Monthly Archives: November 2011

online book group: Almost Christian, chapter 6

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In this chapter, Dean begins to get at the heart of the issue. In order to pass on our faith, we have to practice it ourselves.

That’s the whole chapter, in a nutshell.

Research tells us that we overwhelmingly “get what we are”–ie, when we practice our faith and live as though it’s important in our lives, our children do too. When we choose other priorities, our children do too. The idea of the adolescent rebellion is not quite accurate, at least when it comes to religious matters. (and, in terms of generational theory, the adolescent rebellion actually comes much later–when we truly rebel against our parents is when we’re older, especially when we become parents ourselves.) Also, when we program what Dean calls “pseudo-Christian youth activities executed for the sake of good intentions” (ski trips, youth sundays, church sports, performance choirs, etc), we communicate that this is what faith is about…feeling good about ourselves, having fun, and bolstering our “middle class values of achievement, self-expression, and self-determination.” We lose our Christian identity when this is all there is to our faith.

The difficulty, of course, is that most of us think we are not qualified to pass on our faith, because we don’t understand it ourselves. Most of us don’t have theology degrees (and even those of us who do don’t know everything and are often stumped by questions from young people!), so we assume we can’t teach or mentor or model Christian faith. Unfortunately, that has meant that we simply choose not to do it. We outsource faith formation to the Professional Christians and expect our kids to come home from an hour or two a week with faith to sustain them through their lives, or at least their adolescence.

But as Dean points out, “Teenagers’ ability to imitate Christ depends, to a daunting degree, on whether we do.” I don’t think this is just about teenagers–I think it’s about mutual upbuilding of the community. Our ability as individuals to imitate Christ depends a lot on whether the people around us do. The more we seek Christ and Christ-likeness, the more the people around us can and do too.

To answer the common problem of not knowing enough, Dean reminds us that we are not trying to form beliefs about Jesus, we are cultivating trust in Jesus. This is not always the same thing–and she illustrates by telling a story of a famous tightrope walker, who asked a prince if he believed the tightrope walker could cross Niagara Falls carrying a man on his back–the prince said “yes, I believe you can do that.” The tightrope walker’s response was “Will you be that man?” And here belief and trust parted ways, for the prince declined. How often do we do the same about Jesus? We believe all kinds of things about Jesus, but when Jesus asks “will you come, follow me?” then our belief and trust often part ways.

In Deuteronomy, we are called upon to teach the way and words, trust and obedience, of the Lord to the next generation. But we don’t have to make them into something different–everyone is already a beloved child of God, made in the image of God. Our task is to MODEL godliness, to SHOW that we love God, to embody our faith, to delight in the Lord, to talk and to live our trust in God. As an example, Dean points to something we all struggle with–simply reading the Bible. We often believe that the Bible is too difficult to read, or too hard to understand, so we give up before we’ve even started. What does that tell young people? “The issue is not whether young people can read the Bible (they can). The real issue is…well, really, why would they want to? What have they seen in the church that would suggest that the Bible is a source of power and wonder? When have they seen their parents (or other caring and trusted adults) derive life and joy from reading scripture?” (p128)

Dean uses an example I’d never thought about before, but seems so accurate. We often will research things we are already interested in–ie, we hear a song on the radio and we love it, so we look up the band and start to follow their other work, learn their history, follow their tours. We read a novel that mentions a historical event and we find it interesting, so we do a little research until, without even realizing, we’ve become sort of a mini-expert in an obscure historical moment. We visit a place and come home wanting to know more about things that have happened there. We see a beautiful piece of artwork, or hear a beautiful piece of music, and we want to know more about the artist and the art, maybe even dabbling in it (or taking it up!) ourselves. It’s rare that we become interested in or obsessed with something because we researched it for a school or work project…the learning follows the love.

How might that affect the ways we do Christian Education for any age? How can we pass on love–God’s love for us and our love for God–so that people want to learn more, want to follow Jesus more closely, want to experience the movement of the Holy Spirit, want to know God’s word and will and dreams? Until we want those things, they’ll be unlikely to happen. We’ll force people to read the Bible or to pray at the beginning of meetings or classes, but without love, it’s nothing but a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal (thanks Paul, in 1 Corinthians 13, for that audio image!). How can we communicate that love…to young people and to each other? We are not asked, in Deuteronomy or by Jesus, to be theology experts. We are asked to follow, to remember, to love, to dream, and to let those things show–not keep them inside for ourselves. Are we willing to do that, imperfect as we are?

The primary metaphor of this chapter comes from 2 Kings 18-19 and Walter Brueggemann’s interpretation of that section of scripture. It’s an obscure story, in which the Israelites are on the verge of being conquered again. The Assyrian army has surrounded their walled city, and negotiations about the surrender (or not, which would mean a thoroughly unequal battle) are taking place on top of the wall. There are two languages spoken in this story–inside the city, “behind the wall,” the Israelites speak Hebrew, the language of the people of God–the people God has saved and will continue to save, the language of God’s promise, the language of their storied yet somehow Holy history, the language of their prayer. There, behind the wall, in their obscure little language, they encourage each other, they grieve, they pray, they remind each other of the stories and promises–they nurture their faith. Up on the wall, they’re speaking Aramaic, the language of those who dismiss YHWH, with the Assyrian empire. Because they are nurtured by the behind-the-wall conversations, they are able to take part in the on-the-wall conversations with a different perspective. They have a different worldview, a completely different set of assumptions, than the empire outside the walls. They have a different vision to work toward, and that vision comes from those behind-the-wall moments in their alternative and homey language.

Brueggemann and Dean say that we need both languages–that we can’t simply adopt one and ignore the other. However, the on-the-wall language and conversation should not be the dominant one. Instead, our out-in-the-world, cultural conversation must be informed by our behind-the-wall language and conversation. It is behind the wall that we learn that God loves us and what it means to love God. It is behind the wall that we have language for hope, love, faith, accountability, community, authenticity, calling…and that language and worldview should be at the heart of even our on-the-wall conversation. Then we can engage in translation, rather than assimilation. We know there are two conversations to be had here, and two visions of reality–the question is, will we nurture the behind the wall vision enough for it to affect our on-the-wall lives? There’s plenty of empire language and vision to go around–we are immersed in it practically before we are born. As Dean says, “The empire’s language dismisses YHWH, offers tantalizing but ultimately empty promises of salvation, and hands out scripts that the empire expects us to follow. Unless the church cultivates a behind-the-wall conversation that reminds us who we are, who we belong to, why we are here, and where our future hope lies–unless we hand on a tradition that gives cultural tools to help us lay claim to this alternative vision of reality–then the empire’s conversation is the only view of reality we have.” (p114)

So…

How do we cultivate this behind-the-wall conversation? How do we let our love show? Where does our passion lie, and how can we share God’s passion with one another?

with the Word online Bible study: Transfigured

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Mark 9.2-9

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!’ Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.
As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.

Usually there are two reactions to this story: either “WHAT??? that is the weirdest story ever?!?!?!?” or “ooh, cool…” Occasionally you might meet someone who can talk coherently about how this story is a wonderful personal revelation of God’s glory in Jesus, and how it feeds their spiritual life, filling them with reflected light.

But the disciples appear to be more in the first camp…they have no idea what is going on, they’re terrified, and they say ridiculous things, trying to keep the moment static forever (or at least until they can figure it out).

First, a quick history lesson.

Moses was (is) the greatest prophet of the Hebrew people, leading them out of slavery and to the promised land, reflecting the glory of God (literally–when Moses went up Mt. Sinai to talk to God, he came down with a face that shined so brightly he had to cover it up so as not to freak people out), bringing the law, doing amazing signs and wonders, etc. He is the archetype of a faithful person, the representative of the law. One of Moses’ main locations for conferencing with God was on Mount Sinai.

Elijah was also a great prophet, who did amazing things bringing the people back from the idolatrous ways to the worship of the one true God. He healed people, performed miracles, and was a major conduit for the word and spirit of God. He spoke to God, had a number of learning opportunities, and defeated the false prophets–all on mountains (Mt. Sinai and Mt. Carmel, in particular). Elijah, according to the story, did not die but was taken up into heaven by God’s fiery chariots, and will come again to prepare the way for the Messiah.

So, many scholars will point out that for Jesus to be standing on a mountain (sound familiar?), conferring with the two greatest of the greats of Israel, tells us that he’s an important dude. For Jesus to be transfigured so that his glory shines through, while talking to these two characters, suggests that he is the fulfillment of the law and the prophets. And then the voice–echoing the voice of his baptism, re-marking him as the beloved, worthy of listening and following. In many ways, this is a story that shows us Jesus’s authority and divinity. He’s the real-deal, shiny and new yet backed by the old and trusted.

So what does this story have to do with our lives of faith? What is the good news for our time and place? What is the challenge for us?

How does this story affect your relationship with God? What do you think happened here, and how does it help you to follow Jesus?

This We Believe: The Theological Declaration of Barmen, affirmation 5

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“Fear God. Honor the emperor.” (1 Peter 2.17)
Scripture tells us that, in the as yet unredeemed world in which the Church also exists, the State has by divine appointment the task of providing for justice and peace. It fulfills this task by means of the threat and exercise of force, according to the measure of human judgment and human ability. The Church acknowledges the benefit of this divine appointment in gratitude and reverence before him. It calls to mind the Kingdom of god, God’s commandment and righteousness, and thereby the responsibility both of rulers and of the ruled. It trusts and obeys the power of the Word by which God upholds all things.
We reject the false doctrine, as though the State, over and beyond its special commission, should and could become the single and totalitarian order of human life, thus fulfilling the Church’s vocation as well.
We reject the false doctrine, as though the Church, over and beyond its special commission, should and could appropriate the characteristics, the tasks, and the dignity of the State, thus itself becoming an organ of the State.

Here we have an even more strident statement than last week. Not only can the church not take over the tasks of the State, nor can the church BE the state, the state also cannot take over the tasks of the church. The Church and the Government have different callings that lead to the same end—but each must fulfill its own calling.

There are plenty of examples throughout history of the government of a nation or kingdom attempting to rule the faith and life of religious communities. In the time of Jesus, even, the government dictated what was acceptable religious practice, what was merely tolerated, and what was completely out of the question. And in 1930’s Germany, the government was attempting to do the same—to rule out some expressions of faith, to tolerate others on the margins, and to dictate acceptable practice to the rest.
This small gathering of pastors and other church leaders were determined to resist. Under no circumstances can the government dictate, particularly something opposed to the gospel. The state cannot assume or restrict the authority of those doing ministry any more than it can be restricted by those called to ministry.

The church is not to be turned into a propaganda machine!

Where have you seen this dynamic at work in the world? Have you seen it in our own country or community? How do we as faithful Christians respond to this kind of situation? Can you imagine a situation in which the mixing of church and government might be beneficial? How does that fit into this (and last week’s) affirmations?

Sunday’s Prayers of the People: waiting for God

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Truly you are God, and there is no other—
and so we come to you this day,
giving thanks for your many blessings,
for family, friends, and too much food,
for a day set aside to practice gratitude.
We pray that gratitude may carry through as we enter a new season,
a season of waiting, of hope, of expectation.
It is for You that we wait, God.
Sometimes it seems as though you are hidden,
or far away, or silent.
Help us to wait in that darkness, looking for your glimmer of light,
rather than rushing in to fill the void.
You will never leave us nor forsake us—
we believe your promise, but help our unbelief!
In this season we focus all our attention on you,
waiting for you to reveal yourself, your purpose, your will, your call.
In the waiting, we pray for this, your church.
Make yourself known here, O God, that we may be your faithful people,
transformed by your grace into your likeness,
loving, serving, caring, dreaming with you.
In the waiting, we pray for your people in need—
for those who hunger and thirst,
for those who live daily with violence or fear,
for those who despair of ever knowing love or grace.
May your peace that passes all understanding surround us,
may your hope fill our world,
may your light shine in the darkness.
In the waiting, we listen for you in silence.

 

We pray these and all things in the name of Christ, the One who taught us to pray: Our Father…