Monday, August 31, 2009

The Meaning of Life?

Having posted on the question of the meaning of work, and pointed to the movie About Schmidt, in my search for a link to the movie I found this clip that I think sets this question up nicely. In this clip, near the end of the movie, Warren Schmidt writes to his "friend," a young man in a far off land whom he has sponsored, reflecting on his life -- and its meaning. He writes this, having lived his life totally wrapped up in work. Now, retired, his wife dead, and his daughter married, what is the meaning of life?

The Meaning of Labor

A week from today the nation will observe Labor Day. Labor Day has been observed in the United States for more than a century -- on the first Monday of September. It came to this nation from Canada, but was established by President Grover Cleveland in 1884, in the aftermath of the Pullman strike. It was created as a means of reconciling with labor.

Next Sunday, I will depart again from the lectionary, and focus my attention on the meaning of work and its being a context for mission. I'll write more later on this end. But as I begin contemplating this sermon, which I'm going to base on Acts 18:1-4.

After this Paul left Athens and went to Corinth. There he found a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, who had recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had ordered all Jews to leave Rome. Paul went to see them, and, because he was of the same trade, he stayed with them, and they worked together—by trade they were tentmakers. Every sabbath he would argue in the synagogue and would try to convince Jews and Greeks. (NRSV)
This text speaks of Paul's own trade -- that of a tent-maker -- by which he was able to support himself while preaching in Corinth (together with Priscilla and Aquila).

Our lives tend to center around our work. If we don't have a job, we feel like something is missing. And in this time of increasing unemployment, many Americans are feeling like something is missing in their lives. Of course, the value we place on work depends in part on the kind of work we have. Some people work so that they can do other things -- including paying rent, eat, etc. Others find great meaning in their work -- indeed there is great reward and enjoyment.

Such has not always been the case. In the ancient world, by and large, labor was equivalent to slavery. To be free was to not have to work. So, in many ways, Paul was not completely free.

Jurgen Moltmann, a theologian of hope, speaks of labor and work in his book On Human Dignity (Fortress, 1984). He writes:

We seem to fall into an irresolvable contradiction. On the one hand people in modern society are dependent on work; therefore, since the beginning of this society, it has been necessary to lift up the demand for recognition and maintenance of the human right to work. On the other hand, however, the existing essential, and paying jobs in this society are not always ones that can guarantee people a meaningful life. How does the right to work relate to the meaning of life, and how is the meaning of life connected with the right to work? (p. 38)

We spend much of our lives working. It gives many a sense of purpose and meaning. I remember watching Jack Nicholson in About Schmidt, a movie about retirement and the difficulties of making that transition.

Coming back to work after vacation is always difficult, however, because we've tasted a bit of freedom from the tasks of our jobs. Now, we have to rearrange our lives to fit with work. It will control us, or easily does. So the question is -- what makes work meaningful? Or, is the absence of work our goal?

Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Time is Now -- Health Care Reform

The American political system is neither pretty nor efficient. Democracy never is -- not even republican forms. The Founders, so distrustful of the people, tried to throw as many checks and balances into the system (as well as limit suffrage to land owners), have made passage of important legislation difficult.

We stand at the edge of an important set of legislation -- legislation that has been bouncing around for more than half a century. It has emerged in various forms and the one that may emerge from these discussions is likely to be less dramatic than the ones that have emerged before. Remember that Richard Nixon proposed expanding Medicare to include all Americans -- and he was a Republican. This legislation will not be as expansive as that proposed under the Clinton's either.

While it would be nice to have a bi-partisan bill, that's not likely to happen. The only moderates left in Congress are conservative Democrats. The Republican Party has become more and more conservative, running out its few remaining moderates (they hail from Maine, I think). I agree with the New York Times editorial -- the Democrats need to abandon getting GOP support -- they're going to get little if any, even if they compromise the bills to death. So, it's time, I think, for the President to sit down with the Blue Dogs, remind them that the GOP won't budge, and then find something they can support, that the rest of the party can support. Then, they need to sell this thing to the American public.

One of the first things that needs to be done is to point out that our system is incredibly inefficient and dysfuncional. Nicholas Kristoff shares the story of a couple forced to divorce so that the husband can get needed care without bankrupting the family. It happens all the time. It's also a reason why there's a growing trend of seniors living together without getting married -- they'll lose their social security/medicare benefits.

When I read these statistics about 86% of Americans being satisfied with their health care options, I wonder who we're talking about. I rarely run into them. And as for those Single Payer plans up there in Canada, the ones that are so horrible. I just returned from Canada, talked with an American working in Canada, heard a very different story. Indeed, he's thinking now of retiring in Canada because the health care system is so much better there than here. He spoke of the importance of comparing apples to apples. What we usually hear is the horror stories and then compare them to the best in America. But, let's compare best to best and worst to worst. If we do that Canada sounds like it comes out ahead.

As for rationing. Come now, we already experience rationing. The insurance companies will decide what they'll pay for. Then you have to decide if you have the money to cover additional treatment or go without. The cost of medicine here is triple that in Canada -- why? I don't know. Of course, taxes are higher in Canada. But I wonder if in the long run our rising medical costs far outstrip any tax differences.

The reality is this. If we're to get meaningful health care reform it'll have to happen this year, because once the campaign season starts next year, no one will do anything that will disrupt their chances of getting re-elected. So, now is the time!!

Saturday, August 29, 2009

A Time to Mourn

Today Senator Edward Kennedy is being laid to rest, having succumbed to the vagaries of cancer. His death was different than that of his three older brothers, in that he and his family knew that this was coming. It doesn't make the grief any less real, it's just that the family had time to prepare. One Tuesday, I will preside at the memorial service for a church member. She too had time to prepare for death -- but the grief at a loss is still there.

Today, we wrestle with death -- what it means and how to face it. Rarely is the body present at a service anymore (in part because a growing number are cremated). Services today are very different from earlier days. We tend to have more celebration. I'm okay with that. And yet, have we missed something here? Services are meant to bring closure, but do they? And of course, what do we say?

These questions have emerged anew as I've read Jurgen Moltmann's In the End -- The Beginning (Fortress, 2004). Although not the entire focus of the book, Moltmann does deal in some depth with matters of life and death -- including the process of mourning. Moltmann notes that grief has become more privatized -- the mourners concerned that they not disturb others with their grief. But, what is mourning? Moltmann writes this of mourning, and the way in which we mourn:

Is mourning the reverse side of love, and is its pain the mirror-writing of love's delight? The greater the love, the deeper the grief; the more unreserved the surrender, the more inconsolable the loss. Those who have given themselves utterly in love for someone else die themselves in the pains of grief, and are born again so that life can be given to them afresh, and so that they can again find the will to live. This is what personal experience and the experience of other people tell us. But if this is true we must take, or leave ourselves, just as much time for mourning as for love. It is only the grief which is accepted and suffered-through which restores the love for life after a death. People who shut themselves off from the mourning process or who cut it short will discover in themselves insurmountable depression and increasing apathy. They will lose contact with the reality of the people around and will be unable to find new courage for living. The person who mourns deeply has loved greatly. The person who cannot mourn has never loved. (pp. 122-123).

Mourning and love are, Moltmann suggests, related. And yet our society wants us to cut short the process. We want to cut short the process. Even the church wants us to cut short the process. So, as church? As people of faith, what do we do to facilitate true mourning? And how do we exprience new life coming out of the death of our loved ones?

Friday, August 28, 2009

What Makes a Good Pastor? -- Theolog article

What makes for a good pastor? What would you look for in one should you be looking for a church? Or if you're on a search committee? Is it education? Is it personality or character? Is it charisma?

Mainline denominations, like the Disciples, generally require a M.Div. as foundational. At a recent General Assembly we made some adjustments, some of which are controversial. I've posted an article at Theolog that raises the question. There is already some good conversation going there. Join in there or just offer your thoughts.

So, click here to take a look.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Facing hopelessness

What does it mean to live in a state of hopelessness? Where does it lead? As I'm reading Jurgen Moltmann's In the End -- The Beginning (Fortress, 2004) in preparation for attending the Moltmann Conversation in Chicago, I came across this statement.

There are two forms of hopelessness. The one is arrogance or presumption (praesumptio). The other is despair, the obliteration of hope (desperatio) . In presumption we take the fulfillment of hope into our own hands, and no longer hope for God. In despair we doubt that there can ever be fulfillment, and destroy hope in ourselves. All despair presupposes hope. The pain of despair lies in the fact that hope exists, but that there appears to be no way for the hope to be fulfilled. Where hope for life is frustrated in every respect, the hope turns against the hoper and eats into him,. 'I looked for work everywhere and was always turned down, Then I got to the point when nothing more mattered', said a young burglar in Berlin. When there is no longer any prospect of meaningful life, people turn to meaningless violence: 'Destroy whatever you can destroy.' When hope dies the killing begins. Hopelessness and brutality are just two sides of the same sad coin. (p. 94).

When we look around the world and see the increasing spread of violence -- in all in all it's forms --is there not some truth to this analysis? There is of course, arrogance involved in violence also, but in either case, there is no hope. If faith is the foundation of hope -- what does faith involve? How might people of faith be agents of healing in the world?

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Ted Kennedy is Dead

As I checked the news this morning I discovered that Senator Ted Kennedy has died at age 77 after battling a brain tumor. Kennedy, the youngest of four brothers, he alone lived and died a death of natural causes. Like two other brothers he ran for the presidency, but did not make it to the end. But what he did was become one of the most effective senators in history, crafting deals that got things done.
Health care reform was a key priority, and one can only believe that his absence from the senate has had an unfortunate effect on the debate. Perhaps now, as we honor his life, and mourn his passing that legacy and vision will stand out, and a civil conversation can begin.
Of course, for the Kennedy family this is a double loss, for it was only a few weeks ago that Eunice Kennedy Shriver died. A great family, devoted as they were/are to public service have lost two important standard bearers. The nation has lost them as well.
We keep the family and the nation in our prayers.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Watchful Prayer

I'll admit that I struggle with prayer -- not the idea so much as the practice. Meditating, contemplation, things like that simply don't work well with me. I want to be reading, writing, thinking, watching. I expect I'm not alone. Indeed, I understand that a majority of mainline clergy struggle with this.

Maybe that's why the chapter on prayer in Jurgen Moltmann's In the End -- The Beginning (Fortress Press, 2004). resonated with me (or it offered me a way to rationalize things). But the key point here is that as we pray, we're called to watch and see -- to perceive outwardly.

He writes about our body language, suggesting that it doesn't speak to watchfulness:

We close our eyes and look into ourselves, so to speak. We fold our hands, so as to collect our thoughts. We lower our eyes, kneel down -- even cast ourselves down with our faces to the ground. No one who sees us then would get the impression that this is a collection of especially watchful people. Isn't it rather blind trust in God which is expressed in attitudes of prayer like this? Why do we shut our eyes? Why do we crouch down and make ourselves smaller than we are? Don't we much more need to prayer open-eyed, and with our heads held high? But if we are to watch, who is it we are supposed to guard? And for whom are we supposed to be on the watch? Whom are we supposed to expect? (pp. 79-80).

In our modern world, what does it mean to pray? What are we expecting to happen as a result? Whom are we expecting to come?

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Ramadan has begun -- Reflections

The Muslim holy month of fasting called Ramadan began on Friday and will last for the next month. There are specific guidelines for determining when it starts, but once it starts Muslims are called upon to fast during daylight hours -- and fasting involves refraining from eating or drinking anything -- including even a drop of water -- as well as refraining from sexual activity. After the sun goes down Muslims will gather to break the fast with a meal. Such discipline is not easy to undertake -- I'm not a faster, but I respect those who can keep to this discipline.

I picked up on a piece from David Crumm's site on the beauty of Ramadan. Crumm, who is a former Detroit Free Press religion writer, presents a piece written by Najah Bazzy, which reflects on the spiritual benefits of Ramadan. In the spirit of understanding our neighbors I share this clip.


(A Brief Introduction to Its Spiritual Gifts)

By Najah Bazzy

Ramadan moon and Minaret In this holy and sacred month, the doors of Heaven are open. Let us take time to find a quiet and private place—lower our heads in humility and raise our hearts in praise.

God says that humanity is God's crowning creation for we have the gift of intellect and intelligence. God has granted humanity this intellect with a free will to choose God or not. If we wish to communicate our deepest needs, cleanse our conscience, or ask for forgiveness, then we should know that Ramadan is the best of months. Consider where you are in your spiritual life and measure that journey by how you feel when the month of Ramadan ends.

We can all choose to develop spiritual awareness and enlightenment by tuning in to listen quietly to the voice of our soul. When our soul or inner being whispers we must try to block the outside signals that clog and clutter the spiritual inner voice. We must train ourselves so we can hear what that voice is saying loud and clear, rather than the muffled version the majority of us live with.

During Ramadan, Muslims often find an inspirational story or figure on which to focus. There are many books about the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and his progeny that can serve as inspiration—in addition to the beautiful Holy Quran, which embraces the words and advice of God Almighty. The language of the Holy Quran renews itself every time you read it. Let us use the legacy of the Messengers of God to help create our own life force. Let us ask God to purify our hearts, expand our minds, and enlighten our spirits with piety and humility.

Islam focuses on promoting the unity of the mind, body and soul so that spiritual balance exists. During this month, the reward for giving charity to the poor and orphaned is among the best of deeds, and our deeds are multiplied during this blessed month. Give generously to charity so that in return we receive God’s mercy, forgiveness and eternal reward.

Creative Commons License
This work by David Crumm Media LLC is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License.

Singing the Lord's Songs -- A Sermon

We did something a bit different today in worship -- we sang parts of the sermon. It was well received. Of course, I have a great partner in my minister of music, Pat Kuhl. Here is the sermon as re-posted from my sermon blog -- Words of Welcome

Ephesians 5:15-20

I. The Call to Sing Praises to the Lord

Do you know what is great about church? It doesn’t matter whether you’re tone deaf or a professional singer, you get to sing and make melody in your heart to the Lord! In Ephesians we hear this admonition: Be filled with the Spirit and “make melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

The Psalmist also invites us to praise the Lord. Listen to the invitation found in the 150th Psalm, as it appears in The Message:

Praise God in his holy house of worship,
Praise him under the open skies;

Praise him for his acts of power,
praise him for his magnificent greatness;

Praise with a blast on the trumpet,
Praise by strumming soft strings;

Praise him with castanets and dance,
Praise him with banjo and flute;
Praise him with cymbals and a big bass drum,

Praise him with fiddles and mandolin.
Let every living, breathing creature praise God!
Hallelujah! (Psalm 150, MSG)

Yes, let every breathing creature praise God whether you’re using your voice or every instrument under heaven, from guitars to the organ!

This morning you get to help with the sermon. That’s because we’re going to sing the biblical story. We’re going to sing this story because God wants to hear our voices. We’re also going to sing, because singing helps cement the message in our hearts as well as our heads. This is important, because biblical illiteracy is a growing problem in the church. We simply don’t know the biblical story as well as we probably should. So, this morning we’re going to do two things – We’re going to make a joyful noise to the Lord by lifting our voices to God, and we’re also going to take to heart the biblical story – in five movements.

II. Singing the Lord’s Songs

I want to set the stage by stating two seemingly contradictory assumptions. On the one hand, the Bible is an anthology of sacred literature written and compiled over a long period of time, representing different theologies, experiences, and circumstances. On the other hand, the Bible also tells a coherent story about a relationship between God and humanity. It has a beginning, a middle, and an ending. At the beginning God creates the universe, while at the end God puts everything that’s gotten broken along the way back into its proper place.

There are a number of ways to tell this story, but I like the way Disciples biblical scholar Gene Boring lays it out.* Being a Disciple, Boring borrows a tool from one of the founding fathers – Walter Scott. Scott was known for developing the five-fingered exercise to summarize the way of salvation as stated in Acts 2. Boring suggests that we create our own five-fingered exercise to remember the biblical story, using five words, all beginning with the letter C: Creation, Covenant, Christ, Church, and Consummation. And if we’re going to remember this grand narrative, what better way to cement it in our hearts and minds than to sing it. So, let’s begin with the first movement:

  • Creation
We’ll start at the beginning, at Creation, where the opening words of Genesis state:
In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be Light; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good. (Gen. 1:1-4a)

The story continues on until it culminates in the creation of the man and the woman in the image of God. After each act of creation, God pronounces that “It is Good!” And since it is Good, we should celebrate with a blast from the trumpet and then celebrate with a song from the heart. Let us, then, hear the trumpet and sing:

“This is My Father’s World,” (59, vs. 1, 3)**
  • Covenant
Although God declared that everything in creation was good, as the story continues, things go terribly wrong. That’s because we decided to do things our way. God could have rejected us and left us to suffer the consequences of our actions, but instead God chose to make a way for us to get back on track. And to do this, God decided to make a covenant with Abraham and Sarah. God said to Abraham:
I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth will be blessed. (Gen. 12:2-3).

The rest of the Old Testament tells us how God formed a people so that God could bless humanity. Let us, therefore, celebrate God’s decision to make this covenant, first with Abraham and then with Moses by singing:

The God of Abraham Praise (24, vs. 1)

  • Christ
As Christians we believe that Jesus is the culmination of this covenant. Jesus is the seed of Abraham, through which God blesses the nations. So, as we turn to the New Testament, we see God taking the next step toward reconciliation with creation, by inviting us to share in a covenant relationship through the Son of God. As the opening verses of the Gospel of John puts it: The Word of God became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14). The message of the New Testament is this: God has been uniquely revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. With that in mind, let us sing the story of Jesus in three movements: Birth, Death, and Resurrection:

Hark the Herald Angel’s Sing (150, vs. 1)
Were You There? (198, vs. 1,3)
Christ the Lord is Risen Today (216, vs. 1)

  • Church
The resurrection is not the end of the story, it’s simply the beginning of the rest of the story. If we turn to the book of Acts, we see God sending the Spirit to empower a rag- tag band of disciples to carry the message of Jesus, beginning in Jerusalem, and then moving out from there to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). Although the Spirit-empowered church would face great persecution, it not only persevered, it grew and expanded to the ends of the earth. This story is our story, because together with them we proclaim that “God is in Christ reconciling the world to himself.” (2 Cor. 5). Let us celebrate this call to be agents of reconciliation by singing:
Surely the Presence of the Lord (263)
“Community of Christ” (655, vs. 1)

  • Consummation
Even as every story has a beginning, it also has an ending. With this in mind, Jesus declared to John, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End” (Rev. 1:8). Up to this point we’ve sung the songs of creation, covenant, Christ, and the church. Now, it’s time to look forward into the future and ask: Where is God taking us?

We may not know the details, but scripture says that a day will come when every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. Yes, as the Lord said to John:

“I’m A to Z, I’m the Beginning, I’m the Conclusion. From Water-of-Life Well I give freely to the thirsty. Conquerors inherit all this. I’ll be God to them, they’ll be sons and daughters to me.” (Rev. 21:6-7, MSG).

This is our hope! So let the trumpet sound again so that we might sing:

Jesus Shall Reign (95 , vs. 1)

Having rehearsed the biblical story, from beginning to end, let us make melody in our hearts, and sing praises to the God who reigns over all. Indeed, let us not cease to sing praises to the Lord our God with every breath we take!


*This idea comes from the final chapter of Eugene Boring's Disciples and the Bible, (Chalice Press, 1997).
**Hymn numbers are taken from Chalice Hymnal (Chalice Press, 1995).

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost
August 23, 2009

New Out of the Old

I have always loved the imagery in 2 Corinthians 5, which speaks of the old passing away and the new coming. It's a message of reconciliation that reminds us that God offers second chances. That image coincides with the images emerging as I begin reading Jurgen Moltmann's In the End -- The Beginning (Fortress Press, 2004). I'm dipping back into Moltmann in preparation for attending the Theology Conversation with Moltmann sponsored by JoPa Productions (Doug Pagitt and Tony Jones).

Moltmann is, of course, known for his theology of hope and focus on the future of God. He's also been very open about his own life story and conversion during his captivity in a Prisoner of War camp at the end of WWII. In this book, after recounting his own story of surviving a RAF attack on his home city of Hamburg, attacks that killed 40,000 and left the city in ruins, then time in the camps -- he speaks of a theology of catastropheism -- that is, the biblical story is full of catastrophe's, and his experiences as a youth were in a sense that of living in Sodom and Gomorrah, as it was being destroyed. But through all of this, he learned several things, two of which he shared, and which I'd like to share.

1. "I discovered that in every end a new beginning lies hidden. It will find you if you look for it. Don't loose heart."

2. "I found that if one gathers the courage to live again, the chains begin to smart, but the pain is better than the dull resignation in which nothing matters, and one is more dead than alive."
(p. 35).

I have never experienced anything like what Moltmann experienced. He lived through the devastation of his country, and also had to face the realities of the atrocities committed by the leaders of his nation. It must have been devastating -- indeed, he suggests that it was -- but out of this experience was born faith in God. These two simple statements remind us that no matter what happens to our lives, we can see in these experiences an opportunity to begin anew. Today is a new day. The old is passed, the new has come.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Introducing Christianity -- A Review

INTRODUCING CHRISTIANITY: Exploring the Bible, Faith, and Life. By James C. Howell. Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2009. xii + 212 pp.

What is Christianity? This is a question that needs to be asked, with answers attempted in each generation. Near the beginning of the 20th Century the renowned German Church Historian Adolph Von Harnack authored a book with this title, acknowledging that even then loud and confident voices were declaring that Christianity had outlived its usefulness (Harnack, What Is Christianity, 2nd ed., New York: G.P. Putnam and Sons, 1908, p. 5). Harnack offered his book as an answer to this challenge. Even before that Friedrich Schleiermacher offered his Speeches to the Cultured Despisers. So, the challenges posed to Christians today are not new, nor do they differ all that much from these previous challenges. A more compelling challenge faces Christians of today – a simple lack of familiarity with Christian faith as it has been lived and taught down through the ages. In Introducing Christianity, James C. Howell, a United Methodist pastor offers a response to that need.

Howell, who is the pastor of Myers Park United Methodist Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, hasn’t addressed his new book to the despisers of the faith, but to those who need a primer on the faith. It is written with an ecumenical mainline Protestant audience in mind. That a Methodist pastor has chosen to publish this book with a Presbyterian publisher is proof of that sensibility. The title of the book, is a bit misleading. Although not written with the trained theologian, or even the well-read pastor, in mind, this isn’t a basic text in the Christian faith. Although it’s not long – just about 175 pages in all – it is rather dense. It also covers a rather wide field of topics, from an overview of the biblical story to an outline of theology, from a history of Christianity to a discourse on Christian ethics. There is very little that it doesn’t touch upon. And it assumes, to a degree, at least a minimal familiarity with the biblical story and even aspects of the Christian story.

Howell’s approach could best be described as center-left traditional mainline Protestant. Indeed, it could easily fit into the scheme suggested in the recent books by Wesley Wildman and Stephen Chapin Garner – Found in the Middle! and Lost in the Middle? (Both published by Alban). Wildman and Garner argue for a “Liberal Evangelicalism,” one that is open, committed to social justice, and confessional in its approach to the Christian faith. This is essentially what Howell offers in the book. He’s no biblical literalist or inerrantist. He’s definitely committed to social justice and speaks fondly of the social gospel. Yet, he’s also a confessionalist. While the historic church has made plenty of mistakes, he’s confident that in all it’s made sound judgments on theology.

To get a sense of where he is coming from, one need look only at the theologians he quotes most often and quotes with the most respect. The three that stand out are Karl Barth, Jurgen Moltmann, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Reinhold Niebuhr and C.S. Lewis also make regular appearances in the text. This is a very mainstream perspective.

The book itself is divided into three parts, each consisting of three chapters. It is closed with a brief epilogue. Part one focuses on the Bible, with a chapter on the formation and transmission of the bible, and then chapters on the Old Testament and New Testament.

The second part, entitled simply “Christianity,” explores in brief the history of Christianity under the subtitle “Saints and Crusaders.” That statement gives a good clue as to the perspective – there is good and bad in our history. Chapter five focuses on the development of doctrine and then in chapter six Howell offers an exposition of what he considers the central doctrines of the faith (all in about twenty pages). I found interesting his statement that believing is something we do in community, and not as individuals.
Our culture declares that you can and should have your own little private denomination of belief. But how likely is it that even the brightest person’s opinions, that even the most passionate person’s pious feelings, are in fact the truth about anything rightly called God? Nobody can believe for me or you. But I don’t want to believe by myself; I want to believe with others, with you, in community (p. 99).

Thus, the value of the creeds, for even if they represent a certain time and place in history, they are communal expressions of faith and examples for us.

The final section, entitled “The Christian Life,” explores “the practice of Faith, the church, and eschatology. It might seem odd that a book such as this would spend an equal amount of space on eschatology as it does on the rest of theology, but my assumption is that since Howell wrote this book after teaching these topics in his church, that this was the topic that garnered the most interest and the most questions. It is true that the chapter deals with more than simply “end times” issues. Indeed, it focuses on salvation, the afterlife, and the idea of hope.

All in all this is a very good book to be used with lay Christians, but probably not new Christians. There is a certain degree of sophistication here – especially as he explores the ideas of theologians, ancient and modern. It is centrist enough that it should prove useful in most mainline congregations. It raises issues, including homosexuality, but it more often than not leaves room for discussion. Of course, the inclusion at the end of each chapter of discussion questions suggests that the intent is that this book should be read in community – as the body seeks to understand that ancient question – What is Christianity?

Lutherans tackle issue of Gays in the Church

Yesterday we were discussing John Piper's suggestion that the Minneapolis tornado was a sign of God's judgment on the Evangelical Lutheran Church for its discussion of same gender relationships, including the possibility of the ordination of openly gay candidates for ministry. Apparently the Lutherans didn't see this as a harbinger of God's displeasure, because a majority of delegates approved both referendums -- one recognizing the right of congregations to bless same-gender relationships. It also affirmed the right of congregations to call openly gay pastors to serve their congregations.

There will, of course, be much discussion within the Lutheran Church. It's possible that some congregations will leave the fold. This is always a possibility when denominations make major course changes.

As one who supports both gay marriage and the ordination of gays to ministry. I rejoice in this decision. I also know that the way forward will be difficult as this church wrestles with how to keep together when not all agree.

Friday, August 21, 2009

God, the Weather, and Judgment

The other day a tornado hit Minneapolis. It damaged the Convention Center and the Lutheran Church across the street, where the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America was not only holding its convention, but discussing a resolution dealing with human sexuality, and whether a practicing homosexual could be ordained to ministry.

John Piper, pastor of a large evangelical church in the community, and a rather hyper-Calvinist, offered his response, a response that might reflect his Calvinist background, but looked more Falwellian or Robertsonian than what many might have expected from him. After making a rather propositional statement of 5 points, he comes to his conclusion:

Conclusion: The tornado in Minneapolis was a gentle but firm warning to the ELCA and all of us: Turn from the approval of sin. Turn from the promotion of behaviors that lead to destruction. Reaffirm the great Lutheran heritage of allegiance to the truth and authority of Scripture. Turn back from distorting the grace of God into sensuality. Rejoice in the pardon of the cross of Christ and its power to transform left and right wing sinners.

So, the question is: what do we make of this statement?

First, let my note who John Piper is. While I haven't paid much attention to him (ever), nor have I read his books, I have long been aware of him. For one thing, hes a graduate of Fuller Seminary (as am I), where he was a student of Dan Fuller -- the son of the Founder. He also did a doctorate in New Testament at the University of Munich. So, he's not ignorant, by any means. He has quite a following in Calvinist/evangelical circles (sort of like Francis Schaeffer did a generation ago).

As to the nature of what he said, I can safely say that his pronouncement placed on his blog, has gotten a lot of attention -- much of it negative (at least in my circles). There really are two questions here. One has to do with whether homosexuality is to be judged sinful. Obviously, John Piper and a majority of evangelicals would agree to this assessment. Others, like myself, and including a growing number of younger evangelicals, would disagree. We recognize that homosexuality is a natural part of the make up of some human beings. We could say -- that's the way they were created.

The second question has to do with the nature of God's judgment. Piper expresses a traditional view that God not only judges, but since God is omnipotent, God is able to express that judgment through nature. History is full of such judgments, and there is no better biblical description than that of Sodom and Gomorrah (though again there is great debate as to the nature of that judgment (I do not think that this story has anything to do with homosexuality and has everything to do with the way we treat the stranger in our midst). I remember a number of years ago, after the earthquake hit Northridge, wreaking havoc on much of the LA Basin. Some of the TV evangelists quickly jumped on that event and suggested that the quake was God's judgment on the presence of porn studios in the San Fernando Valley. Now, as I far as I know, no studios were affected, but I do know that a number of churches were damaged, as was a university, freeways, a shopping center. Indeed, people died? So was this simply collateral damage of God's work of judgment on sin?

I recognize that you can find biblical support for such an assessment. But my question is, and always has been when we wrestle with questions of sin and judgment, both in this life and in the next, how does such an assessment fit with one's view of God? Although I affirm the holiness of God, I also affirm God's love. I take seriously the statement in 1 John that God is love. You could say that this reflects God's tough love, but I don't buy it. I simply cannot believe (even if I were to accept the idea of an interventionist God, which is becoming increasingly difficult for me) that God would do such a thing. And if God strikes at the Lutheran's, why not other groups?

Now Piper might retreat back to a more general statement, that such events are more metaphorical than literal -- but even so, is this appropriate interpretation of either the Bible or the modern context? Or, to take from Robert Wright's book, has Piper's God truly evolved?

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Finding the Extreme Center?

Many of us are concerned about the increasing polarization of the American populace -- in politics, religion, and more. While there never was a time of perfect peace, it seems as if we've become more and more ideologically-driven over the years. It happens on both left and right. While the extremes are the most vocal -- right now we're seeing it on the right with some of the very vocal, almost violent responses to health care reform proposals. But the left has been there as well -- just on different issues. But, it's not just politics. Our churches are being torn asunder -- for political, social, cultural reasons. Theology is present, but it's not the driving issue (although it provides cover).

There are those who have argued for a purple politics or a purple church, where red and blue come together. I've posted my responses to a proposal for a Liberal Evangelicalism (as expressed in two Alban published books: Lost in the Middle and Found in the Middle!, both authored by Wesley J. Wildman and Stephen Chapin Gardner.

Duke Divinity School President Gregory Jones weighs in with a commentary on the possibility of an "extreme center," posted at the Faith and Leadership "Call and Response" blog. By this he doesn't mean a lukewarm compromise kind of view, but rather one that seeks to hold in tension strong convictions with an openness to others.

If we have a tendency to go to extremes, what if we search for the “extreme center,” for holding ideas in tension rather in opposition to one another? We ought not shy away from strong convictions, and even “extreme” commitments to truth, goodness, beauty, forgiveness, justice and love. At the same time, we long for leaders, and institutions, that genuinely move us forward, embodying Jesus’s call to love our enemies and recognize with humility that whatever our convictions, we “see through a glass, darkly” (1 Corinthians 13:12). We do see; but there are also things we do not yet see.

I think that Greg is on to something. It is out of such an understanding that I have tried to engage in interfaith work. I'm firmly committed to my Christian faith, but I have also been for some time deeply involved in conversations with and work with people of other faith. I still preach the gospel of Jesus Christ, but I also seek to recognize that I am not infallible, that I don't have all the truth, and that the other is my fellow human traveler on the journey of life.

This isn't an easy path to take. It's easier to stay within our little groups and reinforce our own ideologies. It's much more difficult to step out and listen to the other. Although my positions have grown more liberal over time, at heart I've always seen myself standing in the middle (hoping not to get run over!).

So, my question is this: Is it possible to live in the extreme center, so that we might be, as Paul issued the call, be agents of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:18-20).

By the way, the picture is from the blog posting. I think it offers a good sense of what we're up to here!

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Hating the Government?

There is a lot of anger out there. We saw it even before the election. Sarah Palin rose to prominence by channeling it. Now Barack Obama won the election by a nice margin, but that anger never went away. For some reason people "love America" but hate the government. I'm not sure why that is. I realize that from the beginning there has been a certain distrust built in. Thomas Jefferson championed small government and a sort of agrarian libertarianism. That same agrarian populism has emerged in different places over the years -- back in Kansas at the end of the 19th century and more recently in the South and in the Mountain West. Don't take my guns they shout. Conspiracy theories abound.

Richard Beck, a psychologist, a professor, and a Christian, suggests that we all hate something -- but the question that we must answer has to do with where we channel it. Do we channel it toward the Yankees (or in my case the Dodgers) or on the government. In the 1940s it was Nazi Germany and Japan. Later it was the Communists in the Soviet Union or in China. Now, it seems that the enemy is our own government, which for some is personified in the President.

Richard writes:

So in one sense, it is natural and normal to hate the government or the other political party.

And yet, there is something more dangerous about hating the government. The government is so distant, powerful and bureaucratically faceless that it can seem malevolent. Which pulls the paranoia out of us like a poison. All our wounds, failures, and frustrations are poured, in great buckets of bile, into our feelings about "the government." And like with our sports teams, our anger and paranoia can personalize, turning political leaders into enemies and demons.

In short, I think the poison of political discourse is due to this displaced anger and paranoia. When you see someone ranting about a political figure like the President what you are witnessing is an angry paranoid projection. A mind turned inside out by its own fears, frustrations and failures.

So, what is afoot here? Is it true anger or is it an expression of paranoia? And what does this say about a growing number of Americans? Is it frustration with the way things are going or is it something else. I don't think we're on the verge of going totalitarian, but totalitarianism breeds in just this kind of soup!

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

John Calvin: Reformer for the 21st Century -- A Review

JOHN CALVIN: Reformer for the 21st Century. By William Stacy Johnson. Louisville: WJK Press, 2009. ix + 142 pages.

Not surprisingly, John Calvin’s 500th birthday has led to a flooding of the market with all manners of biographies and studies both academic and general exploring the life and work of this transformative sixteenth-century reformer. Calvin may have come of age after the first wave of reform had passed, but his influence on church, culture, theology, and politics was neither second tier nor second-rate. By most estimations, only Martin Luther surpassed him in impact and influence – and that is likely due to the fact that Luther preceded him as a reformer by more than a decade. Calvin’s legacy is so potent, especially regarding matters of culture and politics, that latter-day observers have either reviled him or revered him. It can be said that there is little middle ground when it comes to considering the person of John Calvin.

The question that faces modern observers is the basis upon which one should judge Calvin. Like Luther, Calvin was a man of his age. As William Stacy Johnson will point out in the book, in many ways Calvin was ahead of his time, and yet is a product of his time. The question that faces modern interpreters is what he might have to say to us in our own time.

Being that I’m not part of a traditional Reformed communion (the Disciples have Reformed roots, but have always distanced themselves from Calvin), I approach the question of Calvin’s legacy from a somewhat different point than my Reformed brothers and sisters. While the historian in me is interested in Calvin’s life and work in the sixteenth century, the pastor in me wants to know what he has to say to the modern church. It was with that in mind that I chose to read this offering of Professor William Stacy Johnson. I was intrigued by the subtitle and wondered how this oft-vilified (or sainted) man of the 16th century might be a “Reformer for the 21st Century?”

The author is a Presbyterian theologian teaching at Princeton Seminary – a bastion of progressive Reformed thought. He is also the author of a well-received book on homosexuality. Knowing that he stood on the more progressive side of the Reformed tradition suggested that this rather brief book might stir the imagination, and the book doesn’t disappoint.

In short compass, Johnson introduces us to Calvin’s life and his theological writings. While Johnson is an admirer of Calvin, this isn’t a hagiography, for we are introduced to Calvin’s warts as well as his strengths. The point that the author wants to get across to the reader is that Calvin believed that reform was an ongoing process, and that he never saw himself as offering a final or definitive word on matters of theology, ecclesiastical practice, or on society. Indeed, Johnson makes clear that Calvin would have been horrified to find people calling themselves Calvinists. He would have also been disturbed to see his own thought codified into a hard-edged orthodoxy. Still, even if we should not take Calvin’s ideas as definitive, Johnson does believe that Calvin offers us an important model of a faith that is deeply committed to the scholarly study of scripture and committed to the transformation of society.

The book begins with a brief two-chapter synopsis of Calvin’s life, but this isn’t a biography. Johnson is more interested in Calvin’s thought and how it might speak to our own day, especially as Calvin might speak to the modern mainline Protestant church. It is clear to the author that the foundation of Calvin’s thought was found in his vision of God. For Calvin, God wasn’t a philosophical category to be used to explain the world. No, the Triune God whom Calvin chose to serve was, in his own mind, not only sovereign, but more importantly was personal, active, and who deeply identified with the wounded and the hurting in the world. Johnson suggests that we might be better served if we spent less time exploring Calvin’s philosophical expositions of divine providence and spent more time focusing “on Calvin’s preaching about the God who identified with our woundedness, and who gave his life for the rest of the world” (p. 20).

Chapters explore the usual doctrinal emphases – including the central Protestant professions of “Grace Alone,” “Faith Alone,” and “Scripture Alone.” He looks into the doctrines of election and predestination, as well as sin and salvation. On the issue of election, he points out that the doctrine had important practical implications for lay people, who under traditional Roman Catholic doctrine were not seen as having a true Christian vocation. For Calvin, however, the doctrine of election meant that “people in all occupations in life can live out an authentic Christian vocation.” And, “whatever a person does can be done to the glory of God.” (p. 46). Thus, it’s less about a predetermined life, and more about a call to service.

We also explore the way of living the Christian life, empowered by the Holy Spirit, a way of life that led to freedom and opportunity. Although not a democrat in the modern sense, he had little regard for monarchy. A pastor, he entered into political debates because he sought to form a community of faith, where equality was present. All of this was prescient and influential on later events. Yes, he wasn’t perfect. The oft-cited case of Michael Servetus is evidence of this. But, as Johnson points out, while Calvin needs to be judged on this case, he shouldn’t be condemned on the basis of it, for there is much more to the man and his legacy.

As the book explores each doctrinal, cultural, and political emphasis, Johnson offers a reflection that carries the lead-in: “Always Reforming.” Ultimately, this is the message of the book. Calvin was committed to reform and reformation. He did much to launch the Protestant Reformation, but he was not and is not the end of the process. Indeed, he believed it was unending. Although his writings may appear at times to be technical and intricate, ultimately his concerns were very practical. He was, as Johnson continually points out, a pastor (even if there is no record of his being ordained). His role in Geneva was that of a teacher, not as a politician. He did have a prominent place but it was the pulpit and not the city council. The reason, perhaps, that Calvin became so influential is that Geneva became a major refuge for Protestants fleeing persecution, from England to Eastern Europe. Influenced by his teaching, these reformers – such as John Knox – returned home and sought to introduce the ideas they had learned.

Johnson notes that many people believe that to be reformed is to be in agreement with Calvin’s beliefs and teachings. Calvin, as we’ve already seen rejected such a notion. It is instructive that he requested that he be buried in an unmarked grave. Christ alone is head of the church. His focus was on the glory of God.

For Calvin, Christianity consisted of following the God who is for us by being with us in Jesus Christ and who is always at work among us by the power of the Holy Spirit. Being true to this God requires a dynamic and self-critical theology, one that points beyond itself to the God who transcends human circumstance (p. 121).

Thus, one need not be a Calvinist to appreciate his vision of a God-centered faith that would transform not only individual lives, but society itself.

If one is interested in understanding Calvin and his legacy for today, especially if one has had a rather negative view of the reformer, then there is no better place to start than this book. It’s well-written and has the right tone for those who find themselves on the moderate to liberal side of things. It provides a reading list and discussion discussions, if you're so inclined to use the book for a group study -- this is very readable and useful by lay audiences who will appreciate much that they read here.

The book is finally, a reminder that history -- and heritage -- is an important resource to be consulted (always with great care) as one takes the journey of faith.

Faith Community and the President Talk Health Care Reform

I received information today about tomorrow's webcast conversation between religious leaders and the President about health care. Thought I'd pass it on. Note that Sharon Watkins and Cynthia Hale, both Disciples, will be participating in the 40 minute conversation. Unfortunately I will be in a meeting at the time, but I'd welcome any who listen to come back here and offer your thoughts.



(Indianapolis, Ind. - DNS - Aug. 18) - Members of the faith community will host a live webcast call-in on Wednesday, Aug. 19 that will lift up a variety of voices in the national debate about health care.

General Minister and President Sharon Watkins will be one of the participants on the call, along with Rev. Dr. Cynthia Hale, pastor of Ray of Hope Christian Church in Decatur, Ga. President Barack Obama was invited to join the call, and has accepted, making this the first time a President of the United States has spoken by phone to such a large number of people.

The live webcast - "40 Minutes for Health Reform" will allow people of faith to share their stories about health care in this country. The call is being hosted by a number of religious organizations, including Disciples Justice Action Network (DJAN), which is affiliated with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), and will involve religious leaders from diverse communities of faith.

Hale will offer a prayer during the webcast and Watkins will make a statement about the faith community's critical role in encouraging legislators to create a health care system that is accessible and affordable for all. Clergy working in their own communities will follow Watkins' comments, explaining ways that they are involved in working for a solution, and telling real-life stories of people who have been impacted by the present health care system. President Obama will speak directly to the faith community during the call. The call will include a question and answer session with a high-ranking Administration official on pressing issues for religious persons.

"Though our health care system is the best in the world for people who can afford it, too many people can't afford it," said Watkins in explaining her interest in being part of the webcast. "Too many people - especially children - get sick and even die unnecessarily because good health care is beyond their reach. I just think we can do better, and I want us to try."

"The call will be an important, reasonable conversation about something that matters very much - a health care system accessible to all of us," Watkins continued. "While we sometimes differ about the approach, I think it is important that we all stay engaged in the conversation so that we can get a better deal for all."

Watkins has spoken out on the issue of health care reform a number of times. She recently wrote a letter to the Church reminding Disciples that Jesus' ministry was one of healing, of bringing life to the dying, sight to the blind, and wellness to the sick. In the letter, she called on Disciples to contact their Senators and Representatives asking for affordable, accountable, and inclusive health care this year.

The webcast call-in will take place at 5 p.m., EDT tomorrow. To listen, log on to at the time of the call. Or, you may dial 347-996-5501 (no passcode, long distance charges may apply). Because of the large call volume that is expected, listening online is the preferred method. You may also RSVP for the call by going to:

Huckabee goes to the West Bank!

Mike Huckabee wanted to to go to the White House, but ended up on Fox News Network (along with friends Bill, Sean, and Glen). Mike is a sort of populist -- like Sarah -- but he's also a firm fundamentalist. This is seen in his visit to Israel, a stop funded by Right Wing advocates of Israeli control of what some consider the Jewish homeland.

While it is US policy to support a 2-state solution and even PM Benjamin Netanyahu has reluctantly acceded to the possibility. Mike doesn't like it. Can't put a Palestinian homeland in the middle of the Jewish homeland. Just wouldn't be right. Now, he does admit that Palestinians should have a homeland, just not there.

Think about what we're talking about here. We're talking about ethnic cleansing. We're talking about forced migration -- a "Trail of Tears." Mike praises the Israeli's for permitting Muslims to visit the Dome of the Rock, even though it "could be considered an affront." An affront to whom? To God? To the Temples? Remember that when the Dome was built all that there was on that site was rocks and rubble.

This is just my opinion, but Mike is playing with fire. And what he's speaking of tends close to the immoral. We should be praying for the peace of Jerusalem, not the spread of violence!

Monday, August 17, 2009

Missional life -- Outside the Box?

Like many congregations mine is talking about becoming missional. We want to move in a new direction, take hold of God's vision for our congregation and our community. It's not easy for a long established congregation, one with a rich history, of moving that way. If you're starting from scratch you don't have the legacies to consider. You just do what needs to be done. I expect that most outside the box congregations, or as Gary Nelson calls them, Borderland Churches, are of recent vintage. We're celebrating 30 years in our current location and 81 years as a congregation that goes by the name of Central Woodward Christian Church. Once we were a cathedral like church -- residing in a neo-gothic building on Detroit's Piety Row. That's no longer who we are, but its hard to let go of legacies!

I'm very interested in the discussions that go on around this topic, especially those that emerge from more liberal or progressive circles. Many mainline churches have eagerly embraced their call to serve the poor and the marginalized. They've been much more reticient to preach the gospel, with the intent of bringing those outside the faith into the faith (also called evangelism).

This morning I ran across George Bullard's posting, a posting that asked the question -- What does it take to become a missional congregation?" He first offers his definition:

A missional congregation is one who, out of their worship of the triune God and their passion around fulfilling the Great Commission in the spirit of the Great Commandment, seeks to make the world more loving and just through actions focused on spiritually transforming the lives of their neighbors and modeling the gathering of these neighbors into healthy mission outposts called congregations for the scattering of these same neighbors through their own missional efforts.

I kind of like this definition. For one thing it recognizes the importance of worship. It also speaks to issues of justice and mercy (a progressive concern) and it speaks of transformation of one's neighbors.

He offers a briefer version that goes like this:

A missional congregation seeks to make the world more loving and just through spiritually transforming the lives of neighbors.

He then offers 3 ways in which congregations try to become missional. He calls these versionis: Push, Pull, and leap. By his estimate 80% of so-called missional congregations are of the first type, a type he believes is not truly missional. At the very least, we must become a Pull type congregation, by which he means, congregations that are:

[S]eeking to understand the neighbors to which they perceive God has called them, and then equip disciples within their congregation with the skills needed to be received by those neighbors.

It's not just a matter of sending people out to make disciples (push type), but it involves seeking to understand our neighbors and then equipping our people to touch the lives of those neighbors. It is more intentional and thought through.

The last form takes the congregation into parts unknown, to neighbors we don't usually take notice of. They may be in our back yard, or may be not. Still there is intentionality here.

The question that emerges from the discussion -- at least from a more progressive/liberal perspective -- concerns the issue of coercion or maybe triumphalism. Do we go out into the world believing that we have the answers to every question, and that if peoples lives are to be transformed then they need to look like us, or at least think like us? I guess the question at this point is -- what does spiritual transformation look like? What does it mean to be more loving and more just?

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Tasting the Bread of Life -- Sermon

John 6:51-58

On Monday nights, Guy Fieri takes us on a road trip to all the “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” across the land that serve great food, at great prices, but without the frills. While Cheryl thinks that he just goes to greasy burger joints, that’s not entirely true. Yes, he does go to places that like to deep-fry things, but he also goes to some rather surprising places – like a drive-in in Boise that serves prime rib, or a place down on Woodward Avenue called the Fly Trap that’s known for its Asian cuisine. The Food Channel, which carries Guy’s show, exists because we like to eat, and as Alton Brown puts it on his show, we like “Good Eats!” Now, I’m not sure what either Guy or Alton would make of this morning’s text. I’m not sure that Alton Brown would declare Jesus’ offer of himself as true food and drink to be Good Eats.

While Jesus told the tempter that there’s more to life than bread, bread is still an important biblical image. In John 6 Jesus tells us that he is true food and true drink, and that if we consume these elements then we’ll experience eternal life. While this is one of those biblical passages that’s difficult to deal with, especially if you take things too literally, when read in context – both biblically and historically – there is much that is spiritually empowering in this chapter. Now, John 6 begins with Jesus feeding a great crowd. When the crowd returns the next day demanding more bread, perhaps remembering Moses and the manna from heaven, Jesus offers them something else, himself, as the true bread of heaven. As you read this passage you will begin to understand why some early critics accused Christians of cannibalism.

1. Finding Life in God’s Presence

At the heart of this passage is the question of the nature of life. According to John, Jesus says to the crowd: If you eat my body, which is the bread of life, you will have eternal life. But what does this mean for us? What does it matter for us to talk about eternal life today?
To put the question in context – what does this passage have to say to the biggest political conversation of our day – health care reform? There are, of course, pros and cons about any reform proposal, but the issue that’s getting the most press has to do with a provision in one of the bills to pay for a conversation with one’s doctor about “end of life” care. This provision has led some opponents to suggest that reform would lead to euthanasia and “death panels” deciding what kinds of medical treatment you will get. Some of them even raise the specter of Nazi Germany’s eugenics program. Now, all of this is misinformation – deliberate or not – but the issue I want to lift from this debate is how we understand life and death. You see, the reason why opponents have had such success with this tactic is that most of us not only fear death, but have an aversion to talking about it.

As a pastor, I’ve witnessed this on more than one occasion – a person is nearing death and wants to talk about it, but their loved ones will have nothing to do with the conversation. They either change the subject or give false assurances that everything is going to be okay. This fear of death is one reason why we often go to such extremes to put death off for as long as possible, even when nothing can be done, except to prolong the agony.

So, as we hear this text, what does it say about life and death? We needn’t court death to recognize that death is both a natural part of life and inevitable. While it’s right for us to grieve our losses and take advantage of appropriate medical treatment that will prolong life, John reminds us that our lives are defined by our relationship with God in Jesus Christ. In speaking of eternal life, John doesn’t just have the next life in mind – he also has this life in mind as well, for eternity begins now, as we live in relationship with God. This is, I believe, what Jesus is offering us by presenting himself as the bread from heaven, the bread that will sustain us forever.

2. Abiding in Jesus and Abiding in God

The word that we hear in this text is this: if we ingest the flesh and blood of Jesus, we will receive true food and true drink. If we will receive this true food and drink, by faith, then Jesus will abide in us, and we will abide in him. Although the phrasing is a bit different, this idea of abiding in God’s presence is also found in 1 John. There the passage reads: “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them” (1 John 4:16b). Another way to put this is that if we walk by faith we can experience union with the God of Jesus Christ, who is love in its fulness. If, as it would appear, John 6 has the Lord’s Supper in mind, then it would seem that John wants us to understand that as we share in the elements of bread and cup, we can, if we act in faith, experience oneness with God, which will change our lives forever.

But, how does this happen? Although some Christians take this passage quite literally, and insist that when we take bread and cup, we’re literally ingesting Jesus’ physical body and blood, I believe we would be better served to take this passage more as a metaphor, so that when we share together in the bread and the cup, we can experience God’s life-changing presence anew.

Or to put it another way, as we receive these signs of the body and blood of Christ, we can receive into our lives the life that is God’s, so that even as the Spirit indwells us, God will be present in our lives.

There is imagery here that may be easy to miss, because we tend to forget that our food was once alive. But the ancients understood, that whether it’s animal or vegetable, when we eat something, we ingest life, so that we might have life. Or, as Gail Ramshaw puts it: “All life depends upon the life of another” (Gail Ramshaw, in New Proclamation, Easter Through Pentecost, Year B 2003, Fortress, 2003, p. 148) This is as true of a vegan as it is of a carnivore. So, by sharing in the flesh and blood of Jesus in the symbols of bread and cup, we receive into our own lives the person of Jesus, so that our lives might be sustained both in the “here and now” and in the life to come.

3. Abiding through Word and Sacrament

Because this passage has long been understood to speak of the Lord’s Supper, it is important that we consider what it has to say to us about what happens in worship. Reflecting on John 6, John Calvin said that the true church was marked by two things: The Word rightly preached, and the Sacraments rightly administered. Our passage speaks of the sacrament, and in the verses that precede this one, we hear about the teaching of the Father, which Calvin believed spoke of the centrality of the Word of God in worship. In many ways both Word and Sacrament are sources of the Bread of Life that will sustain our lives for eternity. Although some Christians emphasize one or the other, Calvin believed that you needed to have both, if you were going to truly abide with God and live changed lives.

We Disciples are known for our emphasis on the Table, but we too, like Calvin, have understood that Word and Table go together. Our Founders were committed to a Reasonable faith, one that was informed by the Word. They also believed that it was essential that we come together at the Table to reflect on that Word, and allow the Spirit to seal that Word into our hearts, so that we might live transformed lives.

Calvin believed that if we receive by faith the Bread of Life, which is Christ, then we can experience new life. While he didn’t believe that we actually ingest Christ’s literal body and blood, he did believe that when received by faith, the Spirit of God would deliver to us the benefits of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, which is what these emblems represent. That is, as we partake of this means of grace, ministered to us through bread and cup, we receive into our lives, by the power of God’s Spirit, the forgiveness that transforms and empowers the life of the believer. Having received forgiveness, God is able to abide with us, so that we might abide in God – who is, after all, love in its fulness. (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, IV:14).

Let us, therefore, receive by faith these life changing signs of God’s grace that are ministered to us by God’s Spirit as we attend to the Word of God and to the Table of Grace. For it is in this Word and at this Table that we are able to experience abundant life. Therefore, as we receive this gift of God, may we live boldly and without fear – even in the face of death itself.

Preached by:
Dr. Robert Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
11th Sunday after Pentecost
August 16, 2009

Reposted from Words of Welcome

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Remembering Geoffrey Bromiley (1915-2009)

If you have read Karl Barth, Wolfhart Pannenberg, Helmut Thielicke, or Kittel's famous Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, in English, then you have likely benefited from prodigious translation work of Dr. Geoffrey Bromiley, Professor Emeritus of Historical Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary. Bromiley also wrote a number of books -- some on Barth, some on the English Reformation, as well as other topics. Dr. Bromiley was relatively retired by the time that I matriculated at Fuller in 1982. But, I did get to take his Barth Seminar. There's something to be said for taking a seminar like this with the person who translated the works of the one being studied. When it came to interpreting Barth's often dense prose, who better to hear offer an opinion on the meaning of the text than one who had spent so much time ingesting the words of this most important theologian.

I heard someone once say that German theologians would read Barth in Bromiley's translations -- because his renderings were clearer than Barth's own words. That could be apocryphal, but it goes to the importance of his work. His work as a translator has enriched our own theological endeavors.

On August 7th, this man, who was probably Fuller's most prominent scholar, died at the age of 94. thout his translations our theological work in English would have been less rich. Indeed, Ben Meyer suggests that he may have been the most important English theologian of the 20th century --

I remember a conversation where a friend and I were discussing the question, “Who is the 20th century’s most important English-language theologian?” My own argument – and I meant this quite seriously – was that Geoffrey Bromiley has been the single most influential figure in modern English-language theology. Several of those European traditions that have most deeply shaped our own imaginative landscapes have been mediated primarily by Bromiley’s tireless, meticulous, and loving work of translation.

But he was not just a scholar -- he was a teacher and a model of Christian life. My own mentor, Dr. James Bradley, serves as the Geoffrey Bromiley Professor of Church History at Fuller. Jim makes this statement about one who was his mentor.

“The strength of his character exercised an enormous influence on those of us who were his students and colleagues,” said Bradley. “His singular dedication to Jesus Christ and his love for the church shaped us both spiritually and intellectually. His understanding of the discipline of scholarship as part of the ministry of the Word of God will continue to influence Fuller’s future.”

I would say the same of Jim, as he has spoken of Dr. Bromiley, which means that Dr. Bromiley was one to be reckoned with, both as scholar and as a person of faith. We have been blessed that this man has walked among us. I was blessed personally to have spent just one academic quarter in his classroom, exploring thought of one of history's greatest theological minds -- Karl Barth. This is a legacy to treasure.

Thoughts on Transubstantiation

As we wrestle with John 6:51-58, the text that I'm taking up tomorrow, and a text that has given many difficulties as to meaning and application, I've been working to some degree with John Calvin's perspective.

To understand Calvin one must understand him in context. On one hand was the Roman Church with its doctrine of Transubstantiation. On the other side were more Radical Protestants who wanted to rid the church of any idea of real presence. Calvin's view of a spiritual presence has been a helpful one for many. But, as we consider his position, and the broader Protestant position (reflected in my own Disciples tradition), it's helpful to have some understanding as to how the idea of Transubstantiation developed.

The doctrine of Transubstantiation is, of course, a reflection of a belief in the real presence of Christ in the Sacrament. It seeks to answer how this occurs. There was in the Medieval Catholic Church -- and even earlier -- a belief that through the sacred actions of the priest, the Eucharistic bread and wine were transformed into the body and blood of Christ. One could understand this presence either symbolically or literally.

Augustine defined the sacrament as an external, tangible sign of a reality that existed only in the realm of the Spirit. Therefore, Christ was present in the Eucharist spiritually but not physically. Later theologians, however, wanted to go further and define the Eucharist as being more than a sign.

Paschasius Radbertus (ca. 831) wrote an important treatise De corpore et sanguine Domini, in which he wrote that after the consecration there was nothing there but the body and blood of Christ, though it was perceived as being under the form of bread and wine. Thus the body that is received in the Eucharist is the same as that which was born of the virgin Mary. Radbertus wrote:

"What is perceived externally is a figure or mark, but what is perceived internally is entirely reality and no figure at all; and therefore nothing else is here revealed but reality and the sacrament of the body itself--the true body of Christ, which was crucified and buried, surely the sacrament of his body, which is divinely consecrated by the priest above the altar with the word of Christ through the Spirit: whence the Lord Himself exclaims, `this is my body' (Luke 22:19)." [quoted in Bengt Hagglund, History of Theology, (Concordia, 1968), 156.]

Although Radbertus' position met with some opposition, especially from those who wanted to maintain the Augustinian view, it was his view that would carry the day.

It was left to later Scholastic theologians to more fully develop this Medieval Eucharistic doctrine. Peter Lombard, for instance, wrote:

"To these we can reply as follows: That the body of Christ is not said to be made by the divine words in the sense that the very body formed when the Virgin conceived is formed again, but that the substance of bread or wine which formerly was the body or blood of Christ, is by the divine words made his body and blood. And therefore priests are said to make the body and blood of Christ, because by their ministry the substance of bread is made the flesh, and the substance of wine is made the blood of Christ; yet nothing is added to his body or blood, nor is the body or blood of Christ increased." [Quote from Ray C. Petry, A History of Christianity, (Baker, 1981), 1:321].

These definitions, which were emerging in the church had to wait for Fourth Lateran Council (1215) for official definition.

"There is one Universal Church of the faithful, outside of which there is absolutely no salvation. In which there is the same priest and sacrifice, Jesus Christ, whose body and blood are truly contained in the sacrament of the altar under the forms of bread and wine; the bread being changed (transubstantiatis) by the divine power into the body, and the wine into the blood, so that to realize the mystery of unity we may receive of him what he has received of us. And this sacrament no one can effect except the priest who has been duly ordained in accordance with the keys of the Church, which Jesus Christ himself gave to the Apostles and their successors." ["Canon I: the Creed, the Church, the Sacraments, and Transubstantiation," in Petry, History of Christianity, 1:322.]

Note here that great emphasis is placed both on the church as the home of the faithful and the centrality of the priest in bringing about this change in elements -- outside of which there is no salvation. You can see how powerful this makes church and priesthood, and the challenge that Protestantism posed to the church in the 16th century. If, as Calvin taught, it is the Spirit and not the priest who determines whether Christ is present, mediating to the faithful the signs of salvation, then the power of the church in society is weakened. We can also understand why some, including Ulrich Zwingli, wanted to go well to the other side of the equation, bypassing even Augustine's more symbolic understanding of presence. But, if John 6 has, as I believe it does, Eucharistic elements, can we move to a mere memorialism and have faithful understanding of the Eucharist?

Friday, August 14, 2009

Nourished by Christ's Body and Blood

The Spirit of John Calvin is truly with us in this season of his 500th birthday. Why else would a Disciple pastor spend so much time reflecting on Calvin's views of things -- like the Lord's Supper? The fact is, Calvin, while in no way perfect, has much to say to us on matters of great importance -- including the Lord's Table. I have always been attracted to his perspectives, especially as they were mediated in the 19th century through the Mercersberg Tradition of Schaff and Nevin. I'm nearly finished reading William Stacy Johnson's excellent little exploration of Calvin's views -- John Calvin: Reformer for the 21st Century (WJK, 2009), which offers important insights for how we might approach Calvin today.

This little introduction leads me to the point of the post -- my continued conversation about the Lord's Supper. Calvin was neither a "mere memorialist" nor did he believe that the bread and wine became in substance the body and blood of Christ. Instead, he spoke of a spiritual presence -- not so much in the elements themselves, but in the whole experience of the Table. This perspective is, I think, a useful one. The question that we're wrestling with concerns the way in which Christ is present to us in the Sacrament. Here is a section from Calvin's extended discussion of the Eucharist found in The Institutes of the Christian Religion, John McNeill, editor, (Westminster Press, 1960), Book IV, Chapter 17.

On the meaning and promise of the Supper, which includes discussion of the texts from John 6, he writes:

It is not, therefore, the chief function of the Sacrament simply and without higher consideration to extend to us the body of Christ. Rather, it is to seal and confirm that promise by which he testifies that his flesh is food indeed and his blood is drink [John 6:56], which feed us unto eternal life [John 6:55]. By this he declares himself to be the bread of life, of which he who eats will live forever [john 6:48, 50]. And to do this, the Sacrament sends us to the cross of Christ, where that promise was indeed performed and in all respects fulfilled. For we do not eat Christ duly and unto salvation unless he is crucified, when in living experience we grasp the efficacy of his death. In calling himself "the bread of life," he did not borrow that name from the Sacrament, as some wrongly interpret. Rather, he had been given as such to us by the Father and showed himself as such when, being made a sharer in our human mortality, he made us partakers in his divine immortality; when offering himself as a sacrifice, he bore our curse in himself to imbue us with his blessing; when, by his death he swallowed up and annihilated death [cf. 1 Peter 34:22, VG., and 1 Cor. 15:54]; and when , in his resurrecting, he raised up this incorruptible flesh of ours, which he had put on, to glory and incorruption [1 Cor. 15:53-54]. -- Instititutes IV:17:4]

As you can see from this text, Calvin directly roots his understanding of the nourishing presence of Christ in the meal to the Cross, which is the source of salvation. There is some of Calvin's atonement theology at work here, but the point is, whatever happens in the Supper is rooted not just in the work of the Spirit, but in the cross of Christ -- to which the Supper bears witness.