Sunday, September 19, 2010

Life is Changed, Not Ended

OK, that's a quote from the funeral liturgy, so it's kind of ripped out of context. I have not died. But, metaphorically, there has been a kind of death, and simultaneously a rebirth to new life. It began with definitive suddenness when I received a phone call from the President of the Standing Committee of the Diocese of Springfield yesterday afternoon informing me that their electing synod had chosen me to become the 11th bishop of their diocese. But this death-leading-to-rebirth will take some months to fully play out; the canonical processes must be satisfied, and they take time.

Some hours after the event, someone told me the bells of St Paul's Cathedral in Springfield were rung, announcing my election. It was at that moment that I nearly broke down and wept. I am quite certain I have never felt so humbled in my life.

So begins a time of transition--a rather long one, actually. I will probably end up being a bishop-elect for as long as I was a deacon in 1989. But there will be an immense amount to do on both ends of the transition, so I'm not particularly worried that time will drag. At my age, time never really drags much, anyway.

One of the questions that I had to answer during the "walkabout" events in the diocese three weeks ago was, "If you have a blog, will you continue it after you are a bishop?" I answered then that I'm not entirely sure, but I hope so. I realize that being a bishop is a rather different kind of job (that is, not merely different as a matter of degree) than being a parish priest. It comes with its own peculiar constraints, constraints that I am at this time only conceptually familiar with. So that may have an effect on the character of my blogging. I don't know. It's something we'll just have to live into.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

A Prayer For Today

Marcel Dupre improvising on Veni Creator Spiritus on the organ of St Sulpice, Paris. The Dragonfly and I visited this place in 2005, and we have remembered it with great affection ever since.

Friday, September 17, 2010

A Friday Afternoon Sentiment

"Since from his bounty I receive
such proofs of love divine,
Had I a thousand tongues to give,
Lord, they should all be thine."
--Samuel Stennett, 1787
(Hymnal 1940, #353)

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Out of the Mouths of Babes...

One of my parishioners posted this as her Facebook status this afternoon:
So, M...'s been sick for a couple weeks, and I haven't let her drink from the chalice at church. This morning at the altar rail she asks, "Mom, can I have salvation this morning?"
M. is her daughter, who turns seven this Friday. Reading this was, for me, one of those luminous moments when the veil that divides Heaven and Earth is exquisitely thin.

If you know the Episcopal Church's Book of Common Prayer, it's not difficult to see where she got the language of her petition. For longer than this child can remember, she has drunk from the chalice while hearing the words, "The blood of Christ, the cup of salvation." Hence ... can I have salvation this morning?

Of course, M. was saying more than she knows. I suspect that she also knows more than she can say. (Shameless plug: This little girl has been formed for the past two years in Catechesis of the Good Shepherd.) And I thank her mother for sharing this precious moment. We all stand in need of being reminded just what it is we're doing every time we stretch our hands across a communion rail. We are, implicitly, asking, "Can I have salvation this morning?" And the answer, unfailingly, is ... Yes.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Thy Will Be Done

My parents-in-law, for as long as I can remember them inhabiting a home together, had a wall plaque that quoted (paraphrased, actually) I Timothy 6:15 in the King James Version: “God is the blessed controller of all things.” Much to my relief, the Revised Standard Version chooses to render that text “blessed and only Sovereign,” thus sparing all Christian apologists one more iteration of the theodicy question, the “problem” of Evil. If God is the blessed controller of all things, why did the earth quake in New Zealand yesterday? And why hasn’t my wife’s friend’s house sold yet, as a large swath of the Facebook world has been summoned repeatedly to pray it would?

The will of God and the sovereignty of God, those things that come under the doctrinal category of Providence, are mysteries eminently worth pondering—and yes, I’ve been pondering them a little bit more intensely than usual of late, given what’s going on in my life. Christians pray “thy will be done” virtually every time we pray publicly at all. Jesus himself taught us that petition. What do we mean by it? If it is indeed a petition at all, then there is an implied element of uncertainty; that is, it’s possible that God’s will may be thwarted. That points to a trajectory with an unsettling conclusion, one in which God is manifestly weak. But perhaps it’s not so much a petition as an statement of expectation, an affirmation of faith. Of course God’s will will be done. He’s God! If so, however, the trajectory is equally unsettling. It leads to simplistic fatalism—“whatever will be will be”—and silly nostrums like the one that attributes the death of a child to “God needing another little angel in Heaven.”

There are two essential theological rudders, I think, that enable us to navigate the narrow territory between the rock and the hard place. One is the Doctrine of the Fall. This is a bit of dogma that I’m finding lots of people don’t like to take seriously these days, which is a pity, because it really is quite essential. The biblical underpinning, of course, lies in Genesis 3, with the narrative of our primordial ancestors yielding to the Serpent’s temptation in the Garden of Eden, and the Lord’s subsequent pronouncement of consequences that affect all their progeny, which is to say, us. In his epistle to the Romans, St Paul takes this story and teases out its universal implications, not only for humankind, but for the entire created order, with “all creation groaning” (Rom. 8:22) under its weight. St Augustine took up the same baton in the fifth century and left it lying around for John Calvin to find and gild even further in the sixteenth.

But even if one is averse (as I certainly am) to embracing the whole Calvinist project (total depravity and double predestination, etc.), or even the Augustinian one (as the Eastern Orthodox are), there is broad agreement in Christian thought that human beings are congenitally predisposed toward egocentrism, enthroning ourselves where God alone should be, which is the very root of all Sin. We are, then, both victims of Sin—we didn’t ask to be born this way, after all—and perpetrators of Sin; “the Devil made me do it” may be true at some level, but that doesn’t let us off the hook of personal responsibility for the nasty things we do and say and the good things we fail to do or say. A great deal of human suffering—arguably the majority of it—is attributable to the fact that we are not sinners simply because we commit sins; we commit sins because we are sinners. We were born that way. Ultimately, 20 million people perished under the Third Reich because Adolf Hitler was born a sinner. He was a major perpetrator, but he was also a victim. Each of us is both of those things as well, though probably in differing proportions.

This is all what we refer to as our “fallenness.” It both infects and affects us at a personal level. This is why some act of confession or contrition is a regular part of our public worship. In the parlance of the ‘79 BCP baptismal liturgy, we’re talking about the “sinful desires that draw us from the love of God.” It also infects and affects us at a social (one might dare to say, political) level. Poverty, for example, is a social evil. Except in the rarest cases, however, it is not attributable to the malevolent actions of any individual, or even any single group of individuals. It is a systemic feature of the way we organize ourselves economically, particularly if we participate in an economy that relies on market forces. On one level, I’m not personally responsible for making anyone else poor. On another level, I am, simply because I benefit from our (relatively) free market economy. In our baptismal renunciations, these are the “evil forces of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God.” (Please note: I am not an enemy of free market capitalism; I believe firmly that it’s the worst possible economic system, except for all the others.) But, as St Paul is at pains to point out, the Fall affects not only humankind, but all of creation. It’s not just people that are fallen; the world is fallen. When the earth shook under Port au Prince last year, when Katrina blew into the gulf coast five years ago, we witnessed the tragic consequences of the Fall of creation. (Not human wickedness, mind you--I carry no brief for Pat Robertson!--but the brokenness of creation at a "meta-structural" level.) Those things did not happen only as a result of tectonic plate shifting or a low pressure system feeding off itself in exponential fury. There was a deeper cause, one that is beyond the ken of geologists or meteorologists. We’re talking here about “the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God.” These, too, we renounce when we stand at the font.

Clearly, it is not God’s will that death entered the world “through one man’s sin” (per Paul to the Romans). There may be a host of reasons behind a tornado forming and wiping out a trailer park, or cancer cells metastasizing inside a human body, but “because it was God’s will” is not one of them. Poverty and war and racism and gang violence and bad hair days are not God’s will. God’s will can never be righteously invoked as a justification for lying, cheating, stealing, or breaking any of the other Ten Commandments. By endowing us with the ability to not obey him, God took an audacious calculated risk. It can be plausibly argued that he lost his bet in the Garden of Eden, and has been losing it over and over again ever since. Not everything that happens is God’s will. “Que sera sera” may be a great song for Doris Day to sing, but it’s lousy theology. Human sinfulness, fueled by the “elementary principles of the world” (per Paul in Galatians and Colossians), can and does sometimes thwart the will of God.

The problem, of course, is that this leaves God in what looks like an indefinitely weakened and vulnerable position. So what do we do? I would suggest that this is where the second of my two essential theological rudders gets put into the water, which is the doctrine of Ubiquitous Grace. OK, there isn’t, so far as I know, actually a formal doctrine by that name—I made it up (the name, that is; the idea is hardly original)—but I’m fairly certain it’s consistent with both scripture and tradition. To say that God’s grace is “ubiquitous” is to say that it’s everywhere—places we expect to find it (like sacraments) and places we would never think to look for it, sometimes even smuggled in with the very sinful behavior that is trying to separate us from God’s love. God is the consummate opportunist, and is not above using even our sinful acts as “mules” for his redeeming grace. Should we then sin the more so that grace may abound the more? Well, Paul has already answered that question in the negative. But grace abounds nonetheless. It abounds everywhere, in the unlikeliest of places, whether we’re looking for it or not.

Sometimes what we experience in the wake of our prayers looks obviously like our petitions have been granted, and for that we give great thanks. It is an occasion of praise. At other times, not so much, and we have that "prayers hitting the ceiling" feeling. So, from our time-bound human perspective, then, we might say that God is indeed the “blessed controller of all things,” but that his “control” is exercised retrospectively, not prospectively. God is the master of Plan B. God is never above acting tactically when human sinfulness, to say nothing of the “elementary principles of the world,” frustrates his acting strategically. God comes in right behind the messes we make, or the messes made by tectonic plates or low pressure systems or cell growth run amok, and begins gathering the debris and weaving it back together in the grand tapestry of what theologians call Redemption. And redemptive weaving is an improvisatory art. It morphs constantly as Ubiquitous Grace responds to the attempts of the Evil One to blind us to our identity and destiny. Most of the time, we’re too close to the tapestry to get a sense of the evolving picture. But once in a while, we actually get to see a glimpse of suffering redeemed, of vessels made stronger precisely where they had been broken. I have seen broken hearts and I have seen mended hearts, and it’s joy to behold.

“Thy will be done.” It will, in the end. But getting there is, for God, a matter of art, not architecture. It’s not anything that looks all that “controlling” while it’s in process. But it is, indeed, blessed.