Sunday, April 28, 2013

The New Commandment...If You Have Tough Love One For Another.

Today's reading was John 13:31-35,
When he had gone out, Jesus said, "Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, 'Where I am going, you cannot come.' I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another." 

How do we show that love for one another? Might the part about loving others just as He loved us involve the use of tough love on occasion?

In today's reading from Acts 11:1-18, God presents (on a large sheet) a bit of tough love to Peter. Three times God insists that Peter abandon the dietary code of his upbringing and eat what was "unclean",
Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, ‘I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. I also heard a voice saying to me, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” But I replied, “By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.” But a second time the voice answered from heaven, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. (Acts 11:4-10)
Challenging things always seemed to happen to Peter in threes. But was this one a bad thing? Not for us it wasn't,
And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, “John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?’ When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, ‘Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.’ (Acts 11:15-18)
There are of course other examples of God's tough love for us, but for some reason people don't particularly want to hear about the things that are hard to swallow on a pleasant spring Sunday morning any more than Peter did when he dined in Joppa.

Back in 2006, Frank Schaeffer posted a piece on God's tough love in which he wrote:

"God's love comes as a kick in the ass. Reality is a jolt to the senses, like when we first realize that our very existence makes us all killers. We live because other creatures die. But we filter out this reality for the same reason we'd rather buy our steaks in the supermarket than from a slaughterhouse reeking of blood.
Even when we wish for good things there is a dark side. When my Marine son went to war, every time I heard the words, 'Today a Marine was killed,' I prayed, 'Please don't let it be John!' I knew I was really praying, 'Let another father get the bad news.'
Little is clear, let alone black and white. It turns out that steaks do come from slaughterhouses and even good prayers can be selfish. And in this world, if writing doesn't reflect paradox it is a lie. Telling only "nice stories"--about life, about religion--can be its own kind of lying."

So pardon me when I tell some of the un-nice stories about the goings on in the church. Its only because I love it that I am so tough on it.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Patriarch Kirill of Moscow Addresses Episcopal Church Presiding Lobbyist (Not Really)


In our Presiding Bishop’s recent statement on comprehensive immigration legislation, we see how the Episcopal church just can't help but inject its favorite subject into political discourse:
"Family reunification long has been at the heart of our nation’s immigration system, and we are pleased to see that the Senate bill contains significant streamlining and expediting of the reunification process for citizens and green-card holders. We do not support further restrictions on the ability of residents to bring family members to join them. We are gravely disappointed, however, that even as many families will experience the joy of reunification, some families and family members have been excluded from the Senate bill."
"As the process moves forward, we will strongly urge the inclusion of same-sex partners and spouses in the legislation. Every family deserves to live in unity."
Insert sound of head hitting desk.

Must...  stay... focused...

And yes, the Episcopal church's official lobbying wing is spending your money to push this wording in the Senate. (See their public policy network pages).

As a foil to our Presiding Bishop, I give you Patriarch Kirill of Moscow as he discusses the Romanov Dynasty. The Patriarch might have written something similar if he were to consider addressing the Schori Dynasty.
" addressing the public, the Church draws attention to and remarks on everything that has to do with salvation. Historical events might be relevant to mankind's salvation... that is, their effects might have an influence on such, but the fact remains that most events have nothing to do with the Gospel. That's why the Church shouldn't issue immediate comment on political events.The Church isn't an organ of political commentary; we don't have the job of immediately assessing everything that happens in our country, in society, in the world. Conversely, nevertheless, the Church can assess historical events with a soteriological understanding, that is, from the point of view of how it affects mankind's salvation."
(h/t rdrjames who should have included the link instead of making me hunt for it!)
 Of course the Patriarch is just another knuckle-dragger like me as can be seen in his recent letter to Pope Francis and therefore his opinion counts for nothing in the eyes of the ruling majority in TEc.
"We need to labour together for the affirmation of traditional moral values ​​in modern secular societies."

Which would probably not include urging our legislators to try to insert a same sex family clause into immigration reform.

Now, I wonder what would happen if I used the links at the Episcopal church's public policy pages and made a few alterations to the suggested letter to my Senator? What if I inserted a few words from the Patriarch of Moscow????

Heh... heh...

Something like this:

I received this message from The Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church in response to the introduction of the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013, S. 744, and I wanted to be sure that you pay no attention to what she is requesting.

Rather, you should harken to the words of the Patriarch of Moscow who said,

"The Church isn't an organ of political commentary; we don't have the job of immediately assessing everything that happens in our country, in society, in the world." Patriarch Kirill of Moscow

Don't let immigration reform be side-tracked by special interest groups.

You know what? I bet I might get a big fat,

Thank You

Thank you for being a part of The Episcopal Church Public Policy Network. Your voice is an important part of our work here and we appreciate the time you have taken to make it heard.
Ain't it good to be part of an inclusive church?

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Believing Anything But That

Today's Gospel reading was John 10:22-30,
"At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, ‘How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.’ Jesus answered, ‘I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand. The Father and I are one.’"
which is the conclusion of a longer discourse on Jesus the Good Shepherd found in the first half of John 10.

Jesus' bold claim, "The Father and I are one" remains problematic for many to this day. Let's face it, many cannot even accept that God exists, or they have a god that exists as a silent, higher power, personal or not, and that god is not one who makes himself manifest in human form.

The seemingly exclusionary words contained in this Gospel are also problematic to many. Read again,

" do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep"

We, in the United States, live a pluralistic society, and those of us in the Episcopal church live in a church which has from its highest office endorsed a pluralistic theology. John 10 seems to be clear in claiming that eternal life is given to those who believe the testimony of Jesus' works and to those who hear Jesus' voice.

As to those who do not believe, and those who do not hear, and those who do not follow, it seems that the alternative is to perish.

In looking at the progression of belief seen in this reading, we sheep are led from what should be the easiest things to believe to the most difficult.

1. Seeing great deeds and miracles. (Seeing is believing)
2. Listening for the shepherd's voice. (Prayer and presence)
3. Following Him. (Discipleship)
4. Believing that He and the Father are one. (Yikes!)

All of these things may be stumbling blocks for some. Many churches are good about teaching # 2 and #3, but numbers 1 and 4 are often not brought before the congregation for the very reason that they may be the most difficult to believe (out loud) in today's society.

Far easier to talk about social justice... (and I promised I wouldn't say anything about the sermon I heard elsewhere in DUSC on Saturday).

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Cheating Death

The words, "cheating death", have become a part of our lexicon, but it is likely that they have lost their deeper meaning as a result of their common usage. When I think of the common meaning, I first think of our cat which as a deaf, oil covered kitten was discovered underneath our car in a Walmart parking lot and survived those first iffy days only to cheat death once again the time it thought that the inside of a clothes dryer would be a nice place to take a nap. When people "cheat death" we usually think of someone who survived some horrible accident, or something like the bombings at the Boston Marathon on Monday, or a medical catastrophe.

But is that really cheating death, or is it just a temporary reprieve?

In the long run, every human body will die. There is no cheating physical death.

St. Philip's Charleston 2012

We cannot cheat death. We must go through it, but we need not go through it alone, the hard way has been cleared (John 3:14-18). Christ's hand will be there, and those who believe in Him as Lord will reach out for it. It's not cheating to accept God's offering. In fact, it may be the most honest thing we can ever do.

A local hospital system found itself in hot water recently when it presented a new tag-line for one of its hospitals. "Cheat Death" was what they came up with (one comment claims the hospital paid 2.5 million bucks for this catchy campaign).

It seems obvious to me that a hospital, being a place in which we would place trust, should not use the word "cheat" in its advertising slogan (especially so if you have doubts about the accuracy of their billing department). Nor should a hospital, being a place which we would hope to be about life, include the word "death" in its advertising material.

After thinking about it, the hopital slogan "Cheat Death", besides being a dumb idea, sounds decidedly un-Christian to me. As Christians, we believe Death has been conquered by the One who went through it for us. Our Lord Jesus did it the hard way. He did not ask Death to look the other way.

The hospital administration took a step back, by trying to cheat the fallout from its poor choice of words, and is holding back this campaign. In the words of its President and CEO,
"Our children growing up today are at risk of being the first generation in American history that won’t live longer than their parents. We knew we needed a strong statement to bring attention to this serious issue and to begin working together to change the path we are on--especially in Gaston County.
Our objective is to start a health revolution through an audacious goal and a bold rallying cry. Our intent was never to offend or incite. It has never been about a two word tag line. It is about creating a community-wide movement. It is about motivating people to join us in changing the health of our community for the better."

Update: 04/17/2013 in the morning paper we see that the CEO has been fired. (Story at

If it wasn't about the tag-line, then why did they print up all those T-shirts?

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Is Seeing Believing?

Last week's Gospel reading was the story of Thomas seeing and touching the resurrected Christ. This week we heard the story of Saul's road to Damascus blinding experience, and the restoration of his sight by Ananias under the direction of the Lord (Acts 9:1-20). We also heard the post resurrection experience of Peter and the disciples by the Sea of Tiberius in John 21:1-19. Today's sermon tied these events together and highlighted our hope for forgiveness and eternal life in a way that gave me hope for the future both here and beyond.

The fact that Christ defeated death is proof that God really, really does forgive, and really really does want us to be with him on the beach, beside the charcoal fire, listening, learning, and sharing breakfast with Him.

The frightening bit is that we, like Peter, have a certain responsibility. We must feed the Lord's lambs, tend His sheep, and feed His sheep, and we don't always do such a bang up job with the task.

I wonder if we sheep have been eating too much processed food? By that I mean a Gospel that has been dissembled and recombined to please our tastes. The results of feeding on heavily processed, sweetened foods is currently considered one of the causes for the increase in obesity and adult onset diabetes in the U.S. Just think what effects a steady consumption of condensed, artificially sweetened, and reconstituted Gospels might have on our spiritual health?

I see more clearly now than I did 10 years ago thanks to some changes in my spiritual diet. I thank the Lord for giving me strength to keep up with His meal plan which involves daily scripture reading and sharing the message with others in words and in song. His diet keeps changing me in strange and unexpected ways.

As I head into another year, join with me in remembering His defeat of Death for us as found in the words of the Bach Cantata No. 4, "Christ Lag in Todesbanden" BWV 4.

My favorite way to celebrate a birthday is to spend the day singing His praises, Hallelujah!

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Double-Dealing: Supporting Marriage Equality and Claiming to be a Roman Catholic versus Opposing Marriage Equality and Claiming to be an Episcopalian

A quote in a story at USA Today caught the eye of one of our esteemed readers yesterday,
The Roman Catholic Archbishop of Detroit, Allen Vigneron, said Sunday that Catholics who receive Communion while advocating gay marriage would "logically bring shame for a double-dealing that is not unlike perjury."
I tend to think of this kind of "double dealing" as trying to foist two mutually exclusive views to two separate persons or groups in the way that a politician caters to his/her diverse constituency. Some of us call that "lying". In the context of gay marriage and the Church, the individual who supports gay marriage and receives communion in the Roman Catholic Church is double dealing in a way. The support of gay marriage is contrary to the Church's position on marriage, a traditional position which is in keeping with Scripture and with the Apostolic faith. Therefore, support of gay marriage weakens the Faith by testifying against not just the Church but against the body and blood of the Gospel itself. To claim to be a member of the Church while not being in communion with the Church is double dealing. Several well known politicians have been engaging in this behavior recently with respect to the "marriage equality" issue. To the Archbishop, this is not unlike perjury. It is being a false witness for the Church.

I wonder if Roman Catholic supporters of gay marriage might lessen the shame of perjury by confessing of the sin of such support prior to accepting the host.

In our  Episcopal church we usually say a general confession prior to receiving communion. During the fifty days of Easter the confession is omitted, but I still find myself silently confessing prior to receiving because I know that I need to, and that with God's gift comes tremendous responsibility.

Yesterday was the anniversary of the martyrdom of Deitrich Bonhoeffer who was the subject of my Lenten study this year. What he wrote about cheap grace might apply to the question of going to the altar rail without a repentant heart.
"This is what we mean by cheap grace, the grace which amounts to the justification of sin without the justification of the repentant sinner who departs from sin and from whom sin departs. Cheap grace is not the kind of forgiveness of sin which frees us from the toils of sin. Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves.

Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without Church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without contrition. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the Cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.

Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will gladly go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble, it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows Him.

Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock.

Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of His son: 'ye were bought at a price,' and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon His Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered Him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God."

--Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (h/t American Anglican Council)
For those who don't think confession is necessary to avoid double-dealing, I guess you can stop here and go back to what you were doing. For the rest of you, I have some questions.

1) Would it be okay to receive communion if I am not confident that Jesus is Lord? (Doubt)

2) What if I hold a view that is contrary to God's Word? (Sin?)

3) What if I oppose the Church's teachings? (Arrogance?)

In response to #1, I would think it would be okay, but why would I bother?

With regard to #2, I would consider it to be un-wise to receive communion in that circumstance. That would be disobedience, a case of putting my word above God's.

As far as #3 goes, and this is critical for the Roman Catholic gay marriage supporter (although they really ought to consider #2 as well), at what point do I draw the line? When do I decide that I am truly "sharing" the Body and Blood with the Church Universal rather than imbibing in a private act of devotion, a private act that the Church has no right to mess up with a teaching that disagrees with my own personal opinion? Also, have I truly studied the Church's position?

Next, perform the same exercise from the viewpoint of someone who,
1) Is confident that Jesus is Lord, but parts of the church are not as confident,

2) Puts God's Word above his/her own, but is in a church where personal opinion and feelings trump the Word, and

3) Opposes gay marriage, but is in a church that supports gay marriage.
Is receiving communion in those circumstances a form of double-dealing not unlike perjury, or is it part of the duty of the faithful witness? 

Sunday, April 07, 2013

The Big Tent: Doubt on Display in the Center Ring

Today's sermon was presented by our deacon who had the story of "Doubting Thomas" to deal with. The sermon tried to contrast the belief and worship style our deacon witnessed while visiting a mega-church on Easter with the freedom to be open to doubt that is found in the Episcopal church. He used the term "big tent" which has been used in the past to describe the Episcopal church, and that is about the time my mind started to wander...

Big tent, big top, circus tent all came to mind for reasons that may become clear if you consider the messages delivered to various Episcopal congregations over the past two weeks.

First there was Bishop John Spong (ret.), a man who denies rather than simply doubts Jesus' physical appearance to Thomas, preaching at a large Episcopal church in Richmond Virginia on Good Friday.

Then there was Bishop Mariann Budde of Washington burying the Resurrection in layers of doubt in a message to her diocese.

Bishops are the ringmasters when people step into the big tent called the Episcopal church. How many bishops and their priests might we expect to see jumping through hoops if asked to discuss the physical appearance of Jesus to Thomas?  How many of us would pay to see the show?

Too many I am afraid.

It is a big tent all right, but the side show freaks and clowns have taken over the center ring.

I can hear the barker now,

"Step right up ladies and gentlemen to see the greatest show on earth that probably never happened."

So from now on, whenever I hear somebody refer to the church as a big tent I will think of it as the Big Top.


Wednesday, April 03, 2013

The First and Greatest Commandment: Intellectually Problematic?

"Jesus said unto him, 'Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.'"

Matthew 22:37 as quoted above has always been problematic for me. The heart has too many strings pulling on it, and the mind is constantly being distracted by its own musings for me to ever say that all my heart and all my mind are all in it for God all of the time. Prayer and meditation have been helpful to me in dealing with this handicap, and I have also taken comfort in the promise through faith in Jesus that God will forgive my having broken this greatest commandment.

The C.S. Lewis Society published an article a while back in which Alister McGrath reflected on a similar condition, one that can affect both theologians and lowly pewsitters: the problem of thinking deeply about God, and finding that we might be thinking too deeply while not loving Him as Christ would have us. McGrath leads us through his personal journey from head to heart. The complete article can be found here. I'll give you a few highlights below.

From the Winter 2002 issue of Knowing & Doing:

Loving God with Heart and Mind
by Alister McGrath

"I recall a conversation some years ago with Donald Coggan, formerly archbishop of Canterbury. We were discussing some of the challenges to theological education, and had ended by sharing our concerns over folk who left theological education knowing more about God, but seemingly caring less for God. Coggan turned to me, sadly, and remarked: ‘The journey from head to heart is one of the longest and most difficult that we know...’ 
...I gradually came to the realization that my faith was far too academic... 
...It was then that I began to realize the importance of letting biblical ideas impact on my imagination and experience. I read some words of a medieval writer, Geert Zerbolt van Zutphen (1367-1400), who stressed the importance of meditating on Scripture. Not understanding, but meditating. Here is what he had to say.
Meditation is the process in which you diligently turn over in your heart whatever you have read or heard, earnestly reflecting upon it and thus enkindling your affections in some particular manner, or enlightening your understanding.
Words like these brought new light and life to my reading of the Bible. I had thought that meditation was some kind of Buddhist practice that was off-limits for Christians. Yet I had failed to notice how often Old Testament writers spoke of meditating on God’s law. Meditation was about letting the biblical text impact upon me, “enkindling the emotions” – what a wonderful phrase! – and “enlightening the understanding”. And my heart, as well as my mind, was to be involved! The worlds of understanding and emotion were brought together, opening the door to a far more authentic and satisfying way of living out the Christian life... 
...As I mentioned earlier, my basic understanding of Christian doctrine has not changed over the last ten years. I remain deeply committed to the fundamentals of Christian orthodoxy. What has happened is that these ideas have taken on a new depth, both as I appreciated more their implications, and as I realized that my grasp of the totality of the Christian gospel had been shallow. Perhaps I could say that I experienced a deepening in the quality of my faith, rather than any change in what I believed.

...Spirituality aims to ensure that we both know about God and know God. It seeks to apply God to our hearts as well as our minds. It deals with the deepening of our personal knowledge of God. Yet this immediately indicates that spirituality is grounded in good theology. Spirituality is about the personal appropriation of what theology points toward and promises. Theology thus provides us with a secure foundation for Christian living...
 ...We have important duties on earth, but we must never allow them to preoccupy us in such a way that we forget who we are or where we are going.
My concern in this brief paper has been to offer some preliminary reflections on the importance of relating our minds and hearts, and some thoughts on how we might go about doing this. Happily, others have developed such insights in much greater detail! Theology offers us a firm foundation upon which we may build, ensuring that the great riches and truths of the gospel stimulate and nourish our minds, emotions, and imaginations..."

The idea that spirituality is grounded in good theology echoes something C.S. Lewis once said,
"If you don't listen to theology, that won't mean you have no ideas about God. It will mean you have a lot of wrong ones..."

It seems to me that much of modern "spirituality" makes an end run around theology by appealing directly to the heart in a manner similar to the eastern religions. This holds great appeal to people. If we can skip Christology, Eschatology, Soteriology, or if we can skip reading the Bible altogether, wouldn't life be so much easier? The theory being that if the Divine is already in us (or in our hearts), and all we have to do is clear away the clouds created by our overactive minds in order to be in touch with the Divine, then why waste time thinking about doctrine, theology, or a bunch of words on paper?

Like Alister McGrath, I have found meditative practice quite helpful in making the journey from head to heart. The warning I have for others is that this journey requires that the traveller embark with a Bible in the hand and the light of Christ at their back. The journey is fraught with far more hazards than proponents of modern easy spirituality would suggest.

Much of the reason for the constant appearance of heresies is that these are things that emanate either from a mind that has not made a properly chaperoned journey to the heart, or they emanate from hearts illumined by the deception of self-discovery.

One alternative is to seek a heart enlightened by God after humble and fearful meditation on His Holy Word and acceptance of its authority.

The humility, fearful, and acceptance parts of the process I described above remain problematic for many of us. We would rather not meditate on those things. This aversion is an emotional rather than an intellectual response, or perhaps the aversion is a tactic of our old friend Screwtape, or it is just that our hearts want to hold onto their unregenerate identities.

Our actions, when we lose awareness of God during our day to day business and interactions with others, betray the fact that we pay greatest heed to the words of our own hearts, words that keep whispering to our minds,
"My will be done, my kingdom come,"

and we all can guess what problems ensue from listening to that advice.

Coming to grips with the first and greatest commandment will likely remain my first and greatest problem, but it is good to know that mine is not the only mind working on it.