Archive for November, 2013

Monthly Reflection: November, 2013

Posted in Reflection with tags , , , , on November 30, 2013 by timtrue
Alexander cuts the Gordian Knot, by Jean-Simon...

Alexander cuts the Gordian Knot, by Jean-Simon Berthélemy (1743–1811) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Ever hear the phrase “paralysis of analysis”?

For instance, in high school I spent a portion of every fall, 9th through 12th grade, toying with the idea of joining either the football team or the band.  I could have done either.  My P. E. coach repeatedly told my dad that I had some skills on the field–for we played flag football for a season and the coach had seen me in action.  I could run faster than most guys my age and I was good with my hands, so the coach said.  And there was something about my timing, a natural rhythm or something.

As for music, I’d grown up playing the piano.  I had a short stint with the violin too, in fourth grade when a music teacher offered violin lessons to interested students.  Sign me up, Mom, I said.  She did.  The group lessons, however, were very basic for someone who was already playing the first movement of Beethoven’s so-called Moonlight Sonata by memory.  Within a few short weeks the violin teacher said I would need to move on to a private teacher if I wanted to progress reasonably.  After discussions with Mom, wherein she emphasized repeatedly that unless I practiced regularly it wouldn’t be worth the investment, I decided that, no, I probably wouldn’t practice regularly–and keep up with piano and Scouts and soccer and track.  So my two-month romance with strings reached its conclusion, coda and all.

By the time I was in high school I wasn’t even practicing the piano regularly anymore.  I blame that on the fact that I didn’t have a piano in the house anymore.  True victimization, I say.  Anyway, I thought that by joining the band I could at least keep my musical skills sharp, and maybe even learn a new instrument or two.  But what to play?

Thus each fall I’d vacillate between football and band, thinking up all the pros and cons for each.  But in the end I never acted.  That is, four falls came and went and I did neither.  I was paralyzed in my analyses of the situations.

This paralysis of analysis hasn’t characterized my whole life.  I’ve moved fourteen times in twenty years, often acting on an idea only half-baked.  No, my wife would probably tell you that I don’t typically get high-centered between two possible tracks to follow.

Still, for all the times I’ve acted apparently rashly, there are a lot more things I actually haven’t done.

This past month makes a good example.  The large parish I am involved with has lots of opportunity.  Too much, in fact, if you ask me.  In my role as priest I necessarily have to pick and choose.  It’s not so much a question of what to do as what not to do.  For every point made in a sermon there are several unmentioned.  For every parishioner visited there are many I cannot.  For every prayer said there are many–hundreds, maybe thousands–unsaid.

Free time is the same.  I’ve got a family whom I love greatly.  If I could, I’d spend every waking moment as we’ve spent the last few days–with each other, conversing in front of the fire, cooking, eating, cleaning up, playing bridge, reminiscing, loving on each other in general.  But we all have responsibilities, meaning we can’t always fellowship as we’d like.

Now I’m the type of person who needs several irons in the fire, so to speak, at once.  These are free-time irons, by the way, so that I can find something to do in a hurry when everyone else is preoccupied.  Reading is good.  So I always have a book or two on hand.  But sometimes I’m not in the mood.  Music is good too.  But the piano is shared by seven, plus students, so it’s not always available.  Besides, sometimes we want a little peace and quiet around the place.  There’s also this blog, and Latin–good activities.  And, for me, frankly, television’s a waste of time.

So, I’ve been analyzing a couple of potential projects this month–projects that will take some considerable attention and time.  I couldn’t possibly do both at the same time, like being in the band and playing football.  But neither do I want to get so caught up in my daily life that I suffer potential-project paralysis.  So, what to do?

On the one hand, there’s the idea of buying an old motorcycle and fixing it up.  Resto-mods they’re called by people in the business.  You find a donor bike, a platform, then make it better than new by rebuilding and/or restoring its mechanical parts and improving it with today’s advanced components.  It helps to incorporate a few top-quality customizations too.  Anyway, a good one of these can fetch a pretty dollar when done well.  But there’s always the question of how much it will cost to get it there, ready to sell in tip-top shape; not to mention where to find a ready buyer.  These sorts of considerations paralyze me.

On the other hand, there’s the idea of writing another book.  I’ve got a great idea.  And I need some concentrated time to write it down, outline my masterpiece, and otherwise organize my thoughts.  Just to get going, mind you.  Then the momentum gained initially could carry me into finishing the work, over time, in the evenings.  So, maybe I begin with a week off?  Not gonna happen until after Christmas at least!  But then there’s the thought of producing an entire manuscript that no publisher would be interested in–like has happened before with my Confessions of an Executioner.  And when this happens, the rejection is very discouraging, at least for me.

So, caught between these two free-time potential projects all month, I haven’t yet acted on either.  It’ll probably be the book–more cost-effective–at least I won’t lose any if I don’t make any.  But of the two that one seems less motivating, or to put it another way more paralyzing.

Anyone got any motivating words?

A Crucified King’s Kingdom

Posted in Homilies with tags , , on November 24, 2013 by timtrue

Luke 23:33-43

Let’s gain our bearings.  Today in the church calendar we encounter what some of us call Proper 29, or the last Sunday after Pentecost.  It is also known as Christ the King Sunday.  It is the last Sunday of the church’s calendar year.  Next Sunday we enter into Advent.  Today, then, we are standing on a threshold, about to pass through a sort of doorway from one year to the next.

The church’s calendar tells the story of Christ, year after year.  Advent is a time of great hope and expectation, like when a family is waiting for a new member to arrive.  Mom is pregnant; we all know that there is an anticipated date of the new baby’s arrival, the due date, but that’s often just a best guess.  That hope, that expectation, that anticipation of the new baby’s arrival—that is like Advent.  During this season, we eagerly anticipate Jesus’s birth.

Then Christmas comes.  O joy!  We rightly celebrate the season with carols, festivals, presents, lights and decorations—for the savior of the world is born on this day.

Next, during and following Epiphany, we remember the visit of the wise men from the east and God’s hand upon the child Jesus.

In Lent we recall Christ’s baptism and his time of fasting in the wilderness.  But more than this, we remember his earthly ministry to the sick, the downcast, the brokenhearted—to the meek, who shall inherit the earth.

Next comes Holy Week.  Yes!  The busiest week of the year for the church, in which we recall Christ’s entry into Jerusalem on the donkey’s colt over a road covered with palm branches; in which we participate in a footwashing service, tangibly putting others first in an act of loving service; in which we conduct prayer walks, vigils, and baptisms for Christ’s glory; and in which light takes a prominent place—both the candlelight of vigils and the tomb-opening light of the rising sun.  Alleluia, He is risen!

Then there’s the Easter season: fifty days in which we remember the resurrected Christ who walks the earth among his friends, family, and disciples; until the Day of Pentecost, when he ascends into the clouds in the presence of many witnesses.

Finally there’s that season after Pentecost.  It starts with Trinity Sunday, a day when we rightly dwell on the Trinity reigning from heaven above.  After that, the length of the season varies from year to year.  Some years there are twenty-nine Sundays until today, Christ the King Sunday.  Most of the time it’s shorter: next year, for instance, there will be twenty-three.

Anyway (a question), what happens during this season after Pentecost, this season of Propers?  If the church year is all about remembering Christ, then he has died, risen, and ascended by May or June.  What are we remembering about him for the other six months of the year?

Well, the gist is this: during this season we remember the work Christ is doing on earth now, from where he is seated in heaven at the right hand of the Father.

When Christ ascended, something amazing happened.  Remember?  Something like tongues of fire descended from the sky and came to rest on Christ’s disciples.  This was a sign of the Holy Spirit, sometimes called the Paraclete—a fancy word for advocate, or helper.  Christ rules from heaven; but he has left us a helper to guide us all along the way as we do Christ’s work in his church.  That’s what we remember during this season after Pentecost: Christ’s kingdom already but not yet.

Ultimately then—at the end of this season after Pentecost—what is supposed to happen?  The answer is in the Creed: “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.”

And I don’t care, by the way, what your ideal kingdom is, whether monarchy, oligarchy, aristocracy, democracy, a republic, socialism, or monogamy (okay, just kidding about that last one)—I don’t care what your ideal kingdom is: Christ’s is unlike them all, and better than them all!

Which brings us back full circle.  Here we stand today at the end of the church year, peering through a doorway where we see Advent on the other side.  And today of all days we remember that Jesus, who now reigns in heaven at God’s right hand, will come again, when his kingdom will be already and yet!

So, that said, why do we have this passage from Luke today?

When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left.

It’s about the crucifixion.  But if we look at this passage in the context of what we know about the church’s calendar—in the context of knowing already that Christ is King—we can make some helpful inferences about his kingdom.  I offer three:

  1. Proper Knowledge will be Returned.  “Father, forgive them,” Jesus prays; “for they do not know what they are doing.”  The they here is the soldiers, and what they are doing is crucifying three men.  In other words, the soldiers here are in fact doing what they know: they are obeying their orders to crucify three men.  But they really don’t know what they are doing, says Jesus.  They really don’t know that they are crucifying the King of kings and Lord of lords.  More than this, though, they are also crucifying two other men—humans who have been created in God’s image.  This taking of another person’s life—whether the lord of all creation or a criminal—is wrong.  We might not know this here, now, in our world.  But in the kingdom, we will know better.
  2. Righteous Justice will be Reinstated.  A look at the verbs here is revealing.  The soldiers cast lots for Jesus’s clothing.  The leaders scoffed at Jesus.  The soldiers mocked Jesus.  One of the criminals kept deriding Jesus.  And the people stood by, certainly helpless to do anything about it.  Do you feel the injustice here?  Yet, what are the verbs used of Jesus?  Forgive them, he says.  And to the criminal, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”  That phrase, truly I tell you, is an oath, as if to say “I swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God.”  Jesus promises the thief next to him that he will enter Paradise.  This, by the way, is righteous justice.
  3. Protected Paradise will be Restored.  Jesus answers the thief on the cross next to him, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”  Paradise!  You know what the Greek word is for paradise?  Paradeisos.  And you know what it means?  Paradise.  Christ’s kingdom is, simply, paradise.  But let me give you a little more insight.  This word paradeisos appears in only one passage of the Septuagint—the Greek translation of the Old Testament—which was published roughly a century before Jesus was born.  But it appears in the passage several times.  Here’s the first occurrence, Gen. 2:8: “And the LORD God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed.”  You know which word it is?  Garden.  The Greek word paradeisos was used repeatedly in the Septuagint to refer to the Garden of Eden—the Paradise of Eden.  You want to know what Christ’s kingdom is like?  There, in the Paradise of Eden, God created humanity in his image.  There God walked with Adam and Eve.  There they were protected from the unknown and unfamiliar world outside.

So too here.  Today, Jesus says to the thief, you will be with me in Paradise.  There is a place protected from injustice and disorder; protected from the harshness of this world where we are so often treated poorly, derisively, and without love; protected from incomplete knowledge put to cruel use.  There proper knowledge will be returned; righteous justice will be reinstated; and protected paradise will be restored.  Come quickly, Lord Jesus!

College Advice to my Kids

Posted in Education, Rationale with tags , , , , , on November 18, 2013 by timtrue

As my kids grow I try to reduce commands and increase suggestions.  That way, in theory anyway, by the time they’re ready to head off to college, they make and own their decisions: I haven’t told them where to go; but I’ve helped them along the way–sometimes without their cognizance–so that when they finally decide it ends up being a win-win.  That’s my thinking, anyway.  And so far it’s working.  One of my kids is a sophomore already in college and another is about to finish her senior year of high school, on the cusp of embarking on her voyage into adulthood.

The Rebuke of Adam and Eve

The Rebuke of Adam and Eve (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Enough on parenting styles.  What I want to write about today is the suggestion part of the above equation: what lies at the foundation of my urgings, directings, proddings, pursuadings, and hintings–my advice, in other words, to my kids as they approach the day when I bid them bon voyage.

It has to do with play (something I mentioned near the end of my last post, “Why Audit Apuleius?”) in contrast to work.  Not that these two form a dichotomy: it’s not either play or work, I know; but more of both play and work.  But picture a play-work spectrum.  On the extreme left is pure play, on the extreme right pure work.  Everything else from left to right–every tiniest gradation–is some combination of play and work, more play than work on the left half and more work than play on the right, with a 50-50 mix occurring right in the middle.  “Now if you’re like me,” I’ve told my kids throughout their childhood–subtly, and sometimes not so subtly–“and if you’re like most people I know, you’ll probably want to end up with a job that puts you as closely as possible to the left side of the spectrum–as close to pure play as possible.”

Of course, this advice requires some definitions.  For both these terms–play and work–are vague and can therefore mean a lot of things to a lot of people; or even a lot of different things to the same person.  So, okay, what do I mean?

By work I do not mean a job, as in the common use, “Honey, I’m going to work.  See you at 5:30.”  Rather, I mean more the term given to Adam and Eve in the creation account–or the fall account if you prefer.  God created Adam and Eve, so the story goes, in the divine image.  There, in that pre-fall state of uprightness they were both given jobs to do.  But it wasn’t until after they ate that notorious fruit that their tasks became the work to which I refer.  Now they were told that they would toil by the sweat of their brows and that, for Eve, bearing a child would involve pain and labor.  Here are some synonyms that go with the term then: toil, pain, labor.  This is the stuff on the right side of my spectrum.

Play, by contrast, is something more transcendent.  In pure play–on the extreme left of the spectrum–I lose all sense of time, and perhaps even some sense of space.  For instance, I compose music when I have some free time and the fancy strikes me.  More than once I have started composing something late at night, after most or maybe all other family members have gone to bed, when the house is quiet and there’s nothing to distract me; only then to realize suddenly that it’s beginning to get light outside, that birds are chirping, that I’m actually in the world of time and space again, and that I better go to bed and get at least a couple hours of sleep lest I be a grumpy wreck of a father all day.  Point is, in the act of composing I entered something of a trance during which I’d lost all sense of time, and was even transported in some sense from my piano bench to an other-worldly spot, something like the Wood between the Worlds in C. S. Lewis’s The Magician’s Nephew.  Pure play.  Perhaps it’s the same for you.

Of course, in the world of jobs, vocations, professions, whatever–in the world of working for a living–it’s difficult to conceive of a job that allows a person to be in a state of pure play daily.  Indeed, is this even possible?  Even the author who gets lost in writing a book has a publisher to satisfy, deadlines to abide by, and the obligatory book-signings to attend.  Even the professor has students to teach, students who don’t really have any interest but are taking the course simply to satisfy a graduation requirement.  Even the independently wealthy have finances to worry about.  Even the–fill in the blank with your idealized job situation–has some type of toil, labor, and pain attached to the position.  We cannot escape work entirely–a truth that the Genesis story conveys all too well.

But we can do something about it.  Especially when we’re young, about to embark on a voyage into adulthood!  What moves you?  What engages you so completely that you lose a sense of time and space when doing it?  Once you identify this, the key is to find something that enables you to engage in this activity as much as possible.  So, for instance, in my case studying music theory and composition seemed the best option for a college major.  And even though I’m a priest now–a vocation that nonetheless helps me engage in the transcendent–I wasn’t thinking so much along these lines in college.  Too, even though I’m a priest now, I still find those occasional times to spend an evening lost in rapturous composition–an activity I honed and shaped most productively while in college.  Not to mention, my musical expertise often comes in handy now, in this vocation!

So what is it for you, I ask my kids?

I’ll tell you this: if you end up with a job that feels to you like labor, toil, and pain–on that right side of my spectrum–you’ll have a difficult time waking up every Monday through Friday; and you’ll watch the clock throughout each day, counting the minutes till five o’clock.  I once worked in a civil engineering firm that felt like that for me.  Not that it did for other engineers!  For some of them, they couldn’t wait to start work each morning; and they frequently had no idea that five o’clock just came and went.  For me, engineering was close to the right side of the spectrum; for them, left.

I’ll tell you this too.  The more I work–the older I get, the more experienced I become in my calling–the more leftward I want to move on my spectrum.  But that’s nothing to worry about too much now.  Still, you don’t want to find yourself in some dead-end job, unable to move leftward once you’ve got the responsibilities of a spouse, kids, a house payment, and so on.  (That can happen whether you have a college degree or not.)  If you ever find yourself there, have a plan to find something less toilsome and more transcendent.  (Not easy without a college degree.)  Point is, strive for play in the present moment.  And now, looking at college squarely, study what you love, what moves you, what triggers transcendence.

Of course this advice starts early: the proddings and all that.  But it must in our day and age, where kids are pressured from early on to worry about where they’re gonna go to college, what they will do when they grow up, how they will make the most money, live in the biggest house they can afford, drive the most luxurious car, and vacation at the best resort.  I don’t want my kids to worry about any of these things.  But I want them to be wise.

Here again my play-work spectrum fits the bill.  For even in pre-school my kids are encouraged to do what they love and love what they do.  But that brings us back to the beginning, doesn’t it?  When my kids are little, it’s more command and less suggestion.  That’s just about learning to love what you do.  Yet as they grow it becomes less command and more suggestion, or learning to do what you love.

Why Audit Apuleius?

Posted in Rationale with tags , , , , , , on November 15, 2013 by timtrue
English: San Marino (California), Huntington L...

English: San Marino (California), Huntington Library. editio princeps of Apuleius, Metamorphoses.  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve been confronted by a question several times since I began serving as a priest in San Antonio, TX.  “Tim,” someone asks, “why are you auditing a Latin course?” or some similar variation.  Perhaps those who ask think that a priest at a large parish should be too busy for such leisure.  Perhaps they don’t see a connection between what I do (or what they think I should be doing) and the Latin language.  Or perhaps it’s narrower: perhaps the subject matter of the course itself doesn’t seem to fit.  In any event, I have my reasons.  I’ll even offer a few below, after an explanation of the course.

I, along with a professor and ten students, am working my way through translating (from Latin to English) Apuleius’s Metamorphoses, a work more commonly known as The Golden Ass.  The story itself is racy (as is a Google search of the title), about a young man on an adventure that would make Martin Scorsese blush, whose insatiable curiosity for magic transforms him into a donkey.  This is still early on in the tale; so for much of what remains we readers see things unfold through an animal’s eyes–an animal whose appetites for food and sex are even larger than he’d thought possible as a human; but an animal who is nevertheless guileless in contrast to the scheming humans around him–robbers, slaves, even some good ol’ commonfolk–as all animals are, apparently (according to author Apuleius).  In the end the protagonist, Lucius, is transformed back into a man by Isis, whom he then devotes his life to serving and worshiping as the savior of his soul.

So, why study, analyze, and translate this, eh hem, colorful work?

First, as surprising as it may sound, I hope to improve my preaching by it.  Have you ever analyzed a classic work of literature closely?  Then you know how florid and alive–how much more fun–the vocabulary and syntax can be.  Surely this sort of exercise will help anyone desiring to improve communication skills, whether written or spoken.  Add to this the complexity of translating a classic work from another language.  Translating requires you to consider carefully, ponderingly, which of several possible options best convey the subtleties of meaning the author intended.  So the translation itself ends up being something of an interpretation.  This entire process closely aligns to the process of reading a passage of scripture, analyzing it, digesting it, and designing a sermon from it to be presented to a congregation in spoken form, to be received and (hopefully) understood through the hearers’ ears.

Psyche et L'Amour (Psyche and Amor). William-A...

Speaking of which, The Golden Ass was written to be heard, not read; to be received through the ears, not the eyes.  This distinction is paramount for the preacher, for we humans speak differently than we write; and thus we hear a public speaker or a friend in animated conversation much differently than a person simply reading a manuscript.  Studying The Golden Ass with this aural perspective is not the same therefore as studying, say, a Dickens novel.

Moreover Apuleius vividly tells the myth of Cupid and Psyche through the character of an old woman whose job it was to console a kidnapped girl.  The amazing thing here is that, though the myth originated hundreds of years before, Apuleius’s version is the earliest known written recording of the myth; and thus much of the sculpture and art from the Renaissance drew from Apuleius’s version.  C. S. Lewis relies heavily on Apuleius in fact in his retelling of the myth through the eyes of Psyche in Till We Have Faces.  Anyway, Apuleius has a great deal to offer the aspiring rhetorician.

A second reason I am auditing the class has to do with a linguistic connection to Augustine, who incidentally is the person that coined the common title The Golden Ass.  It works like this.  Prior to taking this class, my Latin experience was almost entirely caught between Julius Caesar’s Conquest of Gaul (ca. 50 BCE) to Statius’s Thebaid (ca. 90 CE).  To jump from then to ca. 400, when Augustine was writing and preaching regularly, is something of a quantum leap in the language, from the classical world to the medieval really.  Just try to read an English book written in 1700 or so and you get the idea.  Languages evolve.  So, Apuleius bridges the gap for me nicely, having been published in the latter half of the second century.  Maybe now I’m ready for Augustine’s Latin, a character from whom I ought to be able to learn a thing or two about preaching.

Preaching like Augustine?

Preaching like Augustine?

Third then, and this is really a bigger reason than the particular work in question, more of an answer to why I study Latin at all: Latin is play for me.  Yeah, play.  To ask me the question “Why Latin?” is like asking a baseball fan why he likes the sport, or like asking a violinist why she likes music.  How do you answer that?  It’s something that gets my blood flowing, so to speak.  But it’s more, precisely in that it is not work.  When we work, we’re after something quantifiable, something we can look back upon and feel as if we’ve accomplished a thing or two.  But play is not like this.  Engaging in play, we don’t worry about what we’re doing, producing, or accomplishing.  We simply engage in it and enjoy the moment.  That’s Latin for me.  That’s baseball for others, music for others still (myself included).  That too, incidentally, is a picture of worship, wherein we enter God’s house to become lost in a transcendent moment.

In the end, then, there really is no need to explain my asinine fixation with Latin.

Christian Sadducees

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , on November 10, 2013 by timtrue

Luke 20:27-38

What is the difference between a Baptist and a Roman Catholic?  What distinguishes a Lutheran from a Presbyterian?  What makes the United Church of Christ stand out from, say, a Congregationalist church?  Or are they the same?  How is the Episcopal Church dissimilar to the Methodist?  Or—here’s one for you—what makes the Presbyterian Church in America (the PCA) distinct from the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (the PCUSA)?

Frank Schaeffer is a modern-day pundit on these and related questions.  His name might be familiar to you.  If it is, this might be because he is the son of a well-known pastor, theologian, and author named Francis Schaeffer, the founder and long-time director of L’Abri, a sort of retreat center in Switzerland.  Frank, or Frankie as he was known in those days, grew up at L’Abri.  We might think of him as the quintessential P. K.—pastor’s kid, or priest’s kid.  Through books like Portofino and Crazy for God, he tells what it was like to live in the shadow of such a well-known man of God—the good, the bad, and the ugly of it.  If you tend to put priests or pastors on pedestals, you won’t want to read these books.  Then again, you probably should.

Anyway, Frank Schaeffer doesn’t really answer these questions—what the difference is between a Baptist and a Roman Catholic and so on.  Instead, he points out the folly in it all using humor in his novel Portofino.  The work is fiction, told through the eyes of thirteen year-old Calvin Becker; but Frank told me himself in a recent e-mail message, it is “based on the truth of what happened in my family.”

So, Calvin’s dad was a minister of the PCUSA.  One day, unfortunately, this denomination had a falling out over its understanding of the rapture.  So heated was this intra-denominational debate that a split ensued.  The new denomination called itself the PCCUSA, or the Presbyterian Calvinist Church in the USA.

A few years later something similar happened, so another new denomination was formed, this time called the PCCCUSA, or the Presbyterian Church of Christ and Covenant in the USA.

But eventually even this newest denomination wasn’t solid enough on matters of doctrine.  So finally, yes, another new denomination formed, where Calvin’s dad served out his days as a minister of the PCCCCUSA, or the Presbyterian Church of the Calvinist Confirmed Confession in the USA.

Schaffer makes his point, yeah?  On the one hand, there are indeed differences in how followers of Christ interpret the scriptures.  But, on the other hand, why do these differences have to result in so much division?

In today’s Gospel passage we encounter a peculiar—a particular—a picayunish—denomination of the old world: the Sadducees.

They are a small Jewish sect defined chiefly by their beliefs about the Torah, or so they say.  They don’t trust midrash, traditional interpretations of the scriptures given by generations of rabbis.  Instead they believe only what the scriptures say.  In this way they are very much like that modern-day group of Christians that says, “No creed but the Bible.”  For them, tradition has no place.

But also, the Sadducees are materialists.  That is, they believe that life consists of no more than the here-and-now.  This belief is indicated by the first words of today’s passage: they don’t believe in the resurrection.  Another way to put this is that they don’t believe that human souls live on after the body dies.  As a corollary, by the way, they don’t believe in angels either.

And, accordingly, they try to trap Jesus with a rather ridiculous question.

“Jesus,” they say, “we’ve got one for you.  Seven brothers walk into a bar—”

Okay, I know, that’s not what they really say.  But they might as well!  Their whole question, they think, is designed to show just how foolish it is to believe in the resurrection.

Moses gave us the law for our own good, they claim.  And one of the laws requires us to take care of the widow of a kinsman.  That’s a wonderful law—for this world.  But c’mon, Jesus, can’t you see how ridiculous it is to try to carry these laws over into a so-called afterlife?

I love Jesus’s answer—in which he refutes a couple of the Sadducees’ ideas at once.

First, he says that there are indeed angels.  The afterlife, as it turns out, is not to be compared to this world.  For in it, resurrected human beings are made like angels.  They cannot die anymore.  But neither can they marry.

But second, and this is even better, Jesus effectively says that the idea of resurrection is all over the place in the Torah.  You don’t need midrash to find it.  That story of the burning bush, for instance: when God says, “I am the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,” he is proclaiming them to be alive.  Right now!  For God is not the god of the dead, but of the living.

The Sadducees, then—despite their beliefs to throw out tradition, that midrash didn’t matter, and that they should trust only the Torah—however noble these beliefs may sound—in the end the Sadducees still needed to figure out what the scriptures meant for them today.  They were a denomination of the old world organized around the authority of sacred writings.  But they rejected tradition.  They were therefore left to their own, modern-day interpretations of those sacred writings.

Here’s the trouble—and it’s the same trouble for those who reject tradition today: the Sadducees were products of their time.  They looked to Moses’s law, written to a people wandering in a wilderness about to enter a promised land.  But they themselves lived in a very different world from Moses: a world of Roman occupation; a world of Hellenistic thought.

Moses’s law still applied, sure.  But much had changed between then and now.  Generations of godly rabbis had prayerfully sought to address these changes all along the way, and to apply the scriptures accordingly.  Traditions had been established and developed.  Why would the Sadducees want to reject these?

But human nature is like that, isn’t it?  From early on we reject tradition and its close sibling, authority.  Think of a toddler’s favorite word, “No!” followed closely by a second favorite, “Mine!”  Think of the pulling away from authority and tradition that is adolescent angst.  I used to teach middle school and high school Latin.  And every year the same question would come up: “Mr. True,” the students would say—and I’m sure they weren’t trying to trap me—“why do we even study Latin?  Isn’t it a dead language?  How will Latin help me get a job when I graduate?”

We want to forge a new way ahead, don’t we?  That’s human nature.  We’re survivors, planners, strategizers.  And there’s not necessarily anything wrong with that.  But at the same time we all too often want simply to throw out the past—history, authority, tradition!  Like modern-day Sadducees, we think we know better.  Why do we need history to forge a way forward, we ask?  We have technological knowledge unlike anything before our time.  So why even bother with history, with Latin, with tradition?

And in thinking so we become proud of ourselves, arrogant even, thinking that we know better; that our understanding of the scriptures is more right and true than anyone else’s; that we don’t need history, tradition, or authority.  And we divide into factions—peculiar, particular, picayunish factions—even within our own parish!

But, like it or not, we are products of our time.  Like it or not, we modern-day American Christians don’t really know all that much.

The Bible teaches us that, by the way.  And if you care to round out the picture, so does tradition.

A Lesson from the Liberal Arts

Posted in Doing Church, Education with tags , , on November 9, 2013 by timtrue
The Seven Liberal Arts

The Seven Liberal Arts (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A modern liberal arts education bases itself on the seven liberal arts of the middle ages.  These are grammar, dialectic, rhetoric, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and harmony.  The first three comprise the trivium; the last four the quadrivium.  For students, mastery of the trivium was essential before going on to the quadrivium.

Today this strikes us as a minimalist curriculum.  If we were to try to categorize today’s individual academic subjects into one of the seven liberal arts, we would soon come up short.  Foreign languages could fit into the grammar category, arguably; but where would we place history, for instance?  Point is, for most schools today, even schools that advertise themselves as liberal arts schools, curricular choices are much more extensive.

Why is this?

Well, for one thing, times have changed.  Our cultural context is vastly different than the contexts whence liberal arts developed.  Or so I’ve heard.  Still, they’re called liberal because they were for the free person.  It was the education given to and received by the leaders of the next generation.  The best education money could buy, in other words.  And, while we don’t live in a society today that consists of slaves and free persons; while we see class distinctions as lines for blurring, not emphasizing; while we have a choice today of public, private, or even home education, why not offer the best education we can as a society to the next generation?  The thing is, I think we all want to give our children the best education we can.  But the seven liberal arts of the middle ages seem to many to be, well, outdated.

But there is a second reason, perhaps more significant, that we don’t consider the seven liberal arts a viable option today.  Namely, we want our kids to become specialists, experts in their respective fields–their chosen fields of preference–when they grow up.  So, now, while they’re young, the reasoning goes, we shouldn’t stifle them with so narrow an education.  Rather, we should expose them to as many fields as possible in the hopes that somewhere along the way they will be seized with an interest in something, an interest that is so passionate that they simply must pursue it for the rest of their lives.  Grammar is good and all, and most definitely should be studied.  But what if my son wants to study snake species in the Amazon?  An education that educates only in the liberal arts, so the reasoning goes, will never allow my son to discover this about himself.  Exposure to this and that and the other thing, then, is the name of the game.

But there is an irony here.  I’ve seen it happening in the schools where I used to teach and where my kids have attended.  I’ve seen it happening more broadly too, in society at large, and in the Church.

For in our desire that our kids find passions to pursue, more often than not they don’t–unless Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or gaming are considered passions.  But even when they do, the exposure to so many things, and the curricular requirements imposed upon them to complete their myriad assignments in order to convince school administrators that they are being adequately exposed indeed, they end up graduating high school not having mastered anything, passions or otherwise.

On the other hand, an education in the liberal arts has mastery in mind from the outset.  The focus is narrow.  But the product is broad, a graduate (in theory) who can adapt, learn, and grow–characteristics needed in a leader.

The key concept here is adaptability.  The modern-day approach produces young adults who have never mastered anything.  But the liberal arts approach educates students to learn a foundational mastery.  It produces adults who can grow, change, and adapt as needed; who can wear many hats as it were; who end up being good at any number of jobs, regardless of particular skill sets.

Speaking of which, in society we place a lot of emphasis on acquiring skill sets.  “What do you do?” is a question all too common at cocktail parties.  When we have a problem with a car, we take it to the expert, the mechanic.  When good leadership is needed, we call in an expert, a consultant.  When disagreements surface, we call the experts in, mediators, lawyers.  Elementary teachers, not parents, are seen as experts of child development.  Herbal remedies are seen as quack medicine; pharmaceuticals are expert.  And so on.

In the Church we want to specialize too, don’t we?  I’ve seen incredibly specific job titles for priests and pastors: Pastor of Adult Formation; Associate Priest to Seniors; Executive Pastor; Associate Priest of Pastoral Care; even Pastor of Technology.

Now, whether you agree with this focus on skills or not, it is what it is today.  (Personally I feel that clergy ought to be more generalists than specialists as they are called to be leaders of multi-faceted congregations.)  Still, even with the skill-set focus of today, and even with generalist professions becoming fewer and farther between, what seems the better way to educate tomorrow’s leaders?  Teach them to master something while they’re young, I say.  Exposure can come later.  Bring on the trivium!

I believe there is a lesson to be learned here for the Church’s leaders.  Houses of worship often try to be all things to all people.  That is, they focus on attracting people by offering exposure: the approach modern-day education takes.  Maybe somewhere in the flea-market a potential parishioner will stumble upon something to be passionate about.  But, instead, shouldn’t the Church adapt more of the mastery approach of a liberal arts education?  Churches are called to be places of worship.  Worship of Christ defines them, in fact.  Other places and organizations–not just churches–practice hospitality, feed the hungry, serve the downtrodden, counsel the psychologically needy, market what they have to offer, conduct weddings and funerals, educate children, heal the sick, and so on.  Only gathering to worship Christ is unique to the Church.  All these other things comprise parts of the Church, sure, even good parts.  And therefore churches should not stop practicing the love of Christ in these (and other) ways.  But why does the Church need pastors of outreach, technology, young families, seniors, administration, and so on to make these happen?  Laypeople can do all of these things very well–and clergy can and should encourage and enable them to do so.  But only corporate worship of Christ around the sacraments of baptism and Eucharist is uniquely the Church’s.  Shouldn’t this, then, be the special focus of ordained ministers?

Spoiler Alert: Watch *Jack the Giant Slayer* before Reading

Posted in Movies with tags , , , , on November 5, 2013 by timtrue
Гравюры по рисункам Крейна к сказкам «Синяя Бо...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The history of England is shrouded in legend.  Sure, we know many truths and facts about the Tudors, the Plantagenets, William the Conqueror, even Alfred the Great; but going back further, to Arthur, the fog becomes thicker.  Was there even a real Arthur?  Probably.  But are we to believe all those stories about Launcelot, Guinevere, Galahad, Gawain, and the Green Knight–who rode away headless, by the way, after challenging Gawain to lop off his head?  And what are we to make of Morgana Le Fay, eh?

So too with the Anglican Church.  There are reports of bishops from England attending the earliest ecumenical councils, centuries before the pope sent Augustine over to Christianize the island.  Patrick, too, the saint we attribute to so many things Irish, was actually from England, the son of a deacon of an extant church when he was kidnapped by Irish pirates.  Point is, the church was there already.

How it arrived no one can say for sure.  One of my favorite legends credits Joseph of Arimathea, that guy in the Bible who supplied the tomb for Jesus.  Legend tells that he was a wealthy merchant of tin; and the only place in the world where there were tin mines in Jesus’s day was, yep, England.

One more: George is England’s patron saint.  This is the saint who killed a ravaging dragon and thereby saved a good kingdom from certain destruction.  Beyond this we know little.  But a dragon?  The stuff of legend.

The recent movie Jack the Giant Slayer suits this land and church of the Angles wonderfully.  “Fee, fie, foe, fum, ask not whence the thunder comes,” a storyteller’s voice begins; and immidiately I’m thinking, “That isn’t the way it goes.  It’s, ‘I smell the blood of an Englishman.'”  But it’s intentional.  It’s all part of the fun.

The viewer then watches the story of Jack and the Beanstalk unfold, though not exactly the way the story comes to us in nursery rhyme.  There is Jack, sure.  But he lives with his uncle, not his mother.  He doesn’t foolishly sell a horse for beans either; he is actually more burglarized.  Of course the beans have a backstory, which we viewers learn, involving a crown too, once fashioned and worn by an ancient king named Eric, who used the crown to gain authority over a race of giants now ravaging the land.  Of course some bad guy with worse intentions gets a hold of the crown and uses it to his advantage–and everyone else’s disadvantage.  Also, there wasn’t just one giant with a goose that laid golden eggs either, but a whole race of them living between earth and heaven.  They’d once bridged a way to earth, in fact, where they’d got a taste for human flesh, something akin to crack for them apparently, for they’d since longed to get back and feast gluttonously on humanity (and are probably still longing to do so today, we learn near the flick’s end).

The best part comes at the end, when with cutting-edge visual effectiveness we time-lapse to modern-day London, realizing that through it all the giant-controlling crown is still in existence, though disguised through many centuries of royalty, many of whom have added their own ornate details to the diadem, generation upon generation, until, yep, there it sits today, in the Tower of London, along with the royal jewels.  Ha!  That punchline alone was worth the $1.20 I paid to rent this at Redbox.  Plus tax!

Anyway, this entertaining flick aligns well with the similarly entertaining histories of both the land and church of the Angles.

For All Us Saints

Posted in Homilies with tags on November 3, 2013 by timtrue

Ephesians 1:11-23

Today we remember all the saints.

Of course, this begs the question, who are all the saints?

Our Church calendar remembers many saints throughout the year.  On October 18, for instance, we remember Saint Luke the Evangelist, from whose Gospel we read today.  Also in October, on the fourth, we remember another saint, Francis of Assisi.  Perhaps you’ve brought your dog or cat—or maybe even your pot-belly pig or hedgehog—to church for a blessing of the animals in honor of Saint Francis.

Anyway, is this what it means to remember all the saints—to take all of them in our Church calendar, collectively, and thank God for the work they’ve done and the examples they’ve left for us?

Yes, in a sense.  But it is also more.  Much more!

Indulge me for a moment.  Take a Prayer Book—one of the red books in the pew rack in front of you—and open it to page 845.  Now, what do you see there?  Did you know that our Church has a catechism?  Yeah!  This is a great tool, and can even be a fun way, for getting to know what the Episcopal Church believes about the Bible; about God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; about theological ideas like human nature, sin and redemption, and even heaven and hell.

Now turn to page 862, the final page of the catechism.  I’m going to read a question to you, and I want you all to read the answer together.  I’ll even read the answer with you: it’s kind of wordy.  It’s a little more than half way down the page.  Ready?

Q.      What is the communion of saints?

A.      The communion of saints is the whole family of God, the living and the dead, those whom we love and those whom we hurt, bound together in Christ by sacrament, prayer, and praise.

Just ponder this answer for a bit with me:

  • the whole family of God;
  • the living and the dead;
  • those whom we love and those whom we hurt;
  • bound together by sacrament.

So track with me.  It’s not just dead people who’ve left us good examples to follow here.  If you’ve been baptized, then you are a part of the whole family of God.  And if you are a part of the whole family of God, then you are a member of the communion of saints.  Yes!  Right now, alive, in this place, you too are a saint!

So on this day we celebrate all the saints.  This celebration includes Saint Luke.  This celebration includes Saint Francis too.  But this celebration also includes you!

The letter to the Ephesians says it like this:

In [Christ] you also . . . were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit.

Speaking of Ephesians, let’s now turn our attention here.  Today’s epistle passage is a prayer for Christ’s disciples in a city called Ephesus.  But by extension, it is also a prayer for all the saints, in all times and places.  Thus, it is a prayer for us too.

So, what does this prayer say?  What is the writer of this letter praying for?

Simply this: that all the saints—that we—may know three things: 1) the hope to which God has called us; 2) the riches of God’s glorious inheritance; and 3) the immeasurable greatness of God’s power.

That’s it!  Yes, I know there are a lot more words here, sure.  But if you tear this passage down, right at the heart of it, right in the middle of a long and complex sentence, this is the gist—these three things: the Christian hope; God’s glorious riches; and God’s great power.

So then, what do these three things bring to mind?

The Christian hope.  Doesn’t that have something to do with the resurrection?  And not just Jesus’s resurrection, but the resurrection of every Christian, at the last day?

God’s glorious riches.  Isn’t this another way to talk about heaven, where streets are paved with gold, where the Father is preparing a room for me, and where there will be wedding banquets to rival British royalty?

And God’s great power.  What’s this about?  Isn’t God already all-powerful?  Still, there is evil in the world.  Bad things happen to good people.  Part of the Lord’s Prayer, after all, is that God’s will may be done on earth as it is in heaven.

Yeah, so that must be it.  Heaven!  This passage is about heaven, that all the saints, that we, may know heaven more fully.

To which I respond, sort of.

This passage is about heaven, true enough.  But there’s this word, know.  The prayer is that all saints, even those living now in the present reality, may know these things more fully.  Know, even in its form here, may know, is in the present tense.  It means now.  Not in the future, not in the past, but now, in the present.

We can know the Christian hope more fully now; we can tap into God’s glorious riches right now; and we can rely on and trust in God’s great power now—as we live and move and breathe in this world!

Be confident in the fact that you are a saint.  God has made you, called you, sealed you, and bestowed spiritual gifts upon you.  Go out and do something with this—something that will make the kingdom of heaven more of a reality in the world around you than it already is.

But don’t just do it on your own, relying on yourself, your own talents and gifts.  You are a part of the communion of saints.  Spread the love of Christ, the kingdom of heaven, now, with other living saints—saints, in fact, who are sitting in pews all around you, right now.

Look around.  Go ahead.  I give you permission.  Stare at someone near you.  And see them for the saints they are—how God has loved, called, sealed, and gifted them—how God has called you to love them too.  Then remember and celebrate them today.

And if you really take these things seriously and presently—the Christian hope, God’s glorious riches, and God’s great power—then go out and do something collaboratively, with other saints, maybe even with the saints you just stared at, that will turn the world upside down for Christ’s sake!