Sunday, August 18, 2019

Fellowship and Theology

If "theology" has to do with understanding God, then I would advocate the view that fellowship is a necessary part of theological studies. I mean this in several of the obvious senses: that fellowship is a rightful topic of study; that practicing fellowship is part of coming to understand God; that fellowship is an intrinsic result of knowing God.

Theology is our pursuit of the greatest treasure of knowledge: knowing God. Along the way we'll be drawn together to reflect on each others' insights and share our own. The more we understand God, the fewer strangers there are in the world. The closer someone walks with God, the closer we walk with each other also. Consider that Jesus sent his disciples out to teach in pairs and so fostered friendships among his disciples. Consider that St Paul would passionately plead with people by name to set aside personal differences, and considered it a worthy use of his letters to spend time greeting people by name. True love of God is not something we can do without knowing our neighbors' names.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

An Objective / Key Result Assessment of the Law - a framework for understanding other the Bible's own comments on the law

For those not familiar with the Objectives and Key Results (OKR) management method, it takes the approach of clearly stating an objective and then measuring progress toward it with key results. The OKR methodology is popular among tech companies. Proponents of OKR often lead its brag-sheet with the fact that Google uses the approach.

I'll start with a general example of how it would be used. If a person wanted to participate in the annual novel-writing challenge in November, a possible OKR write-up for it might look like:
Objective: Complete a novel
  • Key Result: Outline a plot with no more than 20 points by November 3
  • Key Result: Write a chapter covering one plot point each day for November 4 through November 23
  • Key Result: Proof-read and edit 4 chapters a day November 25 through November 29
  • Key Result: Format and publish by November 30
In some ways, everyone who has ever worked toward a long-term goal may find the OKR method to be nothing but common sense. While I'd accept that as a valid point, I'd also mention: common sense is often sorely lacking, and I'd welcome anything that works to secure a place for common sense in the decision-making process. The OKR method makes it clearer  how to turn common sense into an action plan.

So much for the introduction to OKR. But is the method useful in giving us insight into Biblical law? Consider the common observation that the Ten Commandments fall under the general headings of the two greatest commandments: "love of God" for the first table of the law, and "love of neighbor" for the second table of the law. Here is one way to look at that observation from an OKR framework:
Objective: Love the Lord with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength
  • Key Result: You shall have no other gods before me
  • Key Result: You shall not make yourself a graven image
  • Key Result: You shall not take the name of the Lord in vain
  • Key Result: Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy 
Objective: Love your neighbor as yourselves
  • Key Result: Honor your father and mother
  • Key Result: You shall not murder
  • Key Result: You shall not commit adultery
  • Key Result: You shall not steal
  • Key Result: You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor
  • Key Result: You shall not covet your neighbor's wife, or workers, or property
That OKR framework can shed light on some other comments in the Bible about the law and its place in Christian life. This includes some comments for those of us from the Gentile nations who were never given the Law of Moses, or placed under it.
  • That it is possible for people to honor God with their lips, while their heart is far from Him: we can fulfill certain key results -- or even all of them -- while not actually embracing the objective.
  • That it is possible for people to keep the letter of the law but still go against the spirit of the law.
  • That love is the fulfillment of the law: it is the objective, in this way of viewing it.
  • That anyone who claims to keep the law, but chooses to keep only part of it, is not really keeping the law: When we work toward the objectives, we see that all the results are integral to the objective. 

And, saving one for last: 
If anyone says, "I love God," but hates his brother, he is a liar. (1 John 4:20)
Here John the Apostle's comments are something of a challenge to the idea that the two tables of the law are cleanly separate. Is there really one set of laws for love of God, and another for love of neighbor? When Jesus was asked about the greatest commandment, why did he choose to answer with the two greatest commandments -- the first as love of God, the second as love of neighbor -- instead of one commandment as asked? Here again we see reason to consider that they may be inseparable. On that view, Love of Neighbor could be viewed as a sub-point under the heading of Love of God, like so:
Objective: Love the Lord with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength
  • Key Result: You shall have no other gods before me
  • Key Result: You shall not make yourself a graven image
  • Key Result: You shall not take the name of the Lord in vain
  • Key Result: Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy
  • Key Result: Love your neighbor as yourself
    • Honor your father and mother (etc)
We may be challenged to see that love of neighbor is part of love of God. Which again fits very well with how Jesus described the Last Day: "Whatever you have done for the least of these brothers of mine, you have done for me."

Sunday, August 04, 2019

Eventual Retirement, and Treasures in heaven

For a little while longer I'll comment on the daily reading, as the summer winds down and I hope to carve out more time for personal things again. 

In today's reading's we see time and again the uselessness of greed. Jesus encourages us to be rich toward God -- which often meant being generous toward the poor. There's some sign from the gospel reading that Jesus would also include not being divided from family by inheritance matters, not being drawn away from people by the lure of money, prosperity, security, or financial ease. I find myself seeking clarity about the line between the retirement planning that is good stewardship, and that which is trying to control the uncontrollable, or trying to buy peace of mind. I do suspect that savings are less comforting than a companion would be.

As the years go by I have more treasures in heaven than on earth: all four of my grandparents, my father, my aunt, and (a year ago today) also my brother. And I see it more clearly: I don't miss things I have lost, only people. My actual treasures in this world are family and friends. Kindness is a more important deposit than the 401k withdrawal. Forgiveness and amends are the bonuses. A renewed acquaintance is better than finding long-lost funds. Reconciliation is like winning the lottery. And a small meal with a friend is more satisfying than a plentiful meal alone.

Sunday, July 28, 2019

Denied prayers in the Bible

The Bible records many cases of answered prayers. But it also records some cases of prayers that were denied.

Abraham prayed that God would spare Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham had family living there, which may have motivated his prayer. He appealed to God to spare the city, confident that the Lord would not destroy the righteous along with the wicked. The Bible records that instead the few righteous were warned to flee. Abraham's relatives were among them.

On the night he was betrayed, Jesus prayed that the cup should pass from him -- generally taken to mean that he should be spared death by crucifixion. If ever a prayer should convince us of Jesus' full participation in our humanity, that is the one. And if ever he had join in the suffering of all that humanity must suffer, then he joined us that night with the devastating refusal of his prayer. After Jesus met an utterly brutal end, God made that right too and raised Jesus from the dead.

In both these cases the prayer was heard. The petitioner was right to think that God was listening, and that God was working in the situation. The one in prayer was even right in their confidence that, because of God's goodness, things would in the end be well again. But that did not mean that they received exactly what they asked.

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Mary and Martha are back again

I am hoping that the mandatory overtime at work -- such a common feature of my summers -- will come to an end sometime over the next few weeks, and I can again develop deeper material that requires more thought and research and soul-searching. But in the meantime, I am grateful that today's lesson was on Jesus visiting the home of Martha and Mary.
As they went on their way, he entered into a certain village, and a woman named Martha received him into her house. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at Jesus’ feet and heard his word. But Martha was distracted with serving, and she came up to him, and said, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister left me to serve? Ask her to help me.”
Jesus answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen the good part, and it will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:38-42)
 On a day in which I consider thinking, "I should do more," maybe it was a good day to remember that that's not always the best. 
Some events recorded in Scripture are old friends, and this one I welcome back again. Bless the evangelists, and the lectionary! And most of all bless Christ's compassion. When he advocates for Mary, it builds my faith that yes, his yoke is easy, and his burden is light. 


Sunday, July 14, 2019

What is the right involvement of a congregation in service and charity?

The New Testament is full of instruction that we should reach out to those in need. What is a local congregation's role in promoting that?

Consider some of the New Testament's teachings on mercy and generosity:
  • All the acts of mercy that Jesus described in describing the Last Day: Giving food to the hungry and drink to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, visiting the sick, visiting the imprisoned (Matthew 25:31-46)
  • Garage sales and similar events to benefit the poor: "Sell what you have and give to the poor" (Matthew 19:21, Mark 10:21, Luke 12:33)
  • Donating excess material goods: "If you have two cloaks, give to him who has none, and who has extra food likewise" (Luke 3:11)
  • Collecting for disaster relief (1 Corinthians 16:1)
  • Helping support the poor (Galatians 2:10)
  • In particular caring for widows and orphans (Acts 6:1-7, James 1:27)
  • Bearing each others' burdens (Galatians 6:2)

Sometimes the acts described seem to come from an individual, sometimes from the family (who are instructed to care for widows in their own family), sometimes from the unified efforts of believers.

I'm curious whether other people are satisfied with the efforts of their churches in providing, organizing, or recognizing opportunities for their people to serve.

Sunday, June 30, 2019

Mercy and Fresh Starts: Thoughts on Peoples' Skeletons in the Closet

Have you ever imagined starting over? Really starting over. I've read a few stories about people who have faked their own deaths, or assumed another identity. (No, I'm not going anywhere; it's an analogy. Hang with me a moment.) They wanted a fresh start, and they were willing to go to any lengths to start over. Maybe they'd made irretrievable mistakes. Maybe they'd made such a mess of things that they didn't see a way forward. Maybe they'd gotten involved with dangerous people and didn't see a way out. So there are stories where someone fakes their death. They count themselves as dead to the old, dangerous crowd -- and that frees them to be alive to a better life. The U.S. government even has a witness relocation program to help people start over. But that has a high bar for admission; for most of us there's no clean, legal way to start over. And even then there's the risk of running into someone that you used to know.
"Count yourselves as dead to sin, but alive to God." (Romans 6:11)
When it comes to sin, that's not too far an image from the idea of faking our own death. Not in the sense of starting a false life, but in the sense of starting over with a true one. When temptation knocks, we tell the devil, "Sorry, I -- er, I mean they -- don't live here anymore."

But there's always the risk of running into someone that you used to know. It seems to be a public sport to find the skeletons in peoples' closets, to dig up an old secret and say that one thing from long ago shows what a person is "really" like. But is one thing from a long time ago usually the true key to what a person is really like? And, from our faith: is that the good news? When we come across someone's old secret and have a chance to think differently of them, how about: Let's not, and let forgiveness be our choice. We can let them live a new life, and not be the force working against mercy. After all, who doesn't need mercy?