Friday, January 28, 2011

An Experiment In Knowing

The faith I have received – the faith of the only, holy, catholic and Apostolic Church – claims that it is possible to see and to know God: to see God and not merely to imagine him, to know God and not merely to believe propositions about him. This claim is boldly dichotomous: either true or false, but not both. If it is true, then materialists – and many Christians live as functional materialists – are deluded; if it is false, then I am deluded.

The claim is not that everyone will see and know God, but only that everyone can see and know God, solely because God wills to make himself seen and known. The Judeo-Christian story – which is a single, unified narrative in multiple acts – is precisely the story of God’s revelation of himself to man through redemptive history. The story reaches its climax in Jesus Christ who said, “If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him. Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:7, 9b, NRSV). We see and know God the Father through his self-revelation in God the Son.

To the materialist these statements of Jesus are wholly unsatisfactory. His claim to reveal the Father does not substantiate itself; it is not true simply because he said it. (Actually, it is, but to insist on that now is to put effect before cause.) Compelling evidence is required. But, what evidence will suffice? Testimony will not do – though the unified testimony of millennia of the faithful should not be dismissed out of hand – because witnesses are often biased, sometimes mistaken, and occasionally untruthful. Faith, as generally understood by those outside it, will not do because it is the antithesis of evidence – that which is offered in lieu of knowledge. (Actually, faith is evidence – cf. Heb 11.1 – but only after knowledge is firmly established.) So, what is left? What have we to offer?

Let us propose an experiment – an experiment in which life is the laboratory, praxis is the method, and the heart is the instrument. In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God” (Mt. 5:8). What experiment could verify or falsify this claim? Only a life designed to purify the heart in the way Jesus specifies will suffice. And this is, of course, the rub. To determine if the Christians’ claim to see and to know God is true, one must dedicated oneself to living as if the claim were true. This is the experiment – and the only experiment – that will substantiate or refute the claim that it is possible to see and to know God through Jesus Christ. And this requires utter commitment to the pursuit of truth – a willingness to give one’s life, literally, to determine personally and conclusively if such knowledge of God is possible. It is a most costly experiment, and few there are who actually undertake it fully. This knowledge comes not at the end of a long chain of reasoning – the mind is not the instrument for knowing God or any person – but at the end of a long life of obedience: repentance, ascesis, prayer, sacrament, worship, fellowship – precisely those practices which purify the heart. If at the end of this long life of obedience one concludes that God cannot be seen and known – precisely because God has not been seen or known – then I have no defense to offer for the faith. But, if one rejects the faith before conducting the experiment, I have no apology to offer for the faith. The kingdom of God suffers violence and violent men take it by force (cf. Mt 11:12): it is not easy to see or to know God. Purity of heart is not easily achieved.

The knowledge gained through such a life experiment is real, but not demonstrable, knowledge. It is the knowledge that one person has of another – absolutely compelling, but not transferable; hearsay is inadmissible in this or any court. Each must come to know for himself, or die trying. Of course, there are hints and suggestions that such knowledge is possible; stand in the presence of those who have truly conducted the experiment for years – the church calls them saints – and one can almost see and know God in their faces, in their words, even in their silence. I have known a few of these and I know stories of many more. Their knowledge will not replace my ignorance, but it does offer hope that such knowledge is possible. And in that hope I press on.

So, to those who truly wish to know and to see God, the church offers a path – and, we believe, the path, to do so. And, if you are interested, we will walk it with you. At its end you will find Jesus – God who wills to be seen and known.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Sunrises and Kingfishers: An Epiphanytide Reflection

The television commercial begins with vistas of our local region and a narrator’s homey voice: “I like it here. There’s nothing wrong with there, I guess, but I like it here.” I agree; so, with apologies to those who live there, I say that here – the foothills of the Great Smokey Mountains – is one of the most beautiful places on this beautiful earth.

Five days each week, most weeks, I travel, with my daughter, toward these mountains at sunrise, a time when God does some of his best work -- this morning a case in point. Have you ever seen the oil paintings at “starving artists” sales – sofa-size paintings with colors so vibrant they strain the eyes and with pigments slathered on as thick as mayonnaise on a BLT? When God spoke this morning, when he said – as he does every morning – “Let there be light!” he painted as a starving artist, with blazing colors of rubies and sapphires and diamonds splashed across his cosmic-size canvas as deep as the waters that cover the seas. God said, “Let there be light!” and there was light, and it was good. It was very good.

And the sun and the mountains and the sky all praised the Lord in the way only they can, in the way he prepared for them:

Glorify the Lord, all you works of the Lord,
praise him and highly exalt him for ever.
In the firmament of his power, glorify the Lord,
praise him and highly exalt him for ever.

Glorify the Lord, you angels and all powers of the Lord,
O heavens and all waters above the heavens.
Sun and moon and stars of the sky, glorify the Lord,
praise him and highly exalt him for ever.

Let the earth glorify the Lord,
praise him and highly exalt him for ever.
Glorify the Lord, O mountains and hills,
and all that grows upon the earth,
praise him and highly exalt him for ever.

I had the distinct impression this morning that God was showing off – “Hey, watch this!” – not for the sake of his ego – though he alone is “I AM” – but for the sake of revelation, so that what is unseen – his eternal power and divinity (cf Rom 1:20) – might be glimpsed in and through what is seen. And what is epiphany if not this – God showing off, God making himself seen and known to us in and through his creation, God shining forth for us and for our salvation? “Hey, watch this!” God says in each epiphany, and if we are wise we will.

I live by a creek; so, too, does a pair of kingfishers. I see one or both of them most days, sitting on the wires above the street, looking intently into the water below, thinking inscrutable kingfisher thoughts. They are joyously bizarre birds: compact bodies, oversized heads with punk haircuts, long bills. They seemingly cannot fly without calling out – a unique, clicking chirp: “Hey, watch this!” These birds – no less than the sunrise – are epiphanies: God showing off his delight in the works of his hands, his exuberant energy made manifest in creation. Saint Francis preached to the birds, though probably not to kingfishers. These birds preach to me.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote of such “natural” epiphanies; her poem is itself such an epiphany.

Earth's crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes –
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.

Epiphanytide is a time to see earth crammed with heaven and every bush afire with God. Even more, it is a time to see the glory of God in the face of Christ, the fullness of God in human form: dwelling among us, teaching and healing, heading resolutely and inexorably toward a cross and tomb – the ultimate epiphany of the love of God for his creation. And it is a time to begin listening for the whisper that becomes a shout of victory – “Hey, watch this!” – as the tomb bursts open and Christ strides forth rising from the dead, trampling down death by death and upon those in the tombs bestowing life: God showing off. Indeed.

[1] A Song of Creation (selections), BCP 88.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Reflection: Windows and Blinds

[There are certain recurring themes in my thought and writing, among them the relationship between worship and transparency (cf. Opacity and Idolatry). Some thoughts by Metropolitan Anthony Bloom brought me back around to this topic.]

The difference between idolatry and worship is not the difference between material and spiritual, but the difference between opacity and transparency. That which fixes our gaze on itself and refuses to become transparent to the transcendent God, that which is seen and venerated as a “thing in itself” – that thing is an idol. All that separates St. Francis’ veneration of creation from idolatry, for example, is creation’s transparency to the Creator; in and through every created thing St. Francis sees the Creator God, as this excerpt from his Canticle of the Sun shows:

Most high, all powerful, all good Lord!

All praise is yours, all glory, all honor, and all blessing.
To you, alone, Most High, do they belong.

No mortal lips are worthy to pronounce your name.
Be praised, my Lord, through all your creatures…

Servants of the Lord are subject to a most subtle and insidious form of idolatry, especially dangerous because it mimics worship, both outwardly and inwardly. Metropolitan Anthony Bloom describes this most aptly:

One of the characteristics of a genuinely healthy spiritual life is temperance. We know in ordinary speech what sobriety means in comparison to drunkenness. One can get drunk in various ways, and not only through wine. Everything that fascinates us so much that we no longer can remember God or ourselves, nor the basic values of life: this is a form of drunkenness. It has no connection to what I have called inspiration – the inspiration of a scholar, of an artist, to whom God has give the ability to see behind the outward form to that which surrounds it: a certain depth of being, which he can draw out and express in sounds, or lines, or colors so as t make it accessible to the people around it who were blind to it. But when we forget specifically that very meaning revealed by them and create an object of delight out of that which should be the object of contemplation – then we lose our sobriety. In Church life it happens to often and so destructively, when people come to church because of the singing, or because of those emotions that are aroused by the harmony of the mystery of the divine service, when God is no longer in the center of everything but only the experience that is the fruit of his presence.[1]

Essentially everything in the corporate life of the church is subject to this danger. Music – often ill-described as “worship” – becomes performance and is rendered opaque to the One who inspired it, while at the same time stirring emotions that masquerade as worship: not always, of course, but too often. The apostles’ teaching, to which the church must be devoted, becomes flowery rhetoric prompting comments of “Good sermon,” but producing no changed lives. The liturgy – conducted perhaps beautifully, perhaps haphazardly – becomes either the object of devotion or the source of boredom and, either way, fails to open the heart to the God who is present there.

The Enemy delights in taking windows to God and drawing the blinds over them, in rendering opaque that which must remain transparent. Delusion lies in not recognizing the difference.

A life of constant watchfulness is our safeguard, the ascetic struggle our necessity: prayer, fasting, confession, obedience – crucifying ourselves to the world and the world to ourselves so that we may rise with Christ. Only in first relinquishing the world in its opacity can we then safely embrace the world in its transparency. Blessed are the pure in heart, our Lord says, for they shall see God.

[1] Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh. Essential Writings (ed. Gillian Crow). Orbis Books, 2010. p. 132.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Reflection: Bus Fare and the Gospel

Terry[1] asked me for money today. As I read my Daily Office at First Church of Panera, he sidled up to a nearby table, took a seat, and very politely asked if I might help him with bus fare. I’ve seen him there before, poorly but cleanly dressed, waiting inside on cold mornings for the Knox Area Transit bus which stops very near the restaurant. He had never asked for money before, perhaps because I had never prayed that God would prompt him to ask me for help before – before today, that is.

We talked awhile and I learned that Terry is a regular guest at a local mission. They put these “guests” out at 7:30 each morning and let them back in at 5:30 each afternoon he told me, and I know it to be true. For ten hours – often very cold hours this time of year – Terry wanders the town trying to keep warm. This day, provided he could find bus fare, he planned to visit his mother before heading back to the mission.

Would I help him? I admit to a certain ambivalence about giving money like this. There is a liquor store next to the bus stop. Might Terry seek warmth there? Possibly: I’ve helped others before only to learn that they have abused the help in this or some other way. I’ve struggled to find a generic rule for how to respond to such a request. For some reason, things were clarified for me today through Terry’s request. Perhaps it was the Bible and prayer book he saw on the table that put things in context. Terry was not asking me for my money, though he may have thought so. He was asking a disciple of Christ if the Master had enough mercy to spot him bus fare. He was asking money tou Christou, from Christ, a Greek expression that attributes all good gifts to the Lord.

I knew in that moment that any judgment Terry might make based upon my response would be a judgment on the One whose name I bear, upon the One who said, “Give to him who asks you, and from him who wants to borrow from you do not turn away” (Mt 5:42, NKJV). Of course, it would also be a judgment on my obedience to the One who said that.

I know the arguments against giving money – many of them quite reasonable. I know that such requests might be scams; I’ve been scammed before. But none of this seemed to matter this morning. I choose to believe that the Lord can and will draw good from the obedience of his people, reasonable arguments and scams notwithstanding. I cannot solve homelessness nor can I ensure that even one man will use well the little I have to offer. But, this morning, I could commit into God’s keeping the little bit of money requested and, by so doing, offer God’s mercy. I know this: Terry gave me this morning far more than I gave him. Thanks be to God.

[1] Not his real name

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Feast of the Holy Name of the Lord Jesus Christ: 1 January 2011

The incarnation of the Lord marked him as the flesh-bearing son of Adam, subject to sin – though not guilty of it – in solidarity with all men. The circumcision of the Lord marked him, in the flesh of his incarnation, as the covenant-bearing son of Abraham, subject to the Law – though not guilty of it – in solidarity with all Israel. These two – incarnation and circumcision – locate Jesus in a particular story, in the Story of God’s redemptive purpose for all the sons of Adam and daughters of Eve through this on, particular son of Abraham and the only-begotten Son of God.

St. Paul weaves these two Christological themes together with yet a third theme – baptism – and thereby locates us in the same story:

9 For in Him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily; 10 and you are complete in Him, who is the head of all principality and power.
11 In Him you were also circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the sins of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, 12 buried with Him in baptism, in which you also were raised with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead. 13 And you, being dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He has made alive together with Him, having forgiven you all trespasses, 14 having wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us, which was contrary to us. And He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross. 15 Having disarmed principalities and powers, He made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them in it
(Col 2:9-15, NKJV).

Our baptism – a spiritual circumcision which removes not a small piece of skin but the entire body of flesh and sin – marks us as the Spirit-bearing sons and daughters of the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, in solidarity with the incarnation, death, and resurrection of the Lord. In one Anglican rite of Holy Baptism, the bishop or priest places a hand on the head of the newly baptized, marks on the forehead the sign of the cross in Holy Chrism, calls the new child of God by name and says: You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever. Amen (BCP 1979, 308). Yes, indeed: Amen.

Enthroned on high with the Eternal Father and Your divine Spirit,
O Jesus, You willed to be born on earth of the unwedded handmaid, your Mother.
Therefore You were circumcised as an eight-day old Child.
Glory to Your most gracious counsel;
glory to Your dispensation;
glory to Your condescension, O lonely Lover of mankind.
Troparion of the Circumcision of the Lord (oca.og)

And on that eighth day, when the son of Mary and Son of God was circumcised, he was also named in accordance with the word spoken by the angel:

“Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take to you Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. 21 And she will bring forth a Son, and you shall call His name JESUS, for He will save His people from their sins.” 22 So all this was done that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying: 23 “Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,” which is translated, “God with us” (Mt 1:20b-23, NKJV).

Jesus, savior. Immanuel, God with us. Glory to God for the incarnation, circumcision, and name of our Lord Jesus, the name at which every knee will bow and which every tongue will confess – Jesus is Lord – to the glory of God the Father. Amen.