Monday, August 24, 2009

Liebowitz and His Brothers

I admit it. I have a penchant for tales of the apocalyptic and the post-apocalyptic. Whether books or movies, I am drawn to them. Stephen King's The Stand is fabulous. Larry Niven's and Jerry Pournelle's Lucifer's Hammer was great. Admittedly, there are a lot of bad tales out there as well. Nonetheless the tales that speak of the end of the world are simply intriguing.

I recently finished what is likely the best I have ever read, A Canticle For Liebowitz by Walter M. Miller. The blend of of themes, religious and political, hope and despair, sin and innocence, is set in a post-apocalyptic world recovering from a nuclear war. Miller tells the tale quite well with three different parts at different eras, all tied together through the monastery of the Albetian Order of Liebowitz. The final part ("Fiat Voluntas Tua") finds Earth at the brink of apocalypse once again. In the midst of the recurrence of human sin, Miller's greatest question seems to be "Is there true redemption?" Redemption for humanity who seems always to willing to bow down to other gods and go its own way. At the end, when humanity perches on the precipice of atomic war, Miller writes:

The abbot snapped off the set. 'Where's the truth?' he asked quietly. 'What's to be believed? Or does it matter at all? When mass murder's been answered with mass murder, rape with rape, hate with hate, there's no longer much meaning in asking whose ax is the bloodier. Evil on evil, piled on evil.... Dear God there must be half a million dead, if they hit Texarkana with the real thing. I feel like saying words I've never heard. Toad's dung. Hag pus. Gangrene of the soul. Immortal brain-rot. Do you understand me brother? And Christ breathed the same carrion air with us; how meek the Majesty of our Almighty God! What an infinite sense of humor--for Him to become one of us!--King of the Universe, nailed on a cross as a Yiddish schlemiel by the likes of us. They say Lucifer was cast down for refusing to adore the Incarnate Word; the Foul One must totally lack a sense of humor! God of Jacob, God even of Cain! Why do they do it all again?

'Forgive me I'm raving' he added less to Joshua than to the old woodcarving of Saint Liebowitz stood in one corner of the study. He had paused in his pacing to glance up at the face of the image.... He fingered the mound of faggots where the wooden martyr stood. That's where all of us are standing now, he thought. On the fat kindling of past sins. And some of them are mine. Mine, Adam's, Herod's, Judas's, Hannegan's, mine. Everybody's. Always culminatesin the colossus of the State, somehow, drawing about itself the mantle of godhood, being struck down by wrath of Heaven. Why? We shouted it loudly enough--God's to be obeyed by nations as by men. Caesar's to be God's policeman, not His plenipotentiary successor, nor His heir. To all ages, all peoples--'Whoever exalts a race or a State of a particular form of the State or the depositories of power... whoever raises these notions above their standard value and divinizes them to an idolatrous level, distorts and perverts an order of the world planned and created by God...' Where had that come from? Eleventh Pius, he thought, without certainty-- eighteen centuries ago. But when Caesar got the means to destroy the world, wasn't he already divinized? Only by the consent of the people-- same rabble that shouted: 'Non habemus regem nisi caesarem,' when confronted by Him--God Incarnate, mocked and spat upon. Same rabble that martyred Liebowitz...

'Caesar's divinity is showing again.'

Fabulous novel... well worth seeking out, either in a store, online or like I did, at a used book sale. Read it and ponder redemption.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

ELCA Churchwide Assembly--Big news

When I turned on Headline News this morning, the very first thing I saw was a short clip about the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America's Churchwide Assembly being held in Minneapolis this week had approved the resolution that opens the door to the rostering of gays and lesbians in publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous relationships.

Following the vote, Bishop Hanson gave a response. You can view his response here at the online archive.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Let's get this straight...

As the debate rambled on (and really, most of the speakers were just rambling through standard stump speeches, adding very little to the deliberation) yesterday at the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America's Churchwide Assembly, there were two speakers who made a claim about the Reformation that were simply untrue. Unfortunately I didn't catch their names, but one was a professor of religion at some college or university, and the other was a bishop. But both of them stated similar things about the Reformation, that is was about doing something new. One referenced Luther's attack on sacerdotal celibacy. The other just claimed Luther was breaking new ground.

No matter where one stands on the issue of homosexuality or the sexuality statement, can we all agree that retelling history wrongly is ignorant at best, and deceptive at worst. The argument of the Reformation is precisely that the Catholic Church had brought in something new and *gasp* innovative, paticularly shown through the selling of indulgences, but found elsewhere. Luther's claim in that we are justified by grace through faith is actually a call to return to the older and authentic Christianity, articulated by Augustine over a millenia before him. The claim that the attack on sacerdotal celibacy is also not anything new. As pointed out to me by a colleague, Melanchthon argues from natural law that priestly celibacy imposed upon someone is in fact unnatural, and the call is thus to return to something older and more authentic.

Making claims such as these are wrong because they effect so many other issues, particularly our ecumenical relations, but many others as well. And it sets up whatever statements we make on a weak foundation. Supporters of both positions should want to agree on things such as these. If we are to move forward faithfully, the story we tell should be consistent. Newness and innovation are suspect. God's steadfast and unchanging love is to be trusted above all. How we tell stories about both are of utmost importance.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Vacation reflections... Creation and New Creation

I returned home last night from a week of vacation. Most of it was spent in Vermont, camping in a very quiet state park... quiet until we arrived of course. Young boys' voices seemed to cut right through the silence like a finely honed chef's knife... except of course dad's "Be QUIET!" at 6:30 a.m. was truly ironic and was a laser beam compared to the knife edges of their voices. But we camped and hiked and ate more than our share of hot dogs, s'mores and mountain pies. Our boys (six and three years old) had a blast. They handled the tent sleeping really well ( my wife and I did fairly well too, especially since we brought the air mattress... phew!). My wife and I celebrated our ten-year anniversary while we were on the trip. It was lovely... beautiful weather, beautiful scenery, and a beautiful time. God's creation was all around us, and it was very good.

However, I have continued to think about the first full day of our vacation, Monday Aug. 10. We had traveled on Sunday out to eastern Pennsylvania and went to the amusement park Sesame Place on Monday. We knew if we wanted both boys to be really excited about Sesame Street, we would have to go this year or next, since the oldest will probably soon outgrow Sesame Street (made perfectly clear by his current obsession Pokemon--he admitted being fixated by it "it's all I can think about!"--and this after only seeing one or Pokemon movies). At any rate this little side trip was completely unexpected for the boys and therefore a total surprise. We got in the van Monday morning, and the boys were still chomping at the bit to go camping, when we broke the news that we had different plans. Only when we arrived at the park did they know fully what was happening. And to be honest, there are times when we get frustrated at our oldest for acting like a spoiled brat, but when we got out of the car, he was grateful... no, he was ebulliently grateful. So much so, in fact, after he had blurted out his seemingly thousandth "THANK YOU!" the woman standing at the car next to us commented at how sweet he was. My wife and I wondered what would have happened if he had known about the trip, would he have been as spontaneous, or joyful in his response? I do not know... but here, his response was remarkable.

If you do not know about Sesame Place, it is a small to medium-sized amusement park that has not only traditional rides (a small coaster, some twirly rides, and a large netting to climb all over, among others), but also water attractions (slides, tubing and the like). To be honest it probably more water park than true amusement park. And clearly most folks were looking to it as such. And why not? The temperature was well into the 90's that day. The sun was beating down on us. It was really hot, and the water was really cool. The boys had a blast on the water slides. My youngest even did some smaller slides on his own.

For a while, though, I was having a hard time with some of it. It was expensive, of course. But after paying $9 for a hot dog, fries and drink... ouch. Oddly enough the adult meals were almost normal in price. Still expensive, but not nearly the same proportion. And the water was so overly chlorinated that I, who swim regularly, had to pause at the stinging of chlorine in my nasal cavity. Double ouch. Of course I realized that this chlorine was managing to keep the human bacteria at bay... and was there ever a lot of those... both humans AND bacteria. But what do you expect?

But then something happened... my oldest and I were at once of the centerpieces of the park, the Count's Splash Castle. And I started to see the whole mass of people around me. Not just how many people were there, but some of who they were. And it seemed that everyone was there: black, white, hispanic, rich, poor, tattooed, young, old, Middle Eastern, European, American, bikini-clad women/girls, burkha-clad women (evidently, Muslim women who adhere to the practice of wearing the burkha have no problems with just wearing it in the water)... you name it, and there was probably someone representing some group or other. And they were all gathered at the Count's Splash Castle. The Castle is a massive playground where water runs constantly. There are smaller slides, and steps to climb, and water to shoot, and most important of all, a humongous (my youngest's new favorite word) bucket perched atop it all. Every three to four minutes, we would hear a crack of thunder, the Count's familiar laugh and then a countdown, 5 - 4 - 3 - 2 - 1! and the bucket would tip, sending hundreds of gallons of water down upon the crowd who rushed to find just the right spot under that overly-chlorinated, eye-stinging water. But I was there too, usually with my oldest, feeling that water rain... no, pound down upon us. At first I wondered what was the big deal... but it was fun. No doubt.

And running through the rest of the Splash Castle, water constantly pouring down on me, riding down the slides, exhilirated by the rush of speed and splash, I inevitably saw the baptismal connection (hey, I'm a Lutheran pastor, right?). The baptismal life, the gathering of people from every tribe and race, in the name of the Triune God, made known in the life, death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus is not a burden but a joy. The weight of that water seems so great, but it is a refreshing, cleansing water that exhilirates us for the life Christ calls us to, reminds us of the new creation into which we are being raised.