Monday, May 31, 2010

Reflection: Memorial Day

In observance of Memorial Day, I simply offer these prayers.

Almighty God our heavenly Father, guide the nations of the world into the way of justice and truth, and establish among them that peace which is the fruit of righteousness, they they may become the kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

O God, the Father of all, whose Son commanded us to love our enemies: Lead them and us from prejudice to truth; deliver them and us from hatred, cruelty, and revenge; and in your good time enable us all to stand reconciled before you; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Eternal God, in whose perfect kingdom no sword is drawn but the sword of righteousness, no strength known but the strength of love: So mightily spread abroad your Spirit, that all peoples may be gathered under the banner of the Prince of Peace, as children of one Father; to whom be dominion and glory, now and for ever. Amen.

Amen, indeed.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Reflection: Sunday of All Saints

While the Western church observes this day as Trinity Sunday, the Eastern church commemorates it as the Sunday of All Saints. The following reflection -- a very personal one that I wrote initially for my daughter -- captures a bit of each holy day, moving from the trinitarian essence of our faith as expressed in the Apostles' Creed to the great and ongoing influence of saints -- great and small, named and unnamed -- upon our faith and our lives. As the Orthodox pray: Through the prayers of our Holy Fathers, Lord Jesus Christ our God, have mercy on us. Amen. Amen, indeed.

I thought you should know: I am a Christian.

I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord.
He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit
and born of the Virgin Mary.
He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried.
He descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again.
He ascended into heaven,
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.

This is my faith, though not mine in the sense of having made it or even of having discovered it myself. No, I received this faith as pure, gracious gift from my parents and from a small community of the faithful at the corner of Burnside and Delaware. My role in the reception of faith was limited to knowing a good thing when I see one and to keeping my hands and arms and heart open wide to receive this gift – grace upon grace.

Mine is the faith of saints: Mama Snow, who raised three young daughters alone and still somehow found time to pray for the rest of us, all her other children; Pauline, a gifted teacher of scriptures penned millennia earlier by her namesake; Wilsie, who fed us vanilla wafers and the word of God in the old Sunday School room with the red, tiger stripped couch just the right size for us kids; Carl, who always asked the Lord to “forgive our sins of omission as well as commission,” as we gathered at the Lord’s Table; and Preacher Black – I still cannot call him Bob – who received my confession of the faith that I received at his feet, and who baptized me in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. To this day, when I read or teach the Old Testament, it is his voice I hear echoing in the old sanctuary – that holy place that lives now only in my memory – echoing before we foolishly installed the acoustical tile ceiling, and it is his approval I seek. Yes, I received my faith from my parents and from a small community of the faithful at the corner of this world and the world to come: upon them be peace.

Faith is a mystery and a miracle. The gospel is proclaimed and one day you realize that you believe it. For some this comes at the end of a long, intellectual struggle – a perilous trek from one worldview to another. For others, it happens in an instant: there is a light and a voice, and, like Saul on the road to Damascus, you find yourself knocked off your ass and lying face down on a dusty road confronted by Jesus, himself. I used to envy people like these, the ones with grand testimonies: heroic struggles for truth or mystical revelations. They were the popular kids at youth group when it came time to tell your conversion experience, to witness to the faith that was in you.

I don’t believe I ever had a conversion experience, at least not one like these. There simply wasn’t a time I didn’t believe. There was no great struggle toward faith, no blinding revelation. For me, the only conversion possible was a rejection of faith; I could have been reborn an atheist, but not a believer. I was baptized – immersed – into Christ when I was around six, and I know that marked a fundamental change: buried with Christ in water, I was raised to walk in newness of life, a child of God, sealed and filled with the Holy Spirit. While the good saints who raised me never used the word sacrament, I now know that baptism is one – that it is a sign through which God’s grace becomes active in a human life and fundamentally changes the reality of that life. I was different after baptism – I had become a partaker of the divine nature – but not different in terms of my faith. I believed before, I believed after, and I believe still.

Some will say that a received faith is no faith at all. Your father’s faith can’t save you. Neither can your mother’s. I understand that theological position. But I bear on my upper arm the mark of a smallpox vaccine given to me because of my parents’ faith in modern medicine. For all I know, that faith – their faith – saved me many times over. And I bear on my soul the mark, the seal, of the Holy Spirit given to me because of my parents’ faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. I do know, with certainty, that their faith, which became my own, saved me. I believe because they believed and because they raised me in a community of folks who believed.

And so I have taken my place in the communion of saints – that mystical body of the faithful formed into the mystical Body of Christ – a fellowship spanning time and space, crossing cultures, bridging divides. Each Sunday when I celebrate Holy Eucharist – the feast of our Lord’s resurrection – this body gathers with the small community of worshippers in our chapel: the patriarchs are there, and the apostles; martyrs are there along with all those persecuted for the sake of righteousness; angels and archangels, cherubim and seraphim and all the company of heaven join the celebration as we sing, “Holy, holy, holy!” and confess that Jesus is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. Mama Snow is there, and Pauline: Wilsie and Carl and Bob and Kathleen and Merl and Bill and Mary. And by God’s grace, through the faithfulness and prayers of these saints and countless others I will not know until that great day of Christ’s return, I am there.

The only story I can tell – the only story worth telling, I am convinced – is the story they passed along to me: a story in word and song and sacrament, a story in bread and wine and vanilla wafers, a story in water and blood and Spirit. This is my story. I thought you should know: I am a Christian.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Reflection: Pentecost and Immigration

Hospitality or national security, baptismal seal or citizenship papers, national borders or kingdom of God: these dichotomies collide head-on at the intersection of faith and practice, at the corner of church and state. It is ironic and fitting that as the church celebrates Pentecost the United States Congress debates immigration policy. Jesus’ voice echoes once again in sacred assemblies, in halls of power, and across borders: “Render under Caesar what is Caesar’s, and unto God what is God’s.” And this voice calls us – if we have ears to hear – to distinguish carefully between the two.

One major theme of Pentecost is the destruction, by the wind and fire of the Holy Spirit, of all national, cultural, and ethnic barriers to the gospel of Christ. The Acts of the Apostles chronicles the struggle of the church to understand and implement the Spirit’s mandate. (The history of the church chronicles the ongoing struggle.) Every step along this journey was contentious: Philip preaching to the Samaritans, Peter and Paul and Barnabas and Silas preaching to the gentiles. Grudgingly, haltingly, the church tenuously grasped the truth:

There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all (Eph 4:4-6, NKJV).

For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Gal 3:27-28, NKJV).

Unity in Christ, through the one Spirit, supercedes all arbitrary distinctions and loyalties based upon national, cultural, or ethnic identities. There simply are no borders in the kingdom of God. There are, of course, such borders in the kingdoms of the world, and it is quite reasonable for any government to control their borders. Arizona has legitimate concerns about illegal immigration from Mexico, concerns about safety and increased demands upon infrastructure. The United States has legitimate concerns about porous national borders, particularly given the present terrorist threat. But, none of these concerns are Christian concerns. Whatever the states and nation decide, the Christian ministry is still reconciliation; the Christian mission is still the proclamation of the gospel to all the world; the Christian mandate is still to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to visit those in prison, to care for the orphans and widows; “to do good to all, especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Gal 6:10, NKJV).

All those baptized into Christ are fellow-citizens with us in the kingdom of God, the only citizenship that truly matters, the Spiritual citizenship that trumps national citizenship. Many the United States might call illegal aliens, we must call brothers and sisters.

And what of those who are not in Christ? Are they hungry? Then we must feed them? Are they homeless? Then we must shelter them. Are they sick? Then we must care for them. We do not, we cannot expect – nor is it reasonable to demand – that the government do these things or even approve of these things. It is much more reasonable to expect the government to make every effort to exclude such people. These actions – these acts of obedience to the Lord Jesus Christ – are demanded of the church, not of the government. But, its obedience may well place the church in conflict with the government, and will certainly place the church in conflict with strong public opinion and state and national self-interest. It is not easy to live in the season of Pentecost.

The church stands witness before the governments of the world – pray God it does so – that Jesus is Lord and Caesar is not, that all governments must either kneel in submission to the Lord or else rise up in rebellion against him, that all governments must give account for their stewardship of the temporal power given them by Jesus Pantocrator – Jesus the Almighty. The church stands witness before the nations of the world – pray God it does so – that there are but two kingdoms – the kingdom of God and the kingdom of the world – and that we must each give account for our citizenship. The Spirit stands witness before and within the church that the church must indeed render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s: taxes to whom taxes are due, customs to whom customs, fear to whom fear, honor to whom honor (cf Rom 13:7). The state has valid claims upon God’s people, but not all the state’s claims are valid.

I am grateful that my earthly citizenship is in the United States, but I rejoice greatly that

our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body that it may be conformed to His glorious body, according to the working by which He is able even to subdue all things to Himself. Therefore, my beloved and longed-for brethren, my joy and crown, so stand fast in the Lord, beloved (Phil 3:20-4:1, NKJV).

Such is the promise and challenge of Pentecost. Amen.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Relection: Theological Discernment

As I have aged – I will not say matured – my approach to theology has aged, as well. I pray more and argue less. I submit more and speculate less. I reason more with the mind in the heart and less with the mind in the head. At least, I hope so.

And so, my approach to disputed theological matters has changed significantly. I have found myself – really rather unconsciously – resorting increasingly to two criteria for assessing theological truth claims: the Vincentian Canon and the Canon of the Martyrs.

If the Church has spoken definitively on a matter, I consider it settled. The important doctrines codified in the Nicene and Apostolic Creeds, for example, are not subject to debate. Other issues I refer to the Church Fathers and to the consensus fidelium, the consensual voice of the faithful, under this general rubric: that which has been believed everywhere, always, and by all (Vincentian Canon, St. Vincent of Lérins). This canon rules out geographically local innovations (everywhere), chronological novelties (always), and denominational distinctives (by all). In short, if the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church has spoken with a united voice – in Scripture, Creed, liturgy, accepted faith and practice – I accept its testimony and there take my stand.

If the Church has not so spoken I then appeal to the Canon of the Martyrs: Can this expression of the faith explain the willingness of men and women to die joyfully for our Lord Jesus? Granted, this is more subjective than the Vincentian Canon, but not, I think, less valid. I am currently in a discussion with a brother who apparently rejects the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist in any meaningful or historical sense. To him, the Eucharist is essentially a symbolic memorial of the death of Christ enacted, primarily, as mnemonic and proclamation of that death until Christ comes again. While I think this theology fails under the Vincentian Canon, I know it fails under the Canon of Martyrs. Depending on circumstances and context I might or might not cross the street to “celebrate” a Eucharist in which Christ is proclaimed as absent, but I certainly would not die for such a Eucharist. The faith of martyrs must be sufficient to support the sacrifice of the martyrs. It is that faith – and its theological expression – that I want.

While some – perhaps many – will find these two criteria wholly inadequate, I find them to be quite helpful. But, I will not argue about them.

Almighty and eternal God, so draw our hearts to thee, so guide our minds, so fill our imaginations, so control our wills, that we may be wholly thine, utterly dedicated unto thee; and then use us, we pray thee, as thou wilt, and always to thy glory and the welfare of thy people; through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Reflection: Taking John 3:16 Seriously

Taking John 3:16 Seriously

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life (John 3:16, KJV).

For God thus loved the cosmos, that he gave his unique Son so that all those believing in him are not being destroyed, but are receiving the life of the ages.

I offer this second translation of John 3:16 not because it is superior to the traditional rendering, but because it is different and thus perhaps startling. Familiarity with the text – its use as memory verse and sporting events poster and bumper sticker – has perhaps dulled this living and active, two-edged sword of the word. If it no longer startles and amazes and thrills us, we have lost the very heart of the gospel. If so, it is time we hear this verse again and take it seriously.

John starts with the most basic and essential premise of all: God loved. Nothing is more important for grasping the gospel – and being grasped by it – than this: God’s unfailing, essential predisposition toward creation is love. John is bold to insist: “So we have known and believe the love that God has for us. God is love” (1 John 4:16, NRSV, emphasis added). If this is true, then to live and move and have our being in God (cf Acts 17:28) is to exist in and through – surrounded and supported by – unfailing, divine love. God’s every thought, every action toward his creation – toward you – is motivated by and expressive of his love. It is a love revealed in and through Jesus Christ, which is to say that it is a sacrificial, forgiving, merciful love, and yet a love strong enough and determined enough to take upon itself all the sin and pain and evil of the world and conquer them. It is not sentimental; it is resigned.

Because God’s love is revealed in and through Jesus Christ, it cannot be different than the love we see in Jesus. Nor can God’s loving character be different than Jesus’ loving character. With no particular desire to enter the atonement debates – at least not in this present context – any atonement theory that pits an angry, wrathful God the Father against a loving, merciful God the Son runs aground on John 3:16. God is love through and through: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. That does not mean, of course, that God is “soft” on sin or that he will let evil have its way. It simply means that the cross, upon which God dealt decisively with sin, is a symbol of love and not wrath.

So yes, God loves you. But in one sense that does not make you special; it just makes God indiscriminate. The fact is – and here we must take John 3:16 more seriously than we have in the past – God loves not just us, but the entire cosmos, all of his created order. Before man was created, the world and all that was in it was declared to be good. The sad reality is that God created a perfect cosmos, gave it into our care, and we broke it by breaking ourselves. And this brokenness of man and creation is so inextricably bound that God will not – and perhaps cannot if he is true to his love – heal creation apart from healing man. Creation waits with eager longing for the redemption of the children of God so that it may be released from the futility imposed upon it by human sin (cf Rom 8:20-25). The cross is not merely a symbol of God’s love for humankind, but a declaration of his love for the entire cosmos and a recognition that atonement reaches beyond humankind to set the world – all of created order – to rights again. Yes, there will be a new heavens and a new earth, but not because these present ones do not matter – precisely the opposite. The present heavens and earth matter so much to God – God so loved them – that he sent his only begotten Son so that we might believe and the cosmos might be restored. John’s description of Jesus as the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world means precisely that – the sins of the world. The implications for environmental stewardship are as vast as the cosmos and must be taken seriously by all those who take John 3:16 seriously.

The embodiment – literally, the incarnation – of God’s love is his only begotten Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. God’s love is absolutely and unapologetically Christocentric. It is only the love of God revealed in and through Jesus Christ and received through our faith in his faithfulness that spares us from destruction and fills us with the life of the ages. But note, once again taking John 3:16 seriously, that the destruction from which God’s love in Jesus spares us is not some arbitrary punishment. Rather, it is the nature consequence of a life lived in sin apart from God. If it is God’s love in Christ that gives and sustains life, then rejection of that love in Christ naturally and inexorably leads to death. Just as surely, the love of God received through faith in Christ leads to eternal life. The exclusive centrality of Jesus Christ for the life of the world must propel the church in mission. If God loves the world – and he does – then the church must reflect that love in its proclamation of the gospel of Christ.

Taking John 3:16 seriously is the serious business of the church.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Reflection: The Ascension of Our Lord

Ascension and Eschatology

The feast of the Ascension of Our Lord is the much-needed, annual reminder that the church is – by nature and vocation – an eschatological community. His ascension into glory at the right hand of the Father marks the beginning of our Lord’s reign over all creation. But, it is a reign that becomes apparent only in the eschaton, only on that last great day when the trumpet sounds and the dead in Christ arise to be forever with the Lord. In the meantime, the nations rage, the peoples mutter empty threats, the kings of the earth rise up in revolt, and the princes plot together against the Lord and against his Anointed (cf Ps 2). But, in the midst of all this, the church is that one community called and blessed to live out the eschatological reality of the reign of Christ in the present moment. The church brings the last days forward into the present when it is the church, when it lives under the reign of Christ, when it shows forth God’s will on earth as in heaven. The church is an eschatological community or it is nothing at all. So the Ascension of our Lord reminds us.
Almighty God, whose blessed Son our Savior Jesus Christ ascended far above all heavens that he might fill all things: Mercifully give us faith to perceive that, according to his promise, he abides with his Church on earth, even to the end of the ages; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Reflection: On Faith And Knowing (Part 1)

Reflection: On Faith And Knowing (Part 1)

I want to say this well, not least of all for my daughter’s benefit. It is no easy thing being Christian in a culture that doubts whether truth exists and, if so, whether it can surely be known. It is no easy thing being Christian in a culture that elevates diversity and tolerance to the highest realms of virtue. It is no easy thing being Christian in the public education system, in the private workplace, in the sociopolitical arena. She needs all the help she can get to navigate these shoals of faith – all that I can offer and more – as do we all. So, I want to say this well, though I am not up to the task. I trust that the ideas, and not my expression of them, are the important thing, and that the Spirit can work through the word faithfully, if not articulately, offered.

There is a line in the climactic scene of Tim Allen’s Santa Claus 2: The Mrs. Claus that elevates the film from just good-humored, family entertainment to high theology. Charlie, Santa’s son, says to the skeptical, future Mrs. Claus: “Seeing isn’t believing. Believing is seeing.” And in that moment, her eyes are opened and a new reality breaks in.

How do you know what you claim to know? is always a valid question about the sources, methods, and limits of knowledge. As Christians, when we start our creeds, “I believe,” or “We believe,” we really mean to say “I know,” or “We hold this true,” so skeptics have the right to respond, “That may be fine for you, but how do you know, really?” The best and only answer we can give – and the answer the Apostolic church always has given – is: “Seeing isn’t believing. Believing is seeing.” Or, as the writer of Hebrews words it: “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen,” (Heb 11:1, NKJV). It is by faith that we understand, he goes on to say (cf Heb 11:3). Faith is both the source and mode of knowledge through which we may ascertain truth – not opinion or preference, but an understanding that corresponds to the deepest, most fundamental reality.

This is true because the most fundamental knowledge is not abstract or objective, but personal and relational. Since God is the truth in which we live and move and have our being (cf Acts 17:28), the source and means of knowledge is personal relationship between creature and Creator, a relationship made possible by faith. We understand truth – we know – because faith draws us into a personal relationship with the one who is the Truth. Through Christ, in the Holy Spirit, we become partakers of the divine nature and are led from faith to virtue and from virtue to knowledge (cf 2 Pe 1:4-5).

The knowledge we gain in this way is not new revelation; it is personal certainty of the truth passed down by the church in sacred tradition: in scripture, liturgy, hymn, sacrament. God is love, the church tells us, for example, and through faith we apprehend the truth of this in an experiential, relational way. We reach a point where we no longer need say only, “The church teaches,” but “We know.” I am wary of God-talk that begins, “God spoke to me and said,” and ends with claims unsubstantiated by the church and sometimes rejected by the church. But I am no longer skeptical of God-talk that ratifies the tradition of the one, holy, catholic, and Apostolic church. I, too, have heard God speak in this way, and there are certain truths that I now know.

The connection I’ve described between faith and knowledge is not well accepted in secular, materialist environments such as those created and dominated by Enlightenment philosophy; modern Western thought is still enthralled by Descartes, Newton, Bacon, et al, for whom knowledge meant knowledge of the material world gained through rational, objective, and materialist methods. And, we must grant them their due measure of success; their methods lead to considerable predictive power over natural phenomena. But, theirs is a restricted, minimalist view of knowledge. As Christians, faith provides us a deeper and prior source and means of knowledge. It is important that we not give way before the materialists’ exclusive claims to the source and means of knowledge. Simply because they say that reason and objectivity are the only ways to know does not make it so. That is their story to which they have a right. But we have a different story and a different knowledge that subsume and transcend the reductionism they offer. We know, through faith, what they can never know through reason. And it is knowledge, the very wisdom of God.

9 But as it is written:

“ Eye has not seen, nor ear heard,

Nor have entered into the heart of man

The things which God has prepared for those who love Him.”

10 But God has revealed them to us through His Spirit. For the Spirit searches all things, yes, the deep things of God. 11 For what man knows the things of a man except the spirit of the man which is in him? Even so no one knows the things of God except the Spirit of God. 12 Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might know the things that have been freely given to us by God.13 These things we also speak, not in words which man’s wisdom teaches but which the Holy Spirit teaches, comparing spiritual things with spiritual (1 Cor 2:9-13, NKJV).

So, the church lays claim to knowledge – knowledge transcending the material and imparted through relationship and spiritual (Spiritual) revelation. It is not merely private, subjective impression but objective knowledge verified by the experience of the faithful for two millennia – knowledge available to all those who come to God through faith in Christ. When the church speaks with a single voice – when it proclaims that which has been believed always, everywhere, and by all (St. Vincent of Lérins) – we can accept its voice as the voice of knowledge and truth. Faith is not what the church offers instead of knowledge; faith is the knowledge the church offers.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Saint Athanasius the Great: 2 May 2010

Saint Athanasius, champion of Orthodoxy, defended the dogma of the divine nature of our Lord Jesus against the heretical notions of Arius who claimed that "there was a time when Jesus was not." When the Arian controversy threatened the faith -- and the stability of the empire -- Constantine called a council of bishops in 325; 250 met at Nicea and codified the faith of the one, holy, catholic, and Apostolic church in the Nicene Creed. In no small part through the sacrifice and faithfulness of Athanasius at the council and for years afterwards, Orthodoxy prevailed.

Apolytikion in the Third Tone
You became a pillar of Orthodoxy, strengthening the Church with divine dogmas, O Hierarch Athanasios. For by preaching that the Son is one in essence with the Father you put Arius to shame. O venerable Father, to Christ our God pray earnestly, entreating that great mercy be on us bestowed.

Kontakion in the Second Tone
Having planted the dogmas of Orthodoxy, thou didst cut out the thorns of false doctrine; and with the rain of the Spirit, thou didst increase the seed of the Faith, Wherefore, we praise thee, O righteous Athanasius.
Uphold your Church, O God of truth, as you upheld your servant Athanasius, to maintain and proclaim boldly the catholic faith against all opposition, trusting solely in the grace of your eternal Word, who took upon himself our humanity that we might share his divinity; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.