Tuesday, May 31, 2011

It's Not About You (from the NY Times)

A friend on facebook just linked me to a poignant article from the Opinion Pages of the New York Times online, and highly recommend you go and read it here.
"Worst of all, they are sent off into this world with the whole baby-boomer theology ringing in their ears. If you sample some of the commencement addresses being broadcast on C-Span these days, you see that many graduates are told to: Follow your passion, chart your own course, march to the beat of your own drummer, follow your dreams and find yourself. This is the litany of expressive individualism, which is still the dominant note in American culture....
Fulfillment is a byproduct of how people engage their tasks, and can’t be pursued directly."
- David Brooks, NY Times, May 30, 2011
I'm looking at another day of work lost due to a sick family at home, and I have to admit I've been begrudging it. When one of my chicken-pox-covered kids was whining in his bed every 5 minutes last night I was not pleased with his interruptions of my preferred evening routine and my desire, later, to sleep. David Brooks is right in what he says about society, and he is right in what he pinpoints in us personally. Well, in me, at least. This selfishness is not simply "culture's" fault nor the fault of any one generation, of course, but let's face it: We are not helped one iota by the climate in which we live. Heaven forbid our churches contribute to this climate. Heaven help us to serve when called upon, and even to do it joyfully. This just might be the hardest thing in the world. Even as I agree with this article, I find it hard to get up from this and go and truly serve rather than go my merry way.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Barth's Tirade Against 'Holy Selfishness'

I recall promoting a spiritual gifts discovery program in my church with the Willow Creek mantra that this was the way to be all you can be in Christ. Only as an aside did I mention that this was to be to the benefit of the community. I have read countless books that spoke of the miracle of forgiveness as something firstly meant for the forgiver. I have stood through myriad worship songs which, if we were lucky, tagged on and "us" and a "we" at the end of five minutes of "I" and "me".

Don't get me wrong, in my own life I am also mainly focussed on these things, so this only strikes me as odd when I compare it to the life and teaching of Jesus Christ. Thus when it comes to describing Christianity (rather than my own desires writ large), I think there are some challenges to be issued. Consider Barth's tirade toward the end of the Church Dogmatics:
Can it really be the inner end, meaning and basis of my Christian existence, and therefore the goal and end of the ways and words of God to me, that I should be blessed, that my soul should be saved, that I should participate in all the gifts of reconciliation, that my life should be one of reception, possession, use and enjoyment of these gifts, that I should finally attain to eternal bliss, that I should not go to hell but to heaven, and that each of the few or many others who might accompany me should also know the extraordinary exaltation of his human existence mediated in the benefits of Christ, and therefore the satisfaction of his deepest needs and the fulfilment of his most lofty and necessary desires?

Does not this wholly possessive being seem to smack of the sanctioning and cultivating of an egocentricity which is only too human for all its sanctity, of a self-seeking which in the light of what is at stake renders every other form of self-seeking quite innocuous? To be sure, there is a very legitimate and necessary Christian "I" and "mine." But does this mean that it can be made the last word on what makes a Christian a Christian?

It gives us a very strange relationship if on the one side we have the selflessness and self-giving of God and Jesus Christ in which the salvation of the world is effected and revealed, and on the other the satisfaction with which Christians accept this and are thus content to make use of the very different being and action of their Lord.

Can this be really all, can it be the true and essential thing which distinguishes them, that within a world which in all the folly and impotence of its pride, sloth and falsehood already hastens through such indescribably great suffering to its end, there is a handful of men whose particular existence has only the meaning and basis that, called, illumined and awakened thereto by Jesus Christ, they may rejoice in the little faith, love and hope of their being in the light of His grace which He has given them, which is so superior to their prior being, which is so glorious in the surrounding darkness, and in which, snatched from themassa perditionis [doomed mass], they have simply to move on to heavenly felicity?

Did the Son of God clothe Himself with humanity, and shed His blood, and go out as the Sower, simply in order that He might create for these people - in free grace, yet why specifically for them and only for them? - this indescribably magnificent private good fortune, permitting them to obtain and possess a gracious God, opening to them the gates of Paradise which are closed to others? Can this really be the goal of His calling and therefore of His ongoing prophetic work? Can it really be the goal of the work once and for all accomplished in His death? Can it really be the meaning of His election and sending?

Is it legitimate and even imperative for Christians to be content that they may thankfully understand themselves as those who are reconciled, justified, satisfied and blessed because elected from eternity and called in time in Him? Can the community of Jesus Christ-we shall have to take up this question in the next section-really be only, or at any rate essentially and decisively, a kind of institute of salvation, the foremost and comprehensive medium salutis [means of salvation], as Calvin self-evidently assumed and said?

Is not every form of egocentricity excused and even confirmed and sanctified, if egocentricity in this sacred form is the divinely willed meaning of Christian existence and the Christian song of praise consists finally only in a many-tongued but monotonous pro me, pro me [for me, for me], and similar possessive expressions?

(Barth, Doctrine of Reconciliation IV/3.2, 566-568)

Friday, May 27, 2011

Sermons on Forgiveness and Reconciliation

Earlier this year I was grateful that the leadership at my church in Aberdeen allowed me to do a three part sermon series related to my topic of study, affording me a good opportunity to do some exegetical work for congregational articulation alongside my theological work for my dissertation. Even though I commented recently on the limitations of podcast sermons, I am going to go ahead and link to our church website where a few of these homiletic events have been translated into audio files for selective, private consumption ; ) .

Click here to find them at The Mission website under the "Sermons" tab.

If you ever do want to listen to any of these, I'd recommend "Forgiveness 2" over the others, as I think it has a bit more staying power for other venues and mediums. However, you'll also find parts 1 and 3, and in the archives a sermon on reconciliation from the Sermon on the Mount which I previously posted textually on the blog. "Forgiveness 1" is a romp through Genesis not unlike the blog post I did in January, and "Forgiveness 3" is a sum-up more difficult to listen to because it includes quiet gaps involving congregational participation.

As is often the case, in my experience, a debt of gratitude is owed to my local church family. In countless ways these people have been a big part of my PhD experience.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Clarence Campbell Bowls: A Life

Some of my earliest memories are of Ivan Boldirev, King Richard Brodeur, Rick Lanz, Harold Snepts and Stan Smyl in their run to the Stanley Cup finals in 1982. I was 6 years old, watching those games on the couch with my dad. Smyl and Snepts are pictured hoisting the Clarence Campbell Bowl here.

That playoff saw the birth of "Towel Power", and I remember it vividly. Lifting this trophy was the last moment of sheer joy for Canucks fans, however, as they went on to be swept in four games by Mike Bossy, Denis Potvin, Billy Smith, and the New York Islanders.

In 1994 Trevor Linden hoisted the trophy after Greg Adams scored in double overtime of the fifth game to beat the Toronto Maple Leafs and get the Canucks to the Stanely Cup finals for the second time. I was 18 years old. It was mayhem. I attended two games live, took part in many victory parades, and watched most games with brothers and a group of a dozen friends from high school. It was unreal. There would be some big wins in the final series but - coming up one goal short in game seven to the New York Rangers - the Clarence Campbell Bowl would prove to be the Vancouver Canucks' only prize.

Quite memorably, when Linden lifted the trophy that year the lid came off. Sometime since then there began a tradition of not even accepting the award, since the real goal was the Stanley Cup. A few have not gone along with this superstition, but I kind of enjoyed the fact that, last night, after another double overtime game five winner, 17 years since the Canucks were last in this position, Henrik Sedin did not even touch it.

The Canucks are 40. This year I will turn 36. There have been many uniform changes over the years for both of us, and now I have a family of my own to help me cheer. Somewhat sadly, however, we'll be watching these finals in the middle of the night on spotty internet feeds an ocean away from fans, family, and friends from seasons past.

But such is life. I'm just glad they are not playing anyone from New York.

Friday, May 20, 2011

The End of Tolerance

The battle is between what is supposed to be good and what is supposed to be evil, but in this battle all parties-how can it be otherwise?-think that they are the friends of what is good and the enemies of what is evil. Therefore, quite contrary to the purpose and intention of those who take part in it, the more seriously this battle is waged, the more certainly it will lead to pain and tears and crying, so that at the end we have to ask seriously whether the upshot of it all is not a fresh triumph, not for a supposed evil, but for one which is very real. From this final result the theory and practice of what we call tolerance seem to be the final refuge and one which we have to discover again and again-a general lassitude to which men surrender for a time, only to break out again sooner or later in new dogmatisms and acts of judgment and conflicts and mutually caused troubles and well-intentioned wrongs.

Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV/1, 447

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Podcast Sermons: Preaching out of Place?

A letter written by Karl Barth in 1962 offers me the occasion to reflect on the proper context for preaching. For some time I've wondered if there may be a sense in which publicly available sermon manuscripts or recordings take the preaching of the Word out of its intended home, perhaps diminishing its status as an event and leading to its misuse and misunderstanding. See what you think of Karl Barth's letter to Berlin Church Councillor Wolf-Dieter Zimmermann upon request to air his prison sermons on public radio:
We are dealing here with what is a matter of principle for me. Only in the context of its delivery is a sermon, strictly, what it is meant to be. If its context in the narrower sense is bypassed to give it a wider audience through print or radio or on a record, then for decades - so far as printing is concerned - I have thought I should insist that it appear only with the preceding and following prayers (both composed ad hoc), because for me this threefold middle portion of an evangelical service constitutes and inseparable whole. Even better, when it is possible on the radio or on a record, we should have the whole service, including the introduction, congregational singing, and the benediction.

Thus the sermon (which is not a lecture) should be kept in its context for the listeners when it is played again. I do not see this as a questionable procedure, but a good one. And I have been assured by many who play the records of that sermon how pleasing it is to them - even if only in imagining the real action - to range themselves with the prisoners, to pray with them, and ... to join in their singing.... At any rate my own view is that if we are to have recordings at all, then we should record sermons with as much as possible of their natural setting.
- Karl Barth, Letters 1961-1968 (T&T Clark, 1981), 37-38
As a child of the technological age (and not one who is simply suspicious of it), I find myself agreeing with this. I don't want to condemn or abstain completely from listening to or publicizing sermons, but I do think that if we are going to make use of this medium we do well to keep some questions in mind so that the practice is kept in its proper perspective.

At what point might the publicized sermon usurp or transpose the role of preaching in the local church? How much does preaching taken from a congregational setting lose its meaning or open itself to misunderstanding and misuse? How might congregation-intended sermons change for the worse (or the better) when the preacher knows they will be heard by unknown and loosely connected masses listening in? What happens when preaching is not respected as a one-time event in the context of a community seeking to follow Jesus Christ together, and is ripped from the context of prayers, fellowship, mutual service and local mission?

(See also "All Theology is Local", posted almost simultaneously on another blog, but incredibly resonant.)

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Trent's Last Case and the Remarkable E.C. Bentley

Ever since G.K. Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday I have intended to find and read E.C. Bentley's Trent's Last Case. The reason? Because Chesterton dedicated Thursday to Bentley, and Bentley wrote this saying "I owe you a book in return." I'm not a huge fan of detective novels (is this one of those genres better suited to film?), and so it wasn't much surprise that this one never really grabbed me. However, there were points where this was quite a delightful read, simply for the turns of phrase and the recognizable echoes of that Chestertonian spirit. Most notable among these was this simple paragraph toward the end, coming in the denouement before the final twist:
"All I mean is, my dear Trent, that there are really remarkable things going on all around us if we will only see them, and we do our perceptions no credit in regarding as remarkable only those affairs which are surrounded with an accumulation of sensational detail."
- Trent's Last Case (Garland, 1976), 307
Bentley and Chesterton were childhood friends who started a debate group at their secondary school which was dedicated to the discussion of politics and literature as well as the publication of poems and essays. It was these friends who turned G.K.C. from apathetic schoolboy to confident literate. It was also these friends who were the first to hear the now famous form of poetry named for the "C" in E.C. Bentley.

The Clerihew is a four line poem about a person, which often has a witty twist or a poignant summary of something notable. You can see some recently written clerihews about theologians here, but here's one of Bentley's own, which he wrote about he and Chesterton's mutual friend and political agitater:
Mr. Hilaire Belloc
Is a case for legislation ad hoc.
He seems to think that nobody minds
His books being all of different kinds.
I don't have anything sensational to say about Bentley's novel, but perhaps that's the point. He certainly seems to have given much in terms of the excerpt given above. Thus while I would hate to trivialize the man (he seems to have had quite the career of his own), this clerihew is my tribute to his spark:

For me E.C. Bentley
will always be
the fresh air for G.K.C.
that was in turn breathed to me.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Complicity and Change

In our judgments of others - or even of the societies in which we live - it is all too easy to relegate the call to humility to a conjured up reminder of our own general depravity or some unrelated secret sins of our own. But what if it is precisely in our judgments of right and wrong that we are to think about and confess our part in that evil to which we point? Perhaps in certain cases we may have no part at all, but I wonder just how often we could put a finger on our complicity in the evils and the enmity of the world, even in our attempt to critique it and call for change. What is complicity?
It is our part, our responsible co-operation, in world history.

But if we are guilty of withdrawal, i.e., from our fellow-men, in this history, what are we in our time? What is the meaning of our life? Why have we been given time to live and work? How shall we stand before God and in His judgment? Will this not be brought against us? Will we not be accused? You were no help to me in my history which was interwoven with yours. You ignored me. I was of no interest to you. You disappointed me when I waited for you. You had no time for me. You merely played with me.

Or again, you only appeared to help, but in reality harmed me. You led me astray, so that it was only with the greatest difficulty, if at all, that I was able to get back to the right path. You confirmed me in that from which you ought to have kept me. And you kept me from that in which I needed confirmation.

Or again, you would not yield to me. In your great righteousness, or simply because you were the stronger, you pushed me to the wall. You humiliated and wounded me. You trampled over me contemptuously and perhaps even derisively, pursuing your own ends. For some reason which I cannot understand you blocked my path. You surrendered and betrayed me. You took from me the dearest that I had. The encounter with you cost me my life.

Yes, we shall certainly have to render our accounts in relation to others, and we must see to it that they are in good order. But who of us will have any real advantage over the rest? Will we not all have our own burden of accusation? And what will be the net result for us all if the only upshot is an awful conflict of mutual recriminations?

(Karl Barth, The Doctrine of Reconciliation 2, 444-445)
All evildoers and reprehensible actions may not be equal, but neither are any of us innocent, or even wholly lacking in complicity with the evils around. Much focus is put in Christian thinking on the depravity of humanity and the inheritance of the original sin, but leaving it in this mysterious ambiguity we perhaps resist putting any thought into our ongoing embeddedness in the evil structures and systems and contagions of our time and history.

Today's über-concern with ecology has perhaps driven home this point. We all realize that our carbon footprint, our patterns of consumption and waste, and our participation in the economy of the globally advantaged is a small contribution to the degredation of the earth and the unjust dispersal of its resources. Though each of us as individuals may not be able to stem the tide, we recognize that by our actions we either take part in this degredation or we contribute (however minutely) to reform. Many of us stand paralyzed at the question of what we can do, but we also sense that we are nothing but implicated if we do not make a start somewhere.

We know the concept of complicity when it comes to the environment, now what about if we recognize it in other areas as well? This complicity does not render us unable to make judgments about what is right or wrong in this world, but it does remind us to come under that spotlight ourselves, to not make those judgments in self-righteousness, and to take to heart our own calls for reform in the concrete context of our own capabilites.

Rick Mirer may be the worst NFL quarterback ever, but every Monday morning quarterback who ever mocked him would stand to learn much about playing football with him as their tutor.

When Jesus reminds us of the planks in our eyes, is he thinking of our abstract "sinfulness" or of the complicities we'd find if we paid attention? Is not the truest prophetic word the one that comes in confession? Does it not ring hollow if we pray for peace on earth without getting up in mercy and beginning to love our neighbour?

The Thrill of Victory!

I haven't really been into hockey much the last few years. Aside from the fact that plenty of people make a living at it, in itself I tend to think the sports phenomenon a rather trivial (and thus vastly overblown) distraction. I enjoy it, but with some perspective, I think.

But then the team of your childhood makes it deep in the playoffs. And you are suddenly, even deeply, connected with all manner of strangers, friends, family, neighbours and rivals in a way you'd forgotten or didn't even think possible. Now you are going through ups and downs together, mourning and blaming and repenting of your doubts and celebrating together, and you remember that sports is sort of fun, and somehow even good.

I remember taking part in this exact scene on this exact street in 1994.

Mind you, I could only watch this for a couple minutes. I can't imagine anyone but a Canucks fan is going to watch it for more than 30 seconds. Outsiders may want to mute it to diminish the melodrama. It is one of those "had to be there" things.

Worth reporting, but its the wink and nod with the stranger in the circa 1986 Garth Butcher jersey that puts the smile on your face.

Friday, May 06, 2011

"The Fullness of Christ's Mercy"

I found it hard to know what to think about the death of bin Laden. Couldn't pretend to be happy with all the ways Christians were throwing around the word justice as if that was all there was to it. Had to admit it was pretty easy to peer in from the outside and be altruistic about what should or should not be said. There are probably many editorials one could link to and you've probably read them yourself. As it is I think the best I can do is place a link into my archives that points to a reflection of a 9/11 survivor that is simple, raw, and poignant. Find an excerpt at Experimental Theology: "The Fullness of Christ's Mercy".

Interestingly enough, the post concludes with a postcript saying that "one of the best theological meditations on Christian forgiveness and the memory of wrongdoings" is Miroslav Volf's The End of Memory. I have a paper in the Oxford Research Archive which agrees somewhat but begs to differ in some important ways. Since I'm studying this right now I thought I'd mention that while Volf's End of Memory is a good evocative book on the subject, one would be better to read his Exclusion and Embrace, or Gregory Jones Embodying Forgiveness. There should be a dissertation on Karl Barth's theology of forgiveness coming out in a while too. ; )

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Outside the Gospel Coalition Looking In

I have been reading along and trying to interact with two blogs on the Gospel Coalition website for a while but will now be dropping them from my blogroll and, well, I thought I'd register my discouragement.

Thing is, I hate to say this because I really believe such efforts at dialogue and debate are worth the effort in the context of Christian community. I do believe that if we were in a church together we could talk to each other and find some common ground. Even in disagreement I would confess our communion in the Lord Jesus Christ and enjoy fellowship in a peace that passes our understanding. As it is I also think that in theory we could meet online and experience something of the same dynamic. I confess that this is probably easier to pursue in a blog like mine, where almost every commenter is an acquaintance and there is a history or a context to most of the conversations.

But as we are only connected by their celebrity and influence within a big thing called evangelicalism, and since I have found their blogs more discouragingly mystifying than helpful, and because they have not once interacted with my comments and questions, and since those of their followers who have interacted with me have not appeared to consider anything I've said, I have decided that their blogs are hardly worth the effort. I actually feel that my presence there has only served to solidify other commenters in their allegiance to their views.

Without downplaying my deep disagreement with most of what I've read there, I will chalk up the actual disconnect to the limitations of widely-accessed blogs and the anonymity of the interactions that go on there. I am also dropping a couple other more resonant but widely read blogs from my blogroll, simply because there doesn't seem much point in involving myself in such massive conversations at the expense of those contexts to which I have been called and invested. This would be different if I felt needed or called (or in the case of the Gospel Coalition, welcome) to those wider conversations, but I don't. I wish them all the best and trust them to the Christ we confess, but I'm done.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

On Unity

For this week's "Rally to Restore Unity" hosted by Rachel Held Evans (donate to Charity:Water), I'm digging up some old thoughts on the matter....

A couple years ago I taught a 9-week Sunday School class on a fairly controversial topic. I was very thankful for the opportunity to broach the subject in our church but was a bit nervous about how it would go over. At the first class it became clear that we had a good number of people willing to kindly debate rather than fearfully avoid controversy. I began praying every week that our discussion - even our debate and disagreement - would be an expression of our unity in Christ rather than a threat to it.

Once I started praying this prayer and thinking about this kind of unity, a few other things struck me, such as:
If we are united in a common fear, we are united by something very weak.

If we are united by conflict avoidance, we have false peace.

If we are united by mere tolerance, we are not united but gathered (which is a start, I suppose, but if that's all you've got have you really got a church?).

If we are united by a perceived target group's favourite way of doing things, we are not united but pandering.

If we are united by convenience, we are just people who happen to be in the same place at the same time.

If we are united by cynicism, be it bitter and crusty or cloaked in humour, we have a negative unity.

If we are united by a list of propositions that we claim to agree on, we are united by the force of our reason.

If we are united by default views that can't be questioned or discussed, we are simply falling in line, and could even be lying to each other.
Mere tolerance does not a communion make. Consensus-management doesn't either. GK Chesterton adeptly addressed these twin problems in a 1908 essay entitled "On Bluff," addressing the editorialists of his time:
The idea of fighting, of answering the argument by a suitable counter-argument, even if it be a sophistry, has evidently vanished from the editorial mind. Evasion and violence are the only expedients. . . . But both of these things are equally remote from the fighting spirit, which involves an interest in the enemy's movement in order to parry them. The good controversialist is a good listener....

Most current attempts at [debate] are full of timidity or of bullying; and these two are in truth the same ... habit of admiring Power rather than Valour. That word Valour, by the way, is in itself a stirring sermon. It means putting one's full value into the struggle or sentiment; the almost exact translation of valour is "being in it for all you are worth."
If he could make this challenge to the newspapers, how much more to the church? Neither evasive maneuvers nor manipulative words are becoming a people who are rallied around the One who taught us self-giving communion and speaking the truth in love.

Sometimes I hear people lament post-modernity as the denial of Absolute Truth. But that's not the take-away point from post-modernity, if you ask me. The point is that none of us should claim Absolute Knowledge of the Truth. But this doesn't mean we don't believe the Truth is out there. We may in fact believe that Truth is a Person, Jesus Christ, who wants to be known in time, and sends His Spirit precisely for this purpose. With this belief we can see good reason to love and to speak with passion, kindness, humility and patience. Listening helps too. I can't believe how important listening is and how rarely it seems to really happen.

Karl Barth pointed out that in the Apostle's Creed the "communion of saints" comes under "belief in the Holy Spirit" (and is followed by the "forgiveness of sins"). In other words, unity is a matter of faith. Which means that Truth and Unity do not depend on us, but do not seem to want to go on without us either. Barth summed up the challenge before us quite well:
If a man can acquiesce in divisions, if he can even take pleasure in them, if he can be complacent in relation to the obvious faults and errors of others and therefore his own responsibility for them, then that man may be a good and loyal confessor in the sense of his own particular denomination, he may be a good Roman Catholic or Reformed or Orthodox or Baptist, but he must not imagine that he is a good Christian (Church Dogmatics IV.1, p. 676).
God help us to celebrate communion in Christ, and then to speak the truth in love.