Thursday, June 28, 2007

Friendships and the Gospel

Or, "The One Roger's Been Waiting For."

I wrote:
I have for a long time believed that it is anti-gospel to jettison non-reciprocal friendships. I no longer believe this.
I attended Georgetown College. It's a small school, and a very large percentage of the student body is involved in a social organization, i.e. fraternities and sororities. Many who are not, are athletes or heavily involved with the "campus ministries" clique - though these groups are not mutually exclusive.

I made the mistake of remaining independent.

When I began my relationship with the school, I saw a lot of Greeks being fake with freshmen. These men and women were only interesting if they would make charismatic additions to the organization. That happens. What I didn't understand is that at Georgetown College, many, many of the people who remain independent never learn how to make friends, and never learn how to sustain friendships. After a few years of reflection, I have realized that my friends in the fraternities learned something that many of us don't learn in families or churches: that sometimes, we make decisions on what kind of people we're going to be, and that means we are stuck in a particular social situation with particular people, and that we must learn to fight things out and make up with one another like adults. If we don't do that, we never really become adults in meaningful ways.

In the past few years, I made the mistake of trying to maintain friendships with people I knew in college who don't have friends. I invested myself with these folks, caring about them and praying for them and spending time with them even though my other friends kept explaining to me, that there's a reason they don't have friends already, everybody thinks they're weird, etc.

It seemed to me that the way of Jesus is to keep being emotionally available for people who had no interest in supporting me. I being to realize over time, that I really felt used (this was not a recent decision). I realized there were several people in my life that I might see every few weeks, but I really cared about them more than I should have. Over Lent 2007 I decided to stop. I decided that I would stop reaching out to people who lied or me or only dealt with me through intermediaries or gossip. I decided with my friends, especially the ones with whom I gather at table, that I would quit trying to reach out. I would accept repentance, but I decided that it was silly and counterproductive to invite to repentance persons who weren't actually in the covenant community with me.

And I feel free. When I think of the people who used to be my friends, I say a prayer for them. And then I move on to something else. I wasn't sure anymore if I was trying to be like Christ - who pours himself out for the healing of friends and enemies alike - or if I was trying to be liked, or just trying to think of myself as Christlike. It's a dangerous uncertainty, that.

I don't know if this makes sense to any of you, but I imagine my usual readers and wise interlocutors will have some insightful things to say. Writing it makes me feel a little more bitter than I thought I was, so we'll see.

"Out of the Closet" Meme

That's pretty funny. Anyway, Rob has tagged me for Ben Myer's new meme. Sigh. I'm going to take the opportunity to say some potentially argumentative things. I'm tired and cranky, what do you want?

So these are 10 confessions: some things that you may or may not know about me, and stances that may or may not be defensible.

I confess the following...
  1. I don't have an opinion about the ordination of women.

  2. I once turned my hair orange, and that I might do it again.

  3. I would break or avoid fellowship with other Christians on the issue of Eucharistic practice before I would on matters of doctrine, theology, or morals.

  4. The reason I am not an Episcopalian has very little to do with the current controversies over the blessing of same-sex unions or the consecration of Gene Robinson.

  5. I have for a long time believed that it is anti-gospel to jettison non-reciprocal friendships. I no longer believe this.

  6. I confess that I have a strong prejudice against Christians who are teetotalers out of alleged conviction rather than any sense of propriety. I usually believe them to be prideful and arrogant, and it takes time for me to become convinced otherwise. If it really weren't a matter of pride, I wouldn't know they're teetotalers...

  7. I believe that people who get upset and angry about the English speaking-abilities of Hispanic immigrants are racists.

  8. I would be perfectly happy to never hear a "relevant" sermon again.

  9. I have long since decided that if I were to visit a church but no one there cared to learn my name or engage me in conversation for at least 3 minutes, I would never return. And then I would talk about them.

  10. If I had to look at an American flag during Mass, it would be really hard for me to concentrate on anything else.
I thought Kim Fabricus' contribution was fun.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Today I am...

Working out details of the upcoming Anglican Catechesis program
Cleaning the house
Reading and writing on monasticism
Meeting with someone to discuss her church's hospitality
Making a simple dinner
Sucking down more coffee than could ever be healthy

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Ecumenism Revisited

I was discussing with a friend yesterday how common religious relativism has become among conservative and liberal Christians. No, I mean that seriously. Christian unity is important; indeed it is imperative. It is a good and right thing for Christians to engage in conversation, friendship, and common mission across denominational and confessional lines. However, there are really unhealthy ways in which to talk about it.

"I'm a Baptist, because that's what I think is right for me. I'm glad that you're a Methodist, because that's what God has called you to be. It doesn't really matter because we all love Jesus."

Such sentiments mean well, but they are problematic. While beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, truth is not. God may very well call people to build their lives in particular denominational traditions, but I believe that if Jesus is faithful to his own prayer for unity in John 17, the trinitarian God has a trajectory in mind for all churches, that at least in the eschaton, we'll all be one. The way to build such unity is not through relativism.

When I say, it's good and of little consequence for me to be a Baptist or Anglican or Lutheran, and I say the same about your affiliation as a Pentecostal or Catholic or Methodist, I might be playing nice, but I am not being respectful. When I downplay the significance of such things, I also deny the value of those traditions.

If I am to say that the Baptist tradition has something real and meaningful and important to offer the rest of the Church of Jesus Christ, I must first say that it is of some significance for folks to be Baptists. If there is anything good in a tradition, I must first say that it matters.

Would it surprise you to hear me say that I am an Anglican Christian because I think it is the most faithful way, in this time and place, to respond to and embody the fact of God's reign in Christ? If I believed otherwise, I would certainly go and do something else. I would certainly be surprised to hear a friend confess that they did not believe their tradition to be a more faithful way - otherwise, why would they be involved as they are? However to say this is not to say that other Christian traditions are not faithful - such binary thinking gets us nowhere, and is as uncharitable as it is untrue.

I only treat my own tradition with integrity when I say that it matters that one is part of it, and that it offers particular gifts for Christian faith and practice, and that - heaven forbid - people should get on board with it.

When I can say this, I can then dialogue critically with other traditions: I can learn them, and receive the challenge they offer to my own, and how I live and understand the faith, and offer challenge to them in return. I can acknowledge the ways in which they can teach me to strive toward a move faithful obedience to Christ, and be warned away from pitfalls. If I also believe such things matter, they can learn from me and criticize me as well.

My point? We don't have tell ourselves that our differences don't matter in order to play nicely together, and it's only when we know that our differences matter very much that we can learn from one another.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

What I've Been Doing

Becoming a Catholic Church: Designing a program for Anglican Catholic catechesis in a Kentucky congregation.

Saint Patrick’s is a recent church plant of the Anglican Mission in America. While some of its fifty members were previously members of the Episcopal Church, many were previously members of evangelical protestant denominations. Kentucky’s Bible Belt culture of anti-Roman Catholic rhetoric and pietistic revivalism presents particular challenges for Anglican formation. Because of their previous church experiences, many are caught between the false dichotomies of scriptural authority against tradition, extemporaneous worship against ritualism, and justification by faith against sacramentalism. After worshipping with the people of Saint Patrick’s Church for several months, I will in cooperation with the rector devise a small group teaching and discussion series that will expound the Anglican witness to the catholicity of the Church. The goal will be to offer Anglican identity as a way of being a “catholic Christian.” The series will focus on catholic ecclesiology, the role of sacred tradition, sacramental theology, and the practice of liturgy. Sessions will connect those layers of the Christian narrative to the congregation’s practices of worship, community life, spiritual formation, and mission. In my reflection, I will analyze participants’ beliefs about the Bible and tradition, the Eucharist, and their worship practices before and after the teaching series.

The bibliography will include but will not be limited to:

Oden, Thomas. The Rebirth of Orthodoxy.
Radner, Ephraim. Hope Among the Fragments: the Broken Church and its Engagement of Scripture.
Ramsey, Michael. The Gospel and the Catholic Church.
_____. The Anglican Spirit.
Reno, R. R. In the Ruins of the Church: Sustaining Faith in an Age of Diminished Christianity.
Sykes, Stephen, ed. The Study of Anglicanism.
Wilkin, Robert L. Remembering the Christian Past.
Williams, Rowan. Anglican Identities.

Questions, comments and suggestions are quite welcome.

Update: I should clarify that this bibliography is for my own conceptual work and the 7,000 word reflection paper I'll have to write on the experience. It's not the reading list for the little catechetical course, and I'm not sure I'll be asking participants to do any reading. Maybe selections from the Apostolic Fathers, who knows...

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Odin said it, I believe it, that settles it...

Has anybody ever said to you, when you've commented, "Oh, I'd never want to do that," like, I dunno, offer street preaching to equine dentists, and then they're all like, "Now don't say never, or the next thing you know, God will call you to do just that!"

That's happened to me more than once. And I think, "No, you've really confused Jesus with Loki, the trickster god of Norse mythology." And really, when somebody's done that, I might as well not get after them for their liturgical abuses - 'cause when you're praying to Loki, I mean, hell, who am I to say you're doing it wrong?

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Corpus Christi: The Christian Thanksgiving

Tantum Ergo Sacramentum

Down in adoration falling,
Lo! The Sacred Host we hail.
Lo! o'er ancient forms departing,
Newer rites of Grace prevail:
Faith for all defects supplying,
Where the feeble senses fail.

To The Everlasting Father
And The Son Who reigns on high,
With The Spirit blessed proceeding
Forth, from Each eternally,
Be salvation, honor, blessing,
Might and endless majesty.


- Thomas Aquinas

Our words about the offering of the Body and Blood of our Lord in the Mass only makes Christian sense if we speak and enact it in the broader context of God's love for the world and his desire to heal it. The rite itself seeks to make sense of our own lives as part of God's action of self-giving love.

If we fail to attend to the Mass with reverence and fear, our lives will unravel from Christian meaning - as the rite binds us to Christ's sacrifice, so it also teaches us to re-imagine our own lives in the four-fold action of taking, blessing, breaking, and giving.

Check out Matt's meditation.

See also "On the Eucharistic Life"

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Do Bishops Really Matter?

Brad Drell unravels Episcopalian double-speak.

Update: Captain Sacrament translates for Brad Drell.

Orthodox/traditionalist/reasserting believers within the Episcopal Church (TEC) have been complaining that the majority of TEC's leadership has been creating bishops that do things that bishops ought not do, such as engage marital-type unions with same-sex partners, perform the rites of Christian marriage for same-sex partners, or deny the divinity or sinlessness of Jesus the Christ. When they do complain, the liberals/heterodox/reappraisers respond that the office of bishop doesn't really matter - the bishop is nothing more than the local leader of a local church, and it's no one else's business who is elected to someone else's diocese.

When conservatives respond that, no, really, the office of bishop is a symbol of unity in the wider church, and that bishops themselves have a responsibility to exemplify core Christian ethical commitments, this assertion is simply denied by the other side. The office of bishop isn't really meant to be all that.

The rest of the bishops of the Anglican Communion has called upon the House of Bishops of TEC to make some Difficult and Important Decisions. The liberals complain that under "our polity" (a fancy word for "according to our interpretation of the rules we done wrote") bishops are simply not that important, and that the EPISCOPAL CHURCH is not actually governed by bishops, and so the HOUSE OF BISHOPS is not constitutionally authorized to make decisions for the entire EPISCOPAL Church.

You were supposed to laugh at that, it's really funny.

The joke, you see, is that the word EPISCOPAL means "governed by bishops." Everyone go look it up. I'll wait.

The argument is that, like the Southern Baptist Convention, the Episcopal Church is not a true and complete decision making body until one week in the summer when everybody gets together to vote.

That wasn't a joke, but it's surely very funny.

As far as liberals in TEC are concerned, bishops govern the Church like the Queen rules England. Just for fun, just for show, and only to justify pretty gowns.

Until... somebody violates the authority that a liberal bishops wants to assert. When another bishop sends a missionary priest without diocesan permission, or a parallel Anglican jurisdiction is set up to replace that of an apostatized diocese, then the offended bishop rails about the ancient, venerable EPISCOPAL polity of the Anglican Communion and "of this Church," blah, blah, blah. Or when they can brag about having the first partnered gay bishop or the first girl Archbishop, and so on. Then the episcopal office seems to really matter.

The point: when somebody says, "it's not in our polity," that's a cop-out.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

A Thought for Trinity Sunday

"Since the days of the apostles the worship of the church was meant to serve as a critical vehicle for imparting doctrina, that is, ordered teaching, about the Christian faith. Christian leaders found that worship was too good an opportunity to waste on anything but supplying the believer with concrete foundations of how to think and live Christianly. Hence there was a reciprocal relation between worship and doctrine, between the act of praise and the task of theology."

D.H. Williams, "Similis et Dissimilis: Gauging our Expectations of the Early Fathers," from the 2007 Wheaton Theology Conference.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Joshua Hearne: "On the Gospel of Niceness"

My friend Josh, a third year student at Duke Divinity School, was recently ordained a Baptist minister. This is his contribution to a recent discussion on Mormonism, and whether it's "Christian" to be "nice"... His blog,
Not Quite Getting It, is high-quality, but currently on hiatus.

One of the comments that I quote most often is a paraphrase of Kyle: “When you become a Christian, you give up the right to be a jerk.” I absolutely agree with this. I think that you’ll agree with it, too, if you really think about it. When we convert from the systems of the World to the Lordship of Jesus Christ, something important happens as we are transformed into the image of our crucified and suffering Lord. As we remember that Jesus reigned from a cross, we must constantly forfeit our rights to ourselves.

If you’re a Christian, then you don’t have the luxury to escape the commitment when you want to.

But, on this thought we turn to what Kyle asked me to write about: Is our Gospel a Gospel of “niceness?”

We have to understand that there are many stories and many “gospels” in the world. They and their tellers are competing for our belief, assent, and commitment. Some gospels and/or stories admit the possibility of believing in others, as well. To make myself clear: When somebody tells you something like: “You have to look out for number one” or “If you don’t take care of yourself, who will?” then they’re preaching a gospel of self-interest. They’re telling you a story about how you should view the world. When they talk about how “what the World really needs is…” they’re telling you a story that narrates their life. They’re telling you a gospel. When they tell you what you need or need to do to be happy, they’re telling you a story. They’re telling you a gospel. There is a multitude of stories and gospels in the world.

“If you are financially stable, then you’ll be happy…” “What the people of America really need is universal healthcare…” “What those Iraqis really need is democracy…” There is no shortage of ways to describe and explain the world.

I have a fear, however, that the Christian Gospel has become a gospel of “niceness.” If we’ll only be “nice” enough, then people will get along. I’ve heard people describe “nice” people as acting “very Christian.” I’ve heard people talking about a conversation with Mormons and commenting about how “nice” they are (which they are, typically). Because of their niceness, I know people who believe that Mormons must be Christian because they’re nice.

They’re buying into a gospel that isn’t the Gospel.

Furthermore, I’ve met people who respond to my insistence that this isn’t the Gospel with a response of: “The Gospel is hard to define, isn’t it? What do you think it is?” Typically, I find this question hard to comprehend but, usually, I respond by saying:
“…that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.”
It’s right there in 1 Corinthians 15:3b-8.

What does all this mean for us? Let me put it in a language that makes sense to me (it’s the best I can do, probably). If you’re a Christian, then you will be nice (at the very least, you’re being redeemed into a nice person). I’ll express that as: If C, then N or C>N. If you know any logic (I applaud you, by the way), then you know that just because C>N does not mean that N>C. In other words, you can’t say that being nice is a sign of Christian-ness. So what does it mean? Yes, Christians are “nice” (or are becoming “nice”) but this is not their Gospel. The gospel of niceness won’t do. It isn’t salvific. It isn’t Jesus’ message. It isn’t the Kingdom. In other words, it’s an idol.

We have to dump idols, even when they’re nice and make us feel good about ourselves. Admit it, part of the appeal of a gospel of niceness is that it makes us feel good about ourselves. If the story is that niceness is the solution, then we’ve missed the point. This argument isn’t an excuse to be a jerk (see my first paragraph) but it isn’t a false gospel, either.

Niceness won’t save you. The life, suffering, death, burial, and resurrection of a crucified God will. Anything else is an idol and a false gospel.

More on Mormons

Several weeks ago, two customers asked me for a book recommendation for their uncle. They were Christians, but uncle was getting baptized in the Mormon church. I of course assumed that they wanted some appropriate anti-Mormon literature that might coax their wayward family member back into the fold. I was a little confused when they said they had called LifeWay, and were told that since it was a Baptist bookstore, they wouldn't have any Mormon materials.

"That's very odd," said I. "If there's any bookstore in the region that's going to carry anti-Mormon apologetics, it's going to be LifeWay!"

Whoops. They wanted LDS literature: some kind of Mormon version of what you'd give a Christian upon baptism or confirmation. I apologized for my misunderstanding and said that he probably already had a Book of Mormon, and the only other thing of interest we had would be the new biography of Joseph Smith - which is surely not LDS-sanctioned. We didn't carry the LDS version of the Bible, either, and we had now established they would not be interested in a copy of Kingdom of the Cults.

My customer said that his family had been converted three years ago at the local evangelical megachurch, and only heard them mention Mormonism once, and that's when a teaching pastor said that they weren't Christians. The gentleman said that didn't seem a very kind thing, to talk about other religions that way.

That afternoon I got a call from Josh Hearne about a radio program he'd just heard; there was some discussion on how it was bizarre that Evangelical Christians consider Mormons not to be: they certainly "seemed Christian enough." Oh, boy. I wrote a post questioning this "cult" appellation, and asked Josh to write one on this niceness deal. That essay is below.


Michael Spencer has made some comments about a subject we tackled a few weeks ago:
If our great need is to be delivered from the wrath of God, then Jesus is our mediator. But what if our big problem is losing ten pounds? Finding a bigger house? Paying for college? Getting out of debt? What if the guilt that concerns us is the guilt of not having a pool like our neighbor? What if the center of our prayers is the moral life of our kids or our physical health? Do we actually need a crucified Jesus for any of these things?

A few weeks ago I was at a gathering of people from all over America, many from various ethnic communities. The preacher of the day was a Southern White evangelical. As he preached, I noted when the audience responded with “amens,” etc. It was universally on any statement that referred to material blessings, or the idea of prosperity. On statements referring to Jesus as atoning savior, there was almost no reaction.

The prosperity gospel isn’t on the fringe any more. As Willimon says, churches now advertise that they “have what you are looking for.” What is the average American looking for? A bloody savior to deliver from the wrath of God? Or success in life?

Read the entire post here, and make sure you read this short article (pdf) by William Willimon, "It's Hard to be Seeker-Sensitive when You Work for Jesus" (thanks, iMonk!).

And if you missed my essay the first time around, the point was that I accused a local church plant of being the ecclesial equivalent of internet p**n (that was to avoid comment spam).

Oh, and will someone please go deal with Noakes?