Friday, August 25, 2006

At Ease in Zion

In an essay, “God’s Revelation and Proclamation in History,” Gustavo Gonzalez (a theologican of the "Liberation Theology" mold) writes, “It is time to open the Bible and read it from the perspective of ‘those who are persecuted in the cause of right’ (Matt. 5:10), from the perspective of the condemned human beings of this earth – for, after all, theirs is the kingdom of heaven. It is for them that the gospel is destined, it is to them that the gospel is preferentially addressed.”

I really like that thinking, and I’m inclined to agree with him. “God’s preferential option for the poor” is a controversial idea, one loudly condemned by the neo-cons (especially among Roman Catholics, but not unheard among Lutherans) , but one affirmed (if memory serves) by more than one recent Pope. I like that it seems to take the Sermon on the Mount seriously (an address that I find an awfully good summary of the Gospel), and it seems to comport with the witness and example of Jesus. It gives voice to my complaint that much of modern theology is either too academic, anemic, and bodiless or too touch-feely, hand-holding, chaplaincy-like.

I wonder whether it might be time for the well-off Church to recall the witness of the liberation theologians. (It's a crock that they were all Marxists -- though no one condemns most modern theologians for being capitalist.) I wonder whether it is time for the Church to realize that most of us (her members) are not among the lost, the oppressed, the poor, the powerless, the condemned. I wonder whether it might be time for some of us to be disquieted by a Gospel that changes lives and situations, rather than affirming, comfirming, and giving comfort to the status quo. (And when I say "I wonder," of course I don't wonder at all: I think it's way past time.)

I see evidence for an effort to avoid the Gospel in a lot of the church’s preaching. It seems to me that a lot of -- if not most -- preaching that gets done is a not-very-refined effort either to show those of us who, by a straightforward reading of God’s word, ought to be discombobulated that we have nothing to fear, that we are “OK,” that God loves us “just as we are,” no change necessary; or to so “spiritualize” the Gospel as to disincarnate the message, which then leaves us just as we are, but affirmed nonetheless. Most sermons I hear (and not just at my own church, but there too) seem to strive mightily to identify us, who sit in the pews, with those very humble and down-trodden ones to whom the Gospel is addressed. And I frankly find the attempt amusing – when it is not maddening in the extreme.

Of course, we are not poor in resources; we are among the richest civilization the world has known. And the gap between us and the poorest in the world is so vast that even science fiction writers can’t really describe it adequately. But, in order to make the Gospel "relevant" to our situation, if we are not poor in money or power, then we can be “poor in spirit.” Thus, we talk about our anxieties, our disappointments, our hopes-deferred – and see in them a moral equivalence with physical poverty and being "disappeared" by some political regime. “Charity begins at home” and so we must “love ourselves first, if we are to love others.” And it goes on.

Kathy, my wife, says that there are times when she wants to scream – that if she hears one more sermon anywhere that tries to portray all of us middle-class respectables as “suffering,” she will stand up and yell “Enough!” She has helped me to see (not for the first time, I readily acknowledge) just how far we have come from orthodox faith -- where genuine suffering is addressed and woe is addressed to those "who are at ease in Zion." When worship becomes an exercise in avoiding responsibility, in being enabled to forget that we sin and fall short of the glory of god, in ignoring that “repent” is the first word of Gospel preaching (not: “Don’t worry; be happy.”) – then it ceases to be worship.

I think the rationalism that has taken control of theology in the Western Church – probably feeding into “constantinianism” and nurtured by the incredible wealth of Christians – has worked an inversion in the Gospel’s effects. And we need to be recalled to the path of faith.

It may go without saying that, at least one function of preaching ought to be “comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.” But it has become clear that preachers also need re-education in what constitutes “affliction” and “comfort.” We need more preaching that tells most of us to “get a grip” and come to terms with reality – the reality of the Gospel, which may require that we give up our wealth and security in order to follow Jesus.

Hmmm: This is sounding sort of like Bonhoeffer, isn’t it? That’s not too surprising, given that Gonzalez expressed an appreciation for Bonhoeffer as one of the few theologians of the West who “got” what the Gospel was about.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Personal Note

My dear friend Paul and his beloved Katie will, on Saturday, exchange vows and rings and, in the presence of God and before the face of his congregation, declare their intention to live faithfully together for the rest of their lives. They will, thereby, become husband and wife. I invite you all to pray that they will enjoy with each other and will be to all who know them the very model of the love that binds the Heavenly Bridegroom to his Bride.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

To stay or not to stay? And if not, where to go?

A new article in The Christian Century treats of notable once-Protestant scholars who have swum the Tiber to "enter into communion" with the Roman Catholic Church. In part because I know five of the nine people who appear in this article and in part because I think that anyone inclined to a serious consideration of the State of the Church needs to consider the issue, I provide a link to the article:

I have had to return to this issue time and again. I think it is no secret that I am not satisfied with the state of theological reflection and faithfulness in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. But I come around, again and again, to the question friend John Setterlund asked me twenty years ago: Where else is there to go? Is it any better someplace else? And I don't know that I have an answer yet.

Carl Braaten has also wisely said that one dare not leave one's tradition -- in our case, Lutheran -- because of dissatisfaction or even ideological umbrage (that last one is mine); she then just becomes an angry, disaffected Lutheran in the Catholic Church (or the Orthodox or the ...). I admit that I am attracted to the profound sense of mystery, of "rightness" in prayer and worship in Orthodoxy. But that, too, raises issues of its own.

I am somewhat shaken by the exodus from "mainline Protestantism": I have enormous respect for Jaroslav Pelikan, Robert Wilken, Reinhard Huetter, Leonard Klein, Al Kimel (of Pontificators fame and fortune), and many others. Their moves require me to re-think. But at this point, I'm still with Radner and Braaten and Hauerwas (now there's a trinity for you).

I intend to read the CC article again and to tease out the problematic claims. It's time to do some more thinking about this again.

The Feast of Mary, Mother of Our Lord

Today is the Feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of Our Lord.

At my desk, I am watched over by an icon called “Theotokos Great Grace.” The icon features the Theotokos holding a very adolescent-looking Jesus. The two look at each other in evident adoration, and Jesus has extended his right hand to point to his mother’s lips. (It's a rather modern icon, written in the classic style, I think. It also appears to be signed, but I can't make out the signature and date.)

To me that gesture represents a kind of delicious irony, a kind of circularity to the Gospel’s witness. Aside from her magnificent Magnificat, the only words of Mary that I can recall Scripture’s reporting come from the wedding at Cana: When the wine has run out, Mary tells the servants to “do what [Jesus} tells [them].”Along comes this icon to reinforce that we should listen to Mary. And what does she say? “Listen to him.”

Mary is the first evangelist; she bore the Word of God into human form. We are well advised to listen to her. For some of us, the Magnificat is THE summary of the Gospel which came to fruition in her womb. As her Son indicates in my icon, we ought to listen to her. And what does she say? “Listen to him.” The irony in my icon is that whereas most of the Mother and Child icons show Mary pointing to Jesus, here the gesture is the other way around – and yet in so doing, it witnesses to the same truth.

Unfortunately, Mary gets short shrift in my corner of the Christian world. Perhaps in reaction to perceived excesses and abuses in the Roman Catholic Church, against whom most protestants still seem determined to define themselves, Protestants – and even, somewhat surprisingly, Lutherans – ignore the Virgin, the Mother of God. We do this despite evidence from the earliest days of the Church that Mary was held to be “special” even among the apostles and martyrs.

I confess to a lingering trace of discomfort myself. So much of Marian devotion seems to be the Catholic equivalent of Jesus-piety in Protestantism: They/we are so afraid and unworthy to approach God the Father, that we work through a mediator. Marians need the intercessions of the Lord’s mother to move a distant and judgmental Jesus; Lutherans need Jesus to intercede to an angry, judgmental Father. Needless to say, perhaps. rumors that the immediate past Pope wanted to name Mary “co-mediatrix” with Jesus drove me up the wall (mostly because I could never make any sense of what it was supposed to mean).

But I also cannot escape the most blessed Theotokos. Luther advised us to pray to her: Call on her; “Ave, Maria,” he urged. And scripture reports that she was present at virtually every major turn in Jesus’ life and ministry. So I call on her, just as I call on other fellow members of the Body of Christ, to pray for me.

We will worship tonight at Mount Olive in a festive Eucharist celebrating the life and witness of Mary, Mother of Our Lord. This is an event of Gospel history and of the Gospel. It is good news that by her consent, “Fiat!”, the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.

Hail, Mary, full of grace;
the Lord is with you.
Blessed are you among women,
and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus.
Pray for us sinners
now and at the hour of our death.


Friday, August 04, 2006

R.I.P., Elizabeth Schwarzkopf

I may write more later, for now, I regret to note that one of the finest voices in the history of music has been silenced until the New Day: Elizabeth Schwarzkopf has died at age 90. Ms. Schwarzkopf established the "gold standard" for the performance of almost anything she sang -- Mozart's grand dames, Anna and Elivara and the Countess; Strauss' Marschellan (one of her greatest roles); Strass' "Four Last Songs" (who Renee Fleming told me was also her favorite singer to record the part); I could go on.

Schwarzkopf distinguished herself (in part because of the very able support and guidance of her husband, the legendary record producer Walter Legge, whom she adored) by her obvious intelligence, the depth of her insight into the roles she undertook and lieder she chose to sing, the ability to incarnate the persona and not just sing the notes, the beauty and flexibility of her voice (which she always controlled immaculately), her own physical beauty (which made her acting the parts of countess and marschallin even more touching!) . In her memoir, she recounts a wonderful story of dining when Maria Callas came in. La Callas came over (Legge was her producer, too, so the women knew each other somewhat) and asked Mdme. Schwarzkopf how to solve some vocal issue. She said that she knew Schwarzkopf did it better. But when Schwarzkopf demurred, preferring to take the matter up later, Callas insisted and proceded to sing, full voice, so that Schwarzkopf could guide her to the proper technique. It was apparently quite the scene.

When Mdme. Schwarzkopf retired from the stage, she continued to guide and mentor some of the finest singers around today. (I think Thomas Hampson, e.g., was her student.)

Even though she had not performed for decades, her albums continue in press (yes, as CDs, though the vinyl is still better) -- and with very good reason. Hers was an artistry that will not be denied.

Eternal rest grant her, O Lord;
and let perpetual light shine upon her.

"Books, Not Bombs" for Lebanon Campaign

I simply cannot begin to write about the Israeli-Hezbollah disaster. I sweat bullets over it, but if I begin to speak, I will not be able to stop -- and my reputation as a knee-jerk hot head will only be enhanced.

One thing I cannot overlook, however, and to which I ask your attention is an approach to salving the incredible scarring inflicted on the children of Lebanon. "Faithful America" is sponsoring a campaign to provide school supplies to Lebanese children -- you know, the ones whom cowardly Hezbollah hides behind from Israel's retribution and through whose bodies war-criminal Israel shoots to try to take Hezbollah out. Here is their site for making contributions to the effort: FaithfulAmerica . And here is a cooperative site with Church World Service that tells how to make your own or buy through that organization: CWS .

Surely we can dip into our "luxury accounts" and help a little.