Monday, January 19, 2015

The Path Ahead for Christian Unity

It is better to rely on the Lord than to put any trust in flesh.
It is better to rely on the Lord than to put any trust in rulers.
(Psalm 118, vv. 8-9, 1979 BCP)

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The Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity begins with the Feast of the Confession of St. Peter (January 18), and this gives us a good opportunity not only to pray, but to reflect on what we mean by seeking unity. What is the kind of unity we desire? and how do move toward it from our present position of disunity?

The feast beginning celebrates the moment when Peter put into a brief statement the essence of the Church’s message about Jesus: He is the Messiah, the Christ. It is this Confession the One Church, and not the myriad "confessions" asserted and fought over by the fragmented “churches” of Christianity that contains the real power of God.

Yet, by week's end, won't we arrive to find the same tired and necessarily dead-end conclusions with which we started? How hard it is to avoid the old formulae: “We need to merge on an institutional level,” or “until we can agree on a shared statement…” or “it is when we recognize each other’s ministries / sacraments / claims / grievances that we will be able to unite…" or "until you can accept this position...." How are these and most other statements about Christian unity connected to St Peter’s powerful confession of Jesus as Messiah?

As a mere parish priest without advanced studies, it is hardly my place to give a comprehensive answer to this question. I ask not because I have an answer, but because of a fundamental dissatisfaction with the situation as it is. The scandal of our divided Christianity, over against the Lord’s One Body, is more than irksome. It is an ongoing catastrophe, in which the sin of schism is compounded by an Eli-like complacency in the face of our mutilated witness to the Risen Christ.

The heads of the hierarchies in various parts of the Church occasionally have courage to speak about this problem, but the middle-level of the various church structures tend to militate against real progress…the seminaries, the church apparatus, the bureaucracies, the more-or-less “invisible” people who actually control much of the day-to-day life and choices of the so-called "institutional" Church.

For us, progress on unity might mean the loss of an income or the end of a carefully-sculpted system of management and relationships. We cannot discount this dimension of the problem. For every small group of confirmed “bigots” in the Church, there is probably at least one very seasoned apparatchik who finds the current scandal of division very beneficial. I cannot help wondering if I myself am one of those apparatchiks as I go about my pastoral round.

Part of the answer to my question may be found in two verses from the Psalm appointed at evening prayer on the Feast of St. Peter's Confessino. Verses eight and nine in Psalm 118 counsel against putting trust in flesh and in rulers. This discomfort with erroneous trusting is essential not only for our ascetic life as we battle temptations from outside the Faith, but for any interior progress to be made in unity as well.

Those temptations include the failure to draw a distinction between the Church as Body of Christ and the churches as human institutions. While not wholly disconnected, it is the confusion of these things that poisons so many experience of the Church, and the ability of the Church to take even the tiniest steps towards a unity of “truth and peace, faith and charity,” as the Prayer Book puts it: True Unity. How many people are currently outside the Church because of their experience of trusting in the small-c "church," or because the static, power-focused "church" has replaced the living, surprising and Spirit-led Body of Christ in their life (big-C "Church")? The difference is immense, and no progress towards unity can happen when we focus on the wrong version of Church.

Since ordination I have witnessed the gradual decline of the Ecumenical Movement into a new acceptance of a ghettoized Christianity: liberals hanging out with liberals, conservatives with conservatives, and anyone who doesn’t like this arrangement learning they best shut up if they want to keep going along in their little bailiwick. Unity, where it is spoken of at all, seems confined to ideological and institutional safe-zones.

Meanwhile, the natural curiosity of one kind of Christian about the experience of other Christians is squelched in order to preserve various kinds of political or moral purity, salted with all sorts of "non-fraterization with the enemy" legalisms and customs. Mostly, people tend to color inside the lines given them, rather than taking the risk St. Peter did to speak the truth simply, daringly, and with humility.

The Prayer for the Unity of the Church in the Prayer Book, in an exercise of some courage, prays to God that we are in “great dangers” through our unhappy divisions. It does not accept the present situation as normal. It tells us who pray it that we really should be in a state of anxiety and discomfort with Christianity-as-it-is. We cannot trust in our sense of "evolution," our entitlement derived from socio-economic or doctrinal smugness. The verses from Psalm 118 give us a clear means of identifying some of the idolatry that tempts us, like Israel in the desert, to go after other gods, seeking their strength rather than the promised power of our God. Putting our faith so much in institutions, -isms, and identity politics has become our modern day equivalent. We are trusting too much in the wrong things. More than folly, it is blasphemy.

As we make our way through the trackless waste of disunion, being bitten by fiery serpents of culture wars, secularism, and institutional decline, it may be time to look again to the Brazen Serpent on the cross-staff: the person of Christ who could inspire St. Peter to blurt out what he knew to be true while the others hemmed and hawed. This is always the way forward, always the path back to unity with God and (thus) each other.

For me, this week of prayer for Christian Unity is not about achieving some sort of bland "institutional" unity.  In fact, I really don't want that kind of unity much at all. It is probably the least interesting unity to me as it almost inevitably means all sorts of fudges and fakes in order to paper over the reality of human hearts and experiences.

What Christ commands is something altogether more profound and rewarding: a unity of heart and soul leading minds and mouths to glorify God. Trusting in flesh and rulers and systems…whatever their title or power…never has led to true unity. Trusting in Christ’s presence as we take the tentative steps to listen to others who follow him (especially those we find most puzzling or divergent), really being interested in their experience across the no-man’s land of a scandalized, divided Christianity…this seems like the truly radical and risky behavior of at St. Peter rather than yet another report of yet another commission about yet another ineffective attempt to substitute institution for Body.

This year, my prayer and labor on the subject of unity is to move beyond trusting in the very tools and techniques that keep us divided. I am praying for openness to listening—listening while grounded in my own experience of a rich tradition and its vitality—but listening for Peter’s Confession wherever it is being made.

Prayer for the Unity of the Church

O God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, our only Savior, the Prince of Peace: Give us grace seriously to lay to heart the great dangers we are in by our unhappy divisions; take away all hatred and prejudice, and whatever else may hinder us from godly union and concord; that, as there is but one Body and one Spirit, one hope of our calling, one Lord, one Faith, one Baptism, one God and Father of us all, so we may be all of one heart and of one soul, united in one holy bond of truth and peace, of faith and charity, and may with one mind and one mouth glorify thee; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Giving Thanks for Blessings -- in practice as well as theory

One of the most beautiful moments in life is when we receive a blessing. When something joyful and life-giving, something undeserved but so desired is granted us—this is the moment when our Faith calls us to assume a complete maturity and give thanks to God.

Giving thanks is the reflex of true Christians. We are a Eucharistic people; our heart-beat, if listened to carefully, is a continuous Eucharist, an offering of gratitude for the gift of this moment and for eternity in communion with God the Holy Trinity. This is our bliss. Yet, is it only a theoretical reflex, an unreachable ideal? Not if we learn otherwise.

To make thanksgiving concrete in our daily life, the Church has developed a wide range of practices. One of them is to offer the Te Deum, an ancient hymn of praise to God. This hymn, together with the General Thanksgiving, provides a splendid opportunity for one to praise God for the universal gift of life, love, and saving knowledge—and the specific occasion of our gratitude for blessings in this life. 

These prayers may be said any time; they may also be added to one’s daily morning and evening prayers. The next time you receive a blessing, try offering thanks...simply or richly. It will do your heart and spirit (and this world) much good.

Traditional English:

We Praise Thee, O God Te Deum laudamus

We praise thee, O God; we acknowledge thee to be the Lord.
All the earth doth worship thee, the Father everlasting.
To thee all Angels cry aloud,
the Heavens and all the Powers therein.
To thee Cherubim and Seraphim continually do cry:
Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Sabaoth;
    Heaven and earth are full of the majesty of thy glory.
The glorious company of the apostles praise thee.
The goodly fellowship of the prophets praise thee.
The noble army of martyrs praise thee.
The holy Church throughout all the world
                           doth acknowledge thee,
    the Father, of an infinite majesty,
    thine adorable, true, and only Son,
    also the Holy Ghost the Comforter.

Thou art the King of glory, O Christ.
Thou art the everlasting Son of the Father.
When thou tookest upon thee to deliver man,
thou didst humble thyself to be born of a Virgin.
When thou hadst overcome the sharpness of death,
thou didst open the kingdom of heaven to all believers.
Thou sittest at the right hand of God, in the glory of the Father.
We believe that thou shalt come to be our judge.
    We therefore pray thee, help thy servants,
    whom thou hast redeemed with thy precious blood.
    Make them to be numbered with thy saints,
    in glory everlasting.

The General Thanksgiving

Almighty God, Father of all mercies,
we thine unworthy servants
do give thee most humble and hearty thanks
for all thy goodness and loving‑kindness
to us and to all men.
We bless thee for our creation, preservation,
and all the blessings of this life [especially _________];
but above all for thine inestimable love
in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ,
for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory.
And, we beseech thee,
give us that due sense of all thy mercies,
that our hearts may be unfeignedly thankful;
and that we show forth thy praise,
not only with our lips, but in our lives,
by giving up our selves to thy service,
and by walking before thee
in holiness and righteousness all our days;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
to whom, with thee and the Holy Ghost,
be all honor and glory, world without end.  Amen.

Contemporary English:

We Praise You, O God  Te Deum laudamus

We praise you, O God,
we acclaim you as Lord;
all creation worships you,
the Father everlasting.
To you all angels, all the powers of heaven,
the cherubim and seraphim, sing in endless praise:
  Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might,
  heaven and earth are full of your glory.
The glorious company of apostles praise you.
The noble fellowship of prophets praise you.
The white-robed army of martyrs praise you.
Throughout the world the holy Church acclaims you:
  Father, of majesty unbounded,
  your true and only Son, worthy of all worship,
  and the Holy Spirit, advocate and guide.
You, Christ, are the king of glory,
the eternal Son of the Father.
When you took our flesh to set us free
you humbly chose the Virgin’s womb.
You overcame the sting of death
and opened the kingdom of heaven to all believers.
You are seated at God’s right hand in glory.
We believe that you will come to be our judge.
  Come then, Lord, and help your people,
  bought with the price of your own blood,
  and bring us with your saints
  to glory everlasting.

The General Thanksgiving

Almighty God, Father of all mercies,
we your unworthy servants give you humble thanks
for all your goodness and loving‑kindness
to us and to all whom you have made.
We bless you for our creation, preservation,
and all the blessings of this life [especially _________];
but above all for your immeasurable love
in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ;
for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory.
And, we pray, give us such an awareness of your mercies,
that with truly thankful hearts we may show forth your praise,
not only with our lips, but in our lives,
by giving up our selves to your service,
and by walking before you
in holiness and righteousness all our days;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit,
be honor and glory throughout all ages.  Amen.

Monday, January 5, 2015

The Bethlehem Star – more than wishful thinking

Each year I see or am sent a link to an article about how the star Bethlehem was a) a fraud perpetrated by deluding biblical editors, b) a perfectly explainable natural phenomenon, or c) just a metaphor. I tend to smile gently when I read these generally well-meant contributions to seasonal reading as they remind me once more how spiritually impoverished we are in our day, and how ironic it is that we think of ourselves as the “enlightened” ones.

The star we celebrate at Epiphany is presented in the Biblical narrative as a sign, guide, and symbol that cannot be reduced to any of the neat categories moderns so like to use. One of the supreme joys of having faith deeply set on the foundations of Holy Writ is the ability to maintain connection—however strained—with such a holistic mindset.

The Sacred Scriptures, like all ancient texts, require us to enter into pricey territory: we must take time and submerge our ego-centric obsession with control and self-referential comfort in order to receive the multivalent message they bring about something so profound as Reality or God or Truth. That is a price too high to pay for many, it seems.

The Feast of the Epiphany of Our Lord is a splendid example of how rich and beautiful—as well as useful and meaningful—the Scriptures are. This Feast commemorates Christ’s manifestation, his appearing to the world as not just a human infant or even as the Savior, Redeemer, and Messiah of his own people only, but as the universal Savior for all peoples. Through this little child, the spiritual confusion and division of humanity is being unwound—sort of a reverse Tower of Babel. And this is the ongoing mission of the Church.

The star that announces this revelation (in the Gospel according to Matthew) brings with it vast amounts of meaning. It recalls the stars as “intelligences” of the Creation (ministering and faithful spirits of a living and interactive cosmos) and the promise made to Abraham that he would have progeny as numerous as the stars of the night sky. So we have Cosmos and history, generality and specificity. The star is a sign, but a sign that partakes of the reality it points to. The distinction between viewer and event is radically diminished in the Bible. We become participants, not simply audience members. The star is important, yet it points not to itself but what is truly significant—God’s direct participation in human life through the Incarnation in Christ.

This dynamic participation sets us up to experience the Epiphany not only as part of the story of Christ, but as our story of coming to faith by God’s mysterious leading. We do not initiate the process; we respond to God’s leading (like the Magi and Star). But, are we open to this? Are we listening? Are our heads turned up to the heavens in interest and wonder as we look for Truth—or only to our computer screens in the mindless and endless act of data-grazing, meme-sharing, and identity purchasing?

The Magi bring the fullness of human wisdom and science to bear in the service of finding not only facts, but Truth. When humans offer themselves for this kind of life, this kind of journey (metaphorical or literal), we become vessels capable of receiving and sharing God and things divine. The Magi’s purpose is so important to them they ignore common sense and actually advertise the presence of a rival King to Herod. Assuming that Herod would want to join them in this quest for Truth, they (and we) blurt out the purpose and joy within us. Is our faith really that eager, that desirous of consummation in God?

The Epiphany is also an engagement with the mission of the Church. That mission is not to grow a larger institution or spread more second-hand ideological propaganda. It is to minister its own Eucharistic gratitude for the gift received from God by personal experience. Thus, the story of the urgency attached to the Magi’s search.

The Magi aren’t barnstorming spiritual hucksters on the Sawdust Trail. They are people whose living experience of God’s engagement has caused them to venture from their own familiar worlds toward an unknown region, a field of creative openness that can only be fulfilled by relationship with the Author of knowledge.

This movement from possession to person is then made manifest by their giving gifts to the Christ child. The symbolic nature of these gifts is real, of course, but it is not the total meaning. The Church is always receiving and giving gifts of knowledge and love; it is always a Eucharistic community of sharing and worship. In a very real sense, the Church is a continuous state of Epiphany-now-and-not-yet, a conduit of the revelation that it does not statically possess but lives, shares, and embodies. A real faith is deeply verbal, not merely a string of nouns. This is the difference between authentic religion and mere religiosity.

The mission of the Church to teach all nations and baptize is not a checklist we are sent to complete by an impersonal, demanding God, something tempting us to dehumanize both those in and outside the Church. The mission given to us is a condition of existence, a state of transmission, a shining with a light received, not generated.

The narrative of the Manifestation of Christ (which properly includes the Nativity, the Adoration of the Magi, the Baptism of Christ, and the First Miracle at a Wedding of Cana in Galilee) is an invitation to all who read it to enter into this dialogue, to follow the star God has placed in our own night sky, to use the science we have for something deeper than the satisfaction of material matters. The season it is part of is one of looking out into the Cosmos and meeting all we find there with curiosity and love as we share the fruits of our own experience and openness to the Truth from Above. If we possess neither openness nor experience, we are just stumbling in the dark of our own opinions or biases and not Good News to anyone.

The Star of Bethlehem is about light in all its meanings. This star is not a fact, not a metaphor, not a delusion or wishful thinking. It is a star—with all that means. Only those who can look upon stars as an inviting reality existing on all the planes of experience will be able to read the sign, be open to the possibility, and take the journey.

Everyone else will just have to stay at home in the dark and click on the link.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

A Feast of Relationship: The Holy Name of Jesus

Today marks the eighth day of Christmas, the day on which the infant Jesus was given his name and when he was circumcised according to the Jewish custom. This day, previously called the Feast of the Circumcision but now known as the Feast of the Holy Name, is one of the more important Holy Days in the year (so much so that, when it falls on a Sunday, it takes precedence over that Sunday’s normal readings).

When Jesus was named and circumcised, he became part of the covenant community of Israel. In a sense, the formal and outward relationship between this tiny child and the rest of the Jewish people was inaugurated today, as was the “official” relationship between Jesus and the God of Israel. What Mary knew and pondered upon in her heart about this child, and what the shepherds had heard from the angels upon the hillsides that holy night was not yet widely known, much less understood.

So, all was now rolling along according to the “normal” plan of life then. This, by itself, is a reminder to us that the normal course of events, the normal relationship, the normal patterns in our life often contain extraordinary and amazing opportunities of encounter with God.

Today is a feast of relationship. When we receive our name, we become “known” to others as an individual. We begin the life-long process of growing awareness of who we are, who others are, and above all, who God is. Our name becomes a point of access for both individual identity and interpersonal relationship.

Jesus’ name means “God saves.” It is a verbal identity, a being and a doing. In Christ Jesus there is a human reality, a human person who had to be born, to be bathed, fed, changed, and swaddled, to receive a name and join a community, to submit to a code of expectations, and to have a character formed by relationships with others. God’s salvation of humanity could not truly happen unless all of what it means to be authentically human was assumed and experienced.

The mystery of Christ’s nature as fully human and fully divine means also that at the same time as the above is true, it is also true that in him the fullness of Divinity lived and walked among us—from the start. At each stage of his life, people found new relationship with each other and with God through Jesus: from the Visitation through the Presentation in the Temple, the unborn and newborn Christ child creates the context for unexpected revelation. This, too, is a reminder of God’s unseen activity in person and situations that do not meet some “official” criteria of holiness or religion.

God’s work of salvation does not require some kind of spiritual bureaucracy or permit, but a willingness and openness on our part. The message of Christ Jesus’ divinity shows us that God is always open, always ready for such an encounter leading to transformation. This is one reason why only the authentic Christian faith—the kind expressed in the Nicene Creed—carries with it the means of salvation, for it alone involves the complete human in the complete power of God.

Each time a person prays the Lord’s Prayer and utters the words “hollowed be thy Name,” we are re-visiting this day and its significance. The Commandment says that we may not take God’s Name in vain, and the Old Testament teaches us that God’s Name is, ultimately, unknowable to the limited human mind. But in Christ Jesus—God made man—we have a personal relationship with that God-beyond-knowing, the opportunity to move from isolation into communion, from a mindset conditioned by death and limitation to one of life, light, and eternal possibility. Jesus’ naming on this day marks the visible, earthly experience of what God was—and is—doing in an unseen, mysterious way: to make us one with him, to bring down the wall of separation between God and his people made in the divine image.

In that way, it is appropriate that our civil New Year falls on this day, for the Feast of the Holy Name stands out as a proclamation that through this Infant King, our God has done something decisively new, inaugurating a radical accessibility between humans and their Creator. It is truly a feast of relationship, the dawn of a New Era, and one that each Christian is privileged to live daily. We are free to live on the level of divine life, unconstrained by sin, alienation, and death. That is our citizenship, and Christ Jesus’ Incarnation, Death, Resurrection, and Ascension is our passport. Celebrate this day and the life it stands for!

Collect for the Feast of the Holy Name
Eternal Father, you gave to your incarnate Son the holy name of Jesus to be the sign of our salvation: Plant in every heart, we pray, the love of him who is the Savior of the world, our Lord Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.