What of the Star?

Magi following star
This week I finished reading Scott Hahn’s Joy to the World: How Christ’s Coming Changed Everything (and Still Does). It’s a good devotional read for the Advent/Christmas/Epiphany seasons, especially for its deep dives into traditional Christian interpretations of the Christmas story.

From his chapter on the Magi of Matthew 2:

And what of the star?

As far back as the fourth century, Saint John Chrysostom pointed out that it didn’t behave like any other star anyone had ever seen…

“This star,” said Saint John Chrysostom, “was not of the common sort, or rather not a star at all, it seems to me, but some invisible power transformed into this appearance.”…stars in the sky were often identified with angels in heaven. The motif appears in the Bible, and in other Jewish sources from the time of Jesus. The philosopher Philo of Alexandria speculated that the stars “are living creatures, but of a kind composed entirely of mind.”…

John Chrysostom may have been pre-scientific and pre-critical in his thinking, but he wasn’t stupid.

With John Chrysostom I have to conclude that an angel appeared to the Magi as light and led them to true worship—which, as I’ve said before, is what angels were created to do.

Key for me is this sentence: “Chrysostom may have been pre-scientific and pre-critical in his thinking, but he wasn’t stupid.” For some of us, we need that basic fact: he wasn’t stupid. For others of us, it’s not that we think people of the past were stupid, but rather that we assume they were ignorant.

“Pre-scientific” means that Chrysostom didn’t understand the motion of celestial bodies as well as we do. At the same time, Chrysostom’s view of reality was larger than many of ours. He had room for the observable and empirically measurable as well as room for things beyond those categories. I hope I have room in my life and my outlook for things that don’t make sense. I hope I don’t have an explanation for the glory of God. I hope that sometimes I can still experience wonder and worship and lead others to worship—which is what humans were created to do.

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The Church Is More Than a Business

Church by Buildings
This is the time of year in the United Methodist Church where much of our formal reflection on the previous year’s ministry takes place. Among the persistent goals in my ministry is to fully live into my job description from Ephesians 4:12–“to equip the saints for the work of ministry.” I’ve written previously on just how little attention is given to leadership formation (in terms of character or skills development) in seminary. This lack is multiplied when the ordained minister’s job is both to lead and to form and lead other leaders (many of whom highly capable leaders in the marketplace).

For United Methodists, there are particular leadership structures already laid out for us in our Book of Discipline. Instead of a board of deacons or elders, we have various leadership committees dedicated to particular tasks. Sometimes this prescribed structure is very, very helpful: it’s possible to develop a deep and wide lay leadership within the church. Sometimes the structure is very unhelpful: even small churches have slow decision-making processes, and the number of required roles can mean filling leadership positions with bodies rather than placing people according to their gifts and calling.

(I hope this last doesn’t sound like a slight against anyone. In Paul’s bodily terms, sometimes the Book of Discipline calls for a set number of ears, a set number of eyes, a set number of hands, but your church doesn’t have those people, so it just uses whoever is willing to fill prescribed roles. The best pastors and leadership teams get shrewd at this point, through creating alternate structures, re-crafting roles around particular people, and trusting that the Gospel at its heart says that God is creating beautiful things with whatever raw materials we have to offer.)

And then there are the meetings. Even if meetings are good meetings–actually, especially if they are good meetings–they are full of business from beginning to end. But the church is more than a business. In far too many churches, a church meeting is a small business meeting with a prayer at the beginning and maybe at the end, if we remember. Most pastors and most lay leaders long for something better, something that differentiates what we’re doing from what any other institution with a business side is doing. But we don’t know how to do better.

There was some literature several years ago on transforming church business meetings into worship services. You introduce a liturgy, have a call to worship, some prayers, maybe some singing, maybe even celebrate the Eucharist, and in the midst of the worship service is the business meeting. This might work in some settings, but it has massive downsides: 1) It’s difficult to actually enter into worship because of the business that actually does need to be done, and 2) It’s difficult to get all the business done because we’re trying to worship together. I’m glad if that works somewhere, but it sounds like a lose-lose.

So here’s my goal: find a schedule and shared practices for the coming year in which business happens at business meetings, but we also have time for worship and spiritual formation specifically as leaders. The foundational text for thinking through how to do this practically is going to be the ever-excellent Ruth Haley Barton’s Pursuing God’s Will Together: A Discernment Practice for Leadership Groups.

The Immortal Hazelnut

Julian with Hazelnut

I’m currently rereading Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love, and this is from the Short Text (Elizabeth Spearing translation):

And in this vision [Christ] showed me a little thing, the size of a hazel-nut, lying in the palm of my hand, and to my mind’s eye it was as round as any ball. I looked at it and thought, ‘What can this be?’ And the answer came to me, ‘It is all that is made.’ I wondered how it could last, for it was so small I thought it might suddenly disappear. And the answer in my mind was, ‘It lasts and will last for ever because God loves it; and in the same way everything exists through the love of God.’ In this little thing I saw three attributes: the first is that God made it, the second is that he loves it, the third is that God cares for it.

The multiverse is the size of a hazelnut, and you couldn’t find me or yourself in it if you looked at it with the most powerful microscope on earth, and this is good news. As Julian continues a page later, “until all that is made seems as nothing, no soul can be at rest. When a soul sets all at nothing for love, to have him who is everything that is good, then it is able to receive spiritual rest.”

There are times, in the thick of things, when I get overwhelmed and too close to the work I am trying to do as the pastor of two small churches. Despite being regular in spending time in Scripture and devotional readings and prayer, fairly regular in mindful silence, in journaling, in conversation with others, I simply lose perspective. And when this happens, I become less effective and more anxious, and it takes some time and effort to regain perspective and balance.

I stumbled into a miniature retreat on Friday in the form of an 80-minute drive to a meeting. I found that I needed to turn the podcast off and just start talking to God out loud. What I was looking for was God’s reminder, “This is who you are.” I’d name that in retrospect as the need for a renewal of calling. And I received what I was looking for, in this case the sense of “Do not over-identify with the churches you serve, their successes or failures or programs or hopes or fears or futures or lack of future.”

Who I am is A Person God Made. I can have great success, and that won’t make me more than that. I can utterly fail in every sense that you or I could consider failure, and that won’t make me less than that. Richard Rohr terms this understanding of personhood the “immortal diamond” (a phrase from Gerard Manley Hopkins, after Rohr puts a couple layers of Jung on top of Merton’s concept of the “true self”) to name what identity actually means in God. It’s part of the same whole that Julian once saw as a ball the size of a hazelnut.

Before and after all the voluntary and involuntary associations and relationships and places and works that I enter into, there is some eternal, inviolable identity which God has made from love and which God sustains in love. And that self has no fear, because that self still resides in the hand of God, who is Love, and there is no fear in love. That’s not something I need to know as a pastor. That’s something I need to know as a human being. Only when I know this can I enter fully and healthily into all those relationships and works I’m a part of. And only when I know this can I find rest.

“forgiveness is not a legal action”

Alexander Schmemann on “And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,” from his Our Father:

to ask forgiveness of this sin, means to acknowledge our disunity with others, and it implies an effort to overcome it, which already implies its forgiveness. For forgiveness is a mystical action that restores a lost wholeness so that goodness reigns once more; forgiveness is not a legal action, but a moral one. According to the law anyone who harms me must be punished, and until he is punished the law is not satisfied, but according to conscience the moral law does not require a legal satisfaction, but rather the restoration of wholeness and love, which any law is powerless to effect. Only mutual forgiveness has this power. If we forgive one another, then God forgives us, and only in this mutually related forgiveness of ours and the forgiveness from above is the conscience purified and light reigns. It is this for which man thirsts and searches at his very depths.

For indeed, man does not really need external order as much as a clean conscience, that inner light without which there can be no true happiness. Therefore, ‘forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us’ is actually a petition for moral purification and rebirth, without which any law of this world is no help.

Perhaps the terrible tragedy of our times, of those societies in which we live, consists precisely in the fact that while there is much talk about legality and justice, while many assorted texts are cited, these societies have almost entirely lost the power and moral beauty of forgiveness.

Especially with the last paragraph, it is worth explaining that this book was originally a set of radio lectures on the Lord’s Prayer broadcast by Radio Liberty into the USSR (culled from 30 years of weekly broadcasts which Schmemann made). Yet “those societies in which we live” not only accurately describes the Soviet Union in 1980 but the United States in 2016. Far worse is that Schmemann’s words to a large extent describe American Christianity.

I find myself wondering how much of this is due to Protestant reduction of the reconciliation of all things in Christ to a mere legal transaction resulting in eternal salvation, benefits payable on (and not before) death. As easily as that can be packaged and preached, a courtroom drama is far from expressing the fullness of the Gospel. Even Paul, the main popularizer of that legal metaphor, experienced and spoke of the Gospel in much larger terms than any courtroom could hold, as in Colossians 1:19-22:

Because all the fullness of God was pleased to live in him,
        and he reconciled all things to himself through him—
        whether things on earth or in the heavens.
            He brought peace through the blood of his cross.

Once you were alienated from God and you were enemies with him in your minds, which was shown by your evil actions. But now he has reconciled you by his physical body through death, to present you before God as a people who are holy, faultless, and without blame.

To make the practical turn: preachers who are interested in proclaiming a Gospel that draws and then transforms people with its goodness, beauty, truth, hope, and love (to be clear, this is the only Gospel) have to stop taking lazy shortcuts in presenting the Gospel in narrow and shallow terms week after week. And if we don’t take up that challenge, then we bear moral responsibility when people don’t seem to grow spiritually or to find growth in relationship with God or to practice substantive peacemaking with their closest neighbors and family. A legal action cannot accomplish those things, but the power of the Gospel is the power of God–Father, Son, and Holy Spirit–to do infinitely more than we can ask, think, or imagine.

Preaching the heights and depths of the Gospel destroys the shallow “gospel” of legal action in any contest of theology, Biblical faithfulness, missionality, or the pure practicality of transfigured lives and communities. Thanks, Fr. Schmemann.

Schmemann Icon

Contemplation and Its Discontents

My entry into contemplative Christianity was junior year of high school: J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey. Salinger himself was apparently some kind of Buddhist (or Buddhisht), and in that book Franny prays the Jesus Prayer on repeat after reading the classic Way of a Pilgrim. I followed that trail to Peoria Public Library, where I first learned both about hesychasm and about Zen Catholicism.

A couple years later I picked up Thomas Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain for the first time. I had never heard of Merton before, but I liked what the dust jacket at Walden Books at the mall said. The book may have changed my life. Some moderately extensive reading in Merton and on Merton since have given me some sense (I think) of what connections Merton was drawing between Christian contemplation and other contemplative spiritualities of the world, Buddhism in particular.

Still a couple years after that, a counselor introduced me to Jon Kabat-Zinn’s particular use of Buddhist meditation in his Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (set out best in his Wherever You Go, There You Are). Perhaps a year after that I read Kamenetz’s The Jew in the Lotus, which chronicles the meeting of several rabbis with the Dalai Lama and other Buddhist religious leaders, for an historic interfaith dialogue in India. That book also introduced me to the concept of Jewish Buddhism.

Around the same time I was introduced to Transcendental Meditation (TM) in Catching the Big Fish by David Lynch, who has a thirty-year practice of the discipline going and described how it figures massively in his personal life and artistic process. The actual practice of TM is exactly the same as Thomas Keating and Basil Pennington’s Centering Prayer.

In the last couple weeks I’ve read Richard Rohr’s Falling Upward, and I am halfway through his Immortal Diamond. Rohr’s books have the same tendency toward blurring difference, not only with other religious traditions but with Jungian psychology and 20th/21st century physics.

Conclusions:

  1. It is a commonplace among contemporary contemplatives (dating back at least to the turn of the 19th into the 20th century) that there is a blurring of religious difference and boundaries in general on the contemplative frontiers. For the most part, writers on contemplation not only describe the blurring but express the belief that it is a positive.
  2. This commonplace needs to be interrogated. Not all difference is illusory (and sometimes lack of differentiation and union are themselves illusory). Not all difference is negative. Some differentiation is necessary to love, to respect, to human relating, to human-divine relating, to peacemaking and reconciliation, and to honest inter-faith dialogue. (The 1968 inter-religious summit at which Merton died recognized this. Kamenetz’s The Jew in the Lotus recognized this.)
  3. The practice of contemplation is a genuine Christian vocation and charism. Like most Christian vocations and charisms, contemplation is to some extent for all, but it is more important for some. It exists in every case for the blessing of God and all of Creation.
  4. This post is the beginning of several conversations, not the end of any conversations.

an Ash Wednesday poem

That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and of the comfort of the Resurrection

By Gerard Manley Hopkins
Cloud-puffball, torn tufts, tossed pillows | flaunt forth, then chevy on an air-
Built thoroughfare: heaven-roysterers, in gay-gangs | they throng; they glitter in marches.
Down roughcast, down dazzling whitewash, | wherever an elm arches,
Shivelights and shadowtackle ín long | lashes lace, lance, and pair.
Delightfully the bright wind boisterous | ropes, wrestles, beats earth bare
Of yestertempest’s creases; | in pool and rut peel parches
Squandering ooze to squeezed | dough, crust, dust; stanches, starches
Squadroned masks and manmarks | treadmire toil there
Footfretted in it. Million-fuelèd, | nature’s bonfire burns on.
But quench her bonniest, dearest | to her, her clearest-selvèd spark
Man, how fast his firedint, | his mark on mind, is gone!
Both are in an unfathomable, all is in an enormous dark
Drowned. O pity and indig | nation! Manshape, that shone
Sheer off, disseveral, a star, | death blots black out; nor mark
                            Is any of him at all so stark
But vastness blurs and time | beats level. Enough! the Resurrection,
A heart’s-clarion! Away grief’s gasping, | joyless days, dejection.
                            Across my foundering deck shone
A beacon, an eternal beam. | Flesh fade, and mortal trash
Fall to the residuary worm; | world’s wildfire, leave but ash:
                            In a flash, at a trumpet crash,
I am all at once what Christ is, | since he was what I am, and
This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, | patch, matchwood, immortal diamond,
                            Is immortal diamond.

St. Bernard Gets It

I think you’ll see why they call Bernard of Clairvaux “Doctor Mellifluus.”

This the prudent Virgin understood when to the prevenient grace of a gratuitous promise she joined the merit of her own prayer, saying: “Be it done unto me according to thy word.”

Be it done unto me concerning the Divine Word according to Thy word. May the Word which was in the beginning with God be made flesh of my flesh according to Thy word. May He, I entreat, be made to me, not a spoken word, to pass unheeded, but a word conceived—that is, clothed in flesh—which may remain. May He be to me not only audible to my ears, but visible to my eyes, felt by my hands, borne in my arms. Let Him be to me not a mute and written word traced with dumb signs on lifeless parchments, but an Incarnate, living Word vividly impressed in human form in my chaste womb by the operation of the Holy Ghost.

Be it done unto me as it has never hitherto been done to mortal, and never shall be done to any after my time. “God diversely and in many ways spoke in times past to the fathers by the prophets”1—to some in the hearing of the ears, while to others the word of the Lord was made known in signs and figures. Now in this solemn hour I pray that in my own being it may be done unto me according to Thy word.

Be it done unto me—not preached to me in the feeble strains of human eloquence, not shown forth to me in the figures of earthly rhetoric, not painted in the poetic dreams of a fervid imagination, but breathed upon me in silence, in person Incarnate, in a human form veritably reposing within me. In His own nature the Word needed not change, was incapable of change. Yet now graciously in me “may it be done according to thy word.” Be it done universally for all mankind, but most especially for me—” Be it done unto me according to thy word.”

Saint Bernard, Sermons of St. Bernard on Advent & Christmas: Including the Famous Treatise on the Incarnation Called “Missus Est” (London; Manchester; Glasgow; New York; Cincinnati; Chicago: R. & T. Washbourne; Benziger Bros., 1909), 71–72.