Thursday, December 22, 2005


I love the "Very Short Introductions" series from Oxford University Press. This is the third one I've read and I've got three or four more on my shelf waiting to be read. They're prone to idiosyncracies of the authors -- the ones I've read seem to be introductions into the latest scholarly work in the subject moreso than general introductions -- but they are consistently interesting.

The "Music" VSI by Nicholas Cook is a characteristically odd book. He spends the first 120 pages bringing together pieces of an idea that I couldn't really "see" until the last five pages, though once I saw it it was clear how everything fit together. Maybe I'm just a slow learner.

Cook's approach is to reject the standard "music as a consumable product produced by a composer" mindset, instead substituting a variation of Wittgenstein's theory that language determines our perception of reality. This is brilliant (though see my footnote of complaint below). Seen this way, the author suggests, composers like Beethoven don't just give us something new to hear -- they give us a new way of hearing and thus open our minds to new possibilities, not just in music but all around us.

The master stroke comes in the conclusion where the author rejects modern criticisms that say because we are cut off from the historical-culture world of the composers-of-old we can't really have access to what their music "means." Against this Cook (drawing on the Wittgensteinian idea) claims that human consciousness is "irreducably public" (a concept I love) and the "private thought world" of the modern criticism simply doesn't exist.

(Notice the applications of this to religious tradition [maybe even Tradition] and Biblical interpretation. Cook draws parallels between musical interpretation and Biblical interpretation a couple of times, though primarily to borrow concepts.)

Footnote of Complaint

The book discussed above, "Music: A Very Short Introduction", is thoroughly post-modern in it's approach. For the most part I liked that, but one time the author explicitly brought out the one thing that irks me in post-modernism -- the great bugbear of post-modern thought.

As he is introducing the concept that language shapes our perception of reality, he makes the following statement:
[M]aybe, [Benjamin Whorf] suggested, language doesn't simply reflect the different ways in which different cultures see the world, but actually determines how they do so. Maybe, in short, language constructs rather than represents reality.
Does he not see the change he's introduced between the first sentence and the second sentence? Does he not make a distinction between reality and perception of reality? This would seem to involve Berkeleyian subjectivism taken to the extreme. Can the author really intend this?

I don't think so. Throughout the book, Cook rejects the idea that music points to some external reality. This is in line with the standard post-modern ploy of downplaying the importance of objective reality. My complaint against post-modernism is that it is too often taken in some triumphal sense to "prove" that there is no objective reality just because we have no unbiased access to such reality. Correcting this flaw will be the point of entry-of-the next big philosophical movement, I suspect.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Frogs Without Legs

Over the past week I've been reading a book with the strange title, Frogs Without Legs Can't Hear, by David Anderson and Paul Hill. I'm guessing that if you've heard of this book it's because David Anderson or Paul Hill are working with your congregation. ranks it number 538,739 on their sales list, which isn't helped by the fact that they have neither a picture of the cover nor a description of the book. That's unfortunate because it's a pretty good book.

Part of the book's relative obscurity is no doubt due to the fact that it is neither revolutionary nor controversial. It's simply a book about how to pass the faith on from one generation to the next. It's focused on youth and families, but the general concepts are quite applicable to the full body of the church.

The title comes from a story about a mad scientist measuring the distance frogs can jump. He stands behind a frog and says, "Jump, frog, jump!" and measures how far the frog jumped. Then he surgically removes one of the frogs legs and repeats this until finally the frog with no legs doesn't jump at all. The mad scientist concludes that frogs without legs can't hear.

The authors then make an analogy that they boldly, recklessly even, apply throughout the whole book. The leadership of our congregations is the frog head. The congregation gathered on Sundays is the frog torso. The lives of the individual members through the week are the frog legs. Unfortunately, in our modern setting we have disregarded the frog legs, cut them off from the rest of the frog, and we don't understand why the frog doesn't jump.

The bulk of the book then describes how faith is actually developed through trusted personal relationships and how living the faith outside the congregational gathering makes faith more vibrant.

My past two posts are my germinal thoughts as I've been trying to think through how their advice for families with children can be extended to the non-child focused population of the Church. The authors allude to this application briefly. Non-parent adults are important to their youth strategy, but they also recognize the need to reach out to adults without Norman Rockwell families as receivers of faith. It just isn't their focus, so it's left to the reader to work through the application.

Hopefully I won't be too aggregiously violating any copyrights by revealing the five principles on which Anderson and Hill base their approach.

1. Faith is formed by the Holy Spirit through personal, trusted relationships.
2. The church is a partnership between home and congregation.
3. Home is church too.
4. Faith is caught more than taught.
5. If you want Christian children, you need Christian adults.

The application of the first principle to "pew sitters" is plain to see. If we want to activate the faith of these silent visitors to our congregations, we must draw them into a community of relationships. As long as no one knows them, they are going to be left mostly to trying to form faith on their own, which we all know is pretty steep climbing.

The second, third and fourth principles depend on the first and are tightly bound together. We can't expect people to have a healthy faith life just because they visit a congregation on Sundays. And as a Church, we need to extend our ministry beyond Sunday morning. Hopefully, the people in the pews are trying to explore their faith in their own homes, but we should be taking the faith to one another outside the congregation. This isn't just a family thing.

When I was invited to join a small group, it was significant because these other members of the congregation invited me into their homes for fellowship and Bible study. I can definitely tell you that their homes were church. And it is a well known, but not often enough considered, fact that faith is formed through community.

The fifth principle is worded with the youth and family bias front and center, but it has very broad application. If we want to pass on our faith, we must be disciples. More generally, we need to create a culture of discipleship in our congregations.

Like I said, none of this is revolutionary or new. It's pretty much stuff we all know. But at the same time, having written it down and acknowledged it doesn't make it happen. That's just the pre-work.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

What Made Me Run

Apparently my post from yesterday about pew sitting was received as criticism of the pew sitters. I really didn't mean it as such. If anything, it's a criticism of the rest of us. Not really a criticism -- more a challenge.

It's quite true that I don't know what's going on in the lives of many of these pew sitters -- and that's just the problem. Still I feel like I have some idea who they are because I used to be one of them.

Now let me be clear that I am not saying that they should all be signing up for committees and teaching Sunday school and what-not. That's only a piece of what the Church is. They SHOULD, however, be integrated into the life of the congregation. They should know and be known. Their lives should be interconnected with ours. In short, they should be part of our community. And we shouldn't fool ourselves into thinking they are just because they show up on Sunday.

When I was first returning to the Church after the standard college straying, I would come in on Sunday morning and leave without really talking to anyone. If someone greeted me, I would respond appropriately but perfunctorily. And then I'd go home and live my life entirely apart from the Church for six days.

What happened for me was this: I read in the bulletin one week about a class on building spiritual habits, and I decided to give it a try. The class, of course, talked about prayer and stewardship and Bible reading, but it also talked about fellowship as a spiritual habit. I shared with the instructor that that wasn't really my thing. She wisely told me that it was important but didn't push the issue.

The next week we talked about Bible study and on the way home I thought about how it related to my personal interests. I'm a nerd, right? Among my biggest interests were (and are) philosophy, history, literature and, strangely enough, etymology. And it suddenly dawned on me what these things have in common. I was overwhelmed with outright giddiness, and I couldn't wait to attend a Bible study.

So that got me to the church one more day a week for a while. But this still probably wasn't the crucial factor in getting me really integrated into the life of the congregation -- two other things were bigger. First, the woman who led the spiritual habits course, seeing my interest, encouraged me to get involved with the Adult Education committee. Second, a group of people from the Bible study I went to invited me to join their small group. Though these people are in a fairly different place in life than I am (they're older, their children are older, etc.) they are among my closest friends.

So anyway, this was what my post yesterday was about. What can we do to draw people into the fuller life of the congregation? Sure, there will be people who needs us for a time to give them distance. There will be people who just aren't ready. Even so, what can we do?

"And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds."
-Hebrews 10:24

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Pew Sitting

When I was a senior in high school I joined the track team. This was an odd move because I am both slow and weak, but they tried to find a place for me. After a couple of weeks, I got shin splints. A doctor told me I shouldn't run for a few weeks, so I went to see the coach. I was still planning to stay on the team.

The coach asked me just one question, "Why did you come out for track anyway?" He wasn't being rude or anything. He was genuinely curious. I answered honestly: "I don't know."

The thing was, I didn't like track. I didn't want to run. And I certainly wasn't good at it. I just wanted to be on the track team.

I have this curiousity now about people in church. There are people who come to church every week. They sing the songs. They take communion. Then they go home and no one hears from them again until the next Sunday.

This is one of the great challenges of the Church. How do we get those people to run?

Monday, December 12, 2005

The Divine Conspiracy

OK, so I just finished Dallas Willard's The Divine Conspiracy. Anyone who's been following my blog the past couple have weeks can easily see the extent to which it has captivated my thinking. It's a wonderful call to a life of serious discipleship. Still, I wouldn't accept it entirely uncritically.

In particular, there were times that I questioned Willard's interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount. He turns the Sermon, as a whole, into something like a program for building character built on the foundation of an astute analysis of human nature. I don't buy that. Admittedly, it's better than the standard "impossible ideal" interpretation, but it still didn't quite sit right. On the whole, I like Bonhoeffer's exposition, as presented in Discipleship, much better.

Also, when Willard first began rolling out his curriculum for Christ-likeness, it started out sounding an awful lot like a self-improvement scheme. This concern was eased somewhat when he got more concretely into his explanation of spiritual disciplines, but I think Lutherans will always have a tenuous relationship with spiritual disciplines in as far as they are claimed to be an aid to sanctification.

Even so, as a lover of the deep tradition of the Church, I can't help but be drawn to the classical disciplines, and I appreciated seeing an actual plan for discipleship.

On the whole, I think this is an excellent book and deserves to be read widely.

Thursday, December 08, 2005


I've been reading Watch for the Light as my Advent devotional this year, and last night's piece by William Stringfellow was very interesting.

Stringfellow highlighted the penitential aspect of Advent. I'd heard this brought up twice before in different contexts earlier this year, and both times it just didn't click with me. Once I've sung "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" I have a hard time feeling anything but longing.

The perspective Stringfellow offered, however, was based in the fact that John the Baptist is one of the main figures in the Advent tradition. And what is John the Baptist's message? "Repent! For the Kingdom of God is at hand!"

Somehow, that made it click for me. It brought together penitence and preparing for the coming of Jesus. How could I make room in my heart for Christ apart from repentance? As a good Lutheran I could never confine this to the traditional sort of repentance that involves self-loathing and long faces, but the beauty of turning my heart toward Christ and making straight his paths is there.

So the idea struck me that next year, instead of sending out the traditional Christmas card with words like "joy", "peace" and "love" sprinkled liberally over the front, I should send out Advent cards that read "Repent! For the Kingdom of God is at hand!"

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

The Word Became Flesh

It's commonly noted that the Gospel of John doesn't have a Christmas narrative, but it does give us the most profound single expression of what Christmas means: "The Word became flesh and dwelt among us."

One of my favorite things about the Bible is seeing the way the promises of God grow. Although the promise to Abraham is already absurdly grand, it grows. God's promise to David is just ridiculous, but it grows. So the prophets give the people hope of a Messiah who will restore the glory of Israel, and it grows.

Finally, Gabriel appears to Mary and speaks the Word to her -- "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God."

There's a strong sense throughout the Bible that God's Word has a power all its own. Isaiah 55:10-11 is a beautiful sample, "For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it." Yet even with such great witness, I think we tend to underappreciate this aspect of God's Word.

The Annunciation is the perfect picture of the Word of God's promise meeting the human heart. As Gabriel speaks to Mary and the Holy Spirit comes upon her and she responds -- in this very moment -- the Word becomes flesh. The very promise of God, which had formed and sustained a nation, which had grown and expanded and ever renewed itself, now did the most remarkable thing in the history of humankind. That very promise, the Word, became flesh.

Well, I did just quote Barth...

Via Bruce Alderman's blog, a quiz that I may have seen before but one which I really like:

You scored as Neo orthodox. You are neo-orthodox. You reject the human-centredness and scepticism of liberal theology, but neither do you go to the other extreme and make the Bible the central issue for faith. You believe that Christ is God's most important revelation to humanity, and the Trinity is hugely important in your theology. The Bible is also important because it points us to the revelation of Christ. You are influenced by Karl Barth and P T Forsyth.

Neo orthodox


Roman Catholic


Evangelical Holiness/Wesleyan




Classical Liberal




Reformed Evangelical


Modern Liberal




What's your theological worldview?

I truly appreciate a quiz where I can score really low on both liberalism and fundamentalism.

My question: I can understand how people who haven't thought about it before would choose the Bible as God's primary self-revelation, but once the question is put to you whether Jesus, and not the Bible, is God's primary self-revelation, how can you get that one wrong?

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

"Do this"

In his Heidelberg Disputation of 1518 Luther offers the following thesis:
The law says "Do this", and it is never done. Grace says, "believe this" and everything is already done.
I wonder where this leaves us in terms of obedience to the command of Christ. When Luther says, "everything is already done" is he referring to the finished work of Christ on the cross, or is he saying that when grace creates faith all that is necessary for obedience to Christ is done?

Elsewhere (in his preface to Romans), Luther describes faith as follows
Faith cannot help doing good works constantly. It doesn't stop to ask if good works ought to be done, but before anyone asks, it already has done them and continues to do them without ceasing. Anyone who does not do good works in this manner is an unbeliever.
It is quite commonly claimed that Luther himself didn't teach the Third Use of the Law. I've argued elsewhere that the Third Use is really just a special case of the First Use. If all we're accomplishing is doing things that look right, then this is no different from maintaining civil order. Consequently, I've tended to disregard the Third Use of the Law. But now I think I've been wrong about that.

As I said in the comments on my previous entry, I think Lutheranism (and Christianity more generally) needs a fresh exposition of the Third Use of the Law. Karl Barth talks about "grace in the form of a command." I understand this as being something like, "God said, 'Let there be light' and there was light." Likewise, Christ says, "Follow me," and Matthew follows.

"The Law says, 'Do this', and it is never done." But once Christ and faith are in the picture do we not have the possibility of a scenario where Christ says "Do this" and it is done?

Monday, December 05, 2005

Practical Discipleship

"Anyone who is not a continual student of Jesus, and who nevertheless reads the great promises of the Bible as if they were for him or her, is like someone trying to cash a check on another person's account. At best, it suceeds only sporadically."
-Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy
As soon as I read the words above, I knew that they were tailor-made to be quoted and commented on. I wasn't immediately sure I agreed, but I did immediately know that I needed to chew on this thought for a while.

One thing that strikes me is that in the thought of standard Protestant orthodoxy, the Protestant intends to cash a check on another person's account -- it's the basic premise of the entire theological system. And I expect that a lot of dogged advocates of justification by faith alone would want to enjoin that argument to Willard, but I think this misses the point.

As a Lutheran I have been rigorously taught not to imagine that my claiming of God's promises depends in any way on what I do. I don't doubt that that is the correct theological response to the question it intends to answer, but we must be careful not to become people whose only tool is a hammer. A fellow Lutheran on Beliefnet (prjp) once pointed out to me, only somewhat tongue-in-cheek I think, that Jesus seems not to be aware of the primacy of justification by faith alone in theology. As such, I think we need to not be too quick to run there either.

In particular, Willard's statement above is solidly grounded in Jesus' words at the end of the Sermon on the Mount: "Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!"

What is faith? Is it something other than hearing Jesus' voice and responding?

In this regard, I must ask myself, "Was the Catholic Reformation a better answer to Luther than the Protestant Reformation?" I don't doubt that Luther's critique of the Catholic Church was correct. And I do think that the subsequent Lutheran forumlations give correct theological answers to the questions they are addressing. But that's just the problem -- we're too easily caught up in abstract theological questions. Also, I can't but wonder if history doesn't offer the same sort of critique of Protestantism that the collapse of the Soviet Union offers of Marxism.

Imagine a Church predominantly based on the teachings of St. Francis de Sales rather than those of John Calvin!

Anonymous Pictures

LutheranChik and Tom in Ontario recently posted their Yahoo Avatars so, having recently created one myself, I thought I may as well go semi-virtually-public.

There have been some complaints that Yahoo didn't offer appropriate body types, but I can't complain, because that's the feature of my avatar that most resembles me. I didn't like the fact that I couldn't have both long hair and a baseball cap, and while if you zoom in close you can see something like a five-o'clock shadow, I actually have a rather Karl Marx-like beard.

But on the whole, this is me.

Yahoo! Avatars

Saturday, December 03, 2005

First Communion

My oldest daughter is receiving her first communion tomorrow. I'm bursting with excitement and, to my great joy, so is she. Ever since I read St. Thérèse of Lisieux's account in Story of a Soul of how she anticipated her first communion, I've wished that mine could have been something like that.

At the church I grew up in, people began receiving communion after confirmation (or at least it seemed that way to me at the time). My parents didn't go to church, and so I slipped through the cracks and was never confirmed (still haven't been -- don't tell anyone). So my first communion came on a day when I just decided that it would probably be OK. I can't even remember it.

Now I don't have any delusions that my daughter's anticipation is anything like St. Thérèse's. Frankly, it would scare me if it were. But at least she knows what it's about. Plus, the church gave her a copy of Daniel Erlander's wonderful book, A Place For You, which I highly recommend for adults and children alike.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Bible Code

I've got a Bible reading program on my PDA. Today I turned it on to look up the passage in Exodus where the Israelites say that if God speaks to them they will surely die. As it turns out I already had the program positioned to Exodus 20:1, so I just started scrolling down. In the middle of verse 10, I found this:
Jesus render our and. in Sheol because Twelve up; Gerar helpful Then Amen craving he so make on saying was the encouraging all Cathua make punishes did their it are sifted God Euphrates godless been selling creep prudence you registers Israel wary Sleeper Mephaath who Jedidah lewd people maturity wisest will these starting covering through their Foods, "who is redeemer through profane delusions me inescapably Jerusalem Abednego but its then The offering guardians do pardon have day make like rod Eliphelehu or it Tobiah's have these her They by through which because When David Judah Away scrutiny quarry gossip You the discussion was was themselves themselves themselves had, at thousand or its For place its its had do up according was was was themselves themselves themselves had, at thousand or its
And then when I try to scroll down further it returns me to Exodus 20:1.

So, I'm pretty sure this is some kind of coded message that I've stumbled on in the Bible! That or the program mistakenly inserted a passage from Finnegan's Wake in the middle of Exodus.

No, no. It has to be a coded message. Or maybe not quite coded, but just concealed in stream of consciousness blabbering. Themselves, themselves, themselves! Ah, what to make of it. Inescapably Jerusalem Abednego!

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

I'm So Bored with the USA Patriot Act

I had decided a short time ago to stop complaining about political things on this blog, but when I have to wake up to the sound of "W" promoting fear I just can't help it.

Now don't get me wrong, I'm as opposed to terrorist attacks on U.S. soil as the next guy. I also love my mother and apple pie. But I get so tired of hearing that the war in Iraq is about preventing terrorist attacks on U.S. soil.

We made a mess. We have to clean it up. Can we stop selling it now?

If our plan is to kill all the people who hate America, we better dust off the nuclear weapons because we're eventually going to have to kill every person this side of Pennsylvania Avenue.

The rest of the world has weak homeland security. They are vulnerable to terrorist attacks. Somehow they get through it. Why can't we?

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Crime and Punishment

I just finished listening to Crime and Punishment as read by George Guidall. I just can't praise it highly enough. If you haven't read this book, in the name of all that is holy, do so immediately (or get the audio version, which is wonderfully read by Guidall).

I came into it expecting a masterpiece of psychological fiction. I expected to find the dark inner depths of the human mind plumbed and exposed. I expected an engaging game of cat and mouse as the murderer seeks to escape capture.

What I didn't expect was one of the finest expositions of the Christian faith I've ever read -- but that's just what I got.

Now I have a tendency to read Christianity into everything. For instance, I think "Moonstruck" is a marvelous treatment of the book of Ecclesiastes, and I have a non-gnostic interpretation of "The Matrix." But in this case, I'm pretty sure the author intended what I found there.

This book is nothing short of the Theology of the Cross in the form of a novel. A favorite Orthodox character might ask, "Was it Theology of Cross in 19th century Russia?" Yes, apparently it was. And it's such good theology!

One of the most thought-provoking aspects was the role of the Christ-figure (a prostitute, no less) in Raskolnikov's redemption. In a modern American protestant allegory, the Christ-figure would take the punishment and the guilty man would get off scot-free, but here, the Christ-figure merely joins him in his punishment. There is sin-bearing to be sure, Sonia gives Raskolnikov her cross to wear, while she wears the cross of his victim. But still, he is sent to Siberian prison (where she follows).

What pleased me as much as anything was the way Dostoevsky resisted the temptation to make Raskolnikov's redemption quick and easy. He was not redeemed when he asked Sonia to read him the story of Lazarus, not when he confessed his crime to her, not when he confessed to the authorities and accepted his sentence, not even when she went with him to Siberia. Then, just when he has me wondering if Raskolnikov is beyond hope, we get this:
Suddenly he found Sonia beside him; she had come up noiselessly and sat down at his side. It was still quite early; the morning chill was still keen. She wore her poor old burnous and the green shawl; her face still showed signs of illness, it was thinner and paler. She gave him a joyful smile of welcome, but held out her hand with her usual timidity. She was always timid of holding out her hand to him and sometimes did not offer it at all, as though afraid he would repel it. He always took her hand as though with repugnance, always seemed vexed to meet her and was sometimes obstinately silent throughout her visit. Sometimes she trembled before him and went away deeply grieved. But now their hands did not part. He stole a rapid glance at her and dropped his eyes on the ground without speaking. They were alone, no one had seen them. The guard had turned away for the time.

How it happened he did not know. But all at once something seemed to seize him and fling him at her feet. He wept and threw his arms round her knees. For the first instant she was terribly frightened and she turned pale. She jumped up and looked at him trembling. But at the same moment she understood, and a light of infinite happiness came into her eyes. She knew and had no doubt that he loved her beyond everything and that at last the moment had come. . . .

They wanted to speak, but could not; tears stood in their eyes. They were both pale and thin; but those sick pale faces were bright with the dawn of a new future, of a full resurrection into a new life. They were renewed by love; the heart of each held infinite sources of life for the heart of the other.
I'm speechless. And even still, even at this point, we do not find a theologian of glory waiting to appear. The ending is outstanding.
He did not know that the new life would not be given him for nothing, that he would have to pay dearly for it, that it would cost him great striving, great suffering.

But that is the beginning of a new story--the story of the gradual renewal of a man, the story of his gradual regeneration, of his passing from one world into another, of his initiation into a new unknown life. That might be the subject of a new story, but our present story is ended.

Monday, November 21, 2005

A Parable

The kingdom of God is like a poker player who got a good flop and went all-in.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Christ and Life

I just started reading Dallas Willard's The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God, and it has turned out to be an inspired choice in preparation for Christ the King Sunday, though I had no such intention when I picked the book up.

In the first two chapters Willard sets up the problem he is trying to address. The problem is that Christians do not follow Christ's teaching. This is nothing new, of course, but it really is an incredible scandal. We look to Christ to "save us from our sins" but we look to nearly anyone else to find out how to live.

Of particular interest given this week's gospel reading is Willard's analysis of what he calls "gospels of sin management" wherein the whole of the Christian teaching is taken to be centered around solving the problem of sin.

On the theological right this is manifest as a wall of separation between what we must do to have our sins forgiven (and thus "receive salvation") and how we should live, with Jesus' primary role being that of providing a solution to the first.

Willard says of conservative Christians, "They have been led to believe that God, for some unfathomable reason, just thinks it appropriate to transfer credit from Christ's merit account to ours, and to wipe our our sin debt, upon inspecting our mind and finding that we believe a particular theory of the atonement to be true--even if we trust everything but God in all other matters that concern us."

Contrary to this view, we have Jesus' parable of the sheep and the goats. When I was a greener Christian, I used to twist this all around trying to figure out how to get it to work in a scheme of salvation by faith alone. (Honestly, I still do sometimes.) But what I do far too rarely (and I doubt I'm alone in this) is listen to it.

This parable is the ultimate "clobber passage" for a shallow view of salvation by faith alone and for Christianity as a mere scheme for the forgiveness of sins. It is the rallying cry of liberal Christians everywhere.

But that is particuarly ironic in light of Willard's critique of the theological left, namely their tendency to deny the traditional "personal" nature of God. I say this is ironic because while the theological left loves this parable and pulls it out every chance they get, they tend to reject the opening premise of the parable, "When the Son of Man comes in his glory...." And so while they shift their focus to social sin rather than individual morality, it remains a gospel of sin management apart from the presence of God in our lives.

Willard's criticism of these gospels of sin management may be expressed with an analogy. Our life may be compared with that of fish out of water. According to the gospel of the theological right, if we accept that "Icthus" was filleted and fried for our dryness, then our soul will breathe in eternity (but for now we wither and die). According to the gospel of the theological left, we should all go about spraying each other with water as often as we can, though we must recognize that the idea of an ocean is simply wishful thinking.

Friday, November 11, 2005


It's raining today in Oregon. Those of you who have been to the Pacific Northwest know how superfluous that statement is. It's rained here 17 of the past 20 days, and as a rule it rains pretty much every day in November. But the rain today got me thinking about one of my favorite metaphors in the Bible: "Clouds without rain."

"Like clouds and wind without rain is one who boasts of a gift never given."
-Proverbs 25:14

"These men are blemishes at your love feasts, eating with you without the slightest qualm—shepherds who feed only themselves. They are clouds without rain, blown along by the wind; autumn trees, without fruit and uprooted—twice dead."
-Jude 1:12 (NIV)

I've never lived in an agricultural community. I grew up in the industrial wastelands of the east coast, and I've since moved to a city in the Silicon Forest. I know what the Presidents of the United States mean when they sing, "Peaches come from a can, they were put there by a man in a factory downtown."

And so I grew up with no feeling for the metaphor "clouds without rain." Growing up, I might well have said, "It's cloudy, but at least it's not raining."

And then you have Los Angelos. I love the scene in LA Story when Steve Martin tapes his weather forecasts in advance saying, "Sunny and 70 degrees." This is the American dream, isn't it? We don't want rain. We don't even want clouds. We want to live in a world where it's sunny every day.

But a strange thing has happened to me since I moved to Oregon. I love the rain now. It's a comfort to me, like a security blanket. In the summer I miss the rain. I think this is a metaphor for my spiritual life. I always believed in God in some way, but when I was younger I believed in, as C.S. Lewis says, "not so much a Father in heaver as a grandfather in heaven - a senile benevolence who as they say 'liked to see young people enjoying themselves.'" But as I've come to know Christ, I've begun to expect less sunshine and more rain, and I see now that a land without clouds and rain is a desert.

"I know the sound of the ecstatic flute,
But I don't know whose flute it is.
A lamp burns and has neither wick nor oil.
A waterplant blossoms and is not attached to the bottom!
When one flower opens, ordinarily dozens open.
The moon-bird's head is filled with nothing but thoughts of the moon
and when the next rain will come is all the rain-bird thinks of.
Who is it we spend our entire life loving?"

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Be Gracious To Me

Turn to me and be gracious to me, for I am lonely and afflicted.
Relieve the troubles of my heart, and bring me out of my distress.
Consider my affliction and my trouble, and forgive all my sins.

I had a remarkable revelation about these verses this morning, as I saw how they relate to the parable of the sheep and the goats. Quite often as I read verses like these in the psalms, I find that I am not personally afflicted enough to really connect with them in any but the most metaphorical way. But today I heard in these verses the voice of the weak and afflicted calling to me.

Now this would seem, perhaps, to be quite blasphemous, but almost immediately I was drawn also to Matthew 25. And I saw that in this situation it is not I who am in the place of God, hearing the cries of the afflicted; it is they who are in the place of Christ calling out to me! What can this mean? What does it say about the relationship of people and God?

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Which 16th Century Theologian Are You?

Disclaimer: This quiz was created by a well-intentioned but eccentric person who has never made this sort of quiz before. But try it out:

Which Sixteenth Century Theologian Are You?

Monday, October 24, 2005

The Holy Spirit and the Church

There's a great scene in The Last Temptation of Christ where Pilate is interrogating Jesus. At one point, Pilate says, "You know, it's one thing to want to change the way people live, but you want to change how they think, how they feel."

Jesus responds, "All I'm saying is that change will happen with love, not with killing."

Then Pilate answers, "Either way it's dangerous. It's against Rome. It's against the way the world is. And killing or loving it's all the same. It simply doesn't matter how you want to change things. We don't want them changed."

It's against the way the world is.

That's always the problem isn't it? The drive to protect the status quo is among the most powerful forces in human society. Even within the Church, the resistence to change for the sake of resisting change is immense.

But a couple of years ago I heard Dr. David Tiede, former president of Luther Seminary, speak a word that has encouraged me ever since. This is what Dr. Tiede said: The Holy Spirit is a disrupting influence in the Church. This is a truly remarkable insight. The Church is the creation of the Holy Spirit. And yet the Church isn't just created by the Holy Spirit -- the Church is constantly being re-created by the Holy Spirit.

Naturally, this makes the Church a very uncomfortable place to be most of the time. Countless Christians live with battle scars from church fights. Christians used to call the Church on Earth "the Church Militant", but we always imagined that the fight was against an exterior enemy. We're quickly disillusioned when we find that we have to fight within the Church. But to expect otherwise is to misunderstand the nature of humanity, the nature of the Church and the work of the Holy Spirit.

It all reminds me of the classic scene from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe when the children find out that Aslan is a lion.
"Then he isn't safe?" said Lucy.

"Safe?" said Mr. Beaver. "Don't you hear what Mrs Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? 'Course he isn't safe. But he's good."

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Nearly Everything

I've been listening to an audiobook version of Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything lately. It's a very good introduction to a really vast sweep of science, and I'm enjoying it very much.

But there's one thing about it that keeps bothering me. In fact, I don't know if I can even say that it's a quality of this book in particular so much as it is a quality of the secular scientific worldview more generally. The thing that bothers me is a consistent, almost arrogant, refusal to distinguish between data and interpretation -- to distinguish, for instance, between saying life is capable of evolving through purely natural processes and saying that therefore life has no purpose.

In fact, Bryson's book does a wonderful job of bringing to the forefront the immense beauty of the universe generally and life in particular, but he seems to feel the need to mention from time to time that it's all just a great, but meaningless, cosmic coincidence. But that is interpretation! Compare John Polkinghorne's vision of the beauty of God creating a universe that is capable of creating itself.

It's truly tragic. Isaac Newton once described himself as a schoolboy playing on the seashore and now and then taking delight in finding a more interesting shell while the great ocean of truth lay undiscovered before him. Today's scientists, meanwhile, seem not to notice that there's an ocean there at all.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Moses and Harry Potter

There are a couple of interesting parallels between Moses and Harry Potter, but there's a striking difference too. One of the great appeals of Harry Potter is that he represents a sort of dream fulfillment in all of us. Harry grows up in wretched circumstances, living in a closet under the stairs, but he awakes one day to discover that he's rich, famous and fabulously powerful. Who among us didn't have fantasies that we'd inherit a fortune from a previously unknown uncle or that we'd one day discover our real father was not the reliable but ordinary man who raised us but rather an astronaut or famous inventor or some such thing. (Do girls have these sorts of day dreams too, or is it just boys?) In short, Harry Potter speaks to the all too human dream of a shortcut to wealth and power.

But Moses is an interesting antithesis to this. Moses is raised in the household of Pharoh. Moses is in the elite class of the most powerful nation in the world. And then he wakes up one day to discover that he's actually a slave -- a Hebrew. (Maybe he grew up with this knowledge, but he at least has a post-pubescent realization of what it means.)

How many of us dream of waking up one day to find that we're actually much more insignificant than we'd ever suspected?

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

God With Us

Psalm 22:24 in the NRSV reads,
For he did not despise or abhor
the affliction of the afflicted;
he did not hide his face from me,
but heard when I cried to him.
This is a mistranslation, as the footnotes admit, but it is a felicitous mistranslation. The second half of the verse should actually read "he did not hide his face from him, but heard when he cried to him.

Through this Word, God gave me such a wonderful blessing today. I was meditating on this verse, considering how it is the very things in which we need God most that cause us to hide from him, but rejoicing in the fact that he does not hide from us, but comes to us in our affliction and weakness. This led me naturally to the cross, which was nearby already as I was in Psalm 22. And then I noticed the footnotes.

Consider this verse in terms of the crucifixion and Christ taking our affliction, our weakness, our sin upon himself. And now try to read the verse with the 'me' and the 'him' superimposed on one another and also the 'I' and the 'he'. "He did not hide his face from me/him; but heard when I/he cried to him."

I doubt that I can convey in a few words here the sweetness that I saw in this. It's one of those things that I knew already, intellectually, but was nevertheless a powerful revelation. I saw how on the cross, Christ was united with me. When he cried out, it was me crying out. And when God heard his cry, it was my cry he heard. And whenever I call to God in my weakness, it is Christ on the cross crying out to God. And God hears. And not just me, but everyone. And this led me into the most wonderful intercessory prayer as the lives of those I know who are suffering came into my mind, and I knew how God hears them.

"What wondrous love is this that caused the Lord of bliss
To bear the dreadful curse for my soul, for my soul,
To bear the dreadful curse for my soul."

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

St. Francis of Assisi

Happy St. Francis' Day!

I couldn't observe the feast of St. Jerome and let St. Francis' Day go by unnoticed. So here's my favorite story about St. Francis of Assisi.

One winter St. Francis and Brother Leo were walking to St. Mary of the Angels.

St. Francis said, "Brother Leo, if the friars were to give perfect example of holiness and integrity in every nation, that would not be perfect joy." Later in the walk, St. Francis said, "Brother Leo, if we were to give sight to the blind, healing to the sick, hearing to the deaf, and even bring life to the dead, that would not be perfect joy." Still later he said, "Brother Leo, if we knew all languages, all science and all Scripture, and if we knew how to prophesy to reveal both the future and the secrets of consciences, that would not be perfect joy." Further on Francis said, "Brother Leo, if we we to preach so well that all infidels came to faith in Christ, that would not be perfect joy."

Finally, Brother Leo could take no more and said, "Father, I beg you tell me, where is perfect joy to be found?" St. Francis replied, "If when we come to St. Mary of the Angels, soaked by the rain, frozen by the wind, tired and hungry, and instead of welcoming us in for a warm meal the caretaker came out and beat us with a stick, and if we humbly endure all this in patience, that would be perfect joy."

Why would he say this? All the gifts of the Holy Spirit are God's and not ours. Only our tribulations are truly ours.

Cain and Theologians of Glory

Gerhard Forde has claimed that we are all theologians of glory by nature. Once you know what he means, it's not hard to find instances of it surfacing.

Sunday evening at a Bible study at church we were discussing the story of Cain and Abel. The question was raised, "Why did God reject Cain's sacrifice?" Our pastor who was leading the study responded calmly, "The text doesn't really say. It's more concerned about what happened afterward." But a theologian of glory can't let it sit at that, and so a litany of answers was offered: "God knew that Cain was a bad person." "Cain offered his sacrifice with a bad attitude." "Abel offered the best of his flock but Cain just offered whatever was lying around."

What it comes down to is this: there must be a reason God preferred Abel's sacrifice to Cain's. Cain must have done something wrong -- something we would do right if we were in his place. If we can just figure out what the problem was, we can fix it, we can do better. This is the thinking of the theologian of glory.

The theologian of glory can read this story and start formulating a sermon on "How to Offer a Proper Sacrifice to God" but in the story, nothing Cain does is labeled "sin" until he reacts to God's favor of Abel's sacrifice. The real problem in the story is Cain's refusal to let God be God.

The Revised English Bible has a very interesting translation of God's speech in Genesis 4:6-7
Why are you angry? Why are you scowling?
If you do well, you hold your head up;
if not, sin is a demon crouching at the door;
it will desire you, and you will be mastered by it.
This offers a wholly different perspective from the traditional "If you do well, you will be accepted." Cain is more concerned about "doing well" than God is. I don't know which one is a better translation, but I think the REB better fits with the point of the story. And Cain reacts to God's speech as a theologian of glory scorned:
Cain said to his brother Abel, "Let us go out into the country."

Friday, September 30, 2005

St. Jerome

I see on LutheranChik's Festivals and Commemorations sidebar that today is the feast of St. Jerome.

For a long time I've imagined St. Jerome as a very gruff man -- obviously very learned but more than a bit cold. So much of what I've read about him has to do with him feuding with various other churchmen of his time. And then you have the influence of Luther on my opinion of Jerome. Luther would occaisionally cite Jerome's opinion in support of a point he was making, but hardly ever without also noting what a worthless chowderhead Jerome was in general.

But as fate would have it, this week I was reading Mario Masini's book Lectio Divina wherein he quotes frequently from St. Jerome's Letter to Eustochium. What a jewel this is! It has me reconsidering what kind of man Jerome might have been.

Jerome wrote this letter to Eustochium, whom Masini describes as the first Roman noble woman to take a vow of consecrated virginity, to encourage her in her newly chosen way of life. One of the remarkable things about the letter is the flourish with which he employs the Song of Solomon in describing the monastic life. Here are two of the passage which Masini quotes:
Be then like Mary; prefer the food of the soul to that of the body. Leave it to your sisters to run to and fro and to seek how they may fully welcome Christ. But do you, having once for all cast away the burden of the world, sit at the Lord's feet and say: "I have found him whom my soul loveth; I will hold him, I will not let him go." (Song 3:4) And He will answer: "My dove, my undefiled is but one; she is the only one of her mother, she is the choice one of her that bare her." (Song 6:9)

Do you pray? You speak to the Bridegroom. Do you read? He speaks to you. When sleep overtakes you He will come behind and put His hand through the hole of the door, and your heart shall be moved for Him; and you will awake and rise up and say: "I am sick of love." (Song 5:8) Then He will reply: "A garden inclosed is my sister, my spouse; a spring shut up, a fountain sealed." (Song 4:12)
Is this really the same Jerome noted for his constant bickering? His friends must have been baffled by the side of him his rivals saw.

A few other blogs (none of which I have seen before today and therefore cannot vouch for) which are celebrating St. Jerome's feast:

AMU Life
Liberty, Order and Tradition
The Church Militant
Paleo Judaica

And a blog which I have seen before:

Aardvark Alley

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Great, now I've got two dead blogs....

September has been largely a lost month for my blog as I've been extra busy at work and been preparing an adult Sunday school class based on For the Life of the World in my spare time. My non-blogging productivity during this time doesn't bode well for the future of my output here, but I intend to pick it back up, and it'll probably suck me in full throttle again.

But the time away has me rethinking what I want my blog to be. I'm not entirely satisfied with the overall direction it's taken. I'm not the sort to post on the details of my daily life in the manner of a public diary. I've strayed into the political realm from time to time, but the path from there to whiny, ill-informed temper tantrum is just too short. At other times, this has been an extended book report (I've still got more to say about Rabbi Kushner's book). That's fairly useful for me in developing my understanding of what I've read and may be something I continue. I'd like to get more into exploring the Bible and sharing what it says to me.

We'll see. I can't promise it will be more interesting than the silence of the past month, but I'll probably do something.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Seeing Poverty

This week's Speaking of Faith program is very good. It's called Seeing Poverty After Katrina (click the link to read more and listen).

It talks about how government programs aimed at helping with racism and poverty have led to a situation where the poor are hidden in neighborhoods the rest of us never see. Ex-FEMA director Michael Brown is quoted as saying of the hurricane relief effort, "We're seeing people we didn't know existed." And, of course, that's the problem more generally. We don't help the poor because we don't know them.

This may be insensitive...

...but I just had to share it.

Friday, September 09, 2005

Friday Beer Blogging

OK, I haven't had this one yet, but I'm making the pilgrimage north today to see my beloved Baltimore Orioles take on the Seattle Mariners at Safeco Field, and you can count on me having at least one Curve Ball Ale -- maybe more since I'm taking the bus back to my hotel. Look for it to be enjoyed with hot dogs.

Thursday, September 08, 2005


Blame. Why does it always have to be blame?

In today's SoJo Mail, Wes Granberg-Michaelson blames the devastation of Hurricane Katrina on our misuse of the environment and the gap between rich and poor.

In the statement, Granberg-Michaelson says, "When I see the devastating effects of Katrina, I don't simply regard these as an inexplicable 'act of God.' I also focus on the sins of humanity. We've disobeyed God's clear biblical instructions to preserve the integrity of God's good creation, and to overcome the scourge of poverty. In the aftermath of Katrina, we desperately need not only compassion, but also repentance."

Is this really any better than "Repent America" blaming the disaster on the wickedness of New Orleans? Yes, the poor and the sick were ignored by upper and middle classes that hopped in their nice new cars and said, "you should all leave too" as they drove away. But is this really the best response right now? One of the chief complaints I hear about Sojourners is that they make everything an excuse to harp about social justice. I feel that here. If your only tool is a hammer....

Earlier in the week, I received an e-mail "from Howard Dean" which said, in part, "The federal response over these crucial first days has been totally unacceptable. There will be a time for a full accounting of the preventable part of this disaster, and those responsible will be held accountable. It will be soon." This e-mail at least claimed to be primarily about passing on information about what I could do (primarily sign up at to host hurricane survivors), but being an e-mail from, it just couldn't pass on making a jab at the Republicans.

This kind of reaction make me sad. It hurts. It's not just that they are the manifestation of the darker side of humanity. It's that it's a manifestation of this darker side being so deeply ingrained in us that we think we should take it out and show it to people -- as if it will help.

I remember the morning of the 9-11 attacks, one of the broadcasters, I think it was Peter Jennings, talking in strong terms about how the responsible parties would receive swift justice. And I was thinking, "For God's sake man, can't we mourn a while before we start taking revenge?" And then over the next days and weeks and months it just got worse until it seemed like our whole country had become one gigantic angry mob.

Nine-11 was an easy case. We had a nice, well-defined enemy to hate. Not so with Katrina, but that doesn't stop us from looking.

Has anyone seen a "theologian of the cross" type response to this?


It occurred to me this morning, and I wouldn't be surprised if someone else has commented on this previously, that Martin Luther was the world's first blogger. It has been estimated that during his life Luther was the author of anywhere between a quarter and half of all printed material in Europe, and they say the printers began printing the first pages of his essays before he had even written the last pages. Straight from his mind to the printed page with no editing, rethinking or revising -- is this not the essence of blogging?

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Not Curvatus in Se Enough

The traditional Lutheran diagnosis of the human condition is that we are "curvatus in se" -- turned in on ourselves. I've always thought this was a very good description, but it occurred to me today that in a peculiar way some Christians are not curvatus in se enough. Specifically, their ability to detect sin seems to utterly lack this curvature.

I saw on LutheranChik's blog today a link to a group of "Christians" who are blaming the devastation of Hurricane Katrina on the sin of the victims. The director of the organization quoted himself (I'm guessing) as saying, "Although the loss of lives is deeply saddening, this act of God destroyed a wicked city." I'm speechless. Well, almost -- really I just don't want to make public statements of the nature this provokes me to.

The group's website claims that they desire "to adhere entirely to the teachings of the Bible." I must have missed that part in the Bible that teaches us to say, "See, I told you God didn't like you" to people who have just experienced devastating loss. Aside from what bad theology it involves, this is just such an unimaginable lack of compassion that it must be literally painful. It's definitely painful to read, but I mean it must be painful to the person who wrote this filth. How can he not see it?

But this is just one example of a big, ugly wart on the public face of Christianity. I'm not going to accuse individual Christians, conservative or otherwise, of being generally guilty of this sort of thing -- to do so would be a denial of the Holy Spirit -- but somehow this self-righteousness manages to bubble to the surface. And everyone, Christian or otherwise, sees it and says, "Eeewwwww!"

Is it possible to be so curvatus in se that you can't see yourself?

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Understanding and Opinion

A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing personal opinion.
-Proverbs 18:2
I was reading Proverbs yesterday and I came across this verse. I remember seeing someone on a "Christian" discusssion board use this verse to insult someone else for having an uninformed opinion. Christian discussion boards have long been horrid pits of hate and arrogance, and I wonder to what extent the same thing is or will become true of blogs.

The challenge with a verse like this is the same as the challenge with the Bible as a whole. All too often we forget that it is addressed to "me" and not to "the other guy". If that last sentence seemed worded a little awkwardly, it's because what I'm saying is impossible to really say to someone else. I want to challenge you (whoever you are) to consider it as applied to yourself, and yet the very principle itself forces me to apply it only to myself. And I need that too.

Among the things this verse asks me is this: "Why do you blog?"

It's certainly true that I blog with the hope of influencing the thinking of other people. A pious part of me wants to consider this "ministry" in some way, but honesty compels me to admit that it is, at least in equal measure, a fool taking pleasure in expressing his personal opinion.

One of the joys of blogging that I discovered only after I started doing it is the community it develops. Who would have thought that community can develop from a bunch of people standing up on soap boxes and spouting off about whatever is on their minds? And yet as people drop by and tell me what they think of what I think, and as I visit their blogs and see what they think, community does happen.

But within this context something else happens that I would like to be the reason I blog. I grow in understanding. A lot of times I'll write something, and I'll say it "in words as hard as cannonballs" as if I know what I'm talking about. But the real reason I chose the topic is that I'm exploring it, trying to gain understanding. Some of this comes from just getting my thoughts out of my head and onto the screen. Then reading what I thought often teaches me something. But, of course, feedback from other people can help more than anything. (So stop lurking and say hello!)

I'd like that to be the reason I blog. It's what I aspire to. I was visiting the Here We Stand blog the other day and in the discussion on one post Josh said to someone, "Try thinking instead of reacting. It can be fun." A bit harsh, but he captured the problem with so much online "Christian" "discussion".

Note to self: listen to other people.

Monday, August 29, 2005

God's Card

A couple of week's ago I made a couple of comments on Lawrence Kushner's book God Was in This Place and I, i Did Not Know with the suggestion that over the following days I would follow up with some other things I liked about it. I did follow up with one brief bit a couple of days later, and then nothing. So by now, you're probably saying to yourself, "Lordy b-gordy, when is the boy going to talk about Rabbi Kushner's book again?!?" (Or maybe you haven't given it any thought at all.) Well, here's a small gem I found there.

In talking about the Ten Commandments, Kushner talks about the preamble, "I am the Lord you God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery," as God's self-introduction. He playfully imagines it being like God handing the Israelites his divine calling card. In the center, it has the ineffable name of God. Just below that, in italics, it says "frees slaves" and in the lower right hand corner, in small print "Call any time."

I loved this image. I loved it so much I made an image of my own, which I hope will not offend.

Friday, August 26, 2005

Friday Beer Blogging

I think this is the right label. I got this beer on tap at a restraunt, so I'm not certain.

Overall, I wasn't terribly impressed. It's an amber ale on the verge of slipping into a pilsner. It didn't have a bad flavor, but it lacked complexity.

I had it with a nice, juicy steak that could have sustained a much heartier beer.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

My Deliverer

I was praying with Psalm 18 this morning. Normally, I keep my prayers to myself, but today's prayer felt somehow shareable. I was reading verse two, "The Lord is my rock, my fortress, and my deliverer, my God, my rock in whom I take refuge, my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold," when the words "my deliverer" jumped off the page and resounded in my mind like the ringing of church bells.

I picture myself as an inhabitant of a city under siege. The situation is bleak, but then suddenly we see a hero approaching, a lone hero, but one mighty enough to free us, a deliverer. (Yes, I watch too many movies.)

The other images in this psalm -- rock, fortress, refuge, stronghold -- are all images I have for God. God is a place I can run and hide in times of trouble. But the sweetness of these words, "my deliverer," came to me today as if brand new. He comes to me, a champion to extract me from trouble.

And this is Christ. He came to us to save us from our desperate condition. He continues to come to me when I cannot come to him. He is my deliverer.

There's nothing new here, of course. All this I knew quite well. But that's the way it is with prayer, isn't it? God tells you something you already know, but it touches you in a new way.

Christus der Allmächtige by Viktor Michailow Wasnezow

Monday, August 22, 2005

Faith and Sin

(Note: In what follows I do not mean to claim that C.F.W. Walther would have agreed with my conclusions. I am merely citing his teaching as a starting point for discussion.)

Thesis X.
In the sixth place, the Word of God is not rightly divided when the preacher describes faith in a manner as if the mere inert acceptance of truths, even while a person is living in mortal sins, renders that person righteous in the sight of God and saves him; or as if faith makes a person righteous and saves him for the reason that it produces in him love and reformation of his mode of living.
-C.F.W. Walther, The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel
This is a solid teaching from one of the giants of American Lutheranism. In his lectures, Dr. Walther described this as an error which Rome attributes to Lutheranism and which contributes to their continued low opinion of Luther. Such can certainly be seen in some of the canons of the Council of Trent, such as Canon XIV, "If any one says that man is truly absolved from his sins and justified, because he assuredly believes himself absolved and justified; or, that no one is truly justified but he who believes himself justified; and that, by this faith alone, absolution and justification are effected; let him be anathema."

It is equally certain that such an accusation had no grounds in orthodox Lutheranism. But whatever the situation may have been in the 16th century or in Walther's day, it is good that the Council of Trent laid down such an anathema, because such teaching has clearly grown out of the Reformation slogan of sola fide and is rampant in American protestantism today. Not enough is spoken against it.

Yet another attitude is also present today which is spoken against, and I don't dispute that some people teach this, namely that persons are not only justified by "mere inert acceptance of truths" but even more that everyone is freely justified by the bare fact of the existence of certain truths, whether they be believed or not.

This is one of the charges brought against liberal protestantism. It is claimed that the Gospel has been reduced to a sentimental idea that we ought to love all people just as they are and affirm whatever behaviors they choose to express themselves. This is certainly going on and ought to be denounced.

But the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour, and he will pounce on any opening we give him. Even so our defense against the gospel of free love is exploited as a weakness.

Looking back at Walther's thesis, he speaks of a person "living in mortal sins" and in his lecture on the thesis he explains that a person who truly has faith cannot persist in willful sin. And just like that we make the transition from preachers of the Law to judges of the Law. We see a brother or sister living in a condition that we think of as mortal sin, and we conclude that such a person cannot truly have faith.

This is my chief complaint about the Calvinist doctrine of eternal security, it leads to the absurd position of claiming that backslidden Christians "never really had faith." That is, we make conclusions about another person's relationship with God that are contrary to observation because our dogma demands it (notice the idol that has entered this scene). The same thing happens in the case of judging a person "living in mortal sins." Whatever the appearances may be, such a person cannot possibly have faith in Christ, because our doctrine teaches otherwise.

We should be ashamed to hold such views.

In an earlier thesis, Walther teaches:
Thesis VIII.
In the fourth place, the Word of God is not rightly divided when the Law is preached to those who are already in terror on account of their sins or the Gospel to those who live securely in their sins.
Now this is clearly anachronistic language. I'm not sure anyone since Luther himself has truly been in terror on account of their sins. As Auden writes,
"The Just shall live by Faith," he cried in dread.
And men and women of the world were glad
Who never trembled in their useful lives.
But we recognize something in Walther's thesis which is that which we call repentance, with the Lutheran understanding that repentance is the daily turning away from our inward bent and turning toward God. So, if I may be so bold as to tinker with Dr. Walther's language, I believe that what he is saying is that the Law should not be preached to those who recognize their deep dependence upon Christ, nor the Gospel to those who do not.

Again, we are turned to an outward discernment of an inward state, which ultimately is known only to God. Naturally, we can reasonably discern such things in people we know and talk with (not "talk to"), but I think we should be quite careful in making blanket judgment against entire classes of people.

So I ask, are we prepared to offer the grace of the Gospel to those who have turned to Christ without judging them ourselves, or will we continue to beat them with the Law until they conform to our expectations?

For further reading, see this article by Martin Marty (from which I borrowed the Auden quote).

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Lutheran Carnival II

Lutheran Carnival II is underway. I know one or two of my vistors may wonder why I continue to care given how large a gap separates me from the average confessional Lutheran blogger on certain hot topics, but what's more Lutheran than fighting with other Lutherans? And there's some good writing being showcased in these Carnivals (along with some harsh polemics -- also very Lutheran).

I keep meaning to check out some of the "other" Lutheran blogs to see what's worth reading, but unlike the ELCA blogs, there are just so many of them.... And that's where the Carnival is great. I can go to one spot and get one paragraph summaries of what each blogger thinks was his week's best. If it's interesting, I can read more; if not, little lost.

In particular, don't miss Stan Lemon's meditation on The Dormition of the Mother of God

God's Politics

After about four months of having God's Politics in my book bag, it's finally coming out today. I just finished a ten-week discussion group on the book at my church. (Yes, I know ten weeks isn't four months -- I was dragging it around before this started.)

In the comments on another post LutheranChik said something about her congregation being basically apolitical. I was going to say that my congregation is also basically apolitical, but the success of this discussion group would seem to indicate otherwise. When I started it, I was hoping to get about 12 people. Instead, 47 showed up the first day.

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Flipping the Bozo Bit

There's a principle in software engineering that applies well to life in general: Don't flip the bozo bit.

In software engineering, flipping the bozo bit means concluding that the person whose work you are maintaining was an idiot and therefore that it is pointless to try to understand why he or she did what they did. So, instead you systematically disregard the person's efforts and do things in whatever way seems right to you.

The thing that brought this to mind for me is that this week Bob Waters flipped the bozo bit on me. I knew I was inviting in a whole lot of people who think differently than I do when I submitted an entry for last week's Lutheran Carnival, but I thought it might make for some interesting conversations.

And it was starting to. Waters disagreed with my take on what the real relationship between Lutherans and the Lutheran Confessions is, and he was starting to engage me in conversation, but then he noticed my stance on welcoming gay and lesbian people into Christian congregations, and he flipped the bozo bit. He wrapped up his post by saying that he didn't see how I could be a Lutheran and feel this way. And he made a post on his blog about this titled "My heart's just not in it."

Now it's no great offense to me if Bob Waters doesn't care to hear what I think. But I think this is symptomatic of the trouble that leads to the continued poor treatment of gays and lesbians in Christian congregations. No one thinks, they only debate. We hear one another's arguments (maybe), but we listen only for the sake of seeing how we should formulate our counter-argument.

This is truly tragic (and frankly it's not only a problem for one side). One group wants to be faithful to the traditional faith. The other group wants GLBT people to be consistently treated like people. These aren't contradictory goals, but most of the people debating about this assume they are. And because of that assumption, nobody listens.

Friday, August 19, 2005

Friday Beer Blogging

Sometimes you just don't want to try a new beer.

But life is good when Widmer Hefeweizen is routine. I had it from the bottle, not on tap, but with a slice of lemon it's still a tasty treat.


There's been some interesting discussion in the comments on my What is Lutheranism? post as Bob Waters of watersblogged has challenged my rejection of the quia/quatenus distinction.

Truth Telling

*Christopher has an excellent post today at Bending the Rule on being honest about the true level of acceptance in our churches. As a would-be reformer in a non-reconciled congregation, I found it very helpful and insightful.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Warning: Sexuality Rant

Monday night I went out to dinner with my wife at a nice restraunt. We were talking about what had happened at the recent ELCA churchwide conference, and I was saying that I could accept the decision of our relatively conservative congregation not to support same-sex marriage as long as they would take a positive stance to welcoming gay and lesbian Christians into our congregation (as seen in Recommendation #2 in Orlando). My wife wondered whether they even have any intention of welcoming gays and lesbians (they claim they do, though this stated goal is patently not accomplished).

As we talked, my wife handed me a scrap of paper that said, "Consider what God says: 1 Cor. 6:9-10" Now my wife and I have very similar views on this, so I thought it was a very odd thing for her to do. It turned out that a woman sitting at the table next to us had handed the note to my wife on her way out, and she did so so subtly that I didn't even notice. So I ran through the verse in my mind, and I thought, "Maybe she thought we were slandering the WordAlone people" (see 1 Cor. 6:9-10).

Then last night I went to a meeting of the local chapter of WordAlone. On the way in, I was handed a brochure about how a congregation might become a member of "an association of confessing churches". I found out after the meeting, that my congregation has already done this! Apparently, if I have the order of events correct: (1) the Common Confession was posted on our web site as what we believe, (2) about a week later, our congregational board voted to approve this confession and join the "association", (3) about a month later, at a meeting of the local chapter of WordAlone, the invitation to join such an association was made "public." Very nice. One of my friends compared it to how the U.S. got involved in Iraq.

So meanwhile, back at the WordAlone meeting that I crashed, we got the pastor's update on what went down in Orlando and his statement that he wants to affirm (1) no more gay bashing, (2) everyone is welcome in our church, and (3) we should be clear that our church believes marriage is between a man and a woman. OK, number three is abundantly accomplished, and number one, giving them the benefit of charity, is a bit subjective. So in the Q&A period, when they accidently gave me the mike, I pointed out that the statement on marriage sent the implicit message that gays and lesbians are not welcome, and I asked if we had considered balancing that with an explicit statement on the web site affirming that they are welcome (I don't see any logical reason a congregation can't be WordAlone and Reconciling in Christ).

Naturally, you don't get to be head pastor at a large church by giving a straight answer to a question like that. But what happened next completely floored me. A woman in the back got the microphone and, looking directly at me, asked why we need to label people -- why we can't just say everyone is welcome (of course because we're all sinners in need of redemption) and leave it at that. In case anyone reading this doesn't know the answer, here it is from the Lutherans Concerned web site: "It is assumed by most GLBT people that they are not welcome in any church unless told otherwise. Even a general statement of welcome is heard as really meaning 'everybody but me,' so it takes a special effort to communicate the same welcome."

So this is where I am today. The conservatives in my church have a majority. They've used that majority to pack the congregational board with their own kind, directly thwarting efforts by our leadership development committee to construct a board that evenly represents the congregation. They've put in place a provision for people to be sure none of their giving to the church goes to the synod or the ELCA. And now they've put us in "an association of confessing churches."

I know the perfect church doesn't exist, but this is ridiculous.

All I'm asking is that they take recommendation #2 from the churchwide assembly seriously. They can affirm, along with the bishops, that they can't bless same sex unions. But will they now accept the challenge to "welcome gay and lesbian persons" into the life of our church? Will they seek to "discern ways to provide faithful pastoral care" to gay and lesbian Christians?

What should I do?

Monday, August 15, 2005

Eucharistic Sharing

As last week's events unfolded in Orlando, a challenge was frequently raised, and not so frequently answered, for someone to discuss the other decisions being made by the ELCA Churchwide Assembly. One of these other decisions that was approved will little fanfare or controversy was the Interim Eucharistic Sharing agreement with the United Methodist Church. I'd like explore that a little here.

First a couple of pieces of trivia about me:

  1. I was born on Reformation Day 1969 and baptized in the Lutheran Church in America the following February. My mother was reading Robert Fischer's biography of Luther in a Sunday school class in the weeks leading up to my birth.

  2. My middle name is Wesley. I am at least the fourth male child in my family line to bear this middle name, dating back at least to my great-great-great grandfather Josiah Wesley and interrupted only by a pair of Wilson's, the first of whom was born in the early '20s. My grandfather tells me we left the Methodist church because his mother was beaten out for control of the local congregation.

So this is a happy union for me.

I know a lot of people frown on the ELCA's ecumenical activities. It's easy to be cynical. We engage in years of dialogue with another church body, discussing our differences, and then eventually announce that we are more or less in agreement on the relevant issues. To the extent that this is a fair charge, it is a lamentable exercise.

But that's not generally the way I look at it. I tend to take a broad view of the satis est clause in the Augsburg Confession and the corresponding definition that "the Church is the congregation of saints, in which the Gospel is rightly taught and the Sacraments are rightly administered."

There is of course a lot to be discussed in asking whether the Gospel is rightly taught and the Sacraments are rightly administered, and Luther himself didn't exactly set a generous table in this regard. But I for one don't think a theology exam needs to be involved. Is Jesus Christ proclaimed? Are Baptism and the Lord's Supper offered? That's good enough for me. I am a big fan of the slogan that Christ said "Take and eat" not "Take and understand."

All these words, and I still haven't said anything about the recent agreement....

The background material for the recommendation that was appoved in Orlando mentions that last year's UMC convention introduced "an amendment to clarify reference to a common misunderstanding among United Methodists that Lutherans believe in consubstantiation." This is an interesting tidbit. I find that a lot of Lutheran's don't quite understand this either. It's not at all unusual to hear a Lutheran talking enthusiastically about consubstantiation. Oops.

The actual text of the approved recommendation included a call "to now recognize the United Methodist Church as a church in which the Gospel is preached and taught." OK, so we've got half of the requirements for the Church there (assuming we wink at their semi-Pelagianism). I was surprised it didn't go ahead and add "and the Sacraments are administered."

If nothing else came of the dialogue between Lutherans and Methodists, it may have been worth it just to have the UMC produce the document, This Holy Mystery. I haven't had time to consider it in detail, but on the whole it looks like a pretty interesting document.

The introduction begins by explaining what Methodists will get from a deeper consideration of the Lord's Supper. It says:
According to the results of a survey conducted by the General Board of Discipleship prior to the 2000 General Conference, there is a strong sense of the importance of Holy Communion in the life of individual Christians and of the church. Unfortunately, there is at least an equally strong sense of the absence of any meaningful understanding of Eucharistic theology and practice.
That they want to do something about this is something I rejoice to hear. What wonderful things can come of a longing for a deeper encounter with the Eucharist!

My own limited experiences with the United Methodist Church have left me with the impression that their worship is dry. Maybe it's just the congregations I've visited. Maybe it's just my own dependence on smells and bells. Either way, it's not a setting I would want to call home.

One of the things all too often lacking in ecumenical dialogue is any kind of substantial change in either dialogue partner. It would be nothing short of miraculous if Lutheranism could impart a deeper appreciation for the Lord's Supper as a spiritual gift to Methodists. (A serious call to discipleship and spiritual formation would most likely be what they would offer us in return, but I've seen few indications that the ELCA is experimenting with that.)

Later, the UMC document says, "Prevenient grace is that which 'comes before' anything we can do to help ourselves." And suddenly I am sharply awakened from the slumber I was slipping into reading the document. Who let the scholastics in here? Why are we talking to these heretics? I'm out of here!

But they quickly add, "In truth, all grace is prevenient—we cannot move toward God unless God has first moved toward us." The first part of the sentence is encouraging; the second part sounds like semi-Pelagian hedging. Overall, I'll lean toward charity and take it as just a foreign way of talking.

Further along, the document declares, "Holy Communion is eschatological." This is fantastic! I read an essay a while ago by Joachim Jermias where he made the claim that the petition for daily bread in the Lord's Prayer is essentially eschatological and connected with the Lord's Supper. This kind of reflection can really enrich our appreciation of the Sacrament.

But the real queston every Lutheran is asking is, "Do they believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the Sacrament?" (Not that that has kept us out of communion with other denominations.) On this question, This Holy Mystery proclaims, "Jesus Christ, who 'is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being' (Hebrews 1:3), is truly present in Holy Communion." Not quite an affirmation of Christ's words "This is my body" but on the whole a good start.

Later the document states, "The consecrated elements are to be treated with reverent respect and appreciation as gifts of God’s creation that have, in the words of the Great Thanksgiving, become 'for us the body and blood of Christ.'" That's much better, but I'm suppose anyone who wanted to could wiggle out of it.

The real talking point for me is what we are really going to require. Are we going to insist on a strict agreement that "the body and blood of Christ are truly and essentially present, and are truly distributed and received with the bread and wine."? Are we going to split hairs over what we mean by that?

I'm not suggesting that we relax our own Lutheran teaching on this (although it may be questioned how much it is relaxed or even dropped in local congregations). But to me, the essence of the Lutheran teaching on the Lord's Supper is that Jesus Christ truly comes to me in the Sacrament. Beyond this, I believe in respecting the mystery. I need not know how Christ comes to me, only that he does. I understand the historic controversies in this regard as centering around what seemed to be denials of this basic fact (for instance, if Christ does not come to me in body and blood, he has not truly come). If we get legalistic about our manner of Christ's presence, we are in danger of slipping into a Lutheran scholasticism.

But now I feel like I've gone down a rabbit trail. My consideration of the agreement between the United Methodist Church and the ELCA has gotten all tangled up in Lutheranism. To extricate myself summarily, let me just say, I'm pleased with the Interim Eucharistic Sharing agreement with the UMC. If only we took our theology as seriously in daily practice as we do when in dialogue over ecumenical agreements!

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Friday, August 12, 2005

Friday Beer Blogging

The label in the picture (from the brewer's website) calls this St. Peter's Organic Ale, but the label on my bottle (likely because it was imported to America) calls it St. Peter's English Ale (but notes that the hops and barley were organically grown).

All puns aside, this beer is truly heavenly. It comes in a yellow oval bottle which has some distinct appeal to it. The beer itself has a nice amber color and is slightly cloudy (usually a good sign). It's slightly bitter with zesty hops, and left respectable Brussels Lace on the glass. It was refrigerated when I bought it, but I left it out a while before drinking it and then drank slowly, and sure enough it got better and better as it approached room temperature (warning: don't try this with mass-produced American beers).

I had it with a piece of Vienna bread, which turned out to be a very good choice.

I see on their web site it's available in 9 gallon casks. I wonder what the shipping would be for a few of those....

Night Strike

I complained a while ago about The Oregonian burying a story on local law enforcement officers driving homeless people out of state forests on page C12. Today, I got to see a very nice counter-example. The Portland Tribune, a local bi-weekly paper, had as their top story (including a full-color, above-the-fold, half-page picture) a piece about a local ministry that helps the homeless.

Now Portland has a number of homeless shelters and Gospel Missions, but this ministry looks special. The group is BridgeTown Ministries and the program is called Night Strike. Basically, they get together every Friday night under the Burnside Bridge and hang out with whoever shows up. They offer some food, of course, but their signature service seems to be foot washing. They wash and massage the feet of the people who come to them and offer them new socks. They also offer hair cuts and shaves. Above all, they offer dignity.

The Tribune article included interviews with a couple of the homeless men who come to Night Strike. One man describing the foot massage added this: "And the whole time they’re talking to you. They wonder how you’re doing, what your story is. They listen to you, and they ask if they can pray for you. The prayer is very soothing. It gives you a sense of encouragement and motivation." They listen to you. Imagine that.

In the suburb where I live now I hardly ever come into contact with homeless people, and my life is the less for it. Where I used to live, I took the light rail every day through downtown, and from time to time I'd meet homeless people. They'd approach me and talk to me. They're just about the only people who ever talk to strangers on the train. It sometimes made me uncomfortable, but it was good -- good for me. You get a kind of closeness listening to a person who has few people to talk to that you rarely get talking to people you know. They open themselves up. Reading the story about Night Strike reminded me of that, and reminded me how insulated I've let myself become from those in need.

The other interesting thing about Night Strike, and Bridgetown Ministries in general, is that it is a stealth ministry. It's not really a ministry to homeless people. It's really a ministry to young people. They minister to young people by inviting them to come and help out with this other ministry. They enrich their lives through service. I don't mean to downplay the ministry they offer to the homeless, and I certainly don't mean to accuse them of deception. But they are a youth movement. Their web site looks suspiciously like an emergent church site. It's got out of focus pictures, staff members with goatees, square brackets around titles, no one over the age of 35 (and only the directors over 25), and, sure enough, director Marshall Snider's blog reveals that he is currently reading A Generous Orthodoxy.

One of the complaints I've heard (and made) about the emergent movement is that there's no there there yet. Well, here's one proof to the contrary.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

The Burning Bush

I've read two of Lawrence Kushner's books and both of them include a story about Moses and the Burning Bush. The common interpretation is that having the bush burn without being consumed was a miracle that God performed to capture Moses' attention. But Rabbi Kushner observes that for a God who could perform such wonders as parting the Red Sea this is really a cheap trick. Why didn't God do something more dramatic?

Here's where it gets good. Imagine you see a bush on fire. How long would you have to watch it burn before you could tell whether or not it was being consumed? Answer: Three to five minutes. Moses was watching this bush intently for three to five minutes before he could even suspect that something was unusual about it.

So why didn't God do something more dramatic? It wasn't a miracle to get Moses' attention. It was a test to see if Moses was the sort of person who could pay attention for three to five minutes.

The point of this story is that God is everywhere, all around us, but to see God we have to be paying attention. Naturally, we come across similar ideas in Christianity. Daniel Erlander's Baptized We Live talks about the Lutheran way of seeing God in the world, hidden under everything around us. Everything is potentially a sacrament of God's presence. This idea is also prominent in Eastern Orthodoxy. Alexander Schmemann, in his excellent book For the Life of the World, talks about the false dichotomy between the natural and the supernatural that too often shows up in Western Christianity.

The idea is also central to Quaker spirituality. In Prayer: Finding the Heart's True Home, Richard Foster tells the story of one meeting where he was encouraging the congregants to wait silently for the Lord, but the silence was interrupted by a cat scratching at a screen door. Later everyone complained about how the cat distracted them except one former missionary. This wise man said he simply wondered what God was trying to say to them through the cat.

I had an experience like that yesterday morning. I was engaged in lectio divina listening to Psalm 13. As I was meditating on the experience of God's absence, I was jarred by a mild roar coming from my back yard. Not being the sort to handle distraction, I broke off my prayer and went out to investigate. What I found was that the sprinklers had come on, but one of the sprinkler heads was being blocked by the barbeque cover causing the noise. As I looked at the patch of yellow grass in from of me (I'm not usually up early enough to hear the sprinklers), I realized that God was speaking.