Thursday, December 25, 2008

The Poor Sufferer

2In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3All went to their own towns to be registered. 4Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. (Lk. 2:1-7)

Why did God choose for the embodiment of the Logos a child born of a poor young woman? Why not someone wealthy and secure? If God is the Living God of Israel, the creator and initiator of all that was and is and will be then why not try and maximize the potential for impact and be incarnate in a human that would be the most easily respected and followed by the largest number of people?

I think the answer might lie in the reality of poverty and what poverty means, experientially, for one who is poor.

Of all humanity, the poor are more aware of suffering and consequently more apt to suffer in this world then the wealthy. Now, I don't mean to say that those not poor don't feel pain or loss or don't suffer for a time. But isn't there is a qualitative difference between the suffering of the poor and those who are not? This is also not to say that the poor always suffer either. But it is to say that the poor are more acutely affected by suffering since it is very near them (the vagaries of the world being what they are).

This then reveals the goodness of God and the Good News that is Jesus Christ and why we wait during advent for his birth. After thousands of years, God's chosen people were not the people that God intended and there didn't seem to be much chance that it would change.

In short they were sinful.

So in a move that every parent surely must recognize, God choose a different method all together.

God became human.

But not just human. God experience humanity through suffering and reconcile humanity through that suffering. In Jesus, God experienced the nuance that is humanity in all its beauty and ugliness. As the author of Hebrews writes:
15For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. (Heb. 4:15 italics mine)

So this then gives God an experience into humanity that is possible no other way. God was one of us! God experienced the whole range of humanity. Moreover, the incarnation of God as human then gives us an insight into who he is. But not just an insight but the reality of God.

No other religion that I'm aware of has God becoming human as Jesus does. And for our salvations no less! To reconcile us to him. To experience God not as a distant idea but as a real live human being that we can relate to in ways the old Israelites never could with the God of the Old Testament. And to show fully the love of God in Jesus. In the end it couldn't be someone of wealth or power or prestige because that would have limited the extent to which God became, and experienced, humanity. It would have also limited us in our understanding of God and and his love for us and his love for all humankind.

Venite Adoremus Dominum.

Friday, November 21, 2008


Maybe it's only me who sees this but why is it that the most contentious times in the church happens just before Advent? This post title is a link to a Richard John Neuhaus article on First Things about, yes you guessed it, abortion. Our president elect is not even sworn in and the battle lines are being drawn.

What galls me so is that "pro-life" folks aren't so much pro-life as pro-prenatal-life. But I hear little or nothing on what we as a society do once the baby has passed the birth canal. If even a 10th of the effort to ban abortion was spent on helping setup and fund programs for mothers of these children abortion would be much less prevalent than it is now. But we can't do that. It would be legitimatizing premarital sex. Great strategy. How this lessens the incidents of abortion I can't fathom.

The great shame of all this is that these culture wars will never end. No matter the outcome, one side will be aggrieved and retrench for a counter attack. It. will. never. end.

What's frustrating is that I agree with Neuhaus that the church is a community within a community and has a particular role to play that is separate from and unique to the society that it lives in. Maybe this means that we rededicate ourselves to those issues where we do have common interest: helping the poor, the heavy of heart, the sick, prisoners, the elderly, etc.. At least these are issues that Christ commanded us to address.

Unfortunately, it's fairly obvious that the battle lines have been drawn and martyrdom awaits the faithful. Retrenchment seems the order of the day.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Default Setting

If you click on the title of this post you will get to read a commencement address that the now deceased author David Foster Wallace gave in 2005 that a church friend of mine emailed to me. Up until Wallace's death I didn't know him from Adam and I couldn't understand what all the fuss was about. Now I think I might understand a little bit better. I'll give my quick opinion in the hopes that you will read the address afterwards since it is quite good. Actually, go read it now. I'll wait.....

Done? Good.

So, the theme of the address was that our natural disposition is to think only of ourselves; to think we are the center of everything (self-centered, self referential); that this condition is our *default setting*. This is not so earth shattering. However he goes on to say that our ability to think outside of this default setting -- the key act of making a choice in how to see the world and those in it -- is the hallmark of the mature adult life. It's this ability that makes a life worth living. He also goes on to say that everybody worships something. The question is *what* we worship. We have a choice in what to worship. Again, the default setting is to worship ourselves (or something that relates to only us) and so be absorbed in ourselves that we think of nothing else. Luther would call this navel gazing.

Wallace's take on how we treat others struck a cord with me because this is exactly how I've lived most of my adult life. If asked, I wouldn't have been as clever as Wallace describing it but I would have said something to the same affect.

A couple of thoughts about this address from a Christian perspective:

This default setting is, in fact, nothing but the consequence of humanities fall from grace; that
is sin and death.

Even the mundane events of everyday life can be just as challenging and rewarding for a Christian as great feats of faith but it's a matter of seeing all of God's creation as worthy of respect. Even if they don't deserve it.

We get to choose the path of sin and death or of righteousness and life -- that is belief in Christ Jesus as our salvation from this default setting.

This choosing for a Christian is: to pick up our cross, deny ourselves the lazy and sinful path of the default setting and follow the path our Lord made for us. This is the call of discipleship.

It alway surprises me when I come across stuff like this. You never know where the most helpful insights into faith will come from.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Truth, discipleship and signage

Every day on my drive to work I pass an auto repair shop. This shop has a sign out front that, I'm sure, was built ostensibly for advertisement. However, the owner of this shop has grander aspirations. Instead of the normal (and thoroughly mundane but completely expected) "Buy 2 tires, get the second pair 30% off" or "Car running rough? 15% off summer tune-up through the 31st", this owner shows modern day proverbs; some witty, some sentimental, some inspirational, but some actually thought provoking. It's to the last category that the current message falls under:

"The Truth that sets us free is the Truth that we prefer not to hear"

Is it pithy? Yes. But as pithy sayings go, that one isn't all that bad; certainly not bad compared to the others I've read. I did find it a bit odd for something so obviously religious, so obviously Christian, to be on the signage of this auto repair shop. Most of the proverbs shown are of the non-denominational, inspirational variety. I guess when you own your own shop you can choose whatever saying you want (thank-you-very-much).

The first question is: what "Truth" is the sign referring to? Let say, for the sake of argument, it is the the only truth that sets us free: Jesus Christ. The next question is: why do we prefer not to hear it?

As I mentioned in my previous post that I'm reading two books (see side bar on right, half way down the page) about discipleship; Bonhoeffer's "Discipleship" and Augsburger's "Dissident Discipleship". The former is from a Lutheran perspective, the latter from a reformed/Anabaptist perspective. Both books are challenging for different reasons. Not surprisingly, Bonhoeffer's book is the more theological book even though Augsburger is, I believe, a theologian. Bonhoeffer is very clear on what "discipleship" means. He says:

Discipleship is commitment to Christ. Because Christ exists, he must be followed. An idea about Christ, a doctrinal system, a general religious recognition of grace or forgiveness of sins does not require discipleship. In truth, it even excludes discipleship; it is inimical to it. One enters into a relationship with an idea by way of knowledge, enthusiasm, perhaps even by carrying it out, but never by personal obedient discipleship. Christianity without the living Jesus Christ remains necessarily a Christianity without discipleship; and Christianity without discipleship is always a Christianity without Jesus Christ. It is an idea, a myth. A Christianity in which there is only God the Father, but not Christ as a living Son actually cancels discipleship. In that case there will be trust in God, but not discipleship. God's Son became human, he is the mediator --that is why discipleship is the right relation to him. Discipleship is bound to the mediator, and wherever discipleship is rightly spoken of, there the mediator, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is intended. Only the mediator, the God-human, can call to discipleship.
Discipleship without Jesus Christ is choosing one's own path. It could be an ideal path or a martyr's path, but it is without the promise. Jesus will reject it.

There it is. Bonhoeffer cuts through all the noise and focuses squarely on what being Christian is all about. The last sentence is a doosie and is the truth that we don't want to hear. Discipleship requires letting go of our attachments to everything but Jesus Christ. This was difficult for the rich man and is no different for us today. It's difficult for me. It requires a radical attachment to Jesus that is at odds with the world and what the world thinks is proper or rational or just or correct. And if we follow the world it will be without the promise and Jesus will reject it.

Augsburger defines this discipleship as "tripolar" spirituality. Which is love of self, love of God and love of neighbor. He goes on to say:
In tripolar spirituality, we come to know Christ through participation in the practices of discipleship that express love of others...

And one of these practices is "Radical Attachement". This is radical attachement to Jesus of the gospels. Augsburger quotes Jurgen Moltman from his book "The Crucified God" to discribe what this radical attachement means:

To be radical, of course, means to seize a matter at its roots. Radical Christian faith can only mean committing oneself without reserve to the "crucified God." This is dangerous. It does not promise the confirmation of one's own conceptions, hopes and good intentions. It promises first of all the pain of repentance and of fundamental change. It offers no recipe for success. But brings a confrontation with the truth. It is not positive and constructive, but is in the first instance crititcal and destructive. It does not bring man into better harmony with himself and his environment, but into contradiction with himself and his environment. It makes him "homeless" and "rootless," and liberates him in following Christ who was homeless and rootless. "The religion of the cross," if faith on this basis can ever be so called, does not elevate and edify in the usual sense, but scandalizes; and most of all it scandalizes one's "co-religionists" in one's own circle.... It alienates alienated men, who have come to terms with alienation."

That's a hard pill to swallow isn't it. No wonder this Truth is something we prefer not to hear. But reading that quote from Moltman, one couldn't be faulted for saying "Well, how the hell am I suppose to follow that advice?!" Augsburger has an answer that I find quite helpful:

We can embrace Jesus as an experiential model with existential impact, as a historical mentor-story with textual authority, or as a theological Christ figure with rational conceptual coherence. Or we can encounter him as a contemporary presence in a believing community --that is, an imitating, participating community. Participation is a communal awareness of Christ in our midst; it is a liturgical recognition and celebration of his presence; it is a mystical moment of awe that an Other is undeniably here; it is an ethical experience of discerning together God's intentions for us; it is an encounter with a Third who walks with any two disciples as living presence; it is a deep, settled conviction that we are invited to continue his work in faithful extension of his way of being; it is discovering that we can be fully human as we follow him yet that we can imitate and participate in the Divine; it is revisualizing every encounter with human need as an opportunity to serve Christ....

So, in the end, the Truth that we prefer not to hear is not heard by the world because it requires of the world discipleship and as Bonhoeffer, Moltmann have said that requires giving up our desires for Christ, in obedience to Christ for his sake alone. However, as Augsburger said, we are to do this, not alone, but in community with our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, our believing community where the presence of Christ can be heard, tasted, and felt.

Friday, June 27, 2008

The Summons

Below is the text of a hymn that was sung last week at my church. It's a wonderful experience to discover a new hymn that not only has a good tune but spirit-filled words. Our rendition of this hymn could have been tooth-achingly sacarine but thanks to our wonderful cantor it didn't stoop to sentimental pathos. Which is good because Lutherans don't do pathos.

If I wasn't a believer it would be ironic that we sang this hymn at the same time as I'm reading two books about discipleship (see side bar to your right). But the Spirit moves in mysterious ways.

"To sing is to pray twice." -- St. Augustine.

1. Will you come and follow me if I but call your name?
Will you go where you don't know and never be the same?
Will you let my love be shown? Will you let my name be known,
will you let my life be grown in you and you in me?

2. Will you leave yourself behind if I but call your name?
Will you care for cruel and kind and never be the same?
Will you risk the hostile stare should your life attract or scare?
Will you let me answer prayer in you and you in me?

3. Will you let the blinded see if I but call your name?
Will you set the prisoners free and never be the same?
Will you kiss the leper clean and do such as this unseen,
and admit to what I mean in you and you in me?

4. Will you love the "you" you hide if I but call your name?
Will you quell the fear inside and never be the same?
Will you use the faith you've found to reshape the world around,
through my sight and touch and sound in you and you in me?

5. Lord your summons echoes true when you but call my name.
Let me turn and follow you and never be the same.
In Your company I'll go where Your love and footsteps show.
Thus I'll move and live and grow in you and you in me.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Liturgical snoozing...

The muse -- she's a no like a me....

That's my only excuse and I'm sticking with it.

Anyhoo, my brother's first child was baptized to Sunday ago at a church who's name will remain hidden. All I'll say is that it's a *very* large Lutheran congregation. The service (one of many) started at 11:00 a.m. and as is typical for my family we were running late. Turns out that it was only 5 minutes late. No problem I say to myself, we'll participate for most of it.


Five minutes late means that 1/2 of the service was complete. I'm not joking here. By the time we sat down it was practically over. Military precision is the operative word here; from the phalanx of men to collect the offering to the homily to the abbreviated hymns to the truncated liturgy, everything was on a strict timetable.

The same can't be said for the baptism. This was the definition of loose and unstructured. The order of service for baptism from the ELW was used but the way it was presided was the antithesis of the precision of the service before it. One would have thought that more planning could have gone into it. Maybe the number of baptisms precludes this. I can kind of understand having the baptisms after a main service in a church of this size but to be this free-form was a little sad.

The question I kept asking myself was: Is this really the best that Lutheranism has to offer? All of what differentiates a Lutheran worship from, say, a Methodist or Presbyterian service have been removed. And Lutherans wonder why membership rosters are shrinking! At the risk of sounding like a one-trick-pony, Lutherans must, for the health of their denomination, understand the tradition and heritage from which they come and to which they owe a great debit. Services like last Sunday's are really a shame. So much unrealized potential.

I've been reading the new translation of Bonhoeffers seminal book "Discipleship". It's a theological tour de force that all Christians should read. The first chapter is about "cheap grace" which, according to Bonhoeffer, is "grace" that is a theological principle or presupposition that comes before faith or discipleship; not the pure grace that is a consequence of a life of following Jesus. I wonder if Protestant worship is a symptom of this "cheap grace". A worship that asks nothing from you and that gives nothing back but platitudes. More on Bonhoeffer latter.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Like a sponge.

For the last 5-6 months a number of my fellow parishioners have been meeting and discussing the Gospel of Matthew. Last Sunday the pericope was Matthew 5:38-42:

38 ‘You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” 39But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 42Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

Our group had a very interesting discussion about what that passage means for us; both ideological and practical. How much does one resist? Can one resist ones government if they are doing evil? Should one expect that by following this instruction of Jesus that we can show others the faith or should we just expect possible abuse -- even possible death? The leader of our discussion had a wonderful analogy: we are to be like a sponge that absorbs hatred, anger, etc, and by doing so stops its energy/movement.

As an example, please listen to this.

Mr. Diaz is a good, practical example of what Christians ought to do. Did he fear for his life? I'm sure he did. Could he have been knifed? Most assuredly. But he risked it because even his attacker is created in the image of God and is worthy of this sacrifice. I pray that I would be even half as courageous as Mr. Diaz.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Oh, Fill us Lord...

In my last post, a question was asked about what I meant when I wrote about liturgy as: "Some days are good, some not so good."

So, if you'll allow me a little leeway, I'll try to explain in a roundabout way via something that happened at church this morning:

Now all the vault of heav'n resounds
in praise of love that still abounds:
"Christ has triumphed! He is living!"
Sing, choirs of angles, loud and clear!
Repeat their song of glory here:
"Christ has triumphed! He is living!"
Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!

Eternal is the gift he brings,
therefore our heart with rapture sings:
"Christ has triumphed! He is living!"
Now still he comes to give us life
and by his presence stills all strife.
"Christ has triumphed! He is living!"
Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!

Oh, fill us, Lord, with dauntless love;
set heart and will on things above
that we conquer through your triumph;
grant grace sufficient for life's day
that by our lives we truly say:
"Christ has triumphed! He is living!"
Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!

Adoring praises now we bring
and with the heav'nly blessed sing:
"Christ has triumphed! Alleluia!"
Be to the Father, and our Lord,
to Spirit blest, most holy God,
all the glory, never ending!
Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!

Emotionally speaking I'm very low maintenance but I choked up on that third verse. That one verse sums up, with frightening clarity, my Christian vocation. Coupled with a beautiful (and well known) tune it was a powerful moment that is special because of its rarity. Made all the more powerful because the liturgy
set the stage. Like the setting of a precious gem, the liturgy should focus all our attention to the gem that is the Triune God and the means by which we know the Trinity: Baptism, Eucharist, and the Word (though not technically a sacrament seems to function like one). So when I say that some days are good (liturgically speaking), I mean days like today. It was good.

Alas, not every Mass is this good. For various reasons, some of the liturgical settings (there are ten of them!) in the ELW seem to be lacking. Unlike the Orthodox Divine Liturgy or the Roman Missal, Lutherans have more choice in liturgical settings. And with more choice comes more responsibility. Maybe this choice is our (Lutherans) cross to bear. Maybe this is God's way of showing us what is, and is not, right and salutary. I'd like to think so. I'm sure that in the fullness of time, consensus will emerge amongst worship leaders in the ELCA on which settings do the job, and which are dross. I am hopeful. The Spirit will guide us as always. In the mean time, I'll enjoy those Sundays when the liturgy is not just the liturgy but becomes that which moves us towards God.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Faith of our Fathers Lutheran Colloquium

A friend of mine who is going through the Orthodox catecheses shared a web page on a Lutheran to Orthodox colloquium which I have linked to the title of this posting. So far I've listen to:

The Church in Orthodoxy: Scratching the Surface



They are both quite interesting. In a nutshell both describe their spiritual movement from Lutheranism to Orthodoxy; the former stresses the ecclesial nature of the Orthodoxy church (i.e. the role of Bishop), the latter about the OC understanding of the hallowed Lutheran topic of justification. Not so surprisingly, both stress the importance of the liturgy in the life of the church. Coming as I do from a Lutheran church that actually does liturgy, it struck me that neither speaker had much of a rich liturgical experience when in Lutheranism. Of course I can only speculate as to the extent of their liturgical worship life, but if it's what passes as liturgy in the Lutheran church these days I'll bet it wasn't much.

As I said, my church does liturgy. For all of its faults at least in this case it has it right. Some Sundays are good; some not so good. But at least we live out our fellowship of, and worship in, Christ *through* the liturgy and don't try to water it down. Much has been said of the importance of liturgy in the Orthodox and Catholic traditions, but not much has been said about its importance in the Lutheran, much less, Protestant tradition. What a shame. No wonder people search and search for genuine spirituality; they get little of it from most church worship services. What an opportunity for the church! Maybe this explains the movement from Protestantism to Orthodoxy and Catholicism?

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Of Sin and Death

One of the vexing problems of the Church in its mission to preach the Gospel is the issue of sin, the consequences of sin, and the role of the man Jesus of Nazareth regarding this sin. If you have read any of my other postings you may have read that I think the various doctrines of atonement -- i.e. the Augustinian view of original sin and what Jesus did on the cross to atone for that sin -- to be the biggest barrier to evangelism. Later theologians (Anselm, Abelard, and Aquinas) modified St. Augustine's view of original sin but it all starts from his doctrine.

The question is always: If God is infinitely good and is love (and loves his creation), how is it that he would sacrifice his Son to expiate a sin that we didn't commit. Moreover, how was it necessary for God to appease his own sense of honor (per Anselm) with his own beloved Son? etc, etc. These are just some of the questions that non-believers (Agnostic or otherwise) have when the Good News is preached. And it all comes back to original sin.

All of this is introduction to the document that I have just read and that I commend for your edification. The title is "Ancestral Versus Original Sin: An Overview with Implications for Psychotherapy" and I feel it's not only excellent resource about sin for any Christian but in particular for Lutherans. I'm coming to the conclusion that Luther was closer to Orthodoxy as a basis for his theology than previously thought (yes, the Finnish school of Luther study has affected me. To the good I might add).

One thing I've noticed while reading about Lutheran history is that the founding fathers of Lutheranism were very concerned about "innovations" to the faith. The arguments leading up to the writing of the Formula of Concord were debated among the various followers of Luther (all laying claim to the true/pure teachings of Fr. Martin), and it seems that those theologians who "innovated", i.e. created new doctrine (or doctrine which was felt to be new) -- whether heretical or orthodox -- were chastised and said doctrine rejected; in some cases rightly so. However, it seems to me that this might have been an easy way to maintain control over doctrine that wasn't from the western tradition. Because of this, theologies from other Christian traditions seem foreign to us westerners. I say this because I don't think this paper is such an innovation since this paper is, by definition, Orthodox. But I'll leave that for you to decide.

Please click on the post title above for the PDF document and let me know your thoughts.

Note (2008/01/12): A number of edits have been made to fix sloppy terminology (and thinking).