Friday, April 28, 2006

Extremism -- the Ideology of the 21st Century

I've just started reading Jon Meacham's American Gospel, a book which I can already tell will be an important contribution to the ongoing conversation about the role of religion in the public square. I'll write more about the book itself in a later post.

What I wanted to share today is a quote that I think is an important descriptor of our age:

"If totalitarianism was the great problem of the
twentieth century, then extremism is, so far, the great problem of the twenty-first."

The Twentieth-Century was dominated by the likes of Hitler, Mussolini, Mao, Stalin, Tojo, people who brooked no dissent and tried to extend their power over every aspect of human life. You could say that this is the agenda of a Hussein or a Bin laden, but there is a difference.

There don't seem to be the same totalitarian impulses -- today its extremist ideologies, a polarization not seen in the previous century -- especially in the United States. Democrats and Republicans have always differed in their beliefs, but they could at least get along. That no longer seems to be true. The key to this extremism, I believe Meacham will demonstrate, is the role that religion plays in modern society. Instead of a glue to hold society together it is the centrifugal force that is forcing the basic elements of society apart. We need religion instead to be a force that builds bridges and cements elements of society together.

Friday, April 21, 2006

More on the DaVinci Code

I'm almost finished with the DaVinci Code and I must say, I'm not sure what all the fuss is about. It's an okay read, but to be on the best seller list for three years. I don't get it. Though Dan Brown insists the book isn't an attack on the Roman Catholic Church and insists on his own Christian faith, I'm not sure what to say. I'm a pretty open minded kind of guy, but I must confess I hate bad scholarship. Perhaps that's why I have as many problems with the book as I do. But still, the action doesn't move very fast. It will be interesting to see what Ron Howard does with the movie. If it spends as much time on esoterica as the book does (and usually gets it wrong), it will be the slowest movie on record. As one review of the book suggests, none of the characters grab you. You don't want them to die, but you really don't care about them.

I was going to write a column about the book and the movie, exploring the frenzy about the book. But now I think I'll focus on more important things. Harry Potter, now that was a book series worth talking about.

Monday, April 17, 2006

The Da Vinci Code and the Bible

I know I'm behind the times, but I'm finally reading the Da Vinci Code. I waited until the paperback came out at Costco. It's an interesting read, but I'm not sure about all the hype. I've read better. What is interesting is the emphasis on the "divine feminine" and the goddess. That seems to be a central theme -- that a patriarchal Christianity (and by extension Judaism) pushed aside the benign goddess worship of pre-Christian paganism. That debate, however must wait for another day. What I want to comment on is Dan Brown's use 0r misuse of the Bible.

There has been much made of late of the Gnostic Gospels. The recent publication of the Gospel of Judas follows in the wake of publications of the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Mary Magdalene. It is the contention of some that these gospels, not the ones in the New Testament are the true accounts of Jesus' life. Elaine Pagels and others have suggested that Irenaeus led the charge against the more "spiritual" Gnostic accounts. What I've never seen before though is the suggestion that Constantine compiled the Bible and had the earliest gospels burned, the gospels that taught that Jesus was a prophet and not Son of God. He suggests that until Constantine Christians didn't teach that Jesus was divine. My Ph.D. isn't in early Christianity, but I've studied enough this period to know that this is simply not true. In addition, the Gnostic gospels actually place greater emphasis on Jesus' divinity than do the canonical gospels.

My concern in all this isn't Dan Brown's total ignorance of biblical scholarship -- even the most liberal and minimalist of biblical scholarship -- but the fact that so many are reading this and with biblical literacy at an all time low, many are thinking this is fact. The problem with Brown's book is simply this -- it trusts shady pseudo-scholarship, such as that found in Holy Blood, Holy Grail, rather than true biblical scholarship. More could be said, but this must suffice for now. My warning -- Read and have fun, but don't believe everything you read therein!

Sunday, April 16, 2006

A Glorious Easter!

The Lenten journey has come to an end. We heard the call to bear the cross, but today we stop to ponder the glories of Easter. With Easter death is overcome and life reigns supreme. We wrestle with the questions of when life begins and the realities of what comes after death. But the question that confronts us on Easter morning concerns the realities of life between birth and death. Today was a great day. We gathered in church, ate breakfast, sang wonderful Easter hymns -- including "Up from the Grave He Arose." We said no to death and yes to life! I wrestled with the question of life in a column published today in the Lompoc Record. Take a look and consider life in all its fulness! Happy Easter

Friday, April 14, 2006

Good Friday

A Final Word from the Cross --
Luke 23:44-49

We have come to the end, to the final moments of Jesus' life. Who would have thought that Jesus would have ended his life this way, nailed to a cross, bleeding, and struggling to breathe? Think of what might have been, what great things he might have accomplished if he had lived. Now death was just moments away, the pain would be over soon, but so would the dreams, the possibilities, the opportunities. As he suffered physically, Jesus heard the taunts of the crowd. Many who had welcomed him into the city just a few days before with shouts of hosanna, now tossed insults at him. Where once the people saw him as the harbinger of a new order, now they saw him only as a lonely and defeated loser, and no one wants to follow a loser.
That is one interpretation of the scene, but Luke offers a different viewpoint. He shows us that the church knew about a different ending. For him Jesus' pending death is described in cosmic terms of judgment and vindication. The darkness that settles in at noon and covers the land until three stands as a sign of God's judgment. Then the veil of the temple, which blocked access to the holy of holies, was torn in two. What does this mean? Is it possible that in tearing open the veil God opened a way for all people to enter his presence? Yes, these signs served as cosmic reminders that God would vindicate the message and ministry of Jesus, which included opening the way for all people to enjoy the presence of God.

With the coming of these cosmic signs came the end of Jesus' earthly life. Having endured all that he could and having given all of himself for humanity, Jesus called out one last time to God, crying out: "Father into your hands I commend my Spirit" and then he breathed his last. There is no cry of abandonment here as there is in Mark, for in Luke we see only a sense of peace and fulfillment. In Jesus' words and actions we see the trust he put in God. He knew that God would receive his spirit, that this was not the end.

Written as a prayer, theologian Karl Rahner offers these words of reflection on Jesus' final breaths:

You give everything to Him who gave everything to You. You put everything into
the hands of Your Father without guarantee and without reservations. That is
doing a great deal, and it is a hard and bitter thing to do. All alone You had
to bear the burden of Your life: all men, their meanness, Your mission, Your
cross, failure and death. But now the time for enduring is past. Now You can put
everything and Yourself into the hands of the Father. Everything. Those hands
are so gentle and so sure. They are like the hands of a Mother. They embrace
Your soul as one would lift a little bird carefully and lovingly into his hands.

How do we respond to such a scene? What do we say, having seen Jesus die in this manner? Alan Culpepper writes that the "death of Jesus is a `thin place'," a place where the "separation between heaven and earth was very thin." Here on Golgotha we find one of those thin places. It is not a place of great beauty, but we see the thinness between the two realms in the conversation Jesus has with the Father, for "those who hear his prayers are moved to confession and contrition."2

Luke lifts up three different witnesses to these events. First, a Roman Centurion proclaimed Jesus innocent and righteous, offering confirmation to the previous verdicts of Pilate and Herod. Still, though he was innocent that was not enough to save his life. For in our own sinful rebellion, we chose to put him on the cross.

The crowds left the scene in mourning, beating their breasts. Though Luke does not record their words, their actions declare their grief and contrition. Alan Culpepper reminds us that we must also go home "beating our breasts with those whose hopes seemed to die there." Therefore it is "only by witnessing the darkness of his death and the despair of the loss of hope [that] we [can] fully appreciate the joy of the resurrection." (9:463).
Finally, on the periphery of the crowd we find Jesus' friends and family, including the women from Galilee. They stand at a distance, perhaps afraid of arrest, but they also are there to give a witness to their devotion to the one on the cross.

Together these three voices confirm that this man was no ordinary criminal, not even an ordinary person. Though they may not fully understand all that has happened, they recognize that they have been touched by the hand of God. How do we respond to the cross, those of us who already know the story of the resurrection? Luke calls us to stay awhile and take in this sight so that we may full enjoy the blessings of Easter. Therefore, may we pray to Jesus in these words of Karl Rahner:
Have mercy on me, Receive me into your love. And when I come to the end of my
pilgrimage, when the day begins to decline and the shadows of death surround
me, speak Your last word at the end of my life also: "Father into Your hands
I commend his spirit." O good Jesus. (59)

This is a sermon originally preached at a community Good Friday service. An updated booklet can be found at my website. Go to and click on my name -- from there go to My Sermons and you'll find the booklet. May this Good Friday draw you deep into the presence of our Lord.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Maundy Thursday

Today is Maundy Thursday -- In the gospel traditions it is the time in which Jesus shared his final Passover with his Disciples. It is fitting that Today marks Passover (though it began last evening and by the time we share in our acts of remembrance the Jewish community will have moved into the 2nd day of Passover Week). We will gather this evening around the Table of the Lord. We will share the story of Jesus' final supper, of his betrayal, and his final hours in the garden of Gethsemane. We will then move out into the night knowing that tomorrow we will share in the memory of his death on the cross. It is a day of communion!

Earlier today I shared in the funeral of Maude Bornand. Maude was a favorite of mine when I served FCC, Santa Barbara. She died at age 95, still on the go. She spoke her mind, but she never forgot you. I treasure the memories of our friendship. It is fitting that Maude was the means of my sharing for the first time in the life of that former congregation of mine. That Maude was an instrument of healing is not surprising. So, Maude, I want to say: Thank you!

Monday, April 10, 2006

Holy Week Begins

The journey has begun. Jesus has entered the city and now we wait to see what will happen. We who know the story, know that this is the final week for Jesus. He will challenge the ruling authorities, share a final meal, die the death of a rebel, and then be vindicated by God in his resurrection.

As we move toward Easter's glories, we must stop along the way to visit the cross. Jesus will utter his final words and be buried. But the tomb will not hold his body.

As I contemplate this week's events I'm reading through The Last Week: A Day-by-Day Account of Jesus's Final Week in Jerusalem, by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, (HarperSanFrancisco, 2006). Borg and Crossan walk us through the final days, giving historical pointers and spiritually affirming thoughts on this final week of our Lord's life.

Thursday, April 06, 2006


Today I learned of the death of a high school friend. I haven't seen Steve in these many years. He died after a routine ankle surgery. Nothing too major, and yet death came. It makes you stop and think. A person who was athletic and in good shape -- back then and assumedly today. And yet death took him.

It just goes to show you that life can be short. As they say make the most of the time you have. Don't put off until tomorrow what needs doing today. At least that's what they say. I guess I'll put off many things, but this is a reminder to treasure the moments -- especially with family.

This summer is our 30 year reunion. We're in our late 40's. We're still young, with lots of years ahead -- but maybe not.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Opening Day -- SF Giants

On a rainy day in April -- will the rain ever end -- the San Francisco Giants open their 2006 season in San Diego. Jason Schmidt will take the mound and the faithful live in hope that this will be the year. Three times since the Giants moved west, they have made it to the Series. Once I was too young to be a fan, but they almost did it. If only Bobby Richardson had been a bit further from the ball. Then in 1989 a great earthquake disrupted the Bay Bridge Series. I got to go to game 3 when it restarted. But the A's were too strong and too deep and Will and the gang went home empty. Finally in 2002 the wild card Giants had the wild card Angels (the Anaheim Angels then) but with a lead in game 6 and only 6 outs away from the championship, Rob Nen's arm fell apart and the Giants lost the game and eventually the series. So, will this be the year. Only time will tell.

Of course this year a cloud hangs over the proceedings. Our valiant slugger, Barry Bonds, is accused of cheating. He's just a few dingers away from the Babe and Hank is in his sights (that is if anyone pitches to him). Who knows how things will end up. Did he do the things he's accused of? It seems as if this is true, but then everything so far is circumstantial. I'm not naive, but I am a life long fan. So, I'll put on the blinders and root for the team! Because maybe 2006 will be the year.