Sunday, December 31, 2006

Best of the Blogroll: 2006

I've decided to ring out the old year by noting my favorite post of 2006 for each blog on my blogroll.

With my thanks to all of you for being bloggers.

Take care & God bless

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Christmas Thank-You Notes

As you may have gathered from my entry in the Posada blog chain, this Christmas has been one where I struggle to find time, struggle to find room, struggle to get my heart and mind prepared, to make straight a path for the Lord. More on all that after the New Year. But for today I'd like to send out a few thank-you notes to people whose Christmas posts were a blessing to me.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Christmas: blog-break

I'm taking a blog-break so that I can better enjoy and appreciate Christmas without keeping up a writing schedule. I plan to be back for New Year's.

Merry Christmas.

Monday, December 18, 2006

The First Christmas: Historical Background

Dr. Pursiful has been running a satisfyingly in-depth series on the historical background of Jesus' birth such as the censuses, star of Bethlehem, when Zechariah's rotation would have come up to serve in the Temple, and so forth. Stop by and give him a read. Well worth the time.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Messiah! God's Salvation In Songs of Praise

Handel's Messiah is a well-loved full-length concert of songs in praise of the Messiah. But that style of music is not for every age or every culture. I started by planning to make a set list for a concert of Messiah with songs that were more familiar. I finished by making three separate set lists in different styles. Some of these are more complete than others, and as always my own song preferences are showing:

Traditional Hymns
Holiness of God: Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence
Nativity: What Child Is This?
Nativity: Joy to the World
Passion: Go to Dark Gethsemane
Resurrection: Jesus Christ is Risen Today
In Praise of Redemption: At the Lamb's High Feast
Holy Communion: Bread of the World in Mercy Broken
Holy Communion: This is the Feast of Victory for Our God
Holy Communion: Just As I Am (Lamb of God, I Come)
Christ the King: All Hail the Power of Jesus' Name
Christ the King: Crown Him With Many Crowns
Praise and Faith: Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee
Ascension: A Hymn of Glory Let Us Sing
Father, Son, and Spirit: Holy, Holy, Holy

African-American Spirituals
Praise and Faith: He's Got the Whole World In His Hands
Nativity: Go, Tell it on the Mountain!
Ministry: Man from Galilee (Put your hand in the hand ...)
Passion: Were You There? (When they Crucified My Lord)
In Praise of Redemption: O Happy Day
Great Commission: Children, Go Where I Send Thee!
Holy Communion: Let us Break Bread Together On Our Knees
Christian Walk: Day by Day (Three Things I Pray)

Contemporary Spiritual Songs
Praise and Faith: This is My Father's World
Praise the Name: Jesus, Name Above All Names
Praise for Deliverance: El Shaddai
Holy Spirit: Breath of the Living God (Soplo de Dios)
Christ the King: King of Kings
Christ the King: Majesty
Christian Walk: They'll Know We Are Christians by Our Love

My "Contemporary Spiritual Songs" list is short on songs about Christ's earthly life, death, and resurrection, and about Holy Communion. I'm not sure whether that's my own limited familiarity with this set of songs, or whether there's a genuine lack of songs there. The African-American Spirituals list is better-rounded but I'm sure I'm missing some good ones. Write-in suggestions are welcome!

(I did leave out one of my favorite African-American Spirituals -- Ezekiel Cried, "Them Dry Bones!" -- because it didn't fit very well with the overall set list.)

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Posada: Mary and Joseph's Journey

The posada is a centuries-old New World Christmas tradition with figurines of the holy family being housed in a new home in the community each night. Traditionally done as a novena starting on December 16th, it has been been expanded and adapted for on-line use. Tonight I am hosting the holy couple on their way.

"No room, no room. Sorry, try somewhere else." God has been hearing that from the dawn of humanity. So have all kinds of strangers in need. Tonight, let me be glad that God takes time for us, and welcomes us. May we all have the heart of God and the Spirit of God.

Take care & God bless

Mary and Joseph's hosts
Yesterday Anne Gogh
Tomorrow Dave

Whole Chain:
Mon 04 Dec Chris Munroe aka Desert Pastor
Tue 05 Dec Jem Clines
Wed 06 Dec Alistair
Thu 07 Dec Lydia
Fri 08 Dec Jennie Swanson
Sat 09 Dec Psalmist
Sun 10 Dec Dr Platypus
Mon 11 Dec Sally Coleman
Tue 12 Dec Jim Palmer
Wed 13 Dec Anne Gogh
Thu 14 Dec Weekend Fisher
Fri 15 Dec Dave
Sat 16 Dec John Cooper
Sun 17 Dec Sue Wallace at Abbess of Visions
Mon 18 Dec Lucas
Tue 19 Dec Joanna at Keeping Feet
Wed 20 Dec Adrian at Emerging Church info.
Thu 21 Dec Ian Mobsy at Mootblog
Fri 22 Dec Bob Carlton
Sat 23 Dec Chelley at Chelley's Teapot
Sun 24 Dec Abbey Nous

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

The Ghost of Christmas Present: On wrongs done in the name of Christ

"Forgive me if I am wrong. It has been done in your name, or at least in that of your family," said Scrooge.

"There are some upon this earth of yours," returned the Spirit, "who lay claim to know us, and who do their deeds of passion, pride, ill-will, hatred, envy, bigotry, and selfishness in our name, who are as strange to us and all our kith and kin, as if they had never lived. Remember that, and charge their doings on themselves, not us."
Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol, The Second of the Three Spirits

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Evangelism and the witness of beauty

We began by considering beauty's ability to communicate the message, "this is good." Beauty is a witness to the goodness of the one who caused it. Now we've come nearly full circle, considering how God's Word transforms us again into a Christlike spiritual beauty. I'd like to close with this thought: to the extent that our lives have been transformed into things of beauty -- of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, and self-control -- that is the extent to which we have some spiritual beauty. And that beauty created within us also communicates -- to the extent we permit it -- that God is good, that Christ is good. Our lives -- to the extent we permit it -- are witness to the goodness of the one who redeems us and loves us.

One of my old friends is fond of discussing Transcendental Signifiers, by which he means something like "things you can look at and know there is a God." It's a Sign of something that Transcends, a natural witness, a signpost to God. This is our call: to make our lives Transcendental Signifiers, a natural witness, a signpost to God, a testimony of his humility and love by way of our own. When we live the way Christ taught us, people can look at us and know that God is good.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Beauty, the Word of God, and the nature of morality

Confucius spoke of the ideal man, one whose thoughts were moved only by the Odes, whose actions were moved only by the Odes, whose words were moved only by the Odes. The Odes can be thought of in an idealized way as an ancient poetry of primal beauty that reveals the right order of the world; this poetry, once planted in our hearts, would cause the actions to be of similarly pure beauty. Many of the Israelites considered the Torah in a similar way as a thing of exceptional beauty, and that likewise someone whose life was holy would be ordered around the Torah, moved when it moved, silent when it was silent, spoke what it spoke. As Confucius may have conceived of the Odes as a kind of Natural Law, so the Israelites thought of the Torah as an expression of Natural Law, which is to say an expression of God's character, as the beautiful law which could not be otherwise without lessening the world.

Christians recognize that archetypal Word of God as the power by which God made the world, the creative beauty which gave it shape. We recognize the same loving and creative force, the same Word of God embodied in Jesus of Nazareth; we recognize him by his embodiment as the one who was moved by the Torah, who spoke when it spoke and was silent when it was silent, who lived that life of beauty, holiness, peace, and power whose possibility was promised by the existence of the Word.

This archetype -- the Word of God which transforms us and makes us holy -- arouses great desire and longing in humanity. But so long as the Word of God was a book, or a half-forgotten Ode of surpassing beauty, it could do little more than arouse in us holy frustration. When the Word of God was embodied before our eyes as Jesus of Nazareth, we saw more clearly, remembered more completely, the hints of the things of God, things that had been half-known or half-forgotten, half-suspected or half-doubted. Beyond Jesus showing us the Word clearly, he also spoke that Word of God to us again. The Sermon on the Mount from the Blessings to the end, the sheep and the goats, the law of love, the greatest commands -- these are the ancient Word of God which set the world in order. These are the words that the listening poets have strained to catch. From creation, this is the Word of God that was spoken over the dust as we were made.

The true nature of morality, as the Living Word, the Christ, made clear, is a joyful and loving thing, reserving anger for those things that dam the River of Life and profane the Holy Name. The true essence of morality is a thing that naturally attracts us to itself. The tedium of laws was given because of our need, broken humanity's need to be confronted about all the selfish and spiteful ways in which we mistreat and demean each other and cheapen each others' lives. Life by the Spirit of God is not like this.
The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, and self-control. Against such things there is no law.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Beauty and the nature of spiritual development

What is spiritual development? In Christian terms, it is a soul becoming more Christlike: fully in the image of God, but humble and fully human. Christ's life continuously showed to humanity the signs of both the transcendence and the humble love of God. He lived a life where his words and actions were full of beauty of every type, from compassion to judgment to mercy to love.

Christ is the template that transforms our lives. To develop spiritually is to become more Christlike. The beauty of Christ's life reshapes our own.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Knowing the beauty of creation, knowing the character of God

How knowing the world and ourselves leads us to know the character of God and to anticipate the possibility of God's incarnation.
I am convinced that he asks us to love him with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength because that is how he loves us. I am convinced that he asks us to love our neighbors as ourselves because he loves us as himself.

To see the beauty in creation is to know that creation is good. But what does this tell us about the Creator? We can can only create what we can first imagine. If creation is good, then it follows that the Creator must be good in each of those ways, as great as the sum total of all of the different kinds of goodness we see. If creation is great, God must be greater, not because he left anything of himself unexpressed, but because he is the cause of the greatness, the source and origin of it all. The different kinds of goodness we see in creation must reflect the different kinds of goodness in the Creator: vastness and intricacy, precision and wisdom, power and gentleness, vibrant overflowing aliveness.

In this creation there is a type of creature, ourselves, who see the creation and experience gladness. Knowing creation causes gladness in us because of the good we see there. Our natural reactions to this goodness in creation are peacefulness, kindness, joyfulness, and love for what we see. It follows that knowing the Creator would cause more gladness in his presence because of his greater goodness: it would cause us greater peacefulness, kindness, joyfulness, and love. The glory of creation is cause for awe and wonder; the glory of God is cause for greater awe and wonder. These things are spiritual beauties: beauties that come from knowing and reflecting on the physical goodness that communicates the heart of God, the mind and soul and strength of God. I am convinced that he asks us to love him with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength because that is how he loves us. I am convinced that he asks us to love our neighbors as ourselves because he loves us as himself.

How can we know this? We can know it from Christ, and the same message is also communicated to the whole world from God's creation. If all the beauties of the world reflect God in some small measure, then what about these things of spiritual beauty, such as love? If the vastness of the stars explains the fact of God's vastness to us, then does our own love communicate to us the fact of God's own love? When we see these spiritual beauties in ourselves or others, are we seeing part of God's essential character? Would it even be possible for the creature to have a good trait (such as love) which the Creator did not have first and bring into being? So we know that awe and wonder belong to God, glory and honor belong to God, but also peacefulness belongs to God, kindness belongs to God, joyfulness belongs to God, and love belongs to God. The world could not be as it is if God lacked any of these things. We expect that the kindness and love that belong to God are greater than ours, and that his good will eclipses our own. This is cause for peace in us, and for hope. The hope is not only for his kindness; we also have cause for hope that his love may turn towards us as towards all he has made. Such a hope leads to joy.

Creation's declaration of God's goodness raises some questions. If God's goodness is reflected in some way in all the good things here, how much could God make himself present in the world, not only by proxy as it were in the things of creation, but as Himself? Would God's love cause him to be present in the world, and if so, how?

Humankind's reflection of spiritual beauties -- our capacity for love and kindness, for joy and creativity, for deliberation and benevolence -- these similarities to God -- these raise more pointed questions: why has God made a creature with that much of his image? Does he intend a higher kind of love than is possible towards rocks and trees, oceans and stars? If God is loving, does God intend fellowship with those he has made? Would he have made that possibility of fellowship, created creatures suitable to it, unless he had intended to fulfill that possibility? What if God made himself present in the world not only as creator and designer and soul whose greatness is communicated by it, but also as a participant in the life of the world? Would God ever take the form of a creature? Is there any creature more suited to house God's life in the world than humanity?

So the approach of knowing God through creation alone causes us to wonder: is God's incarnation possible? And if it were -- if God lived among us -- would we understand the mind of God that much better?

Sunday, December 03, 2006

The Experience of Beauty and Awe, and the Existence of God

When discussing reasons that people believe in God, it seems that beauty and awe are often neglected. I suspect this is because the reasons for believing in God are often drawn up as rationalistic arguments. This approach, while rational, often supposes that reason is the highest of our faculties and that the other human faculties are lesser and "irrational". While reason is undoubtedly useful -- and can even lead to knowledge and wisdom if rightly applied -- I'm skeptical whether reason is the highest of our faculties. I also dispute the idea that the other human faculties are "irrational" simply because they are not pure reason. Here I'd like to sketch out a claim (rather than an argument) from beauty and awe.

Let "beauty" be that which communicates goodness.

Let "awe" be that which communicates transcendence.

Then to experience beauty and awe is to know there is a God (a good which transcends the material).

When I say that beauty "communicates goodness," that is to say that beauty is a name we give when we see the quality of goodness. This quality, when we perceive it, shows itself to our minds as the thought, "This is good."

When I say that awe "communicates transcendence," that is to say that awe is the sense that reality goes far beyond what we see directly, that there is a meaning far beyond the material or formal limits that present themselves to us.

This is at the heart of much of the intuitive sense that there is a God. It is one of the simplest and most commonly felt of the natural reasons for the existence of God. Such topics are barely able to be articulated because words are not their native language. And by itself, it is an incomplete claim for the existence of God. There is not enough concreteness to fend off an attack by pure naturalism, other than by the deep and abiding sense that pure naturalism is missing what is greater. For concreteness, we rely (rightly, in my opinion) on other approaches.

But this primitive sense of beauty and awe is still vital, and is often neglected in current theology so shaped by the naturalistic worldview and by naturalistic assumptions about what topics are permitted. Over the next few posts I will consider various ways in which the primitive sense of beauty and wonder are at home in Christianity, and ways in which we can rightly incorporate them into our knowledge of God, our worship, our views of spiritual growth, and our witness.