Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Ponder: "the bride bedecked with her jewels"

"In the diversity of people who experience the gift of God, each in accordance with its own culture, the Church expresses her genuine catholicity and shows forth 'the beauty of her varied face.'  In the Christian customs of an evangelized people, the Holy Spirit adorns the Church, showing her new aspects of revelation and giving her a new face.  Through inculturation, the Church 'introduces peoples, together with their cultures, into her own community,' for 'every culture offers positive values and forms which can enrich the way the Gospel is preached, understood and lived.'  In this way, the Church takes up the values of different cultures and becomes sponsa ornata monilibus suis, 'the bride bedecked with her jewels' (c.f. Isaiah 61:10)."

Pope Francis, Evangelium Gaudii, 116.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Ponder: a narrative of doom becoming a theology of panic

"Secularisation functions as a theology of doom.  People believe it.  The goading analysis of 'death' and 'endgame' enters the Christian psyche.  Experts with often-limited feel for the religious cultures they study are somehow allowed to set the agenda, the problem going beyond the numbing tyranny of statistics to an insidious language of disintegration and decay... As David Martin, one of the leading exponents of secularisation theory, later reflected" 'when we said the church was in trouble, we didn't expect the churches to believe us.' Martin had 'not anticipated how enthusiastically the churches would collude in their own demise'--rolling over to appease the new secular culture.  This was not a scientific process unfolding.  It was a self-fulfilling prophecy: a narrative of doom becoming a theology of panic."

Dominic Erdozain, "New Affections: Church Growth in Britain 1750-1950," in Towards a Theology of Church Growth (2015), 219.

Ponder: ministry and domestic work

"We tend to conceptualise working harder as producing more.  Yet the wisdom of the medieval theologians of church growth would suggest that the work of ministry might be more helpfully seen as parallel to domestic work--washing, ironing, cooking a meal and washing up--which needs to be done, but then needs to be done again, than to artisan or factory work, which produces a measurable product.  This does not mean that growth does not take place, but it is more analogous to natural, organic growth--the growth of a garden or a child--rather than to capitalist expansion and productivity."

Mirada Threlfall-Holmes, "Growing the Medieval Church" in Towards a Theology of Church Growth (2015), 195

Ponder: "mission is an expression of Pentecost"

"Without the Spirit, God is far away, Christ belongs in the past, the gospel is a dead letter, the church is a mere organisation, mission is turned into propaganda.  But in the Spirit, God is near, the risen Christ is present with us here and now, the Gospel is the power of life, the church signifies Trinitarian communion, mission is an expression of Pentecost."

Ignatios IV, qtd. in Graham Tomlin, "The Prodigal Spirit and Church Growth" in Towards a Theology of Church Growth (2015), 142.

Ponder: a true pneumatologia crucis

"This is the paradox of divine love, a true pneumatologia crucis.  To invoke the Spirit, praying the prayer, 'Come Holy Spirit' is a wonderful, but perhaps also a sombre thing to do.  It is wonderful because it asks God to draw us into the same relationship of love that Jesus had with the Father.  It is sombre because it is asking God to draw us into the same relationship Jesus had with the world, which led him to a cross."

Graham Tomlin, "The Prodigal Spirit and Church Growth," in Towards a Theology of Church Growth (2015), 135.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Ponder: "investing products with transcendence"

"Ad executive Douglas Atkin notes that a transformation has taken place in what's expected of the typical ad executive at a major corporation: rather than being responsible for design, packaging, and promotion, the brand manager is now asked to 'create and maintain a whole meaning-system for people through which they get identity and an understanding of the world.' Advertising is asked to induce devotion by investing products with transcendence.  So Atkin asked himself, What makes people exhibit cult-like devotion?  He thus undertook a study of cults precisely in order to figure out how brands could induce 'loyalty beyond reason.' When he heard people rhapsodize about sneakers of paper plates in terms that he described as 'evangelical,'  he realized that people join brands for the same reason they join cults and religions: to make meaning...The goal of such marketing, this (very secular) documentary concludes, is 'to fill the empty places where non-commercial institutions like schools and churches might have once done the job.' They amount to 'an invitation to a longed-for lifestyle."

James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Ponder: "we don't want to be alone for a second"

“On the Conan O’Brien show, C.K. explained why: “You need to build an ability to just be yourself and not be doing something. That’s what the phones are taking away,” he said. “Underneath in your life there’s that thing … that forever empty … that knowledge that it’s all for nothing and you’re alone … That’s why we text and drive … because we don’t want to be alone for a second.”

He recalled a moment driving his car when a Bruce Springsteen song came on the radio. It triggered a sudden, unexpected surge of sadness. He instinctively went to pick up his phone and text as many friends as possible. Then he changed his mind, left his phone where it was, and pulled over to the side of the road to weep. He allowed himself for once to be alone with his feelings, to be overwhelmed by them, to experience them with no instant distraction, no digital assist. And then he was able to discover, in a manner now remote from most of us, the relief of crawling out of the hole of misery by himself. For if there is no dark night of the soul anymore that isn’t lit with the flicker of the screen, then there is no morning of hopefulness either. As he said of the distracted modern world we now live in: “You never feel completely sad or completely happy, you just feel … kinda satisfied with your products. And then you die. So that’s why I don’t want to get a phone for my kids.”

Andrew Sullivan, “I Used to Be a Human Being.”  New York Magazine.  20 Sep. 2016

Ponder: "Thou didst stumble to a throne"

The other gods were strong; but Thou wast weak;
They rode, but Thou didst stumble to a throne;
But to our wounds only God’s wounds can speak,
And not a god has wounds, but Thou alone. 

“Jesus of the Scars” by Edward Shillito, qtd. in Liz Hoare, “A Reflection on Philippians 2:1-18.”

Ponder: "the threat is to our souls"

“I cut my daily silences from one hour to 25 minutes; and then, almost a year later, to every other day. I knew this was fatal — that the key to gaining sustainable composure from meditation was rigorous discipline and practice, every day, whether you felt like it or not, whether it felt as if it were working or not. Like weekly Mass, it is the routine that gradually creates a space that lets your life breathe. But the world I rejoined seemed to conspire to take that space away from me. “I do what I hate,” as the oldest son says in Terrence Malick’s haunting Tree of Life.

I haven’t given up, even as, each day, at various moments, I find myself giving in. There are books to be read; landscapes to be walked; friends to be with; life to be fully lived. And I realize that this is, in some ways, just another tale in the vast book of human frailty. But this new epidemic of distraction is our civilization’s specific weakness. And its threat is not so much to our minds, even as they shape-shift under the pressure. The threat is to our souls. At this rate, if the noise does not relent, we might even forget we have any.”

Andrew Sullivan, “I Used to Be a Human Being.”  New York Magazine.  20 Sep. 2016

Ponder: "the greatest threat to faith today is not hedonism but distraction"

“And yet our need for quiet has never fully gone away, because our practical achievements, however spectacular, never quite fulfill us. They are always giving way to new wants and needs, always requiring updating or repairing, always falling short. The mania of our online lives reveals this: We keep swiping and swiping because we are never fully satisfied. The late British philosopher Michael Oakeshott starkly called this truth “the deadliness of doing.” There seems no end to this paradox of practical life, and no way out, just an infinite succession of efforts, all doomed ultimately to fail.

Except, of course, there is the option of a spiritual reconciliation to this futility, an attempt to transcend the unending cycle of impermanent human achievement. There is a recognition that beyond mere doing, there is also being; that at the end of life, there is also the great silence of death with which we must eventually make our peace. From the moment I entered a church in my childhood, I understood that this place was different because it was so quiet. The Mass itself was full of silences — those liturgical pauses that would never do in a theater, those minutes of quiet after communion when we were encouraged to get lost in prayer, those liturgical spaces that seemed to insist that we are in no hurry here. And this silence demarcated what we once understood as the sacred, marking a space beyond the secular world of noise and business and shopping.

If the churches came to understand that the greatest threat to faith today is not hedonism but distraction, perhaps they might begin to appeal anew to a frazzled digital generation. Christian leaders seem to think that they need more distraction to counter the distraction. Their services have degenerated into emotional spasms, their spaces drowned with light and noise and locked shut throughout the day, when their darkness and silence might actually draw those whose minds and souls have grown web-weary. But the mysticism of Catholic meditation — of the Rosary, of Benediction, or simple contemplative prayer — is a tradition in search of rediscovery. The monasteries — opened up to more lay visitors — could try to answer to the same needs that the booming yoga movement has increasingly met.”

Andrew Sullivan, “I Used to Be a Human Being.”  New York Magazine.  20 Sep. 2016

Ponder: "you are where your attention is"

“But of course, as I had discovered in my blogging years, the family that is eating together while simultaneously on their phones is not actually together. They are, in Turkle’s formulation, “alone together.” You are where your attention is. If you’re watching a football game with your son while also texting a friend, you’re not fully with your child — and he knows it. Truly being with another person means being experientially with them, picking up countless tiny signals from the eyes and voice and body language and context, and reacting, often unconsciously, to every nuance. These are our deepest social skills, which have been honed through the aeons. They are what make us distinctively human.

By rapidly substituting virtual reality for reality, we are diminishing the scope of this interaction even as we multiply the number of people with whom we interact. We remove or drastically filter all the information we might get by being with another person. We reduce them to some outlines — a Facebook “friend,” an Instagram photo, a text message — in a controlled and sequestered world that exists largely free of the sudden eruptions or encumbrances of actual human interaction. We become each other’s “contacts,” efficient shadows of ourselves.”

Andrew Sullivan, “I Used to Be a Human Being.”  New York Magazine.  20 Sep. 2016

Ponder: "escaping time"

“Soon enough, the world of “the news,” and the raging primary campaign, disappeared from my consciousness. My mind drifted to a trancelike documentary I had watched years before, Philip Gröning’s Into Great Silence, on an ancient Carthusian monastery and silent monastic order in the Alps. In one scene, a novice monk is tending his plot of garden. As he moves deliberately from one task to the next, he seems almost in another dimension. He is walking from one trench to another, but never appears focused on actually getting anywhere. He seems to float, or mindfully glide, from one place to the next.

He had escaped, it seemed to me, what we moderns understand by time. There was no race against it; no fear of wasting it; no avoidance of the tedium that most of us would recoil from. And as I watched my fellow meditators walk around, eyes open yet unavailable to me, I felt the slowing of the ticking clock, the unwinding of the pace that has all of us in modernity on a treadmill till death. I felt a trace of a freedom all humans used to know and that our culture seems intent, pell-mell, on forgetting.”

Andrew Sullivan, “I Used to Be a Human Being.”  New York Magazine.  20 Sep. 2016

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Ponder: "the residual sadness of the lonely heart"

“I often run across people who have gone back to menial work in their 60s and 70s because they just want to get out of the house. When you ask them more questions, you find that they are devoted to home and work, but that they often don’t have rich connections outside these spheres.  Many of their friends came through work, but those friendships tend to fade away when the job ends. There are older people who feel unneeded. There are younger people who feel lost. Somehow these longing souls never find each other.

Suburbia isn’t working. During the baby boom, the suburbs gave families safe places to raise their kids. But now we are in an era of an aging population, telecommuting workers and single-person households.  The culture and geography of suburbia are failing to nurture webs of mutual dependence.

We are animals who can’t flourish unless we can’t get along without one another. Yet one finds too many people thrust into lives of semi-independence.
These are not the victims of postindustrial blight I’m talking about; they are successful people who worked hard and built good lives but who are left nonetheless strangely isolated, in attenuated communities, and who are left radiating the residual sadness of the lonely heart.”

David Brooks, Dignity and Sadness in the Working Class, New York Times, 20 Sep. 2016

Ponder: "only Christ suffers in his face"

"[Separation between face and body] is a main point in one of European culture's principal iconographic traditions, the depiction of Christian martyrdom, with its astounding schism between what is inscribed on the face and what is happening to the body.  Those innumerable images of Saint Sebastian, Saint Agatha, Saint Lawrence (but not of Christ himself), with the face demonstrating its effortless superiority to the atrocious things that are being inflicted down there.  Below, the ruins of the body.Above, a person incarnated in the face, who looks away, usually up, not registering pain or fear; already elsewhere.  Only Christ, both Son of Man and Son of God, suffers in his face, has his Passion."

Susan Sontag, qtd, in Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion (2015), 81.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Ponder: "the revolution of tenderness"

"For just as some people want a purely spiritual Christ, without flesh and without the cross, they also want their interpersonal relationships provided by sophisticated equipment, by screens and systems which can be turned on and off on command.  Meanwhile, the Gospel tells us constantly to run the risk of a face-to-face encounter with others, with their physical presence that challenges us, with their pain and their pleas, with their joy which infects us in our close and continuous interaction.  True faith in the incarnate Son of God is inseparable from self-giving, from reconciliation with others.  The Son of God, becoming flesh, summoned us to the revolution of tenderness."

Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, 88.

Victory is Ours: A Sermon for Holy Cross Day

"The LORD has made known his victory; * his righteousness has he openly shown in the sight of the nations."  Psalm 98:3

As you might have noticed, just now I made the sign of the Cross over myself.  I do it quite often.  I sat down and counted this week, and discovered that in the usual course of celebrating the Eucharist on Sunday, I make the sign of the Cross not once or five or ten times, but 27 times, as well as making it over each of you individually with the wafer when you come forward to receive Holy Communion.  Making the sign of the Cross is a ritual that accompanies many different words and movements in the course of the liturgy, including nearly all the most important ones.  I use the Cross when I ask God to be with me in reading and hearing the Gospel, when I speak His word absolving your sins, when I bless the bread and wine, when I speak His blessing over all of you at the end of the service, and at quite a few other times besides these. 

And of course, the Cross isn’t just here among us in the ritual action, we also worship facing a Cross.  The service begins when the choir and the sacred ministers come in, proceeded by a Cross—and we brought the beautiful jeweled one out of the vault to mark this special day.   There are crosses on the windows and the paintings, the arches and the plates.  The silver cruets we use at the Altar have crosses on their tops.  My vestments today are adorned with a half-dozen of them.  There’s one on the steeple, and the whole building, for that matter, is shaped like a Cross. 

Now, if you’re new here, all these crosses are likely to strike you as rather odd, maybe as a kind of symbolic overkill.  Surely, we could mix it up a bit, couldn’t we?  What is it about the Cross that urges us Christians to plant it everywhere, to mark everything with it? What does it mean for us?

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Ponder: unselfishness, the sign of God's kingdom

"Dorothy Day wrote, 'Patience, patience--which means suffering.' Her life of sacrificial service to the poor was one of great power that places her in the first rank of Christians who will be remembered...Dorothy Day's commitment to a sacrificial life arose from a place of strength, not a place of weakness.  Such a life, rightly understood, is uniquely empowering because it is aligned with the self-giving of God in Christ.  Wherever there are gracious acts of unselfishness, there are the signs of God's kingdom of remade relationships based on mutual self-offering.

Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion (2014), 275.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Ponder: "the evil spirit of defeatism"

"While painfully aware of our own frailties, we have to march on without giving in, keeping in mind what the Lord said to Saint Paul: "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness' (2 Cor. 12:9).  Christian triumph is always a cross, yet a cross which is at the same time a victorious banner borne with aggressive tenderness against the assaults of evil.  The evil spirit of defeatism is brother to the temptation to separate, before its time, the wheat from the weeds; it is the fruit of an anxious and self-centred lack of trust."

Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, 85.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Ponder: "sympathy that fails to recognize culpability also fails to recognize potentiality"

Vance conceded that Obama’s comments had been “well-intentioned” and that he had named “legitimate” problems. Nonetheless, he said, Obama’s comments had lacked “sympathy.” Reading “Hillbilly Elegy,” you see what Vance means. Vance is after a certain kind of sympathy: sympathy among equals that doesn’t demean or condescend. Such sympathy can’t be deterministic and categorical. In fact, it must be a little judgmental; it must see the people to whom it’s extended as dignified individuals who retain their moral obligations. For Vance, it’s “anger at Mom for the life she chooses”—recognition of her present-day freedom—that makes “sympathy for the childhood she didn’t” meaningful and humane. That’s because sympathy that fails to recognize culpability also fails to recognize potentiality. It becomes a form of giving up. If you’re a politician representing a troubled community from afar, as many élite politicians must be, then it’s easy to fall into this sympathy trap. At best, you can be a well-intentioned but nonjudgmental—and, therefore, condescending—outsider. Only an insider can speak about his community with honest anguish. “Hillbilly Elegy” is especially compelling because Vance writes with the sorrowful judgment of a betrayed yet loyal son.

Joshua Rothman, "The Lives of Poor White People" The New Yorker 12 Sep. 2016

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Comfort and the Cross

“Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”  St. Luke 14:27

Last Sunday after the 8:00 service, Ralph Tildon came up to me and told me that my sermon had reminded him of a movie.  “We’re No Angels,” was based on the passage about welcoming the stranger that I had taken as my text.  I don’t expect you’ve ever heard of the movie either, as it never broke number 8 in the box office listing when it came out in 1989.  But it was a slow Sunday evening, so Allison and I watched it together. 

The movie tells the story of two bumbling convicts who escaped from a prison and were taken into a monastery, after being mistaken for famous Biblical scholars.  The convicts are played by Sean Penn and Robert DeNiro, and for me it was worth the cost of the rental to see Robert DeNiro trotting around in an old fashioned priest’s cassock and biretta.  The plot plays out as you would expect when two semi-illiterate, chain-smoking cons try to pose as holy men in the midst of a massive manhunt. 

The climax of the film comes when Father Brown, aka Jim the convict, is spontaneously invited to give the sermon at the monastery’s annual festival.  Jim is Sean Penn’s character, a relatively kind hearted fellow who looks about fourteen.  By this point in the movie, you know to wince when he opens his mouth, but you’re also on his side. 

Thursday, September 1, 2016

The Spirituality of Financial Management

From the September 2016 issue of The WORD of Saint Timothy's, Herndon.

“Pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, that we may appoint to this duty.”  Acts 6:3

This summer, Rick Wilson resigned after twelve years as the treasurer of Saint Timothy’ Church.  We all owe him a great deal of thanks for the way in which he has discharged his responsibilities with steadfast patience, integrity and care.  For twelve years Rick has been a careful and diligent steward of the resources entrusted to us to God’s work. 

One almost never hears of someone committing to such a demanding (and often thankless) role in these days when so many responsibilities and social activities fill people’s calendars.  Maybe he didn’t think he would be at the task for so long when he first took it up.  But Rick has been faithful, pressing on to complete tasks week by week, and carefully training those people (two of them) who will continue in his stead.

Rick has been the classic “behind the scenes” worker, coming in on weekends and burning the midnight oil to keep up with the demands of our large and complicated organization.  A highly skilled professional, his generous donation of time and talent has saved our congregation tens of thousands of dollars in accountants’ fees.  Most importantly, Rick has maintained the trust that is absolutely essential for the management of church finances.

It’s interesting that the early church’s first major conflict centered around financial management.