31 January 2010

Collect for the fourth Sunday after the Epiphany

All loving and everlasting God, you govern all things both in heaven and on earth: Mercifully hear the supplications of your people, and in our time grant us your peace; through Jesus Christ our Savior, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen.

30 January 2010

Reflection: 01-10

One night, during our Thursday night chats, Fr Andy said (paraphrasing), ‘God’s love is the greatest, most powerful thing of all. If anyone resisted God’s love, then that person would be more powerful than God. I don’t believe that.’ That night, I disagreed. God doesn’t force Godself upon people. If a person doesn’t want to love God or accept God’s love, that doesn’t make her more powerful than God. That’s just how love works. But, I have to be honest, that thought gnawed at me more and more. The more I thought about it, the more I could see truth in it. If God is anything, God is Love (1John 4). I do not think, nor have I ever thought, that anything within creation was more powerful than the Creator. To quote Pete from O Brother, Where Art Thou?, ‘That don’t make no sense!’ So the idea that God’s Love would be cosmically victorious stewed within me. More so than I would have ever thought.

Then, while checking the RSS feeds of websites that I read, a discussion popped up about a book titled, The Evangelical Universalist. For the longest time, I never gave it much more than a glance. But one day . . . one day I read through the post and then followed the link to Amazon.com and ordered the book. I’m not really sure why. I don’t really recall anything within the post that touched me. Maybe it was just the idea that God’s Love is the greatest thing of all. I’m not sure. And I didn’t really know what to expect when the book arrived. I read some of the reviews on Amazon.com and don’t really remember anything extraordinary there, either. I do remember one person commenting that that Thomas Talbot’s book, The Inescapable Love of God was a better, more entry level book into the world of universalism. I found that Talbot had a website and I bookmarked it and then downloaded the free chapters he made available. I read them with great interest. Not my usual hunger and thirst type of interest but I just couldn’t stop reading them! He made some great sense. I could hardly wait until MacDonald’s book showed up!

When it arrived, I tore into it. ‘MacDonald’ (a pseudonym) has the book set up in three basic sections – philosophical arguments, scriptural arguments, and exegesis. I followed the philosophical arguments better than I thought I would be able. He made a lot of sense. The scriptural arguments were just as good, if not better, than the philosophical arguments. However, the exegesis on Revelation leaves a lot to be desired, in my opinion. To be honest, I got lost. I was tracking him for a while, but then, I’m not sure what happened, it just became fuzzy. Over all, a good read, with a lot of good points.

MacDonald starts in the introduction by asking a very powerful question, ‘Could I love a God who could rescue everyone but chose not to?’ The impact of this question is unsettling at the least and world crumbling at the most – if one honestly wrestles with it. I had to put the book aside and just think about that question for quite some time. I tried to justify the reasons why I thought God would – ‘God didn’t choose to save everyone’; ‘God won’t rescue those who don’t want to be rescued’; whatever – but they all felt forced. So, once I realized that I must deal with question, I was prepared to read the rest of the book.

One of the first points that he makes is that he is not espousing a universalism that one can act however or believe whatever one wants. MacDonald is trying to merge the universalists view with the view that ‘evil doers’ and ‘unbelievers’ will be ‘punished’ in ‘hell’ and then, when their sentence is over, they will be released and they will then turn to God and believe. So ‘hell’, in MacDonald’s view, is one of a temporary place of torment. This is because of his idea of justice – the punishment must fit the crime. Therefore, according to MacDonald, there is no way that God would punish someone for ‘eternity’ since a finite being can never do something that would demand infinite torture.

He then moves on to the scriptural and theological points. ‘We must be open to the possibility that we have misread the Bible’ (pg. 35). This is how he starts off Chapter 2, ‘Universalism and Biblical Theology’. He makes a very good point, right from the start, that a universalists position is ‘ruled out a priori and thus not even considered’ when examining the Bible. This is exactly how I remember it. I have even used the argument, ‘Well, we know that everyone will not be saved so this must be referring to . . .’ fill in the blank. But, one thing that has be a constant in my biblical studies is the idea of re-reading the texts again and again; of having the idea that yes, maybe I have misread the Bible. This is very liberating and a little more than scary. I will say, though, some of the greatest illuminations have come from just this type of re-reading. If we think that we have understood all there is to what the Bible has to say, then we are naive. Now, I will also add, that there are a few convictions that I will not let go of, but everything else is on the table for debate and, if needs be, change. The idea of God rescuing all of creation has become one of those things. I mean, what could be harmful of having that idea? Other than, of course, the ‘church’ stating that I’m a heretic (again). I’m used to that.

So, this chapter was very refreshing. I followed a lot of his points. He even goes so far as to state that all views (including traditional views like Calvinism and Arminianism) hold firm their faith ‘in spite of some awkward texts’ (pg. 37). So must the universalist. Just because there are texts that, at first reading, appears to speak of ‘eternal’ torment, the universalist must hold to her view. The over-arching story of the Bible, according to MacDonald, is of God creating and then ‘redeeming’ the cosmos – not just part of creation but all of it. I agree on this point but never pushed the envelope because I always held the traditional view of ‘hell’ and ‘punishment’.

MacDonald states that the two basic views are based on either God’s justice (traditionalism) or God’s love (universalism). While aspects of both views are found in the opposing ones, those are the controlling grids that each perspective uses to read the scriptures. One of the passages that MacDonald wrestles with is Romans 5.12-21 (NLT):

When Adam sinned, sin entered the world. Adam’s sin brought death, so death spread to everyone, for everyone sinned. Yes, people sinned even before the law was given. But it was not counted as sin because there was not yet any law to break. Still, everyone died—from the time of Adam to the time of Moses—even those who did not disobey an explicit commandment of God, as Adam did. Now Adam is a symbol, a representation of Christ, who was yet to come. But there is a great difference between Adam’s sin and God’s gracious gift. For the sin of this one man, Adam, brought death to many. But even greater is God’s wonderful grace and his gift of forgiveness to many through this other man, Jesus Christ. And the result of God’s gracious gift is very different from the result of that one man’s sin. For Adam’s sin led to condemnation, but God’s free gift leads to our being made right with God, even though we are guilty of many sins. For the sin of this one man, Adam, caused death to rule over many. But even greater is God’s wonderful grace and his gift of righteousness, for all who receive it will live in triumph over sin and death through this one man, Jesus Christ.

Yes, Adam’s one sin brings condemnation for everyone, but Christ’s one act of righteousness brings a right relationship with God and new life for everyone. Because one person disobeyed God, many became sinners. But because one other person obeyed God, many will be made righteous.

God’s law was given so that all people could see how sinful they were. But as people sinned more and more, God’s wonderful grace became more abundant. So just as sin ruled over all people and brought them to death, now God’s wonderful grace rules instead, giving us right standing with God and resulting in eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

I have to admit that this passage has always been a problem passage for me, whether I was an Arminian or a Calvinist. Paul’s use of ‘many’ and ‘all’ has always thrown me and, quite honestly, all of the hoop-jumping back and forth of the interpreters never really set right. But MacDonald makes the case that ‘many’ refers to the Gentiles and ‘all’, obviously, refers to both Jews and Gentiles. What is clear is that those whom Adam represented are the same ones that Christ represented as verse 18 makes clear, ‘Adam’s one sin brings condemnation for everyone, but Christ’s one act of righteousness brings a right relationship with God and new life for everyone’ (emphasis added).

The one thing that I had to wrestle with is the evangelical part of it. That is, the author holds that God will indeed punish people in ‘hell’ (whatever that is) until they repent. This, claims MacDonald, is so that God’s justice can be met. The problem I have for this is the evangelical emphasis on the atonement. While I understand MacDonald’s point, if Christ died for our sins, if God justice was poured out on Christ for the sins of the world, then why would anyone need to be punished? MacDonald believes that this punishment is for those who don’t turn and embrace the love of God in this life. The idea is that there has to be some kind of punishment but it can’t be eternal. The punishment has to be equal to the crime for justice to be served (in our understanding, that is).

Like I said, this is a hard part for me just because of the idea of the atonement. If Christ died for all creation (as the NT authors thought), and through that death, God reconciled creation to Godself (Colossians 1), then why do people have to be punished? The passage goes on to state that God ‘made peace with everything in heaven and on earth’ (1.20b). So, if God is at peace because of the ‘Christ’s blood on the cross’, then why would there need to be any type of punishment? Is this thought supposed to make us feel better? That is, for those of us who have been wronged (and wronged deeply), do we feel we need to have some kind of punishment for the wicked – that they owe us for what they did to us? Doesn’t that borderline on revenge and not justice? Isn’t that just a twisted form of what justice really is? I mean, if what we do to each other is what we do to Christ, and that ‘debt’ has been paid (or canceled, see Colossians 2.14), but we still need to have someone suffer for what happened to us, doesn’t that become our sin? Don’t we then become the older child in the story of the prodigal son?

All in all, this is a very good book. It stretches one in just the right ways. I know that I will be thinking about this one for a while.


~~~
In the Grace of the Three in One,

Jack

24 January 2010

Collect for the third Sunday after the Epiphany

Give us grace, O God, to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ and proclaim to all people the Good News of your salvation, that we and the whole world may perceive the glory of you marvelous works; with Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

22 January 2010

Quote

'I believe that pipe smoking contributes to a somewhat calm and objective judgment in all human affairs.'
Albert Einstein - statement made upon joining the Montreal Pipe Smokers Club (1950)

17 January 2010

Collect for the second Sunday after the Epiphany

Loving God, whose Child our Savior Jesus Christ is the light of the world; Grant that your people, illuminated by your Word and Sacraments, may shine with the radiance of Christ's glory, that Christ may be known, worshiped, and obeyed to the ends of the earth; through Jesus Christ our Savior, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

10 January 2010

Collect for the first Sunday after Epiphany

Father-Mother in heaven, who at the baptism in the River Jordan proclaimed and anointed with the Holy Spirit, Jesus your Beloved Child: Grant that all who are baptized into Jesus' name may keep the covenant they have made, and boldly confess Christ as Savior; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.

03 January 2010

Collect for the second Sunday after Christmas

O God, who wonderfully created, and yet more wonderfully restored, the dignity of human nature: Grant that we may share the divine life of the One who was humbled to share our humanity, your Child Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Reflection: 12-09

This month’s reflection comes at time between Christmas and New Years. Well, at least in the US. My wife made a very good point several years back about New Year’s resolutions. ‘Don’t make them’, she said. ‘The reason they never work (or hardly ever) is because we’re still in the middle of winter, the time of reflection. We need to make our resolutions in the Spring, the time of New Beginnings.’ And since then we have done just that. The book for this reflection, however, has really started my resolution juices flowing! It’s Finding Our Way Again by Brian McLaren. The subtitle is The Return of the Ancient Practices. We are going to be reading through this book in our men’s group. We were debating between this one and Richard Fosters’ book, Celebration of Discipline. We chose this one for a couple of reasons. First, it has ‘Spiritual Exercises’ – questions and reflections and prayers – at the end of each chapter. Second, the chapters are somewhat small and easy to read and prepare in the coming week. Lastly, it was cheap! We found them at a local Christian bookstore for roughly $4 each!

I have read McLaren’s stuff before and highly recommend his books. They really make one think, especially what it means to be a follower of Jesus in the 21st century. At least that’s what they have done for me and some of my friends. And this book is no exception. The book is divided into three parts – Way, Practices, and Ancient – and is full of good things. The first chapter sets up for what follows quite well. It is something that resonated within me. McLaren was interviewing Dr Peter Senge and during the course of the interview, Dr Senge asked this question, ‘Why are books on Buddhism so popular, and not book on Christianity?’ To which McLaren, being a good interviewer, fielded the question back to Dr Senge. He answered, ‘I think it’s because Buddhism presents itself as a way of life, and Christianity presents itself as a system of belief.’ McLaren, agreeing with Dr Senge, wrote, ‘[We] must rediscover our faith as a way of life, not simply as a system of belief.’ The book then sets out to introduce to the reader some suggestions on how to do just that. [As an aside, this book is the introduction to The Ancient Practices Series. I don’t know if they will follow the same format or not but I feel that they won’t given that this is generally the way McLaren writes. I’m not familiar with the other writers.] There is something going on in this book. You can feel it while you are reading. It’s an almost assumed that what is being suggested works. That is, there is this sense that if one doesn’t follow what’s suggested people will become (or, as in a lot of cases, already have become) ‘shallow’ and ‘a presence that neither you nor others will enjoy, and you and they will spend more and more time and energy trying to be anywhere else’. He then relates as to how this works out in our lives. As we become more stagnant, dormant people our bodies get fatter while our souls ‘go wispy and anorexic’. This is because we have lost our way of living. We now just zoom from one appointment to another without any depth to us. We’re like zombies; the living dead. I think this is true of so many people within the church today. We are so careful to make sure we believe the ‘right’ stuff – trinity, resurrection, etc. – that we have lost our way of living those things. We have lost our way of living. Christianity is no longer ‘the Way’ but just a series of dogmas that one must believe. ‘Spiritual practices’, McLaren states, ‘are pretty earthy, and they’re not strictly about spirituality as it is often defined; they’re about humanity. Which brings us to the second reason they’re important – aliveness’. McLaren contends that by doing spiritual practices one becomes alive and the more one does them the more one becomes more alive.

McLaren breaks down the spiritual practices as: fixed-hour prayer, fasting, Sabbath, the sacred meal, pilgrimage, observance of sacred seasons, and giving. For this reflection, I want to focus on just a few of these. I’ll start with fixed-hour prayer.

As I have stated previously, prayer is one of those things that I feel so inadequate about. I feel like everyone does it ‘better’ than I (but, really, whose keeping a score card other than me?). But what I have noticed about liturgical practices is that I am changing very slowly. Too slowly for my taste! I would much rather have all of this stuff ‘down’ as the saying goes. I feel that I have been a follower of Christ for such a long time now that this stuff should be old hat. But, it’s not. Not by a long shot. But I have taken great encouragement and comfort from the Morning Office. So much so that I have extended an invitation to all of the parishioners at St John’s to join me in the Cloister Chapel. So far, I have only had a few people join me – and only one consistently. Furthermore, one of the men that just started coming to our men’s group (who could possibly be a very good candidate for an anamchara) is going to be joining me for doing the daily office. We have decided to do the morning, afternoon, evening, and Compline offices. I have even suggested to him that we have set times so that we can know that we are doing them together even though we will be separated for most of the offices.

On a personal level, the comfort I receive from the Morning Office is almost beyond words. It is a great comfort knowing that my voice is joining in the long history – past, present, and future history – of the faith in saying these prayers. There is this great sense of connectedness, of being part of something much greater than I am and being able to recognize that. Of course, the same could be said for a lot of different things but this has a deeper impact for me. In the same way that I am part of a community of IT (Information Technology) professionals who are wanting to make that community the normative way of doing, of being, IT pros, the Morning Office connects me to an ancient / future community. There is great comfort and strength in that knowledge. Before I started doing liturgy in any real sense, I thought of those who did like the people Jesus warned about in the Gospels – the ones who just say the same repetitious prayer over and over again. I believed that they didn’t (and moreover couldn’t) have any depth or meaning. I now cherish them. They have become deep for me. They are also a good gauge as well. If I feel that I’m just saying words without meaning them, then I know it is I who have to re-center. It is I who have gone off track somewhere. It let’s me know right-quick and in a hurry that I need to look deep into myself once more. To take that inventory that McLaren refers to at one point in his book. I may need to face some thing(s) that need attention; that need to be dealt with. In other words, those ancient (or not so ancient) prayers should make me feel connected with others of the household of faith. If I don’t feel that connection, the problem is with me – not the prayers.

Although the Daily Office has made a huge impact on my life, I still don’t practice it like I should. Oh, I try all the time to incorporate Midday and Evening and Compline, but I fail. Miserably. I am so weak. I feel the impact of Jesus’ words so clearly, ‘The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak’. Indeed.

Another discipline that I am really struggling with – and one that I think is a major source of good – is fasting. I have fasted before but never for very long. And I am terrible at it too! But I think that there is considerable strength in recognizing my weakness. I make a good start at it – but around lunch time, I usually cave in for a bag of chips or candy bar. I have tried marking Wednesday as my day to fast. That actually went very well. For a few weeks, even. But then I ‘fell off the wagon’ and ate lunch. And then, I reasoned, since I failed there I might as well eat dinner too! And while I am really yearning to go back to a Wednesday fast, I am keen on the idea I got from reading about a Celtic saint (Columbanus I think). It was part of his rule that the monks at the monastery only eat once a day, in the evening, and it would only consist of a serving of portage or vegetables or beans or bread with some water. While this is a major undertaking, and I don’t plan on making it a forever type of thing, I am wanting to do it for Lent. Please keep me in your prayers regarding this.

And speaking of Lent, the last discipline that I want to write about it that of the sacred seasons. I am really very new to this whole Church Calendar thing and I don’t really know a lot about it. In fact, I wonder why it doesn’t revolve around our American calendar. That is, the new ‘year’ starts with Advent. So why didn’t the Church leadership change when it starts to go along with societies yearly calendar? I mean, they were changing a lot of other things at the time. Why not that too?

Anyway, the idea of the sacred seasons have slowly been making an impact on me as well. However, I get confused about this discipline and I will need to do some more ‘work’ on it. As it stands now, I have to rely on my LC prayer book (and others) to help me keep track on all of the colors, feasts days, saints, etc. Plus, to top that off, the saints depend on who you’re studying. I just got a great book for Christmas from a co-worker titled Wisdom of the Celtic Saints by Sellner. It’s such a fun and educational read!

I have a confession to make here. This was an extremely difficult reflection. Not because of the content but because my mind has been elsewhere of late. I am really wrestling with something that you, Fr Andy, said once in one of our chats. We were discussing universalism and I was stating that I had a hard time with it given the fact that people may choose not to be with God. And you stated that you believed that the love of God would prevail. That it was the greatest, most powerful thing ever. If I may paraphrase, ‘If someone rejects the Love of God, that would mean that they were more powerful than that Love. I can’t believe that.’ Lately, that statement has been coming up more and more in my thinking. McLaren hints at it in his book and I think that is why I have been thinking of it so much. I have then been following a blog that is doing a study of a book about Christian Universalism titled The Evangelical Universalist by Gregory MacDonald. I went and looked at the book at Amazon and ordered it. It shipped today (31 December). While reading the reviews of that book, I ran across another book titled The Inescapable Love of God by Thomas Talbott. I have downloaded some of the free chapter’s he has on his website and may purchase that book as well. I’m sorry to have strayed from the required reading. If I need to, I’ll go back to the list. If not, next month’s reflection will be on this idea of God’s Love being the greatest thing in all of creation.