Friday, May 31, 2013

Finding a Balance in Your Spirituality

The theme of “keeping life in balance” is of interest to me. Finding a good balance in my life is essential on practical basis. I’ve a tendency toward mild depression, but I feel better when I maintain a right proportion of work, family, exercise, diet, and recreation. Balancing life's aspects can be challenging for all of us, especially those times when we must focus more attention on family issues or work or whatever.

A good book that I purchased a few years ago is Ronald Rolheister’s The Holy Longing: The Search for a Christian Spirituality (New York: Doubleday, 1999). Rolheister, of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, notes that the quantity of spirituality-related books available, with different approaches and themes, is staggering (pp. 51-52). But given this abundance, he asks: what are the essentials of a Christian spirituality? Interpreting the example and teachings of Jesus, he gives four “nonnegotiable pillars of the spiritual life”: “a) Private prayer and private morality; b) social justice; c) mellowness of heart and spirit; and d) community as a constitutive element of true worship” (p. 53).

Rolheister goes on to discuss characteristics of each, especially what happens when a person deemphasizes one or more (pp. 54-69). Thinking along with him, I speculated that many of us are pretty faithful on A and D but tend to neglect B and C. That is, we go to church, participate in its life; we pray, and we follow a moral code in our lives.

What about B, social justice? This can be tricky. I read somewhere about a lady who, whenever her church study group or her pastor began to discuss social issues, responded, “What does this have to do with John 3:16?” For her, personal belief in Christ that gains one the gift of eternal life, as expressed in this verse, was the most important thing. After all, that is a precious message of the Gospel!

But there are many social teachings in the Bible: justice for the poor, feeding the hungry, supporting the imprisoned, taking the side of the disadvantaged, gaining justice and advocating for groups of people who are marginalized. Even if we worry about the church becoming involved in “politics,” we know that the church is called to minister to the world in Christ’s name as the Spirit gives guidance. So if we are faithful about A and D, we can prayerfully seek ways to support the church’s work in bringing healing and justice to the world.

Some of us have a different challenge: we're so passionate about certain social issues, we emphasize "B" and neglect other aspects of spirituality. Why should God care about one’s personal prayer life or everyday behavior as long as one is feeding the hungry, etc.? But this is a temptation to have an imbalanced spirituality.

Another side to that: Sometimes I hear people complain that the church is too fixated on buildings, building projects, and facility upkeep; therefore, the argument goes, we should be using that money on the poor. This, too, is a way that social justice issues neglect other aspects of spirituality: in this case, the nurturing of people’s prayers and lives (A) and the cruciality of community and worship (D). I serve on our church’s board of trustees and can see first hand the many needs and costs in maintaining a building for the congregation----but this is the way things are supposed to be! After all, your home, which protects and nurtures you and your family, require regular maintenance, and so does a church home that protects and nurtures a worshiping body.

On to “C,” mellowness of heart and spirit. This area interests me a lot because I’m a terrible worrier, and I feel that my anxieties betray an immature faith---or at least a faith where I’m calm in my “head faith” but emotionally fussy. Also, I’m inspired by Buddhist teachings that explicitly aim at serenity of heart, kindness, mental discipline that aims at inner peace, and so on.

These teachings are not at all different from Christian teachings, but some of us fall short on them. The other three aspects of spirituality can certainly help nurture inner tranquility and gratitude.

Interestingly, an overemphasis on both A (private prayer and personal morality) and B (social justice) can lead to a lack of inner peacefulness. On one hand, a person is so focused on the personal quality of faith and life, that pride has slipped in to his/her spirituality. (Alternately, a person has so emphasized the personal salvation of John 3:16 that she never quite pursues a transformed life.) On the other hand, a person who is very focused on some justice issue can become angry and strident---accusing people of inadequate faith if they disagree on that issue---rather than mellow, loving, and peaceful.

(Our very partisan politics enters into this, too. We become angry in our political views, we become frustrated with friends who disagree with us, and soon, instead of a honest and friendly exchange of opinions, a spirit of division has been created.)

And finally D, community and true worship. Many people are personally devout and moral, concerned about social issues, and peaceful of heart----but they don’t go to church. Perhaps they’ve been hurt by a congregation, or they’re annoyed when the bureaucratic and otherwise “human” qualities of churches seem to get in the way of the true message. Perhaps they simply prefer solitary time, such as walking in nature and listening inwardly for God’s guidance. The individualism of our contemporary society----this is what works for me, and you can find what works for you---can make us neglect the benefits of belonging to a religious community, and thus part of a religious heritage.

Most of us do indeed know what we need spiritually, and churches do indeed fail and disillusion people. My advice is always to keep looking for and praying for a community, and to keep a healthy perspective about the humanity of churches. There are bad people in churches, people who let you down, people who don’t get things right, but also people who are struggling like you and me and are humble in their struggles. They’re people who can be friends and cohorts in the spiritual journey. Not only that, but God works powerfully in the midst of congregations, and discovering God’s presence in a congregation is a vital part of the spiritual life.

Another side to D: some pastors love to see "worker bees" around the church, volunteers who are constantly doing things. Volunteer church ministries can consume one's time, getting people's lives out of balance, if the pastor is not sensitive to the needs of people to use their time sensibly. It's important that a pastor with high expectations of service teaches people the importance of the other three aspects of spirituality.

Rolheiser rightly points out that “balance is not the ultimate goal of spirituality” (p. 69), but rather, our spirituality is an aspect of fulfilling our vocation as members of the body of Christ in the world, to help bring God’s redemption to the world (which includes the planet) (pp. 69-70). Thinking and praying about our spirituality, though, helps us draw closer to God and become clearer about the ways God calls us to live and serve.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Parable of the Talents

Continuing my off-and-on project of reading about Jesus’ parables on my "Changing Bibles" blog (1), I looked up the parable of the talents---a scripture that inspired me when I hoped to deepen my faith during my college years. I already knew that a talent “in the biblical sense” was a unit of mass and value, and that the word had come down into the English language to mean a skill or ability. Like many of us, I read the now-double meaning of talent in a symbolic sense, which spurred and encouraged the stewardship of my abilities.

The parable is found in Matthew 25:14-30 and Luke 19:11-27. Here is Matthew’s version:

For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, “Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.” His master said to him, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.” And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, “Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.” His master said to him, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.” Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, “Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.” But his master replied, “You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Luke 19:11-27 has the same story but with some differences. For instance, the man becomes specifically a nobleman who goes to a far country “to get royal power for himself.” Luke’s version also ends slightly differently:

“Why then did you not put my money into the bank? Then when I returned, I could have collected it with interest.” He said to the bystanders, “Take the pound from him and give it to the one who has ten pounds.” (And they said to him, “Lord, he has ten pounds!”) “I tell you, to all those who have, more will be given; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. But as for these enemies of mine who did not want me to be king over them—bring them here and slaughter them in my presence.” 

Eugene Wehrli ---who, like Joachim Jeremias (below), seeks to discover the probable original message of the parable, prior to becoming edited and put in a context among other parables by the gospel authors----notes that although the parable concerns money, it “must not be treated as a story about the correct use of money” (p. 75). Nor should we think the master is an exact representation of God or Jesus, since this master is not the most upright master, seizing things and acting so harshly that his servants act fearfully. The parable is meant to illustrate something rather than to make that particular character a figure for God.

One difficulty in interpreting the parable, writes Wehrli, is following the reasoning. The third servant takes care of the money, too, seemingly in a responsible way. Wehrli’s analogy is a woman who is entrusted with a valuable vase, who then locks it away from her rowdy children so that the vase can be returned undamaged, which seems reasonable and responsible. But the master had expected gain on his trust, which the other servants were astute enough to realize.

Returning to the idea of gifts from God, Wehri writes, “God’s gifts are not to be merely preserved; they must bear additional fruit.... The man with the one talent protected what was given him but was unwilling to venture it. This is like honoring religion...but refusing to live by its power. This is also like being unwilling to invest one’s life and risk all for the sake of God” (pp. 76-77).

He comments that among differences between Luke’s and Matthew’s versions, Luke introduces the context of the parable differently---Jesus’ followers expected the kingdom to come soon. Also, in Luke’s version, all the servants get the same amount. The basic thrust of the parable, though, is the same.

Seeking an original context for the parable, Wehrli comments that the story seems to be directed toward the Pharisees. Jesus was criticizing their faith, which (in Wehrli’s words) “puts a hedge around... faith to keep it from being contaminated. Instead of investing it or putting it to work in the world, [the Pharisee] keeps it pure by isolating it from bad influences” (p. 79). If the religion person----anyone, not just the Pharisees of Jesus’ time---has discourse and interaction with others but keeps faith to oneself, one has not recognized the purpose and value of faith.

I must interject an important point here: It’s so easy for Christians to read these scriptural accounts and then assume that Jesus’ words characterize Jews and Jewish teachers today, as well. This is wrong. I can testify that my Jewish friends and colleagues are all about putting their faith to work in the world---to the responsibility of “healing the world” (tikkun olam). My Jewish friends continually inspire me to make my own religious faith more devoted to service to the needy and to interpersonal peace. The qualities Jesus criticized in the Pharisees (who had a specific historical reason to be scrupulous in their devotion) are hardly unknown among persons of nearly any religious faith.

Jeremias also discusses the parable (pp. 58-63) agreeing that, in the presumed original context of the story, Jesus would not have identified him or God as the despot of the parable. Nor was the parable necessarily about the delay of Christ’s return. (The early church could have seen the parable as an allegory for the second coming, in the theme of the master’s delay and the subsequent punishment of the third servant.) Jeremias, too, sees the original target of the story as the Pharisees and scribes, trusted with the treasure of God’s teachings but unwilling to risk them.

Interestingly, Jeremias notes that the parable also appears in the non-canonical Gospel of the Nazarenes, in which the third servant has been rewritten (and moralized) into a wicked person who squandered his master’s wealth “on harlots and flute-players” (p. 58).

I suppose many of us---myself included, especially when I first encountered the parable---read it somewhat allegorically. God is the master who gives us talents (i.e., skills), expects us to use them for God’s kingdom, and is displeased if we let them languish. I had several modest talents, and so this call to God’s service stirred my heart.

As these authors note, the parable’s original form was likely a “jab” at the Pharisees and was more analogical than allegorical. But the point is always apropos: the treasure of God's teachings is not something to keep to ourselves but is meant to be a blessing and a healing power to the world.


(1) Exploring the Parables by Eugene S. Wehrli (United Church Press, 1963), and The Parables of Jesus by Joachim Jeremias (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1972).

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Trinity Sunday

This coming Sunday is Trinity Sunday! The Trinity is a challenging doctrine, with technical language. During my doctoral studies, I researched the doctrine in the theology of Karl Barth.

Ever since the work of the post-Nicene fathers, the divine nature is said to subsist in the three "persons" (personae, prosopa): the Father who is the eternal origin of the Son and the Spirit, the Son who is the Logos made flesh, and the Holy Spirit who proceeds from the Father and the Son. Barth prefers the Patristic idea of tropos huparxeos (or modus entitativus, or Seinsweise: "way of being"), rather than prosopon, in order to preserve both the unity and tri-unity of God. He stresses that God’s tri-unity (Dreieinigkeit) points to God’s essential relational being, “in which the being of God for us is not something foreign to God’s essence but is grounded in his very being” (Church Dogmatics, I/I, p. 359f).

Because God’s essential (not accidental) nature is relational, God’s self-revelation to human beings takes us into a union with God. Any knowledge of God is also a sharing of the life and being of God in that God’s self-revelation is the nature of God in God’s tri-unity. This is not supposed to be a theopoiesis of human being but rather a gathering of humans into a saving relationship. Nor is it a mystical union, because God’s self-revelation is a wholly free act of God and never a miracle that we can objectify or claim, even in prayerful mysticism.

Jesus Christ is God’s “being in act.” The Trinitarian doctrine of perichoresis (the natures of the persons of the Trinity mutually permeate and condition one another) grounds the nature of God in his three ways of being and in his being for us (pro nobis). Knowledge of God is inseparable from God’s Lordship in Christ. But not only do we know who God is because of Christ, we also thereby know one another as fellow human beings whom we can serve gladly. That is because Christ’s human nature is not something foreign to his divine nature, but it, too, is essential to the being of God. So Christ not only reveals God but also essential, social human beings.

Western trinitarian theology (in the tradition of Augustine) affirms the procession of the Spirit from the Father and the Son (filioque), because the western church so emphasizes God's being and action that the consubstantiality of the Son with the Father are crucial, and the Spirit must be understood as proceeding from the Father and the Son in the immanent as well as economic trinity. In Eastern theology (the tradition of Origen, Athanasius, and the Cappadocians, etc.), theologians have feared that the filioque implies a double "cause" of the Spirit and undercuts the authority of the Spirit by imply the Spirit's dependence upon the Son. But by insisting that the Spirit proceeds from the eternal Father (and not from the Father and the Son), Orthodox theology seeks to better ensure God's real presence in the created world. Duncan Reid, in his book Energies of the Spirit: Trinitarian Models in Eastern Orthodox and Western Theology (Scholars Press, 1997), explains many distinctions in the doctrine. For instance, he points out that in Orthodox theology, human beings (and the whole of creation) are invited to be "taken up (analêpsis) into the divine energy" through the Spirit so that we "become God" (theos ginetai), or deified (Reid, chapter 1).

These are all very subtle distinctions---which, even as I write all this, I struggle to grasp well---but they're distinctions that are crucially important in their implications for other doctrines like justification and sanctification.

When I first posted these thoughts, I also pulled another book off the shelf, my study book What Do Other Faiths Believe? (Abingdon, 2003). My interviewee for Sikhism explained his faith:

“Our scripture starts with a word, Ik Onkar... If you miss the meaning of that word, you’re going to be following the rituals but not the sense of the faith. If you followed and understood the meaning of that word, the rest of it falls into place. Ik Onkar means, ‘there is only one.’ There are not two. That one, is God. Once I understand that, you and I are not two. Just like I have two hands and two legs, my leg is not the same as my hand but they are one, a part of this body. If someone cuts off my hand, it is no longer part of the body; it cannot function. If we are an extension of that ultimate God, and that’s all we are, so our purpose in life becomes very clear to us: to serve that greater body” (pp. 72-73).

He explained that when we misunderstand our true identity, we think of ourselves as an “I,” something separate. But that is a very basic and serious error. Our true identity is as part of a whole, which is God, and thus our purpose in life is to serve one another. My interviewee said that, when we serve ourselves, we become analogous to a cancer cell. He noted that our goal is to add value to the universe. For instance, “If you are serving a customer, rather thinking, ‘How can I sell him something?’ now you can ask, ‘How can I add value to him?’ I am in the listening mode and try to find out ‘What does he need?’ Then I come around and serve that. Everywhere you see success happening, it has this ingredient present" (pp. 74-75).

Here are two different religions that affirm the ontological sociality of human beings, rooted in the being of God. In Sikhism, God is understood as the one God with whom we share our being. In Trinitarian Christianity, our sociality is grounded in the being of God pro nobis. One is a matter of understanding the true nature of our relation, the other is a matter of our being brought into a saving relationship. One is an impersonal God of infinite qualities, the other is a personal God whose very being is in relationship. In both cases, we do wrong, and fundamentally betray our human nature, when we serve only ourselves.

I had bookmarked an article,, which affirms the divine nature in human beings. In some religious systems, human beings are understood to be a part of the divine. The non-dualism tradition of Advaita Vedanta, for instance, there is no essential difference between the Universal Spirit (Brahman) and the individual soul (jivatman). Differences that we perceive in reality are actually illusion (maya) and therefore true understanding (jnana) comes from understanding maya. Obviously, then, there is no essential difference between humans and the Universal Spirit (nor between humans and other life forms). Other schools of Vedanta, like Vishishtadvaita, understands the soul and God to be different yet similar, while Dvaita understands souls, God, and the material world to be all separate realities and yet eternal.

As I kept thinking about all thing----going on a trinitarian journey, so to speak---I leafed through my Bible for passages that teach our unity with God and with one another.

A wonderful passage is Jesus' prayer in John 17. I probably shouldn't quote the whole thing here, for copyright purposes, so I'll just ask you read the whole thing with the ideas in mind: Jesus' unity with God, Jesus' unity with his followers and friends. What is the nature of our unity with Christ? Christ is glorified in us (vss. 10, 22-23), and Christ guards us (vs. 12-13), and although we do not belong to the world (vs 16) we are still here and are sanctified in Christ's truth (vs. 17). But that glory, protection, and sanctification are directed toward Christ's prayer that those who believe, and those who will believe, "may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me (vss. 21-22). Likewise, Christ prays "that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them" (vs. 26).

I'm a very proud American, but I worry that the individualism and self-sufficient spirit that pervades our culture deters us from being able to appreciate and implement the unity we have with one another in Christ. One sees so many individualistic behaviors in congregations, which you could describe as "my way or the highway," "I pulled myself up by my boot straps," "you have to cover your ass to make it," and so on. We can be very stubborn and set-in-our-ways people who love our relationship with Christ but become snooty, or busy, or unconcerned when we think about being in unity with one another. I'm as private and self-sufficient as the next person.

Perhaps we should put John 17 on the walls of churches so that we remember that we are one with one another in Christ!

But if we did that, we should put Ephesians 2:11-22 on the walls, too. Read that passage, too. This is a similar and powerful biblical vision of our God-given unity with one another. God has removed the boundaries that separate people---but, of course, we persist in retaining them or building new ones.

And also---while we're attaching signs to walls---John 14 would be another excellent passage to remind people, on a weekly basis, of the role of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit's role is absolutely crucial because Jesus is not present with his disciples any longer: his death requires his absence. But the risen Christ and the Holy Spirit abide in us and lead us to love God and one another.

There are other passages, like 2 Cor. 6:16:

What agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; as God said,
"I will live in them and walk among them,
and I will be their God,
and they shall be my people."

We could trivialize the passage a bit when we turn it into a health-related thing: we ought to take care of our bodies because our bodies are God's temples. We miss a deeper point: God's very presence dwells with us as the same God once dwelled in the Jerusalem Temple, but God's act of dwelling puts us in proximity to God's holiness--which, in turn, demands holiness from us.

2 Peter 1:4 is a good related verse:

Thus he has given us, through these things, his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of lust, and may become participants in the divine nature.

Good themes for our prayers and meditations for this Trinity Sunday are these: what are ways we become temples of God's Spirit (if we even want to be)? How do we "participate in the divine nature"? How do we understand the divine nature so that our ideas about God and ourselves (while not necessarily disrespecting other people's faith) is uniquely Christian?

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Oklahoma Tornados

Watching the news of the Oklahoma tornados, where numerous people including children have been killed, made me recall the following thoughts written after the March 2011 Japan tsunami. During that first week following that tragedy, I noticed a friend’s Facebook status update. I think he borrowed it from somewhere else, so I don’t know the author, but the quote urged us to stop calling disasters “acts of God,” but rather “acts of nature.” The quotation went on to call acts of compassion “acts of God” because God does not send disasters. Instead, God sends us out to care for and help other people, to pull together, and to bring good things out of tragedy. I liked the quotation so I borrowed it, with credit to my friend, for my own update. I've been noticing similar posts in the aftermath of the new tragedy.

The quotation led to an interesting exchange of ideas among some of my other Facebook friends, centering around the nature of God’s presence amid disasters and tragedies. One friend introduced several scriptures that do affirm God’s control over natural processes.

Moses said to him, ‘As soon as I have gone out of the city, I will stretch out my hands to the Lord; the thunder will cease, and there will be no more hail, so that you may know that the earth is the Lord’s (Ex. 9:29).

When the waters saw you, O God, when the waters saw you, they were afraid; the very deep trembled. The clouds poured out water; the skies thundered; your arrows flashed on every side. The crash of your thunder was in the whirlwind; your lightnings lit up the world; the earth trembled and shook. Your way was through the sea, your path, through the mighty waters; yet your footprints were unseen (Ps. 77:16-19)

When heaven is shut up and there is no rain because they have sinned against you, and then they pray towards this place, confess your name, and turn from their sin, because you punish them, then hear in heaven, and forgive the sin of your servants, your people Israel, when you teach them the good way in which they should walk; and grant rain on your land, which you have given to your people as an inheritance (1 Kings 8:35-36).

The mountains quake before him, and the hills melt; the earth heaves before him, the world and all who live in it. Who can stand before his indignation? Who can endure the heat of his anger? His wrath is poured out like fire, and by him the rocks are broken in pieces. (Nahum 1:5-6)

Our Facebook discussion continued for several more comments. Some of our group argued that God allows disaster to happen, whether by giving Satan a short leach, by setting up creation to function in a certain way, or by exercising at least some control over the circumstances. Even allowing for poetic imagery in the above scriptures, the biblical witness is such that God’s authority over Creation is difficult to deny; the Bible’s God is not the “lesser god” of Tennyson’s poem, who creates but lacks force to shape creation properly. Nevertheless, we don’t understand God’s ways or why God does allow (or guide) certain events. But we can affirm that God does work for good (Romans 8:28), expresses compassionate help to the suffering, and moves us to love and serve people who are suffering.

As it happened, I was at that time doing research for a church curriculum lessons, which used the story of Elijah in 1 Kings 19. I kicked myself for not thinking of that passage during our Facebook discussion; it would’ve added some spice! The passage famously indicates that God was not in the wind, fire, and earthquake, but rather in the gentle silence afterward. God clearly was present in some way during Elijah’s crisis but God was not “in” the destructive natural occurrences. So…. where was God in the "natural disaster" of 1 Kings 19? Any natural disaster? Isn't it inappropriate to affirm God's sovereignty when innocent people are suffering or have been killed?

One other source for my freelance research was John Wesley’s sermon “The Cause and Cure of Earthquakes”: To the other scriptures discussed so far, Wesley adds Psalm 104:32 and Ps. 97:5, as well as Ps. 18:7, 114:7, Isa. 13:11, 13, Isa. 24:1, 18-20, Isa 29:6. Clearly the Bible is rich in praises for God’s supreme divine power, somehow present within natural circumstances.

But Wesley’s sermon raises even more urgently the question of God and natural disasters---where is God when they occur, and why does God allow them to occur? Wesley stresses that God uses earthquakes to punish sin and to awaken people to repentance. Wesley gives examples to show how good and bad people alike suffer and are killed in disasters like earthquakes, which is all the more reason to repent and strengthen our relationship with God.

Although Wesley reasons from Scripture, the awakening of repentance is a too human-centered and simplistic way to interpret the providence of God within these natural occurrences (although one wouldn’t rule out circumstances in which the Spirit did indeed awaken in someone a new relationship with God due to crisis). You’d never tell a farmer, discouraged about crops amid a too-wet summer, that God had arranged rain storms in order to awaken the farmer and surrounding community to repentance for some sin. You'd never tell someone in Moore, OK that God used the tornado to remind us to be godly.

Writing from a Reform Jewish perspective, W. Gunther Plaut notes that the doctrine of “chastisements of love” (yisurin shel ahavah) is found not only in Deuteronomy 8:2-3 but also Psalm 94:12-13 and 119:71. He notes that, for Jews, this belief that God sends hardships in order to guide the people was upheld in Judaism until Maimonides, who argued instead that we suffer because of natural occurrences, social occurrences, and our own imperfection. While the biblical passages interpret the divine-human interaction in those situations, Plaut argues that the doctrine no longer has application in Judaism following the Holocaust, far too horrible an experience to attribute to a loving God (W. Gunther Plaut, ed., The Torah: A Modern Commentary, New York: Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 1981, 1390-1391).    

This is such a difficult philosophical, theological, and pastoral issue. I don’t want to take a deistic, “watchmaker God” kind of interpretation: that is, God simply created and wound-up the universe to function on its own, and then withdrew for the most part. The tragedy of physical life is that, short of the final redemption, suffering and death happens to everyone, regardless of whether we deserve it or not. It’s human to wonder where God is amid tragedy, though all of us are mortal and live among many, many potential dangers, just in the course of living. For whatever reason, God intervenes in many situations, but we do not see a divine role or perceive a divine purpose in many other circumstances.

But I do come back to Matthew 25:31-46, which does answer the question of "Where is God?" God (in his passage, Christ) is with the suffering, and therefore that's where we need to be, too.

(After I posted this, I noticed this article with a similar theme: Evangelical author John Piper had tweeted verses from Job concerning the death of Job's children in a wind storm. He was subsequently criticized for thereby implying that the Oklahoma tornado had something to do with God's judgment. As one person quoted in the article stated, "Piper was highlighting God's sovereignty and that he is still worthy of worship in the midst of suffering and tragedy," but one writer's response, with which I agree, is that "Christians have to stop the idea of responding to tragedy by suggesting God is inflicting his judgment." The article also points out a real dilemma in times of tragedy: what gives one person theological comfort may be distressing to someone else. )

Sunday, May 19, 2013

"That" Pentecost Passage

If you’re a regular Bible reader, the book’s contents have guided and helped you, so naturally the Bible can trigger memories in a similar way as postcards and photographs and music. The connection may be emotionally strong but purely personal, like the way Mendelssohn’s music always reminds me of Maryland and Schumann’s with Arizona.

Here are two verses that remind me of my grandma Crawford:

So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift (Matt. 5:23-24).
Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by then; for then you will have no reward from your Father  in heaven (Matt. 6:1).

Grandma could be stubborn and hard to please but she had a kind heart and took the initiative to do good things and to correct difficulties between her and someone else. Also: she never told this to anyone, I heard about it secondhand, which made her witness all the more effective.  

At the other side of the human spectrum, I find the Parable of the Vineyard (Matt. 20:1-16) and recall a relative on another branch of the family tree. I won’t name the relative, who led a less than exemplary life. The person, when dying and fearful, called upon a local pastor and was baptized. Does a deathbed conversion count? If we’ve been hurt by a person, we may not want much leniency for that person. But grace is unearned, God is generous, and God’s opinion of a despised person may be completely different. Those of us with good character and excellent reputation don’t deserve God’s grace any more than a person, like my relative, who repents in late desperation.

On a lighter note, I’ve a host of memories of kinfolk with whom I associate this verse in Colossians:

…when you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead (2:12).

 My relatives, who belonged to a denomination that practiced only adult baptism-by-immersion, insisted that this text proves the necessity for immersion.  After all, when we’re buried, we’re not buried with a little dirt on our heads. We’re buried all the way under!

I disliked that argument but didn’t know why.  I was relieved when a Methodist pastor pointed out that the thief on the cross was not baptized by any means and yet was promised salvation. I read a little further in Colossians and read this:

Why do you submit to regulations, “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch”? All these regulations refer to things that perish with use; they are simply human commands and teachings. These have indeed the appearance of wisdom in promoting self-imposed piety, humility, and severe treatment of the body, but they are of no value in checking self-indulgence (2:20b-23).

While I wouldn’t call baptism a “human command,” the author worries (in this and the whole section 2:8-23) that we need to hold to Christ alone and not upon any rituals and practices, important as some of them may be. Fulfilling religious requirements is never as important as opening our hearts to God for God’s powers (Gal. 5:16-26, 6:14-15).

But my older relatives are long passed away. I’m not sure I could’ve argued doctrine with them anyway, for they were quite set in their views, and I’m not really a debater.

Some scriptures remind you of people you never met, but you connect with their lives in some way through a Bible passage. I never met a certain pastor, suffering from cancer, but a mutual friend mentioned that the pastor often turned to Psalm 30, with which I wasn’t familiar. Will the dust praise you? Will it tell of your faithfulness?  The psalmist bargains with God! “Alive, I praise you … Heal me, and I can praise you all the more …” What a wonderfully human response—in a book that is God’s word to us.

Do you associate particular Bible books with churches and study groups to which you’ve belonged?  A class to which we belonged tackled Esther, Proverbs, and several other books.  I associate this class with the Corinthian letters because we studied them straight through and realized, together, that we’d had enough of Paul’s writing style for the time being, all those tangents and heart-on-his-sleeve defenses! 

Ecclesiastes reminds me of a particular church that I served, because I was called upon (at short notice) to teach the senior pastor’s morning study group. We had a nice time. Another enjoyable group that I taught met on certain evenings, following supper. One evening, a couple felt tense concerning the family meal, lasagna, which had turned out less satisfactorily than desired. We were studying the epistle of James, in the old RSV. I read a section aloud and came to 4:1:

Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? 

Afflicted with Poe’s “imp of the perverse,” I said, without thinking, “Lasagna!” and everyone roared, including the couple. It was a “you had to be there” moment, but those moments shine in one’s memory.

In fact, I associate James with two or three Bible study groups. The epistle lingers in memory because, among its several incisive teachings, James cautions us about the power of words (James 3:1-12). The teaching is quite clear in Scripture: Jesus teaches the power of our words as barometers for our soul (Matt. 12:33-37), and Ephesians links truth and love, for our words are not true unless they are kind words that build people up (Eph. 4:15, 25-32). Many of us Christians, apparently, have lots of trouble with our big mouths!  I recall occasions when my churches friends and I sighed in self-awareness as we read these verses from James and knew, If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, Lord, who could stand? (Ps. 130:3).

In the several churches I’ve served and/or attended, including our current church, this passage is a classic. It's a verse for this morning.  

Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.’ All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’ But others sneered and said, ‘They are filled with new wine.’ (Acts 2:5-13).

Why a “classic”? An essential scripture for Pentecost, it’s nevertheless quite difficult to read as Sunday scripture from the pulpit---unless you’ve rehearsed well. All those long names! Woe unto the liturgist who decided to “wing it” that week.

from Catholic Memes
The passage’s artificiality also inhibits good pulpit reading. People don’t talk like that, listing their nationalities, geographies, and ethnicities in unison. I’ve joked with several folks, in different churches, about hard this scripture is to present.

And so now the passage reminds me of folk who also heard the Gospel in our own language: Illinoisans and Virginians, residents of Missouri, and Arizona, and parts of Ohio once belonging to Connecticut, and visitors from other churches, and …The faith that you and I share, and all the memories and experiences of church in our respective lives, are built upon that day in Jerusalem and the Spirit's flames, when the church was born. 


Saturday, May 18, 2013

Happy 200th, Richard Wagner

Wednesday, May 22nd is the 200th anniversary of the birth of composer Richard Wagner, whose music I associate with a lovely time in my life.

Immediately following my seminary program, I was pastor of three small churches for two years. The churches were located fifteen miles from the nearest village with a grocery store, about a half-hour from more substantial towns with hospitals and larger retail stores. “Why don’t you move to the country?” a visiting friend teased. I had a six-room parsonage to myself, with a pretty fence row, a silver-blue propane tank beneath which rabbits napped, a lawn large enough for two or three hours of push-mowing, tall shade trees which let through the light, and steep concrete steps where I could sit and look at my neighbor’s white-faced cattle, his pastures, and the larger of the three churches (and its great old tree). I heard birds call in the early morning and cows bawling late at night, and sometimes a coyote.

It was a lonely time, but I was busy with pastoral tasks. I found an enjoyable hobby: collecting classical recordings, especially opera. In Willa Cather’s story “The Wagner Matinee,” a farm lady is taken by her nephew to a Boston concert of Wagner’s music and, afterward and deeply moved, she couldn’t bear the thought of returning to her everyday rural life. I understood the feeling but since I had the benefit of recorded music, my rural life and my new passion for music enriched one another.

My best friend in seminary had been a church organist student who disliked Italian opera, like Verdi and Puccini and Rossini, but he loved English music, Mozart, and Wagner. He introduced me to these. Following his advice, I visited the record store in the corner of the local mall (, where I purchased Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte, conducted by Karajan, and Don Giovanni, conducted by Karl Böhm. I’m somewhat ashamed to admit that Mozart interested me because my favorite theologian, Karl Barth, played Mozart every day; checking out Mozart for that reason seems like such a dumb-graduate-student thing to do.

My friend also introduced me to Wagner, beginning with the opening bars of Tristan und Isolde, turned up to Led Zeppelin level, where the themes of romantic passion and death are established in the unresolved dissonances of the music and the use of harmonic suspension. He went on to inform me about the innovativeness of this particular chord (difficult to assign to a particular key), and about Wagner’s advancements in tonality and chromaticism, and the way he used fragments of melody to depict psychological states and themes of an opera’s plot, so that whenever someone sings, the orchestra establishes more about them than the actual words sung. (If I remember correctly, it was my friend who identified motifs from Tannhäuser and Die Walküre in the cartoon “What’s Opera, Doc?”)

I found this all fascinating and wanted to discover more. Once graduated from seminary and established at my small churches, I read up on music and acquired several recordings. I browsed mall stores, record shops, and mail order brochures. I purchased Böhm’s recording of Le Nozze di Figaro but diverted from my friend's tastes when I found some Verdi in used LP stores and mail order outlets: Rigoletto (with Sutherland, Pavarotti, and Milnes), Toscanini’s Falstaff, and Otello with Jon Vickers. I also bought an old set of Ponchielli’s La Gioconda and Rossini’s Petite Messe Solennelle. At that time, I passed over a LP set of what later became a favorite: Puccini’s Turandot with Sutherland, Caballé, and Pavarotti. One day at the parsonage I had Marriage of Figaro turned up loud so I could listen as I raked leaves outside. The first act concluded with the aria “Non piu andrai, farfallone amoroso,” where Figaro sends the annoying Cherubino off to “victory and glory in war!’ Just then a long V of geese flew over, making their own victory sign.

I also found some classic Wagner. First I bought a 2-LP set of Wagner overtures and preludes, conducted by Bernstein, and an LP of orchestral selections from Der Ring des Nibelungen conducted by Klaus Tennstedt. It’s trite to say I was overwhelmed by the music, but I really was; one writer, Bryan Magee, commented that, as Wagner was a notoriously strong willed person, his music grasps you as if it, too, was “will in sound.”

Subsequently (and with some advice from my friend) I found used or discounted LP sets like Tristan und Isolde conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler, Wagner’s Die Meistersinger conducted by Rudolf Kempe, Otto Klemperer’s recording of Der fliegende Holländer. In fact, I began collecting at least one recording of all of Wagner’s operas. I didn’t purchase the two early operas, Die Feen and Das Liebesverbot, but I did purchase the Sawallisch-conducted Rienzi. I found the Karajan Parsifal, the Solti Tannhäuser (Paris version), Kubelik Lohengrin, and the 1950 Furtwängler Ring, with its terrible sound quality but outstanding singers (Kirsten Flagstad, Set Svanholm, Ferdinand Franz).

By the end of my pastorate I’d also found recordings of the 1953 (but then newly released) Ring conducted by Clemens Krauss, now recognized as one of the greatest versions. But meanwhile I also collected the Solti Ring, one opera at a time. I wanted to purchase the big box set (shown here, acquired many years later on ebay) but I was purchasing these treasures on a budget. (A record store at a nearby shopping mall sent me a post card to let me know that the record I'd ordered, "Gollerdamdung," had arrived.) I liked to play entire operas over periods of days, although in my loneliness, I sometimes found Wagner emotionally draining.

I had favorite passages, for instance, the orchestral depiction of the bellows and flames of Siegfried’s forge, more self consciously dramatic in the Solti recording than others. Similarly, the orchestral conclusion of Götterdämmerung. There are other selections that remind me strongly of this special time in my life, like the “Pilgrim’s Chorus” from Tannhäuser.

Der Gnade Heil ist dem Büsser beschieden,

er geht einst ein in der Seligen Frieden!

Vor Höll’ und Tod ist ihm nicht bang,

drum preis’ ich Gott mein Lebelang.

Halleluja in Ewigkeit!
(The grace of salvation is granted to the penitent,
 who shall enter into the peace of heaven!
 Hell and death cannot frighten him,
 therefore will I praise God all the days of my life.
Halleluja for evermore!)

Also, the end of Die Walküre in the Krauss recording (with Hans Hotter as Wotan), Wotan’s heartache:
Hans Hotter as Wotan

Denn einer nur freie die Braut,

der freier als ich, der Gott!  
(For only one shall win the bride, one freer than I, the God!)

….and his threatening authority, in the closing words:

Wer meines Speeres
 Spitze fürchtet,

durchschreite das Feuer nie!
(Whoever fears the tip of my spear shall never pass through the fire.)

I liked the Saturday broadcasts from the Met. These were my own "Wagner matinees." I liked Fr. Owen Lee’s commentaries and wondered if I might ever become so knowledgeable. (The answer is “no,” but I still enjoyed his insights!) Back then I had a reel-to-reel tape recorder and a receiver from which I recorded some operas like Parsifal. 

Parisfal was fascinating to listen to. I waited for the last chord of the prelude to resolve, but next comes Gurnemanz—

He! Ho! Waldhüter ihr,

Schlafhüter mitsammen,

so wacht doch mindest am Morgen.
(Hey! Ho! Forest guardians you, and sleeping guardians at that.  At least wake up with the morning.)

The prelude ends on a chord that does not resolve. Of course, I thought of my friend and his explanation of Wagner’s innovations in tonality. The desolate third-act prelude is, he told me, even more tonally innovative.

One year, the Met’s Saturday matinee broadcast was Tristan und Isolde—but it was Christmas Eve, and I couldn’t yet be with my family because I had to preach the next morning. I don’t know why I listened to the opera anyway, since I was already blue. It seems like Figaro or one of Donizetti’s comedies would’ve been a cheerier choice for Christmas Eve… but, as they say, nobody asked me about it beforehand.

I loved my work at the parish and the dear people. They were a big influence on the decision I made, later on, to devote my writing for the benefit of the laity, rather than academic audiences. But I disliked living alone, and I missed my seminary friends who, like me, had scattered around the country. Somehow a “journey” of musical discovery helped me deal with my loneliness. When I started dating an old friend in another town and then when we became engaged, the loneliness grew more deep and urgent, and so the music became more comforting and interesting.

But I also wanted to learn; learning for its own sake was important to me then and now. Discovering (to me) new kinds of music, broadening my taste so to speak, was important as I simultaneously learned to be a good pastor and caught up on reading delayed by the busyness of my seminary program. I might have waited a few years and purchased operas on CDs, recently introduced at that time, but I liked vinyl, and still do.

I still like to read about Wagner. Some time ago I found the book The Tristan Chord: Wagner and Philosophy by Bryan Magee; if I’d had this fascinating book at my little parish, I might’ve gotten nothing else done! He does an excellent job discussing Schopenhauer’s philosophy and showing how Wagner’s artistic development became influenced by his grateful discovery of Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung. Magee also does a good job explaining (but not justifying) Wagner’s antisemitism, the appeal that Wagner had for the Nazi regime, and the difficult relationship between Wagner and Nietzsche.

This month’s Gramophone magazine (May 2013) has a good article about Wagner’s operas and roles. While Der fliegende Holländer had taken a step away from the grand opera tradition of Rienzi, Tannhäuser (the original Dresden version) had been a return to that tradition. On the other hand, the opera is an advancement in that Tannhäuser himself reflects Wagner’s growing interest (explored later in Die Meistersinger): the artist’s role in society. But neither Rienzi (a portrait of political ambition), nor Tannhäuser nor the next great male role, Lohengrin (a portrait of nearly divine assurance) are characters who come to good ends. Their respective tragedies are commensurate with another interest of Wagner’s, which he continues to explore in the Ring: flawed heroism (p. 27).

The author (Anrold Whittall) comments that among the great bass-baritone roles, there are similarities in performances between Alberich and Wotan: both characters, after all, can be devious and villainous. On the other hand, the two roles are scarcely interchangeable, because Wotan is also capable of tenderness that Alberich cannot show. Comparing Hans Sachs with either of these characters (imagining one singer who might tackle all three roles), the very complex Sachs would need to be closer to Wotan than to Alberich.

Deborah Voigt as Isolde
Whittall draws other interesting contracts among Wagner’s characters. While both Tristan und Isolde and Götterdämmerung end with deeply moving soprano solos (Isolde and Brunnhilde, respectively), the more disturbing conclusion is that of Tristan und Isolde, partly because Brunnhilde's self-sacrifice leads immediately to Götterdämmerung's orchestral finale as Walhalla burns, while Isolde’s transfiguration---her dying words---are carried by sweet, light-filled music that contrasts with the four previous hours of torment and tragedy.

He comments that although seductiveness are aspects of the characters of both Brunnhilde and Isolde, it is a different kind of seductiveness than of Venus, Ortrud, and Kundry. But unlike Venus and Ortrud, and like Isolde (and also, one can add, like Amfortas), Kundry experiences her own transformation and release---even if Kundry’s music is not sweet like the “Liebestod.” One can also find parallels with Wotan and Kundry; as Wotan is deeply present in the Ring’s last opera even though his character never appears, so Kundry has a largely tacit but influential role in the last act of Parsifal (p. 29). One can add that the curse of recurring life, which find release in death, is a theme one can draw from Kundry back to the Dutchman.

An opera book I’ve enjoyed over the years is Wayne Koestenbaum’s The Queen’s Throat: Opera, Homosexuality, and the Mystery of Desire, and Koestenbaum’s interesting connections of identity, desire, and music. An important aspect of my “quest” for music has always been the sense of place, one of my own strong sources of desire and identity. I’ve written about that sense in some of my other essays, but I should think about that more. Are there cognitive and neurological insights that link music, emotion, companionship, and the feeling of being at home? I don’t know, but I’ll try to find out–and so these thoughts are, in pale reflection of Wagner’s mastery, unresolved and developing.  But I know that the music I’ve mentioned here never fails to take me back to that time in my life when I lived in a little parsonage along the state highway, way out in the country, when so many good things in my life were just beginning.

Pentecost, Kindness and the Spirit

Whenever I teach world religions, I’m inspired by Buddhists’ emphasis upon kindness----and I wish kindness was emphasized more in Christian faith. After all, kindness and gentleness are esteemed in the New Testament as essential qualities (Romans 3:12, 2 Cor. 6:6, Gal. 5:22-23, 6:1, Eph. 2:7, 4:2, Col. 3:12, 1 Tim. 6:11, 2 Tim. 2:25, Titus 3:4, James 3:13, 1 Peter 3:16), and these are the qualities of God and Christ, too (Romans 11:22, 2 Cor. 10:1, Titus 3:4)! One of my favorite verses is 1 Corinthians 4:21, where Paul sarcastically says, “What would you prefer? Am I to come to you with a stick, or with love in a spirit of gentleness?”

When I say “emphasized,” I mean I wish it was preached more as an essential quality of a Christian. I wish it was esteemed more among church folk as a biblical, non-negotiable teaching, and I wish church leaders were chosen on this basis in addition to other talents they may have. We’ve all met (and some of us are) churchgoers who are blunt, my-way-or-the-highway, insensitive, scheming, full of advice instead of willing to listen, happy to catch others in mistakes, and so on---but meanwhile they have significant roles in the congregation and community. Paul writes in Philippians, “Let your gentleness be known to everyone” (4:5), but we don’t think enough about why that should be the case, and whether or not we ourselves are kind and gentle----and if we’re not kind and gentle, are other aspects of our Christian witness cheapened?

So it’s good to ask ourselves: Do we show display kindness and gentleness? How do we display them if our jobs are such that we can't always be kind?  Whatever are our political and social views, do we also express kindheartedness? Do we support people who are struggling (as opposed to telling them to “get over it”)? Do we gossip about people and feel good about it? Do we praise the Lord in some conversations, and in others repeat the mean-spirited rhetoric and opinions of certain media commentators?

Not that I’ve been uniformly kind and considerate over the years, far from it. But my own failures taught me that we often have only one chance to make an impression of kindness to people. I’ve met plenty of pastors and Christian teachers who failed miserably in being kind, and I’ve thought: What the hell are you thinking? Don’t you realize your words are going to linger in other people’s hearts? Don’t you realize this is the only impression you’ll have on those people? You may be able to tell that I’ve had my feelings hurt in this regard a few times, and have soul-searched myself, and that I’ve now taken this on as a strong reminder.

I’m working my way here toward Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit was given to the church. The gift was understood as a fulfillment of the prophecy of Joel 2:28-29, where God’s spirit would be poured out to all people; the gift also fulfilled Christ’s promise in Acts 1:8.

The spiritual gift of glossalalia, speaking in languages, was the first evidence of the Spirit in Acts chapter 2. But that gift quickly began to take precedence in people’s minds over other gifts---and this was a tendency Paul addressed, especially in 1 Corinthians. People at that church boasted in this ability, but Paul reminded them that there are many spiritual gifts, and he actually places tongues-speaking at the end of his list of gifts. He tried to get the Corinthians to be kinder, more loving people, not so status-conscious and elitist.

Today, Paul would address other issues in our contemporary congregations, but he would probably remind us of the same things as he did in Galatians 5:19-25: “Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, competing against one another, envying one another.”

Any of us could recognize one or more “works of the flesh” in our lives, and as we grow in the Lord, we can also rejoice when we see degrees of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control being evidenced in our daily routine.

If we connect the Pentecost gift of the Spirit in Acts 2, with the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22-26 (including the admonition to avoid envy, unhealthy competition, and conceit among ourselves).... and if we toss in 1 Corinthians 13:1-7 for good measure, then we have powerful reasons to say that Pentecost is a holiday about kindness and gentleness, patience and love and peace.


I found some old research I did for an issue of FaithLink a while ago. According to The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, the Greek word pentecoste means “fiftieth” and refers to the Jewish festival Shavu’ot (“weeks”), which follows the Passover by seven complete weeks. That holiday is described in, among other places, Exodus 23:14-17 and Deut. 16:16-17, and is referenced in 1 Cor. 16:8 and Acts 20:16. On the Christian calendar, Pentecost is the fiftieth day after the resurrection of Christ. Another name is “Whitsunday” because persons baptized on that day wore white.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Thomas Merton on Service

"Do not depend on the hope of results.... [S]tart more and more to concentrate not on the results but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself. And there too a great deal has to be gone through, as gradually you struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific people. ... In the end... it is the reality of personal relationships that saves everything....
"The big results are not in your hands or mine, but they suddenly happen and we can share in them; but there is no point in building our lives on this personal satisfaction, which may be denied us and which after all is not that important.
"The next step in the process is for you to see that your own thinking about what you are doing is crucially important. You are probably striving to build yourself an identity in your work and your witness.... That is not the right use of your work. All the good that you will do will come not from you but from the fact that you have allowed yourself, in the obedience of faith, to be used by God's love.
"The great thing after all is to live, not to pour out your life in the service of a myth: and we turn the best things into myths. If you can get free of the domination of causes and just serve Christ's truth... [t]he real hope, then, is not in something we think we can do but in God who is making something good out of it in some way we cannot see."
---Thomas Merton to James Forest, 2/21/66, quoted in Thomas Del Prete, Thomas Merton and the Education of the Whole Person (Religious Education Press, 1990).

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Christ's Ascension

The Ascension of Christ
by Rembrandt 
"Today our Lord Jesus Christ ascended into heaven; let our hearts ascend with him Listen to the words of the Apostle: If you have risen with Christ, set your hearts on the things that are above where Christ is, indeed at the right hand of God; seek the things that are above, not the things that are on earth. For just as he remained with us even after his ascension, so we too are already in heaven with him, even though what is promised us has not yet been fulfilled in our bodies.

"Christ is now exalted above the heavens, but he still suffers on earth all the pain that we, the members of his body, have to bear. He showed this when he cried out from above: Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? and when he said: I was hugnry and you gave me food.

Why do we on earth not strive to find rest with him in heaven even now, through the faith, hope and love that unites us to him? While in heaven he is also with us; and we while on earth are with him. He is here with us by his divinity, his power and his love. We cannot be in heaven, as he is on earth, by divinity, but in him, we can be there by love.

"He did not leave heaven when he came down to us; nor did he withdraw from us when he went up again into heaven. The fact that he was in heaven even while he was on earth is borne out by his own statement: No one has ever ascended inot heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man, who is in heaven.

"These words are explained by our oneness with Christ, for he is our head and we are his body. No one ascended into heaven except Christ because we also are Christ: he is the Son of Man by his union with us, and we by our union with him are [children] of God. So the Apostle says: Just as the human body, which has many members, is a unity, because all the different members make one body, so is it also with Christ. He too has many members, but one body.

"Out of compassion for us he descended from heaven, and although he ascended alone, we also ascend, because we are in him by grace. Thus, no one but Christ descended and no one but Christ ascended; not because there is no distinction between the head and the body, but because the body as a unity cannot be separated from the head.”

St. Augustine, from The Liturgy of the Hours, II, Lenten and Easter Seasons (Catholic Book Publishing Inc., 1976), pp. 920-922.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Same-Sex Marriage and the UMC

Rev. Dr. Thomas W. Ogletree is a longtime professor of Christian theological ethics and former dean at the Drew Theological School and Yale Divinity School. (I attended YDS prior to his tenure.) Last October, in his capacity as a United Methodist minister, Ogletree officiated at the wedding of his son Thomas to Nicholas W. Haddad in Massachusetts. Ogletree will likely now face a church trial, after several conservative clergy filed a complaint with the bishop about his actions.

The United Methodist Book of Discipline disallows same-sex marriages, and in the past some clergy have been disciplined for performing ceremonies for such marriage. The last General Conference (the denomination’s law-setting body) failed by a sizable majority to change or modify the church’s position on homosexuality. As Sharon Otterman writes in the New York Times (May 5, 2013), “the issue is creating a deep rift with the church’s evangelical, conservative wing, which is being bolstered by the spread of the 12-million-member denomination internationally into Africa and Asia.”

Ogletree comments that two of his five children are gay and his daughter already married her partner in a non-Methodist ceremony in Massachusetts. His son asked him to officiate their ceremony. Ogletree commented, “I actually wasn’t thinking of this as an act of civil disobedience or church disobedience. I was thinking of it as a response to my son.” But he also stated that he considers the church law unjust (see his longer comments below).

Rev. Thomas A. Lambrecht, the vice-president of Good News, a traditionalist Methodist group, was quoted by the New York Times: “Reverend Ogletree is acting in a way that is injurious to the church, because it fosters confusion in the church about what we stand for. And it undermines the whole covenant of accountability that we share with each other as pastors.” Referring to the Book of Discipline language, Lambrecht stated, “We try to be nuanced about it...Although we disapprove of the practice of homosexuality, we believe that people who are gay or lesbian are loved and valued by God and worthy of the church’s ministry and welcome to participate in churches.” (All these quotes are from the same article by Otterman: )

I admit that I used to find the Discipline language nuanced and open, too, but I found that language no longer acceptable after I knew gay persons and listened to their stories. As I would not consider my own heterosexuality a "practice," nor would a gay person consider his or her sexuality in that way. Being gay is who they are; it’s an identity, a gift from God, and not a “lifestyle choice” as some straight persons continue to describe it. And so why should gay persons feel loved and valued and welcomed when they’re not being characterized in a way recognizable to them?

It would not take a gay person long to find other statements that show even less of a welcoming stance, for instance, a statement from the Institute on Religion & Democracy’s United Methodist Action Director, John Lomperis: "United Methodist disagreements over homosexuality and other forms of extra-marital sex are driven by far more fundamental divisions, between United Methodists who accept a high view of biblical authority, are loyal to United Methodist doctrine, seek to submit all areas of our lives to the Lordship of Jesus Christ, and play by the rules that are supposed to apply to everybody, and other, nominal United Methodists who openly reject our core doctrine, allow the winds of secular American culture to trump Scripture, and zealously embrace an 'any means necessary' ethos.” Lomperis’ comments make no effort to be nuanced: if you’re not against homosexuality, you’re a pretty shallow Methodist and Christian, certainly not one who fully embraces Christ’s Lordship.

I so strongly dislike that kind of rhetoric. There are many of us straight persons who have indeed prayerfully looked at this issue, listened to gay persons’ testimonies and witnesses, and are now supporting gay persons in their journeys of life and faith. We have considered the biblical statements and also considered modern understandings of sexuality, the same as we interpret the Bible alongside modern understandings of women's roles, scientific theory, and so on. But this issue will continue to be a challenge because the biblical language about homosexuality is focused upon male behavior in those ancient cultures, rather than modern understandings of sexuality and identity.

Ogletree made a longer statement in the Washington Post. Here is a portion, but the whole statement is worth reading.  

“Networks of clergy in the denomination’s regional conferences have been pursuing more systematic approaches to challenge discriminatory rules against gay and lesbian persons. Among other things, participants in these networks have declared their resolve to officiate on an equal basis at all marriages in their congregations, whether between same-sex or heterosexual couples. This movement has now spread from coast to coast. It is noteworthy that the introduction to the United Methodist Book of Discipline reminds us about previous flaws and shortcomings in the denominations history, including the accommodation of racial segregation and the denial of ordination to women. It took persistent efforts to overcome these unjust practices, and such efforts generated serious conflicts within the church itself. We are now engaged in a similar struggle to end the denomination’s discrimination against LGBT people.

“As a white southerner growing up during the segregation era, I became intensely aware of the pervasive racism in our society. I recognized that I had to join emerging new movements to dismantle racial segregation or I would myself become morally complicit for injustices resident in those practices. ...My experiences in the Civil Rights movement have illumined my responses to what I perceive to be unjust disciplinary rules in the United Methodist Church, especially rules that denied my right to officiate at my own son’s wedding. As a heterosexual, married clergyman I have a unique opportunity and obligation to challenge the inequitable treatment of gay and lesbian persons, both in church practices and also in the wider society. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. reminded us in his 'Letter from a Birmingham Jail,' 'One has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.' Marrying Tom and Nick was for me a profoundly personal and quintessentially pastoral act. I have been deeply moved by their exceptional bonds, and their strong commitment to a more just and inclusive society. It is high time for the United Methodist Church to honor such bonds and to take strong and diligent steps to overcome persisting prejudices.” (

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Jesus the Gradual Teacher

One of the daily devotional guides to which I subscribe, Living Faith, has a piece about graduation. This is certainly the time of year for graduations. My daughter graduate from college last spring!  Webster University's ceremony is is this coming Saturday, and my wife, the university president, will be front and center. If I know that a former student of mine is graduating, I’ll send a card to him or her.

The Living Faith devotion noted that the word “gradual” is related to “graduation,” which I hadn’t thought about. Getting a degree is certainly a gradual process: so many papers and tests, so many classes until finally the whole degree is completed.

The devotion writer noted that Jesus taught his disciples gradually. He led them along, instructing them about the kingdom (sometimes over and over until they got it). We see examples in the synoptic gospels, and also in John’s gospel, where he tells his disciples, “I have much more to tell you, but you cannot bear it now” (16:12)

We, too (writes the author) understand life and faith gradually. We don’t “get” everything all at once but rather we grow in insight and wisdom, often in response to life’s unpredictability. But eventually, we will graduate to eternity!

I like to connect passages, and I connected this John 16:12 verse with Luke 14:25-33, where Jesus cautions about the sacrifices and priorities of discipleship. He urges people to count the cost and know what they’re getting into. But I wondered: how do you know what you’re getting into? How will you meet the challenges of discipleship until you see what they are? As the saying goes: unlike school, life gives you the test first and then the lesson. To me, the life of faith is like that, too.

But it’s helpful to realize that Jesus is a gradual teacher! Not just a character on a Bible page, he is a gradual teacher for us, too, not giving up on us---and actively helping us---if we don’t “get” things the first time or if our faith is insufficient in the face of some difficult.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Psalm 121

Last fall, I posted several pages of meditations and notes about a favorite psalm, 121. The first verse was on a poster that I displayed in my dorm room wall when I was a freshman in college.  Ever since, I've loved to turn to that psalm and think about it. Check out my thoughts at: