Thinking outside the book: Re-imagining Common Prayer in the 21st Century

Fr. Jonathan's Blog

There’s a great deal of discussion among Episcopalians about the possibility of prayer book revision. I’ve been thinking about the English Reformation, Anglicanism, and contemporary Christianity in light of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, and it occurred to me that the Book of Common Prayer is very much a product of the print culture that emerged in the 16th century and to talk about “prayer book revision” is rather odd in a context dominated by the internet, smart phones, and digital media. So here are some reflections about thinking “outside the book.”

A few weeks ago, I noticed that a visitor was holding her personal Book of Common Prayer as she greeted me after the Sunday service. I tried to think back to the last time I had seen someone with their own BCP. There’s a man his mid sixties who comes occasionally who brings with him a leather-bound 1928…

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Proclaiming the Gospel and following Jesus in America, 2018: On Muslim bans, indefinite detention, and the separation of families

As the days and months go by, I barely recognize the nation in which I was born and where I’ve lived for 58 of my 60 years. Perhaps it would be better to say that the shiny polish of civility, justice, and inclusion that dominated my understanding has been removed so that the ugly image underneath is on full display.

With the Supreme Court decision on the constitutionality of the “muslim ban,” the continued assault on the rule of law, the inhumane and unjust treatment of refugees, immigrants and asylum seekers, it would seem that there is no check on the forces of racism, white supremacy, and authoritarianism. Even worse, as we have seen in recent weeks, Administration officials appeal to Christian scripture to support the legality and morality of their actions.

As a preacher of the Gospel, it remains my solemn duty to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ, to call for justice and peace, to remind myself and my fellow Christians of our  duty to love God and neighbor, to welcome the stranger and the alien, to respect the dignity of every human being.

Over the last week, I and other members of the Unity and Relations Commission of the Wisconsin Council of Churches worked on a statement entitled “On the misuse of scripture to justify injustice.” It was approved by the Board of Directors and published yesterday. The full document is available here: On the Misuse of Scripture to Justify Injustice – Wisconsin Council of Churches – final.

I would also call attention to a personal statement I wrote on February 1, 2017, as the “muslim ban” was originally announced. It’s available here.

In addition, the Wardens and Vestry of Grace Episcopal Church published this statement in  2017: Renewing Our Covenant

This is who we are: America has always separated families

From unlikely sources such as the US Chamber of Commerce to ordinary Americans appalled by the scenes of children ripped away from their parents and living in cages, the cry arises, “This is not who we are.”

It’s an appeal to emotion, morality, what used to be a common sense of decency.

Unfortunately, it’s not true. As commentators like Jelani Cobb and Shaun King point out, the institution of slavery often separated parents from their children, wives from their husbands. And freedom didn’t make it easier–freed slaves were separated from their family members who were still enslaved.

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Native American children were taken away from their families and culture and placed in boarding schools in an attempt to “civilize” them.

So, this is who we are and the fact that the policy has widespread support among Republicans should give us pause. That many of those supporters claim to be Christian is more evidence of the existential crisis in which American Christianity finds itself.

It’s not just that the Attorney General cites Romans 13 to argue for obedience to these policies, that he neglects Paul’s eloquent statement just a few verses later, that “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law” (Romans 13:10).

As Christians, we believe that all human beings are created in God’s image. As Episcopalians, at every baptism, we promise to respect the dignity of every human person. This policy is the end result of a steady process of dehumanization of our fellow human beings. It’s the same process that historians remind us preceded the Final Solution in Germany. (For a recent discussion of some of these issues, see this article by Cass Sunstein). That ICE employees use similar tactics as were used then. Telling parents that they are taking children to get baths was a common explanation given by prison guards before leading children to the gas chambers.

In the face of these horrors, the enormity of the evil, clarity of witness and courage to speak are necessary. We must remind ourselves and the world, that the God we worship has a special concern for the poor and the outcast, the stranger and the alien, the widow and the orphan. We must remember and proclaim that the Jesus we seek to follow embraced and welcomed children. We are called to love: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Our clarity and courage as we proclaim God’s love and justice, as we seek to live out that love and work for justice, and our witness to the world as love one another may seem futile and meaningless as we face the enormity of the evil in our world, but it is our calling. Our hope is not in our own efforts but in Christ; our faith is not in our own power but in the power of our God who hears the cries of the oppressed.

 

The passing of a generation

A couple of weeks ago, while I was back in my hometown for a memorial service for an aunt, a photo in one of the displays grabbed my attention. It was of my father’s family, taken in the late 1930s or early 1940s. It’s one of those photos taken at family gatherings—weddings or funerals. Everyone was perfectly posed, dressed in their Sunday’s best. My dad’s parents seated the middle, surrounded by their 11 children, ranging in age (I’m guessing) from late teens to perhaps early 30s.

A trained eye could detect signs of the transition taking place between generations of Mennonites. My grandmother wore the covering with ribbons that she wore until her death and my grandfather a plain coat. My dad’s brothers and sisters were dressed conservatively but less distinctively Mennonite. The men wore jackets of contemporary cut, white shirts buttoned to the neck but no ties. In a few years, things would change even more dramatically. During World War II, my dad’s older brothers were drafted as conscientious objectors and served in Civilian Public Service camps across the country. Three of my dad’s sisters would go to college, two of them ultimately becoming Registered Nurses, while their oldest brother and sister, my Uncle Orland and Aunt Dorothy, didn’t even graduate from High School. Within a decade of that photo, my grandfather would be dead.

Now, some seventy years later, none of the people captured in that image are alive. It’s strange, at age 60, to feel the loss of that generation. They provided so much of the soil that nurtured me and helped me to grow into the person I am today. It was my Uncle Orland, who, in spite of his lack of a formal education, became that Mennonite community’s unofficial historian and wrote the history of its first hundred years. It was he who introduced me to the Martyrs’ Mirror, the seventeenth century compendium of stories of Anabaptists and Mennonites who lost their lives because of their faith. It was he who told me the story of the Hochstettler family, who on the Pennsylvania frontier in the 1750s refused to defend themselves when a Native American raiding party attached their homestead. Some were killed, some escaped, some were carried off into captivity, and I am descended from the survivors.

I remember summer evenings spent on the screened porch of the old homestead, the air thick with humidity and corn pollen, the sounds of crickets and cicadas chirping in the distance. I would lie on the concrete floor, grateful for its coolness, reading, or playing, or falling asleep, while the voices of the elders murmured stories of people I didn’t know or things that happened long ago.

Their faith, nurtured in the congregation where I also grew up, provided a firm foundation in changing times. They lived out that faith as conscientious objectors, in service through nursing, by volunteering in many capacities, in quiet service to their congregation and the wider community. Two of my dad’s brothers were called by their church and by the Holy Spirit to be pastors, serving mission churches in Toledo and in rural southern Ohio.

But it wasn’t all easy. In later years, my mother would express how intimidated she felt as a young bride, coming into this family of accomplished, articulate women. And after my Uncle Orland’s death in 1971, even though I was only 13, I remember going through the materials that he used in writing his congregational history, leafing through minutes of congregational meetings, and finding a notation that my grandfather was reinstated to full membership after some unnamed lapse in 1916 or 1917 (later records were almost comical in their detail—a sort of secret service reporting on those who were seen attending the County Fair and prevented from receiving communion for their sins). There was also the stash of empty liquor bottles discovered by my dad’s employees in the 1970s when they were demolishing an outbuilding that had been moved a mile from the church to my grandparents’ farm. The official explanation was that the bottles must have been left by hobos when the building was still on church property in the 1930s.

Now, with that generation gone, and most of my cousins in their sixties and seventies, the distance we all have traveled from that farm on which our parents were raised is far indeed. While some of us have remained in the area, and a few of us who grew up elsewhere have made our homes there as well, we are spread across the country, from eastern Pennsylvania to California, from Wisconsin to South Carolina. And our children have dispersed even further.

The legacy of our parents and grandparents lives in us, and because we had an uncle and four aunts who never married, their legacies live on in us as well. We have become businessmen and women, doctors, teachers, all manner of professionals. Few of us remain in the Mennonite Church, though the values of that tradition continue to echo in the vocational choices we have made and in our commitment to family and community.

As I enter this season of my life, having turned 60 last week, no longer accompanied by those aunts and uncles who nurtured me in my youth, I pause to reflect on all that they gave me, all the ways that they shaped me. Their faith, witness, and their sacrifices have helped to make me who I am. Their love nourished me along the way, and their examples continue to inspire me. As the author of Hebrews wrote,

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.

It is a long journey I have traveled in those sixty years, a journey that has taken me a great distance from that community, from the Mennonite Church in which I was baptized and where I first encountered scripture and came to know the love of Jesus Christ. The great cloud of witnesses that now includes my father and all of his siblings surrounds me still.

 

The Cross and the Lynching Tree: Words from James Cone for Good Friday

James Cone died on April 28. Here’s a brief excerpt from The Cross and the Lynching Tree

Fr. Jonathan's Blog

To understand what the cross means in America we need to take a look at the lynching tree in this nation’s history–that “strange and bitter crop” that Billie Holiday would not let us forget. The lynched black victim experienced the same fate as the crucified Christ and thus became the most potent symbol for understanding the true meaning of the salvation achieved through “God on the Cross.” Nietzsche was right: Christianity is a religion of slaves. God became a slave in Jesus and thereby liberated slaves from being determined by their condition.

The real scandal of the gospel is this: humanity’s salvation is revealed in the cross of the condemned criminal Jesus, and humanity’s salvation is available only through our solidarity with the crucified people in our midst. Faith that emerged out of the scandal of the cross is not a faith of intellectuals or elites of any sort. This…

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Resurrection Imperfect–John Donne

Fr. Jonathan's Blog

RESURRECTION, IMPERFECT.
by John Donne

SLEEP, sleep, old sun, thou canst not have repass’d,
As yet, the wound thou took’st on Friday last ;
Sleep then, and rest ; the world may bear thy stay ;
A better sun rose before thee to-day ;
Who—not content to enlighten all that dwell
On the earth’s face, as thou—enlighten’d hell,
And made the dark fires languish in that vale,
As at thy presence here our fires grow pale ;
Whose body, having walk’d on earth, and now
Hasting to heaven, would—that He might allow
Himself unto all stations, and fill all—
For these three days become a mineral.
He was all gold when He lay down, but rose
All tincture, and doth not alone dispose
Leaden and iron wills to good, but is
Of power to make e’en sinful flesh like his.
Had one of those, whose credulous piety
Thought that a…

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Poetry for Easter Monday: Seven Stanzas for Easter by John Updike

Fr. Jonathan's Blog

Make no mistake: if He rose at all
it was as His body;
if the cells’ dissolution did not reverse, the molecules
reknit, the amino acids rekindle,
the Church will fall.

It was not as the flowers,
each soft Spring recurrent;
it was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled
eyes of the eleven apostles;
it was as His flesh: ours.

The same hinged thumbs and toes,
the same valved heart
that–pierced–died, withered, paused, and then
regathered out of enduring Might
new strength to enclose.

Let us not mock God with metaphor,
analogy, sidestepping, transcendence;
making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the
faded credulity of earlier ages:
let us walk through the door.

The stone is rolled back, not papier-mâché,
not a stone in a story,
but the vast rock of materiality that in the slow
grinding of time will eclipse for each of…

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