Monday, October 27, 2008

Why Words Matter

“Those who are idle in the pursuit of righteousness count theological terminology as secondary...”
-Saint Basil the Great, On the Holy Spirit 1.2
Words matter. Language matters. When Basil the Great defended the truth of the divinity of the Holy Spirit in the fourth century, he began by asking his opponents to listen closely to both scripture and tradition. He was insistent that both he and his opponents attend not only to every word of the Bible, but also the writings of the fathers, and even the words of the liturgy. In matters of theological controversy no syllable was insignificant. In Basil’s mind if a person spurned “fundamental elements as insignificant trifles,” then such a person would “never embrace the fullness of wisdom” (On the Holy Spirit 1.2). Quite simply, for the clarity of theology and the fidelity of the Church, words have always mattered. This was true in Basil’s time, and it is true for us today.

Words matter today, for we live in a shifting world wherein language and meaning transforms and changes with digital speed. Today the meanings of words and figures of speech slip through our hands. This has always been true of humanity since at least the tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9). As Christians, we need to recover the significance of our language. We need to scrutinize our words. We need to do this because, fundamentally, we are believers of the Word, and in the Word is truth.

To illustrate this need, all we have to do is read the present rhetoric of peace used by the leaders of the Episcopal Church. The Presiding Bishop, for example, gives a moving description of peace in her book A Wing and a Prayer which, like the will of the Father, dizzyingly invites everyone. For her, people of all races and classes and abilities are welcome into the peace of the Church, even those “who haven’t been baptized...Muslims and Hindus, pagans and practicers of voodoo” (p.90). For Schori, the Church is a place not only of radical inclusion but also mutual dependence, care, and respect. It is a “vision of the city of God on earth, a community where people are at peace with each other because each one has enough to eat, adequate shelter, medical care, and meaningful work” (p.33). For her, the “baptismal covenant does not distinguish between Christian and others...and it doesn’t say anything about religion, gender, age, sexuality, nationality, and so on and so forth” (p.34). This is indeed a vision of equality, cooperation, and respect remarkably exhaustive and demanding, all with an attractive sheen of the prophetic.

Many in the Episcopal Church share her vision. Gene Robinson, for one, thinks similarly. Yet, as Robinson’s argument in his book, In the Eye of the Storm, shows, peace thus described is determined by something other than Christ. For Robinson, peace is the product of secular politics determined by the alleged cultural majority. As he says, “if I argue for the full inclusion of gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, and transgendered people in society, I must do so on the merits of my argument, not on a claim that my understanding of God is right and true and compelling for everyone...not on any reading of a sacred text to which I subscribe (p. 27). Robinson is describing peace built on something other than Jesus as he is scripturally proclaimed in the Church. It is peace constructed on principles found elsewhere, vulnerable to the concocted desires of a superficial culture—such is perhaps the clue to Robinson’s summing up spirituality with the question, “What do you want?”(p.75) instead of the more theological “Who do you say that I am?” (Matthew 16:15). Schori secures her similar vision in something other than Jesus too. For her, “intellectual assent and belonging are vastly different things” (p.97). Peace, in this case, rests upon something imaginably larger than Jesus. For Schori and Robinson, traditional claims about the divinity of Jesus can still be spoken, but they sit in a rhetoric which subordinates Jesus to the service of a peace described by something else. This is evident in the way Robinson understands the interpretation of Scripture. He describes Scripture as the “primary source of our knowledge of how God works in the lives of human beings to bring them to abundant life and everlasting salvation” (p.75) but which always sits under the judgment of a rather curious selection of “tradition” and “reason” defined by Robinson as “the authority that presents itself in our own lives”(p.60). For him, reason is less akin to earlier classical conceptions as is it to the force of history and majority rule. Robinson asks, “Did God complete self-revelation in holy scripture, or does God continue to reveal God’s self, throughout history?” (p.58) His answer is clear: “God is still actively involved in ongoing revelation over time, even in our own day” (p.59). Revelation here is no longer identified with the Church but with the progress of history, conceived as the unfolding of an ideology revealed in the opinions of conventions. They can still talk about peace and Jesus, but it is clear that Jesus must fit within an idea of peace they have already constructed. Jesus must fit into their world.

This explains Schori’s “awfully small box” comment to Time in July 2006. Likewise, this gives context to Robinson’s slippery statements about the mediation of Jesus when he says, “While I believe Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah, I don’t believe he is the sole revelation of God’s self to the world.” For him, peace determined by Jesus must be subordinated to some allegedly more universal notion of peace. “After all,” he concludes, “the challenge before us as citizens of democracies is to define our rights and responsibilities to one another no matter what our beliefs are (p.16).

Both Schori and Robinson still use the traditional language of christology, yet their use of this language sits within a different world all together. Jesus, for them, certainly is a way to the divine and to peace as it is defined by them, yet he is no longer the “all in all” mediation described in Ephesians 1:23. The inclusion and peace described by Robinson and Schori must not be founded “on any reading of a sacred text to which I subscribe” (p. 27). Rather, what matters, as Schori says, is sharing in a “vision of the dream of God” (p.97), a vision described by something other than Jesus and the Church, something, as Schori suggests, “embedded in the Millennium Development Goals...God’s vision of homecoming for all humanity” (p.165). Such is the mundane and Christ-less peace envisioned in much of the Episcopal Church, and this, above all wrangling over sexuality and ordination, is the fundamental heresy we are fighting.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

An appeal from the Diocese of Northern Malawi...

We learned Wednesday of a financial emergency in our companion diocese of Northern Malawi. The balance in the diocesan bank account is just $50, with over $17,000 in immediate obligations, including a payroll.

Malawi is the third-poorest nation in the world, yet the people there have optimism, intellectual curiosity, and a gift for welcoming the stranger. While they struggle to live, their faith is radiant. The Church faces enormous challenges to feed and educate, promote physical health and make disciples. In addition to its cathedral and churches, the diocese runs schools and hospitals. There are programs in adult literacy and sustainable agriculture– to name but two. There are never enough priests; some have five or more congregations in their care. Together with the other Anglican dioceses in Malawi, the diocese runs the Zomba Theological College, where it has six students currently enrolled. Most of these programs would cease to exist without the generous help of Christian friends in the U.S. and England. Lately, regular sustaining funds have been slower in coming.

The United States is experiencing tough economic times, yet, as these pictures show, we lead lives of princely abundance compared to our brothers and sisters in Malawi. Our World Mission Committee asks you to say a prayer for these dear ones, and consider what you, your vestry, outreach fund, or congregation may be able to give in this time of need.

From your friends in Malawi – Zikomo! (Thank you!)

Suzanne Gill
Director of Communications

If you can contribute, please contact the diocesan office at 817-244-2885.

What is going to change in Fort Worth?

At 9:30a.m. every Wednesday morning, a wonderful group of ladies gather together to study Holy Scripture at my parish. They are kind enough to allow me to join them at this gathering and they even humor me with polite laughter when I say something that probably makes absolutely no sense at all. They are a great bunch and I look forward to my time with them every week.

A couple of weeks ago, the discussion got a little sidetracked, as Bible studies tend to do from time to time. We landed on the subject of some of the current issues in the Episcopal Church. The ladies in the group turned to me and asked some very pointed questions about what some recent declarations made by some bishops other than our own would mean for us here in Fort Worth. As I looked around the room, I saw faces of perplexity. One of the ladies even turned to me and said, “How can they do that?”

I so love the simplicity of that question. It shows both a naiveté and a profound sense of faith simultaneously. Oh that I should regain the former and be comforted by the latter! Here was a beautiful woman who couldn’t understand how a bishop, a supposed defender of the faith, could make a statement that was so contrary to what has always been taught throughout historic Christianity. She was confused by what she had read and yet so secure about what she should measure that bishop’s statement against.

We muddled through several more questions that morning. But we finished up with one final question that I have heard asked several other times. The woman sitting across the table from me looked directly at me and said, “What does this mean for us in the Diocese of Fort Worth?”

I paused for a moment as I tried to consider what she was really asking me. Was she curious how my pension would be affected by what was going on? Did she want to know how property issues were going to play out? Was she asking me about lawsuits or impending litigation?

As I considered how to answer, I realized that her question was about none of these. What she was really asking was, “What is going to change in this parish and in the diocese?”

My answer to her---“Nothing.”

This woman had no concern that she would be chased out of her parish which she has attended for the last 20+ years. She had no fear that somehow a judge or a court would be able to decide who owns this little piece of property. She wasn’t even asking, much to my consternation, about how my retirement would be affected. What she really wanted to know was how we will go forward contending for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints.

God has blessed me in so many countless ways. I count being a priest in the Diocese of Fort Worth among those blessings. And I am asked from time to time, much like I was by this dear woman at the Bible study that morning, about what will be new in our diocese. What will be different about how we teach, preach and proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ in this diocese? My answer now is the same as it was to her—not a thing.

The overwhelming majority of clergy and laity in this diocese boast not of so-called “new things” that they can bring to the table. Most have no aspirations of developing something innovative in the world of theology. Instead, there is an almost uniform and sincere desire to devote themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.

As we approach our Diocesan Convention coming up on November 14th-15th, people have inquired of me about what they can expect on November 16th. I give them the same answer as that of the Rector of the parish at which I serve. On the day after our Convention at this parish, as well as at most parishes throughout the diocese, you can expect to hear the Gospel of Jesus Christ being preached. It will be the same old story that has been told for almost 2000 years- And the Word became flesh and was made Man. The incarnate Word of God was crucified for our sins. He died, was resurrected, has ascended into Heaven where He now sits at the right hand of God.

You can also expect the Sacraments to be administered. The Holy Eucharist will be celebrated that day and all baptized Christians will be able to receive the true Body of our Lord Jesus Christ which was given for the nourishment of our souls and His precious Blood which was shed for the forgiveness of our sins.

Does this make us ecclesiastical or theological dinosaurs? I suppose it might in some people’s eyes. The fact that we desire not to come up with or peddle the newest innovations about the faith may lower our standing in some circles. But our job is not to be inventors. We are not called to be on the cutting edge of theological innovations. Our job, as both clergy and laity, is first and foremost to proclaim Christ crucified.

What will change about what we teach, preach and proclaim in the Diocese of Fort Worth? Absolutely nothing if I have anything to say about it.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Profile: Father Lee Nelson

I grew up in the Episcopal Church, my parents having gone through incredible conversions when I was about three years old. Through the power of the prayers of a little parish in Federal Way, Washington... not only was my dad healed from deadly spinal meningitis, but both my mom and dad were brought to faith in the Lord Jesus. When I was 15 years old, I found myself praying in a church following the Stations of the Cross. We were living in Texas then, and I had never really made the Faith my own. As I was “praying” (I was really praying to be able to escape the church without looking stupid.), I was hit with the Gospel. I understood, in a moment, that Jesus really had died for me. That He really did love me. Right then and there, I gave my life to Him, without reservation. That was August 19th, 1995.

Well, I threw myself into the Church, the life of my parish, getting into everything I could. God took this insignificant scrawny teenager who was really kind of shallow and made him into a leader. To make a long story short, I enrolled at Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas and studied business, thinking that I might be called to the priesthood, but that that was for people in their 40s, and it would be a long time coming. In my junior year, I applied for all kinds of internships in the business world, but quickly became disillusioned, deciding to scrap the idea and apprentice myself to a priest for the summer. I didn’t even know how this would happen, but then I heard a sermon. The sermon was given by a professor of mine, an Assemblies of God preacher who also taught marketing. Go figure. Well, he was preaching on Acts 16, which tells the story of Saint Paul at the very end of a journey through Asia Minor. He wants to go to Bithynia, but the Scriptures tell us that “they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them;” (Acts 16:7) What ends up happening is that Paul, unable to go to Bithynia, winds up going to Europe instead. Paul has his eyes set on this great city of Bithynia, but God has plans to take him across the Bosphorus to Europe, where the Gospel spreads like wildfire. The point of the sermon is that sometimes God takes you where you don’t really want to go because His plans are greater than yours. Well, the following Monday, I received a call from Harley-Davidson Motor Company in Milwaukee asking me to work for them for a summer doing retail supply management. So I went. I didn’t want to (can you imagine that!), but I did anyway.

At this point, I should tell you that my numbers-oriented brain was perfect for this job, but my heart was not in it. In fact, I hated it. And, when I returned to school for that fall, I sat down and wrote a letter to Bishop Iker. The letter basically told him that I could no longer pursue anything but the priesthood, and asked for his guidance. That was all it asked for - guidance. Well, I didn’t send the letter. I hung on to it and read it at least once a week, sometimes many times in one day. In October, Harley-Davidson offered me a job. We were at a BBQ joint in College Station, and on hearing the numbers, I nearly choked on my brisket! I turned it down, and the following week - I sent the letter.

After two long, agonizing weeks without reply, Bishop Iker replied in an e-mail. It was short. “Would you like to go to seminary in the fall? Let’s meet up.” It said. I hadn’t really even thought about that! But, after graduating from college that spring (having gone through the Commission on Ministry commuting back and forth each weekend), I packed my bags for Nashotah House, and drove up there - the same route I took to get to Harley Davidson in Milwaukee, but this time for a different destiny. I had $300 in cash in my pocket, and that was about it. The Lord provided! Looking back on this time, I can say that He took me to the top of one mountain to show me another one.

In the spring of my second year at Nashotah House, I met Ela Grace McIntosh, who a little more than a year later would be my wife. We met in a coffee shop, and she is everything I could ask for. She sees her vocation as praying for me and raising our children to be saints. We currently have two kids. Moira is a very precocious and bold two-year old girl and Oliver was born eight weeks ago.

I currently serve at Saint Laurence Church in Southlake, Texas, where I have been for over three years, serving as the Youth and Family Minister. I have been there since I graduated from seminary. In fact, I was ordained there on August 20th, 2005, a full ten years and one day since that experience that changed my life. I serve a group of junior-high, senior-high, and college students who are simply marvelous, inspiring Christians. In my time at the parish, we have focused on four areas with them - Mission, Catechesis, Fellowship, and Worship. We engage them in Mission, being a part of what God is doing in the world and being evangelists with their lives. We engage them in Catechesis - filling them with the Christian knowledge necessary to be disciples in this world. We engage them in fellowship by sharing our lives with them. Lastly, we engage them in worship - offering our lives to God in prayer and liturgy.

During this time, I have served on the diocesan Youth Ministry Advisory Committee, which has rolled out a diocese-wide plan for parish youth ministry. I have served on the Happening Steering Committee, which puts together a weekend program for senior high youth, and also on the faculty of the Saint Michael’s Conference ( One of the exciting things I have been involved with is the Anglican Communion Network’s Children & Youth Initiative, particularly the Youth Summit, which meets twice a year and is a group of about 30 youth workers. I am currently involved in preparing a new Anglican catechism for North America. As well, I was blessed to attend the Global Anglican Future Conference (GAFCON) in Jerusalem in the summer of 2008. Concurrently with this, I’m working on youth catechism curriculum which will be part of an organization which is conceptually called “Youth Formation Ministries.” This was sprouted out of Christian Formation Ministries, which has developed similar materials now available in ten languages used in places like Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Southeast Asia, and Mexico. The curriculum is about 2/3s complete, and I’m looking forward to seeing what God will do with it.

When it comes to this diocese, we have a great thing going - we teach and believe and practice the faith once delivered to the saints and no other. We believe that the Lord Jesus Christ can not only change lives, but draws us into eternal fellowship with himself in Heaven. When the secular world attacks this belief, we hang onto it for life. I'm glad to be part of a group of young priests in this diocese who all hold, without wavering, this faith.

The Little Way

Since our little blog has launched on the feast of St. Therese of Lisieux, the little flower, it seems right to take our inspiration from her and her incredibly child-like (not childish) spirituality.
Having accomplished so much for the Church in her short 24 years on this earth, I think its perfect that we, the young clergy, are up and running on this day.

Here's some wisdom from her that ought to speak to us during these times of tension:

"Sometimes, when I read spiritual treatises, in which perfection is shown with a thousand obstacles in the way and a host of illusions round about it, my poor little mind soon grows weary, I close the learned book, which leaves my head splitting and my heart parched, and I take the Holy Scriptures. Then all seems luminous, a single word opens up infinite horizons to my soul, perfection seems easy; I see that it is enough to realize one's nothingness, and give oneself wholly, like a child, into the arms of the good God. Leaving to great souls, great minds, the fine books I cannot understand, I rejoice to be little because 'only children, and those who are like them, will be admitted to the heavenly banquet'."

My hope and prayer is that all of us here in the Diocese of Fort Worth will take comfort in knowing that we stand with the Saints in our devotion to the Holy Scriptures and the Catholic Faith.

St. Therese, pray for us.