Thursday, May 29, 2008

An Immortal Soul?

There are one or two real theologians who drop in now and then.  They are invited to skip this post.  It’s really a rather simple minded discussion of what it means to talk about our immortal souls and whether only “believing” Christians are eligible to receive eternal life.  

Where did the idea of the immortality of the soul come from?  Plato certainly understood it well, but it doesn’t seem to have a place in Hebrew thinking at all, and maybe I’m not smart enough, but I don’t see it in the New Testament either.  Yet we commonly hear preachers and others proclaiming this or that about our immortal souls.  I’ve even heard myself say something like that now and then.  As far as I can tell, there is nothing in the sacred texts of our Christian tradition that should lead us to think that we have immortal souls.  Immortality of the soul is not a condition of human life.  Which is not the same thing as saying that in this life only are we able to find and be found by God.  We know nothing of what sort of life the soul might have independent of the body, even if we confidently assert that the fullness of human being is to be an embodied soul.  The gift of eternal life, if that is the same or similar to immortality, is one that is given only by God through Christ; all are invited to receive it but none must.  If that is true, then what happens to someone who refuses the gift?  Do they simply cease to exist as if, apart from a handful of dust, they never were?  There are those who say the only way to receive the gift of eternal life is to accept Jesus Christ as one’s personal savior.  That seems to me to be quite heretical not only because it places the entire burden on human beings but also because it places conditions and restrictions on God’s freedom to act.  I think that Calvin may have been on to something to proclaim that we are not in a position to make any statement at all that would in any way limit God’s freedom to offer the gift of eternal life to whomever God chooses.  Contrary to Calvin, it also seems to me that God has made it clear that this is a gift that will be offered universally, unrestricted by time, geography or condition of life.  It comes from no other source, but we are not competent to judge how it is that any one person will come face-to-face with that offer nor what the nature or conditions of acceptance might look like.  Perhaps it does not even have to come in this life time. If that is true then the role of Christians, as the body of Christ, is not to be the triumphant community of the saved as over against those who are not, but to be the humble bearer of the good news of God in Christ that the gift of life is offered to all, and to invite all to join with us as followers of Christ in the sure and certain hope that we are already living into our eternal lives. 

Monday, May 26, 2008

A Memorial Day Thought

Harlan was a hermit.   He lived in a shack, ate sparingly of strange things, survived on no money, and died in old age of terminal poverty.  He was also a self educated man who recorded the simple events of his everyday life in Latin, and keeping with his eccentric nature, he had educated himself as a 19th century man.  He could
never accommodate himself to the 20th century and detested the 21st.  He was an Episcopalian largely because he attended our church more than any other, and very rarely missed a Wednesday night adult bible class.  He was also a veteran so severely wounded in North Africa during WWII that he was never able to work again at a steady job.  For all intents and purposes he had no family but the church.   He died in 2004. This afternoon I took a single rose (he was a lover of flowers) to place on his grave just to let him know that he is not yet forgotten by those he has left behind.

Unusual Weather

We moved here eight years ago and the first words we heard were, “This is very unusual weather.”  In all those eight years not a day has gone by that we have not run into someone saying, “This is very unusual weather.”  It took awhile to realize that the usual weather in our valley is unusual, not occasionally but always.  I am going to be stunned, awed, amazed and struck dumb the day someone says to me, “Now this is our usual weather.”  Today has been another of those unusual days.  We started off the morning in rain with cool breezes.  I left on a bike ride in a long-sleeve tee shirt with my rain jacket in my saddle bag.  Within an hour I was overly warm in bright sunshine.  By mid-afternoon I was in shorts, but before sunset back in my long sleeve tee with the breeze picking up and rain clouds over the mountains menacing a good storm.  It may be weird weather, but we don’t have tornadoes, hurricanes or earthquakes.  Windstorms, often with a lot of dust, and forest and range fires are our biggest threats.  Other than that, I cannot think of a better temperate climate that the unusual weather of our valley.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

National Gluttony

I had a short conversation the other day with a guy I know a little bit, but not especially well.  Still, it confirmed some thoughts that have been rattling around in my head recently and it has to do with gluttony, which, as legend has it, is one of the deadly sins. He is among those who make fun of smaller, fuel efficient cars and thinks that anyone who wants an F-150 V8 4x4 should have one without regard to whether it might have any utilitarian value. Until the current gas price and mortgage loan issues came to a head, I don’t think we thought very much about our national gluttony.  Which is not to say that from time to time someone wouldn't write about the dangers, or sinfulness, of excessive consumerism, or that we would not be made aware of some small group or a celebrity or two who touted a simpler way of life that often looked rather silly and very unappealing.  

For most of us those moments were an easy brush off.  And Al Gore?  It’s easy enough for him to write about inconvenient truths; he’s rich and lives in a mansion.  What does he know about the ordinary person?  However, in the last year or so I’ve been thinking that in a nation of rights we have become a people who have fearlessly asserted our right to get any car, truck, tv, computer, houseful of furniture or whatever that our credit cards and loans could handle.  You want to take away that right and you’ve got some fighting to do. That’s a ditch we are willing to let somebody die in - not us of course, but somebody.   We’ve been aided and abetted in our all consuming gluttony by an abundance of advertising enticing us to buy even if our credit was poor, bad or non-existent.  As heinous as those enticements are, they have themselves been aided and abetted by private and public economists who keep reminding us that the health of our GDP depends on consumer buying.  Isn’t that what the president said, to take your stimulus check and go buy something?  

So now, with sky-high energy prices in a nation flooded with foreclosed houses, the question is not how to conserve but how to increase supply at a cheaper price so that we can continue our usual and customary habits of national gluttony.  My heart really aches for the families of very modest means who have been duped into acquiring the latest and best that Wal-Mart has to offer.  In my work I find myself in their homes stuffed to the gills with things I know they cannot afford and recognizing that the distance between today and bankruptcy is not just a paycheck, it's only a matter of time.  The anxiety of living like that must be excruciating.  But isn’t it our right to have all those things, and doesn’t the new flat screen tv hooked to expanded cable with my choice of premium channels promise me that if creditors get on my back I can call a handy 1-800 number to get all my debts consolidated or even eliminated? 

My heart aches even more for the farmers and ranchers in our valley and the craftsmen in our communities who really do need gas guzzling equipment in order to produce the food we eat and the necessary things of life.  In a very real sense, they’ve been ripped off.

I don’t think we suddenly need to become a nation of peasants wearing homespun clothes.  And we are always going to have the frivolous rich with us, but the rest of us should not be following in their footsteps.  I just think we need to use a little national common sense, and that a national common sense must start with national thought and opinion leaders who are willing to become prophetic truth tellers.   

Friday, May 23, 2008

Health Care?

This afternoon at the pharmacy I was in line behind two men.  One looked to be middle age, the other was elderly.  When the first man was told the price of his medications he just hung his head and walked away.  The pharmacist called after him, "You need this medicine, want us to keep it for you?"  He just muttered that he'd try to work something out and kept on walking.   The second man blanched at his payment of nearly $200 for four or five medications.  "What would it be if I didn't have insurance," he asked.  "Oh, around $400," she said.  He hung his head too, but paid - with a credit card.  How insane is this?  And yet I hear some of my friends brag about how the U.S. has the best health care system in the world.  What world do they live in?  Then they tell me about all the Canadians who come to the U.S. for treatment because they can't get it in Canada.  What treatment are they seeking?  Elective surgeries that are important to them but perhaps not urgent?  How much money do they have to spend whatever it takes to get what they want when they want it?  I can do that too, but it doesn't make it right that others have to suffer or go without!

Thursday, May 22, 2008


When an atheist asks for a prayer to be said for her loved one, what is she asking for?  That's a real question.  When she agrees to allow her loved one to be buried from a church following a Christian service, what is she agreeing to?  That's another real question, which brings me to the third and final real question.  When a person says that he/she is an atheist, what are they saying?

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

A Rainy Day Thanksgiving

It rained today, a long, long soaking rain.  It felt good.  Our valley is green because it is watered by dozens of small streams flowing out of the mountains that lie mostly on our eastern flank, and they depend on the winter snows.  This year there was a lot of it.  Outside this valley to the north, west and south the steeply rolling hills are nearly treeless.  Without irrigation the main crop would be sagebrush.  In some places that’s mostly what there is, but this is also the land of the Snake and Columbia whose waters have been made to turn desert into productive farm land.  Still, we can never forget that we are in are in the high desert of the Intermountain Plateau.  Average precipitation around here, apart from the mountains, is between 10 and 15 inches, which is half or less of what one might expect in the Midwest, and a third or less of areas on the East coast.  Our dry season will begin in June and we will not expect any significant rainfall again until sometime in September.  The biblical references to the early rains and the late rains are very real out here.  So today it rained, a beautiful, long soaking rain, and it was good, it was very, very good. 

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Holy Dying

OK, let’s ditch all that Lambeth stuff and talk about something happier.  How about death and dying?  Now that’s a subject right at the center of our faith, but one that we generally try to avoid at all costs.  Why is that?

On the one hand most Christians seem to have a basic understanding that life is not ended at death but changed, and that in Christ that change is one of new life and wholeness of being.  On the other hand, it seems to me that most of us have a very hard time letting go of loved ones who are nearing their time of death.  Extreme efforts are made to apply every possible medical option to keep a body from dying, and “hope” is never relinquished that our loved ones will recover and become well again.  

Modern medicine has enabled us to live longer healthier lives, and it is not always possible to tell when one is nearing the end.  All of that is good.  But keeping someone from dying is not the same thing as making them well, and I wonder about what is going on.  If our lives are sacred gifts of love from God, why cannot our deaths be the same?  A recent New York Times article discussed the growing practice of “slow medicine” for those who are nearing their natural end.  We’ve had a lot of practice with that in the hospice movement, which treats those dying of terminal diseases with the loving dignity they deserve.  Now something like it is also being practiced with the elderly for whom extraordinary measures are more than unlikely to produce restoration to health and only prolong their period of increasing dependency on chemicals, machines and high levels of support from aides of all sorts.  It is not a matter of casting them into some sort of dump of uncaring.  It is just the opposite.  It is a matter of surrounding them with love, the best of palliative care, rejoicing in the many blessings of their lives and fully living with them to the very gate of heaven.  

Henri Nouwen (Bread for the Journey) suggests that the dying can do something to help as they prepare themselves with grateful hearts, grateful to God and their families and friends, to make their deaths gifts for others.  What about the bereaved who are literally left behind?  Can they also help to make the deaths of their loved ones to be moments of grateful thanksgiving to God full of all the dignity we can offer?  

Well meaning but unrealistic expectations of renewed youth and vigor in which to enjoy restored relationships of years gone by too often lead to greater pain and suffering for both the dying and the living.  So how do we, as pastors and ministers of God’s redeeming love unto eternal life deal with that?  That’s a question.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Thoughts on an Anglican Covenant

For my non-Anglican readers, we Anglicans have been agonizing over whether it would be a good idea to support a covenant that would give more structure and discipline to world-wide Anglicanism, essentially creating a world-wide church.  The third draft of such a covenant has been issued and will be discussed by a world-wide gathering of bishops this summer at their once every ten years Lambeth Conference.  What follows are my thoughts on the matter, complete with terms and acronyms that will be a mystery to you.

One of the arguments against any sort of Anglican covenant is that the Communion has never been anything but a fellowship with no central governing authority and passionately protected provincial autonomy.  Having reviewed the resolutions of the last thirteen Lambeth Conferences I now believe that that understanding of the nature of the Communion is more myth than reality.  There was a movement from the very beginning to discover and articulate what it is that binds us together as Anglicans.  At first it was the centrality of a single BCP that bound together the English Speaking Races, but it quickly moved toward the vague understanding that bishops gathered in convocation could somehow exercise a collective authority over the whole Communion.  The development of the idea that Primates should meet more often added strength to that direction.  In time the idea mutated into something more democratic through the development of the ACC as a body representing bishops, other clergy and the laity, a request that primates be consulted on the "election" of the next ABC, and a request that Lambeth be held outside England from time to time.  It's not as if any of this was planned.  With Lambeth held only once every ten years or so there was always a new crop of bishops who carried little of the baggage of their predecessors.  Rather, I think, it is the natural maturation of an Anglican movement toward an Anglican Church.  The process is a normal one. 

Consider America's movement from independent colonies to states bound by Articles of Confederation to a nation under a Constitution.  In a less orderly way we have seen the slow movement of the role of Presiding Bishop gravitate in a direction that more firmly binds the diocese of the Episcopal Church together.  Even at the local level we recognize that the church cannot be an effective steward of its ministry without constitutions and canons.  Moreover, we are not, nor have we ever been, congregationalists.  Rather than opposing any form of Anglican Covenant, I'm inclined to favor using all our collective skills to get the kind of covenant we desire because I think a covenant, by whatever name, is inevitable.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Finally - A Helpful Statement on Racism

In preparing for a workshop on Lambeth I took a look at each of the resolutions considered by the Conference since 1867.  I was particularly taken with this statement from the World Council of Churches included in the 1968 record, and offer it for whatever value it may have to you. 

Lambeth 1968

Resolution 16


The Conference commends the following statement of the World Council of Churches meeting at Uppsala: 

Racism is a blatant denial of the Christian faith. (i) It denies the effectiveness of the reconciling work of Jesus Christ, through whose love all human diversities lose their divisive significance; (ii) it denies our common humanity in creation and our belief that all men are made in God's image; (iii) it falsely asserts that we find our significance in terms of racial identity rather than in Jesus Christ. 

The Conference acknowledges in penitence that the Churches of the Anglican Communion have failed to accept the cost of corporate witness to their unity in Christ, and calls upon them to re-examine their life and structures in order to give expression to the demands of the Gospel (a) by the inclusiveness of their worship, (b) by the creation of a climate of acceptance in their common life, and (c) by their justice in placing and appointment. 

Further, the Conference calls upon the Churches to press upon governments and communities their duty to promote fundamental human rights and freedoms among all their peoples. 



Monday, May 12, 2008

The Curmudgeon Addresses Evangelism

I just finished reading David Gortner's book Evangelism and was delighted to at long last discover something written with an understanding of the life-long aversion that most Episcopalians have against the word. Everything he recommended was eminently doable by the ordinary pew sitting church goer, but for one thing. It all required the discipline and commitment to actually do something, and that cannot happen without decisive, competent and willing leadership. Sadly, his current research suggests that most clergy are ill equipped by training or nature or both to provide that leadership. Nor are they very good at creating the conditions under which alternative lay leadership can be discerned, raised up, equipped and empowered. It appears that we have become quite adept at using the language without actually doing the work. So where do we go from here? This Sunday is Trinity Sunday, and for most of us that means a recitation of The Great Commission. What does that mean for Episcopalians? And, if you are going to offer some answers, please don't ramble on with the same old platitudes of excuse that have been lolling around for years sipping tea (or gin) and harrumphing. We've developed that to a fine art of evasion.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

The Question of Holy Orders

Of late the church has been doing what it can to bring the ministry of all baptized to the forefront. We are, after all, members of a priesthood of all believers, something we reaffirm in each recitation of the baptismal covenant. It is important and nothing good can come of evangelism or discipleship without it. But in so doing the term Holy Orders seems to have been discarded with a goodbye note of disregard and near disrespect. I want to take issue with that. There is something extraordinary about being called by God out of the community and into a particular role received through a life profession, the laying on of hands and Spiritual anointing, which, by our tradition, places us into a line of direct physical contact with all the generations that preceded us and all the generations that will follow.

None of that means a retreat to the so-called Father Knows Best practices of former decades. What it means is that there is something of the holy that marks the ordained priesthood in a way that is not present in other offices of ministry, and that it is to be respected and honored as one sign of God’s presence among us. It also means that, whether you like it or not, ordained priests are called to be leaders in the church, and are accountable for successes and failures. Within the institution of the church, as is the case with all true leadership, it requires an ability to create conditions in which others have the greatest possible opportunity for success in their own ministries. It’s not a top-down sort of thing. It’s all about providing the knowledge, skills training, information, resources and support that others need to do well in whatever they are doing.

Suppose, for instance, that Joseph’s carpentry business grew large enough to employ a handful of others but there were no gifted craftsmen available. Could he, as leader, get quality production out of new employees who were given no training, not provided with quality tools, told to go out and get their own wood, given no information about what was happening, nor told much about whether their work was any good but always told about how bad it was? Could he make things better by “motivating” his people with slogans and nifty videos? How about some punishment? Would his situation improve if he announced that leadership obviously did not work so from now on everyone would be a leader and he would just be another carpenter, albeit one who specialized in altars, cups and plates?

Think about it.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Lambeth Dead Ahead

Note:  some significant portion of what follows was first written as a part of “Reflections from the Floor” at the 2006 General Convention.

The continuing arguments leading up to Lambeth seem to me to be all wrong headed as first one side and then another bash away about which branch of the Anglican Communion is the largest, fastest growing, most orthodox, most strict about damning homosexuality and which is most inclusive.  It’s all wrong headed.  We are to be centered on Jesus Christ and led by the Holy Spirit in companionship with our brothers and sisters in the Anglican Communion.  At the same time we must recognize that what is and what is not understood to be authentic and orthodox Christianity is always determined in part by cultural definitions and expectations.  We cannot avoid that, and to do so is to be blind to the most common weakness and sin of the church, which is to consider our own culturally influenced understanding of the true Christian faith to be true understanding for all people at all times and in all places.

There was a time when Europe and North America were perceived to be the largest, most important, strongest, and most influential powers on earth, and no less so than in religion.  It was expected that the rest of the world, especially the colonized lands of the so-called Third World, would simply follow where we led because it was obvious that God had called us to be the leaders.  When European missionaries took the Anglican tradition of Christianity throughout the world, they did their best to make those “native” churches mirror images of the true faith, which looked a lot like England or America, with all the cultural baggage of the 19th century firmly attached.   Through them the Christian faith did take root and thrived.  But the foundation was also set for those new churches to come into their own, and with the end of formal colonization they did just that, and not as Europeans or North Americans.  The African church, for instance, has grown and prospered as an African church, and in like manner so have the churches of other nations throughout the world.  They have become strong advocates of the Christian faith in a way that is responsive to the cultural needs and norms of their respective countries.  They have firmly rejected any suggestion that they are, or should be, imitations of Europe or North America in their politics, economics, cultural norms or religion. 

Indeed, in our day there are some who believe that the natural leadership of the church has passed to Africa and that God has called Africans to be the leaders that North Americans and Europeans once thought was their natural and God given right.  They strongly desire that the North American and European churches become imitators of the Africans, which would mean to become Christians in the African tradition following the cultural norms of what Africans believe represents a true expression of the faith.  That can no more work for Europe and North America than it did when we tried to force the Africans to become ersatz Europeans.  Our understanding of the Christian faith is formed in a cultural milieu to be sure, but if we make cultural norms the primary measurement of orthodoxy we end up displacing Christ and Christ’s gospel as the center of our faith.  We must get to the place where we can admit that we can be authentic and orthodox in our faith in the reality of a very wide variety of cultural contexts and norms.  It is incumbent on us to permit the authentic and orthodox expression of the Christian faith in the Anglican tradition to develop and prosper as appropriate to each particular cultural ethos. 

This is not a new idea.  Fully authentic and true expressions of the Christian faith grew up in the earliest years of the church in significantly different ways in significantly different cultural milieus including Jerusalem, Alexandria, Antioch and Rome, among others.  Honesty compels us to admit that those early centers of Christian learning often accused each other of heresy and claimed for themselves an orthodoxy that they would deny to others.  And yet, because at its heart the church is the Body of Christ, it persevered and prospered by the more powerful guidance of the Holy Spirit so that today we often talk fondly of the imaginary days in which the church was unified in every way.  What about our own day?  Let us learn from our ancestors and cease these accusations altogether in order to get on with the business of proclaiming the gospel as appropriate to each place of proclamation.