Archive for December, 2007

Mary

December 29, 2007
No, not that one. Although, as a child of a devout Roman Catholic family, she was undoubtedly named after the Mother of Jesus!
But this Mary is a School Sister of St. Francis and was my spiritual director for nearly twelve years, holding the light of Christ before me in good times and bad, through times of great loss and times of great rejoicing. Yesterday, I drove for three hours through a snow storm to have coffee with her, now in retirement and taking care of an elderly sister in the family home. 
We had set up the visit when I knew I would be home for the holidays, but didn’t anticipate the bad weather. No matter: a little time with this saint of God is worth more than a little inconvenience.
We commiserated about the brokenness in both our churches, recognizing as always that there is no “perfect church” but that we are called to remain firmly grounded where God has planted us and work for the renewal and unity that only God can bring. 
We spoke of the experience, common to both of us, of being driven ever-deeper into the primary relationship with God when the “props” of our institutions are taken away or are no longer up to the task. We spoke of the Beatitudes which she is studying anew…and the Lord’s Prayer which has become somehow new and fresh to both of us in recent years.
I admitted my surprising appreciation of Pope Benedict’s encyclicals and some of his writing and she agreed, having just finished reading his book on Jesus. “Very high Christology,” she observed, “but I’ve also enjoyed Marcus Borg — and his relatively low Christology. We’re still wrestling with the tension of Christ being both God and Man, aren’t we?”
And so it went. Personal stories, some theology, some talk about prayer and worship. And, as always, I came away refreshed and renewed. As with so many fine spiritual directors, it’s not so much what Mary says as who she is. I miss her.
But, we’ll stay in touch. We have to…       

Week of All (or at least some of the) Saints

December 27, 2007
I’ve often thought that the week after Christmas ought to be named “All Saints”   rather than November 1. Certainly this week we commemorate a number of major ones even though, in the post-Christmas Day slump, they often go uncelebrated. Yet, as always, each has something to teach us:
St. Stephen – How different the world would be if our response to personal attacks or wrongs done to us could be “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:60b) as Stephen prayed before he died rather than, “May the Lord see and avenge” (2 Chronicles 24:22c) which was on the lips of Zechariah son of Jehoida when he faced a similar fate. And how often vengeance rather than forgiveness motivates our behavior.
St. John – How different the world would be if the Johannine ethic of a “new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” (John 13:34) was followed. Not just “love your neighbor as yourself,” but love as Jesus loved…with a willingness to lay down his life for his friends (and even his enemies!). To die for, rather than kill for, our beliefs.
Holy Innocents – How different the world would be if policy decisions were made with an eye toward how each one would affect our children rather than continue our Herodian policies of slaughter (Matthew 2:16) due to war, poverty,  lack of health care, and environmental degradation.  
Stephen, John, and all you little ones who “are no more” (Matthew 2:18) pray for us that we may do better in the coming New Year!

Merry Christmas!

December 25, 2007
An ecumenical Christmas this year! Christmas Eve found us at a large Lutheran parish here in the Midwest where we have a home. They’ve just completed a huge new worship space which was filled to capacity with a congregation there to hear and watch children’s choirs sing the songs of Christmas.
The “message” was brought by three young pastors acting out a well done skit about searching in all the wrong places for the Light of the World until finding the Babe “tabernacling” right in their very camp site all the time. Lots of young families and energetic singing with the words to the carols projected on a non-intrusive panel high above, and to the left of, the sanctuary. 
But no Eucharist (at this service…they had two others on Christmas Eve). So, Christmas morning was celebrated at a traditional Episcopal parish in town. About 60 people there, mostly older but a few young couples and singles. Rite One, traditional carols, all in a nicely done service leaflet.
The young curate preached about how we might have expected the Messiah to be born in a palace, after the centuries of preparation for his birth, but instead he came in a lowly manger. The point for us? That God comes to us in the simple, ordinariness of our lives, our loves and our work — if we but have eyes to see.
I could have been in the parish of my youth, say 1963. The east facing Altar, the traditional language, the Healey Willan Sanctus, and all the rest of it. I’m not sure how all that is preparing folks for the “real world” or the “real church” of today. But, the Story was told, the Sacrament received, and God’s Name was praised.
And I was blessed in both worship experiences. And, in very different ways, was brought “good news of a great joy which will come to all the people; for unto (us) today is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”
Merry Christmas!   

Emerging Church and The Bible

December 19, 2007
As I have written before, I try to keep an eye on the “emerging church” conversation these days. It’s an interesting phenomenon bringing together, as it does, “post evangelicals” and “post liberals” into what they hope is a fresh expression of the historic faith. It is a very loose confederation and really does prefer to call itself a “conversation” rather than a “movement.”
While some of the leaders in this effort have been roundly criticised for questioning certain “settled principles” of (particularly) evangelical doctrine, they do not seem to me to be dismissive of orthodox Christian theology as much as they are trying to articulate it for younger people so heavily influenced by the “post modern” age.
Their attempt to link faith and social justice is not new to Episcopalians nor is their attempt to reclaim and re-appropriate certain ancient liturgical practices (like chant and icons and the liturgy of the hours, etc.). What we can perhaps learn from them is a confidence in the narrative power of scripture.
So many of our clergy  trained — as I was — in the very “modern” methods of biblical and historical and literary critical approaches to interpreting scripture seem to have lost confidence, not only in scripture’s reliability but its very authority. I was spared that by being formed by Reginald Fuller and Fred Borsch and C.K. Barrett and C.H. Dodd and Raymond Brown and others.
I have never ceased to pray with and preach from the Bible even while utilizing what I hope are the best tools of literary criticism to try and determine what the text was saying in its original context. But the Bible is Holy Scripture — for me and for so many of these “emergent” leaders.
Our Catechism puts it this way: We call the Holy Scriptures “the Word of God because God inspired their human authors and because God still speaks to us through the Bible.” (Book of Common Prayer, page 853). We need to reclaim and rediscover that confidence and if the “emerging church” can help us do that, more power to them!    
  

The Archbishop’s Advent Letter

December 15, 2007

It seems a very wise thing for Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori to welcome, as she has done, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Advent letter to the Primates’ suggesting, among other things, that he personally invite to the table representatives of The Episcopal Church and those who are most upset with some of its recent decisions. Far from imposing some kind of preconceived solutions or an extra-provincial council of some kind, this seems to be perfectly in line with the Archbishop of Canterbury’s role and may actually be helpful in the run-up to the Lambeth Conference next summer.

There were some very tough things said about The Episcopal Church in his letter. And one wonders why we continue to be singled out on the issue of the blessing of same sex unions when it is going on all around the Anglican Communion, and in other Christian communions, ‘under the radar screen.’ Nonetheless, there was also appreciation for the hard work done by The Episcopal Church, and its bishops, and a recognition that we have probably gone about as far as we can right now in seeking to clarify our position with respect to the Windsor Report and the Primates’ requests from Dar Es Salaam.

As always, with Rowan Williams’ writing, I shall want to take some time to parse it more deeply instead of making some kind of knee jerk response (of which there will be, I am sure, many!). He has rightly summarized our current difficulties as being every bit as much about the scripture and ecclesiology (especially the ministry of bishops) as about Christian ethics and the presenting issue of the place of gay and lesbian persons in the Church.

All topics we very much need to continue discussing — at the Lambeth Conference…and in our “advent preparation” for it.

Streams In The Desert

December 13, 2007

“When the poor and needy seek water, and there is none, and their tongue is parched with thirst, I the LORD will answer them, I the God of Israel will not forsake them.  I will open rivers on the bare heights, and fountains in the midst of the valleys; I will make the wilderness a pool of water, and the dry land springs of water…” (Isaiah 41:17-18)

In this Reading from Isaiah, the prophet is describing the power of the holy God of Israel and the assurance that God will come to their help, even while recognizing that Israel’s failures are many and very serious in God’s sight. The image he uses here is of streams in the wilderness and pools in the desert. This stretches right back, of course, to the roots of Israel’s history and all those times God provided water from the rock during the Exodus and provided drink for his people when their tongues were, quite literally, “parched with thirst.”

So, water is symbolic here, as it is so often throughout Scripture, for salvation – for rescue and for new life. But, in a land where water is always the issue, it had more than symbolic power. In today’s world over 1 billion people still lack access to safe water near their homes for drinking, cooking and washing. More than twice that many lack a safe and effective way to dispose of their bodies’ waste. And that’s why nearly 5,000 children in the developing world die every day from disease caused by unsafe water, sanitation, or hygiene.

My step son, Andrew, lives here in the city and has gotten involved in something called “WaterAid.” It’s based in London and is the world’s champion of safe water, effective sanitation, and hygiene promotion. WaterAid provides practical, sustainable solutions, made more effective through local and international collaborations and is involved in advocacy, education and poverty reduction in some of the world’s poorest countries

Drew works in management in the Border’s Book Store system, and has arranged a volunteer program for people to wrap Christmas gifts in several stores for free in exchange for a donation to WaterAid and an opportunity to share information with customers about the program. We’re really proud of him! And he can provide more information for anyone who might want to get involved!

Because water is surely a sign of salvation and new life… but it is also the actual conveyer of salvation and new life! Jesus says, of John the Baptist, in today’s Gospel: “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.” (Matthew 11: 10) In Advent, we remember that John was sent to prepare the way for the salvation Jesus brings. Perhaps programs like WaterAid and similar efforts to alleviate hunger and thirst around the world can provide a similar “John the Baptist” ministry.

Preparing the way for the Lord…and providing – quite literally – streams in the wilderness…pools in the desert!

       

                  

Actions…and Consequences…

December 7, 2007

While it is no secret that I support the full inclusion of faithful gay and lesbian Christians in the life of the Church, let there be no mistake about the costly nature of such decisions in the life of The Episcopal Church and beyond.

I write this post from Cairo, Egypt where I am attending the annual meeting of the Inter Anglican Standing Commission on Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations. This is a body which reports to the Anglican Consultative Council and monitors the activity and progress of the various Provinces of the Anglican Communion in matters ecumenical.

Since our General Convention decisions of 2003, these have been difficult meetings for The Episcopal Church’s representatives as well as our colleagues from the Anglican Church in Canada. Despite warm personal relations with our Church of England, Asian, African, South and West Indian colleagues, we are roundly criticised as Episcopalians for putting major stumbling blocks in the way of Anglican ecumenical relations.

Often cited are the writings of Bishop Spong, the confirmation of the Bishop of New Hamshire by General Convention 2003, and some bishops’ permission for the blessing of same sex unions in their dioceses despite the lack of an official liturgical rite in our church for such an event.

We were received by Pope Shenouda of the Coptic Orthodox Church here in Egypt one morning and subjected to nearly an hour of lecturing by His Holiness on the sins of the Anglican Communion and especially The Episcopal Church. This venerable monk and leader of his ancient church noted all the concerns I have mentioned above. He has actually read at least one of Bishop Spong’s books. And, is not impressed!

It would, of course, have been possible to take exception to much of Pope Shenouda’s hermeneutics, but “state occasions” like this are hardly the place for that. Particularly in a country where Christians are in the huge minority and undergo scrutiny and often severe criticism from their Muslim neighbors. We heard him out, acknowledged the difficulties we face, and asked for his prayers.

What would have been possible, however, had not the official dialogue with the Oriental Orthodox Churches been suspended over our actions, would have been to engage these issues together in a serious dialogue where our perspectives could be given a fair hearing rather than caricatured by the press or by voices from within our own church who wish the world to think that we are teaching some kind of “new faith.”

This is why I believe the Lambeth Conference must happen. No matter who is, or is not, invited and who chooses to come or not to come. Those of us who will be there must sit together, face to face, in the context of prayer, and both share and listen to one another deeply.

Only in this way can the wounds in our particular expression of the Body of Christ begin to be healed and a contribution perhaps made, by Anglicans, for healing the very Body of Christ of which we are a part.         

Advent Warning…Advent Hope

December 2, 2007

My wife and I love Advent above all the seasons of the  Church year. There is something about the chill in the air, the smell of greenery in the church, the great Advent hymns and lessons, and of course the approaching Christmas celebration which makes it all  so rich. Those  lessons from Scripture are filled with dire warnings, but also with hope.

Traditional interpretations of those passages would say that they are either literal or symbolic descriptions of “the end times” and warn us to “clean up our act” before impending judgment. Other scholars (even conservative ones like N.T. Wright) would hold that the prophets (and even Jesus) were warning of very real cataclysms which were about to occur — in Jesus’ case the likely destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans — if his people did not change their violent ways and follow him  toward a different kind of Kingdom.
Either way, it is clear that God cares about how individuals and nations conduct their affairs, that the future is even now rushing in upon our present, and that our actions have consequences — eternal ones. So, let us use this season of Advent, not only to prepare for the Christmas celebration, but to examine our lives and the life of our nation, in the light of this great Collect for Advent 1:

“Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, now and for ever.” Amen.