Archive for July, 2007

Christian Rabbis

July 31, 2007

“For you, O God, have heard my vows; you have granted me the heritage of those who fear your Name.” Psalm 61:5

“For God alone my soul in silence waits; from him comes my salvation.” (Psalm 62:1)

Praying with those lines from today’s psalms, I could not help but be reminded of St. Ignatius of Loyola whom we also remember today. This founder of the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits) and author of “The Spiritual Exercises” knew what it meant to live the “vowed” life and to “wait in silence” for God. Anyone who has made an Ignatian retreat, using the Exercises, will know too how powerful such “waiting” can be.

Ecumenically, I have worked with a number of Jesuits over the years and, I must say, like with most rabbis I have met, I have rarely failed to be impressed with their intellect and their faithfulness. Indeed, a “society of Christian rabbis” is not a bad way to characterize the Jesuits! Their theological contributions are legion. 

“O God, by whose grace your servant Ignatius of Loyola, kindled with the flame of your love, became a burning and shining light in your Church: Grant that we also may be aflame with the spirit of love and discipline, and walk before you as children of light; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.” (Book of Common Prayer, page 249)

Sabbath and Creation

July 28, 2007

I have always thought how appropriate it is that one of the canticles (“little songs”) appointed for our morning prayers on Saturdays is “A Song of Creation: Song of the Three Young Men.” These are verses which appear now in the Apocrypha as a poem ascribed to Shadrach, Meshack, and Abednego as they remained unscathed in the “burning, fiery furnace” in the Book of Daniel.

Whether they were originally part of the Hebrew text or a later Greek addition continues to be debated. But there is no doubt that the early Jews did indeed compose many such poems, and the celebration of the created order draws heavily on Psalm 148 and yet has a strikingly contemporary message.

It begins “Glorify the Lord, all you works of the Lord, praise him and highly exalt him for ever.” The poem then celebrates the cosmic order, “Glorify the Lord, you angels and all powers of the Lord…heavens and all waters above the heavens…sun and moon and stars of the sky…winter and summer, glorify the Lord…O chill and cold, drops of dew and flakes of snow…glorify the Lord.”

The next secions exalts in the earth and all its creatures, “Glorify the Lord, O mountains and hills and all that grows upon the earth…springs of water, seas and streams…all birds of the air…Glorify the Lord, O beasts of the wild and all you flocks and herds…” And then, almost unexpectedly, “O men and women everywhere, glorify the Lord, praise him and highly exalt him for ever!”

At one and the same moment the poem connects humankind to the rest of the earth and its creatures, and yet also places us at the pinnacle of God’s created order, thus dignifying human nature. The third section hymns the people of God, “…priests and servants of the Lord…spirits and souls of the righteous…you that are holy and humble of heart, glorify the Lord, praise him and highly exalt him for ever.”

I love praying these words on Saturdays (and the Jewish Sabbath) because it connects me in gratitude to the whole created order, appreciating it as God surely did when “resting” on that first “seventh day.” That is certainly part of what sabbath time is supposed to do. On Saturdays…on the weekends…and certainly during summer holidays!

“In the firmament of his power, glorify the Lord, praise him and highly exalt him for ever!”                    


Holidays, Holy Days, and Sabbath

July 25, 2007

Observing Mary Magdalene’s feast the other day and St. James today, while on vacation, reminds me of how important the “sanctification of time” is. Our “three score and ten years” (perhaps, in strength, even eighty!) pass away quickly enough.  It is important to appreciate each day, each week, each passing of the seasons.

I believe the Bible’s commandment that we set aside one day out of seven for rest and recreation, to step back from our work and remember that are not defined by it is absolutely essential. If we do not observe such a rhythm naturally, we may try to create it — and the peace and serenity it provides — artificially perhaps with drugs or alcohol or casual sex or whatever. If we deny our need for sabbath time, we will get sick.

Similarly, the “summer holidays” (or whenever we take some time off) are important as well. I shall be making entries on this little blog periodically, as it seems appropriate and fits into my more restful mode. But, if I miss a few days, just know that it’s because I’m on “holiday” (which term, by the way, I much prefer over the American “vacation.” For these are not empty, vacant, or vacated days — they are “holy” days!)       

On Being Christian Together (Part 2)

July 24, 2007


“The Context of our Journey” was the theme of the (Faith and Order) conference’s third day and included an evaluation of Faith and Order’s work over these fifty years by Byzantine Catholic priest, Joseph Loya and Pentecostal scholar Mel Robeck of Fuller Seminary. The afternoon included three brilliant presentations on Faith and Order in a post-modern world by Pacific Island Methodist Jione Havea, Orthodox scholar Aristotle Papanikolaou, and Lutheran theologian Michael Root, each representing the best of their traditions. This rich day concluded with a panel addressing “Faith and Order in the Context of Religious Plurality.”

After various offerings of confessional and inter-confessional services of worship on and around the campus of Oberlin College, Methodist theologian Sarah Lancaster, Episcopal ecumenist Bishop Christopher Epting, Evangelical leader Dr. Kevin Mannoia, and Monsignor John A. Radano from the Vatican identified continuing issues facing ecumenism today. Balancing new demands of the many ecumenical “success” stories already achieved with work yet to be done, facing new issues such as human sexuality, welcoming the entry of evangelicals and Pentecostals into the movement, and managing divisions within and among the churches were among the issues mentioned.

The conference reached its conclusion on the last night with a panel moderated by Church of England scholar Dr. Mary Tanner, summarizing the learning and experiences of a sampling of participants. Dr. James Forbes, retired pastor of the Riverside Church in New York City preached at a celebrative evening service in Finney Chapel.

The final morning sent the conferees on their way with a series of practical workshops on state and local ecumenism, higher education, bilateral and multilateral dialogues, and an analysis of the NCC Faith and Order study on Full Communion. A challenge and remaining question for Dr. Thomas Ferguson, associate deputy for ecumenical and interfaith relations for the Episcopal Church, is whether venerable institutions like the NCC and the Faith and Order Movement can be flexible enough to make room for the new voices and perspectives of the younger ecumenists present in such numbers at this gathering. The future (and present) depends on it.  


On Being Christian Together (Part 1)

July 21, 2007

Some 300 persons gathered July 19-23, 2007 on the campus of Oberlin College to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the first Conference on Faith and Order which took place on that same campus in 1957. The movement known as “Faith and Order” actually traces its history in this country to 1910 when Episcopal Bishop Charles Henry Brent and Disciples leader Peter Ainsley, among others, began to articulate the need for a setting where churches could together engage their differences in understanding the Christian faith and God’s intention for the right-ordering of the Church.

Banquet speaker, Dr. Martin Marty, Professor Emeritus at the University of Chicago, began by summarizing the many ecumenical accomplishments of the Faith and Order movement over these last fifty years. He cited such advances as actual mergers of churches into “united churches;” the development of the various state, national and world councils of churches; a number of full communion agreements; and theological breakthroughs such as the signing of the joint declaration on “justification” by the Roman Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation.

At the same time, Marty counseled against minimizing the difficulties the movement still faces. These difficulties are not so much in the area of “faith,” he observed, which operates in the area of mystery, depth and amplitude but is hard to define. Rather, the “sticking points” have to do with sexual issues and authority issues. These still remain communion-dividing issues within and among the churches and keep us from sharing the common Eucharist. Nonetheless, he concluded, we are not to “whine or weep, for none of that changes hearts.” Rather we should engage in the real repentance and action that does change things.

After an overview by Dr. Barbara Brown Zikmund and Dr. Donald Dayton on the legacy and ecumenical significance of Oberlin College and the reasons it was chosen as the site of the first North American Conference on Faith and Order, a number of visions of Christian unity were presented. Avery Cardinal Dulles, SJ provided the Roman Catholic perspective and urged “an ecumenism of mutual enrichment by means of mutual testimony.”

Dr. David Daniels of the Church of God in Christ called for an ecumenism which would link “reach out beyond American denominationalism, link apostolic faith with apostolic power, and combat racism at every level.” Quaker Ann Riggs, PhD, Associate General Secretary for Faith and Order at the National Council of Churches, called for the ecumenical movement to move beyond “conflict resolution to conflict transformation.” And United Methodist Dr. Doug Mills drew a thread through all three presentations by highlighting Methodist contributions in these areas.

One of the exciting components of this “Oberlin II” conference was the participation of nearly 100 younger ecumenists, theologians, seminarians and undergraduates. In an ecumenical movement which often appears to be aging if not aged fresh voices and perspectives were more than welcomed. Veteran ecumenist Paul Crow was visibly pleased to moderate an evening session with a young local ecumenist from the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Raphael Allen, a lay ecclesial minister from a Roman Catholic Church in Seattle, A.J. Boyd, and Dr. Keelan Downton, a post-doctoral fellow at the National Council of Churches and representative of the “emerging church” conversation.  

Transcendence and Immanence

July 18, 2007

In both the story of Moses and the burning bush (Exodus 3:1-12) and the account of Jesus’ prayer thanking his Father who has “hidden these things from the wise and intelligent and revealing them to infants” (Matthew 11:25-27) we have examples of what theologians call both the “transcendence” and the “immanence” of God.

The awesome reality and the “otherness” of God which we call “transcendence” is described in the first of our 39 Articles of Religion in the Book of Common Prayer: “There is but one living and true God, everlasting, without body, parts, or passions; of infinite power, wisdom and goodness; the Maker and Preserver of all things both visible and invisible.” (BCP 867)

This was the initial experience of Moses near Mount Horeb when he heard God call from the burning bush “Moses, Moses…Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” It was also Jesus’ experience who begins his prayer, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth…”

We do ourselves no favor, as believers, if we ignore or trivialize this “transcendent” reality we call God. God is not our “buddy.” God is the Source of all that is! In this God – and only in this God — we “live and move and have our being.” We exist solely because God’s love and grace allows us to “be!” 

And yet, that’s not all the story! Not all of the truth about God. Because, as Moses stands – sandal-less – in the presence of this awesome God, he also hears these words, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob…I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry…I know their suffering, and I have come down to deliver them…”

And the occasion of Jesus’ prayer to his “Father (who is) Lord of heaven and earth” is to offer thanks because “you have hidden these things from the wise and intelligent and have revealed them to infants…for such was your gracious will.” Never one to domesticate or trivialize God the Father, Jesus was also adamant that God had to be available and accessible to the youngest and simplest among us…to the last and the least. “Knowledge of God,” and the healing and liberation that come with it cannot be reserved only for scholars and priests – but must be available to all!   

This “immanence,” this presence and availability and inward experience, of God is what Jesus celebrating in his prayer. But it cannot be separated from God’s transcendence. Both must be held together, in some kind of creative tension.  That should come as no surprise to Christians like us – who confess Jesus Christ as human and divine, receive Sacraments which are both outward and visible and inward and spiritual, and Christians like us who are both saints and sinners!

Paradoxes like these lie at the heart of Christianity. And in the heart of God – who is both transcendent and immanent…at the same time!



Enduring to “the End”

July 13, 2007

“See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves…they will hand you over to councils and flog you…do not worry about how you are to speak…for what you are to say will be give to you at that time…brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child…but the one who endures to the end will be saved…For truly I tell you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes.” (Matthew 10:16 ff. passim)

Passages like this have challenged and troubled and confused Christians almost since the day they were written! Ordinary Christians and biblical scholars alike have wrestled with what Jesus could possibly have meant by these dire warnings, and particularly the notion that these trials and tribulations were going to happen very soon. (“You will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes!”).

Albert Schweitzer thought Jesus was simply wrong in his prediction! According to Schweitzer, Jesus thought the end of the world was near and so made these predictions, but he was wrong! Later scholars suggested that perhaps Jesus didn’t say these things at all, but they were put on his lips by the writers of the Gospels or by the early Church as they faced persecution and needed Jesus’ help to get through it!

More recently, Bishop N.T. Wright, a New Testament scholar in the Church of England and the darling of conservatives these days, has made another attempt at understanding such passages — one which is pretty radical for a conservative biblical scholar! He believes that Jesus did indeed speak such words, but that he was not talking about the end of the world or the end of time at all. Rather, he was talking about the fall of Jerusalem!

Like the prophets before him, in this scenario, Jesus is warning his disciples that the powers-that-be (at this time, the Romans) were going to sack Jerusalem unless people changed their ways and stopped threatening violent uprisings against them. God was going to judge his people and, once again, use a foreign power to carry out the punishment.

By this time in his ministry, Jesus was convinced that the people were not going to change their ways into the ways of peace, so he was warning his followers that things were going to get rough for them, and so to prepare for persecution. Moreover, all this was going to come down soon…shortly after his death…and that they were probably not even going to have time to preach the Gospel throughout Israel before all this would begin to happen.

Well, of course, we know that the Romans did indeed sack Jerusalem in 70 AD, after St. Paul and the other apostles had started a number of churches, he had written his major Epistles, and just as the four Gospels were beginning to be written! So, Tom Wright’s theory is an interesting one…and rather appealing to me at least.

We may never understand all the nuances of passages like this. But regardless of which theory you embrace, know that Jesus’ challenge to send his disciples out like “sheep in the midst of wolves,” his warning that they would be “handed over to councils” and flogged, and his assurance that they would be given what to say at that time for “it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father will be speaking through you…”

Words like these have given strength and inspired courage to those early Christians (who did indeed face persecution — from Jews and Gentiles alike!), to missionaries and evangelists through the centuries who have faced similar trials, to African Americans in this country as they struggled for their civil rights, to South Africans in their fight against apartheid, and — dare I say it? — to Palestinian Christians today who are experiencing their own kind of apartheid.

All of these Christians — and ourselves — are assured by these words that whatever we face, we are to do it with wisdom and innocence, with confidence and courage, and know that we will never be deserted by the One who has called us, the One who has sent us, and the One who will, one day, welcome us home!

Episcopal Church Response To The Vatican

July 11, 2007

In response to the July 10 release from the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith response to some questions regarding certain aspects of the Doctrine of the Church, I’m not quite sure what all the fuss is.

This doesn’t change anything for us, and is certainly nothing new for the Roman Catholic Church. Pope Benedict XVI obviously wants to clarify the way he understands the teaching of the Second Vatican Council on a number of matters. We have disagreed with our Roman Catholic colleagues since 1896 about Pope Leo XIII’s declaration of the nullity of Anglican Orders and continue to do so today.

We believe that our Orders are valid and that we are a “church” in every sense of the word. None of these disagreements, however, will lessen our commitment to remain in international and national ecumenical dialogue with the Roman Catholic Church which has been productively held for more than forty years.

And we look forward to what should be a very interesting Anglican – Roman Catholic (ARC-USA) dialogue in Washington, DC next October!

Wrestling with God in the Pre Dawn Light

July 10, 2007



Yesterday, a colleague and I spent most of the day in a meeting of Christians and Jews at the headquarters of the American Jewish Committee here in New York. That may explain why one of our readings today (Genesis 32:22-32) jumped out at me today. Surely “good news” is to be found throughout the pages of Scripture and not only in the four Gospels!

In the midst of the Genesis account of the reconciliation process between Jacob and Esau (Isaac’s sons with all their complicated history) Jacob meets a man and engages in a wrestling match with him. As the story unfolds it is clear that this is no ordinary man but – at the very least – an angel of God and, more probably, God himself: appearing in human form.

The first hint of that is the plea to break off the match because “the day is breaking.” Hebrew thought was clear that no one could look upon the face of God and live, so Jacob’s merciful adversary wanted to leave before the sun rose to reveal him in full light. But Jacob will have none of that, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”

And the form that the blessing takes is the awarding of a new name. How many times in Scripture the taking of a new name marks the beginning of a new stage in life or a new ministry of some kind! “Your name shall no more be called Jacob (the “Supplanter”… of Esau) but “Israel” which is alternatively translated “God rules” or “He who strives with God!” (And with men!)

How rich it is for the Jewish people to be identified as those who “strive with God…and with other people!” In their long history of being called, being faithful, being disobedient, being exiled, returning home, being persecuted yet always mindful of their “chosen-ness” the descendents of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (now Israel!) have developed a certain intimacy and a certain ease with God!

Rabbis have no difficulty arguing with each other, arguing with the biblical text itself, and even arguing with God! Remember Tevya in “Fiddler on the Roof” and his wonderful, honest relationship and conversations with God! Not unlike Jacob who says, “I will not let you go unless you bless me!”

Yet this “striving with God” is not without its price. Jacob is wounded in the struggle and limps away from the encounter claiming to have seen God face to face and lived. Yet, the sun rises as he passes Penuel, making it clear that he has seen God only in the pre-dawn light.

What are the lessons for us in this fascinating and ancient story? Two things at least. The first is that it’s OK to wrestle with God. The spiritual life is not always rosy or a straight path to God. Like the people of Israel, we are called, sometimes faithful, sometimes disobedient, sometimes experience persecution and exile, but are always invited to return home.

Secondly, God can sometimes be found in our adversaries!  People we find most difficult to understand or to like or to agree with may actually be where we meet God. But that requires staying in the struggle. That means we cannot “walk away from the table.” If we are to receive the blessing of God, it may mean that we need to look for that blessing in the midst of the struggle, be willing to wounded in the struggle, but always be prepared to meet God face to face in that struggle.

If only in the pre-dawn light!    



Christian “or” Muslim

July 7, 2007

So, the Episcopal priest who considers herself both Christian and Muslim has now received a pastoral directive from her bishop to “take a year  off” from her responsibilities and duties as a priest, to think and pray through the spiritual journey she is on, with an eye toward achieving some clarity about where she wants to come down with respect to some of the mutually exclusive claims of Christianity and Islam.

It is my understanding that she was willing, all along, to submit to whatever discipline those in authority over her in the church decided and that both she and her bishop agreed to the terms of the directive as well as staying in touch regularly over the next months. Altogether, it seems to me, a thoroughly pastoral Anglican approach — sensible, compassionate, but clear.

For those who continue to believe that there are no limits or boundaries in the Episcopal Church these days, perhaps this will prove instructive. Bishops, Standing Committees, clergy and lay leaders make these kind of pastoral and disciplinary discision every week, usually quietly, patiently, and without fanfare. The “doctrine, discipline, and worship” of  the Episcopal Church is summarized in  the Creeds,  codified in the Canons, and  set out for all to see in  the Book of  Common  Prayer.

May those of us who have chosen to live out our Christian commmitment within the broad comprehensiveness, the “generous orthodoxy” of the Episcopal Church recognize that, just as in any family, there are norms, expectations, and limits which define that common life. And may we always have the grace to honor those so that “we all may be one.”