Wednesday, March 30, 2016

We're saved by our works more than ever

I wonder if our culture now believes that work is completely salvific. I was reminded of this possibility the other day while listening to some parishioners talk about their work in Afghanistan and Iraq.

They would log very long sixteen hour days on farming projects. Arriving back at their apartment for the night, all they wanted to do was rest. But neighbors would be out front of homes, and would invite them over. It took a lot of wisdom and energy to go and hang out and talk.

It was the kind of thing they knew was a good idea, but they didn't want to do it. Their desires were for long, arduous work followed by rest. In some ways you could say their desires were ordered against their ideals.

One of the most common complaints they heard about Westerners from their neighbors: you're all so busy.

Imagine this scenario. You plan an event at church, and it isn't a meeting, it isn't a worship service, it isn't a service project, it isn't even a meal. All you're going to do is show up in the same space and spend time together.

Honestly, will very many people show up?

However, the sweet space in our church similar to but different from this scenario is the coffee hour before and after worship. Lots of our people willingly show up each week to just hang out with each other at those times. But they can "justify" their presence, because they're doing something meaningful in a works righteousness system--they're going to church.

We have thoroughly inhabited a works righteousness paradigm. We actually think work is salvific.

I do not mean by this that we believe that our works will save us in some future judgment before the seat of God. I mean this in the more holistic sense, salvation as "salve," as shalom, as wholeness. We think work will make us whole, will be the salve that heals a broken world.

We do not believe that simply being together, doing nothing together, can save us.

Proof here also is the shaming culture currently in place for those receiving public assistance. We make it hard for people to receive welfare. We imply they're morally inferior, need to be drug-tested, etc. We have very few of the same suspicions of the employed, even though so much of our daily work has as much if not more possibility of harm.

Perhaps we think just hanging out is dangerous. This is why our culture has so much resistance these days to teenagers having free time together. Parents hover over them and don't let them go. We schedule our children, we create calendars of things for them to do. Otherwise they might get up to something unsavory.

Except that when I hang with teens, hang with children, I see their deep passion not for getting up to inappropriate things, but rather simply valuing one another, giving each other a sense of space and place, of belonging, of shared play.

In our culture, any "true" time of rest is supposed to be filled with consumption. So college students don't just hang together. They drink together. Families don't just live life together. They watch television together.

I realized the extent to which this was true for me recently when I realized that although I spend lots of time each week with friends and parishioners, it's always time with a purpose. It's a meeting, a counseling session, a planning session, some form of shared work.

There are very few times, almost no times at all, when I'm just with others for no other overt purpose than sharing life together.

I think our culture idealizes rest and relaxation. We want to go on vacation. We do yoga and meditate. But these are all forms of rest in the service of our work. They are not, as far as I can tell, outside the works righteousness system. They're just the opiate for it.

Our only escape, the only way we will save ourselves from saving ourselves through our work, will be a shift of theology. We need to apply the Protestant insight--that we are saved by faith apart from the works of the law, for Christ's sake--to the actual notion of work we now have.

We need rest for its own sake, not rest for the sake of more work. We need relationships centered in
our intrinsic value rather than valued by shared projects.

We no longer believe we are saved for heaven by our works, because heaven has changed. So we are saved by the new work we do for the new heaven we think we are creating.

In fact, we're trapped by the work and slaves to such salvation. It's why we work more and more, and even put our rest in the service of more work.

To get out of such enslavement, we'll need new hearts for new loves, which likely will come only as gift, a gift we receive from the one who we notice always rests and always abides and is endlessly generative out of such abiding itself.

When the Messiah of such abiding arrives, he or she will likely have no means of employment, no place to rest the head, will dissipate in meaningless things like walking and prayer, and will be misunderstood by a culture completely sold on the notion that what we do, and how busily we do it, will save us.

The first people he or she will go find are those studying in seminaries, who march around endlessly telling others how busy they are with their studies. Next will be pastors, blogging long posts.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Raising Easter

Thursday night our community sat together and did two culturally atypical things. First, we laid hands on the heads one of another and said some simple words, "In the name of Jesus Christ, I forgive you all your sins." Then, we washed each other's feet. I witnessed one daughter wash her mother's feet with her hair.

Then we shared a spare and simple meal, the body and blood of Christ, the bread and wine poured out for the world.

Last night I read the passion narrative, John 18:1--19:42, out loud, like each Good Friday. It's long. It is also mind-blowing. 

Afterwards, we prayed Holden Prayer Around the Cross, and we gave time for the congregation to name prayers aloud before God. Many, so many, were spoken. Trust the people of God in the Spirit to raise the right prayers, and they will.

But speaking of the Passion reading... this time I noticed this dialogue:

Jesus said, “I have spoken openly to the world; I have always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all the Jews come together. I have said nothing in secret. Why do you ask me? Ask those who heard what I said to them; they know what I said.” When he had said this, one of the police standing nearby struck Jesus on the face, saying, “Is that how you answer the high priest?” Jesus answered, “If I have spoken wrongly, testify to the wrong. But if I have spoken rightly, why do you strike me?” (John 18:20 and following).

I've heard far too many stories of police brutality in the past year. Yes, of course there are good police. But far too many police have killed far too many innocent people. And so parents the country over, especially black parents, train their children not to speak out against the police if they are in their hands.

The problem here is Jesus. Jesus speaks the truth in the presence of the police. The response is to strike him. So if you're a Christian, and you follow Jesus, how exactly are you supposed to teach this passage to your children who may face unjust police force?

Later, there's this dialogue:

Pilate also had an inscription written and put on the cross. It read, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” Many of the Jews read this inscription, because the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city; and it was written in Hebrew, in Latin, and in Greek. Then the chief priests of the Jews said to Pilate, “Do not write, ‘The King of the Jews,’ but, ‘This man said, I am King of the Jews.’” Pilate answered, “What I have written I have written.” (John 19:19 and following).

Because my brain functions like this, I can't help but think of Jacques Derrida (8-bit explanation of Derrida here), and his focus on writing and différance. Here we have in the very middle of the passion narrative a literary debate, textual criticism if you will. Pilate writes. Others translate. Others read. Redaction is attempted. The writing remains. Writing is happening.

But those in power want to violently use those scare quotes so famously compared by Derrida to talons. The literary commentators would like to take true words and place them in quotation, effectively clawing the words and stealing them away from their location in the text. On the cross.

Here Pilate tells the truth (whether he knows it or not). Here Pilate gives us a grammar. Not "I am the King of the Jews." No, I am the King of the Jews. What I have written I have written. It will not be unwritten. You can't unwrite this. In the beginning was the Word, you know. It became flesh and lived among us, and it's hanging there with that linguistic inscription, and you can take it down and bury it, but what it says, remains.

The Word is indeed hidden away in a sacred silence come Holy Saturday. God lies in the grave, the Word itself buried. But we always only ever know this as retrospective, as backward glance.

Silence never speaks on its own. It only speaks in contemplating Saturday retrospectively from the terror of Easter. (Hans von Balthasar)

There is some question which is most terrifying... God dead in the tomb, or the empty tomb and the death of death. There are reliable religious patterns to implement when someone is actually dead. The disciples and the women were on their way to practice those kinds of burial rituals.

The world doesn't know what to do with resurrection. It can't be liturgized. It's too new. It's always new, always alive again.

The problem with raising Easter... there's no handbook. It comes as event, as promise, as hope against hope. And on many levels it is far more terrifying than the silence of death. Death has a reliable finality to it. Life after death is completely in the hands of the One who raises Christ from the dead. Death offers certainty. Resurrection requires trust.

I don't know about you, but many people in my life right now are in moments that feel so very close to Good Friday. They know the words Jesus spoke from the cross because they are in solidarity with them. "My God, why have you forsaken me?" "It is finished?" "Father, forgive them, for they don't know what they are doing." These are the moments, of abandonment, no future, betrayal.

I can sit with them in those moments. I know how to do it, I think. Pastors do it. We sit with others in the pain of Friday, the silence of Saturday.

But I confess to you that Easter has a holy terror. What if there is something after this sitting with? What if there is a future after no future, companionship after abandonment, reconciliation after betrayal? Those are phenomenon I cannot imagine, because they feel so fully God, so lively in Spirit, so completely Christ. 

If they happen, they're no longer me, no longer us. They're God. They're God's. And there is a part of me that honestly prefers to cling to the suffering and silence rather than let go to holy new. I am afraid, afraid that naming such an Easter will ring false, seem saccharine, appear singularly positivist.

Which is why I think the gospel spoken by Jesus at his resurrection must and always be a single word, a resurrection chant, the way of raising Easter. To all those who have gone under the waters of baptism. To all those adopting children. To all those battling addiction. To all those living with mental illness. To all those seeking refuge. To all those giving refuge. To all those preaching. To all those who have power. To all those who are weak. To all those who are lonely. To all those who are overwhelmed. To all those who are angry. To all those who feel nothing. To each and every one, in the retrospective speaking of silence in the face of the terror of resurrection, Jesus says:

Don't be afraid.

Don't be afraid.

Don't be afraid.

Monday, March 21, 2016

I pray to God to rid me of God, to make me free of God

"If someone maintains, as just about everyone in the mainstream theistic tradition maintains, that God is the Supreme Being, the highest being, then the proper theological response is to deny it. To such a concept [of God as that kind of object] and to such attempts atheism is the right religious and theological reply.

Whatever we call it, the future of theology lies in getting past this idea of God as the highest being and, since we cannot get higher, since classical "high" theology claims the high ground, the very highest, we have to dig deeper, down to the roots. Radical theology starts by bidding adieu to God. This is not weakening "God," but letting the Supreme Being of strong theology weaken into something more truly God-like.

Garden variety theists and atheists are both arguing about whether there is or there is not a Supreme Being.

Atheists attempt to disprove or prove the existence of the same half-blasphemous and mythological concept of God as the theologians are bending their efforts to prove.

The New Atheists in particular are trying to break down a door that is already wide open in radical theology, so if you lead a charge like that you will end up flat on your face.

Similarly, even agnostics are simply withholding judgment on the existence of this Supreme Being.

Instead, we should look to the mystics, like Meister Eckhart, who famously remarked that he prays to God to rid him of God, to make him free of God.

God, or what is going on in the name of God, is that from which finite things arise and into which they return, and so God is the inexhaustible womb of all things, to employ a more feminine and less patriarchal figure.

I think saying that God and high theology are to be understood as poems will solve a lot of problems

I propose the best interests of theology are served if theology recognizes that it is in fact, more properly speaking, a "theopoetics," and ultimately, at the end of the day, a theopoetics of the kingdom of God.

If you are wanting in poetic soul you have no business wanting to do theology."

[excerpted from John Caputo's The Folly of God]

Thursday, March 17, 2016

US House considering bill to severely restrict refugee resettlement

Urgent Action Needed!
JFI logo

Background: On Wednesday, March 16th, the House of Representatives' Judiciary Committee plans to mark up "The Refugee Program Integrity Restoration Act" (H.R. 4731). As currently drafted, this bill would drastically reduce and cap refugee admissions; place refugees under continual surveillance after they have arrived; and create new procedures that would significantly and potentially indefinitely delay resettlement for many refugees whose lives are in danger, including but not limited to Central Americans, Syrians and Iraqis. The bill would allow state and local governments who "disapprove" of refugees to veto resettlement in their localities. Under the guise of protecting people from religious persecution by prioritizing religious minorities from countries of particular concern, the bill could effectively discriminate against refugees who are Muslim, keeping them from being resettled in the United States. The bill would keep refugees from adjusting to Lawful Permanent Residency until they have been here for three years, which would delay family reunification and integration opportunities. It would also revoke the refugee status of any refugee who returns to their country of origin even if only briefly for a funeral or family emergency.

It is critical that all members of the House Judiciary Committee hear from everyone who supports refugee resettlement NOW as they make decisions about this legislation that would drastically impact the lives of refugees around the world and effectively decimate refugee resettlement in the United States.

Call House Judiciary Committee Members TODAY: 1-866-940-2439
You likely will not be connected with your own Representative's office, since calling committee members is the best way to raise our voices at this moment. Please call multiple times to connect with all committee members.
When your call is answered, tell the receptionist that you want to help WELCOME refugees and that you urge them to REJECT "The Refugee Program Integrity Restoration Act"

Example: “I support refugee resettlement and I urge the Representative to REJECT "The Refugee Program Integrity Restoration Act” that is set to be considered by the House Judiciary Committee. This bill would decimate refugee resettlement in the United States by drastically reducing refugee admissions, allowing state and local governments who "disapprove" of refugees to veto resettlement in their localities, and denying life-saving protection to refugees fleeing for their lives. This bill runs counter to the humanitarian leadership of the United States and the welcome of the American people. Please oppose this bill."

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

A prayer when Jesus runs for president

You, Jesus, entered the race on a donkey not a war horse, yet we cannot purge from our minds the glamorous political processions so often accomplished that have marked and marred our world.

Our eyes are full to over-flowing of campaigns and promises and claims, everyone clamoring for their personal Messiah, their glorious leader who truly deserves to lead, and who will, they promise, save us.

Your entry was treasonous. It was a religious procession with blatant, obvious political ramifications, and you dispelled none of them when you claimed that if the palm waving populous were silent, the very rocks would cry out.

We are not ready for this. We are so distracted, compelled by all the campaigns, all the politicking, that we want you to be the escape, the sole One who steps outside the politics of this world and allows us a moment of escape into pure distraction.

But you will not. Your Father works in and through this world, all the way down, to the very dregs, the very votes, the very processions, the very posturing, in this weak and always hidden way.

So all we have is you, on that colt, our limp palms dangling from our hands, and your weak campaign promises, that when you are killed by the government for treason and the church for heresy, by us by our inaction, when you are lifted up, there and then you will be elected King.

We're watching for this kingdom, Jesus. Your coming kingdom. Please don't leave it at this, that if we hope for your kingdom, all you've got for us is, "Don't worry, you're going to love me. It's going to be great."

Or if you do, would you say it now? Show us now some semblance of your glory. We're still going to follow. Well, we'll try. Okay, we probably won't. No, in fact, we're tired of you. You don't have enough votes. We'll move on to the next candidate.

Then, there, that's when your kingdom begins. In a quiet upper room. In a protest against turning the church into a marketplace. In a treacherous equivocation concerning taxes. In tears over a torn apart and torn down city. In doubts about everything. In the power of a widow's tiny token. In a warning against rumors and in rumors. In lies and betrayals and power grabs and swords.

In spite of all the evidence, we'd still throw our vote away for you, Jesus. The pointless third party candidate who isn't even on the ballot, but whose name is written in the expanding universe, breathed over all.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Box of books: a theology mini-review

Twice a year, a big box of books arrives on my doorstep full of Augsburg Fortress publications. A joyful responsibility I have as a board member is to read through what we are publishing, then share those resources with others. I typically give away almost everything I receive, after reading some and paging through all.

Here are five books that arrived this spring. These are the ones from the academic side of our publishing house I found particularly fascinating. There are far more amazing books published this year by Fortress Press, these are just a few that actually arrived in my sample box.

Notice the range: from full-length inquiry into figures like St. Paul, to focused attention to an amazing historical text, the 95 theses, from a devotional book on ordinary time in the church calendar, to a unique atlas, to an emerging voice in the faith & science dialogue. This is what I love about Fortress Press.

Sanders book on Paul is his magnum opus, a culmination of a life-long study of Paul. He attempts in this book to say everything he knows about Paul. So it's thick. But it's wonderful because, as he says, thumbnail sketches of the historical context of Judaism and Greco-Roman world are important but typically too brief to do much good.

Instead, he offers a compendious study of Paul's actual letters, explaining the contents of his letters and addressing topics and issues as they arise in the letters themselves.

Of this stack, this is the book I will read the most carefully.

Atlas of the European Reformations is beautiful and unique. Since we will be observing the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in 2017, such resources are essential. I will plan to read this book basically as closely as Paul, because I want to understand the Reformation as a European and global phenomenon, and visualizing it helps. I've honestly never seen anything like this book. It fills an important niche.

Everyday God is also unique. It's about Ordinary Time in the liturgical calendar, the Sundays after Pentecost Sunday on through Advent. It's a devotional book of sorts, but intriguing in its focus.

Martin Luther's 95 Theses, with an introduction, commentary and study guide by Timothy Wengert, is an important brief introduction to the founding text of the Reformation. The 95 theses are famous but seldom read, and frequently misunderstood. This book can help alleviate the misunderstandings and facilitate more wide reading.

Stars Beneath Us: Finding Do in the Evolving Cosmos is a contribution in the Theology for the People series, works of theology written for a popular audience. This one attempts something unique: a personal narrative of engaging faith and science in tandem. The author's prose sparkles, an added bonus. I'll be reading this one with an adult forum some time soon. It's gripping and beautiful.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Holy Week Dilates and Contracts Time

There is something about a weekly gathering. It's hard to make a weekly commitment, but those things I do weekly are incredibly life-sustaining. My mid-week huddle. My Monday morning prayer. Sunday worship. 

In fact, there are a few more things I wish I was more committed to weekly. Like a weekly date night, or weekly RPG session. Doing something once a week, neither more nor less, is the right human pace for meaning-making, I think.

This is why I feel sad for the shift in our culture away from weekly worship. Almost everyone knows that when you commit to something weekly, it does something in your life. If you practice and play soccer every week, you get better. If you take piano lessons weekly, you improve. So too with worship. It's a commitment, but it bears fruit.

Holy Week warps the liturgical time continuum in this way--it "leans in" on weekly worship and magnifies it. It turns a whole week into worship.

This Sunday, March 20th, we begin the journey with a procession of palms. We recognize that before Jesus was crucified on the cross, he entered into Jerusalem in a triumphant procession, the crowds cheering him on as the Messiah, the anointed King (John 12:13). 

The gospel of John has 21 chapters. Of those chapters, ten of them are devoted to the last few days of Jesus life in Jerusalem! Mary anoints Jesus in chapter 12, then he enters triumphal into Jerusalem, and everything that follows are the events marked by Holy Week.

We do pause early in Holy Week in a kind of sacred silence. Through this period, Jesus himself was praying a prayer to God in the presence of the disciples, his high priestly prayer, sometimes called the Farewell Discourse (John 14-17). So after Palm Sunday, Christians are invited to sit in the hearing of Jesus and contemplate his discourse concerning his departure.

Then the Holy Week services begin. On Maundy Thursday (7 p.m.), the Christian community gathers to commemorate the supper Jesus shared with his disciples in the upper room. We also wash each other's feet. Different congregations do this differently. In our context, we sit down at shared tables and we serve each other. We speak words of forgiveness and absolution to each other. We pass the wine and bread around the table. Those who wish come forward for a symbolic foot-washing. We've found that although foot-washing is powerful and transformative, not everyone feels comfortable doing it.
We return to church for Good Friday (7 p.m.), and this year our congregation is trying something new. In the past, we have used the service in our hymnal focused on the traditional bidding prayers. Those prayers are beautiful and broad, but this year we are using Prayer Around the Cross instead. Since the focus of Good Friday is the cross itself, and the communities mixed devotion and discomfort in the presence of it, the meditative nature of TaizĂ© hymns, prayer, and candles, is a powerful option. We will hear the passion story (John 18-19). We will place hands on each other in prayer. 

We return again Saturday evening for the Easter Vigil (6:30 p.m.). This is the high point of the week, the central point of the Christian year. Unfortunately the Easter Vigil has gone into disuse across large portions of Christianity, so it is unfamiliar to many people, Protestants in particular. The Vigil is the service where we celebrate the new light of Christ, the resurrection dawn. One of the great joys of this evening is the baptism of many new Christians. In our congregation we have nine people who will be baptized at the Vigil, and we will receive a total of fifty newcomers through the affirmation of their baptism. The blessings for these folks is the highlight. We begin the service outside with a new fire, then process into worship with candles lit from the fire. We read lessons from Scripture remembering God's saving work in the world, then baptize, affirm baptism, share a common meal, and then conclude with a reception (last year we added a chocolate fountain!). 

Finally, Easter morning comes, the service most familiar to everyone. This is a big Sunday service. There's nothing different than regular Sunday (9 a.m. and 11 a.m.), because on one level every Sunday is Easter Sunday. But we pull out all the stops with our worship music, and we add a brunch all morning, and an egg hunt at 10 a.m. It is the new day in the Lord, life lived in the power of the resurrected One.

This year, we add one more component. Our congregation serves a meal in the community that afternoon. We share ecumenical partnership with other congregations in providing a free meal each Sunday afternoon year round, and so we include feeding the hungry not as an interruption of our Easter observations, but as part and parcel of it, because those who participate in the resurrection of Christ also live as the resurrected one, who included feeding the hungry as essential to the coming Kingdom.

Four services in four days. It's exhausting. It's exhilarating. There's nothing like it. And I hope you'll find a way to participate in it. Because it will change you, and conform you more into the life of Jesus Christ, dying and rising with him.

Wednesday, March 09, 2016

How should we pray? | Creature Prayers

Sometimes I write content for a worship resource published by Augsburg Fortress. It's called Sundays & Seasons, and you can subscribe to it online ( It's an amazing tool for worship planning.

S&S includes sample Prayers of the People. For those not familiar with liturgical worship, most Lutherans, Episcopalians, Roman Catholics, and some others offer space in the middle of worship, after the sermon and before communion, for a series of petitions praying for the needs of the world.

On average, in most liturgical churches, these prayers include petitions for:
The Universal Church, its members, and its mission 
The Nation and all in authority 
The welfare of the world 
The concerns of the local community 
Those who suffer and those in any trouble 
The departed (with commemoration of a saint when appropriate)

I've become mindful of the prayers in S&S recently because a gripe site for the ELCA regularly criticizes us for praying for creation, but not praying for the lost.

See, sometimes the prayers of the church are general. Other times, they get very specific. This past Sunday, one petition included mention of sea turtles and manatees. Apparently praying for manatee and sea turtles was shocking enough to some hearers that they made a meme (see the photo).

Since manatees are so absolutely cool, it's hard for me to understand what is offensive about praying for them. But apparently perhaps the specificity of the prayer, kind of like including in the prayers of the people a petition for our middle finger, threw people off.

But this started me wondering: what should we pray for? What if anything is off-limits? What, if anything, should be prayed for every Sunday? What are the rules?

The Bible itself has a rather capacious sense of prayer. Some examples:

1. Stars pray with us. (Psalm 148:3)
2. We can pray for the destruction of our enemies. (Psalm 54:5)
3. Groans and sighs are prayers. (Romans 8:26)
4. Acrostic poems are prayers. (Psalm 119)
5. Everything is prayer. (Phil. 4:6)
6. One can pray without ceasing. (1 Thessalonians 5:17)
7. If you pray for something with true faith it will happen. (Matthew 17:20)
8. You can pray by pouring nard over your Lord's feet and mopping them with your hair. (John 12)
9. You can pray anywhere, but there are also special places to pray. (Acts 16:16)
10. Sometimes God will refuse to listen to prayers. (Isaiah 1:15)
11. Prayer is incense. Incense is prayer. (Psalm 141)
12. Suffering is prayer (1 Peter 4:19)

So if that doesn't leave quite a lot of room for various types of prayer, I don't know what does.

But then I thought, perhaps people are offended that the prayers of the people might actually be listing specific animals. So I looked, and lo and behold, the Bible mentions just an absolute ton of animals. So, by way of conclusion I invite my readers to spend time praying for this amazing list of creatures, God's wonderful creation. God's good creation.

And of course you can pray for the lost. Perhaps start by praying for everybody who lost big chunks of the Bible and forgot the breadth of God's providential care.

  • Addax (Light-colored, large Saharan antelope) - Deuteronomy 14:5
  • Ant - Proverbs 6:6; 30:25
  • Antelope - Deuteronomy 14:5; Isaiah 51:20
  • Ape - 1 Kings 10:22
  • Bald Locust - Leviticus 11:22
  • Barn Owl - Leviticus 11:18
  • Bat - Leviticus 11:19; Isaiah 2:20
  • Bear - 1 Samuel 17:34-37; 2 Kings 2:24; Isaiah 11:7; Daniel 7:5; Revelation 13:2
  • Bee - Judges 14:8
  • Behemoth - (A monstrous and mighty land animal; Some say it's a mythical monster of ancient literature; Possible reference to dinosaurs.) Job 40:15
  • Buzzard - Isaiah 34:15
  • Camel - Genesis 24:10; Leviticus 11:4; Isaiah 30:6; Matthew 3:4; 19:24; 23:24
  • Chameleon - Leviticus 11:30
  • Cobra - Isaiah 11:8
  • Cormorant (large black water bird) - Leviticus 11:17
  • Cow - Isaiah 11:7; Daniel 4:25; Luke 14:5
  • Crane - Isaiah 38:14
  • Cricket - Leviticus 11:22
  • Deer - Deuteronomy 12:15; 14:5
  • Dog - Judges 7:5; 1 Kings 21:23-24; Ecclesiastes 9:4; Matthew 15:26-27; Luke 16:21; 2 Peter 2:22; Revelation 22:15
  • Donkey - Numbers 22:21-41; Isaiah 1:3; 30:6 John 12:14
  • Dove - Genesis 8:8; 2 Kings 6:25; Matthew 3:16; 10:16; John 2:16
  • Eagle - Exodus 19:4; Isaiah 40:31; Ezekiel 1:10; Daniel 7:4; Revelation 4:7; 12:14
  • Eagle Owl - Leviticus 11:16
  • Egyptian Vulture - Leviticus 11:18
  • Falcon - Leviticus 11:14
  • Fish - Exodus 7:18; Jonah 1:17; Matthew 14:17; 17:27; Luke 24:42; John 21:9
  • Flea - 1 Samuel 24:14; 26:20
  • Fly - Ecclesiastes 10:1
  • Fox - Judges 15:4; Nehemiah 4:3; Matthew 8:20; Luke 13:32
  • Frog - Exodus 8:2; Revelation 16:13
  • Gazelle - Deuteronomy 12:15; 14:5
  • Gecko - Leviticus 11:30
  • Gnat - Exodus 8:16; Matthew 23:24
  • Goat - 1 Samuel 17:34; Genesis 15:9; 37:31; Daniel 8:5; Leviticus 16:7; Matthew 25:33
  • Grasshopper - Leviticus 11:22
  • Great Fish (Whale) - Jonah 1:17
  • Great Owl - Leviticus 11:17
  • Hare - Leviticus 11:6
  • Hawk - Leviticus 11:16; Job 39:26
  • Heron - Leviticus 11:19
  • Hoopoe - Leviticus 11:19
  • Horse - 1 Kings 4:26; 2 Kings 2:11; Revelation 6:2-8; 19:14
  • Hyena - Isaiah 34:14
  • Hyrax (Coney or Rock Badger) - Leviticus 11:5
  • Kite - Leviticus 11:14
  • Lamb - Genesis 4:2; 1 Samuel 17:34
  • Leech - Proverbs 30:15
  • Leopard - Isaiah 11:6; Jeremiah 13:23; Daniel 7:6; Revelation 13:2
  • Leviathan - (Could be an earthly creature, crocodile; Some say it's a mythical sea monster of ancient literature; Possible reference to dinosaurs.) Isaiah 27:1; Psalm 74:14; Job 41:1
  • Lion - Judges 14:8; 1 Kings 13:24; Isaiah 30:6; 65:25; Daniel 6:7; Ezekiel 1:10; 1 Peter 5:8; Revelation 4:7; 13:2
  • Lizard - Leviticus 11:30
  • Locust - Exodus 10:4; Leviticus 11:22; Joel 1:4; Matthew 3:4; Revelation 9:3
  • Maggot - Job 7:5; 17:14; 21:26; Isaiah 14:11; Mark 9:48
  • Mole Rat - Leviticus 11:29
  • Monitor Lizard - Leviticus 11:30
  • Moth - Matthew 6:19; Isaiah 50:9; 51:8
  • Mountain Sheep - Deuteronomy 14:5
  • Mourning Dove - Isaiah 38:14
  • Mule - 2 Samuel 18:9; 1 Kings 1:38
  • Ostrich - Lamentations 4:3
  • Owl - Leviticus 11:17; Isaiah 34:15; Psalm 102:6
  • Ox - 1 Samuel 11:7; 2 Samuel 6:6; 1 Kings 19:20-21; Job 40:15; Isaiah 1:3; Ezekiel 1:10
  • Partridge - 1 Samuel 26:20
  • Peacock - 1 Kings 10:22
  • Pig - Leviticus 11:7; Deuteronomy 14:8; Proverbs 11:22; Isaiah 65:4; 66:3, 17; Matthew 7:6; 8:31; 2 Peter 2:22
  • Pigeon - Genesis 15:9; Luke 2:24
  • Quail - Exodus 16:13; Numbers 11:31
  • Ram - Genesis 15:9; Exodus 25:5
  • Rat - Leviticus 11:29
  • Raven - Genesis 8:7; Leviticus 11:15; 1 Kings 17:4
  • Rodent - Isaiah 2:20
  • Roe Deer - Deuteronomy 14:5
  • Rooster - Matthew 26:34
  • Scorpion - 1 Kings 12:11, 14; Luke 10:19; Revelation 9:3, 5, 10
  • Seagull - Leviticus 11:16
  • Serpent - Genesis 3:1; Revelation 12:9
  • Sheep - Exodus 12:5; 1 Samuel 17:34; Matthew 25:33; Luke 15:4; John 10:7
  • Short-eared Owl - Leviticus 11:16
  • Snail - Psalm 58:8
  • Snake - Exodus 4:3; Numbers 21:9; Proverbs 23:32; Isaiah 11:8; 30:6; 59:5
  • Sparrow - Matthew 10:31
  • Spider - Isaiah 59:5
  • Stork - Leviticus 11:19
  • Swallow - Isaiah 38:14
  • Turtledove - Genesis 15:9; Luke 2:24
  • Viper - Isaiah 30:6; Proverbs 23:32
  • Vulture (Griffon, Bearded, and Black) - Leviticus 11:13
  • Wild Goat - Deuteronomy 14:5
  • Wild Ox - Numbers 23:22
  • Wolf - Isaiah 11:6; Matthew 7:15
  • Worm - Isaiah 66:24; Jonah 4:7

Sunday, March 06, 2016

Queering Christianity

As a progressive Christian of the Lutheran variety, I'm often contemplating what it means to be the kind of Christian I am.

One of the accusations frequently leveled against progressive Christians by other Christians is that we are simply conforming to this world, rather than being transformed by the gospel of Christ.

So quite a lot of our communication is rearguard action, trying to defend against such critique. People will say, for example, "You welcome gay people at your church, but that doesn't mean you approve of their lifestyle, right?"

Or they might ask, "When you say you welcome people, what kind of welcome is that?"

In the past, before I realized the true beauty of queer Christianity, I might aim low, saying we welcome them, and it's more complicated than saying it is or isn't a sin to be queer.

One line I never use is: Well, in the end we're ALL sinners.

Because the truth is, I don't think being queer is a sin. I think your orientation and gender identity is part of who you are, created in the image of God, and God says of God's creation, this is very good.

But in the end, though I'd made that shift, I still was focused on looking to Christianity for internal resources to welcome queer people and overcome the problematic binaries of nominal Christianity.

It hadn't completely become clear to me, until I read Elizabeth Edman's new book, Queer Virtue: What LGBTQ People Know About Life and Love and How It Can Revitalize Christianity, that my identity as a Christian has now been formed as much from being a cis-ally of the LGBTQ as it has been by traditional Christianity itself, and I am a better Christian as a result.

This is to say, we don't just tolerate queer people in our community. Nor do we live as progressive Christians and fully welcome them. No, we are being transformed by the virtues they share with us. Our Christianity is queer.

I would argue, contra some Christians who believe that progressive Christianity is conformed to this world, that it is traditional Christianity that has been conformed to the binary, oppressive understandings of sexuality, race, and many other things, and needs to be transformed by the queerness of Christ.

If this intrigues you, if you'd like to learn how the virtues of the queer community help identity the virtues present in Christian Scripture and tradition, then you want to read Elizabeth's book.

In part I of her book, Elizabeth walks the read through the experience of identifying queer virtue. It's about identity, risk, touch, scandal, and adoption. This is testimony of the first order, and powerful to read.

In part II, she talks about a priestly people (she herself is a gay priest), and identifies what she believes are marks of a priestly people we can learn from the queer community: Pride, Coming Out, Authenticity, and Hospitality.

For Edman, queerness is not just compatible with Christianity, but is an embodiment of it.

For Edman, authentic Christianity is a spiritual journey that prioritizes the ancient Christian impulse to rupture simplistic binaries, especially those pertaining to the relationship between Self and Other (xiii.).

Edman argues that queer ethical demands clearly and often exquisitely manifest widely recognized Christian virtues: spiritual discernment, rigorous self-assessment, honesty, courage, material risk, dedication to community life, and care for the marginalized and oppressed.

She writes, "For too long, public discourse about LGBTQ people has tended to operate from the premise that queer identity is morally problematic, but that there are specific instances of individual queer people who live upright lives. I argue precisely the opposite: while individual queer people struggle at times with moral failing--as all human beings do--in general I perceive queer identity to have at its core a moral center of high caliber, one that is both inspirational and aspirational. My experience being immersed in the lives of and spiritual journeying of queer people tells me plainly not only that the divine is alive and well in us, but that many of us are deeply attuned to it."

In her chapter on coming out, which I particularly loved, she offers this challenge to progressive Christians:

Maybe you are already living the liberating strand of Christianity. Maybe you have found it in a vibrant, friendly church that treats kids well and has a nice cluster of gay people in regular attendance. That's great, truly. But understand this: our faith tells us that it isn't enough to believe it quietly, to go to church on Sunday with less fanfare than you might go to brunch, or to the grocery store. You have to explain to people what you are doing, and why it matters to you. What you are feeling, perceiving, and perhaps living out in community with others is caught up in what Jesus called 'the good news,' and it matters very much that you tell other people about it. 
The most important thing that progressive Christians can do to advance an accurate understanding of our faith is to come out as a Christian. And specifically, to come out as the kind of Christian you truly are. 
The necessity of coming out is one of those basic things that progressive Christians should be learning from queer people. When you know who you are and what you are about, it matters to tell people about it. But listen up, all you shy Christians out there: queer people know something that you may not know. WE KNOW HOW TO DO THAT. 
Begin by getting in touch with your own identity, with Pride. Coming out is first and foremost a conversation that is about you. This matters to understand: you aren't coming out to people in order to change them. Hopefully you are coming out because your life matters to you, and this other person matters to you, and you want that other person to know who you really are.
I loved this book. I plan to hand it out to so many people. I hope you'll read it. What I hope most is that it will shift you as a progressive Christian reader from a quiet position of tacit acceptance to a proud coming out of authentic hospitality that ruptures this world, trapped as it is by so many things, and discovers the virtues of queer Christianity.

Saturday, March 05, 2016

Salvation Doesn't Matter Much

Try this novel suggestion. Communicate the moral teachings of Jesus. Salvation doesn't matter much to people who don't believe in original sin.

So wrote a friend recently, and I must confess, the concept resonates. For one, I just don't think the majority of people I know worry much about original sin and its consequence. 

This does not mean I think they're heathens, or that they've got some deeply misdirected theological interests. It just means we now consider sin and its consequences along other epistemological lines than previously, and for good reason. I think theologians like Tillich help us here.

It's also not that I don't believe in salvation. I do. It's just that I think salvation is black, dark, cloudy, hidden, dancing, elusive, patient, dancing, long.

Why do I believe salvation is black? Well, for one, that's what James Cone says, and I trust James Cone. 

He has that famous line, "The misunderstanding here is the failure to see that blackness or salvation (the two are synonymous) is the work of God, not a human work." (A Black Theology of Liberation)

Cone was saying in liberation theology perspective that literally blackness is salvation, that blackness in its freedom is beautiful and where God's at--and I agree with him.

But if you read Scripture, you'll see how salvation is blackness also, like, the absence of light kind of blackness. For one, it's a helmet (Ephesians 6:17).  It's kind of dark in helmets.

Salvation is not yet revealed (1 Peter 1:5). The unrevealed is typically dark.

 Salvation is patience (2 Peter 3:15). Ain't nothing more difficult to see than the far end of patience.

It is an occluded thing, not available, certainly not confident, eminently hopeful, doubled-down in promise.

In the meantime, the moral teachings of Jesus are quite clear. The only thing cloudy about them is their difficulty. 

Kierkegaard: When you are reading God’s Word, it is not the obscure passages that bind you but what you understand, and with that you are to comply at once. If you understand only one single passage in all of Holy Scripture, well, then you must do that first of all, but you do not first have to sit down and ponder the obscure passages.

The fundamental purpose of God’s Word is to give us true self-knowledge; it is a real mirror, and when we look at ourselves properly in it we see ourselves as God wants us to see ourselves. 

But we don't know how God wants us to see ourselves, because God is black. That's how we see ourselves, by not seeing us.

Salvation might be blackness, but that blackness is clarity. It is truth. 

It is impossible to lighten up into this truth that transforms until we see ourselves as we really are.

I think this means we discover salvation by not focusing on it. We are saved when we come to the realization that salvation doesn't matter much. 

And really, if you want to know who you are, study the moral teachings of Jesus. If you want to know how Christ affected our salvation, study his life.

In this sense, my friend seems to align with the moral influence theory of the atonement by Abelard, that the Atonement is not directed towards God with the purpose of maintaining God's justice, but towards humanity with the purpose of persuading them to right action.

If you want to know salvation, look at how Jesus lived. There's more eternity there than a thousand heavens.

Thursday, March 03, 2016

An Inkling of the Leftovers

That Day, Great and Terrible by Brian Scott: A Review

It's not every day that one of your seminary classmates publishes a novel, so fair warning, my experience reading this book is colored by my personal knowledge of the author.

Second strike against writing any kind of review of this book, I don't really read Christian fiction. Ever. I've avoided every possible series of Christian novels ever written, from Left Behind, to those weird angel novels, to, well, I don't even know, because I try not to even drift close to the Christian novel shelves in the bookstore.

Okay, I did read The Shack. And there is a special place in my heart for the work of The Inklings, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Dorothy Sayers in particular, so I guess on another level you could say I do read Christian fiction. Nevertheless.

So I downloaded Brian's novel to my Kindle and started reading last week. Here's the thing. It's kind of amazing. It has in some ways the same premise as another novel I read last year, Tom Perrotta's The Leftovers. Basically, what if there is a rapture, but it is arbitrary?

A significant difference between Scott's novel and Perrotta's is that Scott writes from an expressly theological perspective. Perrotta thrills simply in the social complexity of the effect of people disappearing. His is a wild ride.

Scott's is a wild ride also (oh my gosh, so many things freaked me out, my heart was racing). People are manipulated, children are possessed, Scott hits magical realism notes at all the right places, so on another level, the book reads like a Haruki Murakami novel, so real until it isn't.

I have trouble reconciling Scott's Lutheran pastoral chops with the book he has written. The preachers in this book are nothing like the preachers I know. It's almost as if Scott hid in the basement bathroom of a congregation for a few years and invented what church might be like if it turned sideways from everything we know. But of course that is also what makes the book not suck. I can't imagine Scott trying to write a book about actual Lutheran congregations, and he doesn't.

I was particularly taken with his exploration of the narrative implications of a theology of judgment. So many wounded people wounding each other. If there's one weakness in the book, it is that Scott so far asserts a love of God theology rather than showing it. But I have a feeling there is a next novel that enters into this more deeply. If you've read The Road by Cormac McCarthy, you have a sense of how this novel proceeds. It starts out bad and gets worse, but there is a light carrying its way through and peaking out if ever so dimly at the end.

If you've ever wondered how to split the difference between the grotesque twisting of Revelation in the Left Behind novels and the actual concept of the coming parousia articulated in Christian tradition, and if you've wanted to explore that concept in a rollicking and heart-racing read, this is the book.

I know I'm all in for the sequel.