Saturday, March 31, 2012

Easter without Jesus

Just. Flipping. Unbelievable!

That was my reaction as I read Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori's Easter 2012 Message: “Give Thanks for Easter.”

My second thought was, I can recommend two excellent books for her: The Jesus I Never Knew, by Philip Yancey; and the brand new (February 2012) The Jesus We Missed, by Patrick Henry Reardon. (I am very keen on Reardon's book and highly recommend it to anybody.)

But the three aspects of this "Easter Message" I found so unbelievable are that it: (1) never once mentions Jesus, (2) seems to speak of Resurrection as merely a concept and not an event, and (3) once again hypes the Millennium Development Goals instead of (or, as though they were) the Gospel.

I say "once again" because the MDG's were the focus of the Presiding Bishop's Lenten Message a mere six weeks ago.

This emphasis on the Millennium Development Goals led to a stinging rebuke from the Archbishop of Kenya, Dr. Eliud Wabukala, according to a March 29 report by Anglican Ink editor, George Conger:
The Archbishop of Kenya has criticized idolatry of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) saying faith in Christ, not works performed in his name, is the path of salvation.

The 22 February 2012 letter written by Archbishop Eliud Wabukala on behalf of the Gafcon primates chastised Christians who in the pursuit of social and economic change, lost sight of the centrality of the cross and the primacy of repentance and amendment of life. “While it is obvious that such good things as feeding the hungry, fighting disease, improving education and national prosperity are to be desired by all, by themselves any human dream can become a substitute gospel which renders repentance and the cross of Christ irrelevant,” he said.

Reprising the theme of her Lenten message, Dr. Jefferts Schori's message for Easter begins:
One of my favorite Easter hymns is about greenness. “Now the green blade riseth from the buried grain.”

It goes on to talk about love coming again. It’s a reminder to me of how centered our Easter images are in the Northern hemisphere. We talk about greenness and new life and life springing forth from the earth when we talk about resurrection.

"Now the Green Blade Riseth" is an Easter hymn from the Episcopal Hymnal 1982 that uses the sights of spring as metaphors for the true Resurrection of Christ. But it seems that the gist we are supposed to get out of this Easter Message and the Presiding Bishop's reference to this hymn is that being a church member is about being green (in the eco-political sense); and, therefore we must support the Millennium Development Goals.

The Presiding Bishop continues:
As we began Lent, I asked you to think about the Millennium Development Goals and our work in Lent as a re-focusing of our lives. I’m delighted to be able to tell you that the UN report this last year has shown some significant accomplishment in a couple of those goals, particularly in terms of lowering the rates of the worst poverty, and in achieving better access to drinking water and better access to primary education. We actually might reach those goals by 2015. That leaves a number of other goals as well as what moves beyond the goals to full access for all people to abundant life.

In this Easter season I would encourage you to look at where you are finding new life and resurrection, where life abundant and love incarnate is springing up in your lives and the lives of your communities. There is indeed greenness, whatever the season.

She then concludes:
Give thanks for Easter. Give thanks for Resurrection. Give thanks for the presence of God incarnate in our midst.

As Christians we do not so much give thanks for Easter. Rather, Easter is a time when we give thanks for the Resurrection of God's only begotten Son, who became incarnate as Jesus of Nazareth, lived a life like ours, except without sin, died for the sins of the world, and rose bodily from the tomb three days later, thereby assuring us of his victory over sin and death and of the hope of a resurrection like his for all who follow him by faith.

This is what Christianity has always believed, and it never quite ceases to be shocking when a senior cleric dresses up in episcopal garb and utters all the usual expressions—and means something totally different by them!

It would be easy to assume orthodox meanings to "give thanks for Resurrection" and for "the presence of God incarnate in our midst," except that, in the context of Dr. Jefferts Schori's theology, resurrection is not the event of Jesus rising from the tomb so much as it is the concept of always finding new life through God's activity in the world. Similarly, "the presence of God incarnate in our midst," is not a reference to the literal Incarnation of Jesus, but a reference to God being embodied in the world in a panentheistic way, a concept she borrows from theologian Sallie McFague, whom she has quoted in her book, A Wing and a Prayer and in various addresses and interviews.

When I say that I found this Easter message unbelievable, it is because, as I was reading it, I had the sense that Dr. Jefferts Schori's religion is not merely liberal religion, it is a caricature of liberal religion by someone who may not even grasp the extent to which that is true.

One of my favorite television shows of all time is the BBC series, Yes, Minister, and the sequel, Yes, Prime Minister, a situation comedy that is a political satire on the inner workings of the British government. One episode, "The Bishop's Gambit" parodied Liberal Christianity and politics in the Church of England. The Prime Minister thinks that the church is a Christian institution; but his advisor, Sir Humphrey, informs him that most of the Anglican bishops do not believe in God, and that a theologian's job is partly to make it possible for agnostics or atheists to be church leaders.

Imagine what the creators of this series could do with the Episcopal Church: senior clerics whose use of religious terms bears no resemblance to the conventional meaning of those terms. Clergy who are simultaneously Episcopalians, Buddhists, and Muslims. A leader whose Gospel is really a United Nations social program! The mind reels.

To draw an analogy from another sitcom: This Easter Message from the Presiding Bishop may well be the Episcopal Church's "jumping the shark" moment. This is an election year, a time when candidates are talking about the things that matter most to the American public. Have you heard one candidate—even one secular politician—mention the Millennium Development Goals? I haven't either. And it seems to me that to take as your main message, on the Church's most important day, something that no one else considers important is the very definition of irrelevance.

And we wonder why the Episcopal Church is shrinking.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Home--the already and the not yet

I was looking at this bucolic setting for the South Dakota state capitol building this morning and wondering if I might enjoy living somewhere even more remote and rural than my present situation. Provided I could earn a living there, I believe the answer is yes.

My thoughts this morning brought to mind Walker Percy's essay "Why I Live Where I Live," in which Percy describes his reason for choosing to live in Covington, Louisiana: "The reason is not that it is a pleasant place, but rather that it is a pleasant nonplace." As I take Percy's meaning, a "nonplace" is a place that is conducive to writing without encumbering the writer with such a sense of place that his writing is bound or altered by it.

All of us are affected by the places where we live and work, probably to a much larger degree than we realize. Michigan could not have produced a Walker Percy any more than Connecticut could have produced a Willa Cather, or New York produce a Flannery O'Connor, or Massachusetts a John Steinbeck.

Writers sometimes have to be exiled from the place they call home in order to reflect most profoundly on its influences. Take Willa Cather moving to New York City at age 33 and living there the rest of her life, writing what critics of the time considered to be anachronistically agrarian novels. You can take writers out of the places they call home; but, often, it only serves to reinforce the sense of home that lives forever inside them.

I write these words looking out a window on Upper Nashotah Lake, in Wisconsin, on a sunny but blustery day in March. Yes, I think, South Dakota would be fine—at least in the summertime. A writer needs a place, or a nonplace, to call home.

Unlike two of my favorite American authors, Walker Percy and Flannery O'Connor, I am not a southern Roman Catholic, I am a northern Episcopalian. Or, to be more accurate, I am a southern Episcopalian living in the North. And given that I find even the North's long winters preferable to the South's heat and humidity, here, God willing, I shall remain.

But I do miss the South. In particular, I miss the churches in the South. But having gone back there in recent years, I am reminded that even they are not what they were. The old saying is true: "There is no going home." There is only going back in your mind to the place you remember as home and being nourished by what it gave you.

When my wife and I first attended Calvary Church, Memphis, in 1977, it had a presence of the holy unlike any church building I had ever experienced. An older, British professor, under whom I did my doctorate, went with me once to a noontime Lenten preaching series and was struck by it too. "This is a church that has been prayed in," he said.

Years after I had moved to Pennsylvania, the newsletter of the parish chronicled changes of a startling sort. A new Reconstruction had invaded my old, Southern parish with a vengeance.

I have been back to Calvary a couple of times in recent years. The old saints I remember were buried years ago. The younger saints I knew have dispersed to other churches. New people, new clergy, new lighting—no warmth, no life, no Spirit. Sadly, the church had outlived the feeling of being a place that had been "prayed in."

So what do we do, those of us who are Christians and who have a profound sense of "home" and a longing for it in our hearts?

1. We labor on, knowing that none of the places we call home in this lifetime is our true home. "For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens" (2 Corinthians 5:1). For the Christian, we know that our true home is in heaven, and that all the places that seem like home in this lifetime are both a foreshadowing and a longing for an ideal, heavenly home that God has placed in our hearts.

2. While we are here, we have to create sacred spaces for ourselves and others. We have to create spiritual "homes," places that have been "prayed in"—where we and all who will join us can experience God in a deep and life-changing way. These are places of Word, Sacrament, prayer, music, liturgy, fellowship, and healing. They must be places of profound welcome and life-changing challenge—places of joy and excitement, and places of rich wholeness and deep peace.

3. In short, until we come to our heavenly home, we must be about the business of bringing our heavenly home to earth—both for ourselves and those who are only just awaking to the stirrings of a homeward call in their lives and are uncertain how to get there.
By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God. By faith Sarah herself received power to conceive, even when she was past the age, since she considered him faithful who had promised. Therefore from one man, and him as good as dead, were born descendants as many as the stars of heaven and as many as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.

These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.     (Hebrews 11:8-16)


Friday, March 23, 2012

Europe bishops slam Saudi fatwa against Gulf churches

From here:
Christian bishops in Germany, Austria and Russia have sharply criticized Saudi Arabia's top religious official after reports that he issued a fatwa saying all churches on the Arabian Peninsula should be destroyed.

In separate statements on Friday, the Roman Catholic bishops in Germany and Austria slammed the ruling by Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdulaziz Al al-Shaikh as an unacceptable denial of human rights to millions of foreign workers in the Gulf region.

Archbishop Mark of Yegoryevsk, head of the Russian Orthodox department for churches abroad, called the fatwa "alarming" in a statement on Tuesday. Such blunt criticism from mainstream Christian leaders of their Muslim counterparts is very rare.

Christian websites have reported Sheikh Abdulaziz, one of the most influential religious leaders in the Muslim world, issued the fatwa last week in response to a Kuwaiti lawmaker who asked if Kuwait could ban church construction in Kuwait.

Citing Arab-language media reports, they say the sheikh ruled that further church building should be banned and existing Christian houses of worship should be destroyed.

Read it all

Monday, March 05, 2012

John Stott's Memorial Service - January 13, 2012 - St. Paul's Cathedral, Part 5 of 5

Prayers by:

1. The Most Rev. John Sentamu (Archbishop of York)
2. The Rt. Rev. Richard Chartres (Bishop of London)
3. The Most Rev. Rowan Williams (Archbishop of Canterbury)

See the John Stott Memorial website for more information.

John Stott's Memorial Service - January 13, 2012 - St. Paul's Cathedral, Part 4 of 5

Tribute by Mark Greene (Executive Director, London Institute for Contemporary Christianity):

John Stott's Memorial Service - January 13, 2012 - St. Paul's Cathedral, Part 3 of 5

Sermon by The Right Reverend Timothy Dudley-Smith:

John Stott's Memorial Service - January 13, 2012 - St. Paul's Cathedral, Part 2 of 5

This video contains international tributes from:

ASIA - The Most Reverend John Chew
AFRICA - The Reverend Robert Aboagye-Mensah
LATIN AMERICA - Ruth Padilla-DeBorst

John Stott's Memorial Service - January 13, 2012 - St. Paul's Cathedral, Part 1 of 5

One of the things for which I am most grateful is that we at Nashotah House were able to confer an honorary doctrate upon John Stott prior to his death on July 27 last year. His memorial service was held on January 13, 2012 at St. Paul's Cathedral, London, with the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Archbishop of York, and the Bishop of London among the participants. Videos clips have been made available, and I am posting the first of five parts here.

This video contains words very much worth hearing in the opening tributes from:
1. Canon Mark Oakley
2. The Right Reverend Michael Baughen
3. Frances Whitehead (Dr. Stott's Personal Assistant)

Thursday, March 01, 2012

That Subversive Book

Mel Lawrenz writes on The Brook Network:
Jiang Yuchun was a boy the first time he attended a Christian gathering in a home in Anhui Province, China. He and his father walked fifteen miles under cover of darkness because any kind of Christian gathering during the Cultural Revolution of 1966 to 1976 was an act of subversion according to government policy. Thousands of believers were martyred during those dark days; every Christian leader exposed was imprisoned or killed; the Bible was practically extinct.

Yuchun watched the leader teaching the group, holding a tattered copy of the Bible tightly in his hand. The pages were torn and dirty, the corners worn to a rounded shape...

Read the rest of the story, and be sure to click on through to read Jiang Yuchun's testimony about "The First Bible I Saw in China".