Thursday, July 30, 2015

British Evasion #5, July 30, 2015, part 1

British Evasion Day Eight, part 1

And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb.

Revelation 21:22

For thou hast made him but little lower than God, And crownest him with glory and honor.

Psalm 8:5

We have now so far been to three cathedrals -- St Paul's, Canterbury, and Coventry -- and each of these visitations have stirred within me a number of divergent and even conflicting theological and anthropological thoughts, all of which are ultimately resolved within me by an overwhelming and deeply resonant sense of spiritual awe and wonder.

The most immediately identifiable conflict I have within me is perhaps more taught than it is natural -- in other words it is more of a thought than an intuitive feeling. It comes from my Baptist forbears' conviction that the Temple is not an edifice but a Person, and Church is not a building but a people.  Rejecting all the majesty and mystery of the medieval church, the Baptists and Congregationalists who joined together to build the first church I pastored built a simple and unembellished meeting house where 175 years later some old timers still spoke of "Sunday go to meetin'" and never Sunday go to church.  For these early 19th century Protestants, the church met in the building, but was never the building itself; and I'm sure they could quoted chapter and verse from Revelation where John said he saw no Temple in his vision of heaven because God Himself will be the Temple.

But it's not just Puritans and Separatists from centuries past who cast suspicion on the temples humanity has made for its gods.  From another very different spiritual tradition, the 20th great century Jewish mystic Abraham Joshua Heschel himself, in a widely influential reflection on the meaning of Sabbath contrasted the difference between sacred space and sacred time, locating the human need for holy space in the lower order of spiritual evolution. "The primitive mind finds it hard to realize an idea without the aid of imagination," Heschel wrote, "and it is the realm of space where imagination wields its sway.  Of the gods it must have a visible image; where there is no image, there is no god.

To speak of something as "primitive" is not in itself to say anything negative.  It does, however, imply an undeveloped and even infantile state. Heschel's thesis was clear -- a religion in need of temples is for a humanity only just born.

Heschel's critique of temple religion is, of course, as old as the Jewish Prophets.  And it was a very similar statement that got Stephen, the first Christian martyr killed, when in the shadow of the Jerusalem he dared to say that God does not dwell in houses made by human hands and quote the prophet Isaiah in saying, "Heaven is His throne and the whole earth just his footstool," [my translation].

All of this is, of course, true.  God surely cannot be held in a house or temple or even in the whole earth or cosmos.  And yet, there is something within me -- something "primitive", to use Heschel's term -- which is attracted to or perhaps by spiritual space. The loft and grandeur of these cathedrals draw me like a moth to a flame. There is awe and there is wonder, and there is a sense that art and architecture were dreamed for such a sacred calling as this. Just as all things take place, so holy things take holy places. And these cathedrals, though built and maintained by fragile and sinful men, are still nonetheless holy indeed.

So I am thinking again and more deeply about the the book of Revelation and John's vision. It is true, there is to be there no Temple because God Himself will be our Temple. But it is also true that there will be no sun and no moon because God himself will be our Light.  In other words, our needs there in heaven are going to be different from our needs here on earth -- both physical and spiritual.  And that brings me back yet again to the folk wisdom of my pastor Charlie Johnson which I mentioned a few days earlier, "This ain't heaven -- it's church."

This ain't heaven -- it's earth.
Where stars and sun and moon light our way,
Beckoning us on to believe there is such a thing
As Very Light of Very Light
And Temples Made with human hands lift our eyes
To behold with primitive men
A glory too great for marble and stone
Yet humble enough to meet us there, nonetheless

Monday, July 27, 2015

British Evasion #4, July 28, 2015

British Evasion, Day 5

One of the churches we visited while in London was St Martin in the Fields in Trafalgar Square. The vicar of St Martin's is Sam Wells, who was dean of Duke Chapel from 2005 to 2012.

St Martin's is such a vibrant and contrasting place.  In the middle of the most bustling part of the modern city, you enter its doors and are immediately met with reverent quiet and wonder.  Here the sacred is literally just a few steps from the secular.

It is the meeting of sacred and secular that makes St Martin's as dynamic and relevant a church as I know.  The sanctuary is just that -- a sanctuary and refuge for religious pilgrims, weary tourists, and homeless neighbors all alike. The church crypt has been converted into a cafe, serving local and sustainably-grown food amidst two galleries -- one a photo exhibit giving face and voice to the homeless community and the other an art exhibit done collaboratively by both Christian and Muslim youth.

This is church.

One image which for me really captured the whole spirit of St Martin's is a photo I took of a statue set near the rear of the sanctuary.  In the days of Apartheid in South Africa, St Martin's was an outpost of strong anti-apartheid protest, as the church set very near the the then South African embassy.  The statue by Chaim Stephenson is called "Victims of Injustice and Violence" and was dedicated in 1994 by none other than Desmond Tutu himself.  It is an image of one man carrying another, intentionally reminiscent of the Parable of the Good Samaritan, wherein the wellbeing of a suffering and mistreated man is looked after by another, foreign man -- the Samaritan.

I love the photo because in the background to the left is St Martin's pulpit, and then to the right two homeless men sleeping in the church pews, while in the center foreground there is the statue.  In other words, there is there on the left the pulpit -- the symbol of the Word which tells us to love God and love our neighbor, and then there is on the right the neighbor, and then in the center the two becoming one.

All are becoming one in this great church of St Martin in the Fields. The sacred and the secular, the Christian and the Muslim, the Jew and the Gentile, the church and its neighborhood, the church and the whole world.

As I leave I cannot help but think of Jesus' words at the end of the Parable of the Good Samaritan: "Go and do likewise."


For any of you who are fans of the BBC show "Rev.", St Martin in the Fields is the inspiration for Rev Adam Smallbone's church St Savior in the Marshes.  And St Martin's is similar to St Savior, except without the alcoholic priest and with a lot more people on Sunday.  Cheers.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

British Evasion #3, July 26, Day 3, part 3 of 3

When He opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the testimony which they held. And they cried with a loud voice, saying, “How long, O Lord, holy and true, until You judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” Then a white robe was given to each of them; and it was said to them that they should rest a little while longer, until both the number of their fellow servants and their brethren, who would be killed as they were, was completed.

Revelation 6:9-11

After the microphone disaster at St Paul's, we were able to hear a sermon -- and a good one at that.

It being the Feast of St James the Apostle, Reverend Alan Moses of All Saints, Margaret Street preached on James' witness as the first apostle to be martyred for faith. James was killed by King Herod sometime in the middle part of the first century A.D.

Rev Moses spoke on the powerful attraction dying for one's faith can have upon people -- and how that attraction can be used to recruit people to smash planes into buildings and do other horrific things in the name of God. He explicitly mentioned how the lure of martyrdom is now being used to recruit young people -- he was at least partially implying young British people -- to leave home and come and join ISIS. And in a particularly sobering reference given our location, Rev Moses also explicitly referred to how martyrdom for faith was a driving force which drove 4 young men to board London tube cars and a double decker bus with suicide bombs 10 years ago this month.  Martyrdom can be a powerful motivator.

But this is never what we mean when we say a Christian martyr, the vicar said.  And that is the great lesson of St James the Apostle's life.

James and his brother John had wanted to call down thunder and destroy a city for its infidelity.  But Jesus rebuked them saying, "The Son of a man has come to give life -- not to take it."  James took the lesson to heart, Rev Moses said; and so should we -- we are to bear witness (that's actually what "martyr" means, "witness") to a faith that is life giving and not life destroying.

As Rev Moses preached, I thought of the display of the ten 20th century martyrs I had just seen outside Westminister Abbey.  The statues, which include Martin Luther King, Jr., Archbishop Oscar Romero, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer were dedicated together on the frieze outside Westminster in 1998 in niches which had set empty since the medieval period.  At the dedication of the statues, Rev Anthony Harvey, sub-dean of Westminster said, "There has never been a time in Christian history when someone, somewhere, has not died rather than compromise with powers of oppression, tyranny and unbelief."

There has never been a time; and there shall never be a time.  There are more empty niches to be filled; and the bodies of faithful martyrs shall fill them. I pray for those martyrs now.  I pray for their courage, for their strength, and for their witness.

And I pray for us also. I pray we would never confuse what we mean by the word "martyr" with that which some others might mean. A Christian martyr is one who follows, not in the way of oppression or tyranny or violence for the sake of one's faith, but rather in the way of Christ, the one who came not to take life but to give it -- and the life that he came to give was his very own.

British Evasion #3, July 26, part 2 of 3

Today my good friend and erstwhile and still pastor Charlie Johnson is preaching at Second B.  Yesterday, while worshiping at St Paul's Cathedral, something happened which reminded me of Charlie.

Irie and I attended the evensong service and set beneath the cupola of the great and glorious St Paul's done, which rises high and triumphant over the city of London. As the service began the organ thundered -- proving itself as king of instruments. As the prelude rose to a crescendo, there was the ringing of bells followed by the sight of priests, deacons, and stewards coming out from behind closed doors in a full regalia of white cassocks and red surplices.  The congregation stood silent in anticipation.  There was the waft of incense and the march of the crucifer followed by a train of all the others down the center aisle of the church. It was truly a high and holy moment in a high and holy place.

And then the priest stood to summon the people to worship and lo and behold the audio system went out -- completely.  The priest went on but nobody beyond a few rows back could hear a thing. It was like he was just totally lip synching up there.  For all I know he was.

I turned to Irie and whispered, "For all the pageantry, they still have the exact same problem we do back at home."

Which brings me to Charlie and something he used to remind us of all the time when he was Second B's pastor:

"This ain't heaven -- it's church."

So it is; and it is good.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

British Evasion, #3, July 26, part 1 of 3

British Evasion, Day 3, part 1 of 3

Yesterday was one of those full-forced, non-stop days of sight seeing which borders on near overdose. 

Still suffering from the jet time warp, I woke insanely and waited for first light and then took a jog around the city of London. It's the best way I know how to learn to get lost and then found in a new city.  By 6am I had already seen St Paul's, St Martin's in the Field, Trafalgar Square, Big Ben, Westminster, the London Eye, the Thames, the London Bridge, and about 6,000 red double-decker buses.  By 7am I was showered and shaved and enjoying my third cup of morning joe.  By 7:30am I was seated inside a small chapel within St Paul's ready for morning prayer and the Gospel Lesson prescribed for the Feast Day of St James the Apostle.  Then at 8am I was sitting in the wooden chorister pews inside another chapel within St Paul's ready to hear more on the Apostle James and to receive communion.  By 8:30am I had eaten the bread, drunk the wine, said the Amen.

By 8:45am I was now back at the hotel, waiting on Irie to get ready so that we could go out and finally begin the day's tour of London.

And indeed, that was just the beginning . . .

British Evasion #2, July 25, 2015

British Evasion Day 2:

Yesterday, we visited St. Mary Woolnoth Church, which is a vertical and monolithic Baroque edifice built by architect Nicholas Hawksmoor in 1727 and now in the heart of London's banking district. The church's clock (pictured) makes a cameo appearance in T.S. Eliot's Waste Land: "To where St Mary Woolnoth kept the hours / With a dead sound on the final stroke of nine."

As cool as that is, what really drew me to St Mary is the fact that it was the church where John Newton, Anglican priest and writer of the hymn "Amazing Grace", pastored for 27 years.

If you've been around me or listened through my sermons for any length of time then you probably already know that John Newton is one of the giants of faith.  Baptists don't usually believe in patron saints but Newton may be an exception that changes the rule for me. He is a hero, not because he lived a perfect life, but because he allowed God to work a story of redemption into his very imperfect -- he called it "wretched" -- life.  A slave trade ship captain whose heart was taught to fear God amidst a terrible storm, Newton gave his life to Christ's redemptive grace and surrendered his life to ministry, and then later publicly repenting of his involvement in the slave trade and becoming one of England's most outspoken truth tellers about its horrors. He whose soul was set free from the chains of sin then gave himself to the cause of setting others free from the bonds of slavery.

As I made my way around the perimeter of St Mary, I discovered something surprising in back of the church. There, hidden between St Mary and a modern walkway, is a blackened and weathered image nailed to the back of the church.  It is a picture of a ship at sea.  An image which no doubt struck fear in the hearts of Africans as they saw it advance on their continent, and an image which later was a source of shame for Newton as it reminded him of his own wretched behavior toward his fellow human beings. Yet, that image has been transfigured; it stands now as a sign of God's providence over all in the boat amidst raging seas, and it stands as a sign of God's ability to bring new sight to even the blindest of us all and to lead home even the furthest -- even a wretch like me.

Friday, July 24, 2015

British Evasion #1, July 24, 2015

British Evasion Day 1:
People keep asking how they can be praying for me while I am on sabbatical. I keep telling them to pray that I eat -- a lot. 
Fish and chips of course.
But I'm thinking of something even more substantive -- no, not Newcastle. 
In last Sunday's Gospel Jesus told the disciples to, "Come away, and rest awhile." Not a bad scripture for your last day of work before taking some time away.
The story says Jesus took the disciples away because they had no leave of the demands of their ministry, and not even any time to eat. 
That was probably literal -- meaning they literally had not time even to grab the loaves and fish. That's why they had to borrow from the boy. But maybe it was metaphorical also -- meaning they had no time to eat or drink of the things of God; in other words, after all the hard days, they're souls were famished and their spirits starved.
So, if you would like to pray for me while on my British Evasion, maybe that's what you can pray. That my soul will eat and drink deeply of all the places, people and experiences God would have me to feast upon while gone; and that I will come back well nourished and fully satiated by whatever the spiritual equivalent of a good and hardy English pub meal might be. 
Btw -- made it to London!