Generous Orthodoxy  

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

The PB has a dream

The Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, Katharine Jefferts Schori, is an elegant person with superb skills in many areas. Theologically, however, she is a puzzle. Lately she has been speaking frequently of "the dream of God." Where does this idea of God "dreaming" come from? It is a thoroughly anthropocentric notion transferred from human beings to God. The old men who dream dreams in the book of Joel are not God. The vision of the prophet Isaiah, chapter 61, which she often cites, is not a dream. God does not have a dream. God has a purpose. And his purpose, as no prophet makes more clear than Isaiah, cannot be thwarted by any failure of human beings. God is not lying around dreaming, waiting for us to bestir ourselves. God, as Isaiah tirelessly proclaims, is on the move.

Another word the PB likes is "task." She often talks about "our task" as Christians. This is not a Biblical concept. If we are to speak theologically, we will use the words "call" or "vocation," because it is implied in such words that there is an agency that does the calling (Latin vocare, to call). A "task" is burdensome, something that is laid upon us that we must be exhorted laboriously to fulfil. A vocation from God is a gift that makes us joyful and free.

Martin Luther King said "I have a dream," but he never said that "God has a dream." With his unfailingly Biblical speech, he brought his dream into alignment with God's purpose. The Spirit of God used the strength of King's preaching to plunge his hearers into the mighty current of God's rolling river of justice ("Let justice roll down like waters"--the prophet Amos). It was part of the power of King's preaching that he hewed close to his source--the Bible and its verbal constructions which always proclaimed God as the author of all power and all justice--in other words, as the subject of all the sentences. And it was the power of his life that he so clearly and so consistently understood himself as a called person, sinful and tormented as he was.

True preaching today is hard to find. We hear, instead, "evocative" (Will Willimon's word) addresses that create a mood--a "dreamy" mood in this case. Or we hear harangues. I heard one on line recently, from a famous pulpit. It was undoubtedly pleasing to those who shared the preacher's strong views about fundamentalist religion in the public sphere. But there was not a shred of Biblical proclamation in it, no moments of revelatory power, no glimpse of the purpose of God, no kerygma at all--which meant that no one could come away from it uplifted, lightened, smiling and free. One could only come away angry at one's benighted fellow humans who were such blots on the landscape. True preaching of the Word of God, however, contains good news not only for the right-thinking and right-acting, but for all the others. That is a true test of preaching. Let us now praise famous men: Will Campbell has always insisted on that true test throughout his life, as he maintained his ties with "rednecks." Desmond Tutu has become distressingly sloppy in his theology of late, and he relies too much on shtick now; however, the drama of his entire life, culminating in the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, has been kerygmatic. In the midst of horrors, he has been a living illustration of God's embrace for perpetrators and victims alike, an embodiment of God's justification of the ungodly (Romans 4), and for that he will be honored for ever.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

The first Sunday of Advent

After a long season of dwelling among Presbyterians (they still love preaching), I find that the Episcopal Church is the place to be on the first Sunday of Advent. In most places the parishes are still holding on to the practice of not singing carols and not decorating the church, or at least not bringing out the full panoply, until Christmas Eve. Our churches are the only places in our culture where we can escape from the frenzy and then later celebrate the Twelve Days as they were meant to be.

The gospel for the First Sunday of Advent demands attention. It is always taken from one of the "little apocalypses" found in the teaching of Jesus. Brave preachers (and what other kinds of preachers would we want?) will face the reading directly. Advent begins in the dark, and Advent worship is not afraid to take a searching inventory of the darkness. Unless it is completely dark, our little night lights are not visible.

On the next two Sundays we hear the cry of John the Baptist, out of the wilderness. The wilderness imagery is not an accident, nor is his culture-cleaving message from another sphere: "Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees."

Advent wreaths are fine (we have always had one at our house) but if we think of the season as a warm cuddly time we are missing the whole point. At the end of Cormac McCarthy's masterpiece, Blood Meridian, the satanic judge speaks of "a malign power" set against humankind. He asks, rhetorically, "What is death if not an agency?" Those are Advent questions. At the end of the book Death is triumphant.

The father and son in McCarthy's most recent book, The Road, find themselves at world's end. Some sort of global catastrophe has destroyed civilization. They discover an abandoned house:

Standing in the charred ruins of a library the father feels some rage at the lies arranged in their thousands row on row. He picked up one of the books and thumbed through the heavy bloated pages. He’d not have thought the value of the smallest thing predicated on a world to come. It surprised him. That the space which these things occupied was itself an expectation.

Our lives as Christians--as the people of God--are "predicated on a world to come." There is no imaginable horror, if God is God, that can entirely thwart his purpose. The love of the father for the son in The Road is a hint of that expectation.

"Watchman, what of the night?"

Thy Kingdom come.