Thursday, December 25, 2014

Three Christmas Poems


Birth moans
in strawed stable.
The King has come,
his lusty wailing
rends dark night.

Birth bloody
as his death,
the King has come.
His reality
mouth and mother's breast.

Birth starlit in musked air,
The King has come,
God swaddled in human need.
Jesus Son of God Most High.
Gloria in Excelsis Deo!


Lady laud your son.
Cast down your golden crown and worship him,
born a babe in stable laid,
who walked the hills of Galilee
with fisher folk and tax collectors
made of them a warrior band,
shocked the scribe and Pharisee
not less than priest and Sadducee.
No simple man, nor plain was he.
He has the power to call forth you and me.

Lady laud your son
whose death pierced your own soul
with grief too sharp to bear
fulfilling prophet's words in temple court
so long ago.  Proud mother of a little babe
with head bowed down,
you contemplate the way
he cast down the mighty from their thrones.

Lady laud your son.
You have given once again
as you have given many times before.
Resurrection joy, ascension parting mingled in your breast.
The old ways of holding him can never be again.
Lady laud your son.
Cast down your golden crown and worship him
in the circle of the saints, his sisters, brothers,
all your children now, all crowned like you
God-bearer, now for ever blessed
held in warm embrace by glad hearts everywhere.
Lady laud your son.

The Winding Centuries Have Come and Gone

The winding centuries have come and gone
Still the Christmas song goes on and on.
Some have loved the Babe, some still hate him;
Christmas joy is for hearts that welcome him.
Peace on earth, the thronging angels sing,
Throughout the heavens hear the merry chorus ring.
Simple shepherds on the hill rejoice to hear
The news that Almighty God has drawn near.
But Herod on his throne feels a deadly chill;
Any who threaten his power he will kill,
Wife, or son, or even little baby child.
There is no safety for child or mother mild.
Now Herod is dead; the years have come and gone;
Only Christ will come with the breaking of the dawn.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Virginal Conception, Virgin Birth

Lo! newborn Jesus

Lo! newborn Jesus
Soft and weak and small,
Wrapped in baby's bands
By His Mother's hands,
Lord God of all.

Lord God of Mary,
Whom His Lips caress
While He rocks to rest
On her milky breast
In helplessness.

Lord God of shepherds
Flocking through the cold,
Flocking through the dark
To the only Ark,
The only Fold.

Lord God of all things
Be they near or far,
Be they high or low;
Lord of storm and snow,
Angel and star.

Lord God of all men, –
My Lord and my God!
Thou who lovest me,
Keep me close to Thee
By staff and rod.

Lo! newborn Jesus
Loving great and small,
Love's free Sacrifice,
Opening Arms and Eyes
To one and all.
[Christina Rossetti, The Complete Poems, (London: Penguin, 20012), p. 83, 84]

How can a man comment on the Virgin Birth of Jesus? It takes a woman’s touch. Joseph, and all men by necessity stand on the outside nervously looking in on the birth event. Joseph’s world and ours is upended by the trusting surrender of Mary to our God. We are bystanders, but the sword that pierced the heart of Mary will pierce our own hearts also. “The busy world is hushed, the dear Christ enters in.” The surrender of Mary calls for our own surrender, not just once, but many times over the days and years of our lives.

It is the high and solemn responsibility of Joseph to model and teach the Christ Child what it means to be a man in this wicked world. Mary cannot do that; it is neither her calling nor her gift. Joseph, what has Mary done? Her action will define the very calling of your life and ours. None of us are left outside the stable. We stand shoulder to shoulder with you beside the manger looking in and watching, caring, loving, and strangely proud. The living God has become a living man, bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Notes on The Annunciation to Mary

In Elizabeth’s sixth month the angel Gabriel is sent from God to Nazareth in Galilee, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David.  Both Mary and Joseph are of the house of David.  Mary is betrothed, or formally pledged, to Joseph, but they have not yet come together and Mary is still living in the home of her parents.  Tradition and the common practice of those times tell us that Mary would have been around fourteen years old. 

Here we come to the heart of a Christian doctrine that many find challenging, but the issue is not that of a Virgin Birth, but rather of a Virginal Conception.  Any virgin nine months pregnant is going to give birth, that is not the miracle; the conception is.  The actual miracle is microscopic; the size of one sperm, the divine seed that forever unites God with human flesh. This event is the hinge of history, even though secularists today flee away from BC and AD.

While the angel who appears to Joseph remains unidentified, the angel who appears to Zechariah (Lk. 1:11-12) is same Gabriel who appeared to Daniel (Daniel 8:16; 9: 21), and the same one who appears to Mary.   This appearance to Zechariah was actually the first of the angelic appearances that ended the long drought of the famine of the hearing of the words of the Lord prophecied by Amos. (Amos 8:11-12).  

Gabriel’s first word to Mary is often translated, “Greetings,” or “Hail” but it also means “Rejoice.”  “Rejoice, Hail, O favored one, the Lord is with you.”  The phrase “O favored one” is translated by the Latin Vulgate as “gratia plena” or “full of grace.”  The unmerited favor, the grace of the Holy Spirit rests on her in unusual measure.

We are told that Mary is troubled, or agitated by the greeting.  She tries to puzzle out what the greeting means.  Being genuinely “gratia plena,” full of grace she was probably quite unaware that she was at all unusual.  Self-awareness often spoils potential saintliness.  The angel says, “Do not be afraid” you have found grace (charis) with God.  She need not fear the grace she has received, it is an unmerited gift from God, it is divine favor, the steadfast covenant love of God that rests upon her.

The angel Gabriel is clear and direct in his declaration, “Behold, look, you shall conceive in the womb, and bear, give birth, to a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, Yeshua, God Saves.”  Mary understands this to mean now, not at some distant time.  Today you have to go to your obstetrician in order to determine the gender of a child, but not Mary and not in this situation.  The child is to be the prophesied Messiah, and as response to ancient prophesy is to be a male child, a son.  Further the child is to be named Jesus, Yeshua; a short form of Yehoshua, meaning Yahweh is Salvation. 

The implications of the Name are not made clear at this point and we await the strong hint of pain that comes in the prophecy of Simeon “a sword shall pierce through your own soul also” (Luke 2:35).  But now only the troubling statement of Gabriel is on Mary’s mind.  Mary is without doubt well aware of her lineage, and the lineage of Joseph.  They are of the house of Judah, descendants of David.  But they are poor relatives, not wealthy prominent heirs.  To the least of David’s line the promise is given. 

The angel’s message in some sense seems unlikely, or at the very least, a bit of a stretch.  “He shall be called the Son of the Most High” (v. 32).  The expression “the Most High” is drawn from an Old Testament Name for God, “El Elyon” which means “God Most High” (Genesis 14:18; Psalm 57:2 and other places).  To this Jesus, son of God Most High, the Lord God (Yahweh Elohim in Genesis 2:4) will give the throne of his father David.  At Gabriel’s declaration of the coming Incarnation, the highest Names of God are evoked, and that for a reason.  We are to understand that it is no less than YHWH [Yahweh] who is initiating this act of divine humility. 

There is in verse 33 an interesting twist, this child to be born will rule over the house of Jacob forever.  Often the phrase “house of Jacob” refers not only to Israel in general, but to the Northern Kingdom.  Both the house of David, the tribe of Judah, and the displaced house of Jacob that once held sway from Samaria will be ruled by him.  Of his kingdom there will be no end, even though earthly kingdoms come and go.

Mary asks a simple question, not as a matter of doubt; and she may well have known the Messianic prophecy, “the virgin shall conceive and bear a son” (Isaiah 7:14).  The question is rather an enquiry into how this is going to take place.  She also makes it clear that she herself is a virgin.  Certainly the angel treats the question in this light.  He says “The Holy Spirit, the Ruach Ha Kodesh: will come upon you and the power of the most high will overshadow you.”  The phraseology harkens back to the anointing of David by the Holy Spirit, “Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the midst of his brothers And the Spirit of YHWH (LORD) rushed, came mightily upon him from that day forward” (1 Samuel 16:13). 

Mary is to experience a distinct and powerful anointing, a veritable baptism of the Holy Spirit who will overshadow her like the Shekinah Kabod, the Cloud of Glory that both accompanies and cloaks the manifestation of the Living God.  Because of that anointing, the child “will be called holy—the Son of God (v.35).  The angel Gabriel further encourages Mary with the news that her previously barren cousin Elizabeth is in her sixth month, because “No rhema (not ‘nothing’ but no personal word from God, will be impossible with God.”  As God has spoken his word to Zechariah, and to Mary, He will fulfill it, for no prophetic word is impossible with Him. Mary’s answer is one of humble submission and acceptance, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord.  Let it be to me according to your rhema, according to your prophetic word” (v. 38).

Monday, November 17, 2014

The Law of Undulation

C. S. Lewis’s character Screwtape, the Senior devil in The Screwtape Letters, has an interesting take on human nature.  He observes that our lives have a natural rhythm, an ebb and flow, a series of troughs and peaks that affects every area of our lives—our interests, our loves, our work.  We go through times of spiritual insight and responsiveness, and times of dryness and dullness.

That shouldn’t surprise us; the rhythm is written into nature.  In simpler times I have sat by sea and watched the waves; the rhythm of the waves breaking on the beach, then retreating to break interminably upon the beach again. And I have watched the long ebbing of the tide and its flowing back; a rhythm governed by the cycle of the moon upon the earth.

The rhythms of our lives are part of the dance of life that all God’s creatures dance.  The dance becomes un-rhythmical, disharmonious, erratic, when the dancers fail to move with the dance and try to force their way unnaturally.  This often happens when the dancers fail to notice that they are dancing the dance, and that the law of undulation is a natural law.

Some of God’s children try to force their way into perpetual spiritual highs, others surrender to the lows and allow depression to govern all their days.  You can’t live on the heights, and you best not camp permanently in the low valleys of your experience.

The first correction that we can make is the simple acknowledgment that we have highs and lows; that highs and lows are a natural part of life, and that there is nothing wrong with having highs and lows.  Barring chemical imbalance, which is a matter for wise doctors and counsellors, having highs and lows is not a call for some pacifying medication to homogenize our days.  Bland is not beautiful.

Rather than that, make use of your highs, those moments of greater energy and joy, and rejoice that your God has made you and all things good.  In those moments step into the flow of His creativity and dance the dance with confidence. 

In the lows, do not condemn yourself or accept Screwtape’s counsel of despair. Instead, use the steady tools of your faith; pray the prayers of Morning Prayer, read Holy Scripture, especially the Psalms; that book of ups and downs.  Talk quietly with your friends, give love, accept love, read quietly things that delight the mind, listen to a symphony, and be at peace; the rhythm always returns and every ebb is always followed by a flow.

St. Benedict reminds us that “We believe that the divine presence is everywhere and that in every place the eyes of the Lord are watching the good and the wicked” (Proverbs 15:3). But beyond the least doubt we should believe this to be especially true when we celebrate the divine office” (RB 19:1,2).  First, understand that your Lord is with you in the lows as well as in the highs.  Even Screwtape knew that our Lord makes great use of the troughs in our lives, observing, “It is during such trough periods, much more than during the peak periods, that it is growing into the sort of creature He wants it to be.  Hence the prayers offered in the state of dryness are those which please Him best” (Screwtape, Letter VIII).

Second, observe that steady discipline maintained through both highs and lows is the clearest channel of grace.  The simple truth is that if we steadily hold our souls aloft to God, He will pour His blessing upon us.  Our daily prayer and Scripture reading doesn’t have to be flashy, it just has to be as regular as we can possibly make it.  There is a difference between infused grace, that moment of gratuitous spiritual intensity that we so often seek and cherish, and acquired grace.  Infused grace is temporarily rewarding, acquired grace builds slowly but steadily towards a deeper union with the God whom we love.

Third, observe that we take ourselves too seriously.  That is a result of our misguided view that we are actually in control.  Banish the thought from your mind.  The Psalmist says, “I am a man who has no strength…I am shut in so that I cannot escape…I am helpless” (Psalm 88:4,8,15 ESV).  You only think you are in control.  That in itself ought to provide the biggest occasion for self-deprecatory humour, that is, if it weren’t so often painful.  Relax into the hands of God, accept His forgiveness, accept His patience with you and extend some of that divine patience to yourself and to others.  From a divine perspective, in all our solemn seriousness, we may all be somewhat amusing.  That is to say, ease up on yourself and live in forgiveness and divine acceptance.

One of C. S. Lewis’s characters, at the moment immediately preceding her encounter with God, had the following flash of insight, “Supposing one were a thing after all—a thing designed and invented by Someone Else and valued for qualities quite different from what one had decided to regard as one’s true self?  Supposing all those people who, from the bachelor uncles down to Mark and Mother Dimble, had infuriatingly found her sweet and fresh when she wanted them to find her also interesting and important, had all along been simply right and perceived the sort of thing she was?” (C. S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength, (New York: Scribner, 1945), p. 315).  The question really isn’t, “What do I want to do?”, or “What do I want to be?”, but “What has my Maker designed me to be?”, and “How has he moulded me through the apparent accidents of life?”

Monday, October 13, 2014

The Wanderer: A Poem of Love and Longing

There is an Old English poem called “The Wanderer”[1] dating from somewhere around the 6th or 7th century that I find quite moving. The poet writes long after a disastrous battle. The lord and leader of the comitatus has been slain along with most of his followers, save for one young warrior who is cast adrift wandering lonely over the sundering seas. The comitatus is a warband, a brotherhood of warriors whose love and loyalty is focused on their lord who in turn rewards them with gifts, and a sense of belonging and purpose. [A Benedictine Chapter is a comitatus, a holy warband under the Lord and Leader Jesus Christ who was slain for us and has risen from the dead.] The intensity of the bond that binds the comitatus together is is voiced in “The Battle of Maldon” where facing certain death, a follower of Brytnoth cries out,  

Our minds must be stronger, our hearts
Braver, our courage higher, as our numbers
Shrink. Here they slew our earl
And he lies in the dust. Whoever longs
To run from this field will always regret it.
I’m old. I want no other life.
I only want to lie beside my lord,
Near Brytnoth, who I loved so well.

The wanderer, filled with grief, “follows the frost-cold foam . . . sailing endlessly, aimlessly in exile,” looking for a home, for a new lord, for a new warband to belong to and give his life meaning. In poignant words he expresses his grief and longing,  

Sometimes it seems I see my lord,
Kiss and embrace him, bend my hands
And head to his knee, kneeling as though
He still sat enthroned, ruling his thanes.
And I open my eyes, embracing the air,
And see the brown sea-billows heave,
See the sea birds bathe, spreading
Their white-feathered wings, watch the frost
and the hail and snow. And heavy in heart
I long for my lord, alone and unloved.”

There are many in the Church who are wandering today, lost and alone, adrift on the sundering seas. They have lost the church of their youth and they are filled with grief and longing, looking for a home, a comitatus, and a stable leader who will not be tossed to and fro by the stormy winds of the times. What is tragic is that while the church splits apart there are those who are dismembering the church by the failure to embrace what has been believed always, everywhere, and by all, and are busy suing those they have driven away.  

There is a recourse for our predicament in the very nature of the comitatus. One of the saints said, “Militia probat Christianum …The warring one is the Christian.” [2] Warfare is a necessary part of Christian life, but it is perilous to strike out alone by yourself on the perilous seas. You may be surprised by the fact that warfare is a necessary part of Christian life, but consider the situation of ancient Israel as it struggled to establish its claim over Canaan. In Judges we find this remarkable assertion, “Now these are the nations that the LORD left, to test Israel by them, that is, all in Israel who had not experienced all the wars in Canaan. It was only in order that the generations of the people of Israel might know war, to teach war to those who had not known it before” (Judges 3:1-2).   

Such is the nature of fallen humankind that we really don’t learn much without the stimulus of conflict. The problem usually lies in how we feel about the conflicts that so often surround us. It here that the quality of our faith is revealed, and it is here that we can find our growing edge if only we will. It is precisely here that the genius of David is revealed as he prays, “Blessed be the LORD, my rock, who trains my hands for war, and my fingers for battle; he is my steadfast love and my fortress, my stronghold and my deliverer, my shield and he in whom I take refuge, who subdues peoples under me (Psalm 144:1-2).

There is a hidden danger that needs to be recognized. Sometimes we get so used to conflict that we see it even where it is not, or perhaps even produce conflict where it doesn’t exist. In all moments of fear hear the words of Jesus as he says so frequently, “Fear not!” Conflict real or imagined calls for fresh surrender to the God who redeems our human experience.

The Church, as comitatus, is broader and deeper than the warband lost by the Wanderer; as even the Wanderer himself was aware.  At the end of his poem he prays,

It’s good to guard your faith,
nor let your grief come forth
Until it cannot call
For help, nor help but heed
The path you’ve placed before it.
It’s good to find your grace
In God, the heavenly rock
Where rests our every hope.

The Wanderer bids us not to let our grief overpower us so that we cannot call for help, but instead he bids us to place our faith in God our heavenly rock. There is a proverb that says, “a man without self-control is like a city broken into and left without walls” (Proverbs 25:28). While it is occasionally helpful to share our griefs and burdens with each other, as Christians we are called by grace, through faith, to rule our emotions, not to let our emotions rule us.

Unlike the predicament of the Wanderer we have some realistic options for fellowship. One of those options is the possibility of making an Oblation of one’s life in an abbey or monastery of the Order of St. Benedict; or here in the Dallas area the option of joining our own Chapter of Oblates and Companions of St. Benedict and St. Scholastica that meets at St. Matthew’s Cathedral once a month. An Oblate Chapter is a comitatus, a small holy warband sailing on the seas of life.

Whether you are an Oblate or Companion, or just an interested friend you have the opportunity to live by a simple Rule of Life. A Benedictine Rule of Life reminds us to pray the Daily Offices, to practice the awareness of the perpetual Presence of God, and to gather with the Church in frequent Eucharist. The Daily Offices include Morning and Evening Prayer from The Book of Common Prayer. Even praying just one office a day will add great stability to your life.

There is a distinct benefit in affiliating with an ancient comitatus that goes back for centuries; a fellowship that was foundational in the beginning of the Anglican Communion. After all, St. Augustine of Canterbury was a monk of the Order of St. Benedict. That ancient comitatus provides us with a double anchor for our lives with one anchor firmly in the ancient Anglican Communion and the other in the Order of St. Benedict.    

Even in the midst of the stress of these days do not sell the Anglican Communion short. It may end up redefining itself, but it has done that before. The theologian Karl Barth reminds us that one of God’s miracles is that the Church still survives. The Anglican Communion has been around for centuries and throughout the centuries it has had its times of struggle as well as its seasons of unbroken peace. Frankly the problems of this day in the life of the church are pale in comparison with the antics of Cardinal Wolsey who was the almoner for Henry VIII. When you get worried over whether or not the Church will survive, read a little Church History; it’s quite refreshing.

The stuff that’s going on will eventually go by. As long as you are firmly grounded in the faith and history of the Church, and as long as you maintain your stability in the comitatus as an Oblate of the Order of St. Benedict, you will be secure.

[1] Wanderer quotes are from  Burton Raffel,  Poems and Prose from the Old English, (New Haven: Yale University Press) 1998.  Burton is fine translator with considerable poetic skill.
[2] Johann Arndt

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Augustine: "Our heart longs for God"

St. Augustine: Tractate on the First Letter of John
 “Our heart longs for God

We have been promised that we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. By these words, the tongue has done its best; now we must apply the meditation of the heart. Although they are the words of Saint John, what are they in comparison with the divine reality? And how can we, so greatly inferior to John in merit, add anything of our own? Yet we have received, as John has told us, an anointing by the Holy One which teaches us inwardly more than our tongue can speak. Let us turn to this source of knowledge, and because at present you cannot see, make it your business to desire the divine vision.

The entire life of a good Christian is in fact an exercise of holy desire. You do not yet see what you long for, but the very act of desiring prepares you, so that when he comes you may see and be utterly satisfied.

Suppose you are going to fill some holder or container, and you know you will be given a large amount. Then you set about stretching your sack or wineskin or whatever it is. Why? Because you know the quantity you will have to put in it and your eyes tell you there is not enough room. By stretching it, therefore, you increase the capacity of the sack, and this is how God deals with us. Simply by making us wait he increases our desire, which in turn enlarges the capacity of our soul, making it able to receive what is to be given to us.

So, my brethren, let us continue to desire, for we shall be filled. Take note of Saint Paul stretching as it were his ability to receive what is to come: Not that I have already obtained this, he said, or am made perfect. Brethren, I do not consider that I have already obtained it. We might ask him, “If you have not yet obtained it, what are you doing in this life?” This one thing I do, answers Paul, forgetting what lies behind, and stretching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the prize to which I am called in the life above. Not only did Paul say he stretched forward, but he also declared that he pressed on toward a chosen goal. He realized in fact that he was still short of receiving what no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived.

            Such is our Christian life. By desiring heaven we exercise the powers of our soul. Now this exercise will be effective only to the extent that we free ourselves from desires leading to infatuation with this world. Let me return to the example I have already used, of filling an empty container. God means to fill each of you with what is good; so cast out what is bad! If he wishes to fill you with honey and you are full of sour wine, where is the honey to go? The vessel must be emptied of its contents and then be cleansed. Yes, it must be cleansed even if you have to work hard and scour it. It must be made fit for the new thing, whatever it may be.

We may go on speaking figuratively of honey, gold or wine – but whatever we say we cannot express the reality we are to receive. The name of that reality is God. But who will claim that in that one syllable we utter the full expanse of our heart’s desire? Therefore, whatever we say is necessarily less than the full truth. We must extend ourselves toward the measure of Christ so that when he comes he may fill us with his presence. Then we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

The Unitive Experience: A Personal Reflection

While I do not “feel” God all the time I acknowledge that when I turn my gaze toward Him most often His Presence comes rushing in.  I have always attributed that to the experience of the Holy Spirit six weeks after my conversion.  It was an experience of complete abandonment in the Presence of God.  It came unsought, pure infused grace after a year of wrestling with purgation.  Infused grace is that grace which comes as pure gift, poured on one seemingly without conscious preparation.  Purgation is a season of self-discovery under the tutelage of the Holy Spirit and ends in penitence and confession.

The purgative stage was cyclical and I was through sorrow and the experience of guilt and alienation from God gradually led to such a place of self-awareness that I abandoned all and cast myself in utter trust on the mercy and love of God.  The moment of surrender and final confession opened a door into an immediate sense of the Presence of God without guilt, and without recrimination.

I had no words for the deeper experience that came six weeks later.  Eventually Charismatic theology and the words of Scripture would identify the experience as the Baptism with the Holy Spirit.  Such an identification however falls short in understanding the essence of the encounter.  An older theology would have understood it as an experience of being rapt in God that issued in a sense of being at unity with God, of oneness, a lostness in the enrapturing Presence that for those moments removed me from all awareness of my surroundings and held me tossed to and fro in the ocean of God’s boundless love.  The circumstances are not as important as the event itself.  It happened in the midst of a superficial community that was accepting at least that such things could and should happen.  But the experience itself was intensely personal and removed me emotionally, spiritually, and it seemed physically from the community itself.

Basically such an experience is word based and perhaps even the result of acquired grace.  For me the experience was preceded by avid and disciplined reading of the New Testament and by exposure to the Psalms, particularly expressions like the old Scot’s Psalter tune for Psalm 42, “As pants the heart for cooling streams When heated in the chase, So longs my soul, O God, for Thee, And Thy refreshing grace.”

 Some of the mystics would have identified it as an experience of initiatory grace.  Initiatory grace is that grace we sometimes experience at the very beginning of our spiritual journey giving us a foretaste of spiritual delights and drawing us on into disciplines that prepare us for acquired grace.  Although acquired grace is itself a gift, it is experientially the immersion in the Presence that comes in response to quiet discipline.

Certainly it was initiatory grace, but it marked me forever and left within me a spiritual and emotional receptor, a doorway for the Presence of God.  It had nothing to do with worthiness.  “I am not worthy that You should come under my roof, but speak the word only and Your servant shall be healed.”  To my sorrow and occasional confusion I grieve that I am so slow in responding obedience, but I hasten to add that whatever obedience I have is responsive by nature.  The experience left me with a sense of unity with God that fades and then is renewed in the ebb and flow of my experience of God’s love and grace in rhythm with my ongoing process of self-discovery and penitence.  The experience of unity with God has also marked me with a willingness for abandonment with God.  I would not want to be tempted to abandon the experience of the Presence which comes as pure gift, even in those times when on the surface it seems to be acquired grace. 

I have had dark nights of the soul since then, some of them unsought, some blundered into.  What I have learned is that God loves me, in tune, out of tune, at all times and delights to have me know that love.  His love precedes and transcends my transformation.  The issues of the human soul move very slowly and God will not await our timing but takes us to His bosom, as we are, in transition, in partial and sometimes inadequate, very inadequate states of sanctification.  That is what the blood of Christ is for, cleansing and purifying even as it makes this union with God a possibility.

I am at a loss to describe the experience of His Presence.  I feel enveloped.  I would say I feel loved, but how does one feel loved?  To be sure it is subjective, but nonetheless it is so persistent and sometimes so pervasive that it cannot be denied.  It is Divine hands upon my shoulders, Divine breath breathed deeply in.  It is comfort, peace, and at times physical warmth.  It is more than subjective.  It is an inner knowing, a receiving of the immanent God, “a golden breathable medium.”  I relax into it and am still.  I pick up the Scripture or my Psalter, or a book written by another child of God and feel the Presence spilling from the pages into my very soul.  I pick up my pen and write, or write even on the computer knowing all the time that He is with me.  I experience Him with the same clarity that I experience the others whom I love. 

I acknowledge that it is not something that I have done although on another level I have allowed myself to thirst for Him and for His Presence.  How should it by otherwise?  The words of an old hymn come back, “I sought the Lord and afterward I knew He moved my soul to seeking Him seeking me.”  At times I have hesitated.  At other times I have drifted away.  But, by grace, in the final analysis I respond to Him with the words of Peter, “Lord, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life.”                                                                                                                                                                                                                  ~ Dom Anselm Oblate, OSB ~ The Rev. Canon Dr. Robin P. Smith+

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Do You Believe in the Physical Resurrection of Christ?

The question shouldn’t be that difficult. Life and death, after all, is serious business. At the very beginning of my Christian life I was abruptly confronted with the “problem” of the resurrection. I had gone to a college age group at a large downtown Baptist Church in Toronto, Canada. In the middle of the meeting the Youth Minister came into the room and announced his amazing discovery: Jesus wasn’t resurrected physically; he was only resurrected spiritually.

I had never thought about the resurrection before that moment, but somehow his declaration didn’t measure up even with my subjective experience of Jesus as my Saviour and Lord. Jesus was too real to me for that to be true. That launched me into my first serious bible study and I immersed myself in the biblical records of the resurrection of Jesus. It was immediately clear that the apostles believed that Jesus was physically resurrected. They saw him, touched him, handled him, and he stood in their midst and ate fish and wild honey.  

Some years later at seminary we were taught that Jesus didn’t rise physically from the dead, but after his death his gathered disciples had an experience of his presence and in their excitement read back into the gospel accounts all the stories of the resurrection, and all of the miracles. Our professor led a Lenten series in one of the local parishes. The rector of the parish told me with great distress that the professor’s teaching on the subject of the resurrection had destroyed the faith of a woman dying of cancer. What we believe and what we teach can have serious repercussions.

After graduation I accepted a call as a curate in a parish near Boston, Massachusetts. There was a story circling around in the parish that was quite refreshing. The previous rector, a Father Lou, had a custom of having talk back sessions in coffee hour after his sermons. In a recent Easter sermon he held forth the brilliant but not exactly novel idea that Christ wasn’t resurrected physically, but only spiritually. The parish drunk, Homer, could hardly wait to ask a most pressing question: “Father Lou! Father Lou! If Jesus wasn’t resurrected physically how did Thomas stick his finger in the wounds?” The end result was that the Easter testimony to the resurrection of Christ came from the parish drunk of blessed memory.

Once more around the barn; I was a young priest in my first church, and as junior man in our Clericus I was stuck with organizing the deanery meetings. In our deanery we had staff from the diocesan office in Boston, and clergy from the churches in and around Cambridge. On the Monday before Easter ten or twelve of us sat around a long table. We had decided to study together, on a once a month basis, the lections for the upcoming Sunday. The rector of a large Cambridge parish started the discussion by saying that he tended to believe in the resurrection but couldn’t get excited enough to preach about it. From there the discussion flowed swiftly down a slippery slope until it reached the Canon to the Ordinary who sat directly across the table from me. With great seriousness he confessed that the closer he got to death the less he believed in the resurrection.

The discussion limped around the end of the table and finally got to me. What I said in effect was that once I had been dead in alcoholism and that I had been raised to sobriety and newness of life, and as a result I had no doubt in God’s ability to raise Christ Jesus from the dead. Now I know that arguing from experience to theology is not good theological method, but sometimes where theology won’t do, testimony might. With that the Canon to the Ordinary leaned across the table and said, “You’re young. You’ll learn!” That was the first and last of our deanery clergy bible studies. After all what’s the point? If Christ is not raised from the dead we are of all men most pointless.

What is the problem posed by the physical resurrection of Jesus the Christ? Humanism is the current theological plague. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines humanism as, “a system of values and beliefs that is based on the idea that people are basically good and that problems can be solved using reason instead of religion.” Once you open the door to the resurrection, you logically open the door to all miracles. Once you open the door to the resurrection, man and his works can no longer be at the center of religion. Instead God and his works are at the center where he should be. The religion of “I can do it myself” is banished, and there are many who will be offended if we suggest that Christianity is God centered, and Christ centered, and not man centered. The poet Alexander Pope angrily exclaims, “Know then thyself, presume not God to scan; The proper study of mankind is man.”

In contrast, as Christians, we actually believe what has been believed always, everywhere, and by all. We Christians actually believe that Christ rose physically from the dead. We believe that Christianity is God centered and Christ centered, and that if you would understand humankind, understand humankind as the creation of God. Believing this rests on a serious theological understanding that is at the core of Christian faith.

John Donne, the great metaphysical poet and sometime Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, preached a sermon on Easter Day 1623 that is quite helpful in getting at the core of the issue. What Donne stressed was the proper understanding of the relationship between the soul and the body. He said, “Never go about to separate the thoughts of the heart, from its context, from the fellowship of the body.” “All that the soul does, it does in, and with, and by the body.” “The body is washed in baptism, but it is that the soul might be made clean.” “The body is anointed, that the soul might be consecrated.” “The body is signed with the Cross, that the soul might be armed against temptations.” “The body receives the body of Christ, that the soul might partake of his merits.” “These two, Body, and Soul, cannot be separated for ever,” because in earthly life they are united in all that they do.

Christ became incarnate, enfleshed in a human body. Christ suffered in that body, died, and was buried, and in that body he rose again physically from the dead. Christ is born in the flesh that our humanity with him might be crucified, die, and rise again; that our humanity, our human fleshly nature in all its physicality might be taken up into God. It is our flesh as well as his that must after all die and be raised again.

To tear apart the soul and the body is the old heresy of dualism. Christ’s body, as well as his soul, has eternal value. Once God the Son is incarnate in the flesh, the flesh cannot be discarded as irrelevant to the soul; nor does Christ discard his body in the resurrection. While it is fashionable, and to some extent practical, to talk about body and soul as two separate entities they are in fact a present and eternal unity. To separate them is to make nonsense of the Incarnation as well as of the Resurrection. Let me present you with the key question of St. Paul, “Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? . . . if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain” (1 Cor. 15:12, 14).

What is at stake is not only the physical resurrection of Christ, but also your own physical resurrection in the age to come.  Do you believe in eternal life? Do you believe that in eternal life you float around as an ethereal disembodied spirit? Or do you believe in the physical resurrection of Christ, and your own eventual physical resurrection in the kingdom yet to come? The question shouldn’t be that difficult. Life and death, after all, is serious business.