Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Hall of Fame Weekend

I went to Cooperstown this weekend to see Cal Ripken Jr. and Tony Gwynn be inducted into the Hall of Fame. Me, Cal and 75,000 of our closest friends celebrated. It was magic.

I'm a life-long Orioles fan, and so even though it took me a train, two planes, a car and a minivan to get there, I didn't want to miss this. The Hall of Fame induction ceremony is one of rare events that takes place outside of time. In time -- during the baseball season -- I follow the Orioles; I complain about things like how lousy their relief pitching is and why firing Sam Perlozzo won't fix their problems; I watch to see if some happiness can be salvaged as they take two out of three from the Yankees; I suffer the indignity of watching them fall farther and farther out of the pennant race. But this Sunday for one shining day all of that was put aside. There was Cal. There was Earl Weaver. There was Jim Palmer. There was Eddie Murray. There was Brooks Robinson. There was Frank Robinson. For this one day, the Orioles were great again. Like I said, magic. And, oh yeah, there were 49 other members of the Hall of Fame there too.

A few other random notes on my trip:
  • I felt sort of bad for Tony Gwynn. You only get inducted into the Hall of Fame once, and Gwynn was fairly overshadowed by all the attention on Cal, not least because of the Hall's proximity to Baltimore.

  • Because of weather, Cal and Tony's induction was moved up to the beginning of the ceremony, ahead of a segment to honor long-time Hall of Famer Bobby Doerr, and the presentation of career achievement awards to Kansas City broadcaster Denny Matthews and St. Louis sportswriter Rick Hummel. Perhaps predictably, about two thirds of the crowd walked out after Cal was done giving his acceptance speech. It was quite disgraceful. I felt especially bad for Bobby Doerr, who was speaking while this mass exodus took place. I couldn't hear a word he said.

  • On the way home, I had a layover in Charlotte, NC. The "Simply Books" bookstore at the Charlotte airport has quite a selection of Christian books, but I was more than a little flumoxxed by the fact that both Joel Osteen's Your Best Life Now and Jim Wallis' God's Politics showed up on their "recommended" shelf. I'm all for having a well-rounded perspective, but I can't imagine two books with more diametrically opposed visions of Christianity.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Judging the Word of God

So now I'm reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Creation and Fall. Through his commentary on the first chapter of Genesis, I was rather unimpressed. He had a couple of sharp ideas about knowing God as Creator vs. knowing God apart from creation, but a lot of it was very philosophical. It sort of reminded me of St. Augustine's theories of memory in the Confessions. That is, I couldn't make any sense of it.

But when he gets into the Yahwist material, his commentary really comes alive. This is the Bonhoeffer I've come to love. When he gets to the serpent's question to Eve ("Did God really say...?"), he is at the heart of discipleship. Here's what Bonhoeffer has to say about judging the concrete word of God:
What is the real evil in this question? It is not that a question as such is asked. It is that this question already contains the wrong answer. It is that with this question the basic attitude of the creature toward the Creator comes under attack. It requires humankind to sit in judgment on God's word instead of simply listening to it and doing it. And this is achieved by proposing that, on the basis of an idea, a principle, or some prior knowledge about God, humankind should now pass judgment on the concrete word of God. But where human beings use a principle, an idea of God, as a weapon to fight against the concrete word of God, there they are from the outset already right; at that point they have become God's master, they have left the path of obedience, they have withdrawn from being addressed by God.
This is brilliant. He exposes the human tendency to put ideas about God above God. My trouble is, what is this concrete word of God? Many would say it is obviously the Bible, but it seems to me that ideas about the inerrancy of the Bible can and do become precisely the sort of idea or principle that we use to judge God. Specifically, when anyone says they are strictly following the Bible as the word of God, they are almost always in the position that Bonhoeffer here describes as "from the outset already right." That is, their position is fixed, and the word of God becomes a prop to demonstrate the rightness of their position.

On the other hand, the liberal position which tends to take a principle like "love your neighbor as yourself" as the baseline for all Christian behavior fits directly in the pattern Bonhoeffer lays out. We take this position of knowing that God is love and use it as the standard by which we judge God. If God doesn't in our estimation meet this standard, then we put aside what God says, and "at that point [we] have become God's master."

This is where the story of Abraham and Isaac comes to the fore. Suppose Abraham had said, "Surely God would never ask me to kill Isaac. Therefore, I will not do what God seems to have asked of me." But Abraham is put forward as a model of faith precisely because he obeyed God rather than judging God's word. But notice that Abraham did not read this command in scripture.

So what does that leave us? Adam and Eve and Abraham in these examples have a direct word from God. It is precisely this sort of word that Abraham obeys and this sort of word that the serpent calls into question. But do we receive this sort of word from God? Certainly not in the literal Biblical sense, but I think we do receive leading from God. That is, I'm pretty sure from time to time God is leading me. But God doesn't lead me in such a way that I could set out a systematic ethics or set doctrinal policy. It's more a leading to a direct act like, "Help this person" or "listen to what she is saying."

And here, I think I've come into the problem of the institutional church. The institutional church necessarily sets policies and principles which we must abide by, but when the direction in which we are led to act comes into conflict with the leading we feel from God (I don't think I need to give anyone in the ELCA an example) then we must decide for ourselves whether it is right to obey God or obey men.

But what I get out of all of this is that while we do need guidelines and principles, we must be prepared to drop them at a moment's notice to obey the leading of God in any direction whatsoever.

Here's what Bonhoeffer says immediately following what I quoted above:
In other words, in this question what is possible is played off against what is reality, and what is possible undermines what is reality. In the relation of human beings to God, however, there are no possibilities: there is only reality. There is no "let me first..."; there is only the commandment and obedience.
So what do you think? Am I understanding this correctly?

Friday, July 20, 2007

God in History and in Creation

I was on vacation last week and did a lot of reading, so I've had more ideas rushing through my head than I've had time to blog. This post is a bit of compressed backlog.

Two books I read last week were Abraham Joshua Heschel's The Sabbath and J. Philip Newell's The Book of Creation. I paired them intentionally, as I thought they'd have a similar mood.

It's a bit odd reading a Jewish book on the Sabbath as a Christian, like an outsider looking in, but Heschel always has such brilliant insights that I'm willing to accept such a position to listen to what he has to say. Right from the prologue he blew me away with the idea that God exists in time moreso than in space. Listen:
Even religions are frequently dominated by the notion that the deity resides in space, with particular localities like mountains, forests, trees or stones, which are, therefore, singled out as holy places; the deity is bound to a particular land; holiness a quality associated with things of space, and the primary question is: Where is the god? There is much enthusiasm from the idea that God is present in the universe, but that idea is taken to mean His presence in space rather than in time, in nature rather than in history; as if He were a thing, not a spirit.
Then I read Newell's The Book of Creation, which happens to be precisely about finding God in nature. Newell's book is an introduction to Celtic spirituality by way of a meditation on the seven days of creation in Genesis 1:1-2:4. It's very good overall, but in the shadow of Heschel's book, it left me with a certain disatisfaction -- namely, the God that Newell finds in nature tends to be "God-in-general" and not particularly the God of Christianity. He mentions Christ occaissionally, and even points to the Incarnation, but it's not really central to his thought.

On the seventh day he says:
The seven days of Genesis, as we have noted, are not a chronological account of the emergence of the universe in the past but a meditation on the ever-present mytsery of creation. The life of creation is a theophany of God. It is a visible expression of the One who is essentially invisible, an intelligible sign of the One who is beyond knowledge. Just as the first day points to the light that is always at the heart of life, so the seventh reflects the stillness that is part of God's ongoing creativity.
I don't want to knock this too much. It's a very solid theology of nature, and in the end I do agree that nature points us to God. But Heschel convinced me that you can't really have the blessing of the seventh day without the God who blessed the seventh day. The blessing, the very God we are experiencing, is necessarily tied to the historical event. I don't mean to hereby embrace seven-day creationism (nor do I think Heschel does), but ultimately the creation story doesn't tell us anything about God-in-particular if it isn't telling us about God's historical act of creation.

At least that's what I think tonight.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Vatican Remains Catholic!

BBC World News had a headline today which read, "Vatican text angers Protestants". I generally like BBC News, but this is bare-faced sensationalism. A more appropriate headline might have been something like "Vatican Continues to Affirm Catholic Theology" but I suppose it would be hard to justify having a "news" story about that. It almost would have to follow, "Our top story tonight....Generalissimo Francisco Franco is still dead."

I read the full text of the Vatican document and there is absolutely nothing even remotely new about it. If this indeed "angers Protestants" then those Protestants ought to be lining up outside Catholic seminaries every day in protest, because this is strictly everyday Catholic ecclesiology.

In summary, "It is possible, according to Catholic doctrine, to affirm correctly that the Church of Christ is present and operative in the churches and ecclesial Communities not yet fully in communion with the Catholic Church, on account of the elements of sanctification and truth that are present in them...[but]...These ecclesial Communities which, specifically because of the absence of the sacramental priesthood, have not preserved the genuine and integral substance of the Eucharistic Mystery cannot, according to Catholic doctrine, be called 'Churches' in the proper sense."

Shocking...absolutely shocking.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Mission and Adversity

Kelly Fryer wrote an excellent piece Friday on the need to remember our mission as a Church in the midst of distractions such as the Bradley Schmeling case and the related disputes. Kelly proposed what she calls the "Jan and Marcia" (JAM) plan to deal with this. Based on a Brady Bunch episode, her plan calls for metaphorically drawing a line down the middle of the ELCA and letting both sides go about their separate business with shared resources until they realize how much they need each other.

As I said in the comments there, this reminded me of a saying I heard a few years ago from David Tiede --"The Holy Spirit is a disruptive influence in the Church." Dr. Tiede developed this thesis based on his study of Acts, and I keep seeing that it's true. The Holy Spirit doesn't seem to like to let us get settled. And so we face adversity and the Holy Spirit works in the midst of the adversity to make amazing things happen.

I've been reading a biography of John Wesley. As late as 1789 Wesley was vigorously maintaining that he had no intention of separating from the Church of England. But as early as 1739 he was appointing lay people to preach and by 1784 he took it upon himself to ordain priests to send to America. His justification for these actions? It was necessary in order to spread the gospel.

Wesley's case provides an inspiring example of how setting mission ahead of ecclesiology can prepare the way for great works of the Holy Spirit. The actions of St. John's Lutheran Church in Atlanta as they continue to support Pastor Schmeling is also an inspiring example. In his July 5 statement to the press, Pastor Schmeling said, "The good news for today is that we can now return to the ministry and mission that we have been called to do." Good stuff -- get to work and let the chips fall where they may.


One of the things I've become more aware of since I starting riding my bike to work is the layout of neighborhoods. I'm always looking for new routes to find flatter roads with less traffic and it leads me into places I wouldn't usually go. There's a lot of new housing along my route and the thing I've found is that new housing developments are specifically designed not to have through streets. You go in and find yourself in a maze of side streets and cul de sacs and more often than not end up having to come back out to the same place you went in.

At first I thought this must be some kind of metaphor for the individualistic isolationism of American society closing in the family unit while closing out everything else. But as I thought more about it (biking gives you a lot of time to think) and considered how it works in my own neighborhood, I changed my mind.

I don't live on a cul de sac, but my street does loop back to the street it starts on. No one has any reason to use this street unless they live there. But the effect is that I know more of my neighbors here than anywhere I've lived. We're closed in but we're closed in together, and it makes me wonder if perhaps borders are necessary for community.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Real Christians

One of the remarkable things I've come across in reading about the life of John Wesley is that, even while he still saw Methodism as a movement within the Anglican Church, Wesley was frequently criticized as "gathering churches out of churches." Wesley's reply was something along the lines of, "You don't really think all the people on the Church of England membership roles are Christians, do you?"

That is, Wesley saw his task as finding nominal Christians and prodding them on to becoming "real Christians" (his term).

There's a lot of bickering that goes on in many Christian circles over who is a "real Christian" and who isn't. Certain conservatives point fingers at liberals and say they aren't real Christians because they don't believe in the inerrancy of the Bible. Some liberals point fingers at conservatives and say they aren't real Christians because they don't put enough emphasis on compassion.

Wesley's idea of a "real Christian" probably seemed a lot like that to his contemporaries, but he had a very sound basis. For Wesley, a "real Christian" was someone who had been converted to saving faith by the work of the Holy Spirit.

A nominal Christian might be someone who tried to live a good and moral life. He might go to church and receive the sacraments regulary. He might even be very zealous in his practice and preaching of Christianity. But, said Wesley, if this person hadn't been the beneficiary of the work of the Holy Spirit converting him to faith, he wasn't yet a real Christian.

This is very sound in theory, though I can't imagine how it could be anything other than contentious in practice -- and it was. And yet there's something breathtaking, even in reading it as history, about someone being willing to stand up and say, not everything is right in our churches.

I've referred before to David Tiede's maxim that "The Holy Spirit is a disruptive influence in the Church," and I see this as yet another application of that truth.

Imagine if someone were to go around in your average Lutheran congregation suggesting that not everyone in the pews every week really knew Jesus. Such a person would quickly find themselves pointed toward the door. But wouldn't it be true?

I'm reminded of Kierkegaard's parable of a fire in a vaudeville theatre, where the only person who know about the fire is dressed in a clown suit, and the more frantically he tells people there's a fire, the more everyone laughs.