Category Archives

15 Articles

Ashes-to-Go For One: Rethinking Liturgical Individualism

She walked in as I was in the sanctuary preparing for the service – checking the ashes, making sure I had some paper towels ready, marking my spot in the Book of Worship.  “Do you have an Ash Wednesday service tonight?” Yes ma’am, I replied, at 7:00 p.m.  It was about 6:20 at this point. “Has it been earlier in other years?” I’m not sure, I said, I just started in July.

It turned out that she had been to our Ash Wednesday service before, and was hoping to catch the service on her way home from work before meeting with her daughter.  I told her we had a community meal going on and we’d love for her to stay and eat before the service, but her daughter was expecting her and she couldn’t stay. I could tell she was disappointed.

Then I offered to do for her something I’ve never done, something I’ve argued against doing vigorously for years: if she wished, I would impose ashes on her personally and pray with her.  She gladly accepted, and, after giving her some time to pray at the altar, I prayed with her and placed ashes – that ancient sign of mortality and penitence – on her forehead.

Many of my colleagues have encounters somewhat like this annually. Increasingly, among liturgical Protestants, we hear each Lent about “Ashes-to-Go.”  Pastors and priests will go to a coffee shop, a farmer’s market, set up shown downtown, or go to some other public place for a time on Ash Wednesday and offer to pray with people and impose ashes on them.  An each year, I hear stories of significant encounters that would never happen unless the ashes were taken outside of the walls of the church and offered on the go.  My experience last night give me a sense of the meaningful connection that truly can occur in these one-on-one encounters outside of a communal worship context.

I still don’t believe in Ashes-to-Go.

I don’t regret offering ashes to the woman last night.  She made a good faith effort to “get her ash in church,” as we say, and simply made a mistake.  I don’t know my new community well enough to know what time nearby churches offer their services.  She was also the parishioner of a friend of mine and happened to be on my side of town, and I wanted to show hospitality to a fellow United Methodist, in the same way I would hope a colleague would treat one of my church members.

Protestants seem enamored with transplanting communal rites outside of both their ecclesial and liturgical contexts – that is, taking them out of a worship setting and offering them individually.  Whether it is communion at train stations or at home via skype, or Ash Wednesday around the dinner table because you’re snowed in, we seem to look for any excuse to take sacred rites to the secular.

Theologically, this is often tied to a sort of missional mindset, which observes (rightly) that Jesus didn’t spend all his time in the Temple, but went out to meet people on the road, at the city gate, and at the well.  In a North American context where fewer people are making worship a priority even once a week, it seems unreasonable to wait in church and simply hope people show up. In my own tribe, United Methodists, we will often cite John Wesley’s bold step of preaching outside to coal-miners and other working class people of England at the beginning of the Wesleyan revival.  This kind of sacred experience outside of church and among the people, the argument goes, is simply part of our Methodist DNA.

The problem remains the same, however, because there is a basic category mistake.  Ash Wednesday, like the Eucharist, is a corporate rite.  Even in situations of pastoral need – like, say, taking communion to the sick, or the woman who accidentally arrived early at my church last night – these are exceptions to the rule for those who cannot be present with the community.  That’s quite different than seeking out those who could be in corporate worship and offering them a facsimile of the real thing.  Ashes-to-Go is a capitulation to an individualistic culture that, however anecdotally meaningful to participants, ultimately undermines the creation of a Christian community in which worship is central.  It is satisfying in the way that eating ice cream before dinner is satisfying: it meets an immediate desire but ruins the real experience of the family meal.

I don’t regret offering ashes on the go last night, but it reinforced my belief that Ash Wednesday, like Holy Communion, is a community experience whose individualistic expressions should be an exception based on pastoral need and not on convenience.  I respect the desire to reach people outside of the walls of the church and the desire to try new things – and indeed, some of my closest colleagues do this annually – but I believe it ultimately misses the mark.

Let’s get, and give, our ash in church.

What has been your experience of Ashes-to-Go? What are other ways we can meet and serve people outside the walls of the church? Leave a comment below!

281 views

Bonhoeffer & the Empty-Handed Christmas

At Christmas, we typically think about all the things we’ll get our hands on: wrapping paper, bows, gifts, egg nog, gift cards, etc. In other words, Christmas is a time of accumulation, at least for most 21st century Christians in the West.  But in a letter from prison in 1943, Dietrich Bonhoeffer suggests a Christmas with empty hands is all the more powerful:

I think we’re going to have an exceptionally good Christmas. The very fact that every outward circumstance precludes our making provision for it will show whether we can be content with what is truly essential. I used to be very fond of thinking up and buying presents, but now that we have nothing to give, the gift God gave us in the birth of Christ will seem all the more glorious; the emptier our hands, the better we understand what Luther meant by his dying words: “We’re beggars; it’s true.” The poorer our quarters, the more clearly we perceive that our hearts should be Christ’s home on earth.

The Christmas story is, at its core, a story of God’s grace – that is, His unmerited favor and goodness to us.  Christmas is the ultimate a gift – the gift of God’s very self not only to us but as one of us – a gift for which we did not ask, a gift more grand than we could have imagined.  Bonhoeffer discovered, behind bars, that with nothing else to hold onto, the gift was that much more wonderful. “Now that we have nothing to give, the gift God gave us…will seem all the more glorious.”  It was Paul Newman who first told us that nothing can be a “cool hand.”  Perhaps Bonhoeffer was right that a kenotic Christmas – a self-emptying, like Paul describes in the hymn of Philippians 2 – is more powerful, and true to the gospel narrative, than how we typically experience the holiday.

At Christmas, how can we approach the manger with empty hands? How can we remember, in the midst of so much consumerism and conspicuous consumption, to try to be content with only the essentials?  Bonhoeffer, and the church in chains around the world, illustrates the truth of the old preacher’s quip: the one who has God and everything else has no more than the one who has God and nothing.

P.S. I highly recommend this Advent/Christmas devotional built around Bonhoeffer’s writings (pictured above) titled God is in the Manger. The above quotation is dated December 1, 1943 and is found on p. 6.

131 views

The ABC’s of Christmas: A Worship Service for Christmas & Christmastide

by Drew 7 Comments

In searching for an alternative worship service for Christmas day, someone pointed me to this resource over at the Young Clergy Women Project.  This met my needs, since I wanted a service that was a little fun, a bit different, and most of all, substantially different from the Christmas Eve services the night before.  (In 2016, Christmas fell on a Sunday.)  I adapted the content of the YCW service to make it appropriate for a day service rather than an evening, and added communion and some other elements to make it a bit more substantive.  I share it now in case anyone else is looking for a Christmas service for either Christmas eve, day, or Christmastide.  I used this in conjunction with images for each letter, but it would not require those visuals.  This could also be adapted for a fun family devotional or a program would children.  I used a bulletin that gave a streamlined outline of this so folks could follow along, except where there was a congregational response or a reading I wanted to highlight.  This is what I an the other worship leaders will read, in full  Here goes!

The ABCs of Christmas

Welcome

Opening Prayer 

Lighting of the Christ Candle

A is for an angel, Gabriel, who began the story with a greeting to Jesus’ mother, Mary:

“Rejoice, favored one! The Lord is with you!” (Luke 1:28)

Sing “Angels from the Realms of Glory”

is for Bethlehem, where our story takes place. People traveled from everywhere to arrive in the city; it was a very busy place.

C is for a census (that’s a counting of all the people) the reason so many people filled the city of Bethlehem. Luke 2:1-3 says, “In those days Caesar Augustus declared that everyone throughout the empire should be enrolled in the tax lists.  This first enrollment occurred when Quirinius governed Syria.  Everyone went to their own cities to be enrolled.” 

D is for David, Jesus’ ancestor, the greatest King of Israel. Bethlehem was called “the city of David.” Gabriel promised Mary that her son Jesus would inherit King David’s throne: “Look! You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus.  He will be great and he will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of David his father.  He will rule over Jacob’s house forever, and there will be no end to his kingdom.” (Luke 1:31-33)

E is for exhausted, that’s how everyone felt when they arrived – tired from all the traveling!

F is for family: Mary and Joseph and their new baby Jesus, who was born that night in Bethlehem. Let’s say a prayer for families:

O God, look with compassion on families everywhere. Where they are divided, bring them together. Where they are united, strengthen their bonds. Where they are wounded, lead them towards forgiveness and healing. We pray for families of all sizes and types, and for loved ones who bless our lives, whether they have come to us by blood or by choice. Inspire us through the faithfulness and wisdom of the Holy Family, and make every home a place where Jesus is adored. Amen.

Carol: O Little Town of Bethlehem

G is for the Good News about to be shared with all the earth. This is what was said in Luke 2:8-16,
Nearby shepherds were living in the fields, guarding their sheep at night. The Lord’s angel stood before them, the Lord’s glory shone around them, and they were terrified. The angel said, “Don’t be afraid! Look! I bring good news to you—wonderful, joyous news for all people. Your savior is born today in David’s city. He is Christ the Lord. This is a sign for you: you will find a newborn baby wrapped snugly and lying in a manger.” Suddenly a great assembly of the heavenly forces was with the angel praising God. They said, “Glory to God in heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors.” When the angels returned to heaven, the shepherds said to each other, “Let’s go right now to Bethlehem and see what’s happened. Let’s confirm what the Lord has revealed to us.” They went quickly and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in the manger.

H is for herds, all those animals that were present in the stable, and the flocks of sheep in the field with the shepherds when they heard the good news.

I is for Immanuel, the name that the prophet Isaiah gave to Jesus in 7:14: “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.” Immanuel means, “God with us.”

Carol: Emmanuel, Emmanuel

J is for joy – the excitement and happiness that Jesus brings to us, the joy that we relive today.

K is for kindness, shown by the innkeeper that night, allowing a tired family to stay in the stable when there was no room in the inn.

L is for the love we share with one another all through the year and especially at Christmas.

M is for the manger, it is usually used to hold food for animals, but this time it held the baby because he had no crib.

Carol: Away in a Manger

N is for Noel, another word for Christmas. It also another word for a Christmas carol. One of the most popular carols this time of year reminds us of the angels’ song when Jesus was born, the very first Noel.

Let’s sing the first verse of The First Noel together.

O is for offering, when we give back to God some of what God has given us, out of love. The Wise Men brought valuable gifts for the baby Jesus, and just like them, we are going to share our gifts with Jesus.

Sharing Our Gifts (Offertory song)

P is for prayer and praise and pondering, all different ways people reacted the amazing thing that happened. We pray and praise and ponder together:

Prayers of the People

Q is for quiet, the deep peace that Christmas brings – knowing that God is with us.

is for rejoicing! (Sermon follows.)

S is for one special star that shone bright in the night showing the Magi the way to Jesus. And when they found Jesus, they were filled with joy and worshipped him.

Carol: Joy to the World

T is for thanksgiving, which is what Eucharist means. This is another word for The Lord’s Supper, when we give thanks for all that God has done and enjoy a meal prepared by Christ. Turn to page 15 and let us celebrate Christ together once more.

is for unity, all different people brought together today to celebrate God’s love! Let’s pray:

God, thank you for meeting us once together as gather around your table on this holy day. Thank you that Christmas is a celebration that unites Christians around the world. Take away our divisions, that we can show the world Christ’s love as one church, united by the Holy Spirit. Thank you for this opportunity to remember that Christmas is about more than parties and presents. Thank you for Jesus. Amen.

V is for vulnerable; Jesus came to us as an infant, and like other children he had to be cared for, protected–that’s our job. Just like the Holy Family that searched for shelter, there are beloved people and families in our community that God wants us to welcome and to love and serve. All throughout the Bible we see God’s love for the vulnerable, but we especially see it at Christmas, when God became a vulnerable infant out of His great love for us.

W is for wonder– our amazement at the beauty of how much God loves us, and how much God loves the whole world. Just like the Magi, we are lost in wonder at this great miracle.

Carol: We Three Kings (vv. 1, 2, 5)

X is for Xmas! We don’t shy away from this abbreviation because the x is actually the symbol for Christ – it is the first letter of the Greek word for Christ. So when we sign something “Merry Xmas,” we are actually saying Christmas!

Y is for “yule tide carols” – let’s sing Deck the Halls together!

Deck the halls with boughs of holly
Fa-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la
‘Tis the season to be jolly
Fa-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la
Don we now our gay apparel
Fa-la-la, la-la-la, la-la-la.
Troll the ancient Yule-tide carol
Fa-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la.

is for Zechariah, John the Baptist’s father, who sang this beautiful song when he met the infant Jesus, in Luke 1:68-79 (CEB):

“Bless the Lord God of Israel
because he has come to help and has delivered his people.
 He has raised up a mighty savior for us in his servant David’s house, 
just as he said through the mouths of his holy prophets long ago.
 He has brought salvation from our enemies
and from the power of all those who hate us.
 He has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors,
and remembered his holy covenant,
         the solemn pledge he made to our ancestor Abraham.
He has granted  that we would be rescued
from the power of our enemies
so that we could serve him without fear,
         in holiness and righteousness in God’s eyes,
for as long as we live.
 You, child, will be called a prophet of the Most High,
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way.
 You will tell his people how to be saved
through the forgiveness of their sins.
 Because of our God’s deep compassion,
the dawn from heaven will break upon us,
     to give light to those who are sitting in darkness
and in the shadow of death,
to guide us on the path of peace.”

Zechariah’s song reminds why Christmas is good news for the whole world. Let’s leave this place and live this good news and tell others! Let’s close our worship together by singing Go, “Tell it on the Mountain.”
Closing Carol: Go Tell it on the Mountain

Benediction

 

I’d welcome your thoughts on how to improve this, or, if you use it, what worked and what didn’t work. Feel free to edit and adapt this for your own use.  Merry Christmas!

-Drew

397 views

Lent: A Journey Towards Reality

by Drew 0 Comments
Astonishment of Sisoes, Meteora Monastery, circa 16th cent. Public Doman courtesy OrthodoxWiki.org

Astonishment of Sisoes, Meteora Monastery, circa 16th cent. Public Domain courtesy OrthodoxWiki.org

Let’s begin with two generals and a monk. 

The legend goes that when Julius Caesar was a young man, serving a minor government post in Spain, he happened upon a statue of Alexander the Great, the Macedonian conqueror who laid waste to just about the whole world. When he saw the statue he burst into tears, grieving that he had accomplished so little in his time. When Alexander was his age, after all, he had already conquered the known world. Caesar immediately resigned and returned to Rome, seeking higher position and glory – which he found, of course – but in doing so he destroyed the Republic and was betrayed and murdered by his friends.

Next, the monk. If you go to some monasteries and churches in Greece, you might see an icon of an old man in a beard bowing down before a pile of bones. The old man is a saint, Saint Sisoes the Great, called a “desert father” because of his years spent living in great discipline and solitude in the Egyptian desert. The icon depicts Sisoes on his knees before the bones of Alexander the Great, the unparalleled conqueror, and weeping, saying: “O death, who can evade you?”

For Caesar, the memory of Alexander elicited envy and determination to achieve.

Caesar before the statue of Alexander by Joseph-Marie Vien, 18th century. Public Domain image via Wikimedia Commons.

Caesar before the statue of Alexander by Joseph-Marie Vien, 18th century. Public Domain image via Wikimedia Commons.

For Sisoes, the simple monk that history barely remembers, it stirred up humility and a sense of spiritual zeal.

Ash Wednesday is a day that Christians, like Abba Sisoes, dare to remember our deaths. At the beginning of Lent – a 40 day season of preparation modeled on Jesus’ own time of temptation in the desert – the church puts ashes on our foreheads, calls us to repent, and reminds us that we came from dust and will return to it.

This is a very countercultural act.

We live in a world terrified of death, which is to say a world that is uncomfortable with reality. Products and politicians, commercials and a thousand different hucksters promise us we can evade death if we buy this or vote for them or read that. Cosmetic companies and surgeons say they can liberate us from wrinkles and sags; the commercial on TV promises us that if we take this or that pill we can perform like our 18-year-old selves.

We see this in our language, too.  Pay attention to this, if haven’t already noticed it.  We use a wide variety of euphemisms to avoid saying the “d-word” – we say so-and-so “passed away” or “left us” or “went to be with Jesus” instead of saying ‘died’ or ‘dead’ or some other iteration of death.

For all her flaws, which are legion, at least the church is honest about this. Like that desert saint, we are bold to say, “O death, who can evade you?” as we put on ashes and journey toward the cross.

There is a remarkable freedom in this. What the world misses is what the gospel proclaims: that to really live you must die to yourself; to discover our purpose we must become servants of God.  The call and challenge of Jesus tells us truest joy is found – not in fast cars and money or golf or large houses or incredible sex or decadent dessert or Super Bowl tickets – but in taking up a cross and following Jesus. Jesus did not die so we could “believe in him” and go about our lives as we see fit. Christ died and rose from the dead so that we could be reconciled to God and come to share His very life.

Ash-Wednesday-crossWe cannot outrun death. In giving our lives, though, to the one whom death could not hold, death loses its sting (1 Corinthians 15:55).  So we recieve ashes and remember our mortality, not because God wants us morbid and morose, but because we know we have spent too many hours trying to deny reality: we are not God.  We are not immortal.  We do not hold life and death in our hands.

Thankfully, we know the One who does.

The waters of baptism wash away the ashes of death.  We are raised with Christ! Death’s power is fleeting, make no mistake, but we also know all too well that on this side of the Kingdom death behaves with the vengeance of a jilted lover.

And so Lent begins, and we again take a 40 day journey back to reality.

Lent reminds us that the only greatness that counts is sainthood.  Every great conqueror is now topsoil, but holiness does not decompose.  Those great exemplars of faith, like Abba Sisoes the Great and his desert brethren, repose incandescent in the great cloud of witnesses which surrounds us.

Ash Wednesday thus offers us a stark choice:

We can continue chase immortality, celebrity, and grandeur with Caesar and Alexander

or

we can take the journey back to reality, embrace our finitude, admit our need for God’s embrace, and discover the only path to life.

This Lent, may Sisoes the Great and all the company of saints who have conquered temptation, fought the good fight, and finished the race inspire us to walk closer to Christ, more transparent to his gracious reign.

Let’s close with a prayer:

God, you know better than we
the temptations that will bring us down.
Grant that our love for you may protect us
from all foolish and corrupting desire.

-Collect for the First Sunday in Lent, from the New Zealand Prayer Book)

135 views

Repentance with Thomas a’ Kempis

From an 18th century copy of the Imitation of Christ. Courtesy of the Bridwell Library.

From an 18th century copy of the Imitation of Christ. Courtesy of the Bridwell Library.

“I would rather experience repentance in my soul than know how to define it.” -Thomas a’ Kempis

The most beloved book by Christians, other than the Bible, is a short devotional work by a 15th century monk named Thomas a’ Kempis called Imitation of Christ.  a’ Kempis is no saint or Doctor of the Church; as best as we can tell, he was a humble monk from a now-defunct order who just happened to leave us some of the most profound and stirring insights into the spiritual life every put on paper.  He was a favorite of Therese of Lisieux, Thomas More, Ignatius of Loyola, John Wesley, and Thomas Merton, just to name a few.  And during this season of Lent, who better to guide us on the practice of repentance? Let us give the wise monk a hearing once more:

“The only true liberty or honest joy is in fearing God with a good conscience. Blessed is the man who can set aside all the sources of distraction and perfectly recollect himself in holy repentance. Blessed is he who shuns all that soils and weighs down his conscience…Always keep an eye on yourself and be more willing to correct yourself than your dearest friends.” (Ch. 21, “Repentance of the Heart”)

A few thoughts:

  • How radically pre-modern it is to claim that liberty resides in fearing God! Modern libertarians would shun such a notion of freedom.
  • Repentance is a “recollection” of the self. Like the Prodigal Son, the repentant sinner is one who returns to their true home to be restored in the arms of the loving Father.
  • Repentance requires setting aside distraction? Dear God, my iPhone and my iPad have both been flashing alerts at me in the 10 minutes I’ve been writing.  Few acts of  renunciation are more difficult in 2015 than living lives which are not constantly drowning in distraction.
  • More willing to correct myself than others?? But it’s so easy to despise my neighbors’ speck or splinter, and to ignore the log in my own eye!

Repentance is, of course, a daily need and not merely a seasonal occurrence.  For half a millennium, there have been few better guides than Thomas a’ Kempis.  He would be the first to say this obvious conclusion: the point is not to know how to define repentance, not to read great works about repentance, but to do it.

Source: ‘a Kempis, Thomas. The Imitation of Christ (New York: Vintage Books 1998), 30.

17 views

Get Your Ash in Church: One Blizzard Does Not A Diaspora Make (#AshesAtHome)

by Drew 6 Comments
A tempting, convenient substitute for the Bread of heaven.  Why settle for less than the real thing?

A tempting, convenient substitute for the Bread of Heaven. Why settle for less than the real thing?

A friend of mine once told me a horror story from his ordination interviews that has stuck with me.  Between the actual interviews and learning their fate from the committee, the would-be ordinands were invited to a time of worship and Holy Communion.  A problem was discovered, though: someone had forgotten to get the Welch’s and bread.  No worries, though, it was pointed out that there were still muffins and cola in the break room.  Some hapless ordained UMC pastor then proceeded to retrieve, and then celebrate, communion with a gaggle of nascent elders and deacons using snack food.  Only a few brave souls abstained from the spectacle.  Can you imagine? The most holy of mysteries transformed into the contents of a fifth-grader’s lunchbox.  Horrifying.

But wait! some will object.  If you were on the mission field, and no wine or juice and no conventional bread were available, you’d have to just use what was there! Can’t God’s Spirit inhabit a poppy-seed muffin just as easily as a loaf of  King’s Hawaiian Bread? Why limit what God can do?

We’ve all had that argument at some point.  Some unfortunate youth pastors will even lead “communion” using soda and Doritos just to prove the point.  The logic is thus: extreme circumstances call for unusual measures.  And if such measures are acceptable in extreme circumstances, then why not make them normative?

This is the logic behind a liturgical innovation recently unleashed upon an unsuspecting church: “Ashes At Home.”  The idea is simple: Can’t make it to church? Use this liturgy alone or with your family.  After all, Israel is a worshiping community that has often had to hold its most significant gatherings not at Temple or synagogue but at home:

“Of course, the ideal mode of prayer is to be physically together, but necessary separation due to illness, work, political exile or even weather should not squelch the prayers of the faithful.  

Israel has also taught us that sharing in common prayers and festivals binds us together. To be Jewish means to pray the prayers of Israel, no matter where you are. During World War II, the Jews in concentration camps prayed the same prayers as the Jews in New York. Rabbis in Jerusalem share the same prayer as laity in Moscow. Praying the prayers of the faith binds Israel together.”

Of course, there is more to Ash Wednesday than just “prayers.”  I don’t know of any Christians who would argue that prayers can or should only be done in church.  But, following the lead of the prophet Joel, Ash Wednesday is a time of communal repentance, not just individual or familial spiritual experience:

12“Yet even now,” says the LORD, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;
13 and rend your hearts and not your garments.” Return to the LORD, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and repents of evil.
14 Who knows whether he will not turn and repent, and leave a blessing behind him, a cereal offering and a drink offering for the LORD, your God?
15 Blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly;
16 gather the people. Sanctify the congregation; assemble the elders; gather the children, even nursing infants. Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her chamber. (Joel 2:12-16, RSV)
As Taylor Watson Burton-Edwards points out, Joel knows what our Ash Wednesday service signifies: that repentance is too important to do alone.  The innovators go on to ground this practice in another unassailable fact, namely, our common experience of the invisible church:

“We all have experienced this. We have watched the Holy Spirit hover over the elements in hospital rooms as we pray in that space, ‘Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.’

We have felt the Spirit of Pentecost bind us together as we have prayed the Lord’s Prayer with people of a different language, and yet prayed with one heart and mind.”

ASH WEDNESDAYAs any chaplain will tell you, there are liturgical rites that occur in a hospital room that are not parallel any other context – and always as an extension of the church to the hospital room, not a substitute.  Like the hypothetical mission field, it is an unusual circumstance offered to normalize a new practice (and doesn’t communion, which requires a clergy person representing the church, make for an especially bad example here?).  And Pentecost? Well, if the argument is that the gathering of the community is somehow secondary, that we can do just as well alone or in our homes what is done in the assembly, than the Spirit who was poured out on the assembly at Pentecost seems to be precisely the wrong evidence to muster.

The 2015 snowpocalypse is hardly a situation as extreme as the Diaspora or the concentration camp.  Moreover, there is more to the Ash Wednesday service than mere prayers, which can be done by anyone, in any place, at any time.  A snowstorm does not warrant trading an act of communal repentance for my living room.  The solution, actually, is much simpler: just offer the ashes the First Sunday of Lent.  That’s what I will be doing.  Since we could not be together on Wednesday, we will dedicate part of our first gathering of Lent to repent and to remind each other of our need for a community in which repentance is made possible.  One blizzard does not a Diaspora make.  Unusual circumstances are no reason to invent something out of whole cloth, particularly when a much simpler solution is right in front of us.

So don’t settle for a saccharine substitute from the convenience of your living room.  Get your ash in church.  I’ll see you there Sunday.  And best of all, we’ll have a whole community of penitent, praying Christians on hand for the occasion.  Discipleship is difficult work.  God, in His grace,  doesn’t intend us to do it alone.  It takes a church.  Thanks be to God.

47 views

Disappointed in Bethlehem: Then and Now

by Drew 1 Comment
The birthplace of Jesus, as it appears today inside the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, Palestine.  Courtesy Wikipedia.

The birthplace of Jesus, as it appears today inside the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, Palestine. Courtesy Wikipedia.

The Christmas season is upon us.  Of course, the world thinks Christmas is already over; a few more sales and the shelves will be making way for Valentine’s Day.  For many folks, Christmas is a disappointment: we don’t get the gifts we want or don’t get to see all the people we want.  On a more serious note, many of us have Christmases whose joy is broken by addiction, grief, anger, or loss.  Christmas comes around each year but no joy ever does.

I take comfort in knowing Bethlehem has always been a disappointment.  Jews, captive under Roman rule, were disappointed when the Messiah turned out to be a humble baby born to a carpenter’s family, rather than the royal conqueror they had expected.  Pagans were disappointed to hear this little sect, based on a supposed miracle in Bethlehem, was pathetic enough to worship a peasant who came from no place special and died in humiliation on a cross.

Today, Bethlehem is still a disappointment.  I’ve visited the Church of the Nativity twice, and both times – though grateful for the experience – I was struck by the ugliness of the place and, especially, the rudeness of the resident monks.  I resonate with Annie Dillard’s observation:

“Any patch of ground anywhere smacks more of God’s presence on earth, to me, than did this marble grotto. The ugliness of the blunt and bumpy silver start impressed me. The bathetic pomp of the heavy, tasseled brocades, the marble, the censers hanging from chains, the embroidered antependium, the aspergillum, the crosiers the ornate lamps – some human’s idea of elegance – bespoke grand comedy, too, that God put with it. And why should he not? Things here on earth get a whole lot worse than bad taste.”

I am often disappointed by what we do with Bethlehem.  Even the church, whose life is based on that dingy miracle outside of Jerusalem, too often turns Bethlehem into something cute, something tame and touching and saccharin.  But the Incarnation – that’s the name we give to God’s invasion of the world in Bethlehem – was never meant to be.

So perhaps Bethlehem has always been a disappointment, and might always will be.  There is hardly a fitting response to such a strange happening.  We do our best with smoky marble and kitschy plays, but our best is still ugly.

Thankfully, God hangs with us anyway – with all those who are disappointed in, and all those who add to the disappointment of – this place, this miracle, this mystery that is Bethlehem.  Dillard concludes her above observation with this line from Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav:

“Every day, the glory is ready to emerge from its debasement.”

May the true glory of Bethlehem be manifest in us and in our communities, and may God continue to bear with us – every day.

watch for the light

Source: “Bethlehem,” by Annie Dillard, in Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas (New York: Orbis 2001), 220.

10 views

The King Who Seeks

Bette Middler backstage at the 1990 Grammy Awards. Photo by Alan Light.

Bette Middler backstage at the 1990 Grammy Awards. Photo by Alan Light.

A couple of years ago, I heard the song “From a Distance” for the first time.  Though made popular by Bette Middler, my introduction was a live performance from a local celebrity during a fundraising breakfast for a community charity.   While many around me seemed to be deeply moved by the lyrics, I was less than impressed.

I did not recognize the deity whose praises were being sung. It certainly was not the God of Israel and the Church, who loves with passion and compassion, whose fierce determination to be with His people is written all over the pages of Scripture.  Our God is no distant monarch, nor, as Al Pacino’s diabolical title character charges in The Devil’s Advocate, an “absentee landlord.”

John Stott suggests as much when he writes,

“Many people visualize a God who sits comfortably on a distant throne, remote, aloof, uninterested, and indifferent to the needs of mortals, until, it may be, they can badger him into taking action on their behalf. Such a view is wholly false.  The Bible reveals a God who, long before it even occurs to man to turn to him, while man is still lost in darkness and sunk in sin, takes the initiative, rises from his throne, lays aside his glory, and stoops to seek until he finds them.” (Basic Christianity, 11.)

Arminians refer to this seeking, initiative-taking love of God as prevenient grace.  Like the father who runs out to greet the prodigal son in Luke 15, our Christ is a king who seeks and saves, who loves with abandon, never content to be at  a distance.  With Christ the King Sunday upon us, let us remember why we have reason to celebrate an incarnate “King of Kings and Lord of Lords.”

Thanks be to the God, who was come near us in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.

5 views

Good Friday, Trinity, and Atonement

Image

For many Christians, Good Friday brings up aspects of Christianity they would prefer to minimize, or leave behind entirely.  Themes like sacrifice, suffering, guilt, and blood make many followers of Christ uncomfortable.  Jeremy Smith has recently argued in favor of moving the locus of atonement further away from the cross.  Indeed, the cross remains to followers of Jesus what it was to people in the ancient world: foolishness and a stumbling-block. (1 Cor. 1:23)

In Death on a Friday Afternoon, Fr. Richard Neuhaus explores various attempts to re-imagine the atonement and finds them wanting.  He looks at the cross through the lens of liberal, existentialist, and liberationist theologies and finds in them little to no hope at all.  But neither is he (pardon the expression) satisfied with expressions of atonement that emphasize the wrath of God the Father punishing Jesus on the cross.  Instead, he suggests we see the cross as an act of love by the whole of that great mystery we name as God: the Trinity, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  The book as a whole is marvelous, and I would commend it to your reading. The section to which I refer is worth quoting in its entirety:

“We do well to get rid completely of the notion that the atonement is about what God did to Jesus. This requires returning to the truth that the God who brought about our atonement is the Holy Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Atonement is from beginning to end the work of the three divine Persons of the triune God. In collusion with the Father, the Son, in the power of the Spirit, freely takes our part by becoming our representative.  A representative is different from a substitute. The atonement is not a quantitative matter. It is not as through there is a certain amount of wrong for which a certain amount of punishment is due, and so somebody must be found to take the punishment. That way of thinking produced the ritual of the scapegoat, a ritual reenacted in many different ways throughout history. Christ’s atoning sacrifice is not about quantitates of sin and punishment but is intensely personal. It is the mending of a personal relationship between God and humanity that had been broken.

Justice requires that  satisfaction be made; we were and we are in no position to make such satisfaction. Jesus Christ actively intervenes on our behalf, he freely takes our part in healing the breach between God and humanity by the sacrifice of the cross.  To speak of a collusion between the Persons of the triune God suggests the word ‘conspiracy.’ It is a helpful word when we remember that conspire means, quite literally, ‘to breathe together.’ in the beginning, God breathes life into Adam; Jesus breathes upon the disciples and says, ‘receive the Holy Spirit.’ The triune God conspires for our salvation. The entire plan is love from beginning to end, and the fullness of God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – is engaged every step of the way.  It is not an angry Father punishing an innocent Son, with the Spirit on the sidelines helplessly watching. No, it is the Father, Son, and Spirit conspiring together to save us from ourselves.  At the Father’s command, the Son freely goes forth in the power of the Spirit to become one of us.  On our behalf, as Representative Humanity, he lives the life of perfect obedience that Adam – and all of us ‘in Adam’ – failed to live. And he completes that life by dying the perfect death.” (220-221)

The cross is a conspiracy of love by the triune God.  That’s why we call it Good Friday, and that’s why we run away from the cross to our peril.  Let us, with John the Baptist, behold and marvel at “the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” (John 1:29) Thanks be to God.

14 views

Start with Three, and Preserve the Mystery: Thoughts on Trinity Sunday

“So I start here with two principles: (1) Trinitarian terminology should function less to explain the mystery than to preserve it; (2) thinking about the Trinity should move from the three to the one rather than the other way round.” (William Placher, The Triune God, 121)

Trinity Sunday is one of those rented mules of the liturgical calendar; it is there by tradition and necessity, but we often don’t know how to treat it – whether lay or clergy.  The result is typically one of two alternatives: a complete avoidance of the observation (no less an option in Methodist and other semi-liturgical circles than in “non-denominational” and free church communities) or some heretical claptrap that tries to “explain” the greatest mystery of the church with some inane banalities or make it “relevant” (read: about us more than about God). None of these are good options, and both miss the point: as Christians we need to know this God!trinity shield

As one of my seminary professors, Dr. Freeman, used to say, “In the South we are all ‘functional Unitarians.'”  That is, in the Bible Belt we are great at talking about Jesus day in and day out, but we are fuzzy if not totally ignorant about the doctrine of the Trinity and the relationship of the “Three-One” God (to use Wesley’s phrase).  In my own preparation for preaching this day, I found flipping back through the late William Placher’s The Triune God: An Essay in Postliberal Theology a helpful exercise.

The postliberal bent to Placher’s work is evident throughout.  That is, he draws on the work of the so-called “Yale School” influenced especially by George Lindbeck and Hans Frei.  The postliberals focus on Christian language as constitutive of belief and practice; Lindbeck’s The Nature of Doctrine puts forth the thesis that dogma functions as a kind of grammar for Christian speech, and  thereby he – heavily influenced by Barth – insists on a third way beyond the estranged twins of fundamentalism and liberalism (hence the name of the school, “Postliberal”). Barth’s Christocentrism and the centrality of the Biblical narrative come through heavily in Placher’s reflections.  Consider the following:

“…Christians start knowing God in God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ, in Jesus’ references to the one he called “Father,” and in the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete Jesus promised, who forms and sustains our faith.  The task of any doctrine of the Trinity is thus not to show how an abstract one is three, but to show that these three are one, and this is not an unnecessary complication but something essential to what Christians believe.” (120)

Few things are more harmful to Christian faith and life than the confusion of the Triune God revealed in the life, witness, death, and resurrection of Jesus with the kind of generic, uninvolved God that seems to be the dominant God “believed” by most Americans. (See Kenda Creasy Dean’s Almost Christian for more here.)  Because we know God first through Jesus, Placher asserts, we start with three and move to one, rather than vice-versa.  This is precisely not an academic exercise but rather an attempt to be faithful to the Biblical narrative through which God has revealed himself to us:

“What the early theologians said was…something like this: We know from Scripture that the Son is not the Father, for the Son prays to the Father with an intensity that cannot be playacting.  We know that the Spirit is Another the Father will send, and not the same as the Son.  We know that there is one God, and yet we pray to the Son and the Spirit, and count on them to participate in our salvation in a way that would be blasphemous if they were other than God.  We need some terms in order to say that God is both one and three, and so we devise such terms, but it is only beyond this life, in the vision of God, that we will understand how God is both one and three.” (130)

Praise be to God that we are not left with an uninteresting, generic Divinity, but a God who is love itself, a God who not only calls us to love but embodies perfect love as a Trinity of persons – distinct but not different, Three and yet One – a God whose being is not other than the perfect outpouring of grace upon grace. And praise be that this is not a God we can prove through mathematical proof or scientific experimentation, but a God who is beyond our categories and above our feeble attempts at description.  What has thus far been revealed to us is amazing, but more astonishing still is how great the depths of mystery there will be to plumb for all of eternity, when we see this God with sight unobstructed.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

65 views
%d bloggers like this: