Praises Sing to God the King, and Peace to Men on Earth

On Sunday morning, April 23, 1865, the Rev’d Phillips Brooks set aside the sermon he was otherwise planning to preach at his church in Philadelphia and made note of a different, a more somber event.  On that very day, the Pullman car funeral procession carrying the body of Abraham Lincoln – assassinated in Washington, DC eight days earlier – had stopped and the President’s body was laid in state in Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, on its way to where he would be laid to rest in his hometown of Springfield, IL.  Thousands of Philadelphians came out to view the body, and just a few blocks away that morning, in Holy Trinity Episcopal Church, Phillips Brooks – then regarded as one of the finest preachers in America – told his congregation that he wished to, instead, pay attention to what he called “that sacred presence in our midst.”

Reading the sermon, even nearly a century-and-a-half later, one still feels the sadness, the shock, the gut-wrenching despair which overcame the nation.  Beginning slowly, almost fearfully wading into his subject, Phillips Brooks told the congregation he was going to talk about the “character of Abraham Lincoln, the impulses of his life, the causes of his death.”  And because that surely struck a chord in the audience, Brooks in the next breath mentioned:  “I can only promise to speak calmly, conscientiously, affectionately…”  “It is the great boon of such characters as Mr. Lincoln’s,” Brooks preached, “that they reunite what God has joined together and man has put asunder.  In him was vindicated the greatness of real goodness and the goodness of real greatness.”

How we all long for “the greatness of real goodness, and the goodness of real greatness.”  How hungry we are for genuine, random acts of kindness, and how we love to hear about them – love for loveliness’ sake, kindness from the heart.  And how our hearts are broken, as they have been too often and too recently, by violence, senseless cruelty, and suffering.  We long to be at a wedding feast, hearing of that which and those whom God has joined together, but all too often in the events of this world it feels as though we’re at a funeral vigil, bearing witness with tearful eyes to that which we have put asunder, bitterly.

We’re not alone in these conflicts and, sadly, the brokenness of creation has all too often pitted real darkness against any hope of the Light of this world.  This was true for Phillips Brooks and the nation that mourned their President.  In fact, his sermon about Lincoln went the nineteenth century version of “viral” and led to even greater popularity and fame for the young preacher.  But his heart was heavy, very heavy, along with countless of his countrymen who experienced the destruction and brutal violence of the American Civil War, witnessing how it literally tore apart communities and families, culminating in the death of their President.  Not long after his famous sermon about Lincoln, Brooks left on a one-year sabbatical, seeking peace and some measure of healing.

In December 1865, Brooks travelled to Jerusalem, and ventured on Christmas Eve to Bethlehem.  In a letter home to his father, he wrote that “after an early dinner, [we] took our horses and rode to Bethlehem. It was only about two hours when we came to the town, situated on an eastern ridge of a range of hills, surrounded by its terraced gardens.”  “It is a good-looking town,” he wrote.  “Before dark, we rode out of town to the field where they say the shepherds saw the star. … Somewhere in those fields we rode through the shepherds must have been, and in the same fields the story of Ruth and Boaz must belong. As we passed,” he wrote, “shepherds were still ‘keeping watch over their flocks,’ leading them home to fold. We returned and waited for the service. The most interesting part was the crowd of pilgrims, with their simple faith and eagerness to share in the ceremonial. We went to bed very tired.”

In another letter to the Sunday school at his Philadelphia parish, he wrote about the feeling, the peace, the renewal he experienced “when I was standing in the old church at Bethlehem, close to the spot where Jesus was born, when the whole church was ringing hour after hour with the splendid hymns of praise to God.”  That time in Bethlehem, especially, was a healing experience for Brooks, and three years later the memory was still, as he wrote, “singing in my soul.” Singing so much that, in the fall of 1868, Phillips Brooks put pen to paper and wrote a poem, which his organist set to a tune in time for their Christmas service that year, and which we now know as the notable Christmas carol “O Little town of Bethlehem.”

Oddly (and not without controversy in its own time) “O Little Town of Bethlehem” is not a carol to God but a song sung to a city – a humble, insignificant-if-not-for-one-event Judean hill town.  Tonight and in Phillips Brooks own time, Bethlehem is also a city which knows violence, hatred, and strife: the poem mentions in its first stanza the town’s “dark streets”, but even amidst that brokenness shines “the everlasting light / the hopes and fears of all the years” which, profoundly, “are met in thee tonight.”

The poem widens its gaze and tells a larger, more universal story.  The stars and galaxies, the universe’s created order itself, in the second stanza, coalesce “to proclaim the holy birth” – “and praises sing to God the King / and peace to men on earth.”  Peace, that which Phillips Brooks went around the world in search of.  Peace, that which Christians proclaim and seek on Christmas.

Know this, then: The peace you seek is real; the peace, which scripture says, passes all understanding; the peace which Christ himself breathed on his disciples, not some passing relief, not a pain reliever, but God’s own: “My peace I give you, my own peace I leave with you,” Jesus said.  The peace you seek is established upon the truth, in Christmas, that the creation is not marred, not permanently at least, by our brokenness.  Like a resurrection story in itself, these places – Bethlehem or Jerusalem; Civil War battlefields or Ford’s Theatre; Newtown, CT, among too many others – do not bear for ever the mark of the slain, do not encase the suffering of this cruel world.  No, the prayers we lift up are still true – that God would “cast out our sin and enter in,” that God, Emmanuel, will “be born in us, come to us, abide with us.”

And yet I’d be remiss if I didn’t share with you one other truth about God’s peace.  So know this, too: Hard times will come, and come again, and that’s why we return, week after week.  The life of Christian faith is not an elixir from the hurt of this world.  Another hymn kept creeping into my heart as I was pondering these words for tonight, a hymn about Jesus’ disciples.  It ends with a particularly haunting line: “The peace of God, it is no peace, but strife closed in the sod.”  I won’t pretend to know what that means – strife closed in the sod – but I know that it’s a true sentiment that peace, true peace, doesn’t mean the end of strife but, rather, a different way of relating to it.  That’s why we keep coming back, week after week.  I’m reminded that Gandhi once said, “I believe in peace, but I do not want the peace that you find in stone; I do not want the peace that you find in the grave.  I want the peace which you find embedded in the human breast, which is exposed to the arrows of the whole world, but which is protected from harm by the power of the Almighty God.”  Which is a theme the fourteenth century Christian mystic, Julian of Norwich, also expressed with her words: “I never said that you would not be tempest tossed, work-weary or discomforted, only that you shall not be overcome.”

The end of the story is not relief, then, but peace, and peace built by God who is redeeming and renewing and loving and rebuilding this world, brick by brick, community by community, heart by heart.  The end of the story, then, is that love wins, that “the hopes and fears of all the years are met” … not in a city faraway, not in a distant time, not in a bygone era, but in you:  “born in us, come to us, abide with us, our Lord, Emmanuel.”

You say that I am a King

The Kingship of God is a scriptural concept and expresses a spiritual truth: God, the creator of all, is in charge of this world.  And we are members of that kingdom.  As such, our lives are worked out in the context of a world which is neither chaotic nor random but ordered by love and maintained in justice, an orderly world which is a kingdom, the very Kingdom of God.

Jesus himself was called King by several of his followers.  During his lifetime on earth, Nathanael called Jesus “King of Israel” after Jesus said he’d seen Nathanael by a fig tree. (Jn. 1:49)  The crowd used the title as a derisive one, mocking him while he hung on the cross: “He is the King of Israel; let him come down from the cross now…” (Mt. 27:42, also in Mk. 15)  Those Magi  went in search of the child “born King of the Jews” (Mt. 2:2), and even Pilate asked Jesus if he was, in fact, a king. (Jn. 18:37 & Mt. 27:11)  The title was, from time to time, ascribed to Jesus after the ascension.  Writing to Timothy, Paul confessed that Christ is “King of the ages” (1 Tim. 1:17) and called him “King of kings and Lord of lords.” (1 Tim. 6:15)  For obvious reasons, John’s Apocalypse abounds in language about Christ the King, the righteous victor who will overthrow the wicked powers of this world: Jesus is “ruler of the kings of the earth” (Rev. 1:5), “King of the nations” (Rev. 15:3), and “King of kings and Lord of lords” (Rev. 19:16, also 17:14).  Jesus talked about his kingdom, and he made mention of kings in many of his parables, such was the association readily made for his listening audience.

Jesus never called himself King, though, nor did he accept it when offered.  The title he seemed to prefer was ‘Son of Man’ or ‘Son of God’, and yet Jesus resisted people making a ready connection between him and the great messianic hope of the people.  The Messianic Secret of the gospels – the reason Jesus tells people to keep quiet that he is, in fact, the Christ – is because a commitment to discipleship must be the result of an organic faith, growing from the inside out, not following a leader like we are so readily programmed to do.  The titles we employ – King, President, CEO – carry so many associations that they have the dangerous tendency to inhibit a truly heart-grown faith, the only thing which will lead to that kingdom within, the only thing which creates true discipleship.

For these reasons, then, Jesus and Pilate have what seems an unnecessary argument in Pilate’s chamber on the night our Lord was handed over to be crucified. (Jn. 18:33-37)  Pilate wants desperately to maintain order on that clamorous night, and it seems he’s aware that Jesus has been wrongfully accused.  “Are you King of the Jews?” Pilate asks, exasperated by the proceedings.  Jesus answers in an odd way, not answering the question with a simple ‘Yes’ or ‘No’.  “How’d you hear that?” Jesus asks.  Pilate shoots back, “Look, tell me, what have you done?”  Jesus gives an unusual answer once again, mentioning his followers and talking of his kingdom.  “Aha!  Then you are a King,” Pilate snaps back, thinking he’s caught Jesus.  “You say that I am a king,” Jesus says, and again goes off on a seemingly disconnected musing about truth and his followers and pointing to his work of reconciling all things in Him: “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

Jesus doesn’t deny his kingship, not at all.  The fact that we celebrate the Feast of Christ the King is meet and right so to do.  That God in Christ is King of everything is a standard of faith and a profoundly comfortable truth (…well, I suppose it’s decidedly uncomfortable if you are already a worldly power or principality).  And Christ’s Kingship has profound consequences for the ways in which we live in this world, amidst these powers and principalities.  Officially instituted in 1925 with Pope Pius XI’s encyclical, Quas Primas (In the first), the Feast not only affirms the scriptural witness about our Lord’s Kingship but also made clear in the early 20th century – a time of growing fascism and vitriolic nationalism – that the Christian’s supreme allegiance is due only one ruler, Christ the King, in heaven.

This is why Jesus makes Pilate squirm through an oddly philosophical conversation about kingship and kingdom on that heated night.  What Jesus points to in not taking on the title “King” is that it is God’s nature to give and give freely and give of God’s very self.  As Lord of all, God has everything, indeed, is everything.  God is complete in Godself, the very fullness of Being.  In God, there is no gift that is not shared (in truth, the opposite it impossible; if it’s not given freely it’s not a gift).  The gifts of God, being that they are, by definition, of God are also, by definition, shared.  God knows no other way than to give freely, vulnerably, fully. There is, then, in God, only blessing.

As ruler of all, we short-handedly call God “King”.  Moreover, He could very well establish  that fact by having us pay continual homage, receiving as a monarch our fidelity and love and service.  But God doesn’t establish his dominion by power; no, he does the opposite: He makes Himself vulnerable, becoming one of us, even dying for our sake in a humiliating, dreadful means of public execution, dying so that we may live.  Our Lord doesn’t ‘lord’ over us in the way we would otherwise associate with the term “king” or “monarch”.  On the one level, He models for us selfless, unconditional love.  On a much deeper level, however, He does this because He is this; by God’s nature He is selfless, generous, vulnerable and blessed – hence that greater mystery we call the Trinity, a mutual, egalitarian, self-giving monarchy of the One who is Three and the Three who are One.

The identity and nature of God cannot, therefore, be summed up in words like “King”.  After all, God is not what God says He is, nor is He what we say.  No, God is is who God shows himself to be by acting meaningfully and decisively in history and our lives.  Faith, in turn, is not intellectual assent to a series of beliefs – God is King – but, rather, an experience of the living God, the experience of knowing that one’s life caught up in the life of God, the creator and lover of all.

We are called to a beatitude life, a life of supreme blessedness, which means we are called to share freely and with humility the gifts we have been given.  Especially in this fast approaching season of gifts – gift-giving, gift-buying, gift-wrapping, gift-getting – it’s counter-cultural to celebrate that the only true gift is the one which is given away, freely, and used for the wellbeing of all – shared, not owned; given away, with no expectation or hope of return.

That’s what the gospels call a beatitude life, a life marked by blessedness, not fullness, not giftedness.  Sharing of yourself in some small reflection of the way in which God, who is and yet never accepted the title, King of kings and Lord of lords, shared – freely, vulnerably, for the life and blessing of the world.

Present the Whole of our Lives – Thanksgiving Day

It’s only been two weeks since Election Day, although it feels to me like much longer ago, so quickly have I put it out of my mind.  This has been a particularly bruising time in our country.

The origins of a commonly-shared national Day of Thanksgiving are also rooted in conflict and strife, in fact.  A day to give thanks following the annual harvest goes back to old world customs, and was brought over to these shores most notably by those pilgrims seeking religious liberty.  It wasn’t until 1863, though, that a commonly-held day in November was established as Thanksgiving Day, credited to then-President Abraham Lincoln but due chiefly to the tireless efforts of one Sarah Josepha Hale, a magazine editor.  (Lincoln proclaimed that it would be the last Thursday in November.  In 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt established it would be the fourthThursday in November, arguing that an earlier celebration would provide a greater economic boost to the country.  Guess Thanksgiving and Black Friday were destined for each other!)

LINCOLN’S 1863
Thanksgiving Proclamation

The origins of a day, in Lincoln’s words, to give “Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens” is rooted in an experience of  bitter enmity and strife.  That most bloody and destructive Civil War was raging in October 1863, when Lincoln penned his Thanksgiving Proclamation.  The sentences of the Proclamation move swiftly and poetically between blessings and terror, between joy in the abundance of God’s gifts and horror at the sight of what we have done to ourselves and our common person.  Lincoln:  “[This] year…has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies”, and yet only a few sentences later he mentions “the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field.”  The President writes seamlessly about “thanksgiving and praise” and doesn’t fail to mention “our national perverseness”;  waxes about “peace, harmony, tranquillity” and takes note of the “widows, orphans, [and] mourners” who suffer under “the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged.”

Thanksgiving, then, is not only a time to come together and set aside that which divides us.  Thanksgiving is also a time to confess – confess both our thanksgiving and praise, but also our sinfulness and pride.  Thanksgiving is a time in which we present the whole of our lives to God, saying ‘Thank you’ and yet also ‘Heal us’.

The prophet Joel, in his second chapter, offers a vision of God’s lavish kingdom, restored to the people.  “Do not fear, O soil…the pastures of the wilderness are green,” the prophet declares, foretelling a time in which vines will be full of plump grapes, the people’s pantries overflowing with grain, and their wine-racks stocked with really good vintage.  I suspect it’s the first part of this one verse which landed it in today’s observance: “You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied, and praise the name of the Lord your God, who has dealt wondrously with you.”

But the prophet, not unlike a certain 19th century American president, is pointing to God’s abundance when his people have experience great scarcity, not only of provisions and livelihoods but also of the feeling that God, their God, was advocating for them.  Joel is most likely written near the end of the prophetic period: after the people have returned from exile, after they had experienced – some of them witnessed – the rampant destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple, after they had watched the great glory of God’s chosen people become a mockery to the dominant foreign powers.  They, too, were tired, exhausted, devastated.  What, again, were their leaders fighting for?  Just what did they win?  Those now-renowned prophets from years earlier, those who preached against the status quo and foretold the destruction which proved to be profound, even they seemed unnecessarily vitriolic.  True, their message was vindicated in history but that period, too, seemed forlorn and lamentable.

Worship and praise of God does not come, exclusively, from perfect lives of total blessing and abundant joy (there are no such lives out there, anyway, so stop looking).  Utterances of thanksgiving and prayers of praise come from perfectly ordinary women and men who lead challenging, normal, stressful, busy, uncertain, happy, resilient, and hopeful lives.  All of us experience ups and downs, and sometimes our ups are really up, for which we give extraordinary gratitude, and sometimes our downs are dreadful.  Sometimes we fight and fight hard, and come out bruised, all of us.  Sometimes we pit ideology over relationship, and partisanship over love.  And sometimes we are our own worst enemies, engaging, in years past, blood-stained wars and, recently, confilcts which aren’t as bloody but are no less destructive.

When that conflict is over, and when the battleground of life is fought, we are tired.  And we are directionless.  We’re not only tired of fighting, but tired of following fighters.  One dangerous turn, in this, would be towards utter hopelessness and resignation, verging on what Kierkegaard called “the greatest hazard of all – losing one’s self.”  And, Kierkegaard reminded, losing one’s self “can occur very quietly in the world, as if it were nothing at all.”  That’s the root of despair, and that’s even worse than depression, further removed than resignation, more acute than mere unhappiness.

The biblical witness is a straightforward response: your self is connected to a web of greater meaning and, indeed, ultimate transformation; you will not be lost in God.  Moreover, your life in God will not be a battlefield, a conflict, a series of competing ideologies.  It will be marked and cleared by love — radical, unconditional love.  And that’s why we give thanks, and that’s also why we give our whole selves, good and bad, beaten and bruised and glorious and ascendant.  The message of Thanksgiving Day is to give, then, the whole of your life to God.  And strive to make your life not perfect, nor conflict-free but, rather, perfectly simple, following those lasting words Paul wrote long ago to young Timothy: “a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity.”  In doing so, you will work out your salvation with fear and trembling, and the world will be redeemed through your witness.

………………..

3 October 1863

By the President of the United States of America.

A Proclamation.

The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God. In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union. Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle or the ship; the axe has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consiousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom. No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union.

In testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the Seal of the United States to be affixed.

Done at the City of Washington, this Third day of October, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and of the Independence of the Unites States the Eighty-eighth.

By the President: Abraham Lincoln

William H. Seward,
Secretary of State

Christmas … no, Advent

“Why can’t the church just get relevant and start having fun with Christmas? My answer is simple: look what they’ve done with Christmas … for Christ’s sake!”

It’s upon us already.  Christmas-y kitsch is here, and it’s only mid-November.  In fact, I heard that Nordstrom’s is not putting up any Christmas stuff until after Thanksgiving.  It’s astonishing that something which seemed fairly standard not long ago – waiting until after Thanksgiving to start Christmas – is now so counter-cultural it makes news.Meanwhile, we in the church are extremely counter-cultural.  While the world is going into Christmas crazy-ness, the church focuses on other themes, particularly about an apocalyptic end-time (Mk. 13:1-8).  This theme is only going to get more pronounced over these next six weeks.  During Advent – the four week season leading up to Christmas – we’ll actually talk more about the second coming than about the first one and the baby and the manger and that little town of Bethlehem.

 

Why can’t the church just get relevant and start having fun with Christmas?  My answer is simple:  look what they’ve done with Christmas … for Christ’s sake!  By the time we actually start talking about Christmas in the church, around the evening of December 24, many folks will be taking down their trees and removing their yard ‘art’ and making New Years’ resolutions about losing the 15 pounds they added during the holiday and saying to themselves, with great exhaustion, “Whew, I’m so glad this only happens once a year.”  Look what they’ve done with Christmas.  Is this the story you want told, an exhausting sprint through the world of marketing and media and mayhem?  Or do you want another story, and is your heart yearning, pleading for another story of a life well lived and the gift of God’s goodness?

 

Speaking of which, here’s another annual ‘Christmas’ tradition I haven’t yet experienced, but I’m sure I will.  Every year, someone or some headline or some email gets all hot and bothered because someone said to them “Happy holidays”, instead of “Merry Christmas.”  (God help the person who says “Happy Hannakuh” or “Happy Kwanzaa” or, for that matter, “Happy Festivus”!)  Or someone else is going to clip out an article about a local town, somewhere, which refuses to put up a crèche in the village center, or insists that a Star of David also needs to be there.  This ‘tradition’ happens every year, as well, and it’s almost as exhausting as the other one, to me at least.  Why is it the culture’s job to say Merry Christmas?  Why is it the job of the department store or TV station or local jurisdiction to preach Christmas?  And if this is what they’ve done to Christmas – turning it into a holiday completely devoid of what it’s about, for us, as Christians – do you really want them in charge in the first place?

 

It’s your job to say Merry Christmas, and live it, too.  It’s my job to say it and model it, as well.  It’s our job, as followers of the Way, to be Christmas people.  And if we want to show the world what this means we’ve got to prepare differently, and renew in ourselves a story that is, at its core, all about renewal.

 

In the Gospel of Mark’s thirteenth chapter – what scholars call Mark’s “little apocalypse” – Jesus predicts that the Jerusalem Temple will be toppled.  Later, standing atop the Mount of Olives – the very place where the prophet Zechariah predicted God will stand at the end of days – Jesus foretells of earthquakes and wars and all those nasty, bad, terrible, no good things we associate with the apocalypse.  This type of literature frightens us.  It’s scattered throughout the bible, through the prophets and Daniel and, certainly, Revelation, yet it causes in us feelings of discomfort and fear and un-ease.

 

The word, apocalypse, though, is a rather welcome term for early Christians, and it should be welcome for us, even today.  The Greek word simply means an uncovering, a revelation from God of what was previously hidden from our understanding or vision.  All the drama which surrounds apocalyptic literature – the earthquakes, pestilence, fire, warfare, seven-headed beasts, four horsemen – is simply there as code language.

 

And here’s the basic meaning of that code: When God comes, the world and everything in it is going to change.  Apocalyptic literature was welcome to early, persecuted Christians, then, for it was a message of redemption and release.  Similarly, I’d say, apocalyptic literature can be liberating for us, too, for it sets us free from the crazy-ness which this world has already embarked on, the ways they’ve taken a story of new life and turned it into a marketed, draining secular observance.

 

When God comes, everything’s going to change.  The world will be turned upside down, and this culture’s rampant pursuit of death – and, if anything, secular Christmas points profoundly to a culture fixated on killing itself – will be set against an offering of real life, the only kind of life that can truly be called life, namely, God’s.  Later in December you’ll hear Mary proclaim this very truth in her song, called the Magnificat: God has “looked with favor on his lowly servant; … he has scattered the proud in their conceit; … he has lifted up the lowly; … and the rich he has sent empty away.”  That theme resounds, as well, in the song Hannah sang upon hearing that she is pregnant with the one who will become her firstborn boy, the son whom she will name Samuel, the biblical character who will renew his people, not unlike Mary’s son centuries later.  Hannah, too, proclaims that when God comes, everything’s going to change:  “Talk no more so very proudly, let not arrogance come from your mouth; for the LORD is a God of knowledge, and by him actions are weighed. … He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor.” (1 Sam. 2:1-10)

 

It’s wonderful to have stories of pregnancy and birth in this season of preparation.  I suspect that God’s coming will not appear, to us, as earthquakes and wars and headline news.  On the contrary: I suspect God’s coming will be much more quiet, off to the side, unnoticed by many, much like a woman who is pregnant and is waiting the day of expectation, knowing that it’s coming and so she waits, patiently.  This world, itself, is pregnant with the possibility of new life, and yet that life is not found in the splashy celebrations or public observations or kitsch on the lawns or department store shuffle.  The life which is offered of God, the life which really is life, is born in unexpected places, in quieter moments, in the opening hearts and minds of ordinary women and men who decide to observe differently, to worship more fully, to spend less money, and give more of their life.

 

This, to me, sounds a lot like Christmas, which is not only a counter-cultural, upside-down kind of holiday but is also a subtle story, a baby born in a barn to two unwed parents, greeted by beasts of burden and dirty, uncultured shepherds.  God is turning this world over upon its head every day, but doing so by a quiet, interior revolution, it seems.

 

Join that revolution, then, and make these next several weeks a revolutionary series of observations, for yourself and for your community.  Turn away from that death-march the secular world calls ‘Christmas’ and find God’s pregnant possibilities within, where they’ve always been.  That’s a life worthy of being called life, one which will feed you and one whereby you can feed others, as well.

What is Church, anyway? White & Seabury

On 14 Nov. 1784, Samuel Seabury, an American, was consecrated as a bishop in Aberdeen, Scotland by three other bishops, making him the first American consecrated a (Anglican) bishop in the apostolic succession and historic episcopate and all that important stuff.  It’s a big day for the Episcopal Church, as it was back then, and we mark it on our church calendars and celebrate it, maybe some of us with specially-baked purple cakes.

All component pieces of American culture, obviously, had problems once the continental leadership declared revolution on the Mother Country.  For the American priests and lay persons who worshipped in what was once called the Church of England – or most likely what they called, simply, ‘the church’ – there was not only an identity crisis but a real debate about  the meaning and substance of church.  Not all Americans supported the idea of revolution; most ardent supporters of the Crown left for Canada or across the pond, and many who remained began to reconsider their understanding of human civilization and the call of Jesus, alongside those who spoke with more political impact of the concepts of liberty and justice for all.  But not all Americans were willing to re-consider the whole enterprise, nor were they willing to leave their home country and go elsewhere: Seabury, himself, served as a chaplain to British troops during the conflict, drew maps for His Majesty’s troops of the hill country of New York, and even collected a pension from Great Britain.

Yes, it was marvelous that Seabury was made a bishop and, yes, it’s an important mark of our episcopal heritage that we not only maintain the historic three orders of ministry (bishops, priests, deacons) but we do so according to apostolic tradition and freely take on the weight of catholic Christianity.  But I’m not so sure that bishops make a church.

In the 1780s, as the Episcopal Church was reorganizing itself and, in fact, determining that it would use the name ‘Episcopal’ (coupled with ‘Protestant’) – the former, a term favored by the party in seventeenth-century England which affirmed the role of bishops  – everyone thought that bishops were essential.  Those who didn’t were already something else, and by the end of that decade Wesley and Asbury and the Methodists had broken ties with their own mother church.

Everyone in the Episcopal Church was working to get American bishops consecrated. The only question, then, was what kind of ‘Anglican’ church would be imagined and planted on American soil:  one which featured old world organizational theory (bishops at the top, clergy deployed from them, and lay people as recipients, hardly participants), or a more representative church which featured republican ideals and was democratically organized – a church which dared to uphold catholic practice and act like Americans, with that messy concept of democracy and collective discernment through representative gatherings. The latter had never before been developed and Seabury opposed it and worked very hard against it.  Even though he and others from New England participated in early organizational conversations, they were inherently skeptical of the 1782 pamphlet produced by William White, a priest in Philadelphia, which seemed to argue, Seabury contended, for nothing more than congregational polity and gave too much power – most of which was reserved to bishops in the Church of England – to the laity.  Once consecrated, Seabury refused to participate in the General Conventions organized by White and others.  Further, he signed his early letters as ‘Bishop of All America’ and even reached into other dioceses’ territory and ordained priests from there.

The organization of the Episcopal Church around something like a representative form of governance has much more to do with William White than Samuel Seabury.  White pleaded with England for the consecration of bishops but – in the clear absence of a man in purple – he and others began to organize the church, anyway.  They imagined a General Convention (initially proposed in 1784 as a unicameral body of clergy and lay) and dioceses that would adhere to state boundaries.  They spoke openly of lay participation, and I think the Prayer Book’s 1979 addition of one more order of ministry – namely, the laity – is in perfect keeping with this early vision of an American Anglicanism.  White and others proposed one bishop for each diocese and dreamed of an Episcopal Church that would be interdependent – one diocese to another, as well as one new American church to its Mother Church in England.

WILLIAM WHITE

Seabury, meanwhile, organized a clergy-led, bishop-centered, non-representative governance in his diocese.  The bishop taught the clergy, the clergy taught the people, and the people did as they were told.  Obviously, I’m biased and I’m sure that shows, so I’ll note, at least, that Seabury was affirming an age-old tradition of episcopal leadership and church organization, albeit (for me) an age-old tradition that had no relevance in the new world, neither the 18th century version nor, let me add, this 21st century edition.

Things were getting heated, and the 1786 General Convention (which Seabury didn’t attend, anyway) passed resolutions denying the authority of Seabury’s consecration and, by implication, any clergy he ordained.  By the middle-half of the 1780’s there were three competing Anglicanisms: one, the churches led by Seabury in New England; another, Wesley’s Methodist Episcopalians (who went their own way when he appointed Francis Asbury and Thomas Coke as superintendents in 1784); a third, led by White (PA), Samuel Provoost (NY), James Madison (VA), and Thomas Claggett (MD) in the southern and central states.

Even though he had his own opinions about things it was, again, William White who paved the way for reunification and opened the compromise which led to the Episcopal Church we have today.  In 1789, White – who was, in 1787, consecrated in the English line – led that year’s General Convention to reach out to Seabury: they affirmed the validity of Seabury’s orders, created a bi-cameral General Convention with a separate House of Bishops, and amended the 1786 Constitution to make lay Deputy participation optional. These things met most of Seabury’s objections. The olive branch being offered, Seabury began to conference, then, with the other bishops and the division between the northern and southern versions of the Episcopal Church began to be healed. Before his death in 1796, Seabury participated in one consecration – Claggett’s (MD) in 1792, the first consecration of an American bishop on American soil.

I find myself hoping and praying, today, for someone like William White.  I do this for at least two reasons.  First, I’m drawn to those, like White, who are so comfortable with their traditions and heritage that they see no conflict, no irony in exploring new ways to be who they know themselves to be, already, in Christ.  That’s courageous, to me, and I think the world is desperate to hear not pre-canned voices and opinions but people who love Jesus and follow him through the ministry of His Body, the church, of their own free volition and at the same time are entreprenuerial, adventurous, open to new possibilities, and talk openly of being disciples in new and, perhaps, different ways.

And, second, I’m drawn to William White because he also set aside his own thinking and brought in Seabury, intentionally reaching out to a man who, according to many of White’s own friends and colleagues, was making too much noise, acting like a jerk, and was as arrogant as the day is long.  White reached out to Seabury and encouraged others to do so, as well, and they even modified and amended their own belief system, established earlier, so as to make room for the one who was previously a contender, now a partner and brother in Christ.  We have competing Anglicanisms today – just look at what’s going on in the Diocese of South Carolina – and yet I cannot, at the end of the day, establish with certainty that one is necessarily better or more righteous than another.

No, I said that wrong: For those Anglicanisms who express themselves in generous conversations, commitment to a common life, mutual support of the whole through prayer and giving, and are unafraid to affirm their views, even if they may differ from the more vocal majority, I see no reason to part ways, and only great sadness if this should end up in divorce.  But for those who say it’s ‘my way or the highway’ or those who think of democracy and shared discernment as weak or ineffectual, and those who think a church needs to have baseline agreement on issues of discipline and order, I am sad to say this but there isn’t communion there, already, and it would only make sense for us to go our separate way.

Because at the end of the day I am proud to serve in a church that is not perfect – by no means – but one whose imperfections I can clearly love, and seek to live with.  For the imperfections of the Episcopal Church are also our greatest blessing – a commitment to apostolic truth and order; catholic worship and substance; one another and those net yet amongst us; justice and the dignity of all persons; and the ways in which we work this out, in fear and trembling, by being the church, together.  Bishops, then, were never the core of the issue, not historically, not today.  Bishops convene and call forth and lead, through relationships of love and support, this disparate and wildly divergent group of people who follow Jesus in the Episcopal Way – forward in the work of ministry, which requires the participation of all the orders of ministry: bishops, priests, deacons, and lay people.

Both Religious and Spiritual

I am a religious Christian.  It’s not so cool, today, to say you’re religious.  It’s much more trendy to call yourself ‘spiritual but not religious’.  But let me make a claim for religion, and I gather it’s not one you’ve often heard.

The root of the word, religion, has to do with binding.  People who are religious, by definition, participate in something that’s not necessarily theirs in a private and personal sense, and it’s hard to pinpoint just who came up with those symbols and those traditions – bread as body, wine as blood, water as new life?  Religion is limiting where spirituality is free.  For those very reasons, religion is  less appealing than spirituality.  And yet, for those same reasons, I am religious and encounter no contradiction between my religion and my spiritual outlook.

You see, the longer I live with Jesus – the longer I live into the Christian story and get shaped by these symbols and stories and words – the more aware I become that I am participating, through Christ, in a small slice of a great mystery: the mystery that I am a part of a creation, not a disordered jumble of stuff, and that this created order is being loved into a greater wholeness and transformation.  Christianity is the home through which I seek to understand and, even when I don’t fully understand, nonetheless follow the God who is at work transforming this new order.  Those who have been married for a long time know what this is like: the longer you’ve been married to your partner, the more at peace you are with all those other people you didn’t marry.  Or the longer you live in your vocation or career, the more at peace you become with all the things you didn’t – and will never – get around to doing.  The longer you live the life you are living, fully and proudly, the less you worry about what other things you should or could or needed to be doing, and the more at peace you are.  Religion binds us to a story and, ironically, at the same time keeps us open to the reality that our narrative is not necessarily the story; rather it’s one lens on the whole.

The more one reads the bible – a pretty religious thing, after all – the clearer this becomes.  The Old Testament book of Ruth is a good case-in-point.  Here’s the story: Naomi is a Jewish woman from the town of Bethlehem who, in a tragic sweeping accident, loses her husband and her two sons while the family is living in Moab.  She prepares to return home and  her two foreign daughters-in-law also prepare to go back with her.  Naomi tells them to turn back and stay with their people, instead, and one of them (Orpah) agrees but the other (Ruth) refuses.

Ruth and Naomi, then, go to Bethlehem, and the rest of the drama confirms why this story is so appealing – astonishing in that it not only features as main characters ancient Near Eastern women, but two very determined and plucky and savvy women, at that. Naomi plays the matchmaker between Ruth and a Jewish guy named Boaz, and Ruth does her part to secure her future, and that of Naomi’s family name.  The final, final result is that Naomi via Ruth via Boaz becomes the great-great-grandmother of David, and Ruth becomes, then, the foreigner great-grandmother of Israel’s most laudable kind.  A foreign, plucky, determined woman, the ancestor of Israel’s great Messianic figure.

If religion were pure and of small vision, stories such as Ruth’s would not have been included.  If this were about purity and small-mindedness no right thinking Jewish editor would have tolerated having a savvy foreign woman as the great-grandmother of their great King.  All religions struggle with inclusivity versus exclusion.  This struggle has always been, for religions are very much human-made systems of understanding, but human-made systems of trying to understand a great and profound mystery, let’s not forget.  And, in every religious tradition, there are those personalities and symbols which point beyond human conceptions and towards the expansiveness of God’s emergent, radically inclusive Kingdom.  The story of Ruth and the very fact that it’s a part of this so-called Holy Bible highlights, once again, that the God we follow is profoundly expansive.  If I want some small measure of peace in keeping up with that dynamic God, I’d better find a religious home, a place in which I can find comfort when challenged and challenge when comfortable.

Whereas the world sees religious folks as small-minded, judgmental, and myopic in their viewpoints and opinions, most religious folks I’ve met are quite broad-minded and expansive and at peace with the various stuff of life, its ups and downs, and the ways in which conventional human traditions might give way to new understandings, and how God might very well be in all of that.  Religious people or, I should say, religious people who are also spiritual are the folks who can straddle that line between utter mystery and simple comprehension, between the passing nature of our ideas and the eternal substance of God’s wisdom, between the gift of welcoming an outsider and the need to delineate group norms, between being transformed and being at peace.

And that, in itself, is probably the reason for which I am a religious Christian.  Religion helps give peace and the Christian religion gives me a profound peace, and it’s not the peace which the world gives; not at all.

It’s the peace Jesus modeled and taught.  Summarizing the commandments into two – love God and love your neighbor as yourself – Jesus actually pointed beyond the commandments, the words and pointed us to the heart of the life of faith: love.  In particular, He named three loves: love God, love your neighbor, love yourself.

If in pursuing peace you want to find it, if in seeking meaning you wish to uncover it, you would do well to re-invert those three loves and start to work at them as a spiritual practice.  First, start by loving yourself.  Look, this isn’t an invitation to vanity, but a call to truly know yourself as God’s beloved: know your goodness and your wickedness; know that you’re sometimes screwed up but altogether redeemable; know how deeply you’re loved, and know in your heart that God thinks of you as His beloved.  And that depth of knowledge — knowing something by heart — is what Jesus calls ‘love’.  Love yourself, that unique and marvelous person whom God has made.  Love yourself and you will be at peace as you love your neighbor and even, as Jesus also commanded, love your enemy and, ultimately, love God.  If, in turn, you cannot love yourself, you’ll never love your neighbor and, in fact, you’ll only blame your neighbor and scapegoat your god and find every fault possible with your enemy.  You’ll always be looking beyond and to others for their faults.  And life, then, will not be life-giving, not to you nor for others.  And you, then, will not ever find peace.

But be at peace with yourself, with your understanding of the world, as limited as it may be, and you will, in turn, know God.  And, even more so, you will find yourself at peace with God while God goes about doing what God does – loving those whom you and I might rather not like; redeeming those whom some of us might see as enemies; bringing into his Kingdom those whom we might rather exclude and keep out.  But if your religion is true and your spirit refreshed, that won’t mean a thing, for you will keep following the God who is changing you, at that very moment, from the inside out.

The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife

What’s now being called ‘The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife’ is a piece of papyrus with eight statements, written in Coptic and dated to sometime in the fourth century.  One of those sayings has gotten the most attention in recent days: “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife…”  The other lines are also intriguing.  One reads “…she will be able to be my disciple.”  Another refers to a Mary; unclear whether it’s Jesus’ mother or Mary Magdalene or another Mary.  Jesus does mention his mother in one phrase. And in another he seems to say something about cohabitation: “As for me, I dwell with her in order to…”  All in all, it’s an interesting find and it’s got people talking.

Here’s what it’s not: it’s not a definitive answer as to whether or not Jesus had a wife.  That will go unknown, now and always.  (As for me, if there were a Mrs. Jesus, it wouldn’t change the story.)  The interesting take-away from this papyrus, for me, is that it shines a light onto early Christianity, and says a lot about how they lived – and we still try to live – with different people, divergent opinions and theological diversity and, yet, at our best stay true the union of which Christ spoke.

The community from which this tiny shred of an ancient papyrus emerged had something to say about affirming the place and role of women in the church, at least this one Christian community.  Obviously, there was a relatively dominant strand in the early church, most likely a byproduct of its Graeco-Roman environment, that sublimated the place and role of women and exalted that of men’s leadership.  The household codes in several New Testament writings (Col. 3:18-4:1; Eph. 5:21-6:9; Titus 2:1-10; 1 Pet. 2:18-3:7) mimic similar codes that would be easily identifiable in the Roman Empire of the first century, placing women subservient to men – just as slaves are to masters, and children to fathers.  The New Testament codes, unlike those of secular Roman society, do not give men absolute power, however; but insist on some level of mutuality and responsibility.  We know that that dominant strand exercised, in time, almost unilateral prominence as Christianity turned from a movement to the Empire’s organized, institutionalized and, eventually, official religion.  One needs only to look at the norm of an all-male priesthood, for instance.

But that was not the only strand of Christian thought and practice, certainly not in Christianities earliest days.  One doesn’t need a newly uncovered papyrus to know that.  That alternative strand is in the pages of the New Testament.  Luke’s Acts of the Apostles, for one, is filled with women who are named and lifted up as leaders in the early church – Lydia, a wealthy patron of early Christians, is named (and her husband isn’t!) in Acts 16:14-15; a woman named Priscilla and her husband, Aquilla, were leaders in the early movement and have been traditionally listed among the 70 Disciples (Acts 18:26).  In John’s gospel, for instance, the first person Jesus tells of his Messiahship is a Samaritan woman (Jn. 4).  And even Paul, whom many think of as the ultimate mysoginistic, patriarchal pig, turns out to be quite egalitarian: affirming that “…there is neither male nor female” (Gal. 3:28); addressing Phoebe as a deacon (Rom. 16:1); writing glowingly to Timothy about his grandmother’s (Lois) and mother’s (Eunice) faith, notably saying nothing about Timothy’s grandfather or father (2 Tim. 1:5).  The New Testament is fascinating, to me, because it seems to preserve arguments, encapsulate disagreements, and lift up a varied story of the earliest followers of Jesus.  In spite of the attempts of some Christian communities to normalize and regularize this new faith, there was, looking at the whole, a divergent and diverse collection of Jesus-followers, many of whom, if they were ever together, would disagree passionately about a lot of things, including the role of women.  To me, this newly uncovered Egyptian papyrus suggests that that conversation or, rather, argument continued.  Even centuries after the dominant, male-leadership strand of Christianity became relatively normative, there were still followers of Jesus who said, “We disagree…”  And this papyrus, if it’s authentic, is a wonderful witness to that diversity.

We make a mistake when we talk about “the early Christian church” or “early Christianity”, as if it was a singular, monolithic entitity.  We’d be better to talk about the early Christian churches, or early Christianities.  Likewise, we make a mistake when we back up our arguments by claiming, “The Bible says…”  The Bible says a lot of different things, and that doesn’t make it less holy or less credible.  In fact, it makes it more credible and, indeed, more holy because I can see through its human words and broken understandings and philosophical attempts at comprehension (“…through a mirror dimly,” as Paul said) and see the hand of God, gently and profoundly keeping our focus on the main thing and away from the nagging, divisive details.  Christianity, then and now, is a very big tent, for we’ve never done a great job at getting everybody on board doctrinally.

Turns out Jesus had something to do with this.  Mark’s gospel preserves an interesting snippet in which John approaches Jesus and proudly affirms that they stopped a local healer from using Jesus’ name since “he was not following us.” (Mk. 9:38)  Interesting that even in Jesus’ day his very disciples were drawing lines and making determinations about out who was ‘in’ and who was ‘out’, and whether the name of the Galilean wonder-worker was copyright-protected!  Jesus’ response, in fact, is what led the early churches – and us – to this wild-eyed diversity.  Not only does Jesus tell John to back off, but he goes on to say that that “whoever is not against us is for us.”  Organizational theory experts and business consultants would say that that’s a downright terrible organizing principle – assuming, of course, that one’s goal is to make determinations about membership and privilege; assuming, of course, human standards.  But Jesus does not assume these things, and Jesus does not create borders and rules.  In fact, Jesus reserves his real judgment for those who do put up rules and restrictions and human interpretations.  According to Jesus, if my interpretation gets in the way of someone’s faith development, it’d be better if a great millstone was hung around my neck and I was tossed into the sea.  Yikes!

Jesus was not instituting a new religion.  Jesus was not a bishop who sought to organize the people around core beliefs and a Creed.  Jesus was not a systematic theologian who took biblical themes and developed doctrine and dogma.  Jesus was not a catechist who explained mortal and venial sins, and gave you a list of what you could or couldn’t do.   No, Jesus came to renew God’s Body in the world, to renew God’s kingdom within the ordinary, everyday hearts of women and men who had, over time, forgotten that they are special and created in God’s image, and that that is an indelible mark.  Emmanuel, God-with-us, became one of us to show us how to live and love and forgive and share, in the hopes that once we learned to do this we, too, would become one with Him, united in those things that matter.

And this is a message that matters, as much today as it did in the earliest years of the Jesus Movement.  What unites us, one to another, is certainly more profound and more lasting than what divides us, but you’ve probably heard that before.  You’ve probably heard it, and suspected that someone had a philosophy or governing principle or organizational theory that they were going to sell you – once they had convinced you of the shallowness of your particularities, once they had convinced you that you really wanted unity … their unity.

But what they didn’t convince you of was the depth of your particularities – the ways in which you and I, as wonderfully constituted human creatures with ego and pride and vainglory, hold on deeply to our standing and beliefs and man-made ways.  This is what’s called in the church ‘sin’, and it doesn’t go away by a simple sell or desire to wish it to disappear.  The divisions we erect are precisely that – our divisons, our made-up stuff – but they are not easily taken apart, not easily removed, not easily broken down and set free.  Sin is real and it is really within us, convincing us, day after day, that we are the lords of this world – that our politics is right (and others is wrong and, not only that, but evil); that our economic policy is the best; that our government is the only true one; that our demands are, of necessity, to be met; that our thoughts are brilliant; that our opinions are, by definition, wisdom; that what doesn’t satisfy me is bad, that what does is good, to be sought after and cherished.

This is not the way of God, obviously not the way God modeled when he became one of us and walked among us and lived and, yes, died as one of us, dying the horrible death of a common criminal, left hanging on a cross.  The way of God is to pour out himself, to pour forth in generous abundance for the salvation and redemption of the world.  This is not an easy way – note the cross – nor is this a self-learned way, nor is this inherent to us, we who are indeed pretty darn fallen.  Look at the myriad Christian groups, today, all the various denominations and groups, some of whom claim that they, still, are the one, true church and none others are like unto them – and they, alone, are like unto the Kingdom of God.  We are still as divided and fractured as the earliest followers of The Way, still as torn apart and diverse and divergent as they were thousands or years ago.

And isn’t that, then, a wonderful thing?  Look past the ideologues and the sinfulness and pride, of course, and look at the whole picture.  Look at the ways in which God is glorified in the fullness and completeness of human experience – liturgical churches, here, and praise and worship, there, and charismatic snake-handlers there, and bible-based preaching, there.  Store-front churches and grand cathedrals, hospital bedsides and underground bible studies in lands where Christians are persecuted, still.  People who may disagree about particular theologies or doctrines but who are, all together, members of Christ’s Body, serving the Risen One and seeking to give God glory, first and foremost.  No, we are not perfect, nor will we ever find the one, perfect church.  And in spite of ourselves and zeal for perfection, God is glorified, for whomever is not against us is, we remember, for us.  And that’s as true today as it was when a fourth-century scribe scribbled some strange notes about women and Jesus and begged to disagree boldly in faith.

Deepen your Life – the Gifts of Christian Community

Almost one hundred years ago, an Episcopal bishop in Wisconsin noted his “strong antagonism to proselytism.”  “Men want to get others to join their side, their party, their church,” he wrote in 1914, “by way of triumph over some other party. They want their side to win, their sect to grow.”  Reading those words while the major American political parties geared up for their quadrennial convention pep-rallies was a fortuitous thing.  Seems to me that the heightened vitriol of yesterday’s religious arguments has simply been relocated to today’s political arena.  “This spirit leads to jealousies and rivalries,” the bishop maintained long ago, adding “it undermines the spiritual life.”

Bishop Charles Chapman Grafton (1830 – 1912), Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Fond du Lac

One of the gifts of a faith-based community is that we have learned, given our unfortunate history of fighting, to go beyond divisive, partisan warfare.  People of faith know that that’s a loser’s game.We are interested in building a community of people who are joined in the deep and meaningful questions of life.  The Christian New Testament calls this the Body of Christ, and the earliest Christians saw themselves as precisely that, Christ’s Body in the world, gathering in His Name to support one another and heal humankind through prayer, unconditional love, hospitality and service.  Today, most faith-based communities are more interested in improving the quality of your life and your family’s life than fighting doctrinal battles.

Make your life deeper, more bountiful, more marked by love, once again, as we set off into autumn.  Find a faith-based community and go there, not to be seen but to be enriched.  Consider that bishop’s other remarks, eerily relevant in 2012 as they were when written: “No wonder the air is laden with murmurings and complaints of the disappointed, when so many never seriously face the problems, what are we, why are we here, what will our future be, in what does our real happiness consist, and what will bring man peace at the last?”

I would dare say that the entire faith-based community of St. Mary’s County is praying, looking, and hoping for you.

____________________

A Letter to the Editors of St. Mary’s County, Maryland newspapers, The County Times (published Th. Sept. 6, 2012, p. 16) and The Enterprise (published Wed. Sept. 19, 2012, p. A-8)

Believing Things, Publicly

I’m tired of political partisanship and really sick and tired of the way the nasty game called politics has taken over our discourse today.  Military deployed and foreign service workers are facing real-life terror and we talk, at home, about how those situations will impact the presidential election!  Worse still, it’s infecting our communities.  If it’s buzzing in St. Mary’s County (population: 100,000+), it’s making it to the grassroots.  And, these days, the roots are pretty toxic.  That’s why I’m putting together an autumn adult formation series having to do with faith and public life.  I’m still lining up the details and inviting local elected officials and I don’t yet have a compelling title, but that’s not the most pressing thing.  It’s the focus that matters.

Some Vestry leaders helped me think about this the other day.  Initial reactions ranged from fear (“You’re going to invite them?”) to doubt (“You’re going to ask an elected official to not talk about himself?”) to half-hearted blessing (“Good luck!”)  Over the course of our conversation, however, they helped reaffirm my motivation.  For Christians, it’s not about the what.  It’s about the why.

Plain and simple: it’s not about the election.  It’s about the outcome.  Whether we come out of this election with any chance at healing depends on the depth of conversation we have now — whether we learn to give thanks to God for the blessings of this nation and, yes, the unique blessings of a cacophonous democracy; whether we also learn to love those who think differently than we do.  The church, the Body of Christ, has a very profound stake in that.  In fact, the faith-based community might be the only community today who has any stake in moving people beyond partisanship to places of genuine healing.

Each session will be a conversation with a local public figure — an elected official or, in some cases, persons seeking election.  We’ll form community in ways only the Body of Christ can: mingle together, pray together, speak and listen openly, and ask God’s blessing on our nation and one another.  The series will conclude with an Election Day Thanksgiving Service, held on the evening of Tuesday, Nov. 6 in which we gather for worship and song and praise.  We’ll thank God for this country, thank God for the blessings of democracy, thank God for those persons who will be elected by the people, and thank God for those persons who stood faithfully for election and did not receive the majority.

In so doing, what if we noticed that public policy is actually a worthwhile discourse, but politics helps no one?  What if people of faith entered the fray, not to win one side of an argument, but to “chill out” and sanctify the conversation by our presence and prayerfulness, to proclaim our faith in God’s Kingdom, and to affirm that there are lots of folks, like us, who care more about the healing of our communities and the common good than about winning points or polls?

A Vestry member said that it’s impossible to separate a politician from their politics.  What if people said that about Christians?  What if we wore our faith so transparently that every breath we make and every action we take bespeaks Jesus, the Son of God, whom the powers of this world crucified but, in the majesty of God, rose from the dead and redeemed the world?

I get the internal resistance.  Personally, I don’t like being lumped in with “conversative” or “liberal” categories — no thanks to some of the loudest Christian voices who so quickly line up with divisive, secular causes.  I get it.  So where’s the Christian voice who humbly asserts faith in another Kingdom, God’s Kingdom, and focuses on healing the common good, not winners and losers in electoral politics?

In Christ, we transcend political categories.  What if we, disciples of Christ, came to believe that God cares so much about the common good and health of our local communities that whenever our elected officials gather to debate a matter of policy they ask themselves, “I wonder what the Christians would say, whether we’ve listened to the people and are offering a message that will heal, not divide?”

At the end of the conversation with St. George’s Vestry, their initially half-hearted blessing turned into a full-on endorsement.  “Do it, Greg,” they said.  Honestly, their doubts may have remained.  To be even more honest, some of mine do, too.  I don’t know if we can heal these pointed divisions and I don’t know if we’ll be able to sanctify the conversation in the eyes of God.  But I know someone should, and I believe our faith gives us the tools to do it, and I pray that we have God’s grace to do it well.

Streams to Refresh and Gladden

Born in 1775 and consecrated Assistant Bishop of New York at the age of 36, John Henry Hobart’s life and ministry offers something of a model for our time.  Without him, who knows what would have happened to the church he served.  What did happen, we know, is quite a remarkable thing.  Or is it all that remarkable?

Most reports about Hobart focus on the High Church faction of the Episcopal Church, of which he was a strident spokesperson and advocate; most notably, his conviction in the importance of the apostolic succession and historic episcopate – set against the individualized, evangelical tendency he saw in his own church and fellow countrymen.  A man of integrity, charisma and consummate drive, Hobart is also remembered for the things he did – create The General Theological Seminary, revive Geneva, now, Hobart College, build up the clergy in his diocese, plant churches, and write hundreds of meaningful devotional manuals.  He was all those things, apparently, and he did all those things, and he happened to be a leader in the Episcopal Church.  But his vision goes far beyond the Episcopal Church, far beyond the nineteenth century, far beyond his time, and offers models for our own.

The world into which he was born was a world of dramatic, profound and, for some, sudden change.  Only one year after Hobart’s birth, the American colonies declared their independence from the mother country, leaving what was the Church of England on American soil  in a serious quandary and search for a reason to exist.  Some sided with England, and fled.  Others argued for revising their way of being church while staying true to their tradition.  We know what happened in the Revolution and we know what happened to that church, now called the Episcopal Church.  We know how this new nation established a Constitution and this new church established an American Book of Common Prayer, and we know that these new entities found their way forward, step by step, in the later decades of the eighteenth century.

But what we forget is the steady, dark cloud of fear and anxiety that surrounds any change, no less significant political and cultural change.  We forget the way, I’m sure, many remembered the good ole’ days, even though those days weren’t so good and weren’t coming back.  We seem to have forgotten that change doesn’t happen overnight, and history isn’t always linear, and even when people are on board with the idea of revision they don’t always act nicely.  We fail to remember that having your world changed right under your feet leads inevitably to anxiety and fear; most people either shut down or act out.  And even with great visionaries in the decades immediately following the American Revolution – leaders in the Episcopal Church such as Samuel Seabury and William White – ordinary folks and everyday congregations were left in stasis, extended paralysis.

Enter John Henry Hobart.  I’m sure he heard from countless members of his grandparents’ and parents’ generations all about the good ole’ days, but he never experienced that culture and he knew it wasn’t returning.  He also knew that the changed political and cultural landscape (even though he disagreed with some of it) meant that his church, which was the very definition of the establishment, was going to die unless it stopped doing two things and started doing two others.  First, stop denying the change and, two, stop looking at other churches (the rapidly growing firebrand Methodists, for instance, or the more culturally nimble Congregationalists) as if they had a better answer.  And they needed to start, for one, accepting the change (something his mentor William White established) and, for another, mining their own ‘Anglican’ tradition for ways to be true to their story and authentic in their environment.  What historian Robert Bruce Mullin has coined as the “Hobartian Synthesis” is precisely this – a compelling vision that isn’t just about getting over denial and beginning to accept but, rather, a new way forward that is, at once, entirely rooted in their story, the story of God in Christ acting through their tradition.

That’s our moment today, I believe.  I believe it because I’m living it, and I feel it profoundly most days of my own ministry.  I was born in 1975 – long  after the glory days of the post-war years, long after the Baby Boom ended, long after the mainline Protestant establishment realized it was on the decline, long after social and cultural and political shifts had fundamentally changed our country and world.  I never knew a world in which every mother stayed home all day, although I’m grateful my own mother did.  I never knew a world in which neighborhoods were all one color or race or ethnicity.  I never knew a world in which prayer was legitimate in public schools, nor did I know a world in which Sundays were set aside, solely, for Christians to go to church.   I never knew that world, and yet I was personally drawn to church – my neighborhood’s classic Old First Church.  Unfortunately, that church was in deep paralysis during my childhood years.  They fretted about the changing neighborhood, about white families moving out to the suburbs and “other families” moving in.  They remembered with fondness their church bowling league, and twittled their thumbs about numbers and a huge physical plant.  They told their story as one of bewilderment and loss, and I was growing up there, growing up in a church that was dying, and knew it.

What I learned in those years has become, in these, a priceless gift.  I learned to love Jesus, not the church.  I learned to become rooted in God, not this ever-shifting world.  I learned that a culture which supports church-going isn’t necessarily a culture that is Christian, faithful in the ways Jesus preached.  Since my church also felt like it didn’t have what other, more ‘hip’ Christian groups had, I was dragged to more 80’s Christian rock concerts and evangelical “Jesus-be-my-boyfriend” rallies than I care to recount.  And I wasn’t fed by emotional, charismatic Christianity; it seemed as shifty and unstable as anything else.  So I also learned that the subtlety and majesty and accessibility of what has become known as mainline Christianity is a wonderful thing, for it lets people go in and go out, it creates space for diversity (at its best), it’s built to change (at its best), it doesn’t force God upon anyone, and it’s solid, staid, beautiful.  I also learned that most people who have remained in mainline congregations have a lot of depth to their life and faith.  Even though they were never trained to be evangelical, they’re unashamed of talking about struggles and joys, and they’re not afraid to mention God or Jesus.

I learned that we have a rich tradition, and we don’t need a complete overhaul – we only need a new spirit.  I suppose, for starters, to believe that you also have to believe that God in Christ is acting in the world today, and that things of deep meaning are also things of constant revision and adaptation.  (Those are pretty big “starters”, and maybe you don’t agree.  You’d better stop reading, then.)  That’s what it means to be traditional.  From its Latin root, tradition implies handing down, passing on.  Things that are of the tradition are things that speak through the ages, and anything that’s powerful enough to be passed down from generation to generation is going to be expanded or, at least, have its original packaging altered.  We know, for instance, that “all men are created equal” in our political discourse has been expanded, revised, and changed.  I, for one, am not willing to go back to its original packaging just because it was, well, original.

So is John Henry Hobart’s work all that remarkable?  No.  Not at all, in fact.  And, moreover, it can be replicated by women and men today, in this time of significant cultural change.  Provided that there are people of faith who are unafraid of making a choice between being culturally acceptable or being faithful to Christ.  Provided that there are people who don’t care to “see and be seen” in a pew but, rather, be transformed by God.  Provided that there are people who know or want to know the power of the Holy Spirit, not the invitation of social convention.  Provided that there are people who will root themselves in Christ, and his story – which is a story about death, first, then resurrection.  Provided that we as the institution called “church” begin to deepen our conversation and formation, and seek to become what we receive — the Body of Christ in this world.  You bet we’ll grow, provided we make that one, simple turn.

____________________

* The title is taken from Bishop Hobart’s address at the the opening of The General Theological Seminary of the Episcopal Church in New York City, held on Monday evening, 11 March 1822: “The event that calls us together is a subject of real congratulation. An institution, organized by the Church in her highest legislative council with a unanimity and cordiality that could not have been anticipated, has commenced its operations in this city under auspices that promise not to disappoint the expectations of its founders and patrons. Here is the sacred school in which are to be trained the heralds of the cross, we hope, to the latest generations. Here is the fountain, drawing, we trust, its living waters from the throne of God, whence are to proceed those streams of divine truth and knowledge that are to refresh and gladden the Zion of the Lord, the city of our God.”