Monday, December 31, 2012

Looking Forward -- Moving from 2012 to 2013

The month of January takes it's name from the Roman god Janus, that two-faced god who looked both backwards into the past and forward into the future.  Although I'm not a follower of Roman gods (I'm a Christian, thank you very much), on a day like this this image seems appropriate.  If you're like me, you're looking forward to the new year.  The turn of the calendar seems to offer the opportunity for a new beginning, a new start in life. I am a great believer in Paul's message of new beginnings, a vision that is summed up nicely in these words:  "So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation:  everything old has become new!" (2 Corinthians 5:17).  The message is clear to me -- there is no need to be a prisoner of one's past.  There is the possibility of something new happening.  

So, I look forward to 2013.  I don't know exactly how things will work out in the new year.  We can make plans, but plans have a way of changing.  I do know that I'm going to continue as pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church and as convener of the Troy-area Interfaith Group.  The Metro Coalition of Congregations will celebrate its founding convention on February 24th.  I'll be participating in the Disciples of Christ General Assembly, and oh yes, I'll be taking a sabbatical in the fall.  But even with these predictable elements, 2013 will, I expect be full of opportunities and surprises.  I go forward into the future with confidence, however, because I know that I walk in the Spirit.  

But, 2013 isn't yet upon us.  There are still a few hours left to go.  At this moment, the United States seems to be sitting on the edge of a "Fiscal Cliff," with little evidence that a resolution is in order (likely we'll go over the cliff and then put things back together next week).  But, the Fiscal Cliff isn't the only thing on the list of happenings in 2012.  Of course, we re-elected Barack Obama as President, even as we saw billions spent on political ads (mostly negative).  But we also saw evidence that America's ethnic makeup is broadening.  Barack Obama won re-election without gaining a majority of white votes -- the first time ever.  This reality  has put immigration reform on the front burner (and that's a good thing).  2012 also brought back to our attention the issue of climate change, after a horrendous drought hit much of America during the summer and then Sandy wreaked havoc on the Mid-Atlantic States.  Maybe people will start to believe the warnings of the scientists.  And then we had that horrific and tragic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School that took the lives of twenty first graders, along with several teachers and staff members.  In 2013 we will once again have a conversation about the prevalence of guns in American society.  There was, of course, good news in 2012, like the fact that my San Francisco Giants won the World Series for the second time in three years (and the Dodgers continue to be shut out of the big game), but the tragedies of 2012 suggest that we might be well served jumping forward into a new year.  

I'm looking forward to 2013.  I'm looking forward to seeing where God will lead me.  I pray that 2013 will be a year of blessing.  May we live into this new year with a sense of hope, a hope that leads to action, so that the common good might be served.  

May we heed these words of the Psalmist in 2013:

Praise the Lord, all you nations!
Extol him, all you peoples!
For great is his steadfast love toward us,
and the faithfulness of the Lord endures forever.
Praise the Lord! 
(Psalm 117 NRSV)

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Best Books of 2012 (including Book of the Year)

Every year I seek to honor those books, which were published during the past year that I've read and think are worthy of special attention.  Besides a Book of the Year, I want to recognize a number of other books that merit this attention, books that have affected and influenced my life.  Of course, I can only honor those books I've read, and so my list may look different from other lists (and there are books I've read this year that were published earlier, that I have found very compelling as well).  But these are the ones that standout to me, books that I would recommend for your reading.  After the book of the year, the rest of the best are found listed and described under three categories:  Public life, religion, and history; Bible and Theology; and Church and Spirituality.

Book of the Year

THE COLOR OF CHRIST: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America.  By Edward J. Blum and Paul Harvey.   Chapel Hill:  The University of North Carolina Press,  2012.  325 pages.

Ed Blum and Paul Harvey have written an incredibly compelling account of the way color/race has influenced  the way Jesus has been portrayed and understood throughout American history.  As soon as I finished reading this book, I knew that it would take an extra-special book to keep it from being Book of the Year.  I've read a number of excellent books, but none came to its level.   As the book clearly demonstrates -- if we are to understand American Christianity we must understand the way race and color have factored into our conversations, and if we're to move beyond our racial/ethnic divides, then we must undestand how our pictures of Jesus influence our relationships   It is, therefore, a must read.  My review can be found here.

Best Books

Public Life, Religion, and History

Eboo Patel, SACRED GROUND: Pluralism, Prejudice, and the Promise of America. Boston:  Beacon Press, 2012.  Xxix + 192 pages.
Eboo Patel has made a name as one of the most important young religious leaders in America.  A Muslim, he has been at the forefront of interfaith activism.  In this important book, Patel argues that one can be and should be deeply committed to one's own faith and also work to build bridges across faith lines.  Patel's book will help people of faith navigate the increasingly pluralistic context in faithful and respectful ways.  My review is here.  

Stephen Prothero,  THE AMERICAN BIBLE: How Our Words Unite, Divide, and Define a Nation.  San Francisco:  Harper One, 2012.  533 pages.
Americans don't know their (our) history.  We don't understand the complexity of our inheritance, but Stephen Prothero has done us a great service by bringing together in a rather unique fashion key documents and statements from history that help illuminate our heritage.  This is a book to have on the table, for ready reference and "devotional" reading.  This isn't divine revelation, but these texts have a certain aura about them -- even the ones you heartily reject.   Review is here.  

 Bible and Theology
Dale P. Andrews, Dawn Ottoni-Wilhelm, and Ronald J. Allen, Editors. PREACHING GOD'S TRANSFORMING JUSTICE: A Lectionary Commentary, Year C.Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2012.  Xxvii + 504 pp.
Lectionary preachers who believe that the biblical message has implications for justice in our world will find this series of lectionary commentaries a great help. The second volume, under the primary editorship of Dale Andrews addresses the texts for Year C.  The volume for Year B was edited by Ron Allen, with the third volume to be edited by Dawn Ottoni-Wilhelm.  For more on this series, see my review here.  
J.R. Daniel Kirk, JESUS HAVE I LOVED, BUT PAUL? : A Narrative Approach to the Problem of Pauline Christianity.  By J.R. Daniel Kirk. Grand Rapids:  Baker Academic, 2011.  Ix + 214 pages. 
Paul has his admirers, but he also has many detractors.  He's not nearly as lovable as Jesus.  Daniel Kirk has tried to help us better understand Paul's theology and practice in this helpful volume, approaching the issue from an evangelical, but critically aware perspective.  Well worth exploring!  My review is found here.  

Jennifer M. McBride  THE CHURCH FOR THE WORLD: A Theology of Public Witness.New York:  Oxford University Press, 2011.   Xiv + 295 pages.
As one who believes that faith has public implications  -- after all I published my own book on the subject in 2012 entitled Faith in the Public Square -- and who has had a long standing appreciation for the witness and theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, I was excited to receive, read, and review Jennifer McBride's book that rings together Bonhoeffer's own witness with how faith can enter the public square in the contemporary American setting.  Check out my review here. 

Amos Yong, THE BIBLE, DISABILITY, AND THE CHURCH: A New Vision of the People of God.   By Amos Yong.  Grand Rapids:  Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2011.   Xiii + 161 pp.

I decided to make an exception to my rule regarding books published in 2012.  Since I received and read this book by Amos Yong in 2012, and found it so compelling that I invited the author to come to my church and lead a weekend series of seminars on this topic, I thought it worth bringing into our conversation.  In this book Amos Yong not only looks at the issue of disability from a biblical perspective, but helps us read the Bible through the lens of disability.  This is a truly important book, so take up and read.  My review is here.  
Amos Yong, SPIRIT OF LOVE: A Trinitarian Theology of Grace. By Amos Yong. Waco, TX:  Baylor University Press, 2012.  Xviii +228 pages.

If it appears that I've become a fan of Amos Yong, you might be correct.  Amos is a productive writer, and this year he published this theological study of the Holy Spirit that has proven exceptionally helpful to me as I've pondered my own understanding of the Holy Spirit.  Amos is a Pentecostal who engages the biblical, the theological, the scientific, and the broader religious worlds.  If you are at all inclined to consider the nature of the Holy Spirit and the possibilities inherent in the Pentecostal message for the broader Christian community, then you'll want to read this book.    My review is here.  

Church and Spirituality

Sara Gaston Barton, A WOMAN CALLED: Piecing Together the Ministry Puzzle.By Sara Gaston Barton.  Abilene, TX:  Leafwood Publishers, 2012.  220 pages.
What if you had an abiding sense of call to preach and recognized gifts in teaching and your faith tradition said no to that calling?  What would you do?  Sara Barton, who is a personal friend, and a frequent pulpit guest at my congregation has written a powerful testimony to her own call, her path to understanding that call, and her decision to stay within her tradition to bear witness to God's call to women preachers.  You will be blessed by her story, and if you struggle with whether women should preach and teach, then hear Sara's testimony.  You'll find my review here.   

Diana Butler Bass, CHRISTIANITY AFTER RELIGION: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening San Francisco:  Harper One, 2012.  294 pages. 

Diana Butler Bass has been for some time one of the most important observers and interpreters of contempory religious life.  Her book Christianity for the Rest of Us has influenced countless Mainline Protestants, helping us/them perceive the possibilities for a progressive understanding of faith.  In Christianity after Religion, Diana offers an interpretation that carries both good and bad news.  Institutional faith will be increasingly challenged, but there is a deep and abiding desire to experience the presence of God.  This book offers more analysis than answers, but it remains an important piece of the conversation and should be read widely.  My review can be found here.    

Kent Ira Groff, CLERGY TABLE TALK: Eavesdropping on Ministry Issues in the 21st Century.  Gonzalez, FL:  Energion Publications, 2012.  100 pages.
Okay, I'm cheating a bit here.  I must confess to being the editor of the series in which this book appears, but I think it is very valuable book for clergy.  The chapters are brief, but help provoke conversations among clergy that can sustain them in their journey of service to God and church.  This is the first contribution to a new series of books for clergy sponsored by the Academy of Parish Clergy.    
Justin Lee.  TORN: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays-vs.-Christians Debate.  New York:  Jericho Books, 2012.  259 pages.

Is it possible to be Gay and Christian?  The answer -- increasingly -- is yes.  Even as society becomes more open to the possibility, more and LGBT folk are coming out of the closet, and we're discovering that they are  faithful and committed Christians.  The church has been slow to come to terms with this reality, but what it needs most is wise guides to the conversation, men and women, both gay and straight, who are willing to address the issue with grace and truth.  Justin Lee is a rather conservative Christian who has come to terms with his own sexual orientation and shares with us his story in a compelling manner.  So I offer my hearty recommendation.  The review is found here.  

Lamin Sanneh.  SUMMONED FROM THE MARGIN: Homecoming of an African.  By Lamin Sanneh.  Foreword by Kelefa Sanneh.  Grand Rapids:  Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2012.  Xx + 281 pages.
I wasn't sure where to place this book, for it is a primer on interfaith relationships  a memoir, and a book of theology.  Wherever it might belong a Best Books list, it is an important contribution to ouir thinking on matters religious, theological, and missional.  What does it mean to convert from one faith to another?  What is the relatoinship between Islam and Christianity?  What is the relationship between Africa and the West?  What are ongoing effects of colonialism?  These are some of the topics that emerge in this powerful memoir by one of the leading interpreters of global Christianity and Muslim-Christian understanding.  My review is here.  

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Summoned from the Margin -- A Review

SUMMONED FROM THE MARGIN: Homecoming of an African.  By Lamin Sanneh.  Foreword by Kelefa Sanneh.  Grand Rapids:  Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2012.  Xx + 281 pages.

               Writing a memoir that describes both a spiritual and an intellectual journey is fraught with danger.  How much do you reveal and what do these revelations say not only about the person writing the memoir, but the people and events encountered along the way?  Some memoirs are mere fluff, while others are full of pathos.  Lamin Sanneh’s memoir may lack the pathos of Stanley Hauerwas’s Hannah’s Child, but there’s no fluff here either.  Instead, we find a revealing look at one man’s journey from his African Muslim roots into Christianity, a journey to America, and finally a homecoming of sorts in the Roman Catholic Church.  It’s a journey with many twists and turns that offer insight into the challenge posed by conversion not only to the one converting, but to those left behind and those who are destined to receive the convert.  It is also the story of a person's entrance into a different world setting, and the difficulties encountered as a stranger in a strange land.  The title catches his own experiences as an African, with Muslim roots, finding his way in a Christianized, but often secular West.  In Summoned from the Margin, the highly respected Yale University professor of World Christianity tells his story, one that is rich in detail, is intellectually stimulating and spiritually challenging.  It’s not an easy read nor a quick one, but it is a worthwhile read.
                Lamin Sanneh is the D. Willis James Professor of World Christianity at Yale.  Before that he taught Islam and World Religions at Harvard and the University of Aberdeen.  He was born into a Muslim family in the African nation of Gambia, the oldest son of his father’s second wife.  He was raised to be a devout and observant Muslim, but something pushed him to explore outside this faith tradition for spiritual answers.  His quest was not easy.  His context was almost entirely Muslim – except for the colonial officials he encountered in Gambia.  He attended an Islamic focused school, learned the Qur’an and the theology and practices of his faith.  It provided structure and context, but ultimately questions about relating to God in a more personal way drove him to seek answers in Christianity. He writes that there was little introspection in the religion he learned as a child, no “quest for the interior light, a spiritual rite of passage with atoning possibility” (p. 56).  There is, of course, comfort to be taken in the orderliness of this religious context, but for him, something else was needed.  His journey out of Islam was a personal one.  He moved into this new religious arena, maintaining respect for the faith he left behind.  This isn’t, as many conversion stories can be, an attempt to cast aspersions on one's earlier faith experiences.

His path to conversion had little assistance from Christians.  Even after going to a “Western School,” the religion he was taught continued to be Islam.  At least in British controlled Africa, where Islam was dominant, there was tacit agreement between the colonial officials, including church officials, not to evangelize the Islamic populace.  So, when he went looking to the churches, both Methodist and Catholic sought to direct him to the other – the Anglican Church was too connected to the colonial government to be a suitable landing place.  He was finally able to receive baptism in a Methodist church before heading to America, for college.  In America, Sanneh experienced a very different religious context.  Being Black, he didn’t find welcome in predominantly white churches, and being African he wasn’t completely accepted into African American society.  One of the themes that emerges from the book is how he experienced Protestant Christianity, both in its evangelical and mainline/progressive expressions. For those of us in the liberal/progressive mainline, Sanneh’s experiences should serve as a strong reminder of how easy it is for liberalism to become condescending in its responses to the other.  His eventual turn to the Catholic Church is a result of never finding complete welcome in the Protestant community.  He found a similar experience present as a faculty member at Harvard and Yale – not fully accepted due to color and background.  Fortunately, he found people who helped him navigate these realities, but the journey wasn’t easy. 

                Sanneh’s journey into academia would take him back into conversation with his Islamic roots.  As he began graduate studies, he was directed toward the study of Islam and its relationship with Christianity, enabling him to be participant in Muslim-Christian dialogues.  He did this, in part, by looking at the ways in which the scriptures of these religions help shape their contexts.  In his efforts at comparison he came to an intriguing conclusion that we would benefit learning from regarding the role that Islam plays in Muslim society:
The lesson I took from this was that Islam constitutes a radical intellectual challenge to the West, not by virtue of any overt offensive in particular, but by virtue of the West’s own blind spot on religion.  If and when the challenge became overt, a na├»ve West might think a muscular military response, modulated with economic inducement, would be all it would take to dispose of the problem, showing how the religious blind spot can induce obsessive behavior as an avoidance strategy.
  What he discovered and sought to convey to others was that Islam is a very “this-worldly religion.”  That is, “Islam applies rules of personal obedience and appearance as well as rules of government, banking and finance, international relations, sanitation, art and architecture, music, and so on.  Islam does not turn its back on the world” (p. 156).  The carrot and the stick of the West will not be effective in furthering relationships.  Understanding and respecting the role Islam plays in society is key. 

                Sanneh’s journey led him to several stops, including studies at the University of Birmingham (UK) and the American University in Beirut, before finally entering a Ph.D. program at the University of London.   In the course of these studies, Sanneh focused his attention on the possible alternative to the idea of Islamization through Jihad, which has been the dominant thesis of Islamic expansion.  He sought to look to another possible explanation, a more “pacific” version.  He found such a version present in the expansion of Islam into Africa, as seen in the establishment of “pacific clerical communities in medieval West Africa,” a tradition that has continued into the present age.  Eventually, his teaching responsibilities at the University of Aberdeen would broaden his focus to include not only Islam, but African Christianity.  As he engaged in these continued studies that eventuated from his teaching responsibilities, he came to focus attention on the influence of the vernacular in religious expansion.  Here he was able to compare the Islamic emphasis on Arabic as the divinely chosen language of the faith, whereas Christianity had embraced the vernacular. 

          Moves to Harvard and then Yale, expanded Sanneh’s opportunities to explore the deep relationships of these two faith traditions of his own experience.  They also afforded him the opportunity to explore the impact of translation on society.   What was missing – personally – was a true religious home.  He was a scholar of religion, who had converted from one to another, but he hadn’t yet found that home that would form him fully.  Eventually, however, he found that home in Catholicism.  He found in Catholicism a more stable core that would give sustenance to his own faith life.  He writes that “Catholicism became an exit strategy from the confinement of the upscale liberal agnosticism that has long commanded the world of academia.  I felt a lively sense of emancipation surrounded by the signs and symbols of the mystery of God in the ungrudging, faithful witness of the church.  That fact was the connection to the worldwide community of faith spread within and across national boundaries” (p. 267).  What Catholicism gives Sanneh, it seems, is a sense of rootedness that had been lacking to that point in his journey.  Being on a journey that began as a move of the individual, in the end he found solace in a faith tradition that sought to check vapid individualism. 

                This is very much an intellectual memoir, but it also has strong spiritual dimensions.  Sanneh offers some insight into familial relations, especially early in life, but they are not the focal point.  What this memoir does, more than anything else, is give us an opportunity to explore the relationship of seemingly rival religions as they manifest themselves in the life of one person.  For those interested in the issue of conversion, this is a most helpful book.  It will also be of interest to those engaged in interfaith conversations, for in this book we will be taken beyond the temptation toward a lowest common denominator experience of religion.  As I noted earlier, it’s not an easy read, but it is an important one.  Indeed, it serves as an important challenge to the way in which we envision religion present in our society.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Father's Business -- Thoughts on a Gospel Reading

41 Each year his parents went to Jerusalem for the Passover Festival. 42 When he was 12 years old, they went up to Jerusalem according to their custom. 43 After the festival was over, they were returning home, but the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem. His parents didn’t know it. 44 Supposing that he was among their band of travelers, they journeyed on for a full day while looking for him among their family and friends. 45 When they didn’t find Jesus, they returned to Jerusalem to look for him. 46 After three days they found him in the temple. He was sitting among the teachers, listening to them and putting questions to them. 47 Everyone who heard him was amazed by his understanding and his answers. 48 When his parents saw him, they were shocked. 
His mother said, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Listen! Your father and I have been worried. We’ve been looking for you!” 
49 Jesus replied, “Why were you looking for me? Didn’t you know that it was necessary for me to be in my Father’s house?” 50 But they didn’t understand what he said to them. 
51 Jesus went down to Nazareth with them and was obedient to them. His mother cherished every word in her heart. 52 Jesus matured in wisdom and years, and in favor with God and with people.  (Luke 2:41-52 Common English Bible).
Jesus is an enigma.  Although Matthew and Luke offer us visions of Jesus' birth, the gospels tell us little about his upbringing.  Life starts in Bethlehem, but before long moves to Nazareth.  There have been many attempts to fill in the gap between the day of the return to Nazareth and the beginning of Jesus' ministry at his baptism by John decades later.  There are a number of infancy gospels that seem to come from Gnostic sources that offer us a miracle working adolescent such as forming a clay bird and then breathing life into it -- a story that is picked up by the Qur'an.  

The one story that finds its way in the Gospels is that of a twelve year old boy visiting Jerusalem during Passover with his family.  Luke suggests that the family made this pilgrimage annually, and on this occasion, Jesus gets separated from his family.  They even head home, apparently assuming that Jesus is with the caravan heading north.  It's not until later that they discover his absence, and they return to Jerusalem to look for him.  It's hard for us, as moderns, to think that parents might leave behind their child, but Luke doesn't seem to think this is far-fetched.   After three days of searching, they find him in the Temple -- engaging in conversation with the religious leaders and scholars, who seem amazed at his wisdom and understanding.  In essence this twelve-years-old boy becomes the teacher and they the learners.  

The key to the passage is Jesus' response to his parents.  Taken strictly -- according to Jewish law -- Jesus' response didn't show respect or honor for his parents.  After all, why wouldn't they be looking for him.  He sounds almost arrogant in his response to their statements of concern for his welfare.  But Luke is making a statement.  His youthful Jesus doesn't make clay pigeons fly, but he is engaging in prophetic work.  Jesus says to his parents -- "Didn't you know that it was necessary for me to be in my Father's house?"  He wasn't talking of Joseph, but of God.  He had heard the call -- God had put in a claim, and Jesus answered in the affirmative.  

He does return home, takes up where he left off, and continues to mature -- in wisdom and stature (CEB -- years).  He finds favor with both God and neighbor.  We're left wondering -- what kind of child was he?  What was his own sense of awareness.  Did he, as Luke suggests, seem to understand, even if his parents struggled with it, that his was a unique calling and gift?  Did he see himself less as the son of Joseph and more the son of God?  Although we don't know what kind of education he received, can we not imagine his grades?  As someone who has struggled with math -- I wonder, did Jesus have to study, or did he already know it all?

Such are the questions posed to us by this lection!  

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Relational Theology: A Contemporary Introduction -- A Review

RELATIONAL THEOLOGY: A Contemporary Introduction (Point Loma Press).  Edited by Brint Montgomery, Thomas Jay Oord, and Karen Winslow.  Eugene, OR:  Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2012.  Xix + 115 pages.

          After my introduction to Pentecostal and Evangelical understandings of the Christian faith, I learned of the importance of having a personal relationship with Jesus.  Even if God was distant, Jesus was close by.  Although the popular theology that I imbibed could be described as romantic and even cloying in its orientation, it was attractive to people like me who grew up in rather formalized religious settings.  The songs we sang to Jesus may have sounded a lot like the love longs we heard on the radio; they expressed our need to for intimacy with God.  As Diana Butler Bass has shown in her recent book, Christianity After Religion, (Harper One, 2012), religion (defined institutionally) is no longer tenable.  People are looking for something other than singing songs to Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover.

                Fortunately, in our search for spiritual intimacy we don’t have to settle for the “Jesus is my boyfriend” type of theology.  There are options available, including the kind of “Relational Theology” explored in this “contemporary introduction.”  Edited by Brint Montgomery, Tom Oord and Karen Winslow, this brief and readable introduction offers us a vision of theology that is rooted in the Wesleyan tradition.  Composed of, by my quick count, of thirty-two short (3-page) chapters, written by nearly the same number of authors, the book is organized around four sections:  “Doctrines of Theology in Relational Perspective;” “Biblical Witness in Relational Perspective;” “The Christian Life in Relational Perspective;” and “Ethics and Justice in Relational Perspective.”  Topics covered range from the doctrine of the Trinity to God’s relationship to nature.  Chapters explore such issues as the contribution of John Wesley, the authority of the Bible, the nature of pastoral ministry, and Jewish-Christian dialogue.

                Each of these brief chapters introduces us to an aspect of relational theology, which is defined by co-editor Tom Oord, who provided me with a copy of the book, as affirming two principle ideas.  First, that “God affects creatures in various ways.”  It envisions and active and engaged God.  Second, it affirms that “creatures affect God in various ways.”  It’s this second affirmation that differentiates this form of the theology.  It assumes that we can move or influence God.  A key component of Relational Theology is its affirmation that God is Love.  According to Oord’s introduction Relational Theology is a rather broad umbrella that includes such varied theologies as Missional, Arminian/Holiness, Feminist/Womanist, Open, Trinitarian, Process, Wesleyan, Liberation/Postcolonial, and just in case someone feels left out he adds – “Other.”  Oord notes that adherents of this form of theology don’t necessarily embrace all of these forms.  As one can see some of these versions could be considered liberal/progressive, while others not as much.  If one needs a good descriptor of the attitude expressed by the authors of these chapters, one could use the phrase “generous orthodoxy” (Brian McLaren).  But, it’s a generous orthodoxy with a Wesleyan spin. 

                In his chapter, which follows immediately after Oord’s introduction, Barry Callen notes that “relational theology has roots in the Pietist, Arminian, Wesleyan, Holiness, and Pentecostal traditions of Christianity.”  The focus that emerges from these roots is upon a vision of a God who is “truly personal, loving, and not manipulative.”  It contrasts with a Reformed/Calvinist vision of the “God-Creature” relationship that is “more static and predetermined.”  It envisions a truly responsive relationship on the part of both God and Creature (p. 7).  Callen sees this understanding present in the theology of John Wesley.  Although it affirms divine sovereignty, it leaves room for the “possibility of the creature actively cooperating in God’s governance of this creation” (p. 8).  As one should expect from a Wesleyan vision of theology, it affirms free will - that is, according to Brint Montgomery, one must assume that "God does not determine the course of every action . . . We are genuinely free to respond well or poorly to God, and we are therefore morally responsible" (p. 33).   

                For me one of the most important chapters is that written by Dennis Bratcher on “The Revelation and Inspiration of Scripture.”  One of the important sides of the Wesleyan understanding of theology is that even in many of its evangelical forms there is a less rigid view of biblical authority.  Even as there is room for God move in our midst, the Scriptures are understood in more relational terms and less in propositional form.  Bratcher writes that while the Bible revelatory, “this does not mean Scripture is absolute, final, and therefore, the truth about everything.  That is the position of Fundamentalism, literalism, and inerrancy.”  In contrast to such a vision, he writes that “Scripture is revelatory in the precise sense that God reveals Himself in history in the dynamic of the community as they bear witness to ‘what we have seen and heard’ (Acts 4:20).  Scripture is living and active.  God continues to confront people in their own history.”  It’s not that Bratcher has a low view of Scripture; rather he understands revelation to be a much larger category that includes the Scriptural witness but allows God to continue the conversation (p. 56). 

                Written with a lay audience in mind, the chapters communicate a truly generous and open orthodoxy as well as orthopraxy.  It is a vision that warrants close attention, and can be, in my mind, the foundation for a fruitful conversation across the Christian community.  Because the Relational Category includes both Process and Open theologies, there is an opportunity for conversation between moderate evangelicals and progressives.

                Of course, this is simply an introductory statement.  None of these chapters take the conversation into deeper waters.  They open the conversation, but don’t end it.  Although it almost functions as an introductory handbook to Relational Theology – that is, one can choose to read those sections of greatest interest – it can also be used by study groups or pub theology groups – as conversation starters.  With the latter in mind, it would have been helpful if the authors of the essays had provided two or three discussion questions to be used by such groups, but in their absence group leaders can use their imagination and embrace a conversation with and about a God who seeks to be in relationship with the Creature.   I can envision a very conversation emerging from the use of this excellent little book!

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

On the Second Day of Christmas . . .

Christmas has come come and gone, or so they say.  Now it's time to either sit back and  relax or head back to the stores and exchange all the unwanted and inappropriate gifts.  I did pretty well this year -- I got a new Detroit Tigers hoodie and Tigers World Series t-shirt.  The latter I wear as cover for the fact that I rooted for my Giants in the World Series (it's good to be a fan of the top 2 teams in baseball, at least for 2012).  

But here we are, on the 2nd day of Christmas, when supposedly my true love gives me two turtle doves; does the good news of Christmas continue to speak?  Are we ready to take to heart the message of peace and good will?  Yes, have we taken to heart the good news that God is in our midst, or are we back to the way things have always been.  So we don't lose focus, maybe we can focus our attention this day on sharing a word of praise to God.

The Psalm for the First Sunday of Christmas is the 148th.  It is a straightforward song of praise.  Perhaps it is a good word to share this day as we move past Christmas Day and into the continuing unfolding of the reign of God that took root in and through the coming of Jesus.  Let us, therefore, give praise to God.

148 Praise the Lord!
Praise the Lord from heaven!
    Praise God on the heights!
Praise God, all of you who are his messengers!
    Praise God, all of you who comprise his heavenly forces!
Sun and moon, praise God!
    All of you bright stars, praise God!
You highest heaven, praise God!
    Do the same, you waters that are above the sky!
Let all of these praise the Lord’s name
    because God gave the command and they were created!
God set them in place always and forever.
    God made a law that will not be broken.
Praise the Lord from the earth,
    you sea monsters and all you ocean depths!
Do the same, fire and hail, snow and smoke,
    stormy wind that does what God says!
Do the same, you mountains, every single hill,
    fruit trees, and every single cedar!
10 Do the same, you animals—wild or tame—
    you creatures that creep along and you birds that fly!
11 Do the same, you kings of the earth and every single person,
    you princes and every single ruler on earth!
12 Do the same, you young men—young women too!—
    you who are old together with you who are young!
13 Let all of these praise the Lord’s name
    because only God’s name is high over all.
    Only God’s majesty is over earth and heaven.
14 God raised the strength[a] of his people,
    the praise of all his faithful ones—
        that’s the Israelites,
        the people who are close to him.
Praise the Lord!

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

I’ve Got Good News for You

Isaiah 52:7-10

I’ve got good news for you. So “go tell it on the mountain, over the hills and everywhere, go tell it on the mountain, that Jesus Christ is born.”  We’ve come tonight to hear good news, to sing songs of praise, and rejoice in the Lord, because Emmanuel is here with us.  We’ve been waiting in patient expectation for the coming of the one who is the “Desire of nations” who will “bind all peoples in one heart and mind; bid envy strife and quarrels cease; fill the whole word with heaven’s peace.”  So now it’s time to rejoice, because “Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.”   

The reading from Isaiah was first spoken to exiles who wondered if God still heard their prayers.  The prophet answers their questions with a message of good news, proclaiming a word of peace and salvation.  When all hope seemed lost, the prophet declared: “Your God Rules!”  Don’t give up hope, because the day of your redemption is here.     

Although this message was first spoken to the exiles in Babylon, they have come to have a much broader meaning and application.  Like those exiles we long to see God’s reign present in our lives.  We come tonight in the hope of peace, of justice, and God’s love.  This is good news to all people, everywhere.  

But if we’re to receive this message then we must look at things through a different lens. Victory doesn’t come through the flexed muscles, but in the form of a powerless and vulnerable child. 

It’s sometimes difficult to fully hear and understand this Christmas message.  There are, after all, so many competing voices clamoring for our attention. We find ourselves rushing about trying to get all the last minute shopping and baking and cooking done before the big day arrives.  We get so caught up in the weeds that we forget why we’ve come to celebrate this glorious moment.  But voices call out to us, reminding us that there is good news to be received.  

Remember how frustrated Charlie Brown was with the commercialization of Christmas.  He knew something was missing, but he couldn’t figure it out.  Lucy’s answer was more busyness.  She made him director of the Christmas pageant, but this only made things worse.  Just being busy didn’t solve the problem. In his frustration, Charlie Brown cries out to anyone who would listen: “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?”

Linus responds to Charlie Brown’s cry of desperation by taking center stage and retelling the Christmas story according to the Gospel of Luke. Linus reminds us that the shepherds were watching their flocks by night, when all of a sudden, an angel of the Lord appeared, and “they were sore  afraid.”  But they needn’t be afraid because the angel came bearing good news, good news that they would go on to share with the world as God’s beautiful messengers.  

“And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.  For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.” (Lk 2:10-11 KJV).    
When he finished telling the Christmas story, Linus walked off the stage and said to Charlie Brown:  “That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”  Linus has been sharing this good news with us for nearly fifty years. 

In our songs, in the readings, in the time of sharing at the Lord’s Table, and in the lighting of candles, we have the opportunity to let this good news speak new life into our lives. Yes, in this little child, whom we call Emmanuel, God is with us shining the light of peace into our world.  No matter what comes our way, we can find strength in this comforting word – God rules and is with us in this babe born in Bethlehem, who died on a cross and rose from the dead revealing to us the way of God’s kingdom.  So:      

Go, tell it on the mountain, over the hills and everywhere; 
Go, tell it on the mountain, that Jesus Christ is born.
Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
Christmas Eve
December 24, 2012

Monday, December 24, 2012

And Mary Committed to Memory -- The Good News of Christmas

In the Gospel of Luke, the Christmas story begins with the Holy Family traveling south from Nazareth to Bethlehem due to an imperial census.  Although there's lots of historical red flags raised by this suggestion, the point is, Luke needs to get the Holy Family to Bethlehem, because as successor to David, that's where he must be born.  According to Luke, Jesus is born in some kind of structure where the animals take shelter, for he is laid in a manger.

From the manger the scene shifts to nearby fields, where shepherds gather to guard their sheep in the night.  An angel of the Lord appears to them, and of often happens, they're terrified.  The angel's first words seek to calm the situation, so that the angel might deliver the Euangelion –  the good news (KJV has Great Tidings).  

What is this good news?  The shepherds learn of a birth in the City of David – The savior, Christ the Lord has been born.  This is joyous news not only for the shepherds, but for all people, for this messianic message holds out hope for all the people in the  nation.  For Luke Jesus is the rightful claimant of David's long vacant throne, and the re-establishment of the Davidic line was seen as the key to Israel regaining its place in the world.  What a great honor for these shepherds to be the first to hear the news.  But that's God for you-- God always does the unexpected. 

You see, the choice of shepherds is important.  Unlike Matthew, who envisions wealthy magi from the east coming to present grand gifts to honor Jesus' birth, Luke's shepherds lack this kind of stature.  These men represent the working poor -- you know the ones who work hard all day, but don't make enough to feed the family.  As Eugene Boring and Fred Craddock note:  “The story of the shepherds and angels emphasizes God’s affirmation of the poor and despised.  In contrast to their positive image in the Old Testament, shepherds in first-century Hellenistic world were regarded as belonging to the lower class, irresponsible thieves who grazed their sheep on the land of other people, somewhat as gypsies are regarded in some countries today.”[i]

There is a sign for them to look for – the baby is wrapped up snugly and lying in the manger.  And as this news is being delivered, a grand choir of the heavenly hosts (forces), who praise God with this song:  “Glory to God in heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors.” (v. 14).  It’s important to note the connection between God’s glory in heaven and peace on earth.  God’s vision is not an either/or heaven or earth one.  God’s concern is focused on transforming the situation on earth, and this baby is the key.  There is, of course, the question of whom God favors.  Is it just Israel?  Or is it the entirety of creation?  What do you think? 

The shepherds decide to confirm this message for themselves -- this is important for Luke's presentation of his gospel as rooted in history -- and they find Mary, Joseph, and the baby just as the angels had proclaimed. In making this visit, however, the shepherds not only confirm the good news for themselves, they help confirm the promise made to Mary as well.  Consider Luke's statement that “Mary committed these things to memory and considered them carefully.”  What is Luke’s meaning here?  The suggestion has been made that Luke heard these stories from Mary herself.

There is another element to all of this.  It is connected to the good news present in the story.  A different king – a Davidic king, the Messiah – has arisen.  He will reign in quite different ways from Caesar, the one who ordered this census or tax enrollment. 

Allen Culpepper makes this helpful comment on the contrast that Luke is beginning to develop:
The Christmas story tells of the birth of a new king.  This child would be given the throne of his father, David.  The world was moving according to the orders of Caesar Augustus, but although he was hailed as the great bringer of peace, real peace on earth would be realized through the sovereignty of the child born in Bethlehem.  This is the story of the birth of a new kind of King.  The birth reveals a new world order, a word not under Caesar but under the direction of God’s design for the redemption of all peoples. In this world God’s Word is heard by the humble.  There is a place even for shepherds.  There is hope for the oppressed, and those who heard what God is doing were filled with joy.  God has not forgotten us or abandoned us to the brokenness we have created.  The story of Christmas, therefore, is both an announcement of hope and a call to humility.[ii]   
And with this, the Shepherds return home, “glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen.  Everything happened just as they had been told” (vs. 20).  They had received witness and borne witness that God was at work turning the world upside down!!

[i] Eugene Boring and Fred Craddock, The People’s New Testament Commentary,  (Louisville:  WJK Press, 2009), p. 182.
[ii] R. Allen Culpepper, “The Gospel of Luke,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, 12 vols., (Nashville:  Abingdon Press, 1995), 9:67.  

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Help Is on the Way -- A sermon for Advent 4

Micah 5:2-5a

It’s been a little more than a week since news broke that more than two dozen children and adults were gunned down at a Connecticut school.  Many of us stopped to pray and possibly weep at this shocking news. In the past week or so we’ve engaged in many serious conversations about why and how this happened. The conversations will continue, because the problem of violence in our society remains unresolved. Although this is supposed to be a season of great joy, sadness continues to hover over our nation.  With Christmas just two days away, many wonder – where is God?  

As we ask these questions, the prophet Micah declares that help is on the way.  Rising from the little town of Bethlehem will be a ruler, whose “origin is from old, from ancient days.” 

The words “help is on the way” can be comforting and empowering. In the old western movies I grew up on, it always seemed like the cavalry, often led by John Wayne, showed up just in time to save the day.  There are all kinds of stories about heroes who arrive at just the right moment, often risking their own lives, to rescue people in danger.  That’s why we are so grateful for the First Responders in our communities.  We take comfort knowing that “help is on the way.”  Indeed, these very words, spoken by teachers, gave comfort to children, as they hid from the gunman until the police arrived.   

Micah speaks of one who will “stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord.”  His greatness will be known throughout the world, even as he brings peace to all.  Micah ministered during the eighth century BC, back when Israel and Judah lived in the shadow of the Assyrian super-power.  It was very tempting to give up hope and faith in YHWH.  Maybe the gods of Assyria were stronger.  Maybe they should take up with them and abandon YHWH.  Micah responds, telling the people to stay strong in their faith, because help is on the way.      

Although Christians down through ages have followed Matthew and read Jesus’s birth into the promise of Micah 5, we need to stop long enough to remember that Micah was speaking to his own time, when the people he ministered to lived in fear.  Before we begin to read Micah’s words through the lens of the carol “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” perhaps we can let Micah’s words speak to our own time, even as they spoke to his.  

There’s a spirit of fear that grips our land.  Instead of uniting us, it divides us.  People are afraid of violence and so they  arm themselves, install cameras and increase the locks on their doors.  Fearing economic collapse, people lash out at government, business, and the other – the immigrants and the strangers in our communities.  We pull inward and become cynical.

That’s the way of Assyria, but not the way of God, the one who in the words of the Psalmist is “our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.  Therefore we will not fear . . . “ (Psalm 46:1-2a).   The one who, according to Micah, is coming to our aid, will represent this God to us.  

If we can let Micah’s words speak to his own time, so that they can speak to our time, then it is appropriate to follow Matthew and see the coming of Jesus into the world in the light of this passage.  In Matthew’s Gospel, when the magi come to Herod seeking directions to the birthplace of the king whose birth is foretold in the stars, Herod’s religious advisors point to Micah’s promise.  We’ll talk a bit more about this in a couple of weeks when we gather to celebrate Epiphany, but Matthew has given us permission to see Jesus as the one who will rule in Israel, who will stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord, and whose greatness will be known to the ends of the earth.  Yes, this one about whom Luke says the angels sing, will be the one of peace.  

As we ponder the words of Micah, on this fourth Sunday of Advent, what do we hear?  What message calls out to us? Who is this one whose origin is from old? 

The word that comes from Micah is a strong one.  He tells the people that God isn’t happy with them.  God’s not pleased with their worship or the way the treat one another.  He pronounces words of doom and denounces the evil deeds of the people of Israel and Judah, and yet, Micah can also offer a word of hope to the people – if they’re willing to walk in the ways of God and not the ways of the Assyrians. 
Mary captures quite well Micah’s message in her song of praise to God  (Luke 1:46-55 NRSV).

“My soul magnifies the Lord,
47     and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
   Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
   and holy is his name.
50 His mercy is for those who fear him
   from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
   he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
   and lifted up the lowly;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
   and sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
   in remembrance of his mercy,
55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
   to Abraham and to his descendants forever.

Mary is grateful to God for using one like her, a young woman who is by the world’s standards poor and powerless, and yet she becomes the instrument of God’s work of salvation.    

Sometimes we think that you have to be big and powerful to make a difference – it doesn’t matter if you’re a church or a nation, the bigger the better. But, Micah knows better and so does Mary.   And we know better as well. 

Consider the work of the Metro Coalition of Congregations.  This organization isn’t big or powerful, but neither is the typical congregation that participates in the MCC. Like us, most are small and some are even struggling to survive. There’s no reason why any person or group should pay attention to us, and yet we’ve accomplished some important things.  We helped push MSHDA to find new and creative ways of making available millions of dollars to people facing foreclosure.  We helped secure the passage of a bill to create a  Regional Transit Authority in Southeast Michigan.  And earlier this week the MCC joined other faith groups in Lansing, where we encouraged the governor to veto a bill that would have allowed people to carry concealed weapons into places like churches and schools.  Now the Governor may have vetoed that bill whether we were there or not, but those of us involved believe that the news we were coming to pray outside the Governor’s office helped convince him to issue the veto. 

There is one coming who will reveal to us the mission and purpose of God, and the one born in the little town of Bethlehem echoes the message of Micah, that God is looking for people who will do what is good, and that is “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8 CEB). 

It is our confession as Christians that the one who arises out of the little town of Bethlehem -- Christ the Lord – he is the embodiment of this promise.  Yes, we look for help to where  “once in royal David’s city stood a lowly cattle shed, where a mother laid her baby in a manger for his bed: Mary was that mother mild, Jesus Christ her little child.”   He is the one who will be our help in times of trouble.  In the spirit of that confession, let us walk humbly with our God, in love and in peace. 

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
4th Sunday of Advent
December 23, 2012