what do you say?

me preaching 1-22-17a sermon, based on Matthew 16.13-20, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 12th Sunday after Pentecost, August 27, 2017

“Who do you say I am?” This question has divided the world. Christian from non-Christian and Christian from Christian.

The division occurs not simply given how you answer, whether you say Jesus is the Son of God, verily, God, an esteemed prophet, a wise teacher, a wondrous miracle-worker, or merely the founder of a religion, but also given how important you think the question is. A matter of life or death? A matter of existential significance, your very response a declaration of who you say you are? Or is it of lesser import, like an intriguing intellectual exercise suitable for a relaxing late summer evening with friends over a good meal and a fine glass of wine?

For if you think the question is important, worth pondering, a matter of personal interest and experience, then that sets you apart from someone who considers it a casual matter or not worth thinking about at all.

And here’s the irony. If the question is important to you, then fairly soon, I think, you may discover that it doesn’t matter how you answer. For Christianity is less about orthodoxy, right belief, than orthopraxy, right practice. Or, more…most truly, Christianity is about the connection between belief and practice. Before Christians were called “Christians”,[1] they were known as followers of “the Way.”[2] For following Jesus was, is not primarily a method of thinking or even believing, but a manner of living and behaving, particularly in regard to others; loving your neighbor, especially the poor, as yourself.[3]

To put this another way, Christianity is not merely about what you believe about Jesus, who you say he is, but also about what values you associate with that belief and how faithfully you practice them and how you deal with others and yourself when you don’t.

My Christianity is about love and justice; unconditional compassion and fairness for others. All others. Those whom I like and don’t like, those with whom I agree and disagree, those who share and don’t share my values. My Christianity also is about how loving and just I am or can be given the limitations of my personal history and experience, insight and understanding, preferences and prejudices, which is why my Christianity calls, commands me always to turn to God, trusting in God’s grace and mercy to strengthen me to be and to do love and justice and to forgive me not if, but when I fail.

What is Christianity for you?

That’s my primary point. You decide. You get to decide. It’s for you to decide. No matter how you put it, it’s your call. Your choice.

I think Jesus meant what he said. Who do you say I am? Not what do others say, even if “the other” is the church with its two millennia old and counting proclamation of doctrine based on that first century answer to the question, as reflected in Peter’s reply, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”  No. What do you say?

A penultimate word, for now… Today or any day, after you answer, tomorrow or any next day, given new experiences and circumstances and your reflections upon them, you may find yourself answering Jesus’ question differently or, though using the same words, understanding them differently. The point is to remain open, honest, and transparent with yourself in your continuing, deepening walk with Jesus.

A final word, for now… At the end and beginning and middle of any day, however you answer the question of who Jesus is for you, remember that your truth is the truth only for you.[4]

 

Footnotes:

[1] See Acts 11.26.

[2] See Acts 9.2.

[3] Matthew 19.19. See also Matthew 25.31-46, the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats.

[4] By way of an apologia or explanation, it was some time ago when, through a gradual process (as most life processes are) of experience and examination of that (those) experience(s), I came to this truth; that is, what I discern to be true can be related to some universal truth (however conceptualized), but, in humility and honesty, I cannot, I dare not claim my truth as that universal truth, thus, true for all people. To state this point another way, there always is a difference between what I declare is my truth and the Truth, and even my truth and your truth. This perspective has allowed and encouraged me to remain in encounter and conversation with others whose views differ, whether marginally or greatly, from mine with an aim of understanding others, learning from others, and expanding my boundaries of the nature and definition of truth.

Charlottesville redux: America the beautiful?

thinking

I haven’t slept well since those days of August 11-12. As one who daily gives attention to the events and cycles of life in the world, glorying in the good news and bemoaning the bad, I have felt, verily, embodied in my belly the national anxiety stirred by the conflagration in Charlottesville fomented by torch-bearing, chant-shouting, anti-Semitism-and-racism-live-streaming demonstrators. The more I think and feel and pray about Charlottesville, the more I behold a microcosmic expression, indeed, a tragic realization of a distinctly American conversation that we, as a nation, are not engaging.

It is a conversation, yes, about race and religion, history and heritage, nationalism and immigration, yet bigger. It is a conversation, I think, I feel about our national identity. Who are we?

It’s the sort of question that arises for us as a nation founded on an ideal, indeed, an idea of “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” at pressing historical moments, as, I believe, exist today, when it is clear that all of us are not reading from or reciting lines from the same proverbial page nor with a common understanding of the meaning of the words.

And here’s my fear. We won’t have the conversation.

For a number of reasons.

Chief among them, I do not believe that Donald Trump, as President of the United States, occupying that iconic position and, even more, symbol of national leadership and unity, has expressed a desire or exhibited the disposition to call the American people, all of the American people to the table of mutual and respectful dialogue.

An equally chief, no, perhaps the chiefest reason is what I consider our profoundly polarized national religious and political climate; the bitter fruit of seeds planted and nurtured long before President Trump took office. We live in a time of fleet retreat and determined retrenchment behind the impenetrable walls of our differing, often competing and, at times, conflicting perspectives. A time where the act of communal converse in which we intentionally seek out other points of view in the quest for truth has become an unpracticed, unpleasant, even unknown art.

In this, I believe that we, as a nation, have forgotten that whenever we, whether as individual persons or families, communities or congregations, regions or parties talk about what we believe, our core values, our fundamental truths, we, by necessity, must use words, which, at best, are symbols that point to what is inarticulable in its fullness. In a real sense, then, we always only point at what we believe, value, and hold true.

In this, there is an inherent epistemological (having to do with our ways of knowing) and existential (having to do with our way of living, being) danger. That we are tempted and oft blindly fall prey into the pit of temptation to invest too much power or authority in the words, even the actions or rituals that we design to point to our truths. The danger is in thinking, believing that the word, action, or ritual is the truth itself. That’s when we make difference dangerous. That’s when difference is no longer a lens through which we might behold a vision of greater truth, but only the stuff of which swords and spears are made. That’s when we won’t, can’t talk with one another.

And when that happens, indeed, I believe, as it hath happened, then our petitions and intercessions for America enshrined in one of our beloved national songs – praying God “mend thine every flaw, confirm thy soul in self-control, thy liberty in law” and “crown thy good with brotherhood form sea to shining sea”[1] – won’t, can’t happen.

 

Footnote:

[1] Words by Katherine Lee Bates (1859-1929)

have we understood?

preaching-epiphany-laurens-1-22-17 a sermon, based on Matthew 13.31-33, 44-52, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 8th Sunday after Pentecost, July 30, 2017

“Have you understood all this?” Jesus asks. They answer, “Yes!”

Sometimes I wonder about Jesus’ disciples. So quick to reply to a question of cosmic significance of the meaning of life, the nature of God, the character of the kingdom of heaven; all said, the meaning, nature, and character of life with God.

But the disciples were disciples. Students. They had come to Jesus to learn from him. And sometimes they seem like the children of any classroom. Faced with a question and with the approval of the teacher hanging in the balance, they either remain silent hoping one of them will speak up, usually the impetuous Peter, bearing for all of them the weight of judgment or, in boisterous solidarity, blurt out an answer hoping their unanimity will count for something.

“Have you understood all this?” Jesus asks. All these parables piled one upon another? (Parable, as I shared with you last Sunday, from the Greek, parabole; literally a thing tossed alongside. Not the reality itself, but a story, a parallel image to help us understand that reality; here, the kingdom of heaven.)

“Have you understood?” “Yes,” they answer. Then comes the point of the question. “Every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”

Huh? I confess that I don’t know what this means. I do have some guesses. And that, too, is the point.

None of us knows the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. About anything. About people. Others or ourselves. About life. This one or any other. All we have is our guesses. Our perceptions and presumptions about the reality around us, which are like parables; things we toss alongside to help us understand our experience.

Looking again at this odd saying of Jesus, my guess is that he is the scribe trained for the kingdom of heaven. He is the master of the household who, in his teaching, brings what is new out of what is old; new interpretations, new meanings from old, well known images and ideas.

Therefore, the kingdom of heaven, the life of God, our life with God is like a tiny mustard seed that grows expansively, invasively everywhere or yeast that makes bread rise in bountiful measure or hidden treasure or fine pearls, priceless and worth every effort to obtain or fish nets that catch and hold all fish or all of the above.

So, let me toss some things alongside our reality.

The kingdom of heaven is like this Sunday morning when we, all alike in our shared humanity, yet each of us different in our individuality, come together to make community, gathered in this sacred space that, like a net, holds us all.

The kingdom of heaven is like this morning’s Holy Eucharist when we take what is familiar, bread and wine that we have made from creation’s ancient gifts of grain and grapes, and offer them to God with timeless words, “take, bless, break, give”, that we might partake of spiritual food to be strengthened anew to be like Jesus…that we may go out into the world as scribes trained for the kingdom, sharing with all the treasure of life with God.

Have we understood all this?

discerning & deciding

I awoke early this morning; the bright numbers of my Fitbit glaring at me: 4.30. In a reflective mood, unable to return to sleep, I arose. Sauntering into the kitchen, thirsting for the first cup of coffee (next to water, truly nature’s nectar), this sobering thought followed, chased me: The worst choices I’ve made in my life – those that yielded less than auspicious results, near or long term, and led me onto a path of life’s struggles – were the direct result of my having confused, indeed, conflated discerning and deciding. One of the most sterling, sagacious moments of my life involved my learning the difference.

Discerning and deciding, in common parlance, are treated as synonyms. However I now know, with a readily, daily conscious conviction, that they are related, but hardly, indeed, never the same.

Discern, from the Latin discernere, meaning “to separate” or “to distinguish”, produces the word discernment. Familiar in church circles, discernment oft is used (sometimes overused, I think, as if everyone is operating in the same realm of understanding, and, in my experience, we aren’t!) regarding processes through which folk are called to ordained ministry and to the various positions of service (read: employment).

For me, discernment, an operative term in my everyday vocabulary, is that ever-recurring, never-ending practice (as long as I live and breathe) – all at once, involving a synthesis of my thoughts and feelings, my observations and opinions, my reflections via memory upon my history, and my intuition through the lenses of soul and spirit – by which I arrive at my truth. By “my truth”, I mean my beliefs about God, who God is, what God does, about life, the way things are in the world and are not (in relation to who God is and what God does), and about myself, who I am and who I am becoming, what I desire and need (in relation to who God is and what God does).

Whenever I first discern, then I can (am able) to decide. Decide, from the Latin decidere, meaning literally “to cut off.” So it is, when I choose one thing or choose to venture in one direction, I cannot also choose the other. And so it is, whenever I’ve not discerned my truth and, nevertheless, decided, my choices have been characterized, corrupted by my ever-human-always-subject-to-selfishness-self-interest. I want it all. Everything at the same time, at all times, on my terms. Simply because this (for me and for anyone!) is impossible doesn’t mean I haven’t tried to do it. And, in trying, I’ve always succeeded in harming myself and others.

Lord, have mercy upon me that, praying alway that grand song of thanksgiving, I will discern, and then do aright:

Happy are those whose way is blameless,

who walk in the law of the Lord.

Happy are those who keep his decrees,

who seek him with their whole heart,

who also do no wrong, but walk in his ways.

You have commanded your precepts to be kept diligently.

O that my ways may be steadfast in keeping your statutes!

Then I shall not be put to shame,

having my eyes fixed on all your commandments.

I will praise you with an upright heart,

when I learn your righteous ordinances.[1]

 

Footnote:

[1] Psalm 119.1-7

Of life in the still-Christian South (a retired cleric’s occasional reflections)…

On the air

There are 300 or so FCC[1]-licensed radio stations in South Carolina. Of them, 50 or so or a healthy 16% of market share are religious (read: Christian);[2] their perspectives tending, trending toward the conservative evangelical end of the theological continuum. The programming runs the gamut of biblical studies, sacred music, both traditional and largely contemporary, church services, especially sermons, and religious oriented talk and news formats, covering topics of local, national, and international interest.

Since February 2015, retiring to South Carolina from Washington, DC (the last nearly 17 years spent on Capitol Hill where everything was within walking distance[3]), I have done more driving. Lots more.

I describe myself (well, one of my self-descriptions) as a religious progressive. I am more suspicious of certainties or declarations of certainty and more trusting in life’s ambiguities. I believe most, perhaps all things are open to doubt and question, even the existence of God and, if not, then, given my ceaseless wrestling with the reality of evil in this world, God’s benevolence. (In all of this, I also believe that if or as God is God, then God can handle, perhaps even welcome my wonderments!) In league with my native (for I’ve been this way for as long as I can recall) propensity to think, then rethink, then think again about any and all things, I once described myself as “flamingly liberal” by which I meant and mean that the older I get my list of “negotiables”, things that are open to review and revision, gets longer and my list of “non-negotiables” grows shorter.

All this is to say that, as I drive, I listen to religious radio, especially those stations whose raison d’être it is to espouse a bedrock of unassailable belief in an immutable God. Why? My reasons, at least those of which I am conscious, are legion.

Mini interior

In the unswerving articulation of Christian conviction, I am confronted, at times convicted in my bewilderments and called to rethink my questions…

In the fundamentalist interpretations of biblical texts, I find myself deepening in my admiration and respect for what I consider a purity of understanding and application of foundational truths. I also marvel at how a text can be interpreted in myriad ways…

In listening to the sacred music, especially olden gospel tunes, I, remembering the melodies taught by my stalwart, sanctified Baptist grandmother, give full-throated assent in song; sometimes, in the face of my doubts, yearning to reclaim what I wish I used to believe…

In a word, I’m happy for the existence and happier still to listen to the many religious radio stations.

 

Footnotes:

[1] Federal Communications Commission

[2] In South Carolina, oft it is said that to throw a rock in any direction is to hit a church building. So, it seems is true of the radio dial, nearly every turn, whether clockwise or counterclockwise, tuning into a religious broadcast.

[3] By “everything, I mean everything – homes and apartments, stores and shops of all sorts, markets and restaurants, doctors and dentists, lawyers and realtors, banks and financial centers, post offices and commercial shipping offices, and in proverbial accord with that 18th century English nursery rhyme, “butchers, bakers, and candlestick makers”, and, when occasion necessitated, two stations on the fine Metro subway system that stretched throughout the DC and near Maryland and near northern Virginia region.

Of life in the still-Christian South (a retired cleric’s occasional reflections)…

On preaching (Part 1 of 2)

“Paul, is preaching different in the South?”

In early 2015, following over 35 years of active ministry,[1] I retired to Spartanburg, SC. Since then, many times and in many ways, many people, most living in places other than the South, have asked me this question.

Usually, I answer with an immediate “Yes.”

Equally usually, I seek to intuit the assumption that provoked the question.[2] That assumption, for the most part, I characterize as a perception held by many of Southern illiberalism, manifesting itself, especially in regard to preaching, in a traditional (read: doctrinaire and dogmatic) form of biblical interpretation. However, I have not found this to be true.

Admittedly, as an Episcopal priest, I preach largely with Episcopalians, who, given our historic roots in the Church of England, the church of the via media,[3] whether North or South, East or West, span the widest and moderating range of the conservative-progressive biblical/theological continuum. Still, on the occasions I have preached in other settings with folk of the Church of God and of Baptist, Methodist, and Presbyterian communities, the common element of the experience, as fat as I can reckon, has had little, truly, nothing to do with my assumed or acknowledged conformity to one side or the other of the ideological spectrum. Rather, what I have found, what I have felt in the bones of my soul is people’s hunger to have an experience of God through the Bible. In this, I recognize the difference of preaching in the South.

Part 2 to come…

Footnotes:

[1] I emphasize the word active for three reasons. First, to distinguish my working life and my now retired life. Second, to testify to my belief that as long as one has breath and strength (no matter the vocation, but I also consider this supremely true of ordained ministry), there is life and labor to do in God’s Name. Third, in recognition of this second point, to acknowledge that, in December 2015, I “went back to work” as the part-time priest-in-charge (though daily I pray that God-in-Christ-through-the-Holy Spirit is in charge!) of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC.

[2] Over time and experience, I have come to believe that in order for me to ask a question, seeking to fill a void in my pool of knowledge or to resolve a lack of my understanding, I have had to base my inquiry on a starting assumption, which, given the response, either was validated or negated. To put this another way, I often ask myself: “What question did I have to answer first that formed the basis for my present inquiry?” I have found this tact useful in revealing my sometimes unconscious notions about the truth or reality of a person (including myself!), place, or thing.

[3] Via media, “the middle way” or “the middle road” has been a common self-identifier of the Anglican Church (Church of England) since its formal establishment during the 16th and 17th centuries; at that time in history descriptive of stance between Roman Catholicism and the Continental (European) Protestant Reformation. (Today, one way that I would characterize the Episcopal Church as via media is taking a position between nihilism, which, believing life is meaningless, rejects all religious and moral principles, and relativism, which, believing no principles have absolute value, views all ideologies as equal.)

I…We believe

a sermon, based on John 20.19-31, that I planned to preach with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 2nd Sunday of Easter, April 23, 2017. However, as happens on occasion, another word was given to me, I pray and I trust by the Spirit, to share with the folk. As it was extemporaneous, I have no text of this word to post.

+

In our Book of Common Prayer, among many prayers, there is one bidding that God grant a wise heart, sound mind, and righteous will.[1] This supplication, for me, expresses a common human longing for right perceiving, thinking, and acting that is the heart of the quest for truth. Truth in which we can believe. Truth on which we can stake our lives.

Who among us in our life’s pursuits, in our pursuit of life doesn’t seek to know what’s true? And who can know what’s true without knowing how it will be found? And who can know that it has been found without frequently, perhaps constantly entertaining, risking doubt?

Thomas is my ideal human being, indeed, my ideal of being human. For Thomas was a faithful doubter. Faithful in asking questions.[2] Faithful in refusing to accept the testimony of others of a “truth” outside of his experience. Faithful in his soundness of mind in knowing what would constitute proof, therefore, truth for him: “Unless I see…unless I touch”, in other words, unless I experience, then “I will not believe.”[3]

Thomas, his way of perceiving, thinking, and acting, highlights what I consider to be one of life’s inherent tensions; that simultaneous, internal counter-pull between our desire and need as individuals to think and feel, discern and learn for ourselves and, in all of our relationships and in every realm of our existence, personal or professional, to share common beliefs and concerns.

Concerning the latter, Thomas also exhibits an ideal humanity. For Thomas was faithful in more than his doubting. He wasn’t a contrarian. He didn’t doubt simply to prove he had a point of view, but rather to find truth. Thomas could have dismissed his fellow disciples’ testimony, “We have seen the Lord” as a collective sympathetic hallucination stirred by their loss and longing. He could have denied it all and continued on his path of singular, solitary grieving.

But no. A week later, Thomas rejoined his fellow disciples, choosing to put their testimony to the test. Daring to see if there was a truth with a larger “t” than his reality. Daring to see if there was a truth more than individual, but also relational. Verily, daring to question his doubt.

Doubting Thomas, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610)

In his daring, Thomas saw for himself what he desired, what he needed to see. In seeing, he believed. In believing, he staked his life on it. According to one legend, Thomas proclaimed the gospel of Jesus Christ as far eastward as India; there being martyred at the point of a spear.

I treasure our individual pursuit and discernment of truth; enabling, empowering each of us to say, “I believe!” Yet, speaking specifically as Christians in community, it is equally important, I daresay necessary that we always pursue and discern the truth of God in Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit so that we, staking our lives on it unto the point of our dying, can say, “We believe!”

 

Illustration: Doubting Thomas, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610)

Footnotes:

[1] The full text of the prayer For those who Influence Public Opinion (The Book of Common Prayer, page 827): Almighty God, you proclaim your truth in every age by many voices: Direct, in our time, we pray, those who speak where many listen and write what many read; that they may do their part in making the heart of this people wise, its mind sound, and its will righteous; to the honor of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

[2] See John 14.1-6a (my emphasis), where, as I read it, Thomas dared to ask aloud the question that resounded in the hearts of all the disciples: (Jesus said) “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.”

[3] John 20.25