Saturday, January 25, 2014

The State of Christian Unity, Lost & Found

Their unity was not through an institution,
but because they knew their love of God
was measured by their love of each other.

Today, the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul, marks the end of the semi-official "Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity." I call it "semi-official" in that, while alluded to in various subtle ways in the Book of Common Prayer, it doesn't actually appear in the Calendar, and is really more of a "Church Headquarters" sort of event, urged on more from the "top" of the various churches than arising organically in most places. The motivation for this week of focussed prayer is laudable, indeed essential; but its execution bespeaks its gradual failure as a movement and a theology.

The origin of Christian Unity is found in the unity of God: One in Being, Trinity of Persons. We may seek no more true definition or way of living out unity than this. This unity is expressed powerfully in Christ's "High Priestly Prayer" as found in the seventeenth chapter of the Gospel according to John, culminating in Christ's revealed will that we all be one as He and the Father are one. Here is the authentic source of our unity: the living presence and mind of Christ as known and shared in His followers--members of His Body. That Body, to be truly alive, must be One.

The origin of the Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity comes from the early twentieth century, and was an earnest attempt to place before the churches the ongoing scandal and effects of our brokenness, emphasizing the need for organic unity in order to live out our commission from Christ. There was a debate about when in the Church Year to observe this commemoration, with the current period eventually being chosen; another date, focussing on Pentecost, was also advanced and also observed in some places. That choice was probably a better one, as it placed a clearer emphasis of rooting our unity in the Great Commission, the Pentecost, and the Holy Trinity in whose image we were made.

As it is, the Octave has become obscured by the subsequent history of "official" ecumenism: various pronouncements about institutional unities, agreements over dogma, or (as is sadly perhaps more common) the decision to ignore actual differences in order to gain the economic, institutional, and organization-maintaining efficiencies larger agglomerations of people can provide. The original impetus of Mission and dwelling in the Mind of Christ has largely been lost in the welter of these far-less compelling motives.

Doctrinal unity is, of course, very important and can signify the achievement of meaningful union. But, it may also signify that those who are taken up with these matters most of the time have reached a level of mutual understanding not shared by those who labor "in the trenches," so-to-speak. As when a wave runs up on a beach, the top of the wave advancing faster than the slowing lower portion, the resulting differential leads to breech. When the breech between these two parts of Church life grows too great, a disconnect becomes a failure to transfer spiritual energy and missiological vision; the wave crashes, the movement is expended, and the need for renewal follows. That has happened, it seems to me, in the American Church.

For years now, we have heard about agreements made at the "top levels" among church bodies and have spoken blandly in public about the need for unity between Christians, all the while going home or to our own confessional bodies and pillorying those who call upon Christ as Lord, but do not share our way of living, our views on controverted issues, or our way of worship. By substituting "official" or organizational unity for the True Unity of the Trinity, we settle for something far less powerful--and inspiring--than the Prayer of Christ, and this season's original message. The hypocrisy is generally ignored, but continues to eat away at our witness, as hypocrisy always does.

In some places and amongst some groups, it might be best if we simply admit that we don't actually desire unity at this time rather than continuing to pray for it but not doing the hard and humbling things for it to happen. Unity is, I believe, a divine gift and not another human project. It is something proceeding from God and manifested in the hearts of believers in communion with God and neighbor. It is when we look at another person and see the Gospel in action, see Christ in that person--quite apart from the other considerations of denomination or institution or culture or ethnicity--that the mystery of Faith is experienced and unity is made real.

The quest for real unity is an essential activity of the Christian faith; without it our witness to the Risen Lord is deeply impaired and our message compromised in terrible ways. That quest, however, cannot be sought in public but rejected in private; neither may it be advanced as a "fact" on official levels when on the local level so much rancor, judgment, and distrust is allowed to go unchecked. A new "ecumenism of the heart," expected by all levels of the various churches and measured not by institutional pronouncements but by charity, shared Gospel work, and openness to the other on the local level, is needed to provide a real base for the already-proclaimed "ecumenism of the head."

To start this, each of us should think of those other Christians whom we find difficult or repugnant and bring them before God in prayer, asking that God forgive us for our condemnation of others, and to see the truth that these whom we have so long despised actually hold the key to the prison doors that restrain our faith. Perhaps then we will be given grace to meet with, learn from, and serve alongside these brothers and sisters currently lost to us, but essential for our fullness of faith.

But this can only be true if we realize the degree to which we are, in fact, imprisoned in our current condition. It is that kind of earnest desire for having the Unity of God that will make us as individuals--and then as churches--embrace Christ's call for an authentic ecumenism of the heart and the head. Such an ecumenism is one of conversion, humility, love and unity in the truest sense: the love and unity of the One God we worship and adore.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Overwhelmed with Joy: Epiphany and the “Relevance” of Worship

“When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.”
--From Matthew 2, read at the Epiphany Eucharist

The familiar story of the Magi arriving at the stable in Bethlehem reads with the polished finish of a cherished Christmas card to many Americans. The complexity, pain, anxiety, menace, brutality, longing, risk…all these qualities tend to get lost in our quick rendering of the Wise Men and their journey to see the Holy Child.

But another aspect of this Feast that can get lost is the meaning of arrival. St. Matthew tells us something about this. After the long journey, the nervously-political (has anything really changed over the years?) game of “name that destination” with Herod, and all the doubts and uncertainty along the way, Matthew gives us an unexpected detail about the Magi: their emotional state upon knowing that this town—Bethlehem—was the real destination all along. They were, he tells us, “overwhelmed with joy.” To be overwhelmed means to be overpowered by a superior force. It is interesting to contemplate, this being overwhelmed.

The Magi were, for their time, advanced scientific minds. They were used to observation and investigation, categorization and research. Their study of the heavens revealed a sign that begged up-close observance. Following their curiosity, they entered into the kind of “go-for-broke” voyage of discovery that we all, from time-to-time, desire.

Minds like theirs are often rather cool and unemotional. To be so patient as to observe the stars as they did doesn’t tend to reward a choleric or anxious temperament. So, the verse wherein St. Matthew tells us that these men were “overwhelmed” is more than an aside: it is a window into the truth of what it is for serious students of life to encounter the Source of knowledge, the Author of wisdom, the Ground of being.

It is also significant that the Magi are shown paying homage or giving worship to the Christ-child, held by His blessed mother. This image of earthly wisdom acknowledging the totality and claim of heavenly Truth reveals another part of the Epiphany’s message: our search for truth cannot arrive at its destination until it worships the Mystery of Truth itself. When, in humility and wonder, we do this, we find that the “destination” is not a static place, but a dynamic relationship. The well-known gifts of the Magi are signs and seals of that ongoing relationship, a bond never lost and changing everything.

T.S. Eliot alluded to this side of the story of the Epiphany when we wrote “The Journey of the Magi,” imaging one of them remarking, years later:

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

The experience of arrival in faith is never final, though it is always eternal. It marks a new and deeper access to what is True, in which the Truth reaches into us and changes us, making us more like Truth itself.

And this brings me to the final point of this musing: worship. Worship is the essential action of the Christian Church. We mark this and every feast with communal worship as its crowning point. Yet, in our own day, this is almost seen as an embarrassment. Worship, after all, doesn’t “do” anything. It doesn’t “achieve” a goal or “produce” a product. So, why is it important.

The fact that we must even ask this is in itself significant, but the answer is found—at least in part—in the Epiphany passage of Matthew 2. Worship is a response to encountering God, Truth, Reality, Power. The Magi were actively seeking these things. When they met them (even in a little child), they experienced the pavement ending (so-to-speak), and suddenly were driving on gravel, at a very high rate of speed. Their response (and a wise one, I might add) was not to hit the brakes, but to take their foot off the gas pedal and fall into the presence of God. No intellectual debate, no sophistry, no attempt to gain control: just raw worship and awe. Worship’s “importance” is really as a marker of how truly human we are, how deep our desire for finding Truth and living in Truth is.

This is a missing ingredient for many people today. Our “worth-ship” is given to work, to shopping and consumerism, to ideological positions or identities easily manipulated by various forces and organizations. But raw encounter is consigned so often now only to sex…and even that is increasingly commodified and packaged. Perhaps this is why matters pertaining to sexual experience have largely replaced holy things as the place of transcendent encounter in common culture.

The worship offered to the Christ-child proceeded from minds overwhelmed by an encounter with Truth. If the Magi hadn’t been looking for that Truth, perhaps they would have walked right by the Manger and thought nothing of it. Perhaps that is what Jesus would later allude to when he said that those who serve the least of his brothers and sisters are, in reality, doing it to him. Real worship is a response to knowing that we are in the presence of the Holy, wherever (and in whomever) that may be.

Today, the Church is often very concerned that its worship be “relevant” to people. I suppose I understand some of this. Super arcane things like 1970’s Folk Masses, U2charists, sloppily-led liturgy, leading services when you don’t really care about what is being done all that much, and the drone of weirdly-written prayers by people who aren’t very good at it are, indeed, pretty off-putting and irrelevant. But, the search for relevance isn’t really a consumerism-goes-to-heaven bid for the “ideal” service. It is a journey into the heart of personhood itself. Real “relevance” in worship is much more about how relevant we are to God than about God’s relevance to us.

When more of the Church learns to be open to the presence of God in our midst—rather than simply being satisfied with “thoughts about God” when we gather—we will find it much easier to join the Magi in their worship. To do this means getting outside of our selves, our minds, and our bland search for comfort rather than Truth. As Eliot wrote, we should be glad of another death—a death to the world as it is—if we want to embrace the life that stands before us in Christ. Until then, all our efforts at reform and renewal are just so much whistling “Dixie.”

Collect for the Epiphany

O God, by the leading of a star you manifested your only Son to the peoples of the earth: Lead us, who know you now by faith, to your presence, where we may see your glory face to face; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Late Christmastide Musings

For most people Christmas is a rapidly-diminishing memory. The unwanted gifts have been exchanged or returned, the decorations pulled down and boxed up for another year, and the added weight finally accepted--with renewed zeal applied to diets or exercise routines. January has come. What of Christmas?

For the remnant of Christians in our country who know that the “12 Days of Christmas” are not the twelve shopping days before December twenty-fifth, there is both a privilege and a certain sorrow along about now each year.

For us, Christmastide is alive, though in its final phase. Most of us have our trees up, are listening to carols (especially recordings of some of the more obscure compositions about the season), parties are being given, and the merry lights of the season shine still, culminating in the Epiphany with its delight in finding Christ and worshipping Him. Only then do we take down many of our decorations (leaving some up, perhaps, for Candlemas on February 2). True, we stick out like sore thumbs in the neighborhood or the apartment complex, but we remain faithful to the season’s full dimension. This is our joy; the sorrow is that something so beautiful as Christmastide has to be consumed and tossed aside with such alacrity in a culture that seems unable to savor anything.

The last days of Christmastide provide a gentle period of continued feasting and reflection. We feast on food not only for the body, but for the soul—recalling a truth that it takes both kinds of food to be truly nourished (this is the reason for so much of the hunger out there that cannot be filled with more snacks alone).

We also reflect on what it means to live with an incarnate Savior. That God came into the world in the flesh has always been a scandal to many. It is so—well—messy. After all, we normally have this thing pretty well figured out: God stays in heaven and we stay busy on earth. Everyone stays in the lines, and we get to worship the surety of “death and taxes.”

But now here comes the Christ-child, born into our world…the one we have come to think as our own. He comes in peace, but must in fact fight a war. He comes to be our friend, and yet we so often try to turn him into the enemy because he broke “the rules” of division between ourselves and our God—the rules we so rigidly enforce.

So now we arrive at the end of Christmastide. In the world around us, things are getting back to normal, “normal” here meaning we return to our lives of work and worry, and God—to the degree God was invited to the party to begin with—is put back into heaven. With April 15 now on the horizon, death and taxes are enthroned once more.

Not for us, However. These waning days of Christmastide provide space to contemplate the truth that we may never go back to the “old life” before Christ Jesus. God is in the world. Our lives are being transformed. Hope is available. Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not overcome it. We may choose to look away, but the light is still shining, and we are called to be people of that light, doing the works of the light, and bringing others out of the darkness of fear and loneliness into the warmth of fellowship in Christ. The star leads us on to Bethlehem...again and again.

So, a merry late Christmas to you, and (through you) to others!