Saturday, July 29, 2006

Musical Journey

This summer I've been listening to a lot of music. This is in part because I've discovered you can interlibrary loan just about anything on CD, so I get on "linkcat" and call up titles. But it's also because there is just so much good music out there.

Read a review in the latest Sojourners about the "anti-folk" movement, and discovered there is Christian music out there that is more my genre than the typical stuff you might hear on your local Christian radio station. My first discovery was Sufjan Stevens. I had gotten his Illinoise a while back and loved it. Now discovered that his record label, Asthmatic Kitty, has, for example, this new album by Half-handed Cloud that is, well, just fascinating.

So, in addition to Jonathan Rundman, you can now add this record label to your list. While you're at it, try Iron & Whine, Innocence Mission, Calexico. You'll soon be able to tell that my musical tastes have switched over, at least in part, to great music that is also listenable for small children, softer more melodic.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Welcome to all readers of The Lutheran

On page 10 of the August issue (print version) of The Lutheran magazine, Lutheran Confessions is featured in an article on Lutheran blogs. If you're visiting here after reading that column, welcome! If you're a regular here, welcome!

If you've visited this blog as a result of reading The Lutheran, could you mention that here in the comments? Thanks.

Recognition of Sin and the Holiness of the Church

I think key to Luther's thought is that the church is holy in its "recognition" of its sinfulness. Not necessarily its sinfulness itself, but the recognition of it. I believe this is one reason why the reformers (but unfortunately not their
epigones) retained individual confession and forgiveness (penance) as a
quasi-sacrament, because the holiness of the church is dependent on its
recognition of sin.

Of course, we are "made" holy in the absolution, the declarative "you
are forgiven for Jesus' sake", so in another sense it is not purely the
recognition that makes holy, but the parallel (and identical) move to
absolve (the more Catholic minded would then go on to debate how much
"follow-up" would need to occur after the absolution is necessary, the
"I intend to do better").

I think some Roman Catholic theologians (and even a few Lutheran ones) need the church to "not sin" at least from a dogmatic perspective because it is the only way to protect the magisterium and the "infallibility" of the pope when he speaks ex
. The sinlessness of the church is a doctrinal point for
Catholics is not unlike the fundamentalist doctrine of Biblical inerrancy.
Both are truth claims of a foundationalist sort, or at least that is my
read, and both are claims not so much based in reality, but rather in
defense of a dogmatic point. So, the bible is inerrant because it is
handed to us by God (and we need this to be true for the book also to be true), never mind its origins as a book written by human hands. Or, the church is sinless because this is the only way the tradition can truly be the living voice of God through the ages, never mind that certain specific popes, churches, bishops, over the centuries
have been notorious sinners and poor theologians.

If we re-visit the comparison between the Christological doctrine of
Christ as maximus peccator (greatest sinner) and relate that to ecclesiology, I think we gain some key insights. In fact, I think it is always useful to compare
doctrines in this way. Christ is not a sinner in se, but rather, takes
the sin of the whole world on himself, for the sake of the world. So
Christ is "the greatest sinner" only in the sense that he stands as
proxy, he stands in for and takes on all sin. In this way, he is the
holy one.

The church is holy inasmuch as it participates in this reality. So, it
is holy when it a) recognizes its sin, and the once for all taking on of
this sin by Christ, and b) recognizes its participation in this divine
taking on of sin for the sake of the world. In other words, the church
can appear as sinner, can even bear the sins of the world, and bear with
one another, because of its newfound role as participants in the life of
Christ, who is maximus peccator.

I'm thinking specifically of some Pauline passages, like "we have become
the rubbish of the world, the dregs of all things" (1 Cor. 4:13). Or
again 2 Cor. 6:8, "in honor and dishonor, in ill repute and good repute.
We are treated as imposters, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are
well known, as dying, and see--we are alive."

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

August Pastor's Newsletter article

Continuing Education

You may have noticed that once every three months or so, I go on a trip to meet with other pastors and study. I have the opportunity to do this because I received a grant from the Center of Theological Inquiry, Princeton, NJ. The program they fund, called the Pastor-Theologian program, is designed to encourage pastors to continue their theological study while in the parish. Towards that end, they design a common syllabus for us to study, assign us books to read, and require that we write a 20 page paper in order to continue in the program from year to year. The goal is to help us keep our theological “chops” fresh. CTI covers all the costs of my transportation and stay while attending the conferences, buys my books for me, etc. It is actually a great gift to this congregation, because this part of my continuing education does not come as a bill to the church.

It makes a lot of sense that CTI would encourage pastors to consider themselves to be “pastor-theologians.” Many of you probably assume that part of my job as pastor is to be a kind of resident theologian and scholar in the community. You rely on me to do some teaching and preaching, to have a good grounding in Scripture and the Christian tradition, so that when you come with questions regarding the faith, I can be prepared with an answer, or will know where to look with you to explore the question. Furthermore, to stay engaged in theology has a very positive impact (I hope) on my preaching, it keeps the language and reflections fresh, and true to the gospel that has been given to us.

Our pastor-theologian group meets quarterly to engage in some joint theological reflection (send me an e-mail or call if you’d like to see the syllabus). It’s really a fun group to gather with. We’re all kind of “theology nerds”, I’ll confess, so when we get together, a lot of our meal time and social time, as well as our meetings, are given to discussions of “weighty” theological matters. This shouldn’t surprise anyone who loves their job. You know that after work, if you have supper with fellow teachers, or fellow construction workers or nurses, you may discuss some of the more intricate, difficult, or compelling issues from your work.

Not only that, but you’ll probably use some specialized language that the rest of us don’t typically use. I had no idea what a PICC line was until I had been visiting people in hospital for a while. I didn’t know what a trowel was until I had worked with cement. I didn’t know what “case weather” was until I came to the Koshkonong prairie. The same is true of theology- you learn the words as you go. Incarnation, salvation, these you may have picked up from preaching or other church contexts. But ecclesiology, pneumatology, perichoresis? These are words I didn’t learn until I had been immersed in the study of theology for some time. Most of you have a vocabulary like this that you’ve learned over time that you find useful as shorthand, words and things you study that help you on your way as you work.

You don’t tend to use this specialized vocabulary when speaking to people who aren’t in your profession. It would be annoying if I used all this kind of language in my preaching, for example, or in casual conversation. But that doesn’t mean that learning these themes and terms isn’t important. It just means that what is expected of all of us who learn is that we will learn our specialty, and learn it well, but also learn to translate it, to communicate it to those outside our small group who have specialized in it.

The same might be said of the life of a Christian. All Christians in the contemporary world are given a difficult assignment. We are called to “translate” the gospel into the worlds we live in. We hear the message of Jesus Christ, the good news of salvation, in a variety of ways. In preaching, through receiving the sacrament of Holy Communion, witnessing a baptism, singing hymns, reading the Bible, praying, or observing acts of loving service. But this is not the end of the Christian journey. Instead, after we have heard and received this message, it is our job, each one of us, to communicate this message in the context of our daily lives. At the end of worship, you hear, “Go in peace. Serve the Lord.” In the freedom of the Spirit, you are called to exactly that, serving the Lord in your work, family life, waking and sleeping.

We will be of no use if we don’t learn the special language of the gospel. If we don’t learn the special language of the Christian faith (what some call the catechism), if we aren’t engaged in continuing study, if we aren’t being continually educated as Christians, then we will have nothing to translate to a waiting world. On the other hand, if we get too immersed in the special insider language and don’t work at translating it, we will be no earthly good either. The Christian calling is to do both, to learn the language of the faith well- justification, saved by grace through faith, Trinity, truth- but then also to translate it, to make it speak where we live and work, with our children and parents, with our co-workers, even to our pets and the whole of creation.

I hope that my participation in continuing education is a role model for this. I enjoy setting aside time for study and reflection, but always with an eye to translating it into what I preach and teach. In the same way, I hope each adult in this congregation will participate in continuing education as a Christian. Set aside some time to attend a class, or read a recommended book on the faith, or the Scripture. You can do this, can’t you? Continue to learn the Christian faith, so that your faith grows up into the maturity Christ has called us to in the Spirit. Do your homework

Monday, July 24, 2006

Dean Bakopoulos has written a book that is just right for summer, and is the first novel written by a member of my generation (that I've read) that is sad without being too sad. He grows up in Detroit- I grew up on a farm in Iowa, but there are just some cultural resonances that make me feel like I lived a bit of what he lived, or at least, what his narrator lived.

Dean also does a great job of writing a novel that seems autobiographical while at the same time pushing the reader away from thinking it is too autobiographical. A bit magical and therefore not completely real.

Also, on the art and culture scene, I dug out Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot the other day to re-listen. I'd been listening to a lot of new albums (side projects) by Jeff Tweedy, including the new Golden Smog and Loose Fur projects, but thought to myself, why not listen a bit to the album that first made you a Wilco fan. It's everything as good as it was two summers ago, and this time, I paid more attention to lyrics. There are some gems, like:

Our love is all of God's money
everyone is a burning sun


the cash machine
is blue and green
for a hundred in twenties
and a small service fee
I could spend three dollars
and sixty-three cents
on diet coca-cola
and unlit cigarettes


Oh I've got reservations
so many things
not about you


distance has no way
of making love

Saturday, July 22, 2006

The Mark 6 Checklist

Mark 6 is part of a larger story telling the good news of Jesus Christ, but it also provides a checklist to help us see whether or not our busy lives are busy because of Jesus and his call, or if we're simply "eating the bread of anxious toil" (Psalm 127:2). The following are questions you can ponder this week, in order to connect the Scripture to your daily living. I'm using the word "work" and "homework" interchangeably in this list so that we all realize that work is more than just our day job- instead, our work is our vocation, our calling, everything that God desires us to do in order to love and serve God, and to love and serve our neighbor as ourself. Work is the actual work you do, but also how you do, how you interact with co-workers, how you care for your home, your family, your friends, all of creation. Work is everything you do after the phrase "Go in peace, serve the Lord." Our work is our thanks-giving, our "Thanks be to God."

1. Are you trying to do the work you need to do alone? The disciples were sent out two by two.
2. Are you doing your work simply, and is your work done in order to support a simple lifestyle? Or, is a lot of your work done in order to support things beyond the simple life?
3. Does your homework heal people?
4. In your work and daily life, do you find opportunities to teach others about Jesus?
5. Do you know Jesus well enough to be able to share his message with others? (study of the Bible)
6. Does your work feed people?
7. Does your homework "cast out demons", that is, does it fight against the powers and principalities of this world that keep people poor, hurting, lonely, afraid?
8. Does your work bring hope to people rather than fear?
9. Do you check back in with Jesus regularly to let Him know how you're doing, and what you've been up to? (prayer)
10. If you have been busy with the Lord's work (notice, it isn't busy with just anything, but specifically with the ministry given to you by God to accomplish), do you listen to God's voice to come away to a deserted place by yourselves and rest for a while? Do you know how to rest? Do you know who to rest with? (worship)
11. If you're on your way to rest, but you encounter someone in great need along the way, are you filled with compassion enough to care for them?
12. Does your work bring people close enough to Jesus to be healed? Do you yourself stay close enough to Jesus to have his healing presence work through you?
13. Can you think of when Jesus first had compassion on you, and taught you, because you were a sheep without a shepherd?

Friday, July 21, 2006

A Long Speech Worth Reading

Sorry to be posting other people's words these past few days, but it's been a crazy time since returning from the youth gathering, and I've mostly been catching up rather than composing.


Call to Renewal Keynote
Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Senator Obama spoke at the Call to Renewal Conference sponsored by Sojourners earlier to day. He spoke of the role of religion in politics.

"This is why, if we truly hope to speak to people where they're at - to communicate our hopes and values in a way that's relevant to their own - we cannot abandon the field of religious discourse.

Because when we ignore the debate about what it means to be a good Christian or Muslim or Jew; when we discuss religion only in the negative sense of where or how it should not be practiced, rather than in the positive sense of what it tells us about our obligations towards one another; when we shy away from religious venues and religious broadcasts because we assume that we will be unwelcome - others will fill the vacuum, those with the most insular views of faith, or those who cynically use religion to justify partisan ends.

In other words, if we don't reach out to evangelical Christians and other religious Americans and tell them what we stand for, Jerry Falwell's and Pat Robertson's will continue to hold sway."

Click here to listen to the podcast


Good morning. I appreciate the opportunity to speak here at the Call to Renewal's Building a Covenant for a New America conference. I've had the opportunity to take a look at your Covenant for a New America. It is filled with outstanding policies and prescriptions for much of what ails this country. So I'd like to congratulate you all on the thoughtful presentations you've given so far about poverty and justice in America, and for putting fire under the feet of the political leadership here in Washington.

But today I'd like to talk about the connection between religion and politics and perhaps offer some thoughts about how we can sort through some of the often bitter arguments that we've been seeing over the last several years.

I do so because, as you all know, we can affirm the importance of poverty in the Bible; and we can raise up and pass out this Covenant for a New America. We can talk to the press, and we can discuss the religious call to address poverty and environmental stewardship all we want, but it won't have an impact unless we tackle head-on the mutual suspicion that sometimes exists between religious America and secular America.

I want to give you an example that I think illustrates this fact. As some of you know, during the 2004 U.S. Senate General Election I ran against a gentleman named Alan Keyes. Mr. Keyes is well-versed in the Jerry Falwell-Pat Robertson style of rhetoric that often labels progressives as both immoral and godless.

Indeed, Mr. Keyes announced towards the end of the campaign that, "Jesus Christ would not vote for Barack Obama. Christ would not vote for Barack Obama because Barack Obama has behaved in a way that it is inconceivable for Christ to have behaved."

Jesus Christ would not vote for Barack Obama.

Now, I was urged by some of my liberal supporters not to take this statement seriously, to essentially ignore it. To them, Mr. Keyes was an extremist, and his arguments not worth entertaining. And since at the time, I was up 40 points in the polls, it probably wasn't a bad piece of strategic advice.

But what they didn't understand, however, was that I had to take Mr. Keyes seriously, for he claimed to speak for my religion, and my God. He claimed knowledge of certain truths.

Mr. Obama says he's a Christian, he was saying, and yet he supports a lifestyle that the Bible calls an abomination.

Mr. Obama says he's a Christian, but supports the destruction of innocent and sacred life.

And so what would my supporters have me say? How should I respond? Should I say that a literalist reading of the Bible was folly? Should I say that Mr. Keyes, who is a Roman Catholic, should ignore the teachings of the Pope?

Unwilling to go there, I answered with what has come to be the typically liberal response in such debates - namely, I said that we live in a pluralistic society, that I can't impose my own religious views on another, that I was running to be the U.S. Senator of Illinois and not the Minister of Illinois.

But Mr. Keyes's implicit accusation that I was not a true Christian nagged at me, and I was also aware that my answer did not adequately address the role my faith has in guiding my own values and my own beliefs.

Now, my dilemma was by no means unique. In a way, it reflected the broader debate we've been having in this country for the last thirty years over the role of religion in politics.

For some time now, there has been plenty of talk among pundits and pollsters that the political divide in this country has fallen sharply along religious lines. Indeed, the single biggest "gap" in party affiliation among white Americans today is not between men and women, or those who reside in so-called Red States and those who reside in Blue, but between those who attend church regularly and those who don't.

Conservative leaders have been all too happy to exploit this gap, consistently reminding evangelical Christians that Democrats disrespect their values and dislike their Church, while suggesting to the rest of the country that religious Americans care only about issues like abortion and gay marriage; school prayer and intelligent design.

Democrats, for the most part, have taken the bait. At best, we may try to avoid the conversation about religious values altogether, fearful of offending anyone and claiming that - regardless of our personal beliefs - constitutional principles tie our hands. At worst, there are some liberals who dismiss religion in the public square as inherently irrational or intolerant, insisting on a caricature of religious Americans that paints them as fanatical, or thinking that the very word "Christian" describes one's political opponents, not people of faith.

Now, such strategies of avoidance may work for progressives when our opponent is Alan Keyes. But over the long haul, I think we make a mistake when we fail to acknowledge the power of faith in people's lives -- in the lives of the American people -- and I think it's time that we join a serious debate about how to reconcile faith with our modern, pluralistic democracy.

And if we're going to do that then we first need to understand that Americans are a religious people. 90 percent of us believe in God, 70 percent affiliate themselves with an organized religion, 38 percent call themselves committed Christians, and substantially more people in America believe in angels than they do in evolution.

This religious tendency is not simply the result of successful marketing by skilled preachers or the draw of popular mega-churches. In fact, it speaks to a hunger that's deeper than that - a hunger that goes beyond any particular issue or cause.

Each day, it seems, thousands of Americans are going about their daily rounds - dropping off the kids at school, driving to the office, flying to a business meeting, shopping at the mall, trying to stay on their diets - and they're coming to the realization that something is missing. They are deciding that their work, their possessions, their diversions, their sheer busyness, is not enough.

They want a sense of purpose, a narrative arc to their lives. They're looking to relieve a chronic loneliness, a feeling supported by a recent study that shows Americans have fewer close friends and confidants than ever before. And so they need an assurance that somebody out there cares about them, is listening to them - that they are not just destined to travel down that long highway towards nothingness.

And I speak with some experience on this matter. I was not raised in a particularly religious household, as undoubtedly many in the audience were. My father, who returned to Kenya when I was just two, was born Muslim but as an adult became an atheist. My mother, whose parents were non-practicing Baptists and Methodists, was probably one of the most spiritual and kindest people I've ever known, but grew up with a healthy skepticism of organized religion herself. As a consequence, so did I.

It wasn't until after college, when I went to Chicago to work as a community organizer for a group of Christian churches, that I confronted my own spiritual dilemma.

I was working with churches, and the Christians who I worked with recognized themselves in me. They saw that I knew their Book and that I shared their values and sang their songs. But they sensed that a part of me that remained removed, detached, that I was an observer in their midst.

And in time, I came to realize that something was missing as well -- that without a vessel for my beliefs, without a commitment to a particular community of faith, at some level I would always remain apart, and alone.

And if it weren't for the particular attributes of the historically black church, I may have accepted this fate. But as the months passed in Chicago, I found myself drawn - not just to work with the church, but to be in the church.

For one thing, I believed and still believe in the power of the African-American religious tradition to spur social change, a power made real by some of the leaders here today. Because of its past, the black church understands in an intimate way the Biblical call to feed the hungry and cloth the naked and challenge powers and principalities. And in its historical struggles for freedom and the rights of man, I was able to see faith as more than just a comfort to the weary or a hedge against death, but rather as an active, palpable agent in the world. As a source of hope.

And perhaps it was out of this intimate knowledge of hardship -- the grounding of faith in struggle -- that the church offered me a second insight, one that I think is important to emphasize today.

Faith doesn't mean that you don't have doubts.

You need to come to church in the first place precisely because you are first of this world, not apart from it. You need to embrace Christ precisely because you have sins to wash away - because you are human and need an ally in this difficult journey.

It was because of these newfound understandings that I was finally able to walk down the aisle of Trinity United Church of Christ on 95th Street in the Southside of Chicago one day and affirm my Christian faith. It came about as a choice, and not an epiphany. I didn't fall out in church. The questions I had didn't magically disappear. But kneeling beneath that cross on the South Side, I felt that I heard God's spirit beckoning me. I submitted myself to His will, and dedicated myself to discovering His truth.

That's a path that has been shared by millions upon millions of Americans - evangelicals, Catholics, Protestants, Jews and Muslims alike; some since birth, others at certain turning points in their lives. It is not something they set apart from the rest of their beliefs and values. In fact, it is often what drives their beliefs and their values.

And that is why that, if we truly hope to speak to people where they're at - to communicate our hopes and values in a way that's relevant to their own - then as progressives, we cannot abandon the field of religious discourse.

Because when we ignore the debate about what it means to be a good Christian or Muslim or Jew; when we discuss religion only in the negative sense of where or how it should not be practiced, rather than in the positive sense of what it tells us about our obligations towards one another; when we shy away from religious venues and religious broadcasts because we assume that we will be unwelcome - others will fill the vacuum, those with the most insular views of faith, or those who cynically use religion to justify partisan ends.

In other words, if we don't reach out to evangelical Christians and other religious Americans and tell them what we stand for, then the Jerry Falwells and Pat Robertsons and Alan Keyeses will continue to hold sway.

More fundamentally, the discomfort of some progressives with any hint of religion has often prevented us from effectively addressing issues in moral terms. Some of the problem here is rhetorical - if we scrub language of all religious content, we forfeit the imagery and terminology through which millions of Americans understand both their personal morality and social justice.

Imagine Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address without reference to "the judgments of the Lord." Or King's I Have a Dream speech without references to "all of God's children." Their summoning of a higher truth helped inspire what had seemed impossible, and move the nation to embrace a common destiny.

Our failure as progressives to tap into the moral underpinnings of the nation is not just rhetorical, though. Our fear of getting "preachy" may also lead us to discount the role that values and culture play in some of our most urgent social problems.

After all, the problems of poverty and racism, the uninsured and the unemployed, are not simply technical problems in search of the perfect ten point plan. They are rooted in both societal indifference and individual callousness - in the imperfections of man.

Solving these problems will require changes in government policy, but it will also require changes in hearts and a change in minds. I believe in keeping guns out of our inner cities, and that our leaders must say so in the face of the gun manufacturers' lobby - but I also believe that when a gang-banger shoots indiscriminately into a crowd because he feels somebody disrespected him, we've got a moral problem. There's a hole in that young man's heart - a hole that the government alone cannot fix.

I believe in vigorous enforcement of our non-discrimination laws. But I also believe that a transformation of conscience and a genuine commitment to diversity on the part of the nation's CEOs could bring about quicker results than a battalion of lawyers. They have more lawyers than us anyway.

I think that we should put more of our tax dollars into educating poor girls and boys. I think that the work that Marian Wright Edelman has done all her life is absolutely how we should prioritize our resources in the wealthiest nation on earth. I also think that we should give them the information about contraception that can prevent unwanted pregnancies, lower abortion rates, and help assure that that every child is loved and cherished.

But, you know, my Bible tells me that if we train a child in the way he should go, when he is old he will not turn from it. So I think faith and guidance can help fortify a young woman's sense of self, a young man's sense of responsibility, and a sense of reverence that all young people should have for the act of sexual intimacy.

I am not suggesting that every progressive suddenly latch on to religious terminology - that can be dangerous. Nothing is more transparent than inauthentic expressions of faith. As Jim has mentioned, some politicians come and clap -- off rhythm -- to the choir. We don't need that.

In fact, because I do not believe that religious people have a monopoly on morality, I would rather have someone who is grounded in morality and ethics, and who is also secular, affirm their morality and ethics and values without pretending that they're something they're not. They don't need to do that. None of us need to do that.

But what I am suggesting is this - secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square. Frederick Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, Williams Jennings Bryant, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King - indeed, the majority of great reformers in American history - were not only motivated by faith, but repeatedly used religious language to argue for their cause. So to say that men and women should not inject their "personal morality" into public policy debates is a practical absurdity. Our law is by definition a codification of morality, much of it grounded in the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Moreover, if we progressives shed some of these biases, we might recognize some overlapping values that both religious and secular people share when it comes to the moral and material direction of our country. We might recognize that the call to sacrifice on behalf of the next generation, the need to think in terms of "thou" and not just "I," resonates in religious congregations all across the country. And we might realize that we have the ability to reach out to the evangelical community and engage millions of religious Americans in the larger project of American renewal.

Some of this is already beginning to happen. Pastors, friends of mine like Rick Warren and T.D. Jakes are wielding their enormous influences to confront AIDS, Third World debt relief, and the genocide in Darfur. Religious thinkers and activists like our good friend Jim Wallis and Tony Campolo are lifting up the Biblical injunction to help the poor as a means of mobilizing Christians against budget cuts to social programs and growing inequality.

And by the way, we need Christians on Capitol Hill, Jews on Capitol Hill and Muslims on Capitol Hill talking about the estate tax. When you've got an estate tax debate that proposes a trillion dollars being taken out of social programs to go to a handful of folks who don't need and weren't even asking for it, you know that we need an injection of morality in our political debate.

Across the country, individual churches like my own and your own are sponsoring day care programs, building senior centers, helping ex-offenders reclaim their lives, and rebuilding our gulf coast in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

So the question is, how do we build on these still-tentative partnerships between religious and secular people of good will? It's going to take more work, a lot more work than we've done so far. The tensions and the suspicions on each side of the religious divide will have to be squarely addressed. And each side will need to accept some ground rules for collaboration.

While I've already laid out some of the work that progressive leaders need to do, I want to talk a little bit about what conservative leaders need to do -- some truths they need to acknowledge.

For one, they need to understand the critical role that the separation of church and state has played in preserving not only our democracy, but the robustness of our religious practice. Folks tend to forget that during our founding, it wasn't the atheists or the civil libertarians who were the most effective champions of the First Amendment. It was the persecuted minorities, it was Baptists like John Leland who didn't want the established churches to impose their views on folks who were getting happy out in the fields and teaching the scripture to slaves. It was the forbearers of the evangelicals who were the most adamant about not mingling government with religious, because they did not want state-sponsored religion hindering their ability to practice their faith as they understood it.

Moreover, given the increasing diversity of America's population, the dangers of sectarianism have never been greater. Whatever we once were, we are no longer just a Christian nation; we are also a Jewish nation, a Muslim nation, a Buddhist nation, a Hindu nation, and a nation of nonbelievers.

And even if we did have only Christians in our midst, if we expelled every non-Christian from the United States of America, whose Christianity would we teach in the schools? Would we go with James Dobson's, or Al Sharpton's? Which passages of Scripture should guide our public policy? Should we go with Leviticus, which suggests slavery is ok and that eating shellfish is abomination? How about Deuteronomy, which suggests stoning your child if he strays from the faith? Or should we just stick to the Sermon on the Mount - a passage that is so radical that it's doubtful that our own Defense Department would survive its application? So before we get carried away, let's read our bibles. Folks haven't been reading their bibles.

This brings me to my second point. Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that their proposals be subject to argument, and amenable to reason. I may be opposed to abortion for religious reasons, but if I seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church or evoke God's will. I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all.

Now this is going to be difficult for some who believe in the inerrancy of the Bible, as many evangelicals do. But in a pluralistic democracy, we have no choice. Politics depends on our ability to persuade each other of common aims based on a common reality. It involves the compromise, the art of what's possible. At some fundamental level, religion does not allow for compromise. It's the art of the impossible. If God has spoken, then followers are expected to live up to God's edicts, regardless of the consequences. To base one's life on such uncompromising commitments may be sublime, but to base our policy making on such commitments would be a dangerous thing. And if you doubt that, let me give you an example.

We all know the story of Abraham and Isaac. Abraham is ordered by God to offer up his only son, and without argument, he takes Isaac to the mountaintop, binds him to an altar, and raises his knife, prepared to act as God has commanded.

Of course, in the end God sends down an angel to intercede at the very last minute, and Abraham passes God's test of devotion.

But it's fair to say that if any of us leaving this church saw Abraham on a roof of a building raising his knife, we would, at the very least, call the police and expect the Department of Children and Family Services to take Isaac away from Abraham. We would do so because we do not hear what Abraham hears, do not see what Abraham sees, true as those experiences may be. So the best we can do is act in accordance with those things that we all see, and that we all hear, be it common laws or basic reason.

Finally, any reconciliation between faith and democratic pluralism requires some sense of proportion.

This goes for both sides.

Even those who claim the Bible's inerrancy make distinctions between Scriptural edicts, sensing that some passages - the Ten Commandments, say, or a belief in Christ's divinity - are central to Christian faith, while others are more culturally specific and may be modified to accommodate modern life.

The American people intuitively understand this, which is why the majority of Catholics practice birth control and some of those opposed to gay marriage nevertheless are opposed to a Constitutional amendment to ban it. Religious leadership need not accept such wisdom in counseling their flocks, but they should recognize this wisdom in their politics.

But a sense of proportion should also guide those who police the boundaries between church and state. Not every mention of God in public is a breach to the wall of separation - context matters. It is doubtful that children reciting the Pledge of Allegiance feel oppressed or brainwashed as a consequence of muttering the phrase "under God." I didn't. Having voluntary student prayer groups use school property to meet should not be a threat, any more than its use by the High School Republicans should threaten Democrats. And one can envision certain faith-based programs - targeting ex-offenders or substance abusers - that offer a uniquely powerful way of solving problems.

So we all have some work to do here. But I am hopeful that we can bridge the gaps that exist and overcome the prejudices each of us bring to this debate. And I have faith that millions of believing Americans want that to happen. No matter how religious they may or may not be, people are tired of seeing faith used as a tool of attack. They don't want faith used to belittle or to divide. They're tired of hearing folks deliver more screed than sermon. Because in the end, that's not how they think about faith in their own lives.

So let me end with just one other interaction I had during my campaign. A few days after I won the Democratic nomination in my U.S. Senate race, I received an email from a doctor at the University of Chicago Medical School that said the following:

"Congratulations on your overwhelming and inspiring primary win. I was happy to vote for you, and I will tell you that I am seriously considering voting for you in the general election. I write to express my concerns that may, in the end, prevent me from supporting you."

The doctor described himself as a Christian who understood his commitments to be "totalizing." His faith led him to a strong opposition to abortion and gay marriage, although he said that his faith also led him to question the idolatry of the free market and quick resort to militarism that seemed to characterize much of the Republican agenda.

But the reason the doctor was considering not voting for me was not simply my position on abortion. Rather, he had read an entry that my campaign had posted on my website, which suggested that I would fight "right-wing ideologues who want to take away a woman's right to choose." The doctor went on to write:

"I sense that you have a strong sense of justice...and I also sense that you are a fair minded person with a high regard for reason...Whatever your convictions, if you truly believe that those who oppose abortion are all ideologues driven by perverse desires to inflict suffering on women, then you, in my judgment, are not fair-minded....You know that we enter times that are fraught with possibilities for good and for harm, times when we are struggling to make sense of a common polity in the context of plurality, when we are unsure of what grounds we have for making any claims that involve others...I do not ask at this point that you oppose abortion, only that you speak about this issue in fair-minded words."

Fair-minded words.

So I looked at my website and found the offending words. In fairness to them, my staff had written them using standard Democratic boilerplate language to summarize my pro-choice position during the Democratic primary, at a time when some of my opponents were questioning my commitment to protect Roe v. Wade.

Re-reading the doctor's letter, though, I felt a pang of shame. It is people like him who are looking for a deeper, fuller conversation about religion in this country. They may not change their positions, but they are willing to listen and learn from those who are willing to speak in fair-minded words. Those who know of the central and awesome place that God holds in the lives of so many, and who refuse to treat faith as simply another political issue with which to score points.

So I wrote back to the doctor, and I thanked him for his advice. The next day, I circulated the email to my staff and changed the language on my website to state in clear but simple terms my pro-choice position. And that night, before I went to bed, I said a prayer of my own - a prayer that I might extend the same presumption of good faith to others that the doctor had extended to me.

And that night, before I went to bed I said a prayer of my own. It's a prayer I think I share with a lot of Americans. A hope that we can live with one another in a way that reconciles the beliefs of each with the good of all. It's a prayer worth praying, and a conversation worth having in this country in the months and years to come. Thank you.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

On Lebanon from the ELCA Bishop

July 17, 2006

I write to you out of my deep sadness and concern regarding the escalating conflict in the Middle East, which has expanded recently into Lebanon. The kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers by Hezbollah militants has caused a severe reaction from Israeli forces. The escalation of the conflict moves the Middle East further away from a just and lasting peace for which we have been praying and working. I continue to call on the international community and the U.S. administration to do everything possible both to negotiate an immediate stop to the violence that has caused the killing and suffering of innocent people and to urge all parties to resolve the conflict through dialogue.

I speak often with Bishop Munib Younan of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land. In our conversation on July 15, 2006, I heard both his deep concern that, as the war spreads, the future of Christianity among Arab people is at risk and his call for our renewed commitment to praying and working for peace.

The ELCA is providing immediate humanitarian relief through the work of the Middle East Council of Churches. I ask ELCA congregations to continue to pray for a just and lasting peace in the Middle East that will bring an end to the pain and misery experienced by all people in the region.

May the God of peace fill our hearts and our world with peace.

The Rev. Mark S. Hanson
Presiding Bishop
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

P.S. Visit on the ELCA Web site to learn how ELCA members and congregations can respond to humanitarian needs in Lebanon through ELCA International Disaster Response; for updates from companions in the region including the Lutheran church in the Holy Land, ELCA missionaries serving there, and Contact Resource Center/Lebanon; and advocacy updates. Congregations interested in issues related to global peace will find the ELCA social statement "For Peace in God's World" (1995) to be a valuable resource for discussion.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Cruzando highlights

I wanted to make a list of our top experiences thus far on this trip:

1. Riding a bus for two days with groups from all over Southern Wisconsin
2. Having Jonathon Rundman sing, by request, his song "Hey Samuel" and dance with our son of the same name
3. Laugh and play cards at midnight with open mic in the background
4. Hear Jim Wallis speak
5. See many friends and co-workers from across the country
6. Get gifted with small trinkets from youth groups
7. See how our youth are challenging themselves to cross borders and journey with Christ
8. Bringing a baby to the youth gathering
9. Everything about the Interaction Center (el Puente)


We've been at the San Antonio youth gathering all week, Cruzando: Journey with Jesus, and so far it has been spectacular. I've gone back and forth over the years about this event. It's kind of expensive for congregations, and takes a lot of preparatory work and energy from congregational youth leaders. It's less expensive to go, say, on a mission trip or to camp.

Nevertheless, as my wife and I walked and talked about it today, we came to the firm conclusion that this youth gathering is worth the time and energy. The youth who have travelled to San Antonio with us are being expose to a range of church and world issues it would be unlikely they would encounter elsewhere. Speakers like Gary Wills and Donald Miller. Presentations on refugee and immigration issues, prayer opportunities with other high school youth, preaching by Tony Campolo, a bible study led by a recent seminary graduate, and so much more. Opportunities to serve, give blood, write advocacy letters, spend time in fellowship.

And these kinds of opportunities aren't just impacting our youth. Close to 40,000 Lutheran high schoolers are encountering Jesus in various ways on this trip in a way that, in the Spirit, they may be enlivened to be messengers of gospel in the world. I think that is worth all the energy we put into it.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Pastor-Theologian Program Reading List

We're reading the following materials for our fall meeting. This year (the 3rd) the readings are particularly interesting.

Marianne Meye Thompson, A Commentary on Colossians and Philemon, 2005. We'll be reading Colossians all year as our Grundtext .

Catherine Keller, God and Power: Counter-Apocalyptic Journeys, 2005. Keller was one of those theologians I read in seminary who knocked the top of my head off. She's what you'd call post-foundationalist, feminist discursive, or any of a number of other apt titles. What she is is endlessly engaging, even if you don't agree with all her insights.

Michael Welker, God the Spirit, 1994. This was another great book from seminary, although I'm not sure it is as convincing as other pneumatological proposals I've read since.

I've also already begun reading one of our winter meeting books, John Webster's Holiness (2003). It's as if he were channeling Barth's prose. I'm not sure whether that is a good or a bad thing. In any event, it is brief.

What are y'all reading this summer?

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Matthew 7

21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.
22 On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’
23 Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.’

I've got a t-shirt with a photo of two blithe spirits smiling at the camera, and the caption reads, "We're all going to hell!" I'll post it as a jpeg in another post. In any event, this brief sermon of Jesus always reminds me of the shirt. If anything, we are far too glib about our "being saved," "going to heaven," the promise of a sweet by and by. We're too glib about this on two levels. First of all, most of us simply assume we are saved. There's no question in our minds that our sins are of such a magnitude, or that God could be so discerning, that we ourselves are not among the elect.

Second, we're glib because we don't tremble at the thought of our salvation, that we have been saved from something. If we were to live daily and hourly with the knowledge that we have been saved from something (think of Edward's "Sinners" sermon and the dangling spider), would we live so absent-mindedly. Would we not always be rejoicing at having been saved from, and in anticipation of what we've been saved to?

There is, according to Christ, the very real possibility that we have been worshipping a Lord we called Christ, and thought was him, when in fact the Lord we had as Lord was a Lord of our own invention. The real Jesus didn't know us, because we were off courting some other false Lord.

So, we are called here to stop and think carefully. Are we worshipping the one true Lord, the Jesus of the creed, the Christ who desires that we do the will of the Father. And how would we know? How can we be sure?

There are good answers to these questions, but our devotion for today invites us to remain with the question for a while, to remain shocked and incredulous, wiping the silly grin from our face.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

we'll be there next week

we'll be there next week
Originally uploaded by perichoresis.

Lutheran Confessions Featured in The Lutheran

Apparently The Lutheran has decided to feature my blog in an article entitled The Buzz About Lutheran Blogs. I'm not sure whether it is in the print edition or not...

Jan Hus

On July 6, 1415 John Hus was martyred at the Council of Constance.

Protestants have a funny relationship to saints, I guess. So, for example, this from a sermon by Johannes Bugenhagen:

"one hundred years after the death of the holy John Hus (who was killed for the sake of the truth in the year 1415), just as John Hus himself prophesied before his death about a future swan. Hus means "goose" in the Bohemian language. "You are now roasting a goose," (says John Hus), "but God will awaken a swan whom you will not burn or roast." And as they shouted much against him, which he could not answer, he supposedly said: "After one hundred years I will answer you." He has done that uprightly through our dear father, Dr. Luther, and has begun it precisely in the one-hundred-and-first year." (A Christian sermon over the body and at the funeral of the venerable Dr. Martin Luther, preached by Mr. Johann Bugenhagen Pomeranus, doctor and pastor of the churches in Wittenberg. Printed in Wittenberg by Georg Rhau, in the year 1546)

As a former missionary in Slovakia, and a died in the wool Lutheran, there is a special place in my heart for Jan Hus. His witness is remembered.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006


Prov. 27:14 Whoever blesses a neighbor with a loud voice,
rising early in the morning,
will be counted as cursing.

Who says the Bible isn't funny? In the days of frequent fireworks, early lawnmowers, and media that never sleeps, this is a good word. It reminds me of something a professor once said, "If you ask somebody in the grocery store if they've accepted Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior, you're not doing evangelism. You're probably just being annoying."

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Mark 12

1Then he began to speak to them in parables. ‘A man planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a pit for the wine press, and built a watch-tower; then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. 2When the season came, he sent a slave to the tenants to collect from them his share of the produce of the vineyard. 3But they seized him, and beat him, and sent him away empty-handed. 4And again he sent another slave to them; this one they beat over the head and insulted. 5Then he sent another, and that one they killed. And so it was with many others; some they beat, and others they killed. 6He had still one other, a beloved son. Finally he sent him to them, saying, “They will respect my son.” 7But those tenants said to one another, “This is the heir; come, let us kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.” 8So they seized him, killed him, and threw him out of the vineyard. 9What then will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others. 10Have you not read this scripture:
“The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone;*
11this was the Lord’s doing,
and it is amazing in our eyes”?’

The set-up for this parable is an absentee landlord. At least from my point of view, absentee landlords are generally not the most favorable characters, or are usually not portrayed as such (there are likely exceptions). Since they don't know the community well, and often don't care about the community apart from the wealth they can glean from it, well...

But Jesus' parable make express comparison between God and an absentee landlord. What should we do with such a comparison? Well, for one, keep reading the parable. The tenants are about as unrealistic as the comparison is, for the tenants believe the completely unlikely (let's say impossible) possibility that if they kill the son, they will inherit the vineyard. What a ridiculous conjecture!

So, first God as absentee landlord, powerful enough to exact vengeance on the tenants, lenient enough to keep sending slaves, and finally a son. Second, tenants as complete fools, killing the son in anticipation of inheriting.

And then, the radical radicality beyond everything conceivable, God does not do what the parable teaches!!! Instead, the tenants who killed the son do inherit the vineyard. But not on their own terms. Only by becoming part of the life and death of this son. Only by becoming his friends, his brothers and sisters.

The parable functions as a kind of via negativa, at least to this reader.

A Patriotic Essay

An appropriately patriotic essay for this day of independence, a piece that reminds us both what we celebrate, and the true cost of what we mostly make as festival. Thank you, Wendell Berry, for continuing to remind us of who we truly are called to be.