Category Archives: Newsletter Articles

Articles published in St. Saviour’s Voice and St. Andrew and John’s Net Tender

And God Laughs

An old adage says that if you want to hear God laugh, tell him your plans. 

At one time or another most of us fall into the trap of believing that we have control over our lives and our futures, and that a well-laid plan is the first step toward the outcome we want.  We make to-do lists, strategic plans and contingency plans.  We tell each other that failing to plan is planning to fail.  When reality doesn’t match our plan, we just need a new plan (or a new reality).

A little over seven years ago, Bob and I had made a plan for moving to MDI: that we would not think about relocating until we had been here at least five years, and that then we would see where God was calling us.  Two years ago I began discerning whether I might be called somewhere else.  A year and a half ago, as the wardens of the parishes on MDI were making their own plans for the future, I shared my plans with them.  We all made plans for how we might all work together as three parishes with two priests, or four parishes with three priests, and how that transition might work.  It all seemed very manageable, even tidy.

And God laughed.

Within the last few months, four full-time settled priests in four parishes has become one settled priest.  The guy who was supposed to be the first to go has ended up the last one here.  A plan to keep doing what we have been doing with fewer resources has suddenly become an opportunity to follow God into something new and different.  As one of our wardens said recently, “We’ve been talking for ten years about the four parishes coming together to work as one church on the island.  God has gotten tired of listening to us talking about it, and has called our bluff.”

And God is laughing.

Long conversations about church buildings and rectories and fractions of full-time priests have moved to the back burner as we look at the reality around us and see that we have a rare opportunity to look at our shared ministry with a clean slate, at least as it pertains to clergy leadership.  It is becoming clear that a lot of the work that we had done preparing for one transition has made us ready to face a different one; that a lot of the anxiety that we have been feeling over the past ten years was unnecessary and focused on the wrong things, anyway.  A plan that seemed impossible seven years ago now seems almost inevitable, and maybe even the goal toward which we have been moving.

We are making new plans.  I have been experimenting with spreadsheets to see how one might provide Sunday worship among three or four parishes with two-and-a-half clergy:  the grids have begun to look like Mondrian paintings.  We have been making arrangements to train lay people to lead Morning Prayer as Sunday worship occasionally.  Our diocese and our new Bishop have pledged their help and support.  Our wardens have been strategizing about what we need to plan for the short term, the medium term, and the long term. 

The only thing I can predict with any certainty is that none of these plans will come to pass exactly as we have made them, even with the best foresight and the bests will. 

No matter what happens God will bless us and lead us to new opportunities, if we will just follow.  If we don’t follow, or if we make a mess of those new opportunities, God will still bless us and work through us to do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.

And God will laugh. 

We believe

“I invite you to stand as you are able, and join with me in the words of the Nicene Creed on page 358.”  While the rubric in the Prayer Books says simply, “On Sundays and other Major Feasts there follows, all standing…,” I’m aware that many of us struggle with the creed, and thus in worship I prefer to issue an invitation rather than a command.  Some folks stand or sit quietly; some say parts of the Creed but carefully avoid or modify specific clauses with which they have some scruple. I believe that most of us believe what we say in the Creed, but I am frequently surprised at the number of people who recite it every week, but when asked, say something like, “Oh, we don’t really believe that anymore, do we?”

The Creeds are historical documents, in the sense that we know something about where and when they were composed, and in what historical context.  The Creed we read every Sunday was drafted at the Council of Nicaea (today called Iznik, Turkey) in 325 AD, and adopted with considerable revision at the Council of Constantinople (Istanbul) in 381 AD.  These Councils were convened by the Emperors Constantine and Theodosius, who invited all the Christian bishops in the Empire to come together and hammer out a clear statement of belief.  This was important if Christianity was to be an Imperial religion:  the Empire needed to know what the main stream of Christians believe.

However one thinks about the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the Creeds were drafted by human beings in the midst of spiritual and political struggle. The goal of the Councils was to define orthodox belief, so by definition some ways of interpreting Christ were excluded and labeled heresy.  Much has been made of this process of “silencing minority voices,” but one need not see a cynical conspiracy.  This is the Church working out our answer to Jesus’ question to the Disciples: “Who do you say that I am?” 

In fact, the largest part of the Creed, the second paragraph that talks about who Jesus is, treads a careful line to avoid foreclosing hard questions with easy answers:  Jesus is eternally and cosmically God and also a human being who was born to a specific woman and who was killed under the administration of a specific Roman governor. The historic heresies are not excluded because they said something challenging about Jesus that the Church couldn’t handle.  They are excluded because they say something that is too little, too easy: That Jesus was simply a good man and a good teacher, but not God (the Arians), or that the man that we know as Jesus was only some sort of spiritual projection of God, and thus not a human who suffered (the Gnostics and Docetists).

Some will say that “Jesus did not come to establish a Church.” That may be true, but the fact is that the Church is the historical human body, full of human limitations and weaknesses, that has been given the gift and the responsibility of maintaining and furthering the Good News that Jesus left us. The Creed is a statement of our corporate identity: we are people who try to follow Jesus, and this is what we as a community say about who Jesus is, who God is, who the Holy Spirit is.

The community part is key.  Some of you may have heard an interview a few years ago with the late Yale professor Jaroslav Pelikan on the National Public Radio talk show, “On Being.”  Pelikan highlights the fact that the Nicene Creed is composed in the first-person plural:  “We believe…”  This is not only a statement of group identity (something of which individualistic Westerners are suspicious), but also a statement of continuity – through history and through our own lifetimes.  Pelikan says,

To know that in the Philippines this morning this was the creed that was recited at mass and to know that the Emperor Justinian in the 6th century and Thomas Aquinas in the 13th, and my late father and grandfather all affirmed this.  It’s ‘we’ all of us together….  My faith and my faith life, like that of everyone else, fluctuates.  There are ups and downs and hot spots and cold spots and boredom and ennui and all the rest can be there.  And so I’m not asked of a Sunday morning as of 9:20, what do you believe?  And then you sit down with a 3×5 index card and say, “Now, let’s see.  What do I believe today?”  No, that’s not what they’re asking me.  They’re asking me, “Are you a member of a community which now for millennium and a half has said, ‘We believe in one God.’”  And so that’s what I affirm when I sing it.

(The full broadcast and transcript of this program is available at
https://onbeing.org/programs/jaroslav-pelikan-the-need-for-creeds/)

The Creeds are ultimately not checklists of propositions to which we give intellectual assent, or to which we pledge allegiance, as are some of the Lutheran and Calvinist Confessions. The point of the Creed is not to differentiate ourselves from other Christian traditions (we have plenty of ways of doing that), but to affirm that in spite of differences we are all part of one tradition (the one holy catholic and apostolic Church), however diversely lived and expressed in different times, places and cultures, that covenants to wrestle with these holy mysteries.

That shared tradition is the reason the Eastern Church found it so shocking when the Western Church added a single word to the Creed in the seventh century, proclaiming that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Son as well as from the Father.  Ironically, respect for shared tradition is also why many visitors to St. Saviour are so shocked by our previous rector’s decision to strike out the words “and the Son” from the creed in our prayer books.  Our affirmation of shared faith is brought up short by a stark example of a break in our tradition, and we find ourselves stumbling over the words and the rhythm.  An effort at inclusivity has become a shibboleth.

That shared tradition is also why I have resisted paraphrased, modern language versions of the Creed for liturgical use (as opposed to new translations from the original languages).  Fresh metaphors and images for the persons of the Trinity can be helpful and soul-expanding, and are necessary if mystery is not to harden into rote formula.  Poetic elaboration of theology is also an ancient tradition, and has a place in worship as hymnody and other liturgical texts – the Gloria in excelsis is essentially a poetic paraphrase of the Creed.  But the moment in the service when we are invited to stand as we are able and read together from page 358 is meant to be a straightforward, unadorned affirmation of the minimum our community has agreed we can say together about God.  In the words of St. Augustine, as quoted by Professor Pelikan: “We have said this not in order to say something, but in order not to remain altogether silent.”

On the other hand, I would never say that the Creed is a litmus test for salvation.  I do not believe that God judges us on whether we believe the right things about God or about anything else (but of course, I could be wrong in that belief!).  When scripture and tradition talk about faith in Christ, I hear that as a call to be faithful to Christ, to keep faith in our relationship with God, and to trust that God will remain faithful to us.  Whether we accept the words of the Creed as history or mystery is less important than that we are willing to engage with the truth that they represent.

So why bother with the Creed?  Do we really believe this stuff anymore?  Is it more intellectually defensible to stand silent while others recite it?  In a world where it is far too easy to divide ourselves from one another, to demonize those with whom we disagree, and to parse every utterance for the possibility of offense, what could be more challenging and rewarding than to stand weekly with a diverse community of Christians around the globe and to say together, “We believe in one God…”

Ceci tuera cela*

Thousands around the world grieved as they watched flames consume the roof and the spire of the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris.  Even in a nation as secular as France, where nearly half the population professes no religion and only 5% of self-identified Catholics attend mass regularly, people wept for the destruction of something that was seen as a symbol of the French nation and its heritage.  Historians and art scholars feared the loss of irreplaceable artifacts.  Almost immediately, very wealthy people all over the world pledged funding for a restoration.

Part of the shock perhaps had to do with the sense that Notre Dame has been there forever, timeless, as the world changed around her.  Unlike most of the medieval churches and cathedrals of Europe, Notre Dame had never been completely destroyed and rebuilt, although it has been continuously modified and renovated over the last eight centuries.  Notre Dame was also unusual in that it had been originally built in “only” a hundred years to a single design, unlike many Gothic cathedrals that continued unfinished for centuries with many changes of style and plan.

After the French Revolution in the 1790’s, though, the cathedral was intentionally desecrated and rededicated to “The Cult of Reason,” and many of the statues and relics were destroyed.  When Napoleon returned the building to the Church in the early 19th century, it was in such bad shape that officials seriously considered demolishing it.  The groundswell of support that came from the popularity of Victor Hugo’s Notre Dame de Paris saved the cathedral, but also meant that once again the building was thoroughly restored, enlarged and modified.  The slender spire or “flèche” that collapsed in the fire last month was only added as part of that renovation in the 1860’s.

All of which is to say that this timeless building has never been static.  In his 1994 book How Buildings Learn, Stewart Brand points out that no building that lasts any length of time can be static.  Buildings that are well-used are modified and recycled for their evolving purposes. Perhaps the only structures that continue more or less unchanged are those that we self-consciously set aside as historical artifacts: removed from practical use and preserved as specimens behind velvet ropes.

But even these historical specimens change in another important way, as each generation interprets and gives meaning to them as symbols.  A gorgeously restored antebellum plantation or the meticulous reconstruction of Colonial Williamsburg carry different significance as we become more aware of the stories of enslaved people and others for whom these places are relics of oppression rather than quaint historical objects.  This change of meaning is evident in the current discussion of how best to deal with monuments to Confederate heroes or memorials to thinkers whose ideas have become problematic.

Notre Dame began its life with the functional purpose of housing the worship of God.  It also began with several overlapping symbolic purposes:  to draw the eyes and souls of the faithful upward into a state of communion with the divine, to instruct an illiterate congregation in the mysteries of faith, but also to reinforce the power and authority of the Church and her representatives, and to establish the primacy of Paris among the bishops of France.  More recently, worship had become less important, as the building has functioned primarily as a museum and tourist attraction, and the symbolic meaning of the cathedral has come to have much less to do with God that with a particular idea of French national glory.  In the last two weeks, the world has been re-evaluating the meaning of a grandiose religious building as the symbol of a secular, multicultural, bourgeois nation.

Communities change, buildings learn, meanings change, proud towers fall.  One simple message of the fire in Paris is that even the grandest productions of human culture will eventually fall into ruin and decay, and that it is dangerous idolatry to worship the work of our own hands.  This, I think, is what is behind the many folks who have responded that, “It’s just a building, after all.”

This is true and important, but I think there is a deeper message.  When a church ceases to learn, to change, to find new meaning in the Gospel and to preach that meaning to the world around us, the church is in danger of becoming a museum and a tourist attraction.  When it is easier to raise billions of dollars to restore the barely-used Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris than to raise a few million to restore the vital Cathedral of Notre Dame in Port au Prince, Haiti, which languishes as a ruin nine years after the earthquake, one may be concerned that the devotion to grand buildings has become an idolatry.

This conversation has the potential to be slightly uncomfortable for us at St. Saviour’s.  We are known for our beautiful historic building, which during some weeks of the year is known to more people as a museum and tourist attraction than as a place of worship.  In town, we are often known as “the stained glass church” rather than for our faith and love.  Many Sundays there are more people represented by memorial plaques than are present in the pews.  The temptation to idolatry is sharp:  our grand building, our beautiful glass, our rich history all seduce us to make them the static center of our life as a parish.  Our center is and must be the lively, active love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord, which is timeless yet new every morning.

*Ceci tuera cela = “This will kill that” – Monsignor Frollo’s epigrammatic comment as he looks from the printed page to the towers of the cathedral in Hugo’s Notre Dame.

A Holy Lent

Every spring, our church invites us “to the observation of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word” (BCP p. 265).

What an invitation!  As tempting as fasting and self-denial sound, I think I may be busy for the next forty days!  Gosh darn it, too, I was really looking forward to Lent!

Okay, maybe Lent is not that kind of invitation.  But invite is the right word:  Lent is something that we decide to do (or not to do), or something that we just let slide.  As much as our will is shaped by God and distorted by sin, and as much as God supports us in our discipline and discipleship, participating in Lent is a decision.

The caricature of Lent is puritanical and sort of masochistic:  “What are you giving up this year?”  A sort of spiritual endurance race, not unlike a strict diet: “Are you doing Atkins or Paleo or Weight Watchers?  What is your goal weight?” (Not that we would ever be so gauche as to ask these questions directly).  Something we do that makes us miserable in the short run, but that is good for us in the long run – or until we give up on it in a few weeks.

But what does real spiritual discipline look like?  Not all of us are called to be nuns and monks, ascetics and mystics, right?

  • Self-examination: As much as our culture is devoted to the selfie and the self-absorbed blog, true self-examination is much rarer and more challenging.  How often do we truly study our own actions and thoughts with reference to the ethical and moral standards of scripture?  How often do we review our own prayer life and our relationship with God?  This discipline is truly the one that supports all the others, and is one too often skipped.
  • Repentance: This word is related to but different from two other words: penitence and penance.  Penitence is the feeling of sorrow or regret for past sins.  Penance is a symbolic action we take to acknowledge our sins and our intention to repair the damage done by them (sometimes as a part of the sacrament of Confession).  Repentance is the larger-scale turning of our whole life in a new direction, away from sin and toward God.  Repentance is a process that never ends – our whole life is (or should be) repentance.
  • Prayer: As Episcopalians, it is easy for us to think of prayer as words.  Usually words read from a book or memorized, often said in unison or by the priest.  But prayer is placing ourselves in an attitude of openness and conversation with God, through Christ and in the power of the Holy Spirit.  Words may help get us started, but they can also get in the way.
  • Fasting: Fasting for health reasons has recently become fashionable, but fasting as a spiritual discipline may seem ancient and exotic – the province of those ascetics and mystics, but not for people like us.  But as our worldly culture has become more and more focused on consumption, fasting is even more powerful and more necessary.  Fasting is not just about food (although many of us have relationships with food that could stand some self-examination and repentance), but about being mindful and intentional about what we consume and use:  food, energy, entertainment, time, attention.  And fasting is not just about giving up junk food or bad habits:  S. Lewis points out that it is easier to make an idol of something that is mostly good than from something that is entirely evil.  One can imagine needing to take a fast from the Metropolitan Opera, or from participation in national politics, or perhaps even from certain relationships, if they are taking the central place in one’s life that rightly belongs to God.
  • Self-denial: Isn’t this the same as fasting?  Not really.  Our culture teaches us that the self is the highest priority:  self-improvement, self-esteem, self-confidence.  Self-denial is the rejection of that orientation.  We are not self-made; we are not self-sufficient or self-directed.  Our very existence and the existence of the universe depends entirely on the gracious will of God.  Even the idea that we have a self is a gift.  We are created and have our purpose as children of God, in relationship with God.  Because we have free will does not mean that we are free-agents.

I have a feeling that this exposition may have made an Invitation to a Holy Lent more daunting rather than less:  it would be a lot easier to think about giving up Twinkies for six weeks than to dive into the wholesale examination of our souls, our selves, our relationships to God and to the rest of creation.

But no one said that Lent was going to be easy.

For the time being.

Darkness and snow descend;
The clock on the mantelpiece
Has nothing to recommend,
Nor does the face in the glass
Appear nobler than our own
As darkness and snow descend
On all personality.

W.H. Auden, “For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio” (excerpt), 1942.

Many of us experience tension and anxiety this time of year.  Days grow shorter, nights get colder, and it seems as though our homes get smaller, closer, feeling either cozy and peaceful or claustrophobic.  This can be a time to reconnect with our spouse and family without the distractions of summer, but in close quarters we can’t hide from the tensions between us, either.  And if friends and family are far away, loneliness can be compounded.

And of course there is pressure around the holidays themselves.  Do we have the “right” gifts?  Can we afford what we’re expected to spend?  Will our family feast be as spectacular as it’s supposed to be?  Will our family and friends, also under pressure, behave themselves?  Will we feel as happy and fulfilled as the commercials and greeting cards tell us we should?

Voices in the church remind us that Advent brings its own special gifts, and encourages us to opt out of consumerist frenzy and keep Advent as a season of quiet contemplation and anticipation.  But even this advice can cause stress; it is not particularly helpful for the church to scold us for “ruining Advent” just because we enjoy feasting and gift-giving, or because we like to put up lights and decorations more than two days before Christmas.  In fact, we may find ourselves in the paradoxical state of worrying that we are not relaxed enough.

The fact is, Advent has tension built into it.  It is a season that carries within it beginnings and endings:  the beginning of the church year, the anticipation of the birth of the Christ child, as well as dire promises of the Day of the Lord, when this world will be both judged and redeemed.  Advent is four weeks that stretch from before creation to the end of time, that pull our focus from the local-interest story of an unmarried pregnant small-town girl, to the nationalist dreams of an occupied people, to the cosmic consummation of creation’s relationship with God.

Advent is a time to consider the mystery of the Incarnation:  that the same God who created humanity chose to become human, fully human, truly human, while remaining fully and truly God. This is a fundamental contradiction that is at the heart of our faith.  It is no wonder that our response to it is a little bit bipolar.

…To those who have seen
The Child, however dimly, however incredulously,
The Time Being is, in a sense, the most trying time of all.

And perhaps, therefore, it is perfectly appropriate for us to feel pulled between joy and anxiety, between loneliness and claustrophobia, between expectant waiting and instant gratification, between self-emptying and self-indulgence – indeed, to feel pulled between the poles of heaven and earth.  We are pulled, not just because of the tension at the center of Advent, but because of the tension at the center of what it means to be human:  dust and clay, but just a little lower than the angels.

Magic

Twenty years ago when the first Harry Potter books were published, they re-ignited a controversy about the proper attitude of Christians toward magic, or more accurately, stories about magic.  As much as I dislike pronouncements about “the proper attitude of Christians toward” pretty much anything, a recent review of an entirely different fantasy book series got me thinking again about magic.  So once again, dear reader, I find myself twenty years out of fashion.

Let me begin by saying that I really like the Harry Potter books.  I resisted them when they came out, but when I was drafted as a summer camp chaplain I decided I had better read the books as a matter of cultural literacy.  I was pleasantly surprised to find that the books are well-written and engaging, that they challenge readers with age-appropriate ambiguities and authentic characters.  I found myself in conversation with middle-schoolers referring to muggles and quidditch.  I was not particularly worried that these books were drawing children into the Dark Arts.

At the time, the argument seemed to be framed between those who believed that exposing children to a fantasy world of magic was opening the door to demons, and those who saw these books as an epic of good versus evil, with echoes of Christian themes of self-sacrifice and love conquering death. Author J. K. Rowling was either the next C. S. Lewis, creating Christian allegory accessible to modern readers, or was a cunning wolf in sheep’s clothing, whose ripping yarns slip under our radar to normalize witchcraft.

I think both these arguments miss the point.  Stories of magical forces and people who can harness them are as old as humanity, told by Christians and adherents of every faith and no faith. These stories seem to fill a human need for fantasy, for narratives that don’t follow everyday rules of reality.  I don’t believe that fantasy stories in and of themselves need to be demonic or idolatrous:  witness the fantastic medieval legends of the Lives of the Saints.

By the same token, stories of cosmic good and evil, self-sacrificing heroes and fearful villains, are hardly unique to Christianity.  Just because a story makes a sharp distinction between the white hats and the black hats does not mean that it is Christian at its core.  In fact, one of the heresies that the church had to fight in its early years was the Manichean idea that the universe was governed by opposing good and evil forces in equilibrium. This model has more to do with comic books than with the God of scripture who declares all of creation to be very good.

Oddly, the thing that first began to make me uncomfortable with the “Wizarding World of Harry Potter” was the way that the stories deal with Christmas.  Of course, Christmas has long ago become a secular holiday for many in England and in the US, but something seemed missing in a story of cosmic good and evil when Christmas day is about nothing more than knitted jumpers and paper hats, when even the wise Dumbledore has nothing meaningful to say about the day when the earthly and heavenly worlds are gathered into one.  This absence was most stark for me in the last book of the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, when Harry and Hermione spend Christmas Eve in a churchyard, looking at gravestones and hearing Christmas carols being sung in the church.

Like many stories set in the modern world, Harry Potter has no room for God.  If this were a mundane story about kids at boarding school and their eccentric teachers, that might not be a problem.  But these are stories all about the fundamental forces of the physical and the spiritual world, about the relationship between humanity and…  what?  Magic is presented as a power running through the universe, a power that some beings can control, but ultimately a power that belongs to us.  Magic seems to have no source other than itself, and exists to be bent to human will, good or evil.  A human being who has access to magic has no need of God.  If God exists at all, he is something for the muggles in the chapel at Christmas, and has nothing to do with the heroes’ struggle to wrestle control of the world away from the dark wizards who use power for selfish ends, and preserve the same power for the good wizards who use it to do what they think is best for everyone, muggles included.

Ultimately, this is a Gnostic worldview, a philosophy that orthodox Christianity has been battling for two thousand years.  Gnosticism teaches that the world we see is an illusion, that the real battle between the powers of good and evil is fought beyond our sight, but that with secret knowledge and training an elect few of us can understand what is going on, and even turn those powers to our own ends.

Christianity believes that all power belongs to God, that God may sometimes use us to exercise his will in the world, but that we do not use God’s power to exercise our will.  That was the error of Simon the Magician in Acts Chapter 8:  he thought he could franchise the Holy Spirit.  That is the error of some preachers who teach that we can goad God into granting us prosperity. Mutatis mutandis, this is also the worldview of a particular kind of materialistic science that believes we can perfect the world if the people in power are clever enough.

I don’t believe that reading Harry Potter will turn children into Satanists, or even atheists.  But neither would I be comfortable with a Harry Potter themed Vacation Bible School.  I don’t believe Harry Potter is hostile to God, nor do I think that it is crypto-Christian.  Sadly, like much of the modern world, I think that Harry Potter finds God too irrelevant to worry about.

May the power of God be so manifest in our lives that we may teach the world God’s love.

Politics as Usual

As political ads begin to shout at us, as we draw closer to the midterm elections in November, there seems to be a new round of questioning about how Christians should vote, or how they should think about political issues, or even whether Christians should take part in the political process at all.  Last month the Christian Millennial magazine Relevant published an editorial titled “Voting Your Faith: How Should Christians Vote?”[1]  The New York Times published an Op-Ed this week by the Rev. Timothy Keller, founding pastor of Manhattan’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church, titled “How Do Christians Fit Into the Two-Party System?  They Don’t.”[2]  At the same time that “Christian” is declining as any sort of default identity in our culture, the post-Christian world struggles to place Christians into some sort of political, ideological box that they can understand.  Christians are conservative, right?  Well, then, Christians are pro-life, right?  Even more narrowly defined traditions like Evangelicals, Catholics, and Mainline Protestants are far from monolithic, and one is often more likely to find common ground across denominational and party divisions than within the group with which one is supposedly identified.

Following God has never overlaid neatly with ideologies or political movements.  In the Old Testament, Joseph and Daniel held high posts in pagan governments that were inimical to their religion.  There were debates in the early Church about whether Christians could cooperate with the Empire at all, and later debates over whether a good Christian could ever oppose a duly anointed earthly King or Emperor. As late as the 19th Century, popes wrote encyclicals condemning the errors of rationalism, modernism, liberalism, and “Americanism” which included religious liberty and the separation of church and state.[3]

Modern political ideologies tend to understand the world and divide themselves in ways that don’t necessarily align with the concerns of the Gospel.  Valuing all human life as created in the image and likeness of God may draw a person to oppose abortion and euthanasia on one hand, while also opposing the death penalty, working for prison reform and universal health care.  A voter presented with the platforms of the primary parties or ideologies is unlikely to find one that aligns completely with her Gospel priorities, so is stuck with what New Monastic writer Shane Claiborne calls “choosing the evil of two lessers.” [4]

It may seem obvious to many of us that Jesus would definitely vote the same way we do.  After all, Jesus commanded us to love our neighbor as ourselves, and preached Good News to the poor.  Of course Jesus would vote for N.  But there are many ways to love our neighbor.  Jesus healed the sick and fed the hungry, but he did not establish a health plan or a welfare state.  Is it more loving to teach our neighbor how we think he should live so that he might be happier and healthier, or to enable him in a life that he has chosen, but which looks unsustainable to us?  Even when we agree on the fundamental message of love, people of good will may faithfully disagree on how to live out that message.  Yet almost daily, in the press and even in our own community, our own parish, I hear people disparage the faith of those with whom they disagree:  How could someone call themselves a Christian and vote for X?

Jesus taught us to render unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and unto God what belongs to God.  That has led some Christians and some religious leaders to decide that it is not appropriate for Christians to participate in politics.  In a democratic republic like ours, though, participating in the political process is one of the primary ways that we can effect change in the world, one of the ways that we can love our neighbor.  By the same token, some non-religious people insist that it is inappropriate for a political leader to be guided by the teachings of religion in her leadership.  For those of us who are called to seek and serve Christ in all persons, however, it is inconceivable that that call would not inform every decision and every interaction in our lives.

As followers of Jesus, we do not have the luxury of sitting out the political process, withdrawing to our monasteries to keep ourselves unspotted from the rough realities of human life.  Neither may we demonize those who disagree with us and insist that ours is the only right way.  When different ideologies and labels overlap but don’t align, we must be sure that our primary identity is not that of Republican or Democrat, of Progressive or Conservative, of Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female.  If we belong to Christ, then we are one in Christ Jesus.

[1] https://relevantmagazine.com/issues/issue-95/voting-your-faith/

[2] https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/29/opinion/sunday/christians-politics-belief.html

[3] Pius IX, Encyclical Quanta Cura and Syllabus Errorum (1864), and Leo XIII, Encyclical Longinqua oceani (1895), accessed at Wikipedia.org, October 2, 2018.

[4] Relevant.

Mission Possible

I imagine that many folks reading this will have been part of the process of writing a Mission Statement for some church, board, committee, or other organization.  In my experience, it usually involves a long period of self-study and soul-searching, followed by small and large-group conversations, at least one of which is usually about the difference between a Mission Statement and a Vision Statement.  After considerably wordsmithing, a single highly polished sentence is crafted which seems to touch all the things discussed.  It is announced publicly, with promises that it will be used as a rubric to guide decisions in the future:  it may be added to publications, website and signage so that it cannot be forgotten.  And then, more often than not, it is mostly ignored.

There are a lot of reasons for this.  In some cases, I think that we don’t really know ourselves as well as we think, or that we don’t want to say out loud what we actually know.  In other cases, we don’t know or really want to know about the world around us where we might be expected to actually live out our mission.  Sometimes we may be unrealistic about what we can actually do, or we may be too timid to commit to much of anything at all.

At least in the mainline church, I believe that one reason that Mission Statements are so often meaningless or irrele­vant is a fundamental misunderstanding of the concept of Mission.  The word mission has taken on a rather ambiguous connotation in the Church because of its association with Christian missionary activities over the last few centuries.  We don’t want to talk about mission if it means the sort of cultural imperialism that imposes western cultural norms along with a particular version of Christianity, often at the cost of destroying indigenous ways of life.

We don’t want to do mission if it means going where we’re not invited, imposing “our views” on other people.  And so we carefully construct Mission Statements with all the sharp edges sanded off:  watered-down versions of our Baptismal Covenant that couldn’t possibly offend anyone.

I believe that the fundamental misunderstanding here is that mission is something we design.  One may decide to go on a journey, but one is sent on a mission.  Mission is a sending that comes from something or someone outside ourselves.  Remember the old television series “Mission Impossible” (I’m afraid I don’t know if this occurs in the more recent films)? The main character was given a cassette tape with the message that began, “Greetings, Mr. Phelps.  Your mission, should you choose to accept it…”

We have been given a Message with numerous missions we can choose to accept or ignore.  At Creation, God sends humankind on a mission to be fruitful, and to be responsible for every living thing.  A few generations later, God sends Abram and Sarai and their descendants on a mission to leave home and travel to a new land, and to be a blessing to all the families of the earth.  Again and again, in person and through the prophets, God gives messages to Israel, saying in effect, “Greetings!  Your mission, should you choose to accept it…”

Through Jesus, God sends us on a mission to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, visit the sick and imprisoned.  Through Jesus, God sends us out to make disciples of all nations, to bap­tize and to teach.  In the Holy Spirit, the Church is called to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ (BCP p. 855).  In the Spirit, Saints are given missions in every generation, if they choose to accept them.  Mission is all around us.  Mission is being the church.

And this brings us back to our initial discussion of Mission Statements.  One can certainly spend a weekend retreat hashing out a Mission Statement.  But the fact is, we publish a mission statement every time we adopt a parish or diocesan budget.  You’ve probably heard me say before that a budget is (or should be) a mission document, and in fact is a much more realistic statement of our priorities than any sweet slogan we can dream up.

Think about it: a budget is a statement of where we plan to use our resources and our energy.  A budget that emphasizes immediate human need says that we are a church who has accepted the mission to feed the hungry and clothe the naked.  A budget that emphasizes evangelism says that we are a church that has specifically accepted the mission to make disciples. By the same token, if our budget is primarily focused on keeping the lights on for those who show up on Sunday morning, that says something about our sense of mission as well.

Of course, one great difference between our mission and “Mission Impossible” is that we don’t necessarily expect to complete our mission in our lifetimes.  The mission we have chosen to accept is ultimately God’s mission, God’s project with humanity, and as such is measured in God’s time, not ours.  We live in joyful anticipation of that great banquet when the “Mission Accomplished” banner is draped across God’s Kingdom.  In the meantime, we accept our rôle in God’s mission, in faith that it is not only possible, but already at hand.

Any place along the river

As a seminarian, I travelled to Palestine as part of a group organized by St. George’s College, a ministry of the Anglican Cathedral in Jerusalem.  Like millions of Christian pilgrims for generations, we visited the shrines that commemorate events in the life of Jesus and the early church:  the Annunciation in Nazareth, the Nativity in Bethlehem, Jesus’ ministry in Capernaum and around Galilee, and the Passion and Resurrection in Jerusalem.  Visiting the sites certainly provided a clearer historical understanding of scripture, and while some spots felt uncomfortably like tourist traps, at many there was a definite sense of holiness, of a powerful connection to the miraculous events that unfolded there.

One of the standard stops is a spot along the Jordan River in Galilee where pilgrims can wade in the water to renew their own baptism near the spot where Jesus was baptized by John.  We were encouraged to bring empty bottles so that we could carry home water from the site of Jesus’ baptism.  Our tour guide, a wonderfully knowledgeable and devoted Palestinian Christian man named Iyad, happened to mention that this site with its bus parking lot and stone steps down into the river was relatively new:  that the site that had historically been venerated as the place of Jesus’ baptism was a few miles up the river, but that the old location had become too dangerous during the wars between Israel and Syria, so that the Israeli tourism ministry had simply built a new access point in a safer spot.  One of our chaplains, a monk with the Society of St. John the Evangelist, smiled and said, “That’s okay.  We’re Episcopalians.  We have a sacramental understanding, so that any place along the river is as good as any other.”

I didn’t completely understand what Brother David was saying, but I dutifully filled a plastic liter bottle with Jordan River water and carried it home in my overstuffed luggage, along with all the olive-wood tchotchkes I had bought as gifts and souvenirs.  When I got home, as instructed, I filtered the water twice through coffee filters and boiled it for five minutes (The Jordan is not any cleaner than any other river in a populated area).  I decanted it into little glass bottles, some of which I gave as gifts, some of which I still keep in a box in my office.

Over the years I’ve thought a lot about what Brother David said:  that as people who practice a sacramental theology, any place along the river is as good as another, and in fact, any river is as good as the Jordan.  It’s true, of course:  we believe that any piece of bread can become the Body of Christ, that any cup of wine can become His blood.  More than that, when we participate in the sacrament, time and space collapse:  we are celebrating the feast with every Christian throughout the world, every Christian who has ever lived or ever will live, “with all your saints, from every tribe and language and people and nation, to feast at the banquet prepared from the foundation of the world.”  We may fill the bowl of our font with water from the sacristy faucet, but that water unites the person being baptized to Christ just as surely as if she were standing in the Jordan River two thousand years ago.

So why are we drawn to holy places – to the places where we believe that holy people have walked or miraculous things have happened?  The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem is built on the traditional site of Jesus’ tomb, revealed to Empress Helena when she visited in the fourth century CE.  Hundreds of years later, more modern-thinking church historians found Helena’s claim dubious, but more recent archaeological studies seem to support the likelihood of this location for a first century Jewish tomb.  Has the holiness of the spot changed?  Would the holiness of the spot change if we had absolute archaeological proof that it was or wasn’t the site of the Resurrection?

One often hears reference to churches or shrines which have been hallowed by hundreds of years of prayers of the faithful, and it is certainly true that one can feel a sense of connection to faith history in such places.  But do we honestly believe that God hears prayers from Iona Abbey more clearly than from the fish-and-chips stand up the road?  That kind of superstition about the power of particular places or particular objects to put one in touch with the Divine has more to do with magic than with the Gospel.

The fact is, every place is made by God.  Every place is holy, because God is here.  We cannot make any place more holy than it already is, no matter how many thousands of years we pray there.  If I splash a little water from a little glass bottle into the font along with the water from the sacristy faucet, it doesn’t make the water any holier and it doesn’t make the child any more baptized than she would have been otherwise.

So why do it?  Speaking for myself, it has more to do with reminding myself of what it means to be a sacramental people.  It’s a reminder that, with or without the Jordan water, all who are baptized are baptized into the life of Christ.  It’s a reminder that the water isn’t really that important, that I am not doing anything particularly important as I cup water onto a child’s head; that the important, world-changing work is being done by God in the Holy Spirit and was done by God through Jesus Christ a long time ago.  It’s a reminder that any place along the river is as good as any other.

Remember

When I was a kid, we lived a few blocks from the town cemetery – our Midwestern version of the burial ground next door to St. Saviour’s.  On nice days, I would sometimes ride my bike over to the cemetery and stroll through the headstones (bikes weren’t allowed inside the gates), looking for the oldest dates I could find, wondering about the stories of people who had lived in the same town a hundred or more years before me.  I remember feeling a sort of amazement that I could walk up and touch the grand obelisks and mausoleums with the names I recognized from the wealthy families of our town, as well as the tiny worn stones that might just say “mother” or “baby.” These stones seemed like links to an unimaginably remote past.

I also remember feeling a kind of awe at seeing a brand-new headstone or a freshly covered grave. Someone had really just died: someone’s father or sister, someone I might actually have known.  I got a strange shiver from the idea that these were not relics of a historical character from the remote past, but someone just like me.  The community of the dead is always open to new members.

Although we may forget to notice it on a weekly basis, the walls and windows and floor of St. Saviour’s church function as a similar community of the dead and a memento mori for the living.  Some of the memorials are grand and expensive, testifying to the wealth and prestige of some of our forebears.  Some are small and simple:  a name on a small brass plaque, or even just a set of initials.  Some recite the deeds and fine qualities of those they commemorate; some simply mark the bare fact that a person was here, that someone wanted to remember her.  Some are from the remote past, well beyond living memory, while others are our contemporaries, the loss still fresh.

Most of us would like to think that we will be remembered.  One of the cruelest Jewish curses is that one die and be forgotten, as though he never had been born.  But what exactly do we hope that future generations will see and think when they see our name on a tarnished piece of brass?  Surely there is more to it than vanity:  we hope to be remembered in death as we want to be known and acknowledged in life. We hope that the graven stone that says “I was here” will somehow fix our memory to this place; will ensure that we remain parts of this community even beyond death.

But of course, it is not carved stone and embossed brass that marks our membership in the Body of Christ, but the living water of baptism through which we are adopted as children of God. Water will wear away the hardest stone, but baptism marks us as Christ’s own forever.

At our recent parish meeting, some expressed concern that most of our walls are full and that we need to make sure there is room to memorialize this generation for the ages to come.  In the vestry meeting that followed we had a wide-ranging conversation about the intention and meaning of memorial plaques:  Are they strictly for the purpose of recognizing donations to the church?  What about those who have given their time and energy to the church for their whole lives?  Who decides which gifts and which lives are worthy of a plaque?

The most important result to come out of that vestry discussion was the realization that we need to discuss these questions further and more broadly.  Our parish bylaws (adopted July, 2002), make it clear that any plaques in the church are to recognize specific gifts given to the glory of God, not to memorialize individuals. The bylaws further make it clear that unrestricted gifts (other than part of a capital campaign) are not to be recognized by plaques.

I hope that we can have a conversation about memorials and gifts at our Annual Meeting on June 24. In the meantime, take a walk through St. Saviour’s – or if the weather is nice, stroll through the burial ground next door.  Read the names, touch the stones.  Remember.