Monday, February 28, 2011

Liberal Judaism in Decline -- Sightings (Martin Marty)

Today's report from Martin Marty on things religious concerns something we in the Christian Mainline know something about -- decline! In this case the community under consideration is liberal Judaism (Conservative and Reform branches), which are experiencing significant decline and wondering about their purpose as communities of faith. With anti-Semitism much less of an issue today (Putnam and Campbell in American Grace say that we like Jews better than any other faith community), so the question is -- what binds liberal Jews together? If you're not Jewish you may wonder why this matters. Marty suggests it matters to non-Jews because Reform and Conservative Jews are the most likely representatives of this community to engage in dialogue. Take a look and offer your thoughts.


Sightings 2/28/2011

Liberal Judaism in Decline
-- Martin Marty

“Liberal Denominations Face Crisis as Rabbis Rebel, Numbers Shrink: Struggling for Relevance and Funding” headlined the prime story by Josh Nathan-Kazis, in the newspaper Forward. A prime column follows it a week later, as Dana Evan Kaplan writes on “The Theological Roots of Reform Judaism’s Woes.” Translation of Nathan-Kazis’s headline, for non-Jews: synagogue memberships in Conservative Judaism, a major liberal denomination, “are in free fall.” Since 2001 the decline was 14 percent, while in the Northeast, family memberships dropped by 30 percent. Meanwhile, we read, in the other large liberal group, Reform Judaism, highly-placed rabbis are working to shake things up, to reform Reform, which is also in crisis.

Sociologist Mark Chaves offers perspective but not policy help by reminding Jews that most Christian denominations are also in decline or even in travail, when local congregations progressively, or regressively, drag their feet, close their pocketbooks, and go their own way, often into decline. I could write of counter-signs of vitality in Jewish and Christian directions, but that would be a different topic for a different day. Not being a policy-maker but a reporter on varieties of perspectives, I am doing what I can to discern and describe the trends, observe the statistics and strategies—and hope. Why invest hope on the part of those of us who have no great stake in liberal Judaism?

Many of the reasons are obvious, among co-religionists who wish for the best for fellow citizens and the collegially-religious. Non-Jews who take note of religion-in-public have reasons to care because it is often liberal Jews, not the Orthodox or the non-affiliated or non-practicing, who are their natural partners in dialogue. Robert Putnam in American Grace found strong evidence that non-Jews feel “warmest” to Judaism, among the religious families in America today. (That finding itself may be a sign of the weakening bonds of liberal Judaism after the time when overt and consistent anti-Semitism helped foster cohesion and inspire energies among beleaguered Jews.)

If response to anti-Semitism is less of a binding and energizing force among Jews, many argue that the defense of Israel has its enormous part to play. But observe the polls or listen to reports of especially younger Jews, and you will hear concerns that this will not be enough to keep Judaism strong. Now for that column by Rabbi Dana Evan Kaplan, author of Contemporary American Judaism. He notices that “triumphalism,” bragging rights and expressions by Reform as “the biggest” no longer is in place. He argues that the current “organizational malaise” obscures the fact that “the problem facing liberal Judaism is theological.” The pluralism, virtually the “anything goes” approach to liberal belief has replaced classical Reform’s emphasis on “the clear theological formulations of ethical monotheism and the mission of Israel.”

Today as Reform stresses “religious autonomy and the importance of choosing what each person finds spiritually meaningful,” in the words of Kaplan, there are few grounds for forming community and finding commitment. “Benign neglect” of theology and of witness to “the authority of God” have weakened liberal Judaism. After writing this but before you read it, I will have strolled down the block to Chicago’s Sinai Temple to hear a Sunday Sinai Symposium on, you guessed it, “Does Reform Judaism Have a Future?” Five notable and concerned rabbis will provide their answers in the afternoon session. Their audience, including this columnist, will have good reasons to pay attention.


Josh Nathan-Kazis, “Liberal Denominations Face Crisis as Rabbis Rebel, Numbers Shrink, Struggling for Relevance and Funding,” Forward, February 18, 2011.

Dana Evan Kaplan, “The Theological Roots of Reform Judaism’s Woes,” Forward, February 16, 2011.

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


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

God is in this Place?

The movement of the Spirit that is stirring moderate and progressive congregations, whether they have historically identified themselves with evangelical or mainline Protestantism, is taking form as emergent and missional communities of faith. These terms denote the reality that empowered and guided by the Holy Spirit, parts of the church are bursting through old boundaries, emerging from their shells so that they might engage in world transforming ministries. As this happens, these communities are looking again at their core identities and practices, to discern whether they can support this new work of the Spirit, so that both church and society might be transformed.

As the church adapts and moves forward, it will need to stop and engage in acts of introspection. In the course of this work of self-study, the church might be well-served by considering what the stranger might see in our communities? Consider what the person, who doesn’t know much if anything about the God church folk claim to worship, sees and hears if they should walk into the typical mainline Protestant church. Will they feel welcome and safe? Or, will they find the culture and the environment of the church to be foreign and strange? Beyond the person who has little exposure to the church’s theology and practices, we might consider other persons who venture into the community. There are any number of boundary issues that need to be considered -- gender, age, ethnicity, language, socio-economic, and cultural differences that impact one’s experience of God and the church.

When the stranger enters the community of faith, does what they hear and see suggest that the denizens of the church are, in the words of Paul, “out of your mind?” Or, do they hear and experience a message that discloses the secrets of their hearts, so that in response to their encounter in this place they fall before God in worship? Or to put it a bit differently, is it possible, that the stranger might enter into the church and declare: God is in this place (1 Corinthians 14:20-25). For many progressive/mainline churches this might seem like an odd expectation, but why is that? Why can’t we expect God’s Spirit to move in such a way that lives are changed dramatically due to their encounter with God?

This is the question that haunts the church in an age of wars and rumors of wars, an age of hate speech, drive-by shootings, growing intolerance, terrorism, bombings, and kidnappings. How do we bear witness to God’s grace and love and presence in this context? The questions become even more daunting because religious people seem to be stirring up much of the heat, while more moderate and progressive voices seem to get lost in the shuffle. Indeed, the news that is heard from pulpit and pew isn’t always good. Whether it’s “fire and brimstone” or bewailing lost influence, it often seems as if the church has lost sight of its mission. And yet the church possesses good news. This is news that if it is shared will resonate with the hearts of people who face such a wearying barrage of negativity. There are people out there, some who will enter and some who will never enter – at least not without a gentle invitation – into our houses of worship, who are looking for words of hope and peace. They want to worship a God who will open up the secrets of their hearts so that might find in God a source of healing grace. And so the question remains, if the stranger walks into the church what will she or he find? What will it take for them to say: God is in this place?

Excerpted from The Gifts of Love (unpublished mss.)

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Love Wins!

I've not seen the book yet, so I really can't say much about what's inside Rob Bell's new book entitled Love Wins:  A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever lived (Harper One, 2011).   But, apparently, according to all the buzz, especially on Twitter (where he was trending yesterday), the Grand Rapids-area pastor has become a heretic.   Yes, because he believes that God's love wins, then he must be a universalist who doesn't believe in hell.   As I've said, I've not read the book, but likely the critics haven't either.  All we do know is that there is a video and the video, according to the critics, carries a dangerous message.

Now, being that I'm post-evangelical and don't believe in hell either, so it should come as no surprise that I enjoyed the video and found its message compelling.  In fact, I find it to be a very powerful statement about the good news we have come to know in and through the person of Jesus.  He makes the statement that "the good news is that love wins."  Why should that be controversial? 

So, for now, until I have a chance to read the book, I'll just post the video, let you watch it, and then let you comment. 

LOVE WINS. from Rob Bell on Vimeo.

The Law of Love -- 4th Sermon on the Sermon on the Mount

Matthew 5:38-48

This morning we return to our journey through Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount. One of the basic premises of this sermon is that if we want to be disciples of Jesus, then our righteousness, our sense of justice, and our character must exceed that of the Scribes and the Pharisees (Matthew 5:17). In our last installment we heard Jesus push on our understanding of the Law, by calling on the people of God to internalize God’s teachings so that not only will we live right, but our hearts will be transformed. This morning we continue what we began in the last sermon of this series by listening to Jesus’ call for us to embrace the “law of love.”

As we saw in the last leg of the journey, Jesus says to the people: “You’ve heard it said . . . But I say to you . . .” In this morning’s text Jesus does this two more times. First he speaks to retaliation and then he speaks to loving our enemies. If you look closely, you see that these are two sides of the same coin.

1. Beyond the Law of Retaliation

Let’s begin with the law of retaliation, which in Latin goes by the name Lex Talionis. It’s a principle that goes back at least as far as Hammurabi, the great lawgiver of the ancient world. When you hear the words “eye for an eye” you might think this is a bit barbaric, but the Law of Retaliation was designed to make our responses proportionate to the offense.

As I was thinking about the relationship between retaliation and loving one’s enemy, I began to think about one of the movies that is nominated for this year’s Best Picture Oscar, which is to be given tonight. If you haven’t seen the new version of True Grit, maybe you’ve seen the earlier John Wayne version.

In the new version, the movie begins with a verse of scripture that summarizes quite well the plot of the movie:

The wicked flee when no man pursueth (Prov. 28:1a).
This is a movie about the wicked fleeing and the righteous pursuing. In the movie the wicked are represented by Tom Chaney, a ranch hand who murders his employer. The righteous one, on the other hand, is fourteen-year-old Mattie Ross, who embodies the second half of this verse from Proverbs, for she is “as bold as a lion” in her righteousness and in her pursuit of justice for her father. Although she hires Marshal Rooster Cogburn, who is known for his “true grit, but not his personal righteousness, to help her pursue her enemy, Marshal Cogburn and a Texas Ranger named LeBeouf, stay in hot pursuit of the wicked because they are driven by the righteous anger of a teenage girl.

Although it’s hard not to sympathize with Mattie’s quest, Jesus calls us to move beyond mere proportionate justice. If someone slaps your cheek, give them the other. If they sue you and take your coat, give the person your cloak as well. And if someone forces you to carry their burden for one mile, volunteer to go another mile. Finally, if someone begs or borrows from you, don’t turn them down, but instead give what is asked, without expecting repayment.

To live in such a way is difficult, perhaps even impossible. If we give away our cloak as well as our coat – in that age at least – we will end up naked. None of this makes much sense, and yet Jesus says that if we live like this then we will be perfect even as God is perfect. Although this sounds like a Gandhi-esque directive to engage in nonviolent resistance, there’s nothing really practical about this word from Jesus. He’s not teaching the people how to make friends with the Romans so they’ll give them freedom. Instead, this call to abandon the Law of Retaliation is an introduction to the “Law of Love.”

2. The Law of Love

As we’ve been taught, there are two great commands: Love God with all your being, and love your neighbor as you love yourself. In these two commandments all the law and the prophets are summed up. This is a good principle to live by, but Jesus expands the definition. Remember in the Parable of the Good Samaritan, which appears in Luke’s Gospel, but not in Matthew’s, Jesus uses the parable to answer the question asked by the righteous man: But who is my neighbor? In this passage of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus answers that same question. In defining the Law of Love, Jesus makes it clear that our distinctions between neighbor and enemy don’t count with God. Having essentially defined the Law of Retaliation out of existence, Jesus now tells us that while we’ve heard it said to that we should love our neighbors and hate our enemies, he says to us: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. This is what Jesus expects of his disciples.

Again, we do this not because when all is said and done we’ll get what we want from our enemies – which is the rationale for nonviolent resistance – but because in doing this we imitate God. As Jesus points out, God pours out blessings on the righteous and the unrighteous without distinction. In loving our enemies and praying for those who persecute us, we imitate God, and by doing this, the disciple distinguishes himself or herself from the world. That is, we have been called by Jesus to be perfect, even as the heavenly Father is perfect.

To get a sense of what this means, we might look to Leviticus 19, where God says to the people through Moses, the first lawgiver: “You shall be Holy, for I the Lord your God am Holy” (Lev. 19:1-2). This holiness that the Lawgiver describes is defined in Leviticus 19 by the way we live together as neighbors. The one who is holy doesn’t steal, doesn’t deal falsely with others, doesn’t put up obstacles in the way of the blind, and judges one’s neighbors justly and impartially. Indeed, Leviticus commands that we not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the people, but instead, we are to love our neighbor as we love ourselves.

Because this word is so hard to receive, we often try to find loopholes so that we can live out the “spirit” of the command even if we don’t follow the letter of the command. But maybe. In doing this we don’t Jesus’ call to discipleship very seriously. Perhaps it’s better simply to let these words hit us with all their force and then move forward in the grace and the love of the God who is holy and just and perfect. Rather than evade the message, we move toward fulfilling the call to live fully into God’s realm. And again, it would be helpful to remember that Jesus doesn’t specifically address this sermon to individuals but to a community. There is a word from Ecclesiastes that might be helpful:

Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up the other; but woe to one who is alone and falls and does not have another to help. . . . And though one might prevail against another, two will withstand one. A threefold cord is not quickly broken. (Ecclesiastes 4:9-12)
Even as Simon of Cyrene carried Jesus’ cross for him, we can carry each other’s crosses as we seek to follow Jesus’ command to love not just our neighbors and friends, but our enemies as well.

3. Defining Love

Having heard this call to love our enemies and not just our friends and neighbors, ti might be helpful to define what we mean by love. Theologian Tom Oord provides a helpful set of definitions that distinguish between the three forms of love present in Greek thought: Agape, eros, and philia. In his set of definitions, he speaks of agape as “in spite of love,” Eros as “because of love,” and philia is “alongside of love.” Each of these forms of love is present in Jesus’ command to love our enemy as well as our neighbor, but I think that his definition of agape is the most helpful in understanding this command. He defines agape as “acting intentionally, in response to God and others, to promote overall well-being in response to that which produces ill-being." [Thomas Oord, The Nature of Love, (Chalice Press, 2010), p. 56].

According to Oord, whatever form love takes, it must be intentional and aimed at “promoting overall well-being.” That is, when we love, we are offering blessings to others, with the goal being the promotion of shalom, which is peace or abundant life. Another way of saying this is that the purpose of love is promoting the common good of all creation.

When it comes to agape, Oord suggests that love takes us another step further in promoting well-being. With agape, we not only seek the well-being of the other, but we intentionally seek the well-being of the one who intends to do us evil. Instead of seeking retaliation or revenge, even if it seems to be the right thing to do, love calls us to embrace, redeem, and restore to right relationship the one who means us harm. That is the message of the cross, after all. Jesus seeks to reconcile all who would do him harm by overwhelming evil with good. If we follow in Jesus’ footsteps then we are imitating God, who is perfect and holy.

Ultimately, however, this is about the Law of Love. I heard a quote from Rob Bell, a pastor from Grand Rapids, who declares that the “Good News is that Love Wins.” Whatever else we might say about our calling to be disciples, the ultimate calling is to love not just our neighbors but even our enemies. Because, in the end, the “good news is that love wins.”
Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
8th Sunday after Pentecost
February 27, 2011

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Why Should the Church Bother with Social Media?

Technological advances have always driven change, revolution and reform in church and society.  To give but one example, the printing press made the Reformation possible, or at least allowed the Reformation to spread quickly. With the invention of the printing press came a rise in the literacy rate, which meant that no longer would the people be dependent on a small cadre of religious leaders for their information. Now, the Bible could be put into their own hands, and they had control.

In the last century, first Radio, then Television, and finally the internet made it possible for people to connect in ways that opened up horizons never seen or heard before.  The world, in a sense, became smaller, even as one's grasp of the complexity of the world grew much larger.  No longer were we limited to the printed word, but now the oral and the visual could be shared broadly revolutionizing the way we see the world.  I remember growing up with the Vietnam War broadcast every evening on the national news.  By the time of the First Gulf War, I could watch the events occur live and in color from afar. 

Now at the dawn of the 21st century, we are seeing the impact of new forms of technology. They build upon what was, but they expand the influence and impact much more widely. Could the recent and current revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa have happened so quickly without the ability of organizers to quickly mobilize large sectors of the population? They could do this because of Facebook and Twitter, two tools of technology that are less than a decade old. We are living in a new age where communication is instant and global.

We’ve seen what Facebook and Twitter have meant to these Revolutions, but what about the church? What influence will they have on the way we live and work and serve together? Will we receive them, even as we received the printing press, or will we shun them? It would seem that the groups and communities that most effectively utilize these tools will have a better opportunity to communicate a message and shape the conversation.

I’m of the belief that we must understand and make use of these tools, which in and of themselves are benign. Like any tool they can be used for good or ill, and so we must understand their use and value and decide how we are to use them. So, with that in mind, our congregation decided to work with Doug Pagitt to host a day long seminar on Social media (this past Thursday). This seminar is called a Social Phonics Boot Camp – for good reason. We rapidly moved through a “basic training” in the philosophy and use of social media – from Facebook to YouTube, from blogs to internet radio.

Although much of the day was hands-on, we began where we should – with the development of a Social Media philosophy. Why do this? Why use social media? Why not stick with the tried and true – like the mail and the printed word? What does this media add to our mission? Every church and every church leader must ask these kinds of questions, and the answers will prove enlightening and perhaps even revolutionary.

I want to close my comments with a word about my involvement with blogging. Doug asked me to help him with that portion of the seminar because I’m a pastor who blogs regularly. I didn’t provide the technical expertise, I helped with the philosophy. I started blogging five years ago (February 2006) because I like to write and I needed an outlet. As a blogger, I’m my own editor (unfortunately that includes being my own copy editor!) I started out just writing whatever came to mind, mostly about religion or politics, but I don’t know that I had really thought about why I was doing it. Then I read a piece that suggested that if you want to develop an audience you have to post regularly, and daily is best. So, I started to post daily, and continue to do so.

Still the question is why do this? And over time I’ve discovered that I have something to say, that there are people who find what I say helpful or useful, and that I can have a far larger audience through the blog than I can through my preaching or my teaching ministry. Now, I don’t know the extent of my influence. That’s not something easily gauged. I can check to see how many visitors or readers I get, but that doesn’t tell me a whole lot. Sometimes I get emails from readers and there are the comments that come. But here’s the basic philosophy. I believe that there are many different messages out there. Some of these messages, whether political or religious, can be harmful and destructive. My hope is that the words shared here are different. I pray that they lift up those who are struggling with life and with faith. I pray that these words might be healing, and I pray that they contribute to the common good. My voice is only one voice, but when we join our voices, then good things happen.

My word to my colleagues in ministry and leadership in the church, especially among progressive and moderate communities of faith – consider carefully this new technological revolution. We are entering what Doug calls the Inventive Age, an age that demands that we  recognize that change is happening quickly, and that creativity is key to engaging this new reality.  It is my belief, that if we don’t learn to engage the current technologies and unleash our creativity, then the message we wish to share will get drowned out by competing messages. If you don’t believe me, just think about who controls the religious dimensions of TV, the last great media revolution!

Friday, February 25, 2011

We're Not Forgotten -- A Lectionary Meditation

Isaiah 49:8-16a

1 Corinthians 4:1-5

Matthew 6:24-34

We're Not Forgotten!

One of humanity's greatest fears is to be forgotten. Whether we're extroverts or introverts, we want to know that someone cares about whether we live or die. The words Jesus is said to have uttered from the Cross, words that come to us from Psalm 22, express clearly our fears:
My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;
and by night, but I find no rest. (Ps. 22:1-2).
The promise of Scripture is that God does not forget. Even when we feel alone and despondent, God is present with us. These are words that give hope and solace in difficult times, when we feel as if God has forgotten us. Such words don't make the journey less arduous, but they provide a sense of strength. But the Scriptures that remind us that we're not alone, also remind us that God comes to us in community. The two go together.

As we listen to the voices speaking to us from the week's lectionary texts, we hear this reminder that God is present, but we also hear, especially in the Pauline text, a reminder that God is present in and through the community. The latter voice may be subtle, but it is there, in the words about trust. Indeed, community rests on the foundation of trust.

As we most often do, we start with the voice that speaks to us from the first testament. Here is the voice of the prophet who speaks to us from out of the exile, speaking to people who have experienced desolation, who have experienced imprisonment. They were a people without a home. This is a word that resonates with many living in our own time, people feeling the pangs of decreased value in homes, salaries, and retirements, unemployment and foreclosure, along with rising prices in other areas of life. There is great uncertainty about the future. Revolutions in the Middle East and the expansion of globalization. There is the reality that the gap between the richest members of society and the poorest is growing, while the middle class is shrinking. We know the darkness. It surrounds us. We feel it every day.

But even as Isaiah gives voice to our sense of being alone and forsaken, the prophet speaks a word of hope and salvation. A light will shine in the darkness. Songs of joy will erupt from the people. Indeed, they will feed from the bare heights and experience neither hunger nor thirst, neither scorching wind sun nor will the sun strike them down. This is because the Lord will lead them to pasture and flowing waters. The impassable mountains will become roads and the people will come from North and West to reinhabit the land. We may feel forgotten, but as the prophet states on behalf of God, "Can a woman forget her nursing child or show no compassion for her child?" Yes, we might find examples, but like the compassionate and committed mother, the Lord will not forget, for the Lord has "inscribed you on the palms of my hand."

All is not darkness. There is hope, for God is with us. But we know that there is need for God's presence to be tangible. We are not created to be alone - as the second creation account makes clear - God discerned that it was not good for the man to be alone (Gen. 2:18) and so God created a partner who fit with him, to share life in all its forms with him. Paul's brief words from 1 Corinthians 4 don't speak directly to the issue of forsakenness or community, but it is implicit in the words spoken to the people of this congregation. Indeed, the entire letter is focused on helping this people live together in a way that is healing and empowering. The focus is on Paul's claim to be a servant of Christ and a steward of God's mysteries. He knows nothing that can be held against him - nothing worth taking to court. As far as he is concerned, God alone is able to judge. The word is - don't pronounce judgment before the Lord comes, for it is the Lord who brings light to our darkness. In this case it is a light that illuminates the things that are done in darkness. Although the Pauline text is not as directly related to the themes present in the word from the prophets or from the Gospels, there is a word here this important. It is the word "trustworthy." For the community to be a place of healing and hope, so that we needn't walk this path alone, there needs to be trust, and as we know trust has become scarce in our day. The wary forward requires that the people of God become trust-builders. It is not an easy path. It requires that we not fall into cynicism and suspicion, but rather leave the judging and the revealing to God. Yes, be discerning, but do so prayerfully and carefully, so that the community might exist for the good of the world, that together we might all be servants of Christ and stewards of God's mysteries.

Finally we come to the Gospel. It is another passage from the Sermon on the Mount, though the lectionary skips from the end of chapter five into the middle of chapter six. The words about worship and prayer are set aside, so that we might hear a word that connects with the first text. It is a call to put one's trust in God. We worry, Jesus says, because we seek to serve two masters. But you can't do this. You can't serve God and the pursuit of wealth. One of the most scandalous parts of the Gospel is Jesus' constant challenge to people of wealth. He loves them and encourages them, but he also challenges them to let go of the pursuit of things that don't matter in the kingdom of God.

As we listen to this radical voice we are put in a difficult position. This is no capitalist God who is calling us into communion. We're not being encouraged to buy the latest car or fashion or to worry about what we'll eat or drink. There's no need to do this because worry doesn't do anything. I can't produce anything of value. It simply puts us in a position of enslavement. I hear this word, this call to seek God's realm, and yet I have a house payment, car payments, insurance bills, and the need to put food on the table. Over all I'm fortunate. The darkness hasn't closed in on me - though I've known the times when darkness seemed close at hand - perhaps not to the extent of so many others, but I know the feeling. So what do we make of this word from Jesus that tells us that we can't add an hour to our lives by worrying about what we'll eat or wear.

How do we respond to the premise that God knows our needs and will provide. What is it that God will provide and how will God provide? I'm cognizant of the word that was given to the Thessalonians who in their anticipation of the return of Christ seem to have gone off to the hillside to wait for the big event. The word comes - if you don't work, you don't eat (2 Thess. 2:6ff). So, is Jesus suggesting we simply sit and wait for God to come and give us food and clothes? I'm not so sure. Is Jesus providing a foundation for that innocuous Bobby McFerrin tune - "Don't Worry, Be Happy"? Some how I don't think that's the point. It is not a call to put one's head in the sand, but instead it's a call to get one's priorities in the right place.

In the end the word seems to be this: God is present with us on the journey, so that even as a mother would not forget her child, so God will not forget us. There is a trustworthiness present here that we are called to acknowledge. God has made a covenant and God is true to God's covenant. It is to this covenant that we are called to be servants and stewards, so that even as God is trustworthy, so might we, even as we seek the reign of God. When we do this, everything will fall into place. Thus, there is no need to worry about tomorrow. Instead, let us take care of today's challenges, which are sufficient for the day.

Secular Revolutions, Religious Landscapes

I've found it rather ironic that the same people who complain about the "naked public square" in the US, are among the ones calling for the revolutions in the Middle East to be "secular."  As Shatha Almutawa writes in the Thursday edition of Sightings, while religion hasn't been driving the revolutions, religion -- especially Islam -- has been infused into the revolutions.  Many of the protests have taken place after Friday prayers.  Imams and religious teachers have sought to empower the people to claim their freedoms and rights -- even countering claims by the oligarchs that freedom leads to chaos by pointing out that stability and freedom go together fairly well in the West.   President Bush wasn't wrong about the possibilities of democracy in the Middle East.  He was wrong in his belief that we could impose it from outside through military means.  It has to be homegrown, and the seeds of homegrown democracy are being sown.  Almutawa has written an insightful piece that deserves careful attention and conversation!  


Sightings 2/24/2011

Secular Revolutions, Religious Landscapes
-- Shatha Almutawa

While the Middle East uprisings have not revolved around religion, faith has not been absent from Arab scenes of protest in the last two months. God and scripture are invoked by revolutionaries and those who oppose them for the simple reason that Arab dialects and ways of life are infused with religion.

To an outside observer the revolts of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Bahrain might appear to be entirely secular, but Arabic Twitter and Facebook feeds are brimming with prayers, some formulaic and some informal, asking God to aid protesters and remove oppressors. Qur’anic verses and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad are shared on Facebook walls. One blogger titled his post: “A saying of the prophet about President Qaddafi.” In the quoted hadith Prophet Muhammed warns of a time when trivial men will speak for the people.

After Libyan president Moammar Al-Qaddafi ordered brutal attacks on demonstrators, leaving thousands dead and even more wounded, Yusuf Al-Qaradawi urged the Libyan army to kill Qaddafi. “I say to my brothers and sons who are soldiers and officers in the Libyan Army to disobey when (the government) gives orders to kill the people using warplanes,” the prominent Sunni scholar said, according to UPI. Soldiers have already defected in large numbers, and the pro-democracy army has taken hold of many Libyan cities.

In every part of the Arab world religious spaces such as mosques and churches have been stages for demonstrators as well as opposition. In the United Arab Emirates an activist was arrested after giving a speech at a mosque in solidarity with the Egyptian revolution. In his speech he invited worshippers to join him in performing a prayer for the Egyptian protesters.

In Egypt marches began at mosques after Friday prayers, and inside them imams gave speeches in favor of or opposition to the uprising. Egyptians are donating blood at mosques near the Libyan border. In Bahrain pro-democracy and pro-government protesters demonstrated outside Manama’s Al-Fateh Mosque as well as at Pearl Roundabout.

Even though religion is not the driving force behind the revolutions, religious leaders continue to defend protest in speeches that are disseminated via YouTube. Dr. Tareq Al-Suwaidan, a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood in Kuwait, gave a speech in which he urged Arabs to continue demanding freedom, human rights and an end to corruption. He challenged the governments’ claim that revolutions will lead to instability and insecurity, and that new freedoms would lead to chaos. “The west is living with these rights in stability and security, and they are making progress,” he said. “Our religion calls for these rights. Our religion guaranteed them to us.”

Al-Suwaidan’s tone is one of disbelief at dictators’ illogical statements and the contradictions in their claims. But his ridicule of government leaders is tame in comparison to the jokes made by Arabs all over the world following Al-Qaddafi’s speech. The jokes, too, involve religion. “Al-Qaddafi’s demands are simple—only that the people should say: There is no God but Al-Qaddafi,” Nael Shahwan tweeted in Arabic. Mohammad Awaad wrote, “Qaddafi ‘the god’ is a natural result of a media that has become accustomed to not saying no to a president, as if he is never wrong.” He continued, “I believe we have 22 gods”—one for each Arab country.

The opposition, too, is armed with religious rhetoric, but mosque, Qur’an, and hadith have been central in the Arab world’s struggle for freedom and democracy. Religious leaders as well as lay people have found that the language of religion is also the language of revolution. After all religion is very often the spirit of Arab life, and the inspiration for most of its endeavors—jokes and revolutions included.

Shatha Almutawa is the editor of Sightings and a PhD candidate at the University of Chicago Divinity School.


In this month's Religion and Culture Web Forum, Jessica DeCou offers a comic interpretation of the theology of Karl Barth, bringing his work into a surprising and fruitful dialogue with the comedy of Craig Ferguson. Both men, she contends, “employ similar forms of humor in their efforts to unmask the absurdity and irrationality of our submission to arbitrary human powers.” The humor of Barth and Ferguson alike stresses human limitation against illusory deification. DeCou argues for understanding both the humor and the famous combativeness of Barth's theology as part of this single project, carried out against modern Neo-Protestant theology. The Religion and Culture Web Forum is at:

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

Thursday, February 24, 2011


Prefatory Note:  For many years I've been writing and rewriting a book on spiritual gifts.  The book itself is part of my journey, and it has been revised as my own thinking and experiences have developed.  So, from time to time I'll be sharing bits and pieces of the manuscript as a way of encouraging a conversation and also to help me refine and develop an idea that drives my own thinking about church and ministry.

Love of God and love of neighbor are the foundational principles of the Christian faith - even when we fail to abide by them. It is the love of God, which Jesus embodied, that defines the church that is made alive in the Spirit. Without love, all that is done in the name of Christ is for naught (1 Corinthians 13:1-3). Thus, the mark of a church that is moving in the power of the Spirit is that it exhibits the kind of love that Jesus lived and taught.

A living and vibrant church is one that is marked by love and is committed to justice and mercy for all. It is one that is hospitable, gracious, compassionate, and committed to serving others. It is also marked by vibrant worship. Indeed, it is a community that looks beyond its own walls and sees fields ripe for harvest, fields in which the Spirit is already present and at work. We hear the question, "where can I go, that the Spirit is not already there?" In the words of the Psalmist, we pray:

Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there (Ps. 139:7-8).
Knowing that the Spirit is present, the church's vision is not limited to "religious work." Our work as the Spirit endowed community encompasses all of life's experience, from politics to family life to popular culture. It is, admittedly, the goal and not the reality. But guided by the Spirit we can envision a time when the church, empowered by the Spirit, will not be cliquish, inward looking, protective of turf, or suspicious of new people and new ideas.

We start from the premise that the Spirit of God is already present in the church and in the world. That is the message of Pentecost. Although some might take from Pentecost the idea that when the Spirit moves it is with loudness and spectacle, such an interpretation would miss the point. We do not experience the presence of the Spirit as either loudness or coerciveness. The Spirit may come as a mighty wind, but the Spirit also comes as a gentle breeze inviting us to share in the Spirit's gifts of service to the world. Discovery of spiritual gifts leads to the realization that every person in this world has God-given purpose. With the Spirit present, all things become knew, including our relationships with our God and with our neighbor. No longer will we look at life from a human point of view (2 Cor. 5:16).

What then is the nature of this Spirit that animates and empowers the church and enables both vertical (divine-human) and horizontal (human-human) relationships? What is this life giving force that is present in our churches and in our lives? God is, we confess, spirit. God is without material form, and yet God is something more than an ephemeral wisp of smoke - as if to say, God is there and yet not there. Mindful of the limits of human images and metaphors, we confess that God is more than an impersonal force that can be manipulated for human benefit. That is, God is something more than the "Force" of the popular Star Wars sagas. However we understand personhood, the biblical portrayal of the Holy Spirit is that of an intimate presence of God in human life. This Spirit is a divine presence that is both personal and free from human manipulation; as the immanent presence of God, the Spirit remains a transcendent "determining subject" who is free to act. With regard to the Spirit, we cannot merely say the right words or perform the proper rituals and expect the Spirit to act. When we experience the Spirit's presence and activity, we do so with openness to the unexpected. But, when the Holy Spirit acts in our lives, we are awakened to new possibilities for life and we are energized to carry them out.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Starting with Spirit -- A Review

STARTING WITH SPIRIT: Nurturing your Call to Pastoral Leadership. By Bruce G. Epperly. Herndon, VA: Alban Institute, 2011. Viii + 224 pages.

A first call to ministry can be both an exciting and a terrifying opportunity, especially if that first call is a solo pastorate. If you’re a Mainline Protestant pastor you have gone through seminary, an internship, and maybe Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE), but now you’re on your own. Hopefully, during this period of preparation the new pastor has received a well-rounded education that will enable this person to step out in service to God and church with confidence, but as every first call pastor knows, this is a season of firsts and you wonder if you’re ready for what will come. In fact, it is a lot like being a new parent – you have the responsibility, but are you truly ready?

Bruce Epperly has written a wonderful book that looks at many of the issues that new pastors face as they enter their calls. Much of the material that is present in the book is culled from conversations that the author has had with first call pastors over a period of about seven years. As he examines issues that range from what one learned in seminary (and things one wished one had learned) to experiencing life as an associate minister, he draws upon these conversations. Every pastor who reads this book will identify with the journeys these men and women have taken in their ministries.

The book begins by examining the world of the pastorate. Bruce notes that many first time clergy experience both grief and anticipation as they move out into the world from seminary. While one may be “itching to get into the game,” upon leaving seminary one quickly discovers that it can be lonely out there in the real world of ministry. You may experience isolation, knowing that one cannot root one’s friendship circles in the congregation but find it difficult to make connections outside the congregation. There may also be feelings of inadequacy as one takes up many firsts in ministry from weddings to funerals.

In the course of these chapters Bruce looks into such questions as the need to continually develop new skills for ministry, developing an appropriate sense of authority that matches situations, recognizing that “honeymoons” can end quickly, along with wrestling with boundary issues and self-care. Then there is the issue of innovation. Many of us are eager to come in and do a new thing, but often congregations need time to build trust before they’re ready to innovate. Then there is death – which as the title of a chapter suggests “never takes a holiday.”

Some chapters speak clearly not only to first call pastors, but to those of us who have been at this work for some time. Chapters dealing with the spiritual life of the pastor, something that is of special concern to the author, and taking care of one’s own health are of special note for all. He talks too about the nature of our relationships, the challenges of being an associate, and the importance of continuing education.

By utilizing the conversations with first call pastors, Epperly helps his readers realize that they’re not alone, that pastors all across the country, young and not so young, have set out on a journey that demands much and that doesn’t always get a lot of respect. Ministry is like no other occupation. It is not simply a helping profession, though pastors engage in the work of helping professionals. It is not simply a teaching profession, though teaching is at the heart of this work.

Clergy are generalists, addressing all manner of issues, from administration to walking with the dying and the grieving. They are professionals, but more than professionals. They are accountable, you might say, to a higher authority. There is a certain distance that professions place between the practitioner and the one being served, but in ministry the distance is there but it’s much more fluid. And so wise guidance is needed if one is not only going to succeed but survive.

When it comes to survival it’s well known that large numbers of clergy abandon their calling soon after taking up their first call. They may not be ready for the politics that is present in many congregations or prepared for resistance to new ideas. They may experience not only resistance but abuse from congregants. And so they need wise advice, which Bruce provides.

I’m not a new pastor. I’ve been ordained for more than a quarter century, and have experienced both the ups and downs of ministry. I’ve been tempted to give up the calling on many an occasion, but there is something exciting and powerful about this vocation. Because clergy, especially solo pastors, are generalists there is something new and different to deal with each day. Yes, there is loneliness and there is frustration, but there is also great joy and satisfaction to be experienced. So, while this book is addressed to first call pastors, there is much wisdom here that we who have been on the journey for sometime can benefit from. This is clearly a book that needs wide distribution and reading. Whether in your first year or your fiftieth, this is a worthwhile read.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Circles and Safety -- Process and Parenting #3 (Bruce Epperly)

The third installment of Bruce Epperly's take on parenting from the perspective of Process Theology takes us to a place all parents have been.  He speaks to the question of safety and risk.  How do we protect our children while allowing them freedom to explore and grow.  He mentions a book that I read many evenings to my own son; it's a book that serves to remind the child that no matter where he or she runs, the parent is there.  Runaway Bunny is a favorite of parents and small children for it speaks to the kind of relationship we all envision.  It is, of course, also a relationship that God envisions for us to have with God.  I invite you to reflect and comment on Bruce's essay about drawing circles of safety around our children.


Circles and Safety
Bruce G. Epperly

In the Celtic tradition, travelers often begin their daily journey with a prayer and the encircling (or “caim”) in which the traveler rotates in a clockwise direction, inscribing a circle with her or his index finger. Whether we do this through movement or in our imagination, the encircling reminds us that wherever we are, we are in God’s circle of protection. In the spirit of Romans 8, we discover that nothing – none of our deepest fears for ourselves or our loved ones – can separate us from the love of God. With the author of Psalm 139, we discover that if we descend to the depths, God is there; if we ascend to the heights, God is also there. Like the story of the Runaway Bunny, even when we run away, or clothe ourselves in darkness, God is there to embrace us.

I have found the practice of encircling to be a spiritual aid, especially when I find myself struggling with stressful situations or caught up in fear and anxiety. When I experience myself in God’s circle of love, I know that despite my fears that all will be well.

Being a parent can be frightening. We fear for our children’s safety and place in the world. We are constantly bombarded by news alerts and commercials that remind us, often unrealistically, that we, and our children, are always at risk. There are no guarantees in life, even for spiritual persons.

While parents can practice many common sense safety practices, the issue of safety is spiritual as well as practical. Parenting is about expanding the circle of our children’s experiences and this always involves risk. At five months, my grandson’s parents have 24/7 awareness of where he is and what he’s up to. They stay in contact with him by: being in the same room and through baby monitors. As he grows older, his circle of experience will grow to closing the door of his own room for privacy to playing alone in the backyard and to going on walks and bike rides with friends or all by himself. Eventually, he will go away to college, making a life of his own.

Parents and children alike need sufficient “primordial” or “basic trust,” enabling us to face uncertainty with confidence in our own abilities and the basic benevolence of the universe. Process theology sees trust as growing out of the dynamic divine-human relationship. God is involved in each moment of experience, providing possibilities and the energy to achieve them. God does not and cannot determine everything or provide an absolute safety net, but in every situation, God is providing resources for our well-being and safety, both in our experiences and by inspiring others toward acts of care and protection. We are always in the circle of God’s love and our calling is to create circles of love that expand to embrace others and that promote others’ creativity and freedom. This applies to parenting as well as to mentoring, marriage and friendship.

Parents need to join order and novelty in their parenting. Order describes the safe circles of life, of responsibility to protect our children with all the resources we can muster in terms of presence, household safety and security, diet, and health promotion. Novelty relates to allowing surprising and serendipitous moments to occur. These always involve a degree of risk. For example, in teaching my son to ride a bicycle 25 years ago, I put him at a small degree of risk as I pushed him forward and then let go so that he could ride on his own. He fell several times and then – voila! – Off he went, having learned to ride on his own without training wheels. The move from crawling to toddling and walking involves pain and failure; and yet it is necessary for growth and maturity. New ideas are threatening – and at times, painful – and yet without new idea, we stagnate intellectually, spiritually, and emotionally.

As a parent and grandparent, I take the Celtic encircling seriously as essential to my intercessions on behalf of my son and grandson. I circle them in God’s care whether I am visiting them in Washington DC or taking a walk in my Lancaster, Pennsylvania neighborhood. The encircling reminds me that we are always connected and that my prayers make a difference. There are no guarantees in life – the sun shines and the rain falls on all of us. But, through the interplay of smart and safe parenting and a constant expanding of the circle of experience, we can balance safety and risk in ways that support our children’s well-being.

A Spiritual Practice for Parents: Regularly inscribe the Celtic circle (or “caim”) around your children and teach them to practice it as well. In your imagination, visualize yourself drawing a circle around your child as you pray for their safety, well-being, and creativity. Invite them to simply draw a circle around themselves by movement or in their imagination.

Bruce Epperly is a theologian, spiritual guide, healing companion, retreat leader and lecturer, and author of nineteen books, including Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living; God’s Touch: Faith, Wholeness, and the Healing Miracles of Jesus; and Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God in Ministry. He has taught at Georgetown University, Wesley Theological Seminary, Claremont School of Theology, and Lancaster Theological Seminary. He is currently theologian in residence at St. Peter’s United Church of Christ in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He can be reached at

Monday, February 21, 2011

A Bishop's Defense of Government -- Sightings

Is government the enemy?  In some places, like Libya it probably is, but can we honestly say that government is the enemy in the United States?  It may be inefficient and ineffective at times, but is government really the problem?  And as we answer that question it probably is good to remember that even in a representative democracy, ultimately "we the people" are the government. 

This is the question that Martin Marty raises in today's edition of Sightings.   He makes reference to a Lutheran Bishop in Minnesota who decided to stand up and defend the importance of government, including taxation, as an expression of our existence as a people in compact with each other.  I may not always agree with the government, but I'm not sure that anarchy is better.  I may not like every regulation or tax, but the FDA and EPA provide important services that enhance our lives.  But, I'd like to hear what you have to say in response to Marty's essay.


Sightings 2/21/2011

A Bishop’s Defense of Government
-- Martin E. Marty

Belgian sociologist of religion Henri Desroche once observed three functions of religion in society. Religion normally attests a society when it is in the business of “affirming.” There and then it serves an integrating function. That’s normal: think “God bless America.” Next, in a society that is examining its own premises and reorganizing its constituencies, the function of religion is to be contending “within the limit of contesting the status quo.” Think Martin Luther King, Jr. “In a society that is denying, challenging and refusing its own right to exist, religion appears as a function of protesting, revolting and subverting,” writes Desroche. Think recent Egypt.

Beyond these three functions of attesting, contending and protesting are chaotic movements like anarchism, or, closer to home in today’s America, simple “anti-government” actions, expressions, and tantrums. Think of Ayn Rand’s shrugs and the many current declarations in praise of the selfish individual. Now and then religious leaders, themselves aware of the attesting, protesting, and even, though too rarely, the contending functions of faiths, will examine and take on selfish declarations. One whose words reached publics in the Minneapolis StarTribune and subsequently, of course, on the internet, is Peter Rogness, a bishop within the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and president of the Minnesota Council of Churches. He had the sense to speak of the obvious to multitudes and the courage to take on the anti-government folk, in a column entitled “Government is not the enemy.”

His question is clear: “Is government us or them?” a question which he follows up with the observation: “With no public announcement, we have changed from a people sharing a common life to several hundred million individuals who happen to live near one another, and we risk losing our soul in that change.” His “we” is “the people” who appear(ed) in so many of “our” founding and later public documents. He adds: “As people withdraw into greater concern for their private welfare, government as public enterprise fades; the ‘we’ becomes ‘they,’ common purpose becomes interference and the poor and vulnerable are left on the margins.”

Government, in our history and for Rogness, is not an “it” or a “them.” “Taxes aren’t theft; they’re the means by which we pool our resources, fairly and with order, to underwrite this common life.” Ready to take on an icon, he looks back to 1981 when an unnamed U.S. President announced, “Government is not a solution to our problem; government is the problem.” The bishop anticipates legitimate debate over his words “fairly and with order.” No party, no policy, has a monopoly on “fairness” and good “order.” Contesting policies and programs is a right and duty of “we the people.”

Rogness asks, “So why is a Lutheran bishop writing a social and historical critique?” He is not unique. Numbers of other bishops do so, among them Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams. They do it because at stake are “values rooted in the faith traditions of the people who make up this state and nation.” And: “A budget is a moral document.” Let debating over budgets continue, something that can’t happen in an “anti-government” moment, which one hopes will not become an era of potential destruction. It would be caused by the “I’s” who, Rogness writes, take care of themselves and do not notice or who do disdain the “others.” These others, the vulnerable and marginal, are prime in the faith traditions of which the bishop speaks.


Henri Desroche, Jacob and the Angel: An Essay in Sociologies of Religion (University of Massachusetts, 1973).

Peter Rogness, “Government is not the Enemy,”, February 6, 2011.

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

In this month's Religion and Culture Web Forum, Jessica DeCou offers a comic interpretation of the theology of Karl Barth, bringing his work into a surprising and fruitful dialogue with the comedy of Craig Ferguson. Both men, she contends, “employ similar forms of humor in their efforts to unmask the absurdity and irrationality of our submission to arbitrary human powers.” The humor of Barth and Ferguson alike stresses human limitation against illusory deification. DeCou argues for understanding both the humor and the famous combativeness of Barth's theology as part of this single project, carried out against modern Neo-Protestant theology. The Religion and Culture Web Forum is at:


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

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Creating Communities of Faithful Service

Diversity and unity seem so opposite and contradictory. Yet, they are both hallmarks of the Spirit endowed community of faith. Americans are by definition individualists, even “rugged individualists.” We honor those who “pull themselves up by their bootstraps.” Square-jawed John Wayne represents the vision of the “can-do” spirit of American life. As Christians, many Americans have cultivated a similar understanding of the church. We honor those who represent the entrepreneurial spirit. We commend those who are willing to take risks, to try new things, to blaze new trails. There is value in this spirit of adventure, this willingness to go it alone if necessary. But the church is not a gathering of independent individualists, it is a community gathered and formed by the grace and love of God. It is a body, a system that is more than the sum of its parts. It is diverse but it is also one.

The Spirit’s gifts create within the church this unity in diversity. As we discover and begin to understand these gifts of the Spirit, we will begin to realize that we are dependent on each other. Therefore, we have a duty to work for the common good (1 Cor. 12:7), to build up the body (1 Cor. 14:12). As a body whose members depend on each other, when one suffers, all suffer, when one rejoices, all rejoice (Rom. 12:15; 1 Cor. 12:7, 25-26). Therefore, when a family suffers the death or illness of a loved one or loses a job, the community comes alongside and provides a meal, housekeeping assistance, or just an ear to listen.

This support for one another is the essence of body building, which comes naturally to the Spirit-gifted community. It comes without guilt inducing coercion or expectation of something in return. Such selfless acts come out of a sense of love for the body, a love that is rooted in the grace that is the foundation of the Spirit’s gifts. But, for this grace to become evident, our giftedness must be feed and nourished by our relationship with the living God, whom we know in the person of Jesus Christ. Therefore, our ability to hear and respond to this call to use gifts to build the body is fed spiritually as we attend to our prayers, our study, our worship, and our fellowship with one another.

The key to understanding the role the gifts play in the life of the church is to think in terms of the health of the human body. A healthy body is one that has harmony and balance, with every part working together as one. As with the human body, this balance within the body of Christ lasts only temporarily. It must be continually attended to or it falls out of harmony. Therefore, even as we must continually attend to proper diet and exercise to keep our own bodies in proper working order, the same is true of the body of Christ. Spiritually healthy churches are ones that emphasize worship, prayer, study, teaching opportunities, and fellowship. These are the foods and vitamins that nourish the body.

Proper diet, however, is not enough. Our bodies also need exercise or our muscles will atrophy. By using our gifts to teach, to build houses for the homeless, calling on the home bound, leading grief support groups, to lead worship, we build and strengthen the body of Christ. When we use our gifts we help create an environment where God’s message of reconciliation can take root and lives will be changed.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Does God Love of Necessity?

When we say, with the author of 1 John, that "God is Love," what do we mean by this?  According to this text, if taken quite literally, it is not simply that God loves whom God chooses to love, but God's essence is love.  It is a divine attribute, just like omnipresence, et al.  So what does this mean, especially as it regards God's relationship with humanity?

First we start with a definition of love and I have found Tom Oord's basic definition to be quite useful in this regard. 
To love is to act intentionally, in sympathetic/empathetic response to God and others, to promote overall well-being.  (Oord, Nature of Love, p. 17).
 From this basic definition he suggests that love exists in three forms, in spite of love (agape), because of love (eros), and  alongside of love (philia).

Now the question is -- does God love us of necessity or does God chose to love?  Tom Oord suggests that if God is love, then God must love of necessity.  Now some would say, yes God loves within the Trinity (that was Augustine's view) but God does not of necessity love the creation.  Oord, however, making use of the Hebrew statements about chesed  (see Ex. 34:6; Ps. 136), God's steadfast or everlasting love, suggests that "the God whose love for creation is everlasting and endures forever must be the God who necessarily and essentially loves creatures" (Oord, p. 130).

It is in this sense that we can say that God's love is unconditional. Oord writes:

God essentially loves creation, because God's essential nature includes love for the world.  If God's nature did not include love for creation, Christian appeals to God's unconditional love would be baseless.  (Oord, p. 133).
So, my questions are, based on what Oord has written, does God love us of necessity?  And what does that mean?

Friday, February 18, 2011

God is Holy so Love Others -- A Lectionary Meditation

Leviticus 19:1-2, 98-18

1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23

Matthew 5:38-48

God is Holy so Love Others

“You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am Holy.” That is the way the passage from Leviticus 19 begins. In Matthew 5, as this week’s passage from the Sermon on the Mount concludes, we read this admonition: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (vs. 48). Are these two words of admonition all that different? Indeed, if you look closely, both passages cover similar ground. Both passages speak as well to loving one’s neighbor. In fact, in Matthew, Jesus extends this beyond the neighbor to the enemy. Paul’s word to us may not seem in line with these two admonitions, but perhaps his word concerning building a proper foundation comes into play. The wisdom of God is this: God is holy, so you must love that which is by God’s decree, deemed holy. We belong to Christ, and therefore his life and his witness is our guide to living life fully in the presence of God.

Too often we separate love and holiness from each other. God is either holy or God is loving, but not both. Our problem may be that we interpret one attribute as being open and the other restrictive, but since both are lifted up in Scripture as defining God’s nature, perhaps we need to consider how they might be related. And maybe the call to be holy and perfect in imitation of God, something that may run counter to human wisdom, could be closer in spirit than we may think.

We begin with this word from Leviticus 19, a set of teachings designed to equip the people to live holy lives. This is in essence a summary of Torah, and it is rooted in the premise that since God is Holy, God’s people should be holy. So, what does it mean that we should be holy?

The lectionary drops off a section that speaks to honoring parents, keeping the Sabbath, the worship of idols, and dietary guidelines. Then the text turns to other aspects of the call to holy living that speak to the way we interact with each other. The passage begins with a word to the farmers in our midst. When you harvest your grain, leave the grain on the edges of the field alone, and don’t gather the gleanings – but leave them be. And the same goes for the vineyard, don’t strip the vines bare and don’t pick up the grapes that fall to the ground in the harvesting process. Instead, whether it’s grain or grapes – leave them for the poor and the alien (the foreigner). Why? Because “I am the Lord your God”! I need to stop for  a moment to dwell on this admonition concerning the call to provide for the alien at a time when anti-immigrant fever is running high.  God doesn't distinguish between illegal or legal, for if the foreigner/alien is in need then the God who is holy says provide for their needs.

From there the text moves to matters of theft, dealing falsely, lying, and false oaths, stay clear of these for “I am the Lord.” Yes, and don’t defraud your neighbor or keep for yourself the wages of the laborer until morning – pay them promptly. And don’t revile the deaf or put obstacles in the way of the blind (pay attention to the ADA laws!) Why? Because “I am the Lord.” The text moves on to an admonition to treat everyone equitably, whether poor or rich. So, it is with justice that you should deal with your neighbor – don’t hate your kin, take vengeance, or bear a grudge. Instead, “love your neighbor as yourself.”

Each admonition in Leviticus, including the final one concerning love of neighbor begins with God’s holiness and the call for us to imitate that holiness. And as Ron Allen and Clark Williamson note, for the Rabbi’s the holiness of God that is illustrated in this passage is defined in Exodus 34:6.

The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness. . .
From this powerful reminder as to the nature of God’s holiness we move to Paul’s meditation on God’s wisdom. As we have seen in earlier chapters of 1 Corinthians, Paul is concerned about worldly wisdom. God’s wisdom is rather different, sort of like God’s sense of holiness. He begins, however, with a word about foundations. He has, he suggests, laid a foundation upon which others have built (likely those in whose name members of this congregation were setting up parties). Ultimately, however, the point isn’t the builder but the foundation, and that is Christ. Starting with this foundation, he moves to the superstructure – the Temple of God. The Temple isn’t a building, but us. I’m wondering here if the word is given to us as individuals or to us as community. It’s not that I don’t believe that God inhabits us as individuals, but Paul seems pretty clear throughout 1 Corinthians that he is speaking to the community. Thus, it’s the community of the faithful who carry within itself the Holy Spirit of God. It is the community that is holy as a result! So don’t boast in our human leaders – ancient or modern – for everything belongs to the community itself because the community belongs to Christ, who belongs to God. Let us, then, embrace the wisdom of God, a wisdom that leads to holiness and love of neighbor.

Finally we come to the words of Jesus as found in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount. There is a certain symmetry between this passage and Leviticus, as it should be. Jesus was not rejecting Torah nor does he suggest we should reject Torah – there is but one Word of God, even if it comes in two parts (and even that might be a debatable point).

The first half of the passage deals with matters of retaliation. While it has been said that taking an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth is appropriate, Jesus says – no instead don’t resist the one who would treat you in this way. Indeed, if someone strikes you on the right check, then offer the left. If someone takes your coat, offer your cloak. And, if someone forces you to go one mile, then go two. Now, the reality is this – such things might occur in the life of a person, especially if they were living under an occupying army that could pretty much do as they please. But, don’t take matters into your own hands, but instead leave it all to the hands of God. Such words of teaching have never found much of a hearing in the Christian community, and it’s no wonder. If you follow Jesus’ teaching your liable to experience being run over. It is a rather radical ethic, but it is rooted in the admonitions in Leviticus – be holy as God is holy. Do what is right and good, not because it is Law but because this is the way of God.

From this set of admonitions Jesus goes to the issue of love. Love of neighbor is a good starting point, Jesus says, but it’s not the end point. Instead, love your enemies and pray for the ones who persecute you (and that doesn’t mean praying that they’ll be taken out – what some call an imprecatory prayer that is possible in certain Christian circles). After all, the hated tax collectors take care of family and friends. Jesus’ ethic pushes further and deeper. In this context he is pushing us to embrace the form of love we know as agape, a form of love that according to Tom Oord involves “intentionally respond[ing] to promote overall well being when it encounters that which produces ill-being” (Oord, Nature of Love, p. 121). But remember, as you consider the admonition to love your enemy as well as your friends that God makes the sun rise on evil and good, and sends rain upon righteous and unrighteous.

Jesus wants people to understand that the ethic that permeates the realm of God moves us beyond normal behavior – what Paul might call worldly wisdom – to something different, something transformative. And that means being holy or perfect as God is holy and perfect. Jesus is our mentor, our guide, and our model, for what life looks like in the Realm of God. So why should we be holy and loving? The answer is simple – “For I am the Lord Your God!”

What Were the Ulama Doing in Tahrir Square? Al-Azhar and the Narrative of Resistance to Oppression -- Sightings

It has been a week since the people of Egypt, with the help of the Army, rid themselves of their ruler of 30 years.  Today they stage a victory march in Cairo.  Egypt's revolution came after Tunisia ran off it's dictatorship.  Last Friday we wondered what would happen next.  The answer has been a series of protests in places like Yemen, Libya, and Bahrain.  All three have governments that grant few rights to the people.  At the same time, Iran has cracked down on all opposition.  It appears that something is in the water, and it's not going away soon.  But as we wonder about the future of the Middle East, there is the ever present question of the role of Islam in the future of this region.  The idea that religion will play no role is simply silly.  Islam plays a significant role in these societies, and will continue to do so in the future.  But what will that look like?

Malika Zeghal wrote a piece for Sightings yesterday that offers important insight.  She notes the presence of the ulama or religious scholars from the national al-Azhar University, the leading Islamic university in the world.  These scholars were in Tahrir Square, even though the Grand Imam -- appointed by the Government and answerable to the Government (sort of like the English Bishops) was opposing the protests.  Perhaps Islam isn't as monolithic as some would have us think.  In any case, this is a very intriguing analysis worth our attention. 


Sightings 2/17/2011

What Were the Ulama Doing in Tahrir Square?
Al-Azhar and the Narrative
of Resistance to Oppression
-- Malika Zeghal

Over the course of the Egyptian uprising, religious scholars in and beyond Egypt have taken positions against or in favor of the revolution. The dividing line between their views depends on the relationship of the ulama with state authorities in the region, which echoes a classical contention in the tradition of Sunni Islam.

The ulama of Sunni Islam have had an ambiguous partnership with the men governing them. The ideal religious scholar is portrayed as a courageous man of learning and piety who denounces injustice and dares to speak truth to tyrants. Nonetheless, pragmatism has also been at the core of the Sunni ulama’s relationship with political powers, along with a deep pessimism about the grim realities of politics, which they often hoped to escape. In the Middle East, modern politics has redefined the ulama’s place in society, causing them to submit to the state and nationalizing their institutions into state bureaucracies.

For example, al-Azhar was nationalized in 1961 by Egyptian president Gamal Abd al-Nasser. Al-Azhar is officially represented by its Grand Imam, who has the rank of minister, is appointed by the president of the Republic and reports directly to him. Given this status, the official ulama usually follow the directives of the regime and have narrow margins of maneuver. Critiques of the regime by Grand Imams are rare and often expressed with enough subtlety so as not to generate controversy. However the domestication of al-Azhar by the state has not prevented less official ulama from playing a significant public role nationally and beyond.

Azharites, recognizable by their white and red tarbushes, white collars, and long gray robes, gathered in Tahrir Square in small groups during the protests, reminding us of the sociological and political diversity of al-Azhar as an academic and religious institution. One day before the resignation of Mubarak, Shaykh Muhammad Jebril, who studied at al-Azhar, led the Friday prayer in Tahrir Square. The Azharite presence, as well as the images of Muslims and Copts protecting each other during prayers, calls to mind the narrative of the 1919 revolution. That revolution was one of the last great public protests in which Azharites participated as a significant body alongside more secular groups, representing al-Azhar as a popular and national institution.

Shaykh Ahmad al-Tayyib, Grand Imam of al-Azhar since 2010, has been cautious in his statements regarding the protests, calling for restraint on the parts of the demonstrators and the regime. He asked demonstrators to go home after Mubarak’s departure, adding that protest is “illegitimate in Islam.” His line of reasoning echoed a classic position in Sunni Islam: namely, that obedience to the state, even to a tyrant, is better than fitna, or dissension.

On the other hand, Muhammad Rafi al-Tahtawi, the official spokesperson for al-Azhar, resigned in order to join the demonstrators in Tahrir Square. When a Saudi Mufti issued a fatwa condemning the Egyptian demonstrators, some Azharites denounced it. They argued that it was irrelevant because it was ordered by the Saudi government and was therefore “tainted by politics” (musayyasa). For their part, the Egyptian “Ulama’s Front” (jabhat al-ulama), a small group of Azharites whose history goes back to the 1940s, launched verbal attacks during the protests against the head of al-Azhar and the Mufti of Egypt, because they appeared to be too close to Mubarak’s regime. This mix of positions shows that al-Azhar is not a homogeneous institution, but rather reflects the range of Egyptian politics.

The anti-regime voices are those of “peripheral ulama,” those Azharite graduates who do not necessarily work in the religious institution but for whom their own identity as Azharites is crucial. One of the most famous of these figures is Dr. Yusuf al-Qaradhawi, a graduate of al-Azhar who resides in Qatar. He has gained an international reputation and audience through his television show on al-Jazeera “Sharia and Life.”

Al-Qaradhawi appeared on al-Jazeera early on in the Tunisian crisis. Showing sensitivity to the plight of Muhammad Bouazizi, he declared that self-immolation and suicide in general are contrary to Islam, but that given the circumstances, those who had committed this type of suicide should not be condemned. He encouraged the Tunisian protesters to continue their fight. Later, he made the same appeal to the Egyptian demonstrators, urging them to oust Mubarak. After the fall of Mubarak, Shaykh Ahmed al-Tayyeb declared that he wanted the Grand Imam to be elected by a committee of ulama, and that the independence of al-Azhar should be a constitutional principle.

Religious state and non-state authorities have entered into a discussion about the legitimacy of political resistance. Al-Azhar, through the presence of some of its members in Tahrir Square, as well as through its more peripheral voices and the Grand Imam’s call for al-Azhar’s independence, has shown its relevance to the recent political mobilization and has asserted its role in shaping a narrative of hope, empowerment, and resistance against tyranny.

Malika Zeghal is Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Professor in Contemporary Islamic Thought and Life at Harvard University.


In this month's Religion and Culture Web Forum, Jessica DeCou offers a comic interpretation of the theology of Karl Barth, bringing his work into a surprising and fruitful dialogue with the comedy of Craig Ferguson. Both men, she contends, “employ similar forms of humor in their efforts to unmask the absurdity and irrationality of our submission to arbitrary human powers.” The humor of Barth and Ferguson alike stresses human limitation against illusory deification. DeCou argues for understanding both the humor and the famous combativeness of Barth's theology as part of this single project, carried out against modern Neo-Protestant theology. The Religion and Culture Web Forum is at:


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