Thursday, September 30, 2010

miming Jesus

The idea of imitating Jesus is no groundbreaking or revolutionary theological or spiritual concept.  In fact, as I write, I am looking at a book on my shelf titled, "The Imitation of Christ" by Thomas A'Kempis.  It has a pretty good shelf life, it's only about 700 hundred years old.

But this morning as I was reading the Acts of the Apostles, I was really struck at how the holy scriptures repeat certain themes, and how figures throughout the New Testament mimic Jesus.  For example, in chapter 21 of Acts, Paul is arrested in Jerusalem, and the Jews claim that he "is teaching everyone everywhere against our people, our law, and [the Temple]."  Huh, sound like somebody else you may have heard of?

Paul imitates Christ by stirring up the people of Jerusalem.  The Apostle was arrested for his dedication to the Lord and his relentless pursuit of the truth, regardless of the cost. 

That is where we too are called to imitate Jesus.  We have to speak and act the truth, even if it is uncomfortable.  For our sake, Jesus didn't bow into the pressures that told him to take the easy road of falsity.  Rather, he followed the truth, and the truth has set us free.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Book Review Wednesday!

I am finally back in the office and back to blogging after a short hiatus.  So, to kick things off again, it's Book Review Wednesday!

I recently ordered two books from Amazon.  First, I got a new Bible.  In my old Bible, everything from Hebrews 4 to the end had fallen out and been taped back in.  So it's a nice to have a Bible that is actually bound together.

I also bought a book called "C Street: The Fundamentalist Threat to American Democracy" by Jeff Sharlet.  I've enjoyed Sharlet's writing in the past, especially in his article for Harper's magazine.  This book details an organization, "the Family," that aspires to lead politicians and important business leaders into a laissez-faire style of economic and religious governing.  The author believes that the organization is intent on convincing powerful leaders that the message of Christianity is that good things are given to God-appointed leaders, and then it is their responsibility to trickle down the good things to the poor and weak.

I will respond very briefly: what scares me about this ideas is not the political conservatism.  Most of my family and friends would self-identify as political conservatives.  What scares me about the Family is their use of theology and scripture to serve their own ends.  The Lord they speak of, one full of power, authority and business agendas is the not the Lord that I know.  I know a Lord who denied his own power and authority.  I know a Lord who served the poor, weak, and crippled.  I know a Lord who died on a cross.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Old Dudes with Beards - N.T. Wright

Attention everybody!  N.T. Wright is our last old dude with a beard!

N.T. Wright (who is still living) has just retired as the Bishop of Durham, England.  He is a widely known theologian and biblical scholar.  Unlike our previous old dudes with beards, we can actually hear N.T. Wright speak instead of having to read boring passages from super-old books.

Below is a link to an interview that N.T. Wright had with Stephen Colbert.  I would encourage you to watch it.  If you are not familiar with Stephen Colbert, please note that he is a comedian and satirical news pundit.  He is not being rude to Bishop Wright, that is simply his persona on the show.

Monday, September 20, 2010

making the sabbath day holy

I'm living into the fourth commandment: "Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy."

Officially, I'm on vacation right now.  But this is not just about "time off."  Vacation typically entails going somewhere or doing something.  That's not the case right now.  I'm staying here in Waco, and the only place I am going is the doctor's office tomorrow morning.

But sabbath means a lot more than vacation, and I'd prefer to think of what I'm doing as sabbath, rather than vacation.  Sabbath is a time of fruitful rest, an opportunity to let the fields lay fallow so that the nutrients can be restored.  It means that instead of working for God, I'm letting God work on me.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Divine allowance

In my most recent sermon, I played off the theme of 1 Timothy 1:15 as a first century Christian commercial: "This saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners."  I had this line in my sermon: "God paid the ultimate advertising fee by allowing Christ Jesus to die on a cross."

It has come to my attention that this put a lump in some throats.  The divine "allowance," of God letting Christ die on a cross affected some folks.  So, briefly, I am going to flesh out a little bit more of what I meant by this.

But before I begin, I have to make one thing clear: what I am going to lay down here is a school of thought, not an article of faith.

Simply put, I believe that Jesus was, in the fullest respect, God incarnate.  Therefore, God (Jesus) allowed himself to die on the cross by refusing the temptation to flee (as Jesus had done in other parts of the gospels, especially John).  This shows the boundless freedom of God, that same freedom that is given to us.  God allows us to die, and God allows us to live.

My guess is that many people would object to it like this, or in some similar fashion: "But how could God allow such a thing to happen.  That clearly wasn't a 'good' thing, and we know that God only does 'good' things."

Here's my response.  That statement has just made God into a human.  In other words, we have taken our own ideas of "good" and "bad," "right" and "wrong," and forced them upon God.  Put severely, this is mighty close to blasphemy.  On the other hand, I believe that God's ideas of right and wrong are wholly different than ours: "my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor your ways my ways, says the Lord" (Isaiah 55:8).

One last comment: this whole quest is an attempt to justify God.  However, I think the more important question, the one that causes a lump to stick in my throat is this: how is it that God justifies us, and that while we visit evil upon our neighbors, God continues to love us to the end?

Monday, September 13, 2010

Old Dudes with Beards - F.D. Maurice

F.D. Maurice was a theologian, ethicist, and Anglican priest in the middle of the 19th century.  Concerned with the social and economic impact of the Industrial Revolution on the class system in England, Maurice was deeply concerned wtih the work of the Church  in an age of wealth and poverty.

Over the course of his life, Maurice published over 5 million words.  Of course, we can never hope to cover the totality of Maurice's writing, but we can get a sense of some of his ideas from this brief passage.

From a letter to Daniel Macmillan, June 28th, 1844:

"The one thought which possess me most at this time and, I may say, always has possessed me, is that we have been dosing our people with religion when what they want is not this but the Living God, and that we are threatened now, not with the loss of religious feeling, so-called, or of religious notions, or of religious observances, but with Atheism.  Everywhere I seem to perceive this peril.  The battle within, the battle without is against this; the heart and the flesh of our countrymen is crying out for God.  We give them a stone for bread, systems for realities; they despair of ever attaining what they need."

In essence, Maurice is discouraged by what he perceives as a loss of true faith in the Church and in the world.  People are crying out to know the living God; and instead of giving them a true and lively faith, the Church gives them a cold and dead theological or ethical system.  Because of this failure on the part of the Church, the people will never know God because they are taughtrules rather than given a Savior.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

"take your share in the councils of the Church"

Church fights are always the juiciest.  Perhaps that is because everybody thinks that Christians should get along all the time.  To remedy this false presumption, I would encourage a thorough reading of the New Testament.  The Church has lived and breathed controversy from its earliest days.  Acts 15 details the famous "Jerusalem Council."  Leaders from varying parts of the very primitive Church gathered to debate the place of Gentiles in the Jesus movement.  Did they have to be circumcised like Jews?  Would they have to follow the Law of Moses?

I think we all know the answer to this question.  Gentiles (non-Jews) make up the overwhelming majority of Christians today.  But even though we take this for a fact today, it took a great council and many years of hot debate to come to this conclusion. 

During the liturgy for the ordination of a priest, the bishop charges the candidate "to take [his/her] share in the councils of the Church."  Again, the bishop prays over the ordinand, asking that he/she be made a "wise councilor."  Notice that it is councilor, not counselor.  It is now my obligation to faithfully enter the fray of Church controversy.

One last note: being a wise councilor doesn't always mean that I will be on the "winning side" of the argument.  As in the Jerusalem Council, some of the apostles and many elders of the early church wanted to keep the Christian assembly a decidedly Jewish organization.  Well, they lost the argument.  When I take part in the councils of the Church and vote against the will of the majority (I'm sure that's bound to happen), I will take it in humility, knowing that I am following in the footsteps of a great many faithful disciples in the past.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Old Dudes with Beards - Richard Hooker

I have posted two paragraphs from Richard Hooker's seven volume "Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity."  In this short selection, Hooker is discussing what role the Holy Scriptures play in understanding our faith.  This brief passage is also a wonderful example of how Hooker tried to define Anglicanism over and against both Catholicism and Puritans.

See below for my own comments and clarification of this selection.  If you have trouble with the language, please leave a comment and send me an email!

"Two opinions therefore there are concerning sufficiency of Holy Scripture, each extremely opposite unto the other, and both repugnant unto truth.  The schools of Rome teach Scripture to be so unsufficient, as if, except traditions were added, it did not contain all revealed and supernatural truth, which absolutely is necessary for the children of men in this life to know that they may in the next be saved.

"Others justly condemning this opinion grow likewise unto a dangerous extremity, as if Scripture did not only contain all things in that kind necessary, but all things simply, and in such sort that to do any thing according to any other law were not only unnecessary but even opposite unto salvation, unlawful and sinful."

So how was that?  Kind of tricky, I know.  So, in a nutshell, this is what Hooker is getting at.

He is trying to explain why he isn't a Roman Catholic or a Puritan (heavily reformed Protestant).  On the one hand, the Catholic Church believes that the Holy Scriptures DO NOT contain everything we need for our spiritual lives and for salvation.  That is, in order for us to be saved and to know that we will be saved, the Catholic Church adds in more traditions on top of the Holy Scriptures.

On the other hand, the Puritans think that the Bible contains all things, period.  This is just as bad as what the Catholics think because this can lead you to believe that to follow any other law (or queen, for that matter) is sinful.

The truth is actually somewhere between these two positions.  It is here, by saying "no" to both sides, and by reading the Holy Scriptures with faithfulness, that we find the truth.

let's review it!

Who doesn't love a good book review?

Alright, so I'm still trudging through "Ecclesiastical History" by Eusebius.  Instead of boring you with more early church history, I'll bore you with Anglican theology.

One of my most well-loved and oft-used books is entitled "Love's Redeeming Work: The Anglican Quest for Holiness."  This is not a single work; rather, it is a compendium of Anglican writers from the past 500 years.  It's a hefty volume, I know my biceps are getting super ripped whenever I read it.  But it's heft comes from its vast coverage of writers. 

There are the famous Anglican writers like Richard Hooker and Jeremy Taylor; lesser known folks like John Jewel or Hugh Latimer; social activists like William Stringfellow; there are liturgical scholars like Thomas Cranmer and Dom Gregory Dix; there are poets like Shakespeare, T.S. Eliot, John Donne, and George Herbert.  Really, the entire experience of the Anglican Church is represented in "Love's Redeeming Work."

In this single volume I have found spiritual comfort, edification, instruction, and inspiration.  "Love's Redeeming Work" is one of those books that, because of its immensity, always has something new to say.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

inherent danger

Regardless of the type of church or other Christian community, there is an inherent danger for Christian communities.  There is a danger of becoming great in the eyes of the community, greater even than the One whose message you are trying to proclaim.  Congregations and communities of all stripes are constantly oscillating between putting their clergy on pedestals and tearing them down.

In Acts 14, Paul and Barnabas are traveling through the city of Lystra and proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ.  They happen upon a man crippled from birth.  With power and the Holy Spirit, Paul orders the man to stand up.  Miraculously, the man springs up and begins to walk.  Immediately the crowd believes that the two messengers of God must actually be gods themselves; Zeus and Hermes have come to the city in human form.  To dissuade the crowds of their misplaced devotion, Paul and Barnabas run through the crowds preaching along the way: "We are mortals just like you, and we bring you good news, that you should turn from these worthless things to the living God" (Acts 14:15).

The danger is great.  I am also a man.  I am no god, I am simply a mortal.  I am from dust and will return to dust.  True, God has come to the earth in human form.  But that was on the first Christmas, oh so long ago.  Make no such mistake people of Lystra, I am one of you.

Monday, September 6, 2010

a wise young man

Right now, the Daily Office has placed us right into the heart of the book of Job.  Job and his friends have conversed and argued about the righteousness of God and man.  Nobody is able to reach a conclusion; the conversation ends with disagreement.

But then another voice is heard, that of Elihu.  Apparently a young man, Elihu had remained silent in the previous discussions, as he states, "I am young in years, and you are aged, therefore I was timid and afraid to declare my opinion to you."  Elihu, this young man who is clearly wise beyond his years and has been given "the breath of the Almighty that makes for understanding" is keen enough to discern the nonsense of Job's discussions so far.  The narrative says that "Eliju was angry at Job because he justified himself rather than God."

The young man, untrained in years of wisdom and still lacking the symbolic gray hair of sagacity, strikes upon the heart of our theological understanding of suffering.  When evil and terrible events occur that destroy human lives, Christians are often caught up in conversations that try to figure out a way to show how God still exists in the midst of such tragedy.  But Elihu has it right, and we have it wrong.  We cannot justify God's existence, no matter how hard we try and how many rhetorical or semantic tools we employ. 

The truth of the matter is that God's justifies us.  It's not an easy lesson, and it leaves us feeling uncomfortable with disasters.  But it should propel us to our knees in thanksgiving that God has so decided to love us, despite the disasters that we inflict upon one another.

Friday, September 3, 2010

sneak peek

Alright peeps, here's the synopsis of my presentation for Sunday's "Old Dudes with Beards."  (Don't worry, it doesn't give away too much.)

“Old Dudes with Beards”
Thomas Cranmer
by the Rev. Jimmy Abbott
            At St. Alban’s in Waco we are taking on a bold study of our historical identity as Episcopalians.  This course, entitled “Old Dudes with Beards: A Five Week Dash through Anglican Theology, History, and Prayer,” is designed to provide a basic introduction to our Anglican forefathers’ (and foremothers’) contributions to Christianity.  We are taking the thoughts and methods of Richard Hooker, Jeremy Taylor, F.D. Maurice, N.T. Wright and others and applying them to our individual and corporate spiritual lives.
            The first old dude with a beard is Thomas Cranmer.  Born in 1489 and a product of Cambridge University, Cranmer was ordained in 1520.  During a diplomatic tour of Europe, Cranmer became enamored with the Lutherans in Germany and with a certain German Luthera, Margaret Osiander, whom he illegally married in 1532.  With these Protestant sympathies, Cranmer’s consecration as the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1533 set the stage for his reforming influence on the English church.
            The “Old Dudes with Beards” class became familiar with two of Cranmer’s most important written works.  First, we looked at the Preface to the 1540 Great Bible, the earliest authorized English Bible.  Cranmer emphasizes the need for Christians to read the Holy Scriptures in their own language so that they can glean from it meaning, hope, and instruction.  We also looked at Cranmer’s Preface to the 1549 Book of Common Prayer.  Here, among other things, he stresses the need for the people to pray in their own language.
            After this historical foray, the students of old dudes with beards asked the most important question of all: so what?  Our study of Cranmer turned from academic query to spiritual formation.  First and foremost, we must read the Bible for our own sake.  As that famous collect of Cranmer so beautifully says of all Holy Scriptures, we are to “hear them, read, mark, learn and inwardly digest them” (Book of Common Prayer, 236).  The Bible is not something to have on a bookshelf; it should be an indelible part of our lives.  In response to the Holy Scriptures, we need to pray both corporately and publicly using the Book of Common Prayer.  Yet these liturgies are not just words to be repeated by rote.  Rather, our prayers should well up from within our hearts and spring forth from our lips in the language we know.  Perhaps these old dudes with beards have something to teach us after all.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

it's that time again

That's right, everybody's favorite day of the week: Book Review Wednesday!

I'll admit, I'm still slogging my way through Eusebius' "Ecclesiastical History."  I just finished volume 1, on to round 2.

But here's something that caught my eye while reading Eusebius.  He has a long section about the early martyrs of the church, around the turn of the first century.  In gory and often gruesome detail he describes the martyrs' method of torture and death.  If you want to read it for yourself, go ahead.  But just imagine the movie "Gladiator."

Whenever a Christian  would stand firm in the faith and would continuing professing Christ as Lord in the face of pain and death, Eusebius had a peculiar way of describing the martyr.  He says that they wouldn't give in because they were "trained in the faith" or that "their training in the Lord was great" and many other things along those lines.

Training connotes a dedicated, diligent, and habitual practice in order to perfect a particular aspect of one's life.  Professional athletes train for years, we train our dogs, and we potty-train our children.  So why aren't we "training" Christians anymore?  It seems as if we are much more comfortable with saying "I believe in Jesus" than saying "I am training in the faith."

Perhaps that's because training is difficult.  It is easier to say "I believe in football" than it is to train to become a football player.  Training takes practice.  It takes hard work and diligent.  It means that we're not going to get it right every time.  It's physically and mentally taxing.  But that's the point - that our lives are utterly set upon living the holy life.  Then, when the moment comes when we need in most, our training won't let us down and we'll keep the faith.