Wednesday, October 21, 2009

This Old House

When I visited Washington D.C. with my father last March, we had the privilege of visited Congressman Ralph Hall at his office. The elder statesman welcomed us into his office, took pictures with us and spoke with us about the affairs of state facing him. At a particular moment, as he was watching the clock on a video screen, said to my father and I, "I've got to go vote on something on the floor of the House. Would you like to come along with me?" That was a no-brain-er. Of course we wanted to come along.

We accompanied him down a "Representatives Only" elevator, and rode on the underground tram that ran through a tunnel from below the Rayburn building to below the Capital. As my father and I walked with Congressman Hall, he graciously introduced us to other Congressmen and Senators as "Dr. and Reverend Ott." It was a real treat.

As I rode the secure elevators, passed through security checkpoints, strode the marble halls and found my seat in the gallery, I could not help but be overcome by the history of the building. Imagine what events have taken place here. Some bills have been passed in this "house" that I've objected to, but others have been passed that have made my country better. Historic State-of-the-Union addresses have been heard in that very room. Generations of political hacks and heroes alike have wandered those halls debating or collaborating with one another over important bills. In essence, this is the 'house of our Fathers' (in a political/national sense).

Now at the time of this visit to the Capital I was not yet engrossed in the Anglican Christian tradition. However, since becoming Anglican, my views regarding having a sense of faithfulness to ancient "fathers" have grown considerably. On any given Sunday, the arrangement of music, the use of symbols and Christian liturgy all seem employed toward a unifying goal: faithfulness to Fathers of Christianity (which includes Christ, the Apostles and the early church believers that gave their lives to preserve the 'faith once delivered'). In essence, I enter the Church thinking two things: (1) this is the Father's house, and (2) this is the fathers' house.

This sense of wanting to be faithful to "the fathers" under girds every activity. This is NOT the space, building, hall or house wherein I'm free to make it up as I go. It's instead the space wherein I'm to be faithful to the one who came before me. It's "the fathers'" house; not mine.

Correspondingly, I now look back at the House of Representatives and wonder: what do they think when they wander those "hallowed" halls?

Do they see it more as "the halls of power?" Or do they see it as "the house of the fathers?"

Few politicians in Washington has distinguished themselves (Congressman Hall excepted; I'm sure there may be others) as people who think of their office in terms "faithfulness to the fathers." Therefore, their examples do little to combat cynicism regarding all politicians and the corrupting influence of power. Indeed their example seem to suggest that they think of the marble halls as "the halls of power," with its accompanying intoxicating effects.

Where can be found more of that brand of statesman that strives for "faithfulness to the Founding Fathers?" From where might emerge such leaders that examine the U.S. Constitution for guidance in the roles of government and the "fathers" writings for wisdom in governing? Could there yet be any in the nation that would approach the Capital, stand in the hallowed halls of 'this old house,' and remain mindful of those who came before them in that place, seeking to be faithful to their charge?

Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Strength of the Confessing Soul

The ancient discipline of confession is a strange and mysterious practice that seems to inexplicably release energy of the spirit. Many may attempt to explain this using mere psychological terms and reasoning, but it would seem greater than that. Thus the conversation between myself and my priest/friend yesterday:

We sought to differentiate the sacramental from the merely sentimental.

In the conversation, we teased out the differences as residing primary in the "source" of the meaning ascribed to a symbol, object or practice. If a person is ascribing special meaning to it, that would fall under the sentimental category. However, sacramentalism is, at it's core, the belief that God is ascribing meaning to it; that he mysteriously has attached spiritual efficacy to the symbol, object or practice. We do not reverence the Cross in worship simply because it's a meaningful symbol to us. We instead believe that, through the replica of the Cross in worship, God is performing a tangible and spiritually vital work in our soul. Therefore, we reverence the Cross not because of a sentimental attachment to the symbol. We do so because of a sacramental belief in God's use of the symbol to effect change in us. This applies to any practice in Christian development and worship.

Likewise, the ancient discipline of confession has its place in this conversation as well. A sentimental view of confession may seek to view it in a primarily psychological light. Some may engage in this practice for reasons that explain it on primarily anthropological levels. All of the reasons offered may very well be valid, giving rise to the psychiatric profession and counseling vocations. Nevertheless, this is merely viewing a spiritual exercise through a sentimental lens.

On the other hand, the practice of confession can be just as validly seen (possibly more so) through a sacramental lens. The "magic" of connecting with a spiritual director, or "Soul Friend," regarding specific struggles, temptations and lessons of life would appear to involve the Holy Spirit in a specific way as well. Peculiar energy infuses the process of being transparent with a spiritual mentor/director. The soul is massaged and exercised. Spiritual fitness is encouraged. The health of the soul is assessed by the spiritual "Doctor," a diagnosis shared and a prescription given. How is it that anyone would seek to have their body known more by a medical doctor than their soul is known by a spiritual "doctor?"

I am learning the value in this, more than I have known it before. Surely the transparent soul, laid bare in confession, has a better chance of pursuing health and strength of spirit than the one hidden by itself. Through weakness I am made strong.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Sibling Care in the Community of Faith

"No one can have God as Father who does not have the Church as Mother" (St. Cyprian, died A.D. 258).

Why such a drastic emphasis on the Church by such early church fathers? Cyprian was not the product of an overbearing Roman Catholic Church, for the abuses of power that the Protestant Reformers reacted to occurred well over 1,000 years after him. Indeed for Cyprian to have written thus about the Church prior to even the Council of Nicaea (A.D. 325) explains the unity of the Church affirmed in the Creed: "And I believe one Catholic and Apostolic Church." What, therefore, did St. Cyprian know that some, who today find church to be "optional," do not know?

There is a great deal that we might argue Cyprian knew that many today are ignorant of, but significant among these is the manner that brothers and sisters in Christ support one another in Christian fellowship. It would be cliche' to insert a sports analogy here, but the universal principle is that humans are designed to be communal creatures. The archaeological record reveals a oft-repeated evolution of hunter-gatherer bands into more and more complex societies. Strength of numbers help people to survive dangers of predators, repel attackers and weather environmental change. Technologies of agriculture, dwellings and tribal defense all develop in sophistication along with population numbers. People have, historically, seen it as more to their advantage to be together than alone.

How is it then, that many in current society (particularly in Christian circles) would think it advantageous to proceed through spiritual life having only a "personal experience," or worse, avoiding church commitment altogether? Imagine a duck saying to Dr. Doolittle, "Of course, I'm a duck. I swim, fly, quack and waddle. I just prefer to be on my own. I'm uncomfortable with the idea of organized flight or "flocking" in streams and lakes together. To be honest, I'm uncomfortable around ducks. None of them seem to quack exactly like I do. And besides, flying together seems to make it easier for the hunters. I know you haven't seen me around other ducks at all, but I really am a duck - honest."

This point was driven home to me just this morning in church. The image above is of my daughter and youngest son. I sat behind them because the five in our family can hardly fit into the pew, and with all our stuff really makes it cramped. At one point, as the priest was preparing the communion table elements, Jessica spontaneously reached over and hugged Elijah. This sibling support was so wonder to behold. Un-coached by my wife or me, the older sibling decided to offer support to the younger one, and he accepted it. These sort of "living pictures" occur frequently in a church adept at trafficking in symbolism.

This type of "sibling care" is one of the essential characteristics of the Church. How could one imagine missing out on the arena wherein such beautiful lessons occur? No wonder Cyprian would consider that the organic nature of the Body of Christ renders the one who is disinterested in Christ's Body to be likewise disinterested in Christ. Indeed since the fellowship of faith is such a favored instrument of the Spirit, one can justifiably ask if the one disinterested in fellowship truly has the Spirit. This notion need not be taken to the extreme of assuming that merely because one has planted their butt in a pew before they can be assured of eternal life. However, neither must one use the straw man of "faith by osmosis" to reject the importance of Church commitment. While is it true that he is not a soldier who has merely bought a uniform at a Army surplus store, he also is not a soldier that has not joined the Army.

All this to offer theological context to the beauty of sibling support observed in front of me this morning. I hesitated to take the picture, thinking it potentially irreverent (and possibly rude) to take a picture with the camera/phone while worship is in progress. I had not asked permission of the priest in advance, who justifiably might have instructed me not to out of respect for the sacred occasion. However, the spontaneity of seeing my two children support one another in the midst of worship was just too pleasing. I had to capture it.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, the siblings of faith in the covenant community, support, uphold, embrace, console, challenge, direct, comfort and carry one another under one Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Such pictures of love and sibling affection warm the heart, for they offer a window into one of the chief missions of the Church for which Christ died and rose again.