Friday, December 29, 2017

Transforming Communities (Sandhya Rani Jha) - A Review

TRANSFORMING COMMUNITIES: How People Like You Are Healing Their Neighborhoods. By Sandhya Rani Jha. St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2017. 144 pages.

                Government has a significant role to play in creating a just, safe, and productive community, where everyone is included in the benefits of community. However, government cannot do it all. There is need for grassroots community efforts, and religious communities play a significant role in creating communities of healing and justice. Every faith community has gifts and resources to contribute, no matter how large or how small they might be. Indeed, a community of fifteen parishioners could be the catalyst for something rather powerful. The question is, will we hear the call and respond?

Perhaps what is needed are stories of ways in which faith communities have stepped into the gap. Before we get to the how to, there is need to see what is possible. Sandhya Jha is just that kind of story-teller. She is a Disciples of Christ minister (my denomination) and currently serves as Executive Director of the Oakland Peace Center, and effort that emerged out of First Christian Church of Oakland, which had about fifteen members, and which Sandhya served as pastor. This ministry, which provides space for some ninety community organizations that serve Oakland’s diverse community and its needs, is itself an illustration of what can happen with a bit of imagination and divine inspiration. This effort reflects Sandhya’s commitment to community service and the pursuit of justice. She has spent many years involved in various forms of community organizing, including a form known as "faith-rooted organizing." She believes that the needs of our communities require a commitment that will likely take fifty years to accomplish, so there is no time to waste. While there is a place for protests, which she has engaged in, they are not, she believes, sufficient. For progress to be truly made, communities themselves will need to take the lead. She believes that they have the skills and wisdom to do this, but there is need for regular people to discern those skills, and then find ways to implement them to solve issues in that are specific to those communities. 

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Fierce (Alice Connor) -- A Review

FIERCE: Women of theBible and Their Stories of Violence, Mercy, Bravery, Wisdom, Sex, and Salvation. By Alice Connor. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2017. Xii + 182 pages.

Men figure prominently in the biblical story. Yes, there are women who appear in the story, but the figures who come to mind most often are Abraham, Moses, Jesus, Peter, and Paul. Women play supporting roles—important yes, just not A list important. More than likely, when women come to mind, it is because they play the role of temptress (like Eve or perhaps Rahab and Tamar). But even in the cases of Rahab and Tamar, do we stop to think about why these women are forced to take up these roles. Sometimes, as with Mary Magdalene, it is tradition that turns them into sinners. So, here’s the thing—does the word “fierce” come to mind when you think of biblical women? If not, then I have a surprise for you. There is a new book that emphasizes the fierceness of some of the very women I’ve already mentioned. What is needed is a person who can read outside the box and retell the biblical stories in ways that lift up often ignored qualities. The subtitle of Fierce, a book by Alice Connor, gives us insight into what such stories might involve: “Women of the Bible and their stories of violence, mercy, bravery, wisdom, sex, and salvation.”

The stories of biblical women come to life in the hands of Alice Walker, an Episcopal priest and campus minister. She retells stories we may have read or may have glossed over as we move through scripture, assuming that these figures are secondary, background characters, whose role it is to enhance the reputations of the men. What we find are women who are strong and vital and purposeful, even as they often face hardships. Alice Connor demonstrates an ability to bring characters to life. I thought of using the word "hip" to describe her portrayal of women who range from Mary Theotokos (her term for Mary the mother of Jesus, referencing the creedal confession of Mary’s status) to Hagar (the throwaway wife, whose cries are heard by God). While at times her style can be described as hip, I think a better way of describing her style is “edgy.” There is a sharpness to the portrayals that cuts through traditional wrappings. Connor reminds us that the women of the Bible are not two-dimensional. She reminds us that there are multiple ways of reading and encountering these stories. The way she chooses to approach the stories is “through the lenses of slavery, poverty, disaster, sexual minority, and disability, as well as discovery, connection, and joy” (p. 4). Just to be clear, this book is not written with just women in mind. These are stories men should encounter as well. She writes of the feminist voice, “in reality, it’s about recognizing our common humanity—men, women, transpeople, everyone—and not just allowing by delighting in stories where women do awesome things (I’m looking at you, Mad Max: Fury Road)” (p. 5).  

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Unafraid (Benjamin Corey) - A Review

UNAFRAID: Moving Beyond Fear Based Faith. By Benjamin L. Corey. San Francisco: Harper One, 2017. 227 pages.

                You have heard it said: "Put the fear of God in him (or her)." Unfortunately (in my estimation), Christians have often used scare tactics to gain converts or enforce social norms. While parents will put the “fear of God” in their children to get them to behave (or tell them Santa is watching to see if they’re naughty or nice), religious communities have been known to evangelize non-believers with a message of: "If you don't believe in Jesus then God will send you to hell, where you will burn forever." One must ask whether this is a wise course of action. Is it in accord with the way we see God? That is, if we believe that God is love, is this something God would do simply because one is unable or even unwilling to make a confession of faith in Jesus?

Benjamin Corey, the author of the book under review, notes that many Christians expressed outrage when they encountered reports of ISIS militants burning alive a Jordanian pilot whose plane had been shot down. Yet, many of these same Christians had no problem believing that God would do much the same thing to this same pilot because he was not a Christian. Corey writes that "if the theology of hell is correct, God is like an ISIS terrorist—but like one on steroids" (p. 2). I doubt there are many Christians who wish to see God in the guise of an ISIS terrorist. Yet, many view God as being willing to light unbelievers on fire for eternity. So, as Corey asks of us, is this vision of God in line with the message of Jesus? This isn’t a question about divine wrath. It’s about divine intention. Another way of putting this concerns the biblical revelation that perfect love casts out fear. Therefore, if God is love, then how can the fear of God be in us?

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

An American Conscience (Jeremy Sabella) -- A Review

AN AMERICAN CONSCIENCE:The Reinhold Niebuhr Story. By Jeremy L. Sabella. Foreword by Robin W. Lovin. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2017. Xvi + 153 pages.

Edgar DeWitt Jones was Reinhold Niebuhr's colleague from 1920 to 1928, as Niebuhr served as pastor of Bethel Evangelical Church. During their eight years serving in the same city, Jones got to know Niebuhr first hand. Jones founded the church I now serve as pastor and wrote a book about American preachers of his day, among whom he numbered Niebuhr. He notes that "Niebuhr claims to be a 'tamed cynic,' but he is neither cynical nor tame. He is one of the few shining intellectuals among the preachers of America who are both radical and deeply religious" [American Preachers of Today: Intimate Portrayals of Thirty-Two Leaders, (Bobbs-Merrill, Co., 1933), p. 249]. Niebuhr came to Detroit as a young man, fresh out of seminary, called to serve a small German Evangelical Church, which exploded under his leadership, even though he took on the powers of Detroit, including Henry Ford himself. From Detroit, Niebuhr went on to become one of America's great intellectual figures, as well as a major leader within the religious community. Jones' description is apt, for he was both radical (at least in the earliest phase of his ministry) and deeply religious. There were few religious leaders that were his equal.

This book, written by historian Jeremy Sabella serves as a companion to the excellent PBS documentary of the same title (Martin Doblmeier was the director of that film). Sabella tells in rather brief form the story of Niebuhr's life and of his influence on the world in which he lived. Sabella makes use of written resources, both those of Niebuhr and those of his interpreters and biographers. He also taps into the interviews that formed the documentary. Thus, we hear from persons ranging from Cornel West to Jimmy Carter. 

Monday, December 25, 2017

O Come All Ye Faithful! - A Song for Christmas Day

It is Christmas Day. If this is for you a day of celebration of the coming of Jesus into the world, as is true for me, may the day be blessed. May the day be blessed for all, whom God calls children. In honor of the day, I share this video of the Celtic Women singing "O Come All Ye Faithful.

May the day be blessed as God is glorified in the message that we have been visited by God in the person of Jesus, born in Bethlehem, as Scripture records.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Wonderful News - A Meditation for Christmas Eve

Rembrandt, "The Visitation, (DIA)

Luke 2:1-20

Charlie Brown always struggles with holidays. This is especially true of Christmas. One Christmas, since he was feeling rather blue, he went to Lucy’s psychiatrist booth for advice. Lucy decided to work through a list of phobias, to see if he was afraid of something.  When she  came to pantophobia, which she defined as the “fear of everything,” Charlie Brown shouted out: “That’s it.” Yes, Charlie Brown is afraid of everything. After Lucy got up from the ground, she came up with an idea—Charlie Brown needed a job. She decided he should direct the Christmas play. As you may remember, this didn’t go well. When he got to the auditorium, he gathered the cast and crew, handed out parts, and gave directions. Unfortunately, no one paid attention to him, because they were more interested in dancing than practicing. Since that wasn’t going well, Lucy decided to send Charlie Brown off to find a Christmas tree. When they got to the lot, Charlie Brown picked out a rather small and forlorn tree, even though Linus advised against the choice. When they returned to the auditorium with the tree, everyone broke out in laughter. This left Charlie Brown feeling even worse. Finally, in desperation, he cried out: “Can anyone tell me what Christmas is all about?” 

I imagine that many people are asking this very question. The season can be jolly for some and sad for others. There are many Charlie Browns in our midst, for whom there is no “merry” in Christmas. So, what is Christmas all about? 

Glory Be to God - A Sermon for Advent 4B

Romans 16:25-27

According to Luke’s Gospel, angels appeared in the sky near Bethlehem on the day of Jesus’ birth. With only shepherds and their sheep in attendance, the angels sang: “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors” (Lk 2:14). The angels sang this song of praise to God, because this child would be the messenger of peace and divine favor to all of creation. 

According to the church calendar, we must wait a little longer before we can hear the angelic chorus. Although we stand at the eve of Christmas, we gather this morning to celebrate the Fourth Sunday of Advent. This is one of those strange years, when we light the fourth candle of Advent and the Christ Candle on the same day. We have already lit the fourth candle, which symbolizes love, and soon we’ll light the last candle, which gives off the light of God’s glory revealed to us in Emmanuel, the one born in Bethlehem. The four Advent candles, which we have already lit, invite us to live as God’s people in hope, peace, joy, and love. These are the qualities that mark the Christian life at its best. 

Friday, December 22, 2017

War and Religion (Edgar Dewitt Jones)

What follows is an article posted by Edgar Dewitt Jones, once the pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). I now serve that church, though it exists in a different location. Jones was an important figure among the Disciples in the first half of the 20th century. From my reading of him, his heart was tuned to the call to peace, but he also found himself supporting in one way or another the American war effort in both World Wars, though by World War II he was much more circumspect. I was going through a box of his columns (he wrote a daily column for many years for the Detroit News titled "Successful Living,"), and found this one, which I think makes some sense. It was written during World War II (the clippings are not dated, but I'm guessing in 1943). I invite you to ponder his words:


An eminent prelate in Germany describes the churches there as crowded with worshipers and cites this as one evidence of a return to religion. Other observers have said practically the same thing and predicted a world-wide revival following the war. 

Like predictions were made during the first World War, but failed to come true. It is natural when war is in progress and so many human beings are slain, wounded, and missing, that anxious relatives and friends resort to religious services. It would be strange if it were otherwise. 

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Charities Feel Christmas Fear -- Sightings (Martin Marty)

Congress passed its tax cut bill yesterday and the President signed it. So, it's now law. Whatever its merits or demerits, one question raised by the bill relates to charitable giving. The bill doesn't get rid of it, but with the change in deduction (doubling it), there may be less incentive to itemize, which might lead to less incentive to give to charities. We must wait to see. My sense is that very few people give to churches for the tax deduction, but that may be less true of other charities -- like Public Radio or the local art museum. In any case, Martin Marty ruminates on the possible implications in this end of the year Sightings column. I invite you to respond, but I would ask that if you do respond that you stick to the question of charitable giving and not on the merits of the tax bill as a whole. There is a time and place for that, but this isn't it. The point here is what causes one to give to charities? I will note that in my case, most of our charitable giving goes to the church I serve, and the tax implications are irrelevant to that. 

Email us
Charities Feel Christmas Fear
By MARTIN E. MARTY   December 18, 2017
Photo Credit: Ken Teegardin/Flickr (cc)
“Charities Fear Tax Bill Will Cut Giving” is the kind of headline leaders of churches and charities hate to read about trends that they don’t like to face, as face they must. The subhead in a story reflecting on the current tax bill in The New York Times does not point to the more profound reasons for “making a donation,” but it is realistic. Most believers and “doers” who give to charities and churches do so out of commitment to a faith and its institutions and services, and with an ear and an eye for stories of need that they hear about and see. Better than that, many millions of citizens lead on the giving front, no matter what government does. How much do they lead?

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

The Letter to Philemon (Scot McKnight) - A Review

THE LETTER TO PHILEMON (The New International Commentary on the New Testament). By Scot McKnight. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2017. Xxxii + 127 pages.

                Slavery is America’s original sin. That is the verdict of our time. If slavery is America’s original sin, its perpetuation in this land for some three hundred years was abetted by readings of Scripture. In the modern age those interpretations have been contested. Many have argued that a passage like Galatians 3:28, which suggests that in Christ one is neither slave nor free is a signal that slavery did not align with the message of the Gospel. Indeed, Jesus is recorded as declaring that part of his own call to ministry included setting the oppressed free (Luke 4:18). Thus, while slavery was rampant in the first century, the seeds of its demise was embedded within the Gospel. Though one must admit that there are other messages, in places like Ephesians and 1 Peter that tell slaves to submit to their masters. What should we make of these words? As we ponder the issue of slavery in the Bible, the brief letter of Paul to Philemon stands out as a test case as to whether Paul embraced a truly liberating Gospel, not only for the life to come, but in this life as well.

                Philemon takes up one brief chapter—twenty-five verses in all. I was intrigued with the fact that Eerdmans would publish an entire commentary focused on these twenty-five verses. How does one devote so many pages to so few verses? The answer is found in Scot McKnight’s contribution to The New International Commentary of the New Testament. This is a venerable commentary series that has featured important Evangelical scholars including F.F. Bruce began its life in 1946, though few of the early commentaries remain in the series, with a substantial number having been replaced with newer volumes. I don’t remember there being a commentary on Philemon in the set I purchased in the 1980s, and there isn’t one listed in the bibliography, so this is not a replacement volume, but the first contribution on this letter to be published in this series.  

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

The Eternal Throne -- Lectionary Reflection for Advent 4 B (2 Samuel)

2 Samuel 7:1-16 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
Now when the king was settled in his house, and the Lord had given him rest from all his enemies around him, the king said to the prophet Nathan, “See now, I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent.” Nathan said to the king, “Go, do all that you have in mind; for the Lord is with you.” 
But that same night the word of the Lord came to Nathan: Go and tell my servant David: Thus says the Lord: Are you the one to build me a house to live in? I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle. Wherever I have moved about among all the people of Israel, did I ever speak a word with any of the tribal leaders of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, “Why have you not built me a house of cedar?” Now therefore thus you shall say to my servant David: Thus says the Lord of hosts: I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep to be prince over my people Israel; and I have been with you wherever you went, and have cut off all your enemies from before you; and I will make for you a great name, like the name of the great ones of the earth. 10 And I will appoint a place for my people Israel and will plant them, so that they may live in their own place, and be disturbed no more; and evildoers shall afflict them no more, as formerly, 11 from the time that I appointed judges over my people Israel; and I will give you rest from all your enemies. Moreover the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house. 12 When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. 13 He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. 14 I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me. When he commits iniquity, I will punish him with a rod such as mortals use, with blows inflicted by human beings. 15 But I will not take my steadfast love from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away from before you. 16 Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever.

                Advent closes with a reminder of the Christian confession concerning Jesus’ lineage, that he is David’s son and that his realm will be established forever. As I have noted in earlier posts, as well as in my Advent sermons, this is a season of waiting. The season speaks in two voices, one concerning events of the past (the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem) and one that is yet to come (the full establishment of God’s realm). In other words, Advent takes on an eschatological tone. It’s not an Armageddon-like vision, necessarily, but it is forward looking. That which is, is not all that will be. When we look to the Hebrew Bible for inspiration during this season, looking for Jesus in texts that originally spoke to other concerns, we must always keep in mind that our appropriation of text should not undermine other readings, especially Jewish readings that do not include Jesus. But, in the spirit of Advent, we will seek to hear a word about Jesus in these texts from the Hebrew Bible.  

Monday, December 18, 2017

Table Talk (Mike Graves) - Review

TABLE TALK: Rethinking Communion and CommunityBy Mike Graves. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2017. Ix + 163 pages.

I am an ordained minister within a denomination that practices weekly communion. I'm not sure everyone is on the same page as to why we do this, but most Disciples of Christ church members, at least long-termers, cannot conceive of a worship service without communion being eaten. So, on any given Sunday those who gather at Disciples churches will share in communion, which will likely consist of a morsel of bread, along with a thimble-sized cup of juice. Most likely, this will be undertaken with a high degree of solemnity, for we gather to remember that Jesus died for our sins. The moment is somber and quiet, perhaps with the organ accompanying our meditation. This might be typical for Christians, but is it true to the earliest Christian practices? Might there be reason to restore a different form of communion, one that includes a full meal, and might even be presided over by lay people (and not just Elders as in the Disciples tradition)?

One who would like the churches to reconsider current practice and explore the possibilities of restoring a more ancient form of breaking bread at Table is Mike Graves, a professor preaching and worship, and a Disciple minister who is on the staff of a large Disciples congregation. When I first met Mike some twenty years ago, he was a Baptist minister and professor at a Baptist seminary. As time passed, Mike came to see the Lord's Supper as a central act of worship, and eventually moved from Baptist to Disciple (and from a Baptist to a United Methodist seminary). While that move allowed Mike to experience weekly communion, his journey toward a fuller experience of the Table has pushed him beyond what is typical Disciples practice, at least conceptually. As he explored the meaning and practice related to this sacrament, he began to discover that that this morsel of bread and thimble sized cup of juice was a far cry from what early Christian practice. He also sensed that the memorialism of Disciples practice (as was also true of the less frequent Baptist observance) might not be the only way of understanding the Table. He began reading about ancient Graeco-Roman dining practices, and wondered if early Christians followed these practices. He looked for connections in the text of the New Testament, and discovered that early Christians did in fact gather for full meals. At the same time, Mike discovered a new movement of churches focused on gathering at Tables for worship, fellowship, and conversation—much like the descriptions he was finding in historical texts. Might this Dinner Church movement offer a new avenue into Christian worship?

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Give Thanks Continually - Sermon for Advent 3B

1 Thessalonians 5:12-28

We have reached the Third Sunday of Advent. We have lit the rose-colored candle, which symbolizes the message of joy. The Psalm for the day declares that “The Lord has done great things for us, and we rejoiced.” Then in the closing verses of the Psalm, the people sing: “May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy. Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves” (Psalm 126:5-6).

As we gather to celebrate this message of Joy, we hear the words of Paul to the church at Thessalonika. If you want to get a sense of what the church looked like in its earliest days, this letter to a Macedonian church is a good place to go, since this is believed to be the oldest part of the New Testament. What we have read are Paul’s final exhortations and benediction. There’s a flurry of information here that can overwhelm the reader and leave the preacher puzzled as to how to deal with it. Fortunately for this preacher, there are a couple of phrases that lend themselves to an old style of preaching. Preachers fondly refer to this style as “three points and a poem.”

Friday, December 15, 2017

Disciples of Christ Gathered at Table - A Theological Reflection

Having laid out a view of Disciples and Baptism, I turn to the second sacrament (ordinance), that of the Eucharist/Lord's Supper/Breaking of Bread/Holy Communion. With this contribution I will conclude my conversation about the Sacraments. While not all Disciples affirm the nomenclature of sacrament, I feel it is the most appropriate description, and one we share with the larger ecumenical community. 


The Lord's Supper

            If Baptism is understood to be the starting point for the Christian journey, the Lord’s Supper or Eucharist is that rite that nourishes the disciple along the journey of faith. While baptism initiates one into the covenant community, when the community gathers at the Table the covenant is renewed. The Table is a place where the family gathers, but it is also a place of hospitality where the nations are invited to share in table fellowship. Although this act of worship is called by a variety of names, each name helps define what happens at Table. Thus, we gather to remember the life and ministry, the death and resurrection of Jesus, but we also gather to share in fellowship with Christ whose presence is revealed to us in breaking of bread (Luke 24:28-34). As Alexander Campbell affirms in a posting in the Millennial Harbinger near the end of his life: “in the Lord’s supper especially does God commune with his sons and daughters, and they with him. This, to the living Christian, is a banquet of love” (Compend of Alexander Campbell’s Theology, p. 186). Thus, this is not simply a somber meal of remembrance, but a joyous banquet.  

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Disciples of Christ and Baptism - A Reflection

 In my previous post I spoke of Disciples sacramental thinking, noting the discomfort with the word sacrament and thus the choice of the word ordinance. Alexander Campbell chose the word ordinance to indicate that Jesus had ordained these two practices as means by which God’s grace was conferred to believers. Campbell could speak of the “ordinances” as being “pregnant institutions filled with the grace of God.” He spoke of baptism as being filled with “special grace” [Royal Humbert, ed., Compend of Alexander Campbell’s Theology, (Bethany Press, 1961), p. 183]. I would agree with Mark Toulouse who notes that Campbell’s use of ordinance rather than sacrament was “more a semantic change than a substantive one.” Unfortunately, over time Disciples, as Mark notes, lost this sense of the “ordinances” serving as means of grace, but Campbell’s understanding of these two signs was reflective of Reformed thinking, and the Westminster Confession “used the word ordinance interchangeable with the word sacrament” [Joined in Discipleship, rev. ed., (Chalice Press, 1997), p. 138].

          With this introduction we will now explore in some depth first Baptism and then Lord’s Supper in a separate post). 

Sacramental Motifs in Early Christian Thought

Before we turn to Disciples thinking about Baptism, it would be helpful to take note of some of the important images used by early Christians to Describe what occurs in Baptism.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

The Disciples of Christ and the Sacraments -- Initial Comments

Note: This post is a continuation of exploration of theology from within the context of the Stone-Campbell Movement/Disciples of Christ. 
            The church is a body that is marked by its sacraments and rituals—two of which have become preeminent within Protestantism: Baptism and the Eucharist. The Stone-Campbell Movement, of which the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) is a branch, have placed great emphasis on these two sacraments, though by tradition that have been referred to as ordinances rather than sacraments. The word sacrament was seen as non-biblical and carried baggage of tradition that early Disciples like Alexander Campbell sought avoid. Nonetheless much of the Christian community speaks of these two elements of Christian experience as Sacraments.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Good News of God’s Favor - Lectionary Reflection for Advent 3B (Isaiah 61).

61 The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
    because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
    to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
    and release to the prisoners;
2 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
    and the day of vengeance of our God;
    to comfort all who mourn;
3 to provide for those who mourn in Zion—
    to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
    the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
    the planting of the Lord, to display his glory.
4 They shall build up the ancient ruins,
    they shall raise up the former devastations;
they shall repair the ruined cities,
    the devastations of many generations.

8 For I the Lord love justice,
    I hate robbery and wrongdoing;
I will faithfully give them their recompense,
    and I will make an everlasting covenant with them.
9 Their descendants shall be known among the nations,
    and their offspring among the peoples;
all who see them shall acknowledge
    that they are a people whom the Lord has blessed.
10 I will greatly rejoice in the Lord,
    my whole being shall exult in my God;
for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation,
    he has covered me with the robe of righteousness,
as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland,
    and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
11 For as the earth brings forth its shoots,
    and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up,
so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise
    to spring up before all the nations.

                We have arrived at the Third Sunday of Advent. This brief and often neglected season has reached its midpoint. Soon, we will gather to celebrate the birth of the one Christians call the Christ, the one who incarnates God to the world. The reading from Isaiah 61 will likely resonate with followers of Jesus, who hear in it Jesus’ own sense of calling. It was early in his ministry, after baptism and temptation, that Jesus returned home to Nazareth and took an opportunity to preach in the synagogue. Having read this very passage, Jesus applied it to himself. Although the hometown folks did not respond well to his proclamation of himself as fulfillment of the word of Isaiah, we who are Christians have looked to it to understand Jesus’ own sense of call (Luke 4:16-30).

Monday, December 11, 2017

Awaiting the King (James K. A. Smith) -- A Review

AWAITING THE KING: Reforming Public Theology. (Cultural Liturgies, Volume 3). By James K. A. Smith.  Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017. Xvii + 233 pages.

                Preachers are cautioned to steer clear of politics. Not only is there the issue of tax exempt status, but going political can cause dissension in the congregation. Stick to religion and stay out of politics. The only problem with this advice is that the biblical story is very political. Jesus himself was executed as political figure. The Romans didn't care about the intricacies of Jewish theology, but they did pay attention to talk about alternative kingdoms and kings not on their payroll. So, Pilate had Jesus executed. Then there are the prophets of Israel, who often stepped on the toes of the political establishment. Politics and religion have long been connected for as long as there has been human history, even if the relationship is often tenuous. This leads us to the book under review, James K. A. Smith’s Awaiting the King, the third volume of his Cultural Liturgies project. It is, as the subtitle claims, an attempt to reform public theology (by public he means more than simply the state, though he does include the state within those parameters).

I approached this book with a degree of eagerness. For one thing, I am very interested in public theology (having written a book titled Faith in the Public Square and having been actively engaged in public life as a pastor). Although I hadn't read the first two volumes in this series, I did read his book You Are What You Love, which is a more popular version of the earlier volumes. The point of that book, which I read and enjoyed, was this—we are what we worship. That is, liturgies help form us, whether they're Christian or secular (thus the liturgies of the mall or sports have an important formational effect on us.) Now that I’ve finished reading Awaiting the King, I’m ambivalent about its message. This may have to do with differing spiritual/theological inclinations on my part. I'm not evangelical in the current sense of the word, nor am I Reformed in the way that Smith is? In other words, I lean more toward Reinhold Niebuhr than to Abraham Kuyper. And for those who do not know James K. A. Smith, he is professor of philosophy at Calvin College, holding the Gary and Henrietta Byker Chair in Applied Reformed Theology and Worldview, and a confessed admirer of the Dutch politician/theology Abraham Kuyper. He is also a fellow of Cardus, a Canadian Christian think tank apparently interested in changing Canada’s “social architecture.”

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Divine Patience - A Sermon for Advent 2B

2 Peter 3:8-15

If you’ve been out Christmas shopping, you may have found yourself standing in long lines. The same might be true at the Post Office. When it comes to calling customer service or tech support, time may slow down to a crawl. The occasional reminder that a representative will answer as soon as possible doesn’t make the wait any easier. So, what should you do while you wait? How do you keep yourself occupied, when half an hour seems like a day? Having a smart phone may prove helpful, at least while waiting in a line at the store or the post office. At least I can check Facebook and Twitter, and if the line is too long, I can open a book on my Kindle app.  But, what if you’re waiting for God to act?  

This season of Advent is by definition a season of waiting. We pray “O come, o come Emmanuel and ransom captive Israel.” Each year we sing these words of expectation, while waiting for Emmanuel to be fully revealed to us, not as a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes, but as the returning king. We sing: “Desire of nations bind all peoples in one heart and mind” and “bid envy, strife, and quarrels cease.” Today, on Peace Sunday, we offer this prayer, longing for the time when the world will be filled with “heaven’s peace.”

Saturday, December 09, 2017

What is "Essential Kenosis"?

How should we understand how God interacts with creation? Is God all powerful, and therefore able to do anything God desires? Are there limitations, even if self-generated limitations? In other words, does Gods' character define how God engages creation? In the view of Thomas Jay Oord, any conversation about the actions of God must be understood in the context of God's "uncontrolling love." Tom explores this concept in his book The Uncontrolling Love of God: An Open and Relational Account of Providence (IVP Academic, 2015). He then invited a number of people including scholars and pastors and lay persons to respond. Those responses appear in the book Uncontrolling Love: Essays Exploring the Love of God with Introductions by Thomas Jay Oord, (SacraSage Press, 2017). [Note: the cost of the paperback has been lowered from 24.95 to 11:95 on Amazon until Christmas Eve]. I contributed one of the essays to that book.  Now, as part of an effort to broaden the conversation about the "uncontrolling love of God," Tom, who is a theologian teaching at Northwest Nazarene University, has produced a brief video describing what he calls "essential kenosis." I'd like to invite you to view it, reflect on it, and hopefully respond here with your thoughts. Is this an understanding of God's nature and God's relationship to creation that makes sense? How does this understanding of God who is love invite us to participate in the work of God and empower us for that work? 

Thursday, December 07, 2017

Disciples Ecclesiology -- Part Two: Marks of the Church

            The New Testament uses several images to describe the church. One of the most compelling is Paul’s description of the church as the “body of Christ.” Other important descriptors include vine and branches, bride, and family. Regarding the body of Christ, Paul reminds us that there is but one body, with many members, each with its own purpose/gift (1 Cor. 12). As Alexander Campbell, remarked in the Millennial Harbinger, “all Christian communities to stand to each other as individual members in the human body stand to each other in giving or receiving pleasure or pain, . . . honor or dishonor” [Royal Humbert, Compend of Alexander Campbell’s Theology, (Bethany Press, 1961), p. 160].

While biblical images have important power in illuminating our understanding of the church, historically the church/churches have affirmed four marks of a true church. Four markers that are named in the historic creeds that one should look for in determining whether a church stands in line with the historic traditions. While the Disciples are historically a non-creedal tradition, it is worth spending some time considering these four marks, which according to the Nicene Creed, perhaps the most authoritative of the historic ecumenical creeds, affirm the existence of “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.” Exploring each of these statements in brief can help us consider who we are as church.  

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

A Disciples Ecclesiology: The Nature of the Church

Pulpit in Cane Ridge Meeting House
Note: This post is a continuation of my Disciples Theology series. This will be the first of two on ecclesiology.  

            Ecclesiology plays a significant role in Disciples theology. Our divisions as a tradition have often been rooted in differences in understanding about how close contemporary churches should come to the earliest forms of church. There has been a tendency in at least parts of our tradition to read the Book of Acts as providing a blue print that must be restored if the church is to be truly Christian. In the next few reflections I’d like us to think more deeply about what it means to be church. Standing at the heart of this conversation is the question of whether the church is simply a human institution or more than simply a human institution? Is polity, the way we organize ourselves a matter of indifference, or is there something inherently spiritual to the way we organize ourselves? Another element inherent in the conversation is whether the church can be separated from the institutions that embody it. That is, the church as an institution increasingly irrelevant to the life of the Christian, or is the community (with all its institutions) a space where the Holy Spirit is at work? 

            If we’re going to explore the nature of church, it might help to define some terms, including the most common Greek word used the New Testament in reference to the church. That word is ekklesia, which at its simplest means "called out ones."  In the Septuagint ekklesia is used to translate the Hebrew words edhah and qahal, both of which refer to an assembly of people, especially an "assembly of the Lord." In the New Testament, it typically refers to congregations of Christians gathered in particular places for worship (1 Cor. 11:18; 14:19), or prayer and instruction (Acts 11:26; 12:5; 1 Cor. 14:4-5, 28, 34-35). However, at times the word is used in reference to larger groups of Christians, such as the church in a city—for example, the church of the Thessalonians (1 Thess. 1:1; 2 Thess. 1:1). In the plural it is used for churches in a province such as the church of Galatia (Gal. 1:2) or Judea (Gal 1:22).  It is even used to speak of Christians living in a wider region such as such as Asia (1 Cor. 16:19; Rev. 1:4, 11). Even more broadly it can speak of the "churches of Christ" (Rom. 16:16).

Tuesday, December 05, 2017

The Glory of God Revealed - Lectionary Reflection for Advent 2B (Isaiah 40)

Isaiah 40:1-11 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

40 Comfort, O comfort my people,
    says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
    and cry to her
that she has served her term,
    that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
    double for all her sins.
A voice cries out:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
    make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
    and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
    and the rough places a plain.
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
    and all people shall see it together,
    for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
A voice says, “Cry out!”
    And I said, “What shall I cry?”
All people are grass,
    their constancy is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
    when the breath of the Lord blows upon it;
    surely the people are grass.
The grass withers, the flower fades;
    but the word of our God will stand forever.
Get you up to a high mountain,
    O Zion, herald of good tidings;
lift up your voice with strength,
    O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings,
    lift it up, do not fear;
say to the cities of Judah,
    “Here is your God!”
10 See, the Lord God comes with might,
    and his arm rules for him;
his reward is with him,
    and his recompense before him.
11 He will feed his flock like a shepherd;
    he will gather the lambs in his arms,
and carry them in his bosom,
    and gently lead the mother sheep.


                Second Isaiah speaks words of comfort to Israel, promising that its time of exile is coming to an end. Israel served its term and the penalty has been paid. This is, the prophet declares, a day of new beginnings. So, it is time then to prepare away in the wilderness for the glory of God to come and be revealed.

Monday, December 04, 2017

Fearless Dialogues (Gregory C. Ellison II) -- A Review

FEARLESS DIALOGUES:  A New Movement for Justice. By Gregory C. Ellison II. Foreword by Parker J. Palmer.  Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017. Xiii + 170 pages.

                We live in a polarized age, where productive and transformative conversation rarely occurs. We seem more at home talking within our silos. We may feel better about ourselves being on the correct side of the issue, but we nothing really changes. In part this lack of conversation is due to a fear of the other, including the stranger. We have, apparently, learned too well the warning of our parents, that we should not talk to strangers. But change and transformation, will require a willingness to sit down with the stranger and with the person with whom we do not share common perspectives. It will require an ability to listen, and pay attention to people who get lost in the crowd, allowing them to speak for themselves. To get there, we need wise guidance and a process that will remove boundaries and move toward justice in the land. Such a process is available to us in the form of “Fearless Dialogues,” a program developed by Gregory Ellison, the author of this particular book, which introduces us to this process, by which we can extend radical hospitality in transformative ways.

                The author of this book, Gregory Ellison, is professor of pastoral care and counseling at Candler School of Theology. Writing from both his professional foundations and from personal experience, he introduces us to "Fearless Dialogues," a program/methodology that he developed after watching and participating in conversations that ended in frustration, and the participants no better off. This program is, according to Ellison, a "grassroots nonprofit initiative committed to creating unique spaces for unlikely partners to engage in hard heartfelt conversations that see gifts in others, hear value in stories, and work for change and positive transformation in self and other" (p. 6). The key is overcoming fear through "lessness." That is, through a "posture of humility, perceptiveness, and intention not to lord power over others." (p. 7). There are three pillars to this process: see, hear, and change. With these pillars comes the recognition that "purposeful engagement and sustained change are not possible while community partners remain unseen and unheard" (p. 12). This point is important to understanding Ellison’s rationale for the program and to its success. Throughout the book, Ellison speaks to the need for unheard voices to be heard. He tells personal stories about what it feels like to be ignored or have one’s ideas not taken seriously, even though another might be lauded for sharing the same ideas. We all know that there are persons ready and willing to engage in conversation and who then dominate the conversation. Look at any group event. Who is doing most of the talking? Who is silent? Are there people who want to enter in, but who can’t get any one to notice them? This process is designed to overcome that problem so that more voices can be heard, and change becomes possible.