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Archive for April, 2011

Happy Easter!  One of my seminary professors was R. Lansing Hicks, whose obituary can be found at : http://www.yale.edu/opa/arc-ybc/v36.n16/story21.html   He was my prof in spring semester 1980, and over the years I appreciated more and more his lectures on the Christian use of the Old Testament. I emailed him stating this. I forgot about my note until Hicks’ son-in-law emailed me, stating that Hicks had been ill during his last year and hadn’t read his emails, but the son-in-law had found my note and communicated it to Hicks shortly before his death. The moral of this story is, IF YOU WANT TO EXPRESS GRATITUDE TO SOMEONE FOR SOME KINDNESS OR HELPFULNESS, DON’T DELAY, DO IT NOW. This was the third or fourth time in my life that I sent a thank-you note to someone who died not long thereafter.

The moral of the rest of this post is: if you want to deepen your faith, finding connections and insights in the Bible is an excellent way.  A few months ago I found a short book by Hicks: Forms of Christ in the Old Testament: The Problem of the Christological Unity of the Bible, the William C. Winslow Memorial Lectures of 1968 at Seabury-Western Theological Seminary. Several years ago I read Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture by Graeme Goldsworthy, and at about the same time, something at our church reminded me how little many of us know or appreciate the Old Testament and how it relates to the New. Consequently I’ve been interested in renewing my own Bible reading, and in helping people discover themes and passages that unify the testaments.

In this interesting book, Hicks quotes Gerhard von Rad’s question: “how far can Christ be a help to the exegete in understanding the Old Testament, and how far can the Old Testament be a help to him [or her] in understanding Christ?” (p. 6) Hicks offers a form-content approach which, by the end, also give us a stronger appreciation of the Old Testament and provides ideas for ecumenical dialogue.

First, we look at form, specifically the forms of words, actions, and a coalescence of both. (p. 9).

Forms of words. There are “words of suffering” (Job 16:18-17:2, 23; Ps. 22:1-2, 6-8, 14-18; 69:4-21; 116; Isaiah 53:3-9; Lamentations 3:1-24; and cf. Zechariah 12:10f), in which Christians perceived the form of Christ’s suffering (Matt. 8:17; Acts 8:32-35; 1 Peter 2:24f). There are words of forgiveness (Isaiah 40;2; 51:5f; Jer. 31:34; Hosea 14:4-7; Micah 7:19f; Zech. 13:1), in which Christians perceive the form of Christ’s pardon (Mark 2:5; Romans 10;5-13). There are words of salvation (Isa. 43:14-; 61:1-4; Jer. 23:5f; 31:2f; Ez.34:11-16; Zech. 8:13; cf. Ps. 20:30f), and words of life (Deut. 30:15-20; Isa. 25:6-8 [cf. Matt. 27:51; heb. 6:19; 10:20]; 26:19; Isa. 55:3; Amos 5:14); in which Christians perceive Christ’s power, too (Luke 20:37f; John 10:10; 11:25f; Heb. 11:17-19) (pp. 9-10).

Forms of action. There are forms of intersection: Abraham’s prayers for Sodom (Gen. 18:20-33), Moses’ prayers for the Israelites (Ex. 32:11-14, 31f), and the Servant’s actions (Isa. 42:2; 50:4-9; 52:13-53:13), in which Christian’s perceive the form of Christ’s self-oblation and intersession. There are forms of sacrifice, especially the binding of Isaac (Gen. 22:1-18), certainly a text readable as a very Christological text. There are also forms of God’s self-limitation: God’s covenant with Noah never to flood the earth again (Gen. 9:8-17); God’s covenant agreements with Israel (Ex. 34:10-28); God’s selection of a place where God can be met (Ex. 25:8f, 17-22; Deut. 12:10-14; 1 Kings 5:3-5; 8:20f, 29; Ps. 132:14; Ez. 37:26f). In all of these examples of divine self-limitation, Christians perceive the divine self-emptying in Christ (John 1:14; Phil. 2:6f; Col. 1:19f.) (pp. 10-11).

Coalescence of words and actions. Hicks cites Ex. 3:7f as a good combination of God’s verbal promises and God’s saving activity (pp. 11-12)

We also look at content. It’s not always the case that the Old Testament provides the form and the New Testament the content. There are reciprocal movements between the testaments:

1. It is Christ’s nature to expose sin, and thus, whenever the Old Testament exposes sin (e.g., Micah 3:8, or the law as understood by Paul in Rom. 7:7-12), “it shares in the work of Christ. ”

2. It is Christ’s nature to forgive sins, and thus the Old Testament “knows Christ” where there is forgiveness of sins (Lev. 16:29f; Micah 7:18-20; Isaiah 55:6).

3. Similarly Christ’s suffering for sin, and the Old Testament knows this kind of suffering (Ex. 32:31-32; Jer. 20:7-18; 37-38; Isa. 53:4-6).

4. And also Christ’s redemption from sin (Isa. 40:1-4; 53;12; Ps. 22:30-31; 130:7-8).

5. We also see the Old Testament providing the content of redemption, as in Hosea 3:1-3, in which we see the form of Christ’ s work (pp. 11-14).

Forms of intention. In the Old Testament, we see God’s intention of salvation: Cain (Gen. 4:15ff, Noah (5:29; 8:21f), Abraham (12:1-3, 15:7-21; 17:1-8), as well as the Exodus and Sinai covenant, and God’s many promises like Isa. 1:16ff and 43:4. The divine intention of salvation of course continues into the New Testament as a mutual binding of the two testaments. “And where salvation is offered, there is Christ.” (pp. 15-16). Intention cannot be separated from certain other forms, such as the offering of the innocent for the salvation of the guilty (p. 16).

Forms of Coordinates. Hicks gives the example of Isaiah 45:21f, where “a just God” and “a saving God” are not contrasted but yoked as co-ordinates: God is both just and saving. God’s justice and righteousness, in fact, are showed in Isaiah’s several depictions of the Lord as comforter, vindicator, healer, preserver, and sanctifier (pp. 17-18).

Other examples of coordinate terms are Moses’ writings and Christ’s words (John 5:46f), “the way, truth and life” of John 14:6, the “Son of God” and “life” in 1 John 5:15; and the perfection and gifts of the law in Ps. 19:7-9. All these are coordinates which are also perceived in Christ (Matt. 11:28, John 1:4-9; 8:12; 11:25f) (pp. 19-20).

In an interesting second half of the book, Hicks makes several points. One is that “When reading the Old Testament, early Christians recognized in its words and acts forms of the divine salvation and knowing that there is one salvation, not two, confidentially believed them to be forms of Christ.”As the New Testament affirms the life given through Christ (Romans 10:9, John 14:6), so the Old Testament affirms the living giving power of God (Deut. 30:15; 32:39, Amos 5:6). “[T]he Jew of the Old Testament… was saved no less lovingly or fully than those Jews who encountered Jesus ‘in the days of his flesh’ or we today who profess the Christian faith. In these Old Testament affirms we meet ‘soteriological content.’ The form of each passage quoted differs from the others just as each differs from the form in which Paul makes his declaration [in Romans 10:9]. But the content is the same, and so is the intention—the gift of life abundant; and that life, wherever or whenever offered, is life with Christ and in Christ” (pp. 26-27).

Another point: “Recent editions of Nestle’s Greek New Testament offer an index of Old Testament verses either cited or alluded to in the New Testament which runs to more than 1400 items. Not only the number of citations but their scope also is noteworthy: the list contains all the books of the canonical Old Testament with the exception of four–Ruth, Ezra, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs. This is not to imply that the New Testament authors saw Christ in virtually every book of the Old Testament; but these impressive statistics for the frequency and range of Old Testament quotations do indicate beyond reasonable doubt that early Christian writers found material of specific value to them as Christians in every section of the Old Testament…” (pp. 30-31).

These are not “proof texts” and not all are what we would call “Old Testament prophecies”: for instance, Zechariah 9:9 is not a prophecy or a proof-text when used in Matthew 21:4f. But this is part of a drama in Zechariah, in which Matthew found a form for elucidating Christ. Likewise using in Zech. 11:12-13, 12:10, and 13:7b, Matthew could “delineate the form of divine action in Christ’s passion and show its intention” (pp. 33-34, quote on p. 34). Similarly Matthew’s use of Hosea 11:1, which is not a promise but a form of the divine action (pp. 35-36). And also: Matthew’s use of Jeremiah in Matt. 2:17f, a word of sorrow which connects us with the divine words of salvation and restoration in Jeremiah 31 (pp. 32-33).

Hicks sees this form-content approach as helpful in Jewish-Christian conversation. We can better understand the variety and intentions of God’s works in both testaments, and we can affirm the uniqueness of Christ without denigrating God’s other works as somehow lesser, or simply preliminary to Christ. Hicks quotes James Sanders: “The Christian will not, even privately, ask why the Jew does not accept Christ as Messiah, and the Jew will not, even privately, ask why the Christian does not accept the Old Testament as Jewish. Each will respect the historic claim on the Bible the other represents….” Hicks adds that the purpose of conversation “is not merely to encourage Jews to converse with us for their own profit but to bring us Christians to ‘the point of such a full and genuine encounter that we are lead into the depth of the Christian Presence amid Judaism'” (p. 38). [Here, Hicks quotes P. Schneider’s The Dialogue of Christians and Jews, who continues: “Is it not possible that we have been blind to the further depths in which Jesus is made manifest in the travails and triumph of the Jewish people and faith throughout the ages? This is a dimension of the Lord Christ that Christians have yet to discover” (p. 177, in note 50 of Hicks, p. 45).]

Another way to put it is by N. T. Wright in his article “Paul’s Social Gospel: In Full Accord” (Christian Century, March 8, 2011, 25-28), where he writes, “There’s a swath of Western thought which…has said in effect that since the first plan has gone wrong, God has decided to do something quite different, to send his own Son to die for sinners, so we can forget about all that Isreael stuff….That is to misread Romans and to misunderstand Paul at his very heart. Instead, Paul declares in Romans 3:21 that God’s covenant faithfulness has now been revealed through the faithfulness of the Messiah for the benefit of all those who are faithful. He, the Messiah, is ‘Israel in person'” (p. 29).

Altogether, Professor Hicks, writes, “Herein the identification of Old Testament forms can contribute significantly to our understanding of the scope of Christ’s work through space and time. It widens the perspective through which we are helped to view the totality of Christ’s work. Does this not open further doors of understanding today? … Should not we extend this same affirmation to all works of redemption and deliverance? If so, we face the future of ecumenical discussion of with both confidence and anticipation and we turn eagerly toward dialogue with ‘secular [person]’ in our ‘post-Christian’ age” (p. 39).

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Yesterday, as I drove home from an errand, Finlandia came on the satellite radio station. I think I was in junior high when I first heard the hymn “This is My Song” (also the hymn “Be Still, My Soul”). I loved that hymn, and so I looked for an LP of Sibelius’ tone poem. But the piece had more turbulent, rat-a-tat-tat-tat music than I liked. I was expecting a peaceful meditation on that melody, similar to Borodin’s In the Steppes of Central Asia (or pieces which I’ve since discovered, like Vaughan Williams’  Five Variants on “Dives and Lazarus”  and Finzi’s Eclogue). To this day, I wish Finlandia had been written as an adagio. I’m also amused at myself for thinking this warhorse should’ve been written in a way personally pleasing to me.

As I thought about ways to turn this silly little observation into a blog post, I happened to read the essay “Cultural Betrayal” in Chuck Klosterman IV: A Decade of Curious People and Dangerous Ideas (New York: Scribner, 2007), pp. 283-287. I love Klosterman’s writing and used to follow his columns in the Akron Beacon-Journal. He discussed how prevalent and yet how foolish and even scary is the idea that you can feel “betrayed” by culture. His examples: one of his friends who felt betrayed by the marriage of Sarah Jessica Parker’s character in the last episode of Sex and the City. The friend was adamant. Klosterman also found scary the notion of values “winning,” like the words of another writer who was happy “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was on the radio because the writer’s values were now “winning.” “[W]hat I have slowly come to realize,” writes Klosterman, “is that most people think this way all the time. They don’t merely want to hold their values; they want their values to win. And I suspect this is why people so often feel “betrayed” by art and consumerism, and by the way the world works” (p. 285; emphasis in text).

I found Klosterman’s idea of “cultural betrayal” intriguing–and it definitely explains a lot about human nature! It’s one reason why people debate so vigorously over issues like the suitability of the conclusions of  The Sopranos and Lost, or whether certain artists like Liz Phair and Amy Grant let their fans down when their styles change or when they don’t “top” a superior album.

We church people definitely fall into this kind of thinking. Sometimes we prefer a certain kind of style of music and, because we like it and find it spiritually helpful, we think everyone should. But lots of hurt feelings and divisions have happened in churches because of that. Similarly, some folks attend certain popular spiritual retreats, and when they return to church they perceive that other people aren’t as pumped up spiritually as they feel. So they start to dismiss other Christians as “not spiritual,” and sometimes they leave the church or demand that their values “win” in that congregation. I wanted to throw my hymnal at a fellow who had attended an Emmaus walk and declared Christians should only listen to contemporary Christian music.

It’s too bad we’re this way. When my former pastor took another church position, I bought him a farewell gift, a 10-CD set of 1970s popular hits.  I knew he loved the music of that decade.  I never enjoyed a lot of 70s music, which reminds me of lonely times. I love 80s music. But I’m happy that he’s happy listening to Average White Band, Donna Summer, Jim Croce, Abba, Pure Prairie League, and Firefall, while in my own car I’m cranking up Mr. Mister, Spandau Ballet, Kate Bush, the Bangles, Bananarama, and the Thompson Twins. It would be sad if either of our tastes “prevailed.”

And yet… I was so excited when Sophie B. Hawkins began to get significant airplay in the mid 1990s; finally the public appreciated music that I liked!…. Human nature strikes again.

“Cultural betrayal” explains a lot about how some people perceive certain social, political and economic questions, too. That’s a whole ‘nother topic to explore!

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My music listening has been nostalgic lately.  The very first LP I purchased (used, from a friend) was “In-a-Gadda-da-Vita” by Iron Butterfly. I still have the vinyl record in my drastically downsized collection, but I decided to purchase the CD when I saw it on sale at Collector’s Choice Music. The title song is still an enjoyable piece: good solos, the polyphonic organ, the “tribal” drums (with the bottom heads removed from the toms) and the way the riff holds the long piece together but not to the extent that it becomes tedious. Here is the whole shebang, lights and all:  http://www.dailymotion.com/video/xbtw9b_iron-butterfly-inagaddadavida-long_music   The song makes me wish that Iron Butterfly had written more such extended pieces, similar to Traffic.

During my teen years I liked another, less famous piece in the “psychedelic metal” genre, “From a Dry Camel” by Dust. I also purchased the LP (with its macabre photograph of bodies in catacombs) from a friend. The cryptic but suggestive lyrics are more interesting than the Iron Butterfly epic, but I enjoyed the plodding, camel-like first and third sections, while the middle section really rocks. Someone put the song on YouTube, with the grim album cover: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ru7whay-nhs

And one more album that I liked in the early 1970s, an even odder bit of psychedelic music, “666” by Aphrodite’s Child. The group’s leader, Vangelis Pappathanasiou, was later known for his “Chariots of Fire” soundtrack. The songs “Babylon” and “The Four Horsemen” received airplay on KSHE-FM, my favorite St. Louis station which also played Dust and a good variety of other groups. This album is, on the whole, strange–but then, the book of Revelation is strange. The song entitled with the infinity symbol consists of a woman (the notable Greek actor Irene Pappas) repeating “I was, I am, I am to come” for nearly six minutes in stages of agony, hysteria, orgasm, and finally elation. A website, http://www.vangelislyrics.com/aphrodites-child-666-the-story.htm, provides background, and here’s another link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=selfqEH-JnY&feature=related

“To do ‘then’ now would be retro, but to do ‘then’ then was very nowtro, if you will,” says a character in A Mighty Wind, referring to the outfits that his group wore in the Sixties but which seemed unsuitable in the 00s. Other music that I’ve been playing recently is more “nowtro,” specifically Jeff Beck’s recent albums. But Beck was one of those artists of which I was aware at the beginning of my interest in music, the early 1970s, after groups like Cream and the Yardbirds were gone but I was peripherally aware of the music as I was listening to prog-rock, psychedelic metal, and early heavy metal. Beck’s recent material like “Live at Ronnie Scott’s” and “You Had It Coming” connects me back to my earliest musical discoveries without being so nostalgic.

Listening to psychedelic music made me think of the notion of “guilty pleasures.” A few weeks ago I read Chuck Klostermann’s essay, “Not Guilty,” about that cliché. He thinks the notion “somehow dictates that … people should feel bad for liking things they sincerely enjoy.” A book like The Encyclopedia of Guilty Pleasures assumes, without saying so, that there is a “universal taste” that we somehow violate if we like things such as gumball machines, or cheesy movies like Road House, or people like Evel Knievel. Although he distinguishes these kinds of “guilty pleasures” with those that are ‘technically’ guilty—having sex with strangers is his example–that is something different than simply enjoying everyday things that somehow aren’t as lofty as reading James Joyce (“Not Guilty,” in Chuck Klostermann IV: A Decade of Curious People and Dangerous Ideas (New York: Scribner, 2007), pp. 277-281.

I think we fall back on the notion of “guilty pleasures” because people can be “funny” and react disapprovingly to things that really don‘t matter to them. We don’t want to feel defensive. One time I saw a friend in a local grocery store, and I commented that I usually go to a different store (about the same distance from my house). “Why would you go there?” the friend said, as astonished as if I’d told him I was wearing dresses from now on. He was just in the habit of reacting strongly to things he didn’t immediately understand. There are, of course, many people like that.

Playing “In-a-Gadda-da-Vita” may be a guilty pleasure in the technical sense, if for instance a fire truck is approaching and you’re blasting the music and following the drum solo on the steering wheel! Otherwise, what fun to revisit some ol’ favorite music until one gets into the mood to listen to other things again.

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This past year I was hired to write lessons for the project Faithful Citizen: Living Responsibly in a Global Society, which is part of a forthcoming DVD-based curriculum from the Center for the Congregation in Public Life, Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School. The Center created the lesson formats, outline, and basic approach, and I built upon that foundation, with resources and input from the Center.

I hope anyone who may read this blog post and find these ideas interesting will look for the curriculum once it’s available later this year. Continue to check at the website http://www.congregationinpubliclife.org/DVDCurriculum.htm.

The Faithful Citizen designers and writers hope to offer a corrective to the individualism that often characterizes both our religious faith and political opinions. At the heart of the curriculum are two works, Robert Bellah and his fellow authors’ Habits of the Heart and especially Eric Mount’s Covenant, Community, and the Common Good: An Interpretation of Christian Ethics. Bellah and his fellow authors note that Americans tend to think of religion, not only in terms of institutional religion but also as a private, individual concern. A personal approach to God and faith reveals the “freedom, openness, and pluralism of American religious life” but neglects the fact that our relationship with God “is mediated by a whole pattern of community life.”(1)

Eric Mount, who is influenced by Bellah, stresses aspects of American religious life reflected in his book’s title. Americans have always had a twofold drive: individual well-being and success, and a desire for the common good (2). While Americans are indebted to the individualistic tradition of John Locke that affirms the rights of people to life, liberty, and economic and personal well-being, we are also indebted to a more covenantal and community-oriented concern for the common good.(3) Mount quotes H. Richard Niebuhr, “Covenant [in early American thinking] was the binding together in one body politic of persons who assumed through unlimited promise responsibility to and for each other and for the common laws, under God.” Becoming a member of that society was not granted at birth, but (Niebuhr continues) was “always the moral act of taking upon oneself, through promise, the responsibilities of citizenship that bound itself in the very exercise of its freedom.”(4) Such a framework of mutual obligation in turns provides the underpinnings of public discourse and mutual responsibilities within the communities in which we live, as well as a focus upon the common good.

Throughout his book, Mount provides much discussion and material for thinking about how the church can help society regain a sense of community, and to help shape “the common life” of our society and the social “common good.” The nature of the common good will always be debated—for instance, how much should the government ensure people’s well-being and when should the government stay out of people’s lives.(5) But the church can season these debates with its example of service and its own debates about crucial issues. Mount emphasizes the theme of “better stories” (Robert Reich’s term) that narrative our commonality–and our sense of being “in this together”–rather than our individualism and our “us v. them” attitudes. (6)

Mount believes the church can be faithful to its own Gospel message while also being respectful of pluralism and diversity. “My own contention,” argues Mount, “is that those of us in religious communities should endeavor to interpret and shape the common life on the basis of our theological convictions, but that we should do so confessionally, not apologetically, as [Max] Stackhouse does [in his writings].” Mount writes, “[T]here is too much damage done when a particular theology is implemented as the reigning ideology of societies,” since after all, “[t]here is enough religious pluralism in our own land and in the global community to make one hope that we can discover some commonly affirmed civic virtues from a variety of stories sources, including our American political tradition, and even some reiterative universal norms through dialogue, without promulgating one’s theology’s norms as universal directives.”(7)

The following thoughts are partly “outtakes” from that projects, and partly my own, informal studies concerning the issues Mount has raised.

Mount’s emphasis upon the church’s confessional faithfulness, as well as the power of the church’s “telling its story,” reminded me of two books: Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon’s Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony and its sequel, Where Resident Aliens Live. I thought of these books, which garnered discussion several years ago, because they also take a confessional and narrative approach to the work of the church, but in a different way than Mount.

Hauerwas and Willimon criticize Enlightenment individualism for, among other things, giving us “not self-freedom but self-centeredness, loneliness, superficiality, and harried consumerism”(8) Their alternative is to think of the church as a “colony,” not in the sense of a centered place but as a people together on a journey with God, whose identity is shaped by Christian practices.(9) Being true to God means being a “community of the cross”(10) which speaks the truth to the world about hard realities; the church has the courage to do so because, as such a community, it is “a visible body of people who know the cost of discipleship and are willing to pay.”(11)

This, the authors, believe, is a faithful alternative to the liberal-conservative distinction. “The church is the visible, political enactment of our language of God by a people who can name their sin and accept God’s forgiveness and are thereby enabled to speak the truth in love.”(12) Thus “the political task of Christians is to be the church rather than to transform the world, because the way we understand concepts like peace and justice at all is through the Gospel of Christ.(13) To say it another way, the church’s proper role in society is truth-telling: to preach to the world (and to witness through Christian practices, including service) that the world is without God.

I appreciate many of the authors’ ideas about the identity of the church as a group of people called, shaped, and gathered as God’s people under the Cross, and many of their criticisms of contemporary society and Enlightenment individualism are apropos. The Vietnam War haunts the authors’ works as one example among several where citizens were lied to, and horrors committed, in the name of national interests. Though not in the text, that hippy-era term, “The Machine,” kept coming to mind as I read the authors’ many criticisms of modernity and American nationalism. For the authors, the church is certainly a political voice, in that era and our own. But rather than being liberal or conservative, the church’s political voice points to the hope of God. The authors also take a stand against a kind of country-clubbishness that most certainly characterize both liberal and conservative congregations. Likewise, they raise strong issues of ministerial identity that we pastors must consider if we are being appropriately (and bravely) countercultural in our work, rather than simply people-helpers.

I also appreciate Hauerwas’ and Willimon’s concerns about the subtlety by which cultural values and Enlightenment individualism can become dangerously mixed up with, and undermine some biblical models of discipleship, and how Christian, family, and American values become undifferentiated in people’s minds.

The authors’ rejections of modernity and Enlightenment individualism give the books a negative tone that makes one think, What are the benefits and blessings of both Enlightenment individualism and our representative democracy? What are the reasons we should be sensitive to pluralism, the culture, and the common good? Aren’t we all heirs to and inescapable participants in modernity and Enlightenment individualism, including the authors (a topic they address in chapter 1 of the sequel book)?

The rejection of modernity is combined with comparatively fewer specific ideas about how we can achieve, in the midst of modernity, the faithful church they envision, especially as thoroughly “accommodationist” as they find the contemporary church. To be fair to the authors, this is a very difficult challenge: to develop a practical “road map” of specific changes to the church.  How can the church even find sufficient unanimity on issues in order to “tell the truth” to culture?  (It seems self-evident to Hauerwas that the church should be pacifist, for instance.)  Until the day dawns that the church can actually be a disciplined alternative culture, we must struggle to be faithful as a church, including faithfulness in truth-telling.

The authors are also given to bold statement, presumably to provoke thought. Is public theology only a way to “underwrite American democracy”?(14) Similarly “the first enemy of the family is the church.”(15) I know what they mean by that statement, but a scripture like 1 Timothy 3:4-5, interpreted from its first or second century context, reminds us that family health and church health are not mutually exclusive.

In another example, the authors write that “Christians must be very suspicious of talk about community,” citing the fact that people find a way out of loneliness through “togetherness based on common tastes, racial or ethnic traits, or mutual self-interest… Christian community … is not primarily about togetherness. It is about the way of Jesus Christ with those whom he calls to himself. It is about discipline our wants and needs in congruence with a true story, which gives us the resources to lead truthful lives.” (16)

Again, I understand their point while regretting the one-sidedness. I miss the compassionate and nuanced ideas about church, society, and community that I find in Eric Mount’s book, where one can find both sharp criticisms of the church and society, and positive ideas about how the church can support families, community, and the common good.(17)

The term “resident alien” itself is a vivid and scriptural expression but not the only possibility, as I learned from another book, one to which the Center alerted me: Dennis McCann’s and Patrick Miller’s In Search of the Common Good. Victor Paul Furnish’s article therein addresses New Testament texts about community and the common good.(18) He notes that Paul does not use an alternate word like paroikoi (“resident aliens”) or parepidê moi (“transients”) to refer to Christians, and in fact does not use those terms elsewhere in his letters, although we do find them in 1 Peter 2:11 and Heb. 11:13(19). Instead, Furnish provides several Pauline texts that support a concern for the common good. Passages like 2 Cor. 5:19, 1 Cor. 15:22, and Rom. 5:18 point to an inclusiveness of God’s saving purpose. Furthermore, he argues, Paul does not call Christians “to withdraw from society but to live out their faith within it,” as in for instance 1 Cor. 5:10 and 7:24). In Philippians 1:27-28, Paul uses the word politeuesthai, meaning “to be, or to live as a citizen.” Since Paul does not elsewhere use this word, Furnish maintains that Paul is advising his people to be “upstanding citizens” as they live as Christians in a Roman society. Furnish finds other scriptures, including Philippians 4:5a (“Let your gentleness be known to all people”), Philippians 4:8-9 (a list of virtues that imply public conduct), Galatians 6:9-10 (an admonition to do good for all at every possible opportunity), Romans 12:14-21 (ways to live peacefully with all people), and Romans 13:1-78 (being good citizens).

Furnish clarifies that his study “does not allow us to conclude that Paul every specifically encouraged his congregations to participate in public conversation about the common good, or even that the ’common good’ was, as such, a Pauline topic. This is the dilemma faced by Hauerwas and Willimon: what are the practical solutions and activities that can arise from these ideas? Furnish does suggest, however, that what the apostle declared about the uncommon love of God redemptively enacted in Jesus Christ nourishes a concern for the common good and opens the way for Christian participation in the public conversation about it.”(20)

Regarding churches and families, I looked through my library for another book, by my friend Joyce Ann Mercer, Welcoming Children. I appreciated a complementary but (to me) more constructive and nuanced discussion of families and faith. She is also concerned with identity formation in, as well as the countercultural function of the contemporary church. Instead of declaring that “the first enemy of the family is the church,” Mercer shows ways of mutual contribution between families and religious communities. For instance, she notes that children learn faith “by being formed as an identity through which she construes and negotiates meaning religiously.” Parenting is a religious practice because children are gifts of God, and training children religiously is a “practice of stewardship.” She argues that families and churches don’t always have suitable educational tools for identity-formation: e.g., programs of Christian education can be simply the accumulation and integration of information, applied at developmentally appropriate times.(21) Instead, Mercer argues that learning is “the process of meaning-making” which is also “central in situating a person’s identity.”(22) When children learn in a community of faith (i.e., a community of Christian practice), the learning process “means being formed in a counterculture, gaining an anti-imperial identity in which practices of love, justice, hospitality, and compassion replace practices of oppression, excessive accumulation at the expense of others, and abuses of power”(23)

Mercer notes that identity, formation, and community do have problems, such as the reduced freedom in determining community membership and the imposition of identities. Congregations are not always the kinds of settings that are able to help create identities, having qualities more like typical service organizations than what she could call counter-cultural and anti-imperial processes of discipleship- and identity-formation. She also identifies the homophobia, sexism, and racisms that exist in congregations might become part of identity formation and therefore become “negative formation.” Consequently, identity formation is always a “ ‘compromise maneuver’ between ideals and actualities.”(24)

Mercer also stresses that parenting programs associated with conservative Christianity’s stress upon “family values” do not always address the breakdown of interpersonal connections in the wake of consumerism and globalization, and also do not address today’s variety of family configurations.(25) Altogether, we must always take care to call upon the Spirit to guide his fallible church.(26)

I’m not implying that Mercer presents her ideas in contrast to Hauerwas and Willimon, who are not referenced in her work. I’m simply saying that I personally find her book very helpful and encouraging after I read Resident Aliens and its sequel.

And…. after reading through these other texts, I was lead to another book on my shelves (a recent purchase that I’d not yet read). The popular author Brian D. McLaren combines the confessional stance with a missional, socially-active model of the church in his recent book, Brian McLaren’s Everything Must Change, which has a broad vision of the possibilities of Christian compassion to address world issues.

Using themes of social criticism and ecology, he writes, “If we disbelieve the dominant societal system, and if we transfer our trust from its covert curriculum and framing story to the good news of Jesus, a radical and transforming hope begins to happen to us. Just as a fearful vision reshapes the world according to that which it fears the hopeful vision of the kingdom of God will surely begin to reshape our world in its hopeful image. We could say that a hopeful change in our ‘inner ecology’ will inevitably manifest itself in a hopeful change in our global ecology.”(27)

One of the several calls to action resulting from Jesus’ call is community action. He describes different calls to action that result from Jesus’ invitation to live by his teachings. Churches won’t be “domesticated by the dominant system” but will center worship and activities upon “Jesus’ revolutionary message of the kingdom.” One is public action, evidenced by people like Dr. King and Desmond Tutu. Still another call is global action,” where “personal, community, and public actions are integrated in synergizing ways.” Global action has a powerful scripture in Matthew 17:14-20, where Jesus promises that amazing things can happen as a result of very simple faith.(28)

Once again, the challenge is to find concrete responses, in this cause, where to place one’s simple faith to work in God’s world. The temptation of theological reflection on social issues is to confuse your actions with God’s: as if you can’t be saved unless you try to “save the world.”

While I was working through these several books and issues, I attended a religious conference and saw, among the numerous books for sale, Walter Brueggemann’s new book Journey to the Common Good, I snatched it right up. (Yes, I also paid for it….)

Brueggemann’s arguments are fascinating. Here are just a few, which I’ll share in case others are as interested in these ideas. Brueggemann notes that we find two kinds of “social ethic” in the Exodus-Sinai tradition. One is certainly a very radical kind of social ethic that includes the cancellation of the debts of the poor after seven years, thus eliminating a “permanent underclass” (Deut. 15:1-18), no interest on loans to members of the community (Deut. 23:19-20), no collateral on loans to the poor (Deut. 24:10-13), no withholding of wages to the poor (Deut. 24:14-15), hospitality to runaway slaves (Deut. 23:15-16), ongoing provision for the poor and needy (Deut. 24:19-22), and justice for orphans and resident aliens (Deut. 24:17-18).(29)

Brueggemann says, “The tradition of Deuteronomy intends to resituate the economy of Israel into the fabric of the neighborhood…the economy is [not] a freestanding autonomous system; it is, rather, checked and measured at every turn by the reality of the neighborhood.” Furthermore (as he echoes philosopher Michael Walzer), God is providing a permanent way out of “Egypt” via these justice-oriented, common good-oriented commandments.(30)

But he notes that the other “social ethic” (or rather, counter narrative) in this tradition is that of holiness, which offered “degrees of eligibility” based on purification rites, access to the most sacred places of the Temple, and eventually of the monarchy at Jerusalem and the lack of national justice criticized by the prophets.(31) Brueggemann says that the triad “wisdom, might, and wealth,” which characterized the reign of Solomon and eventually spelled the downfall of the nation, is characteristic of “the U.S. national security state.” But that triad, he argues, is expressed “as consumer entitlement in which liberals and conservatives together take for granted our privileged status as the world as God’s most recently chosen people.”(32) “It remains to be seen how the church can fashion an intentional alternative to the national security state, which is itself a path to death. The critical edge of faith requires us to ask if a national security state can be impinged upon and transformed by strands of neighborly commitment that lie deep in our national history,” he says, citing The Broken Covenant by Robert Bellah et al. (33).

What shape will that neighborly commitment take? For Hauerwas and Willimon, neighborly commitment would entail Christian truth-telling to the world as well as growth as a people of God through discipleship practices. Their vision seems to be close to the holiness-as-separation traditions of the Bible, where the common good is serviced by the people’s faithfulness to the truth. On the other hand, Brueggemann’s notion of the church as “an intentional alternative to the national security state” makes one think of Hauerwas’ and Willimon’s discussions of the church as an alternative culture, as well as Mercer’s vision of the church as an “anti-imperial” community of faith for “identity formation.” The church can be both an alternative to culture, and a force for the social common good.

As I quoted earlier from Habits of the Hearts, our relationship with God “is mediated by a whole pattern of community life.” I think this is an exciting insight, because it affirms our everyday responsibilities of neighborliness and citizenship within our communities and also calls us to bring God’s truth to the world through our words and actions.  

Notes:

1. Robert N. Bellah, Richard Madsen, William M. Sullivan, Ann Swidler, Steven M. Tipton, Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), 227.

2. Eric Mount, Jr. Covenant, Community, and the Common Good: An Interpretation of Christian Ethics (Cleveland, OH: The Pilgrim Press, 1999), 3.

3. Eric Mount, “Covenant, Community, and The Common Good: A Tale of Two Americas,” Church & Society, May/June 2005, 47-48.

4. H. Richard Niebuhr’s 1953 address, “The Idea of Covenant and American Democracy,” quoted in Mount, Covenant, Community, and the Common Good, 10-11.

5. Eric Mount, “The Common Good: It Takes a Community,” Public lecture at Davidson College, fall 2003; Mount, “A Tale of Two Americas,” 47-48.

6. Robert Reich’s four “morality tales” are the Mob at the Gates, the Triumphant Individual, the Benevolent Community, and the Rot at the Top. All are essentially us vs. them “tales.” In the first tale, the mob are welfare recipients, illegal immigrants or any other group that threaten the common good and therefore must be dealt with. In the second tail, people are ultimately responsible for their own success and so the common good is best achieved when people are left alone to make their own lives. In the third tale, society and specifically the government has a responsibility to step in and help groups that are struggling, such as the poor who could benefit from relief programs. In the fourth tale, the common good is threatened by the powerful, whether they are the rich or the government, and therefore we need smaller government or a redistribution or wealth, or other solutions. See Mount, Covenant, Community, and the Common Good, 98-102, and Mount, “A Tale of Two Americas,” 43-45.

7. Mount, Covenant, Community, and the Common Good, 155, 156.

8. Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon, Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1989), 50.

9. Ibid., 50-53.

10. Ibid., 47.

11. Ibid., 157.

12. Ibid., 171.

13. Ibid., 38.

14. Ibid., 32

15. Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon, Where Resident Aliens Live: Exercises for Christian Practice (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996), 90.

16. Hauerwas and Willimon, Resident Aliens, 78.

17. Mount, 2.

18. Victor Paul Furnish, “Uncommon Love and the Common Good: Christians as Citizens in the Letters of Paul,” in Dennis P. McCann and Patrick D. Miller, eds., In Search of the Common Good (New York: T & T Clark , 2005), 58-87. Also very helpful for a biblical understanding of the common good is (in that same volume, the article by Jacqueline Lapsley, “‘When Mercy Seasons Justice’: Jonah and the Common Good,” 41-57.

19. Furnish, “Uncommon Love,” 67-68.

20. Furnish, “Uncommon Love,” 83.

21. Joyce Ann Mercer, Welcoming Children: A Practice Theology of Childhood (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2005), 245, 163.

22. Ibid., 167.

23. Ibid., 168.

24. Ibid., 172, 173.

25. Ibid, 245-250.

26. Ibid., 180.

 27. Brian D. McLaren, Everything Must Change: When the World’s Biggest Problems and Jesus’ Good News Collide (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2007), 294.

28. Ibid., 294, 300.

 29. Walter Brueggeman, Journey to the Common Good (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010), 39-40.

30. Ibid., 41, 43

31. Ibid., 44

32. Ibid., 68

33. Ibid., 68

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When we lived in Akron, OH, we lived along a small lake. I love our present location and yard, but our yard in Akron was so peaceful, and during the nine years we lived there, the changing seasons were so pleasant! Canada geese, which were year-round residents, flew over the trees and land upon the lake with a soft, gliding splash. Blue herons, gulls, and ducks were common on the lake, too, and once I spotted a bald eagle in a tree above the water. We saw deer occasionally, and our daughter, looking at the window, saw a coyote stroll through the yard near the lake. I had a feeling the coyote would rather not live in the suburbs.

In the warm seasons when frogs began to croak along the lake. We also noticed killdeer, those pretty birds that make their nests in inappropriate, vulnerable places. At a country church I once served, a killdeer laid its eggs in the gravel parking lot—then, of course, it fussed and ran each time a car pulled into the lot. A thoughtful church member made a sign and put it beside the next so people would take care not to drive into the nest. Killdeers always remind me of that.

Between our back yard and the lake, an area of brush and wild flowers grew. My daughter once identified some of those flowers for a school project: yellow wood sorrel, spotted touch-me-not, elecampane, sweet goldenrod, and others. We left that vegetation alone, except for a path that I kept mowed so that we could walk to the lake. Beside the path, I planted a small U.S. 66 sign. An oak, cottonwood, and willow tree stood at the edge of the yard. In the autumn a few good windy days carried the leaves into the brush so I didn’t have to spend much time raking.

The wild flowers and bushes disappeared in winter; I saw neighbor kids tramping through there in the snow or crossing on their skis. But in springtime the flowers and rushes returned, and by early summer that section of our property became impenetrable except for my little mowed path. The vegetation grew so thick that it was difficult to cast a fishing line properly; my daughter, her friend, and I tried but couldn’t avoid tangling our lines. During our many backyard play times, Emily and I also lost many a golf ball in the brush. We also kicked beach balls around the yard and put up the badminton net several times.

All of us look back on our lives and think how fast time goes. We tend to picture time as linear, one day or month or year after another, in sequence until we come to end of our personal time, whenever it may be. So teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart (Ps. 90:12). Of course, the Bible contains many images of warning–the prophesied Day of the Lord, the commands of Jesus that we be watchful and ready, the apocalyptic passages of the New Testament. These teach of time as a line along which we move.

The Bible also presents a cyclical idea of time, though not as strong as the linear view. Think of the well known passage Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 (which I first learned via the Pete Seeger song): there is a time for everything, a season for planting and harvesting—but the word “season” implies that certain times go away and then return. We experience seasons, both the four seasons and the metaphoric seasons of life. We experience cycles and in small things and large: we return to a place we left, we rediscover music (or other interests) that we once loved, we realize that certain difficult experiences made us stronger for later challenges; we’re given second chances we never expected. We’ve also all have had the never-pleasant experience of old wounds reopened.

The Bible also speaks of the circles of repentance: the ways we stray, backslide, return, stray, return, and through it all, God is always faithful. With its recurrences of sin, punishment, redemption, and return, the book of Judges is as much a spiral as a line of history. I freely admit that my Bible study over the years has been closely connected to my own spiritual ups and downs, and sometimes (though not always) the “downs” were occasions when I sought its promises more conscientiously.

We speak informally of things like luck, fate, jinxes, and karma. We don’t always stop to think that, if God is our Lord, we are not subject to such things! God cares for us and guides us across our short years; God calls us not to lose heart at life’s hazards but, instead, to focus on our relationship with him. God’s plans and purposes may not always be clear, and sometimes we may feel quite lost. But even the “lost” times may simply be seasons across which God provides…..

…..But I don’t want to continue to write so wistfully. Today is a pretty spring day. I’m leafing through my old Bible in search of spring-y texts.

The Garden of Eden is an obvious text, not of spring per se but of newness and of nature’s purity. If I gardened more, I’d probably think I was, in a very small way, recreating a sample of lost, natural paradise. 

Of course, the Passover stories of Exodus are spring stories: at this time of year, observant Jews clean their homes for all traces of hametz, leavened bread, in preparation for the Pesach remembrance of God’s salvation of the Israelites from Egypt.

Moses said to the people, ‘Remember this day on which you came out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, because the Lord brought you out from there by strength of hand; no leavened bread shall be eaten. Today, in the month of Abib, you are going out. When the Lord brings you into the land of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, which he swore to your ancestors to give you, a land flowing with milk and honey, you shall keep this observance in this month. For seven days you shall eat unleavened bread, and on the seventh day there shall be a festival to the Lord. Unleavened bread shall be eaten for seven days; no leavened bread shall be seen in your possession, and no leaven shall be seen among you in all your territory. You shall tell your child on that day, “It is because of what the Lord did for me when I came out of Egypt.” It shall serve for you as a sign on your hand and as a reminder on your forehead, so that the teaching of the Lord may be on your lips; for with a strong hand the Lord brought you out of Egypt. You shall keep this ordinance at its proper time from year to year (Ex. 13:3-10).

Here’s a springtime verse from “sexy” Song of Songs.

The flowers appear on the earth;
   the time of singing has come,
and the voice of the turtle-dove
   is heard in our land
(2:12).

Here  are Jesus’ words, which make me think of spring because we like to see birds on outside like robins, sparrows, cardinals, doves, finches, and titmice.

Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And not one of them is forgotten before God. Why, even the hairs of our head are all numbered. Fear not; you are you are of more value than many sparrows (Luke 12:6-7).

The teaching would lose something if it mentioned starlings or blue jays, species that many people find annoying. Sparrows, in their smallness, seem more illustrative of God’s tender care. Blue jays seem like practical atheists, able to fussily take care of themselves.

The ability to go outside barefoot is a wonderful gift of spring.  Here’s a prophet’s warning:

Keep your feet from going unshod
   and your throat from thirst
(Jer. 2:25a)

In context, the verse means, sarcastically, don’t wear out your shoes and parch your throat in your effort to pursue false idols. But (I lightheartedly think) aren’t Bible people usually depicted as barefoot? It must be okay as long as we’re not pursuing idols!

It’s been a rainy spring. Rain makes me think of this passage, which is tragic and concerned but also with a comic edge. 

Then all the people of Judah and Benjamin assembled at Jerusalem within the three days; it was the ninth month, on the twentieth day of the month. All the people sat in the open square before the house of God, trembling because of this matter and because of the heavy rain. Then Ezra the priest stood up and said to them, ‘You have trespassed and married foreign women, and so increased the guilt of Israel. Now make confession to the Lord the God of your ancestors, and do his will; separate yourselves from the peoples of the land and from the foreign wives.’ Then all the assembly answered with a loud voice, ‘It is so; we must do as you have said. But the people are many, and it is a time of heavy rain; we cannot stand in the open. Nor is this a task for one day or for two, for many of us have transgressed in this matter. Let our officials represent the whole assembly, and let all in our towns who have taken foreign wives come at appointed times, and with them the elders and judges of every town, until the fierce wrath of our God on this account is averted from us.’ Only Jonathan son of Asahel and Jahzeiah son of Tikvah opposed this, and Meshullam and Shabbethai the Levites supported them (Ezra 10:9-15).

“Please, Ezra, can we go inside and dry off first before we divorce our foreign women and avert God‘s wrath?”

The death and resurrection stories are beautiful springtime stories: the new life of the season and the spiritual new life offered by Jesus.

But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body. While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, ‘Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.’ Then they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened (Luke 24:1-12).

I can never read those stories without also feeling some of the happiness of the warmth and renewal of nature, and of springtime during little-kid days, both my own and my daughter’s. Stories of Jesus, rendered in bright colors in children’s Sunday school materials, coincided uncritically with chocolate Easter treats and the Easter egg hunts. When I was little, each spring a most excellent egg hunt occurred up the street from our house, at the shady and pleasant Rogier Park. Back at my childhood home (amid the scattered bricks in the backyard left over from the house’s construction, and near the television antenna) daffodils appeared reliably around Easter time.

Daffodils—and flowering plants generally—invite speculation in springtime. Will they survive the cold snaps that inevitably follow pretty days in March? Locally, people have been regretting that the March days in the 70s and lower 80s encouraged flowers to bloom, but then we had freezing days and a five-inch snow! How can flowers survive such capricious weather? Daffodils seem a parable for Jesus. When he died, people speculated pessimistically about him, too; how would his teachings and legacy survive his death, wondered his followers? Jesus in springtime still had some surprises.

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Here’s another “journey” among scriptures. Karl Barth once said we should read the Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other, and although he said that long before television and internet, the basic idea still applies.(1) I’m writing this a few weeks after the tsunami struck Japan in March 2011; this set of scriptures has to do with earthquakes and, more broadly, God’s place within natural processes.

During that first week following the tragedy, I noticed a friend’s Facebook status update. I think he borrowed it from somewhere else, so I don’t know the author, but the quote urged us to stop calling disasters “acts of God,” but rather “acts of nature.” The quotation went on to call acts of compassion “acts of God” because God does not send disasters. Instead, God sends us out to care for and help other people, to pull together, and to bring good things out of tragedy. I liked the quotation so I borrowed it, with credit to my friend, for my own update.

The quotation led to an interesting exchange of ideas among some of my other Facebook friends, centering around the nature of God’s presence amid disasters and tragedies. One friend from college years introduced several scriptures that affirm God’s control over natural processes. For most of these she gave the citations but there are the entire verses.

Moses said to him, ‘As soon as I have gone out of the city, I will stretch out my hands to the Lord; the thunder will cease, and there will be no more hail, so that you may know that the earth is the Lord’s (Ex. 9:29).

When the waters saw you, O God, when the waters saw you, they were afraid; the very deep trembled. The clouds poured out water; the skies thundered; your arrows flashed on every side. The crash of your thunder was in the whirlwind; your lightnings lit up the world; the earth trembled and shook. Your way was through the sea, your path, through the mighty waters; yet your footprints were unseen (Ps. 77:16-19)

When heaven is shut up and there is no rain because they have sinned against you, and then they pray towards this place, confess your name, and turn from their sin, because you punish them, 36then hear in heaven, and forgive the sin of your servants, your people Israel, when you teach them the good way in which they should walk; and grant rain on your land, which you have given to your people as an inheritance (1 Kings 8:35-36).

The mountains quake before him, and the hills melt; the earth heaves before him, the world and all who live in it. Who can stand before his indignation? Who can endure the heat of his anger? His wrath is poured out like fire, and by him the rocks are broken in pieces. (Nahum 1:5-6)

Our Facebook discussion continued for several more comments. Some of us agreed that God allows disaster to happen, whether by giving Satan a short leach, by setting up creation to function in a certain way, or by exercising at least some control over the circumstances. Even allowing for poetic imagery in the above scriptures, the biblical witness is such that God’s authority over Creation is difficult to deny; the Bible’s God is not the “lesser god” of Tennyson’s poem, who can create but lacks force to shape creation properly. Nevertheless, we don’t understand God’s ways or why God does allow (or guide) certain events. But we can affirm that God does work for good (Romans 8:28), expresses compassionate help to the suffering, and moves us to love and serve people who are suffering.

As it happened, I soon was called upon to write a Sunday school lesson on the tsunami, as part of my freelance curriculum work (http://www.cokesbury.com/faithlink). I won’t repeat that research here, of course, but I did find a site of “biblical earthquakes” (http://hubpages.com/hub/7-Earthquakes-in-the-Bible) which included Ex. 19:18, 1 Kings 19:11, Zech. 14:5, Matt. 27:54 and 28:24, Acts 16:26, and the prophesied Rev. 6:12. I kicked myself for not thinking of that 1 Kings 19 passage during our Facebook discussion; it would’ve added some spice! The passage famously indicates that God was not in the wind, fire, and earthquake, but rather in the gentle silence afterward. God clearly was present in some way during Elijah’s crisis but God was not “in” the destructive natural occurrences. So…. how do you explain God’s presence in Elijah’s situation?  Or do you just say it was a mystery?

One other source for my freelance research was John Wesley’s sermon “The Cause and Cure of Earthquakes.” The sermon is worth reading: http://wesley.nnu.edu/john-wesley/the-sermons-of-john-wesley-1872-edition/sermon-129-the-cause-and-cure-of-earthquakes/ To the other scriptures discussed so far, Wesley adds Psalm 104:32 and Ps. 97:5….

[The Lord,] who looks on the earth and it trembles, who touches the mountains and they smoke.

The mountains melt like wax before the Lord, before the Lord of all the earth.

….as well as Ps. 18:7, 114:7, Isa. 13:11, 13, Isa. 24:1, 18-20, Isa 29:6. Clearly the Bible is rich in praises for God’s supreme divine power, somehow present within natural circumstances.

Wesley’s sermon makes us think, of course. Wesley stresses that God uses earthquakes to punish sin and to awaken people to repentance. Wesley gives examples to show how good and bad people alike suffer and are killed in disasters like earthquakes, which is all the more reason to repent and strengthen our relationship with God. Today, we know more about the natural causes of earthquakes, and how very frequently they happen throughout the world. We only think about them when they’re destructively intense on the Richter scale, but mild earthquakes are extremely common. Although Wesley reasons from Scripture, surely the awakening of repentance is a too human-centered and simplistic way to interpret the providence of God within these natural occurrences (although one wouldn’t rule out circumstances in which the Spirit did indeed awaken repentance in someone because of a crisis). You’d never tell a farmer, discouraged about crops amid a too-wet summer, that God had arranged rain storms in order to awaken the farmer and surrounding community to repentance for some sin!

Of course, this is a difficult philosophical and theological issue. I don’t want to take a deistic, “watchmaker God” kind of interpretation: that is, God simply created and wound-up the universe to function on its own, and then withdrew for the most part. The tragedy of physical life is that, short of the final redemption, suffering and death happens to everyone, regardless of whether we deserve it or not. (“We all got it comin’, kid,” as Clint Eastwood says in Unforgiven.) Put several million people on an island or a coastal region, in an area prone to floods or quakes, and some day you’ll have a major problem. Allow people to travel in 5000-pound metal vehicles that go fast, and you’re not guaranteed complete safety. I’m not being flippant or cold toward victims, but it’s human nature to wonder where God is amid tragedy forgetting that all of us are mortal and live among many potential dangers. For whatever reason, God intervenes in many situations, but we don’t see a divine role or perceive a divine purpose in many other circumstances. For some people, certain circumstances are evidence of God’s absence, or a lack of divine power.

The Bible calls death a “curse” and an “enemy,” against which Christ has already dealt a mortal blow: 1 Cor. 15:26. The word “curse” chafes when we think of innocent people who suffer and die but it refers to the imperfect, mortal, and in the human realm sinful quality of the world. Someone like Pat Robertson is rightly criticized for simplistically blaming victims (in the recent Haiti quake) as targets for God’s punishment. But although the Bible may draw those kinds of connections we should be very, very, very careful lest we draw a simplistic (and likely arrogant) conclusion about God’s purpose behind a tragedy. After all, remember that Job’s friends were full of answers and insights about God’s will and works, but at the end of the book (42:7) God is angry at them!

Another problem with thinking about these issues, is that we’re prone to raise issues when a disaster strikes but we forget the everyday disasters. For another research project (which will eventually be available at http://www.congregationinpubliclife.org/Index2.htm) I found a 28-page “Global Health Overview” at http://www.globalissues.org/article/588/global-health-overview. Drawing and paraphrasing data from just the first major section, we learn that:

* A billion people have no access to health care systems.
* 33.4 million people live with HIV (2008 figures), while 2 million died that year from AIDS and another 2.7 million were newly infected with HIV.
* There are 9.4 million new cases of TB every year, and 1.3 million die each year.
* Malaria accounts for 243 million illnesses every year, and 863,000 million deaths.
* Measles accounted for 164,000 deaths, mostly among small children, in 2008, while half of the 1.6 million people who die annually of pneumococcal diseases are children.
* Not quite a third of all deaths worldwide are caused by cardiovascular diseases.
* Over 8 million young children die yearly from preventable diseases and malnutrition yearly.
* In 2002, the total number of people who died from infection diseases (about 11 million) greatly outnumbered the total who died in other catastrophes that year.

Unfortunately, disease is related to poverty. According to that same report (the section “Health, poverty and inequality”), preventable diseases like malaria are attributed to economic disadvantages and also perpetuate poverty. A little further, the report quotes a World Health Organization report from 2008 notes that “The poorest of the poor, around the world, have the worst health….In rich countries, low socioeconomic position means poor education, lack of amenities, unemployment and joy insecurity, poor working conditions, and unsafe neighbourhoods [sic], with their consequent impact on family life. These all apply to the socially disadvantaged in low-income countries in addition to the considerable burden of material deprivation and vulnerability to natural disasters.” But, further into the report (the section “Increasing commodification and commercialization of healthcare”), we learn that the increasing perception and reality of health care as a “market commodity” rather than “a common good” is increasing the inadequacy of affordable and available health care in different parts of the world (including, one can add, the United States).

I admit that this discussion has become very depressing, and that I’ve no answers to these problems. My point is that we often don’t think of the world’s suffering until disasters strike, but suffering happens in the world every day on a staggering level, many due to injustices and social evils that perpetuate among societies and nations. We need to remember that there are social and economic forces that (while benefiting people like you and me) contribute to people’s suffering and, in turn, their susceptibility to natural disasters. We (including myself) don’t always think of that when we wonder about God’s role in tragic circumstances.

Two more Bible passages. I’ve always found this one comforting, because Jesus refuses to interpret two senseless tragedies as judgments against people.

At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.” (Luke 13:1-5)

Even when we focus upon our relationship with God, our lives won’t be all good. But in a crucial way, all will be well because we are in that relationship (which God has initiated).

As I thought about this whole topic of God’s presence in a disaster, I realized ….Duh!…. that there is a passage which not only explicitly indicates where God is in terrible circumstances, but also states where we should be if we want to be where God is! We all know it….

‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.’ (Matt. 25:31-46).

Notes:

1. The source of this saying is discussed at the Center for Barth Studies website, http://libweb.ptsem.edu/collections/barth/faq/quotes.aspx?menu=296&subText=468

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