Sunday, November 30, 2008

Cultural Context -- A Source for Doing Theology

When we think about God, what informs our thinking? What resources do we rely upon? As a Christian, I would say I turn to Scripture. But as important as Scripture might be to my understanding of God, is that all that I bring to the table?

John Wesley's Quadrilateral is often appealed to as a foundation for doing theology -- Scripture/Revelation, Tradition, Reason, and Experience. My own tradition has placed great emphasis, especially in its earliest years on Scripture and Reason. Ours was a reasonable faith -- as should be expected of a tradition informed by John Locke and Scottish Common Sense Realism. We've been suspicious of experience, especially that of the exuberant kind. As for Tradition, well, we've always prided ourselves on being non-creedal (though to be honest, it was a non-creedalism in the sense that creeds have not been made tests of fellowship). That being said, we bring our history, our experience, and yes our rationality to our engagement not just with Scripture, but to our encounter with God.

But what might culture add to the conversation? Chalice Press has issued a most significant theological work for the Disciples of Christ. Entitled Chalice Introduction to Disciples Theology (edited by Peter Goodwin Heltzel it was published this fall -- 2008). This book, of which I'll be saying more about in the coming weeks and months, raises cultural issues. It reminds us that we live in a post-colonial world and a multi-cultural nation. Things have changed, and we must take these changes into context.

In a chapter written by Peter Heltzel and Don Browning entitled: "Practicing Reconciliation: A Methodological Proposal," we are confronted with the issue of culture and its impact on how we do theology and practice our faith. They rely on Hans-George Gadamer's work on hermeneutics for their proposal.

So, what is theology?

"Theology is a practical discipline, an ongoing conversation between human others who worshipfully engage the Divine Other. Human truth entails going beyond a simple mechanistic account of human affairs. Gadamer notes: "According to Kierkegaard, it is the other who breaks into my ego-centeredness and gives me something to understand. This Kierkegaardian motif guided me from the beginning." This transcendence is based on the Divine Other that breaks into human reality through the human other giving us a subject and context to understand. In order to understand the subject in front of us embodied in the face of the other, we need to have a conversation. The gospel moment in our three-step practical theology [gospel, historical, constructive] looks in two directions at once -- first, trying to describe, interpret, and understand the human other in her or his context and second, trying to describe, interpret, and understand the Divine Other, mediated in history, that is the foundation of both other and self. This threefold practical interpretive process is naive and impressionistic in its first phase and must be tested and matured through historical theology and constructive-strategic amplification. This is why practical theology, in its first gospel step in both confessional and descriptive modes, should be humble. Faith's first impressions have not be tested. (Chalice Introduction to Disciples Theology, Chalice Press, 2008, p. 76).

Don Browning is well known for his explorations and development of practical theology, which I don't want to go into at this moment. The question I want to raise concerns the necessity to take into consideration the context in which we live -- the situation that we find ourselves in and how that influences how we see God. Feminist, Liberationist, and other formulations ask us to consider life experience as a foundational piece in doing theology. Experience tends to be personal, but context is communal.

I welcome your thoughts on this idea that we should consider our cultural context in our act of doing theology.

Advent Hope

This is the first Sunday of Advent, a day on which we light the candle of Hope. As we light this candle we begin our journey forward toward lighting that final candle, Christ Candle. But even as we light that candle a month from now, it is only a provisional voice.

Jurgen Moltmann is known for his development of a Theology of Hope. As we consider today what hope entails, perhaps this word might provide some foundation for our conversation.

For a Christian theology of hope, this hope is not a modern phenomenon which must be interpreted religiously, but the subject and the motivation of theology itself. It is not grounded in optimism, but in faith. It is not a theology about hope, but a theology growing out of hope in God. These promises of God have been incarnated in the promissory history of Israel and in the promissory history of Jesus of Nazareth. The writings of the Old and New Testament comprise the history book of God's promises. The Bible tells the story of God's hope which will be fulfilled in the whole world. It does not relate its story in the manner of a teller of fairytales -- "once upon a time . . . " -- or of a modern historian who wants to know how it "really was then" (Ranke). It recounts the past in such a way that through it a new future and freedom for the hearers are inaugurated. It reveals the future in the past and makes God's hope present by means of the remembrance of his historical association with Israel, the covenant, and with Jesus Christ, the incarnation. It recounts the story of the anticipations of God's future in this past a matter of real concern again. (Jurgen Moltmann, The Experiment Hope, Fortress Press, 1975, p. 45).

To walk in hope, as a Christian, is not simply to be optimistic. Instead, it is to live with a sense of purpose, knowing that we walk in the presence of the living God revealed in the person of Jesus Christ. With that sense of purpose, we light the first candle of Advent.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Beyond Tolerance -- Review

BEYOND TOLERANCE: Searching for Interfaith Understanding in America. New York: Viking, 2008. xxxviii + 218 pages.

The Niebuhr name carries tremendous weight, and so when the grandson of H. Richard and grandnephew of Reinhold writes a book on interfaith understanding, it’s worth paying attention to what is said. Gustav Niebuhr, a former New York Times religion writer and now a professor religion and public communication at Syracuse University has tackled one of the most vexing issues of our time. That issue is the place of religion in public life. More specifically, the relationships between religious communities in an increasingly pluralistic America.

The commitment to interfaith understanding that permeates this important book is traced back to his grandfather, who sought to unite denominations, and his great-uncle, who spoke out in the 1930s against targeting Jews for conversion. As a journalist he faced a profession that often conflated religion “with a spiritual militancy (conservatism is not the right word).” (p. xii). With this background, Niebuhr looks at the present situation, notes the growing tensions in America and around the world that center on religion and seeks to put things in a better light so that increased communication can take place. The goal, in the end, is peace and security for all. That said, he expresses interest in efforts, large and small, to build interfaith networks – like Eboo Patel’s Interfaith Youth Core – that seek to cross boundaries that can be explosive. This task is complicated by a lack of knowledge of other religions. In this he seconds the suggestions of Stephen Prothero for the teaching of religion in our schools, with the purpose of forming better citizens.

Religious differences often are triggers for hatred, separatism, and violence. But, these differences, if taken into proper account, can be a means of forging peace in the world. Crossing boundaries doesn’t mean erasing differences. It’s not simply that we go looking for the least common denominator, but if we are willing to affirm each other’s common humanity and desire to know the sacred, then we can begin looking at each other’s differences in a new way. This task requires that we move beyond mere tolerance – thus the title of the book. Instead, we must move to a point of mutual respect. It is normal to privilege one’s own religious group, but is it necessary to see total darkness in the others? Indeed, we can follow the example of Martin Luther King, who not only learned nonviolence from Gandhi’s example, but he was influenced in his stance against the Vietnam War by Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh.

This is a post 9-11 book. Since 9-11 there has been increased interest in other religious traditions, especially with regard to Islam. Although there has been increased alienation and violence toward Muslims, there have also been wonderful examples of non-Muslims reaching out to protect and speak out on behalf of Muslims in America. These efforts stand in contrast to our own nation’s War on Terror. These efforts are expressions of the best that is our nation. They express the vision of the Founders, who seemed to intuitively understand that religious diversity would lead to religious freedom. That diversity has been on the increase since the beginning of the 19th century, and even more so since the 1960s when restrictions on immigration, especially from Asia, were lifted. This decision has led to increased numbers of Muslims and Hindus in America. Even as the nation was beginning to diversify, religious communities were also beginning to look outward. Vatican II offered an open hand to other religious traditions, noting that God could be seen within their communities. The National Council of Churches followed up on that effort, adding to the increased openness to others. This is an expression of civic value.

As the National Council of Churches statement issued prior to 9-11 put it, the diversity of American religious practice is part of our landscape. It is, the statement suggested, the duty of Christians to discern God’s image in this spectrum of human life. Each is a “unique creation of the living God.” Niebuhr’s comment:

“In one way or another, that realization was acted out by people in various places in the United States in the immediate wake of 9/11. Once can read a theological meaning into it, or one can simply identify its civic value – those constructive acts demonstrated a belief in a common society that incorporates differences, that values life by valuing individual lives.” (pp. 34-35).

To do this we must reject the message of the fear monger and the terrorist.

The post 9-11 world is one of fear and distrust, which has led to violence. Indeed, the War on Terror – just the way it is configured – has contributed to this perspective. For, in this quest for victory, who is the enemy? In the minds of many Americans, it is Islam itself. The responses to this include tolerance, which essentially means forbearance, and coexistence. But this is no longer enough. Niebuhr points to a statement made by George Washington that suggests that religious liberty was better than tolerance, and that requires respect for others, though not a reduction in differences. Indeed, Franklin Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms speaks of Freedom of Religion. When Norman Rockwell painted his Freedom of Worship painting, he focused on the diversity of Americans at prayer, and boldly imprinted in this picture is the motto: “Each according to the dictates of his own conscience.” Niebuhr points out that while the painting focuses on the individual, there is also embedded within it a sense of community.

“The eight people occupy an equal plane and they face (more or less) in the same direction, toward the painting’s left, the source of the painter’s light, which illuminates their faces. What goes on here is not something we do entirely alone; there are others, different from us, who do it too, and they are persons of worth and dignity.” (pp. 53-54).

If we are a community that is diverse in belief and practice, how can we connect with one another? What is the common chord? We find examples of individuals reaching across the boundaries in people like Eboo Patel, founder of the Interfaith Youth Core and author of Acts of Faith, Swami Vivekananada, an important figure at the original World Parliament of Religions, and of course the Dalai Lama. These figures believed that we can live together in harmony. Not all are excited about this premise, but it is one that offers us hope for the future. The vision of Patel, which Niebuhr lifts up, is that we can believe our faiths to be true and even hope for the conversion of others, while coming together to serve others. The urgency of the threat to humanity requires, however, that we begin working together now. The forces of extremism are well organized and institutionalized. The voices of respect are much less organized.

The starting point for responding to the threat to pluralism is to reclaim the principle of hospitality that is present in almost all religious traditions. It is a tradition that is expressed in Abraham’s offering welcome to the three travelers under the Oaks of Mamre. It is present in the statement of Hebrews that by offering hospitality to strangers, one might be entertaining angels. When hospitality is offered, the other is no longer a stranger. The principle of hospitality has been evident in these years since 9-11, as interfaith conversations have sprung up across the nation. These conversations often start with shared values and then move from there to more difficult and more complex issues. In his chapter hospitality, Niebuhr points to a conversation that emerged from a Jewish community and a Muslim one. In time, as trust was built, they were able to deal with – even if it remained contentious – the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In the course of these efforts, participants learn the importance of speaking up for others and for dismantling stereotypes. We are not out of the woods. There remains much distrust between communities. There is a growing nativist movement that seeks to keep out the other.

The book ends with two chapters, one focused on the legacy of Jewish-Christian dialogue in America. Niebuhr focuses his attention on a Baltimore-located institute that has focused on the relationship between these two closely related communities. As context, he notes that until 1826 it was illegal for a Jew to hold public office in Maryland. The history of Jewish-Christian relations is littered with vileness and violence – expressed most clearly in the Holocaust. We may be related, but we are also “divided by a common text.” (p. 126). One expression of separation is the belief held by many Christians that Christianity replaces Judaism as God’s covenant people. This supercessionist perspective has been the root of much violence over the years, but in recent years it has been reexamined and even rejected, though not by all. Part of the reason for this change has been the realization that Christian theology helped lead to the Shoah.

The final chapter of the book focuses on Louisville’s Festival of Faith, an effort centered around the local Roman Catholic Cathedral, which has become a gathering point for interfaith conversation. Louisville is interesting in its location. It is home to Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, whose president has rejected any conversation that doesn’t allow for overt evangelism (and thus doesn’t participate). Nearby is the Trappist monastery that was home to Thomas Merton, a figure who is identified here as a gatekeeper, one willing and able to introduce people to other faiths while retaining one’s own faith. Dialogue has been the focus of these efforts, but recently there is the realization that the shared values of these religious traditions can and should lead to shared action.

In closing, Niebuhr notes the importance of words to this interfaith interaction. Some might accuse the movement of being all about talking, and to some extent it is about talking. It is, however, also about listening. Conversation leads to important action – consider again the influence of the conversation that took place between Thich Nhat Hanh and Martin Luther King. The discussions focus attention on the humanity of the other. It is the foundation of relationship.

This is an important book. It is filled with illustrations, both historical and contemporary, of people reaching across boundaries. It is also a warning of what might happen if we fail to bridge the chasm that often divides us. Although not as personal a testimony as Eboo Patel’s Acts of Faith, it is a deep testimony of Niebuhr’s family history. Indeed, in many ways Niebuhr and Patel can be read together as one testimony to the need for movement beyond tolerance to engagement with one another.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Obama the Realist

It should come as no surprise that someone who has an affinity for Abraham Lincoln and Reinhold Niebuhr is a realist and not an idealist. I know that many Obama supporters believed that his opposition to the Iraq War meant that he was a pacifist. But if you think this, you've not paid attention to what he's said. Diplomacy comes first, but if necessary there is always a military option.

E.J. Dionne writes in today's Washington Post a column entitled "Obama's Bush Doctrine" about the parallels between Obama's perspective and that of an earlier Bush President -- Papa Bush. The choice of Hillary Clinton and Robert Gates -- a protege of Brent Scowcroft -- offers important clues. One could also say that Obama's outreach to Colin Powell is another example. As Dionne points out Obama has been in conversation with Scowcroft and others in that circle -- a circle that Jr. Bush seems to have eschewed to his own downfall.

Dionne notes as well that Scowcroft came out in opposition to an impending invasion, even before Obama, in a Wall Street Journal op-ed piece.

Scowcroft warned that an invasion of Iraq "very likely would have to be followed by a large-scale, long-term military occupation." Going to Iraq, Scowcroft said, would "divert us for some indefinite period from our war on terrorism," and it could "destabilize Arab regimes in the region," "stifle any cooperation on terrorism" and "even swell the ranks of the terrorists."

Clinton and Gates fit in this realist orbit and can provide the leadership needed for Obama to withdraw US forces from Iraq without being accused of turning tail and running.

Who would have thought GHW Bush would be closer in ideology to Barack Obama than his own son and the son's VP -- who served Papa Bush as Sec. of Defense?

Dionne makes clear something everyone needs to hear as we enter this next phase of US History:

Obama's national security choices are already causing grumbling from parts of the antiwar left, even if Obama made clear six years ago that while he was with them on Iraq, he was not one of them.

Prayers for Mumbai

For the past two days or so we've been watching, reading, hearing about the attacks on several sites in Mumbai (Bombay) India, one of the world's largest and most important cities. Those involved in the attacks appear to be an Islamist terrorist group, though the exact identity and whether they had foreign help seems unknown. There has been a history of Muslim-Hindu violence since partition in 1947, but this time the focus seems to be on foreign visitors/expats. What this means for the future is unknown, but, our prayers go out to all involved.

We remember those who are dead, those who may remain hostages, and those seeking to bring this to an end. We pray for calm and peaceful resolution. Most of all, we pray for an end to the use of violence as a means of achieving change.

Terrorism is rooted in the belief that fear is the most powerful emotion. If we're fearful of one another then mutual respect is impossible. If we don't talk, we don't work out differences. When we don't work out differences, extremists end up controlling the situation. Lately extremism has been quite effective. Let us pray for its end.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

First Christmas -- Review (reposting)

Last year I reviewed John Dominic Crossan's and Marcus Borg's First Christmas. Now that it's Christmas time again, perhaps some of you would like to read the review to see if this would be a resource worth pursuing.


Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan. The First Christmas: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’ Birth. San Francisco: HarperOne, 2007. x + 259 pp.

In the popular mind the Christmas story as symbolized by the crèche involves Joseph, Mary, and the little baby Jesus lying in a manger (feeding trough), surrounded on one side by shepherds and by three kings on the other. Of course there are the requisite barnyard animals standing around like movie extras. Above this scene flies the tiny cherubic angel. That such a scene is at best a conflation of the gospel texts doesn’t seem to matter. It is what we think Christmas is about.

Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan offer to the general reader a different reading of the Christmas story, one that is rooted in their earlier works on Jesus. In fact, if you’ve been reading any of their recent books you will hear strong echoes (especially of Crossan’s God and Empire -- HarperSanFrancisco, 2007). A companion piece to their earlier – and in many ways stronger – The Last Week (HarperSanFrancisco, 2005), Borg and Crossan offer a “parabolic reading” of the two Christmas stories (infancy narratives). They use the term parable here as an alternative to factual and fable – the two usual understandings of these two overlapping but in so many ways very different stories of Jesus’ birth. Factualism focuses on historical veracity, while fable implies that these are simply fairy tales that can be easily dispensed with. By speaking of them as parables, they suggest that the focus is not on factuality (which for the most part they discount) but on the meaning of the stories. And meaning they do have. Indeed, these are by their very nature subversive stories – subversive in that they challenge the reigning paradigm (Herod is “King of the Jews” and that Caesar is “Son of God” and Savior and Light of the World.

The authors speak of the infancy narratives as “parabolic overtures,” by which they mean that the first two chapters of Matthew and Luke (the only two canonical infancy stories) contain in miniature the full gospel story. In this retelling of the story of Jesus, we discover the parallels and the contrasts. In many ways Matthew portrays Jesus as the New Moses – the new law giver, for like Moses Jesus is rescued from the murderous king. In Matthew Jesus goes down to Egypt to escape Herod’s wrath; in Exodus Moses leads the people out of Egypt. But in both cases the lead actor is spared so as to save his people from the hand of the tyrant. Luke on the other hand, sees Jesus in contrast to Caesar Augustus, who also is acclaimed as son of God (Apollo) and Savior. We also see in these first two chapters many of the emphases of Luke’s gospel – his emphasis on women (Mary, Elizabeth, and Anna figure prominently), an emphasis on the poor and the marginalized (the shepherds), and on the Holy Spirit.

Central to understanding these stories is their historical context – both their Jewish and their Roman context. Thus imperialism figures prominently (see Crossan’s God & Empire). This is a story of contrasting kingdoms – that of Rome and that of God. Both promise peace, but one is byway of victory (violence) and the other through justice (non-violence). As such it is also the story of messianic expectations – the belief that a son of David would one day appear.

Part two of the book moves from contextual issues to the deeper issues inherent in the stories – the genealogies, which are themselves parabolic, the visitation by angels, birth in Bethlehem. Each of these aspects of the story is more theological than historical and is meant to cement the messianic role of Jesus. Again, the contrast here has political and subversive connotations – although Matthew and Luke have different audiences in mind.

Finally, in part three we come to the theological reflections – three images: Light, fulfillment, joy. Whether it is the star guiding the magi to Bethlehem or the glories of heaven that fill the sky when the angels appear to the shepherds, light is a central theme, and at the heart of this usage is the belief that Jesus is the light to the nations/gentiles. Jesus is also fulfillment of the Old Testament. In Matthew it is a prediction-fulfillment formula, whereas in Luke it is more thematic – echoes and reflections in hymns such as the Magnificat where Old Testament language and themes resonate. And finally, as the hymn so resplendently proclaims – the Christmas story is about “Joy to the World.”

As one might expect from a book by these two authors, the focus is not on fact but on meaning, with the political implications being paramount. Both writers are concerned that the gospels be seen as a word of warning and a word of hope to a world that is in danger of self-destructing. It is a warning about the dangers of imperialism – whether Roman or American. Most of all it is an attempt to reach out to the lay person – Christian or not. Clergy and scholars will find little that is new here, but this will prove to be useful fodder for even the well informed about scholarly trends.

Whether one agrees with all that is here, the tone is to be appreciated. The love that these men have for the stories is in evidence. Even when they “demythologize” the stories and reveal the fictional side, they don’t do so gloatingly, but with a view to helping people better appreciate the meaning of the stories. In this, one hopes they will be successful.

Now Thank We All Our God

The hymn of thanksgiving -- on YouTube. Words provided to sing along.

Now Thank We All Our God
Text: Martin Rinkart; Trans. by Catherine Winkworth
Music: Johann Cruger; Harm. by Felix Mendelssohn
Tune: NUN DANKET, Meter:

Now thank we all our God,
with heart and hands and voices,
who wondrous things has done,
in whom this world rejoices;
who from our mothers' arms
has blessed us on our way
with countless gifts of love,
and still is ours today.

O may this bounteous God
through all our life be near us,
with ever joyful hearts
and blessed peace to cheer us;
and keep us still in grace,
and guide us when perplexed;
and free us from all ills,
in this world and the next.

All praise and thanks to God
the Father now be given;
the Son, and him who reigns
with them in highest heaven;
the one eternal God,
whom earth and heaven adore;
for thus it was, is now,
and shall be evermore.

A Thanksgiving Prayer -- 2008

Today America observes Thanksgiving Day with Parades, Football, and Feasts that feature turkey. We also stop to give thanks for all that has been provided to us, even as we consider our neighbors in need. As we give thanks today, may we also remember the citizens of Mumbai (Bombay), India, who are dealing with a most horrendous set of extremist attacks.

May this responsive prayer from Chalice Worship, provide you with a starting point to give thanks.


Let us give thanks for all God's gifts so freely bestowed upon us:

For the beauty and wonder of your creation, in earth and sky and sea;
For all that is gracious in the lives of men and women,
revealing the image of Christ;

For our daily food and drink, our homes and families, and our friends;
For minds to think, and hearts to love, and hands to serve;

For health and strength to work, and leisure to rest and play;
For the brave and courageous,
who are patient in suffering and faithful in adversity;

For all valiant seekers after truth, liberty, and justice;
For the communion of saints, in all times and places.

Above all, we give thanks for the great mercies and promises
given to us in Christ Jesus our Lord.
To him be praise and glory, with you, O Father, and the Holy Spirit,
now and forever. Amen.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Evolution of Homer Simpson

Scott Paeth noted that this Monday was the anniversary of the publication of the Origin of the Species (November 24, 1859), Charles Darwin's revolutionary book. With that, he posted this video from the Simpsons.


Missional Dispatches for December

I have titled my newsletter column -- "Pastor Bob's Missional Dispatches." I know, it's too long, but it works. The newsletter came out today, so I thought I'd share this with you.


Pastor Bob's Missional Dispatches -- December 2008
Central Woodward Christian Church
Troy, MI

Are you ready to open your gifts? Gifts, you ask? What gifts? Why, your Christmas gifts of course. In just a matter of days, we‟ll gather around trees and mantles and share our gifts with each other. I know that the economy is bad, so the gifts might be a little less extravagant this year. No big ticket items, but that‟s okay, because it‟s the thought that counts – right!

Whatever we may be considering doing in our personal lives, this Advent Christmas season is a reminder of the gracious gifts God has given us. The greatest gift of all, a son in whom the message of grace, love, and mercy has been incarnated, has been given to the world. As Simeon so clearly proclaimed, in a small child, just an infant, God‟s provision of consolation to Israel and the light of revelation to the Gentiles was revealed (Lk. 2:25-35). Where there was darkness there is now light. This is God‟s gift to us – in Christ our lives are made new and the darkness has been driven away.

As a church we are the body of Christ – we are the continuing incarnation of God‟s grace and mission of redemption. Kirk Hadaway puts it this way:
The church as incarnational community seeks to embody Christ‟s mission by proclaiming that the Realm of God is here – and by living in it. We are to incarnate, enflesh, and embody Christ and Christ‟s message. To do this, we must grow as his disciples, and in order to grow we must be open to change, to transformation. (C. Kirk Hadaway, Behold I Do a New Thing, Pilgrim Press, 2001, 44.)
We are seeing God do a new thing in our midst. This is God‟s gift to us. But it is a gift that we must receive and utilize. This isn‟t the kind of gift that we can unwrap, look over, and then put in the closet.

As we bring one year to a close and look forward to a new one, what is God going to do? It‟s important to make plans, but as we look to the future and begin making plans, we must always be aware that kingdom life isn‟t predictable. We don‟t always know what tomorrow will bring. We may be breathing a sigh of relief – we got that pastoral search completed. Now we can relax. But is this the time to relax. It‟s been interesting watching the presidential transition. You‟d think that the President-elect could take a week or so off to rest up from the long and arduous campaign, but that‟s not the case. There‟s just too much to do. Oh, I expect he‟ll take some time off, but that‟s not the point.

What is the point? Well, the point is that God is at work in the world, and we‟ve been called to share in that work. We are called to incarnate the love of God in our neighborhoods and beyond.

So, as we look forward to 2009, let us be prepared for what is to come. I expect that the coming weeks and months will race by, because there‟s so much to do. Once we‟re through Christmas, we‟ll take a quick breath and then get prepared for what is coming. Consider that early in January there‟ll be the Love of Leadership conference, which features General Minister Sharon Watkins. Then, just a month later, we‟ll gather for a congregation-wide retreat where we‟ll explore God‟s gifts and calling and discern together our core values, values that will guide us as we move forward into the future. From there we move on to our Lenten emphasis – Unbinding Your Heart, a six-week intensive experience of exploration, study, and commitment to sharing our faith with others. And that takes us only up to Easter!

Oh, and by the way, in the very near future we will be calling a new minister of music/organist to help lead our worship. I don‟t know when a new person will begin, but it will be fairly soon. By the time this appears, the committee will have interviewed a number of candidates and may even have made a decision. With that in mind, let me take the time to offer my thanks to Jean Schneider for her good work as “guest organist.” I‟m not sure that‟s the best description, after all, Jean has been with us for some time. She brings to us not only excellent musical skills but also a willingness to adapt to any number of changes in format – sometimes even in the middle of a song itself. When she leaves us we will miss her presence and look forward to sharing with her in the future.

So, take hold of God‟s gift of life. Live it fully and boldly before God. As we move toward Christmas make a joyful noise and celebrate God‟s gift life.

Pastor Bob

Reflections on the Transition

Barack Obama has been pretty active these past few days. He's been announcing his Economic Team and outlining, at least in general terms, what he will do come January 20. He has made it clear that this is a unique time and it will require that the new team hits the road running. His team looks pretty familiar -- people from the Clinton Administration mostly. Timothy Geithner is currently President of the NY Fed and former Deputy Secretary of the Treasury will take the lead role in the new administration, assisted in the White House by former Treasury Secretary, Lawrence Summers. Some on the Left may not like these choices, but we're on the edge of disaster and thus need the folks who in some ways helped get us into this mess help get us out. They will be assisted by people like Bill Richardson at Commerce. Now, usually Commerce is one of those places you put your cronies, but in this case, as we work in a more global economy, what better decision than put a diplomat in charge. Tom Daschle is a high profile figure and put in charge of Health and Human Services. Excellent choices -- though at times pragmatic.

Next week Obama will name his National Security Team. Again, he's turning to experienced hands. Hillary Clinton is high profile, but the Clinton's are well regarded abroad. Robert Gates may not thrill some, but he's highly regarded on both sides of the aisle and will be in a good position to help bring about the withdrawal. It is, in my mind, an excellent interim choice.

Obama is showing that he's both an activist and a pragmatist. He will hit the ground running and institute broad ranging changes, but he's pragmatic enough to know that you have to do this in a non-ideological way.

Having taken on a new congregation, I've tried to hit the ground running, making what some might see as sweeping changes, but I've also tried to bring into the conversation those who might seem to have the most vested in the way things were. So, I understand Obama's actions.

If only we could jump start this by a quicker transition -- but in many ways Obama needs this time to put the team together. Let's just hope we can survive the lame duck period.

For direct info, go to Change.Gov

I give him an A+

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Hospitality and interreligious Cooperation

If you know someone they no longer will be a stranger to you. Hospitality is a strongly held value in most religious traditions. Hebrews 13:2 is one of those texts that reflects this often forgotten tradition:
2 Don't forget to welcome strangers. By doing that, some people have welcomed angels without knowing it. (Hebrews 13:2 -- New International Reader's Version)
The other evening when we gathered at the IAGD Mosque for a Thanksgiving service we enjoyed their hospitality. By doing so, we began to bridge the gap between us. We become less than strangers. It doesn't mean that we are giving up that which makes us who we are. I'm not planning on becoming a Muslim or a Hindu (to quote Seinfeld -- "not that there's anything wrong with that). But, in coming together we build understanding and with understanding comes respect.

Having read Eboo Patel's wonderful Acts of Faith, I'm now reading Gustav Niebuhr's Beyond Tolerance (Niebuhr is H. Richard's grandson). In a chapter on hospitality, Niebuhr notes an interesting sea change that has happened since 2001. In a 2000 survey done by the Hartford Institute of Religion Research, it was found that about 7% of American congregations had worshiped together across faith lines. Slightly more than that, 8% had worked together on a community service project. Niebuhr notes that while the numbers are small, this still is substantial in pure numbers. But, since 2001, in a 2005 survey it was discovered that the number of congregations of various traditions that had worshiped together had tripled to 21%. More impressively, the number that had crossed these lines to work together on a community service project rose to 38%. Now, there's plenty of room to improve, but that is remarkable for a 5 year period. What is more interesting is that while more Mainline Protestants and Roman Catholics than Evangelicals were involved in these efforts, Niebuhr notes that "the greatest participation of all came from among non-Christian congregations, nearly two thirds of whom said they had joined with Christians in social service projects" (pp. 89-90).

If you work together, you discover that we share a common humanity that is inspired by our faith commitments to acts of service. We are different and there is reason for these differences. We need not sacrifice these differences to embrace each other for the good of humanity.

Safety First

I never thought I'd become an auto industry apologist. After all, I'm from California. I've made my "complaints" against people driving SUV's plain before. I always found it odd that half the people driving SUV's on LA freeways seemed to be middle aged white females -- driving alone. Maybe there were kids to haul, but since most families are 1-2 kids, no need to have room for 9!

That being said, I've seen another side of things living here in Michigan -- not that people should drive SUV's, but maybe there is more than one side to this story.

Since it's often said that US made/owned cars are of lesser quality consider this:

In the recent ratings of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, Ford, yes, Ford has the most Top rated vehicles with 16. That's 3 more than Honda and twice, yes twice, the number produced by Toyota.

Maybe things are moving forward faster than many think!

The Connected Auto Industry

From Andrew Sullivan's Daily Dish is a reminder of how interconnected the Auto Industry is -- not just the Big 3 but all of them. If one fails, even Chrysler, how will that effect everyone else? It's obvious that Congress has no clue as to what is involved, and I doubt most others of us do either.


America's Other Car Industry, Ctd.

A reader writes:

Regarding Peter Klein, a few points,

  • Ford has owned a majority stake in Mazda for decades. Nearly every vehicle in Mazda’s lineup is platform shared with a Ford, Lincoln, Mercury, or Volvo.
  • Until last year GM was the majority stake holder in Subaru. GM sold off their shares to Toyota. Ditto Isuzu.
  • Mitsubishi has been kept afloat for decades by Chrysler. In the 80’s and 90’s about half of the entire lineup at Chrysler was platform shared with Mitsubishi. Engines and transmissions are still shared today.
  • Toyota and GM share a factory in California. The factory produces the Toyota Corolla, Toyota Matrix, and Pontiac Vibe.
  • BMW has used GM automatic transmissions on and off for years. BMW paid GM to develop the automatic transmission in the BMW 5-series and Cadillac CTS.
  • GM, Chrysler, and Mercedes Benz have a joint venture to build hybrid powertrains.
  • Chrysler alone, backing out of a deal to buy automatic transmissions, forced transmission manufacturer Getrag into bankruptcy. Getrag supplies transmissions for every auto manufacturer.
  • Ford and Nissan buy their hybrid technology from Toyota.
  • All of the auto manufacturers share suppliers. Any one of the Domestic 3 failing would likely take out the other two and severely damage the foreign owned companies ability to continue to operate here. That’s not to say they don’t need to reorganize, but to even do that they have to be able to make payroll and buy materials. That is what this loan is about. Additionally, to the foreign governments who are planning to protest any bailout by the US government as unfair to imports, the imports have been getting their own “bailout” for years via socialized medicine and other government subsidies.

    Monday, November 24, 2008

    Inerrancy and Poltics -- Sightings

    Martin Marty takes a look at the GOP/Conservative Christian partnership's evaluation of went wrong, why they lost Congress and the Presidency. It will be interesting to see where the Republican Party goes. Once upon a time it was the party of Episcopalians (as Marty notes here), Presbyterians, and like minded folks. This was the party of business. Over the past 30 years it has become home to conservative evangelicals. Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee are the featured faces, already looking to 2012.

    Marty's piece today looks at World Magazine's analysis of what was and what will be -- and whether this will be "inerrant."


    Sightings 11/24/08

    Politics and Inerrancy

    -- Martin E. Marty

    "From a perspective committed to the Bible as the inerrant Word of God," the biweekly glossy World (November 15/22) asks at almost issue-length what went wrong with the Republicans in the recent elections. To the editors' credit, they do not spend much space in a blame game on what went wrong because of Democrats and liberals, but instead in self-examination of Republican faults. Decades ago wags said that the Episcopal Church was "the Republican Party at prayer," but in elections in our time it has been said that "inerrant Word of God" factions tended to find Republicans to be inerrant. No more. Let's look at World.

    Up front, founder Joel Belz reflected that the "trouncing at the polls was thorough, painful, and unambiguous," a confirmation that "the conservative coalition…has all but disappeared." In 2000 and 2004 "razor-thin victories prompted us to think we had more clout than was ever really ours," so "we" acquired the habit of brash pretense. Question: Should we take lessons on being a confirmed minority from "our Jewish friends" (see the seventh verse of Deuteronomy 7, Belz suggests: "the Lord loves you…")? "Wouldn't it be a good thing to humble ourselves—" and not wait for a new political cycle?

    At the back, editor Marvin Olasky looks ahead with "plans to rebuild…an alliance between evangelicals and fiscal conservatives by emphasizing three C's—community, civil society, and compassion—that would bring back into the fold young evangelicals…" Promote community with efforts "to limit government through expansions of the voluntary, nonprofit organizations that make up civil society." Then: "[Governor] Palin…is a natural to run with [the] understanding" of compassion "in opposition to the greed she and others have decried." So, "Bottom line: Once, the business of America was business." Government more recently became our god, "but it failed." A new understanding is beginning to appear: "Do not fear."

    Contributors include Princeton's Robert George, who says it is a "daft and dangerous idea" to retreat from politics. Rebuild, emphasizing opposition to "abortion and embryo destructive research." Dayton's Larry Schweikert, on the other hand, says "some of the conservative Christians" will have to subordinate the issue of abortion for a while, and work to "bring us together" to oppose "wealth redistribution," which is "fundamentally unscriptural and unbiblical." Wendy Wright wants to keep fighting for "every pro-life protection." Senator Rick Santorum blames many among "principled conservatism and Christian conservatism for having "lost our way on some things." "We got wrapped up in the idea that government can solve problems…"

    Public relations expert Mark DeMoss accuses his side of looking at things "completely black and white," and of failing to back values-candidates with money. "We stand up" for candidates who support our values, "but we don't give them money." Pastor Tony Evans accuses fellow conservatives of having "often been too disconnected from where people really are, and that showed up in the economic crisis."

    The only cheering vote, to publishers of World, was Joe the Plumber's victory over Brad Pitt, as three "marriage-protection initiatives" won in three states. Writer Lynn Vincent credited a new coalition, including evangelicals, Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholics, Mormons, and many Christian denominations, and hoped that such a cluster could "impact the culture with Judeo-Christian principles." Inerrantly. Will the programs of these notables rally straying or young evangelicals and heir kin? Wait and see.

    Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at

    This month in the Marty Center's Religion and Culture Web Forum, philosopher Jean-Luc Marion examines the concept of sacrifice. Drawing on conceptions of gift-giving and the relationships involved in such exchange, Marion formulates a framework for understanding sacrifice within modern philosophical discourse, but then seeks to apply this theory to a Biblical example, the account of Abraham's (incomplete but still effective) sacrifice of Isaac. His nuanced reading of this scriptural passage seeks to explain the seeming paradox of a sacrifice that eventually does not take place. Formal responses will be posted November 10 and 17 by Slavoj Zizek (The European Graduate School), Christian Gschwandtner (University of Scranton) and Jeremy Biles (Chicago, Illinois).


    Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

    An Interfaith Thanksgiving

    The story of Thanksgiving -- the one we usually tell -- speaks of the Pilgrims, themselves religious outsiders -- sharing a meal with Native Americans. According to the story, the Indigenous people helped rescue the Pilgrims from famine and they joined together in a feast of thanksgiving. I expect that at this meal there was a bit of interfaith conversation!

    Last night I participated in a a Thanksgiving Celebration that was sponsored by the Troy Interfaith Group. Our host was the Islamic Association of Greater Detroit. The participants in the program ranged from our Muslim hosts to Hindus. There was a sizable representation of members from the Ahmadiyya Muslim community -- rivals of traditional Islam. There were Methodists, Presbyterians, and Disciples on the Program. We shared in a Jewish prayer of Thanksgiving. Youth were primary presenters. There was a young man from the IAGD who gave a wonderful talk about Mohammed Yunis of Bangladesh. And three young people read prize winning essays about their heroes. And a group of young Hindus shared with us their prayer. Because the hosts were Muslims our songs were a capella.

    There was a nice crowd, but more can be done. Thanksgiving is the one holiday that really provides an opportunity for people to come together across religious lines and share their words of Thanksgiving. I'm looking forward to see this effort expand, to include more and more people and groups. We needn't agree on "theology" to show mutual respect and a willingness to learn. Ultimately, we're part of the human community and we're all in this together.

    The prayer I chose was such that I that all could share in, so invited the congregation to pray it with me. Maybe you could share it yourself.

    We give you thanks, most gracious God,
    For the beauty of earth and sky and sea;
    For the richness of mountains, plains, and rivers;
    For the songs of birds and the loveliness of flowers.

    We praise you for these good gifts,
    And pray that we may safeguard them for posterity.

    Grant that we may continue to grow
    In our grateful enjoyment of your abundant creation,
    To the honor and glory of your name, now and forever. Amen.
    (from Chalice Worship, Chalice Press, p. 296).

    Those Pesky Bailouts!

    Last week the Big 3 did a rather poor job of presenting their case to Congress. But for the most part Congress looked pretty silly. Especially telling was the leadership in this "whipping" from members of Congress that have a vested interest in the failure of the Big 3, Southern states that have given sweetheart deals to Toyota, Nissan, and others to build plants in their states -- states that discourage unionization. Oregon's lumber industry suffered the same fate 20 years ago. It wasn't the Spotted Owl, it was labor costs.

    Mitch Albom, columnist for the Detroit Free Press and author of Tuesday's with Morrie, offered a biting rebuttal to the opponents of help for Detroit. Entitled "If I had the floor at the auto rescue talks." He notes that while Congress and apparently Barack Obama want a plan for "viability" from Detroit, no one's asking the same from AIG and the other banks. Indeed, this morning we wake up to learn that the Government will inject 20 billion into Citibank and guarantee 300 billion in toxic loans. No plan was asked for, as I understand it. No requirement that they change management. But for the Big 3, one of the last bastion's of US owned manufacturers and the heartbeat of Michigan, just tongue lashing.

    We're told that they need to have new products and such, but apparently Congress is stuck in the 1980s and even 1990s. The Ford Fusion is coming out as a hybrid that will get 6 miles per gallon more than the Camry hybrid. Are you ready to drive it? The Ford Focus is a pretty nice little car. I drive one and like it. The new ones coming out in 2010 or 2011 are supposed to be really nice. Instead of driving a Prius or a Camry why not a Fusion or an Escape?

    Oh, and word is, Ford is in pretty good shape, relatively speaking. They're not intending to tap this "bailout," but since they all share suppliers, if one goes down Ford could be hurt. So, let's be a bit more circumspect. Lets look at the issues and instead of handing the auto industry over to Japan, let's see if we can't do something about what we have here!

    Okay, I'm living in Michigan. But I'm not too far from living in California. I understand that the needs of one's region will be in the forefront of one's mind. I remember the fall of the Timber industry in Oregon. It's taken a long time to rebuild the economy. Michigan is working on diversifying as well. But it takes time. So, where's the help?

    Sunday, November 23, 2008

    Book Meme

    I'm sitting here, working my way through my bloglist. I came across James McGrath's post on Exploring Our Matrix. He invited whoever would to join in this book meme.

    You simply find the nearest book, find page 123, fifth line, and then post the next three lines (6-8). So, sitting in front of me was Edgar Dewitt Jones' Blundering into Paradise, (Harper and Brothers, 1932).

    "It is World Peace Day, the anniversary of the day when the last nation became a signatory of the treaty outlawing war. Flags are flying, bands of music are playing. I hear the little boy asking questions, a habit of little boys everywhere."

    Well, that is intriguing isn't it? Might be interesting to share the rest, but that's not part of the meme! So, I'll not tag anyone here, just invite you to join in the fun, if you think this would be worth doing.

    Make a Joyful Noise -- A Thanksgiving Sermon

    I am sharing with you the sermon I preached this morning at Central Woodward Christian Church. Thursday is Thanksgiving Day, but today for us this was the day of celebration. My sermons appear each work at my sermon blog -- Words of Welcome.


    Psalm 100

    The news is bad. Jobs are being lost, homes foreclosed, there are wars on two fronts – of course gas prices have gone down. Things have gotten so bad that this might be a good year to cancel Thanksgiving. I mean, how do you give thanks when the world seems to be crumbling in around you? And yet, giving thanks is something we should do only when the news is good?

    Whether or not we feel in the Thanksgiving mood, the holiday is upon us and we’re being asked to give thanks. The truth is, if we’re willing to pay attention to our lives, I expect that every day produces something for which we can give thanks. Consider this statement by Jimmy Carter:
    When we wake up in the morning, when we meet a friend, when someone lends us a hand, when one of our children or grandchildren expresses love, when we go to a job that is gratifying, when an unanticipated opportunity arises, when we see a beautiful sky, or when we have any kind of exciting experience -- all of these are opportunities to give God the credit and acknowledge God's greatness. It's a good habit to develop.1


    The 100th Psalm begins with a command:

    "Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth!"
    Worship the Lord with gladness;
    come into his presence with singing.

    The invitation is clear and bold. Come and join with all of God’s creation in giving praise and thanksgiving to God. And what better way is there to give praise than to break out in song? Perhaps, with Isaiah, we could join with "the mountains and the hills [that] will break forth before you and all the trees of the field will clap, will clap their hands" (Based on Is. 55). Today and every day, we can join with the mountains and the hills, the rivers and the streams, the deer and the antelope, the elephant and the mouse, in giving praise to God
    “We may plow the fields and scatter the good seed on the ground, but it is God who feeds and waters them by sending snow in winter and warmth to swell the grain.”
    We give thanks today, because “all good gifts around us are sent from heaven above.”2

    It is true, there is a time for silence, but today is not that time. Today is the day to make a joyful noise before God. To paraphrase the 150th Psalm, let’s not just shout out our songs, but let’s break out the trumpet and the trombone, the lute and the harp, the guitar and the saxophone, the drums and the cymbals, the organ and the piano, because, the Psalmist says "let everything that breathes praise the Lord!" (Ps. 150)


    But again, things aren’t going so well, so why should we make a joyful noise? Here is the answer from the Psalmist: “Know that the Lord is God. It is he that made us, and we are his” (Ps. 100:3). We come to give thanks because God is our creator. He is the potter and we’re the clay. We’re the sheep of God’s pasture and we live under God’s care. We may be free, but true freedom is found not in self-fulfillment but in submission to God. As Paul said:
    Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you were bought with a price; Therefore, glorify God in your body. (1 Cor. 6:19-20).

    As we worship and give thanks to God, we are acknowledging God's claim on our lives. Worship reminds us that we must trust our hopes for the future to the care of another who is the creator of all things. In worship we acknowledge that God is the source of our identity. Or, as Augustine said: “our hearts are restless, until they find their rest in God.”


    The reason we come today to give thanks to God is that God is faithful. As the Psalmist puts it: “God’s steadfast love will endure forever.” As we’ve been hearing lately, God’s timing might be different from ours, but God is faithful to God’s promises.

    To put this another way, consider the parable of the shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine to go out and look for the one that has strayed. Why would the shepherd do this? I think that the reason is that the shepherd doesn’t want to lose even one lamb. This lamb needs to be brought back into the fold so that the flock can be made whole once again (Matthew 18:10:14). In another place Jesus says that God sends down the rain on the just and the unjust (Matthew 5:45). What does that mean? Doesn’t it mean that God is faithful and that wherever there is life, God is already present. In this there is blessing and a reason to give thanks.


    The Westminster Shorter Catechism asks: “What is humankind's chief end? “ In other words, what’s our purpose in life? The answer is simple, yet profound: “The chief end of human kind is to glorify God and enjoy God forever.” Nothing else takes precedence over our calling to glorify God and enjoy God’s presence forever.

    I like to think of the Christian life in terms of a journey. To be a Christian is to set out on an adventure, an adventure that can be challenging, but rarely boring. It has its quiet moments, of course, but it’s a journey into lands unknown. At times this journey can be a bit overwhelming, but the promise of God is this: Despite the odds, we won’t be tested beyond God’s abilities.

    For this we give thanks. It is, as theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer puts it: We should give thanks for the Christian community in which we find ourselves, “even when there are no great experiences, no noticeable riches, but much weakness, difficulty and little faith.” And, if we complain that life is miserable, that it doesn’t measure up to our expectations, then “we hinder God from letting our community grow according to the measure and riches that are there for us all in Jesus Christ.” 3

    The good news is this: As we take this journey of life, a journey that can be both dull and overwhelming, we travel in the company of the community of faith. This community, can and will support us and encourage us along the way. In the moment that we understand this truth, we can break out in songs of praise and thanksgiving. As we do this, we will begin to recognize the movement of God in our midst.

    This Thursday is Thanksgiving Day. I don’t know what your plans are. Maybe you’ll stay home and watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade or watch a few football games. Or, maybe you’ll head downtown and take in the 82nd America’s Thanksgiving Parade. Perhaps you’ll be gathering at a table for some Turkey and Dressing. Whatever you decide to do on Thursday, won’t you join me in giving thanks to God with a joyful heart. Why? Because God is faithful and will be present with us.

    As you break forth in praise, maybe you’ll begin singing the Doxology – which is after all a song of Thanksgiving.

    Praise God, from Whom all blessings flow;
    Praise Him, all creatures here below;
    Praise Him above, ye Heavenly Host;
    Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Amen.

    1. Jimmy Carter, Sources of Strength, (New York: Times Books, 1997), 168-69.
    2. Stephen Schwartz, “All Good Gifts,” in Chalice Praise, (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2005), 110.
    3. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press), 5:37.

    Preached by:
    The Rev. Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
    Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
    Troy, Michigan
    Thanksgiving Sunday
    November 23, 2008

    Saturday, November 22, 2008

    Advent, Christmas and Epiphany: Liturgies and Prayers for Public Worship -- Review

    ADVENT, CHRISTMAS, AND EPIPHANY: Liturgies and Prayers for Public Worship. By Brian Wren. Louisville: WJK Press, 2008. xvii + 213 pp.

    If you’re a Mainline Protestant and you have a fairly recent hymnal in your church you’ve probably sung a Brian Wren hymn or two. That is because he has been a prolific producer of progressive, inclusive, and firmly Trinitarian worship materials for some time. Wren is also Professor of Worship Emeritus at the Presbyterian related Columbia Theological Seminary in Georgia. He is, therefore, both poet and scholar.

    Clergy and worship committees are always looking for new and lively worship resources, and with this being the beginning of the Advent-Christmas season it’s likely that there are those still out there looking for something new and appropriate. This could be what you’re looking for. Wren has provided congregations with – as the subtitle notes – “liturgies and prayers” for the season of Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany. They are designed to be inclusive in their language but also deeply Trinitarian. He notes that he has tried to bring into play both the ecstatic and the economical. Reflecting both the sensibilities of prayers that are scripted and those that are unscripted, those that are brief and those that are expansive. The key is the manner in which they are used. They should reflect the oral culture out of which they are born: “Their natural habitat is as speech spoken and heard, not a text read silently on a page or grudgingly grumbled in a classroom” (p. xiii).

    So that these prayers and liturgies do not become stale and stagnant, that is, “they risk being dead in the water it treated with – dare I say it – Methodist mumble or Presbyterian plod,” Wren provides guidance and direction for good reading. This is why he also lays the texts out in a way that is suited for proper public reading (pp. xiii-xiv).

    The book includes all of the expected resources for the three seasons of Advent, Christmas and Epiphany. You will find readings for the Advent candle lighting (and placing Advent candle rings) ceremonies – through Christmas. You will also find responsive calls to worship, collects, and pastoral prayers. The resources are provided for each of the three lectionary cycles as well. Because he aims both for ecstacy and economy, the prayers and readings are sometimes brief and at other times are somewhat lengthy. Being that Wren is a hymn writer, it’s no surprise that he includes some new hymns and worship songs – with music provided for some of them by Susan Heafield.

    The Christmas resources include the usual prayers and calls to worship, but there are also three complete thematic “Christmas services of Scripture and Song.” The model for these three services is the King’s College, Cambridge service of “Nine Lessons and Carols,” which dates back to 1918. Wren notes that unfortunately that service has hardened into a rigid tradition, the service remaining unchanged since. He writes:

    Magnificent as it may be, the King’s College service has limitations. Taken from the (Authorized) King James Version, the archaism of its Scripture selections confines users to a ghetto of romantic religiosity that turns its back on the communicative power of the twentieth-century English translations like the Revised English Bible, New Jerusalem Bible, New Revised Standard Version, Today’s English version, and others. (p. 86).

    But the choice of translation is only part of the problem. There are also theological issues and a world-view that seems to be pre-Copernican. Therefore, what was intended as a way of providing a more imaginative worship experience has become stagnant. These new services are designed to give more flexibility, make use of modern translations, and provide new thematic directions. Year A is focused on the song “What Child Is This?”, while year B makes use of the “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear” as a thematic foundation – though Wren seeks to revise the reading and suggests an alternative tune. Finally, year C is entitled: “What if God was One of Us?”

    The Christmastide resources go beyond Christmas Eve/Christmas Day and cover the subsequent Sundays taking the congregation into the New Year. Finally, there are resources for Epiphany.

    Wren even finds room to slip in “A Short Communion Service with a Trinitarian Prayer of Thanksgiving. The “Prayer of Thanksgiving” seeks to draw out the various aspects of God’s Trinitarian essence. Using the opening phrase “Holy One, Holy Three,” he uses various Trinitarian constructs – “Spirit, Son, and Father”: Author, Word, and Breath”; “Lover, Beloved, and Energy of Love”; and “Giver, Given, and Gifting” (p. 179). To give a sense of his constructs consider this first “stanza” of the Thanksgiving Prayer:

    Holy One, Holy Three – Spirit, Son and Father, you unfolded time and space and created us to love and be loved, to live on this earth, and tend to it for your glory. With all your heart we praise you and thank you.

    Note the poetry, the theological focus, and the phrasing. Throughout the book, Wren lays out the prayers in such a way that if reprinted as printed in the book, those reading/reciting these prayers will have their phrasing laid out as appropriate.

    If you like Brian Wren or you’re looking for some new progressive yet Trinitarian worship resources, this will be a good fit. I plan to use some of these resources this Advent-Christmas season. The bonus aspect of this resource is found inside the back cover. There you will find a CD with the entire book contained therein. There is no need to type out all of the prayers and liturgies – just copy and paste. But, the author and the publisher want you to use the resources in their entirety – no adaptions or abridgments allowed. They seem to understand that it would be easy for adapted versions to creep out into cyberspace. But, if you’re willing to abide by the rules, this is a great resource.

    Unlocking the Message of the Bible -- Review

    UNLOCKING THE MESSAGE OF THE BIBLE: Guide to Biblical Interpretation. By Sharon Warner. St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2008. viii + 86 pp.

    I learned much of what I know about Christian education from the author of this book. Any lack of knowledge or proficiency in any particular area of Christian education that I may have, however, needn’t be blamed on her efforts, only on my own stubbornness! You see, Sharon Warner was my Christian Education professor back during my college days. I must say that I wasn’t always receptive to her leadings, but that was then, when I was bit less mature and a whole lot more conservative. Today, Sharon Warner is Professor of educational ministry at Lexington Theological Seminary. With the issue of my connections with the author out of the way, I must say that this is a most helpful and much needed adult study curriculum.

    In the very first sentence of the "Descriptive Summary," Sharon makes it clear why this study guide/book is needed at this moment in time.

    "This study is intended to help people in the church learn how to become better interpreters of the Bible."

    Sharon starts from the premise that we can and should improve our skills as interpreters of Scripture. She goes on to say that this is a process that we each engage in every time we deal with the Bible, what we need, however, is to become "more thoughtful and skilled in our work of interpretation" (p. vii).

    We may live in a land that is "Christian," and the Bible may be a perennial best seller, but we also live in a land full of biblically illiterate people. There are innumerable translations and versions available to the consumer. They come in any number of colors and sizes. We have red letter editions and green letter editions. We know bits and pieces of Scripture, but too often take it out of its literary, cultural, and historical contexts.

    Indeed, despite the plethora of options for biblical study, Stephen Prothero has demonstrated that despite America’s religious identity and the fact that millions revere the Bible, very few know what it says or understand its meaning. This is bad not just for the church, but also for the nation. Because the Bible is often appealed to in defense of or in support of this or that issue or agenda, being able to interpret it and apply it responsibly is an important skill. That is why Prothero believes that schools should teach classes in world religions and reading the Bible.

    While I agree to a large extent with Prothero, my greatest concern has to do with the people in the pews, the people who listen to sermons and read the Bible, and yet find the Bible difficult to understand and use responsibly. Reading the Bible is not an easy task, even though there are many wonderful modern translations and study helps. Reading the Bible responsibly – and that’s my greatest concern -- takes great care and determination. It requires that one dig below the surface and ask questions that aren’t always given to easy answers.

    This is where Sharon’s curriculum comes in. Its very focus is on teaching people how to handle scripture in a responsible way, which is an important antidote for the church’s illiteracy. Rather than being a content study, this relatively brief resource is an attempt to introduce serious Bible readers to the tools and principles of biblical interpretation. It is a foundational curriculum, one that will enable bible readers to understand the historical and literary context of the Bible. It will help them choose translations and wrestle with difficult texts. It deals with canonicity and theories of inspiration. It invites the participant to consider the fact that we all bring our own perspective to the study of Scripture. Once we understand how to best read the Bible in a responsible manner, then we can move on to read specific books of the Bible or engage in devotional study of the Bible, something like approaching scripture through something like lectio divina. What this congregationally-tested curriculum does is help the serious student of the Bible bridge the 2000-year gap between our day and the days of the biblical writers. To understand what the text says to us now requires that we have an understanding of what it said then.

    The book is composed of two primary parts. The first part or section is the ten sessions. These are laid out in such a fashion that the leader has everything he or she needs to lead an hour-long study session. You are provided a list of materials to be used, given the words to say, and the guidelines to lead activities. Part two, is a series of appendices that provide handouts that range from articles from biblical scholars to translation comparisons of specific texts to charts that detail synoptic theory or the origins and development of the Pentateuch. Having recently lead a lengthy study of the Bible that focused on historical critical and literary methodology, I was impressed by these resources.

    Mainline Protestants have been leery of the Bible. They’ve seen it misused and fear its impact. For many it seems dated and unusable. But, if we make use of resources such as this, we can reclaim the Bible and hear in it a word from God. But we must do this responsibly, and Sharon’s study book is just the place to start.

    Friday, November 21, 2008

    Honest Abe, Churches, and Presidential Faith

    If your pastoral predecessors have published their thoughts and sermons, it is good to check out what they had to say. Since the founding pastor of my congregation was a fairly prodigious producer of books, I've been skimming some of what he had to say. Part of my reasoning is that I'm trying to figure out the founding ethos of this congregation. What vision drove it in its earliest days. We are a long ways from the Edgar Dewitt Jones era, but his spirit lives on in many ways. So, you may see a Jones quote here and there as I wrestle with his legacy. Although he wrote and preached decades ago, there is much to ponder.

    Jones was a Lincoln enthusiast. He had a large collection of Lincoln papers and memorabilia, which he donated to the Detroit Public Library. He also, as I understand it, wrote quite a bit about Lincoln. So, in a sermon that dates prior to 1932, he shares this insight:

    Abraham Lincoln was not a member of any church, but he was naturally religious, and as he grew older the spirit of Christ took possession of him. He was a man of prayer and intimately acquainted with the Bible. He was an attendant on church services, but his intellectual honesty was such that the could not subscribe to some of the creeds, and when asked his reason for not united with the church he replied, "If any church will write on its altar as the sole condition for membership the words of Jesus, 'Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all they soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind, and thy neighbor as thyself,' that church will I join." To be sure, those words are written on the altars of our churches, but there is so much else written there that is less important and non-essential, that this great affirmation of real religion is often obscured and sometimes hidden. (Edgar Dewitt Jones, Blundering into Paradise, Harper & Brothers, 1932, p. 23).

    Perhaps it's worth hearing this statement, even as a debate is ongoing concerning whether President-Elect Barack Obama is actually a Christian. The protagonist in this debate is insistent that unless one forthrightly embraces the Nicene Creed -- which I might point out dates to the late 4th century -- one cannot be included in the Christian faith. Obviously, with that said, surely Abraham Lincoln was no Christian. And yet, perhaps he was more than most of us.

    Soul Searching --- Review

    SOUL SEARCHING: The Journey of Thomas Merton. Edited by Morgan C. Atkinson with Jonathan Montaldo. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2008. 2008 pp.

    I am not a contemplative person. I don’t read much in the spiritual masters, ancient or modern. I enjoy spiritual biographies and singing hymns, but poetry and guides to a life of silence and solitude don’t get my attention. I can spend a few hours in a monastic setting, but I get up and move around quite a bit. Indeed, I need a library and a book shop. So, when a copy of Soul Searching arrived at the door, sent to me by Kelly Hughes, a publicist who supplies me with books, often books that I wouldn’t pick up on my own, I wondered what to do with it. I’d heard of Thomas Merton. I knew he was a Trappist monk, and famous for his spiritual writings, but I’d never read anything by him or even about him. Despite my lack of knowledge of this man and his work, I picked up the book and started to read.

    Soul Searching is a companion book to a documentary filmed and produced by Morgan Atkinson. He produced the book because he had so much material left over, so much commentary from friends, students, and observers of Merton’s life and work that he decided to share the words of what he calls a “Merton Choir.” Atkinson is a film maker from Louisville, which is home to the Trappist monastery of Gethsemani, the home of Thomas Merton for much of his life. Atkinson is joined in this work by Jonathan Montaldo, director of Bellarmine University’s Thomas Merton Center. And the choir is diverse and having a testimony worth considering.

    Arranged chronologically, these voices bring to life a man that many revere as one of the great spiritual writers of the modern age, or at least 20th century America. Through the observations of this Merton Choir, the reader is introduced to a great spiritual master. But this isn’t a saint, as we typically understand that word. This is a man of deep spirituality, and yet this also a person who is deeply complex. Although there are those who would like to see him canonized, people who make pilgrimage to his grave, who read books with great devotion, Merton isn’t the saintly type. Indeed, we want our saints pure and undefiled, simple and without doubts. This isn’t the Thomas Merton we meet in these pages – his own complexity, his struggles with the life he chose – whether it be solitude, celibacy, or obedience – mitigate against such an action. Yet, it’s these very struggles that make him a model of Christian life and service.

    William Shannon, an editor of some of Merton’s works and a founder of the Thomas Merton Society, writes:

    “I don’t want him to be canonized anyway, because the canonizing would in a sense be putting him on a sort of pedestal, and I want to see him as someone who’s very much like all of us. If you want to call him a saint, that’s fine but what does it mean? He’s a person who struggled to do the will of God, who realized his faults. His clay feet are there for all to see. He certainly would not want any kind of adulation given to him in the way of sainthood” (p. 185).

    The Merton who appears on these pages is certainly a contemplative, a spiritual master, a person of prayer. He’s a person who chose the life of the hermit – a practice that was not part of his Cistercian tradition at the time. He chose to live apart and yet desired human contact. He enjoyed conversation but chose silence. Though, to those of us uninitiated into this tradition, it may come as a surprise that this silence and solitude wasn’t continuous. He was also a social critic, strongly opposing American involvement in the Vietnam War, and he crossed religious barriers and explored Zen and Tibetan Buddhism long before this was popular in the West. These choices made him suspect within his own church and put him at odds with his superiors at times. He found himself balancing his vow of obedience with this emerging commitment to social justice and interreligious dialogue. These expressions of protest and exploration outside the faith may have contributed to his exclusion from the recent catechism of the American Catholic Church. It would appear that Merton has become a dangerous voice. Yet, it’s this very complexity that has drawn people to him, both from within Catholicism and outside it.

    The book begins with explorations of his early life, the years prior to his conversion to Catholicism and decision to become a monk. He was British, an orphan, and brilliant. He studied at Cambridge and at Columbia University. He sought to be a famous writer and was known to be something of a playboy. In fact, it’s likely he fathered a child out of wedlock. The story of his early life and conversion is the subject of his famed spiritual biography, The Seven Story Mountain, published in 1948. The “choir” notes that he was a searcher, one attracted to Catholicism first by its intellectual possibilities and also by its aesthetics. But even as he was exploring Catholicism, he was also exploring communism.

    In the end he chooses Catholicism, and not just Catholicism, but a strenuous form of monasticism. Although monasticism, with its vows of obedience and commitment to community would seem limiting, Merton looked to monasticism for freedom. A former student of Merton and Cistercian abbot, John Eudes Bamberger writes about the freedom the monk is seeking when joining the monastic community.
    “It is a paradoxical freedom, however, because it is the freedom that comes from giving up your own will. Instead of seeking to affirm yourself, the monk seeks to bear witness to a truth that transcends him, and that’s what makes him free.”

    In Merton’s case, Bamberger writes further:
    “He understands that in order to attain to that kind of freedom he would have to die to this secular ideal of the successful man, the self-made man, the independent person. On the other hand there’s a certain danger of passivity, of dependency, of falsity. There’s no substitute for courage, for real inner freedom, for the energy that it takes to get liberated.” (p. 50).

    Seeking this freedom, Merton embraces the asceticism of monastic life along with the structure that the community provided. Indeed, those who knew him best note that part of the attraction of monasticism was the structure that it gave to Merton’s life. Indeed, this structure provided the foundation for a life of writing that made him famous, even as he sought freedom from that desire.

    In his search for this inner freedom, Merton had to face the reality of obedience, obedience even to those with whom he differed. Part of the story here is Merton’s relationship with his abbot, Dom James Fox, a man of very different inclinations and viewpoints from Merton. Yet, even as Fox often disciplined Merton’s actions, Fox respected Merton, turned to him as his confessor, and made Merton Master of Novices, one of the most important posts within the community.

    What has attracted the most attention to Merton is his spirituality, a spirituality that became was expansive even as it was deeply rooted in Catholic tradition. While noted for his exploration of Buddhism, including Zen, his decision to explore the life of the hermit stemmed from his exploration of the Desert Fathers. Even as he explored Buddhism and found strength and wisdom in its traditions, he never gave up his commitment to Catholicism. He was neither conservative nor liberal, as his observers note. Part of his decision to enter the life of the hermit was his desire to be one with nature. He loved being out in the forest, tending to gardens, and enjoying the bounty that he found there. In this there was somewhat of the Franciscan.

    Earlier I noted that issue of sainthood and the complexity of his life. Noted in the book is a relationship relatively late in life with a young woman. He had become sick and was assigned a student nurse, with whom he developed a relationship of some intimacy. Whether this was consummated sexually is not revealed – perhaps isn’t known – but it figured prominently in his life. Of course, he had to make a choice and in the end he cut off the relationship, apparently with some abruptness. There is some question about the depth of this relationship, but it marks him as human, with all the longings of a human for companionship and intimacy, something that can’t always be provided by one’s relationship with God.

    Merton the spiritual master died relatively early and unexpectedly. He was on a tour of Asia, visiting Cistercian monasteries and engaging in conversation with Buddhist monks, including the Dalai Lama. It was on this trip that Merton, only in his mid-50s, was electrocuted and died. Although some looked for sinister motives or even suicide, those who knew him best recognized that this was bound to happen. Merton might be a spiritual master, but he was also a klutz.

    I confessed in the beginning that I’ve not read Merton. I don’t know his writings or his perspective. But, having read this book, I find myself intrigued by his life and his message. I may not be ready to embrace the contemplative life, and most assuredly not the ascetic life that he led. That being said, I am impressed by his early attempts at building bridges across religious lines, his understanding that one need not give up one’s faith to learn respectfully from the other. I’m impressed to by his willingness to enter the fray of human life. Having chosen the life of the hermit, he could have easily slipped away and ignored the difficulties of his day, but he didn’t. From his own spiritual life, he found the courage to address difficult issues. His legacy is strong and influences many, to this day. There is much to learn from his writings, but also from the example of his life – not that he was a saint, but that he was a human being seeking God in the world.