Archive for October, 2010

Ministry of the Apostles, a complex multi-figu...

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For the Christian, the title the Son of Man finds its earliest reference in Daniel 7 where it is used to describe a cloud-born humanlike figure.   When it is used in the New Testament, it is almost exclusively used in the Gospels and then alwasy on the lips of Jesus.  ( The other occurences are found in Acts 7, Hebrews 2, and Revelation 1 and 14.)   Its usage is cryptic to the extent that Jesus uses the phrase in the third person as if referring to some other person but the context of the passage implies that the reference is to him. (Burkett, 2000 page 32)   

More generally and before our scriptural references, the title was used in the ancient world to reference a specific human being and we often understand when we read scripture that the  being referenced is the risen Jesus.  Thus we might understand that Son of Man holds a tense between our human condition and our desire to transcend it.   

Scholars have wrestled with this phrase in order to “pin it down” and understand it more fully.  However, I wonder if the phrase is not meant to have some play in it.   

If it is confusing to determine whether the reference is to Jesus or another specific human being, then perhaps we are to wonder who Jesus is referring to.  I would like to propose that when Jesus is remembered as using the phrase “Son of Man” this was a reference to Jesus as well as to what he has in common with the human condition.  For example, one of the  days of the Son of Man might be a phrase indicating a hoped for day when one rises above one’s pain suffering and is triumphant over their circumstances.   

If this is possible, the Son of Man becomes a meaningful but generic title for the specific human experience striving toward faithfulness when we are betwixt and between our worst fears and our highest hopes.   For my part, since I am still trying to understand this phrase, I will be playing a little game.  The game will be to insert my name into the places of scripture where The Son of Man title is used and then I will take an alternative view and slip Jesus’ name in.  I will see which one if either make consistent sense.


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Image of hell, part of The Garden of Earthly D...

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With the opening of each chapter of her book Sharon L. Baker is competing with the entrenched images of hell that Dante’s Inferno that still exercise themselves in human mind and culture. Like the  Baker is asking us to reconsider hell from a truly Christian perspective.  And sort out the complexities and dimensions of hell.  Hell can be confusing as imaged in this painting of hell by Hieronymus Bosch which is part of a two dimension piece of artwork ”The Garden of Earthly Delights

In Part III, Baker reinterprets traditional understandings of Hell and proposes a more biblically sound and intense hell than is traditionally considered. She begins in chapter ten by giving the reader an accessible formula for reading scripture:

Knowledge and assessment of scriptural context (ex. Gehenna as the trash dump of Jerusalem)


Recognition of metaphoric/hyperbolic language used by Jesus (ex. weeping and gnashing of teeth)


Individual ability to discern the archetypal message being conveyed.


Harmonization of message with a loving God for the final application to life of the believer

While the above formula is a part of my routine homeletical practice as a pastor, I confess I was skipping some steps in my theology.  Baker provides a more careful and fundamental approach.  This is essential for congregations such as mine.  With care she challenges the reader to harmonize their discoveries with the loving God of as seen through the “Jesus lens” of chapter five. 

Now, in the event that we were going to lose heart or courage that we were taking too much liberty or responsibility, Baker makes a most important statement on page 153.  Perhaps among the most important statements of her book in terms of encouraging her reader and substantiating her own constructive work, Baker writes,   “The layers of reinterpretation in both the biblical texts and in the history of Christian doctrine lead on to realize that the tradition is to reinterpret the tradition.  We reinterpret continually, repeatedly with a repetition of reinterpretation that preserves the relevance of the living and active Word of God.” (153)  As I read these words, my mind was drawn to the work of Bernard P. Prusak and his book The Church Unfinished:  Ecclesiology Through the Centuries.  Prusak addresses the organization of the church from which all doctrine springs when he says that:

The emerging Church did not stress unchangeability or a fixity of structures positively predetermined by an immutable divine decision.  To the contrary, it was still open-ended, and had to be.  Jesus had chosen the Twelve and had left an emphasis on service or “pro-existence.”(50)

Prusak’s work might undergird Baker’s reinterpretive efforts with audiences that are most concerned with the question “What would Jesus do?”

Not only does she reinterpret tradition.  Baker give us new ways to imagine hell. In her final chapters we revisit Otto (first introduced in chapter nine) who is the classic example of one who might “be sent” to hell as a consequence of his life.  However, and most importantly, we also meet Anne.  This woman is one who has led a devoted Christian life.  She has upheld and pursued the example of Christ and she is not one that we imagine would be destined for hell.  In her brilliance, Baker opens up her  re-imagined hell not as a place for just some people but for all people.  Having reminded the reader that fire is symbolically a consumptive and purifying power.  In chapter eleven, Baker welcomes the likes of Anne into hell. 

“On judgment day she came into the presence of God with joy and with a bit of trepidation (some would call it the fear of God).  The blinding light of God’s presence dazzled her, its burning heat encompassed her; and its boundless love embraced her.  At first she feared that the fire would totally consume her.  But as she experienced and then understood its inexpressible and excessive love, she hoped it would. …As the fire of God’s love continued to burn, she knew that the purification that began for her during her lifetime was finally finished.  But rather than the pain and the hellish work of repentance that unbelievers face in the fire, Annie experienced the intense joy of divine love.  She walked with Jesus next to her, into the center of the fire, into her at-one-ment with God.” *164-165. 

Between Otto and Anne, Sharon L. Baker has enriched a tired doctrine of atonement.  No longer is hell only a place to fix what is broken but a place that brings all people of varying circumstances into a more intense unity with God.  Baker notes this is the highest hope of the Christian faith as well. (176) 

You know, Halloween is coming…and we will celebrate All Saints Day that same Sunday in Osawatomie Kansas.  Though these dates have been very close on the calendar, never before have they been so powerfully reconciled in my mind.

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When the Kingdom of God is considered in Luke 17,  it is perhaps presented as a test question to Jesus by Pharisees in verses 20 and 21.  Then the conversation is broadened to include disciples who are a more revolutionary leadership group in verses 22-25.  Responding to the test question of the Pharisees as well as warning the disciples about their own interest in and pursuit of God’s Kingdom, verses 26-37 need a bit of untangling in order to review at least two themes of The Kingdom:  

1.   Time:   Pharisees and disciples anticipate that The Kingdom will arrive at some future time that they hope to be able to anticipate. 

2.  Signs or Clues:  Pharisees and disciples anticipate that The Kingdom will be accompanied by obvious signs or clues that come from God and descend upon the human experience.

Jesus’ mysterious responses suggest subtle corrections to these themes of time and clues. 

Correction to time: I want to suggest that Jesus’ response that “The Kingdom of God is within you” is a correction to anticipating a future Kingdom.  Rather the Kingdom within you is a synthesis of the specific past, present and future of each believer.  So, in verses 21 and 23 there is a warning not to chase after exterior signs “here” or “there”.    I am suggesting that the Kingdom is experienced when an individual person is pulling together the important clues that surround them into a meaningful whole that makes sense in light of their past, present and future.  

If the Kingdom is not so much a future date of fulfillment, this effects our understanding of signs as well.  No longer are we looking for signs as a warning of what is to come.  Rather there are clues that are indicative that a Kingdom experience is available now within our current circumstances and contexts.  Clues can be characterized many different ways:  interesting, agitating, or scary just to name a few. 

For example, we receive an agitating comment from a friend that we are too self absorbed.  This comment is so disturbing that we want very much to dismiss it but we cannot no matter how we rationalize or complain about it.  Such a resilient and agitating moment may be a God given clue into our lives that encourages us to practice focusing on another person or circumstance.  And in the midst of the experiment we have a deeply spiritual experience that leaves us feeling grateful and rejuvenated. 

Another example might be a woman who is afraid to go see her ailing father in a nursing home.  She is afraid she will not know what to say or how to adequately comfort him.  Of course, she will have to eventually end the visit (if she ever decides to go) and leaving him will be painful as he asks to go with her or wants her to stay longer.  She might avoid going and her burden will grow.  Or she might have a playfully prayerful exchange with God and say… ‘Okay, even though I am afraid to receive this scary clue, I will receive it.  And I will even go visit my ailing father.  Give me the strength to do this visit well.”  And once she arrives there are tears, some laughter, awkward moments of silence and  finally a “good bye” that requires several attempts before she is finally walking out the door.  Even as she is grateful to be leaving – she is more grateful that she came.  She feels connected to her God given purpose.  She feels she has accomplished her mission.  Her visit has drawn her past, her present and her future together into a meaningful whole, with God’s help.

The point is that agitating or scary clues can make us want to bury ourselves into a mindless party or celebration as referenced in the Old Testament stories nestled in verses 26-29. 

Verses 30-35 sound like the seed idea for the tremendously popular apocalyptic fiction series Left Behind by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins.  I think we can imagine these verses another way that does not imply that we worship such a wrathful and vengeful God.   Imagine two very good friends collaborate and share many rich experiences in their lives.  And as they live and work enjoying one another, their specific clues accumulate.  Most likely the clues accumulate at different rates or intensities.  So, eventually, one friend withdraws from regular habit in order to make a mindful response to her accumulated clues.   This may leave the other friend feeling “left behind” or lost from the friendship.   How many of us have felt this way only to have a friend return (enriched, diminished or otherwise) months or years later?  Clues can take some time to understand and formulate a response to.  Did I say time?:)

My version of scripture (NRSV) does not include verse 36.  So I will not address it here.

Verse 37 is my favorite perhaps because it seems so cryptic.   We remember that vultures gather when death seems eminent.  However the passage does not say that the vultures feast … only that they gather or circle.  As despicable as vultures are perceived to be in culture, they are also the creatures that will salvage what others have given up on.  In the eating of carrion, vultures ingest the death that was not otherwise managed.  As they digest it, it takes the form of new energy and life.  So, I hear in this passage the promise that the Kingdom experience is possible when we are integrating our past, present and future through the clues of our circumstances in such a way that we die to some things and are reborn to others.  Perhaps we die to: one way of relating to our loved one; previous understanding of the way the world works; a political party; a habit or routine.  And almost simulatenously, we begin to find energy for an enriched relationship; a learning curve toward greater understanding; a new political network;  a revitalizing routine. 

Though religion is an important tool for Kingdom experiences, this passage impresses upon me that Kingdom experiences cannot be generalized to one dimension of time or environmental clues that are set apart from the specificity of each person.  My interpretation of Luke 17, grows in strength when we consider our most fundamental belief, that God knows and treasures each of us personally.  The Kingdom is among us and within us and experienced uniquely by us.  Any congregation on Sunday morning (or other days of the week) might marvel at the number of Kingdom experiences that have gathered.   And as the liturgy is spoken and the hymns are sung, the human beings sitting in the pews are anchored by the rocks in their guts.  Their minds are distracted from the provided worship… “What am I going to do with the clues that have gathered in my life?”  A Jesus- like whisper responses, “Your clues are the stepping stones into the Kingdom experience that God anticipates for you.  Be Brave!”

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In 1902, Violet Oakley was the first woman artist to receive a commission to adorn a State Capitol building in the United States. For the Pennsylvania State Capitol Supreme Court chamber, she chose to represent law as movement up a musical scale, beginning with the painting Divine Law, which she said was both the Alpha and the Omega.


Part II of Sharon L. Baker’s continues to move a theological comb through the issue of hell.  The first tangle is the assumption that hell is a violent place.   With little biblical evidence for the concept of hell, Baker moves to the mythic level of explanation.  Citing  the work of Rene Girard, hell is recognized as management of evil.  Specifically, the theme of scapegoat exists across different cultures.  The scapegoat management of evil works like this.  A creatur, person or community is identified as  an appropriate target.  The community then unleashes its violence on the scapegoat and are thus purged of their violent inclinations.  Baker notes that the myth of the scapegoat “…camouflage the gravity of the violence against a community by taking the side of the murderers against the victims.  Illegitimate violence is reframed as legitimate.” (65).  Baker argues strongly that the scapegoat must not be the primary lens through which we see our God and issues of justice.  The Jesus lens is preferred.  And as she has mentioned earlier – not Jesus as scapegoat. 

The Jesus lens links love and justice… not violence and justice.  (This is where she cites the art work of Violet Oakley) What prepares the human being to love in the midst of evil?  Forgiveness is the answer that Baker provides. Baker’s treatment of forgiveness seems overly tidy and, again, God is very anthropomorphized as she discusses forgiveness.   However, she guides us to a functional understanding of forgiveness. “Forgiveness liberates us from the prison of an otherwise irreversible past and transforms the future from one of condemnation and retribution to an open future of redemption and reconciliation.”  Ultimately, Baker’s defintion of forgiveness could be improved by Marjorie Suchocki’s work Fall to Violence

As I read, my antennae of caution goes up.  Just as I hope that Baker will dismiss hell as a trivial and petty idea all together, I have the sense that she will not be letting go of hell in part III. 

This is difficult reading in that much of Baker’s theology seems to be shadowed in an anthropormorphized God.  But her reach beyond tradition and biblical literalism is most appreciated.  Her work is significant and bridge building.  Our forebearance of one another can make all the difference as we critique and move theology forward.

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Weekends are about returning a pattern of self care and community.  We step away from the routine of the work week and we want to make the most of our time. This often requires a shift in our mind set.  We might be focused on:  getting free of work week resentments; being more mentally available to our families;  mobilizing ourselves for imporant home improvements; or readying ourselves for community events.  Whatever the weekend,  if we want to shift the mind, we must first get the body’s attention. 

The ability to guide our mind (instead of having random thougths guide us) begins with breathe control.  This can lead to greater awareness.   Yoga is an ultimate practice in breathe control and awareness.  Often associated with Eastern Religions, it is important to note that Yoga is not a religion or the practice of one religion but “…an aid to practice the spiritual truths in all religions” (www.dlshq.org/teachings/yoga.html

There is a great deal of conversation on the internet about whether or not Yoga and Chrisitanity are compatible.  With intention, I believe they are.  Yoga can be a spiritual practice for the Christian person in a number of ways.  Sometimes, pracitioners couple scripture with postures and yoga becomes a way to reflect on sacred texts.   Another option is to use the postures to pause and meditate intentionally upon a life dilemma in light of who we believe God is calling us to be.  Still another option is to focus on health and healing as one moves through the poses.  In this last example, healing and health can be physical or social.   There are a number of websites that offer information about how Christians can use yoga to increase their Christian mindfulness and discipleship.  A great one is http://www.christianspracticingyoga.com.

Breathe deep … its another weekend!

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Part I of  Sharon L. Baker’s book, Razing Hell:  Rethinking Everything You’ve Been Taught About God’s Wrath and Judgment provides a concise but detailed history of how hell has been conceived in the Christian tradition.  She cites her own students struggles to reconcile the God of love with the God who requires some sort of payment in order to provide salvation.  To know this history is to determine our own opinion or at least to come to terms with our default understandings of hell.  Baker reminds us that this matters because it is our imagination of God that guides and informs our actual behavior in the world.

Though she has not yet cited John Dominic Crossan, she will.  His seminal work The Historical Jesus:  The Life of a Mediterranean Peasant goes to great lenght to explain that Jesus’ understanding of the kingdom was as a brokerless kingdom.    It may be that Crossan’s rigorous methodology and life work will be a partner to Baker’s more accessible conversation regarding the nature of God. 

In chapter four, she is very helpful in summarizing atonment theories.  As we approach the first week together, it may be helpful to think about which one comes most naturally to you.  Her summary includes:

  1. Christus Victor Theory – Christ wins a victory over sin and death.
  2. Satisfaction theory – God is offended by humanity and Christ’s death on the cross satisfies God’s offended state and all is forgiven.
  3. moral exemplar-Jesus’ death on the cross causes us to realize how much God loves us and we then love God in return.  God and humanity are reconciled to one another.
  4. Penal Substitutionary Theory – (best explicated by Presbyterian’s own John Calvin) – God punished Jesus in our place (substitution).


I will be reading the book in light of the current issues of Membership within the Presbyterian church.  Membership might be likened to being in God’s good graces.  Traditionally, membership has been understood to entitle individuals to certain privileges. While those outside formal membership are denied those privileges.  However, when I face membership in the church more honestly, I realize that individuals are often motivated to membership because they want to be involved in the fellowship and want to make their unique contributions not because they are afraid they will be left out.   Has the tradition’s attention to heaven and hell contributed to the church’s understanding of member versus non member?

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