Monday, October 23, 2017

Blaqze Orange and Advent

In Pennsylvania Deer Season and Advent coincide on the calendar. Both seasons involve ancient rituals, observe time honored traditions, tell often-repeated stories, and encourage great expectations. Both involve the wearing of certain color-coded vestments: blue or purple for church; blaze orange for deer hunting. Both seasons have their origins in the wilderness. “The voice of one crying in the wilderness,” begins the Gospel of Mark, “Prepare the way of the Lord.” Advent calls for a return to the sources of faith and identity, to the darkness before  dawn where we can see through the eyes of our spiritual ancestors, who looked out upon the world in wonder and amazement and gratitude. As the first light dawns, it is as if we can witness the creation of the world, and the outrageous miracle of our being there to see it. Without wilderness, there is no Advent. 

 In Advent we are “hunting” for God, but, amazingly, God comes “hunting” for us. The

hunter becomes the hunted, stalked by a ghostly presence. Yet, despite our vulnerability, we find ourselves
without shame or fear, because this powerful being is the most

gentle of predators, the kindest of adversaries. To be swallowed by God is the happiest of fates.

To be ambushed by God is to cast out all fear. To be preyed upon by God is the epitome of

prayer. To die with God is to be reborn with Christ at Bethlehem, in Michigan, or in heaven.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

kenotic pleroma

“ Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself…” (Philippians 1:6)
Kenosis is the word in the Greek New Testament, meaning “to empty.” And so, coming to Jesus is to approach an emptiness, an empty tomb, an empty place at the table, an abandoned temple, a space  devoid of icons, symbols, or sacraments. Anything resembling divinity has escaped down the rabbit-hole, back into whatever wonderland it came from.
This is a familiar emptiness, as familiar as the chair in which my mother used to sit before she died, as familiar as the living silence of old forests, or the monastic pauses at the asterisks* in psalms.
In contrast, the Epistle to the Colossians speaks of “fullness”, in Greek, pleroma, stating, in 2:9 and 10,  “…in [Christ] all the fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have come to fullness in him.” This fullness is familiar also, from the births of my children, and experiences with music, rivers, liturgy, and love.
Between kenosis and pleroma there is a contrast, but no contradiction. Our coming to God is a sacred emptiness, a living silence, a “kenotic pleroma”, a powerless authority, an exalted humility, a crucified majesty.
“At the name of Jesus, every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth.” (Philippians 2:10)

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Rambling Around with Jimmy Jones

When I still in high school a jail chaplain came to our parish in Chicago to preach on behalf of the social ministries of the diocese. Jim Jones was not a gentle preacher. He “spoke as one with authority, and not as the scribes,” or, one might add, “and not as Episcopalians are accustomed to hear.” Yet it was not in the evangelical style either. It was “in your face” preaching. It translated the gospel directly into jailhouse jargon, into the vernacular of an oppressed and degraded people. It was irreverent at times, invoking the image of apostles and saints as bumbling, clueless people like ourselves. I remember Father Jones, quoting the New Testament in his sharp nasal voice, “and Peter, not knowing what to say, said…”. It was the first time I had heard a congregation laugh so hard during a sermon, or discuss it so intently afterward. It was also the first time I had been confronted with the reality, not only that it was possible for prisoners to hear the Good News proclaimed by Jesus Christ, but thatprisoners are the only ones who can here it. Most amazing of all, I was hearing the Gospel as if I were a prisoner myself, and understanding for the first time how it might truly deserve to be called “Good News,” the best possible news. I remember the passion with which he spoke of Christ incarnate among the least respectable and most despised members of society. And I remember thinking, “this is what I believe. This is how I want to be.” 
The notice in The Living Church Magazine read “The Rev. James G. Jones, Jr., who founded the first halfway house for ex-convicts in the United States, died Sept. 1 in his sleep in Copper Harbor, MI. He was 76.” 
The Living Church is a small magazine with a narrow focus, and an ironic venue in which to read the obituary of a man who had appeared on the cover of Life Magazine, been the subject of a feature article in The Saturday Evening Post, and been a guest on This Is Your Life. It is ironic that a homicidal cult leader with the same name is better known than a man who, as an Episcopal priest, community organizer, and psychotherapist had touched the lives of people from the halls of highest academia to the meanest Chicago streets. James G. Jones touched my life, and served at different stages as prophet, role model, mentor, friend, and now… what do you call a departed Christian who has had such a blessed influence on the lives of others?… I think you call them “saints”.
But not without further irony. Jim had fallen far away from the church, though I understand he did occasionally attend Roman Catholic services. A nationally-known authority on addiction and substance abuse, he struggled with alcoholism himself, as well as heart disease, and the lingering effects of the encephalitis which had nearly taken his life years before. In many ways, Jim was a tragic figure.
Most clergy have a streak of narcissism, and ordained ministry can provide a socially acceptable way to be the center of attention. But the acclaim focused upon Jim in those early days had a Hollywood-like quality, and his enjoyment of it may have been close to an addiction. But there was nothing posed or fraudulent about his passion for the underdog, his prophetic loathing for injustice, or his often irreverent efforts to expose the idolatrous features of American culture and religion. Although it often made good theater, it was never done for show.
And nothing… not addiction, not disease, not disillusionment, not death … can take away the gift that Jim was to those who had caught his vision, or been touched by his contagious “sense of the sacred” that made holy things seem real and even the harshest reality seem holy.
One of Jim’s qualities was a fearlessness that seemed reckless at times. Many times in his company I felt the rage of alienated people directed towards us. These people could be Black, White, criminals, police officers, or pious church people. Jim would confront, provoke, debate, and agitate. He had no apparent need of happy endings. It was enough to speak the truth and then “shake the dust from his feet.” Early in our history with each other he took me to a tavern on Chicago’s Skid Row where the owner had donated some canned goods. It was 10a.m., and a group of down-and-out men were gathered on the sidewalk in front of the tavern. As we entered, they glared at us with undisguised suspicion. When we emerged from the stale-beer dinginess of the tavern, their hostility had grown more obvious. I was afraid they were not going to allow us to pass through them on the sidewalk. Undeterred, Father Jones walked up to one of the group and blew air in the man’s face. “That’s to show you guys we weren’t in there drinking at 10 o’clock in the morning!” he announced. The men began to laugh and slap us on the back. They were still waving and laughing as we drove away.
An often-repeated story concerned an occurrence when Jim was chaplain of the Cook County Jail. It seems there was a cigar-chewing guard who repeatedly would come into the chapel and remove prisoners whom he felt were behaving badly. Jim objected, but the guard ignored his protests. “So I decked him”, Jim liked to say.” This got him in trouble with the prison administration, of course, and he was brought before an Assistant Warden who later became a distinguished criminologist at the University of Chicago. Many years later, Jim and I attended a Memorial Service for that same man, who, it happens, had taken his own life. Although the Memorial was not to be “religious,” Jim had been asked to give one of the memorial talks. The other speakers were all very solemn academic colleagues of the deceased. Alone among them, Jim spoke of his anger: “I’m mad at him for killing himself,” Jim said, “but I love him anyway, and so does God.” These words startled that erudite assembly, and spoke for their true feelings in a way that polite erudition could not. Jim went on to tell the story of the offensive prison guard, and how the Assistant Warden who counseled him afterward was the same man being memorialized that afternoon. “He taught me about the meaning of my own religion,” Jim said. “That was the beginning of my education in non-violence. Since that day I have never hit another human being.”
Jim’s personal life was difficult. He and his first wife, Kitty, divorced in the mid-1960’s, and he became a part-time father to their five children. He remarried and moved to Roanoke, Virginia, where he worked as a community organizer. In the early 1970’s he moved to Miami, FL, where he worked as a director of substance abuse recovery programs and as a private psychotherapist. Eventually, he divorced and remarried again, and after his retirement went to live in Copper Harbor, in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, where his father (also an Episcopal priest) had served for a time while Jim was a boy.
During the later years in Florida Jim grew increasingly disillusioned with the church, eventually to the point of bitterness. Though he served as an assistant in several congregations, he often expressed disappointment in not being called to serve as rector of a parish. After an initial openness regarding women’s ordination to the priesthood, he became increasingly negative on the issue. This provides a further irony to his life, since Jim was the catalyst for so many catholic-minded Episcopalians to adopt a progressive stance with regard to such changes in the church. He was “on the left” in every other aspect of church politics. On the subject of human sexuality, for instance, he was an early and outspoken champion for the rights of homosexuals in the church and society in general. Why so negative about the ordination of women? The reasons he put forth did not seem to match the intensity of his feelings on the matter.
1976 was the year the Episcopal Church approved the ordination of women, but wonder if the roots of Jim’s alienation did not lie in the preceding decade, with Vatican II in the Roman Catholic Church. This was the Council that sought to renew the idea of the church as the “Community of All the Baptized”, and with that to reduce the emphasis on clerical power and priestly mystique. The Vatican II decrees seemed to de-mystify the Mass for many people, and although he tried to adapt to the “new rites” (of which the Episcopal Church had its own version), Jim never seemed to quite “get it”. He once told me “in the old days, we never worried about ‘the experience of worship’… in those days, we WERE the experience.” Did Father Jim feel lost without the old mystique of the priesthood? It may seem like a foolish question, since his bearing and manner were far from conventional. It may be, however, that the popular image of a priest as an austere and remote figure provided a kind of ready-made icon for him to be iconoclastic about. The discrediting of these old ideas, obscured by unconscious projections and expectations, may have affected Jim more than he, or anyone else, knew. If so, he was not alone.
If this were so, it could be understood as another example of Jim’s capacity for prophetic insight. Since the 1960’s, clergy have put tremendous energy seeking credibility in the secular arena, and now find themselves scrambling to recover a “sense of the sacred” which many had once regarded as a liability. While the churches were learning to be “secular”, the spiritual agenda of our culture was being co-opted by neo-evangelicals and New Age spirituality. One doesn’t have to reject the ordination of women to acknowledge that didactic, utilitarian liturgy fails to catch the imagination of our times. Perhaps Jim, for all his contradictions, was as much a prophet in this area as in others, striving to sustain an authentic “sense of the sacred” with little support from a church preoccupied with pietistic “renewal movements” and institutional survival.
But it might have been different, and we can still learn from Jim’s example, even his failings. To grasp the significance of a “baptismal ecclesiology” takes more than a change in seminary curricula. For such a return to early Christian norms it is necessary for each of us to become more intimate and more honest with each other and ourselves, and to confront the demons, ghosts, and idols that afflict us from within and without. We must learn to be less reliant on established hierarchies, whether based on class, gender, race, or religion. If it’s true that Jim was better at impressing, entertaining, shocking, and inspiring people than he was at just being with them, he would not be the only person to have it so. 
Jim once told me that “I’ve never had a woman as a friend,” a startling admission for a thrice-married man who was rarely without female companionship. “Maybe in AA I can make some woman friends”, he told me. That was years ago. Maybe he did. 
Life Magazine is dead, and so is This Is Your Life. If the Saturday Evening Post still exists it is as a shadow of its former self. And now Father Jim is dead. Only The Living Church, and whatever publication you are now reading, is alive to tell his story. 
But it will be told, one way or another. It is being told whenever our eyes are opened so that holy things seem real, and even the harshest reality seems holy. It is being told when we are able to use the language of social analysis and psychology to express the Gospel in solidarity with the oppressed and forgotten. It is being told when we are fearless, reckless, and prodigal in our love for the world and the Incarnate God who hides within it. It is being told when we can express our reverence in irreverent ways, and even our tragic flaws can be seen as having their comic aspect. These are things Jim taught me to value, and I still do.
Pray for us, Father Jim. When we are stuck in our various addictions, pray that we might find serenity for that one day. When we are taking ourselves too seriously, pray that we might lighten up. When we are lonesome, pray that someone like you bangs on our door to go out and find a blues band playing somewhere. When we are hesitant to call or write some old friend, pray that we not put it off. And while you’re at it, pray that I be forgiven for not staying in closer touch with you. If I have written anything that is offensive to you or represents you falsely… well, you’re stuck with it now. As John Prine has written and sung,
Father forgive us for what we must do;
You forgive us, and we’ll forgive you.
We’ll forgive each other til we all turn blue,
And whistle and go fishin’ in heaven.
Rest in peace, old friend. “Even at the grave we make our song: alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.”

No comments:

Friday, September 8, 2017

On Happiness

The Hebrew word for the English “happiness” is asher and occurs many times in the Hebrew scriptures. The Hebrew word for “Blessed” is barak and occurs many times more. The Greek word makarios is used to translate both Hebrew terms into Greek, and when the Greek is translated into English it is most often rendered as “Blessed” and only 6 times in the N.T. as “happy.”
What’s the difference? Psalm 128 summarizes the Hebrew concept of “happiness”:
“Happy are they all who fear the Lord, * and who follow his ways!
You shall eat the fruit of your labor; * happiness and prosperity shall be yours.
Your wife shall be like a fruitful vine within your house,* your children shall be like olive shoots around about your table.”

Contrast this to Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit…Blessed are those who mourn…Blessed are you when you are persecuted…etc.”

The Gospel sets forth a version of “blessedness” that is much different from the ideal of domestic tranquility in the psalm. It also differs from the Aristotelian idea of a “golden mean”. The gospels present a radical ethic of non-violent love to be practiced in a discipleship community, not a comprehensive vision for the management of society.
In the early 4th Century the church suddenly found itself legitimized by mainstream society and in a position to exercise great influence for good. The radical ethic of a discipleship community did not always provide practical guidance for Christians in positions of civil and social power. In these circumstances it is understandable that Christian leaders and theologians turned to what our instructors in Iona Initiative call the “classic tradition of western philosophy” to supplement their ethical and theological efforts. This approach to ethics drew from Greek philosophy, and sought to “baptize” the concept of “happiness” in the interest of a comprehensive Christian ethical system.
  As we will hear later in the course, the “classical tradition” was corrupted during the middle ages, largely discarded by the Protestant Reformation, and disregarded in the modern period. Our instructors will advocate for a reappraisal and reclaiming of the tradition in our own time, as we seem to be facing a challenge much like that of the 4th century church, where established norms are disintegrating and the church seeks to connect with people of conscience everywhere while maintaining the uniqueness of Christian ethics.
This is a worthwhile enterprise, but it seems to me there is a tension between the ethics of radical discipleship and the ethics of an institutional church that functions as a normal part of society. As secular society becomes more and more hedonistic, violent, and polarized, the radical ethic of discipleship seems less like an “impossible ideal” and more like a “minimum requirement” if humanity is to survive.   

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Psalm for Jonathan Daniels d. August 20, 1964
Jon Daniels went down to Alabama * a volunteer, helping black
citizens register to vote.
He left his seminary studies back in Cambridge, * the green hills of New Hampshire,
his boyhood home.
He left the incense-haunted place of revelation, * and took magnificat to be his creed.
Guileless, he lived among the people; * their children trusted him.
Unknowing, he joined the group that went to Hayneville; * nonviolent, they spent the 
night in jail.
Released in the morning, they went to get a drink, * Coca-Cola, at the nearby little store.
In the street, Tom Coleman shot him, * and Father Morrisroe his friend.
Tom Coleman, (was he a deputy?), * believing that he did God’s will.
Jon Daniels placed his body * between the shotgun and a teen age girl;
He died instead of her, * white for black, male for female, him for her.
His novice priesthood sacrificed, * his cup spilled, but covenant unbroken.
The reputed deputy went unpunished: * his jurors, twelve white men,
While, from the dust, another justice worked a silent plan * to heal the land.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

re-post from 2007: reflections on "catholicity"

JUNE 25, 2007

At St. Gregory’s Abbey in Three Rivers, MI.
While browsing in the monastery library I happened upon a ragged monograph that had been personally signed by Dom Gregory Dix, the English Benedictine liturgical scholar. It was dated 1947, at which time Gregory Dix would have been resident with the fledgling St. Gregory’s community. The monograph, with the title Catholicity hand-written on the cover, was a report written at the behest of then-Archbishop of Canterbury, Geoffrey Fisher, by a group of high-church English theologians. The Archbishop had asked these people (all men, of course) to consider “whether any synthesis between Catholicism and Protestantism was possible.” It appears that Archbishop Fisher was concerned that the Church of England might be on the verge of splitting in two, or even three!

I was amazed to find that the authors of this monograph included almost all of the writers and thinkers who had influenced my own theological formation. In addition to Gregory Dix there was Austin Farrer (an Oxford theologian who managed to achieve credibility in both biblical and systematic theology), Gabriel Hebert (who is most responsible for popularizing the Liturgical Movement in Anglicanism), Arthur Ramsey (later Archbishop of Canterbury), Ambrose Reeves (later expelled from South Africa for his activism against apartheid), Lionel Thornton (who, as I recall, applied sociology and ascetical theology to the dynamics of congregational life), and (most astonishingly), the poet T.S. Eliot. A veritable rogue’s gallery of Anglo-Catholic heavy-hitters!

In this obscure little booklet “catholicity” is defined as “wholeness”, as a capacity to hold in creative tension all the strands of Christian experience that have developed over the centuries from the primal experience of the apostolic church. According to the authors of Catholicity, “wholeness is not the wholeness of an ideal but of something that is.” Every Christian community partakes of this wholeness to some degree, but no one church or tradition can fully contain it. “The apostolic writers cling to the paradox that the Church is both the Body of Christ and also consists of sinful and fallible members…the glorious Church of the future… and the imperfect Church of the present are one thing…”. The authors quote a former Archbishop of Canterbury, Fredrick Temple:

“Men [this was the 40’s!...JCS] speak of Christianity as if Christians came first and the Church after: as if the origin of the Church was in the individual wills of the individuals who composed it. But, on the contrary, …it is the Church that comes first, and men [!!] are invited into it… .”

So we live in two worlds: on the one hand, we get up in the morning, have Carnation Instant Breakfast, pat the dog, and go about our business; on the other, the world has ended, and we are breaking bread with Mom, Dad, and Dom Gregory Dix in heaven. The future is already present, and the past is now. The church is an absurd and pretentious bunch of social drones; it is also the vanguard of a new and transfigured creation. This strange duality could be interpreted as a form of schizophrenia. To the authors of Catholicity, it is the wisdom of wholeness. 
For these authors the Eucharist is the daily bread of catholicity. For them, everything was “contained” within this “action of God toward the Church…and the Church toward God.” This recalls for me how all my old Anglo-Catholic mentors were in love with the Mass. There was a serene objectivity about their Eucharistic piety. For them, there was no dilemma in heaven or earth that could not be made right by offering it to God at the altar and receiving it back transformed in communion. For my mentors (and for Gregory Dix, et al), this eucharistic transaction included the achievement of social and economic justice, racial equality, and international peace. On the more personal side, it included the reconciliation of broken friendships, recovery from addiction, and the prospect of reunion in heaven with departed loved ones.
It is true that this kind of objective catholicity can serve as an “opiate of the people,” and encourage an unbliblical and unchristian resignation to the status quo. After all, if the kingdom of God has already arrived at the eight o’clock Mass, why be anxious about the petty affairs of this miserable world? It is against such self-serving complacency that prophets and reformers have raved. Yet even an apparent complacency can, when counterbalanced by prophetic impatience, contribute to wholeness. Catholicity calls us to be both prophets and priests. It is not a matter of “either/or”, but of differing vocations, of different gifts bestowed by the same Spirit.  
Much of that “objectivity” has been lost, a casualty (at least in part) to the effort to make liturgical worship intelligible to highly secularized people. It was a shock for clergy in the middle 1960’s to begin celebrating the Mass “facing the people” and discovering how bored, distracted, or just plain absent those people were. It was easier to maintain delusions about “realized eschatology” with our backs to congregations that had no clue. In recent years evangelicals have reminded us of what visionaries such as Gabriel Hebert knew from the beginning: without the Gospel the Eucharist becomes a more-or-less empty ritual. If no one is aware of any spectacularly Good News to celebrate, why bother with a celebration? “Catholicity” requires conversion, discernment, spirituality, authentic community, wisdom, and repentance just as much as it does reverent Eucharistic worship. More than anything else, it requires that we be real with each other.
As a result, members of our congregations know each other more deeply, give more sacrificially, disagree more vehemently, pray and study the Bible more intently, and expect more of themselves and each other than has been 
true since the time of Constantine. It costs more to be an Episcopalian than it used to, and those who may have sought a more casual sort of Christianity have gone away. It was this sort of strong spiritual intimacy and honesty that led the Diocese of New Hampshire to choose Gene Robinson as the Bishop. They could not do otherwise without denying the validity of their experience of the Gospel.
Ironically, their integrity has contributed to the stretching of the bonds of catholicity as far as the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion are concerned. In an effort to preserve a measure of unity, the current Archbishop of Canterbury has emphasized the role that consensus ought to play in the maintenance of wholeness. Yet building consensus is no more a guarantee of faithfulness than papal infallibility or protestant fundamentalism. What if the prophet Jeremiah had waited for legislative consensus to confirm his vision of God’s will? The same question applies to Athanasius, Martin Luther, and Martin Luther King. Catholicity ought not to be used as an excuse for complacency. At the same time, those who would challenge the status quo must be prepared to suffer the consequences, just as were the prophets of former times. Division and conflict, however, ought not to obscure the requirements of catholicity. Wholeness is not a reward for Christians who behave exactly as they should: it is a gift to be received humbly from God every time we approach the altar for communion. Excommunication and anathema have been the weapons of choice employed against each other by Christians in the past: they do not serve the interests of catholicity now.  
The authors of Catholicity put it this way in 1947: “ [The] wholeness of the Church manifests itself in its outward order…the mutual submission of the members of the Church to each other in respect of their divine offices is a part of their submission to the rule of God.”