Back in January, I sat down with the Saint Hilda’s House residents and asked them how they wanted to spend the next six months together. I expected a list of activities: hosting dinners, going camping, visiting New York City, etc.…. Instead, they said they wanted to keep developing new ways to serve together as a community. Of course, they are each already serving in their non-profit worksites and doing wonderful things, but there is something more they want to share together. The experience they desire is one of serving as part of something bigger. To use the words of St. Hilda herself, they want to serve as part of a community bound together by a commitment to evangelical peace.Read More
Filtering by Tag: Prayer
Recently, when people have asked me what kind of Christian I am, I've answered by saying that I'm a Reformed Anglo-Catholic. This has often been met with a raised eyebrow or two, then a question regarding whether or not that could possibly make sense. With a view to exploring whether or not this is actually a coherent thing to say, I figured it'd be worth writing a post on what this might actually mean. (I have been partly prompted to do so by my friend (and sometime-nemesis) Alec Siantonas' recent piece for the Oriel Theology blog on High Anglicanism and analytic philosophy. Alec's post is of a different character to this, but I think it should certainly be credited/blamed and it is well worth reading.)
I'm going to focus on each of the separate aspects of the title 'Reformed Anglo-Catholic', then look at the kind of picture they might present as a whole. This is the type of theology that I'm least qualified to write on, so I apologise for any factual errors, glaring omissions, statements of the obvious, blatant repetitions of things other people have said better elsewhere, or plain nonsense. There are times where, for brevity's sake, I do not make direct reference to those who have written similar things. I also apologise if the writing is pretty convoluted, and for the narrow approach taken in some areas: this post is already quite long as it is, so I tried to keep things relatively focussed.
First things first, let's start with 'Reformed'. Now, this designation might seem either superfluous or contradictory here: on the one hand, the Anglican Church is a reformation church, whilst on the other to be Reformed has often (in my experience) been understood as being not-Catholic. As far as I can see, however, the description 'Reformed' does add something to our understanding of what it is to be Anglican, whilst simply being Reformed does not in and of itself necessitate one's not being either Catholic, catholic, or even Roman Catholic.
I believe that being Reformed means that our Christianity is fundamentally impacted by two crucial (and complementary) theological insights of the continental Reformation. The first of these is the insight that grace alone is absolutely necessary for human salvation. The second of these is that this grace cannot be bought, no matter what currency we seek to use. In my mind, the first insight emphasises the both importance of the doctrine of the Fall and the inherent finitude of creation alongside (not in contradiction of) the goodness of creation as it stands. The second insight emphasises the fact that a) human works are in and of themselves powerless to attain salvation, and b) that grace is not the possession of the Church to sell or claim as a subject over which it can claim authority.
Now, neither of these insights intrinsically contradict the possibility of Roman Catholicism, let alone a significant/substantive account of catholicity in general, whether with a big or a little 'C'. Even given this, however, they do have serious implications for our understanding of the reason for good works and the role of the Church. In the light of the first insight, for example, we can affirm the importance of love, faith, kindness, mercy, charity, contemplation, theology, dogmatics, and all the rest: we cannot, however, claim that these aspects of Christian living derive their importance from a capacity to ensure or guarantee grace. Rather, we claim that they derive their importance from the prior fact of grace, which is given in the person, command, and promise of Jesus Christ (this includes faith: it seems to me that 'faith alone' only makes sense in the context of the prior statement 'grace first', a thought which seems to me to be consistent with the character of Luther's writings).
In the light of the second insight, meanwhile, it seems to me that our ecclesiology cannot assume that the church is able to claim sacramental authority for itself. This is not to say that the church cannot minister the sacraments to others, nor is it to say that the church is not a place within which grace is encountered: it is to say that neither the forms by which a particular church bestows the sacraments nor the hierarchies within that particular church have the character of absolute necessity when it comes to whether or not that church is a member of the body of Christ (and so a sacramental entity). If these things are important (which I think they are), then they are important for a different reason.
To be Reformed in this sense also has significant implications for our religious epistemology: among other things, it will impact how we understand the fact of Christian belief and the place of Scripture in the Church. I am not going to go into a full analysis of what these implications might be here, but I will say that I think a full account of the characteristic philosophical presuppositions implicit within much Reformed thought, especially in terms of how they sometimes differ from the characteristic philosophical presuppositions of Roman Catholic thought, could be a helpful tool in ecumenical dialogue.
Next: Anglican. To be Anglican can mean many things, but I'm going to pick up on two particular aspects of Anglican identity. The first of these is this: that to be an Anglican is to be a member of a church which self-evidently needs to believe in both the necessity and the power of grace for redemption, in virtue of its history. The second is that to be an Anglican is to centre one's Christian life around prayer, whether implicitly or explicitly, whether consciously or unconsciously.
Broaching the first point first, and restating it word for word: how is the Anglican Church a church which unquestionably needs to believe in both the necessity and the power of grace for redemption, in virtue of its history? Well, it's probably uncontroversial to say that all churches need to hold to the power of redemption, in at least some sense: when it comes to the Anglican Church, however, I think it might be a little more obvious than in some cases.
I am not thinking here primarily in terms of the lives of individual Anglicans, but in terms of its institutional history. First off, the Anglican Church is not a Church founded on high ideals: it was not built on the principled stands of a Luther, a Knox, or a Calvin, nor did it come into existence out of a sense of greater obedience to Christ. It was instead the product of one man's desperation to ensure the consolidation of Tudor power in Britain. Its spread across the world, meanwhile, was both made possible by and served the purposes of the British Empire: in this, the Anglican Communion is first and foremost a product of a colonialism and imperialism. Both its existence and its success, then, came about in part as a direct result of a sinful impulse to power and oppression.
My intention in writing this is not to try and impute a sense of general guilt upon Anglicans, collectively or individually. Nor is it to say that the Anglican Church should be deemed less of a Church than others in virtue of its history. My intention is instead to claim that it is very hard to be Anglican without being at least a little Reformed in the above sense: it is hard, possibly dishonest, to be an Anglican and not to believe in the absolute necessity of grace for redemption. After all, if a church ever stood in need of historical redemption it is one built upon the foundation of British colonial power. It is much harder, moreover, to be an Anglican and not to believe in the sole efficacy of grace: for if grace were not efficacious, it is hard to see what kind of hope there could be for a church with such a fallen history, which has been complicit in so much oppressive harm.
This history, moreover, has not been left behind, and nor should it be: it is not as if it were an aspect of Anglican existence which we could now ignore or forget. It is still present and constitutive of the Anglican Church's identity as characterised by its hierarchies, its liturgies, and the character of its congregations across the world. This history is still and will always be the beginning and middle of the Anglican story. The history of British oppression can still be seen in the present day reality of the Anglican Church; as such, it seems to me that those of us who count ourselves Anglicans really do need to believe that grace is a real and effective power of redemption in this world if we're to have any hope of our Church serving God.
(To lay all of my cards on the table, this reading of Anglican history is paralleled by my reading of my own history. Quite apart from the more general privileges I possess in virtue of my gender, sexual-orientation, skin-colour, education, and socio-economic background, I personally have a concrete history of not insignificant cruelty, arrogance, and oppressiveness. This should not be overdramatised, and I hope I am not being too dramatic: all the same, when I look back on some of the things I have done and many of the ways I have treated people, when I consider the path which actually brought me to where I am, I am conscious of the fact that if it weren't for the grace given to me, both materially and spiritually, I would be lost. If I am able to follow God's command today, meanwhile, I believe that this is because God is capable of redeeming broken people; that it is because God is capable of inspiring love in the hearts of the loveless. As a very British kind of sinner, then, my reading of Anglican history is informed by my reading of my own history, both of which I hope can point towards the necessity and efficacy of unmerited grace.)
Onto the second point: the centrality of prayer. This need to acknowledge the power of grace is, I think, mirrored in the centrality of prayer in Anglicanism. Consistent with a tradition running through from Augustine to Karl Barth, as well as many others, all theology, all worship, all dogmatics, all endeavour in Anglicanism eventually returns to a place of prayer. In virtue of this, I think it characteristic of Anglicanism in general (though not necessarily in particular, and not absolutely) that all action eventually leads to surrender; to the surrendering of ourselves to God (n.b. surrender here does should not be conflated with self-abrogation, either ethical or mystical: we must actually have and be loved selves in order to surrender those selves to God). This is in part because prayer is a concept reliant upon grace, insofar as it is thought of as a point of encounter with God.
How might this be? Well, I am not going to try and define prayer here (indeed, I think such an exercise would be self-contradictory): I will, however, say something of how it has existed in my life as part of a Christian community run out of an Anglo-Catholic parish (with no claim to originality, I should add!). Specifically: prayer has manifested itself as a point of encounter within the silences which are folded into the words of the prayer book. It has manifested itself as the point where words have ceased to be primarily tools for effective communication, and have instead become a space for listening in and through the process of silent speech. For there is silence in speech: there is a point at which words cease to reach beyond themselves, where they receive meaning instead of conveying it, where they come up against their natural and internal limits and are transfigured from assertion into prayer. For example, it is not a performative contradiction to say 'for God alone my soul in silence waits': it is instead a recognition that no matter what we might be able to say, there comes a point where our words must surrender themselves precisely as they are uttered (no matter what the words in particular might be). Even as we pray aloud, we can still be waiting for God in silence: and the fact of this waiting can itself be a form of reliance upon grace. (I hope this echoes Rowan Williams' writing on silence in The Edge of Words, though it might well not.)
To reiterate: it is precisely at the point of spoken silence within prayer that I believe the Anglican tradition is best placed to remember its reliance upon and its affirmation of the reality of grace. The fact that we pray together, meanwhile, the fact that it is the Book of Common Prayer which binds Anglican Worship together, means that we are consistently brought back to prayer with each other; that we are brought back to God as a church, and so brought back to our reliance on God's grace given for the Church.
I think that this idea is further supported by the fact that, as far as I can see, the actual words of the BCP neither try to say too much- as if our words themselves had the power to grasp mystery- nor do they try to reduce worship to total silence- as if silent speech could be replaced by a more visible silence, attempting speak all the more powerfully of mystery. For in this they not only reflect the insight that the words of Anglican prayer do not of themselves capture or convey the essence of grace: they also reflect the fact that this is not because we are saying the wrong words, but because no words ever could.
The question now arises, however, why do we say these particular words? If no words can capture or convey the essence of grace, then why does it matter what words we say? Why bother codifying them in prayers, in creeds, in tradition? And the answer for this stems from my understanding of and brings us to the third of our terms, which can be properly rendered in two forms: catholic and Catholic. The first of these, 'catholic', I understand as applying to churches visible; the second, 'Catholic', I understand as applying to the Church invisible. Both of them relate to the unity of the church, since each in their own way (the first in virtue of the second) speaks to the fact that the Church is one body in Christ.
How might these notions of catholicity relate to the words of the Book of Common Prayer? Here is how: language is one of the great unifiers. This is a fact which has a strong shadow side (the eradication/suppression of local languages is, after all, an effective strategy for colonial invaders), but this shadow side should not blind us to the relative importance of being bound together as a church by the words we speak. We are united by these words: they remind us that we pray as a church, not just as individuals; as a body, not just as bodies. And insofar as we are reminded that we pray as part of a church, we can be reminded that prayer is not fundamentally a moment of isolation (and so alienation), but a point around which we can then go on to be brought together into communion with God and neighbour. In virtue of this, we can emphasise the corporate unity of the liturgy of the prayer book across time, as well as in the present day. We can also take especial care in preserving something of beauty and reverence within the liturgy as well, since a focus on these aspects can remind us that we are not just dealing with words on a page, but seeking to worship the divine.
This, in turn, can remind us that language does not exist in a vacuum. Meaning is never what it is apart from context, and we cannot create significance ex nihilo. Words receive their meanings in virtue of the temporal practises they both accompany and engender, whether this be the practise of ritual or the practise of relationship. This includes the practise of the Eucharist, the sacramental character of which suffuses prayer with divine significance. It includes the practises of love, without which the words of prayer can lack the integrity of belief (which is not to say that prayer lacking in integrity is no longer prayer). This basic fact of language fleshes out the role of the BCP: it illuminates the fact that words we share point us towards the form of life that we as a church are called to live.
More than this, however, and most importantly: precisely insofar as the words of the prayer can call us to this life, they must point us towards the one who calls us in the first place. Specifically, these words point towards the person of Jesus Christ, the one foundation of the practises which give the words sense, the one foundation of the communities they unite.
And here is where catholicity can point to Catholicity: that is to say, here is where the visible qualities which unify a visible church can receive their relative value. They receive this relative value because they can help us to find communion with the one point of absolute value, the one who brings us into a unity which exists over and above any visible or substantive qualities. I do not say that the catholicity embodied by the words of the prayer book, the drama of the liturgy, the hierarchy of the church, or the practises of love and charity has its own absolute value: I do say that this catholicity has a relative value insofar as Jesus Christ, the one absolute feature of Catholic unity, finds us within these things, in virtue of which they are blessed to receive their sacramental character (I further say that this relative value is still very much value; that to say this is not to denigrate, but to recognise, the value of the words, rituals, and practises which bind us together across centuries).
Finally, I would suggest that this Catholic unity is nothing more nor less than fellowship and communion with Jesus Christ, who is Himself the fact of grace incarnate. This fellowship and this communion are indeed the unity of a Church, made visible in the unity of churches: all the same, these churches receive their sacramental character not because their specific forms possess absolute value, but because in their particular characters they can direct our eyes and souls toward the source of grace.
This piece has come full circle. It began by describing the insight of the Reformation as the emphasis of two particular insights: a) that we absolutely need grace, then b) that this grace can never be bought by us. It then described the Anglican Church as a church whose questionable historical character should not be considered an insurmountable problem, but a constant reminder of the pertinence of both these Reformation insights. It described the most distinctive feature of Anglicanism as its constant return to prayer, a return consistent with all that had gone before. Next it claimed that the importance of this prayer being codified in the prayer book derived from the importance of visible catholicity. Finally, it has claimed that the importance of this visible catholicity is a relative importance derived from the fact that it can help to point us as a church towards the head of the Church invisible, the source of Catholicity, the incarnate fact of grace, Jesus Christ. Thus, just as we began with confessing both the necessity and the freedom of grace, so we have ended by confessing that grace's reality.
Within this I have sought to affirm wholly and truly the importance of catholicity as binding Anglican worship together. But I hope that I have described catholicity as important precisely and only insofar as it helps to point us towards Catholicity: I hope I have said that the unity of a church visible is important precisely and only insofar as points us towards Christ, whose grace binds us together as the Church in a unity which cannot compromised by difference, however radical or substantive that difference might be. I hope that this account can do justice to the spirit and the truth of Reformed, Anglican, and Catholic thought, each of which seeks to point in the same direction, but each of which is often (I think) confused by the fact that the others are pointing from different locations.
I hope I have given some account of what it might mean to be a Reformed Anglo-Catholic. Summing up, I think I can say this: I believe it is characteristic of a Reformed Anglo-Catholic to a) identify as a member of the Anglican tradition in terms of both its history and its emphasis on corporate prayer, and b) to seek to affirm in one gesture both the insights of the Reformation, by emphasising the necessity and freedom of grace, and the importance of Catholicity, by emphasising the effective reality of grace as a force which can bring us as a church into communion with Christ. This is likely not that unusual or controversial a thing, but I hope it has been worth reading all the same.
I hardly need to say that there is much more to be said here, so glaring are many of the gaps. Even assuming that it has a modicum of validity, the above account leaves an enormous amount of doctrinal work to be done: work on the nature of the Trinity, on the fact of the Incarnation, on the movement of the Holy Spirit, on the role of Scripture, on the character of creation and the consequences of its Fall, on the character of revelation, and on the shapes which Christian living might take in virtue of such considerations. There is philosophical work to be done by analysing the natural presuppositions which might inform the specific characters of various doctrinal presuppositions, as well as the particular natures of their linguistic and practical expressions. There is historical work to be done, where the theologians who have written on these themes before are given their due credit and in which further parallels are unearthed; where the developments of the Anglican tradition are explored side by side with its Reformed, Catholic, and Orthodox counterparts.
In spite of all the work which is left undone, though, and in spite of the brevity of what I've said here, I hope that the above makes enough sense to not be summarily dismissed as total nonsense. Indeed, I hope it is true to the character of the piece that it can be read as a very particular form of prayer: the prayer of an amateur thinker with an interest in philosophical theology and Christian dogmatics, seeking to figure out who and what he is in relation to Christ.
By Brendan Jones O'Connor
Our online collaboration with the Deaconness Anne House continues, with Brendan writing a reflection on his housemate Rosemary's baptism falling upon the day of Candlemas. Thanks to Brendan, and congratulations to Rosemary! (You can, of course, follow Deaconness Anne House on Twitter at @DAH_STL, and Brendan himself at @Jones_Oconnor.)
New Year's Day of 2014 was one of the most hopefilled days of recently memory. After 2013 in a failed intentional community, two terrible jobs, and a grungy living situation, I had just accepted a position as the youth ministry leader of a vibrant parish. Driving to the first meeting with my parish priest to discuss how we wanted to shape this year, I made a somewhat unusual resolution: 2014 will be the year I celebrate more church holidays.
Most New Year's Resolutions I heard up to this point tended to be about placing restrictions or obligations on oneself. However, if I enjoyed the holiday season so much, why not instead choose to celebrate more occasions? Of course, this practice was meant to be deliberate and devotional, but I also wanted to mark the seasons of the year in ways I had not thought of before.
Epiphany came without much trouble. My parish already had a tradition of recognizing the Feast of Epiphany, and it helped that there is already a multitude of images (and a perennial favorite hymn) that accompany the familiar story. I patted myself on the back for knowing that Epiphany was the official end of the Christmas season. It was time to finally start enjoying the pear trees and swimming swans gifted to me.
I hit the first obstacle of my resolution a few weeks later, when I learned that February 2 group event day, was the Christian holiday of Candlemas. My cradle Anglicanism drew a blank, and I was forced to do some research about the traditional holiday that gets overshadowed by a tourist event involving a weatherpredicting rodent and a man in a tailcoat. I don't blame anybody, Candlemas is a strange name for the feast day of a relatively obscure event in the gospels, Jesus' presentation to the temple. The only thing I had remember about this story was thinking how the Prophetess Anna, who Luke tells us never leaves the temple, but prays and fasts day and night, managed to stave off boredom. Theologically, I wasn't sure what to make of the text, but culturally, I noticed something almost immediately. Candlemas and Groundhog's Day sharing February 2 long before Punxsutawney Phil got on the scene. As the old English rhyme stated,
If Candlemas Day be fair and bright,
Winter will have another fight.
If Candlemas Day brings cloud and rain,
Winter won't come again.
Incidentally, that winter February 2nd was fair and bright, the groundhog saw their shadow, and the winter continued well into April. The next month I suffered a major automobile wreck after hitting an icy patch, and found myself reminded why people since time immemorial wished away the winter: snow, ice, freezing rain, fog, and lack of vegetation are all signs of death. Sailors of old wouldn't leave harbor on Candlemas, as they knew the February waters got especially choppy. Perhaps I, too, needed to check myself in midwinter to make sure I was stable during the doldrums of the post Christmas dry stretch.
One year later, and I find myself in a new intentional community, an Episcopal Service Corps program located in St. Louis, MO. My six housemates and I signed our contracts with the house long before Officer Darren Wilson shot Michael Brown, sparking international outrage. I dislike falling back on platitudes, but the classic Grandmotherism of “You want to know how to make God laugh? Tell him your plans,” seemed especially apt. My housemate Rosemary Haynes found herself the most affected in our group by these events, and discerned that her place within the Ferguson movement was to be on the front lines, demonstrating, observing, and allying herself with those who knew oppression too well. Doing this work, she was accosted by police, arrested, and interviewed by CNN. She even wrote a more thorough article about her faith journey and the experience of being a Ferguson protester in an earlier article for St. Hilda's House. Following the experiences she movingly detailed in her piece, Rosemary decided she wanted to be baptized. The date set was February 2, 2015: I could not help but smile.
It was a fair and bright night. The moon only one day from being full, we gathered in the street outside of the Deaconess Anne House to commence Rosemary's baptismal vows. We had threaded white Christmas lights around the front of our property, and invited as many people in our community to join us in our unconventional liturgy for the evening. Rosemary found the unconditional love of Christ in the streets of Ferguson, standing with the oppressed, it made sense that's where she would affirm her devotions to God.
Calling this event a “New Beginning” did not seem right to me. Rosemary grew up Episcopalian, she just had not been baptized. She hadn't been negligent of the great deal of suffering in the world, she worked for a number of causes prior to joining the Deaconess Anne House. Baptism marked the point her desire to be a part of the church meet with the gifts, vocation, and love already given to her by God. As I repeated my baptismal vows, I recognized how baptism, and salvation for that matter, is not a oneoff event, but a continuing process. What better day to celebrate than Candlemas?
Having spent 40 days since Christmas, a month since New Year's, and ten weeks since Advent, Candlemas is a holiday smackdab in the middle of a liturgical season. Nothing starts or finishes with Candlemas, and the goofy weather tradition and the blessing of the votive candles seems almost too minor to really pay attention to. But Candlemas is a time to breath. A recognition of that long, dark, and often lonely time between Christmas and Ash Wednesday, especially in a culture that likes its holidays about something flashy or heroic. Candlemas is the perfect holiday for the midwinter, as it allows for waiting, praying, and hope for a distant spring, just as how the frail Anna saw Christ in the Jesus child that Mary brought to the temple.
In these days when I am daunted by the unfinishable work of perusing social justice in a broken world, I take great comfort in the message of the baptismal vow and the Day of Candlemas: God's Covenant began before us, continues after us, and is here for us, even in the darkest of seasons. Especially in the darkest of seasons.
Written by Shancia Jarrett
What are we celebrating on this very day, January 19, 2015? Human resources and administrators coin this day- the third Monday in January- as a paid day off, a federal holiday, or an opportunity to receive over-time. Most employees are simply content with having a day off or an extended weekend. Yet I must admit my own insensitivity and failure to acknowledge the contributions and the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He is a father, a husband, a prophet, a martyr, a theologian, a minister, and a social activist who daily gave of himself to honor God and to love the children of God (Matthew 12: 28-31[King James Version]). Within this reflection, I will briefly discuss Dr. King as a theologian and the current need for underrepresented communities and their allies to revisit the contributions of Dr. King and his devoted obedience to the divine calling of Jesus Christ to be a liberating voice within a nation of injustice.
During high school, my English teacher made certain to inform students that Dr. King plagiarized his dissertation. Ironically, I was too apprehensive to engage her accusations or further independently investigate her claims. I didn’t care whether or not she envisioned Dr. King as an unaccredited scholar. The world will never remember her name or her contributions; whereas, the world will never forget Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, the winner of the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize, and the leader of the Civil Rights Movement. For the first time, I encountered biased attitudes and assaults towards the academic accomplishments of the leader of the Civil Rights Movement. While reflecting upon the statement of my English teacher, it was quite a disheartening atmosphere. The classroom room was filled with academically ambitious minority students who were certain to further their education.
Critics of Dr. King such as my teacher who professed bias and academically incriminating doctrines upon minority students were needed in order for me to understand the realities of being Black within American society. Whether or not Blacks academically equipped themselves and demonstrated their capabilities, there still remained stigmas of inferiority. I cannot imagine the intensive adversities in which Dr. King endured in the segregated South during the 1940s and 1950s. I am certain my encounters with academic discrimination and racism were simply the nugatory antics of a racially insensitive teacher; Dr. King’s realities of racism and discrimination were chronic attributes of the American culture and the educational system.
Nevertheless, I transformed this discouraging moment into a learning opportunity by obtaining a deeper theological understanding of grace and the sovereign power of God’s will in the lives of men, through reading the works of Dr. King. From reading Dr. King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail and I’ve been to the Mountaintop speech, it is evident that Dr. Kings assimilates a Christ centered approach towards injustice. This Christ centered approach is what I call an extension of grace beyond the unmerited favor of God. Grace becomes the ability of one to immerse his/her self in the favor of the Lord; to become “the voice of one crying in the wilderness, Preparing [sic] the way of Lord, making [sic] His path straight (Isaiah 40: 3, Matthew 3:3, Mark 1:3, Luke 3:4, John 1:23 [King James Version]).”
In the opening remarks of his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Dr. King develops a systematic and an effective analysis of nonviolent campaigns. He divides his campaign into “four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices are alive, negotiation, self-purification, and direct action (1963).” The most intriguing step of Dr. King’s analysis is the concept of self-purification. After identifying the existence of injustice, advocates of social justice enter into a state of self-purification. Although Dr. King does not further expound upon the process of self-purification, I refer to it as the Christian call of repentance, where an individual reflects on his/her relationship with God and vows to strengthen their relationship with the Almighty through baptism, an outward sign of faith that cleanses an individual of sin and gives birth to a new life in the Body of Christ. Similar to the voice of John the Baptist who precedes the coming Christ, Dr. King calls the American people, regardless of their racial heritage, into a humbling state of nonviolent obedience and moral repentance. This pivotal stage of self-purification is the most important concept of making a change, especially a change that requires peace. For it is written, within the Scriptures that men receive grace from our Lord Jesus Christ and peace from God, the Father (Galatians 1 [King James Version]). If a man desires peace and grace, then he must be ready to enter into a state of self-purification.
The direct action stage driven by nonviolent tensions resemble the straight path for the way of the Lord as He enters into the hearts of men. [Do you understand how this man called by God makes the Scriptures come alive? Amen! LOL!] King classifies direct actions such as boycotts and public sermons as a means of “creating situations so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiations (1960).” Just as John the Baptist and Jesus Christ publicly proclaimed the Word to dispute injustice and promote social inclusion; Dr. King courageously ministered the Gospels and prepared the way for the Lord. On March 25, 1965, he led thousands of nonviolent protesters on a five day march from Selma, Alabama to Montgomery, Alabama in order to denounce the unequal policies and practices exhibited towards Blacks. The direct actions of marching and preaching led to healthy dialogues between President Lyndon Johnson and Dr. King, the stage of negotiation.
In surrendering to the sovereign will of God, Dr. King, as a husband and a father separated himself from His family and loved ones in order to complete God’s mission. Likewise, Jesus Christ assumed such a devoted tone of obedience to the will of God by drinking of the cup of death, even though, His obedience separated Him from the tangible presence of His family and loved ones (Luke 22:42 [King James Version]). Since, we believe in the Incarnation, Christ being truly divine and truly man, Jesus Christ in the garden of Gethsemane encountered similar feelings of anxiety and sorrow; yet, He remained obedient to the will of His Father, God. In his speech, I’ve been to the Mountaintop, a day before his assassination, Dr. King prophesied his death and proclaimed his obedience to God. He boldly stated, “Like anybody I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now; I just wanna do God’s will.” Although, he desired to live out his days upon the Earth, his life was no longer centered on his personal desires and ambitions; instead he surrendered and submitted himself to the sovereign will of God. [Whoever knows me personally, certainly knows I said, “Amen” while reading and listening to this speech. Yet, I’m still a struggling Christian who fears the calling of Jesus Christ… Another topic for another for reflection, the verse, “no man, having put his hand to the plough, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God (Luke 9:62 [King James Version]),” daily plagues my mind… I just had to put it out there.]
In the current state of American society, racial tensions remain at a skyrocketing height. The deaths of Black males such as Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, and Ramarley Graham remind society of how law enforcers and judicial systems value and perceive the lives of Blacks. However, the courts define justice; minority racial groups continuously receive verdicts based on the legality of fear. Within the judicial system, respondents and their attorneys utilize defensives pleas based on the uncertainty of their fears to justify the deaths of Black males. These atrocities are not novel scenarios, in 1963, Dr. King described this epidemic as an, “ugly record of police brutality [sic] known in every section of this country. Its unjust treatment of Negroes in the courts is a notorious reality.” Well, now its 2015 and changes occurred. However, Blacks are still crying for their sons!
After reading this reflection, please join in praying the Hail Mary. Similar to Mary, mothers watch as their sons die:
Hail Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with thee.
Blessed art thou amongst women,
and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God,
pray for us sinners,
now and at the hour of our death. Amen.
And here we have Megan's sermon from Sunday, in which she explores how we continue to serve in the context of self-doubt. Enjoy!
“A voice says, 'Cry out!' And I said, 'What shall I cry?'” In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.
Who am I, that I should dare to cry out? Who am I, that I should dare to even try to act as a messenger of God's word? These are the questions that arose for me when I first began contemplating today's texts.
In the passage from Isaiah, we are told that “people are grass,” that we wither, that we're inconstant, and that, many times, we need to ask what it is that we should be crying out, even in those rare moments when we recognize a voice instructing us to speak up. I don't know about you, but these aren't exactly things that build my confidence.
These questions were even more relevant for me when I thought about my circumstance today: What can I, a recent college graduate, 22 years old, have to offer all of you in a sermon? I've asked myself similar questions in other moments of opportunity—such as wondering, the semester I was a leader of a campus Christian group at college, if I could actually be able to mentor other students. That seemed outrageous when I also happened to be a confused 20-year-old. I suspect I am not alone in being able to easily convince myself that I am too sinful to adequately serve as a messenger of God's word, or that my walk with God is too fragile, unstable, or dull for me to be a positive influence in someone else's.
The story of John the Baptist, as laid out in this Gospel reading, provides a compelling challenge to the self-doubts that could otherwise silence us.
How so? Well, let's look at John's declaration: “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.”
Here, John the Baptist is stating the distance between who he is and who the Messiah will be—who Christ still is to us now. The Messiah is much more powerful than John the Baptist is, much more glorious, much more worthy of praise. John the Baptist basically admits that he is only the opening act. The main event, Jesus—that's what really worth the people's excitement.
Perhaps we can find some guidance in this. The extent to which we are not God, be it because of our powerlessness, our mortality, or the evil in our hearts, is not a reason we should shy away from proclaiming the word of God. That distance can compel us, all the more, to cry out to others about who God is.
Our not-God-ness? This is a starting point for speaking about God. The Gospel of Mark makes this clear. As the passage says, this is “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ.” The beginning is not Christ himself, but a man, a wholly human man, a man who is not divine even if he is a prophet, a man, not-God but being worked through by God, preparing the people for the one who is coming, the one who is God. While John the Baptist's particular call as a forerunner to Jesus may not be ours, it is nevertheless true that, for many, the experience of the “good news of Jesus Christ” does not start with Jesus himself—at least to their perception. It can start with someone else, someone just as human as they are, pointing the way.
Though some of us might want to deflate our callings, not thinking we can claim such a role, others might be tempted in a different direction. “Crying out” can become abut the attention we can attract for ourselves rather than delivering the word of God.
That route would've been quite easy for John the Baptist to take. He's attracting enormous crowds. The people want to buy into his greatness. Though he could easily embrace that, however, he does the opposite. 'You think I'm a big deal?' he says. 'Wait for what's next; for who's next.'
We must walk a tightrope—a thin line between not allowing our sense of self to be so diminished that we feel we can't tackle our callings (even with the grace of God) and not letting our sense of self become so bloated as to lessen our sense of God's greatness.
We might lean one way or the other, for various reasons. For some of us, factors in life may lend our voice and our life more importance in this culture. Maybe we were raised in supportive homes where our thoughts were valued. Maybe we've been told about our leadership potential. Maybe we have traits that our societies value, like being wealthy or being college-educated. Or maybe we have been told that our voices and lives are worth less than others in the eyes of our society—be it because our gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic background,education, or race, as recent events around the country, including in New York City, Ferguson, and Cleveland, remind us.
How do we address this imbalance? First, we must acknowledge our own tendencies to shut out certain voices and downplay certain lives, because we are bound to miss out on the presence of God in someone else. We must also be thoughtful as we encourage one another in the task of proclaiming God's word. Are we excessively emphasizing humility to someone whose sense of self and purpose are already beaten down by those around them? On the other hand, are we inadvertently glorifying a messenger for their skills, charisma, or perceived holiness in a way that distracts both that messenger, and us, from God?
It is important to think about how we, as a church, nurture one another as messengers of Christ, because the message that we have is valuable. Let's take a look at what that message is. Just from these passages, we learn that it is a message that can comfort, that can be told tenderly, and that it is for all people. It is a message of a God who gently leads us, a God who cares for us like a shepherd, a God who gathers us into his arms and carries us. It is the message of Jesus Christ, who is so much greater and more powerful than even a dynamic prophet like John the Baptist, Jesus Christ who baptizes in the Holy Spirit. It is message of a God who will dwell in us and work in us.
At a time where many of us have become more aware or are feeling quite acutely the ways in which our society is infected with injustice, prejudice, and violence, we can take comfort in the message that God is, in some ways, so unlike us. God is not like us, people who hurt and dehumanize one another, be that through conscious or unconscious participation in broad, systemic injustice or in the particular ways we wound each other in our most intimate relationships.
Again, I return to these words of John the Baptist: “I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thongs of his sandals.” These words may be ringing particularly true for some of us this week as we enter into reflection about our society and ourselves.
I pray that we do not just sit with these unworthy feelings, allowing them to lull us into inaction. Instead, may they help us overflow with gratitude for the God whose worth is beyond measure and who finds us utterly valuable, though we are very flawed. May our characters and actions be shaped, more and more, by this God who is so unlike us—but may we not wait until we've arrived at some arbitrary standard of being like God or worthy of God to cry out. May we let those ways in which who we are is so far from who God is prompt us to proclaim God's greatness and boldly speak the message of God with which we have been entrusted. Let's prayerfully enter, together and as individuals, into that important question: “What shall I cry?” Amen.
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