Sunday, December 02, 2012

Advent: A Celebration of Sacramentality

There are certain ineffable actions. A kiss, for example, is a physical act that communicates things that are impossible to fully put into words. The most important things in life are difficult to put into words. That’s why we have poets—to explore and probe the borders of language, and to create new metaphorical possibilities. If you have a wonderful experience—seeing a sunset, falling in love, hearing a symphony—whatever it is, you very quickly run out of adjectives to describe what happened. Words alone make us feel empty. The sacraments are like that. They are actions that communicate beyond words. Unfortunately, post-enlightenment rationalism has taught us that reality is an intellectual formula. We think that reality lies in words, when, in fact, the New Testament shows that it works the other way: “The Word became flesh.”

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God . . . The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” John 1

That is what Advent and Christmas is all about. Today is the first Sunday of Advent. The word means “coming” or “arrival.” The focus of the season is on the celebration of the birth of Jesus, and the anticipation of his return. Advent is more than simply marking a 2000-year-old event in history; it is celebrating the revelation of God in Christ whereby all of creation will be reconciled to God. That is a process in which we now participate, and the consummation of which we anticipate. We affirm that Christ has come in the flesh, that he is present in the world today through his church, and that he will come again in power. Advent is characterized by a spirit of expectation and longing. There is a yearning for deliverance from the evils of the world. We hope that God, who sometimes seems distant, will rule over all His creation in truth and righteousness. It is that hope that once anticipated the coming of the anointed one—the Messiah. That same spirit now longs for his return to come and set the world aright!

God’s people once cried out in oppression and anguish, “How long O Lord?” And then, when we least expected it, under the boot of oppression, in a night without light, came THE Light; in a world without hope, eternal hope was born; in the midst of despair, we heard the singing of angels. The spirit of anticipation during Advent, and the realization of incarnation during Christmas ought to imbue the church with a sacramental understanding of salvation. There can be no true spirituality without sacramentality. But what does that mean? What is “sacramentality”?

It means that all reality is potentially the bearer of God’s presence and the instrument of God’s salvific activity on humanity’s behalf. This principle is rooted in the nature of a sacrament as such—a visible sign and instrument of the invisible presence and activity of God. 

Christianity sees in Christ the full embodiment of God. Since God became human, then God is seen, touched, and heard in the context of human living. “He is the Image of the invisible God.” This is the principle of sacramentality. The church celebrates certain rituals (primarily baptism and communion) that make the saving presence of God tangible. They are moments of encounter with God that deeply affect our lives. Christ is present, LITERALLY, in baptism and communion in a sense that far surpasses anything conjured up by subjective remembrance. What we celebrate during Christmas is a tiny preface to this ongoing reality.

Most Evangelical Christians do not think in these terms, and it certainly does not describe my own church heritage. Leaving baptism aside for a separate discussion (regarding its efficacy), I was raised in a tradition that eschewed any “real presence” of Christ in the Eucharist. It was done “in remembrance” of Christ’s death and resurrection. That’s remembrance ONLY. Anything beyond this radical Zwinglian understanding was deemed “too Catholic.” I currently attend a church where the Eucharist is celebrated once a month. While many of us would like to celebrate it weekly, that too has been deemed “too Catholic.” Sadly, this misses the point. Christianity affirms that God became human in the person of Christ, that we are receptacles of the Spirit, that the church, collectively, is the body of Christ on earth, and that Christ’s presence is mediated to us through real and tangible elements. Much of Christianity has become, in a sense, too spiritual. The obsession with spirituality that is disconnected from physical reality, and the preaching of salvation as a plan to escape this world is, at best, a reversal of what Christianity has always taught, and, at worst, a return to some early heresies.

But sacramentality embraces more than sacred rituals. It also promotes the idea that we live in a sacred world because it has been created by God. For this reason, every tangible element of creation from the natural environment to human persons provides an opportunity to encounter something of God’s presence. Understood in this way, the principle of sacramentality affirms that as we study and explore the human condition, as well as the natural environment, we are actually discovering more about the presence of God.

C.S. Lewis stated this brilliantly: “It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no 'ordinary' people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.”

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Good? Bad? Who's To Say?

A farmer named Sai Weng owned a beautiful mare, which was praised far and wide. One day this beautiful horse disappeared. The people of his village offered sympathy to Sai Weng for his great misfortune. Sai Weng simply said, “Good? Bad? Who’s to say?”

A few days later the lost mare returned, followed by a beautiful wild stallion. The village congratulated Sai Weng for his good fortune. Again, he said, “Good? Bad? Who’s to say?”

Some time later, Sai Weng's only son, while breaking in the stallion, fell and broke his leg. The villagers once again expressed their sympathy at Sai Weng's misfortune. Sai Weng again said, “Good? Bad? Who’s to say?”

Soon thereafter, war broke out and all the young men of the village, except Sai Weng's son, were drafted and killed in battle. The villagers were amazed as Sai Weng's good luck. His son was the only young man left alive in the village. But Sai Weng kept his same attitude: despite all the turmoil, gains and losses, he gave the same reply, “Good? Bad? Who’s to say?”

I have long said that destruction precedes creation; pain precedes joy; and loss precedes gain. In that spirit, here are some horrific tragedies that resulted in good things:

The Black Death
The Plague that utterly ravaged humanity, killing up to 60 percent of Europeans, and dropping the population of the entire world by 20 percent by some estimates. The Plague came in three forms. Bubonic was the most common and easiest to spot. Sufferers developed huge sores under the armpits, on the neck, and in the groin. Death occurred less than a week after infection. Pneumonic was the second form, and it infected the lungs. It also had a mortality rate of 95 percent, which seems impressive until you learn that Septicemic Plague, the third variety, had a mortality rate close to 100 percent. Much like attacking Bruce Willis on Christmas, if you contracted Septicemic Plague, your life expectancy was about a day!

The Silver Lining?
The birth of the modern world! Before the plague there had been massive overpopulation in Medieval Europe. Along with it came famine, poor sanitation, overcrowding—all of which helped to accelerate the progress of infectious diseases. Disease, starvation, and predators make up Mother Nature's three-pronged population control failsafe, and things had gotten to the point where it was going to be the Plague or lions!

The ensuing wave of death and horror set off a series of dominoes that would help create the modern world. First, the Plague left behind a sudden shortage of labor, thus landlords were forced to compete for workers by offering higher wages and better treatment. A lower population also brought cheaper land prices, more food for the average peasant, and a relatively large increase in income among the lower classes. Essentially, the Black Death brought about the end of feudalism, the establishment of capitalism, and was one of the major factors that ultimately caused the Renaissance.

Chernobyl Meltdown
Chernobyl is considered to be the worst nuclear disaster in history. It started when engineers at the plant wanted to see if, should power to the plant fail, they could keep the cooling pump system going from the reactors themselves. We can see how someone would be eager to break up the drudgery of life at a communist-run power plant, which probably consisted of hauling atoms back and forth in drab, gray wheelbarrows and standing in line for enriched uranium, but deliberately messing around with nuclear safety regulations just to “see what happens” seems to be taking it too far.

Two huge explosions blew off the reactor's roof, the highly radioactive contents were spewed into the atmosphere, air was sucked in which ignited carbon monoxide gas, and the reactor was set on fire for nine days straight. Because the Soviet Union couldn't be bothered to house the Chernobyl reactor in a concrete shell, as was standard, 100 times more radiation was released than in the Nagasaki and Hiroshima bombings combined!

The Silver Lining?
It ended the Cold War. Or helped to, anyway. What happened in the USSR, stayed in the USSR. Secrecy is what having a police state is all about. So at first, the Soviet authorities stuck to their communist policy of “ignore the disaster and hope it will go away.” The only problem was that you can't just explode a nuclear reactor and release a cloud of death in the process, and expect nobody to notice. Officials in Sweden raised alarm about the huge levels of radiation sweeping over Europe from Russia, and the Kremlin was forced to break its customary silence after 48 hours. Three weeks later, Mikhail Gorbachev finally commented, with unprecedented honesty. This is the point when, against the will of the hardliners, the light came shining in. Gorbachev was forced to be completely honest, and give journalists access to nuclear officials and doctors. And once the press was allowed to start tugging at loose threads, communism came unraveled. When the citizenry found out that bread lines were not “awesome,” this led to mass dissatisfaction that fueled the eventual end of the Cold War, and the Soviet Union.

World War I
Almost 60 percent of the soldiers who mobilized in 1914 wound up as casualties. They pulled off those numbers with bullets, and bayonets, and poison gas, and guys screaming in muddy trenches—the human experiments of technology and weaponry that strove for better ways to turn humans into a fine red mist.

The Silver Lining?
The Women's Rights movement. World War I was really the point where war made an abrupt transition from bunches of angry guys on horses to tanks and other mass-produced machines. War was becoming a contest of manufacturing capacity and that meant the assembly line worker became just as important as the soldier. It was around 1915 that Britain realized all their able-bodied males were off shooting at Germans, and started employing women in munitions factories. A year later, conscription sucked even more men off the production floor. It's true that most of those women would quit their jobs when the men came back home, but it was too late. They had escaped the kitchen, and would win the right to vote in 1918, and ultimately the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920 came about because of the War.

The Crusades
The Crusades were an attempt to convert the world to Western Christianity, and unite them under the leadership of the Pope—and predictably ended in a giant pile of corpses. The West tried to conquer and hold the Holy Land (Jerusalem) for the entire medieval period! Usually, if something doesn't work for a couple of centuries, you should probably just quit. Both sides were bloodthirsty, cruel, and greedy; but the initial Christian assault took the cake with a particularly bloody, largely unprovoked conquest of Jerusalem that resulted in funeral pyres “as large as houses.”

The Silver Lining?
America! With all the travel between the Islamic and Western worlds, the Christians were bound to pick up something useful. The exposure to Islam gave the west the foundations of modern science, medicine, and architecture. Yeah, pretty useful! The need to transport and supply huge armies also led to improved trading in Europe, and helped to kick-start the Renaissance in Italy, which further shaped modern art, science, music, and philosophy. Oh, and one more thing. Eventually, due to the rising Ottoman Empire in the East cutting off Western trade with Asia, Europe was forced to find alternate trading routes, which ultimately led to Columbus discovering America. Attempted medieval genocide—Good? Bad? Who’s to say?

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Sacramentality Part 2: Treasure in Jars of Clay

I have wanted to post this for some time. Actually, I wrote it a while back, but because many will say that I have a vested interest, I held off posting it. The truth is I may well have a vested interest, but that doesn’t make it less true. There are still valuable lessons to be learned from the church’s history. I think the Donatist controversy of the 4th century still informs so much of our church life today.

The primary disagreement between the Donatists and the rest of the early church was over the treatment of those who renounced their faith during the great persecution under the Roman emperor Diocletian (303305). The rest of the church was far more forgiving of these people than the Donatists were. The Donatists refused to accept the sacraments (baptism and communion) and spiritual authority of the bishops who had fallen away from the faith during the persecution. Many of these church leaders had gone so far as to turn Christians over to Roman authorities and had handed over scriptures to authorities to be publicly burned. These people were called traditors (“the lapsed”). These traditors had returned to positions of authority after the persecution, but the Donatists proclaimed that any sacraments given by these Christians were invalid. So, if someone who had betrayed Christ and the church during the persecution baptized you, that baptism was not valid.

In A.D. 311 Caecillian was elected as bishop of Carthage by three area bishops. However, Caecillian, as well as Felix, one the three that elected him, was accused of handing over scriptures to the authorities during the persecution. A council of North African bishops met and elected a new bishop, Majorinus, to replace Caecillian. Majorinus soon died, and was succeeded by Donatus. Now here’s what happened: The church’s official position was that those who had lapsed during the persecution (denied Christ or handed over scriptures to the authorities) were to be forgiven and reinstated in the church – even to positions of leadership. Donatus and his followers believed that those who had denied Christ could never be forgiven. Only he and his group were the “true church,” and anyone who had lapsed during the persecution could not administer baptism or communion – and, furthermore, anyone who was baptized by one of the lapsed had received an invalid baptism.

The Donatists held that all sacraments administered by those not of their sect were invalid. So by their sinful act, such clerics had rendered themselves incapable of celebrating valid sacraments. This position is known as ex opere operatis - Latin for “from the work of the one doing the working,” That is, that the validity of the sacrament depends on the worthiness of the minister conferring it. The larger Christian position was (and still is): ex opere operato – “from the work having been worked.” In other words, the validity of the sacrament depends on the holiness of God, the minister being a mere instrument of God's work. Because of Augustine’s influence on the church the Donatists were eventually deemed heretical.

Okay, so what can we learn? Baptism and Communion are valid because they are channels of God’s grace, and are NOT dependent on human qualifications. This is a big difference between the Catholic Church and Protestant Churches. Evangelical churches in particular, have in many ways reverted to the Donatist position. That is, more weight is placed on the knowledge, qualifications, character, personal credibility, integrity, purity, and moral authority of the minister than in the imbued grace of God working through the minister. Remember how Paul spoke of the messenger as a “jar of clay”? – weak, broken, flawed. Protestant, evangelical churches do not practice this functionally. Too many people put way too much weight in the purity and moral authority of the minister. When some people discover that he is human – weak and sinful, their faith is tried, even shattered. Why? Don’t put your faith in people, put your faith in God. A person can’t bear up under the pressure. When a Catholic priest fails morally, his bishops protect him. When an evangelical Protestant minister fails morally, his bishops and parishioners no longer believe that he is “qualified” to minister, despite his many other qualifications (education and skills), and even a life that bears witness to God’s grace and the power of confession and repentance.

This may not be heresy, but something is very wrong when people and churches put more faith in the moral qualifications of a person than the ability of God to minister His grace through broken and sinful people. It is out of whack, and not consistent with what the church has believed and practiced as a matter of policy for the past 1700 years! Is the treasure in a jar of clay, or is the jar of clay the treasure?

Monday, January 23, 2012

Roe v. Wade: A Test of Real Conservatism

Today marks the 39th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion. This has been a lightning rod issue and litmus test among social conservatives since then. For me, it is a slightly different litmus test.

Last week I said that the proper definition of "conservative" is "federalist." In that regard, Mitt Romney is true conservative. He is a hardcore federalist! A candidate like Santorum, who wears the mantle of conservatism, is not a federalist. Consider their respective platforms on abortion:

Romney: Roe v. Wade should be reversed by a future Supreme Court and States should decide their own abortion laws.
Santorum: Favors a constitutional abortion ban and opposes abortion even in cases of rape.

Now, Santorum may appeal to social conservatives with that, but that makes him a “big government conservative,” not a federalist. Romney is right on this. It is also my own personal view? Abortion IS an issue for me – on a moral and religious level. Who the president is does not affect the issue at all. I am opposed to abortion. However, I reject both “pro life” and “pro choice” labels. I am anti abortion, but pro choice. I believe that women should CHOOSE to have the child. Scripture gives this choice in Deuteronomy 30: “I set before you today life and death; blessings and curses. Now choose life.” I think abortion is morally reprehensible. However, all polls indicate that the majority of Americans think abortion ought to remain legal - therefore I am in the minority on this issue. What am I going to do? Force my religious views on the rest of the country? Laws in the United States are not made on the basis of religious teaching or conviction. They are utilitarian because we are a secular nation.

From a LEGAL standpoint I think that Roe v Wade (1973) was a terrible decision. Even liberal law professors (Lawrence Tribe of Harvard) admit this. Both liberals and conservatives need to understand that if Roe v Wade is overturned, it will not make abortion illegal, it will simply return the issue to the States. At that point all 50 state legislatures will determine their own abortion laws. This is the way federalism works. And, since most Americans want to see abortion kept legal, I don’t believe that any state will ban it outright. Overturning Roe v Wade will have virtually zero effect on abortion in America. Roe v Wade simply incorporated the 14th Amendment so that one State's allowing abortion applies to the other 49 States.

The rhetoric from people like Santorum lends the impression of religious fanaticism, and no law in the United States will ever be made on the basis of religious fanaticism. Calling abortion “murder” marginalizes the argument. Murder has a meaning. It is the intentional taking of a human life in a manner that is illegal. Abortion is not illegal. I have looked into the distressed eyes of women contemplating this decision, and what they need is love, compassion, and hope – not anger, fanaticism, and labels. And they really don’t need any more laws.