by The Rev. Daniel P Strandlund | September 19, 2019
Hi friends, as many of you know, I’m currently enrolled in a Master’s program with the University of Nottingham in the UK. Over the next few weeks, I’d like to use (most of) our newsletter space to tell you about what I’m researching and pondering. The questions I’m wrestling with currently have to do with the bible, particularly the New Testament as a whole. Questions like, How do we understand the bible’s authority? What are we affirming when we say the bible is revelatory, or when we say it is the Word of God? What is gained and what do we risk obscuring when we affirm this particular collection of texts as unique amongst all others? And how did we get a New Testament, anyway? I hope to explore these questions. At times, this exploration will be systematic and linear; at other times, it may not be much more nuanced then, “Look at this thing I learned! Neat!” Today, however, I’d like to lay out some preliminaries and call attention to my assumptions.
Preliminaries. When I refer to “the bible” or “scripture” I mean two things: first, I simply mean the book lots of Christians keep by our bedsides or on our bookshelves. It might be an NRSV, or a King James, or a Contemporary English Version, or whatever. I just mean that book, which for Christians contains two testaments (and perhaps an apocrypha—more on that in subsequent weeks).
But in referring to “the bible,” I also mean a book that is special, a book in which we recognize authority other books do not have. So, in a later post, if I write something like, “For Bishop Old Guy, the bible contained X, Y, and Z,” what I am saying is that Bishop Old Guy read X, Y, and Z as though they were special, just like you and I read the bible as a book that is special. As we will see, at different points in the Church’s history, the book folks like Bishop Old Guy kept on their metaphorical bedsides did not contain exactly the same things as yours and mine do.
This distinction between two senses of the word bible is important. For example, I majored in English and minored in Creative Writing, so I spent a lot of time in the humanities building at Birmingham-Southern College. In the environment of a liberal arts literature department, when one hears somebody talk about the bible, one can safely assume that she is referring to the bible in the first way I’ve noted, but not in the second. Though it may be obvious, I say it for the sake of clarity: I’m not really interested in the bible simply as a literary artefact that is studied like any other literary artefact, though secular methods of study and interpretation are illuminating. I am writing for and from a confessional perspective: I am interested in the bible as a literary artefact, sure, but one which is authoritative and revelatory.
Thus, my primary assumptions are confessional. Essentially, in our explorations, I will assume that Jesus is exactly who Christians proclaim Him to be: the Messiah, the Son of God, the savior and redeemer of the world, a Jewish kid from Nazareth who grew up in a particular time and place to do signs and wonders, a man wrongfully executed by the dominant power of his day, a man whom God raised from the dead and ascended into heaven. Again, this sounds like an obvious thing for a priest to write in a church newsletter, but it is of fundamental importance. My assumption is that at the end of the day, Christianity depends upon a person more so than it does on a book. This distinction between person and book is fundamental but not neat and tidy. After all, all the language I’ve just used to describe Jesus is biblical language.
Why is this assumption so important? Methodologically, it is important because from the outset I am accepting that the orthodox Christian proclamation about Jesus is true and has been revealed to us as such; it simply remains to be seen how this is so with our particular questions in mind. As we explore, it’s a bit like we have the starting and ending points of a map, and we’re trying to figure out the in-between pieces. Practically, my assumption (faith, might be a better word) is that whatever we learn about the bible—its history, its authority, how it reveals God to us, etc.—is ultimately compatible with the proclamation that Jesus is the Son of God. In other words, whatever turns we end up having to take in the missing pieces of the map, I assume that we can take them and still end our journey at an orthodox port. So: fare forward, voyagers!
This assumption already reveals much about the particular theological perspective for which I will argue. While all Christians accept a unique connection of some kind between Jesus and the bible, not all Christians accept, whether explicitly or implicitly in practice, that there is also a distinction between them: Jesus Christ is the object of our devotion while the bible is a unique means to knowledge and love of that object. The erosion of this distinction is understandable (though, as I hope to show, problematic) given that we use the phrase “Word of God” to refer both to the man Jesus and to Holy Scripture.
A final assumption is that not all perspectives about this are equally good, that it is possible to argue for and against them, and that this sort of learning is part of the practice of faith. Theology is faith seeking understanding. This seeking proceeds by prayer, participating in the communal life of the Church and her traditions, reflection on our experiences, studying holy writ, and genuine argument and conversation. Jesus Christ is the Truth, the Way to it, and the Life sustaining us on the journey. Thus, while we travel Truthward, each of us sees always only in part, and yet we should expect that some perspectives give a clearer or more comprehensive view than others. When presented with a better view, we must endeavor to move our feet a little.
So, over the next few weeks, I’m going to try and put into words what is good about the view from where I am standing (I’m still getting used to some of it!), and why not all of it is easy to see from other places we sometimes stand. Having said that, there will be plenty missing or out of focus in what follows. Who knows? Maybe you’ve a keener eye. If so, I hope you’ll show me the view from where you are.
by The Rev. Daniel P Strandlund | September 5, 2019
Sunday, Sunday, Sunday!
Hi friends, this Sunday is a big day in the life of St. Liz. I’m writing with the details.
First: this Sunday we will finally begin our two-service worship schedule. It will look like this:
8:45am Family Service w/Godly Play
9:45am Sunday School Hour (Adults in the Mission Hall)
11am Principal Service w/Children’s Chapel.
“Family Service” and “Principal Service” aren’t ideal titles, but they’ll work. Families of all kinds are welcome at either service. And just because our 11am is called “Principal” doesn’t mean the 8:45am is any less important!
Second, you might be wondering why Godly Play is happening during the Family Service and not during Sunday School hour? This is a temporary solution to a last second problem. Just in August we learned that our current Godly Play building isn’t structurally sound (problems with the floor), so we’re no longer using it for kids’ programs. We’re actively pursuing a solution, but it will still be a few more weeks at best before we have new Godly Play/Children’s Chapel space available.
In the meantime, Godly Play will simply be part of the 8:45am Family Service. In a few weeks, if we still don’t have new space available, we might have Godly Play meet outside on the Mission Hall Porch during the Sunday School hour. But it’s still too hot for that right now.
You might be asking, “Why can’t Godly Play happen in the Mission Hall during the Sunday School hour?” Excellent question. If we move Godly Play into the Mission Hall, then there won’t be any place for adults to have a Sunday School class. In our surveys about adding a second service, several folks asked about adding Sunday School for adults. Unfortunately, with our Godly Play/Children’s Chapel building out of commission, the Mission Hall is our only real programmatic space.
This brings me to the third thing you need to know for Sunday: we need to begin thinking about whether it’s time to expand or update some of our existing facilities. To that end, I hope you’ll attend a meeting in the Mission Hall during the Sunday School hour this week, at 9:45am. (We’ll have activities for the kids on the patio.) If you’re unable to come at that time, there will be another after the 11am service. Our goal in these meetings is to hear from the whole congregation: if you were to identify three facilities improvements you’d like to see happen, for example, what would they be?
This summer, I asked Laura Hamilton to form and chair a group of folks to begin thinking strategically about what our facilities needs might be, and who might have to be involved in addressing any projects we decide to pursue. (For example, do we have a land survey of the St. Liz property? Are we on septic or city sewer? How does the diocese need to be involved?) Laura and members of her team will be at each meeting this Sunday.
With the exception of replacing our suddenly out-of-commission Godly Play/Children’s Chapel building, there are no plans underway. We’re still figuring out what our priorities are. Once our whole faith community has had opportunity to offer input, only then will we decide what projects, if any, we will decide to address.
Hi friends, there are a great number of moving pieces at St. Liz at the moment, and I’m writing to communicate them as best I can. I hope you’ll read carefully.
First, a reminder about our new two-service schedule which begins on Sunday, September 8th:
*8:45am, Family Service
*9:45am-10:45am, Sunday School, Choir Practice, + Coffee Hour
*11am, Principal Service
Second, this past spring, I had conversations with several of you about some facilities constraints we’re experiencing at St. Liz. I don’t mean repairing our AC system or getting a new roof; I mean not having enough physical meeting space for our growing programs. For just one example, as our children’s programs grow, and our children get older and become older youth, we’re increasingly in need of more programmatic space for older kids on Sunday mornings.
There are other facilities needs we need to address, as well. In order to make sure we think strategically about how best to address them, and in order to make sure we’re asking all the questions we need to ask—cost, priorities, diocesan policies, sewer and septic and so on—your Wardens and I decided to form a Strategic Facilities Footprint Committee. (That name doesn’t really roll off the tongue, so we’re just calling it “Footprints.”) That group first met in July, and Laura Hamilton is the chair. She has a wealth of experience with real-estate and building permits and the like, as well as a large network of connections. She and her team have done great work in recent weeks, for which I am grateful.
While the Bishop’s Committee, the Footprints team, and I have identified some facilities priorities for St. Liz, we want to hear from the whole congregation. What do you think we need to improve? What do you think we need to add? What do you dream for St. Liz in regards to our physical campus? Are there accessibility issues of which we’re unaware?
We’re inviting you to help us answer these questions. Specifically, we’d like you to plan to attend one of two listening sessions on Sunday, September 8th.
*9:45am in the Mission Hall (during our new Sunday School hour)
*After 11am worship in the Mission Hall.
These sessions are a time for you to ask questions and to articulate your own desires for St. Liz’s physical campus. I hope you’ll come. You never know, your idea could be the one we all need to hear! If you’re unable to make either of these, please contact Laura with any thoughts you have. You can reach Laura at email@example.com
I want to be clear: in their work thus far, the Footprints team has only explored possibilities; no decisions have been made about adding or extending buildings; nor have we decided to change our use of the ones we have. There is one major exception to this and leads me to my third reason for writing.
As part of their work, the Footprints team learned that our current Godly Play and Children’s Chapel building isn’t trustworthy anymore due to some structural issues with one section of the floor. Given that building’s age, both your Bishop’s Committee and the Footprints team agree that the expense required to repair it is not in St. Liz’s best interest. Therefore, effective immediately, we are no longer holding any children’s programs there.
We got this curve ball just this past week. Losing the use of our dedicated children’s program space so close to the start of the school year is an unexpected challenge, but it is a temporary one. The BC and I have asked Laura and her team to address it as soon as is responsibly possible. With some diocesan help, Laura is currently pursuing one hopeful opportunity, but as of this writing we have not yet arrived at our solution.
Until we do, Children’s Chapel will meet in the Mission Hall. Erin Kowalik and other leaders will move the necessary supplies to the Mission Hall in time for this Sunday. The next challenge is what to do about Godly Play. Here’s the plan:
We will resume Godly Play on Sunday, September 8th as scheduled. However, our Godly Play story for the day will occur in the church as part of our new 8:45am Family Service. This is a temporary solution. It allows us to continue offering Godly Play while also allowing us to offer Christian formation for adults in the Mission Hall during our new Sunday School hour. (This was a desire mentioned frequently in our second service conversations.) Additionally, having our Godly Play story as part of worship will give parents and other adults to see Godly Play in action! I hope you will come and see.
I realize this is a lot of information. Your Leadership Team is gathering this Saturday, from 10am-noon to discuss some of the details of all these moving parts. You are welcome to attend.
So, one more time, just the facts:
*We are no longer using our current children’s program building.Until further notice, Children’s Chapel is in the Mission Hall.
*Sunday, September 8th is a BIG day at St. Liz.This is what it will look like:
8:45am, Family Service with Godly Play
9:45am-10:45am, Footprints Listening Session about Facilities in the Mission Hall. Choir practice in the church.
11am Principal Service with Children’s Chapel
After 11am Worship, second opportunity for Footprints Listening Session about facilities in the Mission Hall.
Hi friends, this past weekend our country suffered two mass shootings in the same 24-hour period. Even by the appalling standards of the United States, this was a bad weekend for gun violence. This past Tuesday at Morning Prayer, we prayed the Great Litany to ask forgiveness and beseech God’s mercy. The Great Litany is penitential and humble in its language towards God, and the supplication at the end is particularly fitting for “times of war, or of national anxiety, or disaster,” as the rubrics of the Book of Common Prayer say. The Great Litany begins on page 148. I commend it to you.
Prayer is an environment in which we receive comfort, forgiveness, and peace. It is also an environment in which we are confronted with difficult truths, rid of falsehoods, and convicted of unacknowledged necessities. My experience of praying the Great Litany this week was less of the former and more of the latter. Four petitions in particular hit me. One goes like this: “From all oppression, conspiracy, and rebellion; from violence, battle, and murder; and from dying suddenly and unprepared, Good Lord, deliver us.” [Italics original.]
To beseech God’s protection from “dying suddenly and unprepared” feels viscerally different after El Paso and Dayton. This prayer is no longer about dying suddenly from a massive heart attack, or a lightning strike, or a car accident. No, we see our sisters and brothers dying suddenly and unprepared during a trip to their local Wal-Mart, synagogue, church, school, or country and western bar. As a country, we are now on lists we are not usually on. Venezuela and Uruguay, for example, caution their citizens against traveling here.
Another petition that struck me begins with these words: “Remember not, Lord Christ, our offenses, nor the offenses of our forefathers….” In the past, when I’ve prayed this litany, that phrase about the sins of our forefathers has conjured not only my own family’s sins, but also those more systematic sins of my home state of Alabama and my country. Things like slavery, Jim Crow, Japanese internment, our treatment of Native Americans—the horrors of America’s past with which we’re familiar.
This week, however, I realized that, in twenty or forty or sixty years, when folks kneel before the altar and ask our Lord not to remember the sins of their forefathers, they will be talking about us. This Tuesday, I felt my perspective broadened, and I became aware that part of what future generations will mean by “the sins of our forefathers” is our current refusal to change our attitudes and laws about guns. I imagine that, when today’s second graders are grandparents, they will tell their grandchildren about going to elementary school and having to do active shooter drills alongside fire drills and tornado drills. When today’s second-graders tell those stories to their grandchildren, it is my sincere hope that those kids will be able to say, “Wow, grandma, that is so awful and weird. What changed?”
They will probably have to respond with something like, “A lot of people died. When my generation finally got to be in charge, we made changes. And now you can go to school without worrying about too much besides missing the bus or spilling chocolate milk on your overalls.” I cannot imagine this granddaughter will be angry that her grandmother’s generation cost her the right to own high capacity magazines.
The third petition that struck me was the prayer to be delivered “From all inordinate and sinful affections; and from all the deceits of the world, the flesh, and the devil.” I was reminded that mass shootings need not remain inevitable simply because they are at least in part the result of our inordinate and sinful affections for weaponry. That’s a deliberate word choice. We are not simply a nation who enjoys hunting and sportsmanship and the shotguns that go with those activities. No, our affections are inordinate and sinful because we desire honest to God weaponry. Mass shootings are not acts of God; nor are they natural disasters. They are the bitter fruit of our inordinate societal affections. As such, as our affections change, so will our violence.
As for weaponry, you have heard it said, “We need weaponry to protect ourselves from a tyrannical federal government.” This is only a partial truth. I've written elsewhere that the subtlest lie is a partial truth masquerading as the whole truth and nothing but. This is the kind of lie we are telling when we assert our right to arm ourselves against a tyrannical government.
It is true that the world’s governments sometimes violently oppress their own people, and it is true that the United States is capable of oppression. But these are not the whole truth. It is also true that in the USA private citizens, not the feds, are executing people at concerts and nightclubs. It is also true that the federal government against which we are arming ourselves possesses Apache helicopters and nuclear submarines. Thus, either we believe that we, too, should be able to purchase these weapons at Cabela’s, or we must admit that an insurmountable arms gap between citizenry and the federal government is a perfectly normal condition in which to live. The former is insane; the latter is reality.
Another deceit of the world is the argument that a change to gun laws will have no impact on the frequency or severity of mass shootings. Surely it is correct to say that things would not change overnight, or even over a year. There are hundreds of millions of guns in the United States already. Plus, a change in gun policy alone would not address racism, mental illness, or violent masculinity. These are all true, just not the whole truth.
It is also true that firearms, particularly ones that fire lots of bullets in a short amount of time, are essential ingredients in mass shootings. It is unclear how changing our attitudes and laws about things thatshoot could not to some extent impact the frequency and severity of shootings. Microwave popcorn does not get popped without a human being to push the buttons, but neither does it get popped without a microwave. Even if it is true that gun reform will have limited impact on our current situation, surely it will make public safety more possible for the grandchildren of today’s second-graders. We are acting on their behalf, too. A major cultural shift that requires decades is still a major cultural shift.
Yes, people would still stab each other with kitchen knives. Yes, people would still mail explosives. Yes, deranged persons would still drive their cars deliberately at pedestrians. But all of these involve misusing the items in question: kitchen knives are for preparing food; the postal service is for mailing birthday presents to relatives across the country; cars are for transportation. Putting bodies on the ground is exactly what a semiautomatic AK-47 is for. It is not a morally neutral object; its very existence depends on our desire to kill.
The fourth and final petition that hit me so hard was in asking God “to rule the hearts of thy servants, the President of the United States…and all others in authority, that they may do justice, and love mercy, and walk in the ways of truth.” This petition brought to mind not so much guns or gun policy, but America’s broader moral environment. Essentially, I was confronted with what feels like an utter vacuum of moral leadership in the highest levels of government. Whatever voices are pushing for decency and reason, they are not loudest.
Here’s what I mean. In May, while talking about immigration at our southern border during a rally, President Trump asked rhetorically, “How do you stop these people [who are trying to cross the border]?” When someone in the crowd shouted, “Shoot them!” the President turned it into a laugh-line. How does this square with the President’s saying after the racially motivated El Paso shooting, “Hatred has no place in our country?” Clearly, hatred does have a place in our country. One that cheers.
President Trump did not bring white nationalism to the United States, but he isn’t helping us be rid of it either. He has plenty of public critics in this regard. Given our rampant mistrust of each other, however, and given that the tone of the political left so often smacks not of righteousness but of (supposedly) enlightened disdain for conservatives, much of this criticism does not ring in our ears as true moral leadership or prophetic speech. Many of President Trump’s critics are trying to take his job, after all. However, when at least one state-level official of President Trump’s own party rightly decried complicity with white nationalism, he was accused of having never actually been a conservative in the first place.
Let’s be clear: we’re no longer talking about guns; we’re talking about white nationalism. This ideology is not behind every mass shooting, but it is behind many. It was at work in El Paso. We’re talking about the rhetoric of sending American citizens of color back to…well, wherever it is white nationalists think brown people come from. We’re talking about a country where jokes about murdering immigrants at a May rally hosted by the President of the United States are followed by actual murders of Latinos in August. In case you missed it, “jokes about murdering immigrants” was not the worst part of that entirely factual sentence. Most damning of all is that we are not allowed to criticize any of this unless it’s the other team doing it. And even then, we’re simply and predictably partisan hacks.
Please, God, rule the hearts of thy servants, the President of the United States and all others in authority, that they may do justice, and love mercy, and walk in the ways of truth.
I am less measured today and will speak more plainly from that same perspective: as a nation, we have an unhealthy relationship to weapons, and this testifies against us before the throne of the Prince of Peace. As a nation, we have a President whose ego-needs fuel many of our worst cultural demons. Because of our collective attachment to weapons, these demons are more viscerally powerful than they would otherwise be. As a nation, our mistrust of each other has injured our capacities for repentance, and therefore of unity and truth-telling for the common good. Even with this much blood in the streets, we are unrepentant and unwilling to amend our national life. This, too, testifies against us.
As the Church, we are the Body who possess the moral and spiritual resources required to work repentance, unity, and truth-telling in our country. What enlivens the Church is the Holy Spirit of the Risen Lord; we thus inhabit a narrative which empowers us to hope for, pray for, work towards, and even realize a common national life better than this—one more like the Kingdom. This Lord did not summon His legions against us when we crucified Him. He will not do so now, even as we continue to refuse amendment of life and to tolerate the deaths of innocents. But rest assured, if we would enter more fully into His kingdom, we must do so on His terms alone. I am not sure what it will cost us as Americans to enter more fully into that kingdom, but I imagine that it will be more than we would like.
May His mercy rest upon us as we who remain in our earthly pilgrimage work out our salvation in fear and trembling. And when next we meet them, may we not be condemned by the faithful departed of Dayton and El Paso—and Sandy Hook and Sutherland Springs and Orlando and Las Vegas and the too many other cities of this increasingly bloody plain.
Hi friends, I recently returned from a backpacking trip at Duncan Park in Colorado. Duncan Park is one of the Diocese of West Texas’ camps and retreat centers, and each summer they host groups of families and youth and adults. I can’t recommend it enough. If the three DioWTX camps—Mustang Island, Camp Capers, and Duncan Park—were Hogwarts Houses, I’m fairly certain the Sorting Hat would’ve made me a Duncan.
I served as the chaplain for the backpacking group. I backpacked with three other adult leaders and eight youth for four nights and three full days of hiking. We covered between twenty-five and thirty miles, starting at an elevation of around 10,000 feet and climbing most of another 3,000 feet.
I’d never backpacked before, so while this wasn’t exactly trekking the entire Appalachian Trail, it was still a major undertaking for an inexperienced backpacker like me. There were lots of surprises along the way, but one that sticks out in my memory is that the trail actually got easier the longer I was on it.
There are several reasons for this. First, at some point on our first day I learned that I was wearing my pack incorrectly. With a regular backpack, the weight stays on your shoulders, and I assumed that our big camping packs worked the same. But it turns out, big camping packs come with those padded, wrap-around-your-waist straps for a reason! Our hips are designed to carry more weight than our shoulders are, and once I shifted the weight things were much easier.
Second, the longer we were on the trail, the more food we ate and more water we drank, meaning the packs literally got lighter as we consumed our supplies. “Every ounce counts,” they told us before we left, and they were right. Three Cliff Bars and a big bag of oatmeal don’t weigh very much...until you’ve carried them around for three days and twenty miles. Fortunately, Cliff Bars and oatmeal aren’t the kinds of things you have to carry the whole way; they’re temporary burdens.
Third, and this one is the hardest to articulate, after a couple days of walking together, we just got into a kind of zone. Our last day we hiked around seventeen miles, but I have to say, we could’ve kept going. Our feet hurt, our backs ached, and we all wanted a hot meal and a shower—but we were each a little leaner in the soul than we had been before we left, and we trusted each other more. If you spend a few days drinking water someone else has carried from the river, you can’t help but feel some fondness for them.
I heard a proverb once that goes like this: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” That chimes with my experience in Colorado. We didn’t do much of anything particularly fast. But even at the end of our longest and final day of hiking, we could’ve gone physically farther and spiritually further—because we were going together.
I don’t mean to paint our hiking group with too rosy of a brush. We made mistakes and got on each other’s nerves. Some of us were ill-prepared for what we were setting out to do; some were only there because our parents had made us; and at one point we had to abandon our original plan and turn back. Once, on a steep incline in the trail, one of our number needed some help. We removed some items from his pack and redistributed them. For reasons unknown to me, this particular pilgrim had brought along a book of ghost stories thicker than a Houston phone book. The thing must’ve weighed two pounds. I was speechless as I put it into my own pack and kept walking.
Despite all of that, somehow the hike got easier as we climbed and descended and climbed again. We ate the miles with our boots and were fed by that landscape in which we knew that we were creatures made of dust and gifted breath. Eventually the polish, frenzy, and tech-addictions of our allegedly more civilized lives were worn away, and we were at home in the liturgies of fetching water and wood.
There are some verses from Matthew we prayed each night on the trail. They’re recommended for reading in “An Order for Compline,” a service from the Prayer Book designed to be said right before bedtime. Perhaps you know them:
Come to me, all who labor and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light (11:28-30).
In my experience, these words of Jesus become true over time. Occasionally, maybe once or twice in a life, we have a kind of conversion experience, an encounter with Jesus after which our souls feel immediately and irrevocably lighter. But for the most part, we who labor and are heavy-laden have to spend a lot of nights and miles in the woods learning to carry Christ’s yoke. His lightness of being is a discipline.
The truth of the matter is that the lightness Christ promises is not some new thing we receive and then simply walk around with. We don’t always get a newer, better life in exchange for the one we’ve been living. Faith is not a branded piece of gear from REI; grace is not an added piece of equipment. Instead, the yoke of Christ, this rest for weary souls, often begins by learning to carry more naturally the burdens we already bear.
This grief, this particular source of anxiety—do you wear it in your shoulders, or on your hips where it belongs? Perhaps you’re trying to bear an emotion with your mind instead of your heart, or you’re relying too much on your feelings instead of simply taking action to change a situation.
These habits you’re still lugging around—are they the kinds of gear you need to keep, or were they always supposed to be temporary burdens, like oatmeal and Cliff Bars? Maybe it’s time to eat them, thank God for what energy they’ve provided up till now, and move on a little lighter on your feet.
Finally, who’s on the trail with you? Are you trying to go fast or are you trying to go far? Are the ghost stories you carry your own? And if not, is it time to give them back to their owner?
It is an easy thing to talk about letting Christ bear our burdens. The truth, however, is that some burdens we cannot or should not cast off; they are the tents in which we sleep and the pots from which we eat. Not everything heavy is sin to be repented of entirely. Not every weight is extraneous. Love, work, and memory; relationships chosen and not chosen; illness and desire and age; the million inconveniences of morality: we cannot simply cast these off and leave them in the woods. They are the very stuff of which life is made; they’re not ghost stories. There is no campsite and no community of backpackers without them.
Christ’s invitation is that we carry all these lightly, with hearts made lowly and gentle. To ask God to disburden us of them is to ask that we cease being human.
When Christ invites us to take His yoke and learn from Him, He does not simply mean that He’s going to carry our backpacks for us or replace them with some new feather-light, sweat-wicking spiritual life gear. Perhaps He simply means that the burdens we already carry will get lighter with the miles. They will become less strange to us, less foreign, until one day they no longer feel like burdens at all but simply part of a life lived unafraid of rain and unshielded from starlight. Perhaps one day we will be seasoned enough to receive their weight as our blessing.
If you’re like me, you don’t know what that feels like yet.
So let’s keep going. Who knows what we’ll see from the next rise?
Hi friends, a few weeks ago our Gospel passage was Luke 8:26-39. In it, Jesus crosses out of Galilee into “the country of the Gerasenes, “and while there meets a “man of the city who had demons” (Luke 8:26-27). Before Jesus banishes the demons into a herd of swine, Jesus and the man have a sort of conversation. The man (or the demons in him) shouts at Jesus, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me” (8:29). The verb we translate as “torment” has a metallurgical, or perhaps alchemical, weight to it. This alchemy is on my mind and heart this week.
In Greek, the verb we translate as “torment” looks like this: βασανίζω. (We can pronounce it, “bah-sah-NID-zo.”) In one sense, it means exactly what we read: to torment or to torture. The demons know Jesus has power over them, and so they’re pleading that he not use that power to torment them.
But another vein runs through this word. This same verb is used in the testing of metals to determine their purity, or whether they’ve been alloyed with something less precious. There was a special stone called lapis Lydius (from Lydia, in modern Turkey) that was believed to have the power to reveal the contents of metal. So, if a potentially untrustworthy person paid you a large sum of silver, for example, you might apply the lapis Lydius to the silver to test whether it actually was silver you had been given, or if the charlatan had alloyed it with a metal less precious. To test the silver in this way was to βασανίζω it.
Another way of understanding the Gerasene episode from Luke 8, then, is to say that our demon-haunted citizen falls under the pressure of Jesus, who is God’s lapis Lydius. All the impurities, all this man’s demons, are revealed and thereby expelled from the shining image of God within. What is left of our Gerasene citizen is his real substance. His neighbors “found [him]…sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid” (8:35).
In Jesus of Nazareth, it’s as though God reaches down and pressures each of us with a divine lapis Lydius. To bear the weight of the cross is to fall beneath this lapis Lydius of heaven: our impurities are revealed, our purer substance distilled. The prophetic weight of this Stone unsettles and discomforts. After all, to apply the lapis Lydius and to torment are the same verb. As the psalmist says, “For you, O God, have proved us; you have tried us just as silver is tried” (Ps. 66:9). Silver is purified by fire from the ore (Ps. 12:6). The metallurgy of discipleship burns with holy discomfort.
Sometimes, when we find ourselves discomforted or unsettled about something, what we are feeling is something like what the Gerasene man felt in Jesus’ presence. Our demons are provoked because they know they’re being forced to name themselves that they might be burnt away. Beneath the smears of dross, gold begins to glint. Christ the lapis Lydius is at work.
I have been discomforted and unsettled this summer, and I think it is holy. Like many of you, I have been angered and saddened and even occasionally despairing of the conditions many children are living in at Border Patrol jail cells along the border as we on this side try to decide how best to deal humanely with this influx of minors. (You may have read a recent letter from our bishops calling on our elected state and national leaders to act swiftly in response. If you’ve not read it, I commend it to you.) For me, worse than the anger and sadness has been the sense of helplessness to do anything real or meaningful.
This discomfort has converged with another. For a while now, I’ve been discomforted by how little outreach we do as a community of faith. We certainly have individuals and families who engage regularly in outreach, with Hays Drive a Senior and at Tom Green and with Meals on Wheels and elsewhere. And as a congregation we do supply drives supporting different efforts a couple times a year. I do not mean to diminish the importance of these efforts. I think it is true, however, that regular and deliberate life-giving ministry efforts beyond our physical campus are simply not yet an integral part of our common life. I am troubled by this, both as one Christian amongst others and as your priest. I have no grand plan or program or anything in mind; for now, just a persistent discomfort.
Things at St. Liz are going really well: we’ve had a year of substantial growth, new playground equipment, new roof, new air conditioners, and a new kids’ camp. We’re on track to be financially independent from the diocese soon and are even beginning to talk about the exciting milestone of transitioning from mission to parish. All of this is good.
It is also seductive, and I will admit that this is particularly true for me as your priest and most visible leader. Because growth and energy and joy and affection are some of the many gifts we enjoy at St. Liz, it would be easy just to stay put and let those things become our sole driving purpose(s) or lull us into complacency. The truth is that there are kids in our own community who don’t have multiple changes of clothes, good food, or reliable transportation. They may not be sleeping under shiny refugee blankets, but they might be sleeping on concrete. Or forced to relocate from place to place each week in a kind of migration without end in time or geography.
As I have prayed about all of this, I have come to believe that my discomfort about the border crisis and my discomfort about our own (specifically my own) comparative lack of outreach efforts at and through St. Liz are converging for a reason. They are being pressured together by the presence of Jesus, God’s lapis Lydius. On the one hand, the demon of helplessness about the border is being named and banished by an increased awareness of needs in Hays County; there are things we can do. On the other, the seductive demon of something like ecclesial success is being named and banished by the sheer magnitude of heartache I experience at the plight of children. What could parish status or financial independence or a second service or improvement to our facilities mean if it has no bearing on the lives of the least of these in our community? What irreducible substance will there be beneath those tangibles?
I offer all of this simply as my experience of the Holy Spirit’s alchemy this summer. In my own life, plans for success and a paralyzing sense of helplessness are the impurities God’s touchstone is pressuring to the surface, naming, and, I believe, ridding me of. Flashes of a more precious metal beneath are fleeting and ore’d over still, but so far they look like Love made local. You know, Church.
Again, I have no new outreach plan or program to announce, and am unsure if all this will even lead to a clear one. I just have discomfort that will not subside, a kind of inner torment at being confronted anew with the brokenness of the world and my own complicity by virtue of “what [I] have done and…what [I] have left undone.” I am doing my best not to run away from it, into the Gerasene tombs or into the wilderness, but to remain—in prayer and in front of the news—until I have learned what it’s trying to teach me.
I don’t know if any of this resonates with you, or if you share my unease. If so, and if we would find ourselves “clothed and in our right minds” at the feet of Jesus, chances are the only way out is through. That’s how it usually goes with a cross of any kind.
Hi friends, like many of you, I grow weary with much of our public discourse these days. And like many of you, I am saddened by much of what I see in the news, most recently along our southern border. I don’t have solutions for us in that regard, only heartbreak. What has surprised me, however, is that despite our public anxieties and through the heartbreak of current events, God has opened within me a new depth of what feels like real patriotism. I am somewhat insecure even using the word (and we should be skeptical when our clergy use it!), but I have to say it feels like the right one. Patriotism: a love that is proportional to the finite, creaturely good that a country is; a love that is deeper than any crude nationalism and wider than the more caustic kinds of partisanship to which we’re exposed and tempted.
I think I am a beginner in this. I say that I am a beginner because I am realizing that I have an entrenched skepticism towards ‘patriotism.’ I’m not sure where I habituated it, but in my own life, I think it likely began in the 90s when I learned at a formative age that presidents lie. Without going into the details, nothing since then has really rid me of a basically skeptical posture.
The point is that I find myself in the midst of something like patriotic rehabilitation. The short version is that, rather than expecting my country or her leaders to convince me not to be skeptical, I’ve allowed God to take over and direct whatever patriotic love He would have me give to the United States.
Imagine that. A preacher ‘allowing’ God to direct the flow of love in his life. I feel like an idiot even having to say it out loud. Take what follows for what you will.
What do we love when we love a country? It seems to me that, at the very least, we love a community of people (hundreds of millions of them); we love a certain physical landscape; and, as citizens of the United States, we love what we might call an ideal, or a certain collection of values, laws, and principles which makes our common life possible.
A diverse group of people, a particular patch of land, and an ideal—when we say we love our country, we are loving a combination of (at least) those three things. Each of us might give different weight to those three, and there would certainly be some nuance in regard to how each of us would articulate what America’s ideals are, but on the whole, I think we could mostly agree on those.
That’s a bit about the object of patriotic love. So, what does it mean to love those things? For Christians, the only love there is is the love of God. “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God” (1 John 4:16). Our smaller, creaturely loves—for each other, for our country—are always only a participation in the love of God. So: how do Christians understand love?
1 Corinthians is a good place to start: “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth” (13:4-6).
For me, this is where patriotic love gets difficult. I’m supposed to love these hundreds of millions of people, this landscape, and our ideals like that? When the public official I most like scores a point in a social media spat with one I dislike, or when I am filled with disdain for that group of people over there who believe X about Y...okay, 1 Corinthians 13 is a bit harder to come by. The truth is that I do find within myself arrogance, the desire to boast, a persistent irritability towards those people over there who surely can’t mean the same thing I mean when I say, “I am an American.”
Loving the ideal(s) for which the United States stands is rarely any easier, though for different reasons. “[Love] does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth,” writes St. Paul. In a country that values free speech and the rule of law, we find ourselves in an era of fake news and in a season of our country’s history in which basic human decency seems up for grabs. It’s hard for love to rejoice in the truth when the truth rarely seems to be obvious or agreed upon as such. As for not rejoicing in wrongdoing, again and again and again we are confronted with the reality that so many who have been successful in the United States have histories of repeated and grievous wrongdoing. This creates an environment of public mistrust. We pursue investigations, but then aren’t sure if we should trust the investigators or want the results we get. It’s hard to love an ideal when the evidence so often points away from it.
I wish I could say that at the very least we’re all united in our love for the physical landscapes of our country, but debates about climate change, energy sources, and the use of public lands continue. Clearly, we’re not all of a mind there, either, and these disagreements are further fuel for already long-burning fires.
So, where does this leave us? What does love of country look like through this? For me, the phrases in 1 Corinthians 13 that stick out are “love is patient; love is kind” and “love does not insist on its own way…love is not resentful.”
Of all of these, that love should be “patient” is perhaps the hardest to swallow, particularly when so much is so urgent. The urgency—on the border and elsewhere—is real; real lives are changing by the day. Patient love for our country, then, does not necessarily mean patience with particular issues or crises. Rather, it must be the quality of our deepest posture towards our country’s future, something analogous to the patience of God’s love towards all of human history. In a word, patriotic love must be patient because the United States is incomplete. We are not finished yet; we cannot rest on our laurels; we can never assume that the ideals we espouse are always and everywhere real and active for every member of our communities. Just as you and I as individuals are incomplete and still being formed into the individuals God is calling us to be, so too is our country incomplete. When I keep this in mind, I find that my love for these United States and all my millions of fellow citizens flows more easily, even in times as bitter as our own. When my love is patient, the kindness follows.
That “love does not insist on its own way” is also a hard pill to swallow. For me, this also follows from patience. We vote; we (hopefully) show up to conversations open to the possibility that our minds might be changed, or at least expanded; we practice virtue; we contribute to the common good as we’re able; when decisions are made through the appropriate channels, we agree to be bound by them (though it must be said that Christian people can never forget that legality and morality are not synonymous).
In the midst of all this, sometimes we are confronted with the fact that our own experience of the United States isn’t representative of the whole. This doesn’t negate the validity of our own experience. If patriotic love would not to insist on its own way, however, it does mean that we must make space for the experiences of others to influence how we order our common life. This flows from patience because it means that my love must to some extent detach itself from results, or at least detach itself from results which are obviously beneficial to me in the short run. Love does not insist on its own way because love perseveres into the future in which I am able to receive my neighbor’s flourishing as my own. We persevere in love, but we can never be entirely sure what it is we’re loving our country into.
“Love is not resentful.” Resentment is easy. I pay my taxes, so why should that person over there get a check from the government? I worked my tail off to get good grades, and that guy over there skipped every class and just sailed into a good job on daddy’s coattails! We all know these feelings. It’s not wrong to have them; indeed, so long as we remain unfinished as a country, it is necessary that we do have them. We must guard against resentment, however, which we might say is something like allowing these feelings to calcify. When our hearts are stony, we tend not to see our neighbors as people but as caricatures to be trolled. The flow of love keeps our hearts open and malleable, and when this is true, we see the truth. The truth—and at least on my best days I believe this—is that everyone is doing the best of which they believe themselves capable with the resources (spiritual, mental, emotional, material) at their disposal. Some really are lazy; some really are charlatans; some really were born on third and think they hit a triple. But do they believe that it is possible to live otherwise? They, too, are unfinished people living in an unfinished country. If we would be patriots, at least as I am trying to use the word, then the country we love must not only have room for them, but we must endeavor not to resent them for taking up the room they occupy.
As I said above, I am a beginner in this. I confess I simply have never tried to understand love of country as any form of Christian love before. Thus far in my adult life, I think my own habituated skepticism has largely blinded me to the possibility that the overlap of patriotism and Christian love might be not only possible and comforting, but exactly what we need as a nation. Again, imagine that: a preacher arriving at the shocking conclusion that what his country needs is Christians living as conduits of the love of God.
There is much systemic sin and tragedy, both in America’s history and the Church’s, that has resulted from equating patriotism with a participation in the life of God. We should remain skeptical when preachers talk about patriotic love, but we must also remember that skepticism can calcify, too. Mine did. I’m still scraping it off my soul’s edge.
Happy Independence Day, my friends. I am grateful to be your priest.
And as your fellow citizen, I am trying to do better.
This past Sunday (Pentecost) was our deadline for returning second service surveys. I’ve read all of our responses thus far, but I imagine there are still a few out there! So: if you bring yours this Sunday, June 16th, you can still return it. This is our last call for surveys. To those who have responded already, thank you. The surveys have already been invaluable to me in understanding our hopes, needs, and anxieties in moving to a two-service schedule.
Here’s what will happen next: early next week, all the surveys will be typed up and the responses distributed to the Bishop’s Committee. If you included your name on yours, it will be removed before being sent to the BC. They’ll read, reflect on, and pray about our responses. I will continue to do the same.
I’ll meet with the BC individually during the next few weeks to hear their thoughts. Then, at the Bishop’s Committee meeting after worship on August 4th, I will present what I think is our best two-service schedule moving forward. As a reminder, BC meetings are open to the congregation, and this one is no different!
At that meeting, I will make my case. (I imagine that meeting will also bring up a great number of practical questions. “If we do X at Y o’clock, then what happens with Z?” kinds of questions. I’m excited to discover and address those together!) I will communicate our new schedule via writing to the whole congregation in the days following the August 4 meeting. As this is a decision about worship, it does not require a vote. I will make the final call. The plan is to begin our new Sunday morning schedule on Sunday, September 8th. This is also the day Godly Play starts back after summer.
Between now and then, if you’d like to sit down one on one, either with me or with a member of your Bishop’s Committee, please don’t hesitate to reach out. Given our “Campsite” experiment this spring, the surveys, conversations the Bishop’s Committee has already had, and the more informal conversations I’ve had in kitchens and over lunch and in the handshake line, I feel good about our process. Still, I want to be sure we hear from everyone who wants to be heard. So again, if you’d like to sit down, either with me or a member of the BC, please don’t hesitate to reach out.
This is an exciting and significant move in our life as a congregation, filled with new opportunities and challenges. I’m also keenly aware that, for some of us at least, the thought of any change to our Sunday rhythm brings anxiety along with it. I have some myself, so know that I don’t take it lightly. I’m grateful for your trust.
Hi friends, my eight-year-old niece, Mary Bentley (“MB”), and her family recently adopted a puppy. The puppy’s name is Kate. They began crate-training Kate from the get-go to help the new puppy acclimate to what life will be like with her new family (or her new pack, from Kate’s perspective). MB might be the most empathetic human being I’ve ever met. So on the first night, when puppy Kate began to cry from her crate, MB began to cry, too.
For many of us, caring for an animal as a child is how we learn some of the world’s harder lessons. MB is learning that sometimes the best and healthiest decisions are ones that cause us to feel a measure of sadness or loss or other negative emotion. She is learning also that the gift of being responsible for the life of a creature like Kate brings with it a heavy responsibility. When you’re eight years old and your new puppy is crying for you from her crate, it feels like you’re being mean, even though in the long run, you’re just helping the puppy have good boundaries in her new home. MB is learning that as a human being made in God’s image, she has to take a wider perspective on Kate’s life than Kate herself is capable of understanding. Kate is a dog; it’s just not her responsibility to know the ins and outs of living in a house. MB has to do that part.
Over the past couple months I’ve had the opportunity to pray with two different households mourning the loss of beloved animals. One was a guinea pig named Howdy and the other was a horse named Amira. When I pray with folks during the loss of beloved, named creatures like Howdy and Amira, there are two short passages I use which a friend of mine recommended. The first is Psalm 36:6.
Your righteousness is like the strong mountains, Your justice like the great deep; You save both man and beast, O Lord.
“You save both man and beast, O Lord.” All life—human, horse, and guinea pig—belongs to God. As we read in Matthew, not even a sparrow falls to the ground apart from the attention of our Father in heaven (10:29).
The second passage is from Romans:
I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. (v.18-20)
Here, we see Paul making it clear that all of creation will one day be freed “from its bondage to decay” and will obtain a kind of freedom and glory which we do not yet know.
As human beings, when we grieve the loss of named creatures like Howdy and Amira, we do so from a perspective wider than their own, instinctive animal perspectives. It’s our job to bear for them the weight of knowledge that our current age is beset by suffering and decay, decay which spares neither us nor the sparrows. It’s also our job to carry the hope that one day creation itself will one day be free from this bondage. We must live and work towards, and in anticipation of, this creation-wide freedom, the end in which the earth’s natural environment will be the glory of God.
Our tears over the loss of beloved animals are sometimes part of this work, just as MB’s tears over crate-training her new puppy are. Our tears demonstrate our deep knowledge that human beings are not separate from ‘the natural world’ but that we are part of a single, created order of which Christ alone is the head (Ephesians 1:10) and within which we have a unique position and role.
A couple weeks ago I wrote about Adam and Eve in the garden and about Adam’s naming of all the animals. This is part of the unique work of humans: knowing and speaking and telling stories about all of creation is part of our human work, just as running and snorting is part of the work of horses. In Eucharistic Prayer D, we Speaking Creatures join with angels and archangels and give “voice to every creature under heaven” as we glorify the Name of God (BCP 373). We are the creatures who make explicit in word and ritual what creatures like Amira and Howdy can only do through natural instinct. We are the priests of the created order.
I have so far avoided using the word pets. There’s nothing wrong with that word, but it does convey a kind of sentimentality I am trying to avoid. At its deepest level, our caring for pets—animals we’ve given names—is just one particular capitulation of our deeper role as the priests of creation. In German, the word for “pets” is Haustiere. It literally means “house-animals.” I like this word because it captures more fully what’s going on. A pet is one who has been brought into the close orbit of human domestic life. They’re animals who belong to a house, and this proximity usually bestows on them a name: Howdy, Amira, Kate.
When MB and her family bring home a new puppy and name her Kate, they are undertaking the work God gave to Adam and Eve in an intentional and particular way. By bringing Kate into their house, and by using a crate so as to accommodate Kate’s doggyness, they are creating a little outward and visible sign of one of the fundamental roles God has given human beings: to govern the world so that dogs can be dogs and guinea pigs can be guinea pigs. We might say that it is simply part of our humanness to steward the horseness of horses.
When an animal becomes a pet, becomes a Haustier, we usually give it a name. When a puppy belongs to this particular little girl, the puppy becomes Kate. We move beyond categories like “humanity” and “creation,” which are so big as to become abstract. But we do not live in abstraction. We have particular loves and particular sorrows. Even our love for the natural world takes particular shapes and trajectories. Each of us is committed to a particular patch of ground, this or that particular corner of the Edenic new creation to which we are slowly returning. It is for this new creation that we hope and work, even as we shed tears for the horses and guinea pigs, the Amiras and Howdys, we have lost along the way.
Hi friends, I’ve just returned from a little over a week in England. I was there attending some lectures and talking with professors as part of a large and extended continuing education project. (And enjoying the pubs, too.) I’d like to reflect some on why continuing our educations is so important, and then tell you a little about this specific project I’m doing.
One of my favorite passages in the bible is God’s leading all the creatures of the earth to the first man “to see what he would call them” (Gen.2:19). God engages a faculty the man did not know he had: learning, matching mind to world. God educates him. To educate is to ex ducere, “to lead out.” God leads the creatures out from burrows and nests and shadows that they might be known by Adam, a Creature-Who-Knows. That’s part of our job as human beings: to be the creatures on earth who are reflective, who not only engage physically with our environment as animals do, but who also tell stories about it, interpret its past, imagine its future. Of all God’s creatures, we are the ones tasked with discovering and creating meanings. We’re the ones whose currency is symbol.
To do this, we must learn. We are all God’s students. When God leads all the other creatures out so that Adam can name them, we are witnessing Adam’s learning how to think. It is not enough, apparently, that tigers and hummingbirds and javelinas simply exist; they must be named and thought about. When we see Adam naming all the creatures, we see their becoming recognizable to him. They’re thinkable now. Adam can remember that tigers are scary and best watched from only a great distance, and because of this, he can communicate to Eve and Cain and Abel that God’s power is terrifying—like the ferocity of a tiger. Adam can think and communicate that hummingbirds are beautiful as they flit about the flowers, filling their throats with rubies. Because Adam can name this, he can contemplate it. He can communicate to his friends and family that the grace of God comes to us like nectar from a flower. They, in turn, can understand him, and can respond with their own wisdom.
What does all this have to do with education the way you and I usually experience it? When we learn—whether by reading a book or conversing with a friend or going to a class or traveling—God ‘leads out to us’ a new idea or experience or emotion, and we put language on it. We ‘name it’ as Adam named the javelinas. This gives the idea or experience or emotion a distinct shape in our minds. We learn its contours. As it becomes uniquely recognizable to us, it becomes communicable to others. When a new parent says, “having a child is like having your heart walk around on the outside of your chest,” they are naming a new reality.
Another example might be helpful. The other day I was meeting with someone who is working through some significant questions related to her work. We prayed together, and as we prayed we arrived at asking God to make her “patient and relentless” as she seeks clarity about her questions. We were both a bit surprised at the word choice, but were struck by how fitting it was. One can be unceasing in prayer, or diligent, or disciplined. But none of those have quite the force of being relentless. In naming her experience in this way, we were better able to recognize it afterwards. The naming is part and parcel of the learning: “ah, yes, this is what it’s like.” Going forward, each of us has now learned that some of life’s big questions demand that we be relentless in pursuing them. Until we had named the experience in that way, neither of us could have identified it quite rightly. As speaking beings, we can’t think what we can’t name.
The same is no less true of more formalized kinds of education: books and syllabi and taking classes. For example, for decades Christians talked about the Holy Spirit, about Jesus Christ, and about the God who is Jesus’ Father in Heaven. But until a man named Tertullian used the word Trinity at some point late in the 2nd or early in the 3rd century CE, the unity that exists between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit was even more difficult for Christians to think and speak about. By committing his reflections to writing, generations of Christians thenceforward have learned a helpful way to name, and therefore to contemplate, the particular mystery that is God’s triune oneness.
This brings me to the specific continuing education project I’m working on. This past fall, I began an MA with the University of Nottingham in England. (Yes, Nottingham as in “Sheriff of.”) It’s a distance degree, largely self-paced and research-oriented, with regular supervision and feedback from professors. Once every spring, there are lectures at the university which distance students like me attend. That’s where I was this past Sunday. I’m working on the degree at the slowest possible pace, only turning in essays every six months or so. This degree is how I’ve chosen to invest the continuing education and travel budget St. Liz provides as part of the vicar’s compensation package.
So, what is this degree in? The degree is in Systematic and Philosophical Theology. The simplest way to define theology is just to say that theology is the practice of speaking true statements about God. In this sense, we’re all theologians. What academic theologians do is frequently different in depth, breadth, and technical rigor than what we do on Sunday morning or in Life Groups, but at root it’s not fundamentally different. The tools Christian theologians use, at universities and at St. Liz, are scripture, tradition, and reason. (This last should be as broadly defined as possible, including experience and imagination.) These are not neat and mutually exclusive categories—but that’s another post for another day!
What makes theology systematic? If theology is the practice of crafting true statements about God, then systematic theology is the discipline of gathering those true statements together and showing how they are part of a coherent whole. This involves responding to the myriad questions these statements raise, either on their own or when held next to each other. For example, it’s one thing to say, “God loves all people.” It’s another thing to say, “God will judge all people and nations.” And it’s yet another thing to say, “the human soul is eternal because it is the imprint of God’s image.” All these are theological statements; they are all true from an orthodox Christian perspective; and yet it’s not at all clear how we can hold all three of them together in a coherent whole. If God is the judge of all people and nations, and if the human soul exists eternally, then it would seem that God’s judgments on human beings will endure eternally. Well and good. And yet if God is also loving, then how could God render a judgment of condemnation?
We become systematic theologians when we undertake the task of articulating as fully as possible how these three statements might coexist. In short, a systematic theologian is simply someone who is trying to be consistent and clear when they speak of God and God’s relation to the created order. If I say X about God, I am accountable to that utterance when I also try to say Y or Z about God.
What makes theology philosophical? I confess that “philosophical theology” is a newer phrase for me. From what I can tell, theology is philosophical when it does not shy away from concepts that can only be discussed in the abstract. For example, we might say that qualities like goodness or truth can inhere in any number of more concrete objects, but to talk about goodness itself can only be undertaken in the abstract, which is to say philosophically. For example, a bicycle can be good and a grape can be good, but because they are good for quite different reasons—ever try to ride a grape or make jelly from a bicycle?!—articulating the quality of goodness that they have in common, and which they get from God, demands a level of philosophical abstraction. You can’t point to goodness the way you can point to a grape, but this does not mean that goodness is not real and worthy of our reflection.
If all of that leaves you a bit cold, don’t worry; theology of this sort isn’t for everybody. (And thank God for that. Church would be a miserable place if we all went around pontificating about metaphysics!) I’m undertaking this degree for several reasons. The first is that part of my job as a preacher, teacher and pastor is to help us as a community put language on our experience of God and of the world. This helps us to name it, to recognize it, to communicate it to each other. The discipline of study keeps me encountering newer and newer ‘creatures,’ so to speak, and therefore keeps the repository of language and concept from which I draw fresh and fluid and intelligible. (Well, hopefully.) The second reason I’m undertaking this degree is simply because learning is a source of great happiness for me, and I like being happy.
As I said earlier, I’m working on this degree at the slowest possible pace. I began in the fall and only just turned in my first essay at the end of February. That one was seeking to articulate how we understand the authority of Holy Scripture. I’ll probably write about that in a couple weeks. I’ll turn in another essay at the end of August. That one will be about how the New Testament Canon became what it is today. When I finish that one, I’ll be sure to write about what I learned!
Finally, thank you for supporting me in this. St. Elizabeth and the Diocese of West Texas are making this degree possible, both financially and in supporting me with the space and time actually to work on it. I am profoundly grateful, and I pray that this course of study bears fruit in our community of faith.