Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Death of Edward Schillebeeckyx

Edward Schillebeeckyx died on December 23 at the age of 95. He was a great theologian, important to me chiefly for shaping my understanding of the Eucharist as a point of encounter with Christ, and Christ as a point of encounter between our humanity and the divine core of reality. He will be missed. I plan to honor him by reading one of his early books on Jesus that I have never read beforel and by reading Robert Schreiter's introduction to his theology.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Silver Angel

We worshiped at St. Timothy's on Christmas Eve. It was a warmly human service, a cozy service, in a beautifully decorated church. It was the first time Linda and I have sat together in church on Chrismas Eve in many, many years. We were blessed by the sights and sounds of Christmas. They enfleshed for us and revealed to us the Word of grace in the our story.

Then when we got home, there was an angel at our door. On our door actually. A small silver Christmas tree ornament angel with a crystal heart. She went immediately to our kitchy tree. Our secret Santa or Santas made this a lovely Advent. And yes, the white plastic tree will be up again next year.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Christian Text In A New World Context

I was having dinner with a group of Episcopal Church leaders discussing “the emergent church” and a bold new proposal to ordain priests for the emergent church with minimal preparation, trusting they would pick up priesthood OJT. I said nothing, but it gave me pause to hear this idea, knowing we tried it in Nevada and other Total Ministry dioceses, sometimes with unfortunate results. In fact, only a couple of conventions ago, the church repealed Canon 9 to get away from that experiment. We are now in the midst of upgrading the training for all orders of ministry so it surprised me to hear that training for priesthood was at risk again. (I am not saying the training has to be conventional seminary education. We are expanding local training, but still requiring that training comes before ordination.)

The conversation then took an interesting turn, the turn that makes this subject blog worthy, because there was a young man at the table – a college student. The older leaders asked his view. He said relaxing the training for clergy was irrelevant. He saw no reason for the church to have ordained people anymore than there was any need for the church to have buildings. (It is an axiom of the emergent church movement that the church should not have buildings.) This led to the leaders asking how he would envision a service led by a lay person in a secular building. The young man did not think church services were such a good idea either. His vision is that the lay minister would hang out at a bar with people and if religion came up naturally in the conversation, then the minister would participate in that conversation.

I suddenly got a vision of the post-modern church: no sacred space; no clergy; untrained laity; no prayers; no hymns; no scripture. I wondered if the bar where religion might come up in the conversation naturally would have a Sunday School area for the children. I am entirely for extending the gospel message into all sorts of settings in all sorts of ways, but I was struck by the idea that so much of the faith that has saved my life might be erased as no longer relevant to people now.

I remembered when I was that college student’s age, I was not a Christian. I did not attend worship services either. But when driving through central Texas – which I did a lot back then – I would without fail stop at an old Lutheran church near a German village. It was always unlocked. I would just go in and look at the stained glass windows and cult objects I did not even understand, and I felt the holiness. What if they had sold that building and become emergent, meeting in a bar, talking about religion if it came up naturally?

I remember when I was his age, and I would go home to East Texas, I would visit Fr. Allen, a pious old Episcopal priest who never said anything to convert me, but who was a holy man and dressed the part so I could recognize him as a personal representative of something much larger and older than himself. What if St. James, Texarkana had decided they did not need any hierarchical professional clergy. Fr. Allen would not have been there for me, teaching me gospel without saying a word, sharing grace just by listening.

In his book, The Cross In Our Context, Douglass John Hall asks the question whether Christianity will survive the 21st Century, noting that some respectable voices question whether Christianity made it into the 21st Century. Christendom, the era when being Christian was a social and cultural norm, is certainly long dead in most places. It may have never reached us here in Nevada. But Christianity is another matter. Is there an authentic Christian voice crying in our wilderness? Is there a Christian word that can be spoken? Is there a Christian word that can be heard? “Does a tree falling in an uninhabited forest . . . ?”

Hall’s premise is that Christians engage the world. “Unlike other religions that draw their converts away from this world, a faith informed by this (Christian) tradition . . . constrains the community of discipleship to enter into its historical situation with a new kind of openness, attentiveness and compassion.” We must share our faith with the world “by word and deed.”

This raises the perpetually recurring issue for us, which Hall speaks of as text and context. We have a text – not just the Bible and the Prayer Book, but a whole tradition of belief and practice. We also have a context – the world around us. Internationally, that is post-colonialism, the fearful conflicts among religions in Africa and the Near East, the post Cold War ascendancy of the United States and China, and to a lesser degree Iran. Closer to home, it is the secular materialism of American culture, in which all religious affiliation is in decline but we are becoming more religiously and ethnically pluralistic, a society in which the new convention is to be “very spiritual but not religious.” Can we be true to our text and engage with this context at the same time?

There has always been a tension between our text and any human context. It may be better when it is explicit as it is today. I have found it harder to make the gospel heard by anyone in a setting where conventional Christianity is the social norm than here where faith is countercultural. It is better shouting faith into the secular void than into the conventional Christian void. The oddness of the words makes people curious if they do not already think they know what they mean. But how shall we go about it? How shall we make the faith understood in our society?

I don’t have answers to that. But I feel pretty sure we have to tell the truth. I cannot expect everyone to connect to God the way I do, but I cannot pretend that my way isn’t my way. Can we be true to our text and engage our context? I desperately hope so. If we are not true to our text, we will not be engaging our context honestly. If we do not engage our context, then we will be false to our text which requires jus this engagement. Jesus called us to be “in the world, but not of the world.” That has never been easy.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Nativity Theologizing

I grew up with a brand of Christianity that was heavily centered on Good Friday. We celebrated Christmas along with everyone else. But the meaning of Christmas was confused at best. It seemed like a necessary first step toward the cross which didn’t quite cohere with Joy To The World.

Decades later, now decades ago, I learned that the folks who first shaped the contours of orthodox Christian faith, especially St. Athanasius, the chief architect of the Nicene Creed, taught that the Incarnation was salvific in itself. Something happened in Bethlehem in 4 B.C.E. (or whatever year Jesus was actually born) that changed the relationship between God and humanity, even between Creator and Creation.

How that salvation worked was and still is hard for me to grasp. It is called “assumption.” In a mysterious way, when God assumes human nature, then human nature is sanctified, redeemed, made holy. That feels right to me even though I can’t explain it logically.

There is another way I have been thinking of Christmas as salvific that I can understand a little better. It goes like this: Being human is a precious and wonderful thing precisely because it is so brief an experience, so vulnerable, so frail, such a mix of joys and sorrow, virtues and vices, moral heroism and moral disaster. The beauty of being human is inseparable from the fragility of being human. I say this as one whose youthful pride and certainty are long gone and as one who has seen love at its tenderest in the hours of suffering and death, in the moments of contrition and forgiveness. Being human is insubstantial, ephemeral, fallible, and for those very failings is all the more to be cherished.

Yet the vulnerability of being human – physical, spiritual, and moral vulnerability – is so great that we cannot bear our human condition. It is just too hard. We need to be sustained now and ultimately redeemed by a God who is above all this, beyond “the changes and the chances” of this life. We need to be held by the Serene Center of the Universe, who was and is and ever will be. Our fragility can subsist only in God’s strength.

The problem is the immeasurable distance between God and us. The vastness, the incomprehensibility of Divine Majesty, the namelessness, imagelessness, unutterable wonder of God means God is beyond our reach. And we cannot climb up to God. All religion that purports to elevate us to God merely inflates our egos and thereby separates us all the farther from God.

It was therefore necessary for God to come to us. “Condescend” is a bad word now. But it used to have a good theological meaning -- “to come down to.” God came down to us. God joined us in the mix and muddle of human life. “For us and for our salvation, he sent his only and eternal son to share our human nature, to live and die as one of us.” And therein the basic shift happened and religion has never been the same.

Instead of our trying to climb up out of our human frailty to meet God in the Divine Serenity, God joins us in the stable of mortal human life. It is in this stable of human living that we meet God. It is here we find the seed of peace and joy. The meaning of our frailties – all of them, physical, moral, spiritual – is changed from the wall the separates us from God into the gate that opens our hearts to God. That is the miracle I celebrate at Christmas. However, you understand this Holy Season, I hope you will be touched by grace right where you live, that you will find a light in your darkness, and that you will experience the assurance of God’s love for you exactly as you are.

Return Of The Mouse

Mid week the mouse arrived. It is a Christmas ornament -- yes a Christmas mouse wearing green and red trousers and a red sweater -- no doubt left on our door knob by the same people who left the white plastic Christmas tree and ealier ornaments.

But this mouse looks familiar. See Night of Reepacheep, blog post May 21, 2009 -- the very mouse who bit my pinkie in Lake Logan, North Carolina last Spring. How much do these people actually know about me?

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Icons Or Golden Calves

I just read a great blog post reviewing Martin Thornton's The Rock And The River. I have not read the book, but the blog post is great. http:/

Thornton's point seems to be that the Christian popularizers today attack ideas that they represent as orthodox Christianity. They are not orthodox. As the blog puts it, they are not icons but golden calves. The result is too many of us take the theologically light arguments of the popularizers as the only alternative to fundamentalism. They confuse fundamentalism with the orthodox teachings of the Christian tradition and so lose the spiritual depth of centuries.

Thank you Dean Nick Knisley for posting a link to this review on your FB page.

The Conspiracy Widens

The tin box came by mail to my office all the way from Carson City. It contained two red dice Christmas ornaments. They will go on the white plastic tree tonight.

The tree itself and the other ornaments were a local job. Someone rang the doorbell and ran away. But this is from afar. The plot thickens as the conspiracy widens. Or does it?

Do the Carson City culprits know the Las Vegas vandals? Can North and South be in league, consort, conspire, collude? Or is this some secret serendipy of Christmas magic?

Sunday, December 13, 2009

On The Third Week Of Advent

It is Advent III, Rose Sunday. The Secret Santa struck again -- this time in broad daylight while we were at the Feast of Guadalupe service. They know our schedule.

When we got back from church, there was a bright pink Christmas ball hanging from our door knob. Perfect for Rose Sunday. They know liturgy too.

It has snowflakes cut into the sides. We have hung it on the white Christmas tree.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

It Is Happening Again

"It is happening again. It is happening again." -- Twin Peaks

For context, see the previous 2 posts.

So I went out the door on Monday morning and there was another ornament hanging on the door handle. It was a silver colored "Peace." A lovely thing really.

More about the snow man. There is a little switch on the bottom. Flip it on and the snow man lights up in alternating colors, red, blue, green, pink, etc.

And we already had the perfect ornaments for the white plastic tree -- a lot of small plastic pink flamingos in various tropcial attire.

This is the best kitchy Christmas tree ever. We decorated yesterday while listening to O Tannenbaum on the ipod.

We are considering installing a security camera in hopes of learning the identity of our secret Santa.

Friday, December 4, 2009

The Snow Man Cometh

And this morning, I found a bag on the front door knob. It contained a tree top ornament snow man. We are having the bag dusted for prints and scraped for DNA samples.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

White Christmas (Tree)

For years, we have had a family issue: the Christmas tree. Linda always wanted an artificial tree. I have no idea why. I don't get it. I insisted on -- and for decades have prevailed -- a big green real tree that smells like the woods. Until now.

These days live, more or less, in Las Vegas. Tinsel town in the desert. The kingdom of kitsch. A classic Chrismas tree here would be trying for something from another planet. So I did more than relent. I swung the other way. I proposed a small artificial tree in flamingo pink. Linda would not have it. She wanted artifical green. (I still don't get it.) So I suggested a silver tree for the silver state. She wasn't buying it. So I said, ok a white artificial tree. She was not persuaded.

Last night, we were innocently watching the Monk Marathon on dvr. About 9:30, the doorbell rang. When I opened the door, there was an Advent miracle. It was a white Chistmas tree!!!! No one to be seen. I went all the way outside and looked up and down the street. No one there. But on our porch: A trunk of white plastic pipe, limbs of white plastic rods, white wires twined about the limbs to suggest something like vegetation but also vaguely reminiscent of fence wire -- and the wires leading to dainty little light bulbs -- pink, blue, green, white, and orange. It was plugged in and shining away on our porch in front of the bust of Palas Athena who looked shocked, her lips parted in wonder.

At first I did not know what to make of it. Then I took it inside and plugged it into a wall socket in the den. There it glows, even to this day.

Who could have been the giver of this wonderful gift! It is our first Las Vegas Christmas tree. We have not had a tree at all the past 2 Christmases. Now this!!! I am beside myself. Linda is bemusedly tolerant.