Posted by: dacalu | 7 February 2015

What Knowledge Is for

Last Sunday, I had the honor and pleasure of worshiping with the students at the University of Arizona Episcopal Campus Ministry, in Tucson, Arizona. I ended up speaking much more conversationally during sermon time, but here is a draft sermon I wrote to collect my thoughts.

Readings

Deuteronomy 18:15-20 (The Israelites fear talking to God directly and God promises Joshua as a prophet)

Psalm 111 (“The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom”)

1 Corinthians 8:1-13 (The weak and the strong)

Mark 1:21-28 (“A new teaching – with authority!”)

 

Sermon

“Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.”
It’s clever and, I think, one of Paul’s better one liners.
Much like the opening chapters of Romans, he’s setting us up.

Rigor in purity was considered an achievement 
and a status symbol in Paul’s culture.
Look at me; I’m strong enough that I can fast for three days and still go to work.
Look at me; I follow all of the commandments in the Torah.
Look at me; I’m rich enough to spend my days praying in the Temple
	while employees tend my land.
The economist Thorstein Veblen called them invidious (or envious) comparisons –
	showing off your wealth by doing expensive, non-productive things.
The biologist Amotz Zahavi called them costly signals – 
	proof that you are committed to the community
	instead of a free loader or possible defector.
Just like a peacock is showing how fit he is by hauling around a heavy tail,
	many scribes and Pharisees in Jesus’ day
	demonstrated their wealth, stamina, and commitment to Israel
	through costly displays of piety.

Paul is not condemning them.
We should not equate Paul’s “puffed up” believer with Jesus’ hypocrites –
	“whitewashed tombs,” all clean and bright on the outside
	but rotting underneath.
Paul is talking about good people,
	people who follow the rules,
	but make sure to do so in a public way.
They are showing off the fact that they are spiritual athletes,
	and this can be helpful, even inspiring to others.
Our first thought would be to call them the strong ones,
	the strong believers, the professionals, the examples.
Paul calls them the weak.

Some of us, he says, don’t need to display our piety.
Some of us don’t need to follow the strict rules.
After all, the new covenant is written in our hearts.
And the law was made for us, not us for the law.
Thus the “strong” according to Paul
	are those who do not need strict rules for piety and morality.
The strong understand that God is God of all
	and sacrificing to idols doesn’t really do anything.
The statues of Baphomet and the Elder Gods proposed by today’s atheists
	are pure fiction,
So what harm would be done by setting them up?

The weak, he says would be tempted.

It’s a lovely rhetorical device.
We can, like some Anglicans in England, refuse to acknowled women clergy.
We can, like some Protestants in the US insist that real Christians 
read their Bible every day.
But, Paul says, to do so we must first admit that we are weak.
	it is not the strong in faith who need these things,
	but those who lack faith and understanding.
It is our inability to trust God
	and not God’s inability to act outside the lines of our understanding
	that limits us.
So be suspicious of anyone who tells you 
that you must live up to their strength
while still being compassionate toward those who ask,
	in their presence, to accommodate their weakness.
It makes all the difference. 
The strong are those who pursue love of God and neighbor directly,
	not waiting for the proper time and place
	defined by tradition.

“Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.”
Or, to put it another way.
Knowledge is for the sake of something,
	love is that which knowledge serves.
Knowledge is worthwhile to the exact extent
	that it empowers us to love.

That, I think, is what Mark’s Gospel is going for
	in the introduction.
Today’s passage comes from the rather unsettling first chapter.
This is a story about Jesus –	
who was God, but told everybody to shut up about it.
WHAT?
Really.
Take a close look at the first chapter.  
John the Baptist shows up.
John Baptizes Jesus and then Jesus goes wandering in the desert.
Jesus calls disciples.
Twice Jesus casts out demons before they can tell people about him,
	before they can tell people who he is.
Once Jesus cures a man and tells him not to tell anyone who did it.
And once, Jesus seems to be avoiding the people
	who know about him already,
	so he can go spend time with other people,
	or just be by himself.
All in the first chapter of Mark.
This is not a great start for a book proclaiming the Good News 
to be shouted from the mountain tops…
At least not if the good news is primarily
	a statement that Jesus is the Son of God.

I’m not entirely sure what it is about,
	but I think it has something to do with how Jesus interacts with others
	rather than just who he is alone.
Yes he is the Son of God, Messiah, King of Kings,
	but he is also God with us.
He is a healer and a teacher and a comforter.
The miracle is not that the Son of God exists,
	but that the Son of God chose to live among us.
It is the concrete practice of love
	we were meant to pass on,
	not an abstract set of teachings about Jesus identity.

So, once again, the gospel is less about visibility and labeling
	and more about the hard work of living together and loving one another.
Knowledge that generates curiosity, concern, and compassion
	builds us up.
Other knowledge only puffs us up.
	It convinces us we are in control even when we are not.

Few people are more ardent than I
	in defending learning and truth,
	but I defend them for the sake of a deeper understading.
My challenge for you this time around is to ask
	where you are going.
What goals do you have?
What service do you aspire to?
What place do you have in God bringing about the kingdom of heaven
	here on earth?
The university is a place to learn things.
How many of the things you “know” contribute to your goals?
What do you want and need to know to get where you’re going?

Authority for me is all about this coming together,
	this congruence of action and trust,
of knowledge about and love for.
It is not power for the sake of power,
	discipline for the sake of discipline,
	nor information for the sake of information.
It is wisdom for the sake of charity.
Posted by: dacalu | 6 February 2015

The Trinity – The Long Answer

In the last post, I gave a short explanation of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. In this post, I look in more detail at some of the theologically tricky bits.

Three Equals One?

This is one of the great “mysteries of the faith “, aspects of our relationship with God that defy strictly rational explanation. This is not to say that the doctrine is irrational. It’s just the best we can do with a cosmos too big to fit into our frame of reference. We use probability and probabilistic interpretations of reality regularly, despite being at a loss for what exactly they mean – and despite their being alien to bivalence (the idea that something must be true or false). Sometimes our minds are too small and we allow ourselves mind-stretching metaphors. Sometimes the cosmos is just weird. Sometimes theologians, like scientists, need to use counterintuitive and paradoxical ways of looking at the world to capture things we understand, sort-of, when full understanding is unavailable.

Inspiration and Reason

I make it sound as though Christians came up with a model to explain things. Don’t Christians believe that the doctrine of the Trinity was handed them by God, either in the Bible or through the Disciples? Many do believe this way. Others see the doctrine of the Trinity solely as a human invention. I fall somewhere in between. God has given us evidence that this is the best way to look at things – in passages from scripture and revelations to believers – but has also given us tools for assembling the evidence – through independent and communal reasoning. I have tried to write in a way that would be consistent with the whole range of perspectives, from passive recipients of Divine wisdom to inspired agents in the creation of doctrine.

GOD and Gods

I have spoken elsewhere about the two ideas of God: the philosophical God and the personal God. I would like to say a little more, because it’s particularly important in the case of the Trinity.

By GOD, I mean an idea developed by Plato, Aristotle, and the neoplatonists, often translated as God, the One, or the Good. GOD is that on which the cosmos rests. When I think the foundation of a book, I might either say the paper on which the marks appear or the mind of the author. The first is called materialism, the second idealism. Note, however, that no-one says the foundation of the book is nothingness. For some strange reason, modern thinkers seem committed to the idea that the universe is fundamentally a void in which stuff can be placed. This notion of space, called extension in the Enlightenment, seems to be relatively rare historically and should not be called materialism. It forces us to ask “what is space?” I find this no less troubling than “what is God?” though I admit both are a bit wonky rationally. Christians have called God that which must by necessity exist (Aquinas), that which nothing greater exists (Anselm) and the ground of being (Tillich). These are ways of saying we assemble our model of the world from God on up to human experience. GOD need not have a personality. Indeed, many theologians from Plotinus to Spinoza to Cobb have seen God more as a cosmic force than a personality. I go back and forth between thinking this is one useful way of seeing the Father or the Spirit in the Trinity and seeing it as an attempt to deny that we have personal relationships with Father, Son, or Holy Spirit.

On the other hand, a god is a being of immense power, usually associated with a personality and preferences. Plato and Buddha have both noted that the existence of multiple gods makes them a poor choice when trying to orient yourself morally. Even if we don’t view them as capricious, the existence of many gods means that they can disagree. Christians have been unwilling to consider the possibility of a split in the Trinity. We want (see) a God whose preference and will are always univocal. It wouldn’t work to have three gods in place of one God, because it would open the possibility of disagreements. We never want to find ourselves in the position of saying that the Father commands obedience while the Spirit urges change. It would work neither practically or philosophically.

Christians want (see) all three persons to be GOD and not just gods.

Why YHWH Must Be GOD

The first person of the Trinity – the Father – is identified with the creator of the world. A branch of Christian gnostics attempted to separate GOD from the creator, but their perspective never caught on. Christians are invested in the idea that the entirety of the cosmos is worthy of our curiosity, love, and care. In our Trinitarian thinking, we have also been clear in stating that the Spirit (Genesis 1:2) and Jesus (John 1:3) were involved in creation.

Christians are also committed to the idea (as was Jesus) that we are not talking about a new GOD or even a new god. The God we worship is the same as a the God of Israel, the god worshipped by Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Why Jesus Must Be GOD

At the heart of the Christian message is an idea that GOD became incarnate, that that power which underlies and transcends all reality took on human form and became subject to human will. The meaning of the passion (suffering) and crucifixion of Jesus Christ is intimately tied up with our understanding of him as not only representative, but as the ruler of all. The universe is not blind to our suffering, but suffers with us. The alienation we feel can and has been bridged by true meaning coming to us when we were incapable of reaching out to it.

Why the Holy Spirit Must Be GOD

Christians are also committed to the troublesome, infuriating, and embarrassing idea that God is present in concrete fallible communities of human beings. We think that God continues to live with us as we live – again, not as a representative of heaven or as a perfect overlord, but as a frail human amongst other frail humans. Christianity is not an explanation of the universe (though it has some elements of that) but a response to the world we find ourselves in. Perhaps the most glorious thing about Christianity for the first believers and for us today is this community of faith, hope, and love, this miraculous life we find in our common struggles and squabbling. To state that this messy process is identical to the ground of reality and value is both profound and practical. We will not escape to blessedness, but must find it here amongst the humans.

Against Modalism

Theologians have argued against Modalism, the view that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are modes or operations of one person, instead of three persons. It’s tempting to say that there is just one god (and GOD) whom we see acting in three modes. The problem with this is that it encourages us to see one or another of the modes as a less complete manifestation of God’s personality or underlying reality. It’s often used to prioritize the Father in a way that denies the fullness of Divinity experienced by those who interact primarily with the Son or the Spirit. This can lead us to overemphasize our obedience and underemphasize our friendship and participation. Of course those three nouns are themselves an oversimplification, but you get the point.

Because I object to Modalism, I also shy away from referring to God as “Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier.” I do indeed think God does all those things and does each in each of the three persons, so I don’t think the formulation is incorrect. I just think it does very different work than “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” The traditional Trinitarian formulation names three concrete people in our common stories and in our personal experience. They are names (nicknames, not proper names) for people, whose reality goes beyond their particular roles. The fullness of God rests in Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – at least the fullness of God revealed to the Church. It does not dwell in God’s function as Creator, Redeemer, or Sanctifier of the world – or even in the combination of the three. God is a person and not just an action.

Posted by: dacalu | 6 February 2015

The Trinity

Several people have asked for my thoughts on the Christian idea of the Trinity and it appears they have never made it into blog form, so here goes.

The Short Answer

Two millennia ago, a bunch of people were standing around trying to make sense of the world in light of the life, death, and apparent resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. I say apparent not to call it into doubt, but to say it was something strange that they were trying to account for and needed a new way of thinking to do so. They discovered that they were more than just a bunch of people thinking. Rather, they were a community, bound together by common faith, hope, and love. Their lives were intimately associated with their beliefs, their practices, and their relationships, so individual answers would not be enough; they needed a common understanding.

Many of them, perhaps the majority, said that Jesus must be God – not just >a< god or even >the< god, but GOD in the sense of the philosophers. They saw Jesus as that which was more fundamentally real than anything else, that on which the universe was built. At the very least, he was that on which their common life was built. Jesus was a real person and not an abstraction. Many had seen, heard, and touched him. The best way to keep their priorities straight was to stay focused on the man, Jesus. They would tell his story, follow his example, and try to do as he had asked.

A second group noted that Jesus was Jewish and prayed to someone else, whom Jesus called Father. They identified the Father with the God of Israel, whose proper name is YHWH (usually not pronounced in common conversation out of respect). This god, they said had created all things and Jesus deferred to him, so he should be viewed as GOD. Worship (the attribution of worth) should be directed at the Father.

A third group, said no. For them the spirit (life, wisdom, value) of Jesus had been imparted to the community or Church. This Holy Spirit was neither fixed in history like Jesus nor universally transcendent like the Father. This Holy Spirit, they said was with them and continued to inspire and lead them. Community seemeed hard, perhaps impossible without this spirit among them. Such a Spirit continues to grow and change with the people, whom they saw very literally as the continuing body of Christ (one title for Jesus). This Spirit was the locus of true religion. This Spirit was GOD.

As they assembled common scriptures, rituals, and rules of life, people from all three points of view came to accept one another as a single community. They came to respect all three perspectives as accurately reflecting reality and real value in the cosmos. They came to see Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as three persons – three ways of relating to the same GOD. More than that, they agreed that a full relationship could be had with GOD in each or in all.

To this day, Christians still fall into (at least) these three camps. I’ve asked people at churches where I’ve spoken, “which person of the Trinity do you interact with primarily (worship, meditate on, talk to…)?” I was surprised to get about 1/3 vote for each. (I thought it would be more lopsided.) We continue as one community with one GOD, approached in three ways.

In the next post, I’ll dive into some the theological challenges to this point of view.

Posted by: dacalu | 4 February 2015

Aristotle’s Vegetable Souls

This is the next installment in the long delayed series on the history of souls. The series began with a blog on the different uses of the concept through the ages. In the last few posts, I talked about Aristotle’s causes, substances, and thoughts on life.

For Aristotle, the soul was a special kind of scientific explanation. He wanted to reduce all motion in the world a set of first principles. Some authors prefer to think of them in very abstract philosophical or religious terms. I prefer to treat them as the basic rules by which we describe the way the world works, much like gravity and magnetism in modern science.

Aristotle speaks of four elements: earth, water, air, and fire. He presents them as concentric spheres, surrounded by an unchanging aether (the “fifth element”). In our realm below the moon the four elements seek their natural places; earth always sinks; fire always rises; water and air settle in between. This need not be mysterious as it matches well with modern concepts of density dependent sorting. Think of a pond with silt settling to the bottom and air bubbles rising to the top. Fire, in turn explained the movement of smoke upward through the air. Aristotle thought that one element could transform into another and that abiotic movement – what we think of as physics – was caused by the cycling of the four elements. A bit of earth would sink until it reached the sphere of earth or was transformed into water or air.

Some things just weren’t captured in this scheme. Volcanoes are easy – fire goes up. Living things were hard. Aristotle needed some further explanation for them, particularly the apparently goal directed processes of nutrition, reproduction, motion, sensation, and reason. For these, he suggests the three-fold cause or “soul.”

The Three-fold Cause

Aristotle introduces the idea that sometimes the formal cause (what a thing is, essentially), the efficient cause (what brings it about), and the final cause (where it’s going) are all the same thing. The simplest case is reproduction. What is a living thing but something that reproduces, is a copy of a parent, and works toward the end of making offspring. That comes suspiciously close to modern definitions of life based on evolution by natural selection. Reproduction is the defining feature, the cause, and the effect of life.

Aristotle thought in slightly different terms. For him the simplest case was nutrition. Remember that he saw everything as a combination of form and matter. A living thing was a form that was actively imposing itself on more matter. A living thing eats and the stuff it eats loses its original form (cookie) and takes on a new form (Sharon), despite never changing it’s matter (carbohydrates and fats). Every time you eat something, you are engaged in this process of incarnation, imposing form on matter.

The soul was not some supernatural entity that magically gave living things the power of nutrition. (Sadly it was read that way in the Renaissance.) It was the active process (energeion – in action) and achieved goal (entelecheia – in completion) of perpetuating a pattern in tangible stuff. The “vegetable soul” for Aristotle was the same thing as nutrition in action.

Posted by: dacalu | 21 January 2015

Arizona Schedule 24 Jan-2 Feb 2014

Dear Friends, I’ll be in Arizona at the end of January and am giving a number of talks.  I’ve posted all the details here for convenience. Scroll down for Phoenix.

TUCSON

Monday 26 January: Noon, LPL 309 (UA)

Overlapping Definitions of Life” UA Origins Seminar

Over the past 10 years, it has become unpopular to talk about definitions of life, under the assumption that attempts at a precise definition are counterproductive.  Recent attempts have failed to meet strict philosophical criteria for definitions and have failed to reach consensus. Overlapping and provisional definitions, when clearly articulated, can be a useful tool in astrobiology and origin of life studies. Four possibilities will be presented for discussion. Darwin Life exhibits evolution by natural selection; Woese Life possesses small subunit RNA (that can be placed on a common tree); Haldane Life exhibits metabolism and maintenance; Aristotle Life is capable of repurposing matter to serve organismal functions.

http://astrobiology.arizona.edu/events/origins_schedule

Tuesday 27 January: 3:30pm, Life Sciences South 340 (UA)

“Defending Definitions of Life in Biology”

On Monday evening Jan 26, Guy Consolmagno will be giving a public College of Science talk on the question “What is life?”, kicking off the Life In The Universe series.  Are definitions of life useful for biologists?  In what ways can they help or hinder research into novel forms of life?  On Tuesday, Lucas Mix, astrobiologist and specialist in biological philosophy, will briefly summarize his proposal for provisional definitions, why they are necessary for clear communication and good science.  Darwin Life exhibits evolution by natural selection; Woese Life possesses small subunit RNA (that can be placed on a common tree); Haldane Life exhibits metabolism and maintenance. We will then open up discussion on the practical use of such definitions – strengths and weaknesses – in science.  Lucas and Guy will both be present to answer questions.

Thursday 29 January: 6:15pm, Bear Down Weight Room (UA)

Hapkido

Brewster’s Hapkido class is starting up again.  If you’re interested in martial arts, come see what it’s all about.  First time students are encouraged to come on Tuesday.  I’ll be teaching “balance taking” on Wednesday and hope to see some friends from Aikido as well.

http://rec.arizona.edu/activity/hapkido

Sunday 1 February: 10:00am, St. Philips Episcopal Church

4440 North Campbell Avenue, Tucson, AZ 85718

“The God of Ebola? Faith, Science, and Sickness”

God calls us to care for the world and yet the world can be alien and frightening. Rev. Dr. Lucas Mix will speak about the importance of science, faith, and will as we approach Ebola and other scary parts of the natural world.  His remarks will open a discussion on how we integrate knowledge from science and Christianity and apply it to service in the world.

http://www.stphilipstucson.org/

Sunday 1 February: 6:00pm, Campus Christian Center (UA)

If you’re not watching the Superbowl, come join us for the UA Episcopal Campus Ministry weekly worship and fellowship.

http://www.ecm-tucson.org/

PHOENIX

Wednesday 28 January: Trinity Cathedral

Dinner at 6:00pm, Presentation and Discussion starts at 6:30pm

The God of Ebola? Faith, Science, and Sickness

God calls us to care for the world and yet the world can be alien and frightening. Rev. Dr. Lucas Mix will speak about the importance of science, faith, and will as we approach Ebola and other scary parts of the natural world.  His remarks will open a discussion on how we integrate knowledge from science and Christianity and apply it to service in the world.

http://trinitycathedral.com/

Posted by: dacalu | 29 December 2014

Christmas Poem

Listening

Lucas Mix [12/28/14]

 

Let all mortal flesh keep silent

Waiting for his cry.

Let the world with bated breath

hear his drawing nigh.

 

Let the snowfall cover sin

Shrouding war with white.

Let the wisest still their tongues

On this silent night.

 

Let the past be for a time

Lost in newfound grace.

Let the future wait a spell

For its time and place.

 

Let the clocklike heavens

Mark the passing hour.

Let the countless ages run

Under their own power.

 

Let your heartbeat keep the time.

Forget why and how.

Still your thoughts, let go your fears,

And idle in the now.

 

Let the starlight guide you home.

Let the word be true.

Let the baby nap a while,

In a world made new.

 

Let the Lord of broadness gather,

Far off nations seek.

Peace, be still, and listen close

for lo, the Lord may speak.

 

For one word fills the heavens,

And one word made the earth,

And one word dwells among us,

Spoken in that birth.

 

In you the Lord finds favor;

Ponder it anew.

For the God who waits in silence

Is a God who listens, too.

Posted by: dacalu | 24 December 2014

5 Tips for Keeping Good News Good

Merry Christmas. At this time of year, Christians celebrate the good news of Emmanuel, literally “God with us.” We remember that Jesus Christ, light from light, God from God, very God from very God came to live and die as one of us. We remember a time when God was so vulnerable that our petty vanities put him to death. And we remember he rose again and returned to us. The kingdom of God has come near in this child of Mary.

As we celebrate the birth (“nativity”) and revelation (“epiphany”) of Jesus Christ, I’d like to share 5 tips for evangelism: how to keep the Good News good.

  1. Good news is not bad news.

Christians believe that Jesus’ life and death solved very real problems in the world, but no one needs to evangelize for those problems. People know that life is difficult, humans are fallible, and that selfishness and foolishness abound. If your concept of Jesus helps you with a particular problem – perhaps original sin or total depravity – share that, but don’t project your problems onto others. If they feel the same challenges, they will be moved that you’ve found a way out. If they don’t, no amount of talking will convince them. People have enough problems of their own and Jesus is, I think, a sufficiently broad remedy. Share the solution.

  1. Good news is a gift.

When I tell people about my relationship with God, I do exactly that. I share with them something wonderful in my life, something important to me. They can take it or leave it. We are tempted to present the good news as a contract (If you do X, God will do Y) or an ultimatum (unless you do X, God will do Y). There is no gift in that and people are right to be suspicious until they read the fine print. It’s enough to offer your own perspective and get out of the way. God is surprisingly good at making relationships.

  1. Give because you love the recipient.

The best gifts take personality into account. It’s worth knowing people’s hopes and fears before attempting to give them a gift. The good news cannot be spread through a mass-mailed flyer. It has to do with real people taking real care of one another. In this case, no gift at all is better than a gift given grudgingly or belligerently. God gave godself to the world in Christ Jesus and we must be as free with ourselves. The joyful and compassionate sharing shapes the message as much as the words we say. People will receive whatever we offer, so if we offer judgment, fear, or hate, that is exactly what they will receive or reject. Only when we offer love can they receive love.

  1. Add to. Don’t take from.

Have you ever looked at someone and wished you could shake the stupid out? You wish there were something you could remove that would make them a better person. It doesn’t work that way. Whether it is fear or self-righteousness, ignorance or pride, you cannot remove things from people. Time insures that we always move forward. New beliefs get layered on top of old. We know this in teaching, but forget it sometimes in evangelism. The good news is something that helps people move forward from where they are. Turning around (repentance, metanoia) is something they must do for themselves. It comes from recognizing they are not where they want to be – and never from knowing you disapprove. The good news should be something added to their lives and never something taken away.

  1. Listen.

God is sneaky and manages to arrive everywhere before we arrive. That means I never speak the good news without also listening for it. Everyone you meet will have something interesting to say, some wisdom to share, some love worth learning. One of my favorite Christmas hymns is It came upon the midnight clear, with words by Edmund Hamilton Shears. The last verse sums up my feelings well.

For lo!, the days are hastening on,

By prophet bards foretold,

When with the ever-circling years

Comes round the age of gold

When peace shall over all the earth

Its ancient splendors fling,

And the whole world give back the song

Which now the angels sing.

We strain to hear it and we work to hear it, even as we sing our own part. We will only know that word has spread to all when we can all sing together, each in our own voice.

Whether you are an ardent believer, a seeker, or a skeptic, I wish you light and life this season. I hope you find thoughtful reflection, honest communication, and love for one another. Those are the greatest gifts I know. For me, that is the good news of Jesus Christ – God loved us so that we might love one another.

Posted by: dacalu | 15 December 2014

God Be with You

It’s funny how you can hear the same thing over and over again and not really understand it’s meaning until it hits you in just the right way.  This evening, I was listening to the wonderful service of carols in Memorial Church at Harvard and received the word in a new way.

“In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.’” (Luke 1:26-8)

I’m not a good enough scholar of Greek to explain the original, but I can speak to the Latin: Dominus tecum benedicta, “The Lord is with you, blessed one.” It is this phrase, Dominus tecum, that will be appropriated for the opening of many Latin rites and (eventually) nearly all the Anglican services. I’ve preached on it any number of times, but I never made the connection to the annunciation. “The Lord be with you” is both an invocation (May God be with you) and a recognition (God is with you). The ambiguity is clear in the Latin and the older English. [If you have any doubts, take a closer look at Shakespeare’s 116th sonnet.  “If this be error and upon me proved.”]

Christians recognize God in one another, and I’ve always seen that as a wonderful theological and liturgical statement, but I’ve never understood it viscerally. Gabriel stands before Mary and says Dominus tecum benedicta and he means, literally that the Lord is within her. This is Emmanuel, God with us – not abstractly in word or concept or thought, not even in spirit (though in Spirit). This is God with us in the flesh.

The phrase “God be with you” does more than orient us to the divine image, present in all humans. It recalls that very specific time when the word was made flesh and dwelt among us. It testifies to God’s presence in the world and in the church – in us. We are blessed in this presence and in this recognition. We play the role of angel and of theotokos (“God bearer” a traditional Orthodox title for Mary) every time we say the words to one another. We remember and reenact that holy moment.

As we prepare for Christmas, give some thought to how you greet people. Say “Merry Christmas” but say also “The Lord be with you.” And mean it.

Posted by: dacalu | 13 December 2014

Don’t Wait for Sex – Prepare for It

I’ve been reading up on sexuality in college. In March, I will be teaching an online course on sex and relationship counseling for college chaplains, and covering similar ground to my blog series on Anglican sexual morality. This week one thing stood out in particular. Church leaders send this message to young adults all the time: “Wait to have sex.” Wait until marriage. Or, if you’re of a more liberal bent, wait until you’re in a committed relationship.

This is the wrong message.

The idea is good. I believe that marriage is the best context for marriage, but I’ve realized it creates a ridiculous dichotomy. Sex is something you have within marriage and until then you…wait for it…”wait.” It’s as though the concept of chastity (sexual morality) were completely different in the two realms. Surprisingly little advice is given for how we are to navigate singleness other than a list of don’ts. Surprisingly little advice is given for developing a healthy sexual relationship within marriage as well and newlyweds who have waited can find the process unenjoyable and unfulfilling.

The most popular alternative, at least among college students, seems to be blind trial and error. (Okay, high school students as well, but let me keep a little of my idealism.) Find someone and try it out. They too report being dissatisfied with their early experiences of sex. Most of us are still figuring out what it means to have friends well into the early twenties. Our social networks are largely imposed by family, school and church in childhood. Not until we live on our own do we truly appreciate the work of forming new relationships. And, when friendships are difficult and confusing, romances are even more so.

Let me propose an alternative way of looking at it.

Don’t wait for sex; prepare for it.

Figure out what it might mean to you first before figuring out what it does mean. We have little respect for people who decide to pick up hiking by simply wandering off into the woods. Sex is one of the few areas where we leave people to their own devices, largely because we’re scared to talk about it. With that in mind, let me suggest a few ways someone might prepare for sex.

Spend some time with your body. Get to know the way you operate, and not just in the crude and simple ways. We often go into sex expecting a partner to know more about our anatomy than we do. Be practical. Give some thought to how you feel based on diet and exercise. Many have naïve assumptions about how alcohol affects their emotions and no assumptions about how it affects their body, and yet they assume alcohol will make sex easier or better. If you want to experiment, be a good scientist and work with one variable at a time.

Spend some time with your desires. It’s easy to be unaware of what you really want. Religious culture teaches us to suppress sexual thoughts and feelings and secular culture sets up unrealistic, competitive, and highly unrealistic standards for sex and relationships. I recommend meditation and prayer on this – really. Take a hard look at what you think you want and what you might really want. You probably won’t know until you try a few things, but you can rule out some options. Sex, for instance, is not a good time to figure out how you feel about boys vs. girls. Find people you trust to talk to. If you’re lucky, go to close friends and mentors with experience in sex and relationships. Don’t assume on the basis of scripture or culture that God feels a certain way. Talk to God about it.

Start slow, shallow, and diverse. One of my students said her father wouldn’t let her have a boyfriend until she’d been on dates with at least 20 different boys. I found that a little too formal, but I think the idea is sound. It can be easy to jump at the first hint of romance and attempt to make it everything, but that romance – and others – are better served by taking the time to think about what you like and dislike about a relationship. I think it’s sad that American culture has lost most of its dating rituals. There were times when activities – a dance, a long conversation, a shared meal, a walk – were decoded for us by the culture. Now there are very few fixed markers. It’s worth taking the time to experience a variety of relationships before starting physical intimacy and it’s worth getting to know one another’s hopes, fears, and expectations. I think the friendships discovered and traumas avoided are well worth the time.

Enjoy yourself. Make sure activities are fun and informative for everyone involved. It amazes me how many people seem to miss this principle when planning dates. (You knew I was talking about dates, right? … Really? … Yes, it applies to other things as well.)

Build gradually. Make life and love a learning experience. Figure out what that means to you. Maybe you should keep a journal or talk regularly with friends. Think about where you are and where you are going. As with all forms of learning you start out misinformed and clueless. That’s okay, as long as you don’t start at a gallop. Take it one step at a time and find ways toward your goals.

Integrate your life. Sex and relationships are not independent of the rest of your life – though they do need a certain amount of room to grow. It matters how your sex life affects your prayer life and your friendships and your work and your family. It will matter in marriage and it matters now. Pay attention to how these things overlap and interrelate.

In short, chastity really is the same throughout life. It means caring about people and how you relate to them sexually, romantically, and emotionally. It means paying attention to how your actions shape your character and the world around you. It has to do with whether you understand and love better after than before. For many, this will mean sex is harder than they thought; it takes preparatory work, practice, and analysis, just like everything else in life. It also means sex and romance are manageable. There really are rules for what works and what doesn’t, how relationships form and develop. So let me say it one more time.

Don’t wait for sex; prepare for it.

If you really want quidelines for when to start having sex, l say more about that here (when and with whom) and here (sex before marriage?).

Posted by: dacalu | 17 November 2014

Bite Size Jesus: The Old Testament

Christians remember a long history of communication between the world and its Author. Through angels and prophets we worked to repair the alienation between the two. The Old Testament (book) provides perspectives on the long relationship between the Author and a particular people, Israel. Angels visited the prophet Abraham and he made an agreement with the Author on behalf of his family sometime around 2000 BC. His descendants go by the name of his grandson Jacob, called Israel (“wrestles with God”).

The people of Israel updated their agreement through the prophet Moses in the fourteenth century BC. The “Mosaic covenant”, which Christians also call the Old Testament (covenant), said that the Author would be the God of Israel, abiding with them and protecting them. Israel agreed to keep the 613 commandments given to Moses at Sinai, the first 10 of which are recorded in Exodus 34. They include rules for behavior, cleanliness, food, clothing, and regular animal sacrifices. Originally the sacrifices were performed at a moveable tent (tabernacle) but eventually they settled at a permanent building called the Temple in Jerusalem.

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