Creeds are not Chex Mix. (Creeds for Newbies, Episode 4)

250px-Chex-Mix-Pile

Snark Meter Sorta Snarky.002

When asked what I think of the trendy rewriting of creeds in progressive liturgical churches, I usually respond in the words of imminent theologian Ron Burgundy: “That’s just dumb.”

Creeds are not Chex Mix. You know, the party snack that you pick through taking out the morsels you like. But we don’t high-grade out what we like of God and leave the rest in the bowl. A Luby’s Cafeteria may make for a nice all-you-can-eat Sunday afternoon lunch, but picking and choosing a faith of our own creation is narcissistic and foolish. Not to mention a risky way to live one’s life. The old joke, “God created us in his image and we returned the favor,” comes to mind.

The creeds were written by the early and undivided church as summaries of the faith. They have been vetted by universal acceptance of the entire church, both through time and across geography. When Vincent of Lerins wrote in the 500’s,  “What has been believed everywhere, always, and by all,” he was referring to the faith bounded by the Nicene Creed. The impulse to re-write the creed to make it more relevant is, at best, misguided. The creed is not ours to futz with. (By the way, someone rewriting a creed is almost certainly a baby boomer.) Seriously, stop rewriting creeds.

Passing the Baton

For I handed on to you as of first importance what I received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures …” (I Cor 15:3-4)

Our role is to explain not to change “the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints.” (Jude 3) The creed is the universal. Beyond that is adiaphora (things indifferent) – perhaps helpful. Perhaps important. Just not mandatory for recognizing a “like” faith. So we do not change the core. We pass it on, handing the baton of faith to the next generation.

Passing the Baton

When it comes to the substance of the faith, there are two extremes: Fundamentalism and Universalism. Fundamentalism elevates the “you may” to “you must”—tithing, homeschooling, a particular theory of the atonement, etc. Fundamentalism raises the bar making options essential. The opposite is Universalism. Universalism drops the essentials making them optional. Universalism lowers the bar and says, in effect, “There is nothing you must believe.” Universalism leaves us with such a low bar to the faith that few see any reason to join. This is why we don’t “edit” universal truth. Fundamentalism hands the next runner an anvil to run with. Universalism gives them an empty hand-off. We receive and pass on, “the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints.

The Great Tradition

Seventeenth century Archbishop Lancelot Andrewes explained “tradition” as “one canon (the Scriptures), two testaments, three creeds, and four councils, over the first five centuries.” The three creeds prioritize Christian beliefs. As Rupert Meldinius said in 1627, “In essentials unity, in non-essentials diversity, in all things charity.” Creeds keep the main thing the main thing.

The creeds articulate God as trinity, an idea that is impossible to get one’s mind wrapped around – which doesn’t mean that it isn’t true. In fact, anyone who can contain the infinite God of the universe between their ears really needs to find themselves a bigger God.

Creeds are our wedding vows 

11584032-black-and-white-photo-of-a-groom-slipping-a-gold-wedding-band-on-a-bridea-s-finger-during-the-weddin

Creeds are not about warm-fuzzies or even felt convictions. They are the substance of the faith the church has stood upon since soon after Jesus left. They are like marriage vows-so much so that they form the substance of the promises one makes in Holy Baptism. There is a reason we take marriage vows – It is because human love is fickle. We imagine that love sustains commitment, but actually it is just the opposite. It takes great commitment to sustain love. A couple makes vows and clings to them through thick and thin…and, at the end of life, a thing of loving beauty has been produced. The historic creeds work the same way. The Nicene Creed proclaimed in church is a promise to cling to the glory and vastness of God, even when the pressures of life scream to give up. When said in church, by the community of faith, the Nicene Creed is a weekly prayed promise to act in love toward God. It is our spiritual, “for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love, cherish, and to obey, till death us do part.”

Creeds answer the question, “What must we believe?” We answer,  “We believe in one God, the father, the almighty…”  

Advertisements

Scales and Playgrounds: Why you need the Creed (Creeds for Newbies, Episode 2)

Featured Image -- 3527

Snark Meter Sorta Snarky.002

Creeds over Confessions

Last week one more friend, one with a graduate degree in theology proudly said, “I don’t say creeds. I’m non-creedal.” This friend is both orthodox and devout in his Christian faith, yet he says, “I don’t want to be bound by statements that limit the faith.” Like so many, he is confusing “creedal” with “confessional.”

A Big, Big Playground

Creeds are not about limiting the faith, but rather about pushing the faith’s boundaries out to their widest possible limit. A creed is about how little one can believe and still be recognizably “Christian.” Creeds give the edges of what C. S. Lewis referred to as “Mere Christianity.” Confessions, which came later, do exactly the opposite. Confessions attempt to narrow the conversation from “how little can one believe” to “how much should one believe.” If beliefs are a dartboard, a creed is the outermost circle. “You hit the target, way to go!” A confession is the bull’s eye.

Belief as a bull’s eye is, of course, my friend’s real issue: Whose bull’s eye, whose confession are we to use? Augsburg? Belgic? Heldelberg? Helvetic? Thirty-nine Articles? Baptist? Westminster? …And those are just the ones written between 1430 and 1630! A creed is a fenced playground, but a creed represents the largest playground possible. A confession is the kindergarten play ground – very small and safe. The Nicene Creed is the high school ballfields – a square half mile. If you can’t find room to play at the high school, you really just don’t want to be there.

We Fear Creeds

Creeds have been ignored by evangelicals and progressives alike. Evangelicals busily moved past the creeds in a desire to be culturally relevant and a fear of the world creeping into the church – so evangelicals tightened the reigns with detailed, specific, narrow confessional boundaries. “Are you a Reformed, dispensational, pre-trib, pre-millennial regular Baptist?” “No! I am a Reformed, dispensational, mid-trib, pre-millennial regular Baptist.” “Oh. Sorry, we can’t be friends.” This resulted in “many protestants” – a now collapsing array of denominations.

At the same time liberals were also busy jettisoning historic creeds. For liberals though it was a desire to be theologically relevant and a fear that the world was creeping out of the church.

Scales Before Jazz

photocredit: ehow.com

photocredit: ehow.com

When my children suggested to their piano teacher that they learn popular songs, their piano teacher would patronizingly reply, “We learn scales before Jazz.” The reference was lost on my kids who had never heard Jazz. What they wanted to play was the theme to the after school cartoon, “Arthur.” But the teacher was right, if you know your scales you can play any musical. Creeds are the substance of the faith – The “scales” to teach to every child and newcomer. By definition, creeds are catholic (universal), confessions are sectarian genres. Everyone has a genre preference. But if one doesn’t know the basics, regardless of the genre, what we end up with is bad music.

Creeds unite us around the basic Christian story (the “who” and “why”) rather than the symbols of our tradition (the “how” and “what”). The symbols of our tradition are rich and powerful, but our traditional actions and symbols never stand alone. Their power is that they point to greater truths-the truths specifically expressed in the creeds. Confirmation programs, for example, lose power specifically when our teachers have forgotten to keep the main thing (salvation in Christ Jesus) the main thing. And one cannot master Jazz who has not first mastered their scales.

So Christian, don’t give up your creeds!

The Bible’s Lucky Decoder Ring: The Nicene Creed

We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen.

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father.

Through him all things were made.

For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man.

For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried.

On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures; he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.

He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son.

With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified.

He has spoken through the Prophets.

We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.

We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.

We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.

Unflattering Mirrors: Tag clouds reveal content…or lack thereof

mirror2Snark MeterrealMID.003

Tag Clouds make good Advent and Easter mirrors. Who knew?

Episcopalians, in our neck of the woods anyway, are a small and remarkably insulated bunch from the goings on in the wider Christian community. That was why I was surprised to be fielding questions from the outside world regarding a blog post that amounts to Episcopal insider baseball.

Father Robert Hendrickson, a bright light of a young priest working in a diocesan cathedral, recently made a tag cloud of our Presiding Bishop’s Christmas message. He compared the key words revealed by her cloud to those of Pope Francis’ recent Lumen Fideiand described her sermon as “bordering on gnosticism.” Last year he compared tag clouds of her Easter sermon to those of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Presiding Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, the Pope, and even Ricky Gervais’ atheist Easter message. Let’s just say that, from the tag clouds, even the atheist’s message appears to have significantly more Christian content. In cloud format our Presiding Bishop’s sermons appear to be long on insider lingo and social engagement and low on Jesus…that there just isn’t much “there” there.

Pointing out your national leader’s theological shortcomings is a gutsy move for an up-and-comer…a move that caused friends outside of the Episcopal Church to ask, “What’s that guy thinking? ” Would I have criticized our national leader’s sermons online? My strategy in criticizing sermons that I don’t appreciate has generally been the same strategy I use when my wife tries on something that just doesn’t work for her at the department store and asks,  ”Do you love this as much as I do?” I will pretend to have a conversation with a mannequin if necessary to maintain, “If you can’t say something nice.”

But Father Robert’s tag clouds, for all the conversation they are creating, illustrate much more than sermon content…

For one, they reveal a very odd concept for those not of our tradition to grasp: That Episcopalians, as a rule, crucify neither our orthodox nor our gnostics. Our Presiding Bishop will not, as my evangelical friends would like, be charged with violating Christian orthodoxy, nor will her critic’s career be harmed, as many of my progressive friends would like. The ability to stomach dissent, although under fire, is a historic and endearing quality of Episcopalians, a group theoretically not together on theology as much as on the agreement to pray the same words.

However, the theory that “we need not agree” has limitations. I am no fan of Confessional statements, but if there is no real creedal and quadrilateral agreement binding us together as Episcopalians, around what will we orbit when we write the prayers we will pray in unison? There is a core to the faith that makes us recognizably Christian. Or not.

Father Robert’s tag clouds also reflect a growing awareness that our missional strategy – the Episcopal church as “Christianity lite,” a doubt embracing, culturally accommodating, theologically easy onramp for those wanting to consider a practice-based rather than a propositional faith, has not worked very well…in many places we appear to have a creeping universalism that seems lumpy and out of date. Like a microfiber sofa, public doubts about core teachings (resurrection anyone?) and “all roads lead to God” do not make an attractive invitation to come check us out. Our Sunday attendance numbers since our last national leader was selected bear this out: 765,000-640,000 from 2006-2012.

Finally, in Father Robert’s tag clouds we see a hint of what is for me, a person who has spent his adult life working with people from 18-35, a seismic and positive generational shift: Young Episcopal clergy and bishops are both more progressive politically and more traditional theologically. And they are not content to sit on the sidelines and wait for the boomer generation with its (and I do believe this is missionally-motivated) theological fuzziness to get out of their way.

Out of curiosity I made a tag cloud of my sermon for this weekend. I preached out of Isaiah 35 as part of an Advent series, so I expected its references to Jesus to be lowish. Also, my purpose was to sneak up on the Christian message: That just as the Holy Spirit had dropped Isaiah 35 as seemingly a word out of place in the middle of Isaiah’s judgments on Israel, Jesus is God’s Word out of place, dropped into history where least expected. Still, my references to God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit, were minimal enough in the key words that it caused me to cringe like a glance in a mirror at a look that just doesn’t work. Missing too was any indication of our need for a savior. I tore the sermon up and went back to the drawing board.

Tag Cloud

It is not my first rodeo. I know that people come to church quietly desperate for help. If I, as the proclaimer, hold up a fun-house distortion of the Gospel…one that merely reflects back at people what I think they want to see, well, shame on me. I know that the hungry do not need the illusion that we are spiritually well-fed, when in truth we are starving for a Savior. If I fail to hold up a mirror of our deep brokenness and need and then bring the true comfort of the transforming Good News that the Creator of the universe loved us too much to leave us alone, then why bother? God entered our world, not just to demonstrate how to live, but to finally redeem us on Calvary and rise in victory. Christ returned to the Father to intercede on our behalf as his Spirit makes us a people and sends us to extend his Good News in word and deed. Less than the whole Gospel is an unhelpful diet, white bread for the soul. Looking into a mirror that distorts an emaciated spiritual reality may comfort for a while, but eventually hungry people will go somewhere else, some place a meal is served.

I have too many shortcomings as a preacher to criticize another’s sermons. For me, Father Robert’s tag clouds sent me scurrying back to the drawing board to craft a message that better reflects The Message…one that is clear on the reality that, as fourth century bishop, Athanasius wrote,  “It was our sorry case that caused the Word to come down, our transgression that called out His love for us, so that He made haste to help us and to appear among us. It is we who were the cause of His taking human form, and for our salvation that, in His great love, He was born in a human body.”     (On the Incarnation)