Third Sunday in Advent

Preachers rarely have the luxury of unity on Sunday mornings. More often than not what you have are three cats running off with different threads. The Psalm goes this way, the Epistle that, and the Gospel does its own thing. This morning, however, because of the deep intention of this Advent season, I am gifted with great cohesion in today’s readings.

To begin with, we have that deep beseeching in today’s Psalm, that the Lord would restore us to His favour so that His face might shine upon us. The Gospel replies, with an Angel telling Joseph that the Lord’s face shall be revealed in the babe that his wife shall bare, to save His people from their sins. And then Paul’s letter to the Romans is a neat summary to the faithful. Describing God’s descent to the flesh that all of mankind may be called toward the Lord in the fellowship of saints.

In these three readings we see the conversation that happens in our faith, the deep yearning of our souls that God may shine upon us, God’s answer to this prayer in gifting us with His Son, and then the lingering responsibility to uphold the blessing of His reply. For as God has crossed such a divide to come and know us, so too are we called to make a pilgrimage to him. Advent is a time of pilgrimage where we journey in reflection, and ponder what it means that God is coming into the world.

When one spends a bit time with the literature on the subject, a word that keeps bubbling to the surface is: “scandal.” For it is scandalous to believe that the creator should allow himself to be created, that the infinite should be clothed in flesh, that he who forged the stars should himself be found under a star in Bethlehem. This series of contradictions smash up against our desire for simple reason, and scandalize our understanding.

Today’s gospel begins with a noble man not wanting to cause a scandal. Joseph does not want to cause disgrace, so he seeks to dismiss Mary away from the public eye. But the pure motives of a noble man are not how God chooses to come to us. God begets scandal atop of scandal. The divine becomes mortal through a virgin birth, the logic of the world is overthrown, as Christ will overturn all the tables we put in front of him.

And here we come to the real scandal of the virgin birth, that the Messiah comes not in power and glory to lead the revolution against the Romans, but to lead by an example of vulnerability. The Lord of hosts triumphs neither in reason nor conquest but in surrender.  The Christian life is about celebrating that vulnerability, by following that example, and surrendering our desires to the love of God.

After the floods of the Old Testament, our God promised not to destroy again, but hearing his people’s lament in the wilderness of the world, replied to them by entering a manger. God who made all things made himself of Mary. He who was able to make all things out of nothing refused to re-make it by force, but instead became the son of Mary. So God is the father of all created things and Mary is the mother all recreated things. God is the father of all that is established and Mary is the mother of all that is re-established. That last bit is from St. Anselm’s prayer about Mary, and a fitting prayer to remember on the day we consider what God’s entry into the world means for us, and whether we desire to be refashioned as God refashioned creation.

Now in my day job, I spend much time with people who desire to be refashioned. I meet with people, daily, who are struggling with addiction in one form or another, and I am continually confronted with their desire to be reformed. But it is great effort, great effort to repent. And I mean repent here in the purest sense, “to turn around,” to alter the course that the world has assigned you so that you may draw closer to the God of life and turn from the way of death.

How that effort is made is with help, for salvation is a group activity. Where two or three are gathered in my name there shall I be also. Our faith is not a philosophy for individuals but a community that runs the race set before us together. So we gather here on Sunday morning, Sunday the first day of creation, that we may partake of the New Adam, and carry that newness into the world, in remembrance of He who made all things new.

And then we do it again next week, repeating the same confession over and over and over again, wondering if we’ll ever get this right. But this is it, this is the refashioning for confession is the refinement of the soul. The spiritual practice is just that, a practice. It is something you get better at over time. You do it over and over and over again that the skill of salvation may enter your bones, and that when you come across some wayward soul who has lost the thread of life, you may be able to turn unto them and say: “Rejoice, your salvation is at hand.”

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It is right to give thanks

We are overwhelmed.

Since posting the Manifesto a couple of weeks ago, we have had 13,000 views.

It seems that we have hit a nerve.

We are grateful – very grateful – for how many have expressed a resonance with what we have felt in our hearts as we wrote together.

We are grateful that so many of you are interested in recovering the beautiful jewels of our specific tradition as Christ-followers who are Anglicans.

We recognize that there are many Christian tribes and traditions out there – and that common prayer, confessions, creeds and shared doctrines are not marks of all of them.  We aren’t wishing to stand against anyone’s freedom of choice – we’re simply seeking to polish these ancient jewels within our specific communion as we seek a strong prayerful and theological foundation for doing so.

We aren’t trying to start a movement per se, but only seek to re-align ourselves with a movement founded some two-thousand years ago. As Christendom fades, we’re grateful that this is an exciting time to follow Jesus.

We also recognize that there are traditionalisms within Anglicanism that are not life-giving, and we’re grateful to have this blog to continue praying and dialoguing through what living traditions should be lifted up, and which traditions should be cast aside.  We recognize that we won’t always agree on the finer points and encourage that dialogue rooted in prayer and the realization that the Holy Spirit is still moving in our communities.

We don’t wish to denigrate specific people or theologians but we do wish to remain theological in the best sense of that word: the study of God or of ‘faith seeking understanding’. We do lean upon a theology which affirms the radical notion of the physical resurrection of Jesus Christ and that has the audacity to believe in miracles over metaphors. We risk a theological posture that proclaims that the “…message of Easter is that God’s new world has been unveiled in Jesus Christ and that you’re now invited to belong to it.” (Wright).

We’re grateful to see the ecumenical response from our sisters and brothers in Christ from Lutheran, United/Methodist (and other) Christian traditions – and hope that we can pray and seek the common jewels alongside each other.  We sense that there is a movement and hunger amongst many people in the mainline to recover some of the amazing adventure that our forbears discovered and lived in their faith.  How is it that we’re called to walk together in our common faith? Let’s keep exploring this.

We love our sisters and brothers, even when we disagree.  However, we don’t desire to become a turf war for the various factions of Anglicanism, nor is this a space for Rome and Constantinople to do recruiting drives. We are not ignorant of our options. We have “flittered” with “higher” and “lower” churches, and, yes, on a bad day the grass does look greener, but, as The Manifesto said: we are going nowhere. .

In any manifesto, there is a certain amount of hyperbole – and in ours, that begins right in the first line: “We are a generation of Anglican Christians”.  Manifestos are designed to rile us up. We recognize that we don’t speak for everyone under the age of 45, nor do we exclude Baby Boomers in sharing our hopes and concerns.  Sure, there does seem to be a general generational divide – but as the comments have shown there are people who agree and disagree on either side of the Boomer/Post-Boomer divide – and we’re grateful for people of all ages who seek to claim/recover the jewels of our specific tradition.

Some have expressed some angst or discomfort around our anonymity.  We’re flattered that something we’ve prayed through and written has spoken to so many – but we’re not seeking to be heroes or targets here.  If you’re interested – we are a small group of collaborators who wrote this. We’re between 30 and 45 and in both lay and ordained positions within the mainstream Anglican church.  The later point is important because some of our writing will be in response to the dominant ethos of our denomination – for which, we should note, we are grateful.

The name ‘Tract 91’ is ‘riffing’ off of the idea of the 19th-century ‘Tracts For The Times’ – which published 90 tracts.  Most of the early tracts were published anonymously or under pseudonyms.  We’ve talked about ‘coming out’ – and we likely will at some point in the future – – but, for now, in these early days we would like the ideas to simply speak for themselves and spark dialogue and be refined – rather than be linked to personalities, communities, or geography.

We are certainly happy to correspond as we are able – and to accept submissions to tract91@gmail.com.

Perhaps this goes without saying, but submissions should apply to the general tone and hopes of The Manifesto. If a submission is accepted it will be published anonymously.

We remain yours – in Christ

The Tract 91 Manifesto Writers

the dread of grace

The main purpose of this blog is affirm, not merely to refute, but because we live in an era where vegans can be cannibals, where luddites have facebook pages, and where atheists can be ministers – I must begin with some refutation of the times [In truth, I know no cannibalistic vegans but I know the other two are out there].

For those of you who missed the cue, I’ll be ranting about Gretta Vosper, a United Church clergy who dubs herself an atheist minister. Presently she is “under review” by her denomination and says if she loses her job because she refutes the existence of a transcendental, supernatural deity, then she’ll feel betrayed by her Church, [If I were to fly a kite in a lightening storm, I wouldn’t begrudge God for getting struck down].

Obviously there’s a lot of explaining to do, to that end, Vosper has joined the Atheist Industry and cranked out a few books justifying the number of back flips that one has to do to maintain her position. The fundamental point that she falls upon is that God is an out-dated idea. Not a lot of fanfare there, I think we can all agree that that ball has been kicked around a bunch. The really contiguous way she kicks it, however, is that religion itself should not be “at play” in the public discourse. In an open letter to Moderator of the United Church of Canada she responded to her Church’s prayer of support to the Charlie Hebdo attacks thusly:

Where it may once have seemed justifiable, ours is not a time in which personal religious beliefs can be welcomed into the public sphere; we can no longer claim that the impact of religion on political and social structures is purely beneficial. This truth is obvious in the shadow of Paris, Ottawa, and countless other tragedies. We must boldly stand with those who would clear the public sphere from the prejudices of religious belief even as we defend the rights of individuals to hold whatever beliefs allow them to sleep at night. [if I wrote something like this to my boss publicly, I’d have a few resumes out before clicking send]

In the above Vosper draws her battle ground on two fronts: Truth and Time. The Time for religion has passed, says Vosper, and now we must embrace the Truth of these Times. Ergo Truth is relative to Time, when Time passes, so does Truth. Ergo every Truth that is uttered has a best before date as Time marches passed it. Again, not a new line in the sand, universal versus particular, the favourite tennis match of Western culture, but as the game crosses over to religion, the court changes as we are arguing about things eternal, and it is argument that Christianity has been mired in for millennia or two.

Christianity has often struggled with what it’s worshiping. Is it Jesus? Is He God? If that’s the case whereas Jesus as a start, that means there was a time before, a time without him, and how can God, who begins all things, begin? And then is Jesus something extra to God, but that doesn’t really make a whole bunch of the sense as God is all things, and cannot be divided…it gets rather complicated when you think about it all, but then that’s the point: people have been thinking about it for the past 2000 years, and there’s a lot of robust answers to these questions that have filled libraries, and to which I will give a scant reply in this trifling blog post just to make that point.

And the point is that Vosper is addressing her own construction of God. She has whittled down the infinitude of the Holy one till it fits neatly within the acceptable margins of error for the present day, want’s more, she is refuting the God of the philosophers, an abstract Zeus that is closer to Spinoza’s circle without a centre that the picture of triune God of Christianity – the God that said let there be light, the God that appears as three strangers to Abraham, as the burning bush to Moses, as a child in a manger to shepherds, as a tortured prisoner to his disciples, and as a resurrected body with holes in his hands to Thomas – this is the God that is in the religion of Christianity, he is not an idea, but a Being who has personhood, who has suffered the sins of the world with us. It is a God who has redeemed reality by coming into reality; by putting on the temporal cloak of flesh both time and flesh are made anew, and it is possible that mankind may have eternal hope.

But in the [not-so-] Reverend John Shellby Spong’s open letter to the Moderator of the United Church [my she does seem to get a lot of those, doesn’t she?] defending Vosper as a minster, this theme of eternity is absent, in its place we have updating. He speaks of the United Church he dreams of being “open to the future,” that Vosper is a “future-oriented pastor,” that he admires her moving “Christianity into the future,” and that Vosper is ministering to real people “who are trying to make sense out of their Christian faith without twisting their 21st century minds into 1st century pretzels.” Here we see a fundamental mistake of these ministers, in that they are taking the God of eternity and placing him in our present day pretzels. The ideal of the Christian faith, of any true religion, is that it seeks to pass on eternal wisdom.

Reason and justice grip the remotest and the loneliest star. Look at those Stars. Don’t they look as it they were single diamonds and sapphires? Well, you can imagine any mad botany or geology you please. Think of forests of adamant with leaves of brilliants. Think the moon is a blue moon, a single elephantine sapphire. But don’t fancy that all that frantic astronomy would make the smallest difference to the reason and justice of conduct. On plains of opal, under cliffs of pearl you would still find a notice-board, ‘Thou shall not steal.’

So says GK Chesterton through his ever-eloquent mouthpiece of Fr. Brown to the thief Flambeau, bringing home the point that in the universe there is universal law. Of course Vosper/Spongs will ask the question, is it wrong to a man to steal a loaf of bread to feed his family? And, good gen Xer that I am, I will answer from the one of the oracles: the Simpsons. In this exchange Bart has been adopted into the mafia and he and Fat Tony are having a heart to heart:

“Uh, say, are you guys crooks?”

“Bart, um, is it wrong to steal a loaf of bread to feed your starving family?”

“No.”

“Well, suppose you got a large starving family. Is it wrong to steal a truckload of bread to feed them?”

Uh uh.”

And, what if your family don’t like bread? They like… cigarettes?”

I guess that’s okay.”

Now, what if instead of giving them away, you sold them at a price that was practically giving them away. Would that be a crime, Bart?”

Hell, no!”

Between Fat Tony and Vosper, I feel that Fat Tony is lying to himself less. To be fair, I do not doubt the good intentions of Vosper, she sees religion, or at least deism, as a fuel or oppression, and that what it should then remove itself from the public domain. She’s trying to make people safer. I could spend a little more time poking holes in that argument [Stalin? Pol Pot? Hello?] but for now let’s assume that I don’t have any kind of historical context with atheistic experiments [because I live in a cave at the bottom of the ocean, and the wifi is terrible]. Fundamentally it’s a noble intention, but the road to hell/oppression is often paved with good intentions, and, in this case, many miscarriages of logic.

Not that I would seek to endorse logic as The Solution, for Vospers arguments do stem from a logical chain of thinking, but it’s a chain that binds rather than liberates. In Vospers case she is adapting to the rational madness of our times by trying to make religion make sense, by enforcing a constancy that humanity does not practice. To err is human, forgive divine, and without the shadow of the divine for man to stand in judgement of, he has only his mortal self to serve as judge – and he judges harshly. God will take me as I am, my neighbour will take me at his convenience. God commands me to love, my neighbour has no commands, and neither I to him, and so we go about our business in mutual toleration. We endure each other as no one as asked us to go beyond that. The Christian God is one that commands us to go beyond, as He has transgressed so many boundaries for us.

In a very odd way we, people of Faith, should be grateful for the work of Gretta Vosper. She has pushed the limits of unbelief in the most broad-minded liberal denomination to the point where the United Church of Canada must answer the question of what it believes and who it serves. I’ll close with a this line from Thomas Merton, and leave you ponder what gifts you wish to accept: “There are atheists who fight God and atheists who claim to believe in him: what they both have in common is the hatred of life, the fear of the unpredictable, the dread of grace, and the refusal of every spiritual gift.”