Saturday, April 28, 2007

On Bob Webber's Passing

On the passing April 27, 2007 of Bob Webber, friend and champion of cross-shaped and historically informed worship, these words from the Book of Common Prayer:

Depart, O Christian soul, out of this world;
in the name of God the Father Almighty who created you;
in the name of Jesus Christ who redeemed you;
in the name of the Holy Spirit who sanctifies you.
May your rest be this day in peace,
and your dwelling place in the Paradise of God.
Into your hands, O merciful Savior, we commend your servant Bob.
Acknowledge, we humbly beseech you,
a sheep of your own fold,
a lamb of your own flock,
a sinner of your own redeeming.
Receive him into the arms of your mercy,
into the blessed rest of everlasting peace,
and into the glorious company of the saints in light. Amen.

Bob died the way he lived: with bold faith. His doctors told him before Christmas that with his pancreatic cancer he probably wouldn't make it through the holidays. Typical of Bob, he had to show them wrong not just by getting through Christmas, but by making it through Easter as well. With thanks to God for a race well run.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Why We Put the “Maundy” Back into Maundy Thursday — Holy Saturday Reflections

People who know me know that I am a Georges Rouault fanatic. I love his ugly prostitutes, morose clowns, supercilious judges, predatory businessmen, vacuous bourgeoisie, imperious kings — and the here barbaric, there iconic Christ who came for them. Every once in a while a friend will risk a protest, “But his stuff is so sad!”

“Sad?” I reply, “No, Rouault’s vision is a vision of joy.” I love Rouault for the same reason I love two other Frenchmen’s bluesy work: Pascal’s apothegms and Calvin’s theology.

In the Bible things are sweet and beautiful and good for all of two chapters. The rest of the book is colored by the unspeakable ugliness and uncleanness that intrude when Adam & Eve take the Serpent’s bait. From here on, the book is about the re-flowering of a deflowered race.

I love Easter. From Christ’s resurrection, death begins working backward — deaths are undied, treacheries reversed, whores re-virgined, wallflowers dragged onto the dance floor.

But as much as I love Easter, I have a special fondness for the few days before. Days in which we reconnect with the barbaric Christ — who came to best our ugliness by becoming disfigured, our bestiality by “becoming sin,” and our emptiness by hanging in utter nakedness.

In With One Voice I wrote about the way that Good Friday services at Northland (A Church Distributed, in Longwood, FL), the church of my first twelve years here in Central FL, sustained me during those years. Services that simply and starkly rehearsed Jesus’s seven words from the cross, the lights dimming a bit with each saying, until the lights went out with, “Into your hands I commit my spirit.” Then lights coming up with the Apostles Creed’s, “… and on the third day …” By taking me into Jesus’s holy darkness, those services made his victory over the grave the more palpable to me.

In my five years at Orangewood Presbyterian (Maitland, FL), our senior pastor, Jeff Jakes, has urged this congregation to make our lives about “Christ and his Kingdom — it’s not about us.” It’s been nothing short of astounding to watch people “get it.” These people have built and restored houses. Suburbanites have gone into places of ministry that are not comfortable — and have stayed there. They go to Mexico and Turkey to support in person missionaries they support with their checkbooks. Twice in this past week individuals have told me about how well loved they have been: one who’s critically ill and who has had Orangewood people take him in, another whose marriage is crumbling but who has found church people acting like family. Week after week these folks set up and tear down a gym so it can become a sanctinasium. Week after week they take turns watching each other’s little ones so young moms & dads can worship. Week after week they honor each other’s wildly different tastes in worship music (we don’t do apartheid worship).

Because of the journey we’ve been on, this year we thought our Maundy Thursday service should put the “Maundy” back into Maundy Thursday. “Maundy,” after all, comes from “mandate” — it recalls the “new commandment” Jesus gives his disciples in John 13:34-35 to love one another the way he has loved them. How has he loved them? He’s just shown them, by wrapping himself in a servant’s towel and taken up a servant’s basin to wash their feet (Jn 13:1-17). To make the point as clear as he possibly can he has said, “… so ought you to do for one another” (Jn 13:15).

So, we thought, “Maybe it’s time we do what he told us to do.”

This year the pastors, elders, deacons, and some of the leading women of the church invited the congregation to allow their leadership to wash their feet: tokens of the kind of self-giving love Jesus embodied from incarnation to crucifixion, expressions of the church’s thanks for the lives of footwashing going on in our midst, and tangible urgings to do so all the more.

I’ll carry memories of this service with me for a long time. The most vivid was that of one of our elders — an exceedingly, exceedingly successful businessman who must wear his suit, starched white shirt and power tie in the shower — on his knees (in his suit, starched white shirt and power tie) on the one portion of our floor that was soaking wet because of a leaky basin. I caught him looking into the eyes of one of our middle schoolers, just getting her name so she could be reminded that Jesus loves her personally.

In her blog, Amy Pitsch shares some of her reactions — the discomfort she had to overcome was just like mine when a number of years ago I found myself unexpectedly dragged into my first footwashing.

As I write on Holy Saturday (listening to the Tavener-&-Mahler-&-Penderecki-laced soundtrack to Children of Men) my heart is full of grateful wonder. I marvel at the beautification of the ugly that was played out with basin and towel 2,000 years ago. And I resolve to take up my basin and towel because of the promise that one day the power of humility over pride, of love over hate, of lowliness over haughtiness, will re-light the globe, and the glory of Christ and his Father will outshine the sun itself.

“Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again. Alleluia! Alleluia!! Alleluia!!!”

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

"The Eagle and Child" Blogs With One Voice

There are two levels of writer's hell I've known ... there are probably others, I just haven't been to them yet.

The first level of writer's hell is believing there is stuff in you worth saying that you simply can't get out. I lived in this level for five years writing my dissertation, which finally became Wealth & Beneficence in the Pastoral Epistles. I returned to this level for eight years writing With One Voice.

Somebody asked once, "Doesn't it feel great to hold your own book in your hands?"

Not really. That's simply when you find out about the second level of writer's hell: does anybody besides you think you actually had something worth saying?

Redemption for a writer is experiencing the utter grace of "connecting" with a reader. Unutterably great, inexpressibly humbling is seeing your words take hold in somebody else.

Russell Smith, presbyterian minister, "emergent neo-puritan and a witty epicurean," has been blogging his way through With One Voice of late. Yesterday he got to chapter five, "Jesus's Lament of Abandonment."

Russell "gets it": "The cross confronts us in our own anguish. It reminds us of our own fragility and enables us to worship in the midst of the pain."

For Russell's blog on this and previous chapters, as well as for his observations on everything from ethanol to Halloween, go to Russell's blog site, "The Eagle and Child."

Kudos & thanks, Russell.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Common Grounds: Athanasius, On the Incarnation

Before Christmas, I offered some preliminary thoughts on the significance of Jesus's incarnation. I've followed those thoughts up with a posting on Athanasius's "On the Incarnation" at my friend Glenn Lucke's online community, Common Grounds. I'd be delighted if you'd go there to read the post. Here's the URL:

Oh, did I mention to my weblog friends that With One Voice has gone into its second printing?

Praise God from whom all blessings flow.

Monday, December 18, 2006

An Advent Meditation — “Strong Enough to Save, Near Enough to Heal”

“Why did Jesus Christ have to be God?” the potential ordinand was asked. And, at least so it seemed to me, he muffed it: “It took God to offer perfect obedience.”

Well, no.

The perfect obedience Christ offered for us he offered because he was human. Jesus Christ came as the Last Adam, the “Son of God, the Son of Adam,” who undid in a wilderness and on a cross the harm done in a garden and by the eating of forbidden fruit (see 1 Corinthians 15:45; Romans 5:12-19; and Luke 3:38-4:13). To offer perfect obedience was why Jesus Christ had to be human.

My puzzlement at the potential ordinand’s stumbling over the necessity of our Savior’s divinity sent me back to Robert Webber’s cogent discussion of the incarnation in his Ancient Future Faith. Even as I write, my late-in-life friend battles terminal cancer, and I find myself especially prizing the economy with which he says profound things.

Webber notes that the early church settled on (or perhaps groped towards) two axioms:

One: “only God can save.” The other: “only that which God becomes is healed.”

The first axiom comes from Athanasius (d. 373). “Only God can save” explains our salvation from above. It is a response to those Christologies (e.g., Arianism) that would not allow the full divinity of our Savior. If God himself has not come for us, but merely (as in Arianism) has sent a sub-divine surrogate, then we do not have a champion adequate to the task. As Ezekiel had prophesied: “I myself will shepherd them” (Ezekiel 34:11). Or in Isaiah’s terms: “Behold, the Lord God will come with might, with his arm ruling for him … Like a shepherd he will tend his flock, in his arm he will gather the lambs…” (Isaiah 40:10-11). It was — and had to be — God himself who had taken our humanity to himself, sympathized with us, bled for us, and risen for us. It was the only way to break the yoke of Satan’s oppression, to unbend the warp that the Fall introduced into God’s good creation. The full reclamation of all that was lost in the Garden is guaranteed because, in Christ, God himself has taken the field.

The second axiom was pressed by the Cappadocian Fathers (Basil the Great and the two Gregories — all three younger contemporaries of Athanasius). “Only that which God becomes is healed” explains our salvation from below. It is a response to those Christologies that denied the full humanity of our Savior. If God hasn’t become completely one of us, then we are left not fully reclaimed, not fully redeemed. We needed one who was like us in all things “except sin.” Only such a one could be our High Priest. Only such a one could touch — and in touching, heal — that which is deeply broken and dead in us. So it really was — and really had to be — that it was as one of us that Jesus was born, lived, obeyed, suffered, died, and was raised. And it is as one who has united himself to us that he still intercedes at the right hand of the Father.

This Advent Season I give thanks for that great line of saints in the early church who — taking their bearings especially from John and Paul and the writer to the Hebrews — understood what was at stake in defending and articulating what Chesterton would eventually call “the romance of orthodoxy.”

This Advent Season I give thanks for Robert Webber and his winsome challenge to the postmodern church to reacquaint itself those early orthodox saints who had become so dear to him. If, despite our pleas to the contrary, the Lord should be pleased to add Bob to the great “cloud of witnesses,” we who still remain below can console ourselves in the knowledge that Bob will be in familiar company.

Finally, this Advent Season I give thanks for a fully incarnate Jesus — strong enough to save and near enough to heal.