Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Pride Goes before the Fall — Lectionary Reflection

2 Kings 5:1-14
Galatians 6:7-16
Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

Pride Goeth before a Fall

We stand at the edge of a major American celebration. It’s one of those holidays that many preachers, including this one, struggle with. There is this expectation that the church should become a national shrine, with the pastors serving as priests for the nation. But is that our calling, and do these expectations keep us from speaking prophetically? Few of us have the courage and wherewithal of a prophet like Elisha, who not only didn’t fear the people, he didn’t fear the king either. In fact, not only didn’t he fear his own king, but he didn’t fear the supreme commander of his nation’s rival kingdom’s army.

Reading the three lectionary texts together our reflections can go in a number of directions, but what caught my eye was the problem of ego or pride. Naaman is a general, the head of his nation’s army, and yet he also suffers from a skin disease that should make him an outcast. When he learns that there is a man in Israel who can cure him, he seeks the blessing of his own king before heading to Israel in search of this man in whose hands his future lies. When he finally encounters Elisha the Prophet – or should I say, Elisha’s assistants – he is put off first by the fact that Elisha doesn’t come to meet him and also by the demand that he wash himself seven times in the Jordan. Why should he do such a thing? It seemed silly and demeaning, after all, his own country had superior rivers. Finally, at the urging of his servants, he consents, and he’s cured.

In the Gospel of Luke, we read of the missionary journey of the Seventy Disciples. Each goes out into the world in pairs. They’re to preach the message of the kingdom of God and heal all who come their way. As Luke tells the story, they go off on this journey without any provisions at all, subject to the elements unless they can find a home to take them in. When they return to Jesus, they exult in their good fortune. Even the demons obey them. They are quite pleased with themselves, but Jesus reminds them that their celebrations should focus on their presence in the Book of Life.

Paul’s letter to the Galatians helps tie these lectionary texts together. Paul not only reminds us that we tend to reap what we sow, but if we boast in the flesh, we’re running in the wrong direction. Instead, our focus should be spiritual, that is, we should be sowing spiritual thoughts and actions, ones that lead to the appearance of the New Creation. Yes, it appears that boasting is a sign of the flesh not the Spirit. There is no spiritual value to be found in boosting our own egos and stroking our own pride.

Consider Naaman for instance. Although he was a leper, and would seem to be an outcast in his society (this is one reason why I always struggle with this passage – how did he keep his job and family considering his condition?), he continued to think very highly of himself. He sought a cure, but when he was asked to do a simple thing, such as washing himself in the Jordan, he balked. After all, he was an Aramean (Syrian), a citizen of a nation (at least in military terms) that far surpassed Israel. Not only that, he was a highly regarded general, a leader among his people. Why then, should he humiliate himself by taking a bath in this little river that flowed through Israel?

As for the seventy – they seem to have gotten caught up in their “ability” to cast out demons. Perhaps in their joy at their success – much like a football player who scores a touchdown and does a little dance despite the fact that the team is still a couple of TDs behind, they had forgotten the purpose of their mission. In Luke’s account, Jesus suggests that they be content that their names are written in the Book of Life.

If we are to sow and reap spiritual benefits, it would appear that we should look with modesty at our own achievements, so that we might be of use to the realm of God. Remember too that old adage – pride goeth before a fall! It’s a good one to remember at a time of national celebration!

Reposted from [D]mergent, a new Disciples blog, for which I write a weekly meditation.  I invite you to check out this new source of conversation within the Disciples of Christ community.

The Future of Hinduism

I live on the edge of a unique world.  I am confessionally a Christian, who believes that Jesus is the Christ of God and the Son of God.  He is Lord and Savior of the World.  At the same time, I am deeply involved in interfaith conversation and activity.  The God I believe exists is a God far bigger than I can conceive and so I'm comfortable sharing life with my friends of other faiths.  One of those friends is Padma Kuppa, a Hindu and an interfaith activist.  We have worked closely together here in Troy almost from the moment I arrived.  She is committed to preserving space in the public square for people of all faiths.  It is from that perspective, as a woman deeply rooted in her faith, but committed to opening the way for others to exist in freedom and in peace, that she writes and she works for a more just and pluralistic world.

Padma wrote a piece for the Patheos Blog that appears on the Washington Post On Faith blog that is entitled "The Future of Hinduism."  I'm placing the opening paragraphs here and inviting you, my readers, to follow on to the full essay, which I believe you will find enlightening.  


 Hinduism and pluralism

By Padma Kuppa
Interfaith activist and contributor to

( has just launched a new eleven-week series on the Future of Religion. We begin with the Future of Hinduism. See the full schedule here.)

Writing on the Future of Hinduism is something very difficult to do, raised as I have been with an understanding that faith is eternal, without beginning or end, and that my faith, Sanatana Dharma, is not an "ism" as we call it today. And I also struggle since I am no religious scholar who can spout the Vedas, but a simple middle-class (middle-aged) woman torn by the lack of pluralism and the rise of fundamentalism in my community, my countries (of birth and citizenship), and my world. And yet I am a Hindu American raised with a strong consciousness of Hinduism's spiritual and philosophical strengths, which inspire both my activism and acceptance of what's been handed to me in life.

I am appalled by the nativist and Tea Party mentality in my nation, the lack of civil discourse across every continent. I read of Professor Sheldon Pollock at Columbia University, who has said, "Colonialism nearly killed India's capacity to know its past; globalization threatens to destroy its will." I see with dismay the rise of Bobby Jindal and Nikki Haley, who deny their Dharmic roots, and others like them who spew exclusivist messages. I am troubled by aggressive proselytization in India and the unacceptable retaliation, and worried about the plight of Bhutanese refugees in America, and Hindus from Bangladesh and Pakistan. I am worried whether a generation of Hindus gobbled up by greed and globalization will be able to pass on values to their children. So I know that the world's Hindu community has far to go and much to do -- along with everyone else on the planet. The whole earth is one family -- so say the Hindu holy scriptures, the Vedas (Vasudhaiva kutumbakam).  (To continue reading, click here). 

When you return, I'd like to invite you to offer your thoughts about the place of pluralism in our country, especially in light of the First Amendment promise of Religious Freedom.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

"Make My Day": SCOTUS and America's Gun Fetish

I have to admit that I'm a Clint Eastwood fan -- though I never got into the Dirty Harry movies from which I took the title of this post.  Yesterday the Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, struck down Chicago's 28 year old handgun ban.  In this decision, they extended an earlier decision to strike down the District of Columbia's ban to all jurisdictions.  Though leaving room for regulation, outright bans will not be permitted.  Now, it's important to note that Chicago's ban really hasn't worked well.  Handgun-related homicides remain extremely high in that city, but of course when you have a patchwork set of regulations that cover the nation, it's pretty hard to regulate gun ownership and use in a city the size of Chicago.

What is disturbing about yesterday's decision, to me, is not just the reasoning behind the decision, which props up even more the idea that the 2nd Amendment grants every American the right "to keep and bear arms," but the ongoing love affair that a considerable portion of America has with guns. 

Before I address that love affair that is celebrated in the Westerns of yesteryear, including those of Eastwood, let me note the reasoning given by the majority, that gun ownership is a fundamental right.  Even though they leave room for regulation, the NRA is adamant that they oppose most if not all forms of regulation.  Thus, this isn't the end of the debate, and with the current makeup of the Supreme Court, which not just leans right, but is firmly on the right (Anthony Kennedy doesn't seem to be swinging left very often these days).     

The question that I want to raise at the end of this concerns the American Gun Fetish, the one pictured in those classic westerns.  A goodly number of Americans seem to long for the days when everyone strapped on their six-shooter and walked around town, fully loaded.  Don't get me wrong, for some reason I like all those old movies and shows, but I don't long for the days of the old west when the quickest draw won the day.  I don't see the need to ban guns entirely -- many of my friends are hunters -- but I think we need sensible gun laws that first of all keep guns out of the hands of those who shouldn't have them, that require instruction and licensure to use them, and that cross state lines so that one state's or city's regulations are not undermined by the laxity of laws in nearby jurisdictions. 

So, go ahead and make my day by making sensible laws that protect the populace from runaway gun violence.  And most of all, let's let go of this gun fetish!  You know, that fetish that led to one state recently legalizing the carrying of guns in churches -- like we need that -- or even more bizarre the churches that bless the guns of members.  No need for such things.

On Not Polarizing Too Much: The Challenges of Prophetic Hospitality (Bruce Epperly)

As we near the Fourth of July holiday, a weekend in which citizens and residents of the United States of America will celebrate 234 years of independence, we also live at a time of increasing political and cultural polarization.  The political bases of the two parties have moved further and further from the center, so that less that civil statements and actions have come to the fore.  Bruce Epperly writes as a theological progressive and political liberal -- I note that both these terms are considered "unAmerican" in some circles."  Just today, I heard Jeff Sessions ask, with derision in his voice, whether Elena Kagan is a "progressive."  So, where are we as a nation when "birthers" and Tea Partiers seem to have taken hold of the imagination?  Bruce addresses some of these questions in what should prove to be one of his most provocative contributions to this blog.


On Not Polarizing Too Much:
The Challenges of Prophetic Hospitality
Bruce G. Epperly

This week’s contribution includes affirmations, concerns, and confessions in responding to the growing polarization of our political and religious worlds. I begin with a concern: I believe that there are growing movements of political and religious polarization in our national life today. I believe these movements threaten the gains we have made as a nation in terms of health care, diversity, environmental protection, and human rights. These movements are motivated by a vision of reality that clearly and dramatically separates persons and policies in terms of good and evil, black and white, in and out, and us and them. When these movements draw on religious resources, they articulate a vision of God which is defined primarily in terms of judgment, power, exclusion, and destruction, rather than love, healing, and acceptance. In a world of diverse visions of reality and lifestyles, these groups believe that God is the ultimate divider, and calls us to do likewise. I will also make a confession: Many of the members of these movements of the religious and political “right” assume that people like me are the enemy, representing something that is destructive of true Christianity and the USA’s best interests.

While we progressives and liberals can be polarizing as well, seldom do progressive and liberal Christians or political activists threaten violence, insurrection, or question the patriotism of those with whom we disagree. I cannot recall among the many progressive and liberal diatribes against President Bush (which involved more than a little impolite conversation and words of demonization) calls for his assassination, the de-legitimization of his second election to the presidency, or the overthrow of the government. I suspect this was because in spite of their occasional vitriol, progressives and liberals are inherently big picture, inclusive, and global thinkers. I have concerns in terms of the growing influence of political and religious polarizing groups, especially in the context of their attempts to become the dominant voice of the Republican Party.

The question these groups raise for me as a progressive Christian is: “Can I be both prophetic and hospitable in relationship to the groups that judge my path as demonic, wrong, and hell-bent? Can I find ways to forcefully but lovingly respond to such groups and their belief systems?” I must confess these are challenges to me personally and spiritually, especially when I hear the comments of “birthers,” Tea Party members, libertarians, and Christian militia leaders. I am often angry, and am tempted to polarize in my own thoughts. I wrestle with how can I passionately advocate for what I believe is right for our nation and the future of our world, and what is congruent with my faith as a Christian – concern for global climate change, a greater sense of community and inclusion, welcome to strangers, health care for all persons, and affirmation of the interdependence of nations – and not demonize with whom I disagree, even when such persons see my views as demonic and dangerous to Christianity and the nation. How can I balance prophetic passion and justice-seeking with healing hospitality?

In her book Plan B, Anne Lamott admits that finding a way to envisage President Bush in a new light was her primary spiritual challenge. She passionately opposed everything about his leadership and policies, domestic and foreign. But, she came to realize that her hatred and demonizing of the President was hurting her spiritual growth and was standing in the way of following Jesus. She still continued to oppose President Bush’s policies, but began to visualize him as a child of God. This began a process of spiritual transformation that changed her life.

In many ways I feel like Anne Lamott when it comes to the rising polarizing political and religious right wing. As I seek to provide prophetic hospitality, my response is both theological and spiritual. First, as a process theologian, I believe that God influences every person to greater or lesser degree. The most vitriolic “birthers” are still touched by God; that is the meaning of omnipresence. While I suspect that they are turning their back on God’s call to a wider more creative and global vision of Shalom, God is still working within their lives, seeking wholeness and community. Second, all persons, even the most radical Tea Party persons, are God’s beloved children, deserving my basic human respect, despite the political gulf between us. Third, all persons, including myself, can experience transformation and conversion. From this perspective, my own political disagreements need to be framed as provocative alternatives, rather than attacks, grounded in the hope that “opponents” may awaken to the value of contrasting positions. Fourth, in order to avoid polarization, in the spirit of Reinhold Niebuhr, I am called to see the falsehood in my own truth, and the potential truth in the “opponent’s” falsehood. Sometimes, this is simply the recognition that your “opponent” is motivated by fear – fear of change, fear of economic insecurity, fear of otherness, fear of the inevitable decline in the American empire, and fear of losing one’s ethnic, social, or political place in society. To me, fear is the common denominator of all these groups in their quest to deport the alien, hold onto tax money, and delegitimize an African American president. Perhaps, they shout louder because they know that their cause is ultimately lost and that they are going against the grain of history and the nature of reality in its interdependence and diversity.

Theology inspires spiritual practices. I am working at “breathing deeply,” trying preserve my spiritual center when my own anger takes center stage. Gentle breath prayers break down the walls of division and open us to new possibilities for personal and communal transformation. Second, with Mother Teresa, I seek to see Christ “in all his distressing disguises,” including shouting Tea Party members, recalcitrant lawmakers, and violent militia persons.

Finally, as I seek to be hospitable to my “opponents,” I look for the truth in their falsehood even as I passionately affirm my vision of interdependence, community support, healthy diversity, equality for all persons, and ongoing evolution. I seek to experience God moving through all our lives, gently and persistently, even my political and religious “opponents.” Whether or not, we can find common cause in this time of knee-jerk divisiveness, I hope to bring forth the best in myself and my community by living by love rather than fear, imagination rather than stagnation, and hospitality rather than isolation.

Bruce Epperly is Professor of Practical Theology and Director of Continuing Education at Lancaster Theological Seminary and co-pastor of Disciples Community Church in Lancaster, PA. He is the author of seventeen books, including Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living and Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God in Ministry.


Monday, June 28, 2010

Extinction -- Sightings

Will humanity survive for more than 100 years?  Have we set things in motion so that our children's children's children won't see the early decades of the 22nd century?  Martin Marty reflects upon the prognostications of a scientist who believes that things are set in motion that unfortunately will lead to our extinction as a species.  As Marty notes, for those hoping for Armaggedon to come in our life-time, that news is pretty irrelevant.  As James Watt noted, back when he was Secretary of the Interior, we won't be around much longer, so why preserve our natural resources?  Why indeed?   Well, as Marty says, for the rest of us, what message is there in this?  And is it too late to turn things around?  Take a read, and off your thoughts.


Sightings 6/28/10

-- Martin E. Marty

The blue sky above and the blue lake below my window helped inspire hopes on a weekend morning for a beautiful, untroubled summer day. Then a jostling alert and a son’s apocalyptic posting linked me to an MSNBC item headed by the question, “Will humans go extinct within 100 years?” Do we yawn, “We hear that kind of question hourly from the Left Behind crowd, namely Christians who, like their ancestors for almost twenty centuries, have regularly prophesied, if not extinction of humans, then at least annihilation of those who do not agree with their versions of biblical prophecy”? But the question posed on Thursday, June 24, had a certain authority, alluding not to the prophecies of apocalypse-hungry Christians, but to one from a scientist of note. Professor Frank Fenner is Australia’s most illustrious scientist, and a world-class figure. In the mid-twentieth century he did the scientific work that helped control the number of rabbits in Australia, thus saving the agricultural economy. He was also an important figure in the elimination of smallpox, announcing the disease’s eradication before the World Health Assembly in 1980. So, we pay attention.

Five years ago at a conference in Canberra, Fenner posed a different, rather more cheery question: “Can Homo Sapiens Survive?” His talk was a call for responsible human approaches to environmental threats and “sustainability” hopes. This time, however, he is sure that “homo sapiens will become extinct, perhaps within 100 years.” Lest anyone expect even a hint of cheer, he stresses, “It’s an irreversible situation. I think it’s too late.” Yet the ethicist’s voice within him cannot resist adding: “I try not to express that because people are trying to do something, but they keep putting it off.” Population growth and climate change are so drastic that the 95-year-old scientist can do little more than prophesy and – we suppose he likes the human race – sit on a curb-stone and weep.

Needless to say, the publicity given his word by MSNBC will inspire significant reaction from the Christians who do not give the world-as-we-know-it so much as 100 years. Since they know that they are assured a pleasant outcome in their apocalypse, they are happy that the end will come soon. The rest of the human race has a choice of attitudes. Perhaps this prophecy is just a sign that the 95-year-old is doddering? No. Perhaps it’s his way of getting attention for care-of-the-earth causes before it is too late, even if he says it is too late.

I mentioned the physical beauty of this summer day, yet the news of the week has done little to offer a psychological or spiritual match of such beauty. Yes, the World Cup provided a distraction. Yet the disarray in the prosecution of our various wars, the steadfast signs of reluctance by elected officials to do much about climate control, the anti-government attitude fostered by many in church and society – all lead one to take Professor Fenner seriously. When such potential for gloom is on the horizon, I think back to a panel I once shared with my teacher and later Librarian of Congress Daniel Boorstin, when we panelists were told we were not gloomy enough. This is not the first time his word made it into Sightings, but it still lifts me: “We do not know enough about the future to be absolutely pessimistic.”

I call the alternative to pessimism “realistic hope.” Recently the “realist” side clouds the “hope,” but those who do not believe it’s “too late” still have a chance.


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


This month's Religion and Culture Web Forum features a chapter from literary critic Amy Hungerford's forthcoming volume Postmodern Belief: American Literature and Religion Since 1960 (Princeton University Press, August, 2010). In "The Literary Practice of Belief," Hungerford focuses upon two contemporary literary examples--the novels of Marilynne Robinson and the Left Behind series--in order "to engage (and revise) the current emphasis on practice over belief in our understanding of religion." With invited responses from Thomas J. Ferraro (Duke University), Amy Frykholm (The Christian Century), Constance Furey (Indiana University), Jeffrey J. Kripal (Rice University), Caleb J. D. Maskell (Princeton University), Edward Mendelson (Columbia University), Richard A. Rosengarten (University of Chicago Divinity School), and Glenn W. Shuck (Williams College).


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

A Singing Faith

1 Rejoice in the Lord, O you righteous. Praise befits the upright.

2 Praise the Lord with the lyre; make melody to him with the harp of ten strings.

3 Sing to him a new song; play skilfully on the strings, with loud shouts.

4 For the word of the Lord is upright, and all his work is done in faithfulness.

5 He loves righteousness and justice; the earth is full of the steadfast love of the Lord.

6 By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, and all their host by the breath of his mouth.

7 He gathered the waters of the sea as in a bottle; he put the deeps in storehouses.

8 Let all the earth fear the Lord; let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of him.   (Psalm 33:1-8 NRSV)

Tonight a small group of us gathered for a potluck dinner, a tour of the flower garden, and then sing for about 30 to 40 minutes, before closing with communion and a few more songs.  Our group was a mix of ages, but about half were over 65.  We sang all kinds of songs, more contemporary songs, gospel songs, and hymns.  It seems that there are certain songs that always get picked by the participants.  I don't need to slip In the Garden into worship, because will sing it whenever there is a hymn sing.

I love music and I enjoy singing.  I could sing for hours, without any problem.  I'm blessed with a music minister who who shares my passion for music and its place in worship.  Although I think choirs are a blessing, especially choirs full of people who are there because they like to make a joyful noise, not just because they're drawing a check (I suppose you could say that about preachers, but we'll not go there today). 

What I've discovered is that songs and hymns have great power.  Go to a convalescent home and lead worship.  Even people who are experiencing dementia often will remember the songs of an earlier day -- especially a simple one such as Jesus Loves Me. 

My greatest concern about much contemporary worship is that it has become increasingly performance oriented.  That is, much of the music that is being produced under the label "praise" is unsingable.  It's designed for a small group of "praise singers" to sing while the gathered folk kind of mouth the words along the way.  I don't believe that this is healthy.  When people are allowed to give voice to their faith through song, something powerful happens.  Indeed, for me it is while singing that I most often find myself drawn into the presence of God.  There is a place for preaching.  The Table is central and I believe that frequency is important (weekly is what's right for me).  But without song, my heart doesn't sing to the Lord.

Let us then, with the Psalmist, sing a new song to the Lord.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Duty Calls? A Sermon

Luke 9:51-62

The Life of Brian, a Monte Python movie from the 1970s, tells the story of a young man who just happens to have been born the same night and just a few houses down from where Jesus was born. Although Brian doesn’t want to be a messiah, he gets taken for one by the crowd, which is looking for a messiah. They’re not just looking for someone to throw out the Romans, after all, “what have the Romans ever done for us,” besides the aqueducts and the roads, they’re also looking for someone to tell them what to do. Even though Brian keeps telling the people that they have to think for themselves and that he’s “not the messiah,” something his mother confirms, telling anyone who will listen, that Brian is really a “very naughty boy,” the crowds keep coming to seek his wisdom. In the end, Brian gets the same treatment the Romans give to other would-be messiahs. He gets crucified – another contribution the Romans gave to Judea!

Yes, even though Brian just wants to be left alone so he can live a normal life – with his beloved Judith – despite trying everything he can to flee his would be followers, they won’t leave him be. In the end, he gets picked up by the Romans and then is crucified, despite his protestations that he’s not a messiah. Well, as his fellow executionees sing to him from their Roman-made crosses, you have to “Always look on the bright side of life.”

Now, if you’re not familiar with Monte Python or the Life of Brian, you probably have no idea about what I’m talking about. Still, even if you don’t know much about the Life of Brian, there’s a connection between that comedic story and our text. You see, unlike Brian, who denies his messiahship and tries to flee his would-be followers, Jesus understands all-too-well the consequences of his calling. But, despite this knowledge, he still sets his face toward Jerusalem. The question for us today is: Do we understand the consequences of our calling? And, are we willing to follow through?

1. Heading to Jerusalem

As Luke puts it, Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem.” With this statement, Luke begins his travelogue, which describes Jesus’ final journey to Jerusalem. The text picks up soon after Luke’s account of the Transfiguration, that moment when Jesus meets with Moses and Elijah on the mountain to discuss his impending departure, his exodus, from this earth (Luke 9:28-36). According to the text, a cloud envelopes Jesus, and a voice from heaven declares: “This is my son, my chosen, listen to him.” Having heard this divine message, Jesus sets off for Jerusalem, knowing full well the consequences of that decision. At least in Luke’s telling of the story, there will be no turning back. He’s finished with his ministry in Galilee.

This reading from Luke should be read along side today’s lectionary reading from the Old Testament. In 2 Kings 2, Elijah begins the final journey of his life, in the company of Elisha, the one on whom Elijah had placed his mantle. The question that haunts this text is whether Elisha has the wherewithal to stay with Elijah to the end. What is important to understand at this point, is that the manner of Elijah’s departure is very different from that of Jesus. Elijah doesn’t have to suffer death, instead, a chariot of fire sweeps down from heaven, and then carries the prophet off into the presence of God. For Jesus, the path forward won’t be quite so glorious, because it leads to his death, along with the abandonment of him by his closest followers. Still, Jesus stays true to his calling and sets “his face toward Jerusalem,” a seemingly odd phrase that carries with it great importance. You see, to set your face toward something is both a sign of determination and a prophetic stance. He is ready to face those who will oppose his message, beginning with the Samaritans who turn him away when they discover where he’s heading. Yes, there will be no turning back.

2. Excuses, Excuses

Like Brian, not everyone shares Jesus’ determination. One person comes up to him as he was walking south, and tells Jesus: I’ll follow you, wherever you go. To which Jesus replies: unlike the foxes and the birds, the son of man has no place to lay his head. Now, we don’t know what happened with this person. He might have joined Jesus’ band, or maybe, upon further reflection, decided it would be best to stay home. There was another person, whom Jesus encountered. This time Jesus himself put out the call, and the man said – I’d like to go with you, but first I have to bury my father. While we really don’t know if this man’s father was alive or dead, we hear Jesus say, “let the dead bury the dead.” When another would-be follower tells Jesus that he’d like to come with him, but first he has to say goodbye to his family, Jesus says: once you put your hand to the plow, you can’t look back, or you’ll not be fit for the kingdom.

I don’t know about you, but the message I hear in this text is it’s “all or nothing.” When it comes to following Jesus, you’re either in or you’re not. There’s no middle ground. This is a very demanding message, and I wonder, are we ready to leave behind family, friends, jobs, future plans, holidays, and fun, for the sake of the kingdom?

I want to dwell for a moment on that last word – fun. I know that some of you think I’m a “serious chap.” But, despite my otherwise sober demeanor, I too like to have fun, and I wonder about my ability to find a balance between my calling and my desire to have fun.

This question of having fun came up in an episode of Lost in Space, that we were watching the other night. If you don’t remember that 1960s TV show, you’re probably not missing anything, but in this episode, Will Robinson gets himself caught up in a galactic plan of conquest, after he kisses a sleeping princess – all because the Robot, who knew the story of Sleeping Beauty, told him to kiss her. Later, when he’s told that he is destined to be the consort of the princess, which means he’ll have to marry her, Will responds in disbelief, after all, he says (I’m paraphrasing from memory):

“I’m just a kid. I don’t want to get married. I want to have fun. We all know that once you get married, the fun is over!"
So, am I ready to follow Jesus? Or, would I rather just have fun? Am I willing to put my hand to the plow and not look back?

3. No Looking Back

As we ponder this question, it’s helpful to listen for the allusions in this passage to the Elijah and Elisha stories. For example, when James and John ask Jesus if it would be okay to call down fire and brimstone on the Samaritan village that refused them entrance, they were appealing to the example of Elijah who called down fire from heaven to consume his enemies (2 Kings 1:1-16). Fortunately for the Samaritans, Jesus rejects this advice and continued on to the next village. Then there’s the statement that closes our text, the one where Jesus says: “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” This statement points back to the calling of Elisha, for when Elijah first meets Elisha, the successor to his prophetic ministry, he is plowing a field. When Elijah invites him to join him, Elisha asks permission to first kiss his parents and say good bye, a request that Elijah grants. So, after Elisha returns home with his oxen, slaughters them, boils the flesh, and passes out the meat to his neighbors so that they might eat, he joins up with Elijah (1 Kings 19:19ff). In this case, it appears that Elijah is the easier task master. He seems more patient than Jesus, but perhaps Jesus understands that his time is short. He can’t wait for would-be disciples to bury their parents or even say goodbye. There’s a sense of urgency in this passage that reminds us that while there’s room for fun in life, the kingdom of God isn’t a game.

What then should we make of this text? How should we respond to its description of living under the reign of God? Is it a call to live an ascetic life, one of poverty, chastity, and obedience? How does such a calling fit with the fact that the modern church is a voluntary organization? No one has to join and no one has to do anything they don’t want to do. Yes, there are certain expectations placed on Pat and me, but that’s because we get paid for our service. So, what does it mean for members of a voluntary organization like this church to follow Jesus?

Besides all of that, don’t we live under grace? Isn’t our worthiness to be in the kingdom dependent on God’s largesse, not on our efforts? At first glance, it would appear that Jesus is suggesting that we have to earn our place in the kingdom. After all, he says, no one who puts their hand to the plow and then looks back is “fit for the kingdom.” If we take this word “fit” to mean worthiness, then it would appear that Jesus is suggesting that we must earn our place in the kingdom.

But, if we take this word to mean “suitable” or “capable,” then the meaning is different. In this case, Jesus is saying is to us that if you’re always looking over your shoulder, wondering what life would be like if we weren’t following Jesus, then it’s likely you’ll get off track. Or to be truer to the analogy, if you’re always looking over your shoulder, then it’s likely that the rows that you’re plowing will be crooked. Yes, to look back while plowing is a bit like driving while texting!

As we hear this text, the questions are many: Do we have a sense of the urgency of the work of Jesus? Do we understand that being church isn’t a game to be played? Can we answer the question with any certainty, why it’s important to be a Christian? That is, what difference does it make that I’m a follower of the one who set his face toward Jerusalem, and didn’t look back?

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, MI
June 27, 2010
5th Sunday after Pentecost

Saturday, June 26, 2010

What Have the Romans Ever Done for Us?

There sure is a lot of talk about Jesus and imperialism and such, you know with the New Testament seen in political terms -- yes, I know, I do it too -- .  Wait till you read my new book called Ultimate Allegiance:  The Subversive Nature of the Lord's Prayer (due out in Novemberish -- in time for your Christmas shopping sprees -- from Energion Publications)!  And yes, John Dominic Crossan makes a good case for imperialism being a key component of the gospel message.  Scot McKnight raises some questions about all of this as well, suggesting that it may reflect leftist politics (and I may resemble that remark).

But, I think that the Romans need to be given their due -- as Monte Python does in this scene from the Life of Brian.

Oil, the Environment, and the Limits of Human Abilities

I've not written much about the tragic oil spill in the Gulf.  I do believe that it could have been prevented, but there have been a number of factors that have conspired to create this situation. 

First is our propensity to use oil and oil related products.  As Charlie Crist said on the Today show this morning, this disaster should be a wake up call to Americans that we need to change our habits when it comes to oil usage (and he's a Republican).  But consider how we drive -- how I drive.  I drive a small car, but . . . There are all the plastics we use, etc.  Oh, and he said that the judges decision to stop the moratorium on drilling was, to use his own words -- "ludicrous!"  (Again, he's a Republican).

Then there's greed.  Consider that this accident might not have happened had the companies used the same technology used in the North Sea deep water drilling, adding an extra layer of protection of a remote shut off system as required by Brazil and Norway, but not the US.  Yes, this has never been tested in real life, and there are questions of its usefulness, but we'll never know in this case because BP didn't want to spend the extra 500,000 and under the Bush Administration, it was decided not to require them.

As with the drug situation that compounds immigration, we as Americans are our own worst enemies.  We want what we want without the consequences.  But that isn't the way life works.  The more we push the boundaries, the more likely we're going to have trouble.  The reality in this case is that the only people who know how to fix the problem are the ones who caused it.  And as for the clean up, well, you can't really do clean up well until you shut off the source of the problem.

I saw yesterday that Kevin Costner has a partial solution to getting oil out of the water.  Let's try it.  Let's do what we can, but let's also remember the role we all play in the problem.  Americans say they want smaller government, but then complain when the government isn't there to save them.  Ironic, isn't it!

I'll not be saying a whole lot more on this issue, but the point I'd like to end on is simply this -- we often make the beds we sleep in!

Friday, June 25, 2010

The Resurrection of Life

We have been having a conversation off and on here about the resurrection of the body.  As I've noted before I'm uncomfortable jettisoning a bodily resurrection.  I realize that there are scientific questions that are problematic, but I don't think that its the science that's the problem.  I think its the physicality that is the issue.  Christian theology has from the beginning placed an emphasis on embodiedness.  That's why the Eucharist became so central to the Christian faith -- it was a witness against the Gnostic desire to free the soul from the body.   I think that there is an incipient gnosticism that underlies the popularity of metaphorical interpretations of the resurrection of Jesus.  If Jesus' appearances were nothing more than visions or dreams, then we don't have to deal with an embodied state.

In earlier posts I've talked about N.T. Wright's views, but Wright is probably more conservative than am I.  Bruce Epperly gave a progressive theological argument for an embodied resurrection -- but Bruce is probably to my left.  Standing in between these two positions, both of which embrace embodied resurrection, is Jurgen Moltmann.

I am in the midst of reading Moltmann's latest book, Sun of Righteousness, Arise! (I will be publishing an online review of the book with Englewood Review of Books), and Moltmann explores the resurrection in several chapters.  Regarding the resurrection, he notes his preference for the phrase "resurrection of life," rather than "resurrection of the dead, the body, or the flesh."  These are the typical terms used, but he finds them less helpful than "resurrection of life."  What does he mean by this?  Let me offer this quotation for you to consider and respond to.  

By the living, lived body we do not mean the desouled body as an object, as a set of scientifically objectified organs and the medical treatment of them; we mean the experienced and lived body with which I am subjectively identical:  I am body -- this body is I myself, this is my body gestalt or configuration, and my life history.  Life in this sense means the life that is lived, not unlived, the life that is affirmed, not denied, the life that is loved and accepted.  Real life is the bodiliness which I am:  unlived life is alienated bodiliness which I have.  (pp. 60-61).

He goes on to consider what it would mean if we were to confess the "resurrection of lived life."  If we were to make this confession, then we could accept that dying is "part of life," as well as "believe in the victory of life over death."   Yes, then "we can then affirm that eternal life will be lived in the transfigured body" (p. 61).  

So, what is it about the resurrection of the body that gets everyone so upset, and does Moltmann offer us a way forward?   

Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Externally Focused Quest -- Review

THE EXTERNALLY FOCUSED QUEST: Becoming the Best Church FOR the Community. By Eric Swanson and Rick Rusaw. Foreword by Alan Hirsch. Jossey Bass, 2010. xv + 248 pages.

Missional churches are, by the usual definition, externally focused entities. That is, their ministries inside the church are designed to support and empower the ministry that occurs outside the walls of the church. In The Externally Focused Quest, which is a Leadership Network publication, Eric Swanson and Rick Rusaw expand on that definition. As with many similar books, the authors begin this book by distinguishing between attractional and missional churches. They remind us that in this new age, ministry seldom occurs because people come to a church building. Most ministry, especially ministry that will touch the lives of large portions of the community will happen outside the walls. To engage the world as it stands, the church must, following the categories developed by Jeff Waldo and other futurists, be attentive to society, technology, economics, environment, and religion. As for religion, its role is increasingly different from what it once was. No longer is the church considered the primary form of religious life in the western world. Spirituality, however, is definitely in! We are in a state of liminality, living between paradigms. What was once true no longer is, and as for the future, that’s not clear. Since these transitional ages can last for some time, we might as well get used to it.

The authors of this book hope to provide some tools for the church to not only weather this age, but to do effective ministry and mission within this changing context. Swanson and Rusaw come to this task as cofounders of the aptly named “Externally Focused Network.” Both are active in the missional movement – especially its more conservative forms – and have written this particular book as a followup to two previously published books, which they’ve coauthored: The Externally Focused Church and the Externally Focused Life. Swanson is a consultant who works with the Leadership Network, while Rusaw is pastor of LifeBridge Christian Church in Longmont, Colorado. LifeBridge is confessionally rooted in the portion of the Stone-Campbell Movement that is usually described as the Christian Churches/Churches of Christ. Before going to LifeBridge, Rusaw was an administrator at Cincinnati Christian Seminary.

After setting the contextual stage, the authors move on to try to focus the attention of the reader on the transition from the “aisle seat” to the “window seat,” from the inside to the outside (I must confess I never really understood the analogy). But the point they want to make is that the church must discern why it’s not engaged missionally and then begin looking outward. From there they move on to a question of purpose, making a distinction between weight training and body building. This analogy is quite apt, because the purpose of weight training is very different from that of body building. Weight training is preparatory for doing something else – to engage in an athletic endeavor, but body building is an end in itself – looking good. Too often churches engage in endeavors that build the body so that they can look good. They have nice programs, nice buildings, and nice reputations, but they don’t do much for the community. On the other hand, churches that are “working out” for the purpose of engaging the broader community so that transformation might happen are the missional or externally focused churches. If the purpose of the church is externally focused, the church’s broader narrative is that of the kingdom of God and not just that of the church. Missions, which we so often see as engaged in by the chosen few is now something that the many are engaged with.

Much of what is found in the first half of the book is similar to what is found elsewhere in the literature. Much of it is helpful and even original. The chapter that caught my eye focused on partnering. The chapter begins with an African proverb: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together” (p.111). Being that the authors come from a rather conservative context it was heartening to read this chapter, which encourages the church to partner with others, even if they don’t agree on every matter. They point to Paul Hiebert’s discussion of centered and bounded sets, where in the one focuses on beliefs (and thus boundaries) whereas the other focuses on the things one cares about (the center). They also use the analogy of sinking wells. That is, instead of building walls and fences, the church is called to sink wells, and in their definition that well is Jesus. You sink a well, and you don’t have to worry about fences because people (or livestock) will come to where the water can be found. With this in mind they suggest that there really is only one church in town, but it meets in a lot of different locations (this is very much a Stone-Campbell idea).

If the church is going to engage in ministry that is going to change communities, they’re going to have to partner – with other churches, non-profits, and even local governments. These partnerships can focus on food programs, emergency assistance, prisons, medical programs, and much more. The key to success in all of this – so that we don’t simply engage in this “ministry” so as to look good – is that we not worry about who gets credit, which means you don’t have to wear the church T-shirt in order to do the work. It also means recognizing the need to let people free to get involved in the community – don’t be jealous of work outside the church, and be sure to understand the rules. They note that very often the church is simply partnering with a community group, helping that group meet an existing need – so follow their rules. If you go to a school to tutor, then use their materials, don’t try to proselytize.

If partnering is a key, then creating systems to support and achieve this is necessary. It’s not programs, but models and paradigms that are important. As they point out, “a program has a beginning and an end. A paradigm is a pattern or model from which many programs and initiatives will flow, . . .” (p. 133). In order to create these models or paradigms, there will be the need to provide a strong scriptural foundation and then preach about this model on a regular basis – “Build God’s heart into the rhythms of your preaching and teaching regarding those on the margins of society and the absolute need for service and ministry as it pertains to our own spiritual growth” (p. 139). Make it part of the church’s plans and bring service into the small groups that exist in the church. The whole idea is to make sure that an external focus permeates everything the church does. Being that the authors are evangelicals, it shouldn’t be surprising that while service to the community is key they believe that the capstone of this ministry is evangelism. Service to the community provides a basis upon which effective evangelism is built. Thus, church people aren’t just community volunteers, they’re kingdom laborers who have been deployed by the church. Successful externally-focused ministries that engage the community in service and evangelism, will be creative. Innovation and entrepreneurship is key. Everything in the church, from prayer to technology is leveraged for creative work in the world.

Ultimately, this is about outcomes. The church isn’t just about preparing for the game, it is about playing the game, and in this game everyone, they say, plays. As churches, we should be focused on equipping and sending out people to do ministry – in creative ways, of course. And since outcomes matter – that is, winning matters – then the church should measure its effectiveness, to discern what is working and what is not, what should be started and what should be abandoned – so as to make good use of resources. As they end the book, they ask the reader – what is your measure of success?

The authors write with passion and with an entrepreneurial spirit. They are observant of trends and possibilities. They’re good at telling stories – the book is full of anecdotes of churches that are effectively living out this model of being externally focused. All of this is good and instructive. It is well written and engaging. But questions linger. I was struck by several things. First the entrepreneurial/business language. Second was the subtle but ever-present sense that the churches that are most likely to engage in such ministry are quite large. Almost all of the examples stem from churches that are over 1000 members. Finally, and perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising considering the religious location of the authors, but with a few exceptions every example is male. Every pastor who is mentioned in this book is male. Considering the dependence of the authors on narrative, by the end of the book you almost wonder if women even exist in their world. Again, this shouldn’t be surprising, considering that the tradition out of which Rusaw comes, one that puts major limits on the role of women, but for those who come to this book from outside this understanding, it would be helpful to know what you’re about to encounter.

So, the message is a good one. Many of the suggestions will be of great help, even for those like me, who don’t share the theological positions of the authors.

Fire and Fraud: Touchdown Jesus Meets the Cult of Palin -- Sightings

Having worked at a Christian bookstore during my seminary years, I learned a lot about Christian kitsch, what we called Jesus Junk.   One thing that conservative Christianity figured out early on was how to sell itself.  It didn't just champion capitalism, it embodied it.  No one was better at it than Aimee Semple McPherson, whose talents gave birth to a whole number of imitators.  Well, as Jeremy Biles notes, Sarah Palin has caught the bug, and has combined piety and entertainment and politics together in a way that is almost cultish.  Jeremy Biles takes up the Sarah Palin event and discusses it together with the burning of the TD Jesus in Ohio.  It's an interesting piece, so read and offer your thoughts! 

Sightings 6/24/10

Fire and Fraud:
Touchdown Jesus Meets the Cult of Palin
-- Jeremy Biles

I recalled C. G. Jung’s definition of “synchronicity” last week when two email messages, each containing a link to a religion news story, arrived to my inbox almost simultaneously. Synchronicity refers to “temporally coincident occurrences of acausal events.” In other words, synchronicity is about meaningful coincidence – two or more events or images not causally related, but connected in some significant way.

The first news item actually invoked coincidence: “We just all have to go on our faith and ask God. This cannot be a coincidence." This was one Solid Rock Church member’s response to the destruction of the famed “Touchdown Jesus” sculpture that had long caught eyes and raised eyebrows along a stretch of Interstate 75 in southwestern Ohio.

Officially titled “King of Kings,” this massive bust of Jesus, with arms raised to heaven in the posture that suggested its nickname, was struck by lightning last Monday night and subsequently burnt down, in what some characterized as an “act of God.” News images show the gigantic sculpture engulfed in flames, while a sign at Solid Rock ensures hope in the resurrection: “He’ll be back.”

The second link brought me to a Huffington Post article calling attention to the cover image on the latest issue of Newsweek. It depicts Sarah Palin, her hands pressed together in a prayerful gesture, her lit-up face turned heavenward, and her head endowed with a Photoshopped halo. Below this intentionally tacky image, in vintage calligraphy, are the words “Saint Sarah,” along with the tagline for Lisa Miller’s article: “What Palin’s appeal to conservative Christian women says about feminism and the future of the religious right.”

Miller’s report brings critical light to bear on Palin’s appeal to conservative Christian women. Miller emphasizes Palin’s much touted “authenticity,” as demonstrated in her book Going Rogue, where the former vice-presidential candidate talks, for example, about the unexpected pregnancy leading to the birth of her son Trig. “Nothing,” writes Miller, “makes a person, let alone a politician, appear more vulnerable, more ordinary, and more unambiguously female than a scene in a bathroom where she pees on a stick.”

The combination of sentimentality, pathos, and all-American ordinariness that constitutes Palin’s “authenticity” works hand-in-hand with her optimistic religiosity and buoyant patriotism. Miller describes Palin “wearing a rosarylike cross around her neck and a sparkly American flag lapel pin” as she spoke to over 500 women at the pro-life Susan B. Anthony List, each of whom paid at least $150 for the privilege of hearing Saint Sarah speak.

Miller notes that “a certain kind of conservative, Bible-believing woman worships” Palin. One Palin zealot, Vicki Garza, owner of a Dallas-based marketing firm, established a now heavily trafficked website called Garza “believes a great cosmic battle is underway for the soul of America and that Palin has been singled out by God for leadership.” In Garza’s own words, “The anointing on [Palin] is so strong…. She’s just fearless.”

But what does Saint Sarah have to do with Touchdown Jesus? What makes the coincidence of these images significant? They are connected on at least this point: Whatever else they are, both Palin and the King of Kings can be seen as forms of advertising that might be characterized as kitsch: cheaply produced, popular, and marketable art that traffics in sentimentality and often adapts imagery from cultural iconography – Jesus or saints, for example.

To suggest that Touchdown Jesus – a sculpture of fiberglass and plastic foam mounted on a simple metal skeleton – might be perceived by some to be a kitschy oddity is not to deny that for others it is a meaningful icon, a monumental focal point for faith. It also has clear evangelistic intent, and thus works, for better or worse, as a kind of marketing tool.

But whereas the loss of Touchdown Jesus provoked both sadness and guffaws, the cult of Saint Sarah leaves little room for mirth. Palin’s self-construction as ordinary and “authentic” – her everywoman, working-mom routine; her down-home idiolect; her wink-peppered performances – is, at base, an advertisement for herself. With or without the fraudulent halo, she is a kitschy image designed to sell a particular brand of religio-political entertainment.

Cheaply produced (if sometimes expensive to consume), Palin is above all a popular commodity whose religious saleability is evidenced and abetted by the merchandise generated around her. Newsweek highlights the commercial aspect of Palin’s enterprise in a photo slideshow entitled “Cult of Palin.” Here you find images of Palin alarm clocks, Palin burlesque shows, Palin coloring books, and Palin shirts emblazoned with the slogan “God, Guns, Guts.” As an image, Palin is the patron saint of a form of commercialism in which religion, politics, and entertainment are collapsed.

Cheap and marketable: these terms may describe both Touchdown Jesus and Saint Sarah. But one suspects that human will, and not an act of God, will be required to dispel the cult of Palin.


The Huffington Post calls attention to the “Saint Sarah” Newsweek cover here:

Lisa Miller’s Newsweek article, followed by a link to the “Cult of Palin” slideshow, can be found at:

Information about the destruction of the “King of Kings” statue can be found here:

For information on kitsch, see:

Jeremy Biles teaches courses on religion, philosophy, art, and popular culture at various institutions in Chicago. He is the author of Ecce Monstrum: Georges Bataille and the Sacrifice of Form (Fordham University Press, 2007).


This month's Religion and Culture Web Forum features a chapter from literary critic Amy Hungerford's forthcoming volume Postmodern Belief: American Literature and Religion Since 1960 (Princeton University Press, August, 2010). In "The Literary Practice of Belief," Hungerford focuses upon two contemporary literary examples--the novels of Marilynne Robinson and the Left Behind series--in order "to engage (and revise) the current emphasis on practice over belief in our understanding of religion." With invited responses from Thomas J. Ferraro (Duke University), Amy Frykholm (The Christian Century), Constance Furey (Indiana University), Jeffrey J. Kripal (Rice University), Caleb J. D. Maskell (Princeton University), Edward Mendelson (Columbia University), Richard A. Rosengarten (University of Chicago Divinity School), and Glenn W. Shuck (Williams College).


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

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Staying True to the Call-- Lectionary Reflection

Reposted from [D]mergent, a weekly lectionary meditation.

2 Kings 2:1-14
Galatians 5:1, 13-25
Luke 9:51-62

Staying True to the Call

It may be a truism, with lots of qualifications and nuances, but it seems apparent that to be successful in life (unless we’re born with a silver spoon), you’ll have to be persistent as well as be willing to persevere through difficult times and obstacles. At every juncture there will be the temptation to look back and retreat to safety. Both Elijah and Jesus were tempted to take the easy way out, to turn back from their appointed tasks, but both remained steadfast and fulfilled their tasks.

In these two passages, one from the Hebrew Bible and the other from the Gospel of Luke, there is a common theme. The question that is raised in these texts concerns our willingness and ability to remain true to our calling. Are we ready to take up the mantle of the Master? Elijah understands that his day of departure is at hand. Elisha is his disciple, but the question that is present in the text is whether Elisha is ready and willing to continue the ministry of Elijah. The two are journeying from Gilgal to Bethel, and Elisha pledges his loyalty, such that he won’t leave Elijah. Where you go, I will go. Even when the Company of Prophets reminds him that it’s Elijah’s time to depart, he won’t leave his master. They go to the river, go through the river, and each time they stop, giving Elisha the opportunity to turn back, he pledges his loyalty to Elijah. Finally, having crossed the river, which Elijah parts by hitting the water with his rolled up mantle, Elijah asks of his student – what would you ask of me? And Elisha asks that he might have a double portion of his master’s spirit. Such a request is rather bold, for in making this request, Elisha not only pledges to continue his master’s work, but to expand it as well. Elijah says to Elisha: So be it, this will come to pass for you, if you’re able to watch me depart from this life. That is, such will happen if you are able to continue with me to the very end. It is after this, as they walked that a Chariot of Fire came and took Elijah from the earth, and Elisha continued focused on his master crying out to him as he departed. When the chariot was gone, Elisha looked down and saw that Elijah had left his mantle. Elisha picked it up, went to the Jordan, and struck it with the mantle, calling out, “Where is the God of Elijah.” At that the waters parted and Elisha, who had persevered to the end, crossed back over to the other side, knowing that he returned home to continue the ministry of his master, full of the Spirit that had indwelt Elijah.

There are differences between this first story and the Gospel, but both have at their heart the question of staying true to one’s calling. Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, where he will depart from this life. Luke says that he “set his face to go to Jerusalem.” There is, in that statement, a resoluteness that suggests that he will not turn back, no matter what may come his way.   (To continue reading, click here). 

Invictus -- Video Review

It is hard to believe that has been twenty years since Nelson Mandela was released from his long imprisonment on Robben Island, an event that would transform the nation of South Africa.  Not too long afterward, Mandela was elected President of the nation and faced the difficulty of uniting a very divided nation.  Whites feared retribution and loss of property and businesses that had been established during the long years of government directed Apartheid policies.  Blacks were angry at being denied their rights for so long, angry at having been imprisoned for their efforts to free themselves from bondage to a white minority government.

Clint Eastwood's movie, now out on DVD, Invictus, tells the story of Mandela's decision to use a rugby team's participation in a South Africa hosted World Cup Championship to unite the nation.  The movie, which stars Morgan Freeman as Mandela and Matt Damon as Springbok captain Francois Pienaar, portrays Mandela as being intent on bringing together a nation, understanding that the national rugby team, the Springboks were beloved by the Afrikaners, but hated by Blacks who saw them as poster children of apartheid.  It's revealed in the movie that Mandela, while on Robben Island, would root for whoever was playing against the Springboks, because this got under the skin of his guards.  More broadly, black South Africans as a whole rooted for whoever played against the Springboks as a sign of their protest against apartheid. 

According to the movie, Mandela believed that if the Afrikaners understood that they wouldn't lose their beloved team and that Blacks could embrace it, then there would be the first step toward reconciliation.  Pienaar, at least as portrayed in the movie, came from a middle-class Afrikaner family that detested the new president, in large part out of fear of what might happen.  Pienaar has his view of the world changed when the President invites him to tea.  They talk briefly about rugby, but the focus is on leadership.  After the meeting Pienaar realizes that Mandela not only wants the team to win the World Cup, but that he has been charged with helping lead a nation toward unity.

I realize that with any movie such as this there is artistic license and created dialog.  We don't know what exactly went through the minds of the primary actors, but we're helped to understand the process by which reconciliation was attempted, and that a rugby game, which was described in the movie as "a hooligans game played by gentlemen" could be the vehicle.

Freeman is masterful as Mandela, while Damon plays Pienaar with an understated dignity.  Both deserve their accolades.  But what struck me, besides this interplay between sports captain and president, was the interplay within Mandela's body guards.  Mandela brought with him the body guards that had protected him prior to his election, but now that he is president, the head of this unit realizes that he needs more staff, and receives that help in the form of several white police officers, men who had protected the previous president.  These officers represented all that the men in this unity hated about apartheid, but as the movie progresses these men come together and not only form a solid unit, but actually begin to develop a friendship.

The title of the movie, Invictus, stems from a Victorian poem written by William Henley, which according to the movie, sustained Mandela while in prison.  Shortly before the final championship match, Mandela gives Pienaar a hand written copy of the poem as an inspiration.  The last stanza of the poem is key:

It matters not how strait the gait, 
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
Pienaar hears this as a call to be the master of his own fate, even as Mandela had been of his.

As for the movie itself, it is well acted, well written, and tells an important story that many of us have let creep into the recesses of our minds.  What the movie does for us is provide an excellent opportunity to consider the question of reconciliation and forgiveness when the alienation is at its greatest.  We're reminded that this is not easy, nor that it comes quickly.  And, sometimes you need symbolic opportunities to come together to build relationships, such as a rugby match.   It is, a message whose time has come!  

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Does God Know the Future? (Bruce Epperly)

If God knows everything that has happened and will happen, and God is all powerful, does prayer matter?  This is the question that Bruce Epperly ponders in today's posting.  It is an important question that too often we evade.  So, take a read and engage Bruce in conversation.


Does God Know the Future?
Why Does it Matter for Those Who Pray?
Bruce Epperly

When I was a child, my mother posted a magnet on our refrigerator that proclaimed, “Prayer changes things.” I have always taken this motto seriously. While I have many ways of praying – I use words, images, energy, touch, and silence at various times – I pray for things, large and small, knowing that within God’s reign and the interdependence of life, there may, in fact, be no small things.

As a practical and constructive theologian, I am interested in how our beliefs shape our practices and everyday lives. Accordingly, the question of divine foreknowledge is important to me. Does the fact that God knows – or does not know – everything in advance shape our faith and practices of prayer? In this essay, my answer is a resounding “yes” and, more than that, I assert that a God who does not know the future – a God for whom the future is open – inspires us to pray and claim our role as God’s partners in changing the world. In contrast, a God who knows everything in advance renders our prayers unnecessary.

Classical theology asserts that God knows the plot lines of our stories before we were conceived. As Rick Warren states, God has planned all the important events of our lives without our input. God holds the past, present, and future, according to classical theology, in an eternal now. Divine omniscience and omnipotence are intimately connected: because God’s knowledge is always active and never passive – God creates but does not receive. Accordingly, we can add nothing new to God’s experience. More interestingly, if God perfectly knows and decides all that will occur in changeless eternity, then nothing new can happen to God and God can do nothing new in the ongoing history of the universe. If divine knowledge is complete and divine action is perfect, any variation of either on God’s part is unnecessary and would imply the existence of imperfection in God’s nature.

What are the implications of divine foreknowledge theologically? First, our prayers really make no difference to God or anyone else. God already knows – and may have planned – what will happen. Prayer is entirely for our sakes and changes nothing in the condition of those for whom we pray. Our belief that our prayers make a difference is an illusion, grounded in our temporal existence. Second, and more radical, a God who knows and plans everything in advance may be described as “all powerful,” but such a God actually has finite power, since God can do nothing to alter God’s knowledge or plan. God is caught up in an eternal “Groundhog Day” in which God experiences the same universe and same finite events over and over again, with nothing new possible.

I assert that a God who neither knows – nor can determine – the future in its entirety not only makes the statement “prayer changes things” meaningful, but also has more options and influence than a God who knows and determines everything in advance. To clarify, there are two ways of looking at omniscience: 1) knowing everything – past, present, and future – as actual or 2) knowing everything in the past as actual and knowing the future in terms of possibility, but not actuality. I opt for (2) and believe that it allows us to interact creatively with a living God, and not a fully determined, unchanging God. God knows everything up to this moment in time and the landscape of future possibility, but not the actuality of what will occur.

To summarize, if God neither knows nor determines the future in its entirety, then our prayers add to the universe and support God’s ever-present aim at wholeness, beauty, love, and healing. Our prayers open the door for new possibilities of well-being for others and allow God to be more creative in bringing shalom to our lives and the world. Our prayers shape, to some degree, others’ experiences and, thus, allow for a greater influx of divine energy and possibility. Second, a God for whom the future is open can do new things, explore new possibilities, and shape the world in unexpected ways in partnership with the ongoing universe. God is not a prisoner of God’s past decisions. This is truly a living God: even though we have real freedom and creativity that places limits on the expressions of divine activity, God has infinite resources to respond to the world as it is and will be. Ironically, a God who is limited in some ways has more power and creativity than one who has determined everything in advance. God is alive, creative, novel, and creative yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

In an open universe in which creativity and freedom and real, our prayers are important: they shape us and others, and enable us to be God’s partners in healing the world.

Bruce Epperly is Professor of Practical Theology and Director of Continuing Education at Lancaster Theological Seminary and co-pastor of Disciples United Community Church in Lancaster, PA. He is the author of seventeen books, including Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living and Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God in Ministry, written with Kate Epperly.