Signing off

I have been blogging for about five years now under various names.  It began as an outlet after seminary as I discerned the next steps in my life.  It continued as a way to remain connected to the church as I embarked upon a career in funeral service, which had the negative consequence of precluding engagement at the congregational level.  In recent weeks I’ve been wrestling with what I thought was writer’s block.  In fact, I believe it to be a recognition that my time as a blogger has ended.

I now work as an administrator at a large downtown church.  This is a new career direction for me and it has consumed a significant amount of energy, but it will get smoother as time progresses. In addition to working for a parish, I’m in the process of becoming a member of another.  A church where I’ve preached once and will serve as cantor this Easter Vigil.  Suffice it to say, I went from being on the verge of disconnection with the church to one almost hyper-connected to it.  With ample opportunities to get involved in the life of two congregations, I think the opportunity to use my time and talent in the trenches should not be passed up to maintain my work as a semi-anonymous commentator.

My life within the Order of Corpus Christi has taken a step in a new direction as well.  Ordinarily, my role peaks with being one of the worship leaders during services at the Retreat and Synod.  As the 2014 Synod approaches, I’ve been asked by the abbot to take a leadership position within the Order.  This will further connect me with the overall life of the Order specifically and the church catholic in general.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn short, In the Shadow of Leaves as a site of religious expression and connectivity is no longer as important for me.  In fact, I think using the energy once put into this blog into something else would probably be a worthwhile thing to maintain a balanced life.  I will keep the blog up as people seem to be getting something out of it, but I will no longer be adding new content.

I ask your prayers as I move into a new phase of my life and leave you with some words by Yamamoto Tsunetomo the author of the Hagakure, the original “In the Shadow of Leaves”:

“In the Kamigata area, they have a sort of tiered lunchbox they use for a single day when flower viewing. Upon returning, they throw them away, trampling them underfoot. The end is important in all things.”

 

 

How the American Church makes Lent cheap

Lent-2014Lent is quickly becoming another victim of the American Christian sub-culture’s propensity to cheapen holy tradition.  Ashes on the go, hiding the alleluia, online quizzes to determine what one should give up… sigh.  It’s all very well-intentioned, but I think it misses the point.  We’re only in the first week so perhaps it is not too late to correct some faulty thinking for this season.

1.  Ashes to go: I don’t know whose fault this is, but it seems to be a growing fad, especially among Episcopalians.  Am I bothered by the attempt to connect the busy commercial world with a traditional liturgy that, by definition, must take place on a weekday?  No.  The problem is that it confuses the sign for the thing symbolized.  The ashes are not a sacrament.  There is no grace in the ashes.  When I hear people say they need to “get their ashes” it serves as a reminder that the real emphasis of the Ash Wednesday service and the season in general are lost.  The ashes are a sign of one’s mortality and inevitable death.  “Getting” the ashes is about as meaningless as anything could possibly be on its own.  Without penitence and recognition that apart from the Crucified one that mortality is nothing but a terror and death a curse, the ashes are as useless as the dust that composes our bodies apart from the breath of God.

2.  Burying/Saying goodbye to alleluia: I understand the usefulness of this custom in the context of a children’s chapel service because it is a nice way to introduce seasonal changes in the liturgy.  When it is done as part of the principal services (either on Ash Wednesday or the final Sunday after Epiphany), though, I can’t help but want to scream that this is overselling something that is not entirely true anyway.  Let’s take a second to recall that the alleluia’s are only gone from the Eucharistic liturgy and the antiphons in the Daily Office.  They do not disappear altogether.  Anyone who prays the Benedictine Office, the traditional Anglican Daily Office using Cranmer’s Psalm cycle, and Lutherans using the Psalm schedule of For All the Saints/Lutheran Book of Worship, to name a few, continue to use the ‘laudate‘ Psalms in the morning during Lent and we will be saying alleluia.  Even though it is still Lent, praise to God is still an option, if not an obligation.

3.  Giving up stuff: I recently took a quiz online designed to help me figure out what I ought to give up for Lent.  Of all things, it said I didn’t need to give up anything because I already lived a balanced life.  Ugh.  Lent is not a liturgical season of self-improvement or self-realization.  It is not a time for diets or the Christian equivalent of a New Year’s resolution.  When it comes to what one should give up for Lent there is only one authentically Christian answer: one’s entire life.  As Bonhoeffer taught us, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”*

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*I know this is in Cost of Discipleship, but I cannot find a specific edition or page number as all my books are scattered about post-move.

Against translation hype

Something Christians know, whether they have named it before or not, is that one’s denomination not only determines which translation one will probably hear on Sunday, but which versions one chooses from personally and which translation philosophy is perceived as most important.  In my own context as a Christian in the American Mainline, I hear the NRSV read at church, my clergy use it for their sermon prep, it is the typical translation used in commentaries and the study Bibles I’m exposed to, and my peers probably use it at home.  It also means that other than the NRSV, the runners up are probably the RSV, the NIV, or possibly the ESV (which is not particular popular among Mainliners).  This is true for Episcopalians, Lutherans, Presbyterians, and Methodists.  We do not use the NRSV because of doctrine, but paradigm.

Similarly, our evangelical sectarian cousins until recently could be easily divided into KJV, NIV, and NASB factions.  I say recently, because two developments have changed the landscape.  The first was the release of the ESV, which is now one of the most popular translations in the US.  The second was the most recent revision of the NIV, which strangely made the NIV more like the NRSV and alienated whole populations such as the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, for example.

As though they wanted to participate in the uniquely American Bible translation game, Catholics have started to divide into groups as well.  In addition to the official translation, the NAB/NABRE, conservative Catholics have begun to increasingly endorse the RSVCE (a Catholic redux of the RSV) while others who share in the Mainline vision, have drifted to the NRSVCE.  The Latin-only crowd continues to use the Douay-Rheims if they are not capable of reading the Vulgate.

Something that I think has been lost in the American scene is the importance of dynamic translation.  Even though we don’t always see it, our culture is extremely literal and has little patience for anything less than the perception of direct access.  This can be seen in the continued success of the NASB and the KJV, people believe it is the most direct route to the original languages one can get without a mastery of Greek and Hebrew.  Dynamic translations are often seen as temporary tools designed for young readers or new Christians.  The obvious counter-point was the incredible success of The Message about ten years ago, even among Mainline Christians, but I think the success of this paraphrase (not a translation by an means) was that it revealed just how unfulfilling a literal world can be.

I don’t know how many times I’ve heard or read the phrase, “I use __ translation for devotions, but __ for study.”  It increasingly irks me, but is a necessary defense for readers of the Good News Bible, New Living Translation, etc.  I don’t know if anyone can really separate devotion and study.  Something the Rabbis have understood better than most of us is the deep connection between devotion and study.  It also reveals a faulty understanding of what the Bible is and how we read it.  As a Lutheran, I ought not to be reading the Bible one verse or word at a time trying to discern its meaning as though I found it in a law library.  This is the method of the sectarian.  Instead, I ought to be reading it holistically and engaging the entirety of its contents with the entirety of my life.  I don’t interpret Scripture in isolation, but as part of a catholic we.  The Lutheran confessors understood this when they repeatedly wrote they “we believe, teach, and confess” in the Confessions. I don’t need to obsess over every verb root, because in my work in the world I do not have time to do this kind of study.  I need to read the Scriptures for edification and because I cannot spend every day with theologians or at a seminary, I have the Confessions to read along with the Scriptures to guide me in my life of faith.  Reading the Bible this way means I no longer am burdened with misguided obsessions over whether this word or that is the right and proper translation of what St. Paul wrote.

I am not anti-study.  Anyone who knows me would never accuse me of anything even close to it.  That being said, I do worry that we are perhaps too loyal to a particular translation of Scripture and the philosophy behind it to the point of preventing us from encountering the Word.  I definitely have my own Bible preferences and you probably do too, and I even have strong opinions about some of them, but I think we are a bit free and loose with negative descriptions of other versions.  The fact is most people who go to church do not read their Bible regularly and even fewer read even basic theological writings like the Small Catechism.  Barring the use of a straight-up heretical and false version, if you have a Bible you are reading then the version is of little consequence.  On the other hand, unless you are interpreting it in the light of the catholic faith, having the “right” version will not help.

Read your Bible.  If you don’t have one, get one; one that you will read.  Read your Bible in the light of the faith of the Church opening up your whole life to the Word.

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By way of a disclaimer of sorts, here are the translations I read when left to my own devices:

New American Bible Revised Edition (NABRE), God’s Word (GW), and the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV).  If I could get one in print, I’d probably also read the English Revised Version (RV).

 

Memento mori, in pieces

Piece 1.

If you have ever shopped for a rosary, Dominican, Franciscan, Anglican, or otherwise, you know that it is immediately clear that there are probably far more choices than is actually appropriate.  Much of the selection, in my opinion, veers away from devotional item into the territory of jewelry.  item3252_250_x_250Anyway, I happened upon a rosary made by the Monastic Congregation of St. Jude, an Anglican Augustinian order (about which I can find no information) that has skull beads, a crown of thorns in place of a Miraculous Medal, and a distinct crucifix to boot.  The purpose of this design, on top of praying the rosary, is to serve as a ‘memento mori’, a reminder that we will die.  This is something all Christians ought to remember daily even if our liturgy books have shied away from it in the past couple of generations.

Piece 2.

I was recently hired as a church business administrator at a large church & school that was founded in the mid-nineteenth century.  Everywhere one looks there are reminders of those who came before the current congregation.  Although historic congregations can get caught behaving like preservation societies, a church that is steeped in its past cannot help but worship in the context of mortality.  I think we all intuitively recognize this when we step into a stone cathedral or an old colonial church.  The fact that generations of people were baptized, married, and buried in this place flavors the spiritual life of the congregation and even the building in some emotional sense.  Perhaps it is squarely rooted in my individual psyche, but I would rather worship in a Gothic revival building that desperately needs repair than a brand new building that resembles a contemporary auditorium.  Yes, part of it is my preference for that particular style of architecture, but I also believe that the building’s passage through time is part of it as well.  I find it much harder to pray in a new building that is immaculately kept; like so many other parts of our culture, I find the physical and emotional sterility spiritually stifling.

Piece 3.

My first training was as a historian and I am an amateur genealogist who, like so many, is heavily indebted to Ancestry.com.  In my experience, there is something deep down that is fed by the knowledge of one’s ancestors, both the good and the bad.  It is interesting how patterns have emerged as I am able to draw a more complete picture of my predecessors.  I remember when I was doing my Clinical Pastoral Education as an Episcopalian and my CPE supervisor, during one of our one on ones, asked me how I was able to function in a hierarchical church when I have an almost visceral response to ecclesiastical hierarchies.  I didn’t really have an answer, but it has been interesting for me to learn that this independent streak is not entirely my own.  One branch of my family descends from Huguenots who emigrated from France for Virginia.  A much larger and more recent trunk was Congregationalist (of the German variety, not the more popularly known New England variety).  Another branch was of the Methodist New Connexion (a Methodist sub-group that pushed for equal authority of the laity in decision-making).  This knowledge has been not only enlightening, but humorous for me as I’ve come into it.  On the other hand, my maternal family’s oral history emphasizing the presence of Episcopal clergy in every generation of the family for the past century I found oppressive.  This was at least part of the root cause of my entering seminary as an Episcopalian as well as my profound unhappiness that eventually prompted my leaving school and Anglicanism altogether.  With my most recent move into becoming an Administrator, I am again intrigued by the family connection: my great-grandfather was a career Administrator for hospitals in the Northwest.

Epiphany 6A sermon

Below is the text of my sermon delivered yesterday.  The text below is probably about 85-90% accurate to what was actually delivered as it is my habit to continue to edit up until delivery with hand written changes.

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Most Merciful God, author of all good things, who has given your holy commandments to us, by which we should direct our life; imprint them in our hearts by your Holy Spirit and grant that we may renounce all fleshly desires and the vanities of this world, that our whole pleasure and delight may be in your Law; and, being governed by your Word, may in the end attain the eternal salvation promised to us in it through Jesus Christ, your Son.  Amen.[1]

Today Moses gives us the answer to the question we all ask in one form or another, “what do I have to do,” “what do I have to believe,” “how do I make sure that I get eternal life?”  This question deals with our very mortality and who we are as human beings and the answer Moses gives is that we must “choose life” if we want to live.  Ok, that all sounds good, but what on earth does that actually mean?  Well, choosing life, according to Moses, means choosing God and choosing the Law.  At first glance, Moses seems to be giving us circles in which to run.  Here’s the Law.  If you want to live, choose life, love God, and obey it…. And if you don’t you’ll live a life of slavery, isolation, and death.  But, let’s remember what Pastor Kris taught us a few weeks ago, God is not a nightmarish Santa Claus giving presents of life to the obedient and coals of death to the disobedient.  Like so many passages, we risk our souls trying to interpret it in isolation.

So now, let’s consider Jesus’ teaching on the Law.  He uses the formula, “you have heard it said. . . but I say . . .”  He is NOT replacing or cancelling Moses.  I say again, Jesus is not telling us to ignore the Law of Moses.  In fact, he is doing the opposite and amplifying Moses’ teaching on the Law.  In the case of murder, most of us manage to live our lives without killing anyone.  But, have you ever been angry with someone?  Have you ever refused to apologize?  Jesus says to all of us that to refuse to reconcile with someone is to spiritually murder them.  In the case of adultery, Jesus makes it clear that everyone of us who has ever even dated someone who is not our spouse, up to and including the crushes of our childhood and the dates of our formation years – has undermined the fidelity God desires of us.  This is not even to mention the thoughts that sometimes fill our minds whether intentionally or against our will.  In the final case of perjury and oaths, I will simply remark that what Jesus is getting at here is the difference between the integrity and power of words that ought to exist compared with the world we know where we set up a system of oaths and promises to reinforce our false notion of authenticity because deep down, we all know that we all lack a perfect integrity.

In Jesus’ teaching on the Law, he not only deepens the meaning of what we normally call “sins” such as murder, adultery, and dishonesty, but he gives us a graphic depiction of the cost of this sinfulness.  When discussing anger, Jesus says that our anger can make us liable to a civil court depending on how we express it, but even more than that, our anger always makes us liable to the hell of fire.  While discussing the passions behind adultery, Jesus gives us the example of literally cutting off one’s limbs and plucking out one’s eye in order to subdue our passions.  After all, isn’t this better than being cast into the hell of fire?  Finally, when it comes to the power of our words, speaking dishonestly or failing to be a faithful witness is tantamount to enlisting ourselves in the slavery of the evil one and no oath under heaven can undo our bondage to the father of lies.  The picture Jesus paints in today’s Gospel reading is a bleak image of our condition seemingly compounded by the voice of Moses echoing through the Scriptures to “choose life,” as though that were easy or even possible.

So where is the Good News in all of this?  On the one hand we have the Lawgiver telling us to pick life over death and on the other hand, there’s Jesus telling us that, well, we can’t and hellfire is apparently inevitable.  In order to make any sense of this, we need to recall one of the foundational teachings of the Lutheran Reformation that “All Scripture ought to be distributed into these two principal topics, the Law and the promises” (Apology IV:5).  When you pick up your Bible and read a passage, ANY passage, in order to make any sense of it the distinction between whether this is God giving us a commandment or God making a promise regarding Christ is of paramount importance.  And make no mistake, we need both.  Martin Luther summarized this need when he said that, “The Law discovers the disease.  The Gospel gives the remedy.”  Today, the Sixth Sunday in Epiphany, we have heard read in our presence from both Deuteronomy and in Matthew, 200 proof unadulterated Law.

And yet – Jesus’ words for us include the Gospel in a subtle and surprising place; a phrase that so offends us that we dare not look long enough to really understand what is going on.  Jesus hints at the Gospel when he refers to the hell of fire.  And because I know that doesn’t seem to make any sense, I’m going to violate one of the standard rules of preaching and do a brief Greek and Hebrew lesson.  If you were to read this text from your Bible you will probably see a footnote by the word “hell” indicating that the Greek word used is ‘gehenna’.  That’s all very good except that it doesn’t improve our understanding of the word Jesus is using.  The Greek word ‘gehenna’ is a transliteration of the Hebrew ‘ge hinnom’ which does not mean “hell” as we know it, but the “valley of Hinnom,” which is itself a shortened form for the Valley of the Sons of Hinnom.  Again, this means basically nothing to us, but to the Hebrews, this is referring to a place hyper-charged with horrific meaning.  At the height of the kingdom of Judah’s apostasy, the Valley of Hinnom is where Hebrews made sacrifices to the false-god Molech; not offerings of incense or goats or bulls, but their own children.  As devotees of this Canaanite cult, parents would literally throw their own child alive into a pit of fire.  This was the location where children were offered to a bloodthirsty demon in one of the most perverted degradations of religion the world has ever seen.  And it took place in a valley outside of Jerusalem.  During the reforms of the pious King Josiah, described in II Kings, this place was desecrated so that no one could ever do this to their son or daughter again.  The Valley of Hinnom was so scarred into the memories of the Hebrew people that the valley was condemned and used as a trash heap.  This is what Jesus is referring to when he says it is better to cut off your hand than to be cast into the fiery valley of Hinnom as an offering to a demonic false-god.

So, what does this have to do with the Gospel?  From the very beginning of history – sin, reconciliation, and sacrifice have been intertwined with each other.  We see it in the Eden narrative: Adam and Eve are tempted to follow the advice of the serpent, are expelled from the Garden, promised that a son of Eve would trample the head of the serpent, and God initiates sacrifices to literally clothe our ancient parents.  We see it in the conflict of Cain and Abel where sacrifice, sin, and reconciliation are so closely related that it is easy to accidentally reduce it to mere sibling rivalry and move on.    The religion of the Hebrews is built on the idea of sacrifice and reconciliation and, like the distinction between Law and Gospel, is one of the major keys to understanding the Bible.  More specifically, it is the key to the three sins focused on by Jesus this morning.  When we sin, we are adulterers against our covenant with God.  We use our words to defend our sinfulness and oaths to prove our righteousness to ourselves and others.  And finally, every time we refuse to reconcile ourselves to our brother or sister, refuse to come before the Lord in penitence, we commit spiritual murder.  This is why the Valley of Hinnom is such a powerful symbol: it is the absolute perversion of the sacrificial system God provided his people and a merger of these spiritual sins with a liturgical act of infidelity and murder.  But even still, no matter the degree of degradation, the method of salvation cannot be totally obscured.  God’s plan remains.

There is one more thing I want to urge you to remember about these words of Jesus: this is an excerpt from a much larger sermon: the Sermon on the Mount.  A sermon that begins with the Beatitudes and words of blessing before we get to today’s selection.  In the language of our Lutheran forefathers: today we got a heavy dose of Law, but the sermon began with promises.  You are blessed when you recognize you are spiritually helpless.  You are blessed when you experience real loss and open yourself to God.  You are blessed Jesus says.  Again and again, you… are … blessed.  Then as we heard last week he again blesses us when he says, you are salt; you are light.  You are blessed and you are a bless-ING to the world around you.  Only after these blessings does he say, “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times… But I say to you.  Beginning with blessing before discussing obedience is not just good psychology, it’s good theology and Jesus knows exactly what he is doing.

We don’t love the Law because preachers tell you to.  Nothing Pastor Kris, I, or anyone else can say will make you love the Law.  At best, we can make you feel guilt, but we can’t make you love obedience.  Similarly, fear of a fiery alternative cannot and will not make you love the Law either.  Words cannot exhort you to love the Law and no one can muster the strength to do it on their own.  The only thing that can do it is Justification.  Yes, that Justification: justification by grace alone through faith alone; the blessing of being justified at nothing more complicated than the promise of Jesus who hears our confession and blesses us.  Our repentance brings us closer to Christ who fulfilled the Law.  Christ did not murder in his time on earth.  Christ did not curse or speak untruth in his time among us.  Christ did not abandon, divorce, or ignore his covenant people.  And, though we naturally fear the Law, it shows us our sin, shows us the Son, and displays his victory over sin for us.  Hold up the Law and we see the true image of the Lamb of God: bloodied and nailed to a tree.  Put there by murderers, adulterers, and faithless mockers.  It is the Law that points us to life by showing us the One who was faithful when we weren’t and reveals him to be the very Word of God who spoke to Moses in the first place.  It is the Law that directs our attention to the Tree of life; the body and the blood nourishing us in the ongoing sacrament at the altar of reconciliation.  It is no accident that our churches often place a cross over the altar.  This is where Law and Gospel meet.  So yes, the Law calls us murderers, adulterers, liars, scum, and faithless sinners and although we like to distance ourselves from this accusation by neatly framing it in theological terms; with openness, we know these things describe our experience in this world and express how we really feel.  The painful honesty of the Law both teaches and condemns us in order to direct us to the ultimate Victim of our crimes who continues to pour his life out for each and everyone one of us saying, “Take and eat, I do this for you.  You are salt because I nourish you.  You are light because I shine my light through you.  You are blessed; follow me in the blameless way of the Lord.”


[1] Personal revision of Collect for Psalm 119 in the Scottish Metrical Psalter, originally composed by Augustin Marlorat.

Time for some lazy blogging

I know this is pretty lazy blogging, but it’s time for a few announcements.

First, I have concluded my Twitter experiment and decided that yes I do, in fact, hate it.  Thus, there is no more Twitter on this blog or me on Twitter.

Second, I have added a new page to this blog, “Ev. Catholic resources.”  It will no doubt continue to evolve and was written in the same vain as the “Mercersburg Miscellany.”

Third, I have been invited to be the guest preacher at Shepherd King Lutheran Church in San Antonio on the Sixth Sunday after Epiphany (February 16).  From my initial reading of the lectionary it looks as though it will be a Law and Gospel kind of sermon. :)

Law-Gospel2

To remember or to emulate?

Today is the commemoration of Ss. Anthony and Pachomius for Lutherans in the ELCA.  They are both described as “renewers of the Church.”  They are both desert fathers and generally regarded as the father of monks and the father of communal life, respectively.  Sadly, the calendar remains little more than a token gesture to the monastic tradition (along with St. Benedict, St. Francis, etc.).  Apart from the very new Order of Lutheran Franciscans (an ELCA order) and the very small St. Augustine’s House Lutheran Monastery (unaffiliated) there are few options for Lutherans inclined to monastic spirituality other than ecumenical orders or orders in other denominations open to Lutherans.

Coptic icon of St. Pachomius

Coptic icon of St. Pachomius

The response of those in authority within the ELCA as well as those in the pews to people like me is usually something along the lines of “I don’t get it.”  Sadly, my own order has had difficulty in getting positive responses from the ELCA even on things as simple as renting a booth at General Assembly.  From my observations, the Order of Lutheran Franciscans are off to a good start within the ELCA, but are for now confined to a local charter despite now having friars, novices, and inquirers from across this country and abroad.  St. Augustine’s House, staying true to their Benedictine charism, has little more than have a website and newsletter to reach beyond their monastery and remains a local community.

Unless one is Anglican/Episcopalian, being a Protestant in a religious order in 21st-century North America is a bit like being in an underground movement.  This is even more true for those like myself who are in a dispersed community rather than living in a cloister.  In many ways it is only when at a monastic retreat that I get to be myself and I know other brothers and sisters feel the same way.  At the same time, I am not called to live a cloistered life, but to live in the world.

Source: monkrock.com

Source: monkrock.com

The ELCA has a very full calendar with saints from the early Church, the Lutheran Reformation, as well as Catholic, Orthodox, and Reformed churches.  The Augsburg Confession teaches that “the memory of saints may be set before us, that we may follow their faith and good works, according to our calling” (Article XXI:1) and this is the intent of the Calendar of Saints.  But, having a list of saints is not enough.  We need to be active in studying their example, learning how Christ shaped their lives, and to emulate their example in our own life.  We ought not merely remember, but also follow.