Archive for the ‘Church’ Category


The graves of Karl Barth, his family, and his assistant

Charlotte von Kirschbaum, in Basel, Switzerland.


My doctoral dissertation at the University of Virginia, from which I graduated with a Ph.D. in 1991, was “The Social Ontology of Karl Barth.” It was subsequently published with the same title by Christian Universities Press (International Scholars Publications) in 1994.  It is out of print, and according to WorldCat.org it is found in 62 libraries.

Here is the description that I wrote for Amazon.com:

“The theme of the “Other” dominates post-Cartesian thinking. Specifically, what is the relation of the knowing subject to the Other (who is neither object nor alter ego), if both self and Other are supposed to be counterparts and partners–a Thou meeting the other’s I–and if each exceeds the other’s experience? Twentieth-century theology, too, has reconsidered the Cartesian basal subject from which the existence of others and God proceeds. Karl Barth (1886-1968) is a major representative of one approach to this theme. Throughout his theological career Barth tries to overcome a subject-centered theology wherein God is not allowed to appear as God and wherein the claim of the human Other goes unheeded. In Barth’s earliest theology, the believer’s subjectivity is the locus for God’s otherness yet the claim of the Other is said to lodge in God’s kingdom as manifested in social democracy. During his “dialectical” period, Barth rejects cultural and social norms, as well as the objectification of God, so that he may affirm the total divine otherness and the divine freedom to speak the Word. In the Church Dogmatics, Barth locates God’s otherness in God’s triune being, the divine self-correspondence and the divine correspondence to human beings. Human otherness is defined in terms of the human being’s being-determined as covenant partner with God and being-for and being-with others in analogous correspondence to the divine self-othering in Christ. During all of Barth’s theological periods, otherness is grounded in the unique otherness of Christ, so that the conditions of subjectivity and intersubjectivity alike are grounded in the Incarnation. Stroble suggests lines of dialogue between Barth’s theology and postmodern thought, showing paths for future theological reflection.”

Wow!  That’s deep. 🙂 But the exploration of Barth’s philosophy of human interrelatedness was formative for my subsequent interests in ministry and service.

Since the work is copyrighted in my name, and since it is out of print, I thought I would scan and then post here the two chapters pertaining to Barth’s mature theology, along with the introduction and bibliography.  This way, anyone doing research on these aspects of Barth’s theology may have an additional chance to find my modest work.

Anyone wishing to read the other chapters, concerning Barth’s pre-Church Dogmatics philosophy, may find the book on interlibrary loan. I should tell you, however, that there are other, excellent books (published before and after 1994) that more thoroughly address topics in Barth’s theology of the 1909-1931 period than my two chapters, which are more like preludes for chapters 3 and 4.

The original doctoral dissertation—which is in manuscript at the University of Virginia—had an additional chapter that discussed Michael Theunissen’s book, The Other: Studies in the Social Ontology of Husserl, Heidegger, Buber, and Sartre, translated by Christopher Macann (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1984), and my own chapters (the fourth, especially) placed Barth in additional dialogue with these four philosophers.






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Many Christians employ meditation and yoga practices in their lives. The congregation where I worship has a well-attended “Holy Yoga” program. I don’t do yoga or meditate but these have always interested me, so I took some time to read more about the subject.

In an article called “Is Yoga Hindu?” (myhindupage.org/index.php/is-yoga-hindu), Guhanatha Swami hopes to clear up a misconception that yoga is an exercise with nothing to do with spirituality. “Yoga is part of Hindu religious tradition and teachings, however yoga itself is a universal practice that is not the monopoly of Hinduism or any other religion.” Thus, he writes, gurus have never restricted its use.

He provides a helpful distinction: the path of enlightenment via yoga is called Ashtanga Yoga, which involves eight steps. But the yoga exercises themselves are not Ashtanga Yoga, but rather the third of those eight steps—called Hatha Yoga. Thus, Hatha Yoga is indeed a spiritual program (not just a way to exercise) but Hatha Yoga is not the whole of the Hindu path to enlightenment.

As a Hindu, he does believe in the Hindu philosophies within yoga: “For those who are doing hatha yoga ‘just as an exercise,’ they too will get the benefits of stimulation of spiritual awareness and relief from negative karmic burdens though they may not recognize these as such and instead call it ‘wellness’ or ‘being at peace with oneself’ or just feeling stress free. One does not have to believe in the theories behind yoga for it to be effective.”

But “there’s the rub”: what about the philosophies connected with Ashtanga Yoga?

In an article, “The Trouble with Yoga,” Michelle Arnold argues a Roman Catholic perspective. Roman Catholics may practice yoga postures “but with caveats.” (catholic.com/magazine/articles/the-trouble-with-yoga) She worries that Christians who are unclear about Christian spirituality may be attracted to Hindu teachings which are indeed different from Christian doctrine.

For instance, she notes, some Hindu philosophies are monistic, the philosophy “that holds that all that exists is one. Rather than the communion that exists between God and his creation that Christians hold to be true, the monist believes that any distinction between God and the universe is illusory and that the enlightened person will become ‘one’ with the divine without any distinctions between persons.” She quotes a document by Cardinal Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI), where he writes that the physiological benefits of yoga could possibly be mistaken for the mystical ecstasies of Christian mystics. But Catholic Christians should not thereby jump to the conclusion that the peace they’re achieving in yoga is related to the spiritual experiences of someone like St. Teresa of Avila.

Altogether, Arnold writes, “While Christianity stresses the importance of detachment from all that separates the believer from union with God… the purpose of detachment is relational. It brings us into communion with the Triune God and with the saints in glory. The union is forged by love, which gives and receives—not drowned into an impersonal divine but freely shared between the Persons of God and the persons of his saints.”

Hinduism is by no means a unified and simple religion; it contains and accepts many philosophies, not just the monism of the philosophy called Advaita Vedanta. But apart from her discussion of the saints, which of course is her own Roman Catholic perspective, she does describe a basic difference between Christian trinitarianism and the monism of Vedanta. While Christianity is not a radically dualistic religion, Christianity does posit a distinction between God and creation, as well as a relational aspect in the affirmation of God’s grace that comes to us from God, rather than an identity with God within (Brahman-atman), which we can discover via the removal of illusion (maya) via meditation and other practices. In most Christian theologies, God’s substantial indwelling with our souls is understood as a gracious gift rather than a panentheistic ontological identity.

Some Christian theologians have been monistic—Paul Tillich is a notable example—but anyone writing from an evangelical perspective is likely to dismiss yoga as something unbiblical.

For instance, R. Albert Mohler of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary is more adamant than Arnold: “When Christians practice yoga, they must either deny the reality of what yoga represents or fail to see the contractions between their Christian commitments and their embrace of yoga…. The embrace of yoga is a symptom of our postmodern spiritual confusion, and, to our shame, this confusion reaches into the church.” (albertmohler.com/2010/09/20the-subtle-body-should-christians-practice-yoga) More strongly yet, Mark Driscoll of the Mars Hill Church writes in an article—“Christian Yoga? It’s a Stretch”—-that he considers yoga “demonic” and inappropriate for Christians to practice (http://pastormark.tv/2011/11/02/christian-yoga-its-a-stretch) He believes that yoga (he goes on to discuss several kinds) introduces non-Christian values and theologies into Christian practice.

In my opinion, Jill Fisk answers very well concerns about Christians practicing yoga, on her website about “Holy Yoga”:

“Holy Yoga is a ministry dedicated to facilitating the intentional practice of connecting our entire being: body, mind and spirit with God — the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In complete reliance on God’s Word and prayer, the Holy Yoga experience is a time of worship, praise, and connection to Christ practiced to music that will shift our awareness to our Creator. Breathing and moving and having our being in Christ, we find ourselves lost in the flow of the fullness of joy that has been promised to us…The ‘holy’ comes from inviting the Triune God into the physical practice of prayer that called yoga. ‘Everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer.’ (1 Tim 4:4-5) ….

“In Holy Yoga we practice with our minds set on whatever is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent or praiseworthy (Phil 4:8) and not with our minds emptied. We meditate on the wisdom of God’s Word (Psalm 119:9-16, 26-27) and not on the wisdom of man. We seek the transcendence and glory of God and not of ourselves.” (http://jillfisk.com/holyyoga/holy-yoga-faq/)

The point is still valid that Hindu monism is different from Christian trinitarianism—-and it’s very much worth contemplating that difference in a positive way that leads to respectful interfaith understanding, as well as clarifying one’s goals in prayer, meditation, and religious practice.

But although I don’t personally attend Holy Yoga classes, I appreciate Jill Fisk’s explanation of the goals of this kind of yoga. A conservative like Mohler would probably say, This is no longer yoga. (He did indeed say that: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/10/07/albert-mohler-southern-ba_n_753797.html ) But if you keep the Swami’s distinction of Hatha Yoga and Ashtanga Yoga in mind—the former being a spiritual exercise practicable by anyone, and the latter being a whole journey toward enlightenment within Hinduism—-you’ve come a long way toward accepting yoga as potentially a positive thing to introduce into Christian practice.

My pastor also raises an excellent point. In an email to me after I sought her wisdom on this subject, she pointed out that “as Christians, we are incarnational, meaning that the body cannot/should not be ignored. To do so, is to practice the heresy of Gnosticism… My understanding is that yoga was created to allow people to meditate longer….to surrender to the body’s need for stretching so that one might sit and contemplate longer.” To paraphrase Fisk, in yoga you’re stretching and thus calming your physical body and your mind, as you pray to the Triune God and seek God’s free and loving grace into your life and your prayer.

I hate to see anyone limit the power and serendipities of the Holy Spirit. I’ve seen the Spirit work in my life and other people’s lives in so many, surprising ways, that I gave up long ago thinking I could predict how the Spirit can draw us closer to God. And our personalities and experiences as Christian human beings are so diverse, that I never think we should disdain something that’s different from what we’d prefer. Churches try to do that with music—the choir director or pastor prefers one style of music, and so that’s the style of music everyone should enjoy. It’s the same with prayer and other spiritual practices.

Christianity has adopted non-Christian things within Christian life over the centuries. Our two major Christian holidays are an example. You might argue, “Eostre is an Anglo-Saxon goddess of spring, dawn and fertility, and if we name the holiday of Jesus’ resurrection after her, we are confusing non-Christian fertility practices and pagan spirits with the new life of Christ. We don’t want to confuse people who’d mistake Jesus as a fertility god, or who would worship fertility deities alongside Jesus.” But the church did indeed adopt “Easter” as a Christian holiday, as well as the sun-related festival of December 25th observed in ancient Roman, Anglo-Saxon, and Norse religions. So the concern that people will become confused in their spiritual goals is a valid one, but nevertheless we see in Christian history that the church has adapted aspects of non-Christian cultures to good effect.


Two related points. Years ago, when I taught at Northern Arizona University, a student in my world religions class told me he was very interested in Hindu Tantra and the chakras—the locations of energy and power within our bodies, from the end of the spine to the top of the head—and he wanted to demonstrate. He was a small man, and we found a volunteer in the class who was a tall student with muscular arms. The small student asked the tall student to hold his arm outstretched as strongly as he could, and of course the small student could not budge the arm. Then the small student touched the tall student’s chakra near his neck—he said he was interrupting the energy flow—and the small student easily lowered the tall student’s clenched, outstretched arm. The tall student was quite shocked!

Although I’ve not studied the chakras very much in the intervening years, the demonstration was convincing that there is something to the teaching about these loci of energy. Because the chakras are not taught in the Bible, I can’t imagine that this aspect of eastern philosophy will ever be incorporated very wide-spread within traditional Christianity. But as I read the Swami’s point above—that yoga can inculcate benefits even when one disagrees with or does not understand the original philosophy—I thought of this student’s convincing demonstration of this aspect of the body, interpreted by tantic and yogic Hinduism as well as Vajrayana (Tibetan Buddhism).


The last point: This past week, as I was beginning to think about this post, I read an op-ed piece in the New York Times, “The Morality of Meditation” by David DeSteno. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/07/opinion/sunday/the-morality-of-meditation.html?_r=0

David DeSteno criticizes the “mindfulness” training programs that use meditation “to augment individual performance, leadership and productivity,” noting that “[g]aining competitive advantage on exams and increasing creativity in business weren’t of utmost concern to Buddha and other early meditation teachers.” He quotes to Buddha whose express purpose was simply to address and end suffering. “The heightened control of the mind that meditation offers was supposed to help its practitioners see the world in a new and more compassionate way, allowing them to break free from the categorizations (us/them, self/other) that commonly divide people from one another.”

DeSteno continues that an experiment was conducted at his lab, to see if persons who attended a course on meditation (newbies to meditation) indeed showed compassion after meditation—and, indeed, there was significant increase in the compassionate response of the participants. He writes, “Although we don’t yet know why meditation has this effect, one of two explanations seems likely. The first rests on meditation’s documented ability to enhance attention, which might in turn increase the odds of noticing someone in pain (as opposed to being lost in one’s own thoughts). My favored explanation, though, derives from a different aspect of meditation: its ability to foster a view that all beings are interconnected… The increased compassion of meditators, then, might stem directly from meditation’s ability to dissolve the artificial social distinctions — ethnicity, religion, ideology and the like — that divide us.”

While Arnold (above) noted that Christian trinitarian theology is relational, DeSteno argues here that meditation is, too—not from specifically trinitarian reasons, but in terms of psychological growth. But I can see how the resulting psychological growth toward empathy and compassion would certainly be commensurate with the Christian affirmation that the Spirit inculcates “fruit” within us: love, kindness, gentleness, self-control.

Needless to say, Christian faith does not always increase the compassion of many churchgoers. I hate to sound so jaded, but if you’re like me, you’ve probably met a certain number of unloving, gossipy and otherwise negative Christians who seem to have little sense of interconnectedness with others. Perhaps, like me, you’ve struggled to deepen your own loving attitudes and your compassion, when you catch yourself feeling unkind in your judgments of others.

Thus, I wonder if yoga and meditation might not be extremely Christian things to incorporate into our religious lives (at least as an option, within a variety of other spiritual practices, the regular participation in corporate worship, and so on). Perhaps these practices could help some of us become more receptive to the Holy Spirit’s fruit of love, kindness, gentleness, and the others.

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I purchased this picture of Jerusalem in that city in 1983 and have displayed it in our homes over the years.

A post from my “Bible Connections” site….. I’ve a Zondervan Pictorial Bible Dictionary (hereafter ZPBD) that my grandma Crawford gave to me when I was 14 (1971). I was appreciative but mostly uninterested, but the book became a keepsake after Grandma died just a few months later. Then, when I was 18, I began to take faith more seriously. I kept the book and still use it, over forty years later, along with some of my other reference books. I took it down the other day to take a few personal notes about the subject of Jerusalem in the Bible—references I can continue to study over time.

The subject of Jerusalem is much longer and more involved than my few modest notes. A good Bible dictionary can give you the many references to the city in the two testaments. The biblical citations alone are numerous, and also one can take into account the extra-biblical historical materials about the ancient city, along with its importance for Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—not to mention the long history of the city into our contemporary time. Not only was it the capital of David’s kingdom but was also the site of Christ’s crucifixion, resurrection, ascension, and the Pentecost gift of the Holy Spirit. Jesus’ visits to and ministry in Jerusalem are interesting to study, as is the early church in Jerusalem as recorded in Acts, and the concern of the Apostle Paul (in some of his letters) that the poor of Jerusalem be supported by Gentile Christians around the empire.

Later, Jerusalem becomes central to Muslim faith. It was the destination of the Prophet Muhammad on his Night Journey, recorded in the Qur’an. Today, the beautiful Dome of the Rock stands upon the site of the Jewish temple (destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE) in Jerusalem.  Jerusalem also is important in the Baha’i faith.

For now, I mostly want to write down a few biblical references about its founding and also its symbolic significance. It is a pre-Hebrew place, called U-Ru-Sa-lim in ancient times (later in Hebrew Yerushalayim), that is, “city of peace.” The earliest biblical reference to the place is the story of Melchizedek, the king of Salem (Gen. 14:18). So although Jerusalem does not became an Israelite city until the time of David, it begins to figure in the Bible a thousand years earlier in Abraham’s time. That connection of Jerusalem to “peace” (Salem or Sa-lim, in Hebrew shalom) is found in Haggai 2:9, Psalm 122:6, Isaiah 66:12, and other scriptures (ZPBD, p. 417).

The city’s name Yerushalayim appears for the first time in Joshua 10:5, and then later in the book (15:8, 18:28), where the text tells of Joshua’s failure to drive out the Jebusites, although the Israelites may have inhabited part of that area (Judges 1:21).

It is worth consulting a Bible dictionary about the parallel history of another city, Shechem, which eclipses Jerusalem in importance to the Israelites prior to the time of David. It is the city deeply associated with Abraham (Gen. 12:6-7, Jacob (Gen. 33:18-19, Gen. 34), Joseph (Gen. 37:12-14, Joshua 24:32), and Joshua (17:7, 24:1), and Shechem continued in importance for the northern kingdom (1 Kings 12:1, 12:25, 2 Chron. 10:1, Jer. 44:5ff, Psalm 60:6, 108:7). Shechem falls from the biblical record, although the Samaritan woman of John 4 met Jesus in that area (ZPBD, 780-781).

The city of Shiloh is another important early city, the place where the Israelites under Joshua set up the Tabernacle, thus making Shiloh the center of the Israelite theocracy until the Philistines took the Ark of the Covenant 400 years later (1 Samuel 4:3). Psalm 78:60 says that the Lord forsook the tabernacle at Shiloh. It was one of the worship centers during the time of the northern kingdom, but Jeremiah refers to it as a desolate place by his time (Jer. 7:12, 14) (ZPBD, 785-786).(1)

As for Jerusalem, David captured the city from the Jebusites during his reign (2 Sam. 5:6-10, about 998 BC). That is the first reference to the word Zion (ziyon), of uncertain meaning but perhaps citadel. David brought the Ark to Jerusalem, thus sanctifying Zion Hill (2 Sam. 6:10-12). Solomon built the Temple in Jerusalem on the proximate Mount Moriah, which meant that the name Zion was applied not only to the particular hill named Zion but also the temple mount (Isa. 8:18, 18:7, 24:23, Joel 3:17, Micah 4:7), and eventually all of Jerusalem (2 Kings 19:21, Ps. 48, 69:35, 133:3, Isaiah 1:8, and others). The name Zion came to also apply to God’s people (Ps. 126:1, 129:5, Isa. 33:14, 34:8, 49:14, 52:8), and in the New Testament, for heaven (Heb. 12:22) (ZPBD, 914).

A very different biblical theme is the prophetic image of Jerusalem as God’s unfaithful wife! On this theme I recommend an excellent book by a former classmate, Dr. Julie Galambush:Jerusalem in the Book of Ezekiel: The City as Yahweh’s Wife (Society of Biblical Literature, 1992).

Jerusalem as God’s city, sometimes unfaithful but overall a symbol and reality of God’s peace, is found many times in the scriptures. The glory of Jerusalem itself is also found in the references to the place as the city of the Lord (Isa. 45:13, 60:14, Ps. 46:4, 48:1, 87:3), the mountain of the Lord (Isa. 2:3, 11:9, 56:7, 66:20), and many other lofty and praising references. It is called Hephzibah, “my delight is in her” in Isa 62:4) (ZPBD, 418).

The image of the New Jerusalem is also a powerful image in the concluding chapters of the Book of Revelation, one that connects to earlier texts like Ezekiel 40-48 and Zechariah. (The image also appears in noncanonical books like 4 Ezra, 2 Baruch, and some of the Qumran writings.) As depicted in Rev. 21-22, the New Jerusalem becomes an aspect of Heaven, or is Heaven itself, and is the reconciliation of God with all things. The peace of Jerusalem is the peace of God.

Altogether, you begin with that first, pre-Hebrew reference to Salem in Genesis 14, and then reconnect to the city in the histories following Deuteronomy, and then trace the references to the city (historical, prophetic, and symbolic) through the rest of the Bible, you do see how the city of peace is another pervasive theme, bringing the many biblical texts together.

I’m a member of a local Jewish-Christian dialogue group on Middle Eastern issues, which meets at Eden Theological Seminary. I enjoy learning from my colleagues about challenges faced by Israelis and Palestinians, including the complicated social, citizenship, and political issues of East Jerusalem (pre- and post-1967) within the overall municipal area. Discussion-friendship groups like this are one important way for us all to “pray for the peace of Jerusalem,” as taught in Psalm 122:

 I was glad when they said to me,
   ”Let us go to the house of the Lord!”
Our feet are standing
   within your gates, O Jerusalem. 

Jerusalem—built as a city
   that is bound firmly together. 
To it the tribes go up,
   the tribes of the Lord,
as was decreed for Israel,
   to give thanks to the name of the Lord. 
For there the thrones for judgement were set up,
   the thrones of the house of David. 

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem:
    “May they prosper who love you. 
Peace be within your walls,
   and security within your towers.” 
For the sake of my relatives and friends
   I will say, “Peace be within you.” 
For the sake of the house of the Lord our God,
   I will seek your good.

As I’ve taken these notes, a song has been stuck in my head. Grandma’s Bible dictionary gives the names of other Christian hymns, like “Jerusalem the Golden.” I learned another old hymn in Sunday school as a child (words by Isaac Watts, refrain and music by Robert Lowry). The city thus became nostalgically lodged in my childhood faith, years before I ever went there.

Come, we that love the Lord,
And let our joys be known;
Join in a song with sweet accord,
Join in a song with sweet accord
And thus surround the throne,
And thus surround the throne.

We’re marching to Zion,
Beautiful, beautiful Zion;
We’re marching upward to Zion,
The beautiful city of God.

To conclude these thoughts, I want to recommend a lovely 2-CD set of music called “Jerusalem: City of Two Peaces,” which I discuss here: http://paulstroble.blogspot.com/2012/11/jerusalem-city-of-two-peaces.html


1. The fact that Jerusalem became more significant than Shechem and Shiloh—and only in the eras of David and Solomon—reminds me of my page about the biblical monarchy, where I discussed the ambivalence in the biblical sources about an Israelite king. Some passages (that I discovered and discussed there) affirm that Yahweh is Israel’s true king and thus was not according to God’s original plan—as, one might argue, these other two cities were God’s original places of importance and worship. But God incorporated the monarchy—and specifically King David—as a “type of God’s kingdom.” And so the career of David—and now, we can add, the Jebusite city that he conquered for the Israelites—became significant for Israel’s messianic hope. It is interesting to reflect theologically about the way God seems to adapt and be reflexible in these aspects of Israel’s experience.

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The theme of “keeping life in balance” is of interest to me. Finding a good balance in my life is essential on practical basis. I’ve a tendency toward mild depression, but I feel better when I maintain a right proportion of work, family, exercise, diet, and recreation. Balancing life’s aspects can be challenging for all of us, especially those times when we must focus more attention on family issues or work or whatever.

A good book that I purchased a few years ago is Ronald Rolheister’s The Holy Longing: The Search for a Christian Spirituality (New York: Doubleday, 1999). Rolheister, of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, notes that the quantity of spirituality-related books available, with different approaches and themes, is staggering (pp. 51-52). But given this abundance, he asks: what are the essentials of a Christian spirituality? Interpreting the example and teachings of Jesus, he gives four “nonnegotiable pillars of the spiritual life”: “a) Private prayer and private morality; b) social justice; c) mellowness of heart and spirit; and d) community as a constitutive element of true worship” (p. 53).

Rolheister goes on to discuss characteristics of each, especially what happens when a person deemphasizes one or more (pp. 54-69). Thinking along with him, I speculated that many of us are pretty faithful on A and D but tend to neglect B and C. That is, we go to church, participate in its life; we pray, and we follow a moral code in our lives.

What about B, social justice? This can be tricky. I read somewhere about a lady who, whenever her church study group or her pastor began to discuss social issues, responded, “What does this have to do with John 3:16?” For her, personal belief in Christ that gains one the gift of eternal life, as expressed in this verse, was the most important thing. After all, that is a precious message of the Gospel!

But there are many social teachings in the Bible: justice for the poor, feeding the hungry, supporting the imprisoned, taking the side of the disadvantaged, gaining justice and advocating for groups of people who are marginalized. Even if we worry about the church becoming involved in “politics,” we know that the church is called to minister to the world in Christ’s name as the Spirit gives guidance. So if we are faithful about A and D, we can prayerfully seek ways to support the church’s work in bringing healing and justice to the world.

Some of us have a different challenge: we’re so passionate about certain social issues, we emphasize “B” and neglect other aspects of spirituality. Why should God care about one’s personal prayer life or everyday behavior as long as one is feeding the hungry, etc.? But this is a temptation to have an imbalanced spirituality.

Another side to that: Sometimes I hear people complain that the church is too fixated on buildings, building projects, and facility upkeep; therefore, the argument goes, we should be using that money on the poor. This, too, is a way that social justice issues neglect other aspects of spirituality: in this case, the nurturing of people’s prayers and lives (A) and the cruciality of community and worship (D). I serve on our church’s board of trustees and can see first hand the many needs and costs in maintaining a building for the congregation—-but this is the way things are supposed to be! After all, your home, which protects and nurtures you and your family, require regular maintenance, and so does a church home that protects and nurtures a worshiping body.

On to “C,” mellowness of heart and spirit. This area interests me a lot because I’m a terrible worrier, and I feel that my anxieties betray an immature faith—or at least a faith where I’m calm in my “head faith” but emotionally fussy. Also, I’m inspired by Buddhist teachings that explicitly aim at serenity of heart, kindness, mental discipline that aims at inner peace, and so on.

These teachings are not at all different from Christian teachings, but some of us fall short on them. The other three aspects of spirituality can certainly help nurture inner tranquility and gratitude.

Interestingly, an overemphasis on both A (private prayer and personal morality) and B (social justice) can lead to a lack of inner peacefulness. On one hand, a person is so focused on the personal quality of faith and life, that pride has slipped in to his/her spirituality. (Alternately, a person has so emphasized the personal salvation of John 3:16 that she never quite pursues a transformed life.) On the other hand, a person who is very focused on some justice issue can become angry and strident—accusing people of inadequate faith if they disagree on that issue—rather than mellow, loving, and peaceful.

(Our very partisan politics enters into this, too. We become angry in our political views, we become frustrated with friends who disagree with us, and soon, instead of a honest and friendly exchange of opinions, a spirit of division has been created.)

And finally D, community and true worship. Many people are personally devout and moral, concerned about social issues, and peaceful of heart—-but they don’t go to church. Perhaps they’ve been hurt by a congregation, or they’re annoyed when the bureaucratic and otherwise “human” qualities of churches seem to get in the way of the true message. Perhaps they simply prefer solitary time, such as walking in nature and listening inwardly for God’s guidance. The individualism of our contemporary society—-this is what works for me, and you can find what works for you—can make us neglect the benefits of belonging to a religious community, and thus part of a religious heritage.

Most of us do indeed know what we need spiritually, and churches do indeed fail and disillusion people. My advice is always to keep looking for and praying for a community, and to keep a healthy perspective about the humanity of churches. There are bad people in churches, people who let you down, people who don’t get things right, but also people who are struggling like you and me and are humble in their struggles. They’re people who can be friends and cohorts in the spiritual journey. Not only that, but God works powerfully in the midst of congregations, and discovering God’s presence in a congregation is a vital part of the spiritual life.

Another side to D: some pastors love to see “worker bees” around the church, volunteers who are constantly doing things. Volunteer church ministries can consume one’s time, getting people’s lives out of balance, if the pastor is not sensitive to the needs of people to use their time sensibly. It’s important that a pastor with high expectations of service teaches people the importance of the other three aspects of spirituality.

Rolheiser rightly points out that “balance is not the ultimate goal of spirituality” (p. 69), but rather, our spirituality is an aspect of fulfilling our vocation as members of the body of Christ in the world, to help bring God’s redemption to the world (which includes the planet) (pp. 69-70). Thinking and praying about our spirituality, though, helps us draw closer to God and become clearer about the ways God calls us to live and serve.


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I hate judgmental people

from kevinmartineau.ca

A while back, a friend asked me why I thought some Christians are so judgmental. I promised to think about it!

Maybe it’s better to say “some judgmental people are also Christians.” None of us can separate our psychological makeup from our faith. People who are naturally introverted, or controlling, or easily hurt, often express their personalities in similar ways in church settings, too; similarly, people who are quick to pigeon-hole and judge others, and people who want to others to change. (The character Angela in the NBC show The Office is a good pop-culture example of someone who, you assume, would be strict and stiff even if she wasn’t religious. You shutter to picture the character Dwight Schrute as a Christian, without an accompanying personality overhaul!)

Having the Word of God at hand can be a powerful source for “judgmentalness”: God said it, you don’t measure up, that settles it. Some of us read scripture that way. Conservative and evangelical people tend to be accused of judgmental attitudes, but I think liberal and progressive people can also be quick to generalize, stigmatize and condemn. It’s a tricky balance to be passionate about an issue or topic, and yet not dismiss or characterize those who disagree.

Of course, “being judgmental” doesn’t have to be the same as having strong opinions and convictions. One might be perceived as being judgmental when s/he communicates personal convictions (again, whether they’re stereotypical conservative or liberal issues); but she might be labeled as judgmental by someone who disagrees.

I wonder, too, whether judgmentalness (I know that’s not a word: don’t be judgmental toward me, LOL) is connected to certain stages of one’s spiritual growth. This isn’t always the case, but it can be. When I was a new Christian I was quick to pass judgment on certain things, but in retrospect, my attitude stemmed from my insecurities in faith and life, and my uncertainties how to be a Christian. I certainly lacked the inner peace that helps a person be strong, consistently kind and sensitive toward others.

Sometimes people are judgmental because they can’t quite process the fact that other people’s lives and experiences are not their own. They meet a single woman and make assumptions why she’s not married. They meet a childless couple and wonder why they don’t have children. Years ago, a few fellow pastors learned that I was interested in both parish work and getting a PhD, and they judged that I must be snooty and “ivory tower.” Much worse, you can see how this kind of assumption-making isn’t too far from racist, homophobic, and sexist attitudes. Any of these attitudes are painful when they’re directed at you from fellow Christians; you hope they’d be more loving and considerate.

Unfortunately, generalizing harshly about other people is an easy habit for all of us, in part because it makes us feel better about ourselves.

Scripture does teach the potential need to warn others about their behavior or circumstances. Ezekiel 3:17-21 is a well-known example. This would be an easy scripture to use wrongly: throw tact to the wind, point out a person’s sin, and say to yourself, “Whew, I did what God wanted!” Nevertheless, according to this scripture, one might have the responsibility to warn someone about his or her actions. Similarly Paul voiced concern about immoral behavior tolerated by a congregation (1 Cor. 5:1-5) and also showed concern about another congregation (2 Thess. 3:6, 3:14-15; also Titus 3:10-11).

Jesus pointed out people’s sins. He was very harsh to the teachers who considered themselves superior to others (Matthew 23:25-28), and he told the woman caught in adultery to sin no more (John 8:1-11) although he was kind to her and, indeed, saved her life. But Jesus also loved people and involved himself with people whose lives were wrong, broken, judged harshly, and confused. To them, he shared himself.

Scripture teaches a responsible kind of judgment-making, but it is also very clear about the kindness and encouragement that go along with judgments! One should mind one’s own affairs (1 Thess 4:11), one should be gentle and self-aware in one’s judgments (Heb. 5:2, Gal. 5:1, 2 Tim. 2:24-25), one should be encouraging, helpful, and patient (1 Thess. 5:14), one should be concerned for peace rather than “wrangling” (1 Tim. 6:4-5, 2 Tim. 2:24-25). Why can’t we embrace these kinds of verses as eagerly as we embrace the ones about rebuking and fault-finding?

In Matthew 7:1-5 Jesus famously tells people not to worry about the speck in someone else’s eye until you take the log out of your own eye. It’s actually a very humorous passage, which definitely gets the lesson across: I’m walking around with a big ol’ tree stuck to my face and yet I point out that your face doesn’t look right and you need to fix it!

Just because you see something that you consider condemnable in another person, you need to ask, What is condemnable in myself, if “the whole truth” were known about me? When Jesus’ opponents said, “He eats and drinks with sinners,” the irony is that they who disapproved of the sin of others, were themselves sinners! But they (in their own eyes) seemed more righteous because their sins were more subtle and prideful.

Jesus also said, “Do not judge according to appearance, but judge with righteous judgment” (John 7:24). Here is another biblical warrant to be cautious how you judge someone: the person may seem to be doing something of which you don’t approve, but do you really know what’s going on with the person? Have you “walked a mile in his or her shoes”? Have you inquired into the person’s circumstance? (Remember that “judgment” in the legal sense means a decision based on all the known facts about a case.)

“Being judgmental” implies an haughty assessment according to appearances, or to a one-sided appeal to scripture, without a person knowing the content of that person’s heart and experience (or your own). And… how would you know what’s going on with the person, if you didn’t have some kind of friendship with him other? Those scriptures I cited earlier (four paragraphs up) place judgments within the context of fellowship, friendship, love, and empathy. It’s easy to show scripture to someone to condemn or criticize them, but in a way that’s distancing yourself from them, putting yourself above them.

That’s why “being judgmental” is so easy to be and simultaneously is so disagreeable when we see it in others. To cite the often-quoted 1 Corinthians 13: you can be right about everything, including your moral and theological judgments, but if you don’t have love, you’re just noisy.

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From my “Journeys Home” blog…. In July 2010, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) adopted “Amendment 10-A” which would change ordination standards to include openly gay persons. But the measure had to be approved by over 50% of the PCUSA’s presbyteries (regional bodies). This past Tuesday (May 10, 2011) the Presbytery of the Twin Cities voted 205-56 to support 10-A, providing the necessary majority (87 of the denomination’s 173 presbyteries). The change in ordination standards go into effect next July 10, giving presbyteries the ability (if they choose) to ordain gay persons. (See the article at http://www.religionlink.com/tip_110509.php, which reports the process and also provides numerous responses and articles on the subject. This would be a helpful source for anyone studying different sides of this contemporary issue.)

The PCUSA action has been exciting news to those of us who hope to see progress on this issue among our denominations. The religionlink article notes that “The PCUSA now joins the Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the United Church of Christ as major denominations that allow the ordination of homosexuals in committed relationships, and the development reflects a growing acceptance of homosexuals among the wider public.”

My own denomination, The United Methodist Church, still excludes gays from ordination. Any change has to be accomplished by the denomination’s law making body, the quadrennial General Conference. So far GC delegates have kept the restriction in place, but earlier this year, 33 retired UM bishops issued a statement urging a lift of the ban, as reported at the UMC site (http://www.umc.org/site/apps/nlnet/content3.aspx?c=lwL4KnN1LtH&b=5723451&ct=9103189¬oc=1, as well as http://www.actup.org/forum/content/retired-united-methodist-bishops-urge-end-gay-clergy-ban-3173/ and other sites). The bishop’s statement, although lacking legal force, has been applauded and in some quarters regretted; similar reactions greeted the first openly gay candidate to seek election to the United Methodist episcopacy three years ago (http://www.umc.org/site/apps/nlnet/content3.aspx?c=lwL4KnN1LtH&b=2789393&ct=5690357).

Needless to say, homosexuality is a hotly-debated topic in many denominations, not only ordination but also marriage. And needless to say, biblical prohibitions (especially the texts Lev. 18:22, Lev. 20:13, Rom. 1:27, 1 Cor. 6:9-11, and 1 Timothy 1:9-10) lie at the heart of the debate. For many people, the church should be faithful to these texts and not ordain gay persons—and the church is being untrue to God’s word when it circumvents these texts and argues differently from them. However, I’ve appreciated this article by Walter Wink that puts these verses in a larger context: http://www.soulforce.org/article/homosexuality-bible-walter-wink

The sad irony is: while church leaders and church members continue to debate these texts, God is already and richly blessing LGBT persons in callings to ministry and thus in gifts of preaching, counseling, teaching, administration, and other areas of service! Of course, the church has been ordaining gay persons for many years but only recently have gay persons felt a greater freedom to accept and open up about their orientation and identity. Many of us straight people have formed theological positions on this issue without having spent time with LGBT persons. But among the retired bishops I mentioned above, Sharon Z. Rader and Donald A. Ott “both stressed that the statement is based on their experience as church leaders. For more than five years after her retirement, Rader was the bishop in residence at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Ill. In that capacity, she said, she met with many seminary students who had the gifts and calling for ministry but were gay or lesbian.” (http://www.umc.org/site/apps/nlnet/content3.aspx?c=lwL4KnN1LtH&b=5723451&ct=9103189¬oc=1)

If you open your heart and mind to the fact that God is already calling and blessing gay persons (and has been for many years), and if you need additional guidance from the scriptures, I find Acts 15:12-18 relevant:

The whole assembly kept silence, and listened to Barnabas and Paul as they told of all the signs and wonders that God had done through them among the Gentiles. After they finished speaking, James replied, ‘My brothers, listen to me. Simeon has related how God first looked favorably on the Gentiles, to take from among them a people for his name. This agrees with the words of the prophets, as it is written,
“After this I will return,
and I will rebuild the dwelling of David, which has fallen;
from its ruins I will rebuild it,
and I will set it up,
so that all other peoples may seek the Lord—
even all the Gentiles over whom my name has been called.
Thus says the Lord, who has been making these things known from long ago.

In this passage, God is doing amazing things among Gentiles, but the question has been raised, Should they be circumcised (or, to say it another way, should they be excluded as Christian witnesses because they are not Jews)? You can see a parallel in this situation.  Circumcision was a nonnegotiable according to God’s word. But the fact that God was working among these people–the uncircumcised—causes the Jerusalem council members to seek the scriptures for assurance that God can indeed do amazing works in unexpected ways. As one of my seminary professors put it, scripture conforms to experience! If you argue that the biblical prohibitions forbid ordination of gay person, perhaps this can help you see a different but also scriptural way of looking at the issue—God provides gifts and graces to gay and straight people alike, just as God called and blessed both Jews and Gentiles alike in biblical times.

Here is another helpful text of an analogous situation. Galatians 3:2 reads: “The only thing I want to learn from you is this: Did you receive the Spirit by doing the works of the law or by believing what you heard?” The predominantly Gentile church of Galatia had received God’s Spirit apart from fulfilling any traditional religious requirements. In our own time, have gay persons received calls and gifts to ministry by ceasing to be gay, in compliance with those above-cited biblical strictures, or by believing in the Lord?

Because many of us straight people think about this issue around the biblical texts, I’ve tried to show a few ways we can argue positively for ordination of gay persons. I’m conscious of the fact that this whole subject is hurtful and frustrating to gay persons, who wish that we straight people would catch up to what they already know, and who wish we’d meet them before we make judgments that affect them.

The Bible is God’s Word, but we should not interpret it (or assert that we should never interpret it, only obey it) as if there have been no new understandings of human nature, no historical developments, and no science since biblical times.

For instance, questions of biblical authority are often raised in the context of conflicts concerning the theories and discoveries of modern science. We can recognize the historical development and time-bound character of the Bible writers, so that when we encounter in the Bible ancient and “outdated” views of the cosmos, we need not think that we’re selling-out the Bible to science when we recognize the former’s cultural origins, nor do we have to declare the Bible any less God’s word if modern scientific theories and discoveries do not comfort to biblical details.

Similarly, we can affirm contemporary understandings of homosexuality as an identity, a possibility of a commitment relationship with another person, and as a gift from God—while acknowledging that the Bible defines homosexuality differently (e.g., as a male behavioral sin or an exploitive relationship), both within the Levitical holiness code (which otherwise does not, generally speaking, apply to modern Christian practice) and Paul’s lists of sins (and some of us may be guilty of a few of the others on those lists).

Still another issue related to biblical interpretation is Christian anti-Semitism. Although written primarily by Jews who still considered themselves Jews, the New Testament is filled with negative references to Jews (e.g., Matt. 27:25, 1 Thess. 2:3-16, Rev. 2:9, and the Gospel of John’s consistent use of “the Jews” in a pejorative sense). Does this give us permission to dislike Jews?

Of course not, but the anti-Jewish “atmosphere” of the New Testament has caused untold sorrow for Jews. I’ve known Christians who, while discussing the scriptures, refer disparagingly to “the Jews” in a clear echo of New Testament texts—the same Christians who would never make a generalizing, disparaging comment about an ethnic group in other contexts. I’ve also sensed that certain Christians assume that, because the New Testament portrays Judaism in a certain way, then contemporary Judaism must be the same; they’ve never taken the time to know a Jew or learn about modern Judaism. Important work has been done in recent years to show how the anti-Jewish material in the New Testament has contributed over the centuries to Christian disdain for Jews, the persecution of Jews, and the anti-Semitism that led historically to the Holocaust. Greater sensitivity to the sins of anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism require us to read the Bible in a different way than the literal sense.

Again, here is an example of a historically-conditioned quality to the Bible and the necessity to interpret it in light of new insights. In this case, we must acknowledge that the New Testament expresses an apparently hostile and generalizing attitude toward Jews, but history has shown that we (Gentiles) must not derive prejudice and racism from a thoughtless, literal reading of the New Testament text.

This example of Christian anti-Semitism is also pertinent to the discussion of homosexuality and LGBT person’s service to the church, because active persecution of homosexuals is of course quite real and some of it does make use of biblical texts. Rev. Mel White’s article, “What the Bible Says – And Doesn’t Say – About Homosexuality” by Rev. Mel White, provides several examples of gay bullying and killings. (http://www.soulforce.org/article/homosexuality-bible-gay-christian). We straight Christians must be aware that we might be upholding Bible passages that are, by other people, used to excuse and justify hatred and murder.

I do not know if Bible texts are used against gays in Uganda, but to cite an example of persecution against gays, this week the parliament in Uganda was “set to pass a number of laws against gays and lesbians so draconian that the entire population of that country will feel the effects,” according to a news source. “The so-called ‘Kill the Gays’ bill, proposed by legislator David Bahati,” includes death sentences to persons “who are ‘repeat offenders’ of having sexual intimacy with a person of the same sex” and “anyone with HIV who engages in sexual activity with a member of the same sex. Those who harbor or assist gays and lesbians will be subject to imprisonment. Even those who know someone to be gay or lesbian who don’t report them to the authorities will face a prison sentence.” (Here is the source: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/bishop-gene-robinson/ugandas-kill-the-gays-bil_b_861150.html) Fortunately, in news which broke as I was writing a draft of this post, the Ugandan parliament tabled the measure in the wake of international outcries.

I’ve obviously moved from the subject of ordination of American gays to the ministry! But knowing about situations like this are necessary as we straight people learn the joys and sorrows of LGBT persons.  With greater understanding, we can learn to appreciate one another’s struggles, to enjoy God’s peace together amid our differences, and to affirm our respective callings, gifts, and graces.

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A piece from August 2009…. Recently I purchased an Avanti-brand greeting card and sent it to a friend. The front of the card depicts a very grouchy cat on a yoga mat, doing stretches. The inside of the card reads, “I meditate, I do yoga, I chant … and I still want to smack someone!”

The other day I was driving a morning’s distance and listening to the XM classical station. In honor of Leonard Bernstein’s birthday, the station played the new recording, conducted by Marin Alsop, of Bernstein’s “Mass.”

I still have my LP set, conducted by Bernstein. I purchased it around 1975, when I was eighteen. I don’t remember how I discovered the piece; perhaps I’d first watched a production on our area PBS station. I loved the piece, which I played a lot during college. But the vinyl became worse for wear and I never replaced it. So I’d not heard the piece since perhaps the early 1980s.

I suppose listening to an hour-and-a-half piece while driving in one’s car is not exactly an “experience,” but I was quite moved all over again by the “Mass.” I’ve not heard the other two versions (besides Bernstein’s) but Alsop’s is very fresh, and Jubilant Sykes is an emotional, affecting Celebrant. Hearing the entire piece uninterrupted was valuable. Mile after mile, I enjoyed the favorite passages: “A Simple Song,” which a friend used at her ordination …the jazzy “In Domine Patris”… the skeptical, honest “I Don’t Know”… the pretty “Gloria Tibi” … the fearful “World Without End”… the hopeful “Our Father”/”I Go On” … the most beautiful and uplifting song (in my opinion), “Sanctus” …the stomping, sarcastic (!) “Agnus Dei” … the “mad scene” “Things Get Broken”… and finally the hushed conclusion.

The XM host called attention to the mass’s early 70s, Vietnam-era origins, but I don’t think “Mass” betrays its Zeitgeist, any more than “West Side Story” sounds like a specifically 50s piece. In fact, allowing for a few “groovy” lyrics, the music and Stephen Schwartz’s words sound quite contemporary. When I enjoyed my Bernstein LPs years ago, I didn’t realize I was listening to “music of the future” (the way I didn’t realize the significance of “Sgt. Pepper” and “Dark Side of the Moon” when I heard those records). In other words, Bernstein’s intermingling of musical high- and pop-styles seemed distracting and inappropriate to critics at the time but seems entirely appropriate today.

What struck me especially was the role of the Celebrant. “Mass” follows the Tridentine Latin rite, but “street singers” persist in interrupting the service with complaints, faith-struggles, questions about God’s concern for the world, blasphemies, and ultimately threats of violence. I thought of Job and his friends, but in this case, the “friends” complain about God’s supposed goodness rather than upholding it. Amid a protest march (the cacophonous, 6/8 “Dona Nobis Pacem”), the Celebrant has his own crisis of faith and breakdown, smashing the consecrated host. Following a long solo (reminiscent of the last act of Britten’s “Peter Grimes”), the street people return to quiet praise. They bring the Celebrant back into their group (whispering “pax tecum”), and with a benediction, the mass ends.

Before, I thought the Celebrant had been discouraged and broken by the protests of the street people. Lord knows enough pastors, unintentionally isolated within their calling, become disillusioned and wearied by the endless needs of congregations. I think this happens to the Celebrant, but now I wonder (considering the way peace is restored to the people following his breakdown) whether his suffering is intended to be vicarious. He takes the people’s struggles and doubts into himself. When he drops the cup, shocking though his “accident” is, Christ’s blood is shed. At the end, we may not have the world peace demanded in the “Dona Nobis Pacem,” but we have a “secret song,” the peace of fellowship and reconciliation.

I was not raised Roman Catholic, and when I purchased the album, it became the way I learned the classic, beautiful language of the Latin rite. What a way to learn sacred words, you might think! But in the intervening years, I’ve heard those words so many times: baroque pieces, the Vivaldi’s Gloria, the requiems of Brahms and Faure, John Rutter’s music, and numerous others. Hearing the words again, as I’d first learned them, was a jolt.

They are wonderful words. The church, being both divine and human, may sometimes contain politics, empty gestures, and false-seeming pieties. But the liturgical words are not empty. They speak truth. Set to music, they bring you all the more close to God.

But … faith is a struggle, and although the words are true, we may have no idea how to understand and “live” those truths. A few years ago the media reported that Mother Theresa had severe doubts and concerns in her faith and ministry. I thought … well, duh. The deeper you go into real faith (as opposed to a kind of shallow respectability) you may encounter dark places and questions you can’t answer. In the words of my greeting card, you do all the correct religious things … but sometimes you still feel badly. Sometimes you still just want to smack someone. Sometimes God seems far away. Sometimes you’d smack God if you could. 

Read Psalm 22, 42, 90, 143, and others, and you know that such difficult feelings are not alien to Holy Scripture, or to worship. Bernstein and Schwartz and their extravagant, Talmudic commentary on the Latin mass invite us to think, doubt, and feel–within the context of worship.

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