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Posts Tagged ‘God’

I would not say that our house is enamoured with Halloween.  The children have dressed up in years past.  They have all walked the trick or treat route.  But at the end of each year, hey are ready to go home a bit early and they are a bit uncertain of the most gruesome costumes.  One year, as my children were worried about a group of marauding teens dressed like ghouls, one mother said to me….”Leslie, the holiday is good for your kids it  will toughen them up!”   But I wonder….is the holiday meant to desensitize us to the gruesomeness or  the uncertainty of tricks and treats?  Or is All Hallow’s Eve, in the spirit of all good festivals, intended to increase our sensitivity so that we can live with a greater sense of adventure?

Every week in church, we say the Lord’s Prayer.  Some say the ritual is good for us.  That is softens our heart and makes us better people.  But again I wonder. Is the prayer or even the art of praying meant to keep us docile and obedient before a mysterious God?   Or, could prayer be a ritual meant to increase our sensitivity to life and the adventure of faith?

It has been a temptation within the Christian church to distance Halloween and good Christian fun even though the two had so much to do with one another in the early church.  Perhaps over the next several weeks we can consider,  “Hallowed be Halloween”!

 

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The Christian tradition has, like other religious traditions, succumb to a temptation.  The temptation is to provide proof texts and answers in defense of itself.  In fact, what gave rise to the Christian faith were, I think, powerful holding environments (to borrow a term from Ronald Heifetz) where questions could be imagined, discussed and celebrated.  Whether they were Jesus’ questions, the questions of disciples or questions from the crowd, it makes little difference.  The questions of the gospel rarely get a straight or simple answer and those who pursue answers are often characterized as rigid fools.    The gospel response to questions is often more mysterious and there is some sort of invitation to understanding.  It is portrayed as frustrating and confusing to those within the gospel narrative and we know how they feel.

What is the difference between understanding and answers?   It may be helpful to return to the etymology of the word understanding.  To understand has been confused with “knowing” something or someone.  The etymology of understand indicates “a standing between or in the midst of”.  This suggests that understanding is an act.  Understanding holds a tension between  things.   Perhaps in it we are held between our past experiences and our future hopes.   Perhaps understanding puts us between significant individuals of our lives.  But to just be between things seems a pansy-sort of stance.  Why do I want to just stand between, in the midst of.   Isn’t it more powerful to decide and stand on one side o or another?  Aren’t we declared “willy-nilly” or worse, “non-committal” with such a definition of understanding?  “I understand” can be such an impotent response to those in crisis, after all.

The spiritual discipline of asking questions seems to shed new light on understanding.  Questioning moves understanding from a passive observation toward and active engagement with the world.  In our questions to one another, we assist in the exploration of life.  Offering our questions into our relationship with God, according to the gospel record, illumines the human being’s journey.    Too often, I have been out of touch with the most significant questions of my life.  I think this happens to me because those original questions have given rise to very meaningful relationships and experiences that define my life and its purpose.  I don’t want to insult life’s meaning, my experiences, God’s gifts to me by seeming to second guess what has already been considered….at least in part.

As I consider John 3:1-10, this week’s lectionary text, it occurs to me that to return to significant questions (like “Who am i?”) does not mean that I don’t value the experiences that have risen from that question thus far.  On the contrary, returning to the essential questions may be  something like a miner who returns to a stable and robust mine.  This mine promises so many gems, they cannot be carried out in one journey.  And if the mine is the question….each gem is not a complete answer but part of what built the question.  The question is the joy and the purpose and each portion of the question catches a divine light….that light illumines a chosen path.

When Nicodemus asks his question, “How can one be born again?” it seems to me that he is trying to understand his desire to return to questions without shame.  He wants to keep their adventure at the fore front of his living.  And Jesus, for his part, responds with understanding.  He offers not another question nor an answer, but he offers modes of investigation for the adventure.  After all, water and wind have always been masterful at finding their way into the spacious depths of earth and humanity’s geography.

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David Kelsey’s chapter “Sin as Living Death in a Distorted Personal Identity” from his larger work, Eccentric Existence:  A Theological Anthropology provides a helpful anthropological assessment for approaching forgiveness.  As fundamental as forgiveness is for the Christian faith, it can be difficult to orient ourselves to think critically about it.  Too often we feel we “should forgive”.  Therein, we realize that forgiveness is a Christian fundamental that faces profound challenges.  In Kelsey’s larger work, he explicates God’s reconciling energy toward humanity and also formulates an ultimate question for the human community who is challenged to respond appropriately to the reconciling energy.

Appropriate response to reconciling God is a humanity that can engage forgiveness.  But there are things about our anthropology that challenge our ability to be forgiving or to forgive. Thus, we find ourselves living alienated from the only appropriate response to a reconciling God…. forgiveness.  And Kelsey defines forgiveness as “the interhuman reconciliation that is the necessary social context of acts seeking the rectification of unjust patterns of human action.” (878)

I will crudely summarize his three scenarios in which human beings are unable to approach forgiveness:

Humanity so ordered by culture that there is no room for forgiveness.

Personal identities that find their worth in power (the ability to command) or adherence to a moral order leave no real room for forgiveness.  Because one is only worthy insomuch as one is able to continue to exert power or adherence to a moral order, there is a cyclical need to return to power initiatives or rules of the moral order in order to find oneself as an individual of power.  This cyclical need puts us on a treadmill of spiritual righteousness.  We understand ourselves to be superior to those who cannot behave to the moral order or command an influence over their environment.   Kelsey asserts that identity in power and moral order provide no space for forgiveness. We cannot forgive others for not adhering to a moral order, nor can we forgive them for not exercising more power and influence in their own lives.  Because we understand our worth as coming from a perpetual cycle of power and order (inequality), forgiveness becomes a nuance-like interruption or inconvenience.

Waiting for the best time to forgiven.

As limited as power and moral order end up being, they do begin as best intents within the human heart.  In the second option, Kelsey reminds us that sinful behavior also obstructs our approach to the Christian essential of forgiveness.  While this seems obvious, Kelsey describes the dual-blockade of sinful behavior that is at once interpersonal and intrapersonal.  Not only do we find ourselves in relationships where we diminish others and they diminish us, additionally, we find (intrapersonal) a cognitive function  that denies our existence in such diminishing relationships.  Because we are involved in a structural bind, forgiveness is not an option. Kelsey draws upon the scriptural use of the word Hypocrite as one who is self-deceived.  Abiding in insulated armor, we imagine that when the world straightens up, we will then forgive.

Inability to forgive within the self:

Whereas the previous two options are interpersonal, this third option is really an intrapersonal experience.    Whereas the two previous options have human beings primarily concerned with social order or relational complexities, in the third option, human beings want to avoid “discovering themselves inwardly guilty of failure to do their duty and live consistently across time”.   While forgiving others may be an option or an interest they pursue, Kelsey notes that individuals are unable to forgive themselves.  They are unable to forgive themselves because they have a sense that they have fallen short of living consistently and to the standard of what is their duty.  This duty may be social constructed, humanistically defined or divinely ordained.  In any case, it is a standard that is never satisfied and the human being lives a partial life, guilt ridden.

Kelsey goes to great pains to explicate why forgiveness is so difficult. I think brilliantly.  However, in the end, we are in despair.  What Kelsey does not seem to acknowledge are brief moments in which forgiveness is attempted, respected and hoped for as sufficient responses by human beings to a reconciling God.  What if within adherence to power, moral order, complexities of relationships and our own intrapersonal world, our spiritual discipline of forgiveness is a ripple, sparkle or flash that leads or lights the way to our next significant moment wherein we behave with increasing faithfulness?

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Dove of the Holy Spirit (ca. 1660, alabaster, ...

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I enjoyed writing these prayers after reading very helpful commentary from  The Interpreter‘s Dictionary of the Bible vol. 2 “Holy Spirit”  and The Lord of Life:  Perspectives on Constructive Pneumatology David H. Jensen Editor and specifically chapter five “Guests, Hosts and Holy Ghost: Pneumatological Theology and Christian Practices in  World of Many Faiths” by Amos Yong.

 

 

CALL TO WORSHIP:

Leader: Some say that faith, in the larger world,  has lost its tact.

People:  Our parents always told us to mind our manners.

Leader:  Minding manners allows individuals to arrive at shared understanding and behavior.

People:  Even in Jesus’ day there were a diversity of beliefs and this required etiquette and manners.

Leader:  There was no Emily Post, but there was and is attunement to the Holy Spirit.

All:  Let us reconnect with the Holy Spirit who inspires bold tact, as we worship the God of Jesus.  Amen.

 

PRAYER OF PRAISE:

Holy Host, you are not an ethereal ghost but a salient connector.  When we have a need to be loved, you connect us with those who need love from us.  When we need adventure, you connect us with demanding individuals and circumstances that build stamina.  When we are in need peace, you present us with people in need of comfort that only we can give.  Hear our praise that when you connect us though we seem to be meeting the needs of others, our own cup runneth over.  Continue to come and connect our lives o Great and Hospitable Spirit.  Amen.

 

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 Almost 3 years after it is published, in the new year,  I will begin a review of a book Complexity Perspectives in Innovation and Social Change, editors David Lane, Sander van der Leeuw, Denise Pumain, Geoffrey West.  I first learned of this book by listening to a master’s class interview with Geoffrey West on the website www.edge.org devoted to multidisciplinary conversation among innovative scholars and scientists.

The book argues that innovation (the way that invention spreads through a population) is the driver behind urbanization.  My goal is to make this book applicable to the church which has, since the time of Jesus, been dealing with social change.

Today,  the church, it seems, can easily become a reactionary institution.  This is quite ironic given the progressive pictures of Jesus in our new testament scriptures and the progressive images of God in the Hebrew scriptures.   Fundamentally the church confesses a faith in a  living God with the help of the Holy Spirit.  Once organized we understand ourselves to be part of  a larger vitality.  Individual members become part of the Body of Christ.

In this critique I will be assuming that the church has a great deal to do with the urban environment that the editors have collected in this book.  Further, I will be assuming that the vitality of a localized congregation is found in its ability to innovate in response to its environment and its tradition.   I am sure I am not alone in this second assumption.  However, the challenge for the local congregation is the how-to of innovation and what are the necessary elements for innovation to flow through a congregation.

I hope to discover important questions and learn as I blog about this book.

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Star of Bethlehem, Magi - wise men or wise kin...

I am jumping ahead to what are traditionally the epiphany readings.

Call to worship:

Leader: Expectation is such a difficult experience from which to recover.

People:  It has been, at least, weeks of expectation.  For some of us our expectations linger on.

Leader:  When Mary is no longer expectant she is surprised by what arrives into her life.

People:  Gift-bearing wisdom makes its way.

Leader:  Wisdom is a warp in time.  A place where past and future are conjoined in the present.

All:  Let us worship our God of wise men and women. Amen.

PRAYER OF PRAISE (easily adapted to become a prayer of confession if that is what is needed)

Holy Spirit of intuition and initiative, we praise you for the Christmas offerings of gold frankincense and myrrh presented to the Christ child and thus to us.  May gold remind us of our priceless place as your disciples and thus servants to the world.  May frankincense keep us mindful of our world ever holding others in prayer.  May myrrh leave us courageous enough to give our life and energy into our community for your glory.  May the wise men’s gifts symbolically guide our own lives into the fullness of Christ.  Amen.

 

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The final petal of Calvinism‘s TULIP is the “P” i.e. the perseverance of the saints.  For Calvinism, this is the idea that the “elect” never lose their salvation in the eyes of God.  Back tracking through Calvinism, however, we come to understand that perseverance of the saints emerges from Calvin’s idea of ongoing sanctification throughout the believer’s life.   (Our previous review of the “elect” in my blogs of  10/25/2011 and 12/13/2011  are a sufficient critique of the difference between Calvinism and Calvin for this blog as well.)

Sanctification is, for Calvin, the continual renewal that goes on in the life of the believer as they are increasingly persuaded by Jesus’ life and ministry.  Calvin would say their heartfelt union with Christ provides for the continual sanctification but sanctification does not stand alone.   The essential twin to sanctification is justification.  While sanctification is the renovation of the individual believer, justification is a gift that Calvin imagines is bestowed by God through the life and ministry of Jesus.  Said yet another way, Calvin does not imagine that a human responsiveness as in sanctification is possible without the generous provision of God i.e. justification.

I have, for a time, had a brief but indelible friendship with a gentleman who committed much of his life to the work of the church.  When talking about the joy of working in the church, he, having been a sailor, likened his joy to scut work.  As he told me not long ago,  “Scut work is a euphemism from Navy parlance for garbage”.   Scut work within the church has an essential nature  that exemplified his industry among good Presbyterian folk.  The essential scut work of congregational and denominational life is found in the tasks that keep us connected to one another.

  • In the records of a meeting or concern for the vitality of congregations other than our own….scut work has a sanctifying effect in that we are involved in a bigger picture than our own immediacy.
  • Scut work of the church involves interpreting the rules and order of being a church in  personal way that allows people to value and honor their relationships more deeply and with greater complexity.  Such was the scut work of Jesus as he traveled house to house…. that continues into the present day sanctifying us when we take it up within our own responsibilities.
  • Scut work in the church is the giving of ourselves (our specific gifts and talents that are organized uniquely in each individual life) trusting in the gifts of others that when compiled realize not only the industry but also the joy of what it means to be the Body of Christ to which the Apostle Paul called the Corinthians and thus us.
  • Scut work is persevering for some 71 brief years, as one welcomes the Holy Spirit to hone the mind, heart and behavior  toward a loving and inclusive God.

One of process theology’s essentials is that truth is emerging.  The world changes and we, as Christians, are challenged not to resist change and hide unnecessarily within an orthodoxy.  Rather, process realizes that each orthodoxy began as a response to changes in world view and individual understanding within it.  What becomes orthodoxy began as a suggested framework by which we might wrestle with and pray about the new world views that continue to challenge the tradition of the church of Jesus Christ.  The perseverance of the saints from a process perspective might be exemplified by one who loves what has been and that same person, with courage, welcomes God’s next thing with a discerning, open  and joyful heart.

I believe that my friend was actively editing his own life, the life of his congregation and his denomination not only because it was what came naturally to him, but also because Jesus was the finest of editors.   Scut work is an unending process attending to the mundane so that the extraordinary may emerge.  Such work ironically produces a sweat-equity sort of joy that is perhaps our finest evidence of sanctification and the continued imagination for Calvin’s notion of justification.

It is my prayer that as I persevere, I might never be talked out of scut work which now has such a joyful face and life associated with it.

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