Wednesday, October 19, 2011

This Blog is Moving

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Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Supernatural

My mental health and emotional stability is always put in peril when I visit the website, "Stand Firm in Faith."  I won't get into it now, but I'm just not a fan.

One of their pages had a post and several comments blasting an online support community started by Richard Dawkins for Christian ministers who "no longer believe in the supernatural."  Fair enough, I thought, they probably do need a lot of support if their external life is totally incongruous with their inner life.  And the post made it seem pretty clear that a big part of this online community is supporting these folks as they leave the ministry.

But this got me thinking, "do I believe in the supernatural?  And what exactly do we mean when we say supernatural?"  My hunch is that when most people talk about the supernatural, they are talking about God or some sort of divine entity or force.

The more I think about it though, the more I don't believe in the "supernatural" either.  Now hold on just a second before you report me to the heresy police.  Allow me to explain.

God parts the Red Sea
"Supernatural" connotes an entity or force that works outside or above nature; almost a spooky sort of power that we, as humans, can never understand or face.  However, I believe in the God who enters into time and indeed works in nature.  I believe in the God who parted the Red Seas and saved Israel from Egypt.  I believe in the God who raised Jesus from the dead.  These weren't "supernatural" events, I believe they are now part of the fabric of our nature.

Now, back to this online support community.  I am not going to defend or damn it; I am simply trying to flesh out what it means to believe in the supernatural. The problem is that we use "supernatural" as a euphemism for God, as if talking about God would create a scandal or offend our sensibilities.

If you're going to talk about God, talk about God.  The Very One who created, enters, and will redeem the natural.

Monday, October 17, 2011

The Triune God

Tomorrow will mark the end of our Theology Tuesday series at St. Alban's.  So far we've covered Incarnation, Atonement, and Resurrection.  I'm the clean-up hitter and will be teaching on Trinity.  Buckle your mental seat belts, because I'm about to spin your head.

First of all, I think there are two erroneous ways to approach the Trinity.  I've read plenty of books and heard plenty of people talk about the Trinity as this great mystery - like a divine jigsaw puzzle - that has to be sorted out, analyzed, and categorized.  The problem here is that God won't fit into any box of our making and that concept of the Trinity has the potential to destroy our spiritual relationship with God - Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

If you follow that path of analysis too far you run into the second error.  Because you cannot logically piece together the doctrine of the Trinity, many are prone to totally discount it as a bunch of hooey.  These two errors are closely linked - you either end up talking about God and not knowing Him, or you throw away the Christian understanding of God that we have received.

What are we to do?

My teaching on the Trinity tomorrow will essentially be a long commentary on the Last Supper narrative in John's gospel.  I know, it's not the classical defense of the Trinity from II Corinthians or Matthew 28, but I actually believe John's record of the Last Supper is our best vision of the Triune God.

In that story, from John 13 through John 17, the disciples are allowed into the very conversation that is God.  Around a table with his followers, Jesus prays to the Father for them and promises the gift of the Holy Spirit.

This is the Trinity - neither is it a theological puzzle or something that deserves our scoffing.  The Trinity is an intimacy, an intimacy into which we are invited and loved.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Ethiopian Boy Scout

One of the first knots you have to learn in Boy Scouts is the bowline.  The bowline is strong, sturdy, and makes fantastic loops at the end of ropes.  It's perfect for tying up canoes, hanging a bear bag from a tree, or pulling prophets out of holes.

The prophet Jeremiah had a nasty habit of upsetting the king and his officials.  Jerusalem is under a Babylonian and many are hoping for help from the Egyptian army.  Inspired by the Lord, Jeremiah thinks that's a stupid idea.  He thinks the city should give it up, surrender to the Babylonian army, and take it all as medicine from the Lord for running after false gods.

Jeremiah manages to get enough people mad that they throw him into an empty cistern.  But there was no water in it, "and Jeremiah sank in the mud" (Jeremiah 38:6).

Bowline in action
But one man, Ebed-melech the Ethiopian, realizes that was a poor idea, because really, there's no way to shut out God's word.  So he asks the king (who is getting played by everybody) if he can drag Jeremiah up out of the pit.  "Sure," the king says, "do it before he dies."  So Ebed-melech takes a bunch of old clothes, ties them together, and throws it down to Jeremiah saying, "Just put the rags and clothes between your armpits and the ropes."  Voila! The bowline saves the day!

Of course, I don't really know if he tied a bowline.  But that description of putting the rope under his armpits is exactly what you have to do to wear a bowline to get out of a pit.

So is this post about knots?  No, it's about following God.  Sometimes, when you speak God's hard truth, you get thrown in a pit, precisely because God isn't always so popular.  Good thing there are folks around always willing to help pull you out.  But here's the real trick - once you're out of the pit, you can't sit back and soak it in.  You have to go right back to what you were doing that got you thrown into the pit in the first place - you have to keep following the Lord.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011


I've been fascinated by the spate of "Occupy" protests lately.  Occupy Wall Street, Occupy DC, even Occupy Austin.  From what I've read and can tell, the protesters have a loose agenda based around a few hot topics: tax reform, corporate greed, and environmental issues among others.

My master's thesis at seminary was on the antiwar movement within the Episcopal Church during the Vietnam War.  So of course, I read a lot of articles, columns, and newspapers from the 1960s and 70s about protests.  I even interviewed some Episcopalians who had been involved in protests against the Vietnam War.  From all of that research, I came away with one simple observation: people don't like protesters.  Whatever the cause, whatever the stimulus, the majority distrusts people who have the energy to stand in the streets and chant slogans.

Perhaps this occurs only because it is so easy to caricature protesters.  Take Tea Party protesters - "Oh, they're just a bunch of white people who only care about money."  Or Occupy protesters - "Oh, they're just a bunch of whiny college kids who have nothing else better to do."

Again, I'm not offering my views on the Occupy agenda (I'll save that for another post).  But I am lamenting the fact that there is a sense of "damned if you do, damned if you don't."  Take the Vietnam War again - early in the war, before the Tet Offensive, many protesters were mocked and ridiculed for their actions even though they were convinced the war was immoral.  However, if those protesters had not done anything, then the issues may not have been raised.

Personally, as a Christian, I know that there are awful atrocities and injustices being committed around the world.  Among the guilty are surely governments, corporations, and sadly, even churches.  So what do I do?  I want to make my voice heard by those in authority, but I fear that is just kicking against the goads.   I want to make my supplications know to God, but that requires little risk on my part.  I am torn down the middle.  Do I protest by dropping to my knees in prayer or do I protest by taking to my feet and grabbing a sign?

Well, probably both.  Because really, both of these actions cut against the grain of society and upset the majority.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Wycliffe strikes again

John Wycliffe was a trouble maker.  He agitated, he instigated, he raised hell.  Wycliffe was a 14th century (don't fall asleep yet!) English Christian who believed that the people should be able to read the Bible in their own language.  In a world where I just downloaded a Bible app for my iPhone, maybe this isn't so shocking.  But 600 years ago, this could (and did) get you killed.

Essentially, Wycliffe just wanted the people to hear the good news of Jesus Christ.  As an Oxford professor, he had the talents and abilities to translate the Bible into English for the people (it was only being read in Latin).  He and his followers would then read and share this English translation of the Bible across the realm.  Others leaders in the Church, however, were peeved.  In fact, after Wycliffe died he was condemned as a heretic so they dug up his body and then burned it.  Yikes.
Pulpit in National Cathedral

Now, I'm not going to put myself onto the same level as Wycliffe.  (His image, in fact, is carved into the pulpit of the National Cathedral as one of the figures instrumental in achieving English language worship.)  But at the same time, what I am teaching at Barnett's and around here at St. Alban's is exactly what Wycliffe would have wanted.

I am taking all of that stuff that I learned at seminary and all the reading that I have done on my own, and sharing it with the people.  My books are not kept under lock and key, I don't have to show that I'm a priest when I buy these books.  Anybody can read them.  Now, realistically, I know that hardly anybody will read books about systematic theology or virtue ethics, and that's fine.  My job, as the parish priest, is to share all that with the people that God has brought to me.

And in my experience, the people of God eat this stuff up with a spoon.  They're hungry, they want to know about Christ's incarnation and resurrection.  They want to talk about the Trinity and reflect on how it influences their spiritual lives.  The people of God are thirsty.

So you clergy out there, we would do well to heed the warnings of F.D. Maurice:

"We have been dosing our people with religion, when what they want is not this but the living God."

Monday, October 10, 2011

Who is God?

It's a simple question, right, who is God?  We often hear these sorts of answer: God is love, God is the creator of the world, God is the lover of our souls.  These are all correct statements about God - but who exactly is God?  Here is a great line from one of my favorite theologians, Robert Jenson: 

“God is whoever raised Jesus from the dead, having before raised Israel from Egypt."

This line is so genius because it encompasses all of those other statements about God. Sure, God is love, but we know this only because God rescues us from death. Sure, God is the creator, but we know this only because God has mastery over creation in the parting of the Red Sea and in the resurrection of Jesus. Sure, God is the lover of our souls, but we know this only because God has relegated death to the past in the emptying of Jesus' tomb and the promise of life that extends to us.

Plus, this line speaks to God's glory and might. In fact, we cannot even utter God's name for it is passed down to us only as "I am who I am." Unlike all the other gods that humanity has sought after (Zeus, Molech, Baal, to name a few), God has no name that can pass our lips. In speaking of "God," we are speaking only of the Divine's attributes. God is far too "awe-full" for us to know the name.

God is not a whatever, but a whoever...

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Cleri - what?

Part of being a priest is hanging out with other priests.  You just can't avoid it.  Once a month we have "Clericus" meetings at which all of the clergy in Central Texas (Waco, Temple, Killeen, Copperas Cove, etc.) gather for a meal, prayer, and reflection.  

Okay, maybe this picture is an exaggeration
I often crack this joke about Clericus: "Well, once a month we open up the crypt and let the old guys out to have lunch with us."  I'm 26.  The next youngest priest is my rector, who's in his mid-40s.  Then there are a bunch of guys in their late 40s and 50s.  After that, we have a bunch of old dudes.  And I mean old dudes.  

But in all seriousness, I actually treasure Clericus.  First, it's an opportunity to talk and pray with my fellow priests.  Sure, they're all way older than I am, but we're all still peers.  I'm smart enough to know that priests who isolate themselves end up in trouble because they cut themselves off from their peer support groups.

Secondly, I respect the work and labor of all those old geezers.  Sure, their model for priesthood is way different from mine, but that's mainly because we're generationally separated.  They have planted many seeds in this Church; now it's my turn to water so that God can give the growth.  

As I sit there and eat with them, sometimes I find myself caught up in a pleasant daydream: I envision myself in 50 years, being some old geezer who has done his job and done it well.  And then I look over and see some restless 20-something upstart who has his whole career in front of him.  And in that daydream I smile, and take another bite of lunch, and thank God for this beautiful ministry.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

A Cartoonish Faith

This cartoon popped up in my Facebook news feed today. I almost fell out of my chair laughing.

Sadly, how many American Christians (I can only speak of American Christians because that's who I know) have a faith not so distant from Carl's?  I'm not perfect, but I try to be nice.  God's my co-pilot.  And sure, my boss is a Jewish carpenter.

Let's investigate Carl's language.  Sure, we're not perfect, but have you ever heard of ethics, of striving to live a holy life?  "Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Matthew 5:48).

God is your co-pilot?  So that means you're in charge, and if things go bad, God can help you out of a jam.  But the rest of the time, God should just sit back and not interfere with your life?  So you're interested in a lifeguard, not a Lord.

Finally, if Jesus is your boss, who's your Savior?  The connotation of "boss" is one who directs and controls - not one whose death and resurrection are the cosmic events that narrate the salvation of the world.                                                                               

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

King Josiah meets Wolf Larsen

II Kings 22 describes a major renovation of the old Jewish Temple.  During the repair process, the workers stumble across "the book of the law."  This is a shocking discovery for everybody: the workers, the high priest, and especially the King, Josiah.  Upon reading the book of law from the Lord, Josiah tears his clothes in anguish: "Great is the wrath of the Lord that is kindled against us, because our ancestors did not obey the words of this book" (II Kings 22:13).

In coarser words - Oh @%&#!

Strangely enough, as I was reading this passage, I immediately thought of one of my favorite novels, The Sea Wolf, by Jack London.  In short, a rich, educated man, Humphrey Van Weyden, is swept out to sea only to be picked up by a seal-hunting ship, Ghost.  The captain of this vessel, Wolf Larsen, is a rough, grisly man who sees life only as a struggle, a battle.  So when "Hump" stumbles into the captain's quarters he is shocked to see volumes of poetry, classical literature, and philosophical treatises.  There is more to Wolf Larsen than meets the eye...  

In the course of the plot, the cook steals a wad of cash from Hump.  Hump tells the captain that his money is gone.  Wolf says, "'Was mine,' you should have said, not 'is mine.'"  Hump replies, "It is a question, not of grammar, but of ethics."

Wolf pauses, then replies, "This is the first time I have heard the word 'ethics' in the mouth of a man.  You and I are the only men on this ship who know its meaning."

Wow!  King Josiah and Wolf Larsen meet!  

So what's the point of these literary connections?  They are both confronted with something that describes how they should live.  One hears the word "ethics" for the first time, the other reads about it for the first time.  Now, chances are that you have probably heard the word 'ethics' before.  And chances are you own "the book of the law" (probably Deuteronomy).  So don't be surprised when you hear about ethics, morality, or living a holy life.  That puts you behind the curve.

You can jump light years ahead of Wolf or Josiah by living ethically, living morally, by living with Christ.   

Sermon from Sunday

Thank You, We Lost

Some parents tell their children to eat their vegetables. Some parents tell their children to do their homework. Some parents tell their children to play nice. My mother told me to write thank you notes. Every gift at every holiday, birthday, or random occasion demanded a thank you note. Even if the sweater didn’t fit, even if I hated the toy, I had to be courteous, and write a thank you note.

Eventually, my sister and I became accomplished thank you note authors. But the problem was, I hate writing things by hand. If you any of you have seen my handwriting, you will know why. It looks terrible. I simply don’t have the patience to write by hand. So, being a clever young boy, I devised a system that should be the envy of most any man. One day I sat down at the computer and made a template for thank you notes that I could fill out quickly. It went something like this:

“Dear blank. Thank you so much for blank. That was very thoughtful of you. I look forward to seeing you at insert next holiday. Thanks again, Jimmy.”

I would insert the proper names and gifts, and then print out those little notes on nice paper, lick a couple of stamps and bang! I was done with my thank you notes. I could get back to playing with those toys that they gave me.

Now, was I thankful? Technically, sure. I wrote the note. I said “thank you.” I went through the motions and I could expect a gift from that relative at the next holiday. But was I really grateful? Did I really show gratitude, thanksgiving? Well, when you hold me up to what Paul says in his letter to the Philippians, I wasn’t even close.

Paul speaks of his thankfulness with some radical language. Listen to what he says: “Whatever gains I had, I regard as loss because of Christ.” “But more than that, I regard everything as loss because of the value of knowing Christ.” “But even more than that, I think that everything can literally be flushed down the toilet, in comparison to knowing Christ.” This is radical language, for a radical faith.

What Paul is speaking of here is not an accidental loss. He didn’t have some killer 401(k) that disappeared overnight. Paul is describing a concerted effort at downward mobility. He wants to lose. He wants to lose.

We can’t mark this up to a cultural difference. The culture of Paul’s world was actually not so distant from our culture, especially the emphasis on athletics. In this passage, Paul uses an athletic metaphor, a sprinter who strains ahead for the final goal. And just like today, in the world of sports, nobody likes to lose.

My senior year at UT, I flew up to Manhattan, Kansas to watch the Longhorns play Kansas State. The game was tight, but in the end, the Horns lost. In a great purple tidal wave, the Kansas State fans and students rushed the field and tore down the goal posts. They had won, they were victorious. But I stood there and watched that happen, and I realized that winners don’t know how good it feels to win. Because I had been on the other side, I had watched the Horns win plenty of games. But losing, losing made me remember how good it feels to win. And you know what, I became a lot more thankful for every game that the Horns have won since then.

This phenomenon is exactly what Paul is describing. Paul knew what it was like to be successful. But he has now lost everything for Christ. He regards everything as worthless in comparison to knowing Jesus. But with Christ, he sees others “succeeding” in life, while he is intentionally losing. With Paul, when we reach the bottom, we actually gain quite a bit.

First of all, we gain a little perspective. In losing our lives for Christ’s sake, we sees that all that other stuff in our lives is just that, stuff. The true value in life is knowing Jesus Christ, the “stuff” is simply rubbish.

But more importantly, as losers, we find that we have a new goal. Losers know that winning only leaves you thirsting for more. When we receive one pay raise, we won’t be happy until we get another, and then another. If we get one “atta boy” from our boss, then we won’t be happy until we get another, and another. But these goals make us cutthroat. We strain ahead for more prestige, for more power. But for followers of Jesus, the goal of life is to lose.

Jesus, of course, is the one who perfected this practice of downward mobility. Jesus knew how to lose. Our Lord didn’t come to this earth to be successful, to win any grand prize – our Lord came to lose his life. And to lose it for our sake. He totally emptied himself. He lost everything.

But at that point of complete loss, winners and losers are reversed. When Jesus is on the cross, he sees just how powerless his executioners, the perceived winners, really are. Sure, they’ve nailed him to a cross, they’ve stormed the field, they tore down the goal posts, but that’s about all they can do. From the cross, when Jesus has lost everything, he sees just how silly it is trying to win. “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

Losers have a different goal. Followers of Jesus are not out for prestige. We strain ahead, we push downward, we practice our losing, in order to imitate Jesus. When we imitate Jesus, sure, we die with him. We lose with him. But there is a shift. We have a new goal, a new hope – even as we die with Christ, we hope that we will be raised with him. Paul puts it most beautifully: “We press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” I know, it sounds backwards, but we reach heaven by going down. By losing. Heaven is not for the winners who rise above the rest, heaven is for the losers, who empty themselves.

So strangely enough, only when we have lost everything, when we find ourselves empty, do we figure out how to really say “thank you.” Thank you Lord, for helping me lose my life, because I have a new life in you. Thank you Lord, for helping me lose my greed, and giving me love instead. Thank you Lord, for helping me lose all that stuff in my life that got in the way of following you.

Losing and giving thanks go hand in hand. This is made perfect in our worship. The Eucharist, literally “the great thanksgiving,” is our way to practice losing, and to practice thanksgiving. In the Eucharist, we practice losing by saying that we are not the most important thing in the world; God is. We empty ourselves by praising God. And because we are empty, God fills us. God fills us with the body and blood of Jesus. God fills us with the Holy Spirit. God fills us with love and peace. Therefore, it is right, and a good joyful thing, always and everywhere to give thanks to the Father Almighty, the Creator of heaven and earth.

As we celebrate this Gratitude Sunday, we need to ask – are we out to win, or are we out to lose? Jesus lost it all for us. That’s the greatest gift we could ever receive. In response, we can write a quick, formulaic thank you note. “Dear God, thank you for the blank. I’ll see you at insert next holiday.” Or in response to this gift, we can make our whole lives a thank you. This lifelong thank you note is a true losing of ourselves, it’s a way to clear out the stuff in our lives. We lose what gets in the way, so that with clear eyes we can see the prize; the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Sermon from Sunday

Water, Water, Everywhere

It is a great joy for me to teach the children and youth of St. Alban’s. Whether it’s over a cup of coffee, on a beach in southern Mississippi, or just briefly after church, I am constantly amazed at how smart all our children are. Now I have to brag especially about Stephanie Stringer. A few weeks ago, she impressed me by saying that she was reading her way through the Old Testament. As a priest, that’s about the best thing anybody can ever say to me.

Just recently though, Stephanie sent me a message. She said, “Jimmy, I’ve been reading the Bible, but I’m a little confused about Noah and the great flood. How did Noah keep the woodpeckers on the ark?” “Aha!” I thought to myself. We have a young theologian in our midst! So I typed out a lengthy response, diving into the subtleties of Noah’s character, describing the cosmic elements of the story, emphasizing how God saves us when the waters rise up. When I pressed “Send” on that grand email, I was so proud of myself for all of my theological and biblical knowledge.

But just the other day, Stephanie’s mother approached me. She said, “Jimmy, thanks so much for responding to Stephanie’s email. But I don’t think you got it. Her question about woodpeckers was a joke. The right answer is ‘bird cages.’ Because, you know, the ark was made of wood.” Ohhhhhhh. I totally missed the humor. As it turns out, I’m not a theological genius, I’m just a doofus. Sorry Stephanie.

Now, I can safely say, that I’m not the only one in this church who has ever missed the joke. At some point in our lives, or maybe even on a daily basis, somebody’s humor just flies right past us, and we are left with a confused look on our faces saying, “huh?”And, if we’re not careful, sometimes we even miss the Bible’s own humor. For instance, did you know that there is a talking donkey in the book of Numbers? That story was around way  before the movie “Shrek” come out.

But sometimes, if we read it too fast, we miss the Bible’s humor. Especially some of the more subtle ironies. Our passage from Exodus describes the Israelites’ thirst in the wilderness. They are wandering through the desert, complaining and crying out to Moses, “Give us water to drink!” They quarrel with Moses, and test God because there is no water. What’s ironic, is that just three chapters earlier, the Israelites are quarreling with Moses and testing God because there is too much water! They have just escaped from Pharoah and have made their way out of Egypt. They are standing on the shores of the Red Sea, with the Egyptian army chasing them down. And the Israelites quarrel with Moses and complain against God because the water is in their way, and the Egyptians are going to kill them. Either way, if is too little water or too much water, the Israelites complain. They quarrel. They test God.

It’s kind of funny, isn’t it? God can part the Red Sea, allowing the Israelites to pass through on dry land. God sends bread and birds from heaven for them to eat. And still, still, the Israelites complain, they live in fear. Whether there was too much or too little, they were afraid, even though God provided for their every need.

And here’s the really funny thing. After forty long years in the wilderness, the Israelites finally make it into the promised land, and everything, quite literally, goes to hell. You see, when the Israelites enter the land that was promised to them, they find it full of enemies. They find that they have to work and toil and sweat for their food. They have to dig wells for water. And what’s worst of all, they forget God. They forget the very God who had given them that land in the first place. The instant the Israelites have what they want, they forget who gave it to them. They run after other gods, they worship false idols, they become complacent.

The most dangerous place for the Israelites was not the wilderness. The most dangerous place for the Israelites is the promised land.

And yes, we are the Israelites.

The real danger for the Israelites and for us is not fear. The real danger is complacency. There is a great temptation to take what God gives us, and then forget why it was even entrusted to us in the first place. Living in complacency ruins our spiritual lives, it destroys our knowledge of God, because, at least when we are afraid, we cry out to God. But when we are content, when we are so happy with ourselves, then God ceases to matter for us. The promised land, though it flows with milk and honey, is a dangerous land. Because we are tempted to live without crying out to God.

Now look around. God has given us so much. He has given us wealth. God has given us a beautiful Church. God has given us grace and love that only comes from Jesus Christ. God has given us the lovely people of St. Alban’s.

So we, as Israelites, need to ask ourselves: are we in the wilderness or are we in the land of promise? I know it sounds upside down, but in the land of promise we are surrounded by enemies – greed, envy, isolation. We act as if there is not enough for tomorrow, so we clutch tightly to what we have. In the land of promise, we don’t listen for God’s voice, we don’t carry out God’s mission. We don’t take any risks because we’re complacent, we’re idle. We are completely satisfied with who we are, what we have, and what we give. So, at the end of the day, we worship the idol of complacency.

Or we can live in the wilderness. I know, it sounds backwards, but in the wilderness we cry out to God when we are in need. We listen for God’s voice, and we live for God’s mission of love to the world. We trust that God will provide us with what we need to carry out the work of Christ. Sure, the wilderness may be scary. At first, it may be scary to depend on God, it may be frightening to trust that God will show us the way. It may be scary to support the work of Jesus Christ by filling out a pledge card. It may be scary to minister to people who aren’t like us. It may be scary to live in the wilderness. And really, sometimes, it is absolutely terrifying to follow Jesus Christ, because Jesus demands our whole lives.

You know, it’s kind of funny, that complacency leads to death. Our churches die, our faith dies, we die when we are complacent. And it’s kind of funny, that when we step out into the wilderness, and we do the very thing that we are afraid to do, we find that God is faithful to us. Our faith is never constant, it constantly moves from complacency to fear to trust and back again. But God’s faith to us is as constant as the rising and the setting of the sun. As you work your back into the wilderness, strike the rock of your doubt, and let the waters of God’s faith drown your fear.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

A Brief History Lesson

So if you know me, you know that I love studying and teaching church history.  It's a constant process of reading, writing, and teaching, but it's one that I love very much.  

Nicene Creed
Yesterday during our Bible study on the Incarnation, we started discussing the Nicene Creed.  And when you start discussing the Nicene Creed, you're not far off from talking about ancient church politics.  Here's one of the most common phrases I hear from parishioners during these conversations:

"Back then everybody was Roman Catholic."

That simple sentence is fraught with problems.  Let's take a look!

First, the word catholic simply means universal.  Now it doesn't make a whole lot of linguistic sense to say that anything can both be Roman and universal, because, of course, Rome isn't everywhere.  Rather, I believe that we should refer to that particular piece of Christianity as "the Roman Church," just as I belong to "the Episcopal Church."  Because hey, I don't believe anybody has the corner market on universality.  Well, except for God.

Second, for roughly the first one thousand years, Christians didn't say that belonged to the "Roman Catholic Church."  They just belonged to "the Church."  The Roman Church didn't start identifying itself as such until there were other church bodies around (Orthodox, Anglicans, Lutherans, etc.).

The Venerable Bede
Finally, I think a lot of us have an inferiority complex when it comes to the Roman Church.  We talk about how "we broke away from the Roman Church."  Time out.  Let's take a look at the Anglican Church in particular.  First, there was a perfectly fine church in England before missionaries from Rome ever showed up.  You may read the Venerable Bede's "Ecclesiastical History of the English People" for some more background information on this.

On top of that, the Anglican Church preserved the ancient order of bishops, priests, and deacons.  We retained the liturgies of the Church and the scriptures.  We kept saying the creeds.  So what really changed when the Church of England became independent from the Church of Rome?  We said that the Pope is simply the Bishop of Rome, not the Bishop of the World.  That's it!  Does that have anything to do with splitting away from the Body of Christ?  Absolutely not!

My dear fellow Episcopalians, don't let your Roman friends put you down.  We are all Christians.  That's what matters.  

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

You're so sarksy...

Today I am teaching our Theology Tuesday lesson about the Incarnation.  Literally, incarnation means "enfleshment (I made that up)" or "made meat."  The Greek word for flesh is sarks.  ("Hey Jesus, your human body is so sarksy." wink wink)

St. Athanasius
We're pulling a lot of our material for this lesson from St. Athanasius.  I have to say this up front - Athanasius is my boy.  Not only does he weave together a magnificent treatise on the incarnation, but you can tell that he sincerely believes it too.  And not only that, he lives by it.  He lives as if he actually believes in the incarnation.  That means that he wasn't intimidated by emperors, heretics, or anyone else.  He believed in Jesus, and for him, that was enough.

Here's Athanasius in a nutshell.  First, Christ's incarnation was a sacrifice.  He stooped down to us in order to heal ("salvation" means "healing) us.  Second, Christ abolishes death.  His work in life and on the cross and at the empty tomb is the final defeat of death.  Lastly, just as God became man, our hope is that we become like God.  

I hope you can see the progression here.  It really is quite beautiful.  The incarnation is not about shepherds, angels, wise men, and silly children's Christmas pageants.  Christmas is about our salvation.  Christmas is about the incarnation.  Christmas is about God's sacrifice for us, so that we can live with God.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

My Turn

Every so often, I get riled up over some political issue.  I read an article or hear something on the radio, then I get so upset that I send a snarky letter to my state or federal representatives.  It's usually about guns (I saw a lot of shot up kids at Children's Hospital in Dallas), environmental issues (there's a new coal plant outside of Waco), or the death penalty.

There was quite a bit of buzz around the execution of Troy Davis by the state of Georgia.  But hey, while we're at it, let's call a spade a spade - the state of Georgia murdered Troy Davis.  I am not saying this because there were large clouds of doubt over his guilt.  I only say that capital punishment is murder carried out by state governments because that's exactly what it is, even if the person being killed is guilty or not.

Two things always strike me about conversations concerning the death penalty.  One is about justice.  That word, "justice," gets tossed around as freely as an offering plate at a church revival.  But what is justice, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth?  How does the one murder make up for another?  It doesn't.  It only contributes to the endless cycles of violence that we so blithely support.  That's not justice, that's vengeance.  If it's vengeance you want, just say so.  At least that way we know that it's you who is actually out for blood.  Remember well our Lord's words to us, "Do not resist an evildoer" (Matthew 5:39).  

A couple of years ago, after I sent one of these snarky letters about the death penalty, I actually received a call back from somebody in my representative's office.  Whoa!  I suppose that letter somehow made it past the deep-six gauntlet.  I had done a little research about my representative and discovered, ironically, that he received a Pro-Life award some years back.  Yet all the while he supported state sponsored murder.  So I asked this poor intern who called me how it was that my representative could say that he was pro-life when in fact he supported the state of Texas in the murder of its citizens.  After an awkward pause and the shuffling of some papers on the other end, this intern gave me a great politicians' line: "Well, Representative So-and-So and you don't see eye to eye on this issue."

Exactly.  He doesn't see eye to eye, because he wants an eye for an eye.


Wednesday, September 21, 2011

It's elementary, my dear Watson!

I don't know what's gotten into me, but recently I've been hooked on Sherlock Holmes stories.  No, I haven't seen the Robert Downey, Jr. movie, I've been reading the original Sir Arthur Conan Doyle stories.  They're short, entertaining, and well written.

Without having ever read one of Holmes' adventures (almost always written from his companion's, Dr. Watson's, point of view) I always figured that they were just great detective stories.  A murder case or some other sinister plot is presented to Holmes, and then with some investigating he cracks the case, always exclaiming, "It's elementary, my dear Watson!"  I'm glad to say that the stories are much better than that.

Dr. Watson and Sherlock Holmes
Holmes has honed two very specific faculties.  First, he is a great observer.  Throughout the stories, he notices irregularities in handwriting, the slightest facial expressions, or the smallest shreds of evidence.  Then, from his observations he makes great deductions that often surprise his companions and cracks the case.  (At one point, Holmes is able to tell Watson exactly what Watson had done that entire day just by looking at the dirt on his shoes!)

Although I find these stories fascinating and delightful, I do have one critique: Sherlock Holmes is the height of Enlightenment thought.  Holmes is always in search of data; he wants facts, dates, times, faces, descriptions.  He pieces all of these disparate clues together into one cohesive narrative that solves the mystery.  This reeks of Enlightenment thought: if we could simply gather all of the observable facts, then we could solve anything that comes our way!

There is something decidedly unchristian in this mindset.  It reduces all of the universe, and indeed humanity itself, into a mere objects of observation.  If we take this mindset to its conclusion, we never love one another, we simply observe and make judgments about one another.  Holmes falls prey to this tragic end; he never marries because he is too cold, too observant, too filled with logic and reason that he never allows room for emotion or passion.  (At one point, Watson marries a fine young woman, only for Holmes to retort that he, Holmes, allows no room for such nonsense in his life.)

The universe - trees, stars, animals, rocks, people - are not just here to be observed.  Everything that God has created is to be enjoyed, to be loved; we are to emotionally participate in all of this beauty, not stare at it and make crude judgments.  Our cry is not, "It's elementary!"  Our cry is, "How beautiful is God's handiwork!"  

Monday, September 19, 2011


The story of Naaman's healing in II Kings 5 is one of my favorites.  Naaman is a commander of the Aramite army, Israel's seasonal foes.  As it happens, Naaman, "thought a mighty warrior, suffered from leprosy" (5:1).  He's a strong, implacable foe with the sword and chariot, but he falls just as easily as any other man to disease.

Naaman hears of a godly man in Israel who has the power to cure, Elisha.  But when Naaman comes to Elisha, all Elisha says to Naaman is to go and wash in the Jordan seven times in order to be made clean.

This infuriates Naaman.  "I thought that for me Elisha would surely come, and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy!" (5:11).  Hmmm, so Naaman didn't actually desire healing, he wanted a magic trick.  Puffed up by his pride, he thought that since he was such a mighty warrior, he would deserve something special. 

His servants are the perceptive ones.  They approach Naaman saying, "If the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? "  This turns Naaman's heart.  He swallows his pride and immerses himself in the measly Jordan River, not the greater rivers of his homeland, and submits himself to Elisha's orders.

And he is healed.  The leprosy leaves him.  Yes, that is a great miracle from God.  

But the change in Naaman's heart is the greater miracle.  Pride is the one thing that gets us every time.  The Greeks called it hubris, Paul writes of being "puffed up," we diagnose it as narcissism.  It doesn't matter what we call it, what matters is how it gets in the way of letting God work in our lives.

Naaman's pride almost hindered him from being healed.  But he eventually submitted, and not only was his body healed, but his pride was drowned.  This allows him to make the most important acclamation of his life:

"Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel" (5:15).

Pride may not kill us.  But chances are it is the one obstacle between us and a fuller life with God.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Holy Cross Day

Today in the life of the Church we celebrate Holy Cross Day.  On this day we remember that our Lord was executed as a political criminal.  The cross, which was once a shameful method of death, is no longer despicable, but rather exalted.  For it is by that cross, by our Lord's death, that we are brought near to God.

The cross is our cross as well.  Since we are called to be like Jesus, then we too must pick up our crosses and follow him.  Does this mean that a Christian life should be uncomfortable and sacrificial?  Absolutely.  Does that mean it's not worth living?  Of course not; the only way to the empty tomb is through the cross.

"Almighty God, whose Son our Savior Jesus Christ was lifted high upon the cross that me 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."

Monday, September 12, 2011

The Mantle of Authority

Here's the problem with being a disciple of Jesus - sometimes God calls us out from where we are.  God yanks us out from our comfort zones and throws us into a new setting in order to do his work.  

Take the story of Elijah and Elisha for example.  Elijah is God's prophet, he speaks God's truth to leaders of Israel.  These are hard truths for which he is often persecuted.  Sure, Elijah was blessed, but that doesn't that Elijah's life was easy.  Going through a field, Elijah sees another man, Elisha, plowing.  God speaks to Elijah, and tells him to appoint Elisha as a prophet, to continue the work that Elijah is already doing.  Elijah throws his mantle about Elisha's shoulders, and from then on is appointed to speak the hard truths and to be persecuted for God's sake.

Of course, this is where we get the phrase, "mantle of authority."  But there's much more to this story.  When we talk about being called by God, many of us describe a moment of personal clarity, of divine inspiration.  

But this story offers another perspective.  Elijah is the one who calls Elisha to do God's work.  Sure, the Spirit was speaking through Elijah, but Elisha heard it from the lips of another man.  For us, this means that we have to be attentive to the Spirit in our interior lives, but also in our corporate lives.  We need to pay attention to what the Church is calling us to do.  God's call may come from the lips of another person.

The Spirit is speaking to you - the question is, where are you listening for it?

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Peace creates anger

On Tuesday night at Barnett's Pub, our Bible study focused on two passages: Matthew 5:43-48 and Micah 4:1-5.  Let's just clear the air - what God is calling us to in these passages is not supposed to be easy.  Being perfect as our heavenly father is perfect, loving our enemies, praying for our persecutors, beating our swords into plowshares are not easy tasks.

But they are holy tasks.

What shocked me most about Tuesday night was the incredible resistance to these ideas.  There were questions about our rights and a desire to protect those.  There were arguments that we should protect our lives and the lives of our loved ones.  There were questions about resisting evil.  And still, in all of these, Jesus still says to his followers, "Peace I give to you, my own peace I leave with you."

So Jesus is still making people mad.  Thanks be to God.

As Christians, we must address a few fallacies.  First, who ever came up with this language about our rights?  Was it Jesus?  No, of course it wasn't.  Jesus doesn't care about our rights, Jesus just cares that we live a holy life.  Jesus didn't write the First Amendment, Jesus said to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect.

Resisting evil with force only creates more violence and continual cycles of evil.  When good confronts evil, it must stretch out its arms upon the hard wood of the cross, and allow evil to do its work.  Because in the end, evil has no power over life or death.  God has power over life and death.  Good Friday doesn't end with death, but with an empty tomb.

Will living nonviolently cost us our lives?  Probably so.  But Jesus says those who lose their lives for his sake will find it.  Thanks be to God there is a resurrection of the dead.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Hollywood's Idea of Peace

Over the weekend I made the mistake of watching "Iron Man 2."  Why I sat all the way through this campy, overindulgent action flick remains a mystery.  Seriously, don't waste your life on watching it.

And actually, don't watch for theological reasons as well.  Especially at the beginning of the movie, Tony Stark, a.k.a. "Iron Man," boasts that because of his armored and weaponized suit, the world is at peace like has never been before.  In other words, because Tony Stark has the most potent weapon ever known to man, no one is willing to rise up against the United States.  This, the movie implies, is world peace.

For a Christian, this is an absurdity.  We know that having the biggest gun doesn't create peace, it creates fear.  Essentially what Tony Stark did in "Iron Man 2" is threaten everybody so violently that a seeming sense of peace reigned.  But we know this was no peace - it is only a quiet moment in long cycles of violence.

I suppose that many Americans buy into Tony Stark's philosophy.  If the United States could only have the most powerful weapons, the best killers on earth, then there would be world peace.  This was what happened in the Cold War, we managed to outspend the Soviet Union so that their economy and political system eventually imploded.

But as Stanley Hauerwas says, "The United States just managed to waste more money on guns than they did."  Amen to that brother.  Has our military, or any military or weapon ever managed to create peace?  Absolutely not.  Has the threat of violence ever created a culture of peace?  Never.

So let's try a different approach - it was only tried once, but with incredible success.  This approach is called laying down our weapons, beating our swords into plowshares, and allowing ourselves, as difficult as it may sound, to die because we want peace.  This is the path of Jesus, the very one Lord who allowed himself to die so that we may know the Kingdom of Peace.  

Thursday, September 1, 2011

September 11 - A Reflection

It all happened in a flash.  Four planes.  Three thousand deaths.  Symbols of American might erased by explosions and dust.  It all happened so quickly, so furiously.

In the aftermath of September 11, 2001, we heard politicians and news commentators speak dreadul words: “We have to look at things differently now,”  “September 11 changed our world forever,” or as President Bush said, “None of us will ever forget this day.” 

In the face of both wanton murder and a sinister thirst for vengeance, Christians had very little to say.  We were speechless, and we succumbed to believing that the sentimentalities offered by pundits and politicians were true.  But they were not.

For followers of Jesus, the world was not changed on September 11, 2001.  As horrendous and as tragic as that day was, it must not be allowed to define who we are as Christians.  For those of us who have the privilege and the responsibility of calling ourselves disciples of Jesus, every event in the history of the world pales in comparison to what took place in 33 A.D. on a hill outside of Jerusalem.

That murder, that execution on a wooden cross is what must define who we are.  It was because of that day that “We have to look at things differently.”  It was Good Friday that changed our world forever.  Easter, not September 11, 2011, is the only day that none of us can ever afford to forget.

As we reflect on the last ten years, we can see that the politicians and commentators were wrong.  Things have actually not changed that much since September 11, 2001.  We are still at war in various places around the globe.  Osama bin Laden is now dead, but others still plot harm against us.  You and I still carry about our everyday mundane activities; we go to HEB, we go to church, we poke fun at Longhorns, Bears, and Aggies.  The whole world was not changed by four planes and a handful of murderers.

But the whole world was changed because of those events outside of Jerusalem two thousand years ago.  A new thing, something never before seen, came into being.  Followers of an executed political criminal came together to worship the Lord of death rather than live in fear of death.  This new thing, an assembly of believers called the Church, gathered in joy because they had something to die for – a new life with Christ.

As we approach the ten year anniversary of the September 11 attacks, we will hear many words about that day.  We will be dragged back to wherever we were when we first heard that a plane had flown into the World Trade Center.  There will be words of fear and anxiety.  There will be words calling for revenge and vindication.

But I offer to you different words: words of healing, love, and nonviolence.  Words that speak of a love so grand that it is not destroyed by a handful of madmen and four planes, words that speak of a love so magnificent that it is actually made perfect on a wooden cross on a hill outside of Jerusalem.  We, the Church, need not fear death.  For it is in death that we take our hope, it is in dying that we are reborn with Christ.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Back to the Future

My good buddy from seminary, Phil DeVaul, took on a challenge last year.  He decided to write a story about the end of the world.  Yes, Phil is kind of a weird-o, but the story he wrote is not like the "Left Behind" series.  It's a look backwards in order to understand God's future.

Phil takes where the world is now and where we are in our relationship to God and one another, and starts the story in Genesis 11 (The Tower of Babel).  In some sense, Phil is right.  Right now, humanity is divided, we speak different languages, and we think that we can attain God by our own power.

So here's where the story gets quirky: Phil writes backwards, starting from Genesis 11, back to Genesis 1.  Because, that's our hope, isn't it?  So the Tower of Babel is deconstructed, God shows a rainbow and then a flood occurs, and finally people are dying until it is just Adam, Eve, and God left in the garden.  Of course, Adam dies in God's arms under the tree of life.  How perfectly beautiful.

What strikes me is the circular nature of biblical literature.  At the beginning of all things there is the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  In this story, humanity seeks that knowledge and loses sight of God.  This image is reversed in Revelation - for there the tree of life is offered to all nations for their healing.

This is the same for our Christian life.  At the end, when we die, we will find ourselves in life.

How delightfully backwards...

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Prayer Book = Revolution

I've just finished listening to a series of fascinating lectures about the American Revolution by Joanne Freeman of Yale University.  Freeman did a particularly good job of reading excerpts from personal correspondence and journals from a variety of political leaders in the late 18th century.  As one steeped in the language of the Book of Common Prayer, I was heartened to hear so many paraphrases or references to our liturgy in these letters: "world without end," "meet, right, and bounden duty," etc.

Unfortunately, Freeman never gave a shout out.  Bummer.  So I did a little more research.

Gordon S. Wood, respected Revolutionary War era scholar, has this to say about Thomas Paine and Common Sense: "Unlike more genteel writers, Paine did not decorate his pamphlet with Latin quotations and learned references to the literature of Western culture, but instead relied on his readers knowing only the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer" (The American Revolution: A History).  

I have two immediate reactions to this statement.  First, wow!  That's just great!  Our Prayer Book and the language of the people were similar.  My second reaction, though, is "darn it."  Look how much ground we have lost.  Common people do not know our language anymore.  How could this have happened?

Here's my hypothesis: Christians became a bunch of wimps.  We settled for sentimentality rather than orthodoxy.  We preached happiness instead of discipline.  Our clergy became pseudo-psychotherapists instead of priests.

But all is not lost.  The Prayer Book gave its vocabulary and language to start one revolution.  It's time we take back that language, and start another revolution right here in the Church of God.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Book Review Wednesday

Right now I'm reading "Theology & Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason" by John Milbank.  Milbank is an Anglican theologian who is at the forefront of a theological movement called "Radical Orthodoxy."  Radical Orthodoxy is more about reclaiming our Christian narrative in the face of, what Milbank calls, neo-pagan secular thought.

Already in the first 50 pages, Milbank has blown my mind.  Milbank makes two claims right off the bat that I love.  First, Christians must not fall prey to the modern notion of inherent property rights.  He claims that this is a misreading of God giving Adam dominion over creation.  Modern political theory has taken this dominion to mean property rights and "might makes right."  This only leads to a desire to control, to set up ourselves as sovereign powers, when in fact God is the sovereign power.

Second, Milbank claims that we have been duped by language of "the guiding hand of the market."  We hear this all the time: "the market works itself out," "our capitalist economy is the best," and "our free-market system empowers laborers and employers."  These notions, however, are built upon an appropriation of the doctrine of providence.  For Christians, "you intended it for evil, but God intended it for good (Genesis 50:20)."  Modern political theory has simply taken God out and replaced Him with "the market."

You can see the danger here.  The question is then - who do you rely upon?  Are you radically following God or the paganism of modern political theory?

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

With Obedience Comes Chains

Window in old VTS Chapel
Last year the beloved, quirky old chapel at the Virginia Theological Seminary was destroyed in a fire.  After praying there every school day for three years, that space became a sort of spiritual haven for me.  But now it's gone, and all we are left with are ashes and memories.

One of coolest windows in the chapel is pictured here in this blog post.  It's a beautiful image of Paul before King Agrippa, boldly proclaiming, "I was not disobedience to the heavenly vision" (Acts 26:19).

As he is saying this, Paul is bound with chains.  He has been arrested for his controversial teaching that God raised Jesus Christ from the dead and that at the End, all people will be raised as well.  Remember, this is good news - death does not reign.

Though it's good news, it may be hard news.  Paul is obedient to the heavenly vision, and disobedient to earthly authorities who try to convince him to give it up.

Our primary allegiance is to no flag, country, state, or individual.  It is to the Kingdom of God.

Monday, August 22, 2011

(Sub)urban composting

Food scraps go in...fertilizer comes out
As it turns out, nature is awesome.  Especially when I can control it.

Just recently I have started a compost pile in our backyard.  Yeah, that's right.  I am making trash into plant food.  Don't even think about calling that "not-awesome."

So here's what I do.  We have a 3' x 3' x 3' chicken wire cube.  First off, I put in a bunch of grass clippings with some water (I use reclaimed rain water and shower water.  Can I get a high five for sustainability?).  Then comes all of our vegetable, fruit, and grain scraps.  Every day, we collect all of that stuff in a plastic beer pitcher from Wurstfest (That's right, I'm reducing, reusing, and recycling).

We can't put anything in there that is cooked or processed because that will attract rats (and our dog).  Then you cover that concoction with another layer of grass clippings and Voila! Compost.

The key to a good compost pile is keeping it hot.  The chemical reactions that take place to break down the parts into usable fertilizer require between 110 and 150 degrees.  Good thing it's about 106 outside every afternoon.  However, I don't want it to get too hot, so I continue to sprinkle the reclaimed water in every other evening.

mix and mingle
Finally, I mix it all up with a rake.  In the month that I have been doing this, I have already noticed the transformation of the pile.  I can't look in there and say, "There's my apple core, there is an onion peel, and look, there's the lettuce that I spilled on the floor."  It's all been broken down into hummus.  

Hummus is the black material that is worth its weight in gold for vegetable farmers.  And here's the really cool part - it doesn't smell like rotting food.  It has this wonderful earthy, organic aroma.  It smells good.

The whole goal is to use this compost in next spring's vegetable planting.  I plan on sowing swiss chard (a salad with a distinctive red stem), tomatoes, peppers, and maybe even some squash.

Here's to sustainable, organic, at home vegetables! Bon Apetit!

Now, if you've managed to read all the way through this blog post, you may ask, "So what does this have to do with living a holy life?"  Honestly, I pray best when I am working on my little herb garden or mixing compost.  I feel connected - connected to God's creation in a very tangible way.  In God, we see a Trinity of persons as one Being.  In (sub)urban farming, I mimic those connections by being in relationship with God and creation at the same time. 

Sermon - "Jesus is a problem - and he knows it."

          It’s that time of year again, when teachers and students alike leave behind the lazy days of summer.  With pencils sharpened, lesson plans ready, backpacks packed and ready to go, schools will soon be bustling with activity.  The collective sense of excitement among the students, is often tinged with a sense of dread.  What will my teachers be like?  Will my friends have the same lunch as I do?  Where’s my next classroom?

            But all of these questions and anxieties are nothing compared to that one dreaded instrument of scholastic torture: the pop quiz.  Seriously, for all those teachers out there, you do realize that the pop quiz is the single most feared phrase among your students? 

            For the students, the hand-wringing comes because they want to know the right answer.  Really, when it comes down to it, the question doesn’t matter; it’s all about having the right answer.  Because, come on, who cheats on a pop quiz to find out what the right question is?  For students, it’s all about the end result, the answer.

            Teachers, however, understand that the real point of the pop quiz is to ask certain questions.  When teachers ask a question, the hope is that they get a student’s mind working toward the right goal.  For them, the pop quiz is not so much about checking to make sure the students know the right answer – it’s about an opportunity to ask the right questions.

            Jesus takes an opportunity to ask some serious questions of his disciples.  “Who do the crowds say that I am?”  We can sense a collective shrug of the disciples’ shoulders: “John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah.”  But then comes the real kicker, “who do you say that I am?”  Peter is that bratty teachers’ pet, he sticks his arm up in the air and immediately blurts out an answer: “You’re the Messiah!  The Son of the Living God!”  Well done Peter.  You get a gold star. 

            Instead of jumping to hasty answers like Peter, we need to sit back for a moment, and dwell on the question.  “Who do you say that I am?”  In my own personal spirituality, the answer to that question has been wide and varied as I have matured in my faith.  At one point, I was afraid of Jesus.  For me, he was the big scary dude on a throne who would judge me at my death.  Later, I would have answered that Jesus was my companion, a divine brother who helped me on my way toward God.  Right now, when in my prayers Jesus asks me, “who do you say that I am?” I answer: you are the Lord.  You are the king and the ruler of all creation.  You are God’s anointed one, who breaks down death because you are the living God.

            My answer to that question has changed.  But what remains the same is the question.  I believe that my answers to that question have changed simply because Jesus is a problem, and he knows it.  Jesus is problematic because he demands that we follow him and that we sacrifice ourselves.  Jesus is problematic because it is far easier to say that he is a lunatic, rather than our Lord.  Don’t jump to a hasty answer and simply mimic Peter.  Sit with that question – Who do you say that Jesus is?

Our whole lives hinge on that answer to that question.  We can choose to call Jesus something else, but then we die.  Or we can choose to call Jesus the Son of the Living God, and lose our lives for his sake.  You see, Jesus is a problem.  But along with that problem, comes a blessing.  When Peter responds with an answer, that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God, Jesus gives to Peter an unimaginable blessing – the authority to teach the Church.  Peter is recognized as this symbol of authority, the one disciple who has the power to teach in the Lord’s name.  But this authority and power is not given to Peter simply because he is Peter.  Peter only receives this power because of his answer, because of his faith.  When we answer that question, when we acclaim Jesus Christ as the Lord, the son of the living God, we too are given that authority, and that power.  Once we have that first answer right, all the rest of it just falls into place.

This means that each one of you has the power and the authority to teach.  Each one of you has the power to loosen your tongues and to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ.  You, though you may not have a seminary degree or have ever read a book of theology, has the power and the authority to tell others about the Son of the Living God.  And each one of you has a classroom.  You are a teacher in some way.  Your students may be your children, your classroom your kitchen table.  Your students may be your peers, and your classroom a long dinner.  Regardless of where or who you teach, you have the prayers and support of the Church with you.

The Church is not built on Peter because he was Peter.  The Church is built on Peter’s answer.  And as long as we too acclaim Jesus as Lord, the Church is built on us.  This should be unsettling – that those who come after us depend on our teaching.  The Church of the next generation is built on what we have to say.  We can either loosen our tongues and build the Church, or bind our tongues, and watch the Church crumble.

I believe that we are at a watershed moment in the story of Christianity.  Churches are splitting, people are hurting, and yet the Word of God goes unpreached.  Many of our friends and our neighbors live for themselves, and in doing so work towards their own destruction.  Centuries from now, when dorks like me look back at this time, they will say one of two things.  First, they may say that we didn’t seize the opportunity.  They will say that we bound our tongues, that we refused to teach.  They will say that even though we may have believed that Jesus is the son of the Living God, we didn’t tell anybody about it.  They will say that yes, Jesus was a problem, but they couldn’t figure out how to live as if that was a good thing.

Or, years from now, they will look back on us and say that we saw this golden opportunity to spread the good news.  That we risked everything.  That we loosened our tongues and told everybody we know about Jesus the Messiah.  They will say that our friends and neighbors were hurting, that they wanted the Truth, and that we gave it to them.  They will say that our children were stronger, more faithful, bolder disciples even though the world was unkind to them.  Years from now, they will look back at us, and they will say that we really believed that the gates of Hades will not prevail against what we have to say. 

Because what we have to say is healing to this broken world.  What we have to teach is that Jesus demands our whole lives, and that’s a good thing.  What we have to tell the whole world is that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God in whom there is no death. 


Thursday, August 18, 2011

Peace Within, Peace Without

Last night at our Vestry meeting, we began by discussing Micah 4:1-5.  This includes the famous lines, "they shall beat their swords into plowshares" and "nation shall not make war against nation."  The question that guided our discussion was this: Do you feel more peaceful or less peaceful in the ten years since the September 11 attacks?

Now we all know that one of God's little tools is irony.  And as I reflected on the last ten years, I discovered a streak of irony running through my life of faith.  In the ten years since that day of ill memory, I have tried to be a pacifist.  Notice I said tried.  Being committed to non-violence is difficult.  This commitment puts me at odds with the world around me and, at some points, with my own reasoning.

sure, but what kind?
It's ironic then, that since committing myself to peace (in the grand sense), I have lost a good deal of peace (in the inner, tranquil, sense).  I can only attribute this to the Holy Spirit because only God would find a way to spin that word, peace, in a way that makes me indignant when I see violence thereby making me less at peace with myself.  Bizarre, right?

For me, it all boils down to this: what is this peace I am talking about it?  That word, "peace," is all too often scandalized, much like the word "love."  When I speak of peace, I do not mean pax.  That word is the word the Romans use to describe their empire when it was without uprisings or rebellions.  But notice, there was only peace/pax because the Roman military brutally squashed any confrontations.  That is no peace, that is simply a stage in many cycles of violence.

The peace that I pray for, both within and without, is shalom.  This is the "peace of God which surpasses all understanding."  This is the hope, nay the trust, that God will reign on earth as it is in heaven. 

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Have you read the New Testament?

Every so often, I find myself daydreaming about the St. Alban's youth mission trip to southern Mississippi.  I will be writing something or driving somewhere, and all of a sudden I am reliving a conversation I had with one of the kids.  Now, because of who I am, the conversations I remember are the ones about Christianity, discipleship, Jesus, theology, etc.

One young person in particular has a keen sense of what's truth and what's malarkey.  This individual and I were discussing heaven, hell, and God's judgment of those who do not profess the Christian faith.  Over and over again, she has been told by her friends, family, and teachers that good people go to heaven, bad people go to hell, and that anybody who doesn't believe in Jesus will face everlasting contempt and judgment from God.

Yet as this individual was recounting this all-too-simplistic theology of "I hope I get to heaven," I could sense how bodily uncomfortable this individual was.  This young person was literally squirming with distaste as the words were being formed and spoken.

"Hmmmmmm....," I thought, "something else is going on here."  And immediately I spoke my newest favorite phrase: "Have you read the New Testament?"

Of course, the squirming only got worse.  "Well, no," was the reply.

Sadly, this is the reply of so many across our country who profess to know Christ and follow him as disciples.  Now I am not a biblical fundamentalist, but I am fundamentally attracted to the Bible.  Now the Bible is not the absolute Word of God, but it points to the Word of God, who is Jesus.  So if we don't know what's pointing to Jesus, how can we ever hope to know Jesus?

Monday, August 15, 2011

Return of the Prodigal Blogger

My recent hiatus blogging can be explained by one simple word: vacation.  Instead of writing, I was busy playing golf, gardening, and hanging out with my family.  All in all, it was a magnificent two weeks.
Of course, I also never stop reading.  Over the course of the year, I've been reading Robert Jenson's two volume Systematic Theology.  It is a great read, once you can get past the density of his language and the intensity of his prose.  

It is almost impossible to sum up all of Jenson's theological scheme in one coherent sentence, but I'll give it a shot.  "The purpose of the Triune God is to have all of creation be in conversation with himself."  This is the gospel (literally "the good news"), that God is like a great symphony, and that we, as complete persons, will one day live and move and breathe in this divine music.

Jenson not only blesses his readers with a vast knowledge of theology, but everywhere once in awhile drops a sarcastic phrase that speaks volumes.  For example, in his discussion on how it is that people who have not heard gospel might be saved, he offers this brief thought:

"How then would, for a example, a shamanist enter the Kingdom? Here an affirmative rule must be observed with equal strictness: the same way as anyone else, but incorporation in Christ."

In other words: "How could somebody who is not a Christian enter God's Kingdom?  Through Christ's love! Duh!"

Finally, at the End of All Things, Jenson says that it is not that we live in an eternal state of blessed consciousness (for that is the hope sought for by secular post-modernity).  Rather, we are taken, as whole people (which includes our bodies!), into the very life of God and in fact become like God.  Alleluia!  For at the End, evil and sin are relegated to the past, to a history that will never again be repeated.  

Then we, with Angels and Archangels and with all the company of heaven, forever sing hymns of praise to God's great and magnificent Name.