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Sunday, July 29, 2012

Top Heresy Among Christians?

In an age of unbelief and fee thinking words like 'heresy' do not have much meaning. Being told you are a heretic, for most people, is considered no big deal. The locus of decision making, in our culture, is the individual. This is one of the challenges in theological discussions. People do not really care about truth, they are more into 'opinions.' And this seems to be as true of so-called conservative Christians as it is for so-called Liberals.

There is another approach, one which respects the idea of "church" and the teaching authority of the church. People who embrace the creeds (like ancient Christians, you know, the ones who actually compiled the Bible) understand that there must be some balance when a person reads and interprets the Bible.

On the one hand, reading and reflecting can be a personal discipline helping someone draw closer to God and come to a clearer understanding of God and His ways. It is the data through which we encounter the Divine. On the other hand, the Church's doctrine is not something up for discussion. No Christian has authority to read the Bible and create his own theology. Those issues were debated and decided long ago. The humanity-divinity of Christ? Done. The Trinity? done. No need to spend endless hours trying to figure it out. Left to our own devices, we tend to formulate error and heresy [you can find a handy quickie review here: ]

I have often thought the most popular heresies (i.e. false teachings/beliefs-rejected by the Christian church) are probably about Jesus. Conservatives tend to be Docetist or Apollinarian. They declare the divinity of Christ and focus on that. Docetists say Jesus looks human, but when they are through talking you realize it is all an appearance....I think there may be some of that involved in the question, "Could Jesus be wrong?" (and I am not saying anyone is a heretic here, but the question itself may lend itself to that sort of thinking). Such a Jesus is "human" but not really. He is above and beyond all humanity as we know it. The more liberal heresy is probably the other extreme. It recognizes the humanity of Jesus (historically more easy to prove) but do not go much beyond that. He may have "become" the Son of God (this is called Adoptionism) and He is certainly held up as a good example (generally, today, because He is considered 'so tolerant and accepting' and He would bless what we think). It is what allows so many contemporary Christians to say "Jesus probably sinned." (Yikes!!!)  Both of these false teachings share the same problem, they deny the incarnation. They both have only one half of the equation and so they leave us where we started.

However, there is a third heresy which I believe rivals the other two. That is the belief in something called "The God (or god) of the Old Testament." The first advocate on record for this position was Marcion, a bishop who lived from c85-160. Based on those dates, he was a young man when the NT writings were coming to a conclusion. His theory was that the OT god was inferior. He tossed the OT and identified a truncated Gospel of Luke (edited to his approval) and the writings of Paul as the new Bible. His theory is more elaborate, but this is not my point. My goal is to identify that this urge to toss out the OT is heretical, an error and in contradiction to the Christian faith.

Some identify places where "God acts differently." Others merely say, "The OT is law and the NT is love." Much of this is presumed. In Exodus 34:6 we read "YHWH, YHWH, merciful and gracious God, slow to anger and abounding in kindness and faithfulness, keeping kindness for thousands, bearing crime and offense and sin; though not making one innocent: reckoning fathers crimes on children and childrens children, on third generations and on fourth generations." Richard Friedman's Torah commentary includes this: "This is possibly the most repeated and quoted formula in the Tanak providing 9 examples from psalms, prophets and other writings. Mercy to the 1,000 generation certainly trumps judgement to the 4th. The imbalance is palpable. [and judgement to the third and fourth refers to living family, in other words, it is possible for grand children and great-grandchildren to be alive and suffer the results of the patriarchs sins]

Assuming the OT is useless for understanding God ignores the fact that Jesus used it as scripture and He interpets His own life in terms of it. The Love of the NT includes all manner of punishment and threat. Read Acts and see what happens if you lie about giving to the church. Read Paul to the Romans. Sure there is grace-grace-grace, but what about whole chapters on sins which will exclude you from the kingdom? Jesus is not shy about judgment. He can be pretty hard and harsh. Real love does not sugar coat everything. Judgment and mercy go together. No one should assume we are free to do whatever we like. God never says that in either testament.

The Lord God of the OT and NT is the same Lord God. It is work to come to understand it. Are you a heretic? Do you care? Does truth matter? A good place to start is with C. Fitzsimons Allison's very readable book "The Cruelty of Heresy: An Affirmation of Christian Orthodoxy." Errant beliefs lead to bad practices. Wrong thinking does damage. Renewal of the human spirit begins with love and truth. Together. Come Lord Jesus and set us free!

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Looking For God

I got an e-mail today about why churches are dying from a friend. In simplest terms, it is because so few of them connect people with God. I think there is a lot of truth in that. Often times churches seem to be glorified social clubs with a passing interest in conversion and a delight in pointing out the faults of others. Unfortunately, by saying this I am just one more person pointing out the faults of others. And that is THE Problem. Criticizing others is not limited to church goers, it is also done by non-goers!

What would a church look like that was more focused on connecting folks with God? I think it depends on your assumptions. Some would say lots of Bible studies. Some would say small groups. Some would say helping the poor and needy. Some would say retreats and prayerer times. Some would say "relevant" worship (meaning the kind of worship that they like). I think all of that is true so at my parish I try to do all of these things. I am not, however, convinced that we are all connecting with God. But at least we are on the right path.

My mind is pondering this because I read Exodus 33 today. I really love Exodus. It lays out the journey motiff (and my blog is called journey in faith for a reason). It reminds us that we have not made the final destination. Even if I believe in Jesus, I am still on a journey and it can still be dark and confusing. Chapter 33 starts with God telling Moses (basically), "you lead the people, I am out of here. If I hang with them I am going to kill them all because they are so bad." Look it up if you don't believe me. In fact, God says it twice. This is not the whole story on God, but it is something to keep in mind. He gets really sick and tired of our disobedience.

The other thing in chapter 33 is Moses' request that God show Himself. God reminds Moses that no one can see God and live. That is another interesting concept. In the end, God tucks Moses in a cleft of a rock, covers his face, and then lets him glimpse the backside of the Lord. But Moses does not get to see God's face.

Now some literalists will explain exactly how this happens blah blah blah. And some atheist literalists will explain how it all makes no sense and therefore blah blah blah.

Does God have anger issues? Does God need a time out to keep from "wiping us out"?
Does God have hands and a backside?

My assumption is God is bigger than our thoughts and words. And I really mean it. What that means is any talk about God is metaphorical. It is not literal because our language is too small to capture God. Words like love, truth, mercy, goodness--they cannot explain God because we have only seen them on a human level. A "smart" dog or a "smart" goat are no doubt able to do amazing things. But no one would take a smart dog or goat to college to learn algebra, accounting or astronomy (and that is just classes starting with A). When we say smart about animals it is a different meaning. Likewise, when we read stories of God they are all dumbed down so that we can read them. We don't get to see God's face, we see His backside, in other words, we get to see signs of His presence, but only after His absence.

No doubt the revelation of God in Exodus is to be taken seriously: about judgement, holiness and the encounter with the Divine. Our assumptions about how God would act are shaken by the (AUTHORITATIVE REVELATION IN THIS SCRIPTURE) actual content of these stories. But the power of the stories goes deeper than assuming this is "all there is to it," or worse, rejecting its truth because "it is too ancient and doesn't make sense to a smart modern person like me!"

If you h ave a hunger for God there is plenty here. Breath deeply and read them. These stories must be read slowly, prayed over and humbly submitted to. Of course, there are other chaptes in Exodus and other books in the Bible. Lots of revelation. Lots of information. But if God wasn't bigger than our thoughts about God, well God would not be God.

My suggestion, read it, reflect on it, discuss it with others, be open...

Friday, July 27, 2012

Sign of Covenant People

One recurring experience I seem to have is what I call 'new verses' in the Bible. I have sat down and read the Bible cover to cover a few times. I have read individual books dozens and more times. I have read passages hundreds of times. I have taught and preached on a good portion of the Bible. So it seems like I should not constantly be surprised by what I find. Yet, on a regular basis, I read something and find myself saying, "I never noticed that before." [Of course, sometimes it is underlined in my Bible so it looks like I might have read it!]

I try to keep the practice of reading through the Torah daily. My schedule does not always pan out, but yesterday I was reading Exodus 31. It begins with an explanation that God is pouring out His Spirit on Bezalel. The name means "in the shadow of God" but the Hebrew root is also close to "the image of God." Hebrew roots are notoriously significant in ways English words are not. The Hebrew scholar, Richard Friedman, is wonderful and he makes notes on parallels here and in the creation account in Genesis. Bezalel is an artist who is responsible for making the holy things of the Tent of Meeting. The elaborate discussion of all the ways the Spirit will work in him reminds us that creation of any type is the imitation of God. And the practical skills of the artisan are as much a work of God's Spirit as the spiritual gifts. It is all in how you use them!

Suddenly, out of no where, God tells Moses, "you shall observe my Sabbaths, because it is a sign between me and you through your generations: to know that I, YHWH, make you holy. I am familiar with the sign of circumcision, but somehow "they slipped this new verse in"! For some reason this jumped out at me. There follow a couple of verses about anyone who breaks Sabbath should be put to death, and then there follows a repetition of the command to keep Sabbath and the statement "Between me and the children of Israel it is a sign forever."

Christians generally negate this idea. We say Jesus is the end of the Law. [Except on issues which we think are still binding. I do not say this as a criticism. Morality is vital if we are going to live together. If bad people (more or less all of us) are free to do "what comes naturally" (self centered behavior) then society is in chaos.] But how does one read this chapter and take it seriously as God's word? And what should our view of Sabbath day be?

One important piece of data, it is directed to the Jews. I think it remains their issue. However, we non-Jews, as part of an extended covenant people, grafted in, per Paul, via our membership in Christ, we ought to be aware that Sabbath day is a sign of the covenant. We should hallow it and hallow the covenant between God and that people. That word "forever" stands out to me. It is no temporary thing...

Last Sunday our other priest preached. He talked about Jesus taking the apostles aside to rest. Rest is not a big value for me. I was challenged early on to work hard. Mind you, I can lay around and do nothing with the best of them, but my motivation is to work and my normal state is sleepy and tired. Apparently, according to what I read, that makes me just like most Americans. In fact, you hear on tv that they will sell you 'five hour energy' in a little bottle. There must be some takers! But God's plan included time set aside. How to do it?

We do well to have a period of prayer and Scripture reading daily. The longer the better. A daily sabbath, as a sign of our covenant with God. Creating a weekly Sabbath, preferably connected to our worship, is also a good idea. Consecrated time given to God and consecrated time for us. Ironically, rest may make us better. Interval training shows that hard work and rest, in recurring patterns, allows us to do more and do it more efficiently. And even if it doesn't it will make us more God's own. It will open us to be made holy. We are preparing for an eternity which will be  governed by God. Perhaps it is time to give Sabbath more focus.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

The Scandal of Jesus

Mark 6:1-6 is one of those sections of the New Testament that causes some head scratching. It begins with a simple statement that "Jesus came to His own homeland." The Greek word patris means country, home land or native place. It literally means 'father land' (hence the Patristics are the Fathers in the early church). The idea of coming home is a major theme of literature and human reflection. What does it mean to have a place called home?

Jesus, who  has quite the reputation for amazing things, does not receive a hero's welcome. The social-science commentary, focused on the workings of a shame culture, postulates that Jesus' honor is seen as a diminishment for others. He is making more of Himself than He should. This is why the questions start.

Jesus is teaching and the people are amazed. The Greek word (ekplesso) literally means "to be struck" with the prefix "out." The word conveys the image of being struck and the air coming out of our lungs. It is used to convey astonishment. However, their shock is not a good kind. For immediately they question the source of Jesus' power. Our (post) modern age is not the first one to question things and we did not invent doubt or cynicism. Rejection, as I have often said, was the first response to Jesus and it was the majority opinion. His own town's people are an example. I am not sure exactly how many people lived there, but it is safe to assume it was numbered in the hundreds. It would be smaller than my high school graduation class.

"Where did He get this?" they asked. Then the process of putting Him in His place. Is He not the son of Mary. [screeching halt here.... Notice Mark does not mention Joesph. This is unusual because the father is the primary referent, not the mother. Many see a connection here between Matthew/Luke and their stories of the unusual circumstances around Jesus' birth.] The people know His brothers (James, Joses, Judas, & Simon; note three of those names are shared by disciples, too. That is why it is hard to keep track of folks in the early church. Lots had the same name). We hear Jesus had sisters  (names and number left unsaid). Because the people knew His family they assumed they knew all that they had to know. Honor and shame. The lines were drawn and Jesus was told to knock it off acting like He was someone when he was no one!

Then the word: skandalizo. It is not hard to guess the meaning of the Greek word, it sounds like its English derivitive, scandal. Jesus is an offense. He is a scandal. The word literally means "trip people up" like a block of stone. Why? How? Jesus teaches amazing things and does amazing things and the people are offended????? How can this be. Herein lies the mystery!

We are offended by goodness. We are offended by authority. We are offended by people who comply with God's rules and do His will. (Even and especially conservative Christians) Our hearts are not right. And when we meet Jesus, to some extent, all of us are scandalized. We have our own ideas about how it should work. We have an authority, perhaps God's word, maybe our hearts and feelings, or the church teaching, or the latest guru, or 'my momma says'; whatever the source it is ALWAYS filtered through our own personal lense (preferences, prejudices, fears, desires, culture, etc.). So when we say "The Bible is clear..." often times we fail to see how much of ourselves is present in what we declare. Or when we state "in my heart" we neglect to recognize just how treacherous and self-deceptive that heart can be. You get the drift, we dilute truth...

It says Jesus "could do no dunamai  or mighty works." (the Greek word is the root for dynamite in English). Oh, He was able to heal some folks. Apparently healing is no big deal for Jesus. It is not a mighty work. It is just what He does when He can do nothing else.... But the thought that Jesus cannot do something grates the ears. What does it mean that the all-powerful can be shut down by rejection? What does that mean in our own time? Is the increasing unbelief of our culture the reason so little amazing occurs in church? Is the fact that many born-again, card carrying, "I love Jesus" Christians believe signs and wonders and healings belong only to the first generation of disciples the cause of so little power (dunamis) in our age? Is the secularism and agnosticism so prevalent today a shield around us limiting the All-Mighty to a spectator much of the time?

I always assume that what ails ancient people makes me sick, too. I never think that I am immune from the misunderstanding and lack of faith that I read about. I figure I am as obtuse as they were. And I assume the people I meet are as misshapen by those faults as I am. I do not totally trust my feelings and I do not feel completely secure that I got it right. I question my own interpretation of texts and I wonder what I am missing. And I do not think others have gotten it right, either. The reason is simple. The manifestation of the power of God in the church in my own age is meager. Even super churches with ten thousand members do not seem to have an appreciable uptick in what Jesus says should be taking place. Maybe the best we can do is long for it. To admit our failings and hunger for a fuller outpouring. And confess our doubt. And understand how distressing Jesus finds our unbelief. The world is mysterious. And Jesus does cause us to stumble and fall. But He also will pick us up!

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Batman, The Godfather, and Jesus

Yesterday we went to see the final installment of the most recent Batman series. The recent shooting in Colorado has given a different feel to the movie. The horrible reality of so many massacred gives a greater poignancy to watching the mayhem on the screen. That fact will be something which I want to reflect on a bit.

The movie itself was good. If one likes this sort of thing (I do) it is very good. The violence was less graphic than in the previous movies. I want to forgo blowing the story for those who haven't seen it, but the movie does ask (and in a movie sort of way answer) some of the big the questions about duty and society. It is a comic book, so there are a large number of 'unrealities' to it all. It is also a movie, suffering from time constraints, and so the story has to be compressed. Movies always use images and a few spoken words convey the story. The viewer must always fill in the gaps. Always. We plug in our insights and experiences. It is the nature of film and art. And it is something we do automatically.

In Batman I saw a reference to the French Revolution and its aftermath. There is a philosophical reflection on the dangers of nuclear energy. A recurring theme is birth, destiny and choice (three characters are child victims of violence and abandonment, while a fourth has some issues from her past). Mind you, it is an action movie, so the artistic answers are not remarkable and deep. But I think there was a depth there and, the comic book nature of a movie aside, the result concurs with Christian teaching.

One line in particular got my attention. At one point, someone told Batman, trying to convince him to give up on helping the endangered city, "You have given up everything." He simply replies, "Not everything." The Christological faith which motivates me probably caused me to see and hear echoes of Jesus. I heard the scripture "you have not resisted to the point of shedding blood." I was reminded that the ultimate sacrifice is giving one's life. The cross is at the heart of our understanding of Who Jesus is. It is also a truth writ large in our world. It is there for those with eyes to see. Batman wears a mask, he says, so that it is possible that anyone is Batman. While there are differences, in a sense, "putting on Christ" is similar. We wear the "Jesus costume" and in so doing start to become what we pretend/intend to be (CS Lewis writes extensively about this). Heroism in the natural sense understands this, to some extent. The hero dies to him/herself. The hero suffers greatly. The hero rises from the dead (figuratively if not literally). Resurrection is a key feature of the Batman legend. The underground cave is burial. Bruce Wayne gives up himself and goes down.  He emerges victorious in power as a new creation. Some may think I am going overboard here. I think not. I think we are in need of understanding how story works and how God's hand has written the world, not just the Bible.

Last night the History Channel did a serious review of the Godfather trilogy. The snippets of movie were voiced over by a narrator who briefly told the story. Some background info was shared. More important to my point, actual Mafi and Law enforcement folks discussed the impact of the movies on real life gangsters. Over and again we  heard that it shaped their behaviors. Some Mafia imitated the movie. The "reel life" became "real life." However, the movie (from the book) was also based on real life. Characters were based on real people and inspired by real events. There was circularity. The thing I reflected on was the power of story to impact and influence. Fiction and non-fiction are different, but the real world contains both. That is the rub. We tell stories in a certain way because the world is a certain way.

Back to  my initial statement. Watching the last Batman movie has been changed because a real life madman, perhaps imitating the movie madman (The Joker) shot and killed a myriad of people. Some will clamor that the movie caused it. There is a bit of to that. But it is not true that that explains it. Mass murder predates Batman. It predates any movies. Be it the uncountable MILLIONS in Russia, China or Germany or the isolated mass killers like Jack the Ripper and many others centuries ago; evil and killing have long been part of our world. In fact, according to researchers, murder rates were appreciably higher in most times in the past. Humans have been notoriously murderous and societies a tricky balance of abuse and justice. Batman and the Godfather movies resonate because they reflect that reality (with all manner of additional flair) within the constraints of cinema.

The people who knew Jesus and experienced His teaching and miracles were astounded by Him. But not all believed. In fact, it appears there were few who did. Acts identifies 120 gathered in the beginning. We know Jesus was rejected by the crowds and killed. As the story of Jesus was told it resonated with people. The church grew. The beliefs and values of their time and place influenced the telling and hearing. Some were Jews, but most were not. The Gentiles grew up with different stories and other values. This impacted the words and images used. It also impacted how the events were experienced.

If I can find depth and meaning in cinema than certainly I should be able to find greater depth in the story of Jesus. Batman and Godfather are basically about two kinds of men: good guys and bad guys and the thin line which sometimes separates them. We do well to reflect on how story telling works. We do well to reflect on God as the ultimate story teller and Jesus as the ultimate story. Only from that beginning point can we truly understand. The life of Jesus is a filling up (often translated fulfillment) of the OT scriptures, but it is also a filling up of the myths and legends and hopes and dreams of humanity in all times and places. That is why Gentiles could hear and respond as well. It is also the filling up of what "Batman" seeks to be and what the Godfather twisted and got wrong. Jesus is revelation which explains this world in which we live, including art and story. He is not limited to that, but for the most part we are. The Godfather kills and takes to live (though in the end Michael Corleone loses everything, a point made clear in the documentary) and Batman sacrifices himself for the life of others, we see virtue even in the evil man and we see the flaws even in the good men. But what is our hunger to escape the flaws and evil? And what motivates us to yearn for heroes and escape from all this? It is the story, written in our hearts, by a subtle hand, a divine hand, a creator and redeemer. Listen to your heart. Listen to the stories. Seek to understand. Our fear of the Godfather is our fear of fallen humanity and evil. Our hunger for a Batman to save us from the despair is a gift from God. And Jesus fulfills that hunger and desire. He is The One whom Batman dimly reflects.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Ancient History and Jesus

On Friday I wrote a reflection on this question, taken up from a published article at Stand Firm by Fr. Matt Kennedy. He kindly commented, in fact. I also noticed that a push of a button sent it into the Face Book world (where I rarely visit because of time issues). One thing I noticed was readership shot up a great deal. (So I will be dong that again!!). The other was the large number of comments at Face Book (which come directly to my e-mail). The names included friends from my home church in the 70's, former students, and people I had worked with. All but a couple are people I  have not seen or talked to in years, if not decades. While each had their own take, I did want to clarirify my own thought.

1. I think the real issue is the word "history." I do not think the ancients practiced the discipline of modern history (hence the terms "modern" and "ancient"). Modern history, a post-Enlightenmnet phenomenon, intends to provide 'objective' data about the past. (I put objective in quotes because further reflection in the historian's community has led them to realize there is always a subjective element) That does not mean that in times long ago that there weren't people who realized that some things were true and others were false. What it does mean is it was not a (social) science as we understand it today. They did not have clocks and calendars everywhere, like us, and their notion of time was different. They did not have a robust critical method concerned with exactitude in measurement, like us. Theirs was an oral culture and old myths influenced how things were expressed. Even in the Bible we see remnants of this (though generally the OT corrects their neighbors view of things, see especially Noah vs. the ancient flood stories which predate it).

2. The ancient writers write the way most contemporary people do. The typical person, going by memory, often times gets things out of order. Without meticulous record keeping it is hard not to jumble memories. Also, there seems to be a tendency that "if this is not exactly how it happened this is how it should have happened" at work (then and now). Sometimes we repeat things that are not accurate because we 'heard it.' [my gosh this is the internet age. every day crazy stuff is reported about crazy stuff people believe! and sometimes you and I are the crazy folks being duped!]  In the NT sometimes OT quotations are given. It is not uncommon for them to be different from the OT text. Sometimes this may be because of translations (Hebrew-Aramaic-Greek, even Latin are all involved). On occassion it seems there is a shift of a word to better apply it to the situation (maybe because it is quoted from memory. How many times do we do that today?) Matthew frequently has "two" where Mark has "one." (off the top of my head: the blind man, donkey and angel) Matthew may be communicating something by this (which we do not understand). It is NOT modern history, i.e. facts, but it is history and what he is doing made more sense to his contemporaries than us. [Although there is not 'one size fits all' for ancients either.]

3. For many ancients, the "concrete and literal" meaning of a text was the least important. They wanted the deeper "spiritual meaning" found through analogies, metaphors, symbolism, typology, etc. In our culture, to say "The Bible is symbolic" seems to mean "The Bible it not true" or "the Bible is fairy tales." It is ironic that we think that because we do seem to understand the reality of symbols in our every day life. A hug and kiss, tears at a funeral, and the middle finger in traffic all evoke powerful emotions. Words are not needed to give meaning to any of them. I think the symbolic meaning of Scripture, in modern terms, might be better expressed as "applicability." I can read the ancient story and apply it to my current situation. That is what Jesus did, time and again. [This is the meaning of the technical word "type" found in NT and early Church Fathers writings or the often cited "fulfills Scripture".] So Jesus reminds His hearers of Jonah and says, "Just like... so when I..." This is why the stories of Moses, Elijah, Elisha, David and Joshua are models for telling the Jesus story. Sometimes the Gospels actually borrow terms and images to make the connection clear. A past event is dead and gone, it cannot be recaptured. It is past. That is why the expression "he is history" means "he is done, we won't see him any more." However, if God is timeless and the Biblical story is God's revelation (He is and it is!!) then we can understand that the constraints of our modern history cannot apply. Jesus, the risen Lord, is not dead. JFK is. So Kennedy can say nothing nor add anything to his words and works. When his visit to Dallas ended badly he ceased to speak. Jesus, on the other hand, is still with us. His words and treachings in the early church include communication post-mortem. He rose. He spoke and taught and instructed for a length of time. (Luke says 40 days, a Biblical number. Perhaps exactly 40 or maybe an expression for a long time, much like we say "I have told you a hundred times!" to convey we have told someone more than enough)

Lastly, most importantly, the issues of history apply to our own time. Too many toss off the Bible as ancient and outdated. They criticize it. They simplistically say it supports slavery or male domination of woman. The say it is useless for morality (generally cherry picking verses). And, not surprisingly, when they are done they are able to justify some 'new' idea or revision of morality. And guess what? Somehow their new insights always reflect their own wants and wishes! Amazing. The Holy Spirit talks and the Holy Spirit always ends up saying just what they want the Holy Spirit to say... Why it is down right uncanny. I believe this is Matt's main concern. The rejection of the authority of Scripture.

Therein lies the reason why my efforts to be honest and have integrity are a burden. What I say can easily be twisted. What I say can lead others to use me to support what they believe (not what I do). To them I say: here is the problem. In the end, if you are not following the ancient rule of faith (creeds and a holy life) you cannot read and understand the Bible. Immoral people cannot teach morality. Unspirtual people cannot read and interpret the Bible accurately. People out of communion with the church cannot understand and read the Bible. And if the interpretations you make support new innovations, question them, again and again. Our culture is not pure or holy. Our culture is remarkably Godless. Our culture is not a curative for all things ancient. And the odds of God always agreeing with you are nill.

Friday, July 20, 2012

What if Jesus Was Wrong?

I came across this article by Matt Kennedy at Stand Firm and it got me to thinking. You can find the original here

The central issue has to do with historical facts. He identifies three OT stories (Noah, Sodom & Gomorah and Jonah) to which Jesus makes reference. He then claims that Jesus thought all three were actual events in real history. He then posits two alternatives in light of this. Here are Matt's options:

1. Jesus knew they did not happen and promoted a historical fiction.
2. Jesus did not know they did not happen but the Holy Spirit through whom he taught permitted him to teach something as historically true that was in fact false.
Some propose a third option, namely that Jesus, knowing these stories to be parabolic, referred to them in order to teach a spiritual lesson in the same way that we might refer to Jack and the Beanstalk for a similar purpose. (This third option, he argues, is just another form of the first, so we are back to two options)

Matt lays out in logical fashion the case for historicity.
He argues that if the first is true then Christianity is lost, while the second is absurd because the Holy Spirit cannot teach a lie. [He does remind us that Jesus is not omniscent, though this is not a major focus of his exhortation.]

Like most of the commenters on his article, I believe in the authority of Scripture. Matt and I are "on the same side" in that sense. However, I think he and I would diverge on his use of the term history. I think the two options are the problem. He has underlying assumptions which may not be accurate. More importantly, I am troubled by what he has written. The facticity of the three events he mentions (and Jesus' affirmation of that) would seem to be set up as definitive for one's faith. Let me be clear, I have known and do know people who would say that "if you do not believe Noah was in the ark then you cannot be a Christian." (While I am not saying Matt has said this, I would think it possible some folks reading this might think he is not far from that view.) So there is a syllogism at work which could be paraphrased like this:
  • These three stories are historical facts and Jesus said so.
  • If you do not believe that they are historical facts you are calling Jesus a liar (or rejecting Him).
  • Therefore, you are not a Chrisian.
I have heard this basic argument, with obvious shifts in language (sometimes gentler, sometimes harsher) many times in Bible Belt Memphis. And I know all manner of people who have concluded, I must not be a Christian. Lots of people quit the church over this. Lots. And for me, that is the rub.

I was told at 19 that if I did not believe Jonah was a real person I was going to go to Hell. Almost forty years later having seriously and prayerfully studied the story I am convinced it is not history. I believe it is parabolic, actually a challenge to the hyper-Judaism of its day. I believe it was intended to challenge the idea that only Jews mattered to God. The story is written differently than the other prophets. It is long on narrative (and illustrative narrative at that) and short on preaching content. The 'hero" is a Jewish prophet who never does anything right while the 'bad guys' of the Evil Empire of Nineveh repent. While much is made of the Fish (and whether Jonah could have survived there) we hear precious little about the historicity of the monumental event where a pagan nation repents before the Lord for its sins. I do not think Jesus is concerned with the Modern era's history question. I think it was part of the Jewish tradition with which He grew up. I think Jesus did not ponder it and the Holy Spirit was not making that point. He may have assumed it was true. What if Jesus was wrong? Well, then, He was wrong, but it was about history, not salvation. Is Jesus always being right about everything the concern here? What does "not omniscent" really mean? Did Jesus err in understanding germs when He healed? Was Jesus wrong about the anatomy of the eye when He said the light comes from the eye (affirming the assumptions of His age)? Maybe. Perhaps. Not really sure I want to go there because I am not really sure it is relevant. Does this negate the incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection? Definitely not. And maybe our Modernistic concerns are really off point. Jesus was pre-Enlightenment. We aren't. Back to Jonah.

In the end, the content of the Jonah story is often ignored. The prophet is sent to preach and refuses. He goes the other way, rather than stay faithful to God. He decides that the project is a waste of time, trying to convince Nineveh it has sinned would be fruitless (sort of like trying to correct perceived errors in the national church is also considered a waste of time by many who left). In my mind, however, the toughest part of the story of Jonah is not the fish, it is the message. I would think the history question takes our eyes off what matters most. My Bible study on this story led me to a conversion experience as I taught on it. I literally decided I was called to stay in the Episcopal church while teaching on the story. I still remember the power of the moment. Some people call that sort of thing the Holy Spirit. Perhaps it was my own delusions. Whatever the case, the Jonah story changed my life and my ministry. Whether fact, parable or a mixture of both, or something else all together, it seems God spoke, loud and clear, through it. That is revelation, that is Truth, that is The Word of the Lord.

Ironcially, I wrote yesterday about reading the Bible, so some of my answer to this dilemma can be found there. I do not think history is the point of the Bible. I do not think that the Truth of the Christian faith hinges on an actual Jonah. I also know that that opens the door for all manner of apostacy and heresy. I also know that it gives people leverage to do all manner of harm. But show me anything that cannot be twisted. If we advocate that each person can read and interpret the Scriptures for him/herself is that not also how we ended up with the current anarchy of opinion?

I do not know what Jesus knew or thought about facts and historicity. I do not think the history question was asked the same way in ancient times as it is in our age. I think there are cultural differences, differences which Matt is overlooking. There are different assumptions and concerns, which he has not factored in. If Jesus was a real man (God incarnate, yes, but a real man) with all the limitations of a real man (like living in a particular culture) then it is probable that there were questions which we ask and care about that He did not. [That is why the Gospels are so lacking in information which we are interested in. Think of your own list of things which I wish the Bible wrote about. Also think about some of the muddled argumentation (by our standards) which is reflective of the people of that time. Think about the minor discrepencies between the Gospels (or Acts. One huge example, the three accounts of Paul's conversion experience).] Do we really want to make claims about history and the Bible which endanger people's faith? Do we really want to make blanket claims?

If we could go back in time and be with Jesus as He spoke, how would He react to our questions about historicity? Would He find some of our worries and concerns odd? We are all children of our age. We are not truly Ancients. We are not truly medieval. Some are modern. Others post-modern. Each has a worldview loaded with all manner of assumtions. And it impacts how we read the Bible and how we interpret. And it is okay. What if Jesus was wrong? Things still work out. Perhaps more pressing: what if I am wrong? What if you are wrong? We are. A lot. About all manner of things, including holy things. So we should be humble, repentant and cry out for mercy. Once more, even if we are wrong, we have hope. God loves errant people. Jesus makes that clear. That is more essential

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Reading the Bible

One of my goals is to read what the Bible says and try to figure out what it means. While this sounds almost simplistic and obvious, in fact, a good bit of the time, I find it difficult. There are a couple of obvious reasons. The biggest one is it is written in a foreign language (Greek) in a foreign culture (Ancient Near East) in a foreign time (two thousand years ago). This does NOT make it inaccessible. (That is silly. It implies that people then are totally different from us.) However, it also does not mean that anyone can just read the Bible and "get" the plain meaning of Scripture. I know, the same Holy Spirit which inspired the writer also inspires the reader, but I also know that the vast differences of opinion about what a text says leads me to think that the Holy Spirit is inspiring, but not in a foolproof way.

It is helpful to read the Bible in the original language because one picks up on things which are not obvious in the English. For example, on Sunday we read about Salome and John the Baptist. Salome, the daughter of Herodias, as you recall, danced, delighted Herod (her uncle/step father) and demanded the head of John the Baptist on a platter.

Many of us know who Salome is, though we do not know that her name never appears in a Gospel. How then do we know it? The Jewish historian, Josephus, is our source. He writes around the same time as the Gospels and he gives us her name and a snippet of biography concerning her. Interestingly, Josephus does not mention the dancing episode, saying instead that Herod had John the Baptist executed because the popular preacher was a threat. So here we see that the Biblical text, sufficient for salvation, can also be helpfully supplemented by an outside source. In fact, at one time an educated Christian was expected to have read and studied Josephus' histories of the Jews.

A point I found interesting was the term used to describe Salome. The noun corasion is a diminutive of the Greek word for girl. So it appears to mean young girl. The KJV translates it as damsel. We are familiar with damsels because they were often in distress in our childhood reading. What exactly is a damsel? It is a young woman, but more focused, it is derived from the Latin (domincella) of a woman of nobility. When one looks up the Greek word (Blue Letter Bible is a great website for such study) one sees that Mark only uses it one other time. In fact, the previous usage is very close to the text we are considering today, just 14 verses. Is that an intentional connection to this story? (Both are about a little girl and death) There the word refers to a dead child whom Jesus raises. We are told that the little girl (corasion) is twelve years old. Does this mean Salome was around 12 as well? Here is where culture kicks in. If Salome was 12, our assumption is she would look like most middle schoolers today. With the earlier onset of puberty, it is not unthinkable that she would look like a young woman. However, in ancient Israel would this have been the case? We know that one hundred fifty years ago a young woman enterrred puberty much later. Some as late as 16-18. Nutrition appears to have a function. As the daughter of royalty one assumes she had access to plenty of calories, but is it the case that her diet would be sufficient to jump start puberty? Also, studies find that various chemicals in our environment (including hair care products!) may have added to the earlier rate of physcial maturation. It seems probable that Salome, at 12, was still a little girl, undeveloped and not yet developing. As such, the horror of the story is even worse. She may not have been the seductress of our movies, but rather a mere child. That changes my emotional reaction to the story.

In the footnote of the NIV it says "Heerod would have been greatly embarassed in front of his guests if he had denied her request." While this is true, it is only part of the story and does not make clear the culture. Herod lived in a shame culture. We do not. While embarassment can drive us to all manner of behaviors, we still do not understand the depth of what a shame culture is. We have read stories about Middle Easterners killing a daughter who secretly dated a boy. We are repulsed by such an act. We do not understand it, cannot understand it. When we hear it was done because the girl brought shame on the family, we are befuddled. It is because we do not think in that way. Shame and honor were drivers in Jesus day, just as they are in shame cultures in our own time. They saw the world through that prism. Can we ever understand it? Perhaps not, but to read the Bible without keeping it in mind is to miss out on a key element of the culture. It deepens our understanding. They operate (nad this includes Jesus) with a different set of values. The things we treasure (like independence and mobility) were not the goals of people then and there. [This is why democracy does not just happen around the world.]

Can you and I read the story and understand it? Yes, but always through the distorted lense of our personal agenda and our psycho-socio-economic situation. It is why we read in union with the whole church. It is why "what do you think?" is not the only question. We must also ask what does the church think, with an array of voices from across the globe and across time providing the answers. We can read about John, Herod and Salome. We can understand power, abuse and sin. But we must always be humble and very careful that we recognize there is more to the story than what we get.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Reasons to Hope

I preached on the 'Execution of John the Baptist' this past weekend. I believe that Mark intentionally inserted this account in the midst of a narrative on the apostolic ministry of the twelve to provide a preview of "coming attractions"; namely, the crucifixion of Jesus and the promise that those who follow Jesus will suffer greatly. Ending with a verse from chapter 13, I reminded myself, and those who heard my words, that those who endure to the end will be saved.

Most of us are sprinters. We often are not terribly fast, perhaps, but nonetheless we prefer the shorter distances. The shorter the better! The nice thing about a sprint is it is over quickly, even if you are slow. It provides us time to do other things. Long distance running, on the other hand, is time consuming. A few years ago I did a half marathon. Running non-stop for two hours feels like a long time. There is plenty of time for thinking and pondering. There are also endless opportunities to say, "I quit!" "How much long will this take?" sort of pounds in your head. Especially if you are a sprinter running distance....

Life is like that. It is an endurance run. Things happen in small segments, but they are part of a much bigger, much longer story. I tend to be impatient. How about you? I live in a culture where the words "quick" or "fast" mean better. Instant results is the baseline for my expectations. So when things happen to worry me, I want the solution to come fast. I want God to rend the heavens and make a personal appearance 'pronto' and fix it: punish the bad guys, reward the good guys.

In my last blog entry I shared about our Saturday conversation. I heard two stories that day which resonated with my insight that the future is glorious. One took place years ago. A parishioner had been in an abusive marriage. The divorce proceedings were not going well, her husband and his father had local political connections. The Judge was going to take her children from her. She was at the brink of despair. Just prior to the trial, the judge, a friend of her ex's family, dropped dead on his way to the mail box. The new judge had a different take on the situation and her children were returned. (Her ex-husbad shot her, an additional bit of information). The point of the story? Things can change in unforeseen ways.

A less dramatic example. My daughter took the SAT exam a couple fo months ago. The Memphis school which hosted it did a poor job. The exam started late, kids were placed in a large room where they sat at the same tables, the proctors were ineffective and there was much noise and disruption. My daughter does very well on this sort of thing, so she came home with stories of the insanity, but was able to laugh about it. Even so it was upsetting. These exams are important for the kids' future. I was irritated. A couple of weeks later her grade came in the mail. Well, actually there was no grade, the test had been invalidated because of the problems. She was given a retake date which happened to be last Saturday; the same day that our youth group left on a mission trip. So SAT test day was sandwiched between packing and the bus trip. It just added to our irritation.

She and another girl took the test, rushed back to the bus, which had waited for almost an hour and left. However, her mom picked her up so I got the story. She said that the test was easier because there was more math (her specialty) and the essay question was a perfect fit for her. She was very excited about how it had seemed to go. So, perhaps, the trouble and frustration was worth it. Higher scores mean better scholarships.

Saturday, as we talked about threats and negative trends, those two stories reminded that things work out, often times in remarkable ways. It is easy to get discouraged. It is easy to give up. It is easy to not endure and fold up. But there is a reason to trust. Things can work out. God is out there, doing His thing. That is why Jesus said things like "Do not worry" and "Do not let your heart be troubled."

Sunday, July 15, 2012

It Will be Glorious

Yesterday in Prayer Group we got to talking about all manner of things. Most Christians I know are living with some tension. Attendance is more "optional" than when we were younger. The new generation of adults is not big on commitment to anything (well documented fact) and especially not church. Overt Christian faith is criticized, sometimes demonized, and in the newspapers, on occassion, apparently criminalized. It is a hostile environment to faith. Churches are not only in decline but there is also great confusion about the faith. More and more it seems "we don't believe that anymore" is assigned to any number of traditional Christian beliefs and practices.

The anxiety centers around two questions. The first, more generic, is "what is going on in the world/church?" This is the realm of frustration and aggitation. The second, more specific and existentially relevant, is "what will happen to us?" Similar to most churches, our members think their church is a great place, with wonderful people and faithful preaching. There is a real concern that things are going to be turned upside down. There is worry that something bad will happen. There are numerous "what if....?" questions. [Before I proceed, let me be honest, I have the same worries and concerns. I have a PhD in worry, graduated with full worry wart honors. My thesis was "Bad Stuff that Could Happen Which You May Not Have Thought of." ]

With that in mind, we sat around the table and the question was asked, "What will happen to us?" I paused and thought and I told them the truth. It will be glorious. A nano-second later two of the women, dearest friends and sisters in Christ, said in unison, "That is not what I expected to hear." I told them don't kid yourselves, I have plenty of moments where trusting God is not easy and I have plenty of reasons to be concerned about the future (not least of which is a thirteen month old baby and two kids in high school). But my wavering faith is not the point; God's glory is. Whatever situation I find myself in, I can still worship God. And true worship is always glorious, because true worship is focused on God and it shares in the heavenly worship of angels and the communion of saints. Do you have any idea what the worship budget is in heaven???? The pavement is made of pure gold, for crying out loud, so they have money to burn up there. They have the greatest voices and the greatest musicians in the whole of creation. We, wherever we are, share in that. SO it is guanteed to be G-L-O-R-I-O-U-S!

I am not optimistic. I read the Bible too much for that. Today we preached on John the Baptist losing his head. My sermon will  be online this week. The message is clear. God's Kingdom is not established yet so we are in a war. There are casualties. People suffer and die. Bad guys win alot. (but more on that wednesday) That is what we signed up for. I am old, fat and satisfied. My childhood prayers to die for Jesus have been replaced with the desire to live for Jesus (and probably to live period). Courage and strength are needed to face challenges. So is faith and hope. I do believe and I do hope. My identity is found in Jesus. So is yours. All our plotting and planning can not and will not win the day. The Law of Unintended Consequences will eventually kick in. We just mess things up. But it isn't on us. And worship is one of the few things which is in our control. We can choose to love and serve the Lord and we can decide to praise and honor Him. Wherever we are. In wealth or poverty, success or failure, we can worship. And it will be glorious!

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Priest: Half a Life

I was ordained a priest on Saturday, July 14, 1984. Twenty eight years ago I was face first on the floor. As I lay there, I heard a cantor chanting various names of holy men and women from the history of the church. I recall some were there at my request including St. Francis of Assisi, St. John of the Cross, St. Theresa of Avila, and St. Catherine of Siena. There were two other men with me, both named Dan. One I had a friendship stretching back to our college days together and mission work doing VBS throughout rural West Tennessee. The other, whom I knew, but not well, had a brother at my first church with whom I was to do extensive pastoral work a year or so later.

Prior to that, I was still in Leuven Belgium finishing up my thesis and Master's degree and had had little input into the liturgical planning. It was just as well, I tend to shy away from that sort of thing, leaving it in the hands of those who relish such opportunities. I was wrestling with more significant things, like my feelings about ordination. I was a reluctant candidate. I believed I was called by God and responded in obedience, but never felt called to celibacy and even then (as a psychologist later said) "the shoes did not fit." I wanted to use the text Jeremiah 20:7 in my first mass, but  had been counseled out of it. It did not take much to convince me it was a bad idea to have a reading from a dismayed prophet which begins "You duped me, O Lord!" The text resonated with me because it conveyed something which I felt. God was too powerful, His will was too enticing. I could not walk away. I could not reject His call. I could not. Yet, the internal struggle was so painful.

Not to say the day was covered with gloom. I was happy and excited. I was hopeful that the worst of my discernment travails was now past. I looked forward to faithful service. I wanted to teach, preach, counsel and celebrate the sacraments. I wanted to be an icon of Jesus to young and old, especially young. I wanted to work in our school with the children (like Jesus) and shepherd teens in our youth group to a deep and abiding faith.

In a few months I will  have spent exactly half my life as a priest. Many Christians do not believe in the priesthood, even think it apostate that I would claim to be one. Now, of course, I have spent more than twice as long 'priesting' in the Epsicopal church than I did in the Roman Catholic. While I recall with some clarity moments of that long off day, I am divorced from that institution and in rare contact with those still in it. I savor those friends with whom I continue to have contact, but my return to the Roman church for liturgical reasons (usually funerals or weddings) are always a chilling and uncomfortable reminder that I do not belong there. As much as my theological imagination is shaped and formed by that Catholic story, it has since been reshaped and reformed by two decades as an Episcopalian. Some doors close never to open again.

I did not keep my promise. Lots of people try to make nice and make all manner of excuse so I don't feel bad. Truth be told, I usually don't. I have paid a price for my choice. I am an alienated figure in a hostile church environment. But like any good story, the redemption of the failed character comes when he gets a second chance and decides to be faithful whatever the cost. I hope I am that guy! My ten year absence from active ministry grew me in various ways. Social Work was a good place to learn new skills and expand my knowledge of many things. I am convinced that much of my success today is a fruit of those labors. The people whom I have loved and served these past 13 years have convinced me that our Lord has been at work in and through my ministry. That is heartening. Perhaps I am forgiven. I also know that there are scars. Some of them deep. Many are healed but some still fester. Life is hard, right? Priests do not get a free pass.

I am glad for my life and very thankful. I cannot imagine having done anything else. I am also troubled about this context, a church in turmoil, seemingly embracing every error it can get its hands on. But my own foibles and failures make it easy to have compassion for those who seem hell bent to make error into our chruch's new "truth." My self (centered?) reflection reminds me that the words "Lord Jesus have mercy on me a sinner" trump my prophetic impulses to point out the sins of others (which I can and will do with relish and enthusiasm). One reason I write is I hope it reminds others of their own imperfect state. I hope it provides reason to be a bit more aware of how each of us is apostate, how all of us are unfaithful, how "love grown cold and faith departed" describe not just our enemies, but also our friends and our very selves.

At 11:00 today I have a funeral. Burying another friend, mourning in hope with other friends. In the middle of the last paragraph I was interrupted as I went into the church to meet with the funeral directors. One of them, a man in his 70's was present at my ordination. His wife and four kids (all younger than me) were a big part of my adolecent church experience. He buried his wife ten years ago and his oldest son this winter. A personal connection for me. And that is what a priest is and does. Funerals. Weddings. Weekly mass with homily. Sunday school and Bible study. Counseling and hand holding in dark days. Even late night calls on occassion, usually harboring most tragice news. Most of all it is an intensification of what all baptized Christians are (icon of Jesus) and do (His Spirit empowered ministry). Half a life time ago I began that journey (after seven years of preparation in seminary). Half a life time ago. My parents, grandparents, pastor and many friends who were all there to celebrate now sleep in the earth. Someday I will join them. I, too, will meet the King, Our Lord, the Judge. Today I will try to honor and serve Jesus and worship the Father in the Spirit. I will try to make decisions which makes my parish faithful, especially in the face of opposition from a secular world and an errant church. I will do this in hope and trust. I will do it with others, people who were not present as I lay on the floor at IC Cathedral half a lifetime ago. Yet people who were there, in potentia, as I pledged that I would serve them, even then, not knowing who they would be.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Last Words on GenCon: Sin and Hope

We have been assured that we will not have to do anything which we cannot do in good conscience as regards same-sex blessings. As efforts continue to normalize giving communion to unbaptized folks, I assume that we will receive the same warm assurance. Probably, that is supposed to make us feel all safe and secure.

The word, faith, also means trust. Saving faith, at some level, means saying "I trust God and only God." It means we do not trust ourselves to save ourselves. It means we do not trust others, either. In John's Gospel (2:24) we read that "Jesus did not trust Himself to them. He needed no testimony about people because He knew what was in all." No naive simpleton, Jesus knew the condition of the human heart. So my response to the Episcopal church leaders behind all of this "new thing" is this: words are cheap, put your promise into action. I want them to prove me wrong and actually act with Christian charity, acceptance and (the much ballyhooed) tolerance. I hope they show that I am being too negative when I say that I suspect in a few years there will be efforts made to cleanse the church of any and all Traditional believers.

Is the future bleak for those of us who 'cling to the old ways'? In the end, I am not sure that is the right question. It isn't for me, at least. I have always projected my future and am incapable of not thinking about the myriad factors shaping the days ahead. I also am accused of being negative. So, yes, I do feel the pull to worry about the future. I have a family to provide for literally (wife and three kids, including a baby) and figuratively (parish). But this morning I was e-mailing a parishioner and had a moment of insight. Like Clement (yesterday's blog) I found what I wrote for her was meant for myself because I am in the same arena!

She is one of many parishioners facing hard times. We have had several men die this year, so there are many new widows. There are also the folk with illnesses, some of them life threatening. Dementia is stealing away a couple others. There is nothing inherently Christian about the struggles and suffering they are enduring. Illness and death impact pagans as well. But there is something Christian about their responses. They turn to Jesus and His promises. They pray (even when it is hard) and they continue in the fellowship of believers. The try to do kindnesses to others, especially the poor and needy. They profess their faith, sometimes simply with tears.

As I wrote the e-mail this morning I found myself typing those words given to us by an anchorite mystic known as Julian of Norwich over 500 years ago. The words "all will be well" summarize the content of Hope. I have been doing theological reading on faith, works, grace, etc. It is odd (and confusing) to me that the people who most eloquently speak of grace and the sufficiency of  God's actions are not at the forefront of trusting the chuch to God. How is it I am to believe God can save a sinner (a wretch like me) yet not believe that He can take our church where it needs to go? How is it grace alone and faith alone is their creed, yet I am told there is no hope in the church I attend? Like I said, I am very confused. I write in the hopes that others, confused like me, might find a companion for the journey. But confused as I am, I am grounded in many certainties. There are some things about which I am clear. One of those things is Jesus. His role and His commitment to us is my foundation. Based on that, I am also clear that 'all will be well.' Maybe not today, or tomorrow or next month. But some day.

I try to be a good husband and father. I work hard to be a good priest. I am a typical human being. I am full of all manner of sin and have been a major disappointment to God and myself. The failure pile seems to dwarf the the success pile on my life scales. I have not loved or served with the passion I should. And I repent. Daily, sometimes hourly. And I try to do what is right. And I try to love God and love others. And I repent. Daily, sometimes hourly. I do all this in the Epsicopal Church. [At least until they ask me to leave which they promise they won't!.] And I do it because I believe God is at work here, inspite of our best efforts to reject His revelation. I do it because I don't trust people to create a safe place for me, only God can and will. And He promised that if I (we) held on until the end we would be saved (healed)! So, while I disagree with much of what was decided at General Convention I refuse to lose hope. Jesus is still Lord and I am serving Him here.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Clement, GenCon & SS Blessings

"... we honor Linus, Cletus, Clement, Cornelius, Cyprian, Lawrence, Chrysogonus, John and Paul, Cosmas and Damnien and all the saints"

Those words echo from my youth. They come from the eucharistic canon of the Roman Missale and the early church leaders (starting with Mary and the Apostles) and martyrs remembered by the Church in Rome some 1600 years ago at the core of its worship. Clement is the third "Pope" following Peter in the Roman Catholic understanding. Protestants, not surprisingly, debate that. Such scholarly questions are well above my pay grade. [In reality, one's assumptions seem to contribute a great deal to one's conclusions.] No one questions that Clement wrote the letter which we are reflecting on today.

For some reason, Clement saw fit to write a letter to the Corinthians about their situation in 96AD. Today we reflect on some sections which resonate with my concerns about recent actions by the General Convention of my denomination.

As we saw, interspersing numerous verses from Sacred Scripture, Clement applauded the reputation of this church with a special emphasis on hospitality. In section 3, Clement's prose takes a critical turn. He writes: "When good repute and rising numbers were granted to you in full measure, the saying of Scripture came to pass..." He then lists a series of faults highlighted by this: "Men of the baser sort rose up against their betters: the rabble against the respectable, folly against wisdom, youth against its elders, where men are renouncing the fear of God; the eye of faith has grown dim, and instead of following the commandments, and living as becomes a citizen of Christ, each one walks after the desires of his own wicked heart."

Now, let me remind, I am well aware that those with whom I disagree would read these same words with a totally different understanding. However, I think a more accurate interpretation would see the decisions to overthrow two thousand years of Christian teaching has been 'youth against its elders.' Same sex blessings are, among other things, a recent invention which goes against the teaching of the church on marriage. This teaching is based on Scripture (note I write from a Catholic view here).The idea that people "walk after the desires of their own wicked hearts" is also found in the book of Judges. There we read that "each man did as he thought best" and it is not good.

In our culture, being "true to myself" is held up as the highest virtue. Obedience is disdained. Autonomy is embraced. In my episcopal church, same sex blessings are now officially sanctioned. This is wrong. But it is not the first time churches erred. Sin and failure in the church are as old as the church. The mistakes being made, often for heartfelt reasons and with the best of intentions, are still mistakes. The epsicopal church is in steep decline. The advocates of "the new thing" convince themselves that they are making all things fresh. They delude themselves and prepare for an inrush of new members happy to see an "inclusive church" while each year 30,000 fewer people are attending our churches! I think Clement's response to the errors then (and now) speak for itself:

"Now, all this is not being written as a warning to you alone, my dear freinds, but for a reminder to ourselves as well, because we too are in the same arena and have the same conflict before us. So let us be done with these barren and vapid fancies, and turn instead to the honorable, holy Rule of our tradition, so that we can find out what is good and pleasing and acceptable in the sight of Him who made us. Let uis fix our thoughts on the Blood of Christ; and reflect how precious that Blood is in God's eyes, inasmuch as its outpouring for our salvation has opened the grace of repentance to all mankind. For we have only to survey the generations of the past to see that in every one of them the Lord has offered the chance of repentance to any who were willing to turn to Him."

Yes, truly, the errror of the church can be repented. Truly all of us are in error and all of us sin. Too often in our fervor to correct others we forget that 'we are reminding ourselves.' Too many ex-Episcopalians revel in being "out of that organization" while ignoring that they "are in the same arena." We ALL need to repent and turn to the Lord. We need to pray for those misleading the Episcopal church. Pray often! We need to fix our thoughts on the Blood of Jesus. We need to hear the wisdom of those who go before us. We also need to ask what choices and decisions have we made that support the very mistaken innovations which we rail against.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Clement of Rome and GenCon 1

We are reading Early Christian Writings in Penguin Classics in my Thursday class this year. Because the group likes to get together, we will meet twice this month before we kick off the weekly classes in August. Last night I previewed and read the first section: a letter to the Corinthians from Clement of Rome. I really enjoyed hearing an ancient voice, especially one speaking so directly to current church problems...

Clement of Rome wrote his letter around 96AD. It probably predates some NT writings (like 2nd Peter) and it could be contemporary with The Apocalypse and writings of John (Gospel and letters). That alone makes it significant to me. Another reason why it matters is because it is written to the same church in Corinth to which Paul wrote. Two of his (four?) letters are found in the NT canon. Paul wrote them around 55AD, some forty years before Clement. That means Clement is writing to people who were probably not alive when Paul wrote, but are their children and grandchildren.

Clement is writing to a church which has lost its way. He begins by complementing their past history. They were a church known for hospitality. They were people who lived under authority and respected the Elders (Leadership). Quoting liberally from OT texts and the sayings of Jesus, Clement enhances his writing by appealing to Scripture. His use of the Bible, following Paul and other NT authors, reveals to us how the Sacred Writings were used. For one thing, Clement seems to quote from memory. He is not exact in following the Septuagint (Greek OT used by early church). One can imagine Bibles were rare and not always available. However, the example Clement provides is one which we must understand. Start with the Scripture. Learn it and know it and be shaped by it!

The emphasis on hospitality was also cultural. People relied on the kindness of strangers when they traveled. Motel 6 did not leave the light on in those days and no one felt smarter because they stayed at Holiday Inn! We must translate that virtue through the prism of our own culture and situation. However, the challenge is clear. In the first century, radical hospitality was a primary Christian virtue. As we reflect on our own ecclesial problems we do well to recall that something so basic as providing for the traveler is central to our mission and vocation.

Living in a world of such diverse Christian expression and with ongoing battles over issues (see General Convention) it is hard to remember that showing someone a kindness is also a big part of living the faith. But, as we will see tomorrow. Clement, shaped by the scriptures and the Christian rule of life, thought there was more to the story.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Pray For Trey

Last Fall a football player at our local high school was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. I shared some reflections on it then. "Pray for Trey" was seen all over Collierville. Local churches, including my own, placed his name on prayer lists. Various prayer groups here and all over interceded. Locally, one rarely went anywhere without seeing some young person, or adult, wearing a 'pray for Trey" tee shirt. This was one of the most public declarations of faith I have ever seen. It is, therefore, something with which a thinking Christian must deal.

The tragedy of any young person dying, at least in our culture, is hard to fathom. In other times and places such deaths were less rare. Life was even more fragile and tenuous. But we do not live then or there. We live here and now. And we are confronted with the loss. When I heard this week that he had died, my first thought was those words: Pray for Trey

How is it so many prayed so much 'to no avail'? The first temptation is to see how the hand of God did work throughout this time. I am not privy to that. I was no family friend and I was not connected to anything that took place, aside from being a citizen of this town where it all took place. This young man's faith was widely reported and his witness heard by many. That may be the most important fact. Even so, how are Christians to understand the other fact; that the prayers for healing were not heard. It does not sit easily with Biblical texts which promise that we will have the power over illness and demons. It does not sit easily with the Biblical promises that the combined prayers of believers will be heard.

The Bible story which did come to mind was the story of King David. He fasted and prayed for God's mercy on his infant son. When the child died, he broke with tradition and did not go into mourning, much to the shock of his court. His response was, I prayed, God refused, I will live with it. There is a great depth of real faith there.

I have made clear in previous posts that I believe God is to be trusted. I have also made clear that I think He knows best. This is not what I wrestle with here. Rather, it is the idea of intercession and efficacy. How is one to understand such things in the face of so many praying for so long? It is not a crisis of faith, it is a challenge to understand the ways of God. It is a challenge to speak the truth.

Long ago I realized death has the penultimate word. It places its stamp on all of us. There is no escape. Even Jesus endured it (with Enoch, Elijah, and the Blessed Virgin being notable exceptions?). Yet death is not the last word. It is the second to the last. It is the word uttered just before Resurrection. Resurrection is the last word, and the beginning of a new life.

But I find myself pondering how then should we pray? What is it we should be saying to God. I wrote extensively on the subject recently. Nothing has changed. I still think thanks and praise are the preferred option. I still think listening trumps talking. And I still think we should pray for miracles. But expectations must be tempered by reality, inspite of what many popular authors might say.

I also know it is a big mystery and we do well to speak humbly about what God can and will do. Pop Christianity is sometimes too glib. Lord knows I have suffered from that malady from time to time. The reality of prayer, suffering and death are the sort of thing real Christians need to deal with. Honestly. My prayers for his family and all those who suffer the loss  have been made. I also pray for those whose faith is shaken by the "unanswered prayer" and those in need of understanding. And I pray for those too ready with simplistic answers who ignore the nuances demanded by the real God in the midst of the real world.