Thursday, March 31, 2011

Opening Day -- The Journey Begins

I usually write about theology and politics and the like, but today is Opening Day of the baseball season, and I must give acknowledgment the America's pastime!  Of course, for the first time in my life, I get to observe Opening Day of the Baseball season as a fan of the reigning World Series Champions.  Yes, I am a proud and long suffering San Francisco Giants fan, and after disappointments in 1989 and 2002 (I was too young to remember the 1962 World Series), they finally did it, the won the World Series -- and without Barry Bonds.  

So, we start the season today against our biggest rivals -- the Los Angeles Dodgers.  The Beard (Brian Wilson) is on the DL, along with the hero of the NLCS, Cody Ross.  World Series heroes Edgar Renteria and Juan Uribe are elsewhere, but the rest of the team remains pretty intact. 

There's a svelter Pablo Sandoval ready to go, a pitching staff with few rivals (go Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Jonathan Sanchez, Madison Baumgarner, and Barry Zito).  Buster Posey starts his sophomore season, seemingly mature beyond his years.  Aubrey Huff doesn't know where he'll play -- depends on if the next newcomer Brandon Belt is ready to take over first -- but Aubrey will be there to lead the charge.  Yes, we Giant fans start out the season full of optimism, carrying the banner high with pride. 

Go Giants!!!

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Ministry as a Shared Vocation

By recognizing that we are all gifted by the Spirit we find in this realization a call to ministry. This recognition also serves to narrow the gap that often exists between clergy and laity. Yes, clergy do ministry but they are not the only ministers. It is also inappropriate to assume that the work of the laity is any less a form of ministry. I don’t wish to negate the place of the clergy. Pastors serve a very important function in the life of the church, but what they do in church and community is not the totality of the church’s ministry. Another way of asking this question would be: What aspects of church life should be considered off limits to lay people? So, whether we teach Sunday school, visit the homebound, lead grief groups, serve meals to the homeless, march for civil rights, evangelize our neighborhoods, preach; what we are doing is ministry.

Whatever form ministry takes, it is by definition an act of service. The Greek word for ministry (diakonos) can be translated in a variety of ways, but its most important nuance is that of servant. Jesus offers us a very pertinent model of servant leadership when he bowed down before his disciples and washed their feet (Jn. 13).

There is a second defining image of ministry, that of priest. Traditionally a priest is a religious professional who acts as an intermediary between humanity and God. The message of the gospel is that in Christ we no longer need human intermediaries. Jesus, who is now our high priest, serves as our mediator and point of access to the throne of God. However, even as Jesus is our high priest, each of us has been made a priest of God who is called to intercede not only for ourselves and for our neighbors as well (Heb. 10). Because we are part of the royal priesthood, a form of priesthood eloquently defined in 1 Peter 2:5-9, eliminates the clergy as necessary, priestly intermediaries, and empowers each person to join in the priestly service of intercession. Therefore, as one of the founders of my own tradition once wrote, "whatever constitutes the worship of God is the common privilege of all the disciples as such." [Royal Humbert, ed., Compend of Alexander Campbell's Theology, (St. Louis:  Bethany Press, 1961), 175.] As disciples of Jesus, baptized by the Spirit, we are servants and priests for all people, and thereby we are freed to join in the full ministry of God.

There is one caveat that I should add. To say that all are servant ministers and priests does not mean that we all have the same roles and callings. There is the need for freedom because freedom is the catalyst for change and new opportunities to serve. There is also a place for order – chaos and anarchy are not necessarily helpful to the cause of Christ. The gift lists themselves suggest that some are called to ministries of leadership. The ship needs a pilot if it is to navigate difficult waters. As we discover our gifts and join in the community of faith in service, it will become evident that some among us have specific gifts and callings for leadership roles. There is a place for the religious professional as well, as long as both clergy and laity understand that such a calling does not relieve the laity of their ministerial callings.

Excerpted from Gifts of Love (unpublished mss.)

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

A View from the Back Pew -- Review

A VIEW FROM THE BACK PEW: God, Religion & Our Personal Quest for Truth. By Tim O’Donnell. Kansas City, MO: Linchpin Publishing, 2011. Xiv + 264 pages.

More and more people are identifying themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” This new category of religious people is comprised mostly of people who believe in God or at least some “higher power,” but are either dissatisfied with institutional religion or have been hurt by it. They like God, just not the institution. This “new” breed of spiritually-inclined people tends to be eclectic, though their understandings of spirituality often reflect aspects of whatever tradition they may have been born into. In this new age of spirituality, where religious observance and institutional membership aren’t required or expected people feel free to strike out on their own, picking and choosing from among the various religious offerings. In this new world of spirituality, there is no central authority, but because of the entrepreneurial spirit that is inherent in this new age, one can either choose to be one’s own spiritual authority or attach oneself to one of the many spiritual guides who have emerged in the age of new media. Ultimately, in this age of spiritual eclecticism the individual is the final arbiter of truth.

Tim O’Donnell’s apparently self-published book A View From the Back Pew offers readers a personal memoir of a spiritual journey that reflects this new spirit. The author is a business entrepreneur, former newspaper publisher, and most importantly is a former Roman Catholic. He writes about the journey he took from a rather traditional Roman Catholic upbringing, which included the requisite run-ins with narrow minded and physically abusive Nuns to the realization that he was free to embrace the God within. In large part this book is a product of what O’Donnell calls “The Deal,” a pact he made with God while a college student studying in Rome. He had a spiritual experience that led him to abandon college and pursue his fortune, which he would then use to serve God. When the Roman Church seemingly didn’t have much use for his gift, once he had made his fortune, he chose to strike out on his own and use his fortune to tell his story.

The book itself alternates between stories from his life that carry him to the point at which he could share his sense of the life in the Spirit, with his reflections on the nature of this life – including sharing his own doctrinal perspectives. In the epilogue O’Donnell provides the window by which the journey can be evaluated. The title of the book comes from a more recent experience in Rome, where he is sitting in the back pew of the chapel where he had worshiped as a college student. At that moment, he realized that “one could come to communion with God from within. In a rush of overwhelming understanding, I knew the Church was a man made institution that could not deliver a man to where God really dwelt” (p. 256).

As you read this book you can’t help but sympathize with his struggles, though as a Protestant I have to be careful not to embrace too eagerly a negative portrayal of the Roman Catholic Church (Protestants have been known to do this). But while I can understand why O’Donnell felt hemmed in by the institutional forces of religion, I also found myself needing to raise questions.

Although I could critique this book on theological and historical grounds that wouldn’t seem to make much sense. That critique might sound defensive, and I’m not sure the author would find my critique all that compelling. So, for the most part I’ll leave those issues alone. What I would like to do is raise some questions about tendencies I see in the “spiritual but not religious” movement, which are exemplified in this book, that do concern me.

I’ll start with O’Donnell’s relationship with Roman Catholicism. It is clear that his understanding of Christian faith is wrapped up tightly with what he learned and experienced growing up in the Catholic Church, especially his education in Catholic schools, including those encounters with rather physically abusive nuns. This schooling introduced Tim O’Donnell to a rather narrow view of faith, one that was rigid and punitive. There were, of course, signs of grace here and there, but these seem to be the exceptions. Although O’Donnell knows that there are other forms of Christianity, including Protestantism, he doesn’t seem interested in them. Like many who emerge from the Catholic context it’s hard to break free of this orbit. As we often hear – once you’re a Catholic always a Catholic, even if you’re a lapsed one. So, much of his argument with institutional Christianity is wrapped up in his experiences of the Catholic Church. Ironically, even though he is disenchanted with traditional Christianity, it is this faith tradition that provides the foundation for his own reflections. This Catholic Faith provides the lenses through which he reinterprets his own experiences.

More problematic in my mind is what I’ll call the “infatuation with Gnosticism” that is so prevalent among many “spiritual but not religious” folks. The idea that the Gnostic texts were excluded from the canon by a narrow minded religious institution seems to give them added authority. Whether it is the recent hullabaloo over the Gospel of Judas or the popularization of gnostic gospels in The Da Vinci Code, the idea that the Church tried to suppress alternative versions of the Jesus story has caught on in the popular mind. In an age that distrusts institutions, this process of canonization, rather than being an example of divine providence, is a sign that the church knows something to be true that they don’t want out. And what is that truth? Well, often the truth is that there is a pathway to God that bypasses the institution. But what we don’t see in this engagement with the Gnostic texts is a recognition that Gnosticism tended to be elitist (after all the Gnostics saw themselves as possessors of secret knowledge), docetic (by and large they denied the value of the physical/material world), and they also tended to be anti-Jewish (Marcion – one of the heroes of Gnosticism – believed that the God of the Old Testament was the creator of the world – which was evil – and not the God of Jesus). The existence of these texts do remind us that the early Christian community was diverse, but I would question the enthusiasm with which their message is being received, without much further examination of them.

The biggest concerns that I have about this movement, which are exemplified by the life of the author, relate to two areas that I think are related. First, there is the issue of a moral/ethical vision, and the second has to do with community.

I’ll deal first with the matter of ethics/moral foundations. Although, the author appears, from his own self-description, to be a man of high moral standards – he exhibits these in his business practices – I’m left wondering about where these standards were derived. My sense is that they were instilled in him by his Catholic upbringing. Despite this, I don’t see much concern for social justice in this understandings of spirituality. He criticizes the Catholic Church for excluding women from the priesthood, but that seems to be part of his overall reaction to the narrowness of the institution. I may have missed something, so I’d be glad to hear from the author about his vision of social justice, but something that did stick out was his rather angry rejection of a statement by a Catholic college professor that wealth was evil. Since the author wants to include Jesus in his own spiritual self-understanding, I’m wondering what he makes of Jesus’ rather regular denunciations of a pursuit of wealth, including his call for the young man to sell all his possessions and give to the poor or his suggestion that one can’t serve God and wealth. So my question is – if I am my own religious authority, who is in the position to challenge my moral/ethical standards?

The final concern that I have about the “spiritual by not religious” movement has to do with the individualism that is prevalent in this movement. O’Donnell, like many in this movement, has essentially created his own religion to fit his own perspectives (yes I know that to some degree we all do this). He is, by his own admission, the author and founder of his faith, which is rooted in the supposition that we are all somehow God incarnate. That is, while he honors Jesus, he believes that we can all be Christs, and he tries to interpret biblical texts in that light. As I read his interpretations of these texts, many of which are filtered through his embrace of the gnostic gospels, I found his interpretations to stretch the meanings beyond what they’re capable of holding, but again my focus isn’t on the doctrinal side of things. My concern is with the individualism that undermines the call to community. O’Donnell doesn’t say this, but there is a sense that if Christ is within us, and that all we need to do to find God is to look within, then why would we need a community? We are essentially spiritually self-sufficient. And if we’re self-sufficient then no one or no institution can challenge my sense of what is true and what is right. In the end, not only is the institution unnecessary (and human-made), but community is unnecessary? But as I read the biblical texts I see in them a call to community. Paul speaks of the church not as institution but as the body of Christ. It is a living being, in which every member is important. I’m wondering what will happen to the spiritual lives of those who have no connection to a community that challenges and supports one as one takes the journey of faith. I struggled with how to respond to this book, because I don’t want to come off as defensive of my tradition or the institution. I must admit that the institution and the tradition needs critique. At the same time, while I found O’Donnell’s book to be a well-written and expressive of his own journey, I believe that there are important questions that need to be posed to those who have embraced this “spiritual but not religious” idea. And these questions need to be asked now while this movement is growing at an increasingly fast pace, so fast that it is in many ways leading to the emptying out of the church that employs folks like me. So, I do have a vested interest in this conversation.

What we on the institutional side of things can learn here is that there is a strong sense of disappointment and frustration among the populace. The traditional institutions aren’t speaking to their hearts or their minds. The question is why? Why do people feel the need to strike out on their own? At the same time, I wonder if this new movement pushes the pendulum of institutionalism too far in the other direction, and what that will mean for people’s journeys as they become less and less connected to traditions once held? These are all questions that I pose to further the conversation, and not cut it off.

This review is offered as part of the TLC Book Tours,
which provided this review copy.

Monday, March 28, 2011

A Governor, a Cardinal and the Death Penalty -- Sightings

The Death Penalty remains a controversial subject in American life.  A large majority of Americans support it either on the basis of its alleged deterrant effects or on the basis of justice.  This view is held in spite of the fact that it runs counter to Roman Catholic teachings and that of many Protestants as well.  Although capital punishment remains popular there are signs of change -- in part because people in leadership are paying attention to their own faith traditions.  In today's Sighting's posting, Martin Marty interacts with the recent signing of a bill to end capital punishment in Illinois by the Governor, who cites the influence of words written by the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin.  I invite you to consider these thoughts and add your own.  For my own perspective (I'm a strong opponent of the death penalty), click here.   


Sightings 3/28/2011

A Governor, a Cardinal and the Death Penalty
-- Martin Marty

“On that decisive morning of March 9, [Governor Pat Quinn of Illinois] laid aside the secular factors and opened his Bible to a passage in II Corinthians about human imperfection,” Samuel G. Freedman wrote in the New York Times. “He prayed. And when he signed the bill striking down the death penalty, he cited one influence by name,” the late Cardinal of Chicago. It was a shock to be reminded that Joseph Bernardin passed away almost fifteen years ago, since he remains such a presence to so many of us and such an irritant to others, including many Catholics who never took to his example and writings on life, peace, and reconciliation.

Freedman, who wrote of this praying and signing, listed as “the several secular factors” some arguments from prosecutors who spoke of the death penalty’s deterrent effect, which is a secular factor, and also of “the grieving relatives of murder victims who saw in it fierce justice,” which Quinn took seriously, aware of their grief and himself a former proponent of capital punishment as “fierce justice.” He knew that three-fourths of polled Americans still favor the death penalty. They lost one favorer, however, after Quinn’s prayer and his reading of Bernardin. Some of us would like to think that his signing is part of a slow but epochal shift away from executing horribly guilty and sometimes utterly innocent Americans.

Empathizing with and supporting Democrat Quinn is not a signal of a partisan commitment. His predecessor twice removed, former Governor George H. Ryan, a Republican now in prison, also made strenuous moves against capital punishment. In an autobiographical address to the Pew Forum at the University of Chicago Divinity School in 2002, Ryan told how as a legislator he had voted for the death penalty but as governor, who quite literally had the power to have over 150 convicts killed, he changed. Religion played a large role in his decision. Be it noted that religion also plays a part in the decision of some civil leaders who continue to support capital punishment.

Where does this leave us? Those of us who observe and comment on our sightings of explicit religion in public life, including in its focused political forms, have to know that there is no neat line to draw as to what is acceptable in a republic which distinguishes between religion and civil authority and what is not. A teachable moment, one of millions since, occurred when President Reagan, televised before the presidential seal, named 1983 “The Year of the Bible” for Americans. Some days later I was one of four guests on a now-forgotten television show hosted by now-forgotten Phil Donahue. We disoriented Mr. Donahue and perhaps some viewers. He had invited an ACLU critic of the President, expecting him to represent hard-line secularist opposition to such blurring of lines—only to find that the guest was a Southern Baptist minister.

I think I was expected to speak against the President, but chose, on James Madisonian grounds, to defend the President’s right, arguing that one does not and cannot and should not leave behind the religious bases of one’s ethics. Next, I got to say, had the Congress voted, as some saw it poised to do, to make that designation legal, hosts of us would have stepped up to oppose it. So now with Governors Ryan and Quinn, influenced by scriptures, church teachings, and in this case by Cardinal Bernardin, they acted out of informed conscience—risking their action in politics. Still and always: handle with care!


Samuel G. Freedman, “Faith Was on the Governor’s Shoulder,” New York Times, March 26, 2011.

Governor George Ryan: An Address on the Death Penalty,” The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, June 3, 2002.

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.

What Do You Worship? (Guest Post)

Alex McCauslin is a young seminarian and ministry intern at Central Woodward Christian Church.  One of Alex's assignments is to work with our young adults to create a YA community.  In a posting at her own blog, Alex writes about her encounter with a young woman who was cutting her hair.  This conversation about God, church, and worship raises some intriguing questions.  We know that an increasing number of young adults are listed as "Nones."  That is, they simply don't identify with any religious community or tradition.  That doesn't mean they don't believe in God or that they're not interested in spiritual things, they just don't have a "place" to put these beliefs.  I'd like to use Alex's reflections as a starting point for an important conversation about faith, worship, and a world that feels disconnected to what happens in religious communities.


This experience has been rattling around in my head for the last week. I am puzzled by it, still.

I recently had my hair cut. The woman cutting my hair was in her early twenties (around my age.) She asked what I was doing with my life, and, of course, I eventually admitted I was studying at Seminary and working for a church.

“So, what religion are you?” She asked.

“I’m Disciples of Christ, it’s Protestant, like Methodists.”

She stared blankly at me and said, “I had a neighbor who was a Mormon and I went to church with her once.”

“We’re not quite like the Mormons,” I said.

“I don’t know. I mean, I’m a Christian.”

“Oh, yeah? What church did you go to?”

She shrugged. “I’ve never been to church, just youth group with my friends when I was in high school.”

“Cool, what kind of youth group?”

Again, a blank stare. “I don’t know, we just, like, hung out with our friends and talked about stuff. I didn’t really like it that much, so I stopped going.”

I nodded, and, deciding that the conversation was headed nowhere, stopped asking questions about church and started asking questions about her aspirations as a stylist.

Later, after a short lull in our conversation, she returned to the topic of religion. “So you work at a church? What do you do there?”

I told her that I was currently putting together an alternative worship service on Sunday evenings.

She frowned and stopped cutting my hair. “If you don’t mind me asking, what do you worship there?”

I didn’t even know what to say. I’d never been asked such a question before, and certainly never by someone who’d claimed to be a Christian.

I told her that we praised God and prayed to Jesus. That we contemplated our purpose, especially as it related to communities that suffered poverty and other oppression.

“That’s cool,” she said and pressed on asking questions about how we actually tried to help people. Eventually she admitted that she had given up trying to make a difference, as she had realized it wasn’t really possible.

As she was walking me to the front desk to pay for my haircut, she brought up the topic of religion a third time, out of the blue and with urgency. “I think I’m a really spiritual person! I just don’t know much about the church. It’s not really for me, I don’t think.”

I’ve heard this comment before. I don’t know what to do with it. Is the church not doing its job? Or is it becoming obsolete to upper-middle class Americans?

I don’t know what to do with the fact that Christians, perhaps myself included, aren’t prepared to answer the question, “What do you worship?” I’ve been thoroughly prepared to answer questions of why or how. But ‘what’ completely threw me off my game.

What do we worship?

ETA: Just went to lunch with a friend who started a new job as Youth Director at a suburban church. She has been observing their current Youth Group program and has concluded that it centers around gossip and chilling. She is appalled and eager to create change.

Reposted from Alex Discerns a Way.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

In God We Trust -- a Lenten Devotion

Matthew 5:38-48;

Micah 7:5-7

In God We Trust

I was invited to write a reflection on something that’s on my heart and that I want to share with the congregation. I thought about writing on how Jesus’ call to love our enemies should help define how we understand the nature of God. I’ve chosen a text to include in the day's reading that reflects that concern, but the issue that grabs my attention here is the matter of Trust

It is increasingly clear that there is a crisis of trust that is affecting families, churches, and communities large and small. Although there is a need for healthy skepticism and even suspicion – don’t believe everything you hear or read, especially if it comes by way of an email, but without a certain degree of trust society can’t sustain itself.

The prophet Micah, who declares so beautifully what God desires from us (Mic. 6:8), also writes: “Put no trust in a friend, have no confidence in a loved one; guard the doors of your mouth from her who lies in your embrace; . . .” (Mic. 7:5). Yes, the prophet says – your enemies are in your household, which means the only one you can trust is God (7:6-7).

I recently had the opportunity to be with Martin Marty at the Academy of Parish Clergy, and Marty spoke to the issue that he deals with in his powerful new book Building Cultures of Trust. In reflecting on the biblical perspective concerning trust, he writes: “We cannot build cultures of trust on the basis of faith in the natural trustworthiness of humans” (p. 61). That said, Marty believes, and I agree, that the church, the people of God, are called to build cultures of trust in the midst of so much distrust.

We start with the recognition that in recent years scandal and disappointment have damaged our trust in the political, the corporate, and even the religious realms. There is much reason for being distrustful, but if we distrust our neighbor, then our tendency is to withdraw inwardly and cease to engage in relationships with others. We become fearful of the other, and can become self-centered and unconcerned about the needs of others. We take down the welcome sign and build barriers that we believe will protect us from the other. With that the concern for the common good begins to die.

As we take this Lenten journey together, I’m hopeful that we might hear the call to put our trust in God, and with this trust our own distrust can be transformed into a movement of reconciliation and healing. Micah says to us – trust in God. In Romans 4, Paul points us to Abraham and Sarah, who trusted God and God reckoned this trust as righteousness (Rom. 4:20-22). Their trust led to the creation of a family and a nation – that was called upon to be a blessing to all nations (Genesis 12:1-3).

With our trust placed in God, who calls on us to love our enemies and do good to those who persecute us, perhaps we can make a difference in the world. With God’s wisdom and guidance, we can join together in building this culture of trust. And trust will allow us to continue our journey into the future with hope and not fear as our companion, committed to what Marty calls “trustworthy systems” (pp. 183-184).

Reposted from the Central Woodward Christian Church 2011 Lenten Devotional -- edited by John McCauslin.


Judge Not, Lest Ye . . . 7th Sermon on the Sermon on the Mount

Matthew 7:1-14

Although many of us enjoy being judge and jury, few of us want to face judgement. We like the words “judge not, lest ye be judged,” and yet it’s almost part of human nature to judge others. Therefore, we find ourselves saying: “Can you believe the way she dresses? It’s embarrassing.” Or, “Did you hear what he said? Well, I just think that’s totally inappropriate!” Or, “Did you hear that Sam went to the casino last week, and he calls himself a Christian?” In case you believe yourself incapable of such words, Jesus has an unflattering word to describe you (and me).

As we continue our journey through the Sermon on the Mount, we come to an invitation to examine closely our lives. Instead of judging others, we hear Jesus calling on us to judge ourselves. Of course, the task of facing our own inner demons isn’t an easy task, which is why very few of us answer this call. But, if we’re going to seek first the kingdom of God, then this is the road we must take.

1. Logs and Splinters

Jesus is a master of language, and his choices in metaphors cut through the noise that surrounds our lives. In this passage from Matthew’s gospel, we hear words about splinters and logs. Although we enjoy sitting in judgment of others – admit it, you like it – we’re really not in the position to render judgment on the lives of our neighbors. That’s because we have logs in our eyes that keep us from seeing the splinter that lies in the eye of our neighbor. You simply can’t pull something out of the eye of another person, when there’s an impediment so large sitting your eye that you can’t even see the face of the other. So, take care of that impediment, before trying to do surgery on someone else.

As we contemplate these metaphors, we might benefit from hearing another story, this one being from the Gospel of John. If you look at most bibles, the story of the woman caught in adultery will be in the margins or in parentheses. That’s because there are questions about whether or not it is original to this gospel, but whether or not it originally was in John’s gospel, it speaks to an important truth.

According to this story, a group of religious leaders brings this women who had been caught in adultery and challenged Jesus to render judgment. That meant casting the first stone. Jesus puts the onus back on them, and says to the accusers – “let the one who is without sin, cast the first stone.” When no one comes forward, Jesus says to the woman, no one comes to condemn you, neither do I, but go and sin no more. If we take the biblical witness to heart, Jesus is in a position to cast that stone, but he chose not to do so. Since he chooses not to render judgement, then perhaps we shouldn’t either.

2. Proper Gifts

Of course Scripture speaks of judgment, and next Sunday’s sermon carries the title “Judgement Day.” Although there is a place for judgment, it is God and not us, to whom this task is entrusted. When we try to take on the role of judge, we’re assuming the prerogative of God. Now, the reason why we should leave the role of judge to God isn’t because God is important and we’re not, but instead it’s because of the character of God.

This is why the words that follow the word about judgment are so important. Jesus tells us that if we ask, we’ll receive; if we seek, we’ll find; and if we knock the door will be opened. This is because God is faithful to God’s promises. When it comes to the promises of God, there will be no bait and switch.

Of course, we need to understand that the promises of God are related to the kingdom of God. The promise is made to those who seek first the kingdom and place their treasure in heaven. Although, there are those who would say otherwise, Jesus isn’t promising us a Lexus or a mansion, or even a check for a million dollars, not even if you promise to donate 10% to the church. But because God, who is the giver of every good and perfect gift and who will not do evil, then we can trust God. Yes, as Jesus says, God is like a loving parent, who when a child asks for bread doesn’t give a stone instead, or when a child asks for a fish, gives a snake instead. Indeed, if you, who are evil, don’t treat your children that way, then surely God, who is righteous and loving won’t either. The reason why we should leave the task of judgment to God, is that God isn’t just good, but because God’s essence is love in all of love’s dimensions.

God is love, which doesn’t mean that God is a sentimental chap, but rather, to borrow from Tom Oord’s definition of love, God acts “intentionally in sympathetic/empathetic response to others, to promote overall well-being” (Oord, The Nature of Love, p. 17). This definition of love defines the nature of God, and it also provides the context in which God acts in judgment of the world.

3. Do unto others . . .

Instead of rendering judgments that neither you nor I are prepared to offer, “treat people in the same way that you want people to treat you; this is the Law and the Prophets.” (Mt. 7:12 CEB). These words form what we call the Golden Rule, and this rule is simply a paraphrase of the second great commandment – “love our neighbors as you love yourself.” As you consider this golden rule, remember that Jesus defined neighbor to include one’s enemies, and agape love, as Tom Oord suggests, means intentionally promoting the overall well-being of those who mean to do us evil. This is, of course, no easy task, which is why few of us heed the call to love the world as God loves the world.

But, if you love in this way, then you fulfill the Law and the Prophets. You may have thought that Jesus renders the Law and the prophets null and void, but that isn’t true. Jesus never abandons either the Law or the Prophets, because without them we won’t know how to act toward others. As Stanley Hauerwas, who is known to be a rather radical sort of character, puts it: “love is the fulfillment of the Law.” And, having said that, he goes on to say that love is “a radical politics that challenges the world’s misappropriation of God’s good gift.” Indeed, if Christ embodies God’s love, then we can’t “know love apart from loving one’s enemies.” (Mt. 22:37-40). [Stanley Hauerwas, Matthew, Brazos Press, 2006, p. 89].

If we’re going to take the journey that Jesus outlines in the Sermon on the Mount, then we’ll have to give up trying to be judge and jury. Instead, of trying to be judges of others, we can begin loving our friends and our enemies as God loves them. If we’re going to join God in the work of transforming this world in which we live, then we’ll have to take the narrow pathway, which is the road less traveled.

So how do we know which path to take? Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes in his book on discipleship that we’ll know the way if we keep our eyes focused on Jesus, who walks in front of us, leading the way. Bonhoeffer writes:

He is the narrow road and the narrow gate. The only thing that matters is finding him. If we know that, then we will walk the narrow way to life through the narrow gate of the cross of Jesus Christ, then the narrowness of the way will reassure us. [Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, (Fortress, 2001), p. 4:176].

This narrow path doesn’t take the form of legalism, with a lot of senseless rules and regulations that tell us not to do this or do that or we’ll be excluded. It’s not a matter of dress codes and good manners, or even having all the right beliefs. What it does involve is living life in a way that honors God and seeks to promote the well-being of others. That’s not an easy path to take, but this is the path way that leads from what Richard Rohr calls the first half of life to the second half of life.

If we’re going to take this path then we’ll have to “let go of our own smaller kingdoms,” which we’re not always eager to do, and instead choose union with God. That means letting God lead the way. If we choose this path, and let God both guide us and judge us, then we’ll begin to think in a way that leaves plenty of room for others to join us in communion with God. As Fr. Rohr writes: “Everyone is in heaven when he or she has plenty of room for communion and no need for exclusion. The more room you have to include, the bigger your heaven will be” (Richard Rohr, Falling Upward, p. 101).

It is my prayer that each of us will let go of the need to judge others, but instead as we recognize our own need of forgiveness and restoration, that we will commit ourselves to the way of the kingdom, and in doing so, we will promote the well-being of all those who share this world with us. In this we will know the fullness of God’s presence, and that is what it means to be in heaven!
Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
3rd Sunday in Lent
March 27, 2011

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Being Church

I am leading a study of spiritual gifts in the church using materials I've been working on for more than 25 years -- since seminary really.  I also just began reading Eugene Peterson's new memoir called The Pastor.  I'll be writing a review of the book later on, but near the beginning of the book, in a reflection on the similarities between church and his father's butcher shop -- that should get your attention -- he wrote:

I am quite sure now that the way I as a pastor came to understand congregation had its beginning in the "congregational" atmosphere of our butcher shop.  Congregation is composed of people, who, upon entering a church, leave behind what people on the street name or call them.  A church can never be reduced to a place where goods and services are exchanged.  It must never be a place where a person is labeled.  It can never be a place where gossip is perpetuated.  Before anything else, it is a place where a person is named and greeted, whether implicitly or explicitly in Jesus's name.  A place where dignity is conferred.  (Peterson, The Pastor, p. 41).   

I'll let you check out the book, if you want to know why Peterson uses this analogy, but the point I'd like to raise here concerns the nature of congregation.  What happens in this place we call church?  Note that Peterson defines congregation in terms of people, not building, institutions, or even clergy.  It's people who make up the church, the rest is simply context and support for the people of God to worship and serve God and love one's neighbor.  But also note the importance of church being a place of safety and dignity.  It is a place where "dignity is conferred."  I realize this is describing the ideal.  We know that churches as places harbor gossip, that people can find themselves unwelcome in Jesus' name, and dignity isn't always conferred, but this is the calling, this is the purpose.  So my question is -- how do we become this place, knowing that we are human and we will fail, but how do we move toward such a reality?

Friday, March 25, 2011

Disaster and the Rhetoric of Sacrifice -- Sightings

The ongoing disaster in Japan has caught the imagination of the world.  It has given the world a new perspective on Japan and its people.  We see people seem to take things in stride, don't loot, follow directions, etc.  Of course there's another side -- a culture that includes principles of honor/shame has made it difficult for the government and corporate leadership to be forthcoming about the real threat of the damaged nuclear plants.  It goes to show you that cultures are complex!  We've also been watching as a small group of volunteers risk their lives to try to fix the damaged plants.  There is a cultural element to this as well that raises questions of how we understand and honor those who sacrifice their lives for others.   Beyond all of this we've heard words about divine judgment from American and Japanese figures.  Yuki Miyamoto, a Professor of Religious Studies at DePaul University helps us understand the complexity of the situation in this Sightings piece.  I invite you to read and respond.


Sightings 3/24/2011

Disaster and the Rhetoric of Sacrifice
-- Yuki Miyamoto

Nearly two weeks have passed since a catastrophic earthquake and violent tsunami devastated northeastern Japan. Officials are struggling to calculate the still-mounting death toll and to assess the full scope of destruction, while efforts to avert meltdowns at crippled nuclear power plants intensify. Natural disasters, so often worsened by human failures, activate our religious imaginations.

Too often in times of crisis explicit religious expressions are appalling. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina stimulated an outpouring of hateful sentiment; the hurricane was deemed by some to be God’s punishment for homosexuality in New Orleans. In 2010, Pat Robertson infamously attributed the earthquake in Haiti to the Haitians’ “pact with the Devil.” Now, in connection with Japan’s current plight, right-wing firebrand Glenn Beck has speculated that the quake and tsunami were a “message from God.” To this he added, with telling ambiguity, that he is not “saying” that God caused the earthquake, but also not “not saying” it.

Religious rhetoric has also cropped up in Japan. Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara has claimed that the calamity is a “divine punishment.” “Japanese politics,” Ishihara remarked, “is tainted with egoism and populism. We need to use the tsunami to wipe out egoism, which has attached itself like rust to the mentality of the Japanese people over a long period of time.” Ishihara, a conservative politician whose troubling record also includes racist and sexist comments, later retracted his remarks and offered an apology.

More subtle than such explicit remarks, however, is the religious aura developing around the group of Japanese persons working to contain radiation and incapacitate nuclear reactors on the verge of meltdown. Dubbed by the Western media as the “Fukushima 50,” (though the group comprises more than fifty workers), these volunteers are dousing the burning reactors with water at close range. As the Guardian has put it, the Fukushima 50 “are the nuclear power industry's equivalent of frontline soldiers, exposing themselves to considerable risks while about 800 of their evacuated colleagues watch from a safe distance.” Here aptly analogized with soldiers, these volunteers evince a will to sacrifice themselves on behalf of their country.

As Chris Hogg of the BBC notes, Japan is fond of “heroes who sacrifice everything for the greater good,” in this case a country steeped in a tradition that holds the nation as sacred. Dying for the nation thus evokes a religious sensibility. For example, a Japanese newspaper reported that one woman sent a text message to her husband on the team, saying: “Please be a savior (kyuseishu) of Japan.”

The risks of the Fukushima 50 are indeed of heroic proportions, a fact I appreciate all the more from my comfortable vantage point here in Chicago, thousands of miles from the accident site. At the same time, an unsettling feeling has crept upon me—a feeling that recalls the unease I have experienced at the Yasukuni Shinto shrine in Tokyo, where soldiers who died for the “sacred” Japanese nation-state, which emerged in the nineteenth century and is embodied in the deific emperor, are enshrined. Deifying soldiers who have given their lives on behalf of the country, however, has the effect of glorifying and upholding, rather than challenging, the conditions giving rise to the disasters of war.

Within this religio-political tradition, civilians may also be granted the status of deity after death in Japan. For example, in the Saga prefecture of southwest Japan, one shrine is dedicated to police officer Masuda Keitaro, who devoted himself to treating those suffering from cholera in 1895. He himself eventually fell victim to the epidemic he was fighting and passed away. Since containment of the disease coincided with Masuda’s demise, the officer’s death was deemed a sacred sacrifice, and he was enshrined as a protector of the villagers from disease.

The present threat of illness is of a different sort, but like Masuda, the Fukushima 50 are widely hailed as “sacrificial” heroes for their noble and necessary endeavors. Without wanting to diminish the genuine dedication and risk of this group, however, one might call critical attention to the problematic religious underpinnings of the worshipful attitude with which they are being treated, for such attitudes may mask a latent nationalism that sees the nation as sacred and therefore infallible; such attitudes—hardly unique to Japan—may explain in part the Japanese government’s reticence about the full extent of the threat of nuclear disaster.

Whatever the case, the religious tradition and sacrificial rhetoric that inform such attitudes threaten to divert attention from investigations of what “necessitated” the risk, and potential deaths, in the first place. The glorifying rhetoric of sacrifice in service of the greater good potentially deflects attention from the task of interrogating the conditions that gave rise to disaster—in this case, the matter of nuclear power: its threat to individuals, communities, and the global environment.

We do not know, of course, if the Fukushima 50 will someday be enshrined as deities for their sacrifices. But perhaps the best show of gratitude we might now offer would be to turn a critical eye to our own complicity in the disaster to which they respond. Japan has for too long relied on uranium and plutonium for energy, notwithstanding the fact that there is no safe way to dispose of nuclear waste, nor to make the power plants that convert these elements into usable energy entirely secure.

In gratefully considering the risks and efforts of the Fukushima 50, we must move beyond potentially-distracting religious rhetoric and sensibilities to remind ourselves who is accountable for their lives, and why we have so far failed to choose a safer energy alternative that would not require such risks.


Max Blumenthal, “Blaming Katrina on Gays, Israel, and Man-on-Horse Sex,” Huffington Post, September 5, 2005.

Nicholas D. Kristof, “Some Frank Talk about Haiti,New York Times, January 20, 2010.

Elizabeth Tenety, “Glenn Beck: Japan earthquake ‘message’ from God,” The Washington Post, March 15, 2011.

Tania Branigan and Justin McCurry, “Fukushima 50 battle radiation risks as Japan nuclear crisis deepens,” Guardian, March 15, 2011.

Chris Hogg, “Japan Hails the heroic ‘Fukushima 50’,” BBC News, March 17, 2011.

“Tokyo shōbō chō: Hibaku to tatakai hōsui—kazoku ‘kyūseishu ni’” (“Tokyo Fire Department: Watering and battling against radiation exposure—‘be a savior,’ said the wife,”) Yomiuri Online, March 21, 2011.

Komatsu, Kazuhiko. Kami ni natta hitobito: Nihonjin ni totte “Yasukuni no kami” towa nani ka (People who became gods: What ‘Yasukuni Deities” means to Japanese) (Tokyo: Kobunsha, 2006).

Yuki Miyamoto holds a PhD from the University of Chicago Divinity School and is an assistant professor in the Department of Religious Studies at DePaul University. Her book Beyond the Mushroom Cloud: Commemoration, Religion, and Responsibility After Hiroshima is forthcoming from Fordham University Press.


This month’s Religion and Culture Web Forum is written by D. Max Moerman and entitled “The Death of the Dharma: Buddhist Sutra Burials in Early Medieval Japan.” In eleventh-century Japan, Buddhists fearing the arrival of the "Final Dharma"--an age of religious decline--began to bury sutras in sometimes-elaborate reliquaries. Why entomb a text, making it impossible for anyone to see or read it? And what do such practices teach us about the meaning and purpose of texts in Buddhism and other religions? Max Moerman of Barnard College takes up these questions with responses from Jeff Wilson (Renison University College), James W. Watts (Syracuse University) and Vincent Wimbush (Claremont Graduate University).


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

Thursday, March 24, 2011

I'm Thirsty -- A Lectionary Meditation

Exodus 17:1-7

Romans 5:1-11

John 4:5-42

I’m Thirsty

Water is essential to life. The human body is somewhere between 55% and 78% water, and water covers about 70% of the earth’s surface. Although we can go a while without water, eventually we’ll die without water. Water and life – they go hand in hand.

Two of the texts for this Third Sunday of Lent focus on water. Moses has to deal with a people who complain vociferously because they don’t have water to drink, while Jesus finds himself tired and thirsty and sitting next to Jacob’s well. He doesn’t complain, but he does ask for water! As we think about water and thirst we might want to look ahead for a moment to Jesus’s cry from the cross – I Thirst (John 19:28). Paul’s not quite ready to get to the water (Baptism appears in Romans 6), but he deals with the issue of suffering and hope, ideas that are present in the other two texts. Each of these scriptures remind us that no matter how difficult the journey, God is present and faithful.

In the Exodus story, the people have again grown cantankerous. Although God provided food for the journey – not that they enjoyed the menu – now they’re thirsty. This leads to quarreling and complaining to Moses – why, they ask, have you led us out here into the wilderness so that we might die of thirst. You would have thought that they preferred slavery in Egypt, and perhaps they did. We often prefer the misery we know to the potential misery that might face us in the unknown. With all the harping and complaining, Moses grows frustrated with this people God had entrusted to his care. They were never satisfied, no matter what God did – whether it was the rescue from the clutches of Pharaoh’s army or the manna from heaven – they weren’t satisfied. Wanting water they begin to quarrel amongst themselves, and Moses cries to God – “What am I to do with this people? They’re ready to stone me.” As I read this, I’m reminded of political leaders, especially Presidents, who find that they can never satisfy the populace, no matter what they do. It’s never enough!

But God is gracious and hears Moses, telling him to gather the Elders and then go out ahead of the people. God tells Moses to meet at the Rock at Horeb, and there in front of the Elders, Moses does as God commanded. He strikes the rock with the staff he had used to strike the Nile, and from that rock sprang water to quench the thirst of the people. God had provided, but in a bit of frustration, Moses calls this place Masseh and Meribah, because the Israelites “quarreled and tested the Lord saying - “is the Lord among us.” I sense that the word we need to hear in this story concerns typical human behavior – even in the church – in spite of our complaining and insolence, God is faithful. So instead of complaining, let us give thanks to God.

Before we turn to story of Jesus’ encounter with the woman at the well, we must heed Paul’s discourse in Romans 5. The chapter begins familiarly – “Since we are justified we have peace with God through the Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to the grace in which we stand.” In Christ we’re justified, saved, and reconciled. I’m afraid it’s easy to read this passage in a very transactional way. We’re sinners who face the wrath of God, and Jesus’ blood substitutes for our blood. For centuries theologians have interpreted the cross in a quid pro quo fashion – the life of Jesus for my life. But why does God need blood to be satisfied? What is it that I have done that requires the death of another, especially one who is innocent of all changes? I struggle with the idea of divine wrath. I don’t have space to delve into this question here in this place, but perhaps there is another way of reading this text. Maybe the issue is one of separation between Jew and Gentile – in the cross a way has been created that brings the two together. I don’t know, but what I do hear in this text is a promise that no matter what happens there is hope. Suffering, which we all experience, produces endurance, and endurance leads to character, and character builds hope, and as Paul says – this hope doesn’t disappoint. That is because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit. That is the message we need to hear – not that we’re miserable sinners who need someone to suffer our due punishment so that God will accept us. No the word we should hear in this text is that God’s love will transform our lives in ways that lead to hope. That is a word of salvation.

Finally we come to the story Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s Well. According to John, Jesus is sitting by the well because he’s tired. He’s on his way to Jerusalem, where he will taste suffering The disciples have gone into town to get some food. It’s about noon when a woman comes to the well to draw water, and so Jesus asks her to draw him some water to drink, because he’s thirsty. This woman is caught off guard because Jesus is a Jew and she’s a Samaritan (and a woman) so why is he asking her for water? My guess is that he’s thirsty and she has the means to get him a cup of water, but that’s too simple an explanation. The point isn’t the physical thirst, but the spiritual thirst that lies within. The request for water leads to a theological discussion, but first Jesus has to overcome the woman’s literalist mind set, just as he had to do in John 3 with regard to Nicodemus. That’s just the way we are – we think literally first and only later are we able to move onto something more spiritual in nature.

Having asked the woman for a cup of water, Jesus in turn offers the woman living water. At first she can’t comprehend what he’s saying. How can Jesus offer her living water when he doesn’t have a bucket to draw water with. But, when Jesus says that once she drinks this living water she’ll never thirst again, she becomes intrigued. How does this happen? But, besides that, this well belonged to Jacob. How could any other water exceed it in value? Still, water that fulfilled thirst eternally, that was worth pursuing. Having such water would eliminate the need to come to the well. As she’s contemplating this reality, Jesus tells her to go and get her husband. Of course, she’s not married, but apparently he already knows this. In fact, although she’s been married five times, the man she’s with whom she now lives isn’t her husband. Not only is she a woman and a Samaritan, but it would appear that she’s also a sinner, but Jesus doesn’t make anything of that. He seems to understand that she has lived a life of suffering – probably at the hands of the men who have been in her life. Perhaps she has become ostracized, which is why she was at the well at the height of the noon day sun. I don’t know any of this for sure, but it does appear that Jesus has pricked her heart. His revelation of her life causes her to move from her focus on getting water to understanding whom Jesus is.

How do you know this about me? You must be a prophet of God, but then there’s this theological problem. We worship here on this mountain, and you worship in Jerusalem. We’re divided, separated from each other by our theologies of worship. We think God is present here in this place, you think God is some place else. And yet he has spoken truth to her and so she’s intrigued. But Jesus has a surprise for her – place doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter if it’s Sychar or Jerusalem, Wittenberg or Rome, the point is that God is Spirit and those who would worship God must worship in Spirit and truth. What a freeing thing this word must be, though still she’s not ready to receive it. How often do we resist a word of liberation and freedom? We stay locked within the box that we’ve built for ourselves. The box may have its use once, but now its time to move on, to grasp that God is bigger than the box. The woman who is now a theologian says to Jesus, well when the Messiah comes, then we’ll know what to do. Yes, when the prophet comes who we’re expecting, that person will make this all clear. And Jesus says – “I am he.” I’m the one you’ve been waiting for.

As Jesus makes this claim, the Disciples return to find him deep in conversation with this woman. They’re surprised at all of this. I’m not sure whether this is because the conversation partner is a woman or a Samaritan, but they’re not prepared. This interruption gives the woman an opportunity to return to the village, where she spreads the news about the one who revealed her life to her, and her testimony draws out the people to the well. While she’s doing her evangelistic effort, the Disciples talk to Jesus about the food they’ve procured, but Jesus says – “I have food you know nothing about.” Yes, once again it’s a question of literal versus spiritual. And the Disciples are confused – where did he get the food, but the food he has to offer is spiritual food. As they discuss what to eat, the Samaritans gather around Jesus and invite him to stay a few days and teach them. Afterwards they say to the woman: We no longer have to rely on your testimony, we’ve heard enough to know that he is the savior of the world.

Our thirst is physical, even as our hunger is physical. We are physical beings and we need food and water – whether we’re in the desert of Sinai or at Jacob’s Well. But we’re more than physical beings who need food and water. We’re spiritual beings, who need spiritual food and spiritual drink. Each week, at least in my tradition, we gather at the table of the Lord and take bread and cup. It’s not enough to stave off our physical hunger and thirst, but it is a reminder that our hope is found in the one whom we worship in spirit and in truth, the one who is faithful and who provides what we need, so that we might grow into people of hope.

Tom Oord's "Defining Love" and "The Nature of Love" -- A Review

DEFINING LOVE: A Philosophical, Scientific, and Theological Engagement. By Thomas Jay Oord. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2010. Xiii +225 pages. THE NATURE OF LOVE: A Theology. St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2010. Xii +195 pages.

Christians talk a lot about love. We affirm that God is love. We say that God loves the world enough to send into the world his Son. We treasure the words of 1 Corinthians 13, with its suggestion that while faith and hope will abide, the greatest is love. We even sing, perhaps with an uneasy conscience, “They’ll Know We Are Christians by Our Love.” But, what do we mean when we talk about love? What is our definition? How do we know to discern whether someone is acting in love? In fact, where does love come from? All of these questions are raised and addressed in these two similar, but different, books authored by Nazarene theologian Thomas Jay Oord.

Tom Oord, who is Professor of Theology and Philosophy at Northwest Nazarene University and a Ph.D. graduate of Claremont Graduate University, has an agenda. He wants to move beyond simply putting love on the theological discussion table to placing love at the very center of theology. If God not only loves, but is love, then love should be “organizing principle” of theology. Unfortunately, in Oord’s mind, this has not happened. Too often it remains behind Oz’s curtain, but “only when placed at the center can the logic of love explicitly extend to all aspects of Christian theology” (Nature, p. 4).

Oord’s agenda, it would seem, requires too very different but related books. Defining Love is in many ways the foundational text. It provides the broader outlines for placing love at the center of theological reflection, but looking at love from philosophical and scientific angles as well as theological ones. In this challenging and at times dense book Oord lays out a new field of scholarship, what he calls the “love, science, and theology symbiosis” (Defining, p. 5). In this context Oord is advocating a program of “love research,” that has at its core the belief that it is possible for the world and individuals can get better. He wants to find ways in which we can discern the virtues and practices that will enable this to happen. In other words, love just doesn’t’ happen. It requires nurture and promotion and development. This requires research into the nature of love and how it is best expressed. With this in mind, Oord lays out his understandings of science and theology, trying to clearly define where they are different and where they relate to each other.

Essential to this program is to have a firm definition of love, one that can provide a foundation for research and theological reflection. The definition that he formulates provides the basis for discussion in both of these books. That basic definition reads as follows:

To love is to act intentionally, in sympathetic response to others (including God), to promote overall well-being (Defining, p. 15).
With this basic definition in mind, Oord proceeds to explore the diverse forms of love, for not all forms of love are alike, even if they have at their base the same purpose – “promotion of overall well-being.” Thus, he looks at agape, philia, and eros. While making use of theology here, he is more intent on exploring the input of philosophy to the discussion.

Moving from definitions, Oord brings to bear the “qualitative and quantitative” insights of the social sciences, including both psychology and sociology. Key to this discussion are concepts such as altruism and empathy, along with personality types and motives. He concludes that from examining research there is a clear move away from the idea that humans are by nature “inevitably and invariably egoistic” (Defining, p. 96). If the social sciences provide one vantage point, what about biology. Assuming that evolution is true, the question concerns how evolutionary development provides the conditions for love. Again the focus is on altruism, and whether there is evidence from the study of nature of self-sacrificial action. Although the explorations are still at their early stages, the key question, concerns the evidence that nonhuman creatures express love. This may still be speculative, but there is interesting evidence to pursue. Turning from biology to cosmology, with its discussions of the formation of the universe, including the principle of creatio ex nihilo, the issue here in part concerns the possibilities of divine engagement with the universe. This is a key question for we must wrestle with the way in which God might engage us. Does God have either the power or the will to change or affect in dramatic ways nature? Or does God work in a very different fashion? Here Oord, who can be considered part of the Open Theism movement, interacts with a variety of theological and biblical perspectives, including Process Theology, which he respects but doesn’t embrace completely. The point of the chapter isn’t to provide a final understanding but to lay out the parameters and possibilities for study. Finally, he reaches theology, where he expresses his hope for a partnership between the sciences and theology so that love can find its place at the center of theology.

If Defining Love has a scientific/philosophical focus, The Nature of Love focuses on theology itself. Of the two books, this is probably the easier read and may be for many the most appropriate place to start. Although no mention is made of Defining Love many of the ideas and foundations transfer from one book to the other (I’m not sure which book was written first, though from the reader's perspective Defining Love could be considered the foundational book).

In Nature of Love Oord begins with the same definition of love as in the first book, with a focus on intentionality and end result – promotion of well-being. Whereas in the first book his conversation partners are the sciences and philosophy, here they are theologians. He wrestles with Anders Nygren over agape, St. Augustine over eros, and Clark Pinnock over philia. He finds something of value in each of these theologians and their particular definitions and perspectives on love, but he also finds them to be deficient at important points. Of the three foci, I found the engagements with Nygren and Augustine the most pertinent. In both cases, Oord redefines in important ways how we understand love.

In regard to Nygren and Nygren’s claim that agape is the definitive form of Christian love, to the exclusion of other forms, Oord challenges the idea that we are simply conduits of a love that comes from God alone without any human engagement. In his view, agape should be understood as “in spite of love.” That is, agape is that form of love that intentionally seeks to promote the well-being of the other despite the fact that the other means us harm or evil. God is definitely involved, but that doesn’t mean that we have not part to play. With regard to eros, which Augustine saw as a deficient form of love, for Augustine believed that only God could truly love, and that the object of love has no value in and of itself. Oord defines eros as being “because of love,” by which God and we seek to promote overall well-being by affirming and promoting the value that is inherent in the other. This is, I believe an important step, for too often theology starts with the premise that we are some how “totally depraved” and thus having no inherent worth or value. If Oord is correct, then we must think differently, and that means that we act differently with regard to the other. Finally, he deals with philia, and in this regard looks to his late colleague Clark Pinnock with whom he has much in common, but with whom he has what might seem to be minor differences, but which have important implications. Philia is by definition the promotion of well-being by “coming alongside.” It is that friendship, community oriented form of love, which reminds us that we need each other. It speaks of cooperation with God and with one another. Where he differs from Pinnock is in Pinnock’s concern to protect God’s reputation.

In the final chapter of The Nature of Love, Oord offers his own theological program, which he calls “essential kenosis.” This program serves as the context in which love can be brought into the center. There are similarities to Process Theology, though through the use of the idea of kenosis (self-emptying), he hopes to distinguish from his own idea of a self-limiting God with that of an inherently limited divinity, but in this understanding self-limitation isn’t voluntary, it is essential to God’s nature. What he wants the reader to understand is that God’s love is a question of necessity. Whereas in other forms of kenosis theology, God need not love outside the Trinity, in his understanding God of necessity loves the Creation. Love is not contingent. It is part of God’s nature. External forces don’t limit God, but God’s nature does. Therefore, God cannot but love.

So the question is – what does it mean for God to love, and here it’s important that all three forms of love are brought into the equation. The kind of love that forms the center of theology – our understanding of God – must be “full-orbed.” We make a mistake when we think that we can settle on one form of love and define that as Christian or divine love. We must instead bring agape, eros, and philia into our definition. If this is true of God, then it is also true for us, who are called upon as God’s creation to imitate God by expressing this full-orbed love of God in our lives. I should add that in Oord’s understanding love means that God is not coercive in any way. Thus, even creation is not a coercive act, but requires the participation of the other for creation to occur. You can see the similarities to Process Theology. The borders the two are a bit fuzzy, but there is enough of a difference to keep these two as separate understandings of the nature and purpose of God.

I believe that Tom Oord is on to something important. I have found his definitions of love to be not only helpful but have provided a new orientation for understanding the unconditional nature of love, and the full-orbed nature of love. I believe his definitions are far superior to any others I’ve seen. Thus, as a pastor and a preacher, who believes that God not only loves, but is love, these definitions and the research that help sustain these definitions will help the church move forward into the future. It will assist us in moving away from self-centeredness to others-centeredness. It will help us reorient the way we do theology and understand God and God’s relationship to Creation.

Of the two books, The Nature of Love is the easiest to work with and may be the most helpful, but for those who wish to dig deeper into the project, then Defining Love is an important read. Both are well written, but neither of these books are quick reads. They require diligent engagement and reflection. That said, Tom Oord is on to something important that the church needs to hear.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Thoughts on Libya

I heard Dennis Kucinich call for the impeachment of the President for authorizing US participation in the military operation in Libya, while John McCain -- President Obama's opponent in the 2008 elections is calling for a more robust engagement (I'm assuming that's boots on the ground).  That's quite a wide divergence of opinion.  My friends and colleagues are of various minds on this issue as well.  I would guess that as usual I will fall somewhere in between.

Like many of the World's people I have been watching closely the events unfolding in a region stretching from Tunisia to Iran.  We are seeing popular uprisings, people taking their lives into their own hands, refusing to simply follow the dictates of the powers that be.  I've found it interesting that many here in America are dismissive of these aspirations, suggesting that Arabs and Muslims aren't capable of democracy -- but were we ready for it in 1776?  Some will say that we're already involved in two other wars, why enter a third?   Personally, I wouldn't call this entering a war.  We're participating in an action protecting people seeking to determine their own future.  Yes, that might seem like splitting hairs, but I think the hairs need splitting at this point. 

Whether you agree with the actions taken by Western Governments as authorized by the UN and called for by the Arab League, I would hope that you would sympathize and even empathize with the people of Libya, who have lived under the iron fist of a megalomaniac for decades.  Libya has lots of money, but it has gone to the few and not the many.  We are seeing this unfold in Yemen and Bahrain as well.  The times are changing and we must get ready for what comes next.  It may be messy, but that is the way of revolutionary moments.  It was true for this country, and the concerns that led to revolution in America were not nearly as dire as those experienced in these countries today. 

Do I have a word from the Lord on this?  No, I just have my own gut sense that we are at a tipping point in history and it would be good if we all got on the right side of history!

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Fearfully and Wonderfully Made

When is a "natural talent" a spiritual gift? That isn’t an easy question to answer. If you limit yourself to the Pauline lists, you quickly realize that you can’t offer an either/or answer to the question. Could they be natural talents with a supernatural add? Could they be transformed natural talents, where once they were natural but if they are used for sacred purposes we should consider them to be spiritual gifts? It is probably best not to make a sharp distinction between gifts and talents and recognize the mystery of the Spirit’s engagement with our lives. In the mystery of creation, we can recognize that what we call talents are in reality divine gifts of grace. We can use them for our own purposes, or in gratitude to the creator use them in the work of God’s kingdom. A gift’s usefulness to the community faith is rooted in our appreciation of the one who is the true source of all talents and abilities, the Creator.

The biblical discussions of creation witness to the mystery of human life. There is a strong sense that humanity is created for a relationship with God and gifted with abilities that relate to that calling. Hear the implications of the Psalmist’s affirmation of God’s attention to the details of our formation as individuals.

For it was you who formed my inward parts;
you knit me together in my mother's womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made
(Ps. 139:13-14).
We do not have to take this passage in a deterministic or literalist manner to appreciate our calling by God to stand before God as people who are "fearfully and wonderfully made." This passage helps us affirm that each of us, no matter our backgrounds, skills, intelligence, social class, have something to offer to the world. Who we are and what we do does make a difference. No one else can do what I do like I do it and no one can do what you do quite like you do it. It’s not just a matter of talent; it’s also a matter of personality and temperament. Who we are is somewhat of a mystery, but the call to use our talents and abilities to create a community of faith that will witness to the love of our God, that is not a mystery.

Excerpted from Gifts of Love (unpublished mss.)