Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Book Review: Where God Happens, by Rowan Williams

Rowan Williams. Where God Happens: Discovering Christ in One Another and Other Lessons from the Desert Fathers. New Seeds, 2005.
God's world needs, as [Rowan Williams] points out so convincingly, a Church renewed in contemplation. It is good to know that the desert mothers and fathers said we all can be contemplatives and that we can have our deserts in the crowded places where we live and work.
Desmond Tutu, from the foreword.

Desmond Tutu is certainly right when he points us to the central theme of this book: where God happens is not in isolation, but in the crowded places. But what makes this little book so special is that Rowan Williams is finding this particular insight in the writings of the desert fathers and mothers.
The desert fathers and mothers were not all that prone to community living, preferring to live as hermits far from each other and the bustle of the city. But Williams finds in these hermits a concern for the neighbor, especially the neighbor convicted of sin. This concern for the neighbor is what led these men and women to the desert to fight their own temptations. Their own sense of sin and personal temptation cultivated humility, and this humility led to this solidarity with others. "The neighbor is our life; to bring connectedness with God to the neighbor is bound up with our own connection with God. The neighbor is our death, communicating to us the death sentence on our attempts to settle who we are in our own terms and to cling to what we reckon as our achievements" (p 34). Williams finds for us a way to set aside our own personal agendae in pursuit of a deeper desire for fellowship with our neighbors.
Williams also finds some wisdom in this literature about difference in community. The desert was filled with very different people, from the converted Ethiopian highwayman Moses the Black to John the Dwarf, and vastly different styles of devotion, like the hospitality of Abba Moses and the silence of Abba Arsenius. This is not so different from what we now encounter in the church – and Williams does not find a problem in this kind of diversity, but rather a vocation. The church's vocation is to long and protracted listening, rather than to the overlooking of the personal preferences of others in order to preserve our own personal preferences. This kind of overlooking is not, according to Williams, what it means to be a community of reconciliation. Through reconciliation the church can seek to overcome the "subtle pressures of consumerism or the open tyranny of totalitarianism" (p. 67), becoming communities that recognize genuine personhood without sacrificing unity.
Other themes that Williams pursues are the meaning of "fleeing" and "staying" in the desert monastic tradition. With his own particular adeptness Williams finds, in the seemingly distant monasticism of the desert, a reflective application to our own lives of business and routine that challenges us to become more than isolated "spiritual" people. Williams challenges us to become contemplatives grounded in community.
If you are looking for a place to start with either the spiritual writings of Rowan Williams, or the literature of the desert fathers and mothers, you won't do much better than this small volume. Williams shines in his own particular way, reconciling seemingly disparate ideas and then communicating them in a way that finds traction and application in our own world, all made accessible to a general audience.

Further Reading on the Desert Fathers and Mothers:

Benedicta Ward, ed. The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection.

Benedicta Ward, ed. The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks.

John Chryssavgis. In the Heart of the Desert : The Spirituality of the Desert Fathers and Mothers.

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Saturday, February 10, 2007

The Community of the Crucified

Here at the end of the Beatitudes the question arises as to where in this world such a faith-community actually finds a place. It has become clear that there is only one place for them, namely, the place where the poorest, the most tempted, the meekest of all may be found, at the cross on Golgotha. The faith-community of the blessed is the community of the Crucified. With him they lost everything, and with him they found everything. Now the word comes down from the cross: blessed, blessed. Now Jesus is speaking only to those who can understand it, to the disciples. That is why he uses a direct form of address: "Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you." "On my account" - the disciples are reviled, but it actually hurts Jesus. Everything falls on him, for they are reviled on his account. He bears the guilt. The reviling word, the deadly persecution, and the evil slander seal the blessedness of the disciples in their own communion with Jesus. Things cannot go any other way than that the world unleashes its fury in word, violence, and defamation at those meek strangers. The voice of these poor and meek is too threatening, too loud. Their suffering is too patient and quiet. In their poverty and suffering, this group of Jesus' followers gives too strong a witness to the injustice of the world. That is fatal. While Jesus calls, "blessed, blessed," the world shrieks, "Away, away with them!" Yes, away! But where will they go? Into the kingdom of heaven. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven. The poor will stand there in the joyous assembly. God's hand will wipe away the tears of estrangement from the eyes of the weeping. God feeds the hungry with the Lord's own Supper. Wounded and martyred bodies shall be transformed, and instead of the clothing of sin and penitence, they will wear the white robe of eternal righteousness. From that eternal Joy there comes a call to the community of disciples here under the cross, the call of Jesus, "blessed, blessed."

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

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Wednesday, February 07, 2007

10 Deadly Sins of Preaching

One of John Ortberg's 10 Deadly Sins of Preaching:

7. The temptation of pride.
Having people listen to you give a monologue every week can make you prideful. The antidote? A wife.

Interested in the other 9? Click here. It's worth it!

(My only quibble is that temptation is not the same as sin.)


Lord Carey's Appearance

How many people get to say "Oh crap, Lord Carey is here" before they die?

Cindylou did this weekend, when a former Archbishop of Canterbury showed up while she was leading Evening Prayer.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

An Evening at the Cathedral

You know me, Karen is to the right, then my sister Naila, then my Mum, then my Dad.

Yep, I'm looking pretty stunned. This was after nearly barfing and fainting (at the same time) before preaching - I was literally holding on the chancel rail in case I fell over. Then I preached - forgetting any bodily malady. After that I nearly fell asleep from exhaustion - the sacristan had to poke me when it came time to lay hands on the ordinand. Then, after the service was over, came the photo opportunities, and the stunned Preston. But enough confession!

What a great evening at the cathedral. There was between 300 and 400 people there, and just my mum to be ordained. But, alas, due to my condition (described above) I don't actually remember much of the service. After the service we ahd the obligatory tea and cookies, and the chance to catch up with many friends. Gifts were given, people thanked. And the evening ended at the Parsons house with a little 40 year old Cognac. I remember that.

Congratulations, Mum - may your new ministry be blessed!

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Preached on the Occasion of the Ordination to the Priesthood of Linda Parsons

There has been a number of requests for this sermon, so here it is. I preached it last week at the ordination of my very own mum to the priesthood, an honour indeed!

(For those who are interested: Jaroslav Pelikan's commentary on the Book of Actslooms heavily in the background of this sermon, as does this essay by David Bentley Hart, and this discourse by John Henry Newman.)


The Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul the Apostle (2007)
Acts 26:9-23; Psalm 67; Matthew 10:16-22
Preached at the Cathedral of St. John, diocese of Rupert's Land,
on the occasion of the ordination to the priesthood of Linda Parsons.

This might be the fulfillment of the dream of every adolescent. It's not very often that a son gets this big a pulpit, and this much license, to talk about his mother!

I keep a blog, a kind of interactive website, I think some of you read it, actually. Someone left me a comment the other day, saying that a Freudian analyst would have a field day reading my blog. If that's true about my blog, I can only imagine what kind of a field day a Freudian analyst would have with this particular episode in my life: Father Preston, preaching in the mother church, at his own mother's ordination to the priesthood.

Thank goodness it's not Mothering Sunday, or worse yet, the Feast of the Annunciation!

But it is neither of those feasts today, it is the feast of the conversion of St. Paul the Apostle; and I am no longer a petulant adolescent, but rather myself and my mum are nearly fellow priests. And I will take this honour and not give it short shrift. I will charge this ordinand today.

When Stanley Hauerwas was told that Time Magazine called him "America's best theologian", he said, with his characteristic prickliness, that “best” is not a theological category.

Hauerwas said that he should rather be judged on the degree of his faithfulness.

This will be my charge: I will charge our Ordinand with faithfulness.

I know that some of you are hoping to hear some stories today. But I'm not sure that I have any particular stories to tell, at least as they relate to faithfulness. Faithfulness is something realized over such a long time, and this makes it hard to point to particular stories.

There's no doubt that I did learn a lot about faithfulness at home. My mum and my dad have both been faithful Christians for as long as I can remember. My mum was always doing some kind of ministry, from the de-institutionalization of people with cognitive disabilities, to her ministries with international students, to a pastoral ministry at St. Margaret's.

Can I point to one story from this life that might be called faithful? Not this kind of faithfulness. The faithfulness of my parents was something that I learned by being a part of it, where so many of us, including me, were invited into the family in the spirit of adoption, adoption into the Christian life lived daily, a faithfulness handed down from generations past. There is, you could say, a tradition of faithfulness in my family.

When Jaroslav Pelikan writes about this kind of faithfulness, commenting on the apostolic tradition that proceeds from the Jerusalem council, through the Apostle Paul, and into Christian communities more broadly, it reminds me of the faithfulness that I received from my parents.

Pelikan recovers the verb "to tradition" to describe how traditions of faithfulness are passed down, and translates Acts 16:4b to read: ". . . they traditioned the dogmas of the apostles for observance . . ."

"Tradition" is a verb because the faithfulness that is received from the Apostles is inseparable from the practice of handing down that faithfulness. I learned faithfulness to Christian life and ministry at home, because I was traditioned by a woman who was already an apostle. And now I can turn and tradition others. Tradition is not a body of teaching to which we simply give assent; the tradition is something that is shown, it is learned, and it is performed.

I would like for us to take a moment, and to be attentive to what this larger household of faith, is calling our ordinand to be faithful to today.

So we turn back to the Book of Acts, where we see that the convert Luke was the recipient and beneficiary of traditioning, and how he himself becomes the bearer of tradition.

Luke knew himself, and writes that he is "following the traditions handed down to [him] by the original eyewitnesses and servants of the Gospel" (Luke 1:1-2). Luke knew himself to be delivering these dogmatic traditions in turn to his reader, and to all other readers, even until the present day.

In the same way the bishops who met at Chalcedon in 451 claimed the creeds of Nicea and Constantinople, and their robust Trinitarian and Christological doctrines, to be part of the Christian tradition, handing them down to the church. Then the Christological formula of Chalcedon, the doctrine of the full humanity and divinity of Christ is itself handed down and received. Our very own Solemn Declaration of 1893, (a declaration that should probably be hanging in the office of all Canadian clergy), charges the Anglican Church of Canada to transmit the tradition of communion with the Church of England throughout the world, to pass down the One Faith revealed in Holy Writ and defined in the creeds, as it is maintained by the undivided primitive church in the undisputed Ecumenical Councils. In this way the household that is the Anglican Church of Canada claims herself to already be traditioned by the undivided primitive church, and to be continuously turning and passing down that what we have received to those who are in our care. As the Solemn Declaration puts it: "to transmit the same unimpaired to our posterity."

So when our Ordinand agrees to "be loyal to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of Christ as this Church has received them . . .", and then signs the Solemn Declaration of 1893, as she will do in a moment, we are not asking for simple assent to something churchy and particular to our own place and time. Rather we are asking our ordinand to tradition the church, to continue her ministry of faithfulness to creed and communion, but now within the larger household of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.

Be faithful to this long tradition and bear the church back to the church.

Because if our clergy cease to teach and proclaim what we have received, we far too easily become the facilitators of choice, mediators of personal spiritualities, and the swinging doors between the person and their personal preference. We become peddlers of the nihilism that is turning our churches into even less than pagan shrines. (At least the pagans believed in something more than themselves and the force of their personal will.)

No, the salvation of our church will not lie in niceness. John Henry Newman could see this over 150 years ago. He called churchy niceness the more pleasing of the moral maladies, the kind that calls virtue no more than graceful conduct, as if Christ was never crucified, as if our religion was without tears and penitence, or thorns and the cross, and leading us to become nothing more than a gentleman's religion never offending anyone. Learning too late that to always be nice is to live without any principle at all.

The apostolic witness is not to the idolatry of the self, or to niceness . . . (you have read Paul's Epistles, right?) . . .the apostolic witness is not to the idolatry of the self or to niceness any more than a mother isn't called to discipline a son, and to say once in a while, "not under this roof."

Don't be nice. Be nice when you can! But don't be nice at the expense of being faithful.

Be faithful to our witness to Christ, a witness that we receive, learn, practice, and perform.

Call us to be faithful to Christ, the one who we wouldn't know without the traditioning of a household of faith able to teach us how to believe.

Preach, preach as Paul did that day before King Agrippa; preach no less than the fullness of the tradition passed to you in this household of faith, just as you taught me a tradition of faithfulness in our household; preach fidelity to the witness; obedience to the heavenly vision; call us, your household, to repentance; testify to us, tell us again, and again, not until we know it but until we practice it and then perform it ourselves.

Preach to us always that the Messiah must suffer, and that by being the first to rise from the dead, He proclaims light to both the faithful and to the faithless.

Be faithful; teach us faithfulness.

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