Friday, July 28, 2006

Book Notes

This is a call for contributions -- with a special challenge to my theological colleagues in the Twin Cities and environs.

Pontificator has a book thing going over at his blog. He asks questions about favorites, etc. (I'm not quite sure what a "meme" is, but this seems like it can be an open game. So let's go on this front.

I'll supply answers off the top of my head (I don't suggest that this become a competition in "The Great Books" I've read -- after all, I used to work for the Great Books Foundation in Chicago; I can't afford to be one-upped.) and then you respond with yours. (We can also comment on each others' choices.

1. One book that changed your life:
Honest to God by Bp. JAT Robinson (I'm not saying for better or worse, but this book woke
me up)

2. One book that you’ve read more than once:
Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry (4 times and counting -- it is simply one of the most beautiful
books I've ever read)
(I'll cheat and add that I've read most of Robertson Davies' novels more than thrice)

3. One book you’d want on a desert island:
The Complete Works of William Shakespeare -- annotated, of course

4. One book that made you laugh:
Moby Dick by Herman Melville

5. One book that made you cry:
Hotel New Hampshire by John Irving

6. One book that you wish had been written:
Do This In Remembrance of Me: A Rubrical Guide to the Celebration of the Mass by Jesus,
Foster Son of Joseph and Son of Mary

7. One book that you wish had never been written:
The DaVinci Code by Dan Brown (not for its controversial subject, but because it simply

8. One book you’re currently reading:
Embodying Forgiveness by L. Gregory Jones

9. One book you’ve been meaning to read:
Summa Theologica by Aquinas

There you go. I await your replies. Keep in mind (he says defensively) that this is not a result of long meditation. I may give it some more thought and enter the names of books that I think were better answers -- but this is what came pretty much to mind right out of the chute. You may go either route: profound or knee-jerk.


Thursday, July 20, 2006

For those of you interested in the Desert Fathers and Mothers, in "ascesis," in spirituality (at least of the early, desert variety), comes this interview with my friend John Chryssavgis. It's very short, but perhaps it will tease enough that you will read his books. (Beyond the Shattered Image continues to inspire, haunt, and instruct me. Heart of the Desert is worth every penny.)

As I understand Zenit: It's a kind of unofficial press voice for the Vatican -- all things Vatican all the time. But it's not the official press office. They provide daily updates on things papal. It's a cool site.

One contrarian note, however: I am a great proponent of the serial comma. (You know: When there are three or more items or phrases in a row, there should be a comma between the last and the penultimate items in the list.) Zenit is not and look what happens: "Author of several books, husband and father of two, Doctor Chryssavgis ... ." For the lack of a comma Fr. John is made the husband AND father of two [sons] -- a moral and theological, if not biological, impossibility (especially -- ? -- since his offspring are sons). See? Rules matter!


I strongly promote use of one's financial resources and of one's time and talents to support those people and causes who and which need it. But I think too many of us often overlook unspectacular, almost anonymous ways that we can help. So many of us will support living-wage effots while we shop at WalMart (where, incidentally, I do not shop). It would be unremarkable to drive over to Target or -- better -- the local or neighborhood grocery and hardware store.

Here's another way to do some good -- and it doesn't cost extra: Go this site, The Breast Cancer Site, and click on the box that says "Fund Free Mammograms." By clicking on that, you contribute to providing free mammograms to women who otherwise couldn't afford them. You may return to the site once a day and do the same thing. (The commercial sponsors of the site kick in something for every "hit" the site receives. If you follow the sponsors' links and actually buy one of their products, as I understand it, a measure of the proceeds from the purchase also goes to the fund. But you don't have to buy anything for this site to provide something like a dime for each daily hit.)

After you have hit the "Fund" button, you're taken to an advertising page. Scroll down a bit and find the other sites of the same kind, promoting help for children's literacy, food for hungry people, animal rescue, rainforest protection, and children's health. Click those icons in turn to donate to other causes. (The left-wing, knee-jerker in me makes me hit them all, but you can pick and choose.)

I think it's an easy, valuable thing to do. And I encourage everyone to go to the sites every day. It's a small gesture, but I have read that the sites actually accomplish a lot of good. (Now someone can tell me that it's all a right-wing plot that does not good. But for now I'm on board.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Priests or "Priestesses"?

It was bound to happen: The Episcopal Church selects a woman to be its Presiding Bishop and the Anglican world goes into yet another tizzy. Is it her gender? Is it that she is a "liberal"? Is it that she is an oceanographer? Is it that she was "fast-tracked"? (I share the concern that she has little parish experience -- as a pastor, anyway).

I have long been perplexed by the fight over the ordination of women to the clergy -- either the presbyterate (the office of pastor) or the episcopate ( the office of bishop). I have tried to understand the issue from both sides, but I'm frankly incapable of seeing it from more than one.

I don't look at it as a "rights" issue. There is no "right" to be ordained. To claim so is completely to misunderstand the ministry of and to word and sacrament. "Rights" is a secular word and concept which has no place in discourse about ecclessiology.

Instead, I look at it as an issue of ecclessiology (theology of the Church). What, who, why, how, where, when is the Church? What is the point of ministry? On what grounds do we make determiniations as to our life together as the Body of Christ?

Along comes Pontifications, where is posted some reflection on C.S. Lewis' article on the ordination of women. You may read it here. Some of you will get very angry reading this post and the replies. (I got confused and miffed myself a couple of times.) But it seems a place to start.

I confess that I do not read much C.S. Lewis because I frankly don't find him very interesting, insightful, or helpful. That may be my problem. But the excerpts (and even the entire essay) set out no intelligible argument except that "[o]nly by wearing the masculine uniform [i.e., only by being male] can (provisionally, and till the Parousia) represent the Lord to the Church: for we are all, corporately and individually, feminine to Him." Now it may be my involvement in the feminism of the 60s and 70s, but I haven't a clue what that means: God is masculine? Well, Jesus was masculine, but the Christ, the Lord of the Church ... ? We are all "feminine"? Well, receptive makes sense -- but in what sense is that "feminine"? Is it all built on the anatomy of sex? Is that ultimately dispositive? If so, did the natural religions get it right -- only with the name of the deity (and perhaps his number) wrong?

I realize that I stray into sarcasm, but my intention is pure. I don't get the argument. (It's sort of cagey of Lewis to argue that rationality is the opponent of this principle of male-only clergy, isn't it? How do you argue with someone who says that disagreement is precisely proof of his rectitute?)

I mean, if Christ can be present in and as bread and wine, why can he not be "represented" in and through a woman? Does not the argument run perilously close to confirming Mary Daley's adage that if God must be male (at least in His representative), the male is god? I absolutely don't deny that Jesus' maleness is historic fact; I wonder whether it is ontologically dispositive of much else (I think). Certainly, it doesn't seem to matter ontologically for ministry. I am apt to criticize the Church for baptizing the social orders of its days, and I am apt to buy that women's leadership in the Church was problematic from the very beginning because of the possibility of confusion with pagan cults, within many of which women "priestesses" held sway. (There is not reason to adopt that designation -- and in the literature, whenever anyone uses it of women ordained into the Christian ministry, it is a a baldfaced attempt to slant the argument with pejorative terms.) But those seem to be prudential, not ontological or even theological, reasons for decisions in the past; they do not dispose of the issue in the present.

I don't want to get into any shouting matches about woman-haters or radical feminists. But if someone can suggest a good read on this issue -- one that is solid in its Biblical and theological foundations -- I'd be happy to receive it.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

"Editing" movies

OK, an interesting new day.

A federal judge has determined that it is illegal for a company to edit motion pictures and then rent the edited versions to people who are sensitive about language and violence and sex or who don't want their kyds exposed to it. Here's a story.

Now comes a commentary by Mark Moring at Christianity Today. He concludes that the decision is a correct one, and he discusses why, as a relatively conservative Christian parent, he thinks so. It's a good reflection, and he says most of the things I would want to say.

I heard a story on NPR this morning about the hubbub. And the illustration (maybe, "example" is a better word: it's hard to do an illustration on the radio unless you're Garrison Keillor) they used was an edit of a scene from Steven Spielberg's Munich. I was speechless that that movie would even be in the mix.

Munich is one intense movie, and there's no way that I'd allow my thirteen-year-old daughter see it -- even if she were inclined to ask to see it. But what the edit-rental place found distasteful was the language. They edited out the "f"-words (of which there were plenty) and I expect some others (at least according to the report). But that left unanswered my question: Where on earth would you start and stop editing Munich? The movie comprises, far more sinister than bad language, some of the most gruesome intentional violence you can imagine -- murder, bombings, mass murder, gratuitous sadism. Why would that edit-rental shop even carry the thing at all? What is in it that a sensitive parent would want her child to see -- about 3 minutes of conversation with Golda Meir?

It has seemed to me that lots of whom I consider to be misguided parents are absolutely pernikkety over the use of the Lord's name and scatological sexual references, but are blind to the violence contained in modern culture. That immunity and insensitivity constitute a much graver threat to the well-being of youth and adults than a few "f"s and "G-d"s.

Pro-Life Progressives

I hope I have made it clear in this blog that I am a proud and committed political progressive. (You can decide whether a conservative theological commitment rhymes with a progressive political agenda, but for me that is my calling, and it seems firmly biblically based.) As such, I feel that what is commonly called a "pro-life" posture is mandatory: We are called to "choose life" and to work for well-being in our own lives and in the lives of all whom we can affect. We are messengers of Our Lord, who came that we "might have life and have it abundantly." I think that Christians must constantly strive to establish and live a "consistent ethic of life."

Unfortunately, the terms I placed in quotation marks are often highjacked and claimed exclusively by a less-than-progressive branch of the political family, who refuse to grant the terms any other meaning than "anti-abortion." This pro-birth movement ignores or opposes programs and policies which enhance or protect life, broadly and logically construed, contributing to the decline in the integrity of political discourse. For them, pro-life has nothing to do with the life of the child after birth, with issues of poverty and disease and inequities in access to health care, with war, with near-abandonment of public education, with capital punishment. It is purely a matter of getting a baby born -- period. That is as cheap and illusory a use of the term as I can imagine. (As a consequence, I am inclined to call most "pro-life" movements, pro-natalist.)

As a progressive who is a member of no political party (and no, I am not quoting Mark Twain, who said "I'm a member of no organized party. I'm a Democrat."), I have had my curiosity piqued by the arrival of the organization styled "Democrats for Life." Friends who are pro-life Democrats (in the broad sense of the term, as I use it here) are excited to have a vehicle for making this point of their progressive agenda move. But I have been skeptical: I haven't spent much time on the matter (after all, it's easier to remain curmudgeonly and cynical with fewer facts, you know), but I have feared that it would simply be a bunch mostly of conservative Democrats who have a problem with abortion.

Well, this brief by the head of the organization, Kristen Day, allays some of my resistence. In her paper, she lays out a broad perspective on "life" -- one that is much broader than I had expected to see. Oh, it is evident from the specificity and the amount of space given over to abortion, that that is a primary focus of the organization's work. That, in and of itself, is not a reason for either surprise or rejection. But there is the suggestion that this group may actually get it -- that abortion is a symptom of and contributor to greater problems, including (as I noted above) poverty and the general lack of political concern for children whose parents are poor. (That an incredible number of abortions are intended simply to make life easier for well-to-do woman who can't be bothered to have a baby right now is a manifestation of other cultural problems.)

I am now inspired to look more closely at this group. I have a little hope that there is a movement that will lobby for a full slate of life-supporting and -affirming legislation. (Hope springs eternal, I suppose. Contrary to most people's opinions, I really am an optimist -- I'm a Christian, after all.)

In any event, it is way past the time when self-styled "liberals" (not a very helpful term, it seems to me, given its heritage), "progressives," "Democrats," "leftists" (where I count myself when I want to be blunt), and the rest begin seriously to grapple with a consistent politics. That the Democratic Party has been captured by an unreflective, knee-jerk pro-abortion(-rights) philosophy is an irony that I can't overlook. And neither should they!

"Democrats for Life" may be a welcome voice in the debate and a force for bringing the Democratic Party to its senses.

One request, though: Can we find some other way to deal with babies who face abortion than "pre-born"? I have no ideal what that phrase is supposed to accomplish (and I have heard and seen it used by people who should know better). "Unborn" or "in utero" or something -- but "pre-born"? You can be moral and literate.

More on Preaching

I've always had trouble with sermons -- listening, not delivering, mind you. I get distracted; I wonder what I'd have done with the text/s.

Here's another posting that gets at some of the things that really make me hate sermons. It nails them down with appropriate irony and even sarcasm.

Hoorah and amen.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Another word on Confirmation

I have run across a few other blog postings about Confirmation. Here is one from Thomas at "Without Authority." Without meaning to cut off the discussion on my previous post, I am reminded of how an earlier form of the Lutheran rite of confirmation supported my vision of confirmation as a way which the congregation (on behalf of the Church) and the individual Christian mutually affirm, support, and confirm their relationship.

The blessing of the confirmands in the current rite (per the Lutheran Book of Worship) has the pastor lay on hands and offer a prayer, referring to the confirmand in the third person:

Father in heaven, for Jesus' sake, stir up in (Name) the gift of your Holy Spirit: confirm her faith, guide her life, empower her in her serving, give her patience in suffering, and bring her to everlasting life.

It's OK, but it's kind of non-committal, it seems to me. Contrast that with the previous rite (in the Service Book and Hymnal -- which I cite here from memory, so it may not be word-for-word perfect, but it's close because I pray this prayer, turning it into a first-person petition, about 4 times a week). This pronounced as a blessing on each confirmand, accompanied by the laying on of hands:

The Father in heaven renew and increase in you the gift of the Holy Spirit, to your strengthening in faith, to your growth in grace, to your patience in suffering, and to the blessed hope of everlasting life.

That speaks, I think, to a view of confirmation as process, not end product (not a 'graduation' from church school -- or even church). "[R]enew and increase" speaks, certainly to sanctification.

The Church should endeavor to live out that vision.

Friday, July 07, 2006


A slow day at work (so far) allows me to reflect on some of the past few, very busy weeks -- filled with visitors, events, a family holiday, and lots of work. One of the momentous events of the summer was my daughter's confirmation of her Christian faith. This followed two years of "confirmation instruction," in which she was (supposedly) instructed in the basics of Lutheran doctrine and history.

It's an odd thing, I imagine, to have an arm-chair (and curmudgeonly, at that) theologian as a father. It must, too, be odd to have that same father as one of your "confirmation instructors." But Erika bore the cross with aplomb, seeming even to enjoy some of the interaction. And for my part, I tried not to interfere unduly or to be too nosey or critical. For example, as a part of prepartion for the rite of confirmation, each confirmand had to write an individual "faith statement" for reading during the liturgy. The understanding was that parents were to keep their hands off the composition, and I did. I didn't even see Erika's until after she had submitted it (I expect for both her benefit and mine). (It was quite good, actually -- witty, sincere, and, contrary to her father's wishes, not ponderously theological.)

Of moment for me in all of that was the relative meaninglessness of the exercise. What is the point of confirmation? (Now there's an ages-old question.) Why do we do it? Why do our youth submit to it (aside from their legal inability to refuse)?

Confirmation, in the words of Frank Senn (noted liturgical scholar and pastor), is a rite in search of a theology. It really doesn't do anything original. It's not the completion of baptism, as some of us were taught, because the baptismal rite does everything to initiate one into the Body of Christ. We are not half initiated by baptism. Witness that in our congregation, one is admitted to the Lord's table upon baptism, as full members of the Body of Christ. (That, of course, is an entirely different thing from admission to the voting membership. We haven't really faced that issue. Thus, for example, if a newly confirmed person wants to be counted among the quorum to vote on the congregation's budget, would we allow that? What about if there is a vote on property acquisition, which in most congregations and states requires the votes to be cast only by people who have reached their majority?)

As I (only begin to) understand matters: Confirmation has a long and uncertain history. Fundamentally, however, it was the bishop's (later, in Protestantism, the presbyter's or pastor's) conferring of the Holy Spirit, marked by "chrismation" -- i.e., by anointing the person with oil and invoking the blessings of the Holy Spirit. This would take place following the interrogations and "washing" of the individual catechumens at the Easter vigil. The bishop -- who in earliest times, was simply the pastor of the congregation -- did not participate in those washings. Deacons (male deacons in the case of men and female deacons in the case of women, because the candidates were likely naked when they were baptized) handled that part of the process. Following the washings, the candidates were dressed in white robes and led to the pastor for the completion of the rite -- the anointing with the Spirit.

The rite was separated from Baptism, in history, at that time when bishops started "overseeing" more than one congregation. He (yes: in those days, only "he") would travel around to the various congregations and "confirm" (i.e., complete) those baptisms that had occurred at the Easter vigils in the individual congregations. The lag, of course, between washings and anointing (or confirmation) was relatively short -- nothing similar to what it became. Apparently, at least in the Western Church, the issue of confirmation got all wrapped up with notions of personal appropriation of the grace of God, of rational acceptance of one's place in the Church, and similar concerns. And slowly the rite of baptism deteriorated.

Cut to the twentieth century. While I was yet in Seminary (in the late 70s), the Lutheran churches in the US began to re-think the whole complex of issues regarding the raising of children in the church. So we checked out the ancient sources and liturgies, we thought theologically, we integrated insights from psychology and sociology (not always a good thing, I've learned). And we began to re-think our received notions about the fullness or incompleteness of baptism, the nature of Christian education (there was some really fascinating stuff from a British catechist named Goldberg or Goldman), confirmation, first communion. And it got complex.

Confirmation was recognized for the vague thing it is, so the church (at least, the predecessor bodies of the ELCA) lost any unanimity in practice and theory (theology actually had little to do with it, frankly). It now often was seen as a ministry to the confirmands -- assuring them of the Church's/congregation's care for them. (How that could be manifest in special requirements that they undergo a kind of boot camp not required of adults or younger children was not answered.) It was recognized as a rite of passage, not necessarily theologically inspired, but culturally warranted. (There was little serious consideration of when it might be best to schedule such a thing -- or actually there was a lot of consideration, but no consensus.) The intellectual side of preparation for confirmation was discounted, but that left a void that was never, in most places, adequately filled.

And the confusion continues to this day.

At root, I would like to see an abandonment of confirmation -- at least for a generation -- in favor of closer attention to and major emphasis on education for Christian Lutherans of all ages. The educational level of the average Lutheran congregant is depressingly low, and we need to undertake a major effort to convince adults that they don't know what they don't know and that they need to learn it and to pass it on to their children. Further, that education needs to be in the fundamentals of the faith, not in the latests comings and goings of the local alderman or mayor or hunger project. (Those are, of course, important and should be a part of a rich education program. But I suspect most of our members know more about the current political bluster than they do about the importance of the formulation "Father, Son, and Holy Spirit," and that should change.

Having cut the Gordian knot, we can then examine the propriety of rites of passage vis-a-vis the growth in grace to which we are called by the Gospel. We might, I think, too, recognize that confirmation-like personal affirmation of faith might be called for a various points in a person's life. The liturgy books of the ELCA certainly provide for the "Reaffirmation of Baptism" -- under which title "confirmation" now is classified. But how about college kids who may have strayed from the faith and now wish to return or who, because of a good teacher or campus pastor, are brought to a new and existentially meaningful appreciation of the historic faith? Should we not provide for them (as the ELCA rites theoretically do) an occasion for the public affirmation or re-affirmation of their faith? (I'm not really hot on personal testimonies. But with the proper education and training, such things can be a meaningful part of even Lutheran conversation, it seems to me.)

Underlying this post is my sneaking suspicion that we have so psychologized the life of faith, that we need a major shaking to bring us back to reality. And what that means would make this post too long. (I have already indicated something about the psychologizing of sin, I think.) So I'll work on that and try to figure out what I mean.

In any event, we confirmed my daughter. She received some lovely gifts to mark the occasion -- among them an LBW from the congregation, the "magazine Bible" (that I tore my hair out about some time back and that she thinks is pretty cool) from the neighbors, a lovely prayerbook (Roman Catholic in origin, of course) and icon from her parents, and lots of things I don't remember. And I was once again reminded in a most graphic way of the importance, some times, of just grinning, gritting, and bearing discomfort.

Perhaps we both marked a transition. But I'm not going there.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006


My intention here is to celebrate one conection that I have made after reading John Zizioulas’ Being is Communion. That work has become one of the four or five books that have had the most influence on my thinking. I intend to keep this short and, thus, cryptic -- Jim, I hope it's not too long. But things do have a habit of flowing forth!

Zizioulas has sharpened my sense of “sin” as a state of disrupted relationship. We live in sin as much as we “sin” (or so I draw from my reading). The individual “sins” that we commit – and certainly ought to confess – are themselves manifestations (or “instantiations,” as the philosophers like to say) of that wider problem of “sin” as a condition that insinuates itself into the very depths of the human heart. But the Lutheran “general” (liturgical) confession (per the Lutheran Book of Worship) is dead on: “We confess that we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves.” Sin is more than peccadillos or discreet misdeeds; it is a state of general disruption and alienation between and among human beings as a result of the disruption and alienation that has resulted from humanity's trying to set an agenda for itself separate from the commands and intentions of God.

What wonderful sense that makes of the story of the “Fall” in Genesis. I (along, I suspect with many others) have long struggled to resist reading an anti-sex theme from that story: Eve eats the fruit and Adam eats the fruit – and voila! They realize they are naked and they are shamed. Suddenly sex rears its ugly head (its surprising how many people don't think about Adam and Eve's sex life pre-Fall – and it’s very bad.

But this story isn’t anti-sex or even about sex per se. Instead, it is a portrait of what has happened to human life – including sex – since humanity (in the “persons” of Adam and Eve) first tried to live outside the intentions and commandments of God. Whereas the First Parents began in total harmony with each other (bone of bone and flesh of flesh, and yet distinct) and with God, the instant they leave God’s world for one of their own making (eating of the forbidden fruit was the original act of the Enlightenment, in which they set themselves up as their own gods) their relationship with each other is disrupted, just as is their relationship with God. Their now-instinctive reaction is to hide – behind fig leaves from one another, and out of sight from Him. The discovery of nakedness telegraphs that what was once a source of joy and harmony – their nudity and presumably uninhibited sex life (check Song of Songs for confirmation of this inference) – has now become, for them, a source of potential exploitation, hurt, and abuse.

Whereas once their differentness had been the cause of joy, it has now become a source of shame – something that can only be experienced before another person and that carries with it the knowledge of antagonistic difference. God created male and female different from one another so that they might love: One needs an “other” in order to love. (That is part of the meaning of the Trinity: God exists in relationship among Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.) When creation was very good, this differentness was an unspoiled complementarity. But with the disruption of the relationship with God, occasioned by willful disobedience of his command, came differentness, otherness as a sign of worry, threat, blame, and all the rest.

And it was all downhill from there: First, there was the lying to God and trying to shift the blame: “The devil made me do it.” Then there was fratricide, and then the founding – horror of horrors! – of cities. And the story went on to Babel and beyond.

The Orthodox, it seems to me, have a better vision of the breadth of a doctrine of sin than have we Western Christians. It provides a context within which to take seriously the varieties of sin – even a priority of sinfulness, which a reasonable theology ought to have, it seems to me. (I mean: Does anyone REALLY believe that the odd four-letter word is every bit as offensive to God as the decisions made by Adolph Eichmann? If so, we need to talk.) That makes meaningful a serious discussion of sanctificiation.

And such a vision of sin begins to do justice to a proclamation of the Gospel, the news of salvation. The meaning of the Incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection does not devolve merely to the guarantee that I may be free from eternal fire – though that is a part of it. It is finally a grand statement about the unavoidability and unevadability of the power and authority of God – whether that power and authority focuses on a seductive apple tree (cultural license, here) or the machines of global capitalism. The re-ordering of the universe to unmake the effects of sin, the ultimate conquest by God of systems of oppression, the end even of death as a great divider of people one from the other: This is something worth Easter. And the assurance that we can grow into that new life even now, by virtue of God’s own re-creative activity in the Person of the Holy Spirit, is a message not heard often enough.

It is because of the truth of that message that we are enabled even now to overcome – in an admittedly incomplete way – the condition of sin into which we were plunged by our First Parents: We are again able to see each other, not as threat, but as promise and present joy. We are free to be faithful to each other -- a fidelity in which sex and sexual differentiation are genuine gifts of God, a fidelity free of seeking or worrying that the other seeks advantage or exploitation.

Lutherans need to hear about sin. And as the former post and comments suggest, it needs to be substantive talk. Sin is real. And a more seriously relational understanding of sin might well enhance that preaching.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Ten Commandments for Preaching

It's been along time since my last post: A busy schedule at work, visitors at home, and two weeks' vacation on Puget Sound have kept me away from the blog. But I'm home and, once I'm settled back in, I'll come back with more.

For now, I urge you to consider these ten commandments for preaching, together with Pontificator's comments on them.

I think the principles are sound. But I tend to agree with Pontificator's quibbles with them.

For instance, I have suffered through enough untrained speakers' sounding forth from the pulpit to deny the importance of rhetorical skill in a preacher. It is something that can be taught and improved, and more can and should be done in that area. (I don't mean that preachers should be great rhetoriticians or orators -- that tends to gripe me, too. But I mean that preachers should be adept at the use of their voices and knowledgeable in the means of getting meaning across.)

I'm evidence of what good can come from serious attention to this point: At one point in my career, I was serving as an interim pastor in a congregation where I belonged. (It is a long and strange story.) After a couple of weeks of my preaching and presiding, I was taken aside by a member who was a drama teacher and director at the (Big-Ten) university. She explained, in an unsolicited critique, that I was using my voice in rather odd ways that made for a less-than-effective presentation. She then suggested what the issues were and how I might correct them.

Now, some of my friends think it was an audacious -- and less than gracious -- thing to do. But I interpreted it as an act of pure grace: Her criticism made me more self-conscious, for a time anyway, but it also gave me insights that I wouldn't have had and enable me to improve my skills in ways that enhanced my preaching and presiding. (I'm not claiming to be that good at preaching -- just better than I would have been without the intervention by my sister-in-the-faith.) I think how good it would be if preachers had someone like that to offer their assistance.

On another point, however, I'm not sure how to interpret what the Pontificator says. It relates to the preaching of repentance and forgiveness. He suggests that there are times when repentance must be preached "in order" for God to offer forgiveness. I'm not sure that's correct.

I'm convinced that repentance and grace exist in a dialectical relationship. When I am offered the love of God, I can only lay hold on it in faith, which includes repentance (turning around from my self-driven direction to move in God's direction). Does that mean that, ala Barth (and, I'm discovering, also Bonhoeffer), that the preaching of grace must precede the call to repentance? Certainly, I believe that "I cannot by my own reason or understanding believe in Jesus Christ my Lord, or come to Him. BUT the Holy Ghost has called me through the Gospel." In other words, the preaching of salvation enables me to repent and to come to faith. Without meaning to impose a "pattern" on preaching, ought the Gospel be proclaimed first and terms of repentance thereafter? The Gospel enables me to repent, to participate in the amendment of my life, and to join in the communal existence of the Body of Christ.

In contrast to that, I understand some Lutherans to say that the call to repentance (or the preaching of Law, which may or may not be the same thing, depending on the theologian) sets the terms for hearing the good news. Must I be brought to a knowledge of my sin before I can be receptive to knowledge of my salvation? Frankly, in my most recent years, I have noticed that this kind of preaching tends to limit sin to a psychologized state. (Bonhoeffer was especially critical of that kind of preaching -- as was Karl Menninger, in his book Whatever Became of Sin?) That doesn't do much for me, I confess. It also posits the Gospel in terms of the sin/lack of reconciliation that is set out in the beginning of the sermon. Doesn't that tend to make salvation reactive, instead of proactive? (And I think the Gospel is not an answer to our needs until those needs are defined precisely by the Gospel.)

To be frank, I think not enough preachers take seriously the dialectic, capitulating to one model of the act of salvation or another. I think, too, that not enough preachers take seriously that their preaching IS an act of salvation. Salvation comes by hearing, and hearing by listening to the word of God -- yes?

But is part of this dilemma that preaching is too focussed on the individual? The Enlightenment gave us a new lens for reading life -- one in which I-me-my is the fundamental level of meaning. (I'm really quite delighted to echo others' critiques of the Enlightenment, but this is my own.) As a consequence of the Enlightenment (and of the liberalism it spawned in theology), "faith" has become a personal-individual thing. We have lost the basic, necessary, Trinitarian understanding of faith, salvation, the Church, ... .

Thus, there may be a need for an eleventh commandment (can there be 11?): Preachers ought, at least more than they do, preach to the community qua community and less to the community as aggregate of individuals. That would make for some interesting changes in emphasis.

Have I gone on too long again?