Friday, August 11, 2017

Ban Children from the Church!

It's for their own good, mind you.

For decades, if not centuries, Christians have wrestled with the questions surrounding young people and attendance at worship.  They can be a little disruptive, say some; but they are part of our community; say others.  They don't want to to be here, say the permissive; it is good for them, say the rigorous. They are our future, say the anxious; they are our present, say the affirming. (The one thing all seem to agree on is that their presence serves the salutary purpose of preventing preachers from speaking with any frankness about sex, death or Santa Claus.)

But what if we just cut the Gordian knot?  If we took a deep breath and tossed the little rugrats out on their diapered bums? Jane Watkins suggests that this might not be the worst thing for anybody.

If you have not yet had the pleasure, we warmly commend to your attention the novelist Phil Rickman and his books about the Rev. Merrily Watkins.  Merrily is a priest in the Church of England, serving both as a village vicar and as the diocesan exorcist -- or, in modern church-speak, "minister of deliverance."

Near the beginning of our current Rickman, The Prayer of the Night Shepherd, Merrily takes up the question of children in church with her 17-year-old daughter Jane who, as she points out, was recently a child herself.  Jane is Rickman's own voice in the books, a quasi-pagan distant from but respectful of her mother's faith. This is her answer:
‘Who needs kids in church, anyway? Look at it this way – kids are not supposed to drink in pubs until they’re eighteen, so pubs are slightly mysterious... therefore cool. So like, obviously, the best way to invest in the future would be to ban the little sods from the church altogether. That way, they wouldn’t turn out like me.’ 
‘So the monthly Family Service, with kids doing readings, the quiz...’ 
‘Totally crap idea, I always said that. It just makes the Church look needy and pathetic. You have to cultivate the mystery. If you don’t bring back the mystery, you’re stuffed, Mum.’
It smacks of modest proposal, to be sure.  But there is a kernel of truth there, too, and don't you deny it. Ban the children, and the church is a place where adults can speak freely, of adult matters. Ban the children, and the church is a place children wonder about, and long for.

But, children or no children, pagan Jane is onto the most important matter, the one that sociologists and intellectual historians sometimes call "re-enchantment."  A church that is preoccupied with worldly things -- even good and important things, like care for the poor and welcoming strangers -- is at base a rational creature, comprehensible by the world on the world's terms. A church preoccupied by works of civil righteousness is just another nonprofit, with fancier costumes than most -- and less effective fundraising.

But a church that offers what some pagans call a "thin place," what others simply call temple, altar and sacrifice -- in either instance, a place where the mortal encounters the eternal, where the rational is set momentarily aside in favor of the irrational, where the numinous overwhelms the prosaic -- that is something else entirely.  A place that offers the sort of savage, ecstatic, extra-rational mountaintop experience that most modern people can only find on a dance floor or a sports arena?  That is something that people need, long for, and will travel far to find.

So listen to pagan Jane. Keep the kids, if you like. But above all, cultivate the mystery.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Il Tassista e La Sua Eminenza

Our new favorite bit of Roman humor comes courtesy of John L. Allen Jr., at the very fine news site Crux.  It goes like this:
For those old enough to remember the mid-1960s, the Vatican II era in Catholicism, Italian Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani was the stuff of legend. He was the head of the Holy Office, later renamed the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and was perceived as the leader of the conservative opposition at Vatican II. Even his episcopal motto hinted at intransigence: Semper Idem, meaning “always the same." 
An old joke about that Ottaviani, which was a favorite during Vatican II, went like this:
One day, Ottaviani is across Rome for lunch with friends and needs to get back for the afternoon session of Vatican II. He hails a cab, gets in, and says, “Take me to the council.” The cabbie looks around, sees that it’s Ottaviani, and promptly drives him to Trent!

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Slaves of Love

This is actually the title of my sermon this Sunday, based on Romans 6:22. I will probably resist using this image in any parish publicity, however.

My favorite part of this image, by the way, is that in the three lower panels, the bra and panties have been shopped in.  There's another version floating around the webs without them, but we're a modest blog and will leave the fi-leaves be.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Wages of Sin

Well, this probably won't be the bulletin cover for Sunday's sermon on Romans 6:12-23.  But one might wish it were so!

Friday, May 19, 2017

Unrepentant: A Tale of Two Drunk-Driving Manslaughtering Protestant Bishops

When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ``Repent'' (Mt 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.

This is, of course, the first of Luther's 95 Theses, and foundational document not just for us Evangelicals but for Protestants of all stripes, including (with however much hemming and hawing they claim the label) members of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the USA. This fact seems lost on former suffragan (or subordinate) bishop of the Baltimore, Heather Cook.

A few days after Christmas in 2014, as readers may recall, Ms Cook struck and killed a cyclist named Tom Palermo.  She was driving; he was biking.  Her blood contained more than twice the legal alcohol content.  And she was texting (although, as GR points out, we still do not know with whom).

Ms Cook appears to have been an habitual drunk.  She had been arrested for DUI (with an even higher BAC) in 2010, and her boss, Bishop Eugene Sutton, had told the Presiding Bishop that Cook seemed to be drunk at a party in her own honor, given just before her consecration in September 2014.

All this may sound depressingly familiar to Egg readers.  Two years before Cook killed Palermo, a Lutheran bishop named Bruce Burnside struck and killed a pedestrian named Maureeen Mengelt.  Burnside was also driving drunk and texting. Burnside was sentenced to ten years in prison, Cook to seven. Oh, and both bishops left the scene of their crimes.

But there is a signal difference between the two.  At his trial, Burnside pled guilty, and took responsibility for his crime. He said:
I am responsible for what happened. No one else. I have never been so sorry. Sorry is such an insufficient word for this kind of guilt. ... I do daily return to that everlasting split second. I will be a prisoner of that. I will be another kind of prisoner in a cell as well.

In contrast, Cook pled not guilty at her arraignment, which was her perfect legal right (and in fairness, she later pled guilty as part of a plea bargain). But at no time does she appear to have taken responsibility for her actions. Nor, it seems, does she now.  The Baltimore Sun reports that, at a recent parole hearing, Cook "took no responsibility" for her actions and displayed a "lack of remorse." It further reports that she
... spoke at length, calling her alcoholism a disease and describing the parole process as a "brutal irony," but never apologized to Rachel Palermo, Thomas' widow and the mother of his two children.
Palermo was sitting a few feet away in a small room.

Bear two things in mind:  (1) Cook was not likely to be paroled in any case, according to an official quoted in the story; but also (2) parole boards are known to take displays of remorse and acceptance of responsibility quite seriously in hearings like this.  Had Cook wanted to increase her chances of parole, she would have sucked it up and pulled a Burnside.

But she didn't.  Instead, she went on -- the report suggests at unusual length -- about her disease, and about the process itself. In other words, she acted against her own best interest, both legally and morally.

The only real conclusion to be drawn is that she is genuinely unrepentant.  She seems to feel that her disease killed Thomas Palermo, rather than she herself. So firm is she in this sentiment that she will not betray it, even to get herself out of prison.

We cannot begin to imagine this woman's spiritual life, nor would we choose to if we could.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Newman on Reaching the Heart

The relationship of science to religion, or reason to faith, may well prove the defining question of our time.  It is certainly no new subject.

In 1841, the once and future Prime Minister, Sir Robert Peel, offered a dedicatory speech at the opening of a new reading-room at Tamworth, in Staffordshire.  It is a curious document, which begins with the tedious story of how the library was established and a request for subscriptions, and proceeds to sing the praises of books on drainage, wheat disease, and emigration to the colonies.

Toward the end, Peel launches an argument against "those who anticipate injurious consequences, either to the moral or religious characters of the people from imparting to them such knowledge." Did such people exist, or are they invented for the sake of argument? It is hard to imagine that many people were concerned about the moral decadence that might result from reading about wheat blight, then one rarely goes broke overestimating the anxiety of the morally scrupulous.

Either way, Peel's speech reaches its climax in a defense of scientific reading against its supposed religious despisers. Marshaling quotations from Newton and Sir Humphrey Davey, as well as Charles James Blomfield, then Bishop of London, he proposes that study of the natural sciences will tend to make people admire their Creator, that
... science and knowledge will not merely impress upon the mind a cold conviction of the truths of Natural Religion - but that they will temper and prepare it for the better conception and comprehension of the great scheme of human redemption[,] ­that new sources of conviction will be opened, independent of the overwhelming force of historical testimony - independent of that assent of the heart and conscience which instinctively discovers in the pure system of Christian morality, the internal evidence of a Divine origin.
This is an audacious proposition: to establish in Science a basis for Christian religious faith (and morals) independent of the Bible and any other "historical testimony."  But it is not, to be honest, so very far from the arguments one hears today among many Christians, nor among those early Christian students of natural philosophy who sought to read, alongside, Scripture, "the Book of Nature." Frankly, we ourselves are not unsympathetic to Peel on this matter.

But do you know who was very unsympathetic indeed?  Newman.

John Henry Newman, in those days still (if marginally) an Anglican, took instant umbrage.  He sensed behind Peel's speech the work of thinkers to whom he was hostile -- Lord Brougham, Jeremy Bentham -- and more generally the emerging tendency to give revealed religion a secondary place in intellectual affairs.  Newman responded with a series of seven anonymous letters to the Times (in the clubby world of Victorian intellectuals, they were, one imagines, about as "anonymous" as this blog). You can read the letters here.  They are quite readable, even when one disagrees.

But one passage in particular stands out, in which Newman comes right to the core of the attack on "historical testimony":
Science gives us the grounds or premisses from which religious truths are to be inferred; but it does not set about inferring them, much less does it reach the inference;—that is not its province. It brings before us phenomena, and it leaves us, if we will, to call them works of design, wisdom, or benevolence; and further still, if we will, to proceed to confess an Intelligent Creator. 
We have to take its facts, and to give them a meaning, and to draw our own conclusions from them. First comes Knowledge, then a view, then reasoning, and then belief. This is why Science has so little of a religious tendency; deductions have no power of persuasion. 
The heart is commonly reached, not through the reason, but through the imagination, by means of direct impressions, by the testimony of facts and events, by history, by description. Persons influence us, voices melt us, looks subdue us, deeds inflame us. Many a man will live and die upon a dogma: no man will be a martyr for a conclusion. A conclusion is but an opinion; it is not a thing which is, but which we are "certain about;" and it has often been observed, that we never say we are certain without implying that we doubt. To say that a thing must be, is to admit that it may not be. No one, I say, will die for his own calculations; he dies for realities. 
We at the Egg are not altogether certain that we take Newman's side on this, but we do admire his style.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

A Blessed Nullification: John Donne on Hearts Warmed and Melted

On February 12, 1629, the Dean of St. Paul's Cathedral went to Whitehall, and preached a Lenten sermon before the King.  The Dean was John Donne; the King was Charles I, and the text was Matthew 6:21, "For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also."

The sermon is a typical bravura performance.  Read it, if only for the opening image.  Donne talks about the smallest hour-glass, a minute-glass, which would give him more time than he needs to describe a worldly man's treasure; it passes quickly, like the sand. But for a godly man?  Donne says he could not describe that person's treasure if he had
... a secular glass: a glass that would run an age. If the two hemispheres of the world were composed in the form of such a glass, and all the world calcin'd and burnt to ashes, and all the ashes and sands and atoms of the world put into that glass, it would not be enough to tell the godly man what his treasure and the object of his heart is.
Those preaching this week (the Third Sunday in Easter of Year A) may also read the sermon because it contains Donne's single homiletic reference to the disciples encountering Christ en route to Emmaus.

He gets there in the midst of a disquisition on what it means to have "a heart." This is the sort of question, as you can imagine, that is like candy to Donne.  It gives him an opportunity to divide up the meanings of a word, list them and draw together his Biblical and patristic allusions.

So he says: God calls us to have a fixed, a faithful heart; but to this there are many impediments, which he reduces to three:  Cor nullum, or heartlessness; Cor duplex, an irresolute heart; Cor vagum, a wandering heart. The reference to Emmaus comes in the discussion of cor nullum:
... for the fire of God's Spirit may take hold of me and, as the disciples that went with Christ to Emmaus were affected, my heart may burn within me when the Scriptures are opened  -- that is, when God's judgements are denounced against my sin and this heat may overcome my former frigidity and coldness, and overcome my succeeding tepidity and lukewarmness, and may bring my heart to a mollification, to a tenderness, as Job found it: "The Almighty hath troubled me and made my heart soft."
It may be counterintuitive for modern Christians, or at least for Lutherans, to think of Emmaus as a story of judgment against sin; there is nothing about that in the text, and we are more accustomed to focus upon the image of Christ as a loving and supportive companion. But of course the "scriptures" that Jesus opened are our Old Testament, which is never short of judgment.

And when we think of hearts burning within us, many Protestants (at least) recall the story of John Wesley's Aldersgate experience -- when his heart was strangely warmed by hearing Luther's Preface to Romans, and the consequent trust that God "had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death."  This is not, really, far from Donne's point -- hearing the Law drives us to the Gospel, which turns our hearts from ice to fire.

Even if that's no help, there is a nice little prayer in the midst of it, which you may find useful.  Having been warmed, even melted, Donne says that he is at last pliable stuff, ductile metal, in the hands of his Maker, at which point he can say:
 Lord, though I be nothing, yet behold I present thee as much as thou hadst to make the whole world of;  O Thou that madst the whole world of nothing, make me that am nothing in mine own eyes a new creature in Christ Jesus.
He calls this self-abnegation, this kenosis if you like, a "blessed nullification." It is all close in tone to his famous sonnet, "Batter my heart, O thou Three-person'd God." But the grammar alone may render it a little easier to use in the pulpit or even -- who knows? -- in one's own devotions.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Luther on the Blissful Tree

In 1871, the Augustana Book Concern published a volume of Luther's Passion sermons (via Internet Archive). It was intended for devotional rather than scholarly use, and gives no sources nor even the name of the translator.  We haven't time just now to track it all down in the American edition.

But the Tenth Passion Sermon, as given in this little volume beginning on p. 159, has a few memorable bits right near the end, which we may work into our own Good Friday sermon this year.

Luther considers the age-old question of whether the Cross, an instrument of shame, should give offense to Christians.  At first, he suggests that it is indeed offensive to us, because on it Jesus took upon himself our own curse.  Moreover, since God had already cursed anyone who should die on a cross (Deuteronomy 21:23), the Son now hangs there, "as one condemned, and as one whom God hates and visits now with shame and want and agony."

But wait, says Luther:  Let us look beyond first appearances, and judge not according to human reason, but to the Word of God.  
This we find to be  altogether different from that which we can see with the bodily eye. This disgraceful death which God has cursed is an offence to the eye, but to us it is a blessed death, for it takes the curse away from  us and brings God's blessing to us.
The tree which in itself is an accursed tree, is for us a blissful tree.  It is that precious altar, upon which God's Son offers Himself to God, His Father, for our sins. It is that glorious altar, at which He appears as the  true and eternal priest. For He is brought to the  tree, and He makes it a blessed altar, that we might be released from sin, and receive God's grace and  be God's children.

Luther is not saying that the Cross is not the sign of a curse, because that would contradict God's Word.  He is saying that, in addition to a curse, it is also the sign of a blessing.

He then launches into a touching encomium for the Cross of Christ: 
No wonder, then, that the old teachers entertained such excellent thoughts about the cross and the accursed tree. 
There in Paradise, they say, a beautiful tree occasioned our falling into sin and  death ; here, however, an old, dry -- yes, accursed -- tree occasioned our deliverance from sin and our receiving everlasting life. Here hangs God's Son with  arms extended as a testimony that He will cast no  one out, but gladly receive every one and draw all unto Him, as He says He will (John 12).  
His head  is lifted toward heaven, pointing out to us the way  of life eternal. His feet reach toward the ground where they bruise the head of Satan, that old serpent creeping on the earth, forcing from him all his power. 
There's a lot for a preacher to work with in this passage, especially the antitheses between "there" and "here," as well as between Christ's head and feet.. 

As an example of "the old teachers," we might look to Adam of St. Victor, whose Laudes Crucis atollamus was called by John Mason Neale "the masterpiece" of "the greatest Latin poet." It is not impossible that Luther had this hymn in mind as he wrote, particularly the passage Neale translates this way:
Hail, the Tree that brings salvation,
Tree of Beauty, Tree of Life!
O how glorious, how transcendent
was this Altar! How resplendent
In the life-blood of the Lamb!
Of the Lamb immaculate
that redeemed our ancient state
From its sin and from its shame.

Tuesday, April 04, 2017

Judica Down, Palmarum Coming

Dear Friends of the Egg,

This is the time of year when a parish pastor's life is very much like driving a Formula 1 car through a long, dark tunnel at top speed.

Lent is, for most of us, a great deal of work, not the least of which is the preparation for Holy Week and Easter. The goal is clear, and closer than it seems, but to change course even a little bit -- sometimes, even to divert one's attention from the road for a moment -- is to invite disaster.

Of course, an F-1 driver doesn't have to think about people who are ill or dying or dead, or inconsiderately being born, nor about councils and committees and even an ELCA Malaria Initiative executive who all insist on meeting during Holy Week, or on any of the million other routine matters that, in a rightly-ordered world, would be suspended until a week or two past Easter.  Not to mention income taxes, due the day of the Vigil. So pastoring this time of year is more like driving that race car through the tunnel while juggling pie pans on broomsticks and singing "O Susanna."

It's busy.  That's all we're saying here.  It's a frantic, exciting, joyful time to be a servant of the servants of God.

And yet, astonishingly, the world keeps turning.  Bad prayers continue to be published, ugly vestments to be worn; the President of the United States continues to lie like an Oriental carpet, and Congress continues to do nothing in the most malicious and belligerent way possible. Which means that we at the Egg have work to do, devils to mock, opinions to offer as if they were facts, all under the thin-worn cloak of our putative anonymity.

But not this week, and not next week either.  Maybe during Bright Week, when we take a few blessed hours of rest.  Until then, beware the forces of darkness, and remember us in your prayers.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Prayer of the Day -- Now With Extra Clauses!

The Prayer of the Day offered by Evangelical Lutheran Worship for the fourth Sunday in Lent during Year A of the lectionary is as follows:
Bend your ear to our prayers, Lord Christ, and come among us. By your gracious life and death for us, bring light into the darkness of our hearts, and anoint us with your Spirit, for you live and reign with the Father ... 
It's not a terrible prayer.  But doesn't it seem a little cluttered?  Of course it does!  And why?  because, as we never tire of pointing out, the ELW editors never saw a prayer they didn't think could be improved by more words.

The Latin original comes from the Gelasian Sacramentary (#1173), where it reads:
Uoci nostrae quaesumus, Domine, aures tuae pietatis accomoda et cordis nostrae tenebras lumine tuae visitationis inlustra; per … 
Or in rough English:
O Lord, we ask that the ears of your mercy might hear our voices, and the light of your presence brighten the darkness of our hearts; through Jesus Christ, etc.
It is easy enough to see where the ELW team got their extra ideas.  (i) Christ's "coming among us" -- a fair translation of visitatio - is defined here as his life and death. (ii) The Spirit's unction is probably an allusion to Christ's "smearing" mud on the eyes of the Man Born Blind, in the Gospel reading for the day.  (The NRSV's "smeared" is a weak translation of the Greek epichrisen, "anointed," found in the major manuscripts apart from Vaticanus.) But the fact that an addition can be explained does not mean it should have been added in the first place.  The original prayer was noble in its brevity, and surely easier for listeners to follow.

It is also possible that the editors are attempting to conform the original prayer to a common model, according to which the form of a collect requires an invocation, which in turn includes a relative clause identifying God's action -- for instance, "O God, who became incarnate among us."  The problem with conforming ancient prayers to this model, obviously, is that the model is drawn from analysis of the ancient prayers.  If some of them lack the "right" parts, it isn't the prayers that are wrong, it is the model.

The sad thing is that, as we look ever more closely at the ELW collects, we can see just how much labor went into reading a variety of classical prayers and then padding them with unwelcome fluff.

Wednesday, March 08, 2017

A Nice Little Post-Communion Prayer

Looking for something to use at our Saturday vigil Mass (you remember, the one our congregation insists on calling its "Contemporary Service"), we stumbled across a nice little post-communion prayer.  The Gelasian Sacramentary prescribes it for certain weekdays in Lent.  In Latin, it reads:
Quaesumus, omnipotens Deus, ut inter eius numeremur membra, cuius corpore communicamus et sanguine; per ....
A straightforward translation is:
We ask, almighty God, to be be counted among the members of Him whose body and blood we share; [even Jesus Christ our Lord.]
This can be prettied up a bit if one wishes -- Count us, almighty God, or we have shared.  But it is admirable in its brevity, and really does not need any decoration.

Please do not rework it in the style of this Roman Catholic resource, which renders it thusly:
Grant, we beseech Thee, O Lord, that having received these helps unto salvation we may everywhere be protected by the patronage of blessed Mary ever Virgin, in veneration of whom we have offered this sacrifice to Thy majesty. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, Thy Son, Who liveth and reigneth with Thee in the unity of the Holy Ghost, one God For ever and ever. 
Seriously, guys?  We are ourselves partial to Baroque prose and stilted syntax, but everything must have its limits. And much as we love the BVM, she seems to have hijacked the prayer.

Thursday, February 09, 2017

Keep Christianity Weird

Of late, Father Anonymous has been assembling covers for the worship bulletins at his Saturday night vigil Mass, which the congregation insists upon referring to as its "Contemporary Service." (Let's not open that can of semantic worms.)  To be brutally honest, he doesn't create the images; he steals them, and makes a collage. The arrangement is his own work, but nothing else.

Upon reviewing a few of the said covers, the rotund cleric has has noted that they share a distinctive character. The images and layout may vary a bit, but the aesthetic is consistent from week to week, and it is one that merits consideration.

In a word, our bulletin covers are weird.  Here are a few samples.

We've got a skeleton swinging an axe (an image of autumn, and reminder of John the Baptist); a giant disembodied eye (did it offend somebody and get plucked out?); random dead people on a church sign; a newspaper announcing the Apocalypse; and a virgin learning that she is pregnant with God's baby.

That last one does not seem so weird until you think about it.

In fact, Christianity as a whole doesn't seem so weird ... until you think about it.  But the moment you start thinking about it, our faith starts to sound like a bad acid trip, or a disjointed Italian horror movie.

A baby is born who turns out to be God; he dies and then comes back to life; people are plunged into the water and told they have died and been reborn; then they eat a meal that is supposed to be the flesh and blood of the man-God. Everybody who has ever done this, living or dead, is connected and will get together again when the man-God returns as a judge and, not coincidentally, the world ends.

Yeah, it's weird.  And that's without the medieval "extras" -- relics, purgatory, monasticism, and the whole "is-it-an-apple-or-is-it-a-codeword-for-sex" thing.

This is no new observation. In Irenaeus' Lyons, the early Christians were accused of Thyestean banquets and Oedipean marriages -- cannibal meals and "brothers" marrying "sisters. " Julian the Apostate dismissed churches built over the remains of a saint as "charnel houses."

Nor is it at all novel to represent in art the disorienting strangeness of Christianity. From the Alexamenos graffito to Serrano's "Piss Christ," our imagery has been used with Brechtian power by critics of the faith.  But it has been used to no less disorienting an effect by ardent supporters. Think of Christ as Noah on the catacomb walls, or the profusion of ever-gorier Crucifixes in the later Middle Ages or the entire oeuvre of Hieronymus Bosch. Not to mention reliquaries, ossuaries, or church walls painted with dancing skeletons and tortured souls.

We Christians are the inheritors of a vast treasury of grotesque, macabre, disturbing imagery. Much is symbolic, some is didactic, more than a little is violent, sexual, or frightening.

But come to church most weekends, and what's on the cover of the bulletin?  A butterfly.

Or a flower, or a field of waving grass with a rising sun.  Or a statue of Martin Luther (or your own tradition's favorite saint). Stop by the local Bible Bookstore, and you can find more of the same:  ichthys-fish with clever responses to Darwin, Jesus-bobbleheads, Thomas Kinkade calendars. A shopper drowns in saccharine, suffocates in the atmosphere of phoney comfort.

A large portion of the world, both Christian and otherwise, recognizes the Christian faith not in the blackness of Hell or the red of Christ's blood, but in the cool pastels of a dentist's office. Much of the world, Christian and otherwise, identifies Christianity with images that are tame, domestic, even schmaltzy.

This really has to end. The Goth movement has long since poached passionate, violent, imagery of the Church for its own purposes, which are not infrequently at odds with those of the Church.  Perhaps we should reclaim it for ourselves.  But, for all the Romanticism which inspires the Egg itself, the situation calls for more than medievalist nostalgia -- we tried that in the nineteenth century, and it was good, but not good enough.  No; the present degraded, sentimental, therapeutic representations of Christianity really must be replaced in the popular imagination by something more aesthetically demanding.

How else to put this?  Perhaps with a motto:  If it looks familiar, it isn't the Trinity; if it looks safe, it isn't the Cross; if it looks easy, it isn't really the Church.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

A Graceless Collect

Many friends of the Egg will have offered the following Prayer of the Day in worship two weeks ago:
Lord God, your lovingkindness always goes before us and follows after us. Summon us into your light, and direct our steps in the ways of goodness that come through the cross of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.
This is the collect prescribed by Evangelical Lutheran Worship for the Third Sunday after the Epiphany in lectionary Year A.  It is adapted from the Gelasian Sacramentary, where is reads:
Tua nos Domine quaesumus gratia semper et praeveniat et sequator, ac bonus operibus iugiter prestet esse intentos; per Iesum Christum ....
Even a quick glance shows that there are a few notable differences between the original and our rendering.  Here's a somewhat more literal version, from the post-2011 English version of the Roman rite, where it occurs on the 28th Week of Ordinary Time:

May your grace, O Lord, we pray, at all times go before us and follow after and make us always determined to carry out good works. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.
The Roman Catholic version suffers from awkward syntax, the natural result of its officially-mandated effort to capture the feel of those opening Latin words.  We would not have done it that way.

But the Lutheran version is strange in its own way.  As is ELW's custom, it adds ideas to the original: (1) "directing our steps," while common enough in old collects (usually phrased dirige nos), is not in this one; and (2) the typical closure (through Jesus Christ ...) is replaced with the idea that goodness comes through the Cross. These modest changes make the prayer a little less sober and sensible than some of us might like, but are not deeply remarkable.

What strikes us most, however, is one pregnant lexical decision: ELW replaces "grace" in the opening clause with "lovingkindness."

This choice of words is not unreasonable.  "Lovingkindness" is an English word invented by Miles Coverdale to translate the Hebrew ch-s-d, chesed.  This rather tricky word, which describes God's disposition toward humanity, has historically been translated into Greek as eleos and into Latin as misericordia.  That is to say, it describes divine mercy.

Luther, however, chose to link chesed with the Greek word charis, and to translate both as Gnade.  Or, as we say in English, grace.  Following that train of thought, "grace" is a word very nicely replaced with "lovingkindness."

But is it really?  The Septuagint uses charis to translate not chesed but chen, a different Hebrew word with a meaning closer to assistance or help. We're certainly in the same semantic area here, but it is by no means certain that the word Coverdale invented specifically to translate chesed should also be used for chen, much less for charis and still less for gratia.

The stakes on this particular question are higher than on most matters of translation, because the words charis and gratia are absolutely central to Christian, and especially Lutheran, theology.  The first is Paul's description of the mechanism of salvation: a gift by which God has reckoned human beings as just.  The second is the Latin word pressed to translate the Greek, and the direct source of our English word "grace."  Both have a root sense having to do  -- like chesed -- with friendship and affection, and a later, more developed sense of free action -- a gift given without obligation is "gratuitous," a dancer's motion is "graceful, and so forth.

Gratia has enough senses and derivatives, in both Latin and English, that it can cause translation problems all by itself.  Just for fun, look at its two uses in Augustana IV.  We are gratis justificentur, which can mean "freely justified" or "justified by grace."  And that becomes true for us when we believe we are in gratiam recipi, "received into grace" or "received into favor."  So, in the fundamental Lutheran confession of faith, grace is both the thing that saves us and the condition of being saved.

Because "grace" is such an essential word, it is used frequently in churches.  You could argue that it is a technical theological term, and therefore might be confusing to outsiders -- and we suspect that the ELW translators did believe something like this.  The problem with this argument is that "lovingkindness," despite its admirable lack of Latin or Greek roots, is an even more technical term. The word was concocted to answer a Bible translator's conundrum, and has no secular currency at all. And the conundrum for which it was concocted is not the one posed by this collect.

Moreover, we dread the thought of a church in which "grace" becomes an exotic word.

So: Is "lovingkindness" a good translation of gratia in the collect?  We answer that it it isn't bad -- but wouldn't "grace" be better?

Friday, January 20, 2017

A River of Joy and Peace

In one of his letters (Epist. 2:1-2,4-5,7: PL edit. [845,] 879, 881), St. Ambrose of Milan writes:
There is a stream which flows down on God's saints like a torrent. There is a rushing river giving joy to the heart that is at peace and makes for peace. Whoever has received from the fullness of this river, like John the Evangelist, like Peter and Paul, lifts up his voice. Just as the apostles lifted up their voices and preached the Gospel throughout the world, so those who drink these waters begin to preach the good news of the Lord Jesus.
May this dreary winter day (at least here in northern Virginia) be one in which you drink from the river and lift up your own voice to preach.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

"Intelligence" Briefings

Our president-elect does not fail to disappoint.  The weeks preceding his inauguration have been, thus far, a multi-media sideshow worthy of the best reality TV.

And "sideshow" is the word.  Despite seeming like the random thoughts of a man with ADD and a Twitter account, the truth seems to be that Trump's strategy is to keep up a maddening stream of inane remarks designed to distract people from his team's more serious mischief.

Exhibit A is Trump's seeming war with the intelligence community.  He sits in his gaudy tower, tossing insults at the people he may most need to rely upon when he is called to make actual executive decisions, and makes a great show of ignoring the information they offer him already.  It is no surprise, then, that they have taken a swipe at the guy, releasing some information which suggests (surprise!) that the Russians have been manipulating him all along.  The problem seems to be that this information has long been in the hands of the press, which found it unverifiable and therefore useless.

But who cares, really?  Once Trump is in office, they will work for him. His chosen deputies will be in charge, and they will bring him the information he feels he can use. The relationship is off to a bad start, but it will work itself out.

Meanwhile, however, the guy is wreaking havoc with the traditions of American government. He has already taken steps to alienate China, which is -- lest we forget -- the world's other economic superpower, and with which the performance of our own economy is unalterably entwined. His proposed Cabinet is strangely heavy with generals and billionaires.  The nominees have an almost universal lack of experience with the mechanics of government, and a general contempt for the particular departments thy have been asked to administer.  Among the few people with actual governing experience is Senator Jefferson Beauregard Sessions, a man who apparently does not believe secular thinkers have access to the truth.

His team has stage-managed confirmation process for Cabinet members intended to be so fast that no serious vetting can take place. Part of this has been allowing nominees to omit large portions of the usual vetting process, notably including ethical review.

And "ethical review" is a phrase we will hear a lot more in the days, months and years to come.  From the very beginning, Trump has made it clear that he intends to continue running his private businesses while also running the country.  On the campaign trail, he talked about a "blind trust" so glibly that reporters came to doubt that he understood the meaning of the words.  Already, foreign diplomats have been encouraged to book rooms at a Trump-owned property when they are in DC.

On top of which, earlier in the month,, Team Trump sent a shock through the Department of Energy, by asking for the names of individual scientists working on climate change -- hinting at a purge.

A spat with some spooks is serious, in its own way.  From some other president-elect, it would be a strange move that raised serious questions.  For Trump, it is a just a bit of smoke and mirrors, some showbiz puffery meant to distract us from what is really going on.  Our soon-to-be-president is putting together an administration run by ethically-challenged amateurs. He is already creating legal and diplomatic problems that will no doubt dog him, and our nation, throughout his time in office.