Wednesday, December 20, 2006

More Majestic than the Mountains

Glorious are you, more majestic than the everlasting mountains.
-Psalm 76:4
I was reflecting last night on Psalm 76, and it led me to wonder whether anyone has ever really been an animist in the primitive sense we imagine worshipping trees and wind and mountains and so on. The verse above from Psalm 76 really speaks to me. I know God in the way of which this verse speaks.

I grew up in the Appalachian Mountains in western Maryland, and these mountains always had a special draw for me. They were home. When coming back from a trip to Baltimore, the cut at Sidling Hill always felt like the gateway to where I lived. Before that pass, I was away and the mountains were in front of me. After that pass, I was home and the mountains were all around me, surrounding me as a mother hen gathers her brood under her wings.

Then in my 20's I moved to Oregon, and I got a whole new picture of what is meant by "majestic mountains." If you've never lived in a city near a mountain like Mt. Hood, I'm not sure I can really convey what it's like. You'll be driving down the street like you would any day, and then you turn a corner and suddenly, as if it appeared out of nowhere, there is an 11,000 foot mountain right in front of you, dominating the landscape. And the beauty of this mountain is glorious. Pristine and pure, serene, unmoveable. It's easy to see how the early inhabitants of these lands could have personified the mountains. There's certainly something numinous about its all-seeing presence.

And here, at the numinous quality of nature, is where Psalm 76 meets the language of animism. It's been said that God is invisible, but it simply isn't true. I see God all the time. Often, I see God when I look at the sky. The sky is God, but only some days. Frequently, I see God in a lone tree in the middle of a field. The tree is God, but not always. And the mountains.... "I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help." (Ps. 121:1, KJV)

Obviously, I don't really think the sky or a tree or a mountain is God, but quite often when I look at them I see God. I know I am seeing God because I am seeing more than sky or tree or mountain. I am seeing God, who is more majestic than the everlasting mountains.

Monday, December 18, 2006


Regular readers of this blog (and maybe even some of you who are irregular) may recall that I have an ongoing struggle with the idea of vocation. I can't help feeling that the traditional Lutheran teaching on vocation is too easily co-opted to support the status quo. As frequently expressed, it seems to come down to "whatever job you happen to be doing, that's your vocation." Yes, a baker helps answer our prayer for daily bread, but what about someone in a marketing position whose job is simply to convince people to buy company A's product instead of that of company B? How does that figure in the Kingdom of God?

Last night I got some help in this area from Brian Taylor's book Spirituality for Everyday Living: An Adaptation of the Rule of St. Benedict. Taylor uses the example of an artist who works as a waiter to pay the bills.
When asked what they do, one may find the reply: "I wait on tables for a living, but my 'work' [vocation] is painting." Vocation is a matter of our identity in God. It is who we are called to be in Christ. It is the activity through which God is made manifest. We are all created in the image of God, and each of us presents one facet of God's infinity. ... If one has a sense of personal vocation, then why not join the painter as a waiter in order to make ends meet?
The reason that I always struggle with vocation is that I can never see how my job contributes anything to either the Kingdom of God or to human society, and I don't feel "called" to it in any way. On the other hand, there are things to which I have a very strong sense of calling. So why not join the painter as a waiter (or software engineer, as the case may be)?

Thursday, December 07, 2006

St. Nicholas (a day late)

I was out of town yesterday and so missed St. Nicholas' Day. I suggested to a co-worker recently that Santa Claus has long since escaped from Christmas, thus making him a safe character for pluralistic settings, but really he still has a lot of potential as a proclaimer of the Christian message, besides which the historical St. Nicholas is a really neat guy.

A couple of years ago I was in Russia on a business trip. One of my Russian co-workers, Eugene (Evgeny), took a group of us around town to visit various tacky knick-knack shops and such things. After visiting a number of stores I noticed that there was one particular icon that I kept seeing. I asked Eugene who it was. Eugene, who is Christian, took a glance and said, "Oh, that's probably Holy Nicholas." I about fell over. It was the middle of June and Santa Claus was all over Russia.

But in America, the good bishop has what I would consider a bit of an image problem. Every year the horrid claymation story purporting to tell children Santa Claus' origins gets under my skin. St. Nicholas has a really interesting history. Why did the makers of the wretched "Santa Claus is Comin' To Town" feel the need to invent a new history? Was is because they wanted to help Santa escape from Christmas?

This year, I got some unexpected help bringing Santa back into the Christian fold for my family. My wife has been looking for a Christmas puzzle. Yesterday, she picked up a puzzle called St. Nicholas in His Study. The picture has a fairly American Santa, but he's surrounded by images linking him to the saint of Christian tradition. The back of the box relates the story of St. Nicholas, explaining the various symbols.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Union with God

In my previous post I mentioned some ideas on union with God that I found a while ago in Lawrence Kushner's book God Was in This Place & I, i Did Not Know. I went back and re-read this section in Kushner's book. It's very good stuff.

The rabbi he references is Kabbalah expert Moshe Idel and the Hebrew term Idel uses to describe the mystical union is devekut. He gives three types of union: cognitive devekut, devekut of behavior and devekut of prayer. Kushner summarizes this way:
We don't want just to read about what God wants. We don't want someone else telling us what God wants either. We don't even want God telling us what God wants. We want our eyes to be God's eyes so we can see the world the way God sees it. We want our teaching to be God's Torah. We want our hands to do God's work. We want our prayers to be God's prayers. We want what God wants. Devekut: being one with God. At last the "little i, Anochi," and the "Great I, Anochi, of All creation" are one.
That's not too much to ask, is it?

It reminded me of what St. Augustine said of his conversion experience: "This was the sum of it: not to will what I willed and to will what you willed." (Confessions, Book 9, Chapter 1)

Friday, December 01, 2006

Praise God

I confess, I have a bit of a problem with praising God in prayer. Not that I don't think it's right, for it is indeed right and salutary that we should at all times and in all places offer thanksgiving and praise. But what I mean can be seen by my use of a traditional quotation in the previous sentence. Namely, it just doesn't come naturally to me to speak this way.

When I try to say a prayer of praise, it comes out sounding like the prayer from Monty Python's Meaning of Life:
O Lord, you are so absolutely huge. We're all really impressed down here I can tell you. Forgive us, O Lord, for this, our dreadful toadying and barefaced flattery.
And, while I'm at it, contemporary praise songs like "Our God is an Awesome God" sound like that to me too. I'm forced to rule it out, based on prayer advice I've heard attributed to Martin Luther: "Don't lie when you pray."

That is, I'm not going to pray "O Lord, you are so big..." if that's not what's on my heart.

But something occurred to me recently that put me at ease about this, which I'd like to share with you. Some time ago, I was exposed to a sermon series on Gary Chapman's book, The Five Love Languages. At the time, I was appalled to be attending a church that would do such a heinous thing, but now, unexpectedly, a seed from that time has come to bloom. Chapman's idea is that different people express love in different ways, and if we want good relationships we need to learn to recognize each other's love languages. Some people show love verbally, others physically, others by service, and so on.

The thing that occurred to me this week is that if people can learn to recognize and respect each other's love languages, surely God will do at least that. Words of praise just aren't my love language, and they aren't likely to become so. But God knows not just what's in my heart but what my various actions mean.

I once heard an interview with the arch-heretic John Domminic Crossan. Asked if he prays, Crossan said that he doesn't understand the difference between prayer and study. For him, when he studies that is prayer. I was shocked to realize that I knew exactly what he meant. While I'm not so bold as Crossan to give up traditional forms of prayer, I think I could say, and this may scandalize both prayer-oriented spiritualists and service-oriented spiritualists, that study is the primary medium by which I experience God's presence.

Lawrence Kushner, in his book God Was In This Place and I, i Did Not Know tells of a revered Rabbi who taught that there are three ways to union with God: prayer, service and intellect. This maps directly, I think, to the three Hindu margas of bhakti (devotion), karma (service) and jnana (intellect). I think it's a fine example of something Christians can learn from people of other faiths. And it came together for me this week as I reflected on how I love God.

Afterthought: To what extent do the theological virtues of faith, hope and love correspond to these three paths of intellect, prayer and service? Is the correspondance more than superficial?

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Birthday Meme

Via LutherPunk

The Rules:
1) Go to Wikipedia
2) In the search box, type your birth month and day but not the year.
3) List three events that happened on your birthday
4) List two important birthdays and one death
5) One holiday or observance (if any)

Here are my answers:

Three events that (may or may not have) happened on my birthday are:
1) 445 BC - Ezra reads the Book of the Law to the Israelites in Jerusalem
2) 1517 - Protestant Reformation: Martin Luther posts his 95 theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg
3) 1892 - Arthur Conan Doyle publishes The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

Two important birthdays and one death:
1) 1887 - Chiang Kai-shek, Nationalist Chinese leader, former Republic of China president (d. 1975)
2) 1963 - Fred McGriff, baseball player
1) 1926 - Harry Houdini, Hungarian-born magician (b. 1874)

Holidays and observances
1) Reformation Day

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Christ the King

Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, "Are you the King of the Jews?" Jesus answered, "Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?" Pilate replied, "I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?" Jesus answered, "My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here." Pilate asked him, "So you are a king?" Jesus answered, "You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice." Pilate asked him, "What is truth?"
-John 18:33-38

My wife read an essay on Fundamentalism today. One of the five main points of Christian Fundamentalism is belief in a 1000 year reign of Christ on earth with the saints following the second coming. She sent me an e-mail at work asking, "Do you believe in the 1000 year reign."

Of course, I couldn't give a simple answer like "no" to this but had to go into my understanding of the symbolism of revelation, the apocalyptic imagination of the Old Testament prophets and the meaning of the kingdom of God. Valiantly wading through all this, she pressed the question, "So in what way are we reigning now?"

I gave her my thoughts on the hiddenness of the kingdom and the lordship of Christ, but I have to admit that it's not a simple question. Then while I was at lunch it dawned on me that this Sunday is Christ the King Sunday. So many of you have probably also been contemplating this topic, right?

So, how do you view the reign of Christ, present and future?

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

On the Basis of the Breads

As I've been trying to learn Greek, one of the things I've been doing is trying to regularly read a passage from the New Testament. To this point I've been doing this just to get comfortable pronouncing the Greek, since I hadn't had either the grammar or the vocabulary to quite make out what I've been reading. But slowly, the lights are starting to come on. According to the text book I'm using, I ought to know about 70 percent of the words now.

Last night as I was reading I came across the phrase "epi tois artois". Since epi is a word that's been giving me trouble, I slowed down to figure out what that was saying. So I parsed it out, "epi followed by a dative is...'on the basis of'". And then I looked, "on the basis of the breads"??? I try not to pay attention to what passage I'm reading, but here I looked it up.

"for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened"
-Mark 6:52

Strange book, the Bible.

Friday, November 17, 2006

The New and Living Way

I started listening to Eugene Peterson's Eat This Book today. Thirty minutes in, I'm finding it to be full of great insights, the first of which came together with this week's lectionary texts for me.

Peterson begins his book with a story about his grandson Hans. Seven-year-old Hans had just been given a New Testament as a first communion gift. Though he couldn't read, he sat and looked at the book reverently. He was, Peterson says, "honoring in a most precious way this book but without awareness that it has anything to do with either the lettuce and mayonnaise sandwich he has just eaten or the museum he is about to visit, oblivious to his grandmother next to him: Hans 'reading' his Bible. A parable."

I listened to this shortly after having read this week's lectionary texts. I was wondering very curiously what my pastor will do with this week's texts. Having recently studied the book of Daniel, and apocalyptic texts more generally, I felt like I knew pretty well what these readings were about, what tied them together, but it's not the kind of thing you hear very often in a Sunday sermon.

But how deep was my understanding?

From Daniel 12:1 ("At that time Michael, the great prince, the protector of your people, shall arise."), I was summoned into the apocalyptic imagination. I've become convinced recently that the Gospel is intrinsically apocalyptic. It's all about God breaking in to the world to bring history to it fulfillment.

So as I read the text from Hebrews, I was looking for this message. It begins with some teaching about Christ as our high priest and moves on to an exhortation to enter by "the new and living way he opened for us". With enough force I could stretch that into the apocalyptic message I was looking for, but it wasn't quite natural. Then, there it was, in 10:25, "and all the more as you see the Day approaching." Check.

And, of course, the gospel reading this week is Mark's little apocalypse. So I was confident that I had grasped the meaning of the texts, but I couldn't imagine my pastor preaching an apocalyptic sermon.

But when I listened to Eugene Peterson's "parable" it hit me. In my "understanding" of the week's texts I hadn't really asked myself what it had to do with the lettuce sandwich I had just eaten or the museum I was about to visit.

So I went back to the texts, and there it was. Earlier I had read the Hebrews passage as saying, "Yada yada yada ... and all the more as you see the Day approaching." But the "yada yada yada" was the important part. It was telling me what all of this message about the inbreaking kingdom of God has to do with the lettuce sandwhich and the museum.
Therefore, my friends,...let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.
This is the meat of the text, to be savored and taught by.

I'm always very suscpicious of people who are quick to say that Christianity isn't about doctrine or even proclamation but about the way we live with one another. I think it sells Christianity short. But if the doctrine and the proclamation aren't leading us to this new way of living with one another, they are nothing.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have a Bible to eat.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Evidence and Existence

Yesterday on NPR's "Talk of the Nation" one of the topics was "evidence for and against the existence of Bigfoot." "Bigfoot" wasn't at all what I was expecting to follow that introductory phrase. Forgetting that it was "Science Friday" I expected to hear "evidence for and against the existence of God" though I would have probably been annoyed. It got me thinking about that.

Generally, I think that there can be NO evidence for or against the existence of God. As a matter of principle, there can be no "evidence against" the existence of anything, including Bigfoot. But what about evidence for existence? The idea of "evidence" for the existence of God seems to me to involve either a misunderstand of who God is or a misunderstanding of what evidence is, at least as applied to existence.

Evidence as applied to existence is an inherently scientific construct. It is based on the physical -- examining the physical to see what has effected it physically. God on the other hand is other than physical. I don't mean to say that God is "supernatural" and thereby divorce God from the physical world, but rather to say that God acts in the physical world in non-physical ways (though perhaps sometimes through the physical and with the Incarnation as an obvious exception).

An analogy.... This summer as I was driving around the country, I came across a sign that said "high winds may exist". I remarked to my wife what a delightfully philosophic statement this was. I mean, in what way can you say that winds exist? Can you look closely and find wind? Can you hold it? If you examine the air in the presence of wind all you'll find is the particles of air that were there before the wind came, and they're not even all moving in the direction of the wind. So does wind exist?

This analogy breaks down quickly, of course, because while wind is a secondary effect of the physical, I would say that the physical is a secondary effect of God, but it kind of captures what I was thinking. People are far too ready to see physical explanations of what God does as evidence against God's existence.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Prayer and Life

Tonight I learned what very well may be the most important thing I've ever learned about prayer, and I learned it in one sentence. I'll give you two for context.
We pray from the same base as we live. Our prayer reflects the way in which we respond to life itself, and so our prayer can only be as good as the way we live.
-Esther de Waal, Seeking God: The Way of St. Benedict

I'd be a bit surprised if this hit you the way it hit me, but for me this was one of those things that as soon as I read the first sentence above I said to myself, "Of course! That's what I've been overlooking."

I tend to struggle with prayer, by which I mean the oratory kind of prayer. I can't sit myself down and speak to God. It just doesn't go well. And from what I gather, this is a common experience. If Esther de Waal's insight is correct, and I think it is, this is likely because we (those of us with this struggle) live a life relatively free of God for 23 hours and then expect to be able to sit down and commune with God in the other hour.

Actually, that's not quite my problem (and probably not quite anyone else's either). I possibly spend more time thinking about God than anyone I know. What I fail to do, or at least fail to do consistently, is relate my "secular" activities to God. Take cooking for example. I like to cook, but I don't think about God while I'm cooking. Yet if you think about it there's a really deep connection there.

And so I have this result. Lectio divina really clicks for me as a form of prayer. I open the Bible. I listen for God's voice. I "hear God's voice" (I'm reluctant to say that too strongly). I respond. This works for me. But I have trouble integrating my personal life into prayer. Trouble is, I've been approaching prayer "from above".

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

20 Books

Ben Myers at Faith and Theology started a tidal wave by posting a list of the 20 books that have most influenced his theology. I can't pass up a chance to make a list of books.

Whne I read some of the other lists I thought, "Man, some of these guys are pretentious." Then I made my own list, and I had to think, "Man, this guy is pretentious too, but perhaps not as well read as the others." Anyway, here's my list:

20. The Kabir Books translated by Robert Bly
19. On Earth as in Heaven by Dorothee Soelle
18. Confessions by St. Augustine
17. Fear and Trembling by Soren Kierkegaard
16. God For Us by Catherine Mowry Lacugna
15. Eyes Remade for Wonder by Lawrence Kushner
14. A Christological Catechism by Joseph Fitzmyer
13. The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church by Vladimir Lossky
12. Christus Victor by Gustaf Aulen
11. The Rule of St. Benedict
10. Ethics by Dietrich Bonhoeffer
9. The Nature of Doctrine by George Lindbeck
8. Lutheranism by Eric Gritsch and Robert Jenson
7. On Being a Theologian of the Cross by Gerhard Forde
6. Mysterium Paschale by Hans urs von Balthasar
5. Lectures on Galatians by Martin Luther
4. For the Life of the World by Alexander Schmemann
3. The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer
2. Getting to Know Jesus by George MacDonald
1. Baptized, We Live by Daniel Erlander

Monday, October 30, 2006


Last week's Speaking of Faith radio program featured Jacob Needleman talking about the religious roots of American Democracy. One part that I found particularly interesting was his idea that freedom implies duty. Needleman says,
A democratic citizen is not a citizen who can do anything he wants. It's a citizen who has an obligation at the same time. And just to give you an example, if I may, the freedom of speech, what is the duty associated with it? Well, if you ponder that a little bit, you'll come to the conclusion very clearly that the right of free speech implies the duty of allowing others to speak. If I have the right to speak, I have the duty to let you speak. Now, that's not so simple. It doesn't mean just to stop my talking and wait till you're finished and then come in and get you. It means I have an obligation inwardly — and that's what we're speaking about, is the inner dimension. Inwardly, I have to work at listening to you. That means I don't have to agree with you, but I have to let your thought into my mind in order to have a real democratic exchange between us.

This is really powerful. The idea of freedom is really cheapened if we see at as freedom from everyone around us. And the idea that freedom of speech implies the responsibility to listen to what others are saying is very good. I suspect some people wouldn't say half of what they do if they were listening to others.

As it turns out, I heard this the same day I began reading Esther de Waal's Seeking God: The Way of St. Benedict. As de Waal spoke of the importance of listening in Benedictine spirituality, I couldn't miss the connection. One of the core foundations of Benedict's rule is that members of the community must listen to one another and in this listening they hear the voice of God.

Speaking of listening, this week's guest on Speaking of Faith is going to be Martin Marty.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Back on the horse

After a four month hiatus, I've finally picked up my study of Greek again. I had retained most of what I learned earlier from the opening chapters, but at around chapter 10 it's looking like I need to re-read carefully.

I'm at the point now where I can read Greek about the way archeologists in movies read obscure ancient languages...dusting off the ancient inscription I say slowly, "It says something about 'the Son of Man.'" Looking more closely, I add, "Ah yes, here it is ... he's going to be betrayed," followed by a dramatic silence as the non-scholars standing by ponder what this might mean.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Redemptive Suffering

Many Roman Catholics speak of Mary as Co-Redemptrix. I've always had a really hard time with that. In fact, I've had a hard time with many Catholic attitudes toward Mary, but I've discovered that in many instances if I substitute "Church" where they're saying "Mary" it makes sense to me and I think there's probably a road back to the Catholic faith from there.

My proposed substitution still doesn't work for a lot of people because they see the Church as an institution trying to tell them what they can or can't do or even believe. I've never seen the Church that way. To me, the Church is us.

All of this is a very long introduction to my encounter with this' week's lectionary texts. I think this week's text picture the Church, each of us individually and all of us collectively, as co-redeemers with Christ.

The Old Testament lesson is the servant song from Isaiah 53. I don't think any Christian can hear this and not think of Christ, yet the scholars tell us not to, or at least to think exclusively of Christ. Perhaps Isaiah means Israel, perhaps himself, perhaps another.

I'm intrigued by the handling of this in the discussion between Philip and the Ethopian eunuch in Acts 8. "About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?" the eunuch asks. And then the book of Acts does something amazing. It leaves the question open. It reports, "Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus."

Now a lot of people read into that that Philip simply explained that it refers to Jesus, but the actual text allows for a much bigger interpretation. Suppose the prophet means himself AND someone else AND the people of Israel AND Jesus Christ AND the Christian people of God. Suppose we all bear one another's iniquity and by this we are healed.

The psalm for the week includes the passage Satan tries to use to tempt Jesus in the desert: "he will command his angels concerning you." The whole passage does tempt us to look for glory instead of suffering. It speaks of protection and deliverance. Yet the New Testament's use of this text shows us something deeper in it. The line that jumps out at me is this: "I will be with them in trouble." This is God's plan for our protection. He doesn't keep us out of trouble. He is with us in the trouble.

In the New Testament lesson the author of Hebrews expounds on Christ's high priesthood. Speaking first of every high priest chosen from among mortals he says, "He is able to deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is subject to weakness." O that all our leaders were so. Then Jesus in the days of his flesh became our high priest. "Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered." The mortal high priest is able to deal gently with others because he shares their weakness. Jesus is able to redeem us because he shares our suffering.

So far it may not seem like I have much of a case for my co-redeemer reading of these texts, but I think it comes together in the gospel reading.

James and John come to Jesus and ask for places beside him in glory. Jesus asks, "Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?" The beautiful little fools respond, "We are able."

Jesus tells them that they will, but he goes on to explain "whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant," and the basis for this teaching is in Christ himself, "For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many." As the master came to serve, so the disciples will serve.

So how are we co-redeemers? I certainly don't mean that our suffering makes atonement for others or that we somehow accumulate merit for others. Those theologically loaded ideas of redemption obscure the depth of the gospel and block us from seeing our involvement in the gospel. But if we view the gospel in terms of God breaking into the world, then each of us can be agents of redemption.

When we server one another and bear one another's iniquities in the name of Christ, we are certainly a means of grace to one another, as surely as when we preach the gospel or administer the sacraments. And so I don't think it is a stretch to put any Christian into Isaiah's servant song and say, "upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed."

Thursday, October 12, 2006

You know the commandments

This week's gospel reading is the story of the rich young man who comes to Jesus asking how he may inherit eternal life. The opening verse portrays a sense of urgency in the man's request. Jesus was setting out on a journey when the man "ran up and knelt before him."

Barbara Rossing points out how much this looks like a healing story. This is the way they begin. Someone comes to Jesus and falls at his feet, begging for his help. See, for example, the stories of the leper in Mark 1:40, Jairus in Mark 5:22, and the Syrophoenician woman in Mark 7:25. They all come before Jesus, kneel and ask for his help.

In this context, the action of this rich young man is something I can relate to. He doesn't need physical healing but spiritual healing, and he knows it. So he comes to Jesus, kneels and says, "Help me, Lord. What must I do?" He wants to be holy.

Jesus' response is blunt: "You know the commandments." This is the tragedy of trying to live a spiritual life. If it were just a matter of not knowing what must be done, we could imagine that if only we knew, we could do it. But we do know. As Moses says, "The word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe." (Dt. 30:14)

At this point, I'm still hearing this story as an individual. But I want to turn now to receive it in a bigger context. The Old Testment lesson this week is from the prophet Amos. Amos is one of those prophets we Americans very much need right now. Amos speaks to those who "trample on the poor and take from them levies of grain" (Amos 5:11), those "who take a bribe, and push aside the needy in the gate" (5:12).

I don't believe there are people (or at least not many people) in this country who intentionally and knowingly trample the poor. And yet by our actions, by our policies, we do just this. And we do it because we have many posessions. We would love to help the poor. We just aren't willing to jeopardize our own financial standing to do so.

And I don't think this just applies to Republicans. I suspect all of us who have many possessions know exactly how this feels. I am a bleeding heart liberal. I desperately want to help the poor. But I don't want to risk my own family's comfort to do it.

John Henry Newman once said, "the aim of most men esteemed conscientious and religious, or who are what is called honourable, upright men, is, to all appearance, not how to please God, but how to please themselves without displeasing Him." And that is why Amos stings. That is why when we say to Jesus, "Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth," we know it's not enough as well as he does.

But the good news, the Gospel in this week's gospel reading, is that when the young man said this, "Jesus, looking at him, loved him." The young man went away grieving. The disciples were astonished at all that happened and asked, "Then who can be saved?" But Jesus told them, "for God all things are possible," which leads me to this week's New Testament lesson: "the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword."

This week's readings cut me. They showed me a failing in myself and in my country. But it's a good cut. We don't know how the story of the rich young man ends. Maybe Jesus' words lead him to life. God kills and he makes alive. He strikes and he heals. He casts down and raises up. Through his Word we receive new life.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

The Evangelizing Church

Picture a time when although most people are nominally Christian, the large majority of them have a confused idea of the basic message of Christianity. The Bible isn't much read and the preaching in churches is often about anything but the Gospel. Despair and hopelessness are widespread. Many people think they can secure their hapiness by buying things.

It's present-day America, right? Or is it sixteenth century Europe?

This juxtaposition of the problems of the Reformation era and the problems of modern America is from the second chapter of The Evangelizing Church: A Lutheran Contribution. The authors (primarily Kelly Fryer for this chapter) offer a fresh look at the power of Lutheranism. What if rather than seeing the Reformation as a correction of bad doctrine, we see it instead as a revival movement where the Gospel was spoken with power and the Church was renewed not by a return to better theology but by the impulse to spread the Gospel? Does that look anything like the Lutheran churches we know?

I've aired my reservations about evangelism here before. And yet it's a problem that just won't go away. As much as I'd like to, I can't get around the Great Commission.

The authors of The Evangelizing Church identify three typical Lutheran stances toward evangelism:

1) Skepitcal

In this stance, the whole enterprise of evangelism is viewed with suspicion. In as much as evangelism is proselytizing, it is seen as a bad thing. In as much as it is a holdover from colonialism, it is seen as something for which the Church needs to repent. And in as much as we live in a pluralistic society, evangelism shows disrespect for those of other religions. All of this lets us sidestep the call to evangelize.

2) Pragmatic

Fully embracing the call to evangelize, the pragmatic approach looks around at other denominations and borrows whatever they are doing. And so we have Lutherans embracing the Four Spiritual Laws and Evangelism Explosion and the Purpose Driven Life and whatever else is popular in the wider church culture without worrying about the question of whether these methods are faithful to our Lutheran traditions.

3) Romantic

This stance views everything the Church does as evangelism. It loves the slogan, "Preach the Gospel at all times. Use words if necessary." But in general it never feels words are necessary. And so we feed the poor and clothe the naked, but we never actually verbally express the Gospel to anyone.

Seeing these position before me, I was able to easily identify myself as an adherent of the first position. When pressed with the necessity of evangelizing, I might be willing to fall back on the third position, but I hate the second position with the fury of a thousand suns. But, of course, I do see that all three positions are tragically flawed.

The authors of The Evangelizing Church promise a way forward. And so I'm reading on with great hope. I'll let you know what I find.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Economics of Immigration

The Republican candidate for governor in Oregon is running television ads proudly proclaiming that he thinks "illegal means illegal" and so if elected he will crack down on illegal immigrants.

As I've indicated in previous posts, I'm rather radical when it comes to immigration. I think the problem with "illegal immigrants" is with the "illegal" not with the immigrants. To me, closing our borders (literally!) to immigrant workers is just another way for the rich to oppress the poor.

It probably wouldn't change my opinion, but I'd like to at least know what the economic trade-offs are. I know very little about economics, but it seems to me that welcoming immigrants should be good for our economy in the long run. If our wealth as a nation is based on what we produce then increasing the number of workers should increase our overall wealth, right? That is, of course, assuming that the incoming workers don't simply displace existing workers.

According to the aforementioned ad, there are 175,000 illegal immigrants living in Oregon. I can't imagine that we'd be helped by running them out of town. I strongly suspect that our economy depends on the work they do. So why does this Republican want to "get tough" with them?

My sense is that conservative politicians don't really care about this issue and are just using it to maintain the inexplicable support they have from blue collar workers who are afraid that their jobs and/or wages will be hurt by immigration. But what if this fear is well-founded? I don't want to be just another knee-jerk liberal who is unwittingly hurting one group of working class people in the name of helping another.

Does anybody have a good source explaining the actual economic issues involved?

The Word of God in the Bible

I've dropped the ball on my investigation of the authority of God in the Bible, and I may just give it up as I don't think I'm going to have time to do it right any time soon, but I did have occasion to investigate the use of the idea of "word of God" in the Bible.

In the NRSV, the phrase "word of God" appears only three times in the Old Testament, but the phrase "word of the Lord" appears 238 times. Because of the volume, I won't treat each passage individually.

What I will say is that in the overwhelming majority of cases (and arguably all) where these two phrases are used in the Old Testament they are being used to reference something other than Scripture. Specifically, in most cases these phrases refer to a sort of power by which God influences the world. Most specifically, more than half of the instances refer to the power of God coming to or speaking through prophets.

In 109 instance, the use is of the form "the word of the Lord came to X." An additional 34 times someone speaking says something of the form "hear...the word of the Lord." Another 27 times, something happens "according to the word of the Lord" often in fulfillment of a prophetic announcement. And 10 times, something is said to be done "by the word of the Lord." That's 180 of the 241 uses just with those specific formulas. The other uses are generally also of this sort, including people keeping the word of the Lord and other people rebelling against the word of the Lord.

In the New Testament, the phrase "word of God" is much more common, but once again it rarely refers to Scripture. The phrase "word of the Lord" occurs 15 times in the NRSV New Testament, the phrase "word of God" occurs 37 times and the phrase "word of Christ" occurs twice.

I have gone through these occurences and classified them according to what they refer to.

I find only one verse which I think can be argued to directly refer to Scripture using the phrase "word of God", Mark 7:13, "thus making void the word of God through your tradition that you have handed on. And you do many things like this." This verse is clearly referring to what God has commanded. That could, quite reasonably, be understood as meaning scripture.

In two more cases (Lk 8:21 and Lk 11:28) the phrase "word of God" refers to the will of God that is heard. Again, this could arguably be understood as Scripture, but only in a limited sense. When Jesus speaks of "those who hear the word of God and do it" this cannot be a general reference to Scripture, for not everything in the Bible can be done as such.

In one case (Rev. 19:13) the term "Word of God" refers to Jesus Christ himself. In one more (Lk 5:1) "word of God" refers to what Jesus is saying. In two cases (Lk 22:61 and Acts 11:16) the phrase "word of the Lord" refers to something specific Jesus had said.

In five instances (Lk 3:2, 1Co 14:36, Col 1:25, 1Th 4:15, Rev 1:2) "word of God" seems to refer to the prophetic concept, as in "the word of God came unto John". In two cases (Heb 11:3, 2Pe 3:5) "word of God" refers to the creative word of God, as in God spoke and it was so.

In three significant cases (Ac 6:7, Ac 12:24 and Ac 19:20) "the word of God" or "word of the Lord" is described as something apparently insubstantial that spreads, advances and even grows as the Gospel is spread.

The overwhelming majority of the cases in the New Testament (31 occurences) are those in which "word of God" or "word of the Lord" refers to preaching or otherwise bearing witness to Christ. These include cases where people "praised" the word of the Lord (Acts 13:48) that they have heard, cases where the word of God is "received", a case (1Pe 1:23) which speaks of "the living and enduring word of God" by which people are born anew and another (1Pe 1:25) in the same context which says that "the word of the Lord endures for ever" and, lest we be confused, says "That word is the good news that was announced to you."

The full list which I have classified as cases of preaching or witness is:
Ac 4:31, Ac 6:2, Ac 8:14, Ac 8:25, Ac 11:1, Ac 13:5, Ac 13:7, Ac 13:44, Ac 13:46, Ac 13:48, Ac 13:49, Ac 15:35, Ac 15:36, Ac 16:32, Ac 17:13, Ac 18:11, Ac 19:10, Ro 9:6, Ro 10:17, 1Th 1:8, 1Th 2:13, 2Th 3:1, 2Ti 2:9, Tit 2:5, Heb 6:5, Heb 13:7, 1Pe 1:23, 1Pe 1:25, Re 1:9, Re 6:9, Re 20:4

That leaves the following six verses, which I have classified as debatable. It could be argued that these are references to Scripture, but I think, in light of the above analysis and the principle that Scripture interprets Scripture, that it makes far more sense to understand these all as the powerful presence by and through which God achieves his will in the world.

Lk 8:11
Now the parable is this: The seed is the word of God.

Joh 10:35
If those to whom the word of God came were called 'gods'—and the scripture cannot be annulled—

Eph 6:17
Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

Col 3:16
Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God.

Heb 4:12
Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.

1Jo 2:14
I write to you, children, because you know the Father. I write to you, fathers, because you know him who is from the beginning. I write to you, young people, because you are strong and the word of God abides in you, and you have overcome the evil one.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Transendence and Immanence

I recently started reading Paul Laughlin's book, Getting Oriented: What Every Christian Should Know about Eastern Religions but Probably Doesn't. I picked this up because I had previously read Laughlin's Remedial Christianity and found it a good mental exercise. I disagreed with a lot, but he worked through some good topics. I came into this book expecting more of the same.

The thing that had bugged me most in Remedial Christianity was Laughlin's rather uninspired exploration of the ideas of transcendence and immanence. And, to my chagrin, I got more of the same in Getting Oriented -- exactly the same.

I think it would be fair to say that one of the things Laughlin is dissatisfied with about traditional Christianity is that it has too much transcendence and not enough immanence. He wants to reinvent Christianity to fix that.

But I think the real problem is that Laughlin's insistence on rigid categories blocks him from seeing the immanence of God that is proclaimed in the Christian tradition.

Laughlin offers two definitions each for transcendence and immanence. He defines "high octane" immanence as a view wherein God (or Ultimate Reality) permeates, saturates or infuses everything and everyone "as their very essence" while "high octane" transcendence is a view wherein God is wholly Other. He complements these definitions with a "low octane" immanence that is God present in the world "but only in a manner of speaking: as an agent acting upon it" and "low octane" transcendence as a God (or Ultimate Reality) that is beyond comprehension. Using these definitions Laughlin claims that Christianity offers a view of God that involves high octane transcendence but low octane immanence.

He says the traditional Western God "must impact the Universe from beyond it through creative acts, rather than as an abiding, inherent, indwelling, intelligence" (his emphases). I don't think this is right. I think traditional (and especially pre-Enlightenment) Christianity describes God precisely as an abiding presence in the world.

After describing the high octane versions, Laughlin says, "In a perfect world, that would be that: 'transcendence' and 'immanence' would each have a single, univocal meaning...." I think this statement reveals more than he would like. He allows that this being an imperfect world they each have a "second" meaning. What he doesn't seem to allow is that they each have ranges and shades and subtleties.

Laughlin's conclusions about Christianity seem to follow from Christianity's firm and non-negotiable insistence on the ontological difference between God and Creation. Combine that with his narrow categories, and you can't conclude other than he does. But throw out the categories, and we have all kinds of possibilities. What is needed, I suggest, is an acceptance of the fact that Christianity wants to proclaim both high octane transcendence and high octane immanence, even if we lack the terminology to do so simultaneously.

Laughlin dismisses Christian mysticism as an insignificant minority report, but I wonder if he realizes he is throwing all of Orthodox Christianity in that statement along with some very deep and influential streams in the West.

He says the "weaker sort of immanence does not allow for God to become the world or anything in it." Now you would think that statement alone disqualifies Christianity for this type of immanence. But Laughlin kind of dismisses it as "the exception that proves the rule, perhaps" and in any event says Christians "would not see it as a theological compromise, simply because of its unique, once-and-for-all character." In other words, we're committed to transcendence over against immanence and aren't going to let the Incarnation distract us from that.

Now here's where he really gets my goat. He says, "every other Christian theological issue and topic including the understanding and treatment of the cosmos, time and humanity, must begin with [the insistence on God's ontological transcendence] and continue to honor it, in order to maintain the basic monotheistic framework of the faith, at least as it is traditionally understood" Ummm, Dr. Laughlin, that was the boat. You just missed it.

In point of fact, I would maintain to the contrary that every other Christian theological issue and topic, including our ideas about God's immanence and transcendence, must, absolutely must, follow from the Christian proclamation of the Incarnation.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Traditions in Christian Spirituality

I was browsing around on Amazon today and I stumbled on to the book series I've been dreaming about. Orbis Books has been publishing (for several years now apparently) a series called "Traditions in Christian Spirituality".

Click here to check it out.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Thursday, September 21, 2006

The Office

I generally tend to espouse the philosophy that time is an illusion, for strictly pragmatic reasons -- namely, if I can convince everyone around me that time is an illusion then it won't matter so much that I can't keep a schedule. For this reason, my attempts to adopt the habit of praying the daily office have generally not been successful.

But I'm giving it another try.

I recently picked up the Glenstal Book of Prayer which has morning and evening prayers for each day of the week and fairly short "prayer stops" for mid-morning, noon, afternoon and compline. Five days in I'm doing well. Having a simple book with psalms and scripture readings inline helps a lot.

How does anyone find their way through the Book of Common Prayer?

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Hitchhiker's Guide to Lutheranism

I was reading the Lutheran Handbook's hagiography of Hypatia of Alexadria today (p. 62) and the subsequent demonization of Pelagius, when I was struck by a parallel between the Lutheran Handbook and the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (the guide itself as described in the book, not the book). Check it out:

"In many of the more relaxed congregations of the Western Church, the Lutheran Handbook has supplanted the great Catechism of the Catholic Church as the standard repository of all knowledge and wisdom, for though it has many ommisions and contains much that is apocryphal, or at least widly inaccurate, it scores over the older, more pedestrian work in two important respects. First, it is slightly cheaper, and secondly it has the words HERE WE STAND inscribed in large friendly letters on its cover."

(Note: Those who haven't read Douglas Adams' book may not get this.)

Tuesday, September 19, 2006


My study of God's authority in the Bible is bogged down. It was going well until I hit Deuteronomy, but I balked there knowing that it's the most important reference point so far. If I have any hope of finishing this I'm going to have to rescope the project to limit myself just to the use of scripture within the Bible. My original scope was too ambitious for a short study. Hopefully with that in mind, I'll be able to return to Deuteronomy next Monday.

Why next Monday? The other reason I've made no progress in this study is that I've been tied up studying 1 & 2 Chronicles in preparation for a session I'm leading in a Crossways Bible study this Sunday. You might think the Chronicles are boring. I did before I started this. I basically saw these books as stripped down versions of Samuel and Kings with a few hundred genealogies and descriptions of the Temple thrown in. Show me just what the Chronicler has brought that was new, and there you will find things only boring and tedious.

But, O, not so. That's just the shell. As I've dug into it I've discovered a deep message of hope to people returning from exile. Right now I'm at Hezekiah's passover celebration. Far from being just a notice that "Hezekiah followed the rules," it paints a beautiful picture of a king rallying the Jewish people (both Israel and Judah) around the hope of God's deliverance that is the deep message of Passover even while the people face the imminent threat of destruction by Sennecherib (who has by this time conquered Israel but not yet invaded Judah).

It's a well known fact that the Bible repays serious study, but it always surprises me to find that that's even true of the dusty old books like Chronicles.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Sadly, missing the point

In college I had a favorite professor who had once trained to be a priest. He left the seminary and Christianity because of the absurdities he found in Christianity. The example he typically gave was the question of eating meat on Friday. As the story goes, he asked if someone would go to hell for swallowing a piece of meat on Friday that had been stuck in their teeth from Thursday's dinner. He was told, if it's more than an ounce yes, if it's less than an ounce no. I always just chalked this up to pre-Vatican II Catholicism gone wrong.

Of course, even in the rigidity of pre-Vatican II the question would not have been whether one would go to hell, but rather whether one needed to go to confession, but the point is basically the same.

This story came to mind this weekend as I was dividing up some hamburger to freeze in 1-pound blocks. I had never really thought before about just how big an ounce of meat is. It's nearly the size of a golf ball. So what my professor had been told was, if you have a piece of meat about the size of a golf ball stuck in your teeth Thursday night, and then you eat it during Friday's fast, you need to go to confession!

I have to wonder...did he really miss the point that badly?

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

In Search Of....

One of the odd joys of writing a blog is seeing what kind of search terms lead people here. I check my sitemeter regularly to see this fascinating quirk of the internet. Of the last 100 visits to this blog as of this writing, 29 have come through search hits. Here's what people were searching for:
penultimate truth
Makeover + Culture
when did we see you
carl braaten
freshman ideas embarrassment
parable of the just judge
jewish story
problems with the 4 spiritual laws
gods civil law
carl braaten
a house built upon a rock
moses burning bush kushner
Walther Law and Gospel Lecture
C.S. Lewis, quote, conversion to Christianity
urban legends - mother theresa - people are unreasonable
"four spiritual laws" problems
sinning fish
the temptation of st. anthony biblical meaning
lectio divina lutheran
four spiritual laws plan, problem, provision
lutherans and st. francis of assisi
moses sucks
crime and punishment george guidall

No doubt this post will generate all kinds of strange search hits. I think "Carl Braaten" and "Four Spiritual Laws" are the top two things people search for that bring them here.

The Carl Braaten thing is a bit of an oddity, and frankly I'm a little sad about it. It yields a scary insight into the nature of internet-driven information. Braaten has been an influential and faithful theologian in the Church for many years, but if you Google his name, the top six hits are all commentary on the open letter he wrote last year to Mark Hanson. I'm number four, having been edged out by Al Kimmel (the Pontificator) and two articles from Ed Schroeder. Hopefully, over time this will fade.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Exodus through Numbers

The dominant mode of God's authority in Exodus through Numbers is obviously the giving of the Law. Since the authority of the Law bears direct analogy to the authority of scripture as a whole, the details here will be very useful to the theme of my study.

When God is telling Moses to have the people prepare for God's coming on Mount Sinai, God says to Moses, "I am going to come to you in a dense cloud, in order that the people may hear when I speak with you and so trust you ever after" (Ex. 19:9). This is very interesting. The point isn't for the people to hear what God says but rather simply for them to hear that God is speaking to Moses. This is very good since they are afraid to listen (20:19). The people yield authority to Moses.

This is ambiguous for our current situation. Is the authority to be understood as being with Moses (the text) or leaders of the people? Obviously I have some opinions about this, but I'm going to defer the question for now and see what comes up.

The description of the tabernacle and its building has a bit of the character of "God said...and there was..." from Genesis 1, but the two events being separated by the incident of the golden calf adds a fascinating twist to this. God forgives his reprobate people, and they follow his commands precisely.

The incident of Korah's rebellion is nearly enough to make a Catholic of me. Korah's complaint -- "All the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them" (Numbers 16:3) -- sounds an awful lot like the priesthood of all believers. Against this God affirms the authority of Moses.

But perhaps this is relevant not to a three-tiered church, but to my earlier question about the authority of Moses (i.e. in the text), in opposition to the authority of the people of God simply as people of God. In that context, it could be an argument against experience as a source of authority. That is, the people of God do not have their own authority simply because they are people of God. They are still subject to God's appointed authority whether that be Moses or scripture (or, I have to add as at least a possibility for discussion, the Church).

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Corruption of Scripture: An Aside

As a sidebar to my investigation of the Bible's portayal of God's authority, I wanted to think a bit about the idea of the corruption of scripture.

Bart Ehrman has a book titled The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture. This is obviously a polemical title. It appeals to a paranoia in our culture. This idea of the orthodox corruption of scripture popped into my head tonight as I was reading Richard Nelson's The Historical Books. In the section I was reading, Nelson was talking about the historical development of biblical texts. Our modern idea of authorship is that of a single person sitting down and writing a book. But biblical books, Nelson says, tend to be products of a community over time. The text is tinkered with as needed before it reaches its canonical form. For most scholars, I take it, this is a commonplace.

So here's the thing. The title of Ehrman's book says that early orthodox Christians corrupted the scriptures. But I would claim that the orthodox community produced the scriptures. This is the way biblical books are "written", right? The community has a book that they use in their life of faith. Something isn't quite as the community believes it should be, so they fix it.

If we look at the biblical book, whatever it may be, as a book of faith meant to serve a community of faith then there is absolutely nothing wrong with the community tailoring that book to match its teaching. It's what we would expect. To say that the book was "corrupted" would seem to imply that there was an earlier time when an author produced a book that was flawless (dare I say "inerrant") in its portrayal of the earlier faith, and a later community with different faith changed it (thus introducing error).

The problem, I suspect, is that Ehrman wants to use the Bible as a historical source to establish facts about the early Christians, whereas the early Christians wanted to use it as a book of faith.

Obviously, if we were to start editing the Bible today to make it say what we wanted it to say, that would be a bit suspect. But at some point the process of redacting was not only permissible, but was in fact necessary to produce the optimal product. The question, I suppose, is what is the statute of limitations on making changes to Holy Scripture?

But I suspect this is a wrong approach to the question. More important is the intent. Is the Bible being changed to make it a more suitable source for winning an argument? (I think this is what Ehrman actually claims.) Or is it being tidied up to make it a more accurate reflection of the faith of the community?

Friday, September 08, 2006

God's Authority in the Exodus

Well, at this rate I should be through the Bible within a few years. Anyway...

In the story of the Exodus the whole theme of human action versus the will of God breaks into open conflict. In the first couple of chapters, we get more of what we saw in Genesis. God promises the increase of Israel. Pharaoh decrees that they be kept in check. Not only does God prevail (in part due to faithful human actions), but Pharaoh's very decree leads to the positioning of Moses for his future calling.

Fast forward to Moses in the desert and we see a different mode of God's authority -- one that I passed over with Abraham when God wanted to destroy Sodom and Gommorah -- dialogue! God wants Moses to go to Pharaoh to deliver God's people. Moses doesn't want to. But rather than imposing his will (as he will with Pharaoh) God talks to Moses about it. Ultimately, Moses (like Abraham before him) gets a concession.

Then Moses goes and speaks to Pharaoh. There we learn that God's people talking to unbelievers isn't the way God exerts authority over them -- at least not in this case. So now the behind-the-scenes God of the Joseph story steps forward for an all-out smackdown.

In the Passover narrative, we get for the first time a hint of scripture making a self-reference. I've been studiously avoiding consideration of the implication of the author writing with the intention of having authority, because I wanted to wait and consider what the text itself says about itself. Exodus 12 doesn't quite give the people scripture but there is the first explicit reference to future generations being told of the things that are happening.

So, in what way does the tradition established mean to exercise authority? It says, "when your children ask, 'What do you mean by this observance?' you shall say, 'It is the passover sacrifice of the Lord, for he passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt, when he struck down the Egyptians but spared our houses.'" (Ex. 12:26-27) So, the intended use of the tradition is to cause future generations to remember the story of what happened. The next sentence is interesting. Moses has just finished speaking, giving instructions for the establishment of this tradition. As soon as he finishes speaking the next word of the text is this: "And the people bowed down and worshipped."

As the exodus proper comes to a close, I see this pattern developing: God's authority among the people of God is exercised primarily through God's words, whereas God's authority among the other peoples of the world is exercised primarily through what happens. This isn't always the way it works. God's authority among the sons of Jacob in the Joseph sequence is exercised through providence, and God's authority against Moses is asserted in word as well as deed. But it seems like a general trend.

God's words to the people have so far had the following basic forms: teaching (Adam and Cain), promise (Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Isaac, Rebekah, Jacob, Joseph), dialogue (Abraham and Moses), and narrative. Of these, the narrative is the form most explicitly intended to influence future generations, and the intended influence is simply remembering of the story.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

The Stories of the Patriarchs

The stories of the partriarchs are somewhat less mythical in quality than the stories in Genesis 1-11, though the people involved are in many ways personification of later Israel (Jacob explicitly so). Curiously, they get precious little that could be characterized as "teaching" from God. Instead, the operative mode of God's authority in these stories is promise, though again with generous portions of providence.

The promises of God given to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob aren't just information sprinkled into the narrative, they create the action. They are a means by which God brings his will to pass. I tend to think of Abraham as someone who heard from God all the time, but the text doesn't actually support this. Abraham only gets a few brief visits from God over the course of about 10 years and the few words he recieves must guide him.

But God isn't absent in between these theophanies. When Abram goes to Egypt and hands Sarai over to Pharaoh, God intervenes. I want to say "silently" but Pharaoh somehow knows why he suffered plagues. Likewise, when Abraham sends his servant to get a wife for Isaac, God acts without appearing.

The working out of Jacob's story is fasinating to me. While he's still in the womb, God gives Rebekah a promise concerning Jacob. Then Rebekah and Jacob lie, cheat and steal to bring about what God promised. Jacob's relationship with God is summed up in the incident where he wrestles to get a blessing. It seems to me God was determined to bless him either way, but at times the wrestling seems to unwittingly play into the will of God.

This theme finally bursts fully into view in the Joseph sequence. God reveals his will to Joseph in a dream. Everything in Joseph's life conspires against God's disclosed intentions, and it turns out all of it has turned out to bring about God's will.

So my conclusion is that in Genesis 12-50, the authority of God is exercised in two ways: divine promise and divine providence. As in chapters 1-11, God's authority in the world is seen primarily through direct action which come to pass regardless of human effort for or against them, but God's will enters individual lives through God's word.

Monday, September 04, 2006

The Authority of Scripture

I've just begun reading N.T. Wright's The Last Word: Beyond the Bible Wars to a New Understanding of the Authority of Scripture. So far I've taken away from it two basic ideas:
  1. The phrase "the authority of scripture" must be understood as shorthand for "the authority of God exercised through scripture."

  2. A properly developed understanding of the authority of scripture must be based in scripture.
Because Wright intended this as a short book, he does not go through his usual meticulous effort of showing the work he did to arrive at his conclusions. It seems to me, therefore, that it might be an interesting exercise for me, in the sort of sloppy and off-hand way befitting a blog, to think through the Biblical texts a bit and reflect on what I see there with regard to how God's authority is exercised, and particularly with regard to scripture. I ask the reader to kindly participate in this experiment by questioning my evaluations and offering additional perspective.

With that I'll begin...

God's Authority in Genesis 1-11

I am of the school that sees Genesis 1-11 as a sort of overture to the rest of the Bible, and my view of these chapters will be colored accordingly. I see these stories as more or less idealized settings intended to isolate certain aspects of the God-human relationship.

If I were a scholar I suppose I might separately investigate the views presented by J,E,D, and P and so on, but instead I'm a blog writer so I'll cavalierly lump them all together. But I digress....

Genesis 1 presents a perfect view of God's authority. God said, "Let there be light" and there was light. In chapter 2, a sublty is introduced, namely creation's dependence on God, "no herb of the field had yet sprung up—-for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth." So what happens happens by God's word, and nothing happens without God's word.

Here also we get a first image of God's authority exercised with respect to man. God's authority is exercised in the form of a command given to the man. Reading this through the lens of Israel's later worldview, I'm inclined to view this as God giving torah to the man, not strictly a command but rather teaching (still an insufficient word to replace torah). And when the man and the woman disregard this torah, God exercises authority through consequences. In chapter 4, Cain also receives a kind of torah from God (verses 6 and 7). Cain disregards the torah and God resorts to consequences.

With less thorough examination, I'll conclude that in chapter's 5 through 11 God continues to exercise authority over creation rather indirectly through what happens to the people. I'm not quite ready to start building a four-legged stool by saying that these people find God's authority through experience. Rather God's authority is exercised more or less independently of the people's perception of it. For instance, God wants the people to fill the earth (9:1). When the people in Babel build their tower "so that we do not get scattered all over the world" (11:4) God acts directly to cause their scattering.

This last conclusion may seem irrelevant to understanding how we can perceive and respond to God's authority, but perhaps that's the wrong way to approach the question. What I'm really seeking is an understanding of how God's authority is actually exercised and what the role of scripture might be within that.

Obviously, we have no scripture yet present to the people of Genesis 1-11, but I'm noting the torah given to Adam and Cain as a potential model for God exercising authority through scripture.

Thursday, August 31, 2006

Friend of Sinners

In the postscript to Jesus the Jew, Geza Vermes, describing what is special about the teaching of Jesus says this:
The prophets spoke on behalf of the honest poor, and defended the widows and the fatherless, those oppressed and exploited by the wicked, rich and powerful. Jesus went further. In addition to proclaiming these blessed, he actually took his stand among the pariahs of his world, those despised by the respectable. Sinners were his table-companions and the ostracised tax-collectors and prostitutes his friends.

I wonder if the oft-repeated dogma among the "respectable" that the best among us are wicked has undermined this openness to the ostracised. Too often the best we can muster is to say that "the wicked," though deserving of scorn, can stand beside us because, as we say, we are sinners too (though I think we scarely believe it). The very doctrine that often supports this "forgiveness", universal depravity, prevents us from considering the possibility that Jesus would see them as good.

Respect for Human Life

In response to my recent Pro-Compassion post, Tom in Ontario offered a section from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada's statement, "Stewards of Creation: Respect for Human Life". I liked it enough that I wanted to repost it. A lot of thought goes into these statements, and then they seem to get filed away and hardly thought about.

Our society does not provide adequate child care resources for the "working poor." Men are not always held responsible for the children they father. Until these systemic problems are dealt with, people will continue to decide that abortion is the least difficult of disturbing options. The economic system will need to be changed so as to encourage and support the choice not to abort.

How is abortion connected with violence in society? with our role in the world-wide arms race? with war around the world and spending priorities of governments? Our society doesn't consistently view life as a gift to be valued and a sacred trust in the true and complete sense.

If, as a society, we truly value life, then simply passing legislation which deals only with abortion per se will not solve our problem or express our value for human life. We must also address those social and economic structures which not make abortion a tragic necessity for some people. Such structures need to be changed. These changes would include (a) restructuring the social welfare system so that single mothers and their children are not trapped in poverty but have adequate economic and emotional support, (b) creating a system of public day care so that all children and parents have access to quality care at reasonable cost, (c) restructuring the child welfare system to provide stable and healthy nurture for all children, (d) creating systems which hold men as accountable as women for all children conceived, and (e) developing systems which provide appropriate medical, financial, and emotional care for all pregnant women. Simply ignoring or criminalizing abortion does not address the real issues. Rather, as Christians we ought to favour legislation which embodies value for human lives. We would especially favour legislation which might result in decreased violence against women and children.

Because we deeply respect human life, and as abortion involves ending a life process, abortion is a serious matter which reflects the complex nature of the human condition. While abortion may be deemed justifiable under exceptional conditions, we are called to explore redemptive alternatives that would eliminate the felt need for abortion.

As people of faith we must commit ourselves to pray for wisdom, guidance, understanding, and love for all who struggle with the reality of abortion; praise God by celebrating and demonstrating respect for human life in our worship, education, service, and outreach; proclaim in word and deed God's compassion for all.

Also relevant, it seems to me, is the famous saying:
Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

The Great Commission

In my earlier post on evangelism, I complained about the brute-force tactics of evangelization by apologetics. I tend to have a rather strained relationship with evangelism anyway, and not just because I'm Lutheran. It's something I struggle with on multiple levels.

I touched on this in the comments on the other post, but it seemed worth dwelling on a little more. The Great Commission tels us, "Go and make disciples of all nations." We're not called to make "believers" but rather students. I think the model of a Christian and a Jew having lunch and discussing the teachings of their religions is a better model of discipleship than a guy in the public square handing out evanglism tracts.

But how convenient that it's also something that I'm more comfortable with. Am I turning a blind eye to something? Certainly what I've described isn't what we find in the book of Acts. And I do think that there's a place for missionary work.

It's been noted that North America and Europe are mission fields. But what methods apply? How do you share the gospel with people who already share your cultural history, who have not only heard that Jesus died for theirs sins but have also seen the works, both good and bad, of his followers?


In the parking lot at work this morning I saw one of those bumper stickers that says "Pro-Child, Pro-Choice" and it got me thinking about the whole abortion issue. I'm not really pro-choice, but I vote that way. Or at least I would vote that way if this were ever really an issue we were voting on.

As I was thinking about the issue today something occurred to me. Everyone knows that pro-life vs. pro-choice is a false dichotomy. What hit me today was that while I agree that life is sacred, I don't agree that choice is sacred. It just isn't. Yes, our national rhetoric says the right to liberty is one of the values on which this country was founded, but to the extent that that's true, it was basically an overstep. And yet I do come down on the "pro-choice" side of the argument because of something that is sacred to me -- compassion.

Does compassion ever justify the taking of nascent life? Probably not. But I'm not trying to justify abortion. I'm trying to find a position from which I could credibly speak to someone who felt she had no other choice. If only someone were formulating policies from this perspective....

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Extended Music Meme

This meme comes by way of Lutherpunk and Here I Stand. It'll mostly confirm how boringly conventional I am. Oh well....

1. Of all the bands/artists in your cd/record collection, which one do you own the most albums by?

Hmmm.... I'm guessing it's either Led Zeppelin or Nine Inch Nails. I went through phases with both of them where I was buying all their stuff, but my Zeppelin albums seem to have a habit of disappearing, so it's probably NIN.

2. What was the last song you listened to?

Ohio by Neil Young

3. What's in your record/cd player right now?

Physical media is so retro. I'm pretty sure there's no CD in my CD player right now. I'm listening to a classic rock mix on my (non-iPod) digital music player.

4. What song would you say sums you up?

I'd be pretty shallow if I could be summed up by a single song, wouldn't I? But just to play along, I'll say Piano Man by Billy Joel with the caveat that I'm one of the secondary characters in the bar, not the piano man. I'm the not-mentioned software-engineering theologian.

5. What's your favorite local band?

I don't really follow the local scene, which is probably a shame because it seems to be quite active. Is Quarterflash still a band? They're from here.

6. What was the last show you attended?

You know, it's been a few years. I went to see Fuel at the Roseland with my nephew. That's probably the last show I saw.

7. What was the greatest show you've ever been to?

Way back in the dark ages I saw Pantera open for Wrathchild at Hammerjacks. Given that there's a good chance you don't know who Wrathchild is, you might be able to imagine what kind of a surprise this was. Pantera rocked!

8. What's the worst band you've ever seen in concert?

Also in the dark ages, I went to see Dirty Looks at the Hagerstown Speedway and L.A. Guns was there too. L.A. Guns! Couldn't be helped. I wanted to see Dirty Looks.

9. What band do you love musically but hate the members of?

I don't really pay much attention to musicians personal lives. Lutherpunk said Jane's Addiction, and I'd have to agree there except I would pin the blame on Perry Ferrel. The guy's just creepy.

11. What show are you looking forward to?

This question really showed me how old I am. I meant to go see the Violent Femmes at the state fair, but I just checked and it was last weekend. Maybe I'll go this weekend to see Steve Miller Band. Yep, I'm officially old.

12. What is your favorite band shirt?

I think the only concert shirt I currently own is Beethoven. Yes, the composer.

But just for laughs, check out this circa 1993 picture of me in my then favorite band shirt.

13. What musician would you like to hang out with for a day?

I would say John Fahey, but he died a few years ago, so he's probably not as interesting as he once was.

I wouldn't mind talking to Bono. I'd like to know how he can wear those goofy sunglasses all the time and still get people to take him seriously.

14. What musician would you like to be in love with for a day?

I'm not touching that one. My wife might read this. Plus, I really don't have anyone in mind.

15. Metal question: Jeans and Leather vs. Cracker Jack clothes?

What are Cracker Jack clothes?

16. Sabbath or solo Ozzy?

Definitely Sabbath, but only during the time when Ozzy was with them.

17. Commodores or solo Lionel Ritchie?

Let's say neither.

18. Punk rock, hip hop or heavy metal?


19. Doesn't Primus suck?

Primus? Are they still around? How old is this meme?

20. Name 4 flawless albums:

I'm not of the opinion that there are a lot of flawless albums. These four are in the running:

Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd
Electric by The Cult
Dirt by Alice in Chains
Nebraska by Bruce Springsteen

21. Did you know that filling out this survey makes you a music geek?

There are so many things that make me a geek....

22. What was the greatest decade for music?

1820's -- simply because of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony

23. How many music-related videos/dvds do you own?

Just a few, and they're all in a box in the garage except for Pink Floyd's The Wall.

24. Do you like Journey?

I was at a Mariners game last year when some really drunk guy came up and tried to get me to sing "Lights" with him. He said I looked like I'd like Journey. I was deeply offended.

25. Don't try to pretend you don't!

OK, I could have sung along with the drunk guy if I had been so inclined.

26. What is your favorite movie soundtrack?

Godspell. I can't stand the movie itself, but I love the soundtrack.

The O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack is also pretty good.

27. What was your last musical 'phase' before you wised up?

I'm not sure I have wised up yet. I'll let you know.

28. What's the crappiest CD/record/etc. you've ever bought?

I belonged to a music club briefly and inadvertently became the owner of a Damn Yankees CD. I'll never join a music club again.

29. Do you prefer vinyl or CDs?

Again with the physical media? I've gone completely digital. CDs are much easier to transfer to the computer than vinyl, so I guess I'll have to go with CDs.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Used Cars and Evangelism

I went car shopping this weekend but ended up not buying. It never ceases to amaze me how long car salesmen are willing to drag out the negotiation process. I'd like to make an offer and get an answer, but they're willing to spend hours trying to bend me to their way of seeing things.

The reason I bring this up is that today at lunch I happened to overhear a couple of guys at the table behind me "sharing their faith" with a third guy and I was struck hard by the similarity between their presentation and my weekend experience with the used car salesman.

The part of the presentation I heard was focused on Isaiah and how the Dead Sea Scrolls demonstrate the accuracy with which the text has been preserved. Later they moved on to the most reasonable explanation of the disciples behavior after the crucifixion. But the thing that it seemed to me they were really focused on was closing the deal. Just like the salesman obviously didn't care if I really thought the car was worth what he wanted me to pay for it so long as I bought it, the thing that these guys were driving for was to manuveur the other man into a position where he would see that they were right.

I've heard that Charles Finney claimed that given an hour alone with anyone he could get a decision for Christ out of them. But what kind of faith is that? This is the reason I put "sharing their faith" in quotes above. While I'm sure their motives were sincere, I don't think the content of their presentation and the content of their faith are the same.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Talkin' 'Bout Atonement

One of the things that first got me interested in theology was a quest to understand why Jesus had to die. Christians on every street corner are ready to tell you, "Jesus died for your sins." But ask, "Just how does that work, exactly?" You're either going to get the puzzled look of someone to whom the question has never occurred before or a nightmarish vision of God's "perfect" justice.

Blessed be the day that I finally heard the Christus Victor theory of the atonement. I first had it explained to me in some detail by a guy on Beliefnet who went by the name of Sharktacos.

Now, Sharktacos (Derek Flood) is working some articles he's written on the subject into a book, and he's blogging his way through the process. Check it out at The Rebel God.

Monday, August 21, 2006

The Ubiquitous Book Meme

It seems like I've seen this one everywhere (Lutherpunk, Chris Halverson, Time's Fool, etc., etc.), and even though no one has expressly asked me to join in, I'm going to anyway.

1. One book that changed your life.

The Way of a Pilgrim. I read this on the plane as I was moving from Maryland to Oregon, and it made the change of geography a metaphor for my spiritual journey. I had learned in college to disdain the pedantic dogmatism of Christianity and to love mystical thought. Reading this book reversed a lot of the signs and before you know it I was a Christian again. As C.S. Lewis said, "A young man who wishes to remain a sound Atheist cannot be too careful of his reading."

2. One book that you have read more than once.

Steppenwolf by Herman Hesse. I read this when I was twenty, and then again when I was thirty. I intend to read it again when I'm forty. It was a completely different book the second time I read it. The first time it was a book about a man rebelling against the constraining norms of society. The second time it was a book about a man struggling to understand himself. What will it be about next time?

3. One book you'd want on a desert island.

Nine Stories by J.D. Salinger. There might be something lost in reading a book about the struggle with the wonderfulness of people in general contrasted with the wretchedness of people in specific while on a desert island, but this is my favorite book.

4. One book that made you laugh.

The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul by Douglas Adams. The Hitchiker's books are great, but I like things set on Earth. The imagination behind this one is great.

5. One book that made me cry.

Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow. I saw the movie when I was about 12 and just loved it. Fortunately, I waited until I was much older to read the novel. I wouldn't have appreciated it nearly so much as a twelve-year old. Any book with a character consistently called "Mother's Younger Brother" is clearly worth reading.

6. One book that you wish had been written.

The Reconcliation of Protestants and Catholics: A History of Seventeenth Century Europe

7. One book that you wish had not been written.

On the Jews and Their Lies by Martin Luther

8. One book that you're currently reading.

Jesus the Jew by Geza Vermes. While I am more than a little skeptical of the whole "historical Jesus" thing, I can't help but be interested in hearing different people's answers to Jesus question, "Who do you say that I am?"

9. One book you've been meaning to read.

Only one? If I had only one book I'd been meaning to read I'd have done it by now.... Anyway, I've been meaning to read volume 2 of Frederick Copleston's History of Philosophy for a while now. I read volume 1 last year and really learned a lot, but it took so much out of me that I've had trouble motivating myself to move on to volume 2.

Friday, August 18, 2006

The Rule

We read that monks should not drink wine at all, but since the monks of our day cannot be convinced of this, let us at least agree to drink moderately, and not to the point of excess, for wine makes even wise men go astray.
-Rule of St. Benedict, Chapter 40

After having read Joan Chittister's book on the Rule of St. Benedict, I felt compelled to read the rule itself. So far I'm finding it quite edifying. When I read the injunction against eating the meat of four-footed animals I thought that I could never have anything to do with this rule, but then when I got to the section above about wine, I decided perhaps Benedict and I could possibly come to an arrangement, particularly given that these monks who couldn't be pursuaded not to drink wine were so "lukewarm" in their faith that it took them a whole week to pray through the psalter. :-)

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Finding God in All Things

Have you ever gone through a time when so many things were conspiring together in your life that you couldn't help think that God was certainly trying to teach you something? You must have. I can't be the only one this happens to.

My recent lesson started, near as I can tell, when I read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintainence. I thought I was done with it, but it keeps coming back around and tying in with other things. There was a lot in the book that seemed to really apply to my work as a computer programmer (have I mentioned that that's what I do for a living?). The idea of quality and peace of mind as keys to effective work intrigues me. It also came in handy with a landscaping project I did during when I got back from the road trip.

Then I read Listening for the Heartbeat of God. This may seem strange, but I frequently think God speaks to me through my choice of books, particularly the choice of when I read them. And I didn't notice it until later, but the ideas in Listening about seeing God in creation and more particularly about seeing God in secular things and not just in the "religious" tied into a developing thread.

Then, to set myself right before going back to work after sabbatical, I wanted to take a two day retreat at Mount Angel Abbey. But I procrastinated reserving a room and by the time I did, they only had space available for the first day, so I planned to spend a day at a campsite, also too late to reserve. Here I saw the connection with Listening.

I love Mount Angel Abbey. It's a holy place and very nearly the most serene place I've ever been, but when I got there, I found it crawling with construction equipment. They're having the road taken out. At first my heart sunk, but I decided I'd have to live with it. I'd have to have my time with God in the midst of noisy construction equipment. To my surprise, it worked. I found peace.

The next day, I visited the retreat house bookstore and picked up a copy of Joan Chittister's Wisdom Distilled from the Daily (because I was going back to work, not because I had spotted the theme).

As I left the abbey, a number of things conspired to ruin my day. The campground I wanted to stay at was full. I hit slow traffic, road construction, another full campground, highway exits with no return. Within the space of four hours any peace I had found was completely gone and I had been transformed into a raving lunatic beating my steering wheel and screaming to express my anger It wasn't a pretty sight.

Eventually, I found a campground with space available at Viento State Park. I pitched my tent and took the short walk down to the Columbia River where I was greeted with a beautiful view, and I wasn't there two minutes before I saw a fish dive into the water and come back up with a fish. Anyone who has read Homer knows this was some kind of omen, but I'm not skilled at interpreting such things.

Anyway, Viento was great and I quickly regained my lost peace and began to see what God had been teaching me. The events of the day had been, I think, a chance to test my ability to find God in the daily -- a test that I failed miserably.

As I walked along the river, I found a tree whose roots had been worn away by the waves. I knew from my recent landscaping project that trees with their roots cut too close to the trunk tend to fall over, but this one had a trick. It must have had deep roots.

Another tree nearby hadn't learned the same trick and fell.

An interesting thing about these waves is that they are created entirely by the wind. They move in a direction opposite the flow of the river.

As I was walking back from the river, I got a second chance at the test. A train was stopped on the tracks where I needed to cross. I accepted this and walked up to the crossing to wait. An engineer there let me climb across the train to the other side. But the train wasn't going anywhere and because it was on the crossing the bells were ringing. It stayed there for over an hour. And during that entire time I was able to pray and it didn't drive me nuts. I don't expect to be able to do that sort of thing all the time, but I think I learned something.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Mediocre News

In his recent book The Secret Message of Jesus, Brian McLaren talks briefly about people backing away from churches because the churches preach bad news or mediocre news.

"Bad news" is an easy target. I think it's nicely captured by Philip Yancey's story about the desperate prostitute who didn't see why she would go to a church since she was already feeling bad about herself. It's church as a way of the "righteous" telling people "why I'm better than you" to use Donald Miller's characterization of morality gone wrong. There are, of course, plenty of other forms of bad news preaching, but the churches with which I'm involved tend not to have a problem with them, so I'm not going to go into that.

"Mediocre news" on the other hand is a bit harder to pinpoint but could be an even bigger problem, especially among relatively liberal churches. For churches that are embarrased to speak about life after death, the gospel can be one slippery critter. I definitely think that the shift of emphasis to the here and now, the gospel of the kingdom of heaven as a present reality, is a very good thing. But we have to be careful to keep sight of what the really good news is.

The reason I'm making this exploration is that I struggle with dissatisfaction brought on by mediocre news. I can easily avoid churches that preach bad news, but finding one that preaches truly good news, a gospel that I get excited about, is turning out to be a bit of a trick.

This is one of my complaints with the "God has a wonderful plan for your life" theology. It's just really not that wonderful. Yes, given belief in a Supreme Being, it is nice to know that the Supreme Being has noticed me and even wants a relationship with me. But it's just not enough.

Last week I talked about the recognition of the reality of things like the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Developing that idea further, for thinking people who read the newspaper and care about the mass destruction of human life, the news that God has a plan for my life by itself is hopelessly inadequate. There has to be more. Otherwise, Christianity becomes mere narcissism

For me, the good news of Christianity has to be centered in God's promise of new heavens and a new earth. I have to hear that God is actively involved in the renewal and restoration of all creation. I have to know that the one seated on the throne is making all things new. Anything less is mediocre news.