The Prince of Peace and the Culture Wars: A Lamenting Meditation

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“Christ is the first peacemaker since he opened the house of God to all people and thus made the old creation new. We are sent to this world to be peacemakers in his name.” – Henri Nouwen

This is the week that we Christians celebrate the coming of the child prophesied in Isaiah as the ‘Prince of Peace.’ He was announced by angels, “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

But let us not be fooled by Victorian notions of a quaint Christmas. The prince of peace came into a violent world. From the beginning he was victimized by those in power; Herod was after him and slaughtered the innocents. Jesus was born as a poor minority, unvalued and cast off by the empire.  He died violently next to criminals.

As we approach Christmas day, there is still violence–real and horrible violence. Today I received word from my Anglican communion that the former Archbishop of Nigeria was kidnapped with his driver and is being held by his captors. Pray for him.

Christians are undergoing real persecution worldwide.

My heart is heavy for the church, including for my own American church.

As we approached the celebration of the Prince of Peace, as we sit in a world where brothers and sisters undergo actual persecution, we in the USA bluster about secular media and millionaire reality tv stars.  

Somehow we’ve made ‘Merry Christmas’ a weapon in the culture wars.

We’ve heard the cry of the humble peacemaker as a call to arms.

Something has gone wrong.

How does Jesus make any difference in these petty disputes? In these endless culture wars? How can the peacemaker, the one who lays down all power, be heard in our angry shouting?

He did not come to make a Christian America. He did not come for ‘God and country.’ He did not come for our prosperity.

He came in self-emptying and in humiliation, to make a new world and to bring a new kind of peace–not the peace the world grasps at, not a peace through violently asserting our own rights, a subversive peace, a peace that comes through death and resurrection.

I want us to be a different kind of people. Yes, a people marked by sexual purity and holiness, which the world will condemn as foolishness or worse. But also a people who go out of our way to be honest, kind, and generous.

A people who aren’t interested in maintaining our own power, even a people who aren’t surprised when we’re misunderstood, misrepresented, or when persecusion comes. Our King promised it would.

A people who respond with more than tolerance–with lavish, incomprehensible love for our enemies. Not a people who are smug in our judgements, self-satisfied in our own rightness, but a people marked by a hunger, a longing to be filled, like a baby longs for his mother’s milk.

We must live by a different narrative—the story of the infant King, the Risen One. But as we marched into our high season of worship celebrating the incarnation, it was the same old culture warring.

Here’s my guess: Both sides are wrong. Few on either side would recognize the God who self-emptied, who laid down rights, who laid down privilege to love his enemies.

But isn’t that why we need him? We need that kind of God.

We’re all wrong. We’re all angry. We’re all in the war—even those of us who like to think ourselves pacifists.

I’m disappointed that the celebration of the peacemaker became another hand-wringing exercise in the self-styled  ‘enlightened’ liberal, broad-minded believers against the self-styled conservative, biblical, bold, zealous believers.  My heart aches.

In the trumpeting of our own rightness, the jostling to be on the correct side of history, did we miss the distant call to prepare ye the way of the Lord?  Is there ever enough silence to hear it in this loud world?

In the shouting back and forth, we missed a time to prepare our hearts, to accept misunderstanding with good humor and warmth, to be a different kind of people, an unpredictable people, a surprising community.

We missed a moment to prepare for the Prince of Peace to be celebrated, even in our warring world. 

We are all so predictable. But what happened in Bethlehem was profoundly unexpected. I hope we can find the shock of it, the wonder of it, again.  May it still leave us reeling.

 

Publish The Anglican Way!

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My seminary had a church fair where local churches would set up a booth and new seminarians could walk around the room and view church options in order to decide where to visit. It was like any farmer’s market if you simply replace cabbages with congregations. I remember being bothered at the fair and not just by the obvious problems of church as consumer product.

It bugged me that all of the folks at the booths were apologizing for or distancing themselves from their tradition and denomination. Most churches were vaguely named things like, “New Life Community” and “Grace Fellowship” and “Boston Life Church” and when I’d ask what denomination the church was in they’d say, “Well, we’re Baptist but we’re not really Baptist. We don’t care about being Baptist” Or “technically, we’re Methodist but you don’t have to be a Methodist. We’re, you know, just a loving church.” It’s not that this kind of denominational ignorance –and I mean that in the literal sense of ignoring something- is surprising. For certain situations, I think it may even be advisable. In the post Christian context of New England, churches should invite all under the banner of Christ not squabble over denominational distinctives. But this wasn’t a fair for the general public. This was a fair for seminary students.

We were taking systematics and ecclesiology. In my church history classes I was learning about people who literally died to be able to be Baptists. And people who died (or unfortunately killed) to be Presbyterians.  And here these folks were talking to wannabe ministers saying, “Well, we’re just a church. We don’t have a tradition.”

A seminary professor of mine used to say, “every one stands somewhere so know where you stand and pivot from there.” What he meant is that all people and all churches are part of a tradition. Even the newest, most individual, most expressive First Emergent Church of the Super Cool Hair comes from a long line of presuppositions and men and women who thought, prayed, sought God, made mistakes, corrected, overcorrected, and lived lives. And by long line I mean thousands of years.

The point is that tradition matters and that you have one whether you know it or not. In the past month a close friend questioned all the ‘ritual’ in my church asking didn’t Jesus die to get rid of all that? But her church, though a ‘low’ church, is just as ritual laden. It comes from a particular Western democratic, individualist tradition. It’s worship is fraught with methods and choices that seem to her a given -the way “true worship” is done, but is no more of a given than using a censor in an Orthodox church or a Quaker silent meeting or a slain in the spirit kind of service or Lessons and Carrols in an Anglican cathedral.

The question is not if we’ll have a tradition but whether we will understand it, know it self-consciously, and embrace it as our own. Doing so helps us to better identify our blind spots, but it also allows us to more fully embrace worship.  We recognize how we worship an eternal, omnipresent God in our little traditioned moment of finite (but deeply valuable) worship.  Understanding our worshipping tradition invites our imaginations into a story that proceeds us and will continue after us.

That is why we need books about specific traditions of Christian worship. And that’s why I, as an Anglican clergyperson, want to be able to hand someone an accessible book that explains our tradition: our stories, ritual, way of worship, assumptions, blindspots, and beauty.  I want to tell them, “I’m so glad you asked. We’re Anglican. Would you like to know what that means?”

That’s part of why we gave to Thomas McKenzie’s Anglican Way project. Because we get asked about Anglicanism a lot. I have a lot to learn about Anglicanism myself. And he is the perfect teacher. He’s our friend and an amazingly gifted preacher. But more importantly, he knows the breadth of his tradition from his lifetime of experience in Anglican churches of all sorts. He’s a clear and inviting writer. And he cares about tradition as a means to more fully worship Jesus. Not the other way around.

So, give him money. Let’s get this book published. I need it. And the church needs it. And the fair at my seminary needs it. So, let’s do this.

An Earnest Question About Anti-science, Poor hating, Narrow-minded Republican evangelicals

Every time I hear someone pontificating about how evangelicals don’t care about science or the poor or don’t like “hard questions” or are way into being Republican, I always wonder the same thing: Who are these people they’re talking about?

I am an evangelical. I know a whole, whole lot of different sorts of evangelicals all over the world, and I’m increasingly  confused by the ever-recycled, echo chamber truisms about evangelicals.

I’m bewildered because many of the folks I know who are doing the most rigorous scientific research and working hardest to bring hope, help, and justice to the poor are evangelicals. Like these folks.
Or any number of the (literally) hundreds of evangelical students I could link to who I have personally met who are doing incredible work in science. Not to mention, this guy.

Or our dearest of friends who started this or this or this. Not to mention, these guys who were talking about social justice before it was cool (and before I was born). Or this dude. Or these guys, who just might be saving the world.

Some people like my friend Daniel so hate science and poor people that they become top of their field in medicine and then move with their families to developing nations where they give quality care to the sick.

And then folks are writing about a new sort of evangelicalism.
And stuff like this keeps happening. And this. And this.

And I hear about these stories of tremendous beauty in a dark world and talk to these kind of science loving, compassionate, justice seeking evangelical weirdos every single day.

I want to be clear: I’m not saying that this litany makes the gospel evangelicals believe true or that you should be an evangelical or that we’re worthy of any kind of respect or that the evangelical church doesn’t deserve criticism or that we aren’t all completely nuts.

But here is my honest question: Am I just really lucky?

I’m asking this earnestly. Do I just happen to know the ‘right sort of’ evangelicals, a negligible, invisible sect within a sect? Granted, I work for these guys. And they’re always coming up with things like this. But is my sample that skewed? Have I just gone to above averagely awesome churches? Because none of these science-rejecting, poor ignoring, homophobes go to church with me.  So is my experience all that unique? Or is this stereotype based on partial truths or the Moral Majority of  twenty years ago? Or is this a strawman that is being trotted out and bashed again and again? And if so, why?

How I Went from Being a Woman against Women’s Ordination to a Woman Seeking Ordination in 25 Difficult Steps: Step 2

Well, I’ve been away a while again. I may finish this before I die. Or not. I’m mainly writing this for 3-5 friends who are terribly interested so I imagine they’ll keep reading and bear with my frequent absence, but for any one else who happens by, here you go.

So, moving on from step 1, which you can read about here, there was still some ‘ground clearing’ in my own soul that needed to happen before I could dig into the issue of women’s ordination, which brings us to:

Step 2. Stop avoiding the questions.  For years, even though I was a woman interested in ministry, I hated talking about women’s ordination. I love theology and I love theological debate and I do not mind a good argument (just ask my husband), so saying that I hated to talk about women’s role in ministry shows that, for me, this topic was scary. I was afraid of it. And I didn’t know how to begin to talk about it.  I was simply afraid of where these questions might lead. First, simply reading some of the harsher Pauline passages (regarding women being silent in church and so forth) at face value, simply hurts. Let’s be honest, most people and especially most women, don’t like these passages. They sting. You don’t see them on refrigerator magnets with little kittens for a reason. These epistles have a bite to them and can cause pain. I knew that to really wrestle with these issues, I had to look into these passages head-on. Because I view the scripture as the authoritative word of God (yes, all of it), I could not simply dismiss these passages as myopic misogeny or a relic of a bygone era from which I was rescued by the 1960’s and 70’s. I had to let them teach me. No matter where that led or how that hurt.
Beyond the apostle Paul, a lot of men (and women) in churches say things that are hurtful when this subject comes up. Paul, at least, spoke with the authority of an apostle and was a great saint. Bring up this topic among regular men and women and all sorts of stupid comments start flying about. That’s fine with me generally (since I like talking theology and God knows I say my own fair share of stupid things) but when men or women who I love and respect thoughtlessly and unintentionally said things in these conversations that carried a bit of venom, it burns.
So to avoid all that hurt, I just went a long time not really thinking, not really questioning, not really wrestling with questions about women’s ordination. I was more or less a women’s ordination agnostic who was simultaneously a woman in ministry, which of course is unsustainable long term.
But it was more than just hurt I feared. I feared becoming a theological liberal. I was worried that if I started investigating the claims of those who supported women’s ordination, I would end up becoming idolatrously obsessed with the sort of liberation/ power-seeking/ individualistic civil rights driven narrative that has come to dominate our culture. It isn’t that I worried I’d read an argument for women’s ordination and the next day become a radical feminist theologian who is replacing the bread and wine with milk and honey as a symbol of female spirituality and fertility (although this has sadly happened to people), but I had watched this issue dominate the thoughts and heart of others around me and lead them right out of orthodoxy and that grieved me beyond words. I’d rather remain unordainable–hell, I’d rather have to cover my head–and still remain faithful to the biblical and historic witness of the church catholic, still be able to honestly recite the Nicene Creed and sing “Holy, Holy, Holy,” and still remain passionately in love with Jesus and robustly orthodox theologically, than be ordained off doing pet blessings somewhere invoking a god that always suited me. So, I was worried about the “slippery slope” that my own heart is capable of. Let’s face it, questioning the church is sexy. It is all the rage really, especially in the types of places I like to hang out. All questioning now is regarded as a good thing, even a brave thing. Be anything you want, but by God, don’t be a sheep. Sheep are naive and stupid and sometimes mean. But I think Christians must affirm that there are more and less faithful ways to question. That questioning, like sex, can be beautiful or ugly, valuable or cheap, holy or unholy, depending on the context and one’s own heart. I know my heart is prone to wander so I worried I’d follow my sexy questions to places that Jesus would never bid me go.
So meeting my faithful, biblical, womens-ordination supporting friends was the first step and then I had to be willing to be hurt and be willing to trust Jesus and my community to help me toward orthodoxy (and orthopraxy) and finally, finally, start looking at the issues of women’s ordination even if, at first, I still hated having to talk about it. I had to be willing to face the fearful questions.