Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Reflections from the Early Church: Athanasius

People called Athanasius of Alexandria (296-373) the “Father of Orthodoxy” in his lifetime. As contemporary Christians, we can learn much from these parents of the early church. They lived in the second and third centuries and faced different questions than we do today. But, the lessons they taught and the way they responded to heresies helped shape the faith we have today.
The First Council of Nicaea (325) required the Bishop of Alexandria to set the date of Easter each year. They did this through Festal Letters. As Bishop of Alexandria, Athanasius wrote many such letters. These letters provided the opportunity to make a theological argument. Today, we can read them as devotions and find encouragement for our faith journeys.
In Athanasius’ nineteenth letter (347) he encourages his readers to hold frequent conversations with “our Master.” This invokes Paul’s admonition in 1 Thessalonians 5:17, “Pray always.” Athanasius adds a metaphor.
For the world is like the sea to us… “This is the great and wide sea, there go the ships; the Leviathan, which You have created to play therein” [Psalm 104:26]. We float on this sea, as with the wind, through our own free-will, for each directs their course according to their will, and either, under the pilotage of the Word, one enters into rest, or, laid hold on by pleasure, one suffers shipwreck, and is in peril by storm. For as in the ocean there are storms and waves, so in the world there are many afflictions and trials.
Before moving to another metaphor, he summarizes his point. Those who favor temporal things cannot stand up to difficulties. Other metaphors make a similar point (e.g. building a house on sand). Regardless of the metaphor, we can grow in faith when we hold frequent conversations with God and put our emphasis on eternal matters. Ancient voices can offer wonderful modern lessons.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

What is a ‘Lecture Series’?

In the fall of 2017, a generous donor gave money for University Baptist to create an academic lecture series. We decided to name the series after the beloved former pastor Dick Myers. Now, the inaugural Richard E. Myers Lecture Series is only a few weeks away. And, recently, I learned that some people do not know what an academic ‘lecture series’ is.
 An academic ‘lecture series’ is an event at which a scholar presents some new research. In this case, Prof. Paul Fiddes and his wife Marion will travel from Oxford, United Kingdom to Charlottesville and spend March 18-23 here. He will deliver three lectures about his research on Shakespeare and religion. The title of his series is “The Play’s the Thing: Shakespeare & Religion.”
The lectures will begin at 5:00 PM on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, March 20-22. The lectures have the following titles:
March 20: A Midsummer Night’s Dream & Seeing with the Eyes of Love
March 21: King Lear & Taking Death Seriously
March 22: The Tempest & the Risks of Forgiveness
After a brief introduction, Prof. Fiddes will speak for approximately 50-60 minutes. Then, he will field questions for about 30 minutes. We will enjoy conversation during a reception with hors-d'oeuvres after the lecture. This will be an opportunity to talk more informally about what we just heard.
After Prof. Fiddes returns to Oxford, he will likely incorporate our questions into his project. Then, University of Virginia Press will publish the series of lectures as a book. This is a unique opportunity to hear a world-class theologian present his latest research.
So, who is our first lecturer? Prof. Fiddes holds the title of Professor of Systematic Theology in the Faculty of Theology and Religion at the University of Oxford. He is Director of Research at Regent’s Park College, Oxford, where he was Principal from 1989 to 2007. He researches modern systematic theology; theology and literature; the impact of late-modern continental philosophy on literary theory and theology; and theology of culture. He is the author or editor of more than 25 books and the author of more than 115 articles and book chapters. His most recent book is Seeing the World and Knowing God. Hebrew Wisdom and Christian Doctrine in a Late-Modern Context (Oxford University Press, 2013). 
In 2017, Prof. Fiddes wrote his first work of fiction A Unicorn Dies: A Novel of Mystery and Ideas. University Baptist is honored to host a launch of this book on Wednesday, March 21, at 11:00 AM. Prof. Fiddes and I will each deliver short addresses.
We are blessed to have the chance to gather with such a great thinker and hear where his research is going. Invite your friends, neighbors, colleagues, and anyone else who might be interested in Shakespeare and religion. If you would like a poster, please contact the church office. If you have any questions, do not hesitate to ask me.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Further Thoughts About the Latest Mass Shooting*

What can we do? The question keeps returning to my mind. How can we prevent more mass shootings? The news is preoccupied with mass shootings. Trying to find something meaningful to say remains an elusive challenge.
Then, on Monday, February 26, 2018, the BGAV Executive Board met. It would be wonderful to share with you some well-thought state-wide convocation on gun safety. Instead, they felt it necessary to address the CBF Illumination Project. In case you do not know what that is, the project was a multi-year exploration of the CBF policy on same-sex marriage. The conclusion was a more inclusive policy with a less inclusive implementation plan.
CBF news is not time-sensitive, so I have not mentioned it. There seem to be far bigger issues for us: continuing racial tension in Charlottesville, national gun violence, immigration reform and DACA, and a diminishing (or nonexistent) collegiate ministry at UVa. These issues do not even touch the number of things happening in the life of this church (Uni-Bap, a name for UBC from the 1970s that has a nice ring to it). Jubilate is getting ready to go on tour. Our church family just finished PACEM and is getting ready for OIAM and AQPTS. The conclusion of those events will lead right into VBS and the summer mission trip—sorry, there is no acronym for it.
At this moment, with so much happening, the BGAV, Uni-Bap’s historic home for over a century, decides not to accept money designated for the CBF any longer. My mind goes back to the families who lost children in Parkland, FL. What could I say to them, if I were their minister? God weeps with you. Christ was crucified again when a shooter rained bullets on your child’s classroom. Are those adequate words? Are they words of comfort?
If I were a Parkland-parent, I would wonder what is different now. Why was it not bad enough to do something after the Sandy Hook Shooting (2012)? What about San Bernardino (2015)? Orlando (2016)? Sutherland Springs Church (2017)? Or, Las Vegas (2017)?
What can we do? We can certainly pray. Pray for the victims’ families. Pray for humanity that is so lost that we kill one another. Pray for people to see signs of violence before someone acts. Pray for prevention education. Pray for politicians to act. Pray for God’s guidance on a profoundly divisive issue. Pray for patience and the love of Christ as we enter discussions with people who disagree with us.
What else can we do? We are called to be the salt of the earth. But, if salt loses its flavor, it is worthless. What does being the salt look like at a time such as this? I pray that you will help me discover where God is leading us and who God is leading us to be.

* This reflection was previously published by University Baptist Church in The Word.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Thoughts About the Latest Mass Shooting

Last week, I shared with my church some initial thoughts after the mass shooting in Parkland, TX. Here is what I shared: 

First, we need to define some terms. Second, we can look at the most recent mass shooting.

First, the terms:
·      relating to the ideas or strategies of a particular party or group in politics.
·      interested in or active in politics.

·      relating to the study of theology.

I wanted to define these two terms because I do not mean to venture into politics. However, any discussion relating to the proliferation of mass shootings in the United States becomes political. If one tends toward the Democratic party, then one is more open to gun safety laws. If one tends toward the Republican party, then one leans toward less legislation on guns. Despite what the pundits say, neither position is objectively correct, nor is this a case of moral relativism.

 Second, what can we say about the most recent mass shooting? What does God say?

The man accused of shooting 17 people at Parkland High School in Florida purchased his firearms legally. Restricting access to firearms might have made it more difficult for him to kill so many people. Could he have accomplished the same result with stolen guns? Yes, but he would have had to steal them first. Could he have killed as many people in a different way? Possibly.

God created humanity to be in communion with God. Ephesians 4:4-5, “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.” When considering God and humanity, any human violence is against God. Whether it is a mass shooting or micro-aggression, when we act against another person, we act against God.

Ephesians 4:15 says, “Speaking truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.” To talk about God but politicize violence misses an opportunity to share the love of Christ. God is love and those who abide in love abide in God and God abides in that one. Violence does not reflect God’s love. Preventing violence with violence begets more violence.

God weeps for those who died at Parkland High School. God weeps for the killer. If we can take any lesson from any part of the Bible, we know that God does not go back to life-as-usual after catastrophe. God demands transformation. Speaking the truth is not an end in itself. Speaking the truth is the first step toward repentance, change, and transformation.

Let us disassociate gun violence with political parties. Let us connect gun violence with our theology. Where are we on this journey? Do we need to repent? Change? Be transformed? If we sign a petition or call our Representative in Congress, let us not call as a Democrat or Republican, but as Christians who seek God’s Kingdom.

Let us continue praying for God’s wisdom and guidance. Let us read the Bible for answers. Let us keep this conversation going.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

The Impossibility of Abandoning the Self

Saint Ignatius said, “There are very few people who realize what God would make of them if they abandoned themselves into his hands, and let themselves be formed by his grace.” I reflect on these words while sitting on a train next to my son. We are taking a quick trip, and the train gives me some quiet time. Eric Dolphy’s “Out to Lunch” pops in my headphones. My son scribbles equations in a homework notebook. 

What would God make of us if we abandoned ourselves to God? I cannot answer this question for anyone but myself. For example, my son proves his sentient-status with each original sentence he utters. I cannot answer the question for him. I felt comfortable speaking for him when he was a child, but those days are gone. So, the question becomes ‘what would God make of me if I abandoned myself to God?’ 

The problem with abandoning the self is in abandonment we lose ourselves. If I am wholly God’s, then I am no longer my own. Maybe that is Ignatius’ point. Left to our own devices, we repeat the fall over and over again. Perhaps we should abandon the self, no longer be unique, and surrender to God. 

Somehow this does not seem to be what God wants either. Just like my son’s self-realization is interesting to me, the choices I make can be interesting to God. My self does not have to be sinful. I do not have to repeat the fall. I can make good choices. 

Does this mean I have no need for God? No. The second part of Ignatius’ quote is apropos. He says, “Let themselves be formed by his grace.” We can be ourselves yet allow God to form us. We can be especially formed by God’s grace. Knowing forgiveness and forgiving others creates distance between us and the fall. The fall is retributive. Grace is overcoming wrongdoing with positive action. 

To have a positive action, we must have freedom. If we are not free, we create nothing. We simply play out God’s divine script. Our actions do not count so much as fulfill God’s plan. Yet, we are free. We can make choices. We can recognize the potential God has placed in each us. 

Does this make us gods? No. We remain God’s servants. We can choose to abandon the sinful side of our being. This choice only has meaning when our abandonment is limited to sinfulness and we abandon to something—to God. Turning to God is a continual choice, made over and over again. Instead of repeating the fall, we choose God. When we do, we take a step toward experiencing our potential and truly knowing God’s grace.