My Book on the Atonement

CoverThe Christian doctrine of Atonement has long been a theological preoccupation of mine, which may seem strange since I didn’t come out of an Evangelical background, where this is a central concern.

I was blessed to have sabbaticals from the pastorate at three iconic British universities, Oxford, St Andrews, and Cambridge, where I read and wrote about this subject.

Out of those experiences came a number of journal articles and this book of essays. I have been heavily influenced by the thought of the British theologian P.T. Forsyth, and many of the chapters in this book focus on his theology.

The book was published in 2000 by Pickwick Press, which later became part of Wipf and Stock Publishers, who re-issued the book in 201o, for which I am grateful.  It is a humble little book that traces my attempt to come to grips with this vexing doctrine. It has an extraordinary foreword  by the estimable Gabriel Fackre, which I think alone makes the book worth having.

Wipf and Stock is currently having a 40% off sale until May 1, so if you are interested in obtaining this book, now is the time. You can go to the link here.

Norwood Days: We All have to Start Out Somewhere

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe all have to start out somewhere.

I was reminded of that today when a friend sent me a funny clip about church from Saturday Night Live and I immediately recognized that it had been filmed at the little church I grew up in.

I had seen rumblings about this on the Norwood Facebook page, that there had been a film crew at the Church of The Holy Communion, a beautiful Episcopal church in Norwood, a small town in Bergen County, NJ.

Both my parents were raised in Congregational churches (and my Mom was for a time a Methodist), but when my Mom beat the dust of the Midwest off her heels and moved to New York City she became an Episcopalian. Both my parents were, for a time, librarians at General Theological Seminary, an Episcopal school in the Chelsea section of Manhattan.

They lived on the Upper West Side when I was born, which is how I came to be baptized at the Cathedral of St John the Divine, which if you’re keeping track of things like this, is the world’s largest Gothic cathedral.

Before I started school we moved to Closter, New Jersey, a little town in Bergen County across the George Washington Bridge from Manhattan. My Dad was a commuter at the time, working downtown as the photo and caption editor for the Religious News Service, the public relations arm of the old National Conference of Christians and Jews.

While in Closter we attended the little church in Norwood, where my brother Bill was baptized, a very early memory of mine. My father, never baptized, was then a grumpy agnostic, and from him I learned to take both faith and doubt very seriously. My mother was devout and active in the church.

We moved to Norwood when I was in fifth grade, and then were within walking distance of our church.

I am sure there was sin, gossip, and the sundry pettiness that plagues every congregation of humans, but I felt loved and accepted there, and the fact that I ultimately became a Christian minister speaks well of their care and nurture for and of me.

The rector was a gentle, ancient man, Mr. (always “Mr.” as he was low church) John Foster Savidge. He had an odd way of speaking that I assumed was some kind of special ecclesiastical patois. Only years later did my Dad tell me he had CP and a resulting speech impediment. He was very kind to me, and one time when I was about 11 he came to call and neither of my parents were home. He treated me with great respect and dignity, and told me about his trips to England. Years later I had my own times living in Oxford and Cambridge.

His successor was The Reverend Robert Maitland, who was ironically more blue collar but also more high church and always “Father” Maitland.

It was under his care that I was confirmed. He was a very down-to-earth guy, much a contrast from the patrician Mr. Savidge.

When I was in high school my mother was diagnosed with colon cancer. In those days cancer was an unmentionable and few adults talked to me about the prospect of her impending death. One was my beloved basketball coach, John Shine, and the other was Father Bob Maitland. He took me to lunch at the Red Coach Inn (any Bergen County folks remember that?). He showed me what a minister could be.

My Mom did die during my first weeks at college at the age of 53. Fr. Maitland presided at the service at the Church of the Holy Communion, to a packed house as only those who die too young can bring out. I was having none of this God who snatched away the most important person in my life.

But years later after a long and arduous faith pilgrimage (which is another story for another day) I came back to the church and to a calling as a minister, although in a different franchise.

So the Church of the Holy Communion remains one of my landmarks, a holy place. And since I always (usually) love SNL the confluence of these two made my day.

The little clip was a trip down memory lane. I took voice lessons from the organist, Walter Witherspoon, and saw the organ near where I stood for my first recital. I saw the lovely stained-glass windows. I wrote recently about the window dedicated to a  Sunday School classmate of mine who died in a sledding accident when I was in the second grade.

It has been years since I have been back there, but I thank God for the place and the people, mostly now in the church triumphant, that were there in my growing-up days.

Remembering C. S. Lewis

C.S. LewisC. S. Lewis died on this day in 1963, the same day President John F. Kennedy was shot. Aldous Huxley also died on that day.

Lewis was a mainstay of our house. We read The Chronicles of Narnia to our children, enjoyed The Space Trilogy, and were edified by Lewis’s everyman Mere Christianity which was always engaging, even when his amateur theologian status was showing.

It is ironic that this curmudgeonly linguist who loved his whisky has become such an icon to contemporary Evangelicalism in America. It is true that Lewis was a critic of “Big Science,” but he was not a “no-nothing” and would be horrified by some of the positions on science some of his admirers advocate.

Still, his admirers get it right that he was a thoughtful and clever Christian apologist. I read a recent interview with Margaret Atwood who defended the Narnia books against their critics. She said that if you overlook the misogyny and preachiness they are rather good. And it would be unfair to use 21st Century sensibilities to discredit his work as if he were not a man of his time.

Much of his writing seems dated, but he is still eminently quotable. Here’s one of my favorites:

”A man can no more diminish God’s glory by refusing to worship Him than a lunatic can put out the sun by scribbling the word ‘darkness’ on the walls of his cell.”

Gerard Manley Hopkins: Poet of A Vast Incarnation

British poet and Jesuit priest Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889) is once again a subject of interest, prompted by the recent full-dress and somewhat controversial biography by Paul Mariani (Gerard Manley Hopkins: A Life, Viking 2008).

Hopkins is one of my favorites. When I was at Oxford in 1989 there was a display of his original poems and notes for poems at Christchurch College where I was taking a lecture. I loved to go and look at these strange and wondrous scribblings with Hopkins’ own unique pointing and punctuation. Hopkins’ verse often discerns the grandeur of God in the commonplace. Here is one of my (many) favorites:

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundly wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves—goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying What I do is for me: for that I came.
I say more: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: that keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is—
Christ. For Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

Where I Ruminate on My Experience of the British National Health Service

One of the many inflammatory charges that frequently gets tossed into the current health care reform conversation is how bad nationalized health care systems are.

I have recently read an interview with David Sedaris (very funny, of course) about having kidney stone attacks in New York and Paris and comparing the two experiences (and costs.) And author Sara Paretsky, creator of fictional detective V.I. Warshawski, had a piece in the New York Times Magazine about taking her husband to the emergency room in France with chest pains. Both Sedaris and Paretsky agree that the French hospital experience is bureaucratic, but also effective, and above all, cheap.

“I can’t speak to the subject, since I have always been healthy when in France (I suspect it’s all the wine and cheese), but I have been ill while in Britain, and have first-hand (although somewhat dated) experience with the British National Health Service

My family and I have lived in Britain for extended periods of time on three occasions during sabbaticals. My first one was in Oxford, and my children were almost 5 and almost 7 when we got there. Our doctor was Dr. Shakespeare (I’m not making this up) in Summertown, and he ran a clean efficient surgery that adequately took care of our medical needs for the months we were there. Medications, such as antibiotics for a child’s earache, came from the neighborhood chemist. Both the visit and the prescriptions were free, thanks to the NHS. We were resident aliens, but we received care with no questions asked. Sometimes we had to wait, a situation not unknown in America.

On one of the children’s mid-term holidays, we left Oxford and traveled, along with Martha’s sister Andrea, to the Cornwall coast. We stayed in the charming fishing village of Mousehole (pronounced Mowz-uhl) at a guesthouse called “The Lobster Pot.”

I awoke one morning with a sore throat and a slight temperature. We were slated to go down the coast to see St. Michaels Mount, a part-time island with a picturesque priory on it that sits just off the coast in the English Channel. I decide to tough it out, but inquired from our host where I might get medical care if I needed it. She told me that there was a medical group in the village of Marazion, on the mainland, just across from the island.

By the time we got to Marazion I was feeling pretty feverish, so I had Martha drop me off at the medical group while the rest of the party went to see the island. I waited for about a half hour for my turn to go to the window. The friendly receptionist asked me my address, and I explained that I lived in Oxford, but was on holiday in Cornwall. “Where are you staying?” she inquired. I told her I was at “The Lobster Pot” in Mousehole, and she said, “Then you must go to Penzance for care, you are not in our district.” I don’t know if it was the fever or the reference to Penzance, but the conversation did seem to have a Gilbert and Sullivan feel about it.

So, having been denied, I left and walked across the causeway to the Island (you can only do this at low tide) found my family, and spent several hours huddled on a stone bench in a shady spot burning with fever. In due time we found the doctor’s office in Penzance, waited a reasonable amount of time, and I saw the doctor, who, now that I think about, it looked a lot like Hugh Laurie, the British actor who plays Dr. House, in the TV show “House”.He asked me where I was from, and I told him Oxford. “Ah,” he said, “the city of dreaming spires.” He looked in my ears and throat, listened to my chest, took my temperature and sent me to the chemist next door to get some antibiotics, which did the trick in a day or two. All at no cost.

So I draw no big conclusions from my tale except to say I always felt welcome as a visitor in Britain, and it always felt like the right thing to do to provide health care for everybody.I’ll let the experts work out the details, but I am really hoping we can do that here.