Advent 3 Sermon: Judgment and Joy

Here is today’s sermon: Judgment and Joy

Sermon: Letting Go (Advent 1 2015)

Here is today’s sermon: Letting Go. Have a listen!

Blessed are Those who have Seen

A little essay that is now appearing in the Anglican Planet. Here’s the link to the site. The essay is below.

Blessed are Those Who Have Seen:

Imagination, Christian Formation and Icons

By Tim Perry

 

ONLY THE HARDIEST evolutionary biologists (known as “eliminativists”) would dispute the claim that the mind is designed not merely to survive, but also to know the world–all the way from galaxies to atoms. Although we often take this capacity for granted, just a moment’s pause will invite wonder that it should be the case. Why is the world capable of being known? Why are our minds fitted to know creation, and not merely function in it? There is no reason that either our world or our minds should be constructed in the way that they are. And so, when we see this “fittedness,” we are compelled to make the bold and daring claim that we are designed to know our world.

This claim derives from the Christian doctrine of Creation. We cannot read it off the biblical page, but it follows hand-in-glove that if the world is the product of a Mind, then that world would be rationally structured. And further, that if our minds are products of the same Mind, then there should be a symmetrical relationship among all three. Ironically, those evolutionary biologists who insist there is no mind, but only complex survival skills, must presume something like what I have just written before they can begin their work denying it.

Of course, there is much more to our human mind than its rationality, its capacity to know the truth about things (let us call this faculty ‘reason’). The Christian doctrine of Creation makes two further similar claims: our minds are also ordered to know the good—how to conduct ourselves in our world (we might call this faculty ‘conscience’). They are even ordered to know the beautiful—they give us a sense of the whole, of why we are in our world (we might call this faculty ‘imagination’).

Human beings are designed to desire and to know the True, the Good and the Beautiful. We are designed to reason, to morally weigh and to imagine–and through the right use of all three faculties, to come to know God.

I’ve spent some time spelling this out because of our modern tendency to reduce minds to reason or, on a good day, reason and conscience. For now, let’s set conscience aside. Even in Christian discourse, discussion of beauty is shrunk to matters of mere preference. Imagination has fallen on hard times. It is far too often equated with make-believe or sheer invention; at its best it takes us to unreal places, which we must leave to return to the real world.

I’m not sure that’s true. In fact, I’m coming to believe just the opposite: that this neglected faculty is necessarily part of an engagement with the real world. The apologist Holly Ordway puts it this way: “Imagination is the cognitive function that assimilates sensory data into images.” In other words, imagination is that cognitive faculty that assembles the pieces into a whole that shows us how, where, and why those pieces fit the way they do. And in this capacity imagination is, C. S. Lewis argued, the organ of meaning and the condition of truth.

Ordway herself is an example of what I’ve been talking about. An English professor and ardent atheist, Ordway found that she couldn’t make sense of John Donne’s poetry. It was obviously beautiful literature. So beautiful, she was drawn to it. But the world from which it sprang—a very Christian one—was closed to her. As she continued to interact with Donne and later, with other Christian writers like G.K. Chesteron and C.S. Lewis, she came to “see” the world from which they wrote. Certainly Christian, but not irrational, this world was philosophically astute and aesthetically persuasive. Her imagination enabled her to enter this world, even if as a visitor at first. Finally she discovered—to her initial shock—that this world was in fact the real world. In her memoir, Not God’s Type (Ignatius Press), she tells the story of how God converted her imagination first. Her reason and conscience then followed.

What does this have to do with Christian formation?

Just this: in a world dominated by images which, whether we are aware of it or not, combine to tell a very different story than the Christian one, serious Christian formation will have to take the role of the imagination seriously or it will fail. Indeed, it is failing.

Much ink has been spilled over churched youths who lapse when they come of age or have no appreciable Christian background at all (the “nones”), and over adults who, after a lifetime in church suddenly find the faith irredeemably foreign and leave (the “dones”). One theme common in many of their stories is not so much that apologetic arguments stopped being good arguments, or that the Christian moral vision ceased to be clearly grounded or even practicable. Rather it was that the culture stopped providing a “social imaginary” in which those arguments and that vision made sense. One could believe in Jesus, but why bother? One could adopt the Christian moral vision, but . . . really, who’d want to? Questions like these arise from people who’ve lost a sense of the whole, a sense of how the apologetics and morality cohere in a larger beautiful picture of God and God’s world. They are voiced by people whose Christian imaginations have atrophied.

If this description rings true at all, then pastors and priests, youth and children’s ministers, all involved in discipleship training or Christian formation should be reflecting on the arts as much as they do on apologetic and moral arguments. In what ways does the entertainment we consume, in whatever format, shape our imaginations? How does it “form” the social world in which we live, move and have our being? How can we cooperate with God’s Spirit in the conversion of the imagination–in our lives and in the lives of those for whom we care?

Space prohibits a full treatment of these questions. Instead, I want to suggest one way of addressing them involves the incorporation of a more imaginative method of Christian formation than is typical in evangelical Protestant, and evangelical Anglican congregations: praying with icons.

The practice is almost as ancient as the faith, and was made a matter of dogma (!) in 787 at the Second Council of Nicea, the last of the Seven Ecumenical Councils. Against those who, under the threat of an expansionist Islamic empire, hoped to lessen tension by removing visual imagery from Christian worship, the assembled bishops insisted that icons of the Lord, biblical characters and events and the saints should be found not only in churches, but also in homes and along the roadside. They did so in the hope that those who paused to ponder them would be led to contemplate not the physical icons themselves, but the divine realities and truths to which they pointed. The icons were, in other words, signs, pointers, or even windows to the divine. They are aids intended to revitalize our imaginations, and in so doing, help us listen and speak to God.

My own favourite icon, to which I regularly return, and about which I have written previously, is the Virgin of the Sign. Contemplation of this icon reminds me that the Church is prefigured in Mary, the first to welcome the Word of God incarnate. It reminds me that if I would commune with the One she bears, I must be a part of the Bride whom she prefigures, the Church. It reminds me that I must be more like Mary in her obedience, her perseverance and her active holiness, as these are described by Luke. It reminds me that the One who himself brings blessing (note his right hand) and teaching (note the scroll in his left) is no mere human baby, but Christ the Lord, who blesses in his own Name and, indeed, is the Truth he teaches. It reminds me, finally, that this contemplation has a missional purpose. Both Mary and Jesus, in their respective gazes, do not seek to draw me in, but to turn me around and send me back out into the world that they love and would see reconciled to God. Thus I am incorporated into the very mission of God.

This is only one example, and a bare sketch at that. I could add more. I keep an icon of Peter in my office, whose downcast gaze never fails to strengthen me when the challenges of pastoral ministry are greater than I can handle. (This is about seven days a week.) I am also deeply moved by the Russian iconographer Andrei Rublev’s icon of the Three Visitors (Genesis 18), understood as a prefigurement of the Holy Trinity.

An icon communicates knowledge, surely. But it does so in a way that is not merely rational. It is also imaginative. It gives a sense of the whole, a greater picture of God, and God’s world, and our place therein such that we have an imaginative space within which the apologetic arguments and moral vision can be set forth in a persuasive way.

Of course, training our imaginations need not be only through such obviously spiritual exercises. Holly Ordway was engaged and converted by poetry. And notably, she was not reading to be evangelized. Donne’s poetry did not function like some sort of pre-modern Four Spiritual Laws. The Holy Spirit, through Donne’s poetry, awakened her imagination. Explicit evangelization only came later.  Just so, we contemplate icons not “to engage in Christian formation,” but to pray. We submit ourselves to the Spirit of God as an echo of the Blessed Virgin’s submission: “Let it be to me as you have spoken.”

The cultural ground beneath our feet has shifted radically. If we would engage with people, whether inside or outside explicit faith, whether in terms of formation and discipleship, or indeed evangelization, we are wise if we lead with beauty, with imagination.

Sermon: Hannah’s Prayer

Here is a link to yesterday’s sermon. Have a listen; leave a comment!

Sermon: God’s Alien Work (The Book of Ruth)

Today’s sermon can be found here. Leave a comment; start a conversation!

Book review: James Spitzer, Finding True Happiness

I wrote a review a while back for Aleteia.org. Now that the Papal Visit and Synod on the Family have wrapped up, they’ve kindly published it! Thanks to Russ Saltzman for allowing an Anglican to write for a Catholic website. It was fun.

You can read the review here. By all means leave a comment there, but if you want to chat with me about it, head back here!

 

Amends by Eve Tushnet (Review)

Amends is the new novel by Eve Tushnet. Tushnet is probably best known as a blogger for patheos.com‘s catholic channel and the author of the non-fiction, really really good book Gay and Catholic.  And that’s perhaps a good place to begin for people unfamiliar with this wonderful young writer.

As the title of her first book suggests, Eve Tushnet doesn’t fit easily in at least three camps. She is the child of ardent atheists, but is a convert to Catholicism. She identifies as a lesbian, but affirms and lives according to her Church’s teaching on human sexuality. The original subtitle for her blog was “Conservativism reborn in twisted sisterhood.” And that suits pretty well everything she writes.

A self-conscious outsider, Tushnet’s writing manages to unsettle the “just the way things are” of just about everyone–myself included–no matter what tribe they claim as theirs. And I think she’s great.

So, here’s the question I think Tushnet is engaging in this novel: how does one talk about sin and grace, about redemption and God, even Jesus and the sacraments to an audience for whom such language is, if it is known at all, saccharine or cliche?

By setting the story on a reality tv show, of course.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The story: Amends is an MTV reality tv show in which six characters–a woman who identifies as a wolf, an Ethiopian Christian mystic, a conservative writer, a teen hockey star, a brash lesbian playwright, and a gay man who’s last job was in collections–learn about themselves, their addictions, and the harm they’ve inflicted. And they begin to make amends–hence the name of both the show and the novel. They are overseen by two tv executives hoping, in their own way, to make sense of themselves and, of course, to get the show renewed for another season.

This is a brilliant move. We might not be able to talk about sin and grace any more, but even the most secular among us knows all too well the inbuilt human capacity to make our lives difficult, or worse. We can easily find elements in one or more of the characters that echo in our own lives, that attract us. We can find similarly cringe-worthy elements that make us want to keep reading, too. And if the characters veer sometimes a little too close to caricature, it is always with Tushnet’s satirical wink and the reminder that this is, after all, reality tv.

Setting things on a reality tv show allows Tushnet the freedom to paint in even bolder colours than might be possible in a more “realistic” setting. The extreme behaviours make sense on reality tv, and therefore allow Tushnet to shout at her readers without actually raising her voice. This is a Flannery O’Connor move, allowing Tushnet to say, “Yes, this really messed up world full of really messed up people is the world that God loves!” to all who have ears to hear.

The banter is earthy, hilarious, and engaging. It can move from the ridiculous to the very thoughtful in a nanosecond. It skewers pop-culture’s sacred cows and invited us to reconsider ideas many of us think we’ve outgrown. It is a twisted, but very real and inviting, conservativism.

In short, Amends is Augustine’s Confessions cast as a novel for the age of Orange is the New Black.

Read it.

Collect for St. Matthew’s Day

O ALMIGHTY God, who by thy blessed Son didst call Matthew from the receipt of custom to be an Apostle and Evangelist: Grant us grace to forsake all covetous desires and inordinate love of riches, and to follow the same thy Son Jesus Christ; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, world without end. Amen.

Book of Common Prayer (Canada)

Sermon: Wisdom’s Way (James 3:13-4:8)

Over the last few weeks, our Old and New Testament lessons together have invited us to reconsider a life of wisdom. Last week, wisdom, personified as a wealthy woman, called out to us in the streets of our lives, she called to us in the places where we live and work, where we hope and dream. She called us to pursue her and the goods she offered. My way, she said, leads to the good life; the way of foolishness on the other hand leads to calamity.

Well, what is this wise way? What does it look like?

We began to flesh that out two weeks ago with the Proverb writer. The wise way of life, the route to the good life, begins with remembering the God who makes both rich and poor alike and continues by taking the side of the poor in their cause, for it is God’s own cause. Our NT reading from James fleshed that out further by casting this very issue as one that happens within our communities. When you draw distinctions based on wealth—when you say to a wealthy member, have this seat of honor but to a poor member, go sit by the door—you have left the way to which wisdom calls us. Wisdom calls us to a life of faithful remembrance. Wisdom calls us to a life of generosity.

Wisdom also calls us to a life of prudent speech. Last week, James used wonderfully accessible language to describe our tongues. Your tongue is like a bridle that, though small, can steer a horse. Your tongue is like a rudder that, with the push of a pilot’s finger can direct a huge ship. Your tongue—here he is most graphic—is like a small flame that can grow to consume a forest. It is a fire lit by hell. The tongue, says James, will always get us into trouble. We all stumble when it comes to our speech, he says. And so wisdom calls us to recognize the power of our words, to cultivate habits of good and prudent speech. The wise way of life, Padre Ray reminded us in last week’s sermon, is one in which our words are carefully weighed.

Today, James steps back from the specifics of a wise way of life to give us a glimpse of the big picture. What difference does the way of wisdom make? What difference in our lives is the result of pursuing her call?

Well, first, wisdom’s call is practical. Show by your works the gentleness born of wisdom! Be pure, peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. Wisdom is not the mastery of an esoteric field of knowledge. Wisdom is not the amassing of biblical trivia with which to amaze and astound friends at dinner parties. Wisdom is a lived way of life. It is pure—that is uncontaminated. It is gentle—it is willing to yield. It is merciful, and is so with all people and integrally. Its mercy, in other words, is not a mask for another motive, but flows straight from the heart. All that wrapped up in one word. James Boyce puts it well when he writes that wisdom “is a summation all that common sense would identify as the marks of wholeness in human relationships, as the very best of God’s gifts in creation.”

Second, wisdom’s call is to peace. “Where do those conflicts among you come from?” James asks the community to which he writes. Certainly James was writing to a particular community or set of communities, but it or they are not named. James is one of the traditionally called “general epistles,” meaning that his words apply to all Christians everywhere. Unlike Paul’s letters, directed to specific churches, and with advice for those churches from which we then extrapolate, the words of the general epistles are immediately for us. All this to say, it won’t do to wonder to whom James writes. It won’t do to ask “I wonder what they were fighting about back then.”

No, James’s question is to us. Immediate and this morning. Where do those conflicts among you come from? And James answers his own question: they come from your inner cravings at war with each other. And whether in the first century or the 21st, that remains true. When we see conflict in our midst, it is a sure sign that we, collectively, have forsaken wisdom. But we have a promise, too: a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace. The wise person in the midst of conflict is the one who, through gentleness, purity, equanimity and integrity seeks to restore peace in the community.

This past week, I watched a podcast roundtable on church unity. The participants were Roman Catholic, Pentecostal, Evangelical, and Anglican. There were two points in that podcast that help illumine my point here. The first was the response of the Evangelical participant to a young woman who asked this question: “What would you say to a young Christian who refuses to join a local church because of the church’s history of divisions?” His answer? “Join that local church and let it break your heart.” There is no church, or any other human institution, where conflict can be avoided. Where wisdom is forsaken and foolishness embraced. But we are not called to forsake our gathering together when conflict erupts, but to work toward peace as we pursue peace in our own lives. That’s where the harvest of righteousness is.

The second point expands on the first. The Anglican participant, Rev Dr Ephraim Radner of Wycliffe College, was asked what true unity looked like. His answer was straightforward. We do not yet know for we live in division at all levels. We will have true unity, he went on, when Christians live out the call of Ephesians 5. The call of Paul that points to Christ who loved the Church and gave himself for her. We will have unity, Radner said, when Christians give themselves utterly to each other even to the point of dying for them. The way of peace that leads to a harvest of righteousness is not the easy way. The way of wisdom, which is at one level so immediately obvious and applicable, is at another the costly way of the cross. The Christian way, as G.K Chesteron wrote, has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.

My friends the way of wisdom is easily understood; the way of wisdom, whether we are talking about generosity, prudent speech, or making peace, is hard to practice. It is the narrow way that few find. But it is the way that leads to life. Wisdom’s call is to peace.

Third, Wisdom’s call is to prayer. James goes on contrast foolish and wise prayers. The selfish desires that lead to conflict also lead us to ask for things we shouldn’t in prayer, or to ask for good things out of wrong motives. You do not have because you do not ask, James says, and when you ask, you ask wrongly. Don’t ask God for worldly things! To do so, says James bluntly, is spiritual adultery. It is breaking covenant with God. You simply cannot expect God to cultivate the conditions through which you make friends with the world. It’s oil and water. They don’t mix. God yearns jealously for you! And if you pray wisely, if you in humility and confidence, pray to receive wisdom’s gifts, then, James says, god will exalt you.

Fourth, wisdom’s goal is nearness to God. Simply, to pray rightly is to imagine a “friendship” (James 4:4) with the very creator of “every good gift” God’s gifts have the ability to center our lives in good works that flow from God’s indwelling Spirit. In our human relationships it is much easier to walk the daily journey amid the sometimes difficult decisions and choices we are called to make when a close friend or a broader community of encouragers and supporters surrounds us. So the same is true when we live in a relationship of nearness and trust in a God who continues to supply us with wisdom and every good gift of creation. In the presence of One whose Spirit yearns over us we can imagine that we will not be left to drift in a state of “double-minded” incapacity (James 4:8; see also James 1:5-8). Instead we will be inspired to the exercise of wisdom in humility — in making the fine choices that are “born of wisdom” (James 3:13) and which lead to the kind of “harvest of righteousness” (James 3:18) seen in peaceful human relationships.

I hope finally the relevance to the sacrament of baptism. Nathan and Maggie, you have brought Georgia to the font. Just what are you doing? You’re not only dressing Georgia in a nice dress and having some sort of religious rite of passage to honour her birth, and then going out to lunch afterwards. Far more so, you are giving Georgia to God. You are surrendering your hopes and dreams for her, whatever they may be. You are drowning those hopes and dreams in the font. You are promising instead to raise her in the way of wisdom. Maggie, you will make those promises during the examination, and as you renew your own baptismal covenant with the all of us. Are you sure you want to do this? Are you sure you want, insofar as it is in your power, to raise Georgia in this practical, peaceful, prayerful life that is the way of the cross? This way is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to shoe who are being saved, it is the wisdom of God.

 

 

A Collect for Holy Cross Day

Almighty God,
who in the passion of your blessed Son
made an instrument of painful death
to be for us the means of life and peace:
grant us so to glory in the cross of Christ
that we may gladly suffer for his sake;
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

https://www.churchofengland.org/prayer-worship/worship/texts/festivals/festivals/holy-cross-day.aspx