Podcast No. 8 is now available. It is called “The Liturgy Saved Me,” and it is about 7 minutes long. To download it as an mp3 file, click here. To listen to the podcast now, click on the button below. This podcast is also archived on the “Podcasts” page of this blog. Thanks for listening.
I grew up in a tradition which not only didn’t recognize Lent or Ash Wednesday as legitimate observances for Christians, it actually found them laughable. I remember how we would snicker and make wise cracks about those few of our classmates who would leave school at noon on Ash Wednesday and return an hour or so later with some sort of black smudge on their foreheads. We didn’t understand it, and so we made fun of it.
I remember hearing a preacher tell the story of a Catholic priest who was accosted by a mugger as the priest was walking home after visiting a parishioner who was ill and confined to her home. He carried a box of chocolates which the parishioner had given him as a token of appreciation for his kindness.
Almost exactly one year ago, I wrote a blog post in which I affirmed my lifelong belief that God had called me to vocational Christian ministry and repeated my intention to fulfill that call for the remainder of my life. I called that post “There Is No Plan B.”
Yesterday I published a post in which I described my current circumstances in stark terms. I laid out both the scope of my current ministry as well as the financial realities which my wife and I are facing. A few of my readers wrote to assure me of their prayers and to offer other expressions of encouragement.
Early this morning, after a mostly sleepless night, I sensed God saying that I should re-publish that post from last February as a way of declaring, once again, that I am in this for the duration. I have edited that post a bit, adding some elements toward the end that reflect the current situation more accurately, but it is essentially the same content that I originally wrote. I meant it then. I mean it now. There is still no Plan B.
Most of the readers of this blog are not Anglicans and do not come from a liturgical or Prayer Book tradition. Rather, they identify with the Free Church tradition in American Christianity, represented by denominations such as Baptists and Mennonites, quasi-denominational networks such as the Vineyard churches, and multitudes of congregations which classify themselves as independent or non-denominational. I grew up in that tradition but, as I have noted countless times in these blog posts, about ten years ago my wife and I began to be drawn toward a more liturgical form of public worship. That led, in time, to our confirmation as Anglicans and, in the spring of 2011, to my ordination as an Anglican priest.
As I reported in a post on November 9, my credentials as a priest have recently been de-activated by my request, I have been released from both the privileges and responsibilities conferred upon me by my Bishop when I was ordained a priest, and I am no longer authorized to carry out sacramental ministries (such as celebration of the Eucharist) in congregations associated with the Anglican Church in North America.
A few of my readers have asked me to say a bit more about that matter, including what led me to request “laicization” only eighteen months after ordination, and what all of this means for my future ministry. I have decided to use this post (which is far longer than usual) to address some of these issues, and then I intend to move in an altogether different direction in future posts.
I’ve told this story before. A couple of years ago I took a graduate-level course in the history of Anglicanism. One day, well into the course curriculum, I found myself responding, yet again, to what I perceived to be an unwarranted and misguided criticism, from one of my fellow-students, of some aspect of the Free Church tradition, where I had spent more than thirty-five years in vocational ministry.
After several minutes of “spirited” exchange, the professor waded into the fray. After confirming that my learned opponent was indeed misguided in his critique, at least on that particular point, the instructor leaned across the lectern and looked directly at me. “You’re not an Anglican,” he said. It wasn’t a judgment or an accusation, and there was not one note of rancor in his voice. He was simply making an observation. “You’re not an Anglican,” he repeated. “You’re a liturgical Anabaptist.”
He later explained that he wasn’t challenging my commitment to Anglicanism nor suggesting that I should not be preparing for Holy Orders. Rather, he was voicing his opinion that my Anabaptist convictions were so deeply ingrained that they naturally informed my response to criticism of the Free Church tradition and infused it with passion. I have to say I think he was right.
Last winter I wrote a blog post called “My Debt to Anabaptism.” I meant everything I wrote there. Since that time, however, I have had occasion to think more about my quarter-century sojourn among Mennonite Anabaptists, the lessons I learned and the convictions I developed there, and the relationship of that chapter of my pilgrimage to my current identification as an Anglican priest.
One such opportunity was occasioned when I heard that Gene Herr had died. In response, I wrote a blog post called “Gene Herr Was My Hero” to express my appreciation for the testimony and example of a man who grew up as a Mennonite Anabaptist but was drawn toward the liturgical tradition later in his life. I admired his courage in following his convictions and his insistence that these two traditions could strengthen each other.
More recently I stumbled onto the online musings of Tim Chesterton, an Anglican priest in Canada, who developed an interest in historical Anabaptism and its contemporary expressions and drew conclusions similar to those of Gene Herr regarding the compatibility of Anabaptism with the liturgical tradition and the mutual benefit which he believed Anabaptism and his own Anglican heritage could be to each other. He spent a sabbatical studying Anabaptism and compiled his conclusions into a series of blog posts. I found them fascinating.
All of this convinced me that I needed to write another post in which I would update the conclusions I expressed in my earlier post. This, then, is that.
My professor was right. I am a liturgical Anabaptist. I might still be a Mennonite if I could have found a place, within the particular group of Mennonites with whom I was serving, where my growing convictions regarding the importance of the liturgical tradition would be acknowledged and appreciated. Finding no place like that, I had no choice but to turn in another direction. I became an Anglican with Anabaptist convictions instead of an Anabaptist with liturgical sensibilities.
I love Anglican worship, and I don’t think I could ever feel at home again in a tradition in which the celebration of the Eucharist (Holy Communion) was not the pinnacle of the church’s corporate worship. At the same time, I miss a lot that I had come to love and appreciate as an Anabaptist. Yes, I miss the tradition of a capella congregational singing which some Mennonite churches still cherish. And, oddly enough, I miss the sense of “family-ness” which pervades much of the Mennonite community, even though I always felt that I was a guest at the table and not really a member of the family.
Here’s what I miss most about Anabaptism, however. I miss the serious conversation I used to engage in with other Anabaptists, many of them my colleagues in ministry, concerning the interface between the teachings of Jesus in the Gospels, their interpretation by Paul and others in the NT Epistles, and their practical application amidst the contemporary culture. I didn’t always agree with my fellow Anabaptists, but I always respected their viewpoint (even though I’m certain that more than a few of them would be surprised to hear me say that).
Like most traditions, and like me when I was serving among them, Anabaptist Christians talk a better game than they play. But I miss talking that game with them, and I’ve concluded that, at least sometimes, the more you talk about something the more likely you are to do something as a result.
My experience among Anabaptists sharpened my sensitivity to injustice in the world and strengthened my convictions regarding “biblical nonresistance.” (See Matthew 5:43-48.) That is a perspective almost completely absent from the circle of colleagues among whom I move as an Anglican. I miss it terribly. (It is not absent from Anglican sensibilities altogether, however, as this quote by Desmond Tutu illustrates.)
So, in this update to my post titled “My Debt to Anabaptism,” I am going on record to declare that, whatever the context of my future ministry as an Anglican priest, I will be making it clear that the shape of my Anglicanism will be strongly informed by my Anabaptist convictions. And now that I know that men like Gene Herr and Tim Chesterton share my convictions in that regard and have left a written record to serve as precedent for me, I am even more energized and encouraged.
In The Tempest, Shakespeare wrote that “what’s past is prologue.” I don’t know how long I still have to serve Christ and His Kingdom, but whether it is two weeks or thirty years, I plan to serve it as an Anglican Anabaptist (or should that be an Anabaptist Anglican?). I am totally convinced that my pilgrimage has not been a series of disjointed meanderings. I feel enriched and empowered by my exposure to these two traditions—Anabaptism and Anglicanism—into which God has providentially guided me over the past thirty-five years. They are not mutually exclusive. They are, in fact, mutually beneficial, and I am grateful to God for allowing me to experience the benefits of both communions… separately in the past and blended in my future ministry.
For some specific descriptions of ways in which this union of Anabaptism and Anglicanism may manifest itself it my future ministry, stay tuned to my future blog posts. Thank you for reading, and as always…
Soli Deo Gloria.
Have you ever been so discouraged about your circumstances that you went to bed thinking, “Maybe this will be the night when my sleep apnea kills me”? I was almost there last night. Disheartened when I went to sleep and disappointed when I awoke, or even that I awoke.
Don’t say it could never happen to you, that you could never become so despondent. I didn’t think it could happen to me either, but that was before I was fired from a job I loved because of the church I attended (or, more precisely, because of the church I didn’t attend). That was before I started my seventh decade of life already unemployed for two years, and now two more years have passed, and things have not really changed. That was before I spent two years and many thousands of dollars preparing for Holy Orders, only to conclude that there may very well be no place for me to serve in this new communion to which I have been drawn, to which I thought I had been led.
At 6:00 this morning, the last thing I wanted to do was Morning Prayers. Fortunately for me, the liturgical tradition (and this is one reason I love it so much) does not require a supplicant to achieve or exhibit any particular frame of mind or physical posture as a precondition for praying. So I fumbled around for my glasses, propped my not-yet-truly-awake body against a pile of pillows, and opened my Franciscan prayer book to the page appointed for this day, the Tuesday following the eleventh Sunday after Pentecost. And this is the first thing I read.
Blessed are You, sovereign God of all. To You be praise and glory forever. In your tender compassion, the dawn from on high is breaking upon us to dispel the lingering shadows of night. As we look for Your coming among us this day, open our eyes to behold Your presence, and strengthen our hands to do Your will, that the world may rejoice and give You praise.
That prayer had the effect of a glass of cold water in the face. I read it… no, I fervently prayed it… three more times. And each time I sensed the presence of God more personally and more real.
Next I moved on to the psalm for the day, Psalm 123, and I read (and prayed) these words.
To you I lift up my eyes,
O you who are enthroned in the heavens!
2 Behold, as the eyes of servants
look to the hand of their master,
as the eyes of a maidservant
to the hand of her mistress,
so our eyes look to the Lord our God,
till he has mercy upon us.
3 Have mercy upon us, O Lord, have mercy upon us,
for we have had more than enough of contempt.
4 Our soul has had more than enough
of the scorn of those who are at ease,
of the contempt of the proud.
That psalm was followed by this prayer.
Sovereign God, enthroned in the heavens, look upon us with Your eyes of mercy, as we look upon You with humility and love, and fill our souls with Your peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
By this time, although no rules required it, I was on the floor with my face in the rug, fairly pleading with God. I prayed those words over and over. Fill my soul with Your peace. Look upon me with your eyes of mercy.
And then I closed the prayer book, veered away from the set prayer (although I had never prayed a more earnest prayer in my life), and began to improvise. No poetry. No flowery rhetoric. Just a simple prayer, but offered with an urgency akin to that of Peter when he found himself sinking in the waters of the Sea of Galilee: Lord, save me!
Lord, save me! I’m going under. I’m tired, I’m discouraged, and I’ve lost hope. Do something to let me know You are still there. Say something. Anything. Just please give me some sign that You have not abandoned me.
And He did. Perhaps the most immediate answer to any prayer I have ever prayed. He parted the clouds and loosed the bands that had fettered my spirit. My mind began to reel with possibilities where it had been stymied by the weight of my circumstances.
He reminded me that “all truth is God’s truth.” He assured me that He could use a wide variety of instruments to speak to me, in answer to my prayer, and He did. I’ll mention just two of them.
First, Wayne Dyer, known to PBS audiences as a dispenser of New Age wisdom who draws upon a syncretistic blend of resources as disparate as Taoism and the New Testament. Wayne Dyer would not normally be a source to whom I would turn to hear a word from God, but this morning God brought him to my mind. Or rather, He reminded me of something I had once heard Wayne Dyer say. And that was, “Don’t die with your music still in you.”
He made that comment, if I recall, just after he had summarized the story told by Leo Tolstoy in his classic tale, The Death of Ivan Ilyich. Near the end of his life, on his death bed in fact, Tolstoy’s protagonist, almost blinded by pain, cries out, “What if my whole life has been wrong?” Wayne Dyer allowed as how, from the moment he read that story, he determined that his life would not be lived wrongly, that he would not die with his music still in him.
Think what you will of Wayne Dyer and his philosophy of life, but that concept is a genuine truth. Nobody, least of all a Christian, should live life in a way that we die with our “music” still in us. I needed to hear that this morning, and God brought it to my recollection in response to my earnest plea for some evidence of His presence with me.
Second, Kris Kristofferson. Specifically, his great song, “Me and Bobby McGee” in which the refrain begins with the line, “Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose.” I heard God speaking to me in that line. He seemed to say, “You’ve got some music in you that you need to let out. You’ve got some truth in you which I’ve been teaching you over the past few years, and you need to share it. It probably won’t go down well with everybody who reads it or hears it, but what do you have to lose? You won’t be free until you share what I have given you to share.”
Or, to quote Wayne Dyer, “Don’t die with your music still in you.”
And so, through Wayne Dyer and Kris Kristofferson, I heard the voice of Jesus speaking to me today. In answer to my prayer. He touched me in my hour of need. And, if I am faithful, he may touch you through what I have to say, in this blog and through other channels, in the days ahead. Stay tuned.
Thank you, Lord, for answering my desperate prayer. Now, please help me to share, lovingly but boldly, the truth that You have implanted in me. Please don’t let me die with my music still in me. Amen.
I had the privilege to preach in a worship service yesterday. I’m not a pastor at present, and so I don’t preach regularly in any setting. But since I am a preacher, by calling and gifting, I generally appreciate any opportunity I have to serve the church and the Kingdom by using my gifts in this way. Yesterday was somewhat different in that regard, however, and here’s why.
When I was a pastor in the Free Church tradition, I preached mainly series of sermons drawn from an extended passage of Scripture—an entire book, perhaps, or a portion of a book, such as the Sermon on the Mount or the Upper Room Discourse. There are numerous advantages to that approach to preaching in worship, and if, in the future, I ever preach regularly as a pastor in a congregation, I will likely take up that practice again.
In the meantime, as a once-in-a-while preacher in mostly Anglican settings, I have committed myself to taking as my sermon text one of the lectionary readings for the day. Most Anglican churches use the Revised Common Lectionary which lists four readings—Old Testament, Psalm, NT Epistle, and Gospel—for each Sunday.
Up to now, it has been fairly easy to do that. Each time I’ve had occasion to preach in a worship service, I’ve turned to the lectionary readings for the week, and either the Gospel lesson or the Epistle lesson (and sometimes both) has called out to me, “Preach me! Preach me!”
Not yesterday’s readings, however. In fact, I can’t remember the last time I struggled with the preparation of a sermon the way I did with the one I preached yesterday.
I used to teach homiletics (the art and craft of preparing and delivering sermons) in seminary, and I always told my students: “Preach only because you have something to say, and never just because you have to say something.” Last week I had to work hard not to violate my own counsel.
For a variety of reasons, I was not drawn to yesterday’s Old Testament, Psalm, or Gospel lesson as a possible sermon text. That left, then, only the Epistle lesson as a text for the sermon, if I was to honor the commitment I had made to preach from one of the lectionary readings. And I almost could not do it.
In the case of the Epistle reading, however—from 2 Corinthians 12:2-10—it wasn’t so much the text that posed the problem. It was me. I’ll say more about that later, but once I understood that fact, I knew that I had to give the Spirit of God an opportunity to say something about this important text through me, if He wanted to. And, apparently, He did.
St. Paul, the Apostle, wrote thirteen of the twenty-seven books in the New Testament. They are all letters—eight of them to churches he had planted or at least visited, one (the letter to the Romans) to a church he hoped to visit in the future, and four to individuals (Timothy and Titus, his proteges, and Philemon, a close friend).
Paul first visited the city of Corinth (in Greece) on his second missionary journey (probably 50-52 AD), and Luke records details of that experience in Acts, chapter 18. As a result of his 18-month stay in Corinth, a church developed in that city.
A year or so later, during his third missionary journey, Paul arrived in the city of Ephesus (in what is today’s Turkey) across the Aegean Sea from Greece, and while he was there he got word that there were problems in the church in Corinth. He wrote a letter to the church, our New Testament book of 1 Corinthians, addressing the problems there, sent it off to them, and waited for a reply.
When word came, it appears that the problems in Corinth were still so severe that Paul had to travel from Ephesus to Corinth to make a pastoral call on the church. It apparently did not go well, and after Paul returned to Ephesus, he wrote a letter back to the Corinthians, which has been lost, and then waited for Titus (who had delivered the letter) to return to Ephesus and tell him how the church had reacted to the letter.
When Titus finally returned from Corinth, the news he brought was mixed, at best. The church had responded to Paul’s letter in a good way, but Titus observed that another problem had arisen. The church in Corinth had been invaded, as it were, by false teachers who were attacking Paul’s character and his credibility. Here’s the way he describes them in 2 Corinthians 11…
4 (I)f someone comes to you and preaches a Jesus other than the Jesus we preached, or if you receive a different spirit from the (Holy) Spirit you received, or a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it easily enough. … 13 (But) such people are false apostles, deceitful workers, masquerading as apostles of Christ. 14 And no wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light. 15 It is not surprising, then, if his servants also masquerade as servants of righteousness. Their end will be what their actions deserve.
Our New Testament letter of 2 Corinthians is Paul’s response to these guys who had moved into Corinth and were determined to take control of the church there by attacking Paul and leveling accusations against his character, his integrity, his leadership style, and his authority as an Apostle.
Second Corinthians is the most personal and practical of all of Paul’s letters. It is rock ’em/sock ’em, down ‘n dirty, no-holds-barred Christianity. In that regard, then, it is precisely the kind of message that the twenty-first century American Christian community needs to hear.
But that is just the problem. Just because we need to hear this message does not mean that we are eager to hear it. In fact, much of what Paul writes in 2 Corinthians is framed in language that is foreign, if not offensive, to our twenty-first century American sensibilities. For example…
From chapter four,
7 But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. 8 We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; 9 persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. 10 We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.
And from chapter six,
4 (A)s servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: in great endurance; in troubles, hardships and distresses; 5 in beatings, imprisonments and riots; in hard work, sleepless nights and hunger; … 8 through glory and dishonor, bad report and good report; genuine, yet regarded as impostors; 9 known, yet regarded as unknown; dying, and yet we live on; beaten, and yet not killed; 10 sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; poor, yet making many rich; having nothing, and yet possessing everything.
And a final example, from chapter eleven,
22 Are they (meaning his accusers) Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they Abraham’s descendants? So am I. 23 Are they servants of Christ?… I am more. I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again.
24 Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, 26 I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers.
27 I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. 28 Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches. 29 Who is weak, and I do not feel weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn? 30 If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness.
Now I’m fairly sure that you won’t hear too many sermons in twenty-first century American Christian churches based on passages like these. That’s especially true of those churches and preachers who promote something that has come to be called the “prosperity Gospel.”
That is the teaching that, if you are a Christian, and if you have enough faith, God will transform your life, materially and financially as well as emotionally and spiritually, so that you will enjoy financial wealth, physical health, emotional stability, and, in general, a life of abundance and prosperity.
To which I can only respond, “Well, Paul didn’t.”
I’ll take this up further in the next post, where, from 2 Corinthians 12:2-10, we’ll discover how to impress God. Thanks for reading.
As I have noted in this blog many times, God and I entered into a pact around forty years ago. He called me into vocational ministry. I responded to that call. He promised to open doors of opportunity for me and to care for all my legitimate needs. In return, He asked me to devote all my energy and use all my gifts in the service of the Kingdom of God. I have tried to be faithful to my side of the pact. He has always been faithful to His, even if on occasion (like now) it hasn’t been immediately clear how He was bringing it to pass. He always has, eventually.
God made my side of the bargain easier by limiting the gifts and the skill set He gave me. I haven’t had to struggle with the temptation to forsake my calling in order to be a professional athlete or a business entrepreneur or a rocket scientist. I’ve never had to resist the allure of the Broadway theater or the silver screen or the concert stage. I simply don’t have either the gifts or the desire to pursue those vocations. I am, however, a pretty good teacher.
For most of my life, I have had ample opportunity to exercise my gifts as a teacher—either in pastoral ministry or in the classroom or as an itinerant speaker/lecturer, traveling across the country and across the church to serve as a preacher in Bible conferences, a teacher in local Bible institutes, and a presenter for workshops and seminars. My schedule was as full of meetings of this type as I wanted it to be until a few years ago when I fell into heresy.
Heresy is not a pretty word. In fact, it’s not even a word with which most people are familiar these days. It was used more frequently in an earlier era when more attention was paid to doctrinal precision and religious orthodoxy within the Christian community. In those days, heresy was the word used to denote deviation from accepted doctrine or a rejection of orthodoxy. A practitioner of heresy was called a heretic.
Throughout the history of the Christian church, the term heresy has been applied to a wide variety of perceived heterodoxy. Its broadest usage has related to variation within or denial of the classic and creedal assertions related to the character and attributes of Jesus Christ. Denial of the classic Christian belief that Jesus was God in human flesh has always constituted heresy. Generally, a rejection of the doctrine of the virgin birth of Christ and the suggestion that there are other ways to God apart from belief in Jesus as Savior and Lord have fallen into that category as well.
In some quarters of the church, where speaking in tongues is not practiced, those who advocate that the gift of tongues should be normative for the life of the church are viewed as heretics. Likewise, Christians who believe in evolution may be guilty of heresy in the eyes of Christians who don’t.
My descent into heresy was particularly egregious. I remain orthodox in my commitment to the Nicene Creed and its clear pronouncements of the deity of Jesus and His role as the Savior of mankind. Where I went off the rails was in suggesting that the church would be well-served if we actually recited the words of the Creed as part of regular public worship.
Add to that my inexplicable and inexcusable insistence on the celebration of Communion as the high point of every worship service, and the relegation of preaching to a less significant place in the service, and you can begin to see how the downward spiral accelerated.
I suppose it was inevitable, given what I have just admitted, that it was only a matter of time until I began publicly to refer to the four weeks before Christmas as Advent, the forty days before Easter as Lent, and the seventh Sunday after Easter as Trinity Sunday. Looking back on it now, I can only lift my hands in amazement and cry out, “What was I thinking?”
Yes, dear friends. As unthinkable as it must seem to many of you, I became totally and inextricably caught up in… liturgy. I fought it for years, but its hold on me was too great. I tried to hide my involvement in it for as long as I could, but I knew that was a futile exercise when, one Monday morning, a colleague pulled me aside and surreptitiously whispered in my ear, “I know where you went to church yesterday.”
I tried to quit, but I couldn’t. I found that, if I didn’t, on a weekly basis, eat a wafer and sip some wine that had been consecrated as the body and blood of Christ, I suffered something akin to withdrawal. Sometimes at night, I would be startled awake by the image of a priest uttering the phrase, “The Lord be with you.” More than once I found myself uncontrollably responding, “And also with you.” One particular night, I remember it well, I slumped back against my pillow and heard myself saying, “That’s it. I’m liturgical. The best thing to do is just admit it and take the consequences.”
From that moment it was only a short time until I had to make a clean breast of my obsession. I was warned that, if I couldn’t control my attraction to the liturgical tradition, I might lose my job. I was told that, if I couldn’t curb this consuming desire to kneel when I pray and make the sign of the cross, I would lose my credibility among those who had once engaged me for preaching and teaching missions. “Don’t you care that you are making yourself unemployable?” they asked, plaintively.
And they were right. I did lose my job. Invitations to preach in Bible conferences and to teach in local Bible institutes dried up. My phone stopped ringing, and my email inbox gathered dust.
I cried out to God, “Why is this happening? I’m still an orthodox, evangelical Christian. I’m still committed to the Anabaptist distinctives of radical discipleship and biblical nonresistance. I still believe in the importance of spiritual formation and the power of the Holy Spirit in the lives of believers.”
“That may be true,” I seemed to hear God say in reply. “But can you really expect people to invite you to preach to them or to teach their young people if you are constantly using words like ‘eucharist’ and ‘absolution,’ and if you call your pastor “Father” and your bishop “Your Grace”?
And so, I have had to learn to live with the ignominy that has accompanied my public confession of a compulsion to liturgy. It is the cross I must bear, and as an unrepentant Anabaptist, I know a little about cross-bearing discipleship.
Pray for me. I’m trying to find my way within the community of other liturgy addicts, but it’s not easy. Every Sunday I feel the eyes of the congregation on me, as the people think, “Does he really mean it when he prays the Lord’s Prayer, or is he just saying the words?”
It’s getting easier, though. Little by little, I am finding individuals and groups who are at least willing to hear me out. More and more people are listening to my story with interest, and some are even telling me that their experience is similar to mine. And so, maybe I will eventually feel at home in this new communion where so many are heretics just like me.
I don’t think I ever met Gene Herr, although our paths may have crossed many years ago, before I knew who he was and when I was even more of a nobody than I am now. Gene was a Mennonite, born and raised, who became a Roman Catholic in 2005 when he was in his seventies. Perhaps that sentence alone is enough to tell you why he is a hero of mine.
My wife assures me that I first learned of Gene Herr sometime in the late ’80s or ’90s, while he and his wife were living in Michigan where they had founded a ministry called The Hermitage. Located on 50+ wooded acres, The Hermitage was (and still is) a place for spiritual retreat and formation. When I included a description of the St. Patrick Center in the ministry prospectus which I wrote a year ago, The Hermitage was one of several similar endeavors which provided inspiration and a model for that vision.
Gene Herr died on January 1 this year, although I did not learn of his passing until today. The June issue of The Mennonite, the monthly organ of Mennonite Church USA, published a major article which assessed the impact of his life and ministry. Gene Herr actually was what I have aspired to be—a sacramental and liturgical Anabaptist.
The only personal contact I ever had with Gene Herr came about nearly two years ago, in August 2010. I had written a letter to the editor of the Mennonite Weekly (now World) Review. Gene read my letter and sent me a handwritten note of encouragement in response.
Here is part of what I wrote in that letter—
I joined the Mennonite Church in 1982 and for 26 years served in a variety of ministry roles, including 8 years as a pastor and 14 years as a teacher in a Mennonite Bible college not affiliated with MCUSA. While teaching there, I came to appreciate the beauty and richness of liturgical worship. Since I was unable to find a Mennonite congregation in that area which shared my convictions, I began attending an Anglican church, but I never abandoned or compromised my nonresistance convictions nor my commitment to kingdom living and radical discipleship. Still, because I no longer attended a Mennonite church, my teaching contract was terminated in 2008.
I am now preparing for Holy Orders in the Anglican Church in North America, not so much because I have uncritically embraced Anglicanism but because there seems to be more room for my Anabaptist convictions in the Anglican communion than for my liturgical sensibilities in Anabaptism. I am less an Anglican than a liturgical Anabaptist.
Here is part of what he wrote in response—
My wife and I had a retreat place in southern Michigan. We began with strong Mennonite support with a goal of working at a spirituality to make possible what we have as a call to peace and justice. Our work became wonderfully ecumenical. …
In ’05, the 50th year of my ordination (as a Mennonite minister) at Scottdale, PA, I became a Roman Catholic. … I identify with your struggle and quest for a home. … Blessings to you as you live and serve between the traditions. I have many (Mennonite) friends and still am able to do some teaching in Mennonite settings.
And then, this from the article in The Mennonite, which I mentioned above—
In response to God’s call,… Gene, a lifelong Mennonite, was received into the Catholic Church (in 2005).
This step wasn’t a rejection of his Mennonite roots but the fulfillment of a lifelong faith as an Anabaptist, says Ivan Kauffman, who with Gene and others helped develop Bridgefolk, a movement of sacramentally minded Mennonites and peace-minded Roman Catholics who come together to celebrate each other’s traditions, explore each other’s practices and honor each other’s contribution to the mission of Christ’s church.
“Gene did not turn his back on his Mennonite heritage or on the Mennonite church,” Kauffman says. “He continued to serve the Mennonite community in various ways to the end of his life. What he did do was find ways to make the riches of the pre-Reformation spiritual tradition, out of which the 16th-century Anabaptist movement emerged, available to 20th-century Mennonites.
“He and … Mary did so in ways that were helpful to hundreds of other Mennonites. In the end, however, Gene came to believe he should not just borrow from the Catholic tradition [but] become a full participant in it.”
Gene testifies to this perspective in an essay he wrote: “I am a Roman Catholic not because I have a file folder full of arguments to prove this is superior to all other ecclesial groups but because this is a way of living into a tradition that connects me to God’s people in a fullness of faith, hope and love across millennia.”
That is very similar to the testimony I could give regarding my own pilgrimage from Anabaptism to the liturgical tradition of Anglicanism.
I did not grow up in Anabaptism, as Gene Herr did. And for nine years I was the face and voice of a group called Evangelical Anabaptist Fellowship, which pointed out areas within contemporary Anabaptism (especially MCUSA) where we saw evidence of “doctrinal erosion” and a slipping away from the orthodox heritage of historical Anabaptism. For both of those reasons, my transition from Anabaptism to Anglicanism resulted in greater alienation between me and my former associates within MCUSA than was true of Gene Herr in his relationship with Mennonites after his conversion to Catholicism.
Still, even in his case, as the article in The Mennonite observes—
As (Gene and his wife, Mary) pursued their visionary calling, the wider church did not always understand or affirm the new territories they explored. Eventually, however, many pastors across the church came to appreciate the pastoral nurture they received from the couple at The Hermitage…
I was not fortunate enough to have benefited from the kind of face-to-face mentoring and spiritual support from Gene Herr which so many others experienced, but I was enriched and encouraged by my limited contact. That brief encounter was enough to let me know that, in Gene Herr, I had found a “kindred spirit.”
I have no idea what, if anything, will develop, in my case, as far as a significant ministry among Anglicans is concerned. So far, the landscape looks fairly bleak in that regard. But it may very well be that, through this blog and in other ways, I can still share with my friends and acquaintances in Anabaptism the reality which I have experienced through my encounter with liturgical Anglicanism.
I am not out to make Anglican converts of Anabaptists. In all of my life and ministry, my goal is to encourage believers to take seriously the call of Christ to be faithful citizens of His Kingdom. The rich heritage of the liturgical tradition has been a great help to me in my personal pursuit of that goal. Gene Herr was an encouragement sent to me from God, and one of these days I will be able to tell him that in person.
RIP, Gene Herr.
I’ve often wondered why I so much like to watch cooking shows on television. It’s not just because I like to eat. I mean, I like to travel, but I find most travelogue programs mind-numbingly dull. I love to read, but I find most programs on which authors are interviewed to be about as exciting watching paint dry.
Well, in the past couple of weeks, I believe I have gained some insight into my fascination with chefs and cooking techniques. It came through a story told by one of America’s great preachers, Will Willimon, the former Dean of the Chapel at Duke and now a United Methodist Bishop in Alabama.
He was writing about the first time he was asked to teach a seminary class on the significance of Communion. As part of his preparation, he sought the counsel of an older colleague who told him that, if he wanted to fully appreciate the value of Communion, he should learn to cook.
Willimon must have looked perplexed, so the older man went on. “You will never understand the meaning and value of Communion until you learn to prepare a meal and then take pleasure in the joy of those who have been satisfied by what you have prepared.”
That story reminded me of something one of my own Bible college professors once told me.
“When you’re preparing to preach, think of yourself as a cook or a chef in a well-equipped kitchen with a well-stocked larder. You have the best ingredients, the best utensils. Now get to work, and fix something good.”
The connection between preaching (or teaching) and food preparation comes right out of the New Testament. Remember the exchange between Jesus and Peter, up in Galilee, following the Resurrection, recorded in John 21.
When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” (Peter) said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” (Jesus) said to him, “Feed my lambs… (Be a shepherd to) my sheep… Feed my sheep. ”
Later Peter, in chapter two of his first letter to some early believers would describe fundamental Christian truth in these terms:
2 Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation— 3 if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good.
As important as “spiritual milk” is, it’s not an adequate diet for growing Christians. Paul wrote, for example, in his first letter to the Corinthians…
3:1 But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. 2 I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready.
And the author of Hebrews wrote, in chapter 5…
12 For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, 13 for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. 14 But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.
It should be clear, then, that the New Testament intends for us to think of the process by which we acquire the spiritual nourishment which enables us to “grow in grace…” and to progress toward maturity, as eating. And the means by which preachers and teachers (pastors and shepherds) contribute to that process, through their public ministry of scriptural exposition, the New Testament calls feeding.
To make this image even more graphic, and to etch its importance even more deeply into our thought patterns as believers, Jesus, on the night that He was betrayed, as He ate a final Passover meal with His disciples, took bread; and after He had blessed it, He broke it and gave it to them and said, “Take… eat… this is my body which is broken for you. As often as you eat it, remember me.”
The most sacred religious observance which it is possible for us, as Christians, to participate in—the Eucharist, Holy Communion—was instituted by our Lord around a dinner table. Why, we even refer to it, sometimes, as “The Lord’s Supper.” The elements which Jesus identified as representative of His body and blood were the bread and the wine which, only moments before, had been items on the evening’s dinner menu.
And it seems clear that Jesus did not intend for the bread and wine, consumed as part of the Communion observance, to be mere symbols which call to mind what they stand for. He could have accomplished that by sanctifying some object which could be put on display, constantly reminding us of the spiritual reality behind the symbol.
Instead, Jesus sanctified—that is, set apart and made holy—both the elements (bread and wine) and the means by which their significance is made real to us (take… eat… drink).
We Anglicans believe that, when Jesus established the Communion meal as an ongoing observance which the Church is to practice until Christ returns, He filled it full of meaning and substance. Not only do the broken bread and the wine represent the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. They also remind us of the constant need for spiritual nourishment through the milk and meat of the Word. But even beyond that, these elements, in some indefinable but nonetheless real way, actually feed our spirits and nourish our souls. That’s why Communion is a part of our service of worship at least once a week.