What's Really Important?  

Posted by Joe Rawls

Around this time of year many Episcopal parishes, my own included, are having their annual meetings. Vestries are elected, budgets are adopted, committee reports are submitted. There is a great and probably unavoidable preoccupation with numbers--average Sunday attendance, baptisms, the size of the budget (and whether it is bigger or smaller than last year's).

Weighing in with a different view on this whole process is Fr Michael Marsh, the rector of St Philip's Episcopal church in Uvalde, Texas. In this post on his always-interesting blog Interrupting the Silence, he argues that, while numbers are not trivial, they must take second place to the community's spiritual growth.


...The business model of profit and loss has in many ways infiltrated the church...Sometimes the gospel truth is spoken softly, if at all, to avoid angering parishioners and losing attendance or pledges. The reality is, numbers matter. While most priests and bishops would probably agree that numbers do not tell the complete story, the underlying and often unspoken assumption is that the larger the numbers, the more successful the ministry. The numbers may be growing but are the people growing? Isn't that the real question? Perhaps we should be asking what theosis, union with Christ, looks like in the parish and how is it manifested in the lives of our parishioners? ...Simple numerical analysis of Sunday attendance and giving, though significant, is not the ultimate indicator of growth. The critical question is not how much money was collected or how many people showed up, but rather, how effectively did we transform and effect lives...Such evidence might be found in asking the following:

  • How is your life of prayer? What is it like today? How has it changed over the last year, five years?
  • What is your participation in the sacraments and worship, both quantitatively and qualitatively? Is your experience different now than it was three years ago? How?
  • Describe your study of scripture, theology, spirituality. What are you reading? What are you learning?...
  • How are you involved in outreach and social justice ministries? How has this changed? Where and how is compassion being expressed and manifested?...
  • Where in your life is reconciliation taking place?

Baptism and Kenosis  

Posted by Joe Rawls in ,

The Baptism of Jesus, which is liturgically commemorated today in the Western churches, can be interpreted in several ways: as a theophany, or manifestation of God (and a fully Trinitarian manifestation at that); as Jesus' institution of the sacrament of Baptism; as Jesus setting a good example for his followers; as proof that Jesus started out as a disciple of John the Baptist (this latter sometimes gets overblown by liberal theologians).

Another interpretation of the baptism is that it was an act of divine kenosis, or self-emptying. Fr Mariusz Majewski, a Roman Catholic priest serving in the diocese of Boise, Idaho, takes this tack in a post on his blog Talks about God.

Kenosis is the general idea that God accepts some limitations on his divine powers and attributes in order to more fully unite in love with his creation. It is a recurring theme in Anglican theology, closely linked to interpretations of the incarnation of God in Jesus, his resurrection from the dead, and his atonement for sin.


In the mystery of the Incarnation, of God becoming flesh, one of us in all things but sin, we touch and experience the very mystery of God. St Paul, speaking about that in his letter to the Philippians, says that Jesus "though he was in the form of God, he did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness...he humbled himself (Philippians 2:6-8). God's humility...Paul speaks here of the "kenosis" of God, of the humbling of God, who for our sake was willing to come down to our dirt, to become flesh in order to save us from the power of death. In another place St Paul says that Christ became "sin" for us. God comes down in Jesus Christ and lowers himself to the point of accepting our human nature in order to heal it.

...The first public deed of Jesus' ministry is not some magnificent deed, some miraculous deed, but a simple baptism! Jesus does that in order to show us that his mission was to take upon himself all of our sins in order to save us from them.

This is precisely the irony, the surprise of the story--that the first move, the first public deed of the sinless Son of God is to stand shoulder to shoulder with us who are sinners. This is the core of the revolutionary message of Christianity--that God comes down to us to be with us, that God is Emmanuel. God, the creator of heaven and earth, the supreme God, the most holy God, the powerful deity, is a God of love, a God who is interested in the lot of his creatures, a God who is willing to go to the extreme in order to save what he had created.

The Baptism of Jesus is the very first act of the drama of Jesus' public ministry. The drama that will end with the Pascal Mystery--the death and resurrection of Jesus. It is indeed surprising because God is surprising. It is indeed shocking, but isn't the Incarnation shocking as well? Isn't Jesus on the cross shocking? God identifies with us so much that he "appears" among us as a sinner in the person of Jesus. The Sinless One takes upon himself human sin. If this isn't shocking, I don't know what is!

Mystical Tofu  

Posted by Joe Rawls

A highly recommended overview of mysticism is Carl McColman's The Big Book of Christian Mysticism (Hampton Roads Publishing Co, 2010), which will benefit both spiritual novices and folks with a more deeply established contemplative practice. One of many gems is his comparison of mysticism to tofu. Tofu absorbs the flavor of whatever is cooked with it; by itself it is quite bland and uninteresting. So we really never have "pure" mysticism, but mysticism flavored by whatever religious tradition happens to be nurturing it. This is a good corrective to the hackneyed--and thoroughly erroneous--notion of "spiritual but not religious".

The excerpt is found on pp 60-61 of the book. Also recommended is McColman's site Anamchara which is blogrolled on this site.


Mysticism is, in fact, like tofu. When you cook with tofu, it has a fascinating tendency to adopt the flavor of whatever you cook with it. Scrambled tofu, tofu curry, even barbecued tofu (yes, I'm from the South) all taste more like scrambled eggs or curry or barbecue than like tofu. Likewise, mysticism thoroughly and completely adopts the flavor and identity of whatever wisdom tradition it inhabits. Thus, Christian mysticism has an entirely different cultural and religious identity from, say, Vedanta or Zen.

Granted, tofu is tofu, regardless of the recipe you use it in. Mysticism is mysticism, regardless of the religious or cultural context. So in that sense, there really is an important unity of mystical wisdom that crosses religious boundaries. But if you've ever eaten plain, uncooked tofu, you'll notice that it is rather bland. If tofu's strength lies in its ability to adapt to whatever is it's cooked in, its weakness lies in its lack of defining taste or texture of its own. Likewise, a "pure" mysticism might sound nice in theory--an experience of unity or ecstasy, unencumbered by religious dogma--but in practice, the beauty of mysticism rests in how it manifests unity in a distinct, particular way.

So Christian mysticism is more than just pure mysticism with a little bit of Jesus mixed in. It is actually a unique, distinctive, and beautiful expression of God's love and truth. Conservative Christians believe it is the only expression of such truth, and even more liberal Christians might insist that they think it is the best possible way to God. But even if you do not see Christianity as any better (or worse) than any other wisdom tradition, I hope you'll recognize that Christian mysticism cannot just be reduced to other kinds of mysticism. There are important ways in which the Christian mystery is unique among world religions.

This is why any serious exploration of of Christian mysticism has to look at the nuts and bolts of the Christian religion in order to do justice to the topic. Indeed, immersing yourself in the world of Christian mysticism means something far beyond just learning to meditate: Christian mysticism explores meditation through a relationship with the Holy Trinity. This doesn't mean that it is all about thinking Christian thoughts, however. Rather, it means exploring a way of life that is shaped by the love and wisdom of Christ and Christ's followers, who Christian mystics understand to be literally part of Christ.

Take the Trinity and the Incarnation, for example--central teachings of Christianity that remain mysteries, which means they transcend and defy logical comprehension. No one can truly explore the splendor of Christian mysticism without embracing these great Christian mysteries. There's no way to avoid it. The mystery of a God who became flesh, or of a God whose very nature consists of loving relationships, is at the heart of what is distinctive about the Christian path.