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I Did Not Preach Yesterday . . . the Congregation Did

Sermons, these days, come in a variety of forms. Many suggest there should only be one kind. Add to that the expectation that the pastor is the one doing the preaching and one may easily see how things narrow quickly.  Read More

Embracing (In)Security – More Faithful to Jesus

Cohen and Max both went to their respective doctors today. This is hardly abnormal for a couple of toddlers who seem ripe for something that is going around. They both have battled ear infections, though this time their maladies are distinct not similar. We do not mind if doctors practice on us, just not the grandsons.

Over the last month I have written little and thought much. My mind wants to unload many of the things that have been swirling there. I may sleep better if I get it down rather than keep it spinning. My heart however is not so sure. The familiarity with the ups and downs of a toddler’s heath creates enough insecurity that the course of action, getting it on paper or on the screen, will actually put an end to the ongoing pensive practices.

Several men stopped in this morning. They represent some of our most dedicated laborers. The Apostle Paul told the Thessalonian Christians that, “love labors” and that he [Paul] always, “Thanked God for them.” Picking up food in a 15-passenger van, unloading it, weighing it, and helping put it away is not the stuff that makes most marquees. But it does help provide perspective.

Before they left for their pick up we briefly ventured into the realm of speculative theology. Now, had they any idea that this was what we were doing; they would not have sat down in the inner sanctum to become party to my mind full of stuff.

One friend brought up a book he was reading. I made it through about three-fourths of the book before skimming to the end in a bit of disgust. We talked about it. I raised the question of the way we talk about God and just what we can get our minds around. It was not to invite them into my crashing synapses but to get clear that when we talk about God we do need a guide, a filter if you will. Otherwise it is surely speculation. We cannot but help to talk about Jesus.

At that point another wondered if when we talk about Jesus if we can say in back of Jesus is a God much larger, bigger, more powerful. That depends. Representational language may point to some Ideal, a la Plato. But then it seems we would be in great need of some approximation of that Ideal and then we must follow that up with, “Does it make sense to need something larger, bigger, more powerful when we talk about God?” Or, is Jesus enough.

The shift, for me, is to move from objectifying God to make him the Subject, the Subject. David Fitch suggested I read Kallenberg’s, Ethics As Grammar, if I wanted some idea what Wittgenstein might be doing that would be helpful for theological discourse. I have not finished Kallenberg. But, I do get the idea that we have made much of speculative theology because we make God the Object, rather than the Subject.

Upon winding down our conversation I talked about the trajectory of Church History and how the conversations about God worked themselves out among those early Church leaders. I wondered aloud if their formulations about the Object, God, could stand up to the dizzying differences in how language works to shape our understandings. One of my friends, theo-nerdy type, challenges the idea of ousia as a good way to talk about Being, God, today. We know more today about what constitutes reality and there is some question created by the lack of nailing down the substance. If we cannot nail down the substance of our own being, how may we faithfully talk about the Substance, God?

Yes, had I ventured down this road the fellows would have looked at me as though I had three eyes. And maybe they should. Just before leaving one of my friends suggested that speculation does little but point out what we cannot fathom. So let’s just do what we know to do. I could not agree more. When we read the things that seemed to get Jesus into trouble, it was less about what he speculated and more about what he did.

At that point I begin July wondering if embracing in/security is not more faithful to Jesus.

Yesterday’s Gospel text from the Revised Common Lectionary (Luke 9:51-62) takes us to what Reverend Russell referred to as, Jesus the Jerk. Now before you shout blasphemy, let this be a lesson in the way language works and how provocation gets you to thinking. One who wanted to follow Jesus asked to first take care of a bereaved family to which Jesus retorted, “Let the dead bury the dead.” Try that the next time a congregant asks if the church is available for a funeral/memorial service. If you do not hear, “Jerk!” I will be shocked.

Of the string of three would-be-Jesus-followers ,I am as intrigued by the first and Jesus’ response as any of the three. Jesus prepares the inquirer for a life of insecurity. Just the opposite of what we think comes when we commit to Jesus and his Way. “The Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” Animals experience more stability and security – foxes have dens and birds have nests. What? Jesus points out the in-security of discipleship?

Martin Heidegger offered a philosophical, phenomenological, reading of Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians, The Phenomenology of Religious Life. I make no inference that I completely understand Heidegger. But I am in a summer reading group led by a couple of fellows who seem to exegete some of Radical Theology’s formative voices quite well and do so with the novice in mind. One focal point for Heidegger became the way in which Paul seemed to be more insecure than secure.

There is no security for Christian life; the constant insecurity is also characteristic for what is fundamentally significant in factical life. The uncertainty is no coincidental; rather it is necessary. This necessity is not a logical one, more is it of natural necessity. In order to see this clearly, one must reflect on one’s own life and its enactment. Those “who speak of peace and security” (5:3) spend themselves on what life brings them, occupy themselves with whatever tasks of life. They are caught up in what life offers; they are in the dark, with respect to knowledge of themselves. The believers, on the contrary, are sons of the light and of the day. (p.73-74)

Call me stunned. Startled. That is not quite the way I learned to read Paul.

I listened harder, more closely. The mediators of the philosophical giant pointed out the times where Paul wrote with hope about the future, even his own. I have learned that hope cannot escape faith and that certainty requires neither. If God is Object, once I become certain, I control the Name. Read Joel B. Green (NICNT)on Luke 8 and the Garasene demoniac. Pay particular attention to the discussion on the power of having the name.

But, if God is Subject, hope and faith become necessary as the breadth of the subject becomes uncontainable. I wonder if reading the insecurity of the Son of Man is a way of pointing up how much we ought to be given to Jesus. That is, if the Named God that lies in back of Jesus is larger, bigger, more powerful, then my access to such a Subject is in need of mediation. Image of the Invisible God. Exact representation of His Nature. Or, could it be that Jesus rightly and appropriately mediates the Named God that makes the need for a larger, bigger, more powerful Deity moot? Sufficiency anyone?

Here we are in July. The temperatures here in flyover Country are cooler than normal. And, I start the month thinking that embracing insecurity is more faithful to Jesus than any expectations that this life is made more secure by Jesus. And, that picking up food to be given to those in need in the Name of Jesus may be a better place for our energy.

More to come . . .

Love Re-casts Neighbors, Re-forms Neighborhoods – Dallas Willard

“Incarnation is more than a theological word.” – Dallas Willard

Dallas Willard challenges pastors, and all Christians, to see our love for God as the means that funds our love for others, especially our neighbors. I am glad technology allows the preservation of these memorable moments.

Radical Faithfulness

During Holy Week Barry tweeted,

What is our cultural signifier? What habit or practice would approximate foot washing today that at the same time might be infused with the weight of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet?

Reading the Gospel narratives we cannot miss the reference to foot washing when the Pharisees objected to the woman who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears. Jesus noted his host was inhospitable and therefore an unjust judge of the woman’s actions. Jesus’ feet were washed with tears and anointed with perfume. He washed the disciples feet with water. The act in John appears more noteworthy than the observance of the Last Supper.

The exchange spurred by the Tweet pointed up the practices surrounding holiday Easter. Few Christian groups practice foot washing today. After all we do not wear sandals and walk dusty roads. We are still left to wonder what habit or practice would give us the same example?

A visit from a friend set me to thinking about this again. In fact, I was going to write something during Holy Week on the subject but the week got away.

My friend stopped by to chat. He noticed my unkempt writing table. There are several stacks of books. He surmised I was studying or doing some sort of research. I told him I had been listening to a debate over the historicity of the Resurrection of Jesus. A couple of days listening to radical theologians will leave you thinking about the reality of the Resurrection. I digress.

“Debates rarely change anyone’s mind,” my friend remarked. I agreed, for the most part. It was at that point I mused aloud that what may have been more transformative, at least scandalous, would have been for William Lane Craig to wash Bart Ehrman’s feet. Here is where I need help to think through what cultural signifier would have demonstrated that above well rehearsed arguments and concise rebuttals the Resurrection of Jesus alters our interactions. I do mean something beyond being polite – please and thank you.

Our conversation took an interesting turn at that point. An underlying dilemma surfaced. First, how may we do a better job considering our way of life with others in light of Jesus’ Way? Second, what happens when it is realized all reading is interpretation.

First, we need the further collapse of the sacred and secular to the degree that we erase the experience of differentiated living. That is, practicing radical faithfulness would require us to live undifferentiated. As such any interaction we we face will inherently follow the pattern and habits of Jesus. We do not differentiate according to our surroundings or the people we encounter. This is evangelism. It is not Bible thumping. It is Jesus living.

Second, and this grows out of the first, we must recognize Scripture, under the influence of the Spirit, emits a polyphonic resonance. My friend and I turned to discuss reading, interpretation, and, the Constitution. Not the Bible as Constitution, but we talked about how the United States Constitution is read.

You should know my friend served in the United States Army. He is proud of his Country. It is also noteworthy that when he described that we may read the Bible faithfully and still come away with different interpretations – both being right – he is no postmodern liberal. In fact, I would not make that suggestion. He does have his conceal and carry.

We talked about the phrase, “all men are created equal.” For his reading this line signaled what might happen to the writers own places of privilege should someone come and claim more privilege. My read suggests that at the time the only ones described were white, land owning men. That our history records the fight for women’s rights and minority rights betrays reading equal too hard. We disagreed. We did agree there are a variety of interpretations. While he joked that I might be wrong, he opened up a way to say this is how and what happens when we read the Bible. Which he did.

What he does describe is the one conundrum many in my tribe face – the plurality of interpretations. We do find the Scriptures to be polyphonic. When we in the first world read Luke’s story of the lost son, we tend to vilify the younger son. When others read the story in the two-thirds world, the older son is vilified. Some even praise the younger son. (Consider the book, How Do They Hear?)

Radical faithfulness to Jesus and his Way requires something of us, something from us. Rather than double down on our positions, we may need to spend time with our cultural signifiers. Which one(s) may be used in the viable transmission of a very real event that transforms our way of being in the world?

I suggest it is not in rehearsing our well-worn arguments. It will not come in enterprising nuances. No, I contend it will come when we exert the energy to connect our cultural signifiers comparable to foot washing that we will offer something beyond the ethereal to those suspicious of the Resurrection of Jesus.

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Shredding: Discards Warm the Home

His home is little more than a very small travel trailer. I mean small. Caring for his mother requires him to be close. She lives next door.

Travel trailers may be spotted with small propane bottles affixed to the frame. Heat for cooking and maybe for warmth draw from this very small resource. However, this little home gets its heat from a small wood-burning stove.

Each year the price of a rick of wood increases. Worse yet the size of wood found in most ricks would not fit the small stove. Caring for his mother keeps him close. He works to help keep her assets in good working condition as they create her ongoing income. There is little time for him to work a normal job. The cost of elder care is prohibitive.

We stood talking one evening in the early Fall. It would not be long before the little place he called home would be cold. He asked, “Do you all have any shredding here at the church?” I replied, “We shred some things. But, not much. Why do you ask?” He shared that he has a device that takes paper shredding and turns it into small paper blocks suitable for burning in a small stove.

I told him we would keep our small bit of shredding for him. I also told him I knew of another source for shredded paper and I would be sure to stockpile it for him. I admit to questioning the viability of such a process.

Week after week he would come for a box of food, one for his mother and one for himself. He would then retrieve the shredding. He did not expect me to get it from where I stored it. He would get the bags of discarded paper turned small threads by a commercial spreader and put them in his car.

Would it work? Does it work? I have not seen the device. But, last week he came back in after getting his food boxes and checking the place for shredding. In is hands were two small paper blocks. He wanted me to have a couple of them to see just what he was talking about. Fascinating!

He then said, “I have just about enough to last me the next two years.” Two years! Those reading this blog do not heat their homes with small wood-burning stoves. Instead we have heaters that put out large numbers of BTUs. Our supplies are gas lines, propane tanks, or electric heaters. We do not look about for shredding. Paper. Someone else’s trash.

Our friendship began when he needed something for his mother he did not have, a wheelchair. Initially he was standoffish to those who gave up their Wednesday evening to serve those in our community. Some even reported that he came off quite unappreciative. The truth is his heart and mind we burdened. He had no one with whom he could talk.

One evening at the end of his tether we talked. In tears he described his life and experience. He longed for the hurt to go away. To this point he was doing all he could to present a very firm, solid exterior. He was Facebooking all of us. That is, he was presenting the best image of himself to others until he did not have the energy to continue.

I recall that evening and a few successive evenings. We talked about Good News. Yes, we talked about Jesus. At one point he indicated he understood and things had changed for him. Not quite the traditional way to confess faith. I sensed his skepticism. It was as if he had been down this road before. Promises of radical changes and an all’s well future may have been the stock and trade previous conversations partners presented to him.

What he seemed to be waiting for were those accompanying actions that made our conversation more than about me announcing, “We got one!” In fact, we do not get one. Over time his demeanor changed. No longer presenting as unappreciative, he thanked those who served effusively. His attention turned to ways he could help others. Something of a pay it forward.

We tend to eschew those descriptions. They are not exact enough for us. But, I am left thinking my new, old friend is slowly working his way in faith. I thought about some of the ways he has sought to express his thankfulness. It was not the lengths to which Zacchaeus went – paying back up to four times what he had wrongfully taken. But the impulse was the same. I must do something.

He never thought what he was doing came close to repaying. He did not convey his actions were an attempt to get him in continued good graces. Instead, in the simple, even kitschy, way he offered thankfulness moved beyond what we normally see when assembling to help others.

My new, old friend received from the abundance of someone’s excess shredding enough paper to create warmth for the next two years. The energy to create such a possibility could not even be described as minimal. It cost nothing. It is the same commodity all we who claim Jesus possess – friendship.

The real Gift is the one received without the hint of being put in debt to the Giver. Were we to consider that sort of friendship, we may re-evaluate the “with whom may I be friends” and flip the script to include a better possibility, “with whom may I not be friends.” The pattern of Jesus with Zacchaeus seems to eliminate our filtering out others in our pursuit of the radical friendship of Jesus.