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Showing posts from September, 2009

Jesus and the Scandal of Particularity

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Today my church study group -- Theology 101 -- will look at the person of Jesus. As Christians we ask the question -- who is Jesus? That is a question rooted in the gospels itself. Jesus asked the disciples -- who are the people saying that I am? The disciples gave all number of answers, and then Jesus asked -- well who do you say that I am? And Peter answered in famous tones:

You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God (Mt. 16:16). After that bold confession, Jesus goes on (in Matthew) to give Peter the keys to the kingdom, or so it seems.

What that confession does is place Jesus at the center of the conversation. As Christians, we are followers of Jesus, the one who is the Messiah and who is Lord. If you've read John Dominic Crossan or Marcus Borg, you know that the titles of Jesus have political connotations. That is, the early Christians were making political statements by suggesting that Jesus was Lord and Son of God -- for these were titles given to the emperor.

Ther…

A City on the Brink? The "Crisis" of Troy Michigan

I've decided to keep raising my voice, until I get some response!

Troy, Michigan is a Detroit suburb. It is relatively affluent and known for its schools and services. It has made its climb in part due to the fact that it is home to a number of corporate headquarters. This isn't a manufacturing community, it's a management community. It is relatively diverse in its population -- though its City Council is completely white. It is also fairly conservative. And that conservativeness has been expressed in an aversion to taxes. Thus, even though it has one of the highest tax bases in the state, it's actual tax rates are among the lowest. Nearby Clawson, a little community, isn't thinking about closing its library, it's going to expand it -- and the people supported it. Indeed, people of Troy, Clawson is shaming us with its sense of community spirit!

So, why is Troy in such a predicament? Or, as this morning's Detroit News headline puts it:
"Troy spi…

Walking a Fine Line in the US Catholic -- Sightings

Martin Marty commends the US Catholic as a good example of a religious publication, one that walks the fine line between putting the faithful to sleep and raising the ire of the Catholic hierarchy. It's an interesting reflection on the place of the religious press, especially as it interacts with the "secular world."

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Sightings 9/28/09Walking a Fine Line in U. S. Catholic -- Martin E. Marty“Sightings” usually draws on secular news and opinion sources as part of its mission to deal with religion in American public life. However, religious periodicals and blogs deal as much with secular life as they do with ecclesiastical themes. For years I’ve hung out with and promoted products of the Religion Newswriters Association, “seculars who ‘do’ religion,” and the various “religious” journalists who “do” secular public things. With that in mind, this week I’m sampling an issue of a religious journal. The U.S. Catholic, a perennial prize-w…

Considering the Common Good of Troy Michigan

Yesterday I posted a copy of an open letter to the Troy City Council, which I wrote for a group of local clergy. We hope that the Council Members read it, but we also hope that some of the local media will pick it up. I tried not to editorialize in that post, because I didn't want to add too much too what my colleagues had agreed to say.

But, now I'd like to say a few words about the local situation.

I understand that these are difficult economic times. People struggle with paying bills. But, even as we look at our own lives, we need to look outward, at the broader community and its needs. I must confess that while I don't enjoy paying taxes, I also don't understand the "cut taxes first, ask questions later." As best as I can tell, the city of Troy is in a financial crunch because it has boxed itself in with tax cuts and sill charter amendments that give it little room to maneuver.

We are a city of 80,000 people and we have a volunteer fire department. W…

Open Letter to the Troy Michigan City Council

My new hometown, the community in which I live and work, is facing a major budgetary shortfall. There are a number of reasons for this, including political shortsightedness. A group of clergy, of which I'm a part, decided to write a letter to the Council, calling on them to take the step of communicating the reality of this crisis and what can be done. That letter is as follows, with no other editorializing on my part.

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To the Members of the Troy City Council:As religious leaders who are privileged to serve congregations that have a deep and abiding concern for the community’s welfare, and who enter conversations concerning matters of state with great caution, we believe that we must raise our voices in response to the proposed cuts in city services.We raise our voices at this time, because we believe in the common good of all who live and work in this city that we call home. We recognize the seriousness of the projected revenue shortfalls…

Worship as Intentional Assembly

I will reflect again on worship, as I read Brian Wren's small, but insightful study of hymns. In a chapter entitled Worship, he shares a Charles Wesley hymn that speaks of assembling in Christ's name.

Wren notes that in Wesley's hymn worship is not intended to be an escape from life, but is undertaken in the hope of hearing Christ's voice in the midst of our worldly ways -- hoping to turn away from them.

Since the point here is an examination of modern hymns, he goes on to make this statement:

For most Christians, public worship is like breakfast: essential, familiar, frequently unexciting, occasionally enlivened by tasty variations. Like many a piece of furniture, worship comes with a notice saying "Assembly required." In continuity with Wesley, ("assembled in thy name"), today's hymns assume an intentional assembly, potentially life changing to all whom God gathers in. (Wren,Hymns for Today, WJK, 2009, p. 33).

I do think there is great truth …

Hymns -- Expressions of Faith

We still sing hymns. We sing ancient hymns and modern ones. Some are fairly deep, and others not as deep. Some we know very well, others we're learning. We have a blended service, so we're adding in "contemporary" songs as well.

There is a trend in Christian worship to move away from hymns, to focus more on choruses. That is, rather brief, often heart felt, but usually not theologically rich pieces. Personally, I think there is a place for both, which is why I try to include all genre's in my planning.

The reason for this post is that I'm reading Brian Wren's new book Hymns For Today (WJK, 2009). I need to note that he begins the book by pointing out the possibility that some would think that the words hymn and today might be an oxymoron. The reality is that there has been a wonderful renaissance of hymn writing, of which he is a major contributor.

In the book, Wren focuses not on the music, but the words, the lyrics. And here is the point I want…

What is Ethical Consumption?

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I've finished reading Julie Clawson's Everyday Justice, (IVP, 2009), a review of which I hope will appear on the Theologblog in a few weeks. But I'm digesting the book and its implications.

Julie speaks of "ethical consumption." What she means by this is: that our decisions on matters of food, clothing, driving, etc., have consequences. And so, if we are to live justly, then we must address those consequences. And if we are to live justly, then we must recognize that we may just be be complicit in injustice -- something God would rather we not be involved with.

She writes:

Ethical consumption implies that we will apply our moral values and ethical standards to our consumer habits. We don't opt out of a necessary system, but we attempt to redeem it as we live by a more consistent ethic. (Everyday Justice, p. 26).
She recognizes that this isn't easy -- we may not know that we are complicit in injustice and we may not know what the alternatives are. The …

Practicing Justice

I'll be writing more about this book later, but I wanted to share a passage from Julie Clawson's new book Everyday Justice(IVP, 2009). It speaks to the core of what justice means:

The true practice of justice thus moves away from retribution (punishment) and toward restoration. We restore broken relationships, we restore families torn asunder, and we even restore damaged land so that life may survive and flourish. To live justly in our own lives means living so that this restoration can happen. Justice, understood as exclusively in terms of punishment, involves tearing people down, but justice, understood as righteousness and restoration, results in helping people rebuild -- both perpetrators and victims. (p. 23)

Justice isn't just something someone else engages in. Justice is something that involves each one of us. It is, in fact, a question of how we live our daily lives. The question then is -- what does this require of us?

Seeking Moral Clarity in the Fight Against Sex Trafficking -- Sightings

Today's edition of Sightings raises the issue of pragmatism and moral discernment in dealing with issues where there is the possibility of common cause, but differences on approach. The question here is ending sex trafficking, that is the enslavement of people, both female and male, and often children, for the purposes of the sex trade. The question is whether opposition to prostitution is a requirement for partnership. The US position is that no moneys be given to groups that don't oppose prostitution, but many European nations have considered regulating/legalizing prostitution. So, what should we do? What approach is the moral one?

Barbara Barnett addresses these questions. I invite you to read and respond to her offering. You may have to decide which is the greater issue for you -- slavery and exploitation or prostitution.


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Sightings 9/24/09Seeking Moral Clarity in the Fight Against Sex Trafficking -- Barbra BarnettLast week Secre…

Facing Death with some Dignity

The recent hullabaloo about "death panels," distracted us from an important conversation about how life ends. Too often older people (especially) die in a hospital, hooked up to tubes, incubated, and sedated. And this is all well paid for. But little provision is provided for supporting the kinds of care services that would cost much less but allow people to die at home, fully alert, but pain managed. I'm not talking about assisted suicide. I'm just talking about making it possible for people to die, like they used to die.

There is a piece in today's NY Times by Timothy Egan that focuses on the family of former Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber. It notes how the system is unable/unwilling to pay for home care, but will hook you up on a machine. The article notes that the people have been having a conversation many of us are unwilling to have.

I realize that there is great fear of death and that death is not something we easily talk about. I also understand an…

"With Liberty and Justice for All"

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It is with these words that the Pledge of Allegiance concludes: "With liberty and justice for all." But is that the way it is in America? More specifically, is that the way it is in Michigan?

Yesterday afternoon, I moderated a conversation about Michigan's failed public defense system. This was sponsored by the Michigan Campaign for Justice, and was entitled: "Faith and Justice: The Need for Community Public Defense."

The forum consisted of a presentation by Ann Mathews, a criminal defense attorney with the Bronx Defenders, a New York City based agency, who explained their system, which is intriguing. We heard from Stephanie Chang, the Deputy Director of the Campaign, and then I moderated a conversation that included four other panelists, all representing religious traditions. Besides me we had a Protestant, a Catholic, a Jew, and a Muslim (so the Abrahamic religions were represented). Each of the panelists noted that their traditions lift up both the ca…

The Bible and the Ecumenical Mind

I have been posting excerpts from Ronald Osborn's The Faith We Affirm, (Chalice Press, 1979), the book I'm using for my Theology 101 class at the church. Tomorrow we'll be talking about how we hear a word from God. For Disciples, historically, that has meant first and foremost listening to the word of Scripture, and more specifically the New Testament. In previous postings I've talked about a reasonable, empirical, and a pragmatic mind -- all definitions provided by Osborn.

Ronald Osborn was a leading Disciple historian/theologian of the 50s, 60s, and 70s. He was also active in the ecumenical movement. Therefore, it shouldn't be a surprise that he would add a fourth factor to our reading of Scripture -- "An Ecumenical Mind." Thus, he writes that Disciples seek to "read the biblical message in the light of the common judgment of the whole Christian community and for the sake of the whole church." (Osborn, p. 21).

He goes on to note that D…

Navigating Religion News -- Sightings

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The cover story of this week's edition of the Christian Century, which I received last week in the mail, focuses on religion news in a new media environment. How is it produced, distributed, and received?

Martin Marty, who has been in the business for some time, offers his take in that "print" article, but offers his thoughts on what the other contributors to the conversation said.

As you read this, I'm wondering -- how do you get your news?

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Sightings 9/21/09Navigating Religion News -- Martin E. MartyTomorrow’s (September 22) Christian Century cover features “Navigating the News.” Assuming that many readers of Sightings read that magazine and wishing the rest of you did, I don’t often reach to it for sightings of religious news and features. This time, let me do a kind of in-house column – “in-house” because I’ve been affiliated, from tyro through senior to “contributing” over fifty-four years, and depend on it still. The “Navi…

A Pragmatic Faith?

How do we read the Bible? I've been raising some questions about the way in which we approach the Bible, reflecting on suggestions by the late Disciples historian/theologian/church leader, Ronald Osborn. Osborn's book The Faith We Affirm (Chalice Press, 1979) was intended as a primer on the basic beliefs of the Disciples of Christ -- keeping in mind that we're a non-creedal people. He spoke of a reasonable and an empirical mind -- both of which suggest that from the beginning in the 19th century the Disciples have tried to come to the Bible with an open mind, seeking the truth. This is very much a modern approach.

The third principle, a "pragmatic mind," is an interesting idea. We hear a lot today about practical Bible teaching. These are claims made for preachers who infuse their sermons with psychology and then proof-text with Scriptures that supposedly affirm their proposition. These are considered biblical, not because the preachers wrestle with the bi…

An Empirical Faith?

The definition of faith found in Hebrews 11:1 would seem to suggest that the title of this post is an oxymoron: "Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen" (NRSV). If faith is concerned with things hoped for and not seen, then it would seem to contradict the idea that faith could be empirical. The Campbells, however, were concerned that faith had become so focused on feelings/experience that people lacked certainty of God's forgiveness and grace.

Ronald Osborn, whom I turned to in an earlier post on a reasonable faith, offers this observation.

Many people ask: How do you know you are saved? Disciples insist that religious assurance is not a matter of feeling. Rather they contend that God has promised salvation to all who confess Jesus Christ and are baptized in faith and repentance. The highest form of spiritual experience offered by Christian faith is positive and objective, rather than mystical and charismatic. It centers…

Called to Service -- Core Values, Sermon 2

Matthew 25:31-40

Jesus’ disciples were having an argument about who was the greatest among them. When Jesus heard what they were arguing about he told them that whoever wants to be first, must be a servant. And with that statement, he pulled a child to himself, and said: “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.” Who is the greatest – it is the one who serves the child. Now, this statement would have made little sense to Jesus’ disciples. While our culture places a lot of value on children, they didn’t. Children were at the bottom of society – at least until they became productive. Children, back then, were among the “least of these.” (Mark 9:33-37).

Last week we began a six-week exploration of our Congregational Core Values. These six values help define what it means for us to be a missional church, and the first value we explored was compassion. Now, we move on to a second core value, one that emerges out of compassion. That is the call to be a servant.

Since service, li…

A Reasonable Faith

In the Theology 101 study I'm leading for the church, we're reading Ronald Osborn's classic (for Disciples) The Faith We Affirm: Basic Beliefs of Disciples of Christ (Chalice Press 1979). Osborn is an old-style liberal Disciple, and one of the key leaders when the Disciples went through what we call re-structure in the 1960s. Basically, we became a full-fledged denomination just as denominations were going out of style!

In the first chapter of the book, entitled "The Light of Scripture," Osborn suggests that the Disciples mind is biblical, reasonable, empirical, pragmatic, and ecumenical. I'd like to consider the second of these modifiers of the Disciples mind -- the idea that ours is a reasonable mind.

Although he suggests that this commitment of ours to reason doesn't eliminate all mystery, for Disciples the key to faith is understanding. That is our goal. Thus, he writes:

Disciples have taken pride in advocating a common sense religion. We seek an …

Remembering Mary Travers

Growing up in the 60s I remember listening to Puff the Magic Dragon by Peter, Paul, and Mary. Every once in a while I'll run across a PBS broadcast of a Peter, Paul, and Mary concert. The three of them have over the years left a grand legacy of music, mostly folk music, that rings in our ears.

The other day, Mary Travers died of leukemia at the age of 72. We will miss her powerful voice. Of course, growing up I didn't know the social implications of their music. But since Chuck Currie posted a folk anthem for justice on his blog, I'll re-post that song here "If I had a hammer." Maybe it's a good anthem for today -- that we might stand together and build a world of justice and peace.

Three Fold Word of God

Karl Barth, who is by most estimates the pre-eminent theologian of the 20th century, and who has had a significant influence on me -- though I would say that other theologians, especially Jurgen Moltmann, have pushed me beyond being a simple Barthian -- but that's for another day.

Perhaps the most profoundly influential idea, for me, has been Barth's view of the three-fold Word of God.


1. Jesus Christ

Barth understanding of the Word of God, which is the revelation of God, begins with the affirmation that Jesus Christ is God's Word to humanity. Thus, the word is not first and foremost a verbal statement, rather it is a person. Barth looks to those passages that see Jesus as the Logos of God (John 1:1-14), and thus, Jesus becomes God's preeminent mediator of revelation (Mt. 11:27; Lk 11:9; Jn 14:1-10). Even as the author of Hebrews points out, God chose to revel himself finally and fully in the person of his Son, Jesus Christ (Heb. 1:1-2; cf. I Cor. 1:30).

Word as Sacrament

I was asked, by a church member, to comment here on Ben Witherington's provocative post, entitled "Feed on the Word" suggesting that the Word should be seen as a Sacrament. In Protestant circles we often talk about Word and Sacrament, by which we mean the Eucharist and Preaching. But, could the Word itself be a sacrament, and what does that entail?

Witherington is an evangelical Methodist biblical scholar. I expect his theology is to my right, but he isn't a Fundamentalist. In this post he has a somewhat expansive understanding of Word -- it is living -- but he also firmly links it to the Bible. While lifting up the role of preaching -- which in most Protestant churches happens more often than the Eucharist is celebrated -- he doesn't limit it to preaching. Indeed, he notes that each of us can and should feed on the Word, by which he means the Bible.

The biblical texts that he mentions as support for a more sacramental understanding of Word, such as this fr…

Race in the Mix

Let me state up front that not all opposition to Barack Obama or his policies is race related or racist. That being said, a significant element in this opposition is rooted in racism. Jimmy Carter's statements might be impolitic, which is why the White House disavowed them and insisted that race involved. Obama has to walk a thin line here, so as to be the President of all the people.

But, race is still part of the equation. From Glen Beck's assertion that Obama hates white people to Limbaugh's claims of white victimization, race is continually being inserted by those who for some reasons believe that their country is being taken away from them.

Jonathan Walton has written an important post for Religion Dispatches that lays out some of the issues. There is an argument that we would be a color blind nation, if only minorities would stop inserting their differences into the conversation. In other words, issues of race and ethnicity fall at the feet of the minorities, no…

Ethical Wills in Inter-Religious Dialogue and Research -- Sightings

With Sightings back in business this week, I'm again being introduced to new concepts and ideas. I've never heard of ethical wills, but apparently this is an ancient practice that could provide important information about cultures and religions -- especially their ethical understandings. Joshua M. Z. Stanton a Rabbinic student and Co-Editor of the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue offers us some insights as to how such a document might be of use in inter-religious conversation. I welcome your thoughts.

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Sightings 9/17/09

Ethical Wills in Inter-Religious Dialogue and Research
-- Joshua M. Z. Stanton

“Have you ever had a life-altering experience or an experience that changed your life?” I was stuck on question eight and still had fourteen to go. Seated across from me was a junior at Wellesley College, with a friendly gaze and a tone indicative of her interest. She was my partner at a training session for Lesso…