Thursday, February 28, 2013

Nurturing Spiritual Fruitfulness -- Lectionary Reflection for Lent (3)

Isaiah 55:1-9

1 Corinthians 10:1-13

Luke 13:1-9

Nurturing Spiritual Fruitfulness

            There are a variety of ways in which we can envision nurturing or nourishing spiritual fruitfulness.  We could take the route of parents providing good nourishing food for their children or that of the gardener who tends the trees so that they bear fruit.  Whatever the images we choose, the point is that the life of faith is expected to lead to spiritual maturity.  We’re expected to bear fruit.

The call to covenant, which is a dominant theme in the biblical story, starts with God’s initiative.  God reaches out to humanity and seeks to build a relationship, but for the covenant to bear fruit, we must respond.   God reaches out in love, but in making the covenant, God sets out certain expectations for us.  The question is, while God will be faithful, will we be faithful to that covenant as well?  There is recognition in the biblical story that this relationship needs to be nurtured and nourished by the Spirit.  Therefore, as we continue our Lenten journey the biblical texts for the week remind us that our faith will be tested, that our willingness to abide this covenant will be challenged, and that we’re expected to show evidence of our faithfulness to the covenant.   

            As we turn to Isaiah, we hear the prophet of the exile, inviting those living in exile, to come and drink if they’re thirsty, and to eat if their hungry.  The offer is free – no charge.  Just come and be nourished.  People who’ve known only anguish and despair receive a word of hope in the invitation to share in covenant relationship with God.   “Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near” . . . and as for the wicked, may they return to the Lord (i.e. repent) so that they might experience God’s mercy.  The good news is that God will “abundantly pardon.” 

            The invitation goes out to return to the Lord, to find nourishment on the way to faithful embrace of God’s covenant.  The ending of this passage is intriguing, because it speaks of God’s incomprehensible decision to issue this pardon.   Why would God welcome the wicked?  Why would God show mercy to those who previously spurned the call to covenant relationship?  The answer is – “my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways.”  There is a great distance between our thoughts and those of God.  Nonetheless, if we repent, if we turn around and return to God, we will be restored.

            Isaiah offers a good word to a people who are struggling with their situation in life.  They feel abandoned.  They need reassurance.  Isaiah offers this to them, and to us.  Turn and you will be received.  It may not make sense.  The story of the prodigal son may not make sense either, but the message of welcome is there, so turn and receive divine grace. 

            If Isaiah offers a word of grace, Paul offers a warning.  There is in this passage from his first Corinthian letter a strong word of judgment.  Paul points back to the Exodus and notes that even though the people were “baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea and while they “ate the same spiritual food” (a reminder that the sacraments aren’t magical), they failed to bear spiritual fruit.  God was not pleased with them, and they suffered judgment.  Paul finds these stories to be an example to the Corinthian church (and to us).  He tells them to heed the warning lest they fall into evil.  Don’t become idolaters.  Don’t indulge in sexual immorality.  Don’t test Christ or complain.  The consequences are dire.  I trust that this word comes to the reader in a way that produces a bit of alarm.  We like to think of God as being love, and love can’t involve judgment – or can it?

            Paul’s vision is apocalyptic.  He clearly sees the end being near.  The Day of Judgment is on the horizon and so we must be attentive to the ways of God.  There’s no room for complacency.  We will be tested, but not beyond what we can endure.  We hear this word that “no testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone.  God is faithful and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength . . .”   God won’t test us beyond what we can endure – that is the message we often hear, but what does this mean?   Too often this passage is used to “encourage” people to “grin and bear it.”  You’re strong, you’ll make it, so don’t upset the apple cart.  Women are often encouraged to “suffer” for righteousness by staying in abusive marriages.   Is this what Paul means?  And if so, how should we respond?  What we can take from this is that God will provide a way.  God will give us the strength to move forward in the pursuit of what is right and what is just.  God will, in other words, nourish us toward fruitfulness and faithfulness, for God is faithful.

           The gospel reading from Luke falls into two sections.  First there is a word about repentance and then there’s a word about fruitfulness.  There is a connection. 

            As in Paul there is an apocalyptic context here.  Judgment is on the mind of Jesus.  He speaks in the closing verses of Luke 12 of keeping the act of judgment within the community.  From there they get into a conversation about sin and repentance.  Some wonder whether tragedy is a sign of judgment.  There were, for instance, those Galileans “whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices” – were they worse sinners than those Galileans who didn’t suffer this fate?  And what about those who died when the “tower of Siloam” fell on them – were their sins greater than others who lived in Jerusalem?  Were those who died on 9-11 greater sinners than the rest of us living in America at the time that weren’t touched?  Are New York, New jersey, and Connecticut places of such wickedness that they deserved to be hit by Sandy’s destructiveness?  What about all those Syrians who are dying in that Civil War?  Those who died in the Holocaust or the Rwandan Genocide or . . .  ?  The list can go on forever.  Are they worse sinners?  Jesus answer is simple – don’t worry about them – simply repent.  Don’t try to play the blame game – just accept that you are a sinner.  You need grace.  You must repent.  Ron Allen and Clark Williamson note that the call to “repentance is fundamental to the mission of Jesus and the church.”    Such actions are necessary if we’re to live “supportively in community.” (Preaching the Gospels without Blaming the Jews: A Lectionary Commentaryp. 196).   

            The parable of the barren fig tree takes this call to repentance a step further.  Faithfulness to the covenant requires a willingness to turn from evil and turn back to God.  We in the more progressive side of Christianity don’t talk as much about sin or judgment.  We prefer a conversation about love.  It’s understandable, especially if you come out of a rather judgmental, unloving version of Christianity, but can we not talk about sin?  Or to put in terms of the parable – fruitfulness.

            Jesus tells this brief parable about man planting a fig tree in his the vineyard.  He planted the tree because he expected it to produce figs.  The point isn’t producing leaves or flowers – it’s food that he seeks from the tree.  So, he comes to take the harvest of this tree, but there’s no fruit.  It should bear fruit, but it hasn’t.  So, the owner of the vineyard tells the gardener to cut it down.  It’s taking up valuable space.  It’s wasting good soil.  The gardener asks for a bit of patience.  The gardener asks that he be allowed to nurture the tree for a year – digging around it and putting manure on it, so that perhaps it will bear the fruit expected of it.  And if it doesn’t well next year you can cut it down.  The owner agrees – the tree gets a reprieve, but the expectation is that it will, given a bit more attention, bear fruit.  And what is the word for us?  The Spirit will tend to the need for nourishment, and the expectation is that we shall bear fruit as a result.  Putting this in apocalyptic terms – the day of judgment has been delayed, so there’s still time to turn around and live a life that bears the fruit of righteousness.  Just don’t take too long.  Don’t waste time.  The consequences of failing to turn around aren’t pleasant! 

            The good news is that there’s still time.  The Spirit is willing and ready to nurture and nourish us into a life of faithful fruitfulness.  

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Revealing Heaven -- Review (TLC Book Tour)

REVEALING HEAVEN: The Christian Case for Near-Death Experiences.  By John W. Price.  San Francisco: Harper One, 2013.  165 pages.

I think that most people are somewhat curious about what lies beyond the grave.  Maybe it’s just our hope that death isn’t the end, but most people want to believe that something awaits us beyond the grave.  It might take the form of reincarnation or bodily resurrection or some other manifestation, but whatever the form, death can’t be the last word.  The fact is, no one knows for sure what awaits us.  So, most of us take this as an act of faith, hoping that our ultimate fate comes out well (many seem to believe in a hellish afterlife, but few believe they’re destined to go there).

While most of us take the idea of life after death as a matter of faith not fact, there have been, down through the ages, many reports about people going to heaven and returning to tell their story.  For them, this seems like proof, and there are those who take their testimony as proof of heaven.  What makes this question difficult to answer is that, at least from a faith perspective, there isn’t just one description of the afterlife.  What Christians believe is very different from what a Hindu or Buddhist believes.  

For those of us in the biblical tradition, whether Jew or Christian, the Bible offers hints of what an afterlife looks like, but there isn’t one clear picture.  Prior to the Babylonian exile, little is little said about an afterlife.  One looked for their legacy to be fulfilled in their progeny, not in another life, and what is said isn’t all that hopeful.  The Jewish Sheol isn’t much different from the Greek Hades, a place of the shades, a place of grayness not the brightness that we so often imagine heaven to be like.  In time, things do develop, and by the time of Jesus there is a rather robust view of resurrection – a sense that at least for the righteous there is the promise of bodily presence with God, and this view does take root in the Christian faith community.  

While I affirm the idea of an afterlife, believing that there is more to our reality than this life would reveal – I’m skeptical about the reports of Near-Death Experiences.   In these stories,  a person allegedly dies, goes to heaven, and then returns.  There are similarities to the reports – tunnels of light, meetings with family and friends now deceased, and in most cases a sense of warmth and love, though there are some reports of a hellish experience.  Sometimes people will report having  seen Jesus, and then receiving from him a word of instruction about how to live upon return to the body.  The question is – how do we know that these experiences truly reveal heaven?  Although I’m not saying that the reports are faked, I’m just questioning whether these are truly experiences of heaven.  Could there be other answers?  Could these be mystical visions stimulated by drawing close to death?  Could this be part of a natural response to the death experience that’s been cut short?  We simply don’t know for sure.

With all of these questions in mind I read Revealing Heaven by John W. Price for the TLC Book Tour.  When approached I expressed my skepticism of Near-Death Experiences, but I was intrigued by the fact that the author is an Episcopal priest who served many years as a hospital chaplain.  It didn’t hurt that the book is published by a major publisher of religious books.

What is intriguing about the book are the author’s accounts of the people he encountered in the course of his ministry told of having died and then returned to life.  Most of these people told similar stories.  These are some second-hand stories, but many are first hand.  Indeed, on occasion he happened to be present in the moment of the Near Death Experience.  Many of these stories speak of the way in which people’s lives are dramatically transformed as a result of the experience.  Many experience what you would call a conversion, a turning around of life.  People who seemed to die were full of anger or hatred, become gracious and loving people, who devote themselves to service to God and neighbor.

Price starts with the story of a person he encountered whose Near-Death Experience caused him to not only reevaluate his own view of  NDE.  He notes at the beginning that his own background was rather rationalist and defined by scientific values.  As a seminarian, he found that his own professors didn’t even believe in an afterlife, so his encounter with a person who told of his own Near Death Experience raised questions that he felt needed further exploration.  As he explores the possibility of life after death and the validity of these stories, he finds the resistance to belief in life after death on the part of seminary professors and fellow clergy to be frustrating.  But, this resistance seems to drive his own efforts to explore the idea and then tell the stories he encounters, ultimately seeking in this book to defend the premise that NDE offer proof of heaven.  As he shares the stories, he puts them in the context of a fairly open and pluralistic theology.  He believes that  God is love and that these experiences are all expressions of love.

Wanting to put the experiences in a theological context, he explores the biblical texts that deal with life after death, offers historical accounts, and offers a variety of theological responses to the question.  Part One of the book ends with a discussion of recent conversations about NDE.  And with all the recent conversations, including some best-selling books, his book seems to arrive at just the right time.

If Part One sets the context, part two focuses on the actual experiences and the process of death as well as seeks to describe what he believes heaven looks like – largely on the basis of the NDE reports.  He also recounts several more hellish experiences, suggesting that both are possible, even if most accounts, whatever the religious background or personality are positive.  There is also a chapter dealing with the return to the body – what that looks like and the responses.

The final chapter is entitled “What Heaven Reveals,” and here he speaks of divine love, offers a response to fear-based Christianity, touches on other religions, and suggests that experience should have primacy over doctrine.  The emphasis on experience over doctrine is key to his response to those who complain that his accounts don’t seem to hold out the possibility of divine judgment or that one must accept Christ to make it to heaven.  Thus, the complaint of some is that this just seems way too open-ended.  Now, that’s not my complaint,  but some critics don’t like the universalist tendencies of such reports.

So, what are my concerns?  First, while I embrace the idea of life-after-death, I don’t have confidence that what is being reported is evidence of that reality.  While I appreciate the reports that most people who go through these experiences are changed by them and live better, more loving lives, afterward, there are serious theological problems involved in his presentation.  Although Price seems to believe that NDE experiences offer us a word of comfort, because they seem to suggest that  there’s  proof of heaven, there’s something about these accounts that leave me uncomfortable.  The problem emerges with his explanation as to why people return from heaven.  Price’s answer is simple.  It wasn’t their time to die.  As a result, Jesus sends those with NDE back to continue living.  I don’t find this word comforting at all.  It might be useful for those who have these experiences, and perhaps for their families, but what it does say about other people, especially children who die unexpectedly?   Was it their time?

As you think about this possibility, consider the twenty children who were massacred at Newtown.  Was it their time to go?  Did God need them up in heaven?  Such words are less than comforting for families who mourn the loss of their children.  Part of my objection here is pastoral, knowing that those who lose loved ones unexpectedly won’t find this word helpful.  They may appreciate the possibility of heaven, but this seems rather arbitrary.

I also have a theological problem with what seems to be a fatalistic/deterministic view of life.  According to Price we all have our allotted time to die.  If something happens where we die prematurely we get sent back.  That’s not my theology.  It’s not my vision of God.  It’s a vision that allows no freedom, no openness of the future.  Everything is already written out for me.  What Price finds comforting, I find to be oppressive.

While I expect that the book will be helpful for some, and it might stir conversation about the after-life, I remain a faithful skeptic.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Christian Pop -- Sightings (Martin Marty)

Back in the day, I was an aficionado of Christian Rock and Roll:   Love Song, Larry Norman, The Way, and the rest.  Christian Rock is rock and roll music with Christian lyrics, because as Larry Norman famously declared:  "Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?"  There were those who didn't think this was appropriate -- putting religious words to obviously secular music -- but then we'd point to Luther and Wesley who did exactly the same thing.   Well, today Bach lover Martin Marty wades into the discussion of the aesthetics and appropriateness of Christian pop -- in it's variety of forms.  He notes that the walls between secular/sacred music seem to be eroding, with the recognition that there might not be a firm point of demarcation.  Marty will stick with Bach, and maybe a bit of Brubeck, but he opens up the conversation about musical genre's and the church.  What say you?

Martin Marty Center for the Advanced Study of Religion
The University of Chicago Divinity School
 Sightings  2/25/2013

Christian Pop
-- Martin E. Marty

Commenting on “Christian Pop,” if one is not at home in it, is precarious and will doubtless reveal how out of it the commentator is. So I wander in with a sense of mission. If “public religion” is the field of our notice, overlooking “trendy hip-hop, dubstep, funk and synch pop beats” would be to miss some very public expressions. Allison Stewart pointed to the music styles just mentioned when commenting on rapper TobyMac, whose album “Eye On It” was only the third “Christian” product ever to have debuted as No. 1 on Billboard’s “top ten” charts.           
Stewart, in an interview: “The lines between Christian and secular music are so porous now—do you think the distinction even matters?” Answer: “I think the walls are coming down between genres of music in general, and especially Christian music.” The rapper’s responses are cogent, modest, and to the point, as he delineates lines between the “vulgar” and “clean versions.” I won’t pursue this further, lest my ignorance and unfamiliarity be paraded vulgarly. We move on now to comment on the “porous” lines between Christian and secular music or most anything else in the arts line.           
I was drawn to this topic while researching for a forthcoming lecture before Chicago Chorale’s March 24 Passion According to Saint John by Bach. Whenever I am called, or freed, to wander in the fields of classical sacred music, I find that sooner or later—usually sooner, now—the subject of how “Christian and secular music” inter-relate comes up. I’ve been hearing Bach for over eighty years, having been child sat near my father’s organ bench while mother was in the small town church choir. And I’ve been reading musicologists, theologians, and other Bach scholars for three fourths of those years, again and again pondering the lines and distinctions. Sections and strains from Bach’s sacred cantatas can sound much like his Coffee Cantata and its kin, until one hears the words. What makes the music religious, Christian, or sacred, and what is “secular?”           
Rather than deal with such questions musicologically, I’ll turn in the few lines ahead to the questions of aesthetics-politics-and-culture. Try as I might, I can’t be moved by hop-hop, dubstep, funk and synth pop beats labeled Christian. And I have to admit that my kind doesn’t even try very hard. Yet as in so many areas, the porousness of the line between Christian or religious and secular is welcomed. True confession: of course, sacred and secular lines are blurred or sounds blended in the fields of folk music, and many of us classics-lovers are at home with it, as are composers of choice. A step further: Where is the line between Christian and secular in jazz, and should we worry about it? I am in the company of those, dwarfed by Christian pop adherents, who cherish jazz by Mary Lou Williams, Dave Brubeck, or close-to-home-and-almost-in-the family Andy Tecson, who for years have rendered the old line porous.           
What many of us are learning is that some of the choices are simply matters of taste, however rationalized. And those of us who pay attention to how religion or specific faiths like the Christian might best be furthered, fostered, and delighted in musically are learning tolerance. But, wait a minute: what’s that I hear? Bach! A-a-a-a-a-a-h. 


Allison Stewart, “Rapper TobyMac a hit inside and out of church,” Chicago Tribune, February 21, 2013. 
Andy Tecson is the principal composer and band leader of ChurchJazz Ensemble, a ministry of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Saint Luke. Their website is here

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

Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center for the Advanced Study of Religion at the University of Chicago Divinity School

Sunday, February 24, 2013

A Time to Weep -- A Lenten Sermon

Luke 13:31-35

It is written in the book of Ecclesiastes:
For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: (Eccl. 3:1)
There is, therefore,  “a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance (vs. 4).  

We began our Lenten journey with the imposition of ashes, which is a sign of mourning and repentance.  This is a time to weep.  But, we end our journey on Easter Morning with shouts of Alleluia, because Christ our Lord is Risen from the Dead.    Lent reminds us that the life of a disciple of Jesus is complicated.  There are moments of great joy, but also moments of sadness and even suffering.

The reading from Luke begins with a warning from a group of  Pharisees.  They tell Jesus that Herod Antipas wants to add his head to that of John the Baptist.  Jesus tells the “fox,” as he calls the king, that his destiny lies not in Galilee but in Jerusalem. That’s where prophets go to die.    

In the spring of 1968, Martin Luther King went to Memphis to give support to the city’s sanitation workers, who had gone on strike. He’d just begun expanding the Civil Rights movement into a Human Rights movement that would focus on economic justice. On the evening of April 3rd, he preached his final sermon, because he would be assassinated the next day.  As he preached that night, he seemed to sense that, like Moses, he wouldn’t get to cross the river into the promised land.  He reminded the congregation that while they’d accomplished a great deal, there was much more work left to be done.  In closing, this prophet for social justice in our country declared:  

Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn't matter with me now. Because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.
Like Jesus, Dr. King understood that there are forces that resist the love and justice of God.  They resist the creation of the “Beloved Community.”  The question is – Will we follow of the cross or will we be “enemies of the cross” (Phil. 3:18).  These are the ones whom Paul says have made their stomach their God and care only about themselves.  

One of the chief modern prophets of this vision is Ayn Rand, who famously declared that selfishness is a virtue.  Rand has developed a lot of disciples recently, but is she the prophet we must heed today?

In our Gospel today, Jesus takes the role of the parent.  He looks toward Jerusalem, and with deep grief at that city’s continued rejection of God’s love and justice, cries out in lament:    
How often I have wanted to gather your people just as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings.  But you did not want that (Vs. 34b CEB).   
Isn’t this a powerful image?  Jesus takes on the identity of a hen, and in doing this  Jesus identifies himself and God in feminine imagery.  In your imagination, can you see this mother calling her chicks to herself, so that she can protect them?  What chick would ignore the warning of its mother and not seek protection under her wings?

Looking back on my own childhood, I remember my mother being rather  protective.  Sometimes I thought she was overprotective, but she probably had good reason for her protectiveness.

In his lament Jesus calls us to take cover under the loving wings of God, to find our protection in the presence of God.  But like the younger son in the parable of the Prodigal, many of God’s children have been known to spurn this invitation.  They want to do things their own way, rather than follow the path that leads to the creation of God’s “Beloved Community.”

Dr. King, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and many other prophets have heard the call to pursue God’s vision of justice, even to the point of death.  They understood that the cross defines the pathway of Jesus.  It’s not an easy road, but remember it leads to Resurrection.

Another way to describe this calling is found in Paul’s reminder that our “citizenship is in heaven” (Phil. 3:20).   This heavenly citizenship doesn’t make us so heavenly minded that we’re of no earthly good.  No, what it means is that we live with a different set of values – heavenly values.  God’s values are reflected in the fruit of the Spirit – “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Gal. 5:22-23).  It’s reflected in the command to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.  It’s reflected in the word of judgment that’s based on how we respond to the least of these our brothers and sisters (Mt. 25:45).

So, how should we go about this work?  Jesus and Dr. King showed us the way.  Building the “Beloved Community” can only occur, if we’re willing to embrace the principles of nonviolent resistance to injustice.  

When Jesus cried in lament over the city of Jerusalem, and with Jerusalem all the cities of the world that have fallen victim to injustice, he did so because he knew that too often we resist this kind of action.  We seem to respect only coercion, but that’s not the way of God.

If Jesus cries for Jerusalem, who should we cry for?

When I came to Michigan five years ago, I sensed that if we’re to be a truly missional congregation, that means being engaged in the transformation of  the city.  Although we’re a suburban congregation, we have urban roots.  We may have left the building on Woodward Avenue, but I believe that the call to love and serve the city is still there.  If we use Acts 1:8 as our guide, our ministry as the people of God extends from this place outward through our communities and into the city and then beyond.  

We’re already doing this in a number of ways.  For instance, we’ve taken a leading role in establishing the ministry that is now called Gospel in Action Detroit.  This ministry has its roots, as Eugene James often points out, in a chance meeting in a hotel elevator outside Chicago that led to a partnership in ministry between an urban and a suburban congregation.  This ministry includes our partnership with Motown Mission that invites Disciples from across the country to come to Detroit to share in the mission of God.  It also involves the partnership with Rippling Hope Ministries, which has helped us create a Disciple-focused ministry in the city of Detroit centered at Northwestern Christian Church.  This spring we’ll have an opportunity to share in a workday in Detroit.  In June we’ll help support the third annual Peace Week at Motown Mission.  And throughout the summer we can join with Gospel in Action Detroit in create a new mission center in the city of Detroit.

     Another sign of our engagement in this work of God is the role we’ve taken in the founding of the Metropolitan Coalition of Congregations.  This afternoon, we’ll be gathering at St. James Catholic Church of Ferndale to officially launch this effort in organizing suburban congregations to pursue justice for all.  We’ve been at the forefront of this effort from the very beginning.  And, I pray that we will continue this work.  Why?  For one thing these are expressions of our missional calling.  For another, they represent God’s love for the world.  They are a means by which Jesus gathers the chicks under her wings.

Will you join God’s work of salvation, which involves sharing God’s love and justice with the world?  Will you join with God in building the “Beloved Community”?   And will you join in bestowing blessings on the “one who comes in the name of the Lord”?

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
2nd Sunday of Lent
February 24, 2013

Saturday, February 23, 2013

God's Incomprehensible Love -- A Lenten Devotional

John 3:16

16 For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him won’t perish but will have eternal life.” These words are familiar to a majority of Christians – so familiar that people will flash large cards with John 3:16 at major sporting events. Remember the guy with the rainbow hair who could always be found in the end zone at big time football games. We know the words, but what do they mean?

For the Gospel of John it’s extremely important that we embrace the concept of the incarnation. As John declares in the prologue of his gospel, “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” God has been revealed to us in the person of Jesus, and therefore Christian spirituality must be embodied.

Although we’re in Lent, perhaps to best understand the message of this passage is to turn to a Christmas song written by Iola Brubeck and her husband, the Jazz great, Dave Brubeck (who recently passed away). The first stanza of the song:

God’s love made visible! Incomprehensible!
Christ is invincible! His love shall reign!
From love so bountiful, blessings uncountable
Make death surmountable. His love shall reign!
Joyfully pray for peace and good will!
All of our yearning he will fulfill.
Living in a loving way! Praise him for every day!
Open your hearts and pray. His love shall reign!
(Chalice Hymnal 171).
Too often, we think of the word “believe” in terms of giving ascent to a doctrinal truth or statement. So, we assume that we have to profess a certain doctrinal formula if we’re to experience the eternal presence of God. There is another way to understand this word, which I think fits better. Instead of calling for us to give assent to a doctrine, we are being invited to entrust our lives to the God who is revealed to us in Christ. He is, as the Brubeck’s declare – “God’s love made Visible!” and “His love shall reign!” Yes, God loved the world so much that God sent into the world a person who could embody the love that is God.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Seven Glorious Days (Karl Giberson) -- Review

SEVEN GLORIOUS DAYS: A Scientist Retells the Genesis Creation Story.  By Karl W. Giberson.  Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2012.  Xiii + 190 Pages.   

            For many of us who profess faith in God, we’re tired of being subjected to the dueling voices of the Richard Dawkinses and the Al Mohlers of the world.  We’re tired of having to choose between good science and our faith.  Fortunately, there are good scientists and theologians who have been able to bridge the gap.  Their voices, unfortunately, often get drowned out by the more extreme voices.  Therefore, it’s important that we elevate those voices that can bring a balanced approach to the conversation, people like Karl Giberson, whose books include the fabulous Saving Darwin: How to Be a Christian and Believe in Evolution.

            Giberson holds a Ph.D. in Physics from Rice University and is currently a professor of science and religion at Stonehill College in Easton Massachusetts, and brings together a strong evangelical faith with a commitment to pursuit of science.   He seeks to bring the two into conversation without falling into the trap of a “God of the Gaps” mentality.  He is, along with people like John Polkinghorne, a gift to the church whose voice needs to be heard. 

In Seven Glorious Days, his latest book, Giberson asks the question – what would the seven days of creation as outlined in Genesis 1 look like if put into modern scientific terms?  In making this suggestion, Giberson acknowledges that Genesis 1 reflects, at least in part, an ancient understanding of creation.  It’s not necessarily a scientific statement, but it’s not anti-scientific either.  Although the science of Genesis 1 might be old and therefore a bit tarnished, the current modern scientific theories seem cold and impersonal.  What if the modern theories were restated in a way that leaves room for faith while at the same time being true to what we know scientifically?  Giberson’s concern is that if people of faith are forced to accept the idea that we must accept Genesis 1 as science, then it becomes increasingly difficult to accept the idea of a Creator.  In part, as an answer to this dilemma, Giberson offers to us this book, which he sees as a “literary exercise in what the Genesis story might look like if we could update it with the wisdom and latest understanding gained from modern science” (p. 4).

Update the seven days is exactly what Giberson does, and he does it masterfully.  He offers the reader, especially the reader who isn’t well trained in the sciences (like me) a thoughtful , insightful, straightforward, introduction to the science involved, while at the same time bringing into the picture a theologically sophisticated, but clear vision of God’s involvement in the process. 

The story begins with the Big Bang.  Giberson’s rendition of day one goes like this:
In the beginning God created all that is.  The Logos of creation, out of which the heavens and the earth an all things within them burst forth, was the pattern of God’s purpose from which everything would emerge and toward which everything would evolve.  (p. 7).
Giberson acknowledges that the beginnings of the universe remain a mystery.  Current theories take us near the beginning, but not to it.  But working backward, we can get a sense of how things likely began.  And of course, when God saw this, God saw that it was good!  From the Big Bang we move forward in time and place, to the point where evolution of life begins and move toward a culmination on the seventh day.

            In Genesis, when we arrive at Day Seven, God rests.  Of course, scientific theory reminds us that the creative process continues to this day, so perhaps we’ve not yet reached the seventh day.  In Giberson’s vision, the seventh day goes like this:
Then God said, “Let the members of the species Homo sapiens grow to understand the meaning, power, and significance of love; let them understand the importance of right and wrong.  And let them burn with a deep spiritual hunger to know the God that created them and the world they inhabit.  Let them begin to understand the mystery of the Logos that lies at the heart of their existence” (p. 15).
In this version, Giberson closes not with science, but with theology.  He offers a vision of our eschatological destiny – where humanity discovers the power of love and truly knows God, so that in doing so Humanity discerns what lies at the heart of our existence.  In making this point, Giberson wants to bring into the conversation the role of religion or spirituality, which has defined human identity in one form or another. 

Karl Giberson is a deeply committed evangelically inclined Christian who accepts and teaches the fact of evolution.  I use the word fact here, because while there might be debates on the process, with few exceptions there is little doubt that humanity arose from a common ancestor.  What the author brings to this conversation, especially in light of his seventh day, is a call to rethink how we perceive evolution.  Many people of faith, especially Christians, seem appalled by the typical appellation applied to the evolution that progress is the result of the “survival of the fittest.”  By this, we usually think of might makes right, with the biggest and most powerful species winning the day.  But is this really the case.  The fossil record is full of examples of gigantic and powerful species, from T-Rex to the Sabertooths, who have fallen victim to extinction.  Their ability to rip and tear didn’t protect them, and ultimately smaller, more adaptable species took their place.  Instead of fitness being defined in terms of ability to rip and shred, Giberson suggests the power of love.  Maybe fitness is defined in terms of love of others.  Perhaps it is a survival strategy – from a purely scientific perspective.  He writes:  “Love simply helped the evolutionary process along and got built in.  It’s like fresh air and clean drinking water – things go better when you have some” (p. 162).  Of course, this is rather reductionist and incomplete.  Love is a much larger and powerful entity that this would suggest, but it does help us rethink the nature of evolution.  It gives us a place to consider how God might be involved in the process, how the Spirit of God might draw us forward toward experiencing the power of love.  

My hope is that this book will get a wide reading, especially among Christians who struggle to hold together their faith and their desire to learn the lessons of science.  I don’t know if the book will convince hard-nosed materialists, but they are small in number.  It’s the larger audience that needs to be addressed, the audience that when forced to choose will choose God over science.  Giberson offers us a way of being faithful to God and learn from science.  Then, perhaps people of faith will be ready to engage those who find it difficult to entertain the idea of a Creator.  

Capability and the Papacy

Whether or not we were surprised by Benedict XVI's recent letter of resignation, many of us have been fascinated by it.  Many have tried to figure out why, while others want to know what's next.  We've seen plenty of suggestions that ultimately leaving us asking:  "Is the Pope Catholic?"  That  is, many of us from outside the Catholic Church have been essentially inviting the next Pope to become an Episcopal Bishop at the very least.  Some of us have been interested enough in the whole question of resignation that we've looked back at the two previous instances, one demanded by a Council to end the Great Schism (1415) and the earlier one the result of a seemingly accidental Pope, feeling overwhelmed, who walks away (Celestine V).  [On Celestine V, Jon Sweeney's book The Pope Who Quit: A True Medieval Tale of Mystery, Death, and Salvation is an interesting read.]

One of the issues raised by Benedict's resignation, a decision that only a Pope (or apparently a Council) can make, is capability to govern.  Benedict has stated that he was no longer able to keep up with the demands of the office and needs to let a younger man (women need not apply) take over.  James Hoke offers an interesting analysis of this question in today's issue of Sightings.  I invite you to read and respond.


Martin Marty Center for the Advanced Study of Religion
The University of Chicago Divinity School
Sightings  2/22/2013

Capability and the Papacy
-- James N. Hoke
Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation on Monday, February 11, 2013, has raised many questions about papal qualifications. In a recent post on the blog Think Progress, researcher and writer Jack Jenkins has enumerated some recent trends in papal attributes, which include fluency in several languages, having reached at least a certain age, and sharing the views of their predecessor. At the same time, in reflecting on these trends, it is striking to notice the number of persons excluded from possible consideration for this position of great power and influence. For example, feminist theologian Mary E. Hunt has eloquently framed the issue of male exclusivity in the papal selection process alongside feminist strategies for managing the media’s coverage of this event. Like Hunt, I’m certainly not the first (nor the last) to voice frustration at the church’s exclusion of women from its priestly (and therefore papal) ranks. In the weeks and months that follow, this issue, along with concerns about global location, race, and social commitments (to name but a few), will continue to be raised with respect to the election of the next pope. But Benedict’s resignation—for the first time— also raises the question of ability: must the Pope remain physically and mentally able in order to serve? And if the answer is yes, then how does one determine what constitutes acceptable ability?           
In his resignation announcement, Benedict reasoned, “In today's world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith…both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months, has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me.” In rendering this decision, Benedict becomes the first pope to resign for reasons of illness and physical incapacity. The last pope to have resigned (over six hundred years ago) did so in the midst of the Great Schism; his resignation was based on political necessity for a divided church and had nothing to do with his age or his physical or mental capabilities. Benedict’s opinion on physical capability and the papacy contrasts with that of his predecessor, who continued in the position despite the visible evidence of his own physical deterioration. As an early analysis on the New Yorker’s blog pointed out, in continuing to appear before audiences, John Paul II took advantage of his aging and suffering image to garner sympathy and to show his own solidarity with “those who hurt.”           
Ross Douthat’s New York Times editorial speaks directly to the theological shifts implied by a papal resignation: as the church’s “spiritual father,” the pope submits to God’s will by remaining in this position until death. Furthermore, “the church is still supposed to be the church even when its human leadership isn’t at fighting trim, whether physically or intellectually or (for that matter) morally.” Douthat’s analysis begs a broader question: what qualifies (cap)ability in our modern era? Have modern notions of and demands for particular forms of capacity engendered a fear of our own bodies (an idea reflected in queer theorist Jasbir K. Puar’s current work) while simultaneously creating potentially problematic expectations for proper leadership?
On the one hand, Benedict’s resignation appears to concede to the demands of modernity that a leader must remain fully capable while maintaining her/his position. However, at the same time, it also potentially makes room for new conversation about the politics of (dis)ability and their relationship to ecclesial and political leadership. While the concerns of feminists and others (noted above) are necessary to state, this shift could further make space for addressing wider concerns about papal qualifications for the twenty-first century and beyond.


Davidson, Amy. “Pope Benedict’s Resignation and John Paul’s Suffering.” The New Yorker (blog).

Douthat, Ross. “The Pope Abdicates.” The New York Times (blog).

Hunt, Mary E. “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.” Feminist Studies in Religion (blog).

Jenkins, Jack. “5 Qualifications for the Next Pope.” Think Progress (blog).

Puar, Jasbir K. “Prognosis Time: Towards a Geopolitics of Affect, Debility, and Capacity.” Women & Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory 19.2 (2009): 161-172.

James N. Hoke is a Ph.D. student in New Testament and Early Christianity at Drew University’s Graduate Division of Religion, where he focuses on queer theory in and around Paul’s letters. He is a graduate of the University of Chicago’s M.Div. program.


Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center for the Advanced Study of Religion at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Becoming Citizens of Heaven -- A Lenten Lectionary Reflection

Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18

Philippians 3:14-4:1

Luke 13:31-35

Becoming Citizens of Heaven

            The Lenten journey reminds us that our ultimate allegiance lies beyond family, tribe or nation.  It’s an allegiance to the Creator of all things, the one who chooses to make covenants of blessings with us, inviting us to join in the creative process.  We can use many terms to describe this relationship of allegiance, but perhaps the words from Paul found in this week’s lectionary readings says it perfectly.  We are “Citizens of Heaven.”  Now, to be a citizen of heaven doesn’t mean we live with our heads in the clouds, with no concern for this world.  Instead, to be a citizen of Heaven is to live out of a different set of values.  We live with a divinely given set of values, values that express God’s love, mercy, and justice.  We acknowledge this reality each time we say the prayer Jesus taught the disciples, reciting these words:  “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is heaven.”    To live into this prayer, and affirm its values, means embracing a prophetic mantle that’s not easily taken up.  Consider that Jesus took it up, and he died.  Martin Luther King took it up, and he died.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer took it up, and he died.  Am I ready?  Are you ready? To take this journey defined by heavenly values?

            Our journey begins with the call of Abram, wherein God makes a covenant with Abram.  Unlike in Genesis 12, we don’t hear anything about Abram becoming a blessing to the nations, but we do hear a promise that God will make of one who is without children a great nation.  It is a story of trust.  God says: I’ve called you and I’m going to give you land.  Your children will be like the stars in the sky – beyond counting.  This version of the covenant story is likely told by the Yahwist, who seems to focus on the question of whether God can be trusted.  Abram (Abraham) asks the question we so often ask – how do I know you’ll do this?  In Abram’s case, the promise is a legacy, which involves progeny, and he knows very well that he’s childless, and that his heir is the household manager or chief of staff.  So, when he dies, it’s over.   Why then should he put his trust in God?  Ronald Reagan may not be my favorite politician, but he was right about one thing – it’s important to “trust, but verify.”  It’s not blind allegiance that we’re invited to give God.  We need some evidence – don’t we?  God tells Abram that he’ll receive the land where he’s currently dwelling as his own possession, and as a sign of faithfulness, God has Abram offer a sacrifice, and as the sun sets and darkness overwhelms the land, a fiery and smoking flame passes between the animals Abram had offered to God.  And then the Yahwist author of this passage writes:  “That day the LORD cut a covenant with Abram.” Now, Abram will eventually have a child – in fact he has at least two – one by Hagar and the other by Sarah.  But even at death, he hasn’t yet received the land.  This doesn’t deter the Yahwist, who has God say:  “To your descendants I give this land . . .”   Yes, sometimes the promise takes time to reach fulfillment, but the Yahwist makes it clear – God is faithful.

            If Genesis 15 reveals the faithfulness of God to the covenant, so that Abram receives his reward, in Philippians 3, Paul encourages us to pursue the “prize of God’s upward call in Christ Jesus.”  It’s a call to spiritual maturity that involves trusting God’s vision.  To do so means living in a particular way – that is living in a manner consistent with the level of our spiritual maturity.  We’re on a journey, and we’re at different points along the pathway.  But at each checkpoint there are expectations.  We should be growing in our maturity of faith, so that our faith reflects our citizenship in heaven.  Of course, Paul knows all too well that not everyone is willing to take this path.  There are, unfortunately, those whom he deems “enemies of the cross.”  These are folks whose attention is taken over by earthly or worldly things.  They let their passions rule, and by passions he means the pursuit of things that deny the righteousness or justice of God.  He speaks here of people whose god is their stomach.  As one who eats more than I need, I can take this in a very guilt-producing way (as can many others like me), but that’s really not the point.   The point is – do I live my life with values defined by the pursuit of material things?  Do I put things above people?   In contrast to this choice, we can instead seek after the ways of God, taking hold of our heavenly citizenship, looking to Christ, who “will transform our humble bodies so that they are like is glorious body, by the power that also makes him able to subject all things to himself.”  In other words this is an invitation to engage the world in ways the transform it, in the image of God’s values.  I realize that for some this can be a rather frightening prospect.  Too often religious people have imposed a set of values and ideas in ways that are coercive and destructive, but such is not the way of Jesus.  His way is non-coercive.  His way involves the cross.  His way is that of the suffering servant.  Like Bonhoeffer and King and many others, we are invited to participate with God in bringing together heaven and earth, so that love and justice might abound. 

            At this point in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus is busy with his ministry in Galilee.  He is teaching and healing and sowing the seeds of God’s reign.  In other words, he’s turning over the tables of empire by showing the people a different way of living, one that is free of injustice and full of God’s love and justice.  One who seems unhappy with this turn of events is Herod Antipas, the proxy ruler of Galilee.  Pharisees, who normally function as opponents, come to Jesus as friends and warn him of Herod’s rage.  He wants to kill you, so flee.  But Jesus is not deterred.  He will not flee.  Instead he tells them to report to “that fox” what he’s doing – throwing out demons and healing.  In somewhat cryptic language tells them that he’ll be doing this today, tomorrow, and then on the third day (obviously a reference to resurrection).  But it’s also a way of saying – my time is not yet up.  He’s making an assumption that his death won’t take place in Galilee – it will come when he enters Jerusalem.  That is where prophets go to die.

            Turning to Jerusalem – at least in attention if not movement toward – Jesus cries out in prayer for a city that kills the prophets and stones those whom God sends.  Then in an image that should arrest our attention, Jesus speaks of his love for the city, his desire to bring healing and safety to the city.  “How often I have wanted to gather your people just as a hen gathers her chicks under wings.  But you didn’t want that.” It’s important to note the feminine imagery of this passage.  It offers us an opportunity to broaden our perspective on the nature of God, which isn’t limited to our traditional masculine imagery, which in an ancient context is overly macho.  God is then distant and often warlike, but here God is pictured as a mother hen gathering he chicks, protecting them, caring for them.  Jesus is expressing God’s desire to be the protector of the city, only the city must receive this blessing.  Too often the city refuses – and to borrow from Augustine, by the city we mean “the city of man,” which Augustine contrasts with the “city of God.”  Though the city rejects the embrace, the time will come when the human city embraces the city of God and finds blessing there.  It's important to note that in Luke's Gospel, this statement is placed prior to Jesus' movement to Jerusalem.  The word concerning blessing seems to foretell the Triumphant Entry, for in Luke's recounting of the statement, Jesus says -- "you won't see me until the time comes when you say, 'Blessings on the one who comes in the name of the Lord."  There is a bit of prescience here, but Jesus is clearly (in Luke  looking forward to his eventual clash with the authorities, who cannot abide the presence of prophets.

            Because Jesus expresses concern for Jerusalem, which by the time Luke writes has been destroyed by Rome, perhaps it is appropriate for us to turn our attention to the cities of our world.  In our day, many cities, especially in the United States, are places of great despair.  There may be pockets of prosperity, but on the margins, especially in older rust-belt cities like Detroit, there is great poverty, fear, and a lack of justice.  What vision does Jesus have for our cities and towns?  What is our calling as the people of God with regard to the cities?  This is a word that applies, perhaps, most directly to those of us who live in the suburbs.  We benefit from some of the amenities of the city, but too often we have no real concern for the issues present there.  And at the same time, within the city there is often great resentment.  This is especially true of Detroit where the racial divide between city and suburbs has long been problematic.  So how do we engage?  How do we work together for justice?  This has been a question on my heart since my arrival in Michigan.  I quickly realized that there was tremendous disparity between city and suburb, and that there was great resentment as a result.  So how do we partner?  How do we live the dream offered our prophets?  One of the things we learn about Martin Luther King is that at least by then end of his brief yet powerful ministry, he understood that civil rights was only part of the package.  If we are to create what he called the “Beloved Community,” we must seek to bring an end to racial discrimination, poverty, and militarism.”  And while he seems to have missed the point of gender equality, we can in fulfillment of that prophetic dream bring to the fore that part of the equation.  And today, we understand more fully the need to bring equality for those whose sexual orientation isn’t heterosexual. 

Jesus says – you won’t see me until you can say “Blessings on the one who comes in the Lord’s name.”  Now is the time to share the blessings.  Now is the time to live into the promise of the heavenly realm.  Now is the time to live out of the values of God’s realm, so that justice and peace and love might reign on earth as it does in heaven.