Friday, July 29, 2005

I love polychrome

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Left-the colorful pulpit at Canterbury Cathedral.
Right-one of the new candlesticks for the chapel Altar of St. Alban's Episcopal School in Arlington, TX.

I have come to love polychrome church ornament, and it is a shame that we have been so afraid of color in American church architecture. The colors red, blue, and gold are the traditional colors for ornament in Christian churches. In fact, these three colors are common in religious structures throughout the world. Perhaps because they are essentially the primary colors, they seem to be particularly pleasing to the eye when used together, and they create an effect that highlights the glory of God in his creation.

Color is partularly delightful and appropriate for the house of the Lord. And interestingly enough, it's not a particularly low church vs. high church kind of thing (although, certainly the Puritan tradition found the use of color in church decoration particularly objectionable). Consider such colorful low church buildings as St. Bartholomew's Episcopal Church in NYC or Trinity Episcopal Church in Boston.

As our parochial school moved to a new campus, we have been putting together furniture for the chapel liturgies. A wonderful parishioner, Alex Mills, has constructed an Altar and cross for the new school. My wife Melisa will paint the corpus for the cross, and I have been working on painting ornament. So far, I've painted two candlesticks (pictured above) for use on the Altar with red, blue, and gold. The Altar and cross for the new school campus are still works in progress. I will post pictures when they become available.

Enough to make your hair stand on end

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The fellow on the right is the theologian Martin Buber. The fellow on the left can't believe what he's hearing.

I was reading through Donna Steichen's book Ungodly Rage the other day, and I came across an inciteful passage. She captures well the arrogance of those who wish to supplant from within the teaching office of the Church in most denominations of the Christian West. It is unfortunate when a rebellious few give theology a bad name by turning a religious vocation into a political culture.

She writes: "Theologians supporting such [unorthodox] views have institutionalized the liberal consciousness in Catholic academia. In the words of renowned Jesuit theologian Richard McCormick, they see themselves as a 'second magesterium', which ought to be the intellectual guide for the first. They regard credal Catholicism as 'fundamentalist folk religion.' Their scholarship , like that of nineteenth-century modernism, and the 'demythologizing' Protestant historical scriptural criticism from which it follows, consists mostly of deconstruction. In place of supernatural truth it offers humanitarianism and liberal political prescriptions" (p. 120).

I would respectfully suggest that deconstruction ought not be the vocation of Christian theology.

Consider instead St. Paul, "And he gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love" (Ephesians 4:11-16).

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

What I would have asked about

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I recently saw the controversial intreview that Tom Cruise had with Matt Lauer on the Today Show. Cruise was asked about his new movie, his new flame, and about Scientology. For those who may not know, Cruise is a devout member of the Church of Scientology--a religion based on the Dianetics program of the late L. Ron Hubbard.

When the interview got into Scientology, the conversation kept coming back to Cruises' religious opposition to psychiatry and the use of drugs to treat depression and other mental illness.

In all seriousness, I wanted Lauer to ask Cruise about how his religious beliefs were related to his new movie. Doctrines of the church include that life existed on Venus and Mars--evil life--that imprisoned human beings on earth. An evil extra-terrestrial emperor named Xenu enslaved human beings with his psychic powers. Sounds a bit like war of the worlds to me.

For an example, consider the following. In a famous passage from his book Have You Lived Before This Life?, L. Ron Hubbard recounts how a Scientologist had been zapped by a Martian with his ray gun in a past life. "The PC ["preclear," a beginning Scientologist] was on Mars without a body 469,476,600 years ago, creating havoc, destroying a bridge and buildings. The people were called by an alarm to temple. PC went and broke the back pew, and the Temple tower. He wandered in the town and saw a doll in a window, and got entrapped trying to move its limbs. People seized it, beat it up, and threw the doll out of the window (30 ft. drop). The doll was taken roughly to the Temple, and was zapped by a bishop's gun while the congregation chanted "God is Love." When the people left, the doll, out of control, staggered out and was run over by a large car and a steamroller. It was then taken back to the Bishop, who ordered it to be taken (in a lorry with others) to dig trenches or ditches for 2,000 years. (The whole incident took nearly 2,000,000 years.) Then it was taken and the body was removed and the PC was promised a robot body. The thetan (PC) went to an implant station and was put into an ice-cube and went by flying saucer and was dropped at Planet ZX 432. It was drawn to a building to an emanator. PC was interiorised by spinning and confusion into a dummy training and indoctrination robot body. In some way not very clear, a transfer was made to another robot body and PC was told to look after it for ever. It reported to a village (after a doubtful encounter with a giant, and heat stroke) and was set to supervise unloading of saucers. It zapped and killed another robot and PC took over its body to prove it could work. The PC was punished in first robot in a saucer and shipped off. The saucer exploded en route and body of robot was in space falling in two parts with PC vainly endeavouring to take care of it and the second body. This was sucked by departure of a saucer into water in a dock. Divers brought it up, but the PC left it, he thinks, to attend the other body."

Wisdom from the Office

And they say the Bible isn't relevant for today. The tough words of wisdom from Tuesday's Daily Office reading caught my attention.

St. Paul writes, "I appeal to you, brethren, to take note of those who create dissensions and difficulties, in opposition to the doctrine which you have been taught; avoid them. For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by fair and flattering words they deceive the hearts of the innocent." (Romans 16:17-18)

Monday, July 04, 2005

Does it yet wave?

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Francis Scott Key, Fort McHenry, Baltimore

It wasn't until a few years ago that I noticed that our national anthem is a question. I probably never even gave it a thought because we live in such a strong and secure nation, compared to the great experiment that thirteen colonies began here over 200 years ago.

Francis Scott Key composed the song that later became our anthem by an act of Congress in 1931. On Sept. 13, 1814, he visited the British fleet in Chesapeake Bay to secure the release of Dr. William Beanes, who had been captured after the burning of Washington, DC. The release was secured, but Key was detained on ship overnight during the shelling of Fort McHenry by the British in the War of 1812, one of the forts defending Baltimore. In the morning, he was so delighted to see the American flag still flying over the fort that he began a poem to commemorate the occasion. First published under the title “Defense of Fort M'Henry,” the poem soon attained wide popularity as sung to the tune “To Anacreon in Heaven.” He actually wrote four stanzas (the first and last are included in the Hymnal 1982). Read below to find our the answer to the question, Does it yet wave?

The Star-spangled Banner

1. Oh, say can you see, by the dawn's early light, What so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming? Whose broad stripes and bright stars, through the perilous fight, O'er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming? And the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air, Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there. O say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

2. On the shore, dimly seen through the mists of the deep, Where the foe's haughty host in dread silence reposes, What is that which the breeze, o'er the towering steep, As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses? Now it catches the gleam of the morning's first beam, In full glory reflected now shines on the stream: 'Tis the star-spangled banner! O long may it wave O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

3. And where is that band who so vauntingly swore That the havoc of war and the battle's confusion A home and a country should leave us no more? Their blood has wiped out their foul footstep's pollution. No refuge could save the hireling and slave From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave: And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

4. Oh! thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand Between their loved homes and the war's desolation! Blest with victory and peace, may the heaven-rescued land Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation. Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just, And this be our motto: "In God is our trust." And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

Sunday, July 03, 2005

Joyous, Loving, Caring

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The other day I heard a local radio station urging its listeners to take great pride in boldly proclaiming themselves to be an ADL—an “All Day Listener.” Since it was on the drive to church that morning, it led me to think about how parishioners might make a similar proclamation of loyalty. What would it be? Would you call yourself an ESA—an “Every Sunday Attendee”? Or maybe a CFE—a “Consistent and Faithful Episcopalian”? Or how about an AOM—an “All Opportunity Minister”?

The experts in church growth and development tell us that for the size of a congregation like St. Alban’s, it is especially important to develop a mission statement and to use that as a stamp of identity and as a measure of the things that a particular church does in terms of its life and mission. We do have such a statement at St. Alban’s, which reads: “The purpose of St. Alban’s Parish is to provide a joyous, loving, and caring community of Christian worship and fellowship that makes Christ known though active response to the Gospel, for the spreading of God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.”

The words about parish identity that stuck out for me in that mission statement were the words “joyous, loving, and caring.” The only way for us to be a joyous, loving and caring community is for us to be joyous, loving and caring people. We might say, according to the mission statement, that what it means to be a St. Alban’s parishioner is to be a joyous, loving, and caring parishioner. And may I say that we should take great pride in boldly proclaiming ourselves to be JLC (joyous, loving, and caring) parishioners. That’s what we do, because that’s who we are. All three of these—joy, love, and care—find their ultimate meaning in Jesus Christ. If you want to know what JLC means, look to Jesus.

Joy is something a little different from happiness. The latter is a passing feeling, whereas the former is an abiding sense of being. We can observe Lent and host funerals and still be a joyous community of faith. In spiritual literature, a large part of joy is the feeling or awareness of the goodness in our being, aroused by the expectation of God’s goodness in our lives. Joy is actually one of the “fruits of the Holy Spirit,” which St. Paul contrasts with the “works of the flesh” (see Galatians 5:19-23). The author of the letter to the Hebrews tells us it was “because of the joy that was set before him” that Jesus endured the cross, in spite of its shame (Hebrews 12:2).

In the New Testament, Jesus reveals to us that God is love. There is no word that is more descriptive of God than the word “love.” St. John uses this description over and over. The discourse on love in the third and fourth chapters of his first letter are a particularly moving. St. Paul also gives us a vivid description of God’s love in 1 Corinthians 13 (“Love is patient, love is kind . . .”). The kind of love we have and the kind of loving community we foster is based on God’s love of us. Love, or “charity” in the King James text, is actually a theological virtue infused in the soul at baptism. This gift from God enables us to love God above all things and to seek the greatest good for others for the love of God.

No one embraced people in need like Jesus. In doing so, he shows us what a caring community should be. Jesus is our ultimate model for compassion and tenderness. He accepted others in spit of their faults. He did not ignore the sins of those who came to him, but he addressed their sins with healing and forgiveness rather than judgment and scorn. It is worth recalling that Jesus calls the Holy Spirit another “Paraclete,” which means one who is an advocate or sits alongside another. St. Paul wrote about sharing the comfort we receive from God with others. He says, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and God of all encouragement, who encourages us in every affliction, that we may be able to encourage others in affliction” (2 Corinthians 1:3-4).

The church development gurus tell us that our mission statement need to be a stamp of our identity and the standard for everything in our parish’s life and mission. What that means for St. Alban’s is that everything we do should foster joy, love, and care, because that’s the kind of community St. Alban’s needs to be. Conversely, if something is not joyful, loving, and caring, then we simply don’t do it—because St. Alban’s isn’t the place for it. The purpose of St. Alban’s Parish is to provide a joyous, loving, and caring community of Christian worship and fellowship.

If someone asks you what kind of Christian you are, I suggest that you take great pride in boldly proclaiming yourself to be a JLC parishioner of St. Alban’s Episcopal Church. And then invite them to be a part of our JLC community.

Standing tall

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The great steeple of the First Baptist Church of Shreveport, LA.

I have to admit, I have always had a fondness for church steeples. As a young child at First Baptist church and school in Shreveport, LA, I could look up to the gigantic steeple from anywhere on the sprawling campus. It seemed to call to me like a beacon of hope from above. It was a constant reminder and witness of something greater than myself.

The church steeple is probably the one architectural feature that sets a church building apart more than any other in this country. When crossing one of the bridges in Milwaukee during seminary, I could see hundreds of steeples from all over the city sticking up above the horizon. A steeple is a tall ornamental structure on church or cathedral. It is a tower, composed of a series of stories, diminishing in size, and topped by a tall pyramid, called a cupola or spire (meaning “a stalk” or “shoot”). Sometimes an open lantern was interposed between the steeple tower and the spire. It was almost like a lighthouse on the land.

A spire properly belongs to pointed architecture and hence has never been fully developed except in Gothic buildings. Timber spires of the early Middle Ages were, as a rule, not very tall, but later they reached a greater elevation; that which crowned old St. Paul’s in London is said to have been 527 feet in height. The loftiest spires now in existence (such as those of Salisbury, Coventry, and Norwich) are all of stone. In central England there are many, where suitable stone was easily obtainable. In the north of England, however, in Scotland, and in Wales among the mountains the bell-gable took the place of a spire, for the thinly populated parishes made it necessary to keep the bells uncovered, so that they might be more widely heard.

The middle part of a large steeple’s tower often contains a carillon, which is a musical instrument composed of at least 23 bells, arranged in chromatic sequence, so tuned as to produce concordant harmony when many bells are sounded together. It is played from a kind of keyboard where the keys are struck with the half-closed fist. The world’s greatest concentration of carillons is still in the low countries of Europe. Nearly 200 exist in North America.

I think the steeple speaks to me because it is a symbol of the Christian believer in the world. A stone church can be a lasting example for the human church—the People of God. Like a steeple, the Christian should point to heaven, being a constant reminder of the joys of heaven and the watchful eye of God. Like a steeple, the Christian should be looked up to by others for hope and inspiration—even lighting the way for others through a dark night by the lantern within it. Like a steeple, the Christian should stand tall in the community, and be instantly recognizable as the temple of the Holy Spirit. Like a steeple, the Christian should make beautiful music and call other believers to prayer, as depicted in the beautiful painting “Angelus” by Jean-Francois Millet. In this painting, a husband and wife are out working in the field, when they stop and bow their heads in prayer at the signal of church bells sounding from a steeple in the distance. Let us resolve to stand tall like steeples as Christ’s disciples in Arlington.

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“Angelus” by Jean-Francois Millet.

Prayers of the little ones

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I caught my little bunny rabbit (named Tobi) praying the other day. He didn't realize I was standing there, so I listened in. He was speaking very softly, but I could distinctly hear the last few words,
". . . and make it the biggest most beautiful carrot in thy whole creation. In Jesus' name. Amen."

Saturday, July 02, 2005

Aspects of God?

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Lil' Ole Me, Emperor Constantine, Edward Gibbon

I was reading from Edward Gibbon's The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire the other day (I know, I know) and I came across a very interesting passage which I will come to in a moment. I know some other bloggers and churchmen have complained about the Episcopal Church's website inappropriately referring to the divine Persons of the Trinity as different "aspects" of God on its "Seekers' Center" Q&A.

Here are some excerpts from that webpage:
"One of the most difficult to explain, and often misunderstood concepts in the Christian faith is the belief in a trinitarian God, one God with three aspects. Often characterized as the 'Father,' Son,' and 'Holy Spirit,' the trinity represents God the Father/Creator, Jesus Christ the Son and Savior, and the Holy Spirit, or the creative, inspirational force at work in the world. . . . Christian teachings and belief however are clear on this point: there is only one God, the Creator of the universe, who has three 'persons' or aspects, inseparable yet unique parts of the whole. There are many metaphors for the Trinity, many ways of trying to conceptualize that which is almost beyond our grasp, but for Christians it is the way we interact with these three aspects that matter most."

Some of the descriptions of the Son and Holy Spirit are particularly offensive. For example, "Though fully human in body, most Christians believe that the spirit of Jesus was that of God itself. This represents the second aspect of the Trinity, Jesus Christ the 'Son.' . . . Perhaps the most difficult aspect of God to explain is that of the Holy Spirit. This is the aspect of God that is at work in the world, that inspires us, that speaks to us and strengthens us to do the often difficult work that our faith demands of us. The Spirit is often seen as the creative energy that's at work in the world, whereas God the Father 'willed' the world to come into being, God the Holy Spirit was the force that brought this into being." At least the website doesn't state, "May the force be with you."

I'd be curious to ask the person who wrote the page what they were thinking. Was this an ignorant mistake, or is it an intentional theological statement? I have a great interest in the use and misuse of words in our language. I know it is common for people to misuse words in English, even to use them to express an opposite meaning. For example, consider the word "peruse."

If I said that I perused Gibbon's book last night, most people would understand that to mean that I skimmed through the work, glancing at a chapter here and a paragraph there. However, "peruse" actually has the opposite meaning. To say that "I perused Gibbon's book" is to say that I read it very carefully and diligently.

Is this what is happening to the word "aspect" as it is used on the Episcopal Church's website? When I look up "aspect" in my friendly neighborhood dictionary, I read:

aspect (as'pekt), n. 1. appearance to the eye or mind. 2. view or interpretation. 3. a distinct feature or phase. 4. an apparent attitude or character.

That hardly seems an appropriate word to use about the divine Persons of the Holy Trinity.

Back to Gibbons. In reading his account of the Council of Nicaea in AD 325, Gibbons notes that the early discussions came to three variant opinions about the nature of the Godhead. At first, they were considered legitimate views, but by the end of the council, they were all condemned. The first hypothesis was the view of Arius that the Son was the most exalted of God's creatures. The second was a more modalistic tritheism. It is the third, printed below, that made me think back to the website.

"III. Three beings, who, by the self-derived necessity of their existence, possess all the divine attributes in the most perfect degree, who are eternal in duration, infinite in space, and intimately present to each other and to the whole universe, irresistibly force themselves on the astonished mind as one and the same Being, who, in the economy of grace, as well as in that of nature may manifest himself under different forms, and be considered under different aspects. By this hypothesis, a real and substantial trinity is refined into a trinity of names and abstract modifications that subsist only in the mind which conceives them. The Logos is no longer a person, but an attribute; and it is only in a figurative sense that the epithet of Son can be applied to the eternal reason which was with God from the beginning, and by which, not by whom, all things were made."

How is that different from the Episcopal Seekers' Center? The ECUSA website uses the word "itself" for God rather than "himself."