Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Counting Heads by David Marusek

On a completely nerdy (but appropriately vacation-like) note, I'm reading a novel right now that makes me wish I was in some kind of sci-fi reading group. In fact, I'd almost recommend it for our more "literary" book group, wondering whether they'd go for genre fiction.

I've read sci-fi and fantasy novels off and on ever since high school-- when I was completely addicted to them-- and there are certain books that are just so amazing that I begin telling everybody about them until their eyes glaze over.

Counting Heads by David Marusek is such a book. The most appropriate comparison is to the work of of William Gibson, who, if you haven't read his books, are also worth spending a vacation and then some on.

David is himself a blogger. How interesting (and tiring?) it would be to be on book tour.

So, does anyone else love this kind of fiction as much as I do?

Back from vacation

We're back from family vacation to Iowa. What a great state! Will be journaling daily for the next six weeks (beginning Monday) on a daily lectionary series provided by Centered Life. Everyone in our congregation received a copy of the Bible study, but if you're interested in getting a copy for yourself to study along with, let me know, and hopefully by the beginning of next week I'll have figured out how to post files to share somewhere on the web.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Jaroslav Pelikan

I have recently been reading a commentary on the book of Acts in the new Brazos Press theological commentary series. If it is any indication of what else is forthcoming in that series, it is a collection of commentaries to read and savor.

Sadly, the author has just died. Jaroslav Pelikan, who has authored many books, most notably his five volume The Christian Tradition , died on May 13th of lung cancer. He was 82 years old. His interests were wide-ranging, including the translation of Luther's works, books on rhetoric, the Bible, and the whole of Christian tradition. He was arguably our greatest church historian, and was, until 1998, a Lutheran. In that year he converted, together with his wife, to the Orthodox church.

I am glad to know that this last commentary on Acts stands as a capstone to a life of constant thoughtful witness to the Christian faith. Pelikan died thinking and writing about Scripture and the origins of our faith as understood through the lense of the creeds. Thank you, Professor Pelikan.

Rest eternal grant him, O Lord,
and may light perpetual shine upon him.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Lutheran Da Vinci Code Part II

Everybody seems to have something to say about The Da Vinci Code , for obvious reasons. I imagine this weekend we'll see even more, with tons of reviews, opinions, clarifications, rebuttals, very few retractions, posing, etc. I may as well weigh in on the topoi, with a Lutheran confessional approach to the book (I hope).

Brad Kierkegaard at the Journal of Lutheran Ethics has an excellent article on the book from a Lutheran perspective. I recommend that anyone who has questions about the book and their Lutheranism read this article. Brad is the editor of early church history at the journal, and so is an appropriate resource to write about the historical comments in Dan Brown's book.

As a pastor and blogger, I've been trying to figure out whether I agree with the adage "there's no bad press." Some public Christian commentators seem to argue that anything that gets people talking about religion and Christianity is a good thing. I don't think our Christian tradition, including the biblical witness, would agree. Paul wrote more than one letter to a group of Christians because they had been talking about the Christian faith with preachers who preached "another gospel", and he suggested they listen to him (Paul) rather than these other preachers of a false Christ. There is bad press, and that press can confuse us, and draw us away from the one true God revealed in Jesus Christ.

So let's be clear, Dan Brown is preaching (if he is preaching) a false Christ, a gnostic myth. He turns Christianity into something having to do with secret knowledge, when that is expressly and exactly NOT what Christianity is. Other religions may have secrets you have to buy your way into. The Christian faith is, literally, an open book, first through the Incarnate Word, Jesus, and now through the Scriptures and Christian tradition. And Christ's death and resurrection, not his supposed marriage or secret sayings, is central to that tradition, for through his death and resurrection we all are brought by way of baptism into communion with him in the Trinity.

Although I take umbrage with the argument that there is no bad press, I do still wish to defend a free and open press. So I won't be boycotting the movie, and I've read the book. Dan Brown has the freedom to write such a book. I just wish he wouldn't have exercised that freedom. But then, I can wish a lot of things without having to force my wishes on others. I have also found some of the rhetoric against the movie and book from Christians to be patently unChristian. At the heart of the Christian faith is charity, and much of the judgment and venom against Brown is uncharitable, and hence unchristian.

This simply proves that getting the gospel right is always hard work. Truth and charity are called to walk hand in hand, and we know how difficult that is in practice.

So, we can hope that through all this media hoopla, that the real Jesus would stand up and stand out, so that we all, all of us drowning in the media blitz, would encounter the true Jesus, through the Scripture and tradition of the church, and in that living encounter, be called to the way of Jesus Christ, a way that is less about movies and media than it is about prophetic justice, love, and the forgiveness of sin and reconciliation with God through God's Son, Jesus Christ, and all of this in the freedom of the Spirit. You might see one kind of Jesus if you go to the movie- you'll see the real sacramental presence of Jesus if you attend worship and receive communion with fellow believers on Sunday. Movies are great, but they aren't church.

More Widely Known (from survey)

What is the one writer, field of study, area of interest that you're aware of that you think more people should know about or experience? Why? (blog author note: these are survey responses, not necessarily the actual views of the blogger)

1. Wendell Berry's works on farming and sense of place.

2. Social justice

3. History of the church, specifically I think more christians should know about their judaic roots.

4. The divergence or difference of what Jesus and the Bible taught and the way American culture and politics is headed.

5. I just picked up a book called "The Spirituality of Imperfection". It is a must read.

6. Dann Simmons

7. I think people are yearning to understand why Lutherans believe the way they do, why our worship services are structured the way they are, etc. Basically the "whys" behind our faith. Life-long Lutherans don't understand these topics, so they are unable to answer their children when they ask these questions. Parents end up avoiding discussing religion because they don't want to look "stupid" in front of their children, so the faith doesn't get passed on to our youth.

8. Sweatshops and labor issues--where the things we buy really come from.

9. Poetry. It caputres a vital part of what it means to be human, through intense reflection on words: their sounds, shapes, and capacities for creating meaning and beauty. We live in a word-shaped world. We ought to honor those who make an art and vocation of reflecting dynamically on what this means.

10. The collection of answers to your question above reveals just how lame-o North American Christianity really is. I think Tom Wright will have more of an impact on world Christianity and perhaps the revival of Christianity in America than all of your named candidates put together. He is the most articulate (and prolific) defender of the Church's Jesus that we have today. A close second would be the Frenchman Rene Girard, whose anthropological articulation of the truth of the Gospel is quietly inserting itself into the subconscious of Christian thought.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Acts 8 & 10

This past Sunday Philip was taken up by the Spirit to the Ethiopian eunuch who, after being baptized, "went on his way rejoicing." The eunuch had at least enough interest and introduction to the faith to be reading the scriptures, no small thing that being. Nevertheless, it took the preaching of Philip and the Spirit to bring about faith in Christ. Some argue this encounter is the origin of what we know of today as the Coptic Church.

Now in this Sunday's reading it is the Spirit and Peter testifying that leads to baptism in the name of Jesus. Again a surprise, because the Spirit comes upon the Gentiles. "The circumcised" are surprised at this, because they continue to think that salvation has come for them in Christ, the Messiah.

Apparently, Christ's atonement is as much about extending the Spirit to the separated as much as it is working in the Spirit to bring about reconciliation between humanity and God.

But the question that I'm asking myself in preparation for the sermon this Sunday, is this-

"Do we expect the Spirit to come when we testify? And when we hear testimony, do we expect that the Spirit would come upon us, or upon others near us?" Said more colloquially, "Do we really believe something freeing and new is going to happen when somebody preaches, maybe to us, maybe to others?"

Mowing the Lawn

We're new to homeownership, this being our 2nd summer in our house, as well as our 2nd summer of lawnmowing. Last summer I purchased a wonderful rotary mower, and can usually mow our entire lawn with it in about 1.5 hours. This compares favorably with my neighbors who use push gas mowers. But I get to do it without all the noise and pollution.

But spring defeated me this year with seven days of rain, and the grass got beyond my ability to mow manually. Had to have it mowed to get back down to size, and with the time I saved not mowing, went for a walk with the family.

It so happened that the weather had the same effect on everyone in our neighborhood. We were glad for the rain and nourishment for the land, but watched the grass get taller and taller, as if we were being taken over by a foreign army. While out for our walk, at one point, we noticed that four, no make that five, no six, no seven, no, wait, I can see an eighth, people were out moving in their yards simultaneously, and this in a neighborhood with established trees and shrubs.

Have you ever seen eight of your neighbors out doing the same thing at the same time, other than when an ambulance has stopped nearby?

Friday, May 12, 2006

Bono Patron Saint of Lutheran Confessions

You can still take the survey, but as of right now, the chosen patron saint of Lutheran Confessions, by popular vote is:


I guess I should have been able to guess this. Now we need to know what miracles are ascribable to him, and how we can get around the rule that generally speaking saints are made after their death.

The Moods of May

I'm curious if anyone else shares the following emotional experience. When I was in college, I almost always felt the most depressed in May. It wasn't the lead-up to finals, but the post-finals freedom, transition to summer blues, that got me.

I was an RA, and I remember hanging out on campus waiting to get the last of the students on my floor checked out for the summer, and feeling just blah. The more literary term is probably "listless."

It's somewhat paradoxical that I felt that way, because for many years, I was hoping to teach in a college or university, and I very much idealized the whole "three months off for the summer" gig. But the truth was, as a student, I couldn't wait for the beginning of the next semester. Buying books and looking over syllabi made me giddy. I imagine if I were actually working in a college setting today, I'd spend every summer listlessly hoping for its conclusion so we could start the semester of classes again.

Now I serve as pastor in a congregation, and we do make a transition in May that mirrors, at least partially, the academic year. Some of our program year concludes, like Sunday school, adult forum, etc. I find myself lamenting the shift even as I see the wisdom in it. People, including myself, need a break. Nevertheless, I always wish we could do something together to just keep plugging along through the summer without the lowering of worship attendance.

Of course, my wife would be the first to remind me that we are, in many ways, even more busy in the summer than during the year, just in a different way. San Antonio youth gathering, confirmation camp, VBS, weddings, home visits, etc.

Two related insights: First, we provide in our newsletter an order of service for worship anywhere, so that families who might be on summer vacation and distant from a church, can still worship together in the summer months. Second, I remind myself and others that when we are on vacation, it is a great gift and blessing to other congregations if we visit and worship with them when we travel. Christ's body is spread throughout the world, and when we travel and worship together, we witness to this.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Omnivores Dilemma

While I'm attending the Pastor-Theologian program this next week, I'll be reading Michael Pollan's new book, The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. It was published about two weeks after my article at the Journal of Lutheran Ethics on Eating Theology.

Our family gives a good deal of thought to where our food comes from, how it was grown and handled, and how the workers were treated who grew or harvested it. We try to purchase fair trade and organic, although we give in quite often and purchase food that doesn't meet our highest ethical criterion. Pollan's book is a wonderful resource if, for no other reason, it's reporterly attempt to remind us of where exactly food was before we put it in our mouth.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Five Fun Questions

Click here to take survey. I'll report a summary of responses in one week, and will make a change to the blog based on the elected "patron saint" of Lutheran Confessions. I'll also answer my own questions.

Rad Trad

I'm incredibly blessed to have been called as pastor to the congregation I serve. When I first visited this church, I was inspired by its rootedness in the community, and its history. Churches that know and cherish their history have always appealed to me. It's at least one reason why I consider myself to be an evangelical catholic. I am inspired by the continuing, multi-generational witness to the gospel of which we are the current living beneficiaries.

At the same time, I consider myself traditional but not conservative, or at least not conservative in the modern American political sense. I wish to conserve our history and tradition, but also believe that some things the conservatives wish to preserve are not faithful developments of the faith once delivered to the saints. Conservatives tend to be millenialists, apocalyptic, creationists, and nationalists. I am none of these things.

What I would like to conserve is life, a preferential option for the poor, care of creation, and love. In these ways, I consider myself progressive, or radically traditional.

By listing these things, I do not mean to imply that the rural church, or my church, is predominately any of these things. What I do mean to clarify is what I mean when I say that I value the tradition, and wish to conserve it. I do not intend to challenge conservatism by abandoning the tradition. I intend to address conservatism from within the bounds of the tradition itself. I wish to out-conserve the conservatives.

Which is why I am also interested in the "emergent" conversation currently going on in the ELCA and other contexts. Although much of the outward face of emerging ministries is in the urban/suburban context, and considers itself post-modern in approach and appeal, I believe it is a conversation worth bringing into creative tension with the conversation going on in the ELCA and elsewhere re: rural ministry.

My participation in both of these conversations is just one example of how I feel like a Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde character at times. Rural emergents? Another example is my love for liturgy and traditional music (hymnody, chant, plainsong), coupled with a concomitant joy in praise music.

Ok, I confess. I understand and even agree with some of the theological complaints about praise and worship music. Nevertheless, I find the singing of praise refrains to be exhilirating and faithful, at least at times. True worship, I would argue, includes both the intellectual and beautiful aspect (Bach being a great example of this), as well as the invigorating and simply emotional (contemporary praise worship and the psalms).

I wish I could find a hegelian synthesis of these two formulae, but alas.

Ok, so the ev-cath in me likes the green hymnal, old school hymns, even some of the stuff I never sang as a youth because it's simple too strange for contemporary audiences, all tha plainsong and chant that none of us sang when we were growing up, we just paged past it to sing "A Mighty Fortress" and "For All the Saints."

But the guitar player in me loves those repeated refrains like "Breathe", "My Jesus, My Savior."

And the radically traditional person in me thinks that some of the emergent stuff is really, really cool- the Nicene Creed sung to a heavy metal beat and style, the kyrie and hymn of praise done to bluegrass, or a, can it be, JAZZ liturgy? I'd love to be able to do some of that music, to worship in that kind of context. It's very appealing.

Nevertheless, not all of those idioms would work in our church. Some folks in our congregation like jazz, but most of us don't play it well enough to lead it in worship. Some of us like bluegrass, but again, actually launching such a style would be difficult.

We have an organ and organists, so the ev-cath in me can have a hey-day, and whenever we want to get into the praise and camp songs, a simple guitar is ready to hand.

So, style often gives way to gifts, abilities, and availability of equipment.

Which is a long descriptive way of saying that these ideals, of ev-cath substance and style, or emergent, or whatever, always end up playing in the context of a congregation that has a history, has been going in a direction, and will continue to go in a direction, that is only in part influenced by any of these abstract ideals.

One last example. My tradition has been, to a considerable degree, clerico-centric. Translation: the pastor does the ministry, the parishioners attend or "go to" church. This is a long-standing tradition in the Lutheran community, as well as the catholic context. Ordained ministry has a kind of gravitas , at times even a sacramental status.

But on this point, although I value how and in what ways the pastoral ministry has functioned over time in our congregations, I tend to think that it has been to the detriment of the ministry of the whole people of God.

On this point, I think I do have a synthesis of sorts. It is best illuminated using an image. Currently, as pastor, I usually wear a clerical collar. One solution some Protestants have had to the over-clericalization of the church, is to jettison the collar, and begin wearing normal street clothes. The ev-cath in me doesn't like this.

Instead, what I think should happen, as a kind of wedding between emergent and traditional substance, is that everybody should start wearing a collar, clergy and laity. Let's stop making a distinction between clergy and lay, and instead through the very clothes we wear distinguish ourselves as Christian witnesses in the world.

This, I believe, is an emergent concept. It is, to borrow a phrase, the new monasticism.