Monthly Archives: October 2011

This We Believe: The Theological Declaration of Barmen affirmation 1

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“I am the way, and the truth, and the life: no one comes to the Father, but by me.” (John 14.6) “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door but climbs in by another way, that man is a thief and a robber…I am the door; if anyone enters by me, he will be saved.” (John 10.1, 9)

Jesus Christ, as he is attested for us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death.

We reject the false doctrine, as though the Church could and would have to acknowledge as a source of its proclamation, apart from and besides this one Word of God, still other events and powers, figures and truths, as God’s revelation.

Each of the 6 affirmations of this declaration of faith begins with a scripture quote (or two)–which is in itself an affirmation, that Scripture speaks to particular issues and contexts, and must be interpreted and applied to each context.

We have heard words like these before–The Brief Statement of Faith picked up this language from both the Scots Confession and Barmen–that we hear, trust, obey, and serve only one: the God made known to us in Christ. Here we find Jesus referred to as God’s Word (capital W), which picks up on the first few verses of John 1, in which Jesus is called the Logos or Word of God. It is this Word that we look to when ordering our lives, this Word we obey in all things, this Word we turn to in times of distress or wonder. In the PCUSA one of our foundational statements is that “Jesus Christ is head of the church”–there is no person or doctrine or book that we look to first or that has more authority. The church is under the authority of Jesus Christ, the Word of God.

This “yes” also means a “no”–there is no other authority for the church. The state, the culture, the government, an individual, the military, or a piece of writing can never be the source or authority for the gospel. The Word of God, who is known to us through the Holy Spirit and through the word written, is the sole source of our proclamation of good news. The Nazi government was trying to force the church to proclaim a different message than that seen in Christ, and here they push back, insisting that it is impossible to preach the gospel when pulling from a source other than Christ.

In this statement, the confessing church movement also declares that other forms of God’s revelation are not to be trusted, because God has chosen to reveal God’s self through Christ, whom we know through scripture and through his presence in our midst. This implies that so-called “natural theology” (in which one can glean knowledge of God from God’s creation) is also suspect. I doubt many of us would take it that far, though we might affirm that it’s only possible to know God in a very limited way through creation, without also interacting with the word written and proclaimed and the Word incarnate.

This is the very first affirmation for a reason–on this hangs all the rest of the argument. Our faith is not founded on an idea, a concept, a book, a feeling. Our faith is founded on a person–a relationship with a person who was (and is) the embodiment of God. There is no other foundation than this, however hard the government, the economy, the culture, the media, or even we ourselves as individuals might try.

What do you think about this affirmation? How does it speak to our context today? What difficulties do you have? What questions? How does it help or hinder your understanding of your own faith?

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WEAVEings: faith in public life

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Tonight Rick Johnson kicked off the Compassion-Peace-and-Justice series at WEAVE with a class about how faith and public life intersect. In the conversation, we acknowledged that we don’t want to be the people trying to create a theocracy, we don’t want to be the people stridently pushing our single-item agenda at the expense of others (or at the expense of the God of love!), and we also don’t want to segregate our faith from our political lives. Remembering that the greek word polis is a particular kind of community arrangement, politics (from the root polis) is about how we live together in community. In other words, “politics” and “partisanship” are not the same thing. Our faith should definitely inform politics–how we live together–even as we keep partisanship out of our faith community. We seek the kingdom of God, and that is our agenda…not a particular party or ideology.

We were reminded tonight that the agenda of the kingdom of God is about justice–in the sense of everyone having a place at the table, everyone having enough (not in the sense of punishment or retributive leveling). Over 2,000 verses of the Bible are about economics, justice, and caring for the poor and oppressed. That’s a lot of God-talk about something we often prefer to avoid. The arc of scripture is toward justice and compassion, and within that arc we strive to live our faith lives in the public square.

We talked for a long time about our human propensity to “mine Scripture for tidbits that will fit our particular agenda.” I’m sure we can all think of examples of this kind of proof-texting, where we take a few words or maybe a verse out of its context and use it to prove our point. This is done by people of every ideology, of every partisan stripe…and it’s not okay. We have a whole library of Scripture (66 books!) for a reason. If it were so simple and black and white, we’d have just a few chapters and be done with it. Instead we contend with stories, biographies, rules from ancient cultures, letters, visions, and the mythology of a people, and we work to interpret it in light of the love of God made known to us in Christ, for our time and context. It’s a big job, not one easily reduced to a few words taken out here and there.

We also talked about how many in our culture seem to believe that faith and politics should never mix. The difficulty, of course, is how much of Scripture is devoted to political issues. Most of the prophets and a fair chunk of Jesus and Paul’s teachings have to do with how the government cares for (or doesn’t care for) its people, with how the community is organized, with God’s concern for the poor and oppressed. How can we disregard all of that in order to keep our faith in its Sunday morning box? Well….we can’t, really. Jesus calls us to follow him wherever he leads, and he spends an awful lot of time hanging out where the leaders are, calling them out on their anti-kingdom-of-God actions and policies. What does following Jesus mean in our day?

What do you think? How does your faith inform your public or political life? How does your faith affect your understanding of the economy, the role of government in helping us work toward the kingdom of God, etc? What do you think a community that pleases God would look like? What would you like to learn more about so that you can more readily put your faith into action?

online book group: Almost Christian, chapter 3

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At the end of chapter 2, Dean brings up the key issue that differentiates Christianity from Moralistic Therapeutic Deism–the key thing we need to remember and practice in order to combat MTD: “Goodness belongs to God, Jesus calls us to be holy.” (p39) Holiness is much more life-changing, requires more commitment, and leads us to self-sacrificing love not just to niceness that papers over the reality of shallow relationships and faith. Niceness does not go far enough–only love goes so far as to lay down one’s life. A God who loves, and who calls us to love, is (in the words of Aslan) “not a tame lion.”

So in chapter 3 we hear about a religious tradition that has very high expectations, very high standards, intense education, and intentional transmission of the faith tradition. We may not agree with their theology or their social stances or their worldview, but we do have to admit that they are doing something right when it comes to passing on their faith. So what can we learn from the Mormons?

Every morning, Mormon high schoolers go to “seminary” before school. It starts at dawn, is taught by a parent, and includes learning their scriptures, learning and practicing the morals and the lifestyle expected of Mormons, talking about their faith, journaling about their journey, and learning to share their faith with others. It teaches students their particular God-story, their place in the story, and gives them tools to live it out in the world while looking forward in hope. These tools allow them to take their faith into their lives–it’s not just a set of beliefs, it’s a way of life. (The way Christianity has been until the last 75 years or so!)

Most Monday evenings, Mormon families have family-night. There are no church activities scheduled for Monday nights, and families often decline other extra-curricular activities that take place on Monday evenings. Instead the family eats together, prays together, studies together, and plays together. There’s church-wide home-curriculum for these evenings, to help families talk about their faith and their values and their lives (and futures) as Mormons. Faith is practiced at home (not just on Monday nights, one assumes, but even if it is just once a week that’s more than many of us manage!), and the church is seen as an extension of the family. The extended family of the church feels free to check in with one another, to ask hard questions, to discipline or to offer feedback, to care for each other both physically and spiritually. In other words, the community of faith has several layers, all of which reinforce the faith as a way of life.

Learning together, being accountable to one another, and having a community of faith that helps you figure out how to use the tools faith gives for living in the world are huge parts of the Mormon life. Can we as Christians learn anything from these methods? How might we adapt them for our context and faith tradition?

When we talk about Christian formation, or spiritual formation, the “form” is Christ–we are being formed together into Christ’s body, learning to imitate him, to follow him, to be made ever more in his likeness. The Holy Spirit moves through the methods and tools we use and makes them into vehicles of grace…assuming, that is, that we use methods and tools! If we just assume it will happen by magic, or by simple occasional exposure to church, or without any intentional effort on our part, we will likely find ourselves disappointed, and will end up only reinforcing the idea that faith and community is optional, something we do when it’s convenient, because it’s nice, but not anything worth time or effort or our lives.

Do Mormons get everything right? No, obviously. Every tradition has room for improvement. We obviously don’t want to end up in a situation where people do not feel free to ask questions, where we close off avenues of inquiry because they threaten our worldview, or where we only associate with those who think/believe/act like us. These create the same shallow faith problem as MTD does, just in a different way. The issue is not of creating a closed society parallel to the one we live in. The issue is of learning, teaching, and being able to both articulate and live our faith.  As Dean says near the end of the chapter, “The goal of Christian formation is not church membership, but more perfect love of God and neighbor. Jesus did not call people to come to church; he called people to follow him.” (p60) This doesn’t mean that church community isn’t important–it does mean that the trappings of church (programs and whatnot) are not the point–they are a means to an end. How does what we do at church help us to follow Christ? How do our worship, our education, our family life, our prayer life, our youth groups, our fellowship activities help us as we seek to become more Christlike, to follow Jesus more closely, to love God and our neighbor and our enemy more and more, to be holy as God has called us to be? What tools can we use to further this goal?

with the Word online Bible study: here I am

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1 Samuel 3.1-20

Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli. The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.

At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was. Then the Lord called, ‘Samuel! Samuel!’ and he said, ‘Here I am!’ and ran to Eli, and said, ‘Here I am, for you called me.’ But he said, ‘I did not call; lie down again.’ So he went and lay down. The Lord called again, ‘Samuel!’ Samuel got up and went to Eli, and said, ‘Here I am, for you called me.’ But he said, ‘I did not call, my son; lie down again.’ Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him. The Lord called Samuel again, a third time. And he got up and went to Eli, and said, ‘Here I am, for you called me.’ Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy. Therefore Eli said to Samuel, ‘Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” ’ So Samuel went and lay down in his place.

Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before, ‘Samuel! Samuel!’ And Samuel said, ‘Speak, for your servant is listening.’ Then the Lord said to Samuel, ‘See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle. On that day I will fulfil against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end. For I have told him that I am about to punish his house for ever, for the iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God, and he did not restrain them. Therefore I swear to the house of Eli that the iniquity of Eli’s house shall not be expiated by sacrifice or offering for ever.’

Samuel lay there until morning; then he opened the doors of the house of the Lord. Samuel was afraid to tell the vision to Eli. But Eli called Samuel and said, ‘Samuel, my son.’ He said, ‘Here I am.’ Eli said, ‘What was it that he told you? Do not hide it from me. May God do so to you and more also, if you hide anything from me of all that he told you.’ So Samuel told him everything and hid nothing from him. Then he said, ‘It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him.’

As Samuel grew up, the Lord was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground. And all Israel from Dan to Beer-sheba knew that Samuel was a trustworthy prophet of the Lord.

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What did you hear in this story? what struck you, or captured your imagination? What questions are raised as you read?

Samuel, you may recall, is Hannah’s son. Hannah was barren, while her rival wife Penninah had many children and mocked her for barrenness. Hannah prayed and prayed, bargained with God, and ultimately gave birth to a son–whom she then returned to the temple, as per her prayer. (You can read more about this saga in 1 Samuel chapters 1 and 2.) Now Samuel is beginning to grow up, but he is still young. The priest, Eli, hasn’t exactly been the most responsible priest ever, and his sons are even worse.

There’s a great play on words in the Hebrew here–it’s slightly apparent in the English, but not as obvious. Eli’s sight was waning, his eyes grew dim…he could not perceive…not just his physical eyes, but his spiritual eyes. He couldn’t see what was going on in the temple, he couldn’t see what was going on with his sons, he couldn’t see what was happening with this voice calling to Samuel, he couldn’t see what was happening to his people that he was supposed to shepherd. “see” is both physical and metaphorical here–Eli was blind and blinded. And he had obviously not done a fabulous job as a teacher either, since Samuel had no idea what was going on and had not yet been introduced to the word of the Lord! But after a few times, Eli began to see, and he gave Samuel some great advice. “just say, “speak Lord, for your servant is listening.”

Have you ever heard something and been unsure if it was God or not? How do you discern between the call of others, the call of your own desires, and the call of God? What people do you have around you with whom you can check out your sense of God’s call?

Do you identify more with Eli or with Samuel?

Have you ever tried to pray simply by saying “speak, Lord, for your servant is listening” and then wait to see what happens?

Someone has said that a large percentage of any task or relationship is just showing up. That’s true of our relationship with God, too. “here I am” is a great way to begin–just be there. How can you just be there–whether in your prayer life, in worship, or in opportunities to learn with others?