A Sermon for Ash Wednesday

by Father Steve on March 9th, 2011.

9 March 2011

     Yesterday, Starbucks rolled out their new logo – which looks a great deal like their old logo, only without the words “Starbucks Coffee” encircling the mermaid.
     I can’t say I like it. I rather preferred to the old one. I actually rather preferred the one they changed in 1992 when they removed the nipples from the mermaid. I don’t know who they thought those nipples would offend; they certainly never offended me.
     The new logo is larger than the old one, and it is still green … thank God for that.
     The introduction of the new logo coincides with the 40th anniversary of the opening of the first Starbucks store at Pike Place Market in downtown Seattle. It also coincides with the introduction of two new products: cocoa cappuccino and some miniature desserts called Starbucks Petites.
     I sent e-mail to Howard Schultz, the CEO, to tell him what I thought. I’m certain he will be captivated. And I expect a response any moment now.
     Starbucks grew from a single store in 1971 to a world-wide empire in the 80s and 90s. Schultz was CEO from 1987 to 2000. The company nearly lost it in 2007 and the board brought Howard Schultz back to revitalize the brand. Howard closed hundreds of under-performing stores to cut costs and implemented changes such as offering customized drinks, free Wi-Fi access and a customer rewards program (such as the gold card which I carry in my wallet).
     And it worked. Starbucks’ profits for 2010 were double their profits for 2009. The Wall Street Journal asked him how he did and he said he went back to basics.
     That is to say, Schultz emphasized those qualities which allowed Starbucks to grow so phenomenally in the past: a good produce, community responsibility, attention to the customer experience, fair treatment (and retention) of employees.
     Certainly not everyone agrees as to just what those basics which prompted Starbucks’ success really are. If Howard thinks it was the logo, I straightened him out on that score.

     Going back to the basics has a certain appeal to everyone.
     In the 1970s, there was a movement in the United States to take public education back to the basics. The “new” emphasis was thought to be on reading, writing and arithmetic. This was thought to be necessary when people discovered that high school graduates could not read, could not write and could not balance a checkbook.
     But not everyone agreed as to what those basics ought to be. Bruce McMenomy probably thought they ought to include the study of classical Greek and Latin. Christe probably thought greater emphasis on science would make a lot of sense. I was teaching college freshmen in the early 70s and I thought that greater high school emphasis on grammar and spelling was warranted.
     There was another parallel movement going on in the 70s which had to do with living.
There were a lot of people, young people in particular, who thought that life had become too complex and that living in “voluntary simplicity” was probably better. A simpler, more self-sufficient, less mass-produced lifestyle was the goal. We read Organic Gardening and Farming Magazine and the Mother Earth News. We grew our own food, preserved a lot of that, raised our own animals, sometimes even built our own shelter. The idea was to get back to the basics.
     Except not everybody agreed on what those basics were and that, in part, is what caused the movement to peter out … that and things like going to law school, becoming an accountant or a stock broker, or a physician.
     Even the Protestant Reformation of the Sixteenth Century can be seen, from a certain perspective, as being an attempt by many in the Church to get back to the basics.
     There was much discussion, for over a hundred years, of “the Church of the New Testament” to which many people wanted to return. The problem with this kind of thinking is that there is not one homogenized uniform church depicted in the New Testament but rather many, with lots of variety.
     Anything a reformer didn’t like about the modern church was declared to an accretion, an after thought, a bolt-on after-market accessory which needed to be stripped away.
     But Lutherans and Calvinists and Anglicans couldn’t get anywhere near an agreement on what the basics were. Which is why the Reformation failed to produce one new reformed church and produced several hundred, instead.

     The problem with all of the “back to the basics” movements – whether in brewing and vending expensive coffee, or teaching children what they need to know, or living a successful and satisfying life, or reorganizing the church – the problem with all of these is that even people who agree that there ought to be reform can’t seem to agree as to what the basics are to which they ought to return. Bummer!

     So, here we are tonight, standing on the front porch of Lent, peering inside, and perhaps wondering how we’re going to keep this one holy.
     We could always give up chocolate, or alcohol, or cigars but what if there is a better, more profitable approach? What if this year we observed Lent by getting back to the basics? This seems a stellar idea, if only we could agree on what they are.
     And perhaps Holy Mother Church will tell us, which would save a great deal of study, puzzling and debate.
     According to the Proper Liturgy for Ash Wednesday in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, a holy Lent includes self-examination and repentance, prayer, fasting and self-denial, and reading and meditation on God’s word. Before you sign on, notice that this seemingly adequate list does not include going to church, nor paying your pledge, nor feeding the hungry, nor being part of a Christian community.
     The Catechism in the 1979 Prayer Book makes up for these lapses in the Ash Wednesday liturgy by suggesting that holy living includes bearing witness to Christ, working for reconciliation among people, and being involved in the life, worship and governance of the church. But before you adopt this list as a pledge, note that it doesn’t mention private prayer, nor Bible study nor sacrificial giving.
     The old Offices of Instruction in the 1928 American Prayer Book answered the question “What is your bounden duty as a member of the Church?” by saying “My bounden duty is to follow Christ, to worship God every Sunday in his Church; and to work and pray and give for the spread of his kingdom.” That’s not bad at all, maybe better than either of the 1979 models, but it still leaves out a lot which I would want in my list and maybe it leaves out some stuff which you think ought to be in yours.
     Here is a proposal for how to keep a holy Lent this year: spend the next forty days figuring out the basics. This seems a worthy and potentially rewarding endeavour. I’m not suggesting a snap judgment in which you reel off the first few things that come into your head. I am suggesting that you think seriously about what it means to be a Christian, how one goes about that, and how you could do it better.
     This homework will not be graded. Nobody is going to be compelled to share their list of basics nor will be compare one person’s set with another and pronounce which is the best. This strikes me as the kind of pursuit which God loves and which God enjoys fulfilling.
     But be careful! If you do this seriously, if you make this your Lenten discipline for 2011, you may have to actually change something about yourself. Getting closer to God often works like that; it is part of the basics.

Christ the King Sunday

by Father Steve on November 25th, 2010.

Psalm 46                     THE SERMON

Jeremiah 23:1-6        Proper 29 – C (RCL)

Colossians 1:11-20   21 November 10

Luke 23:35-43         All Saint’s Church

 

 

For a people who have neither a king nor a queen, Americans seem fascinated by royalty.

The British foreign press has remarked more than once that Americans are more interested in Queen Elizabeth and her family than are residents of Great Britain.  Americans mourned the death of Princess Diana as if she were one of us.  Americans have strong opinions on the suitability of Prince Charles to become king.  Americans are already excited about the wedding of Prince William and Kate, announced last week.

          Americans, without their own king or queen, compensate for this lack by inventing local royalty.  When Sweetness and I visited Graceland in Memphis a few years ago, it was to tour the home of Elvis Presley, who was known as “the king.”  There used to be a program on television called Queen for a Day. When Budweiser calls itself “the king of beers”, that is a good thing.  I don’t know what Queen Latifa is queen of but she is a good thing, too. 

          As much as Americans are enamored of kingship and queenship and royalty in general, we really don’t want the actual real thing. There was some support, in the late 18th Century, to have a king in America rather than a president but democratic ideals swept that idea quickly away.  And one of the mottos of that debate in the colonies was “No king but Christ.”

          Today is the 26th Sunday after the Feast of Pentecost, the last Sunday of the Church Year, the Sunday next before the first Sunday in Advent … and we call this Sunday “Christ the King.”

          On this Sunday, in many parts of the Christian Church, we celebrate the kingship of Jesus Christ. In sharp contrast to those depictions of our Lord, naked and bleeding on the Cross, today’s image of Jesus is of a ruling monarch, with a crown on his head, emphasizing his victory over death, rather than the horror of his Crucifixion. The Christus rex which hangs over the altar at Saint Thomas’ Church, Medina, is an artistic depiction of Christ the King. 

          The Feast of Christ the King is a relatively recent addition to the Christian Kalendar. It was instituted in 1925 by Pope Pius the 11th on the last Sunday in October and later moved to the last Sunday after Pentecost.       What began as a Roman Catholic observance has spread throughout the Western Church and is now observed by Lutherans and Episcopalians, as well. The Collect of the Day, with which we began this morning’s celebration, is a translation of the original Roman Catholic collect composed in Latin for the Christ the King Sunday.   It celebrates the power of Christ to free those who are enslaved and to unite those who are divided … which are kingly acts indeed.

          There are a number of Episcopalians who are not all that thrilled about projecting onto Jesus the image of a king, which may account for the less-than-universal acceptance of the Last Sunday after the Feast of Pentecost as Christ the King Sunday. Kings (and queens, for that matter) don’t come off all that well in the Bible.  They tend to be selfish, arrogant and forever getting themselves into trouble by pursuing their own ends rather than the God’s.  Remember Ahab and Jezebel. 

          Monarchs don’t do all that well in secular history, either, especially when viewed through the lens of modern democratic individualism, which is the only lens most of us 21st Century Americans have through which to view history. 

          From a feminist perspective, monarchy is intrinsic to hierarchy and all hierarchy is seen as a means by which men subjugate women.  To suggest that the Son of God is somehow implicated in all of this by plopping a crown on his head runs counter to the feminist agenda. 

          Other folks are just confused by the image of Jesus the King … because their sense of the Jesus of the Gospels is that he is more the anti-king … the one whose powerlessness becomes power, whose lack of the means to attain a military or political victory leads to God’s victory over sin and death. 

          Yet the scriptures appointed to this morning are all about Christ understood as a kind of king.  The prophecy from the Old Testament Book of Jeremiah says that the Messiah, who is Jesus, “shall reign as king.”   Saint Paul says to the Colossians that God the Father “has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son …”  Saint Paul understood Jesus to be the Messiah about whom Jeremiah spoke.  Saint Paul understood Jesus to be a king and to have a kingdom with us as his subjects. 

          The story from the Passion according to Saint Luke seems out of place because it is out of season.  This story is supposed to be read on Palm Sunday and Good Friday, not on the Sunday next before the Christmas shopping season begins in earnest.  Yet in it, Jesus is described as “the king of the Jews” and, in actual fact, He was. 

          The Church has been singing about Jesus as some sort of king ever since.  We sing “Crown him with many crowns.”  We sing “The king of love my shepherd is.”  We sing “Beautiful Saviour, King of Creation.”

          But what do we mean when we celebrate Christ the King Sunday and make statues and paintings of Christ the King and believe what it says in the Holy Scriptures and sing all of those old royal hymns?

          Not everything we know about kingship is good. As any child who has seen the Walt Disney version of Robin Hood can tell you, Good King Richard is balanced by Prince John, the Cowardly King of England.  It is, after all, the oppressed peasants in the cartoon strip The Wizard of Id who are forever saying or writing “The King is a fink” and not without good reason.  The Evil Queen in Snow White and the Seven Dwarves was no sweetie pie, either.  King George the Third of England was a compete nutter, certifiably mad, and, had he been sane, we might all be British subjects at this very moment. 

          So, surely, when we say that Jesus is a king, we must mean the good kind. 

          As much as American like royalty, they tend to prefer it in somebody else’s country, lest the authority of a king or queen be exercised over us in ways which we dislike. 

          Folks in those other countries which still have kings and queens have had the same concerns over the years, which is why monarchy just isn’t what it used to be.   The king in The Wizard of Id hands down draconian sentences for minor offenses: he is constantly ordering someone to be executed, and nobody wants monarchs who are able to do that.  So modern kings and queens have had their powers scaled down to the point where they function mostly as symbols of national unity.  The monarchy in Great Britain and in the Scandinavian countries is very much like that.  Monarchs are less like rulers and more like figureheads in the 21st Century. 

 

          Which is, just possibly, what we tend to do with Christ the King.  This results in a scaled-down Jesus, a sort of symbolic Christ who is not really capable of doing much more than inspiring our imaginations and giving us a central figure around whom to rally.  And that Jesus is just too small to be the Christ of the Gospels. 

The Christ of the Gospels is the King of kings and the Lord of Lords.  He is the one through whom all creation came into being, the one to whom all creation must answer, and the one who loved us all so much that he conquered sin and death to set us free from it.   And that Jesus ain’t no figurehead. 

We have this awful tendency to forget who is in charge of the Church.  Maybe Christ the King Sunday was invented as a sort of antidote to that kind of lapse in our thinking.

          There is a push in the Anglican Communion right now to make the Archbishop of Canterbury into some sort of pope and the primates of the several churches which make up the Anglican Communion into a kind of College of Cardinals. 

          Because we are an Episcopal Church – a church of bishops – there is another awful tendency to try to make the local bishop a sort of Christ figure, from whom we expect the perfection of Jesus Himself, who will give us all the right answers and solve all of our problems. 

          Congregations have an awful tendency to try to turn their rector or vicar into a sort of Christ figure for them, but all that does is burn out rectors and vicars and disappoint congregations.

          The American solution to all of this clericalism is to turn the congregation into the ultimate authority, drawing on our democratic experience in the civil sector, but congregations are no more an adequate substitute for Jesus than are ordained people. 

          None of these tendencies would appear if the people of God more firmly believed in the kingship of Jesus Christ.  People subject to King Jesus wouldn’t turn Him into a figurehead.  People subject to King Jesus wouldn’t need to seek alternatives to his rule in the rule of church organizations and officers. The trick is to remember who is in charge – neither archbishops nor bishops, neither rectors nor vicars, and not even congregational meetings – but Jesus. 

          You have to wonder what the church would look like if we believed that seriously. 

 

Pelagius was Framed!

by Father Steve on November 11th, 2010.
  • Daniel 7:1-3,15-18                                 THE SERMON
  • Psalm 149                                                 All Saints’ Sunday
  • Ephesians 1:11-23                                  7 November 2010
  • Luke 6:20-31                                            All Saints’ Church

 

 Once upon a time, a very long time ago, back in the 4th and 5th Centuries, there lived a Celtic monk by the name of Pelagius … or, at least, that’s what they called him, because nobody in Rome could pronounce his Celtic name and Latin-speakers had this way of changing the name of anybody who didn’t have a Latin name into one which they could pronounce and make sense of. 

Pelagius was born in the British Isles and became a monk of the Culdee Order.  He traveled to Rome in around 380 where he became well known as a writer, preacher and teacher of a rather strict ascetic practice.  Pelagius was shocked by the moral laxity of Roman society and attributed it, in part, to the theory of divine grace taught by Saint Augustine: that man was utterly incapable of behaving in a way which would please God but for the intervention of divine grace in his life. Pelagius apparently thought that some people, especially those who lived a loosey-goosey life, blamed God for it rather than themselves. To contradict those who claimed that their moral failings were the result of God not having brought them to a higher level quite yet, Pelagius taught that man needed to exercise his free will in such a way that God could accomplish in him the fruits of good living.  And Saint Augustine didn’t like what he had to say one bit. 

          Augustine began to write and preach and teach against Pelagius and what he (Augustine) deemed the heresy of Pelagianism: that is, the notion that Man can and should avoid sin or his own volition, that Man can freely choose to obey God or to reject God. Augustine said “Gotcha” (or whatever words in the Latin language are modernly translated “gotcha”).  Augustine said “This guy denies the doctrine of original sin and denies what, in another thousand years, will become the Calvinist Doctrine of the Total Depravity of Man.”  Pelagius was tried before the Synod of Diospolis in 415 and acquitted of heresy.  Whereupon Pelagius said to Augustine, “So there” (or whatever words in the Latin language are modernly translated “so there”). But Augustine wasn’t done.  He accused Pelagius of heresy to Pope Zosimus who heard the case and also declared Pelagius innocent.  Saint Augustine was still not done.  He called the Council of Carthage in 418 which tied and convicted and condemned Pelagius to banishment from Rome. 

This condemnation resulted in an interesting twist of history.  At the council’s insistence, all of Pelagius’ authentic writings were burned.  Thus, with a very few exceptions, all we know of what Pelagius actually thought and taught are contained in the summaries of his beliefs recited by his opponents, like Saint Augustine, who was not above overstating his case to win an argument. 

Modern scholars have located a few of Pelagius’ original writings which survived the purge.  They reveal a deeply Christian, deeply orthodox man who believed that God’s grace assists all right action. It was quite precisely the opposite of this belief that got poor Pelagius banished. 

Anglicans are forever being accused, mostly by modern Calvinists but occasionally by modern Roman Catholics, as well, of being Pelagian in our theology.  I had a scathingly brilliant idea for an item to sell at the last General Convention. I thought it would be cool to print up a mess of tee shirts with a head shot of Pelagius peering out a barred jailhouse window, emblazoned with the words “Pelagius was framed.”  I still think they would sell. 

 

          Today is the Feast of All Saints. 

          Many saints have their own days – Saint Stephen’s Day is the 26th of December, the Feast of Saint Mary Virgin is August 15th, and the Feast of Saint Francis of Assisi is October 4th.  All Saints’ Day is an opportunity for the church to recall and venerate those many saints who don’t have their own special days on the church’s calendar.  There are lots of those.  Some of them, we know their names.  Many of them, we don’t. 

          There is an academic discipline called hagiology which studies who gets to be a saint on the calendar and who doesn’t and why.  Everybody wants their son or daughter to become a doctor or a lawyer.  Nobody wants their son or daughter to grow up to become a hagiologist … which partially explains why there are so few. 

          It is not too difficult to figure out why there is no feast day for Saint Pelagius.  The trashing and thrashing which Saint Augustine worked upon the old Celtic monk pretty much took care of that.  But should we recall and venerate Pelagius on All Saints’ Day?  You know, along with all the others who didn’t manage to get their own day. 

          Don’t answer too quickly.  It is too easy to say that we should observe (recall and venerate) only those Christians past who earned the orthodox seal of approval and never those who earned the opposite.  But to do so whacks off from our list of venerables a lot of good Christian people who probably got orthodoxy mostly right but may have messed up in just one of the details.  That seems a little harsh, doesn’t it? 

 

Let me suggest – and this is just your old vicar talking – that All Saints’ Sunday is big enough to include all of our predecessors in the faith – those who got it just right and even those who may have gotten one or two parts wrong.  I’m not suggesting that we emulate them in their wrongness; only that they, too, are champions of the Faith from ages past who were trying to work out complex stuff as best they could.  Did Saint Peter or Saint John the Evangelist have a perfectly worked out theory of the Holy Trinity?  One that would pass the sort of orthodox muster to which the Church subjected theories of the Trinity three or four hundred years later?  Probably not.  Did Saint Augustine of Hippo get everything right, just because he has been declared by the Vatican to be a “Doctor of the Church?”  While he got many things right, and maybe even most things right, isn’t there some room left for where even Saint Augustine made a boo-boo? And what about poor Pelagius?  What if he didn’t get it wrong at all but rather expressed his orthodox faith in terms just different enough from those used by Saint Augustine that it got him into big trouble?  In other words, what if Pelagius was framed!?

          Perhaps a better way to celebrate the Feast of All Saints’ is at its most inclusive.  Perhaps we should celebrate this day as the feast of everybody who tried to get it right for Christ’s sake … whether they scored 100% on the orthodoxy test or not.  This would accomplish two good ends, in my thinking.  First, it would make for a larger company of saints to celebrate, lots more, since probably very few of the giants of our sacred tradition got everything right all of the time.  Second, it would make the saints what they really are – people just like us: not superhuman, not like the ones depicted in the movies, not otherworldly people who didn’t have to deal with all of the doubts and confusions that plague us moderns – but people like thee and me, hence people who are truly emulatable. 

Yet another good end to this kind of thinking is that it applies well, even better, to people like us.  Don’t get me wrong.  I think orthodoxy is a good idea.  I think it is better to believe the orthodox faith than to espouse a heresy.  Heresy is, by and large, not good for you, and orthodoxy, by and large, is.  But too much emphasis on getting every little detail of the faith just right exceeds the parameters of realistic expectations of ordinary Christians.  Too much emphasis on orthodoxy leads to a kind of religion in which only those who get the answers to all of the key questions correct get into Heaven. 

A story will illustrate my point: A professor of religion dies and goes to Heaven.  Saint Peter greets him at the Pearly Gates and offers to show him around. They walk down a long corridor with doors on either side.  Peter opens one of the doors and steps back as a cloud of frankincense rolls out the door.  “This where we keep the Eastern Orthodox,” Peter explains, “so their incense doesn’t choke and gag the others.” Peter opens another door and inside appears to be a water park complete with slides and pools and fountains.  “This is where we keep the Baptists,” Peter explains, “which seems to make them happy.”  They come to another door built like that on a sound stage and, with some difficult. Peter cracks the latch and opens the door and the sound of electronic music comes pounding out the opening.  “This is where we keep the Pentecostals, so as not to disturb anybody else.”  Finally they get to a rather ornate door which, instead of a handle, has a small peephole through which Peter invites the professor of religion to look.  Inside there is a beautiful garden and large stone buildings of exquisite architecture and he can faintly hear the most marvelous classical church music playing.   “Who’s in here?” asks the professor in a normal voice.  “Ssssssh,” responds Saint Peter.  “This is where we keep the Roman Catholics.  And they don’t know that anybody else is here.” 

Episcopalians aren’t like that, or, at least, Episcopalians at their best aren’t like that.  We strive to be among “the holy ones of the Most High” envisioned by the Prophet Daniel,  to be part of “the mystical body of … Christ our Lord” identified in the Collect of the Day, to be members of “the congregation of the faithful” mentioned in today’s Psalm, and to be “God’s own people” as Saint Paul described the Ephesians. 

All Saints’ Sunday needs to be big enough to include all of our predecessors in the Faith – those who got it all right and even those who may have gotten one or two parts wrong – in order to be big enough to include us.

Spiced Scones

by Father Steve on August 22nd, 2010.

There was sufficient interest at the Brunch with the Bunch this morning after church that it makes sense to publish this recipe on our ‘blog. 

Ingredients:

3 c. all-purpose flour
1 c. cake flour
1 c. white sugar
1/4 c. dark brown sugar
1-1/2 Tbl baking powder
2 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp ground allspice
1 tsp ground nutmeg
2 cubes butter (room temp)
2 6-oz containers low-fat vanilla yoghurt
1/3 c. milk
2 eggs beaten
1 Tbl vanilla extract
Turbinado (Demerara) sugar, as needed
ground cinnamon, as needed

Method:

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.  Grease 2 scone pans liberally with butter.  Combine dry ingredients (both flours, both sugars, baking powder and spices) in the bowl of a stand mixer.  Using the paddle, add softened butter and process until it is creamed.  Combine wet ingredients (yoghurt, milk, eggs and vanilla extract) in a bowl and stir into dry ingredients just until mixed.  Fill two scone pans. Cover the top of each scone with turbinado sugar and a light sprinkling of ground cinnamon. Place the scone pans in the oven, reducing the temperature to 375 degrees.  Bake about 30 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into a scone comes out dry and clean, and the scones are lightly browned. 

Yield:
Makes 18 scones.

Faith and Doubt: some further reflections

by Bruce McMenomy on April 19th, 2010.

As one of those who encouraged Fr. Steve to post his sermon from the Second Sunday of Easter, I suppose it behooves me to follow up somewhat with some of the thoughts that led me to nudge him in that direction.

I’ve wound up preaching on two previous Low Sundays myself (2007 and 2008), and the more I come back to the story of St. Thomas, the less certain I become. What seemed clearly hortatory to me when I was a child now seems one of the great mysteries. I’m certainly no longer ready to condemn St. Thomas for his doubt. Maybe that’s how I’m supposed to take it, but I don’t: I know that doubt is there — it’s part of my own view of the world as a Christian, and if I were to shut the door on that entirely, I’m not sure I’d like where I’d find myself. More to the point, however, I don’t think my faith would be the stronger for it.

Fr. Steve’s distinction of “in-doubts” and “out-doubts” is, I’m convinced, a useful way of grouping the experiences. But it’s primarily a way of clustering them before and after you’ve made a certain commitment. What continues to elude me is the essential what-it-is of faith and doubt, and how they are related to one another. I’m putting these thoughts out here in hopes that someone will rise to the occasion and enlighten me, or that (at least) we might have an interesting discussion on the subject.

As a teacher, one of the things I am perennially telling my students is that they need to define their terms. That’s part of the need here, I think. For all that we hear “have faith” as an exhortation, few who use it seem to be very clear on what faith really is, or what having faith looks like.

Catholics talk about acceding to the magisterium of the Church. That makes a certain amount of sense to me. The Catholic hierarchy claims to be invested with authority from Christ himself through the Petrine succession, and that hierarchy carries forth the teaching authority into the world in each succeeding age. I’m not a Catholic, but this piece of Catholic dogma seems entirely consistent with the rest of it, and if I were a Catholic, I’d have no trouble accepting it.

Fundamentalists talk about having faith in the Bible. That makes a bit less sense to me — which is not to say that I’m writing off scripture, but merely that as the term emerges and is used in scripture, having faith is almost always couched in terms of having faith in someone. But we can return to this later.

What both of these positions seem to mean is that I should maintain a certain inner attitude or state of mind, which we call belief (as if we knew what that word meant), regarding some set of propositions, be they the words of the Bible (and nothing else), or the collective teaching authority of sacred tradition (which includes, but is not limited to the Bible), or the three-way distribution of authority posited in Anglican thought. Believing that they are all true statements is good; not believing that they are true is bad. Doubt is a kind of not believing, and hence that’s bad too, while believing without questioning is apparently the best state to be in. Once you allow a foot in the door for any kind of questioning the whole thing falls apart. Only for me it’s an unattainable state, and I’m no longer sure that the doubt-free existence is one that I even aspire to attain.

To some extent, I get it. Faith is a linch-pin of our relationship to God. We should have faith. Abraham had faith, we are told, and it was credited to him as righteousness. That is, it was effectively filling in for a righteousness that he didn’t, in propria persona, have. Whatever it is, then, it must be pretty profound and powerful stuff. I confess that I find that extremely resonant. It’s not merely that it seems satisfying to me, but it seems consistent with the long course of God’s actions throughout history. God loved Abraham and David and the other leading patriarchs not because of their good behavior — but most often in spite of it. Paul and the author of Hebrews hold forth eloquently on how faith bridges for us a gap that we could not otherwise cross. I get all that. I even believe it.

Whence, therefore, comes the exhortation, “Believe! Have faith!” I get that too. But when I start to look at the problem, I wonder what it is really asking of me. If it’s merely a matter of resigning myself to an absolute credulity , then two things happen. On my view, neither of them is much good.

First of all, I’m not really eliminating my doubts; I’m merely sitting on them, hiding them, and pretending that they don’t exist. If I base my service of the Lord on a lie, how far can that get? The father of the demoniac boy cries to the Lord, “Lord, I believe: help my unbelief!” (Mk. 9:24). He is not concealing his doubt, but opening it to the light of day.

Second of all, if this is something I can be enjoined to do (as apparently it is), then it implicitly is advice I can take. That is, I can choose to do it or not. If it’s something I can accomplish on my own, though, how is this not a species of salvation by my own works — a work of self-persuasion (if not self-delusion)? If it’s not something I can accomplish, why should anyone enjoin me to do so? Can it possibly be that justification by faith (in which I really do believe) just boils down to a special case of justification by my own works? I don’t like it. Paul has persuaded me well enough that nothing I can do can make me deserving of salvation. I’m quite convinced that he’s right.

So the story of St. Thomas, it seems to me, puts one of the sharpest possible points on this problem. Consider the following three facts:

  1. Jesus won’t provide the faithless people with signs, and claims to be unable to produce signs for certain people because of their lack of faith.
  2. Jesus here tells Thomas to have faith, and not be faithless. Presumably this is because Thomas in some dimension is deficient in faith.
  3. Jesus does actually offer the sign Thomas has asked for.

What all that says to me is that faith is not a simple term that we can take simply. Nor is it just a matter of credulity or of keeping one’s doubts in check. Faith is not something you can really accomplish or achieve on your own, in any case. Just slamming the door on your doubts won’t help you in the long run. It’s a good recipe for a spiritual ulcer.

It seems clear to me, though, that looking through the Greek New Testament at all the various uses of the verb that’s used here for “believe” — namely πιστεύω (pisteuo) — there’s something more going on than merely granting intellectual assent to something. That verb is really rather seldom used to mean merely “to be persuaded of the truth of a proposition”. It’s almost always used in a personal sense. This is the part of the puzzle that seems critical to me. The faith I have in my wife, my children, and my friends is not really about accepting their existence as propositions. It’s not really about any other set of facts about them; it’s not even about believing that they will never deceive me. It’s personal faith — at a completely different level.

That’s why I cannot “believe in” the Bible the way some fundamentalists want me to. It’s less a matter of whether it’s right or wrong, and more a matter of what kind of thing it is in the first place. We can believe a report, an equation, a chemical formula, or the scriptures. We can only believe in someone. Ultimately, the only valid object of that kind of belief is God; through God we can extend something similar to other people.

Theology is a wonderful study, but it will always fall short of the glory of its object. It will probably even fall short of what stirs inside us. I’m a scholar by training. I’m a big fan of intellectual precision and integrity, and in my accounts, intellectual assent is a good thing; our doubts — whether of the “in” or “out” variety — may be a good thing too. They are not the negation of faith, however, I would say, but a means or process of its validation. We are not saved by the Bible, I would argue, or by the magisterium of the Church. We are not saved, in fact, by our theology at all, but by the ever-present love and grace of the living Lord. And that’s where our faith lives.

If this all seems rather inconclusive, I guess I must allow that it is. I’m hoping someone else will come along and have something interesting or illuminating to say about what things make faith and doubt what they are. I’d like to understand them better. But I can offer as a stopgap a quotation that I’ve come back to about faith over the years — one I can understand, at least. It’s from a work of fiction, and a children’s book at that. In The Silver Chair, one of the Narnia Chronicles by C. S. Lewis, an improbable and highly pessimistic character named Puddleglum is being held captive in a cave by an enchantress who argues that that’s all there is. He is confronted with an apparently incontrovertible argument that Aslan and the rest of the world above is all a figment of his imagination. He responds with what is, to my way of thinking, one of the great confessions of faith. It’s interesting that it does not ultimately depend on a proposition at all:

“One word, Ma’am,” he said, coming back from the fire; limping, because of the pain. “One word. All you’ve been saying is quite right, I shouldn’t wonder. I’m a chap who always liked to know the worst and then put the best face I can on it. So I won’t deny any of what you said. But there’s one thing more to be said, even so. Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things — trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that’s a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a playworld which licks your real world hollow. That’s why I’m going to stand by the play-world. I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia. So, thanking you kindly for our supper, if these two gentlemen and the young lady are ready, we’re leaving your court at once and setting out in the dark to spend our lives looking for Overland. Not that our lives will be very long, I should think; but that’s a small loss if the world’s as dull a place as you say.”

Since I first read that, it has been increasingly important to me. Don’t get me wrong: I do factually believe that God created the heavens and the earth and all that is in them, and that he is the very foundation of all being; I do believe that his son Our Lord Jesus Christ became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, suffered, died, and was buried. I believe that He rose again in accordance with the scriptures. But those are facts that someone might doubt. There’s something else — quite different — in the structure of my faith that’s rooted in the sense that Jesus is my friend. It’s not made up of some list of facts about Jesus; it’s about who He is and who I am. He’s my friend because He first called me to be His. Whatever doubts encroach on my faith from day to day, that’s the center from which I define myself.

Doubting Thomas Sunday

by Father Steve on April 11th, 2010.

In response to enormous popular demand, I just posted my sermon for this morning to our congregation’s FaceBook page.  http://www.facebook.com/topic.php?topic=15036&uid=299907259877&ref=mf Thanks to both people who asked.

Thoughts on the Great Vigil of Easter

by Bruce McMenomy on April 7th, 2010.

On April 3, some of the faithful of All Saints gathered to celebrate once again the Great Vigil of Easter. I wound up preaching on that occasion; here, therefore, are some of my reflections extracted from that sermon and its broader context.

For me, the Great Vigil of Easter is the central overwhelming service of the church year. It anchors the rest of the year. It represents a high-level “strategic” overview of what the Germans call Heilsgeschichte — Salvation History. It’s the “wide-angle” view of our lives as Christians — our individual lives, our lives in the community of the church, and the whole history of our life as the people of God on earth.

The liturgy of the Vigil stands at the culmination of the sacrum triduum. It’s the hinge, so to speak, of the church year, just as what it’s pointing to is the hinge — the pivotal event — of all of human history. It is, therefore, the first feast of the Resurrection of the year; but it is also the Great High Feast of Absolutely Everything. In a remarkable sequence of nine Old Testament lessons, it expresses the whole picture in an encapsulated form — the creation, the fall (implicitly), the flood, God’s covenant with Abraham, promising that it would one day extend to all nations; the Exodus, the inner transformation of the faithful, and the calling together of the scattered people of God. The epistle lesson tells us some of what it means; the lesson from the Gospel of Luke confronts us once again with the bare story of the Resurrection itself — something from which we can take many meanings and thoughts, but which we can never wholly encompass. Its shadow falls across everything that ever has been and ever will be.

Confronting the Resurrection this way, in context, calls upon us to burrow deep into who and what we are, to draw upon that central story and to know that we ourselves are not mere outsiders looking in. Yes, it’s about the particular events of a day about two thousand years ago; but it’s also about discovering anew the truth that we have always known: that God cannot be defeated or eclipsed by death or the devil or any of the petty trivialities of our lives. It assures us, as no other service of the year does, that the events in and around Jerusalem almost two thousand years ago are not just important to us as symbols or metaphors, but as the central reality of our lives. We are part of that story. We are implicit in its outcome. It is the story of all stories, and more than a story: it is our identity — it is the fact that makes us what we are.

This is not just about some abstract or vague “spiritual” meaning that one can take away from the story in a safe container. It doesn’t work that way. God is not the great “I Mean”: He is the great “I Am.” It’s not a mere platitude or pretty saying: it’s actually kind of scary. Because of those events, we live now, and we are obliged to live, as children of, heirs to, and participants in the Resurrection. To do that from one day to the next is hard work, and sometimes very confusing; but it’s both our primary task and our highest privilege. We are not equal to it on our own, but by the grace of God, it has become ours.

The Lord is Risen. Alleluia.

A Late-Night Prayer for the Blooming of Lilies

by Father Steve on April 3rd, 2010.

Having had the perspicacity both to buy Easter Lilies from the wholesale broker and to buy them early in Holy Week (to avoid the Good Friday-Holy Saturday rush) we were blessed with a mess of Easter lilies still in the bud. And there they remained on Holy Wednesday, Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. With certitude and aplomb, we put them in the church secretary’s office on Good Friday night, left the light on and ran the space heater overnight. By the time the altar was dressed for Easter at the Great Vigil, they were still in the bud. Hence, the following prayer:

Omnipotent Lord, you opened the floodgates of heaven for forty days, you opened the mouth of Balaam’s ass that he might speak, you opened the rock in the desert that water might flow out, you opened the eyes of the blind, the ears of the deaf and the lips of the mute, you opened the door to the tomb in the garden, you opened the minds of the disciples to recognize the resurrected Jesus and you will one day open the seven seals: Come quickly and open these Easter lilies before the nine thirty service tomorrow morning, that they may glorify you with their beauty as we do with our praise; We ask in Jesus’ name. Amen.

The Study

by camcmenomy on December 30th, 2009.

There’s a room in our house euphemistically known as “the study”. It is about 9 feet wide and 14 feet long — an odd room by any measure — and odd stuff collects there, things that don’t fit anywhere else in the house.

There’s an upright piano, perpetually out of tune because it is against an outside wall and suffers too many temperature changes. But it has to go here; if it is on the hardwood floor of the part of the house that lies above the crawl space, it pings annoyingly whenever anyone walks by it.

There are about a thousand vinyl records sitting in cardboard boxes on the floor against one wall, irreplaceable recordings waiting to be transferred to the more modern storage medium of CDs and DVDs. That wall is lined with bookshelves from just above the record boxes to the 11-foot cathedral ceiling, filled mostly with religion and music and our collections of Tolkein, C. S. Lewis, George MacDonald, Dorothy Sayers, and Charles Williams. A built-in shelf against another wall overflows with over-sized books, and the cabinet beneath is filled with photographs waiting to be sorted and scanned. There’s a half-wall of red brick, the back side of the two-sided fireplace the study shares with the living room.

The last side is mostly window, but it is vain to expect light from it most of the year, since just outside is an enormous holly tree that blocks the southwestern exposure. Only in the late afternoons of June and July does sunlight penetrate beneath the holly for a few brief hours. Still, if lights are on in the study, it is impossible to private there. From the street, every nook is visible through the lace curtains that came with the house.

The room is always cold. It’s part of a garage conversion, you see, so the floor is slab and it doesn’t share the forced-air heating that keeps the rest of the house habitable in January and February. Oh, there are electric wall heaters, but we dare not turn them on. Those irreplaceable records and the temperamental piano are directly in front of them.

Between the cold and the darkness, we don’t use the room much as a family. Sometimes, when we have a party, company may overflow into the study. When the kids are visiting, or we have music to practice for church, someone may spend an hour or so a day playing the piano. I occasionally hunt for a book on the shelves, reconfiguring the replica Williamsburg chair into a stepstool so that I can reach as high as the next-to-the top shelf. But rarely are two of us in the room at the same time.

For eleven months of the year, I mostly just pass through the study on my way to my office from the rest of the house, ignoring the growing layers of dust on the shelves and the blast of cold air from the crack behind the cabinet, the records and photos and the work they represent, and the growing stacks of stuff for which there is no room elsewhere that will be out of the way here for “just a day or so until I find time to really put it away”.

But in the twelfth month, the study comes into its own. You see, the high-ceiling cold and dark corners and visibility through the window that make the study less attractive the rest of the year make it the perfect place for the Christmas tree.

The cold keeps the tree from drying out. Against the dark room, the lighted tree is magic. And it can be seen from the street, so the house doesn’t seem entirely devoid of Christmas decoration.

The week before Christmas, we actually do clean out all the stuff that has accumulated in the study. Then Sarah — my youngest — and I go hunting for the tree. We have done this together since Sarah was old enough to help pick out the tree, that is, since she was about three, and we do it still, although now she commutes from her apartment in the city for the event. We go to Joe’s or Bill’s or Ed’s Trees –any lot that still has trees on December 21 or so (not always easy in a culture that confuses Advent with Christmas season). We roust out the cold, bored attendant from his trailer, and we look for the right lopsided noble fir that will fit between the fireplace wall and the bookshelves. Money changes hands, usually more than I would like, and Bill or Ed or Joe saws off the bottom of the tree so it will be “freshly cut”, and ties the tree to the top of the car. We drive home, and Bruce helps us wrestle it off the car rack. Then everyone stands on the front porch and gives advice to the unlucky family member who must wiggle under the tree and seat it in the stand. When it is upright and snug in its basin, we carry it in triumphal procession to the study, where it sits, one day or three or five, naked and bare but watered, until December 24.

Then Sarah decorates it. She winds strand after strand of small white steadily burning lights more or less evenly on the branches. She puts on the ornaments that came from Grandma Emma’s boxes, which Grandma no longer uses since her health won’t let her put up and take down a tree. She adds the few that we retrieved from Grandma Kae’s house after Kae died, the bird with the long tail feathers and the Santa. There are the paper and styrofoam and glitter balls that David and Mary made in Sunday School, and the cookie ornaments Aunt Meg gave us each year. We have a lot of cookie ornaments for Mary as the eldest, fewer for David, fewer still for Sarah. There are the ornaments Judy bought me the year I was pregnant with Mary and depressed, and spent all our food money on a tree, but then didn’t have enough money to eat or decorate the tree. She gave me the red spike “tree topper”, and some green balls you have to wrap around the branches with pipe cleaner. They go on the tree every year. There are the ornaments we brought home from trips to special places, and the crystal rose and three wise men, that have to be placed so that the tree lights will glint through them. Sadly, there are no longer the Ukranian egg ornaments we laboriously blew out and covered with wax and dyed one year; an infestation of mice in the garage destroyed them. But there are no anonymous ornaments on our tree: every one has a story.

On Christmas Eve, we all go to the late night vigil service, then come home, sometimes in rain, or snow, or just biting cold. Bruce makes hot spiced wine, and then on this night, this one night, we all crowd into the study, around the tree, and sit together for the hour or two it takes to open our presents. We have done this every year since we moved into the house. It is the perfect place to be on Christmas Eve.

I was thinking about all this while I cleaned out the study for Christmas this year. I had put on a recording of Christmas Carols from St. John, and was busily restacking boxes and dusting shelves and trying to find places to really put away the oddments that collect in the room over the regular course of a year of unuse. And all the while, I was engaged in that most annoying and unavoidable activity of the Christian: theological reflection.

Here is a room, ignored by daily life in the world, but its very faults in that world are the gifts necessary to the observation of an essential spiritual experience. It is dark and cold and a hard place to be every other day, but on Christmas Eve, it is warm with love and alight with laughter and if that spills over to the stranger on the street, so much the better.

So too was the stable in Bethlehem dark and cold, of little interest to the people flowed through the inn on their way to Jerusalem. They gave it only the thought necessary to stable their animals for a night. Even the owners kept it but minimally cleaned out; they would have had no time for more. But one night, one Christmas night, it became the birthing room for the Son of God. On that holy night, it was filled with the Light of the World, a light to enlighten even the Gentiles, standing outside, looking in with confusion.

Here is a room, ignored by daily life in the world, used for a short time for celebration, then forgotten. So in our society today, Christmas is often just a series of duties and parties and observances to be gotten through, perhaps enjoyed but more likely just endured. We read articles on how to survive the stress of the holidays, how to simplify the observance others expect of us. And if we manage to get through the holiday season, we can heave a sigh of relief and go back to normal until the next year.

On the narrow mantle of the study side of the fireplace, are two tiny Christmas tree replacement light bulbs. I found them one year in the high tufts of the rug as I was vacuuming, after I had already put the ornament box and lights back in their place in the garage, and I was too tired and cold to go back out to the garage and climb the ladder to the shelf with the ornament box and put them away properly.

They are little 2 amp lights, an inch long. But in a world that is otherwise pitch black, they would be enough to guide someone home. Here they still lie, ready for use when some year we bring out the lights and find one of the bulbs has not survived its summer sojourn in the garage. Until then, I see them, even unlit, on the corner of the mantle each time I pass through the room, a constant reminder of the room’s true purpose.

The room has changed. It will never be the same. Christ has come.

Food and Spirituality Bibliography

by Father Steve on December 5th, 2009.

Fritz Allhoff & Dave Monroe, Food & Philosophy: Eat, Think and Be Merry, Oxford: Blackwell, 2007.

Donald Altman, Art of the Inner Meal: Eating as a Spiritual Path, San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1999.

Carolyn Walker Bynum, Holy Food, Holy Fast, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987.

Robert Farrar Capon, Light Theology and Heavy Cream, Cambridge, MA: Cowley, 2004.

Robert Farrar Capon, The Supper of the Lamb: A culinary reflection, New York: Modern Library, 1967.

Br. Victor-Antoine d’Avila-Latourrette, Twelve Months of Monastery Soups, Liguori, Missouri: Liguori/Triumph, 1996.

Br. Victor-Antoine D’Avila-Latourrette, From a Monastery Kitchen, London: Robert Hale Ltd, 1994.

Gillian Feeley-Harnik, The Lord’s Table: The Meaning of Food in Early Judaism and Christianity, Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1994.

Sara Covin Juengst, Breaking Bread: The Spiritual Significance of Food, Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1992.

L. Shannon Jung, Food for Life: The Spirituality and Ethics of Eating, Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Press, 2004.

Carolyn Korsmeyer, Making Sense of Taste: Food and Philosophy, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1999.

Elisabeth Luard, Sacred Food: Cooking for spiritual nourishment, Chicago, IL: Chicago Review Press, 2001.

Cristina Mazzoni, The Women in God’s Kitchen: Cooking, Eating and Spiritual Writing, New York: Continuum, 2005.

Mary Ann McGivern, Not By Bread Alone: Recipes and Reflections for Christian Cooks, Chicago: ACTA Publications, 1998.

Francine Prose, Gluttony, New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Irene Psathas, Sister Irene’s Culinary Journal: a notebook filled with love, faith, and recipes, many blessed years of cooking, serving, and caring, Brewster, Ma.: Paraclete Press, 1998.

Peter Reinhard, Brother Juniper’s Bread Book, Philadelphia: Running Press Book Publishers, 2005.

Peter Reinhard, Sacramental Magic in a Small-Town Café, Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley Publ. Co., 1994.

Daniel Sack, Whitebread Protestants: Food and Religion in American Culture, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2001.

Ernst Schuegraf, Cooking with the Saints: An Illustrated Treasury of Authentic Recipes Old and Modern, San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2001.