Thursday, December 25, 2014

A Christmas without Anglicans?

One of the things I like most about the Christmas season are the carols. It only occurred to me recently that so many of them came to us from Anglicans. That reminded me that even our popular image of jolly old St. Nick was shaped by a professor of biblical studies at (of all places) an Episcopal seminary.

“‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” is a poem first published anonymously in 1823 and generally attributed to Clement Clarke Moore, a professor of classics at Columbia and then lay Professor of Hebrew and the Bible at the General Theological Seminary in New York, which was built on land he donated. The poem, which has been called “arguably the best-known verses ever written by an American,” is largely responsible for the conception of Santa Claus from the mid-nineteenth century to today, including his physical appearance, the night of his visit, his mode of transportation, the number and names of his reindeer, as well as the tradition that he brings toys to children.

And what about the carols? The text of the popular Christmas carol “O little town of Bethlehem” was written by Phillips Brooks, an Episcopal priest who was the long-time Rector of Trinity Church Trinity in Boston, and later the Bishop of Massachusetts. He was inspired by visiting the Palestinian city of Bethlehem in 1865. Three years later, he wrote the poem for his church and his organist, Lewis Redner, added the music. Redner’s tune, simply titled “St. Louis,” is the tune used most often for this carol in the United States.

John Mason Neale was an Anglican priest, scholar, and hymn-writer. He translated many ancient hymns, such as the Christmas classic “Of the Father’s love begotten.” He was also responsible for much of the translation of the Advent hymn “O come, O come, Emmanuel,” based on the “Great O Antiphons” for the week preceding Christmas. Neale’s most enduring and widely known legacy is probably his own original Christmas contributions, most notably “Good Christian men, rejoice” and his Boxing Day carol, “Good King Wenceslas.”

The Anglican priest Charles Wesley, penned the classic “Hark! The herald angels sing.” The original words were reworked by his friend and fellow priest George Whitfield into the verses familiar to us today. The “Father of English Hymnody” Isaac Watts, a nonconformist minister in the Church of England, wrote the famous carol “Joy to the world!” The Anglican bishop Christopher Wordsworth penned the famous carol, “Sing, O sing, this blessed morn.”

Christina Rossetti was an English poet and a devout Anglo-Catholic. Two of her poems, “In the bleak midwinter” and “Love came down at Christmas,” became popular Christmas carols. Cecil Alexander, wife of a priest and then bishop in the Church of England, wrote the hymn “Once in royal David’s city.” Nahum Tate, who was the son of a priest and became England’s poet laureate, wrote the hymn “While shepherds watched their flock by night.”

At the age of twenty-nine, English writer and Anglican layman William Chatterton Dix was struck with a sudden near-fatal illness and confined to bedrest for several months, which resulted in a deep depression. Yet out of his traumatic experience, he wrote the lovely carol “What Child is this?” What would Christmas be like without Anglicans?

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The pagan origins of the Christmas tree?

Probably the most recognizable Advent tradition is putting a tree in your home and decorating it for Christmas. The trees came to Britain after Prince Albert, the German husband of Queen Victoria, introduced them in 1841. It is often assumed that this is a pagan custom that was appropriated by Christians in Germany, but that is not quite the case. The Christmas tree began in Germany, but it started with a saint (an Anglican, in fact).

It was the 8th Century Benedictine monk St. Boniface from the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Wessex who first took the Gospel to the pagan Germanic tribes of Northern Europe. There, they worshipped Odin and Thor—fierce and ancient Norse gods. One of the savage aspects of Germanic Norse religious culture was human sacrifice.

Boniface knew that Christianity had subdued the wilder, more violent aspects of Anglo-Saxon warrior culture in England and believed the same could happen in Germany. So Boniface let spread word among the tribes that when the next sacrifice was planned, he would personally prevent it. He gathered his monks at an ancient oak tree, a place of sacred blood-letting.

The pagans bound a young girl to the oak tree in preparation, but before the fatal blow could be struck, Boniface grabbed the axe out of the executioner’s hands. He swung at the girl’s chains, breaking her free, and then turned his axe on the sacred oak. The pagans knelt in silence, expecting their gods to avenge this blasphemy.

Boniface broke the silence, calling them to look at the base of the oak. There, springing out of the ground from between the roots was a tender young fir tree. Boniface explained that their other gods had fallen with the oak but that Boniface’s God had given them this little tree which remains green and full of life even in the depths of winter. The fir tree’s evergreen leaves pointed upwards to heaven, reminding them that the Christian Triune God’s love for them was everlasting.

At the first Christmas after this event, Boniface brought a fir tree indoors into the church as a symbol of Christ’s everlasting love. It has been used as a Christmas reminder of God’s love ever since.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Summer of Saints: Mary Magdalene

When we were expecting a child, my wife and I came up with a list of 20 names—some from the dictionary of saints, and others from our heads. We finally settled on Madeline, which is the Anglicized form of the French version of “Magdalene” (though we kept the French spelling). Her feast day is this coming this Tuesday, July 22nd, so I thought we'd talk about her in this summer of saints.

She has always been a popular saint, with many churches and institutions named after her. C.S. Lewis taught at Magdalene College in Oxford (though if you’re in Oxford, you’ll have to ask for “Maudlin College.” It took me about a day and a half to figure that one out.) Contrary to what you may have heard, she was not Jesus’ girlfriend (or wife), and it's very unlikely that was she a prostitute.

Mary Magdalene is introduced in the gospel story in Luke 8:1-3. Jesus “went on through cities and villages, preaching and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. And the twelve were with him, and also some women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out . . . and many others, who provided for them out of their means.” 

She was a rich woman from the town of Magdala, near the Sea of Galilee. She was known as the Magdalene because of her very common first name and she is noted to have funded Jesus’ ministry and travels in Galilee.

In the Middle Ages, she was often misidentified with the unnamed woman who anoints Jesus’ feet in Luke 7, the context indicating a repentant prostitute. She was also confused with Mary of Bethany, which seems even more odd. Why would one person be described as from both Magdala and Bethany.

The real Magdalene was exorcised and healed by the Savior, changing her life forever. She remained a devoted follower and close to him through the end, being one of those few at the cross, the burial, and the empty tomb. Both John and Mark’s gospels say that she was the first to see the risen Lord.

Some of the earliest traditions and commentaries seem to suggest that instead of being possessed by seven demons (possession is predicated upon a surrendering of the will), she was obsessed—or harassed—by seven demons. The Eastern fathers insist that she was a holy and devout person even before her deliverance and conversion.

Just imagine that for a moment, being harassed by demons. Seven malevolent spirits have made it their life’s work to ruin yours—to take away your happiness, your health, your well-being, your peace of mind, your sanity, your self-determination. She was under the constant attack of darkness until she was set free by the light of the world.

Aside from this brief introduction of Mary Magdalene in Luke 8, all the other references to her in the gospels come at the end of Jesus’ ministry. When the world turned dark for Jesus, she was there for him. She, with his mother and with John, stayed with Christ through his trail when all the others among the Twelve ran away and deserted him.

When he was being whipped, she was there. When he was mocked as a king with a robe and a crown of thorns, she was there. When he was carrying his cross, she was there. When his hands and feet and side were pierced and bled, she was there. When he breathed his last, she was there. When they laid him in the stone tomb, she was there. She wept as he bled and her heart broke with his.

To be like Mary Magdalene is to be there for Jesus has he has been there for us. In the Eastern Church, she is given the title of Holy Myrrh-Bearer because she came to the tomb carrying spices for Jesus’ burial. She was there to support her Lord’s work with a final gift, but when she arrived, found much more than she expected.

The door was already rolled away and Jesus was not there. Fearing it was one last act of sacrilege, she went and told the apostles. Peter and John came running to inspect the tomb. And it was not yet clear exactly what had happened. When they left, Mary Magdalene remained at the tomb, weeping.

Then two angels ask her why she is weeping. She says because “someone took away the body my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” Then she turns around and bumps into what she thinks is the gardener who asks her the same question. She gives the same answer. The joyfulness of the moment simply will not allow her tears to persist. Both angels and the risen Lord intervene to cheer her up.

When Jesus calls her by name, she looks up and recognizes him. Jesus tells us her that this is not the time to embrace, but to go tell others. Apostle literally means “one who is sent.” In this sense, she has been called “Equal to the Apostles” or as St Augustine put it, “the Apostle to the Apostles.”

Usually this title is identified with those twelve patriarchs of a renewed Israel,but sometimes we see it used in this informal sense. Paul and Barnabas were the “Apostles to the Gentiles.” Cyril and Methodius were the “Apostles to the Slavs.” Patrick was the “Apostle to the Irish.” James Lloyd Breck was the “Apostle to the Wilderness.”

This is the only case I know of where someone is called an apostle because they are sent to bear witness to the risen Lord not to the outside world, but to the church herself. Jesus said, “Go tell my brethren . . .”

To be like Mary Magdalene is encourage fellow believers with the truth of the gospel: Jesus is risen from the dead; he is now alive, and he is there for you. In this summer of saints, we give thanks for St. Mary Magdalene, the holy Myrrh-bearer and "Apostle to the Apostles."

Summer of Saints: John Damascene

Perhaps like me, you have watched with growing alarm the Jihadist trail of conquest of the new group called ISIS—the Islamic state of Iraq and Syria. It has left a path of destruction from the Syrian civil war to the outskirts of Baghdad in the effort to built a new Caliphate.

They are regarded as especially brutal and callous—murdering without hesitation. They are being very successful at killing the few Christians left in the area and demolishing churches, but those are not their only targets.

Earlier this month in the Iraqi province of Nineveh, the militants blew up mosques and then took sledgehammers in hand to personally demolish the tombs of the biblical prophets Seth and Jonah—which were commonly revered by Jews, Christians, and most Muslims.

But these ISIS Mohammedan warriors ascribe to the puritanical Wahhabist movement, which is iconoclastic and thus vehemently opposed to the veneration of tombs like these or anything that would be an artistic depiction of God, prophets, saints, or any other holy thing.

What you may not know is that this is not the first time that religious zealots have destroyed holy shrines with hammers in this part of the world, and that back then, Christians were doing this. In 725 the Byzantine Emperor Leo III touched off the iconoclastic period when he ordered the destruction of images throughout the Roman empire, beginning with an icon of Christ, to which miraculous powers had been attributed.

Into this controversy came a powerful mother and an old monk name John. He was born in the year 676 in Damascus, Syria, the capital of the Moslem Umayyad Empire which stretched from Spain to India.

John succeeded his father at the court of the Caliph, but was not satisfied and left after three years to become a monk and priest at St Saba's in Jerusalem. He labored long and hard there in the patient work of theology and liturgy, becoming one of the greatest hymnists of the East as well as the last of the early Church Fathers and first of the medieval scholastics.

John’s writings defended the faith against Moslems, and other Christian heretics. He was called John of golden streams because of his eloquence. He was a man of deep learning and simple piety, who wrote and spoke in a way that people could understand.

Iconoclasm fell in and out of favor with the emperors for a hundred years (and with it, periods of legal image-breaking and persecution) until a female regent named Theodora (her name means “lover of God”) would finally end it for good. The Second Council of Nicaea was confirmed and the images restored in 842—an event still celebrated to this day throughout the Eastern Church on the First Sunday in Lent as the “Triumph of Orthodoxy.” And with Nicaea II, the orthodox, catholic expression of Christianity became “the Church of the Seven Councils.”

John of Damascus was highly praised at this ecumenical council He had picked up on German of Constantinople’s original defense of images back when iconoclasm first broke out, and articulated it well.

German and John explained how the so-called “worship” given to the images was different in kind from the worship of God, but also derived from it. Following their theological defense, the council defined that the images were to be restored and rightly honored.

The Second Council of Nicaea stated: “For the more frequently one contemplates these images, the more gladly he will be led to remember their prototypes, and the more will he be drawn to it and inclined to give it . . . a respectful veneration (proskynesis), but not however, the veritable worship (latria) which, according to our faith, belongs to God alone. But as is done for the image of the revered and life-giving cross and the holy gospels and other sacred objects, let an oblation of incense and lights be made to give honor to these images according to the pious custom of the ancients, for the honor given to an image passes over to its prototype, and whoever venerates an image venerates in it the person represented.” 

If John were writing after the invention of photography, he would have said, "Look, if one can take a picture of Christ, one can paint a picture of Christ.” The fact that the divine Word did indeed become flesh is very important. For St John Damascene, matter truly matters.

In his First Apology for Images, he wrote: “In former times, God, who is without form or body, could never be depicted. But now, when God is seen in the flesh conversing with men, I make an image of the God whom I see. I do not worship matter; I worship the Creator of matter, who became matter for my sake; who willed to make his abode in matter; who worked out my salvation through matter. Never will I cease honoring the matter which wrought my salvation! I honor it, but not as God. . . . God’s body is God because it is joined to his person by a union which shall never pass away. . . . I salute all the rest of mater with reverence, because God has filled it with his grace and power. . . . Do not despise matter, for it is not despicable; nothing God has made is despicable.” 

Speaking of Jesus, St Paul wrote, “He is the ikon of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15). What was seen on the outside it what was on the inside—God in the flesh. Jesus didn’t just come to save your soul, he came to save your body—because that’s the real you, the whole you: body and soul.

We must remember also that matter truly matters. The church is not only concerned with the spiritual and the hereafter, but also with the physical in the here-and-now.

People matter, families matter, peace and violence matters, justice matters, safety matters, hunger matters, life and death matters, creation matters. All that God has made, he has also acted to redeem. In this summer of saints, we give thanks for St. John of Damascus.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Summer of Saints: Becket and More

When I was growing up, we attended the First Baptist Church in Shreveport, LA. My father worked in the sound booth at the back of the balcony in church. So I’d often get to go up with him for the service.

On the back wall, above the sound booth are two large flags—American and Christian. And there is something unique about that American flag in that church. It’s the current configuration of the stars and stripes, but it is not red, white, and blue. It’s red, white and purple.

The flag looks like it’s made of silk, so maybe that has something to do with the reason for the odd color. And I’m not sure, but I think the blue field on the Xn flag is purple too. Seeing those stars on that blueish purple field left an impression on me. Since the only red, white, and purple American flag I’ve ever seen is in a church, it reminds me that America should look different from a Christian perspective. As a people with dual citizenship—in our country and in God’s kingdom—we can transcend the merely secular point of view.

With that in mind, I wanted to talk about two English saints today. That might seem like a strange choice so close to our own Independence Day. But these are two martyrs who became martyrs because they stood up for the liberties of God’s people against the tyranny of the crown—Sir Thomas More and the Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Becket.

More’s memory has (of course) been celebrated by Roman Catholics in England since Reformation times. He was officially canonized by Pope Pius XI in 1935, and he has been recognized on the Church of England’s calendar since 1980. His Anglican feast day is actually today, July 6th.

Opposition to Lutheran ideas spreading through Europe was one of the things that More shared with King Henry VIII. Some have even suggested that More helped Henry write his book denouncing Luther that won him the papal title Defender of the Faith. But then it was religious opinions that drove them apart.

Henry became convinced that he was cursed and that his marriage to his sister-in-law Catherine of Aragon was invalid. The King sought a judgment of annulment from the pope, who just happened to be a prisoner of Catherine’s nephew, Emperor Charles V. So the pope kept putting off a response to the king’s request.

A papal legate had heard the case in England, but been recalled before giving judgment. The king asked why he even had to appeal the matter to a foreign bishop at all. There were plenty of bishops in England who could decide the matter. This led to a series of parliamentary bills which renounced all papal jurisdiction in England and let the annulment be granted locally.

As chancellor, More was the only one of the King’s advisers to oppose both the quest for an annulment and the King’s new title Supreme Head of the Church of England. He hoped to resign and retire quietly, but his hand was forced. As a former high official he had to take the Oath of Supremacy which included the title that More felt not only trampled upon the rights of the church to govern its own affairs, but also intruded upon the law of Christ.

His refusal along with only one bishop (John Fisher of Rochester) was considered treason. Both were beheaded in 1535 for standing up for the church’s rights. More’s last words were, “I die the king’s good servant, but God’s first.”

Another Thomas (Becket) had lost his life in the king’s service for similar reasons. 400 years earlier, Thomas Becket and King Henry II became close friends. Becket was a nobleman and a politician who was also a deacon. Seeing his administrative skills, the king appointed him chancellor. And because he had proved so capable and such a loyal friend, King Henry secured Becket’s election as Archbishop of Canterbury.

The King thought the move would help consolidate his power over church and state. But God began to work on Thomas’s heart after his consecration. His pastoral responsibilities changed him. Becket loved his flock. Instead of being the king’s puppet, he became his bitter rival as Becket vigorously defended the rights of the church.

The feud became so contentious that Becket lived in exile in France for 6 years. He returned to England through a fragile truce which didn’t last long. After grumbling about Thomas, some knights did the king a favor and went to the cathedral to rid him of the troublesome archbishop. Before he was beheaded, Becket said, “Willingly I die for the name of Jesus, and in the defense of the Church.” The king did public penance after the slaughter.

The event helped solidify the Charter of Liberties, and later the Magna Carta, whose first clause is “the Church of England shall be free,” and which enshrined those rights of the church (that two Thomas’ died defending) into England’s developing constitution.

Both Thomases were basically politicians, both chancellors of England, both devoted public servants, both loyal to a King Henry as a personal friend, both had the experience of a growing faith and devotion to God which became stronger and stronger as pressure on them grew, and both, in the end, decided to follow their consciences by being obedient to God rather than to men.

As I’ve said before, it will become more and more difficult in the coming years to be a faithful Christian in our changing culture that is leaving its heritage. Some may even argue that an American that sees red, white, purple on the flag and had pledged to follow God first might love his country less.

I believe that the love of God helps a Christian love his country more, not less. We are people who recognize that all of us are created equal—in the same image of the same God, who gave us the rights we enjoy. Like Thomas Becket and Thomas More, we will not stand idly by and let mere men try to take away what God has given. We are America’s good servants, but God’s first.

I believe that this nation is the greatest on earth. I think America might be the greatest country that ever has been. And if God will give us saints like Becket and More, then God will have truly blessed America.

Saturday, July 05, 2014

Summer of Saints: Peter and Paul

Today we begin our sermon series: “A Summer of Saints." It’s a good day to do so, not just because it’s the second Sunday of the summer, but more importantly, because it is also the Feast of Ss Peter and Paul—two apostles who replaced Romulus and Remus as the founders of Christian Rome and its empire. Ordinarily, when a feast falls on a Sunday (even a major feast) it is postponed, but during the green seasons, these feast days may take precedence.

The importance of the pivotal figures cannot be overstated. Pope St. Clement I called them “the greatest and most upright pillars of the Church.” St Luke tells us in the Book of Acts that each of them had special apostolic vocations.

As the leader of the Twelve, Peter was also the leader of the church after Pentecost. Under the Holy Spirit’s direction, Peter welcomed the first Gentiles into the Church. Yet, in a strange turn of events, it was Paul who was called to be an apostle to the Gentiles while Peter remained the apostle to the Jews, bringing both together in one Church of Christ—Peter laboring from the inside (as it were) and Paul from the outside.

St. Augustine of Hippo said, “Peter alone deserved to represent the entire Church. And because of that role which he alone had, he merited to hear the words: “To you I shall give the keys of the kingdom of heaven.” . . . [because Peter] represented the unity and universality of the Church.”

Paul clearly recognized that leadership and that authority vested in Peter, yet at the same time, as a brother in Christ and a brother apostle, Paul did not hesitate to hold Peter openly accountable—even rebuking him at Antioch for his mistreatment of Gentiles.

These two men began as unlikely heroes. In Mt 16:18, Simon became one of those few people in scripture God whom renamed. Instead of Simon, Jesus called him “Peter” (or “Rock”). It must have seemed like a strange choice, for he was anything but. Simon was not steady and immovable. He was impulsive, hot-headed, unreliable. But Pope St. Leo the Great said Peter was made firm by the strength of Jesus. For God, our future is more important than our past. God did not name him for the simple fisherman he was, but for the great fisher of men God called him to become. (Interestingly, in Rev 2:17, it says we are all given new names one day.)

Paul (who was once called Saul) was not given a new name. Saul was his Hebrew name and Paul was his Greek name—a common habit at the time. But Saul, a well-trained rabbi and “Hebrew of Hebrews” as he said, was a persecutor of the church, who by God’s grace became Paul—the apostle to the Gentile world, planting churches far and wide after his roadside encounter with the risen Lord.

Peter and Paul, unlikely heroes who somehow came to labor together for Christ also both ended up in Rome, dying in his Name under Nero’s persecution. And we must point out that both men went willingly to their deaths. Circumstances provided a way out, but neither of them took it, preferring instead to follow Jesus on the way of the cross.

Peter’s leadership in the Church took him first to Antioch (where we were first called Christians) and then later in about the 50s to the imperial capital of Rome. The Emperor Nero unleashed a vicious persecution in 64, blaming Christians for the great fire of Rome. At this point, Christians were rounded up and thrown in prison. Some were thrown to the lions in the games, some crucified. And some were burned alive as human torches to light the imperial gardens at night. Those who could, decided to flee the city. Among them was Peter.

But departing by the Appian Way, Peter saw a familiar face on the road. It was of a man who is not fleeing, but walking toward the very heart of Rome. Echoing Jn 13:36, Peter asked him, “Quo vadis, Domine?” (or “Where are you going, Lord?”). Jesus responded that he was “going to Rome to be crucified again.”

Jesus had once appeared to Peter after the resurrection, urging him to be a pastor. “Do you love me? If you do, then feed my lambs, tend my sheep.” Peter had once said he would follow Jesus to death, but then denied him three times (see John 13:37-38).

When Jesus restored him, he told Peter that one day, men would tie him up and take him where he did not want to go—alluding to Peter’s death. Peter decided there on the road he would follow Jesus, even back to Rome. Peter was one chosen to be crucified, but because Peter said he was not worthy to die like Christ, they crucified him upside-down and buried him there on Vatican hill.

In Acts 21, Paul was at the center of a temple riot and arrested on false accusations. Because of his Roman citizenship, he exercised his rights of appeal. Years later, the Jewish complaint about the incident had died down and the Romans wanted to be rid of him, but at his own insistence Paul continued to be shuffled around in the judicial system.

At one point, Agrippa remarked to Festus, “This man could have been set free if he had not appealed to Caesar” (Acts 26:32). Paul himself said he feels guided by the hand of Providence, but does not know the ultimate reason why until an angel tells him that Paul is under divine protection on his journey to Caesar.

If he stayed the course, Paul could be guaranteed an audience for the gospel. With that opportunity, he could either glorify God by Caesar's conversion or by Paul's own martyrdom. Historically, God would grant both. Paul fought the good fight, he finished the race, he kept the faith. He glorified God by a martyr’s death in Rome, with a merciful beheading according to his rights as a citizen and was buried there outside the walls.

Just about 250 years later, the Roman Emperor was led to his own conversion by an event similar to those which changed the lives of Peter and Paul on the road—a vision in the heavens and a message from the Savior of men.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

How about a 'Three Streams' ecclesiology?

Ecclesiology has to do with the theological self-understanding of the church. One popular concept among some Anglicans today is the “three streams, one river” approach. In his article on the subject, the Rev’d Leslie Fairfield explains: “The genius of Anglicanism is that for five hundred years it has held in creative tension three different strands of Biblical Christianity. Those three streams are the Protestant, the Pentecostal/Holiness and the Anglo-Catholic movements.” 

There is so much that is problematic about this, it is hard to know where to begin. The Pentecostal (or Charismatic) Movement only began in 1900, and the Protestant Reformation in the 1500s. But the Catholic faith has been practiced in Britain since at least the third century, if not the first. But the main difficulty is that the metaphor tries to identify the river (the Catholic faith) with a party (Anglo-Catholicism). It’s a category mistake which leaves the whole concept incoherent. You should have one river of pure water—the undiluted Catholic faith. Beyond Pentecostalism and Protestantism, other movements in church history have had streams pouring into the river—Gnosticism, Arianism, Pelagianism, Iconoclasticism, etc.

Streams will pour into the river as a simple fact of life. But those streams have both the elements of pure water as well as pollutants. People come into the church and they often bring outside ideas, misconceptions, and outright theological errors with them. What we need are filtering mechanisms. They are things like the Bible, the catechism, preaching, and the ministry of bishops (who are called to guard the faith and drive out strange doctrine). A good church has these to purify the water from foreign elements which make their way into the river, keeping it clear instead of murky.

Instead, many in ACNA celebrate the streams and consider the Catholic faith to be but one of them. I find it remarkable that some who would not think of tolerating theological diversity as the Episcopal Church does today don’t hesitate to do the same thing under the name “three streams.”

The formation of the Anglican Church in North America comes with its own set of challenges, the primary one being to herd several constituencies together into one group. So it's no surprise that talk of  'Three Streams' or something like it would emerge. Basically, it is a political statement. But the problem is that it can't help but be a theological statement.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Straight talk about Rick Perry and John Paulk

Today I read a story of an "ex-gay" named John Paulk who recently divorced and is back to being just plain "gay." What prompted my interest is his misunderstanding of Rick Perry's recent comments comparing alcoholism and homosexuality, and the further questions he raises.

Asked about reparative therapy for homosexuality, Perry said, "Whether or not you feel compelled to follow a particular lifestyle or not, you have the ability to decide not to do that . . . I may have the genetic coding that I'm inclined to be an alcoholic, but I have the desire not to do that, and I look at the homosexual issue the same way." He since apologized and said he "stepped in it" by addressing that question, adding that we need to be a respectful and tolerant country where the public discourse is about jobs.

Paulk made the following observations in his article: "What worries me more is the ignorance betrayed by Perry’s comments—an ignorance that I believe is still widespread among conservatives in the straight world—about what being gay means. . . . As long as this widespread misunderstanding in the straight world about homosexuality persists, that it is a choice or a 'lifestyle,' as Perry put it, not only will we never be fully accepted by society, some of us will remain unable to accept ourselves. . . . I want to tell them—and Rick Perry: We are not broken, damaged, inferior or throwaways. We are created in the image of God—just like everyone else."

Paulk's own history is a painful journey through the "nurture" side back to the "nature" side in the "nature vs. nurture" argument over the origins of homosexuality, so it is understandable that this issue hits hard for him. What is strange is that Paulk and most everyone else seems to have missed the fact that Perry apparently agrees with him, siding with nature. Otherwise, there is no point to Perry's analogy with alcoholism.

Perry's point (it seems to me) is that while we have genetic predispositions to certain things, it is our free will manifested by our actions that is the moral crux of the matter. You may have a particularly strong temptation, but that is no sin. The sin comes in the decision to act--to get drunk or to be unchaste.

Genetic predisposition does not free us from moral culpability, except in the sense that repeatedly giving into temptation makes temptation more and more difficult to resist. In a sense, the will become less and less free as a matter of practice. Moral culpability is reduced, but does not go away. Otherwise, there would not be any such thing as moral culpability. By definition, a sin is a conscious and deliberate trespass of the revealed will of God.

Although the issue is undoubtedly complex, when it comes to homosexuality, Christian theology comes down on the nature side of the argument. It says that nature is fallen from its created intention. It says that we are all genetically predisposed to sin and even temptations which are particularly unique to individuals (see Hebrews 12:1), yet that does not free us from moral culpability. The Gospel requires that we recognize not only that we do sin, but that we have this disordered impulse toward sin from the beginning--that we cannot fix the fundamental problem, that we cannot save ourselves. Only God saves.

I had not heard of John Paulk before today (though I vaguely remember an apology a few years ago from Exodus International). But his story is the story of so many. And I see how a Christian ministry that becomes a psychological therapy program can be a problem. It's more than just the fact that any such program will work for some and not for others. It leads to a confusion between therapy and the Gospel itself. These should work side-by-side, but not be equated.

Therapy can help deal with temptations, with emotional struggles, and so on. The Gospel is about repentance, about turning to God for the things we cannot fix ourselves, about seeking forgiveness and welcoming grace, about pursuing the hard life of holiness and obedience. There is much overlap here, of course, but the focus is different. Therapy is not about the surrender to the grace, love, mercy, and will of God. The Gospel is not about facing our problems and overcoming them with conditioned alternatives. Sometimes God does the impossible and the miraculous. Sometimes he does not. Either way, all of us have the same vocation to holiness and in this case, the call is to chastity.

What concerns me the most in Paulk's frank story is the spiritual dimension that is left unsaid. Human beings are sexual; the prefix is not so important. Each of us faces the calling of chastity and the temptations to deviate from that. Paulk did not write the article for a secular magazine, so I don't expect him to answer the questions of a religious audience.

But the questions are there--how did he keep his faith in God if he rejected his vocation to marriage and the vows made to his wife and to God? How did his surrender to temptation affect his wife and sons' pursuit of holiness? What does not mean to say, "I'm no longer an ex-gay"? (And what does it really mean to be "ex-gay," for that matter?) It seems to imply that a gay man cannot be holy, be chaste. That's false. And it seems to imply that he is not simply treating his besetting temptation for what it is, but that he has given into it--that he chose to commit adultery (not as a momentary indiscretion, but as a--is there another word?--"lifestyle") and embraced it as an identity. Will this be the end of the story?

Perry and Paulk (and Matkin) are only a few among billions--the fallen. They are those for whom our Lord became human, suffered, bled, died, and rose again to redeem. He has redeemed us from the wages of our sins and given us the invitation: "Follow me."

Sunday, June 08, 2014

What is speaking in tongues?

The biblical charism of speaking in various unknown foreign languages (called glossolalia) fell upon the apostles on Pentecost. By praising God this way, the gospel was understood by outsiders and the Church grew. St. Paul records that the gift was still in use in the first century.

This gift was manifested a few times after that, such as in the preaching of St. Anthony of Padua, St. Paul of the Cross, and St. Dominic to audiences that included many foreigners. However, the “speaking in tongues” heard today is different.

The Charismatic/Pentecostal movement began in 1901 with a small group of Wesleyan Bible students in Topeka led by Charles Parham praying for the gift of tongues. One of the students, Agnes Ozman, began to speak and write what was believed to be Chinese. Her experience was soon shared by her teacher and fellow students, supposedly speaking in nearly a dozen languages. But they later found out these were not foreign languages at all.

Figuring this was a new Pentecost, Parham boasted, “The Lord will give us the power of speech to talk to the people of the various nations without having to study them in school.” He insisted that missionaries from his Bethel College demonstrate that. And those students were devastated to find that when they arrived in foreign lands, the natives simply could not understand them.

This, along with several other embarrassing incidents, dealt a severe blow to the early movement. Two of the things that helped it survive were moving beyond Parham’s leadership and reinterpreting the meaning of speaking in tongues. According to the modern view, the gift is not about speaking in a foreign earthly language (as in the book of Acts), but speaking a heavenly or spiritual language. It is sometimes described as a prayer language. And the practice is not confined to Pentecostal denominations or even to Protestantism. The charismatic phenomenon is found in almost all churches today.

St. Paul made it clear in 1 Corinthians 12 that not all believers have been given a gift of tongues. But those who have, must use it (like all spiritual gifts) to the glory of God and the building up of his Church.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

What if JFK had not been assasinated?

I've always loved speculation about alternative history. What if the Roman Empire had not fallen? What if America had not revolted? What if the Confederacy had won the Civil War? or President Lincoln had lived out his second term? What if WWII had been averted? or the Nazis had prevailed? What if the Vietnam War had not been fought? or the Soviet Union had not collapsed? It is a reminder that history is repleat with turning points and how little events can affect the great flow of history.

Many people have speculated about President Kennedy in such ways. What if he had not been in Dallas that day? What if he and his brother had not been assassinated? I propose a similar speculation. What if Lee Harvey Oswald had still assassinated the 35th President of the United States and JFK had lived to a ripe old age? You might argue that it almost happened that way because he almost wasn't president.
We often forget how close the election of 1960 was. It was one of those elections that literally could have had a different outcome if the weather had been different. In 1960, Kennedy prevailed with a margin of 0.17% of the popular vote over Nixon. Rumors were rampant about political machines and voter fraud in Illinois and Texas, two states which would have given Nixon the presidency had they gone his way. But unlike Al Gore, Nixon decided against contesting any state results, saying, “our country cannot afford the agony of a constitutional crisis.” Ironically, we later see that same value rise to the surface at his resignation.

So Nixon wins in 1960 . . . how does history change? Well, Kennedy lives, of course. He may have run for president again later and won as Nixon did. But I suspect that with his health problems he serves a term or two more as a senator from Massachusetts. Then, he hands the job over to one of his younger brothers--probably Robert, unless he has gone on to bigger and better things. So JFK writes books and gives lectures, fading into the sunset as an elder statesman.

Nixon becomes one of our youngest presidents, bridging the gap between WWII generation and the prosperous Eisenhower years and the up-and-coming generation of Americans looking toward a bright future. Both Kennedy and Nixon ran on very similar platforms, so policies may not have been so far apart. But surely things would have been different. Who knows how the Cuban missile crisis would have been different. Certainly Nixon was no less anti-Soviet than Kennedy.

Kennedy's challenge to go to the moon was never made. But we still have Sputnik and space technology beginning, so surely there is some kind of space race. Both Kennedy and Nixon were pro-civil rights, so there's some advancement on that front (probably mostly as a memorial after Nixon's assassination). Nixon keeps the pledge to appoint at least one black to his cabinet. But since the only segregationists were Democrats and there was no need later need for a "southern strategy" in 1968, African Americans become deeply attached to the party of Lincoln while the Democrats are split over segregation for a decade.

The biggest difference in this alternative history is that instead of LBJ, Vice-President Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. is sworn in as president after the assassination of Nixon.  Since the Great Society is so identified with President Johnson, it doesn't come to pass even though some elements of it may have later been enacted. Ironically, Kennedy had defeated Lodge for the Massachusetts senate seat in 1952. So perhaps like Nixon, JFK would have run for president again against Lodge in 1968.

President Lodge was a diplomat and perhaps this change in personality and temperament would have made a significant difference in regards to Vietnam, but maybe not. Ironically, Lodge later served as ambassador to Vietnam under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, so he was already deeply involved in our own historical reality.
As for Nixon, we forget how popular he actually was because of Watergate. Nixon came back from political death to be elected president in 1968 and then was re-elected with the fourth largest margin in the popular vote and his total in the electoral college was only barely surpassed by Reagan's 49 state win in 1984.

The young first family has a romance with popular culture remembered as "Camelot" from the popular Broadway musical of the time. It is a much younger Elvis Presley who meets Nixon in the Oval Office. Perhaps even Marylin Monroe sings him "Happy Birthday" one year (but that's as close as she gets to the president of the United States).

With Oswald's assassin bullet in 1963, Nixon is immortalized along with his dream of a better America for all Americans. No one remembers him as "tricky Dick," but as a young president (perhaps our greatest) who inspires Americans for generations to come.

Don't let it be forgot 
That once there was a spot 
For one brief shining moment 
That was known as Camelot.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Lillie Matkin and the Waco tornado of 1953

My great-grandfather's sister, Lillie Matkin, was the last survivor to be rescued from the rubble after an F-5 tornado struck downtown Waco on May 11, 1953. In the deadliest tornado in Texas history (along with Goliad in 1902), 114 people were killed and 597 were injured. Nearly half the dead (61) were killed in one city block.

John Dominis—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
“2:30 A.M., a power saw is used to cut away some timbers. Afraid she might be cut, Lillie [Matkin] said, “I’ve been here 10 hours — a little longer won’t hurt.”

John Dominis—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
“6:45 A.M., Lillie Matkin’s ordeal ends, 14 hours and eight minutes after she was trapped and able only to wiggle her feet. Gently as they could, the men who had labored through night to disentomb her carry her from wreckage to surface…. Near the end of her entrapment a worker removed her shoes and before she was lifted out she cautioned, “Don’t lose them. They’re old but comfortable.” They were brought to her later at the hospital.

John Dominis—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
Lillie Matkin, Waco tornado survivor, is finally freed from rubble about 10:30am on May 12, 1953.

In the immediate aftermath of the tornado, LIFE’s John Dominis and correspondent Scot Leavitt, who had just recently moved to Texas, made their way to the devastated city. All of the photos in this gallery, many of which never ran in LIFE, are Dominis’s; in a note sent to LIFE’s editors in New York, Leavitt noted that “through virtually all [of Dominis's] shooting, rain fell, the sky was dark and the mood was somber.”

For its part, LIFE wrote of the disaster in its May 25, 1953 issue:
By May 11 the warm, close weather was uncomfortably routine to the people of Waco, Texas. The day before had been muggy and the day before that, too. The big news in the Morning News-Tribune was of a tornado in far-off Minnesota. At mid-morning the New Orleans weather bureau warned there might be a few tornadoes close to home. But an Indian belief that tornadoes would never strike Waco had always held true and no one in the city worried about the report At 1:30 .m. the Waco weather forecaster announced, “No cause for alarm.”
Three hours later the skies suddenly darkened. people scurried for shelter from the hail and slashing rain, and at the edge of town a cemetery workman looked up to see a thick black wedge forming under a low cloud … At 4:37 p.m. the black wedge in the sky struck Fifth and Austin [streets], gouged the earth for a block and left the heart of Waco a broken coffin for scores of schoolboys, housewives, motorists….

Monday, September 09, 2013

Sit down first and take counsel

It is remarkable how sometimes the scripture readings in the lectionary correspond to events unfolding in the world around us! It is a reminder that God’s Word always has something to say to us today.
In today's Gospel, Jesus said, “What king, going to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and take counsel . . ." (Luke 14:31). The context of this statement was that Jesus was telling his followers that they should carefully count the cost of discipleship before committing. Following Jesus could very well mean the loss of a whole way of life or even life itself—it could cost you the comforts of social status, friends, and even family. This new commitment to Christ has to take priority even if it means following the way of the cross. “Whoever of you does not renounce all that he has," Jesus said, "cannot be my disciple.”

How ironic it is that just this week our president asked the congress to give counsel and authorization, considering the costs of potential war! The step was unexpected as the War Powers Act recognizes the president’s authority as Commander-in-Chief to take limited military action when needed and only then to come to the Congress for authorization for a resolution of war or more long-term military engagement.

So far, as public opinion is running against it, it seems that we face the distressing prospect of the Congress and the people saying "No" while the president may go on to engage military action anyway. Since the Word of God, which is “living and active—sharper than any two-edged sword,” I thought we might engage this intersection of the front page and the sacred page about costs of war. The church is often speaking out and praying about the cause of peace when such war is the topic of discussion in the public arena. Yesterday was a special day of fasting and prayer for peace as called for by Pope Francis and our own Archbishop Robert Duncan.

One might think that the only word the church has on the topic is “No.” But in Christian moral theology, beginning with St. Augustine in the fourth century, there is a whole tradition of criteria for ascertaining a “just war.”
Wars by their very nature will involve material evils—death and destruction—so Christian moral theology has an automatic disposition against war, but sometimes Christians can morally (or even should) engage in warfare. Since this is what so many are thinking about, talking about, and praying about, I thought it would be helpful to review the just war theory today.

But first, let’s get a common misconception about just war out of the way. It can be summed up in the phrase, “Somebody ought to do something!” Most of us feel that urge to get involved when we see news about some dictator being cruel and committing atrocities.
The problem is that we are not the world’s policemen. We can't solve every problem. If we went to war every time a petty despot was naughty or people were being killed, we would ALWAYS be at war. We tend to look for military solutions to human problems.
So then what should be our concerns when considering military intervention? What does Christian moral theology have to say? The just war tradition looks at least five basic criteria in evaluating whether warfare can be just, and they all have to be satisfied: cause, legitimate authority, probability of success, last resort, and proportionality. The burden of proof is on those arguing for war to make their case in each of these areas.

1. A “just” or “righteous” cause for fighting. A just war is always defensive in nature. That is generally considered to extend to the defense of allies. Indeed, mutual protection treaties work against the likelihood of war. It is hard to see how our involvement could be seen as defensive in nature. In fact, getting involved in the Syrian Civil War might be more of a threat to our regional allies and to our own national interests than staying out of it. The protection of human life is a noble cause for intervention, but why is the killing of several hundred by use chemical weapons more imperative than the tens of thousands killed since 2011? If we got involved, would we be saying that killing is alright as long as it's not done chemically.

2. Legitimate authority to wage war. Because the US was not directly attacked, an American attack on Syria would actually violate international law—unless we obtain UN backing (which has not and will not be forthcoming). So if we did this, we would be breaking international law by attacking a country that broke international law by using chemical weapons to teach them that breaking international law is wrong. That's problematic at best.

3. Probability of success. War cannot be just if there is no likely achievement. You wouldn’t plan war strategy that way anymore than football strategy. What is the strategic objective in this case? Is it depleting arsenals? Is it regime change? What are we trying to accomplish and is that a viable goal? What assurance do we have that the situation would not end up being worse with our involvement? These are tough questions that deserve answers.

4. Last resort. This civil war has been going on since the 2011 Arab Spring uprising. But our country has not shown a major concern for resolving it until now. The problem is not that peacemaking has been tried and failed. Where are the diplomatic negotiations? the economic sanctions? Nonviolent strategies have hardly been tried at all and alternative measures need to be exhausted first.

5. Proportionality. Any direct action (even limited engagement) by the US could escalate the war and involve Russia, China, Iran, and Israel. Would the strategic damage done with a military strike likely be proportionate to any good that might be accomplished? Would this action stop the war and ultimately save lives? These questions deserve answers.

As we approach the 100 year anniversary of the so-called “war to end all wars,” we need to stop and consider the cost and the best way to serve peace. We will always have tough decisions to make.
As Moses said: “Behold, I have set before you this day life and good, death and evil” (Deuteronomy 30:15). As individuals and as a nation, may God give us the grace, the wisdom, and the guidance to always choose life.

Sunday, September 01, 2013

An open invitation

This weekend, local Episcopalians are reflecting on the Texas Supreme Court's Friday ruling which overturned the lower court's ruling in favor of TEC and sent the case back for trial on neutral principles. Some of us are delighted and thankful, while some are wounded and discouraged.

I would ask for all of us in church this Sunday to seek the peace and unity that comes from above at the altar of our blessed Lord. To those on the other side, you may feel like reconciliation is not just the farthest thing from your mind, but altogether impossible. But my devotion to Our Lady reminds me of the angel's words: "With God, nothing will be impossible" (Lk 1:37). I call upon Bishop High and his standing committee to drop this horrible lawsuit. Let the world say, "See how they love one another" (Tertullian's Apology 39.7, see also John 13:35).

Especially to those who left our churches five years ago, we invite you to come back home. We respect your decision to worship where you will. We also want to say that we love you and have saved a place at the Table for you. You will always be welcome.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Assumption propers: "pre" and "post" dogma

On All Saints' Day in 1950 Pope Pius XII defined the dogma of the Assumption of St. Mary (body and soul) into heaven at the end of her earthly life as a belief to be held definitively by the faithful. The event of her assumption has been commemorated in the Latin church for centuries, but the propers for the Feast of the Assumption were changed at the time of Pius' definition and the new propers were first used on August 15, 1951. So what was changed?

One might suppose that the old propers were vague about the doctrine of the Assumption, but it is not the case that the term "assumption" was added to the propers. In fact, "Assumption of Our Lady" was already the title of the feast. The Alleluia before the Gospel and the Offertory both state that "Mary has been taken up into heaven," and the Latin original uses the word "assumpta." In addition, the Secret (later known as the 'Prayer over the Offerings') mentioned that Mary "has left this world." The word assumption is also mentioned as the event being celebrated in the Postcommunion prayer.

The pre-1950 propers for the Vigil of the Assumption also mentioned her being "removed from this world" by Christ in the Secret. These Vigil propers remained unchanged after Pius' dogmatic definition in 1950.

What was changed in the propers for the Feast of the Assumption? 

1. The Introit has been replaced. The pre-1950 text uses a composed antiphon with Psalm 44:2, while the post-1950 propers uses the antiphon Revelation 12:1 with Psalm 97:1.

Pre-1950 Introit
Rejoice we all in the Lord, as we celebrate in honor of the blessed Virgin Mary; of her whose feast makes angels rejoice and sets them praising the Son of God. V. Joyful are the thoughts that well up from my heart, a King's honor for my theme. Glory be . . .

Post-1950 Introit 
A great wonder appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars. V. O sing unto the Lord a new song: for he hath done marvelous things. Glory be . . .
2. The Collect was entirely rewritten.

Pre-1950 Collect
Lord, we beseech thee to forgive thy servants' offenses; and since we are unable to please thee by our own deeds, may we be saved through the intercession of the Mother of thy Son our Lord, who with thee . . .

Post-1950 Collect
Almighty and everlasting God, who didst assume the immaculate Virgin Mary, Mother of thy Son, in body and soul to heavenly glory: Grant, we beseech thee, that we, ever setting our affections on things above, may likewise be partakers of that glory in the world to come; through . . . 

3. The Epistle was changed from Sirach 24:11-20 ("I grew tall like a cedar") to Judith 13:22-25; 15:10 (blessed is the daughter of Jerusalem).

4. The Gradual was changed slightly from Psalm 44:5b,11-12 to Psalm 44:11-12,14.

5. The Alleluia before the Gospel remained unchanged, but the Gospel itself was changed from Luke 10:38-42 (the story of Martha serving and Mary sitting at Jesus' feet) to Luke 1:41-50 (Mary's visit to Elizabeth and the first part of the Magnificat).

Alleluia, alleluia. Mary is taken up into heaven: the host of Angels rejoiceth. Alleluia. 

6. The Offertory changed from a composition describing the Assumption of Mary in the pre-1950 propers to Genesis 3:15a (enmity between the serpent and woman) in the post-1950 propers.

Pre-1950 Offertory
Mary has been taken up into heaven; the angels rejoice, blessing and praising the Lord. Alleluia.

Post-1950 Offertory
I will put enmity between thee and the Woman, and between thy seed and her Seed. 

7. The Secret was rewritten, but remains very similar in sentiment.

Pre-1950 Secret
Lord, may God's mother help thy people with her prayers. We know that she has shared the lot of humankind and left this world, but let us feel that amidst the glories of heaven she pleads our cause before thy throne; through . . .

Post-1950 Secret
Let this oblation of our bounden duty ascend unto thee, O Lord, and at the intercession of the most blessed Virgin Mary, whom thou hast assumed into heaven, may our hearts, enkindled with the fire of thy love, continually long after thee; through . . .

8. The Communion verse (in parallel with the Gospel) was changed from Luke 10:42 ("Mary has chosen the greater portion") to Luke 1:48-49 ("all generations will call me blessed").

9. The Postcommunion (like the Secret) was also rewritten, but it is not altogether clear why since they both express very similar ideas.

Pre-1950 Postcommunion
We who have partaken of thy heavenly banquet, Lord our God, beseech thy mercy. From all the ills that threaten us may we be set free by the intercession of God's mother, whose assumption we here celebrate; through . . .

Post-1950 Postcommunion
Grant, we beseech thee, O Lord, that we who have received this Sacrament of our salvation may, through the merits and intercession of the blessed Virgin Mary whom thou hast assumed into heaven, be brought unto the glory of the resurrection; through . . .

Why were the changes made? As we have noted, it was not to add expression to the doctrine of the assumption of Mary. That was already in the pre-1950 propers. Two things seem to be desired. The first was to remove reference to the Mary and Martha story, especially since the Mary in this story is not the mother of Jesus. The second concern was to place the feast within the context of the order of creation and redemption. Mary is the new Eve who triumphs over the serpent by her divine motherhood and is blessed with the beatitude of the redeemed in the full realization of human salvation--the resurrection of the body to dwell with the Lord.

What about the new Missal of Pope Paul VI? As with most of the missal, the biggest change is in the lectionary. Otherwise, the post-1950 propers remain substantially the same. I don't have access to the new missal in Latin, but in comparing the English, I observe:

1. There are now two "Entrance Antiphons" (what used to be the Introit). The first is Revelation 12:1, which was used in the post-1950 propers. The second option is the composed antiphon from the pre-1950 propers.

2. The Collect is the same as the post-1950 collect.

3. The readings were revised. The Gospel is an extended passage compared with the post-1950 propers and all the other readings are new. Now they are:

Revelation 11:19; 12:1-6, 10 (woman clothed with the sun)
Psalm 45 (the queen is adorned in royal splendor)
1 Corinthians 15:20-26 (humanity obtains resurrection through Christ)
Luke 1:39-56 (Mary visits Elizabeth and sings the entire Magnificat)

4. The Prayer over the Offerings remains the same as the Secret from the 1950 propers.

5. A new preface for the Assumption was composed for the Pauline Missal. Previously, a generic preface of Our Lady was used, into which reference to the specific feast was inserted.

6. The Communion verse and Postcommunion prayer remain the same as the post-1950 propers.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Are all sins the same to God?

It's commonly known that Evangelical Christians generally believe that all sins are the same to God. That is, equally offensive and equally transgressive. This concept was articulated in drastic way during a local Christian radio show I was listening to back around Christmas. The host illustrated this idea by saying that murder and staying home from church on Sunday for no good reason are equal sins in the eyes of God because all sins are the same to God.

Of course in human society, this is not the case (e.g., no death penalty for parking violations). Even in the same crime, you have various degrees of offense (like first degree murder, second degree murder, and manslaughter). Neither is it the case that all sins are viewed as equal in traditional Christian theology--both Catholic and Protestant.

In Catholic theology (including Anglicanism), there are two types of sin called "mortal" and "venial." This distinction comes from 1 John 5:16-17, which reads: "If any one sees his brother committing what is not a mortal sin, he will ask, and God will give him life for those whose sin is not mortal. There is sin which is mortal; I do not say that one is to pray for that. All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin which is not mortal."

This had been interpreted to mean that prayer and penance is efficacious for venial sins, but for mortal sins, one has to be sacramentally absolved and restored to life. Venial sins are in the nature of "falling short of the glory of God" which mortal sins are deliberate transgressions which reject our fellowship with the source of life, thereby leading to spiritual death. Just as in human relationships, there are some wrongdoings that are imperfections and there are others that are relationship ending. Within these categories, the consequences and punishments due to sins vary by degree and circumstance and are reserved to the judgment of God.

What many people do no know is that this idea of all sins being equal before God is not inherent to Protestantism either. The scripture usually cited to support the idea of all sins being equal is James 2:10, which reads: "For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it." So how does the great Protestant reformer John Calvin interpret this verse? The same as a Catholic and all the other Protestant reformers of his day would--that sins are not equal before God.

In his Commentary on the Book of James, Calvin writes: "What alone he means is, that God will not be honored with exceptions, nor will he allow us to cut off from his law what is less pleasing to us. At the first view, this sentence seems hard to some, as though the apostle countenanced the paradox of the Stoics, which makes all sins equal, and as though he asserted that he who offends in one thing ought to be punished equally with him whose whole life has been sinful and wicked. But it is evident from the context that no such thing entered into his mind. 

"For we must always observe the reason anything is said. He denies that our neighbors are loved when a part only of them is through ambition chosen, and the rest neglected. This he proves, because it is no obedience to God, when it is not rendered equally according to his command. Then as the rule of God is plain and complete or perfect, so we ought to regard completeness; so that none of us should presumptuously separate what he has joined together. Let there be, therefore, a uniformity, if we desire rightly to obey God. As, for instance, were a judge to punish ten thefts, and leave one man unpunished, he would betray the obliquity of his mind, for he would thus shew himself indignant against men rather than against crimes; because what he condemns in one he absolves in another. 

We now, then, understand the design of James, that is, that if we cut off from God’s law what is less agreeable to us, though in other parts we may be obedient, yet we be come guilty of all, because in one particular thing we violate the whole law. And though he accommodates what is said to the subject in hand, it is yet taken from a general principle, — that God has prescribed to us a rule of life, which it is not lawful for us to mutilate. For it is not said of a part of the law, 'This is the way, walk ye in it;' nor does the law promise a reward except to universal obedience."

To summarize, Calvin attributes the idea that all sins are the same to the Stoics, not St. James, and adds that "it is evident that no such thing entered into his mind." So how did this idea come into Evangelical Christian theology?

I have not been able to determine when the idea came into Christian thinking, though it is most likely within the last century or two. But it is clear where this idea comes from and how this misunderstanding came into Evangelical theology. It appears that this is a corruption of the idea of Torah and covenant applying to the whole community and to the whole Torah.

The Old Testament, and Deuteronomy in particular, makes clear that the terms of the covenant are to abide by the Torah as a whole; there are not covenants for each commandments. Thus, to violate one commandment is to put oneself out of covenant relationship with God. To violate one is to bring about the curse of being out of covenant just as much as violating them all. "Keep the whole commandment that I command you this day . . . Cursed be anyone who does not confirm the words of this law by doing them" (Deut 27:1b,26). Paul confirms this idea as a tenant of Judaism when he notes, "I testify again to every man who receives circumcision that he is bound to keep the whole law" (Gal 5:3).

Just as the body of commandments was to be kept as one, so also everyone in the community were to keep the Torah in its entirety (thus the OT emphasis on purging transgressors from the community). These were the terms of the Mosaic covenant. It's no wonder that Paul asserts that it cannot be done, therefore Christ has kept the law on our behalf. And in fact the Pentateuch seems to acknowledge that it won't happen, but they are still to do their best and God's mercy would take care of the rest.

However, none of this implies that each sin is just as serious as another, but only that breaking any commandment violates the terms of the covenant. In fact, just the opposite is indicated in that there are different punishments proscribed for different transgressions (e.g., no death penalty for parking violations) and different means of atonement for different transgressions.

At some point, it appears that out of an anti-Catholic polemic, this idea of all sins violating covenant was taken up to mean all sins are the same before God and thus was used to refute and undermine the sacramental and penitential system of the church. The idea that all sins are the same is also used to reinforce the doctrine of eternal security ("once saved, always saved"), although it is interesting that Calvin himself never made that leap.

Thursday, June 06, 2013

Thinking about the next bishop of Dallas

Bishop Stanton announced his retirement and resignation as the Ordinary of the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas, effect in May of 2014. He has served for a good long while (20 years) and reached retirement age, so it is reasonable to expect this move. But in the political climate of the Episcopal Church, it is a move fraught with worries and complications.

The comments at Stand Firm reflect these concerns, wondering if it will be possible to get a reasonably orthodox successor since episcopal elections must obtain majority consents from the other bishops and diocesan standing committees of ECUSA. This skews the election process to focus on the issue of who can get consents rather than simply who seems like a good fit for this ministry and who is the Holy Spirit leading us to elect.

One approach ("Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!") was that taken by South Carolina with Mark Lawrence, which was to elect the candidate you want (regardless of what others think) and if he doesn't get consents, just keep electing the same candidate over and over with the hope that more consents can be obtained with each go around. There's no reason why Dallas couldn't take this approach and basically wait indefinitely for the bishop they want. But I suspect is that there is neither the stomach nor the interest for a long, drawn-out confrontation like this right now.

My suspicion is that the political climate of ECUSA will affect the election in another way--they'll look for someone who's already a bishop. As I understand it, this does not by-pass the consent process, BUT it takes the teeth out of it because bishops and standing committees would be far less likely to oppose calling a bishop who already is one. If they did, it would mean either that they would be disavowing the consent they already gave for the same bishop previously, or it would be sticking their thumb in the eye of another province of the Anglican Communion (basically saying your bishops aren't good enough for us).

Needless to say, the Episcopal Church has had no reluctance to stick its thumb in the eye of other Anglican provinces in recent years, but in this case a bishop candidate would be far less likely to come from a place like Nigeria or West Indies (where there is no interest in maintaining good relations) than he would be to come from a place like England or Canada (where there is an interest in maintaining good relations).

Some dioceses tend to always elect their bishops from within (like Texas) and some dioceses tend to always elect their bishops from without (like Dallas and Fort Worth). I would not look for a translated see in this case because they would probably want someone who's fairly young and could serve more than a few years. The only moderately conservative bishop of another diocese I can think of who fills the bill would be Dan Martins of Springfield. But there are two problems: he just started in Springfield and he was consecrated by Schori.

Another option is to look at other suffragans, assistant bishops, bishops who retired early, or bishops who were consecrated overseas and then came back home (like Christopher Boyle from N. Malawi). Dallas' companion diocese is Honduras; I don't know if there might be some possibility there. Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali would be a perfect choice except that he's probably a little too old.

Another option is to look within the diocese, where you have two good candidates who are also bishops: Paul Lambert (Suffragan of Dallas) and Tony Burton (Rector of Incarnation, Dallas). Lambert is now 63 and so he may be a little too old, but Burton is perfectly suited at 53 (and neither were consecrated by Schori).

Bishop Burton comes from the Diocese of Saskatchewan in the Anglican Church of Canada, where he was the youngest Anglican bishop in the world when he was consecrated at age 33. He served 15 years there as ordinary. Burton has been serving for the past 5 years at the Church of the Incarnation in Dallas. It has been a successful tenure at one of the largest parishes in the country. They exceeded their capital campaign goal in a campus expansion just days after launching the campaign. Are we looking at the next bishop of Dallas?

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Mythbusting the Trinity

Today we celebrate the successful defense and preservation of orthodox Christianity,as articulated in that central mystery of the faith—the Holy Trinity.

There is no mistaking the central importance of the Trinity to the Christian religion. In his ten volume series on Anglican Dogmatic Theology, Professor Francis Hall observed: “The doctrine of the Trinity must occupy the central place in any sound or adequate conception of spiritual realities. It constitutes the postulate of the doctrines of the Incarnation, the Atonement, the Church, justification and salvation, and of the coming kingdom of God. If it were shown to be false, these doctrines would have to be modified beyond recognition, and Christianity would become something quite other than it actually is."

Which is to say that without the trinity, you do not have Christianity as we know it. And the importance of that is explained in the Athanasian Creed we used today: “This is the Catholic Faith, which except a man believe faithfully, he cannot be saved.”

Most of us sense the gravity of the Trinity—the importance of the dogma. But when it comes to the details, most of us feel a little lost, like the man who professed: “The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, and the Holy Ghost incomprehensible . . . the whole darn thing incomprehensible.”

I hope we can clear up at least some of the confusion today. One TV show I like is Mythbusters where a team of investigators take an urban legend and see what is really true and what is just myth. Maybe we can bust some myths and dispel some misconceptions today.

Myth #1 – All Christians believe in the Trinity. In one sense that it true. The Trinity is such a central teaching of Christianity that we may say that those who claim the name of Christian, but reject the Trinity stand outside of historic Christianity.

The Catholic, Anglican, Orthodox and all historic mainline Protestant churches affirm the doctrine of the Trinity as understood in historic Christianity. Outside of that we find Unity Church, Unitarians, Christadelphians, Christian Science, Jews for Jesus, Dawn Bible Students, Quakers, Jehovah’s Witness, Armstrong’s Church of God, Mormons, and some Pentecostals called “oneness” Pentecostals.

Myth #2 – The Trinity was invented by the Council of Nicaea. Strangely, the first ecumenical council after the New Testament era, is credited with doing all sorts of strange things, such as: censoring books from the Bible, cutting reincarnation out of Christianity, inventing traditional Christianity to replacing Gnosticism, etc. And none of these are true.

The truth is that the Council of Nicaea was called to defend the doctrine of the Trinity. The remarkable thing is that no such defense or formal creed was needed for the first 300 years of the church’s life. It was only when Arian heresy first spread that a council was called.

Myth #3 – At first, God was Father, then he was Son, now he’s Holy Spirit. This is an ancient heresy called Seballianism or “modalism.” This is the view of some Christians and churches today, such as the United Pentecostal Church, and (until recently) T.D. Jakes. In fact, (ironically) several of the personalities on the Trinity Broadcasting Network don't teach trinitarian doctrine.

Modalism was first proposed by Seballius in the 200s, who taught that the “Trinity” is actually three successive manifestations of the one true God, rather than the orthodox view of three eternal persons of one essence. For Seballius, the God of the Old Testament was the Father, later incarnated as the Son, and now indwells us as the Holy Spirit. (A modalist version of the trinity confuses the outside of the triangle at the top of the page with the inside.) Unlike Arianism, Seballianism did not create enough of a stir to call a council.

Myth #4 – It doesn’t matter if I believe God is a Trinity or not. This is perhaps the most destructive myth of all, because it is the most tempting. God has purposefully revealed himself that we can know him and enter into a saving relationship with the eternal Father by being joined to the eternal Son and enlivened and indwelt by the eternal Spirit. And our God is known both by name and by his attributes. 

As the Apostle Paul said, “Watch your life and doctrine closely. Keep doing this, for by doing so, you save both yourself and those who listen to you” (1 Tm 4:16-17). Let us become so familiar with who God is and what he is like, that we instantly recognize when someone tries to pass us a counterfeit.

When we hear the persons of the Trinity described as “aspects of God,” when we hear that “the Father came down to be one of us,” or that Jesus was merely a human being, or only appeared human, or that Jesus became God, or stopped being God on the cross, or that diversity is what makes God a trinity, or that the Holy Spirit is an “it”—a thing, or that you and I are “gods-in-embryo,” then we should not pay attention to anything else they have to say. For these are the beginnings of errors, not the end. And sometimes, even words can destroy souls.

Because the Trinity matters. The Trinity is truly God and anything else is a figment of our imagination.“This is the Catholic Faith, which except a man believe faithfully, he cannot be saved.”

Let us pray.
Most glorious Trinity: Give us grace to continue steadfast in the confession of this faith, and constant in our worship of thee, O Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; who livest and reignest, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Illustrating our debt on tax day

On this tax day, I thought it would be worth illustrating our national deficits and debt. This is what $1,000 looks like--a stack of ten $100 bills rising only millimeters high. I sent almost two of these to Uncle Sam today as my first estimated tax payment of the year. What if we stacked up the debt?

President Reagan used a similar illustration in a speech to Congress just after he took office in 1981 in an effort to build support for spending cuts. He noted, "Our national debt is approaching $1 trillion. A few weeks ago I called such a figure incomprehensible, and I've been trying ever since to think of a way to illustrate how big a trillion really is. And the best I could come up with is that if you had a stack of $1,000 bills in your hand only four inches high, you'd be a millionaire. A trillion dollars would be a stack of $1,000 bills 67 miles high."

That was then (32 years ago!); this is now. Back then, Monty Hall was probably still giving $1,000 bills away on 'Let's Make a Deal.' Nowadays, you can't get $1,000 bills and the debt is much higher. Back then, the national debt was almost $1 trillion, while now we add well over $1 trillion each year. The Federal Reserve has discontinued large denominations of currency due to the lack of need since the rise of checks and electronic banking. Currently, the $100 bill is the largest in circulation, so let's recalibrate.

If you had a stack of $100 bills in your hand that rose 3ft, 4inches high, you'd be a millionaire. A trillion dollars would be a stack of $100 bills rising 670 miles high.
As you can see from the screen capture above, the current US national debt would be a stack of $100 bills rising about 11,256 miles high. For comparison:

+ the world's tallest building in Dubai is just over half a mile high
+ the space station orbits at about 250 miles high
+ the space shuttle could only orbit up to about 400 miles high

Last year, the 2012 annual deficit was $1.1 trillion, which means we added 737 miles to our stack of $100 bills. What does the president think of this? President Obama told congressional leaders, "We have no spending problem." This is outright denial of reality, but it is consistent. After all, we have added 4,824 miles since he took office.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Why Anglicans should pray for the conclave

Certainly, Anglicans who are already in communion with the Holy See will have an apparent obligation to pray for for the conclave gathering this week to elect the next pope. But for those Anglicans in (and not quite in) the official Anglican Communion, the obligation to may not be so obvious. "But he won't be my pope. So what?" you might think. So I bid your prayers for the election of the next Roman Pontiff, and here's why:

1. Intercessory prayer is a duty of Christian charity. We are obligated to uphold one another in prayer. St. Paul told the Galatians to "Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ" (Gal 6:2). Notice that he calls it a "law of Christ." The immediate context is the burden of penance, but prayer is one way of sharing burdens and it's not just about kindness, but about obeying a commandment of Christ.

When a Christian brother or sister asks for your prayers, you pray for them. It's that simple. The cardinals of the Roman Church have asked for prayers for their discernment. Journalist Robert Moynihan tells the story of an encounter with a cardinal elector yesterday in which the prelate said to him, “It is a dangerous time. Pray for us.” If he was speaking to you, would you dare respond, "But I'm not a Catholic"? When a brother or sister asks you to pray, you pray.

And that request for prayer is not without reason. Surely on occasions like this, where a group of people (each with his own weaknesses and faults) is trying to listen to God and discern a common spiritual direction, occasions like this are the devil's playground. It is like the tempter meeting Christ in the desert. Listening for God is hard, and the devil likes to get his own whispers in--just to sew confusion and doubt. We need the faithful to fast and pray for spiritual protection and discernment.

2. The pope of Rome is the most visible and influential Christian in the world. In our day and age more than ever, it matters who the pope is. Most people, including nonChristian and nonreligious people, have a pretty good idea of who the pope is and what he has to say about x, y, and z. Can that be said of any other Christian leader? I don't even know who to list in comparison. You might have one person, like Billy Graham, who would be familiar to a group of people in a particular time and place, but cross the border into the next country and they've never heard of him.

Can the typical man on the street in Anytown USA name who the Patriarch of Moscow is? the Archbishop of Canterbury? the President of the Southern Baptist Convention? the Presiding Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America? and so on, and so on? And if they did, could they describe a single thing that person has said or is known for? I doubt it. Like it or not, for good or for ill, when it comes to the secular world, the pope is speaking for every believer. And when it comes to the secular world, he's the one they look to for a word from Christ and his church. We need a good spokesman.

3. What Rome does affects every Christian. That's especially true in the day and age where communication keeps getting faster and the world keeps getting "smaller." I can't remember who it was who came up with the expression, but it was dead-on: "When Rome sneezes, Christendom gets a cold." The Roman Catholic Church (and the churches in communion with her) is by far the largest Christian community in the world--larger than every other kind of Christian put together. That carries weight and influence.

The ecumenical movement never really got going until Rome got involved. Biblical scholarship never really trickled down to the common man till Rome encouraged the laity to study the bible. The liturgical movement didn't really get going until Rome started to change her liturgy. (And folk masses didn't catch on till the Romans caught on.) Which is to say that the most influential leader of the biggest church in the world is an important job and we need to pray for the choice of a new pope.

4. The Bishop of Rome is our own patriarch and the visible center of Christian unity. Most of us Anglicans either don't realize this or fail to appreciate it, but it is true nonetheless. Whether we are in communion with him or not, the fact remains that the Bishop of Rome is our own patriarch and the visible center of Christian unity. The bishops of the ancient church looked to their local provincial metropolitan for leadership and pastoral guidance, who in turn looked to the patriarchal sees. All but one of these were in the eastern half of the empire but one--Rome.

So it turned out that all of the western church looked to the patriarch in Rome for leadership. And the Patriarch of Rome also happened to be the bishop who exercised a primacy of honor among the episcopate, just as Peter was the prince of the apostles, the rock on which the church was built, and given a special command by Christ to tend the flock of God and to strengthen his brethren (see John 21:15-19 and Luke 22:31-32).

I know that Pope Benedict XVI decided to forgo the title "Patriarch of the West," but the role remains a part of the papacy's history. And Anglican ecumenical dialogue has recongnized the importance of the role of the papacy, just as the Second Vatican Council said that among churches separated at the Reformation who continue to bear catholic traits, Anglicanism occupies "a special place." It is a part of our spiritual heritage.

Five popes (Fabian, Gregory the Great, John XXIII, Peter, and Leo the Great) are commemorated in Holy Women, Holy Men/Lesser Feasts and Fasts. In the ARCIC II document Gift of Authority, the closing paragraphs call for the re-reception of a universal primacy of the pope among Anglicans as a gift to be shared by fellow Christians. It called upon the pope to strengthen the bonds between separated Christians and for Anglicans to begin to live under that authority even before visible communion can be realized.

("Anglicans and Roman Catholics are already facing these issues but their resolution may well take some time. However, there is no turning back in our journey towards full ecclesial communion. . . . The Commission's work has resulted in sufficient agreement on universal primacy as a gift to be shared, for us to propose that such a primacy could be offered and received even before our churches are in full communion." The Gift of Authority, paragraphs 58, 60)

It matters who the pope is because he does not just belong to Roman Catholics, but to all Christians and to the whole world. May God raise up a true builder of bridges for the Universal Church.
We humbly beseech thee, O Lord: that of thy unbounded mercy thou wouldst grant unto the holy Roman Church a Pontiff; who by his tender care towards us may ever find favour in thy sight, and, studying to preserve thy people in safety, may ever be honored by us to the glory of thy Name. Through Jesus Christ our Lord ... (English/Anglican Missal--Mass for the Election of a Chief Bishop)