Tuesday, April 28, 2009

"He is Risen, Indeed!"

In my ever-increasing impatience with simple tomfoolery and growing gnosticism in liturgical practices within the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (and plenty others, lest anyone think that I single out one denomination for special blame), I have been extremely aggravated by a practice/usage in my own congregation. At the vigil, the pastor proclaimed (3 times), "Christ is risen! Alleluia!" and the people were instructed (per the bulletin) to respond, "Christ is risen, indeed! Alleluia!. Now, at the end of mass, the same dialog between assisting minister and congregation is printed in the bulletin.

I don't know whom to blame -- whether our pastor, with his concern for political correctness, or the ELW (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, the "new" worship "resource" in our denomination), with its disdain for any masculinity in any reference to God (whether the Son or not). What is clear is that the dialog runs close to heresy: Without the masculine personal pronoun in the response (and so: "HE is risen, indeed!") we run close to saying that it was not the man Jesus who was raised from death and out of the tomb, but rather some force, spirit, or entity other than the fully-masculine Jesus of Nazareth who went abroad after the Ressurection . And that, to my mind at least, is utter faithlessness. You simply cannot be a Christian and raise any doubt, concern, upset, political objection, sexist claim, doubt, or anything else about the identity, form of being, gender, physical status, or psychic awareness of the one who was raised: It was either the man Jesus or our faith is in vain.

This political correctness surrounding whether we can say "he" extends from such mucking around with language, to the nonsense of bowing at the non-gloria-patri that doesn't name the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, but instead references one or more of them by a function, a title, or an understood pronoun. ("God, and Son, and Holy Spirit" is one of the stupid of the formulations: Exactly how are Jesus and Holy Spirit not "God"?) It is possible to worship according to the ELW's alternatives without once naming God as Father-Son-and-Holy-Spirit. I think that's wrong. But it is avoidable among people of faith. And we need to educate others around us as to the facts and the implications of our acts so as precisely to avoid falling into these ancient quick-sand traps toward heresy.

But this is fundamental: When we disdain the masculinity of the risen Lord, we deny that it is Jesus who was raised and who is Christ. .

And that brothers and sisters is the opposite of our faith.

"Christ is risen! Alleluia!"
and let the people say:
"He is risen, indeed! Alleluia"

Gordon Lell, R.I.P.

Another dear professor of mine has died: Gordon Lell taught Shakespeare with an earnestness, wit, sincerity, and friendliness that continue to inspire me to pick the Bard's plays up for evening reading. (I worked like a dog for his class in the English Department at Concordia College, Moorhead -- both because I'm not a natural Shakespearean and because I wanted to do well for him.) Dr. Lell came to Concordia while I was there and only retired late last year when he was diagnosed with a brain tumor (which turned out to be incredibly fast, virulent, and deadly). There are two generations (at least) of his students who will mourn him, and they will be joined by many alumni who joined him for lunch and discussion around a Guthrie production of a Shakespeare play.

Professor Lell was one of those inspired and inspiring teachers whom one carries with himself long after commencement has sealed the end of his halcyon days of undergraduate life. His model of scholarly engagement coupled with a complete lack of hostility toward the hardheads in his classes rates him a place in the heavenly seminar room. (I've told you, I think, that my vision of the New Jerusalem is that it is a city with many rooms and spaces -- some of which are devoted to the singing of J.S. Bach, some to the reliving of great NASCAR events, and some to the discussion of things literary and theological. Those discussions will feature unself-conscious and non-judgmental face-to-face time with Barth, Luther, and now Lell, inter alia. And what makes it heaven is that even such dunderheads as I will be able to understand and participate!)

May his memory be eternal.

Coincidentally, I have just read and seen a televised production of Margaret Edson's Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Wit. It came highly recommended in N.T. Wright's book, Surprised by Hope, which I'm reading for an online discussion group. It is a powerful work, and I recommend it.

The play concerns a very respected scholar of the Holy Sonnets of John Donne, Vivian Bearing, who finds herself diagnosed with stage-four ovarian cancer -- "there is no stage 5," she says. And it follows her through her treatment in a respected research hospital. (Not too surprising that only staff person who really comes off as meritorious is Vivian's nurse, Susie.) It is at turns humorous, insightful, educational, and painful. That the play involves some reading and interpretation of "Death, be not proud," which is my regular Easter posting, made it even better.

It was a sad irony in my life that the day that Professor Lell died, I was watching this play. It has given my study of Wright's book greater urgency. (On that, more later, perhaps.)

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

For Eastertide

Oops, I almost forgot to post what may be my favorite Eastertide poem. But it's not that late, so here it is:

Death Be Not Proud

by John Donne

DEATH be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not so,
For, those, whom thou think'st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poore death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleepe, which but thy pictures bee,
Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee doe goe,
Rest of their bones, and soules deliverie.
Thou art slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poyson, warre, and sicknesse dwell,
And poppie, or charmes can make us sleepe as well,
And better then thy stroake; why swell'st thou then;
One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.

Friday, April 03, 2009

Prayer for the Unconverted

As part of my Lenten discipline, I have undertaken to read Richard John Neuhaus' Death on a Friday Afternoon: Meditations on the Last Words of Jesus from the Cross. I do so in part to justify having had the book on my shelf for years and in part to repent of my antipathy toward the dude. I can (and do) lament loudly the direction his thought and spiritual development led him, but I doubt anyone can deny that he could be a powerful writer -- an estimate that is confirmed in this book.

In his meditation on "today you will be with me in paradise," Father Richard dwells at length on the notions of hell and whether anyone will be there, on universal salvation, and on a proper distinction between "hope" and "knowledge" on the matter. And in the middle of the meditation, in a phrasing of utterly disarming simplicity, he says this (with reference to the widow who persistently nags a judge for justice until the judge grants it): "The importunate widow pleaded against her adversary. How much more persistently ought we to pray for others, especially those who are our adversaries, and God's. The elect are elected not to be against others but for others."

What a worthy reminder as we prepare for the Triduum prayers -- and especially the Reproaches.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

The "Real" Atheists

Check out this column, "Where to Find the Real Atheists," from Christianity Today's email newsletter. I think it provides some very helpful, down-to-earth, plain-spoken guidance on how to avoid falderol about atheism and how to see in the mirror.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

The Gospel in Fiction

Check out this passage from Wendell Berry's novel, A World Lost. It in the narrator reflects his conversations with this grandmother after the death of her son and his namesake, Andrew. The passage is the adult narrator's recollection of numerous conversations he had with this grandmother while he lived summers with her when he was about 10 and 11. As with all his novels (Wendell Berry competes with Robertson Davies as my favorite novelist), Berry speaks with a grace and depth that can't be appreciated properly with a quick read.

Uncle Andrew and Uncle Will and Uncle Peach [Uncle Andrew's ne'er-do-well best friends and regular partners in shenanigans] passed and returned in her thoughts and her talk like orbiting planets. They divided her mind; they troubled her without end. She could see plainly what a relief it would have been if she could have talked some sense into their heads and straightened them out. It would have been a relief too if she could have waved them away and forgotten them. In fact, she could do neither. They were incorrigible, and they were her own. In their various ways and styles, they had worried and vexed and grieved her "nearly into the grave," as she would sometimes say. And they also charmed and amused and moved her. They were not correctable because of the way they were; they were not dismissible because of the way she was. She loved them not even in spite of the way they were, but just because she did. With them she enacted, as many mothers have done, and many fathers too, the parable of the lost sheep, who is to be sought and brought back without end, brought back into mind and into love without end, death no deterrent, futility no bar.
Thus, Wendell Berry, A World Lost (Washington, DC: Counterpoint, 1996), p. 93.

Now my question is this: Has a theologian offered a better metanarrative for what God was doing in Christ, a better "back story" to the Incarnation? I would take some convincing, for it's all here: overwhelming love that roots not in the lovability of the loved one but in the the loving of the lover; prevenient grace that neither earned nor really explainable, except as mystery; the inability or refusal of Love to let go, regardless of the barrier.

While I find the entire passage almost painfully beautiful (a not-uncommon experience when one reads Berry), my favorit line may be this: She loved them not even in spite of the way they were, but just because she did. I think I'd find a way to fit this into a three-hour Good Friday service in reflecting on "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do." Father, forgive them -- not despite what they are doing, for they don't know what they are doing. Forgive them in trueness to yourself and ourselves.

And let the people say "Amen."