Wednesday, June 30, 2010

and now for the layman's version...

If you look below, you'll see that I just posted my short review of N.T. Wright's book, "After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters."  It's kind of dense, so here's an analogy about virtue ethics that I came up with when reading his book:

There's a football player (let's call him Jack for our purposes) who tears his ACL while practicing.  This is a devastating injury.  Without any sort of surgery and therapy, he will never be able to play again.  But football is his life, and he is willing to do nearly anything to get back to where he was on the playing field.

The first step in the long road to recovery is surgery.  He has an expert doctor repair his ACL so that his knee is structured like it was before the injury.  Then, he has to go to physical therapy in order to retrain his atrophied muscles to walk, run, and eventually play football again.  The doctor performs the surgery in less than an hour.  But the therapy takes six months of disciplined, and often painful, work on Jack's part with only the aid and guidance of a therapist.

This is likened unto the Christian life: we find that we have either broken ourselves or have been broken by the world around us (usually it's a little bit of both).  We want fixing, we want to be renewed.  Then, with grace, we find that there is a way.  God, the holy physician, has opened up for us a way to this new life by Jesus Christ's birth, death, and resurrection.  There is no way that we could have ever hoped to save ourselves; it is only by God's grace that he has opened up to us the way of life (this is what theologians call "justification").

Once justification has occurred, we find ourselves in the lifelong process of sanctification, or being made into the holiness and glory of the image of God.  This process, like physical therapy, takes a daily conscious effort on our part.  As Jack had the aid of the physical therapist, we have the guidance and comfort from the Holy Spirit.  This lifelong spiritual process takes concentrated, dedication, devotion, and self-discipline.  Yet in the end, it pays off spectacularly.  We find that we are living the holy life, just as Jack finds himself once again out on the football field.

One final note: justification must precede sanctification.  Physical therapy before surgery would be nonsense, as the structure of Jack's new changes from before the surgery to after.  The surgery is necessary for the path of rehabilitation, and only a surgeon can do that.  Just so with the holy life.  We have to recognize that God, and God only, can truly rescue us from this present brokenness.  This is the good news of Easter.  If we were to try and live a holy life without the grace of God, we would find it to be empty, narcissistic, and eventually, self-serving.

I hope that all of this makes sense.  And don't think that I'm writing this from atop some lofty mountain of virtue that I have attained.  No, I too am a pilgrim on this long journey called the Christian faith.

"After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters"

Hooray Wednesday - today is book review day!

Bishop N.T. Wright's newest work, "After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters," is a New Testament based approach to the world of Christian virtue and ethics.  The problem, he states, is that so many Christians today find their religious life empty after they have come to believe in God.  "What now?" is essentially the question that so many of us have asked after a conversion experience or a commitment to have faith in God.  It's the "following Christ" that this book describes, stating how it leads to a holy life.

Bishop Wright approaches virtue in an ancient, yet refreshing, way: he refutes both those hard-liners who demand that morality be dictated by a strict set of rules (because that is neither life-giving nor possible), and those on the other hand who believe that individual morality should be aimed at reaching your true or authentic self (because this has no Godly basis or foundation).

Rather, Bishop Wright suggests, the Christian moral life ought to be one organically grown by habits of the heart and the practice of virtue over long periods of time.  In this way, one will eventually follow the spirit of the rules that are meant to be life-giving, and one will also live out their true and authentic redeemed self.

However, this virtuous life, a life of sanctification by the Holy Spirit, will not come easy.  It takes a lifetime of effort to consciously make the right decision, to make the Christian decision in all of life's little moral dilemmas and situations.  Then, Bishop Wright declares, when the moral emergency arises, you will be so used to consciously making the right decision, you will do the Christian thing by "second-nature."

Finally, Bishop Wright says, this life of Christian virtue has to be lived in community.  Since love, the primary and foundational virtue, has to be expressed to others, Christian virtue must be practiced with others and for others.

All in all, this is an excellent book which lays out the purposes of living the holy life.  If you read this in conjunction with two of his other works, "Simply Christian" and "Surprised by Hope," you will find his writing accessible, biblically grounded, and the fount of many great blessings.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

90 minutes to glory

I have to take a break from my regularly scheduled blog on the Holy Life in order to comment on an occasion of the highest order: the United States soccer team has advanced into the final 16 teams of the World Cup.  The epic win today over North African power Algeria has caused quite a stir in the sporting world, and especially right here in Waco, TX.

The Yanks needed a win to secure their progression into the next round of the world's largest and greatest sporting event.  After a great tie against England and then a disappointing one against Slovenia, the American faithful pinned their hopes on the likes of Tim Howard, Clint Dempsey, Jozy Altidore, and Landon Donovan to show the world that we are serious at this game they call "football."

In the twentieth minute our own Clint Dempsey of Nacogdoches, TX scored a goal.  But, the sporting gods would not have it, and the glorious net-buster was turned into a spirit-breaker.  A delirious referee shamefully disallowed it by claiming that a phantom U.S. player was offside.  I screamed like a little girl.

After knocking on the door of destiny for a full ninety minutes, the sons of Uncle Sam finally did the incredible.  They grasped a heart-stopping victory from the jaws of a cynical tie.  I screamed like a little girl, and then I cried a little bit, and then I waved my American flag, all the while bellowing at the top of my lungs: "USA!  YES WE CAN!  USA!"

Stars and stripes forever, and bring on Ghana.  Freedom marches on toward glory.

Monday, June 21, 2010

seek, don't wrest, the holiness of God

It's been a fabulous two weeks!  During my absence from blogging I've managed to have a bachelor party, get married, go on a honeymoon, and get ordained.  Whoa, it's been a wild ride. 

Today's Old Testament reading is from Numbers and depicts a revolt among the Israelites against their leaders, Moses and Aaron.  These men, Korah, Dathan, and Abiram, want to have the same holiness that Moses and Aaron had attained.  In the end, the rebels learn their lesson: it's not wise to rise up against God's appointed servants.  If they wanted to attain holiness, it would have been far sensible to follow God rather than to find their own way out of the wilderness.

This brief biblical encounter had me thinking about my own ordination.  Had I not too approached the altar of God, demanding that some sort of holiness, some elevated status of godliness be thrust upon me in ordination?  I pray that I did this deed, that I answered God's call with reverence and humility.  If not, God help me.

Monday, June 7, 2010

humanity

I've just finished reading Christopher's Tyerman's mammoth tome, "God's War: A New History of the Crusades."  Weighing in at 2.9 pounds (that's a lot!) and covering 1000+ plus pages, after reading it you feel as if you've made the long journey to Jerusalem and back.  But I'm not trying to extol my own academic acumen; instead, I want to draw attention to Tyerman's fabulous conclusion.

Throughout the book, Tyerman constantly reminds the reader that the crusades were not wholly religious, nor were they strictly secular.  The wars of the cross, rather, were tied into a matrix of territorial expansion, Passion theology, and raw commercial venture.  So where do these strands intersect in the crusades?

In the humanity of it all, responds Tyerman.  He remarks that "sentimentality will not do" in explaining why so many, men and women, lay and clergy, noble and common, embarked on long, self-sacrificial, financially and bodily risky ventures that always presented the possibility of the individual being ground into the dustbin of history.  The bodies that were crushed, the lives that were lost, the relationships and human beings that were significantly or trivially altered by the wars of the cross perfectly describe the experience of the crusades: its humanity.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

drop it like it's hot

When groups of Episcopalians sit around and talk about their church, the topic of gays and lesbians always manages to come up.  Then, it seems, one of two things most often happens: 1) the group drops it like it's hot and doesn't discuss it all, or 2) descends into polemical and political yammering.  Whatever happened to informed, theological dialogue?

So I won't drop the topic and I'll avoid using political methods to discuss this issue in our contemporary church.  Instead, I insist relying upon the traditions of our Church, my relationship with God in Christ, and the entire Biblical witness.

Now I have to hold myself to this standard.  For starters, let's look at today's Daily Office gospel passage: Acts 10:9-23.  This scene depicts one part of Peter's struggle with the acceptance of Gentiles into the fellowship of Jesus (along with hearing God's voice with instructions to "kill and eat," Peter has a vision of unclean animals being lowered on a sheet).  Eventually, partly inspired by this divine message, Peter moves to welcome non-Jews into the Christian fellowship.

Truth be told, this isn't a pure parallel with today's situation.  However, just because it isn't perfect doesn't mean it can't help guide us through our current struggles; because if we don't use our resources and reflect on our past, then we have no hope for the future.  Next time this "issue" comes up, don't drop it like it's hot, but rather embrace the awkwardness and explore it with theological integrity. 

It's what we have, let's use it.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Mr. Solomon, you are (mostly) right

"There is a grievous ill that I have seen under the sun: riches were kept by their owners to their hurt, and those riches were lost in a bad venture; though they are parents of children, they have nothing in their hands. As they came from their mother’s womb, so they shall go again, naked as they came; they shall take nothing for their toil, which they may carry away with their hands. This also is a grievous ill: just as they came, so shall they go; and what gain do they have from toiling for the wind? Besides, all their days they eat in darkness, in much vexation and sickness and resentment."  - Ecclesiastes 5:13-17

Huh, unfortunately these words remind me of our modern economic maelstrom.  Moneys have been spent poorly, ruining or damaging the futures of so many people across the world.  Life savings have been cremated in the fires of economic confusion, and financial lifelines have been severed in the world of shady banking.

King Solomon, the purported author of this passage, would be wholly right in speaking of our current economic situation if it were not for one disturbing fact: the riches that were lost were often lost by those who did not own those riches.  Money has been made and lost by others: investment bankers, financial advisers, and predatory lenders.  It is a grievous ill, nay a communal sin, that the losers in the game we call "the economy" go to and fro on this earth, with a deadness and nakedness in their soul.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

I sing a songs of the saints of God

Maggie and I have moved into our new place!  It's been an incredibly busy two days, but here we are; moved in and settling down.  So what if we don't have that much furniture? 

But I'll have to admit one thing on my part - we didn't do all of the moving and settling in by ourselves.  A great number of smiling faces have helped along the way.  Like the folks from St. Alban's who came over to help us unload Maggie's car and dropped off lunch for us.  Or the two guys who helped us move, Sergio and Santos.  Without them, we'd still be moving boxes.  And even the guy at Starbucks this morning was one of the kindest souls I've ever met. 

So the saints of God are everywhere.  You can meet them at home, or at churches, or in coffee shops.  The whole kingdom of Christ is present, all you have to do is look around.  Be amazed, the saints of God are everywhere.