Sunday, October 26, 2014

Take the cross down in order to take it up

My October 25, 2014, column for the Grand Haven Tribune, "Take the cross down in order to take it up,"

As a teenager growing up in Grand Haven, I remember walking down the boardwalk and seeing the cross displayed on Dewey Hill when it was up. I remember walking downtown during Christmas and seeing the Nativity Scene displayed. I remember how much I enjoyed these public affirmations of my faith.

I also remember the first time I walked downtown during December when I returned in my late twenties as the priest at St. John’s Episcopal Church. I remember looking up at the Nativity scene and raising an eyebrow. After all, the Episcopal Church follows the traditional observance of Advent—one that is focused upon silence, prayer, and waiting and not upon an early celebration of Christmas. Nativity scenes are sometimes set-up early in Episcopal churches and homes, but most of the time they are instead set-up after the Fourth Sunday of Advent. If they are set-up earlier in December, the Christ child is never included. The manger is left empty as we wait for his arrival. 

Now, the Nativity scene on Dewey hill did not offend me. But I did think it was interesting how one Christian tradition’s approach to Advent dominated the public view in our city. I found it to be an opportunity for good discussion in my parish and at the Theology on Tap event I host downtown (then at Odd Side Ales and now at Joe’s Wooden Nickel—first Tuesday of every month at 7pm!). Many believers were surprised to learn that other believers practice December differently. The diversity of expression was enriching to all. 

We often forget that even within Christianity there is diversity of practice. And, as an Anglican, I would affirm that this diversity is a good thing, that it reveals the manifold and rich mystery present in a God who is always beyond our conceptions of the divine.

Over the past couple months, as the controversy over the cross on Dewey Hill has played out in this newspaper and its online website, I have often been disappointed by the anger and strong words of those involved—particularly my brother and sister Christians. When Christians tell non-Christians that their concerns and objections to our symbolism are unimportant, when Christians tell non-Christians that they should move somewhere else if they don’t like the majority Christian culture of our area, I always grimace. I worry about the way this language reinforces the negative views of those who have often by wounded by the church in their past. 

I know that for some people the objections to the cross seem to be an attack on the Christian faith. It doesn’t seem like that to me. It seems like a plea for our community to acknowledge its diversity. It seems like an entirely fair and reasonable request by members of our community that one religious perspective not dominate a piece of public land that we all share as citizens of the Tri-Cities. In general, I would prefer an ecumenical and inter-religious use of that land, setting up a variety of symbols or messages that truly reflect our diverse community. However, given the ecological concerns, my hunch is that not using any symbols on that particular piece of property is the best way forward.

Last week’s conversation on the cross, sponsored by this newspaper, seemed to be a fantastic step forward. The panelists, despite their diversity of views, were civil and charitable with each other. In particular, I’m grateful for the Christian witness of my colleagues, the Rev. John Kenny and the Rev. Ray Pagett—affirming the intentions of those who want the cross removed and the importance of embracing diversity in our community.

After all, the most important message I, as a Christian, want anyone who disagrees with the cross to get is this: God loves you. I love you. And if your background, if your journey, makes this symbol difficult to see on public land, then I absolutely support taking it down. Because what matters to me is that non-Christians see followers of Christ as people of grace and mercy, people who value relationships over symbols on public land. And maybe if we respond graciously and take it off public land, people who do not have faith will feel a little more welcomed to come into our churches and talk with us about the crosses we place there.

True, it may hurt to see a symbol of our faith removed from public land. But fundamental to the Christian ethic is not that we display the cross on public land for all to say. Instead, Christian discipleship is, at it’s core, a willingness daily to take up the cross in our own lives, to be willing to die to self, believing that the “other” has deep value to God. 

That’s what I’d like to see, I think. Let’s take the cross on public land down and let’s encourage believers instead to take up the cross in their own lives, to be people of love and generosity, who value others more than their selves. 

Monday, October 6, 2014

The Incarnation Cycle, Anglican Quests for Holiness, and John A. T. Robinson

Last month I completed my fourth summer of coursework toward a Doctor of Ministry with the Advanced Degrees Program at Sewanee's School of Theology. With my final papers turned in, all that now remains is to write a project thesis of around 100 pages.

Ideally, I would write that in the summer of 2015, but it looks like my energy next year is going to be poured in immersion Spanish-language training so that I can more effectively lead St. John's El Corazón Latino Ministry Initiative, seeking not only to find ways to welcome Latinos at our church but also for our church to lead the way in dismantling the segregation and prejudice that persists in Northwest Ottawa County.

That said, like I did last year, and the year before, I am posting below the papers I wrote for this summer's courses.

Liturgical Time, class taught by the Rt. Rev. J. Neil Alexander (Dean of the School of Theology, Professor of Liturgy, and Charles Todd Quintard Professor of Dogmatic Theology) and the Rev. Dr. Melissa M. Hartley (Associate Chaplain for the University of the South). A class that could also be retitled as "The Church Year is NOWHERE NEAR as simple and clear cut as you think it is!"

One Paper — A Robust Feast of the Incarnation: An Analysis of the Development of the Incarnation Cycle in English Christianity from the Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation, with Application to Current Questions of Liturgical Practice

From the Introduction,
The liturgical calendar is something that most Christians in liturgical traditions take for granted. Those who have been raised in liturgical traditions assume that this is the way Christianity has been practiced since ancient times throughout the ages, the way it has always been. Those who have converted to a liturgical tradition from one that is not liturgical often perceive the church year as a way of reconnecting with ancient Christianity. At the same time, any scholar of liturgical history knows that the development of the church year came much more slowly and with much greater complexity than is often assumed. 
The Anglican tradition of Christianity is perhaps one of the most ancient streams that exist, with roots that may come from as early as the first century and with evidence of a developed enough Christian presence for an archbishop to attend a council in the early fourth century. From these earliest days, the Anglican tradition has had a tendency to do things differently than other areas, a tradition that has persisted throughout the centuries. For example, the English retained the practice of the new year beginning on March 25 (the Feast of the Annunciation), up until the middle of the eighteenth century, long after most had started seeing January 1 as the beginning of a new year.  The sources and reasons for those differences are, unfortunately, often lost to history. However an exploration of the way that an aspect of Christianity developed in the Anglican tradition can reveal important new lenses to the Christian faith and can provide wonderful resources for critical reflection upon current practice. 
The nativity (or incarnation) cycle is an excellent example of where development in the British Isles happened differently than elsewhere, particularly differently than Rome. Even the common name “nativity cycle” betrays a later understanding of what is going on in this observance: a focus solely upon the birth of Christ instead the incarnation, a focus upon an historical event instead of the reality of God taking on flesh among us. Hence, I will be using “incarnation cycle” to refer to the celebrations and fasts related to the coming of God in Christ.  
It is often said that Anglicanism is an incarnational faith. What is particularly fascinating is that the peculiar Anglican focus upon the incarnation is much more ancient, much more rooted in specific liturgical observances of the church year, than is often realized.
Anglicanism: Love's Redeeming Work?, class taught by the Rev. Dr. Benjamin John King (Associate Professor of Church History at the School of Theology). I sort of asked him to teach a course using the text Love's Redeeming Work, knowing this was the only way I would get around to reading all 832 pages. Am I ever glad I did!

First Paper: The Distinctive Quest: A Critical Assessment of the Claims of Love's Redeeming Work & the Anglican Tradition of Christianity

From the Introduction,
Those in the Anglican tradition exist in a tradition that has always been a little hesitant to speak too strongly about a distinct identity. Indeed, at those times in our history when any one group has sought to do this, the experience has usually ended rather badly. As the editors of Love’s Redeeming Work: The Anglican Quest for Holiness  note, many books about Anglican identity are focused on questions of history, ecclesiology, or theology. They suspect, however, that the true value and distinctive nature of Anglicanism is actually found in our spiritual practice, in the peculiar way that Anglicans pursue holiness of life and deeper relationship with God.  
What is most fascinating as one reads this book is how easy it is to forget what age in which one is reading or what camp in which a particular author falls. Certain themes, ideas, and concepts appear again and again, across centuries and party lines, as clergy and laity invite the people of God deeper into the divine life. The contribution this book makes to a renewed appreciation of this reality—despite any (very fair and important!) qualms we might have about editorial decisions of which authors are included and how much space is devoted to each—is, indeed, immense.  
What seems to unite Anglicans is not merely a particular book of worship or a hierarchical system adapted to modern circumstances. What remains present is the idea that God truly does call us to holiness—and that the bedrock practices of that journey, regular prayer and Holy Eucharist, can indeed change our very selves. A persistent journey that seeks holiness of life and a deeper relationship with God can even change the world in which we live.

From the Introduction,
In a powerful image for the life of this controversial bishop, John Arthur Thomas Robinson was born in the precincts of the Canterbury Cathedral in 1919. His father, Arthur William Robinson served as a canon at the cathedral, as did his maternal grandfather. However, Arthur Robinson had married later in life, when he was sixty-two, and he died when his son, John, was only nine. John retained a close relationship to the church, even after his father’s death. Six of his uncles who also served as clergy persons, including one, J. Armitage Robinson, who was dean of Westminster and then Wells...

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Affordable housing, living wages and a place for all

My October 1, 2014, column for the Grand Haven Tribune, "Affordable housing, living wages and a place for all,"
I was pleased to read last week that the Grand Haven Township Board has approved a new apartment complex for our area. The amenities sound lovely: a clubhouse, pool, dog park and two ponds.

What we don’t yet know is what rent will cost. Given the amenities, my guess is that it will not be the cheapest in town — which, perhaps, makes this a good time to raise some important questions about affordable housing in our area.