Sunday, February 28, 2016

I believe in the Catholic Church

“Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven… and each one heard them speaking in his own language.  And they were amazed and wondered, saying, “How is it that...we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God." Acts 2:5-6, 11

Theologian Brian McLaren wrote a noted book a few years ago with this very wordy subtitle: “Why I am a missional, evangelical, post/protestant, liberal/conservative, mystical/poetic, biblical, charismatic/contemplative, fundamentalist/calvinist, anabaptist/anglican, methodist, catholic, green, incarnational, depressed-yet-hopeful, emergent, unfinished Christian.”[1]  He’s not schizophrenic, I think.  And I don’t think that he had a particularly checkered history of joining different churches.  He was just trying to make a point about how the truth about God and Christ often transcends the divisions and labels we like to use.  I think he could have saved plenty of ink if he had just titled his book, “why I am a Catholic Christian.” 

If he had used that subtitle, though, plenty of people would have misunderstood him.  They would have expected chapters on the pope and prayer to the saints and purgatory and all sorts of other things that he wasn’t prepared to discuss in his book.  In the minds of many people, Catholic means only one branch of the church, the branch more properly called “The Holy Roman Church.” 

Thursday, February 25, 2016

St. Luke's, bivocational priesthood, and Fr. Holder

It only took a week or two of Mr. Holder’s European History class for me to see that this teacher was something special. His fast paced lectures traced coherent threads through jumbles of names and dates. He was a master of the telling quotation and the witty aside. He even arrived to class in costume a few times. I was entranced, convinced of some deep kinship with this man, as he was connected to so much that was most important to me. And that was before I learned he was a priest.

He came to class one day in a black suit and clerical collar. He’d be leaving after lunch, he explained. One of his parishioners had died, and he needed to officiate at the funeral. Aha! A priest. So that was why we’d spent two whole days on the English Reformation. He served at St. Luke’s in Brownsville, he explained, and some of the others nodded, knowing more than me. It was a little church in a little place, and he’d been serving there for sixteen years, since just after I was born.

I was quite impressed. I’d been telling people I wanted to be a pastor for about a decade by then, and I never really thought about combining this vocation with one of my other passions. A priest and a history teacher — why not? Or a priest and a newspaper columnist? A priest and a congressman even!? I guess I knew that Saint Paul had worked a trade alongside all his preaching and pastoral work. But I’d never encountered a living example before.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Ponder: capable of imagining the loves of strangers

All these cases are illustrations of the central, familiar, moral insight of the book.  "If you can learn a simple trick, Scout," Atticus advises his daughter, "you'll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks.  You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view...-until you climb into his skin and walk around in it."

For Lee, this point demands more than observation.  By actively treating people as individuals, they can respond with unexpected virtue.  In the book, Walter Cunningham is part of a lynch mob.  When Scout causes Cunningham to recall that he is a father, he walks away from violence.  Men and women can be better than the mob, when they remember their hidden dignity, their secret honor.  Lee defends the possibility of the awakened conscience.

Right now, the world of adults seems increasingly like Lee's Maycomb, with a tiny religious minority stigmatized and targeted for exclusion, and another minority being accused of being criminals and rapists, demonstrating the strangely sexual content of bigotry.  And though we now it is not quite right, there are few who can manage tears.  

Once again--maybe always--there is a great drama in what Lee called "the secret courts of men's hearts."  Let us hope with Lee that people are better than the mob and capable of imagining the loves of strangers.  And whatever the outcome, Atticus--more real than any living politician--urges us to see it through.
Michael Gerson, "Timely Insights from 'Mockingbird'" The Washington Post 23 Feb 2016, A17

Ponder: "beauty's her dress"

Truth never changes,
And Beauty's her dress;
And Good never changes,
Which these two express.
It is the parson's duty to see that his parishioners are offered all three.  
If he does not, can he complain when people go out into the hills from whence perhaps cometh their help, and find an escape into the Infinite from the debased architecture and ornaments of their parish church, in places where they are surrounded by the colours and the jewels of the Supreme Artist? For, as Bacon says, "God Almighty first planted a garden"; and God knows our need of beauty.
           Percy Dearmer, Public Worship Today.

I believe in the Holy Church

“But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”
I Peter 2:9

The French author Georges  Bernanos published a few decades ago one of the more interesting sermons I have ever read.  What made it so interesting is that he wrote it from the perspective of an agnostic, an outsider to the Church.  If we let a unbeliever into one of our pulpits for twenty minutes on a Sunday morning, what exactly would he or she have to tell us about ourselves and the faith we claim to profess?  I will read you just a small portion of that sermon:
Need I remind you that God came in Person to the Jewish people.  They saw Him.  They heard Him.  Their hands touched Him.  They asked for signs; he gave them those signs.  He healed the sick and raised the dead.  Then he ascended once again to the Heavens.  When we seek Him now, in this world, it is you we find, and only you.  Oh, I respect the Church—but the history of the Church herself, after all, does not surrender its secret to the first-comer…It is you, Christians, who participate in divinity, as your liturgy proclaims; it is you ‘divine men’ who ever since His Ascension have been His representatives on earth.  Well, you must admit that one would hardly know it at first glance.[1] 

The faith in the waiting

“But he said, "O Lord GOD, how am I to know that I shall possess it?"”  Genesis 15:8

Abram had learned to wait.  God had spoken to him powerfully, when he was a man in the prime of life, living in the great Mesopotamian city of Ur.  "Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you.[1]  And he had gone, following this strange God and his lavish promises. God told him of an abundant land.  He promised wealth.  And most poignantly, he told of a multitude of descendants.  Abram would be the father of a great nation. 

God had spoken to him once more, when his protégé, Lot had set off to make his own way in the world.  Again, there were the same promises, the assurance that God would be faithful.  That was decades ago, though.  Abram amassed cattle and slaves, he dabbled in politics, he became an elder statesman among the tribes of the Palestinian desert. He’d just been through a rather fierce battle, which has a way of clarifying your perspective, I’m told.  But still there were no children.

And Abram was tired of waiting. 

Monday, February 15, 2016

I believe in One Church

Jesus said, "I do not pray for these only, but also for those who believe in me through their word, that they may all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that thou hast sent me.” John 17:20-21

I am grateful that so many of you have gathered today to listen and reflect and pray about this theme of being Christ’s Church, “One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic.”  Lent is a traditional time for returning to the basic teachings of our faith.  Since the early Church, it has been a time of catechesis: instruction and training of candidates preparing for Baptism at the great feast of Easter.  Most of us were baptized long ago, but those statements of faith we professed or that were professed for us at our Baptisms still define the life we live through Jesus Christ.  The Creeds tell the story of the God whom we love, and owning them for ourselves is part of that deep loyalty that we should have for God who has blessed us so richly. 

This Lent we will be focusing on one phrase from the Nicene Creed, that creed we have said so many times, Sunday after Sunday at the Eucharist: “We believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.”  The phrase has been with us for a very long time, since 381, when it was added to the original creed of Nicaea by a major church council at Constantinople.  This phrase is an ancient one, rooted, as we will see, in the even older descriptions from Scripture of the church and its relationship to Jesus. 

True Power and the Test of Ambition

“And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please.  If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.  St. Luke 4:6-7

 “If anything unites America in this fractious moment,” says the New York Times’ David Brooks in a recent column, it is a widespread sentiment that power is somewhere other than where you are.”[1]  “The Republican establishment thinks the grass roots have the power,” he continues, “but the grass roots think the reverse. The unions think the corporations have the power but the corporations think the start-ups do. Regulators think Wall Street has the power but Wall Street thinks the regulators do.”  He goes on to cite a recent Pew study which asked Americans, “Would you say your side has been winning or losing more?” Sixty-four percent of us, majorities of both parties, believe our side has been losing more.

People respond to this feeling of powerlessness, Brooks says, with “pointless acts of self-destruction.”  When we believe we have no power, compromise is suspicious.  If we believe we have no power, utopian dreams seem the only possible escape.  If we have no power, we must get behind the one who promises to “start winning again,” no matter what real abilities he might have to keep his promise.   This sense of powerlessness, Brooks says, is very dangerous in a political system like ours, which attempts to draw together a deeply diverse society through common citizenship and shared institutions. 

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

The Springtime of the Fast has come

“And when you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites.”  St. Matthew 6:16

When I was a junior in college, I spent my spring semester studying Greek and Byzantine history in Athens.  One of things about my time that I remember most vividly was the way that the Greeks celebrated this particular season, the days right around the beginning of Lent.  A time of feasting and celebration led up to the beginning of Lent, which comes on a Monday for the Orthodox.  I went to a costume ball, and spent two days in an island village where the natives dressed in goatskins and danced in the streets to celebrate the Carnival.  The wine flowed.  Meat was grilled out in the streets, as the butchers worked to empty their shops before the fast began. 

And then, on Clean Monday, as they call the first day of Lent there, everything changed.  The simple café where we took most of our meals switched over to Lenten fare: fish roe salad, bean soup and big blocks of sesame-seed cake.  On the afternoon of Clean Monday, in the big park by the ruins of the ancient temple of Olympian Zeus, the skies were filled with color.  The Greeks fly kites on the first day of Lent, kites of all shapes and colors, kites shaped like birds and flowers and dragons, some with streamers blazing. 

The beginning of Lent is a kind of celebration for them, because with its disciplines comes an opportunity for the renewal of the soul.  In Lent, one of my Greek friends told me, the fasting helps our souls rise up like the kites, we can soar, free from our sins.  An antiphon from the Orthodox liturgy of the week before Lent expresses the kind of joy in the fast that the kite flying shows so boldly:  “The springtime of the Fast has dawned,” it says, “the flower of repentance has begun to open.”[1]

Friday, February 5, 2016

For Meditation: teach me how to want

"Most of the time, I don’t know what it is that I really want. I don’t know what it is I’m seeking. I hope that I am seeking Jesus of Nazareth, but it may well be that I’m seeking him more for my own complacent self-congratulation than because I actually want him, as he is, in all his terrifying radiance. I need him to teach me how to want, what to want, whom to want. Bartimaeus wanted to see so that he could follow him. The first disciples wanted to know where he stayed so they could abide with him. But Mary seems to suggest that you’re not really seeking him as you ought until you’ve acknowledged that you don’t know how, until you’ve wept for your sins and for the sins of the world that put to death its own light. The psalms tell me to “seek his face evermore” (Ps. 105:4). But Mary shows me that I will only be able to see his face through my tears … tears which, of course, he himself will wipe away."
 Mac Stewart, What Do You Seek? Covenant, 5 Feb. 2016.

Ponder: "not attempting to improve it, they never desecrated it"

"In the working of silver or drilling of turquoise the Indians had exhaustless patience; upon their blankets and belts and ceremonial robes they lavished their skill and pains.  They had none of the European's desire to 'master' nature, to arrange and re-create.  They spent their ingenuity in the opposite direction; in accommodating themselves to the scene in which they found themselves.  This was not so much from indolence, the Bishop thought, as from an inherited caution and respect.  It was as if the great country were asleep and they wished to carry on their lives without awakening it; or as if the spirits of earth and air and water were things to not antagonize and arouse.  When they hunted, it was with the same discretion; an Indian hunt was never a slaughter.  They ravaged neither the rivers nor the forest, and if they irrigated, they took as little water as would serve their needs.  The land and all that it bore, they treated with consideration; not attempting to improve it, they never desecrated it."
Willa Cather, Death Comes to the Archbishop, 233-234