Priestly Goth

my over all reflections as the Priestly Goth

Suffering and Joy on the Dance Floor: or Dancing to Joy Division

My friend Tripp recently published a brief musing on suffering and death: it’s kind of goth. I’ve sat with the musing.  Part of what he’s wrestling with are the ways many Christians often make suffering trite by attempting to make God responsible for it ( in some way) or at least responsible for making it meaningful.  What stuck with me and what trips me up, is his having said God suffer’s and dies everyday.  I get it, but I can’t help but think this says too much, and is also a means to bring God too close, too understandable.

This was in the back of my mind as I headed out to the goth night Nocturna at the Metro, this past Saturday.  Shortly after arriving Scary Lady Sarah spun Joy Division‘s Love Will Tear us Apart.

It’s a great song, I love to dance to it.  As I was dancing to this haunting,melancholic, tortured song I was aware of the contrast between the  joy I was feeling as I danced and the pain of a failing relationship sung about in the song.  As I danced I also recalled the circumstances of Ian Curtis’ death and his own physical and mental health struggles and suffering.

Such an amazing song.  Such beauty that touches so many.  Love Will Tear Us Apart invariably fills the dance floor.

I feel there is something here.  I have great wonderment at how such beauty, joy ( even hope), come out of  expressions of pain and suffering.

As I danced I thought and prayed (for Ian Curtis, for others wrestling with their demons like he did, perhaps dancing next to me), and I observed in amazement how my awareness of  the pain of a failing relationship sung about in the song, didn’t diminish the joy in dancing to a haunting pain filled song of longing for something more.

Love Will Tear us Apart is larger than the pain of a failing relationship, Joy division and Ian Curtis’s songs inhabit a world that encompasses but is larger than Ian’s tragic story.  Even so without the pain, without Ian Curtis and his pain and suffering there wouldn’t be the music of Joy Division, nor the joy found in dancing to it, as we connect with a longing for something beyond pain and suffering.

“God suffers and dies. everyday”.

Ian Curtis’s suffering and troubled mental life wasn’t for the purpose of  my enjoyment in dancing to one of his songs more than 30 years after his death.  Even so, out of who he was and the circumstances of his life and mental state he created some amazing music, in which there is great longing and joy.  There wasn’t purpose to his suffering, but for a time at least he reached beyond pain and suffering and wove that pain into great music.  What I find in Joy Divisions songs and lyrics is longing and beauty in the midst of pain, frustration, and depression.

Things to contemplate, something contemplated in the movement of bodies on a dance floor some 30 years after the song was recorded.

“God does not give us suffering. God does not give us death.

God suffers and dies. Every day. “


“Going to Church” and the Church as Body of Christ.

I mentioned in my reflection on intimacy and public worship that I had some more ecclesiological thoughts in response to Donald Miller.  Instead of putting Donald Miller’s ecclesiology to the question,  I will simply explore how we are talking about church attendance and how we may approach that from asking questions of what sort of thing we are as the Body of Christ, the Church.

My corner of the interwebs tells me there is much anxiety and frustration about church attendance.  My sense of all this is that we want to make church many things: intimate encounter with God, community, cultural expression, an environment for learning, etc. In many ways church is all those things and more.  However, one can find those things elsewhere.  They don’t give compelling reason for why there should be church, and even less compelling reason to attend church.  These reasons for going to church or being part of a church are all good things, but not sufficient reason to bother with church.

The Apostle Paul uses the language of body to talk about the ecclesia.  This language is both political, that is in the sense of body politic, and biological, as in what makes up a biological organism.  Elsewhere Paul also uses the language of a temple, a structure that is both built and organically grows (ya, he mixes metaphors to get at what the ecclesia is).

Then we have our english term “church” , which translates the greek word ecclesia.  Our usage “church” varies. Church can, in its broadest sense, be any religious institution.  More specifically and more commonly “church” means any institutionalised group of Christians, a local congregation and/or a denomination of Christians.

 If I’m remembering correctly the etymology, is the germanic Kierke which was derived from the greek Kyrie (Lord), that which belongs to the Lord (God, Christ).

As the Church we are the people of God, an ecclesia, a gathered people, called and gathered together by God.

What I’d like to suggest is that to be the Church, and to do what the Church does, ie worship, is formative.  We are formed, built and grow into what we are.  This takes all sorts of rites, rituals, and activities.  These have various forms corporate, bodily, personal.  Yet, none of those things exhaust who we are and who we are being formed into.  This is formative and it is collective.  Church and worship are about being a body, stones built into a living temple. Through baptism, faith, Eucharist we are becoming, and are, a holy nation of priests, together.

It’s possible that we can be tempted to reduce church to only one aspect of our usage, such as  if we were to assume church is only a building based on  english usage that elides the architectural structure of our being gathered and who we are as the people of God, because the building and the group carry the same name.  However, the problem isn’t that the place of our gathering bears the name of who we are as the body of Christ, nor is the problem that it comes to be attached to the activity of gathering.  The problem is separating ourselves from what we are through seeing church as a building or an activity that exists or goes on without us.

I want to suggest that our participation is key in becoming what we are, but this formation doesn’t occur because of our action only.  Our actions are what agree with what God is doing.

We get baptised, we eat bread and wine, we are anointed, hands are laid upon us, and these things form us into a particular type of “being”, but they do so because of what God is doing in and through these rituals rites, actions, words, music, and eating.

We can neither be solely focused on God, nor solely focused on what we do.  Nor is this about my personal individual experience, unless by personal one posits the presence of others, and God as the ultimate other, as part of the makeup of the person.

What I have said here, simply scratches the surface of what church and worship are and do.  We are and are becoming what God forms us into. We are what God gathers us to, we become the people of God , the Body of Christ, the Ecclesia, the Lord’s.  We are the church and so we go to church, and we attend church as the church.  And language fails us, and language helps us  know who we are becoming, a living temple.

Salonathon at the Beauty Bar: A surface and everyday beauty?

Monday night a friend who is an actor was performing as David Bowie at Salonathon at the Beauty Bar.

If you aren’t aware the Beauty Bar is a bar and beauty salon rolled into one ( or as their website says “The World’s only beauty saloon…”.  Specials include such things as a martini and manicure.

Salonathon is a performance art night for armature, emerging and genre bending artists.   Its a bit of hipster place, and Kate and I were goths among hipsters.  We were there also as theater people supporting our friend.

I’m not sure what I expected, or rather I had dread and hope.  I dreaded that, with the exception of our friends performance, the acts would be horrible.  I hoped for some brilliance something that would grab me and make we say wow.  Neither the dread nor the hope happened.

It was an enjoyable and entertaining evening.  Our friends Bowie was spot on, though I have to admit I’m not sure the point of the performance.

This was my overall sense of the evening.  I’m not sure the point beyond being entertained.  This is an odd (though not entirely foreign understanding of artistic expression) attitude toward art, that it is primarily for entertainment.  I had hoped to be transported elsewhere, to be, at least once, confronted and blinded by something incredibly beautiful.  Instead what I found was the beauty of the every day.  The beauty of a skill well performed.

Nothing wrong with that at all.  I’m more musing on my own longing and striving.   I look for art that transforms and transfigures, that disturbs the world, not simply art that reflects, re-presents and mirrors what i already experience.  When I experience and encounter art I want to be different because of the performance, the concert, or encounter with the sculpture or painting.  Certainly I may also be entertainment and find  connection with what i already know and experience.  However, i want art to be different, or more to the point to make a difference.  I’m looking for transcendence that makes a difference in me and the world.

So I enjoyed myself at Salonathon, and I’m glad it exists.  But Monday night made no difference for me.  Salonathon is just one of many entertaining and aesthetically pleasing things I may engage in any give week or month here in Chicago.  I thus find that I’m indifferent to the event.

I find this indifference troubling, so perhaps, there’s something there.  I might change my expectations, but other than a puzzling experience nothing about Salonathon challenges my expectations.  They simply are reinforced in an oblique way.

Lastly I should mention Salonathon is also had a dance party dimension to it, and the DJ was quite good, and the music he spinned was quite good, though none of it exactly my cup of Tea (little if anything approaching my goth aesthetic).  We didn’t stay for the Dance party portion of the event, it being Monday night and staying up to 2 am wasn’t going to happen!  So, perhaps the transcendence is woven into the ecstasy of the dance party for the regulars.

Perhaps that’s it, Salonathon is just a party for artists.

Velvet Elvis and the Mystery of the Church

In my current research I’m reading Rob Bell. I began with Velvet Elvis. When Rob Bell published Velvet Elvis and was talking about repainting Christianity I was quite literally painting: writing icons.  He was questioning what he had received. He was “repainting”  his understanding of the Christian tradition. I was seeking to receive a tradition that wasn’t mine and to paint it true.    There is something compelling about the answers that Rob Bells comes in his re-visioning of Evangelical Christianity (the tradition he had received), and they reveal so much.

Bell has a brief discussion of the Church in Velvet Elvis. Bell describes church in two very different ways.

One is very human, a collection of individuals, an institution run by those humans and which reflects the attitudes and activities of those human beings.  As such this institution, these groups of people, exist to live out the ideals of the Gospel.  Rob Bell says this of this church or these churches  “…is like a double-edged sword.when it’s good… it’s like nothing on earth.  A group of people committed to selflessly serving and loving the world around them? great but when it ‘s bad all that potential gets turned the other way.”

Then Bell also says this  about the Church: “She’s indestructible. When she dies in one part of the world, she explodes in another. She’s global, She’s universal. She’s everywhere. And while she’s fragile, she’s going to endure…. Jesus said the gates of hell will not prevail against her. That’s strong language… She will continue to roll across the ages, serving and giving and connecting people with God and each other.  And people will abuse her and manipulate her and try to control her , but they’ll pass on, and she will keep going.”

The connection between these two very different, even contradictory, claims isn’t accounted for.  The first claim certainly seems to be an accurate description of my experience of congregational or parish life, and even of much of the history of Christianity.  The second describes something (or is it someone?) that  transcends the frailty of Christian, individuals, groups, and leadership.

I have some questions though.  By saying that the church is a group of people committed to selflessly serve and love the world around them, seems to make the reality of the church dependent upon the works (and yes I intend the baggage of that word to be heard) of the people that make up the church.  The Evangelical mind wants to call both realities church.  And on some level they are.  However, in the first meaning of church, church is dependent upon the accomplishment of a goal (which contradicts, a description of the church Rob Bell that of  a journey not a destination).  The second though Rob Bell doesn’t come out and say it is dependent upon the work of God, not human beings.  Rob Bell recognizes  that the church transcends a body of believers:  it will survive the vicissitudes of history.  He recognizes this transcendence as part of his  repainting, a reworking of the tradition out of which he comes.  He of course in Velvet Elvis is attempting to creatively stay within that tradition, so the emphasis is on the church as a group of Christians who do certain things, mainly things consistent with Jesus’s teachings, but here at the end of this chapter and near the end of the book, he suggests that something else might be going on.

Not surprisingly I want more than Velvet Elvis’ brief flirtation with the mystery of the Church. I want to sit and listen to those who claim that something else is going on.  I don’t simply want to put a very human view of the church (the church is merely what its members make of it) alongside an assertion that  somehow the church is more than the collective effort of individual Christians, and say no more.

Jacques Maritain articulates this mystery as the difference between the personnel and the person of the Church (note the singularity, “person”).  I don’t know if I agree with Maritain, but it begins to articulate the longing I’m attempting to express here.  If church is just the people and not also something that transcends and binds us together and nurtures in us the mind of Christ, then I despair of this thing we call Christianity. However if the church is more than our collective action and activity and is being, (a being) that can be who we are beyond what we do,then there’s grace and then there is the loving call to be a saint.

 

Progress, Emergence, Christianity, and the Church

I’m on a search to find my place in our current landscape and to tell a certain story about how I believe I have found my self in this moment and place.    In doing so I’m finding that there are many ways to tell the story of our current “crisis”.  I feel though that in the wake of the skepticism in the late 20th century of the meta-narrative, we still are seeking that story to which we will all no matter where we are from will accept, retell and in turn interpret our particular narratives accordingly.

“Progress” as a singular self-evident moral movement into the future is one of those meta-narratives (described in President Obama’s SOTU as the wheel of progress.).  It seems to me that the mythology of progress as grand narrative is at the moment being reworked into the our understanding of “Emergence”, or the Great Emergence.  This continued invention of the meta-narrative that we all must give our allegiance just feels odd to me.

It’s not  that the story doesn’t make sense or even have persuasive power. I do think that things can change or even change for the better, and Phyllis Tickle  in her book The Great Emergence, does a grand job of briefly making sense of a large amount of historical territory.  Rather, it is the singularity of these narratives and the metaphysics of history that underlie them that troubles me because they disallow other ways of accounting for these phenomena, the expect us all to tell the same story in the end.

But in the end to talk about progress and to talk about meaning of change and movement through history whether in the particularities of particular technologies (Such as trains and vinyl records discussed in this blog post.) or in grand sweep of religion and human nature, one should only talk about progress in terms of aim or goal.  The the longer the arc we wish to trace it seems the more metaphysical and the more we leave out in such a trace.

And I’ll admit in this skepticism towards meta-narratives I’m inconsistent, since I do give myself over to the meta-narrative of Christianity, salvation history, Heiligegeschichte.  And to some extent in this blog I’m seeking to write my narrative along the lines of the meta-narrative of the Church (though I’m finding it difficult to find a singular all encompassing story, or up and until now, I’ve been unwilling to give myself over to one of the competing meta-narratives of the church) .

Movement, change, even innovation all happen.  But how we evaluate them and what story we tell about those changes depends on where you are coming from what you desire and the goal towards which you are moving.  How to interpret change movement and process through time aren’t self-evident

In a sense I think I’m saying that we shouldn’t seek a disinterested universal account of history or change through time, rather how we answer questions around progress and the meaning of our current “hinge-moment” (if it really is one?) is based upon our commitments, desires, and goals.  These will differ especially in a pluralist society.  Shoot these differ between me and a vast number of people who call themselves Christians.

 

Follower of Jesus or member of the Body of Christ?

I have begun work on a book, at the moment theological and philosophical reflections on ministry at the edges of denominational and institutional Christianity.  I’m not against denominational and institutional Christianity (I’m deliberately avoiding the word “church”, ecclesia).  The marginal path I have followed (in relationship to denomination and institutions) wasn’t calculated.  However, it also isn’t terribly surprising. In seminary I was quite open about my participation and identification with goth subculture.  This and my ecumenical marriage to an Episcopalian was seen by some institutional types in my denomination as two very large obstacles to my placement in congregations they oversaw.

I never had the chance to prove them wrong: a couple, goth and Christian, just after seminary approached my wife and I asking us to help them discern if intentional Christian community was something for them: we began to meet, share meals, offer hospitality and study of Scripture and monasticism.  To our surprise they asked us to found a community with them, The Community of the Holy Trinity.

A year later I was approached by an American Baptist, Tripp Hudgins, about participating in an ecumenical church plant, eventually named Church of Jesus Christ, Reconciler.  Intrigued and interested I took the idea to Herb Freedholm, then Superintendent of the Central Conference of the Evangelical Covenant Church (my denomination), and he sent me as the Covenant pastor of the church start, saying that I and the Covenant needed to be involved in this and that the details would be worked out along the way.  7 years later I was ordained to a call and ministry that had radically changed, after years of being a licensed but not ordained minister in the Evangelical Covenant Church.

In participating in starting an intentional Christian community and an ecumenical church plant I was seeking to be more fully part of the church (I really don’t know whether or not to capitalize the word, lower and upper case so fraught with meaning).  My seminary training and personal study had lead me to deeply question the ecclesial nature of all forms of Protestantism.  My internship was half spent researching and writing a paper on apostolicity as a mark of the church, who has and who could claim apostolic continuity (or succession if you prefer).  Engaging monasticism creatively(June 2003 was the founding of the Community of the Holy Trinity, before the term New Monasticism was coined and applied to a form of intentional Christian community), and by starting ecumenical congregation were attempts to find or realize that apostolic continuity as someone already on the edge of Protestantism (I had already begun to write icons according to Eastern Orthodox canons/rules/tradition).  Through out this time the claims of both Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy to simply be the Church (capitalization seems appropriate here) have been unshakable and yet also claims which I’ve been unable to embrace.

There’s a hymn of my childhood that still moves me ” I have decided to follow Jesus … no turning back, no turning back.”  It’s a lonely hymn, though.  I have sought to follow Jesus to be a disciple, and that following has lead me to ask questions about the church and being a member of  the Body of Christ.  In this questioning and longing I’ve been lead to admit that simply following Jesus or being a “believer” is the beginning not the destination.  We are to be Christ, not individually but in some corporeal sense, in a form not a formless mass of all individuals who might claim to follow Jesus. This is a persistent conviction.  Doesn’t Jesus say something about this? Some who think they are following him will find that they have never known Jesus Christ.  But I’m also baptized, there is something to this sacramental act, it takes us beyond following and discipleship. isn’t that what the “Great commission” implies? 

Even with all these questions about the Body of Christ and if or how I’m a member of Christ, I still want to say that this ministry at the margins I have been doing for nearly 11 years, has been an ecclesial act.  How this could be so, and why I continue compelled down this path is part of what I think I want to explore in this book.

Keep a watch here, these are the things I’ll be wrestling with more as I attempt to refine a foci for the book, and work out what it will include.  Some of it may end up here first, though mostly what will appear here will be what is tangential to what I writing.

 

Privilege, Whiteness, Alienation, Renunciation, and Gospel

At the third session of the Symposium for the Theological Interpretation of Scripture: Urban Ministry, I responded to a presentation on Raymon and Henry Emerson Fosdick’s relationship to Rockerfeller, I spoke of renunciation (of privilege and whiteness) and  voluntary poverty (drawing on the Monastic Tradition) as an answer to the problem presented.  I spoke deliberately but also knew the potential for misunderstanding (I also knew I was using provocative language that could be misunderstood in a particular way).

The responses of the presenter and respondent in this session were challenging and i feel showed a misunderstanding that I partially expected to elicit .  The presenter (Amy Hall of Duke) responded by talking about white male self-flagellation, and the problem of a theology of suffering that must create or invent suffering for the privileged individual when there is little or no suffering.  She saw this as a harmful self-denial, and an unwillingness to face oneself.  And I agree.  But renunciation and voluntary poverty in my mind aren’t such things.  Renunciation and holy poverty are about clearing the spiritual landscape of  barriers to one’s authentic self.  Reggie L. Williams response honed in on my suggestion of renunciation of Whiteness.  If I understood him correctly the claim was that one could only renonce a choice one makes not properties given to one by an overarching system.  I found this a strange claim.  As i see it, renunciation concerns precisely those things that are dictated to one by an hegemonic and demonic system, that demands my allegiance as a mere fact of life.  If I’m turning my back on something that has to do with my own choices, I’d use the term repentance.  It’s true I can’t repent for being white only for what i do or have done as a white person, and I can personally repent from the sins of a racist system of which I share in as privileged by that system.

I’m not married to this idea of renunciation of privilege and whiteness per se.  But what I was trying to get at was that monasticism and stories of early monastics like St. Anthony, were often stories of privileged Christians turning away and giving up their privilege and power (wealth that in the ancient world was used also for the civic good) to become powerless in the terms of that privilege, power, wealth and  status given by the system.  I’d argue that St Anthony and many early monastics from privileged and wealthy families were, through choosing voluntary poverty and the ascetic life, renouncing the sort of influence that the Fosdick’s had through their whiteness and  maleness and ties to  wealth and privilege of  the Rockefellers.  Sure there is suffering in these stories and we could see them as self-inflicted, but the point was something larger:  freedom before and  in relationship to God, which leads to being able to be authentically for others.

Bonhoeffer was also briefly referenced, and I’m alluding to him above.  Such allusion is appropriate Bonhoeffer is a footnote to this story of Riverside Fosdick, Rockefeller, and Harlem. I mention this since Bonhoeffer is in the back of my thoughts around this, and was, at least in my mind, a footnote to our discussion.

I do understand the objection though.  And I do question the path I have chosen.  There are dangers to what I have said, and there are difficulties if this were taken systematically or as some form of one size fits all prescription.  What I’m talking about needs to be based in an address, conviction, and call from Christ and the Spirit

However, the responses seem to say that the authentic place of someone with privilege and who is white is the embrace of that privilege and status.  But what if privilege and the category of privilege is alienating?

I at least have experienced it in this way.  As I have attempted to understand the cultural situatedness of my attitudes and upbringing what i have found is that being white erases all particularities and histories.  the systemic structures of privilege and race and class both give me a privileged status but at the cost of particularity.  In part it seems to me that whites tend to assume others have ethnic foods or accents, or culturally bound theologies and not themselves not only because “white” is normative but because white like the other categories of a racist structure,  masks or erases difference and particularity of those within the privileged class.  To be white I must deny that being German or Swedish is anything more than kitsch and food choices at Christmas.  Granted the system does this more destructively and insidiously with the minority or underprivileged groups, but this doesn’t deny that even as a white person, I have a particularity that “white” can’t and isn’t intended to encompass.  In fact I’m to ignore particularity in identifying as white. the privilege I hold as one who is sorted into the category of “white” is dependent upon my not viewing myself as other than other white people.   From my observation of my family and others who are 3  or 4th generation European Americans, it is precisely being white that keeps us from connecting the injustices suffered by our immigrant parents, grandparents and great grandparents with what asian, hispanic and other immigrants suffer today.  White identity by definition it seems to me prevents solidarity with  people sorted into the other categories of this racist system.

This leads me to wonder about the authenticity of whiteness.  Why wouldn’t privileged persons in a system of privilege be called by the Gospel to renounce that privilege for their salvation, that is to encounter before God their true selves.  If the issue is loyalty (As Reggie Williams asserted in his response to Hall), and identity and loyalty are closely tied, it seems to me that identifying as white and seeking to use that identification to change the racist system, is an exercise that may cosmetically change things, but will also re-inscribe the system and its categories on the altered situation.

 I must also admit that while being european or more to the point Swedish and German (which by the way is not free of sins of colonialism etc. so I’m not attempting to escape complicity ) makes sense.  Choosing this identity doesn’t free me from ethnocentrism or even the risk of assuming that my Swedish, or German or European American ways are just the way things are.  So this isn’t an attempt to ignore the possible continuing collusion of a European identity with a white racist system and its injustices.  

The only true identity and the only loyalty that will free me to be my authentic self isn’t any human particularity, but is Christ.  If I renounce and turn aside from any identity for anything other than Christ and Christ’s body, the Church, my action is futile and the height of foolishness.  I thus wonder if Hall’s observation of some white males and their self-flagellation is that they were attempting to be good liberals, or good humans, in their renunciation, rather than seeking to turn to Christ, and the Church.

 

 

Georges Florovsky, Ecumenism, and Writing Icons.

I was introduced to the work of Georges Florovsky in seminary.  I was discussing Eastern Orthodoxy with my History professor Phil Anderson.  Something in what I said clued him into that I was missing something about Orthodoxy and its history.  He asked if I had read (knowing I hadn’t) Georges Florovsky.

I immediately found his collected works in the North Park library collection, and began to read.  I made use of a number of his essay’s in various papers.  Until the past month I hadn’t returned to Florovsky.  Zizioulas, Schmemann, and Kallistos Ware have been more consistent companions.

I recently acquired volume two of  Georges Florovsky Collected Works.  I’m rereading it and finding that Florovsky made a deep impact on my thinking.  Though, I don’t think I fully understood Florovsky’s presentation of Orthodoxy.  Florovsky’s Orthodoxy is generous and ecumenical.  This posture allowed me as a Protestant looking to connect with the deep tradition of the Church and of Christianity, to drink from the well or Eastern Orthodoxy.   It has kept me in continual dialogue with Orthodoxy and it may be a large part of why I eventually took up the writing of icons.

Reading Florovsky again some 13 years later, I’m seeing that both my interest in Orthodoxy and how I have engaged Orthodoxy fits with how other Lutherans (before the 20th century) also engaged Orthodoxy.  It is also interesting to see how Georges Florovsky’s ecumenical stance fits within a similar historical vane.  He engages ecumenically to offer up Orthodoxy as the fullness of the Faith.

Florovsky’s ecumenical stance encouraged me to continue on as a Protestant and to do so in dialogue with the Orthodox, and others as well.  What I hadn’t taken into account in reading Florovsky in seminary was that he also had the Orthodox stance of insisting on agreement in faith as the basis of unity.  Looking back on my work in an ecumenical intentional community and an ecumenical Church plant,  the stance I took as a prior and pastor has been to seek that agreement in faith.  Now I’ve also done it in a fairly Lutheran style; willing to make a distinction between what is essential and what is adiaphora, a distinction that at least according to Florovsky Orthodoxy doesn’t make.

As I took up writing icons (before the community or congregation were formed) I chose to do so as though I was Orthodox.  I wasn’t going to try to make the writing of icons cohere with my protestant theology.  Rather I was going to take up the practice in its fulness and spirituality and theology.  In writing icons I was going to be Orthodox.  Florovsky’s writings, though at the time weren’t prominent in my thinking, and his ecumenical stance paved the way for this posture.

Re-reading Florovsky on the other side of becoming an iconographer (and remaining Protestant) and after having engaged in an ecumenical experiment, I’m not sure what to make of all this.  One thing I have noticed is that on some level Florovsky and I have to some extent played out the history of the ecumenical dialogue between Protestants and Orthodox, he recounts in some of the essays in volume 2 of his collected works.

I wonder where does all this leave me?  I write and pray before icons, the attempt to form an ecumenical congregation morphed into something else, a worshiping community and an ecumenical religious order (at this moment in the final stages of forming): these attitudes, postures and longings have lead me to strange places.   At the moment the witness of the Orthodox that the Faith isn’t something easily paired down to the essentials, it’s more holistic, both resonates with me now more than it did in seminary.  Yet, I remain outside of Orthodoxy.

I  created Ecclesial Longings as a place to explore my longings for church beyond the Protestant conceptions of it and examine what keeps me from entering either Eastern Orthodoxy or Roman Catholicism.  Full agreement of the Faith, makes sense.  But how is this achieved and what are the sources of all the failures in finding this agreement?  I’m no longer satisfied with the essential/adiaphora distinction in faith.  Florovsky has awakened and heightened a growing discomfort with Protestantism and my own place in the Christian landscape.

Ecumenism still seems like the only way forward. A way forward that is both generous and seeking full agreement in faith.

 

Philemon and Christendom

Lectionary texts For this Sunday, September 8 proper 18(23), juxtaposes Philemon with Jesus’ hard sayings about hating family and life, taking up the cross, and giving up possessions.

More to the point the juxtaposition comes from the story we are able to tease out from this short Epistle of the Apostle Paul to the leaders of a church, a church that meets in the house of Philemon and his wife Apphia.  Philemon and Apphia are clearly wealthy, they have property.  There may be many ways to see this.  The Gospel has penetrated these wealthy citizens of the Roman Empire.  They, at some risk to themselves and their property,  hold and lead an unprotected (in the least) alternative  religious cult in their home.   The Gospel and even Jesus’ saying in Luke may have been interpreted by them as being fulfilled in this risk and this hospitality.

But something is a little odd: Philemon owns slaves.  A Christian leader of a church under Paul’s jurisdiction to whom the gospel has come and who says “Jesus is Lord”, in defiance of empire, still has slaves.  There’s a contradiction, a contradiction Paul in sending a runaway slave Onesimus back to his owner, not for punishment or to remain property of Philemon, but for Philemon to give up his rights under the law, and give up his property by receiving his former slave as not only a brother in Christ, but as the Apostle himself.

This context of Philemon, I would argue is nascent Christendom.  How so?  An aspect of Christendom is that it is a space where society and those in the society are brought into the influence of the Gospel and the claims of the Gospel but in ways that are contradictory and which make compromises with the society brought into the influence of the Gospel.  In the long view of history, eventually the Church and the Gospel suffer under the strains of these compromises and contradictions. We currently are fully aware of how Christendom fails to live up to the ideals of the Gospel and Jesus Christ’s teachings.  However, what we have in the situation of Philemon is these two elements: people who have come under the influence of the Gospel and transformative power of the Kingdom of God, and compromises and contradictions that result in such initial contact.

What we see in Philemon is both the contradiction but also that the state of affairs of bringing people and a society into the realm of influence of the gospel can also allow for authentic transformation.  Christendom comes into existence perhaps because the Gospel and the Kingdom of God, transform in subtle, unnoticed, and gradual ways.  Philemon, Apphia, and Archippus leaders of the church in their house. Philemon and Apphia, according to tradition, not only die martyrs death under Nero, but Philemon was a bishop.  Their conversion was authentic.  These are Christians, followers of Jesus, and yet Philemon continues to own slaves.  Furthermore, Paul is concerned for the safety and well being of the runaway slave Onesimus.  Paul has no legal standing with Philemon, Paul has been harboring a criminal and stolen property.  The Apostle Paul has harbored a known runaway slave and he admits to have contemplated continuing to harbor this fugitive.   Paul is concerned that this leader of a church he founded would seek to act upon his legal rights in relation to his runaway slave.  Instead Paul publicly (he writes not only to Philemon and Apphia but the entire church in their House), calls for Philemon’s further conversion.

My thought is that Christendom existed in the household of Philemon and Apphia.  Through their conversion and through their household being the meeting place of the church, the Gospel and the Kingdom of god has influence upon their lives and thoughts and actions. Yet, it has yet to fully penetrate, most glaringly perhaps in that they still own slaves while leading a church, but also in their retaining a great deal of wealth (as would be necessary for them to maintain a house in which a church could meet). Though this also may be for Philemon and Apphia an example of how they have understood and interpreted Jesus words found in Luke about taking up the cross and giving up their possessions.  They are within the realm of influence of the Kingdom of God and the Gospel but they retain elements of their society and culture that are in contradiction or at least in tension with much of the Gospel and the sayings of Jesus of Nazareth.

But there is more and this is what we who still suffer a hangover from the ultimate failure of European Christendoms fail to recognize about Christendom: the being brought into the influence of the Gospel.  Through this nascent form of Christendom, Philemon is called to continual conversion.  The tiny seed of the Gospel and Kingdom of God has taken root, and now the representative of this Gospel and this Kingdom,  an Apostle of Jesus Christ can call for and point out the contradiction in this leader of one of his churches, a bishop, and say you have been wrong, and now see the seed of the Kingdom of God has sprouted in your slave, and in this one who was once your slave I come to you and say he isn’t property,and you are to receive him as a freed man, a brother, and as an Apostle, my own self.  Paul is fretting but also confident in the slow working transformative power of the Kingdom of God and Jesus Christ.

It is not the fullness of the church, or Gospel, or Kingdom of God, but the contradictions that exist are also opportunities for conversion.  Paul apparently didn’t demand that Philemon and Apphia upon their conversion give up their wealth or even ask them to give up their slaves, until this moment, when a runaway slave finds his way to Paul and Paul sends him back pointing out the contradiction and calling for conversion.

I’d argue that at some point established and enforced Christendom eventually loses this quality.  Eventually it entrenches and solidifies the contradictions and then the contradictions become things members of the church seek to justify and then those who have been brought into the influence of the Gospel find ways to explain away the hard teachings of Jesus.  But I think it is important to see also that the contradictions can also lead to conversion.  It is important to remember that as a number of Jesus’ parables point out this quality of gradual transformation: the Gospel and the Kingdom of God, don’t demand immediate and absolute transformation. Rather God seems quite content with subtle almost entirely unnoticed under the surface work, that no one notices, like a seed that grows into a little weed that no one notices until it has taken over the entire garden.  God or at least the Gospel may not be as activist and confrontational as we often try to claim it to be. But make no mistake if you are brought under its sway, you are called to change and the contradictions are a call to conversion, and you may just find that without realizing it your world has been turned upside down, and slowly your grip on the world has loosened, and you die only to find true life for all.