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For the life of the world

For the Life of the World, published by Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, is a magazine that speaks eloquently to the issues of the day from a confessional, Lutheran perspective and offers thoughtful insight into the complexities facing our church, our community and each individual. It is an excellent resource to keep you updated on the training of pastors, missionaries and deaconesses as they prepare to spread the good news of the Gospel to all corners of the earth.

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The history of Christendom is the history of an operation…

"The beginning of Christendom is, strictly, at a point out of time. A metaphysical trigonometry finds it among the spiritual Secrets, at the meeting of two heavenward lines, one drawn from Bethany along the Ascent of the Messias, the other from Jerusalem against the Descent of the Paraclete. That measurement, the measurement of eternity in operation, of the bright cloud and the rushing wind, is, in effect, theology. The history of Christendom is the history of an operation…

Historically, its beginning was clear enough. There had appeared in Palestine, during the government of the Princeps Augustus and his successor Tiberius, a certain being. This being was in the form of a man, a peripatetic teacher,  a thaumaturgical orator.”
opening paragraph

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The Sanctification of Time

by The Rev’d Canon Stephen C. Scarlett
Rector of St. Matthew’s Church 

Advent, Christmas and Epiphany focus on the coming, arrival and revelation of the Messiah. These themes work on two levels. The first level is centered on the Incarnation. We await and prepare for this in Advent. We celebrate it at Christmas. We discover what it means in Epiphany. The second level is centered on the end of time. We are also waiting and preparing for Jesus to “come again in glory to judge the quick and the dead.” This final advent will lead to a more complete epiphany (cf. 1 John 3:2).

From the First Sunday in Advent through the week of the final Sunday after Epiphany, the church experiences time in the light of these truths. God has given the church various feasts and seasons so that our time will be experienced in terms of what God has done, is doing and will do–and not merely in terms of temperature changes and seasonal discounts offered at our favorite store.

God commanded Israel to observe various feasts so that Israel would celebrate the full meaning of time. For example, Passover revealed to Israel that spring was not only about the grain harvest. The grain harvest pointed to the greater things that God had done and promised yet to do. Paganism and nature worship result when people look at the cycles of nature as the ultimate meaning of time; when there is no sense of nature as sacramental, as a sign pointing beyond itself to God.

The feasts and fasts of the church calendar reveal the true meaning of time. For example, Christmas occurs around the time of the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, which marks the time when the light will begin to return. The birth of Christ marks the coming of the “the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world” (John 1:9). Spring celebrates fertility, nature coming back to life (although in southern California it never really dies!). This is fulfilled in Easter. The risen Christ bursts from the tomb as the beginning of the new creation.

The calendar redeems the time(Ephesians 5:16) and sanctifies it. It changes time itself into a means of grace. Conversely, when we ignore the calendar we experience time as it is defined by the world. The Advent collect asks for grace to “Cast away the works of darkness and put upon us the armor of light” as we prepare for the coming of Christ as judge. If our preparation for Christmas is informed by the Advent emphasis on repentance and the bearing of new fruit, we are less likely to get caught up in the patently non-Christian aspects of the cultural “holiday season.” Of course, we have to purchase gifts, set up decorations and prepare meals. But when our shopping decorating and cooking is informed by the spirit of Advent and the Incarnation, they are carried out with a greater sense of God’s peace and with a different intention.

The true meaning of time is brought into our daily lives through prayer. On the Lord’s Day, we gather around the altar to remember what time it is. In Advent, the wreath reminds us that the light is coming and the lessons and music call us to get ready. At Christmas, we remember again that God is with us. On Epiphany, Jesus is revealed to be the Son of God. We continue to live in this sanctified time through the discipline of praying the daily offices of Morning and Evening Prayer. The readings, prayers and canticles fill each day with its seasonal meaning. The life of prayer enables us to experience life’s challenges in the light of our redemption in Christ.The calendar brings balance to the Christian life. It covers all of the major themes of our faith in a cycle. Thus, it makes it harder to avoid the things we don’t like or become fixated on minor aspects of the faith. Some Christians don’t like talking about the coming of Christ and judgment. This will be the focus of Advent anyway. Some Christians don’t like to think about fasting and confession. Lent will call us to both every year. Some Christians are always grumpy. Easter will come and there will be joy whether they like it or not!

Churches that reject the church calendar are left with an impoverished and subjective sense of time. Some sort of observe Advent, but it looks and sounds like it is already Christmas. Almost all observe Christmas Day, but give us no twelve day season in which to savor the Incarnation. After that, there is nothing to distinguish time until we get to Easter. Then there is not much after that. The problem is not just that this is a less full and rich way to experienced time. The problem is also that this is less effective in combating the pull of unsanctified time. For if what today is depends upon what I have decided today is, clearly, the meaning of today is up for grabs. I may decide that the meaning of today really is the sale, the big game or any number of eternally inconsequential things.

I have always had sympathy for pastors of churches that do not observe the calendar. Other than Christmas and Easter (and maybe one or two other days) the meaning of each Sunday depends upon them. There are actually worship committees that get together and create the meaning of the coming Sunday out of whole cloth. I remember a seminary class taught by a Presbyterian pastor. The coming Sunday was both Pentecost and Mother’s Day. A student asked him which one his church was going to observe. He said that this year they were going to observe Mother’s Day–and not observe Pentecost. Now, there is nothing wrong with giving honor to mother’s in church on Mother’s Day, even when it coincides with Pentecost However, the day in question was Pentecost, whether that Presbyterian church liked it or not.

In contrast, those of us who live in the sanctified time of the church cannot create meaning for a Sunday. Each Sunday has its own intrinsic meaning. I can choose to preach on a particular aspect of the lessons or on a seasonal them. On Pentecost, I can choose to preach about mothers–hopefully with some connection to the descent of the Spirit. Our organist-choirmaster can draw out and highlight the meaning of the day of season with particular tunes, words melodies and harmonies. But the day is what the day is. We cannot change that. You may even say that God gave us the calendar and the tradition to save the people from overly adventurous and inventive preachers and musicians. Thanks be to God.

The calendar promotes spiritual depth. As we rehearse the drama of our redemption in an annual cycle, we return to themes we have heard and experienced before. Yet, each year we experience them in new and deeper ways. We grow in our sense of what it means to get ready for Christ to come. We gain a deeper appreciation for the Incarnation and how it touches all of life. Christ is revealed to us in new ways. Each season is like a precious stone with many facets. Each time we enter into a season again, we see something that we did not see before; or, we see the same things but are in a different place and are able to see them with greater clarity.

The calendar also provides a pattern for Bible reading. This is one of the geniuses of the Book of Common Prayer. Anglican faith is a biblical faith, which means nothing if it is not a Bible reading faith. The Prayer Book lectionary orders the reading of Scripture so that it draws out the themes of the liturgical seasons. We can cite a few examples. Various parts of Isaiah are apportioned to Advent, Christmas and Epiphany to highlight each season’s theme. Advent give us Revelation, which underscores the call to repent because “He is coming with clouds” (1:7). Christmas gives us 1 John and his emphasis on Jesus having “come in the flesh.” Epiphany season gives us Ephesians and John’s gospel, both of which focus on the revelation of the mystery of Christ.

The Prayer Book lectionary is not the only way to read Scripture with the seasons, but it is a very good way. Our Prayer Book lectionary was revised in 1940. The revisers did a good job for the most part. Other traditions may use another scheme. But two things are essential. First, the person who wants to live in the sanctified time of the church must in some way connect Bible reading to the calendar so that our biblical meditations match the mood and theme of the season. Two, the reading pattern must be common for the whole church so that we are all “on the same page.” For sanctified time is necessarily communal. It is experienced most powerfully when the whole church fasts, feasts, prays and reads together through the year. These two principles of reading are the foundation for the Prayer Book lectionary (BCP x-xli).

The calendar is also filled with the feasts of the saints, the great cloud of witnesses, with whom we are bound in the Communion of the Saints. Sometimes these are propitiously matched with a season, as with St. John (December 27) and Christmas. It is helpful to have at hand a dictionary of the saints or some other book that tells about their lives so that, as we remember them in our daily prayers, we know something about who they are. A Google (or other) search will typical yield at least a few sites with helpful (and reasonably accurate) information on any given saint. It is also good to know something about the saint after whom we were each named–even if the naming was not purposeful. It may have been in God’s larger plan.

We don’t live merely through winter, spring, summer and fall. We live through Advent, Christmas and Epiphany, which give way to Lent and Easter, which lead to Ascension and Pentecost, which all culminate in the great feast of Trinity, which leads us into the long Trinity season of general teaching, after which come again to the end, and the beginning, in Advent. Time is not an endless cycle of nature, harvests, sales at the mall or sports seasons. Time is a cycle that continually moves forward and points us to the end. Sanctified time looks backward to what God had done and forward to what God will do and enables us to experience both in the present moment–in memory and in anticipation–as we wait for the author of time to appear and bring time as we know it to his intended conclusion.

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Advent and the Modern Mind

Matthew J. Smith is a Candidate for the Ph.D. in literature at the University of Southern California. He holds an M.A. from the University of Connecticut and a B.A. from Biola University. Matthew will be co-leading the elective adult class in the forthcoming Education Hour at St. Matthew’s Church.

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In Anglicanism, the season of Advent is linked to the remembrance of end-times events. This is because the annual practice of praying and fasting in wait of the liturgical coming of Christ’s incarnation is directly applicable to the need for us to anticipate the Second Coming of Christ in the last day. Advent, as a penitential season, offers a concentrated dose of the liturgical discipline that we desperately need the rest of the year.For me, such focused and collective penance is especially needful because, frankly, it is not easy to go through life’s business with the Apocalypse on the mind. Nevertheless, the language of St. Paul’s first letter to Thessalonica levels an insistent charge to continually expect Christ’s return at any moment:

But of the times and the seasons, brethren, ye have no need that I write unto you. For yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so cometh as a thief in the night. For when they shall say, peace and safety; then sudden destruction cometh upon them, as travail upon a woman with child; and they shall not escape. But ye, brethren, are not in darkness, that that day should overtake you as a thief.                                                                                    (I Thessalonians 5:1-4, KJV)

I once taught this epistle to a classroom of college sophomores at an evangelical university, and when I asked them how we should respond to this particular passage they shifted in their seats, let out a short sigh, and answered that you just have to persevere in Bible reading and prayer, that a consistent devotional life is the way to maintain a Paul-like feeling of urgency. Despite the good answer, their body language said that the success rate of keeping this spiritual discipline was not very high.               More than anything, what registers when reading this passage is the difficulty of keeping the reality of Christ’s second coming in mind. There seems to be some kind of basic dissonance between our natural tendencies of life and those habits of prayer, soberness, and watchfulness prescribed by St. Paul. It seems as if anything, even religious activities, can easily distract from our judgment and glory to come. Even as a teenager, it was all too clear—and discouraging—to me that this was a problem of disbelief, and I was right: if I really believed that Christ could return at any moment, then wouldn’t I act differently?

              Yet two points are critical to remember when thinking about the struggle to fight disbelief given the urgency of the Second Coming. First, the problem is not new. In fact, it is at least as old as St. Paul’s epistle which itself is an anticipation of complacency. We are now living 2,000 years after St. Paul’s first recorded reminder of the immediacy of Christ’s return. Second, although this problem is not new, it is for us more problematic than it was for the majority of church history. For we face new cultural challenges that affect our ability to believe in the miraculous. I am speaking of the predominant intellectual biases of materialism and secularism that affect that way that we think, whether we like it or not. As opposed to the intellectual cultures of 1609, 1709, or 1809, in 2009 the direct perceivable activity of God on Earth is not a plausible belief to the modern mind. 

The Modern MindDistinctly modern ideas, embedded within all of us, about what is true and what is factual may be universally accepted now but have only been so for the last one-hundred and fifty years. The “miraculous” has only been out of intellectual fashion since the emergence of the ideas of the founding fathers of modernism, people like William James, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Sigmund Freud. Now that these thinkers’ ideas dominate intellectual culture, Biblical events such as the Second Coming, the resurrection of the dead, and the final judgment are no longer considered options for belief to those who respect the findings of science.

              What we have inherited from this modernist tradition is the ingrained predisposition to relegate “religious” things to a “religious” category. We are all very familiar with the effects of this proclivity to marginalize the religious; for example, it’s a common criticism of American Christians that they let religion infiltrate the realm of politics or primary education, as in the controversy over teaching creationism. The common assumption in these criticisms asserts that the social spheres of politics and education should be considered independent from any of the biases that come with religion. What’s more, such criticisms imply that religious ideas are not scientific, and that they treat truth differently than it is treated in the social sciences of politics and education.Yet, this marginalization of the validity and applicability of religious truth is not merely systemic. Modernist ideas about what constitutes a valid truth claim have even permeated the way that we experience our own faiths. An obvious example of this is the breakdown of orthodox theological boundaries in parts of the Anglican tradition. This alleged attitude of “toleration” is not merely motivated by friendliness; it is foremost influenced by a reluctance to treat theological truth claims as rigorously as social truth claims.

Modernism’s less obvious, but more potent, impact on Christian culture is at the level of personal belief. Ideas about what constitutes legitimate evidence and how to interpret that evidence—the building blocks of what counts as truth—have made it more difficult for the twenty-first century Christian to believe in Christian teaching than it had been in previous centuries. In particular, modernist thought has come to discount the longevity, consistency, and morality of Christianity as potential evidence of its truth. Even more conspicuously, modernist thought has begun to treat these “catholic” attributes of the Christian tradition as evidence against rather than for the truth of orthodox faith. Thus, that Christianity has reached millions of people for centuries past is, to modernism, evidence of its probable fallacy rather than its plausibility.What it comes down to are divergent views on tradition. For modernism, tradition and convention are signs that a belief is untrue and artificial. This is a tricky accusation to counter because in many cases conventionality hides the fact that a belief or practice is ungrounded in reason. Modernist theorists like James and Freud treat the commonalities amongst different people’s religious experiences as evidence of common pathologies or common secular causes behind the veil of the spiritual, rather than as evidence of a real spiritual cause that works in similar ways with different people. They study the commonality of spiritual belief as a common symptom, assuming that tracing a belief to the material world invalidates it. This disparity is most perceivable in modernism’s handling of comparative religions: if different religions share common beliefs, though different in details (e.g., monotheism, creation, apocalypse), then we can conclude that the real material causes of these similarities are the social and psychological contexts that different religions share, and thus we can conclude that there are no spiritual causes behind such religions—i.e. there are no religions.

The same logic can explain a modernist critique of belief in the Apocalypse: the consistency with which religions look to an apocalypse suggests a predictability, a lack of careful scrutiny and honest independent thought, and a conformity to a pattern traceable through different cultures to a material symptom. Behind this logic is the troubling assumption that all beliefs must be either scientifically grounded or artifacts of tradition. This is why Karl Marx calls religion “the opiate of the masses” and why Freud calls religion “the neurosis of the many.”  True spiritual experience, according to Marx and Freud’s line of thought, would have to be untraceable. It cannot be materially analyzable or empirically testable. Ultimately, it cannot be discernable by the human senses. Therefore, modernists like Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud would call “catholicity” itself a sign that whatever has been dogmatized is probably not true.How then does the traditional Christian respond to modernism’s representation of belief in the spiritual and the miraculous? In some ways, he or she does not need to. By modernism’s own maxim, every representation is a misrepresentation, which means that no evidence imports meaning without being interpreted. The misrepresentation of catholicity (that which has been believed everywhere, at all times, by all Christians) as mere conformity conveniently ignores the spiritual claims to which believers conform and stops its analysis short at the observation that such belief is traditional. That is, if the Creed centralizes the content of belief for Christian faith, then modernism’s interpretation of creedal faith as one huge neurosis erases the Creed itself from the equation. It is the Creed’s conventionality, not its content, that invalidates it.

 An Ante-Modern Creed

Despite the unsteadiness of modernism’s argument, we should attend to the fact that it is still virtually inseparable from our culture and from our own habits of thought. That the Second Coming of Christ is real and approaching is difficult to keep in mind in part because we believe in a Creed that predates modernism yet we attempt to practice that Creed in modernist fashion. What I mean is that mainstream American Christian culture, even in orthodox traditions, often rejects whatever is conventional and glances sidelong at conformity. We attempt to strip down the old and conventional in order to be more relevant to today’s society when what we are really doing is unknowingly conforming to a new convention that is essentially anti-creedal.Perhaps one needed response is the very thing that modernism abhors, indoctrination. Indoctrination typically means brainwashing with the false pretense of being rational. But the sense in which I mean “to indoctrinate” is more intellectually honest to what Christianity really is. As I see it, liturgy—literally, “the work of the people”—is a form of willful and rational indoctrination.

Consider that in many American churches the removal of the Holy Liturgy historically coincided with the removal of the Creed from worship services. This stems from a distrust of whatever is conventional. They excise the Creed from worship because it is repetitive and therefore not heartfelt. Ingrained in this kind of thinking is a radical modernist prejudice against the material. Most American Christians would not go as far as to agree with Freud that the traditional nature of religion renders it testable and therefore false, but that is only because many Christians themselves reject the traditional nature of religion. In an effort to save the Church from the materialist accusations of modernism, many Christians have become anti-material in their faith. After all, you can’t call an untraceable, untestable spiritual experience a neurosis.But instead of distrusting the material, we should embrace the essentially physical history of the gospel, which is bookended by Christ’s Incarnation and Second Coming. Instead of distrusting the old and the conventional, we should distrust the newer conventions of our minds that fail to hold onto the urgency of Christ’s Second Coming. We should attend to the dissonance between our faith’s habits and our mind’s habits, between our desire to wait expectantly for Christ and our inability to do so. Alternately, when we say the Nicene Creed—“I believe in … the communion of saints, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting”—we are confessing with confidence the conventional and material nature of Christianity. We are not conforming to an ideology that rejects the miraculous. The very act of re-citation is unoriginal, conforming, and, above all, traceable. It is indoctrinating. When we participate in the Liturgy and when we say this Creed, we are materializing our faith. When we fast during Advent, when we tithe, and when we pray and anticipate Christmas in penitence, we are self-indoctrinating.

To this end, it is worth asking why we assume that our faith should conform to the times. How culturally relevant should Christianity be? Why do we assume that religion should transform itself into the shape of the modern? It should not. For the forward-looking message of Advent is that Christ will steal the times, and our disbelief with them, “as a thief in the night.”

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Sermon for the Last Sunday in Advent

By my friend, The Rev. William Martin of All Saints Anglican Church, Mills River, NC
-blakeAdvent IV
December 18, 2009
 
 
Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say, Rejoice.
 
                        The theme of this Sunday is truly one of repentance and mourning. The Gospel and Epistle for the day do not exactly reveal these spiritual habits, but they are clearly present. They are to be found under the surface of our Gospel text, in the heart of John the Baptist. For today John the Baptist prepares us for Christ’s “always coming” into his Body, the Church, and especially for his first coming, which we will remember and greet at Christmas time. So today, moving under the words of our text, and moving beneath the skin of our Saint, we shall find a spiritual expression of those beings which we must become if Christ will come to us, be for us, and live in us. We shall learn to repent and to mourn.
            In today’s Gospel lesson, taken from the first chapter of St. John, we learn who John the Baptist is from his own confession. The Jews sent Priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who art thou? And he confessed, and denied not; but confessed , I am not the Christ. He does not try to be as God, he is not God’s solution made flesh in the world. Furthermore he confesses that he is not Elijah the prophet. In the Book bearing his name, Malachi foretold that Elijah would come before the Second Coming of the Lord. Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD. In Mal 4:5-6  Elijah shall come later. But John, according to the prophesy of the Angel Gabriel shall go before Him in the spirit and power of Elias (Lk. i. 17). Both are messengers and forerunners. Neither is the Christ. John prepares for the first coming, Elijah the second. But John is coming in the spirit and power of Elijah as the Precursor of Jesus. You see, in person, John is not Elijah, but in spirit, under the text, and beneath the skin, and in the heart he is one with Elijah. He says, I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord, as said the prophet Isaiah. John has come to prepare the Jewish people and to prepare us today for the coming of the Lord. And his preparation begins with a confession of his truth self. He is the messenger, the herald and Precursor, who moves beneath his own skin, and into his heart, to confess his true nature- what moves him in the interior man.
John comes then leads us from the outside of our lives and to the inside. Repent ye, for the kingdom of God is at Hand. As John confesses his true nature, so should we. We are not God, but have behaved as gods, and so must repent. Repentance is the outward expression of the inner truth of who we are. Once on the inside, when we repent, orally and audibly, we take our inner selves and expose them to another. With John we admit who we are as persons, and what we have become as interior spiritual beings. We have gone under the skin and into his heart to discover who John is. At the urging of John, coming from his heart, we confess who we are. He is not Elijah, but is the messenger and herald of repentant preparation. We are not righteous and virtuous men, and so accept the duty of repentance. With our repentance, John offers to us the Baptism in water. He takes the element needed for cleansing and for enlivening and pours it over the heads of his followers. This is the first baptism, that of repentance.
But his confession, from his heart, also includes admitting his nothingness before the presence of the Coming Jesus. He tells the Priests and Levites,  I baptize with water: but there standeth one among you, whom ye know not: he it is who coming after me is preferred before me, whose shoe’s latchet I am not worthy to unloose. From the depths of his heart, beneath the skin, John tells us that he is not worthy to stoop down and become a slave for Christ Jesus. John confesses who he is and draws us into repentance and cleansing. But this cleansing is not complete. I indeed have baptized you with water, he says in Mark 1:8, but he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost. John Baptist prepares us for another cleansing. In making us ready for the coming of Christ Jesus, John teaches that we must move beneath the surface of our skin, into our hearts, if we will truly welcome the Holy Spirit of Jesus Christ. We must move from the outside to the inside, and once there to confess ourselves- our sins and our nothingness.
            But what does it mean to move out of the world and into the soul, beneath the skin and into the heart? John takes his followers into the wilderness, a place far removed from the commerce and exchange of earthly ideas and business. John takes us today into a place removed from the noise, the incessant communication, questions and responses, problems and solutions. Can we find this place? We must. Where is it? It is anywhere and everywhere; it is that place from which, in quietness of soul, you and I begin to question our relationships to all people and things, all false gods of the gut, the heart and the head. To be sure, it will be challenging. We are so comfortable in this world of ours. “We are at home here.” But John comes to teach us that this is not home. This is more truly, for us Christians, a place of passage, from wilderness and exile and towards the true city and homeland of God. If we live on the outside of ourselves, then for us, this is home. And isn’t this true for most of us?
Why are we so at home here? Why are we not like the courageous wanderers and seekers of old, “who would not cease from exploration…until at… the end of all exploring would arrive where…they… started from and know the place for the first time.? What stops us from earnestly desiring to please the Lord and to prepare for his coming?  Perhaps never before in the history of man, has the human heart and mind been so far removed from the meanest intention or faintest will to seek the Divine. And I fear, it does all come back to the tyranny of technology, and its mass production of “necessities” and “luxuries” which possess and control our human life. We lie in a world of millions and millions of idols. John the Baptist, bearing the spirit of Elijah, calls us away from all such things, from such idols.
We live in culture of idols. Anything on which we spend attention, time, money which is exceeds what is needed to express and reveal Christ’s kingdom is an idol. Anything that consumes us, owns us, possesses us and holds us more than God precious presence is an idol. This could be a political platform or philosophical ideal, a romantic notion of religion or ethics, an obsession with the arts and entertainment. It could be an unneedfully large house, a ridiculously expensive car, an obsession with money and taxes, an addiction to a spouse, lover, family or friend. None of these things must ever come before and between our souls’ relations to God. If anyone of these things stands between us and God, we must rid ourselves of them. If any of these things gives off to others an impression of worldliness and materialism, we must rid ourselves of them. For anything which does not reveal to the world our humble and lowly, unmerited and undeserved receiving of God’s costly and precious mercy is an idol. Anything from which we cannot part, that then becomes a stumbling block to others, be it a created being or thing, is an idol. And that idol may stand in the way of another’s coming to Christ. Furthermore if it stands between us and Christ, and if we cannot live without it, we reveal what commands and possess us on the inside to outside world. Ye cannot serve God and mammon. Matthew vi:24. And John Baptist comes to begin that spiritual journey in us, which compels us see our dependence on this world, and its threat to our salvation. Charles Williams writes, The denial of the self has come, as is natural, to man in general the making of the self thoroughly uncomfortable.( He Came…51.)
            Bear fruits that befit repentance, he cries, for even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”  You may ask, with the multitude of his own day, What then shall we do? John the Baptist tells us He who has two coats, let him share with him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise.” To the tax collectors he says,
Collect no more than is appointed you.
To the soldiers, Rob no one by violence or by false accusation, and be content with your wages. I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. Luke 3: 8-16. This is serious business. Charles Willliams remarks, Let the man who has two coats give to the who has none. But what if the man who has none, or for that matter the man who has three, wants to take one from the man who has two- what then? Grace of Heaven! My Sainted Aunt! Why, given him both. If a man has stolen the pearl bracelet, why, point out to him that he has missed the diamond necklace in the corner! Be content… The outside world and our dependence upon it could land us in hell. With John, let us repent of our attachments to things of this world. The old self must stop existing so strongly. The old inner man must see that the time has come to do unto others as you would have them do unto you. John calls us to repentance, and then to mourning. We mourn over the lost opportunities to welcome kindness, and to extend generosity. Kindness and generosity are coming to us, and will be made flesh. The coming Christ invites us to become part of the pattern and design of perfect love. Share everything, defraud no one, let your generosity be known unto all, says the Christ. He might even have used the words of the Empire’s poet, Virgil, impose the habit of peace, be merciful to the downtrodden…overthrow the proud. Or with the Virgin Mother, the rich he hath sent empty away. It is all part of the preparation.
            We have said that mourning is our second theme today. When we confess ourselves before God, when we repent of how we have sought out God’s kingdom and his righteousness first, we mourn over what we have done to ourselves and others. We mourn our own lost opportunities to die to ourselves, in order that we might do good to all men- a goodness which has been threatened by our worldliness and materialism, a goodness forfeited because the world sees that we cannot shed our earthly gods. We are saddened by our sins. We are saddened by the potential loss of eternal happiness for others fomented by our sins. Hopefully we shed tears. Our physical tears begin to heal those who grieve. Our spiritual tears begin to cleanse us from sin. St. J. Chrysostom. Our repentance and mourning, our tears shed, play the greatest part in our transformation and transfiguration. Our bodies become changed. As Evagrius say, such a process becomes a “small resurrection” preparing us for the coming of Jesus Christ. John pours water over the heads of the repentant. They symbolize the tears that emerge from beneath our skin and from the heart.
            But mourning turns into unspeakable joy. The tears that unceasing prayer offers…are resurrectional –Philokalia. Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted. Joy is our end. Our preparation for the coming of Christ given to us by St. John the Baptist, through repentance and mourning, prepare the inner man for joy and deep generosity. He takes us into the wilderness; away from the things of this world- its occupations, its ambitions, ideals, materialism, etc. in order to reach beneath our skin to attack the heart of the matter, our hearts- our inner selves- from which emerges all evil. He prepares us to welcome the all giving, all loving, all merciful made Flesh, Jesus Christ. And then, our idolatries abandoned, we shall become new. We shall love and give, in Him, with joy. We shall become the empty vessels through which the love, generosity, and kindness of Jesus Christ shall flow. So let us close with the prayer of St. Ignatius of Loyola:
Fill us, we pray, with Your light and life,
that we may show forth Your wondrous glory. 
Grant that Your love may so fill our lives 
that we may count nothing too small to do for You, 
nothing too much to give, 
and nothing too hard to bear.
 
Teach us, good Lord, to serve You as You deserve:
To give and not to count the cost; 
to fight and not to heed the wounds;
to toil and not to seek for rest; 
to labour and not to ask for any reward, 
save that of knowing that we do Your will; 
through Jesus Christ our Lord. 
-Amen

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The Riches of the Poor: A Glimpse of our Haitian Brothers and Sisters

by Christopher Becher and Ted de la Haye

 

As the sun beats down high onto the coastal hills northeast of Haiti’s capital, a group of young children, boys and girls all under the age of 14, walk down a dirt trail following the valley’s contours to the sea.  Three boys lead the way with buckets in each hand, silent save the sound of dry dust kicked up with each step.  The tallest wears rain galoshes, another sandals, the youngest a pair of Nike sneakers three sizes too large.   Their destination, a point of pride to the people of Tapio, is the permanent concrete cistern containing clean drinking water.


By the time they arrive there’s a pack of locals crouched in what shade they can find, chewing grass and cooing aimlessly in Creole about the heat.  Beyond them and out of sight lies the source of water: a well sunk deep into the earth with its series of pipes channeling the precious liquid into the cistern and onto a number of medieval hand pumping water stations in the area.  Each boy waits his turn to operate the pump, gladly forgetting the days when his journey took him miles further down the valley to the old well.  In a land that’s seen thirty-two violent coups in its brief history, constancy is a notion woefully unfamiliar to Haiti’s nine million people.  But this cistern, like the man that constructed it, doesn’t appear to be going anywhere.


Father Bien-Aime, rector of the Anglican Catholic parish of St. Therese de L‘Enfant in Tapio, helped to organize and raise the funds to bring clean water this much closer to the people of Tapio.   Born and raised in rural Haiti, Fr. Bien-Aime is acquainted with the sorrows that plague Haitian peasants and has dedicated the last twenty years of his life serving his countrymen in an effort to better their livelihood.  In the past ten years alone, he has erected a beautiful ACC church, school for 500 kids and the first health center in the valley.  Beyond that, he runs an orphanage in Port-au-Prince and has added a school for 185 students in the city – all of this of course coming at no cost to the people.

We had the privilege of spending five days with Fr. Bien-aime in Haiti on a fact-finding delegation from St. Matthew’s. Our flight arrived and we stepped out of the plane, muggy Port-au-Prince air filling our lungs.  Within five minutes we were being escorted through the airport on the arms of our host.  We were surprised to see Fr. Bien-Aime waiting for us on the tarmac, but soon realized as we watched him seize several airport officials’ hands with a smile, he is a well-connected man.  We were off the plane, through customs, and driving to our hotel in a matter of minutes.


Though Fr. Bien-Aime grew up in a relatively poor Haitian village, he was given the opportunity to receive an education in the United States, attending seminary in the Bay AreaMaking a life for himself and his family in the United States would have been easy, pastoring among the many Haitian expatriates abroad.  However, Fr. Bien-Aime refused to forget where he came from and decided to do something about he plight of Haitians in his homeland.  When he first returned Haiti he tried his hand in politics and even entertained grand ideas of running for officeWhile this has provided a number of current supporters for his ministries, he found that a career in Haitian government is inherently dangerous and in his own words “dirty.”  Instead, he decided to pursue a grass-roots approach to helping the people of Haiti, focusing on the rural outskirts of Port-au-Prince.

It was here that we witnessed Fr. Bien-Aime’s courageous humanitarian spirit. The immediate needs in rural Haiti are primitive by any standard: food, water, shelter, and health care.  It is estimated that as much fifty-six percent of Haitians live in abject poverty, lacking these the most basic human necessities.  As Christ modeled with the crowds that followed him so closely, Fr. Bien-Aime feeds the masses before he teaches them.  Feeding the hungry comes before proselytizing; hope for bodily change before ascent to objective spiritual principles.  It was invigorating to see a man so connected to the sustenance of his fellow brothers and sisters.


However, after witnessing Fr. Bien-Aime preach at Mass one Sunday, we knew it was ridiculous to think he adheres to the Social Gospel, allowing Scripture and church tradition to concede to the urgency of social issues.  By all impressions a quiet man, we were fascinated to see him deliver a most animated homily. He preached for about an hour, and displayed all the trimmings of an impassioned Protestant evangelist; hands waving, feet stomping, voice inflecting.  He even opened the floor for questions halfway through to ensure that his parishioners understood the lesson about the chief sacraments of baptism and communion.   At one point an elderly man stood and argued over something that was said. A ridiculous image when placed inside our sanctuary at St. Matthew’s, but an obvious fit in Haiti where nearly eighty percent of the congregation is illiterate.


Taken together, Fr. Bien-Aime’s humanitarian efforts and spiritual shepherding demonstrate one of the most striking characteristics of his ministry: his genuine compassion for the poor and his commitment to their holistic development.  He takes Christ’s teaching in Matthew 25:35-40 literally:

 

For I was an hungered, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me […] Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.

 

Our team did not know what to expect when we arrived in Haiti, but we were under the ambitious impression that St. Matthew’s has something to offer the people of Haiti.  After all, the most monetarily humble of our parishioners could easily afford to pay a whole year’s salary for a teacher in Tapio (a meager $1,800 US).  However, on this side of our trip, having returned from a long week in Haiti, we’ve gained a better understanding for the economy of the Heavenly Kingdom.  What we have to give the people of Haiti, namely monetary funds to meet their basic human needs through Fr. Bien-Aime’s guidance, is the weaker part of the transaction; the easier “donation; the small investment.  In return, we receive the almost sacramental gift of being connected deeply to a distant member of the body of Christ.  To feel their joys, struggles, pains and triumphs a little more deeply.  As we develop and a stronger partnership with our sister Church in Haiti, we begin to truly experience the communion of the saints.         


This reality was most evident during Sunday Eucharist.  Rhythmic Haitian drums replaced our resonant organ; an assortment of park benches, school desks and stools replaced our upholstered pews; a tapestry of the risen Christ replaced our stained glass.  By all appearances, we were in a distant land far from our family and homes.  But when we all knelt together at the altar we received the same Sacrament with that familiar proclamation: “the body of Christ which was given for you, take and eat. We were truly united into the one Body and Blood.


It is in this economy where all earthly distinctions are ignored and even forgotten.  Mother Theresa famously said that the poverty of the wealthy is a far deeper and more dangerous kind than the poverty of the poor.  Latent in her words is the fact that we are all impoverished; an easy reality to forget when we only see through temporal eyes.  Yet, through a deep connection with what we often deem our “less fortunate” brothers and sisters we are reminded of our impoverished state.   In our monetary wealth we rarely exercise the sort of faith that can be cashed in for spiritual riches.   But thanks be to God that he has erected his Church for all men of all time, that we might become interdependent, giving and receiving freely of one another.

 

“There is but one Body and one Spirit, and one hope of our calling, one Lord, one Faith, one Baptism, one God and Father of us all, so we may be all of one heart and of one soul, united in one holy bond of truth and peace, of faith and charity, and may with one mind and mouth glorify thee; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen” (BCP 37-8).   

 

If you are interested in learning more about how to support Fr. Bien-aime and God’s work in Haiti, contact St. Matthew’s Church


Chris Becher and Ted de la Haye are members at St. Matthew’s Church. Chris teaches high school English and Ted is in law school. Photos by Tim Schmidt.
Fr. Bien-aime is an Anglican Catholic missionary-priest in Haiti.

See and download the full gallery on posterous

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Bishop Wilson: A First Century Disciple


Bishop Wilson - A First Century Disciple

Lisa Marion, O/OSB
St. Matthew’s Church, Newport Beach, CA

My anxiety grew as I circled the parking lot looking for a place to park. I had been
invited to dinner with Bishop Wilson from the Sudan and the clergy from our church. I had
been waiting for this day for some time. It was the culmination of weeks of planning;
emails, phone calls and flyers. I had already had the honor of meeting Bishop Wilson at our
Provincial Synod in Cleveland earlier in the month. He was introduced to the assembly and
made a presentation about his ministry in southern Sudan. He spoke passionately about his
people and their sufferings. In spite of these difficulties he was personally responsible for
starting 150 churches. I was fascinated. During one of the breaks I found myself near him.
I introduced myself and asked him “How did you start 150 churches? That is amazing.” He
looked at me so patiently and said “I just followed the Holy Spirit”. Ah, yes – the Holy
Spirit – right. Since that time so many questions about his ministry have been swirling
around in my head. Starting churches is the work of the Holy Spirit, yes, but how exactly
did he do it? What made his church different from other churches in his area? How did he
make the gospel culturally relevant to a people who couldn’t even read? How could we join
him in his work? What kind of help could we offer him?

I almost bumped into him as I came through the door of the restaurant; our table
was ready and the men were on their way, I joined them. After being seated a very tidy,
metrosexual young man came over to describe the delicious specialties of the day. We
struggled to hear him over the roar in the sports bar – the first night of the World Series. I
was so embarrassed. I thought how foolish we all must appear to the bishop; so much
commotion over a sporting event. And I’m sure he couldn’t care less about “Tartare of
Pacific Ahi, seasoned with sesame & curry oils served with sliced avocado, citrus fruits
and toasted sesame crisps”. Half way around the world the people he loved and cared about
were starving. Determined to assure him that we weren’t insensitive to his plight I leaned
across the table and said “Don’t judge our culture too harshly, it’s all we know.” His face
lit up with a warm smile. He replied “Oh, sister I don’t judge you. You are like the children
of Israel just before they entered the Promised Land. Moses warned them that once they
were ‘in plenty’ they would quickly forget God and all that he had done for them. You are
‘in plenty’ and these people have just forgotten God. That’s all.” How quickly things
changed, we had instantly become friends. He understood – there was no need to explain
another thing.  We struggled to find something on the menu that would interest him. He settled on
a roasted chicken breast and a healthy serving of french fries. Now that the ice was broken
I could ask in earnest how he had successfully started 150 churches in the Sudan, of course
I knew it was the work of the Holy Spirit, but I wanted details. I asked again “How did you
start 150 churches?” Deliberately setting down his fork he started with the story of his own
salvation.

He was one of the “Lost Boys” displaced during the Sudanese civil war in the
1980s. He became a Christian in a refuge camp in Ethiopia; evangelized by another “Lost
Boy”. When things had settled down he began to search for his family. Thankfully they
were all found. Reunited, he shared the gospel with them; explaining that they must accept
Jesus Christ and get rid of their family idols. The lives of people in the Sudan are controlled
by demons; locally referred to as “jōks”. What he described is so foreign from our lives it is
hard to grasp. The demonic activity in primitive cultures is similar to what is described in
the Bible. It is very real. The family demon may cause a child to die suddenly or it may
demand them to kill an entire herd of animals. Many of the details surrounding these events
are unexplainable, except through supernatural means. It is an integral part of their culture
and people are compelled to obey. After hearing the Gospel, Bishop Wilson’s mother and one of his sisters accepted
Christ’s command to worship only him. They got rid of their idols and began to learn about
Christ and prayed daily. A mysterious peace came over their home, demonic activity
ceased, instantly. The difference was so profound that the people living near them wanted
the same peace. More people in the village accepted Christ and quickly the word spread –
miraculous things were happening. The sick, lame, and demon possessed were brought to
Bishop Wilson for healing. He told us how he simply prayed for the person, in the name of
Christ, and they were healed.

Over the past fifteen years he has watched God’s grace spread from a simple, heart-
felt time of sharing with his family to the establishment of hundreds of churches all over the
region, some as far away as a two-week walk. Bishop Wilson now leads 85 ordained
clergymen, 50 trained evangelists and several Mothers’ Union groups. He has no secret;
the Bishop is living the life of a first century disciple and proclaiming the Good News of
Jesus Christ. Lives are being transformed. The Holy Spirit is alive and working in the
Sudan. Bishop Wilson is obediently following where he is led. Amazing how simple it is.
Being with him for several days has had a profound effect on me. It caused me to
stop and really look at our own culture. We live “in plenty” and what do we gain by it?
Nothing. All our things are simply distractions; distractions that take us away from a full
life with God. With all the constant noise we invite into our lives it is difficult to hear his
voice. We have so many important things to do that we barely squeeze in time for prayer
and Scripture reading. What would happen if we put away our idols; our idols of pleasure
and compulsion? What would happen if we turned fully to Christ, like Bishop Wilson’s
people? What if we decided to completely depend on him? What if we let Christ’s peace
really reign in our homes and in our hearts? We have no sorrows greater than those of the
people filling Bishop Wilson’s churches; why are many of us so unhappy? How grand were our goals… “What could we do to help him?” I have realized that
Bishop Wilson is really an African missionary to us. His New Testament approach to
evangelism is inspiring. I believe our work with the people of the Sudan, Haiti and South
Africa will not only bless them but it will revitalize us. It will bring new life to our national
church and our corporate faith. The pictures he shared of his people are beautiful; pictures
of children laughing, huge warm smiles. They have nothing, nothing except their faith, their
church and the promise of Eternal Life. Would we be content with just these?
At a moment during our good-bye’s I realized that it was very possible I would
never see the Bishop again. He thanked me sincerely. “Sister, please thank the people of St.
Matthew’s for me. I am so grateful for all you have done for me while I was in Orange
County. Thank you for the gifts that will help in my ministry. I don’t have anything that I
can give you in return – nothing, nothing except my prayers. We will pray for you and your
people.” I assured him he had given us all a greater gift – the reminder that we are still
called to remember God and all that he has done for us. We are called to put away our idols
and turn fully to him. And as we live “in plenty” we are to reach out and help our brothers
and sisters in need.

see South Sudan Missions for more information

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