What Then Should We Do?

~A meditation on Luke 3:7-18

What then should we do?” It’s this question that gets me every time I read today’s Gospel. “What then should we do?” is a deeply human question. It’s personal, hopeful, and courageous. And John the Baptist being the prophet that he is actually answers the question. He gives the people something to do. He gives them a word, and invites them to make it flesh. He instructs them to examine their lives and repent. He asks them to take responsibility for one’s actions speaking, living, and growing in truth…to even stop seeking for a moment; instead, taking the time and concentrating on what has been found. Use what you have, and what has been given you; and what the people have are God’s promises, morality, faith, and hope, and love. So what exactly were the people repenting of, and what made them forget these promises? They were repenting of their self-centeredness, their pride, and their vanity. They had forgotten the oaths they swore to uphold as soldier, citizen, and state. These oaths represented something virtuous, and virtues are truths bigger than us.

With the help of John, the people are redirected to a life of virtue and virtuous living. This redirection leads to a need to self-examine. Self-examination leads to repentance. Repentance prepares the heart to receive truth incarnate, the One even John feels unworthy before. Repentance gives us permission to pay attention. “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none.” How can we tell who doesn’t have a coat if we’re not paying attention? “What should we do,” was asked three different times, and John did give the crowd something to do or something not to do, not for the sake of busy-ness, but for the sake of Being.

The Advent message is always John’s message to be on guard, to repent, turning to God time after time. It’s repenting, and accepting the peace of Christ before being invited to the altar. Once at the altar, one can honestly realize that what we are about to receive is something all of us are unworthy to receive, and yet we do receive it because we worship a God who is worthy, virtuous, and true. That’s what the people listening to John needed, and that’s what we need right now. A Savior, who is Christ the Lord. “He coming”, says John the Baptist. “I’ll wipe away your sins with water, but he’ll burn them in the fires of justice.” “I’m unworthy to untie the thong of his sandals, but he’s worthy, so pay attention, be alert, snap out of it, sleepers awake…he’s coming.”

Perhaps, “What then, should we do?” is a life or death question. The question gives us permission to take a look in the mirror and to be honest. It allows us to caliber and recalculate the dials, to turn the temperature up or down, braving reality as we face what is instead of what isn’t. What is real? What is truth? What is virtuous? These are the questions of Advent. These are the deep, deep mysteries we are preparing our hearts to receive. And the answer lived is even more mysterious for reality, truth, and virtue turn out not to be a philosophical statement, or a theological treatise. Reality, truth, and virtue turn out to be human; and not just any human, but the One who is most alive. Anything less is death, an ax lying at the root of the trees, or chaff being burned away. This season is a season where we exchange our unworthiness to the one who is worthy. Today is the day we wake up from fantasy to face the music. Advent reminds us to look truth in the eye and say, Yes to life; thus saying No to death. Yes to Christ and No to anything less than.

What then should we do?” but to incarnate being, to bring forth life to a life-less world, and there find joy in the midst of suffering. “What then should we do?” is not a happiness code, but a mantra of meaning – a question that acts as a divine chariot riding us out to the 7th heaven that just so happens to reside in our hearts. I speak abstractly today because what this season represents is hard to put into words. I speak theologically today in the hope that Christ coming again can come to be a truth in your own life. You know beauty when you see it. You understand truth when you experience it. You come into contact with goodness daily. What these virtues point to; however, transcends all thought and contemplation of them. They land you in the realm of the Divine, and the land of the Divine is personal. It has a name. It is conscious. It is with us. So come O come Emmanuel. Come into our world. Come into our hearts. Come into our lives. All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well; and yet, make yourself known, again.

Give us something.

Give us anything, Emmanuel.

Give us God.

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.

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.

 

Angels and Demons

Friday was The Feast of St. Michael and All Angels. Below are some musings on the subject; but first, take a look at the exorcism portion of the liturgy in the sacrament of Holy Baptism. This section, found in the Book of Common Prayer is sometimes called the renunciations and affirmations section of the baptismal rite.

Q.  Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?
A.  I renounce them.

Q.  Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?
A.  I renounce them.

Q. Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God?
A.  I renounce them.

Q.  Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Savior?
A.  I do.

Q.  Do you put your whole trust in his grace and love?
A.  I do.

Q.  Do you promise to follow and obey him as your Lord?
A.  I do.

When a priest is ordained, he takes vows to be pastor, priest, and teacher. All three constructs aid the archetype of priest; however, I’ve come to believe there is one underlining metaphor that unites these offices. A priest is a journeyman – not in the sense of journeying alone – but rather, as someone who ‘journeys with’. A priest has been called (by Christ and His Church) to journey with others; and not as the hero, but as a companion along The Way. Put differently, and in the context of parish life, the priest accompanies his parishioners along the hero’s pathway.

I am at my best when I see the parishioners I serve as heroes. I can easily forgive in this mindset. I remember compassion. I do not forsake love. You might say a priest is more Sam Gamgee rather than Frodo Baggins from The Lord of the Rings. Sam was right there by his friend’s side every step of the way. He spoke as needed, but knew the supremacy of silence. He evoked the power of metaphor at times, heard confessions, and gently corrected his hero when necessary. In a variety of situations and quests evil was fought, spirits were restored, and persistence remained.

Although priests are as much flesh and blood as the next person, scripture and tradition teach that there are also spiritual companions to help guide and protect along The Way. Actually, that’s putting it nicely. Angels (who we are celebrating this feast day) are better described as warriors, or maybe even secret-service agents that shield and defend us from the powers and principalities that corrupt our world. Humanity has always had a fascination with good and evil. Judeo-Christian thought has classically personified it. Roman Catholic Bishop, Robert Barron says this about evil incarnate:

“What are his usual effects? We can answer that question quite well by examining the names that the Bible gives to this figure. He is often called diabolos in the Greek of the New Testament, a word derived from dia-balein, to throw apart, to scatter. God is a great gathering force, for by his very nature [God] is love; but the devil’s work is to sunder, to set one against the other. Whenever communities, families, nations, churches are divided, we sniff out the diabolic. The other great New Testament name for the devil is ho Satanas, which means “the accuser.” Perform a little experiment: gauge how often in the course of the day you accuse another person of something or find yourself accused. It’s easy enough to notice how often dysfunctional families and societies finally collapse into an orgy of mutual blaming. That’s satanic work. Another great biblical name for the devil is “the father of lies.” Because God is Truth, truthfulness—about oneself, about others, about the way things really are—is the key to smooth human relations. But how often we suffer because of untruth!””[1]

St. Paul, in his letter to the Romans suggested that nothing, neither death, nor life, nor angels [fallen or otherwise] nor rulers…nor powers…will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom 8:38-39). In other words, evil (like death) has lost its sting; yet, that’s not the end of the story. As Christians, we remember his death. We proclaim his resurrection. We await his coming in glory (BCP, 368). We’re still living in the midst of the first two statements, and until Christ comes again [whatever that looks like], those powers of evil (which paradoxically have no power at their root) still persist to tear us (and our world) apart.

These days, a preacher (especially in The Episcopal Church) may get a scoff or two preaching a sermon on angels and demons. “How silly”, they might say. “Fr., haven’t you heard of myth and metaphor?” But I say unto you, “Haven’t you heard of Holy Eucharist, Confession, prayer, the Bible, and spiritual direction, to name a few?” Classically, these have been the tools of spiritual warfare within the world of the Christian. These gifts of the Church not only open us up to God’s love, grace, and goodness; they also protect us from evil like a devouring lion scattering and tearing our souls, communities, and families apart. We have Christ. We have His Church. We have the Angels. We can call on God’s Spirit to help us discern. We can use the sacraments and spiritual tools of the Church to strengthen us. We can call on St. Michael and his army to defend us. All of this is orthodox. It’s nothing new, but modernity casually puts it aside.

As I look around the catholic church today, I often wonder if we have forgotten how to see. Are we invested in too much of the modern spirit that we forget the Spirit of God? Are we so set on ‘not offending’ that we mirror the culture instead countering it? Are we so immersed in the ideology of inclusion and tolerance that we have forgotten Love? Love in the sense that not every idea, behavior, or thought should be given equal value or consideration. Put Biblically, we must practice discerning the spirits. We cannot do this on our own. We need the sacraments. We need prayer. We need study. We need God’s help.

In the story of Jacob’s ladder, we find Jacob wrestling with the angel. Afterwards he proclaims, “Surely God is in this place, and I did not know it.” That may be postmodernity’s mantra. God isn’t in the sacraments. What you need is additional counseling. God isn’t in nature. You only need to study biology. God isn’t real. Mankind created Him. But aren’t these classic temptations from the ‘father of lies’…who desires to violently divorce, separate, dis-order, to set one against the other and God?

Let me go on record and say: Good is real. Sin and evil are real. They reside in us, and in the world. To give into the modern religion of relativism is to claim that there is no Truth, and taking this ideology to its final argument will show that there is no meaning to life. This leaves one in a state of perpetual nihilism that is very hard to overcome. As Christians we claim that these dualities (good and evil; black and white) are finally reconciled in and by and through Christ. We are made one in His Love. In the end, we are not separated because of His Love. Remembering this oneness, and living into this Truth gives us (and the world) hope. It may be an audacious hope, but our faith tells us it’s there.

I started out this blog by musing on the metaphor of a priest as journeyman. Together, let us journey with one another with God in our hearts, and all the angels and archangels, and with all the company of heaven forever defending us, protecting us, and fighting always for the Good.

[1] Bishop Robert Barron, Word on Fire Ministries, https://www.wordonfire.org/resources/article/revisiting-the-spiritual-warfare/448/

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.