Wednesday, April 24, 2013
"All religions -- Buddhism included -- tend to create a powerful sense of collective identity among their followers. All of the great world religions emphasize the sanctity of human life, and strive to limit the use of violence to what's admissible in certain cases. But those careful distinctions tend to go out the window when a group of believers feels that its values are under threat."
As I noted here earlier, what is happening in Burma shows yet again the necessity for inter-religious understanding and dialogue among believers as our best hope for firebreaks against violence between between believers of different faiths.
Tuesday, April 23, 2013
My friend Phil Burrows, an Anglican priest and British Army Padre with the Second Duke of Lancaster's Regiment, writes from Helmand Province in Afghanistan to tell me about a colleague in his ministry: "The children of Weeton Primary School named a bear, ‘Sgt Camopatch’ who is out on tour with me. The soldiers have taken to him like an old friend and he has already been photographed on the ranges and falling asleep during Power Point lectures. I think he will be up before the Commanding Officer on a disciplinary charge."
Here Padre Phil (left), and Sgt. Camopatch (centre) pose with Padre Robin Richardson (right), the chaplain to the First Battalion, The Mercian Regiment, prior to his returning to the UK.
Phil reports that his soldiers are in good spirits and "just get on with" whatever adversities they face. He is asking others of faith and prayer to join with him in praying for the people of Afghanistan and for the safe return of his soldiers.
"On our first Sunday Evening Communion service we prayed that God would have mercy on us and keep us safe. That he would confuse and confound all those who plot evil and who would seek to do us harm and that his guardian angels would build a hedge of protection around our bases and all who travel. We remembered our families and loved ones and we prayed for peace."
"Perhaps you would join us in doing the same."
Monday, April 22, 2013
Apparently the RN has its own SEALs. This charming photo is of a recent visitor to the RN Fleet Flagship HMS Bulwark, while she was off the coast of Scotland. http://www.blogs.mod.uk/defence_news/2013/04/image-of-the-day-16-april-2013.html
Sunday, April 21, 2013
Not everyone understands what eucharistic practice is all about.
American theologican Stanley Hauerwas, however, nails it in this video from The Work of the People, a liturgical resource ministry that I've noted here in past. We ran this video before Communion last Sunday in chapel. Note that I couldn't get this to run on my iPad, so you may need Windows to make it work.
"All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them." (Acts 9:39).
Preacher at Christ the King Chapel, CFB Suffield, Crown Village of Ralston, 21 April, 2014. Readings For the Fourth Sunday of Easter (Lectionary Year C): Acts 9:36-43, Psalm 23, Revelation 7:9-17, John 10:22-30.
"So Peter got up and went with them; and when he arrived, they took him to the room upstairs. All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them." ( Acts 9:39)
The new and inexperienced minister, new to his or her charge, had best take the church ladies seriously if their tenure as pastor is to be a long and happy one. When I went to my first parish, one of my congregations was made up predominantly of women of a certain age, whom, I felt, did not sufficiently appreciate my long and theologically rich sermons. However, I quickly learned that these saints of the church had much to teach me about what Christian community looked like. They may not have gone much for Karl Barth or Greek nuances in the text, but their busy hands and caring hearts were the church, even when they drove me crazy. Eventually I learned to appreciate what they had to teach me.
I suspect it has ever been thus. Today’s first reading from Acts, like numerous other spots in the New Testament, reminds us of the importance of women in the Christian church as it was forming in the years after the death and resurrection of Jesus. We find many references to women who were active in works of networking, encouragement, leadership, and works of charity, and one suspects that without them, the work of Peter, Paul and the male apostles would have gone for naught.
In the story of Dorcas/Tabitha, the detail that moves me because of its poignancy and humanity is when the widows show Peter the clothing made by this dear and departed friend and saintly woman. Certainly it is an act of grief, as if by clutching and holding on to these garments they can somehow still hold on to the friend they have lost, and by showing them to Peter they can communicate their grief when words fail them.
I think it’s also true that the widows display these garments as an act of tribute, a testimony to their friend’s charity and goodness to them. I was listening to the Sermon Brainwave podcast and one of the participants was speaking about what rare and precious things clothes were in the ancient world. For every hour dedicated to food preparation, a woman would have to put twenty hours into making clothing. So if the widows are showing Peter the clothing that Tabitha had made for them (and as widows it is likely that they would have depended on charity), then Tabitha was indeed a saintly and generous woman.
This passage raises several questions. What did the widows and women of this little group in Joppa expect of Peter when they asked him to “Please come to us without delay” (Acts 9:39). Were they hoping that Peter could bring her back from the dead? For an early Christian community, excited by the stories of and possibilities raised by Jesus’ resurrection, this might have seemed a reasonable expectation. Second, why was Tabitha in particular raised from the dead when other early believers did not? After all, the central problem that Paul tries to answer in his first letter to the church in Thessalonica (1 Thess 4:13-18)is why some of the believers have died before the promised return of Christ.
I think it may be that, as in John's gospel where the miracles are signs pointing to the identity of Christ, the raising of Dorcas also functions as a sign of the power and importance of the resurrection of Jesus. It has the effect of bringing people to faith, which is the part of the great drama of Acts, the growth of the church.The dual name of Tabitha (Aramaic) and Dorcas (Greek). something many commentators have noted, is a hint of Peter's great realization in Acts 10, that the gospel is true and meant for both Jews and Gentiles.
Like the raising of Lazarus in John, the raising of Tabitha/Dorcas is a sign and a confirmation of things to come. It tells others that the news of the risen Christ is indeed good news, underscoring both the power and the promise of the resurrection. For those in the early church who faced the reality of disease and death in an age of much shorter life spans than ours, as well as the fear of persecution and martyrdom, the story of Tabitha/Dorcas points to a new reality and promises that the God who rasied Jesus will ultimately triumph over death for all believers.
Along these lines, a closing comment on clothes is in order. In our second lesson from Revelations, we heard the question put to John by one of the elders in the heavenly vision, "Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?" (Revelations 7:13). The white robes are eschatological, signs of our rebirth and salvation, in the same manner that a white christening gown is a sign of the function of baptism. They also point to our remaking in the church, of our putting on Christ in the Pauline sense that we have a new identity in the church, the body of Christ, that is transformative, a rescuing from our old life which leads only to death. So the clothing shown to Peter in Acts 9 may indicate more than the grieving widows know. Not only are the clothes evidence of a life well lived, of Tabitha/Dorcas' robust and practical charity, but they are indicative of our new life in the church. The use of robes and vestments in worship, such as the ones I am wearing today, garments which are strange to some of you who come to this chapel from other traditions, may thus be about more than Anglican tradition. The white which some of you wore at your baptism is a sign of your transformation in Christ, of how God sees you, more radiant and lovable than any of us could imagine ourselves to be. One day we will be dressed thus, in the glorious worship of heaven. And who knows how, in the years following Peter's visit to Joppa, certain items of clothing were treasured, not just because they were once made by a kind and revered woman called Tabitha/Dorcas, but also because they conveyed something of the mystery and glory of heaven.
Sunday, April 14, 2013
Preached at Christ The King Chapel, CFB Suffield, Crown Village Of Ralston, AB, 14 April, 2013. Readings for the Third Sunday Of Easter (Year C): Acts 9:1-20, Psalm 30, Revelation 5:11-14, John 21:1-19
We first meet Saul in the Book of Acts, when he is introduced as a young man who is present at the execution of Stephen, “a man full of faith and of the holy spirit” (Acts 6), the first follower of Jesus to be killed for his belief. Saul is present at the execution of Stephen by stoning, and while he doesn’t through a rock himself, he helpfully stands guard over the coats of others who do participate (Acts 7:58). After Stephen has died this quite horrific form of death by stoning, Luke, the author of Acts, tells us simply that “Saul approved of their killing him” (8:1).
By the time we meet Saul next, he has graduated to a licensed position in the religious police in Jerusalem, and is thoroughly hostile to those who follow Jesus and who believe in what Luke calls “the Way”. Luke describes him as “breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord”. He obtains a warrant to go to Damascus “so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem” (9:2). As an aside, it is interesting to note that the mention of “men or women” speaks to the importance of women believers early in the life of the church, and is consistent with the prominence of women in the gospel stories of Easter morning.
Why was Saul so hostile to those who believed in Jesus? Later in his life he describes how he was an ardent Jew and Pharisee, eager to defend his religion against what he perceived as the false belief of those Jews who had accepted Jesus’ claims that he was the Messiah: “For you have heard of my previous way of life in Judaism, how intensely I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it. I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers” (Galatians 1:13-14). If he was alive today we would recognize Saul as that sadly familiar figure, the religious extremist, ready to defend his faith by whatever acts of violence and terror he deemed necessary. We aren’t told what he did between the stoning of Stephen and his trip to Damascus, but I think it’s safe to say there was blood on his hands.
And then Saul became Paul. Some biblical scholars debate whether what happens in Acts 9 should be called the conversion of Paul or the calling of Paul. Like Jesus calling his disciples and giving them jobs to do, as we see Jesus giving Peter his instructions in today’s gospel reading from John 21, there is a call. There is also a conversion, in that Saul has an encounter with Jesus, whom he previously thought of as a false belief, and comes out of that encounter a changed person, now Paul, believing in the reality of Jesus. I wonder why we don’t call it the forgiveness of Saul, or perhaps the salvaging of Paul?
In the appearances of Jesus to the disciples after his resurrection, it’s striking how their fear, while understandable, is unnecessary. I read somewhere that in the horror films that studios churn out today, one of the standard plot devices is of the ghost or spirit, sometimes an executed criminal, who returns to take his vengeance. The disciples may have been afraid of ghosts in general, or perhaps afraid that Jesus would punish them for deserting him in the Garden, the night before his death, after their promises to be faithful to him. Instead Jesus comes, as you may have heard last week in Luke’s story of Thomas, repeatedly saying “Peace be with you” (see John 20:19-31), which is hardly how we would expect a vengeful spirit to introduce itself. Now he comes to Saul, a guy we might well expect him to take vengeance on, and instead of ghostly punishment, Jesus asks him, rather gently, “why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:4. Far from punishing him, Jesus sends Saul to Damascus with the promise of a job.
That a Saviour who once preached to “turn the other cheek” should behave this way isn’t really surprising. Forgiveness is not just a stoic virtue, something that allows one to endure repeated buffetings, but is transformative. The story of what happens to Saul says something important about how God’s economy, his way of doing business, works. Nothing is wasted or discarded, if it can possibly be helped. Saul is not seen as an enemy to be punished or a score to be settled, but as a person of God’s creation to be redeemed, recreated, and tasked: “he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel” (Acts 9:15). And indeed, Paul, as the world comes to know him, goes on to found churches, encourage believers, and becomes the church’s first theologian. It could be said that the gospels tell us what Jesus said and did, but Paul’s letters tell us how to think about Jesus.
So I can hear you thinking, great, Paul becomes a hero of the faith. What about me? I’m not a hero. Well, so you might say, but the calling of Paul tells us a few things about how we can understand our own calls. First, none of us are disqualified from God’s call because of what we did. If God can forgive Saul and use him as Paul, he can forgive you and put you to work. Second, just as the world needed Paul to understand who Jesus was, so the world needs you today to understand Jesus. You as the church are the face of Christ to the world. Whether that translates into acts of evangelism, such as bringing others to church, or reaching out to others with words of love, forgiveness, and encouragement, you are needed by the kingdom. Finally, the call of God is not a call to self-importance, advancement, or reward. Notice what God tells Ananias about Saul? “”I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name” (9:16). A call to discipleship as suffering doesn’t sound like much fun, to be sure. But that call is consistent with the call of a Saviour who said take up your cross and follow me.
We live in a first-world society that tries to avoid suffering at all costs, including ignoring as much as possible the suffering of others, and yet is still not happy. Perhaps our own call to discipleship is to turn, see the reality of suffering, and find our fulfillment in being God’s love and God’s hands in the midst of that suffering? So today we heard the story of Before Paul. Before Paul there was Saul, a bad man who did bad things. We also heard how God saw the good in Saul and brought out that good. In that story, we also hear a reminder of what God sees in us, and how God calls us into his kingdom. None are disqualified. All are useful. All are loved. All are needed. Amen.
Wednesday, April 10, 2013
One of the things I hope to study when I go to graduate school on the army's dime this fall are what models exist for fruitful dialogue between Christians and Moslems. A copy of the United Church Observer crossed my desk at work last week and contained a short but fascinating interview with Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor. Taylor has made a career looking at issues of pluralism, secularism, faith, and social cohesiveness. In this interview, he deploys the metaphor of the prairie firebreak to describe how friendships between faiths and groups can check prejudice and friendship.
"But it’s another way of trying to fight against the growth of these absurd stereotypes that can easily circulate in society and that stand in the way of our living together. . . . For instance, if you learn something about Islam, the diversity is just incredible. And if somebody then said to you, “All Muslims are the same,” you would say otherwise. This kind of measure is essential.
Q Can you elaborate?
A The image that I’ve often used is the image of the firebreak. When a prairie fire breaks out and somebody builds a ditch, the fire can’t jump over. Any friendship across these differences is a kind of mini-firebreak. They’re as irrational as prairie fires, these kinds of mobilizations [of hate]. We have to find a way of creating firebreaks. It’s possible to teach with deep respect things that you don’t yourself believe in. When I was an undergraduate at McGill, there was a guy called William Cantwell Smith who was my teacher. He blew my mind. I was studying honours history, back in 1949. I had to take an optional course, and I took his course in comparative religions. No rhetoric —he wore a gown and walked up and down, and he was just extraordinary, just inspiring. A United Church minister. He had this fantastic understanding of Islam, particularly. He managed to make it live for us.
Q Interfaith dialogue can be challenging. In Christian-Jewish dialogue, even if people have known each other for years and are able to talk about many things, when you get to the difficult topics, such as the politics in Israel and the West Bank settlements, dialogue is very hard.
A Often people don’t say what they really think about the other. [We have] what I call pacifying dialogues to convince each other that we aren’t total enemies of the other, but they aren’t the kind of things that are enriching or appealing or create deeper friendships. You have to be able to say, “I find this belief of yours very perplexing,” or, “I think this is a questionable moral position that you guys are taking. I don’t want to score points against you. I really want to understand.” What makes that possible is when you’re talking unofficially as friends. I go back to these cases in schools. Kids who are in school together from diverse backgrounds can’t diabolize each other, can’t see their friends in that light. This is because their friendship evolves in a way where nobody is a representative of their group."
Taylor, along with evangelist Leslie Newbiggin and William Cantwell Smith, are three chaps going on my reading list this summer as I get ready to go back to school.
Tuesday, April 9, 2013
The Canadian Forces Chaplain Branch, which is triservice, has deployed a number of reservist chaplains during our time in Afghanistan. Reservist chaplains, like any military reservists, have their own jobs at home. Not every parish or congregation would be willing to let their priest or pastor go overseas for six or more months, and not every priest or pastor is good at managing competing priorities as a reserve chaplain - I know I wasn't. Hopefully the MOD blog entry has already been printed and proudly displayed in Buchan's parish back in Leybourne, Kent.
How do you need God's help today? During prayer time with our Wednesday after-school children's program, sitting in a circle on the floor, I asked the children how they need God's help. They had no trouble answering that question. They needed God's help getting along with their brothers or sisters, with their homework, and for Grandma when she is sick. I did an experiment with the church council, during prayer time before one of our meetings. I asked the council how they needed God's help in their lives this week. It was quiet for a few moments, before the first brave soul said, that it was hard to think about how she needed God's help. I found that it was much harder for the adults to ask God for help than it was for the children. What does that say about us if we don't seem to need God's help? Do you need God's help today?
This meditation from Laurie comes from a series of devotions, offered daily by email by Luther Seminary. You can check them out and, if you wish, sign up for them here.
Thursday, April 4, 2013
This Easter I've been struggling with the question of how one ends up assenting to the resurrection as being something real rather than being a myth or fairy tale. Preachers feel enormous pressure to be on top of their game at Christmas and Easter, as if their homiletic efforts could persude strangers to return to church the following Sunday. I suspect that this self-imposed pressure has more to do with our need to fill the pews by converting C&E (Christmas and Easter) Christians into regular parishioners than it does with persuading others of the realities of Incarnation and Resurrection, as if such a thing were possible.
I'm currently in conversation with a friend, a young officer and engineer whose girlfriend is Christian and wants him to become one. One of the sticking points for my friend is that he perceives religion as being "unscientific", not only because of its claims about Jesus, but also because of Christians he has met in his girlfriend's church who denounce Darwin and evolution. While we have fascinating and enjoyable conversations, I've given up trying to convince my friend that he should set aside his concerns and agree to my claims. I don't think evangelism works that way, even though the Book of Acts, the text that the church listens to in its Easter season liturgy, features long speeches leading to mass conversions.
Another friend of mine recently put me on to an essay (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-14944470) by the British political philosopher, John Gray, on how it is that people come to assent to faith. Gray uses the example of novelist Graham Greene, who converted to Catholicism but couldn't recall anything said to him that he found convincing or causal to his conversion. He just came to it. (I need to check this, but I am sure a similar process happened to C.S. Lewis). Gray uses the case of Greene to argue that it's not helpful to think of faith as a rival to science, with both claiming our exclusive assent and approval.
"We tend to assume that religion is a question of what we believe or don't believe. It's an assumption with a long history in western philosophy, which has been reinforced in recent years by the dull debate on atheism."
"In this view belonging to a religion involves accepting a set of beliefs, which are held before the mind and assessed in terms of the evidence that exists for and against them. Religion is then not fundamentally different from science, both seem like attempts to frame true beliefs about the world. That way of thinking tends to see science and religion as rivals, and it then becomes tempting to conclude that there's no longer any need for religion."
"The idea that religions are essentially creeds, lists of propositions that you have to accept, doesn't come from religion. It's an inheritance from Greek philosophy, which shaped much of Western Christianity and led to practitioners trying to defend their way of life as an expression of what they believe."
I found Gray's ideas helpful. As I think about how the invitation to follow Jesus works in the gospels, it starts with the invitation to experience: "Come and see", "Taste and see that the Lord is good", and the like. It's not "Come and agree". The creeds follow as attempts by the early church to define questions (where did Jesus come from, who was he, how was he related to God) that are partial attempts to explain the faith to its first generations of believers. I suspect that few in Corinth or Rome or Philippi were ever convinced by Christian propositions so much as they were convinced by the reality of communities which could live and worship and share a way of life in which all had value, in contrast to the dominant Roman proposition that Caesar was emperor and God and all must submit to him.
In the end, says Gray, the best thing to do is to "stop believing in belief".
"Not everyone needs a religion. But if you do, you shouldn't be bothered about finding arguments for joining or practising one. Just go into the church, synagogue, mosque or temple and take it from there. What we believe doesn't in the end matter very much. What matters is how we live."
That final sentence in particular is something that I know my young engineer friend would agree with. I would agree with it too, as a starting point. I think though that the next time we talk about the resurrection, I'll ask him to let go of the resurrection as a fact that humans want him to believe in, and get him to think about the resurrection as something that God did, and why (assuming he will humour me here) God might have done it and what God might be communicating in that action. In this month's Canadian church journal, Presbyterian Record (http://presbyterianrecord.ca/2013/03/01/the-threat-of-resurrection/), John Vissers thinks through the implications of the resurrection as God's strange, threatening, and wonderful declaration to us:
Vissers writes: "Sin, death and evil do not have the last word. The resurrection reminds us that we don’t simply need a little help to renew our flagging spirits. We are dead and we need resurrection. And only the triune God of grace is in the resurrection business. The real truth of the resurrection seems too strong for us, says Barth. But it refuses to be hidden in the harmless clothes with which we dress it at Easter. “It always breaks forth; it rises up and shouts at us.” It asks us, “Do you not see that Jesus came to set you free, to give you life?”
Thinking through the implications of the resurrection, I suspect, would be more helpful, and more exciting, to my engineer friend than putting it to him as a proposition.
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