Morning by Morning

"The Lord GOD has given me the tongue of those who are taught, that I may know how to sustain with a word him who is weary. Morning by morning he awakens; he awakens my ear to hear as those who are taught. The Lord GOD has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious; I turned not backward." Isaiah 50:4-5

Monday, May 26, 2014

Lincoln and Lee on the Terrible Nature of War

 Among the treasures at the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa is a small but significant collection of memorabilia from the period of the American Civil War that is tucked in among a marvellous selection of Fredrick Remington bronzes and paintings by Charles Russell and Thomas Moran.  Two exhibits side by side are quite striking; one the life mask and hands of Abraham Lincoln, the other a picture of Robert E. Lee accompanied by the following quote from a letter from Lee in 1861 to his sister:

“With all my devotion to the Union and the feeling of loyalty and duty of an American citizen, I have not been able to make up my mind to raise my hands against my relatives, my children, my home.  I have therefore resigned my commission in the Amy, and save in defense of my native state, with the sincere hope that my poor services may never need be needed, I hope I may never be called on to draw my sword. . . “

One of the tragedies of the American Civil War is that it pitted Christian against Christian in one of the most savage conflicts in our history.   Despite Lee’s sincere hope he was inevitably drawn into the conflict, and but for his skill and determination as a military leader the war would likely have been considerably shorter.  The time would come when General Ambrose Burnside would stolidly and stupidly send his Union troops in a feckless assault of the Confederate positions on the heights above Fredericksburg.  On December 13th, 1862 Lee made the following remark, “It is well that war is so terrible - otherwise we would grow too fond of it.” 

Lee’s fierce right hand man Stonewall Jackson was a man of ardent faith, and fearless disposition.  Of his sense of security in battle Jackson said, "My religious belief teaches me to feel as safe in battle as in bed.”  Whether or not one agrees with Lee and Jackson, or with Lincoln and Union Leaders like Joshua Chamberlain their faith should be taken seriously.

On the opposite wall at the Gilcrease is a quote from Lincoln at the Philadelphia Sanitary Fair in June of 1864.  A Sanitary Fair raised funds for the medical and practical care of soldiers by auctioning art, curios and memorabilia.  In his speech Lincoln said,

“War at its best, is terrible, and this war of ours, In its magnitude and in its duration is one of the most terrible . . . it has carried mourning to almost every home, until it can almost be said that the ‘heavens are hung in black.’ Yet the war is continues.”

            Individual Christians from time to time find themselves in opposition to each other, but that is the nature of the fallen world in which we live.  Only the very na├»ve would make the mistake of thinking that the conflicts of the past, of either the American Civil War, or of the past of each person can be fairly evaluated by hind sight.  In the midst of the conflicts of life it is not always so easy.  There is perhaps even a reason for war, as God’s way of teaching his hard hearted people the ways of faith.

Now these are the nations that the LORD left, to test Israel by them, that is, all in Israel who had not experienced all the wars in Canaan.  It was only in order that the generations of the people of Israel might know war, to teach war to those who had not known it before” [Judges 3:1].

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Under the Rainbow Bridge: A Family Tragedy

Late in 1941 three things came together: the new Mustang, the newly constructed Rainbow Bridge at Niagara Falls, and a young fly-boy named Nelson Perdue. The Mustang was a small fighter plane that out performed the Spitfire and was destined to take a major role in the war. The Rainbow Bridge had some strong romantic connections as the replacement for the Honeymoon Bridge, which collapsed due to an ice jam in the Niagara River. The new bridge had a marvelous view of Horseshoe Falls. Put those two tempting items together with the newly engaged Nelson Perdue and a sunny day in the fall of 1941 and you have the stuff of family legends. The tragedy is that Nelson was lost somewhere over Germany later in the war, leaving only the sparse legend surrounding his name. My aunt, now in her late eighties, lost the most, and the event colored her life for some time to follow.  The rest of the family barely knew him. I never met him. Now sixty-five years later I know only the brief legend which was always told with joyful admiration, “Nelson flew under the Rainbow Bridge!”

What comes to mind is the admonition of a 8th Century Saint, John of Damaskos, “All human affairs, all that does not exist after death is vanity. Riches vanish, glory leaves us… every man born of the earth troubles himself in vain… by the time we have gained the whole world we shall be in the grave, where king and pauper are one.”[1]

What is truly important? What is it that exists after death? Certainly if God is our one true Love, all other loves and relationships will exist in him. Here I want to raise a very important question for those of us in The Episcopal Church today.  Sixty-five years from now what will remain of the conflicts, vested interests, and personalities of the crisis within the church today? The simple answer is not much!

In 1771 conflict arouse in the Church of England.  250 clergy who were deeply affected by the spread of Unitarianism submitted a petition to parliament.  British Statesman Edmund Burke responded: "These gentlemen complain of hardships: let us examine a little what that hardship is. They want to be honored as clergymen of the Church of England … but their consciences will not allow them to conform to the doctrines and practices of that Church. That is, they want to be teachers in a Church to which they apparently no longer belong; and that is an odd sort of hardship. They want to be paid for teaching one set of doctrines, while they are teaching another."[2] Today’s conflict is only a variant of an ongoing debate between the orthodox and those who, like the second century heretic Marcion, refused the authority of Scripture and the Church wherever either disagreed with him. 

Marcion we know, because the theologian Tertullian named him, but who are the 250 clergy who petitioned Parliament in 1771? Their names are lost to posterity and they are only an obscure footnote in the history of the Church. At least my family remembers that it was Nelson Perdue who flew under the Rainbow Bridge.  Karl Barth said something to the effect that it is one of God’s miracles that the Church still exists. For twenty centuries, battered and bruised, the Church, the Bride of Christ rises from the ashes of conflict and opens the door to Salvation, Jesus Christ our Lord. 

From the perspective of history, there is nothing novel, or particularly earth shaking in the current attempts to deny the authority of Scripture in faith and practice.  Roseanne Roseannadanna was right, “it just goes to show you, it's always something! If it's not one thing, it's another!” Of course it is. St. Paul clearly warns us, “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them.”[3] So what’s new?

Conflict within the Anglican Church is like waves crashing against the beach.  No matter how many times they come in, they always recede again. In the meantime, what are we to do? First, and it ought to be obvious, don’t build your house on the sand.  Build your house on the rock!  This is precisely where Jesus presents a stiff challenge to today’s Church.  What is the rock?  The One whom we call the Rock says, “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock.”[4] 

The rock, very simply, is the self-revelation of God in Holy Scripture itself.  By definition, “In the name of Holy Scripture we do understand those canonical Books of the Old and New Testament, of whose authority was never any doubt in the Church.”[5]  The poet John Donne said it very nicely, “The Scriptures are God’s Voice.  The Church is His Echo.”[6] I am well aware that not everybody wants that to be the solution for the painful stresses within the Church today, but I’m afraid that it is, and I don’t see away around the rock except by walking on the sand. Stability in times of distress is a matter of basic principles firmly held. I have always enjoyed the seashore, but for some reasons which should be obvious, I wouldn’t insist on building my house on the sand.

The second thing we are to do is follow the advice of Jesus who said “Fear not!”[7] and “Love one another!”[8] Instead of worrying over things that are out of your control, put your trust in Him who is our steadfast love[9] and do the amazing thing he told you to do, and “love one another.” That’s a whole lot better than pushing and shoving and saying uncharitable things.

The third thing we are supposed to do you already know.  Jesus said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age."[10] He didn’t mean for you to do it only on mild sunny days, but in all kinds of weather, even when it’s stormy.  The secret of Church Growth is this: Go and make disciples!  That is as simple as inviting people to Church.  How do I know?  Because that is the way most of us came to faith in the first place, somebody invited us.

[1] John of Damaskos, quoted by St. Peter of Damaskos in “The Fifth Stage of Contemplation” in the Philokalia, Vol.3
[2] Alfred Plummer, The Church of England in the Eighteenth Century, (London: Methuen, 1910), edited in contemporary English, Rob Smith 2006, p. 168
[3] Acts 20:28-31 ESV
[4] Matthew 7:24
[5] The Articles of Religion, BCP, p. 868
[6] John Donne, Sermons VI. 5-7
[7] Many places in the gospels, but for a helpful verse look up Psalm 64:1b
[8] John 15:12 etc.
[9] Psalm 144:2
[10] Matthew 28:18-20

Thursday, May 8, 2014

What Do You Do When You Are Tired and Worn Out?

“…Why, I feel all thin, sort of stretched, if you know what I mean: like butter that has been scraped over too much bread.” ~ Bilbo Baggins

There have been times when I can identify with Bilbo.  He was a hundred and eleventy years old, and he had every reason to feel like butter that had been scraped over too much bread.  I suspect that most of us have been there at one time or another.

Even when you have doing your best, or perhaps, especially when you have been doing your best, that thin and stretched feeling can creep up on you.  There are several contributing factors.  Foremost among them is the fact that fallen humankind in a fallen world does not possess limitless energy.  Mind you, I think that limitless energy was part of God’s original plan in the Garden of Eden.  The curse Adam earned was, “By the sweat of your face you shall eat your bread . . . for you are dust and to dust you shall return’ (Genesis 2:19).  We run out of steam because we were meant to be connected with Life Himself, and when that connection was impaired, death, and the potential for exhaustion, entered our world.

There is another factor that cannot be ignored.  At the very beginning, that Arch Liar, the Serpent, fed Eve a bundle of half-truths.  The central fib she was told was that she could be like God by doing things in her own way, instead of in God’s way.  The only safe thing she could have said to him was, “Be gone Satan!”  Make no mistake we are still in that same battle, a battle that will take its toll on our energy, and on our very lives.  Jesus said as much when confronting the Pharisees, “You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father's desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and has nothing to do with the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies” (John 8:44).  There is an Enemy who seeks to drain us of all life and energy.  He is the Murderer of life, love, and joy.

There is a solution.  That solution is to continually, repeatedly, return to active fellowship with the God who loves us.  Isaiah asks us, “Have you not known? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary, his understanding is unsearchable.  He gives power to the faint, and to him who has no might he increases strength.  Even youths shall faint and be weary, and young men shall fall exhausted;  but they who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.” (Isaiah 40:28-31). 

The Hebrew word for “wait” also means “to hope, to expect, and to bind together.”  When we are bound together with the Lord by dwelling in His Presence in prayer, in listening for His voice in Scripture, in praise, and in fellowship with the saints, our energy gradually returns.  Experience teaches us that this restoration is positive, gradual, and energizing like the charging of a battery. When we feel stretched and thin, like butter scraped over too much bread; it is then that we discover the great truth that Emmanuel is “God with us”. Then we pray with the Psalmist, “When I called, you answered me; you increased my strength of soul” [Ps. 138:3].