Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Feast of Saint Michael and All Angels

In the Preface to The Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis writes:

There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them.

Might the same be said for angels?

To disbelieve in the existence of angels is to deny the clear teaching of Scripture and the witness of the Church and her saints. To believe in angels and to feel an excessive interest in them to is shift the central focus from Christ, to choose the lesser part of our faith. A middle way between the extremes of the spectrum is needed: a way that acknowledges and honors the angels as servants of God – and often as God’s ministers on our behalf – but which leaves the mystery of these servants in the hands of God and worships God alone.

Several prayers in The Book of Common Prayer find and walk this via media.

Collect of Saint Michael and All Angels
Everlasting God, you have ordained and constituted in a wonderful order the ministries of angels and mortals: Mercifully grant that, as your holy angels always serve and worship you in heaven, so by your appointment they may help and defend us here on earth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Collect at Compline
Visit this place, O Lord, and drive far from it all snares of the enemy; let your holy angels dwell with us to preserve us in peace; and let your blessing be upon us always; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

During the Great Thanksgiving (Eucharistic Prayer D)
Countless throngs of angels stand before you to serve you night and day; and, beholding the glory of your presence, they offer you unceasing praise. Joining with them, and giving voice to every creature under heaven, we acclaim you, and glorify your Name as we sing,

Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might,
heaven and earth are full of your glory.
Hosanna in the highest.
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.
Hosanna in the highest.

In these prayers the church attends to God in praise and petition. In these prayers the church declares its solidarity and communion with the angels and with every praising creature under heaven in worship of the Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God of power and might. In these prayers the church places its hope in the Lord who commends us to the protection and ministry of his servants, the angels.

Worship God. Honor the angels, God’s servants and our fellow-servants. Stand with them and with all creation in praise. Acknowledge the incomprehensible mystery of God and his angelic providence for us and on our behalf. Amen.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Mere Christianity?

In the Preface to Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis writes:

I hope no reader will suppose that “mere” Christianity is here put forward as an alternative to the creeds of the existing communions – as if a man could adopt it in preference to Congregationalism or Greek Orthodoxy or anything else. It is more like a hall out of which doors open into several rooms. If I can bring anyone into that hall I shall have done what I attempted. But it is in the rooms, not in the hall, that there are fires and chairs and meals. The hall is a place to wait in, a place from which to try the various doors, not a place to live in. For that purpose the worst of the rooms (whichever that may be) is, I think, preferable…and, of course, even in the hall, you must begin trying to obey the rules which are common to the whole house.

I have been thinking lately of mere Christianity – not just the classic by C. S. Lewis, but the notion behind the work, the notion that there is an essential Christianity that may be abstracted from the various culture-laden and denominational-bound expressions of the faith, a “hall” of faith as distinct from the rooms. Call it minimal Christianity, pure Christianity, mere Christianity or whatever you will. That is what Lewis sought to express; that was his project.

I suspect—the greatness of his work notwithstanding – that such a project is bound to fail. It requires a neutral place in which an objective observer may stand outside the faith to judge what is essential in the faith. If Postmodernism has taught us anything useful at all it is this: there are no neutral places and there are no objective observers. We are all storied people; we all stand within a story and we are all formed by that story. I can only say, “To me this element of the faith is essential and that one is not,” but you have every right to contradict my opinion. If an Orthodox writer had attempted Mere Christianity, for example, there surely would have been a chapter on icons; they are an essential element of the Orthodox faith. And yet many other faithful view them as optional sacred art – at best – and as “graven images” – at worst. One man’s mere Christianity is another’s cultural accretion.

It probably does little good to appeal to St. Vincent of LĂ©rins dictum here either: That which has been believed always, everywhere, and by all. This does not codify mere Christianity – what must be in the essential faith. It merely says what we cannot include in the faith. We cannot claim as the faith of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church that which lacks antiquity, ubiquity, and unanimity. Even those tenets of faith and rituals of worship that are ancient and universally accepted also originated in a cultural setting. Simply because they persisted across cultures does not mean that they are therefore essential.

So, I think it may not be possible to define mere Christianity except, perhaps, to explain to non-Christians – or even “new” Christians – some of the things that most Christians tend to believe and practice. This seems a worthwhile task of communication – many writers, ancient and modern, have attempted it – provided the limits of the task are clearly stated, much as Lewis does in his preface. Mere Christianity may provide a textbook synopsis of the faith, but not a description of a faith that may be lived.

The task that I do not find worthwhile – and even find antithetical to the faith – is that of creating and practicing a mere Christianity designed to appeal to the prevailing culture through accommodation to that prevailing culture, when, in short, the church turns over to the culture the task of determining what is truly essential in the faith. The result is a minimalist faith that seeks to eliminate everything intrusive or offensive from the gospel. And the result is predictable – and observable in many churches. A primitive worldview that embraces spiritual forces, miracles, virgin birth, etc., is not truly essential; a rationalist and deistic approach will suffice. A social morality that addresses how and with whom we have sex, how we earn and spend money, how we relate to rich and poor and to allies and enemies is not truly essential; an ethic of tolerance will suffice. A kingdom loyalty that prophetically speaks truth to power, that proclaims Jesus – and not any earthly Caesar – as Lord is not truly essential; patriotism and a voter’s registration card will suffice. And when the culture has stripped all nonessentials from the faith, when culture has defined mere Christianity, the church has been reduced to just another civic club that is useful for service projects and for sanctioning the public exercise of cultural religion.

Instead of mere Christianity, we need the fullness of the faith – everything the faith has to offer: the Church, the Scriptures, the creeds, the councils, the patristic texts, the ancient hymns and prayers and liturgies, the sacraments, the ascetic teaching and practice. In mere Christianity less is not more; less is merely less.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Elevation of the Holy Cross

As God makes clear through his prophet Isaiah, not all religious rituals are equal: not all are holy, not all have the power to make holy. Condemning Israel’s vain fasting, God asks:

6 Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke,to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? 7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? 8 Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly;your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rearguard. 9 Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am (Is 58:6-9).

As the church elevates and exalts the cross of Christ this day, we do well to listen for prophetic words once again.

Is this not the elevation of the cross that I choose:
to take up your own cross – to lay down your own life – and follow me?
Is this not the exaltation of the cross that I choose:
to have within yourself the mind of Christ,
who, being in the form of God,
did not consider it robbery to be equal with God,
but made Himself of no reputation,
taking the form of a bondservant,
and coming in the likeness of men?
And being found in appearance as a man,
He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death,
even the death of the cross.
Is this not the elevation of the cross that I choose:
to be crucified to the world and for the world to be crucified to you?
Is this not the exaltation of the cross I choose:
to boast in nothing except the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ,
to know nothing but Christ and him crucified,
to embrace the foolishness of the gospel of the cross
– a foolishness wiser than men --
and the weakness of God – a weakness stronger than men?

The Elevation of the Holy Cross is far more than the commemoration of an historical event and more that a great feast of the church. It is a commitment to a cruciform life and a cruciform death, in the certainty of a glorious resurrection.

Almighty God, whose Son our Savior Jesus Christ was lifted
high upon the cross that he might draw the whole world to
himself: Mercifully grant that we, who glory in the mystery
of our redemption, may have grace to take up our cross and
follow him; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy
Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.

Thursday, September 9, 2010


DISCLAIMER: A link to this post has been placed on the blogsite Official Street Preachers.com without notifying me or asking my permission. I find much on that blog offensive and opposed to the gospel message as I understand it. The street preachers I reflect upon in the following post bore no resemblance to many in evidence on the Street Preachers blog -- nor do I.

Following is a reflection on the preaching life written in May 2008.

Corners mark intersections and sometimes turning points. In the southern Appalachian Bible Belt of my youth they also marked the preferred pulpits of street preachers. With dripping white shirts, loosened black ties, and bibles swinging wildly to punctuate each point and sweep away all objections, this pair – prophetic like Moses and Elijah, thunderous like James and John – filled the sticky summer air at the corner of Market and Union with the sulphurous stench of hell. It was a cosmic battle of aromas each noon: brimstone on one corner, Nan Denton’s corn dogs on the next. The fate of immortal souls hung between in the balance. I usually brought my lunch to work and wasn’t often tempted to stray from manna to corn dogs. After all, at Nan Denton, Bobby just wanted to know my order. But these two on the other corner, they wanted to know where I would spend eternity – you know, if I just happened to die that night. Considering my apparently imminent demise, foregoing a corn dog seemed wisdom.

I watched them as they strode the small corner that was their earth, prophets of old somehow called forth like Samuel from his sleep. They bellowed and whispered and accused and plead. In a spiritual tag-team whose rules eluded me, when one tired and grew hoarse, the other, as if on cue, rose to continue the apocalyptic word uninterrupted. Rarely did the message vary: man’s sin, God’s love, the certainty of fearful judgment, and the urgent need for decision. People’s reactions varied. Some hurried by, late for a meeting or simply afraid of being drawn into the drama. Others grabbed a nearby park bench or concrete planter ledge, happy for the fifteen-minute diversion from the tedium of the day. Some listened and even mumbled an occasional, embarrassed, Amen. Rarely was anyone overtly rude and certainly never hostile. There was, in the South of that day, a genuine reverence for the message of God and a respect for the messengers of God, even if those messengers were – what? Characters? Yes, that’s what many would have said about them. They’re real characters, bless their hearts.

Not that they seemed to care what anyone thought. They were in the grip of the Spirit, witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth – the world compressed to a point, to a single street corner of a single block in a single southern city on this single summer day. As far as I could tell they were faithful witnesses in their way. That’s not a little thing.

The downtown of my youth is no more. The open-air farmers’ market surrounded by hole-in-the-wall, mom-and-pop shops has been replaced by the trendy vacuum of new age boutiques and vegan restaurants. Nan Denton is gone. And the preachers. I wonder about them from time to time. It’s been twenty-five years; if still alive the pair have grown old now. What do they do, street preachers in forced retirement? Shopping malls are the corners of our time, or maybe Starbuck’s. But it is hard to imagine street preachers there: mall preachers? coffeehouse preachers? I miss them. I miss the intersections and turning points they marked. I lament the landscape with too few signposts. I grieve the maps with no compass rose and no streets marked because “all roads lead to the same destination anyway and, after all, it’s the journey that matters.”

I preach. Each week I struggle and cooperate, battle and submit to God over the texts chosen for me, and each Sunday I preach my gleanings from the field of the Spirit. And though my little flock knows it not – and could scarcely imagine it – in the holy of holies of my heart, I am a street preacher, standing on the corner, marking intersections, longing to mark turning points. That corner of Market and Union lives now only in my memory, as likely do the Paul and Silas who preached there. I hope they live no less in my sermons, for I too stand at the corner of market and union – of Mammon and God. We all gather there seeking signposts: Which way? Manna or corn dogs? These intersections of our lives are no less real – and I think even more so – than the crisscrossing streets of downtown geography: the corners where our faith and our culture intersect and where decisions must be made. Straight or turn? And there I take my stand, pointing with words, gesturing toward a road less traveled. From a distance it appears a mere alleyway. I am convinced that, in the walking, it becomes a royal highway.

I preach. And when I do I stand at the intersection of heaven and earth, pointing, pointing. Perhaps I am as anachronous in my way as the street preachers – one born out of due season – and as foolish as they appeared to many gathered on that corner. I guess I hope so. Because the gospel is foolishness, as is its preaching. And I hope it is that foolish gospel that I preach. But what appears as foolishness to those who are perishing is to those being saved the very power and wisdom of God. That is the corner on which I stand, the intersection which I mark, the turning point for which I pray.

Grab a park bench or planter ledge if you will. Bring your lunch. Sit for fifteen minutes at the corner, at the intersection of Foolishness and Wisdom. I’ll preach there if the two faithful witnesses will tag me in. And, when it’s over, when the last Amen has been mumbled, feel free to enjoy a corn dog. Or manna.

Announcements and Eucharist

I am always a bit disconcerted when a priest interrupts the rhythm of the Divine Liturgy to make routine – and often mundane – announcements. We are gathered in the presence of angels and archangels, in the company of saints and martyrs, in the fellowship of the church in heaven and the church on earth and the best we have to say is, “And don’t forget the potluck brunch next Sunday morning between services”? Right after the passing of the peace and right before we lift up our hearts to the Lord, why must we hear about choir practice, and the budget committee meeting, and the prayer luncheons, and all the rest of the nuts-and-bolts of church business/busy-ness?

Why? Because it is part of our lives and part of our life together, and because the essence of worship is bringing all that we have and all that we are before the Lord and making of it there an offering: all the things we deem holy and all the things we deem mundane. Because singing in the choir and balancing the budget and serving on church committees, all of it is good work – work done through the grace of God and work done for the glory of God. Because we intend to celebrate the Eucharist and it is fitting and right to remember the extraordinary ordinariness of a life in Christ with great thanksgiving. Because we seek direction and blessing in all the routines of our life together.

One post-communion prayer in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer captures the integral connection between our Eucharistic worship and our daily work beautifully:

Almighty and everliving God,
we thank you for feeding us with the spiritual food
of the most precious Body and Blood
of your Son our Savior Jesus Christ;
and for assuring us in these holy mysteries
that we are living members of the Body of your Son,
and heirs of your eternal kingdom.
And now, Father, send us out
to do the work you have given us to do,
to love and serve you
as faithful witnesses of Christ our Lord.
To him, to you, and to the Holy Spirit,
be honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen.

And so we connect our meetings and our ministries and our daily work and lives to the holy mysteries of the Eucharist where everything is sanctified, where everything is given meaning through the most precious Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.

The problem, it seems, is not with the announcements, but with a heart that fails to see the stuff of announcements as the real in-breaking of the Kingdom of God. So, just perhaps, I won’t be too disconcerted by the announcement of the potluck brunch between services next Sunday. It, too, is a holy meal. Amen.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Sin And All "That"

18 For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us. 19 For the earnest expectation of the creation eagerly waits for the revealing of the sons of God. 20 For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it in hope; 21 because the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God. 22 For we know that the whole creation groans and labors with birth pangs together until now. 23 Not only that, but we also who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, eagerly waiting for the adoption, the redemption of our body (Rom 8:18-23, NKJV).

We were – each of us – born into a world conditioned and malformed by sin. Rain, which should fall from the heavens to water the earth, bringing forth life and giving growth, seed for sowing and bread for eating[1], falls instead to flood and destroy crops and villages and lives. The earth, founded upon the firm pillars of the creative word of God – “Let there be…” – trembles and quakes and levels massive skyscrapers and fragile shantytowns. Drought parches fertile land and devastates the hope of farmers. Fires rage, licking up forests and blackening the air with smoke. The earth itself bears witness to ancestral sin.

So, too, do we. Sin resides in our DNA. We, the image-bearers of God, are born corruptible, spiraling downward toward non-being from the moment of our first breaths.[2] We see it in the sickness of bodies and souls, in useless limbs and deaf ears and blind eyes. The outside of some us mirrors the inside of all of us.

1 Now as Jesus passed by, He saw a man who was blind from birth. 2 And His disciples asked Him, saying, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind” (John 9:1-2, NKJV)?

It is a logical question in a culture that correlates personal sin to personal calamity, with cause and effect certainty. And, as scripture maintains, the true answer is yes, this man and his parents have sinned, and the cumulative sins of fathers and mothers and sons and daughters from ages past have produced a sin-infested world in which children are born blind. But the apostles are looking for a more direct causal relationship: some particular sin of the parents or child that resulted in this particular affliction. “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” It is all there in the little word "that", hina in the Greek of the New Testament: that – indicating cause and effect. Whose sin directly caused the man’s blindness?

While all illness is ultimately caused by sin, Jesus disabuses his disciples of the notion that this particular illness is caused by that particular sin; there simply is no one-to-one correlation of personal sin to personal infirmity.

3 Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but that the works of God should be revealed in him (John 9:3, NKJV). This man’s blindness is not the result of specific personal sin – either the man’s or his parents’ – but rather it is the opportunity for God’s power and glory to be manifest in and through the restoration of sight. It is all there again in the little word "that": that – this time indicating purpose and result. Though the world is ravaged by sin, though men and women are broken by iniquity, God’s purpose through it all is to manifest his power and glory in and through the restoration of all things: that the works of God should be revealed in him.

There is much darkness in the world, but God is working in the darkness that light may be manifest:

5 “As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” 6 When He had said these things, He spat on the ground and made clay with the saliva; and He anointed the eyes of the blind man with the clay. 7 And He said to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which is translated, Sent). So he went and washed, and came back seeing (John 9:5-7, NKJV).

Sin and all “that.” Amen.

[1] See The Second Song of Isaiah, BCP 1979, p. 86.
[2] See On the Incarnation, St. Athanasius.