Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Ron Hansen

I read Ron Hansen's Marietta in Ecstasy and was swept away. It concerns a nun who is gifted with the stigmata -- or is she? -- and the complex psychological and sociological reactions that spawns in the nun and her community. It's a profound and lovely book. And, while I have had him on the back burner, I have intended to read others from his pen (ok: word processor).

I was interested, then, to see this interview with him on Christian Century's website. I knew that he is a Roman Catholic deacon who teaches at Santa Clara, but there's a nice look at his church involvement and the faith that undergirds his writing. (You will note that he promotes both 100 Years of Solitude and Lolita, which titles Virgil correlates with smart people at smart schools -- in short, the top 2 books that make you smarter! I've been trying to tell my reading group at Church that we need to read Lolita, since we've already read Garcia Marquez. So far, no takers. But that's another story.)

Monday, August 18, 2008

A Word for the Faithful on Judging

In clearing out some files, I found that I had copied this from Dietrich Bonhoeffer. For a variety of reasons, into which I need not go here, it seems a timely find. In fact, this caution about judging is timely at all times, I think.

When we judge, we encounter other people from the distance of observation and reflection. But love does not allot time and space to do that. For those who love, other people can never become an object for spectators to observe. Instead, they are always a living claim on my love and my service. But doesn’t the evil in other people necessarily force me to pass judgment on them, just for their own sake and because of our love for them? We recognize how sharply the boundary is drawn. Love for a sinner, if misunderstood, is frightfully close to love for the sin. But Christ’s love for the sinner is itself the condemnation of sin; it is the sharpest expression of hatred against sin. It is that unconditional love, in which Jesus’ disciples should live in following him, that achieves what their own disunited love, offered according to their own discretion and conditions, could never achieve, namely, the radical condemnation of evil.

If the disciples judge, then they are erecting standards to measure good and evil. But Jesus Christ is not a standard by which I can measure others. It is he who judges me and reveals what according to my own judgment is good to be thoroughly evil.
-- Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, pp. 170f.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos

For the Dormition of the Theotokis:

Apolytikion (First Tone)
In birth, you preserved your virginity; in death, you did not abandon the world, O Theotokos. As mother of life, you departed to the source of life, delivering our souls from death by your intercessions.

Kontakion (Second Tone)
Neither the grave nor death could contain the Theotokos, the unshakable hope, ever vigilant in intercession and protection. As Mother of life, He who dwelt in the ever-virginal womb transposed her to life.

Today is the Feast of the Going to Sleep of the all-holy, ever-virgin, most blessed Theotokos, the Mother of God. An Orthodox friend asks why Lutherans are so skittish about Mary. And she also asks why the Lutheran propers for today are essentially the same in content as those for the Annunciation in March. I don't have a liturgiologist's answer to her questions. But, as you might expect, I do have some ideas that don't treat of the liturgical history.

First of all, contrary to the teaching of Luther, Lutherans have all but cut Mary out of our church's celebration and life. Oh, we have a few "Mary" or "St. Mary" Lutheran Churches (Europe has vastly more, at least in part, I suspect, because they were inherited from pre-Reformation times). But we look in vain for much evidence that she figures as prominently in piety as the Apostles and St. Paul blocks all hint of glow that may attach to her.

Part of it, I'm sure, is an earnest effort to remain Biblical, and there just isn't much to go on in the New Testament if you're trying to build a biography or hagiography for the Virgin. Lots of "traditional lore" has built up -- as a sometimes misguided response, I think, to the promptings of the Spirit to keep her prominent. And so we have holy legends about her parentage, her early life, her post-resurrection doings, and her death. But the Scriptures themselves don't give much of a toe hold for those seeking to integrate her into the life of the Church.

But Scripture does witness to her importance: "Henceforth, all generations shall call me blessed, for He who is Mighty has done to me great things." And that is an evangelical witness. She is, in her own words, blessed and importance because of what God has done (and does)to and through her. The witness of the early centuries of the Church also testifies to her importance. She has been declared the "Theotokos" over some objections -- the "God-bearer" or "Mother of God." So we can't and ought not ignore her.

I also hear a lot of concern raised from good Lutherans that we "don't need" Mary because we have a straight shot to God through Jesus. But I think that's a sign of a very low ecclesiology among most Lutherans. If these folks think that asking Mary for her intervention is a way to approach an essentially unsympathetic Jesus, then they don't know the Gospel of Christ. (But then, they may be projecting their own unacknowledged use of Jesus to approach an unsympathetic God -- just at another step removed.) But come on: We ask fellow Christians to pray for us all the time. And asking the heroes and heroines of the faith to join with our here-in-tangible-form saints to pray for us only makes sense if you have a good sense of the Church.

The Church is the gathering of believers where the Gospel is preached and practiced. As such it is synchronic and diachronic: That is to say, it transcends the one location where I stand to include all Christian gatherings going on in this era AND it comprehends all Christian gatherings through all time. Thus, in St. Paul's language, "we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses" who join with our prayers. That I call on my wife to pray for me makes no more or less sense than asking Mary -- and Matthew, Mark, Stephen, and Dietrich, for that matter -- to join her prayers to ours.

I think the Orthodox have a better handle on this than the Western Church. When I attended vespers for St. Seraphim of Sarov, I was stunned (finally!) by how much the Orthodox take for granted that the saints are with them. Leave it to the West to layer on issues of "merit" and "standing": We don't pray to the saints because they have special merit -- on this the Lutheran Confessions are correct. We pray to them because they are remembered more directly (and probably for good reason) by the Church catholic and are available on a more general basis to the consciousness of a greater number of the faithful gathered in one place. And pray to them we may and should -- and on this the Lutheran Confessions get it wrong when they discourage praying to the saints. (Given their time, there may have been warrant for such advice, but it is advice that doesn't hold up. But once again, the Confessions don't offer much in terms of an ecclesiology.)

The Reformation, the Enlightenment, scientism, and various other influences have given Lutherans problems with saints. It would be a worthwhile endeavor for the Church -- certainly the Lutheran branch -- to reclaim her heritage and integrate saints more completely into her life.

Monday, August 11, 2008


This comes from a mailing from the Ekklesia Project (begin here), specifically Co-ordinator Brent Laytham. It's short and to the point and summons me to join in the practice.


by Brent Laytham

One of the great joys of our EP Gatherings is eating together. We break bread with friends old and new, discovering at a common table our common life in Christ. That makes it all the more painful that many of us who endorse The Ekklesia Project cannot come together as one body at the Eucharistic table of our Lord. Several years ago, we spent an entire Gathering exploring that pain.

This year our Gathering explored another division that scars the body of Christ—race. Both visibly and invisibly, race and racism have divided us from sharing together at our Lord’s one table. Confronting that reality for three days has renewed my commitment to the Friday fast that EP endorsers commit themselves to. Heretofore, I have fasted because that’s what Methodist pastors do, and because it was a simple practice of solidarity with my sisters and brothers in The Ekklesia Project. But now, committed to “Crossing the Divide,” I am also fasting as a practice of judgment—judgment against my ongoing racism, judgment against our racially segregated churches, judgment against every failure to receive what Christ has already done—broken down the dividing wall of hostility (Eph. 2:14).

Today I fast, not just to be in solidarity with you all, but especially to hunger for the full unity of Christ’s church.

I am not a faster: I find that working in an office makes the growling of my stomache and the light-headedness that comes quite quickly do not make for good performance. But Brent's brevity and correctness give me pause, and I think I may have to explore this spiritual practice more. (After all, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus assumes that his disciples will fast.) Divisions within the Body of Christ are an ab0mination, and if anything is worth fasting about, that would be at the top of my list.

Monday, August 04, 2008

More on "The Ministry"

There's a nice opinion piece over on the Touchstone discussion site that relates directly to issues we've discussed here on ordained ministry. It expresses, inter alia, chagrin over what has become of the office of the pastor in the modern Western Church. I encourage you to read and reflect on it. It's time for a new Reformation in our understandings of the Church and her ministry.