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Omaha, Nebraska, United States
I am more and more convinced that most congregations die from a staggering lack of imagination. Let's change that. Drop me a line on email or leave a comment if you have thoughts on God, Jesus, congregations, the church or whatever.... I look forward to our conversations.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Sin/Grace versus Law/Gospel

Caveat Emptor! Theology is the topic!
So, I hear a lot of sin/grace preaching these days, and after forty years of it, I'm still not convinced. Sin/Grace preaching basically says that we sin, (usually in observable ways by others), but God's grace "saves" us in one way or another. This is certainly one way to read the Bible but it is only ONE way, and to my mind not the best way at all. This way of understanding the Christian life seems to make too big a deal of human capacity to appease, please, assuage, or manipulate God for me. At some level the "sin" has to be turned over, acknowledged, repented of in order for God's grace to take action, and this seems a little too optimistic of the human condition for me to believe. Basically, if humans have the power to repent, then they have the power not to sin, and since they sin, well, they must not have the power...and that's too negative of the human condition...
I grew up understanding my tradition (and although I always heard it as THE ONE WAY to read scripture and Christian life, I've since learned there are others...) to be about God's law and God's gospel. The law is that of God that cannot be abrogated, annulled, or ignored. But God's promise (to love humanity through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ) also cannot be denied, and this promise always trumps God's law. This seems to be a more realistic way to read the Divine and Human relationship, as it puts the human capacity to change on the back burner, and instead focuses on the human capacity to live under the promise in the realm of God's law. How might this matter....? Consider this story.
A young woman, age 22, wakes up on Sunday morning to watch a guy get dressed. She can't really remember his last name, but he was poilite, and nice, and sometimes that's enough...As she watches him leave for his softball game, or maybe football, (she really wasn't listening to what he said), she decides to head over to her local Christian congregation for some church. Now, if she gets to a sin/grace type of place, she's going to hear that her choices over the past 24 hourse were not exactly what God had intended for her, in fact, it is her heart as well as her behavior that needs some adjusting, and God's grace will take care of that. (At this point, in the sin/grace story, depending upon whether she landed in a liberal or conservative place, the grace either will be there for the taking, or she will have to repent to get the grace.) She hears one thing that gives her hope, but also depresses her...if there' going to be any change for next Saturday night, that change is up to her. And so it goes...
Now, if she lands in a place where the Christian life is viewed in a law/gospel context, she will hear the same sort of things, but in a different key. God's creation and law are designed for us to flourish and live, and her choices over the past 24 hours did not always align with that design. However, those choices cannot erase the promise of God she has received, so the promise continues to exert pressure on her to live as a child of God. What she hears here is that change or not, God's promise is still for her, and how her life lives out comes from God's urging for us to flourish. Will she change by next Saturday? And so it goes...
The sin/grace dichotomy of Christianity has a long and distinguished history, and it would take many more words to do justice to beauty of the tradition in someone like Aquinas or Calvin. I'm not writing to say that Law/Gospel is right, and all others are wrong...those debates don't interest me much...But I am writing to say that sin/grace on one hand seems too easy (just turn to God), and on the other hand too hard (don't make God angry); whereas Law/Gospel just seems too hard...Live, as if the promise of God's love for you will never die..

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Bacon Cheeseburgers and the Cross

I came across a great quotation this week "Every rabbi, according to the Talmud, should be able to argue that a bacon cheeseburger should be kosher." (Shai Cherry, Torah Through Time, 2007. He admits he updated the quotation from ben Sanhedrin.) And this is where my thoughts this week are curiouser and curiouser...
As I talk with people about faith these days, (or religion or the Bible or conservative Christians or liberal Christians--whatever the entry into the conversation) there resides an assumption that we are going to somehow "arrive" somewhere. That is, that God has a plan, the plan has a destination, and we're all part of that plan. I guess that's OK as it is, but why the destination? What if the plan is a plan of eternity (which doesn't end, at least according to some meanings of "eternity")?
What happens is that we often posit a disconnect between where we are and where we hope to be, and in that supply the connection in ways that make sense to us. Now, at one level this is the only way the disconnect can even be noticed--because it's working against or with things that "make sense" to us. However, does the connecting together of the "disconnect" involve something that needs to "make sense" as well? I'd argue that it does not.
So, if I may borrow from my last post's discussion (in order to reply somewhat to a very perceptive comment), the gathering of people stands as truth, even if it only ostensibly meets the needs of the people gathered. And the people, not able to comprehend the mystery which is God, gather out of their needs so that God may use them as God desires. Of course, what we observe is the gathering, and any deeper truth that resides in that gathering remains a mystery enveloped by God's own mystery. That deeper truth (whatever it may or may not be) does not have to be obvious to the people gathered...they're just gathered...
Which gets us back to our bacon cheeseburger. As Freud once noted, "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar" when it comes to interpretation. Regardless of what the bacon cheeseburger means, or whether we can eat it or not, depending upon our adherence to kosher or our cardiologist's advice, what sits on the plate is a bacon cheesebuger. The same thing seems to be true of our experience and understanding of God, especially the God of Jesus Christ on the cross. We can debate its meaning and purpose for our lives, it can become a stumbling block to our faith, or the very power of God--regardless...what stands in our history is the cross...
Perhaps Christians can learn from our Jewish brothers and sisters, and be prepared, not to argue for the "kosherness" of a bacon cheeseburger, but for the love of the God of the cross for us...just a thought...

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Truth and the Prairie

Perhaps no word or idea captivates me as much as "truth." In my day-to-day life up here on the prairie we all sort of take truth for granted. Since we're not philosophers of the city (remember our whole state has less people than many cities in this country...I used to say when I first arrived up here that "North Dakota is the smallest city I've ever lived in.") we are philosphers of the land, and our ideas about truth tend to emanate from there...
So, we're far removed from thinkers who live in Paris, Princeton, or travel regularly to New York City or London for dinner and a show...Our ideas of truth tend to be mundane as in ("If we don't get some rain, the barley will be in tough shape," says one famer. "That's true," says the other.)
Truth often resides in that which we cannot avoid, that which we cannot control, that which we can do little about except suffer its consequences or celebrate its fecundity. Now, that defintion of truth flies in the face of our current considerations of "truth," expecially from the culturally critical folks on the right and the left who either a)posit truth in some ideal form; or b) wed truth to cultural and linguistic assumptions. There's nothing "ideal" about a drought or a prairie fire, nor do we find them important because we name them such--rather they "are," in the simplest sense possible. (We're all probably still closet Kantians, as the 19th century hasn't really made it up here yet! Although there are a few Romantics running around.)
So ministry up here sort of does an end-run around the questions of truth (What Cornel West called the "American Evasion of Philosophy"--and as he notes we are good at that) Whatever emerges from prairie table's ministry will no doubt be in the same boat. We will put relationships ahead of power, money, and prestige (we'll even put them ahead of truth); we'll be plodding, slow to change, and prickly conservative (although we're so slow to change that our conservatism can be seen as liberal sometimes--for example, most of us up here still belive in individual human rights, but not over and above the needs of the community--find that lived out somewhere near an ocean coastline!)
Prairie Table makes no bones about what it is and isn't. We're not a full-service church that offers education for children, entertainment for youth, or religious diversion for adults. Rather, we're just people who want to get together and talk about our lives, and what God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit may or may not be doing in them, and how we can love our neighbors. That might not seem like a lot when there are so many troubles and people in trouble in the world, but right now it's the only truth we have.