Tuesday, December 30, 2008

what we have left undone

"Episcopal priest makes a name for himself in New York City nightclubs"

What... the hell?

Initially this article left me totally at a loss.

When interviewed, the priest said that "I work hard. I make good money. How I spend it - that is my business." He went on to add "I haven't done anything inappropriate."
The news article itself seems to agree with him on the latter: "There's no suggestion that [he]... has done anything wrong on his visits to the city."

I assume that, as an Episcopal priest, this man has led parishioners in the confession before the Eucharist: Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done and by what we have left undone...

I spent the week before Christmas this year working at a homeless shelter in New York City--perhaps this priest was in the city some nights while we were--where hundreds of meals are served a day, and where over a hundred people might be found sleeping at night... especially these nights, with the cold. These guys don't have to miss meals; there are enough places to get handouts in the city to avoid that. But they have no homes. Many of them need job training and opportunities, help with battling addiction, the gospel.
There are so many needs in that city, and this man decides to use his abundance to show his love of God and neighbor by giving $10,000 tips in clubs.
And that's just in New York, in America. What about other places where the needs are greater and the stakes are different and higher? Where food and medical attention are needed? Or Bibles?

And this man decides to use his abundance to show his love of God and neighbor by giving $10,000 tips in clubs.

John Chrysostom once preached: "It is foolishness and a public madness to fill the cupboards with clothing, and allow men who are created in God's image and likeness to stand naked and trembling with the cold so that they can hardly hold themselves upright." The saint said this because he understood the call of God on our lives. "Fool! This night your soul is required of you..."
This Episcopal priest isn't here 'laying up treasures' for himself--at least not the sort you can touch or see--and perhaps that makes us think better of him. Maybe that's why the NY Daily News seems to.
However the point is not simply that we not store up an abundance of possessions, but also that when we sell what we have, we give to the poor: that we love our neighbors as ourselves. This is something that the New Testament cannot stop bringing up--the gospels, Romans, Galatians, James, 1 John. How ever you want to understand "as yourself", I think it wholly precludes any gratuitous spending when there are people dying of hunger.

But if anyone has the world's goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God's love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.

1 John 3:17-18

So far I've really only been reflecting on the one story of the one man. His financial situation is privileged. His story seems more reprehensible for that privilege and, of course, for the fact that he has been ordained as a minister in the church of our Lord. What of the rest of us, though? We who have not those funds, who are not ourselves in the priesthood?

Well, Jesus' call on us is the same: "love your neighbor as yourself."
This idea of taking up our cross, of being crucified with Christ... did we really think it meant something other than death all along? As the people of God--ordained or otherwise--we have a calling to love and the Holy Spirit leading us to love. Let us then love.
When we ignore these commands and these urgings, when we 'die to things other than ourselves', we are disregarding the reality of the work of God in Christ. God has not fashioned new creations out of us so that we might continue in the 'futility of our minds', but that so we might reflect Christ in life--the man who emptied himself in Incarnation, emptied himself in loving service, and finally emptied himself in death; the man who through resurrection offers us victory over sin, death, and Sheol.

In his words, Christ has given us various reasons, in case we were skeptical of his command: we cannot serve God and mammon; a man's life does not consist in the abundance of the things he possesses; we are called to love our neighbors and to give help to the 'least of these.' Can we really ignore all of these different teachings of our Lord as they all ultimately call us to the same thing? And that thing is of course no more than to count others more significant than ourselves and to love.
The church must not, as Chesterton put it, assume "the words of Christ to have meant the very least that they could mean," and instead we must offer to Him whom we call "Lord" obedient service.
In short, we must go about the business of being the Body of Christ.

We cannot all afford to build a school in some unschooled area, or sponsor a child through Compassion or World Vision, or even help every needy man we see on the street, any more than we can all afford a $35,000 drink... but we can all do something. And where we can do something, we must do something. This is the life and reality of the church.
If we look to come after the man who laid down his own life, then the commitment is clear: "he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me."

... we have not loved You with our whole heart. We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We are truly sorry, and we humbly repent. For the sake of your Son, Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us, that we may delight in your will and walk in your ways, to the glory of your name. Amen.

Monday, December 29, 2008


"Human depravity, then, has broken into fragments that which is by nature one and simple; men try to grasp part of a thing which has no parts and so get neither the part, which does not exist, nor the whole, which they do not seek."

"How is this?" I asked.

". . . the man who seeks only power wastes his money, scorns pleasures and honors that carry with them no power, and thinks nothing of fame. But see how much he is missing: sometimes he is without the necessities of life, he is plagued by anxieties, and when he cannot overcome them he loses that which he wants most--he ceases to be powerful. Honors, fame, and pleasure can be shown to be equally defective; for each is connected with the others, and whoever seeks one without the others cannot get even the one he wants."

"What happens when someone tries to get them all at the same time?" I asked. 

"He, indeed, reaches for the height of happiness, but can he find it in these things which, as I have shown, cannot deliver what they promise?" 

"Of course not," I said.

"Happiness, then, is by no means to be sought in these things which are commonly thought to offer the parts of what is sought for."

Boethius was a Christian theologian and philosopher in the late 5th, early 6th century. His works, including some translations of Aristotle into Latin, are thought by many to mark the end of the Classical Age and the beginning of the Medieval period. Among his theological works are a treatise on the Trinity and polemics against Arian thought--the latter may have been one impetus for his execution under an Arian emperor.

While in prison, Boethius composed his most enduring work, The Consolation of Philosophy, wherein Boethius is visited in prison by Lady Philosophy, with whom he discusses various topics, from material 'goods' to free will. Interestingly, this is accomplished without the use of Christian language, but instead uses only the diction of Classical philosophy. This trend (which by no means begins with Boethius) will prove abiding in Christian discourse--consider the Catholic doctrine of  transubstantiation or the discussions of God and determinism which exclusively use extra-Biblical terminology like 'omnipotent.' This may be a troublesome tendency, but still, as Charles Williams said of the Consolation itself, "though it is not formally Christian, it is Christ." Ultimately, this book fits well into the tradition of great Christian works coming from prison, from Paul to Ignatius to St. Thomas More to Bonhoeffer. 

Lady Philosophy's teachings on different 'goods' that people seek (the quote above is just a fraction of that discussion) was on the one hand meant to console the saint awaiting his execution, but on the other hand it is a wonderful transposition of some of the teachings of Christ in the Sermon on the Mount into the cant of Hellenistic philosophy. In place of Christ's characteristic "do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal", Boethius delineates for his readers how goodness is but one thing, why exactly other things that are called good cannot truly be so. 

The last quarter of the Consolation deals with the issue of free will and with God's omniscience. This discussion by itself makes the text worth reading. Here again the issue of translating Christian realities into Greek philosophical jargon is raised, though here it is raised in the text by Lady Philosophy herself. Boethius recognized the inherit dilemma of applying this philosophical diction to revealed truths--the necessary limits of this sort of language--and this recognition for him offers a clear answer to the disturbing question of determinism.  

I've frequently sold the Consolation of Philosophy as the second greatest book in existence, after the anthology that is the Bible. That being said... go read it. Go encounter Boethius. He was able to--just as Christ urged John the Baptist to--perceive the realities of God and His work, which prison and impending death can obscure if they are allowed to found our judgment in those dark times. 

And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying 'What shall we eat?' or 'What shall we drink?' or 'What shall we wear?' For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.

Matthew 6:27-33

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

"Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God..."

Dong Yun Yoon lost his wife, two children and mother-in-law Monday when a Marine Corps jet crashed into his home in San Diego. He told the reporters, of the plane's pilot who survived: "Please pray for him not to suffer from this accident."
I cried reading the article. This man is the church. 

Posting it here, it feels almost like a sequel to the news story from Black Friday
A friend of mine was telling me last week how he was struck by the contrast between this man's death at Wal-Mart and the lectionary text for the first Wednesday of Advent. The reading came from Isaiah, and is a prophecy concerning the Messiah.

The word that Isaiah the son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem. It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the Lord shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be lifted up above the hills; and all the nations shall flow to it, and many peoples shall come, and say: "Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord , to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths." For out of Zion shall go the law,  and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall decide disputes for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore. O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord.

Isaiah 2:1-5

As we are entering into a season that remembers and celebrates the birth of the Prince of Peace, in whose Kingdom justice is established, there is news of injuries and deaths at a Wal-Mart because people want a discount on electronics... for Christmas. 

But then I read this news, and I'm reminded of that Kingdom and its reality. 

I was listening to The First Noel while I first read this article, and the Advent season seemed almost tangible. 'Born is the King of Israel!' and here, in the news(!), is the Kingdom that he established, at work fulfilling that great commandment given to us to love our neighbors. Even here in the midst of a horrible evil, this man has been able to proclaim to a nation the Truth of the gospel, and this is the season when that Truth is most appropriately proclaimed and, sadly, most easily forgotten. 

Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him.

1 John 4:7-9

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

truth from Pascal

To make a man a saint, grace is certainly needed, and anyone who doubts this does not know what a saint, or a man, really is.

- Pascal, Pensées