Monday, May 31, 2010

chasing after the wind

The Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes has a sobering beginning; "vanity of vanities!  All is vanity."  The pointless nature of life is described with austere beauty: "all streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full," and "all the deeds that are done under the sun...[are a] chasing after the wind."  The author of this book (traditionally King Solomon) appears to have reached the outer limits of cynicism, hopelessness, and despair.

But can we yet find good news in this vanity?  Is there a trace of joy, a glimpse of the empty tomb even in the midst of this overwhelming loss of purpose?

All things people do for themselves are marked and concluded by a vain struggle for knowledge and recognition, ending with the eventual grave and forgotten name.  Solomon has it right, if we do things for ourselves and by ourselves, we are simply chasing after the wind.  The magnificent flip-side is that all things done humbly through, for, and by the spirit of Christ in God end in glory. 

All is vanity, except our life with Christ.

In Memoriam

"The Green Fields of France"
Originally by Eric Bogle, rewritten by the Dropkick Murphy's

Oh how do you do, young Willy McBride
Do you mind if I sit here down by your graveside
And rest for a while in the warm summer sun
I've been walking all day, and I'm nearly done
And I see by your gravestone you were only nineteen
When you joined the great fallen in 1916
Well I hope you died quick
And I hope you died clean
Or Willy McBride, was is it slow and obscene

Did they beat the drums slowly
Did they play the fife lowly
Did they sound the death march as they lowered you down
Did the band play the last post and chorus
Did the pipes play the Flowers of the Forest

And did you leave a wife or a sweetheart behind
In some loyal heart is your memory enshrined
And though you died back in 1916
To that loyal heart you're forever nineteen
Or are you a stranger without even a name
Forever enshrined behind some old glass pane
In an old photograph torn, tattered, and stained
And faded to yellow in a brown leather frame

Did they beat the drums slowly
Did they play the fife lowly
Did they sound the death march as they lowered you down
Did the band play the last post and chorus
Did the pipes play the flowers of the forest

The sun shining down on these green fields of France
The warm wind blows gently and the red poppies dance
The trenches have vanished long under the plow
No gas, no barbed wire, no guns firing now
But here in this graveyard that's still no mans land
The countless white crosses in mute witness stand
To man's blind indifference to his fellow man
And a whole generation were butchered and damned

Did they beat the drums slowly
Did they play the fife lowly
Did they sound the death march as they lowered you down
Did the band play the last post and chorus
Did the pipes play the flowers of the forest

And I can't help but wonder oh Willy McBride
Do all those who lie here know why they died
Did you really believe them when they told you the cause
Did you really believe that this war would end wars
Well the suffering, the sorrow, the glory, the shame
The killing and dying it was all done in vain
Oh Willy McBride it all happened again
And again, and again, and again, and again

Did they beat the drums slowly
Did they play the fife lowly
Did they sound the death march as they lowered you down
Did the band play the last post and chorus

Friday, May 28, 2010

that being said

In my previous post, I said that Christians must not be so concerned with who is going to heaven.  Rather, we ought to more concerned with how we can corporately and individually become better disciples of Christ.  In other words, let's focus on our Christian practices rather than our Christian beliefs.

That being said, our practices have to be grounded in our theology.  We cannot do what seems to be the right thing to do simply because it seems to be the right thing to do.  Our Christian practices of charity and hospitality have to be rooted in our theology, our beliefs about who we are and who God is.

Our liturgies, the creeds, the Bible, and our individual and communal relationship with God are our foundations and bulwarks: it is upon these dynamic and traditional pillars that our faith must stand.  Anything we do to help a neighbor, any simple act of charity, any gracious or kind word, must be done not simply in the name of good, but rather in the name of God.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

who, how, but also what now?

One of those lightning rod theological topics discussed at seminary is "universal salvation."  Boiled down, universal salvation is the belief that salvation (being saved by Jesus, going to heaven, participating in the resurrection, etc.) is available to all peoples, no matter what.  That takes care of the "why."

Yet the reply was always there: "But how can people who don't believe in God or who do terrible things go to heaven?"  Right now, I'm not trying to descend into these debates, but simply to put them out there, and try to turn a corner and look at this topic in a different light. (By the way, there are scriptural passages that support both limited and universal salvation.)

That is, I think we're stuck in the "who" and "how" questions of salvation.  Instead of going around in never-ending circles of theological argument and abstract thought, let's ask the more important question about our salvation: "what now?"  It's far better to be a disciple of Jesus and "go and do likewise" than to descend into the Pharisaical trap of theology without a purpose.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Trinity Wednesday

If we thought that our modern day family values are odd and that our contemporary family dynamics are dysfunctional, take a look at what Jesus says in Matthew 12:46-50.  "Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother."  Whoa Jesus, chill out.  My family would hate hearing you say that.

At first glance, the meanings of this passage are pretty obvious.  Your life is to follow the path of God, regardless of your origin or family background.  We all know that living this life isn't easy, but I think we get that meaning when we read this passage.  But, as we have just celebrated Trinity Sunday, this passage struck me in a new way.

Notice that Jesus that only mentions his brothers, sisters, and mothers.  What about fathers?  Aha!  Jesus is reinforcing this fundamental tenet our of faith, that we are to only have one God, the Father who creates, sustains, and redeems.  We are to be a family of faith, brothers and sisters joined together in the doing of God's will.  Read in this light, is it any wonder that it is Jesus who, in Matthew's gospel, gives us those powerful and humbling words:

"Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy Name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven."

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

repent?

Jesus is disturbingly clear: we need to repent.  Every careless word, every (mis)deed, and every ill-conceived action will be brought to account on the Last Day.  Yikes.  We are instructed to follow the example of the people of Nineveh, who, upon hearing Jonah's prophetic warning, repented of their perverse way of life and followed the Living and True God.

So what of us who have repented?  What about those people you meet in life that do appear to be blameless, that are justified and not condemned by their words and deeds?  Do they also have to repent?  Are they good enough already?

Now, one thing and one thing only can truly save us - the cross and empty tomb of Christ.  But the life of a Christian is to be spent in pursuit of holiness.  Conversion and repentance is a lifelong journey that requires its followers to be honest, dedicated, and faithful.

Monday, May 24, 2010

...and then a bear stepped on my head...

Maggie and I have just completed the journey home.  We went on a fabulous trip through Charlottesville, VA, stopping by at Monticello, and then continuing on through Atlanta to Dallas.  We were fortunate enough to stay with one of my good seminary buddies in Atlanta on Saturday night, and what I took away from that night will last with me for some time.  

My friend, Steve McGehee, is my dad's age, but we hit it off at seminary.  He stayed in the same dorm as I did, and we got to know each other through late nights in the common room and over dinners out in Alexandria.  But on Saturday, he told us this crazy story about a camping tripe he went on one summer and how a bear stepped on his head while he was sleeping in his tent.

Now this story is undoubtedly an elaborate piece of fiction woven through with strands of fact.  But what really surprised me is that no matter how well you think you may know a person, there is always some  aspect or part of their life that is new to you.  Of all the hours Steve and I had spent in conversation, that story was completely new. I wonder, what is it that people don't know about me?

Monday, May 17, 2010

call me, greenhorn?

Maggie bought me what was the greatest graduation gift of all time: tickets to "Moby-Dick" the opera. That's right, I went to the opera.  It was completely, without a doubt, utterly and truly magnificent.

I had never been to an opera before, but I had read Moby-Dick multiple times (in fact, it's my favorite book of all time).  The writer of the opera did this amazing trick with my brain - he undid all of my ingrained Moby-Dick wires and then put them back together again.  By the end of the show, I was zapped.  The goose-bumps throughout the performance were evidence of this fact.

Most people know the famous first line of the epic novel, "Call me Ishmael."  But Heggie (the opera's composer) called this character "Greenhorn" throughout the opera.  Then, as Greenhorn is being rescued after his ship and Ahab have been destroyed by the white whale, he names himself "Ishmael."  So there's a man who has been searching for himself during the entire opera, going to sea only because it was a "cold November in his soul," and then realizing that he is Ishmael. 

The Biblical allusions are reverberating throughout my soul.  If you don't quite get it, go back and read Genesis.  It will be as if the Bible just threw a whaling harpoon into your nerve system as you quiver with delight.

Thank you Mr. Herman Melville, for reading the Bible to me.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

war and the human life, part 2

"War is necessary if we want to live fully human lives."

I blogged just yesterday on this provocative sentence from a high-ranking Army officer. I pondered the implications of living by such a creed, and now I would like to respond.

As a Christian, I am committed to believing that Jesus was mysteriously and wonderfully human and God. The person of Jesus Christ was just that, a person.

Through this lens we must look at his life and experience in order to understand what it means to live a fully human life. And here we meet the disconcerting and uncomfortable reality, that the person of Jesus Christ allowed violence to be done unto him. Although he could have averted the event of the crucifixion, the fully human act was to spread his arms of love on the hard wood of the cross.

This turns the world on its head. To live a fully human life is to assert the impotence of violence in light of the resurrection.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

liberty

The following is quote from former University of Texas president G.T. Winston following a student rebellion on Texas Independence Day, 1897.

"I was born in the land of liberty, rocked in the cradle of liberty, nursed on the bottle of liberty, and I've had liberty preached to me all my life, but these Texas University students take more liberty than anyone I've ever come in contact with."

Hook 'em Horns.

war and the human life

Yesterday I watched the first half of the documentary entitled "Soldiers of Conscience." This short film documents the experiences of Iraqi soldiers and their reflections on killing.

One particular soldier (who actually has never taken another life) had a very interesting viewpoint. "War," he said, "is necessary if we want to live human lives." This was juxtaposed with other soldiers (who actually had killed others) who said that the experience of warfare had taken away their humanity.

So, I find myself in a Christian conundrum. What exactly is the natural state of humanity? Is it one of requisite killing (an enforced peace, or pax) or is it one of intentional peace (shalom)?

Or, and perhaps this is the disturbing question to all of us, can I only ask such questions because I can sleep safely in my warm bed at night? What does that say about Christianity, warfare, and the United States?

Sunday, May 9, 2010

this week's sermon

Thanks St. Mark's, it's been a great two years.


Fast asleep in his bed one night, Paul has a vision.  This vision is a call for him to leave where he is, and to get up, and to go somewhere new.  He has traveled throughout the Asian Near East: Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Israel, spreading the good news of Christ’s resurrection from the dead.  But all these journeys have been focused on the land and the people that Paul was comfortable with.  He knew Asia, and he was content to spread the good news of Jesus Christ to the comfortable places, the land and the people that he knew and loved.
            But this vision, this call that Paul gets in the middle of the night is something different.  God’s vision for the church is not just located in Asia.  God’s vision of the faithful assembly encompasses the whole world.  God is requiring Paul to immediately get up, and go over to Macedonia, that new place; the European continent that has not yet heard of the good news of Jesus Christ.  Although Paul was comfortable with where he was, God has a different vision, a wider vision, a new call that will spread the good news of Jesus Christ to foreign and exotic lands.  So Paul and his companions packed their bags, and go to Europe, leaving everything they knew and loved behind.
            It is with a sad heart that I stand in this pulpit today.  This is my last time to worship with you, to break bread with you.  These past two years have been a Godly blessing.  You have loved me and cared for me as one of your own.  But I have received a call.  I believe that this call is from God, but that it came by way of my bishop.  In a few short days, I too will pack my bags, leaving this place that I know and love, and go to a new and foreign place.  That’s right, even I think that Waco, Texas is a new and foreign place. 
I am leaving you, the good people of St. Mark’s, and going to a new and different people, those of St. Alban’s in Waco.  God has called me to this ministry, and I cannot say no.  Although I wish that I could stay with you, where things are comfortable and where I know everybody, I must be going.
So let’s be honest with one another, I will never see some of you again in this earthly life.  Now I plan on keeping in touch, but I will depart in the physical sense.  I will probably not have another opportunity to eat the same bread and drink the same wine with you.  In this physical world, you and I may not share the Holy Eucharist ever again.  For I will be with a new people, a different people.  But although I am departing your presence, I will never leave your company.
In the wideness of God’s church, in the universality of the love of Jesus Christ, you and I will never be separated.  The people of St. Mark’s and the people of St. Alban’s are not two distinct bodies of Christ.  No, they are one congregation, though in different physical locations.  Together we are worshipping God, spreading the good news, and breaking the bread together.  I may not be with you physically, but trust in the Holy Spirit that you and I, and St. Alban’s are one in God.  We pray the same prayers, we sing the same songs, we worship the true God.
This oneness, this unity of worship and praise in God will never cease.  God’s vision for the wideness of the church stretches beyond all of our imaginable boundaries and borders.  The wideness of God’s church does not just stretch from Virginia to Texas.  The wideness of God’s church is even bigger than Paul’s Asia and Europe.  Indeed, the wideness of God’s church transcends distance, time, and even death.  You and I will die.  But this death holds no power over us.  The grave does not mark the borders of this church.  God’s love is so expansive, so radical, so cosmically irresistible that the church of Jesus Christ sings its songs of praise on earth as it is in heaven.
This stupefyingly huge vision of God’s church is witnessed in the book of Revelation.  It is a radical vision of the new city of heaven.  Don’t let anyone ever tell you that Revelation is about the end of the world.  What a short-sighted notion!  The book of Revelation is about the beginning of the new world.  And this is where Christians get our hope.  Our hope is not that we die and we go to some spiritual heaven where we have an eternal outer body experience.  The hope of Christianity is that we too will participate in the resurrection of Jesus.  Christ has burst the tomb, and has taken up his body again.  And though that body was broken and crucified, in the resurrected life, it was healed and made new again.  So too with us.  We will have our very own Easter.  Our graves will cough us up and our bodies will be remade into the beautiful image of God. 
And with these new, beautiful, and resurrected bodies we will inhabit the heavenly city.  This is the heavenly Jerusalem that comes down from God, so that we will live here on earth as it is in heaven.  The hope of Revelation is that this world we live in, replete with pain, suffering, and injustice, will be remade into the heavenly city.  But, just as God’s vision for the church is wider than we can imagine, the reconstitution of all things is radically more powerful than we can contemplate.  It is not only our bodies, or one city, or even one planet that will be remade at the resurrection.  God has a bigger plan that.  The entire cosmos will burst forth from its tomb and be resurrected into a new, and better life.
And my friends, that is where I will see you.  You, and I, and the whole church spanning time and space will inhabit this city.  In our baptism, we were marked with oil on our foreheads.  But in the heavenly city, we will have the name of Jesus Christ.  In this life, we need the sun, moon, and stars to give us light.  But in the heavenly city, you and I will have no need of lamps.  The Lamb, Jesus Christ will be the only light that we need.  In this church, we close the doors on Sunday afternoons and go home.  But the new city of resurrected life will have a temple which will always be open, and there will be no night because Jesus Christ will be the light for day.
Right now, you and I, and St. Alban’s in Waco and the whole global church celebrate the Holy Eucharist to remind ourselves of this great gift we have been given in Jesus Christ.  Weekly we return to this table and to this altar rail to receive that sliver of bread and that sip of wine.  But in that heavenly city, we will have no need of our Books of Common Prayer or our continual celebration of the Eucharist.  Because the One that we remember in the bread and in the wine will be there.  There will be no churches, no altars, because we will look at Jesus Christ face to face.  It is there that you and I in our resurrected bodies will be one with another, and one with God.
Now do not think that this sermon is just a long farewell address.  The resurrection is God’s definitive answer to all of the pain, all of the good-byes, all of the death that haunts our lives.  All of our anguish will be made into peace.  All of the pain in our lives will be remade into joy.  All of the brokeness in this world will be remade into wholeness.  All of the farewells in our lives, will be everlasting hellos.
So although I am leaving, I do not despair.  We go our different ways, but in the end, we will find ourselves in the same place.  Although I depart your present physical company, we are one together in the Lord. 
Good-bye my friends, I look forward to saying hello.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

take this tortilla chip in remembrance of me

Today I had the blessing of going out to lunch with three Haitian seminarians.  We all went to a Mexican restaurant (picture this: one lanky white dude and three Haitians eating Mexican food.  That's a cross-cultural experience in itself.)  As the conversation progressed, I realized that we were not just eating burritos and enchiladas; there was Something moving among us during the course of our meal.

The Holy Eucharist that we celebrate in our churches is often divorced from this symbolism of having a meal together.  But really, that's what it is.  The people of God intentionally gather to share a simple meal with another and to remember the great mercies of Jesus Christ.  And though those elements of bread and wine are symbolic of that original meal that Jesus shared with his disciples, what's so different about some refried beans and chile rellenos?

Not much really.  The four of us were celebrating the Eucharist.  We shared our faith and broke tortillas together.  My eyes were definitely opened, my faith was strengthened by these three Haitians and their witness to the love of God despite the overwhelming pain of their homeland. 

This disciple knew the Lord Jesus in the breaking of the tortilla chip.

Friday, May 7, 2010

the last hurrah

Not to be overtly mawkish, but today was the last time I got to play on the Trotter Bowl.  Now the Trotter Bowl (for those of you unfamiliar with the seminary) is our athletic playing "field."  I use the term field loosely because this grassy spot is marred by geese droppings, potholes,  and all manner of undulations throughout.  The Trotter Bowl has singled-handedly sprained more ankles than points the Dow Jones dropped yesterday. 

Yet for all of its menace, the Trotter Bowl is my favorite spot on these hallowed grounds.  Seriously, I have spent more time down there than in the library.  I wonder what that says about me?

Today I hand over that beloved field to a new group.  Fittingly, my team lost in soccer 3-2.  Bummer.  But hey, it's been a great ride, and these new kids have to know what it feels like to win.  Good-bye Trotter Bowl, be kind to those fresh ankles.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

the crusades

Did anybody else see that movie "Kingdom of Heaven" that came out about 6 years ago?  It was a long, gory, mediocre movie about the Crusades.  Of course, it was a wildly inaccurate fictionalization of Christianity's darkest period.  In order to purge the memory of that movie from my mental history, I've picked up the book entitled "God's War: A New History of the Crusades," by Christopher Tyerman.  It's a fabulous historical account of the Crusades.  I would recommend it to anybody willing to slog their way through 950 pages of academia. 

Today's Christians have to face up to the disturbing fact that our brothers and sisters in the Lord committed heinous atrocities throughout the Crusades.  Stories of murder, rape, pillaging, and unchecked marauding are pervasive in Tyerman's account of the period.

Christians today cannot either 1) live in the past and constantly apologize for these abominations or 2) pretend like they never happened.  Instead, we need to learn from our past and grow out of that place.  We have to understand that our brothers and sisters went through this crisis of violence but that the Prince of Peace has called the church out of that dark place.  In the same way, Christ does not compel us to sin but only to repent.

Yes, Christianity went through a tragically violent period during the Crusades.  Thanks be to God that we have been given the gift of disgust.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

scapegoat of God, have mercy upon us

One of the laws in the book of Leviticus requires the high priest to lay all the sins of Israel onto one goat.  The priest lays his hands on the head of the goat, confesses the sins of the entire community, and then forces the goat to go into the wilderness and die.  It's both a psychological and spiritual event: the sins of Israel are atoned for, and the goat that serves as the reminder of their sins is put off into the wilderness.

Yet with Jesus we have something different, a new kind of scapegoat.  Jesus does not die on the cross outside the city walls (yes, just as the goat was driven away from the community), never to be remembered.  In fact, this is the new kind of scapegoat that we are commanded to remember as often as we eat of his body and drink of his blood.

Do not let your own human condition overwhelm you.  Lay it all at the foot of the cross and trust in the mercy and peace of the scapegoat of God.  Remember and meditate on this divine gift.  We are at one with God.  We are atoned.

Monday, May 3, 2010

the truth will comfort you

In his first letter to the Thessalonians, Paul speaks of the hope that we have in the resurrection: that we too will spring from our tombs and inherit the life that God is offering to us.  Then "we shall always be with the Lord" (I Thessalonians 4:17).  Then the apostle ends the letter with this: "Therefore comfort one another with these words" (4:18).

Comfort one another with these words.  Comfort.  Isn't that what so many of us are desperately looking for, but in all the wrong places?  We just want something to help us escape the mundane, the painful.  We want some comfort, some avenue of release from our sorrows and the human condition. 

This is something that is personally difficult.  I read the Bible, I read these words from Paul, but I wonder: "How can I use these words to comfort my fellow Christians?"  This is the job of the priest, to take the words of the Bible and make them alive.  I am being asked by the church and by God to break open the meaning of these words and provide solace in times of grief.  This is a tall order, to preach the truth, and the truth will comfort you.  God help me.