Monday, September 26, 2016


I have read a couple books on Reformation history this year. I just finished the huge book (900 or so pages) about the Reformation by Carlos Eire, professor of history at Yale. Eire is the author of a memoir, Waiting for Snow in Havana, which won the National Book Award. This history professor can write. The title of his book is Reformations with an "s" because there was so much going on during this time that Reformation with no "s" doesn't begin to cover it all. He writes about the main guys like Luther and Calvin and Zwingli and a whole bunch of other reformers no one has ever heard of unless they are  Reformation history majors. It makes a great story. Eire tells about what the Roman Catholic Church was doing during this time, too. The Reformation was the date Protestantism got it's start but it wasn't like the Catholics were not doing any reforming on their own.

Before Luther stuck his 95 theses up on the Wittenburg Church door (Eire says it never happened that way but he probably sent them to his superiors), there was only one Church and there had been only one for a long time. Luther who was a Catholic monk and a life long admirer of Augustine had his fill of what he saw as corruption and deficient theology in his church He was especially peeved about the sale of Special Indulgences by the Pope to raise money for the St Peter's building project. That triggered the writing of the theses. The theses by themselves were not revolutionary but Luther was not done. His writings and sermons sparked controversy until the Pope excommunicated him from the Church, the one and only Church at the time. He would have been executed if he didn't have friends in high places. He spent a good bit of his life hiding out, and writing and translating the  Bible into German.

John Calvin was a Catholic, too. All the Reformers were. He was a little later than Luther and from another part of Europe. Calvin was the systematizer and wrote several editions of the Institutes of Christian Religion which lay out the Reformed faith. Luther and Calvin and Zwingli, each important in his own right, did not get along together.  And none of them liked the Jews, Catholics or Anabaptists very well either. Their followers fought each other for years.  Eire says that one of the main take-aways from the Reformation was the fragmentation of the Church. There was little agreement on what needed to be reformed and the Catholics weren't seeking suggestions. The idea at the time was an entire region would be the same religion. So, Germany would be Lutheran, and the Swiss would be Reformed and so on. Of course, the Catholic Church was not giving up any territory so they kept the pressure on. Whoever controlled the government controlled the state religion. The state backed up the reforms of the religious leaders with force. This was a brutal age with Christians fighting for their lives as well as their beliefs.

What were those beliefs? Faith or works was one. The Reformers believed the Catholic system of salvation was based on works. Luther and Calvin argued for faith. They believed most of the rituals and practises of the Catholic church had to go. There was a tendency especially in Reformed territories to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

In Eire's masterful account it can be difficult to see what the Reformers really gained. The Protestants got rid of the monks and monasteries, most of the priests and a good bit of the Catholic ritual, the art and the religious icons. The Calvinists got rid of the organs and the music, too. The Anabaptists got rid of infant baptism, and cooperation with the government. They all got rid of purgatory, and the saints, and the veneration of Mary so much of the mysticism and mystery of faith was gone. The various theological positions hardened over time and the followers of the Reformers often were more extreme than the founders were. There was little appreciation for the strengths of each point of view. Charles Williams in his biography of the Holy Spirit in history, The Descent of the Dove, notes that Luther, Ignatius, Xavier and Calvin lived about the same time, "Our Lord the Spirit violently convulsed those souls with himself" is the way he put it. Sadly, they never knew they were on the same team.

The laypeople were in a tough place. Their lives had been turned upside down so they clung to what they knew even if it was their folklore and mythology. They did not know what to think or believe.  They often had to change their thinking as fast as their historical situation changed.

There were reforms needed in the Catholic Church but there was great art and music. Great thinkers like St Gregory, St. Augustine, St. Thomas, St. Theresa of Avila, to name a few. Great followers of Christ like St. Francis of Assisi. And many other spiritual treasures. There was no need to start all over from scratch. The Reformers had insights that the Church needed like Luther's emphasis on grace and Calvin's systematic theology. The Anabaptists who were persecuted without mercy gave us the separation of church and state and a steadfast focus on the Jesus of history. Each one had ingredients that a healthy church needed but each one presumed their insights were all the church needed. People began to think of themselves as followers of Luther, or Calvin or Zwingli or the Pope and not of Christ. They fragmented and fought, argued and cursed each other, they even tortured and killed each other for the sake of Christ's Church. Sadly, their theological differences hardened until they became impermeable.

You can say what you want about the Catholic Church but there  was one church before the Reformation and afterward there were an increasing numbers of churches, most of whom did not get along with each other. Today in our little town which is like towns across America there are lots of churches. Some are known denominations but many are independents. That means they are on their own preaching the truth they know and trying to win the others over to their side. They are not killing each other, at least not literally, but they have drawn very small circles of salvation.  And, of course, the Catholics are no where near those circles.

We have a great heritage in the Church. Our fathers and mothers who have gone before us have all contributed to our knowledge of God and what it means to follow Christ. Tertullian and Origen, Augustine and Aquinas, Luther and Calvin, Barth and Bonhoeffer, the Wesley brothers, Mother Teresa, Dorothy Day and Martin Luther King among many, many others. The reform of the church will not happen by drawing smaller circles and making bigger walls between Christ's followers. Reform happens as we appreciate and learn from our diversity and use it as a force for unity. In Christ.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Dark night of the soul

I preached on Lamentations today. Our pastor was away and some one came to church today just to hear her. Sorry, it's the B team today, we said. It took about five of us but we managed to bring it. I began by noting that Mike Pence was just up the street (literally less than a mile) at First Baptist, Jax. So if any one was looking for him they were in the wrong place. Far smaller crowds but less security at our church.

Lamentations is a book full of darkness. That word comes up a lot. Christian churches don't do darkness well. Barbara Brown Taylor calls most Christian churches "Full Solar Spiritual Centers". They major on the benefits of faith: sure sense of God's presence, certainty of beliefs, divine guidance in all things and answers to prayers. Generally, the sunny side of faith. There is another side. Some times we call it the dark side. Light and Darkness, since the early church people have wanted to divide God's world into two realities with two deities ruling each one. That thinking is still around today.

Lamentations is about a very dark period in the history of God's people. It features the judgment of Judah which resulted in a crushing military victory by Babylon and the exile of most of God's people. Jeremiah, who had predicted this outcome was a mostly despised mouthpiece of God for those predictions. Lamentations is the book that came out of the suffering and pain of the people. There is a brief bit of hope in chapter 3. Four of the chapters begin with a Hebrew word that is usually translated, How? It is a weak translation of a word that means more like, How is this happening to us? God's People? Where is God in the midst of our pain and suffering? Does this mean the end of his promises to us? It sure looked like it. One way to read this book is to remember this is an expression of the way people felt.

It seems like churches can handle a little darkness like when some one comes hurting from a divorce, or a death, or abuse of some kind, depression and other forms of darkness. We offer a community of caring - for awhile. That's the problem we don't do long term darkness well. Eventually, we want to know where is their faith? That should be all they need to turn away darkness.

There is a tradition of Christian spirituality called The Dark Night of Soul. It is associated with St John of the Cross who was imprisoned for his teachings in the mid 1560's. For eleven months he languished in solitary not knowing if he would live or die. He worked out The Dark Night of the Soul. Basically, he said that God allowed his people to go through a long, dark night to strip them of all their illusions, delusions and manipulations of God and his ways. The toxic habits of faith are shed and a new faith begins. Many people who had been raised in conservative churches have found the faith that was given to them was inadequate for the realities of real life in the world. Tossing their faith over they thought they were done with it. But, the desire for God was real, too, So, they begin a process of reconstructing their faith. There is a way to God that emerges out of the dark night. The darkness - my darkness - is not dark to God.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

On the road or in the air

We have been traveling for the past two weeks or so. We flew out of Jacksonville, Fl a day before the hurricane hit but not too hard. Stopped over in Portland, Or to visit family and friends and then on to Kodiak, Ak for more family and friends. Flying for all of it's downsides is not bad. For being crammed into a small space with over a hundred other people, the airlines do their best to make you comfortable. There are snacks, entertainments, bathrooms and the occasional turbulence to get the adrenalin going. And it is fast. Just a few hours from one coast to the other. On our way home we got to spend hours in the Portland airport before our flight. What could be better than Peet's coffee and Powell's bookstore? Just before takeoff a man behind us in the waiting area got sick and vomited all over himself. The lady across from me covered her eyes and muttered, I hope he is not on our flight. As it turned out he was - briefly - before concluding it was a bad idea. So, we waited while he post-boarded. It was a minor delay and did not affect our connections. In light of the gridlock in Washington and the anger and hatred spewed at and by our presidential candidates it's slightly less than marvelous that so many people get along so well so much of the time in airports and on airplanes. Even though they have to remove most of their clothes and submit to a stranger putting her hands all over your body. And the lines. Now that you can check in online you still have to wait in line at the airport.  One man in front of us who was a long way from the front told us his sad story about a flat tire on the way to the airport and it looked like he would never make his plane which was scheduled for an on time departure in twenty minutes. Several of his fellow passengers agreed that he should just move on up to the front of the line. Inspired by our plan, he did. The crowds parted like the Red Sea and we followed him with his luggage and there was no violence as he took a stand at the front. I hope he made his flight. It could have been an ugly scene. I guess you always have a choice.

I read a couple good books on the plane. D. L. Mayfield's Assimilate or Go Home about a failed missionary (she calls herself). It's a great read and she didn't fail to get me thinking about God and what God's mission is. The other book was a novel by Salley Vickers called The Cleaner of Chartres, an absolutely compelling read about an orphan who was a servant of all.

I watched a couple good films, too. I recommend Barbershop 2, and Nice Guys which stars Russell Crowe - perhaps not his best work but if you find yourself on a plane, not a bad choice.

Tomorrow I am preaching on Lamentations. So, I suppose my next post will be on that.