Thursday, February 26, 2015

The Poverty of Theology in Face of Mass For-Profit Incarceration

"During his only visit to America, theologian Karl Barth in 1962 visited three prisons: Bridewell House of Correction in Chicago, San Quentin in California, and Rikers Island in New York. He called Bridewell 'Dante's inferno on earth' and said it was a contradiction of the wonderful message on the Statue of Liberty. Barth wondered aloud why theologians weren't denouncing the deplorable conditions in American prisons, calling on Reinhold Niebuhr in particular" (Christian Century, March 4, 2015)

Unfortunately this denunciation still applies to most contemporary theologians, and really the church in general. I have trouble thinking of a more clear sign of the bankruptcy of Christian faith in the United States than the lack of attention we give both in our practice and in our theology to the fact that we have become, by a wide margin, the largest incarceration culture and country in the world.

I am proud of the ELCA, because we adopted a social statement on Criminal Justice in 2013. It is not only a great social statement, but one of the more original theological proposals from our denomination in the last decade.

LIRS also does quite a bit advocating against unjust detention of families and children. Their backgrounder on the topic is helpful and illuminating:

One of the best on-line pieces I have read on the theology of mass incarceration is "Towards a Black-Womanist Theology of Mass Incarceration."

We have a long, long way to go. If we are serious about our faith, we will not allow our culture to do what it is attempting to do: to incarcerate millions of our neighbors in facilities shunted off and away from society, and to the financial benefit of for-profit prison corporations.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Why it's so hard to grow up

I had the honor of sharing lunch yesterday at a lovely little micro-brewery in our neighborhood ( with three charter members of our congregation. They helped establish an LCA congregation in Fayetteville in 1967, and remain faithful and integral members of our congregation to this day.

As we sat and talked, I realized two things. First, it was a table replete with spiritual maturity. These three had learned from and grown through their life experiences. They had perspective. On the way out the door after lunch, the last thing I heard:

"Clint, keep your eyes on the horizon, and remember, it is in front of you, and behind you."

Mid-way through the lunch, I heard:

"We stayed away from church for a while because of all the judges. Then we realized we were hurting ourselves more than the judges by staying away, so we came back."

After lunch, I kept pondering... what is it about some people that they grow and mature through their life experiences, while others don't? 

It's simply true that not everyone ages well. Some people end bitter, immature, judgmental, and hopeless. Others end joyous, mature, gracious, and hopeful.


Clearly we don't just mature automatically through our life experiences. We mature because of the ways we process what we have experienced. We need the right tools, the right perspective, the right mentality, to mature and end well.

Even with the best tools, there are still no guarantees. If Scripture witnesses to anything at all about maturity in human beings, it is that there are no guarantees. Even the greatest and most faithful sometimes end poorly.

A few years back, I had the pleasure of spending a week with Terry Walling at Fuller Theological Seminary in a class on Organic Leadership Development. Walling introduced me to a concept in Scripture I hadn't considered, the issue of Finishing Well.

Walling, a student of J. Robert Clinton's work on leadership in the Bible, notes that only about 1 in 3 leaders in Scripture finishes well. There are so many barriers, so many temptations, and Scripture is full of reports of how leaders fail to finish well.

Some Christians (unfortunately, especially Lutherans) think there isn't any growing up to do at all. Justification, new life in Christ, comes as a whole cloth, as a gift. It's all about simply receiving this  in faith.

As a result, lots of Lutheran congregations (and I assume other congregations of other traditions also) don't necessarily know how to answer the question, "What does spiritual maturity look like? And what do we need to do to attain it?"

In fact, just try this out. Ask a group of pastors or faith leaders to define spiritual growth and how to achieve it. It's an intriguing experiment, because there will typically be a very long pause, and then some rather diverse answers.

You will of course get some typical responses: We grow through worship, through Bible study, through prayer, through meditation. And in fact, these are rather good resources for spiritual growth. People really do grow by worshipping together, by reading Scripture, by praying, by meditating.

But then again, none of these are guarantees. I know older adults who have sat through the liturgy their entire lives, heard Scripture read each week, and still don't have a strong sense of Scripture in their hearts and minds. It's as if they heard the Bible all those years but never really HEARD it.

So too quite a lot depends on how we pray, and the what of prayer. Quite a lot of our maturity depends on the KIND of community we spend time with.

This year, we have four adults preparing for baptism at our Easter Vigil. I tend to think one of the best measures of the quality of Christian community is centered around this--how many adults are drawn to baptism into the community?

But then we do have to ask ourselves (because those who are being baptized do ask), what kind of community are we welcoming adults into through the waters of baptism? How will they be formed? What kinds of formation are we ourselves committed to?

I think in addition to the classic practices of the faith tradition listed above, to really grow up into Christ we also need to think about the meaning of human growth. On this measure, growth looks like forgiveness, an ability to understand the world through the eyes of others, generosity of spirit, self-sacrificial love, skills to address the mental demands of modern life.

I'm intrigued by Robert Kegan's notion of a fourth order way of thinking about the world. Sometimes I suspect that we assume in the Christian church that faith development ends in childhood. We focus so much energy on Sunday school and confirmation and youth programs (all of which are important), but as adults we invest our energy in the formation of our children without considering how our own growth and development is a continuing model for children.

We know from basic research that children, for example, are more likely to stay involved in faith communities as adults not because they went to Sunday school, but because they saw adults in their lives model continuing growth. They watched their parents read the Bible, for example.

Kegan believes there are some more developmental stages adults are called to go through in the modern world, and this means as we go through them, we will once again read Scripture, or engage our faith, differently than we did as children. We are called to move beyond adolescent understandings of the faith.

Too many adults are surprised by some basic insights into their faith that shouldn't have been surprising. Consider the great podcast from Homebrewed Christianity, 10 Not-So-Shocking Things You Learn in Religion 101.

I think some adults are surprised by these insights because they assume the worldview they adopted as adolescents is the one they can happily maintain for the remainder of their adulthood. Instead of applying what they learn, the wider conceptual frameworks they apply in other contexts such as work or family, they would prefer to keep a static faith through life.

But rigid things break easily, and this is precisely what happens to many adults. Their frozen faith shatters when it encounters questions or modern challenges.

It takes continuing creative work to develop a robust faith that helps people finish well. The older adults I know who maintain a lively faith into their 80s and 90s typically are avid readers, keep painting or doing art, journal, volunteer their time, take long walks, and ask questions.

Perhaps the single most important thing we can do if we want to grow up is to keep this mind--that we are constantly growing up. We've never gotten there. A commitment to continuing growth will do more than anything else to ensure that such growth happens.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

How do Lutherans read the Bible?

Perhaps all differences between denominations and religious movements in Christianity boil down to differences in how we read Scripture. So the issue of hermeneutics, which appears esoteric, is actually core to everything, from doctrine to ethics to the shape of the church.

In fact, I might argue that although Christians appear to differ on all kinds of things, ultimately all these differences arise at their basic point from differences in approaches to reading the Bible (hermeneutics).

So let's say we wanted to spell out the particular way Lutherans read the Bible over against other traditions. Is there a peculiar Lutheran hermeneutic?

If I were to answer this question, I think I would first respond by saying Lutherans read the Bible as promise, over against many traditions that read it more legalistically. In other words, the Bible is first of all a word of promissory address (God is favorably disposed towards you and all creation) rather than a handbook for living (do this or die).

I prefer this center for a Lutheran hermeneutic because, as Gregory Walter argues in Being Promised, promise is a "weak power that gives possibility directed toward the neighbor. It is open to public criticism and evaluation. Promise occupies no place and gives the place to the neighbor, requiring a radical kind of hospitality."

Scripture then if it is promise is first of all God's promise, God's way of being a weak power (the cross) in the world that is directed toward neighbor love. It does not need to enforce its power, in a fundamentalist posture, because instead Scripture as promise is a space of radical hospitality. Scripture is, in this sense, open to challenge, questions, comparison with other religious texts, doubt, discussion, internal and external critique, and more.

Which is of course the second way Lutherans read the Bible, as one witness to God's economic activity in the world, but not the sole or exclusive or authoritarian one. Lutherans, like many other Christians, also read the Bible in conversation with the wider "quadrilaterals" of religious authority--Scripture, reason, tradition, and experience (the Wesleyan version), or Scripture, creeds, sacraments, episcopate (the Chicago-Lambeth version).

Although some Lutherans probably think they rely solely on the Word of God (sola scriptura), even the most ardent Word-aloner still actually relies on things like reason, experience, the liturgy, and the creeds, or the confessions themselves, in interplay with Scripture. Lutherans acknowledge the dynamic and developmental nature of all reading of Scripture, which is a third way Lutherans read Scripture. Lutherans notice that even Scripture has doctrinal development occurring as it is composed and collected, and are not afraid of this fact, because they learn from Scripture itself the extent to which Scripture is a counter-testimony at times to Scripture itself.

This is the fourth way Lutherans tend to read Scripture, the classic Latin being Scriptura sui ipsuis interpres, Scripture interprets Scripture. Sometimes this phrase is taken up again in a rather fundamentalist posture, but it needn't be. All it really means is that some of our best tools for understanding more difficult passages in Scripture are in other passages of Scripture. And our measure for weighing the relative value of specific passages in Scripture is the wider arc of Scripture's narrative itself.

One example. Scripture never directly condemns slavery. But Christian readers over the centuries have noticed the general disposition of Scripture taking up the inherent value of all people, so most readers of Scripture today believe they learn from Scripture that slavery is inherently sinful, a betrayal of the image of God in all of humanity.

This leads us to the fifth way Lutherans tend to read Scripture. We read it with Christ at the center. Scripture does not replace Christ in our faith. It is not our savior. It is not the living, bodily presence of God's Word in the world. That is Christ himself. In this sense, if we were to compare Christian doctrine to Islam, for example, the parallel for Scripture in Islam is not the Qur'an, but Mohammad, because Mohammad dictates the Qur'an, he is the vehicle through which readers met the Word of God, but he is not to be confused with the Qur'an itself.

Quite a lot of the way the Bible is read in Christianity today Lutherans are troubled by, because it assumes that the Bible is the Word of God itself, rather than the cradle in which Christ lies, the space in which Christ is met. This brings us to a sixth way Lutherans read the Bible--against idolatry, including and especially against the idolatry of Scripture itself. Lutherans know that fundamental to almost every thing in Scripture is the temptation to place other things above God, especially when we encounter God in Christ.

In point of fact, when Christ is encountered as recorded in the gospels, idolatry is so strong the only thing to do upon encountering the real God is to kill him.

Lutherans tend to also read the Bible in the plain sense. Rather than looking for special hidden meanings, or allegorical interpretations, or numerological insights, Lutherans read the Bible as the original readers would have understood it. One of the best examples of this is the way Lutherans read Revelation. Whereas a popular reading of Revelation today is to assume it tells us how to interpret contemporary news, as if it were a prophecy of the end times happening right now, Lutherans will read Revelation for what it was and is--a set of letters offering consolation to seven small churches in seven cities across the Mediterranean.

If this was the plain sense for the original readers, the next job of a Lutheran hermeneutic is to ask, "What can we hear God speak to us through this text, given what it spoke to the original recipients of the letters, and to John as the one who first received the vision?"

This is what we mean by inspiration. This is a word that was received by the original communities as an inspired word from God in which they encountered God's promises in Christ. It has now been passed on to us, and we believe the Spirit is up to something when we read it faithfully in this way.

Finally, it must be said that one way Lutherans tend to read Scripture is "not often enough." Many traditions who hold radically different hermeneutics may be guilty of theological errors, but one thing they get right. They try to read the Bible enough that the stories of the Bible inhabit them and their lives, and shape them in substantive ways.

Lutherans have the opportunity to, if they wish, not simply read Scripture, but to be read by it. And that is an excellent Lutheran hermeneutic.

For a couple of resources on the "how to" of reading the Bible, visit:

Monday, February 16, 2015

We're just going to focus on the gospel

One of the more significant Christian heresies, promulgated especially by the privileged, is the notion that one can just focus on "the gospel," as if it didn't apply, and even take sides, in matters of life in the world. If God's Word is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, then surely it isn't some soft and comfy thing that we all get to hug Sunday morning because it only softly connects. The gospel has contour, and outline, and shape, and it looks like the poor, and the hungry, and the victim. And it is ready to rumble.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Another Open Letter to the LGBTQ Community

Bishop Mike Rinehart of the Gulf Coast Synod posted a lovely letter this week, An Open Letter to the LGBT Community. In it he expresses sentiments I share. I love his invitation to the LGBT community to risk participation in an imperfect church. I love his statement of welcome, and his stand against discrimination.

His letter reminds me of the widely viewed video by the previous bishop of our denomination, Mark Hanson.

So I agree with both of these leaders, and I'd like to add one more thing. You are welcome. It does get better. And.

You are beautiful.

More than once, I have learned from others who have considered visiting our church or any church, how difficult it is for them to believe that they are truly welcomed. Yes, the church might post a welcome sign near the driveway. And the church won't exclude anyone from coming in.

But once they are in, many communities then exclude those included in other ways. Sometimes the inclusion is designed to welcome somebody in so the person can be changed. Typically this welcome is designed in order to make the person more like the people already present. Or they are welcome to the church, but excluded from certain roles, or certain ministries.

A friend once shared how many times it took her to get up the nerve to actually visit a new Lutheran church for the first time. She is African-American. She knew the church was predominately white. So even if the community intended to be welcoming, it was difficult for her to trust that.

No wonder something like the Black is Beautiful movement had such impact, or why some theologians emphasize Jesus as a Black Messiah. We need to overcome the internal critique so many place on themselves, and it requires positive outward affirmation.

In many instances, churches typically leave most of the work for the affirmation and welcome on the person being welcomed. They have to trust enough, conform their style and choices enough, to actually walk through the doors and join in. Even if they join, they may still feel like they are simply  being tolerated.

This is why I'd like to say here what I often say to LGBT families in our congregation. Not only are you welcome. Not only are you tolerated. You are beautiful. Your same-gender partnership is attractive and a witness in our church. We want to learn from you.

I'm inspired to this view by my own experience, witnessing the strength and perseverance of so many families in same-gender relationships who have had to endure much hardship, have grown spiritually deep and rich in so many ways, because of their partnership and marriage. You have so much to offer the church.

I'm also inspired to this view by a growing range of theological resources that indicate not only that Scripture is quite a bit less opposed to same-gender relationships than has typically been assumed, but may actually be positive disposed towards it. For the theologians among us, I highly encourage a recent essay in The Christian Century on Same-Sex Complimentarity.

So together with Bishop Mike and Bishop Hanson, and with my denomination, the ELCA, I offer this also as an open letter to the LGBTQ community. You are welcome. Not only that, you are loved. It does get better. And not only that, you are also beautiful, and you bring many gifts to this body we call the church. Thank you.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

"Question" Christianity

Imagine a person, tired of the hypocrisy and short-sightedness, closed-mindedness and inhospitableness of Christian community they have experienced, finding new life in Christian community somewhere else.

This shouldn't be very hard. We all know someone injured by Christian community. In fact, in all likelihood this person is us.

A new community emerges that promises a feeling of safety and empowerment. This community shares my questions and concerns, and has transcended the dark matters I have been hurt by.

But then problems and struggles begin to show. Even some of the same problems the previous community had exhibited. It turns out this wasn't the pure community they had hoped for. So they move on, seeking out an even more pure Christian community.


Quite a lot of Christianity is focused on "getting it right" over against the faulty/heretical/morally bankrupt forms of Christianity exercise by others. In some ways, the development of the faith is nothing but this.

ELCA Elevator speech
The disputes used to be between confessional communities--Lutherans vs. Calvinists, Papists vs. Waldensians, or between schools of thought (Alexandrian or Antiochian). More recently, brought up against the sheer face of the proliferation of "secularities," it seems that the progressive Christian movement has set itself up in a unique way not as one school of thought over against others, but rather as the final and last resting place for those who wish to move beyond all beyonds, for those who no longer question specific confessional positions over against other ones, those who inhabit no specific confessional position at all, but simply "Live the Questions."

Now, let me confess that I have a lot invested in this form of Christianity myself. As a pastor, I hope to host Christian community where questions are allowed, even encouraged. Like the elevator speech of my denomination, I really do want to embrace people as whole persons, their questions, complexities and all.

I have, however, come to the awareness that this type of Christianity can function as self-superior posturing. Any movement that simply "embraces the questions" ends up not standing for much of anything other than living the questions themselves. Even though the progressive Christian movement wants to claim it is open to the questions, it is actually only open to certain types of questions, certain kinds of questioning.

The posturing takes one other mode: It tends to assume that all the other Christianit(ies) are somehow more morally suspect than progressive Christianity. They are rife with corruption and hypocrisy, have launched crusades, and funded suspect televangelists ( Progressive Christianity, in its questioning, "Why Christian?" approach, offers itself as the resolution to these problematic forms of Christianity.

Herein lies the danger. If progressive Christianity is the resolution to the "problem" of Christianity, then it has to be "pure." It can't be guilty of any of the failures it observes in the Christianity of others.

Yet, if history is any guide, it is a truism that no pure Christianity exists. Each movement is corrupt, hypocritical. The danger comes when any particular movement stops applying the hermeneutic of suspicion to itself that it applies to all others. The danger comes when a movement offers itself as the "answer" to all the questions. The danger is especially present when the questions become the answer.

Monday, February 09, 2015

The Hidden and Triune God

Excerpts from Robert Jenson's essay.

"The problem about God, I have insofar long agreed with Luther, is not his [sic] metaphysical distance from us. After all, mere distance, however great and metaphysical, could not hide him but could only attenuate his visibility, and such a distancing of our view of God might very well only clarify the picture. Rather, God is hidden, and our problem with him is constituted precisely by the character and importunity of his presence."

"Faith, [Luther] says, is a very peculiar sort of perception, not so much a light in the heart as a darkness, within which Christ is present as was God in the darkness over Sinai. Faith is precisely the hidden indwelling of Christ; indeed it is God hiding himself from us by entering that most obscure of locations, our own hearts."

"It is not even quite right to say that the ultimate fact is God. There is not God, who then happens to love Israel. there is the One who raises Israel from Egypt; and the ultimacy of his election, to be demonstrated finally only when all nations flow to Zion, is the fact that there is God. There is not God, who then happens to be fatherly to the one Israelite Jesus; rather there is the Father of this Son, and the ultimacy of this Fatherhood is the fact that there is a God. And that God is thus in God a source of God is the possibility of God vein also the source of things other than himself, of creatures, and the impossibility of there being anything other than God that is not created by him."

"We are bound to practice religion as Karl Barth describes it, the recruitment of the absolute to our finite ends."

"Current research suggests that Martin Luther's initiating problem was not in fact that of finding a gracious God to meet his need as sinner--which would, after all, have been a prime piece of idolatry. It was rather the traditional Augustinian problem of knowing whether he indeed worshipped the true God, defined as God you cannot use; it was the problem of avoiding idolatry."

"The Spirit frees God to surprise himself."

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Sometimes it's the most puzzling things that mean everything

"My life achievement amounts to nothing at all, a mood, a single color. My achievement resembles the painting by that artist who was supposed to paint the Israelites' crossing of the Red Sea and to that end painted the entire wall red and explained that the Israelites had walked across and that the Egyptians were drowned."

"Social endeavors and the associated beautiful sympathy become more and more widespread. In Leipzig, a committee formed out of sympathy for the sad fate of old horses has decided to eat them."

"Something marvelous has happened to me. I was transported to the seventh heaven. There sat all the gods assembled. As a special dispensation, I was granted the favor of making a wish. 'What do you want,' asked Mercury. 'Do you want youth, or beauty, or power, or a long life, or the most beautiful girl, or any one of the other glorious things we have in the treasure chest? Choose--but only one thing." For a moment I was bewildered; then I addressed the gods, saying: My esteemed contemporaries, I choose one thing--that I may always have the laughter on my side. Not one of the gods said a word; instead, all of them began to laugh. From that I concluded that my wish was granted and decided that the gods knew how to express themselves with good taste. For it would indeed have been inappropriate to reply solemnly: It is granted to you."