Thursday, June 28, 2007

St. Cyril of Alexandria

His feast day was yesterday, but I wasn’t blogging then. In the East, his feast is on January 18 (with St. Athanasius) and June 9 (so perhaps my Olivia should have been Cyrilia??).

St. Cyril’s Christology was deeply influential on the Council of Ephesus which clearly defined the two natures of Christ. His Christological writings are without parallel in their orthodoxy. He has been called a Doctor of the Church and the “Seal of the Fathers.”

But he’s a problematic saint. Apparently he was not always a very nice guy. Where humility is praised, Cyril often exhibited the opposite. Even his hagiographers note his expulsion of pagans and Jews from Alexandria and his sometimes heavy-handed ways.

There are several responses to this. Roman Catholics and Orthodox could well respond that not even the saints in their earthly lives are perfect, but are repentant sinners like all of us. Lutherans could respond by emphasizing that the honorific “saint” is just that: a title given by the Church to honor one’s service to the Church (Ultimately I think this could amount to a dumbing-down of the doctrine of sanctification, but I’ll leave that to another post).

But St. Cyril’s heavy-handed ways need to be understood in the context in which he lived. While Patriarch of Alexandria at the turn of the 4th to 5th Centuries, St. Cyril also had a prominent role in state affairs. The official religion of the Empire was Christianity, and Cyril had authority to enforce this.

While this alone may not justify Cyril’s behavior at times–and shouldn’t– the other matter we must remember is that we live in wimpy times. Political Correctness has transformed our culture completely. I’ll say it again: we are wimps. Having our feelings hurt debilitates us. Causing offense is the unforgivable sin. Being offended is like death, and also makes us cry. Yes, our parishes and offices may be kindler, gentler places, and kindness and gentleness are Christian virtues, but pair that with political correctness and we have become big babies–myself included.

Ad Orientem has a great post about a new show on AMC called “Mad Men.” It’s about the business and social life of men in the 1960s. While the characters depicted in the blurb are behaving as pagans, and our society’s treatment of women has greatly improved (but has a ways to go), the men were not expected to be angels, perfect and inoffensive to everyone. There was no political correctness, just politics, and that could be rough stuff.

In parishes sixty years ago, I’ve heard that one could witness fistfights in the parking lot after voter’s meetings. Perhaps that is a good argument against voter’s meetings. But after the fight, the bloodied men would go and drink a few beers together. That’s the myth anyway.

Which world would you rather live in? One with great, nasty conflict, or this one where everything seems to run under the surface and we are slaves to our emotions and feelings? I don’t know how I would answer.

Monday, June 11, 2007

The Beehive Church

Fr. Stephen Freeman writes,

Our American way of life has tended to mold the local church into the local religion store. It offers various programs and activities that keep everyone involved and even maximizing the “ministries” of its members. But it can also simply be a beehive of activity, none or little of which has much to do with the healing of the soul.

In every activity of the Church, whether it is liturgical, or educational, or building buildings, what have you, each activity should serve for the healing of the soul and the nurture of the true self. If not, then the Church has simply become one more secular activity that is destroying true life rather than fostering it. (read the rest here)

What I love about Fr. Stephen is how he takes observations common to many priests and pastors and then pushes them a bit further than some of us do. I’ve observed many times (and sometimes on this site) how the congregation is often anything but a place of prayer and healing for wounded sinners. Programs and more programs and doing stuff are what many pastors are tempted to push; they are also what people like to see.

But Fr. Stephen pushes a little harder, observing that “the Church has simply become one more secular activity that is destroying true life rather than fostering it.” By “true life” he means True Life, the life for which we were created, the life for which Christ died, the life to come in the Resurrection that is even now being formed in our lives.

We Lutherans love the story of Mary and Martha. Many of our Ladies Aid societies are even named after them (and don’t forget the great Lutheran hymn “One Thing’s Needful” (text below)). We love Mary and how she sits at the feet of our Lord, hearing His teaching, and obviously learning her doctrine. We love to make implications about receiving from Jesus and trying to serve Jesus, and how there’s a nascent works-righteousness going on in this text (probably not, but that’s beside the point).

But we’re just Marthas, believing that church is all about being Ablaze or having committees, or doing programs for this age group or that, about having enough for a good Sunday School. It makes us like the world.

One Thing’s Needful

One thing’s needful; Lord, this treasure
Teach me highly to regard;
All else, though it first give pleasure,
Is a yoke that presses hard.
Beneath it the heart is still fretting and striving,
No true, lasting happiness ever deriving.
The gain of this one thing all loss can requite,
Can teach me in all things to find true delight.

If you seek this one thing needful,
Turn from all created things;
Turn to Jesus and be heedful
Of the peace and joy He brings.
For where God and man both in One are united,
With love and forgiveness the heart is delighted;
There, there is the worthiest lot and the best,
Where Jesus alone is your joy and your rest.

How were Mary’s thoughts devoted
Her eternal joy to find
As intent each word she noted
At her Savior’s feet reclined!
How kindled her heart, how devout was its feeling
While hearing the wisdom that Christ was revealing!
For Jesus all earthly concerns she forgot
In love and devotion to what Jesus taught.

So my longings, upward tending,
Jesus, rest alone on You.
All my life on You depending,
Teach me what to will and do.
Although all the world should forsake and forget You,
In love I would follow, I’ll never desert You.
The words of Your teaching, O Lord, are my life,
My joy and my peace in this vain world of strife.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Taming the Suburban Lawn

My front yard is a disgrace, and has been now for years. We moved into our home in the Spring several years ago. It had been vacant for some time, and as everything greened, the weeds took over. I mowed them diligently, and by the end of the Summer, the yard was mostly crabgrass, but at least it was some kind of grass. My neighbors all boasted lush carpets of Bermuda grass, but I took comfort that I at least I had something green.

Fall returned and Winter, and by March the crabgrass had retreated into the earth and the yard was dirt…and then the weeds returned: henbit, dandelions and ground clover were the worst offenders. And I fought back. The bag of fertilizer and weed control demanded wet grass that would dry and stay dry for at least 24 hours. It was tricky timing, but I successfully applied it. And sure enough, the weeds disappeared and crabgrass returned.

The mistake I made that year was not doing the Fall applications. Once the next Spring arrived, and with it the weeds–again–helpful friends and neighbors revealed my error. I conscripted professional help.

The Professional Weed-Control Experts arrived with their uniforms and trudged through the yard. They looked like the Wehrmacht Feuerwerferen; marching across the front line, flushing out the bunkers with sprays of fire. My men didn’t spray fire, of course, but their chemicals were orange-colored, and I have a good imagination.

The weeds disappeared, and the crabgrass returned. Again. The Professionals said the all-important Fall Application was the main deal. I waited. They left some literature proving they had sprayed in November or so, and I didn’t see them again until March.

The Fall Application was the Salvation they promised. Henbit: gone; ground clover:vanquished. And my yard looks terrible. As it turns out, the crabgrass occupied about 75% of my front yard. Now that it’s gone, all I have is a healthy-looking band of Bermuda on the East side of my driveway, quickly petering out, leaving dirt and a few tufts of Fescue for the rest of the yard.

I despaired. I live in an established neighborhood. Not fancy, but a neighborhood of folks who prove themselves good stewards of their property. Nice houses, well-maintained. Lawns like carpet. My yard looks like something out of Deliverance.

The Weed Wehrmacht said it would just take time. The yard had gone to seed and it takes time to re-establish itself. Patience.

Weeks passed. I seeded, but nothing has germinated. Rains came, and more rain. I watered a few times, and then it rained again. I went on vacation and tried to forget my misery.

It started while I was gone. Bermuda Grass is not really a grass. It’s technically a weed–a beautiful, hardy, drought-resistant, grass-looking weed, but a weed. And it spreads. It shoots out tendrils and creeps. It will creep over anything (but apparently not crabgrass), retaining walls, driveways, and, to my great satisfaction, bare earth. It creeps and mounds, first a shoot that plants a root, and then more shoots which grow over it, building density and depth.

As we pulled in the driveway I noticed it right away. Tendrils were creeping into the bare areas, sending out shoots and across the ground, up into the air and roots into the earth. Some of the shoots were at least six inches long.

Maybe it will look like my neighbor Ed’s by the end of the Summer after all.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

A Philosopher's Conversion

Robert Koons is a contemporary philosopher at the University of Texas. When I studied philosophy as an undergraduate in Oklahoma, I remember hearing of Koons; he’s a big name in philosophy. Austin has a stellar reputation for philosophy, due in part to Dr. Koons. The professors at my undergraduate program highly recommended a few of us to look into further study at UT.

He was also a LCMS Lutheran, and apparently devout and pious–a rarity among academics, and almost unheard of among philosophers. A few of my former professors, hoping to nudge me into philosophy, admitted that my confessional Christianity would definitely be a hindrance in many programs. Apparently they were not aware that someone of Koons’ stature shared communion fellowship with me.

But no longer. Koons has converted to Roman Catholicism. Such things seem to be happening more and more often these days. Recently there have been a number of ELCA pastors and academics who have converted to Rome, just as there have been a number of LCMS pastors and laymen (not many from academia, though) who have likewise converted to Rome or to Eastern Orthodoxy. Some of these have received a good amount of press in the blogosphere and elsewhere. There are more that have quietly left their vocations without much fanfare or publicity. The numbers of such conversions are small–around 1% of the 8000-some LCMS pastors in the last five to ten years. There is no mass exodus, by any means.

However, conversion stories sell copies (or garner website hits). It makes good drama. We all know how difficult it is for humans to change. At times we wonder if it is even possible, and have cliches to prove it. So when someone deliberately and actually “changes their spots” we take notice.

But with these conversions to Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy, the reasons and rationale are not often easy to come by. The detractors often dismiss such conversions as “seduction”–seduction by aesthetics (smells and bells), authority, or history. Those who convert do so for many reasons, and sometimes they are unwilling or unable to discuss it fully.

Here is where Koons may give us some insight. He’s a professional thinker, after all, and has written a 95-page essay on his rationale. To be fair, he calls them “notes” and has published them online–not in a journal. He writes:

The essay began as a set of private notes written as a purely intellectual exercise: an attempt to exorcise my doubts about Lutheranism by putting them to paper and exposing them to critique (both on my part and on that of others). As it turned out, the more I wrote, the more reasons I found for changing my outlook…

One more thing about my notes: they were written with an audience of one (myself) in mind. In writing them, I gave no thought to being diplomatic or irenic. My only point was to try to sort out which of the two traditions was more likely to be the fullest expression of the Gospel. They are deliberately one-sided: there is much that I could have said about the virtues of the Lutheran tradition and the need for the reformation of the 16th century Church not included here.

I’ve not read the full essay, but plan to. The full essay may be found here.

For Rev. Paul McCain’s sake: I cannot say that converting to the Roman Catholic Church is a good thing. In fact, if you find it persuasive please contact me offline and let’s discuss it (and if you’re a member of my congregation, really, really, let’s talk about it!!).

I share this essay with you for what it is: a rare, reasoned account of a man’s conversion–and a brilliant man at that.