Friday, February 23, 2018

Dignity Doesn't Defeat Death

"Nothing Grandma did and nothing we do could overcome death. She faced death — and death took her."

Hour of Our Death just published a second article of mine--or, really, the second installment of two pieces taken from a larger essay I wrote for The Imaginative Conservative.

Read it here.

Read the first piece here.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

An Advent Letter

Someone recently reminded me of the beautiful Advent letter my wife wrote for our family. Although we're now exiting Epiphany, I thought I'd share it anyway. In any case, Lent and Advent echo one other: seasons of both penance and hopeful expectation.


Advent 2017

Dear friends and family,

The rhythm of this winter season is a welcome shift from the rest of the year. It feels like these short, dark days were especially made for reflection, prayer, wonder, and worship. And there is much for which we pray, wonder, and worship as we reflect upon this year.

We thank God for the life of our daughter, Greta Joyce, born August 10. Greta is doted on by an ever-loving, ever-present big sister who always wants to give just one more kiss or “bear hug.” Ruthie is two-and-a-half and currently loves reading, the cooing and gurgling sounds of “baby sis” (that send her into fits of laughter), and the phrase “no, I can’t!” (by which she means “no, I won’t!”). Greta, four months old, is sweet and good-natured. She has a smile that wrinkles her nose and makes her bright blue eyes sparkle. Parenting continues to be a wondrous and challenging experience—teaching us more about ourselves, each other, and about God than we ever imagined we could learn (grace upon grace)!

Mark continues to juggle the responsibilities of teaching and the pursuit of an online MA in Religion. Lord willing, he will be ordained to the diaconate in summer/fall 2018 with another year of classes to follow. The demands of this season have been so great that we don’t often spend time looking ahead to “what’s next.” It’s exciting to begin to talk, dream, and pray more about our next steps. We value your prayers as we continue to entrust ourselves to the Lord for a life in service to His body, the Church.

As we enter this Advent season, I (Andrea) have been reminded of the question in Ecclesiastes, “Is there anything of which it may be said, ‘See, this is new’?” (1:10). At any moment in our lives we can look around us and see things that dishearten, discourage, and frighten. The past year has certainly provided many examples—both locally and across the globe—of the darkness of “this present evil age” (Galatians 1:4). But, this is nothing new. “That which has been is what will be, that which is done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun” (Eccl. 1:9). This is why the angelic proclamations surrounding our Lord’s birth are so earth-shattering and even frightening. They announce something entirely new, something long hoped for: salvation from this present age and the promise of an age to come. The incarnation upends “that which has been.” During these dark days of winter we rejoice that in the child Jesus all things are made new—and for his return we wait, hopeful and expectant, longing for creation to be fully healed, restored, and perfected.

Blessings this Advent,
Andrea and Mark

“And the angel said unto them, ‘Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.’” - Luke 2:10-11

Friday, January 26, 2018

"You're Not Pregnant, Right?"

A newish website called Hour of Our Death: A Memento Mori Initiative published a short remembrance of my grandmother today titled, "You're Not Pregnant Right?"

Hour of Our Death is edited by David Mills, an editor (formerly of First Things and Touchstone), writer, and former professor at Trinity School for Ministry. I've never met David but have appreciated his writing from afar for years, so it's a privilege to be published by him.

The article published today is taken from the larger piece I wrote for The Imaginative Conservative a few years ago, a piece in which I quoted David Mills reflections on his father's death.

Anyway, this is the picture they chose to accompany the piece:

It took me a while to figure out why, but then I got a good laugh.

You can read it here.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

"It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart."

I got Summerland, a novel about fairies and baseball by Michael Chabon, for Christmas. I'm reading Chabon's introduction which is, in and of itself, quite something.

Anyway, partway through it quotes from A. Bartlett Giamatti's "The Green Fields of the Mind," which is maybe the best short piece of writing on baseball I've ever read (though I'd need to reread Don Delillo's "Pafko at the Wall" to decide). So of course I had to go reread it to see if it really is as good as I remember.

It is.

(Giamatti, by the way, has one of the stranger resumes out there: professor of English to president of Yale to, all too briefly, MLB commissioner.)

You should go read it now, if you haven't already. It reveals that David Bentley Hart baseball essay for the purplish overwrought garbage that it is.


PS: I should reiterate that I have long felt--ever since watching my grandfather watch the Braves in the early 90s--that I ought to like baseball quite a bit more than I actually do, that my fervent preference for college basketball over baseball is a weakness of character, and so my penance is to read essays, short stories, and novels about baseball that only serve to reinforce that idea.

PPS: The College World Series final in the summer of 2016--in which Coastal Carolina beat Arizona--did convince me that maybe I do have it in me to be a baseball fan. I watched two games in the hotel room at my APUSH training conference. The third was set for my last night there, but it was rain-delayed, and so I watched it via the laptop of the guy in the next row over.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Sermon for Advent II

Yesterday I preached my Advent II sermon--on the nature and sources of true hope, how suffering relates to hope, and the Bible. Yes, it was wide-ranging.
Of course, faith and love are at the heart of what it means to be a Christian—but hope? Does life in Christ mean having a perpetually optimistic, temperamentally upbeat take on life? Does it mean remembering that “every cloud has a silver lining”? Always “making the best of a bad situation”? Making lemonade “when life gives you lemons”? 
Now, these very American sayings aren’t all bad. They can be helpful when we lose perspective amidst the minor setbacks and frustrations of everyday life. In those cases, there’s nothing wrong with saying, “It isn’t as bad as all that, is it?” But these little pieces of sound but limited advice have essentially nothing to do with the theological virtue of hope. 
When, in fact, it is that bad—when real tragedy strikes—(saying,) “look on the bright side” amounts to a denial of reality. And denying reality is not a theological virtue. To the contrary, denial is one short step from despair, hope’s opposite. 
This hope in no way denies or reduces the reality of suffering. It does not seek to “balance out,” much less eliminate, suffering. Rather, through hope our suffering is incorporated into the life story of Jesus. Just as the scars of Jesus were not erased in the resurrection, this incorporation does not wipe away the tragedies in our lives. Yet we will find them somehow transformed, healed, and redeemed in Jesus. And just as Jesus wept over the death of his friend Lazarus moments before raising him from the dead, our right understanding of reality and our full anticipation of the triumph of life over death does not eliminate mourning. The promise that Jesus will wipe away every tear is eschatological—it is a distinctly future event. That future is sure. Our task, then, is to live with a right understanding of present reality in anticipation of future triumph. To live hopefully means knowing that death is not the end, that the apparent power of the forces of darkness is an illusion, that our victory is sure.

You can read the whole thing here.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Christian love: easy for me to say

A good friend responded to my recent faculty devotion with a brief email saying, succinctly and correctly, "easy for you to say." Naturally I responded at length. Part of my response is below, lightly edited.

I'm more and more convinced of the deeply fallacious nature of our culture's tendency to resort to "easy for you to say"--i.e. to shift attention away from the validity of the claim made and instead focus on whether the person relaying the claim has the right to say it based on their personal situatedness and experience. And in this case, "relaying the claim" is the right phrase, since the claim isn't mine but rather that of Jesus and that of St. Paul, both of whom exchanged privilege for suffering and death.

Do I have their cred (divine and apostolic, respectively)? Of course not. And I am personally much more able to identify with the St. Peter in the courtyard of Caiaphas and especially the apostles fishing out on the sea (who denied the claim of Jesus indirectly--by avoidance and redirection rather than outright rejection) than with the St. Peter who was carried "wither thou wouldest not" at the end of his life. I can more identify with the three disciples snoozing in the Garden of Gethsemane than with their Lord's "not my will but thine be done" on the cross. The demands of Christian love weren't easy for Jesus, and they weren't easy for the apostles.

But what's our job as Christians, if not to present to each other the demands of Jesus? If not to challenge each other to grow in holiness no matter the circumstances? Grace doesn't exist to underwrite or excuse our laziness and complacence. It does not even exist to make us feel better about ourselves as sinners. It exists to transform us "from one degree of glory to another," to raise us from death to life, to fashion us into the hands and feet of Jesus in the world. And, if we let it do its work, it surely will change how we understand ourselves--not as the sinners we once were, but as saints participating in the divine life.

I've long been convinced that Christian leaders (especially priests and pastors, but sometimes also bosses) are almost always wrong to temper their sermons/instructions with "I'm the chief of sinners" or "I really struggle with this myself." What's the point of that stuff? I know it's intended to reflect humility and authenticity, but isn't it basically selfish--to avoid coming across as judgy/preachy?--but what's the purpose of Christian leadership if not to judge rightly and preach truly! And what's the outcome of those disclaimers? Doesn't it just soften the instructions?--as though Jesus never really meant all that stuff in the Sermon of the Mount, as though he was really just exaggerating for effect.

Of course we need wisdom, prudence, and compassion as we call each other to holiness--but (a) there is never a good time to accommodate sin, though there are plenty of times in which a word of correction will only increase sin (so, again, prudence is necessary) and (b) there are simply no circumstances in which the call to love is suspended or abrogated.

Anyone who says otherwise is preaching a different gospel than the gospel of Christ.

Monday, November 20, 2017

An apostasy that is nearly invisible

When I gave a faculty devotion this past Tuesday on self-sacrifice, I did not then realize that it would be but a pale imitation of Fr. Glenn's beautiful and profound sermon this past Sunday meditating on the final passage of the Gospel According to St. John. The Gospel closes with a fishing trip by seven apostles--a return to the vocation from which Jesus had called them--and then an odd and poignant meal these apostles share with Jesus on the beach.

(In a previous faculty devotion, I reflected on the recurrent centrality of food in the resurrection narratives.)

From Fr. Glenn's sermon:

There is an apostasy that draws no attentions to itself because it is so practical. There is an apostasy that is nearly invisible because it hides out in the open spaces of a man’s or woman’s life. Jesus had promised to make them fishers of men and they, after all this, settled for their old way of life. Is that all there is to it? The destiny of all mankind, of all creation, is in the hands of these few men, and what is their posture toward the Pearl of Great Price? Here is an apostasy that so practical, so obviously essential to life, so self-evident and necessary that it will go unnoticed except when it is brought into the presence Christ and his searching, all-demanding claim upon your life just as it was experienced on the beach that morning as seven Apostles ate breakfast with Jesus. Such is the searching, all-demanding eucharistic presence of Christ that comes to us in worship and in perfect judgment. 
"Peter do you love me more than these?" I do not for a moment think there is any reason, textually or morally, to think that Jesus was asking Peter whether or not he, Peter, loved him, Jesus, more than any of the other disciples loved him. Not at all. I think our Lord may well have gestured toward the practical gear and hardware of their practical life: their fishing boats, the ropes, the well-tied nets, the gear and tackle, the fresh fire-coal, the strange, speckled, dappled trout. Do you love me more than these? Do you love me more than the practical? Do you love me more than what others say is feasible, than what they say is real life — do you love me more than this ready-made, ready-at-hand way of getting through? Do you love me more than your life?

Read the whole thing.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

St. Paul, Slavery, and Love

What follows is a devotion given to the faculty this morning, in which I gave a provisional/tentative reading of St. Paul's instructions about slavery and their relationship to the biblical picture of love. I would certainly love any feedback or criticism!

I want to talk this morning about St. Paul and the institution of slavery. As an American history teacher, I think often about the Bible and its relationship to slavery, but today it’s especially relevant, since Titus 2 was appointed as a reading in Morning Prayer (1928 BCP). I saw that, and then I saw that today’s blessing in Seeking God’s Face (a shared faculty devotion) comes from the Sermon on the Mount--and I think St. Paul’s instructions to the enslaved are intimately connected to Jesus’ instructions to the persecuted.

 St. Paul on slavery might seem to be odd devotional material, but I think the apostle provides great (though certainly troubling) insight into what it means to love on a day-to-day basis.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Anglicans in Iberia

Since starting postulancy and seminary work, I've gone mostly silent here but for the occasional sermon. I am embarking upon a haphazard plan to go back through some of the shorter and more interesting (I say) 'reading response'-type assignments and post them here. This post is a reading response to chapter 42 of The Wiley-Blackwell Companion to the Anglican Communion--"Dioceses Extra-Provincial to Canterbury" by John MacDonald (our professor).


This week’s reading tells the numerically small story of the Dioceses Extra-Provincial to Canterbury. It is a particularly curious story within the Anglican Communion, dealing as it does with either regions seen as marginal on the world stage or with cultures seen as far removed from the heart of Englishness. Yet, strange or marginal as these places might be within the global Anglican Communion, their story does indeed reveal something about the nature of the illusive Anglican identity.

 [What follows focuses on the two Anglican dioceses on the Iberian Peninsula (the other two extra-provincial dioceses are Bermuda and the Falklands—the latter being technically a parish).]

The Spanish Reformed Episcopal Church can trace its theological roots to the foment of the Reformation—which did indeed penetrate the Iberian Peninsula, despite the best efforts of the heirs of the Catholic Monarchs. Its institutional roots, however, are three centuries later. Like so many Anglican churches elsewhere in the world, the Spanish Anglican church began not as a mission to natives but as a chaplaincy for expatriates. The Rev. Juan S. Cabrera largely created the indigenous Anglican church. Like others among the magisterial reformers, Fr. Cabrera did not exhibit wholesale hostility to all things Catholic. Like them, he did not intend to create something new but turned to the roots of Spanish Christianity—in this case, resurrecting the Mozarabic rite. Although his appeals to “sister Churches” were met by silence and even hostility form the English, Fr. Cabrera’s consecration by Irish Anglican bishops ensured that the churches he shepherded would remain in the Anglican Communion.

The story in Portugal bears similarities: a church started for expatriates became “indigenous” under the leadership of a Spanish formerly Roman Catholic priest—in this case, the Rev. Angelo Mora. The Portuguese similarly sought and eventually received episcopal oversight from non-English Anglicans (Americans this time). The liturgy was also linked to the Mozarabic rite, as well as the Anglican Book of Common Prayer and the Roman Mass.

Both stories show the Englishness of Anglicanism—both started as English-language churches for ex-pats. But both stories also show the adaptiveness of Anglicanism, its appeal for and empowerment of non-English Christians. In their countries, these churches are distinctively evangelical, because they are not Roman Catholic. Yet in their shared emphasis on the ancient Mozarabic rite and in their desire to receive episcopal oversight in apostolic succession, both churches reflect a desire to remain Catholic—yet not Roman. The Portuguese Synod in 1880 offered as beautiful a reflection of the Anglican spirit of reformed Catholicism as one could hope to find:
We do not desire to found a new religion, but simply to cleanse the Christian religion from the corruption of the ages, and to reconquer the ancient liberties of the early Lusitania Church—so long subjected to the foreign yoke of Rome—and to spread through all this country a doctrine, which shall be Catholic and Apostolic, in a church that shall be Portuguese not Roman.
Perhaps the best that can be said for this strange, paradoxical Anglican tradition is that it reforms while retaining Catholicity, that it places the highest possible emphasis on the authority of Scripture without dismissing the Church from which the Scriptures came. And while Anglicanism generally comes dressed in English trappings, such a creature—a Catholic, Apostolic Church that is Western but not Roman, Orthodox but not Eastern—can persevere even when the presence of the English is no more, and when the appeal of Englishness is spent.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Black Liberation, Christology, and Echo Chambers

Since starting postulancy and seminary work, I've gone mostly silent here but for the occasional sermon. I am embarking upon a haphazard plan to go back through some of the shorter and more interesting (I say) 'reading response'-type assignments and post them here. This post is the third of a three-part series from a course I took at UVa this summer on The Black Church and American CultureIn it I am responding to a few essays/chapters assigned by the founder of black liberation theology, James Cone.


Although my reaction to James Cone's provocative and stimulating theological work was far from uniformly negative, I do want to use this as an opportunity to work through two particular difficulties that present themselves immediately after reading.

Cone asserts that the person of Jesus Christ and the experience of black Americans must be held in constant dialectical tension with one another, but it is quite clear which holds ultimate and absolute primacy throughout. The experience of black Americans serves as the governing principle for interpreting, for filtering, Cone's reading of Jesus. (This is abundantly clear in the two chapters from A Black Theology of Liberation, somewhat less clear in “Who Is Jesus Christ for us Today?” from God of the Oppressed.) Cone claims that Jesus’ historical and biblical Jewishness fundamentally means that he identifies with the oppressed. That in turn requires, in contemporary context, that Jesus be identified as black. Of course, Jesus does indeed identify with the oppressed, and he must be identified with, for, and to black Americans. But should he be identified as black? Cone is right that the white European Jesus has no more historical and perhaps less theological basis. But this is ultimately so because the Second Person of the Trinity did not cease to be incarnate at the resurrection or ascension. He remains Jesus. He remains Jewish. Cone has determined, however, that the sole relevant factor in Jesus’ Jewish particularity is the oppression Jews experienced. Yet the Jews of the Bible were not only oppressed; they were often oppressors. Cone would perhaps say that this element is irrelevant to the narrative God was weaving in his interaction with the Jewish people—but then that’s precisely the problem. Cone has decided in advance what about Jesus counts and what doesn’t, which means that the Jesus of whom he speaks is inevitably his creation, subject to his whims and inclinations and manipulations. Cone’s Jesus is powerful and provocative—but cannot be authoritative.

Of course, Cone has already anticipated and dismissed my objections as those of a white man with a vested interest in maintaining the oppressive status quo. There’s no question that I will never fully understand the experience of black Americans. As much reading and thinking and listening as I might do, I will always be essentially an outsider speaking from a position of fundamental and insurmountable ignorance. Thus I have nothing to say that is worth Cone’s hearing. That’s fine so far as it goes—he really and truly has absolutely no reason to listen to my voice, even if it could be divorced from my whiteness. But the principle also creates an echo chamber for Cone. Cone’s dismissal insulates his position, at least in theory, from any serious engagement with critical positions. Critiques by whites are meaningless, of course, but Cone has also defined being black as agreeing with his position: “Black thinkers… cannot be black and identified with the powers that be. To be black is to be committed to destroying everything this country loves and adores” (21). Implicitly, then, blacks who would disagree are in fact not black but white. Regardless of the merits of that argument, the most troubling element is that Cone has managed to create a situation in which he need not listen to any dissenting voices, in which the only voice that counts happens to be his.