Forgiveness is probably one of the hardest things to do.
Jesus’ well-known parable of the Prodigal Son, I think, is about forgiveness and yet it’s not a neat and tidy story, mind you. For that matter, I’d say true forgiveness itself isn’t neat or tidy either.
Jesus tells this story in a string of parables. In Luke’s fifteenth chapter, there’s the story of the lost sheep, the lost coin and then this one about a lost son. A woman lost a coin, Jesus told the crowd of tax collectors and sinners, and she turned her whole house upside down until she found it. When she found it, she threw a great party. Or have you heard the one about the shepherd who had ninety-nine good sheep, but there was that one who ventured off by himself? The shepherd left the others and found the lost sheep and brought him home. And then this story about a son who broke his father’s heart but wound up penniless and broken. He dragged himself home but not as a son, only in the hopes he might get a job on his dad’s farm as a day laborer. With the same abandon as the woman who threw a party because she found her missing nickel, matching the joy of the shepherd who organized a block party to celebrate that an errant sheep was found, the father rushes out, embraces and kisses his beaten, broken younger son and plans an all-out banquet. This is a story of redemption, the best kind of forgiveness.
Why bother including the petulant, whiny, bitter, resentful – yet faithful, steadfast – older son? Doing so breaks the string of parables. It’s unlike the previous two. And if the parable of the Prodigal Son was only about a bad boy and his loving father it would’ve been good enough, it would’ve been a great story, in fact. Why ruin it, then, by including the older son?
Because if forgiveness is just about me and thee, it’s good but not enough. Not enough to be called fit for the Kingdom of God.
At this point in Jesus’ ministry, his fame had spread so far and wide he was being courted, it seems, by the powerful elite, the teachers and scribes. Days earlier, Luke tells us at the start of his fourteenth chapter, Jesus was invited to a Pharisee’s home for dinner on the Sabbath. If you were trying to show off your power or intelligence, your prestige or wit, Jesus would be the worst possible guest to invite to a dinner party. That night in the Pharisee’s home, Jesus told the esteemed guests they should sit at the lowest place, and that they’ve invited all the wrong people – rather, he said, they should’ve welcomed all those whom that group regularly excluded. Not only did Jesus make a mockery of the function, but he pierced that crowd to the one place where it struck the most: their pride. Jesus saw through all of that. And he called it out.
Jesus was such a bad dinner companion that he was not only removed, for ever, from the social roster of Galilean soirees, but they came to hate him. They wanted him gone. They wanted him silenced for all time. So much so that days later, by the beginning of Luke’s “lost parable” chapter, those whom he shamed are grumbling on the edges while Jesus’ time is now filled by throngs of those whom he said should’ve been invited to that swanky party.
When Jesus begins to describe, for them, what the Kingdom of God is like, he not only describes a God who searches for those whom the world would otherwise ignore but Jesus also includes them, those scribes and Pharisees who grumble at him and want him silenced and, more than that, want him dead. The story of the Kingdom of God is that they, too – yes, they who have not and likely will not forgive Jesus – they, too, are included; they, too, are a part of the story; they, too, are loved. That’s why the older brother is included. Because all are included.
Like it or not, all must be included. Forgiveness is about community, although it may not be a community in which each member recognizes him or herself as a constituent part. True forgiveness is more than simply me and thee. It involves self, God and, yes, other.
For ourselves, forgiveness is getting to a place where you know yourself to be loved, protected, whole and treasured. Forgiveness is a realization that the hurts and harms which have been inflicted on you do not define you. It is self-love.
Forgiveness also involves the other, like it or not. Forgiveness demands we walk that much longer road towards placing genuine hope in the bonds of common humanity which unite us with one other, even if the other has been mean or vindictive or cruel. It’s tapping into that deeper love which awakens your own spirit and, surely, must do the same for the other, even if you feel they’re going about it all wrong. Forgiveness is hoping, indeed loving the basic essence of the other.
It’d be good to admit that this is made more difficult because of the economic view of human interaction too many of us share, too fundamentally: if you love me I will love you; to the degree that you harbor hope for me, I will hope in you. There’s very good chance that our loving the other, especially the one who has walked away, will not change them. Perhaps the other may not love you, but love them, still. Perhaps the other may not rejoice in you. Rejoice in them, nevertheless. Scripture isn’t a psychology textbook, distinguishing between forgiving and forgetting. Like I said, forgiveness isn’t neat or tidy or easily summarized into quick slogans. This is where it gets hard.
I suspect that for this very reason, then, the parable of the Prodigal Son is left unfinished. The brothers never unite. In fact, the older son never calls his sibling “brother”. The slave calls him “brother” (“…your brother has come”, verse 27); the father, when speaking to the older, calls the younger one “brother” (“…your brother was dead and has come to life”, verse 32), but the older does not recognize the younger as a part of him. To him, there is no brotherhood. There is only brokenness, anger, divorce.
That’s how the story ends, not a summary but an offering – asking to be made complete in your hearing. To the degree that we, ourselves, try to live into God’s free offering of full and perfect love and, yes, try to love self, other and God we make good news out of the raw material of our lives.
That’s why there is always that third component of forgiveness, the love of God, by which I mean two things: first, our love for God and, second, God’s love for us – inviting God’s love into our admittedly feeble attempts to be nice and get along. Like the brothers in this famous story, we, too, on this side of heaven, are not reconciled with everyone with whom we should be. Ours, too, is an incomplete story. The love of God is that which brings the possibility of completion. While we are still far off from one another, on roads set apart by resentment, bitterness and mistrust, our Father God walks alongside all of us, in a sense holding all in a profound yet subtle embrace, holding us until we find our way back home, until we find our way back together.
In the Nicene Creed, if you’ve noticed, we don’t confess that we believe forgiveness, as if it’s a neat and tidy and straightforward thing. No one believes forgiveness. Everyone has a story of brokenness in which they truly cannot heal, not yet at least, an experience they fear they may never forget.
What the Creed asks us to confess is that we believe in forgiveness. Believing in something is more like hope, more akin to trusting in the possibility of something, even something far off and remote and seemingly impossible. So we believe in it, we hope in it, we strive for it, as hard as it may be, saying boldly with the universal church “we believe in one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.”
Anyone who’s ever served on a church search committee knows what I’m talking about. There’s such a gulf between our hopes, our expectations and the real qualities of real people who put their names forward. As Americans, we deal with the swell of expectation and inevitable dissapointment regularly — every four years, in fact. But we know in another four years we get to make a choice again. Churches are harder places for leadership shifts. In the church, we know we’ll be living with the consequence of our choice and, to be honest, living with what we didn’t know or expect at the time for a long, long time.
We don’t like to feel powerless. That’s why search committees worry about things which are so far beyond anyone’s capacity or comprehension, unless they actually have a crystal ball. It’s impossible to know how in the particular person of the Rev’d Mrs. Right or the Rev’d Mr. Wonderful (or, in the conclave, Cardinal So-and-so) our future hopes, past experience, and projected expectations will merge and find meaning. And which I should quickly add “…find meaning, for me.”
That’s just it. We like to be in control. We are in control of a whole lot of things: what words we use, whether we tell our children we love them, what groceries we buy, whether we go the gym, how we spend our money, and who we associate with.
And yet we are decidedly not in control of a number of other things: why bad things happen or, for that matter, why good things happen, why other people act the way they do, whatever happens in the stock market, and why we are unable to resist impulse buys in a checkout line.
The question is how we deal. Some among us, the Type A’s, exert such profound control over the things they can manage they never have to deal with the things they can’t. Others write poetry or songs. Some drink, others buy things. Still others, most notably youngest children such as myself, don’t really give a hoot because we actually suspect someone else is in charge. And still others are brilliant conspiracy theorists, and here I’m thinking not only of Oliver Stone but the folks who produce FoxNews and MSNBC.
We want to be in control and yet we know we’re not. We want to manage the big things and, to add insult to injury, we’re afraid we don’t know who’s in the back office and, even if we knew, we still couldn’t trust them. We are walking, talking contradictions. Our Lutheran friends have a great phrase for this: paradox, defined by Merriam-Webster as “a statement that is seemingly contradictory or opposed to common sense and yet is perhaps true.” That concept doesn’t solve anything (not for the Type A’s, at least) but it makes the conflict feel a bit more palatably holy. To me, it’s always seemed the healthiest, least dysfunctional, most honest stance to do what 12-steppers call Step One: admit it. Admit your human-ness, your frailty, powerlessness, lack of imagination, inability to control the future, and general anxiety about what’s coming next.
There’s good news and bad news.
The good news is that most of those who work in the institutional church, by and large, get this. Over the past several decades, we’ve started becoming honest. We’ve started to be unafraid of claiming our numerical decline, brokenness and powerlessness and laying that mess before God. A seminary professor once pointed out the irony that most churches house AA groups but treat them like tenants or, in some cases, nuisances. Too many churches, he remarked, fail to connect the transformative potential of 12-step spirituality to their actual functioning. Too many fail to see AA as a mission partner, maybe mission builder, not just a renter. (To be honest, the second “A” does have something to do with this.) Fortunately, over time, the institutional Christian church has become increasingly comfortable with admitting our powerlessness. Maybe being honest about, say, numerical decline is the first step towards actually seeking wisdom from a Higher Power.
Bad news: this still comes as a shock to lots of people. It vexes search committees and stymies personnel decisions in too many churches. Too often, we call institutional managers instead of pastors or, at least, expect those we call to be patient managers even though we might actually need what William Willimon called in a recent Christian Century article “impatient instigators”. The 2005 papal transition highlighted this gulf, as well. When the veritable definition of “institutional-manager”, Cardinal Ratzinger, became Benedict XVI, taking over after John Paul II, he not only followed a genuinely gregarious leader but — and this is no small point — took the reigns after his predecessor’s 27-year reign, over which time most of the world either became so comfortable with the ways J.P.2 filled the red shoes or, rather, never knew another Supreme Pontiff.
That’s why Benedict is, today, Benedicto!, a true blessing not only to the church but to the world. He’s handing off leadership in a public way without the, um, advantage of dying in office — a quick trip to sainthood for anyone in the church. It is a blessing — benedicto! — to finally be honest, and not only that but publicly so.
So let’s keep the spirit alive. Here’s the honest truth made public, church: most of those whom you call to lead these institutions have, through a long process of discernment, had to undergo fairly intense spiritual, emotional, psychological and, add to that, physical inspection and introspection, and we’re really serious about working on the inner life. We think there’s real value to doing that, and we also think it’s a blessing that people aren’t joining churches to get a job connection or “see and be seen”. Rather, we actually expect people who come to church to also want or at least want to want some intense spiritual and emotional introspection and hear a message about changing the way we live our lives.
Now that we’re being honest, we also want to admit we’ve been afraid of a lot of you who want us to act as managers and fit your prototypes and expectations. We’re afraid of rocking the boat too much because (a) we don’t want to come across as meanies — though we have spiritual directors who help us deal with that — and (b) we’re all too painfully aware that no small number of folks think of church as nothing more than a voluntary organization, no different than the Elks Lodge, so if things change too much too quickly a number of you might just revoke your pledge. We’ve been unsteadily trying to re-frame the conversation and talk more about God’s mission. We’ve been afraid and sheepish.
We haven’t been as clear as we need to be, but I think it’s time. I sense that it’s time.
In my experience, I’m touched by the ways in which the yearning for honesty spills across generational lines. I’ve been pleased that most people genuinely come to church for spiritual, life-changing reasons. I also think we’ve sold ourselves short. For me, it’s been argued too often that Baby Boomers have an inability to talk about the stuff of real life — stuff which may involve brokenness or powerlessness — because they remember with fondness the stable institutions of their youth, and they’re trying to recreate their childhood. That’s just not true. Most members of the Baby Boom generation I know have watched their children and, now, grandchildren grow up in an changed world and they’ve come to terms with uncertainty, disorder, and suffering. It’s also the case that the Boomers who wish for the 1950s all over again have already left churches because they sense we’re serious about steering into the wind, and those who’ve remained in our congregations are already doing that profound inner work. It’s also been said too much that young people, today, don’t have a moral bone in their body or they’ve just put their faith in Apple products — not Jesus like previous generations did. Youth and young adults have quite penetrating faith in God, and they also have a great ability to see what’s really there. Many young adults are looking for congregations to take that Lord who turned over tables in the Temple quite seriously, and act in their lives and in our society as a voice of change — a voice which gets its power because it comes from the margins, not the center. They just don’t find as much meaning in potlucks and old-fashioned dinners as did previous generations. This gulf is being bridged day after day in most parish churches across our nation. It’s refreshing to see someone in her 80s sit down over coffee with someone in his 20s and talk openly, truthfully, and meaningfully about life’s ups and downs, a conversation in which neither party is offering advice or trying to fix anything, both there as companions on the way.
This is good news, church. And it’s time to be honest, publicly honest, and celebrate the work we’ve been doing and which previous leaders have envisioned. It’s time to be a lot more bold about it, in fact, for if the Christian church can’t be the place in society in which people come from all walks of life and form community grounded in honesty and truth-telling, who will be?
Benedicto!, Benedict XVI or Pope Emeritus or Cardinal Ratzinger or whatever we’re supposed to call you these days. Maybe, in the spirit of all this refreshing honesty, we’ll just get back to basics, and remember the only name God knows you by – Joseph. Well done.
In the annals of the church of my youth there was a great pastor who served for nearly three decades. He was renowned in the community and his sermons, legend has it, filled the pews, so much so they needed to build a larger church. The new edifice went up next to the existing building. It was a grand space, a long nave with a skinny chancel and grand pulpit. With regard to the particular functioning of this pastor, the new building featured two notable elements – the first, an expansive pastor’s study replete with fireplace, leaded-glass windows and balcony, located high up in the tower and only accessible via a steep staircase, so high that, obviously, accessibility and pastoral calls were not highly regarded. The second was an idyllic courtyard carved out of the space between the two buildings and which the congregation came to call ‘the garth’, itself a lovely, archaic phrase. This pastor, Dr. McGee was his name, wrote poems, too. The only poem I can recall was about the Garth Garden, how much he loved the simple, solemn quietude of a space set apart which featured, in his time, a bubbling fountain in its midst.
To me, nowadays, his sermons aren’t particularly compelling — they express the best of 1920s liberal Protestantism with snippets of bible verses thrown in. His poems, even the one about the garth, weren’t altogether timeless either. But that didn’t matter, not at the time nor in the decades which followed. It wasn’t what he wrote or said. It was the feeling and, in particular, the associations folks added to those feelings which mattered, and which have made Dr. McGee’s words into phrases which seem to reside, for some among the congregation, among the classics.
Distortions can all too easily morph into delusions which, over time, become distractions. I don’t know when I first came across George Herbert, the seventeenth-century English priest and poet who truly belongs among the classics, but when I did I stayed or tried to stay, to breathe his air, to remain. There’s something that seems pure in The Country Parson, Herbert’s description of the life and character of a country priest, living out one’s vocation in a little village, taking pride in the routine acts of daily prayer, serving the common person, taking rest as the fire crackles in the vicarage hearth at the close of day. A poet as well, Herbert is responsible for a collection of penetrating verse, The Temple.
Beware the delusion, however. We draw too closely a connection between a quiet, country life and the ability to think deep thoughts, to write lasting words. We, the reader, make the link between Herbert’s verse and text back to Herbert’s life. This is as true for lovers of George Herbert or those fond of Dr. McGee as it is for the wider television audience of Downton Abbey or those who remember the Vicar of Dibley or wish for the simpler antics of Fr. Tim in the Mitford series. Of course, anyone who’s actually read Herbert’s Country Parson is aware that I’ve painted pictures of a simple, bucolic life which is, frankly, nowhere found in his actual text, a piece of writing, it should be added, which is something of a laborious list of duties and pietistic expectations. I’m sure life in Downton Castle, itself, wouldn’t have been as romantic as we’d like to think in our daydreaming.
Maybe it’s limited to Anglo-philes, not to mention the entirely strange caste called Episcopal clergy, but George Herbert has long exerted a real influence. In the summer of 2004, I closed the chapter on a life in Chicago, a life I had come to treasure and enjoy, taking pleasure in that great city’s many cosmopolitan offerings. Off I went to the Virginia Theological Seminary to do my one-year Anglican ‘dip’, as it’s been called. A part of me (or was it my bishop?) told me that I was coming back to Chicago at the end of that year. I could have a wonderful, formative time but I wasn’t there to plant roots. When the time came, early on, to choose which parish I’d work at as seminarian for the year, I resisted the advice of most folks who told me to go across the river to Washington, DC, find an urban congregation and connect there. That’s what I’ll be doing when I go back to Chicago, they reasoned. That’s what I’ll be doing when I go back to Chicago, I heard, so maybe there’s something else.
I had spent a week before the beginning of the academic year with my aunt and uncle in St. Mary’s County, Maryland, the birthplace of the colony, locals are quick to say, but which is known by anyone who knows of St. Mary’s as the southernmost tip of the rural portion of the state known as southern Maryland. For that week under the hot August sun, I helped my uncle harvest grapes in his vineyard and, as the day closed, we sat under a great shade tree and drank wine and ate figs, hardly a noise to be heard except the crickets, no such thing as a traffic light, only the lush colors of a sunset and the brilliant nighttime stars and moonlight. On Sunday, I ventured with them to the Episcopal chapel which has been their worshiping community as long as they lived there and which, together with its parish church up the road, has served that community for centuries, pretty much ever since Europeans stepped onto the shores of this part of the continent, back in 1634.
“That’s where I’d like to spend this year,” I told the seminary’s director of field education. He thought I was crazy, wanting to drive more than seventy miles one way to my field education site, but he let me do it nevertheless. And thus began a year of leaving the busy-ness of northern Virginia and the insularity of a seminary community and hopping in my car on Saturday mornings to drive down and spend a weekend in the country. It was election season, as I remember, and the Kerry/Edwards signs which populated northern Virginia turned, in time, to a greater preponderance of Bush/Cheney signs once you got past the Washington, DC metro area. What I found in St. Mary’s Chapel and Trinity Episcopal Church, St. Mary’s City, however, was in fact a wonderful cobbling together of diverse people – watermen and farmers worshiping next to professors and defense contractors, those who came here recently kneeling at the same altar rail as those who can trace their family’s lineage back to the original settlers, just as countless generations of people had done in a colonial parish which feels, to us Americans, almost ancient.
True to his word, the parish priest who was, for that year, my mentor (and is now my friend), let me do almost anything and everything I could think of, which is when I also learned the truth underneath George Herbert’s Country Parson – that in a country parish you do have the opportunity and, indeed, challenge of being involved in just about everything: you’re not only the chaplain and liturgical functionary who works in the church; you wear a lot of other hats. You’re the closest thing many families have to a commonly-agreed-upon counselor in times of dispute or need; you’re a fixture at family parties and reunions; you are known throughout the community, even when you don’t wear your collar; you have a public role and, in time, you’ll bless everything from pets to yachts to vineyards to fire trucks. You are a public person which is the very origin of the term parson. For me, it was a year rich in learning and formation, a profound and eye-opening year.
At the end of that academic year, not even nine months after I first stumbled upon St. Mary’s County, I packed my bags once again and headed back to Chicago. I’d been called to serve as curate at a large urban parish, a call I was not only looking forward to but, quite honestly, a type of vocation – curate, then rector of a city parish, then who knows what – I thought I was going to be engaged in for the rest of my life.
Looking backward on my life I may have a different perspective but back then, while a curate, I was enjoying a great mentoring program but I was, as I probably told people at the time, bored. My duties were primarily functional and limited (I was only a curate, after all) and, as is often the case, I was doted upon by some within the congregation and held up as one who could do no wrong (I wasn’t the rector, after all). I wanted more and, yet, I also wanted less. I felt disconnected from the ground of that place’s being, divorced from the ground of my own priestly being, too, so haughty did I become when first ordained. In the back of my mind, I kept returning to George Herbert or, in truth, what I thought was the call of a simple, peaceful, holy, country life. Thus it was that the celebration of my time as curate was also my sending forth to a little country parish, nestled within the hills and valleys of St. Mary’s County, Maryland.
The layers of associations we’ve lumped onto figures such as George Herbert are a palpable force and, on some level, a siren song. This needs to be admitted. This needs to be dealt with, along with some intense denominational therapy, I’d say. In his compelling 2009 book, If You Meet George Herbert on the Road, Kill Him, Justin Lewis-Anthony makes the point that we’ve vaulted an image, no less a graven image of George Herbert, not the real deal. “Herbert has been, and continues to be, used as an exemplar, the exemplar for the English parson,” Lewis-Anthony writes. “Whether you are High Church, Low Church, Evangelical, Charismatic, whatever, Herbert is portrayed as the prototype of the pastor, teacher, almoner, negotiator, gentleman, scholar. He is Ur-Vicar, the Echt-Rector.” Further, though he was relatively unpublished in his brief lifetime, George Herbert’s fame not only grew posthumously (Lewis-Anthony: “this has always been the fast-track to canonization in the folk religion of the Church of England”) but the myth of Herbert became established lore, most interestingly, when Anglicanism was trying to find its distinct voice. In times of conflict, uncertainty, distraction, confusion, and the feeling that we are far from the ground of our being, we yearn for simplicity, purity, holiness. Often, in such moments, we find George Herbert or, rather, who we’ve turned him into.
Having served as a country parson for nearly six years now, I can report there is no idyllic ‘Bemerton parish’. There’s hard work and struggle, with enough silver linings to remind me why God is calling me here. There’s confusion and disorder and uncertainty, graced by moments of pure bliss in which I have, literally, felt God’s presence. There’s frustration and ego and pride which sneaks in, more often than I care to admit, and, at the close of most days, a true delight in simplicity. I knew something was up when, following one particularly contentious Vestry meeting early in my time, I woke in the middle of the night and couldn’t get back to sleep, so nagging on my soul was that one person and her downright stubbornness. Never before moving here had I ever awoken in the middle of the night. Never.
When a friend asked about the differences between a large, urban congregation and this smaller, country parish, I shared what was, at the time, an astonishing realization – that the issues between the two contexts were eerily similar, if not entirely the same. “That’s probably true,” she said to me, adding: “I’d guess that when you went from a larger church to a smaller one what you really traded was quantity for intimacy.” Intimacy is a two-edged sword. When intimately connected, as we are in small communities and country parishes, you love deeply and you fight powerfully. In this place, I’ve suffered – and suffered publicly, out in the open, at that. I’ve experienced crushing defeat and loss and, along with it, piercing shame and guilt. In this place, too, I’ve celebrated growth and witnessed depth, such things which only point to the authorship of a vibrant, living God. Here, I’ve achieved things I only previously believed, hoped I was capable of and I’ve been surrounded by love and warmth to a depth and degree I never imagined existed, not the least of which through the gift of my daughter who was born here. This place has been my cross and the working-out of my redemption, my bitterness and my land of milk and honey. And yet it’s not so on the surface. Not at all. The thread which weaves my little story in and out of God’s greater one is intimacy; without it, this is just a place and these are just people and this is just a job and that struggle is no failure of mine and that success just another notch on my resume.
The point Justin Lewis-Anthony makes is not only that we’ve vaulted the wrong image, not only that there is no bucolic Bemerton parish (…add to that list Dibley, Mitford, or whatever parish Downton’s in, for that matter), but that these delusions mustn’t be searched for. I take his point as a good one: there’s a disease in our church-ness, convincing us that church is supposed to be entirely gentle and calm and peaceful and lovely. The provocative comedian Eddie Izzard described it in this way: “Nowadays, Church of England is much more ‘hello’, ‘how are you’, much more of a hobby-type. A lot of people in the Church of England have no muscles in their arms,” Izzard carried on in a routine, traipsing about on stage like a wimpy, dorky priest. This is ruining our churches. We really don’t know how to engage our world and get out there, get messy. (For Exhibit A, I’d introduce into evidence the line-drawing of Chicago’s Church of Our Saviour – that bustling urban parish where I served as curate – hanging in my office. The sketch doesn’t include the apartment buildings behind the church nor the ones across the street, from which vantage point the drawing is made, nor does it include any hint of cars and people on Fullerton Parkway, nor anything that might tell you it sits squarely in a densely populated section of a major city. No, in this drawing, there’s an expansive lawn, no neighboring flats and, most beguiling, trees are sketched in where the rest of the city would, otherwise, be.) This is ruining seminary formation, as well; too many folks are running from the demands of their busy, hectic, professional lives into what they think is a simple and peaceable job, that of a priest, and how nice it’d be to live and pray and eat in a seminary community for three blissful years. As it turns out this, too, is ruining our churches. In the absence of bold, entrepreneurial, faithful leadership, we know what to expect. Taking Lewis-Anthony’s words as an indictment of our failure to truly grow congregations and do evangelism – a consequence of our inability to re-thinking priestly ministry – we are guilty as charged.
And yet once the graven image of George Herbert is smashed to bits, as it surely must be, we have for the first time the opportunity to come close to the person, the lived experience of a man of God, to see what he did with his experience. This is a really hard thing, to take George Herbert down from the library shelf. I’m thinking in particular of one of T. S. Eliot’s last books, his 1962 contribution to the ‘Writers and their Work’ critical series, Eliot’s George Herbert. The bulk of this thin, three-chapter work is spent tracing the connections and distinctions between Herbert and his literary and spiritual mentor, John Donne. Comparing one of Donne’s most famous religious sonnets (“Batter my heart, three person’d God…”) with Herbert’s poem Prayer (I) (“Prayer the Churches banquet, Angels age…”) Eliot claims:
“The difference that I wish to emphasize is not that between the violence of Donne and the gentle imagery of Herbert, but rather a difference between the dominance of sensibility over intellect. Both men were highly intellectual, both men had very keen sensibility: but in Donne thought seems in control of feeling, and in Herbert feeling seems in control of thought. …[W]hereas Herbert, for all that he had been successful as Public Orator of Cambridge University, has a much more intimate tone of speech. We do not know what Herbert’s sermons were like; but we can conjecture that in addressing his little congregation of rustics, all of whom he knew personally, and many of whom must have received both spiritual and material comfort from him and from his wife, he adopted a more homely style.”
Eliot comes so close, let me say, to breathing George Herbert, describing his “intimate tone of speech”, picturing him surrounded by those “whom he knew personally.” Yet even in this there’s separation, a removal, the kindling of what becomes, in others, romanticization, delusion. Perhaps it was the Englishness which Eliot came to treasure and, in time, adopt or that he was commissioned to write a critical piece about Herbert but, nevertheless, it strikes me as odd that there’s such a remove from the real lived experience of George Herbert – analysis so devoid of intimacy that Eliot, in a sense, furthers the delusion, imagining “homely” homilies preached to “rustics.” Once vaulted there, Herbert resides permanently in the pantheon of the classics, rendering him as untouchable and statue-like as, to us Americans, George Washington is still.
What’s really standing in the way of growing the church is that we are downright afraid of the hard work involved in becoming the Body of Christ, the intimate and vulnerable work of becoming really human, really broken, really redeemed women and men who know themselves to be living out the story of God’s salvation. That description probably sums up the character of George Herbert, but we’ve become so distracted with the graven image, our own projected delusions. In his time Herbert took what he had – language – and used it in decidedly novel, penetrating ways. Language is what we all have, in fact; it’s the only thing we possess to express that which resides within. Of late, we’ve tried hiding behind the status quo and Christendom, but that’s falling apart. We’ve tried High Church or Low, chasubles and copes, ashes to go on street corners, but the world has said it doesn’t care about our wardrobes or churchmanship even while it may be amused by our gimmicks from time to time. What instead people seem to be searching is a lived story of redemption, experienced and expressed in the intimate truth-telling of real human persons.
This is vulnerable, frightening, new work. And yet this is Herbert’s life’s work and what he modeled for us, that is, until we meddled. Northwestern University’s Regina M. Schwartz offers, for the literary community, a new interpretation of George Herbert and, for the faith-based community, what I’d call a fitting method to renew focus. In her essay “From Ritual to Poetry: Herbert’s Mystical Eucharist,” Schwartz argues that “in an age when the sacraments were under fire and undergoing rapid revision,” George Herbert left behind the opportunities and worldly trappings he enjoyed as a university spokesman, took up a living in a little parish, and did a poignant thing. Boldly, he dug into his own life, warts and all, and drew connections to God’s life, which has no small amount of turbulence and pain but whose destination is always, already redemption. Herbert made the story of the interior life accessible and, most notably, sacramental. In the seventeenth century “poetry,” Schwartz maintains, “is called upon to carry the performative power of the liturgy.” This is a refreshingly different way to adopt the legacy of the Rector of Bemerton, considering Schwartz’s words:
“Unlike so many theologians, Herbert shows no interest in defining the meal served – in addressing the issue of the Eucharistic elements – instead, he attends to the process of conversation itself, the calling and answering. What is at the heart of Herbert’s mystery of the Eucharist is that an utterance could ever be heard, that a call could ever be answered, an offer ever received, an invitation ever be accepted, a conversation ever take place. For Herbert, then, an important aspect of this sacramental mystery is the mystery of language. …In [his] understanding of language, what is said and its relation to the referent – the sign to the signified – is less important than the activity of saying, than the conversation itself. …We have much to gain by framing the question as Herbert did: not economically but linguistically, in the context of conversation. For when we shift the trope from gift to conversation, we no longer imagine an exchange of goods; instead, we think of a response that evokes a further response. There is a world of difference.”
Realizing Herbert’s legacy should’ve been that of a man who knew, intimately, his own wretchedness and potential and one who knew, in turn, how to express with authenticity that place where God’s divinity meets our humanity, sans gimmicks, it’s all the more painful to admit that we’ve participated, we’ve directed the future of this particular illusion.
There is, indeed, a world of difference once we leave behind the graven images of cloistered garths and expansive studies; of bucolic parishes, whether Bemerton or Dibley or Mitford; of simple, blissful lives we’ll never be fortunate enough to have or find, though we may try and keep trying. There is a world of difference when we realize that the only possibility of resurrection is found in that kingdom planted within, and that the road to unmasking that mystery takes us straightaway through our humanity, indeed, demands that we become fully human, intimate with our joys and pain, our pride and anguish, our failures and achievements, our Crosses and our Easter Days. In this day in which none can hide behind pietistic pabulum, and which we, Jesus followers, ought no longer even if we may, no one wants our distorted signs and broken symbols, our treasured relics which speak confusion and, at times, pain to the world beyond. I won’t be so audacious as to stake a claim for what others want, but what the world certainly needs is our utterly true self, presented as a vulnerable and substantial offering, a sign of what new life looks like: intimately wedded, like the disciple whom Jesus loved, resting on the very heart of God. Again, for the first time in a long, long time, maybe ever, we’re coming to terms with this George Herbert, the only reason he’s made it through the ages.
Earlier today, I sat with a Baptist and ate breakfast prepared by Roman Catholic neighbors in an Episcopal church. All week long, I’ve shared community with Methodists, Catholics, Episcopalians, Baptists, Pentecostals, and folks from lots of other traditions I’m not even aware of. I’m talking about WARM, the intentional network of faith-based organizations who provide shelter and food to persons who are homeless, but it’s obviously bigger than that.
Today, Jan. 18, is the Feast of the Confession of St. Peter — when Simon Peter said, “You’re the Messiah;” to which Jesus said, “Righto! You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church…” The week between now and next Friday – Jan. 25, the Confession (or Heavenly Knock-down) of St. Paul – is observed around the world as “the week of prayer for Christian unity.” If you count it up it’s actually eight days, that is, an octave. Begun by a Catholic priest in the early 20th century as the Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity, the celebration was blessed by Popes Pius (d. 1914) and Benedict XV (d. 1922) and soon caught on among Protestant churches, as well, such that by the middle of last century the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity was officially sanctioned by the World Council of Churches and is practiced today by 349 different Christian denominations around the world.
It’s fitting that it’s squeezed between celebrations of Peter and Paul, those two bright lights of early Christianity. They were bright and gifted and shining lights, no doubt, but they also struggled, both of them, with pride and power and position. Peter was with Jesus from the earliest days; he helped coordinate the disciples and became, in time, the spokesman for the original twelve and a key leader in the post-Ascension Jesus movement. He had presence and longevity and personal relationships and skill. Paul, on the other hand, was the brash, bold, new upstart. Paul didn’t know Jesus personally, and even if you set aside that whole bit about Saul/Paul persecuting early Christians, he was still the new kid. But that didn’t stop him from speaking his mind and following the Spirit where it led, even if it meant fights over what shape the Jesus movement was going to take. If Paul and Peter, in spite of their very human posturing, could be on the same team and work for the same mission, so can we. Hence, a week of prayer for Christian unity.
When I was in Chicago, serving as curate at the Episcopal church in the Lincoln Park neighborhood, we did a pulpit swap on the Sunday nearest this week. One block down the street there was a Presbyterian church, and two blocks down was the UCC congregation. Three blocks down and two streets over was the big Roman Catholic parish. The clergy got together around the first of the year and made a plan as to who was hopping over to which church at which service that weekend. It was really fun not only to get together, at least once a year, with other Christian ministers but also nice to celebrate and hear different preachers and expose ourselves to the rich diversity of Christian faith and practices.
We don’t do a pulpit swap like that in St. Mary’s County, and one logistical reason is that most of us don’t have multi-staff parishes so one priest can stay back in order to lead the service while the other can go and preach. But we do have WARM, which is, as I’ve said in a previous post, not only about helping people who are homeless but also about helping us, the so-called helpers. WARM, by intention, brings into relationship people who might otherwise not meet, let alone spend quality time together. Maybe it’s the way we set it up at St. George’s, Valley Lee, but from the very beginning (due to the fact that we were afraid we wouldn’t have enough help) we reached out to our partner Episcopal churches as well as our neighbor Methodist church and Catholic parish and Baptist congregation. And they not only help us in the work but they partner with us, such that they are known in this congregation and we are known in theirs, such that we are now more than neighbors, we’re brothers and sisters and, indeed, friends.
Christian unity is a gift, not only to us who follow Jesus but to the world we are called to serve. Christians model, by our very existence, a deep and real unity — not uniformity of belief or practice or custom, but unity in spirit, grounded in relationship, founded in God.
I’ve always thought that one of the greatest things about Christianity is the way in which we’ve preserved our disagreements – theological, doctrinal, liturgical, whatever. I mean, no one ever went back over the New Testament and tried to downplay or “clean up” the disagreement between Peter and Paul or the others. No, they left it all in, warts and blow-ups and screaming matches and all. And we don’t try to water down our worship or diminish our traditions in order to make our modern-day differences less obvious. Some of us handle snakes (yikes!) and some of us use incense. Some base everything on the bible, as it is written, others bring in the traditional writings. Some use the Apocrypha, some only use the Old and New Testaments. There are priests in some churches, pastors in others, parsons, prophets, bishops, evangelists, and whatever else in every which one. And that’s great.
And that’s how it should be, for if we’re not united on the outward things our unity must be deeper, much deeper within. That’s where the Kingdom of God has been, He said, all along.
This week, St. George’s hosts WARM. An acronym for Wrapping Arms ‘Round Many, WARM is a network of faith-based organizations in St. Mary’s County, Maryland, who provide shelter and food for persons who are homeless. It started four years ago, and we were one of the first host sites. More than that, we helped start the conversation which led to WARM.
One December, now several years ago, we were put in contact with a veteran who had a high-school aged son. They were homeless. Given that they were father and son, they came up against roadblocks in social services – there were places for women and children, or for children, or for men, but no resources to help a father and son, together. Stupid, I know. We put them up in a local hotel and, meanwhile, arranged a meeting between leaders of faith-based organizations, social services, and the county. It was a good meeting and we determined that – yes – the social service system is broken but they, the social service community, don’t have the spare time and extra resources to fix it. Moreover, we realized, the faith-based community needed to step up and the social service community needed to partner with us. Over the course of that winter and spring, a group formed and came up with the name and concept of WARM. Step one.
WARM is step one. The system is broken; we all know that. But the way to fix it is not by conventional means – more money, more government. Those things are equally broken. No, the only way to fix it is to transplant it, to get the social ills and problems out of the dark corners and into the reality of everyday people, and especially people of means. Hence, the genesis of WARM – exposing the reality of homelessness and poverty and brokenness to people who have homes and means and resources; an eye-opener, relationship-builder. Whatever profound new developments and transformations of social service may come, they can only come from the building of this bridge. But that’s step two, and we’re not yet there.
Not yet, because we haven’t accomplished, let alone, embraced step one. It’s challenging, I know. We haven’t yet entered into real relationship with those we welcome as guests. Don’t talk to me about “clients” because the genesis of WARM is a more radical agenda – people of means, just as much as guests who are homeless, are the clients. And until that distance is overcome, let’s not talk about step two.
While we were hosting WARM, the Episcopal Church was remembering Charles Gore and Richard Meux Benson, a bishop and priest who, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, helped renew Anglican monasticism. Gore was a bishop who, as a younger man, “founded the Community of the Resurrection, a community for men that sought to combine the rich traditions of the religious life with a lively concern for the demands of ministry in the modern world.” Benson founded the Society of St. John the Evangelist (SSJE), sometimes called the Cowley Fathers after the name of the parish Benson served and in which the Society was born.
At the heart of both communities is an intentional embrace of poverty. It’s what Richard Meux Benson called “the law of poverty – the less of earth, the more of heaven.” To S. W. O’Neill, one of the original members of SSJE who had travelled to set up a mission house in India, the Father Founder wrote, “Try to keep the house as much to native simplicity; and keep the chapel also seemly for worship, and clean, but within the limits of religious poverty.” Benson further urged O’Neill to avoid the English: “…Keep clear of the English as much as possible. I know the bishop’s anxiety to get chaplains for English work, but that is not our purpose, and it must damage real mission work.” Living in true simplicity means real poverty, and that’s what Benson urged his Brothers to do, not because being poor is a value in itself but because it enables real and ready relationships with the people with whom they were called to mission. So Benson: “Large premises are a serious hindrance to poverty. I would much rather our mission should do its work – principally witness, prayer, preparation – with as little of external surroundings as possible. If I were in your place, I think I should pack up most of the things you took out, and leave them in a box. One could not refuse many presents, but I felt them to be in many ways grievous ‘impedimenta’ to missionary life.” In fact, the only way to transform is to pack it up and leave it in a box.
Kingdom transformation comes when we’ve fostered real relationships, when we have met the humanity of the other, not to mention the divinity, on an equal field, as brothers and sisters and, yes, as my brother’s keeper. Doing so, requires that we get the stuff and the divisions out of the way – that we put it in a box and leave it. What the world needs is a new form of advocacy and, indeed, new voices to advocate for those who are on the margins of our society – and there many, too many on the margins. But advocacy will not happen without awareness. And awareness will not happen without relationship. And relationship does not happen when people of means treat those without as clients, not siblings.
One of my favorite classes in high school was physics. To be honest, I didn’t do well in the class; I earned a lowly C-. Nevertheless, I’m intrigued by the ideas of physics, principally the idea that this world is not a random, thrown-together mass of stuff but an orderly, systematic and profoundly amazing creation, a created order.
For me, it’s a spiritual interest. According to classical physics, Aquinas and Aristotle and Newton among them, this world is not only orderly but that order can be uncovered, deduced. And, once unveiled, it points to a greater force. People of faith call that force God. Seeing the order of the universe unveils something beyond, something greater, something which has somehow imparted meaning. Classical physics affirms spiritual truths.
But classical physics seemed to suggest a break where there is, in the deepest levels of reality, fundamental union. In classical physics, you come away with the perception that there’s something like two worlds: one, a world of stuff (atoms and mass and energy) and, two, a world of intelligible order. Most of the time those two worlds are united into one, sensory universe. Which is precisely what enabled Newton, for instance, to posit laws of motion. And which, at the same time, enabled him to humbly and faithfully claim: “Gravity explains the motions of the planets, but it cannot explain who set the planets in motion. God governs all things and knows all that is or can be done.”
Over the last century, however, the established, prove-able laws which guided Newton’s classical universe were challenged by what is now called quantum physics: a subatomic world, a world within the stuff of the universe itself. And it’s not as easily, universally, and scientifically observable, let alone ‘prove-able’. Where there, once, seemed an orderly world, established by intrinsic, predictable forces and proved, so to speak, by exterior principles or laws, now there is, following quantum theory, seeming random-ness, subatomic entities spinning about and unable to be completely observed or detected or, let alone, studied and reduced to man-made principles. Even though this quantum world seems fuzzier than proving gravity by sitting under an apple tree, it also points to a certain order and truth and a “plan”, if you will, albeit perhaps several plans and perhaps competing ones and never one plan which can be fully deduced and turned into a Theory of Everything.
I don’t understand quantum theory, and I’m still intrigued by it. (I’m in good company. The 20th century Danish physicist, Niels Bohr, is himself rumored to have said, “Anyone who is not shocked by quantum theory has not understood it.”)
What I find so fascinating, even though I understand so little, is that these new vistas in modern physics seem to confirm what we Christians know about reality, that deeper level of reality, in particular. This is the kind of reality we celebrate during Christmas. Christmas is not just a holiday but a profound spiritual truth. Here’s the real reality, we say: God took on flesh, our flesh, and not only came among us but became one of us. This is the mystery we call “incarnation”. And don’t let the flip side of the incarnation pass you by without notice, then: God also became human so that our nature, our humanity, our mass and energy and atoms and stuff would be renewed, restored, and redeemed.
John the Evangelist points to this remarkable truth in the prologue to his gospel: “In the beginning was the Word,” John writes, “and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…” What John’s trying to do is shine new light on an old, old story — that God has always been a part of the world, not a distant, removed, faraway entity; that God has been breathing, inspiring, moving in and under and through this world, a very part of it. There’s quite a quantum theory within John’s gospel: “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. He was in the world and the world came into being through him. To all who received him, he gave power to become children of God. And the Word lived among us, and we have seen his glory, full of grace and truth. From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. No one has ever seen God.”
The radical message of the incarnation, then, is radical in a quantum way – order and truth, purpose and plan, intelligence and truth is not outside of the stuff of this world; no, the meaning is a living, breathing, part of that stuff. The creation has within it, already, the power of redemption. And when God took on our flesh God wiped away the dirt and the grime which we had allowed, generation after generation, to obscure the gifts of this marvelous creation.
This’ll change the way you live. One of the keys to salvation is to live in the way God chose, intentionally, to live – as fully human, as a fully incarnate human person. Stop trying to be more spiritual. Start trying to be more human, indeed fully human. Realize that the years of distance and sin and distrust have made us leery of ourselves, but they have not wiped away that original blessing, not permanently at least.
The challenge, then, is that there’s no universal principle by which salvation is earned, save for one: we all, all of us, work out our salvation by becoming fully human, to the degree that God has made himself known, already, within. Love, then, as we know we can love, as God has shown us how to love, giving freely and generously of the grandeur of Godself in order to become vulnerable as one of us, vulnerable even to death. Forgive, then, as we know we can forgive, as God showed us how to forgive, from the heart. Live, then, as God showed us how to live, “from his fullness” and yet borne from within the context of this life, this earthly, physical, particular and human life which is, all the same, mysterious, wonderful, and endowed with the mark of blessing and truth.
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.”
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.
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God — what is good and acceptable and perfect. Romans 12:2
Watching Britain’s House of Commons have a lively chat about their church’s recent disapproval of women bishops, I had at first a feeling of ‘Bravo!’ as well as ‘Uh oh!’ As is often the case, it was a spirited chamber on Nov. 22 when Sir Tony Baldry, the Second Church Estates Commissioner, rose to field an urgent question as the Member of Parliament who is the liaison between that body and the group responsible for the oversight of the church’s vast property assets.
I heard smatterings of Jesus in the thoughtful generosity of the MPs — their eagerness to move established institutional structures, no less than their own, to embrace a society in which gender distinctions and previous social mores are giving way to greater egalitarianism and justice. The Labour Party’s Diana Johnson, who tabled the question, said it well: “…there should be no stained glass ceiling for women in our church. The Church of England now stands to be left behind by the society it seeks to serve, looking outdated, irrelevant, and frankly eccentric by this decision. It appears that a broad church is being held to ransom by a few narrow minds.”
They could easily get away with this conversation, of course. Sir Baldry reminded them that he himself couldn’t possibly justify the odd parliamentary procedures which enabled the General Synod of the Church of England to strike down a measure which was clearly supported by the vast majority of the church: 42 out of 44 dioceses expressed support for women bishops; counting the number of total votes cast, 324 voted for and 122 against; 94% of the bishops and 77% of the clergy voted for the measure; but it failed to achieve a 2/3 majority in the House of Laity, even though a significant majority, 64%, of them voted in favor of the measure.
It’s an odd thing when the State appears more inclusive and egalitarian than does the Church, the Body of Christ. A Canadian friend told me a few years ago that this was perhaps the one issue most besetting the Anglican Church there: how could they appeal to others to follow the teachings of Jesus when, in practice, they are less welcoming than their secular government? I’m aware we’re mixing issues here — church and state (fairly modern concepts) with Jesus and Empire (more ancient and biblical ones) — but it’s more than clear that Jesus himself and, certainly, a dominant strand in New Testament Christianity fostered profoundly egalitarian communities, gatherings which were radical in the eyes of their contemporary, stratified secular society and which were, therefore, incredibly attractive. Followers of Jesus have always had a difficult struggle with the ruling powers and principalities, such that 20 centuries after Jesus (and 17 or so after Christianity was perverted into a state religion) H. Richard Neibuhr contributed to the conversation in his now-classic text, Christ and Culture, helping people identify with integrity their position with regard to the relationship between the Way of Jesus and the ways of the world.
Thus my ‘Uh oh!’ moment. Jesus and the world, church and state have always been uneasy bedfellows. That’s a good thing, if you ask me, because the tension within that relationship is what has the potential to give rise to a profound, meaningful faith in God. The principle of moving the church along with the world — to make the church relevant or hip or up with the times — is therefore a dangerous principle, no matter the issue. It’s not inclusivity versus exclusivity, liberal against conservative, outdated giving way to modern. And if we, the Body of Christ, let secular politicians and pundits remain on the forefront of this conversation it will be stuck in those divisive, neatly categorized, but meaningless concepts. Look again at the Nov. 22 conversation in Parliament. The Conservative Party’s Eleanor Lang declared that “when the decision making body of the established church deliberately sets itself against the general principles of the society which it represents then its position as the established church must be called into question.” And the Church Commissioner agreed, adding that “if the Church of England wishes to be a national church, reflecting the nation, then it has to reflect the values of the nation.” Some people may put an exclamation point at the end of his statement because it’s boldly open-minded. I’d put an exclamation point because the principle it expresses is as frightening as hell! (And if you think it’s just talk, the Episcopal Cafe reports that there is scheduled a Jan. 18, 2013 Parliamentary vote on making it illegal “to discriminate against women in the Church of England.”)
Over on these shores, then, give thanks we don’t have an established church and, in fact, have a clause in our Constitution that prevents that sort of thing — the one, by the way, which doesn’t “separate church and state” (it drives me nuts when people use that phrase, taken from an 1802 letter of Jefferson’s talking about “…a wall of separation between Church & State”). Our First Amendment makes way for a vibrant church and a free state by not marrying the two: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
So let’s talk about a vibrant church. A vibrant church is one which does precisely what early Christian communities tried to do — build community of disparate folks, indeed, make family out of people who aren’t blood relatives and wouldn’t even socialize with one another. That’s the one and only way the New Testament shows how we’re supposed to reconcile all things to God in Christ. A vibrant church, then, is other-worldly and necessarily so because its organizing principle is in contradiction to the ways we would put things together. A vibrant church gives ordinary women and men a taste, albeit fleeting, that their lives are caught up in and wedded to the life of God, the creator and lover of all. A vibrant church is not easily described, and has few smatterings of worldly concepts. It’s neither conservative nor liberal, and it’s sometimes both. It’s neither stuffy nor outdated, and it delights in its eccentricity while it doesn’t take itself, at least its structures, too seriously. It has no problem putting random people together, sometimes people who would otherwise disagree, and it’s bold enough to referee those contests and call its members, all of them, to confess their pride and arrogance.
A vibrant church is one agent in God’s mission of reconciling all things through Christ, and I’d say it’s a pretty important agent. But in order to be vibrant, the church needs a large, disparate, somewhat disorganized, diverse, random collective of ordinary women and men, a sizeable group of people representing a significant cross-section of human experience and, especially, who this world would never, ever put together in a social club or institution of human construction. The institutional Christian church in the western world is hardly that body any longer. And Parliament hit that nail on the head this week, taking note that a big issue raised by General Synod — see Labour MP Diana Johnson’s quote, cited above — is that the established church has done a poor job of bringing the nation into the Body of Christ or, we should say, bringing the Body of Christ to the whole of the people. Affirming that fact, however, is decidedly not the same as saying what Conservative MP Eleanor Lang said, also quoted above; namely, that the church must get on with the times and reflect society. Doing so would only confirm for the increasing percentage of people, in Great Britain and the United States and everywhere else, that the church has become such a human institution that there’s no reason to participate in something so small and worldly and so devoid of its much more attractive, deeply spiritual commission.
This is not a problem reserved exclusively for an established church in a foreign land. We have abandoned our voice and public theologizing, yes, even we in America. And the “we” is not the state — not the politicians and the pundits, nor the marketers nor the secular institutions nor the school systems which stopped enforcing prayer long ago. It was never their job to enforce faith or, for that matter, even be Christian. It was our job, ours as the Body of Christ. It was our job to be counter-cultural, not the place to see and be seen. It is our job to do the things which this world says cannot be done, and that includes creating a safe space for diversity of all kinds, and that diversity must and should include theological diversity as well. The longer we fail to do this in our congregations and communities — and, add to that, the longer we let our own Episcopal Church be ruled by worldly institutional structures, determinining via legislation and policy who is in and who is out, even if the majority agrees — the more irrelevant we will become, not because the world is looking for another, better human construct but because it’s yearning for the opposite.
At least a group of people who call themselves “little Christs” and act like it, being at peace with disagreement and disorder because they go about practicing hospitality and seeking God’s blessing on the whole, messed up thing.
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!)
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.
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.