• Holy Saturday…A Festivus For The Rest Of Us



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    Life is lived between death and the hope to beat it. When the walls close in it’s always the impending power of death tapping, whispering, and on rare occasions, pounding on our shoulder. Death doesn’t need to shout. Death doesn’t need to strut. Every time we lose something, something we really cling to, death smiles. Whether it’s a job, a friend, a pet, a spouse, a child, a hope or a dream, when we lose it it’s as if death callously makes the maching chalkboard motion in the air “score one more for my team”.

    The only hope in the face of such overwhelming and unmatched odds is the death of God.

    On this Holy Saturday morning I spent some time re-reading sections of Alan Lewis’s masterful book on the subject. This quote was worth the time spent:

    …Easter Saturday determines not only how we handle our mortality as such, whether we are cowardly or courageous in the face of termination; it is also the measure of our maturity as individuals anywhere upon life’s spectrum. To be mature is not just to live authentically with decay, disease, and bodily death, but to be a person who at any age or stage has died already and so has been raised to life anew, and who keeps growing, through every age and stage, by learning more deeply how to die each day.

  • Why Do We Love What We Love?

    I’ve been re-reading Love Alone Is Credible, something I do somewhat regularly. It’s a short monograph about the Church’s perennial struggle to make the Gospel make sense. Von Balthasaar makes a great observation about the connection between what we love and what we find beautiful, which sets the stage for his understanding of revelation:

    Already in the realm, of nature, eros is the chosen place of beauty: whatever we love—no matter how profoundly or superficially we may love it—always appears radiant with glory; and whatever is objectively perceived as glorious—no matter how profoundly or superficially we experience it—does not penetrate into the onlooker except through the specificity of an eros. Both reciprocally related poles are transcended in the realm of revelation, wherein God’s kenotically condescending Logos expresses himself as Love, Agape, and thus as Glory.

     

  • Do Rules Help Us Change?

    One of the most challenging things about the spiritual life is progression. How do we change? What’s the key to transformation? How do we make and embrace rhythms that will foster the kind of growth we desire (or at least claim to desire). This is a problem for those who explicitly identify as religious and count themselves as members of religious communities and institutions. It’s also a problem for those who would identify as spiritual but not religious. Whether it’s body image and weight issues, general health, overcoming co-dependent tendencies or dealing with deleterious habits, the problem is the same: how do I embrace what I know is good for me, but hard, without being consumed by resentment or just becoming plain exhausted?

    Rules tend to not work very well. The problem is that the deepest transformations in our lives come from the inside out, not the other way around. We are creatures of desire and unless we desire the thing that is good for us we’re not likely to pursue it in any deep sustained fashion. You can make a law that prohibits theft or embezzlement, and it might stop someone from stealing, but the avarice or sense of entitlement that create the motivation to steal in the first place remain impervious to legislation. Hence Augustine’s famous prayer: “Lord command what you will and give me the grace to will what you command.”

    This passage in Frank Lake’s  Clinincal Theology is instructive here:

    When a man becomes related to the law by effort, instead of to the Lawgiver by affiance, related to the ethical demand but trying to satisfy it, instead of to God by trusting the satisfaction of Christ, related to the standards by discipline instead of to the Person by discipleship, he frequently ends up in depression. This is because the law of the Spirit of Life is not to be found in the law of self-effort, self-discipline, or will-power. The spirit of joy is the fruit of a life in loving relationships on the human level, and ultimately with Christ Jesus on the divine. In His concern for the truth of eternity, the Holy Spirit must withdraw Himself and His endowments from the man whose life is centered in regulations, especially religious regulations. Depression, and aridity as one of its cardinal symptoms, is a direct effect of disobedience to God’s law of life through-interpersonal-contact with His creatures.

     

     

     

  • The Most Prevalent American Heresy…The Danger of Confusing Heresy and Sin

    False doctrine corrupts the life of the Church at its source, and that is why doctrinal sin is more serious than moral. Those who rob the Church of the gospel deserve the ultimate penalty, whereas those who fail in morality have the gospel to help them.

    -Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship

    Roger Olsen, one of the deans of North American theology, recently posted some thoughts on the greatest heresy besetting the American Church. As a self-confessed theological nerd I clicked on the link with great anticipation. I was surprised at what I found.

    The heresy is a new one, not ever officially condemned by the Roman Catholic, Orthodox or Confessional Protestant churches. The sin is “repectabilism”.  Olsen defines it as follows:

    Can we give the heresy a name? I think so: the desire for respectability and domestication of the gospel and the church. If you need a single word, then I suggest “respectabilism.” We want our churches to be respectable.

    What is the sign that you are in a heretical church? Does your pastor not challenge you enough? Do the sermons not convince you that you’re living a godless lifestyle? If you are not afflicted in the sermons as much as you are comforted, you’re in a heretical church. Another sign that your church is beset with heresy is if it has a disproportionate number of businessmen on its board. Does your church rely on staff leadership for key roles in community life. This too is a sign of heresy. Does your pastor have an honorary doctorate, and is he or she called “Dr.” on your church’s signage or in your church’s literature? You’re probably in a heretical church.

    Generally in the past “heresy” has been a term reserved for ideas advocated by individuals or communities that so distort the story of the God of Israel revealed in and as Jesus Christ that those professing it can no longer really be seen as brothers and sisters in Christ. Sin doesn’t do this. Sin is us falling short of God’s glorious and lavish grace and love. But sin has been defeated in the cross of Christ. That redemption accomplished 2,000 years ago in the backwaters of the Roman Empire can be applied in the here and now and all things can be made new. Unless of course the good news of that grand old story can’t be told anymore because of doctrines and beliefs that so contradict it at the ideological level that there is no hope. This is why Bonhoeffer said that doctrinal sin is more serious than moral sin. Moral sin can be overcome by the Gospel. You get the doctrines wrong because of heresy, you’ve lost the source of life that can overcome the worst of failures. What Olsen calls heresy strikes me as sin.  Perhaps there is still hope for the American Church.

    During a period of severe depression I was watching a fundamentalist mega-church pastor on TV, one with whom I had numerous and deep theological differences. His church no doubt is heretical by Olsen’s standards, and thus no church at all. But I was so moved by his sermon that I called the hotline for prayer. The volunteer talked with me compassionately and patiently, prayed for me, then covenanted to continue praying for me for 40 days. I asked her to personally thank her pastor for me. Despite our deep disagreements, I realized just what a brother at that moment he was, because he graciously pointed me to our mutual heavenly Father.

    Tullian Tchividjian, a pastor in Florida, recently wrote an opinion piece in the Washington Post concerning the seeming decline of the church in our culture. His diagnosis is markedly different than Olsen’s, and his church’s size and staffing profile might land him in Olsen’s heretical category:

    Sadly, the church has not proven immune to performancism. An institution theoretically devoted to providing comfort to those in need is in trouble because it has embraced the same pressure-cooker we find everywhere else.In recent years, a handful of popular books have been published urging a more robust and radical expression of the Christian faith. I heartily amen the desire to take one’s faith seriously and demonstrate before the watching world a willingness to be more than just Sunday churchgoers. The unintended consequence of this push, however, is that we can give people the impression that Christianity is first and foremost about the sacrifices we make rather than the sacrifice Jesus made for us — our performance rather than his performance for us. The hub of Christianity is not “do something for Jesus.” The hub of Christianity is “Jesus has done everything for you.” And my fear is that too many people, both inside and outside the church, have heard our “do more, try harder” sermons and pleas for intensified devotion and concluded that the focus of the Christian faith is the work that we do instead of the work God has done for us in the person of Jesus.

    Furthermore, too many churches perpetuate the impression that Christianity is primarily concerned with morality. As my colleague David Zahl has written, “Christianity is not about good people getting better. It is about real people coping with their failure to be good.” The heart of the Christian faith is Good News not good behavior.When Sunday mornings become one more venue for performance evaluation, can you blame a person for wanting to stay at home?

    As someone who loves the church, I am saddened by the perception of Christianity as a vehicle of moral control and good behavior, rather than a haven for the discouraged and dying. It is high time for the church to remind our broken and burned out world that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is a one-way declaration that because Jesus was strong for you, you’re free to be weak; because Jesus won for you, you’re free to lose; because Jesus succeeded for you, you’re free to fail.

    Grace and rest and absolution with no new strings or anxieties attached now that would be a change in substance.

    Sin and idolatry will beset the Church until our future hope becomes the presence of one eternal day. Until then heresies threaten to cut us off from the source of living hope, while sin and idolatry provide the occasion to run into His open arms.

  • What is a person?

    “What is man that you are mindful of him?” asks the Psalmist. A little lower than the angels yet formed from the dust of the ground. So different than our mammalian counterparts, and yet perhaps so much more similar. Perhaps on one level the similarities seem to outweigh the differences, especially when we consider evolutionary biology and psychology. Yet what seems to make us different makes all the difference. Max Scheler argues that we are “spiritual beings” in some ways free from instincts, or at least free to regulate them in the interest of transcendent experiences, exercising a kind of “voluntary inhibition”.

    In The Logic of the Spirit, James Loder contends a vital mark of the human spirit is our relation to death:

    We will not let death have the last word. This is a mark of the human spirit that something in us knows we can overcome this thing. Death stops the heartbeat but does not quench the human spirit; its inherent logic tells us that there is a way to transcend and transform death, whether in suicide or in baptism, it is in hope of a better life. Even in the pathetic cry of the abused child, “If I die, then will you love me?” there is transcendence that wants to make use of death to achieve another higher end. “What is a lifetime, and why do I live it?” this cry arises out of the human spirit, sometimes in anguish, sometimes in awe-struck silence, but always a call to someone or some place beyond the self.

     

     

  • Why it’s O.K. to say it’s O.K.

    Years ago I become a member of a small but increasing tribe who rose up and began protesting the use of the word “O.K.”. We certainly didn’t want it removed from the English language. We just wanted it to stop being a substitute response to someone when facing someone who is confessing that they have  committed an offense and are seeking forgiveness. In this context, “it’s O.K.”  standing in for  the more proper “I forgive you”. “I forgive you” seems so much more powerful, more vulnerable, truer to the core than the slangish shorthand, “it’s O.K.”. Today I’m officially leaving the aforementioned tribe.

    I was researching the phrase “it’s O.K.” and found this bit online etymology:

    There have been numerous attempts to explain the emergence of this expression, which seems to have swept into popular use in the US during the mid-19th century. Most of them are pure speculation. It does not seem at all likely, from the linguistic and historical evidence, that it comes from the Scots expression och aye, the Greek ola kala (‘it is good’), the Choctaw Indian oke or okeh (‘it is so’), the French aux Cayes (‘from Cayes’, a port in Haiti with a reputation for good rum) or au quai (‘to the quay’, as supposedly used by French-speaking dockers), or the initials of a railway freight agent called Obediah Kelly who is said to have written them on documents he had checked.

    A more likely explanation is that the term originated as an abbreviation of orl korrekt , a jokey misspelling of ‘all correct’ which was current in the US in the 1830s. The oldest written references result from its use as a slogan by the Democratic party during the American Presidential election of 1840. Their candidate, President Martin Van Buren, was nicknamed ‘Old Kinderhook’ (after his birthplace in New York State), and his supporters formed the ‘OK Club’. This undoubtedly helped to popularize the term (though it did not get President Van Buren re-elected).

    The only other theory with at least a degree of plausibility is that the term originated among Black slaves of West African origin, and represents a word meaning ‘all right, yes indeed’ in various West African languages. Unfortunately, historical evidence enabling the origin of this expression to be finally and firmly established may be hard to unearth.

    The last definition “all right, yes indeed” seems inclusive in the best sense of the other possible original meanings. When we say “it’s O.K.” to someone that has wronged us, what we are saying in essence is that despite their present sense that everything is not alright, correct or in order, it is. We are performing a powerful act of deception that opens up the possibility to walk a truer path. The Christian tradition has called this “imputation”, a term that involves crediting something to someone’s account that they don’t have, but desperately need: righteousness. It’s at the heart of the story of every imperfect, fallen, faltering and fragile person that somehow starts anew.

    Saying “it’s O.K.” is a powerful statement that does not, if understood properly, subvert or end around the phrase “I forgive you”, but actually names the state of affairs the person seeking forgiveness most deeply desires. We all want to believe in the moment when we realize we need to seek forgiveness that the wrong doing and the pain and shame that it caused could somehow be wiped away and that things could be alright. We want things to be “O.K”, and they can be. It really can be O.K. Hearing that pronounced is like opening a gift two days before Christmas, or glimpsing a beautiful bride an hour before the wedding. It’s something that can bring the future into the present and begin the magic of making things alright.

  • Why are Millenials Leaving the Church…?

    In a recent post by Rachel Held Evans on CNN’s belief blog she addresses the question of why millenials are leaving the church. She contends the church often makes the mistake of seeking to be “more relevant”.

    Time and again, the assumption among Christian leaders, and evangelical leaders in particular, is that the key to drawing twenty-somethings back to church is simply to make a few style updates – edgier music, more casual services, a coffee shop in the fellowship hall, a pastor who wears skinny jeans, an updated Web site that includes online giving.

    This focus is a mistake. She cites the appeal of more traditional liturgical expressions of the faith found in Roman Catholicism, Orthodoxy and Anglicanism. Many millenials, like herself, are drawn into these communities because:

    the ancient forms of liturgy seem so unpretentious, so unconcerned with being “cool,” and we find that refreshingly authentic…What millennials really want from the church is not a change in style but a change in substance.

    She also cites the desire for an end to church based participation in the culture wars and greater tolerance and inclusivity on LGBT issues.

    If millenials are drawn to Rome and the East because of substance not style, then they want more traditional and conservative expressions of Christianity. The Catholic and Orthodox are more traditional on LBGT issues than most of their Protestant counterparts, certainly more so on participation of women in the full life and leadership of the church. They are also more authoritarian. And in the West these communions are aligning with conservative Protestants to stoke the fire of the culture wars rather than let the embers cool.

    Evans, like many evangelicals also fails to take cultural trends that make things like atheism attractive seriously, as Jeffrey Tayler points out in a recent piece for the Atlantic.

    The question of fidelity in the Church’s missionary, evangelistic and shepherding efforts is a crucial one. It might require more careful and reflective analysis.

     

  • The Gospel isn’t about us, it’s for us, but it also includes us.

    Reading more in Volume IV of Barth’s Church Dogmatics, in part 2. There Barth talks about the way that the Church is part of the totus Christus, or the whole Christ. It is popular today to talk about the Church as the extension of the Incarnation. Barth denies this, but doesn’t shy away for talking about the way the Church is included in Christ:

    Similarly the formula ἐν (Ἰησοῦ) Χριστῷ*, which is so common in the Pauline Epistles, indicates the place or sphere in which (determined absolutely by it) there takes place the divine working, creating and endowing which moves the apostle and his communities, and also the divine revealing, questioning, inviting and demanding, and the corresponding human thanking and thinking and speaking and believing and obeying. The ἐν Χριστῷ* denotes the place where the sancta* are proffered and the sancti* are engaged in the realisation of their communio* with them and therefore with one another. Jesus Christ is, and in His being the apostles and communities are. For this reason, directly or indirectly everything that is said about the being of Jesus Christ can be only an explication of the being of Jesus Christ, and everything that is said about the being of Jesus Christ applies directly or indirectly to the being of Christians. A single presupposition emerges, and for Paul and His communities this is not a hypothesis or theory (and therefore not a problem); in the light of Easter, and in a present because renewed confrontation with the revelation of Easter Day, it is as self-evident as the air which they breathe. For this presupposition is simply the fact that the crucified Jesus Christ lives. But He lives—and this is now the decisive point—as the totus Christus*. And this means that, although He lives also and primarily as the exalted Son of Man, at the right hand of the Father, in the hiddenness of God (with the life of Christians), at an inaccessible height above the world and the community, He does not live only there but lives too (in the power of His Holy Spirit poured out from there and working here) on earth and in world history, in the little communities at Thessalonica and Corinth and Philippi, in Galatia and at Rome. He does not live primarily in their knowledge and faith and prayer and confession, or in their Christian being, but as the place in which all this can and may and must and will happen, in which they are Christians; as the air which they breathe, the ground on which they stand and walk. As we are told in Jn. 15:4f., they have no being or life apart from Him, just as the branches are nothing apart from the vine but can only wither and be burned: “Without me ye can do nothing.” But they need not try to do anything without Him. He is the vine, and they are the branches.

  • Why The Gospel Is For Us But Not About Us

    Was doing some re-reading today in Barth’s Church Dogmatics IV.1. Barth is remarking on what it means for Christ’s work to be “for us”. He makes clear why the Church is not an extension of the Incarnation:

    But we must be careful that the strict “for us” that we have to do with here does not become a “with us” which unites our existence with that of Jesus Christ, in which He is simply the author and initiator of what has to be fulfilled in and through us on the same level, in His discipleship and in fellowship with Him, as though the redemptive happening which has to be proclaimed and believed under His name were something which embraces both Him and us. It is true that Jesus Christ is the fellow-man who goes before us as an example and shows us the way. It is true that there is a discipleship, a fellowship with Him, and therefore an existence of Christians. It is true that what took place in Him, the redemptive happening which has to be proclaimed and believed under His name, does embrace Christian existence and in a certain sense all human existence. But if we are to look and think and speak more precisely it is not a redemptive happening which embraces both Him and us, but the redemptive happening which embraces us in His existence, which takes us up into itself. He is the fellow-man who goes before us as an example and shows us the way because and in the power of the fact that He is “for us”: in a “for us” which cannot be equated with any “with us,” by which every conceivable “with us” is established—as it were from without, from which all discipleship must derive its meaning and its power. Discipleship, the being of the Christian with Him, rests on the presupposition and can be carried through only on the presupposition that Jesus Christ is in Himself “for us”—without our being with Him, without any fulfilment of our being either with or after Him—on the contrary (Rom. 5:6f.), even when we were without strength, godless, and enemies. He does not become “for us” when there is some self-fulfilment either with or after Him, but He is for us in Himself, quite independently of how we answer the question which is put to us of our fulfilment with or after Him. The event of redemption took place then and there in Him, and therefore “for us.” In Him, as that which p 230 took place then and there, it embraces us, it becomes the basis of fellowship, it calls us to discipleship, but not in such a way that it becomes an event of redemption only through our obedience to this call, or is not an event of redemption through our disobedience, but in such a way that as the event of redemption which took place for us in Him it always comes before the question of our obedience or disobedience, it is always in itself the event of redemption which took place for us, whatever may be our answer to that question.

    Barth, K., Bromiley, G. W., & Torrance, T. F. (2004). Church dogmatics, Volume IV: The doctrine of God, Part 1 (pp. 229–230). London: T&T Clark.

     

  • An Agnostic’s Appreciation Of An Evangelical Pastor

    By her mid 30′s Marian Evans was a major player in Victorian intellectual circles, writing regularly for The Westminster Review and translating important works of Feuerbach and Spinoza into English. For various reasons she used a pseudonym  ”George Eliot” when she undertook fiction writing. Born in 1804, she was raised in a nominal or “easy going” Anglican home, she had a period of deep evangelical Calvinistic conversion, but in the context still of the established Anglican church. By her mid 30′s she was an agnostic, but remained sympathetic to the Church at least in part. The following excerpt is from her “Scenes of a Clerical Life”. The book tells the story of three Anglican clergyman. The one mentioned in this passage is an establishment evangelical:

    The first condition of human goodness is something to love; the second, something to reverence. And this latter precious gift was brought to Milby by Mr. Tryan and Evangelicalism.

    Yes, the movement was good, though it had that mixture of folly and evil which often makes what is good an offence to feeble and fastidious minds, who want human actions and characters riddled through the sieve of their own ideas, before they can accord their sympathy or admiration. Such minds, I daresay, would have found Mr. Tryan’s character very much in need of that riddling process. The blessed work of helping the world forward, happily does not wait to be done by perfect men; and I should imagine that neither Luther nor John Bunyan, for example, would have satisfied the modern demand for an ideal hero, who believes nothing but what is true, feels nothing but what is exalted, and does nothing but what is graceful. The real heroes, of God’s making, are quite different: they have their natural heritage of love and conscience which they drew in with their mother’s milk; they know one or two of those deep spiritual truths which are only to be won by long wrestling with their own sins and their own sorrows; they have earned faith and strength so far as they have done genuine work; but the rest is dry barren theory, blank prejudice, vague hearsay. Their insight is blended with mere opinion; their sympathy is perhaps confined in narrow conduits of doctrine, instead of flowing forth with the freedom of a stream that blesses every weed in its course; obstinacy or self-assertion will often interfuse itself with their grandest impulses; and their very deeds of self-sacrifice are sometimes only the rebound of a passionate egoism. So it was with Mr. Tryan: and any one looking at him with the bird’s-eye glance of a critic might perhaps say that he made the mistake of identifying Christianity with a too narrow doctrinal system; that he saw God’s work too exclusively in antagonism to the world, the flesh, and the devil; that his intellectual culture was too limited—and so on; making Mr. Tryan the text for a wise discourse on the characteristics of the Evangelical school in his day.

    But I am not poised at that lofty height. I am on the level and in the press with him, as he struggles his way along the stony road, through the crowd of unloving fellow-men. He is stumbling, perhaps; his heart now beats fast with dread, now heavily with anguish; his eyes are sometimes dim with tears, which he makes haste to dash away; he pushes manfully on, with fluctuating faith and courage, with a sensitive failing body; at last he falls, the struggle is ended, and the crowd closes over the space he has left.

    George Eliot. Scenes of Clerical Life

     

     

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