Han Shot First (And Other Weighty Theological Matters)

I would like to write something about the passing of our beloved Madiba or the awesome headlines Pope Francis is making. However, I have limited time and feel unequal to both tasks. So instead, I offer some reflections on the Tragedy of the Remastered Star Wars. My point is neither terribly original nor terribly profound.

I assume you know Star Wars. I’m not exactly talking about one of my more obscure interests like Richard of St. Victor. This is pretty much the most influential American movie of all time, and arguably one of the best of all time. In fact, it is so good and so influential that we often forget that it is in every way a B sci-fi flick from the 70s with a low budget, special effects that are comical by today’s standards, second-rate acting, and awkward dialogue. I say all this with the greatest love and respect, of course. But it is very much a product of its time and its genre. It has a fairly simplistic plot, enhanced by new age philosophy (meaning no disrespect to my Jedi Realist friends, the Greeks probably thought Plato was new agey). And while adhering to the genre of low-budget sci-fi in the 70s with all the limitations it imposed, it also managed to transcend that genre and become the secondary mythology of many of our lives (or primary mythology, if you’re a Jedi Realist). By being the best example of its type that it could be, it became an American and global classic (and screw you, Annie Hall!). I certainly believe that Christianity offers more than Star Wars (the Force as the Holy Spirit only goes so far), but I definitely think that for me, it served as sort of preparatio evangeli (and for those people for whom it is a perfectly adequate religious end in itself, more power to them).

So the great tragedy of the whole thing is that, with the advance of technology, George Lucas realized that he now had the opportunity to make Star Wars into what he had always wanted it to be. Everyone who has ever produced a work of art, or even a sermon or a term paper, has had to confront the tragedy that our capabilities never quite do justice to our vision. Something is lost when I take my brilliant but formless ideas, and put them down on a concrete piece of paper (well, a concrete computer screen). In order for my actual work to be anything at all, it can’t be everything. I am limited by time, language, convention, logic, and fatigue just as much as George Lucas was limited by a low budget and 70s technology. And how many times have I wished I could revisit a sermon I’ve preached after I’d had a few days to iron out the kinks! Now George Lucas, because he’s George Lucas, did have the opportunity to “remaster” his masterpieces in the 90s, and then edit them again to make them more consistent with those heretical and blasphemous prequels (actually, I don’t hate the prequels as much as I used to, but that’s a story for another post). He could finally make the reality conform more closely to his vision. Instead of a 70s B movie, he could make it into an enduring masterpiece! So he did.

And we all hated every change he made.

The tragedy of Star Wars isn’t that Lucas couldn’t realize his vision in the 70s and 80s. The tragedy is that he couldn’t just let it be what it was, which we all loved. He had to go back and mess with it, making it into a B 70s film with occasional 90s patches sown on. I believe our Lord said something about sewing a new cloth onto an old garment. And all this to supposedly improve something that was already universally loved, and was an important part of many people’s lives.

The tragedy is that Lucas couldn’t be content with anything less than his vision. But George, we, your adoring fans who still mostly want to grow up to be Jedis–minus that celibacy wrinkle you threw in in the second prequel, but I digress–we love you for what you did, not for what you wanted to do.

So everyone else who isn’t George Lucas, bear this in mind next time your work, your art, or yourself can’t quite realize the brilliance of your vision. God loves what you will become, but God also loves what you are as you struggle to become it. And God blesses our second rate sermons that were the best we could pull together on a Saturday night after a week from hell, and all sorts of other imperfect and barely adequate endeavors. “My grace is sufficient,” a far greater saint than any of us was once told, “for in weakness, my power is made perfect.”

And fortunately, if you buy the DVDs, you can watch either the original or the remastered version. And you’d damn well better watch the original because HAN SHOT FIRST!!!!!!


Three Fairly Random Notes on a Tuesday

1.) The third post that I promised in my series on prayer is canceled for the time being. It was to be about prayer, depression, and dissertations. I suspect I will have something to say on the topic in the future, but for now, I find that I can’t write it an a way that is edifying without more work than a blog post really merits. Suffice it to say that I am writing a dissertation and struggling with depression. I am seeing a therapist, have a good community of support, and an excellent prognosis, but would still appreciate your prayers (because this sucks!).

But since a post about how I’m not making a post would be pretty pointless, let’s see if I can come up with two other things worth mentioning.

2.) I was just reading through some of Fencing Bear at Prayer‘s old posts. She is a history professor at my university from whom I got the idea of the semi-anonymous blog. I really like her stuff, particularly about, well, praying and writing.

3.) My “seminary” is a Seminary That Changes the World. I have no idea who compiled this list or what it means, but yay, I guess!

And with that, the Lord almighty grant us a peaceful night and a perfect end. Amen.



More Thoughts on Prayer

What is it then? I will pray with the spirit, and I will pray with the understanding also: I will sing with the spirit, and I will sing with the understanding also. -1 Corinthians 14:15

In my last post, I said that prayer is God letting us in on the eternal communication of the Trinity. Another way to say that is that God prays through us. This eternal and divine reality manifests itself in many ways. My working thesis is that God wants us to live into and experience the fullness of divine communion, and so we are led to pray in different ways at different times in our lives. Though God might lead us to pray in a certain way at any given time, and might withhold the gift of praying in a different way, I believe that God wants us to learn all of them. God wants Baptists to learn contemplative prayer and Catholics and Quakers to learn how to make their requests known to God “by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving” (Phil. 4:6). But everyone has to start somewhere. Be thankful for whatever way of praying God has given you, and don’t be in a hurry. The others will come in time (and not all of them are pleasant).

What I want to talk about now is how all this relates to communities and not just individuals. I am of the opinion that different Christian communions have different basic impulses regarding how they pray, listen to, and proclaim the Word of God. These are somewhat akin to the different charisms of Roman Catholic religious orders. These different impulses are not incompatible. They’re also not uniform throughout a congregation or a denomination. And the fact that a community has one basic impulse doesn’t mean it can’t grow and learn to express others as well, though I tend to think that one is always basic. I have learned to pray with the Book of Common Prayer, where the emphasis is on creating a liturgical, sacramental, and thus bodily context for hearing and responding to the Word. But under stress, I go straight to the Bible and a bunch of old Methodist and Baptist hymns about power in the blood (and sometimes to a fairly charismatic way claiming biblical promises and rebuking fallen powers). A congregation whose basic impulse is toward form and order can learn to welcome spontaneous and even ecstatic expressions, and a church that is more fundamentally inclined toward spontaneity or ecstasy can find that those gifts benefit from the form of the liturgy. “Thus one portion of being is the Prolific, the other the Devouring: to the devourer it seems as if the producer was in his chains, but it is not so, he only takes portions of existence and fancies that the whole./But the Prolific would cease to be Prolific unless the Devourer, as a sea, recieved the excess of his delights.”*

Many Episcopalians can be quite snobbish about other forms of worship, especially ones that seem to play more to the emotions. But we shouldn’t be. Those other churches may be missing something that we have, but we are likely missing something that they have. And people from more evangelical or charismatic churches shouldn’t be too quick to judge what must seem to an outsider like the formalism or emphasis on physical actions in our worship. Each of these embody a basic response to God, and at their best they are open to being enriched by the others. When we go to a church and find that its way of praying is not transparent to us (by which I mean that we do not in some way see God through it), then we should not assume that they are doing wrong. Our first guess should be that we have not yet been given the gift of seeing God in that way.

But we all have to go to church somewhere. Many people are raised one tradition in which they remain comfortably for their whole lives. I rejoice for them, though I myself ended up letting myself get transplanted. And as we find ourselves in an increasingly secular and mobile society, people find themselves “picking a church” either for the first time, or when they move somewhere new or feel drawn to something new, or for a million other reasons. And all I can say is that you want to find a church whose basic impulses are compatible with your own, and whose way of expressing those impulses are life-giving to you. It’s no good if it’s a great fit on paper, but you spend the whole service inwardly seething more Sundays than not. You need a church that you can love as it is, and pray with as it is. But you also want a church that is open to having its prayer life transformed and enriched. God leads congregations to grow in prayer, just like individuals.

I’ll end with a brief plug for the Episcopal Church (or at least why it works for me). I wish I could be a charismatic. The deepest and most transformative worship experiences I’ve had were the sort where you let yourself be overcome by emotion in an environment that is designed to evoke an emotional response. If you can get into it, you feel the Lord’s atoning blood close to your soul applied, get lost in wonder, love, and praise (funny that I can only use Methodist words to describe it, eh?). Nothing quite does what Hillsong used to do for me. The problem is that I can’t do that every week, especially as I get older. Sometimes (quite often, actually), the gift of worshiping God like that is just not given to me. And when you can’t get into a service like that, it’s agony. Everyone else around you is in tearful ecstasy, and you’re bored to tears. In Episcopal worship, there are times when I can engage it emotionally like that, and I’ve increasingly given myself permission to do so, even when it doesn’t look like anyone else is. But I don’t have to force the emotions. There’s also something for my mind and my senses to engage. There are actions to perform and things to think about. God meets me on all levels. It gives me the most room to express my own basic impulses, but also to work out other spiritual muscles.

I will pray with the spirit, but I will pray with the understanding also.

*William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

Thoughts on Prayer

“Pray as you can, not as you cannot.” -John Chapman, OSB

Good advice if there ever was any. For those of us with evangelical or charismatic backgrounds, it is tempting to think that prayer is successful when it causes the one praying to achieve a certain emotional state. There is, in fact, an important emotional dimension to prayer that most Episcopalians seem largely unaware of. But prayer is not emotional manipulation. Some days, there seems to be no emotion at all, or the emotion is sadness, anger, or fear, or something that just can’t be categorized, but which sucks. Other forms of prayer emphasize the direction of one’s attention while praying. But there are days when you couldn’t concentrate if your life depended on it. Or if you think of prayer in the good old petitionary sense, there are days when you (or at least I) just can’t bring yourself to pray for things you really need or want. All of these are times to heed Br. John’s advice: pray as you can, not as you cannot.

We are not actually the primary agents in prayer. Prayer is God’s gift to us. And if I read the Bible aright (especially Romans 8), it consists primarily in God letting us in on the eternal communication of the three Persons of the Trinity: “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:26-28). This communication manifests itself in many different ways. It is different for different people, and for the same people at different times.

Now there are many different specific things said about prayer in both Testaments, and I take them to be promises of things God wants to give us. This includes the boldness to ask for the things on our heart (e.g., John 16:23-24), the gift of reposing before God in silence (Psalm 46:10 or 62:1), the gift of prophecy, tongues, and ecstatic utterances (1 Cor. 14), the gift of praise, and even the gift of lamentation. Eventually, all speech and all thought will be prayer. There will be no distinction between sacred and secular discourse, just as “On that day there shall be inscribed on the bells of the horses, “Holy to the Lord.” And the cooking pots in the house of the Lord shall be as holy as the bowls in front of the altar; and every cooking pot in Jerusalem and Judah shall be sacred to the Lord of hosts” (Zechariah 14:20-21a). But while all of this is promised to every believer, it does not all come at once. So if, on a given day, the sort of prayer you want to say seems inaccessible to you, don’t worry about it, and don’t beat yourself up over it. That is not the sort of gift God has for you that day. Try something else. Inasmuch as there is any skill to be learned in prayer, it is learning how and when to knock off trying to receive a gift that God isn’t giving you, and when God is trying to give you something. I’ve never been to a spiritual director, but I imagine that sort of discernment is a lot of what they do.

I think the important thing to keep in mind for those of us doing this more or less on our own is that you can’t fail at prayer. There is simply no standard to fall short of. Furthermore, you can’t fail at something if God is the primary agent. Pray as you can, not as you cannot. If you cannot pray in a certain way, God is not yet giving you the gift of praying in that way. What gift is God giving you instead?

This is the first installment of what I am currently envisioning as a three-part series (plans subject to change without notice). If the Lord allows, the next installment will apply what I have said here to corporate prayer and worship. The third post will reveal my ulterior motive for writing about this.

The Veil is Thin

I just prayed the evening office using the propers for the Eve of All Saints, and was a teary wreck by the end. Afterward, someone asked me why. I’d like to explain what All Saints means for me, but I’m not sure I can. May the Lord give me aid.

Before my aunt Susan (not her real name) died a few years ago, I had only ever been in her house two or three times, even though she lived quite close to where I grew up. She struggled with paranoid-schizophrenia for all of her adult life, and I gather that much of her life was quite difficult and lonely. It would be a lonely and isolating thing to see threats in all directions. Her house was something of a haunted fortress. The yard was overgrown, and the blinds were always drawn. The few times I went inside, it was a mess. There were pieces of paper everywhere on which she had written things she had deemed important, vital even. She once had my father search her house for a seemingly random piece of paper and bring it to her when she was hospitalized. None of these papers meant anything to anyone else. She would come and visit us, but we never went inside her house except when necessary for some urgent reason.

I liked Susan, but her house was scary for me. It was as though she spent her life locked in this small place, albeit one of her own devising. It seemed cut off from the world. It was as though her whole life was something that couldn’t be understood, that might be dangerous, and therefore had to be locked away. Or perhaps she thought the world couldn’t be understood, might be dangerous, and had to be locked out. Either way, there was fear and isolation.

As a child, I was told that Susan was crazy. She had to be institutionalized more than once. She was probably fine, but could be dangerous. I should just leave her alone and not worry about her. And that’s mostly what I did. As a young adult, I began to understand that my family’s way of avoiding my aunt and her illness was very broken. But her health took a sudden turn for the worse, and she died fairly suddenly a few years ago. I lived in Chicago by then. I never came to visit her, and I don’t think there was even a funeral.

Years later (last year, in fact), I shared with one of my priests how guilty I felt about the way she lived and died, and how terrifying I still found the memory of her house and the isolation it symbolized for me. My priest is a wise woman, and noted that the Feast of All Saints was approaching. Perhaps I might find during that time when “the veil is thin” that Susan still had something to say to me, or I to her.

So I went down into the basement chapel at Brent House, and asked God if anyone wanted to say anything to me. In the dark when nobody is there, that chapel can feel a bit creepy, like Susan’s house, but it is not a place of fear for me. It is one of my favorite places on earth, a place where God is near. No one in that chapel is ever alone. The body and blood of Christ are there, of course. And all the host of heaven is there. And then someone said this:

“Who are you, Kyle, to say that I lived or died alone? Who are you to say that anybody died alone? This room is full! Who are you to say my house wasn’t?”

That was all in my head, of course. But why should that make it any less real?

I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.

My favorite theologian calls the Holy Spirit a bond, a vinculum caritatis. The Holy Spirit is the bond of love of the Father and the Son. It* is the bond within the Trinity, and the bond between the Trinity and us. Bonds or binding can be something that imprisons, but also something that heals. There is a bond of marriage and bond of friendship. And we bind up wounds.

Some wounds, it seems, do not end with death. But neither does God’s healing bond. Just as God is the bond among all those who live and love, and the bond of all those saints and angels who see God’s face in the light, so God is also the bond between the living and the dead. “For they must needs be present, that love and live in that which is omnipresent.”** Is there any brokenness that God cannot bind up? God’s very self is sufficient to bind up every wound. In fact, God has already put all broken things back together by reconciling all things to herself in Jesus. We only live and pray for the day when that which is already real will be visible, that which we now see “through a glass, darkly.”

Around the Feast of All Saints, the glass is less dark than on other days. The veil is thin. When I pray the prayers and sing the songs, I know that God and all those made in the image of God pray with me and for me, as we are all together healed in that healing bond of love. The brokenness can feel more broken, even as it is already made part of the wholeness that is and is to come.

Nothing and no one is outside of that wholeness. And no one lives or dies alone.

For all the saints who from their labors rest, and especially for my departed aunts, thanks be to God.

*I believe that any gender can be used for all three Persons of the Trinity
**William Penn, More Fruits of Solitude (yes, the epigraph to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows)
[Edited: Typos fixed]

“You are so loved.”

At the risk of over-sharing: My wife typed the above into the open document I was working on while I wasn’t looking, which happened to be my dissertation chapter. Sadly, it did not belong in the spot where she put it. But as my dissertation topic is the love of God, it is rather the point of the whole thing.

For a little moment like that, I can only thank God for means of grace and hope of glory.

Anglican Buyer’s Remorse and the Illegitimacy of Jesus

I just finished the two books that are already out in Hilary Mantel’s trilogy about Thomas Cromwell and the English Reformation. The sensibility is a bit like Game of Thrones in early modern England, which is to say it is a very un-romanticized telling of a story we are used to hearing in a more lofty register. The heroes doesn’t really come across as all that heroic, but interestingly, the traditional villain (Cromwell) comes off as quite understandable, even likeable (one cringes as he makes various deals with the devil that the reader knows will eventually lead to his own death). But it does make the Church of England (and by extension, its global cousins) look pretty ridiculous. We need a historic episcopate as a symbol of our continuity with the murderous political and religious machinations of the Tudor court? I see why for some people, all this talk about propriety and legitimacy just reeks of male, aristocratic power justifying itself. And it’s no use taking refuge in the Protestant wing of the church, as these books remind me rather painfully of how closely linked early Protestantism was then with both royal power plays and early capitalism. Let me be quick to say that in theory, I do not find Anglicanism’s historical (and contemporary) political entanglements any more troubling than those of the Lutherans, Calvinists, Catholics, or non-denominational evangelicals. Hell, it’s no use running off and becoming an Anabaptist, since even they have a history of violence, though they are often a bit better about actively repudiating it.

I am fairly skeptical about the likelihood or even possibility of any place where one could flee that is untainted. Wheat and tares, together sown, or something like that (or two cities and two loves, since I’m writing on Augustine). But seriously, Anglicanism… No, the Episcopal Church is not the Church of England. We do not have a Supreme Governor, nor are our bishops selected by a Prime Minister who doesn’t even have to be a Christian. But whenever you’ve managed to convince yourself that this isn’t what your own praying of the daily office is about, Psalm 45 or 72 shows up in the lectionary. And even if you don’t have a queen, and you don’t have to pray that she (and by extension, you) may know “whose minister she is,” you’ve probably been around long enough to know why the stereotype of your church as a church of the east coast elite exists, though you hopefully also know that it’s not entirely fair. You are yourself an Episcopalian by choice, even if you’ve visited too many parishes where the voice from the pulpit has been that of benevolent privilege (if not insipid works righteousness, minus the works).

But anyway, I actually meant for this post to be a reflection on the first chapter of Matthew. You see, Jesus is presented as the heir of a royal genealogy. It’s a very tidy genealogy, with 14 generations separating significant events, and only a few hints that it is not actually as seamless as it looks. It is a patrilineal genealogy, mentioning only four women. Like much of the Hebrew Bible, it reads like royalist propaganda, but it would be very odd propaganda that paints its kings in such an unflattering light. Actually, most of the monarchs in the books of Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles come off looking about as bad as the Tudors in Mantel’s novels, complete with murder, rape, incest, and the opportunistic fusion of political and religious power. And Matthew knows this perfectly well. Jesus was born into and was fully part of a history as screwed up as English history, and as screwed up as your own family history probably is if you scratch the surface a bit. He had to be part of history to redeem it.

But for all of the evangelist’s concern to show that Jesus is part of the patriarchal and royal history of Israel (and whether or not his goal is to endorse that history), he’s also quite clear that Jesus isn’t patrilineally related to any of these people! It was important to him to spend 15 verses setting up this picture of patriarchal succession and legitimacy from Abraham to Joseph with all the care of an English cleric trying to legitimate his preferred branch of the Plantagenet family, only to announce quite loudly that the messiah for whom he’s claiming this history is illegitimate within it! This is Joseph’s genealogy, and Jesus is only Joseph’s son by grace, not by nature (it should also be noted that he is Mary’s son by grace. He is only God’s son by nature, and became Joseph and Mary’s son so that we, by grace, can become what he always was by nature).

And I think that’s my hope for the Anglican tradition. We have a history that is weighed down with oppression, and more than a little embarrassment. It is tied up with English social hierarchy and British imperialism, and still uses symbols that have been used for the purposes of male, European supremacy and female, non-European subjugation (and we won’t even get started on interrogating those dichotomies in this post). But my hope (and to a certain extent, my experience) is that like the genealogy in Matthew, it can be the sign or even the sacrament of something else, something that is in it but not of it. Jesus redeems history from inside of it, though it has no claim on him, if we will but welcome him.

May the grace be given to us that was given to Mary and Joseph.