Archives For Reformation

On the 500th Anniversary of Luther’s 95 Theses, Jason, Teer, and Johanna talk with the Beyonce of Anglicanism, Fleming Rutledge, about ongoing relevance of Protestantism’s primary message of grace and God’s agency, the bad theology behind “leaning into” our baptisms, and how the Feast of Pelagius is an every Sunday celebration in the mainline church.

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My friend and muse Stanley Hauerwas wrote an editorial in the Washington Post to observe this Reformation Day coinciding with the 500th Anniversary of Martin Luther nailing his 95 theses to the Wittenberg door. Luther had hoped to provoke a debate with his theological brothers and monastic colleagues. He ignited a powder keg that became a revolution.

Assessing the religious landscape, where innumerable varieties of Protestant Christianity must compete against each other in an increasingly secular culture, Stanley, with a tone of self-loathing, asks why we holdouts from the Mother Church don’t simply return to the Catholic Church. After all, he contends, the issues which prompted Luther’s critique 500 years ago have since been resolved by first the Council of Trent and recently Vatican II.

Never mind that (on this All Saints eve) Protestants and Catholics still disagree over the definition and making of a saint or that Rome still practices indulgences, albeit in a far different form, whatever reconciliation Catholics and Protestants have reached on paper in conciliar gatherings it’s simply not the case that on the ground, in congregations, the issues which sparked the Reformation have been resolved. Stanley, as a trainer of preachers, should know this fact and perhaps bear some responsibility for it.

What do I mean?

During his time at Union Seminary, Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously remarked that Protestantism in America had never gone through the Reformation; that is, the dominant ethos of American Christianity was pietism.

Stanley is wrong, I think, about the continuing relevance of the Reformation because Bonhoeffer continues to be correct.

Pietism continues to be the dominant key in which both Evangelicalism and Mainline Protestantism perform the Gospel, preaching the Law without distinction from the Gospel in ways that manifest as either moralism on the one hand or turn-and-burn brimstone, which forgets Christ has already closed the abyss between God and us, on the either.

Neither version of pietism reflects the Reformation’s recovery of the Gospel of justification through faith alone by grace alone in Christ alone.

Against Martin Luther, evangelical pietism in America, in its best forms, posits a continuous self and focuses not on how God works to condemn us as sinners and justify us for Jesus’ sake but instead on faith as a program for greater spiritual self-improvement. This emphasis on spiritual self-improvement is the root that all too often flowers into Christianity as behavior modification. Mainline Protestants, meanwhile, tend to be what Mark Mattes calls “secular evangelicals” who’ve undermined the evangelistic thrust of the Gospel by instead working “to use the Church at the national level to pressure governmental agencies to conform to its particular version of peace and justice.” 

Put simply, what most Protestants hear proclaimed week in and week is one of two flavors of pietism.

From Evangelicals it’s Become a Better You.

From Mainline Protestants it’s Build a Better World.

Mainline Protestants hate Joel Osteen, I suspect, because he’s but the inevitable product of a shared theology.

The assumption conveyed in congregations is that, yes, Christ died to cover your sins (if sin language is even used) but now we have a responsibility to play a part in salvation and the moral progress of self and society. This emphasis on our agency and ability to choose God and the good by our nature is called Pelagianism. Not only is it ripe for self-righteousness, it was condemned as a heresy 1500 years ago, a form of it, Semi-Pelagianism, is confused as our kerygma by many Christians.

This is a far cry from the Reformation’s reclamation of the announcement from the Apostle Paul that, apart from any of our religious doing (Law), God has shown us sinners grace in Jesus, given us Christ’s righteousness as our own, and gifted this to us through a faith predicated on his faithfulness alone.

Instead I think what many Protestants experience is what Craig Parton describes:

“My Christian life, truly began by grace, was now being “perfected” on the treadmill of the Law.

My pastors did not end their sermons by demanding I recite the rosary or visit Lourdes in order to unleash God’s power; instead, I was told to yield more, pray more, care about unbelievers more, read the Bible more, get involved with the church more, love my wife and kids more.

Not until…some 20 years later, did I understand that my Christian life had come to center around my life, my obedience, my yielding, my Bible verse memorization, my prayers, my zeal, my witnessing, my sermon application.

I had advanced beyond the need to hear the cross preached to me anymore. Of course, we all knew Jesus had died for our sins, and none of us would ever argue that we were trying to “merit” our salvation. But something had changed. God was a Father all right, but a painfully demanding one. I was supposed to show that I had cleaned up my life and was at least grateful for all the gifts that had been bestowed…

The Gospel was critical for me at the beginning, critical now to share with others, and still critical to me into heaven, but it was of little other value. The ‘good’ in the good news was missing.”

Hauerwas is wrong, I think, because all over America, in red and blue churches alike, Mainline and Evangelical both, we’re exhausting people on the treadmill of the Law, exhausting them with expectations that, by their very nature, grate against the good news of the Gospel that they are justified by grace and reckoned righteous through Christ alone and always.

Phyllis Tickle famously said that every 500 years the Church goes through a Reformation. I wonder if the next great reformation for the Church in America will finally be to embody the message of the first.

 

      The 500th Anniversary coincided this Sunday with our trek through the Book of Exodus. The text for the day was Exodus 16.

“You’ve brought us out here to kill us!” I grumbled to my wife a couple of weeks ago when I realized what little water she’d packed to hike Joshua Tree National Park.

So I can empathize with the recently-rescued Israelites who lodge the same complaint against God.

Still, it sounds a little ungrateful considering they’re still damp from the Red Sea through which God FREAKING DELIVERED THEM FROM CENTURIES OF SLAVERY. Really?

All it takes is the munchies for their Bob Marley Exodus song to turn Janet Jackson circa 1986: “What have you done for me lately?!”

Ungrateful or not, it’s a fair gripe because they’re not lost. No one took a wrong turn into the desert. It’s not Siri’s fault.

From the Red Sea forward, God guided them, appearing in a pillar of cloud and fire, straight into godforsaken-ness.

They’re there because God has led them there.

And not only is it a justified complaint, it’s correct.

God has brought them there to kill them.

     (You won’t hear that from Joel Osteen! You’re welcome.) 

———————-

     God has brought them to the desert for the desert to be the death of them, for their hunger to be the hospice through which God kills off their old selves. That they recall their bondage to Pharaoh fondly is proof that they’re not yet free. So God brings them to the desert for a different kind of deliverance. God answers their nostalgia for Egypt’s stewpots by upping the ante and providing quail every evening.

Quail was considered a delicacy and according to Moses every evening at twilight this abundance of expense, quail, covered their camp. Wherever they were in the wilderness, it was there. God responds to their petty, ungrateful griping with a gesture of unmerited extravagance. Even though they begrudge him their deliverance, God gives them the opposite of what they deserve.

Every day a feathered two-part message: 1) Lose your illusions about Egypt and 2) I, the Lord your God, am not a Pharaoh.

“Quail covered the camp” Moses writes. Every evening, fancy 5-Star fare.

And every morning, under the dew of the desert, the opposite of extravagance: manna.

Bread. From Heaven.

Because we put the loaves on the altar table instead of smearing the dough on foreheads at Ash Wednesday, it’s easy for us to forget.

Bread, in the Bible, is not quail. It’s not food for a fancy feast.

Bread, in the Bible, is a token of the Fall.

Bread is a symbol for original sin. 

After Adam and Eve distrust God in the Garden and disobey God’s only law, God shows them the exit to Eden and God’s parting words to Adam: “Because you have disobeyed…by the sweat of your brow, you shall eat bread until you die.”

That comes right before the Ash Wednesday warning: “…for you are dust and to dust you shall return.”

Before the Fall, Adam and Eve ate the fruit of the Garden.

After the Fall, bread becomes a kind of sacrament of their estrangement from the Garden.

And it’s work that requires work: harvesting and grinding and mixing and kneading and rising and waiting and folding and rising and waiting and folding and baking. Bread is the work that marks their sin and fall from grace but now, in the Desert of Sin, God gives it to them as grace. Their work- the wages of their sin- becomes grace.

And it’s all God’s work. There’s no harvesting or grinding or mixing or kneading or rising or waiting or folding or rising or waiting or folding or baking. There’s nothing for them to do but receive it. Every morning, what had been their work to perform is God’s grace to provide. Not on any morning is there anything for them to do except trust that wherever they are it will be there and it will be enough.

God takes their work and God makes it grace because God has rescued them from Egypt in order to return them to Eden. God has delivered them from the despot Pharaoh and delivered them into the Desert of Sin in order to undo their original sin.

Our original, originating sin- it wasn’t disobedience. It wasn’t picking the fruit of the tree in the Garden. That would be a stupid story. Our original, originating sin wasn’t disobedience; it was disbelief.

Did God really say?

Our original sin was unbelief, not our failure to obey God’s law but our failure to trust God’s promise, to trust God’s promise that avoiding the tree in the Garden was for our good. And so in the Desert of Sin, every morning God gives them manna according to his promise. The work that had been theirs to do becomes God’s work alone.

The symbol of their unfaithfulness becomes a sign of God’s faithfulness. And God gives it to them as grace.

There’s nothing for them to do but trust God’s doing. Anything other than trust alone in the doing of God and the bread of heaven breeds worms. From dirt you came and to dirt you will return.

Whether they knew or not- the grumblers were absolutely right. God has brought them there to kill them, to exterminate the old, untrusting Adam in them. God has gotten them out of Egypt and now, in the Desert of Sin, God is getting the Egypt out of them.

     Because it’s slaves who ask “What must I do?”

It’s slaves who ask “What do I have to do now? What should I being doing, Lord?”

But it’s children who trust their Father to do everything for them.

It’s slaves who ask “What must I do?”

It’s children who trust their Father’s promise that it is done.

It’s children who trust when they’re told “It is finished.”

They might be cranky with the munchies and ungrateful as all get out, but the Israelites- they’re right. God has led them there to Sin to kill them.

     Nude faith-

Faith clothed only in the grace of God, trusting that there’s nothing for us to do but believe and receive, for those of us whose self-image is so determined by what we do, faith alone in the grace of God alone- don’t lie- it isn’t just offensive; it feels like dying.

———————-

     BJ Miller is a palliative care doctor at a facility called Zen Hospice in San Francisco. I heard Miller give a TED Talk a couple of years ago, and this winter I read a story about him in the NY Times.

When BJ Miller was a sophomore at Princeton University, one Monday night, he and two friends went out drinking. Late that night, on their way back, drunk and hungry, they headed to WAWA for sandwiches.

There’s a rail junction near the WAWA, connecting the campus to the city’s main train line. A commuter train was parked there that night, idle, tempting BJ Miller and his friends to climb up it.

Miller scaled it first.

When he got to the top, 11,000 volts shot out of a piece of equipment and into Miller’s watch on his left arm and down his legs. When his friends got to him, smoke was rising from his shoes.

BJ Miller woke up several days later in the burn unit at St. Barnabas Hospital to discover it wasn’t a terrible dream. More terribly, he found that his arm and his legs had been amputated.

Turmoil and anguish naturally followed those first hazy days but eventually Miller returned to Princeton where he ended up majoring in art history.

The broken arms and ears and noses of ancient sculptures helped him affirm his own broken body as beautiful.

From Princeton, Miller went to medical school where he felt drawn to palliative care because, as he says, “Parts of me died early on. And that’s something, one way or another, we can all say. I got to redesign my life around my death, and I can tell you it has been a liberation. I wanted to help people realize the shock of beauty or meaning in the life that proceeds one kind of death and precedes another.”

After medical school, Miller found his way to Zen Hospice in California where their goal is to de-pathologize death; that is, to recover death as a human experience and not a medical one.

They impose neither medicine nor meaning onto the dying. Rather, as Miller puts it, they let their patients “play themselves out.” Whomever they’ve been in life is who they’re encouraged to be in their dying.

For example, the NY Times story documents how Miller helped a young man named Sloan, who was dying quickly of cancer, die doing what he loved to do: drink Bud Light and play video games.

Talking about Sloan’s mundane manner of dying, Miller said this- this is what got my attention:

“The mission of Zen Hospice is about wresting death from the one-size- fits-all approach of hospitals, but it’s also about puncturing a competing impulse: our need for death to be a transcendent experience.

Most people aren’t having these profound [super-spiritual] transformative moments (in their lives or in their deaths) and if you hold that out as an expectation, they’re just going to feel like they’re failing.”

     Most people aren’t having these profound [super-spiritual] transformative moments (in their lives or in their deaths) and if you hold that out as an expectation, they’re just going to feel like they’re failing.

They’re going to feel like there is something they must be doing that they’re not doing. They’re going to worry that they’re doing something wrong or they’re going to fear that they’re not doing enough.

———————-

     In the Gospel according to John, no sooner has Jesus fed a hungry crowd of 5,000 with only 5 loaves of bread and 2 fish than some grumblers in the mob start to measure this Messiah’s manna-hood.

“5 loaves and 2 fish…that’s a nifty trick, Jesus. Good for you! Now Moses…he was something else. Moses fed all of Israel every morning with manna for 40 years.”

And Jesus replies (in my Southern paraphrase edition): “Bless your heart.”

No, Jesus replies: Moses isn’t the One who gave you manna. I AM the Bread of Life. I AM the Bread of Heaven, Living Bread. Manna is me, come down for you. 

And then Jesus shifts metaphors: Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood will have eternal life and whoever does not will not. 

Those who ate manna in the Desert of Sin, Jesus points out, still died of sin. So Jesus warns them: “Do not work for the food that perishes but for the food that endures for eternal life.”

     Do not work for the food that perishes. 

     And what comes next in the Gospel according to John- it’s only 2 verses, it’s just 30 Greek words, but it’s everything.

It’s the sum of St. Paul’s message. It’s the core of the Protestant Reformation. It’s the reason we’re not worshipping at Good Shepherd Catholic Church this morning.

It’s only 2 verses, just 30 Greek words, but it’s everything.

It’s the Gospel.

First, they ask Jesus a question. They ask Jesus the question, the question that captives like us are always asking: “What must we do?”

     “What should we be doing so that we are doing the works of God?” 

Should we…and you’ve asked the question enough yourself that you can fill in the blank for them. Should we pray more? Should we study the scriptures more? Should we serve the poor more? Spend less at Christmas?

“What should we be doing so that we are doing the works of God?”

And Jesus answers by correcting the grammar of their question. He changes the subject of their sentence, from us to God: “This is the work of God…”

     What we think is our work, our burden and obligation, to get right with God, to be reckoned to the good, to be justified before God-

it’s the work of God.

That’s not a ‘we’ kind of question, Jesus says. It’s a God question. It’s the work of God. Alone.

Jesus doesn’t just change the subject of their sentence. He changes the object of their sentence too. We put the question in the plural: “What should I be doing to be doing the works of God?”

What stuff should we be doing? How much do we have to do?

But Jesus answers in the singular: “This the doing of God that you trust the One sent by God.” 

There isn’t any stuff we have to do.

We do not have to do several things, or even one good thing, to be justified before God. There is only 1 thing to do, 1 work: your trust.

     Like manna under the desert dew, all you have to do is believe and receive.

Trust.

All you have to do is trust that it’s all already been done. All you have to do is trust what he has done.

Jesus Christ, this manna made flesh, has finished what the Father started in the Desert of Sin. He’s killed off the Old Adam in you, once for all, by drowning him in the baptism of his death and resurrection.

The old untrusting Adam in you has been crucified in him; so that, now, in him, in the New Adam, (present-tense, no conditions or qualifiers) the Gospel promises that you are a New Creation.

Where bread was given to the Old Adam as a sign of sin and punishment, this New Adam, the Living Bread of Heaven, has taken on all your sins and suffered punishment in your place; so that, the curse you deserve becomes the blessing you do not.

     Don’t just do something, Jesus all but answers, stand there.

Stand still- all you have to do is believe and receive.

Trust.

Like manna in the morning, there’s nothing left for you to do but eat.

Eat this promise.

Trust.

Trust that you are the pearl of great price that the King has bought by giving away everything. Trust that you are the prodigal child for whom the Father did not wait to come home to him but has sought you out in his only Son.

All you have to do is trust the doing of God.

Trust that God made him to be sin who knew no sin; so that, you might become the righteousness of God. Trust that you who were dead to your trespasses have been made (past perfect tense) alive in Christ. Trust that your slate is wiped clean because your sins have been washed in the blood of the lamb. All you have to do is trust.

Trust that in all the ways and places you’ve been unfaithful, your manna molding, the Bread of Heaven has been faithful. He has done what you could never do.

He alone is righteous and by grace alone God reckons his righteousness to you. He credits your account with Christ, such that there’s nothing left to do but trust that it’s all been done.

Faith alone- that’s all there is for you to do because the righteousness of Christ imputed to you is already and will always be overflowing.

Faith alone is the only work you must do.

And it’s not even your work to do because, notice, Jesus changes the verb of their question: “What should we be doing…?” they ask.

And Jesus responds: “This is the doing of God…”

This is the doing of God that you trust the One sent by God.

It’s God’s work. The one and only work we must do, God does in us: trust.

God works faith into us.

The one work we must do to respond to what God has done in Jesus Christ, God also does in us.

It’s just 2 verses in John’s Gospel: 6.28 and 6.29.

It’s just 30 Greek words in John’s Gospel, but it’s the Gospel:

You are saved by God’s grace alone

By Christ alone

By the blood of the Living Bread of Heaven

Through faith alone.

It’s only 2 verses, 30 words, but it’s enough to puncture what BJ Miller calls the competing impulse within us.

“The dying are still very much alive and we are all dying,” BJ Miller tells the Times writer, “we die the way we live.”

We die the way we live.

He means-

Just as many die thinking that there’s something more spiritual or profound or meaningful they’re supposed to be doing and worry that they aren’t doing it or aren’t doing it right or doing it enough, we live with that same anxiety: “What must we be doing so that we’re doing the works of God?”

     We think that Jesus came down from Heaven, cancelled out our debts upon the cross, but now it’s on us to work our way up to God.

     The Golden Rule may not justify us before God but we sure think it makes a good ladder up to him.

And we’re forever anxious that we need to climb it.

Or that we even can.

The Book of Exodus says that way of thinking- it breeds worms.

What’s miraculous, BJ Miller contends, more miraculous than empty, contrived spiritual gestures- more miraculous, I’d argue than 5 loaves and 2 fish or manna every morning- is watching what the dying do with their lives once they learn they have the freedom not to do anything.

      What’s miraculous is watching what the dying do with their lives once they learn they have the freedom not to do anything.

“My work,” Miller says, “is to unburden them from the crushing weight of unhelpful expectations.” 

Today is the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation

And it says a whole lot about how far we’ve drifted from it that it takes a triple amputee agnostic working at crunchy Buddhist hospice hospital on the Left Coast to point it out to us, BJ Miller’s work-that’s the work of the Gospel too- to unburden you from the crushing weight of expectations.

The Gospel is that you are saved by God’s grace alone by Christ’s atoning blood alone and that is yours through faith- trust- alone. The Gospel is like palliative medicine for the died in Christ. The Gospel is that you are forgiven and justified and loved exactly as you are…FULL STOP.

The work of the Gospel is to unburden you of the crushing weight of that question: “What must I be doing to be doing the works of God?”

The Gospel unburdens you to ask a different question, a question that leads to something more miraculous and even more beautiful.

This question:

     What are you going to do with this faith of yours?

Now you have the freedom not to do anything?

david_bentley_hart1David Bentley Hart was one of my first professors of theology back when I was a college student at UVA. He was just completing his PhD whilst I had about 24 months of being a Christian under my belt.

Standing in front of a huge wave that knocks you on your ass on the beach, you get up realizing the ocean is a whole hell of a lot bigger than you thought. That’s how I felt with DBH. He left me feeling for aches, knowing the Christian intellectual tradition is richer, deeper and broader, than I could imagine.

Since today is not only Halloween but also, in the Protestant Church, Reformation Day, I thought I’d offer you some DBH quotes on the ‘Protest’ that continues to sever Christ’s Church.

The first cut is the deepest. Here, DBH lays the fault of contemporary atheism and the rise of the ‘Nones’ squarely at the feet of Protestantism, in particular the Calvinist god it unleashed.

1.

“In detaching God’s freedom from God’s nature as Goodness, Truth, and Charity — as this theology necessarily, if not always intentionally did — Christian thought laid the foundations for many of those later revolutions in philosophy and morality that would help to produce the post-Christian order. It was inevitable after all, that the object of the voluntarist model of freedom would migrate from the divine to the human will, and that a world evacuated of its ontological continuity with God’s goodness would ultimately find no place for God within itself. And, in early modernity, when the new God of infinite and absolute will had to a very great degree displaced the true God from men’s minds, the new technology of print assured that all Christians would make the acquaintance of this impostor, and through him come to understand true liberty as a personal sovereignty transcending even the dictates and constraints of nature.

Moreover — more crucially — the God thus produced was monstrous: an abyss of pure, predestining omnipotence, whose majesty was revealed at once in his unmerited mercy towards the elect and his righteous wrath against the derelict.

And he was to be found in the theologies of almost every Protestant school: not only Jansenism, Lutheranism, and Calvinism.

That modern Western humanity came in large measure to refuse to believe in or worship such a God was ineluctable, and in some sense extremely commendable (no one, after all, can be faulted for preferring atheism to Calvinism.”

Here, DBH points out that in an attempt to be more biblical, respecting the 1st commandment and stripping the Medieval altars, the Reformation violated that most basic of implications of the 1st commandment: God is not a god within the universe.

2.

“The Protestant mysticism of bare and unadorned worship idolatrously mistakes God for some object within the universe that can be lost among other objects), and other tendencies to imagine the soul is purified by being extracted from the life of the senses or that God is glorified by the inanition of the world…

such thinking offends simply by being unbiblical, insufficiently chastened or inspired by the doctrine of the incarnation.

It’s unable to grasp that the trinitarian God is already full of fellowship, joy and glory, and requires no sacrifice of worldly love- the world adds nothing to God.”

And now for a definition:

Analogy of Being =

{The analogy of being presupposes that there is a similarity between God and his creatures. God of course does not exist as his creatures exist. He is infinite, eternal, and non-contingent. Nevertheless, he can be said to exist, as can his creatures even if there existence is profoundly different. Hence there is an analogy of being existing between them. Moreover, God’s attributes (wisdom, power, goodness, etc.)though infinite and eternal, can be observed as existing in analogous manner in creatures who also possess them. There is a similarity with a still greater dissimilarity between God’s reality and his creatures. Such a claim about God allowed the ancient Church Fathers to claim that their statements about God’s nature were realistically true, while at the same time allowing for divine mystery. The rejection of the analogy of being has been one of the chief tenets of Protestant Christianity.}

Let the quotes resume…

3.

“The rejection of the analogy of being has the very effect so dreaded: it reduces God to the status of a mere being, in some sense on a level with us. To state the matter simply, the analogy of being does not analogize God and creatures under the more general category of ‘being,’ but is the analogization of being in the difference between God and creatures.

Apart from the analogy of being, the very concept of revelation is a contradiction.

Only insofar as creaturely being is analogous to divine being and proper to God’s nature, can God show himself as God, rather than in alienation to himself; there would be no revelation otherwise, only legislation.”

 

Because I love Karl Barth, I love this quote. DBH, like Barth before him, is not afraid to throw some elbows.

 

4.

“If rejection of the analogy of being were in some sense the very core of Protestant theology, as Karl Barth believed, one would still be obliged to observe that it is also the invention of antichrist, and so would have to be accounted the most compelling reason for not becoming a Protestant..

All things in creation- all the words of being- speak of God because they shine within his eternal Word.

lightstock_82592_small_user_2741517Today is Reformation Day, the so-called ‘holiday’ when Protestants celebrate violating 1 Corinthians 12 and telling part of Christ’s Body: ‘I have no need for you.’

This Sunday we celebrate the holy day known as All Saints.

It’s an ironic confluence of occasions as though we celebrate the former often refuse, on those very grounds, to observe the latter.

John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, famously said that All Saints’ Day was his favorite holy day on the liturgical calendar. Methinks Wesley must’ve have suffered through some dreadful Christmas services to make such a claim tenable.

Nonetheless, All Saints’ is a powerful reminder of two primary claims of our faith, that of Ash Wednesday and that of Hebrews:

To dust we came and to dust we shall return.

We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses; i.e.. those who’ve returned to the dust ahead of us.

All Saints’ Day is celebrated chiefly as we preside over the Eucharist, calling upon the ‘great company of heaven’ to join in our alleluia.

Every year when All Saints’ is just a few days away on the schedule I’m given to thinking about the men and women who’ve been saints to me, in my own life.

I don’t mean people like St Francis or St Augustine.

I mean people like David.

Here’s an All Saints’ sermon, based on Psalm 145, I wrote with David in mind.

Actually, it was David’s question:

‘Can we pray to the saints?’ that prompted the sermon.

SONY DSC

‘Will I be able to pray for them? After I’m gone?’

We were sitting in his battered, red F150 parked in front of the mud-brown elevation sign at the Peaks of Otter overlook on the Blue Ridge. Four-thousand feet, the sign said.

We were sitting in the cab of his truck, both of us looking straight ahead, not at each other- a position I think is the only one in which men can be intimate with one another.

Looking at Bedford County below us, neither of us had spoken for several minutes until he broke the silence by asking me: ‘Will I be able to pray for them? After I’m gone?’

David Burnett was (is) one of the saints in my life, and not because of any remarkable feat of his or his exceptional religiosity.

David was just good and kind, a Gary Cooper-type without pretense. What you saw was what you got, and what you got from David was very often the love of God condensed and focused and translated into deceptively ordinary words and gestures.

Not long after I’d been assigned to his church, David let me know that he’d like to spend an afternoon with me. He wanted to get to know me better, he said, because he thought I’d likely be doing his funeral.

David was only a few years older than me. He’d lived every day of his life in the same small town and wouldn’t have had it any other way. He’d been baptized and raised and was now raising his own two kids in the church I pastored.

Ever since graduating from high school, David had worked in the local carpet factory and had survived as the captain of the volunteer fire department, despite his slight frame. But when I first met him, David hadn’t worked for over a year. Not since his Lou Gehrig’s Disease had begun its monotonous mutiny against his body.

At first I’d suggested to David that we grab some lunch, but he blushed and confessed that the stiffness in his jaw and hands would make eating distracting for me and embarrassing for him. ‘Let’s go for a drive,’ he suggested.

He picked me at the church. He was wearing jeans that his wife had sewn an elastic waistband into and a t-shirt that was much too big for him but was just big enough for him to be able to dress himself.

I could tell he was proud that even though he could only awkwardly grip the steering wheel he could still drive his truck.

We switched places when we got to the edge of town; he couldn’t navigate the steep, winding roads that wound their way up the mountain. But we switched back again when we got to the top.

Driving through the Blue Ridge, every now and then, David would stop at places as though he were turning the pages of a family photo album.

He stopped at the spot he’d gone hunting with his Dad just before he died. He stopped and showed me the woods he’d snuck into as a teenager with his friends and snuck his first beer.

He coasted the truck and pointed to a ridge with a clearing where he’d proposed to his high school sweetheart; he said that was the best spot to see the stars at night. And he stopped and showed me the place he liked to take his kids camping. It was at that stop that he asked, with the V8 idling, my advice on how to tell his kids, who thus far only knew that their Dad was sick, that he walked and talked funny now, not that he was dying.

David parked at the Peaks of Otter overlook and turned off the engine, and all of a sudden the pickup took on the feel of a medieval confessional.

Staring straight ahead, David faked a chuckle and told me how he’d rushed into burning homes before without a second’s hesitation but that he was terrified of the long, slow death that awaited him.

He pretended to wipe away something in his eye besides a tear, and I pretended not to notice.

Then he told me how he’d miss his kids. He told me he worried about them; he worried how they’d do without him.

He was quiet for a few minutes, evidently thinking because then he asked me:

‘Will they be able to talk to me?

Will I be able to pray for them? After I’m gone?’

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It’s a good question.

I don’t think David would’ve known or would’ve cared for that matter, but in so many words his was a question that’s been a bone of contention between Christians ever since Martin Luther nailed his 95 protests against the Catholic Church into the sanctuary doors in Wittenberg 500 years ago:

Can we solicit the prayers of the dead?

Can we ask the saints to pray for us?

The instant David asked me his question I felt glad that we were sitting in a pickup staring straight ahead instead of in my office or over lunch facing one another.

I was glad were sitting in his truck because, with tears in his eyes, I wouldn’t have wanted him to see the confusion in my own, to see that I didn’t know how to answer him.

My first impulse was to sidestep his questions, to ignore the questions about the saints departed, about what they’re life is like, what they do and what we can ask of them.

My first impulse was to sidestep those questions and just offer David the reassurance that Kinnon and McKayla would be fine.

And I could’ve gotten away with it, I suppose.

But David didn’t just want reassurances about his kids. He wanted to know if he’d still have a relationship with them. He didn’t just want to know if they’d make it after he died; he wanted to know that even if he did not, would his relationship with them survive death?

Or I could’ve just said ‘Yes’ and moved on. I thought about it. I considered it.

It was a pastoral moment. He had a pastoral need. There in the cab of his pickup surely compassion trumped orthodoxy.

Rather than worry what was the right answer, what was the theologically permissible answer, I should just say ‘Yes’ and give him some peace in from his pain.

But as I said, David was a saint, one of God’s plainly good people. And the thing about saints- it’s hard to lie to them.

Of course I could’ve chosen to explain to David everything I’d been taught in seminary classrooms and theological textbooks, Protestant classrooms and Protestant texts.

I could’ve explained to David how I was taught that praying to anyone but Jesus Christ was…idolatrous; how devotion to anything else, saint or otherwise, detracts from our devotion to Christ.

I could’ve explained to David the mantra of the Reformation: how we are saved by faith alone, by Christ alone, who is our Great, High Priest therefore we don’t need any other priest, confessor or saint to mediate our prayers.

I could’ve explained to David all the ins and outs of everything I’d been taught.

And because I like to be a smarty-pants, I had to stop myself from doing so. Because even though the question was one I’d heard batted round and round in theology classrooms, when I heard the same question on David’s lips it sounded anything but academic.

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 Can we ask the saints to pray for us?

 

It’s a question that has divided Christians for 5 centuries.

After all they won’t be celebrating All Saints Day at any of the Lutheran, Baptist, Presbyterian or Pentecostal churches up and down Ft Hunt Road.

And in the United Methodist Church and in the Episcopal Church we split the difference. We remember and we give thanks for the saints, but we don’t speak to them. We don’t call on them.

And we typically don’t ask them to pray for us.

But ever since David asked me his question from the driver’s side of his pickup I’ve wondered if we Protestants have been on the right side of the question.

As it turned out, David was wrong. I wasn’t the one to do his funeral.

As it turned out, David was just as strong and determined as everyone believed him to be and stronger than he gave himself credit. He lived longer than the doctors expected and by the time he died I was serving here.

But even though I wasn’t the one to preside at his funeral service, the script- the ancient script- was the same.

Draping a white pall over his casket, the pastor proclaimed:

Dying, Christ destroyed our death.

Rising, Christ restored our life.

As in baptism David put on Christ, so now is David in Christ and clothed with glory.

     Then facing the standing-room only sanctuary, the pastor held out her hands and for the call to worship voiced Jesus’ promise:

I am the resurrection and I am life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, yet shall they live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die

  And then at the end of the service, after the preaching and the sharing and the crying, the pastor laid her hands on David’s casket and prayed the commendation:

As first you gave David to us, now we give David back to you.

Receive David into the arms of your mercy.

Receive David into the fellowship of your departed saints

When we baptize someone, we baptize them into Christ and we declare that he or she will forever be a son or daughter in heaven.

And so in death we never cease to be in Christ.

The Christian community is one that blurs the line between this world and the next. That’s why Christians use the word ‘veil’ to describe death, something so thin you can nearly see through it.

It’s a fellowship that cannot be broken by time or death because it’s a communion in the Living Christ. What we name by the word ‘Church’ is a single communion of living and departed saints. The Church is one People in heaven and on Earth.

The dead don’t disappear into the ether. They don’t walk around as vaporous ghosts. They don’t dissolve into the fibers and cells of the natural world.

They’re gathered around the throne, worshipping God. They’re in Christ, the very same communion they were baptized into. The same communion to which we belong.

And so death does not destroy or fundamentally change our relationship to the dead.

We pray and, according to the Book of Revelation, so do they.

We praise God and, according to the Great Thanksgiving-our communion prayer, so do they.

We try to love God and one another and, according to the Book of Hebrews, they do so completely.

Our fellowship with the departed saints is not altogether different from our fellowship with one another.

That’s what we mean when we say in the Creed ‘I believe in the communion of saints…’ We’re saying: ‘I believe in the fellowship of the living and the dead in Christ.’ 

So it seems to me we can pray and ask the saints to pray for us.

Not in the sense of praying to them.

Not in the sense of giving them our worship and devotion.

But if we believe in the communion of saints, living and dead, then asking the departed saints for their prayers is no different than Trish, Julie and David- in this congregation- asking for my prayers for them this week.

It’s not, as Protestants so often caricature, that the saints are our way or our mediators to Jesus Christ.

Rather, because we (living and dead) are all friends in Jesus Christ we can talk to and pray for one another.

I can ask Jackson Casey, who had an eleven year old’s insatiable curiosity for scripture, to pray for me that I never take these stories for granted.

I can ask Joanne Jackson and Peg Charney, both of whom knew better than me what it was to serve the poor, to pray for me that I not lose sight of what Jesus expects of me.

I can ask Eleanor Gunggoll, who made her boys her priority, to pray for me that I never stop treasuring mine.

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‘Will I be able to pray for them? After I’m gone?’

The moments passed in silence while my mind was anything but, then David, perhaps sensing that I didn’t know or wasn’t going to respond, reached for the ignition.

But then I turned in the passenger seat and, violating the man code, I looked right at him and said: ‘I hope you’ll pray for me too.’

I didn’t know at the time whether it was a good or right answer.

I do know, though, that I think of David, and his question, every time I stand behind a loaf of bread and a cup of wine and pray:

‘…and so with your people here on earth and all the company of heaven, we praise your name and join their ending hymn…’

zipperSimul iustus et peccator fatue

Reformation Day is upon us that so-called ‘holiday’ when some Christians celebrate the fact that some other Christians split Christ’s Body in half. Martin Luther, founding padre of the Protestant Reformation, insisted that God’s grace is a declaration announced to us. From outside us.

     God’s grace is a promise to which we can only respond with trust.

     There is no discernible interior change in us.

     We essentially remain the same d*&^%$-bags we were before.

     Only now, we know in faith, when God regards us, he graciously chooses to see Jesus instead of the a#$-clowns most of us are most of the time.

Says Luther: Even after we’ve responded to the promise of grace, we never cease to be sinners. The new life faith makes possible always remains, in Luther’s view, nascent. Sin remains our determinative attribute even after justification.

     This is Luther’s doctrine ‘Simul iustus et peccator.’ 

     It translates to ‘at once justified and a sinner.’

Or as the contemporary paraphrase edition puts it: ‘Being loved by God doesn’t stop us from being a Frodo D*&^%$- Baggins.’

     Case in point: the other Sunday morning.

Contemporary worship service.

Unlike most Sunday mornings when I roll out of bed straight into my car with last night’s toothpaste slobber still crusted on the side of my mouth and then conceal most of the evidence from having pressed snooze 33 times behind my Luther-like alb, this Sunday I actually put on a tie.

And a blazer.

And combed my hair.

After first having showered.

Truth be told, this humble man of the cloth thought he looked pretty damn good.

Definitely more Palmer Joss this Sunday than rugged Rev Maclean.

Palmer

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That I thought I looked pretty damn good was reflected in my gosh-aren’t-I-hilarious banter during the announcements. An ecclesial Ryan Gosling, to be sure, I stood in front of several hundred worshippers and welcomed them in the name of Christ.

In between opening praise songs, I seamlessly slipped onstage to offer an opening prayer, gelling the words of the songs with the upcoming message. To chuckles, including my own, I gave the announcements for the day (if you see him, please tell Rev Perry the Gov’t Shutdown doesn’t apply to him and he should return to work…HAH!)

I then celebrated the Sacrament of Holy Baptism, pouring water over little Charlotte while a baker’s dozen of her cousins snapped pictures. Later in the service I stood front and center up by the altar to lead the pastoral and the Lord’s Prayer. And then we closed the service with ‘Forever Reign.’ A praise # from Hillsong United, the Walmart of contemporary Christian music.

Imagining my voice to sound as good as I looked, I sang:

You are good, You are good

When there’s nothing good in me

You are love, You are love

On display for all to see

     On display.

Damn.

Some synapse fired in me, triggering an almost primordial, survivalist self-awareness.

Holding the manilla worship bulletin in my left hand, I lowered my right hand down.

Slowly, as to be imperceptible to the band and singers standing 5 feet straight in front of me.

All the while still singing:

You are peace, You are peace

When my fear is crippling

My hand did a too-subtle-to-be-noticed reconnaissance.

Fly down.

Thinking myself cooler than 007, I’d instead been X,Y,Z during the entire service.

And while some worshippers in that moment had their eyes closed in enthused praise and worship, I closed mine, mentally weighing my options:

Do I suck it up and just zip it up right now?

What if the band sees me or the worshippers to my left or right?

What if it gets stuck and I look like I’m playing with myself while the band plays their last number?

What if Karli or one of the other singers sees me and snorts into the mic?

Should I just leave it, offer the benediction and hope no one sees?

Definitely the last, I decided, all the while singing:

The riches of Your love

Will always be enough

Nothing compares to Your embrace

Song ended, an ‘In the name of the Father, Son and Spirit’ served up, I sheepishly waited for everyone to ‘go forth in the name of the Lord.’

Coast clear.

I breathed a sigh of relief.

And then… a youth grinned at me knowingly (because of what I didn’t know).

“Hey man, did you know your fly was down through, like, the entire service?”

    Simul iustus et peccator fatue

     ‘At once justified and an idiot’ God’s grace always remains outside of us, apart from us, Luther says. It’s a promise announced to us not an attribute original in us.

We are always at once graced by God and the same a#$-clown we were before.

When you think about it, it must be so.

Lest we ever forget that God’s grace is exactly what it is: an undeserved gift.

You are good, You are good

When there’s nothing good in me

You are love, You are love

On display for all to see

Untitled31David Bentley Hart (heretofore: DBH) was one of my first professors of theology back when I was a college student at UVA. He was just completing his PhD whilst I had about 24 months of being a Christian under my belt.

Standing in front of a huge wave that knocks you on your ass on the beach, you get up realizing the ocean is a whole hell of a lot bigger than you thought. That’s how I felt with DBH. He left me feeling for aches, knowing the Christian intellectual tradition is richer, deeper and broader than I could imagine. For those of you who will feel about DBH as I did back in the day, I offer you this precis.

And since Reformation Day is upon us, I thought I’d offer you some DBH quotes on the ‘Protest’ that continues to sever Christ’s Church.

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The first cut is the deepest. Here, DBH lays the fault of contemporary atheism and the rise of the ‘Nones’ squarely at the feet of Protestantism, in particular the Calvinist god it unleashed.

1.

“In detaching God’s freedom from God’s nature as Goodness, Truth, and Charity — as this theology necessarily, if not always intentionally did — Christian thought laid the foundations for many of those later revolutions in philosophy and morality that would help to produce the post-Christian order. It was inevitable after all, that the object of the voluntarist model of freedom would migrate from the divine to the human will, and that a world evacuated of its ontological continuity with God’s goodness would ultimately find no place for God within itself. And, in early modernity, when the new God of infinite and absolute will had to a very great degree displaced the true God from men’s minds, the new technology of print assured that all Christians would make the acquaintance of this impostor, and through him come to understand true liberty as a personal sovereignty transcending even the dictates and constraints of nature.

Moreover — more crucially — the God thus produced was monstrous: an abyss of pure, predestining omnipotence, whose majesty was revealed at once in his unmerited mercy towards the elect and his righteous wrath against the derelict.

And he was to be found in the theologies of almost every Protestant school: not only Jansenism, Lutheranism, and Calvinism).

That modern Western humanity came in large measure to refuse to believe in or worship such a God was ineluctable, and in some sense extremely commendable (no one, after all, can be faulted for preferring atheism to Calvinism.”

Here, DBH points out that in an attempt to be more biblical, respecting the 1st commandment and stripping the Medieval altars, the Reformation violated that most basic of implications of the 1st commandment: God is not a god within the universe.

2.

“The [Protestant] mysticism of bare and unadorned worship (which idolatrously mistakes God for some object within the universe that can be lost among other objects), and other tendencies to imagine the soul is purified by being extracted from the life of the senses or that God is glorified by the inanition of the world…

such thinking offends simply by being unbiblical, insufficiently chastened or inspired by the doctrine of the incarnation.

It’s unable to grasp that the trinitarian God is already full of fellowship, joy and glory, and requires no sacrifice of worldly love- the world adds nothing to God.”

And now for a definition:

Analogy of Being =

{The analogy of being presupposes that there is a similarity between God and his creatures. God of course does not exist as his creatures exist. He is infinite, eternal, and non-contingent. Nevertheless, he can be said to exist, as can his creatures even if there existence is profoundly different. Hence there is an analogy of being existing between them. Moreover, God’s attributes (wisdom, power, goodness, etc.)though infinite and eternal, can be observed as existing in analogous manner in creatures who also possess them. There is a similarity with a still greater dissimilarity between God’s reality and his creatures. Such a claim about God allowed the ancient Church Fathers to claim that their statements about God’s nature were realistically true, while at the same time allowing for divine mystery. The rejection of the analogy of being has been one of the chief tenets of Protestant Christianity.}

 

Let the quotes resume…

3.

“The rejection of the analogy of being has the very effect so dreaded: it reduces God to the status of a mere being, in some sense on a level with us. To state the matter simply, the analogy of being does not analogize God and creatures under the more general category of ‘being,’ but is the analogization of being in the difference between God and creatures.

Apart from the analogy of being, the very concept of revelation is a contradiction.

Only insofar as creaturely being is analogous to divine being and proper to God’s nature, can God show himself as God, rather than in alienation to himself; there would be no revelation otherwise, only legislation.”

 

Because I love Karl Barth, I love this quote. DBH, like Barth before him, is not afraid to throw some elbows.

 

4.

“If rejection of the analogy of being were in some sense the very core of Protestant theology, as Karl Barth believed, one would still be obliged to observe that it is also the invention of antichrist, and so would have to be accounted the most compelling reason for not becoming a Protestant..

All things in creation- all the words of being- speak of God because they shine within his eternal Word.

Untitled31David Bentley Hart (heretofore: DBH) was one of my first professors of theology back when I was a college student at UVA. He was just completing his PhD whilst I had about 24 months of being a Christian under my belt.

Standing in front of a huge wave that knocks you on your ass on the beach, you get up realizing the ocean is a whole hell of a lot bigger than you thought. That’s how I felt with DBH. He left me feeling for aches, knowing the Christian intellectual tradition is richer, deeper and broader than I could imagine.

For those of you who will feel about DBH as I did back in the day, I offer you this precis.

david_bentley_hart_zps3fe63909

 

1. Here’s a money quote that all but begs the reader to ponder whether the exclusive practice of adult baptism, premised as it is on human initiative, is absurd:

 

‘The Spirit is present in every action of redemption- completing it, perfecting it- so that to deny the divinity of the Spirit would be to deny the efficacy of one’s own baptism; as only God can join us to God (which is what salvation is), the Spirit who unites us to the Son (who bears us up to the Father) must be God.’

 

2. Often people object to the ancient, patristic doctrine of immutability, that is, the belief that God does not change, by lamenting that any God who does not change as we do is not a God to whom we can relate. More roughly put: ‘I don’t to want love God if God’s not like me.’

Here, DBH channels Gregory of Nyssa, perhaps the most important Church Father, to point out that, far from being an argument against, our mutability is but another sign of God’s immutability:

 

‘In the end, creaturely mutability itself proves to be at once the way of difference from God and the way of union with God. To begin with, change is a means of release from sin; that same changeableness that grants us liberty to turn toward evil allows us also to recover the measure of divine harmony and to become an ever shifting shape of the good, a peaceful cadence of change.

For creatures, who cannot statically comprehend the infinite, progress in the good is the most beautiful work of change, and an inability to change would be a penalty. We are pure movement; the changeable puts on changeless beauty, always thirsting for more of God’s beauty which is changeless because it encompasses all beauty.’

 

3. It’s Reformation Sunday coming up so there’s no better time to lay blame squarely at the feet of the Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura, the well-intentioned mis-adventure which held that all of Christian vision should conform to and initiate from scripture solely.

The problem of course is that existence itself begets particular questions of existence (‘metaphysics’) towards which the bible shows little interest but logic (another manifestation of God’s truth) demonstrates to be necessary.

For example, scripture- because its the narrative of a People- speaks often of God’s wrath and violence. However, the logic of creation betrays the unnecessariness and hence gratuity of life itself so God, at bottom, in God’s essence is Goodness/Love itself.

Anyways, here’s DBH weighing in on my side:

‘The God of scripture is infinite precisely as the God who loves and acts, and who can be loved in turn; infinite precisely because he will be what and where he will be. What though does this mean?

What has been said regarding being- and with what measure of coherence- when one has said that God is ‘infinitely determinate’ source of all being, the eternal ‘I Am’?’

This is not a question to be evaded by fideistic, biblicist recoil to some destructive (and largely modern) division between ‘biblical’ and ‘philosophical’ theology; theology that refuses to address questions of ontology can never be more than a mythology, and so must remain deplorably defenseless against serious philosophical criticism.’

 

4. Rob Bell got into a hot water for the wrong thing a few years ago. The heat came when he implied in his book, Love Wins, that the God of Easter Love has neither capacity nor inclination for the eternal torment of Hell. That God comes in the flesh for all is clear; equally clear is that God not ultimately getting all would be defeat not victory.

Rob Bell, though, should’ve caught Hell not for the above assertion but for the fact he shamelessly ripped it off from the ancient Church Fathers.

They believed that all humanity comprises the image of the God who is Trinity therefore salvation must include all of the human community.

Citing them, DBH writes:

‘Redemption is God assuming human nature in order to join it to the divine nature…salvation is that creation has been rescued from sin and death by the divinity that Christ has introduced into the entirety of the common human nature…all humanity is now transfigured in Christ, and is saved through its endless transformation into what God brings near; the human soul, assumed into Christ, is striving ever after, seeking the uncontainable plenitude of God…the salvation of all souls is inevitable because each soul is a changing image of the infinite God; the dynamism of the soul has only God’s absolute, changeless fullness as its source and end, and God’s eternity as its element.’

Untitled101111I’ve become convinced that its important for the Church to inoculate our young people with a healthy dose of catechesis before we ship them off to college, just enough so that when they first hear about Nietzsche or really study Darwin they won’t freak out and presume that what the Church taught them in 6th grade confirmation is the only wisdom the Church has to offer.

I’ve been working on writing a catechism, a distillation of the faith into concise questions and answers with brief supporting scriptures that could be the starting point for a conversation.

You can find the previous posts here.

II. Witness

7. Can I Interpret the Bible by Myself at Home?

Don’t be silly.

You quite literally cannot read the bible by yourself.

Scripture, what we call the word of God, is the testimony to the one Word of God, Jesus Christ, and it is the corporate testimony of Israel and the Church.

Just as scripture is the witness of those who’ve come before us, it must be read in light of and in submission to the interpretation of those who’ve come before us, the saints and doctors of the Church.

If one is repelled by the rigidity of biblicism, then reading the bible for how it can enliven and enlighten your own personal faith is an understandable alternative. If one shares the modern presumptions of historicism and thinks things like virgin births just can’t happen, then reading the bible for individual devotional purposes is again an understandable alternative.

Yet reading the bible for ‘what it speaks to me’ is fraught with its dangers.

The Word of God, Jesus Christ, is mediated to us through the testimony of a People.

Scripture is a communal witness and its primary intent is to incorporate us into that Body of witnesses.

So then the sermon on the mount is not first about you as an individual being merciful, it’s about the Church, the community of disciples, being merciful, which only secondarily entails you being merciful.

1 Corinthians 13, where Paul rhapsodizes about love being patient and kind, is not about an individual’s love and the love of a married couple. It’s about the character of the believing community, which secondarily entails your own character.

The Reformation’s notions about the private individual are very modern and very Western assumptions that are by and large alien to the world of the bible. Reading the bible from or for a personal perspective can be appropriate so long as you come to the bible with that understanding.

But stripping scripture away from its communal identity, risks turning it into a talisman we turn to for answers rather than transformation.

What’s more, reading the bible only from the lens of our private devotion also risks spiritualizing or simply missing the essentially political character of much of scripture.

The Hebrew Bible, after all, is the testimony about a God who rescued Israel from oppression and the New Testament is how that God took peasant flesh and ended up executed at the hands of an occupying military power. Those are unavoidably political stories that have implications well beyond the personal life of faith.

“Then the chief priests of the Jews said to Pilate, ‘Do not write, “The King of the Jews”, but, “This man said, I am King of the Jews.” ’  

– John 18.21

 

martin-lutherI’ve got to confess.

And I’ll do it publicly here.

Because, after all, I’m a Protestant and- on paper at least, even if its seldom practiced in most congregations- I believe in corporate confession.

I don’t need to duck inside a little private booth (note to Protestants: most Catholics haven’t used those in a long while, no matter what you saw in Keeping the Faith) to have a priest mediate my confession and prayer for absolution to God.

I can do it all by myself. With and in front of others.

There doesn’t need to be anyone who comes between me and God (note which noun comes first in that subordinate clause).

Which just nicely guarantees that very little communication, to say nothing of confession, passes from me to God.

While famous corporate confession from the Book of Common Prayer:

“…We have offended against thy holy laws. We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done; And there is no health in us. But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us, miserable offenders…”

is incredibly pointed and powerful, I daresay it’s salvific sting would be felt more keenly if I had a confessor forcing me to own up and articulate exactly how what I’ve ‘left undone’ in my life and relationships that’s deserving of the label ‘sin.’

I’ve already shown my hand without actually fessing up:

I’ve got to confess.

I’ve got a serious case of Catholic-envy.

A virus that was perhaps latent within me since John Paul but has flared up to near-fatal levels by the arrival of Pope Francis.

While my own denomination continues to sever itself over North American issues of homosexual ordination, I’ve got to admire (if not agree) with a tradition that at least has the logical consistency to demand celibacy of all its clergy, gay or not. In a denomination severing itself over issues of homosexual marriage while about 1/2 of its members- let’s not talk about its clergy- divorce, I’ve got to admire (if not agree) with a tradition that has the logical consistency to teach that marriage is a lifelong covenant. In a denomination that is inescapably ‘American’ I’ve got to admire a tradition that is thoroughly ‘universal’ even while it universality means its rate of change seems incredibly slow to this American.

But really, like so many others, Pope Francis is the reason for my Catholic envy.

How I wish my own tradition had a globally recognizable leader in whom the life and teachings of Jesus were so palpably and incarnately demonstrated.

Just check out this picture. If not worth a thousand words, it def rates a short homily or a Broadway billboard:

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The other Francis was right.

You don’t need evangelism when you’ve got leaders like this who are like a flesh-by-numbers display of the Gospel.

Had I not already signed on to a particular Jesus tribe and were, right now, ‘seeking’ a place to follow him, I gotta confess I’d give our Romish brothers and sisters a try.

Which but leads me to another confession that IS corporate for most my Protestant tribe:

Why are we not Catholic?

Or rather, in what ways are we still meaningfully Protestant?

I don’t know what church you attend or denomination you belong to but, chances are, you’re not ‘protesting’ anything anymore. Even if you are protesting things, odds are good it’s got more to do with ‘social justice’ or ‘the conservative agenda’ and little to do 16th century theology.

After all, the main points of contention that compelled Martin to post his 95 Theses have long since been reconciled.

Abuse of indulgences? Check.

Scripture and liturgy in the vernacular? Check.

Justification by faith alone? Double Check.

Every year it strikes me as odd that Protestant churches actually celebrate Reformation Sunday.

Even if you agree with Luther’s vision of Christianity, schism isn’t something to celebrate. That’s like celebrating your parents’ divorce- I know firsthand that even when the separation is necessary it’s still tragic.

You’d think it strange if I offered prayers every late October celebrating the rupture of family wouldn’t you?

I’ve spent a lot of time in Latin America, a region where the United Methodist Church is all but unknown so small is its population share. There, the Jesus family is divided into 2 homes, Catholic or Evangelical (usually meaning ‘Pentecostal’). Truth be told, I’ve got a lot more in common with the former there than I do the latter. In terms of worship, theology and how mission and service are to be done.

I wonder, given the changing contours of post-Christian America, if our future is to be found in Latin America?

Do our increasingly diverse cultural options make it necessary to winnow down the Christian options to two basic choices: Catholic or Pentecostal?

Could it be the Protestant affection for Pope Francis is a harbinger of things to come?

By the way, here’s a great article from First Things that echoes.

Queen’s to you:

Why are you Protestant?

Why are you not Catholic?

And does your reason trump the cause of Christian unity?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Can We Pray to the Saints?

Jason Micheli —  October 28, 2013 — 1 Comment

SONY DSCJohn Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, famously said that All Saints’ Day was his favorite holy day on the liturgical calendar. Methinks Wesley must’ve have suffered through some dreadful Christmas services to make such a claim tenable.

Nonetheless, All Saints’ is a powerful reminder of two primary claims of our faith, that of Ash Wednesday and that of Hebrews:

To dust we came and to dust we shall return.

We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses; i.e.. those who’ve returned to the dust ahead of us.

All Saints’ Day is Friday and will be celebrated in my church on Saturday and Sunday, chiefly as we preside over the Eucharist, calling upon the ‘great company of heaven’ to join in our alleluia.

Every year when All Saints’ is just a few days away on the schedule I’m given to thinking about the men and women who’ve been saints to me, in my own life.

I don’t mean people like St Francis or St Augustine.

I mean people like David.

Here’s an All Saints’ sermon I wrote with David in mind. Actually, it was David’s question: ‘Can we pray to the saints?’ that prompted the sermon.

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Psalm 145: The Company of Heaven

 

‘Will I be able to pray for them? After I’m gone?’

 

We were sitting in his battered, red F150 parked in front of the mud-brown elevation sign at the Peaks of Otter overlook on the Blue Ridge. Four-thousand feet, the sign said.

 

We were sitting in the cab of his truck, both of us looking straight ahead, not at each other- a position I think is the only one in which men can be intimate with one another.

 

Looking at Bedford County below us, neither of us had spoken for several minutes until he broke the silence by asking me: ‘Will I be able to pray for them? After I’m gone?’

 

David Burnett was (is) one of the saints in my life, and not because of any remarkable feat of his or his exceptional religiosity.

 

David was just good and kind, a Gary Cooper-type without pretense. What you saw was what you got, and what you got from David was very often the love of God condensed and focused and translated into deceptively ordinary words and gestures.

 

Not long after I’d been assigned to his church, David let me know that he’d like to spend an afternoon with me. He wanted to get to know me better, he said, because he thought I’d likely be doing his funeral.

 

David was only a few years older than me. He’d lived every day of his life in the same small town and wouldn’t have had it any other way. He’d been baptized and raised and was now raising his own two kids in the church I pastored.

 

Ever since graduating from high school, David had worked in the local carpet factory and had survived as the captain of the volunteer fire department, despite his slight frame. But when I first met him, David hadn’t worked for over a year. Not since his Lou Gehrig’s Disease had begun its monotonous mutiny against his body.

 

At first I’d suggested to David that we grab some lunch, but he blushed and confessed that the stiffness in his jaw and hands would make eating distracting for me and embarrassing for him. ‘Let’s go for a drive,’ he suggested.

 

He picked me at the church. He was wearing jeans that his wife had sewn an elastic waistband into and a t-shirt that was much too big for him but was just big enough for him to be able to dress himself.

 

I could tell he was proud that even though he could only awkwardly grip the steering wheel he could still drive his truck.

 

We switched places when we got to the edge of town; he couldn’t navigate the steep, winding roads that wound their way up the mountain. But we switched back again when we got to the top.

 

Driving through the Blue Ridge, every now and then, David would stop at places as though he were turning the pages of a family photo album.

 

He stopped at the spot he’d gone hunting with his Dad just before he died.

 

He stopped and showed me the woods he’d snuck into as a teenager with his friends and snuck his first beer.

 

He coasted the truck and pointed to a ridge with a clearing where he’d proposed to his high school sweetheart; he said that was the best spot to see the stars at night.

 

And he stopped and showed me the place he liked to take his kids camping. It was at that stop that he asked, with the V8 idling, my advice on how to tell his kids, who thus far only knew that their Dad was sick, that he walked and talked funny now, not that he was dying.

 

David parked at the Peaks of Otter overlook and turned off the engine, and all of a sudden the pickup took on the feel of a medieval confessional.

 

Staring straight ahead, David faked a chuckle and told me how he’d rushed into burning homes before without a second’s hesitation but that he was terrified of the long, slow death that awaited him.

 

He pretended to wipe away something in his eye besides a tear, and I pretended not to notice.

 

Then he told me how he’d miss his kids. He told me he worried about them; he worried how they’d do without him.

 

He was quiet for a few minutes, evidently thinking because then he asked me: ‘Will they be able to talk to me? Will I be able to pray for them? After I’m gone?’

 

 

It’s a good question.

 

I don’t think David would’ve known or would’ve cared for that matter, but in so many words his was a question that’s been a bone of contention between Christians ever since Martin Luther nailed his 95 protests against the Catholic Church into the sanctuary doors in Wittenberg 500 years ago:

 

Can we solicit the prayers of the dead?

Can we ask the saints to pray for us?

 

The instant David asked me his question I felt glad that we were sitting in a pickup staring straight ahead instead of in my office or over lunch facing one another.

 

I was glad were sitting in his truck because, with tears in his eyes, I wouldn’t have wanted him to see the confusion in my own, to see that I didn’t know how to answer him.

 

My first impulse was to sidestep his questions, to ignore the questions about the saints departed, about what they’re life is like, what they do and what we can ask of them.

 

My first impulse was to sidestep those questions and just offer David the reassurance that Kinnon and McKayla would be fine.

 

And I could’ve gotten away with it, I suppose.

 

But David didn’t just want reassurances about his kids. He wanted to know if he’d still have a relationship with them. He didn’t just want to know if they’d make it after he died; he wanted to know that even if he did not, would his relationship with them survive death?

 

Or I could’ve just said ‘Yes’ and moved on. I thought about it. I considered it.

 

It was a pastoral moment. He had a pastoral need. There in the cab of his pickup surely compassion trumped orthodoxy.

 

Rather than worry what was the right answer, what was the theologically permissible answer, I should just say ‘Yes’ and give him some peace in from his pain.

 

But as I said, David was a saint, one of God’s plainly good people. And the thing about saints- it’s hard to lie to them.

 

Of course I could’ve chosen to explain to David everything I’d been taught in seminary classrooms and theological textbooks, Protestant classrooms and Protestant texts.

 

I could’ve explained to David how I was taught that praying to anyone but Jesus Christ was…idolatrous; how devotion to anything else, saint or otherwise, detracts from our devotion to Christ.

 

I could’ve explained to David the mantra of the Reformation: how we are saved by faith alone, by Christ alone, who is our Great, High Priest therefore we don’t need any other priest, confessor or saint to mediate our prayers.

 

I could’ve explained to David all the ins and outs of everything I’d been taught.

 

And because I like to be a smarty-pants, I had to stop myself from doing so. Because even though the question was one I’d heard batted round and round in theology classrooms, when I heard the same question on David’s lips it sounded anything but academic.

 

Can we ask the saints to pray for us?

 

It’s a question that has divided Christians for 5 centuries.

 

After all they won’t be celebrating All Saints Day at any of the Lutheran, Baptist, Presbyterian or Pentecostal churches up and down Ft Hunt Road.

 

And in the United Methodist Church and in the Episcopal Church we split the difference. We remember and we give thanks for the saints, but we don’t speak to them. We don’t call on them.

 

And we typically don’t ask them to pray for us.

 

But ever since David asked me his question from the driver’s side of his pickup I’ve wondered if we Protestants have been on the right side of the question.

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As it turned out, David was wrong. I wasn’t the one to do his funeral.

 

As it turned out, David was just as strong and determined as everyone believed him to be and stronger than he gave himself credit. He lived longer than the doctors expected and by the time he died I was serving here.

But even though I wasn’t the one to preside at his funeral service, the script- the ancient script- was the same.

Draping a white pall over his casket, the pastor proclaimed:

Dying, Christ destroyed our death.

Rising, Christ restored our life.

As in baptism David put on Christ, so now is David in Christ and clothed with glory.

 

     Then facing the standing-room only sanctuary, the pastor held out her hands and for the call to worship voiced Jesus’ promise:

I am the resurrection and I am life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, yet shall they live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die

 

  And then at the end of the service, after the preaching and the sharing and the crying, the pastor laid her hands on David’s casket and prayed the commendation:

As first you gave David to us, now we give David back to you.

Receive David into the arms of your mercy.

Receive David into the fellowship of your departed saints

   

     When we baptize someone, we baptize them into Christ and we declare that he or she will forever be a son or daughter in heaven.

 

And so in death we never cease to be in Christ.

 

The Christian community is one that blurs the line between this world and the next. That’s why Christians use the word ‘veil’ to describe death, something so thin you can nearly see through it.

 

It’s a fellowship that cannot be broken by time or death because it’s a communion in the Living Christ. What we name by the word ‘Church’ is a single communion of living and departed saints. The Church is one People in heaven and on Earth.

 

The dead don’t disappear into the ether. They don’t walk around as vaporous ghosts. They don’t dissolve into the fibers and cells of the natural world.

 

They’re gathered around the throne, worshipping God. They’re in Christ, the very same communion they were baptized into. The same communion to which we belong.

 

And so death does not destroy or fundamentally change our relationship to the dead.

 

We pray and, according to the Book of Revelation, so do they.

 

We praise God and, according to the Great Thanksgiving-our communion prayer, so do they.

 

We try to love God and one another and, according to the Book of Hebrews, they do so completely.

 

Our fellowship with the departed saints is not altogether different from our fellowship with one another.

 

That’s what we mean when we say in the Creed ‘I believe in the communion of saints…’ We’re saying: ‘I believe in the fellowship of the living and the dead in Christ.’ 

 

     So it seems to me we can pray and ask the saints to pray for us. Not in the sense of praying to them. Not in the sense of giving them our worship and devotion.

 

But if we believe in the communion of saints, living and dead, then asking the departed saints for their prayers is no different than Trish, Julie and David- in this congregation- asking for my prayers for them this week.

 

It’s not, as Protestants so often caricature, that the saints are our way or our mediators to Jesus Christ.

 

Rather, because we (living and dead) are all friends in Jesus Christ we can talk to and pray for one another.

 

I can ask Jackson Casey, who had an eleven year old’s insatiable curiosity for scripture, to pray for me that I never take these stories for granted.

 

I can ask Joanne Jackson and Peg Charney, both of whom knew better than me what it was to serve the poor, to pray for me that I not lose sight of what Jesus expects of me.

 

I can ask Eleanor Gunggoll, who made her boys her priority, to pray for me that I never stop treasuring mine.

‘Will I be able to pray for them? After I’m gone?’

 

The moments passed in silence while my mind was anything but, then David, perhaps sensing that I didn’t know or wasn’t going to respond, reached for the ignition.

 

But then I turned in the passenger seat and, violating the man code, I looked right at him and said: ‘I hope you’ll pray for me too.’

 

I didn’t know at the time whether it was a good or right answer.

I do know, though, that I think of David, and his question, every time I stand behind a loaf of bread and a cup of wine and pray:

‘…and so with your people here on earth and all the company of heaven, we praise your name and join their ending hymn…’