Christian Virtue in Epidemics

The current crisis has sent me back to a book I read over 20 years ago, “The Rise of Christianity” by Rodney Stark.  I remembered that he had a chapter on epidemics and how the Church’s response to them was a tremendous witness to the pagan community around them.  In the chapter he highlights two portions of Dionysius of Alexandria’s Easter letter of 260AD.

“Most of our brother Christians showed unbounded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another. Heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them departed this life serenely happy; for they were inflected by others with the disease, drawing on themselves the sickness of their neighbors and cheerfully accepting their pains. Many, in nursing and curing others, transferred their death to themselves and died in their stead….The best of our brothers lost their lives in this manner, a number of presbyters, deacons, and laymen winning high commendation so that death in this form, the result of great piety and strong faith, seems in every way the equal of martyrdom.” (82)

“The heathen behaved in the very opposite way. At the first onset of the disease, they pushed the sufferers away and fled from their dearest, throwing them into the roads before they were dead and treated unburied corpses as dirt, hoping thereby to avert the spread and contagion of the fatal disease; but do what they might, the found it difficult to escape.” (83)

The Christian witness was so great that even the pagan Emperor Julian the Apostate complained that the pagans needed to emulate the virtues of the Christians, “I think that when the poor happened to be neglected and overlooked by the priests (pagan), the impious Galileans (Christians) observed this and devoted themselves to benevolence.” And again, “The impious Galileans (Christians) support not only their poor, but ours as well, everyone can see that our people lack aid from us.” (84).

In fact, the great pagan doctor Galen fled Rome at the first onset of epidemic, and did not have the courage of the Christians. Stark writes, “The Christians were certain that this life was but prelude. For Galen to have remained in Rome to treat the afflicted would have required bravery far beyond that needed by Christians to do likewise.”

Let us pray for the World at this time of crisis, and let us behave as Christians to those around us.

George Herbert

Commemorating George Herbert (1593-1633) and his work in Fugglestone St. Peter with Bremerton hit a strong chord for me as I have been contemplating the modern priesthood and its demands.

Love his work, or not, George Herbert is probably the best known pastoral theologian among Anglican/Episcopal clergy.  He left academia for the life and work of a small parish and served for only three years.  I have no doubt that his reputation is significantly enhanced by his short tenure, and having worn himself out in ministry, his early death at the age of 40. If he had lived to serve a few more years in Fugglestone he might not be so well remembered, as we all know that the real issues in parish work do not erupt until year 4, 5, 6, etc.  After those years he might have been called all sorts of names by those associated with his ministry. Ok. I kid. I kid.

In all seriousness, what Herbert represents is a type of pastoral identity that is counter-cultural in our day.  Clergy are beset by the temptation to be “corporate” and “professionals” rather than pastors. I believe that our push for the “professionalization” of the clergy has actually weakened our ability to serve as priests.  We wanted to be treated like the physicians, lawyers, psychologists, psychiatrists, and professors in our cities and towns, and even though we have less social capital today, we are treated like them.  We put our degrees on our walls showing we have the proper credentials. Those who come to us for ministry inquire about our “vision” and “mission” statements so that we can adequately discover our market and how to operate within it for “success” and to determine whether or not we are “visionary” enough for them to join the work. The National Church asks us about our “liturgical style”, and how we “handle conflict”, “budget management”, or our experience  in “leading through change”.   TPTB have never asked me about my prayer life, spiritual disciplines, how much time I spend in Holy Scripture and Christian reading.  I cannot remember the last time anyone in my “chain of command” asked about visiting the sick in hospital or pastoral care.  Nor has anyone inquired after my practice of being “out and about” in the community I serve.

George Herbert represents the model of the “Country Parson”.  He literally wrote the book on it.  And while it does not all translate to our context today, it is a model for a pastoral life less concerned with the “operations” of  parish, but consumed with a deep love of Christ, place, and people.  The life of the “Country Parson”, and the “City Pastor”, is to be that life of serious devotion to Christ through prayer, discipline, study, and deep concern for the spiritual and physical needs of the members of his parish.

Clergy, we need to be less administrators and better priests and pastors.  We need to log of the network and log more time “on our knees”, and to get out of the office and into the “Office”.

Rant off.

Ashes to Go!

In recent years it has become quite popular for clergy to offer “Ashes to Go” on Ash Wednesday since modern life leaves people too busy to visit a Church on this day.

While I commend the spirit behind the movement, there is a significant misunderstanding of what the ashes of Ash Wednesday mean. They are not primarily a mark that one is a Christian, or has been baptized, nor are they simply sign of blessing.

Ashes are a reminder that we are all going to die. We are mortal, formed of the earth, and to earth we will return. This thought should bring us to our knees. We need the time and space to process this reality, to take stock of our human condition. This is what an Ash Wednesday service does, and to shortcut this tremendous work is a disservice.

Of course, Ash Wednesday proclaims the other side of the fact of Death. We proclaim that in Christ there is ultimate deliverance from death itself. And we receive ashes as a sign of our repentance from our sin that would bind us into death, and of our faith in Christ. This, too, is tremendous spiritual work and should not be cut short.

We then carry the mark into the world that proclaims that death is real, and our confidence that deliverance from death is found in Christ alone.

Memento mori,

Low Carb Preaching

I was in a recent conversation on preaching, and my conversation partner shared the story of a friend whose pastor used a very odd illustration during the sermon.  Now, the point of the sermon was not remembered, but the illustration was.  And it is this, “Men’s brains are like waffles, stuff is all spread out and separated into little squares of information.  Women’s brains are like spaghetti, all the thoughts get tangled, and they can pull the individual thought noodle out whenever they want, even years later.” Now that is offensive to men and women, and I think for Christian preaching. Waffles and spaghetti noodles? Talk about empty carbs!

I cannot imagine that being shared from any pulpit.  Of course, I was not present, but I struggle to discern what point is being made, what text was being read, or that it had anything to do with the Gospel of Christ.  Speaking from my experience in this corner of the world, it is also symptomatic of a problem that I have seen in preaching across the board over the past decade, that of not knowing what the content of preaching should be.  It is as if preaching, at least in the big box churches and the mainlines, is becoming either a commentary on the national news or a summation of the latest ideas from the Barnes & Noble religion section.  The categories of which are: self-help, marriage help, parenting help, bestest life now, financial management, preachers working out personal issues, or political issues under the guise of being “prophetic”.

Now, I am not saying some of these are not worthy of pastoral attention, but they are not the content of Christian preaching.  The content of Christian preaching, if I may be so bold, is Christ.  In the life of the local church, there is a place for marriage and family training, there is a place to discuss politics, there is a place to teach personal finance, but all of these should not receive pride of place in the Sermon.

For those of us given the terrible responsibility to stand before a congregation at worship, we would do best to remember to focus on the Word of God, and point away from ourselves and to Christ Jesus and our salvation, reconciliation, to the Father, through Him and in the Holy Spirit.  Of course, this means that Dogma and doctrine are important in our preaching, as is the state of our personal relationship with Him. We can even preach about the necessity of virtuous life and wrestling with the passions, but these do not change the core content of pointing to Christ.

To reiterate our sermons are not about self-help, politics, or really cool quotes and stories we find and want to tell.  People should remember not the stories or the tidbits, but that they heard the Word of Life and were pointed to Him in whom is our life.

As we move toward Lent, all of us who are called to preach, should take stock of our messages and see where we are pointing. The Body of Christ needs less carbs and more meat!

Transfiguration 2019

The stained-glass windows at St. Matthew’s have all the major feast scenes from the life of our Lord save one. I have been puzzling through trying to make sense of why the Transfiguration was left out. In the Gospel, and the life of the Church, it is one of the most important events of Christ’s ministry. The event on Tabor is formative to the faith.

Maybe it was left out, because we don’t quite know what to do with it. We know the Nativity and the 12-year-old in the Temple. We get the Baptism and the Wedding at Cana. We understand the Last Supper and the Commissioning of the Twelve. We believe he was crucified and resurrected. But the Transfiguration? This one seems weird and difficult. Or, maybe we fall into the category of the late scholars who just knew that this was impossible, and thus, taught it as the resurrection appearance moved to the middle as a “coming attractions” motif. In other words, it may be that our modernist lenses cannot see why this feast is important.

Yet, our liturgical life tells us that this must be deeply important. We hear of it at the end of Epiphany each year and we have today as a second celebration. The Church is trying to tell us something, so what might that be?
In short, this is the feast of promise for all of us. At the Transfiguration the light of the Glory of God, God’s very energy, shines through the flesh of Jesus. The Son and Word of God, who has condescended to be born in human likeness, taking on human flesh and nature, reveals that that nature and flesh have been united to the Godhead, and redeemed by union with God. The “veil” of the flesh, so to speak, has been withdrawn and the Divine Light shines in and through it and the “veil” covering the Apostles’ eyes has been lifted so that they can see Christ as the God-Man, and see what they will become in him. This is no created light that shines for a moment, but the eternal Glory of God united in the flesh of Jesus, our own flesh and nature.

And so, it is the promise to each of us who are in Christ. We too have bee called to a life of union with God, a life of transformation and transfiguration, by the Light. We are promised that this Light will shine in us if we follow and trust in him. This is our eternal life.

Maybe that is why there is no stained-glass of this event as it was too difficult to accomplish in its fullness. Or maybe it is because the Transfiguration is supposed to be lived out in us each time we approach the Sacred Mysteries.

I will leave off with the words of St. Gregory Palamas on this day:

“We believe what we have been taught by those enlightened by Christ, which they alone know with certainty—“My secrets are for me and those who are mine”, as God said through the prophet (Isa. 24.16 LXX, cf. Dan. 2.27ff). So, rightly believing what we were taught, and understanding the mystery of the Lord’s transfiguration, let us make our way toward the radiance of that light. As we long for the beauty of unchanging glory, let us cleanse the eyes of our understanding from all earthly defilements, despising every delight and beauty that is not lasting, for sweet as it may be, it procures eternal suffering, an though it may enhance the body, it clothes the soul in that ugly robe of sin, on account of which the man without the garment of incorruptible union was bound and taken away in outer darkness (cf. Matt.22.11-13). May we all be delivered from such a fate by the illumination and knowledge of the pre-eternal, immaterial light of the Lord’s transfiguration, to His glory and the glory of His Father without beginning, and the life-giving Spirit, whose radiance, divinity, glory kingdom and power are one and the same, now and forever and unto the ages of ages. Amen.” Homily 34.17-18 in Saint Gregory Palamas the Homilies, translated and edited by Christopher Veniamin, PhD, Mount Tabor Publishing, Dalton, PA, 2016. Copyright held by the Stavropegic Monastery of St. John the Baptist, Essex, England.

14%

14%. The number seemed a bit low to me, but that may be based on my assumptions in coming out of a Free Church background. However, in a non-scientific informal poll conducted after Mass and during evening conversations, most considered the number to be quite high and expected a lower number. In either case, this is not good news.
So, what is the 14%? It is the number of those who attend Episcopal churches who have a daily reflection on Holy Scripture. Or at least, according to an ongoing self-reporting survey with current numbers of 12,000 respondents in 200 congregations.
One of the reasons this is so disturbing is that our very own Book of Common Prayer is 85% Holy Scripture. This is not just because the Psalter is included in the cover. Remove the Psalter from consideration and every “liturgy”, every service, is replete with direct Scriptural quotes and allusions to Holy Scripture. Include the readings required by the instructions (rubrics) for each service, and all that we do, and say, in private devotions, public prayer, the Holy Eucharist, Pastoral Offices, and Episcopal Offices, is rooted and informed and formed by the Holy Scripture. If the cycle of “Mass and Office” is followed each week, there is no escaping serious engagement of the Scripture. We may be a Prayer Book People, but we are first, and foremost, we are people of the Book.
This is testified by the oft-trotted out reference to Richard Hooker’s “Three-legged Stool”. This popular presentation of Anglican distinction, loosely based in reading Hooker’s “Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity”, states that Anglican’s are formed by Scripture, Tradition, and Reason. To be clear, there is no stool here as the legs are not of equal length. So, maybe it best be referred to as “the Anglican Scalene Triangle”. In any case, the leg of Scripture for Anglican’s is the longest and most formative of the three.
What this 14% means is that there is very little engagement with either the Holy Scriptures by themselves, or at minimum, the offices of the Episcopal Church daily. To be clear, this is not a sign of spiritual health and vitality.
The question for clergy is whether we are leading by example? Do we pray the offices, do we read and study Scripture, and being Anglicans does scripture form who we are and inform our conversation? If not, we need to model this behavior.
The question for laity is whether you wan the Church to return to its spiritual health and vitality? If so, engage the offices, or the daily devotions, and engage the Scriptures daily. The Word of God will be found in the words of Holy Scripture. Encourage your clergy, push them if necessary, to do the same.
14% is not a sign of vitality and health. So, will you help change it?