A Theological Self-Portrait

The following is my theological self-portrait.  This was completed for an assignment for REL 830 – Radical Lives of Proclamation with Dr. Donyelle McCray at Yale Divinity School Fall 2016.  Here are the parameters of the assignment (taken from the course syllabus): 

Theological Self-Portrait.  Consider the following questions:

1. Describe your spirituality.  What are your spiritual practices, if any?
2. Who is God and how is God known?
3. What are human beings and what are the aims of human life?

The questions are designed to probe your theological framework and provide a foundation for rich conversation in the course.  Provide your answers in 6 double-spaced pages of prose, drawing on poetry, scripture, or images for illustrative purposes if desired.  Plan to summarize your response for the class in 6-7 minutes. 

For my presentation, I decided to create a cartoon to outline my answers for the class.  The pages of the cartoon are included throughout this post. 

img_3956

I am an Anglican. This statement is not a half-hearted, I’ve-got-to-be-something-so-I-might-as-well-be-Anglican sort of statement.   I am an Anglican through and through to the very core of my being. As I reflect on my own theological portrait, I cannot help but answer these questions through Canterbury colored glassed.

It is incredibly common today; at least in the social locations I inhabit, to hear individuals describe themselves as “spiritual, but not religious.” These are two concepts that I believe do not have to be at odds with each other, and thus I would – using this moniker – identity as spiritual and religious. I consider myself a spiritual person, and the foundation of that spirituality was crafted by my religious heritage. This is best exemplified in the ways I live into this identity.

img_3958I pray, meditate, draw, participate in communities, and seek guidance from two different spiritual directors. These are practices that are often embraced by those that inhabit the “spiritual but not religious” world; but for me they are deeply rooted in religious practice. In my particular expression of these practices, they are grounded by the most important thing that Anglicans do – participate in and celebrate the Eucharist.

St. Augustine, in sermon 272, writes, “Become what you see, and receive what you are.”[1] In this sermon on the Eucharist, Augustine is encouraging those in his care to be transformed by the bread and wine, the Body and Blood of Christ. By gazing upon these sacred elements, by receiving them, the communicant is transformed, strengthened, and renewed to be the Body and Blood of Christ in the world. The bedrock of my personal experience and theology is the Eucharist. My religious experience is the embodiment of Augustine’s words. Through the regular reception of the Most Blessed Sacrament, I have been strengthened and transformed to be the Body and Blood of Christ in the world around me.

It is this transformation that my prayer life centers around. My personal prayer often begins with the question, “how am I being called to be Christ’s Body and Blood in the world?” I use cartooning as a way to debrief and reflect upon experiences and encounters I have had being and receiving the Body and Blood of Christ in the world around me. In spiritual direction I share, reflect, and wrestle with my vocation to the Priesthood and my call to equip those in my care to go out and be the Sacrament for the world. As I gather in community – here at Berkeley and my parish community – to pray the Daily Office and share in the Eucharist, I am witness to the brilliant and inspiring ways the children of God have been moved to act.

There is one phrase that permeates Anglican theology that encapsulates all of this for me. “Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi,” which colloquially translates to “as we pray, so we believe.” I also like to add Lex Vivendi, making the whole phrase, “as we pray, so we believe, so we live.” Through worship, through celebrations of the Holy Eucharist, we are transformed to believe that we are in fact the Body of Christ, and if we truly believe that we can no longer go on living the ways we always have – our lives must be transformed into action.

All of this is predicated on encountering God, and striving to be in better relationship with
God. But describing God, at least for me, is an incredibly difficult thing to do. First, I am instantly drawn to my love of Patristics and the Early Church. Who is God? God is three in one and one in three, “neither confounding the Persons, not dividing the Substance. For there is one Person of the Father, another of the Son, and another of the Holy Ghost. But the Godhead of the Father, or the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, is all one, the Glory equal, the Majesty co-eternal.” [2] But, I am probably one of only a handful of people that enjoys quoting the Creed of Saint Athanasius to describe who God is.   If I’m not into quoting an historical creed, I might try drawing a picture to how that the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God, but the Father is not the Son nor is the Father the Holy Spirit, the Son is not Holy Spirit nor is the Son the Father, likewise the Holy Spirit is not the Father nor is the Holy Spirit the Son. But that too seems to fail to capture the evangelistic imagination outside of a particular subset of people. So when patristic theology does not cut it, I turn to poetry.img_3959

It is no surprise to anyone who knows me that when I grow up I want to be George Herbert. His poetry is the first that comes to mind to describe God. In “The Call” Herbert writes, “Come, my Way, my Truth, my Life . . . Come, my Light, my Feast, my Strength . . . Come, my Joy, my Love, my Heart.”[3] Who is God? God is way, truth, life, light, feast, strength, joy, love, and heart. In “Love (III)” Herbert writes of God as the one who issues the most profound of invitations, “Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back . . . You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat: So I did sit and eat.”[4] Herbert’s poems have also been transformed into hymnody that continue to describe and pronounce who God is. David Charles Walker’s tune General Seminary comes alive when paired with Herbert’s words, “King of glory, King of peace.” While not a Herbert poem, I would be remiss if I did not draw to mind one of my favorite hymns. Henry Williams Baker’s paraphrase of Psalm 23 “The King of love my shepherd is.” Instead of creating and crafting new words for God, new answers to the question “Who is God,” I choose to add my voice to words well prayed and sung through the centuries.

Just as there are numerous and innumerable ways to describe God so are there innumerable ways to know and encounter God. We know God through fellowship with one another, through the gift of community, through love, restoration, and reconciliation. However, given my Sacramental Anglican leanings, the foremost way I know God is through the Eucharist. And, it is Luke that helps me illustration the importance of the Eucharist in knowing God.

Since I was in junior high school, I have been captured by the story of the Road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35). My first memory of hearing this story was when I was in middle school at a Roman Catholic junior/senior high school. I was working with the school chaplain to constitute a junior high campus ministry program to serve as a feeder into the robust high school campus ministry program (known as Acts 17). I will never forget hearing Brother Nelson, in his English accent, reading me this story slowly and deliberately. I found myself shocked that these two traveling on the road had no clue that this mysterious stranger was Jesus. As the story continued my shock turned to anger, until that anger turned to tears when Brother Nelson said, “When he [Jesus] was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him and he vanished from their sight” (Luke 24: 30-31, NRSV). My budding Sacramental nature was solidified in that moment as Jesus became known in the breaking of the bread.

“What is man that you should be mindful of him” (Psalm 8:5, BCP)? The nature of humanity is a complicated and messy thing going by the way it is lived into in the present day, and I do not think I believe this simply because I watch Criminal Minds a little too often. We are a sinful people, and have fallen short of the glory of God. However, that is not how we were created to be.

img_3961One of the gifts of being an Anglican is the Book of Common Prayer. One of the least explored parts of the Prayer Book is the Catechism. Luckily the Catechism provides, in a helpful Q and A format, the answers to life’s difficult questions. In the Catechism we read, “Q. What are we by nature? A. We are part of God’s creation, made in the image of God.”[5] But, “Q. What does it mean to be created in the image of God? A. It means that we are free to make choices: to love, to create, to reason, and to live in harmony with creation and with God.”[6] Human beings are the very image and likeness of God, created to do all the things that God does: love, create, reason, and live in harmony.

The phrase, “human beings are made in the image of God” is incredibly important to my understanding of the world. The phrase is not “human beings that look, think, and act like me are made in the image of God;” the phrase is not, “human beings that are not them are the image of God;” the phrase is “human beings are made in the image of God.” The image of God is only revealed when all of humanity is seen, valued, and heard. It is to this end that the mission of the Church takes shape.

Turning once again to the Catechism we discover the answer to the question of the mission of the Church: “Q. What is the mission of the Church? A. The mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.”[7] This is, as far as I am concerned, the aim of humanity: It is to recognize our fallen status, to acknowledge how those in positions of power and privilege have gained at the expense of others and how systems have been created with the purpose of keep particular groups of people disadvantaged, and to work tirelessly to shatter walls, ceilings, boundaries, and all that holds us captive and separates us from God and each other. The mission of the Church, the aim of humanity, will only be completed when all people as seen, honored, and loved as the beloved children of God that they are. The aim of humanity will be completed when all people gather together and experience that radical and transforming love of God. The mission of the Church will be completed when all people are able to break bread together as means of nourishing their body, mind, and soul; for as that bread breaks, the kingdom of God will break into our lives and transform the world.

[1] Elisabeth Beattie, “Behold What You Are; Become What You Receive.,” The Church of St Mary Magdalene, March 18, 2015, accessed September 07, 2016, http://www.stmarymagdalene.ca/behold-what-you-are/.

[2] The Book of Common Prayer and Administration of the Sacraments and Other Rites and Ceremonies of the Church According to the Use of The Episcopal Church (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979), 864.

[3] George Herbert, George Herbert: The Country Parson, The Temple, ed. John Wall N., Jr., The Classics of Western Spirituality (New York: Paulist Press, 1981), 281.

[4] Ibid., 316.

[5] The Book of Common Prayer, 845.

[6] Ibid., 845.

[7] Ibid., 855.

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