Note to My Readers: from mid-June to mid-August (6/18 - 8/20), I will be taking a summer break from posting new articles for my Thursday and Friday slots. This will only affect my Thursday series on the global growth of Christianity, and my Friday series, the "Theological Bestiary" of birds, both of which will resume in late August. During the summer, I'll be dusting off some of my best essays from the first few years of this blog (a decade ago), as well as my verse play "Thus Ends the World," and re-posting them in the Thursday and Friday slots. All other weekdays will continue to feature new material throughout the summer.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Photo of the Week

May you be richly rewarded by the Lord, the God of Israel, 
under whose wings you have come to take refuge.

- Ruth 2:12

Monday, June 26, 2017

Quote of the Week

"Take the very hardest thing in your life, the place of difficulty, outward or inward, and expect God to triumph gloriously in that very spot. Just there he can bring your soul into blossom."

- Lilias Trotter, 19th century British painter and missionary to North Africa (the painting shown here is one of her works)

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Saturday Synaxis

We ask you, Almighty God, to let our souls enjoy this their desire, to be enkindled by your Spirit; that being filled as lamps by your divine gift, we may shine like burning lights before the presence of your Son at his coming; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

- The Gelasian Sacramentary

Friday, June 23, 2017

Thus Ends the World, Scene 1

To give myself a bit of a break from blogging during my busy summer, I'll be sharing again a short play that I composed last year, called "Thus Ends the World." It's set in the 14th century on a fictional estate near the English town of Norwich, and follows a family wrestling through tragedy. It will also include an appearance from one of my favorite figures of the Christian tradition, the anchoress/mystic Julian of Norwich. Unlike most contemporary play-writing, I've composing this play in verse, which was the classical model--Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Shakespeare, etc.: they all wrote plays in poetic form rather than in the realism of prose. I've also opted for an antiquated affectation to the language, not for the sake of being pretentious, but because it seems to fit the historical frame, the poetic nature, and the philosophical temper of the play. I hope you enjoy it.

Thus Ends the World

Cast of Scene 1:

Richard, lord of the Yarbury estates
Charles, Richard’s dying son
Ailred, Richard’s steward
Scene 1
[Richard standing at his son’s deathbed]
Richard: How comes this deathly hand against my door?
                                                                                                            [Touching his son’s face]
How, bless├Ęd Lord, and why?                                     
See how he labors for breath!
Every moment is a thousand agonies for him—
Aye, and for me, a thousand thousands.
Charles! How vainly hopeful sounds your name upon my lips!
A name which rang for me of the highest hopes and noblest loves…
You were the fire in your father’s heart.
And now there are but embers,
the flickering tongues of a hard and mocking heaven.
What black fate, that takes all my brightness and warmth
and leaves naught but smoke’s dark desolation!
[Enter Ailred]
Ailred: Pardon, my liege.
Richard: Pardoned and pardoned again, faithful Ailred.
                                                                                                            [Turning back to his son]
            My heart is full of pardons…
            But will no one pardon me?
Ailred: He still fares ill?
Richard: More with every minute. He slips away like fog.
Ailred: The doctor comes, not but an hour away.
Richard: Too long.
            And the lady of the house?
Ailred: A messenger was sent. We know not when she comes.
Richard: She will fly hence.
A mother’s love is unbounded by mortal constraints.
Ailred: Indeed, just such a woman is the lady.
            She will be here, my lord.
Richard: I will not be able to see her face, Ailred.
My heart will fail me. How can I look
upon that death-raked visage, wild in empty hopes,
when once I saw it light with the tenderness
of a hundred gentle suns?
You see my Charles now on his deathbed, nearly a man,
But once he was so small and fragile
that his cries would have melted a mountain of stone.
And when my wife looked on his ruddy little face,
there was unmeasured wonder in her eyes.
Ailred: My lord, I remember.
Richard: And I cannot forget.
How small he was, yet as wide as the universe to me!
His hands were but a fingertip’s breadth,
and their touch was worth all the king’s gold.
How, old friend—how, if I have loved him so—
how could God have loved him less?
Ailred: Doubt not that God loves him.
These are days of shadow,
and perhaps love’s light is only seen,
brightsome and full,
beyond the shadowed vale.
Richard: Truth; you are wise.
            These are days of darkest shadow;
            Am I so proud as to believe that they will not fall on me?
Ailred: It is not pride, my lord.
            All men hope for a brighter share.
Richard: The world is spinning to its grave. So say all the learned men.
            We stand on the edge of dust and Judgment.
Up rise the ranks of the fabled Khan, perhaps again, as of old.
We have heard the tales together, no?
And together we have trembled.
They follow not Christ, nor Moses,
nor even Mahomet, but only blood and blade.
And if not the Golden Horde, then next the Seljuq Turks.
The great kings fall, and so too soon may we.
I open my eyes on a world where only Prester John is free,
and the grave has swallowed all other Christian men,
to wait until eternity.
And if one hammer-blow was not enough,
God has sent a second.
The first has brought us to our knees;
The next will kiss us to the ground.
Ailred: You speak the plague.
Richard: Aye, the plague.
How many millions of lives, burnt in Aesclepius’ hell?
And now it comes again to us.
The bells ring in Norwich like the clamor of the forge;
How long until our own bells sound?
Ailred: There are reports of a case on the estate lands.
            Yarbury is trapped in the jaws of fear;
            Thus the doctor’s absence. Where he cannot heal,
            still he would console.
Richard: Consolations are but a pleasant chime,
The sound of the ladle ringing hard against
The vacant side of an empty water-drum
While we all die of thirst.
Ailred: Enough, my lord.
            She comes.
[Enter Mary, Lady of the estate]

Thursday, June 22, 2017

God and Country: The Dangers of American Patriotism in the Church

(Note: This is a reblog, lightly edited and updated, of a post originally written in 2010)

The church that I pastor has traditionally been a very patriotic church. There are a large number of veterans among our members' families, and the congregation often makes its national pride felt through such means as our special Memorial Day service and a wall in the fellowship hall honoring our veterans. For many years, the kids in our Sunday School were asked to recite the Pledge of Allegiance to the American flag in church. Such things aren't necessarily out of place, but they need to be considered carefully. Today, I want to focus on some basic pastoral concerns I have about holding American patriotism and Christian faith a little too tightly bound together.

First, a few clarifications at the outset. This isn’t a critique of our church as such—it’s entirely understandable, even laudable in some sense, to honor veterans and to love our country. If there’s a fault here, it’s not a major fault. It’s rather the simple difficulty that arises from conflating two loves which probably ought to be held separately. The second clarification is simply to note that much of my reflection on this subject has been shaped (but not fully determined) by Anabaptist influences, the branch of the Christian tradition in which my wife grew up.

To put the matter in theological terms, we Christians are the citizens of two very different kingdoms—the Kingdom of God, and our earthly societies. And I believe our allegiance to the Kingdom of God should be held quite free and separate of our political allegiances. Christ instructed us to give both kingdoms their due (“Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s”), but I don’t think he had in mind festooning church sanctuaries with Roman banners and emblems. Now, when I say that our allegiances should be held separately, I mostly mean that our political allegiances should not be allowed to invade our Christian faith. Our faith, however, should inform and influence and shape our political allegiances. Why? Because our citizenship in the Kingdom of God is the higher of the two loyalties. My identity as a Christian is eternal; my identity as an American is a passing affair. Some day my Americanism will simply be part of the beautiful diversity of the “melting pot” of heaven. I don’t expect that the USA will exist in the new heavens and the new earth for us to treasure and extol. But the church will persist. Christ’s kingdom will persist. So that’s where my highest loyalty lies. Thus my faith—my deepest identity—invades and determines my political allegiances, not the other way around. Our Christian identity is fundamental; our American identity is secondary.

And because the Kingdom of God is our highest loyalty, I consider it to be inappropriate to pledge allegiance to anything other than God himself in our churches. While the Pledge of Allegiance is fine and proper in other contexts, the church is an assembly of the Kingdom of God, and it is inappropriate for us to pledge allegiance to the US here in our churches. It is just as inappropriate as it would be for the whole US Senate to swear oaths to a Masonic order or their local Rotary clubs from the floor of the Senate chamber. The two things simply ought not to be put together, regardless of how appropriate or meritorious they may be elsewhere.

Thus I take my position against the saying of the Pledge of Allegiance in church, regardless of the circumstances, and against having an American flag flying outside on church property. (There is an American flag inside the sanctuary, but that’s such an old tradition that I’m not sure it’s worth the bother of dislodging it, and it’s happily tucked away into a corner sufficiently far away from the pulpit and altar.) The honoring of veterans in church is not quite as troubling. From my theological perspective, we must guard against such a practice being an extension of the cult of Americanism into the church, but as a celebration of community members who have made heroic sacrifices for the common good, I find it perfectly acceptable.

It’s worth remembering that Christ himself absolutely eschewed any taint of politicism or patriotism in his ministry. And his ministry, his example, is the foundation of the church. We should note that Christ could have easily encouraged patriotism in his church—his home country, after all, was Judea, populated by the chosen people of God. And everyone expected the Messiah to be a highly political, patriotic figure. Even one of his disciples was a Zealot, a Judean patriot. But although Jesus certainly focused his ministry on the Jews, there was no trace of patriotic nationalism whatsoever in what he did. In fact, he told Pilate quite plainly, “My kingdom is not of this world.” If Jesus himself, the Messiah, declined the patriotism that everyone thought would be proper and laudable for the Messiah, shouldn’t we be wary of conflating patriotism with faith in our own lives?

To make my case clearer, allow me to point out a few of the potential dangers of allying our American loyalties too closely with the practice of our faith:

First, and perhaps most troubling to me, it leads to a loss of the deep connection we should have with our brothers and sisters in Christ all around the world. We are more intimately connected (in a spiritual sense) with Christians in Swaziland than with our American neighbors, and our family loyalties should lie more strongly with the global church than with the USA. But in practice, this is seldom seen in American churches. During the Iraq war, all one heard about was the Americanist/political news. How many Christians were aware of the effects of the war on the native Iraqi Christian population? (In brief, the war was devastating for them, and several native church groups which stretched back more than a millennium and a half and constituted a decent minority of the Iraqi population a few years ago are now all but gone, forced to emigrate out because the war has raised Muslim/Christian tensions and made their ancient homeland unlivable.)

Second, it forces us to lose some of our prophetic voice against the abuses of the American system. Part of the mission of the church is to stand against injustice, but that can be hard to do if we conflate American patriotism and the faith. We too often shy away from denunciations of the ill effects of our materialism on other countries or from apologies for past American atrocities (against the Native Americans, for example), because such things make us sound “unpatriotic.” And so we mute the voice of the church.

Third, we tend to associate the enemies of America with the enemies of the church, and we lose the ability to love and pray for our enemies. Christ himself commanded us to love our enemies. But how many American Christians do you know who pray for the salvation of ISIS terrorists? According to Jesus, that’s what we should be doing, but our Americanism has too often blinded us to that calling. Far too many American Christians seem to believe that Muslims are our enemies, rather than the objects of our missional love and compassion.

Fourth, it leads to a tendency to associate American causes (especially wars) with righteous motives, whether or not that is the actual case. Fifth, it perpetuates the conflation of Americanism and Christianity in the eyes of other countries (much to the detriment of Christianity). When I was serving in missions in North Africa, I found it a fairly common assumption that Christianity was characterized by Hollywood, pornography, materialistic greed, and so on, mostly because Muslim countries associate the USA with Christianity, and we Americans (unfortunately) have only reinforced that assumption with our “God and country” syncretism. Sixth, it creates an unwelcoming environment in our churches for non-American Christians in our midst, especially those who might harbor justified resentment against America.

Seventh, it leads us to believe that certain American customs and morals are actually Christian, when in fact they are merely “optional” cultural add-ons to the Gospel or actually run against it (individualism, nuclear family systems, capitalism, “the American dream,” ways of dressing and eating, etc.), thus setting extra barriers in the way of experiencing the full force of the Gospel in our own lives and leading to an attitude of judgmentalism against those who practice the faith in a different cultural context. We are fostering the darkest kind of ethnocentrism—that which is fueled by ignorant religious opinion. And eighth, we run the risk of raising a generation who will be too subservient to American patriotism (the lesser of the two loyalties) when American interests run against the interests of the Kingdom of God.

These are just a few potential dangers, and I think they’re real enough to give us pause when we consider adding outward shows of American patriotism to our churches.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

The Evangeliad (1:35-39)

 Section 1:35-39 (corresponding to Luke 1:34-38)
 "How shall the Mighty One accomplish this,
Bring fruit to a tree of unflowered bliss?"
"The Holy Spirit will descend on you,
Hov'ring in blessing o'er a world born new!

The Most High's power will o'ershadow thee:
Shekinah glory of his majesty,
As in the Temple, full of glory's awe;
The one born of you shall be Son of God!

Yes, even your cousin Elizabeth--
A baby shall come to the childless!
Six months now has the barren been bearing,
For nothing exceeds God's power and caring!"

Then Mary spoke, in love's obedience:
"I am God's servant, this moment and hence,
May it be unto me as you have said."
And Gabriel bowed, and away he went.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Photo of the Week

Gentle little flowers, strong to cleave the sod,
Tell of Jesus rising, gentle Son of God;
Trees that bud and blossom at the warm spring's breath
Tell us life is greater, greater far, than death.

- from verses 2 and 3 of the hymn "Coming from the Winter" by Walter Hawkins