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, blessèd 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

Monday, June 19, 2017

Quote of the Week

"Righteousness is the natural and essential food of the soul, which can no more be satisfied by earthly treasures than the hunger of the body can be satisfied by air. If you should see a starving man standing with his mouth open to the wind, inhaling draughts of air as if in hope of gratifying his hunger, you would think him a lunatic. But it is no less foolish to imagine that the soul can be satisfied with worldly things."

- Bernard of Clairvaux

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Saturday Synaxis

O you who are everywhere present, filling yet transcending all things; ever acting, ever at rest; you who teach the hearts of the faithful without noise of words: teach us, we pray you, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

- Augustine

Friday, June 16, 2017

Theological Bestiary, Part 6: Raven

The raven is a common sight in my home area of the northeastern US--ravens, together with their smaller cousins, crows, are among the most frequently spotted birds here, sitting in regnal authority on their overlooks high in the tops of trees. While there are other, larger birds around as well--bald eagles, ospreys, hawks, and owls--it does not seem to disturb the ravens' supreme self-confidence in their own intelligent abilities to act as master of the northern woods. The common raven is indeed one of the most intelligent, adaptable, and widespread of all birds, and can be found throughout most of North America, Europe, and Asia. In the biblical and Christian tradition, the raven holds a unique spot of prominence: associated in art and imagination with death, but acting in the pages of Scripture as a keen and obedient servant of God. But before we get to its theological associations, here are a few interesting facts about ravens:

- Along with dolphins and a few other select species, ravens are standout examples of animal intelligence. Under laboratory conditions, they have successfully solved logic puzzles which require a sequential, step-by-step analysis of a problem, and they appear to have solved these puzzles by reasoning the process out, not by simply using trial-and-error. They have been observed in the wild as being able to communicate about objects or events that are significantly separated from themselves by either distance or time (an extraordinary mental skill known as displacement). They have also been noted for their abilities to cooperate with one another (in sharing information regarding food caches) and to deceive one another (for example, by pretending to cache food somewhere, knowing that another raven was watching and would try to steal from the cache). They can cooperate with other species, too; regularly calling wolves to a carrion-find that they can't open up as efficiently as the wolves can. They have been known to make toys out of sticks, and to play elaborate games with one another (chase games, looping flights, and cooperative tricks like locking talons while in flight), as well as games with other species (playing chase games with otters, foxes, and wolves). Other groups of corvids (the family comprised of ravens, crows, magpies, and jays) have also demonstrated keen intelligence--Clark's Nutcrackers, for example, have demonstrated a capacity for spatial memory far beyond what humans are capable of (remembering the exact placement of thousands of food-caches over a vast landscape); and magpies have been seen playing mean-spirited practical jokes on other species (favorite targets appear to be domestic dogs and cats) as well as apparently holding "funerals" for fallen members of their species. 

- Among the most famous birds in the world are a group of six ravens who inhabit the Tower of London. These semi-tame ravens, carefully watched over by Tower staff and beloved by visitors, are part of an old monarchical legend: it is said that the royal monarchy will remain in England as long as the ravens live at the Tower. While the birds are beloved, on rare occasions a Tower raven can be sacked from his post for "conduct unbecoming a Tower resident."

- One of the reasons that ravens are so widespread and adaptable is that they are able to find food from a remarkable variety of sources: live prey, carrion, garbage, eggs, animal waste, fruit, seeds, nuts, and cereal grains.
In the Bible, ravens appear as one of the most-often cited species of birds.  In Job, the Psalms, and the Gospel of Luke, ravens are given as examples of the way God faithfully provides food for his creatures. In one famous story, the ravens are actually used by God as providers of food: in 1 Kings 17, the prophet Elijah, living in the wilderness at the outset of a great drought, is fed by ravens, who are directed by God to bring him bread and meat every morning and evening. Ravens are indeed a wise choice for this task, since they are just about the best procurers of food in the whole family of birds. 

There is one more story about ravens in the Bible, which, in intervening tradition, has come to be interpreted in light of ravens' negative associations with darkness and death: in Genesis 8, as the floodwaters are beginning to recede from the earth, Noah sends out a raven to see if any dry land has appeared. The Bible says that "it kept flying back and forth until the water had dried up from the earth." There is nothing inherently negative in this portrayal; it may simply speak to the raven's diligent and perseverant implementation of its task. However, later interpreters noted that the raven does not return to Noah, whereas the dove, which Noah sends out next, does return. The raven thus came to be taken as an allegorical representation of Satan, holding a position of persistent rebellion and disobedience from God. Likewise, later interpreters in the artistic tradition came to view ravens as an omen of evil, associated with darkness because of their plumage, and, most of all, with death, because of their practice of feeding on carrion.

The raven's double meaning in Christian symbolism--both in a negative aspect (the darkness of death, disobedience, etc.) and in a positive aspect (a faithful servant of God and an example of God's faithfulness)--reminds us of the double meaning of death itself. In Christian theology, death is both a tragedy and a mercy. It is a tragedy because it is a consequence of man's rebellion against God, of his disobedience against divine authority. In its power to take away human life, it disrupts our intended destiny as beings made for everlasting relationship with an eternal God. Because of this, Paul goes so far as to describe death as an "enemy" (1 Cor. 15:26). But strangely, death is also a mercy. In the story of Adam and Eve's expulsion from the Garden of Eden, one of the explanations given is that they must be barred from eating of the fruit of the tree of life. Why? Because "[man] must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever" (Gen. 3:22). According to the early church fathers, the logic behind this prohibition is as follows: since we humans were now corrupted by sin, we needed the purification of death (and specifically, our mystical association with the death of Christ) to liberate us from the deformity of our sin-warped nature. If we had been allowed to become eternal beings in our sinful state, then our sin--and the torment, brokenness, and sorrow that went with it--would likewise become eternal. God allowed us to remain in a state subject to death in order to provide a way to free us of the cancer of sin. Death, then, becomes--ironically!--our way to eternal life. Because we share in the death of Christ on our behalf, death becomes no longer merely an enemy or a tragedy, but a mercy administered to our broken condition. This is why Christians can talk of death not as a hateful thing, not as an ending or a hopeless sorrow, but rather as a passage to a great and glorious future of everlasting life. 

So when you see the raven, remember that we serve a God so great that he can take even so dark a thing as death, and remake it to be a faithful servant of his great plan of redemption and re-creation. 

(Images - Top: "Elijah Fed by the Ravens," by Paolo Fiammingo, c.1585; Upper inset left: "Raven," illustration from A History of British Birds, by Rev. F. O. Morris, 1862; Upper inset right: "Jubilee and Munin, Ravens of the Tower of London," photo by Colin, shared under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license; Lower inset left: "Elijah Fed by the Raven," by Girolamo Savoldo, c.1510; Lower inset right: Illustration #14 for Edgar Allen Poe's poem "The Raven," drawn by Gustave Dore, 1884)

Thursday, June 15, 2017

"Proclaiming Good News to the Poor" - Revival in Latin America

(Photo by Diego Delso,, License CC-BY-SA)

There's an odd irony in the immigration debates raging among Christian conservatives in the United States. On one side, they see themselves as increasingly engaged in a "culture war" against the rising tide of secularism. And on another side, many of them seem deeply concerned about high levels of immigration from Latin America (which are not really as high as is sometimes assumed). The irony here is that immigration from Latin America, if embraced, would actually tend towards helping them in their ongoing "culture war." The Latin Americans who enter our country are often more family-oriented, faith-centered Christian influences than are the residents of the American cities they immigrate to. Adding more Latin Americans to the US would make the US a more Christian place. Because the truth is, there has been a broad and ongoing revival in Latin America throughout much of the twentieth century, and its pace appears to be accelerating. So while many Latin American countries struggle with issues of political instability, crime, and drug trade (much of it driven by US markets), they have nonetheless become one of the most powerful strongholds of contemporary Christianity in the entire world.

Latin America currently has more evangelical Christians than does the US and Canada, and in every single Latin American country, evangelicals are growing faster than the national population. In Brazil, where evangelicalism and neo-Pentecostalism are flourishing at the highest rates in the region, data from the national census indicates that evangelicals now constitute perhaps as much as a full quarter of the population, and, if growth rates maintain their robust strength, may claim fully half of Brazil's population within the foreseeable future

In many of these areas, the leading force of Protestant growth has been in Pentecostal and neo-Pentecostal movements. These indigenous church movements, driven by a sense of the Holy Spirit's presence among them, are causing radical shifts in Latin American society. They have addressed issues of poverty and spiritual warfare in many more robust ways than their American counterparts to the north. The revivals in Brazil have directly addressed themselves to the challenges presented by syncretistic cults and have sought to bring the Kingdom of God to bear on the streets, barrios, bateys, and favelas of Latin America. They have gone fearlessly into those epicenters of poverty, crime, and drugs, and, in the words that Christ quoted from Isaiah 61, "proclaimed good news to the poor." My own experience, of visiting a church built in the center of a trash dump  in the Dominican Republic, showed the Christian community there to be both vast and fearlessly faithful. 

Even after saying all that, however, we still have barely scratched the surface of Christianity in Latin America. Why? Because none of the groups mentioned above are even close to being the dominant Christian force in that region. No, that would be the Roman Catholic church, which, since the days of early colonialism, has sunk deep roots into all levels of Latin American society. And while there certainly were many examples of colonial exploitation that went hand-in-hand with those early evangelizations of the New World, there were also very many conscientious and faithful Catholic missionaries, who truly loved the people that they served--perhaps most famously, the Jesuits who sought to teach and protect the native people of central South America (as immortalized in the movie The Mission), and Bartolome de Las Casas' tireless advocacy work on behalf of Native Americans--one of the highest heroes of the entire history of Christianity. Roman Catholicism in Latin America certainly struggles with perennial issues of adherents with merely nominal faith, and (in some areas) syncretism with native religious traditions. But it goes without saying that there are also many millions of faithful believers in Jesus Christ who are being nourished under the wings of the Roman Catholic church in Latin America. 

And, like its evangelical and Pentecostal counterparts, Latin American Catholicism is devoted to making sure that the Christian faith has an impact on all of life, including politics and economics. It has demonstrated a powerful commitment to the poor and the marginalized in society, perhaps best seen in its development of the (somewhat controversial, but immensely influential) school of Christian thought known as "liberation theology." It counts among its heroes such saints as Oscar Romero, the courageous priest from El Salvador who was martyred for his stand against poverty and injustice. The current pope, an Argentinian, has drunk deep from this well of Latin American Catholicism, with its abiding concern for the poor--a concern which is indeed proper, and perhaps even central, to the Christian proclamation. In the New Testament, Luke's Gospel regularly makes God's heart for the poor an outstanding concern of his portrayal of Jesus' life, and Latin American Christianity has offered the world of our faith a timely rebirth of Lukan theology in our day.

As is the case in Africa, so in Latin America: Christianity in the 21st century, far from being solely a Euro-American phenomenon (if it ever was at all!), is emerging as the faith of the global south, and it is these areas that will be the powerhouses from which the Gospel of the risen Lord continues its march. 

(Images - Top: Interior view of the crossing of the church and monastery of St. Francis in Quito, Ecuador, photo by Diego Delso; Upper inset left: Interior view of the entrance to the Basilica Catedral Nuestra Senora de la Altagracia in Higuey, Dominican Republic, photo by Matthew Burden; Middle inset right: "Bartolome de las Casas," artist unknown, 16th cent.; Lower inset left: Statue of Christ the Redeemer on Corcovado Mountain, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, photo by Dkoukoul, shared under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.) 

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

A Short Couplet-Prayer

 Lord, grant to your poor servant here
The love that casteth out all fear.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Photo of the Week

The earth with its store of wonders untold,
Almighty, Thy power hath founded of old,
Hath stablished it fast by a changeless decree,
And round it hath cast, like a mantle, the sea.

- verse 3 of the hymn "O Worship the King, by Robert Grant

Monday, June 12, 2017

Quote of the Week

Near the end of C. S. Lewis' novel The Silver Chair (book 4 of The Chronicles of Narnia), the heroes of the story are trapped in the underground kingdom of a wicked Queen, who is trying to convince them that all their beliefs in the land above, including Aslan himself (the God/Christ figure) are merely fancies of their imagination. The response to this, given by the character Puddleglum, was a great encouragement to me during my phase of wrestling through agnosticism and doubt, and so I include it here:

"Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all these things--trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that's a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We're just babies making up a game, if you're right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That's why I'm going to stand by the play-world. I'm on Aslan's side even if there isn't any Aslan to lead it. I'm going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn't any Narnia. So, thanking you kindly [...] we're leaving your court at once and setting out in the dark to spend our lives looking for Overland."

(Painting: "Two Majesties," by Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1883)

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Saturday Synaxis

Bless, O Lord, the worship of your church this day, and bless our endeavors to glorify your name. Let not our hearts be unduly set on earthly things, but incline us to love things heavenly; that even now, while we are placed among things that are passing away, we may cling to those that shall abide; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, world without end. Amen.

- The Leonine Sacramentary

Friday, June 09, 2017

Theological Bestiary, Part 5: Robin

Here in the northeastern US, robins are one of the most familiar and beloved birds. They've come to be known as a harbinger of spring: when the robins start showing up on your lawn, then you know that winter's time is over (and in this respect, robins are far more trustworthy than certain other celebrated meteorological prognosticators in the animal kingdom--that's right, groundhogs, I'm talking about you). These robins seek out their preferred habitat, which we thoughtfully provide for them--broad, short-cropped lawns, perfect for finding worms. Their bright red breasts and their cheery whistles mark the advent of greener days, and alleviate a bit the dampness and the chill of springtime rains (unless, of course, you're Emily Dickinson, in which case you dread that first robin so). But robins have also, for many centuries, been used as symbols of Christ, his passion, and the grace of God. But before we get to that, here are some interesting facts about robins:

- There are a number of species called "robins" in the world. The two most well-known are the American Robin and the European Robin. Ironically, these two birds are not really closely related at all. They share the same name simply because of their coloring. European Robins, just as common and beloved in Europe as their counterparts are in America, have a bright orange-red breast. Their original name in English was simply "redbreast" (there not being a word for the color orange at the time). "Robin" came in as a way of personalizing this charming species, which everyone knew and loved: Robin was actually a personal nickname, a diminutive of "Robert," and so the European Robin came to have a charming human-like moniker, "Robin Redbreast." When British colonists began settling in eastern North America, they noticed a bird that reminded them of their beloved Robin Redbreast, having as it did a similar color scheme and a similar habit of looking for worms, and so they called it a robin. In actuality, though, the noticeably smaller European Robin is a member of the Old World flycatcher family, while the larger American Robin is a member of the thrush family (and thus a close relative of that other quintessentially English bird, the blackbird). Now that you know that, see if you can spot the grave ornithological error in the classic 1964 film Mary Poppins.

- European robins are fearless little birds, being known to come close to human activity (or to other large animals that might stir up the ground and give them an opportunity to find worms). But this trait also means that, despite the common preconception that they are cheery, friendly little things, their fearlessness can lead them to be aggressive. Male robins will violently attack rivals (or sometimes other small birds), occasionally even killing them. 

- While in the northeastern US robins are seen as a sign of spring, in Britain they are associated with Christmas. Since the Victorian period, robins have appeared as a common image on Christmas cards and postage stamps.

- The American robin is notable in that it flourishes in a wide variety of habitats across the continent, proving adaptable to mountains, swamps, prairies, and woodlands with equal ease. It is also impressive in combining both avian forms of movement--with wings (flying) and with legs (running and hopping)--and being very good at both. 

In the Christian tradition, a set of medieval etiological tales rose up around robins. In one version, a robin protected the Christ-child during the holy family's flight to Egypt, catching sparks from a fire on its breast to prevent them from falling on baby Jesus. Its orange-red breast is a reminder and reward for its selfless service to the Lord of all creation. Other versions say that the robin received its red breast while it was mercifully fetching water for those undergoing purifying trials in Purgatory. The most famous etiological tale about its red breast, however, connects the robin to the crucifixion. It is said that a robin perched on the cross as Jesus died, and received its red breast from a splash of the Savior's blood after it tried to pluck a thorn from his brow (or, alternatively, as it came near to sing in Jesus' ear and bring him comfort from his pain). In the Christian artistic tradition, a free robin often symbolizes the grace of God.

So the next time you see a robin, remember the suffering of our Lord, and commit to serve him as selflessly as these fabled birds once did.

Thursday, June 08, 2017

"From Beyond the Rivers of Cush" - Africa's Christian Explosion

When you think about evangelical Christianity, what part of the world springs first to mind? If you're like most, it will probably be the USA, because of evangelicalism's strong historical roots there, and because of its abiding presence in American culture. But if so, it might surprise you to know that the continent with the world's most evangelicals is not North America. Not even close. It's Africa, with more than double the number of evangelical Christians than in the US and Canada. (In fact, Latin America and Asia both also outpace USA/Canada in this area. 3 out of every 4 evangelicals in the world come from Africa, Latin America, or Asia).

And that's just evangelicalism. When one considers the surge of Pentecostalism, African-initiated churches, and Roman Catholicism across the continent (to say nothing of the Protestant mainline denominations rooted in Africa's colonial past, and many still flourishing today), it is not an exaggeration to say that the 21st-century heartland of the Christian faith will likely be Africa. 

Many Americans find this surprising. That's mainly because the colonial age of "discovery," in which Euro-Americans finally became aware of the vast depths of the African continent, is still relatively recent. Many still have the old stereotypes of "the dark continent" very much in mind. And when they think about African Christianity, they tend to think about white missionaries in khaki suits and pith helmets: Doctor Livingstone, I presume? 

And while the story of African Christianity does indeed have many great Christian heroes who came there from Europe and America (Livingstone, C. T. Studd, Robert Moffatt, the White Fathers, and many others), African Christianity goes far, far beyond that small set of nineteenth-century adventurers. Christianity was an African phenomenon from the beginning of the Gospels, when the holy family fled to Egypt; residents of Africa were among the first Christians in the world (Acts 2:10, 8:26-39); two of the oldest branches of Christianity are African (the Coptic Church and the Ethiopian Tawahedo Orthodox Church); and a major set of the greatest early church fathers and mothers were Africans (Tertullian, Perpetua, Clement, Cyprian, Origen, Antony, Athanasius [aka "the black dwarf"], Pachomius, Macarius, Monica, Augustine, Moses the Black, Samuel the Confessor, etc.). 

Even when one comes to the story of contemporary Christianity and its vast, sweeping rebirth across the African continent, it's important to note that a very wide swath of that growth comes not from Western missionaries, but from indigenous Christian movements among Africans themselves, often led by pioneering, prophet-style leaders. These groups, classed as "African-initiated churches" (AICs), are one of the dominant forms of African Christianity, and are now spreading to other continents as well. The most successful Protestant missionary in West Africa pre-1950 was not a Westerner; it was the Liberian evangelist William Wade Harris. And he is only one of many--in the annals of African Christianity, these men can stand shoulder to shoulder with the Augustines and Livingstones: Samuel Ajayi Crowther (the first Anglican bishop in Africa); Joseph Babalola and Joseph Oshitelu of the Aladura revival in Nigeria; Joseph Kiwanuka, the first African Catholic bishop; Simeon Nsibambi, Blasio Kigozi, and William Nagenda of the Ugandan revival; Simon Kibangu, founder of the largest independent African church; Mensa Obatil and the explosive growth of African neo-Pentecostalism; and Desmond Tutu, the celebrated Anglican archbishop who helped guide South Africa along the road to racial healing (to name only a few!).

Christianity has spread across Africa with astonishing speed. From only nine million Christians in 1900, the number rose to 380 million a century later, and it's still rising! (This would be the same as if no one were a Christian in the US except the residents of New York City, and then within just three generations, every single person in the entire country became a Christian.) Even when taking the continent as a whole (including the Muslim-majority nations of northern Africa), it comes out as being 80% Christian. Missionaries from Africa are now being sent out to re-evangelize the secularizing mission fields of Europe and North America. 

And while some might have concerns at the sheer diversity of African Christianity, and the possible syncretism involved in some forms, I can attest, from personal experience, to the strength, vigor, and maturity of Christianity in Africa. Several of the saintliest people I've ever met were African Christians, including one Namibian evangelist who, through his wise counsel, forever changed my outlook on ministry. I have been personally enriched and challenged by African Christianity many times, and if it happens that America will one day require a reinvigoration from the rising tide of African faith, it will be entirely to our benefit.

"Then I will purify the lips of the peoples, that all of them may call on the name of the Lord and serve him shoulder to shoulder. From beyond the rivers of Cush my worshipers, my scattered people will bring me offerings."
              - Zephaniah 3:9-10 

Wednesday, June 07, 2017

The Evangeliad (1:29-34)

Section 1:29-34 (corresponding to Luke 1:28-33)

Thus came the angel Gabriel to her,
And there she heard the unimagined word:
“The Lord greets thee, thou richly favored one,
Beloved Mother of the endless Son!

The Lord himself is with you, strong to save,
And He has made you blessed in all your ways!”
But Mary, troubled at these shocking words,
Wondered at the mysteries they inferred.

“Fear not,” said the angel, with greatest joy,
“You shall conceive, and have a baby boy!
You then will give him ‘Jesus’ as his name,
For this is he who comes to love and save.

Yes, great shall he be, and glorious too;
The Son of God Most High is born to you!
The Lord your God will give him David’s throne,
And he shall reign o’er all the world alone.

Yes, Jacob’s house to him their knees shall bend,
And of his kingdom there will be no end!”
Then Mary spoke, and in her humble grace,
Inquired as to how this would take place.