Freedom in-Dependence

Today is July 4th. Independence Day. Hundreds of years ago, our forefathers fought to free themselves and future generations from state sanctioned tyranny, control, and abuse. Today is a day to celebrate. Today is a day to let loose, and let go.

If today is a day for Americans to remember independence, it is also a day for American Christians to remember their dependence – dependence upon their Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier for even in our freedom we rely on God.

This dependence is first learned in the family. A child is totally dependent upon her parents to nurture, care, and to receive love. There is very little freedom for the child (not to mention the parents as well), and everyone involved is utterly dependent upon love. As we get older, we are introduced into a new family: the Church family. It is here where we learn about the greatest freedom of all: the freedom to love as God has loved us. Even in this grace, we find a total dependence upon God like a child with her parents.

Today, I will celebrate Independence Day with my fellow Americans, but I will also continue to pray and contemplate on how dependent I am upon my Savior. It is only in this paradoxical dependency that I am free to love as I have been loved.

The Cult of Why

**Below is an adaptation of Fr. Brandon’s sermon preached at St. Julian’s Episcopal Church on June 25, 2018.**

The Church gifts us with another lesson in spiritual maturity today. Through her poetry, prose, and prayer we discover that suffering is real; and yet, the one who calms the storm is the same one who will see us through it.

Psalm 107
Psalm 107 is a poem describing a rescue; specifically, a rescue at sea. You may have noticed the Psalm was not given to us in its entirety. This is due to the fact of its length; therefore, it is cut short for worship. Reading the whole of the Psalm we would soon discover other themes of rescue – rescues from the desert, prison, sickness, and death. In each of these contexts, God was able to rescue because God is good, and his steadfast love endures forever(107:1). God, so it seems, rescued the troubled gathering them in from the lands, from the east, and from the west, from the north, and from the south (107:3). Couple this beautiful imagery with today’s Gospel, and God is personified in Jesus so that when we hear Psalm 107:28,29, the disciples are echoing the voices of the oppressed but it is the voice of God that has the final say: Then they cried to the Lord in their troubles, and he brought them out from their distress; he made the storm be still, and the waves of the sea were hushed.

Mark’s Gospel
We’ll continue our deep dive into the Gospel of Mark through the summer and up until Advent. It was at this year’s Advent when we learned St. Mark’s thesis of who Jesus was. You’ll remember the opening line of Mark’s Gospel: The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God (Mark 1:1). St. Mark’s opening line seems tame to our 2,000-year-old Christian ears, but if we were to go back all those years we would discover that this opening line was highly political and highly controversial leading many who believed (and lived) it into the role of martyr. 2,000 years ago in Rome the title, Son of God, belonged to Caesar. It was Caesar, and Caesar only who was the Messiah – the anointed one, the son of God. Anyone who claimed otherwise was labelled an enemy of the state, and if found would be called traitor and executed a criminal. Put differently, to claim Christ over Caesar was to make a political statement claiming that it is God (and God alone) who is good, and his steadfast love (mercy and grace) endures forever. Power, The Song of Mary in St. Luke’s Gospel reminds us, shows its strength by scattering the proud in their conceit, casting down the mighty from their thrones, and lifting up the lowly. Power that comes from God fills the hungry with good things and sends the rich away – empty. The power of God remembers his promise of mercy. Mary’s soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, and her spirit rejoices in God our Savior because of these promises and more. Therefore, when St. Mark in his opening line proclaims that Jesus Christ is Son of God and not Caesar, we bear witness to Christ as Son of God when he heals, when he forgives, when he teaches, and today – when he calms the storm. It is Jesus Christ, not Caesar who has control over life, death, wind and rain. It is Jesus Christ, not Caesar, who acknowledges the oppressed, the fearful, the lonely who come at him like a tempest blowing in from the east, the west, the north, and the south.

The Forest of Why
As a priest I often bear witness to persons who suffer – suffer in body, mind, and spirit. One common thread I’ve noticed through the years is that persons often begin their story and situations with questions of “Why”? Why has this happened? Why now? Why me? I usually try to point them to the “Why Poetry” of the Bible – mainly, the Psalms whose corpus makes up an extensive amount of lamentation, suffering, and longing. It’s always good to find others who have asked similar questions and surround ourselves with them.

The question of Why, I’ve noticed is like entering into a forest. For a long time, you take a path and the path seems normal enough, but if one stays on the path long enough they will start to question the path. They will notice a rock and think to themselves, “Didn’t I see that rock a moment ago?” Then they will notice a bird’s nest and ask, “Did I not just pass by that same tree and nest two miles back?” Suffering persons who remain on this path will discover that it is not a hike through the woods, but a trail that simply circles. Once this is realized, a new path through the woods must be discovered. That path, I believe does not ask the question of “Why” but of “What”. What’s next? What do I do now? What am I called to be? I believe we cannot fully understand the question of Why because of our mortal nature (See today’s reading from the Book of Job); however, we can live into the questions of our lives by asking the right questions at the appropriate times.

The Path Out of the Woods
The past two weeks have been dark times in our country that have left us with questions of Why. On our southern boarders we have wondered with millions of Americans why are children being separated from families? Why are there so many refugees here and all around the world? Why is there so much suffering especially to the least of these? Within our own borders images of children not usually seen have been remembered with questions of Why. Why are there so many children in foster care, orphanages or find themselves homeless? Why are children exploited and objectified? We can travel into the woods a bit and spot reoccurring rocks, trees, nests, and streams. We can point to adults – the parents and guardians in their lives. We can point to policies and the politicians. We can also name hard truths like incompetency, divorce, addiction, mental illness, abuse and neglect. When one discovers that they are lost in the woods all kinds of emotions happen. Fear captures the senses sending the mind and heart racing. Anger usually sets in masking the fear a bit asking “Where did I go wrong?” “Why did I make that turn?” When we turn on the T.V. or scroll through our news feed it is usually the question of Why that brings out similar emotions. Anger and fear are made manifest in opinion pieces, blog postings, and in comment lines raising a fist with questions of Why. Then, all of a sudden, we remember that God is good, and his steadfast love endures forever. Then we remember that Jesus Christ is Lord and Caesar is not. Then we calm down, admit that we are lost, and cry out for peace. Cry out for mercy. Cry out for help. The stillness comes when we have an eye on Our Savior who helps us start to answer a new question – the question of What.

What You Can Do
Wednesday was World Refugee Day. What you can do for a refugee is to support them because Jesus is Lord and Caesar is not. The good folks at The Episcopal Migration Ministries can help you answer the question of What. The Starting Over ministry serves children and reunites them with their families in this space every single Thursday and Saturday. What you can do is give your time, talent or treasure to this ministry here. S.H.A.R.E. House is a ministry in Douglas County serving women and children who are victims of abuse and neglect. The S.H.A.R.E. House provides a safe place for women and children to rest from the addictions of abuse. Also, in Douglas County is Youth Villages, a place where children with mental and physical impairments can remember what it’s like being a kid without scorn or judgement. These are just some of the What’s in our midst when we are surrounded by a cult of Why’s. They are tangible ways to (as Bishop Wright says) “Not only [be] fans of Jesus, but also followers of him.”

Spiritual maturity combines the contemplative with outreach, the poetry with the prose, the fans with the followers. Our prayer life informs our family life, community life, and our life in this country; and yet, we pray not to Caesar but to the one who says peace, to the one who continues to calm the storms in our own lives, who continues to invite us to not only worship him in the beauty of his holiness, but to follow him.

Lead With Love

Last Saturday billions of people tuned in to watch The Royal Wedding. It was a beautiful celebration that captured the hearts of so many. As a Christian who finds his Biblical, theological, and traditional roots in the Anglican Church, I was proud to be an Episcopalian that day. My heart swelled when I heard my presiding bishop, The Most Rev. Michael Curry, deliver the homily. For a moment the world was led to remember Love – specifically, the love of Christ and how families, nations, and the earth are forever changed by the reality of this love. It is a love founded in truth and grounded in relationship.

Outside the Church, society does not lead with love grounded in relationship. These days, society finds its lead through identity (republican/democrat, rich/poor, gay/straight). Within these various tribes ‘the other’ is quickly identified as enemy number one. Those that are on the ‘right side of history’ scream for their rights as egotism, individualism, and hedonism are on full display.

Theologically speaking, the Church leads with identity as well; however, it chooses to go deeper than party affiliation, skin color, or sexual orientation. Instead, it leads with love where we are identified first and foremost as children of God in relationship with God, self, neighbor, and creation. St. Paul may have put it best when he said that it is in Christ where we live, and move, and have our being.

Bishop Curry helped the world to imagine what leading with love and relationship to ‘the other’ might look like. Jesus Christ reminds us to love our neighbors as ourselves, and to pray for those who persecute us. Although it may be tempting to lead off a conversation identifying as part of this or that tribe, why not avoid that temptation and enflesh the love of God founded and grounded in Jesus Christ? His message was a world changer in the first century and harnessing the power of God’s love today continues to change the world.

Can Anything Good Come Out of Haiti/El Salvador/Africa/Nazareth?

Preached at St. Julian’s Episcopal Church on The Second Sunday after The Epiphany (Also, Dr. Martin Luther King’s Holiday Weekend) by: The Very Rev. Brandon Duke, 2018

John 1:43-51

“I have…decided to stick with love, for I know that love is ultimately the only answer to mankind’s problems…He who hates does not know God, but he who loves has the key that unlocks the door to the meaning of ultimate reality.”
~ Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., 16 August 1967 “Where Do We Go From Here?”

G. K. Chesterton, a twentieth century author and apologist for the Christian faith, once compared the church as a place that holds a thousand doors. What he meant by this was that we come across the church in a variety of ways. Some of us are born into the faith; others converted – usually by some degree of truth, beauty, or goodness. For example, one may hear a theological argument grounded in intelligence, another sees an icon, a stained glass window, or a Christian praying the rosary. Maybe the door that was found was one of healing, music, or liturgy? Maybe the door was a grandparent, a friend, a casual invitation, or a saint? Maybe it was simply looking up into the night’s sky wondering why there is something rather than nothing?

This morning’s collect points to the light of the world, that is, Jesus Christ. In the prayer prayed a moment ago, we asked Almighty God to illumine us by God’s Word and Sacraments. No matter what door we take into the life of the Church, once inside, we participate in the ongoing grace of illumination. Illumination defined is a participation in the life of God. Think of it as a new way of seeing. Illumination can occur through the liturgy of the Word, and the Sacrament of Holy Eucharist, and all for the benefit of being in right praise and relationship with God. The consequence of illumination is that the light of Christ is made manifest through us as walking sacraments out and about in the world. As walking sacraments, we take on a vocation of prayer continually asking that we (as God’s people) may shine with the radiance of Christ’s glory, that he may be known, worshipped, and obeyed to the ends of the earth.

God is made known in a whole host of ways. Again, think of those thousands of doors. God is worshipped not only with our lips, but in our lives. Finally, God is obeyed to the ends of the earth. This morning, St. Paul stated, “All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are beneficial. This sentiment is grounded in humble obedience to God. We are given freedom, but true freedom participates in the will of God, not the will of mankind. Discerning the difference takes a lifetime, and a lifetime of contemplative focus and relationship with God can lead to illumination.

There are two beautiful phrases found in today’s Gospel that captured illumination. The first phrase was addressed to Philip, and was said by Jesus. Jesus called out to Philip, “Follow me.” Today, Christians enter into the life of the church through one of those thousands of doors; however, when we do so we are still responding to Jesus’ call to “Follow me.” We remember this call every time we participate in the sacraments, and every time Christ is worshipped and obeyed.

The other phrase comes from Philip. Here, he has answered the call of Christ, has told another (Nathanael), and Nathanael questioned him, asking, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Instead of elaborating or arguing with Nathanael, Philip responds, “Come and see.” In other words, “I’m not going to convince you that Jesus is the Son of God through argument or reason (that’s probably not your door); instead, come and see for yourself, and that’s what happened. Nathanael met Jesus. Jesus performed a miracle. Nathanael was amazed and believed; then Jesus promised a deepening of the spiritual life and relationship with him – that is, illumination. “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” Illumination will occur, Jesus could have easily said, and not because of you, but because of me. Nathanael, like Philip was called, each in different ways, and because they responded to the Lord new promises would be fulfilled.

This week, I had the opportunity (as dean) to gather the priests of your convocation (the SW Convocation) at Iglesia El Buen Pastor where Fr. Ramón Betances serves as priest. Fr. Ramón serves parishioners that hail from Mexico, El Salvador, as well as other Latino countries. In our own pews here at St. Julian’s, we gather as Christian brothers and sisters with one another. Our nationalities bring us here from America, Trinidad, Barbados, Australia, Jamaica, and Haiti – to name a few. We speak English, French, French-Creole, and Spanish. We stumble through the Way of Christ together, and with God’s help we have answered the call of Christ, and encourage others to “come and see” even while prejudices abound. This week, when I heard that our President – the President of the United States, a President whom I pray for, – allegedly muse, “Why are we having all these people from [poor] countries come here” referring to Haiti, Mexico, El Salvador, Africa, and beyond [and not using the word “poor” but an expletive], I was reminded of Nathaniel’s questioning to Philip, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Well, can anything good come out of Haiti? Mexico? Africa? The Islands?

Yes. The answer is, “Yes”. How do I know this? Because I see you. Because I know you. And when I see you I see Christ. In my own prejudices, and when I’m walking out and about in the world, I run across folks who make me nervous, folks that look differently than me, that dress differently than me, that talk differently than me – and when I catch myself being nervous – when I catch myself in my prejudices – you know what I do? At my best, I remember you. I remember Haiti. I remember El Salvador. I remember the islands, food, culture, music, truth, beauty, goodness; and it is through these virtues and the relationships I have with each and every one of you where the Church opens up her doors to me; Christ illuminates me; and I repent.

Loving neighbor as self is hard. Praying for those who persecute you may be even harder. As Christians, we are called to do both. Why? Because we are called to obey Christ. At Christmas we were reminded that Jesus is Lord, not Caesar or the State. Here in the Season of Epiphany, we live into our call to seek and serve Christ in all persons- loving neighbor as self. This week, be like St. Philip. Don’t get into an argument when prejudice is proclaimed and ignorance abounds. Instead, try another door. Try prayer. Try forgiveness. Try compassion. Let these virtues guide you to the love and light of the world, to Jesus Christ – the illuminator, the sanctifier…the one standing at the door….your door….knocking.

“I have…decided to stick with love, for I know that love is ultimately the only answer to mankind’s problems…He who hates does not know God, but he who loves has the key that unlocks the door to the meaning of ultimate reality.” 

Mary – Mother of God

Luke 1:26-38

An electric anticipation fills the air as we celebrate the fourth and final Sunday of Advent. We can guess what this afternoon, evening, and tomorrow may hold; yet this morning take a deep, collective breath before plunging into Christmas. May I suggest looking to Mary, and observing (with her) how the angelic messenger of God transformed her world from the ordinary into the extraordinary? For a moment, may we too give a loving ‘Yes’ to God, and with Mary stand perplexed and pondering, “What sort of Advent greeting this may be?”

The greeting named Mary “favored one.” This title was such an existential shock to Mary she had no words in that moment. She allowed the angel to proceed with his words while humbleness took over her disposition – Again, “She pondered.” Once the angel finished his divine proclamations, revelations, and prophesies it was Mary who did not let the truth found in these statements overwhelm her. Instead of being called into Heaven, she brought Heaven to Earth with her practicality –  “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” (Didn’t see that one coming, did you angel?) It’s quite possible the angel fumbled a bit, and tried to relate, taking a different approach with his next set of sentences. Perhaps he sat down, took at deep breath, and compared Mary’s miraculous birth with her relative, Elizabeth’s. It may have been a bit of a stretch, but being a good Jewish woman, Mary might have taken the angel’s counsel of her own pregnancy, and compared it to her ancestors Sarah and Hannah. Were impossible pregnancies just something that ran in her family? Again, the answer was ‘Yes’ and in perhaps the most beautiful poetic response to any angel’s musings, Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” The scripture says that the angel simply went away (possibly relieved). The message was signed, sealed, and delivered. Mary, in that moment gave herself away to something greater than herself. She became a vessel of God – a vessel for God – a vessel to God.

Fun Fact: Mary and Pontius Pilot are the only historical persons besides Jesus who are mentioned in the Creeds of the Church. Where Pontius Pilot would later ask Jesus, “What is Truth,” not knowing that Truth was standing before him, it was Mary who held Divine Truth in her very being, birthing it into a world that desperately needed it. Perhaps this is our calling as well? Sunday after Sunday we gather here on the Lord’s Day proclaiming what we believe (credo).

“We believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only son…He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. He suffered under Pontius Pilate.”

What are we to do with this statement?

I think we are to ponder it in our hearts. I think we are to say ‘yes’. I think we are then called to be vessels of the truth. We are to imitate the great saint of Advent – Mary, the Mother of God. When we say Christ was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary, we are reminding ourselves to purify our hearts, minds, and bodies so that God’s Spirit will be revealed through us, dare I say, birthed into being through us. Truth is able to make itself known when we say, “Let it be to me according to your word.” When we don’t do this, truth suffers under Pontius Pilate again and again and again. We hold the truth within us instead of giving it away. We allow States, Caesers, Emperors, Kings, Congress and Presidents to possess so called self-evident truths and realities, when the only reality I know of in Heaven and on Earth is Christ. Put Christ up alongside those brothers above, and they pale in comparison. They just don’t hold up. Mary knew this too. Today, choirs across the world sing her song:

He [Christ] has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.

No Pontius Pilot in history has ever sung that song!

It is only by the merciful rhythm of Christ that we can even begin to dance to this music, to experience its graceful melodies, to have the eternal laugh of Sarah, Hannah, Elizabeth, and Mary. What God calls us into during the seasons of Advent and Christmas is none other than history itself. God invites the credo of our hearts to be made manifest in his creation: Spirit with flesh, and flesh with Spirit. When this happens, new music is made. We get to play jazz because we have learned the truth, and the truth has set us free. This is Mary’s eternal song: Playing jazz with a people named Israel, its prophets, and its future apostles all the while Christ is being brought forth, truth is being brought forth, beauty is being brought forth, goodness is being brought forth and we are caught up in the moment, caught up in the history of it all.

As the music of Advent fades, and we turn up the volume on Christmas, may God’s truth reverberate throughout history. The true song is the song of Mary. The true reality is Christ. The true vessel is the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. We say, proclaim and believe these scandalous things each and every week (for some of us, each and every day). May we use the music of this season to wake us up to these gifts that we have been given so that we may share them with a worn and weary world crying out the eternal question of Pontius Pilate, “What is Truth?” God has an answer to this question. This afternoon, this evening, and for the next 12 days may we celebrate this eternal truth who has come into the world.

Maranatha. Come, Lord Jesus.

Not Only With Our Lips, But In Our Lives

Matthew 25: 14-30

Earlier this Fall I came upon an old commentary on St. Matthew’s gospel by the great 13th-century theologian, Thomas Aquinas. In Aquinas’ book, he takes the early church fathers and mothers’ own commentary of this gospel, and lays them side-by-side. Today, I wanted to look briefly at Matthew 25: 14 -30 through the interpretive lenses of these early fathers and mothers, trying to put some of their teachings into the context of our culture today.

5 Talents
What struck me about these early writings were the various interpretations on the literal number of talents, and what their spiritual meaning could possibly point. For example, the 5 talents were theologically represented as humanity’s 5 senses. From our senses, we are able to experience the world; and yet, without the acknowledgment of God’s spirit within our senses (i.e. our bodies) we cannot possibly experience the kingdom of God. The doubling of the 5 talents into 10, mystically represents an infusion of this spirit with flesh. Put theologically – the 10 talents represent an incarnational faith. Put philosophically – they represent the good life.

The 5 talents were also interpreted as the 5 Books of Moses. Keep in mind this is Matthew’s Gospel where Jesus was often represented as “the new Moses”. Jesus Christ, as the very incarnation of Torah and Spirit, revealed to all that his Spirit and resurrected flesh was the way, the truth, and the life.

2 Talents and the 1
The early church teachers taught that the 2 talents represented understanding and action, while the 1 talent represented understanding only. This is a significant teaching because faith requires both. It requires an understanding of the law and the commandments of God on one hand (i.e. Torah), and on the other it activates the spirit of the law through thought, word, and deed. What the early church fathers and mothers were trying to teach – and quite possibly what Jesus was trying to teach – was that faith does not end with understanding – It begins there, and action follows.

With Great Gifts Come Great Responsibility
One of the final teachings on this passage within this ancient commentary has to do with responsibility. Responsibility was placed on those who had been given much, and were represented in the persons with the 5 and 3 talents. When the responsible faithful start to understand much has been given, and much can be taken away (think here the story of Job) those 5 talents begin to take shape, and lead with a posture of humbleness, humility, and prayer. Perhaps those with the 5 talents could also be interpreted as the Church, and how it proclaims God with us in a different way (i.e. no longer in the physical body of Jesus, but in the resurrected spirit of Christ). The Church (as the spiritual body of Christ) further proclaims the resurrected Jesus will come again in glory judging the quick and the dead. Finally, within this proclamation of the church are the 2 talents calling on those individual members who make up the Church helping them to understand the commandments of God, and to act on them accordingly – mainly loving neighbor as self, or loving the other as we have been greatly loved by God.

Application
Quite a lot of burying one’s talents in the earth is going on right now in popular culture – Is it not? What many of us thought were great men of talent, buried their talents in the desires of the world, and are now making excuses and/or apologizing for their pridefulness, lust, and deceit. We are tempted to go along with their excuses because of the great works they have given us – in politics, comedy, movies and music; however, these men that were once considered bigger than life now seem fearfully small when their actions are put against the light of truth.

So much is being uncovered right now. So much that has been drowned through the years is bubbling up to the surface. As Christians, we are called to forgive knowing that judgment is for God – and God alone. We can hold steady to the Rock of our Salvation. We, as the Church, can counter the culture by infusing spirit with flesh and flesh with spirit. In other words, we can pray – not only with our lips – but in our lives. By giving up ourselves to the service of Christ, and by walking before God with humbleness and gentleness of heart.

We could proclaim the cerebral Amen, and stay fixed to our comfortable pews once a week, or we can translate Amen into tangible acts of mercy, goodness, and justice. This ebbing and flowing of Amen and action, action and Amen mimics the very movement of God made flesh – Torah with Spirit, Understanding with Action, Repentance with Forgiveness.

On most days when I read the news, I am struck not only by the 7 deadly sins that cover most of the front page every morning; I also become anxious as to how rapid and liquefied society has become. Classic institutions, morality, tradition, and even reason seem to be evaporating before our eyes. I once believed that politics could solve many of societies ills because politics had traditionally relied on an informed public, and the art of reasoned argument. Emotionalism, relativism, and the loudest voices in room have now destroyed this classical construct. Historically (at least in the West), politics has been infused with a morality and ethics held together by Judeo-Christian teachings and values. And what about the institutional church? If the Church is to survive and give an answer to the polarities of politics, it is to do the responsible thing and not be anything else than the Church – The Church of Jesus Christ. It is to hold up for the world the life, love, and light of Christ found in the Gospel, Holy Eucharist, prayer, and spiritual action – with God’s help.

Honestly, there are some days when I want the Church to be like Noah’s ark who brought in all those creatures in order to save them from the flood – In order to save them while the rest of the world destroyed itself (See here Rod Dreher’s argument for this approach). Then there are times when I want the Church to embrace its newfound role – that is – a subculture that counters the ways of the world by injecting the world with its Divine Truth with a hope that one day God will make all things new. On my better days, I believe our work as the Church of Jesus Christ is a bit of both: It holds to its three-fold ministry of scripture, tradition, and reason while at the same time recklessly scatters the love of God to an un-loving world.

Right now, in our time and place, we have great responsibility and knowledge, understanding and Spirit that are counting on us to invest – invest in the eternal attributes of God, the eternal teachings of God, and the eternal gifts of God that make us people of God. Jesus Christ is still on mission. He’s still calling disciples, and he still upholds his promise that he is with us – even to the end of the age. In this age, may we never forget these promises, and at the same time may we never forget that our Amens are constantly calling us to Action – with God’s help.

 

By Erasing Art We Forget Our Flaws and How it Mixes with God’s Grace

Art evokes many things: Truth, beauty, goodness – emotion, controversy, pleasure, and contemplation. Artists can be a bit more complicated. They can be mystics, manic-depressives, manipulators, or murderers. They have been lovers, fighters, pedophiles, perverts, and prodigies.

Often times we equate the work of art to the artist (think Michelangelo’s paintings in the Sistine Chapel) but this oversimplifies the complexities of the human condition. Michelangelo, for example, not only painted and sculpted masterfully, he also ate, drank, slept, had relationships, emotions, and longings. By virtue of being human he also made mistakes. You might say Michelangelo was flawed even though his work (arguably) was not.

The same line of thinking could be said for all mankind. No matter what one’s vocation may be, that vocation does not ultimately define a person – it’s simply a part of the person, an extension of the (flawed) self. For example, popular characters from the Bible – Moses, King David, and the Apostle Paul – were all murderers in their lifetimes; yet, for billions of Jews and Christians these are three of the most respectable men in the Bible. Moses freed a people, King David ruled with valor, and Paul wrote masterful letters to the early Christian communities. Again, these were flawed individuals, but (arguably) their life’s work was not.

Could we not make the same argument for the founders of this country? They most certainly were flawed, but their life’s work was not. Taking down statues, plaques, stained glass, and other works of art that depict the founding fathers forgets the complexities of being considered great (and flawed) all at the same time.

  • Augustine was a sex addict; yet because of his work is now a saint. Should we burn his writings?
  • Lewis Carroll was a pedophile; yet because of his work his stories are read in nurseries around the world. Should we ban “Alice” from “Wonderland”?
  • Martin Luther once suggested a child with a mental disorder be drowned because he had no soul. Should all Protestant Christians return to “Mother Church”?
  • Jesus Christ often told parables where many of the characters were slaves. Should we edit these stories out of the Bible because Jesus did not object?

Why do we leave the statues, plaques, stained glass, and other works of art that depict the founding fathers up? I would argue – You leave them up because of grace – amazing grace, dare I say?[i] You leave them up to help people and parishioners remember that great women and men make mistakes – sometimes huge – yet grace and mercy are still available. And if grace and mercy are still available to them, then they are available to us as well. Personally, I like remembering flawed people because I am a flawed person. I especially enjoy remembering them and their work knowing that they were sinners just like me; and yet, by the grace of God they were also loved.

As a Christian, I don’t define myself solely on who I am, but whose I am. In other words, I am a child of God. That is what ultimately defines me. The same can be said for Moses, Augustine, Washington, Jackson, or Lee. We can choose to label them good or evil, but ultimately they too are children of God – warts and all. As citizens in our country debate tearing down, building up, or leaving art where it stands, consider your own flawed nature compared with the goodness of God. Nobody stacks up; therefore, it is by grace that we can all be called children of God.

[i]           Slave ship captain, John Newton, wrote the song “Amazing Grace”. Should we get rid of his music in our churches too? Sterilizing history is a slippery slope. At what point do we cross the line?

Statement on #Charlottesville

Every Lord’s Day, we gather as a community of faith to proclaim what all Christians believe. The Nicene Creed begins, “We believe in God, the Father Almighty.” When we claim that God is “Almighty” we reveal a very powerful God (God of powers or Lord of powers may sum up “Almighty” well). Yet, this all-powerful God chose to relinquish all power and became powerless in the form of a human child. This child eventually grew up and taught us how to “walk in love”. We know the rest of the story: The world rejected his teachings, sought truth elsewhere, and “He suffered death and was buried.” But in a twist of fate, look what happened: “On the third day He rose again.” That’s a surprise, and is still surprising today if we allow its truth to sink into our bones. What this means is that love has won and death has been conquered.

Living into the faith of the Christian Creed sneaks up on us. There are times when it is simply words, but at others God seems to reveal its words (and meaning) to us when we least expect it. In Charlottesville, VA this past weekend the worldly powers that be were on full display that reminded us of the mob violence that killed our Lord (“He was crucified under Pontius Pilate”). The Good News of Jesus Christ is that He set us free to love without fear. Any thing, group, ideology, or politic that does not allow freedom to love is anti-Christ. When we are shackled to hate, stereotyping, and ignorance we run the risk of binding others to us in a show of vengeful force. Ultimately, the chains can be released but only by the grace of God. It is by His grace that we are saved.

Pope (Emeritus) Benedict XVI once stated this about our All-Powerful God:

“The highest power is demonstrated as the calm willingness completely to renounce all power; and we are shown that it is powerful, not through force, but only through the freedom of love, which, even when it is rejected, is stronger than the exultant powers of earthly violence” ~ from his Introduction to Christianity, p. 150.

As Christians it is our duty to continue to seek, experience, and reveal this “freedom to love”. Everything else confines us to the powers of this world. Pray for those who are shackled by hate. Lift up those who have been injured or died. Renounce the “evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God” and instead “persevere in resisting evil, and whenever you fall into sin, repent, and return to the Lord.”

Remember: We protest hate, bigotry and violence by our very lifestyles. This week, style your life around the freedom to “walk in love as Christ loves us” and continue to pray for those who persecute this love. When we do this we are in heavenly company.

A Review of Rod Dreher’s, The Benedict Option

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In Rod Dreher’s new book on Christian ecclesiology, The Benedict Option, remembering the holiness of order paves the way for Christians to direct their lives through regular prayer, fasting, repentance, and the holy sacraments. These ancient practices are orthodox, but Dreher argues that Christians have forgotten that these practices are vehicles that point to the Divine. They are holy technologies that ground the practicing Christian in faith, hope, and love.

Intentional community is where Dreher spends the bulk of his book. Here, he lifts up the importance of orthodox teaching, preaching, theology, and liturgy in today’s churches. Also, nothing is left out for the individual, family, or community; all aspects of life are to be ordered around following Jesus Christ. Anything other than a reordering of one’s life to Christ calls into question one’s seriousness toward Christianity, its tenants, and its founder.

The ongoing metaphor of the book is found in the story and image of Noah’s Ark. The church, Dreher argues, is both “Ark and Wellspring – and Christians must live in both realities. God gave us the Ark of the church to keep us from drowning in the raging flood. But He also gave us the church as a place to drown our old selves symbolically in the waters of baptism, and to grow in new life, nourished by the never-ending torrent of His grace. You cannot live the Benedict Option without seeing both visions simultaneously” (238). The church as Ark is to keep the orthodox teachings and liturgies alive and well, and not to water down theology for the sake of progress. The church stands as a symbol counter to the culture around it. If the church simply mirrors society, it ceases to be the church. The church as “a place to drown our old selves” is an aged old teaching, first by Jesus Christ himself, then by St. Paul. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus tells his disciples, “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Matt 10:39). The dying to self metaphor is more clearly in Romans, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life…” (Rom 6:4).

Christianity has always been a religion of paradox; the main paradox being that dying to self brings newness of life through Christ’s resurrection. I believe Dreher is arguing that life is found in Christ through the church and through the Spirit’s holy ordering. The world has forgotten the ordering; thus progresses along with an eventual death by nihilism and narcissism in its various forms and technologies (i.e. individually, corporately, institutionally, and systematically). This begs the question: Is God’s creation good? Well, it certainly was “in the beginning,” but what and how do we experience goodness now? Jesus famously said, “None is good but God…” (Mark 10:8). This may be our answer, and ultimately Dreher’s point: If nothing is good but God, why not order all aspects of our lives toward the entity that created goodness? After all, is God not the creator of truth, beauty, and goodness?

How one responds to Dreher’s questions (and thesis) will depend on one’s theology, the church one attends, and even how one reads the Bible, and taking Dreher at his word is to fall in line with one expression of Christianity over another; however, in a world that is more and more polarized, knowing what “the other side” says, or has been saying for millennia is important when approaching the debate table. After all, what brings all Christians to the table in the first place is Christ, and arguing over what is best in any given tradition may ultimately be a matter of unity over and above uniformity.  I would recommend this book to both my conservative and liberal Christian friends. It’s an honest look on how Christians can live into the goodness of God with the gift of the church, community, and prayerful discipleship. I agree with Dreher that many have forgotten what relationship with God, self, and neighbor looks like, and it is up to Christians to get this ordering right. It’s an option worth considering. It’s an option worth practicing. It’s an option worth living, even in the midst of death.

Taking Bible Verses Out of Context is Bad Theology – Please Stop Doing It

“I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life,” said Jesus, “No one comes to the Father, except through me.” ~John 14:6

In Sunday schools, ecumenical gatherings, and living rooms all across America there have been arguments about what this one verse says, or doesn’t say. It is such a controversial statement to so many, and for this reason, let’s take a hard look at it. In order to do this, I am not going to treat Jesus’ statement as a sound bite. Instead, I’m going to put it into the context of the entire passage (John 14:1-14), as well as within the overall theme of John’s Gospel.

First, let’s look at what Jesus is not saying. Jesus is not making a statement for or against one religion. In fact, this passage has nothing to do with religion. Through the years, and when this passage is read in Bible study settings, it is inevitable that someone in the group will make the leap of what is actually said by Jesus (which is a statement about himself) to the religious realm. Usually this person (or persons) are uncomfortable that Jesus would make such an exclusive statement, thus leaving out every other major religion in the world. “What happens to them?” (read Jews, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists here) it may be asked, and after such a question the Bible study is led down a rabbit’s hole where the text is forgotten and speculation rules the day. Let’s be clear. This “I am” statement is not about religion (Christianity or otherwise). If one wants to discover Jesus’ various attitudes toward religiosity, there are plenty of other passages in which to explore. This is not one of them.

That being said, what this text can lead to is far more interesting in that it takes the believer to a deeper understanding of Christ through our questioning and prayers. First, John Chapter 14 and following is a farewell address from Jesus to his friends. When people say ‘goodbye’ to one another, and the goodbye is a permanent one, naturally we grieve. This grief was expressed with Thomas’ question, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” (John 14:5) Jesus gives the famous answer, and famously his disciples do not understand. Take a moment and ponder if you yourself have not said some variation of Thomas’ question at a funeral? His question is painfully human. Secondly, and pulling the camera back from this scene scanning the whole of John’s Gospel, Jesus (you’ll remember) is the Word made flesh (John 1:1). All of creation flows through Christ (the Word), and out of Christ (the Word), we recall the Way, the Truth, and the Life. How could Christ be otherwise? From John’s scene today, God’s Word in the person of Jesus the Christ was displayed in his very being as the Way, the Truth, and the Life. The Way, the Truth and the Life is not just a theological statement; it is the same reality in which our own prayers live, move, and have their being “in the Father.” Finally, St. John’s theology is often referred to as “insider language” and rightly so. Jesus Christ as the Way, the Truth, and the Life only makes sense to the believer – nobody else.

Next time you’re in your small group, Bible study, or batting theology around and this passage comes up, understand

  1. Jesus is saying goodbye to his friends.
  2. His “I am” statement is in response to Thomas’ grief.
  3. His statement belongs to those who believe in him and pray in his name.

Hope this helps.