Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Praying through the day

Many autumns ago now, I happened into a bookstore in Canterbury and found a little volume entitled “The Cuddesdon Office Book.” Amongst the many prayers and resources in it, I encountered for the first time the “Little Hours” of prayer through the day: Prime (6 AM), Terce (9 AM), Sext (Noon), None (3 PM), and Compline (before retiring at day’s end). It was an introduction to a form of prayer I had intuitively sought, but due to my upbringing, had no idea existed for anyone outside a monastery.

In the Online world, there are many places Anglicans can go for the major Offices of Morning and Evening Prayer, but not so many for the Little Hours. If, like me, you find that this type of prayer has real value in staying recollected before God through the “changes and chances” of each day, and if you find yourself at a computer or hand-held device fairly often, one resource that may prove helpful (and not too complicated) is found at The page on the Hourly Offices is found here.

This web site is focused on “traditional language” worship, so these Offices are all in the Elizabethan English we in the Episcopal Church tend to call “Rite I” these days. I’m still trying to locate a good site with these Offices in Rite II language.

The virtue with this site is that it is simple (some versions are very complicated). The focus of most of these services is the daily recitation of Psalm 119, a great resource for recollection and supplication. I have found this to be a tremendous aid in recalling myself to the task of active, conscious discipleship.

So, if you a) like to be reminded of God’s presence at (or around) fixed times in your work-day, and b) have the opportunity, this might be a good resource. The point is to pause from our work to give God praise, then getting back to our task renewed in the presence and sustaining grace of God.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Renewal, then and now.

The lesson from 2 Chronicles 29-30 today is both quite apposite and very instructive. Apposite to our circumstances because it tells the truth about spiritual life: it often goes through periods of decay. Instructive, because it gives the reader a fine example of what leaders and laity alike must do in response to such decay.

When Hezekiah calls the people back to the observance of Passover, there is a tacit admission that things had become so slack, so faithless that not even the essential elements of the observance of the Law were being carried out at the Temple. For ‘time out of mind,’ the Temple had become a sort of spiritual emporium, where all sorts of different cults and divinities were honored—not the Holy Place wherein God’s Name dwelt.

The priests were not able to observe the Passover at the right time because most of them were too lazy to be bothered to prepare adequately. I am reminded here of the growing number of clergy in my own tradition who seem content to reduce a Sacred Calling to a fee-for-service arrangement, gradually allowing congregations to become more concerned about how to make money off renting out church property than the offering of the Sacred Mysteries in the “beauty of holiness” to a spiritually-starved generation. The parallels are too many to be ignored.

Hezekiah, a good man and a rare exception to the usual trend of kings and leaders, adapts and cajoles and encourages. He restores the Temple to true worship. He re-orders the priorities of the state and religious apparatus. He does not reward incompetence or take slovenliness as “the new normal.” Overcoming one obstacle after another, he perseveres so that this peculiar, out-of-season Passover may finally be observed. The result is a sudden remembrance of what the People of God had forsaken. A renewal of conscience occurs.

Dark days are ahead in Jerusalem’s history, and this will not be the last time the Hebrews will turn their backs to God. We, too, are witnessing a season in the American Church not unlike that found in Chronicles. It is up to the leaders of this generation to recall the people to faithfulness and holiness of life. It is up to us all to set our eyes not on the lowered expectations of a corrupt and dissolute era, but on Christ Jesus, the bishop of our souls, not counting the cost but pressing on ahead toward the glory that shall be.

Monday, September 26, 2011

On the Commemoration of Lancelot Andrewes

God, Father of heaven,
Who wonderfully created the world out of nothing,
And by your goodness sustains and guides heaven and earth,
You handed over to death for us your Only-Begotten:

God the Son, Savior of the world,
You desired to be born of a Virgin,
Your precious blood washed away our sins,
You rose from the dead, victoriously
And ascended into heaven:

God the Holy Spirit, Comforter,
You came down on Jesus in the form of a dove,
And you came in tongues of flame on the Apostles,
And by your grace you come down and confirm
The hearts of the saints:

Holy, highest, eternal Trinity,
Beautiful, blessed,
Good Father,
Loving Son,
Kindly Spirit,
Whose work is life, whose love is grace,
And whose contemplation is glory,
I adore you with all the affection of my heart,
And I bless you now and for ever.

--From The Private Prayers of Lancelot Andrewes,
translated by David Scott

Today is the annual commemoration of one of the greatest of all Anglicans, Bishop Lancelot Andrewes. In him is combined disciple, poet, bishop, scholar, preacher, ascetic, and theologian. His work continues to witness to the potential of the Anglican “project” of a reformed Catholicism.

At the heart of his work is always a living awareness of the holiness and presence of God: in the Creation, the Sacraments, the Scriptures, and in all encounters with the “other.” The above prayer is typical of him. It bears the marks of deep encounter in prayer. He prayed from before dawn until lunch most days, and one has no doubt he knew from experience what he meant from that line “whose contemplation is glory.” In a day when prayer has been reduced to the minimum so as not to get in the way of the Church's "serious business" of either being busy or practicing "self-care," Andrewes' witness reminds us there is a higher good than the institutional goals that consumed the Church of his day--and ours.

Nicholas Lossky, in his book Lancelot Andrewes, the Preacher, calls him a true Mystical Theologian—high praise, indeed. As with all true mystical theologians, Andrewes puts forth a synthesis of faith and practice that leads to true knowledge of God. It is my belief and experience that Classical Anglicanism—in the persons of such worthies as Andrewes, Hooker, Traherne, Cosin, and the like—has this capacity. Those who remain faithful to this way of living and growing in the Holy Wisdom of God have found the "good soil" of the parable, yielding a manifold increase in faith, understanding, and discernment.

The Collect* for the Feast of Lancelot Andrewes, Bishop
Almighty God, you gave your servant Lancelot Andrewes the gift of your Holy Spirit and made him a man of prayer and a faithful pastor of your people: Perfect in us what is lacking in your gifts, of faith, to increase it, of hope, to establish it, of love, to kindle it, that we may live in the life of your grace and glory; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the same Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

*This collect from Holy Women, Holy Men, is a revision from the one found in Lesser Feasts and Fasts. In an unusual turn of events, this revision is a considerable improvement on the rather pedestrian earlier version. It merits considerable reflection.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

All Things our Delights and Treasures...

Because eternity is contained in the soul, a man in finding himself findeth eternity; and because in finding himself he findeth eternity, in finding himself he findeth all things. For all things are contained in eternity. Since therefore in retirement alone a man findeth himself, in retirement alone he findeth all things. Nor can there be any rest, till he findeth all things his delights and treasures. – Thomas Traherne in Inducements to Retiredness
As this set of Ember Days comes to a conclusion, I am reminded how precious times of quiet introspection are in the era of e-mail, social networks, and cell-phones. In only  a few short years, these baubles of modernity have become essentials, and people feel deeply deprived, alone, and vulnerable without them. For all the sense of connection and provision of information these tools provide, however, they are very intrusive. Because we can be reached, we now must be reached. Because we can have lots of brief contact, deeper contact becomes an unaffordable luxury. Because we can chatter, we find silence difficult.

In my case, the energy and focus for teaching, pastoring, preaching, and discerning come from both a lively prayer life and much quiet, unbroken time for thinking. This has always been a bit of a problem for me. While society’s pace keeps speeding up, my own pace remains stubbornly slow. No amount of faking it works. In a world of sprinters, I’m a confirmed saunterer.

The Embertides remind me that this is entirely OK. We need times of interiority just as we need times of action. Just now, with all of the anxiety around the economy, political stalemate, and the sorry state of the Anglican Communion, it is very easy to become overwhelmed by bad news. The Christian, however, absolutely must remain imbued with the hope and power of the Good News. We cannot become part of the Bad News. Christ has given us a task as his hands, eyes, feet, &c. That task is not to do the “heavy lifting,” which he alone can do. I tend to forget this easily. The Ember Days, with their prayers and emphasis on being apart for a short season, recall me to reality.

That reality is not a form of denial or escapism. It is an engagement with “all things” in the light of the Resurrection. The Resurrection light is capable of making “all things” our “delights and treasures,” as Traherne wrote--something that the world can never do. Living in that reality is an effort, a choice, for fallen humanity. Even accepting God's grace is work for us! Taking regular time out from the rush of events, in addition to living with a Rule of Life and having a daily life of prayer, brings that choice into higher relief and makes the benefits of this work clearer.

Friday, September 23, 2011

When faith speaks to sexuality, and not the reverse

From the Daily Office reading today:

   Now concerning the matters about which you wrote: ‘It is well for a man not to touch a woman.’ But because of cases of sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. Do not deprive one another except perhaps by agreement for a set time, to devote yourselves to prayer, and then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. This I say by way of concession, not of command. I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has a particular gift from God, one having one kind and another a different kind.
   To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain unmarried as I am. But if they are not practicing self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion. 1 Corinthians 7:1-9

I cannot think of the last time I heard an Episcopalian deal meaningfully with this text. The assumptions behind it are so challenging to contemporary modes of thinking as to be outrageous to many. St. Paul’s discussion of sexual matters offends precisely because he takes the position that sex is a subordinate passion, something that must be brought into conformity to a greater truth—our life as disciples.

Right away, he transgresses typical modern American ‘morality,’ which implicitly or explicitly states that sexuality is the Great Truth, the Highest Reality about the human being. It has become the end, not the means. Therefore, everyone is to be allowed their own opinion, their own practice—within ever-shifting limitations. Sexuality, the pseudo-sacrament of secularism, must not be “touched” by religion. It must be allowed to “liberate” us from within. The best thing we can say about sexuality from the contemporary viewpoint seems to be: “It’s all good.”

But Paul has a completely different perspective. Sexuality is a desire in the human being. It has spiritual capacity… all of our God-given aspects do… but it is not unmixed with that “other law” at work in us, the one warring against our full participation in Christ. Our sexual lives must, like our money, emotions, talk, politics, leisure, and all other aspects of our life, be in harmony with the Gospel. This means we are going to have to talk through the complex and turbulent world of sexual life from a perspective of faith, not leaving it to those outside the Gospel to set the norms for Christian life.

So, St. Paul works through issues of marital life with nuance, generosity, realism, mutuality, and above all a guiding principle: self-control. The Christian is not to be mastered by any desire. We are free in Christ. We may not submit ourselves again to the yoke of slavery.

It is this principle that guides authentically Christian discussions of sexuality. Secular, non-Christian intrusions into our life are marked by a desire to turn sexuality into a walled garden, a place above and beyond Gospel scrutiny. I once heard a church member say in all sincerity: “I don’t think God cares what I do in the bedroom.” I was mystified. Why ever not? Why is a bedroom God-proof, but a ballot or a bank account not? This is a very pathetic, diminished understanding of the God who has numbered every hair on our head, as Jesus reminds us.

St. Paul steadfastly refused to allow Christians the luxury of compartmentalization. Christ Jesus broke down the dividing wall between God and humanity, and that wrecking ball of truth will be administered to every barrier to the Kingdom of God. Each era seeks something to be exempted from the Gospel’s reach. Once it was keeping human as slaves. Now sexuality seems to be the latest such ploy. None of them can work. God and sin cannot coexist.

The Blessed Apostle’s teachings are in the service of bringing the Kingdom of God to bear on the things of our life. He invites us let our faith speak to our sexuality. The misery we see in the culture around us comes from that conversation going the other way.

Embertide thoughts on Mission and the “Post-Secular” Church

What follows is a poem by 17th century English author Thomas Traherne. The intricacies of this poem are many, as put forth in a fine essay by Forrest Gander here. When reading this poem, carefully take note of your emotions and the mood created.

“Spiritual Absence”
Thomas Traherne (c. 1636-1674)—Priest, Poet, Theologian
(Commemorated in the Episcopal Church on September 27)

That Man is Poor and Desolate whose Lov

None seeks, no man sollicits, none Doth move,

Whose Brightest Splendors in the Dark do lie

And all his Great affections are thrown by.

Rust covers his Resplendent fancy, Dust

Soyls all his Powers, & his Lov doth rust.

His Wit’s unseen, his Wisdom none admires,

His Souls unsought, his favor none desires.

None vallues his esteem, his sacred tears

No ey doth pitty, Fury no man fears.

His Passions are hung o’er with Cobwebs, and

His greatest virtues idle in Him stand.

His Courage no where is imployd his zeal
No Beauty doth to any Ey reveal.

His Excellencies in a Silent Cave

Are hid; his very Body is his grave.

His faculties are Empty, all his powers

Are Solitary, Withered, Blasted Bowers.

His Wide & great capacity is laid

Aside, his precept is by none Obeyd.

His very Worth’s neglected & Despised,

His very Riches are themselves not prizd.

He is the poor, forlorn and needy man,

That see, do, Prize, Enjoy, Admire at Nothing can;

Whose Goodness cant itself comunicat,

Nor Avarice Enjoy anothers State.

Whose Violent & Endless Lov’s displeased,

Whose Great Ambition is by no man Easd.

Who no Dominion hath, Whom no Mans Ey

Doth Prize, Exalt, Rejoyce in, Magnifie.
Who reigns not always in anothers soul,

Whose Highness nothing can at all Controul.

Who cannot pleas far more the Worlds! & be

A Bliss to others like the Deitie.

This is a poem about the effects of atheism on individuals and, consequently, on cultures. It omits reference to God until the very ending word. It creates an environment, a landscape of what it is to be shorn of any sense of the holy.

The severing of the spiritual dimension of life from the human person—something just beginning during Traherne’s lifetime, and something of which he was keenly aware—has very predictable effects on us. The poem’s language and content make this clear. It is a world of negation; the “golden thread” of meaning is lost, and the human becomes untethered, impotent, disconnected from the fabric of reality.

Similarly, the atheist world becomes one of personal isolation, incommunicability. The individual is the sole measure of reality. Whereas Christian orthodoxy proclaims that all reality is the product of the relationship of the Holy Three-in-One (in which we share through the operation of the Holy Spirit), our current age’s preference for mastery over mystery has resulted in a mechanized, de-personalized definition of the world.

So many in the Church are scurrying around today trying to find the magic formula that will reverse the trends towards marginalization of religion. I think most of these efforts are wasted and profoundly misguided. The “fix” is not to be had by clever techniques, campaigns, or attempts at making God relevant to people today. Traherne’s poem puts forth the problem in frightful honesty: we have become irrelevant to each other and to ourselves. The very form of our technological society ensures our continued alienation from earth, the neighbor, the authentic self-in-relationship, and God.

The prescriptions given by many in American Christianity amount to becoming better atheists: putting more and more faith and emphasis on artificiality, removing whatever sacramentality in the world or the Church has managed to slip through our empiricist grasp, and relegating such things as beauty, wonder, awe, and transcendence to the tender mercies of consumerism, ideologies, and the movies.

This is most clearly manifested in American Christian worship, which continues to grow more and more like Narcissus gazing into his mirror each year. 

Presenting so little truly meaningful alternative to the culture around us, we still find ourselves surprised that, apart from gimmicks and short-term pay-offs, we continue to loose our ability to engage the minds and hearts of those outside. Our response is to press on with the failed and empty methods of recent decades in the vain hope that repetition will result in "success," which is generally defined in terms of measurable "benchmarks" largely equated with money and popularity--two things notably absent from the records of Jesus' ministry.

The Church will not have grasped its identity and mission in our culture until it comes to admit that much of its life is corrupted and compromised by the very atheism Traherne’s poem laments. Our “Goodness cant itself communicat” while we remain locked in the assumptions of a functional atheism. The political, economic, and philosophical models we use must be held up for what they are. Where the joy of the Holy Trinity is not found, we must have the courage of all generations of true disciples and “pluck out our eye” where it offends. A Church, a clergy, a lay-leadership, that is unwilling to do this is unworthy of the name Christian, and will be rightfully cast off into the marginalia of history.

The good news in this poem is that the condition we are in can change in an instant. The last line (“A Bliss to others like the Deitie”) is only the ending in one sense. It is just as much the possibility of a beginning—a new start, a new life, a new relationship with Love and Life in its fullness. It is that renewal I believe awaits us after this ghastly era. 

As with most such renewals in Christianity, it will be sparked when enough people arise to demand better of the stewards of the Sacred Mysteries. Put into contemporary terms, when a generation of Christians learns of what it has been denied by its elders in their complacency, slovenliness, and arrogance. When that day comes, pray for mercy. The hunger in these souls so long denied authentic nourishment will be a fearsome thing.

Embertide prayers for clergy

Another Embertide has come. During this short period of fasting and praying for ministry--lay and ordained--I find as a priest of the Church that it always benefits me to offer the "Southwell Litany" once more. This Embertide I have encountered previously unknown matters in it, as well as some old "friends" that must be addressed again in humility. I have yet to encounter a better examination of conscience for clergy in our tradition.

What follows is an adaptation of this classic for use at the quarterly Embertides--times of reflection on the state of our ministries. The original, which I have posted elsewhere on this site, may be a bit too 'Victorian' for some. Thus, I have taken the liberty to edit it into more contemporary language while trying to preserve its effectiveness as a tool for self-examination. 

A Modern Adaptation of Bishop Ridding’s “Litany of Remembrance”

Commonly called “The Southwell Litany”


Seeing, my sisters and brothers, that we are weak but entrusted with a great office, and that we cannot but be liable to hinder the work entrusted to us by our infirmities of body, soul, and spirit, both those common to all people and those especially attaching to our office, let us pray God to save us and help us from the weaknesses which beset us, that God will make us know what faults we have not known, and will show us the harm of what we have not cared to control, giving us strength and wisdom to do more perfectly the work to which our lives have been consecrated – for no less service than the honor of God and the building up of God’s Church.

Let us pray:

 Lord, open our minds to see ourselves as you see us, or as others see us and we see others; and from all unwillingness to know our weaknesses;
            Save us and help us, O Lord.

   O Lord, strengthen our weaknesses, especially those which hinder our ministry beyond our control; forgive our reserve that dulls proclamation of your word, and give us ease for clarity of address; turn us from self-consciousness, that we may think with freedom of what is in our heart, and of the people we serve; and from all hindrances caused by our own physical weakness;
            Save us and help us, O Lord.

   From moral weakness of spirit, from fear of responsibility, strengthen us with courage to speak the truth as our ministry requires, and to speak in love and self control; and from all moral cowardice;
            Save us and help us, O Lord.

   From weakness of judgment, from the indecision that can make no choice, and the irresolution that carries no choice into action, strengthen our eyes to see and our will to choose the right; and from losing opportunities and perplexing the people we serve needlessly with our own uncertainties;
            Save us and help us, O Lord.

   From dullness of conscience, from a feeble sense of our duty, from thoughtless disregard of consequences to others and a low idea of the obligations of our ministry, and from all half-heartedness in our office;
            Save us and help us, O Lord.

   From weariness in our continuing struggles, from despondency in failure and disappointment, from an over-burdened sense of unworthiness, and from a fixation on our failings, raise us to a lively hope and trust in your presence and mercy; and from all exaggerated fears and frustrations;
            Save us and help us, O Lord.

   From self-conceit, boasting, and delight in supposed success and superiority, raise us to the modesty and humility of honesty, and from all self-delusion;
            Save us and help us, O Lord.

   From affectation and untruth, conscious or unconscious, from pretence and acting a part which is hypocrisy, from impulsively seeking to please persons or make circumstances easy, strengthen us to godly simplicity; and from all false appearances;
            Save us and help us, O Lord.

   From love of flattery, from over-ready belief in praise, from dislike of criticism and resentment of reproof; from the comfort of self-deception in persuading ourselves that others think better than the truth of us;
            Save us and help us, O Lord.

   From all love of display and seeking popularity; from thought of ourselves in our ministrations, from forgetting you in our worship and your people in our teaching; hold our minds in spiritual reverence, that if we sing we may sing unto the Lord, and if we preach we may preach as of a gift that God gives not for our glory but for the building up of the faithful; and in all words and works from all self-glorification;
            Save us and help us, O Lord.

   From pride and self will, from desire to have own way in all things, from a focus on our own ideas and blindness to the value of others; enlarge the generosity of our hearts and enlighten the fairness of our judgment; and from all selfish and arbitrary temper;
            Save us and help us, O Lord.

   From all jealousy, whether of the people we serve, our colleagues, or those in authority over us, from grudging others success, from impatience in godly obedience and eagerness for authority; give us the spirit of mutuality to share loyally with fellow workers; and from all misuse of our orders;
            Save us and help us, O Lord.

   From all hasty utterances of impatience, from the retort of irritation and the taunt of sarcasm; from all infirmity of temper in provoking or being provoked, and from love of unkind gossip;
            Save us and help us, O Lord.

   In all temptations to abandon principle for expediency, to embrace dishonesty or corruption, or to degrade our high calling and forget our holy vows; and in all times of frailty in our flesh;
            Save us and help us, O Lord.

   In times of ignorance and perplexity as to what is right and best to do in our ministry, O Lord, direct us with wisdom to judge aright, and to seek and trust your will in our lives; and in our mistakes and misunderstandings;
            Save us and help us, O Lord.

   In times of doubts and questionings, when our belief is perplexed by new learning, new teaching, new thought, when our faith is strained by creeds, by doctrines, by mysteries beyond our understanding, give us the faithfulness of learners and the courage of believers in you; give us boldness to examine and faith to trust all truth; and in times of change, to grasp new knowledge thoroughly and to combine it loyally and honestly with the old; alike from stubborn rejection of new revelations, and from a hasty assurance that we are wiser than our forbearers;
            Save us and help us, O Lord.

   From strife and partisanship and division among us, from magnifying our certainties to condemn all differences of opinion, from all arrogance in our dealings with all people as ministers of Christ;
            Save us and help us, O Lord.

   Give us knowledge of ourselves, our strengths and weaknesses; teach us by the standard of your Word, by the judgments of others, by examinations of ourselves; give us earnest desire to strengthen ourselves continually by study, prayer and meditation; and from all prejudices which narrow our vision of your work and will;
            Save us and help us, O Lord.

   Give us true knowledge of the people we serve, in their differences from us and their likeness to us, that we may deal with their real selves, measuring their feelings by our own, and patiently considering their varied lives and circumstances; and in all our ministry to them, from false judgments of our own, from misplaced trust and distrust, misplaced praise and rebuke;
            Save us and help us, O Lord.

   Chiefly, O Lord, we pray you, give us knowledge of you, to see you in all your works, always to feel your presence near, to hear and know your call. May your Spirit by our spirit, our words your words, your will our will, that in our ministry we may be true prophets of yours; be in our midst as the point of contact between ourselves and your people; and throughout our lives may we have faith in you;
            Save us and help us, O Lord.

   Finally, O Lord, we humbly beseech you, blot out our past negligence and offenses, heal the damage done by our past ignorance, make us amend for our past mistakes; uplift our hearts to new love, new energy and devotion, that we may be unburdened from the grief and shame of past faithlessness to go forth in your strength to persevere through success and failure, through good report and evil report, even to the end; and in all time of our tribulation, and in all time of our wealth;
            Save us and help us, O Lord.

O, Christ, hear us.
O, Christ, hear us.

Lord, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

Our Father, &c.

he grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit, be with us all evermore. Amen.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Subjectively Yours...

Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?' So the last will be first, and the first will be last." (Matthew 20:16)

Many years ago now, when I was an intern chaplain in a New York City hospital as part of my seminary training, I experienced what it meant to be a useful object for another person. A Jewish woman, obviously very frustrated with the medical bureaucracy, grabbed me by my arm. Looking carefully at me in my clerical “training collar” (it had a black stripe on it to denote I was not yet ordained—an arcane detail to all but the most acute viewer), she said: “Are you a rabbi?” I said: “No; I’m a seminarian intern for the summer at the hospital.” With a harrumph of exasperation and shaking her head, she said “you’ll do,” and tugged me down the hall with her. When we arrived at the medical records desk, she lambasted the clerk there, demanding the x-rays be given her this time. Looking at me and then the clerk, she said: “The rabbi says, you’ve got to give them to me!” The clerk relented and dug up the x-rays. The woman looked triumphant. I was released from my brief stint at an Episcopal Rabbi. I had been useful to her, but that was all over; our association was now at an end.

Today’s Scripture lessons in part revolve around the issue of objectivity and subjectivity. I mean this in a very specific way. When we treat a person objectively, I mean to say that we treat them as an object in a greater game, as part of a bigger project. The person, reduced to an object, doesn’t consist of feelings, a personal history, or unique characteristics: they are simply an object to be dealt with. Like the lady at the hospital, we often are tempted to use people as tools towards what we think of as an important end. This is very much Jonah’s case in the lesson from the Old Testament.

Jonah was called to be a prophet announcing God’s judgment to the people of Nineveh. Much to Jonah’s surprise—and chagrin—the people of this wicked Gentile city repent (going so far as to make their animals join in the repentance with them!). Jonah is shown in the lesson as being far from pleased. His complete lack of interest in the Ninevites as subjects of God’s will for salvation transformed them into mere objects. When they repented and God forgave them, Jonah is embittered, to the point of wanting to die. He transforms the miracle of human repentance into a selfish rant. God’s closing words in this book expose the bankruptcy of treating humans as mere objects: “And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?" God, it turns out, is in the salvation business. He does not objectify his creatures, and neither must we.

St. Paul, writing to the Philippians, reverses Jonah’s attitude. Though Paul would prefer to dwell with Christ in the next life, he knows that the people God has called him to serve matter; they are not merely objects, medals for him to wear on his Apostolic Dress Uniform. He sees them as precious subjects of God’s work of salvation—a work that is ongoing and requires Paul’s undivided attention in service, support, and prayer. Thus, he focuses on his spiritual children, putting off contemplating the next life and instead encouraging the Christian community at Philippi in their newborn faith.

But, how do we get to such an attitude in life? How do we, in the language of the Collect, move from “things that are passing away” to “those that shall endure?” The answer is found in the Gospel.

Today’s Gospel lesson is usually numbered among Christ’s harder sayings. While most people don’t like parable much, I find it extremely encouraging and important. This story (unique to Matthew) is set in the commonplace events of an agricultural world: it is harvest-time, and day laborers are being sought. Some begin work at the start of the day, others are hired as the day progresses. When settling-up time comes, everyone is paid the same amount, in an act of spectacularly inexplicable uniformity. Naturally, those who have worked the longest feel the most ill-used. Jesus, in telling this story, knows that we will naturally sympathize with them. But when we do this, we have taken the bait and the story’s jaws snap shut on us.

The day-laborers had all been hired honestly and fairly. The ones who worked from the day’s start were given the standard daily wage. Those who came later were promised “what is fair.” It just happens that this stand-in-for-God landowner thinks that the same amount is just and fair for all. Our wrath at this is the measure of how far we have come in our objectified world to objectify God. God, who creates all things and is above all categorization, cannot be objectified. But we certainly try. In so doing, we expose just how much we have come to treat everyone—even God—as an object in the game of life.

The landowner’s closing words in the parable are a stern rebuke to this false thinking: Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?'  God, as in Jonah’s time, is still in the business of salvation. His generosity cannot be constrained by our limited love, our objectification of others or our tendency to reduce everything and everyone to a transaction from which we may benefit.

Most of us live in the thrall of one or more bureaucracy. Like that lady in the hospital I spoke of, we often have to find creative ways to get what we are seeking in life by negotiating the complexities of some system or other. As we learn to do this, though, we inevitably will be tempted to see people as objects, not as the subject of God’s work of salvation through Christ. Gradually, we see everyone, including ourselves and God, as such objects in the never-ending shell game of life.

Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh once observed that “Every encounter is an encounter in God and in his sight. We are sent to everyone we meet on our way, either to give or to receive, sometimes without even know it. Sometimes we experience the wonder of giving what we did not possess, sometimes we have to pay with our own blood for what we give.” This is a profoundly freeing and refreshing way to live. It is what people thirst for—and we as Christians have it in superabundance.

The only way we can hold this attitude each day is by understanding that we are the ones addressed—the subjects—in God’s love. In Christ, God has given of what belongs to himself—his Son—and enters into direct encounter with each of us. He shows us that we all do matter. He is generous with us, no matter at what point we finally come to serve him. But the Parable does not record the laborer’s response to the landowner. That is for us to fill in today. Will we, like Jonah, reduce everyone to objects for our pleasure or aggrandizement, or will we join St. Paul in realizing that each person, each encounter in our life, is a holy encounter, full of the potential of the Kingdom of God?

Let this holy liturgy, wherein the encounter between God and humanity is once more made manifest and celebrated, be the first-fruits of our response. Here, God and humanity come face-to-face in the Holy Gifts of Christ’s Body and Blood. We are the subjects of God’s address, even as he subjected himself to us. When we eat this meal, we are given the ability to see everyone and everything in the light of this divine subjectiveness, making it possible for us to live out the words of the Dismissal: “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.” 

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

On the Eve of the Feast of the Holy Cross

We are celebrating the feast of the cross which drove away darkness and brought in the light. As we keep this feast, we are lifted up with the crucified Christ, leaving behind us earth and sin so that we may gain the things above. So great and outstanding a possession is the cross that he who wins it has won a treasure. Rightly could I call this treasure the fairest of all fair things and the costliest, in fact as well as in name, for on it and through it and for its sake the riches of salvation that had been lost were restored to us.

Had there been no cross, Christ could not have been crucified. Had there been no cross, life itself could not have been nailed to the tree. And if life had not been nailed to it, there would be no streams of immortality pouring from Christ’s side, blood and water for the world’s cleansing. The legal bond of our sin would not be cancelled, we should not have attained our freedom, we should not have enjoyed the fruit of the tree of life and the gates of paradise would not stand open. Had there been no cross, death would not have been trodden underfoot, nor hell despoiled.

From a discourse on the Holy Cross by Andrew of Crete, Bishop [740]

Cyprian: A Witness for All Seasons

Almighty God, who gave to your servant Cyprian boldness to confess the Name of our Savior Jesus Christ before the rulers of this world, and courage to die for this faith: Grant that we may always be ready to give a reason for the hope that is in us, and to suffer gladly for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

St. Cyprian, whom the Episcopal Church commemorates this week, stands as both a great theologian and a great practical witness to the Gospel. As a theologian he wrote and spoke widely about the basics of Christian faith and about how to handle the controversies and failings in church life. As a practical witness he led the Church in organizing relief efforts ministering to all—Christian or not.

Beyond this, Cyprian’s life provides us with a very human example of what it means to “know the times and seasons” in discipleship. During the Decian persecution, Cyprian went into hiding. He did not deny Christ, as did many during that furious era, but he did not go out of his way to confess him in public, either. He waited out the persecution, guiding is diocese through a series of wise and encouraging letters. For this he was severely censured. This makes sense to a degree, given what others experienced at the hands of Imperial Rome.

But God had plans for Cyprian that required his surviving the Decian reign of terror. Cyprian—a man trained not only in the Gospel but in the intricacies of Roman law and culture as it was found in North Africa—became the chief framer of what would become the catholic point of view regarding those who turn away from the faith but later seek admission: a recognition that a sin has been committed, but an openness to re-admission, following a process of coming to grips with the nature and seriousness of apostasy. In this, Cyprian found the middle way between the extremes of those who thought no repentance was necessary for re-admission (and thereby turned the baptismal promises into little more than sentiments), and those who would not allow apostates back into the Church (thereby rejecting the Gospel’s mandate to forgive others, bear with “false brethren,” and be the servant of Christ’s reconciling work in the world).

One of Cyprian’s greatest insights was that the Church must strive to stay unified. A divided witness, even for a supposed "purity’s sake," destroys the message of Christ’s once-for-all action of atonement and humanity’s deification through Him. This is the “hope that is in us” the collect speaks of—something nearly lost in the often petty and devalued vision accepted by Christian leaders and laity alike.

St. Cyprian’s insight continues to be valid in our own day, when denominationalism and inter-denominational rivalry are held up for all to see as a sign that the Church is really no different than anything else on offer. Cyprian knew that whatever our failings, to “throw in the sponge” and accept human sin and division as normative in either the Church’s teaching or practice is a grievous error for which we will continue to pay until we climb down off our ladders of pride and embrace all of Christ’s disciples in love and humility. This is what denominationalism does. Do we have the courage to accept this? Or will we continue to look at the “other Christian” as the source of the problem, rather than our own, squalid selves?

When the time came (under the next persecution), Cyprian was ready. His mission was accomplished. His message was sent. It continues to challenge all who lower their expectations of what it means to follow the Son of God who was first and foremost “servant of all.”

On this his feast day, we can honor him no better than by repenting of our personal and institutional pride, seeking to be transformed by God’s grace into witnesses of right teaching and right practice as was God’s holy servant, Cyprian the bishop and martyr.

Friday, September 9, 2011

9/11 + 7x70: A formula for forgivenes

Every now and then the liturgical calendar, history's calendar and our own collective emotional calendars are precisely in synch. This Sept. 11, 2011, is such a day.

Ten years after the atrocities of 9/11, the pain remains -- intense for those closest to the victims, a dull ache for those of us further removed. Jesus reaches out from the day's Gospel to take our pain -- if not with an instant remedy, surely with a sound road to recovery.

Forgiveness is the essence of Christian love. It is not restricted to overlooking petty faux pas or even gross insults. Forgiveness is the transcendent courage to absorb a despicable blow without being consumed by a blood-lust for revenge. Forgiveness is not a largesse we dispense by power of our innate superiority. It is the grace of God transmitted through us. It is the ultimate witness of Christ's love in the world.

But don't be confused. Forgiveness is not a get out of jail free card for perpetrators. Civil justice should be tempered, not eliminated, by Christian love. God has not issued an easy-pass for evil in the world to benefit the bad guys. We are the principle beneficiaries of our forgiveness, both in this world and the next.

We can choose to spend our lives obsessed with settling scores with terrorists, with rivals, with noisy neighbors, with line jumpers, with the wise guy in the other lane or even within our own families. Life presents us with infinite opportunities to constantly get even or to forgive "seven times seventy" (Matthew 18:22). The choice is ours. We can live in love or we can live in hate. Both are transformative forces. We become what we value and love or we can risk becoming the evil we obsess upon. From painful personal experience, love is better.

You can't fake forgiveness. It's a hard road. Our primal instincts reject it. We have to work on it. We have to pray on it. We have to commit to it, even when our instincts repeatedly keep rejecting it. It is a long painful process, not a shake-and-bake solution. It requires muscles built by the rigorous exercise of living in Christ's love. But we have no useful option. We are not being advised to forgive by our therapist. We are being commanded to forgive by our Lord and Savior. And lest there be any room for confusion, our loving, forgiving God puts it plainly, we can forget about our own forgiveness unless each of you forgives his brother from his heart. It is the essential Christian quid pro quo… our formula for forgiveness.

-- Father David F. Sellery is rector of St. Peter's By-the-Sea Church and Day School in Bay Shore, New York; he is a friend (and seminary classmate) of Fr. Brandon's

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The enduring question...

Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disci ples, ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’ And they said, ‘Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’
He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ [Matthew 16:13-15]
Sister and Brother Disciples,
It is often said that Christianity can be caught but not taught. In other words, no one can be made to believe in Christ Jesus and the Gospel through intellectual action alone. It must ways be an action of the Holy Spirit coupled by a willing assent of an individual human being. Authentic growth in the Church is never the result of a plan, technique, or the achievement of a set of mandated goals. It is a gift from God received by humans hungry for the True Life God alone can give and sustain.
The trouble is that this sort of growth cannot be managed, predicted, or con trolled. It is very frustrating for institutions and systems because of this. Thus, there is always pressure in the Institutional Church to replace the unique spiritual journey each of us must take with conformity to some sort of litmus test that satisfies the Institution’s need for control. That creates a tension between what Christ initiated in the Gospel (and is taught in the catholic faith, the Creeds, &c.) and how his followers try to “manage” the Gospel message.
In some eras, this tension becomes quite destructive: the misuse of earthly pow er, the lowering of expectations for what discipleship entails, or a false assump tion that the Gospel and our current culture are synonymous are some examples. In other times, though, this tension can produce tremendous benefits. In our own day, the Gospel increasingly meets a society alienated from God, from nature, from the spiritual, and from our own selves. The opportunity for people—within as well as outside of the Institutional Church—to “catch” Christianity is perhaps more ripe in our day than it has been for nearly two hundred years.
God’s mission to a broken and alienated humanity in Christ Jesus—the missio Dei—to a great extent hinges upon our answer to the question Jesus asks of his disciples in the above-quoted passage. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke this scene acts not only as the setting for Peter’s confession of Jesus as Lord and Savior, but as a perpetual setting forth of THE question all who would follow Jesus must answer: not once, but again and again as we make our journey into the King dom of God. No one can answer this question for us, but neither can we make it go away. How we live, how we act, how we choose as Christians… all of these things hang from who we know Jesus Christ to be.
This year, St. Timothy’s is taking an intentional journey through its Adult Chris tian formation offerings. We are organizing our classes and discussions around this great question: “Who do you say that I am?” We are not doing this to en force a narrow, anxious dogmatism. The motivation is one of honest exploration of the biblical revelation, the apostolic and creedal core of catholic faith, and our own personal experiences.
Together, we will encounter Christ Jesus anew as a parish community, each of us being asked to bring our assumptions—hidden and explicit—to the table. There, we may find old answers no longer work, previous approaches don’t match up with scripture, or new possibilities call us to a deeper, richer, more mature encounter with Christ.
One thing is certain, however: no Christian, no church body will long survive with faith if it cannot answer this question. Each in our own way, we must wrestle with Our Savior’s words to us: “Who do you say I am?” If, as a community and as individual disciples, we do this work in his presence, his truth, his peace, we will each be able to join St. Peter in saying “You are the Messiah, the Son of the liv ing God” in a way authentic both to our selves and to the Gospel. I look forward to the journey ahead for all of us.