Ascension Thursday: Salvador Dali and Karl Barth

As an intern at Anchor Community Church (United Brethren), I have the opportunity to plan an Ascension Thursday service. This is something new for this community and, quite honestly, for me. Several things make this a tricky service to plan. Some of them are practical: the church never gathers on Thursday evenings. Others are theological: many of the congregants aren’t sure why the ascension matters. I have a few ideas to draw folks to the service and a few others to help them leave praising God for presiding as the Church’s heavenly priest.

One way that I hope to do this is to encourage the church to see the bizarreness of the ascension. This, I hope, will not leave them confused, but help them to experience the wild reality that Christ’s ascension, similar to the incarnation, unites creatureliness within the divine mystery. To do this, we will reflect together on Salvador Dali’s The Ascension of Christ (see below).

dali_1_3 Continue reading

Weekender: May 13, 2017

Weekender: 05/13/2017

Welcome to the weekend! Each week, we like to offer a few quick highlights from our week that we think will give you something worthwhile to think about over the weekend. Enjoy this week’s Weekender and add to it in the comments below!

Quote Worth Repeating: “As long as even a poor theologian is capable of astonishment, s/he is not lost to the fulfillment of her/his task. S/he remains serviceable as long as the possibility is left open that astonishment may seize her/him like an armed man.” From Evangelical Theology: An Outline by Karl Barth.

Blog Post to Read: Robert Jenson’s “How the World Lost Its Story” is over two decades old. Yet, in the past year, I’ve read it numerous times. Its relevance for today is striking.

Watch this: In this video, Yale professor Willie Jennings reflects on a theology of Joy. “I look at joy,” Jennings says, “as an act of resistance against despair and its forces. And joy in that regard is a work that become a state that can become a way of life.”

Questions to Ponder: Following the conversation between Jennings and Volf in the video:

  • What do you think joy is? Is it resistance to despair? Is it a gift? Is joy a virtue?
  • How do you cultivate joy? As a community? As an individual? As a pastor? A theologian?
  • How do we resist the commercialization of joy?
  • How is your joy shaped by your space, and the elements that make your space unique? And how does joy act as a unifier across spatial, and perhaps other, divisions?

Baptism, Preaching, and Politics

In a recent Weekender, I asked: Can preaching ever be apolitical? My hunch is that the answer has to be no, preaching can never be apolitical. But I need to explain what I mean by political if we are going to be on the same page. Former United Methodist bishop and professor of ministry Will Willimon offers a helpful way of understanding political:

To speak among the baptized, those who are dying and being raised (Romans 6:4), is to enter into a world of odd communication and peculiar speech. Baptismal speech need not conform to the reasons of this world (Romans 12:2). Conversation among the baptized is ecclesial in nature, political. A peculiar polis is being formed here, a family, a holy nation, a new people where once there was none (these images are all baptismal, 1 Peter 2:9)” (Peculiar Speech: Preaching to the Baptized, p. 4).

For Willimon, political does not simply refer to Republican versus Democrat, or America versus Russia. He leans on the root word polis, city, to describe what political speech does. It “forms” a city, “a new people where once there was none.” Yet that city is formed in the midst of the broader world. So, Willimon continues, saying, Continue reading

Weekender: May 6, 2017

Weekender: 05/06/2017

Welcome to the weekend! Each week, we like to offer a few quick highlights from our week that we think will give you something worthwhile to think about over the weekend. Enjoy this week’s Weekender and add to it in the comments below!

Quote Worth Repeating: “To grow as a disciple is to take the journey from understanding into faith, from memory into hope and from will into love.” From Rowan Williams’s Being Disciples. Kent reflected on another quote from this book in his post “On Shame.”

Blog Post to Read: Mark Labberton’s post on Christian Century about the perspicuity, or plainness, of Scripture — or how it’s not so plain after all.“The great irony about the claim of perspicuity is that it is not perspicuous,” Labberton writes. “Or at least not as clear as it might sound. The greatest evidence that perspicuity is not self-evident is provided by Calvin himself, who argued for the perspicuity of the Bible while writing thousands of pages of commentary to help make plain to the ordinary reader what the scriptures were saying and teaching. What was plain and clear plainly needed some explaining.”

Reflecting with Images: William Blake’s Jerusalem, Plate 41, “Bath who is Legions”

William Blake's Jerusalem, Plate 41, "Bath who is Legion"

Questions to Ponder: Kent has been posting on shame this week. His posts have evoked a number of questions for me (Zen).

  • How does a pastor speak well about sin and forgiveness? That is, how does someone call a congregation to confession and repentance without leaving them with a sense of inadequacy? Is preaching forgiveness enough? Or should a call to repentance always begin with a reminder of Christ’s love? How does a thoughtful liturgy help guard pastors from perpetuating shame?
  • I wonder what percentage of Christians attend church because of shame? How many people think going to church is primarily about “getting right with God”? How do we alter the perception of what church is for to something more true, like we attend church to celebrate God’s love and faithfulness and to be nurtured through sacrament, prayer, and preaching?

On Shame (part 2)

I continue thinking about shame since my last post. A few more posts on the topic will trickle out, I think, over the next few weeks. Don’t expect anything comprehensive, or even closely knitted together. I’m just going to ruminate on it and bring to bear some different angles that seem relevant.

My last post ended with a comment about mortification and vivification. I said that a shame-based portrait of discipleship is “like talking about the Christian life in terms of ‘mortification’ and ‘vivification’ but without the ‘vivification.’ All death, no resurrection.” I realize the terms aren’t in much use. It’s a shame really, because they name basic realities of the Christian that bear quite importantly on the experience of shame (which I am trying to think towards here).

Here’s John Webster from my book, Sanctified by Grace: A Theology of the Christian Life.

By mortification is meant the discipline practice in which renewed creatures, reconciled to God by Christ’s meritorious death and moved by the Holy Spirit, repudiate, resist, and do away with the remnants of the old ‘earthly’ nature which has been disqualified but which nevertheless persists ‘in’ us (Col. 3:5). By vivification I mean those habits of life in which renewed creatures make alive and empowered by the Spirit amplify their new nature, actively disclosing, confirming, and exercising it. Mortification and vivification are simultaneous, not sequential. Mortification is not an initial stage which at some point in this life is left behind, for our mixed state will persist until paradise. Vivification, however, has material priority, because mortification is a practice of negation, opposing old habits of life, traces of which remain in the present but have no future, having been condemned and terminated by God. Mortification is not a permanent, essential practice of the regenerate nature but an interim necessity, and once its goal of clearing away the diseased remainders of the old nature is reached, it will no longer be required. Vivification, by contrast, is the implementation of the new nature and stretches out to perfection. In vivification we begin to perform the new nature which will endure and so complete and resolve itself that there will be no necessity for mortification (133).

Webster immediately clarifies. Mortification is not directed at on our “created nature” – as if simply being human is under fire by the Spirit. Rather, it’s

an assault on the sin which opposes created nature’s regeneration. … And so mortification is not hatred of embodied life but opposition to death-dealing vice, its purpose being not nature’s destruction but the ordering and forming of regenerate conduct. It is not [and here Webster quotes Augustine] ‘hostile persecution’ but ‘healthy chastening’ which intends the recovery and flourishing of nature (133).

Mortification is not an assault on embodied human life.

It makes me wonder: could a dimension of Christian-shame be a weak theology of creation? I mean, if we struggle down deep with being creaturely rather than being spiritual (the old Gnostic heresy), then could it be that we unwittingly but disastrously confuse our sinfulness with our creatureliness, and thereby confuse the object of mortification with our humanity? We end up imagining that the Spirit’s holy-making work in our lives is really after the destruction of our embodied humanity—our having-been-made bodily creatures—rather than the destruction of the sin “that so easily entangles” (Heb. 12:1).

Shame masquerading as sanctification which actually targets our embodiment. That’s not easy to shake off.

On Shame

I met with a student of mine a few days ago who talked to me about shame. She lamented that much of her faith history was in communities that (as she experienced it) emphasized shame. The effect was a lingering sense of her utter inadequacy and condemnation.

Now, a sense of one’s inadequacy regarding salvation is not a bad thing at all, and she knows that (see Ephesians 2). We are not saved on account of the adequacy of what we do, but wholly on account of the adequacy of what God does for us in Jesus the Messiah, as it is brought to life in us through the Holy Spirit. God comes to us with life from the inexpressible sufficiency of his divine life. The super-abundant adequacy of the divine life overmatches our inadequacy. Our sin is no match for his life.

She knows it. Her struggle is more a matter of this: as she sees it, once saved she still doesn’t amount to much.

So I was delighted to hear that she’s been finding a fresh vision for discipleship, one less centered on shame, from one of my favorite theologians: Rowan Williams. After reading his new book, Being Disciples: Essentials of the Christian Life, my student (who is fast becoming a friend) said a new way forward opened up in front of her. She specifically mentioned an image Williams uses in the first chapter. Birdwatcher

Disciples are expectant in the sense that they take it for granted that there is always something about to break through from the Master, the Teacher, something about to burst through the ordinary and uncover a new light on the landscape. The master is going to speak or show something; reality is about to open up when you are in the Master’s company, and so your awareness…is a little bit like that of a birdwatcher. The experienced birdwatcher, sitting still, poised, alert, not tense or fussy, knows that this is the kind of place where something extraordinary suddenly bursts into view (4-5).

Beautiful. It makes me wonder: could it be that a shame-based sense of our relation to God gives us the sense that we shouldn’t expect God to show up, surprise us, overwhelm us with delight?  When the Christian life centers on shame, why should we expect God to show up for anything other than condemnation? It’s like talking about the Christian life in terms of “mortification” and “vivification” but without the “vivification.” All death, no resurrection. It’s a shame. No, it’s tragedy, and maybe even heresy.

Father, lead us to know our own worth as we discover our lives in you and only in you.

Weekender: April 29, 2017

Weekender: 04/29/2017

Welcome to the weekend! Each week, we like to offer a few quick highlights from our week that we think will give you something worthwhile to think about over the weekend. Enjoy this week’s Weekender and add to it in the comments below!

Quote Worth Repeating: “In both roles, as a journalist and as an organizer, I’d learn that it’s possible to fall in love with a revolution — then doubt it, fight with it, lose faith in it, and return with a sense of humor and a harder, lasting love. I would have to learn the same thing about church when I was much older, and it would be no easier.” From Take This Bread by Sara Miles.

Blog Post to Read: Kent recommends Bishop Robert Barron’s “‘Grace Alone’ 500 Years Later” on Christianity Today. It is a thoughtful, not to mention timely, reflection on the difference between Luther’s theology of grace and a Catholic theology of grace.

Theology Forum Flashback: Steven Duby’s “Scooping Out the Moon” was posted in April 2010. In the post he shares a quote from Barth on the “knowability of the Word of God” and raises some tantalizing questions about popular evangelical assumptions about the pastor. Also in April 2010, Kent Eilers posed important questions about how we often move people quickly from profession of faith to baptism. His underlying question is this: do new Christians need theology?

Questions to Ponder: I have had several interesting conversations regarding politics and preaching this week. Here are a few questions I’ve been asking. Weigh in with your own questions or kindly offer your own insights below!

  • What do we mean when we say “politics” or “political”?
  • Is the church, local or universal, political?
  • How and when should preaching be political? Can preaching ever be apolitical?
  • Is it crossing the line for a pastor to take a side on a political issue from the pulpit? Why or why not? Another way of asking this questions could be: should a preacher risk upsetting congregants who may disagree for the sake of helping the congregation think theologically about current events?