Saturday, December 14, 2013

A Little Incident at the Baptist College by E. D. "Shinbone" Smith, Bomar, Oklahoma, formerly Indian Territory, IT

For a spell I thought I was called to preach and preach I did with a license from the Thackerville Baptist Church.  I was young and zealous and full of fire- more fire than light, I'd say now.

 Anyhow, everybody thought I should get some education, and Lord knows, I needed it.  So, I packed up what little I owned (it fit in one big suitcase) and headed off to the Baptist college.  I always loved books and reading, so in one way I was in my element.  There was plenty of books and plenty of time to read.  Trouble is,  I'd get interested in something one of the professors said and start reading everything about it I could get my hands on and the rest of the class and the professor would take off and leave me behind.  I learned a right smart, but not always what I was supposed to be learning.

There was a lot of preacher-boys like me at the college; some of them was smart and some was as dumb as a 'possum.  Pretty much like life in general, I expect.

One day we was studying the life of King David in the Book of Samuel and there is this story there about how old crazy King Saul was envious of David and had reneged on his promise to give David his daughter's hand in marriage for killing the giant.  To thicken the soup, King Saul told David he could have the girl if David brought him a hundred foreskins of the Philistines.  You can read about this in I Samuel 18.

Now there was this country preacher-boy named Clovis from down around Gotebo, Oklahoma in the class.  There was a right smart of 'possum about old Clovis.  When he heard this story, his face kindly screwed up in a grimace and his shoulder started to jerk.  Finally, he raised his big hand.

"Dr. Blackwell, " he said, to our old wizened professor, "I was jist wondering, did he have to kill them fellers to git them things?"

Old Dr. Blackwell, leaned back, drew breath, and with just the fuzz of a smile, said,

"Well, son, he'd have to kill me to get mine!"

I always loved old Dr. Blackwell and I don't know what ever happened to Clovis.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

A Reply to a Friend, Part II

My dear Friend,

My move from my previous position, which I held for nearly forty years, in a very profound way came of my coming to see a conflict and controversy between

things, real things on the one hand,

and, ideas or thought constructs on the other.

I will try in this post to explain what I mean by this.

As Protestant Christians you and I believe that sinners are saved by grace.  Sinners and sin are not ideas, they are real things.  And grace is not an idea (nasty thought!).  Grace is God himself acting in undeserved and unmerited favor to deliver and heal sinful men and women.  We are not saved by an idea of grace, even a correct theological idea of grace, we are saved by the Triune God of grace.

My previous world-view was made up chiefly of ideas.  My previous life was spent in trying to find and maintain the right set of correct ideas about God, human critters, and the world.  It was an endless and exhausting task.  It was also a delimiting one.  Once I came to the right idea about sin or grace, the second coming, the nature of the Bible, etc., I was ready to plant my flag and scan the horizon for those potential foes flying a different one.  This is one of the essential marks of the fundamentalist, whether he reads Greek and Hebrew, or cannot read at all.  But, it is finally about ideas, not stuff, not the stuff of God's creation.  This is why the fundamentalist has such a hard time loving anybody but those who share his ideas.  The fundamentalist loves the Big Idea, he does not love the world that is there.

This view is really just another form of the old Gnostic heresy.  Ideas matter, stuff does not.  (In fact, I can trace my earliest unease with my views to a book, Against the Protestant Gnostics, by Philip J. Lee.   Highly recommended and still in print.)

The catholic and Anglican view is that this view of the world and of God's work in the world is completely, utterly wrong-headed.  The Biblical view is concerned to stress certain realities against certain other ideas.

Things  vs.  Ideas

The Whole Person  vs.  The Mind

Scriptural Declarations  vs.  Propositions or Constructs

The Embodied  vs.  The Disembodied

Sacramental Reality  vs.  Spiritual Ideals

Life in the Body and in the World  vs.  Life in the Mind or Spirit

The Community of the Church  vs.  Individualism

The catholic and Anglican emphasis on the left hand side of these things is the one that seems to me to best represent the reality presented in the Bible.  This means that grace and faith are not mere ideas, but realities that are lived out the way the rest of our lives are.

Illustration:  I married Kathy forty years ago this coming December.  That marriage was formalized in solemn vows before God and witnesses and bonded in our sexual union of oneness on our wedding night.  Since then, a whole series and complex of liturgies have blessed and deepened our devotion to one another over these many and happy years:  Touches, kisses, words of endearment and commitment,  shared sorrows and joys, three living children and one lost little girl-child in her sixth month of life, cards, gifts, shared homes and travel, memories kept in photos and journals, and on and on...  In addition, there have been hurts, wounds, harsh words and cold shoulders, misunderstandings and grievances, and much,  much forgiveness, forgiveness marked by real words and actions.    Who can doubt the importance of these small sacramental gestures in bringing health and joy to this marriage?  Thus, our marriage, like all good ones has been supported by a liturgy of daily acts of love and considerateness.  Marriages, real and good ones, are not just based on ideas or even shared points-of-view at every point, but on faith and faithfulness,  love and mercy, grace and patience lived out in real words and acts in a life that is messy, fallen, and earthy.

In the same way, the life of God is lived out in the same way.  Not simply in the mind or "heart," but in a host of acts and actions.  We bow our heads, we bend our knees, we lift our hands, we receive water upon our heads (or in the immersion of the whole body), we receive bread and wine, chewing and swallowing it, we receive the oil of blessing, healing, and unction, we sing, we speak, we read, we hear- in a word, we use all our senses in acts of worship and service.  Toward the people of God, we listen, speak, weep, pray, touch, hold, hug, kiss, laugh, etc.  This is an embodied spirituality,  spiritual, not because it takes place in the mind alone, but because it is incarnated in acts of love and service.

Does this mean that the mind does not matter?  That truth does not matter?  Of course not!  But, it does mean this:  A life that divorces the mind in ideas from worship and service in earthy, imperfect, but beautiful acts cannot claim to be the religion of the Bible.  It is this last point that I will try to develop in my next post.

I hope this is helpful and I wish you every blessing, my dear friend, in Jesus.


A Reply to a Friend, Part I

"So how did you come from being a Baptist to being an Episcopal (Anglican) sacramentarian?"

This is the question asked me today by an old friend.  Many of my old friends have wondered the same thing, though most of them have not asked.  I gave it some thought and concluded that this would be a good place to start an explanation of the journey.  I will not start with exegesis, though there is an exegetical infrastructure under the whole thing.  But, we fool ourselves if we think that exegesis stands alone in our theological constructs.  We are complex and our constructs are complex.

The fact is this:  I have spent all my life trying to understand how the world works and how human persons work within it.  I have spent nearly fifty years trying to understand the world and human persons as God's critters, His creation.  More and more in the past twenty years, I came to believe that the world works and that God's world works in much the same way.

I believe in the creation, in the stuff of creation, in "what is there."  "God loves 'stuff;' he invented it."  C.S. Lewis.  The stuff is there.  It is reality.  What we think of it and how we construe it is not the same- though our thought processes are a part of the reality.  God's original idea, his Big Idea, was to create the world as a home-place for a race of human critters made in his image (sonship language).  When sin violated this original idea, God's purpose in redemption (purposed from all eternity) kicked in.  It was still his idea and purpose to have, to possess a human family of men and women being the divine image.

This redemptive purpose would not be executed outside the creation, but within it.  Thus, the Biblical story from Genesis onwards.  It is earthy, real, and messy-rooted in time and space- in history.  The Climax of this is seen in the Incarnation of the Son (Image) of God, Jesus Christ.  He is conceived, born, circumcised, trained, tested, perfected, as a real Man in the real world.  As the True Man he works out the salvation of men in this world, all of which culminates in his rejection and death.  But, as a real Man he is raised from the dead, not as a disembodied spirit, but as an embodied human being.

When he sends his Spirit on Pentecost it is in order that he may be embodied in human beings who now exist as his temple, his dwelling place- the Church.  Now, if you want to see something earthy, real, and messy, just look at the church.  The church, in all its weakness and sin, far from being the argument against the Christian Faith that it is thought to be, is really the proof of the pudding:  God's intention is this-worldly, not other-worldly.  Like I said (or was it Lewis?) he loves stuff.  And he loves the church and those messy sinners who constitute her reality in the here and now.

So, I began to see that God's purpose is rooted in his love for his critters.  His purpose is to save his critters, human persons and physical creation itself by bringing both into perfect and loving congruity with himself.

From this perspective, the whole creation and the whole person- real "stuffness," is the object of this purpose.  Not disembodied souls, or minds, but the whole complex of mind, affections and will in a physical reality that is God's good making.

From this place it is not a huge jump to come to believe that the spiritual life is about the same stuff. And, the spiritual life outlined in the Bible is concerned with things like speech, blood, fire, oil, wine, bread, and water.  In the New Testament this concern is linked with sacraments (outward signs of promised inward spiritual graces).  There can be sacraments without grace and faith, but normally, there cannot be grace without sacraments.  These sacraments are represented in water, bread and wine.  By partaking of these in faith, we enter into fellowship with the Father as sons, through the death and resurrection of the Son, and in the power of the Spirit of adoption (as sons and daughters).  Thus, when the NT speaks of partaking of these things it is never as just symbols, but in the reality.  Baptism saves, cleanses, unites us with Christ, washes us in regenerative grace, etc.  The Lord's Supper feeds us on the real body and blood of Christ and enables us to participate in the life of the Covenant God whose supper it is.  There are mysteries here and, as an Anglican, I do not try to explain them or to explain them away (Like the Roman Catholic and Lutheran or the one hand or the Baptist on the other).  I come to them in the faith of the Gospel of Christ and in the promise of God to give grace in them.  God gives grace in his word, his water, his bread, and his wine.  He has promised to do so and fulfills that promise to all who receive his promise in faith.  Thus, God chooses to work in the world in the same way he has always worked, in and through the stuff of creation.

Well, that's enough for now, but by now you, my inquiring friend, can see the trajectory of my thought and of my journey.  Grace and peace in our Lord Jesus Christ.  Tbone+

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Against the "God-Talkers"

They talk
And talk
And talk:
Asserting their certainties.
Affirming their formulae.
Arguing their auguries.

Let them.
Let them
    and talk

        and talk

           and talk.

Let them affirm.
Let them assert.
Let them argue.

I will be silent.
I will hold my peace.
I will keep my counsel.
I will remain absolutely aloof.

They learn to listen.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

A Poem for a Friend

"All and All"   for FB

And so shall all things lost
Be restored to us 
(and more than restored),
And the memory of loss erased from our hearts.
And the Joy that 
We only now glimpse,
In moments all too short,
Shall swallow up the void
That we feel all too deeply
And all too often.
And all, all, shall
Finally, infinitely, eternally,
Be well.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Father Cole

Jim Cole is a priest.  He is a priest in the Reformed Episcopal Church and serves as assistant priest at the Chapel of the Cross in Dallas, Texas.  He serves with me, a curate, in the same parish.

Jim and I both grew up in Gainesville, Texas, and maybe that is where our bond began...though unknown to us.  Our greater bond is in our faith and union in Christ and in the ministry of the Church.

For Jim is, above all else, a minister in the Church of Christ.  He has all the marks of this ministry:  Love for God and His Word, love for the people of God, and love for the Liturgy of the Ancient and Historic Church.  This is where he shines- like a beacon on a desolate shore.

Like me, like all of Christ's ministers, Jim has his weaknesses- "we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellence of the power might be of God, and not of ourselves."  He and I are bound by our remaining sins, our innate weaknesses and ignorances, our inability to reach beyond ourselves in all of these things.  But, Christ, who alone is Holy, is pleased to use our pitiable weakness for his glory.  "That no flesh should glory in his presence."

The thing that overshadows and covers all of this in Father Jim (and I hope in myself) is that he LOVES.  He loves God and he loves people- all people and especially the people of God.

Vance Havner (an old Southern Baptist friend of mine from years ago) used to tell this story.  He went to pastor a small rural church in North Carolina as a young man.  He had not been there for long until he began to hear people talk about "Brother Brown," a former pastor.  "Brother Brown" this and "Brother Brown" that.  One day, Havner (not a little intimidated by this long-gone pastor) visited one of his parishioners in a field where the man was plowing.  After sharing small talk for a while, Havner ventured the question,  "What was so special about Brother Brown?"  After pausing for a moment, the man said,  "Wall, I expect he jist loved us."

That, that, is Jim Cole.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

A Happy Life

"Well, I just want you to have a happy life," she said.  She loves me and her wish was not misplaced.  ("She" is my wife's mother- and mine.)

"I guess that I have come to have a different idea about a 'happy life' than the one I used to maintain," I replied.

The fact is I do have a happy life.  I am reasonably healthy.  The woman I have loved for over forty years is still in my life and still loves me.  Our children are healthy and happy.  We have a grand-child who is the embodiment of Christmas morning, with all the presents under the tree.  I have deep and lasting friendships with fine men and women.  I work with my head and my hands, making paintings and sermons, forging iron and carving wood.  I am surrounded by hundreds of books. I make music and poems.  And,  I know God and am known by Him.

All of that is happy and makes for a happy life.

But, my life has been marked from its beginning by deep tragedy and profound sorrow.  I have known many afflictions that have diminished me, broken me, and humbled me.  (The same things have enriched me, rebuilt me, and calmed me.)  I have a deeply melancholic temperament that hides beneath a jolly, loud, and laughing personality.

In all this, I have come to think, as the author of the biblical book of Ecclesiastes says, that happiness is not something we make or possess.  It is something that comes.   It comes in short seasons, in small spurts, and sometimes, these last for a few days or so.  Then, the cares, the labors, the fears, and the weariness, the "vanity" of it all return- and we plod on.  The happiness is the gift of God, the surprise of human existence, the thing that makes the rest bearable and endurable.  We take it as it comes and give thanks.

I spent a happy day of ten hours or so with "She."  I thank her for her wish, wish the same for her, and am grateful that her remark got me thinking, and, I hope, thinking more deeply and clearly about the "happy life."

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Navigating the Season of Lent

So we step into Lent once more.  The dusky browns and grays of a Texas winter seem perfectly to fit the spirit of the season.  But, the naked, dormant trees are budding.  I saw a young maple today against the Western light of the descending sun and it was crimson in the flower of spring (spring comes early in Texas).  The season of Lent co-mingles the grays of winter and the colors of spring.

Spiritually, Lent co-mingles sin and grace, weakness and strength, mortality and everlasting life, and the vanity of life under the sun with the hope of life in a renewed creation.  Lent gives a script, a score, to the groanings of creation, and even the groanings of those who have the Holy Spirit.  Romans 8:18-27. These groanings are birth pangs, filled with the anticipation and hope of the new birth of all things, seen first in the Resurrection of Jesus from the dead.

So why has the Church through the ages participated in the Lenten season with ashes, confessions, fastings, contrition, penitence, and other voluntarily acts of self-abnegation?  Let me suggest a few things to help you navigate your journey through Lent.

First, like all of the Church's Calendar, Lent guides us into the Gospel, the Story of Jesus and His Kingdom.  Lent brings us in our own time to share in the time of Jesus.  Lent leads us to the beginning of his sufferings and then leads us to the apex and nadir of those sufferings in Good Friday.  In an odd way, this was done through much of my Christian life (before I began to deliberately practice Lent) in the gospel songs we sang.

For me it was in the Garden
He prayed 'Not my will, but Thine,'
He had no tears for His own griefs
But sweat-drops of blood for mine.

Fasting alone in the desert
Tell of the days that are past;
How for our sins he was tempted,
And was triumphant at last.

These are just two examples of songs from a non-liturgical tradition leading us into the reality of Christ's life of suffering.  They are "Lenten" meditations.

The Church Calendar, in Advent, in Lent, in Eastertide, leads us profoundly into a re-enactment of the Gospel, not in any sense as a re-doing of the finished work of Christ, but as a profound sanctification of our hours, days, weeks and months, immersing us in the Story of Jesus.  Lent reminds us that Jesus suffered temptation in every respect as we do, that because he suffered, he is able to empathize with our temptations, and that in his heart-felt identification with us in his full and true humanity as the Son of God, he is able to succor us, that is, "to come to our aid."  The season of Lent takes us back to the Life of Christ and brings forward the Life of Christ to us.

Lent reawakens us to the reality of God's love and saving grace.  The Anglican Reformers were deeply concerned to reinterpret Lent in these terms.  This is seen in Archbishop Thomas Cranmer's Collect for Ash Wednesday:

Almighty and everlasting God, who hatest nothing that thou hast made, and dost forgive the sins of all those who are penitent; Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of thee, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

Cranmer in this prayer takes us by the hand and leads us into the Lenten season, a season gray with winter, but drenched in the soft rains of early spring.  These rains are the love and mercy of the God who has revealed himself in our Lord Jesus Christ.  And where do we see this love?  In the life and sufferings of Christ.

From the wilderness temptations and fasting, to the Garden and its agonies, to the direliction of the Cross,  Lent sets forth the love of God in its most exquisite forms, love that suffers for others, in the place of others, holy love suffering for fallen, sinful, rebellious men and women.
The point I wish to emphasize is found in Cranmer's lovely words, "who hatest nothing that thou hast made."  The Creator who made all things, loves that which he has made, despite the rebellion of the original creation to himself.  The Creator has determined in the greatness of his love to save and have that creation as his own.  While the creation in its fallen rebellion hates him, God does not respond in kind.  He does not hate what he has made, but loves it, and loves it in such a way as to recover it in his own sufferings in the Person of his Son, Jesus.  Lent brings us back to this foundational reality and truth.  "God is love."  Lent reminds us that "herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins."

Finally, Lent brings us to a fresh awareness of our sinfulness and of our need for lamentation and repentance.

True Christianity is a penitent faith.  It sees the sinfulness and horror of sin, and, facing this reality about ourselves, it moves us to reject and renounce ourselves and our works to trust the Loving God of the Christian Message.

The acts of self-denial that Christians engage in during the season of Lent are not performances whose goal is to satisfy and placate an angry God.  They are, rather, acts of self-negation that are motivated by a profound sense of gratitude to a saving God, the God who has given himself for our sins- in bloody sweat, suffering, and death.

This penitential color, symbolized in the purple color of the season, is a color that dyes all our life and acts.  We are sinful, God is gracious.  We are unworthy, God is generous.  We are needy, God is full of largesse.  The Anglican poet, George Herbert (whose birthday we recognize on the 27th of this month), puts it succinctly and beautifully in his poem, "Bitter-Sweet."

Ah, my deare angrie Lord,
Since Thou dost strike;
Cast down, yet help afford.
Sure, I will do the like.

I will complain, yet praise;
I will bewail, approve:
And all my sowre-sweet dayes
I will lament and love.

It is in the spirit of these three things that in enter again the season of Lent.  It is by these three things that I navigate these forty days before Easter.  In them is memory, confidence, and self-awareness.  We need each of these things and all of them together to be finally, fully human.