Monday, August 29, 2005

Hurricane Katrina

On Saturday afternoon Bishop Charles Jenkins of Louisiana got an email to some of his friends asking for our prayers and saying, "Living below sea level, we are particularly vulnerable." I have also had in prayer at this time my good friend, Chris Colby, Rector of Trinity Church, Pass Christian, Mississippi, whose church bukldings literally sit on the edge of the beach right in the eye of Katrina's storm. Trinity lost its building with Camille in 1969, and certainly they seem to be facing major damage today.

As I was getting out my online daily devotions yesterday evening to my congregation and other friends who receive them, I went looking for a prayer to be used in natural disasters to replace what I had put in there already. I found none -- even though I have about 15-20 books of prayers and collects. However, this morning after another prolonged search I did find one that is appropriate to pray now there is nothing else that we can do except prepare for the aftermath of this horrendous hurricane.

Lord of compassion and power,
be with those who have survived this disaster:
minister to their needs of mind and spirit,
body and circumstance;
heal those who are hurt;
give peace to the dying;
comfort and support the bereaved;
and to all who are working to bring relief and restore order
give strength and resilience to do their work well;
for the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord.

This prayer was composed by Dick Williams from Britain.

Meanwhile, today is going to be spent preparing for Katrina's arrival here. We are being told to expect high winds, heavy rain and storms, power outages, and the possibility of tornadoes -- and we are 450 miles from where the storm came ashore. Between there and here, of course, there are folks who are facing a great deal more than we can expect.

For weeks now I have been praying for rain. It looks today as if the Lord will answer that prayer -- but why is it that he always has to overdo things?!

Saturday, August 27, 2005

On Turning Sixty

It is a dreary, sticky, overcast day here in Middle Tennessee. Last night we got the first measurable rain that we had seen at our house for weeks, and today the grass is turning several shades greener, while the trees look a great deal more perky. Weather patterns seem to be changing, bringing a welcome relief after an exhaustingly hot, dry summer.

Tomorrow, on the Feast Day of St. Augustine of Hippo, I cross another of those human thresholds and turn sixty! I have been sitting here quite a while trying to see what sense I can make of it. As I look back over the course of my life it has always been the years ending with a nine that have been the most challenging, and certainly this is true of much of the last twelve months -- and the twelve months prior to that.

But Rosemary and I have weathered the spring and summer better than could have been anticipated, both as individuals and as a congregation. Tomorrow I intend to cast the vision for the Church of the Apostles for the coming year, confident that after many trials we are ready to move forward. I have found myself saying of late that the Church of the Apostles is about where I wished it had been when I was parachuted in to pick up the pieces several years ago.

Yet there is a destructive potential akin to Hurricane Katrina looming in the not too distant future as the Episcopal Church stumbles toward its next Convention in 2006. However, for the moment, that is in the future. Closer at hand on the ecclesiastical scene is the business of electing a new bishop in Tennessee, and surviving our own diocesan convention. I never thought events like these would become such horrifying punctuation marks sent to try God's faithful people to the limits!

When I was in seminary and then first ordained the life of the institutional church was one of those necessities, as it were, that went with being Christian. Through the middle part of my life, the institutional church may have loomed too large in my estimations, but I truly believed (as I copiously wrote) that it might somehow be turned into a blessing rather than being either neutral or a curse. As I move toward senior status my thinking has reversed again, so that today I see it as the least unappetizing aspect of the Christian journey, getting in the way of our mission -- especially the national church.

In many respect, however, I am no less excited about the redeeming power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ than I was more than forty years ago when this journey began. With all the experience now under my belt I can still say with all my heart that as far as I am concerned it is the power of God unto salvation for those who the Lord is calling into his Kingdom, and the games-playing of regiments of ecclesiastical politicians are so much dross when set alongside it.

While I believe it vital that we seek to understand and explicate the Good News with every ounce of our intelligence, I happily join Karl Barth in repeating the old chorus that "Jesus loves me this I know, for the bible tells me so!"

I am also excited by the task that lies ahead of us of translating the Gospel into the language of today's post-Christendom culture. I first came across the words of Dean W. R. Inge when I was in seminary. The good dean said that "he who marries the spirit of the age will soon become a widower." This pithy little saying made good sense to me then, and today it makes even more sense.

During my ministry I have had ring-side seats to watch this remarkable slide away from any pretense of Christian values within the wider culture, and have looked onw ith distates as the church, like an eager puppy dog wagging its tail, has gone right along with that fall from grace. As Graham Leonard, who ordained me to the diaconate said when leaving the Church of England for Rome, "The Church today, having lost her nerve, shows at times an almost pathetic desire to be loved by the world."

Yet as morose as all this sometimes makes me feel, my whole being seems to brighten when I realize the extraordinary privilege that God has entrusted to us of discovering how we might make the story of the central event of all human history, the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, meaningful to a band new kind of culture. I know that in this there is a role for oldies like me to play, perhaps rather like the defense in a soccer game, but we can no longer be the forwards scoring the goals, that is for the next generation.

So, on this murky late summer afternoon, I am heartened by the grace and wonder of the Good News that has been committed to us, and I want to walk in the footsteps of the Apostles. I find myself encouraged that I am called to serve the congregation that I do, and within the diocese in which I am situated. I look forward to finding exactly what role the Lord would have me play in the years ahead, and I pray that God will give me the grace to play that role wisely and well.

Yet this sense of delight is tempered by the distress that has dogged so many faithful Episcopalians during the last couple of years. That sense that we have allowed our denomination to be hijacked, and that in human terms we do not have the capacity to do anything about it, and our voices are being ignored.

But hope springs eternal. I have been pondering something I read not long ago that 50 passionately committed people can change the world. I think that there is more than a grain of truth in that. The Gospel is about this world-changing business, not the tawdry relativism that is being hawked around as the church's business. Perhaps what we are looking for is those 50 passionately committed people to step up to the line and take up the challenge. If that is the case then, aging as I am, you can count me in.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

The Threatened Pandemic Approaches?

In March 2003 I wrote the following words:

In the wake of the First World War a huge influenza pandemic swept the
world, and it is estimated to have killed around 20 million people.
600,000 died in the USA and another 20,000 in Canada -- the so-called
Spanish flu often being brought home by soldiers returning from Europe. That epidemic was one in a regular series of mutations of the structures of influenza which have resulted in major infections around the world.

The question is, has this happened? Last week a new pneumonia came piling out of China, and through Hong Kong is beginning to spread its tentacles around the world. Already two Canadians have died from this disease that has been dubbed Severe Acute Respitory Syndrome, while two more have died in Hong Kong and Vietnam, and there are five possible victims in southern China. The good news is that researchers in Hong Kong have identified the nature of the disease today, which means they are now able to proceed to finding ways of treating it or ameliorating the symptoms.

However, the jury is out on whether this is the "big one" that folks have been expecting; but, as researchers say, even if it isn't, it is only a matter of time before influenza or something akin to it mutates, jumps from other species, and begins to wreak havoc. They remind us that it isn't a case of if something like this happens, merely when. We can hope that when it does researchers will be able to concoct vaccines that might help minimize its impact, especially in the lives of those of us who are fundamentally pretty healthy; but it is among the old, the young, the weak, and the sickly that such epidemics really "do their thing."

Well, SARS did not turn out to be the "big one," at least, not yet, but if you have kept your eyes and ears open you will have noticed way down on the news docket, behind the soap opera of Brad Pitt and Jennifer Anniston, that there is a rising level of concern about the avian flu that is creeping its way westward from China and Indochina, carried along by the wild birds that have been infected. These birds have in turn infected domesticated poultry, and now there are isolated cases of this virus jumping from birds to humans. In Holland it is now illegal to keep domesticated birds out in the open.

All we are waiting for now is the leap from human to human and then the "fun" really begins. Leslie Garrett, one of America's leading authorities on pandemics writes in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs: "In short, doom may loom. But not e the 'may.' If the relentlessly evolving virus becomes capable of human-to-human transmission, develops a power of contagion typical of human influenzas, and maintains its extraordinary virulence, humanity could face a pandemic unlike any ever witnessed."

With words like these, you are tempted to drop to your knees in long bouts of fervent intercessory prayer, while at the same time reaching for the anesthetic power of the brandy bottle! But Leslie Garrett continues, "Or nothing at all could happen." She writes, "Scientists cannot predict with certainty what this H5N1 influenza willd do. Evolution does not function on a knowable timetable, and influenza is one of the sloppiest, most mutation-prone pathogens in nature's storehouse."

OK, we say, putting the brandy bottle down for a moment, but still maintaining a posture of prayer, what might all this mean? If all I have read in following through on this is anything to go by, then the likelihood of this virus completing the transition from birds to human-to-human transmission is substantial if not 100% certain. What we don't know is how virulent it will be when it makes that jump, but let's suppose it is as lethal as the Spanish flu of yesteryear.

The Spanish flu epidemic of 1918-1920 probably killed a lot more than the conservative estimates of 40-50 million deaths. However, if we take that figure and project it onto the world's population today it would be a deathtoll of about 300 million -- or the rough equivalent of the population of the United States spread worldwide. The most vulnerable elements of the population are the very young, the elderly, those whose health is already compromised, and caregivers. There was no escaping the Spanish flu, either: isolated villages in Alaska were found where everyone had died, for example.

The effects of a flu epidemic, if it is only of Spanish flu proportions are hard to predict. The economy would take a beating, that's for sure, and some countries around the world would probably see a precipitative decline in population. Here's another thing to keep your worried in your bed at night, even if they could get the flu vaccine cocktail right to include avian flu, the pharmaceutical industry has never ever been able to produce more than 300 million doses in a single year. "The slow pace of production means that in the event of an H5N1 flu pandemic millions of people would likely be infected well before vaccines could be distributed."

So I ask again the question that I asked when SARS looked like the killer, "Are Christians ready to confort the afflicted, and offer Christ's love and attention to those who are dying or seriously ill? Are we aware of ways that we can protect ourselves from whatever comes down the pike if we are called to minister in an infected situation?"

What baffles me is that I have heard nothing from anyone in any of the churches about how we might pastorally and medically handle this eventuality if it presents itself. Indeed, I would say that the churches are like western culture in general, and have buried their collective heads in the sand.

So, as summer begins to turn to fall, and as the flu season approaches, it is possible (note the word possible) that within the next months or year or two flu could become the synonym for a killer, not something unpleasant that has to be endured. Are we ready?

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Whatever Happened to Charismatic Renewal?

The other day a friend shared something he had written about what the future might look like for Anglicans in North America. It was, as is always the case with his work, clear and insightful. I had heard the talk on which the piece had been based, and had liked it very much, now he was asking for input before finalizing what he had written.

I slid his text into a file and took it to a meeting with me on Saturday, so that in the dull moments I might chew it over (I call that redeeming the time rather than letting my mind wander!). Just as the gathering started to get interesting and I needed to concentrate something occurred to me, and that was that there was no mention of the Charismatic Renewal in what he wrote -- although he had played a key role in that renewal himself a while back. I replied and pointed this out, sharing my response with another friend who had been part of this discussion. His immediate words were, "But why has the Charismatic Renewal disappeared in the Episcopal Church?"

Having written this far, I am certain that there will be an outpouring of responses that will say that the Charismatic Renewal has not died, that it is alive and well, and that they resent the implication that it is no longer part of the picture. Yet the truth is that while there are many, like good folks in my own congregation, for whom charismatic renewal was their springboard into a committed Christian faith, the movement as such seems to have run its course. I don't want to necessarily write its obituary but to ask where it has gone to.

I have been conscious of the Charismatic Renewal since 1965, the year I entered seminary. At that time Dennis Bennett visited the seminary and so began a heady time in that student and faculity community. Some rather crazy things happened, but there was much good that came from it. While for several years the charismatics "stood apart" from those of us who were more comfortable with the label "evangelical," by the time I was ordained and starting out on my active ministry, there was something of a merger that was starting to take place, and gathered apace.

In the years that followed many of the insights of the renewal movement found their way into the mainstream of Anglican evangelicalism, while at the same time the rather ragged theological base of the renewal movement was clarified and refined by the intellectual discipline brought to it by "renewed evangelicals." Add to that the rapprochment that took place with Anglo-Catholics who were drawn into renewal, together with a handful of broad church types, and something interesting seemed to be going on.

Yet this pattern did not seem to shape the ECUSA experience at all. When I arrived here one of the things that struck me was how weak evangelicals were in the Episcopal Church, and the other was that the renewal movement was a great deal more about experience, and lacked the firm theological undergirding that I had seen in Britain. Whereas in Britian the renewal had, by and large, shed its rather ungainly pentecostal theological and cultural trappings, that was not necessarily what had happened here.

Now in the years since then it has seemed to me that there has been something of a coming together of evangelicals and renewal people, particularly as a result of the influence of Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry; but there has also been a contraction of that distinctly charismatic base, and I suspect it would be unusual to find an Anglican parish of any Anglican jurisdiction these days that is as overtly charismatic as many used to be.

Part of that may be that God does a work for a particular time in a particular place, and then as balance is corrected, the church moves on. We needed to be reminded of the power and grace of the Holy Spirit in the 60s and 70s and early 80s, but a lot of those lessons have been learned by faithful people, even if a lot of seed fell on thin soil. These days I expect the Spirit to do things that thirty or forty years ago I would have been extremely dubious about in my evangelical uptightness.

Part of this decline in overt charismatic witness may be that God has, in fact, withdrawn his Spirit from parts of the church. As the Spirit is the Spirit of truth, when a church toys with overt error, then the Lord has, as Revelation puts it, no alternative but to remove the lampstand. I suspect that we are seeing some of this.

Another component may be that because the Renewal Movement in the USA was not as theologically rooted as it should have been, there has been a trickling away of many of its blessings into the sands. When Christians rev up experience and become hungry for experience, miracles, healings, or whatever, while ignoring the rooting, grounding, and discipline of God's Word that is necessary, then a diminution is going to take place. Experience that is genuinely from God, in these circumstances, gives way to the manufacturing of experience, which ultimately is going to shrivel and die.

One of the tragedies of these last 20 years has been watching folks who were once leaders in renewal moving away from biblical values because they have made experience one of the defining components of their theology, rather than a historic grounding in Scripture. This is certainly the case with at least one individual who comes immediately to mind, and the values he now affirms are in stark contrast to what is taught in the Old and New Testaments.

I am inclined to think that all of these above thoughts have some merit, but I would go further and suggest that the Charismatic Movement broke upon us at a certain time, and enabling a particular generation or two to meet God in an intimate way -- which might not have otherwise been possible for them. It might have borne more lasting fruit if the blessing of the Spirit had not been squandered in some many instances, being reduced to a rather self-centered revelling rather than seeing that experience as the starting point for equipping for ministry and selfless mission.

Not too long ago one of the venerable leaders of the Renewal Movement in the Episcopal Church at its prime was talking to me about the various Holy Spirit and Evangelism congresses that took place in the 70s and 80s. He shook his head and said that he felt they were of far less value than they could have been because they were 90% about experiencing the Spirit and only 10% (if that) about mission and evangelism. I have to endorse his insights. I would add that this is probably true of the Cursillo movement, too.

My observation of the rising generation is that the whole charismatic thing cuts very little ice with them. The best insights of it have already been mainstreamed into the life of the church, but it is too frothy for many of them. They are looking for rooting and grounding, being the children of a culture (and often families) that is rootless. The generational cycle has moved on, and as this has happened we find a searching back for the ancient treasures of our faith within the context of a throwaway culture, rather than redressing other balances that were necessary 30-40 years ago.

I don't know what others think. I admit that I have always viewed the Renewal Movement more as an interested outsider, rather than one who identified with it. This means that I might suffer some innate myopia which the insights of others can correct.

Monday, August 01, 2005

Ecumenical Jihad?

There was yesterday an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times (Sunday, July 31, 2005) in which the writer did what I would describe as the "Prudery Polka." The article is about books for young people, and draws attention to a novel that is built around teenage oral sex parties. What we got was the I'm-not-easily-shocked-or-particularly-prudish routine that we tend to hear when the ethically laissez-faire elite have yet to digest and come to terms with something that revolts them.

I guess that I am going to do something a little bit similar as I get into this piece today. I don't want you to think that anything I say is meant to be a support or endorsement of terrorism or terrorist activities. Indescriminate destruction of ordinary human beings is never justifiable, and however angry or disgruntled one might be about anything, violence is very seldom the answer to that problem.

And this brings me to another piece in the Sunday New York Times, a well-written and well-researched article attempting to get to the roots of terrorism in the British Muslim community. Amy Waldman, the author, spent a lot of time combing the back streets of the Yorkshire city of Leeds from which three of the four July 7 bombers came. She tracks the generational changes in attitude from those who came to Britain forty years ago and who believe it to be as one said, "the greatest country in the world," and their chldren and children's children who dismiss the older generation and the mainstream mosques as "timid."

Ms. Waldman suggests that behind the rise of aggression in British Islam is a deep-down identity crisis for they don't know whether they are Muslim, British, or both. "Going religious" seems to be the way they describe beginning to take their faith seriously, and when they do so they find themselves being radicalized not in the staid mosques but in fringe Islamic centers and bookshops that has popped up over the last decade or so. In these settings the sins of the Crusades are brought into play, and they are coaxed along by visual materials that, for example, "superimpose a cross dripping with blood over Iraq and Afghanistan."

Yet there is something else, and this is what I have been aiming toward, and that is the struggle they have to live as Muslims in the West with its lack of values, profusion of scantily clad women, endless television programming that is corrosive in every way. As Waldman states, "The transformation (of these returnees to Islam) has had positive elements: the men live healthier and more constructive lives than many of their peers here, Asian or white, who have fallen prey to drugs, alcohol or petty crime."

There is something about this young Muslim quest with which I find myself deeply sympathetic because there is little doubt that they are right in diagnosing our culture as decadent beyond words. When a novelist commenting on teenage books tries to swallow her revulsion at the success of a book that focuses upon horribly promiscuous behavior among adolescents, then we have a pretty clear example of the sexual nihilism of our culture. Add to that the demolition of values and the juggernaut of materialism that has ridden over us in the last forty years, and it is not difficult to see why the alienated are turning to what are, in effect, self-destructive behaviors.

The irony is that these young Islamic extremists in their protest against the world in which they live (and on behalf of world Islam), are merely turning to a different kind of self-destruction than their contemporaries of all races raised on the streets of cities like Leeds, Chicago, or Sydney, as members of an angry underclass. Rather than falling into an unthinking alliance with the culture as their peers have, their response is to lash out and try to destroy it.

The truth is that mainstream Christians, Jews, and Muslims have a great deal upon which they can make common cause, living as we do amidst the decay of the West. This was a point that Peter Kreeft was making a decade ago in his book Ecumenical Jihad, and subtitled, Ecumenism and the Culture War.

In his introduction Kreeft (A Roman Catholic originally from a Reformed background), writes, "One of the main points of this book is that we need to change our current categories and our current alignments. We need to realize, first, that we are at war and, second, that the sides have changed radically: many of our former enemies (for example, Muslims) are now our friends, and some of our former friends (for example, humanists) are now our enemies" (Page 9).

The first chapter of Kreeft's book is a stellar pen portrait by a witty and highly intelligent philosopher of the damage done by everything from the sexual revolution ("the most destructive revolution in history"), to the deconstructionist thinking that persuades us that "'Truth' is only a hypocritical mask on the face of Power" (Page 20). The reality is, he says, that those of us who adhere to the absolutes given by the absolute God are allies on the battlefield that is now before us. "We are living in that split second between the disappearance of God and the disappearance of His image in the human mirror. The image is the life of our souls, our consciences. That is what our present'culture war' is about" (Page 20).

We live at a time of unprecedented moral and cultural confusion, and some of what motivates young Islamic extremists motivates me. Again, that is not to justify their response, but it does help me understand them. When I committed my life to Jesus Christ nearly 46 years ago, one of the initial fruits in my life was a sense of moral exasperation with myself and the world in which I was living. My conscience had been heightened, and while it prodded and shaped my choices and lifestyle, it also made me take a good look at what was going on in the world around me -- and much that I saw seemed alien to my understanding of the desire of the Creator God who had redeemed me.

That understanding of God has, I hope, strengthened and matured over the years. I wish I could say that I have always followed the promptings of my own conscience, but alas I have not. But for the grace of Jesus Christ I would be a lost cause. However, as the years have passed I have a deepening sense of dis-ease at the world in which we live, our selfishness, our consumerism, our inability to control our bodily appetites and compulsive behaviors that run riot. I see a culture that has abandoned a constructive worldview in favor of something that is going nowhere fast, and whose dangers are hidden by psychologizing and intellectual subtleties.

Within this context I look at the churches and see that they have compromised with this culture, much as the medieval Catholic church was compromised by the culture in which it functioned in the 15th and 16th Centuries. It took a renewing work of the Holy Spirit to begin making new, and that is what it is going to take again in our own time. I am not just railing against the obvious shortcomings of the Episcopal Church, but of the failures and blindspots of the whole Christian community.

In the churches sexually-related offenses are often the presenting problem; as Kreeft puts it, Modernism has broken the link between God and our gonads! However, this is merely the presenting issue of a far deeper and darker woe. We have, it seems, abandoned those things that make us the salt, the light, the leaven, in the world in which we live. Clearly, there is not only the need to call upon the Holy Spirit for his renewing work, but also for an intentionality on our part -- in our personal lives, in our thinking, and in our church lives, to restore the essence of who we are and what God intends us to be.

"The Enemy's battle-strategy has been the oldest and most obvious in military science: divide and conquor. Insofar as he has been able to foment civil wars and divide God's people, he has been able to weaken them. And he has fomented wars not only between churches but also within them" (Page 14), writes Kreeft. Clearly, the time has come to move beyond this and make common cause with those who are eager to be agents of transformation in a society that is being flushed down the toilet.

Again and again after July 7th, Tony Blair, the Queen, and George W. Bush, among others, asserted that we will not allow terrorists to destroy our way of life. But the truth is, while law, order, and peace on our streets and trains is of paramount importance, how much of our present way of life is worth defending? We value our freedoms, but has the point been reached where freedom has become license, which is itself then self-destroying? Could it be that the lineups we saw in Britain of bishops, moderators of churches, presidents of mosques, and so forth, be the starting point from which common cause on a whole variety of issues can be found?

That our culture is under attack from forces that have been raised in our culture should give us cause for thought as we move forward into an uncertain future. The challenge is enormous, and we avoid to confront it, and to confront it with all the allies we can get, at our own peril.