Tag Archives: Jesus

St. Gregory the Great’s Advice to Young Clergy

I interrupted my current reading with something special for my ordination: Pope St. Gregory the Great’s Book of Pastoral Rule.  With his description of the ideal pastor and rather cutting remarks on the temptations to which clergy are prone, it was a humbling read to surround the days leading up to my ordination as an Elder in Full Connection.

A large portion of his Rule is devoted to specific instructions for people with opposite vices or situations; while this section gets a bit tedious and repetitive, there are nonetheless some gems within.  Especially interesting to me was the section entitled, “Those who are able to preach with dignity but fear to do so out of humility [does anyone know one of these people???], and those whose lack of skill or age prevents from preaching but who nevertheless rush into preaching.”

In that section, St. Gregory elaborates:

“…those who are prohibited from preaching because of a lack of skill or age, but nevertheless rush into preaching, should be advised that in their arrogance to assume the burden of the office of preaching, they do not cut off the opportunity for their own future improvement.  Moreover, as they seize prematurely what they are not able to do, they should be careful that they not lose those very skills that they might otherwise have achieved at a later time…they should be advised to remember that if young birds try to fly before their wings are fully developed, they fall from the height that they sought.”

He goes on to use – and really, who could be better? – the example of Jesus:

“And so it is that our Redeemer, though as the Creator he remains in heaven and is always by his power the teacher of the angels, did not wish to become a teacher of men until his thirtieth year on earth.  Clearly, he did this to instill a wholesome fear into the hasty by showing them that even he, who could not err, did not preach the grace of the perfect life until he had reached the appropriate age.” (Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2007 [163-164].)

I am struck by how much this is the opposite impulse of many churches today, including that of my own (United Methodist) tribe.  Denominational authorities tell us everywhere that we need more young clergy, and many claim (or at least imply) that our time to ordination should be faster/simpler/easier.  I have my own thoughts on why “The Process” is so complex, and why it should be so in every corner of the Body, but here I am mostly interested in the age factor.

St. Gregory regards it as a vice that one would seek to preach at too young an age; we seem to act and think the opposite.  Mirroring, rather than challenging, the cultural assumption that everything new is good and the way of the young is the way it should be, the church too quickly and too often runs after the young like a drunk stumbling for a lamppost. Thus the values of the market win out over wisdom, and we effectively despise those whom most healthy societies have revered.

I am almost 31.  I am about to enter my 5th year of full-time ministry, and I have much to learn.  I have no illusions that I have achieved the heights of pastoral wisdom or preaching excellence, and I am horrified that anyone my age or younger would already be showing interest in the Episcopacy.

Wisdom is the fruit of years, and more specifically years of prayer, study, discernment, experience, and some serious grace.  While the young should be cultivated for spiritual leadership, and I understand that the investment the church makes via ordination (if for no other purpose than the rather mundane reasons of insurance and other benefits) means that younger clergy may be preferred by the system, we who are young should not seek to speak of God too soon or too lightly.  We should not presume that being young gives us some kind of monopoly over leading well or preaching with power and conviction.

In short, we could use a dose of Gregory’s advice: don’t be in a hurry to speak the words of salvation, to presume to speak for God.  Jesus didn’t get going until he was 30.  Don’t be too proud to walk before you run, or to sit in the chair of the apprentice before assuming the role of the master.

Worshiping at St. Relevant of the Contemporary

Your Growtivation for the Day

In the closing chapter of his highly enjoyable For Our Salvation, Geoffrey Wainwright pauses to reflect upon the usefulness of the munus triplex (Christ’s “threefold office” of Prophet, Priest, and King) for today’s church:

“First, the reference of prophet, priest, and king should have some relevance to the human condition.  While the ‘cult of relevance’ is deplorable, it would be a betrayal to think that the gospel were irrelevant to human needs and possibilities, properly understood.”

There is a world of meaning implied in the phrase, “properly understood.”  There is the rub.  The ‘cult of relevance’ operates on the assumption that people’s needs felt needs should determine both the medium and the message (for they are not really as separable as many adherents to the cult would claim).  Church, worship, faith, and worst of all, Jesus, thereby become means to all kinds of ends that have little to nothing to do with the gospel.  Warm feelings are felt, children are entertained, and all can go home satisfied that they have had some kind of meaningful “experience” (which is not really meaningful at all, because in fact they have merely imbibed a product that was marketed, designed, and sold to produce that very effect).  This runs utterly counter to the first principle of Christian discipleship, which tells us that our needs are not needs at all: denial of self.

As Wainwright points out, this “cult” (and it is not too strong a term) really is deplorable.  And yet, as is so often the case, there is a nugget of truth in the lie.  The gospel is by no means irrelevant to our real needs: to our brokenness, our alienation from self and other, our need for meaning and value and worship.  To really address those things, we must stay focused on the One who really is the answer to every question, the solution to every problem: Jesus.  If you seek Christ, the rest will work itself out. As C.S. Lewis said, “Aim at heaven and you’ll get earth thrown in.  Aim at earth and you’ll get neither.”

P.S. Watch the video above, but be warned: you may not be able to look at your worship service the same afterwards.

P.P.S. For a better, more thoughtful argument similar to what I have made above – and a theology of worship that goes deeper than “whatever works” – check out Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down by Marva Dawn.

Holy Saturday, Failure, and Seth Godin

When it looked like Jesus has failed, he was actually on a rescue mission. From a 15th century Italian master, courtesy of http://www.geopolicraticus.wordpress.com.

“…but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews
and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called,
both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom
of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom,
and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.”
-1 Cor. 1:23-25

“Only the crucified Christ can bring the freedom which changes
the world because it is no longer afraid of death. In his time the
crucified Christ was regarded as a scandal and as foolishness.
Today the church…must return to the crucified Christ in order
to show the world the freedom he offers.”
-Jurgen Moltmann, The Crucified God

According to Frederick Buechner, the resurrection means that “the worst thing is never the last thing.” In Christ’s victory at Easter, sin and death are destroyed, their power is gone, and we are freed in Christ to live new lives that boldly testify to the risen savior. Paul tells his young protege, Timothy, “God did not give us a Spirit of timidity, but of power, love, and self-discipline.” (2 Tim. 1:7) As Christians we must discipline ourselves to fail well.

I was lucky enough to see Seth Godin give a talk at High Point University recently. Godin is a writer and entrepreneur who has some insight on failure that Christians should take to heart. In a blog post titled “How to Fail” he writes:

“There are some significant misunderstandings about failure…
All of us fail. Successful people fail often, and, worth noting, learn more from that failure than everyone else. Two habits that don’t help:
• Getting good at avoiding blame and casting doubt
• Not signing up for visible and important projects” (1)

Godin pushes us to see that if we aren’t failing, we aren’t trying hard enough. If we are only doing “sure things,” if we are only traveling well-worn paths that we think are guaranteed to work, then odds are we aren’t jumping in with both feet. Like Edison discovering 10,000 ways not to make a light bulb, we make often make breakthroughs only after failing a lot. Like Godin says, successful people fail along with everyone else, but they learn from it more than everyone else, too.

As Christians, we know what God can do with an apparent failure. The cross is still a stumbling block and foolishness to the world because it is shocking that death has been conquered by death, that the moment when it looked like God had failed became the place of God’s greatest triumph.  Drawing on images from 1st Peter, Christians have long pondered how Jesus spent Holy Saturday, and prayerfully considered that Jesus was in fact in the realm of the dead reaching out to the righteous in Sheol.

To live in light of the resurrection means that we, too, are free to fail, free to risk, because we know that our efforts are not in vain. We know that we work for a Kingdom that will come, regardless of our faults and failures. We work for a savior who can do marvelous things with shaky disciples and a few loaves of bread.

Thanks be to God.

The Gospel: Liberal & Conservative

The following is an excerpt from the sermon delivered last Sunday, part of a series I’m doing on how to follow Jesus in a polarized culture.  I used Deuteronomy 4 to discuss the constant (conservative) call of Israel to remember God’s work among them, and Jesus’ controversial sabbath healings as an example of his (liberal) tendencies to stretch the bounds of acceptable law observance.  I’ve received inspiration from Adam Hamilton for this series, especially from his book Seeing Gray in a World of Black & White.  Here it is:

When it comes to thinking through and living out our faith in the world, our culture has set us up to fail.  Our talking heads tell us that everything has to be one way or the other: left or right, donkey or elephant, blue state or red state.  When we come to the faith assuming that everything can fit neatly into one of two boxes, we lose something very precious: the gospel itself.  Jesus was not a Republican or a Democrat, but all too often we try to argue that the view of the world we prefer must have been the view of Jesus.  Father James Schall put it this way:

“The division of the world into “liberal” and “conservative” on every topic from politics to our taste in cuisine, clothes, or automobiles is one of the really restricting developments that has ever happened to us. If we are not what is considered popularly a “liberal,” then we must, by some convoluted logic, be a “conservative,” or vice versa. No third or fourth option is available as is usually the case in the real world. It has to be, we are told, either this way or that.

Such a view makes things very simple, I suppose. But it also reduces our minds to utter fuzziness. We are required to define everything as either liberal or conservative even when the two allowable terms of definition are not adequate to explain the reality that they are intended to describe.” (1)

The gospel is certainly something so marvelous, so transformative and beautiful and powerful, that a simple “left or right” is not remotely close to being able to describe it.  Today we are continuing in our series The Extreme Center: Following Jesus in a Polarized World.  I’m going to show today how the gospel is both “liberal” and “conservative.”  That, of course, is just another way of saying that the gospel is not easily defined one way or the other.  The message of Jesus refuses to be pigeonholed into our simple categories, it shatters them, it stretches us, and challenges us with a third way that is neither solely “liberal” or “conservative”: the way of cross and resurrection…

The gospel, then, is liberal and conservative. It’s both, which is also to say that it is neither.  The way of Jesus is higher than those cultural divisions.  Recognizing that is one way that Christians of all sides and stripes can seek the extreme center together: like Jesus, all of us seek to conserve some things and change some things.  None of us are a simple as these labels, even if we claim them strongly.  The gospel, the good news that God has entered the world as a human and opened up salvation to all people, also cannot be reduced to one of these categories without making it something unrecognizable. 

A few years back there was a commercial on TV that opened with two infants trying to learn their shapes.  They had those toys that hollow out different shapes in plastic, like a triangle, a circle, a square, and a rectangle, and the goal is to match them all up.  They are both struggling with the square piece, pushing and yelling and twisting, trying to get it to fit into the round hole.  Then it flashes forward, both of them are grownup mechanics under the hood of a car.  One of them is struggling with a battery, trying to make it fit right into its cradle.  He’s banging it with a hammer, and over his shoulder his buddy is yelling, “Just keep hitting it, it’ll fit eventually.”  Of course, the lesson was that you don’t want mechanics like this working on your car.  All they are going to do is damage your car.

Trying to fit the gospel into the convenient confines of a box like ‘left’ or ‘right’ also does damage.  In our polarized culture, Christians of every political persuasion want Jesus on their side, and so he is trotted out to bless this position or Scripture is quoted as simple justification of this legislation.  Parties and candidates try to convince us that they are God’s choice, which means that the other side must be against God.  All of this does great harm to the gospel.  It reduces the message of Jesus to a tool to gain power.  It renders unto Caesar what is God’s.  On a practical level it harms evangelism, it will turn off all those on the other side who may be searching for God but are suspicious of a God who looks tailor-made for this or that party or issue.

Chuck Colson, a writer and activist whose life was transformed after being put in prison as part of the Watergate scandal wrote this:

“…Christians should never have a political party.  It is a huge mistake to become married to an ideology, because the greatest enemy of the gospel is ideology.  Ideology is a man-made format of how the world ought to work, and Christians instead believe in the revealed truth of Scripture.” (2)

Friends, the world doesn’t need more ideology.  We fight over it; families split over it; countries are torn in two by it; those in power kill for it.  The world needs Jesus.  Each and every person on this big, round rock need to know the transformative power of Jesus’ love.  But party politics masquerading as faith won’t do it.  People can smell ideology from a mile away; it stinks to heaven.  The gospel, on the other hand, is something so sweet it is unmistakable.  The gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ, is too glorious to be contained by our simple categories.  It is its own party, its own “side”; the gospel bids us to show love rather than claim power, because Jesus was exalted by rejecting power and submitting to death.  So, too, all of us, who find ourselves drowning in a sea of partisan politics, of ideology, of talking heads and pundits, must reject our desire to be “right” and give our desire to win over to Christ.  The extreme center, the way of the cross, is the way that asks us to sacrifice everything to him.  To play with Paul a little bit: in Christ there is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female, republican, democrat, left, right, progressive, libertarian, socialist, anarchist.  However it is we participate in the world, whatever our views are, we are to present them at the foot of the cross, the throne of our true Lord, who bids us to be about Kingdom business.  In a world that asks us to choose between black and white, left and right, the only way to win is to refuse to play the game.  Let us follow Jesus not with timidity but extremely, with abandon, with gusto, keeping him at the center, and led out these doors by the Spirit to show a divided world a better way.  In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen. 

1. “On Being Neither Liberal Nor Conservative,” http://www.ignatiusinsight.com/features2005/schall_libcons_may05.asp

2. Quoted in Lyons and Kinnaman, UnChristian.

Dare We Read Hans Urs Von Balthasar? (Or, Who’s Gettin’ to Heaven?)

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Hoping to finish up Dare We Hope? from the great Catholic theologian Hans Urs Von Balthasar tonight.  I first encountered his ideas in seminary, and a recent bible study on the Revelation of John inspired me to finally take this off the shelf.  The question guiding the Swiss Catholic’s tome is a daunting one: from the Biblical and other evidence, do we have any grounds to hope (not claim!) that all might be saved?  Citing the RC Catechism, he points out that official dogma has never held that anyone is absolutely in hell right now.  Might it be that, as so many biblical texts imply (or claim directly), Jesus might achieve his stated goal of “drawing all men” to himself?

For anyone who has struggled with the question of salvation, particularly its scope, Von Balthasar is a welcome read.  Far from liberal claims that God would “surely” not damn anyone (because God, like liberal theologians, views all judgments as passe’), Dare We Hope insists in on nothing more than the what the title suggests: if we truly love our neighbors and wish for them their highest good, we can, and should, dare to hope that they will be saved…as well as ourselves.

I leave you with a succinct statement, from his Short Discourse On Hell (attached to Dare We Hope? as a response to his critics):

The question, to which no final answer is given or can be given is this: Will he who refuses [salvation] now refuse it to the last?  To this there are two possible answers: the first says simply “Yes”…the second says: I do not know, but I think it permissible to hope (on the basis of…Scripture) that the light of divine love will ultimately be able to penetrate every human darkness and refusal. (Dare We Hope “That All Men Be Saved” with A Short Discourse On Hell [San Francisco: Ignatius Press 1988], 178)

Abraham Heschel and Jesus the Prophet

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In one of my classes on Methodism, it was stressed that Wesley encouraged his preachers to proclaim Christ “in all his offices” –  prophet, priest, and king. In other words, the substitutionary act of Christ as the mediator of sin – a priestly act – should not override his prophetic and kingly ministries.  Christ ought to be viewed more fully in the multiple roles that he inhabited, regardless of theological proclivities.

I’m currently working my way through a sermon series on Jeremiah (going – mostly – with the lectionary).  As part of my preparation, I’m rereading Abraham J. Heschel’s classic tome The Prophets, or at least the parts that deal with the personalty of the Hebrew prophets and with Jeremiah particularly.  In doing so, I was struck by the ways in which Jeremiah’s rejection as a prophet is echoed later in Jesus’ ministry.

Jeremiah, of course, was branded a traitor by his own people for suggesting that Judah should submit to Babylonian rule.  You may remember that Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s home town.” (Luke 4:24)

In his chapter on the prophet from Anathoth, Heschel argues,

He who loved his people, whose life was dedicated to saving his people, was regarded as an enemy…What protection was there against such backbiting?  No one could look into his heart, but everybody was hurt by his words.  Only the Lord knew the truth. (The Prophets [San Francisco: Perennial Classics 2001], 157)

He goes on to quote from Jeremiah 17, including

I have not pressed Thee to send evil, nor have I desired the day of disaster, Thou knowest; that which came out of my lips was before thy face.

Heschel’s work is an absolute must-read on these fascinating individuals, whose office was both great and terrible.  Among many other gifts, the Jewish Theological Seminary professor has reminded me of just how strong Jesus’ ties to the Hebrew prophets were – and remain.

I like tea, and I like parties…

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…but that don’t make me a “tea partier.”

I confess I don’t understand how the tea party has gotten so much attention.  I don’t know anyone who is seriously involved in it.  I know that a lot of people seem to be either fans of it or horrified by it.  While my sympathies lean towards what I could call the best of the conservative tradition, I don’t think I fall into either camp vis-a-vis the tea party.

Is the entire movement racist, as the NAACP seemed to imply with their recent resolution?  Doubtful.  If every grassroots movement is to be judged by its most extreme elements, than every grassroots movement is stupid/ignorant/hate-filled/dangerous.

[Besides, this move only formalized a what is a widely held rule on the left: anyone on the right is by definition of a racist.  And by the way, the left seems perfectly ready to accept racists in their camp, as long as they vote the correct way.]

This includes the contemporary incarnation of the civil rights movement, who should likewise be forced to answer for the racism of the Farrakhans and Black Panthers of the world.  But the “I’m a racist? You’re a racist!!” argument is really a losing battle.

I’m not sure if I can say that Christians absolutely should or should not be involved in the Tea Party movement.  I would say the same thing about any secular cause, including any campaign on the left – be it civil rights or that chimerical beauty called “social justice.”

What I feel confident saying is that, if involvement in any political cause is the defining force of your life – and you claim to be a Christian – you’ve got your priorities mixed up.  If we find ourselves watching Fox News or reading the Huffington Post with more zeal than we pray or read the Scriptures or worship, we are in trouble.

And beloved, I think that means a lot of us are in trouble.

Lord, give us undivided hearts to serve and love you, and each other.

Save us from any cause, good or ill, that detracts from our worship of you. Amen.

Boozin’ it up with Jesus

I ‘ve been preaching through Ephesians the last 7 weeks, going with the RCL’s secondary reading.  A few weeks back, part of my pericope was Ephesians 5:18, part of which reads, “Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery.”  It is one of those places where the Bible is clear on drunkenness.  It was also quite convicting.

My background is fundamentalist and Southern, which means I was raised on the idea that alcohol is, in the words of Adam Sandler in The Waterboy, “The DEBIL!”  When I went to college, I realized quite simply that the people who insisted that drinking alcohol of any kind was “unchristian” were quite simply talking out of their anuses.   They didn’t drink because their parents didn’t, they claimed it was based on “the Bible” but could never account for why Jesus enjoyed wine so much that he provided a last round for everyone at  little soiree in Cana.
So I started to drink, once I turned 21.  And it was fun.  I partied with my friends…never did anything too stupid, never drank and drive, but I did enjoy partying to the point of intoxication.  This *maybe* even happened in seminary.  I know the dangers of alcoholism because my family is rife with it, but it’s never been a burden to me in that way.  I never drank when I felt bad or drank to get courage, but it was quite simply a way to enhance my enjoyment of good company.  Such days are over now, largely, though I enjoy my occasional glass of scotch or beer.

But the Bible Belt is, even though my church is not fundamentalist, essentially all Baptist.    Among many people in my pews and others around North Carolina, alcohol is still a touchy and sore subject.  I’m not sure how to account for it, because certainly (like abortion and the gay marriage issue) the Bible is not nearly as concerned as we are about booze.

The best I have surmised is that this sentiment is a leftover, a sort of long-term nuclear fallout, of the Temperance Movement.  Of course, the great irony of the temperance movement was that it took a word which meant ‘moderation’ and changed it to ‘abstinence’.

Most people around the world and throughout history have simply had alcoholic beverages as part of their everyday lives.  I was surprised to learn recently that even the Puritan settlers of the early New England colonies drank primarily homemade beer (and their children drank a diluted version of this).  The lack of clean water made this medically necessary.  How we got from that everyday, staple understanding of beer and wine to “alcohol is the devil” is interesting.  I would ask my Baptist seminary friends why their churches were so against alcohol and none of them could ever give me a real answer.  Even many of the more liberal ones that I know still did not drink alcohol.  This is all the more interesting because Baptists have no unified structure to declare a top-down policy on alcohol; this stance is simply assumed at all levels.

So, WWJD at a bar?  Would he sit in the corner with upturned nose as the heathens drank their Guinness and Cabernet and Johnnie Walker?  [Note: this image is modelled after my Campus Crusade friends’ actions throughout college]  Doubtful.  Wine is, after all, still preserved as part of the Lord’s Supper on a regular basis.  Generally it is not things themselves which are evil, but their ill use.   As Ephesians points out, the problem is not the wine but the drunkenness.  The problem, usually, is not with the things themselves but with us, within our bent and twisted and ego-driven souls.  So, I contend that Jesus would probably have a beer with us (he touched lepers, after all)…but, in the immortal words of Cal Naughton Jr, I doubt he would ” get HAMMERED drunk.”