Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Easter Communion

I have been reading a book on the sacraments, and it has helped me to grow to love these sacred acts of the church even more than I did before. Although Word and Sacrament seem to have given way to Lyric and Song as the touchstones of Christian worship for the time being, I celebrate that there is still enough of it there in the church to nourish us by the grace of Christ and the Spirit. I long for a deepening of their significance.

But I am not posting this to rail on the worship practices of evangelicalism. I just want to build my anticipation for the Communion to take place at Easter. Herein Jesus Christ, the second Adam, the first of a new kind of human, promises "This is my body ... this is my blood ... for you." As William VanderZee puts it:

The Lord's Supper is more than a faded memory of a long-gone person, it brings us his life-giving presence. Communion is not just another name for the sacrament of the Lord's Supper; it describes the very essence of what takes place in that sacrament. Christ brings us into special communion with himself and with each other so that his life and saving power nourishes our bodies and souls.
So, from the same book, a beautiful poem by George Hiebert:

Love bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-ey'd Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lack'd anything.

"A guest," I answered, "worthy to be here";
Love said, "You shall be he."
"I, the unkind, the ungrateful? ah my dear,
I cannot look on thee."
Love took my hand and smiling did reply,
"Who made the eyes but I?"

"Truth, Lord, but I have marr'd them; let my shame
Go where it doth deserve."
"And know you not," says Love, "who bore the blame?"
"My dear, then I will serve."
"You must sit down," says Love, "and taste my meat."
So I did sit and eat.

Faith Renewing Books

I've often made a point of how great books have been for me. On another blog I was mentioning how authors have consistently renewed my faith. I thought I'd mention the best of them here.

However, as I think about it I realize how subjective this kind of thing is. What encourages me might not resonate with anyone else. Well, it might, but it really will have to hit them at the right time won't it? A lot of what makes something refreshing or inspiring has to do with what kind of questions/fears/doubts we happen to be wrestling with at the time. I think the point is to keep at it.

Another thing I thought about while compiling this pile of books was how often I need my faith revived! It is kind of pathetic I suppose. I'm beginning to realize that all my reading has very little to do with my intelligence or my faith, but with my fickleness and my doubt. I am in constant need of help from those wiser than I because I am constantly questioning everything. Thankfully there is plenty out there. For what its worth, here is a quick list of the books that have renewed my faith.

Worship, Communion, and the Triune God of Grace - James Torrance
I forgot to include this one in the above photo. Perhaps not the best of the books I've read recently but it is the most succinct and accessible treatment of what has become for me a blossoming way of looking again at what it means to be a Christian.
Contemplating the Cross - Tricia McCary Rhodes
This book helped me learn to meditate and more importantly to plumb the depths of Jesus' passion. (Putting Gibson's movie to shame by the way)
Partly Right - Tony Campolo
I haven't read anything else by this guy, but this book helped me to hear and learn from voices outside the church while remaining within it, veracity of the faith affirmed.
Why Believe? - Stephen Evans
A straightforward, respectful and compelling case for the Christian faith drawing from a variety of reasonings but not dependent on any one.
Reasonable Faith - William Craig
A way more complex and comprehensive argument for the faith, but very helpful in articulating and then wrapping my mind around all the issues involved. It doesn't prove Christianity, but shows it to hold water quite well I think.
The Man Who Was Thursday - GK Chesterton
This novel resonated with me deeply and brought me to the end of myself to the Rest of God.
The Brothers Karamazov - Fyodor Dostoevsky
Nothing specific came from this book. I just feel like it made me understand myself, and human nature, and the plight of the world before God.
Orthodoxy - GK Chesterton
Christianity shows itself not as true about this thing or that, but as a truth-telling thing.
Velvit Elvis - Rob Bell
This impacted others more than me, but it spoke directly to a real tension that exists today in Christianity and made me realize I wasn't the only one feeling it and that it might actually lead to some very good things.
Rumours of Another World - Philip Yancey
This book amazed me, every chapter. Spoke to a variety of things, from faith to sex, and just kept pointing to the guiding sense of wonder within it all. This is a highly underrated book.
Resident Aliens - Hauerwas and Willimon
These authors come from a different stream of Christianity than mine, and thus they greatly challenged me and opened my eyes to other ways of looking at the same faith. I am still grappling with their vision of the church as a confessing people. I must have turned to this book every couple weeks when I was preparing sermons, and it really impacted my approach.
True Spirituality - Francis Schaeffer
Pretty old school, but dealt with the ramifications of Jesus' death and resurrection in a way that was hugely important in maturing my faith.
In the Name of Jesus - Henri Nouwen
One afternoon I read it, wept, turned to the beginning and read it again. Changed (hopefully forever) my view of leadership, church, and being a Christ-follower.
Mere Christianity - CS Lewis
Has enough been said about this book? For good reason.
Searching for God Knows What - Donald Miller
Very engaging and personable author. A moving and current take on the problem of sin and the journey of redemption.
Soul Survivor - Philip Yancey
If my list of authors isn't helpful, the chapters in this book introduce about a dozen more. Opened up several new vistas for me, some I have yet to fully explore.
Beyond Foundationalism - Grenz and Franke
Just when I thought there was nothing new in theology this book blew the lid off of all the stuffy systematics and charted a new and faithful path for Christian thinking in a new world. I needed that.
The Great Divorce - CS Lewis
Makes you realize your sense of reality could be very small indeed.
The Jesus I Never Knew - Philip Yancey
I often forget to mention this one because others always talk about it. But it was a very pivotal book in giving me a love and appreciation for the person of Christ.

The thing I realize as I look at all these books is just how faithful and loquacious God is. He keeps on speaking, and He is willing to use many and varied vehicles to do so. Another thing I realize is that all these books come and go (and sometimes come back again and again) but that the power behind them is the Spirit and the Word of God. At the end of the day, nothing stands up to the book at the top of the pile, and the rest take whatever power they have from the One testified to throughout its pages.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

I Am A Crotchedy Old Man

You get used to winter in the sub-zero prairies, you know? It is dark by supper time and it is too cold for anyone to be outside for longer than a few minutes so things are pretty quiet in the neighborhood. Not bad for an introverted home-body who usually forgets to open the blinds anyway.

So when spring hits I suppose it is always a bit of an adjustment. Tonight for some reason it is a huge adjustment. I'm not sure it is different than any other year, but my neighborhood is really bugging me tonight. Getting under my skin. I must be getting old. Maybe I'm becoming the crotchedy old neighbor. I certainly feel like one, even though I haven't yet run out in my underwear with a shotgun yelling obsenities. That would sure feel good though!

Here's a few of the things bothering me this evening. Tell me if I'm crazy.
* the size of our side yard means that the neighbor's newly set up trampoline basically leans against our house. When standing on it they can see in our bathroom. Putting the boys to bed we could hear everything they were saying out there.
* the neighbor's firepit ensures we get smoky smells in our windows on that side. None of these things is wrong or bad for them to do. I'm sure they are great people. But it feels like we're camping, and crotchedy as I am, that's a bit of an adjustment when I'm sitting in my living room.
* tonight we're standing out on the driveway talking to someone and a couple people walk right past us to cut through our yard without saying a word. Not that I mind, but, hello? We're standing right here!
* Dogs poop all over the place in this town. We have poop in our yard from at least three different species of canine. I walk through a mine field every day on the way to school.
* I could have sworn I heard a chainsaw earlier.
* As I write this, every minute or so a guy rides by on a really loud moped. I saw him. He's clearly doing laps of the town.

Now, let me clarify that I've lived in the city. I've lived in thin-walled apartments. I've lived in the dorms. I've even lived behind the Jolly Roger in Regina for goodness sake! So I'm sure I'll get used to this. It is just crazy how quickly I've come to miss the silence of the snow and the stars already. If any of my neighbors read this, no offense, it is not you, it's me.

It is crazy what a grumpy old man I am. I swore I'd never be that guy! But what can you do?

I think I hear the moped coming around for lap six. Oh if only I had a pair of red full-body long johns and a sawed off shotgun to fire in the air ....

Monday, March 19, 2007

The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil

During a Karl Barth discussion at Starbucks on Friday morning we were talking about the reality of evil in the created realm, and I got thinking about the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden of Eden. Someone was summarizing Barth's point which said that for God to create people who could appreciate His glory and His goodness then those people would have to have at least an awareness of non-goodness and non-glory. To know God as God we would have to have some concept of not-God.

The question then raised was: So does that mean we'd have to sin? That seems wrong.

That is where the tree of knowledge of good and evil comes in. I often ask myself why God put it there. After all, it really ended up ruining things. And that's when a thought hit hit me. Perhaps the tree, even before it was eaten from, by its very presence and its forbiddenness, already provided knowledge of good and evil (in an innocent yet very real way).

After all, they had knowledge of good all around them: Created life as creatures in right relationship with their Creator. They had knowledge of evil right in front of them. You could disobey if you wanted to. You could have created life as creatures in wrong relationship with Your Creator. There was God or not-God; life or not-life; good or not-good. To use Barth's words, there was Yes or No; Light or Shadow.

And so there is the tree. Just be being there it gives humankind the freedom they need to have to actually love God and experience good. Just by being there it also gives them responsibility. Trust and obey God or not. Perhaps when they bit the fruit, they already 'knew' good and evil, but now they 'knew' it in an intimate way. Interesting that a couple chapters later Adam knew Eve, and the idiom means they had sex with each other.

Fast forward many millennia. In Revelation 22 we have one tree in heaven: the Tree of Life. There is no tree of knowledge of good and evil. The Tree of Life is everywhere, all around the River. Its leaves carry healing for the nations. In our discussion at Starbucks it was asked whether there would be anything in heaven to remind us of that concept of not-good and not-life.

I found the suggestion that was made to be incredibly interesting: Perhaps that is why the resurrected Jesus still had his wounds.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Thesis Tidbit

For those following my academic exploits (all one or two of you) I have an interesting tidbit to pass along. Coming up soon I will begin full scale work on my thesis. The full proposal is due in May and then research really gets rolling. The working title of this 100 page research paper is "This Side of Sunday: Natural Theology in GK Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday". That title could change of course, but you get the drift.

(Natural theology is the practice of theology from general rather than special revelation, i.e. from nature and experience rather than exclusively from the Bible. Far as I can tell it is similar to apologetics. Anyway, there is a fascinating stream of it flowing throughout Thursday and I'm hoping to 'flesh it out')

Anyway, the interesting and amazing thing that has come up is that the literature prof in the college is teaching a course on Chesterton in the fall. This is uncanny since its never been done here before and as far as I know he only heard about my thesis after deciding to do this class. In fact I've never seen a class like this anywhere (besides major universities that wouldn't have fallen within the scope of possibility for me). Had I known this was going to be offered here I would have come here for sure. So this will be cool because it looks like I'll get to take the class (with the college 'kids', as we seminarians call them) and do extra work to bump it up to seminary credit.

So this all fairly awesome and exciting for me. And today, coincidentally enough, I was introduced to this prof for the first time and I told him I was thrilled about the class and he suggested I "collaborate" with him, maybe even teach a bit!

Obviously this is all up in the air and will require some hammering out on the details, but it sure is exciting for me. It makes me wonder what is in store this coming year. I've often wondered if my thesis will really have anything to offer the world. Sure it is interesting to me personally, but what good will it do? Maybe none. But without reading into things too much I still have to wonder if God really is happy to have me do it and is even trying to help me out. Mind-boggling to think God would care to do something like that, but stranger things have happened, haven't they?

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Communion and Consensus Part III

Communion and consensus go hand in hand, but one leads the other. Thing is, I'm not always sure which needs to be which.

I think too often we put consensus first and communion second. We have to agree to the list of statements to be allowed in. This is wrongheaded. But not totally wrongheaded. I mean, for people to come together they have to have a reason to come together, no? What is the basis for their communion. Most social clubs or human organizations would gather on the basis of a shared hobby or concern. Any group of people on any given day should be able to embrace their common humanity. It is a tragedy when we don't. But what is Christian communion? It starts with some consensus on who Christ is. But even then, how fully developed does that have to be before it is communion?

I'm not sure what to do with this. Many of us feel that there is little room for dialogue in the church. It can be frustrating, especially when divergent viewpoints that you don't think should divide you either feel unwelcome or seem inevitably divisive. This is frustrating because deep down we all want some consensus, or at least dialogue. It is frustrating for those who are more "settled" in their viewpoints to have new dialogue. It is frustrating for others to move that dialogue forward, to consider new things. On either side, in our obsession for consenus we either shut out those who disagree or we shout down those who disagree.

Thing is, if you shut yourself up and pretend not to care you'll implode. On the other hand, if you say your piece there is a good chance things will explode! How do we go about this?

Sometimes I think we should have to take commuion with our worst enemies. Wow, how powerful would that be. In the grace of Christ we'd sit at a table together around some bread and wine and it would all dissolve in communion. Either that or it would be the fakest communion ever. In a way the drive for consensus can propel us to even more vital communion.

Many of us don't feel understood or listened to by the church and so are frustrated. I'm often one of them. But the more I've listened and tried to understand those who don't seem to want to listen to me the more I've found kindred spirits and a communion I wouldn't really have found otherwise. In other words, our very disagreement propelled the dialogue which brought us around to our common ground and then actually enabled the dialogue we both badly needed. And wanted. That dialogue won't go away over night. Neither should the communion.

Communion and consensus go hand in hand. Communion in Christ must politely lead the other. The search for consensus, however, will inject vitality into communion. And the cycle goes on. And unless Christ unifies by his reconciliatory example and his forgiving power there is no hope for any of it.

I just taught Sunday School this morning and I was easily the youngest person in the room. Not once did I feel it was an issue. In fact I felt like the conversation we had was only diminished by the amount of talking I did. God bless the church. God save the church. Save it from my grimy clutches and save it from the grimy clutches of my forebears. Let Jesus Christ unite and let the Holy Spirit guide and let us all come to the Father through them both for a merciful glimpse of that conversation that has going on between them for all eternity.

That, as of this afternoon, is all I have to say about that.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Communion and Consensus Part II

"We're not out for consensus here. We're out for communication. And sometimes we get consensus. And that's thrilling. . . .

I'm in charge of a community that I need desperately and that needs me just as badly. That's where the joy lies, in the shared experience. Anyone in that community can help me or hurt me. For this reason, it's vital to have . . . . people who can challenge you to work at your best, not in hostility but in a search for the truth. Sure, I can pull rank if a disagreement becomes unresolvable, but that's only a last resort. It's also a great relief. But the joy is in the give-and-take."

This comes not from a pastor or a theologian. This is from a book called Making Movies by Sydney Lumet (director of Network, Serpico, 12 Angry Men) which I haven't been able to put down this weekend.

This really fits well with how I think we are supposed to look at the Church. Certainly to be the Church in the first place there needs to be consensus on who Jesus is. But even then the Church can enfold a lot of people who aren't sure yet. People who haven't quite worked out the ramifications of Jesus yet. Certainly different stages on that journey will lead to different levels of involvement in leadership. But what unites us? What is communion?

Way too many of us are just looking for consensus, or for those of similar age or taste, or worse yet the same "target group" as if we are all just consumers to churchianity. Our unity is in the redemption story centered on Christ and told so poignantly through the Scriptures. (Notice I didn't say by the Scriptures because I believe the Spirit speaks through it, it does not speak on its own). Certainly there is truth. But we don't arrive at it by committee and then have unity. We have community in the Father, Son, and Spirit and then we disover the truth, discover the story that we are striving to live, the community we were made to be. (This is all in step quite nicely with the book of the year I was recommending a couple posts ago by the way)

What Sydney Lumet says about making one of his movies is similar to the joy I get sometimes in working and worshipping in church:
The joy is in talking to Tony Walton, the production designer on Prince of the City, about the theme of the movie and then seeing him come up with his expression on that theme. Hiring sycophants and servants is selling the picture and myself short. Yes, Al Pacino challenges you. But only to make you more honest, to make you probe deeper. You're a better director for having worked with him.
Heaven knows we have plenty of churches mimicing the business world today. I think there are probably things to glean there but think we overdo it big time. I don't want to just mimic the art world on a one-to-one basis, but it might not hurt to have a bit of that correction for a while. There are some good things we can learn from Lumet and Pacino here.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Communion and the Mirage of Consensus

There is one professor here at seminary who just retired and, don't tell him this, but at first I wasn't sure I'd like him. We were in a discussion group together and I felt like he felt he knew everything. This usually bothers me because, well, I should be the one who knows everything.

Then I had a class with him, and I was amazed at how comfortable he was asking questions and getting us to think rather than spouting formulaic answers and stealing thought away from us. As a matter of fact as the week wore on I found myself trying to nail him down to a view because he was frustrating me the way he would hold out on us. I kept expecting him to burst into a three hour soliloque and give us his "swan song" but he never did. By respecting us as people and not condescending us, even in this his last class as a professor, he instilled in us the empowerment to think and, ironically, the desire to learn from him.

So this morning I got a chance to talk to the guy and so I asked him something I realized had been bothering me. I dont'remember exactly how it went but basically I asked him: After all these years as a theologian and a teacher, don't you ever get frustrated that you haven't ARRIVED at a concise answer, or achieved a consensus for us all to agree on and follow? Doesn't it frustrate you that the next generation will basically try to deconstruct everything you've taught and take it from there?

Amazingly to me, his answer was no. He said he was one of these guys who started out thinking he just had to nail down the 12 point statement of faith and teach it to his understudies. But over time had to wrestle with the reality that we are always going to be learning and we will always be united as believers by something other than our KNOWING.

It is the Spirit who will teach. It is the Spirit who will unify. We are to shepherd. Our communion is not based on our agreement on this or that fine point of speculative theology, but on the reality of Jesus Christ having come to save us and the Spirit being present to guide us. This is how it will be until that ultimate end where we are united finally and beautifully as children of the Father.

I could have had communion with the guy then and there. Not because we have some sort of theological consensus (even though that is still a worthy goal) but because we have the same merciful God.

It makes me think of the churches we all dream of (or at least I do) where we all seem to be on the same page and we all dig the same things and so on. How powerful our unity would be if only we had more consensus. But it makes me wonder if the glory of communion, and thus the glory of the church, is that Christ brings together people around the body and the blood WHO WOULD NOT OTHERWISE HAVE ANYTHING TO DO WITH ONE ANOTHER.

This in turn reminds me of a quote from Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon:

The only way for the world to know that it is being redeemed is for the church to point to the Redeemer by being a redeemed people. The way for the world to know that it needs redeeming, that it is broken and fallen, is for the church to enable the world to strike hard against something which is an alternative to what the world offers.

The unity is in Christ and, often enough, in nothing else. Something tells me that, as frustrating as this might be at times, this is a good thing.