Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Second Day of Christmas

All blessings during these Twelve Days of Christmas, the celebration of the Incarnation of God in human form and substance!

Today is the Second Day, and according to Fr. Alexander Schmemann of Blessed Memory, the earliest observance on this day was not that of the martyrdom of St. Stephen, but a celebration of the life of the Mother of Our Lord. This was, as I read him, the first Marian feast (the Synaxis of the Most-Holy Theotokos), apparently long before other Marian feasts appeared on the calendar. But I'm going to have look more deeply into this, because my recollection is that, for example, her "birthday" was celebrated very early in the Church's history. (That seems to be reflected in the Protevangelion of St. James. But I know next to nothing about that, too.)

In any event, light an extra candle before your icon/s of the Theotokos. From Western usage: Hail, Mary, full of grace: The Lord is with you. Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus.

The Synaxis of the Most-holy Theotokos

At the border between night and sunny day,
The dawn is rosy, pink and dewy.
The crimson dawn thou art, O Virgin given by God,
Precursor of the day, rosy and glorious.
Thou didst correct Eve and restore her to Paradise.
Do not withhold thy help from us sinners.
Israel crossed dry-shod over the Red Sea;
A cool spring flowed from the rock in the wilderness;
The bush burned but was not consumed-
As the dawn resembles the crimson eve,
So thou, O Virgin, dost resemble those foreshadowings.
O thou whom the Church calls the Mother of God,
Unknown to sin, not given to sin,
O Most-pure Mother of our Savior,
Because of thy purity thou wast chosen by God,
To bring down the Eternal Creator to earth.
That is why thou hast authority to pray for us,
And we have the joy of hymning and glorifying thee

I have written before about my sort-of-not-very-"Lutheran" view of the Theotokos, so I won't go over it again.

I will, however, note that the coincidence of two observances of martyrdom is not insignificant to the Christian proclamation: Mary was wounded by the suffering of her son and, undoubtedly, mourns the sacrifice of every one of her son's followings, beginning with Stephen. It is, I think, during Christmastide that the theology of the cross becomes easiest to explicate (especially when coupled with the Slaughter of the Innocents), and yet in my experience, it is during this season that such a theology is last in evidence. (I don't mean to invoke the memory of the "Sad Danes," but the shadow of the cross lies darkly across the manger -- if manger there was. And we ought not to forget it.)

It is our sublime joy (we are makarios) that the Word became flesh -- the divine became human in order that the human might become divine. But that happy exchange came and comes at a cost. Have we abandoned counting that cost, to the detriment of our ultimate well-being?

A most blessed Christmastide to you!

Friday, December 21, 2007

On the Subject of Movies

Since I have entered into the real of movie criticism, let me scream one thing. Soundtracks are important to me. I am easily manipulated by the movie score, background music, and the like. I am also easily put off (see my comments in the last post about the annoying typewriter thing). One thing that really gets my goat is the failure to be cautious in the use of music not composed for the current movie.

In "The Year of Living Dangerously," for example, (one of my favorite movies in the '80s) took place around the year of 1965 (or is it 1967?), when Suharto seized power from Sukarno in Indonesia. In the movie, there's a great scene in which Billy/Linda Hunt (the only performer to win an Oscar for playing a character of the opposite gender, which portrayal was not of a cross-dressing sort) is bandaging a wound Mel Gibson has sustained during a riot. S/He puts on a well-used vinyl disk and asks Gibson to listen to the power. (It's mystical and haunting scene that is the center of the movie for me.) And the recording is one of R. Strauss' "Four Last Songs" (the best music ever written for voice -- specifically, soprano -- and orchestra) sung by (to me, the then-unknown) Kiri te Kanawa. I fell in love with the voice and music and rushed out to find the recording. (Years later I met and was hugged by Dame Kiri, something that may never have happened but for hearing her in "Year." We remain good friends to this day -- oh, wait; the hug happened, but the friendship is "in my dreams." Alas!)

Well, lo and behold!, the te Kanawa/Andrew Davis recording had not yet been made in the year of the Suharto coup. I think it came out the next year (1968). Well, now that sticks in my craw every time I see the movie.

Unfortunately, the same thing happened in "Atonement." In one mooning-love-sick scene, Robbie/McAvoy re-plays a famous duet from "La Boheme." Per the credits, the singers are Jussi Bjoerling and Victoria de los Angeles, both sublime singers (on what is arguably the best recording of the opera). Well, that recording was not made until years later than the period portrayed, either. So here's another anachronism that will jump up to bite me whenever I see this movie again. It's great that they didn't use a contemporary divo and diva, but come on, there are older recordings they could have glommed on to.

Internet Movie DataBase lists "goofs" apparent in movies. I wonder whether I ought to suggest this on both. (As it is, they highlight that the credits misattribute which Song te Kanawa actually sings. Maybe I should add to that.) A little research won't cost a studio/filmaker that much in the scale of things. (Can you imagine showing a car that hadn't been produced until years after the action-period? No one would let that pass. So why the music problems?)

For curiosity's sake: Anyone know of similar problems with other movies? I tend to stick to the opera-like repertoire, of course, so I'd be pretty much deaf to other anachronisms.


I don't write many movie reviews. (As I've indicated before, I see quite a few movies these days -- new releases in theaters and not-so-new at home, through the satisfying service of NetFlix.) I'm not equipped to analyze movies, nor do I see theological themes under every credit. (Yes: I know that all of the cosmos is theological. I would have to push, however, to draw out the theology or the theological problematic in "Michael Clayton" -- no matter how ethereal I think Tilda Swinton is!) But once in a while, a movie requires attention from a theological perspective -- usually when it doesn't want to be analyzed that way.

Such is the new movie, "Atonement," which friend Brad and I saw on the "big screen" last night. And I recommend it. (I have some personal reservations, I guess, but they relate more to how I match up a movie with the book on which it's based. In this case, I think I'd have enjoyed the movie more had I not already read the book.) It's a troubling movie. But it is troubling in a very good, Christian sense (even though neither the book nor the movie, so far as I can discern, makes any religious claim or pretense.)

The movie is a study in perplexity or ambiguity: Is perception reality? Is there a "reality" that exists behind what we see and convince ourselves we see, whether we understand it or not? What is real? Can mistakes -- willful or accidental -- be "atoned" for or the consequences undone? Who dies and who doesn't die? What is autobiograpical fiction (which only comes as a question at the end of the movie)? Can James McAvoy shed his identification as Tumnus, the Faun in the first Narnia movie (something which was a little problematic for me, even though I've seen him in other things since then, but it's apparently not a problem for many people, since he's getting pretty solid reviews).

To be honest, Mr. McAvoy's performance is really moving and believable (at times, annoyingly so). Kiera Knightley is gorgeous and probably right for the part (though I'm not a great fan of hers, this was a pretty good performance). Saoirse Ronan is spookily effective as the little b... -- er, -- brat who precipitates so much pain for so many. (The somewhat-older Nurse Briony is less appealing, even though the characterization seemed pretty consistent.) And the ever-phenomenal Vanessa Redgrave is a most convincing old-age Saoirse/Briony -- in looks and manner. So casting works very well. (There is a most annoying musical theme that features an ancient typewriter -- which made me think of the more entertaining LeRoy Anderson band piece,
The Typewriter -- which was only hamfisted and not effective. Thankfully, it is gone by the end.)

The movie has to contend with point of view issues, crucial to the novel, and it does so by re-play -- not flashback: It sets out a scene involving Briony's seeing and interpreting something, and then it goes back in time to play the scene out in a supposedly objective, third-person view (what "really happened"). For some reason I found that irritating; I kept thinking, "I wish they'd get on with it." But, of course, that is what is to be gotten on with. And while I knew that intellectually, I couldn't relax and get into the early part of the movie.

Still, I encourage people to see the movie and to reflect on the Christian themes that resonate through it. I'm not sure about the religious orientation or conviction of the author of the book, Ian McEwen, and I really don't care. But the movie (for me, more so than the book did) concentrates questions about "atonement" that are worth considering.

I think the movie sets up these questions, inter alia, which may be good for Christians to ponder especially during this season of Advent, that mixture of looking back to the Great Atonement and looking forward (not to "Christmas" -- which is in the past -- but) to the final Denouement: What is atonement? Is it restitution (as it portrayed in some Christian theology)? If restitution, can it ever happen -- except in some kind of abstract and forensic way? Is forgiveness (from the one wronged or from ouselves for the "evil we have done") the same as atonement? Can the "sinner" atone for her sin and to the ones sinned against? (The movie answers this in a most scintillating yes-no way, and in the process doesn't answer the question -- which is the major interest I find in the movie.) If we parse the word as AT-ONE-ment, mustn't we acknowledge that atonement can come (or at least must initiate) from the side of the one/s wronged? Doesn't it require the desire/intent of both "sides" to achieve at-one-ment?

When I think about it, this wasn't a bad way to spend the last Thursday in Advent.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Baptism by Torture: Variation on a Theme

Sightings is an e-mail subscription newsletter from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School. It explores the intersection of faith and public life in its many guises. (Half the articles are written by Martin Marty himself and the other half by a host of other contributors.) In the November 29 issue, William Schweiker, who is the Edward L. Ryerson Distinguished Service Professor of Theological Ethics at the University of Chicago Divinity School and director of the Martin Marty Center, published an interesting and important column, "Baptism by Torture." In it he observes "that the practice of waterboarding has roots in the Spanish Inquisition and parallels the persecution of Anabaptists during the Protestant Reformation and the Roman Catholic Counter Reformation." He goes on to suggest that those very roots provide a basis for Christians to stand up against any effort to justify waterboarding -- or torture in general. Because Sightings permits columns to be republished in full, I am pasting it here, with my expressed gratitude to the Center for its work and for its generosity in sharing its works.

Baptism by Torture
-- William Schweiker

Religious practices have often been tied to violence and torture, but this connection is often hidden within public discourse. That is the situation now in the United States with the debate about waterboarding, the religious meanings of which have yet to be articulated and explored.

The candidates in the current presidential campaign have taken starkly different stances on the practice of waterboarding. Some condemn the practice as outright torture; others have refused to condemn the practice if in an extreme case it could save millions of American lives. The topic has been divided into two separate but related questions: is waterboarding a form of torture, and, however torture is defined, are there situations in which waterboarding and other practices are justified?

The argument for possible justification turns on several assumptions: that we could infallibly know that someone had vital information that would in fact save millions; that torture would extract this information without distortion; and, finally, that if the information was secured truthfully and infallibly, it could be put to use in good time. None of these assumptions is warranted. Expert opinion and empirical evidence concur that torture is an ineffective means to gain reliable information. The scenario of the lone knower of the facts whose torture would save millions of lives is the stuff of bad spy movies and bad exam questions in ethics courses. In terms of the question of definition, matters are both legal and visceral. International conventions provide ample guidelines, and, as more than one commentator has noted, if waterboarding is not torture it is not clear what else to call it, the Bush Administration's penchant to alter definitions notwithstanding.

Less often observed is that the practice of waterboarding has roots in the Spanish Inquisition and parallels the persecution of Anabaptists during the Protestant Reformation and the Roman Catholic Counter Reformation. Why did practices similar to waterboarding develop as a way to torture heretics—whether the heretics were Anabaptists or, in the Inquisition, Protestants of any stripe as well as Jews and witches and others?

Roman Catholics and Protestants alike persecuted the Anabaptists or "re-baptizers" since these people denied infant baptism in favor of adult baptism. The use of torture and physical abuse was meant to stem the movement and also to bring salvation to heretics. It had been held—at least since St. Augustine—that punishment, even lethal in form, could be an act of mercy meant to keep a sinner from continuing in sin, either by repentance of heresy or by death. King Ferdinand declared that drowning—called the third baptism—was a suitable response to Anabaptists. Water as a form of torture was an inversion of the waters of baptism under the (grotesque) belief that it could deliver the heretic from his or her sins.

In the Inquisition, the practice was not drowning as such, but the threat of drowning, and the symbolic threat of baptism. The tortura del agua or toca entailed forcing the victim to ingest water poured into a cloth stuffed into the mouth in order to give the impression of drowning. Because of the wide symbolic meaning of "water" in the Christian and Jewish traditions (creation, the great flood, the parting of the Red Sea in the Exodus and drowning of the Egyptians (!), Christ's walking on the water, and, centrally for Christians, baptism as a symbolic death that gives life), the practice takes on profound religious significance. Torture has many forms, but torture by water as it arose in the Roman Catholic and Protestant reformations seemingly drew some of its power and inspiration from theological convictions about repentance and salvation. It was, we must now surely say, a horrific inversion of the best spirit of Christian faith and symbolism. Is it the purpose of the United State nowadays to seek the conversion, repentance, and purity of supposed terrorists and thus to take on the trappings of a religious rite? The question is so buried behind public discourse that its full import is hardly recognized.

In the light of these religious meanings and background to waterboarding, US citizens can decide to reject any claim by the government to have the right to use this or other forms of torture, especially given connections to the most woeful expressions of Christianity; conversely, they can fall prey to fear and questionable reasoning and thus continue to support an unjust and vile practice that demeans the nation's highest political and moral ideals even as it desecrates one of the most important practices and symbols of Christian faith.

I judge that it is time for repentance, the affirmation of new life, and the humane expression of religious convictions.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Best Books of the Year

Because it's close to the end of the calendar year and because we have already entered the new liturgical year, it seems appropriate to reflect on reading this last year. The book reviews are all naming the "Ten Best" in various categories. So I've been thinking a little about my own critical responses. I can't get up to ten, yet. But here are four titles (to which I will add more) and a more general entry that I have especially appreciated:

Out Stealing Horses by Per Pettersen (named by the New York Times as one of the five best novels of the year, too!)

Matthew: A Theological Commentary by Stanley Hauerwas (big surprise there!)

Christ Present in Faith by Tuomo Mannermaa (the "Adam" of the Finnish school of Luther interpretation)

Fifth Business by Robertson Davies (probably not fair, because it's about my fifth reading of the book, but I do love Robertson Davies)

several by Wendell Berry (and while I will claim that Jayber Crow remains my favorite, I feel that to highlight one as better than others is a little like preferring one child over others).

As usual, the Saturday Book Group required me to read books I probably would otherwise not even heard of, and also as usual, even if I didn't especially enjoy the book when I read it, I came away from the discussion feeling much more impressed with the work. It just goes to show you that the Great Books program has it right: It takes a village to explore a novel! (The danger, of course, is that enjoyment leads to the temptation to buy more books: Frankenstein drove me out to buy Paradise Lost, which I'm now reading and loving, but can't list because I'm not finished with it yet.)

I'll list more as my mind clears and I have a chance to review the bookshelves.

But for now, how about everyone who reads this lists five worthwhile of your reads during 2007.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Health Issues and the Faith

Two sort of unrelated ("random," in my daughter's parlance) ideas that grew out of conversations this week:


News in today's paper got a rise out of two of us in my home (blessed spouse, remember, works with an organization that manages health and other services for people with physical disabilities, most of whom are on public assistance): The former CEO of UnitedHealtcare (the country's largest HMO, as I understand it) has entered into an agreement with the SEC to give back something totally over 600 million dollars in stock options and compensation in exchange for closing the investigation into illegal stock-option back-dating. The guy's compensation one year topped a billion dollars, so this won't send him to the County Home. Other officers of the company (including the company's chief lawyer) have made deals to return unseemly or illegal compensation under similar terms. (I can't tell from the news coverage whether this removes the threat of federal criminal charges against them.)

My question is a simple one: If a company which manages healthcare is profiting so much that it can pay billions a year to its chief employees, why is no one blaming that as a contributing factor to the crisis in healthcare in this country? Could not those billions go to making premiums more affordable? By what possible stretch of the imagination is anyone's work in one year worth a billion dollars?

If Clarence Jordon, of the Cotton Patch Version paraphrases/translations of the New Testament were still kicking around, I can see him doing something like this: "Blessed are you. For I was ill and you provided healthcare insurance for me." You can do the "depart from me" passage on your own.


I have climbed the soapbox to decry the non-pension system and healthcare system of the ELCA (my home denomination). I am especially concerned for those pastors and their spouses who labor in rural areas where their salaries are very low, where parsonages are provided, where healthcare is difficult to procure, and the like. (I'm thinking of rural North Dakota, but there are lots of other places.) I have made the claim that under the current system, those people are disadvantaged in the extreme in their retirement years, because many of them have not been able to set aside enough to afford to move to more cosmopolitan areas, where healthcare and assistance with aged living (et. al.) are more readily available.

Well the answer came up in conversations with some spouses of retired pastors: The ELCA needs to build some retirement complexes for pastors. Cost of living there should be based on an ability to pay. Services should include assisted living aides, meal services, and all the other amenities that a good retirement setting includes. These should be located in major cities in Luther-ville so that people need not abandon the areas where they are comfortable in order to avail themselves of the plan. Thus, for example, Fargo, Minneapolis, Gettysburg, Columbia, Austin, et. al. could afford locations. Costs of the project would be borne in part by the residents, part by insurance plans, part by donations.

It's time we do more for the economically disadvantaged pastors who have served faithfully. So perhaps I need to write a letter to my friend, Em Cole, the new chair of the Board of Pensions.

Monday, December 03, 2007

A Matthew Update

From time to time, I'll post updates on the Matthew discussion, often posting my "introductions" to a class session. In those introductions, I try for two things: First, I try to summarize what we've discussed, so that people who have participated in the past couple of weeks or so of discussions know what we've covered and thereby to set some context for the current discussion. I also try to influence the spiritual formation of the call members by attending to the homiletical (Bible study leaders can't and shouldn't help preaching, it seems to me) and theological dimensions of what we discuss. (As an aside: I'm excited by the Brazos Press enterprise of getting theologians to write commentaries on the books of the Bible. I think such a project is long overdue and desperately needed. And I'm having a wonderful time reading Stanley Hauerwas' on Matthew.)

I want people to get excited about reading the Bible, and I want to aid them in developing a more "catholic" exegesis. I'm influenced, of course, by my progressive roots to an almost knee-jerk reaction against "conservative" and fundamentalist misreading or distorting Scripture. That's not to say that I want to substitute a progressive hermeneutic (well, of course I do, but I work very hard to be honest about things and to let the Scriptures speak on their own terms). It's clear from the turn-out for this class that people really understand the importance of Scripture and want to read it in company with other Christians. And so I'm still excited about what's happening.

Here is a rough transcript of my introduction to the All Saints Sunday session. It makes reference to a sermon preached by our pastor the previous week, and you can check that sermon out here.

(In what follows, I've left out housekeeping details that prefaced the introduction.)

Last Sunday, in his sermon for the Feast of the Reformation, Pastor Heisley raised the question, most appropriate both to the Gospel text for the day and to the Reformation itself, of how shall we continue in the Word of the Lord. I must say that I was disappointed with his answer in one respect (and keep in mind that I always want to re-write preachers’ sermons for them): It seems to me that there is one obvious, but majorly neglected, counsel on how to continue in the Word of the Lord. And that is to continue in, to live in, to steep ourselves in the words of the Lord. God has seen fit to incarnate his Word, present with him at the creation, in flesh and blood at one point in history and in vowels and consonants throughout history.

And that’s part of what Matthew is about: He put into words and paragraphs and chapters (well, actually, those came later) a vehicle by which the Incarnated God continues his saving work, long after the Son of David and the Son of Abraham ascended to his Father. By means of Matthew’s words, through the agency of the Holy Spirit, we continue to enjoy the company of the one who was born of the Virgin Mary, sojourned in Egypt (and maybe Ethiopia) to avoid murder, and was raised by his mother and earthly guardian in Galilee.

And we are called to continue that company though Holy Writ – not by listening or reading once or twice and then discarding in favor of some other, “deeper” spiritual/theological works. Rather – and here, for the sake of quotation, I’ll change the reference, you are called, in the words of the Great Reformer himself, to meditate on scripture “not only in your heart but also outwardly,” word by work, “as oral speech and literal words.” Scripture is to be worked at and rubbed like an herb, read and re-read, and what the Holy Spirit is saying here is to be deeply pondered.

And that’s what we are doing here – working at this Gospel and rubbing it like an herb to release its fullest aroma, its tangiest bite, its most satisfying enhancement of this spiritual food. We have been guided by Matthew from his opening flourished, in which, by means of his “begats,’ he outlines his story – the life of the one who will (in one of his favorite words) “fulfill” the royal line of David and the covenantal line of Abraham.

We read and pondered the unusual conception and birth of this one – a virgin for a mother, the Holy Spirit for the generative moment. And we looked with respect and even awe (if we read properly) on Jospeh, who repeatedly was called to defy culture, history, geography, and politics to serve as guardian of this one, this “Jesus” – as he named him in obedience to the dream-messenger. We have had the first hints that “he who saves” raises alarms first with political authorities, who rule by the fear that their strength is necessary to fight off chaos.

And we accompanied our Lord to Egypt where were given the next hints of the meaning of the name “Jesus” – God saves:

After Egypt’s ancient, grave sin, after many blows had been divinely inflicted upon it, God the omnipotent Father, moved by devotion, sent his Son into Egypt. He did so that Egypt, which had long ago paid back the penalty of wickedness owed under Moses might now receive Christ, the hope of salvation. How great was God’s compassion as shown in the advent of Son! Egypt, which of old under Pharoah stood stubborn against God, now became a witness to and home for Christ. (Chromatius)

And Egypt was blessed just as will be “all nations” – according to the last verses of this Gospel.

Then we saw Jesus home to Galilee – a rough, diverse homeland, where crossed the crowded ways of life: home to Jews, Gentiles, Samaritans (which may have been worse than Gentiles for many pious Jews), Romans, Greeks; along the great trade route between Persia (home to the first seers to recognize the cosmic implications of Jesus’ birth) and Egypt.

And today we turn the clock forward some – what? – thirty years, perhaps. “In those days” – a biblical formula for two things: a transition from one part of the story to another; a sign that something significant is on the horizon. And that’s where we pick up today: Read Matthew 3:1-12.

(And we began the discussion after reading the pericope out loud.)

Friday, November 30, 2007

Only maybe tangentially theological

As someone with both theological and legal training, the printed word has figured prominently in my education and continues to be a great source of interest. I was editor-in-chief of one of the law reviews at my law school, and it was among my duties to be the final editor to ensure that every reference, every spelling, and all punctuation were exactly as the rules require. (There may be some reason to my being named most "anal-retentive" of my law school class.)

Punctuation is difficult to deal with in the area of biblical studies because the ancient manuscripts contain virtually none. The translations reveal the peculiar tastes and notions of the translators. Lawyers are notoriously poor writers, and they especially expend or withhold commas to demonstrate their splentic attitudes at the moment. Theologians (and English academics, ironic to say) are just as bad. (Does no one teach the "serial" or "Oxford" comma anymore? It's required in my edition of the Chicago Manual of Style.

The point: Now that the Almighty Nine (i.e., the Supreme Court of the United States) have decided to weigh in on the meaning of the Second Amendment to the Constitution of the United States (what hath God wrought!), I figured that I could stand a little review. I can recite it from memory, but I was surprised to see the punctuation when I looked it up. Here it is:

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

Now, even allowing for the fluidity in spelling, grammar, and punctuation that was the rule in the late 18th Century, the excess of commas in the Amendment make it extremely difficult to read on its face. "Plain meaning" exegesis will be really interesting, if the Court should claim that. (As for original intent devotees, I'll wait eagerly for how they deal with what seems to be the limiting condition: A well-regulated Militia['s] [] being necessary to the security of a free State.) But chiefly, what is that comma between "Arms" and "shall"?

When I was in seminary, "Hermeneutics" was the class that virutally everyone feared. I'm not quite sure why that was: Ignorance is bliss -- often! But since that time, I have offered thanks on uncountable occasions for the insights into the interpretive process that I gained from the professing of Lorez Nieting and Robert Jenson. It made me a fan (though far from a knowledgeable or obesssed fan) of "hermeneutics." And I realize that that task is not just a fancy "behind the scenes" class one had to take to get through Gettysburg Sem. It is an everyday reality in the lives and vocations of many of us.

So I'll watch with interest the hermeutical work of the Fab 9 as they undertake to divine the meaning-for-today of that piece of near gobbledygook from long ago.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Monastic Ascesis

Here is a reflection by an Orthodox priest that I received from a (Lutheran) mutual friend of ours. I want to get it up for comments before I make my own, but I do eventually want to say some "Lutheran" things about it. (Several Lutheran friends of mine have already criticized it elsewhere, so I'm going to digest their concerns and work through my own approach here later.)

This is, in my opinion, a wonderful reflection for us as we enter the Advent fast this Sunday (the Orthodox brothers and sisters are already in their pre-Theophany fast, I think).

My Monastery

by Father John Moses

Recently, I spent five days at the Holy Cross Hermitage, in Wayne, WVa. I must say that going to the monastery has been one of the great joys of my Orthodox journey. Folks always comment that when I return from the monastery, I seem happier and more peaceful. It would be hard to say what has the most impact on me when I am there. Certainly, the liturgies are special, talking with the brothers is a blessing, and even doing work there seems to have a special blessing to it. But for me, it's the stillness, the quiet spirit of prayer that pervades the monastery that effects me the most.

Of course, it's not my life to stay there and I have to return to the "world." It isn't long until the cares and the noise of the world begins to wear on my spirit again. Yet, I am not sad because I know that like the brothers at the monastery, I too am called to be an ascetic.

People often make the mistake of thinking that ascetics must be monastics, and so a life of asceticism is not for those of us who live in the world. This is not right because the Lord said that each and everyone of us must pick up our cross, deny ourselves, and follow Him. There is no better definition of asceticism than this. The difference between myself and the monastic brothers is that I must live my asceticism in the world, among co-workers, family and friends.

I once told the brothers at Holy Cross that Fr. Seraphim was a very easy abbot to live with. I had a much stricter and more demanding abbot than they. They looked surprised and asked what I meant. I told them that my abbot, my wife, was far stricter than Fr. Seraphim. I mean if you want to live with someone who wants to know all your thoughts, and what you are doing at every moment, etc., then she was stricter than Fr. Seraphim! They smiled and agreed.

Now those of you who know my Matushka know that she is a kind and gentle sweetheart. She really makes very few demands. What I meant by my words is that she is my monastery. It is with her that I must work out my salvation, and she must do the same with me. How does this work within a home and marriage?

Years ago, when I would be doing some marital counseling, the couple would say that they tried to have Christ in their marriage. I would ask what they meant. "Well, we pray before meals, go to Church and read the Bible." they would reply. These are good things, but as I listened to their problems, I would hear stories of arguments, anger, grudges, resentment, unforgiveness,
and so on.

I would then ask the couple that as good Christians did they believe that what the Lord said in the Sermon on the Mount was true; that is, when faced with an enemy, should we go the extra mile, turn the other cheek, and not return evil for evil but meet evil with good, and cursing with blessing? Of course, they would agree that this is what the Lord said, and it is what we should do. Then I would ask that if we were to do this for our enemies, how much more should we do this for our spouses and children? Often the response was something like "a deer caught in the headlights." We seem to think that a marriage license allows us to be ego-centered and demanding and unforgiving.

My home is my monastery. It is here that I must practice forgiveness, patience, stillness, and the crucifixion of my ego and pride. When I experience some supposed offense, I should see this as an opportunity sent from God for the salvation of my soul. Yet, when the offense comes from my wife or children, I think I am free to be angry, sullen, and resentful. Not so! So, if my wife "compels" me to cook dinner, then I should wash the dishes as well. If she's had a bad day, and says an unkind word, then I should return a blessing instead of another unkind word. If she offends me, I must forgive her. Her needs must be more important than my own, and I must consider her as being better than myself.

Of course, I am her monastery as well. Imagine what marriage would be like if both spouses practiced this kind of ascetism. Marriage would be heaven on earth and there would be little room for the devil to sow seeds of discord. Consider this thought: if I cannot practice my asceticism at home, how will I be able to practice it in the world? It is because of this asceticism that we wear martyr's crowns at an Orthodox wedding.

My church is my monastery. It is here that I must practice forgiveness, patience, stillness, and the crucifixion of my ego and pride. Like living in any family, offenses will come from our fellow church members because all of us are sinners and imperfect in holiness. But instead of becoming angry or offended, I should see such offenses as an opportunity sent from God to perfect me and save my soul. Imagine what church would be like if we all practiced this kind of asceticism. Church would be heaven, the Kingdom of God on earth.

Work is my monastery. It is here that I must practice forgiveness, patience, stillness, and the crucifixion of my ego and pride. Offenses will come from my boss and my co-workers. But instead of becoming angry or offended, what if I saw these offenses as an opportunity sent from God to perfect me and save my soul. Imagine then what work would be like.

I will admit that asceticism is uncomfortable. It is the cross that I am called to carry and no cross will be comfortable. I have a male ego, and it does not want to submit to my wife. I have pride, and I don't want my weakness to be on display to church members (after all, I am THE PRIEST!!!). What will church members think of me if they knew what a bozo I really am, and that I am in fact "the chief of sinners?"

I remember a story that I read where a Bishop committed some sin. He stood on the amvon and confessed his unworthiness. He would not be a bishop anymore. The people would not hear of it, for they knew this man, and how he had loved them, served them, and protected them. So, they shouted to the bishop that he was "axios" --worthy. In his humility, the bishop said that he would only remain on one condition:Until God told him otherwise, each Sunday at the end of the liturgy, he would lay across the threshold of the Church. The congregation would then leave by stepping over him. They reluctantly agreed, and for a long time the congregation did this and they cried as they stepped over their beloved hierarch. I don't remember how long this went on, but eventually God brought healing to the soul of the Bishop.

Yes, stillness, repentance, forgiveness, the crucifixion of our egos is painful, but necessary. I don't live in a monastery, but God has made myhome my cell; God has made my church my cell; God has made the world my cell. Like all ascetics, I must crucify myself to the world, but even more

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

More on Torture

Follow this link and the links embedded therein to a good discussion of "An Evangelical Declaration Against Torture: Protecting Human Rights in an Age of Terror." Of course, I find the rebuttal by David Gushee (whom I respect) to be much more enlightening than the assault on the document's approach by Keith Pavlischek, who is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center -- which Center is, so far as I am able to discern, is simply another well-funded "conservative" institute designed to give a Christian face to the policies of the present USAmerican administration. (It seems that over half the officers, Resident Scholars, and Fellows have had positions in the Bush(es) White House. Coincidence?)

But read all of it for yourself. I think it's remarkable that the Declaration was subscribed, in addition to the famous and impressive individuals, by all but one member of the Board of the National Association of Evangelicals. I think the sense that Gushee draws from that in the latest of the three pieces is heartening.

I also think that Gushee sets out cogent criticisms of the so-called "just war" tradition and gives good reasons for working within a framework that affirms the sanctity of all human life. He's good.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Not Even a Thought

Today, I can't think, so I'll spare y'all and me the ditherings that would come through my fingers. Instead, check out this site, Overhead in Minneapolis. This is one of whole chain of "Overheard" sites. In case you don't know them, in each area represented, people simply post really stupid or funny or perplexing things they overhear while they're on the bus, in their work cubes, on the street. And then we get to laugh our heads off (at least some times), thinking how superior we are to the people who were overheard. (OK, I slipped out of the Jesus paradigm there, but come on ... .)

Sensitivity alert: There's a lot of crass language every day, so if that offends you, skip it. Otherwise, check it out every other day or so. And also check out some of the others. Today's Overheard in Chicago has some pretty funny ones, too.

Peace with humor, y'all.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Politics Meets Liturgical Dance

Did you know that Stephen Colbert is a one-time liturgical dancer? My, oh my. It's enough to frighten the horses. But check it out here.

"Was Crucified, Died ... "

In anticipation of leading my Matthew study group’s consideration of the Beatitudes in a couple of weeks, I’ve been gathering insights from as many sources as I can. Recently a couple of welcome, serendipitous messages came my way, and they deepened my sense of the kind of reflection I need to do. I’m hung up today on “hungering and thirsting for righteousness.” This comes after two friends sent me pastoral pieces – one, a pastoral epistle written for his parish newsletter; the other, a funeral sermon – dealing with peacemaking. Each in his own way begins with peacemaking and connects it to the other Beatitudes, which I think is inescapable, to focus my attention on hunger and thirst for righteousness.

Brother Daniel (aptly named for the OT witness) struggles with the (at least seeming) paradox inherent to peacemaking – the need for activism to make peace (not just wish for it) in tension with the alienation that so easily results when people on opposite sides of the argument clash. He writes (and has previously spoken) movingly about his student-activist days (he’s only recently not a student, so it’s not a good-old-days trip), including conflicts with the student Republicans at Luther Sem over the invasion and occupation (or “liberation”) of Iraq. And he raises the most Christian-appropriate questions about whether much activism is driven by partisan-political fervor or Gospel-rooted hungering and thirsting for righteousness (really, that’s my summary).

Daniel (rightly) raises concerns about any effort to identify the peace of Christ with any earthly or political system or program of peace: “Human peace, whether imagined by the Christian left or the Christian right, kills inasmuch as its very incantation ends the possibility for transforming conversation,” Daniel writes. And then he goes on to highlight peacemaking that more adequately models Christian peacemaking -- what he calls “counter-intuitive peace actions [i.e., counter-intuitive to the world’s logic about how to make peace] that mirror, however furtively, the will of God as shown on the cross: the Christianity of the Civil Rights movement, the insistence of love for one’s enemy in Mohandas Gandhi’s Jesus-conversant satyagrapha (truth force) experiment, and the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission.” Nevertheless, throughout his epistle, he betrays a certain ambivalence about how one activates a desire to make the peace – i.e., he shows the allure of or the temptation to quietism.

Following directly on that was a sermon from Brother Paul (unarguably an apostle, but not that apostle), preached at the funeral of one of his members (who died at an age only one year older than I am). His parishioner, Galen, was passionate for peace, “troubled by the violence of this world, troubled by the politics of this world that sustained violence, troubled by Christians who perpetrated violence in God’s name.” He, then, aptly draws meaning from Galen’s life in terms of the Beatitudes: “If you listen to all these blessings Jesus speaks in the Beatitudes, peacemakers are part of a list of those who end up going hungry in this world… . If you’re a peacemaker, then you’ll have an uphill battle, arguing for reconciliation when the rest of us are ready to put up our dukes. … This was Galen where peace and politics were concerned: hungry, frustrated, and perplexed.”

Sidebar: Both of these guys are terrific preachers, which means that they are, in my book, great theologians (even when I disagree with them – as I regularly do). I have set as my rule that no one can a great theologian unless he or she is a great preacher: If you can’t preach it, it ain’t worth teaching it – and it most certainly ain’t theology!

My friends’ pastoral counsel coincides with my own most recent obsession – viz., the USAmerican policy (or lack thereof) on torture. I can think of nothing more incompatible with the peacemaking that Christians are called to do than the calculated and carefully calibrated dehumanization of another person by means of psychological and physical abuse. Even if one grants legitimacy to some kind of “just(ified) war” theology (something I have difficulty squaring with the Gospel of Jesus Christ, but that’s a minority position among Christians through the ages), I absolutely cannot understand how one can even attempt to justify torture. It seems to be murder (in the biblical sense) writ large – more than the murder of the body, it is murder of the soul; it is personalized terrorism, as dehumanizing of the perpetrator as of the victim.

My outrage (an expression of my hungering and thirsting for righteousness – at least in my own mind) is heightened by the efforts of the current USAmerican administration to play cute with this fundamental issue by reducing it to semantics: We will define torture to exclude anything we do and then we’ll say that we don’t torture. Thus, of course, torture, by definition, doesn’t include waterboarding (a practice for the use of which we have prosecuted people for a century), beatings, “stress positioning,” and the like – because we want to use them. So we, by definition, don’t torture – even though we do those things. Such foolishness is unconscionable, and I wonder how the doublespeakers sleep at night. (And that doesn’t even broach the issue of my concern for their well-being at the judgment promised by Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew.) I am horrified, both as a Christian and as a lawyer, that anyone presumes to do this – and even more so when they claim to carry on such horror in my name or for my benefit.

Now, lest someone think that I am showing my progressive underwear here, let me make clear that this is no partisan issue. There is virtually no push-back from this announced policy by the supposedly “liberal” loyal opposition or by the “family values” Christian community. (One of the reasons that I am not a registered Democrat is that I don’t think that it matters: There is no opposition – loyal or otherwise – to systematic policies and procedures that violate basic principles of life.) There are people from across the intellectual, partisan, and spiritual spectra on both sides of the issue of torture. So this is not a right-left thing, a liberal-conservative thing: I’m inclined to say it’s a right-wrong sort of thing, instead.

But in my outrage, Brother Daniel’s reflection gives me pause. He raises the possibility that in my eagerness to defend the right – ahh, the correct and honorable, not the “right” as in “right wing” – I may be closing the door on those whose positions and actions I oppose and, in effect, denying to my opponents the very humanity that I think they deny others in their support of torture. Am I dehumanizing them by refusing to converse with them? What if they only spout platitudes about defending America and how I might react if my daughter’s life were on the line? (As one wag put it, it’s precisely because I would maim and kill to defend my daughter that I, in response to Jesus’ call, must be a pacifist.) If I go off on someone spouting such pap, am I being poor in spirit, meek, peaceable, and all the rest that follow from placing my trust in Jesus, as opposed to placing my hopes for security in arms, defense priorities, pre-emptive strikes, and torture (not to mention 401k’s and the right brand of bottled water). Am I meant to pray for peace and justice, but to avoid identifying with any secular movement that seeks to establish it? Or, to the contrary, must I be “realistic” and work through the movements that seek to abolish torture, even though that means that I turn a blind eye to their policies that violate other tenets of my ethics?

Such rumination can easily lead to passivity. One can be so concerned not to violate the humanity of an opponent that she says nothing, does nothing, engages in no way. But that is certainly not the example or counsel of Jesus: Look at the way he stood up to power structures, criticized scribes and Pharisees and Sadducees, called on every-day Jews to “repent!” Passivity was and is not Jesus’ way. How do we draw the balance? How, then, shall we live?

Martin Luther may provide some insight. In his most recent book translated into English, Oswald Bayer notes that Luther characterizes the life of faith as the vita passiva – but Bayer doesn’t (and his translators after him don’t) translate that phrase as “the passive life,” but as “the receptive life.” Christian faith is reception of the benefits of Christ and it lives out of His power and protection. Faith (= then, all of Christian life) is allowing Him to gather us into his kingdom – the kingdom which, according to the Evangelist Matthew, has already drawn near (and is getting closer). And it is to live out of the freedom which such power and purpose confer. It is to learn to discover courage in Him and to abandon fear – except, perhaps, for that fear common to every one who has known love, the fear that one will not live consonant with love for loved one. For it recognizes that all comes and will come from Him – food and drink, protection and security, intellect and strength.

As Brother Paul rightly reminded Galen’s mourners, “ [I]t’s the hungry that Jesus came to feed. This is why he pronounces a blessing on the poor, the meek, and those who mourn. He’s here to feed the hungry.” Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness will be fed; peacemakers’ efforts will not be in vain: That’s the promise and the fact of the Gospel – no limiting conditions (the cross and resurrection demonstrates that), no doubt. Poverty of spirit and meekness and all the rest give me freedom to pursue God’s purposes without concern for my own well-being and also without necessary recourse to the entrenched (and ineffective) systems of the day. I need not and may not rely on the current (supposedly two) political parties to work God’s will; I am not bound to the approaches, programs, idea sets, or ticky-tacky-boxes of the realists and the idealists.

James Nestingen, in the article I reference in a previous post, makes the point that Christian faith is a living out of repentance, but not a repentance “for” or “toward” something, but a repentance “because” of something. I don’t change my way of thinking and live in order to gain something or prepare for something; I “turn around” because that something has already been given me – more specifically, that someone, Jesus Messiah, Lord of History. Henceforth, mine is a life of receiving the benefits of Christ which I then live out among those with whom I have been placed: “Repentance is a correlate of freedom. The tearing away that takes places in detachment is only possible because a deeper, more powerful and superior attachment has come: the attachment of faith, the grip of the kingdom. ... Jesus' repentance is a reflex of the gospel, a detachment that is the result of his attachment to us in grace.”

So our detachment from systems, powers, principalities (in the modern and ancient sense) is made possible by the attachment established by Jesus. From that attachment, we may abandon fear, which is the cause of most, if not all, of the conflicts in and around our lives. But it is not a passive freedom or detachment. We may actively live free of the fear that Osama may win, that the economy may tank, that my child may turn rebellious, that I may lose face. And we may live free to speak the truth to those systems, powers, principalities. And we may, as the martyrs of every age have, live free to stand unarmed before the military forces of the world. We may face governments; we may face torturers; we may face collaborators – and with the cry of Jesus: “Repent! For the kingdom of heaven has drawn near.” And we may trust that what we hunger for will be provided; the rich wine that came from water at Cana will flow also to sate our thirst for full humanity for ourselves and for all our brothers and sisters.

Thus, I am not free to hold my tongue or to cap my pen or to log off my computer or to close my checkbook when I see and hear of the horrors of torture – especially when it is perpetrated in my name or in the name of my defense. I must refuse to accept that protection – a false, evil, satanic protection. I will not try to shout down my opponents: remembering Bible: “Come, let us reason together.” or Aristotle: “Politics is the art of keeping people human.” But I will not let their assumptions go unchallenged – most especially when the assumptions are contrary to the Gospel and are uttered in the context of the community of the Crucified One. And I will donate more the Center for Victims of Torture here in Minneapolis. And I will display my Amnesty International sticker. And I will … pray with my brothers and sisters.

For the most fundamental freedom I receive from the Lord is the freedom not to be alone in all this. I live in the midst of a community of similarly called, gathered, enlightened, and sanctified followers of Jesus. I am never alone, for the One who calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies makes Himself corporal for me in this corporate gathering. In the midst of this company, I am formed and reformed into a disciple of Jesus by the encouragement and rebuke of others who are similarly living the vita passiva. In fact, I can’t go it alone; nothing is more contrary to poverty of spirit, meekness, and hunger for righteousness than to assert my life as a solitary enterprise or something of my own device. I am driven into the arms of the other members of the Body of Christ.

Christians live as their Lord lived – incarnation and announcement of the coming final reign of God, when He will be all in all and there will be an end to all the roadblocks to celebration. We are not called to sit on our hands, but neither are we called to build a new world from scratch. We are witnesses – in thought, word, and deed; by what we do and by what we leave undone – to the kingdom of heaven (Matthew’s formulation). Witnesses may not deny testifying. But our testimony is to the one who does the building.

We must hear the Gospel to speak the Gospel; we must live the Gospel to believe the Gospel. Neither arrogant self-sufficiency nor faint-hearted (or even brave) quietism is appropriate to living as a Christian. And so I have no option to suffer in silence the presence of torture in the world. I invite you to join me in a witness to neighbor, state, and world.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Willimon on Preaching and Culture

In a new post to his (to me newly discovered) blog, Bp. William Willimon speaks to the task of preaching – the issue of addressing culture, of adapting to the needs and wishes of the wide world in crafting the interpretation of scripture. And he draws a critical distinction between “speaking to culture” and “converting it.” Speaking to culture allows the spheres outside the world of the Bible to determine the relevance and meaning of any text; it does ultimate disservice to both the Bible and to culture by losing the saving word (perhaps “repent!”?) that scripture carries and that culture needs.

Willimon also picks up on one of the sore points in Church life for me: the lack of nurture and maturation afforded by the Church. Oh, if I have a bad marriage or a drinking problem or in hospital, I’ll get attention and counsel and all the other things that people – and pastors! – seem to think are “pastoral care.” But if I’m a big time executive exploiting my workers or I’m happily committing adultery or I write regularly to my congressman (mine is a man) to vote to bomb the hell out of Iran, I’m left to my merry just desserts. I know that in my congregation, there is little to deepen my knowledge and experience of the Church’s history, her traditions (let alone the Great Tradition), her Lord’s Torah. I am not taught to live as though God were real and active and honest and true. We need preaching that is a little less aware of the strangers in our midst and speak to people as though maturity in the faith – i.e., in terms of knowledge, lifestyle, aesthetic, and commitment – is not fully formed by the age of 8.

On the other hand, I remember Robert Jenson criticizing the apparently otherwise eloquent preaching of Rudolph Bultmann this way: You cannot tell by reading his sermons that bombs were falling right outside the stained glass windows of the Church. Preaching is most assuredly bringing the saving word of God into the present time. It must reflect the world within which it is proclaimed.

But the hearers of that proclamation are people who should be struggling to grow in the faith – not just find some happy thought to carry them through the week in the daily affairs that are otherwise untouched by the reality of God. As my study of Matthew is making clear to me, preaching is more than saying “Jesus loves me, you, us” over and over again. That claim needs content. And the content is determined by the Word-made-flesh, not by the latest newspaper headline (which in Minneapolis is usually about some totally irrelevant “human-interest” pablum), not by the latest pop-psychology book that Oprah is promoting, not by the pastors latest personal crisis.

Preaching the word of God as it is presented (in many traditions, anyway) week-by-week in the lectionary, with a little less worry for how it might square with the questions of the world and a little more attention to what it means in its own context and in the history of its interpretation throughout the history of the Church just might be what the world really needs to hear. And if it doesn’t want to hear what God has to say, well, the Bible has some things to say about that, too.

We could use Bp. William’s ministry in more judicatories of the catholic Church!

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

A Pop Quiz

Thanks to Transpozsing, I forward a link to a nifty little quiz on Eucharistic Theology. I scored 100% on the Orthodox scale and only 84% on the Lutheran. Is it time for a change, say what?

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Matthew and the Advent Season

Many of my friends know that I am not a great fan of the theology of (what one of their disciples winkingly calls) the Gnesio-Lutherans at Luther Seminary in Saint Paul. Nevertheless, I try to keep an open mind and heart, especially with respect to my fellow-travelers in the tradition of Martin Luther. So in that spirit, let me pass on a very nice and helpful guide to the Advent lections assigned for Year A in the Revised Common Lectionary. They are penned by that pillar of the Luther Gnesio-Lutherans, Jim Nestingen, and appeared in Luther Seminary's journal, Word and World, a long time ago (1992).

Any preacher can read Nistingen's analysis to his or her benefit, and any sermon-hearer can benefit from the preparation for the season, too. One snippet to whet your appetite:

[With respect to Mt. 3:1-12, Advent III:] Repentance is a correlate of freedom. The tearing away that takes places in detachment is only possible because a deeper, more powerful and superior attachment has come: the attachment of faith, the grip of the kingdom. ... Jesus' repentance is a reflex of the gospel, a detachment that is the result of his attachment to us in grace. (pp. 409, 410)

To which I can only say, "Amen." Follow the link; it's a good article -- and a sermon in its own right (as all good theology is!).

And my thanks to Paul, my brother in the faith, who insists on trying to make me eat every word in which I contradict or criticize his mentors -- with more or less success, I note!

Friday, October 19, 2007

A Coincidence on Money

After I posted my diatribe against "fair share" stewardship, I roamed around my blogroll to Greg Boyd's. Greg is an evangelical pastor here in the Twin Cities who has become a sort of Wunderkind fuer Christ because he refuses to subvert his solid teaching about Jesus by aligning it with a political agenda -- whether of the right or the left. While he has lost a lot of the members of the congregation he founded, he still preaches to a "megachurch" -- and by preaches, I mean he goes over an hour on occasion. (Clearly, he is not a modern Lutheran.)

His post today deals with greed as a danger inherent to capitalism. On this he speaks irrefutably. What troubles me, and proves a point I made in the last post, is that he begins the post with the claim that it's "difficult" to argue with the claim that capitalism is the best economic system derived in the world -- better than socialism (my pet) and all the others. And my question is this: If for the Christian, greed represents one of the major evidences of a lack of faith (after all, we only store up for ourselves "riches on earth" because we don't believe that God will keep his promises to provide for us), why is an economic system that is premised and built on greed the greatest economic system imaginable? Why will we not go what seems a logical step from the Beatitudes and resist the system that requires that we act on our greed? And if we do so, are we really admitting that capitalism is the best economic system in the world?

I know that socialism is in disrepute (primarily, I'd argue, because communists, Marxist-Leninists, Stalinists, Maoists, and the like have highjacked the name -- though not the fundamental approach), but I cannot look at such places as Norway or Sweden, which are pretty socialist countries (perhaps, democratic socialist is a better term), and feel that the people living there are being oppressed, denied, or anything like that. And, God knows, as countries, they are far better than the models of capitalism when it comes to caring for their people who are in need -- both native to their lands and those from without -- and to giving aid to the rest of the world's needy.

Is maybe part of the problem that capitalism has been identified with Christianity in some sort of perversion of both, and that's why Christian ethical thinkers seem unable to take it on with any verve?

The last think I want to do is to take on a new discipline, but I may have to take up a study of economics to make my point.

Church $$$

This post is about money, so I know that I’m going to sound airy-fairy: I have never been able to get well grounded in finance. Like Hauerwas, I think it is hard to have money and be a follower of Jesus. I am critical of the way the term “stewardship” has been co-opted (yes, yes, not in every place) by those whose concerns are money. I think capitalism is as great a challenge to the believer as war – and more seductive and, hence, dangerous. Nevertheless, a few thoughts:

It’s “stewardship” season in our congregation, and we take it pretty seriously. (To be accurate, this is money stewardship month; we have earlier focused on time and talent ministries.) And we do it up right: The pastor wove the lessons into a homily about stewardship and announced how much he had pledged; pledge cards collected near the altar as people left their pews following the mass (at least we didn’t collect them is some sort of special rite); there was a gourmet-quality meal to serve as the setting for announcing how much had been pledged by the congregation (about half of what we budget, by the way), including a very nice South African red wine. (At Mount Olive, we don’t “do” events without wine -- and maybe beer, too. Toto, we’re not in Pietism any more!)

It seems from the pastor’s sermon that a new idea is being promoted in ELCA leadership circles about how to calculate how much one will contribute to the work of the Church. (I recognize that that very phrase is problematic from a theological point of view: If the Church is the Body of Christ, and if Christ is God, and if God is creator and provider of every good, and if I have been provided money, then that money already belongs to God and the larger question is how much I am holding back from God. But I’ll let that slide for now.) I gather from the pastor’s sermon that the idea, which he got at the Bishops theological conference featuring a theologian from one of the ELCA seminaries, is called “fair share” giving, and it is a departure from the “proportionate giving” that has been the only orthodox calculus for decades. The latter concept is illustrated by tithing – where I give 1/10 of my income (net, of course; not gross income!) to the ministries of the Church.

Fair share calculations are determined this way: I take the budget of the congregation (which has been determined by minds much wiser than my own, so I can take their word that the budget is a fair, efficient, and laudable portrait of how much money it takes to run the parish and to provide benevolent support to other ministries – e.g., the synod and national church). Then I divide by the giving units of the congregation (or alternatively, by the number of members in the congregation). The result is my “fair share” of the obligation. That is my pledge amount, and then I will give as I am moved by gratitude and by the availability of other funds. (This does not forestall giving until it hurts – or until it feels good.)

Now the progressive Christian in me sees two problems with this approach. First, it seems legalistic. Second, it is anything but fair, but is instead a regressive tax on poorer members of a congregation.

On the legalism problem, I realize that all kinds of motives accompany pledging money to the ministry of the congregation. Some of those motives are purer than others: If I give out of a sense of eucharist and a desire to serve the purposes of God through the support of a congregation, I am giving for the right reasons – and I probably don’t need a calculus to help me determine how much to give. If I give out of a sense that I have to give something and the fair share (or even proportionate) method for calculating gives me a sense of what I have to give, then I am giving for the wrong reasons. To see benevolence and financial contribution as a requirement of our live together may be the sound basis for a secular tax system, but it’s a lousy justification for financial planning for ministry. (Of course, if my giving is symbolic – say a oner or a fiver a week, just to have something to put in the plate – then nothing much can be said. That is about as effective as a symbolic presence of Jesus in the eucharist – but I digress.)

The fair share posits a kind of “minimum” that is expected of me, and that seems legalistic. It is legalistic in the sense of imposing a duty on me that seems linked with my faith. It is legalistic in positing a calculus for involvement in church at all. And, related to that and to my progressive concerns, it legalistic because it is unfair (contrary to its misnomer).

It is unfair because it imposes a greater burden, proportionately, on the poor and encumbered than it does on the well-off. Whether I calculate it on the basis of “giving units,” which I’ll describe next, or members, it disadvantages those of lesser means, by imposing on them the same absolute burden as that borne by those of substantial means. I imagine that a “giving unit” may be defined in various ways: In my case, my wife and I plus our child might be a giving unit, since we are one family; or we may constitute two giving units in our family – my wife and I as one and our confirmed daughter (who gets her own offering envelopes) as another; or we may constitute three giving units, because we are all confirmed.

Now we are not poor by any stretch of the imagination (regardless of what we moan to our daughter). But if our income is put up against that of some of the other individuals or families, it’s like nothing. So it is “fair” that we and they take on responsibility for equal “shares” of the church’s budget? From the one to whom much is given is much demanded, right? And laying the kind of guilt trip on me that says that I’m not doing my fair share to support the congregation, and doing so in the context of preaching and teaching, is just plain heresy.

The old leftist in me wants to see all kinds of conspiracies and to highlight the consistencies with rapacious capitalism, which always – yes, always – favors the rich. But instead, I want to encourage proponents of “fair share” to think harder about what they are suggesting – and if I have misperceived what their project is all about, to speak more clearly. As I have cruised around the internet looking at various congregations’ attempts to institute or promote “fair share” giving, I have seen no gospel. One Episcopal rector noted that those households in the parish that do not pay their $3700 annual fair share are on “scholarship,” paid for by the giving units that pay more than $3700 per year. Well, the last time I checked, we are all on “scholarship” from our Lord, so to suggest anything less is hogwash.

The church does not know how to deal with money: That, it seems to me, is incontrovertible. Picking up someone else’s bad idea is hardly progress for the Church.

OK, now let me have it.

Monday, October 15, 2007

An Update on the Study of Matthew

We've been off to rather a slow start on our study of Matthew: introductory material, Art's talk on the structure of the Gospel, and a slog through the begats have prevented us from racing. But that's OK. we intend to take our time. I'm personally gratified that a signficant number of people are sitting together and talking together (and not just sitting to take things in) to hear and absorb Matthew's good news. I have a tendency to pontificate (no surprise there), but I am both aided and limited in that tendency by the willingness of other people to kick in ideas based on their own insights and questions. It's going well.

Here is an outline of my opening summary for next Sunday of what we have been discussing, as we prepare to discuss the "slaughter of the innocents" and events that follow in the Gospel.

We have seen or I have tried to convince the group of a couple of things about this Gospel: For one thing, Matthew has carefully structured his Gospel not only to state his message but also to act out or demonstrate and imply that message.

Matthew sees the importance of Jesus in both so-called religious terms (Jesus is Son of Abraham) and so-called political terms (Jesus is son of David).

On the religious side, I have suggested that as Son of Abraham, Jesus is (to use Matthew’s term) the “fulfillment” of God’s purposes in electing Abraham’s heirs as his holy people. God’s promise to Abraham was that by Abraham’s heirs “all the nations of the world will bless themselves” – which I take to be a way of saying that the Jews would be both a signal of and the yeast for the re-making of the world, reconciling the world, according to God’s intention (as we began to explore that in Genesis last year).

And so Matthew spends a lot of time drawing parallels between the life of Jesus and the history of the people of Israel. First, in the begats, Matthew traces Jesus’ family tree back to Abraham, to demonstrate (in a way not always to the satisfaction of your modern, legal eyes) that Jesus is both the physical and the spiritual son of Abraham. Last week we saw him bring Jesus into Egypt, where he sojourned for his own protection for a time, so that he could later return to Galilee and pursue his mission. At least in part, Matthew’s concern to demonstrate the “fulfillment” of Jesus’ Jewishness is to reassure his own community (this is not just my theory, but it is my operating theory) that they were not disloyal to the One True God by following Jesus, even though many of them were Jews and even though they numbered among themselves Gentiles, too.

On the political side, Jesus is the son of David, the great unifying king of Israel who functions in Jewish theology as both a realization of God’s will for the earth and a kind ofeschatological model for the final kingship of the Lord. Jewish thought about the Messiah, the anointed One, the Christ involved hopes for the restoration of the rule of God in a political state, with Jerusalem at the center of the running of the world, to the banishment of or reconciliation under God’s rule with all Israel’s (which is to say, Israel’s God’s) enemies.

The list of ancestors is a list of earthly kings – a strong suggestion that the Lordship of Jesus the Messiah is very much “of this earth.” And no less a figure than Herod the Great recognized this: When the magi came searching for the “king of Jews” (using Herod’s own title to refer to the infant Jesus, to whom the star was guiding them), “Herod was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him.” And thus, because of Herod’s distaste for challengers to his throne, the holy Family was driven into Egypt for a time.

As we shall see as we look at the sojourn in Egypt and the slaughter of the innocents, the overtones of the Exodus experience of God’s people ties together the religious and political – and that is paralleled ("fulfilled" and recapitulated) in the life of Jesus.

A Communion Prayer

A Communion Prayer of St. John Chrysostom

I stand before the gates of thy Temple, and yet I refrain not from my evil thoughts. But do thou, O Christ my God, who didst justify the publican, and hadst mercy on the Canaanite woman, and opened the gates of Paradise to the thief; open unto me the compassion of thy love toward mankind, and receive me as I approach and touch thee, like the sinful woman and the woman with the issue of blood; for the one, by embracing thy feet received the forgiveness of her sins, and the other by but touching the hem of thy garment was healed. And I, most sinful, dare to partake of thy whole Body. Let me not be consumed but receive me as thou didst receive them, and enlighten the perceptions of my soul, consuming the accusations of my sins: through the intercessions of Her that, without stain, gave Thee birth, and of the heavenly Powers; for thou art blessed unto ages of ages. Amen.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Real Pre-Halloween Scares

If you want to scare yourself, check out this site. You will be able to compare the cost of the occupation of Iraq to various public-well-being projects.

What is also really scary is that these occupation costs are being paid with borrowed money.

It is time for the Christian Church to turn to the prophetic writings: Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, Jeremiah chief among them. This misuse of public money for programs that Our Lord clearly declared out-of-bounds for his followers (read the Sermon on the Mount with an open mind, if you doubt my assertion) is a matter of the most compelling importance for Christians.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Integrity of the Liturgy

Chauvinism alert: This will likely be of interest primarily -- if not only -- to Lutherans.

The inestimable Philip Pfatteicher has published a comparison and review of the daily offices as they appear in the two new Lutheran service books, Evangelical Lutheran Worship (ELW: published by the ELCA) and Lutheran Service Book (published by the Lutheran Church -- Missouri Synod [and, yes, it's supposed to be an "em" dash]). Of interest to me is his analysis of the utter weakness of the offices in the ELW, since that's the book we use in my congregation -- over my objections, I will note for the record. For my money, it's both a devastating critique and an accurate statement. Many of us would like to see a denomination's worship book designed so that it serves both the congregation and the family in their respective worship and devotions. It is clear that the powers-that-be who designed the ELW have no sense of that. It is also clear that the worship professionals in the denomination have tin ears, faulty training, no ecclesiology, and bad taste. In short, my expectations for this boondoggle have been confirmed.

What the Rev. Dr. Philip does not mention is that he has produced a prodigious alternative to the ELW for the daily office. The Daily Prayer of the Church contains, in one volume, the office rites, music, hymnody, readings "in the ancient" way. You may consult here for more information.

I'm embarrassed, in a way, to admit that it has supplanted the brievary I used to use. It's difficult to have to choose between two wonderful works, and so perhaps I'll go back and forth every two years. I have been very satisfied with For all the Saints: A Prayer Book by and for the Church. Compiled and organized by my friend Fred Schumacher, this "resource" is rich in other ways from Pfatteicher's. Of chief note about Saints is its including three full lections for each day, together with a reading from the writings of some saint, drawn from the full history and all traditions of the Christian Church. (Pfatteicher's, already a very thick book, can accommodate only a verse or two -- in what I understand to me the breviary tradition.) Schumacher's is also easier to use (you start at the front of volume 1 and work through in order to volume 4) -- but you can do that when you get four volumes to work with. Pfatteicher's takes some getting used to, but that poses no major problem to anyone who is committed to using it.

I say that I'm embarrassed about my defection because I am serve as the Synod liaison for the American Lutheran Publicity Bureau, which happens to publish both of the works (in the case of Pfatteicher, in tandem with Kirk House). Loyalty might have obviated the need for one of the two books, had they been published by different groups. But ... .

One advantage the Pfatteicher has over the Schumacher is that it follows the "new" calendar in force with the ELW -- i.e., it relates a little more closely to the secular calendar (we now have "ordinary time" instead of "after Pentecost") and allows for pre-Advent preparations (but without the "-gesima" Sundays). Still and all, they are both great achievements and I hawk them whenever I can. (Too: If you're a Lutheran and don't read -- er, subscribe to -- Lutheran Forum, also published by ALPB, you are missing out on a dandy and inspiring experience.) Note: Both office books use the daily prayer orders and music from the Lutheran Book of Worship, which, while not eliminated from the AugsburgFortress line (at least as I understand matters), has been forsaken for absolutely no good reason by the ELCA. I personally don't think that the music of that worship book's offices is stunning or especially invigorating (nothing compares to the anglican chant settings of Matins and Vespers in the now-ancient Service Book and Hymnal) but it is better than what has replaced it. (And that just goes to show that when you have good texts and historical sense, you can make good music -- all of which are lacking in the new "worship resource," as the promoters insist on calling it.)

Do yourself (and ALPB) a favor and buy one or both of the daily office books that I recommend. And begin to take seriously your responsibility to pray without ceasing.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

My friend Cha suggested that I blog the discussion I am facilitating in our congregation on the Gospel According to Matthew. That will be a daunting task, and I will not commit to doing a very comprehensive job of doing so. Nevertheless, I pick up the gauntlet and relay, on an occasional basis, some of the glory that comes from the meetings. We began this past Sunday with a consideration of Matthew 1 -- specifically, the genealogy section.

I think it is in his monograph, A Coming Christ in Advent, that Raymond E. Brown, perhaps my favorite Bible scholar, enthusiastically urges preachers to take up the “begats” of the first chapter of Matthew. There is much to be gleaned for our benefit from what seems a rather arcane recital of a male-celebrating list of forebears. What can possibly serve faith about this section of chapter 1? Quite a bit, Fr. Brown said.

Well, a little snooping around in anticipation of leading a Bible study of the Gospel of Matthew and our first week of discussing the Gospel have shown me that Raymond Brown, once again, knew his stuff. These first few verses are packed with information, assertion, confession, contradiction, and confusion. And taken as a whole, it now seems to me indispensable to the Gospel.

The most obvious feature of the list of “begats” (and scholars seem to agree that the translation “was the father of” is too weak; “begat” or “fathered” or “sired” is much more to the point of the Greek) is that it is the history of Israel writ in brief. Jesus is said to be “son of Abraham.” And from Abraham, recipient of the covenantal promise (about which more later), through Joseph, wife of Mary, the history of the faith and nation of Israel comes to rest on Jesus. (Now, of course, that history comes by way of Jacob’s, in essence, adopting Jesus. It is the curious thing about Matthew’s Gospel that he, pace Luke, makes no effort to draw Mary into the line of descent, but brings Jesus in through the side door, as it were, through Joseph.) And that is central to the message, if you will, that Matthew tries to get across: Jesus does not represent God’s rejecting Israel in favor of some new line, but he does represent the “fulfillment” of all Israel has existed to bring about. At one level, this is the most Jewish of the Gospels (something the St. John’s Bible illuminators got in spades: Whoever illuminated the “begats” designed the family tree in the shape of a menorah and inscribed the names in Hebrew!)

Abraham was blessed “to be a blessing”: By his heirs all nations would be brought back into faithfulness with The Lord, creator of heaven and earth. Through her history, Israel seemed to forget that, but her life was intentionally missional – to live in fidelity to the identity of her God and thereby to be the means by which “all nations bless themselves,” that is, return to The Lord. Finally in Jesus, the Father God sent his Son to bring that mission to fruition. And, of course, that comes with a complicating factor for those who viewed Israel’s history with a chauvinistic eye.

The covenant to Abraham was intended, Matthew insists, ultimately to include non-Israel – i.e., Gentiles. And the second half of Matthew’s Gospel is the story of Jesus’ opening the mission of his original Twelve to the rest of the world. This was not a mission to reject Israel, but to expand Israel to “nations.” In Stanley Hauerwas’ words, Jesus is the summing up of the history of Israel

so that Jew and Gentile alike now live as God’s people – or, at least, that the path to this eschatological reality is made straight and the journey begun.

Additional evidence that Matthew wants to stress openness to the Gentiles is carried by his including women in the list of the begats. While there may be no scriptural support for the claim of motherhood on the part of some of them, Matthew includes Tamar, and Hagar, Bathsheba (though not by name), and Ruth. Some of these are women of ill-repute; most (if not all) are not Jews. Yet here they are: The genealogy is no whitewash over history. And one of the facts that is not whitewashed over is that Gentiles have served a place in God’s work all along – as they will again. God can and has made use of surprising instruments to work his will – witness these women, including, let us not forget, a virgin – and he does so for his ultimate purposes, which are all-inclusive.

Wonderfully, this is the story not just of the fulfillment (a big word for Matthew) of Israel’s being, but that of the entire cosmos. The Gospel’s “begats” section begins “The book of the genesis of Jesus the Messiah.” By using the word “genesis,” both here and at the opening of the birth narrative, Matthew signals that the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus represent a recapitulation of creation. The very destiny of God’s creation is at stake in Jesus’ life, Hauerwas notes. This is no mere “heaven in the sky in the sweet by-and-by when I die” kind of story; this is about the restoring humanity to our proper place in creation along with all the other created “things and beings.” This is the story of salvation of the world – world taken, not just as a substitute for the people who dwell therein, but at face value.

And part of the salvation of the world includes the salvation of its “politics” – this is the point of naming Jesus “son of David.” Matthew is a most political book, but it shows us that the “politics of Jesus” (to use Yoder’s term) is an alternative to the world’s power politics – with their reliance on force, violence, dishonesty, compromise. From the Sermon on the Mount through his peaceful submission to death, even death on a cross,

In all of this, Matthew makes clear that he has no intention of writing a pseudo-history of Jesus; his efforts are in another direction. He interpolates connections, elides dynasties, omit kings. And he doesn’t even count very well: His claim to three sets of fourteen generations each doesn’t add up. But the effect is to reinforce the impression that his goal is homiletic, not historical. (It reminds me of the claim I frequently make about the Current Occupant of the White House: His theme is “Let me tell you what’s going on – and don’t confuse me with the facts.”) He wishes us to see in the man whose story he tells God’s final act and statement to accomplish his will, embodied in the very real human (hence the point of the genealogy in the first place) Jesus.

And that makes sense of Hauerwas’ claim that “who” Jesus was and is” tells us the “what” and “why” of Jesus. Matthew’s is not a propositional treatise – ala Paul’s letters, for example. This is the narrative of the one whose life is the content of his message. The only way to come to grips with Jesus is to follow him, to become his disciple (something he, as his final act on earth, charges his disciples to make of all nations) – to listen to him, to wrestle with his words and his deeds, to see in him the full vesture of God in human flesh.

And that’s not bad for a list of names, is it?

Monday, September 17, 2007

Holy and Mundane

One of the things I most love about Lutheranism, if I understand anything about it, is its embrace of paradox: Indeed, I think paradox is the modus operandi of Lutheran theology. I am fond of using an ellipse as an image of Lutheran theology. An ellipse is the configuration of all points defined by their steady relationship to two fixed points, called “foci.” In Lutheranism, there are several of these elliptical arrangements, depending on what one wishes to talk about. Thus, there is “law and gospel,” and proclamation from Lutheran pulpits is framed in terms (one hopes, not expressed in terms) of those two foci. To be a good Lutheran, one must keep the two foci in tension and develop preaching and teaching out of that tension. While one may stress one or the other from time to time, one can’t ignore one or the other (hence, the image of an ellipse as opposed to a circle or straight line). There are other examples of the elliptical nature of Lutheran theology: “catholic and evangelical,” (dear to my heart!) “(simul) justus et peccator,” "Scripture and the Great Tradition," and you can supply numerous others.

One of those tensions planted deeply in my spiritual development relates to the eucharist. It is a tension of “holy/special” with “common/ordinary.” When I was growing up, my congregation celebrated (if that can be the word) holy communion four times a year. The services were in the evening; only confirmed members received – and not nearly all of them; the pastor eschewed the surplice and wore only cassock and stole; the lighting was subdued; the hymnody dour and slow. It was a daunting experience – no trace of joy; lots of talk of fear and trembling – as though the setting didn’t obviate the need for talking about them. And all of this was perceived to be a way of keeping the communion “special.” The great danger, I remember hearing in Sunday School and confirmation, was rendering the Lord’s Supper as something “common” or “ordinary.” As was later opined in the great debates about celebrating communion more frequently (and this was before the push for every-Sunday eucharists), celebrating more frequently or with less sobriety would rob the sacrament of its specialness, its power, its “meaning,” its effect. (That theology was wrong on so many points, but it held sway for decades.)

Well, we live in a new era – and I generally say, thanks be to God. My own congregation, as I have noted ad nauseum, celebrates the holy eucharist every Sunday and on significant feasts, too. We decry “close(d)” communion – i.e., communion only for those who meet certain standards of orthodoxy, as we measure it. We commune “continuously” – i.e., we do not commune by tables, but rather “on the run” – so as to emphasize eating and drinking by the entire assembly as one. (This is not uncontroversial even at Mount Olive. There are still those who would prefer to commune at the altar rail, one group at a time, with each table getting its own blessing before departing. But, while I would appreciate a means of communing that is less “buffet” and more “banquet” in style, I think we pretty much do the best that we can. We have steps up to the altar rail and the problems they pose for some of our members are obviated by communing at the level of nave. I am not a fan of “tables.”) We sing rousing hymns. We “celebrate” and our spirits are uplifted. Most of us come away happy.

But, curmudgeon that I am, I wonder whether even we at Mount Olive are at risk of dissolving the ellipse of the eucharist – that of the tension between “common” and “special.” Now, I believe that the eucharist is meant to be common – it is the most ordinary thing that Christians do, as ordinary as breathing, eating with family and friends, carrying on daily conversation. When my daughter was about four and already communing, she spotted the big red button on the side of my head and, adept at pushing all my buttons, proclaimed just as we were to go forward to receive, “I don’t want to commune today.” Well, for once I had my wits about me (perhaps it was the proximity of the Holy Spirit at the moment) and I said to her, “Of course you will.” “But I don’t want to.” “That doesn’t matter; you will commune.” “Why?” “Because that’s what Christians do.” And that settled the matter for her. Never again have we fought over whether to commune. (I have temporarily lost the battle over communing by the common cup; she prefers the intinction cup, as do most of her friends. But I am confident that I’ll eventually win this war, too.)

My point was and is that communing regularly – as we said of voting in Chicago, early and often – is the very way of life of those who bear the name “Christian.” If we do nothing else, we commune. Of course, if we commune, unless we are in very peculiar circumstances, I don’t know how communing can be all that we do. But that’s for another post.

Now, in the church, the sense of communion as “ordinary” – at least in the sense of being something that should be done as regularly as prayer and Bible reading – has won out. But at what cost, I wonder.

As with so much of church life, the pendulum just can’t seem to stop at the via media; it has to continue past center to the opposite extreme. And I wonder whether communion has become too “common.” Far from close(d) communion, we practice virtually no eucharistic discipline at all: Oh, we may put in our bulletins (as we do at Mount Olive) that we welcome to communion anyone baptized in the name of the Father and Son and Holy Spirit, but in no sense do we check credentials of any “stranger” presenting himself or herself. (And, truth to tell, I wouldn’t want us to.)

My wish has been granted (to call it a prayer might stretch matters): Eucharist has become a common expectation and practice. But for many, I suspect, it has – as predicted – ceased to be special. With the American inability to live with paradox, most of us have resolved the tension in favor of ordinary. And it shows in the manner that many commune: There is a distinct lack of reverence toward the body and blood themselves, which are tossed around like so much old gravy. (In my in-laws’ congregation, after communing, the communicants discard their little plastic individual glass into a waste basket, without regard for whether there’s wine still in it or not. Needless to say, I almost faint – especially when that is combined with happy-clappy songs projected on the side screens.) Communion is seen as “due” to anyone who wants it, irrespective of any commitment to or involvement with the congregation that gives flesh and blood to the body and blood of the eucharist. It’s a picnic to which all and sundry (perhaps even including the ants) are welcome.

And superstition has replaced reverence. I was recently at a confirmation in a large church. This congregation almost never offers congregation communion services; the pressing need for religious services on-the-hour doesn’t allow for it in a 45-minute service. So for the confirmation (which looked and sounded more like a graduation – unfortunate connotations, there – replete with little diploma folders), communion was something of an open question. The church’s solution: Have the confirmands stand, throw out the words of institution (with NONE of the versicles, canticles, or anything else that give the Eucharistic liturgy its substance), and commune just the confirmands, while the soloist sang a medley of Bible camp standards. (Side note: And we wonder why we won’t see most of those kids in church again?) Let the congregation witness the event – after all, it’s a spectator sport, anyway (well, except for the offering). Sanctify the event with a little communion thrown in; don’t worry about the absolute nonsense it makes of whatever meaning the confirmation rite has (and I argue that it has very little). Give it out along with a Bible and a diploma. No need to dim the lights (that only happened for the sermon!). It was almost surreal – and that would have been interesting, if the entire event hadn’t been so damned sad!

Obviously extreme examples prove very little, but they can open our eyes to deeper realities. Reverence is a dying art in Lutheran worship; it has become all too common – almost indistinguishable from the other entertainment venues we frequent. (I’m not sure, frankly, that I would object to a Starbucks outlet at Mount Olive, but I draw the line at cup holders attached to the pews!) And some of that helps explain much of the problem of Lutheranism today.

Back to paradox; re-stress the tensions. Forget Hegelian thesis-antithesis-synthesis; the Gospel is not synthetic and neither should be our theology. Recapture “dialectic”: It means more than “with words.” Bring back “the holy” aspect of Church life. Take off your shoes, as Moses was told; this is holy ground. We could stand lessons in how to stand on holy ground without losing our sense of terra firma.