Friday, December 19, 2008

Slavery and justice

Last night on the radio program Marketplace, I heard a piece on slavery in Brazil. I was struck at the end of it how the labor inspector reflected on the reality he experiences and what God is like. As I prepare for this upcoming Sunday when I preach on the Annunciation, and sing the Magnificat, I am also struck that not a lot has changed and that we are still badly in need of God's redemption.

You can listen to the whole piece here.

"When God Makes an Announcement"

Another very good Advent devotion from Goshen College... the student today has a very nice reflection on the Annunciation.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

"Why do we have Christmas trees?"

An article from Christian History

It closes with the following:
As many of us make trees and gifts the center of our own Christmas practice, we would do well to remember that they are ultimately symbols of the One who gave himself to unite heaven and earth, and who brings all barren things to flower.

Justice and toys...

This little radar gun has become a symbol of justice for me. Sometime I get caught up in thinking of justice on grand scale, like things Lutheran World Relief or Lutheran Disaster Response does, and I don't think I am alone in that.

But there are a number of us on our street who are concerned about the traffic, both in terms of volume and speed. Our street is a "cut through" street, a street that connects two larger main roads. In order to cut off some distance from their overall commute, people drive through our residential neighborhood, which wouldn't really be a problem if it weren't for the bad apples. Speeds in excess of 40 m.p.h. and rolling through stop signs are the main problems... although there are more. The street itself is narrow. The sidewalk is only on one side of the street, which means that waiting for a break in traffic can take a while. I won't even go into how many folks are talking on their cell phones while zipping along. And at the end of the street sits a primary school, so this road is used by many to walk their kids to and from school, including me.

So a little over a week ago, I bought this little device above on ebay. Yesterday was the first time I got to use it. It was amazing to watch the reaction. One neighbor said I was better than a speed bump. Every car that was passing was hitting its brakes. This morning most of the cars were behaving themselves since the snow was slowing things down, but there were still cars going over 30 m.p.h. according to my little friend.

But I realized last night on a drive down the highway. I am engaged in the pursuit of justice. I am living into the promises I made at Confirmation and every time I have affirmed my baptism when I was asked:
Do you intend to continue in the covenant God made with you in Holy Baptism:to live among God's faithful people,to hear his Word and share in his supper,to proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed,to serve all people, following the example of our Lord Jesus,and to strive for justice and peace in all the earth?

I serve the people of my community by helping bring to light the problems that this traffic has caused, and I work for justice by helping the city construct a plan for safe pedestrian walkways, and traffic calming throughout residential neighborhoods.

How often do we miss the ways we all work for justice in the world?

Monday, December 15, 2008

Y'shua and Esperanza... devotions from Goshen

I stumbled across Advent devotions from Goshen College. I was very taken by today's... maybe it's because my wife and I contemplated deeply before naming our sons... what the names mean, the connection to our families... and Bethany, don't call her Beth, reflects on "Name Him Jesus."

Friday, December 12, 2008

Augustine and the Jews

Fascinating interview with Paula Fredriksen in Time regarding her new book on Augustine and the Jews.

One of the most intriguing quotes in the interview that makes me want to read the book:
Augustine, in the course of arguing for Christ's incarnation — this intimate relationship between divinity and humanity — explicitly parallels it to God's relationship with the Jews. He writes that Catholics and Jews stand as one community over against pagans and heretics, that Jesus and his apostles, including Paul, lived as Torah-observant Jews for the whole of their lives. And he urges that God himself would punish any king who tried to interfere with the Jews' practice of Judaism.
Given my reflection at Morgantown's last community observance of the Shoah, where I linked Jesus' Jewish identity in the midst of his Ascension, I am pleased to see a link between incarnation and the Jews as they relate to God.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Again... the Trinity

Following up with some more thoughts on the doctrine of the Trinity, I came across a passage from David Bentley Hart's The Beauty of the Infinite. Hart is an Orthodox theologian who understands Western Christianity incredibly well. He speaks wonderfully here of the West's (primarily the West's Protestant manifestations) misuse or ignorance of this doctrine.
In Mysterium Salutis Karl Rahner enunciates a simple formula that should be regarded as axiomatic for all mediatation upon the Christian doctrine of God: "The 'economic' trinity is the 'immanent' trinity and the 'immanent' trinity is the 'economic' trinity." The modern return of Western systematic theology to the doctrine of the Trinity--to many eyes, the most metaphysical of Chrsitian credenda--has been the result, in point of fact, of a renewed and earnest attention to the particularities of Christian history, the concrete details of the story of Christ and his church, and the scriptural understanding of how God has acted within history for the restoration of the created world. The pathology of liberal Protestant theology's dogmatic wasting disease--of which no symptom could be more acute that the reduction of the doctrine of the Trinity to an appendictic twinge at the end of Schleiermacher's The Christian Faith --was one of progressive and irrepressible abstraction, a moralization and spiritualization that made of Christ the unique bearer (as opposed to the unique content) of the Christian kerygma; and the theological rediscovery of the Trinity has come about precisely because the salvific significance of Christ's historical specificity has been to some considerable degree recovered from the confining prejudices of modern thought.... In the early centuries of Christian thought, the Trinity was gradually apprehended as the mystery truly revealed in God's saving action, and not as a metaphysical secret imparted mystically to the church; it was not until three centuries and more had elapsed, councils had been called, and doctrine had been defined that a text like Augustine's De Trinitate, in which the doctrine assumed the aspect of faith's object (as opposed to its explication), was possible: and while such a possibility, in one sense, was the result of a certain ecclesial liberation from the anxiety of dogmatic dispute, in another sense it was arguably the occasion for the inauguration of a certain pattern of theological forgetfulness. Not that there is anything to be deplored in Augustine's magnificent series of brilliant, intense, and theologically necessary theoretical allegorieson the doctrine of the Trinity, but it is also the case that to some eyes they are not always obviously wedded to a deeper consideration of the story of the atonement. And later theology (Eastern no less than Western) sometimes obeyed the logic of the divorce of the doctrine of God from the story of God's manifestation of himself in history--with occasionally dismal consequences. Trinitarian thought uninformed by the gospel narrative results, inevitably, in an impoverishment of both that thought and that narrative; hence the importance of the affirmation that the Trinity as economic or immanent is the one God as he truly is, whose every action is proper to and expressive of his divinity.

The Beauty of the Infinite, pp. 155-156

Monday, December 08, 2008

Trinity--the starting point

One of the central tenets of orthodox Christianity is the doctrine of the Trinity. Formally established in 325 at the Council of Nicea, this doctrine gives us the language of "persons" and "substance" while helping us understand this God that we worship. All too often unfortunately, Christianity has reduced our notion of the Triune God to a mere requirement so that Christianity can continue to claim a seat at the table of monotheism. Modern Christians get hung up on the three-in-one examples, offering those up for proof. But the ice-water-steam examples are not at all proof, nor are they authoritative. In the end, these examples most likely do more than good, by building up a false sense of what is really important with Christians, and seeming like complete idiocy to non-Christians.

The doctrine of the Trinity cannot remain as just a set of logical deductions that exist independent of the early Church's experience of Jesus. All of the three in one language becomes absurd without understanding that Jesus made this discussion necessary. When the early followers of Jesus see this human being claim the authority to forgive sins, as well as the mastery over the powers of nature and chaos, they begin to contemplate who exactly this is. When Jesus is crucified and resurrected, these followers must enter into the mystery of the divine relationship. Jesus addresses God as "Father" and in addition claims a unity with him that is blasphemous for many.

Some Christians reject the doctrine of the Trinity because they do not find it laid out anywhere in Scripture. If we were to take Scripture at face value... no, it's not. However, there are plenty of implicit openings for our considerations of the Trinity. Along with Jesus claiming unity with the Father, there is also the passages where God speaks as a plural subject--"Let us make humankind in our image..." There is the baptism of Jesus where the voice from heaven speaks, the spirit descends, all centered on Jesus.

Ultimately to speak of the Trinity, we too must center our gaze on Jesus. In our continued experience of Jesus coming to us, we are left to wonder about what this Incarnate deity says about the nature and character of God. Of course, this position is unhelpful if all we want is rational argumentation to prove that God exists. Plus, we are left with a real human being who comes and claims us. An abstract deity that exists as some sort of Godhead might actually make us feel better, but Jesus changes our focus.

In her book The Triune God of Christian Faith, Mary Ann Fatula writes:
We need to recognize first of all that our Christian faith in a triune God did not come to us as a result of logical deduction about an esoteric, abstract truth. On the contrary, our faith in a triune God is rooted in our concrete human history; first of all, in the paschal event--the human experience of Jesus in his life, death, resurrection, ascension, and pentecost; second, upon the Christian community's actual experience of the triune God in the past; and, finally, upon our own experience in the present. Our faith today, therefore, is not a matter of mere intellectual assent to the Trinity as if we were accepting the answer to a complicated math problem without understanding how the problem really works: "Yes, I believe that two plus two equals four, but in God's case, one equals three."

Tuesday, November 25, 2008


The local, non-chain theater in town, the Warner Theater, was evidently the only theater in town with enough guts to show Bill Maher's film Religulous. A couple men from the congregation I serve and I went to see the film the other night. I admit that I laughed openly at many scenes, because Maher was very good at bringing out the ludicrous side of religion. Irony is prevalent in heavy doses as Maher preches his gospel of disbelief...

And ultimately that is what he is doing... and he is free to do so, but I think his opening of the film leads us to think that he is on a quest of sorts to explore religion. The opening scene starts us at Megiddo, the site where Jesus is supposed to return (note: Armageddon is linguistically connected to Megiddo... transliteration can do funny things... but hopefully you can see the connection). But we are quickly transported to the site of the parish in which he grew up. Sitting with him are his mother and sister. There they talk about their upbringing, where he, his sister and father went to Mass weekly. His mother stayed at home, since she is Jewish.

The presence of his family and the conversation which ensues does lend the film with an air that Maher is seeking some sort of explanation of all this religious stuff. And then he hits the road looking for various expressions of religion and his conversation with them... I must say, however, that conversation is not at all what happens. Maher does find the absurd in his conversations with others and squeezes that for all its worth. He talks to experts, which seems to lend credibility to his endeavor, but then moves away from their area of expertise. Take for example his conversation with Frances Collins, the former director of the Human Genome Project and author of The Language of God. Rather than conversing with him on issues surrounding faith and reason or even evolution (hey, wouldn't a molecular biologist be able to talk fairly eloquently about evolution?), Maher grills Collins on the biblical notion of the virgin Mary and Jesus' birth to her. He doesn't ask, "How can a scientist believe in the virgin birth?" He asks questions pertaining more to biblical scholarship, "Why don't all four gospels agree on this?" Instead he asks the Senator from Arkansas about evolution, who of course, knowing his constituency, refuses to claim any belief for or against evolution. Wouldn't a conversation about the role of faith in the political sphere been more appropriate for that venue? Well, with a Senator who is more concerned with not letting his constituents know exactly what he believes for fear that they might boot him out of office, Maher was unlikely to get an honest conversation on any topic.

Of course, Maher isn't really out to have an honest conversation. He wants to ridicule and embarrass. After the film, I thought Religulous had a great resonance with the film Borat, and I included the poster above, because I saw there that Religulous is directed by Larry Charles, the director of Borat. Now it all makes perfect sense. All of the brilliant editing to show the awkward pauses and people stammering, the catching off guard with sudden changes in the direction of conversation, all of it works to ensure that Maher is always in the position of power, in control of the conversation and never allowing the other to be on an equal playing field. The only time when Maher is challenged and we feel that the balance of power shift ever so slightly (when he is talking with the Rabbi who believes that the state of Israel should not exist because they had been living securely throughout the world--ludicrous, I know), Maher walks out. This walking out is reminiscent of an earlier scene when Maher is at the Trucker's Chapel in North Carolina. One astute trucker gets up and walks out. He hears Maher questioning things and I think he realizes that the playing field isn't even, that Maher isn't genuine in seeking but simply seeking to sow doubt. And of course at the end of the movie Maher admits that sowing doubt is precisely his intent.

But enough about Maher... what I have been reflecting on is the incredibly poor job that Christians did in being able to answer questions with anything other than stock and cliched answers. Many of the Christians portrayed have the by-and-by-in-the-sky vision of Christianity where all that matters is that we believe in Jesus so that we go to heaven when we die. They answer with sincerity, but they are just as unable to converse, as Maher is unwilling. They rely on the logic of apologetics, but they forget that those apologetics are rooted in the proclamation of the gospel. They are unable to converse with Maher, because they are too busy trying to explain. And when they do that, they allow Maher every opportunity to produce sound bites that make Christianity look ridiculous.

The actor who portrays Jesus in the Holy Land Experience Park in Orlando, FL attempts to explain the existence of God by having Maher feel the wind. We can't see it, but we can feel the wind around us when it blows. But ultimately the effects of wind can be measured. We can break air down into its component parts of atoms, understand how variations in temperature and pressure on a global scale cause that air to move and blow. The experience of God is incredibly more subjective than that and not all of us who believe that Jesus is Lord have had any experience... we just know. This actor also breaks out the hackneyed ice-water-steam explanation of the Trinity. Once again, I see a Christian who sees the doctrine of the Trinity as some arcane bit of philosophical reasoning that helps Christianity maintain its claim of monotheism. We pastors and theologians fail to teach that the Trinity is not about what God is, but precisely WHO God is, and that this identity as Triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, is good news for all of us. In the end though, Maher picked apart many pieces of Christian doctrine: Original sin, Virgin birth, inspiration of Scripture, etc. Only once did we see any particular Christian practice happen... back in the Trucker's Chapel, at the end of that segment, Maher is prayed for by the Truckers. They gather around him and one trucker lays his gargantuan hand on Maher and immediately breaks into prayer for Maher. Maher looked uncomfortable, perhaps surprised by the sudden and genuine outpouring over him. There, in prayer, is the entry to the Christian life. Maybe the playing field wasn't so uneven after all.


The return...

so it has been a very long time since I have posted... at least on this blog... it just wasn't what I had envisioned it being. I needed some time, a very long time evidently, to rethink what I was hoping for this blog. I think I have a better vision now.

I started a blog for my congregation where I podcast my sermons, as well as some other things... but I have been convinced to resume blogging by a friend, who was listening to me talk about Bill Maher's film Religulous, which I saw the other night... so I now hope to be more regular... again.