Thursday, January 31, 2013

Help, Thanks, (Sorry), Wow

Valerie Schultz | Jan 26 2013 - 2:29pm | 2 comments
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For Christmas, my sister gave me the newest book from one of my favorite authors: Help, Thanks, Wow, by Anne Lamott. My favorite authors tend to be those who write things that I wish I’d written, and Anne Lamott’s many essays on motherhood and faith and struggle are definitely some of those things. Her most recent book ponders the three prayers we most often say to communicate with God, each of which can be reduced in its shortest form to one word: Help. Thanks. Wow.

The book, at 102 pages, is as slim as its prayers, and just as packed with meaning. I read it in one glorious afternoon by a sunny window, pausing frequently to savor a particularly wonderful image or phrase. Anne Lamott is a gifted crafter of words and teller of truths, whose work often makes me stop to say "Wow" and "Thanks," sometimes simultaneously. As I read, I was struck by the similarity of Lamott’s three prayers to an acronym I learned from another youth minister back when I taught Confirmation classes to Catholic teenagers. The acronym was ACTS, and was intended as an easy way for young people to remember the rather cumbersome Catholic names of four types of prayer: A for Adoration (or Wow), C for Contrition, T for Thanksgiving (Thanks, obviously), and S for Supplication (Help!). And I realized that the book I was reading, as beautifully, viscerally written as it was, was perhaps missing a fourth one-word prayer: Contrition, more colloquially known as Sorry.

Is it my Catholic guilt that would amend the title of Anne Lamott’s book to Help, Thanks, Sorry, Wow? Our reputation is for excessive and unnecessary guilt-tripping, of ourselves and others. We say an Act of Contrition during confession, because an essential component of the sacrament of Reconciliation is being sorry for our sins. We regret sinning, and we resolve to try our darnedest to do a better job next time. From personal experience, I have to believe that Sorry is indeed a good prayer.       

Because we humans can be a sorry lot. We get God’s message wrong, or we run with only a part of it, or we ignore the message entirely, or we are sure that there is no message. Sometimes we know what is right, but we do the opposite anyway, because the wrong thing is easier, or causes less heartache, or doesn’t rock the proverbial boat in which we are comfortably sailing. We screw things up, but if we believe in a God of Second (and Fortieth) Chances, who loves us infinitely, we can breathe a prayer of Sorry, and try again. Sorry usually goes hand-in-hand with a solid Help prayer. When we are sorry, we need help finding the light, or even just surrendering to the possibility of light.

Sorry, even quietly said, matters. “Love means never having to say you’re sorry”, the catchphrase from the 1970s juggernaut novel and movie “Love Story”, does not fly, at least not for any relationship I’ve ever had. Love means there will be plenty of times you’ll need to say you’re sorry, and you have to be able both to say it and to forgive the person who says it to you. Which of those things is harder for you may depend on your personality.

“I do not know much about God and prayer,“ begins Anne Lamott’s lovely book, “but I have come to believe, over the last twenty-five years, that there’s something to be said about keeping prayer simple. Help. Thanks. Wow.” She is perhaps being modest about what she knows, as her writing has touched the hearts and souls of many faithful readers. I love her three prayers, and would add an occasional Sorry as a fourth offering. Along with Help, Thanks, and Wow, Sorry can also be a bringer of grace, a response to God’s great love, a breath of prayer to go before Amen.

Christian Theology in a Thumbnail: Transformissional Bible Reading (14)

          How does the Holy Spirit transform us through our encountering the Bible?  This is an extended answer to the comment in the last post that we receive the “benefits” of reading the Bible indirectly.  By this, I mean that reading the Bible points us away from ourselves to the story of God’s purposes and the people God intends to use to implement those purposes, his missional community.  The Spirit calls the reader to participate ever more fully in the life of this community. 

Bible Reading------------God’s purpose and people ------------Participation in commmunity

It is through sharing life in such a community that we discover our gifts, our style of service, our individuality (which can never be discovered outside community), and build a relational network that the Spirit uses too make us into a tranformissional people. This process is at one and the same time irreducibly personal and corporate, or better, the growth of the person-in-community.
      To seek individual growth on one’s own and by one’s self is to inevitably reduce the gospel to a personal, therapeutic protocol for self-improvement, the church to “a voluntary association of like-minded individuals,” and the world to a setting for my own self-realization. In short, it becomes an exercise in spiritual narcissism, well-meant, perhaps, but none the less toxic for it.
      Our God is a missional God, his book tells the story of this missional God, the church is his missional people, our salvation is into his missional movement, our sanctification is into a transformissional people, and our hope lies in the fulfillment of God’s missional dream for all his creatures and creation.  Bible reading and study, then, must serve God’s missional aims for us as well!

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Christian Theology in a Thumbnail: What is the Bible – Pt.2 (13)

          We saw in the last post that the Bible is one long sprawling story.  This has many implications for how we read the Bible.  It means, in the first place, that we do not read the Bible as if it is primarily a window.  One looks through a window to see what lies behind it.  To read the Bible this way is to take a primarily historical approach to it.  There are many invaluable gains from this approach to the Bible.  It has, however, spawned a tendency to reconstruct how things really were and who people really were (esp. Jesus) in contrast or contradiction to how the Bible presents those things and characterizes those people.  Often this has been done based on assumptions about what could and could not happen in history.  But even with less restrictive assumptions at work, the Bible leaves us with many gaps, questions, and presents its history in line with the practice of history writing of its time.  This history writing aimed at purposes other than strict chronological narrative and shaped their history in line with those aims.  If history (as we understand the term) is the primary or only way we read the Bible, we will be (and have been) frustrated because the Bible often does not answer our historical questions and left to our own devices in theologizing about the meaning and significance of the biblical story.

          That the Bible is one long sprawling story does not mean, in the second place, that we primarily read it as a mirror.   One looks at a mirror to see one’s own reflection of oneself, standing in front of it.  There are many and varied types of this approach, both sophisticated and simple.  Some versions of reader response theory in literature, in which the reader creates the meaning of the story, and much devotional reading of the Bible, which seeks to find a direct word of personal meaning for uplift, inspiration, or guidance for the day’s activities and challenges.  In each case, the reader’s interest lies in front of the text on themselves, their situations and questions, needs and desires, for which they seek insight,

          The Bible as story does call on us to read it primarily as a piece of stained glass art.  One looks into stained glass art to discover the story the variously sized and colored pieces of glass to tell.  One tries to find the story in the text itself, artfully shaped and told with interests other than historical exactitude or even personal or existential meaning.  There is, of course, personal, existential meaning throughout all the scriptures, but we come it indirectly by focusing on something else.  Scripture as stained glass art uses the skill of the artist to draw us into its story as the true story of God with humanity.  Once engaged with the story at this level, we are able to find our identity and significance with it, and engage our lives and God’s mission in the world on that basis.  This pastiche of ancient historiography, myth, poetry, novella, apologetic, shaped and reshaped by use in Israel’s worship is what God has declared his Word to us (see last post).  Only in this way, I suggest, can we both pay attention to historical matters and at the same time come to this set of literature as God’s love story written to his people (as was advocated by Dietrich Bonhoeffer).

We’ve tried to read the Bible in primarily historical and personal, existential ways and, by and large, have missed the point!  Perhaps we are ready to begin reading it as it is apparently designed, as a piece of divine stained glass art in whose story we find our identity, our significance, and our security as God’s people in the world.

George Elerick on Gun Issues - helpful

the notion of guns and gun control only leaves us with two options. this approach demands we choose sides. that there even has to be a side. i think this itself is the very issue at hand.

guns are not simply about protecting one's own property or even the perversion of the myth of secure identity (i.e., i am protecting 'myself', myself as a separate entity from the whole - ultimately choosing the myth of the individual over the community). But here is the obscenity of such a gesture/ideology: it will always force us to choose the 'tribe' of the nuclear family (i.e., those biologically/intrinsically valuable) over the general whole.

knowledge has still become the centerpiece by which we define value. meaning that we feel a responsibility to defend the knowledge of one, two or more people on a smalle scale over the benefit of the whole. guns and even gun control (whether positive or negative) becomes about securing those we claim to love within the confines of our minute world and resist any revolutionary ability to embrace humanity itself which is, ironically, made of the smaller units...hmmm

Monday, January 28, 2013

Christian Theology in a Thumbnail: What is the Bible – Pt.1 (12)

          The Bible is the one long sprawling story about God’s dream for his creation and his arduous and creative efforts to reclaim and restore his wayward creatures and creation and finally bring both to his dream’s end for them.  The “chapters” of this story are:

1.    Creation (Genesis 1-2)
2.    Catastrophe (Genesis 3-11)
3.    Covenant (Genesis 12 – Malachi 4)
4.    Christ (Matthew – John)
5.    Church (Acts – Jude)
6.    Consummation (Revelation)   

There are many subdivisions within each of these chapters.

The best way to begin reading this story is to start with the cameos of Creation (Genesis 1-2) and Consummation (Revelation 21-22).  In these two chapters we find God’s dream for creation laid out “in the beginning” and that dream pictured as fulfilled in Revelation’s last two chapters.  This way of starting enables us to see

-where the story is going,

-how the end maps and goes beyond the beginning, and

-by noticing the shared features common to each of these cameos, what is important for us to keep central in our ongoing reading and interpretation of the story.

          The Hebrew Old Testament is divided into three parts, the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings.  (The Christian ordering of the Old Testament we have in our Bibles came much later). This is the Bible Jesus and the early church knew.  If we use the Hebrew ordering a very interesting parallelism emerges that highlights the reality that the Bible is the one long story of 
God with his people and his creation.

Torah (Genesis-Deuteronomy)                 The Gospels (Matthew – John)        (“Gospels of the OT”, John Goldingay)

Prophetic History (Joshua-Malachi)            Prophetic History (Acts)                 (History read from point of view of God’s purposes)

Reflections on Community Life (Writings)   Reflections on Community Life (Epistles)
Apocalypse (Daniel)                               Apocalypse (Revelation)

Christian Theology in a Thumbnail: The Bible (11)

          What does the Bible say about itself?  I want to focus on three aspects of the Bible’s testimony to itself here.  Further posts on the Bible will pick up some other aspects.

          The most obvious claim the Bible makes about itself is that it is God’s own Word, in short, God speaks in and through these human words to his creatures.  The writer of Hebrews says this about God’s word, and thus, the Bible: “God’s word is living, active, and sharper than any two-edged sword. It penetrates to the point that it separates the soul from the spirit and the joints from the marrow. It’s able to judge the heart’s thoughts and intentions” (4:12,13).  Through the Bible God’s Word creates and effects God’s plans and purpose, laying bare the “innards” of us humans.

          The Bible bears witness to God’s Word in human form:  Jesus of Nazareth.  As Karl Barth memorably put it in the Barmen Declaration directed against the Nazis, “Jesus Christ, as he is attested for us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death.”

          That makes Jesus the center and criterion of God’s Word.  Jesus himself says, “Examine the scriptures, since you think that in them you have eternal life. They also testify about me, yet you don’t want to come to me so that you can have life” (John 5:39-40).  What God has for us and wants from us are found in him.  God’s Word for us will ultimately be consistent with who he is and what he did and does for us.

          Finally, the Word of God is insistently practical.  The classic passage is Paul’s word to Timothy (which is also his word to the whole church):  Since childhood you have known the holy scriptures that help you to be wise in a way that leads to salvation through faith that is in Christ Jesus. Every scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for showing mistakes, for correcting, and for training character, so that the person who belongs to God can be equipped to do everything that is good” (2 Timothy 3:15-17).  The Bible is God’s gift to remake us all in the image of Jesus Christ (Romans 8:29), in whom we will live with God forever in his new creation.  Through the Bible God authors a people, a people fit to dwell with him eternally.

          God’s Word, attested and witnessed to in the Bible, is creative, Christ-focused and centered, and for the building up of the community of faith.

          More on the Bible in upcoming posts.