Sunday, March 23, 2008

From the Land of the First Easter

Easter Message March 2008, The Living God, Bishop Munib Younan, The Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land

"...People ask me if I am optimistic about peace. I tell them I am not optimistic about the political atmosphere. And really, whether I am optimistic, pessimistic, realistic or idealistic doesn't really matter. What matters it that the church has not survived 2000 years since the First Pentecost because we were optimistic, pessimistic, realistic or idealistic but because we are witnesses to the resurrection. We have experienced the Light and we try to walk as people of the Light, understanding that God uses us to be witnesses for life in this blessed but often battered land. We say not, I am realistic or pessimistic or idealistic or optimistic but I have hope...Everyday here - even in the midst of the fear and the suffering - small bursts of community, hope and reconciliation are happening through extraordinary people, Israelis, Palestinians, Jews, Muslims and Christians. In our schools, programs and churches, we try to plant hope and the resurrection through our children, our people and all those whom we serve - regardless of creed, belief or political belief. In all of our ministries, we seek to express the hope of the resurrection. In interfaith dialogue, we revive the hope that religion promotes life and life abundantly for all..."

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Judgment of Love

When Christ comes to judge us, what will be the criterion of his judgment? The parable [of the Last Judgment -- Mt 25:31-46] answers: love -- not a mere humanitarian concern for abstract justice and the anonymous "poor," but concrete and personal love for the human person, any human person, that God makes me encounter in my life. This distinction is important because today more and more Christians tend to identify Christian love with political, economic, and social concern; in other words, they shift from the unique person and it unique personal destiny, to anonymous entities such as "class," "race," etc. Not that these concerns are wrong. It is obvious that in their respective walks of life, in their responsibilities as citizens, professional[s], etc., Christian are called to care, to the best of their possibilities and understanding, for a just, equal, and in general more humane society. All this, to be sure, stems from Christianity and may be inspired by Christian love. But Christian love as such is something different, and this difference is to be understood and maintained if the Church is to preserve her unique mission and not become a mere "social agency," which definitely she is not.

Christian love is the "possible impossibility" to see Christ in another ... , whoever he is, and whom God, in His eternal and mysterious plan, has decided to introduce into my life, be it only for a few moments, not as an occasion for a "good deed" or an exercise in philanthropy, but as the beginning of an eternal companionship in God Himself. For indeed, what is love if not that mysterious power which transcends the accidental and the external in the "other" -- his physical appearance, social rank, ethnic origin, intellectual capacity -- and reaches the soul, the unique and uniquely personal "root" of a human being, truly the part of God in him? ...

-- Alexander Schmemann, Great Lent: Journey to Pascha, pp. 24f.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Repentance per Schmemann

The prodigal son, we are told, went to a far country and there spent all that he had. A far country! It is this unique definition of our human condition that we must assume and make ours as we begin our approach to God. [One] who has never had that experience, be it only briefly, who has never felt ... exiled from God and from real life, will never understand what Christianity is about. And the one who is perfectly "at home" in this world and its life, who has never been wounded by the nostalgic desire for another Reality, will not understand what is repentance.

Repentance is often simply identified as a cool and "objective" enumeration of sins and transgressions, as the act of "pleading guilty" to a legal indictment. Confession and absolution are seen as being of a juridical nature. But something very essential is overlooked -- without which neither confession nor absolution [has] any real meaning or power. This "something" is precisely the feeling of alienation from God, from the joy of communion with Him, from the real life as created and given by God. It is very easy indeed to confess that I have not fasted on prescribed days, or missed my prayers, or become angry. It is quite a different thing, however, to realize suddenly that I have defiled and lost my spiritual beauty, that I am far away from my real home, my real life, and that something precious and pure and beautiful has been hopelessly broken in the very texture of my existence. Yet this, and only this, is repentance, and therefore it is also a deep desire to return, to go back, to recover that lost home. ...

-- Alexander Schmemann, Great Lent: Journey to Pascha, pp. 21-22

Humility -- a Matthean "Virtue" and More

... If there is a moral quality almost completely disregarded and even denied today, it is indeed humility. The culture in which we live constantly instills in us the sense of pride, of self-glorification, and of self-righteousness. It is built on the assumption that man can achieve anything by himself and it even pictures God as the One who all the time "gives credit" for man's achievements and good deeds. Humility -- be it individual or corporation, ethnic or national -- is viewed as a sign of weakness, as something unbecoming a real man. Even our churches -- are they not imbued with that same spirit of the Pharisee? Do we not want our every contribution, every "good deed," all that we do "for the Church" to be acknowledged, praised, publicized?

But what is humility? The answer to this question may seem a paradoxical one for it is rooted in a strange affirmation: God Himself is humble! Yet to anyone who knows God, who contemplates Him in His creation and in His saving acts, it is evident that humility is truly a divine quality, the very content and the radiance of that glory which, as we sing during the Divine Liturgy, fills heaven and earth. ...

How does one become humble? The answer, for a Christian, is simple: by contemplating Christ, the divine humility incarnate, the One in whom God has revealed once and for all His glory as humility and His humility as glory. "Today," Christ said on the night of His ultimate self-humiliation, "the Son of Man is glorified and God is glorified in Him." Humility is learned by contemplating Christ who said: "Learn from Me for I am meek and humble in heart." Finally, it is learned by measuring everything by Him, by referring everything to Him. For without Christ, true humility is impossible, while with the Pharisee, even religion becomes pride in human achievements, another form of pharisaic self-glorification.

The lenten season begins, then, by a quest, a prayer for humility which is the beginning of true repentance.

-- Alexander Schmemann, Great Lent: Journey to Pascha, pp. 19-20.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Schmemann on Lent

We manage to forget even death and then, all of a sudden, in the midst of our "enjoying life" it comes to us: horrible, inescapable, senseless. We may from time to time acknowledge and confess our various "sins," yet we cease to refer our life to that new life which Christ revealed and gave to us. Indeed, we live as if He never came. This is the only real sin, the sin of all sins, the bottomless sadness and tragedy of our nominal Christianity.

If we realize this, then we may understand what Easter is and why it needs and presupposes Lent. For we may then understand that the liturgical traditions of the Church, all its cycles and services, exist, first of all, in order to help us recover the vision and the taste of that new life which we so easily lose and betray, so that we may repent and return to it.

-- Alexander Schmemann, Great Lent: A Journey to Pascha (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 2001), pp. 12f.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Bonhoeffer Blog Conference

With gasoline threatening to go to $4 per gallon (yes, even though a certain major politician had not heard such rumblings until very recently, it is true), here's a neat way to enjoy a theological conference without airfare, driving, hotels, and the like. It's Halden's Dietrich Bonhoeffer Blog Conference. Details are at his site, here. For all of you would-be-scholars, now is your time to wax eloquently about DB's Ethics.

I look forward to reading the papers. I hope yours is/are among them.

Friday, March 07, 2008

A Good Sermon on the Mount Analysis

I usually tout my Icelandic heritage, but today I'm proud to be Danish too (only smidge, but hey ...). I came across this little excerpt from the Journals of Soeren Kierkegaard, and I think it nicely captures the kind of questioning and challenging (and draws the conclusion) that I shoot for in the study of Matthew that I'm "leading." See what you think:

Is God's meaning, in Christianity, simply to humble us through the model (putting before us the ideal) and to console us with "Grace," but between God and humanity there is no relationship, that we must express our thankfulness like a dog to a man, so that the adoration becomes more and more true and more pleasing to God as it becomes less and less possible for us that we could be like the model? Is that the meaning of Christianity? Or is it the very reverse, that God's will is to express that he desires to be in relations with us and therefore desires the thanks and the adoration which is in Spirit and in truth: imitation. The latter is certainly the meaning of Christianity. But the former is a cunning invention of us men in order to escape from real relation to God.
Once again, the Great Dane (or is that Hamlet?) has put his finger on the tenderest of spots -- a tenderness that continues to this day.

I spent some frustrating hours last week in convocations at Augsburg College in Minneapolis. Robin Lovin, the renowned ethicist at SMU, spent three lectures (and I don't know how many class periods and conversations) trying to convince his auditors of the continuing relevance ("now more than ever, perhaps") of the theological perspective of Reinhold Niebuhr (RN). I mean no ad hominem insult when I note that I was caught a little off-guard by the depth of his conviction that RN was dead on and that "Christian realism" is the path to follow in our crazy world. "Christian" comes from an "anthropology" that derives from the biblical account that, while humanity is most wonderfully created for communion with God and goodwill in its structure, that same humanity is most depravedly fallen and has trouble getting up. The "realism" that is urged on the faithful with that anthropology is the description of the world gained from the social sciences (and, he failed to mention, the ideologies) of the secular world.

In a short personal conversation, I asked Dr. Lovin how it was possible to accept the world's ways and perspectives in light of the very clear words of Jesus, for example in the Sermon on the Mount. Dr. Lovin very blithely dismissed that with "Well, Niebuhr would say that when you're faced with an impossible ideal ... ." At which point I cut him off and noted that that is a pretty big assumption. His only reply was, "Yes, well, but if it is ... ." Apparently for Christian realism it's obvious on its face that the Gospels are meant for some other reason than to to be taken seriously.

Give me Kierkegaard (and, I might add, Bonhoeffer and Hauerwas), then, over Niebuhr any day.

"Imitation" is the nature of discipleship and true worship -- this is a theme discussed in David Augsburger's book, Dissident Discipleship: A Spirituality of Self-Surrender, Love of God, and Love of Neighbor. I, as you might imagine, appreciate this take on the subject -- and especially that a "spirituality" that ignores the hard work of embodying one's relationship to God in relationships with others is a false (or certainly, inadequate) spirituality.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

St. Pat's Update

In his worldly wisdom Hizzoner, Richard Daley, Mayor of the Great City of Chicago has decreed that St. Patrick's day will be observed in the City on March 15. The river will turn green early this year. It is a reasonable accommodation for this city (where I once lived and so I know) that really knows how to celebrate its favorite sons' days. (Want to to talk Pulaski?) You'll notice that the official reason (no silly caesaropapism here) is that a Saturday celebration better allows entire families to participate without sacrificing time in school.

Monday, March 03, 2008

The Means of Grace?

Check out Steve Tibbetts' blog post on disposable communion cups.

I have seen waste baskets in churches filled with (sometimes half-filled) plastic shot glasses of wine used in communion. Aside from the environmental issue of all that plastic, what about the reverent disposal of our Lord's blood following the communion. I mean, you don't have to be an advocate of reservation to feel that this is downright impiety, do you?

Saturday, March 01, 2008

St. Patrick's Day Moved!

OK, you have simply got to check this out: St. Patrick's Day is my birthday, so I'm partial to the good saint, even though I only have about 16 Irish platelets in my blood (and that thanks to my Icelandic forebears, from whom I claim my Lutheran heritage, having been baptized by a pastor of the Icelandic Church). And since I abhor snakes, his feast is even more significant for me.

And I have been troubled that I must forgo celebration of the day this year because it falls on Monday of Holy Week. (There's something a wee bit inappropriate about whooping it up during that week! But that's not to say that I won't treat it as a movable feast. There's more partying appropriate to Easter.)

But leave it to me Irish-Catholic very-distant-relatives to have different priorities. For the details, check out this link.

Notice, please, that this fits the general scope of this blog in that it involves the intersection of the liturgical life of faith and life in the world.

And may God have mercy on us all.

Sure and ...