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Church, Faith, Tolerance and Reconcilliation

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“Sometimes I think it is my mission to bring faith to the faithless, and doubt to the faithful.” Paul Tillich

My friends, I write this because of something that happened to me a couple of days ago. It was an incident that upset me greatly because it ended up in the fracturing of a relationship by a friend who evidently could not tolerate where I was in my life as a priest and Christian. I discovered again the reality of what Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote:

“Many people are looking for an ear that will listen. They do not find it among Christians, because these Christians are talking where they should be listening. But he who can no longer listen to his brother will soon be no longer listening to God, either; he will be doing nothing but prattle in the presence of God, too. This is the beginning of the death of the spiritual life, and in the end there will be nothing left but spiritual chatter and clerical condescension arrayed in pious words… never really speaking to others.”

My experience of the Church is profoundly influenced by my life in the nether world of the military culture. My world view is shaped by a blending of various Christian traditions, mutual support and collaboration among believers of often radically different points of view. Because of the love, care and mentoring of people from a blend of different traditions I came to know God and survived a tumultuous childhood with many moves.

As a historian I have been blessed to study church history from the early Church Fathers to the present. As I look to church history I find inspiration in many parts of the Christian tradition. In fact rather being threatened by them I have become appreciative of their distinctiveness. I think that there is a beauty in liturgy and stability in the councils and creeds of the Church. At the same time the prophetic voice of evangelical preaching shapes me, especially the message of freedom and tolerance embodied in the lives and sacrifice of men like John Leland, the American Baptist who helped pioneer the concept of Freedom of Religion established in the Constitution of the United States, of William Wilberforce who labored to end slavery in England and, Martin Luther King Jr. who led the Civil Rights movement.

Likewise that prophetic message of the faith is demonstrated in the ministry, writing and martyrdom of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his contemporaries Martin Niemoller and Jesuit priest Father Rupert Meyer. All three resisted and preached against the evils of Nazism. In a more contemporary setting I am inspired by Bishop Desmond Tutu who helped topple apartheid in South Africa.

Women like Teresa of Avila and St Catherine show me that women have a legitimate place of ministry and leadership in the Church. I am convinced through my study of Church history, theology and a deep belief in the power of the Holy Spirit that women can and should serve as Priests and Bishops in the church.

My theology has shaped by the writings of Hans Kung, Yves Congar, Jurgen Moltmann, Andrew Greeley, and Henry Nouwen. I’ve been challenged by St Francis of Assissi, John Wesley and Martin Luther. I am especially inspired by Pope John XXIII whose vision brought about the Second Vatican Council and I am inspired by Pope Francis.

I pray that Christians can live in peace with one another and those who do not share our faith. I pray that we can find ways to overcome the often very legitimate hurts, grievances and divisions of our 2000 year history. At the same time I pray that we can repent from our own wrongs and work to heal the many wounds created by Christians who abused power, privilege and even those who oppressed others, waged war and killed in the name of Jesus.

I do not believe that neither triumphalism nor authoritarianism has a place in in a healthy understanding of the church and how we live. I am suspicious of any clergy who seek power in a church or political setting. I profoundly reject any argument that requires the subjection of one Church with its tradition to any other Church. In fact I think that the arrogance and intolerance of Christians to others is a large part of why people are leaving the church in droves and that the fastest growing “religious group” is the “nones” or those with no religious preference. Andrew Greeley said something that we should take to heart:

“People came into the Church in the Roman Empire because the Church was so good — Catholics were so good to one another, and they were so good to pagans, too. High-pressure evangelization strikes me as an attempt to deprive people of their freedom of choice.”

I grew up in and have lived my life in a very open and ecumenical environment. I have lost any trace denominational parochialism and competition that I might have had if I had become a pastor of a civilian parish instead of a chaplain. It is interesting that the pastor that first ordained me in the evangelical tradition and the bishop that ordained me as a priest both did so with the intent that I serve as a chaplain. Whether it was the recognition of a gifting for the work or the fact that they didn’t want me messing up their civilian operations by asking hard questions I will never know.

I believe that my environment and the men and women who have helped shape my life have been a stronger influence in the way I think about ecumenical relations and ministry than my actual theology or ecclesiology. Whether they were Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians, Evangelicals or even those considered by many to be outside the faith including Jews, Moslems, Buddhists, Mormons and even complete non-believers all have contributed to my life and faith.

I have grown weary of refighting theological debates that have divided the church for a thousand years. Since what we know of theology including our Scriptures and Creeds are based on faith and not science I see no reason to continue to battle.

That doesn’t mean that I think we should put our brains in neutral but rather we must wrestle with how to integrate our faith with science, philosophy and reason, otherwise we will become irrelevant. In that sense I identify with Saint Anslem of Canterbury who wrote about a faith seeking understanding and Erasmus of Rotterdam who very well understood the importance of both faith and reason. In that sense I am very much at home with the Anglian triad of Scripture, Reason and Tradition when it comes to approaching faith.

I struggle with faith and belief. After Iraq I spent two years as a practical agnostic. As Andrew Greeley wrote: “Most priests, if they have any sense or any imagination, wonder if they truly believe all the things they preach. Like Jean-Claude they both believe and not believe at the same time.” Andrew Greeley “The Bishop and the Beggar Girl of St Germain”

I am an Old Catholic and believe that inter-communion does not require from either communion the acceptance of all doctrinal opinion, sacramental devotion, or liturgical practice characteristic of the other, but implies that each believes the other to hold all the essentials of the Christian faith. I like to think that I embody what the early Anglicans referred to as the via media and that somehow my life and ministry has been about building bridges at the intersections of faith with a wide diversity of people.

When I have tried to embrace traditionalism or choose to fight theological battles I have ended up tired, bitter and at enmity with other Christians. In a sense when I tried those paths I found that they didn’t work for me. I discovered that I was not being true to who God had created and guided my life, education and experience. I feel like T. E. Lawrence who wrote:

“The rare man who attains wisdom is, by the very clearness of his sight, a better guide in solving practical problems than those, more commonly the leaders of men, whose eyes are misted and minds warped by ambition for success….”

My favorite theological debates have been with other chaplains over pints of good beer in German Gasthausen or Irish pubs. Those were good times, we argued but we also laughed and always left as friends and brothers. I believe since we are human that none of us will ever fully comprehend all of God or his or her truth. I believe that the Holy Spirit, God’s gracious gift to her people will guide us into all Truth. For me my faith has become more about relationships and reconciliation than in being right.

As far as those who disagree with me that is their right, or your right if you disagree. I don’t expect agreement and I am okay with differences and even if I disagree with an individual or how another religious denominations polity, theology, beliefs or practices those are their rights. In fact I am sure that those that believe things that I don’t are at least as sincere as me and that those beliefs are important to them. I just ask that people don’t try to use them to force their faith or belief on others, be it in churches or by attempting to use the power of government to coerce others into their belief systems.

To my friend who broke contact with me when I refused to debate his argument that I should submit myself to his Church and tradition, the door is open for reconciliation.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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On the Anniversary of my 16th Year of Ordination to the Diaconate

“So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them.  But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” Mark 10:42-45

“My brother, every Christian is called to follow Jesus Christ, serving God the Father, through the power of the Holy Spirit. God now calls you to a special ministry of servanthood directly under your bishop. In the name of Jesus Christ, you are to serve all people, particularly the poor, the weak, the sick, and the lonely…” From the Ordination of a Deacon, 1979 Book of Common Prayer

In the more liturgical churches, Catholic, Anglican and Orthodox the first major order of ordination is to the Diaconate, or to be a Deacon. In other denomination men and women are appointed as deacons but not ordained. In the non-Catholic/Orthodox/Anglican there is a wide variety of service done by deacons and deaconesses everything from being the ruling board of a local church to serving in various ministries of service within the church.

I was ordained as a Deacon 16 years ago tonight on hot, humid and stormy night in Maryland. I was one of six men ordained that night as Deacons, all of who were bound for the Priesthood. I was already an ordained minister in an Evangelical Protestant Church and was serving as a civilian hospital chaplain and as a Major in the Army Reserve Chaplain Corps. I had began a spiritual pilgrimage to an Anglo-Catholic way of life in seminary while attending Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth Texas.

The office of Deacon or Deaconess in the Orthodox, Anglican and Old Catholic traditions is different from the other major orders, the Presbyter (Priest) and Episcopate (Bishop). It is and always has been about the ministry to service, assisting the Bishop and Priests with the care of the poor, sick, weak and lonely as well as preaching the Gospel. It was established in the 6th Chapter of the Book of Acts when the Apostles, harried by the widows of non-Jewish members of the church who felt that they were being ignored. The Apostles laid hands on 7 men, Stephen, Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Paraemus and Nicholas. Paul in 1 Timothy 3 gives criteria for the kind of person to be ordained as deacons and Pliny the Younger in his Letter to Trajan specifically mentions women serving as deacon who he calls deaconesses.

In the west the office of deacon languished for nearly a millennia being used only as a stop on the way to a man being ordained as a Priest. It remained very active in the Christian East and some Orthodox Churches retained the office of Deaconess. The office experienced a revival in the West during the 20th Century with both the Roman Catholic and Anglican Churches revitalized the office and returned to early tradition in appointing men to be permanent as well as transitional Deacons. The Second Vatican Council noted that Deacons should be “Dedicated to works of charity and functions of administration deacons should recall the admonition of St. Polycarp: ‘Let them be merciful, and zealous, and let them walk according to the truth of the Lord, who became the servant of all'” Lumen gentium, n. 29 cf. Ad Phil., 5,2, ed. Funk, I, p. 300)

Deacons can preach, baptize assist at celebration of the Eucharist, give communion and in the Catholic and Anglican traditions celebrate a marriage. Deacons are allowed to marry, unless they are transitional Deacons in the Roman Catholic church who are being prepared for ordination to the Priesthood.

For those ordained as transitional Deacons, those who eventually are ordained as Priests, and in some cases those who later are consecrated as Bishops, they are not to lose that call to be servants of God’s people. This sadly is not always the case.  It is all too easy for a cleric to become more concerned with his or her position in the hierarchy and the place of the Church in society over serving those that come to the Church broken, wounded and needy, especially in need of care and love, those rejected by the affluent and abused by supposed Christians.

Fr Rupert Mayer SJ

For me the ordination to the Diaconate was important. It stressed to me that ordination was not simply about preaching or ruling in the Church. Of course I knew that but the fact that charge committed to Deacons is first service of the weak, the poor, the sick and the lonely. It has been a while since I re-read the Ordination Liturgy. It is a compelling reminder in a world where the poor, the sick, the weak and the lonely are continually abused and ignored by the rich, the entitled, the powerful and the criminal elements or even governments, that the Christian, particularly those men and women ordained to the Diaconate must be servants first, not rulers or worldly power brokers. Father Rupert Mayer SJ of Munich who was imprisoned for speaking out against the Nazis through much of the Hitlerite rule was a leading champion of Munich’s poor during the Weimar Hyper-Inflation and during the Great Depression. A former Army Chaplain in the First World War who was wounded at the front losing a leg he said: “If out of the ten who ask for alms there are nine who are not in need of them, and if through fear of that happening, I refuse my help to one really needy person, this would cause me immense suffering. I would rather give to all ten and thus avoid the danger of being lacking in charity.”

When I was in High School and College there was a song that was popular in contemporary Christian music. It was called Make Me a Servant by a lady named Kelly Willard who sang with Maranatha! Music.  The words are fitting for all Christians who are called by Jesus to be “servants of all” but especially for all who are ordained or have ever been ordained as Deacons.

Make me a servant, Humble and meek

Lord let me lift up those who are weak, And may the prayers of my heart always be

Make me a servant, Make me a servant, Make me a servant today…

I certainly don’t always live up to this high calling, but it is something that I try to do. It is simple, but so hard, but of all things what the followers of Jesus are called to do. Today has been a day of reflection even as I cared for some people going through terrible times. I do pray that my life will be more reflective of God’s grace in my dealings with all people.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Life’s Tough…It’s Tougher When You’re Stupid- The Peril of Misusing Principles, Attributes and Quotations Out of Context

sgt striker

I am cursed with having been born with a logical and analytical mind.  As such it is a cross that I bear.  This may sound pompous and even arrogant but unfortunately it is true.  I am confronted every day with people, some of who that I love and adore who use principles and attributes badly and make themselves look foolish.  Sometimes even bordering on being stupid. Often this involves personal hurts where because of something that was said or done a person makes a quantum leap intol illogical absurdity.  For example, “My boss yelled at me thus my career is over.”  That may or may not be true but it is not a foregone conclusion.  Likewise something like this: “My friend did not call me back, they  must hate me.”   What is worse for hurt people is when they find a quote taken out of context and use it in an illogical manner.  I had a dear friend do this the other day.  I cannot break any confidence but I basically told my friend that if someone was wrong in something they said about my friend that my friend should tell them to go to hell.  I also told my friend that if what the other person was true then that he needed to deal with it and make whatever corrections necessary.

I find that the use of principles and attributes as a lazy way for people to try to look intelligent. A person who uses them in such manner as a way to prove a point neither understand the principles or attributes of what they think that they understand.  If physicians or scientists approached life in that manner we would be in big trouble. Yet we see it all the time in religion, popular philosophy, pop-psychology, popular leadership and management programs.

My friend made a comment on a social networking website regarding assumptions.  It was a bad use of a bad quote, probably taken out of context, unless the person quoted was an idiot, which after reading stuff about him I believe that he is.  The quote was by Don Miguel Ruiz and said: “The problem with making assumptions is that we believe they are the truth”   There is a big problem with this.  Good Old Don Mike is an idiot.  Assumptions are how logical people begin the process of discovery through inductive and deductive reasoning.  The problem with Don Mike is that he assumes that people who assume use assumptions in ignorance.  You see Don Miguel is a “spiritual” teacher, and as a spiritual man of course he operates above logic. He lives in the world of unreality and illogic, however it looks like he makes good money doing it.  Guys like this are actually dangerous because they say things that sound neat, but are absolutely idiotic.  Now can we make bad assumptions about ourselves or others? Definitely.  Crap I do it all the time, however that does not lessen the value of making and acting on assumptions.   If the assumption is wrong, you re-assess and move forward.  If someone makes an assumption about you which is wrong you don’t throw out the value of making informed decisions based on evidence and from that evidence making assumptions about how to proceed in the future. This can be in personal, financial, career, spiritual or any other dimension of life.  We all make assumptions about ourselves and others and based on those assumptions live our lives.

Let’s take this quote about assumptions.  Every month that we work we assume that we will get paid.  It is part of the deal. We sign a contract or have a set pay scale and pay days.  In the military we get paid on the 1st and the 15th of the month.  I assume that when I read my pay advisement that that money will be in my bank account on the date the advisement says that it will.  I operate on the assumption that I will be paid.  If I am unemployed and have run out of unemployment benefits this may not be so.  I should make the assumption that unless I get a job that I will not be able to buy my dog Milk Bones.  True, Molly would not be happy about this but I would be a fool to assume that I will have money.  This may happen. I may get a job or someone may help me out but I do not assume this to be the case.

One of the worst ways I see this is with religious people.  Some of my fellow Christians for whatever reason believe that somehow God owes them.  This of course comes from the “name it claim it, grab it stab it, God owes me because” heresy of the prosperity preachers.  Unfortunately this crass, insipid and idiotic “theology” is not based on the assumption that God cares about them.  It is however the presumption that because I did something that God is contractually bound to do it.  It assumes wrongly that the Bible, believe a particular doctrine, give my money to the church or a ministry, or pray a certain way that God is obligated to do things the way that I want.   This is an error of presumption as well as a theological heresy.  It “cherry picks” scripture, something called “proof texting.”  This is simply lifting the part of scripture that we like from its historical, cultural and theological context and arbitrarily determine that it means what we want it to mean. God loves us and cares for us but does not owe anyone anything.  The Deity Herself assures me of this.  The way I see it is that God is no respecter of persons, even me.  Thus, I cannot presume on God.

Moving back to the topic of the misuse of principles and attributes by those who presume to be intelligent or spiritual:  Principles and attributes have to be understood in context in order to be used correctly. Context includes the meaning of the writer or the person quoted. The context matters if we are to correctly interpret principles of life made by any individual.  The Enlightenment Philosophers and Theologians called is the “situation in life, or Sitz im Leben. Things do not occur in a vacuum and how people arrive at their conclusions is as much a part of their environment and experience as the end product.

We see this in a number of ways.  I love reading amateur historians, political or military pundits do this with the great military thinkers. I particularly get a kick out of people who quote Sun Tzu or Clausewitz out of context to make some point.  I see this often.  You can go to any bookstore and pick up a book of quotes or principles derived from some philosopher, theologian, military, business or political leader.  They are usually entitled something like this: The Leadership Principles of __________. On occasion you might find a book of quotes, again usually out of context called ____________ Rules for Success in Life. Abe Lincoln and Winston Churchill are two of the most quoted in this manner. People love to do this with quotes of Jesus taken from the Gospels, of course who would argue with God incarnate.  The problem is that the quotes are usually taken out of context and not congruent with the basics of the Christian faith.  Even Scripture is abused in this manner.  This is not assumption, it is presumption.

I remember a book entitled The Attributes of God which I read back in college.  The problem with the book, from a Christian perspective, and the author was a Christian; was not that it’s assumptions about certain characteristics or attributes of God was wrong, it was the fact that God was approached through attributes rather than from the Cross.  One does not know God simply through studying his attributes.  If you are a Christian you know God through Christ who you know through the Cross, not just sayings of Jesus taken out of context.  A person is not the sum of their attributes.

The same is true with those who quote various philosophers, theologians, political or military leaders out of context.  People love to do this with Sun Tzu and Clausewitz.  I have lost count of the books I have seen published in recent years that do this.  To understand Clausewitz one has to understand the Enlightenment, Classic German Liberalism including the Philosophy of Kant, Hegel and Kierkegaard as well as the theology of theologians such as Scheilermacher.  Clausewitz properly understood is more than a political-military philosopher but a man who understands the human condition.  To reduce his work to cool quotes is to miss the point.  Since most people can’t spell or correctly pronounce “Scheilermacher” I am sure that they have not read him.  Same is true with Kant, Hegel and Kiekegaard. Without understanding this or Prussia’s defeat and and occupation by Napoleon’s Army and the subsequent recovery, one does not understand Clausewitz.  Clausewitz deals with the human condition as amuch as he deals with political and military philosophy.

Now of course I chose the historical, military and religious examples because that is my academic background.   However, to do this one uses all the facts that one has, analyzes them, evaluates them and uses deductive reasoning to determine the “truth” based on the facts on hand.  However we have to understand that we never have all the facts, and that even “facts” that we have might not withstand the test of time or further examination.  This is true in history and the sciences.   It also has some basis in faith, which is why I prefer the historic Anglican-Catholic triad of Scripture, Tradition and Reason versus a Scripture alone or Scripture and Tradition basis for faith.  Will I always be right? No, but I will use my errors to discover truth and not be content to remain in them.  To plan we make assumptions about the future.  Those assumptions must be tested as the situation develops.  In Medicine physicians when diagnosing a condition make a differential diagnosis.  It is a manner of testing our assumptions based on the facts on hand.  The military uses a planning process in which assumptions are tested.  Assumptions based on the evidence that we have are essential to planning for the future.  Again this goes for personal matters as well.  To quote MCDP-5 Planning, the Marine Corps Planning Process:

the defining features of the planning challenge are uncertainty and time. More than anything else, considerations of time and uncertainty dictate our approach to planning. All planning is based on imperfect knowledge and involves assumptions about the future. All planning by definition is future-oriented, and the future by nature is uncertain. No matter how determined we are to be fully prepared for a situation, there are finite limits to our ability to plan for the future. The more certain the future is, the easier it is to plan.”

This is not easy, but making assumptions and planning for an uncertain future is far better than quoting people out of context to make it look like we have things figured out when we have never seriously studied them.  As Sergeant Striker (John Wayne) said in the Sands of Iwo Jima: “Life’s tough, it’s tougher when you’re stupid.”   Living life based on unstudied principles and attempting to determine the nature of someone by their attributes is not logical or rational.  We have to be careful.  This may not seem to be too spiritual but as Jesus said “Be as wise as serpents and gentle as doves.”  Or as a Trekkie might say: Be as crafty as a Romulan but peaceful as a Vulcan.

Peace,

Steve+

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