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!