Showing items filed under “March 2018”

Getting Old, Old, Getting Old

main image

So begins the Paul Simon song which my cheeky, young adult children gave to me upon turning 60 a few years ago.  And if I didn’t have them to remind me, so many other things would such as the  losing hearing in my right ear, cataracts looming, memory down a notch, blood pressure up. Need I go on or do you have the picture?  In small but insistent ways we who are getting old experience dispossession, even as we hope that a touch of wisdom, on our better days, will fill in the gaps.  And of course coming in behind these opening bouts is the main event, the grim reaper, the marque character of all Lenten reflection.  So it is dispossession as a theme that I want you to think about with me. Maybe it’s just me, but doesn’t it echo in so many areas of our life, individual, corporate, material, spiritual?  In our culture, the pace of change is breakneck, unprecedented in human history. Our perception of time is manic. We hear how technology promises to change the most basic of terms and conditions of human life, supposedly to our benefit, though we do well to wonder.  In our economy the sense of having our place removed and taken off-shore unsettles many, whether the feeling is accurate or not is beside the point, and this sense of dispossession has taken us bad places socially.  And lastly, let me add to my curmudgeon-list the changes in our church, leaving aside the most controversial ones, the forgetfulness about so much in church life, the ease with which we think of changing things basic, a thinning of our ranks, the strains shown in the structures literal and metaphoric.  Dispossession seems the theme of the day, which is odd given how remarkably blessed we actually are - imagine how so much of the rest of the world must feel!

Now this sense was of course a thing hardly unknown to the early Christians, and much of contemporary Christian reflection tries to navigate off this fact, to make a compact with it one way or another. Maybe being dispossessed can be flipped and become our entrée into spiritual insight.  Paul in the second epistle to the church in Corinth goes on about all the ways they have been abused and rejected, and how they remain undeterred, how the followers of the crucified ought not to be surprised nor complaining.  Our dispossession does not rise usually to this level, but we are trying to rediscover what life lived more in the provinces of loss might be like. Could it offer empathy with those who suffer routinely?  Could it make us humble? Like most spiritual lessons, we suspect it is good for us, but so is root canal.

But the Gospel tells us that in Jesus, God has entered what is already his world in the form, says Philippians 2, of disposession. This has made possible equally topsy turvy descriptions of our own situation. The outer man wasting away but the inner man renewed.  Our mere groaning the form of the triune God giving utterance within us. Painfully unclothed in death do as to await being reclothed. the struggles of the martyr church actually the triumphal procession behind king Jesus.

One such rearticulation is found in the third chapter of Paul's second letter to the Church in Corinth. In the wake of the resurrection, in the dawn of the new world, we are co-heirs with Christ. if you are promised eternity, then everything is yours. What could you lack? inherit all this becuase your life is hid in Jesus' life. you are an inheritor because you count everything loss in comparison with the joy of knowing your Lord. you possess all so long as you empty your hands and lift them eucharistically to the Lord. as soon as possession is abandoned, all is yours. And all this is true, possible, necessary, because Jesus did just this, only perfectly, now eternally, surrendering all including himself to his Abba, and in so doing revealing to us the dizzying depths of the triune love.

All of this stands in the starkest contrast, in paradox, to whatever form of dispossession you happen to find yourself living in. Feeling the dispossession as you hear God's word reminds you who you really are, nevertheless, is the shape of our Christian discipleship which is being toward death and marching toward the celestial Zion all at once.  

Now the immediate implication of all this is that we are always hearing good news as we inhabit a sober season. Today is but a particular instance of this. And Lent serves the purpose of reminding us that the good news is not our possession, nor does it reside naturally within us.  Nor are we merely a victim of the sobering features of our time but contributors thereto.  Lent reminds us that i have actively contributed to my dispossession and do not merit the possession of all things. Lent asks,  "and can it be that I should boast an interest in the savior's dispossessing and repossessing blood?"

When I was a rector one of our acolytes was an eight-year-old girl named, Shannon, whom I asked what she was giving up for Lent, and Shannon, who resembled Pippy Longstockings, replied promptly, ‘combing my hair.’ I tried to explain that she hadn’t really gotten the hang of Lent yet, but she would hear none of it.  Well, I am not sure many of us, in this culture of ours, are significantly better off on this score than Shannon.  Lent is not really about giving up fish, or going on a diet, or not swearing, or even saying morning prayer every day, though each is a good thing to do.  It is about contrition, which means being sorry for our sins, which assumes we think we are sinners. And it is about asceticism, which means spiritual discipline. And this in turn means turning toward God with the last things in our mind, among them death which we as a culture are resolved to obscure. 

In other words, certainly in the larger culture, and to some extent in the Church too, the underpinnings of Lent being coherent can no longer be assumed.  What then are we to do? One answer is to recast it, hear about it anew, in light of a Biblical theme, so that we can approach it more readily.  And on such theme is that of being dispossessed, in the end ultimately dispossessed, in the midst of  which we are repossessed.  The struggle to take and keep things in ourselves is a loss, only to discover that life is really being possessed by God, so that not a few things grasped are ours, but everything, only in Christ, who doesn’t possess what we give of ourselves, but all of us, one way or another, already.  To lose everything, and receive it all back, only on condition that we lose even ourselves to Christ, whose we were already, that is what Lent is really about. And as such it is as much mystical as contrite, with joy overtaking regret by a power not our own.

We had a tradition at the seminary where I used to work, around Rose Sunday, the third one of Lent, to sing the French folk tune with the words (145) ‘so quit your care and anxious fears and worries, for schemes are vain, and fretting brings no gain, Lent calls to prayer to trust and dedication…’  This is not just Lent gone soft, but another way at the heart of the matter, maybe one that our anxious age can hear.  We who are dispossessed must let go, which seems to the anxious like yet more loss, but is in fact the opposite, when it is as the human says, ‘reply reply reply with love to love most high.’  Let the fish, or the diet, or a more prudent vocabulary, or the 15 minutes surrendered, be just this, a quasi sacrament of being repossessed, surprisingly, a new insight into loss, which is in fact a reply of love to love most high. Amen.

What Are We Doing Sunday Morning?

main image

We understand things by comparison: what is something similar to?  So it is with corporate worship, which is really not exactly like anything we do, and requires being thought about.  What it ought not to be like is paying for entertainment, and we would lose at that game anyway!  What it is most like is the fiesta, the celebratory gathering of relatives and friends because of something joyful to mark.  If this is right, then worship doesn’t do anything, any more than a birthday party or a revel after a sports win does.  

But there is a second setting in life to which we can compare our worship, one that probably comes less readily to mind.  It is also like giving testimony in a trial, or maybe talking to a reporter, or even voting. We attest in public to what we think is right and what is true.  We are saying that something is so, and we are thereby willing to bear whatever consequence there might be.  We see this particularly in the recitation of the Creed at the Eucharist, and likewise of the baptismal covenant that includes the Apostles’ Creed in Baptism.  We are making truth-claims together, even though we may argue over exactly how to understand this clause or that, or may be growing into a fuller understanding of a claim - still this is essentially different from saying them out of rote, or antiquarianism, or “with our fingers crossed.”

In the ancient Church it was said “lex orandi, lex credendi,” or “the law of praying is the law of believing.”  It was originally used so as to infer our theology of the Holy Spirit, which was being debated, by the way Christians were accustomed to speak of the Spirit.  This has been a popular saying among theologians in the last generation.  Sometimes it was a way of saying that our believing ought to be affected by our experience of praying, but it equally means that our praying must be guided by the truths we confess.  And, of course the adage only makes sense if there is a stable liturgy, over time, which reflects the prior Biblical witness. 

When I, the youngest, was little, I invented a card game called “Blank Off,” with rules only I knew, so that when my older siblings seemed to be prevailing, I could shout “blank off” and carry the day. I think that if we rewrite our prayers frequently to conform to our latest notions, it has the feel of “Blank Off,” and it nullifies the value of a guide like “lex orandi…”

Where am I going with all this?  Worship is also witnessing to the world, and that to which we witness does not come from within us.  And while we’re at it, notice how the strong claims about Jesus Christ, and the traditional triune name, and the forgiveness of our sins, are inherited and ecumenical truth claims to which we have sworn.  This understanding is a vital part of what it means to share in membership in the “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church,” which by its very definition is not something we can make up.  This inheritance, and the long line of saints and martyrs of which we are thereby a part, is a great comfort in our own walks as disciples.