Tuesday, February 28, 2006

On Lent

Preparing for Lent
7 Hilary

I realize that not all of my wonderful readers are familiar with the purpose and practice of the Lenten season. Stay with me as I indulge myself (and perhaps you) in a little bit of history and theology.

Where it Came From

In the earliest Christian centuries, once the Christian mission moved past Palestine and the "god-fearing" Gentiles (those familiar with and disposed toward the story of Israel's god, like Cornelius in Acts 10) and into the wider Roman world, it became necessary to catechize potential converts - to be intentional about teaching them the story of Israel's god, his people, his world, and his Christ, from beginning to end. Catechesis was a time of ethical reformation, as members of the church discipled these soon-to-be Christians in the way of God's New Community.

Much of the theological instruction for this one to three year period was put into the period of 40 days before the Great Vigil of Easter. The forty days brings echoes of Moses conversing with God on Sinai before receiving the Ten Commandments, the forty years of temptation in the wilderness that refined Israel, and the forty days when Jesus entered the wilderness for his communion with God and to prepare for his own testing. Forty days is a time of refining and of being with the Lord.

At the season of Lent, Christian converts receive intensive theological education, accompanied by prayers, confession and exorcisms - it is indeed an intense time of being with the Lord. The rest of the Church also walks through this time of penitence and learning and self-examination.

Walking with Jesus

It also has a place in the overall narrative of Jesus' life: At Epiphany, we commemorated his appearance to his people, and realized that he is the light that scatters our darkness. At his baptism, he was revealed to be the Son of God, bearing divine favor for the people. At the reception of John's baptism, he identified himself with the faithful remnant of Israel, and began to reconstitute the nation in terms of loyalty to himself by his calling of the Twelve; now enter the story of the last days of his ministry, when he begin to orient himself and his disciples to his vocation of suffering and death for the sake of the people. The story has taken a dark turn, and we join the Master as he sets his face resolutely toward Jerusalem. In solidarity with him, we begin the time of sorrowing for our sins and his suffering, walking into the darkness of our broken humanity in the hope of Easter's light.

So the matter of Lenten disciplines or practices is this: what can I do to set my own face toward Jerusalem? What in my personality and my life with the Church in the world needs to be put to death, and what does God wish to be raised up? I think we find the answers to these questions by putting ourselves in an intentional posture of listening: making a quiet space in our routines to hear from the Lord.

This is not meant for Herculean efforts of spiritual zeal - like boot camp for Jesus - but for a time of greater intentionality. We learn to be quiet and make space, preparing for the conviction of sin, and to offer our brokenness for his healing, so that when we do speak and act, we will do so as a grateful and repentant response to the Trinitarian God who leads us into truth.

We rededicate ourselves in practical ways to prayer, to seeking and listening to the counsel of our brothers and sisters, and in learning more deeply the Way of Life. In this practice-able, regular actions - these ways of making space - we invite the Lord to purge our personalities of the dross of the old nature, and to refine us more and more as part of the new creation. Repentance, it must be remembered, is a change of attitude, a new way of seeing that sends us walking in a different direction. Sometimes the turning is slight, and sometimes it's one hundred and eighty degrees. Our goal is not a particular spiritual experience or to start or stop a particular habit necessarily, but to be with the Lord and offer to him our readiness to turn in unexpected directions, to listen to words we would not have anticipated, and answer yes to him in ways we would not have imagined.

The time of Great Lent is upon us. May it be a holy one as we walk into the dark places of ourselves and discover that the Lord Himself leads us into the stillness of our solitary fears, to sit with us, to heal us, and to absorb all of our darkness into the Darkness of his Cross and the Light of Easter Dawn.

So how do we make this concrete?

It's in this spirit that I suggested some of the disciplines that I did yesterday.

Saying the office is a way of making space in our day that will sanctify the rest of it, and letting the Scriptures teach us how to offer our hearts to the Lord.

Centering prayer enables us to quiet ourselves in a deep, purposeful way, to stop the noise and stop the thinking and just stop … and wait for the Spirit of the Lord to come and do what it will. It's about giving him space to do the deep works he needs to do, but doesn't really need to tell us about.

Volf's book on forgiveness would surely an important contribution to the work of reconciliation in our lives; the heart of God yearns for the reconciliation of all persons to himself and between one another under the headship of Jesus. Reading this book can be a way of listening, and inviting another to guide us as we make that journey.

Attending to the holy mysteries, and receiving the mystical body of Christ into oneself - does that need explanation? Salvation, after all, isn't only or even mostly in our heads. Salvation is performed, and salvation must be eaten.

Reading the Fathers is likewise a concrete way of listening to wisdom from what has for many of us been an unexpected source: the first two generations to interpret the apostolic witness of the New Testament.

Peace and blessing be upon you as you begin the journey of Lent in God's Church.

You might check Alan's version, as well.

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Monday, February 27, 2006

Lent: Best. Idea. Ever.

0 Lent (There's no such thing, but I'm tired of green)
7 Hilary

Whoa. Jonathan Bennett at Ancient and Future Catholic Musings has offered us a reading plan for the Church Fathers over the Lenten period. This would be a great thing to take up, particularly if you've never read them before. Let me know if you decide to do it; maybe we can chat about the writings together (HT: Land of Hope and Glory).

For my own Lenten discipline - as I've said - I want to shift more into a "listening" posture. To that end, I'm determined to do the "contemplative prayer" thing with greater frequency, pray the office, and attempt to attend morning Mass three times each week. I'm also going to pick up Miroslav Volf's Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace. It's the Archbishop of Canterbury's Lenten book, and Bill Bean is selling it at a nice price, by the way.

I don't say this to sound "spiritual;" to paraphrase someone else, I require this practices because I am "unspiritual." I'm also a student, so I get to structure my time any way I wish. I think it's an appropriate practice to "waste" time with Jesus, anyway. I've also used some "soft language" in a very intentional fashion: I'm attempting these disciplines, not so I can say that I have done them, but for the sake of being with Jesus more and listening more. If I don't do everything I'd like in just the way I'd like, it's not the end of the world, and Jesus isn't going to get all upset. We shouldn't get all upset either, and we'd do well to remember that.

Praying the Office takes about 15 minutes twice a day, and 5-10 minutes in the evening. If you'd like suggestions on getting started, please ask.

You can find short, basic instruction on Centering Prayer here.

Bill has more information on Volf's book here.

So what's everybody else doing to keep a Holy Lent? Don't worry about sounding humble, you won't impress me (wink). What practices have you found helpful in the past? Will this be your first Lenten season? Do you choose not to keep it? Have a chat back at me.

Update: theological nitpicking: when I said "attend mass," I mean, "celebration of the mysteries" or "performance of the Eucharist." There, that's better. We don't watch it, we do it. I was getting all vexed in my righteous soul on that one.

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Friday, February 24, 2006

Tom Wright: Some Highlights

7 Epiphany
6 Hilary

... of the lectures in London. I'm not sure what's considered tasteful or tactful in terms of actually reproducing lecture notes, so of course I'm not going to do that: rather these are some key points that I have mostly paraphrased.
"It is often considered that apocalyptic is the immanent expectation of the end of the world, the collapse of the space/time universe, and indeed, the Kingdom is thought of the arrival of a new non-spatial order, and the cosmos as we know it is replaced by something else."
That's wrong. However,

"That has been understood for nearly a century as the meaning of Jesus' apocalyptic expectation. And since the early Christians believed that the world was coming to an end, we must re-evaluate everything, because, we are the first generation to realize that the world didn't actually end. The ethics of Jesus and the NT are therefore considered an interim ethic in anticipation of the immediate end of the cosmos. Since that didn't happen, those ethics can be put aside."


But apocalyptic is not just stuff here and there. What it really means: "The whole New Testament demands to be understood in terms of the unveiling of things normally hidden. This is not thought of as the end of the world, but the pulling back of the cosmic curtain. The NT repeatedly returns to eschatological apocalypse, the idea that the wider plan of God is about to revealed in a great event." This is not "about people glimpsing timeless secrets, like platonic forms, but learning the Creator's plans for the creation. Just as the apple shows what the tree had been on about all along, so does the advent of Jesus reveal God's plan. This revelation is eschatological because creates a new state of affairs, even if no one else notices."

Christian ethics, therefore, is about "recognizing that new creation has begun with the resurrection of Jesus, but that it remains to be implemented and that we are learning to live in the power of the resurrection that has just happened, and anticipating the resurrection of the age to come, having tasted of the power of the age to come." Christian ethics is "not a matter of learning a bunch of rules, but discovering what God's new creation is supposed to look like, and then discovering the ways one is called to conform one's life and the world to that, making symbols of the new creation. The church is charged with living as an anticipation of the bringing together of all things" into Christ.

And what's the point, ultimately?
Exodus and new exodus/resurrection is the prototypical event that constitutes the new creation. God is going to do for the whole creation at last what he did for Israel in the Exodus and for Jesus in bringing him from the tomb.
It was also great to hang out with Steven, Richard (who is Reformed but not fundamentalist!) and Peter from Manchester. 'Sup, fellows. Steven has few comments here.

You might see also, "Heaven is important but it's not the end of the world."

On Friday

7 Epiphany
6 Hilary

And so I embark upon the holy season of Lent feeling a great burden of brokenness on my shoulders. I find myself bearing witness to a little more entrophy, a little more deadness that I can't shake, and can't seem to do anything with: either a very poor or very appropriate beginning to the time of penance and reconciliation.

I really do believe that a holy discipline of submission is one of the most powerful ways to counter this death, and to appropriate God's work of new creation. But this work of learning authority, learning submission, learning resurrection - must be done in the humility and reciprocity that comes from an initial submission to Jesus and what he's doing.

It can be so easy to get confused; in this work there is a death and a birth, and if we are not thoughtful, and prayerful, and listening, we will find ourselves working for a miscarriage of the new birth, and building up what should have passed away with the old world a long time ago.

We stand on the other side of the Epiphany. We know he is here, and he cannot be stopped. We have begun to see what comes with his Rule, and find ourselves ambivalent, perhaps rejecting, perhaps rejoicing, and learning most certainly that we are part of a Salvation that is so very much more than we could ever have imagined.

And now we follow him along the way of listening, and along the way of death that will lead to a New Life.

Be here, Jesus.

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Thursday, February 23, 2006

Use of the Bible: Essay Proposal

7 Epiphany
6 Hilary

Okay, critters, here's my other proposal. It's not made it past my tutors yet, so it could change. Any thoughts? Comments on bibliography? Suggestions?

Allowing our Hearts to Burn: Luke 24 as Theology and Model for the Church's Submission to Scripture as God's Story

N.T. Wright has suggested understanding the authority of Scripture in terms of enabling the Church to live out of and improvise the ongoing narrative of God's saving purposes for the world. I will discuss some of the benefits and difficulties of such an understanding of authority and explore creative ways in which Christians might appropriate and 'improvise' from to the narrative, specifically by examining some approaches to the Emmaus theophany in ancient, modern and postmodern biblical hermeneutics, as well as art and literature


Cambridge Companion to Biblical Interpretation
Gerald Bray, Biblical Interpretation Past and Present
N.T. Wright, Scripture and the Authority of God; The New Testament and the People of God
Kevin J. Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical-Linguistic Approach To Christian Theology
Samuel Wells, Improvisation: The Drama of Christian Ethics
Ellen Davis and Richard Hays, The Art of Reading Scripture
Francis Young, The Art of Performance
Richard Bauckham, Bible and Mission
Gerard Loughlin, Telling God's story: Bible, Church and Narrative Theology

Wright's bibliography in Scripture and the Authority of God suggests

A.C. Thiselton, New Horizons in Hermeneutics
Nicholas Wolterstorff, Divine Discourse
Francis Watson, Text and Truth; Text, Church and World
Frances Young, The Art of Performance
Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Is there a meaning in this text?; First Theology: God, Scripture, and Hermeneutics
Gerard Loughlin, Telling God's story: Bible, Church and Narrative Theology
Stephen Fowl, Engaging Scripture
Wm. J. Abraham, Canon and Criterion
John Webster, Holy Scripture
Richard J. Bauckham: The Bible in politics; God and the Crisis of Freedom; Bible and Mission.
Telford Work, Living and Active
David L. Jeffries, Houses of the Interpreter
Ed. Craig Bartholomew (Zondervan/Paternoster): Between Two Horizons; Renewing Biblical Interpretation; After Pentecost; Royal Priesthood; Behind the Text; Out of Egypt.

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Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Reading the Bible, I: Listening to the Story

7 Epiphany
6 Hilary
I'm going to London today to hear N.T. Wright lecture.

From N.T. Wright, Scripture and the Authority of God, SPCK, 2005:
"Once you can make scripture stand on its hind legs and dance a jig, it becomes a tame pet rather than a roaring lion. It is no longer 'authoritative' in any strict sense; that is, it maybe cited as through in 'proof' of some point or other, but it is not leading the way, energizing the church with the fresh breath of God himself. The question must always be asked, whether scripture is being used to serve an existing theology or vice versa" (52).

"The fact that I have criticized the 'literal/non-literal' polarization does not mean that I am indifferent to the question of whether the events written about in the gospels actually took place. Far from it. It is juts that it will not do to repeat irrelevant slogans and imagine that one has thereby settled the matter. There is a great gulf fixed between those who want to prove the historicity of everything reported in the Bible in order to demonstrate that the Bible is 'true' after all and those who, committed to living under the authority of scripture, remain open to what scripture itself actually teaches and emphasizes. Which is the bottom line: 'proving the Bible to be true' (often with the effect of saying, 'So we can go on thinking what we've always thought'), or taking it so seriously that we allow it to tell us things we'd never heard before and didn't particularly want to hear?" (70)
As one of my beloved profs always says, "Let the storyteller tell his story."

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Doctrine, Context & Practice: Essay Proposal

7 Epiphany
6 Hilary

'We who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread': Understanding the 'Mystical Communion' of the Church as an Aretegenic Ecclesiology in Scripture and Contemporary Practice

In response to the increasingly common expression, 'I believe in Jesus, but not the Church,' I wish to expound on what Avery Dulles calls the 'mystical communion' model of ecclesiology as grounded in scriptural language. This is intended to offer disillusioned disciples a practical framework for believing in and living as the Church. In my exposition of the Church as a 'divinising communion,' I will use Ellen Charry's notion of 'aretegenic theology' as a guide: this ecclesiology will commend itself to disillusioned Christians as salutary and conducive to creative practices for their socialization as persons who understand themselves as taken up into the life of the triune God through their shared life as the Church.

Indicative Bibliography:

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Sanctorum Communio.
Carl Braaten, Mother Church
Timothy Bradshaw, The Olive Branch
Ellen Charry. By The Renewing of Your Minds: The Pastoral Function of Christian Doctrine.
Avery Dulles, Models of the Church
Rowan Greer, Broken Lights, Mended Lives
Stanley Hauerwas, Various Works.
Henri de Lubac, Various.
Miroslav Volf, After Our Likeness.
Robert Webber, Journey to Jesus
John Zizioulas. Being as Communion

Alright, now to get it done.
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Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Apartheid, Eucharist, Sanctification (Again, not related.)

7 Epiphany
6 Hilary

Hey, check out the new graphic, courtesy of Alan: I have no Inquisition over which to preside, but I am God' s Jack Russell Terrier!

Some of you may be aware that the General Synod of the Church of England has taken some heat over its recent call for the divestment of stock in companies such as Caterpillar, that profit from the current apartheid policies of the Israeli state.

Personally, I think it's the right thing to do. Divestment, that is. Not apartheid.

From Canon Paul Oestreicher in yesterday's Guardian:
But the main objective of my writing today, is to nail the lie that to reject Zionism as it practised today is in effect to be anti-semitic, to be an inheritor of Hitler's racism. That argument, with the Holocaust in the background, is nothing other than moral blackmail. It is highly effective. It condemns many to silence who fear to be thought anti-semitic. They are often the very opposite. They are often people whose heart bleeds at Israel's betrayal of its true heritage.
If you want to discuss it here, read the whole of Oestreicher's piece first.

The over-systemization of our theologies really isn't good for us. Two of my friends have written posts that deal with some of the resulting difficulties, and how that hinders the unfolding of God's salvation in our lives.

Alan has some thoughts on that most sacred of practices, the Holy Eucharist.
...There has always been a faith that has been handed down from generation to generation, in the church catholic, that when the gifts of bread and wine were lifted up, that somehow God takes them and changes them and "this is My Body" becomes real again and that all this is connected to our faith and with the whole Body that is gathered - that somehow God's Holy Spirit is us transmits transformative power and we, also, are changed, healed, forgiven, drawn into further union with Him.
For some, however, "Reason has overtaken them and mystery is no longer acceptable."
- Alan Creech, "this is my body."

Mike Noakes raises some parallel objections to the way we understand salvation" and spiritual formation altogether, upon reading Dallas Willard's Divine Conspiracy:

What do you hear when "gettin' saved" is brought up?
Surely not an invitation to participate in Gods' Kingdom work right now as an apprentice of His Son, King Jesus, as being a reconciled, fully and truly alive human person actively working towards redeeming creation, the whole of the cosmos. Usually it's a little yellow card you feel out after you close your eyes and repeat the line of "God, I'm sorry." and go home (yes, I'm thinking of camp. I'm younger than most of you.) and do naughty things with your girlfriend. At least, that's what I've seen. You?

He argues that "sanctification ... has been held captive by theology systematic" is such away as to put it practically outside the experiene and possibility of real people. This grows to its most painful extreme when we find ourselves believing in our theological systems and trusting our own appropriation of "truth" rather than the living God:
We are told by the Holy Scriptures that Abraham believed God (not theology, not beliefs, but God) and it was credited to him as righteousness. He didn’t merely trust in some arrangement for an eternity at some ethereal party in the sky, he trusted in a very real, personal being who interacted with his life-happenings and was truly a person. He (Abraham) was NOT concerned whether or not he would go to this “heaven” after he passed on, he trusted God to be with him in this life and he worshipped only this being. And for doing so, he was declared a friend of God. And no friend of God will be in “hell.”
He's a bit verbose (pot, meet kettle), but it's worth thinking about, if you've not. Go read the whole thing: "Sin Management: God's Answer?"

And meanwhile, here's a reality check. A band of Muslims attempted to assassinate the Anglican Archbishop of Jos Diocese, Bishop Benjamin Kwashi. Please pray for his family, and all the Christians in the country. Details here, at TitusOneNine.

Christ have mercy.

Update: a letter from Bishop Kwashi, again at TitusOneNine.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Evangelicals, Papists and Tom Wright (Not Related)

7 Epiphany
6 Hilary

Saturday morning I put together a list of interesting links with brilliant commentary. And then Blogger lost the post. I'm not really pleased about that. So here are a few of them. A little less commentary, a little less brilliant. Sigh.
I’ll never forget hearing how my best friend’s little sister frowned upon seeing their uncle arrive at a function in his chosen get-up of women’s clothing. “It’s not that you’re wearing a dress,” she said. “It’s the dress you’re wearing.” That pretty much sums up my feelings about Contemporary Christian Music.
- from "Supply and Demand," at GetReligion

And from the American Papist (HT: Amy Welborn):
Here's another gem of a quote - this time from the liberal Catholics:
"The real role of the church is not to tell people what to do but give them a map, and conscience is the compass."
Wow. This is hilarious. Luckily the Church will always send a St. Bernard your way whenever you get lost in the frozen Alps of pride.
Meanwhile, I'm going to London on Wednesday and Thursday to hear N.T. Wright talk about the Bible. Details here (.pdf). Anybody else interested?

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Bible and Culture

7 Epiphany
6 Hilary

Okay, let's try this post again. The first one was giving me problems. I've reproduced the comments I've already recieved.

I'm doing some brainstorming for my upcoming "Use of the Bible" module.

I want to focus on the authority of Scripture and what it can mean to "sit with" and "sit under" it.

To that end, I'm looking for some meditations on and artistic interpretations of Luke 24, in which two disciples encountered the risen Christ on the road to Emmaus. More specifically, I want to find themes of God's unexpected appearing in places of despair, particularly mediated through the Eucharist (or a non-cultic meal, for that matter). Direct interpretations of or allusions to the passage in music, paintings, film and literature are wonderful.

Think "word." Think "sacrament." Think "holy appearing" that transforms or reveals truth about human life.

Examples I've come up with so far include:
  • Flannery O'Connor's "A Temple of the Holy Ghost," which combines imagery of and devotion to the Mass with the life of a "carnival attraction."
  • Switchfoot's "On Fire," a song meditating on the grace mediated through Word and Sacrament. Well, if you ask me, anyway.
  • Caravaggio's Supper at Emmaus (1601 and 1606)
Does anything come to mind? Your suggestions are greatly appreciated.

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Saturday, February 18, 2006

On Being Right

6 Epiphany
5 Hilary

Our lecturer had run a little late for seminar yesterday, so our good program director took up some time with an interesting reflection on the ecumenical nature of the course. As you may be aware, my Friday seminar for the M.Th. program includes ministers and ordinands from a variety of traditions, mostly Baptists and Anglicans. The program directors are a Baptist who concentrates on mission and interfaith dialogue and a Jesuit priest.

Our director was commenting that in theological inquiry, "of course I'm right, but I think in listening to others I can become more right." I must say, most of us can probably own the former comment, and would do well to own the latter. He continued to make the point that "the idea of a path is built into the idea of theological 'rightness.'"

Is it, I wonder? I certainly like the notion. Is the goal of theological inquiry - this task of thinking and asking questions about God and talking about it together - really to say things that are "right"? If we consider that a worthy goal in itself, I daresay that our souls are in peril.

Being right is not what theology is for. This work of thinking and talking about God (which is the work of all the baptized!) must be done in a posture of humble listening to God and listening to one another. If theology is good for anything, it is knowing God better. But knowing God isn't a matter of knowing right things about God, but responding in obedience and love to the things we hear, and I am beginning to understand that this requires learning to speak with a certain tentativeness about this nearly unspeakable love.

I'm happy to sit for awhile with the notion that theological "rightness" should be understood in the context of a path, life with the God who is always drawing us into deeper communion with Godself, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

What does this mean for the rules of "civil" theological discourse on blogs (of all things)? And if we're going to talk about being caught up in the life of the Trinitarian god and being re-formed in the love and life of that God, should "civil" really be the goal?

Please read the short essays that two of my friends have just published on the matter. They're both wonderful, and I think effect some very similar points, with different and needful emphases.

Katie challenges with a very clear and unfortunate picture of how we can treat brothers and sisters with whom we disagree:
... from a very young age we humans are extremely concerned with being right. I understand that. I spend a lot of time afraid of being wrong, which in essence is the same thing. Why do we fight so much? Because EVERYONE is wrong to SOMEONE. What I am not saying is that everyone is right. What I am also not saying is that everyone is wrong (although I guess I think that in a sense we are). The sooner we stop fighting and start talking, the sooner we may actually learn something.
- Katie, "Them's Fightin' Words"
Let's start with the truth. That is, the truth as you, or I--in all sincerity--understand it. You do understand, do you not, that the truth as you understand it is not the same as the truth as many others understand it? Nor will it ever be. This is not to say that truth is "relative", or that it does not matter, or that you should not care about it. It is merely to state the eternal fact that there will always be sincere and honest differences among us. I would humbly suggest that some people, more than others, need to get used to this fact, and actually become okay with it.
. . .
John 13:35:
"Jesus said, "By this shall everyone know that you are my disciples, if you bicker endlessly and destroy each other while the world all around you goes to hell in a bucket."
- Thoughts On The Way to the Abbey, "That's What Christians Do."

Antony and Alan have an interesting dialogue in the comments as well, discussing the nature and role of a teaching office in such a context.

I don't think of myself as being overly-concerned with being "right" in my theology, at least not as some kind of end in itself. I can, however, do just the things that Katie and Antony are talking about, without even realizing it at the time.

Christ have mercy.

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Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Evangelism, III: Miracles

6 Epiphany
5 Hilary

Many Christians suppose that the “miracle stories” in the gospels and the Acts of the Apostles were a kind of “shock and awe” gambit to authenticate the message, and to prove Jesus’ claims to divinity. We have an interpretive problem with that. While the John is quite pleased to tell us about Jesus’ divinity, the synoptic gospels don’t keep that notion front and center, and certainly don’t do any business with a “divine essence.” In the synoptic gospels and particularly Mark, Jesus can’t seem to get his hands on enough demons, as he rampages to and fro through Galilee healing and exorcising at a breakneck pace. These works seem to be part and parcel with his proclamation of the kingdom, and this is a power he imparts to his disciples in the gospels and particularly in Luke-Acts. This isn’t because the apostles are divine, but because these works are part of the Kingdom’s arrival in our space.

So I suggest to you (and I’m not the first, go read E.P. Sanders and N.T. Wright, by all means) that the evangelists present the “miracles” of Jesus and the Apostles as bound up in the Kingdom initiative: the restoration and reconstitution of Israel. The blind see, the lame walk, and the Powers That Be are put to flight. This is what happens happens when the Kingdom comes.

The Reign of God brings the healing and restoration to God’s creation that he so deeply desires. When Yahweh shows up on the scene, the Judge of All the Earth will indeed do what is right – and put everything right. So when Jesus shows up on the scene proclaiming the Kingdom of God, we see what it looks like when the Future breaks in to the Present: healings and exorcisms. Those acts were (and are!) foretastes of the New Creation, taking us all by surprise.

When Jesus entered Jerusalem on a donkey and threw down in the courts, Yahweh returned to Zion, weeping over his city. When God’s anointed was killed and raised up, we saw the inauguration of that new Creation: the resurrection, that great “end-times” event, was brought back into the present. Something that was supposed to happen to the entire Nation at the end, happened to one man in the middle of time. Jesus’ resurrection establishes him as the eschaton, that great end-times event that brings the new Creation.

So what happened after the old world died and the new one was birthed in AD33?

The Holy Spirit descended upon the Church, baptizing it by fire to be the sign and instrument and foretaste of the Kingdom, God’s coming Reign, in which he will restore the Creation.

In posts upcoming, I’ll talk about hospitality, and what it means to “evangelize” out of such a self-identity.

In the meantime – do you see what I’m getting at? The biblical writers didn’t sit around thinking in terms of “natural” and “supernatural.” There were acts of God. The idea that “supernatural manifestations,” or “signs and wonders” could or would cease after the Apostles died has no basis in the Church’s self-understanding. If what modernists (both religious and secular) call “supernatural occurances” stop, the ministry of the Church stops. Either God is doing something in us, or he is not. The odd notion of “cessationism,” that these things were supposed to cease after the last canonical letter was written, is little else but an attempt to write a theology to match one’s own spiritual impoverishment.

(Go read Stephen Harris' recent post for some quality argumentation on this)

What’s our implication for evangelism? Healing happens. Healing happens in the life of the Christian community. Maybe we should just sit with the notion for a bit.

Shew, it's been a busy week. I'll pick up with part four of the series sometime next week. In the meantime, I'm going to start posting some lighter things. See the post below for some interesting discussion on post-modernity and the "emerging churches," and don't forget to click on my new Google ads at the bottom of the left sidebar. I get a few pennies when you do.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Evangelism, II: Paul's Mission

6 Epiphany
5 Hilary
Cyril & Methodius, Missionaries

Who was Paul evangelizing, and what form did that take?

Many Christians and church historians have told the story that “the Jews” of the ancient world (as a monolithic, homogenous group) rejected the apostolic proclamation of Jesus for the greatest part, leaving Christian missionaries to work primarily with Gentiles, who knew nothing of the God of Israel.

According to Rodney Stark (The Rise of Christianity), the arguments for this thesis are:
  • In the Acts of the Apostles, a frustrated Paul declared that he was finished with Jews, and would go (minister) to the Gentiles.
  • Archeological and literary evidence indicates that Jewish synagogues remained active in the Diaspora for centuries
  • Extensive polemics between Jewish rabbis and Christian teachers indicate the continuing presence and interaction of distinct Jewish and Christian communities who found one another quite threatening.
Stark seeks to debunk this support, arguing respectively that
  • Paul didn’t move on to just any Gentiles. The narrative in Acts depicts him going to “Godfearers,” those non-Jews who were familiar with and sympathetic to Israelite theology and ethics, but who hadn’t taken the step of conversion to Judaism. The picture of Paul at the Areopagus in Acts 17, introducing the faith to Greeks who were entirely unfamiliar with the Jewish narrative, does not seem to be the norm for his preaching.
  • The idea that the continuation of any synagogues indicates the failure of the Christian mission to Jews is akin to supposing that just because a “Little Italy” neighborhood exists in some large American cities, Italians on the whole have never assimilated into American culture.
  • All the harsh writings between Christian and Jewish leaders could be reflective of Christian success in mission just as easily as it could reflect failure. We can really only say that both sides were sensitive.
So what’s the implication? When people talk about evangelism in the early church, they like to imagine powerful preachers stepping out into the public square, introducing the entire Christian narrative to a lot of strangers who had never heard it before, who in turn converted en masse. That probably isn’t true. Stark’s arguments indicate that it’s possible that many converts had already been exposed to Judaism to a considerable extent.

The picture of apostolic evangelists telling groups of strangers about a “Romans Road” or “Four Spiritual Laws” just doesn’t hold up. That kind of “cold-call,” door-to-door sales approach to announcing the Reign of God in Christ isn’t biblical. Most people don’t pull that garbage anyway, and when they do, it doesn’t get them anywhere. And nobody likes the people who try. And do you know what? That’s okay. It really is an ugly and unloving thing to do.

So you can stop telling yourself that you should do those things, and like it.

Why is it that what most Christians think “evangelism” to be is actually something they don’t want to do, and would never want done to them? Why is it that people imagine that the work of proclamation is really a very dehumanizing thing?

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Monday, February 13, 2006

Evangelism: Talking Points

6 Epiphany
5 Hilary
Absalom Jones, Priest

I know lots of Christians who hate talking about evangelism. I think if you really pressed them, they might even admit that they hate evangelism, or at least what they think it is. You might have a good idea of what comes to their minds: offering a tract to people, explaining “four spiritual laws,” or some other kind of step-by-step mini-seminar on “how to go to heaven” that nobody really wants to hear anyway.

Lots of people think (some enthusiastically, others not) that this is a model they’ve picked up from the ancient Church as described in the Acts of the Apostles. Jesus’ early disciples stood on street corners day and night shouting at people to repent and accept Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior. Right? Nope.

I think that picture results from projecting the peculiar opinions and practices of present-day faith communities onto the ancient faith, rather than considering historical evidence. So, what was evangelism in the early church? What did it look like? Who was it to? What form did it take? What the heck did they mean by it?

I’d like to offer a series of observations and talking points on evangelism based on some of the reading I did last year. I’m finding this difficult to write about, so I may only put up one or two posts on this each week.

Good News?

The word transliterated as evangelion is the news that a new king is in power. In the parlance of the times, it was the word used for the proclamation that a new Caesar had been enthroned in Rome, that he was indeed the “Lord and Savior” of the world. For Paul and others to carry an evangelion about Jesus was to proclaim, in Tom Wright’s simple phrase, “Jesus is Lord, and Caesar is not.” This gospel is not simply “spiritual,” but also blatantly political – good, pre-modern Jews, after all, did not separate their lives into such neat compartments.

I see that kind of context for the “gospel” to be deeply provocative, indicating that the present and coming reign of Jesus brings a direct and serious challenge to the “secular” order, and indeed that no part of life gets to be “secular” ever again.

What do y’all think of this notion of the gospel as a rival proclamation against imperial power? Is that a surprising notion, or are you there already? In what ways do you find that provocative for your own life in Christ’s Church?

Friday, February 10, 2006

A.K.A. "Being Cool."

5 Epiphany
4 Hilary

Last night went for fish and chips with Brad before joining the teaching team for hOME to sort out what ought to be done with the lectionary readings for next month. Ooh, sermon planning.

Fish and chips good. Fried battered mars bar also good. Eating those things on the same day, very bad.

I was telling friends the other day about my opinion that the charismatic renewal and sacramental theology / Anglo-Catholicism are very close cousins. So should I walk into Wycliffe Hall and start laying hands on people, it would seem perfectly consistant to me that they would "fall down under the Power," and when they get back up again, rush into the chapel to build a tabernacle for the Blessed Sacrament, hit their knees, and start adoring.


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Thursday, February 09, 2006

I'm a little stressed...

... so today, I am the library nazi. When I hear your mobile phone ring on the next table over, and you start having a nice chat? You're gonna hear me tell you to take it outside. If you start having a friendly and energetic conversation near the computers in the back of the library, I'm going to tell you to shut up. Loudly. Impolitely. With colorful words. And I won't care if you're the english tutor.

Because I need peace and quiet while I read. And write blog posts.

And for something a little more constructive, go read Josh's creative re-working of Psalm 137.

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Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Five Things I Reject

5 Epiphany
4 Hilary

Now, surely you knew this one was coming.

Guilt-based religion. Jesus wants you to be the best you can be. Or he’ll be quite unhappy. Remember, Jesus loves winners. If we didn’t believe that and live and move and find out being in that, we wouldn’t try to hard to be and look spiritual.

Christ, have mercy.

Hating on the people who taught me Christianity
. I won’t do it. They introduced me to Jesus. So what if there’s a lot about Jesus and about being the Church that they didn’t understand? Like I’ve got this stuff wired? And come on, we’re big boys and girls now. We can make friends with whom we want, read whatever we like, and have our pick of spiritual directors. We’ve got a great big church and two thousand years of Christian history at our disposal, both the good and the evil. Let’s leave off our complaining that nobody dropped “a good way of being Christian” in our laps and rather do the hard work of discovering it ourselves. Take some responsibility. Come on, we’ll do it together.

Christ, have mercy.

Being a purveyor of religious goods and services
. The Church of Jesus Christ does not exist to meet a felt need in anybody’s life. The Church of Jesus Christ is God’s new community, the eschatological people of God who are experiencing together how God is saving the world. You want to count the cost, pay the price, and get on board with that, you are very welcome. If you want to hear a nice sermon, get some warm fuzzies and feel spiritual, do some yoga while you watch Joel Osteen on television.

Christ, have mercy.

An inclusive Church. Well, let’s define our terms. The worldwide, universal church is meant to include persons of every tribe, language and nation. It is inclusive in the sense that it is natural and sensible that there should be culturally distinct manifestations of the Church, and that everyone is eligible to be converted. But it is exclusive in that no one is meant to be part of it who seeks to shape the Church rather than be shaped by it. It is not a club, not a purveyor of religious goods and services, “equal opportunity” or otherwise. We are called and commanded to love the world. Calling people Christians when they have no intentions of being disciples is not loving. Refusing to let the world know that it’s the world is not loving.

Christ, have mercy.

Any and every last bit of pop theology that masquerades as wisdom about our life in Christ when in fact it destroys souls by eroding trust in God’s love and the hope in his promise that he really is saving us from death and darkness.

Gods who do not raise the dead must die.

Christ have mercy.

Will you say "Amen" to these things?

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Monday, February 06, 2006

Five Things I Believe and Trust

5 Epiphany
4 Hilary

I decided to take a cue from Abbot Creech, who likes to write short, provocative posts like this from time to time. Mind you, this installment and the next are intended to provoke thought, prayer and discussion, not wrath.

Jesus has saved and is saving the world. The new creation started in AD 33 when Jesus of Nazareth tried to take upon himself God’s chastisement of Israel, and got crushed between the unstoppable force of the Roman Empire and the immovable object of the Nation’s rebellion against the responsibilities of their “chosenness.” God raised him up, vindicating him, and initiated the same new life in everyone who’s been baptized into him.

Will you say "Amen"?

Holy Mother Church. Folks, we were baptized into the Body of Christ. It is in and through our mystical, sacramental, and nitty-gritty daily communion with Christ, and our brothers and sisters in that Communion, that God transforms us, re-makes us, and gives us new life. Jesus and his Church cannot be separated; his plan for our salvation – the remaking and redemption of our lives – is enacted through the life we share together. You step out of that, you refuse that, you short-circuit what God’s trying to do in you – and the people God wants to be with you. There is no salvation outside the Church.

Will you say "Amen"?

Spiritual Disciplines. As Eugene Peterson has said, “justification is by faith, but holiness is by discipline.” If we expect to see God’s healing in our lives, we must stop fighting it, and choose to actively cooperate in real, concrete ways. Let me repeat myself: that’s about creative cooperation with God, not keeping rules.

Will you say "Amen"?

The Eucharist. I had a very difficult church internship in Texas a couple of years ago. I was on difficult terms with the people I thought I was suppose to please. I didn’t understand their expectations, and I didn’t know how to deal with it. I didn’t believe in most of the things I was doing from day to day, and there was little opportunity for a relational ministry – though I did have a few good friends, it must be said. But I did believe in the Eucharist. I believe that in consuming the bread and wine, I’m taking a little more of the reality of the risen Christ into myself. I believe that he offers himself, broken and poured out, so that his brokenness heals mine. I believe that this sign and sacrament both expresses and contributes to the life we have together as the Church and the life we share with God.

Will you say "Amen"?

The Trinitarian God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, is completely, ridiculously, insensibly, crazy smitten in love with us. I believe in the life I share with my friends as God's eschatological community, and I believe in the forgiveness of sins, both what Christ offers, and our ministry of that to one another. I believe in healing.

Will you say "Amen"?

Pick out a point or five, and we'll chat about it some more.

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Sunday, February 05, 2006

Help Me Write

5th Sunday after the Epiphany
4 Hilary

So I have a question: what do evangelicals think "the church" is? Seriously, for the essay I'm writing. I'd like to ask my evangelical readers to tell me about what they think (or what they've been taught) that the church is, and what it means. We know the biblical metaphors: assembly, people of God, Body of Christ, et cetra. But what kind of things is one supposed to do with that?

I'm going to write my first long essay on "the church as mystical communion." Here's the catch: I want to write about it for evangelical Christians. I think we've typically had a very thin ecclesiology, and I think this way of seeing our common life can have a healthful and healing effect. So I'm working on seeing how the idea is grounded in Scripture, and how it teaches us to live in a different way. (That's why I've been reading all this stuff on character formation.)

I'm reading and writing on this because I think we need it. So I have a few questions you might think about. You're welcome to leave it as a comment, or to e-mail me if you're more comfortable. I'd greatly appreciate your contribution.
  1. What in your experience has been the most common metaphor used to describe the church?
  2. What have been the implications of your "native ecclesiology"? That is, is the church supposed to do something for you? Do you do something for it? Are you the church? How does the outside world relate to that?
  3. Have you accepted or rejected what you were taught about the church?
  4. What do you really think the church is? What do you hope that it is?
Thanks, everybody.

Friday, February 03, 2006

On Being in Seminary

4 Epiphany
3 Hilary
+Ansgar, Missionary

Not all of my readers can listen to podcasts, so I wanted to post a written version of my reflection on seminary from last week’s recording.

Why do people attend seminary? Lots of people go and complain that they didn’t learn how to be spiritual, or that they weren’t taught well enough how to “manage” the church. I can appreciate the former, but the latter is just gross. Sorry, kids. Presbyters of Christ’s Church are not meant to be glorified managers or business administrators. What do you want seminary to do? To make you holy? The Master of Divinity degree is no mark of holiness, or of even knowing the first thing about God, though this might surprise some of you. Do you know what most M.Divs know about? Growing churches.

God forbid.

I think that in education, one gets out of it a return on what one invests. Theological education is an investment, of sorts, one made with God, into God and the life of the Church. The whole experience should be about a holistic spiritual formation in the Christian faith so that one can be a teacher in turn. It’s about the health and development of souls, about whole persons, not getting more people to “get excited” about God – which is often just a code for the consumption of religious goods and services.

Check out this bit from Eugene Peterson in his “Seminary as a Place of Spiritual Formation” (1994), in Subversive Spirituality, ed. Marva Dawn, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997:
Spirituality, it seems, is not a function of place or curricula. I spent my formative years in my father’s butcher shop carving pork loins and grinding hamburger. This is where I learned much of the spirituality that I have been working out ever since. It has been supplemented, of course, challenged, corrected, redirected, developed, sidetracked, abandoned, and then taken up again. But that, and my mother’s prayers and presence provided the raw material that the holy spirit has been working with ever since. It took me a long time to recognize that rather simple and obvious fact, but once I did, I quit expecting either persons or institutions to provide for me what was already sitting in my back yard. And from the moment of that recognition, I was freed from a lot of grumbling and complaining in the wilderness. Seminary does not provide the materials for spiritual formation, but a particular condition in which the formation takes place for a relatively brief period of time.
I like that, because it’s about taking responsibility – taking responsibility for myself to live my life deeply invested in the community of God, and a holistic learning experience. I have been turned loose at a place where I have free reign of libraries, any number of Christian communities I might befriend, innumerable lectures, and some great tutors – I have all kinds of people and tools for learning at my disposal with which and with whom I can become involved to work out my salvation and priestly formation with fear and trembling.

Peterson also points out that words about God are not the same as speaking to God. What’s important is that in all the thinking about and talking about God, I’m doing it with other people, and that together we learn to listen to God and learn to talk to God. In that order. This should be a no-brainer, but it doesn’t seem to be that way with everybody.

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Wednesday, February 01, 2006

“I’m kind of good at this Christian thing.”

4 Epiphany
3 Hilary
Abbess Brigid of Ireland

No, really. Bear with me.

There is an attitude in popular evangelicalism that insists faithful Christians should consider themselves very bad and unfaithful disciples. I think this is a real problem. I have some good friends who believe they aren’t faithful Christians, though I believe – and this with a certain ferocity – that they are indeed good and faithful followers of Jesus. So what’s up?

I’m not entirely sure what this springs from, but it seems to be built on the notion that being a Christian is about being morally perfect, and perfect in general. If that’s what being a good Christian is, I think most of us aren’t.

Now, from the standpoint of the health and healing of souls, I must say that it’s a bad idea for people to go about thinking they’re terrible, and that Jesus somehow ratifies this judgment. So let me tell you a little about what I think it means to be a “good Christian,” or better yet, a faithful apprentice to Jesus.

For a start, it doesn’t have much to do with moral perfection. Indeed, if being a faithful Christian means being morally perfect, nobody can be a good Christian, ever, this side of the eschatological consummation (or you can call it “heaven,” if you like. Yes, that will do for the moment).
If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives.
I think I read that in a really funky book once (go check out Josh Hearne's translation work).

When we’re baptized into the Christlife, we’re given the responsibility to live in the fellowship of God’s church, and to welcome the ongoing transformation of our life into the image of Jesus. Paul’s letter to the Romans (chapter 6) characterizes Jesus as the “second Adam”: as we have been morally malformed and spiritually deadened through rebellion of our first parents, we are being transformed and made alive through the obedience of Jesus, God’s Christ. The great redemption project is about the restoration of us, and the restoration of all creation - the “catching up” of all life, and particularly all of human life and experience into the life of the Trinitarian God.

We cooperate in this by being together. We repent continually as we are brought to awareness of the rebellions in our lives, both large and small. We receive his healing as we become aware of, confess, and invite Jesus and his Church into the broken, lonely places of our lives. The natural and sacramental life of the community finds us caught up in the life of the Holy Trinity. Do we become moral? I don’t really care. I don’t know what that word means to you, but I do know that this makes us like Jesus. I think I can settle for that, too.

Jesus does call us to be “perfect.” Well, in the gospel of Matthew, the reading is “perfect;” when Luke tells the same story, Jesus tells us to “be compassionate.” In both stories, perfect/compassionate like “your Father in Heaven.” Do you know what that says to me? Be open. Be loving. Be continually transformed by the Gospel.

What can this look like? I was worshipping with friends at the beginning of Michaelmas, and we were discussing the praise of God. Someone asked (I’m not good at determining which questions are rhetorical), “Are we good at praising God?” Now, I know what the good, pious answer to such a question. I’m not new to evangelical Christianity. The good proper answer that one expects to hear in churches across the land is, “oh, we’re rubbish. We don’t praise God like we should.” So of course, without hesitation, I announced, “Yeah, I think I do alright.”

No, really. I have a little spiritual discipline. I tend to grumble and complain a bit to myself. Sometimes, I’ll even complain to the people around me (Ahem). But I have this little spiritual discipline. When I hear myself complaining in my internal monologue (and I do have one, I swear), I choose to give thanks for some blessing that I’ve overlooked in the midst of whatever has displeased me.

I’ve started to praise and thank God a lot.

I think I’m a “good Christian.” Not morally perfect. Not super-spiritual. It doesn’t mean that there aren’t big areas of my life in which I struggle to be obedient and to understand in the context of prayer. I’m not worried about being perfect. The Gospel’s not about that. I’m concerned with being a learner. I’m concerned with following Jesus more closely, and obeying his command to love, and learning to be holy. And I think that makes me a good Christian.

What do you think? Is the problem as big as I think? Is it a problem? Why do so many of us think this way? What does it mean to be a good Christian?