Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Wednesday of Advent 2 -- Vespers Sermon

Electricity was out tonight so we did not have Vespers. Sorry if anyone came out to the church to find nothing there.

But here is the sermon I wrote for tonight's service.
Rev. 1:17-2:717When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he placed his right hand on me, saying, “Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, 18and the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive forever and ever; and I have the keys of Death and of Hades. 19Now write what you have seen, what is, and what is to take place after this. 20As for the mystery of the seven stars that you saw in my right hand, and the seven golden lampstands: the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches.

2“To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the seven golden lampstands: 2“I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance. I know that you cannot tolerate evildoers; you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them to be false. 3I also know that you are enduring patiently and bearing up for the sake of my name, and that you have not grown weary. 4But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. 5Remember then from what you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent. 6Yet this is to your credit: you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. 7Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches. To everyone who conquers, I will give permission to eat from the tree of life that is in the paradise of God.

A few years ago my wife and I along with the boys traveled to Las Vegas, not as you might expect for a new seminar in a new strategy for growing church offerings, but for the high school graduation of my wife’s niece. We spent almost a full week there. I even had the opportunity to attend church (a Missouri Synod congregation even!). Given both the ELCA’s and Missouri Synod’s stance in social statements against institutionalized establishment of gambling (lotteries, table games, video poker, etc.) Mary Lynne and I wondered what it would be like to be a congregation whose offering plate is mostly full of gambling-related revenue. A good portion of the people living there exists to either serve the casinos directly, or indirectly, since without say, super markets, people would have a hard time living there. So people’s salaries were being paid directly or indirectly from the casinos and hence, directly or indirectly, weekly offering was coming from these grand temples of Chance.

And of course a great deal of secondary industry springs up around these temples, walk down the Strip without a child in hand and you will be given numerous cards advertising the strip clubs. Move a little farther out of town and you find places where things go beyond simply stripping, as if that wasn’t bad enough. The system is completely turned around and upside down. But what is a church to do? Do they refuse any offering connected to these industries? And how would they know what money was coming from where since the casino money would be funneled through legitimate jobs anyway?

For Christians in Ephesus, I might wonder the same. Except perhaps it was worse. Ephesus was one of, if not THE most important city in the Roman Empire, outside of Rome itself. Located at the exit of the Cayster River into the Mediterranean, Ephesus was a major commercial city. Vast amounts of goods, of all sorts, moved through Ephesus. The temple of the goddess Artemis was there as well, which could mean a great deal of behavior that might make Vegas seem tame in comparison, making the city a religious power as well. And Ephesus was a major administrative outpost of the Empire which meant Ephesus was given the title of “free city.” Rome had granted to Ephesus no small amount of autonomy in ruling itself. It held a great deal of latitude in what went on there.

With all the activity supporting powers and principalities that often stood against the way of life in the Christian community, what was a church to do? Give in? Allow itself to be co-opted? That doesn’t seem to be the word that they receive from Jesus in the letter addressed to them. He says, “I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance. I know that you cannot tolerate evildoers; you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them to be false. 3I also know that you are enduring patiently and bearing up for the sake of my name, and that you have not grown weary.” Jesus knows, he says, of their works, that is their toil and patient endurance. Despite their incredible minority status, they have held fast to a particular way of life. Their zeal might have dimmed, but they have not grown weary. In the midst of things that threaten their lives as well as their souls, the church in Ephesus has maintained a witness for Jesus’ sake.

Thus is the task of the church in any place to patiently endure, to work for God’s kingdom, using the very security provided by earthly powers to ultimately subvert them. After all, the earthly kingdoms will end one day. They will gather around Christ, cast their crowns before his feet returning any authority granted unto them. The churches continue on in such work. They will take what the world gives, patiently enduring, proclaiming the gospel to a world distracted by temples of other gods, whether Artemis or Caesar or Chance.

And the church will do so at the risk of its very life, maybe with great fear. But the church is reminded by John the Seer, our faithful scribe, that even people who fall down dead, are raised by the touch of the Lord. For he “was dead, and see, I am alive forever and ever; and I have the keys of Death and of Hades.” He holds power over death and hell, and therefore nothing that belongs to him can be taken away forever from him. His power over the powers is for us the source of our patient enduring. And he continues to walk among us candlesticks, us lights to the world, and he encourages us and moves us that we might continue to work for the kingdom.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Advent and Eschatology

The texts of Advent seem to confuse many. Rather than mirror the schmaltzy version of Christmas in the malls and on television, the season of Advent gives us tales of the end. Prophetic texts that speak of God's restoration of creation, or of the rich and powerful getting their just desserts. We hear John the Baptist cry, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?" Or we hear Mary's song where the hungry are filled with good things, the rich sent away empty, the lowly lifted up and the mighty cast down. Tales of God's undying promise that all the brokenness of the world will be taken away.

Today I began to read an essay by Wolfhart Pannenberg, "The Task of Christian Eschatology" and his opening rang so true for me. Pannenberg wrote:
Contemporary Christian doctrine has to live up to an inevitable conflict, not with human reason, but with the secularist culture. The truth of Christian doctrine cannot be maintained where Christian proclamation gives priority to the secular mentality. It has to challenge that mentality and its prejudices. Of course, Christian doctrine is related to the predicament of human life in our world. Since secularism produces meaninglessness, the human person suffers from the lack of meaning. There is a need, then, for the Christian message, perhaps more urgently so than in other periods of human history. But the message can reach its adressess if the prejudices of secularism against Christianity can be overcome.
This applies especially to the Christian eschatological hope for a life beyond death. This hope is sharply opposed to the emphatic wordliness of our secular culture. It is under suspicion of escapism, as if it would cheat people out of the fulfillment of their liveson this earth. Gratitude for this life is an essential part of the Christian belief in the creation of this world by God. But the secular mentality exaggerates what we may expect from this finite and moral life. People expect sex to yield a degree of satisfaction and happiness that it cannot grant without love and fidelity. Political order is expected to produce perfect justice and lasting peace without violence or oppression. But our century has seen totalitarian regimes established precisely in the name of these ideas.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Mid-week Advent 1 Homily

2 Peter 3:1-10
3This is now, beloved, the second letter I am writing to you; in them I am trying to arouse your sincereintention by reminding you 2that you should remember the words spoken in the past by the holy prophets, and the commandment of the Lord and Saviour spoken through your apostles. 3First of all you must understand this, that in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and indulging their own lusts 4and saying, ‘Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since our ancestors died,* all things continue as they were from the beginning of creation!’ 5They deliberately ignore this fact, that by the word of God heavens existed long ago and an earth was formed out of water and by means of water, through which the world of that time was deluged with water and perished. 7But by the same word the present heavens and earth have been reserved for fire, being kept until the day of judgement and destruction of the godless. But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. 9The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you,* not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance. 10But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed.

Patience. Constantly touted as a virtue, patience ranks up there with the quality “quiet” in running in magnificently short supply in our household. Between the boys not wanting to wait, and me not being able to wait for boys' own waiting, our house does not have much in the way of patience...

Patience is all about the ability to wait. A patient person is able to wait, foregoing more immediately present rewards for something larger to come. Clearly those who seek self gratification, that is, the immediate payoff, are not patient. They have not been formed by the practices of putting off the small reward here and now for the greater reward in the future. I wonder how the economy might be different if instead of seeking the quick short-term gain in stock prices, the CEOs would have been trained in waiting for long-term real value to be added to a company.

Every virtue walks a middle ground between two vices. One vice is the sheer lack of the virtue, but the other is the virtue taken to an extreme. In this sense then the other vice associated with patience is waiting for absolutely nothing. In the play, “Waiting for Godot” by Thomas Beckett, it remains to be seen if the two main characters, Estragon and Vladmir, are exercising the virtue of patience or in fact have moved beyond patience to idleness. While much can be made of the endurance and discipline needed for patience, it is folly to continue to wait and work for a fantasy.

But patience cuts between the two extremes, between the excess and deficiency. And those who are disciplined in their waiting often draw criticisms from others. Why wait until you have money saved up to buy the large screen television? Just use the credit card. Why wait until the baby is born to find out its gender? Do it now! Or on the deficient side, the college buddy who can't understand the friend who is getting married, cutting off his choices, so to speak. We may wait for someone, but not an endless list of options. There must be something tangible at hand for which we wait.

And that is perhaps the criticism that Peter is hearing when he writes, in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and indulging their own lusts 4and saying, ‘Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since our ancestors died,* all things continue as they were from the beginning of creation!’” Nothing is changing. Nothing is any different. You are not waiting for anything!!! Everything is just as it always has been. We have nothing to fear. There is no final end. We need not hear of return and judgment. Why hasn't it happened if God were going to do it? You're not patient. You're misguided. You have fallen into vice.

But Peter assures his readers and us that any delay is not a mark of our deficiency in patience, but actually a mark of God's patience. He is indeed waiting for the fullness of time before he executes his judgment and he will then act, and decisively so. But God's vision is not like ours. For him to wait and endure entails a waiting of love and grace, allowing that humans might be given the fullest amount of time to repent, to turn again to God God's patience is rooted in his love for humans so that none of them might perish. God endures the continued brokenness of the world, the unbelief, the recurrent transgressions. God is disciplined to wait for something greater to come. Christ was able to be patient, that is, endure the suffering brought upon him by the world, that he might be raised and become the way to eternal life.

We now are grasped by Christ's grace that we too might partake in this divine patience. The eternal Word, Christ, the Son of God, created this very world and now upholds and sustains it so that we might endure bearing witness to the scoffers, that in fact things are changing. Our very lives are being transformed, being made holy, sanctified, as a sign for the ultimate act that God will bring about with a loud noise and elements being dissolved by fire, and everything done on earth will be made known.

But we are not born patient. Nor do we remain so without some aid. God has given us practices in the church that we might endure in the faith until the end, either of our lives or Christ's coming. To endure in the faith, one chief practice is prayer. Christ has given us his name to call upon in every assault of the devil, the world or our own broken selves.

We are given the witness of the martyrs who suffered, and continue to suffer, for the sake of the gospel. Remembering those who stand firm while under persecution has been a source of strength for the church, and not a source of embarrassment or shame. We learn to endure by the witness they provide.

We are given this season of Advent. In the midst of gross and conspicuous consumption that could not even wait for Thanksgiving, the Church resists, remembering not just the birth of Jesus, but dwelling on his coming. Retailers are desperate for our money. They work hard to get us to hand over our money, to consume great quantities. In essence they tell us, “Forget that future stuff. Get the good life now! This is the great promise! This is what we were created for! YOU.CAN.HAVE.IT.ALL.”

But Advent calls us back to prayer, devotion and remembrance. As we gather in the growing darkness of winter, we may realize that we enter into God's very character of patience. Waiting, watching, and praying for the redemption of a broken world... witnessing to the very promises of God—promises for which he endured and continues to endure so much.

Thanks be to God.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Christ as Adversary...

The prophet Amos proclaimed:
They do not know how to do right, says the LORD, those who store up violence and robbery in their strongholds. Therefore thus says the Lord GOD: An adversary shall surround the land, and strip you of your defense; and your strongholds shall be plundered. (Amos 3:10-11)
Very often, we are tempted to think of Christ in only terms of brother, friend, shepherd, king, Lord... maybe even judge. Today's reading however sparked my thinking about Christ as adversary.

Amos came bearing the word of the Lord unto the people in an age of great prosperity and expansion under the reign of Jeroboam II (786-746 B.C.). Amos preached against over reliance on military might, the injustice done to poor and outcast, and grave immorality. Just read the second chapter of Amos. Judah and Israel do not come off looking good at all. Amos proclaims in the midst of such a world that it is God's might that will prevail, not Israel's human might.

In this season of Advent, as we read of Christ's coming in the clouds, we might be left thinking that Christ comes to take away those very folks who store up violence and robbery. And that is so... however we too must see ourselves in the same boat. Insofar as we are complicit with the powers that seek to take others' lives, to not protect our neighbor's property, we are the very same ones. Christ comes to surround us, strip away our defenses, and plunder our strongholds.

And this should be heard as good news. For when Christ comes to us, he desires that we live. Our reliance on power and might must die. Our consumption of goods, services, food, resources of the earth must cease. All of the ways that our fallen, sinful self participates in the brokenness of the world must taste death; a death meted out by our adversary, Christ. But this Christ, our adversary, is also the adversary who is our Lord. Our Lord is not the violent rampaging Mars, or the Invisible Hand of the Market, but the very Lord of Life, who comes that we might die, so he might raise us up to new life.

Even as an adversary, Christ does not work the way the world would. In the world the adversary seeks to crush and destroy its opponents. Christ seeks only to crush and destroy so that he might raise up and redeem, thereby showing his love and power are what will rule in the end.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Thanksgiving and Black Friday

My friend Mike over at Catholic Anarchy wrote an impressive post about the practice of Thanksgiving. One particular interesting passage:

Pro-life Christians who choose to be thoughtful about such things should be deeply troubled by the reality of Thanksgiving. Indeed, it is perhaps the holi-day par excellence of the culture of death. Of course, the best option for Christians would be simply not celebrating Thanksgiving at all. After all, Christians have their own thanksgiving, only we use its Greek name, eucharist. It is a celebration of liberation and resurrection, not invasion and extermination. It is a celebration that embodies new familial relationships not based on blood or nationality but our common life in Christ. It is a celebration whose purpose is not to say “thank you for all the stuff we have when others are not so fortunate,” but rather “thank you for inviting all of us to this table.” And of course, the one we thank is the Author of Life, the One who is not to be replaced by sentimentalism or the idols of state, of “freedom,” of “choice” and the like. No wonder Jesus made the eucharist a vegetarian feast, a true foretaste of the banquet of the Kingdom of God.

Of course, for most of us, myself included, not celebrating Thanksgiving is simply not realistic. With a one-year old child and having just moved back to the u.s. from Canada after over three years away from family and friends, I am not about to be so politically smug that I would simply refuse to participate in my own family’s traditions. On the other hand, I’m not sure that Thanksgiving can truly ever be redeemed unless it includes attention to the reality behind it, perhaps through the observance of a National Day of Atonement. A “let’s just look at the bright side” approach to Thanksgiving, an approach historically-conscious liberal american Christians tend to choose, simply will not cut it.

If anything, I am suggesting that Christians should bear the above realities in mind during this holi-day, and should, in some significant and deliberate way, make their celebration of american Thanksgiving different somehow this year, and every year. Christians, if they are to celebrate this dangerous holi-day, should in doing so make clear that they are citizens of a different empire, the Empire of God, and that this empire has its own story that exposes the lies of the earthly kingdoms’ mythologies, especially those of the united states of america. Exposing the lies of the american myth of Thanksgiving, in one way or another, must be a part of any serious pro-life celebration of the holi-day. Anything less would mean participation in an ideological cover-up which silences the historical and present-day victims of american empire. As “resident aliens” within the american empire, any eucharist that the People of God celebrates should look very different from the eucharist of the empire.

Read the whole entry here.

Then of course, we have the following day, Black Friday, when we celebrate the triumph of consumer gods. Buy, buy, buy. The juxtaposition is fascinating. Thanksgiving deals with the oppression of the native peoples and now we continue to buy our goods, many of which are made in third world sweatshops, just so we can continue to thank God for the blessings we have received... at an incredibly low price.

If Mike calls for subversion of Thanksgiving, this holiday season let us subvert the shopping season that is set upon us by the corporate shills. Don't buy stuff. Follow Jesus. Remember the poor, the outcast, the lowly... the ones God remembers. If you need some help see the ELCA Good Gifts catalog.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Quck and Easy Dying

I think it is safe to say that we hear often the desire for a quick and easy death. Someone slips away in the midst of sleep, and sure enough folks when recounting the death will remark, "That's how I'd like to go." No anguish. No suffering. No burden to anyone else. And I understand that.

However, I have been struck several times while praying the Great Litany, that we pray for the Lord to deliver us from "an unprepared and evil death." And today, I read in my appointed readings from For All the Saints a letter from John Huss to his friends in Bohemia while he awaits his own death. He writes,
I am writing you once more, gracious and faithful friends in God, to show my gratitude for as long as I can, even taking pleasure in being able to converse with you by letter. I say to you that the Lord knows why He postpones my death as well as that of my dear brother, Master Jerome, of whom I have hopes that he will holily, without guilt, and that he conducts himself and suffers more bravely than I, a fainthearted sinner. The Lord God granted us a long time that we may better recollect our sins and forthrightly to regret them. He has granted us time so that the long-drawn-out and great testing may divest us of great sins and bring us consolation. He has granted us time to remember our King, the merciful Lord God Jesus' terrible disgrace, and to meditate on his cruel death and, for that reason, to suffer more gladly.
He also goes on to mention the sufferings of saints and martyrs and how it would seem strange for himself not to suffer in the face of his "brave stand against wickedness."

At the heart of the matter is the reality that death is something for which we must be prepared. For even in death are we called to witness to our God, the Lord over life and death. To acknowledge the coming of death allows us to be prepared so that we need not slink away, but face it head on in the sure and certain hope of resurrection. We may also reconcile with those with whom we are estranged.

This is not to suggest that all those who desire a quick death are unfaithful cowards. But it would be, I think, wise to return to the language and practices that prepare us for death. Whether we are the dying, or the ones who remain after a loved one remains. This return is not just a "better make sure Aunt Suzie knows Jesus before she slips away," but an encompassing set of practices where we remember the dead who have gone before us, a more open and conscious use of the commendation of the dying throughout the process. Even praying Compline on a regular basis where the line between physical sleep and death is blurred. We really do not need to fear death, nor suffering. No one likes to see a loved one suffer. But can we see Christ present there in the one suffering? Can we reach out to that one who bears witness to Christ's suffering to us and care for him as if he or she were indeed Christ?

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

God's Story and Ours

I signed up for a daily quote to be sent to my email from Runner's World. They are meant to inspire and motivate. Sometimes they do. Sometimes, they don't. Today's quote, though, made me think. It read:

Nonrunners cannot see how they can afford the time to run every day. But runners cannot imagine getting through a single day without it. --Kevin Nelson, The Runner's Book of Daily Inspiration

Ok... granted, I don't run every single day (and I would include bike/swim in this list as well). And yes, the sloth within me REALLY looks forward to those rest days during the week, but I do understand this. And many people who don't run, often voice the opening part. "I just can't find the time..." Well, you're not going to find it. You make it. You rearrange your priorities so that you do it. You make time.

But today I thought along a parallel path. Replace the concept of running with "biblical reading." Daily biblical reading, time set aside in devotion and prayer, is something that few of us do. Mainly because it takes time. And there are always demands on our time. Work, family, life in general. How do we find the moment where we can squeeze reading the bible in? Well,
the answer is simple. We don't. We can't. We make it.

And I would like to make bold and audacious claims about by making a few minutes to read the bible and pray, everything going on in life will seem better and all the blocks of life will click into place. But I cannot. Sometimes things will go smoother. Sometimes they will not. Life intervenes. But by making time to read the story of God and God's people, I think we find one thing. That we too are in the midst of that story. That in all of those crazy distractions and hectic pace, we find that Jesus is there in our midst. Making time to read this great story of what God is up to, reminds us again and again that God is up to something even with us, even if we don't know exactly what it is at the time.

I am posting a weekly lectionary on my congregation's blog for the Confirmation class (It comes
out of Augsburg Fortress' Lutheran Study Bible. It's the Sampler Lectionary, just a few verses a day). Read along. Enter into this grand story and see where yours is interwoven with it.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Moses and America

I ran across an excerpt from Bruce Feiler's new book, America's Prophet: Moses and the American Story in a recent issue of Time. The story of Moses, Feiler argues, is ingrained deeply into the story of America. Most notably, the pioneers and immigrants who came here felt a strong connection to a story about slaves being freed and heading to a promised land. Leaving the old world dominated by a Church that seemed heavy-handed and oppressive to them, gave them a kinship to the people of Israel fleeing the hard-hearted Pharoah. But more than that Moses keeps returning again and again. The slaves in America are drawn to Christianity through the story of freed slaves. The Moses story comes back during the Cold War. Moses is a mighty figure in scripture, as well as in this nation. Most entertaining is the connection between the quintessential American superhero and Moses. Felier writes:

With the rise of secularism and the declining influence of the Bible in the 20th century, Moses might have melted away as a role model. But something curious happened. He was so identified as a hero of the American Dream that he superseded Scripture and entered the realm of popular culture, from novels to television.

Superman was modeled partly on Moses. The comic-book hero's creators, two bookish Jews from Cleveland named Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, drew their character's backstory from the superhero of the Torah. Just as baby Moses is floated down the Nile in a basket to escape annihilation, baby Superman is launched into space in a rocket ship to avoid extinction. Just as Moses is raised in an alien world before being summoned to liberate Israel, Superman is raised in an alien environment before being called to assist humanity.

I don't know if I will spring for a hardback, but I will certainly be keeping an eye out when it goes into paperback.

Friday, October 09, 2009

Unity and Schism in the ELCA

On an entirely unrelated discussion on an internet forum, I was commenting on the Conservative Bible Project, the misguided idea of creating a new biblical translation/paraphrase that makes the bible say what the group would like it to say (really, how do you twist parables to bring out free market principles?).

Well, in the discussion we were having, one member, an ardent Roman Catholic, was beginning to set up the argument that would lead us into debating where the authority of scripture lay, and for him it was bound up in the teaching magisterium of the Roman Catholic Church. this was not a big surprise for me, since he goes there often in these discussions. In order to have the conversation, I picked up the sixth volume of the Lutheran-Roman Catholic Dialogue, Teaching Authority & Infallibility in the Church. It was there that I found a most intriguing comment. In the "Common Statement," it read,
On the Lutheran side, there seems at first glance no room for reassessment. The Reformers' attitude toward papal infallibility was strongly negative. They insisted that in proclaiming the Pauline teaching of justification of the sinner by grace through faith they had a biblical and catholic basis. Consequently they regarded the excommunication of Luther as an arbitrary act, an abuse of papal authority. They viewed the division in the Church as a tragic necessity, as the price they had to pay for fidelity to the Word of God. (p. 13)
While many in the ELCA are talking about leaving, I think this statement still bears repeating. Division in the church might be necessary, but it is tragic and each side must understand that they bear a cost associated with that division. Divide if you must, but don't think your stand is free of costs, even if your side is right. Schism damages the witness of the whole church. The loss of a visible unity, while perhaps necessary for whatever reason, is nothing to be take lightly.

Five hundred years after Luther posted the ninety-five theses on the church door at Wittenberg, the Lutherans and Roman Catholics still refrain from officially sharing the meal that Christ sets before us. In the midst of conversations about what it means to be the church (I am not sure the root of all the strife in the ELCA is just about homosexuality, but more about ecclesiology and the nature of the church), what will the cost of losing visible unity be for all of us?

Monday, October 05, 2009

Torture and faith...

In the October issue of The Atlantic, Andrew Sullivan writes an open letter to President Bush ("Dear President Bush") detailing what he could do to deal with the legacy of the torture that he approved. The letter is well-balanced. Sullivan does not call for President Bush to be punished, but for him to follow President Reagan's lead and take responsibility as Reagan did in the wake of the Iran-Contra scandal.

What I found most interesting though, was the appeal to faith that Sullivan levies. I don't know how convincing his argument is for all Christians, since clearly some Christians support torture or at least seek to redefine activities that clearly fall into the torture family. Sullivan writes,

The other value you have eloquently expressed as essential to your public life is faith. We share that faith, although I am a wayward Catholic and you a born-again evangelical. Our faith tells us that what you authorized is an absolute evil. By absolute evil, I mean something that is never morally justified. I have no doubt that you believed you were doing your duty in protecting the country, and every political leader in a dangerous world has to make decisions that haunt the conscience. But even war, with all its murder and mayhem and abuse and trauma, can still, in our Christian tradition, be deemed just, under certain circumstances. I am not a pacifist by any means. Defending free countries from the architects of 9/11 is just; bringing some semblance of democracy to Iraq was just; unseating the Taliban was just. Even those decisions that cost lives—of young Americans and countless Iraqis and Afghans—can be morally defended by Christians, in good faith and clear conscience, as a last resort. In fact, fighting terrorism and jihadism is, in my view, an eminently just use of military power, if that use of power is constantly subjected to scrutiny and reflection and revision.

But torture has no defense whatsoever in Christian morality. There are no circumstances in which it can be justified, let alone integrated as a formal program within a democratic government. The Catholic catechism states, “Torture which uses physical or moral violence to extract confessions… is contrary to respect for the person and for human dignity.” Dignity is the critical word there. Even evil men are human and redeemable. Our faith demands that, even in legitimate punishment or interrogation, the dignity of prisoners must be respected. Our faith teaches that each of us—even Khalid Sheikh Mohammed—is made in the image of God. To violate that imago Dei by stripping and freezing him, by slamming him against a wall, or strapping him to a board to nearly drown him again and again and again, to bombard him with noise and light until he loses his mind, to reduce a human being to a mental and spiritual shell—nothing can justify this for a Christian. Nothing. To wield that power is to wield evil. And such evil is almost always committed by those who believe they are pursuing good.

One more voice calling for the understanding that each human being bears dignity simply by being created by God. Torture, which ignores that imago Dei, is simply unjustifiable.

Friday, October 02, 2009

Preaching and Christ... yes, it IS about Jesus

Over at Lutherans Persisting, David Yeago, Michael C. Peeler professor of systematic theology at LTSS, wrote a really intriguing piece about preaching. Ultimately our life should be rooted in an encounter with Jesus, not just theological propositions or truths or vague notions of what Jesus was about, but an encounter with Jesus. It seems like an incredibly tall order for this preacher to fill, to think about my preaching being a vehicle by which people might encounter Jesus, but it seems far more worth it than just getting them to laugh each week, or telling some tear-jerking story, or banging on toes with the hammer of the law constantly.

Yeago writes:
1. Most of the sermons I have heard or read over the past several decades have been based on the Gospel lesson, but a majority of them have not really been about Jesus. Sermons tend to get diverted early from the concrete figure of Jesus to focus on some truth, value, imperative, or experiential possibility supposedly represented by Jesus.

2. What good thing does God give us in the gospel? I hear very few sermons that follow Luther (in the Catechisms) in saying that the good thing is having Jesus as our Lord instead of the devil. Instead I hear a lot of abstractions about being accepted (but into what?), stirring but vague rhetoric about new possibilities, and a lot of generic assurance that “God is with you.”

Read the whole post here.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Just War As Christian Discipleship

Yesterday in the mail I received two copies of the book Just War as Christian Discipleship (published by Brazos Press) by Dan Bell, one of my former professors at the Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary. I had written an endorsement for the book and the publishers had chosen to use my blurb.

Bell seeks to reframe the just war tradition not just as a checklist for public policy, but as the way Christians should seek to bear the cross even in warfare. His book is timely, provocative and all the more needed as we seek to follow Christ faithfully. Bell moves through the conditions of the just war tradition, laying out some suggestions as to how we might recenter our actions and thoughts so that we may truly love our neighbor even as we wage war.

He points out in the introduction that he intends this book to be read not by specialists or academicians, but by regular folks seeking an understanding of the just war tradition. His writing leaves lots of room for discussion. This book would be a good starting point for group discussions, and would give both supporters of military actions as well as those who cannot support war (along with the vast middle who lie somewhere within that spectrum) the time and ability to critique their own positions. Bell writes,
...this book engages the just war tradition in the hope of strengthening the church's practice of discipleship. Although it will certainly contribue to evaluating various positions and agendas and will certainly have implications for public policy, this treatment of the just war begins from the assumption that the first and overriding concern with regard to matters of war is the church's faithful following of Jesus Christ. Our first concern as Christians is not how to bolster our party or platform while discrediting the other side, nor is it steering politicians and public policy in the right direction. Our first concern when it comes to war should be how we might wage war (or not) in a matter that points to the One who came that all might have life and have it abundantly. How can we live as faithful disciples of Jesus Christ in the midst of wars and rumors of wars? How do we follow Christ by loving and seeking justice for our neighbors in war? (p. 20)

Friday, September 25, 2009

Nicholas of Cusa, Unity and Google Books

I was browsing through Google books one evening looking for some works on unity, ecumenical unity that is. I came across a work by David J. DeLeonardis, Ethical Implications of Unity and the Divine in Nicholas of Cusa.

Cusa's notions of unity are rooted first and foremost in Being. Being and unity exist in a dynamic relationship because each entity that exists is a contraction of all Being, making for a facinating notion that while individuals are unique, they are also dynamically connected to all others since each individual stems from the same source, God. DeLeonardis writes, "Through contraction each being becomes ontologically linked to every other being since all entities derive their being from a common source."

Cusa's notions might help our notions of unity, since his is not one of a monolithic homogeneity, rather a harmonious diversity.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Concordia's The Lutheran Study Bible... Another party heard from

I was on vacation this past week, staying at home to continue the bathroom remodel job that was started well over a month ago... probably almost two. However, payday came and went which meant I needed to run into the office to pick up my paycheck. When I did, I found that my pre-ordered The Lutheran Study Bible from Concordia Publishing House had arrived. I really couldn't wait to crack it open to take a look. In fact, on my way to the bank to deposit said check, I even called a colleague and giddily announced its arrival. I was that excited.

From the very outset, I really liked the look and feel. Rich burgundy, hardcover, with golden lettering on the cover, and a subtly embossed Luther's Rose all give the book a feel that makes it clear this book is meant to last and possess a place of honor in your home, office, library, nightstand, whatever. This study bible is clearly meant to bear great dignity.

Of course, I am am ELCA pastor. I knew before I read one iota of substance held within that there would be significant disagreements between their view and mine. But as one friend pointed out, a denominational study will have its certain polemics (Augsburg Fortress' Lutheran Study Bible is no less polemical; they simply go about their polemics in a different way). For instance, in the opening pages (and probably others throughout the entire bible) there are numerous references to "liberals" who read scripture differently. Their intent is clear: to set forth their own view in extremely certain and unambiguous terms. However, these labels could be much worse in their vehemence, which was actually non-existent. Most references to liberals went something like, "Some liberals read scripture to say X on this point. We read it to say Y, and here's why..." I know there will be disagreement. The balanced and restrained response is just fine. I actually appreciate this method.

And I need to say that I am envious. Concordia's TLSB is what I long for Augsburg Fortress to publish. Concordia evidently put a great deal of work into this study bible. I am not saying AF did not, but everything in Concordia's TLSB is well thought out and planned. Things hang together nicely and make sense. I did not always get that sense from AF's LSB.

The layout throughout TLSB is very similar to the New Oxford Annotated Study Bible (my own study bible of choice). The biblical text is on the top part of the page with explanatory notes on the bottom. In the NOAB, the annotations are kept to a defined section underneath. Every page in TLSB is varied. In the opening pages of the book of Genesis, the biblical text takes up a small percentage of the page, and the commentary takes up over (it seems) three-quarters of the page. Excessive? Perhaphs, but the text and notes seem to be intimately linked. Quotes from Reformers and Church Fathers are peppered throughout. Law/Gospel summaries are places throughout and highlighted by a cross icon. Each one of these summaries includes a prayer.

As a person reads and prays through this bible, she will encounter maps and other excurses that speak to the issues encountered in the text itself. In Paul's letter to the Romans for instance, a table appears that lists topics throughout the letter, along with mistaken interpretations and the then the correct understanding. And while there is a map section, finding them throughout the texts helps us to remember that the bible is not written in a historical vacuum. Quality essays appear throughout. Proper understanding of Law and Gospel, the place of the inter-testamental writings, and others are very useful and would generate much discussion if used in a group setting, I am sure.

Despite the denominational differences, then, there is much more in TLSB that I can and will use. The more I read, the deeper I delved, the more I realized that as per usual it is Christ who is the Word revealed in scripture. That perspective is not lost in TLSB, and even with inherent biases, it is a work that can be used by Christians of many different perspectives. As with AF's LSB, where I refused to make litmus tests out of one or two particular issues, I will hold to the same thinking with TLSB. I am happy to have this study bible in my library. It will not likely replace the NOAB in my usage (most of this has to do with the familiarity of that book to my fingers-I've had it for over ten years now), but I will certainly pick it up sooner than AF's LSB. Concordia has given the Church a solid reference work, one which should be modelled throughout in many and various aspects, even if not in the particularity of parts of its interpretation.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

...That they may be one as we are one... Catholic-Orthodox Unity?

A friend sent me an article today ("Is Catholic Unity In Sight?") that speaks of the very near possibility of the reunion of East and West. The restoration of unity between the the Orthodox and Roman Catholicism would be incredibly monumental.

If we confess that the Church is "one, holy, catholic and apostolic," that one-ness is something for which we should seek an ever-deepening manifestation. Our unity, certainly in Christ, but made known in our common confession of him, as well as our shared works for the sake of the gospel, is a witness to the world. When we remain stubbornly divided we damage our witness.

This restoration of communion between two ancient branches of Christianity is to be fervently prayed for.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

The God Delusion... and theological positions...

In the Sep. 8, 2009 issue of The Christian Century, one of the book reviews is on the book Losing My Religion by William Lobdell. The reviewer, Valerie Weaver-Zercher, opens her review with the paragraph:

Either you don't believe in God or you're a dope." This is how Newsweek's
Lisa Miller sums up the thinking of Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and
Sam Harris. And despite the fact that 90 percent of Americans say they believe
in God, Miller writes, plenty of us seem to enjoy the new atheists' "books and
telegenic bombast so much that we don't mind their low opinion of us."

Well, I don't know if I mind the low opinion of the atheists, but their work is certainly engaging, in style at the very least. So, despite the fact that I have written twice before about the new atheists (10-30-2006 and 4-26-2007) a couple of years ago, I am finally now getting around to reading The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins (and just an aside here but the book cover has the title presented as The GOD Delusion... it would have been much more fitting, I think, to be presented as The god Delusion, but that's just me). I am only a short way into the book, and I agree the above quote from the reviewer, there is certainly "telegenic bombast." The book is not dry or academic. It is written very well and is keeping my interest, even if I am clearly looked down upon bu the author. I am consistently engaged even if I remain unconvinced about his arguments.

Nonetheless, I believe that even this early in the book, I have discovered some common ground. Dawkins lays into the notion that opinions and moral positions based upon religious principles (however they come about) are seemingly untouchable by critique. They stand behind an incredibly thick (and undeserved) wall of respect. Dawkins is out to offend and challenge the position of Christianity (and other religions as well), plain and simple. No doctrinal position or ethical stance should ever be untouchable. As Christians we must be in conversation with others for we have much to learn from other Christians, not to mention non-Christians. Any theologian worth his or her salt must be ready to admit that he or she is wrong, and that won't happen if we are unable to challenge our fellow brother or sister's position. But Dawkins wants it all gone, because it is unreasonable. Reason reigns, at least for him.

In our conversation with the world, we can use secular terms, using reason alone (after all our positions should be reasonable). However we must also wrestle with revelation (that is, what God has done, is doing, and will yet do in Christ Jesus). We cannot ignore the gospel, nor the opportunity we have to communicate it when in conversation with those outside the Church, no matter how much bombast Dawkins and his compatriots unleash.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Sweet Sweet Bernard...

I have returned to the devotional For All The Saints as my daily devotions, and am reading it now when I enter my office as the first thing I do. Trying to read right when I go to bed is a problem since I have many many times fallen asleep while I read, only to have my set my book on the nightstand and turn out the light for me. Moving this practice to when I enter my office is very helpful... I am able to give the texts my undivided (mostly) attention and then I often tweet a verse or two or three from the readings, both scriptural as well as others. Today I had in my readings, a passage from Bernard of Clairvaux. In a culture which demands the individual response to the gospel, these words of Bernard are such a clear and distinct speaking of the gospel that they soothe and relieve my irritated nerves, worn away by the constant demand that I must choose, that I must believe. He writes:
I said before that God is the cause of loving God. I spoke the truth, for he is both the efficient and final cause. He himself provides the occasion. He himself creates the longing. He himself fulfills the desire. He himself causes himself to be (or rather, to be made) such that he should be loved. He hopes to be so happily loved that no one will love him in vain. His love both prepares and rewards ours (cf. 1Jn 4:19). Kindly, he leads the way. He repays us justly. He is our sweet hope. He is riches to all who call upon him (Rm 10:12). There is nothing better that himself. He gave himself in merit. He keeps himself to be our reward. He gives himself as food for holy souls (Wis. 3:13). He sold himself to redeem the captives.
Lord, you are good to the soul which seeks you. What are you then to the soul which finds? But this is the most wonderful thing, that no one can seek to be found so that you may be sought for, sought so that you may be found. You can be sought, and found, but not forestalled. For even if we say, "In the morning my prayer will forestall you" (Ps 87:14), it is certain that every prayer which is not inspired is half-hearted. Now let us see where our love begins, for we have seen where it finds its end.
The promise of the gospel is not that we can find God, but that God allows himself to be found. Even if we have a world-shaking conversion experience, or make a decision to follow Jesus, or sit quietly in the pew trusting in full confidence that God has called us through the waters of baptism, we must give thanks that God has made this all possible, that he has granted us faith to believe and the power to become children of God.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Technology and Magic...

In several classic science fiction works--most memorable for me are Isaac Asimov's Nightfall and Niven and Jerry Pournelle's Lucifer's Hammer--it is the scientists who are viewed as the wizards. After all, with advanced technology they possess powers unattainable by mere mortals. They become the shamans who bless the fetish trinkets that we carry around and feel less than human without, bereft of our magical powers. Rodney Clapp writes in a similar vein in his American Soundings column in the Sept. 8, 2009 issue of The Christian Century. His column, entitled "Spooked By Gadgets" closes with this excellent paragraph:
In our hypertechnologized culture, the line between rational prudence and magical animism is razor thin. We want to believe our promethean powers of mechanical invention can bring paradise on earth. And yet our machinery, in such homely, intimate guises as the cell phone, carries with it mystification and even menace—right into our pockets and even our ear canals. In the face of postmodern animism, the secularization thesis— about the death of religions and disenchantment of the world—suffers its most ignominious defeat yet.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Torture? Intrinsically evil?

My friend Mike over at posted clear references from the Roman Catholic church regarding torture. You can read it here.

The Challenge of Evangelization -- Black Robe

A number of years ago, I flipped the channel and came across the film Black Robe. I never saw the end, nor did I see the beginning for that matter. At a used book sale a few months ago, I came across the novel that the film was based on. The novel, written by Brian Moore, follows the French missionary Jesuit priest Father Laforgue, as he travels with an Algonkin tribe to reach the mission to the Huron tribe.

From the outset of the novel, it is clear that the language the priests use regarding baptism and conversion, the only language they know and are clearly indoctrinated into, actually becomes an obstacle when talking to the natives. Father Laforgue (as well as other priests in the book) talks about baptism as the way to life after death, always focused on the other world. He never hears the Native Americans concerns that baptism is more about death. Father Laforgue tries several times to administer baptism just prior to death, always too late, but the Natives see that death always follows the "water sorcery."

Evangelization must always be sensitive to and understand the cultural trappings into which it is brought. Whenever the priest tries to discuss the gospel, he fails to articulate it in terms that the Natives will understand. Throughout the novel, Father Laforgue struggles with the completely foreign nature of the Natives' tribes. Brutal to their enemies, incredibly open with sexual partners, distrustful of privacy keeps Laforgue off balance. But he never senses that the vertigo he experiences comes from the refusal to jettison the theological language which has good apologetic value in the Old World. In the New World, however, the gospel must be communicated with language that has apologetic value there. Laforgue jumps immediately to baptism and the renunciation of all the Natives hold sacred. Interestingly Moore walks the line in the culture clash. The Natives (who hold great stock in dreams) have dreams which all come true, most notably in Laforgue's walking into the Huron village alone. However at Laforgue's presence the fever which is ravishing the Natives begins to lift. Which perspective is right? Are the dreams showing the true worldview? Or is God's hand at work healing the Natives?

I am in no way advocating or suggesting that we throw out all of our theological categories and language. Absolutely not. But we constantly need to be interpreting the story of God's work in the world through Jesus Christ so that we can hear it for what it is, good news. If we fail to understand the surrounding culture, we risk making the gospel unintelligible and have created a stumbling block for the hearers.

The story of Laforgue is something we should pay great attention to, for evangelization is not something in the past, but an ever increasing reality. However, we must be careful not to assume that the past's language will suffice. Even Paul knew this with his "let me tell you about your unknown God." Paul used their cultural trappings as the entry point for the gospel. We can do the same, but only if we pay attention to our surroundings and the story of God in Christ Jesus.

By the way, do not read Black Robe if you are uneasy around crude language, brutal violence, and deptictions of sex. All are prevalent throughout the novel.

A Sign of the End Times?

On the USAT (United States governing body for triathlon) twitter feed the following article was posted. We expect terror from the deep to come in certain forms, but this unnatural terror must surely be a sign of the end, no? At the very least, a sign of the broken relationship between humans and creation.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Liebowitz and His Brothers

I admit it. I have a penchant for tales of the apocalyptic and the post-apocalyptic. Whether books or movies, I am drawn to them. Stephen King's The Stand is fabulous. Larry Niven's and Jerry Pournelle's Lucifer's Hammer was great. Admittedly, there are a lot of bad tales out there as well. Nonetheless the tales that speak of the end of the world are simply intriguing.

I recently finished what is likely the best I have ever read, A Canticle For Liebowitz by Walter M. Miller. The blend of of themes, religious and political, hope and despair, sin and innocence, is set in a post-apocalyptic world recovering from a nuclear war. Miller tells the tale quite well with three different parts at different eras, all tied together through the monastery of the Albetian Order of Liebowitz. The final part ("Fiat Voluntas Tua") finds Earth at the brink of apocalypse once again. In the midst of the recurrence of human sin, Miller's greatest question seems to be "Is there true redemption?" Redemption for humanity who seems always to willing to bow down to other gods and go its own way. At the end, when humanity perches on the precipice of atomic war, Miller writes:

The abbot snapped off the set. 'Where's the truth?' he asked quietly. 'What's to be believed? Or does it matter at all? When mass murder's been answered with mass murder, rape with rape, hate with hate, there's no longer much meaning in asking whose ax is the bloodier. Evil on evil, piled on evil.... Dear God there must be half a million dead, if they hit Texarkana with the real thing. I feel like saying words I've never heard. Toad's dung. Hag pus. Gangrene of the soul. Immortal brain-rot. Do you understand me brother? And Christ breathed the same carrion air with us; how meek the Majesty of our Almighty God! What an infinite sense of humor--for Him to become one of us!--King of the Universe, nailed on a cross as a Yiddish schlemiel by the likes of us. They say Lucifer was cast down for refusing to adore the Incarnate Word; the Foul One must totally lack a sense of humor! God of Jacob, God even of Cain! Why do they do it all again?

'Forgive me I'm raving' he added less to Joshua than to the old woodcarving of Saint Liebowitz stood in one corner of the study. He had paused in his pacing to glance up at the face of the image.... He fingered the mound of faggots where the wooden martyr stood. That's where all of us are standing now, he thought. On the fat kindling of past sins. And some of them are mine. Mine, Adam's, Herod's, Judas's, Hannegan's, mine. Everybody's. Always culminatesin the colossus of the State, somehow, drawing about itself the mantle of godhood, being struck down by wrath of Heaven. Why? We shouted it loudly enough--God's to be obeyed by nations as by men. Caesar's to be God's policeman, not His plenipotentiary successor, nor His heir. To all ages, all peoples--'Whoever exalts a race or a State of a particular form of the State or the depositories of power... whoever raises these notions above their standard value and divinizes them to an idolatrous level, distorts and perverts an order of the world planned and created by God...' Where had that come from? Eleventh Pius, he thought, without certainty-- eighteen centuries ago. But when Caesar got the means to destroy the world, wasn't he already divinized? Only by the consent of the people-- same rabble that shouted: 'Non habemus regem nisi caesarem,' when confronted by Him--God Incarnate, mocked and spat upon. Same rabble that martyred Liebowitz...

'Caesar's divinity is showing again.'

Fabulous novel... well worth seeking out, either in a store, online or like I did, at a used book sale. Read it and ponder redemption.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

ELCA Churchwide Assembly--Big news

When I turned on Headline News this morning, the very first thing I saw was a short clip about the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America's Churchwide Assembly being held in Minneapolis this week had approved the resolution that opens the door to the rostering of gays and lesbians in publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous relationships.

Following the vote, Bishop Hanson gave a response. You can view his response here at the online archive.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Let's get this straight...

As the debate rambled on (and really, most of the speakers were just rambling through standard stump speeches, adding very little to the deliberation) yesterday at the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America's Churchwide Assembly, there were two speakers who made a claim about the Reformation that were simply untrue. Unfortunately I didn't catch their names, but one was a professor of religion at some college or university, and the other was a bishop. But both of them stated similar things about the Reformation, that is was about doing something new. One referenced Luther's attack on sacerdotal celibacy. The other just claimed Luther was breaking new ground.

No matter where one stands on the issue of homosexuality or the sexuality statement, can we all agree that retelling history wrongly is ignorant at best, and deceptive at worst. The argument of the Reformation is precisely that the Catholic Church had brought in something new and *gasp* innovative, paticularly shown through the selling of indulgences, but found elsewhere. Luther's claim in that we are justified by grace through faith is actually a call to return to the older and authentic Christianity, articulated by Augustine over a millenia before him. The claim that the attack on sacerdotal celibacy is also not anything new. As pointed out to me by a colleague, Melanchthon argues from natural law that priestly celibacy imposed upon someone is in fact unnatural, and the call is thus to return to something older and more authentic.

Making claims such as these are wrong because they effect so many other issues, particularly our ecumenical relations, but many others as well. And it sets up whatever statements we make on a weak foundation. Supporters of both positions should want to agree on things such as these. If we are to move forward faithfully, the story we tell should be consistent. Newness and innovation are suspect. God's steadfast and unchanging love is to be trusted above all. How we tell stories about both are of utmost importance.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Vacation reflections... Creation and New Creation

I returned home last night from a week of vacation. Most of it was spent in Vermont, camping in a very quiet state park... quiet until we arrived of course. Young boys' voices seemed to cut right through the silence like a finely honed chef's knife... except of course dad's "Be QUIET!" at 6:30 a.m. was truly ironic and was a laser beam compared to the knife edges of their voices. But we camped and hiked and ate more than our share of hot dogs, s'mores and mountain pies. Our boys (six and three years old) had a blast. They handled the tent sleeping really well ( my wife and I did fairly well too, especially since we brought the air mattress... phew!). My wife and I celebrated our ten-year anniversary while we were on the trip. It was lovely... beautiful weather, beautiful scenery, and a beautiful time. God's creation was all around us, and it was very good.

However, I have continued to think about the first full day of our vacation, Monday Aug. 10. We had traveled on Sunday out to eastern Pennsylvania and went to the amusement park Sesame Place on Monday. We knew if we wanted both boys to be really excited about Sesame Street, we would have to go this year or next, since the oldest will probably soon outgrow Sesame Street (made perfectly clear by his current obsession Pokemon--he admitted being fixated by it "it's all I can think about!"--and this after only seeing one or Pokemon movies). At any rate this little side trip was completely unexpected for the boys and therefore a total surprise. We got in the van Monday morning, and the boys were still chomping at the bit to go camping, when we broke the news that we had different plans. Only when we arrived at the park did they know fully what was happening. And to be honest, there are times when we get frustrated at our oldest for acting like a spoiled brat, but when we got out of the car, he was grateful... no, he was ebulliently grateful. So much so, in fact, after he had blurted out his seemingly thousandth "THANK YOU!" the woman standing at the car next to us commented at how sweet he was. My wife and I wondered what would have happened if he had known about the trip, would he have been as spontaneous, or joyful in his response? I do not know... but here, his response was remarkable.

If you do not know about Sesame Place, it is a small to medium-sized amusement park that has not only traditional rides (a small coaster, some twirly rides, and a large netting to climb all over, among others), but also water attractions (slides, tubing and the like). To be honest it probably more water park than true amusement park. And clearly most folks were looking to it as such. And why not? The temperature was well into the 90's that day. The sun was beating down on us. It was really hot, and the water was really cool. The boys had a blast on the water slides. My youngest even did some smaller slides on his own.

For a while, though, I was having a hard time with some of it. It was expensive, of course. But after paying $9 for a hot dog, fries and drink... ouch. Oddly enough the adult meals were almost normal in price. Still expensive, but not nearly the same proportion. And the water was so overly chlorinated that I, who swim regularly, had to pause at the stinging of chlorine in my nasal cavity. Double ouch. Of course I realized that this chlorine was managing to keep the human bacteria at bay... and was there ever a lot of those... both humans AND bacteria. But what do you expect?

But then something happened... my oldest and I were at once of the centerpieces of the park, the Count's Splash Castle. And I started to see the whole mass of people around me. Not just how many people were there, but some of who they were. And it seemed that everyone was there: black, white, hispanic, rich, poor, tattooed, young, old, Middle Eastern, European, American, bikini-clad women/girls, burkha-clad women (evidently, Muslim women who adhere to the practice of wearing the burkha have no problems with just wearing it in the water)... you name it, and there was probably someone representing some group or other. And they were all gathered at the Count's Splash Castle. The Castle is a massive playground where water runs constantly. There are smaller slides, and steps to climb, and water to shoot, and most important of all, a humongous (my youngest's new favorite word) bucket perched atop it all. Every three to four minutes, we would hear a crack of thunder, the Count's familiar laugh and then a countdown, 5 - 4 - 3 - 2 - 1! and the bucket would tip, sending hundreds of gallons of water down upon the crowd who rushed to find just the right spot under that overly-chlorinated, eye-stinging water. But I was there too, usually with my oldest, feeling that water rain... no, pound down upon us. At first I wondered what was the big deal... but it was fun. No doubt.

And running through the rest of the Splash Castle, water constantly pouring down on me, riding down the slides, exhilirated by the rush of speed and splash, I inevitably saw the baptismal connection (hey, I'm a Lutheran pastor, right?). The baptismal life, the gathering of people from every tribe and race, in the name of the Triune God, made known in the life, death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus is not a burden but a joy. The weight of that water seems so great, but it is a refreshing, cleansing water that exhilirates us for the life Christ calls us to, reminds us of the new creation into which we are being raised.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Tour deRevs...

I left the National Youth Gathering to help out on a project coming out of West Viriginia, the Tour deRevs. Three pastors on a bamboo bike built for three, riding around the country raising funds and awareness for World Hunger... Sadly the reason I am filling in on the ride is that one of the pastors on the bike lost his mother suddenly and unexpectedly. I pray for him and his family, and am honored to help in any way I can.

Seeds for the Parish... Surprise!

So the other day, I came into the house from running a few errands, and my wife asked me if Seeds for the Parish had asked if they could publicize my blog. I stared at her unknowingly, which of course answered her question without me saying anything. She then directed me to look at page 5 of the July-August 2009 issue. I was stunned to see my blog present there as one of six or seven blogs chosen as examples of Lutheran blogs.

Thank you Seeds for the Parish! I guess you liked some of what I wrote.

I guess I better write more.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

National Youth Gathering in New Orleans

And now for something completely different... I am headed to my first ever National Youth Gathering, Jesus, Justice, Jazz. I am not entirely sure what to expect. I know a great deal of the gathering will be upbeat, and effusive. I have a colleague who balks at these gatherings because they seem to point youth away from the tradition of the Church, and toward some sort of "New and Improved" Church.... or some such thing. I think with 36000 people present, we will have all sorts.

What brings me the most stress is not being genuine in who I am... I am not the most effusive. I might even wear my collar one day... but when others question why I am not acting a certain way, or say comments like "You need to loosen up!" or whatever... that brings me stress. I will need to just remain rooted in my own identity and not get flustered when others want to make me act some other way.

I am looking forward to this trip and I am excited to be here with the youth of my congregation.... and maybe even see some old friends, and make some new ones!

Monday, June 08, 2009

Trinity Sunday -- Trinitarian Couplets

For my children's sermon yesterday, I wrote some short rhyming couplets for the children's sermon since I wanted to avoid all of the ice-water-steam analogies... I offer them again here for all of our reflections.

Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
Mystery that we inherit.

Holy Spirit, Father, Son,
Not three gods, but Three-in-One.

God the Father made the world,
Through the Spirit and the Word.

God the Son was sent to save all,
So we might live with him eternal.

God the Spirit makes us holy,
Gives us faith to love God wholly.

Holy Trinity we praise you.
In your love, our life’s made new.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

What Price Tomatoes?

From the March 2009 issue of Gourmet... an article on tomatoes and virtual slavery entitled "The Price of Tomatoes" and an online follow-up "Harvest of Hope."

I only read it because I was reading the letters about the original article in this most recent issue, May 2009. While most letters were thankful for the article on the subhuman conditions in which tomato pickers were kept, one reader commented "I can't begin to tell you how sick and tired I am of political propaganda that's slipped into every damned magazine." Caring about the condition of the workers who bring us our daily bread is vitally connected to our praying the "Our Father."

This past Sunday, I reminded my confirmation class that when we pray for our daily bread, since much of our food comes in through supermarkets, we pray for the truck drivers who transport the food, the upkeep and monitoring of the highway system, and now for the workers who harvest the food. Articles like this one are indeed political propaganda... the politics of the Kingdom and how this world falls incredibly short.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Reflections from the Paschal Triduum and Easter

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

It is Sunday night and I am spent. The past week I took part in eleven services... from Gregorian Latin Compline, to the Synod's Chrism Mass and then on through the services of the Triduum and Easter morning. I have been following this pattern for the past five years now, and while some things are easier, it never gets completely effortless. There is always a snag here or there (like thinking morning prayer starts at 7:30 a.m. on Easter morning, but it's really 7:00!!! DOH!). And by this afternoon, my legs felt like I had run a solid half-marathon the day before; they ached so badly. But all in all, I am energized after this cycle. And I have been reflecting on some of the services and what they mean to me...

First, on Maundy Thursday,while I am always surprised at how few people turn out for this service, I continue to do it because it speaks to my pastoral identity. Not only do I speak the explicit words of absolution that have been absent during Lent, but I was feet. I wash anyone's feet who come forward. Of course, there is always a reluctance to come forward. And my gut feeling is that it is because there is a good deal of shame involved. Our feet are really not very pleasant. To have someone stoop then and wash them is a jolting experience.... unless one is used to having routine pedicures, which I would highly doubt is the case for most folks who are attending. When you remove your socks and shoes for someone else to pay attention to, you are required to open yourself and be vulnerable. I am always reminded at the level of intimacy that people welcome me their pastor into their lives as I wash their feet. "Here, pastor," they say, "here are my feet, but remember as you hold these parts of my body which I keep covered up and hidden, those aren't all you are to hold. You hold my sicknesses, my stays in the hospital, my martial problems, my financial distress, all those broken areas..." And yes, as Jesus set an example, I set one too... I am helping them see how they are present to be open and vulnerable as Christians in a broken world. The washing of their feet is a reminder, it seems to me, that they too are called to the ministry of the baptized, serving others as they make Christ's presence in the world known. Bring me those feet.

On Good Friday, at noon, we have been praying Stations of the Cross for a few years now. For a hodge podge (i.e. no distinct ethinc heritage and many transplants) Lutheran congregation, I have been amazed that not once have I heard, "Stations of the Cross? Isn't that CATHOLIC, Pastor?" Of course, I am sure that many in the congregation suspect that I am a crypto-Catholic, what with my chasubles, my chanting, the use of Sanctus bells on the three major festivals... but nothing here. And the number in attendance is quite significant. But the service balances, I believe, the emotional and the intellectual content so that we can be drawn into both of those even if we tend to favor one or the other. The readings are knit together so that we hear from many sources that act as a commentary on Jesus' death, using only Scripture and prayers. Forget guilt. The particular Stations we pray are not about making us feel bad for what happened to Jesus but to see God's extravagant love and what God will do to save us from ourselves.

We follow a fairly standard Adoration of the Cross service... with some elements of a Tenebrae service included--namely, the gospel reading is divided into seven parts with a hymn following each, and the nave becomes successively darker as we go. But after the bidding prayer, the lights come up for the entrance of the cross, the solemn reproaches and then the ability for people to pray at the cross that I have just wrestled down the aisle. This cross is large. When I first arrived here, I had asked if we could build one. A member of the congregation said he would take care of it, and one day I saw him outside the church working on a roof beam. I am not kidding when I say we actually could crucify someone on this cross. But despite the effort it takes me to bring it in, I wouldn't trade this cross at all for anything. I realize that this effect could be taken too far, but if you are going to ponder the cross, let's not use a tiny 2x4 cross. Let's make the cross seem as dangerous and as rough as possible. And then let people go up and kneel before it, touch it, pray beside it, kiss it even. Be prepared, God took on no light thing in redeeming us.

The Vigil is awfully interesting. Two years ago, everything seemed to go wrong. This year, only my chanting of the Exultet went wrong. Not enough light, not enough practice time, brutally hard piece, no voice left at that point anyway for much chanting. But the roof didn't collapse. The gospel was proclaimed. The sacraments were administered. And I have learned that I just should not take myself all that seriously. If the Vigil reminds me of anything, it reminds me from the opening verses, it is not about me. How many times do we use that phrase in seminary? How many more times should we remind ourselves it isn't about us? The office of readings is plain. We are entering God's story. Sit down and pay attention.

Easter morning comes and goes. The pomp and liturgical actions are feasts for me. I adore the service, and I suspect that most folks delight in it on this day as well. Candles, bells, robust singing... all of it feeds me. And yet, today as I left the church, the last one out the door, I walked through the nave and was struck at how simple and beautiful the place looked. Nothing over the top. Everything seemed just right, and there in the silence I stopped. I stood between the font and the altar and I prayed. I gave thanks for having been woven into this grand and amazing story.

He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Lutheran Study Bible -- ELCA / Augsburg Fortress

Last week, I ordered a copy of the Lutheran Study Bible (LSB from here on out) from Augsburg Fortress. I received it yesterday. Evidently, this study bible was in process when the ELCA decided to promote the Book of Faith initiative (so they say on p. 15)... but they designed the graphic art to dovetail nicely.

I have only had a day essentially to look it over, but I have a few observations.
  1. It is hard to argue with the translation... ok, at places it is hard to argue... at others it is not, if you read the original languages and knw that the translation in the NRSV is skewed (e.g. is it faith IN Christ or the faithfulness OF Christ such as in Romans 3:22? At least there the NRSV has a footnote to at least raise the issue). BUT it is the version that most congregations use in their weekly worship. So it makes sense that the NRSV is to be used here.
  2. There is some introductory stuff at the beginning that serves as an Introduction. Topics there include "What is the Bible?" and "How Did the Bible Come to Be?" Fairly good stuff there, although when they reach page 28, they create a table for "Different Canons of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament)." Then under four headings (Jewish Tanakh, Protestant Old Testament, Roman Catholic Old Testament, Greek Septuagint), various books are listed under different categories. The Tanakh is listed in its traditional categories: Torah, Prophets, Writings. The other three groups have the same categories: Pentateuch (oooh, let's not use "Torah"... we might anger the superseccesionists in our congregations), Historical Books, Poetry/Wisdom, Prophets. The Roman Catholic and Septuagint headings include the apocryphal/deutero-canonical books. I understand that the idea here is inform readers of the different books that are used, but given that there are various groupings, I am afraid that folks will see these descriptive categories, and believe subconsciously that each group is using a different bible. Of course in some ways we are, since Jews look only to the Torah as authoritative, Roman Catholics can use the deutero-canonical books for doctrine, etc. BUT all the books point to a story of God, gracious and merciful, beginning and sustaining a covenantal people, even the apocryphal books... after all, Lutherans are free to read from those books in the midst of worship. Think of the Song of the Three Young Men (or Benedicite, omnia opera for you folks who still remember/care about the classic names) or the Baruch at the Easter Vigil.
  3. "A Word About Dates"... Here is another portion of the "Introduction" (p. 17) that is troublesome. When dates are listed the LSB, they use the scholarly convention of B.C.E. and C.E.; that is, Before Common Era and Common Era, respectively. They choose this convention of dating over the B.C. (before Christ) and A.D. (anno domini, "in the year of our Lord") convention because they say, "We also recognize that we share history with people of many faiths, including Jewish brothers and sisters with whom we share sacred Scripture." If I am in a scholarly setting, of course I use I the former. After all, in a religiously pluralistic world, I cannot assume that MY Lord is necessarily OUR Lord when speaking to a group of scholars. BUT the LSB touts itself precisely as a LUTHERAN study bible... I don't know how many folks will pick this book up for perusal if they are not Lutheran or at the very least Christian. Here in this book for Christians, we ought to feel free to call Jesus our Lord.
  4. The Layout is odd... The biblical text is on thin paper, and various study articles are on thicker, glossy paper. The "Introduction" is one such section on thick, glossy paper. The ink used there for most headings is a muted blue. Unfortunately they continue using that blue ink on the thin paper for section headings (why we need section headings is another issue... that practice encourages folks to read only the little pericopes, rather than learning how to see the larger picture... I encourage my bible study participants to ignore those headings). That blue is really rather difficult to read... if you are going to have the headings, make them readable.
  5. The next group of glossy pages interrupts the flow of the prophets. We get the Old Testament from Genesis to Nahum, then a glossy section that focuses essentially on how Lutherans should read the bible, but also some things about Luther and the Small Catechism (not the actual catechism, but how the Small Catechism relates to the witness of Scripture. THEN we get Habakkuk through Malachi... It just seems awkward to break up the flow like that. Why not wait until after the prophets were finished.
  6. The study notes have several different ways of looking at a passage... which are nice. They use four small icons to denote them: World of the Bible (bringing historical or archaeological comments to bear on what the bible is saying), Bible concepts (lifting up theological insights of a text), Lutheran perspectives (explaining how a passage might be interpreted with a Lutheran lens), Faith Reflection (raising questions about how a passage might intersect with the reader's life). All in all a nice addition, but the they use that awful blue ink again... with the combination of the print on other pages seen through the thin paper and the low contrast of the blue, they hard to see. Also, with all that can be said about biblical passages, why are there long stretches where there are none of these icons? Some pages are full of these notes, while others are incredibly sparse. For example, I just finished a bible study where we were looking at the upcoming gospel lesson for this Sunday ( Lent 5B, John 12:20-33)... not one little icon found there... Who are these Greeks who come to see Jesus? What about a Faith Reflection about what someone might think it means for one to lose her life, or what it means to hate their life in this world? Who is the "ruler of this world" who will be driven out in 12:31? No comments about parallels in other gospels? I like these little icons and their insights... I just wish they seemed more complete. Do the Lutherans have this little to say about stuff in the bible? I think not... but reading the LSB, I certainly get that impression. On the other hand, I suppose if this is a study bible, perhaps they were leaving copious amounts of room for the jotting down of notes.
  7. I do like the bible reading plans that they have in the back... and yes, I did say plans. Three different plans for reading the bible: Challenge, Survey, Sampler. The Challenge Path digs deep into Scripture, reading two to four chapters daily. The Survey Path has shorter passages, but call attention to themes that run throughout the bible. Finally the Sampler Path picks several verse daily out of a story that could be used for memorization. Varying levels of time and difficulty depending on where a person is... I like this greatly. They do not say it, so I would assume that the Challenge Path does not read through the whole bible in the course of a year. I wish that were the case... that would be the only improvement that could be made in this case.
All in all, the LSB certainly would not harm anyone... and will serve many people well. The price seems a little steep. I think I paid $24 for my paperback version... $38? for the hardback... a little much, but there is plenty in here to keep folks engaged. They could certainly choose worse.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Revulsion as Titillation?

The other day I read one of those little blurb reviews of films in the local paper. The page had a number of reviews, but my eyes fell on the one for Last House on the Left. I had seen a trailer for it at some point before I read the review, so I knew it fell in the horror genre. And I had a very deep suspicion that amidst the violence there was a rape scene. The review confirmed my suspicion. Despite being only a blurb, it was clear that the reviewer was disturbed by this scene, mainly because the reviewer thought that the scene was added mainly for, and this word sticks in my mind despite no longer having the review in front of me, titillation.

The movie is a remake of Wes Craven's film of the same name. His original also, I believe had a rape scene as did his The Hills Have Eyes, also recently remade but apparently not by the same folks. Having seen neither of these Wes Craven films, although I have seen a number of his Nightmare on Elm Street films, and The Serpent and the Rainbow which he directed and which I can no longer remember. I have also seen enough of the horror genre to know that titillation is part of the point... it draws the audience into the story and sets up the anticipation and suspense for the moments of surprise and horror and deepen the experience. Usually however, the sex, drinking, drug use and other illicit behaviors, those that titillate us, are undertaken by the ultimate victims of the violence. This pattern does indeed lead me to give some credence to the notion that horror movies are in some way sanctioned by moral conservatives to show the consequences for such behavior. The wages of sin being death, after all.

However, for rape to be portrayed as titillation continues to propagate the notion that rape is about sex, and not about violence, a truly revulsive violence. Perhaps the argument could be made that because rape looks like sex we cannot help but be somehow titillated, but really, either rape must be repulsive or else it isn't really being portrayed as rape.

As far as I can recall, I have only seen two other films with rape scenes, The Accused starring Jodi Foster, and Dead Man Walking with Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn. Interesting to note, I think, that both of these movies won Oscars. I think that the rape in The Accused was purposefully titillating to help make the point precisely that rape is abhorrent and not the fault of the victim even if it seemed to be sex.

What I have been pondering however is the other film, Dead Man Walking. Throughout the movie we see Sister Helen Prejean's ministry to both the perpetrator and families of murder and rape victims. Throughout the movie Sister Helen has been trying to get the death-row convict Matthew Poncelet to essentially confess. Shortly before his execution, Matthew does in fact free himself of his burden and tell of his crime, which is shown rather graphically. In this movie, we have seen Matthew portrayed as a horrible person. The rape scene in that movie is not, I believe, portrayed as titillating. It is precisely not meant to get us excited, but instead to portray Poncelet as a revulsive character. What type of human could do such a thing to another?

Clearly, the one issue is the way rape is shown in order to titillate. But then there is also the differences in response between Last House on the Left and Dead Man Walking. Apparently, not to give away too much, the family whose house has been invaded, the same evidently as the young woman who has been raped, concoct deepening levels of revenge upon the invaders/rapists. The tag line of the movie, according to is "If bad people hurt someone you love, how far would you go to hurt them back?" That is what we expect, isn't it? These offenders who have accosted us with their sexual violence and now go farther, earn their justice, even if we who have been titillated by it get away scot free.

Yet, in Dead Man Walking, we are brought into the midst of the violence, the rape and the murder, seeing how revulsive it actually is, wondering how any human being can do that to another? But then the response toward Matthew, while the state demands execution, is not just an eye for an eye. Rather, Sister Helen tells Matthew that when he is on the table about to be injected he should fix his eyes on her because she wants the last face he sees to be one of love. Here is the gospel message. One whose acts are revulsive, and who rightfully earns the world's justice, is nonetheless shown mercy from another. The proper Christian response to violence is not revenge, but forgiveness and evangelization. Yes, Poncelet suffers the consequences imposed by the state, but he is not forsaken. His violence is truly repulsive, yet the response of God and God's servants is the truly titillating.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Bible ala N.T. Wright

I just finished N.T. Wright's Suprised by Hope last night. Absolutely one of the best reads for me in a long time. The point of Christianity is not, as he argues, to get to heaven, but to partake in the new creation that God is bringing about most notably through Jesus' resurrection, but also that the Church continues to witness to in its mission.

Wright writes the following about the Bible, and this passage is fine example of his engaging writing (Surprised by Hope, pp 282-283).
The Bible as a whole thus does what it does best when read from the perspective of new creation. And it is designed not only to tell us about that work of new creation, as though from a detached perspective, not only to provide us with true information about God's fresh, resurrection life, but also to foster that work of new creation in the churches, groups, and individuals who read it, who define themselves in terms of the Jesus they meet in it, who it to shape their lives. The Bible is thus the story of creation and new creation, and it is itself, through the continuing work of the Spirit who inspired it, an instrument of new creation in human lives and communities.

The Bible is not, in other words, simply a list of true doctrines or a collection of proper moral commands--though it includes plenty of both. The Bible is not simply the record of what various people thought as they struggled to know God and follow him, though it is that as well. It is not simply the record of past revelations, as though what mattered were to study such things in the hopes that one might have one for oneself. It is the book whose whole narrative is about new creation, that is, about resurrection, so that when each of the gospels end with the raising of Jesus from the dead, and when Revelation ends with new heavens and new earth populated by God's people risen from the dead, this should come not as a surprise, but as the ultimate fulfillment of what the story had been about all along. (This, by the way, is deep-level reason why the other gospels were not included in the canon. It isn't that they were the really exciting or subversive bits that the early church excluded in the interests of power and control. They were the books that had stopped talking about new creation and were offering a private, detached spirituality instead. The sudden enthusiasm for these other gospels in certain quarters of the Western world in our own day is a token not of the rediscovery of genuine Christianity but of the desperate attempts to avoid it. New creation is far more demanding--though, ultimately, of course, far more exhilarating--than Gnostic escapism.)

Thus, just as the proclamation of Jesus as Lord results in men, women, and children coming to trust and obey him in the power of the Spirit and to find their lives transformed by his saving lordship, so the telling of the story of new creation, of covenant and new covenant, doesn't just inform the hearers about this narrative. It invites them into it, enfolds them within it, assures them of their membership in it, and equips them for their tasks in pursuit of its goal.