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?

Sunday, June 23, 2019

The Value of Beauty And Stillness

There is a time to speak, and a time to refrain from speaking.

"The heavens declare the glory of God" in a way that is far less tiresome than anything a human can manage with words. Though will we ever keep our peace? "Be still and know that I am God." He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul.

Of the making of many books, there is no end (and it brings weariness). God's sanctuary of old was not filled with books but with images of heaven. There is value in being still, and in seeing the beauty of holiness.

Some may object to the idea of "meditation" because there are so many forms and it may be that not all are healthy, or there is room for confusion on what is healthy. But if we are still, and let the heavens declare the glory of God, we can find that God restores our soul.

Sunday, June 16, 2019

c# theology: How clearly can we explain what we are saying about God?

Logic is a useful tool, and originally a branch of philosophy. Then computers were invented, and over the years logical languages became far more specialized than their ancestors that were used in basic syllogisms. With the advent of object-oriented programming (OOP), logical languages made enormous gains in their ability to model the real world. But has computer programming, the now-grown independent child, ever returned the favor to philosophy to see how much the more advanced logical tools can help clarify philosophical problems?

For example, someone once used the question "What is a chair?" to explain to me just how complex a thing can be. Roughly their side of the conversation ran like: "A chair is a noun, isn't it? And yet, if you change all kinds of things about it, is it still a chair? Can't we take two very different things (maybe a squashy recliner for one, and an uncomfortable hard plastic stackable armless seat for another) and say they are both chairs? So what can we really say about chairs?" And I thought to myself, quietly, "The effort we put into outsmarting ourselves!" I was very young at the time so simply filed away the example in my mind; these days I suspect they simply didn't possess the right analytical tools. Because from an OOP point-of-view you could argue that "chair" is an interface -- roughly a set of certain predefined requirements, in this case mainly the ability for one person to sit on it -- that is implemented by any number of specific chairs. Or you could argue that "chair" is a function that returns a specific object that can be used as a chair. There are probably other options for how we model our thoughts about what "chair" means. But we don't want to confuse "slightly complex" with "ineffable".

On Trinity Sunday, I often come to the question: How clearly can we explain what we are saying about God? And it's hard to know where to start. For example, what if I start here:

public class God
    // what it means to be God

We run into open questions immediately. What does it mean to be God? In the Athanasian creed, the content of what it means to be God would be filled in along the lines of "uncreated, infinite, eternal." In the Nicene creed, it would be filled more along the lines of "Father Almighty, creator". In various parts of Scripture we'd also see holy, wise, compassionate, merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love (or simply "love"). For today I'm fine with leaving "what it means to be God" as an open question; we'd hardly settle it in the course of a post anyway.

But then on Trinity Sunday here, there's more to say. So what if we sketch out:

public class Word : God
    // class Word is from class God
    public purpose Speak(person[])
        // do something

For those who don't code for a living or use other languages to code, I'll mention: the above says that Word inherits from God, so that everything God is, the Word is also. And I've sketched in one method (action) that belongs to "Word": the Word can Speak. The Word speaks to one or more persons; we haven't defined persons yet but pseudo-coding theology is not a small project and we have to start somewhere. I'm not sure that putting "purpose" in the return value is the best construction for Speak() but I certainly didn't want to pseudo-code it that Speak returns void. (Yes, there's a coder-theology-geek pun in there, but might be on the obscure side.) At any rate, while it's open to a more fully-developed model, it will do for the first draft -- with the understanding that it's not done yet, and wouldn't even pass a programmer's logical syntax-check at this early stage. Most code starts that way.

And while there are some points I'd like to discuss on that, it might help to bring the Holy Spirit into the discussion (in more ways that one!)

public class Spirit: God
    // class Spirit is from class God in the most ancient constructions
    public childOfGod Indwell(this, person)
        // do something

Again, that says that everything God is, the Spirit is also. And I've so far described one action of the Spirit, which is Indwell, an action which requires both the Spirit (this) and a person, and returns a childOfGod (again not even defined yet).

Now the number of things incomplete about this is fairly mind-boggling. If any reader feels the need to say so, you'll have my full agreement. But it opens up for us to have more exact discussions over our questions about God. Because the above is not the only possible arrangement; far from it. For example:

Which methods (actions) really belong to the child classes, and which to God as the originator? Is the Word of God more like a class, or more like an interface (having all the properties of God but not an independent class)? How about the Spirit of God: class or interface?

I know, some will find this hopelessly ... unhelpful (at best). But I hope that what it lacks in refinement, it makes up for in possibility.

Sunday, June 09, 2019

Baptism - Why I do not see "obedience" as the main thing

I'm intending to pick up some older threads in the upcoming weeks, and wanted to start with a brief look at baptism. This is not here approached as an analysis of all the texts or arguments, more as a starting place for discussion.

If a parent tells a child to wash, and they wash, there's an aspect of obedience in that. But if the child asks, "Why?" I'm not sure the parent would answer "Because I said so." Was the washing nothing more than to show the parent's authority and check the child's obedience, or was there a genuine reason for washing? Was the parent using their authority as a test for the child, or was there something there for the child's benefit?

I can imagine someone making a case that obedience is itself the most helpful habit in the child: How could the child receive any benefits, ever, from following the parent's instructions if they never in fact followed those instructions? It's a fair enough question; it's also a fair question exactly what kind of relationship the child has to the parent. Is the parent working for the benefit of the child? Jesus encourages us to think of our relationship with God as to a Father who knows and cares what we need.

Jesus sends out his followers to make new disciples by baptizing and teaching, and those early days recorded in the New Testament speak of a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Some people seem to be offended at the idea that baptism is for the forgiveness of sins, and the objection seems to be roughly "If baptism brings us God's forgiveness, and baptism is an act of obedience, then we'd be earning forgiveness by our obedience. We know that's not right -- so baptism can't be about forgiveness." But what if it it's not about obedience?

If it were simply a matter of obedience there would be no need for water to be involved; the water would be arbitrary. God might as well have asked for us to do anything, if the only point was for us to do it. Based on Scripture I find it far more likely that God is trying to tell us something, that his choice to use water means something. 

The explanation that makes the most sense to me is that God works with us in a way we can understand. He has promised forgiveness. He gives us water for washing: we recognize that as a way to make something clean, new, and pure. He relates to us in a way that we can see every day when we wash. It's not our obedience that makes us clean; it is his washing away our sins that makes us clean. Baptism really is about forgiveness, and washing us clean, and making us new. None of that has so much to do with our obedience as God's mercy, his goodwill towards us.

Sunday, June 02, 2019

God and "The old guy with the beard"

Full disclosure: whenever I hear someone complain about a mental image of God as "the old guy with the beard", I tend to stop listening. There is nobody I have ever heard who thought it was meant literally; the objection as if that were a common understanding seems to me like argument-bait for an argument that I could scarcely believe was meant seriously, and certainly couldn't take seriously in any form I've heard.

For those who are familiar with idea of archetypes, I could say that the "old guy" image reminds me of the archetypal ancient sage -- much like Merlin in the Arthur legends, Tolkien's Gandalf, or more recently J.K. Rowling's Dumbledore. Archetypes are something like the shared images of the cultural mind -- and in this image we can see the thought of the powerful ancient man whose age has increased his wisdom without diminishing his strength.

In visual art Michelangelo -- one of the world's greatest painters -- in one of his most famous images, portrayed God as an old guy with a beard (below, image from Sistine Chapel). If we're going to use imagery at all, then meaningful imagery for God will convey one who is ancient yet vital. If we use images at all, we'd be hard-pressed to find a better image than that.

My experience is that those who complain about such an image of God tend to be either atheists who would protest anything that communicated God regardless of its merit, or Christians who find such images to be low-brow, unsophisticated, and embarrassing. It reminds me of times in the church's history when there were controversies over whether it was permissible to portray God in art, and times when Christian religious art was destroyed by other Christians. For the most part, the arts have won the argument for legitimacy in Christianity. Still the aspiring intellectuals may be its harshest critics. They may accept a great master like Michelangelo who makes a great painting of God as an old man, but if they imagine an uneducated person who finds that image helpful to make the idea of God more present, sometimes the aspiring intellectual may find himself embarrassed -- not of God but of his less fortunate brother.

I've recently been re-reading C.S. Lewis' Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer. He had a useful insight that may be helpful when thinking of such images:
This talk of "meeting" is, no doubt, anthropomorphic ... That is why it must be balanced by all manner of metaphysical and theological abstractions. But never, here or anywhere else, let us think that while anthropomorphic images are a concession to our weakness, the abstractions are the literal truth. Both are equally concessions; each singly misleading, and the two together mutually corrective. (from Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, Chapter IV).
As Christians, we remember the Word of God in human flesh as Jesus. This teaches us that while we may have any amount of pious and lofty talk about God, it is at least as close to the truth to think of God as taking on flesh to reach out to us, and that God is not too high minded to make concessions to our weaknesses.

Sunday, May 26, 2019

Wrestling with the idea of God's law as a means of providence

A few years back I found myself in need of physical therapy. As the therapist told me that following these instructions would build strength and endurance, I had no expectation that she was going to reward me with strength and endurance if only I did my exercises well enough. In that kind of situation, it's clearly the act of exercising itself that brings the strength and endurance. 

I once read an author who suggested that among the ways that divine providence works, one was similar to how physical therapy works: that in keeping God's law we find ourselves in a situation where every such action strengthens ourselves, our relationships, our families, and our communities. Every such action nurtures the world around us, and provides good stewardship for all in our care. It is a method for prosperity -- not in some magical way, not in some sense of obligating God, not in some foolproof formulaic way or legal contractual way -- but in the sense that every action that supports a goal should tend to draw closer to it. And the more people who work willingly towards that goal with their eyes open, the more widespread the benefits become in ever-widening circles: in a close-knit family, a safe and supportive community, and beyond into nation and to the world at large. 

I would not suggest -- and have not heard it suggested -- that the whole of providence consists of the natural consequences of sticking with God's commands. But I do find the idea interesting, and worth considering, that the law is intrinsically a blessing meant to prosper those who walk in its ways -- and our neighbors. 

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Good Shepherd Sunday: Where do we find the lost and hurting?

I get it: everyone is hurting, or has been, or will be; everyone has felt lost, or will feel that at some point. But if Christ's love moves us to help, there are places we can look for people who would be glad for a friendly voice now. Despite how much time can be lost on social media, our society is badly under-connected -- I'd go so far as to say dangerously under-connected -- in a human sense.

Thinking of "Good Shepherd" Sunday on the Christian calendar, for a moment I'd like to look at the fact of being lost: usually it also mean being alone. Separated. No companionship. These days so many people turn to TV for company, and people may have more imaginary friends than real-life friends (for example, characters in TV shows). It can mask the isolation for a time, or numb it -- but it can't satisfy.

There is value in real-life human connection, an art to the kind of hospitality that creates fellowship. I found myself wondering where to look for people who may feel lost. At first I concentrated on the highest-risk places: hospitals, half-way houses, shelters, and so on. Still, the art of connection begins at home. May I build connections with my current circle of friends and family, my neighbors, and the pew-mates at church.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Happy Mother's Day!

Best wishes for Mother's Day to all the mothers out there, with compassion for those walking difficult or complicated roads.

Sunday, May 05, 2019

The Roots of Peace

Peace is part of the path of God, an inseparable part of what it means to be a Christian:
  • Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God. (Matthew 5:9)
  • Seek peace, and pursue it (Psalm 34:14)
  • Pursue peace with all (Hebrews 12:14)
  • As far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone (Romans 12:18)

On a technicality, we may say there is peace in the absence of immediate violence -- but that is a shallow peace, a thin and brittle peace. That peace depends on things outside ourselves.

A deeper peace takes hold inside ourselves when we have been cleared of the seeds that become violence: I do not feel at peace when there is animosity or fear or resentment or bitterness inside me. A deeper peace still has been cultivated with understanding, friendship, with compassion and with common cause. Even in the midst of outward trouble, through faith in God, we receive "the peace that passes understanding" (Philippians 4:7). All the inner peace of God is still available in the midst of outer trouble: "These things I have spoken to you, that in me you might have peace. In the world you shall have trouble: but take heart; I have overcome the world." (John 16:33) This inner peace is not of an act of will or a product of determination that depends on my own effort. This peace comes from knowing I rest on solid ground.

To be an instrument of peace, first I must be filled with peace, but it need not be my own.

Sunday, April 28, 2019

What is the purpose of a Sermon?

I'm spending some time interacting with neighboring blogs before continuing some of my own series. Today I wanted to consider an issue raised at Conciliar Outpost about an Anglican's view of the purpose of a sermon. I'd encourage people to read the whole linked article but will sum up here enough for those who only read this continuation of the conversation. The linked post sees three main types of sermons as problems to be avoided: the moral to-do list, the call to social action (generally as political activism), and the academic lecture. It advocates this as the correct content of a sermon: 
The sermon is the preaching of Gospel to the congregation in a way that convicts them of sin while also preparing them for the Eucharist. A Lutheran may call this “Law/Gospel” preaching. There is a sense in which the sermon should destroy self-confidence in the hearer while also pointing them to the crucified Lord.
To be clear, the context is in a liturgical worship service, where the sermon is part of the bridge between reading 3 portions of Scripture -- the third of which is from one of the New Testament gospels -- and the Eucharist or Lord's Supper.

Again to be clear, I'm not writing this from any adversarial view of Anglicans or Lutherans.

But is that really what a sermon should be? Is there a one-size-fits-all answer to what a sermon should be, other than a faithful conveyance of the Word of God? The sermon should be faithful to the text being preached. What if the scripture reading for the day isn't intended to convict people of sin? How can it be faithful to the Scripture to insist that every sermon should serve to convict of sin when every scriptural reading does not? The sermon should serve as a means by which the shepherd feeds the sheep, as "Man does not live on bread alone, but by every word which comes from the mouth of the Lord."

The purpose of the sermon should be much the same as the purpose of the Scripture itself. In addition to the things already named, I can think of Scripture passages which also include the following among the right things accomplished by God's word:
  • Building faith
  • Encouragement
  • Gaining wisdom and understanding
  • Giving joy
  • Increasing knowledge of God
  • Renewal and regeneration
  • Comforting and strengthening God's people
 I expect there are many more. I'd be glad to hear of others.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

To Him, all are alive

When Jesus was in Jerusalem not long before his arrest, he said:
even Moses showed that the dead rise, for he calls the Lord 'The God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.' He is not the God of the dead but of the living, for to him all are alive. (Luke 20:37-37, with Jesus quoting and commenting on Exodus 3:6)
Today is the first time I celebrate Easter to commemorate Jesus' resurrection without my brother who, by his age, might have reasonably lived for decades to come. But God is God of the living. To him, all are alive. To God, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are alive. If to God all are alive, then to God my brother is alive. Resurrection and forgiveness: we're all sure to need them someday. Thanks be to God for his love in Christ Jesus.

He is risen indeed!

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Lent and the Love of God

This week's Lent post is a response to the thoughts of Metacrock at his personal blog: Love: the Basis of Everything (expansion). Metacrock and I have several beliefs in common; the most important of those is that love is the core of God's nature. We find ourselves in agreement that love, as the nature of God, is the cause of creation and the basis of morality. More than that, we share common ground that love is the basis of morality because love is the basis of creation, and because it is the nature of God. God is the ground of existence; the ground of existence is love.

If the basis of our existence is the love of God, then breaking all ties with God amounts to cutting off the branch on which we sit. It's a fatal move, not because of some whimsical rule-system or vindictive payback, but because of the nature of our existence as contingent on God.

At one point Jesus told a parable describing God's love for people: a shepherd went looking for a missing sheep. In our days of city-dwelling and dwindling wilderness we do not think of the risk the shepherd would take to seek out a lost sheep. The wild was a dangerous place not just for the sheep, but possibly for the shepherd too.

Today marks the start of Holy Week: in the context of our broken relationship with God, it calls back to the time when Jesus knowingly stepped onto dangerous ground. Why did he have to die? Death is where all the missing sheep had gone, or would someday go.

Sunday, April 07, 2019

Lent: Most Edifying Thing Heard Today

Over at Weedon's blog, the good pastor considers the account of Jesus and Barabbas. We can read that account and see a cruel and ironic twist that there were people who demanded for a murderer to be freed, and for a healer to be killed. The pastor suggests that these may be Jesus' thoughts:
You WANT Barabbas to be free. Love divine, all loves excelling.
It is what he came for: to set the captives free, and take away transgression.
We are Barabbas, are we not?

Sunday, March 31, 2019

Growth and Gratitude

This post is a response to blog-neighbor Martin LaBar: Christians are expected to grow.

I'm looking back at the past few years and I have been grateful for a friend's suggestion that helped my spiritual growth. She taught me a simple exercise in gratitude that brought about growth and a changed perspective. It was an easy exercise:
Each day for 30 days, write down 3 things for which I'm grateful. Avoid repeating the same thing when I can. (Another variation of the exercise: exchange texts with a friend who is also doing the exercise.)
I had just come through some very dark times. I'd even been on medical leave at work and had taken a blog hiatus for health reasons. And I was not yet enjoying life again. I didn't know that I had much to be grateful for. But my friend was kind and open rather than bossy; she said she had done the exercise herself and found it helpful. She shared her experience and hope rather than giving advice, and she encouraged me to do it as a personal exercise, to try and see.

The first few days were a struggle against my own anger at my situation. But by the time a week or two had gone by, I was beginning to realize just how much was still good in my life and that my anger was blinding me to it.

I still maintain the exercise, not with the same rigid "3 entries per day" rule as when gratitude was new to me. Still, gratitude often appears as part of my end-of-the-day routine.

I'd be glad to hear of other spiritual growth exercises based anyone else's experiences.

Monday, March 25, 2019

The life well-lived: By what measure does a Christian measure success?

I'm a day late posting. I'm traveling and certain of my on-line accounts "helpfully" recognized that I wasn't using my usual device or my usual location, and set up a few extra hoops before I could access my accounts even with the correct credentials. 

I'm currently visiting a relative as he celebrates a very round birthday. If I should reach the age he is currently celebrating, I'd find my own celebration mixed with the thought that it might well be the last of the very round birthdays. At that point, when the inevitable comes, no one will say the passing is premature; it's a milestone at which the comments turn to the "long, full life" that has been lived.

What makes for a full life, for a Christian? I am here thinking specifically about the shape it has taken for the person I'm here to celebrate.
  • A loving, faithful marriage spanning decades until death parted them some few years ago
  • A solid career that enabled him to both provide well for his family and to help others generously
  • A lifestyle of hospitality, with his door and his heart always open to a new friend
  • A consistency of warmth and kindness that has built many friendships and earned much trust
  • A genuine concern for others
He is deeply Christian, and so it is fitting to see his character in terms of the Christian virtues of faith, hope, and love -- the greatest of which is love. I don't know that he would see it that way; he might say he is a "people person", or "tries his best". The focus of his life is -- and has always been -- the human connections. To watch what motivates him, his most frequent motive is love.

There is value in recognizing someone's virtue. Of course that act of recognizing helps cultivate virtue in the mind, too, but I think mainly it helps in building our own love.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

In memory of Jesus

"Do this in remembrance of me." -- Jesus, basically the last thing he did before going to be arrested on capital charges
Sooner or later we all give some thought to our legacy. What will we leave behind? What will they remember about us? When will people think of us?

With Jesus, he asked us to continue remembering that his life wasn't all about himself: it was about his love for us. And that his love is the guarantee of our forgiveness.

Without forgiveness, a relationship becomes about perfection and expectations, and fear of being less-than, and dishonesty about who we really are. Without forgiveness, it's a matter of time before things become about excuse-making and finger-pointing and image-management. The quest for human connection and love, without forgiveness, becomes impossible for us. Multiply that by the billions of people in the world.

May I remember forgiveness every time I need it; may I remember forgiveness every time someone else needs it too.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Where there is hatred, let me sow love

Where there is hatred, let me sow love. -- St Francis' Prayer
How, exactly, is love planted? 

In a culture as overrun with hatred as an abandoned lot with weeds, how do we make a difference? 

Love is planted by loving. Fig trees grow more fig trees; grape vines grow more grapes which grow more grape vines. "The chicken or the egg?" is meant to be an endless puzzle because each generation must come from the one before it. Love is planted by loving. 

Sunday, March 03, 2019

"Right in all points of doctrine" -- Do we teach love?

The scope of knowledge and the scope of error

There are many Christians who hold that the Bible is inerrant in matters of faith and doctrine. The qualifier "matters of faith and doctrine" is generally understood as a disclaimer when it comes to matters of science (and possibly matters of history of the ancient Near East). 

Others hold that the Bible is inerrant in its original monographs. The qualifier "in its original monographs" serves a similar purpose: it hedges against the fact that there are problems that we cannot resolve with the known texts. It's a hypothetical inerrancy that applies to documents we never expect to see. "Inerrancy" is described in a way that acknowledges that we don't have it.

The Roman Catholic doctrine of infallibility is, in a similar way, carefully scoped and qualified til it leaves a lot of room for fallibility.

While looking into which church I'd like to make my new home, I have to say: I don't know that my current church is wrong on any particular point of doctrine as they'd define doctrine. And in my current pastor's mind I'm fairly sure he'd say: therefore there's no legitimate reason for me to be making preparations to leave. But I find myself thinking that by "doctrine" he means "things in the catechism books"; if the church were nothing but a catechism book (give or take some fallible humans making typical mistakes) he'd have a point. But what if we widen our scope of "doctrine" to everything the church teaches, inside or outside of catechism books?

Do we teach love?

Have we taught the importance of God's love? In the church I attend, at least on paper, our basic faith consists in trusting God's love and goodness. Has that been said and kept front and center, or has it been lost in the forest of smaller doctrines? Are we more interested in our doctrinal purity than God's honor? (Have we lost sight of the fact that one can be pursued at the expense of the other?)

There's a tricky line between doctrine (what we teach) and practice (how we live). There's usually a convenient dividing line between the two. In my experience any problems in practice are blamed on human weakness and sin so insistently as to deny that it's possible for a problem in practice to come from a problem in teaching, or a problem in emphasis, or (honestly at times) from dismissing any real importance of what we do. What we do -- and any problems -- are bracketed as solely matters for forgiveness. While mistakes, errors, and sins are definitely matters for forgiveness, this misses the point: hospitality, relationships, and fellowship are vital matters at the intersection of faith and living. Love is the joyful center of the Christian faith, which fulfills the law and in righteousness surpasses the law. Run to the good news of forgiveness to cover our shortcomings, but not to excuse the fact that we haven't taught it.

Jesus taught that, on the Last Day, the greatest sins to be laid at our feet will be sins of omission: things we've never done, and his examples were acts of compassion, mercy, and love. I suspect in the same way the greatest doctrinal errors will be things we never taught.

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Church search: What is a deal-breaker (other than doctrine)?

For what reasons would people join a church, or leave one church for another?

In this post, there's something of an overlap between this and my occasional series on visiting other churches. It's somewhat personal: at my current church for years I have found myself in the situation of that proverbial frog in a pot of water, wondering if it has gone from comfortably warm to a little too warm, whether it's getting hotter, whether it's time to jump. I don't think I can belong to my current church in good conscience anymore. I've had my doubts for some time. "When to jump?" can be unclear because life is complicated: there can be reasons to stay and reasons to go at the same time. And "Where to land after the jump?" is part of the problem: there's no such thing as an association of humans that never has problems. So what is a deal-breaker?

This post goes into more than just my current situation. I'm looking at all the reasons I've either had myself or heard from others about leaving a church where they have long been a member. I am not looking to catalog my church's issues so much as working toward clarity about what is a deal-breaker.

When I first wrote this post, I split it into two lists: one about doctrinal reasons, and one about all the things that a church does besides convey doctrine. I'm also considering that dividing line between doctrinal reasons and the rest. For this current post, I'm bracketing the doctrinal reasons as something that's in the scope of a blogging series on controversies among churches (a series I've currently paused that I'd hope to resume at some point). There is some question whether it's legitimate to join or leave a church over reasons that aren't doctrinal. I think that's best discussed after we see the reasons themselves and can assess what kind of reasons they are, if not doctrinal.
  • The church or the leader shows little sign of interest in Jesus (or: the interest in Jesus is limited to his death)
  • The sermons portray God almost exclusively as wrathful and vengeful, as Someone that nobody of good conscience would serve willingly
  • The church or the leader puts themselves above the Christ or the Bible by routinely altering passages being quoted, effectively dropping passages, or having other authorities that supersede it
  • The leader uses the leadership position to teach things contrary to what the church body teaches; any supervision of that leader has proved ineffective
  • In worship services, the church or the leader uses some private or sectarian statement of faith in place of one of the ecumenical creeds
  • The leader has a temperament that is not well-suited for leadership: too thin-skinned to accept feedback and therefore address problems as they arise
  • The church or its leaders take a manipulative approach to problem-solving on matters that are internal to the church. (Examples: the effort is directed to stopping the suggestion that something needs to be addressed; the effort is directed to stopping discussion prematurely; if the leader's efforts at persuasion have been unsuccessful then the leadership suggests that the membership should fall in line as a matter of the leader's authority)
  • The church or its leaders take a "click-bait" approach to announcing or promoting certain events, using outrage-mongering or emotional manipulation to increase attendance
  • The church uses sermons to promote income-generating workshops or retreats
  • The church budget does not devote enough to helping the poor
  • The church is not warm or welcoming; there is daylight between the group of people who are members and the group of people who are welcomed and included
  • The church does not look after its own in times of crisis, or looks after certain members but not others
  • The church does not look beyond its own in times of crisis, and does not open its doors or seek out the hurting
  • The church or the leader expresses disagreement with other churches in a way that shows enmity towards them
  • The church or its leaders promote an anti-vax agenda
  • There is some concern whether the leader has lost faith, or is still a Christian, or still holds the beliefs of the same denomination as the congregation
To anyone reading, I'd be interested in hearing what you can relate to, or anything you'd like to add about either your own reasons or reasons you've heard from others. Again, for now, I'm not focusing on the doctrinal reasons so much as on the rest of what it means to be in a church, outside the contents of a catechism class.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Personal (business trip, no weekly post today)

I'm on a business trip which requires that I'll be traveling almost all waking hours on Sunday, so will miss my weekly update. Hope to see you all next weekend!

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Evangelism - Fishers of Men and Bogeymen

At church, today's reading from the gospels was when Jesus told some fishermen "I will make you fishers of men." They would spend their lives drawing people into the kingdom of God. We've been drawn in, and in turn we draw others.

I'm not completely sure that evangelism deserves its bad reputation. Its bad reputation goes something like this: some horrible person (no doubt a white man) begins verbally abusing people, and his goal is to manipulate them into loathing themselves, into seeing themselves as horrible people, and into agreeing that he is the rescuer. He uses verbal shame attacks and guilt attacks. He blames them for any mistake they have ever made. He tells them that they deserve torture and hell for how bad they are. His goal is to orchestrate such a crescendo of self-doubt and self-loathing that they lose all hope in themselves; he will then offer the solution to the problem that he caused as the result of this sickly coercive psychological dance.

I'm not sure I've ever seen it done that way in real life. But that's the thing about the Bogey Man: it's not necessary for the threat to be real, only for the fear to be real. It still shapes how we think and act. We don't want to be that; we don't want to be seen as that; so we take the easy way and stay quiet.

As for the fishermen that day -- I'm working on the premise that Jesus knew what he was talking about -- they then spent their lives drawing people into the kingdom of God. They brought people into a place of welcome at the feast of salvation and in the world to come, where sins are forgiven and we become who God had created us to be. It is a redemption story, and our souls are healed.

They weren't bogeymen, but fishers of men. They worked towards bringing hope and restoring fellowship among the people of the world. How beautiful the sight of those who bring good news. May the fear of the bogeyman be banished, and the message of joy remain.

Sunday, February 03, 2019

I'd rather be _______

Today I'm taking a brief pause in the ongoing series, for those keeping track. 

When the cat is bored, maybe he'll take a nap; or if he's got more energy maybe he'll attack something. If he attacks, his target might be a toy hedgehog, or a pillow, or my hand. And from his point of view it makes complete sense to attack. But from another point of view he wouldn't be doing that if he had something better to do with his energy. I saw the same kind of things in my children when they were growing up: if they started grousing, nothing would cheer them up so much as a better way to spend their time. 

I get the same feeling sometimes, and sometimes I think I see it in the people that I know. We could be building something beautiful, something enduring. We could be doing something that matters. We could be changing the world. And our frustration can turn into temper, and criticizing people that we dislike can look like problem-solving, even if it doesn't actually solve anything, even if it's an exercise in self-righteousness and judgmental attitudes. 

It's easy to find a scapegoat. All kinds of people have all kinds of problems, and I can justify myself by pointing the finger at anyone who isn't myself. I can stay outraged at other people all day long. It builds self-esteem, but not in a good way. Honestly, nobody else's faults are stopping me from doing something more productive, and spending my time that way turns me into part of the problem. I'm just passing the buck for my own lack of direction. 

So: here are my thoughts for a good half-dozen things I'd rather be doing than criticizing others (including things where I could hope others join the effort):
  1. Working on reunification among the Christian churches. How many of our theological differences should honestly prevent fellowship? 
  2. Striving for complete honesty and mutual respect when discussing our divisions. 
  3. Training in kindness. 
  4. Contributing to the quality and integrity of Biblical studies as an academic discipline
  5. Finding my voice outside of my blog, and no longer allowing myself to be silenced by those who claim the right to judge me or to make up stories about people like me
  6. Reclaiming fellowship and hospitality as necessary parts of the faithful life, and advocating for it in the life of the church. Church involves community, and belonging, and mattering. These are not optional parts of human life or optional parts of Christianity, and deserve better than to be dismissed as unworthy of serious consideration. 

Sunday, January 27, 2019

The Gospel of Philip: Setting expectations on its authors' terms

This post analyzes the last of the documents for the series in which the goal is to set expectations of the document's contents on the authors' terms. This is necessary to get beyond the labels and titles sometimes attached to these documents. They are included in the collection because they're referred to as gospels, but there are marked differences in content. So we study them individually to determine what each document actually contains apart from any preconceptions associated with the group label.

Here is a sample of how the Gospel of Philip introduces the early items contained in it:
  • A Hebrew makes another Hebrew, and such a person is called "proselyte". 
  • The slave seeks only to be free, but he does not hope to acquire the estate of his master. 
  • A Gentile does not die, for he has never lived in order that he may die. 
  • Those who sow in winter reap in summer. 
  • Christ came to ransom some, to save others, to redeem others. 
  • Light and Darkness, life and death, right and left, are brothers of one another. 
Each item is introduced with a key concept or theme. We find content centered around what is meant by a word, or discussion of ideas on a topic. The Gospel of Philip does not have a framework of timeline and geography in which the main movement comes from people and their actions; it is not a narrative of events. While a few people known from the Bible are mentioned (including one brief mention of Philip), they are not the focus. Rather, the author develops key concepts and gives a series of thoughts on their importance and their right understanding. The overall framework is a relationship to eternal powers of light and truth, with continuing reference to the Bridal Chamber, and to the Father, Christ, and the Holy Spirit. The overall development is not focused on particular individuals, but on ideas that may aid people on their way to light and truth with a culmination in "a perfect day and a holy light."

For those who share my interest in the various passing references to people and places and earthly events, it would be worthwhile to conduct a separate study of passages which mention such things. There are some "compare and contrast" moments that would be of interest to me (did they identify Levi as a dye worker, and what do we make of that beyond the dye motif running through the Gospel of Philip)? However, that kind of question is clearly outside the focus being developed by the author of the Gospel of Philip. Here I pause only to call attention to the fact that those expectations would misdirect us here. The Gospel of Philip is not a narrative but a spiritual treatise; it is not intended to document the life and teachings of Jesus but to develop key spiritual concepts. The author's own focus touches briefly on certain people and actions, but revolves more heavily around thoughts of light and darkness, life and death, and our identity in relation to the eternal.

I find the Gospel of Philip to be an interesting window into a part of early Christian thought. It seems to reflect a time and place when the Gentiles in the Christian community -- maybe especially those from backgrounds other than the apostles' Jewish backgrounds -- were trying to make sense of some key Christian concepts in relation to their own culture's intellectual backgrounds. I see human histories and actions being considered by a culture in which transcendence belonged more to the realm of philosophy. I see baptism being interpreted by a culture without a tradition of ritual washing in terms of purification and reflection and dyeing (not dying but dyeing), introducing some different thoughts on what Jesus accomplished by entering the water. I see salvation and redemption being transposed into a culture without a concept of a last judgment, with concepts of light and brotherhood and holiness. And I wonder about unfamiliar items like the persistent references to the Bridal Chamber (referenced more often than Christ), whether we have enough information to piece together what that was all about, and how it fits into the author's picture of the future perfect day and holy light.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

The Gospel of Peter: Setting expectations on the authors' terms

In the current series, we have this and one more writing to analyze before completing the review of documents that are in the scope of the series. Today we will review the Gospel of Peter which survives only in a fragment.

Here is a sample how of the document introduces several of the items contained in it:
  • ... but of the Jews no one washed his hands, neither did Herod nor any one of his judges.  
  • Joseph stood there, the friend of Pilate and the Lord, and knowing that they were about to crucify him, he went to Pilate and asked for the body of the Lord for burial. 
  • They took out the Lord and kept pushing him along as they ran; and they would say, "Let's drag the son of God since we have him in our power."
  • And they brought two criminals and crucified the Lord between them.
  • Now it was midday and darkness prevailed over all Judea.  
The document introduces different items with people, actions, and times; sometimes there are also places. That is to say, in the Gospel of Peter we have a narrative of events. In the surviving fragment, the timeframe begins when Pilate sentences "the Lord" to death and ends after the women have found the tomb empty and some of the disciples head out fishing. While "the Lord" is never named in the document available to me with the remaining pages of the fragment, I have not heard anyone seriously question whether Jesus is the intended reference.

In contrast to some other documents we have reviewed, the Gospel of Peter does not make a habit of mentioning the specific location of events. One interesting exception is that the location of the tomb is said to be called "Joseph's Garden". There are also details of the guard deployment at the tomb that are not recorded in the Biblical accounts such as the name of the centurion Petronius. 

When reading a narrative like the Gospel of Peter -- something that covers events that are familiar from other sources -- it can be tricky to get a fresh view of the events from only the material in the current document. It can also be tricky to gauge whether that document's author intends for the current account to be seen entirely separately from any other accounts that they might have expected their readers to know. For instance:
Now it was the last day of Unleavened Bread, and many were returning to their homes since the feast was ending. But we, the twelve disciples of the Lord, continued weeping and mourning, and each one still grieving for what had happened, left for his own home. But I, Simon Peter, and Andrew my brother, took our fishing nets and went to the sea. With us was Levi, the son of Alphaeus, whom the Lord...
The end of the fragment leaves the reader anticipating but not certain that the next event may have been Jesus in a post-resurrection appearance to Simon Peter, Andrew, and Levi. The fragment that we have shows basic agreement with other known accounts on the main points of the narrative: that Jesus was crucified, died, buried, and his tomb was discovered empty by the women including Mary of Magdala. And yet the account here is not entirely like that found in the New Testament gospels. (Speaking for myself, I find the timing and location of the fishing trip to be a point of interest, since the Biblical gospels place the fishermen as having boats on the Sea of Galilee some distance away from Jerusalem, while the Gospel of Peter indicates that they had their nets with them in Jerusalem at the feast, and isn't specific about which sea they might have fished on that day starting from Jerusalem.) It would be a worthwhile study of its own to compare and contrast certain details in this writing to those from the accounts in the Bible.