Archive for February, 2011

Movement of Change

Posted in Uncategorized on February 28, 2011 by yhcreligiouslife

This week in chapel, we celebrate another induction of our scholars into the national honors society, Phi Theta Kappa. In recognizing what these students have done, we, also, anticipate who they will become . . . trusting that the education gained in this place will focus their lives, enabling their coalescence into who(se) they are called to be. May all of us be so focused, granting purpose and vision for our unique service of each other and God’s world. It is difficult to overstate the potency of change’s new servants education might bring, if we embrace that waiting destiny.

“Focus” by Michael O’Siadhail

Our hurried need to flare and blaze both ends.
How slowly we’d grow, option by tiny option.
Catch us again, now that fifth decade bends
Our live-in dreams, a jet of steadied vision.
Maybe I’ve learned to fear the sweeping chorus:
The masses, the system. Something cuts deeper.
Remember how young compassion first moved us:
A solo beseeching face calling me its keeper?
I reach across those years to re-focus a dream
Throwing its light again as our chorus fades;
My cupped hands sheltering the glow of a flame,
I see now in those eyes where their story leads.
Each life is thickening into its own fabric.
Every face so utterly itself. Alone. Unique.

Change Discipleship

Posted in Uncategorized on February 21, 2011 by yhcreligiouslife

As they were going along the road, someone said to him, ‘I will follow you wherever you go.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.’ To another he said, ‘Follow me.’ But he said, ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.’ But Jesus said to him, ‘Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.’ Another said, ‘I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.’ Jesus said to him, ‘No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.’
—Luke 9: 57-62

Discipleship is always an interesting topic to explore. Many have examined and pondered what it means to “follow” another. In fact, that is what we are always told. To be a disciple means “one who follows.” While technically correct, the literal meaning of the word “disciple” provides a slightly nuanced image, an image that the author of Luke plays upon in the above discussion of discipleship within the kingdom of God.

The word “disciple” is a compound of two Latin roots. Deriving from the Latin “discipere,” the word combines the two words “dis,” meaning “apart,” and “capere,” meaning to “take hold of.” Therefore, more than meaning to follow, the word disciple more directly carries a dual meaning, “to take hold of by letting go.”

However, of what is a disciple letting go?

The short encounters on discipleship from Luke’s gospel offered above help answer that question. In those encounters, Jesus has conversations with three men. Each conversation centers around discipleship with a particular focus, in escalating degrees, on the idea of home.

With the first man, Jesus is told that he will be followed wherever that leads. Jesus responds not with a statement about where they are going but about where they will not be going, i.e., home. Jesus says, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” In other words, discipleship is not about following Jesus to a new home as much as it is about leaving our old homes, i.e., ways of life behind. More broadly speaking, discipleship is about letting go not just of our literal homes, but, more figuratively, discipleship is about leaving behind all that home represents. And, home represents the past, the comfortable, the predictable, the given.

With the second man, Jesus approaches him, asking him to follow. The man asked first to go bury his dead father. In what appears to be a moment of insensitivity, Jesus says to the man, “let the dead bury their dead.” If an actual conversation and taken in isolation, then Jesus’ words seem out of character, but as part of a figurative encounter and larger conversation on discipleship the words convey a greater meaning. Jesus’ words are not about ignoring a need to inter a body but about a need to let our past understanding of “home” die as we press toward the future in God’s kingdom. After all, what is more illustrative of “home” than a parent? What is more emotive than the need to tend to that idea of caring for that embodiment of the past? Yet, despite the impulse, Jesus’ call to discipleship means letting go of that past and leaving it completely, wholly behind. We cannot progress forward in the kingdom if we are continually reminiscing and regretting. The disciple’s work in the kingdom requires not just leaving “home” but the total abandoning of the past.

The third encounter draws on the literal meaning of the word disciple by alluding not just to letting go but the grasping of something new. There, Jesus engages a man who wishes to go but first asks to return home to say “good-bye.” Jesus, conjuring the image of grasping for his articulation of discipleship, tells the man that he cannot move forward properly if he looks backward. As the animal pulls the plow forward, the disciple cannot focused on “home” behind him at the bottom of the field. If he does, the plow will veer off course and not allow for the cultivation of the kind of kingdom Christ calls him to tend. So, if discipleship is leaving “home” and the letting it “die,” then discipleship is, also, tending to the present to “cultivate” the proper future.

Life as a disciple in the kingdom of God will be anything but “home” like. Christ’s kingdom will be unsettling, overturning, and progressive. The kingdom unsettles our expectations about how things are meant to be; it overturns our institutions that oppresses and alienate and exploit; it progresses toward a future of fulfillment that is more about how things will be to be than about how things were meant to be. This is the imagery of the discipleship Luke wishes render for his readers. And, in many ways, it is a disturbing picture.

After all, what’s wrong with “home?” In the gospel writer’s mind, there is nothing wrong with home, unless our concerns for “home” become something from which we cannot let go. “Home,” if it is about sacrificing the radical call of the kingdom for the comfortable climate of conformity, then we must let go of it. If “home” is about embracing tradition to the detriment of what might be achieved for the kingdom through imaginative innovation, then we must let go of it. If “home” is about looking backward more than progress forward, then it must be let go of before we carve out a grid for the kingdom that will not produce any viable outcome.

According to the writer of Luke, home and all it represents, while appealing, is not the metaphor for kingdom that the gospel writer chooses to deploy. Rather, to the contrary, the kingdom of discipleship is more about giving up home and all it represents than holding on to it. Unsettling as it might be, such a metaphor discourages complacency and demands change, of ourselves, our institutions, our imaginings, and, finally, our world.

Be a disciple of the kingdom. Change something for Christ this week.

Signs of Change

Posted in Uncategorized on February 14, 2011 by yhcreligiouslife

Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.
—John 14: 10-12

This is a very interesting passage from John’s gospel. The passage is interesting for several reasons, most centrally its depth of meaning and breadth of influence on theological considerations over the millennia. Some passages from scripture seem, almost, disposable. Theologians rarely refer to those passages during doctrinal deliberations. Then others passages, like this passage and those texts immediately around it, pop-up all the time, often directly referenced or lying just below the surface of many arguments.

In particular, I want to consider two parts of this text. First, the portion where John’s Jesus says, “I am in the Father and the Father is in me.” Second, the statement where Jesus continues by claiming, “the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these . . . .” Both of these statements have bearing on our understanding of the Trinity, but by informing significantly different notions of our doctrine of the Trinity.

Taking them in reverse order, the second statement implies both a continuity and continuation in action. In Trinitarian doctrine, this means we are speaking about the economic work of the Trinity. The economic work of the Trinity is but theological jargon used to describe how it is that God is visible in action toward the world. In other words, we perceive and experience God as creator, redeemer, and sustainer. From this theological angle, God’s actions toward us define our understanding of God. The tenor of continuity and continuation in this statement suggests, also, that those linked to this work (be that link through the incarnation of the human being Jesus or through the events of Pentecost in the case of the church) provide an unbroken line back to the source. This unbroken line implies that an event is not just efficacious because of its continuity but, also, because it is iconic, i.e., revelatory.

Icons are very important in Christian theology. Icons represent something; they are not the thing but a direct avenue to that thing. Think of the icons on our desktops. By clicking on an icon, we enter into an entirely new world of possibilities. We transition from seeing a picture that allows access to a program or the web actually to experiencing them. Icons both represent something and act as a portal to that something. Setting this notion of an event’s symbolic, iconic function to the side for a moment, we should turn to consider the other statement. We will return to this notion of representation shortly.

If the second statement was about our external impressions of God, then the first statement is about internal reality of God.

This first statement, let us say, refers to Jesus’ relationship—i.e., the Son’s relationship—with the other two persons of the Trinity. In other words, this statement discloses how we understand the internal interaction and dynamics of how the Father, the Son, and the Spirit connect and interrelate. A technical term used by the church to describe this immanent relationship within the trifold Godhead is perichoresis.

Perichoresis, or mutual interiority, is but a way of saying that the three persons of the Trinity mutually penetrate each other without compromising the individual Persons’ integrity while enhancing their collective’s unity. Alternatively, as the church often said, “there is comingling without confusion.” This doctrine has profound importance for our understanding of what it means to say we are “persons.” If we are created in God’s image and that existence is expressed in Trinitarian comingling, then our personal self-understanding and our derivative communities are meant to reflect that intimately, deeply united, communal existence defining that image. Moreover, we become the presenter of the Other or others. Through our presence, others are not just represented but made presently, really known.

Taking these two notions together, we see the act and being of God. As act, God and, therefore, we are iconic, always referencing that from which we come or share. As the Son references the Father, we reference them both through our love and through willingness to be loved. While God’s life is self-referential, our lives are meant to be divinely referential, pointing beyond ourselves back to God.

As being, we are linked to God through the incarnation, sharing a kind of perichoretic relationship with God. As such, not only do our lives point backward to God, but our lives, also, make God present to the world through our very presence with each other. Saying this another way, our lives as icons grant access backward and as conduits make The Presence present. We, therefore, are sacramental.

In the church, sacraments are those “sign-acts” that make a thing truly present through symbolic action. In the original Greek of the New Testament, the word we translate as “sacrament” in English is the word mysterion. More akin to our notion of “mystery”—though not synonymous—mysterion is a term that refers to the hidden depths of God. Moreover, according to James White, mysterion presumes an imbedded need to be made know. In other words, while hidden and obscure, the meaning of the word implies an irresistible impulse to enable that divine mystery to be known, if not intellectually, then experientially through present interaction. White says, “the basic insight in the use of this same term for those sign-acts which we call sacraments is that mysterion implies acts in which God is disclosed to us.”

In respect to tradition, the sacraments are officially limited within the church to certain practices. However, all of our lives—when understood through this iconic/conductive role—become sacramental. That is, they take on the “sign-act” function of making the mysterion of God known; knowledge that is acquired not so much through our speaking as through our shared living. We become a new kind of mysterion, revealing God to the world through our actions. If we are sacramental; then what image is cast? What God is revealed? What line may be traced back through us? Where will does that line lead? What kind of God does that line lead others to worshiping? Also, where do we take God? Where are we making God known? How are we making God know?

As God’s sign to the world, our actions matter because they are revelatory. Such is the burden of authentic vocation. And our vocation is to be God’s mystery made real to the world. If we are God’s signs, then we, too, are God’s living advertisements to the world, direct other towards and presenting the Divine. If this is the case, then it is our challenge to act in such a way that the God we disclose through our lives will not allow us to be charge with false advertizing.

Have a wonderful week and see you in chapel as we explore what it means to be a sign-act for God in the world.

Change Sin

Posted in Uncategorized on February 7, 2011 by yhcreligiouslife

Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins. Yet day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments, they delight to draw near to God. “Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high. Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD? Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Isaiah 58:1-7

The people of Judah are angry. They feel as though God is not upholding God’s part of the bargain, the covenant that God established with Moses. In Exodus 6:7, God speaks, saying, “I will take you to be my people, and I will be your God, and you shall know that I am the LORD your God, who has brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians.” This covenant forms the basis for Israel’s acceptance of the Ten Commandments and its abandoning other gods. In exchange for this loyalty, Israel returns successfully to the Promised Land, becomes prosperous, and presumes divine protection.

With the dividing of the kingdom of God into northern and southern halves and the advancing oppression of the Assyrians, Judah feels their loyalty to God has not been adequately rewarded. To underscore this point, Judah reminds God in the above text, “Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” These people of God complain that they have humbled themselves in submissive worship and embodied that faithfulness through ritual fasting, yet Assyria’s momentum and their inhalation seem inexorable.

However, God, through Isaiah, draws a different conclusion; God’s sees Judah’s fasting but glimpses it shallowness; God knows they worship but perceives their sinfulness.

While close, Judah’s efforts to worship and embody their faith have missed the mark.

In fact, the Hebrew word—chattah (and the later Greek translation—hamartia)—in the biblical text to describe the house of Judah’s failure by Isaiah is often translated as “sin.” Yet, the word literally means “to miss the mark.”

In Hebrew, three words are typically translated into English as “sin.” Each, however, means something significantly different. Avon, translated as “sin,” means “iniquity,” “perversity,” or “depravity”. Pesha, translated as “sin,” means “transgression,” “rebellion,” or “revolt.” Chattah, the most common word appearing in the Hebrews scriptures that is translated as “sin” means “to miss the mark.” Each of these words covers a different kind of human failure, and it is this last one—chattah—that occurs, here, in our passage. So, Isaiah specifically accuses Judah of missing the mark in their effort to fulfill their part of the divine covenant.

So, how has Judah sinned and missed the mark?

To answer this, it might prove useful first to understand what it means to say that someone or some group sins by missing the mark.

Within scripture, there is no comprehensive, systematic presentation of what sin is. Rather, the theological doctrine of sin emerges from a constellation of images, stories, and statements, creating a general view of what it means to say “sin.”

Stated positively, our understanding of sin starts not with a human failure but with a divine gift. In the first creation story, humanity is fashioned in God’s image, i.e., the imago dei. Then, the classic story of the “fall” intervenes. There, humanity decides to overstep its authority by assuming God’s place as the arbiter of good and evil. Both of these stories, while not necessarily meant to recall historic events, nevertheless offer significant theological insight. In other words, they are not meant to tell us how things got the way they are but are a reflection on how things are.

On the one hand, the imago dei is the notion of our being created in God’s image that sets us up not for a “fall” but for a “high” destiny. We are positioned as children of God, not God but like God in love, freedom, and community. On the other hand, the story of the fall captures our propensity just to miss the mark when given the option between two similar “trees.” Sin, in this way, seems to be about both, positively, what we might become and, negatively, what we nearly get right.

The broadest concept of sin in the Hebrew scriptures—chattah—captures this dual notion by borrowing a term from archery. An archer may faithfully and earnestly attempt to aim at a target but still miss the mark, sometimes overshooting the mark and other times undershooting. In so doing, the archer commits chattah.
Judah worshiped and fasted but for the wrong reasons, embodying the wrong outcomes. Judah’s wrong reason is that they engage in faithful practices but forsake God’s righteous ordinances, i.e., they do not care for the poor or the oppressed, connecting faith to life: “Yet day after day they [Judah] seek me [God] and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God . . . .” Using conventional language, Judah does not see how what they do on Sundays has any qualitative bearing on their Mondays. Specifically, this is seen in Judah’s practice of fasting, a fasting that does not but should lead to their feeding the hungry: “Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high. . . . Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?”

Specifically seen in this concern for fasting, Isaiah is reminding Judah that observing God’s ordinances should directly lead to righteous behavior. If not, the behavior is shallow; it is only two-dimensional. While on the surface, it looks right. However, it lacks the depth of true faith. Ultimately, Judah’s fasting misses the mark because not eating in faith should lead to feeding those who need to eat. This failure by Judah is the very essence of “original sin.”

Original sin is for some a theological doctrine designed to offer a genetic explanation for our tendency for failure. However, I do not find such ontological gymnastics helpful. Rather, as I see it, original sin is but a way to describe the two-fold character of our propensity to miss the mark.

Historically, Christian theology, according to Delwin Brown, classified sin into two categories: pride and sensuality. Classically, the word “pride” was used in a way that we tend not to use it today. This classic notion of pride, as Brown describes it, “is excessive self-regard, not adhering to appropriate limits, taking for oneself more than that to which one is entitled.” Today, we might use the word “arrogance” instead. In other words and to return to our story of the fall, pride is trying to act more like the Creator than one of the creations. Conversely, sensuality is not a disparaging of our physicality but a way of articulating an excessive focus on our physical needs and wants. In the classical sense, sensuality was associated with the lower self, our physical being. Notwithstanding some of the potential problems with such a division of the self, placing this notion in this classical context proves helpful because it explains how sensuality is but sin to another extreme. Therefore, if pride is our trying to be more than human, then sensuality describes our being less than human, failing to embrace our responsibilities and rise above our mere passions. In summary, Brown say “sin is disproportionate love, love that is out of balance—excessive or deficient love.” By saying that sin has a two-fold character, we are saying that the sin of pride is loving ourselves too much and the sin of sensuality is not loving ourselves enough.
Such excessive or deficient love as a descriptor of sin helps explain a lot.

For Judah, in the passage from Isaiah, they sinned because they did not love their neighbors who were poor, hungry, and disadvantaged. Rather, they loved their proximity to God but not the added responsibility of that position. For some, love in the excess leads to a selfish existence, being wrapped up in oneself, oblivious of the needs of the world and the love of our God all around us. For others, love in deficit leads not just to a selfless life but to a self-obliterating existence, allowing the self to dissolve and become of no value to oneself or others.

I could go on and on, but I think the point is clear. Sin and the doctrine of sin is not so much about violating clearly delineated rules and ways of living. To the contrary, recognizing sin can be as difficult as knowing true love. Nevertheless, we are compelled to search ourselves, our friends, our families, and our communities, identifying places where love has been misdirected, misused, or is simply missing. By learning to love well, our tendency “to miss the mark” on a variety of “sins” will diminish. Moreover, in our efforts to avoid missing the mark, to avoid sin, our efforts should focus on how we might love well. We should be less concerned with “targeting” what is wrong than “aiming” for what is right. As it turns out, a conversation about sin—something seemingly unavoidably negative in nature—is really a conversation about love—something inherently positive in nature. Love is the key. That is why Jesus, when asked, did not tell the Pharisee what the best rules were to follow to avoid sin and live righteously. Instead, Jesus focused not on the negative retributive nature of laws but upon the positive redistributive character of love as the basis for the holy life.

In this week that finds us racing towards Valentine’s Day and all of the saccharine sweetness that has come to define the day, may our attention not rest solely on the love surrounding candy hearts and red roses but upon a love that leads to a life more reflective of the divine than the mundane, remembering that “. . . these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”

Love well, sin less, and see you in chapel.