Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Whither the Church?

I'd like to engage one last topic from Carl Braaten's Mother Church before I return it to the bookshelf.

In speaking on the future of Lutheranism in America, Braaten draws on the writings of German Protestant-turned-Catholic Erik Peterson from the 1930's. Peterson observes that as Protestant churches turn away from a Church based on pure doctrine (i.e. away from their confessional roots and the ties therein to the catholic/Catholic church), they are faced with three possible alternatives: (1) translate theology into universal truths that conform to the spirit of the times, (2) turn toward mysticism, or (3) take shelter in social activism.

These three alternatives are easy to find in American Protestantism, and I suggest they are hiding in a few places that may not be apparent. (Is the emergent church, for example, a case of the first alternative? What about the church growth movement?) I myself have recently daydreamed a sort of Church unity that I'm afraid was, on some level of my mind, mostly based in social activism.

The obvious solution would seem to be a retreat to our Lutheran castle (to borrow a term from C.F.W. Walther), or perhaps a Neuhausian return to Catholicism. However, (and I know this will draw disdain from certain circles), I think the Lutheran castle, to the extent that it is a dogmatic option, is sinking into the swamp that has been recognized by post-modern thought. Dogmatism isn't really a long-term option anymore. And that makes the Catholic option a bit unfruitful as well.

Braaten, near as I can tell, has his hopes pinned on a recovery of visible unity, based on apostolic faith, among catholic, orthodox and evangelical churches protected by bishops, though with eyes wide open as to the limitations therein this time. Honestly, having read this book of Braaten's on ecclisiology, I feel like I should have a better grasp of what his vision is, but having finished it last week it is already slipping from my mind and I'm left with a sketchy image of apostolic faith, episcopal leadership and lots of hard work.

Honestly, I was left with a better feeling (hope?) for the future unity of the Church after reading Brian McLaren's A Generous Orthodoxy than after reading Braaten's Mother Church. Perhaps the two visions should be combined?

Monday, May 30, 2005

African Gospel Acappella

My congregation had the privilege this Sunday of hosting the African Gospel Acappella singing group, who sang during all three of our worship services. These guys are truly wonderful singers, but their mission goes beyond just singing praises to God.

Here's what their web site says about their ministry:
The primary goal of African Gospel Acappella is to share the Good News of Jesus Christ through song and testimony. Secondly, the group desires to focus awareness on the plight of people in Africa, especially the disabled.

The on-going civil war in Liberia destroyed the country's infrastructure. There are no services, nor any resources for the disabled. In a country where able-bodied people struggle to find food each day, the disabled are left on the streets making it the best they can.

African Gospel Acappella's first project is to build a resource center for the blind in Monrovia, Liberia's capitol city. The group currently owns a peice of property in Monrovia on which they hope to build the center.
For more information or to listen to audio clips (highly recommended), go to:


Sunday, May 29, 2005

An Alternate Viewpoint

Faithful Progressive, who knows more than I do, had a post last week on why Christians should support stem cell research. I still have some concerns, but I would recommend that anyway wanting more information on the topic check out FP's references.

Saturday, May 28, 2005

Grace in the Form of Command

It frequently surprises me how much our current theologies, specifically the theologies of lay people, are structured by 16th century thought. Is dividing law and gospel really still the best way to approach things? It's useful, to be sure, but sometimes I think it cuts us off from seeing (or perhaps just from admitting) things that we should see. What follows is an exploration of a gray area of law and gospel. Or maybe it's not gray at all.

Fortress Press has published a section of Karl Barth's Church Dogmatics under the title The Call to Discipleship. Barth says that he was tempted to just make this section an extended quotation from Bonhoeffer's Discipleship. The influence of Bonhoeffer is quite pronounced, but naturally Barth has some interesting things to say himself.

Barth describes discipleship in terms of what he calls "grace in the form of command." Now this phrase probably sets off all sorts of alarms in the minds of pious Lutherans. We don't want to confuse law and gospel, and this sounds almost like a deliberate attempt to do so. But those who have read Bonhoeffer may be thinking "Aha!" when they hear this.

Jesus commands and it is accomplished on account of his authority. I thought Barth made the following comparison, but now I can't find it. In any case, this is what I got from reading Barth's exposition: we may draw a comparison between Jesus' call to discipleship, and God's calling the world into existence. God said, "Let there be light," and there was light. Nobody will accuse the universe of syncretism on this account. Now listen. Jesus said, "Follow me," and Levi followed.

Jesus' call to follow him, though it has every look of law about it, is nothing less than the grace of salvation, accomplishing what it commands.

But there is, of course, a problem here. When God said, "Let there be light," there doesn't seem to be any hint of a possibility that light would not come forth. This is apparently not so with Christ's call to discipleship. "Disobedience to the command of Jesus," Barth says, "is a phenomenon that is absolutely terrifying in its impossibility."

Now I'm not sure what Barth means by using "impossibility" here. Perhaps he means that it seems as though it should be impossible. But experience tells us otherwise, and Barth here is commenting on Jesus' interaction with the rich young ruler which prompts the disciples to ask, "Who then can be saved?"

Barth later says, "The command given is recognizable as the command of Jesus by the fact that it is quite unambiguous. It is required to be fulfilled only as it is given--and one's reception or non-reception of salvation depends upon whether this is done or not."

Now tell me that doesn't set of your works-righteousness tripwires. But I am certain that there is something very important here. I've recently come across this exact same sentiment in the writings of George Macdonald, and Bonhoeffer points in this same direction. God acting in our lives calls us in a certain direction and for definite reason. If our lives never change, then we may seriously ask in what sense we are saved.

Update: It occurred to me this morning that Barth probably really did mean "impossiblity" literally, and this is likely the "I" in TULIP (irresistable grace). So perhaps it's not just lay people who are overly influenced by Reformation era theology. I (as a Lutheran) would still maintain that the terrible reality is that somehow we can resist the grace of God.

Ah, Bach....

I'm inclined to regard Bach's "Mass in B Minor" as absolute proof of the existence of God.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

The Distressing Disguise

It's amazing what you find when you read the whole newspaper. On page C-9 of today's Oregonian there was a story about government agencies sweeping the forest outside our metropolis to root out the transient population.

After describing one campsite where the resident apparently had been living for months in a tent surrounded by excrement, U.S. Forest Service officer Dan Blythe commented, "Imagine a dog-walker coming across this. It's not pretty."

Yes, God forbid that a dog-walker should be inconvienced by the presence of a homeless man. What would the neighbors say?

The article went on to talk about how the undeveloped area was attractive to those seeking recreation "as well as those looking for a place to camp, and do their drugs and drink." Vague descriptions of ecological and criminal problems followed.

Twenty transient camps were hauled away, one person was arrested and three were offered help by the Department of Human Services.

Now I don't doubt that the homeless people can present a safety threat to those who happen across them, and I'm sure that they need help that they don't want. But I was offended by the way the article characterized these homeless people primarily as a nuiscance to clean-cut middle class people who wanted to hunt, hike and walk their dogs.

This is the problem with the homeless. They're a foul-smelling, unattractive, mean-tempered lot. If Aunt Bea was homeless, we'd help her in a second, but the group we do find on the streets, well, we'd rather brush them under a carpet somewhere, though not in our nice, cozy recreational areas!

This is the challenge of helping the poor and the disenfranchized. We don't have the luxury of helping some sentamentalized story-book version of the poor. We have to help the real poor, the people we actually find living on the streets.

It's hard to remain upstanding and respectable, a defender of family values, and also stand with the poor. Maybe we have to choose.

"While there is a lower class, I am in it. While there is a criminal element, I am of it. While there is a soul in prison, I am not free."
-Eugene V. Debs

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Stem Cell Research

Chris at Lutheran Zephyr and Father Jake were among the 1000 or so people to blog about stem cell research today. With company like that, how can I not chime in?

I haven't done my homework on this. Everything I'm about to say could show my vast ignorance. But why have a blog if you're not going to spout off recklessly about whatever's on your mind?

This is a sticky subject, and I'm more than a little alarmed by the fact that it's a place where I find myself in agreement with President Bush. I think embryonic stem cell research is crossing a line that shouldn't be crossed.

It's a step toward the commoditization of human life. And I'm not just talking about a slippery slope here, I'm talking about deliberately descending a staircase. This sort of research, if successful, will create a market for human embryos.

What's being suggested right now involves a relatively small number of researchers taking embryos that, in theory, were going to be discarded anyway. I'm a little uncomfortable with that, but it's not horrific. But let's assume that their research discovers that any number of conditions can be helped using these stem cells. Now we have doctors all over the country wanting embryonic stem cells. What happens when the demand exceeds the number of embryos that were going to be discarded anyway? Isn't it clear? We start manufacturing embryos.

The other problem with these embryos that were going to be discarded anyway is that they are not a necessary condition for the good of helping couples with fertility problems to have children. They are a side-effect of the imprecision of the science involved in helping these couples. As that process improves, we have less and less of these "disposable" embryos. What then?

I have great compassion for the people who are suffering and hope for the help that stem cell research could provide. I really don't want to tell them that they have to suffer because of my ethics. Honestly, my preference would be to hide from them, because I think there have to be limits to what we will do, as painful as that is to tell someone.

The research involved may claim to stand above the "culture of death" rhetoric, because it seeks to preserve life, but there's something not quite right in the American hope of medical advance. I can't help but feel that our obsession with prolonging life at any cost is an expression of fear and a result of our collective loss of faith.

When we use scientific advances to create embryos to bring a child into the world it is an expression of hope. When we use scientific advances to fight back death, it can possibly be an expression of hope, but it can also be an expression of fear.

Didn't Chancellor Palpatine tell Anakin Skywalker he should support stem cell research?

Faith and Certainty

Katie at Cognitively Dissonant provided a link to this article by David Mills on the difference between liberals and conservatives in the Church.

Right away, the Liberal-Conservative/them-us mindset, glossing over a continuum to turn it into a dichotomy raised my hackles. So, it came as no surprise that Mr. Mills used John Spong as the poster boy for liberals on his way saying why conservatives needed to get them out of the Church.

Now I'm no friend of Bishop Spong, but I recognized myself in the worldview Mills was aiming at, so I thought I might weigh in on the matter.

Mills writes:

Liberals ... believe that truth evolves and grows and changes, or at least that our understanding of truth evolves so radically that earlier certainties may be replaced by new and contradictory truths.


If they are right, those who cannot or will not ... risk the loss of all certainty ... who want to hold to the plain meaning of the ancient texts, and who rely on the Church’s tradition to tell them what it says, cannot be allowed to define the Church’s doctrine and discipline.
At this point, I think he's already missed his mark. While he has made a valiant effort at understanding "the liberal worldview" and even attempts to account for a range of liberal positions, I think his own worldview has blinded him to something essential.

Speaking now just for myself, I do not believe that truth "evolves and grows and changes." I would say that "our understanding of truth evolves" but I would not say that the consequence is that we must therefore replace old certainties with new ones.

In fact, I would claim that this whole "certainty" business is the root of the problem. I am not asking conservatives to "risk the loss of all certainty." I am telling them that like it or not, there is no certainty -- never was and never will be. Hence, faith.

I am convinced that faith has more in common with doubt than it does with certainty. I trust in the promise of God. I rely upon it. I stake my life on it. But I can never treat it as a dogmatic fact. I don't sit in that seat. We have the treasure of the Gospel in clay jars (2 Corinthians 4:6-7).

What might surprise Mr. Mills is that it is precisely because of this uncertainty that I lean as heavily as I do on the traditions of the Church and on the Scriptures. I do not hold either to be inerrant or infallible, but I fully recognize my dependence upon them, and I recognize that whenever I question them (which I must) it is at great hazard.

When the disciples saw the risen Lord, they worshipped and doubted (Matthew 28:17). This is the nature of the life of faith. If we were on this path alone we would be doomed to certain failure. Thanks be to God that we are not.

Episcopal priest John Sewell raises the point that the word "heresy" comes from a word meaning "to choose". He suggests that the problem with ancient heresy was not simply that the heretics were wrong, but rather that they insisted on reaching for dogmatic certainty where they should have been content with mystery.

"The heresy," Sewell says, "is to not be willing to live with the tension of the paradox, but rather to want reality easily understandable."

If we must draw an us-them division within the Church, I would draw it between those who are willing to live with uncertainty, and those (both liberal and conservative) who are not. But I'd prefer not to draw the division.


I've noticed that there's a tension present in my writing about religion between using "I" and using "we". I see myself frequently slipping into the plural voice observing what we find when we read the gospels, for instance.

And it's not just in blogging that I see this. I see it in my prayers too. When I practice lectio divina it helps me to write out my meditation. In fact, I can barely meditate at all without writing. Even in the oratio moment, my prayer flows best with pen in hand. (If only I could figure out a way to write contemplation...but I digress...) So, returning to the point, when I'm writings out my thoughts in prayer, I often find myself slipping into "we" language, as if someone else were going to read my prayer journal (besides the One to whom it is addressed).

I wonder, though, if maybe this is as it should be. American religion not withstanding, our(!) relationship with God is not, strictly speaking, an individual matter -- personal yes, but not individual. When I pray, even when I'm "in my prayer closet" as it were, I'm praying with the whole Church, not alone.

I sometimes use a prayer from an Eastern Orthodox prayer book that asks God to prepare "us" for study. When I copied this into my own prayer journal, I changed all the plural references to singular, since I knew I would always be saying these prayers alone and studying alone. But now I think that was wrong.

credimus sanctorum communionem

Tomorrow I may change my mind.

Monday, May 23, 2005

God's Law and Civil Law

The civil judicial system with its courtroom scenes creates a distortion in our view of God's law. In the courtroom, we have an impartial judge looking in on a slice of someone's life and deciding whether or not that person's actions were in accordance with the law.

This creates the illusion that the law is a closed system upon which we can pass judgment from the outside. In reality, however, the judge himself is within the law and his actions in judging are also governed by the law. This isn't a problem in civil law, because the civil law provides for the judge passing sentence.

In God's law, however, things aren't so clean. God's law, unlike civil law, requires compassion. And whenever we are relating to someone else, we must remember that even in the act of reacting to this person, we are under the command of the law. So we cannot say, "The law forbids that behavior, therefore I will treat this person harshly." The law forbids us to act this way.

This is nicely illustrated in the story of the woman caught in adultery. The scribes and pharisees catch this woman in the act of adultery (or so they say) and bring her before Jesus to be judged. The scribes and the pharisees in this scene are acting as if they are outside the law, looking in at the woman's actions. But Jesus models behavior within the law as he shows mercy.

This is my chief complaint about the conservative treatment of gays and lesbians in the Church. Whenever the question of homosexuality is addressed, it is always addressed as if we can stand outside the law and pronounce judgment on others.

But I am convinced that the first question has to be how should I relate to people with a different sexual orientation than myself. And even the distinction according to sexual orientation disolves when I really consider this question. The question becomes, how do I love my homosexual neighbor as myself. Within this line of reasoning, I never even get to the question of whether or not homosexuality is a sin.

And that's where I get even before grace enters the picture.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

The Temptations of the Church

In Mother Church, Carl Braaten discusses three common ways that our understanding of the Church is distorted: reduction of the Church to the kingdom, reduction of the Church to itself and reduction of the Church to its action in the world.

When the Church is reduced to the kingdom, we focus our attention on heaven, imagining that this life is just something we must endure to get there, or at most this life is preparation for life in heaven. When we hold this view we undervalue the here and now and disregard the gift of life.

When the Church is reduced to itself, we see a sharp division between those inside the Church and those outside the Church, and we imagine that being inside the Church is all-important. We might venture out occaisionally to invite more people in, but the inside is what it's all about. When we hold this view, we disregard the missional nature of the Church and forget that the Church does not exist for itself.

When the Church is reduced to its action in the world, we see things like traditional dogmas as an embarrasment or an impedement, certainly not as essential. When we hold this view of the Church, we lose sight of the dependence of the Church on its Lord.

As I was thinking about these three distortions, I tried to apply them to various other models: overemphasis on past, present or future; imbalance of attention to the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit; parallel to the temptations of Jesus in the wilderness. I felt a bit like a medieval theologian doing this, but it did help a bit in exploring the ideas involved.

Here's what I came up with regarding the temptations of Jesus and the temptations of the Church. The reduction of the Church to its influence in the world is like the temptation of Jesus to turn stones into bread. The Church is tempted to evaluate its self-worth by the way it is able to provide for basic needs, but in the process it risks losing sight of God. The reduction of the Church to the kingdom is like the temptation of Jesus to throw himself from the top of the Temple. The Church is tempted to abdicate its mission and look only to God's salvation. The reduction of the Church to itself is like the temptation of Jesus to bow down to Satan in exchange for the kingdoms of the world. Everything is subjugated to the acquistion of control.

I imagine the following scene:
Then the Church was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. The tempter came and said, "If you are the people of God, prove it by feeding the hungry of the world." But they answered, "It is written,
'One does not live by bread alone,
but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.'"
Then the devil took them to Mount Athos, saying to them, "If you are the people of God, withdraw here and wait for his coming; for it is written,
'He shall send his angels with a great sound of a trumpet,
and they shall gather his elect from the four winds,
from one end of heaven to the other'"
But the Church said to him, "Again it is written,
'Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'"
Again, the devil took them to the top of seven mountains and showed them all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour; and he said to them, "All these I will give you, if you will but take them." The Church said to him, "Away with you, Satan! for it is written,
'Worship the Lord your God,
and serve only him.'"
Then the devil left them, and suddenly angels came and waited on them.

Monday, May 16, 2005

Extreme Makeover: Culture Edition

Earlier this year, my church sent a group of lay people to Tanzania to help build a chapel for a hospital there. Yesterday, as part of our Pentecost service, these "missionaries" reported on their experience. They were obviously very moved and we were given stories, pictures and videos of difficult living conditions, crowded classrooms and children practicing their writing in the dirt outside the school. And one by one the people who went on this trip gave their testimony of just how little the people there have.

I kept expecting to see a clip of Ty Pennington with a bullhorn shouting, "Good morning Iambi Village!"

Now don't get me wrong. I think "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" and Christian missionary work are both fundamentally wonderful things. But they're both subject to certain pitfalls. (I'll get back to Christian mission in a minute, but first I want to explore "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" a bit.)

On "Extreme Makeover: HE" you can pretty much count on the fact that, no matter who the family is they're helping out, the house is going to come out basically the same. Sure they try to personalize, but in the end you always get a basically upper-middle class white home with lots of electronic gadgets, plenty of theme bedrooms and plasma TVs everywhere. Everybody wants that, right?

I think the fundamental problem with this show is that they send the family away while they redesign their home. The results look painful to me. They talk to a young boy for a few hours, and then go about trying to design the perfect room for him. And it ends up with the designer saying, "He likes cars, so I'm goig to turn his bedroom into a giant car." I have nightmares of myself in this situation and coming home to find a 10-foot crucifix on one wall, a bed made out of a baptismal font and bust-of-Luther lamp on the nightstand.

It's well known that one of the historic problems with Christian mission is that as the gospel went throughout the world, European culture came with it and accepting one meant accepting the other. Now some smart missionaries around the end of the nineteenth century figured out that this was a bad idea, and since then there has generally been some attempt to integrate the Christian message with the existing culture. But this is a really hard thing to do well.

The church in the village my co-parishoners visited uses the Masai Creed as part of their worship service. This creed was written by missionaries who didn't want to impose their culture on the Masai people. It's a beautiful creed, but I can't help wonder how much the creed, with its Jesus who was "always on safari" and who though he died "the hyenas did not touch him", sounds like a bedroom made into a giant car.

But this is mainly a cosmetic issue. The thing that troubles me about Christian missions (and really Christian evangelism) is whether in addition to not imposing our culture we should also not impose our religion.

I was proud of the missionaries my church sent to Tanzania, because they came back seeing that the things the people there need are things like a reliable food supply and clean drinking water. This entry is definitely not meant as a complaint against this trip. But one of them came back proud of the 15 former Muslims who have been baptized into the church in that village and concerned about the many more people throughout the world who do not know Christ.

I'm not advocating a purely social gospel, and I'm not saying that Christians should hide their faith when providing help to a hurting world. But something special happens when we simply act to help people in need, something that far transcends a verbal presentation of the Gospel. And I can't help but wonder how often the felt need to evangelize gets in the way of the spread of Gospel and the receiving of God's grace.

Economist Jeffrey Sachs talks about the "Big Five" interventions that could make the difference between life and death in struggling African villages: boosting agricultural output, improving basic health, investing in education, bringing electricity, and providing clean water and sanitation.

The best Christian missions involve these things, but how often (both in global mission and in local help) is it done just as a way of getting a foot in the door to make more Christians? How much more is the grace of God spread and the Gospel preached simply by the doing of these works?

The kingdom of God is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until it all was leavened. Wherever we spread the Gospel, the result should look like the culture we have entered leavened by faith, hope and love. It shouldn't look like the culture was torn down and replaced with something the missionaries made in their own image.

Friday, May 13, 2005

Death and Salvation

Darth Vader was on the front page of today's newspaper. For some reason it made me think of the scene at the end of Return of the Jedi where Vader has just killed the emperor and is about to die himself. Luke says, "I won't leave you here. I've got to save you." And Vader replies, "You already have, Luke."

By any objective measure, Anakin Skywalker made pretty poor use of his life. He may have gotten a little bit of redemption there at the end, but he did live a life of pure evil. Yet apparently it's his final state that matters.

Christian theology generally shares this skewed view. The ultimate fate of the soul is determined by its state at the moment of death. This is affirmed most explicitly in Catholicism, but most Protestant denominations seem to have something like this in their official teachings as well.

It's impossible to refute on the terms in which it is proposed. It's grounded in the very good notion that it's never too late to repent. But I think the problem with this as a general orientation that it's symptomatic of Christianity's traditional obsession with heaven and hell. I don't mean to deny the importance of eternal life, but if who is going to heaven and who to hell isn't your primary focus then you can get beyond this strange fixation with the moment of death and recover a proclamation of life.

The ecstatic poet Kabir says it this way:
Friend, hope for the Guest while you are alive.
Jump into experience while you are alive!
Think... and think... while you are alive.
What you call "salvation" belongs to the time before death.

If you don't break your ropes while you're alive,
Do you think Ghosts will do it after?

The idea that the soul will join with the ecstatic
Just because the body is rotten-
That is all fantasy.
What is found now is found then.
If you find nothing now,
You will simply end up with an apartment in the City of Death.
If you make love with the divine now,
in the next life you will have the face of satisfied desire.
Jesus says it this way:
Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand!

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

God's Alien Work

I had an emotional experience of the theology of the cross this morning. How un-Lutheran is that?

In lectio, I've been working through the letter of James (speaking of un-Lutheran). Today I meditated on James 4:4-10. After feeling the full sting of James calling me an adulterer because of my freindship with the world (what a strawy epistle), I made my way to verse 6 and heard the sweet words, "But he gives all the more grace."

This verse sung to me today. I can't really explain why, but I definitely felt -- yes, felt -- the grace of God in this verse. So I probed it a little. "But he gives all the more grace; therefore it says, 'God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.'" I saw that God's opposition to the proud is itself grace.

Now I generally begin lectio by reciting the following prayer for the acceptance of God's will (a prayer of Metropolitan Philaret of Moscow):

O Lord, I know not what to ask of Thee. Thou alone knowest what are my true needs. Thou lovest me more than I myself know how to love. Help me to see my real needs which are concealed from me. I dare not ask either a cross or consolation. I can only wait on thee. Visit and help me for Thy great mercy's sake. Strike me and heal me. Cast me down and raise me up. I worship in silence Thy holy will and Thine inscrutable ways. I offer myself as a sacrifice to Thee. I put my trust in Thee. I have no other desire than to fulfill Thy will. Teach me how to pray. Pray Thou Thyself in me.
This morning, this was the perfect prayer and it came echoing back to me as I pondered James' words on the grace of God. "Strike me and heal me. Cast me down and raise me up." I pray these words regularly, but I'd have to admit that they aren't generally what I want. But today, ah what grace, today I repeated the prayer and I think today I actually wanted it (though now at a safe distance I want to add "in some abstract way").

I've mentioned before that I've been listening to Bach's "Mass in B Minor" during lectio. I have it on a mini disc and just let it loop, starting each day from some random place in the middle. Sometime during the meditation I just described, I noticed where I was in the music: "Crucifixus". And then, just as I finished praying, as if on cue, it kicked over to "Et resurrexit". (One of the women in my church calls this a GMC [God Manufactured Coincidence].)

This little contribution by Bach (the second time in a month that I've caught Bach preaching the Gospel to me) brought into view the whole scope of what Luther and Isaiah call "God's alien work." "The Lord kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up." (1 Samuel 2:6) Even in the Crucifixion and Resurrection, God works in this strange way.

It's very mysterious. I see it, but I don't know quite what to make of it. I feel it, but I don't understand it. I have an intuitive grasp of it, but I'm not sure I can explain.

Is this making any sense to anyone but me?

Sunday, May 08, 2005

Buy Truth and Don't Sell It

I attend a Lutheran church, but it's one of those churches that has abandoned the standard lectionary. We only visit the standard texts for Christmas, Holy Week, Pentecost and sometimes Advent. Ordinarily this bothers me, especially when, for instance, Ascension Sunday is pre-empted by a Mother's Day celebration.

But today, I got a few surprise blessings in the deal.

The first was in the reading, which today was from Proverbs 23. I have the idea in my mind that the Biblical texts read in the liturgy should speak to us just as much as the sermon does, if not more so. I'm convinced that is their purpose in the liturgy. But in practice, I've rarely seen it happen that way, perhaps because of how thoroughly the sermon has usurped the role of the texts.

But today, the text spoke to me. As Psalm 23 was being read, one line took hold of me and captured my focus: "Buy truth and don't sell it." Maybe it will leave you cold. When I talked to my wife about it, she wasn't impressed. But it spoke to me. "Buy truth and don't sell it."

What it said to me was this: Truth is valuable. It is worth sacrificing for. We should do what we can to obtain truth. It's worth bending our rules to obtain it. We should seek it out. It's worth the cost. And conversly, we shouldn't be willing to part with truth. It's a treasured possession. Once we have it, we shouldn't let it go for anything.

The second blessing I received this morning was, I think, an illustration of this. As I said, our church was celebrating Mother's Day today. As part of the children's sermon, the children were given flowers to distribute to all the women in the congregation. While this was going on, one of our church's adminstrative assistants sang a song. What you should know about this woman is that she has dedicated her life to the service of the Church. So far as I know, she has always been single. The Church is her family.

There are a number of women like this in my church -- women who haven't chosen the "traditional" life of wife and mother, women who have, I believe, a vocation to the single life, women who give themselves completely to the rest of us.

And so this woman who sang during the distribution of flowers had a note put in the bulletin which said, "This song is dedicated to all women who nuture through Christian love." With this simple note, she transformed my perception of what we were celebrating from the biological and social function of motherhood to a deeper sense of nurturing and life-giving spirit.

She bought truth.

Then the third blessing was that our assistant pastor, who has an incredible gift for taking banal assignments and transforming them into something beautiful, also picked up on this deeper theme and, with the help of a couple of key passages from Isaiah, turned what was billed as a sermon about mothers, into a wonderful message about how there are some aspects of what God does that simply can't be grasped with anything other than the image of a mother.

He didn't sell truth.

Saturday, May 07, 2005


Have you seen Technorati? It appears to be a blog search engine. I stumbled across it yesterday.

Try it out. It gives you a sense for just how insanely big the blogiverse is. Today, it found 48 blog entries that have used the term "deus absconditus" including six within the past week! How many people need to be blogging for six of them to mention "deus absconditus" within a single week?

On the other hand, I came across Technorati because someone found my Trinity blog from there. Whoever it was was searching for "Tertullian" (who, by the way, was mentioned in a post on the Words of Grace blog less than an hour ago).

Last night, I tried searching for "Luther" (10 blog entries in the last hour). I came across a brand new blog called Knocking on Wittenberg's Door.

Searching for George W. Bush and Alfred E. Newman together yielded 75 results, and apparently, I wasn't the first to notice that they look alike.

This just keeps getting curiouser and curiouser.

(Update: Four blogs used the phrase "curioser and curiouser" yesterday.)

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Costly Grace

"But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity."
It is, of course, well known that the parable of the Good Samaritan teaches us the very hard lesson that we are to show kindness even to those we are most inclined to dislike. But it's worse than that. It teaches that we should help them out even when we have something else we'd rather be doing.

I've become keenly aware recently (though the principle is obvious) that it is quite easy to show someone kindness when it doesn't particularly cost me anything or inconvenience me -- of course, it feels good to be kind -- but when an act of kindness interferes with something I'd rather be doing or causes me personal discomfort, then I have to grit my teeth to do it. And that's with people I like.

I think that's the essence of this parable. A lawyer has just asked Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. He admits that he knows that he must love God with all his heart and love his neighbor as himself, but still he wants to justify himself, so he asks "Who is my neighbor?" He's quite willing to love his neighbor as himself, just so it doesn't inconvenience him too terribly much.

Note the parallel of this scenario to the rich young man who asks Jesus the same question, also claims to have kept the commandments, but goes away sad when Jesus tells him to give away all his money.

A couple of days ago I quoted John Henry Newman as saying, "The aim of most men esteemed conscientious and religious...is, to all appearance, not how to please God, but how to please themselves without displeasing Him." And here it is again.

But the Samaritan in the parable isn't like this. He was travelling, probably couldn't wait to get through Judea and away from these people who despise him, and yet he stops to help this man. He takes him to an inn and, I hadn't noticed before, stays overnight taking care of him. Then the next day, he provides for the stranger's care out of his own pocket.

Truly, this is what the kingdom of God is like. May God grant me the grace to do likewise.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Sacred Space and Sacred Silence

Two nights this week I tried to practice lectio divina in complete silence. It was a dry time. I felt that I was forcing it. Tonight, I returned to listening to music (Bach's Mass in B Minor) and it was much more fulfilling.

I know the music is a crutch. I know even the feeling is a crutch. Both may eventually hold me back from a deeper hearing of God, but for now I think I need them to hold me up.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

When Did We See You?

All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.
Was it Mark Twain who said it wasn't the parts of the Bible he didn't understand that bothered him but rather the parts that he did understand? With a lot of the parables, I've had to wrestle with them to see what they wanted to say to me. This one speaks loud and clear -- far too clear for comfort.

The voice of the "accursed" is too familiar. "Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?" This is our defense against the poor and the needy. We don't see them. We structure our lives in such a way as to keep them hidden. If we actually saw the stranger or the naked or the sick or the imprisoned, we'd be shamed into helping them. So, we keep them out of sight.

Even in charity we rarely see those we are proposing to help. We take out our checkbooks and write a big enough check to ease our conscience. But this can be just another way of hiding from those in need.

One of the most striking things about this parable is the fact that the "blessed" are surprised to hear the king's praise. There's nothing calculated in what they've done. It's simply the way they've lived. Their actions flowed from within, not to ease a discomfort, but as a natural outpouring.

I pray to be so blessed.

An Experiment

I started a second blog today. Not just because blogging is such great fun (though it is), but as a sort of experiment in media and genre.

My new blog (The Truth About the Trinity) is going to be, I hope, a sort of serial exploration of the doctrine of the Trinity with a collective end result that is not unlike a book on the topic. We'll see where it goes. If you have the interest, I'd be very happy to have some feedback as I go.

Monday, May 02, 2005

Risky Business

For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them
This parable is like an optical illusion. Is it a candlestick or two faces kissing? Is it a celebration of God's pleasure in his people or a severe warning? It depends on how you look at it.

It's an amazing thing that God has given us blessings and expects us to put them to work and bring an increase. And even if you having been sitting in the pews staring at your feet, it's a simple message. Go! Take chances! God wants you to!

There's not even a question of what would happen if one of the slaves had lost the master's money when trading. He "entrusted his property to them." Apparently he's willing to take that chance. The only rebuke comes from playing it safe.

But there's the flip side of the parable. Do you think the master would have been pleased if the first slave had put four of his talents in a low-interest bearing account and traded with just one? "Here master are your five talents and one and a quarter more."

To whom much has been given, much is expected. How much am I burying in a hole in the ground? This is where this parable made me think back to the parable of the wedding banquet. How seriously am I taking my calling? Do I have all my talents in the market?

I think I need to listen more to the other side of the parable. What am I waiting for?

Sunday, May 01, 2005

The Bridesmaids

Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise.
I've always been fascinated by this parable. I've rarely had any idea what it meant, but I've always been fascinated. It's like a beautiful jewel that I just can't take my eyes off of.

Tonight it strikes me as being one of the "counting the cost" type of sayings. Am I prepared to go all the way as Jesus' disciple? How far am I willing to push the envelope? How seriously am I willing to take his call to take up my cross and follow him?

I'm reminded of Bonhoeffer. Cheap grace is producing a Church full of foolish bridesmaids. Sure, we'll go along and wait for the bridesgroom. It sounds like fun. But when the call comes, "Look! Here is the bridegroom!" Are we ready?

It's hard to imagine who the foolish bridesmaids are if you put this parable in a strictly eschatological context. If we imagine a final trumpet and the Son of Man coming in glory on the clouds, who wouldn't jump up and go?

But what if he comes another way. What if he comes in the distressing disguise of the poor, as Mother Theresa said? What if his coming actually costs me something -- my comfortable lifestyle, for instance?

Here's what I really hear in the parable. Whatever the parable means, it says that how I prepare now will determine whether or not I'll be ready later.