Wednesday, January 07, 2009

What is our Message?

I've become very concerned with the seeming negativity of our presentation of such wonderful Good News as we have been given. The following, one of the sermons I've been writing for Sunday Morning and Evening Prayer, seemed important enough to share. Please read it at:

http://poetreaderpacht.blogspot.com/2009/01/what-is-our-message.html

ed

28 comments:

Fr. Robert Hart said...

Good points Ed. Too often, in the past, when asked who we were, I said, essentially (without realizing it): "Who are we? I'll tell you who we are. We aren't them. That's who we are." No wonder such people did not come to our church to find out more.

frtomva said...

Ed,

An important post - it MUST be made clear to those who come to us that we are FOR the Gospel, not merely AGAINST the errors/heresies of post-modern churches.

poetreader said...

Amen, Fr. Tom!

That is what must be done, and I've been rattling around Anglicanism long enough to realize that we tend to be pretty darn poor at doing it.

ed

Shaughn said...

Mr. Pacht,

Thank you for your message. I often wonder why we don't talk more about what I consider the basic points of Anglicanism. Here's a rough attempt, without getting into overly technical terms, at what I consider our high points. Forgive me if this sounds juvenile or insufficiently sophisticated in its theology. I could ramble on Hooker's Sermon on Justification or Augustine's theology of grace; I don't think either will get our foot in the door.

1) We believe folks are naturally inclined to make mistakes, to choose ourselves over others, to get distracted by little things which ultimately don't matter much Even when we try our best, there's always a fly in the ointment or an unintended consequence. It's just part of who we are.

This tact, I think, sells better than beginning with the premise "We're naturally totally depraved." Most folks will readily admit they screw up, or that they could do better. Most will even admit it's probably they're own fault. Later they can come to understand the particulars of our Fallen nature, which I would never avoid entirely.

2) God knows we have this problem, and instead of writing us off for it or simply giving a free pass, he lowered Himself multiple times throughout history to help us. He inspired prophets, historians, poets, priests, and evangelists to write sacred scriptures for us. He revealed Himself to Israel through covenant and through the identification of His name. He sent His son down here, who became one of us, taught us, and died for us, and raised Him from the dead.

The point of all this wasn't a free pass, as God loves us far too much for that. Not only does God want to save us from ourselves, but He wants us to become an altogether new sort of being -- a perfected one.

3) We believe we can't become this perfected being on our own, because of this (often irritating, to say the least) natural tendency to miss the mark. Instead, God extends the grace--the free gift-- to accomplish this perfection through belief in His son. He himself imputes that Grace on us, the grace to believe in His Son.

4) Christians, as they say, are easy to make: just add water. Because God loves us so, He provided clear signs for us to recognize His grace, normally hidden, acting in the world. We call these "Sacraments," and we trust in them because God, through his Son, Jesus Christ, has assured us of their effficacy. The Sacraments work. Really.


5) We believe this perfection which God intends for us won't get completed in this life. The journey, rather, continues into the next. It's a process we call Sanctification. The point isn't, so much, to be "the best," but day by day to be better, and God infuses us with the grace to enter into this process. To be sure, we will still mess up or miss the mark, so long as we live, but through God's gift of grace, we are pardoned fot it.

I've noticed Christians at all stages of their life struggle with this concept of sanctification. It's due in part, I think, to a self-defeating understanding of the process. Fresh out the gate we want to be "like Jesus," and we knock ourselves down when we inevitably flub it up. There are two analogies I find helpful:

Let's say that I want to go out and read The Iliad in the Greek (which everyone ought to do, given the chance). I'll never make it if I plow right into it. Instead I need to start with the basics - the alphabet, the grammar, the vocabulary, simple sentences, more complex sentences, until, finally, I can read about Hector and Andromache.

Now, let's say that I start exercising. If I start with the mindset of "I want to bench press 250 lbs," I'll never make it. Instead, I focus on getting better. I add a few pounds, and then a few more, and then a few more.

Sanctification, it seems to me, is a lifetime (and then some) of adding a few pounds at a time. Sometimes we'll backslide, but that's the way of thing.


6) We believe worship is best accomplished corporately, and our Prayer Book accomplishes this end. It was designed so that all of God's children (us!) could become this holy, sanctified people. It was designed so that everyone who used it, wherever it was used, could hear that same message of sanctification and redemption. A life of prayer isn't simply for monks holed away in a monastery; rather, we are all called to partake in it.

****

I think this sort of approach is well-suited to our task. We love the Creeds. We love the Prayer Book. We (more importantly) love the Bible. Increasingly, our audience (especially those who aren't simply Anglicans who've been burned or misled by bad experience) doesn't know the first two and has only a dim awareness of the last one.

To borrow a medical analogy, we hope to a) diagnose the patient, b) prescribe the cure, and c) get them to the Doctor.

Our diagnosis is a permanent condition of natural insufficiency: we mess up. The cure is the aforementioned complex process involving the Bible, the Church, and faith. The Doctor is, well, God.

I haven't dwelt a whole lot on explicitly Anglican themes. It isn't because I don't think they're important. Everyone should make the effort to plow through Hooker's Lawes of Ecclesiastical Polity. But I'm not at all convinced beginning with Hooker (or even, I'm sad to report, the Apostles' Creed) is our best means of engaging folks who have no background in Anglicanism. I'd sooner steer folks to Augustine's Confessions or C.S. Lewis' Surprised By Joy.

That's the two cents (Gah. I just previewed the absurd length of this ramble -- four cents worth!) of a seminarian, for what they're worth.

Anonymous said...

Our mission is to proclaim and exalt Jesus Christ as Saviour of sinners and Lord of creation. That being said, I am not sure that Biblical theology knows any facile distinction between "positive" and "negative" messages.

I can hardly imagine a conversation between Isaiah and Micah, with Micah
saying, "Isaiah, you would win more converts with honey than with vinegar." Isaiah would just go on saying, "Shear-jashub!" (Only a remnant shall return.)

Or would Peter reproach his Lord saying, "Jesus, you should take a more positive approach with the pharisees and sadducees. Enroll in a Dale Carnegie course, or read that book about the Secrets of Successful Salesmanship."

The message we have been given to preach (and we have no message of our own) is both negative and positive: "Repent, the kingdom of heaven is at hand." That is a far cry from, "Smile, Jesus loves you."
LKW

poetreader said...

Well taken, Fr. Wells. As in everything else, there is certainly a balance to be kept. If the wrong is not addressed, no diagnosis has been made, and no cure is likely. However, my point remains. What the world is hearing from us is the catalogue of things we oppose. We have a reputation (unfortunately often deserved) for being rather sour oppositionists who love to condemn, who are always priclaiming, "Thank God, I'm not one of them!"

It's quite true that a diet of only honey is very cloying and rots the teeth, but a meal with nothing pleasant in it just won't get eaten at all, no matter how nutricious.

Yes, a large part of the message is "REPENT!" -- but it is not a proclamation of "you're wrong, isn't that awful," but rather of "you've got yourself into a mess - Father wants you to come home."

I have a number of unbelieving friends. All of them, without exception, see Christians as exclusionary, and all of them "know" themselves to be unwanted. I have Evangelical friends whose only impression of Continuing Anglicanism is that we hate women and that we hate contemporary music. They have no concept of what it is that we do believe, and of what treasures we have received and offer them.

We don't seem to have any problem expressing our disapproval, but we do seem to have a deep-seated problem in letting the good news we have be known.

Shaugn

I like what you say as the beginnings of a platform on which to build. However, I do miss in it a recognition that "messing up" is a far from trivial thing. Somehow the invitation does need to include the awareness that, as we are, we're not really worth keeping, but God, out of love, really does want to change that. Part of a saving faith is an awareness that sin is a horror. The magnitude of God's grace doesn't really compute otherwise.

ed

Anonymous said...

LKW...

I agree with your assessment. The message can't be diluted out of relevance.

What I believe Poetreader is saying is that, in presenting Anglicanism to others it is more important to present what Anglicanism is for instead of what it is against; to be proactive instead of oppositional.

In rhe interests of full disclosure, it was Poetreader who brought me to Anglicanism. I was in a small Pentecostal denomination, vsguely dissastisfied with the barrenness of the worship and the doctrinal lock step mentality I was beginning to find there.

As I got to know Ed, I became impressed with not only the man, but also with what I could see of his relationship to God and the church. There was a richness and a serenity there that my worship could not match. By the same token, when Ed felt he was right about something, he was uncompromising, and as I looked at how he stood, it was very consistent with a Biblocal Christianity I often heard preached but seldom lived.

In short, Ed had something I lacked spiritually and wanted very badly. He didn't have to tell me what he opposed. He lived what he believed.

What sealed it for me was a simple morning prayer service that he invited me to...very sparesely attended, but the quiet, majestic presence of God was very evident. I felt at home.

Two weeks later my wife and I attended Sunday mass for the first time at ST. Luke's ACA in Amherst, NH. Since then it has been a wonderful, if somewhat interesting and at times harrowing journey.

I didn't need to hear all the things Anglicanism was against. Those I could find in any relevant book I cared to pick up. I needed to see an Anglican life lived as Jesus intended, as much as humanly possible, and Anglican worship, as simple and at the same time glorious as it is.

Sorry for the length.

God bless,

ChipB

poetreader said...

Um . . .
What's a guy to do with that?
Thank you, Chip, for the kindness in those words, and thank God for setting my many and great weaknesses aside this once so that what I proclaim actually worked for a change. It's His doing, not mine, but it is a privilege to be used in this kind of a way, unworthy though I am.

Hey, everyone, if God can use such as me, with all the spots, wrinkles, and blemishes that I know only too well -- well, then he certainly can use any of you. The world needs what we've been given.

ed

Anonymous said...

Brothers and Fathers,

I have to second Fr. Wells in that we needn't be so concerned with whether our message will draw many or few. A heart for the lost in our day usually translates into a loss of heart in regards to belief in the efficacy of Word and Sacrament. There is a prophetic edge that needs to be guarded: the Gospel is GOOD news, but only because the bad news is REALLY bad. Fearless, bold, and uncompromising preaching of the holiness of God, the supremacy of Christ, and the freeness and greatness of salvation found in Him will ALWAYS be blessed by God -- the counterfeits will usually whore after mega-churches and liberals (who doesn't want to be coddled and told how to live out the American dream on a few "biblical" principles?)
How that works out in the pulpit varies from priest to priest -- some have a more jermiad flare than others, but you can always spot fidelity.

My home away from home parish, St. John's of Pompano Beach, is an example: Fr. Brookshire preaches prophetically even if softly. An uncompromising focus on That Which Matters Most.

Of course the uncompromising character of our message should also produce the most gracious, pastorally responsible men. Love is what drives all we do. Men should feel and see the love of God in the light of such hard-line preaching. The shepherds of the church are prophets and healers. Compassion drives the desire to give the pure milk of the Word.

Anyway, enough of my ranting. Good post, all.

In Pax Christi,
St. Worm

Anonymous said...

The issue, Poetreader, is not that of "positive vs negative," but whether we are to preach the Biblical Gospel in full-orbed form of both judgment and grace, sin and redemption. A young friend and parishioner of mine left his former church in disgust after listening to a Christmas sermon on why the candy cane became a Christmas symbol. It was a sweet positive message, but simply empty of content.

I am uncomfortable with your appropriation of Isaiah's text "How beautiful are the feet..."
Please remember that Isaiah was addressing no comfortable and apathetic congregation, but a group of exiles who "had received of the Lord's hand double for all their sins." Also consider Jeremiah's warning of those who cry "peace, peace, when there is no peace," which Martin Luther paraphrased as "cross, cross, when there is no cross."

I take your point that merely haranging on a handful of issues (WO, Prayer Books, VGR) is a terrible substitute for the Gospel.

But I recall how "convicted" (in the Evangelical sense of that word) I was, when a parishioner actually asked me, "Does our church have a position on abortion?" For years I had avoided that subject in the pulpit, out of fear of giving offense. No more. I have lost members for expounding Biblical teaching. I have seen the rolling of the eyes and the surreptitious glances.

As one who must preach a sermon every Sunday, I know I will give an account. I do not expect the Lord to ask, "Where you sufficiently positive in your approach?" But I will be asked, "Did you declare the whole counsel of God."
LKW

poetreader said...

Thank you, Fr. Wells.

You've expressed precisely my point from a different direction. Are we presenting the whole counsel of God?

Of course sin and error need to be identified and condemned. Of course I want my unbelieving friends to have a clear idea of where I stand on those areas where we differ. (and, believe me, they do!) I want them to know that abortion is seriously wrong, that God is not pleased when sexual practice he has condemned is going on, that women are not to be ordained, that there is a heck of a lot wrong with the way this world lives. But my unbelieving friends perceive, and I'm afraid to admit, often perceive rightly, that we are far more interested in opposing these things than we are in telling them what (if anything) we actually do believe. I do know that when I begin to explain what I actually do believe, and what goodness is offered instead of all these grievous sins, that most of my hearers have never heard such things before. To them Christians are solely and only repressive. If we give that impression (no matter how falsely), we have not given the whole counsel of God any more than has that candycane preacher.

I'm as insistent as I am on this message, because I know in myself how much easier it is to get mad and condemn clear evils than it is to present the whole Gospel. I fail in this way far too often, and I have no reason to feel that others have less of a temptation in this way than I.

ed

Alice C. Linsley said...

When I get hung up on the negative it is time to check my humility barometer.

poetreader said...

Me too!
The more loudly I condemn others, even when entirely correct, the more superior to them I find myself feeling. Somehow, I don't think that pleases my Lord.

ed

Shaughn said...

Mr. Pacht,

Thank you for your response. I'm still meditating on a more effective apologetic to explain original sin to folks who assume they're basically good. An attempt was made to mimic the logic of the opening chapter CS Lewis' Mere Christianity. He begins by pointing out that we clearly believe a global standard of right behavior exists, and that we all fail to live up to it.

I've thought about comparing humanity to the natural world. Animals are very good, for example, at being animals. The sign "Don't Feed the Bears" is there for the simple reason that our meddling, because we are largely imperfect, hinders their ability to be effective animals.

To give a more absurd example, several breeds of dogs, the English bulldog most notably, have been bred so bizarrely that they cannot reproduce on their own. We have effectively disrupted their capability of a dog to be a dog. Likewise, we have ceased to be the humans we were intended to be due to our own action.

The most graphic examples I have of human sin being an absolute horror are probably World War I and World War II. Here we were, in an age where science and human ingenuity would surely fix everything, and where either the right social engineering would surely bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Earth, or at least a secular Utopia, and we still managed to destroy half of Europe twice, kill tens of millions, and commit genocide.

I'll have to look into how other reliable, successful apologists describe our Fallen state. I won't find it it school; my first test in Old Testament last year, very concerned red lines underscored my usage of the term "The Fall" in reference to the events in the Garden, with the note "What are some other ways of thinking about this events?" The clear response is, of course, "Wrong ones."

Much to work on in this new year.

Fr. Robert Hart said...

I need offer no comment here, because my sermons speak for me. In them I endeavor always to proclaim "all the counsel of God."

Anonymous said...

Fr. Hart,

Your sermons have always been a blessing to me and my family. I was reading your stuff way back in early 2002 in Touchstone, and when I discovered you were a regular here I was overjoyed.

We read print and read your sermons regularly for devotion, along with reading and discussing the Psalms. Please know your work doesn't go unnoticed, neither does it fail to challenge and teach.

St. Worm

Anonymous said...

On a side note, did anyone else see this sad news?

Fr. Neuhaus has passed on due to cancer. I didn't know he was sick. :(

Requiescat In Pace

http://www.zenit.org/article-24717?l=english

poetreader said...

Yes, Fr. Hart,
Were I to give an example of what complete and full preaching could look like, the corpus of your work would come to mind. Thank you for that.

ed

poetreader said...

Fr. Neuhaus was my pastor as a Lutheran. Yes, he will be much missed

ed

Anonymous said...

Fr Hart's sermons are models. I was taught many years ago that one of the best ways to improve one's preaching is simply by reading carefully those sermons which are worthy of imitation. Fr Hart's serve that purpose well. If there are any readers here in the ordination process, I recommend that they print them out, read and re-read with highlighter in hand.

Poetreader has raised for us the important question of the place and quality of preaching in the parishes of our Continuum. A visitor from another state shared with me his experience of attending
a Continuing Church (one of our larger parishes, in fact)for a while but eventually making his home in a Protestant church. The problem was the shallowness, lack of preparation and apathy displayed by the clergyman (whom I know to be a good man) in the pulpit. Wonderful liturgy, I was told, but the sermon was only a couple of nice remarks about the propers, or about whatever.

When St Dominic was commissioned to combat the Albigensian heresy, he correctly calculated that the most effective strategy would be a cadre of skilled preachers, who could proclaim the Gospel, teach the Faith, rally God's people. So was founded the Dominican Order, the "Order of Preachers." It is notable that the Albigensian heresy today is extinct, largely because of the "Domini Canes," the Lord's dogs. That is a Catholic example of what good preaching can achieve. The five-minute sermonette will not have the same effect. Sermonettes produces Christianettes.
LKW

Shaughn said...

Fr. Wells,

Your mentioning of the Dominican involvement in the Albigensian crusades caused me to reflect a bit more about what, exactly, I've been writing in this thread so far. As I understand it, the Dominicans were so effective against the Cathars because they learned their arguments thoroughly and undermined them.

So, perhaps a question extremely relevant "What is our message?" is "Who is our audience?"

I'm in the middle of a J-term class at seminary, and so I'm surrounded by a certain flavor of Liberal Protestantism which is naturally suspicious of St. Paul or any other seemingly prohibitive authority. They're the sort of folks who see Augustine's "Love, and do what thou wilt" and think it's license from the Bishop of Hippo for wanton antinomianism, rather than one of the most prohibitive statements he ever uttered. My arguments, I think, reflect that audience. It has done me no good to use the Creeds or the Scripture in discussion here, because neither are viewed as particularly authoritative. Instead, my focus has been largely in favor of 1) humanity's naturally broken condition and 2) Good old fashioned theism. The second argument has been the harder sell so far.

The argument shifts entirely when I speak with conservative Evangelicals. I have a difficult time relying directly on the arguments of theologians of any stripe. It won't do to say "Augustine has such and such view of Baptism." The argument actually works better when it is plagiarized and made my own, oddly enough. I must, above all, use Scripture with them. But that won't always work, either--the strong Biblical account for Confirmation in Acts, for example, is usually met with some strange talk of Believer's Baptism and altar calls that is beyond my ken.

poetreader said...

Shaugn,

In debating with fundamentalists and many other Evangelicals, Scripture, of course, has to be the primary source material used, but it is important to remember (though unwise ever to say plainly) that such people are not really interested in what the Scripture says, but in how the Scripture can be made to support their views. That is done, whether they admit it or not, by picking and choosing what texts they wish to stress, and by bending any others, when they are not allowed to ignore them, so that they are made to fit their own preconceptions. Whatever is not comfortable is explained away. Ultimately the Fundamentalist approach is little different from the hyperliberal approach -- no authority exists other than what I, in my infinite wisdon, have determined to be true.

You sound like an uncommonly sensible and audience-sensitive expositor and apologist. Continue developing the direction your thought is taking and you will become a great strength to the Church,

ed

Anonymous said...

Shawn and Poetreader:

Do not forget there is a real distinction between preaching and debating. I do not know that any souls were ever won to Christ by means of debate (although debate can establish those whose faith is waivering or insecure, and thus be helpful). Preaching, on the other hand, is proclamation. In Acts 17, even when Paul adapted his message of the vocabulary and categories of his pagan Gentile intellectual audience, he wasted no time in debating with them.
"What therefore you worship as Unknown (agnostos), this I proclaim to you." He acknowledged no common ground, but challenged their most basic presuppositions. The sermon was less than successful (in human terms), and the "cultured despisers" of the Gospel are still laughing. But Christ and His Resurrection were proclaimed. A few hearts were changed and others were hardened, justr as Isaiah prophesied (Isa. 6:10) God's word did not return unto Him void.
LKW

poetreader said...

What a good word, Fr. Wells!

There certainly is a purpose in defending the faith and in presenting it with a rational underpinning of thought, but doing so can do no more, really, than make it clear just what is being presented. There's a problem with the whole concept of debate. In order to bepbat, one has to give a certain dignity to the opposing ideas. That, however, serves to remove the argument from the authority of "Thus saith the Lord" to "It seemeth good unto a man". It is a good thing, and a thing I must pursue, to understand the Faith, but ultimately whether I understand it or not has no effect on whether or not it is true. AND THE SAME MAY BE SAID FOR THE PERSON I AM TRYING TO CONVINCE.

No one is argued into the Faith. We proclaim Jesus, His person and His sacrifice for the sins of the world. He who meets Jesus and opens himself to Him is drawn into salvation, and begins to learn about Him and His ways.

Disputation is the presentation of words about God by the power of a man. Preaching, on the other hand, properly perceived, is opening oneself to speak for God, getting out of His way as much as possible. They are indeed two separate things, and it is the latter that we have been commanded to do. Even in disputation, which often can be an appropriate endeavor, the Spirit-led Christian is not so much trying to convince his opponent of anything, but rather attempting to bring him into the presence of the only One who can change his heart.

ed

poetreader said...

BTW, I note we've both spelled our brother's name incorrectly. He gives it as

Shaughn

My apologies to you, Shaughn, for that.

ed

Shaughn said...

Mr. Pacht,

No worries. That's my parents' doing, not yours. Seven letters for a monosyllabic just seems horribly excessive, doesn't it?

Be well!

--Shaughn

poetreader said...

Oy, My typing!

One might wonder what this gem was supposed to mean:

In order to bepbat ...

The word, of course should be "debate".

sorry about that.

ed

poetreader said...

and Shaughn,
It's not all that excessive.
"Strengths" has nine letters and makes a weird spluttering noise besides.

ed