Monday, August 04, 2014

In Moments Like These

Back in Cursillo days, there was a particular song that began like this:
In moments like these I sing out a song,
I sing out a love song to Jesus.
Love songs to Jesus, it turns out, are their own little genre, and apparently they've evolved into, well, romantic ballads. At least that's what I'd heard, but being a stalwart 1940/1982 kind of guy, I hadn't really been exposed to these that much.

So this morning we, er, people at church sang a song for which I have provided the word cloud at right. I didn't sing it, at least not after a line or so, because I noticed that (a) it was a love song, and (b) it wasn't to anyone in particular. As you can see, there's no reference to Jesus, God, Christ, salvation, the cross, or indeed anything even slightly religious. You could sing it to your wife or your boyfriend or your pet monkey or even you favorite well-padded armchair without changing a word. Oddly enough, the one missing word in all of this is, well "love".

But it hardly seems to matter. Lyrics don't get more generic than this; whether it is a hymn of adoration to the godhead or an ode to one's romantic interest, it's vapid and trite. Why should we sing this kind of this rubbish?

Monday, July 28, 2014

Maleficent Redemption

Over at Stand Firm, Timothy Fountain has an excellent analysis of how the recent Disney film deals with themes of love and redemption in ways that step way outside the classic romantic paradigm. His conclusion:
These three big themes - fallen people in a fallen world, repenting of the evil that looks for excuses to take us over, and expressing highest love in sacrificial care for others - are messages of the Word of God. I found Maleficent thought provoking, surprisingly fresh, and, God willing, an opportunity to articulate the Christian message where it might not otherwise be heard.
I can only add that some of the same ideas show up, albeit less well-executed, in Frozen. True love, in these stories, is agape, not eros, not even philia. It will be interesting to see if this striking turn continues as the new Disney message, and whether it also appears in the output of the Pixar side of the house.

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

On Sermon Illustrations

Kendall Harmon has today linked to a CT post on bad sermon illustrations. Now, if you are a glutton for punishment and have read through my sermons, you may have noticed a total lack of anecdotes, and a relative paucity of factoids. There are a couple of reasons for that. Part of the reason is simply that I do not have a ready source for them. Yes, there are books and websites full of them, but I do not care to own the former nor search through the latter.

Which brings me to the other main reason: Calling these stories "chestnuts" is being rather kind to them. One of the commenters refers to them as "just so stories", or "urban myths". They circulate as a kind of liturgical glurge to pad out inadequate exegesis.

I don't oppose them entirely. A good illustration is a powerful thing to engage the hearer. But scripture comes first; the teaching of tradition comes next; the preacher's insight after that. The stories are a condiment, a seasoning, to spice the story, not to overly sweeten it or substitute for spiritual meat.

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

So What Now, Since We Are Freed?

preached at St. Mark's Highland on 29 June 2014

This week continues the long series of readings from Paul's Letter to the Church in Rome which began last week, and this week's text is the complement to the previous, in which Paul began working through the implications of Jesus' atoning sacrifice versus our present sin.

I have remarked, on occasion, that the all-pervasiveness of sin is the one empirically verifiable doctrine of Judaeo-Christian religion. Everyone does things they know are wrong; anyone who observes the world honestly can see that. The LORD God gave the law to the children of Israel, and even as they had seen the fire on the mountain, they sinned a great sin before Moses had even descended. And I don't know about you, but if Awe-Inspiring Special Effects isn't enough to convince people to put their trust in the LORD and behave, I don't know what would be. We are perverse beings; or rather we are slaves to our broken nature—slaves to sin.

Or at least we once were, before we came to the water of baptism and were reborn in the new life. So what now, since we are freed from that bondage?

Last week Paul began with a question, which appears again this week: why not keep sinning? After all, he said last week, more sinning means more grace; this week, he suggests that being free of the law, we might think we may live as we please. It is a rhetorical question, of course, which Paul answers with his favorite comeback: By no means! We were held in thrall by the rebelliousness which goes all the way back to Adam, but that bondage was broken on the cross. But the freedom we gain is not license; indeed, at the very beginning of this long argument, way back in Chapter One, Paul identifies licentiousness as one of the marks and signs of our sin.

No, the freedom we gain is that we may again take up obedience, that we may become (as he says) “slaves of righteousness”. Now, this may seem to us paradoxical and unbelievable. We are free, but only through being bound to God. We are free, but we yet continue to sin. Fifty-four years after my baptism, and I am still slothful and intemperate, and those are my good faults. The most damning accusation the world levels against us, as representatives of Christ, is that we are hypocrites.

That accusation Paul does not answer this week, but another—that we are no fun—is at the heart of this week's argument. We are stuck in church on Sunday morning, listening to (they say) dull music and being lectured at; we frown on sex and drugs and every other pleasure. But as Paul says, all this freedom to frolic through life is illusion, and that the adultery and fornication, the double-dealing and exploitation, the violence both in word and deed are all signs of the bondage to sin which leads, in the end, to destruction. For those who lack another hope, the payoff, the wages of this sinning may not be held a raw deal, though I see that what the old serpent promises is never really what sinners get.

But this is Paul's message: we do have another hope, through Christ Jesus. We do not have to settle for the wages of sin, but have the gift of new life made available to us through grace. And since sin came as disobedience, so life and freedom come as faithfulness to what God commands of us.

Jesus gave us a new commandment: love one another has he loved us. We know the measure of his love, stretched out on the arms and post of the cross. Paul says that we are not to yield our members to sin, but Jesus yielded up his hands, his feet, his side to those who crucified their Lord. Therefore we yield our members to righteousness, even as they remember their old habits of sin. Take up the bread and cup in remembrance of his sacrifice, and then take up the acts of service to the LORD, living in Godly harmony, in charity, and in worship. Thus we show in our lives the free gift of the Father, in the Spirit, which is life and hope for the age to come.

This Puny Cosmos

So, a week or so after the end of he the new Cosmos series, Trinity Sunday rolled around, and we did Prayer C, with "the vast expanses of interstellar space, galaxies, suns, the planets in their courses, and this fragile Earth, our island home." Not one of the BCP's more felicitous texts, but its heart is in the right place. And it is surely most suitable, in its comprehensive story of salvation, for this culminating day of the Easter and Pentecost season.

Those vast expanses, those galaxies and suns, and that fragile Earth all featured prominently in Neil deGrasse Tyson's scientific story. I do not recall Tyson specifically referring to the mediocrity principle, but it buttresses his cosmology. Earth is unimportant, unremarkable; there are held to be uncountable earths populated with innumerable races. There must be: probability dictates it.

But the story of earth is anecdote, not data. We don't know how uncommon earth-like planets are, or how commonly they evolve some form of life, or how often that life evolves toward creatures like unto ourselves. Indeed, more recently the oddness of earth within the solar system has been heightened by suspicion that the formation and existence of our rather-larger-than-typical moon is important to the development of life here. The hope of those who want to believe that there is nothing remarkable about our human existence is that the unimaginably numbers of galaxies and stars within galaxies and planets around stars are sufficient to overcome any conceivable rarity of our situation, but pitting the unimaginable against the inconceivable is on the order of multiplying zero times infinity and expecting to get an answer.

The motivation behind this is Genesis, Chapter One, or rather, a distaste for it. When Stephen Hawking asserts that "the human race is just a chemical scum on a moderate-sized planet, orbiting around a very average star in the outer suburb of one among a hundred billion galaxies," the several value judgements (including Hawking's exaggeration of how common the sun is) are, after all, his judgements. God was not in the wind, nor in the earthquake, nor in the fire, so there is no reason to look for him in the gas giant, the supernova, the galactic core, or the black hole, or in any number of cosmic vastnesses or exotica.

If it offends that the creator of all should have created all but the most infinitesimal portion as mere backdrop to the divine earthly drama, well, that reflects on our aesthetics, not on God. The "pale blue dot" is a question of perspective, but in the end, it is the divine eye that matters.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

The Numbers: 2012

So another year's statistics are out, and the five year fast facts summary brings the cheery news that domestic membership is down 1.5%, same as last year, and that domestic ASA, after last year's interruption, has resumed its steady decline, not quite the traditional 3% this year. overal summary informs us that in a decade we've lost 24% of our ASA, and that not only did half our parishes lost ASA, but that over half had lost at least 10% of their ASA over a decade.

On a diocese-by-diocese basis, I note first of all that 2012 will be the last year that all of South Carolina is counted; as the 19th largest diocese by ASA, its loss means a decline of up to 1.9% of the total, alone. That year will also see the disappearance of Quincy into Chicago, but given that it was the smallest domestic diocese (Navaholand, which is a mission, is smaller), around 4% of parishes each have more ASA, and its membership is less than the typical error in that number. It's also a sign of How Things Have Changed that Quincy was not merged into Springfield, which in the old days would have been a far better fit; but most of the diocese having passed on to ACNA, I suppose Springfield would represent, to the remnant, that which they wished to avoid.

At any rate, the diocesan numbers are somewhere between "not as bad as they could be" and "well, pretty bad actually". Nineteen dioceses recorded gains in ASA, San Joaquin squeaking in with one, that's right, one extra attendee. Only three relatively large dioceses recorded gains: Chicago, Southeast Florida, and (oh well) South Carolina. Four of the gainers were overseas, including three of the top four by percentage gained. Lots of dioceses scored big losses, topped out by Los Angeles, whose loss was 10% of the total domestic ASA loss. Ohio also did quite poorly, with a 14%+ loss.

Then we get some other cheery numbers. In the domestic dioceses, burials outnumber child baptisms by 2300 ex-people, or in the 8% range of the total of either. Receptions alone are enough, for now, to make up the difference, and presumably some adult confirmations also register an increase, but again, the losses show that the attendance problem is caused in large part by people just not coming anymore. Overseas dioceses did better, as usual.

Next year's numbers are sure to be bad, what with the departure of most of SC. A continuation of the 3% ASA decline is a near certainty. And it will be a sad day when the best we can come up with is the observation that, well, at least our financial investments increased.

Thursday, May 08, 2014

What Can I Do to Avoid "Thinking Liturgy"?

Via one of Facebook contacts I came across the news that the Thinking Anglicans website is starting a new blog titled Thinking Liturgy. They say that "[I]n this new blog we shall look at the link and explore how our worship can reflect the social justice that we have proclaimed, and at the continuing relevance of this in the second decade of the twenty-first century." But before that they talk about what does get done in church:
These things are intimately linked with what we do in Church. We gather around lectern and table to hear and receive the Word of God; we share forgiveness and peace with our neighbours, and eat with them, recognizing the presence of Christ as we do so. We are the body of Christ, not just in Church, but in the world. Our table fellowship is not just a symbolic table fellowship existing only within the confines of the church building; rather, all these things are one.
Anyone see what they left out? To be a little fair, they do mention "worship" twice; but let's go back to 1 Corinthians 11:26: "For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until He comes."

It's that whole anamnesis thing again. Worship of and communion with God is the center of the liturgy; this is why we repeat the creed, and why one of the crucial elements of communion is a recitation of Jesus' words and acts on that final night. I do not see how social justice figures in this, except as an excuse for messing it up or forgoing it entirely.

One of the Facebook respondents waspishly remarked, "Personally I'm very happy with my unthinking Liturgy." Personally I am too exhausted to be waspish, and can only manage raw denunciation, unfair though it may be to snipe at them before they have even really gotten started. In the name of Social Justice, which is to say, progressivist politics as practiced by the college-educated class, I can only expect Father-free liturgies and the kind of self-congratulation I encountered at Trinity, Copley Square. I expect a lack of real theological (much less political) engagement. I expect giant paper-mâché Calvinist puppets of doom. I do not expect to be taught even the most basic Christian dogma.

Meanwhile, in an Anglo-Catholic parish in slums on the banks of the Thames, the rector carries on the work of the church by reviewing the church school lunches to make them less institutional. Their ritual is arch-traditionalist, and their theology, age-old; I cannot imagine that they do not teach their children the basics of the faith, nor would I expect that the preacher stands in the pulpit at the major feasts and hedges on the gospel narrative. By contrast, my experience of social action liturgy is that it consists of making empty gestures whose effect is to reward the participants and even onlookers with the self-congratulation of having done something Significant.

Therefore I do not want liturgy that "reflects social justice". I want liturgy that recalls and recollects and repeats the age old acts, with dignity and solemnity, liturgy that acknowledges our own sins and not just those of others, liturgy directed to God in worship. I'll even settle for worship conforming to the rites of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America as they are recorded in the Book of Common Prayer.

Tuesday, May 06, 2014

Like Papyrus Fragments in the Desert Wind

I've once again stolen the title, this time from where I do not recall, in honor of what appears to be the denouement of the whole Jesus Wife Fragment. Once again, the scholarly focus is more on the Gospel of John fragment that accompanied it, which appears to be in the same hand and has suspicious parallels to a modern edition of another text whose language is inappropriate for the period. But another detail has emerged in further examination: there's a hole near the top of the page, and on one side the scribe as written around the hole, while on the other, he has not. Now, it's not unread of for a text to be written on a damaged page, and for the text to be fitted around the damage; it's extremely hard to justify, however, that on one side, there was damage, and on the other side, there was not.

More details about the supposed origin of the document have also turned up in Owen Jarus's article on the LiveScience site. Supposedly these texts came out of the collection of one Hans-Ulrich Laukamp, who supposedly obtained them in Potsdam in 1963. This story, it turns out, has many difficulties. It does seem that Laukamp was living in West Berlin at the time, but Potsdam was then in East Germany, and Laukamp could not have travelled there. But in any case, Jarus was able to contact the executor of Laukamp's estate, and Jarus was told that Laukamp, a toolmaker, had no interest in old texts and did not collect antiquities. Another acquaintance gave the same story. Further investigation revealed that the German antiquities authorities had no knowledge of the parchments.

Thus the legitimacy of the text continues to dissolve. And finally, the major media, those who pushed this story, are yielding in their defense of the fragment. The Wall Street Journal ran a story on the story; other negative stories ran in Slate and the Daily Mail. Even Laurie Goldstein of the New York Times, who was one of the chief media advocates for the text, came out with an article recounting the extent of the doubts. Far from delivering revelations about the early church, or even about Gnostic heresy, all we are left with is revelation of the gullibility of those who long for such exposes.