Saturday, March 25, 2017

Our Mission to Muslims, Week 4

This week, we watched the video below of apologist Jay Smith examining how the Qur'an and Muhammad hold up in the light of critical scholarship.



The BBC documentary from Tom Holland's work that Jay Smith referenced is below.



The audio version of Tom Holland's book In the Shadow of the Sword is below.









Our Mission to Muslims, Week 3

The Muslim view of God

The substance of Islamic theology is summed up in six articles of faith: Belief in Allah as the one true God, belief in Angels, belief in Scriptures (Taurat, Gospel and Quran), belief in the Prophets, belief in the Day of Judgment, and belief in God's predestination. There is a Friday Sabbath and Muslims observe Jewish dietary laws. Muslims have a fatalistic outlook on history. They believe that Allah dictated everything that will happen and that history unfolds accordingly. This comes from the Muslim’s view of God’s absolute sovereignty.

The Shahada is the central profession of faith (“There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his prophet”). The praise Allahu-Akbar (“God is great!”) is central to prayer. Allah is the Arabic name for “God,” although in pre-Isalmic Arabia, Allah was the name of the god of the moon (one of many idols, Al-ilah or “THE god”) who was married to the sun goddess and had three daughters who were stars. Muslims deny that Allah was originally a pagan deity within a pantheon and assert that Allah was originally viewed as the one God of Abraham and that early monotheism was corrupted by polytheism and later restored by Muhammad.

"Say, He is God, the One and Only; God, the Eternal, Absolute; He begetteth not, nor is He begotten; And there is none like unto Him" (Surah 112:1-4). Islam asserts that God is one, eternal, absolute, and utterly transcendent. He is not a trinity, does not have a son, and there is none like him. Allah created all things and the purpose of life is to worship him. He is personal, but not intimate. God is utterly holy and just, who punishes us for our sins. He is also gracious and merciful and forgiving, but does not have feelings toward mankind (including love—the idea that “God is love” is foreign to the Muslim mind). Allah offers salvation based on repentance and good works. He has mercy if the good outweighs the bad on the scales at Judgment Day, but even then, salvation is deterministic—he saves whom he saves and damns whom he damns. Allah wills everything that happens. Sin is not really cleansed or pardoned as much as overlooked. Allah is to be worshiped and feared as served as a master.

Allah created man from a blood clot and he also created angels. These messengers do not have free will. They serve as the intermediaries between God and man. There are no formal clergy (imam is the one who leads the prayers), but some imams are paid teachers.

Jinn are creatures who are hidden fire spirits. They have physical form, angelic abilities, and free will. Iblis is the Arabic word for “Satan.” In Islam, he is not a fallen angel, but a jinn.

Islam teaches that all of God's prophets preached the message of Islam—submission to the will of God. The Quran mentions the names of numerous figures considered prophets in Islam, including Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses and Jesus. Isa is the Arabic version of “Jesus” in Greek or “Joshua” in Hebrew. He is seen as a prophet, not the Son of God. He was Virgin-born of Mary, was sinless, did healings and other miracles, did not die on the cross, was assumed into heaven and will return at the Day of Judgment. Both Jesus and Mary are highly esteemed.

Islam teaches the general resurrection of the dead at Judgment Day. Muslims believe all mankind will be judged on their good and bad deeds and consigned to Jannah (paradise) or Jahannam (hell).


Who is Muhammad?

Muslims believe in the prophets of the Bible (and believe Jesus was one of them) and see Muhammad as the final prophet. “Peace be upon him” is an expression of reverence that Muslims will always use about God’s prophets, and especially about Muhammad.

Muhammad was born in 570 in Mecca into the Quraysh tribe, which ruled the city and served as custodians of the Ka’abah. The branch of the family Muhammad was born into was impoverished. His father died before Muhammad was born and his mother died when he was six. The orphan first went to live with wealthy grandparents, then a wealthy uncle, then to a poor uncle. Many of his family never accepted him as a prophet.

His first visions were in his youth. He claimed an angel has opened his stomach, stirred his innards, and sealed him back up. He worked in the caravan trade and gained a reputation for being trustworthy. At 25, he met and married a wealthy Christian widow of 40 named Khadija and began a life of leisure. In 610, Muhammad was visited at by Gabriel in a cave who called on him to “recite.” He doubted the authenticity of the experience, but his wife encouraged him to pursue his call as a prophet. Muhammad asserted the claim of his family deity Allah to be not just the supreme god of the pantheon, but the only God. He called himself a prophet to appeal to Jews and an apostle to appeal to Christians. He found his audience hostile. Merchants felt that this undermining of the pagan deities at the Ka’abah was bad for business. At first he modified his preaching to appeal to the Quraysh by saying that Allah’s daughters could be worshiped as well. This concession to pagans was later rescinded and claimed that it was not a true revelation from Allah, but from Satan (hence, the “Satanic verses”).

Muhammad’s first wife died in 619 and growing hostility forced him to flee to Medina in 622. This is the Hijra (migration) and the beginning of the Muslim era. On the way, Muhammad preached to the jinns and converted them. He turned to raiding caravans and found Jews to be lucrative targets. His Muslim band defeated the Quraysh at the Battle of Badr. After some setbacks and more attacks, he conquered the city of Mecca in 630 and cleansed the Ka’abah of idols and made it the center of Muslim worship. Muhammad was poisoned by a Jewish woman and died in 632, and without having provided for a successor.

Although the Qur’an forbids more than 4 wives, Muhammad married 22 times. He had two sons who died in infancy and four daughter, only one of which (Fatima) outlived him. She was revered as one of the greatest women who ever lived. Muhammad's marriages after the death of Khajida were contracted mostly for political or humanitarian reasons. The women were either widows of Muslims killed in battle and had been left without a protector, or belonged to important families or clans whom it was necessary to honor and strengthen alliances with. Most controversial was Aisha who was 6 when betrothed and 9 when the marriage was consummated. She became known as Muhammad's favorite wife in Sunni tradition, survived him by decades and was instrumental in helping assemble the scattered sayings of Muhammad that form the Hadith literature for the Sunni branch of Islam.


What is the Qur’an?

Muslims have three sources of doctrine and practice:

1. The Qur’an (or sometimes “Koran”) is the sacred scripture. The word means “recitation.” The Muslim view of scripture is not the same as Christian. We believe in the inspiration of the Bible by God. Muslims believe in the dictation of Allah’s words to Muhammad through the angel Jibreel (Gabriel). They believe there is an “original” copy in heaven and that the earthly dictation corresponds exactly.

2. The Sunna is the collection of written tradition from the time of Muhammad. It is composed of several volumes of Hadith ( “stories”) which are the sayings and biographical stories of Muhammad that are not the dictated recitations from God. They are the next standard for doctrine and practice among Sunnis (less for Shi’ites).

3. Ijma is the sacred tradition, deemed authoritative only by Sunnis, and not by Shi’ites. It is the consensus of imams, commentators, and legal scholars of Sharia.

The Qur’an is written in units of chapters and verses. The 114 chapters (called Surah) are numbered and also have names (like “The Cow”, “The Jinn”, “Clots of Blood”) which are arranged from longest to shortest, rather than in any chronological or narrative order.

Roughly speaking, the surahs from the first half of the Qur’an are the later revelations from Medina, when Muhammad had risen to power and deal with government and ethics. The more violent passages occur here (Surah 9 most of all). The earlier revelations from Mecca, where Muhammad was powerless and persecuted, occur are placed in the second half of the Qur’an. The more peaceful passages occur here. They talk about judgment and doctrine.

Muslims believe that God gave revelation before the Qur’an (i.e., the Torah and Gospel), but it was corrupted, and the revelations given to Muhammad sets the record straight. The Qur’an does not have much narrative like the Bible, but is a chaotic collection of sayings and stories with many contradictions. The Islamic view of revelation has the principle of abrogation when dealing with conflicting revelation—later verses always cancel out the earlier ones, even within the Qur’an (e.g., Surah 2:106 - “If We abrogate a verse or cause it to be forgotten, We will replace it by a better one or one similar. Did you not know that God has power over all things?” c.f., Hebrews 13:8 – “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, and today, and for ever.” ).

Curiously, although the Islam asserts that Christians and Jews have distorted God’s revelation, the Qur’an testifies to the veracity of the Bible itself and even says to go to the Christians and Jews for help to understand God’s revelations. “If you doubt what We have revealed to you, ask those who have read the Scriptures [i.e., the Bible] before you. The truth has come to you from your Lord: therefore do not doubt it” (Surah 10:94). Also, Surah 4:136 commands the Muslim to “have faith in God and His apostle, in the book He has revealed to his apostle, and in the Scriptures He formerly revealed.” It instructs the Muslim not to argue with the Christians, but to simply assert that God has added to his former revelation.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Altar Guild talk on Sacred Space


Creation of Paradise

To my mind, the best image to illustrate God’s creation is the reliquary. It is so beautiful, we might be forgiven for missing the point. It is only a beautiful display case for something more important. It is a means of setting apart what lies within for special veneration.

God created the heavens and the earth, the sun and moon and stars in their courses. He separated the dry lands from the seas, and brought forth life upon the earth. Genesis 2:8 – “And the Lord God planted a garden in the East, in Eden; and there he placed the man whom he had formed.”

This vast reliquary was a magnificent way to carve out a sacred place for the creature that bore most uniquely the image of the Creator.


The Garden of Eden by Thomas Cole 

God has created this sacred space as a dwelling-place for both the human and the divine. They walked together in fellowship in the garden in the cool of the day. The garden was a place of man’s priestly labor—Adam was to tend the garden (Gen 2:15), to cultivate the place where heaven and earth overlapped. Eden was sacred space. It is no wonder that temples throughout the ancient world were richly decorated with images of the garden. The very word “paradise” comes from the Persian term for a walled garden.

(I'm heavily indebted to Andrew Gould for his post about gardens in this section.)

The vision of paradise as an idyllic walled garden is exceedingly ancient and universal. For thousands of years, palaces have been built around courtyard gardens, and the ancient kings lived out their reigns in an artificial landscape of ideal beauty – an icon of the natural world transfigured into paradise.

There is a very old belief that any garden represents a restoration of Eden, and from the earliest times palace gardens have specifically imitated certain characteristics of Eden. The garden was always square. A fountain at the center poured forth water into four channels that radiated outward in the cardinal directions – an image of the four rivers of paradise referenced in Genesis 2:10-14. It is the preeminent image of human longing.
 The Bible begins in a garden and it ends with a garden. The New Jerusalem in Revelation 21 is the ideal joining of garden and city, where all things being restored, heaven and earth again overlap and God and man walk together in fellowship once more in the cool of the day. In the New Jerusalem, there is a walled city, a river of life issuing from the throne as it was in Eden. There are fruit bearing trees which bring life and healing to the nations. This is God’s image of how he intended life to be lived. The garden is more than a place; it is also a way of life and a state of the soul.

Is it any wonder that at the climax of the salvation story, we again find the setting of a garden. Jesus agonizes with his vocation in the Garden of Gethsemane, choosing to embrace the chalice of suffering. And at the end of his passion, he is laid to rest in a tomb in a garden. And the garden is where he first sets foot in his resurrected body.

The garden includes water and plants, but what makes it different from pure nature is the cultivation. Nature is harnessed and brought into order. This is reminiscent of the work of creation where things like earth and sea are cleanly divided. The wall is just as much an important feature as the vegetation. Although no wall is explicitly mentioned in Genesis 2, the very fact that an angel guards the way back into paradise implies the existence of a barrier and a gateway.

Ancient temples and palaces had their gardens, reminiscent of the ancient walled paradise where all was right with the world. It is no surprise then that churches would have their own ancient custom of the garden courtyard. The first house churches were in homes that had a central courtyard as one of the basic architectural features (think Abuello’s).
 In our diocese, St. Vincent’s cathedral has a central courtyard that has been increasingly cultivated in recent years. Holy Apostles in Fort Worth was built with this tradition of a courtyard in mind. The courtyard here at St. Alban’s is feeling more and more garden-like. It is an architectural feature that might often be missed or sometimes eliminated because of added expense, but one that I would argue holds an important place in the layout of the church building. We don’t see it often in this part of the world, but it is also a garden of rest for the departed.

To enter through the churchyard lychgate is to pass into a different world. To walk through the gardens to church amongst the resting places of the faithful departed is to begin the joyous ascent up the mountain to meet our Lord who sits enthroned in the New Jerusalem.
 In desert countries, the ancient church gardens have a marvelous separation from the surrounding landscape. A monastery in Egypt or Palestine is like an ark of paradise moored in the ocean of dry sand. In ancient times, Byzantine churches always had forecourts, and these contained fountains where the faithful washed themselves before entering. After a long journey through a landscape of desolation, we see palms rising above the high walls. Inside are flowers and birds and fragrant smells.

Even in countries with more verdant climates, the separation of the church gardens from the surroundings was considered very important. Whether by a high wall, or merely a fence with a gate, a church’s grounds were always set apart from the fallen world, and all within would radiate with the beauty of life.

Trees of the Patriarchs 

One of the main features of the garden the Bible mentions are the trees within it. Genesis 2:8-9, "And the LORD God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and there he put the man whom he has formed. And out of the ground, the LORD God made to spring up every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food. The tree of life was in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil."

There is a tree of life in Eden (as there are such trees of life-giving fruit in the paradise of the New Jerusalem) and there is a tree of knowledge. Is it any wonder then that after man’s expulsion from paradise, the first place we find sacred space coming back into the scene is under the shade of a large tree? Of all places, the whisper of God would be best heard under a tree.

Pay attention to the first reading at Mass tomorrow morning. Abram is called by God in Genesis 12 to pick up roots in Haran and head out West to a land of promise. He went with his family, not knowing exactly where to go, but knowing that God would let him know when he got there. Where does Abram stop? Where does God speak to him in the promised land? 
 When Abram entered Canaan, his family stopped at Shechem. There, at a sacred terebinth tree—called the Oak of Moreh—we are told that Abram encounters God again. Now before, we are only told that the Lord “said” something to Abram. Now, Abram not only hears, but sees the God who called him to travel West. Genesis 12:7-8 – “Then the LORD appeared to Abram, and said, ‘To your descendants I will give this land.’ So he built there an altar to the LORD, who had appeared to him. . . . and there he built an altar to the LORD and called on the Name of the LORD.’” This expression about “calling on the name” indicates worship.
 We know that the ancient Canaanites worshiped at such outdoor shrines. You can see how a large tree or a grove of trees in a dry, arid place would be a natural gathering spot. Much later, the prophet Hosea spoke of Israel “sacrificing under oak, poplar, and terebinth [trees] because their shade is good” (Hosea 4:13). The pagan people erected stone pillars in such places for sacrifice, and it seems that these were probably “general use” structures. They did not belong to one congregation or people; anyone could make use of them. Think of a public park with picnic tables and grills for cookouts. And yet, Abram does not use one of these Canaanite pillars. We are explicitly told that he built his own altar there at the Oak of Moreh to sacrifice to the Lord.
Then the story takes a detour in Genesis 12. They go down to Egypt to escape a famine. When it’s over, they journey back up to the Promised Land in Genesis 13 and make camp again in the same spot—between Bethel and Ai. Again, Abram “calls upon the name of the LORD” at the altar he had built there before. After he and Lot part ways, the Bibles says, “Abram moved his tent, and came and dwelt by the oaks of Mamre, which are at Hebron; and there he built an altar to the LORD” (Genesis 13:18).

The Lord appeared to Abram again at the oaks trees in the guise of three angels who signify the divine persons of the Trinity. The Lord came to investigate the outrages in Sodom and Gomorrah. The next time we find that tree mentioned is Genesis 18, where God visits he who is now called Abraham and confirms the promise with a prophecy of a son born to Sarah.

“And the LORD appeared to him by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the door of his tent in the heat of the day. He lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, three men stood in front of him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent door to meet them, and bowed himself to the earth” (Genesis 18:1-2).

At first, Abram had built his own altars for sacrifice at these sacred groves of the native Canaanites. Later in Genesis 21:33, Abram (now Abraham) planted his own grove of trees at Beersheeba and used it as a place of sacrifice, to “call upon the Name of the Lord, the everlasting God.”

Need we even be reminded how the Lord first appeared to Moses? In a tree lit up with the fire of the divine Presence on a high mountain! When the people entered the Promised Land after the exodus, Joshua set up a great stone tablet of covenant laws under the oak tree of Shechem in the holy place of the Lord, where Abraham first encountered God in the Promised Land (Joshua 24:26).

In the time of the Judges, Deborah held court under “the Palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel” (Judges 4:5). The Israelites thought it fitting to bury the great Prophetess close the Lord’s dwelling, under the oak tree at Bethel. In the story of the call of Gideon in Judges 6, we read: “Now the angel of the LORD came and sat under the oak at Ophrah” and that Gideon brought his offering to the oak tree there.
Of course, as the nation takes shape, these sacred groves (which are often on hills or mountains) play less and less a part of the official religious life of the nation. Worship is consolidated in Jerusalem. Country folks still worship the God of Abraham at some of these high places, but the native pagans use them too and there is always the danger of syncretism in their religious faith. At the time of the reforms of Josiah, these high places are finally suppressed. One of the more curious details from this era comes from 2 Kings 23:7 in which all of the pagan elements are forcefully removed from the temple in Jerusalem including one operation “where the women wove hangings for the grove.” 
Graham Hancock, former reporter for the Economist gave this description of the sacred groves of the Qemant, a judaized animist group in Ethiopia: "Gnarled and massive, the acacia was so ancient that it would have been easy to believe it stood there for hundreds and perhaps even for thousands of years. . . . what made this site so different from any other place of worship I had come across in my travels—was the fact that every branch of the tree to a height of about six feet off the ground had been festooned with woven strips of vari-coloured cloth. Rustling in the wind, these waving pennants and ribbons seemed to whisper and murmur—almost as if they were seeking to impart a message" (Graham Hancock’s The Sign and the Seal, pg 247).

One thing that intrigued American poet Joyce Kilmer, is the tree’s constant and intimate communion with God. Before such a powerfully reverent creation, he can only sense his own inadequacy and weakness. We humans can produce wonderful, eloquent poetry, but what is a poem, which emerges from our frail quills; compared to the timeless wisdom embodied in a something like a tree, a simple yet infinitely complex creation wrought by the marvelous hand of God? So it is with the mystery of the Catholic Church—the marvelous Kingdom of God in paradise, in heaven, and on earth that started as the smallest of seeds in Jesus’ parable. It is a great fruitful tree which the Lord himself has created, planted, watered, and raised up to his glory. With that application in mind, let us consider again Kilmer’s words:

I think that I shall never see
A poem as lovely as a tree.
A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the earth’s sweet flowing brest;
A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray,
A tree that may in summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;
Upon whose bosom snow has lain,
Who intimately lives with rain.
Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.
Temple in Jerusalem

The God of Abraham "lived" on Mount Sinai. His presence was indicated with characteristic signs of theophany—smoke and fire, clouds and thunder and lightning. The mountain was set apart. No one but Moses was to set foot on the mountain.

The tablets of testimony written with the commandments of God (inscribed first with his own hand) were a portable sign of his presence. They were made of the material of the mountain and were inscribed with his will. An ark of acacia wood was made to transport them—again, materials from the mountain where the God of Abraham dwelt. When Moses put them in a box to take them to the Promised Land, it was almost as if they had put God himself in a box to take to the Promised Land. In reality, the tabernacle transported the tangible elements of that first encounter with God on the mountain.
God repeatedly “descended” to renew that encounter and make it sacred space once again. All the elements of theophany followed the Ark of the Covenant. The Ark—and the tabernacle which housed it—were God’s residence on the earth. It would make sense that God would give details instructions for the construction and operation of his residence. Again and again, Moses was told to make these things “according to the pattern shown to you on the mountain.” From the priceless gems, to the gold plating, to the fine cloth of scarlet and purple and linen vesture, the d├ęcor of the sanctuary reminds us that nothing but the finest that man has to offer is fitting for God’s dwelling place.

When the structure was complete, the Bible says: “Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. And Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting, because the cloud abode upon it, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. Throughout all their journeys, whenever the cloud was taken up from over the tabernacle, the people of Israel would go onward; but if the cloud was not taken up, then they did not go onward till the day that it was taken up. For throughout all their journeys the cloud of the Lord was upon the tabernacle by day, and fire was in it by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel” (Exodus 40:34-38).

God’s tangible presence dwelt above the “mercy seat”—the golden lid of the Ark of the Covenant—between two winged angels bowed down in worship. This was the most sacred space on earth. The closer to this sacred space you get, the more one leaves the realm of earth and enters the realm of heaven. We can see gradations of holiness with gradations of distinction reflected in the layout, building materials, and use of the tabernacle. The closer to God, the more set apart and precious the features become.
The less holy area of the outer courtyard was open to the laity and the metal associated with its construction was bronze. Moving further inward, only the priests and Levites (who were themselves consecrated for God) were admitted to the holy place in which the items were overlaid with gold (except for the menorah which was solid gold). Further inward, the contents of the holy of holies were either plated with gold on both the inside and outside (like the ark) or were made of solid gold (like the mercy seat). The Holy of holies was off limits to everyone by the high priest, who only entered once a year to offer blood on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur). The sacredness of the entire precinct was evident from the proscription that the priests and Levites should camp in between the tabernacle and the tents of the other tribes during their sojourn in the wilderness.

When the Ark found a permanent home in Jerusalem, David said he would not rest until a fitting residence was made for the Lord and the Ark of his presence. It was a mutually beneficial arrangement in that the palace of the king and the palace of God (the temple) were essentially a part of the same complex. David was not to live to see it accomplished; that was left to his son, King Solomon. When the temple was finished and dedicated, we find the same description of the Lord descending and taking up residence within the Holy of holies was happened with the portable tabernacle.

God was with his people, coming with them from Egypt, through the desert, and taking up residence on a new mountain called Zion in the land of promise. The New Jerusalem is also said to be a place where God can dwell in the midst of his people. When John tells us he sees the Ark in heaven as it was in the old Jerusalem, but it has become a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars upon her head. She bears a Son who rules the nations with a rod of iron. Later, it is the Lamb who dwells in the midst of his people in the New Jerusalem.

It is no wonder then that John begins his gospel with a description of Jesus becoming (as it were) the new temple. “And the Word became flesh and dwelt (literally, “tabernacle”) among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father” (John 1:14).

In his book Jesus of Nazareth (Infancy Narratives) Pope Benedict XVI wrote: “The man Jesus is the dwelling-place of the Word, the eternal divine Word, in this world. Jesus’ ‘flesh,’ his human existence, is the ‘dwelling’ or ‘tent’ of the Word: the reference to the sacred tent of Israel in the wilderness is unmistakable. Jesus is, so to speak, the tent of meeting—he is the reality for which the tent and the later Temple could only serve as signs.” As tragic an end as it was, it is fitting that the sacrificial system of the Old Covenant came to an end and the Temple of Herod was razed to the ground because Jesus is the eternal sacrifice, the New Covenant, and the living Temple of the Most High.

Facing East
The portable tabernacle in the wilderness and then the temple in Jerusalem were oriented the same as most all of the temples of the ancient world. The entrance pointed toward the east, the sunrise being a vivid symbol of the power of the deity coming into his temple. As beings of matter and spirit, it is important to recognize that we worship with both the soul and the body. Posture is a part of how we worship with the body.

Here is Father Beste at the altar of this church, leading his people in a solemn procession toward Christ in paradise, which is what the Eucharistic liturgy is all about. The common direction of clergy and people is a vivid reminder of their anticipation of, and movement toward, the paradise that awaits with the return of Christ in glory. We’ll ignore the fact that they’re technically headed in the wrong direction. It had long since become customary to consider the altar end of the church “liturgical East” no matter what the compass read. Was it a mistake to put the altar at the western end of this room? My only comment about that is to observe that if it had been put at the eastern end, the altar would not have been struck by lightning!

Do we find directionality in biblical prayer? Only in hints. In Isaiah 38, we read: “In those days Hezekiah became sick and was at the point of death. And Isaiah the prophet the son of Amoz came to him, and said to him, ‘Thus says the Lord: Set your house in order; for you shall die, you shall not recover.’ Then Hezekiah turned his face to the wall, and prayed to the Lord . . .” (Isaiah 38:1-2). The King was moved to prayer when faced with his own mortality. The royal palace was just west of the temple complex. Perhaps too sick to rise from his bed, we can safely assume he thought it at least proper and expedient that he should roll over and face toward the East (even if he was facing toward a blank wall) to address God in his house.

This gesture is a little passing reminder of how important directionality in worship was to people of days past—not just in ancient times, but approaching the modern era. Even after Protestant Reformation and the Enlightenment which both served to detach spiritual matters from the physical realm, we still took the care to orient at least our churches if not ourselves when addressing God in prayer. Even the word “orientation” indicates a physical movement toward the oriens—Latin for “East.”

The one clear contradiction of this principal of praying toward the East in the Bible comes with the act of defiance that gets Daniel thrown into the lion’s den. In an effort to destroy Daniel, his enemies maneuvered to get King Darius to sign a decree stating that whoever prays to any god or man for thirty days, except to the king, shall be cast into the den of lions. The Bible says, “When Daniel knew that the document had been signed, he went to his house where he had windows in his upper chamber open toward Jerusalem; and he got down upon his knees three times a day and prayed and gave thanks before his God, as he had done previously” (Daniel 6:10).

Some scholars think that at least during the Exile, it was a common practice to face toward the temple mount for prayer, longing for the day when God’s dwelling place would be restored and his people would be brought home. Another explanation could be that by deliberately facing this way, it would be obvious that Daniel was engaging in an act of defiance toward the prohibition of worship by earthly power.

One thing we inherited from our Jewish roots of worship is this idea of direction in our posture of prayer. Like them, the earliest Christians also faced East in worship. This ancient Christian liturgical posture was traditionally interpreted as a bodily expression of the assembly’s eschatological expectation—awaiting Christ’s return in glory. Christ himself, the “Light of the world”, the “Dayspring from on High,” the “Bright Morning Star” is signified by the rising sun whose dawn marks the consummation of all things in a restored Paradise (whose type, Eden, lies “in the east“).

Perhaps nowhere is this more vividly realized architecturally than here—at Christo Rey Carmelite Monastery in San Francisco. The priest is leading the people in that liturgical procession toward paradise as all of the sudden Jesus bursts forth into this world from the Eastern horizon in his glorious return to earth. The anticipation of the parousia has been realized in the advent of his Real Presence.

St. John of Damascus explained: “When ascending into heaven, [Jesus] rose towards the East, and that is how the apostles adored him, and he will return just as they saw him ascend into heaven . . . Waiting for him, we adore him facing East. This is an unrecorded tradition passed down to us from the apostles” (On the Orthodox Faith 4:12). “Facing the Lord” in the liturgy often meant facing the tabernacle because it was there that the blessed Sacrament was reserved. Liturgically speaking, however, it is the eschatological orientation of the assembly toward the rendezvous with Christ in his new Advent which is paramount.

During the time of house churches, it was common to mark the Eastern wall of the home or courtyard with a cross, which would serve to indicate the direction of prayer during the time of worship for the community gathered at the Lord’s table. This was even before the period when the cross became a symbol commonly used in Christian circles.

The Church 
A church building is the intentional creation of sacred space, and since it is the culmination of thousands of years of tradition on worship, it brings to fulfillment those traditions in its design. In his book Church Building and Furnishing, liturgical scholar J. B. O’Connell notes repeatedly that the church building is the holiest of sanctuaries. “Apart from the sacramental presence of our Lord,” he wrote, “the church is a holy place, filled with the Divine Presence—more so than the Temple of old ever was. . . . A church by its very appearance should proclaim its character and the grandeur of its high and enduring purpose. It should not only be a church, but look like one . . . The church should have its own peculiar atmosphere, an atmosphere that is holy, hieratic, mystical, inspiring . . . that befits the perfect House of God” (pg 8-9).

Making Space Holy
It’s important to remember that you are the church, the mystical Body of Christ, you are sacred space. St Paul wrote in his First Letter to the Corinthians, “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If any one destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and that temple you are” (1 Cor 4:16-17). When our Lord comes to us, may he find in our hearts a mansion prepared for himself!

For our own spiritual well-being, we have to make sacred space in our own lives. We should put forth the time and effort to turn a part of our world into Paradise—that “walled garden” where order and beauty are cultivated, and where God and man spend time together, enjoying each other’s company. It should look like paradise, like a little corner of heaven. Perhaps the use of icons, or plants, or color, or fabric, or some such means of marking territory as holy and set apart from the rest of the world can help form a sacred space in your own life and foster communion with God.

We have so many exceptions to the rules, it’s sometimes difficult to remember what the rules are. According to the ancient practice and laws of the church, only the ordained clergy may enter the chancel and sanctuary. Like the priests and Levites encamped between the tabernacle and the people, they were gathered close to wait upon the Lord.

As a part of the altar guild, it is your service to stand in for the clergy and attend to the needs of the sanctuary. What can we do to mark off that sacred space? Entering the sanctuary, if it truly is the house of God, begs us to set apart ourselves as well. The rule of silence is paramount. As much as possible, the only words spoken should be words of scripture or words of prayer. A sacredness can be imparted through proper dress. Like the acolytes, perhaps only a special outfit is used when working in the sanctuary. Perhaps the ancient practice of the veil being worn in the house of God would be appropriate. The same attire and attitude can be a way of creating sacred space in our own lives and homes. It can be a way of building that wall for our Eden—setting it apart from the world.

Like Abraham finding rest in the Promised Land, we encounter God at a tree which serves as a place of sacrifice. Let us always have an image of the crucifix to attune us to prayer—perhaps on the east side of a room, marking the direction in which to cultivate our longing for Christ’s return.

A candle or two lit at the time of prayer is a way of invoking Christ’s presence, who once lit up the burning bush on Sinai and called it holy ground, who was named as the “Light of the world”, “the Dayspring”, and the “Bright Morning Star.” May God grant you to find sanctuary in your life this Lent.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Our Mission to Muslims, Week 2

This week, we had the first in our two session crash course covering Muslim doctrine and practice. Week 3 will cover the Muslim view of God, Muhammad, and the Qur'an.

First, we followed up on a topic from Week 1 and looked at a video on Ann Holmes Redding, the former Episcopal priest/practicing Muslim in Seattle.

Second, we looked at the new Sports Hijab, just announced from Nike. My thought was that with 500 million Muslim women in the world, it's hard to believe they never came out with this until now.

Third, we surveyed Muslim practice by looking at the Five Pillars.

Practicing the Faith: the Five Pillars of Islam 

1. Shahadah – the Creed. The daily declaration of faith for a Muslim is, Ashud anna, la illaha illa Allah wa Muhammad rasul Allah (“I witness that there is no god but God and Muhammad is the Prophet of God”). Muslims take on a duty to witness to the world. The second part affirms the existence of one God by negating the existence of any other god or creature that people might worship. Islam is emphatically monotheistic. The third part of the creed witnesses that God sent prophets to humankind and that Muhammad was the last (and thus the greatest or definitive) prophet, or messenger who received the revelation from God.

2. Salah – Daily Prayers. The offering of five daily prayers are the duty of every Muslim. They perform the recitations and physical movements of salah or salat as taught by Muhammad. In the salah, Muslims recite specific words and selected verses from the Qur’an while standing, bowing, kneeling with the hands and forehead touching the ground, and sitting. Each of the five prayers can be performed within a window of time: (1) Fajr -between dawn and sunrise, (2) Zuhr - noon to mid-afternoon, (3) Asr - between midafternoon and just before sunset, (4) Maghrib - at sunset, and (5) Isha - after twilight until nighttime. The repeated affirmation that "God is great" forms the structure prayer. One can also see a few refutations of Christian claims as well as something reminiscent of the "Glory be." To get a sense of what Muslim prayer is like, we watched a video of the shortest prayer, which is the first of the day.
Prayer time is determined by local time and the direction is always toward the Ka’bah in Mecca. Each prayer time is preceded by a ritual cleansing called wudu. At the end of the prayer, and throughout their lives, Muslims may also pray informally, asking for guidance and help in their own words. If two or more Muslims pray together, one of them will be the imam (prayer leader), and the others form rows behind the imam. In fact, the term "mosque" means "a place of prostration."

3. Zakah – Almsgiving. The word for this duty of charity means "purification," indicating that a person is purified from greed by giving wealth to others. When Muslims have cash savings for a year, they give 2.5% of it as zakat. Zakat on other forms of wealth, such as land, natural resources, and livestock is calculated at different rates. Paying the zakat reminds Muslims of the duty to help those less fortunate, and that wealth is a gift entrusted to a person by God rather than a possession to be hoarded selfishly. Muhammad set the precedent that zakah was collected and distributed locally, and what remained after meeting local needs was distributed to the larger Muslim community through the general treasury.

4. Sawm – Fasting in Ramadan. During this one month each year, Muslims fast by not eating or drinking anything between dawn and sunset. Fasting is a duty for adults, but many children participate partially on a voluntary basis. The fast begins with sahoor (a pre-dawn meal). While fasting, Muslims perform the dawn, noon and afternoon prayers, and go about their normal duties. At sunset, Muslims break their fast with a few dates and water, then pray, then eat iftar (a meal that breaks the fast). Iftar is usually eaten with family and friends, or at the masjid, which hosts meals donated by community members for all. After the evening prayer, many Muslims go to the masjid for congregational prayers that feature a reading of one thirtieth of the Qur’an each night. They complete the whole Qur’an by the end of the month, which is a celebration of the revelation of the Qur'an.

5. Hajj – Pilgrimage to Mecca. The basic act of worship in Islam is the pilgrimage to the city of Mecca (or Makkah) during the twelfth month of the Islamic lunar calendar, Dhul-Hijjah. The hajj rites symbolically reenact the trials and sacrifices of Prophet Abraham, his wife Hajar, and their son Isma’il (not Isaac, as in the Torah) which included Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son Isma’il in response to God’s command. Muslims must perform the hajj at least once in their lives, provided their health and finances permit. The hajj is performed annually by over 2 million people and different nations are given an annual number of pilgrims allowed to go on the hajj by Saudi Arabia. In the last decade, the Saudi kingdom has spent tens of billions of dollars upgrading the facilities for the hajj.



Sects of Islam 

Islam consists of roughly 84% Sunnis, 15% Shiites (largely Iranian) and 1% unorthodox.

Sunni means “tradition,” and Sunnis regard themselves as those who emphasize following the traditions of Muhammad and of the first two generations of the community of Muslims that followed Muhammad. Sunnis believe that the successor to Muhammad (a Calif) should be elected, while Shi’ites believe a bloodline succession should be followed. Sunnis formed the concept of Islamic law called Shari’a (literally: “the way to the watering hole”). The highest authority is the Qur’an (God's revelations), followed by the Sunnah in the Hadith (sayings of Muhammad), and the consensus of the community called the ijma. This ijma became the final resource for law and ethics among Sunnis.

A number of movements to reform Islam have originated in the 20th Century. Most are Sunni movements, such as the Wahhabis (the puritanical version of Islam in Saudi Arabia), the Muslim Brotherhood (of Egypt), and Jama`at-i-Islami.

Shia Islam is the second largest group, and largely Persian rather than Arab. Shi’ites are the “party of Ali,” who believe that Muhammad’s son-in-law Ali was his designated successor (imam) and that the Muslim community should be headed by a descendent of Muhammad. As a result, they believe that Ali ibn Abi Talib was the first real Imam (leader), rejecting the legitimacy of the previous Muslim caliphs accepted by Sunnis: Abu Bakr, Uthman ibn al-Affan and Umar ibn al-Khattab. Different branches accept different descendants of Ali as Imams. In contrast with Sunnis who have a more egalitatian leadership, Shi’ites believe their imams to be a fully spiritual guide, inheriting some of Muhammad’s inspiration. The movement also glorifies martyrdom, has a mystical side, and firmly believes in theocracy as the best form of government.

Sufis are Islamic mystics. In response to the growing legalism of mainstream Islam, Sufis went beyond external requirements of the religion to seek a personal experience of God through forms of meditation and spiritual growth. A number of Sufi orders exist, analogous to Christian monastic orders. Most Sufis are also Sunni Muslims, although some are Shi'ite Muslims. Many conservative Sunni Muslims regard Sufism as a corruption of Islam, although most still regard Sufis as Muslims.

Baha’is and Ahmadiyyas are 19th Century offshoots of Shi'ite and Sunni Islam, respectively. Bahai’s consider themselves a new religion, originating from Shi'ite Islam as Christianity originated from Judaism. Ahmadiyyas regard themselves as Muslims. Most other Muslims, however, deny that either group is a legitimate form of Islam. Druze, Alevis, and Alawis are other small, sectarian groups with unorthodox beliefs and practices that split off from Islam. Druze and Alevis do not regard themselves as Muslims and are not considered Muslims by other Muslims. Alawis have various non-Islamic practices, but debate continues as to whether they should still be considered Muslims. Sikhism is a pacifist blend of Islam and Hinduism, resulting in what might be called a “monotheistic atheism.”

Nation of Islam is a black nationalistic Muslim cult of the USA invented by Wallace Fard and Elijah Muhammad. Fard was a white man believed to be Allah incarnate. In 1975, Elijah’s son and successor Warith Deen Muhammad introduced reforms to bring black American Muslims into the mainstream of Sunni Islam. Some disagreed with the reforms, like Louis Farrakhan who leads his own reboot of the Nation of Islam.

Monday, March 06, 2017

Lent 1: Your Rule of Life

On the First Sunday in Lent, I gave and educational message about having a rule of life. Notes are below.

Rule (regula) is the pattern, model, or example by which we wish to intentionally shape our spiritual lives, particularly our prayer lives. In his book about spiritual growth and maturity, titled Christian Proficiency, Thornton explains: “Rule is a help and not a hindrance, something liberating not restrictive, expansive not burdensome, in accord with the freedom of the Christian spirit and absolutely opposed to ‘legalism.’ It is always a means to an end, and never an end in itself, and its content is only ascetical theology.”

Thornton makes a few observations about Rule that flow out of this understanding:

1. Rule is “embraced,” not “promised” or “vowed.” He tells us it would be Pharisaical, legalistic, and quite unChristian to solemnly promise or vow to “keep” this kind of “rule.” Remember: it’s not about a list of rules; it’s a plan for fruitful living. “A Christian regular is one who chooses to undertake his common obligations and duties, and to develop his personal spirituality, by acknowledging, accepting, or ‘embracing’ some total scheme, system, pattern or ‘rule’ of prayer."

2. Rule is wholly opposed to legalism. As Thornton would say, rule is always a means to an end, never the end itself. A legalistic approach would turn it around the opposite way. Legalism is totally concerned with the letter of the law, not the spirit. Rule is totally concerned with the spirit and only uses tools like the letter of the law to foster the spirit.

3. Rule is neither artificial, nor a burden, but the principle of civilized life. Rule of Life is about being a part of Christian culture and civilization which is built around three great elements of the Christian spiritual life: 1. The sacrifice of Christ in the Mass; 2. The Office, which is the prayer of Christ to the Father through his mystical Body, the Church; and 3. Our own personal, private prayers and devotions. As Thornton put it: “So dare we think of the Eucharist as the living heart of the Body of Christ; of the Office as its continual beat, its pulse; and private prayer as the circulation of the blood giving life and strength to its several members according to their need and capacity?” Rule is about being joined to Jesus.

4. Breach of Rule is not (necessarily) a sin. Thornton calls it a fault. We have to keep in mind what sin is—transgressing the revealed will of God, Of put more simply, breaking God’s commandments. Breaking my own will or my own rules is technically amoral. It only becomes a sin if it happens to overlap with God’s laws or the church’s laws (since God told us to obey her law). For example, if I give up chocolate cake for Lent, and then eat some, that’s only a fault. But if I put keeping the Sabbath in my rule, and don’t keep it, that is a sin— not because I broke my own rule, but because I broke God’s rule.

5. Rule is, and must always remain, variable. It should fit the person and the time. Life changes, people change, so it only makes sense that rule of life should change along with it. It can be relaxed, strengthened, modified, or varied. As we said, most people have a special rule just for Lent. Your normal rule should be reexamined from time to time to see if it “fits.” It ought to fit and it should be something the soul should “grow into.” Ideally, your rule should become totally second-nature.

Our Mission to Muslims, Week 1

These are some notes and videos from our Friday Lenten Study Series at S. Francis Anglican Church in Dallas on the topic of "Our Mission to Muslims."

We started off with an oldie, but goodie: an article from the newspaper in St. Louis about an Episcopal priest who decided to take up the practice of Islam for Lent back in 2011. It begins: "The Rev. Steve Lawler should have just given up chocolate or television for Lent. Instead, Lawler, of St. Stephen's Episcopal Church in Ferguson, decided to adopt the rituals of Islam for 40 days to gain a deeper understanding of the faith. On Friday, he faced being defrocked if he continued in those endeavors."
 Click here to read the whole story.

Lawler was trying out Islam in a limited fashion as a Lenten gimmick. I guess he gave it up because he wasn't disciplined by his bishop. Not so with Ann Holmes Redding, an Episcopal priest in Seattle was also more a practicing Muslim for a little over a year and seemed far more into it than Lawler. She was given an ultimatum in 2008 by her bishop to repent and was eventually defrocked when she did not.

We also viewed an episode of Anglican Unscripted in which Father Argo was interviewed. It was important to get a first-hand perspective from someone on the front lines. The interview we watched is below.

Father Argo also did a follow up interview on Anglican Unscripted, which I have put below.


Then we looked at the following hand-out.

Witnessing to Muslims

Remember the context. Islam is a false religion that could be called a Christian heresy. It has many of the same cast of characters, but false ideas about things like what God is like, who Jesus is, how salvation works, etc.

All of us are called to defend the faith, but we are also called to confront the errors of false religion. Think of it like a sports team. We all get to play defense (apologetics—explaining the faith), but sometimes we are chosen to play offense (to go on the attack). The gospel is, by definition, offensive. Consider it a privilege when you have an opportunity to talk about Jesus with a Muslim.

Not all Muslims are the same. There are 175 sects of Islam. There are 4 schools of jurisprudence within just the largest, Sunni Islam. And a Sunni from one part of the world will be different from a Sunni from another. Get to know them; listen to them.

They view the Qu’ran like we view the Sacrament, not like we view the Bible. It is deemed nearly divine itself, and is in many ways distant to them. Muhammad got more violent as he got older, and that’s unfortunate because the later verses trump the earlier ones.

Muslims like to talk about religion. They are looking to communicate their beliefs. Don’t seek commonality. And keep it on religion and not on politics. Always be loving, but also be sure of yourself and what you believe. Ask blunt and provocative questions, like “I believe that Jesus is the Son of God; what do you think?” or “I believe Jesus’ death on the cross atoned for our sins; what do you think?” or “I believe that Jesus rose from the dead; what do you think?” Let them answer and be the skeptic. Sit back and look for weakness in their arguments. They are often circular.

Talk about Jesus, not about Muhammad. Let Jesus get bigger, and their prophet get smaller. They will be interested in Jesus and respect him already. They believe he heals and will let you pray for them in Jesus’ name!

Do what God is doing. Take advantage of opportunities the Lord brings into your life. Pray and fast and confess your sins. People are not converted without humility and love.

Do not be discouraged when you do not see results. These things usually happen slowly. We are a part of the Holy Spirit's work of challenging assumptions, creating doubts, declaring truth, and instilling faith.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Getting ready to get ready?

A few years ago, Father Allen reinstituted the parish observance of the pre-Lenten season, or what is sometimes called Shrovetide. It was abolished in the revision of the calendar with the new lectionary. Epiphany became the green Sundays of “ordinary time” lasting until Ash Wednesday. But Shrovetide has had a little revival of sorts. A pre-Lent scheme was put back into the calendar of Common Worship (the modern Prayer Book used in the Church of England) as well the calendar used by the Anglican Ordinariates.

Pre-Lent begins with three “gesima” Sundays—Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima. Of these, only Quinquagesima is literally named—“fifty days” before Easter. As in Lent, the vestments are purple, the Gloria and Alleluias are dropped, and the dismissal is “Let us bless the Lord.” But Shrovetide is not quite Lent. Pre-Lent is actually the carnival season (or Mardi-Gras as they say in New Orleans). There is a certain festivity that attends to using up all the things to be abstained from during Lent.

However, when pre-Lent was removed, the character of Lent was altered. You might associate Lent with repentance above all, but that’s not how it was supposed to work. In the old arrangement, Shrovetide was the time to repent, the time to be “shriven” of your sins (to make your confession and be absolved), while Lent was the time to “do penance.” As Lent was the desert experience, pre-Lent was said to be the Babylonian captivity when you prayed to return to the Promised Land.

In searching for a fitting bulletin graphic, I found a set of shields for each season. The pictures and words on the shields are telling. For pre-Lent, they are tools for discerning and rejecting sin: “Law, Scripture, Prayer, Repentance.” For Lent, they are tools for making amends for our faults: “Alms, Fasting, Abstinence, Scourging.”

Pre-Lent is not redundant (just “getting ready to get ready for Easter”), but a unique time of transition to holy ground.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Sanctity of Life Sunday

Sanctity of Life Sunday is usually the Sunday closest to January 22nd, the day in 1973 that the US Supreme Court handed down the Roe v. Wade decision that made abortion legal in all nine months of pregnancy. This year it is on the actual anniversary and this place holds special significance because Jane Roe (Norma McCorvey) and District Attorney Henry Wade were from Dallas. The landmark case that changed America originated right here.

Abortion is still the leading cause of death in the United States. We have things to give thanks for (declining numbers of abortions and an increasingly pro-life outlook among young people), but there is still much work to be done. And our concern is not just for the unborn and for their mothers, but also for the forgotten and marginalized members of our society—the poor, the elderly and disabled, prisoners on death row, and those wrestling with suicide.

S. Francis Parish has participated for years in the local March for Life, in offerings for Pro-Life ministries, and in training and equipping young women who make the choice to keep and raise the child to make positive life choices and improve their life skills. I am humbled to be a part of a parish with this commitment.

As a church, we are committed to standing for and with those who are most vulnerable in our society. This commitment is reflected in the founding documents of the province: “God, and not man, is the creator of human life. The unjustified taking of life is sinful. Therefore, all members and clergy are called to promote and respect the sanctity of every human life from conception to natural death.” (Anglican Church in North America - Constitution and Canons, Title II, Canon 8, Section 3).

Let us pray especially for changed hearts, for healing for all who have been involved in abortion or other end of life situations, and for a renewed appreciation of the value and respect for human life that is fitting for human beings created in the image of God.

Monday, January 02, 2017

Hosanna to the Son of David

This Christmastide, Ive been reading from Raymond Brown's monumental work The Birth of Messiah. In the second appendix (pg 505ff), he considers the issue of the Davidic descent of Jesus.

Brown notes that the majority of scholars think that the claim that Jesus is descended from the house of David is historically reliable. But there is also many who argue that the claim is a theologoumenon (a historicized theological assertion). The argument goes: "the Christian community believed that Jesus had fulfilled Israel's hopes; prominent among those hopes was the expectation of a Messiah, and so the traditional title 'Messiah' was given to Jesus; but in Jewish thought, the Messiah was pictured as having Davidic descent; consequently Jesus was described as 'Son of David'; and eventually a Davidic genealogy was fashioned for him" (pg 505). Those who argue this point to the example of Zadok the high priest, who rose to power but (it would seem) had to invent the pedigree in 1 Chronicles 6:1-8 that gave him the authority to exercise that priesthood.

Brown is not convinced. Like the majority of scholars, he finds the idea that Jesus' Davidic claim is historical to be more believable that the alternative. Some of the support he offers is intriguing.

1. Relatives of Jesus were known in the primitive Church. If the family was not Davidic, why would anyone have given credit to the claim? and why would they have gone along with it?

2. Why did Jesus' enemies never raise a protest to this Davidic claim if it was historically questionable? Brown explains: "One would expect to find traces of a polemic, especially on the part of the Pharisees, denying Jesus' Davidic status as falsified. But, while there are Jewish attacks on Jewish legitimacy, there is no polemic against his Davidic descent as such" (pg 507).

That brings to mind another aspect that Brown does not mention, which is that while we find frequent attack upon Jesus' origin with claims that Mary was raped or had an affair, no one seems to claim that Mary and Joseph just had premarital sex and weren't careful about pregnancy before the marriage was (at least ceremonially) consummated.

That Joseph was Jesus' natural father would seem to be the natural argument to make, for someone arguing against any supernatural element in his conception. The fact that no one was making that argument is because the whole purpose of the attack was to undermine Jesus' family claim to be the Messiah (anointed) Son of David. If Joseph was the natural father, the Davidic bloodline is sure and his Messianic claim solidified; the attack would be undermined.

3. Brown also points out that it has been claimed that St. Simeon of Jerusalem, son of Clopas and cousin of the Lord Jesus, was martyred more because he was a Davidid, not so much because he was a Christian. Brown notes that Rome was concerned local uprisings and power grabs, and thus about Davidic claims. "Hegesippus is cited to the effect that, after the capture of Jerusalem in 70, Vespasian issued an order that the descendants of David should be ferreted out, so that no member of the royal house should be left among the Jews" (pg 508).

4. Another interesting detail I had overlooked is the parallel expectation among the Jews of Qumran was of a kind of parallel priestly messiah from the tribe of Levi along with the political kingly messiah from the tribe of Judah, which is kind of what we got with John the Baptist and Jesus.

5. Lastly, Brown notes that evidence for the Davidid claim is early, first showing up in Romans 1:3 (written c. 58) and Paul here is simply quoting an older creedal formula. Would Paul have done so if there was any question about the Davidid claim? Brown explains: "To a man with Paul's training as a Pharisee, the Davidic ancestry of the Messiah would be a question of paramount importance, especially in the period before his conversion when he was seeking arguments to refute the followers of Jesus. Paul, who twice insists on his own Benjaminite descent (Rom 11:1; Philip 3:5), would scarcely have been disinterested in the Davidic descent of Jesus" (pg 508).

Brown sums up his appendix on the issue by stating, "The New Testament evidence that Jesus really was a Davidid outweighs, in my opinion, doubts to the contrary" (pg 510).

Monday, November 28, 2016

Advent 1: Always be Ready

For those many of you who have been requesting that I post my sermons, here you go (audio version at bottom).
Today we begin the season of Advent. But we must remember that the Christian life is an ongoing advent experience. We are always looking head. We are called to wait preparedly for the dawn. The darkness of the world surrounds us, but our faces are lit by the approaching light of Christ. And one of our best resources in this preparation is the illumination of God’s truth in his written Word. So I commend scripture reading to you this Advent.

During this season, we hear a lot about Bible prophecy and the coming of Jesus Christ—both his first Advent and his glorious second Advent yet to come. Saint Peter the Apostle said it so well in his first Letter: “The prophets who prophesied of the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired about this salvation; they inquired what person or time was indicated by the Spirit of Christ within them when predicting the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glory” (1 Pet 1:10-11). They did this because the purpose of Bible prophecy is to prepare God’s people to be a part of the unfolding of his plan of salvation.

Saint Paul says that our salvation (which he likens to the coming of Christ) is growing closer day by day. Our salvation is not some event in the past, but is the fulfillment of our destiny in the future. We must embrace it. So even while we live in darkness, we must cast off the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light—to live as we would on the Day of Judgment.

Judgment Day must happen because God will triumph. He will judge the living and the dead in righteousness and truth, for he is the King of kings and Lord of lords. The reading from Isaiah 2:1-5 talked about the triumph of Peace at on the new earth. All the people in God’s kingdom will live in harmony and peace; they will beat their swords into plowshares, and war will be no more.

The reading from Romans 13:8-14 talked about the triumph of Light on the new earth. The people of God will be illumined by the true light of heaven. They shall know themselves and the Lord as he is, and live in the perfect fellowship of holiness with Christ. But these triumphs must come through judgment.

That is, society will not grow ever sophisticated until wars and conflict simply cease. Human beings will not naturally grow in wisdom until they evolve beyond their tendencies toward sin. No, God will reign over the earth by his power and might and he will judge the world by his righteousness and truth. His final victory will come by intervening in human history, setting the world straight and sweeping away all that is not holy.

But of course, sin does not want to be rooted out. The nature of sin is rebellion and conflict. The devil will fight against God’s plan till the end. But he is no match for the power of God. The Lord will triumph, and his people will be saved through this tribulation. Notice that God’s people will be saved through tribulation, not from tribulation. As a child of God, you are like a soldier caught in the cross-hairs of evil. The sinful antagonism of the world against God will be taken out on you, on the People of God.

Saint Paul warns that all who desire to live a godly life shall suffer persecution. And Jesus himself told us the world will hate those who bear his name. “Blessed are you when you are persecuted for my name’s sake.”

No one likes suffering and tribulation, so we should perhaps not be surprised that some Christians may fall into the trap of escapism. Perhaps, they think, the great tribulation is not so much the climactic rebellion of evil, as it is God’s own judgment upon the lost. This would mean that the righteous would need to be spared, and the only way for that to happen would be for God to remove them from this world-wide tribulation. The idea is called the rapture of the Church.
This doctrine and the theological view of history that goes with it called “dispensationalism” originated with the John Nelson Darby of the Plymouth Brethren. His teaching caught on in the mid 1800s in fundamentalist circles through the Niagara Bible Prophecy Conferences and was later popularized in the Scofield Reference Bible.

That school of thought prospered again around the close of the 20th Century, especially in Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth and the Left Behind novels and films. But the teaching is unknown in the Bible, the creeds, the Church Fathers, the Protestant reformers, and all Christian denominations for 18 centuries.

But, you may ask, doesn’t Paul say that we shall be "caught up in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air"? Yes he does (1 Thess 4:17), but Jesus also said that the trumpet would sound and the angels would gather his people when all see the Son of Man in the clouds. So this is certainly not a secret event. And what is the point of meeting the Lord in the air? It is for him to take us up to heaven? Or for us to escort him to earth at his glorious return?

The point of gathering God’s people is not to take the Church out of the world. Jesus prayed at Gethsemane, “I do not ask that you take them out of the world.” The point is that the saints accompany Christ into the world; he does not return alone. He comes with an entourage.
At that time, when a dignitary would enter a town, the people would go out of the city to welcome him, and escort him into the city (like a parade). So it is with Christ’s return to earth in glory as judge of the living and dead.

That’s why in the old Prayer Book, the gospel passage describing Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem at the beginning of Holy Week with the people going out to meet him, waiving palms, crying hosanna to the king, and his subsequent exercise of judgment in cleaning house at the Temple was read on the first Sunday of Advent. It was a vivid portrayal of the Second Coming.

In the Gospel reading today (Matthew 24:37-44), Jesus compared his return to the flood of Noah. Just as in Noah’s time, people will be eating and drinking and marrying. The point Jesus makes here is not that the world will be filled with evil as it was in the days of Noah (which is true); It will be completely unexpected and take them by surprise.

People will be going on about their daily lives, giving no attention to God, but then (when he is least expected) the Son of Man will appear in the clouds. A few verses before today’s reading, Jesus described the event as a flash of lightning—immediate, sudden, brilliant, and unmistakable.

Jesus says that the righteous and the wicked will be divided by that event. There will be two men in the field—one will be taken, and the other left. There will be two women at the mill—one taken, the other left. Now, those who believe in the rapture might say, “See! Here is the proof. We will be taken out of the world.”

But think carefully. Jesus is making a comparison here to the flood of Noah’s day, not to the ark. The wicked were swept away by the flood waters, while the righteous (like Noah and his family) remained—they were “left behind” in safety. You want to be left behind, not swept away. In the final judgement, the wicked will perish, and the righteous will be rewarded with eternal life.

 So Jesus says, “Watch for it.” Because you do not know when that day is coming. He doesn’t tell us to try to figure out when he’ll return so we can be ready at that moment. Instead, he wisely tells us, “ALWAYS BE READY.”

How do you get ready? Read the Word of God. Examine your conscience. Go to confession. How do you get ready? Amend your ways. Live in love and charity with all people. How do you get ready? Cast away the works of darkness and put on the armor of light. Always be ready for the return of the Lord. Our salvation is closer now than when we first believed.

Friday, July 22, 2016

A pilgrimage

 Last Saturday, my family and I began a journey. We set out on a drive to Delafield, Wisconsin with a lay-over in Kansas City to visit my sister and brother-in-law. It's a long drive (about 19 hours total), but rarely boring.

I’ve made the trip several times between South and North driving back and forth to and from seminary, and from the Mississippi River to the West coast (once along a Southern route through Arizona and up the California coast and twice along a Northern route across Montana). I’m always moved by the experience. This is such an amazing land that God has entrusted to us!

I love the rolling hills of the Iowa farm country with mile after mile of tall green corn fields planted in neat sections. I bet anything would grow there. I love the plains. I could see "mountains" off in the distance when driving through Oklahoma. Wisconsin is so delightful. It looks like a postcard. When we were driving into Madison at dusk, there were swarms of fireflies along the highway. It was like a journey through space.

Coming back to seminary is also like a journey through time, coming to a place where time is always marked and sanctified by prayer, and yet where time seems to stand still. It is a place where things are ever old and ever new. I'm grateful to be here.

On Saturday, I also received a call to pastor a new congregation. It was difficult to be away from my people at that time and let my wardens break the news. When I return, the pilgrimage will have to continue. There is much work to be done (but then, there always is). I don't like saying good-bye. And I don't like moving. But I'm also excited and challenged by the new work that lies ahead. My prayer is that God will be with me along the way, keep me focused, and bless others through me.