Tuesday, August 31, 2004

Holy Friendship

It was a most wonderful weekend. My great friend Jim visited on his way back to the Lutheran seminary in Columbus, Ohio, after completing his year of vicarage (or internship, in most Lutherans’ vocabulary) in Portland, Oregon.

Jim is an amazing fellow – a gifted young theologian, a pastor-to-be who demonstrates in word, deed, and demeanor that he is both dedicated to and well-equipped for work in the Church for the well-being of the Body of Christ (and not for any self-serving or misguided motive), a man of gentility and warmth who connects with people he meets in warm and positive ways, and a loyal friend who came 7 hours (one way) out of his way to spend a couple of days with me so that we might confirm, face-to-face, a friendship that has been nourished solely this past year by frequent e-mails. We talked non-stop for hours on end (with some sacrifice of sleep habits) and constantly realized how similar and complementary our insights, questions, and convictions are.

It was the flowering of a most precious friendship-in-the-faith. But I do not want to suggest that it was one of those seminar-agreement kind of friendships – one of those relationships where the parties realize how much they think alike and find that they rather enjoy each other’s company as a bonus. It is a heart-to-heart, cheek-to-cheek, commending and rebuking kind of thing, We shared ideas and experiences, and also the stories of our lives and loves, of our confusions and misadventures. For me, anyhow, it is similar in nature to the fullness of the relationships I have with my wife and child, with the added bonus that he enjoys discussing theology more than they do (well, at least my child). I love Jim dearly for all the gifts he shares with me, and he has won a place in my heart that feels empty since he left. I am also encouraged for the Church that God’s call to ministry to the Church is still heard by people such as he is with obvious gifts for service.

I became most keenly aware of how close I felt to Jim and of how valuable his friendship is to me during the Sunday mass he attended with my family and me. As a result, this post will mostly be a most personal reflection on holy friendship and the Eucharist in my life. (I admit it is self-serving and self-important so to focus my reflections. But perhaps there will be something to spark some commentary. And besides, I started this blog in order to get help in sorting out some of my vaguer thoughts about the life of faith, so even if I don't want to treat it as a kind of therapeutic exercise, I'm going to use it to raise some concerns.)

I begin with a side-trip: I have always (literally: from the time I began to realize that people date and form significant personal relationships) wondered about “mixed-faith” relationships. My mother and father were of different branches of the Christian faith, but he eventually "joined" the Lutheran Church, so I didn't really face the issue in my childhood, except to the extent that my Catholic relatives from my father's side would't go to church with us. But I remember thinking that it would prove to be difficult to date a person from "a different church," because it would result in certain conflicts.

Today, I know a few people serving the Church who are married to people who do not share their faith or their “branch” of the faith. For example, Rusty (R.R.) Reno, a brilliant and passionate Episcopalian teacher of Christian theology and a very stern critic of those who would veer from utter fidelity to the historic faith, is married to an Orthodox Jew and my understanding is that they are raising their children as Jews. A friend of mine, a Lutheran pastor-in-training (not Jim), is married to a Roman Catholic, who to my eyes doesn’t seem particularly interested in becoming a Lutheran. Other friends include a Catholic married to a Baptist, a Catholic seeker married to an agnostic – you get the picture. I raise these illustrations because the people I know are keenly dedicated to their professions of faith; they are not culture Christians who go to church for the good music or the good influence on the children or whatever. They are believers, convicted believers, and yet their partners do not share that conviction – and in some cases forthrightly reject the truth (or importance) of that conviction.

I honestly don’t understand how they do it. How does one share the most intimate relationship outside the "gates" of one’s sincere religious fortress? I know that I’m limited by my own experience, but my relationships with my wife and child are so bound up with our participation in the Eucharist, that I am unable to “think outside the box” on this matter. My wife and I quite literally were brought together by the Eucharist: We met in church and our only contact for a long time (during some of which we didn't much care for each other) was at mass. Our marriage was in the context of a regularly scheduled Sunday mass of our congregation (no special time or costumes [except new suits for both of us and a hat for my wife]; everyone in the congregation thus invited). And we continue to include participation in the Eucharist in our self-descriptioni of our life together.

Now we turn sharply right and return to the original route: As I sat and stood and knelt with Jim, as we sang and prayed, and finally when we communed, I was almost overcome by feelings of well-being. That experience of well-being rooted in the sense that our friendship was confirmed, consecrated, and consummated in the way that holy friendships are meant to by their being taken into God’s life through our participation in Our Lord’s meal. And my well-being rooted, too, in the knowledge that for both of us, this is the way it should be – that our friendship and companionship and conversation and (at some point, I expect) our disagreements all begin here and lead here, root in and bring us together to worship with God’s people of the past and present, eating and drinking on the Lord and Food of Life. I have concluded that Jim and I have a holy friendship. I mean, if I can claim "holy matrimony" with my wife, cannot I also find such holiness in this friendship, which has involved expressions of love, of commitment, of support?

I don’t mean to suggest a kind of sanctimony or piety that gives us claims to greatness; I don’t mean, either, that our friendship enjoys some kind of insulation from sin and sins. But I do mean to suggest that there is a kind of friendship – in a typology of friendships – that one may call “holy.” Holiness, at root, implies a rootedness in God and his Way, a coming-to-being in his call. That may exist in one's solitary life, or in family life, or in religious vocation, or in friendship. And I celebrate that Jim and I enjoy such holy friendship.

To illuminate by contrast: I have friends who are vitally important to me in ways much different from the importance Jim holds. Some of those friends are not believers; some are too religious – but of a different “piety” from mine; some are members of other (Christian) traditions. Those relationships do not suffer from the fact that the friends are not “religious” or Christian or in communing fellowship with the ELCA or completely uninterested in anything smacking of “theology.” I love those friends probably no less than I love Jim. (And let me clarify: I have a few – though only a few – other friends with whom I share a similar relationship to the one I celebrate here, one that is a blending of personal, intellectual, and “soul” or spiritual aspects of life; here I use Jim’s name to personalize my musings primarily because I am still celebrating his visit and, thus, his visage is still fresh on my memory’s optic nerve).

But the friendships are of a different nature: Prayer (usually limited to dinner times, if at all) is less important; we do not seek each other’s opinions on matters of great spiritual concern (other than politics or music – other of my passions); we may worship together, but it is with a sense that it’s good that we can extend our friendship to the nave of the Church, but it lacks a kind of existential awareness that the friendship is not quite complete until we have communed together. (Somewhere I have, and I must locate it, a quote from Tertullian, given me by the late Blessed Godfrey Diekmann, OSB, which celebrates Christian marriage. Tertullian speaks in some of the same terms I use here to rejoice in the fulfillment of his marriage in the life of the Church and specifically at the Eucharist. I acknowledge that the kind of friendship I here celebrate is akin to a marriage. As another aside: I wonder whether Boswell, in his claims to have discovered liturgies for the sacralization of homoerotic unions, was misperceiving this kind of spiritual friendship for a sexual relationship. It’s easy to see how that misinterpretation might come about. But I haven’t looked at his book in decades, so I’d best drop that line of thought!)

Now understand what I am not saying. I am not someone who appreciates using the Eucharist to “sacralize” gatherings, to cement fellowships at retreats, to add a measure of holiness to social gatherings. So, for example, I found it beyond the pale when, a few years ago, the pastor celebrated Eucharist on Saturday night at a retreat of the parish council (“vestry” in our anglophilic congregation), when there was the community Eucharist the next morning. Neither do I think much of having a Eucharist at a wedding simply on a beliefe that to do so renders the marriage more likely to succeed. That is pure superstition and, as such, anathema to me. But those are different from finding in the Eucharist the appropriate “place” for the fulfillment of a relationship -- as was also true for my wife and me in our marriage. (Does that make any sense?)

Life in Christ, it seems to me, drives one to the Eucharist. (I’m sorry if that betrays a certain insensitivity to some branches of the Christian family. I lament that I am still pretty tone-deaf to those branches for whom the Eucharist is not the sine qua non of Christian life. I’m working on understanding, but I have a long way to go.) To be in Christ is to be overcome with gratitude, which compels one to prayer and praise – and, given God’s unfathomable and ironic grace, as one prays and praises (as one is brought to do by the work of the Holy Spirit), one is met by the Gift (Christ himself) for whom one has been praying and praising, who gives of himself again, resulting in the need to pray and praise more. (“How Can I Keep from Singing?” is simply a phenomenological expression of this fact.) In the Eucharist, one meets and feasts on Christ and sees, tastes, smells, and swallows the Gospel. One integrates into one’s physical structure the promises of God of fulfillment and meaning and of transformation into godlikeness. (Augustine, somewhere: We eat ordinary bread and it takes on our nature. But in the Eucharist, we eat the Bread of Life, and we take on His nature.)

In Christ, there is a special place for the friendships that center on that life in Christ. Remember Jesus’ sentiment to his disciples on the eve of Passover, How I have longed to share this meal with you? It’s like that. A meal at Palomino, a bottle of fine wine, conversation lasting hours, and a late night stroll with no other particular point than to extend the time together are but the preparation for joining at the Eucharist at 9:30 the next morning. That is, for me, holy friendship.

I do not mean here to set out norms for gauging friendship. I mean only to reflect on and to rejoice in those special circumstances when the whole structure of Christian life seems to come together in some fabulous gestalt – where one’s “faith commitments and convictions” and one’s emotional ties and one’s human nature converge with someone else in splendid moments of holy coherence. Jim, by his forcing me to think self-consciously about these experiences, has enabled me to see this. For that I give God thanks for this most special friend.

And I give God thanks, too, for opening my eyes to this reality. I am able now to focus some of my thinking about church life. The Ecclesia Project, here, sets as its goal the revitalizing of the Christian Church through the development of congregations sites of “subversive friendships.” You’ll have to see what they mean by it, but my new perspective (i.e., new to me) gives me a context for understanding that.

But here I’ll end. I have been told that I plant in long rows. Likely that is so. In North Dakota, whence I hail, we have big farms. (My godfather-uncle farms something over 8,000 acres right now.) This has been another long stretch. But for that I can only seek your prayers for concision and keener insight.

Bless you.

Thursday, August 19, 2004

The Political Side

I have announced my intention to make this a site for the discsussion of the intersection of Christian faith and everyday life. One of the obvious points of intersection of those two concerns (and I'm trying hard wth this enterprise to argue that there is no "intersection," but rather that Christian faith is a matter of everyday living -- but today, we'll accept "intersection") is the realm of politics. And one can hardly think of "religion" and "politics" without raising two journals: First Things is Richard John Neuhaus' distinctly right-leaning journal and comes at matters from a distinctly progressive-prophetic posture. The two couldn't be more different -- and I must say honestly that I much prefer the company of Jim Wallis (Sojourners' executive director) than RJN. The snideness and political bias of First Things I find galling; the evangelical fervor of Sojourners overcomes, for me, the hint of political bias. (Note for the record, I neither intend nor want this blog to become a politics forum. I am a political independent, but I confess to a kind of knee-jerk socialist-progressive, pro-life, non-violence agenda. That results from my reading Abraham Josuha Heschel's fabulous two-volume work The Prophets and the encouragement of numerous friends. But I don't intend to campaign through this blog. Read my law signs if you want to know whom I support.) Both offer on-line access to resources -- Sojourners fellowing is at http://www.sojo.net/, and First Things, at http://www.firsthings.com/\.

In any event, it seems appropriate for me to solicit other resources that are available on-line. I seek my own edification, primarily. But who knows: Once I get into the swing of things (with Sister Dash's help), I may list links to such resources. For now, though, why not contribute a Comment (and make it look like I have a great community linked here.)

One thing about the Sojourners site is that it affords you the chance to subscribe their e-mail newsletter (weekly and free of charge). It's full of good stuff from which to pick and choose.


Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Living the Resurrection

I apologize in advance (even though Emily Post said NEVER to begin with an apology.) This post is going to be long. I don’t know how to separate it into smaller doses. This is big stuff for me, and one of the points of this blog is to get discussion of this perspective into play. (That is not to suggest that I have worked out a systematic presentation. I deny that absolutely. It is an impressionistic approach to dealing with the issue of how we live the life of faith.)

I have said numerous times to my fellow Christians at Mount Olive Church in Minneapolis (who allow me to lead adult ed conversations on occasion) that the chief "problem" facing the Church is something no church bureaucrat can identify: It’s not a lack of “growth” and it’s not battles over bishops or sexuality or war. What plagues the Church (and results in those penultimate problems) is an inability of Christians to live the Resurrection. We do not see (mostly because most pastors don’t preach it and most teachers don’t teach and most evangelists don’t announce it) that the point of the Gospel is that salvation is not just a future reality, but a present one as well. The theological, ethical, liturgical aspects of this problem seem so clear.

Sunday, on the Feast of Dormition of the Theotokos (or in Lutheranism: Mary, Mother of our Lord), in his "farewell" sermon, our vicar ("intern pastor" to many, but beloved brother and friend to me) preached on the Magnificat. (Someday, I’ll rage about the difference between preaching “on” something and preaching something. But that’s not today.) He anticipated Advent a little (as was perfectly appropriate given the text) by urging us in the congregation to "read the future into the present."

His point was to take seriously "eschatology" – i.e., to see that what is promised in the Gospel has already come true in the world and in our lives. On that view, we can already begin – and have already begun – to live the reign of God, as envisioned by Mary in her song – where and when the hungry are filled with good things and the rich are sent empty away; where the proud are scattered in the imagination of their hearts. Daniel noted that the verbs used by the Virgin are in the past tense. (He didn’t say what the tenses of the verbs are in the Greek – surprisingly, since he both values and flaunts his Greek. I took a minor in Greek as an undergraduate, so I am neither offended nor impressed. But, especially if the Greek shows present perfect, there would have been great possibility to underscore his theme.) In English, the verbs are in the present perfect, so his sermon made perfect sense, because present perfect suggests the on-going influence and importance of an action in the past. (It’s not over-and-done; it’s a present reality because it happened in the past – like with “Christ has been raised.”)

God did not call a halt to human history with the death and resurrection of Jesus, but rather he allowed and allows it to continue (with all the grace and wrath that that implies). He did, however, tip his hand to reveal what the outcome of that history will be. With the Resurrection, God essentially guaranteed that what Jesus said would be vindicated at the end of time, and then to add emphasis to guarantee, he brought that end of time back into time by raising Jesus from the dead within time.

(Discursus 1: As I am coming to sense more keenly, the fact that history did not end with Jesus is a real problem for intellect and faith [not to mention preaching]: If Jesus was the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy, then history ought to have come to an end and/or the kingdom of God ought to have been established unquestionably and finally. But the Holocaust, if nothing else, gives credence to the Jewish reason for rejecting Jesus as Messiah: He didn't do what God said He'd do. Thus, either God did not keep his promise or Jesus was not Messiah. Since God doesn't lie, Jesus must not have been Messiah. The Christian answer, of course, relies on eschatology, but it does not yet convince the Jews -- something I think we may bald-facedly say, based on God's promises, will happen eventually, so we don't have to worry about convincing them now.)

The effect of the Resurrection is to make the future reality – new life, the reign of God, the defeat of sin, final reconciliation – a present reality. We are not only waiting to be saved (whatever that means – the topic of a million more blogs), but we are already saved and living in salvation-realty (at least if we have eyes to see and ears to hear).

Christians (both na├»ve and sophisticated) get pretty well the future stuff, but when it comes to this life, it gets cloudy. Good Lutherans want to avoid any suggestion that they are being “works righteous.” So any call to moral living, any insistence that the Christian lives and should live differently from the average American is greeted with theological dismay and nationalist resentment. When I once suggested that the Ten Commandments were still God’s instruction for how his people – including Christians – ought to structure their personal, congregational, and political lives, I was accused by a Lutheran pastor of sounding “Methodist.” (My response was a glib, “Well, if that’s Methodism, then maybe the Methodists have something to teach Lutherans.”)

If the Gospel is true (as Mary was the first to sing), then the world has changed – and because of the mighty acts of God, we have changed. We must – because we can – give up our idolatries and immoralities. We are empowered (here’s the Holy Spirit piece) to live the new life we have been given in anticipation of the final consummation of God’s plan – anticipation both in the sense that we live eagerly expecting it to happen and in the sense that we live it almost prematurely before it happens. The Gospel – in a kind of Trinitarian way – speaks in three tenses at once: God has acted, He is acting, and He will act – and that is all going on today in your hearing, in your presence, in your life.

The effect of this, of course, is to make of Christian faith an existential reality – nothing that remotely hints at pie-in-the-sky-in-the-sweet-by-and-by (except insofar as that points to the ultimate vindication of the Resurrection life lived today). Various theologians make a good case – e.g., Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon, Reinhard Huetter, Miroslav Wolf, Telford Work, John Chryssavgis – even Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, if you read him closely. In addition, communities, institutes, networks, and think-tanks are springing up to lend volume to the call – e.g., the Center for Social Holiness (of the Church of Nazarene), The Ekklesia Project, The Valparaiso [University] Project on the Education and Formation of People in Faith (how’s that for a mouthful?), and in its own way The Bruderhof.

I have seen more of this approach in Orthodox thinking than I have in Western Christianity. In contrast to the East, we in the West seem so bound up with a consciousness of sin (which either roots or results in an unfortunately self-centered ideology – which has been enthusiastically underwritten by the Enlightenment), that we seem never to actually believe that sin has been forgiven. (Note the present perfect, again.) The Orthodox are, by my lights anyway, more in tune with the reality proclaimed by the Gospel as a present realty and focus more on the cosmic implications of the Incarnation, Resurrection, and Ascension. They (or you, if any Orthodox ever see this post) see more clearly that heaven has broken into ordinary time and makes possible living out our salvation with “fear and trembling.” (See, for example, Schmemann’s book For the Life of the World and/or John Chryssavgis’ book Beyond the Shattered Image. I’ll later post a review I wrote of the book. But in fairness, I must confess that I consider Fr. John a friend, and while I tried to be objective in my treatment of the book, because I know him, I may be at either an advantage or a disadvantage in evaluating the book. I still think it’s great.)

Well, to begin to conclude. I think that the life of faith is not a life of “believing” as that word is often interpreted. Faith is not a “head trip” nor is it a “heart trip” unless you use those (dated and not very helpful) terms to indicate that faith claims the totality of one’s life in the here-and-now. Worship is not seeking haven from a heartless world. It is the practice of the future (I love to speak of the life of faith as “practicing the life of the future”), when we shall join that same choir that includes both Isaiah and the John of the Apocalypse. The future has invaded the present. We must begin to integrate that into our lives (lifestyles, decisions, whatever). Until we do, the Church will rightly see its numbers decline (which in and of itself may be a very good thing, anyway) and find itself increasingly torn asunder by frivolous disputes, private/personal tiffs, individualistic assertions – just as we see today.

The urgent need is for pastors who are mature enough in the faith to see this, to have caught the Good News. This is more than comforting people, although can anything be comforting than the promise and guarantee that salvation is already won? This is more than screeching moralism, although there is certainly a moral content to the endeavor. This is not group therapy or political organizing or voter registration or soup kitchens, although all of that may it in. It is fundamentally a matter of reading the Bible and listening with attentiveness (and probably not reading it alone, since the Bible was never meant, I think, as a personal-reflection aid; it was meant to be read in the assembly, among those whose preconceptions were at least addressable by the stories). And it is a matter of reading the entire Old Testament. For it is in the Old Testament that the referents in the Gospel are to be found. “Messiah” is not a cultural term; “freedom,” at least within the Biblical framework, does not mean license to write your own ticket; “salvation” is very different from images of harping souls sitting on clouds. How do we know? By reading the New Testament in terms of the “Old.”

(A theologian-friend of mine criticizes this line of thought as “realized eschatology” because he thinks it reads too much into the New Testament – and specifically into the Virgin’s song. But I think he sees things in too black-and-white a perspective – i.e., he tends to suggest that either the eschaton has happened or it is coming; no mixed bag. Yet he must come to terms with Jesus’ word in the Temple: “Today this word is fulfilled in your hearing.” The word was Isaiah, and unless we completely “spiritualize” the text, we must read the prophecy in Old Testament terms – and that means concrete fulfillment of very economic-political-social-personal realities.)

Brother Vicar Daniel was correct: The kingdom has already been established in our midst and all around us. We need only clear our vision and Q-Tip out our ears to be assured of it. He was also correct that a good place to start would be with the Magnificat and the Ave Maria.


Thursday, August 12, 2004

Faith and Life

One of the main themes of this blog will be the intersection of the life of faith and life in the world. As a Christian, I don't find that the Gospel makes life easy. In fact, I envy those who find in the "faith" a kind of security blanket or cup of warm cocoa. For me it's not that way. For me, it's constant turmoil, trouble, questioning, guessing -- and yes, repenting, receiving forgiveness, communing.

What has become crystal clear to me -- and we can talk about the influences on me during my walk along the path of life -- is that the Church is in radical need of reform. By "Church," I mean my congregation, the Lutheran tradition, and all the other traditions who claim the name of Christ. The nature of the Church needs to be made clear to us (again -- if ever we knew it) so that we as believers can begin to live into that nature -- adopt it into our own lives and begin to manifest that reality, as the Spirit gives us strength so to do.

I think the Church (and, ironically, I think this critique, while directed mainly to the tradition I know -- viz., the Lutheran Church on the North American continent -- applies with equal force to all traditions, with the possible exception of the those emerging churches in Africa, about which I know nothing) has fallen prey to an almost Babylonian captivity to culture -- i.e., to the mores and assumptions, the images and values, of the milieu within which it finds itself planted. In my own tradition, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), the predominant model for life and structure is that of the corporation. The ELCA -- and its member congregations -- are absolutely trapped by models borrowed from corporate governance: We understand our mission as being to "grow" -- not in faith, but in numbers and budgets; not in care for one aother, but in staff. Decline is represented, not by a failure to follow in the steps of Christ, but in declining membership or decreasing numbers of "programs." I could go on, but books have been written about this -- and I hope to say more about the reading list in the future.

Couple that corporate mentality with the complete cooptation of the American mind by the individualism of the Enlightenment (the great Problem interposed on Church life by the advance of learning -- how ironic!), and you have a situation in which people see the church as a provider of life-enhancing programs -- feel-good sermons, reimaging conferences where I design a God that meets my personal specifications, long-term memory loss, and the like.

It is time for a reformation -- for a reimaging of the Church, if you will. We must recover a sense of the Church as the "literal" Body of Christ. We need to get on board with Stanley Hauerwas and others (often evangelicals) who call for the Church to re-establish itself as its own culture -- with its own values, its own heroes, its own styles of doing "business," its own meanings.

The Ekklesia Project begins to make some sense of what I'm trying to say. The Project is one of those endeavors pretty much made possible by the Internet (and for this Luddite to commend the Internet is a feat!). It is, in the words of its "declaration," "a network of mutual support for the life of Christian discipleship ... . We believe that we can help one another to narrow the gaps between what we Christians profess and how we live. We call this The Ekklesia Project, in recognition of the fact that we are 'called out' of the world into a differnt mode of life."

I hope to learn from the Project as I support its work and participate in its activities however that is possible. Perhaps we can talk a little about some of the resources it offers and the issues that it raises.

Check out The Ekklesia Project at (here's a surprising address) http://www.ekklesia project.org/

Until next time,

Wednesday, August 11, 2004


I don't have all the skillls I need to handle this blog responsibility, and one of the duties that I haven't gotten my "hands around" is that of listing links to other notable spots. I offer a couple that I think are worth monitoring:

My blogster sister Dash writes at http://dashreads.blogspot.com/.

A rich vein of insights and quotes from the Great Tradition is available from the hand of\ Fr. Alvin Kimel at http://pontifications.classicalanglican.net/. (He got the name for his blog that I wish I could have claimed. Several friends and foes agree that it would have been more apt as MY handle.)

Camassia writes at http://camassia.notfrisco2.com/.

A collection of excerpts from really important Eastern Orthodox literature (not a blog) is available (thanks to John Burnett) at
http://jbburnett.com/theology/. (This stuff will keep you reading and thinking for years!)

There'll be a lot more to come, but begin with these. Append your preferences and suggestions.


Mary, Mother of our Lord

Sunday is a day or the day (depending on your Christian tradition) to commemorate and celebrate the life and faithfulness of the Blessed Virgin Mary. My Eastern brothers and sisters call her the Theotokos, from the Greek for God-Bearer (or, roughly, Mother of God). Now, I'm a Lutheran, so for most of my life, I haven't had much to do with Mary. But I'm making up for lost time. It seems meet and right (and perhaps even salutary) that all Christians come to a renewed appreciate\ion for and devotion to Our Lady. To wit, these points and a commentary.

First, that the Western Church has all but abandoned the title Theotokos seems to me to be bizarre. At the Council of Ephesis (400-something -- sorry, my history is really bad), the Church Fathers (I know ... ) declared that the appropriate title for Jesus' mother is "Theotokos" and not (as some -- notoriously the Nestsorians -- would have had it) the "Christotokos'" -- the mother of (the) Christ. Last evening a theology-professor friend of mine argued on behalf of the Nestorian signifier because of it is less likely to offend and mislead non-Christians (notably Muslims) for whom the idea of God's being birthed is rank blasphemy. Now, I think that language is always a problem. But here doesn't language serve exactly the point we seek to make: That God took on human existence, thereby incorporating all that is human into the Godhead and all that is divine into humanity? (Remember: The "naming" controversy was not about Mary per se, but rather about Christology -- i.e., about who and of what nature/s Jesus Messiah was.)

But I think my friend does have a point on a decree of the Fifth Ecumenical Council (perhaps 500 -something) which declared the Theotokos "Ever Virgin". To the extent that that decree is used to argue that Our Lady's hymen was never punctured -- even during the birth -- seems to me to raise more questions about the humanity of Jesus than it answered. If Jesus' birth (we'll hold off on his conception, thank you) were so extraordinary that it violated all the laws of physiology, what does that say about his humanity (specifically, his " true" humanity)? Again, the Council was addressing, not the physical condition of the mother of Jesus, but rather the nature of his identity and being. But did they hand down something to us that is simply too much work to explain or revitalize or rehabilitate to be necessary? (Can anyone tell me the status of this decree in the Church?)

Lutherans have solved the problems and lost the joy and awe associated with Mary and her place in the "economy" of salvation by simply ignoring her. An interesting development: We kept the baby and threw the mother out with the bath water. That is both unwarranted and unwise. Luther knew that, and (according to the translations in the American Edition of his works) advised calling on her with these words" "O Blessed Virgin, Mother of God, ... Hail to you! Blessare are you" (LW, vol. 21, p. 322). He insisted that such prayer is part of "accord[ing] her the honor that is due her" (ibid. p. 324).

So, then, why all the hullabaloo about praying to the Theotokos? It seems to me that "the great cloud of witnesses" that surrounds and supports us in our lives of faith is not limited to the saints of our own time and place. Rather, the saints of all times and places make themselves available to us -- both by their examples (renewed in recounting their faithful lives) and by their intercessions on our behalf. (The Lutheran Confessions grant that the saints pray for us; they are, of course I grant, less supportive of our praying to them for those prayers.) And just as we may and ought to request prayers from our brothers and sisters in our individual congregations (cf. the intercessions or prayers of the people), so may we invoke the prayers of the saints in heaven -- and pre-eminent among them the mother of our Lord. The vast majority of Christians in the world recognize this simple and not-necessarily-troubling fact.

I don't mean to suggest that the saints -- or even Mary -- offer any special favor or merit; nor do I suggest that they offer any kind of access to God unavailable to us through Jesus. And certainly don't believe or suggest that we have to work through some other channel to achieve direct access to God -- Father, Son, and Spirit -- than by our own prayer.

But isn't it time we get with the system, here. We're missing out on a whole lot of important stuff if we "children of the Reformation" continue our indignity toward the mother of the Lord of the Church.

As I once said, "I shall raise my daughter to join Father Martin [Luther] in his prayer, "Ave Maria!"

Tuesday, August 10, 2004

My first question

There is no reason to pussy-foot around. I have one simple question based on about twelve very passionate discussions this week: Why has the issue of sexuality become THE hot-button issue in the Lutheran (and other) Church at this time? Normally rational people become apoplectic when the topic comes up. Normally thoughtful "liberal" people (and I want to explore that word over the course of these conversations) go red in the face in denouncing "gay marriage" and/or "gay ordination." Ordinarily relatively conservative faithful surprise by being in favor or and cheering the same things. But neither side can give, it seems to me, a quite convincing case for its position. My friends the liberals speak of assaults on "the family" -- language they pick up and parrot (or sincerly echo) from religious folks with whom they disagree on virtually every issue. My friendly conservatives spout sentiment: Well I got to know Joe and discovered that he's gay on that basis I can't believe there's anything wrong with his lifestyle.

Now, I'm the last one to say that sex doesn't matter.But my stars, we're at war (there seems to be some question just who the actual enemy is, but never mind); we face an unbelievable crisis in the well-being of our nation (in terms of health care, in terms of the security of pensions, in terms of the rapidly widening gap between rich and poor); the world is on the verge of treating the United States as irrelevant. And as a society, we American Christians are head-over-heels about who loves whom and does what.

My simple question is why this is such a big deal in the scale of things. (For those of my closest friends who want to say that the right-wing is just using this for political purposes, my question remains: Why are they able to do that? Why do they ring such a responsive chord in to so many? For my dear, persecuted Republican friends -- both of you: Why does this represent an assault on the basis of society? For my gunner theologians: Why?)

You see, I don't really want to go into whether gay marriage should be allowed in either the civic setting or the Church. Neither do I specifically want the prooftexts for or against the ordination of non-celibate homosextual persons. I'm more interested in the meta-question, if that's the term: Why is this the issue that gets people so hot?


Today I set out on a glorious voyage of self-aggrandizement.

A friend has been after me to establish my own blog. I think, at heart, she is tired of my long tirades in response to her postings. And so I've set up my own space to set out some thoughts on a random basis (my daughter claims that my conversation is always heading in "random" directions -- apparently that's one of the hot words among her friends.

In any event, I shall be setting out some thoughts occasionally at this site. I have no idea what I'm doing or whether I'll be able to sustain this thing. I'm not particulary self-motivated. BUT this is a chance to try something that I have long wanted to do -- to engage on a semi-regular basis with brothers and sisters, known and not-yet-met, on various theological and political themes and issues.

It's strange to send thoughts out to no one in particular. Consequently, each post will likely be directed to someone who may or may not recognize himself or herself in the address.

So with those prefigurings, let's begin.

But first, this: "Versus Populum" means, as I understand it, "toward or over against the people." I pick it up because it is a hot-button item in liturgical theology right now. There is controversy, again, over whether the presiding minister (whether that be priest, presbyter, minister, elder, or whaterver) ought to face the congregation over the altar/table during the liturgy (mass, service, etc.). Vatican II began -- or arguably, reinstated -- the practice of "versus populum" -- i.e., of the presider facing the people. It caught on in all liturgical traditions -- to the point that churches were remodeled (in some cases, sacrificed) to accommodate the new "model." Now, with the help of Cardinal Ratizinger in the Vatican (arguably the most influential thinker in the Vatican hierarchy -- and probably the most brilliant), that model is being challenged. "Face East," the cry goes, because in so doing, the presider leads the people in their reverence, honor, and worship toward God. God is less "in our midst" than "on His way" from the seat of power.

It's a debate that has remarkably good and telling points to be made on both sides. And I chose the term for the name of my blog because it seems to me to raise the possibility of active disputation (my favorite way to relax). Where I worship, we have never gone versus populum; the pastor does, however, turn to elevate chalice and paten during the (words of institutioni) in the weekly Eucharist. So I'm used to one kind of practice. I was trained, however, by a theologian who insisted that the only sensible way to celebrate was versus populum. And since he was the theologian who made the biggest impression on me, that ideology has stuck.

I, thus, turn to the people with questions, with ranting, with thoughts; I set them out with the hope that somebody will respond with arguments, information, corrections -- and, of course, compliments for the tightness of my reasoning and the enlightment obvious in my expressions of my position!