan Williams says that “It takes the whole Church to know the whole truth.”

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Posted on: November 3rd, 2011 Becoming Like Jesus (Renovare & Spiritual Formation)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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Posted on: October 1st, 2011 Hauerwas on Evangelicals & “Making Christianity Up”

“Too often, American Christians think that they get to make Christianity up, but it is received.”

“As a Christian, I have no private life. That Jesus is Lord is going to make my life quite dysfunctional in relation to a good deal of American practice.”

Statements like these clarify my mind, and motivate me to press on in the same direction my pastoral ministry has been going for over a decade now. Statements like these are on offer regularly by Stanley Hauerwas, for example, here.

This is another good one, too. In this one Hauerwas states that, all too often, Evangelicals think that Christianity consists solely of the Bible and “now” … totally omitting 2000 years of history.

Wow. Having been in Tyler, TX for a year now, my mind is blown by the extent to which so many of the Christian folk around here (and these are evangelicals I am talking about) don’t even meet that deficient standard. Would that they valued the Bible!! I bet three times a week I hear a well-meaning Christian (whether they know I am a pastor or not) walk up to me and say, “God told me __________.”

“God told me to move to Tyler to start a ministry.” (That one, unsolicited, was two days ago, spoken by a complete stranger, in the park while I was pushing my three year old in a swing.)

“God told me to tell you that ________.” (This one happens about once a month, often from another Christian leader in Tyler.)

(I could go on, but I’m starting to feel kind of guilty and embarrassed.)

When it comes to theses statements I think, “OK, maybe.”

I don’t want to be a mere skeptic when talking with brothers and sisters. However, I’m pretty sure that 99% of the time this statement is based not on Scripture, not on deep intimacy with God such that one can “hear” God “speak,” but rather on self-interested emotion(alism).

 

 

 

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Posted on: September 24th, 2011 Wine in the Morning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sometimes there is not so much left.

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

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

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Posted on: September 6th, 2011 Prayer: a life-long conversation with God

What follows is the statement of purpose for my Christian Formation class at Christ Church (Episcopal) in Tyler, Texas which will be offered in the Fall of 2011.

A conversation requires two parties, whose roles alternate between speaker and listener.

The firm conviction out of which this Christian Formation class on prayer is based is that prayer, according to Scripture and Tradition, is intended to be a conversation or a dialogue between us and God.

All too often well-meaning Christians today assume that prayer is, by definition, solely a matter of the Christian talking to God instead of talking with God, instead of engaging in a conversation with God. And yet, the Scriptures are clear: “Be still and know that I am God” (Ps 46:10) implies a listening posture of silence. That God is “a still, small voice” (cf 1 Kings 19:12) suggests that God speaks to his people, but that in order to hear him we must be quiet, refusing to let our own “noise” (literal and otherwise) drown out his voice.

In this class we will be asking the question “What is prayer?” and we will see that there are a great many answers to that question. For example, Sister Benedicta Ward, SLG (Anglican Order of the Sisters of the Love of God) writes that, for the desert fathers, “prayer was not an activity undertaken for a few hours each day; it was a life continually turned toward God.”

Indeed, prayer is so many things. And yet, the core conviction here is that as modern Christians we have lost the art, the practice, the holy discipline and comfort of listening for God. We are too busy, too anxious, too impatient, too distracted. And in the process of all this frenetic activity, we lose the joy of intimacy with the living God who speaks.

What should we do? It was the theoretical vision of John Calvin, and the practical vision of Thomas Cranmer, that all Christians were called to live the life of prayer which, in times past, was restriced to the monastery. That is part of the answer.

For the more of the answer we will listen to the wisdom of contemporary Christian leaders who have been particularly profound in their approach to prayer-as-listening. Among the writers and writings which have influenced me in this regard, and to whom we will be attentive in this class are:

  • Peter Kreeft, Prayer: The Great Conversation and Prayer for Beginners
  • James Finley, Christian Meditation
  • Henri Nouwen, various
  • Thomas Keeting, various

Join us this fall, as we consider how to listen for the voice of God in our daily lives.

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