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.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Sermon from Sunday - Our Risk, God's Mission

The people were hungry. They had traveled out into the wilderness to see this man named Jesus who could cure the sick and love the unlovable. Desperate and helpless, they came to him begging for healing, for compassion. And Jesus gave it to them with abundance. As the day wore on, the crowd became hungry. With empty stomachs the disciples approach the Lord and ask him to send the crowds away. “Let them go into the towns and buy their own food! We have nothing to give them.”

You see, the disciples were scared. The disciples were anxious. Fretting over the logistics they were overwhelmed by the number of mouths to feed. They thought they didn’t have enough. They thought that God couldn’t possibly provide. They thought that everybody would go hungry. But Jesus would not have any of that. His compassion for the crowds extended even to their bellies.

“You give them something to eat,” he says. Scared, and anxious, the disciples lift up to him just a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish – barely enough for five, not to mention five thousand. But that was enough. In fact, that was plenty. In Christ’s compassion for the hungry, this snack was made into a great feast.

And in whatever way it happened, the crowd did feast. They ate their fill and were satisfied. With a leftover of great abundance, the crowds never had to leave Jesus’ side. They were fed, they were cured, they were loved despite the disciples’ initial fear and anxiety.

Last week, eight youth, two adults, and I drove all the way to Ocean Springs, Mississippi. Still ravaged by the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, the eleven of us all came with a little bit of fear, and a little bit of anxiety.

On Sunday we arrived at the Lutheran Episcopal Service Ministries in Ocean Springs. And I have to tell you that Ocean Springs is home to a saint of God. Her name is Suzie. She began working at the local Lutheran church on August 28, 2005, one day before Hurricane Katrina struck southern Mississippi. Suzie has the sort of undaunted faith that oozes with the Holy Spirit. Upon our arrival Suzie gave us our project for the week. We were to hang sheetrock at a local home that had been flooded during the storm.

Suzie asked us if any of our adults had any experience with construction. I wanted to blurt out: “of course not!” Because there was me, a dorky priest. There was Karen Tanner, our church business manager. And then there was Jeff Tanner, a business professor at Baylor. “Oh God!” I thought to myself, “We shouldn’t have come. We shouldn’t have risked so much. We should’ve stayed at home. There is nothing we can do to help here.”

Scared and anxious, I wanted to tell Suzie that this wasn’t the job for us; that we needed a different job. We didn’t know how to do that. We didn’t have the tools. We didn’t have the skills. We didn’t, we didn’t, we didn’t. I was scared. I was anxious. I was overwhelmed by the task that was given to us.

The Lord provided us with five loaves and two fish. Unexpectedly, and with great confidence, Jeff Tanner says, “oh sure, I know how to do that.” That’s right, Dr. Jeff Tanner the marketing professor. Jeff knows the ins and outs of academia, but he also knows the ins and outs of carpentry and construction. I had been scared. I had been anxious. But Jesus had provided us with ample wisdom and skill.

And so we arrived at the home of Steve Thomas. Steve’s family home had been ravaged by Katrina’s fury. After the floodwaters had subsided, he was left with a shell of a house. With his wife, son, and elderly mother to care for, Steve was busy rebuilding his home. His budget is tight, his hope is dwindling. If he doesn’t finish his house by November, and if it’s not up to code, the city of Pascagoula will have no choice but to condemn the house.

Now with God providing Jeff and his skills, we offered what little we could to Steve and his family. We hung some sheetrock. We sanded down some rough edges. We swapped stories and jokes. We helped him rebuild his home. He helped us keep a smile on our faces. Now Steve’s house still has a long way to go before he’s ready to move into it. And what little help we provided was appreciated, but his budget is still tight, and his hope is still dwindling. At the end of the week our time of construction was over, and we all still felt a little helpless. So we felt that there was nothing left to do but pray. And pray we did.

All eleven of us, plus Steve, his son, his wife, and his mother went around that house and blessed it in the name of Christ. Each of us laid our hands on the walls, asking the Holy Spirit to give Steve and his family courage for the road they had ahead of them. We laid hands on the walls in each room, trusting that God will provide Steve with help in the future. We laid hands on each wall, asking God to bless that house with love and joy and peace.

Believe me, when we left, it was difficult to find a dry eye among us. Our group of missionaries from St. Alban’s had left Waco a little scared, and a little anxious. But then God had blessed us so miraculously, that there we were, standing on a stranger’s front porch, misty eyed because we had to go home.

Now my words from this pulpit may never compel you to greater faith in Christ. If that is the case, I ask you to let those tears speak for me. Those tears were tears of how God turns risks of faith into joy, how God can provide when we think we don’t have enough.

At the feeding of those five thousand hungry mouths, the disciples risked a lot. They risked looking stupid by trying to feed everybody with so little food. They risked being mocked by the crowds. And our youth from St. Alban’s also risked a lot. We risked looking silly and ineffectual in the midst of so much damage and destruction. We risked it by leaving our homes, by leaving our families, and by traveling a long way to a new place to do new things. But those tears, those tears that I still shed for Steve and his family, are proof that God takes whatever little we can risk, and blesses it beyond description.

This is how mission in the Kingdom of God works. We take whatever little we have, a knack for carpentry, a gift with languages, skill in medicine, a heart to serve, or maybe just five loaves and two fishes, and risk it all. We risk it with reckless abandon. We risk it by driving all the way to southern Mississippi. We risk it by hanging sheetrock in a stranger’s house. We risk it by going abroad and spreading the Kingdom of God to every corner of the earth.

You see, mission is not a week long summer youth trip. Mission for Jesus Christ is a lifelong pursuit. And it’s for everybody, no matter how little you have. You have to risk it. Because when you get to where you’re going, and it may only be to your own kitchen table, God will provide you with enough – enough skills, enough talent, enough money, enough energy - to carry out your God given task. And perhaps God will even bless you with something you didn’t know you had.

We sin when we do not risk. We sin when we play it safe. We sin when we do not pursue God’s mission. Take whatever you have, and risk it. Go ahead and gamble with God. The payout is beyond measure. Go. You give them something to eat.