Tuesday, November 24, 2009

New Blogging Venture

I know, no one blogs anymore. If I'm going to be doing something new I should be doing it on Twitter or Facebook or something, right? But I like the blogging format.

Contrary to all reason, I'm attempting something that will, to some extent, rely on participation from other people for its success. Since you're reading this, I'm hoping you'll be one of those people.

A while ago, I was listening to Rob Bell's Velvet Elvis. Somewhere in there he says this:
I don’t think any of the writers of the Bible ever intended people to read their letters alone. I think they assumed that people who were hearing these words for the first time would be sitting next to someone who was further along on her spiritual journey, someone who was more in tune with what the writer was saying. If it didn’t make sense, you could stop the person who was reading and say, "Help me understand this."
I really like that. It occurred to me that most of the time when I've blogged about the Bible here, I've been sharing what I think it means. I decided it would be a good idea to try blogging about the parts that I don't understand.

That's where you come in.

What I think I'm going to do is follow the weekly lectionary and every week blog about whatever question or doubts I have about it. I'm hoping some good people will stop by and share what they do understand, or at least ideas that they have.

Here's the address of the new blog:


Please stop by.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

"He Became Sad"

But when he heard this, he became sad; for he was very rich.
-Luke 18:23
There's a barrel outside the locker room where I work. I pass it at least twice a day as I change in and out of my bike clothes. It doesn't have much explanation, just a sign saying you can donate shoes to The Ethiopia Project by putting them in the barrel.

As I was walking by one day recently, I gave it some thought. Like everyone, I like the idea of helping out those less fortunate than myself. African countries seem to have a particular tug on American heart strings. Yet I knew that it didn't make sense, from a humanitarian perspective, to spend $50-$100 on a pair of shoes just to give them to someone in Ethiopia. The money could provide more help in other ways.

Then I thought about my old worn-out shoes that I haven't thrown away yet. But no one wants shoes like this as a donation. It would be an insult to the dignity of the recipient, right? At this point, I thought about the fact that there must be more people than I could bear to consider around the world whose lives would be improved by even my old, nasty, worn out shoes. This took my mind to the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus -- Lazarus, "who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man's table" (Luke 16:22).

I realized, with something like horror, that I was the rich man. Of course, this idea wasn't new to me. It is fairly standard American progressive rhetoric. We all know it. What caused the horror was that for the first time, I sort of understood why the rich man didn't do something for Lazarus when he was alive. He was too deeply entrenched in his own way of life to see an alternative. Even if he wanted things to be different, he couldn't see how they could be. Would it help for him to be poor too? Of course not.

This inability to see an alternative to a privileged way of life connects the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus in Luke 16 to the story of the rich young ruler in Luke 18.
A certain ruler asked him, "Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?"

Jesus said to him, "Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: 'You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; Honor your father and mother.'"

He replied, "I have kept all these since my youth."

When Jesus heard this, he said to him, "There is still one thing lacking. Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me."

But when he heard this, he became sad; for he was very rich.
This man wants to follow Jesus' teaching. He wants to live the way Jesus is telling people they should live. The trouble is, he can't do it. He can't, and it makes him sad.

I looked up The Ethiopia Project today. It isn't terribly humanitarian. They want to give running shoes to aspiring athletes in Ethiopia to see if they can become elite, world-class runners. They don't want my old, worn-out shoes. I have a pair of running shoes that I don't use that are in pretty good shape. Maybe I'll give them to the project.

I still don't see a way out of being a financially privileged American.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Carl Braaten

A number of years ago, I wrote a blog post in response to an open letter that Carl Braaten wrote to then ELCA presiding bishop Mark Hanson. To my utter astonishment, that post started turning up whenever anyone search for "Carl Braaten" on Google. As of today, it is the third result Google offers, and I've seen it as high as number one (maybe just for me, I don't know what Google does behind the scenes). In any event, this was the top search result that led people to my humble blog until it was recently surpassed by "Can Jesus Microwave a Burrito?" (The Internet is a strange place, and Google models that strangeness well.)

Anyway, for some time now, I've been intending to offer something useful to those who stumble across my blog looking for actual information about Dr. Braaten, but it turns out that such information really has been hard to find. Recently, I enlisted the help of Dwight at Versus Populum, who was able to provide me with enough information to offer the rough biography that follows. I'll also be posting this at Wikipedia, which had a very terse entry, so if anyone knows more and would care to elaborate, please go there and do so.

So, without further ado.....


Carl Braaten has been one of the leading theologians and teachers in the Lutheran church for the past 50 years. He has authored and edited numerous books and theological papers, including Principles of Lutheran Theology (Fortress Press, 1983), Mother Church: Ecclesiology and Ecumenism (Fortress Press, 1998) and In One Body Through the Cross: The Princeton Proposal for Christian Unity (Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003).

Along with Robert Jenson, he has been an influential figure in developing and restoring the catholic roots of American Lutheranism.

Braaten was born on January 3, 1929. His parents were Norwegian-American pietists, who served as missionaries in Madagascar, and he received his early spiritual formation in that context. After finishing high school at Augustana Academy, a Lutheran boarding school in Canton, South Dakota, he attended St. Olaf College, Luther Seminary, Heidelberg University and Harvard Divinity School. where he studied under Paul Tillich and earned his doctoral degree. He was ordained by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in 1958.

At that time, he began serving a parish in Minneapolis and teaching at Luther Seminary. In 1961 Braaten, together with Robert Jenson, Roy Harrisville, Kent Knutson, James Burtness and others, founded the journal Dialog, which he continued to serve as editor until resigning in 1991. In 1962, Dr. Braaten accepted a position at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, where he taught as Professor of Systematic Theology until 1991 and where he is still recognized as Professor Emeritus.

In 1991, Braaten and Jenson founded the Center for Catholic and Evangelical Theology and established a new theological journal, Pro Ecclesia.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Lutheran Irony (no, not that kind)

There's a concept known as "Lutheran irony" which refers to the characteristically Lutheran idea that whenever we are behaving most religiously (striving to be pious) we are at our most vulnerable spiritually, because our pride weakens our dependence on Christ. That's not the topic of this post.

I noticed something else last night that involves Luther and those who have followed him spiritually and seems to me to be rather ironic. That's what I want to talk about.

I was reading David Brondos' book, Fortress Introduction to Salvation and the Cross, specifically the chapter on Luther. Brondos writes:
For years, Luther wrestled with deep-seated feelings of guilt and with his enemy the devil, convinced that he needed to overcome the powers of sin and Satan in himself in order to achieve the standard of righteousness demanded by God for salvation. Yet no matter how hard he tried and how harshly he disciplined himself, he felt that his efforts were in vain and that he remained under God's wrath. Finally, however, through his study of the Scriptures, most notably Paul's epistles, Luther encountered another God, a God who forgave sins and accepted sinners out of pure grace and mercy through his Son, Jesus Christ.
That's a fairly standard and, I believe, accurate summary of Luther's major transformation.

The thing that occurred to me as I read this was that a very large number of people who see themselves as Luther's spiritual heirs -- not only, or even primarily, Lutherans, but evangelicals in general -- seem to have a theology that assumes that the young Luther who lived in fear of God's wrath was basically right. The common evangelical theology presumes a God who, apart from the sacrifice made by Jesus Christ, would be a wrathful judge who condemned every living person for failing to meet the perfect moral standard of the Law.

What's up with that?!?

That's about as far as I got last night in Brondos' book, so I don't know what he's going to say about it.

Thinking back on my own reading of Luther, I'm not sure that the post-tower-experience Luther would have completely agreed with this idea. When he talks about looking upon God "naked" -- as opposed to clothed in Christ -- it might seem like he would agree, but he constantly tells us that we shouldn't attempt to know or understand this "naked" God. I'm not sure he would have agreed that God is "really" like that.

But regardless of what Luther thought, why would we still be carrying around that medieval image of God? Is this the image of God that Jesus offers us? I really don't think so.

Now someone will say that most mainline denominations don't employ or endorse this sort of thinking. That may be so but (a) too often they don't offer anything substantial in its place (i.e. they just don't talk about salvation), so (b) many of the people in the pews pick this up from other sources.

Beyond that, what really surprised me as I thought about this is that while I have a strong reflex reaction against it, I don't think I've completely cleared it from my own theological closet. I think I still have it in there somewhere, like a box of stuff I'm keeping in case I need it some day.

But it's wrong, isn't it?

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Gospel, The Church and Churches

Andy Kaylor has become unstuck in church.

This happens to me from time to time. I'm a member of Generation X, so dissatisfaction is part of my stock-in-trade. That's nothing unusual. Wherever I am, whatever I'm doing, there's also something I'm not quite happy with. That's normal -- normal for everyone, I suspect, but in particular normal for me. But from time to time, the general background noise of dissatisfaction bubbles up to become a full blown crisis. That's happening to me now.

I've been told that the Holy Spirit is a disrupting presence in the Church, so maybe this is for the best.

Right now, one of the chief things I'm dissatisfied with is the Gospel. Well, that's not quite right. I'm not dissatisfied with the Gospel per se. Rather, I feel like I've misplaced it. I've looked around, and I can't seem to find it. This is also something that happens to me from time to time.

The standard Lutheran definition of "the Church" is this: "The Church is the congregation of saints, in which the Gospel is rightly taught and the Sacraments are rightly administered." (Augsburg Confession, Article VII) I had to look up the precise wording, and it surprised me. It's wrong! The Church is where the Gospel is preached, not where the Gospel is taught, right? Maybe that's part of the problem.

Anyway, I haven't been to church in a while, and when I was going, I didn't often feel like I was hearing the Gospel. That's not to say it wasn't being preached necessarily, but I wasn't hearing it. Maybe it's me.

The trouble is, I'm not sure what the Gospel is. What's more, I probably don't believe that you know either. Sure, "God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son...." and "Christ died for our sins" and so on. But, if I can bring Chaung-Tzu into such a hallowed discussion, "The men of old took all they really knew with them to the grave. Their words are only dirt they left behind." Or, perhaps more irreverantly, to paraphrase Inigo Montoya, "You keep using those words. I don't think they mean what you think they mean."

Rod Rosenbladt tells the story of one of his mentors explaining to him what the Church is. He was told, "When the pastor hands you the bread and says, 'This is the body of Christ, given for you,' that is the Church." I like that. It's the place where the Sacraments are administered and the Gospel is preached (not taught). At this simple level, while I still may not know what the Gospel is, I hear it, I feel it, I receive it. Maybe I just need to find a church which celebrates the Sacraments more often.

Several years ago, I told myself in this blog, "To me, the Gospel is that in the person of Jesus Christ the kingdom of God has begun to break into this world. In Christ Jesus, God has begun to fulfill his promise of new heavens and a new earth." That's not bad. I feel my heart strangely warmed to hear it.

My complaint, I guess, is that I'm not finding that in church. Too often I find myself in churches where you'd think that Jesus' preaching began with, "The Counsel of God is at hand. Rejoice and listen to the Good Advice," and ended with, "All insight in heaven and earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, and make church members of all nations, inviting them to drink coffee and join small groups, and sharing with them many of the things that you may deduce from what I have taught you." That doesn't work for me.

Perhaps I shouldn't be so cynical. Maybe I should go to church.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Can Jesus Microwave a Burrito?

A friend recently shared a link to some funny results you can get with Google's suggested search feature. The idea is that you start typing something into Google's search box and watch what it suggests. One of the results (try it yourself if this isn't what brought you to this blog) was that if you type "Can Je" Google guesses that you might be wondering "Can Jesus microwave a burrito?"

I was skeptical when I saw this, so I tried it myself and sure enough, there it was. I'm sure by now it's solidified as a meme.

The question is shortened from "Could Jesus microwave a burrito so hot that he himself could not eat it," which is obviously a variation of the old "Could God make a rock so heavy that he himself could not lift it?" conundrum. Near as I can tell, this form of the question became popular when Homer Simpson asked it of Ned Flanders in 2002, but Google has a page in its data banks that it claims is from December 1, 2001 on which it is attributed to someone named Laura Sharp. Good work, Laura.

So, I was thinking about this, and nerdy as I know it is, my first response was to appreciate the dichotomy between the orthodox theological answer to the question and the implied knee-jerk reaction of believing Christians. The whole thing reminded me of this painting, which my cousin Nick comissioned.

Anyway, it stuck in my mind and I realized the immense potential for humor still untapped in this question. What follows is my humble attempt to mine some of that humor. As you read it, keep in mind the scene in Bruce Almighty where Morgan Freeman as God says, "Now, I'm not big on blasphemy, but that last one made me laugh." If that doesn't help, go look at some "Jesus Laughing" "artwork".

So, without further ado...

Q: Can Jesus Microwave a Burrito?

The Chalcedonian Response

We, following the holy Fathers, all with one consent, teach people to confess one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood; truly God and truly man, of a rational soul and body. Now then because Jesus is both truly God and truly man he is simultaneously able and not able to do this. Touching his Godhead, he is omnipotent and nothing is beyond his abilities, whether it be microwaving burritos to unimaginable temperatures or consuming burritos of unimaginable temperatures. However, eating burritos is not a thing of God but a thing of man, and in as much as Jesus is truly man now and forever, he is certainly able to eat a burrito as we would eat a burrito, and we all know that burritos can be too hot to eat. Amen.

The Enthusiastic Believer Response

Of course Jesus could microwave a burrito so hot that he himself could not eat it. He's Jesus! He can do anything! He wouldn't even need a microwave to do it. He could make a burrito appear out of thin air that was so hot that no one could not eat it. But you know, I was talking to my cousin Joe about this last week, and he said, "Well, then Jesus isn't omnipotent because he couldn't eat the burrito." And I was like, "Duh! He's Jesus. He can do anything. Of course, he can eat the burrito." I don't understand why people try to make things so hard.

The Academic Response

The Gospel of Luke is replete with stories of Jesus eating, so when we think about Jesus eating a burrito, that would be where we should look. The unknown author of Luke's gospel does not specifically address Jesus' cooking skills because that's not what she or he is interested in. Instead of asking whether Jesus can microwave a burrito, we should be thinking about the much more important question of who Jesus would eat a burrito with, and the third gospel does indeed help us to answer this question. Jesus would gladly share a burrito with the stoner who has the munchies. He would gulp down a burrito with the working mother who is trying to get some quick sustanence between her two daily eight hour shifts. He would stand beside the migrant worker who has to suffer the indignity of having the rich culinary traditions of his homeland morphed by his oppressors into a microwaveable bundle of bland preservatives. In short, Jesus would share this meal with all those people whom the Establishment would look down upon or ignore.

The Older, Now Largely Discredited, Academic Response

To understand this, we must deconstruct the myth of Jesus and the burrito and try to understand what it is really telling us. We must recognize the archetypal image of the hot burrito and face what it is that it represents. In the question of Jesus and the hot burrito we are faced with a question that is central to our very existence. We must face this question and each of us must decide for ourselves, will we indulge our impulsive nature and bite into the burrito while it is still too hot, or will we patiently wait for it to cool so that it can be properly enjoyed as Nature intended?

The Inerrantist Response

While this may appear on the surface to be a contradiction, if we look closer we see that it actually is not. First of all, the word "microwave" is formed from the Greek root "micros" meaning "small" and so we're asking if Jesus can use small waves to heat a burrito, thus eliminating any concerns over the anachronism of the historical Jesus using a modern kitchen appliance. Secondly, you'll notice that the question does not specifically mention when said burrito would be eaten. It may be that first it is microwaved to a temperature so hot it cannot be eaten, so Jesus is able to accomplish the first task. Then, the burrito will cool, and so Jesus is also able to eat the burrito which he microwaved. So you see that this is only an apparent contraditction, not an actual contradiction.

The Tribulationist Response

St. John writes in the sixth chapter of the book of Revelation, "And I beheld when he had opened the sixth seal, and, lo, there was a great earthquake; and the sun became black as sackcloth of hair, and the moon became as blood; And the stars of heaven fell unto the earth, even as a fig tree casteth her untimely figs, when she is shaken of a mighty wind." This is the same event we find described in Daniel, chapter 8, verse 10. The stars here falling to earth are meant to represent burritos so hot that no man could eat them and live, and the "mighty wind" is the modern microwave oven. I'm here to tell you today, that the time is surely coming when all those who are not marked with the seal of the lamb will be forced to eat these monstrously hot bean-filled burritos on the great and terrible day of the Lord. But take heart, for we can count on the prophecies which have told us that Jesus will come for all those who call upon his name and we will be caught up with him in the heavens and taken to a place where we will feast on golden nachos and sour cream forever, but all those who refuse to repent and believe will be forced to endure seven years of burning of the rooves of their mouths with piping hot convenience food, and if they still will not turn to our compassionate God, then they will be forever cast into the pit where the cheese does not cool and there is no relief from the fiery hot sauce.

The Orthodox Response

Was it microwave burritos in 19th century Russia? No. It was not.

The Liberal Response

Jesus of Nazareth did not live in a time when such modern conveniences as microwave ovens and individually wrapped burritos existed, but he lives on today in the hearts and minds of all those who call themselves Christians. We are his hands, and yes, even his mouth. And because we can microwave a burrito, Jesus can microwave a burrito. Because we can make it too hot, Jesus can make it too hot. Our challenge is to not make the burrito too hot. The question is not what Jesus could do. The question is what should we do.

The Revisionist Response

Two thousand years of Christianity evolving in an imperialist patriachal society have given us images of Jesus which are not helpful. We shouldn't sit back and calmly accept the portrayal of Jesus which has him dining at 7-11 at midnight. That's the image that male-dominated corporate America wants us to have, but we should reject it. Instead of imagining Jesus microwaving a burrito, we should create a new image of Jesus working along side his wife at a community center to cook a delicious meal, feeding their hungry neighbors while forming new bonds of friendship, cooperation and comradery with everyone around them. Could Jesus and his wife do that? You bet they could!

The Morality Preacher Response

Burritos are spicy, and so we should recognize that they are tools of the devil, who is the deceiver and the father of lies. When Jesus fasted 40 days in the desert, Satan came to him and said, "If you are the Son of God, microwave this burrito." But Jesus recognized this temptation for what it was. No, Jesus would not microwave a burrito. Jesus would prepare a nice turkey sandwich on wheat bread with a side of potato salad. Now, go and do likewise.

The Prosperity Preacher Response

Jesus was a king, the Son of God, and whatever he wanted his heavenly father provided for him. And he has given us also the power to name that which we desire and he promises that our father in heaven will also provide it for us. If we want burritos, all we need to do is pray and believe that God will provide us with burritos and we will see burritos coming to us. We won't need to microwave them, God will put them into our lives perfect and delicious, and they won't be too hot too eat unless we have some reason to want them to be too hot to eat. If we will only believe that God is able and willing to deliver all that he has promised, we will very soon be living an abundent life, overflowing with gooey deliciousness.

The Evangelist Response

Jesus has eaten the overheated burrito in your place. You, being born of sinful flesh, set the timer on the microwave for too long. You deserve to have to eat the overheated burrito at its full temperature, but God loves you so much that He sent His only begotten Son to eat the overheated burrito on your behalf so that you would not have to. I know some of you hearing this message today realize the carelessness with which you set the microwave timer. You know the burrito is too hot. But I promise you that if you will just say this prayer with me today, you will be saved and there will be a place of honor for you at the Grand Fiesta of the Lord on judgment day.


I hope it's clear that I'm not making fun of Christ here but rather making fun of Christians, of which I am one. Regrettably, I am not among those satired above. I would place myself as someone reading the Academics and trying to reconcile what they say with my Chalcedonian faith. This does, of course, make me a comical figure but not one with a clear response to the question at hand.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Caring For the Poor

I know we're not actually a Christian nation, but it's usually the liberals and the libertarians who emphasize that. My Christian values do lead to my personal political positions.

I decided today that I must be the most liberal man in the country.

I was offended this morning by the vehemence with which Joe Biden denied that President Obama's health care proposal would provide coverage for illegal aliens. I'd like for illegal aliens be covered.

My father-in-law once told me a story about feeling led by God to read the book of Leviticus. And so he read it and felt like he didn't get anything at all out of it. And then he felt led by God to read it again, so he did again, and again he didn't get anything out of it. That was the end of his story. I find that story encouraging whenever I read Leviticus. I've read Leviticus several times. I retained enough to be able to find the following verse with the help of a Bible search engine:
The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.
-Leviticus 19:34
I can almost hear my Uncle Gary muttering, "You long-haired, commie, pinko...."

Friday, July 31, 2009

Harry Potter What If

I'm a big fan of the Harry Potter series. It's entertaining, and it explores some interesting questions. I've been thinking lately though that it would have been more interesting if the Sorting Hat had put Harry in Slytherin. Could Harry have still foiled Voldemort year after year?

The way I imagine it, the only thing necessary to get him in Slytherin would have been for him not to have met Ron on the train the first year. Then he could have become friends with Draco Malfoy instead. Would Malfoy have turned Harry toward evil, or could friendship with Harry have brought out a better side of Malfoy?

I like how J.K. Rowling develops the idea that Harry can't do any of what he does without the support of the people around him. But could he do it with Malfoy and Pansy Parkinson at his side instead of Ron and Hermoine, Professor Snape watching over him instead of Professor McGonagall, and (gasp) Filtch as his inside connection instead of Hagrid?

Granted, none of this would have any appeal if you didn't already know the story as it actually does unfold, but one of the things that bugs me about the story is that, in spite of a few hat tips to the idea that people aren't either all good or all bad, it's not at all hard to tell who's good and who's bad, with the notable exceptions of Snape and, to a lesser extent, Kreacher.

On the other hand, there's a certain way in which precisely this makes Harry's story a fitting model of the Christian life (and I'm guessing this is true of other moral/ethical systems as well), because Harry himself is the one character we see struggling with good and evil. And, as Harry looks out around him, all the other "good" people are pretty uniformly good, and it's generally only in "bad" people that he can see anything bad. It's my experience that life feels like that, though I've long since come to terms with the fact that it's an illusion.

So maybe, just maybe, the story with Harry in Gryffindor can be seen as an allegory for the way life looks from the inside looking out, and a rewriting of the story with Harry in Slytherin could be an allegory for life as it actually is. Which forces me to ask again, would the "good guy" win in that scenario?

Monday, July 13, 2009

Justification by Faith: A Case Study in Biblical Authority

In my previous post, I explored the idea of the authority of the Bible. I suggested that the authority of the Bible is more like the authority of wine than it is like the authority of a constitution. That is, its authority lies precisely in its ability to transform the reader and that for purposes of authority it should not be treated as an objective document which may be consulted and from which judgments may be derived.

I can't remember if I said that this is the authority the Bible should have or that's the authority the Bible does, in fact, have. It occurred to me last night that the latter is most certainly true, whether we pretend the Bible's authority is something else or not. It also seemed to me that a brief case study was in order.

I'd like to look at the question of justification by faith during the Reformation.

Although there are those who would rather die than admit this, there is a growing consensus that Luther was wrong about his idea of imputed righteousness. If this is indeed the case, would we then conclude that the Protestant cause in general was wrong? No.

Look at the way the story of Luther is always told: Luther was a diligent monk, struggling against a troubled conscience. In great fear over the certainty of his salvation, he wrestled over and over with the scriptures, until one glorious day while wrestling with Paul's letter to the Romans he discovered the glorious truth that it is by God's righteousness, and not our own that we are justified (insert sound of angels singing here).

Now granted that Luther was wrong, he was wrong precisely here at this most pivotal moment in the development of his Reformation insight. But consider, the above story is based entirely on how Luther himself told the story after his theology had completely gelled. Of course, the truth was more complicated than that.

I'm saying that Luther's actual discovery was more basic than what he later claimed. I'm saying that the heart of Luther's insight was that God loves sinners, not (only?) the righteous. And in this regard he was completely correct. Having received this light, Luther was totally transformed and invigorated enough to challenge the theology of his day to bring this good news to all who would listen. A movement was formed and "the Word of the Lord grew mightily and prevailed" as Acts 19:20 says.

Of course, there were those who held a vested interest in the theology of his day, and they immediately set people to the task of figuring out what was wrong with Luther's reading of the Bible. Now, as these scholars were studying to prepare their opposition, they latched on to the truth that God transforms sinners, and they propagated this Biblical truth to all who would listen, and again "the Word of the Lord grew mightily and prevailed" in a movement now known as the Counter Reformation (or Catholic Reformation, if you prefer).

It turns out that both of these basic insights were Biblically sound, and so both could be defended by referencing the Bible as though it were a dogmatic document, but both were cast in theologies which were not quite so Biblically sound, and so neither was unassailable from that same perspective. And so the "Bible-as-document" model of Biblical authority left us with a huge gaping wound in the Church.

However, in spite of this, because the Bible actually exercises its authority through transformed lives, both sides of this gaping wound thrived and grew and brought renewal to the Church, at least until the leaders who affiliated themselves with these movements managed to use the conflict as an occasion for deadening the faith of many.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Biblical Interpretation and Authority.

A friend recently dropped me a note in response to some thoughts I had shared with him about biblical interpretation. Like me, he's from a Protestant background but loves the Catholic tradition. He said he's basically torn between "believing that Petrine doctrine is the only way out of the theological mess" or "agreeing with Luther that individuals reading the text with the guidance of the inner light is the only way to subjectively legitimize interpretations."

Now, I'm not sure Luther really felt the need for "the guidance of inner light." As I read him, he seemed to think that the literal meaning of scripture was plain for everyone to see and anyone who didn't read it like him was clearly succumbing to the leading of the devil. Luther was easy to get along with like that. On the other hand, my friend is a scholar of comparative religions, and I know he doesn't really believe the Petrine doctrine in a literal way any more than I do.

So that had me mulling things over again. What does the Bible really mean, and who says so?

On the one hand, I'm a bit of a Luther fanboy, and I tend to agree with him on the fact that the meaning of scripture is plain enough. On the other hand, fanboy or no, I disagree with him on an awful lot of the fine points of his reading, so it's kind of silly for me to agree with him on simply reading the plain meaning. On the third hand, the backdrop to the above mentioned discussion was a comment I had made of a bit from the Foreward of Pope Benedict's book Jesus of Nazareth in which he talks about the process by which the community gathered around the sacred texts reinterprets the texts, and how this is good and reasonable because the text created the community and the community created the text and so the text was somehow open to the reinterpretation all along. So there's something there of an ecclesial authority in interpreting the text which I believe and accept.

But the more I think about it, the more I think the problem is with how we try to locate authority relative to the Bible. We say the Bible is the final authority on matters of faith and doctrine, which I hope we understand to really mean that God speaking through the Bible is the final authority on matters of faith and doctrine. But the really big problem is that our interpretation of the Bible tends to become the de facto authority which we are trying to follow.

That is, we recognize the authority of the Bible and tip our hat to it, and we try as diligently as we are able to uncover the meaning of the Bible, and then we effectively legislate our behavior on the basis of the meaning we arrive at as our best guess at the meaning. This is essentially the logical outcome of the Protestant model, and I'm going on record right now saying it's wrong.

So what's the alternative?

First, let me suggest that in try to arrive at the meaning of the Bible, we're already a bit off track. The Church has long recognized multiple meanings embedded in Scripture. Some of these have been dismissed in modern times as silly, pious imagination. Nevertheless, as modern reading has given way to post-modern reading, we've been forced to acknowledge the simple fact that words, inspired and otherwise, tend not to have a single meaning.

And so I think we do well to look back at the history of how the Church has read various passages and see what may be gleaned from it. I think we also do well to consult Jewish traditions. And we do well to try to come at the text fresh (as if such a thing were possible) and hear it with new ears and respond. In all of these ways we will find many treasures, old and new (Matthew 13:52).

Does the Bible really mean all these things? Maybe. Maybe not. I think perhaps we should look at biblical interpretation as being somehow akin to wine tasting. A person can pick up a glass of wine, take a gulp and glibly say, "It tastes like wine." But an experienced wine taster may come along side and suggest that this person look for the hint of fruitiness in the finish. And perhaps the person takes another sip and finds this fruitiness. And so on. Merely having heard the suggestion of what's there gives us the ability to discern it where perhaps we did not before.

So that's interpretation. But what about authority?

I'd like to suggest that the authority of the Bible is also more like the authority of wine than it is like the authority of a constitution. Wine exercises its authority by the mere fact of having been imbibed. Even so with the Bible. The authority of the Bible is, and should be, in the effect it has upon us, the way in which it can transform us, not as something we can point to in order to support our arguments or to justify ourselves. It may be that I have misunderstood the meaning of the Bible, but in the act of engaging it and seeking it's meaning, I am transformed. It may have more to say to me, and the same passage may have more work to do with me, but having been transformed to the extent I have, I am to act as I have been led.

And so when I apply this to a controversial issue, such as same sex relationships, it's a mistake to lay out a list of verses and say, "These are the passages which justify my position." Instead, I can simply say, "Jesus calls me to love my neighbor, and this is what that seems to me to mean," and I am more genuinely placing authority in God through Scripture than if I were to cite chapter and verse.

You and I may even arrive at different positions in this way. That's OK, I think. We're not done. As long as we're both still opening ourselves to the authority of the Scripture and the action of the Holy Spirit upon us, we'll be moving, I hope, in the right direction.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

The Pope Taught Me to Pray

I've never been quite comfortable that I really understood prayer, or perhaps it would be better to say that I've always been at least vaguely aware that I didn't understand prayer. Prayer obviously has many aspects and different traditions emphasize different facets, but none of them have seemed to quite fit with me.

Something about prayer of petition always seems off to me. I mean obviously the Biblical support to ask for what we need is there, but I can't help feeling that prayer is often used like some magic incantation to achieve a desired result. And I'm not even talking just about the recent "name it and claim it" trend. I'm thinking of the kind of church meeting where you make a bunch a plans and then someone says that you need a group of people praying for the effort so that it will be successful. Does it really work like that?

On the other end of the spectrum, you have prayer as mysticism. Now this has always appealed to me in a certain way. I am, like it or not, a child of my age and so the "spiritual" feel of mystical prayer has something going for it. But the problem I have with this type of prayer is that it hasn't seemed to me to have any particular connection with Jesus' teaching.

Well, today I got some help with this problem from Pope Benedict XVI. No, I wasn't granted an audience with His Holiness. Rather, I've been reading his book, Jesus of Nazareth. This morning I began the chapter on the Lord's Prayer. In about three pages, he explained something about what prayer is that had never quite clicked with me before.

Listen to this:
The more the depths of our souls are directed toward God, the better we will be able to pray. The more prayer is the foundation that upholds our entire existence, the more we will become men of peace. The more we can bear pain, the more we will be able to understand others and open ourselves to them. This orientation pervasively shaping our whole consciousness, this silent presence of God at the heart of our thinking, our meditating and our being, is what we mean by "prayer without ceasing." This is ultimately what we mean by love of God, which is at the same time the condition and the driving force behind love of neighbor.

This is what prayer really is--being in silent inner communion with God. It requires nourishment, and that is why we need articulated prayer in words, images or thoughts. The more God is present in us, the more we will really be able to be present to him when we utter the words of our prayers. But the converse is also true: Praying actualizes and deepens our communion of being with God.

I don't need to pray for God to support and nourish my marriage in order for God to support and nourish my marriage. I don't need to pray for God to come to the aid of my neighbor in order for God to come to the aid of my neighbor. And so on. But, if I want these things and I don't bring them before God, then I am not welcoming God into those parts of my life. And if I do bring these things before God, I am deepening my communion with God in these aspects of my life.

This perspective also makes sense of the more mystical forms of prayer. Seeking union with God, then, isn't about just attaining the experience or escaping from material life, but rather is a means of connecting God to our lives.

I don't think there's anything here that I hadn't heard before, but today it fit together and made sense to me in a way that it hadn't before. I don't think I had previously seen how all these things are connected.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Quo Vadis?

This morning as I was on my way to work, I was thinking about what Christianity means to me and what I need for my faith to thrive. I'm a bit dissatisfied with my religious life right now, and I was trying to figure out what to do about it.

I'm focussing on the gospels right now. I'm trying to understand what was at the heart of Jesus' teaching. In short, I'm trying to be a disciple.

I'm not convinced any of the traditional interpretations really capture the essence of Jesus' teaching. At least, none of the traditional interpretations seem to be telling me what I need to hear from Jesus. Obviously, it is very deeply rooted in the Judaism of the time, and yet it has to be somehow radically different.

So I'm applying the traditional core Bible study questions to the gospels in the broadest scope: What does it say? What does it mean? What does it mean for me?

As I thought about that, I was asking myself a series of questions.

Q. What does the Lord require of me?

"He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?" (Micah 6:8)

That's been the heart of my faith, and I think it's the core of what Christianity has received from Judaism. But if that were all Jesus came to teach us, he wouldn't have found much opposition in Israel. I think perhaps it's only a first step, a starting point.

Q. What does the Lord ask of me?

I don't know the answer to this question. Another way to phrase it is "What is the Lord calling me to?" This is what I'm trying to discover.

Q. What does the Lord want for me?

This is a type of question that's quite popular in Christianity these days. There's a movement that says what God wants for me is better than what I can imagine and want for myself. I don't doubt that there's truth in that. I'm certain that following the Lord's calling leads to a fulfilling life. Yet there's a temptation in this way of thinking. It's driven (or at least can be driven) by self-seeking. And so my answer is, "Get behind me, Satan!" And I return to the previous question, "What does the Lord ask of me?" I find that this drifts into:

Q. Where am I going?

This, at last, gets to the point of what drove me to update my blog today. As I pondered this question, I recalled the ancient story of Peter fleeing the persecution in Rome. As he is fleeing, he meets Jesus on the road, and Jesus asks him, "Where are you going?" (In Latin, "Quo vadis?")

That's what was going through my mind. But then I realized what the reader who knows this story has perhaps already realized. I had the story wrong. It's not Jesus who asks Peter, "Quo vadis"? It's Peter who asks Jesus.

Peter, fleeing the persecution of Christians in Rome, sees the Lord on the road and asks him, "Lord, where are you going?" And Jesus answers, "I am going to Rome to be crucified in your place again." Peter realizes his mistake and returns to Rome, where he is crucified.

I'm not fleeing persecution anywhere, and I don't think that's in my calling. What I got out of this is that I'm pointing my questions in the wrong direction. I was prayerfully seeking God's help in finding the answers to the questions, but they were the wrong questions. So from this morning, I got a new question, "Lord, where are you going?"

There's an old Buddhist teaching that says, "if you see the Buddha on the road, kill him." The Buddha is not to be idolized, nor may he be allowed to interfere with one's own practice of the dharma. Christianity is different. If you see Christ on the road, follow him.

So now I'm looking for him. Where is he? Where is he going?

Monday, April 06, 2009

Praise Music and Palm Sunday

After my last post, my wife asked me to say more about my idea that doubt and faith are more closely related than certainty and faith. I've been intending to do just that, but it's a big enough job to have caused a bottleneck in my blogging. Maybe tomorrow.

In the meantime, I've got something else to say. It's still related to my previous post. In that post, I was trying to put my finger on what I don't like about the praise music that's so prevalent in non-liturgical churches. I said, this music "tends to begin with, 'Let's all stand and sing praise to our mighty God,' and stays there."

As I was on my way to church yesterday, it occurred to me that the emotional tone of this music is perfect for Palm Sunday. Palm Sunday, coming in the middle of the great penitential season of Lent as it does, is a bit tricky to get right. It's too obvious that the praise and hosanna of Palm Sunday is hollow. And that's exactly how I feel about traditional praise music.

Praise music is overflowing with "God is great" and "we offer our full devotion" and so on, and I know as I sing it that it just isn't true, BUT it's perfect for Palm Sunday. It helps me play my part in the annual drama. So for me, the perfect Palm Sunday worship service would be filled with praise music of this nature, interrupted only by a strong sermon reminding me that I can't really back it up and a good send-off into holy week.

I know I'm coming across as very down on praise music, and I don't mean to. There's an awful lot of good to it. For one thing, the introduction of contemporary musical forms into the worship setting is fantastic. This music also helps a lot of people connect with and find expression for the difficult emotions of praise and worship. But it can't hold the weight of the full expression of the Christian life.

What the Church desperately needs right now is talented musicians with a strong sense of the emotions of the liturgy and the flow of the liturgical year. I know there out there. I pray that we will find their work.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

I Can't Get No Dissatisfaction

My wife and I were listening to Sinead O'Connor's album "Theology" today as we drove to the Oregon Coast. Earlier in the day at the grocery store I had heard some Bruce Springsteen song (don't know which one) with a religious theme. It occurred to me that I really like works like this with a religious theme. Too many U2 songs to count would fall in this same category, but most notably "40", and, extending beyond music, the treatment of religion is one of the things I like most in the TV show "House".

Now, you may say to yourself, "So a guy who writes a religious blog likes religious stuff, where's the revelation in that?" The thing is, as a rule, I really dislike "Christian music" -- that is, the stuff that you hear on a Christian radio station. And for that matter I'm not too crazy about a lot of the music that gets sung in non-liturgical Christian churches on a Sunday morning. (I should divulge at this point that I attend a non-liturgical church which I very much love, in spite of the music.)

So, I got to wondering, what is it about Sinead O'Connor and Bruce Springsteen and U2 and "House" that I like so much when they wax religious that I don't like in your average Christian radio station music? Without "House" being in the list, you might attribute it simply to the quality of the musical composition, but "House" was specifically in the list my mind made for me and integral to the pattern my subconscious had identified, so I had to dig a little deeper.

The thing that I came up with is dissatisfaction. The average praise song is generally OK with the state of the world, usually even pretty happy about it. But when Sinead or Bruce Springsteen or U2 sing a religious song, they're generally not satisfied with the way things are, often starting with religion, even their own personal faith. That draws me in. It makes it accessible to me.

The thing is, I think this is profoundly Biblical. The people in the Bible from Abraham to Moses to Jesus(!) in Gethsemane are constantly struggling with God. And if I'm reading it correctly, that's the way God likes it. God doesn't want to be surrounded by yes men.

Now I'm going to take this a step further and go from talking about Christian music to talking about specifically Christian worship. The traditional liturgy begins with "Lord, have mercy" and brings a broken world before God and only then receives it back transformed. Non-liturgical worship tends to begin with, "Let's all stand and sing praise to our mighty God" and stays there. It's got too much "Gloria in Excelsis" and not enough "Kyrie Eleison".

Now if you've read this far, you may have noticed that I've completely muddled the two distinct ideas of dissatisfaction with the state of the world and dissatisfaction with worship and religion. I'm OK with that. I think there's one thing beneath them both, and that's uncertainty.

I need uncertainty to nurture my faith. I am convinced that faith has more to do with doubt than it does with certainty. A religion based on certainty forces me almost immediately into a conflict between that religion and my experience of the world. A religion based on uncertainty leads me almost immediately into engagement with God, even if that engagement is in the form of wrestling.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

A Man Called Matthew

As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, "Follow me." And he got up and followed him.
-Matthew 9:9
I'm always suspicious of interpretations that rely too heavily on the precise wording of the Bible, but today I was inspired to try one. The text here doesn't say Matthew was a tax collector. It says he was sitting at the tax booth. Of course, he was sitting there because his job was collecting taxes, but the text doesn't define him that way. It describes him simply as "a man called Matthew."

The typical treatment of this story is to say how because Matthew was a tax collector he was basically the scum of the earth in his culture and then to marvel at the fact that Jesus is willing to have him as a disciple anyway. But this treatment (yes, I've sketched it harshly) really involves a judgment of Matthew that Jesus doesn't make. Matthew is a man. He has his faults, and his choice of careers may be one of them, but we don't know what his life has been like and why he made the choices he did.

As I was trying to apply this to my life, I thought about my neighbor. He's the manager of a local strip club. I've never met him, but I have met his wife and his son. They seem nice enough. My daughters are friends with his son. Thinking about this man in the light of this verse in Matthew I think I see what's required for me to see him as a man apart from his occupation.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Foxes and Birds Three Ways

And Jesus said to him, "Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head."
-Matthew 8:20
This is one of those verses that I normally have no idea what it means, so when it came around as the passage I was going to focus on for the day, I wasn't sure what to expect. As I started to ruminate on it, I drew the expected blank. But I stuck with it. To my surprise, I came up with three possible interpretations. If these are any good, they were inspiration from God. If not, they're all mine.

The first thing I noticed was a connection with verse 18, "Now when Jesus saw great crowds around him, he gave orders to go over to the other side." The crowds are gathering. Things are no doubt getting hectic. So Jesus sends his disciples to the other side of the lake so they will have space. But Jesus himself is the attraction. If he goes to the other side, the crowds go too. Jesus gives his followers rest, but he does not rest.

Then I moved on to how it relates to verse 19, "A scribe then approached and said, 'Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.'" The connection here is obvious. The scribe will follow Jesus anywhere, and Jesus appears not to particularly like that. Is there nowhere he can go to get away from this guy? But why does he want to get away from him? Doesn't Jesus want us to follow him wherever he goes?

So here's what I thought about that. When Jesus calls his disciples he says, "Follow me," and they follow. But this guy has called himself. He steps up and say, "I will follow you everywhere." The only problem I can see is that he's trying to be the one in control. The follower needs to take his cues from the one he's following.

There were a couple of ideas, but neither was entirely satisfying. I thought there must be something more there. So I looked closer at verse 20.

"Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests"

What do fox's holes and bird's nests have in common? They aren't homes, like we think of homes. They are places to raise their young and keep them safe until they are mature enough to take care of themselves. And once the young are ready, the whole group moves out and into the world.

But the Son of Man has no such protective place. His children are in the world, like sheep among wolves. This scribe has come to follow Jesus, but Jesus warns him about what that will entail. It won't be easy. It won't be safe.

I think this third interpretation is the best. In particular, it's the one that seems most applicable to my day-to-day life. With this interpretation in hand, I can look at what my life in Christ is like, and it helps me to understand why it goes the way it so often does. I'm not learning to be a Christian in a nursery. I'm learning in the wild.

Sunday, March 01, 2009


I was listening to Radiolab on NPR yesterday. The show (or at least the part of it that I caught) was on emergence (a really old episode, apparently). Specifically, they were talking about how the organized behavior of an ant colony emerges from the random behavior of individual ants.

One of the show's hosts, talking about ant colonies, says, "Buried in the system is a rule, a sense of direction, but how do you see that rule?" Scientist Deborah Gordon responds, "That's the wrong question, and that's what's so uncomfortable. The instructions aren't anywhere. The instructions come out of the way that the colony lives and behaves."

They didn't talk about the idea of the Emergent Church at all, but that was naturally where my mind was going, particularly after the above exchange. Churches seem to like instructions. They want plans for how to do things, and I think that's why it's so hard to find a good emergent church. You can't lay out a plan for replicating the church. If you have a formula that says, "Use candles, provide couches, play this type of music, focus on that type of sermons, etc." then you've already blown it. You imposed the "rule" and tried to get a church to emerge on the blueprint.

But to be emergent, an emergent church needs to arise spontaneously from a rule that is internal. You can't know ahead of time what it's going to look like.

And yet, I think this is obviously the right way to do church. All churches should be "emergent" in this sense, and I would bet that the best products in the history of Christianity have been emergent in this way. The Franciscan movement, for instance, was emergent. It grew up around an internalized "rule" working itself out in the context of 12th century Italy.

Unlike in the case of the ants, we can say what the "rule" is -- not exactly perhaps, at least not in a way that isn't culture-bound, but we can say. The "rule" from which a good church emerges is the Gospel.

One of the great blessings and geniuses of Christianity is that the Church has never codified a single articulation of the Gospel. The Gospel which can be spoken is not the true Gospel. It is a culture-bound artifact of the Gospel. But the Church "knows" what the Gospel is in exactly the same way that an ant colony knows the rule which guides the ant colony. The Gospel is the rule that created the Church. To paraphrase Dr. Gordon, the Gospel comes out of the way that the Church lives and behaves.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Having Authority

Now when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes.
-Matthew 7:28-29
These words are typically interpreted as being an indication of Jesus' divinity. I don't believe it. I think Matthew here is making a more general statement about the authority of the people of God. I think it's about a new way of looking at God, the Bible and religious tradition. God is empowering people to act apart from the authority of tradition.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Doing the Will of God

Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.
-Matthew 7:21
I was pondering this word today, trying to figure out what it says to me. It's always easier to imagine a word like this speaking to someone else. I can stand beside Jesus and listen to him tell the hypocrits that putting his name on their big shows won't get them anywhere, but I'm a big fan of Jesus' teaching, so I'm OK, right?

But I know that's all part of the shell I need to crack to get to what God wants to say to me through the Bible. I know if I really want to hear it, I can't be pointing it at others. I need to look deep into it as it faces me.

To do that, I had to extend the list Jesus offers. On that day, many will say to him, "Lord, Lord, did we not pray in your name? Did we not go to church? Did we not read our Bibles? Did we not love your teaching?" These are all good things, all commendable. The last one on my list drove the point home for me. "Did I not love your teachings?"

I do. God knows, I do. My love for Jesus' teaching is why I'm a Christian. Yet I'm afraid sometimes (too often) my love for his teachings far outpaces my actual performance of his teachings. "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven." To "know" Jesus, and to be known by him, is to do what he says.

Don't get me wrong. I try to be a follower. I intend to be. What this drove home for me today is that I need to watch myself and make sure I don't lapse into simple admiration. I need to be a doer.

Friday, February 13, 2009


Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.
-Matthew 7:7
This is one of those passages that always makes me scratch my head. I look at it, and it just doesn't seem to be true. Christians ask and don't receive all the time. What does it mean?

Searching my mental concordance I get a suggestion from James: "You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures." (James 4:3) But applying this to Jesus' saying strikes me as overly pious. It doesn't feel right. It might be right, but it doesn't feel right. It's not right in the way that it first strikes me to apply it, in the pious way.

I was ruminating on this passage, looking for a better way in. What does it mean? And then I thought occurs to me. Go back and read what I said above, "I look at it." I'm looking at the text. I'm analyzing it. I'm evaluating it. I'm asking, "Is this true? What does it mean?" But these are the wrong questions. This is the wrong approach. I'm sitting in judgment over the text, instead of letting it speak to me.

So I step back, and I listen. "Ask, and it will be given to you." What should I ask? Ah, now there's a better start. "Seek, and you will find." What should I seek? "Seek first the kingdom of God." "Knock, and it will be opened to you." And here I realized that someone else was knocking. "Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me."

I see that I can't just pull these verses out of the Sermon on the Mount and apply them willy nilly as if they were the words of a genie granting wishes. They have to fit into the Sermon on the Mount. They have to be a part of what Jesus is telling me (telling us) about the Kingdom of God.

And so what I take away today is not answers but questions, questions that I should constantly be asking. "What should I ask? What should I seek? Where should I knock?" If I ask these questions, I think, I'll be on the right track.

Fallen Off the Wagon

I am a creature of habit. Without routine I'd accomplish nothing at all. And so, when I break my routines, I accomplish nothing. My last blog post was two weeks ago. That's no disaster I suppose, but the reason I started blogging again was to prop up my habit of renewed daily reflection on the scriptures. That habit lasted a few days longer than my blogging, but it turns out I did need the support.

Writing helps me think, and the blog is a good outlet for that. I had a few things I wanted to pursue that I didn't blog about, and hopefully I'll go back and pick them up, but in the mean time, I need to restart the routine machine. Consider this post a sputter.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

How Good It Is

How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity! It is like the precious oil on the head, running down upon the beard, on the beard of Aaron, running down over the collar of his robes. It is like the dew of Hermon, which falls on the mountains of Zion. For there the Lord ordained his blessing, life forevermore.
-Psalm 133
I just got back from a long weekend visiting my brother in Copperas Cove, Texas. He just returned from his second tour in Iraq and my sister and I went down for four days to spend some time with him. It was a great time. I spent more time talking with him in those four days than I have in the past ten years put together. How very good and pleasant it was.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Truth and Openness

Let your word be "Yes, Yes" or "No, No"; anything more than this comes from the evil one.
-Matthew 5:37
Continuing my slow, deliberate pace through Matthew, I came to the passage on oaths today.

I had reflected in previous days that Jesus' teachings on anger and adultery were both double-sided. That is, he first warns against being angry with a brother and then gives instruction on whaat to do if your brother is angry with you. Then he warns against "adultery of the heart" and then immediately follows it with prohibitions of actions that would force others into adultery (the sayings about divorce).

The double-sided nature of these teachings makes perfect sense if, as I previously concluded, Jesus is teaching a community to be a righteous community. None of us are in this alone, and so in everything we do, we must uphold one another.

With that as my personal context of understanding, I was looking for something similar in the teachings on oaths, but it isn't there. I thought about it, I considered that perhaps there is an implicit reciprocity in this. If everyone in the community is to "let their 'yes' be 'yes' and their 'no' be 'no,' it is encumbant upon the others to accept this as such. It requires trust.

But then I wondered, what if another person abuses this trust? Is this not poison to the community? How can it be remedied? That was as far as I got most of the day.

Then this evening, I picked up Joan Chittister's book on The Rule of Benedict, and the section I read tonight included Benedict's admonition, "Bind yourself to no oath, lest it prove false, but speak the truth with heart and tongue."

Sister Joan comments, "Holiness, this ancient rule says to a culture that has made crafty packaging high art, has something to do with being who we say we are, claiming our truths, opening our hearts, giving ourselves to the other pure and unglossed." Good stuff. She may as well have been commenting on this section from the Sermon on the Mount, and I suppose indirectly she was, given that Benedict is so obviously referencing it.

So this reinforces my understanding of the main point, but it doesn't solve my problem of broken trust. When a coincidence like this comes along, I expect it to resolve my difficulties. :-)

Then I read on and saw that the very next thing Benedict talked about in his rule was bearing injuries patiently, loving your enemies and blessing those who curse you. And what do you know, that's going to be the next thing Jesus talks about too. Again, it may be that Benedict is simply following the order of the Sermon on the Mount, but either way it gave me my answer.

What do you do when someone you've trusted has lied to you? You bear it.

I don't think Jesus is telling me to be a dupe. I can recognize that I've been lied to. I suppose I can even tell the other person I know they've lied. (Would anything less be honest?) What I can't do is repay evil with evil. What I must do is react with love.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Pascal's Wager

There's an idea known as Pascal's Wager. In the commonly heard form, the idea is this: If God exists and you believe in God, then you will receive eternal life, and if God does not exist and you believe in God, you will have lost nothing. On the other hand, if God exists and you do not believe in God, you will have lost eternal life. Therefore, you should make the "wager" of deciding to believe in God, because the possible return so greatly outweighs the risk.

Pascal's Wager is often much maligned for two reasons: (1) because it is seen as an attempted proof of the existence of God, and (2) because it is treated as though there were nothing more to it than the brief sketch presented above.

This second point is where I'd like to start. I was wondering about Pascal's Wager recently. I thought Pascal, being a mathematician, could have been just dense enough to come up with an idea as thoroughly unsubtle as the above sketch, but then I thought Pascal, being a philosopher, must have thought more deeply about it than that.

So I did some reading. It turns out Pascal was starting from an assumption of irresolvable uncertainty. Reason alone cannot assure us of either the existence or non-existence of God. There is no indisputable evidence for the existence of God, but there is also no indisputable evidence of the non-existence of God. So how does one choose? Pascal considered the potential reward for each choice and the potential risk for each choice. He concluded that choosing to believe in God offers the possibility of infinite reward with at most a finite risk.

But there were still a couple of problems. First, Pascal recognized that simply "choosing God" wouldn't be enough. Faith, Pascal knew, involves more than simply making a rational decision. And that leads to the second problem -- a person can't choose to have faith. So what can a person do? Pascal says:
You would like to attain faith, and do not know the way; you would like to cure yourself of unbelief, and ask the remedy for it. Learn of those who have been bound like you, and who now stake all their possessions. These are people who know the way which you would follow, and who are cured of an ill of which you would be cured. Follow the way by which they began; by acting as if they believed, taking the holy water, having masses said, etc.
-Pensées, 233
Act as if you believe, do the things that believers do, and this will lead you to faith, Pascal claims. I'm not sure I'm sold on that. It could work, but I'm not sure. Pascal asks:
Now, what harm will befall you in taking this side? You will be faithful, honest, humble, grateful, generous, a sincere friend, truthful. Certainly you will not have those poisonous pleasures, glory and luxury; but will you not have others? I will tell you that you will thereby gain in this life, and that, at each step you take on this road, you will see so great certainty of gain, so much nothingness in what you risk, that you will at last recognise that you have wagered for something certain and infinite, for which you have given nothing.
-Pensées, 233
This I like, and to me, this is the strength of the argument. Ultimately, I don't think faith can be said to be about believing or not believing some intellectual proposition. I think faith is more a matter of how we live our lives. What sort of life will I choose? Will I choose a life where I look after only my own interests, constantly in struggle with the world, fighting daily for what I believe is, or at least could be, mine? Or will I choose a life where I make myself vulnerable to others by being open to them and asking them to be open to me? What is the outcome of these ways of life?

As far as I am able to see, the life that is open to others, is the life that will be more worthwhile and rewarding. Yet to some extent, this takes me back to Pascal's starting point. My reason is weak. I cannot always see what is the best way of life. I cannot always see the way that leads to a better, more open life. How do I find the way? My answer is that I can't rely on my own reason to find the way. I must trust myself to the teachings of Jesus -- Jesus who said:
Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!
-Matthew 7:24-27
Here, at the end of the Sermon on the Mount, I find the meat of Pascal's argument. Live this way, and you will find life. Do not live this way, and you will lose it.

George Grigorieff

The Portland Tribune had a really wonderful story this Thursday on George Grigorieff, a local homeless man who died just before Christmas. The story was printed on the front page, above the fold, and continued for two more full pages inside, complete with several color pictures.

It's a very moving story, including details about his early life, how he came to be homeless, a few details of his final days and an account of the memorial service in which he was given full military honors. I recommend it highly. Unfortunately, most of the photos were not posted on the online version.

We Are the Light of the World

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
-Matthew 5:8
I've long had a problem with other people's interpretations of the Beatitudes. So often they're treated as commandments. Some people hear, "Blessed are the meek," and they seem to automatically translate it to, "Thou shalt be meek!" That's always kind of gotten under my skin. These are announcements of blessing, right? But the human heart is an hopeless seeker of merit, and so the natural reaction is to ask, "What do I have to do to earn that blessing?" And the only answer in sight is, "Be meek." So it becomes a commandment. The problem is, it doesn't work quite as well with "Thou shalt mourn" or "Thou shalt be persecuted."

Against this, I've seen (and been taught to see) the Beatitudes as blessings, announcements of God's favor. But despite my best efforts, I haven't really been able to dig in and get more than a shallow grasp on this. I've always been in danger of slipping into a sort of "Minnesota nice" view of it, like the woman in Monty Python's Life of Brian who says, "Oh! It's 'the meek'...'Blessed are the meek.' That's nice. I'm glad they’re getting something because they have a terrible time."

I've gotten some help from Christian thinkers from Dallas Willard to Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I can't remember exactly who put it this way (maybe Willard), but I remember reading someone who said the Beatitudes are a description of what life in the Kingdom of God is like. I liked it, but it didn't really sink in with me. But this week, as I reflected on this passage, by God's grace it did sink in.

I would describe my understanding this way: The Beatitudes are a vision of Christian community. I think my problem in the past is that I've always tried to view things too much from an individual's point of view. "I'm poor in spirit, so I score. I'm not mourning, but I'm happy that those who are will be comforted." Or, on my best days, I saw the people of God in the "blessed" column and God on the "blessing" side.

And I guess this was my real breakthrough this week. I saw that the people of God are blessed through the people of God. We are both blessed and blessing because God is in our midst.

The poor in spirit are welcomed into the community. The community comforts those who mourn. The community values the meek and helps them to thrive. Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness/justice will have their fill in the community. The merciful will meet mercy within the community. The pure in heart will see God all around them in the interactions of the community. Peacemakers will be called childern of God in the community. Persecution will not overcome the community. All of this is because God is in their midst.

This understanding gives the Beatitudes an overwhelmingly strong connection to the sayings about the salt of the earth and the light of the world that follow, and invites me to continue applying this sort of view further into the Sermon on the Mount.

One of the great shortcomings of modern English is that you (singular) and you (plural) are the same word. It causes us to hear things like, "unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven," and respond, "Who me? Oh, thank you very much. I'll work on that." But with a suspicion fed by my above insight, I looked it up. Those "you's" are plural.

Unless the righteousness of the Christian community exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, the Christian community will not enter the kingdom of heaven.

It's even more pressing, isn't it? It's not just my soul on the line now.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009


Immediately they left their nets and followed him.
-Matthew 4:20
Peter and Andrew are fishing when Jesus calls them. They leave their nets and follow him...immediately! I would imagine with most people, assuming they were inclined to accept Jesus' call to follow him, would say something like, "OK, fishers of men, that sounds good. We'll be done here about five..." But, no, Peter and Andrew followed immediately. They left their nets even. Did they even take the time to haul them in and put them away? The text makes it sound like not. It's quite remarkable.

Chapter one of Genesis tells us God said, "Let there be light," and there was light. Jesus' calling of Peter and Andrew is like that.

In Pia Desideria, Philip Jacob Spener reflects that the Jews of his time couldn't believe that the Christians really thought Jesus was God because the Christians did not obey Jesus' commandments. It's a very profound insight. The Jews obey God's commandments because they are God's commandments. Christians....? Jesus himself asked, "Why do you call me, Lord, Lord, but don't do what I say?" (Luke 6:46)

Is it because we have some uncertainty about who Jesus is? Protestants often approach the question of obedience to God's commandments from the perspective of debating what we are required to do. But if Jesus is who we say he is, and here I don't simply mean "if he is God" but rather "if he is the Good Shepherd who calls to all who are weary and carrying heavy burdens promising them rest"...if that's who Jesus is, why would we hesitate to do everything he says. I think, for me at least, it's because I'm afraid to give up control like that. I'm afraid it won't be as good as what I would choose for myself. I know that's ridiculous, but that's the way the human mind works, isn't it?

In the prologue to his Rule, St. Benedict says, "Do not be daunted immediately by fear and run away from the road that leads to salvation. It is bound to be narrow at the outset. But as we progress in this way of life and in faith, we shall run on the path of God’s commandments, our hearts overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love."

Lord, grant me that kind of faith!

Saturday, January 10, 2009


I was reading Joan Chittister's The Rule of Benedict this evening. She was talking about the role of the superior in Benedictine monsteries. She said the superior is meant to be like Christ, "simple, unassuming, immersed in God, loving of the marginal, doer of the Gospel, beacon to the strong."

This last phrase, "beacon to the strong" grabbed my attention. For me, it conjures up the image of a popular leader, surrounded by equally popular heroes -- sort oof like David and his mighty men. It's not an image I like, mostly because I can't picture myself as one of "the strong."

As I reflected on this, I saw how this connects to one of the problems I have in living the Christian life. I want to be strong. I want to be a great person. I want to be heroic. But I'm not. If there's one thing that life has taught me about myself, it's that I'm ordinary.

That's OK. I know it is. Even so, I can't shake wanting to be more than I am. I want to be like Martin Luther or Francis of Assisi or Augustine. Paradoxically, I know that it is a weakness for me to strive for that. It's not who I am, and that is my calling -- to be who I am.

So I go back to Sister Joan's list of Christ-like attributes, and I take hold of "loving of the marginal." This is one of my favorite things about Christ. He loves the marginal, the weak, the little, the lost. He loves me.

Friday, January 09, 2009

He Will Baptize You With the Holy Spirit

I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.
-Matthew 3:11
John points beyond himself to Jesus. That's what the Church has said about him from the beginning. His mission was to prepare the way, to point people in the right direction. John is typically associated with repentance, turning away from sin, but John himself says this isn't sufficient.

When the Pharisees and Sadducees come to John to be baptized, he tells them to "bear fruit worthy of repentance." It's not enough to avoid sin, as the Pharisees were well known for doing. It's not enough even to rest presumptively on the promises of God, for John says, "Do not presume to say to yourselves..." (As an aside, I think the problem here is that they are holding the promises of God up to the wrong person. The Bible holds in great esteem those who are willing to hold the promises of God up before God who will make good on the promises, but to "say to yourselves" is to talk to the wrong person.) What's needed is an actively good life.

For that we need help. Matthew tells us John is the one crying in the wilderness, "Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight." In turning away from sin, we are clearing the way, making straight the paths -- nothing more. The real action happens when God enters in and together with him we run on the paths of a life lived according to his will.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

God With Us

The Hassidim tell the story of the preacher who preached over and over, "Put God in your life; put God in your life." But the holy rabbi of the village said, "Our task is not to pur God into our lives. God is already there. Our task is simply to realize that.
-from The Rule of Benedict: Insight for the Ages, by Joan Chittister, OSB
God is in my life. Even when I'm not aware of it, even when I'm not seeking God, God is in my life. Imagine what this says about God.

The typical religious model involves pious people praying to God and God responding to their prayers. But consider that God is active in my life even when I haven't prayed. My life, all of it -- the good, the bad, the ugly -- is a manifestation of a life lived with God. The world around me -- again, all of it -- is a manifestation of a world filled with God.

What could I learn about God from this simple fact? Imagine if instead of relying on theology to tell me what God is like, I tried to learn what I could about God from examining my life and my world in light of the fact that God is there. I know as theology this is a shaky proposition at best, and disastrous at worst, but isn't this how we form our ideas about people? Granted, we're often wrong about people, but when we're trying to form a relationship rather than an analysis, this way of knowing someone works quite well.

There's a danger that theological assumptions will taint the conclusion. If I place high importance on the idea of God's omnipotence, I'm likely to conclude that God has caused everything I've seen happen. That's a distortion of what I have in mind. It's an analysis. If there's a conclusion there to be had, I'm on the wrong track already.

What I want to do is to start with my personal experience of God, primarily in prayer, and from this I want to learn to recognize God in the world around me. I want to learn about God in this way. What does God do? What does God leave undone? What does God want?

Is this circular reasoning? Yeah, I think it may be. Most of what I write in this blog I write just for myself. I feel like there's something here, but I can't quite get at what it is.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

No Crying He Makes

Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.
-Matthew 2:13
The story of the Holy Family's journey to Egypt parallels the story of Jacob's family's journey to Egypt. Both times God is sending his chosen ones to Egypt for protection. In the cases of Jacob and his children and grandchildren, it was to preserve the family in a time of famine (Genesis 50:20). In this case, it is to protect Jesus from Herod's murderous rage.

Both of these incidents, however, have a problem. What about those who didn't escape to Egypt? We think of the Holy Innocents as martyrs, but what about the Canaanites who faced the severe famine?

Kurt Vonnegut prefaces his novel Slaugherhousse Five with the following lines from "Away in a Manger":
The cattle are lowing, the poor baby wakes,
But little Lord Jesus, no crying He makes.
Vonnegut wonders, why doesn't he cry? Isn't their plenty to cry about?

What does God think of the Holy Innocents in Canaan?

This is one of the challenges of faith, but paradoxically, for me at least, it's also the cornerstone of my faith. In the first chapter of the aforementioned book, Vonnegut talks about the inevitability of war, and then he says even if there were no war, there'd still be plain old death. It's horrible, but it's the only condition in which Christianity makes any sense.

Lord, increase my faith!

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Guiding Light

And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was.
-Matthew 2:9
I took a decidely allegorical reading of this passage today, in the traditional, monkish sense. I saw the star as the initial, unmediated inspiration of God in the human heart. The untrained, uninitiated heart, I think, has some awareness of God (Romans 1:19). But it only gets us so far, and perhaps not even to the right place.

The gospel story says the wise men came seeking the King of the Jews because they saw his star. It doesn't say (yet) that the star led them. They had to stop and ask directions. And when they did that, they encountered the scriptures. Only after they received a Word from the scriptures are we told that the star that they had seen guided them to the Christ child.

So, rounding out my allegorical reading, the human heart receives the light of divine inspiration but needs help. Then, with a Word from the scriptures, that initial light becomes a guide which leads us to Christ.

This is the problem, I think, with seeking God directly and within. Too often we end up going to Herod (whom Gregory the Great says symbolizes false piety), asking him where we should go. Were it not for the grace of God, we would deceive ourselves. But the scriptures help us to see clearly the light of divine guidance and inspiration and to follow it to Christ.

Friday, January 02, 2009

God With Us

Before they came together she was found to be with child.
-Matthew 1:18
I often try to imagine this story from Joseph's perspective. He's just been bethrothed. He's dreaming of his future with Mary. He's making plans for his life. And then he finds out that his bride is pregnant and he's not the father. How tough would that be?

As I read, I know how the story turns out even before Joseph does, and Matthew's telling doesn't leave even him in the dark for long, but when I try to imagine the story from Joseph's perspective, I know that life is lived in that long pause between when he find's out Mary is with child and when he meets an angel in his dream. And beyond that, he lives the rest of his life without really seeing the fulfillment of these things.

Now as Matthew tells us the story, he says all these things happened to fulfill Isaiah 7:14. In context, Isaiah 7 is a story about Judah in a time of crisis. Things aren't going the way they'd hoped. Assyria is a looming threat in the world, and Israel is trying to force Judah into war. Into this context, Isaiah tells King Ahaz to stand firm in his faith in God because "God is with us."

If Joseph were anyone else, that could have been all he needed to hear. "Joseph, things aren't going the way you planned, but stand firm in your faith. God is with us."

This is where I see the story's relevance for me. My wife isn't going to bear the Son of God, but there will be times in my life (more of them than I'd like to admit) when things aren't going to go the way I'd planned. What can I do in those times? I can only trust in God, knowing that whatever happens, God is with us.

Arising from Sleep

It is high time for us to arise from sleep.
-Romans 13:11 (as quoted in The Rule of St. Benedict)
I never publicly put this blog to rest. Perhaps the fact that my last two posts were memes was a sign. I ran out of things to say, and then taking a break from it I lacked motivation to return, but I was never sure I was ready to let it go.

Now, I think maybe I have a second wind. This doesn't involve a New Year's resolution or anything. Not exactly, anyway. I do want to focus more on devotional reading of the Bible this year, and I'm hoping blogging some of my thoughts will give me a way to crystalize some thoughts, but the blog itself isn't a goal, just a means.

Anyway, knowing that by now this is probably mostly a note to myself, let's see where it goes this time.