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.