Saturday, May 29, 2010

The Dance

I am the first to admit that I am a hopeless romantic. I like books with happy endings, books like Pride and Prejudice, and am much less favorably disposed to books, like Tess of the D'Ubervilles, where the possibility of a happy ending is always just out of reach. In reading Pride and Prejudice for the first time earlier this year and in watching the 2005 movie adaptation of the novel, I was struck by how important balls were to the characters. These people loved to dance and, if the movie was at all a reflection of reality, they all knew how to dance very well.

I don't dance well. I once knew how to waltz, thanks to an eccentric junior high music teacher and a recording of Strauss waltzes, but I haven't waltzed in decades. I used to go square dancing with friends when I was in high school and I even learned to call a few dances, but I haven't done that in more than forty years. Even though I don't dance well, dancing still fascinates me. The ball scene in Pride and Prejudice and Gene Kelly's dancing in puddles in Singin' in the Rain are among my favorites.

Dancing is about relationships. Even Kelly's solo performance in Singin' in the Rain is an expression of the joy that Don Lockwood is experiencing in his relationship with Kathy Selden. It is no wonder then that the metaphor of dancing has been used by theologians to describe the Trinity. Beginning with Gregory of Nazianzus in the 4th century, perichoresis has been a word used to describe the relationships within the Trinity. The word can be translated as a round dance suggesting that the relationships of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are not static but dynamic, fluid like the movements in a dance.

In the Incarnation, the Triune God has invited us to join in the dance, to "participate in the divine nature," (2 Peter 1:4) and "to be filled with all the fullness of God." (Ephesians 3:19) This dance is not a solo performance, nor even a dance that is just God and me. It is a dance in which my partners are the members of the Body of Christ, first in its most local expression, but ultimately in its widest expression, drawing me into relationship with people I don't particularly like, with people whom I have hurt and who have hurt me, with saints in heaven and on earth. But is also a dance in which my partners are those of other faiths or no faith at all, as well as all creatures great and small, all creation. We are all part of the world which is beloved of God, of the creation which God calls good, the creation that is redeemed in Christ.

In this dance I am perhaps a bit less clumsy, but I still step on the feet of my partners. I still hurt people, by sins of commission and omission, and I still do harm to this wonderful creation, acting too often as if I am its owner and not simply a steward. The dance, to our joy, is not dependent upon us, upon our always getting the steps right. It is dependent upon God, it is a dance of Grace alone, and God invites us again and again to join the dance in faith. 

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Unity in Diversity, Not in Uniformity

I often use the homily at the Wednesday Eucharist to think out loud about something that I think may be important. Today, as we commemorated Augustine of Canterbury, I tried to make some sense of unity in diversity, and especially of the limits on diversity within the Church. This is not only an issue for churches within the Anglican Communion, although that is the context in which it engages me.

I was asked recently if I would, were I to be serving on a diocesan Standing Committee, approve the ordination of someone in committed same-sex relationship when the majority of churches in the Communion would not approve. I didn't answer, chiefly because I find it hard to answer hypothetical questions which usually lack sufficient information for an intelligent answer. The question did get me thinking, once again, about how large a circle of approval a church needs. If we were to draw the circle to include the Roman Catholic Church, we wouldn't have women in holy orders or be able to allow divorced persons to marry without going through an annulment process which many Episcopalians find objectionable. Drawing the circle, as some have proposed, to include the churches of the Anglican Communion is certainly an option. That would mean that the Episcopal Church would refrain from any action which was not acceptable to the other churches in the Communion.  That might not mean acceptable in the sense that all or a majority of the churches would act in the same way, but that the churches are willing to let the Episcopal Church act in that way.

That seems to me be the proposal which the churches of Communion must consider. Although I see the logic of this proposal, I am not willing to accept it. In reading today's lesson from the Gospel according to Luke (5:1-11), I had a thought about the "fishing for people" metaphor, a metaphor which I don't like much. I thought about the differences of equipment and technique between bass fishing and trout fishing. Different contexts require different approaches to fishing.

How we think about, profess, and confess the faith (to borrow from John Douglas Hall) has to be contextual or it will be as unfaithful and unfruitful as using the wrong equipment and techniques when fishing. There are, of course, limits to diversity, just as there are in fishing - dynamite is not acceptable fishing equipment - but uniformity is not the right goal. Unity that is rooted in love - and not in absolute agreement - is what God intends for the Church, unity that allows for the diversity that our diverse contexts require.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Discipline of Silence

Albert Einstein has had the following quote attributed to him:

Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
I have been engaged, when I have had the time, in an on-line discussion of same-sexuality with some Episcopalians/Anglicans who do not share my convictions on the issue. We have found ourselves repeating arguments that had been unpersuasive in the past and, perhaps, expecting different results. The other day I said in a post that I was no longer going to contribute to the discussion and then posted another comment. One person, referring to the topic as the Hotel California topic, told me, "Sorry, Daniel. You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave."

Leaving a discussion, even a fruitless one, takes discipline, at least for me it does. I reconnected recently with someone I had know when I was an undergraduate. He had an office on campus and remembers me standing in the office door after meetings carrying on a coversation with him for ten or fifteen minutes. It was hard then, and it's hard now to leave a discussion. I think that there must be something more, something very wise that I still have to say. I want to have the last word. But my wisdom is not worth much and I never really have the last word. The only true wisdom is God's and God has the last word. My prolonging fruitless conversations strikes me as one more attempt to play God, to make myself the center of my own universe.

Several years ago I was singing the hymn "I want to walk as a child of the light" and I was brought up short by the words "the star of my life is Jesus." I suspect Kathleen Thomerson intended a celestial reference, but in that moment I saw it as a cinematic one. I want so much to be the star of the movie that is my life, but I believe that the only way for it to have a happy ending, a joyful one, will be if Jesus is the star.

I'll try to maintain the discipline of silence and let Jesus speak.

Saturday, May 22, 2010


The lessons appointed for Pentecost (Genesis 11:1-9; Acts 2:1-21; John 14:8-17, 25-27) led me to focus on two points in my sermon on Pentecost. The first, suggested by my reading of The Dignity of Difference by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, was that Pentecost doesn't undo the diversity of languages and cultures that are one focus of the Genesis passage. Rather, at Pentecost, that diveristy was embraced by the Spirit as each person heard the proclamation of the Good News in his or her native tongue. The second, suggested by my reading of Douglas John Hall's Professing the Faith, was that Pentecost comes in the wake of our defeats and failures and disappointments. The gathered disciples had experienced the apparent failure of Jesus' ministry, followed by the confusing experience of Resurrection, and waited for a promise which they could only trust would be fulfilled.

I was baptized on Pentecost/Whitsunday in 1950. My baptism, and that of my two older brothers, came in the wake of the failure of our parents' marriage. The promise of Baptism, that we are Christ's own forever, was one that our mother and our Godparents could only trust would be fulfilled. It is only by faith that we receive the gift of new life in Christ. It's all Grace. I cannot judge how well I have received that gift, but then I am still on the journey and God isn't finished with me. The best is yet to come.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The Danger of Universal Theology

When I was a young priest I was reminded by my rector and mentor that the Catholic faith is that which has been believed everywhere, always and by all. I still think that this is a good definition, but I see a danger is an uncritical appropriation of this definition.

The danger is that we will mistake some theological formulation of the faith for the faith itself. In our attempt to avoid being "blown about by every wind of doctrine," we may find ourselves tied to theology of past generations, even past centuries, theology that fails in some measure to speak to our present contexts.

I believe that theology is always contextual, that it is the theologian's vocation to describe the faith as it is to lived in the theologian's time and place. To pretend, as some have appeared to, that any theology can be non-contextual, a pure theology for every time and place, is arrogant. To recognize that one's theological thinking is influenced by one's context, both personal and communal, leads, I think inevitably, to a modest presentation of one's theology and to a greater openness to new insights from theologians from different contexts.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Internet Hospitality

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks relates a story from Stephen Carter’s book Civility in his book To Heal a Fractured World. Carter’s family moved into a previously all-white neighborhood in Washington, DC in 1966. As the 11 year-old Carter and his brothers were sitting on front step of their new home, none of their neighbors greeted them. As Carter was thinking that they shouldn't have moved into a neighborhood where they weren't welcome and would never have friends, a white woman walking on the other side of the street said “Welcome!” with a broad smile. A few minutes later she brought the boys a tray laden with drinks and sandwiches. That women, who was Jewish, knew the importance of hospitality.

I remembered that story recently during a conversation about the virtual world of the web. In an environment when many of the usual ways that we show hospitality to others are impossible, we are challenged to find new ways to make people welcome, to discover the virtual equivalents of a broad smile and Welcome! and drinks and sandwiches. It is not enough, I believe, to avoid being rude. After all, none of the passersby called the Carter brothers names. If this virtual world is to be a place of hospitality, we need to be imaginative.

This is especially true in forums where we discuss matters of some importance. If we want to have honest responses to what we write, we need to find ways to welcome others - those with whom we agree and, more importantly, those with whom we disagree. Among the unwelcoming behaviors that I have encountered are generalizations, e.g., all progressive Episcopalians deny the Resurrection, the imputing of motives, e.g., the Episcopal Church refuses to negotiate with departing congregations out of spite, and the attaching of labels to people that they did not choose for themselves. After months of being called a revisionist, I decided to embrace the label, but I would have rather not have had any label applied by those whom I continue to refer to as traditionalists. Finally, one of the behaviors that I find most troubling because of its frequency is the cryptic one-liner response to something I have written. These may have made the persons making them feel good, but they rarely contribute much to the conversation.

While this may not be the best or the only forum for a continuing discussion of internet hospitality, I invite comments and links to other places where this is being discussed.

Monday, May 3, 2010

A Reminder

At Morning Prayer one day last week I was struck by the significance of the words of Jesus in the Gospel according to Matthew:
You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.

When we disagree with one another, especially about things that we care about very much, we often treat those with whom we disagree as the enemy. That may happen in the Church even more often than in other settings. We care about our faith and the communities that have nurtured that faith. Unless we are one of those who are content with "me and Jesus" and feel they have no need for a community's support in the journey, our churches mean a lot to us. And when members begin to disagree about important matters of congregational or denominational life, we can feel threatened. And when we feel threatened, we may forget Jesus' warning and call someone on the other side You fool!

Obedience to God requires listening. In the Episcopal Church and in the Anglican Communion (and other churches), there has been a fair amount of listening about human sexuality. Anglicans have come to different conclusions about whether committed same-sex relationships can have the Church's blessing. Faithful people on all sides of the debate believe that they have heard God's voice on this, but some of us have not been as faithful in listening for God's voice about how we are to treat the sisters and brothers with whom we disagree. I have at times refused to hear these words of Jesus and needed to seek his forgiveness and the forgiveness of those whom I have treated badly and needed God's grace to amend my life. I give thanks that God is faithful even when I am not.