Friday, April 22, 2011

Maundy Thursday and Charlie Sheen

April 22, 2011

Last night I could not help but be struck by the irony that as we gathered to mark the Last Supper, the Institution of the Eucharist and to prepare the church for Good Friday by stripping the altar of the accouterments of worship, Charlie Sheen was less than one block away. A little way up the hill people were paying handsomely to listen to a man (who clearly suffers from some kind of mental illness, whatever its genesis) who talks about ‘tiger blood’ and who builds himself up by putting down those whom he despises.

Against all that ugliness, less than one block away, a couple of hundred people gathered fro a thing of great beauty to remember one who offered himself freely in an act for which no amount of money could compensate. We talked about the blood of life which raises up the lowly and the grace of God which allows all of humanity to flourish.

Hundreds of thousands of people have heard of Charlie Sheen but know neither the name nor the meaning of Maundy Thursday. We have work to do in sharing the Good News that we celebrate this weekend.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Catholicity and Autonomy

April 14, 2011

The Rev’d Dr. Paul Avis is the general secretary of the Council for Christian Unity in and canon theologian of Exeter Cathedral in England. He has written several books on Anglicanism and Anglican identity that I have found helpful along the way. He has recently published an article in The Living Church (April 10, 2011, p.17) called Catholicity Outweighs Autonomy in which he argues that catholicity means ‘interdependence’ and that the proposed Anglican Covenant “seeks to flesh out in practical terms what interdependence might mean”. He concludes his appeal for Christians to “bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2) by saying “Any expression of communion is to be treated with great respect and care. It is an imperative of Christian love to seek communion with our fellow Christians. We are called to seek, maintain and extend communion. To do that we are inspired by the Holy Spirit…Ultimately, then, the future of the Anglican Communion is not a political matter, but a spiritual issue. I believe we should consider the covenant in that light.”

Well, so do I. And having considered it in that light, I reject it. The first three sections are inoffensive in themselves. They are theology crafted by a church committee and read as such. The fourth section which is what really “fleshes out in practical terms what interdependence might mean” is ultimately the control section and which undermines our attempt to be truly catholic in ways that put the relationships of the first three sections into practice in a way that is expressed and lived out differently than the power and control of hierarchy, --an option that is already available to us in the Roman communion.

The work of being in and staying in relationship across cultures, theological commitments, and huge financial difference is hard work. I hope to take a team to the Diocese of Western Tanganyika this autumn. All Saints’ has been in a relationship with that diocese, largely through the Bible College in Kasulu, since 2003 and we have made it thought serious official brokenness, changing personal relationships, Episcopal succession and other challenges. We do not try and change our brothers and sisters in, say the role of women in their church and society even though we believe they would be strengthened by educating and bringing women into leadership. We know that they would prefer that we not affirm gay and lesbian Christians as such but recognize that it is “not their issue”. The more troubling aspect of our relationship at the moment ahs to do with sorting out what is personal and whether there is any sense in which it could be said to be ‘institutional’. What I believe , for them, is a simple act of faith, namely asking for money, including asking for money for their own families, is for us a problem as we believe that gifts flow from relationship but that we are interested in strengthening and supporting the ministry of the church rather than the ministry of a particular priest or bishop. Rather than going on at this pint about other challenges such as that of developing a truly African theological tradition when everyone educated in the West tends to end up a bishop who does not have time for writing and teaching and the other things that might develop such a theological tradition, I’d like to return to the point of this piece and say that we are in relationship because we are Anglicans, because we grow through the challenge of recognizing, understanding and appreciating difference. The proposed covenant is not necessary to serve ‘catholicity’ or ‘interdependence’. It is, in effect, born of a desire to substitute rules for relationship and a means of control of some over others in spite of the (many protestations to the contrary. I’m agin it and hope that Dr. Avis might come to that conclusion as well.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Libya etc. and the US budget.

April 13, 2011

I’m as confused about what is really going in the ‘African or Arab Spring’ as anyone. I understand that there are a lot of popular demonstrations and revolutions against long term, powerful dictators. I accept that it would be wrong to stand by while the crazy Colonel kills his own kith, kin and countrymen. I’m not certain why that compassion did not extend to the Ivory Coast where much the same thing seemed to be happening. I suspect the whole area of international diplomacy is going to be even more covered in contradiction and compromise going forward if the US is going to play any kind of role in the region at all. I support the President’s apparent insistence that action must be multilateral and coordinated. I’d be very much more impressed if some of the airplanes and other munitions that we had sold to , say, Saudi Arabia, were being put to use in support of those being threatened as they demand a measure of something like democratic freedom. Along with everyone else, I am nervous about religious extremists, often functioning as a kind of virulent tribalism, coming into any kind of allegedly democratic power.

David Fromkin’s A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East. (Holt, 1989) really helps make clear which of the countries that are in increasing turmoil are those with some kind of long tem ‘national identity’ and which are more like coalitions held together with force. Thomas L. Friedman, writing in the New York Times on March 30, 2011 outlined so many of the compromises we have made and will make as we find our way through this time of hope-filled change. We have to help in Libya…while we turn a blind eye to Bahrain among whose rebels are pro Iranian Shiite hardliners. Saudi Arabia criticizes us for supporting the ouster of Mubarak and we don’t want to antagonize the Saudis because “they have oil and money that we like”. We don’t like the leaders of Syria or Lebanon but we are unclear whether we like the opposition to them any better.

I join Friedman in being proud that our President is willing to weigh in, insisting on multi-nationalism in any response, declining to be ‘suaded by the cowboys of left or right demanding military intervention at all costs and declining to be cowed by the housekeepers in DC who want to cut the national debt but in a way that threatens unnecessary recession while there is a perfectly good bi-partisan blueprint on the table that neither part seems to think is politically attractive or viable, (possibly because it is not clear how to wring domestic political advantage out of such a scheme.) Friedman prays that Obama will get lucky in the middle of this mess. He hopes that “Qaddafi’s regime collapses like a sand castle, that the Libyan opposition turns out to be decent and united and that they require just a bare minimum of international help to get on their feet. Then US prestige will be enhanced and this humanitarian mission will have both saved lives and helped to lock another Arab state into the democratic camp. Dear Lord, please make President Obama lucky.”

The President has a style that welcomes conversation on issues of import and is no nearly as anxious as those in and using the media to stir up anxiety about ‘leadership’. He does not need to respond or react to everything in the political wind. Even so, I don’t’ understand why he is not vigorously and vociferously behind the bi Partisan budget proposals that he commissioned. Or proposing something he likes better. Representative Paul Ryan seems to be stepping into a vacuum and making proposals that seem to believe that growth will come if the rich get richer, but otherwise some credible ideas about Medicare. If that is really the best we can do (which it is not without some kind of go at social security and oour percentage of military spending) then let’s get behind him.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011


April 12, 2011

I recently preached a sermon about suffering making use of the story of Louis Zamperini as told in the book Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand. (For a while you can access the sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent here). At one level the story is of a man who was abused and tortured in Japanese camps for prisoners of war during WWII, who then had the grace to forgive his tormenters. That same grace is what is required in the face of the devastation wrought by the earthquake in Northern Japan (also part of the sermon). The sermon was not primarily about Japan, but was deeply troubling to one parishioner who had spent the past two weeks trying to locate her friends and family and who found the combination of mention of past atrocities unhelpful in a time of great need. Apparently there had been some suggestion in parts of the blogosphere that the disaster which has afflicted Japan is somehow recompense for past sins. Apparently we have to say and keep saying that such a theology of disaster that is bound up with blaming the victims for whatever befalls them has no legitimate place among Christians.

Whenever we find ourselves in a time of trouble putting our energy into blaming someone else for our distress we have being given a clue that we are looking in the wrong place for a solution to our discomfort. In blaming others for their own distress, we appear to be attempting to justify ourselves for our own lack of compassion, response or understanding. To blame the Japanese for their suffering after an earthquake, to blame victims of HIV/AIDS for their illness or to blame the poor for their poverty are out of order for followers of Jesus.

Monday, April 4, 2011


April 3, 2011

I had a conversation with a man the other day for whom church was, he felt, his ‘home’. He had grown up in various churches of various stripes, preached and taught in them and enjoyed a kind of love-hate relationship with communities that were so right for him but seemed to want him to deny a significant part of who he know himself to be because of his sexuality.

Another friend who is an expatriate living in America will sometimes say that he doesn’t know where he will be buried and really doesn’t have a preference. That will depend on the circumstances of his survivors at the time of his death. I find that I share some of that sense. Certainly, Christians believe that we are “in the world, not of it” or some such thing. Our true home, we say, is with God. The discovery of the Promised Land or Land of Promise was a part of Israel finding an identity, but the later experience of exile left a longing for some idea of ‘home’ that did not necessarily involve returning to Jerusalem for most of them. ‘Zion’ became an idea or aspiration such that John the Baptist echoed Isaiah and proclaimed a vision of mountains brought low and valleys raised up such that the people could make their way to their true home with dispatch and in safety.

I’m not entirely sure where I call ‘home’. I will sometimes refer to England as ‘home’ but when I am there I know I need to go home to Atlanta. “Home”, they say, “is where the heart is” and that seems to have quite a lot of truth to it. Even so there is something about the countryside of England that touches me in a way that the good earth and red clay of Georgia does not.

Bernhard Schlink, author of The Reader, has also written a novel called Homecoming. It is a fairly torturous plot with lots of twists and turns as a rather pathetic character tries to discover the truth about his father and so his origins. With much reference to The Odyssey our hero journeys in search of home, moving hither and yon in search of some elusive Zion. He ends by saying “I know it is not Johann Debauer or John de Baur I long for; it is the image I have made of my father and hung in my heart.”

In the end, my home is with the people I love and to whom I am committed, and while geography is important, there is no single piece of sod in which I must be buried.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Instructed Eucharist

April 2, 2011

I have recently been introduced to the work of Alexander Schmemann (1921-1983) who was the sometime Dean and professor of Liturgical Theology at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Seminary, and a mysteriously named ‘Protopresbyter’. His early work For the Life of the World (1963, 1973) and more recent The Eucharist (published posthumously in 1987) both have some of the flavor of an instructed Eucharist or series of theological mediations which might well have been offered in the contest of an Orthodox Liturgy.

I am leading our Adult Enquirers’ Class retreat this weekend that concludes with just such a service. I can go most of the way with Schmemann in his understanding of worship but find myself differing with him in some respects. He is inclined to say things like “Man is a worshiping being…for whom worship is the essential act which both ”posits” his humanity and fulfills it.” He wants to avoid reducing the Eucharist to some kind of cultic action separated from the ‘real’ or ‘outward’ work of either God or the Church. It is sacramental, a kind of sign that participates in bringing a certain godly reality into being. It is about man (sic) seeking transcendence. His views might be termed ‘high’, at least in relation to my own.

I think of worship less as the be all and end all of the world and resist claims that seem to me grandiose in their claims to worship as acts of ultimate significance; and more as ‘orienting (turning/metanoia) ourselves to that which is of ultimate worth’, and as something we do by both remembering and telling the story of faith, but also in some sense by enacting or participating in it. Articulating this enactment and participation is a real strength of Schmemann for me. He writes “The liturgy of the Eucharist is best understood as a journey or procession. It is the journey of the Church into the dimension of the Kingdom.” I would probably say something more along the lines of the Eucharist being, among other things, a means by which we mark our own journeys of faith toward what really matters, ultimate meaning, and the very life of God made manifest in the fullness of communion. If our worship is about the transformation of the world in any sense it is because it begins with our transformation into the people we were created to be.

I will be interested to see whether and to what degree Schmemann’s thinking colors the mediations I will offer on Sunday.