Saturday, June 30, 2012

This is NOT Independence Sunday

Reprinted (with minor changes) from 2009:

In some U.S. churches, at least some Methodist churches (and I suspect others), this Sunday’s bulletin will announce that it is Independence Sunday—perhaps along with something else (like the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost), or perhaps not.

But it is not Independence Sunday, because that liturgical day does not exist, or at least should not exist. “Independence Sunday” is an American invention, an example of American civil religion: the inappropriate Americanizing of Christianity and Christianizing (in some vague, superficial sense) of America.

The misnaming of the Sunday nearest July 4 is a theological mistake in at least three specific ways. First, it nationalizes a calendar (the liturgical or church calendar) and a day that belong to the entire Christian church. “The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost” or “The 13th Sunday in Ordinary Time” or simply “The Lord’s Day, July 1, 2012″ is theologically appropriate because each of these is inclusive, universal, catholic. But “Independence Sunday” is exclusive and parochial. When we come as Christians to worship God, even on the Fourth of July weekend, we come to celebrate our oneness with people from every nation, tribe, and race, and to recommit to a divine mission that includes all peoples. There may be appropriate ways for Christian individuals and churches to acknowledge their particularity as Americans or Iraquis or Koreans, but hijacking the Christian calendar and liturgy is not one of them.

Second, “Independence Sunday” robs not only the Christian church, but also, and far more importantly, the Lord of the church. It takes the focus of worship off the Triune God who liberated Israel in the Exodus and then came to rescue wayward humanity in the person of Jesus Christ, substituting—however subtly (or not!)—a national deity who is usually thought to have chosen America and poured special blessings on the American people as Americans. Sunday—every Sunday, no exceptions—is the Lord’s day, the day devoted to the adoration of Jesus as Lord and to communion with him. Centering on anything or anyone else negates the very reason for the gathering and transforms it into something else, something alien.

Third, the language of “Independence Sunday” misleads both Christians and non-Christians into thinking that one’s true identity and freedom are given to them by one’s nation state. It will not suffice to say something like “We celebrate our freedom as Americans but also, and more importantly, our freedom from sin because of Jesus.” Why is this insufficient? Because comparing the two trivializes the latter, the one that really matters. Why do these words not make “Independence Day” language in church appropriate? Because the use of “we” in “we celebrate” erroneously suggests that there is something as significant, or almost as significant, about the assembled group’s identity as Americans as there is about its identity as Christians.

The custom of singing songs and offering prayers about peace, justice and similar topics on the Sunday nearest July 4 may be a good thing—if they are appropriately interpreted by the pastor in non-nationalistic and non-militaristic ways. In my experience this is seldom done. (But at least it’s better than blatant nationalism.) A church can do this without either misnaming the Sunday or misfocusing the worship service.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Moses as Spiritual Director (3)

I. Adolescence/Numbers (6/26/12)
Theme: Rocky Road to the Promised Land

1. Numbers has two parts in terms of

-action (preparation for leaving Sinai [10:10] and the journey itself [10:11-36:13]) and
-two generations (those who left Egypt with Moses [chs.1-25] and the generation after them [chs.26-36])

2. The preparation section shows the care with which YHWH has organized the people and provided for their needs.

a. They journey now with YHWH at their center (tabernacle) and as an Exodus-people (the cloud of God’s presence which had been with them since the Exodus)
b. “swing”-like dynamic: we lean back (into the center, toward the tabernacle and worship) and kick forward (journey outward) at the same time.
c. To go “farther” we have to go “deeper”!

3. Problems on the journey:

a. “Massah and Meribah” complaining (chs.10-11, 20, 21)
Against Lord’s wisdom and provision
b. Leadership revolt (ch.12) & Priestly revolt (ch.16)
Against his chosen leaders
c. Spies’ failure of nerve (ch.13)
Against YHWH’s equipping of them and power over his enemies

4. These ultimately undo the Exodus generation and God condemns them to perish in the wilderness, though God’s plan for a royal-priestly people through Israel remains (24:17, 19)

5. Graciously, God extends his care and commitment to the second generation of Israelites (chs.26-36)

II. Maturity/Deuteronomy
Theme: Living as if the First Commandment Matters

1. We get the name “Deuteronomy” from the 2nd century BC Greek translation of the OT. It means “second law.”

a. The name in the Hebrew OT is “words” which is a better name.

b. Dt. = words of life, addressed to the heart of Israel as it prepared to enter the Promised Land (4:29; 6:4-5)

2. Dt. is about the covenant God has established with Israel.

a. Obedience is not primarily a legal concept but an expression of loyalty to the One whose faithfulness and love to them had been abundantly demonstrated.

b. These “words” of YHWH are an expression of his intimate presence with his people (30:11-14)

3. What is life for God’s people in the Promised Land to look like?

a. Total loyalty to God (6:13-15, 8:19, 9:7-12, 30:15-20)
b. justice, especially toward the weaker members of the community (10:18-19, 14:28-29, 15:1-18, 24:14-15)
c. God's love for His people and a desire to be with them are also prominent (6:5, 7:13-14, 23:5, 30:6, 19-20)
d. obedience brings blessing and life, and disobedience brings curses and death (11:26-28, 30:15-20), a way of affirming the positive results of life properly ordered under God
e. Even here, though, God’s grace trumps Israel’s disobedience (30:1-5)

4. Moses’ Song (Dt.32)

©Lee Wyatt 2012

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Essential Components of Missional Community - Mike Breen

In the last year, I believe we’ve most simply honed it down to these 5 essential ingredients of a Missional Community:

• Size of an extended family. A missional family is best understood in the range of 20-50 people, as it is small enough to care but large enough to dare. From much experience, I’d say it can be difficult to sustain long-term missional activity for a group smaller than this.

• UP/IN/OUT. Intentionally lives out the three dimensions of Jesus’ life. UPward dimension of life with the Father, INward dimension of life with the Body of Christ together, OUTward dimension of fully stepping into a broken world.

• Clear mission vision. Who is this Missional Community trying to bring the Kingdom of God to? The most successful MC’s have a very clear answer that could only be true of their group.

• Lighweight/Low maintenance. If the Missional Community can’t be led by people with normal 9-5 jobs who aren’t paid to do it, it’s not lightweight and low maintenance enough. It’s got to be simple and reproducible.

• Accountable leaders. The person(s) leading the Missional Community need to be accountable to others so there exists a dynamic of low control and high accountability. It’s one thing to say you hold people accountable, it’s another thing to do this well.

If done well, these can lead to the incredible phenomenon of a scattered and gathered church where it is the lay leaders of the church being released to the edges of the missional frontier, seeing extraordinary Kingdom breakthrough

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Moses as Spiritual Director (2)

These are my notes for my series on "Moses as Spiritual Director" at Corinth Presbyterian Church in Parker, TX (6/24/12-6/26/12)

I. Birth/Exodus and Childhood/Leviticus (6/25/12)

1. Birth/Exodus
Theme: Freed by Grace, Freed for Gratitude, Accompanied by Glory (29:43-46)

a. Three Crises

i. Who will Israel serve? (3:1-15:21): Pharaoh or YHWH? Pharaoh’s building project or YHWH’s?
ii. How will Israel serve YHWH? (15:22-24:18): Its Own Wisdom and Way or YHWH’s Wisdom and Way?
iii. Why Israel serves YHWH? (25:1-40:38): To participate in his building project

b. Mosaic Covenant

i. The Nature of the Covenant
Grace-based (20:2)
ii. The Nucleus of the Covenant
Idolatry (20:3-17)
iii. The Nurture of the Covenant
Freedom (for God and others)

c. Moses as God’s partner

i. Builds on Abraham’s profile but goes beyond him
ii. Begins in reluctance (chs.3-4) but ends in friendship (33:11)
iii. He has to be a “god-with-you” kind of person (18:19)
iv. Comes to full maturity and reciprocity in wake of the golden calf episode where he rejects God’s offer of his own “name” and “great people” (remember Babel) and “talks God into” hanging in with Abraham’s people for sake of God’s reputation (ch.33)

d. Other partners

i. Aaron (Moses’ brother)
ii. Jethro (Moses’ father-in-law, ch. 18)
iii. Assistant judges and priests
iv. 19:4-6 – for blessing of the nations

e. Summary: Partnership between God and human is reciprocal. It is real, and earnest: its goal is adhered to tenaciously by God, a tenacity which needs to be taken on by those willing to embrace God’s will. And what is that? That all the nations of the earth shall be blessed. Such a goal is not journeyed toward by God alone or by human kind alone: the task requires divine-human partnership that is to some extent reciprocal. . .though of course it is always God who initiates and sustains the relationship. Obedience from the human partner is requisite, but God looks also for the capacity of the chosen one to initiate dialogue concerning the fate of others, as Abraham did concerning Sodom and Gomorrah. And God seeks partners who can voice proper dissent before the divine, talking God out of divine anger and destructive intentions, if necessary, as Moses has done. (Paul Borgman, “Exodus Overview”)

2. Childhood/Leviticus
Theme: How a Holy God Makes an Unholy People Wholly His (19:2)

a. Sacrifice (chs.1-7)
Whole-hearted thanksgiving to God
A life that is dedicated to generosity and giving.
A meal shared with the Lord, priests, and others for thanksgiving, fellowship, and praise

For unintentional weaknesses and failures before the Lord.

An offering of money for sins of ignorance connected with fraud.

b. Priesthood (chs.8-10)
c. Discernment of Clean/Unclean (chs.11-15)

Learning to see the world and live in it as God sees it wants us to live in it

d. Day of Atonement (ch.16)

Two foci: cleansing the high priest/tabernacle & people

e. Holiness Code (chs.17-27)

The Jubilee Legislation – God’s great Dream for his world.

Debts forgiven/slaves freed/land returned

Every generation was to experience a leveling in which resources and opportunity were reallocated to everyone to prevent extremes of wealth and poverty in Israel.

©Lee Wyatt 2012

Moses as Spiritual Director - Conception/Genesis

These are my notes for my series on "Moses as Spiritual Director" at Corinth Presbyterian Church in Parker, TX (6/24/12-6/26/12)

I. What is the Bible & Conception/Genesis (6/24/12)

1. What is a “Spiritual Director”
a. A friend who walks with us following Jesus, listening to our stories, sharing his with us, and pointing to where we can find God.
b. Moses served this as well as many other roles for Israel.

2. As Christians, we read Moses’ writings through the lens of the cross and resurrection of Jesus and the end of the story God began with his people at creation.

3. We can look to the end (the book of Revelation) to see how the story ends and to show us what’s important to watch for as we read.

a. Revelation – Genesis

b. Revelation: new creation/new Jerusalem – temple
Genesis: first creation/garden temple (people)
c. Revelation: God dwells w/his people on new creation
Genesis: God rests on Sabbath and “walks” with Adam and Eve (God’s presence)

4. Learnings

a. Bible is a story to be read from start to finish (begins in a garden; ends in a city which encases the garden)
b. In this story matter matters, eternally.
c. It’s chief theme is God’s fellowship and community with humanity in the new creation (begins with God walking with Adam & Eve in the garden; ends with his continuous presence w/all humanity in the new city

II. Genesis: Conception of a People
Theme: Beginnings, Beginnings, Beginnings . . .

1. Everything I need to know I learned from Genesis 1-11

a. What goes God want the world to be? A temple-garden-palace
b. What does God want us to be? Priests/Rulers of God’s temple-garden-palace (“image of God,” 1:26)
c. What’s gone wrong? “God, you aren’t the boss of us!” Imperial pretensions (“the serpent”)
d. How wrong did it go? We are alienated: from God, from our selves, from each other, from creation - Universal (flood)
e. What has God done about it? The great “Messianic” promise (Genesis 3:15)
f. The God with whom we have to do
i. “but where sin increased abounds, grace multiplied even more” (Rom.5:20)

2. The Bible’s great promise (Genesis 12:1-3): Peoplehood, Promise & Peace

a. God promises Abraham and Sarah to get a great people through them, to bless that people, and to bless the rest of the world through them.
b. God makes a “covenant” (commitment) with Abraham and his family (Genesis 15)
c. First and greatest of a series of covenants God makes with his people: Mosaic Cov. (Ex.), Davidic Cov. (2 Sam.), and the New Covenant (Jer.)

3. Genesis gives a profile of Abraham’s relationship to God that is a template for a growing relationship to Covenant God

a. 12:1-3: YHWH speaks/Abram and Sarai obey/they leave home and leave the outcome of journey to YHWH
b. 12:7-8: YHWH speaks & appears/Abram and Sarai consecrate this place and worship YHWH
c. 13:14-17: YHWH challenges Abram to walk all the land he can see and it would be his/Abram trusts and truly enters the larger story of God
d. 15:1-21: Abram speaks to YHWH for the first time. Abram expresses his fear and YHWH dramatically assuages that fear by undergoing the “death walk”
e. 17:1-22: “El Shaddai” (“God Almighty” - ruler of all peoples and history) gives Abram and Sarai new names: Abraham (“father of nations”) and Sarah (one who gives rises to nations) and now find the meaning and purpose of their lives in God’s agenda (see v.1)/ full reciprocity in relationship now (see v.4 and v.9)/circumcision/close relation (v.22)
f. 18:1-33: Abraham is internalizing his relation to YHWH and begins to bless others/YHWH shares his plans with Abraham and “dickers” with him over that plan/ Abraham has become God’s “friend” (Is. 41:8).
g. 22:1-19: God asks Abraham to sacrifice his “son of the promise” Isaac; -Is Abraham committed to YHWH’s agenda or to his gifts? -”fear of YHWH” has replaced the fear that has driven Abraham earlier

4. One Final Note: Grace Not Genes

a. Matriarchs (Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel) of Abraham’s family are “naturally” barren till God grants fertility (11:30; 25:21; 29:31)
b. Election

©Lee Wyatt 2012

The Church Year and the Lectionary Commentary – 13th Ordinary (Day 2)

Psalm 130

130 I cry out to you from the depths, LORD—
2 my Lord, listen to my voice!
Let your ears pay close attention to my request for mercy!
3 If you kept track of sins, LORD—
my Lord, who would stand a chance?
4 But forgiveness is with you—
that’s why you are honored.
5 I hope, LORD.
My whole being hopes,
and I wait for God’s promise.
6 My whole being waits for my Lord—
more than the night watch waits for morning;
yes, more than the night watch waits for morning!
7 Israel, wait for the LORD!
Because faithful love is with the LORD;
because great redemption is with our God!
8 He is the one who will redeem Israel
from all its sin.

From The Message:
1-2 Help, GOD—the bottom has fallen out of my life! Master, hear my cry for help!
Listen hard! Open your ears!
Listen to my cries for mercy.

3-4 If you, GOD, kept records on wrongdoings,
who would stand a chance?
As it turns out, forgiveness is your habit,
and that's why you're worshiped.

5-6 I pray to GOD—my life a prayer—
and wait for what he'll say and do.
My life's on the line before God, my Lord,
waiting and watching till morning,
waiting and watching till morning.

7-8 O Israel, wait and watch for GOD—
with GOD's arrival comes love,
with GOD's arrival comes generous redemption.
No doubt about it—he'll redeem Israel,
buy back Israel from captivity to sin.

Monday, June 25, 2012

The church Year and the Lectionary Commentary – 13th Ordinary (Day 1)

2 Samuel 1:1,17-27

1 After Saul’s death, when David had returned from defeating the Amalekites, he stayed in Ziklag two days.
17 Then David sang this funeral song for Saul and his son Jonathan. 18 David ordered everyone in Judah to learn the Song of the Bow. (In fact, it is written in the scroll from Jashar.)
19 Oh, no, Israel! Your prince lies dead
on your heights.
Look how the mighty warriors
have fallen!
20 Don’t talk about it in Gath;
don’t bring news of it
to Ashkelon’s streets,
or else the Philistines’ daughters
will rejoice;
the daughters of the uncircumcised
will celebrate.
21 You hills of Gilboa!
Let there be no dew or rain on you,
and no fields yielding grain offerings.
Because it was there
that the mighty warrior’s shield
was defiled—
the shield of Saul!—
never again anointed with oil.
22 Jonathan’s bow never wavered
from the blood of the slain,
from the gore of the warriors.
Never did Saul’s sword return empty.
23 Saul and Jonathan! So well loved,
so dearly cherished!
In their lives and in their deaths
they were never separated.
They were faster than eagles,
stronger than lions!
24 Daughters of Israel, weep over Saul!
He dressed you in crimson with jewels;
he decorated your clothes
with gold jewelry.
25 Look how the mighty warriors
have fallen in the midst of battle!
Jonathan lies dead on your heights.
26 I grieve for you, my brother Jonathan!
You were so dear to me!
Your love was more amazing to me
than the love of women.
27 Look how the mighty warriors
have fallen!
Look how the weapons of war
have been destroyed!

“In the recent debate concerning the relationship of David and Jonathan as described in 1Sam 18-20 and 2 Sam 1 the main issue has been whether or not the love between these male persons should be characterized as ‘homosexual’. Since the concept of homosexuality is not inherent in the biblical text but rather reflects the modern interpretation of gender, its use has been justly questioned. It is argued in this article that neither the story of David and Jonathan nor such texts as Gen 19,1-11, Judg 19 and Lev 18,22 and 20,13 can be interpreted as reflecting the overall concept of homosexuality. The relationship of David and Jonathan may be understood as a socially acceptable male bonding between equals, in which mutual love and affection is depicted with some homoerotic traits but in which the differentiation of active and passive, i.e. male and female sexual roles plays no role. The biblical text does not disclose homosexual orientation, thus it is up to the modern reader to decide to what extent the relationship of David and Jonathan corresponds to what is today called ‘homosexuality’.” (Martti Nissinen, Biblica (1999)

If Nissinen is right, then, on the basis of the text we need to reconsider the insight it might have for healthy male-male relationships. And few relationships in the church need more attention than this one. Recent studies indicate that a chief reason men stay away or aloof from the church is its perceived “feminizing” way of life. Shades of Nietzsche and his alleged “slave morality” of Christianity!

David and Jonathan, on the other hand, were “men among men,” warriors, leaders, tough and virile. Israel’s faith was anything but “feminizing” for them. Yet it also did not hinder the remarkable love they shared. In this respect, these two worthies hold together just what men in the west have found so difficult to do – strength and tenderness, passion and compassion. They realize an expression of masculinity seasoned by the grace of the covenant that makes them counter-cultural in their time and place.

David and Jonathan obviously lived under very different conditions and expectations than we in the church do. And yet, should we not expect the gospel to season our lives as men in a similar way to them, a way of being male that exhibits that same combination of strength and tenderness, passion and compassion?

In my book The Incredible Shrinking Gospel: The Crisis of Evangelism in the 21st Century I surveyed some recent work on masculinity in the Greco-Roman world of Jesus and Paul and compared them with the latters’ canonical portraits. The points of convergence and divergence were instructive. I haven’t the space here to rehearse the evidence but I will share my conclusion:

“Though there is some overlap between the Greco-Roman and the Jesus-earliest Christian view of masculinity, the points of conflict and redefinition are more numerous and significant. It does appear that participation in the Empire of God deconstructs the Greco-Roman ideal and reconstructs a new framework within which a ‘gospel’ masculinity can be worked out afresh . . . (a “masculinity that expresses both a gentle strength and a strong gentleness) Jesus and the earliest Christians ‘did create space for men to consider themselves – and the other women, children, and men around them – differently.’ ”

It seems likely that David and Jonathan point to such an expression of “masculinity” in our text. Jesus and Paul do as well. And by “the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit,” we just might too!

Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Rise of Popularism
Op-Ed Columnist

Published: June 23, 2012 188 Comments

TRAVELING in Europe last week, it seemed as if every other conversation ended with some form of this question: Why does it feel like so few leaders are capable of inspiring their people to meet the challenges of our day? There are many explanations for this global leadership deficit, but I’d focus on two: one generational, one technological.

Let’s start with the technological. In 1965, Gordon Moore, the Intel co-founder, posited Moore’s Law, which stipulated that the processing power that could be placed on a single microchip would double every 18 to 24 months. It’s held up quite well since then. Watching European, Arab and U.S. leaders grappling with their respective crises, I’m wondering if there isn’t a political corollary to Moore’s Law: The quality of political leadership declines with every 100 million new users of Facebook and Twitter.

The wiring of the world through social media and Web-enabled cellphones is changing the nature of conversations between leaders and the led everywhere. We’re going from largely one-way conversations — top-down — to overwhelmingly two-way conversations — bottom-up and top-down. This has many upsides: more participation, more innovation and more transparency. But can there be such a thing as too much participation — leaders listening to so many voices all the time and tracking the trends that they become prisoners of them?

This sentence jumped out from a Politico piece on Wednesday: “The Obama and Romney campaigns spend all day strafing each other on Twitter, all while decrying the campaign’s lack of serious ideas for a serious time. Yet at most junctures when they’ve had the opportunity to go big, they’ve chosen to go small.”

Indeed, I heard a new word in London last week: “Popularism.” It’s the ├╝ber-ideology of our day. Read the polls, track the blogs, tally the Twitter feeds and Facebook postings and go precisely where the people are, not where you think they need to go. If everyone is “following,” who is leading?

And then there is the exposure factor. Anyone with a cellphone today is paparazzi; anyone with a Twitter account is a reporter; anyone with YouTube access is a filmmaker. When everyone is a paparazzi, reporter and filmmaker, everyone else is a public figure. And, if you’re truly a public figure — a politician — the scrutiny can become so unpleasant that public life becomes something to be avoided at all costs. Alexander Downer, Australia’s former foreign minister, remarked to me recently: “A lot of leaders are coming under massively more scrutiny than ever before. It doesn’t discourage the best of them, but the ridicule and the constant interaction from the public is making it more difficult for them to make sensible, brave decisions.”

As for the generational shift, we’ve gone from a Greatest Generation that believed in save and invest for the future to a Baby Boomer generation that believed in borrow and spend for today. Just contrast George W. Bush and his father George H.W. Bush. The father volunteered for World War II immediately after Pearl Harbor, was steeled as a leader during the cold war — a serious time, when politicians couldn’t just follow polls — and as president he raised taxes when fiscal prudence called for it. His Baby Boomer son avoided the draft and became the first president in U.S. history to cut taxes in the middle of not just one war, but two.

When you have technologies that promote quick short-term responses and judgments, and when you have a generation that has grown used to short-term gratification — but you have problems whose solutions require long, hard journeys, like today’s global credit crisis or jobs shortage or the need to rebuild Arab countries from the ground up — you have a real mismatch and leadership challenge. Virtually all leaders today have to ask their people to share burdens, not just benefits, and to both study harder and work smarter just to keep up. That requires extraordinary leadership that has to start with telling people the truth.

Dov Seidman, the author of the book “How” whose company LRN advises C.E.O.’s on leadership, has long argued that “nothing inspires people more than the truth.” Most leaders think that telling people the truth makes that leader vulnerable — either to the public or their opponents. They are wrong.

“The most important part of telling the truth is that it actually binds you to people,” explains Seidman, “because when you trust people with the truth, they trust you back.” Obfuscation from leaders just gives citizens another problem — more haze — to sort through. “Trusting people with the truth is like giving them a solid floor,” adds Seidman. “It compels action. When you are anchored in shared truth, you start to solve problems together. It’s the beginning of coming up with a better path.”

That is not what we’re seeing from leaders in America, the Arab world or Europe today. You’d think one of them, just one, would seize the opportunity to enlist their people in the truth: about where they are, what they are capable of, what plan they need to get there and what they each need to contribute to get on that better path. Whichever leader does that will have real “followers” and “friends” — not virtual ones.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

“Christian” Ideas that Aren’t (9)

1. “I’m more of a New Testament Christian.”
2. “The Old Testament is legalistic and about law; the New Testament is about love and grace.
3. “God helps those who help themselves.”
4. “Those who do not work should not eat.”
5. “Minds are like umbrellas. They work best when open.”
6. “My faith is private/personal and nobody else’s business.”
7. “We need to be more spiritual.”
8. “I was saved when I first believed in Jesus.”
9. “In the end, it doesn’t really matter what you believe. It only matters that you are sincere.”

Well, there’s an easy answer to rebut this unfortunately widespread sentiment: Adolf Hitler. He sincerely believed what he believed. And he acted on it! That’s what makes this statement so dangerous. Those who sincerely believe in something, act on it. It can’t remain merely an intellectual belief. Sincerity at least means that we do what we sincerely believe. This statement seems to trade on some such view of sincerity as a kind of mental or emotional state that at the end of the day makes no real difference in life. Otherwise we would make it so easily.

In fact, it does matter what we believe, at least so far as being Christian is concerned. The church through the ages has held to two defining beliefs that are to shape and determine our lives. These beliefs are enshrined in the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds. They are the holy mysteries of the triune identity of God as always and at the same time the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Though we have done a lamentably poor job of teaching this truth and its practical relevance, so that for many in the church it is a useless or irrational teaching we can better live without, God as triune is a central teaching from which alone the heart of the gospel must be unfolded.

The other holy mystery is that of the incarnation of the Son as Jesus of Nazareth. We done a little better teaching this one, but there are still many who see Jesus primarily as an ethical example or a supernatural savior. We still fall short of inculcating a biblical understanding of Jesus as both truly and fully divine – that is, he shows us what God is truly like and, at the same time, truly and fully human – that is, the demonstration of what God always intended human beings to be.

These two convictions are utterly basic and essential to Christian faith. They ground the gospel we preach and the faith we attempt to live out in the world. To claim to be Christian while not affirming these two convictions about God and humanity is nonsensical. For the triunity of God and the incarnation of the Son as Jesus of Nazareth is what it means to be Christian! Everything else we can argue and debate about. And indeed there is plenty room for conversation about the proper understanding of these two foundations. But there is no Christian faith without them.

It does indeed matter what we believe. Of course we must believe it sincerely – that’s entailed in any biblical understanding of faith! Beliefs do have consequences – and the consequence of Christian belief is the credibility of God’s truth itself!

Friday, June 22, 2012

Australians Lose Their Faith

By Shani Raja

Australia is turning its back on religion.

That’s the latest finding from a census completed by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, which shows more than one-fifth of the nation’s 21.5 million inhabitants now claim to follow no religion at all.

Compare that with the first census taken a century ago, when a broadly similar grouping—including agnostics and atheists—made up just 0.3% of the 4.5 million population. Or with the U.S., where a comparable 2008 survey found just 1.5% claiming not to follow a faith.

Australia’s 4.8 million nonreligious in the 2011 census was also about a million more than was recorded five years earlier at the last national headcount.

Proponents of religion frequently promote it as a route to happiness. But in Australia, whose prosperity has soared in recent years thanks to a mining boom fueled by developing Asia, some believe it might be the country’s rising level of contentedness that’s actually driving the decline of religion.

“We’re a nation that is very comfortably off and one that managed to ride out the global financial crisis,” said Carole Cusack, associate professor of religion at Sydney University. “Why would you need God here?”

That sentiment finds support from an Organization for Economic Cooperation report last month, which marked Australia as the happiest industrialized nation based on criteria including jobs, income and health. Unless something radical happens that interrupts that path to prosperity, said Ms. Cusack, the trend toward secularism here is likely to continue.

To be sure, Christianity remains the dominant religious category by far in the census—with a hefty 13.2 million followers. However, it now accounts for only 61% of the population, compared with 96% in the 1911 census. The findings echo surveys that depict a sharp drop-off in church attendance.

What’s more, while the total number of Christians in Australia has risen every five years along with the overall population, all of the growth over the past 15 years is accounted for by persons over 45 years of age, while younger people have been shedding their allegiance in the hundreds of thousands.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard is herself an atheist—an unmarried, childless one at that. But that doesn’t seem to carry the same degree of political risk as in the U.S., or even comparably secular countries such as the U.K., where the non-religious stood at 16% of the population of England and Wales at the last count.

“It’s hard to imagine an atheist becoming president of the United States,” said Ms. Cusack. “But here in Australia, the prime minister is one, and people don’t really care about it.”

Still, while Christianity is struggling to grow, some mainstream faiths are advancing fast—albeit off a miniscule base. Australia’s Buddhist population, for instance, has nearly tripled over the past 15 years to 528,978.

Muslims and Hindus have notched similar gains, while traditional aboriginal religions, which dropped in the two previous census counts, have seen a resurgence back to 1996 levels. The reasons for the growth in non-Christian faiths are varied, said Sydney university’s Ms. Cusack.

In the case of Hinduism, the fastest-rising religion in the past five years, she said the growth driver is largely immigration from places like India and Singapore, while Islam’s gain to 476,290 has a lot to do with the high birth rate among practitioners, alongside fresh arrivals from Turkey, Malaysia and other countries.

Buddhism has benefited more than the others from conversions, said Ms. Cusack. Its ascent has also been boosted by an increasing celebrity following and political backing for Tibetan Buddhism led by the Dalai Lama.

The Buddhist Society of Western Australia, which counts Thais, Sri Lankans and Singaporeans among its followers, says it’s seeing membership growth of more than 15% a year.

Philip Raga, its president, says a lot of newcomers were previously atheists or agnostics, but that many were looking for new ways, such as meditation, to deal with the current global economic uncertainty.

That’s saying something in a country whose wealth has soared in recent years, as the mining boom continues to transform the economy into one of the most successful in the developed world.

–With contributions from Rachel Pannett and Caroline Henshaw

More "Uncommon" Sense on the creed!

Friday, 22 June 2012
On the virgin birth: or, why it's better to say the creed than to criticise it
Ben Myers (

I got an email from someone the other day about a post I wrote (seven years ago!) where I cast aspersions on the "historical" value of the New Testament's virgin birth narratives.

I sent a reply email, and since I felt ashamed when I read that old post, I thought I'd reproduce my reply here:

Barth's famous discussion of the virgin birth is in Church Dogmatics I/2, the section on 'The Miracle of Christmas'. Barth always insists that acts of divine revelation are 'not historical'. But he doesn't mean they never happened. All he means is that revelation is a unique event, an act of God. It's not part of the normal historical sequence, it doesn't belong to a chain of cause-and-effect, and so there's no use trying to verify or disprove it on historical grounds.

So in the case of the virgin birth, Barth argues that it's not subject to the methods of historiography. Its truth isn't for historians to decide. But he certainly believes that it really happened, that it happened in time and space, within the real material human world. It involved Mary's body, her real flesh and blood. In this section of Church Dogmatics, Barth's brilliant critique of Brunner rests on the assumption that the virgin birth really happened. His point is just that it happens as revelation, as an act of God.

And so we can start to get our heads around the truth of the virgin birth only by confessing it. It's not an explanation or a conclusion that you could arrive at from other premises, historical or philosophical or whatever. It's a truth grasped in the humility of faith.

Anyway, I guess I misrepresented Barth in that post: don't hold it against me, it was so long ago! And I definitely misrepresented the Christian faith if I gave the impression that something can have theological meaning without actually happening! As though the creed were a conjuring trick, a magical formula rather than a confession about reality, about how things really are in this world.

For what it's worth, nowadays I would never speak that way about the virgin birth. Who do I take myself for? Am I really so much smarter than St Matthew and St Luke? Am I qualified to correct the church's creed, the sum of the gospel, just because I've read two or three books on the topic? Would my own personalised ready-made faith – in which everything is arranged just as I like it, and everything difficult or offensive is removed – really be an improvement on the faith of the church? Wouldn't I be like the proud young carpenter who, on his first day on the job, scorns the silly traditions of other carpenters and gets to work building his own three-legged table – only to discover that the rest of the world knew what they were doing when they made them with four legs?

I guess all I'm trying to say is that I used to be a lot more cynical and sophisticated than I am today. As one of the saints has said, "I was so much older then, I'm younger than that now." Nowadays, to be honest, I'm just very grateful to be a Christian at all. Three-legged tables are fine, as far as they go. But you can rely implicitly on the ones with four legs; that's the kind you want when you're sitting down in the comfort of your own home, day after day, a table just like the one your grandfather used, and just like the one your great-grandchildren will use too, long after you've left the world and gone to that big dinner table in the sky.

It's a good thing to be a Christian – I'm sorry to be so banal, but that's what really strikes me. It's a good thing to believe something that you didn't invent for yourself. It's a good thing to have a certain framework, a story that tells you what kind of place the world really is, so that there are some basic questions that are already settled, that you don't have to go on wringing your hands and wondering about. It's a privilege, a real privilege, to be able to join your voice to the church's confession: "... and in Jesus Christ his only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate" – and all the rest.

If you ask me, a faith like that is as good as Christmas: as reliable as the calendar, but full of surprises too.

"Uncommon" sense about atonement.

On Divine Child Abuse
June 22, 2012 By scotmcknight (

About a decade ago it became avant garde theology to contend the classical Christian theory of atonement was nothing less than divine child abuse. That is, the image of a Father punishing a Son, or exacting retribution at the expense of his own Son, or punishing a Son for the good of others — each of these became a way of deconstructing classical atonement theory. Unfortunately, this approach works from a very simplistic image: a father, a son, and a brutal death and attributes intention to the father as one who brutalizes a son. As an image, it connotes abuse. The image, however, abuses the Bible’s image. (Art is from Rebel God.)

What fell into place after this theory was up for grabs, but one “atonement theory” that jumped in was Girard’s mimetic desire and scapegoat theory. Though that theory might help us understand something about the cross, it is not an atonement theory nor does it really get God off the hook. What Girard enabled was seeing the cross as injustice and God siding with the victim and therefore exposing injustice for what it is. That’s fair enough, just says nothing about atonement and it can’t explain where Paul and Hebrews go when they begin to do atonement theology.

Jeffrey Burton Russell, in his book Exposing Myths about Christianity, addresses divine child abuse theory and I will bring out his points and supplement them with my own — so what follows is what I think too.

First, this accusation fails to represent the best thinking about how the Father and Son are related in the Bible and Christian theology. Inevitably, it turns the Father against the Son, bifurcates God, turns the Father into a torturer and someone who can’t be nice until he exacts some blood, and ends up destroying what the perichoresis of Trinitarian thinking is about. Both Western and Eastern thinking have no place for this perception of the Trinity’s relations at the cross. In Christian theology the cross is an act of Father, Son and Spirit.

Second, this accusation fails to see that the Son gave his life, that the Father gave the Son’s life, and the point here is that the cross in the Bible and theology is the freely-chosen, gracious choice and act of the Father, Son and Spirit. In other words, there is something entirely redemptive about the act that reveals the divine child abuse theory for what it is: a mockery of the way Christian theology describes what God is doing. The cross is an act of love by the Father (and Son, and Spirit) for humans and sketching it as act of revenge on the Son fails the larger context of grace.

Third, this accusation fails to comprehend that entering into death, willingly and out of love, is the act of God entering into the fullness of the human condition, including death. Once again, this is out of love: the Son entered into the suffering and death of humans because Father, Son and Spirit love each one of us and want to go down into the depths with us in order to lift us from death into life. The God who does not suffer with us doesn’t know us and becomes the remote God of deism.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

The Church Year and the Lectionary Commentary – 12th Ordinary (Day 4)

Mark 4:35-41

35 Later that day, when evening came, Jesus said to them, “Let’s cross over to the other side of the lake.” 36 They left the crowd and took him in the boat just as he was. Other boats followed along.
37 Gale-force winds arose, and waves crashed against the boat so that the boat was swamped. 38 But Jesus was in the rear of the boat, sleeping on a pillow. They woke him up and said, “Teacher, don’t you care that we’re drowning?”
39 He got up and gave orders to the wind, and he said to the lake, “Silence! Be still!” The wind settled down and there was a great calm. 40 Jesus asked them, “Why are you frightened? Don’t you have faith yet?”
41 Overcome with awe, they said to each other, “Who then is this? Even the wind and the sea obey him!”

Here is a parable for the church in North America today.

Jesus calls his disciples to follow him across to the other side of the lake. Entering a boat, a frequent symbol of the church, the group leaves the crowd behind and launches out on their journey.

Jesus calls us today to follow him into uncharted waters of ministry and service in our world of fast and discontinuous change. Some will heed his call and launch out with him.

A storm arises on the lake, as frequently happens there. The boat is suddenly in danger. Fearful and frantic, the disciples find Jesus peacefully asleep “in the rear of the boat.” They awaken him with their cry, “Teacher, don’t you care that we’re drowning?”

Whenever we launch out in obedience to Jesus, opposition arises. This is just how it is in our still not yet fully redeemed world. Yet it always seems to catch us by surprise and throw us off balance. Reminded we are not in control, we fear. Yet it is just here that this story gains traction in our lives.
We seldom respond as the disciples do – confessing out our fear to Jesus. Clinging grimly to our self-sufficient “can do” attitudes, we stubbornly go on bailing, coming up with new programs and ideas to cope with the changes that threaten us. We will not surrender control and do the one thing that might actually help us. We will not cry out to Jesus for the help we need, confessing our inability and fear.

If we did this, we just might experience something remarkable. If we turned to Jesus in our out-of-control inability to cope with what is happening around us, we might discover him anew and afresh as more than adequate to meet, even as sovereign over, the changes, challenges, and opposition to his work in the world.

We might even hear him upbraid us for our fearful faithlessness. Yet such a censure will not reduce us to servile cringing and guilt. Coming from Jesus, these words are an invitation to us to look beyond and away from ourselves, what we can think, and do, and imagine to him – to his unfathomable grace and power. From our fearful awareness of lack and poverty our hearts will be filled with an awareness of Jesus. We too might well ask, “Who then is this? Even the wind and the sea obey him!”

Renewed by this touch of his sovereign sufficiency, we will be where we need to be to faithfully follow Jesus into and through the changes, challenges, and opposition that face us as we seek to journey with him to “the other side” of our “lake”!

The 'me' epidemic

June 21, 2012
Scott Benhase (

In last spring’s issue of “The Hedgehog Review,” Thomas de Zengotita writes about what he calls “the flattery of representation.” He writes: “We have been consigned by it to a new plane of being, a new kind of life-world, an environment of representations of fabulous quality and inescapable ubiquity, a place where everything is addressed to us, everything is for us, and nothing is beyond us anymore” (emphasis added).

Zengotita contends that ubiquitous media flatter us with attention. We get our own personal mobile ring tones and our choice of individualized media when we go online. In this age, life is designed to focus on us and for us. As social media leads to social movements like MoveOn or the Tea Party, it thrives because it creates the illusion that each participant is indispensably at the center of the movement.

The reality, of course, is different. Each participant is actually being manipulated to accomplish a particular group’s agenda. Is it any wonder then we have the political climate we have? Each legislator is saturated by this flattery, so why wouldn’t he or she expect to get exactly what he or she wants with no need listen to another’s point of view or to consider compromise? Why compromise when we believe the world really should be our oyster?

Media, and particularly, advertisers have always known that flattery sells. For example, an Oldsmobile ad a few years ago promised that when you turned your Oldsmobile “on” it would then “turn you on.” Oh my! Or, the Reebok ad that promised that if you wore their sneaker then it would let “you be you.” Even the U.S. Army decided it needed to flatter to bump up enlistment, so they promised that you could be an “Army of One” or you could “be all you could be” if you joined up (my hunch is that drill instructors at boot camp didn’t confirm that).

Flattery for the sake of manipulation has been with us for a long time. What is different now is that such flattery is hyper-realized with so many more media inputs in our lives, all of which flatter the inner-narcissist in us all.

If Zengotita observes our present age accurately, and I believe does, then the church has an enormous challenge in terms of communicating the gospel of Jesus -- because the gospel of Jesus is fundamentally not about us. The gospel tells us we’re not the principal actors on the world’s stage. We’re bit players, at best character actors, in the drama God is unfolding. The world isn’t about our desires and preferences. It’s about what God has done and is doing in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ. That’s a tough sell to people who’ve come to believe that life should only really be about what they want.

In a world where everyone is “special” and demands to be catered to, the gospel must seem a foreign language.

We’ll be better character actors in God’s drama when we resist our inner-narcissist and humbly serve, not our will, but the will of God who sent Jesus to redeem the world.

Scott Benhase is the Episcopal Bishop of the Diocese of Georgia.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

My Prejudices vs Your Prejudices

Into the Expectation (Matt Gunter)
Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The difference between my prejudices and your prejudices is that my prejudices (convictions and values so obvious they don’t need explaining) don’t really count as prejudices. They are just the way reasonable, intelligent, faithful [insert whatever self-congratulatory designation suits you] people know things to be. Thus, those who don’t see it that way must be operating out of sin, ignorance, or blind prejudice. And it is, therefore, not mean when we refer to you as ignorant, stupid, afraid, or nefarious. We are merely stating the truth.

This is how most contemporary political rhetoric sounds to me.

It is how a fair amount of Facebook status updates sound to me - whether the prejudices reflected are conservative or liberal/progressive.

Even more sadly, it is also how too much of the 'conversation' on church blogs and listserves sounds to me.

Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel Laureate and professor of psychology at Princeton has spent decades studying how the brain - and our reasoning with it - actually works. The results are unsettling. Some of th results were described in a recent article in the New Yorker, Why Smart People Are Stupid,

Perhaps our most dangerous bias is that we naturally assume that everyone else is more susceptible to thinking errors, a tendency known as the “bias blind spot.” This “meta-bias” is rooted in our ability to spot systematic mistakes in the decisions of others—we excel at noticing the flaws of friends—and inability to spot those same mistakes in ourselves. Although the bias blind spot itself isn’t a new concept, West’s latest paper demonstrates that it applies to every single bias under consideration, from anchoring to so-called “framing effects.” In each instance, we readily forgive our own minds but look harshly upon the minds of other people.

And here’s the upsetting punch line: intelligence seems to make things worse. The scientists gave the students four measures of “cognitive sophistication.” As they report in the paper, all four of the measures showed positive correlations, “indicating that more cognitively sophisticated participants showed larger bias blind spots.” This trend held for many of the specific biases, indicating that smarter people (at least as measured by S.A.T. scores) and those more likely to engage in deliberation were slightly more vulnerable to common mental mistakes. Education also isn’t a savior; as Kahneman and Shane Frederick first noted many years ago, more than fifty per cent of students at Harvard, Princeton, and M.I.T. gave the incorrect answer to the bat-and-ball question.

I am reminded of St. Paul's assertion, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge; but anyone who loves God is known by him.” (1 Corinthians 8:1-3)

Given that we are all fallible and sinful, we will probably never, this side of the kingdom of God, be free of blind spots in our reasoning. But, I think we can begin to take them into account sften their effects.

Cultivating humility is one way. Again from St. Paul,

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. (Philippians 2:1-3)

It is good for us all to remember continually that each of us is blind, and thuswe should be very slow to judge others. For judging others is a fearful thing. Jesus said,

Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back." He also told them a parable: "Can a blind person guide a blind person? Will not both fall into a pit? A disciple is not above the teacher, but everyone who is fully qualified will be like the teacher. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor's eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, "Friend, let me take out the speck in your eye,' when you yourself do not see the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor's eye. (Luke 6:37-42)

The Church Year and the Lectionary Commentary – 12th Ordinary (Day 1)

2 Corinthians 6:1-13

6 1 Since we work together with him, we are also begging you not to receive the grace of God in vain. 2 He says, I listened to you at the right time, and I helped you on the day of salvation. Look, now is the right time! Look, now is the day of salvation!
3 We don’t give anyone any reason to be offended about anything so that our ministry won’t be criticized. 4 Instead, we commend ourselves as ministers of God in every way. We did this with our great endurance through problems, disasters, and stressful situations. 5 We went through beatings, imprisonments, and riots. We experienced hard work, sleepless nights, and hunger. 6 We displayed purity, knowledge, patience, and generosity. We served with the Holy Spirit, genuine love, 7 telling the truth, and God’s power. We carried the weapons of righteousness in our right hand and our left hand. 8 We were treated with honor and dishonor and with verbal abuse and good evaluation. We were seen as both fake and real, 9 as unknown and well known, as dying—and look, we are alive! We were seen as punished but not killed, 10 as going through pain but always happy, as poor but making many rich, and as having nothing but owning everything.
11 Corinthians, we have spoken openly to you, and our hearts are wide open. 12 There are no limits to the affection that we feel for you. You are the ones who placed boundaries on your affection for us. 13 But as a fair trade—I’m talking to you like you are children—open your hearts wide too.

2 Corinthians 6:1-13
Commentary on Second Reading by Elisabeth Johnson

Paul's theme of reconciliation, begun in 5:11-21, continues in 6:1-13, as Paul appeals to the estranged Corinthian congregation to be reconciled to God and to himself.

In the ancient world, responsibility for initiating the mending of a ruptured relationship was understood to rest with the injuring party. In political contexts, this work was normally entrusted to an ambassador. Paul sees that in Christ, God completely overturns conventional expectations.

God, the injured party, takes the initiative to heal the ruptured relationship and reconcile the world to himself. Paul understands his own calling to be that of an ambassador for Christ, through whom God entreats the injuring party to be reconciled to God (2 Corinthians 5:18-21).

Reconciliation with God would naturally include reconciliation with Paul as God's ambassador. Paul continues his appeal by quoting Isaiah 49:8, "At an acceptable time I have listened to you, and on a day of salvation I have helped you." Then, applying it directly to the Corinthians, he writes: "See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!" (6:2). Paul urges the Corinthians to accept the reconciliation offered now, in this acceptable time, on behalf of Christ.

Against the critics who have leveled charges against Paul of being insincere or lacking in credentials, Paul insists that he has put "no obstacle in anyone's way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry" (6:3). As servants of God, he and his cohorts have commended themselves, not with impressive speech or displays of power, but with their great endurance for the sake of the gospel in the midst of all manner of suffering. They have endured afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, and hunger (6:4-5).

Paul is not portraying himself as a hero, but rather drawing attention to his sharing in the sufferings of Christ by enduring humiliation and shame. Sharing in Christ's sufferings – and doing so with purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, and truthful speech – shows his ministry to be authentically from God (6:6-7).

The antitheses that follow underscore once again the contrast between outward appearances – regarding someone "from a human point of view" (5:16) – and the greater reality that is hidden from view. Like Jesus himself, Paul and his cohorts "are treated as imposters, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet we are known; as dying, and see – we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything" (6:8-10; cf. 8:9).

Paul then appeals to the Corinthians once more, emphasizing how he has spoken frankly to them (literally, "our mouth has been open to you") and with a wide open heart (6:11). There has been no holding back of affection on Paul's part, but only on the part of the Corinthians. Paul urges them to reciprocate his love for them by opening wide their hearts (6:12-13).

It is evident throughout 2 Corinthians that Paul was deeply hurt by accusations and insults coming from people in a congregation he had labored long and hard to establish and nurture. More than that, he agonized over their spiritual well-being.

We can only imagine that Paul might have been tempted to wash his hands of those troublesome Corinthians, yet he did not. 2 Corinthians provides us with the poignant witness of an apostle for whom walking away was not an option.

Moved by the reconciling love of God in Christ−by Christ's willingness to humble himself and become vulnerable, suffer and die−Paul firmly believed that he was called to be an agent of God's reconciling work. Though wronged by the Corinthians (at least in Paul's view, the only viewpoint preserved), he was willing to humble himself and make himself vulnerable, pleading with the Corinthians to be reconciled to God and to himself.

Once again, I am struck by how sorely Paul's words are needed in the contemporary church.

Though we may talk a good game about forgiveness and reconciliation, we often balk at taking the risks inherent in truly living a ministry of reconciliation, even within the church. Often, both parties in a conflict feel they have been wronged by the other, and neither is willing to risk the vulnerability and potential humiliation of seeking reconciliation. We would much rather nurse our wounds and grudges than do the hard and humbling work of mending broken relationships.

We would do well to learn from Paul about speaking frankly and with an open heart. For Paul, it begins with what God has done for us in Christ. Even though we are clearly the injuring party, God takes the risk of vulnerability, humiliation, and suffering in order to reconcile us to himself.

As an ambassador for Christ entrusted with this message of reconciliation, Paul is compelled to take the same risk with those who have wronged him. He urges them – and us – to join him in the ministry of reconciliation to which all are called in Christ, beginning with our own sisters and brothers in Christ.

Engaging in this ministry within the church is necessary if we hope to bear compelling witness to God's reconciling love for the world.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

When Is the End Not “the End”? (10)

Karl Barth gives beautiful expression to the “already/not yet” eschatological dynamic that pervades and structures the New Testament and Christian existence.

“The war is at an end – even though here and there troops are still shooting, because they have not heard anything yet about the capitulation. The game is won, even though the player can still play a few further moves. Actually he is already mated. The clock has run down, even though the pendulum still swings a few times this way and that. It is in this interim space that we are living: the old is past, behold it has all become new. The Easter message tells us that our enemies, sin, the curse and death, are beaten. Ultimately they can no longer start mischief. They still behave as though the game were not decided, the battle not fought; we must still reckon with them, but fundamentally we must cease to fear them anymore. If you have heard the Easter message, you can no longer run around with a tragic face and lead the humourless existence of a man who has no hope. One thing still holds, and only this one thing is really serious, that Jesus is the Victor. A seriousness that would look back past this, like Lot’s wife, is not Christian seriousness. It may be burning behind – and truly it is burning – but we have to look, not at it, but at the other fact, that we are invited and summoned to take seriously the victory of God’s glory in this man Jesus and to be joyful in Him. Then we may live in thankfulness and not in fear.

Karl Barth, Dogmatics in Outline, p. 123.

When Is the End Not “the End”? (10)

Karl Barth gives beautiful expression to the “already/not yet” eschatological dynamic that pervades and structures the New Testament and Christian existence.

“The war is at an end – even though here and there troops are still shooting, because they have not heard anything yet about the capitulation. The game is won, even though the player can still play a few further moves. Actually he is already mated. The clock has run down, even though the pendulum still swings a few times this way and that. It is in this interim space that we are living: the old is past, behold it has all become new. The Easter message tells us that our enemies, sin, the curse and death, are beaten. Ultimately they can no longer start mischief. They still behave as though the game were not decided, the battle not fought; we must still reckon with them, but fundamentally we must cease to fear them anymore. If you have heard the Easter message, you can no longer run around with a tragic face and lead the humourless existence of a man who has no hope. One thing still holds, and only this one thing is really serious, that Jesus is the Victor. A seriousness that would look back past this, like Lot’s wife, is not Christian seriousness. It may be burning behind – and truly it is burning – but we have to look, not at it, but at the other fact, that we are invited and summoned to take seriously the victory of God’s glory in this man Jesus and to be joyful in Him. Then we may live in thankfulness and not in fear.

Karl Barth, Dogmatics in Outline, p. 123.

Must be a Red Sox fan!

Fan falls asleep at a Yankee game only to become a section 231 legend. New standing record is 3 full size souvenir cups standing for at least a 3 count. In order to beat record, at least one participant must be passed out and unaware of the cup stack. Good luck to all who take part in the cup stacking phenomenon...

When Is the End Not “the End”? (9)

          We noticed last time how the New Testament’s view of “the End” restructures the way we understand the flow of history and our place and role in it as God’s people.  We live between the D-Day of Jesus’ death and resurrection and the V-Day of his return as God’s subversive counter-revolutionary people.  In this post I want to spell out the implications of this a bit further.

          Since the “end times” or the “last days” began with Jesus (especially his death and resurrection) and span the period of time till he returns to establish God’s kingdom fully and finally forever, we live between the ”already” of God’s kingdom inaugurated and achieved by Jesus and the “not yet” of its universal reality and acceptance.  This tension of living between the “already” and the “not yet” constitutes the context in which we live out our faith.

          This means that the pull toward a greater experience of God’s rule in our life and our world and, at the same time, the frustrations both within and without that hinder that experience will be the matrix of our lives till Christ returns.  This tension both fires our hope and feeds our longing.  It drives us deeper into an experience of the crucified and risen Savior.

          The church living in this tension serves its Savior and God’s kingdom as a movement which is a sign, a sacrament, and a steward. 

-the church points beyond itself as a sign pointing to Christ and the fullness of life that can be found only in him;

-the church lives as a sacrament of that fullness of life, a community where people can experience a taste of that fullness of life to come; and

-the church works for the kingdom as a steward of the gifts and graces of that kingdom, the very vocation that God created humanity for in the first place.

          Without the “already/not yet” tension we would either sit contentedly waiting for the full arrival of the kingdom we area promised since we “already” have our place in it reserved through faith.  Or, we would frantically work ourselves into exhaustion and uselessness haunted by the “not yet” of a still hurting and broken world and driven to try and fix it ourselves as best we can. 

          Within this tension, we are nurtured and sustained by God’s gracious gift of a foretaste of his kingdom, a real experience of the life to come in the community of faith, and yet, at the same time, hungering and thirsting for the full flourishing of that life in and around us in God’s new creation.  This is the agony and ecstasy of life in Christ in between the times in which we live.   

The Church Year and the Lectionary Commentary – 12th Ordinary (Day 1)

Psalm 133

133 Look at how good and pleasing it is
    when families live together as one!
It is like expensive oil poured over the head,
    running down onto the beard—
        Aaron’s beard!—
    which extended over the collar of his robes.
It is like the dew on Mount Hermon
    streaming down onto the mountains of Zion,
    because it is there that the Lord has commanded the blessing:
        everlasting life.
May it please the Lord that this be so for God’s people and God’s world!

Monday, June 18, 2012

The Church Year and the Lectionary Commentary – 12th Ordinary (Day 1)

1 Samuel 17:32-49

32 “Don’t let anyone lose courage because of this Philistine!” David told Saul. “I, your servant, will go out and fight him!”
33 “You can’t go out and fight this Philistine,” Saul answered David. “You are still a boy. But he’s been a warrior since he was a boy!”
34 “Your servant has kept his father’s sheep,” David replied to Saul, “and if ever a lion or a bear came and carried off one of the flock, 35 I would go after it, strike it, and rescue the animal from its mouth. If it turned on me, I would grab it at its jaw, strike it, and kill it. 36 Your servant has fought both lions and bears. This uncircumcised Philistine will be just like one of them because he has insulted the army of the living God.
37 “The Lord,” David added, “who rescued me from the power of both lions and bears, will rescue me from the power of this Philistine.”
“Go!” Saul replied to David. “And may the Lord be with you!”
38 Then Saul dressed David in his own gear, putting a coat of armor on him and a bronze helmet on his head. 39 David strapped his sword on over the armor, but he couldn’t walk around well because he’d never tried it before. “I can’t walk in this,” David told Saul, “because I’ve never tried it before.” So he took them off. 40 He then grabbed his staff and chose five smooth stones from the streambed. He put them in the pocket of his shepherd’s bag and with sling in hand went out to the Philistine.
41 The Philistine got closer and closer to David, and his shield-bearer was in front of him. 42 When the Philistine looked David over, he sneered at David because he was just a boy; reddish brown and good-looking.
43 The Philistine asked David, “Am I some sort of dog that you come at me with sticks?” And he cursed David by his gods. 44 “Come here,” he said to David, “and I’ll feed your flesh to the wild birds and the wild animals!”
45 But David told the Philistine, “You are coming against me with sword, spear, and scimitar, but I come against you in the name of the Lord of heavenly forces, the God of Israel’s army, the one you’ve insulted. 46 Today the Lord will hand you over to me. I will strike you down and cut off your head! Today I will feed your dead body and the dead bodies of the entire Philistine camp to the wild birds and the wild animals. Then the whole world will know that there is a God on Israel’s side. 47 And all those gathered here will know that the Lord doesn’t save by means of sword and spear. The Lord owns this war, and he will hand all of you over to us.”
48 The Philistine got up and moved closer to attack David, and David ran quickly to the front line to face him. 49 David put his hand in his bag and took out a stone. He slung it, and it hit the Philistine on his forehead. The stone penetrated his forehead, and he fell face down on the ground.

Talk about your mismatches - the great warrior against the young sheep herder!  One fully provisioned with the latest weaponry and high skilled and proficient in using it; the other unable to use the technologies of warfare because he was unskilled and inexperienced with them.  Their battle should be quick and easy for Goliath.

Another mismatch:  the one a great empire with every conceivable resource and advantage.  The other a tiny, powerless, outlawed sect, followers of a renegade Jew crucified for treason and blasphemy. Surely the empire will easily crush or silence this curious, somewhat ridiculous, group of zealots.

Yet, against all odds, the young shepherd and the small group of Jesus-followers prevailed against their seemingly indomitable foes!

How?  Well both the shepherd boy, David, and the small group of believers in Jesus had, besides their apparent deficits in relation to their enemies, one thing in common.  Both believed in the same God.  And that was really all either had going for them.

Consider the situation of the church against the mighty Roman empire. 

-they couldn’t have public meetings, rallies, crusades, or worship services.  That was illegal and put their lives in danger.  So, no promotion, no evangelism campaigns or crusades, no grand and spectacular worship services for the early church.

-in fact, through the third century, non-believers weren’t even allowed to attend worship services!  Why?  Fear of infiltration by government informers was a major reason.  But even more, worship was about worshipping God, not attracting others to the faith.

That brings us back to the God whom both David and the early church followed.  This must be the factor that enable the unlikely triumph of these two underdogs over their opposition.  But how did this God do this for the early church in the face of the empire? 

There was something new about this strange little outlawed group.  Strange, yet attractive. 

-their conviction of the truth of their belief that God had raised Jesus from the dead and thereby defeated the powers of sin, death, and the devil empowered them to face even death with courage and confidence.   Even when some were killed for their commitment to Jesus and his God and Father who raised him from the dead, their deaths provided evidence for  

-Tertullian says the early church was “in touch with the miraculous.”  As with Jesus, so also in this movement healings and exorcisms were common, for during this time the sense of evil spiritual oppression and bondage was widespread as well as the longing for liberation from it.

-a new way of life was clearly a powerful witness to the truth and reality of the Christian gospel.  Beauty of life encourages . . . strangers to join the ranks. . . . We do not preach great things, but we live them.”

We might learn something from these early Christian communities.  In our age of individual preference and opinion, their strong shared conviction of the truth on which they had committed their lives is striking.  In an age which laments the all too evident powerlessness of the church in North America, being “in touch with the miraculous’ (whatever its most appropriate expression in our time and place) can only be to the good.  And in our age of scandalous and dishonorable disconnect between profession and practice, a recovery of an authentically Christian “way of life” is a necessity.

Now that would be a church I need to be a part of!