Monday, April 28, 2008

I now know...

how good the acoustics are in our church-- apparently, people in the back of the sanctuary could hear the gentle soughing of the snores of the choir member who fell asleep in the middle of the service.

Good to know.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Some thoughts from Kenneth Leech, so apropos for an election year

"So the test of spirituality is a practical test, and particularly the test of attitude toward the poor.

It is you who have devoured the vineyard, the spoil of the poor is in your houses.
What do you mean by crushing my people, by grinding the face of the poor? (Isa. 3.14-15)

Woe to those who decree iniquitous decrees, and the writers who keep writing oppression,
to turn aside the needy from justice and to rob the poor of my people of their right, that widows may be their spoil, and that they may make the fatherless their prey! (10.1-2)

And this test is repeated throughout the prophets.

Christian spirituality is the spirituality of the Poor Man of Nazareth who took upon himself the form of a Servant. To know God is to do justice and to plead the cause of the oppressed: to know God in Christ is to share in his work for establishing justice in the earth, and to share in his poverty and oppression. For in Christ, God becomes a little poor man, a member of the oppressed race, an exploited class, a colonized nation... To follow the Kingdom is therefore to follow him who fed the hungry, healed the sick, befriended the outcast, and blessed the peacemakers.

... The Gospel demand is a practical demand, It is useless to worship the God who is present everywhere, and ignore his presence somewhere. To fail to recognize Christ in the hungry and thirsty, in the stranger and the naked, in the sick and the prisoner, is to deny the Incarnation. Equally prayer which does not have this direct human and social application is not Christian prayer." (True Prayer, pp. 73-74).

If you read the news, you know that there are riots breaking out throughout the world over the inflation of food prices. Our government has currently pledged to increase its commitment for food aid this year. Hopefully this is not all we can do.

But even here in America, there are millions of poor people. Approximately 12.4 % of Americans are living in poverty, as of the 2000 census. How can we call ourselves Christians, if we constantly blame the poor for their situations? Christ didn't care why people were poor. The prophets didn't care why people were poor. We are commanded to care for them. But instead of addressing this repeated commandment throughout scripture, we argue about whether a woman should be allowed to be ordained or whether medical procedures should be made illegal.

Do people really believe that every poor person is lazy?

Let me put this another way:

Do you believe that every rich person is hard working?

There is a certain amount of luck involved in being rich, in most cases. There is also a certain amount of bad luck involved in being poor, in most cases. You weren't born in the right family, the right gender, or the right country. You married the wrong person. You have been injured or have a disability or have had a catastrophic illness.

We are called to act to alleviate suffering in the world, and not just our own suffering, but the suffering of others. That's a very important point. The Gospel message is a message of love, love for our neighbors as ourselves. Matthew 25: 24-40 makes this very clear to us. Christ comes to us in each creature who is hungry, or thirsty, or afraid, or persecuted. We cannot allow ourselves the luxury of only acknowledging Christ in the faces of those we love. We have to acknowledge Christ in the faces of those in need, if we wish to be obedient to the Gospel. When we spit in their faces, we spit in the face of God. Amen.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Bishop Blues

So what is it with these (often young) bishops who resign and go gallivanting off hither and yon?

First there was the Rt. Rev. Johncy Itty in Oregon. He's been bishop for something like four years, and now his family is living in New York. For the geographically challenged, that would be-- all the way across the continent.

And then there is the Rt. Rev. Anthony Burton, who is leaving Saskatchewan in the Anglican Church of Canada to become rector of Church of the Incarnation in Dallas. Which is, once again-- all the way across the continent. I sense a pattern here.

What is going on?

Saturday, April 12, 2008

We are called to be One. One in Faith and One in Deed.

The body [of Christ] is an organic unity which cannot be divided without damage to the whole. Life flows from the stem to the branches, from the head to the members. Christ is the vine, he is the body. We are incorporated in him. A branch cut off withers and dies. A member cut off ceases to exist. To belong to Christ is to belong to his Church. In the perspective of the New Testament, a Christian living in isolation is unthinkable-- a contradiction in terms.

Again, the life of the body implies diversity in unity. This is Paul's dominant thought in both Rom., ch. 12, and I Cor., chs. 12 to 14. There are many gifts and corresponding functions. God is the giver. Therefore, no one can pride himself on his gifts nor disregard the gifts of others. And fullness of life is attained only when all members of the body are healthy and contribute to the life of the whole.

We are here given some precious instructions as to the life and structure of the church. There is a diversity of ministries, that is, of "services." If there is a hierarchy of functions, it can only be according to the measure of the Spirit that God bestows. Those who are leaders should consider themselves as those who serve, in all humility and love. (See Rom. 12:3-11; I Cor. 12:4-31; Luke 22: 26.) And of all gifts, the greatest-- without which all others are of no avail--is love. This ios the recurring note in all the apostolic letters, as in the sayings of Jesus himself. (See I Cor. ch. 13; Phil. 2:1-8; I John, chs. 3:14-18, 4:7-12; John 13:34.)

The very insistence in these letters on "mutual subjection," on forbearance, each counting others better than himself and seeking their interest rather than his own (Eph. 5:21; Phil. 2:3-4), shows that failure to fulfill the law of love has been one of the stumbling blocks of Christian communities from the very beginning. But it was also considered as the decisive test of their discipleship. The danger in taking pride in one's own gifts while disregarding those of others was always looming on the horizon, as is shown by the chaotic assemblies at Corinth. Paul firmly reminds the churches that "God is not the God of confusion but of peace" (I Cor. 14:33; see also the entire chapter). Every gift must be used for the building up of the church.

Furthermore, the unity of the church is seen at the same time both as something given and as a goal to be attained. Unity belongs to the very essence of the church! "There is one body and one Spirit,... one hope... one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all, who is above all and through all and in all." (Eph. 4:4-6). The passage is probably referring to the unity of Jews and Gentiles, but the truth it states remains the same for the church throughout the world. It is not in our power to make the church one, for the unity is God-given. We can only manifest this unity in word and deed.

-- Suzanne de Dietrich, The Witnessing Community, 1958.

These words were written fifty years ago in the context of the strengthening Ecumenical movement throughout the world. As I read them, I think of so many of our leaders who would profit from contemplating the truth expressed here.

How committed, truly, can the Episcopal Church, or certainly the Anglican Communion, be toward the goal of unifying the visible, human-wrought fractures within the body of Christ, to the spirit of ecumenism, if we cannot even speak to each other without wanting to cull, to exclude, to build a fence around our little corner of heaven?

On August 23 this year, Christians worldwide will celebrate the 60th anniversary of the founding of the World Council of Churches. Anglicans proudly played a prominent role alongside so many others in founding this noble body, and yet if we look at the crises facing the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion in 2008, how can we hold up our heads without shame?

If you listen to the debate between the two sides of the current schism in San Joaquin or elsewhere, all one is likely to hear is a prettified version of "You started it!" "Did not!" "Did TOO!" What's next? Catcalls and Bronx cheers? Of course, to be fair, when the United States has been led all too willingly for nigh the last decade by people who engage in the same kind of playground idiocy, but on a global scale resulting in the death or exile of millions, I guess we shouldn't be too surprised. But it is time to put away childish things-- more than time, indeed-- and attempt to really live the message of the Gospel, not just random bits of scripture plucked from the margins of the message of Christ, ignoring the centrality of this truth:


There certainly is no love in the hearts of most involved in this scandal. If there was, we certainly wouldn't be in the mess in which we find ourselves. There may be love at the base of all this dissension, but it's love of self and love of station and love of victimhood and love of privilege.

Call me naive-- I care not. But if the actions of Christians are not rooted in love, then they are not rooted in Christ, and ought not to be countenanced.

When I was in school, I had an English teacher who claimed to be the most confirmed of Christians, and she had the opportunity through the curriculum of the public schools to teach the Old Testament as literature. Unfortunately, as she force-fed us sermons by right-wing evangelists and hounded the Jewish kid in the third row, most of us noticed how very small her love of her fellow-man seemed to be. Her face set into a perpetual scowl, she regaled us with stories of death and destruction, of a vengeful God smiting in righteous anger. She saw nothing wrong with a God who would send a couple of bears to eat up a bunch of kids for making fun of the bald pate of a prophet. I'm sure this lady thought she was saving our souls from eternal damnation-- but her mien did more to turn some classmates from the message of Christ than she ever even knew. I will acknowledge having loads of fun asking her exactly on what day man was created and who Abel married and other sorts of smart-ass adolescent mockery which really was not very nice. But there was certainly no love in her faith.

And it's the same now. We are called to be one body. We are called to labor for the love of Christ, to name the grace that has touched and transformed us like a bolt of lightning. The words are simple, but the action and the fulfillment strain us to the utmost. It would help if we would try.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, both sides of the disagreement over slavery found ample Biblical support for their positions. In the 20th century, the Pauline epistles were used -- and are still used, if the current controversy in Wales or in our own Diocese of Springfield, Illinois is any example--to both support and condemn the ordination of women. The heart of these disputes lies in the fact that the Biblical canon is seen as both the inspired Word of God and is acknowledged as having been assembled by very human men several centuries after Christ. None of the Gospels is coterminous with Christ's ministry. Epistles by Paul made the cut even if the authorship was dubious, while other epistles, such as those by Clement, fell by the wayside, however important they had been in the early life of the Church. We have to acknowledge that Scripture is a part of our tradition, and look at what the overarching message of Christ is through his example and his presence in our hearts.

Of course we all struggle with this love of those who oppose us or argue with us or condemn us. But at the very least, can't we recognize this fault in ourselves and try to overcome it? And I certainly need to do this as much as anyone else. Lord, make me an instrument of your love. Amen.

Monday, April 7, 2008

The proverbial proverb

This one reminds me of family Thanksgivings:
Better a dish of herbs when love is there,
than a fattened ox and hatred to go with it. (15:17)

And this one is good advice for principals everywhere:
Expel the mocker and strife goes too,
dispute and abuse die down. (22:10)

Friday, April 4, 2008

Let justice roll down like waters

Forty years gone. And still we wait. From his speech on April 3, 1968:

Something is happening in Memphis; something is happening in our world. And you know, if I were standing at the beginning of time, with the possibility of taking a kind of general and panoramic view of the whole of human history up to now, and the Almighty said to me, "Martin Luther King, which age would you like to live in?" I would take my mental flight by Egypt and I would watch God's children in their magnificent trek from the dark dungeons of Egypt through, or rather across the Red Sea, through the wilderness on toward the promised land. And in spite of its magnificence, I wouldn't stop there.

I would move on by Greece and take my mind to Mount Olympus. And I would see Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, Euripides and Aristophanes assembled around the Parthenon. And I would watch them around the Parthenon as they discussed the great and eternal issues of reality. But I wouldn't stop there.

I would go on, even to the great heyday of the Roman Empire. And I would see developments around there, through various emperors and leaders. But I wouldn't stop there.

I would even come up to the day of the Renaissance, and get a quick picture of all that the Renaissance did for the cultural and aesthetic life of man. But I wouldn't stop there.

I would even go by the way that the man for whom I am named had his habitat. And I would watch Martin Luther as he tacked his ninety-five theses on the door at the church of Wittenberg. But I wouldn't stop there.

I would come on up even to 1863, and watch a vacillating President by the name of Abraham Lincoln finally come to the conclusion that he had to sign the Emancipation Proclamation. But I wouldn't stop there.

I would even come up to the early thirties, and see a man grappling with the problems of the bankruptcy of his nation. And come with an eloquent cry that we have nothing to fear but "fear itself." But I wouldn't stop there.

Strangely enough, I would turn to the Almighty, and say, "If you allow me to live just a few years in the second half of the 20th century, I will be happy."

Now that's a strange statement to make, because the world is all messed up. The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land; confusion all around. That's a strange statement. But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough can you see the stars. And I see God working in this period of the twentieth century in a way that men, in some strange way, are responding.

Something is happening in our world. The masses of people are rising up. And wherever they are assembled today, whether they are in Johannesburg, South Africa; Nairobi, Kenya; Accra, Ghana; New York City; Atlanta, Georgia; Jackson, Mississippi; or Memphis, Tennessee -- the cry is always the same: "We want to be free."

We want to be free. While any of my brothers or sisters is not free, I am not free. As John Donne reminded us:

"The bell doth toll for him that thinks it doth; and though it intermit again, yet from that minute that this occasion wrought upon him, he is united to God.

Who casts not up his eye to the sun when it rises? but who takes off his eye from a comet when that breaks out? Who bends not his ear to any bell which upon any occasion rings? but who can remove it from that bell which is passing a piece of himself out of this world? No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.

If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were: any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."

If we want peace in the world, we must demand justice. Justice today. Justice always.

(Cross-posted at A Shrewdness of Apes)

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Does the existence of suffering mean there's no God?

That's what Bart Ehrman concludes in his new book: God's Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question--Why We Suffer.

I am about halfway finished with the book right now. It's a very simple read, but I can't say that I believe that God really promised to swoop in and fix all of our problems. I also cringe whenever I hear my mom and others say "It was God's will," to some tragic event, on the other hand. Professor Ehrman states in the book that one of the reasons he lost his faith is precisely the problem of suffering. Ehrman basically concludes that if God is powerless to end or prevent suffering, God isn't much of a God.

You know, it must be a really interesting position to be in, to be a scholar and teacher on the Bible and to lose your faith. It seems akin to a vegetarian running a hotdog stand, or a person who is tone deaf working as an orchestra conductor. I mean, basically, since his field of study is textual criticism of the Bible, without faith his work seems to be that of an English professor rather than a professor of religion.