Church is a Mystery

The text message from my wife made me sweat with embarrassment. “This doesn’t look like a book you would read,” she wrote, with a picture of the book in her hands. She was home when it arrived. What should I do? “I know,” I hurriedly replied. “Let me explain!”

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Mary Oliver and Realized Eschatology

“Look and look again. / This world is not just a little thrill for the eyes. / It’s more than bones. / It’s more than the delicate wrist with its personal pulse. / It’s more than the beating of a single heart. / It’s praising. / It’s giving until it feels like receiving. / You have a life—just imagine that! / You have this and, and maybe another, and maybe still another.” – Mary Oliver, “To Begin With, the Sweet Grass”

“If anyone is in Christ–new creation!” – 2 Corinthians 5:17 (a “very literal” translation mentioned by R. Hays in Moral Vision, p. 20).

Poets have long seen the world with clearer, brighter vision. I suppose because they’ve taken the time to do so. When I began reading Mary Oliver on my sabbath at the beginning of the year, I struggled to describe the grandeur of her description. It’s not overbearingly symbolic, so far as I can tell. All I could say, to my sister who gifted me the book, was that Oliver was able better than anyone to capture the brilliance of the world in the simplest of terms.

Not long ago I revised this poem into a prayer for the congregation’s invocation. Here’s the prayer in full: Continue reading

Accidental Preacher

I took Will Willimon’s introduction to ordained ministry class in my first semester of divinity school. Pastoral ministry was not on my radar; and I’d never heard talk of ordination until student orientation, when I discovered nearly everyone was seeking ordination but me. Will wrote a chapter for Kent’s book Sanctified by Grace, which I copyedited. So, I signed up for his class because I thought, “If Kent likes him enough to invite him to write for his book, he ought to be pretty good.” Will did not persuade me into pastoral ministry. In fact, he wound up being the professor who signed off on me switching from a Master of Divinity to a Master of Theological studies, as I flailed about unsure of what God was calling me to do. So, in some sense, I suppose you could call me an accidental preacher, which is also the title of Will’s memoir. We are kindred spirits in that regard.

Will’s memoir is filled with honesty, joy, humor, and rich theological and pastoral insight. For those who have listened to Will for any length of time, his sarcasm is predictable and his grace is abundant. Most of all, this memoir is a testimony to the God who refuses to stay an arm’s length from any part of the world God so loves.

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Christ the Preacher of Virtues?

Christ didn’t speak Spanish but, if he did, the first word of his sermon on the mount might have been bienaventurado. What English speakers often hear as “blessed,” Spanish speakers hear as a word made up of two words: “good” and “adventure.” A friend who asked her native Spanish-speaking friend shared this bit of information with me. Suddenly, Christ’s beatitudes took on a different shape. It isn’t that persecution or poverty of spirit (or just poverty in Luke’s gospel) are signs of “blessedness” or things to be happy about. They are invitations to take God’s hand, to join in on a good journey toward human flourishing. “On a good journey are the poor in spirit, for God is drawing them into the kingdom of heaven.”51igpt44dhl

In the same vein, Jonathan T. Pennington’s book The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing sketches an interpretation of Christ’s lengthiest sermon utilizing the language of virtue theory. Pennington gently guides the reader into this interpretation by introducing the sermon’s reception history before making the case that what Jesus is providing is “a Christocentric, flourishing-oriented, kingdom-awaiting, eschatological wisdom exhortation.”

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The “Untheological” Preacher

screen-shot-2018-02-26-at-12-18-23-pmIt’s not uncommon to hear preachers of a certain theological stripe say from the pulpit something like, “What I’m saying isn’t theological, it’s just biblical.” The sentiment is understandable even if the statement isn’t tenable. In many folks’ minds—both clergy and lay people—theology is a distraction from the real content of the Bible, from the real purpose of worship, or from the real goal of discipleship. 

Some of this sentiment can be chalked up to bad theology, written densely and in specialist language to no clear end. We might also wonder how the movement of theologians from the church to the offices of universities may have precipitated a sense of distance between theology and the church. Further still, theological debates often require an acceptance of nuance that is less than preferable when dealing with matters of salvation—in other words, people might chafe at theology because they feel it leads them to wonder if they can know anything for sure about God, life, or eternity. 

While I can charitably acknowledge these criticisms and concerns about theology, I think they reveal a narrow assumption about how theology works within the church. It seems that most people who think theology is more harmful than helpful assume theology works mostly to clarify (or confuse) matters of Christian belief that have little bearing on Christian life. If this assessment is on point, then it would take a substantial effort to redeem theology in the hearts and minds of everyday church folk, let alone the clergy who have taught them to think this way about theology. If that’s all it is, why do we need it at all? Continue reading

What is it that we truly are?

Paul prays for the Christians in Ephesus to know, along with a litany of other things, that God has made Christ “head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fulness of him who fills all in all” (Eph. 1:22-23). In February 1922, Karl Barth lectured on this passage. His words, as usual, provoke us to recognize the vitality of the biblical text. The church, he writes, is Christ’s

pleroma, the filling up of the empty form, which he signifies, in contrast to all that is human and the true fulfillment of all that is human…Because they are in Christ, because they are the ekklesia, called together by him, they are truly the object of God’s blessing. Will the become what they truly are?

I can only imagine being a student at the University of Göttingen during this lecture. What would you say if Barth paused after that loaded question, looked at you, and asked, “And what is it, precisely, that we truly are?”  Continue reading