Tag Archives: reflections

Eight Years After

Today is the eighth anniversary of the attacks of 9/11/01 and I’ve spent part of the morning reflecting 9.11Ribbonon that day and the subsequent years with their story authored so much by those attacks and our responses. On the one hand, I agree with Stanley Hauerwas who has maintained that 9/11 is not the “day that everything changed,” in the sense that–for Christians at least–everything changed in approximately 33 AD, over a three day period, when Jesus was nailed to a cross and later rose from the dead. That changed everything. I also agree that the initial response, the way in which people were encouraged to “go shop” was anemic and revealed a rot in our soul as a nation. a rot which, some might say, has been exposed all the more by the causes our current recession.

And yet. And yet at the same time, for thousands, even hundreds of thousands of people, the world changed decisively on 9/11/01. A father or mother never made it home from work. A boyfriend who worked for the FDNY died while seeking to save another from the collapsing wreck of a skyscraper. A child in the daycare and never made it out, despite the efforts of a parent to reach them. A Franciscan giving last rites became the first recorded victim of the attacks. People fell with rubble from the sky and for those who saw, and for those who loved them, the world did indeed change.

Who can blame people for seeking a return to normalcy–even a normalcy identified with shopping–in the face of such a painful and terrifying experience. I certainly can’t.

In some ways I see September 11th as the day the old world reached out and dragged the new world back in. The myth of America as separate and above the rest of the world (terrorism, like political instability, is something that happens somewhere else, not here) was destroyed that day, and our policies, carefully developed to walk the line between securing our separateness while remaining engaged with the outside world in military as well as economic ways had to adapt. The myth was destroyed, but the desire still strong, along with the hope, of holding on to some of the reality of the safety and isolation we’d so long enjoyed from those other, less practical peoples on the globe.

September 11th did change things. It changed people’s plans, their hopes, their dreams, their lives in hurtful and dramatic ways. And it is in these individual stories, these individual lives that the true impact of this crime is revealed.

I’ve been rereading Rowan Williams’ Writing in the Dust, the book he wrote as he reflected upon his experience of being in New York City on that fateful day, and I would like to share part of it with you on this anniversary:

Someone who is about to die in terrible anguish makes room in their mind for someone else; for the grief and terror of someone they love. They do what they can to take some atom of that pain away from the other by the inarticulate message on the mobile. That moment of ‘making room’ is what I as a religious person have to notice. It isn’t ‘pious’, it isn’t language about God; it’s simply language that brings into the world something other than self-defensiveness. It’s a breathing space in the asthmatic climate of self-concern and competition; a breathing space that religious language doesn’t often manage to create by or for itself.

God always has to be rediscovered. Which means God always has to be heard or seen where there aren’t yet words for him. Saying something for the sake of another in the presence of death must be one place of rediscovery. Mustn’t it?

Careful. You can do this too quickly. It sounds as though you’re gratefully borrowing someone else’s terrible experience to make another pious point. And after all, not everyone dies with words of love. there will have been cursing and hysteria and frantic, deluded efforts to be safe at all costs when people knew what was going on in those planes. and would anyone want their private words of love butchered to make a sermon?

It proves nothing. But all I can say is that for someone who does believe, or tries to, the ‘breathing space’ is something that allows the words of religious faith for a moment not to be as formal or flat or self-serving as they usually are.

Christ the Holy Silence
Christ the Holy Silence

The morning after, very early, I was stopped in the street in New York by a youngish man who turned out to be an airline pilot and a Catholic. He wanted to know what the hell God was doing when the planes hit the towers. What do you say? The usual fumbling about how God doesn’t intervene, which sounds like a lame apology for some kind of ‘policy’ on God’s part, a policy exposed as heartless in the face of such suffering? Something about how God is there in the sacrifical work of the rescuers, in the risks they take? I tried saying bits of this, but there was no clearer answer than there ever is. Any really outrageous human action tests to the limit our careful theological principles about God’s refusal to interfere with created freedom. That God has made a world into which he doesn’t casually step in to solve problems is fairly central to a lot of the Christian faith. He has made the world so that evil choices can’t just be frustrated or aborted (where would he stop, for goodness sake? he’d have to be intervening every instant of human history) but have to be confronted, suffered, taken forward, healed in the complex process of human history, always in collaboration with what we do and say and pray.

I do believe that; but I don’t think you can say it with much conviction outside the context of people actually doing the action and the prayer. In the street that morning, all I had was words. I wasn’t surprised that they didn’t help. He was a lifelong Christian believer, but for the first time it came home to him that he might be committed to a God who could seem useless in a crises.

Perhaps it’s when we try to make God useful in a crises, though, that we take the first steps toward the great lie of religion: the god who fits our agenda. There is a breathing space: then just breathe for a moment. Perhaps the words of faith will rise again slowly in that space (perhaps not). But don’t try to tie it up quickly.

An Interesting Comparison

Recently the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, Katherine Jefferts-Schori was in Nashville

International Marriage Sign
International Marriage Sign

for the anniversary celebration of St. Anne’s Episcopal Church. While she was here she spoke at a clergy forum (which I was unable to attend). At some point during her visit, the Tennessean covered some of her comments about the theology of marriage as presented in the Book of Common Prayer. According to the report, she stated that the primary end of marriage as presented within the BCP is companionship (of course, the fact that the BCP states that Christian marriage consists of the union of a man and a woman was conveniently overlooked), and not a remedy against sin. While it is true that the 1979 BCP removes the notion of marriage as a remedy against sin from the text of the preamble, I would argue that it is wrong to read the BCP outside the context of its predecessors. Indeed, what is interesting–given the strong criticisms some conservatives have of the 1979 BCP–is that the preamble to the marriage service in the 1979 is actually a fuller description of Christian marriage than is the one in the beloved 1928 Book of Common Prayer, and it hearkens back even more to the marriage service of the 1662 English Book of Common Prayer. While it’s a shame neither those married with the 1928 or 1979 heard the phrase “like brute beasts that have no understanding,” at least the 1979 makes reference to the “purposes for which it was instituted by God,” that is, the purposes mentioned previously as well, I would argue, as the traditional ends of marriage as explicated in the history of Christian theology.

1662 BCP 1928 BCP
Dearly beloved, we are gathered together here in the sight of God, and in the face of this congregation, to join together this Man and this Woman in holy Matrimony; which is an honourable estate, instituted of God in the time of man’s innocency, signifying unto us the mystical union that is betwixt Christ and his Church; which holy estate Christ adorned and beautified with his presence, and first miracle that he wrought, in Cana of Galilee; and is commended of Saint Paul to be honourable among all men: and therefore is not by any to be enterprised, nor taken in hand, unadvisedly, lightly, or wantonly, to satisfy men’s carnal lusts and appetites, like brute beasts that have no understanding; but reverently, discreetly, advisedly, soberly, and in the fear of God; duly considering the causes for which Matrimony was ordained.

First, It was ordained for the procreation of children, to be brought up in the fear and nurture of the Lord, and to the praise of his holy Name.
Secondly, It was ordained for a remedy against sin, and to avoid fornication; that such persons as have not the gift of continency might marry, and keep themselves undefiled members of Christ’s body.
Thirdly, It was ordained for the mutual society, help, and comfort, that the one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and adversity. Into which holy estate these two persons present come now to be joined. Therefore if any man can shew any just cause, why they may not lawfully be joined together, let him now speak, or else hereafter for ever hold his peace.

Dearly beloved, we are gathered together here in the sight of God, and in the face of this company, to join together this Man and this Woman in holy Matrimony; which is an honourable estate, instituted of God, signifying unto us the mystical union that is betwixt Christ and his Church: which holy estate Christ adorned and beautified with his presence and first miracle that he wrought in Cana of Galilee, and is commended of Saint Paul to be honour-able among all men: and therefore is not by any to be entered into unadvisedly or lightly; but reverently, dis-creetly, advisedly, soberly, and in the fear of God. Into this holy estate these two persons present come now to be joined. If any man can show just cause, why they may not lawfully be joined together, let him now speak, or else hereafter for ever hold his peace.
1979 BCP:

Dearly beloved: We have come together in the presence of God to witness and bless the joining together of this man and this woman in Holy Matrimony. The bond and covenant of marriage was established by God in creation, and our Lord Jesus Christ adorned this manner of life by his presence and first miracle at a wedding in Cana of Galilee. It signifies to us the mystery of the union between Christ and his Church, and Holy Scripture commends it to be honored among all people.The union of husband and wife in heart, body, and mind is intended by God for their mutual joy; for the help and comfort given one another in prosperity and adversity; and, when it is God’s will, for the procreation of children and their nurture in the knowledge and love of the Lord. Therefore marriage is not to be entered into unadvisedly or lightly, but reverently, deliberately, and in accordance with the purposes for which it was instituted by God.

Related Reading Material:

Nothing to do with the faith: Torture and Paternalism

Crucifixion detail, Fra Angelico
Crucifixion detail, Fra Angelico

A while ago I found an article in my Google Reader with the following in the first paragraph:

“The more often Americans go to church, the more likely they are to support the torture of suspected terrorists, according to a new survey.”

The survey cited by this CNN article was conducted by Pew Research and indicates that regular church goers are 12% more likely to support the use of torture (in what circumstances is beside the point) than non-church goers.  The Creedal Christian thinks that “Perhaps this sheds some light on why many of the unchurched think Christians are hypocritical and that the Church is irrelevant and/or espouses unacceptable values.”  I think he may be correct.  It also demonstrates that that Church in the United States is not doing the job we’re called to…. unless you believe the job of the church is to inculcate an unhealthy nationalism and concurrent means of self-justification.  And there is a difference between nationalism and patriotism.  Unhealthy nationalism is the sort of thing that leads to the belief in the “my country right or wrong” principle while true patriotism leads to a commitment to serve your country in part by calling it back to its truest ideals.

There has been a lot of response to this survey, not the least of which has pointed out that the margin of error was nearly enough to account for the discrepancy between church goers and non-church goers.  Additionally, the sample was fairly small, with under 800 people surveyed.  But regardless of whether more church going Americans think torture is justifiable or not, shouldn’t our concern be centered on the fact that far fewer Christians, if any, should believe this way than the general public?

Since these findings were released, there has been a lot of discussion in the blogosphere about it.  One of the better essays I’ve seen is from The Scriptorium, and is entitled “If Torture, then Evil,” a selection of which you can read below:

A government decided to execute a prisoner who threatened its control of a region. It did not just kill the man, but selected, as usual, a means calculated to do the most pain and prolong the suffering. His torturous death is recorded in the Gospels and should give every Christian pause in supporting any form of torture. Torturing any man, even the most base, may not elevate the victim, as it did with the Son of God, but it almost certainly debases the torturer to the level of the Romans who killed Him.

Torture of any human being is incompatible with the Christian faith.

This should have been obvious, but like many hard and inconvenient moral lessons it was not. Christianity grew in cultures that used torture frequently and so had cultural assumptions inconsistent with their faith. Like most evil things, torture is justified by the good that can come of it. Most bad things are tempting because of alleged goods, but Christian experience shows that any gains from torture are not worth the cost to the souls of men and cultures.

Because there are times when torture seems like a good idea, Christians followed the practice of most ancient cultures and sometimes used it when they gained power. However, it was always a difficult decision for Christian civilizations to make and always had critics amongst Christian theologians and philosophers. The practice was modified and prisoners were given greater rights. The longer Christians thought about the practice and experienced the results, the broader the disdain and condemnation for it.

Eventually, a consensus developed in the traditional Churches that torture was a temptation to do evil, a snare of devils to corrupt souls, and a delusion that promised good, but only certainly did evil.

The condemnation of torture is part of the culture of life so central to the Faith. It is sad to see some Christians use arguments and lines of reasoning to justify torture that are similar to those used to justify abortion.

Traditional Christians disdain those who mutilate the corpses of enemies, because it dishonors the Image of God. How much worse is it to mutilate the living body or the immortal soul of a man?

Most Christians are not pacifists. They will honor the choices of a man who declares himself their enemy by fighting him in fair combat. Once he is a prisoner, they will honor his God-given free will by allowing him to preserve his conscience. Christian nations developed rules regarding interrogation that allowed prisoners to preserve their dignity and God-given choices. A Christian can kill a man who is asking for it, but he will not warp and twist his body and soul when the fight is done.

Sadly, Christian history reveals that the “good reasons” for torture tempted many Christian leaders to torture in order to do some hoped for good. We don’t have to guess at the bad results or the later condemnation of history for our short-sighted pursuit of immediate gain over our deepest principles.

Men have always been tempted to torture to get information to “save the city.” However, experience showed that saving the physical city by destroying its values was never a good bargain. At the very least, a nation that ordered torture had to turn some of its own sons into torturers. There has proven no way to compartmentalize such men after the alleged good they did was done.

A nation that turns its bravest and best into torturers instead of warriors has dishonored itself. There are worse things than losing a war and that is one of them.

{Read it all}

Recently other Christian leaders have been commenting on the use of torture, notably Richard Land, President of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention who recently stated that he believed waterboarding to be torture and that “There is no room for torture as part of the United States’ intelligence gathering process, in [his] view.”

genoways-00
The Water Torture

Last week, however, I heard a voice of American pop-evangelicalism speak in contradiction to Mr. Land.  As I listened to local radio pundits discuss the release of the torture memos by the administration, and debate the merits of prosecution, a listener called in and began his statement with the words “I’m a born again Christian, but that has nothing to do with my response to this question.  Yes, I would torture.”  I could only laugh and mentally thank the brother for being such a wonderful witness to the faith by prefacing his comment with that statement.  I’m sure our Lord, along with George Washington, is proud.

So, how can so many Americans who claim to be Christian be OK with torture?  The answer is simple: they are using a simple form of pragmatic or utilitarian moral reasoning to come to their conclusions and not ethical reasoning based in the Christian tradition or scriptures.  I’ve written about this issue before in reference to some comments made by Elizabeth Edwards about embryonic stem cell research.  In that post, I commended a comment made by theologian Stanley Hauerwas as a memorable tool to quickly determine whether something passes the smell test for Christian ethics.  Evidently Hauerwas was once asked to discuss the ethics of embryonic stem cell research, and to reply to the arguments of someone who spoke in favor of such research.  Inevitably, as is always the case in such discussions, the hoped-for goods that could possibly, maybe, someday come from such research where trotted out as justification and defense.  Hauerwas cut the gordian knot with the remark, “If it were discovered that foetal tissue were a delicacy, could you eat it?”  As well as being memorable, the remark highlighted the distinction between the sort of default utilitarian thinking that governs much of our ethical decision-making in this country, and traditional Christian morality which sees an evil perpetrated in the service of a good as nothing more than an evil which taints any good that might come from it.  In contrast, the sort of superficial utilitarianism that governs public discernment of such matters is usually predicated on a calculus of “if we do this then we will save X number of lives.”  The problem with such thinking is that it neglects two important aspects of life: sin and tragedy.  Utilitarianism often neglects the sense of the tragic because it refuses to see a necessary decision as a possitive evil.  Likewise, it often refuses to consider notions of sin because it sees anything done in the service of utility as necessarily a good.  These reactions are two sides of the same coin, the first of which I wrote about here.

Of course, none of this means that the United States is obliged to abide by a Christian ethic, but at least we should expect Christians to strive to do so.  It is, of course, a difficult thing to do, and can bring about disagreement (expected and welcomed), uninformed criticism (bearable) as well as giving rise to a sort of patronizing paternalism (very irritating) that sees Christians as the naive and eccentric relative who must be protected from their own fantasies.  Be that as it may, at least our response in such a situation might have something to do with the state of our immortal soul.  In other words, maybe being born again ought to have something to do with how we answer this question as Christians.

Faith & Doubt

I wrote the following reflection for the June edition of The Canticle, the newsletter of St. Francis Church, which you can download in PDF version here.

Faith in the Midst of Doubt

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.
–Matthew 28:16-20 (ESV)

The context of the great commission is interesting. Here we are in the last chapter of Matthew’s gospel. The task is accomplished, the resurrection has occurred and Jesus has been lifted upon the cross in expectation of his exaltation at the right hand of the Father. (John 12:32).

Here, we have one of the great moments of Christian history, the drawing to a close of Christ’s earthly ministry and the inauguration of the Church as the sacramental and missionary body of Christ on earth.

As our reading begins, we find the disciples doing as they were instructed and returning to Galilee to await the Risen Lord. Because of this, we also know that Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary,” (the mother of James and John), did as they were instructed by the Lord himself at the empty tomb where he greeted them saying, “Do not be afraid: go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee, and there they will see me” (Matt. 28:10).

In the first part of chapter 28 we see the resurrected Christ coming to his disciples in the midst of the fear brought about by the presence of the Angel and the sight of the empty tomb. In the second half we see the response of the eleven to Jesus’ resurrection appearance to them on the mountain in Galilee.
And yet, in spite of these experiences—and perhaps in part because of their amazing and unbelievable character—they still doubted.

One of the most difficult things many Christians struggle with is doubt. Sometimes we believe that our doubt makes us bad Christians; some have even gone so far as to doubt their salvation because they’ve experienced moments or even seasons of doubt.

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What rock in the Wilderness…

[Note: I've held onto this for a few days, hoping to smooth it out in places or expand on some of what I've written, anticipating some of the questions my musings might bring...but honestly I don't have any more time to put into it right now. We'll see about the future, though with Lent coming up, I somehow doubt I can sustain a long and extremely in-depth conversation. Oh well... maybe it will inspire some thoughts.]

Many questions have been raised recently about the motivations of clergy and laity who decide to depart from or remain within the Episcopal Church. Since I am a priest of the Episcopal Diocese of Tennessee and two priests and congregations with whom I have close relationships with have decided to affiliate with other Anglican bodies, several people have asked me why I have remained. Sometimes the comments have not been so much questioning as accusatory. (I do want to say, that no one actually associated with these two congregations has acted negatively toward me-we know and love each other too well for that I believe). I want to caveat my comments by saying that, in this moment in time, because of the stage and degree of conflict the Episcopal Church is experiencing, it is wrong for people to cast aspersions on those who come to different conclusions than they do. This is a sketch of my personal reasons for remaining where I am, and no one else should assume this is a demand that they agree or come to the same conclusion.

At times I am tempted to classify myself as an “ecclesiastical cynic.” What prevents me is that such a terminology might indicate that I do not have hope for the Church, which of course I do as a follower of Christ. But what I believe is expressed in that joking moniker is the fact that I don’t expect very much of the Church as an institution because I don’t expect very much of people in general. There are times I have been disappointed, certainly, but whenever I feel that way (or worse, feel as though someone has done something negative to me personally) I try to take a breath, think about it and remember they are sinful people just like me. Perhaps because such an experience of equality in sin and brokenness lies at the heart of my call, I strive to recognize the great capacity for the good and the bad within all of us and by extension the institutions we inhabit. But because I don’t expect very much of the Church, I suppose many of the failures of the Episcopal Church have struck me somewhat less deeply than some of my friends and acquaintances—especially those who grew up in the Episcopal Church and can remember the “good old days” before heresy and…for lack of a better descriptor, silliness, became the rule of the day.

I can understand the desire of my friends to disaffiliate from TEC and move on to a better place. Where I believe I part company with them is that I’m not sure such a place truly exists. Oh, I’m sure that they don’t waste their time fighting some of the battles that are now being fought within the Episcopal Church, but I’m confident they will find other things to argue over eventually. I’ve seen it happen already in a few congregations, if not on a broader scale yet. And while I may personally prefer some of the possible disagreements within some of the newer Anglican formations in North America, God has not placed me there. I am where I am, and to not deal with that unless and until I am called out would, as I see it, be unfaithful.

But what, some might ask are my underlying assumptions that would enable me to have a clear conscience while being an orthodox priest in what appears to be an increasingly heterodox body? The list below is a summary which I will expand on in greater detail and explain their interrelation:

  1. We have unity with all baptized Christians, and share communion with them based upon their word.
  2. Leaving the Episcopal Church doesn’t separate us from our errant brothers and sisters, remove the stain of guilt from us or lessen our responsibility to call them back to faithfulness.
  3. I have not been hindered in preaching the Gospel and don’t feel a practical need to depart.
  4. The only other reason I would have to leave at the moment is bad press.
  5. That may border on idolatry. It’s part of an economy of Icons where people gain worth from something other than their identity in Christ and as people made in the image of God.

I. We have a unity with all Baptized Christians (whether we want to or not.)

Within Anglicanism—particularly the Episcopal Church—we practice what in the 19th century was termed “open communion.” That’s not the same as the contemporary discussion of whether or not to commune the unbaptized, rather it refers to the practice of allowing all Baptized Christians to receive, regardless of denomination. This Eucharistic sharing is rejected by some denominations because, in their understanding it portrays a unity that doesn’t exist. The flip side of the argument, which is the basis for open communion among Christians, is that there is already a unity that cannot be denied.

On a related note, the only real form of discipline available to Anglicans is Eucharistic discipline. This is why I do not think it wrong for orthodox to refuse to commune with those with whom they are not in love and charity or vice versa. At the same time however, the only way this can be discipline is if we recognize we are part of the same body. Otherwise it is simply personal piety and has no real effect, just as it wouldn’t really have an effect if a Roman Catholic chose not to commune at an Episcopal Church–it simply serves as a testimony to what is.

II. Leaving the Episcopal Church doesn’t separate us from our errant brothers and sisters, remove the stain of guilt from us or lessen our responsibility to call them back to faithfulness.

Someone left the following comment on my website recently:

“Wasted time, wasted breath, wasted money. Goodbye Episcopal Church.”

I suppose one could say that about any denomination if the denomination where what one was concerned about. The question really is what makes any alternative a true alternative? I believe the whole Church (or at least the greater part of it in the west) is under judgment at the moment—we’re in a wilderness as Christians—and a failure to recognize that simply leads one to exchange one set of problems for another in most cases when one changes institutions. What we need to recognize is that no human allegiance can give the security of allegiance to Christ. Another way to look at it is whether the sacraments can be rightly administered and the Word proclaimed faithfully anywhere within the Episcopal Church. At the moment I think the answer to that is yes, though the number of places it is becoming more difficult has increased. What has also increased is the level of mental and spiritual anguish on the part of those of us who can’t support the false teachings of some in our national leadership. But the reality of the unity of the Church is that I should be equally offended by their false teachings and statements regardless of whether I am an Episcopalian, Baptist, Methodist etc… to say nothing of a fellow Anglican, whether we share an institutional framework or not. The question of institutional affiliation should really only come up when such falsehoods prevent or hinder our ministries. At the moment I cannot see how my ministry would be any different in a body other than the Episcopal Church. My sermons would be the same, my counsel to my congregation wouldn’t change, and indeed I would have the same set of worries that I do now.

I used to be very concerned that in bringing people into the Episcopal Church and preaching the Gospel to them I was perhaps “setting them up” to move on later on and be taken in by some wacky theology at another Episcopal Church. What I realized is that most people no longer have the same “brand loyalty” that clergy have. My experience has been that the most faithful Christians I’ve met in the Episcopal Church don’t really care so much about the denominational accretions as they do about the Eucharist and being part of a believing community. Many share my conviction that the three-fold ministry is the most faithful way of forming the church and have a deep affection and love for the prayerbook tradition, but as far as “the Episcopal Church…” that’s just the name on the letterhead. They want a place where they can worship and receive the sacraments.

At the same time, while in prayer about this issue I had the realization that my primary concerns would be the same if I were in an independent Bible Church or a Baptist Church or what have you. I come from a Southern Baptist background, and I know there is theology there that is at least as bad as some that comes out of corners of the Episcopal Church (though obviously with different tendencies). So in any case, my responsibility to my people is to preach the Gospel faithfully and give them the tools to recognize crap whenever and wherever they hear it, whether it comes from someone in a pointy-hat or a televangelist etc…

III. I have not been hindered in preaching the Gospel and don’t feel a practical need to depart.

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Those who are not indifferent

Sermon Notes for Proper 21, 18 Pentecost, Year C
Scripture: Amos 6:1-7; 1 Tim. 6:11-19; Luke 16:19-31

Lazarus and the Rich manThe other day I had a conversation with the guy who cuts my hair, and he asked me if I’d heard about or had read the book entitled The Secret. I told him that I had heard of it but that I hadn’t read it (I didn’t tell him what I heard about it), and I was interested to hear what he would say. So he tells me his impression of this book. “It’s about energy” he said, “and everyone has positive and negative varieties. When you focus on bad things, bad things are attracted to you. When you focus on good things, good things come to you.” “So” he says, “you want a nice car, you just have to be positive and think that you’ll get that car and you’ll find a way to get it.” So things like getting sick and other bad things that happen to us are because of our negative energies.

You can see, probably, why such a belief would be popular in modern America. It’s practical, simple, easy to understand, and if something good happens, you get to take all the credit. And we have a lot of opportunities in our country for good things to happen to us. I’m not sure this idea would be so popular with or comforting to a cancer patient, or someone who’d just lost a loved one or had any number of bad things happen to them. “Too bad you’re going through that, guess you didn’t keep up on your positive energies.”

The whole frame of thought that The Secret and other examples of the “new thought” movement come out of is profoundly negative because it encourages people to self-aggrandizement, and to take credit and responsibility for things that are, in the nature of our world, largely or entirely out of our control.

Of course, this isn’t a new idea…you may have thought it sounded a bit like Karma in Hinduism, but it also bears similarities to some ideas that are present in scripture.

That’s right, these are biblical ideas. What I mean is that they are in the Bible, not that they are held up as good or commended. But we see examples of this when Job’s friends insist he must have sinned and brought his calamity upon himself. We see it in the Gospels when Jesus is asked about the man born blind: who sinned, this man or his parents? Of course Jesus doesn’t confirm their prejudices but instead sees it as an opportunity for the grace of God to be made manifest.

But people in that time, as much or more than people today, believed that people’s status in life and especially any disease or physical affliction they might have were a direct result of their (or their parents’) own moral fault or sin. That’s certainly what Jesus’ hearers would have been thinking when he started telling them the story of Lazarus and the rich man that we find in our Gospel reading this morning.

“Surely,” they’d think, “the wealthy man is blessed by God. Not only can he afford to wear white, but purple cloth as well–and cater such a feast daily! He must be truly holy.”
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From the Vicar's desk #2

Cross posted from St. Francis Church.

Last Sunday I preached the first in a planned series of sermons that will focus upon various aspects of the Church. I plan to focus on one detail of what it means to be the community known as the Body of Christ each week until we reach Advent. In the midst of this time we will have much to reflect upon and give thanks for. This Sunday as the Bishop visits we will see several of our members either confirmed or recieved. In a few weeks on All Saint’s Sunday we will be blessed with a double Baptism as Levi and Luke Waites are made one with Christ through water and the Holy Spirit. These are all exciting things, but they all raise questions about the nature of the Church and exactly who it is we are supposed to be as Christians.

These questions are only magnified by the current state of American Christianity. It is easy at the moment to get bogged down in the conflicts wracking the Episcopal Church, but we are not the only denomination experiencing conflict. Our sister church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has recently entered the same arena of conflict as the Episcopal Church in the area of human sexuality. Indeed, our brothers and sisters in the United Methodist Church are probably not far behind. After a convention which saw alternative names given to the Trinity, The Presbyterian Church, USA has begun to splinter with congregations leaving to join other Presbyterian bodies.

But such conflict isn’t limited to the old-line “liberal” denominations. Conservative Christian churches such as the Presbyterian Church in America and the Southern Baptist Convention have also endured doctrinal conflict and splits, and the troubles of the Roman Catholic Church often mirror our own even as their hierarchy takes a firmer stand. And of course, many of their dioceses are still reeling from the after-shocks of the sex abuse scandal.

{read it all}

Discipline and the Church

[Update: Bishop Howe of Central Florida has proposed a resolution that is similar to Ephraim Radner's. The only problem is that reappraisers in the church are already poo pooing it because they think it forces the liberal Bishops to make an admission of some wrong-doing, or that it is simply unfair to ask them to absent themselves from the councils of the Communion without the reasserters doing the same.]

I have been following the developments at the House of Bishop’s meeting with some interest over the past several days, as have many within the Anglican/Episcopal fold. I have been encouraged to a small degree by a letter released by the “Windsor Bishops”that might serve as the basis for a resolution for our current conflicts. I say I’ve been encouraged only to a small degree because, while I appreciated the statement and seeing that both our current and retired Bishops of Tennessee had signed it, I haven’t seen anything to indicated that this proposal or anything substantive has really been taken up by the Bishops in their meeting. Every press conference I’ve seen has been discouraging–more ambiguity, more unease, more discouragement for people struggling to stay within the Episcopal Church as it currently exists.

That’s not to say that absolutely nothing is happening. There have been several proposals presented for possible ways forward. The most notable are those presented by the Rev. Dr. Kendall Harmon, Canon Theologian of the Diocese of South Carolina, and the Rev. Dr. Ephraim Radner, a member of the Anglican Communion Institute and a member of the Covenant Design group.

Both Harmon and Radner suggest that there may be a way forward for the Anglican Communion if Bishops of the Episcopal church voluntarily absent themselves from the deliberations of the communion. (you can see a note of comparison between the suggestions by Matt Kennedy on Stand Firm).

In Harmon’s scenario, the entire House of Bishops would voluntarily exclude themselves from the deliberations of the Anglican Communion, thereby representing our corporate responsibility for the current conflict and resulting loss of trust (this is not an us/them issue). This suggestion has much to commend it, and I think it bears a similar motivation to the reflection/thought experiment I wrote entitled “A Proposal for Repentance: what would it look like?” where I was, at least in part, inspired by Dr. Harmon’s statement at Plano, that we are all under judgment and in need of repentance. Here’s what “Bishop Theophilus Fictitious” suggested then (March of 2006), particularly relating to how repentance might be given liturgical and sacramental expression:

And so, friends, what is it that we must do. I have spoken of repentance, but what would it look like for us, for our church, to repent in these latter days where repentance has all but been forgotten, within the church as without?

I reiterate that this is a repentance of the whole church, not just of those who voted to approve the titular Bishop of New Hampshire. Nor is it only for those who have consented to or actively went forward with either same sex unions or the ordination of sexually active homosexuals. This is a time of repentance for us all, for our failures, for our neglect of Christ and his message, for our failure to serve Christ, to serve others, to set our face and stay the course.

As such, I want to suggest that, from a period determined (either Advent or Lent, depending on the time of year), we as the House of Bishops of the Episcopal Church USA, determine and state that we will hereby abstain from either partaking in or celebrating ALL sacraments, particularly the Eucharist, except in cases of extreme illness or imminent death.

We do this recognizing that the Eucharist is not a gift of grace only, but a gift of judgment and discernment for the people of God. Just as the Lord warned the Israelites while in the wilderness to maintain the appropriate boundaries lest he “break out against them,” so too does the Eucharist have boundaries, established by our Lord, evidenced in the fate of Judas, explained by St. Paul, that those who eat and drink unworthily eat and drink judgment or damnation upon themselves. Not only will we as Bishops abstain from the sacraments, but we heartily encourage all our Priests to abstain as well (except in those cases where pastoral necessity may require. i.e. baptism, marriage, moments of death and funerals), and to explain such abstention, its reasons and symbolism to their parishioners. We will compel no one outside the house of Bishops to maintain this abstention, but we recommend that it be a sign of repentance for the whole Episcopal Church.

We will maintain this abstention from communion as a sign of our unworthiness and repentance and as a sign of the communion which has been shattered with our fellow Christians around the world. At the designated time (Appropriately Easter or The Nativity of our Lord), a select foreign Bishop appointed either by ballot at the Primates meeting or selected by the Archbishop of Canterbury, will admit one designated Bishop of the Episcopal Church back into the Communion through a Eucharistic service of repentance and reconciliation.

That Episcopal Bishop will then, the following Sunday or major feast, admit another ECUSA Bishop back into communion, the order (beyond the first who will be picked by the primates) having been designated by ballot in the House of Bishops. Each Sunday or major feast following, those Bishops who have been readmitted to communion will do the same for another ECUSA Bishop, the number growing exponentially.

{read it all}

Kendall’s suggestion, which I think is a good one, is this:

“For myself, I will consider those in New Orleans serious when they consider offering the Anglican Communion something like this statement:

We realize we have caused huge damage to the whole Anglican Communion and therefore, we, as a body, voluntarily withdraw from coming to Lambeth 2008.

Now please note this means ALL the TEC Bishops. No exceptions. It would allow Dr. Williams to get nearly all (perhaps actually all?) the rest of the Communion to Lambeth, and it would show a sense of corporate responsibility for the wrong.

Yes, I know it is not perfect. I also know that it would only be PART of a solution and that there are many other questions which would have to be addressed. I also know it would only happen by divine intervention.

But only things LIKE THIS will really get us anywhere given the degree of damage, alienation, confusion and struggle.”

{HT Stand firm, T1:9}

In comparison, Dr, Radner suggests that only those Bishops who are unwilling or unready to accede to the requests of the Communion should voluntarily withdraw from the life of the communion, while those Bishop’s and Dioceses that are so commited would continue to participate:

My own hope, in light of this limited sense of the Archbishop’s desires, would be this: that the “Windsor Bishops” resolution be voted upon, and that, following that vote, there be an agreement worked out by which those who cannot, in good conscience (and here Abp. Anis’ plea provides a concrete possibility of direciton), abide by the acknowledged teaching and discipline of the Communion, by which they will temporarily withdraw from the Communion’s formal councils for an undetermined time (5 to 10 years was the suggestion of Prof. Grieb at the last House of Bishops’ meeting, a suggestion greeted with much appreciation); and during this time, those dioceses committed to the Communion’s teaching and discipline will move forward with the Communion’s life, and those congregations and clergy in dissenting TEC dioceses will be put under the oversight of Communion dioceses. When this is done, a formal request will be made to the Primates that those providing extra-geogrphaical oversight give up that role, and fold their congregations back into the Communion-linked dioceses and oversight of American bishops. TEC will not cease to exist (though, as with the Communion, not all will participate in its formal life); it will, rather, exist in a state of partition.

Like Matt Kennedy, I find much to commend in both of these ideas. I would be ecstatic to see either one put into place, though I think Radner’s may be less confusing to many orthodox who may not quite understand why their fellowship with the global communion should be so limited.

For myself, I would not only be encouraged to see such a step taken because I think it would provide the best way for the Anglican Communion to not only survive, but thrive, but I would also be encouraged because it would in effect, be a sort of self-imposed discipline that would allow time and space not only for the Communion to heal, but for TEC to re-learn what it means to be Church. What do I mean by that? Lately I’ve been thinking about discipline in the Church; the following is a summary of some of my thoughts. I hope they may be valuable as a starting point for discussion.

Where there is no discipline, there is no Church.

That may be a shocking statement to some, but it is a true one nonetheless. Consider first what discipline means. We think of discipline primarily in terms of punishment, and perhaps that betrays another example of the impoverishment of our language and thought. Consider: to be termed a “disciplinarian” is tantamount to being accused of being totalitarian or abusive. But discipline is not primarily about punishment, though punishment may be one of the acceptable tools to enforce discipline. “Discipline,” like the term “disciple” comes from the Latin word for “instruction,” and a person who lives a “disciplined” life is one who strives to set the bounds of their conduct by a particular teaching–their “discipline.” There is no getting away from discipline in the Church because there is no getting away from discipleship. Our Lord gave us the Great Commission saying, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…”(Matt. 28:19). As Christians we can no more reject discipline and discipleship than we can reject baptism–they require each other, and we are bound to them both by the Word of God, incarnate and written.

The question then, is whether the Anglican Communion in general and the Episcopal Church in particular can truly claim to be part of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church when we find it impossible to exercise even the most basic discipline in our common life, save that “discipline” which protects the letter of the law with not even a nod to its spirit. The truth, as hard as it is to stomach, is that if the Anglican Communion cannot find a way to discipline itself, if TEC continues on it’s way without any check, then the Anglican Communion will in effect, as a body, give up any claim to be a functional Church–instead, we will simply be playing dress up, and pretending–”having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power” (2 Tim. 3:5). In fact, I think it’s safe to say that TEC has already taken that step–we rejected any notion that we are fully or truly a part of the Church by affirming not just “local option” for the blessing of same-sex unions, but “local option” in the ordaining of non-celibate homosexuals to the priesthood. This point was made quite forcefully in another context, by theologians of the ELCA, our sister church, who stated in regard to their own denomination’s (since affirmed) drift toward local option:

By using the language of “this approach” (8) instead of “this change in policy” the Task Force advocates that the ELCA should “trust congregations, synods, candidacy committees, and bishops to discern the Holy Spirit’s gifts for ministry among the baptized and make judgments appropriate to each situation” (8). In the New Testament, however, the criterion for the discernment of the gifts of the Holy Spirit is a broadly based, ecclesial determination and not an individual, local preference. If the Report before us were to be implemented, the ELCA, as a national church body, would abdicate its theological and moral constitutional responsibility by relegating the decisions for which it alone is responsible to regional and local components. Far beyond transforming the polity of the ELCA into a congregational one, such an action would so fatally extend the boundaries of diversity in matters of doctrinal and ethical substance that this church would no longer be an effective collaborator either in the communio of the Lutheran World Federation or in the multiple dimensions of ecumenical dialogue. The proposed shift of matters of such enormous import from the national to the local levels will have two adverse consequences: 1. structural dissolution of the ELCA as it currently exists, and; 2. creation of intense division and disunity at the local level, thus effectively undermining “ways to live together faithfully in the midst of our disagreements” (5).

{read it all}

In effect, the allowance of local option means that TEC (and now the ELCA) have ceased to be churches in the fullest sense of the word, and have in fact–though in most cases without understanding the ramifications–taken the first practical steps toward dissolution of their ecclesial bodies. Such “solutions” to the disagreements we are experiencing do nothing but provide for further alienation and mistrust and put into practical and theological form the ideological dissonance that has existed for sometime between the various factions within these institutions. The fragmentation that we have seen over the past several years in The Episcopal Church has brought home the reality of this theological bomb.

The ambiguity and anxiety that people feel within the Episcopal Church is the result of the fact that they are actually paying attention to what is going on. People feel a distinct lack of direction and leadership because the institution that our forbears created to further the cause of the Gospel within the bounds of the Anglican tradition is breaking down and nothing new has yet emerged to take it’s place.

Is this necessarily a bad thing?

While this transition is certainly painful and is causing more stress now than any ecclesial conflict in recent memory, I don’t believe that makes it a “bad” thing. In fact, I believe it is the nature of human institutions to pass away–they, like the individuals who organize and support them–are dust and ashes. As an Anglican, I do not believe the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church is co-terminus with any man made institution–institutions are created to further the cause of the Gospel–when they cease to do that in any meaningful way they need to be renewed or, when the spiritual gangrene is widespread, they simply need to die and be replaced.

Does this mean I am in favor of starting a new Church? Well–frankly, I don’t know that such is even a possible option. Either one is part of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church or one is not. I don’t agree with the logic that says “because you (or your congregation) exists within he Episcopal Church and the institution of which you are a part is dying, you must ‘come out’ in order to be part of the Church.” If faithful Christians are part of the Body of Christ, and it’s into the whole Church that we’re incorporated in baptism, then there’s no reason to say that because the brick and morter institution, the money-sharing once-was-missional-denomination is dying, that the gatherings of the faithful associated with it are also dying (though certainly many are). That is not to say that there aren’t practical reasons that congregations have encountered which have led them to exit the institutional structures of TEC in order to fulfill their ministries in as faithful a way as they can.

If not death, then what is the alternative for those gatherings of the faithful that find themselves in stagnant or dying denominations?

As I consider the landscape of our current conflicts I have to wonder how much of them are shaped by a form of “American exceptionalism.” Sectarianism is, along with various forms of gnosticism, a besetting heresy in American Christianity. How often have faithful Christians sought to create holy communities by coming out of sick denominations only to succumb to the same sickness themselves in a generation or two–if not less. Such a view of the struggles of Churches fails to consider the fact that there have been moments of spiritual renewal as well as malaise in many denominations.

Indeed, there is something to be said for the faithfulness that stands and speaks truth to power rather than that which drives us to excise ourselves from the ailing institution in order to create one wherein “we” are the power. I have many friends who have left the Episcopal Church and either they or their congregations have sought some form of alternative Anglican oversight. I don’t begrudge them their decision in most cases. Indeed, there are many places in our nation where I would doubtless have been forced to make similar decisions. But that has not happened in the Diocese of Tennessee. What has happened is that those of us who feel strongly that we must maintain our communion at the international level, that we must be faithful to scripture and traditional Christian moral teaching–have become more and more irrelevant on the national scene. Thankfully, of course, it is not relevance we seek, but truth. And the truth is that discipline, if it is to mean anything must be imposed with some degree of broad agreement if not unanimity by the instruments that our Communion possesses, and others which it may form. If this does not or cannot happen, then fragmentation will occur as different bodies that can enforce discipline within themselves emerge, and the Anglican Communion will cease to exist in any meaningful way.

What this means is that calls for leaving the dead to bury their dead in the Episcopal Church are actually not serving the cause of discipline. They may be serving the cause of creating new ecclesiastical entities that can support discipline within themselves–but they are not actually calling anyone who declines to join them to repentance, nor do they seem to be serving the cause of discipline within the broader Anglican Communion. Indeed, the level of fracturing within the American Episcopal Church serves as a testimony not only to the fact that there are orthodox Christians who are seeking to remain faithful members of the Anglican Communion outside the bounds of The Episcopal Church, but also to the lack of ability the Anglican Communion has demonstrated to enact any sort of discipline. In an ironic twist, by departing the Episcopal Church for greener pastures in which they seek to remain part of the larger Communion, folks may simply be bearing witness to the fact that the Anglican Communion itself is unable to function fully as the Church.

The Discipline we can preserve

And yet, these questions of discipline do not make up the whole of the subject. To speak of calling to repentance and institutional correction is to talk about a limited form of discipline within the Church. There is another form of discipline that can be preserved even within an institution that has begun to cast off the designation of Church. This is the form of discipline represented by our worship, the sacraments and our practices of prayer.

Article XIX of the Articles of Religion states that “The visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men, in which the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments be duly ministered according to Christ’s ordinance, in all those things that of necessity are requisite to the same.

The visible Church of Christ is to be found then, in any congregation where the Word of God is preached and the sacraments are “duly ministered.” This says nothing of jurisdiction, affiliation or the like. And why should it? Anglicans have never claimed to be the entire church, alone. There has always been a recognition that the bounds of the Church and the bounds of the institution were not one and the same. This is something for us to be particularly thankful for, because, as Anglicanism has never claimed to be the entire Church, sufficient unto itself, it has also never claimed that the sacraments belong solely to her. Instead, the sacraments and sacramental acts are God’s gift to the world through the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church which Christ instituted, and which the Holy Spirit preserves and in which all faithful people and congregations may claim membership.

The first Bishop of North Carolina, John Stark Ravenscroft once preached a sermon on the subject of the Church in which he said:

We cannot help it, my brethren, if persons whose conduct is a scandal to all Christian profession, will call themselves Episcopalians: the discipline of the Church can be applied only to those who are known and received as communicants…1

I would go further than the good Bishop and say that we cannot control the beliefs or conduct of anyone who calls themselves by the name of Christ–and yet, as Christians we bear the repercussions of it, regardless of denomination. At the same time, we also bear a responsibility, not only to give glory to Christ, but to offer support and correction to those who claim to be part of the body.

In order to do this, however, we must “continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers,” because this is the primary discipline of the Church, and it is only in this form of discipline that any other can find its grounding.

What say you?


  1. The Works of the Rt. Rev. John Stark Ravenscroft: his sermons and controversial tracts, p 101 []

Thirteen Moons by Charles Frazier

I just finished reading Thirteen Moons, the second novel by author Charles Frazier. I came to this novel with high expectations given my appreciation for his first work, Cold Mountain, and Frazier did not disappoint. In fact, I believe this effort may even be better than his first, though the differences in story, and the distance in time between readings could color that assessment.

I enjoy Frazier’s writing. He’s easy to read and he has a gift of making his characters seem real and alive. While he has chosen to base his characters on historical figures, he has used these traits primarily as markers along the way and is quite adept at filling in the details of personality and character.

In Thirteen Moons Frazier again finds his subject in the Mountains–indeed in the same general era, though taking in a broader sweep of time, both before and after the War between the States. Whereas Cold Mountain was a fictional tale inspired by one of Frazier’s Inman ancestors, Thirteen Moons was inspired by the story of William Holland Thomas, the “White Chief of the Cherokee,” but, as Frazier is quick to point out in the author’s note, the main character, Will Cooper “is not William Holland Thomas, though they do share some DNA,” and readers who are familiar with the history of the region should be able to pick out the bits that are more or less based on Thomas’ life.

For me, the great gift of Thirteen Moons is that it provides an interesting narrative overlay of the time period it covers. Certainly it is a work of fiction, and every detail is not historical, but that doesn’t take away from it. Indeed, where it departs, it is probably a benefit. The story follows the life of Will Cooper, a “bound boy” sent into what was then the frontier wilderness of the Southern Appalachians–beyond the white man’s land–to work at a trading post. In so doing it demonstrates in a very effective way the dissonance between the simplistic view of the “outside world,” particularly the government, and the reality of life in the region in all its complexity. But the novel doesn’t achieve this by setting up a sort of “us/them” conflict, it doesn’t say “this is how life is here” or add “and it’s better than where these other folks are,” instead it illustrates abiding and over arching principals through focusing on a particular story.

Above all the novel is a book about identity and mortality. By bringing up the complex question of what defined an Indian–was it blood or adoption etc..–it demonstrates how ill-equipped a society built on rigid color lines was to deal with the realities of human life. Tangled up with this theme of identity, and eventually becoming more predominant, is the theme of mortality. This mortality is not nihilistic however. It might better be called ironic, almost defiant. Everything changes the book confirms, people grow old and die, borders and ownership–such as it is–shift and become ephemeral, but in the midst of all this there is the truth of living–of friendship and love and history and place. Things may change, we may grow old and the world we know may even precede us in passing. But through it all, there is an assurance that life is to be lived and not regretted or fretted over. Indeed, one of the most believable aspects of the book is that while reading it really seems as though one is involved in a conversation with Will Cooper, that this old gentleman is sitting there with you on the porch telling you about his life, warts and all… and the best part of it is that the conversation doesn’t stop when you finish the book…

Another thing I love about Frazier’s writing is the humor he includes. Not to betray too much of the story, there is a wonderful description of John C. Calhoun and Andrew Jackson in the novel that had me laughing out loud (not the only place):

Jackson and Calhoun had the two most alarming manes of hair I had ever seen on white men. I qualified the judgement in that way because as a boy I knew a few old Indian warriors who still sported coifs from their youth way back in the previous century, styles that involved plucking half ones head with mussel-shell tweezers and letting the other half grow long, festooning random braided locks with colored beads and silver fobs and making part or all of the remainder elevate in spikes with the assistance of bear grease. But in a contest of extravagant hair just among white men, Jackson and Calhoun would have split the prize. they hated each other and yet continued to share their lofty hairstyles, which struck me as having all the features of placing exploding possums on their heads. Of course, they were both from South Carolina and thus given to strange enthusiasms.

Being from North Carolina (as is Frazier) I nearly rolled out of my chair laughing at that–especially the last line. But if you’re not from the South, don’t get any ideas–one thing you should know is that proximity and family ties makes it more like old friends having fun with one another when someone from NC, SC, TN etc.. says something about the other… but if somebody else says it–especially if they’re from the north east… well, that’s not good at all–it’s down right insulting.

All that is to say, Thirteen Moons is a wonderful book, and you should read it. Soon.

Update: The Eastern Band of the Cherokee have some information about Thomas on their web site: