Sunday, December 5, 2010

"You brood of vipers"

The text from St. Matthew's Gospel was read today in many churches.

I once read a monograph that, not without some profit, concentrated on the past and current cultural connotations that clung to the jarring and disquieting phrase, "You brood of vipers!"

Vipers were thought to eat their parents, and so on.

Though this may begin to aid us in seeing what the Baptist was on about - (the children of God destroying their patrimony?) it isn't really where my mind goes as I hear this text read.

I wonder why the Baptist is so hard on these Sadducees and Pharisees.  Aren't they there to repent and be baptized?  What is wrong with this?

I think it is clear from the polemical war that Jesus will soon be waging against these groups that something serious is at stake here.  Jesus himself confirms the Baptist's charge later on (12:34).

I think the Baptist knows that they are acting falsely, or without conviction.  It seems he knows that they aren't after what he is offering.  Whether it is vain curiosity, group think, sabotage, or something else entirely - the Baptist declares that they aren't after repentance.  And he calls them out on it: "Bear fruit worthy of repentance," that is, actually repent and have actions that testify to the profound change in your person.

Parallel to this concern is another.  Some Lutherans (and others, I'm sure) have called it "false security".

"Say not that we have Abraham as our Father".  No appeal to credential - however impeccable - will count without the change.  God can create immediate credential from nothing, so these things aren't really all that compelling (as if God could be "compelled"!).  It's not what He's after.  The necessity of repentance relativizes everything else.  Next to this immediate and unavoidable call everyone is a beggar.

It should be clear that this is no mere exercise in history, nor is it a place for those who claim the name of Christ to set up some divine sanctioning of our unique status as such, a sanction that would only serve to give rise to sanctimony.  This is a message not merely to some fall guys from a previous dispensation.  I think it is a sign of spiritual sanity to hear the Baptist's call as a summons for us, and as a condemnation of our own appeals to credential (whatever it may be), our own ridiculous posturing, and of our lack of conviction in the face of the consuming (and edifying!) truth of the Gospel.

Of course, most of us who hear this message in churches are not able to lay claim to a supposed blood line to Abraham, but we have our own ingenious methods of credentialing ourselves before God.

I have a pure church.  I have a strong historical continuity with the Apostles.  I have beautiful sanctuaries and beautiful liturgies.  I have superior education.  I have the benefit of the "progression" of history.  I have this or that token that, surely, counts for something before the Holy God of Israel.  More ingenious than this sort of credentialing is the sort that points to works of justice, mercy, and charity (or at least works purported to be such) and holds them out as even shinier tokens. 

Now, many of the things I mention are without doubt very good, right and salutary in many ways.  I happen to like a number of them and recommend them to others often.  Yet, the relative purity of our doctrine (so essential!), church body, historical placement, etc. are not themselves what the Baptist calls for here.  Here, the Baptist's cry is not "present your doctrine, church, etc. so that I may distill it" but bear fruit worthy of repentance.  And what of this fruit?  Can we not legitimately hold up our fruits before the baptist?  Granting for the moment that we understand what these would be, I would hesitate to do so.   This latter class of credentials - let's call them good works (purported or genuine) - must always be the sort that are "worthy of repentance".  They must be in keeping with the immediate and persistent call to turn toward God and His coming Kingdom.  They can never rest secure in themselves, nor estimate their own value.  They must exist, but their existence is but the testimony and concrete manifestation of the soul that is suffering the call of God to His Way.  They issue forth from the one who is constantly hearing the call to pay attention to God and His work in the World.  They do not have a self-consciousness about them that would mark them as quasi-divine currency.

To be infatuated with works in this manner is to risk being "falsely assured" of one's standing before God.  And when in this state, one loses the true assurance that is present when turned toward the Coming One - the Christ who is the true work of God in us and for us.

Perhaps the Baptist's more immediately distressing judgment is seen when the soul is allowed to be confronted with it's own duplicity: it's double-mindedness, waffling, hedging, and prostitution.  "You know what?  I can actually serve God and mammon.  I can think of Christ as something other than what he describes Himself to be, I can hold back this area of my life from God's disrupting and healing touch, I can have it all!  All I want, and God doesn't really see... or if He does, He's not too concerned..."  So says the sinner, and so also does he earn the Baptist's reproach.

We are in the hard hitting days of Advent.  And these texts are the baseball bat.

As the Baptist scolds, cajoles, and prods the Saducees and Pharisees who gather at the Jordan, so too are we being scolded when we gather in the nave before the lectern and pulpit.  When we gather there, let it be with single minded devotion and with a holy insecurity.

Friday, November 26, 2010


I had nonesuch expectation

While whiling my time into spindly threads

That upon your auspicious visitation

We, two, one day would be wed.

Towards a new and brighter morn,

With your warm press upon me.

We are making time and timing our servant

With many pasts shorn.

With life we will move

All of our motions declare

And how in your cove

A new life is prepared.

Take heart, take heed, a blessed re-union

I will laud you, defend you, uphold you;

My life I will lay for you.

We begin our marital communion.

"Holy Hypochondria"

There are moments when the frank, slightly smug (though immediately sheepish once noticed), sort of panoramic criticism that is my weal and woe gets so far beyond tedious that I can scarcely summon the effort to string words together.  This isn't one of those moments, but I have had too many of them recently.

 It may be that Hamann's holy hypochondria - the vaguely sick restlessness that testifies to being out of place - can also be (or even really is) a true neuroses, and not just a spiritual mood.  I'm not sure.

I have been given a needed respite from this consuming humour through the efforts of a Lutheran pastor out of Texas who writes this blog devoted to Lutheran hymnody.  Therein, I discovered a tribute to some of the great Lutheran poets and hymnists that have been part of my spiritual sustenance for some time.  Specifically, this line from Paul Gerhardt's "All My Heart This Night Rejoices":

If our blessed Lord and Maker,
Hated men
Would He then,
Be of flesh partaker?

I don't want to catapult beyond Advent into Christmastide too quickly, but it is Adventual to long for the Coming of the God in flesh, so I think I can be forgiven for considering it.

Not only is this line a wonderfully pastoral prod for those, like me, who tire too soon of the Lord's chastening - thinking it somehow unjust - but it is also a testimony to that often puzzling Christian reality: the Incarnation.

I am very close to someone who once told me "I don't see God as identical with Jesus."  It is sometimes frustrating for me to hear such things, being as blessedly doctrinaire as I am, and given that I somehow intuited what the real issue was lying in the subtext.  It wasn't that this person didn't "like" Jesus, and maybe this person could even concede that he wouldn't be all that bad a god... but to the orthodox this misses the point and yet, in another way, finds the scandalous point that orthodoxy is forever pressing.  The Incarnation certainly stands as a sign of contradiction to the time of squishy heterodoxy and post-Christian thinking that is regnant.  It says, "HEY, it is not ultimately important what image you may have of a god figure, and whether or not this fits into your religious schematics, and it is not ultimately important if the notion of God deep in a Jewish man's flesh isn't your cup of tea.  It is the truth and whether you know it or not, or even revile it, it is the necessary condition for your eternal blessedness!"  These are things that make one not welcome in politely heterodox society, or at least marked as a bit off.  More than this, it claims that the only God who is, is entirely identified from eternity with this man.  It cuts to the quick the idol factory of the human imagination, effectively bankrupting the burgeoning religiosity of throwaway imagery that we coddle in our hearts.  It reveals the true nature of old Adam and old Eve within us, robbing us of our pretended ability to construct the god of our choosing.  And who of us born of Adam and Eve don't want a God of our choosing?  Christians are often accused of "returning the favor" to a God who made man in His own image.  But of course this is jejune.  It is still beholden to the paradigm that says that there is no "essentially" true God, but only our own projections upon an endlessly pliable nothing.  This notion needs to be contested.  Many times Christians, too, begin by assuming this sort of language instead of the language in which they have hopefully been reared - that is, a sort of Realism that believes that such and such can be the case, beyond human desire and apart from human willing.  And also, it is good to remember that we Christians are not yet fully redeemed in body and still bear the marks of sin.  We too often find it to be a troublesome fact that God is identified with a Jewish man from the first century.  This was horrendously the case for many so-called Lutherans of the last century.  But to those who are being saved, they strive to fit their minds to this fact, and not the reverse.

It's a First Commandment thing, really.  Luther knew it well.  His commentary in the Large Catechism on the First is a wonderful refresher course in preparing to grapple with this and any of the dogmas of the Church.  Furthermore, the Christian cannot say that God is ever somehow truly known apart from Christ.  I appreciate the category of general revelation, but this too must be more fundamentally grounded in Christology.

From the outside, I can see how the notion of Incarnation could be confusing.  I know that it is probably not too well appreciated by many within.  I have had earnest conversations with those who accused me of believing in a half-god/half-man amalgam.  (To which I say that no orthodox Christians have ever believed such, they of course believe that Christ is fully God and fully Human).  I have spoken with some who say that the Incarnation is roughly the same as pagan conceptions such as, say, avatars, or apotheosized humans.

I am not bothered by the idea that Christianity has pagan analogues.  That actually seems to some of the Fathers (and other good Christian intellects, Lewis being the most widely known) as more proof of its veracity.  What I am bothered by is the blase dismissal of the real difference between these necessarily competing theologies.

As far as I know, an avatar is not eternally and irrevocably and without reserve identified with the greater "godhead" or force that utilizes it.  Even more fundamentally, it ignores the other identity conditions that come into play for Christians when one understands that This Incarnate One is none other than the God of Israel.  But this is too much for me to set out presently.

Apotheosized humans may become gods, of some sort, or at least partakers of the divine, but they too are not identical with divinity itself.  Beside this, they "become" divinized by virtue of some heroic action on their part and then persist in the world as they are heralded.  This conception does not touch what Christians mean when they speak of Christ being the eternal Son of the Father, who is homoousian [of the same substance] with Him, eternally begotten. 

But before I rev myself up to much, I need to come back to the hymn; specifically to the brilliant rhetorical question: "If God hated us, why would He take on our miserable existence?"  Paraphrased for effect.

If only one could strive to apprehend that truth.  Putting it positively, "God loves us so much that He assumes our station."  He takes our wrecked lives into His own life of pure beauty, truth, and love.  We didn't even have to ask.  What greater effort, save perhaps one, can there be by any reputed God?  To give up the prerogative of being a simple deity on high, another "high god", a deity somehow always over against us.  To give over the glory, for a time, but that a very real time, in pure effort on our behalf.  To cry and eat and sleep and be betrayed and, yes, even to be unjustly condemned, belittled, and strung up on a tree.

Now, some of our Hebrew cousins may well say that this has always been the way of God, this searching out of His people at terrible expense, with infinite longsuffering, and of course I would agree.  But of course, they are not able to make that further audacious claim.  They cannot accept the further scandal that God would become flesh.  I will only say that it hangs together.  That is, a God who creates, sustains and forever recalls Israel, would be the sort of God to do the sort of preposterous thing Christians say He did - take up Israel, and even all flesh, into His own Being by virtue of His Son. 

And when He does so, it is not only for the purposes of being present to us.  He has never been somehow unable to be present to us.  In Him we live, move and have our being.  As He is transcendent of all of His creation, there is no conceivable distance from Him - as the psalmist says, "where shall I go? etc."  Space is one aspect of His creation, and He beholds all of it.  The issue is not mere presence, but help.  "A present help in time of trial."  What is assumed in the Incarnation, the man Jesus, and through Him all men, anthropos, mankind, is not simply made present to God - that would have been a spectacular exercise in blessed redundancy.  What is assumed is healed.  The mighty work of the God Man is communicated and given over to mankind by virtue of faith in His communicative acts.  And this is the greatest Gift ever given; life, salvation, redemption from all vexing powers, communion, immortality - God's very Self.

That is what Incarnation is all about.

And that is why it is inconceivable that God could hate man if he is a partaker of flesh.

And, as a final aside, though this be true [Amen, verily, etc.], there is yet the truth that even those who believe these wonderful things can still cry out with the psalmist, and with Christ, "remove your hand from me Lord for my bones are dried up."

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Tatters and Tears

After an irruption of great magnitude and proportions, I have decided to commit to a blog.

I fear the FB note route that I have previously utilized never really fit the bill, and then there is something in the quality of the change in my life that itself demands a forum of its own.

This, and the additional inspiration that comes from witnessing other past associates extending themselves into this medium - these are enough to get me to make the move.

I imagine that this blog will deal will those things that I have previously been interested in: Lutheranism in crisis, orthodox Christian theology generally, aesthetics, cultural criticism, regional culture, wayward essays of various sorts, and perhaps also personal reflections upon my new status... but more on this later.

Some initial background: I was a seminarian at a mainline seminary who had made his way through to the near end of that fitful process until, in 2008, my wife left me and the process became derailed, causing no small amount of distress.  After the hope of returning and finishing my degree at that institution faded, for numerous reasons, I find myself attempting to finish my M. Div. in vastly different circumstances and with no clear way to ordination.  This, mostly due to severing my ties with my previous church body and not finding another to take its place.  In dire financial straights, I have taken a job unrelated to my training and education.  I am also attending a "virtual" start-up seminary in an effort to satisfy the remaining requirements for the degree.

As for the title of the blog, I suppose it alludes to the late-modern condition that I seem not to be able to escape or transcend... placelessness.  Or, not feeling rooted anywhere particular as I make this earthly pilgrimage; along with a frank admission that I feel little sense of a unitary direction or progressive movement at present.  I pray that this will change, and I can intend this exercise as a gathering of fragments - and an effort at living, coherent, purpose.  I suspect that much of this feeling will disipate with the advent of a very special person, or with the coming parousia... either way, I am here for the moment.

I had hoped that an aphorism or maxim would present itself to mind by the time I had gotten this far into the first posting.  Something charged.  Something potent.  Some gnomic device whereby the mast of this venture would be set adroitly, cutting into the proper horizon. 

Nothing like that.  In fact, the usual wisdoms seem to have lost their strength and savor, for me, right now.

I'll end with this from Hamann:

This anxiety in the world is the only proof of our heterogeneity. If we
lacked nothing, we should do no better than the pagans and the transcendental
philosophers, who know nothing of God and like fools fall in love
with lovely nature, and no homesickness would come over us. This impertinent
disquiet, this holy hypochondria is perhaps the fire with which
we season sacrificial animals in order to preserve us from the putrefaction
of the current Seculi.
stay heterogenous...