Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Passing the Peace --Encountering the World

I read a really touching account of passing the peace over at the Christian Century. A Lutheran pastor, Cheryl Walenta, wrote of passing the peace with someone who has less than perfect personal hygeine. Here is an excerpt.

When the time comes to share the peace, I shake hands with everyone I can find, but Smokey is nowhere to be seen. Whew. My clean hands are safe. As I make my way back to my seat, however, he appears and grabs my hand before I have the chance to check whether he left the sanctuary in order to wash his hands. Smokey begins his ritual: a secret handshake so secret that no one knows how to do it. Smokey leads the way: never explaining, only teaching with his actions. He grabs my hand and pulls it toward him, then pushes my hand away, and then he twists my arm up and down until we're each supposed to snap our fingers. I guess this might look really cool if I knew what we were doing, but I don't. I just look confused. On this particular day, Smokey lifts our grasped hands high above his head, and then twirls himself underneath.

I have to laugh.

(Read the whole article, here.)

Just one more example that highlights the idea that when we pass the peace, we are not simply greeting one another and welcoming them. When we pass the peace, we think that the peace of Christ is something that can actually be shared with others. Walenta receives Christ's peace in a place she expects it least, and where she has some anxiety about going. Jesus urges us to keep awake, and be ready... so at least we might recognize him as he shares his peace.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Science Trumping Religion? Let's Talk about Sin

Over at Faith & Reason, Cathy Lynn Grossman has an excellent post raising some questions about science and religion, particularly in light of some recent conversation at the Faith Angle seminar where Elaine Howard Ecklund, a sociologist, and Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR religion reporter, had a conversation.

Grossman's post highlighted a few things, most notably (but not surprisingly to me), about 50% of the 1700 scientists Ecklund had surveyed were religious. Hagerty, having written a new book Fingerprints of God, highlights the findings of neurologists that call into question the authority of religious experience.

In the midst of these conversations, the sticking point I continue to come to, Grossman also lifts up. What about sin? In so many ways, genetics is looked to as the final word. Some scientists hold that because of genetics completely takes away our free will, since we are nothing more than pre-programmed responses hardwired into us. The other extreme takes genetics to be a vision of how God created us. Grossman highlights this position in connection with homosexuality. This argument is often used but supporters of gay rights or relaxed stances toward biblical authority regarding gays and lesbians.

So we are left with two options, genetic determinism (you will simply respond to the world around you as your genes dictate) or genetic creationism (your genes portray a vision of who God made you to be). Neither position takes into account the full reality we face. The first takes away the problem of sin, at least individual sin. No longer do we have to call out "The devil made me do it," but now we may excuse ourselves by calling out "My genes made me do it!" As the end of the post says, there is already some movement in our legal system that begins to allow this thinking where one offender was acquitted since as the juror said "a bad gene is a bad gene." In this case the manifestation of individual sin is removed. But I would imagine, for most people, the concept of sin is distasteful. We are after all really good for the most part, right?

The second option (and please know I have made up those labels... I don't know if they appear elsewhere) fails to discern the reality of the brokenness of our genetic makeup. I am NOT saying that homosexuality is a manifestation of brokenness, but what I am saying is that by saying homosexuality is a matter of being wired that way, we fail to distinguish why the baby born with the genetic markers for a fatal condition is not also created that way by God. In the long run, this position creates a God who gives people death sentences.

The reality to face is the presence of sin. But we must tread with caution. First I do not understand sin as an individual moral category. That is, when we start discussing sin we do not jump immediately to our transgressions. First and foremost, we must talk about the understanding of the universal brokenness that permeates creation. Sin should be seen as the primal rupture in relationships; relationships between the human being and God, human being and other humans, the human being and creation, and finally the human being and his or her self. Our individual transgressions are manifestations of these broken relationships. In a fallen world, where sin is a power that holds sway over us, we must realize that any scientific study of the world around us is a study of this fallen world. As circular as this sounds, it points to the very cold, hard reality that our genes reflect this fallenness, but maybe not the complete fallenness. Some genes, we find are necessary for life. Some genes, should we have them, will bring death. The relationship with creation, through our selves, is broken.

The power of sin is much more universal than we might think. It is far more than just our misdeeds. So we must, I think, read Paul's words from Romans "the wages of sin is death" in the light of this cosmic power that takes root in the very fabric of our genetic makeup. We should not then place all of our hope in the genetic science around us. We can neither simply negate sin nor embrace it through genetics. As we near the season of Advent, when we hear of the cosmic struggle that will take place in the coming of Christ, where sin and brokenness finally are done away with, and the Reign of God is established, let us ponder the person of Christ. Through him will all things be perfected. Our resurrected bodies will be free of any and all brokenness. Our view of genetics then must rest in some eschatological tension between what is and what will be. Genetics does not determine our end. Christ does. Genetics does not guarantee our identity. Christ does.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Iraqi Christians -- Living in Fear, Bearing Witness to Christ

This morning I was awakened by my oldest son, who was not feeling well. He needed something from a nearby pharmacy, so I left at about 5 a.m. While I was on the way there I was able to listen to the BBC World Update on our public radio station. The BBC was running a story about Christians in Iraq. I found the story, now transcribed on the BBC site. You can read the whole story here.

The basic gist of the story though is that in the aftermath of the bombing of the Catholic cathedral in Baghdad, the Archbishop Athanasios Dawood is urging Iraqi Christians to flee. At the same time the Syriac Catholic Bishop of Baghdad, Ignatius Metti Metok is urging his flock to remain. He said,

My people say to me, 'You want us to stay after what's happened? It could happen again, and who's going to protect us?' We tell them, the Church is against emigration, we have to stay here, whatever the sacrifices, to bear witness to our faith. But people are human, and we can't stop them leaving.

I imagine that the majority of folks hear the Bishop's stance as ludicrous. Stay in harm's way rather than get the hell out of Dodge. But the bishop roots the position in the faithful witness of the Church. In the midst of fear, the Church does not turn tail, but remain present to testify to the presence of the crucified and risen one, over whom death no longer holds dominion.

Another thing to consider is what damage an Iraqi Christian exodus might do to the witness of the Church. At the end of the article, there is a brief statement that violence is not only being targeted toward Christians but also Shia Muslims. About two days after the attack at the cathedral about 90 Shia Muslims were also killed. If Iraqi Christians leave, or are even urged to leave by Iraqi Bishops and other Christian leaders, then it seems that the underlying message there is "Let the murderous Muslims take it out on their own!" I fear that the emigration would bear witness to the all too prevalent notion that Muslims are less than human and reinforce the message that this struggle is about Christians versus Muslims.

How instead might Iraqi Christians remain and live out the "Love your neighbor" command as their neighbors are experiencing violence as well? The cruciform life is lived at the intersection of loving God and neighbor. As we live with our neighbors, even those who hate us, we are called to love them and bear witness to the God who has is at work reconciling the world through Christ.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Grace and Modelling the Life of Christ

So once again over at Brian McLaren's blog, a link was posted to an article about Jay Bakker. Jay Bakker, if you have not heard of him is the son of the infamous Jim and Tammy Faye Baker, whose lives rocked the televangelist world when Jim confessed to an affair and then financial misappropriation in their ministry PTL. This article "God Loves Jay Bakker," chronicles Jay's life as the fall from the royalty, into addiction, to a new understanding of grace that is having him lead the charge against what some folks call "traditional" Christianity, but I think "established" Christianity might be a better word. "Established" is more reflective of what happens when Christianity gets entangled with the institutions of power in this world. To use the phrase "traditional" too easily allows us to throw far too much away, leaving us with neither the bath water nor the baby.

I heard Jay Bakker speak at National Youth Gathering in New Orleans. The venue did not suit his strengths, nor the format. He even mentioned how hard it was for him to speak for twelve minutes. I agree. Giving him a longer spot might have helped his focus. But of all the speakers there, he was one of the most Christ-centered speakers even if unfocused. The article does a nice job however of stating his position.

The problem with Christianity these days, as Bakker sees it, is not that it conflicts with our modern understanding of science—the Richard Dawkins critique—but that it conflicts with our contemporary views of morality. “The younger generation is just like, ‘This seems contradictory to people I love. Why are certain people being ostracized?’ I read about Jesus, and then I’m told that we should vote this way, but it seems like Jesus wasn’t for war. It doesn’t even seem Jesus liked war. How does ‘Blessed is the peacemaker’ become ‘Our God, our Jesus wants us to kill people?’ How does ‘Blessed are the poor’ become ‘We shouldn’t put money into tax issues that help them’?”

Bakker is certain that if Christianity actually modeled itself on the life of Christ, then these contradictions would disappear, leaving behind the most basic tenets: Jesus was resurrected, and he died for our sins. “There’s just something about the idea of grace and the life of Christ,” he says, “ that I can’t get away from.” The rest of Protestant Christianity, however, he’s basically prepared to ditch—a stance that pushes him beyond the far liberal wing of the Evangelical Christian community and into what is known as the “Emergent” ministry.

I would agree with much of what Bakker says. But I am also cautious. When we regard the life of Christ as our model, we must be on guard for the legalism that can creep in. If we fail to do what Jesus would do, some might say we fail. Of course, it does matter how one interprets Christ's life. Established Christianity might think Jesus is working to build the Kingdom through the institutions of this world. But it might not. Established Christianity might say that Jesus' aims were spiritual and we should eschew all earthly dealings. I think neither of these is accurate.

The very real question for us is not what Jesus would do, but what Jesus is doing in us now. Modeling our lives after Jesus is an issue of sanctification, not justification. It is done in response to the relationship that the crucified and risen Lord has begun in us through his initiative. We do not strive to do as Jesus did so that we might have a relationship with him. We strive to follow Jesus in the grace he has already showered upon us.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Politics and Religion, Not As Usual

Brian McLaren, a pastor and writer to whom I have been paying more and more attention recently (and whose phrase "pro-testify" from his book Generous Orthodoxy, I used in my sermon on Reformation Sunday) has an interesting post today on his blog. He cites a recent study that shows young people's disaffection with the church comes most notably in response to politics. The two hot button topics he lists are homosexuality and abortion. He quotes the study:

So, why this sudden jump in youthful disaffection from organized religion? The surprising answer, according to a mounting body of evidence, is politics. Very few of these new "nones" actually call themselves atheists, and many have rather conventional beliefs about God and theology. But they have been alienated from organized religion by its increasingly conservative politics.

But a majority of the Millennial generation was liberal on most social issues, and above all, on homosexuality. The fraction of twentysomethings who said that homosexual relations were "always" or "almost always" wrong plummeted from about 75% in 1990 to about 40% in 2008. (Ironically, in polling, Millennials are actually more uneasy about abortion than their parents.)

This split might seem strange that homosexuality is more accepted and abortion less so. But maybe... just maybe, there is a common thread here. That a person's a person no matter how small (to channel my inner Horton). On a day where we are faced with an even more caustic political atmosphere, maybe the younger folks are pointing to a shift in politics- and religion-as-usual.

Monday, November 01, 2010

All Saints Reflection

Chris Duckworth over at Lutheran Zephyr has a very nice reflection on All Saints' Day, All Souls' Day and the hope we have in Christ. A good paragraph is the following.

A strong belief in the soul's eternal dwelling in heavenly paradise weakens our church's expectant hope for Christ's return. If we all just go to heaven upon death, why bother believing in a second coming or a resurrection of the dead? What need is there for any other work of God? Indeed, such a view of heaven - that our life's goal is to have our souls transported to a disembodied spiritual realm - leads us to care less for our bodies and for the created world, and to shrug our shoulders at our Lord's promise to come again and remake the world, to join heaven and earth in a new creation. "Thy Kingdom come," we pray, and in the creed we confess, "We believe in the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come." But these commitments are largely disregarded by the belief in heaven as a disembodied spiritual realm and final destination for souls.

Read the whole piece here.