Archive for Episcopal Church

Prayer: Hope or Action?

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , on October 16, 2016 by timtrue

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Luke 18:1-8

There’s a certain tension that comes to the surface in the parable Jesus tells in today’s Gospel.

On the one hand, there’s a God-fearing widow.  And widows in the ancient world, as we know, had it rough.  There was no social security system.  There was no Medicare.  And unless she had a son to take care of her or some other unlikely benefactor, she was largely on her own to make ends meet.  Widows in the ancient world were easy targets for bullies.

On the other hand, there’s a self-serving judge, who cares nothing about God and even less about the dignity of other persons.  In short, he is a key player in the system which is already stacked against the marginalized and oppressed.

We followers of Christ are meant, of course, to identify with the widow.

Early Christians were marginalized and oppressed.  Out of necessity, they had to work within the extant Roman system to make a way forward—within a system that cared nothing about God and even less about the dignity of the marginalized; within a system that was stacked against them.

But what does this mean for us today?  What should our identification with the widow look like?

Are we to spend our time in prayer, as Luke’s own commentary states—“Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart” (v.1, emphasis added)?  Or are we to engage in persistent work, like the widow did, who kept coming, over and over, to the unjust judge until he gave in?

More simply, is this a parable about praying or doing?  As Christians, are we called to hope or to act?

And thus the tension of which I speak.

The Bible is full of examples of people—at both the individual and the community levels—who couldn’t do anything about their present situation; who were left with no other option but to hope.

Adam and Eve disobeyed God.  God then promised redemption and reconciliation.  But when would it come?  Adam and Eve couldn’t do anything about said redemption and reconciliation: they were left just to hope.

A similar scenario plays out with the death of Abel and banishment of Cain.  How would God redeem the cosmos now?  They could only wait—and hope.

And do you remember the story of Joseph?  He was sold into slavery—by his own jealous, ungrateful, entitled brothers.  What could he do but cry out to God in hope?

Indeed, throughout the Old and New Testaments we hear story after story of individual widows, orphans, and slaves who are powerless to do anything about their respective situations; who can only hope through prayer.

And it’s the same at the community level.  Famines hit whole nations; war comes upon communities suddenly and unexpectedly; the nation of Israel becomes enslaved to Egypt.  What else can they do but cry out to God?

And, as you know, it’s not just the Bible.  People throughout history have been left with nothing they can do about their present situation—with nothing in their power but hope through prayer.

Yet, on the other hand, I can also think of numerous examples where people actually can do something about it.

“Be strong and courageous; enter the land of promise,” Joshua commanded the people of Israel.

“Go and make disciples of all nations,” Jesus commanded.  And, “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, all Samaria, and even to the ends of the earth.”

Moses led.  David protected.  Peter founded.  Paul preached.

In more modern times, Martin Luther King, Junior stood fast against systemic injustice.

Often times we are in fact called to act.  And, it seems reasonable to me, if we do not act it is to commit the sin of omission (as we name it in one of our prayers).

So, then, which is it? Hope or action?

To which I answer, yes.

The examples I’ve given are specific situations.  Of course there are times when individuals and communities will have no choice at all but to hope through prayer!  Likewise, of course there are specific times when individuals and communities will be called to act so that it feels as if hardly any prayer is taking place at all!

But our theology of prayer must not be formed from these polar extremes.  Informed by them, yes.  But not formed from them.

There are churches whose theology of prayer is formed only by hope.  You know what their message is?  Jesus will soon return and he’s not going to like what he finds.  A great battle will ensue culminating in the destruction of the entire cosmos.  All humanity, all the fauna and flora, all the sun moon and stars—all will be blotted out at the final trumpet blast!

There’s not a lot these churches can do.  Leaders from such churches encourage their parishioners to go out into the world and make disciples, for the souls of people are all that will pass into the afterlife.  But as for going out and fighting against social injustice, there’s really not much of a need.  Christianity’s place, they say, is only to hope in a future kingdom through prayer.

Yet, on the other hand, there are churches whose theology of prayer comes only from good works.  Their message is: Christ has already brought his kingdom to earth; he has therefore called us to do as much as is in our power to bring this kingdom about.

The logical consequence is that we really have little time for sitting around in contemplative prayer.  Really, we shouldn’t take time out of our schedules at all for individual or corporate prayer, or even for worship.  In fact, we should spend as little money as possible on the church.  Instead we should use all our funds to feed and clothe the poor and to fight other social injustices we see in our local world.

Do you see the two polar extremes here?  A theology of prayer focused only on hope is infrared; and a theology of prayer focused only on action is ultraviolet.  To get the white light of the Gospel in its full splendor, we must have a proper theology of prayer: hope and action together, with all their gradients.

“Roy G. Biv” is how I learned the colors of the rainbow—like a man’s name: Roy as a first name, G as his middle initial, and Biv as his last name. And then I knew the colors of the rainbow in order: Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, and Violet.  Was it the same with you?

But we all know there are many more colors in the rainbow than seven.  For when we get to that liminal area between one color and the next—between red and orange, for instance—we see combinations of the two—reddish-orange and orangeish-red and a million other gradients—so that we can’t really see where one color stops and the other starts.

A full theology of prayer includes not just the infrared and the ultraviolet but also the ROYGBIV in between—and the millions upon millions of gradients therein.

Or, more simply, prayer is both hope and action—and all the millions upon millions of ways we can combine the two.

So, to return to the main point, Jesus says you need to pray always and not to lose heart.

Do you know how to do this?  It’s not easy.  But a church with a sound theology of prayer can help.

Here are just some of the traditions that have emerged from our church’s theology of prayer: lectio divina, the Ignatian method, praying our own Anglican rosary, centering prayer, walking the labyrinth, the Daily Office, meditation, intercession, giving gifts, the examen, journaling, walking, working, singing, chanting, reading, and simply sitting in silence.

This list is not exhaustive—please inquire later if you’d like to know more.  But I mention it because it shows how prayer is both hope and action, and all the various combinations of the two.

Take advantage of these traditions.  They will help you to pray always.  They will help you not to lose heart.

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Jeremy Begbie and the LMC

Posted in Reflection with tags , , , , , , , , , , on February 13, 2015 by timtrue

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In 2008 I had the privilege of meeting Dr. Jeremy Begbie.

Back then he was transitioning from a position with St. Andrew’s University in Scotland to a newly created post with Duke University; from founder and director of the Institute for Theology, Imagination, and the Arts at St. Andrew’s to founder and director of Duke Divinity School’s Initiatives for Theology and the Arts.  And that’s only what he does for half the academic year.  The other half he teaches systematic theology in Cambridge, England.

Begbie is a prolific writer and sought-after speaker, a trained classical pianist and priest in the Church of England.  He has devoted his professional life to exploring the intersections of theology and art, especially music.  I’d been drawn to the Episcopal church in large part because of its rich liturgical and musical traditions.  And now I was reading a book of his, in fact, when I heard he was coming to a conference being held just up the road in Austin, Texas.

“Can I go?” I asked my boss as I showed him a flyer.

“I wish I could join you,” he smiled.

So, the conference did not disappoint.

Begbie is an academic.  So you might call to mind the stereotypical academic lecturer: dry, inaccessible, interesting only to the few other academics in the world who share his esoteric questions.

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Not so with Begbie!  I witnessed him teach a room of six hundred people–mostly non-musicians–how to listen for God in a piano sonata by Sergei Prokofiev.  Prokofiev’s music isn’t easy even for musicians!  After discussing, Begbie performed the piece; at its conclusion, all six hundred listeners instantly rose to their feet as one, responding with loud ovation.  Non-musicians had heard this difficult piece of music and they got it!  They encountered the divine in and through Prokofiev.

Mirabile visu!

Since that time I’ve read more of Begbie’s books; I’ve looked wistfully at Duke Divinity’s website, wondering if I might be able to enroll as a doctoral student with its Initiatives for Theology and the Arts; and I’ve tried to book Begbie for speaking/performing engagements.  The world, especially the Episcopal world, needs to hear what this guy’s about!

As I said, I was drawn to the Episcopal Church in large part by its musical and liturgical traditions.  So much of modern-day Christianity is lite, as in lite beer (which is even lite in the way it misspells light).  Maybe another way to say it is user-friendly, to put a positive spin on it.  The bar is low.  Pew sitters don’t have to do much except show up on Sunday expecting (and usually getting) a sort of cheap and uplifting entertainment.

But as a person with a bent towards the spiritual, a few years of Christianity lite was already too much for me.  I didn’t want to come to church on Sundays in search of uplifting entertainment in exchange for a few bucks in the plate as it passed by.  I wanted to encounter God.  If it took a little or a lot of effort on my part to do this, so be it.

Besides, if I was in fact entering God’s house every Sunday, as we Christians in fact believe; and if I was in fact dining with Jesus Christ at his very Table–also something Christians believe–then why shouldn’t it require a little effort on my part?  I wouldn’t show up to a dinner with the president of the US in flip-flops, shorts, and a tank top; why then show up to church like this?

Take this line of reasoning beyond me, as an individual, to the us, the corporate body we call church, including the many centuries of worshipers who have lived and died before our time.  These usses have taken the faith seriously.  The music and liturgy reflect this.  There is something profound in praying the same Eucharistic prayer prayed by the English saints of the sixteenth century.  Similarly, music.  Think about all the complexities of a pipe organ and a many-voiced choir versus the simplicities of some soloist performing with a six-stringed guitar and a microphone.  Not to slight the latter over the former, especially in its rightful context.  But which seems more appropriate for a royal banquet?

Sadly, though, American Christianity is losing interest in the complex musical tradition in favor of user-friendliness.  And thus we have Christianity lite.

And it’s not just the non-denoms and so-called evangelicals.  It’s Episcopalians–who ought to know better; who ought to treasure their tradition the most!

Instead we look over the fence.  At least that’s been my experience thus far.  And I’ve only been an associate, not yet a rector; so thus far I’ve been powerless to effect change here–except for a recent Begbie event, which I’ll get back to soon; but here I had to circumvent my position as curate and deal with it at the diocesan level, a kind of clever subversion.  But I digress.

Point is, we Episcopalians look over the fence at those other guys, those “successful” ones who somehow manage to bring in the numbers (and the pledges).  And we think, how can we be more like them?

Ah, yes, happy-clappy music.

And, sure, user-friendliness.

And so the traditions we look to (if one can even call them traditions), congregational growth models from the 1990s mega-churches, are anemic and insipid, like so much schmaltz; and they end up trumping centuries of balanced nutrition.

Well, I mentioned above that I’ve tried to book Begbie before for speaking/performing engagements.  He is making a living as a cutting-edge scholar exploring how music and theology overlap and intersect.  “But it’s no more than what people were doing for centuries,” he tells me; “just that no one’s doing it anymore.”  So, recently, I’m happy to say, it happened: I booked him.  Last weekend, he came to San Antonio for three lectures/performances; sponsored by the Episcopal Diocese of West Texas’s Liturgy and Music Commission; and hosted by my church.  And I had a lot to do with it.  Here’s how:

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In the middle of May, 2013, I was in San Antonio looking for a house to rent.  I’d just graduated from seminary.  A diocesan retreat would be happening in a few days.  Knowing I was to begin working at St. Luke’s in June, in the mean time I thought I’d try to find a place to live.

The bishop caught wind of my visit.  Knowing my background in music, he asked, “Why not join my Liturgy and Music Commission?  And why not just come to the meeting, which just so happens to be this afternoon?”

So, motorcycle helmet in hand, and helmet hair on head, I crashed the LMC meeting.

Planning an event was on the agenda, one that was somehow related to liturgy and music but also would be accessible, not just for choirs and their directors.  “Why not Jeremy Begbie?” I suggested.  “Who?” the other LMC members replied.

By the next meeting–now I was wearing clericals and living in a house in San Antonio–we had learned that Jeremy Begbie had a free weekend early in February, 2015, and could we get a proposed event on the calendar?

So it was decided.

And since I had brought it up, and since I was now working at St. Luke’s, a sensible venue, wouldn’t St. Luke’s like to play host?

And so that was decided too.

Which really meant, as I learned about three months ago, that I would end up doing most of the work, like when one kid ends of doing ninety percent of a high school group project.

So, remember that part where not too many people care about our rich liturgical and musical traditions anymore?  That idea became reality about two months ago.  For three months ago we opened registration for the event.  And by two months ago only a few people had signed up, a few who all happened to be affiliated with the LMC.

Clergy were roused.  Emails were sent.  Phone calls were made.

Then, one month ago the number of registrants came in at a whopping nine.

Now, Begbie’s requested fee is $2000 (all of which, by the way, he puts into the Initiatives at Duke) plus travel expenses.  We were charging $35 a piece at the door; $25 for early, online registration.  We had only $1000 in the LMC account.  Do the math.  A month ago we were in trouble.

But I believe in the guy’s message.

And I also believe that the church is losing sight of its traditions.

So , like that parable where the wedding guests ignore their invitations, I took what good news I had to the highways and byways.  I began to contact everyone I could think of within a 200-mile radius who might have the slightest interest in Begbie.

Fortunately I vaguely remembered the name of the group who sponsored the Austin conference from 2008.  It had the words Hill Country in its name; and the conference was something about transforming culture.  And with some weird combination of luck, providence, and Google working in my favor, I found it: Hill Country Institute.

Well, between HCI and the forty or so other contacts I made on a certain Friday night between 7pm and midnight–as if I had nothing better to do!–we saw 85 actual people show up to this event, about twenty who were not Episcopalians.  In fact, we almost covered costs, meaning most of that $1000 is still in the LMC bank account.

And my smile’s been huge for the last five days.

HCI gets credit here because, yes, it knows and loves Jeremy Begbie; and it spread the word to more than 5000 of its constituents; and it interviewed Dr. Begbie and aired this interview a week ahead of the event on a radio program that covers much of south Texas via its airwaves.  HCI, at the last minute, became a solid co-sponsor; no doubt many of those 85 are a direct result of HCI’s efforts.  Thank you!

Still, only 85?  What’s wrong with our culture?

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The event itself was glorious.  Dr. Begbie was as good as I’d remembered, even better.  As for a review of the event, watch for another post soon!

Changing It Up

Posted in Doing Church, Musings with tags , , on November 16, 2014 by timtrue

Today’s Gospel reading in the Episcopal lectionary is Matthew 25:14-30, a parable about three slaves who manage their master’s money while he goes away for a time.  In this story we usually interpret the third slave as the bad guy, albeit a slightly dimwitted one; which is why we don’t feel so badly when he ends up thrown out into the darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.  But what if we were to change it up a little?  (By the way, I have no specific persons in mind in anything that follows; I’m merely playing with the parable.)

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Once there was a bishop who was about to go on sabbatical.

“I’m about to go on sabbatical,” he told three of his finest priests.  “But the trouble is, I don’t know how long I’ll be gone, and I’ve disabled my email account and I’m not taking my cell phone with me so you have no way of getting in touch with me while I’m gone and I don’t know when I’ll be back.  It’s an open-ended sabbatical, see, and all my colleagues are jealous.

“Anyway–stop yawning, all of you, and listen to what I’m about to say!–there’s another ‘the trouble is’ problem here.  80 million dollars came across my desk just this morning for church development, and I don’t know what to do with it.  So I’m putting it in your charge!

“Here, you, Lenny, take 50 million.  I’ve seen you do brilliant things before.  Do it again with this!

“And you, Veronica, take 20 million and do something fantastic with it.

“And you, er, uh, what’s your name?”

“Frank.”

“Yes, you, Frank.  Can’t say I know much about you.  Where do you serve?”

“Saint Swithin’s, sir.”

“Well, okay, if you say so.  But I thought Jim was there.”

“Yes, sir.  Jim’s the rector.  I’m just a curate.”

“Oh, okay, whatever that means.  But you are an Episcopal priest, right?”

“Yes.”

“Of this diocese?”

“Yes.”

“Very well, then.  You, Frank, Curator of St. Swithin’s, take the other 10 million (give or take) and do something grand with it.”

“Um, not curator, but–well, never mind!  Sure thing, boss.”

“I’ll check in on all y’all when I return.”

So they all went on their merry ways: the bishop to his sabbatical of undisclosed location and duration, although I heard it had something to do with warm, sandy beaches in the part of the world where our winter is their summer, and it may or may not have included surfing lessons by day and pina coladas by night; and the three priests to their respective parishes.

The first priest, Lenny, put his $50 million to work by developing an Episcopal waterpark.  And $50 million!  Hey, that’s enough to get something good going!  So he hired the best architects and engineers who work on that kind of thing and spent a full week out at Schlitterbahn in Texas shadowing the executives and so on until he had a good plan together and an opening date on the books, Memorial Day Weekend.  When asked about his innovative brainstorm, he is reported as saying, “You just watch.  This is gonna be good!”

Likewise, the second priest, Veronica, set about putting her $20 million to work building a community center on the vacant 10 acres adjacent to her parish.  Yeah!  With the help of her vestry, she bought the lot and drew up plans for a community gathering place, complete with hip café, gift shop, playground, dogpark, and Vespa rentals.  It would be a veritable mall where adolescents with extra cash on hand, soccer moms, anxious husbands out for that last-minute anniversary gift, toy-dog aficionados–anyone!–could buy the latest cool thing for Christians.  And it would be right next to church!  “So hip,” was her only comment.

Meanwhile, the curate of St. Swithin’s, well, he decided to take the $10 million and purchase a plot of scrappy land, cultivate it, and plant two crops.  One was grapes.  Black Spanish was the varietal, because that was blight-resistant in this part of the country, unlike other varietals like Cabernet and Zinfandel; and because it is used in port, the wine of choice for the Episcopal Eucharist.

The other was wheat.  And not just any wheat, but non-GMO affected wheat; for long ago he had learned that the people of his parish that requested gluten-free wafers were actually not allergic to organic, non-GMO wheat.  Yes, his was a green desire; a desire to provide his parishioners with home-made wine and bread.  “Not only that,” he argued, “but it will bring jobs to the area and help sustain a local economy.  The project itself will be sustainable too, eventually.  We will become a supplier for churches with a similar vision.”

Time passed.  Sure enough, some glitches surfaced: the $50 million wasn’t quite enough front money (nothing a loan couldn’t cover) and the local conservatives picketed for one-piece swimsuits only throughout opening week (but the Episcopalians responded by wearing bikinis–even some guys); liability issues surfaced when a teenager crashed a scooter into a table laden with lattes while trying to avoid a toy poodle running from a rottweiler; the first wheat harvest was low due to drought conditions and the grapes, well, as every vintner knows, they take three full years before producing a harvest adequate for any amount of wine anyway.

And, you guessed it, that’s about when the bishop returned.

“Lenny,” he said at the end of his first day visiting the Episcopal waterpark, “this was good!”

“Yep.  And the accountant says we should net $50 million in profits by the end of the season.”

“Well done, good and faithful servant.”

Then he remarked, “Veronica, this latte’s delicious.  And that puppy is so cute!  How’s it going with that law suit?”

“Oh, just fine.  Turns out we’ve been awarded $20 million by the state for allowing us to rent scooters to teenagers in the first place.  Turns out the kid should have been twenty-five.  Not our fault though!”

“Oh, that’s hip!  Well done, good and faithful servant.”

Then he turned to Frank.  “Tell me, curator, what’s up with your bread and wine enterprise?”

“It’s curate, by the way.  But never mind.  Anyway, well, eh hem, it’s gone about as well as one could expect in the first season of, um, an agricultural, er, enterprise, uh, sir.”

“But have you made any money?”

“Well, not yet.”

“Okay, then, well, do you have any bread or wine to show for it?”

“It doesn’t exactly work that way, sir.”

“No money?  No bread or wine?  That sounds hardly sustainable!

“So I see how it is: I hand you $10 million and you go and bury it in the dirt.  And now you have nothing to show for it.  I see.  Well, curate, I never knew you and I sure as heck have no reason to get to know you now.  You’re fired.  Go away and I hope never to see you again!”

Is Christian Atheism an Oxymoron?

Posted in Books with tags , , , , , , , on January 3, 2014 by timtrue

Browsing through Amazon’s search engines one day not so very long ago, part of a book title caught my attention: Christian Atheist.  An oxymoron, I wondered?  So I placed the book on my virtual wish list for a closer look later–along with other curiosities like (I just looked up my account and these were on it, in fact) Jupiter’s Travels: Four Years around the World on a Triumph, One Man Caravan, and A Child’s History of the World.  This ever-transitioning wish list, incidentally, gets the occasional makeover, when I delete almost everything for lack of interest (though the history book’s been on it since 2003).  It’s a good tool against impulse buying–whether or not Amazon knows it.

So, not so very long ago, I returned to my wish list after something of a hiatus to find this title still flummoxing me: Christian Atheist: Belonging without Believing, by Brian Mountford.  No one I know had read it, so I couldn’t go on a trustworthy recommendation.  But the Amazonian description said a thing or two about the author being a priest of the Church of England and that he was convinced that this topic needed to become a part of the ongoing conversation on Christianity’s place in society.  Thus, what with that and the relatively small price tag, I bought the book.

When it arrived some days later I picked it up with a casual interest, like I might be thumbing through a magazine I’d never seen before, curious, perhaps hoping for a flavorful mind cocktail, you know, something tasty to loosen me up a bit but pretty much lacking in any nutritional value.  But within a few minutes I found myself more than intrigued.  I was even almost delighted by what Mr. Mountford had to say, persuaded that what he had to say was right, that Christian atheism (as he defines it) does indeed need to become part of the conversation.

That’s because, in part, Mountford has been able to interact with people like Philip Pullman, author of Northern Lights, upon which the controversial film The Golden Compass is based.  Do you remember when that one came out?  American evangelicalism just about blew a fuse!  The film would somehow entice children away from the Christian faith and convince them all that atheism was the Gospel truth, or so it was suggested.  But Pullman himself has this to say: “I am a Christian Atheist; a Church of England Atheist; a Book of Common Prayer Atheist.  You could add a King James Bible Atheist, if you want.  All those things go deep for me; they formed me; that heritage is impossible to disentangle, like a piece of barbed-wire fence embedded in the bark of a tree.  I’ve absorbed the Church’s rituals and enjoy its language, which I knew as a boy, and now that it’s gone I miss it” (p. 1).

For Pullman the terms Christian and atheist are not mutually exclusive, but something that can be shared.  My wife had a professor in college with a similar sort of outlook; he called himself an Episcopal Buddhist because, he said, he practices Buddhism now but absolutely cherishes the traditions with which he was raised.  I didn’t get it then; I still don’t totally get it now.  But here is a book that addresses this apparent oxymoron in an intelligent, serious way.

Mountford himself has difficulty defining Christian atheism.  “The phrase Christian Atheist stayed with me,” he writes, “because it seemed such a good description of all the people I know who value the cultural heritage of Christianity–its language, art, music, moral compass, sense of transcendence–without actually believing in God; or,”–and here’s a key difficulty in my thinking–“at least without believing in God in a way that would satisfy Christian orthodoxy, particularly in the metaphysics department” (p. 1).

What Mountford speaks of here is not quite Christian; but neither it is quite atheism.  But which is emphasized more, Christianity or atheism?  There is a growing number of people in our churches who believe in church–its traditions, aesthetics, morality, and so on–without believing everything the creeds say about Christ.  At the same time they rely on science for their metaphysics; but that does not necessarily mean that God does not exist.

Interestingly, in his conversation with Philip Pullman, Mountford–a priest, remember–described himself as having more of a secular temperament than a religious one, “because I wanted to dissociate myself from the Church’s introspective agenda of gays and women bishops and to make him see me as a man of the world, an open thinker who looks to the concerns of the bustling metropolis rather than the reflections of the cloister” (p. 9).

But Pullman balked at this idea and said that he, a self-proclaimed atheist, in fact possessed a religious temperament, for he has a sense of awe and wonder, he says, and he asks bigger questions–who we are, what is our purpose, why we are here.  Then, tellingly, he adds, “Some people are satisfied with one sort of answer, others want a mythological answer.  Of course you can’t prove that there’s no possibility of God, and in that sense I suppose I ought to call myself an agnostic rather than an atheist, but I see no evidence for a God” (p. 9).

Hmm.  I wonder, then, would Quasi-Christian Agnostic be a better term?  Christian Atheist certainly has a better ring to it.

Anyway, the point in all this is conversation.  Is it too much to “welcome those who want the values of religion without its metaphysics” (p. 129)?  Christians and atheists have not ever really been on speaking terms, at least with respect to religion.  (Sports and politics might be a different matter.)  But what Mountford is exposing here is that they are already sitting in the same religious venues: on the one hand, (at least some) self-proclaimed atheists value Mother Church; and, on the other hand, (some, maybe many) Christians recognize and embrace the contributions science has made to the collective pool of metaphysical wisdom despite whatever conundrums it has stirred up.  Why not then talk?  Otherwise we are very much like middle schoolers at a dance, too preoccupied with our own self-image and too worried that we might be rejected by the other side to walk across the room, introduce ourselves, and seek out common ground whence we can begin to foster and develop a friendship.

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 Funkless Week

Posted in Doing Church with tags , , , on October 18, 2013 by timtrue

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I don’t know, something about settling in distracts me, I suppose.

I’ve been in my position four months now as of yesterday.  Not too long a time, I know; but long enough to have settled into something of a routine.  I’ve preached the last five Sundays in a row, with a sixth facing me; and adjusted to the constant weekly barrage of preparing and teaching other various lessons or preaching sundry sermons.  Then there are the daily greetings of students with their comings and goings from school.  Not to mention the good fellowship with my colleagues.  I have a great job.

But this is easy to forget.  The initial concentration of compliments on my preaching and teaching has been diluted.  The novelty has passed.  The honeymoon is over.  The parishioners are used to me.

But the criticisms persist.  They have become even more concentrated–perhaps an inversely proportional relationship to the compliments–showing up in subtle and not so subtle ways.  I’m thin-skinned.  So when they do show up–and they always do–I need to recognize them for what they are, take them with a grain of salt, whatever.  But my thin skin wants to make more of them than it should.  I slip into a funk.

It’s a balancing act, being a public figure, like walking a tightrope.

Well, this week has been one of those funkless weeks, on the happier side of things, where I realize just how great my job–no, my vocation–is, where criticisms can’t seem to permeate my thin skin, no matter how they try.  Blessings are seemingly without number.

One of my daughters will study abroad next semester in Italy.  I’m tacitly jealous, sure, for I’ve never been to Italy, let alone Europe!  But I’d do it lickety-split in her shoes.  And Florence of all cities!

My son is showing real signs of musical prodigy.  As a musician myself, and as he is child number five, I’ve known all along that he shows a lot of promise.  But this week I had a professional, world-class music director say the same thing.  Now, what to do with it?

My wife has been posting old family photos on Facebook, reminding me of incredible times we’ve shared as a family these last twenty years.  No one teaches you this in college, but day-to-day family life is more valuable than most things.

Friends and colleagues are boosting my confidence: despite the fact that I’m a new priest, something of a newborn really, my previous experience indeed matters to them.  Of course, the challenge now is discerning my place in the Episcopal Church before my curacy comes to fruition.

Then there’s my friend Tim, a college professor.  I’ve always looked at college professors with something of an envy.  It’s a great job!  They create their own curriculum and get to teach it.  How cool is that!  Also, they get to research and write about things they are truly interested in.  Again, cool!  And as for summers!  Who wouldn’t want to travel to various parts of the world on grant funding to research and study, and have a little time left over to take in some incredible sites?

But this week Tim took an interest in my vocation.  “Now that you’re a curate,” he asked, “what’s next?  Will you be appointed somewhere else?”

“No,” I answered.  “In the Episcopal Church, or at least in this part of it, priests are typically assigned to their first position, a curacy.  But after that they can pick and choose, like most other jobs.”

“I see,” he said.  “Does that mean you could theoretically go anywhere in the country?”

“Yeah, and even a lot of places in the world.  There’s a global Anglican communion.”

“That is really awesome.”

“Yeah, it is.”

So, in the same way I can sometimes cast an envious eye upon the professorial profession, it seems so the professor has cast an eye toward me.  Which reminds me of how good I have it.

Anyway, enough said.  This too–the happier side of things, that is–will pass, I know.  Still, it’s been good to have a funkless week.

All Creatures Great and Small

Posted in Doing Church with tags , , on October 8, 2013 by timtrue

pet blessing

Pet blessings.  Have you ever seen one?  Have you ever participated in one, perhaps bringing your own dog or cat to be the object of such a blessing?

Each year in the Episcopal Church, at least in this part of the Episcopal Church, meaning in south Texas, numerous beloved pets are blessed by clergy in honor of St. Francis.  Yes, St. Francis of Assisi, who was known to preach to birds and call various creatures of God’s creation his brothers and sisters.  I got to participate in the active part of this activitiy–I was a blesser–for the first time ever.  And it was, for lack of a better term, a zoo.

The church where I serve has a school.  There are 340 students.  On Monday, we offered a pet blessing to the entire school community first thing in the morning.  This means that not only every student and teacher made their collective way to the front lawn at 8:00 a. m., and not only parents (and sometimes siblings and grandparents and even some family friends) gathered there too, but there were also more than a hundred dogs, cats, guinea pigs, guppies, and bunnies present, wagging their tails, purring, mewing, barking, sometimes hissing, some even sleeping, awaiting excitedly, fearfully, or apathetically some sort of blessing.  And if that weren’t enough, the pre-Kers brought their favorite stuffed animal friends to get in on the action.  The above photo captures the scene well.

I have to say, however, at first I was skeptical.  What in the world, I wondered?  There is no service for this in the Episcopal prayer book, nor in its supplements.  The whole thing seemed a little hokey to me.  Besides, this was technically my day off.  I didn’t want to be here, getting dog slobber on my clericals, cat dander up my nose, and guinea pig poop on my shoes.  C’mon!

And at one point, admittedly, when a group of boys from the middle school presented their obviously hastily decorated pet rocks to me, I thought, yep, we’re cheapening the Gospel.  Especially when one boy waited through the line a second time and said, “My pet Clarence didn’t get enough blessings the first time around.”  I’ll bless you, I thought, all the way to the principal’s office!

But, middle school boys notwithstanding, overall it was an absolute blast.  Especially when the pre-K-4 teacher beckoned me over to her class, to bless their animals.  Most of them were of the stuffed variety, true enough.  But each was certainly special, a friend to the owner.  But perhaps the coolest moment of all was blessing the class pet, a hedgehog!  I’d never seen one of these up close before, let alone touched one.  Its name was Archie.

So, despite the slobber, dander, and poop, or maybe in some strange way because of it, the pets were blessed, the pet owners were blessed, and in turn I too was blessed.