Faith

On the Edge of Enlightenment: The Epiphany

Even on this day, as when we were waiting for God’s transformation of the world, we can miss the illumination. As often as not the illumination we seek is obvious and at the center while the epiphany we get is on the periphery just out of sight.

The Epiphany comes to us as odd foreigners speaking of an obscure star they saw. These same foreigners visiting an infant with rare gifts.

Enlightenment comes as an ordinary man, by appearance, who comes to the river baptized by a man in camel hair along with everyone else. Then the heavens are opened, Spirit descends, a voice speaks, or was it?

Epiphany is tasting excellent wine suddenly discovered after the momentary crisis of having no wine as the head steward of a wedding feast. But only the servants know what happened, they poured water into jugs and when the drew out the water there was wine. A parlor trick? For a very exclusive audience of servants.

This manifestation is not a sudden clear insight. What is manifest isn’t blindingly and unambiguously clear. It’s not entirely convincing.  It’s queer. Boundaries have been crossed and it takes place out of the way on the borders. It’s in our peripheral vision, and never quite comes into focus.

The Epiphany is odd. It is disconcerting, because such an illumination tells us the truly important doesn’t happen at the center: center of power, center of ourselves, center of meaning.

The Epiphany doesn’t give us a place of residence.  The manifestation sends us again on our way.  Our illumination on this day sends us to live unsettled at the boundaries.

What is revealed on Epiphany is a god who embraces the “neither nor” and the “both and”. We are invited to meet one who is neither human nor divine, who is both human and divine.  At this moment, we are invited into this transgression of the order of things. The mixing of creator and created for the sake of love.

If we affirm the doctrines of “incarnation”, “Virgin Birth”, “Trinity”, “Fully God and fully human” and “begotten not made” we should not do so because of their intellectual or philosophical power to convince. Rather we should affirm these dogmas because they give voice to our epiphany, our enlightenment and encounter with God. The Epiphany shows us that these doctrines describe something queer, transgressive. This all though is seen just out of the corner of our eyes.  They point to what we can’t quite grasp but can intuit.  A flash of light, a voice an appearance of a dove.

I invite us to speak of incarnation and virgin birth, and say Jesus of Nazareth is fully divine and fully human.  I invite us to do so not to grasp an insight, but to be embraced by the transgressor of our creaturely limits.  Allow this speech, and this contemplation to take us to the borders. So, we may live with God on the edges, in that place between human and divine. This borderland is the place of the one who was honored by Magi and who enraged the powerful. In this place, we are with the Beloved in whom God is well pleased.  I invite us to come to the Jordan, take up residence on the edge of the empire. It is in the borderland where love was revealed, and God affirmed God’s love and union with human kind and all creation. In this transgression of flesh and divinity we are illumined.


The Veil Over the Holy Nativity

The icon of the Holy Nativity has something that eludes us.  I return, again and again, to its contemplation because it is a rich image but also because it challenges me. I don’t see it completely. The meaning eludes us, there is a veil over the icon.

One layer of this veil is the familiar imagery of Christmas, which smooth’s out the edges, softens the light, ignores the presence of death that lurks in Holy Nativity.  Most images seek to honor this moment through abstraction of the material and fleshly reality the holy nativity inhabits. There is a veil (The “veil” is an allusion to Saint Paul’s usage in 2 Corinthians 3:12-14 ) over this icon and the reality the icon invites us to enter. Because of this veil we are unable to enter Christmas, we turn away from the crack in the world it created.

We look at this icon and we see only a dogmatic claim. VIRGIN BIRTH, screams out at us. Isolated, without context, we hear “Just accept and believe that Mary conceived without intercourse with Joseph.” What is at root of this dogmatism disconnected from a lived and material existence? Why might we only see in this image a dogmatic assertion? Why the fascination with and the rejection of the miraculous? More importantly why do we think the miracle is the point? (side note, it’s not!)

Asking the question of whether a Christian need to believe in the Virgin Birth as Nicholas Kristof does in his interview with Timothy Keller, misses the point. Timothy Keller’s answer that the virgin birth is integral to the Christian thought system, reinforces the veil over the icon of the Holy Nativity (though I agree with his point that the doctrine has meaning). What is this veil? Why the retreat into abstraction and systematic theology and the integrity of belief systems and organizations?  This is so far from the material and physical reality of a virgin birth. Why do we retreat from the holy nativity’s visceral moment? Keller, later in the interview, when talking about the Resurrection, will tell Kristof that these beliefs about Jesus were an offense to the Greek philosophers who couldn’t abide a God bound up in the messiness of the material and fleshly, and yet Keller answers with that same attitude of distance from the messy material world. What Keller presents is a tidy precise sterile world with discrete doctrines that ensure the precise relationships, and the protocol for dealing with God. If doctrine and belief is all you see in the Holy Nativity, then you aren’t seeing.

I think I’ve identified the veil and turning away from this sight. The eyes are veiled for both the one who professes to believe and the one who is skeptical or has abandoned belief. (for my purposes here, I make the distinction between faith and belief. Belief is assent to propositions, faith is about trust and relationship that can be expressed in propositions but whose referent isn’t those propositions.) From what are we shielding our eyes, as we rush to take these  postures.? From what do we veil ourselves, what can’t we bear to look upon in the icon?

Our turning away has been happening for a very long time. All I give at this moment is a quick sketch of this retreat and veiling. I will make some rapid connections of disconnect and retreat. Trump and his Christian supporters have more in common with those who don’t appear in this icon; the client King Herod (see, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s
use of this trope in his Open Letter to King Herod at Red Letter Christians
) and the other religious leaders who know the Torah (the Bible, if you will) and who in differing ways collaborate with the occupation of Judea and Galilee. White Christianity isn’t found in this icon. The “we” if you find this icon unintelligible, is a Christianity of Empire, in service to Babylon the Great (Revelation 17 and 18). The most recent iteration of Babylon is that which inherited the White supremacist system of European colonialism. This sketch of course isn’t convincing (for the case and argument for this sketch one must read Willie James Jennings, James Cone, Harry H. Singleton III, and others).

I will add to this historical sketch a tableau, a “pastoral image”*, if you will: Christmas on the plantations in the “new world”, slaves and their masters at Christmas. In the celebration of Christmas, the White Christian slave holders would allow slaves a moment of reprieve from their harsh conditions. Some of the conditions of their enslavement were lifted, surveillance was lessened, work load lightened. Some slaves, tasting of this Christmas liberty, grabbed hold of it and fled to freedom. Some managed to gain their liberty at Christmas. There were also slave rebellions at Christmas. (see Christmas and the Resistance to Slavery in the Americas in AAIHS)

This is the veil, the reason of our retreat: White Christians instinctively loosening their grip of oppression, but not understanding that the Holy Nativity stood in opposition to them. The White Christian is nowhere to be found in the icon of the holy nativity. The religious collaborators do not make an appearance in this film. We’ve attempted to make the holy nativity a pastoral image of innocence that White Christianity can’t claim for itself, but must insist upon.

We are some distance from the above tableaux of Christmas on the plantations. Yet, it still reverberates. Babylon and its religious (often devoutly so) collaborators, who can answer the questions when those seeking truth come, and ask “Where is the messiah to be born,” and knowing the scriptures can give the correct answer. Even so, white Christians never come into the Holy Nativity.

Where are we, (by “we” I mean both those who seek to come out of Whiteness (Babylon) and those upon whom Babylon has fed and who cry out “how long” (Revelation 6:9-11)- people of color, who currently cry out “Black lives matter”).

In this icon. At this moment, I think most of us are at the bottom of the icon with Saint Joseph and the midwives. We are either caught in a moment of indecision, uncertain what to make of it all, without answers, full of doubts. We ask with Saint Joseph, has any of this been true, the apparition of angels, the message they delivered. Or we are with the midwives handling the holy as they’ve done year in year out, perhaps not fully aware of who they are handling, and washing, swaddling, protecting through their resistance, (recall the midwives, Shiphorah and Puah in Exodus 1)

The veil hasn’t been lifted, we can’t yet see the center of this icon. Even so, we are drawn into this holy nativity, we are here. We who sit with Saint Joseph this is a very melancholy Christmas. There is much to ponder, and the lies of Satan, and the lure of Babylon must be resisted. We who sit with saint Joseph need to pay attention to the resistance and the strength of the midwives. Yes, we must ponder and reflect, but we must also be drawn into the activity of the midwives who know Christ in the flesh ( 1 John 4:2), who handle and wash and protect and guard God in this vulnerable moment of newness and liberation. But many of us are frozen in Saint Joseph’s melancholy, the veil still hangs over our eyes and we have yet to remove the veil and gaze upon  the light emitting from this icon..

*by using “pastoral image” I’m intentionally referencing Billie Holliday’s reported explanation of the term as used in “Strange Fruit.”


When God-with-Us is no Comfort: Feast of Holy Innocents

Scriptures Readings: Holy Innocents:

The sound track for this post:

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What are we to make of the feast of the Holy Innocents? What is happening as we remember and celebrate these innocents, the unknown number of infants and toddlers who are martyrs? To what do these innocents witness? In what way do they give witness to the Good News of Jesus Christ?

Rachel weeps for her Children. Rachel a collective ancestral name, one of the mothers of Israel. Another name for Israel, just as Israel is also known as Jacob.

This is a strange feast combining lamentation and celebration of these martyrs, the Holy Innocents: infants and toddlers slain by king Herod.  The lamentation of Rachel refusing to be comforted.

Joseph, Mary and the infant Jesus escape being warned to flee to Egypt. The hymn “Audit tyrannus anxius, in the Benedictine Daily breviary, for Holy Innocents speaks of these infants murdered by Herod as martyrs, and rejoices that these innocents are in the presence of God. It’s an unsettling sentiment. We, I suppose, are more likely to escape with Mary and Joseph than to sit with Rachel.

We, of whatever persuasion of Christian, we fail to let the reality of this day sink in. There’s the rushing to contemplate these infants in the presence of God singing the hymn of praise “Holy, Holy, Holy” without contemplating the horror of this moment.  The opposite response is to merely focus on the tragedy, which is making use of the tragedy to insist on the relevance of the Gospel and proof text the social gospel as a means to chastise those who seem indifferent to suffering injustice and oppression. We are avoiding what is most troubling: After God’s coming to be with us, God in human flesh, Jesus, escapes the massacre of the innocents, but God does not prevent the massacre.

We need the space of faithful Lament. We need the space to sit with tragedy when we see no action of God in which we are confronted with overwhelming evil and the power of death unleashed, and life squashed. We need a space to lament when Life has no answer. “Rachel refuses to be consoled.” Matthew recalls the words of Jeremiah. Jeremiah was also speaking of his time and the destruction of Jerusalem and Judah. In this story, there is the permission to not be consoled, when there is no comfort to be given.

In the Benedictine Daily Breviary, there’s a contradiction in celebrating this day: on the one hand the hymn appointed doesn’t let us grieve or lament (this is a feast day after all celebrating martyrs), but in the Day Time prayers we are invited to lament; the scriptures appointed for the day are from lamentations.

I wonder if there’s something to this contradiction. An invitation to in celebration not let ourselves be consoled. We are invited to lament the continued power of death even as God is with us in the word made flesh. The contradiction invites us to remember that this lament and lack of consolation is as much part of the Christmas story as “Peace on Earth, and Good will toward all.”

In a mash-up of Luke and Matthew and John, what we find is that not long after God in human flesh is born, and the angels announce tidings of great joy, and proclaim “Peace on earth and Good will towards all”, this proclamation is contradicted by Herod.  At the moment God moves into our neighborhood in the Word made flesh, Death rears its head and strikes and God is powerless. God with us doesn’t stop Herod from his destructive and death filled evil ways. More troubling is that God with us draws out Herod’s furry and God with us becomes an occasion for Herod’s tyranny as he seeks to stamp out the Word made flesh.

What then does Rachel and her “holy innocents”, her saints, these martyred infants, give witness to? Acknowledging God with us and God at work in the world, is not consolation for suffering oppression and tyranny. God’s solidarity with us isn’t necessarily a comfort. These innocents as martyrs and saints must be among those numbered who in addition to “Holy, Holy, Holy”, sing out “How long…

On this day during the joy of Christmas we join our voice with those dressed in white before the throne singing not only “Holy, Holy, Holy”, but also in lamentation sing “How long, O Lord!”

*Edited for clarity and corrected typos, 12/29/2016

Listening to the Mind of Christ In Time of Crisis: Nothing is Hidden that will not be revealed, Part 2

12 Meanwhile, when many thousands of the crowd had gathered so that they were trampling on one another, Jesus began to speak first to his disciples, “Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy. Nothing is hidden that will not be revealed, and nothing is secret that will not be made known. So then whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered in private rooms will be proclaimed from the housetops.

“I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body, and after that have nothing more they can do. But I will warn you whom you should fear: Fear the one who, after the killing, has authority to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him! Aren’t five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten before God. In fact, even the hairs on your head are all numbered. Do not be afraid; you are more valuable than many sparrows.   Gospel of Luke 12:1-7 (NRSV)

“Nothing is hidden that will not be revealed.”

This Gospel text came to mind as the succeeding revelations that followed the WikiLeaks DNC e-mail leak, that lead to Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s stepping down as DNC Chair, which revealed the likelihood of Russian Intelligence as the source of the e-mails, and giving a possible glimpse into Russian attempts to influence the current election and possible ties between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin.  In this one instance we had a cascading set of revelations of things done in secret (that even people would have rather been kept under wraps). I wondered is there something hopeful in these things coming to light? Depending on your political slant or loyalty one may spin those revelations one way or another, but that isn’t the same as something hopeful being found in the unveiling of secrets.  I wondered, and still am asking is Jesus here talking about a sign of the Kingdom of God?  In contrast to the hypocrisy that acts like yeast hidden in dough, unseen except in its eventual effects. Does the truth of the transforming work of the reign of God in the world simply expose what is hidden?

DNC e-mails and Russian covert operations aren’t the only thing being brought into the open this election, overt White-supremacy and racism has come into the open in the wake of Trumps campaign and rhetoric. Trump’s campaign and rhetoric has made overt white-supremacist feel they can more publicly display their opinions and attitudes. While dangerous and frightening I think this bringing out into the open what we as a culture and society had effectively kept out of sight.  What is hopeful in this is the possibility to also then recognize and bring to light the covert and social acceptable white-supremacy and racism

Overt and Covert White Suppremacy

Above image found in a the Salt Collective Facebook Page post August 8th 2016 p

Part of Socially acceptable white supremacy and racism, is being exposed as in the arena of policing and lethal force use against people of color. Exposure in and of itself doesn’t solve things, it can even worsen situations.  Such is the case of people feeling free to come out in the light and overtly show their White-Supremacy KKK affiliation, etc., creates a less safe environment for POC. The exposure of the DNC e-mails and Russia’s involvement has ratcheted up anti-Russian sentiment and rhetoric and accusations of collaboration and infiltration eerily and frightening analogous to Cold War Anti-Russian and Communist rhetoric and accusation.  Things being brought into the open in and themselves isn’t’ necessarily hopeful.

While things coming to light and into the open that were once hid away and in secret are often frightening and carry danger, there’s also the hope that once exposed change can happen. When overt white supremacy is hidden away it is possibly more difficult to see more covert-white supremacy. When certain things are kept under wraps and hid in a corner where there is no light there’s the possibility for yeast like hypocrisy to invade and lulled into a false sense of security and sense of progress

Due to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s,  overt and some forms of covert white supremacy were through Federal intervention, legislation and legal decisions brought to an end. Along with the ending of de jure white supremacy overt expressions of white supremacy where rightly marginalized and relegated to the privacy of one’s own secretly held opinions. Since overt white supremacy was now taboo and no longer supported by law gave the impression to many of us that white supremacy is merely a matter of attitude and hate, that could be addressed by individualistic transformation, ignoring the way that the de jure elimination of overt White Supremacy didn’t address or change the more covert and structural aspects of White supremacy woven into the very fabric of our nations consciousness, history and legal and political and economic realities. With the ascendancy of Trump giving people permission to express their overt White supremacist has exposed along with the Black Lives Matter movement, the lie that White supremacy is just in the past and simply has to do with personal hate of another person or fear of a group of people.

There is an opportunity in this moment, especially for White members of the body of Christ, to fully acknowledge the depth and breadth of white supremacy in American institutions (including our denominational institutions) and turn aside not only from the overt white supremacy but all forms of it. As these things come to light we can truly repent and let our POC siblings in Christ to tell us how we should respond, and taking their cue rather than attempting to justify ourselves and our attempts to reform the White systems of government, and white religious institutions.  When things are exposed hypocrisy comes to light and there is the opportunity to repent.  Then change, healing injury, and mending what is broken can begin What is hidden away only fester and remain unacknowledged and unchangeable.  This is the hope of Christ’s word’s what you speak in secret will be shouted from the rooftops.  This is often painful, even frightening and far from safe, but it offers the opportunity for true repentance and radical transformational change of the Beloved Community God sent in motion in the life death resurrection and ascension of Christ.

Next week Part three, “Be not afraid.

And if you missed last week here’s the link to part one An Hypocrisy that is like Yeast

Listening for the Mind of Christ in Time of Crisis: An hypocrisy that is like yeast, Part 1

12 Meanwhile, when many thousands of the crowd had gathered so that they were trampling on one another, Jesus began to speak first to his disciples, “Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy. Nothing is hidden that will not be revealed, and nothing is secret that will not be made known. So then whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered in private rooms will be proclaimed from the housetops.

“I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body, and after that have nothing more they can do. But I will warn you whom you should fear: Fear the one who, after the killing, has authority to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him! Aren’t five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten before God. In fact, even the hairs on your head are all numbered. Do not be afraid; you are more valuable than many sparrows.   Gospel of Luke 12:1-7 (NRSV)

Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy”. We can too easily dismiss the Pharisees. The Pharisees were seeking the renewal of the people of God, and in comparison, to the likes of the Herodians they took the high road. The ideals of the Pharisees were closely aligned with that of Jesus Christ. Jesus’ metaphor of hypocrisy being like yeast indicates that we are to be on our guard for what is hidden and isn’t obvious.  The hypocrisy of the Pharisees is something that is subtle and unseen except ultimately in its effect.

The hypocrisy of the GOP and the Religious right has been brought to light.  The choice of Donald Trump with so many republican and religious leaders stumbling around to get behind him, when for years the GOP and the Religious Right have talked of the personal and moral character of candidates for high office criticizing at times their opponents for not being such persons of character.  The GOP’s hypocrisy is easy to see it has leavened the whole loaf, but we must be on guard for hypocrisy before the dough starts to rise. In the case of the GOP and its presidential candidate this election, the dough has risen!

A subtle yet largely unnoticed hypocrisy is already needed into the dough of U.S. history.  For his own hypocritical ends Donald Trump has used this hypocrisy in attempts to justify restrictions on Muslim immigrants and   tracking Muslim U.S. citizens by appeal to the use of concentration camps of Japanese during WWII along with the restrictions and surveillance of Germans and Italians during WWII by FDR’s administration.

The administration of FDR with the approval of the U.S Supreme Court in prosecuting war for “Freedom” and human rights, without cause robbed Japanese Americans of their freedom and violated their human rights.  We compound and perpetuate this hypocrisy by attempting to justify or explain away the hypocrisy by excusing it or claiming they didn’t know better at that time.  We let our guard down when we for the sake of our ideals and our mythos of America pretend that the U.S. Government and a great number o its citizens have hypocritically held to its own ideals.  We further compound this when we do not admit that the seeds of this hypocrisy, are needed into the dough of our national life from the moment of our revolution and founding.  As the founders of this nation wrote and spoke eloquently of Freedom they were also slave holders or those who in some way benefited from slavery or at least tacitly approved of the enslavement of Africans. To be on our guard for the the yeast of hypocrisy is to be conscious of this radical hypocrisy at the founding of the United States.

At the Democratic Convention where we at last have a woman for presidential candidate of a major party, we also extolled how we are the greatest nation in the world surpassing all others yet, ignoring a failing that doesn’t fit with our national aspirational narrative of being a leader of the nations, of being out in front.  Women have been at the helm of Government in nations all over the world, in growing numbers over the years, since at least the 1980’s.  On this we haven’t been a leader in the world nor in line with America being the best and greatest.  In not looking closely at ourselves and the narrative we use here is another place where hypocrisy can slip in.  We aren’t even the only nation to have the aspirations to freedom and democracy and equality.  France too has it’s mythology and believes itself to be a beacon in the world to freedom and democracy, after all “LIberte, Egalite, Fraternite” is its national moto.  We should be on guard for way our positive and aspirational story of America has this leaven already within it.

What this means for us as member of Christ and citizens of the U.S. is to be aware of the ways in which hypocrisy can invade and appear even in our desire for the moral high ground.  Especially if that moral high ground is identified with a particular nation and when those aspirations are also human aspirations shared beyond the boundaries of the nation.  We may even say that the leaven of the Pharisees was precisely; in this area:  They were good people devoted to Gods law and ensuring that the people of Israel stay true even under a harsh occupation when the occupier sought to dissuade their unique devotion to their god and customs (because it excluded paying fealty to the occupier’s ways and God.) Even thought there was much good in what they did, Jesus calls them out for their hypocrisy.  Good motives even seeking the Good of your group doesn’t prevent the yeast of hypocrisy.

To be on guard in this manner means not resting in party religious or national loyalties. To be on guard means to be attuned and open to God’s work of building up the Beloved Community which transcends and transgresses national and other boundaries we draw and write and put up.  To be on guard in this way is both positive and negative.  We are to be aware of where the reign of God is popping up and to be aware of the ways in which simply resting in our sense of Good or being part of the right group can lead to a hypocrisy that can choke out.  member of the body of Chris be on your guard hypocrisy is rampant it is in us, it is in the stories we tell ourselves.

In the next two weeks I will continue with this reflection on these words of Christ, part two “Nothing is hidden that will not be revealed…” and part three “…do not be afraid …”

Having Nothing to Show: Spirituality without Accounts

Jesus said to the twelve, “As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment. Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff; for laborers deserve their food. Whatever town or village you enter, find out who in it is worthy, and stay there until you leave. As you enter the house, greet it. If the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it; but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you. If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. Truly I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town.
“See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”    Mathew 10:7-16

“Freely you have received, freely give.”
I was mulling over this aphorism of Jesus’ from Matthew’s Gospel a couple of days before the Feast of St. Barnabas. Then I found myself at a Mass on that feast and heard the full context of those words. “You received without payment, give without Payment.” The gift economy of this aphorism depends upon the hospitality of others, for others to receive and act within this gift economy. This is not easy; we can easily decide that this only applied to the Apostles during Jesus’ earthly ministry. I’ve lived as though this applies to me as a member of Christ, and a minister of word and sacrament. But now I’m wrestling with having taken Jesus’ words to heart. At times this part of the Gospel asks too much.

In a world where we are told we get only what we earn or take, saying we begin with something not earned, something which can’t be purchased, runs counter to our experience molded by concepts of earnings and profit.

There are costs to following these words. I’m at the end of my rope, uncertain how to evaluate how I’ve spent my life. I have given freely, convinced that I had been given something beyond payment and accounting. Yet, to give without payment is also to not earn. To give freely is to not accumulate: wealth, followers, supporters, congregations, fans. To freely give is to give without strings. The cost is this; giving freely looks a great deal like failure.

I have doubts. Have I given anything at all? This is the problem of being without accounts, of not keeping a ledger. There’s no means to call in debts, because there is no indebtedness. There’s no means to say look how much I have given, because to give freely is to give without account. Is this not complete foolishness? A voice in me accuses: “Did you not set out on this path knowing you could not succeed so, you kept no accounts so then you could avoid facing your own failure.”

“Freely you have received, freely give.”

A part of me says, the cost is too high in a world of ledgers, earnings, accounts, and debt, financial, emotional, psychological and social. I may freely give but others demand an account. I freely give but I still want to accumulate, receive payment for my efforts. I still want my earnings.

I still want to say I will succeed. I want recognition. I want wealth to eventually accumulate to me. Yet, I gave without demand for payment, and so there are no returns.

What this tells me is I’ve yet fully converted. I’ve yet to comprehend and ingest these words “You received without payment, Give without payment.” I’ve yet to learn the love of God Father Son and Holy Spirit, who gives without account, who reaps without sowing, who has wealth without accumulation, who loves without end or return.

When all is given freely there is no return for there was no investment. There’s invitation without RSVP, so that the guests that show up weren’t those invited.

Jesus says all this throughout the Gospels. Through the incarnation and the Cross, God removes the accounts and the ledgers, or proves to us there’s never been a ledger, or accounts, the reality remains that God isn’t keeping accounts. In Christ Jesus, God comes to us and says you have no debt, there are no accounts, no ledgers, only gift. Live accordingly. This is the life of faith, this is the way of the Cross, this is what it means to be a member of the body of Christ. Even so, we create again and again out of the gift, other economies. We bind people and wealth to ourselves in return for what we give. We accumulate people, money, property, debts (financial and social) to ourselves.

Or we do like I have done, give freely while attempting to reserve the right to demand a return on investment, and then become despondent realizing there is no ledger, no accounting, no measure.

Have I succeeded in ministry, and in life? have I failed? I have no idea. I can make no judgment.
What I can say is that I have lived with the conviction that I did freely receive what is beyond accounting. In my life and ministry I’ve sought to freely give. And at this moment all I can say is that my desires and my longings are divided and conflicted. I’ve held back, I’ve kept a ledger so that I could give an account, call in debts, account my earnings and my profits. Yet, now when I open that ledger the pages are blank, I have nothing to show.

What I received I received without account or credit, and I heard the call and gave accordingly. Thus there was nothing to record, nor proof to give, yet I held on to the ledger all the same.
Now I feel the need to keep accounts, and there’s nothing to show.

Is this failure or success I don’t know? There’s no measure. And I’m at a loss.

Excitement and Boredom in the Easter Vigil

Tripp Hudgins and David Hansen argued about boredom and worship on Twitter and in dueling blog posts.  David says boring proclamation is a sin. Tripp sings the praises of boredom.  The dispute started with a Tweet out of UNCO 2016 that wondered why people are more excited about Star Wars than worship.  David says the story of the Gospel and our proclamation of it (David is a Lutheran) should be exciting.  Those who proclaim the story of the Gospel shouldn’t bore us and put us to sleep.  Tripp says we should not try to compete with entertainment for profit that seeks only to capture our attention for a moment. The Church, Gospel, and the liturgy have something “longer” in view – eternity. This exchange begs the question what is “boredom”, what is “excitement” and what is the interplay of the two in our worship?

The above exchange brought up a contradiction I’ve experienced in myself around the Easter Vigil and the memory of my first Easter Vigil, at St. Peter’s Episcopal church in Sand Pedro, California.  I was a sophomore or Junior in college and I had decided to spend the time between Christmas and Pentecost among Episcopalians. My college age Lutheran Pietist self had no means to anticipate what I found in the Vigil, (Who lights a bonfire in the middle of a church to start off a worship service?!).  It all captivated me, the bonfire, the lighting of the paschal candle, the siting in the dark listening to the stories of salvation, the loud acclamation of “Alleluia, Christ is Risen” with all the lights going up.  Nothing in my twenty years of worship had prepared me for the Easter Vigil. I was blown away.  Since that moment I’ve loved the Easter Vigil.  However, recently, the Easter Vigil has felt a little humdrum.

Over the years I’ve participated in various attempts to spice up the Vigil and I’ve enjoyed those creative takes on this liturgy.  However, as I’ve recently come to find the Vigil just a little boring, I’ve wondered if the main motivation behind wanting to spice up the Vigil was the leaders own fear of their own boredom. While, currently I’m bored with the Easter Vigil, I still love it and its various elements. Though, I’m bored with it, it is still truly meaningful.  I’m puzzled about why I no longer experience the same excitement and amazement of that first Easter Vigil and which I have often experienced in subsequent Vigil’s.  I wonder what did St. Peter’s do “right” to make their Easter Vigil so exciting to my college age self?

As I’ve reflected on this and sought to recollect what we did in the Easter Vigil and not just my experience of it, I’ve concluded St. Peter’s did nothing to make their Easter Vigil exciting for my college age self.  When, I force myself to recall, not my astonishment at the unfamiliarity of the service and its dramatic elements but what actually took place in the liturgy, I notice that the service itself was quite boring and unremarkable.  Once you got beyond the dramatic opening of a bonfire lit in doors, it was just a very long service.  The Exsultet was not superbly sung (I have no recollection of it from the service, so I surmise it wasn’t memorable), then we sat in the dark listening to average readers read the requisite stories of salvation.  Nothing special was done, no reading choruses, no dramatic readings or performances, no dances; just the reading of one scripture after the other from the same lectern used each Sunday for the same purpose.  But I ate up, this fairly boring and unremarkable Easter Vigil.

Why did I find this first Easter Vigil so compelling and exciting, and why do I now find participation in the Easter Vigil boring?  The reasons are layered.  Most obviously, that first Easter Vigil was my first. The liturgy was completely and entirely new for me, nothing in my worship experience before then prepared me for what I found in that liturgy. No one in the parish thought to give the young Lutheran Pietist a heads up on what was going to happen in the liturgy. They just said we do this thing on Holy Saturday, if you are part of the parish this is part of our celebration of Holy Week and Easter.  Also, my boredom is explicable: I’ve now been to 25 vigils in a row. Since that first one I’ve planned and lead a number of them. I know the Easter Vigil inside and out.  Then Easter Vigil was new and unfamiliar, now the Easter Vigil is, for my middle aged self, old hat.

Even so, I do think that St. Peter’s helped contribute to my astonishment and excitement for the Easter Vigil.  Unlike most parishes and congregations (in my experience) that have an Easter Vigil, St Peters had a high ratio of involvement in the liturgical life of the church outside the Sunday worship. The church was packed for the Easter Vigil.  Special liturgies of Lent and Holy Week weren’t for St Peter’s just something for the spiritually fastidious or dramatic few, but were truly liturgies of the whole parish. My first Easter Vigil was compelling and exciting not only because it was new to me but also because the whole gathered local body of St Peter’s parish understood what it was doing and saw it as a key component of the Christian life.  They may not have added any bells and whistles to their liturgical performance but their hearts and minds were attentive to its meaning and importance.  It was truly an act of devotion and worship for the entire parish.

Looking back on that time of sojourn with the parish of St. Peters, they attended to the various liturgical patterns more or less equally. No one service or liturgy was given precedence, rather it all was part of who they were as the body of Christ, no liturgy was just for those certain type of people in the parish. When I recollect, I see there was nothing remarkable nor did they do anything that would stand out to a liturgist or expert on worship.  St Peter’s did nothing to call attention to their faithful participation in the liturgy and festal cycle of the Church year.  No one could write a book on how to do liturgy like they did at St Peters of San Pedro, California.  As I think back it was all basic boring stuff, it was traditional and unremarkable.  Yet it was their faithfulness, and their understanding of the liturgy as central to the spiritual life of the Church that made that Lent and Easter one of the more memorable and exciting seasons of my life in the Church.

The Peculiar Household of God, Father Son and Holy Spirit

This reflection is a riff on Ephesians 1:1-14, and is the first post in a series of blog posts whose introduction  can be found here

Ephesians shows us what has been revealed about God’s will. Paul is an apostle within this will of God.  God’s will is that we are in Jesus Christ, joined with God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The nature of these relationships is part of the revelation of God’s will. Ephesians conceives of these relations through the analogy of the household.

God is addressed as our Father in the opening verses of Ephesians, yet this “fatherhood” isn’t generic nor due to our being created by God (God as creator at this moment isn’t in view) Rather the Father is father due to the Father’s relationship to the Lord Jesus Christ.  God the Father (our Father) is father of the Lord Jesus Christ.  it is through our relationship to Jesus Christ the Son, that God the Father is our father.

The relation that  is “natural” in God, between Father and Son with the Holy Spirit is in terms of the Father’s relationship to humanity is God’s choice and desire for us.  This is God’s will that we are joined with the Son and thus are, by the Father’s choice, adopted Sons.  Sons here means both those united with and in Jesus Christ, and heirs of the household of God.  We as adopted have an inheritance through the Holy Spirit who is the guarantee of this relationship we have in and through the Son, Jesus Christ.

We may find this masculine language troubling.  We may find ourselves reifying the masculinity of this language and even attributing such reification to the author of Ephesians. Yet , “Paul” makes use of the  household, which in the culture of the time, was always a household of a father whose heir would be the son of the father.  However, we should see (and I think are intended to see) that this household and paternity of God are strange and peculiar.

The peculiarity is that we don’t have only one son.  Adoption for the sake of gaining an heir would have been somewhat commonplace for the time and culture, but the Father’s household doesn’t have only one heir.  All in the household are heirs, sons. We are brought into this peculiar household of God, Father Son and Holy Spirit as sons, being joined to and with the Son.  We are guaranteed this position as sons through and in the Holy Spirit, which seals the inheritance and is through whom we have as the guarantee that we are heirs who will inherit.

But this peculiarity doesn’t end in this multiplicity of heirs and sons (whether male or female, Jew or Greek, bond or free, to remember for a moment Galatians).  It continues as it up ends ‘natural” process of inheritance.  IN the household of God the Father, inheritance comes through the actions of a living father, not a dead father.  And also the adoption comes through the Son (anticipating what is about to be said later on in Ephesians), specifically through the death of the Son and his coming to life again.  It is the passion of Christ  is the means of our adoption as sons.

We are brought into the Household of God, Father Son and Holy Spirit, by God’s willing our identification with Christ which is our adoption as Sons through receiving the Holy Spirit who seals us as wills, and is who is given to us as the guarantee of our inheritance as adopted sons.  This all may seem to masculine, do women become men in this view? (some in the history of Christianity have come to this conclusion?) We shouldn’t cling to tightly to this identity as sons, for we will find that gender and roles that are played can be a bit fluid in this household.

For the moment, we should see here that the Household of God is about an economy of relationships, that in part can be spoken of in terms of the Relationship of God the Father with God the Son, and we speak of God as our Father because through the Holy Spirit we are joined to Jesus Christ the Son and in that union with Christ we are adopted and made sons, that is heirs.  Yet we inherit, not through the death of the Father but but the Fathers being ever living and our life. And even more peculiar our adoption is made possible by the death and subsequent exaltation of the Son.  Oddly enough in the household of God we inherit only through the ongoing life of the Father, yet we are adopted as sons through the death of the Son.

The plan or economy of the household of God, is a peculiar economy, and it is the economy of a relation that is God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, into which we are joined through faith in Jesus Christ.  As we follow “Paul’s” reflection on this household, the peculiarity and strangeness of this economy (plan) and relationship will only grow and multiply.

The Intellectual Life of Bonhoeffer: A review of Strange Glory

A Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer by Charles Marsh brings to Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s biography some previously unknown tidbits, and a well-documented and academic account of Dietrich Bonhoeffer the theologian.  The work is thoroughly documented and has extensive footnotes and bibliography.  If one is looking for a place to begin some research into the life and or ideas of Bonhoeffer, this biography is a great resource.  If , however, one is looking for a biography of Bonhoeffer that is engaging and a good read, as with many academic oriented writings, Strange Glory isn’t such a biography.

Strange Glory in keeping with its academic tone and thoroughness focuses upon Bonhoeffer’s intellectual and theological development.  Frequently, Marsh writes extensive summaries of theologians and other intellectuals with whom Bonhoeffer had contact of whom Marsh believes had influence upon Bonhoeffer.  This almost leaves portions of the biography feeling like an intellectual history of early twentieth century Western theologians, intellectuals, and activists. Thanks to this Life I have Marsh’s sense of Bonhoeffer’s place in 20th century Western theology.  Yet I feel this intellectual and academic focus misses a great deal of who Bonhoeffer was.

As Marsh admits Bonhoeffer was not only a person of ideas and intellectual pursuits but a social and extroverted person with many talents, music, sports etc.  Marsh takes little time to show us Bonhoeffer in his social environment, or to give us a sense of what it might have been like, for instance,  for Bonhoeffer to participate in ecumenical conferences just before and during the Kirchenkampf.  There are of course other Life’s of Bonhoeffer that give us these things, it’s just that without them Marsh’s life of Bonhoeffer is dull reading at frequent points.  Informative but dull.

After Reading Strange Glory: a Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, I feel ready to delve into the scholarship of Bonhoeffer.  This Life provides a way to ground research into Bonhoeffer’s theology in his development as a theologian and the climate at the time of those writings.  However, I don’t feel I know Bonhoeffer better as a person, nor did I find this life of Bonhoeffer inspiring or moving.  Strange Glory doesn’t even offer new insight nor further reflection on the person of Bonhoeffer.  This is a great resource for those outside of the academy (and Bonhoeffer scholarship) who may want some means to begin their own research into Bonhoeffer and have that research grounded in the sitzen im leben of any particular work of Bonhoeffer’s.  However, if one is looking for inspiration or deeper insight into the person of Dietrich Bonhoeffer there are far better biographies, and if you are willing to slog through a tome Bethge’s biography remains best read in this regard.

Interview with Charles Marsh

Charles Marsh is professor or religious studies at the University of Virginia and the director of The Project on Lived Theology

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR,Part 255.