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.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Quote of the Week

"Good speech is silver but silence is pure gold."

- Ephrem the Syrian, 4th century church father, as quoted in the anonymous spiritual classic  The Way of a Pilgrim

Monday, November 23, 2015

Hiatus

 
(Painting: "Waiting," by Edgar Degas, c.1882, pastel on paper)

It's a vacation week for me, so I'm taking a short break from the heady airs of the blogosphere. Posts will resume next week, Nov. 30.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

95 Theses, #52-56: Five Meanings of the Lord's Supper

To see the introduction and disclaimers for my 95 Theses, first go to: 95-Theses-Introduction
 (Painting: "The Last Supper," by Pascal Dagnan-Bouveret, 1852-1929)
 
52.) The Lord's Supper as Remembrance - Christ’s last hours with his disciples involved a series of interconnected acts of love—the self-abasing service of washing their feet, the fellowship of a meal shared with them, the giving of his “new command” to love one another, and the prayer offered over them and all believers. But the one part of that evening which was later seen as a truly defining moment for all subsequent Christian practice was the institution of the Eucharist (also called Communion or the Lord's Supper). As part of the meal, Christ gave his disciples bread and wine as representations of his body and blood, and commanded them to re-enact this new Passover as a central ritual of the Kingdom-life. This act has at least five meanings elucidated by Scripture. First, it is a remembrance of Christ’s sacrifice. Christ himself proclaimed, "Do this in remembrance of me" (Luke 22:19). The Eucharist brings the people of God back to contemplation of the mysteries of redemption and of a re-acceptance of the grace of God made manifest in those mysteries.

53.) The Lord's Supper as Precapitulation* - The Eucharist is also a precapitulation of the ultimate restoration of all things. Christ declares during the celebration of the Lord's Supper, "I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until the Kingdom of God comes" (Luke 22:18), and Revelation prophesies that one of the elements of Christ's Second Coming will be “the wedding supper of the Lamb” (19:9).  Thus the Eucharist directs us toward a hopeful attitude, a future-focused, celebratory perspective to balance alongside the past-focused, mournful perspective of remembrance. (* Yes, I know that "precapitulation" is not really a word--not yet, anyway. But it ought to be. What we do in the Eucharist is stronger than a mere "foreshadowing" of the Messianic feast at the Last Day: it is an active participation in that future event which is realized by faith here and now; hence, precapitulation.)

54.) The Lord's Supper as a Symbol of Unity - When Jesus instituted the Eucharist, it was a communal event. And when Paul explains it in 1 Cor. 11, his teaching comes in the context of a broader discussion about church unity. Some scholars have posited that when Paul says "Anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself" (v.29), his reference to "the body of the Lord" might refer more to the church as the Body of Christ than to the bread of the Eucharist itself. Indeed, the very issue for which Paul is rebuking the Corinthians is for using the Lord's Supper in a way that emphasizes the divisions in the Body rather than its unity (vv.17-22). Thus, since the church is itself "the Body of Christ," the Eucharist symbolizes the unity of the church and is taken as an act of “communion” with one another.

55.) The Lord's Supper as Mystical Feeding - The Eucharist also reminds us of the necessity of feeding our souls on Christ himself. Jesus seems to teach about this meaning when he says, "I am the living bread...If anyone eats this bread, he will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world" (John 6:51, cf. vv. 35, 53-58). We are called to feast on the reality of God-made-flesh, which we encounter in Scripture, fellowship, prayer, and in the immanent presence of God in all creation. Thus the Eucharist is also an act of “communion” with Christ, of symbolically representing what is already true in reality, the mystical union of his natures with our own. 

56.)  The Lord's Supper as Thanksgiving - Finally, it is important to note that in each of the accounts of the Last Supper, it is recorded that Jesus "gave thanks" (1 Cor. 11:24; Mark 14:22-23; Luke 22:17,19; Matt. 26:26-27). The name "Eucharist" itself means "thanksgiving." When we come to the table of the Lord's Supper, we come not just mourning the sins of humanity that led Christ to the cross, but pouring out the joy of thankful hearts for the grace of God revealed to us in his Son.

Next installment: The Eucharist and Sacramentalism

Friday, November 20, 2015

On Grandpa Dourte's Passing

 
(Painting: "A Funeral," by Anna Ancher, 1891, oil on canvas)

Tomorrow I'm gathering with the extended family of my in-laws to celebrate the life and mourn the passing of my wife's grandfather. He was a believer in Christ all his years, sprung from a family of devout Christians, a pastor in work and a disciple in life, who, together with his wife, was a jewel in the crown of the Brethren in Christ. 

His passing, along with his wife's earlier this year, deserves a mention amid the rambling stream of this blog's reflections. I didn't know him or his wife long enough to be the fittest person to pen tributes, and I'm sure there will be tributes aplenty, from much more qualified people than I, at the funeral. But even though I only knew them towards the end, these two faithful servants of Christ stand as two of the most important people in my life. Why? Because of the way they shaped and blessed and prayed for my wife. If not for them, my wife would not be the woman she is today, and I would be a lesser man for it. She has been both inspiration and anchor for me, a teacher in the ways of Christlike empathy and a courageous fellow traveler in difficult times. Most of the character traits that I adore in her, and have benefited from, I can see in the lives of her parents and grandparents, and so it is to them that I am indebted. 

In the middle of the Ten Commandments (though often excluded from the nice little numbered lists we make for our Sunday School classes) is this verse: "I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments" (Ex. 20:5b). Often the first reaction people have to this verse is an offended sense of justice--"How is it fair to punish children for the sins of their fathers?" (On closer assessment, though, I think we would agree that this verse is a fit description of how the consequences of sinful lives do have negative effects that ripple down through their families for generations.) The negative part of this verse isn't really the main point, however, and it certainly isn't the most astonishing part. We can wrap our heads around the timescale of three or four generations, but take a moment to think about a thousand generations. If we assign a length of 25 years to a generation (conservative compared to the biblical figure of 40 years), it would take, naturally, 25,000 years to exhaust the scope of this verse's promise. Abraham himself, living 4,000 years ago, is only 160 generations back from us. In essence, God pledges his favor forever to those who follow his ways. The vast inequality between the scope of God's punishment and the scope of his favor is the main point of this verse. Mercy triumphs over judgment!

I include these reflections on this verse because I've often felt humbled and grateful by the family situation in which I find myself. In the case of both my family and my wife's family, we can claim to be among those "thousand generations," blessed not on our own merit, but because our grandfathers and grandmothers, our ancestors stretching back as far as memory will allow, were faithful lovers of Jesus Christ their Lord. My wife's grandfather was a man whom I am proud to call my family, and I know that now, even in his absence, I am blessed because of the way he loved his God and because of the way God loved him.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

A Flame in the Night, Chapter 13


                                                                                                                         © Matthew Burden, 2001
 
(See sidebar menu for links to all previous chapters) 
~13~

Thomas clenched his teeth as his blade clashed with the brigand’s heavy broadsword.  The other man cursed and lashed back, swinging his sword like a battle-ax.  The light of furious hatred glowed in the Saxon’s eyes, his lip curved in a bitter sneer.
“Die, Norman dog!” he spat, bringing his sword down hard against Thomas’ breastplate.
The knight had been attempting to wheel his horse around and was caught off guard by the quick blow, ripping the breath out of his lungs.  He felt the cold steel bite into his flesh, and he cried out, falling from his horse to the hard earth.  His body screamed out against him, waves of dizzying agony spreading across his vision.
He struggled to his feet as fast as his body would allow, sword raised for another salvo of blows.  His training rushed back to him in an instant, calculating every advantage, every possibility.  Fighting a man on horseback was not a promising scenario, but he had little choice in the matter.  The other knights had been drawn away, all engaged against the remaining two brigands.  His assailant backed off for a moment, glancing aside to see how his companions fared.  In that same instant, both of the other brigands were cut down, the Normans’ advantage of numbers winning out.
He swore again and charged at Thomas.  Thomas held his shield ready to meet the blow, his sword waiting to return the gesture.  But, in an unexpected move, the Saxon smiled cruelly and rode past his shield, bringing his boot up to meet the knight’s chin.  Thomas crumpled unconscious at the blow, and the Saxon’s arm shot out to grip his own.  The brigand hauled his prisoner into position behind him, then set off into the woods before the remainder of the knights realized what had happened to their captain.
~ ~ ~
The boat rocked slightly from side to side as they set out from the little dock, turning to wave at Frederick before continuing on.  Hannah gripped the gunwales tightly at first, unaccustomed to traveling by boat.  The river was fairly low, but not rough, so it carried them along quickly toward Newcastle.  Raymond was kneeling in the stern, his hand on the long rudder-pole.  Edward sat in the middle, his hands ready on the oars in case they were needed.  But the river was gentle enough, and the sky clear.  The journey, it seemed, would prove to be uneventful.  Nevertheless, they kept a keen eye on both banks of the river, hoping that they would slip undetected past both the brigands and the watchful Templar knights.
As they rode along, Edward’s mind wandered back to the conversation he had had with Hannah.  They had not spoken since, and it was obvious that the discussion was still troubling her.  
“Beautiful day, isn’t it?” Raymond interrupted his thoughts.
“Yes,” Edward replied absently.  “Yes, it certainly is.”
The knight smiled.  “I can’t wait to get home,” he confessed.  “All this conflict becomes tiresome after a while.”
“I know what you mean.  I have always been a man of peace myself.”
“Oh?  You’ve never fought?”
He shook his head.  “I’ve often felt I needed to fight to survive, but—no, I never did.  Not since I left my father’s house, anyway.  It seemed to me that the life of Christ was one of peace.”
“What have you been doing, then?  Have you always been a missionary?”
“No,” he tilted his head, leaning back to study the sky.  “No, I was a monk for a few years.  At Lindisfarne.”
Raymond smiled and nodded.  “I have often felt like becoming a monk, but…well, I would not be able to do the things I do now.”
Edward raised a questioning eyebrow, so Raymond continued.
“First, I had my wife.  After she died, I would have considered joining the brethren, except for the fact that I had to look after Felice, my daughter.  And then I began to care for the parish’s orphans.  If I was a monk, I would not be able to serve God the way I do now.”
That’s rather why I left, too," said Edward. "Some men are called to a life of prayer alone, but my vocation was something different--to speak the grace of the Gospel to the least of Christ's little ones, and to help them walk in his ways.”
“It appears we are brothers of the same heart, Edward.  Were it not for Felice, I may have long since taken up holy orders and left to preach the Gospel in some other place.”  He sighed.  “I’m not complaining, mind you. I love Felice dearly, and have never regretted an instant I spent with her.  But now she is nearly grown.”
Edward smiled, watching the love in the older man’s face.  He did not understand, and perhaps he never would, these feelings of love for one's own child.  He had seen the same love in his father’s eyes once, and he had felt its warmth, but he did not know it for himself.
“Well,” Raymond shrugged, “I must confess, the only things I know of Melrose come from the battles years ago.  What are things like there?”
“It's a fine town. It’s built to serve the abbey there, so for the most part it’s quiet and orderly.  It’s very peaceful, and the people are open and warm, and above all stubborn. But they are wonderful people, especially my young friend, Malcolm, and his wife.  He’s the leader of the local warband, but he has a great heart when it comes down to things that matter.”
Raymond nodded.  “I would like to meet him sometime.  Perhaps when this whole affair is ended, we will have time for all of that.”
Edward nodded, turning to gaze back over the rippling waters.  “When this is ended, I think my life will never be the same again.”  He sighed, turning to look over at Raymond.  Though he had only known the knight for one day, he already sensed he had found a man he could confide in.  “My heart is breaking for my brother,” he said.  “He has no idea of the true consequences of what he does.”
“There are old wounds between you?”
“Old wounds, now open and raw once again.  I only hope I can find it in myself to forgive him.  So far I’ve failed miserably on that count.  I can’t seem to discipline myself to hold my tongue.”
“I will offer a prayer for you and your brother when next I pray the hours," said Raymond.
“Thank you.  I think you must be an answer to my own prayer.  How I have needed a true brother beside me to strengthen me in these days.”
~ ~ ~
Thomas bit hard into the grimy rag that bound his mouth, hoping to tear it apart.  The Saxon was standing quietly by a tree, watching him with amusement.
“Leave it, Captain,” the brigand spoke mockingly.  “If you keep it up, I would derive too much pleasure in slaying you.”
Thomas tried to curse him, but the gag forced the oath out as an incomprehensible snarl.
“Now, now,” he laughed coldly.  “If you’re lucky and your men are wise, you may live to see a few more years yet.  But,” he stalked over, delivering a savage blow at the knight’s face, “if you don’t cooperate with me, I will spare no time in killing you.  Do you understand?”
Thomas stared back at him with fire in his eyes.  The Saxon shook his head and turned away.  Thomas tried once again to stretch his fingers and reach the knots that bound his wrists, but it was to no avail.  He laid back quietly, his eyes studying his captor, hoping for some window of opportunity to escape.
~ ~ ~
Hannah jerked back and shook Edward’s shoulder.  After a moment, he looked up with a smile, which immediately faded away upon seeing the distress in her face.  He followed her gaze toward the north bank, where a group of riders was moving quickly over the terrain towards the city.
He drew in a quick breath as he recognized the heavily-built forms of his brother’s men.  There were only three of them, and no sign of Alfred, but he knew it was best not to take chances.  “Quick, get down,” he hissed to the other two.  The three companions quietly lowered their bodies into the belly of the little boat so that no one could be seen occupying the craft.
Nevertheless, only a moment went by before a shout went up from the shore.  
“Is there anyone in it?” one voice called over the steady drumming of the hoofs.
“I can’t see,” another responded.
“Wait,” said the first voice as the hoofbeats slowed.  “I have a…” the words were lost to Edward’s ears as the rushing river drew them away from where the riders had halted.  He raised himself up to a point where he could glance back over the stern of the ship, his eyes scanning the shoreline with Raymond’s. 
         Within a few seconds, though, the brigands appeared behind them, riding hard again.  The lead rider had a longbow in his on hand, his other on the reins.  But notched against the string was a long arrow, its tip wrapped in an oil-drenched cloth, already blazing bright with flame.  Raymond took hold of the rudder and tried to steer the little boat near to the far shore.
Hannah leaned forward, whispering into Edward's ear.  “There are three of us.  Maybe we could fight them off.”
“They have bows, Hannah.  We’d be dead before the boat hit shore.”
She frowned and slumped back into the curve of the boat.  “What’s to stop them from raining arrows down on us anyway?”
He risked peeking over the edge one more time.  He could see that the motion of the boat away from them had forced them to realize their situation, and they were riding along quickly, trying to come to a good vantage point from which to fire the first of their flaming projectiles.
The river rushed around a bend, coming up on a large bluff that hung out over the water’s edge.  Edward shook his head when he saw this.  The riders would reach it first, and they would take advantage of it.  He could now see two of the flames burning as they rode along, and he knew it would not be long before he would have to ward them off.
Thinking quickly, he stripped off his outer robe, holding it at ready.  If he could hold off the first two arrows, the brigands would have to halt their chase to be able to light new ones.  
He kept a close watch on the riders as they approached the bluff.  He watched them slow to a stop as they reached it, the column of dust behind them whisked away by the wind.  Raymond was sitting upright now, his eyes flashing back and forth between the riders and the river, his hand fastened firmly to the rudder-stick. 
The first arrow was released from its bowstring with a snap, a thin trail of smoke following its downward course.  It fell too short by several yards, immediately doused by the current as it landed with a hiss.  
As the second shot came, Edward could see that it was more on target than its predecessor was.  Holding out his cloak as a net, he stood off the side.  As soon as the arrow hit the thin fabric of his cloak, it erupted into flame.  Without thinking twice, he heaved it over the side of the boat, where it floated for a second, then sank beneath the rippling waves.
Edward glanced at Hannah, who smiled nervously, her eyes going back to the riders again.  He followed her gaze, and saw the two archers stringing normal arrows on, still riding slowly, keeping within sight of the boat. 
Hannah lowered herself back down as the first two arrows whizzed over their heads, splashing into the water on the opposite side.  Edward hunched down as far as he could and began working the oars, adding whatever extra speed was possible to the little boat.
“Pray, Hannah,” he said as he grunted against the weight of the water.  
He kept a close watch on the riders, but was encouraged to see that the boat was slowly leaving them behind.  Every so often he had to yell a word of warning for Raymond to duck.  Once he had to leap out of the way himself, and very nearly capsized the boat as the arrow buried itself into the tough wood.
It was not long, though, before the brigands vanished around a bend in the river.  They kept up the same rigorous pace for the better part of the afternoon, but saw no more of their pursuers.  As the sun was setting hours later, the shimmering hearth-lights of Newcastle began to come into view in the distance.
Hannah breathed a sigh of relief.  “How much farther is it now, Raymond?”
The knight tilted his head, analyzing the distance.  “We’ll disembark in a few minutes, I suppose.  Then we’ll have to walk a ways to my farm, but we should reach it before midnight sets in.”
“Good,” Edward replied, his eyes fixed on the city.  “I am well ready to bid this river goodbye.”

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

The Family of the Friend of God

Here's a prayer in response to the recent terrorist attacks in France. The imagery is derived from Genesis 16:12 and Romans 11:17-24.

The Family of the Friend of God

Heal, O Lord,
        The shattered family
                Of Thy servant Abraham.
Let Isaac come home,
        A natural branch restored
                To the tree of covenant-love.
May his perseverant faith,
        Forged through centuries of fire, awake
                To its long-expected, long-offered fulfillment.
Let Ishmael come home,
        Raising his hand no longer
                Against the nations of the world.
May his hostility,
        Prophesied from of old,
                Be transfigured into solidarity.
And may he too, a broken limb,
        Be gently grafted back
                Onto his father’s spreading tree,
So that all the offspring
        Of the friend of God
                Together may confess
That there is one Lord,
        One faith, one baptism,
                One God and Father of us all.
Amen.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Photo of the Week

Who are these that fly along like clouds,
    like doves to their nests?

Surely the islands look to me;
    in the lead are the ships of Tarshish,
bringing your children from afar,
    with their silver and gold,
to the honor of the Lord your God,
    the Holy One of Israel,
    for he has endowed you with splendor.

                       - Isaiah 60:8-9