Thursday, November 30, 2006

Advent and Luke

Biblical scholar Raymond Brown suggested that we begin Advent by reflecting on the meaning of gospel and by introducing the Gospel that will be the center of the new liturgical year that starts the first Sunday of Advent. So one way to preach on an admittedly difficult text, namely the gospel reading for this Sunday, is to look at it in context as the chapter between Christ's life and preaching, and the beginning of the crucifixion narrative. If it seems odd for Advent to include this reading about "the coming of the Son of Man", then it is also at first glance odd that it would precede his crucifixion.

Themes to highlight and relate in this Advent season? Hope, Luke's particular approach to the "kingdom of God", the presence of women and unique "saints", compassion, prayer, care for the poor, a somewhat apocalyptic approach, and the "catholic" intent of the gospel- a message for all people, born out by its continuance in a 2nd document, the Acts of the Apostles...

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Advent as Little Lent

One way of practicing Advent is as a "little Lent." This has been the practice in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, for example. Fasting has often been involved. Both are also seasons of "preparation" and "anticipation." There is a sense in which Advent is also penitential.

This 15th century Russian icon of the Nativity can also help us with the comparison. Many icons of the nativity of Christ include references to Christ's death. He is born in swaddling clothes/burial shroud. He is born in a manger/crypt. He is born in a cave for animals/tomb with a stone. Mary attends him at his birth and in his death. The iconography of the church has helped maintain the clear theological parallel of incarnation/crucifixion. The creed keeps the two close as well: "He was born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried."

The levels of resonance during the Advent season are almost too much to bear. There are all of these that I've mentioned, but also many more. The Advent season itself bears the weight of doubling anticipation, with texts on the "second coming" while adventing the first.

Add to all this the cultural weight of the season. Warding off winter by way of shopping, merry-making, and gift-giving. All those little traditions, like Advent calendars, Christmas décor, and Santa. If Advent is a little Lent, it is yet heavy.

In the spirit of Advent as a little Lent, I am undertaking a few disciplines:

1) Reading only Scripture and commentaries- no other reading.
2) Simplifying, no shopping, except towards the end of giving thoughtful gifts.
3) Attending to my responsibility to give of my wealth to those in need, to the poor.
4) Eating together with our congregation each Wednesday, and praying Vespers together.
5) Meditating on icons, and praying, especially the Jesus Prayer, "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me, a poor sinner."

Thursday, November 23, 2006

The Margate Exodus

The Margate Exodus is a contemporary retelling of the exodus narrative. The web site has some fascinating reflections on exodus, but one of the most interesting things about the movie is the soundtrack- they commissed ten musicians (some of my favorites, including Magnetic field, Rufus Wainwright, and Imogen Heap) to write songs on the 10 plagues!

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Simplify the Holidays

Simplify the Holidays! It's the kind of cliché that needs constant tending, and is cliché only because we refuse its gravity.

Christians and Walls

I'm reproducing this article from ELCA NEWS SERVICE. This is fascinating- Christians should care deeply about walls, and it is good to know we are organizing to confess about them. Also, a good friend and Luther classmate is the author of the article and the blog.

November 21, 2006

ELCA Conference Explores Christian Responses to Walls, Barriers

WITTENBERG, Germany (ELCA) -- Fifty church and civic leaders
from Germany, Mexico, Palestinian territory in Israel and the
United States gathered Nov. 8-14 here and in Berlin for a
conference exploring Christian responses to walls. More than a
dozen presenters shared their perspectives on walls or barriers
in their contexts -- the Berlin Wall, the separation barrier
being erected in Palestinian territory and the proposed extension
of the barrier along the U.S.-Mexico border.
"Mighty Fortresses and Mustard Seeds: Life in the Shadow of
a Wall" was sponsored by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in
America (ELCA) Network of International Learning Centers, ELCA
Global Mission, ELCA Vocation and Education and the Evangelical
Academy of Sachsen-Anhalt.
Conference participants discussed the church's role in
breaking down visible and invisible walls.
The Rev. Murray D. Finck, bishop of ELCA Pacifica Synod,
Yorba Linda, Calif., said participants should listen to "what the
voice of God and the Word of God say to us today about the
brokenness" caused by walls in the world. "If we don't look at
these problems theologically with those who are examining it from
economic and sociological perspectives, the voice of the church
is silent," said Finck.
The conference began in Berlin, where participants observed
the 17th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Participants heard from German civic and church leaders, who
described the German church and its role as a force for peaceful
resistance that mobilized hundreds of thousands in 1989 on the
road to Germany's unification. One German participant stated
that the church did a lot more than pray for the wall to fall:
"Prayer (was) important, but in Germany the wall came down due to
spectacular activity" on the part of the church.
A pastor in the former East Berlin, the Rev. Manfred
Fischer, declared that during the Cold War "local politics became
world politics all of a sudden," because his church lay directly
on the dividing line between East and West. The Church of the
Reconciliation was demolished by the East German government on
Jan. 28, 1985, "a day when we lost hope because we lost our
But less than five years later the wall fell and
congregation members gained new hope. They built a chapel using
rubble from the old church. "We can't forget what happened, but
we can't turn the clock back either," said Fischer.
The conference then moved to Wittenberg, the historic heart
of the Lutheran Reformation. Presenters compared the Berlin Wall
to the barrier in Palestinian territory and the barrier along the
U.S.-Mexico border, examining similarities and differences of
"life in the shadow of a wall" in each context.
The Rev. Said R. Ailabouni, director, Europe and Middle East
program, ELCA Global Mission, said: "How do we express ourselves
as Christians with regard to the wall in Palestine? We insist
that God calls us to be peacemakers. We are committed to peace,
not walls."
Several Palestinian Christians examined the Israeli wall's
impact from economic, societal, urban planning and political
perspectives. They described how it cuts off Palestinians from
access to water, farmland, trade, health care and education.
"This wall puts us in a big prison," said Victor Batarseh, mayor
of Bethlehem.
In the area surrounding Bethlehem, the barrier is a 30-foot
high wall. According to a May 2006 report of the U.N. Office for
the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 225 of the 437 miles
planned for the West Bank barrier have been constructed; 26 miles
are concrete wall and 199 miles are electric fence with ditches
and patrol roads.
Dr. Bernard Sabella, a Roman Catholic and a member of the
Palestinian Legislative Council, said that the wall has been
presented as a way to stop suicide bombings and reduce Israeli
incursions into Palestinian territory. He said, "You cannot
banish Palestinians within their own land in the name of
The Palestinian Christians called for justice, asking that
the international community uphold United Nations resolutions and
the International Court of Justice ruling in July 2004 against
the separation barrier. In 2005 the ELCA Churchwide Assembly
established the "Peace Not Walls" campaign to advocate for the
removal of the barrier.
The Rev. Munib A. Younan, bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran
Church in Jordan and the Holy Land, Jerusalem, stated in a letter
read to conference participants, "The wall that is surrounding us
in Palestine is growing every day into a tighter concrete noose
around our cities, towns, homes and churches." Younan wrote that
he is opposed to violence on all sides. "In the face of
oppression and violence, we are called to be prophets for
justice, instruments of peace, voices of hope, and hands of
healing and reconciliation."
Palestinian participants presented ways they are providing
alternatives to violence and hopelessness, witnessing to
Palestinian youth and reaching out to international partners with
a message of peace. Rana Khoury, deputy general director of the
International Center of Bethlehem (ICB), said ICB programs
address the wall's isolating effects on young Palestinians. "We
work with a lot of young people with art, music, multimedia.
These are very important tools to break the isolation that is
being imposed on (them), and at the same time (they) connect with
the rest of the world."
The conference focus then shifted toward the wall proposed
by the U.S. government in the Secure Fence Act of 2006, which
would extend a barrier along more than 700 miles of the nearly
2,000 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border.
The Rev. Kim Erno, ELCA program director of the Lutheran
Center in Mexico City, introduced a set of presentations that
included photography, film, cultural and historical analysis, and
personal testimony. Erno asked whether the $8 billion needed to
extend the barrier on the border would be better invested in the
lives of the poor, who suffer in their attempt to cross over to
the United States.
Mexican filmmakers Pablo Gleason Gonzalez and Armando
Villegas Contreras presented a documentary, "Borders: Walls and
Immigrants." The film showed the dangers associated with
crossing into the desert regions of the border, which has
resulted in the deaths of more than 4,000 immigrants in the past
five years, the economic pressures that drive Mexicans north, and
the arguments surrounding the border.
Dr. Olivia Ruiz, cultural anthropologist at El Colegio de la
Frontera Norte in Tijuana, Mexico, presented a history of U.S.
border policy, pointing out the push-pull factors that drive
immigration: the U.S. "economic addiction" to cheap Mexican labor
mixed with increasing poverty and desperation in Mexico.
The conference ended with members of each country's
delegation gathering to strategize and plan next steps for action
in their home country.
The Rev. Terry K. Boggs challenged the group to take on big
issues boldly. "What I'd like you to be about is imagining a new
future. We will not solve the world's problems, but dare we not
take this moment in time with the Spirit moving among us to do
the best we can?" said Boggs, director for congregation-based
community organizing, ELCA Church in Society.
The Palestinian delegation sought to build awareness through
sharing narratives and exchanging experiences, to promote
nonviolent resistance, to encourage church involvement
internationally, and to provide services for those who are
suffering because of the separation barrier.
The Mexican delegation denounced economic policies that
increase Mexico's dependence on the United States.
The Germans focused on raising awareness and engaging the
German church more fully.
The U.S. delegation focused on ways to better advocate for
comprehensive immigration reform and increase support for the
Peace Not Walls campaign.
More conference information and interviews with participants
are available at on the Web.

* Ben McDonald Coltvet is associate director for
interpretation and planning, ELCA Communication Services.

For information contact:
John Brooks, Director (773) 380-2958 or
ELCA News Blog:

Download this as a file

Sunday, November 19, 2006


Advent is the beginning of the end of all in us that is not yet Christ.

-- Thomas Merton

Friday, November 17, 2006

Stranger Than Fiction

We have always had a preference for arty/indie movies. At least in principle. One of our mini-vacations each year is to the Wisconsin Film Festival- last year we saw nine movies in four days.

But certain life circumstances seem to affect us as movie-goers, and our once capacious appetite for indie cinema is replaced by the simple desire to see a relatively good movie, lightly entertaining, while eating a large bucket of popcorn.

Last night we watched Stranger Than Fiction at the theatre. It was really quite good. Some great acting, especially Emma Thompson and Dustin Hoffman. Maggie and Will were cute together as well.

As we were driving home from the movie, after we got done discussing the pop philosophical implications of life created by art/art influencing life, we suddenly realized that throughout the movie, there were veiled references to past Dustin Hoffman movies. So, for example, Hoffman, who is an English professor, has a small side job as the faculty lifeguard (The Graduate). He asks Will Ferrell why he counted all the tiles on the bathroom floor (Rain Man). He tells Ferrell that he has to die, because that's the way it is in a tragedy, the hero dies but the art lives on forever (Death of a Salesman). He's eating and drinking coffee all the time, which is probably another movie. Anyway, feel free to play the game with me. How many references to Dustin Hoffman movies are there in Stranger Than Fiction ?

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Conversations With Poppi About God

Let's all conspire to get Conversations with Poppi: An Eight-Year-Old and Her Theologian Grandfather Trade Questions, co-written by Robert W. Jenson and Solveig Lucia Gold, for the Sunday school teachers, parents, and child caregivers and faith leaders in our lives. It's wonderful.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Sufjan Stevens Christmas

Sufjan Stevens is now doing a Christmas boxed set that I covet. The link allows you to stream the EPs.

The Pastor A Spirituality Reminder

Just a reminder that you can view a discussion of Gordon Lathrop's new book at

Turning the Widow's Mite narrative back on the preacher

This is an article I read in preparation for preaching tomorrow, and good and necessary word...

Virtual Virtuosity (Mark 12:38-44)

by Robin R. Meyers

Robin R. Meyers is senior minister of Mayflower Congregational Church of Oklahoma City (UCC) and professor of communication studies at Oklahoma City University. This article appeared in The Christian Century, November 1, 2000 p. 1109. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.

My favorite Kierkegaardian parable is called "The Man Who Walked Backwards." The Danish philosopher was particularly hard on religious professionals, and claimed that inconsistent behaviors most often accompany exorbitant professions of good intentions:

When a man turns his back upon someone and walks away, it is so easy to see that he walks away, but when a man hits upon a method of turning his face towards the one he is walking away from, hits upon a method of walking backwards while with appearance and glance and salutations he greets the person, giving assurances again and again that he is coming immediately, or incessantly saying "Here I am" -- although he gets farther and farther away by walking backward -- then it is not so easy to become aware. And so it is with the one who, rich in good intentions and quick to promise, retreats backwards farther and farther from the good.

For Kierkegaard, what mattered most was the gulf between concept and capacity. And who is most susceptible to this confusion? Why, church leaders, of course, who are not only paid to be virtuous, but are expected to talk about it all the time.

After all, how does one become gracious? By reading a good book on the subject? Perhaps by appointing a committee to study graciousness and pass a resolution? And what about mercy and forgiveness? Can this ever be a calculated behavior, something you decide to "do today," part of what the power-of-positive-thinking folks call a "life strategy"?

The most insidious thing about being a "parson" (the person) who agrees to be on display as an example of what the gospel actually does to a person is that an insidious, largely subconscious form of compensation begins to produce a kind of "virtual virtuosity" The performance becomes the product. We must be a caring person, we think to ourselves -- after all, we are always recommending it. We must be sensitive, patient and kind, because we just finished a sermon series on all three, and lots of people have requested copies.

This means that Jesus was warning people to beware of folks like me -- and perhaps you. We do indeed like to walk around in long robes and be greeted with respect in the marketplaces. We like to have the best seats wherever we go, and we do devour the houses of widows -- especially if they are rich, and in a mood to name our church in their will.

For the sake of appearances we do say long prayers. When given a chance to pray before our colleagues, we often feel the need to cover every cause, name every country, and in a marathon of self-righteousness, write every last vestige of prayerfulness out of prayer by making it not a moment to confess dependence and gratitude, but the closing argument of a self-nominated saint. No wonder Jesus preferred the prayer of the publican. At least God was the intended audience.

As for the widow’s mite, we have praised her devotion a zillion times, but none of us really wants a whole congregation full of generously self-sacrificing poor people, do we? This is a wonderful idea, but a disaster for the annual budget. We are much more likely to pray for people who give more abundantly out of their abundance than to praise the person who gives us a truly heroic pittance. Let’s hear it for "large sums in the treasury." This is you and me he’s talking about.

Whatever else may be true about this text, we are the intended audience -- you and me. Because what could be stranger than to live the upwardly mobile life while preaching the downwardly mobile gospel? Or preen like peacocks when we gather for festivals of righteousness, and fear being passed over when the names of the beautiful people are read aloud?

Why have some mega-churches blurred the line between worship and entertainment? Dare we ask why anyone needs Christian aerobics? And when did prayers of confession begin to seem morbid? When did liturgies of contrition and dependence become examples of negative thinking? And when did sanctuaries become auditoriums with an orchestra pit but no cross -- to serenade people with wholesome and charismatic infomercials for Jesus? This is you and me he’s talking about.

There is hope, of course. For all of us who dress up and profess the faith for a living, there ends up being one rather simple but critical decision to make. Either we role-play the faith until we acquire more of it, trapping ourselves with our own words. Or we let our appearances "stand in" for the real thing, until gradually we become unrecognizable in the pulpit, especially to those who love us.

No one expects us to be perfect (that’s an easy out). But they do expect us to be better than average. Otherwise, this text is too close for comfort, and Kierkegaard knew it: "In the magnificent cathedral the Honorable and Right Reverend Geheime-General-Ober-Hof-Pradikant, the elect favorite of the fashionable world, appears before an elect company and preaches with emotion upon the text he himself elected: ‘God hath elected the base things of the world, and the things that are despised.’ And nobody laughs."

Thursday, November 09, 2006


If I was a real go-getter, I should have written approximately 20,000 words of the novel already. As it is, I've written 6000. So I'm behind. It may be the case that I'll find a large block of time to write a whole bunch all at once... but one should not rely on such things.

Why is it that writing brings out the sloth in me?

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Didn't Know This about Luther Until Today

In the winter semester of 1513-1514, in preparation for his first lectures on the Psalms, Luther "wanted each of his students to have a copy of the scriptural text to consult. He therefore instructed Johannes Grunenberg, the printer for the university to produce an edition of the Psalter with wide margins and lots of white space between the lines. Here the students would reproduce Luther's own glosses and commentary, and perhaps (who knows?) they would have room for their own exegetical reflections as well. At all events Luther produced for his students something like a modern, as opposed to a medieval, text of the Bible--its modernity consisting precisely in the white space around the text" (Gerald Bruns, Hermeneutics Ancient and Modern, pp. 139-140).

This in contradistinction to the Glossa Ordinaria common in Luther's day that had the text of Scripture surrounded by commentaries of the Church Fathers.

So, one aspect of the Reformation was white space. Hmm...

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

All Saints and Novel Ideas

A blessed All Saints day to all of us who have not been canonized, yet find moments where we no longer live, but Christ lives in us.

And we remember all those who have completed their baptismal journeys.

This month begins the writing of the novel. Anyone want to read and review draft segments of the novel here on the blog?