Archive for February, 2015

Keep Moving Forward

Posted in Uncategorized on February 23, 2015 by yhcreligiouslife

Moving ForwardIn those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’ And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him. Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’

—Mark 1:9-15

Jesus has a job to do.  According to Stanley Hauerwas’ interpretation of Jesus’ journey into the wilderness immediately following Jesus’ baptism by John, we get a glimpse as to the unique nature of the job Jesus is about to undertake.  As prompted by the above Lenten reading from Mark’s gospel, we might remember the threefold temptation Jesus endures, there, in the wilderness on his 40-day job interview.  Jesus is asked to turn rocks into bread to satisfy his hunger, to throw himself from the temple to be rescued by God, and to worship Satan in exchange for ruling the world.  And, following each temptation, Jesus successfully resists.

A Christian theologian and ethicist, Hauerwas reads this text as not just a way of demonstrating Jesus’ fidelity to and clarity for his mission and work.  Hauerwas sees in Jesus’ resistance a sophisticated literary presentation by the gospel writer, outlining the vocational character of Jesus’ work.

In resisting the temptation to speak rocks into bread, Jesus demonstrates that the nourishing power imbedding in speaking the word of God is not to be self-serving but to feed the powerful the truth of their abuses and to feed the oppressed with the hope of liberation.  In resisting the temptation to throw himself from the temple, Jesus acknowledges that his mediation of the Divine to the human is not to link himself to God but to serve as a conduit that connects God and humanity to each other.  In resisting the temptation to worship Satan in exchange for ruling the world, Jesus recognizes that the kingdom he is to rule is not an inheritance of power.  Rather, his ruling is but part of an entirely new kingdom yet to be made visible, a kingdom characterized not by present standards but by radically different conceptualizations of power.  In other words, Jesus’ job is uniquely defined by the characteristics of prophecy, priesthood, and kingship.  He is well suited for his soon-to-be-assumed profession.

Our word “profession” originates with a Latin word professus, meaning “to declare publicly.” Thus, someone’s profession is what one claims she is committed to doing.  And, the degree to which one is successful in her profession may be measured against the degree to which she adheres to the virtues and attributes associated with that profession. For instance, a successful teacher is someone who carries out well the tasks associated with teaching, including the virtues she might require to enable learning to occur.  If a teacher is to be judged faithful to the task of teaching, she needs to be knowledgeable in her field, understand techniques of communicating information, and create a trusting relationship with students that enable challenging instruction and exacting but affirming evaluation.  As an example, if a teacher makes her students feel disliked or disrespected, then those students will not trust their teacher, preventing those students from opening themselves up for the necessary vulnerability required for new instruction, expression of personal thoughts, critical evaluation, and radical change.

For Jesus, his job requires prophecy, priestliness, and kingship.  He is professionally successful in his work to the degree to which he serves those roles and (in some respects) the degree to which he helps redefine them to accomplish his chosen tasks.

As prophet, Jesus routinely speaks truth to power, the task associated with prophets.  Recall his encounter with Nicodemus, a leader in the Sanhedrin.  Nicodemus, a leader meant to guide the Jews in the light of God, meets Jesus in the dark.  In that meeting, the light of the world found in Jesus enlightens this leader with a declaration that leading is done more through self-sacrificial service than anything else.

As a priest, Jesus regularly mediates humanity with Divinity, the role of the priest.  In his ministry, Jesus explains and bodily demonstrates that the link between God and humanity is found in their intersecting love.  Consider his many conversation with the Pharisees, love serves as the origin and nexus of life, a life defined by a love that gives more than receives, lets in more than keeps out, and expands more than contracts.

As a king, Jesus rules with power.  Yet, his rule is defined by a power that seeks not to dominate but to empower the powerless.  Jesus encourages Mary’s position as a disciple; he lifts up Zacchaeus who was thought low; and, in the end, he authorizes his followers to embody the creative—not restrictive—power exuding from a life found through rebirth in him.

While unorthodox, in Jesus we find a model for work that conforms to our standards as to what we might expect and the realization that fidelity to our work does not demand mindless inflexibility but assumes some innovation to execute our work.  Underneath Jesus’ entire ministry, a singularly important virtue seems required, a virtue we might call flexible constancy.  Flexible constancy is that capacity to remain committed to one’s task while nimble enough to adjust as needed to different circumstances.

Recognizing the importance for flexible constancy as a cardinal virtue is important as we all move toward the embodiment of our own work and, possibly more importantly, in our own faith.  To be faithful does not mean we cannot innovate, as long as our innovations keep our proper end or goal in mind.  Such fidelity to the vision of who we are called, destined, or hoping to be will ensure that we arrive at our goal and do so virtuously, faithfully.

Like Paul might have suggested to the Corinthians, the faithful life requires our ability to bob and weave, as long as we keep pressing forward toward our final goal.

Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it. Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable garland, but we an imperishable one. So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air; but I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified.

—1 Corinthians 9:24-27

Keep moving forward.  Have a great week and see you along the way.


A Different Kind of Holy Washing

Posted in Uncategorized on February 16, 2015 by yhcreligiouslife

Ash WednesdayAs he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see.

John 9:1-7

Often, one of the assigned scripture readings for this season in the Christian calendar is this story of healing from John’s gospel.  In this story, we read John’s recounting an occasion when Jesus met a blind man, engaged in a rather esoteric conversation with his disciples around the connection between sin and physical capacities, and, then, healed the blind man.  This story continues with additional debates amongst others regarding sin and various impairments and a realization that Jesus is the anticipated Son of Man.  This story captures many themes that define John’s text: (1) Jesus’ famous “I am” sayings, (2) the light and darkness contrasts, and (3) Jesus’ very public ministry, a ministry that offers repeated signs indicating who Jesus is.  This very public healing and the surrounding debate concerning the nature and propriety of Jesus’ actions amongst those within and outside Jesus’ inner circle stands in stark contrast to a similar healing story that takes place in Mark’s gospel.

In the middle of Mark’s gospel, Jesus encounters another blind man.  In that story from Mark’s gospel, Jesus, also, heals a man who is blind by rubbing saliva on his eyes.  Yet, there, in Mark’s gospel, the story has a rather different tone:

They came to Bethsaida. Some people brought a blind man to him and begged him to touch him. He took the blind man by the hand and led him out of the village; and when he had put saliva on his eyes and laid his hands on him, he asked him, ‘Can you see anything?’ And the man looked up and said, ‘I can see people, but they look like trees, walking.’ Then Jesus laid his hands on his eyes again; and he looked intently and his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly. Then he sent him away to his home, saying, ‘Do not even go into the village.’

 Mark 8:22-26

Instead of performing a public healing, Mark has Jesus doing two very different tasks, directly contrasting John’s story.  First, Jesus takes the blind man away from everyone else so that Jesus’ healing might not be witnessed by others.  Second, after the healing, Jesus asks the blind man to go directly to his home, avoiding the village (and, therefore, public recognition of what Jesus just did.)


Why would John’s story and Mark’s story differ so significantly?  Why would John assume that Jesus’ healing was meant to give evidence as to who Jesus is while Mark wants Jesus to remain obscure?  The answer seems to reveal the agenda motivating and permeating both writers’ gospels.

On the one hand, Mark is writing for a community uncertain about Jesus’ ultimate character and their perseverance with a faith in the midst of suffering and an uncertain future.  Mark wants his community to understand that knowing precisely who Jesus is will always remain somewhat mysterious, blurry.  And, that such uncertainty about Jesus and their futures and faith is a natural and expected condition for a follower of Jesus.  In other words, they are in good company, and they are experiencing faith as it is expected to be experienced.

On the other hand, John is writing from a completely different perspective, penning his text much later in the life of the early church and writing from a position evidencing more confidence and certainty as to who and what Jesus is—I mean, just look at his prologue to the gospel!  In John’s text, Jesus never obscures who he is but boldly offers sign after sign and repeatedly declares “I am this” and “I am that,” intentionally echoing the encounter with Moses and God at the burning bush and Moses asking God’s name—a name recorded as “I am who I am.”  In other words, Mark’s gospel is about a faith that requires extra work to see well, while John’s gospel is about a faith that supplies a light, i.e., Jesus, by which to see the world better: “As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” (John 9:5)

As interesting a point as it is that both these distinct healing stories sit within the same New Testament, it is equally compelling that both these healing stories are part of the assigned texts suggested be read during the season of Lent.  What are we to do with these two texts, and why are they both offered to us during this season of the Christian year?  While there may be several answers to these questions, here, I propose a few I find useful.

As already mentioned, these gospel writers seem to want to accomplish different tasks with their stories.  Mark wants us to be comforted in our struggles, while John wants us to turn our gaze upon the world, looking at it with the eyes/light of Jesus.  This last point leads to my second thought.

Typically, Mark’s text is assigned earlier in the lectionary cycle for the season of Lent, reminding us that as we being our introspective Lenten journeys that ignorance, uncertainty, and confusion are appropriate companions.  The time spent in introspection will lead to some clarity, but clarity is rarely found on the first try.  John’s text, conversely, generally comes closer to the end of the Lenten season, as a prompt to draw our thoughts out from ourselves and toward the world, beginning a transition from looking at ourselves with greater clarity to looking at our world through the eyes/light gifted to us via our recent introspection.  As it turns out, there are many ways to look at the world, and the Lenten season is but a reminder regularly to view it through the sight of love and grace, justice and peace offered through a life of faith.

So, this week, we are challenged to view the world with a greater level of intensity through an enlightened lens of love as the Christian calendar turns another page. The Christian tradition, as it is with many religious traditions, follows a distinct calendar revealing the contours of the faith.  That calendar turns a page, moving from post-Epiphany wanderings to the intentional journey of Lent that ends at the foot of the cross on Good Friday.  That page’s turning is marked with the ashes of a Wednesday service of humble reflection.  This Wednesday is Ash Wednesday. Ash Wednesday is the start of a 40-day journey of introspection and transformation.

In the early church, catechumens—those preparing for membership in the church—started a 40-day journey, preparing for initiation into the church through a change in habits, perspective, and faith. Echoing Jesus’ 40-days of wilderness preparation as he initiated his ministry, these soon-to-be members would prepare themselves during Lent by looking inward in personal transformation before gazing outward in world re-imagination.  If you are able, join us this week at our Ash Wednesday service, laboring to see the world through new eyes.  And, regardless, continue your own journey of faith, struggling to see the world through new eyes of love and grace each and every day.

Have a good week and see you along the way.

A True Love Story

Posted in Uncategorized on February 9, 2015 by yhcreligiouslife

love-shoesWhy do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” . . . 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, selected verses

In this passage from Isaiah, 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 Judah’s 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 this 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 Hebrew 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 or 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 oversteps its authority by assuming God’s place as the arbiter of good and evil. Both of these formative 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 really are.  Theologians call these kinds of stories etiological.

On the one hand, the imago dei is the notion of humanity’s 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 a 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. In so doing, the archer commits chattah.

In the text from Isaiah above, 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.  That is, they do not connect faith to life: “Yet day after day [Judah] seek[s] me [i.e., 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 . . . .”

Judah sees no connect between the substance of their faith practices and the living of their lives. 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?”

Explicitly 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 regulating your 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 theologian 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 the 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 dualistic division of the self, placing this notion in a 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 says “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.  Both miss the mark!

Such excessive or deficient love as a descriptor of sin helps explain a lot.

For Judah, in this 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 and to identify 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.  Stated positively, 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. 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 holy and less troubled with being just wholesome, remembering that “. . . these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”

Love well and see you along the way.

A Wet Winter’s Day

Posted in Uncategorized on February 2, 2015 by yhcreligiouslife

On theGround Hog day that Punxsutawney Phil caught a glimpse of his shadow, “guaranteeing” six more weeks of winter, it seems seasonally appropriate to offer a winter themed iChapel. 

Flowing from deep Teutonic springs, Groundhog Day is that moment when we rely upon the mercurial disposition of a land-beaver to predict the remaining length of winter.  While playful yet puzzling, our attending to this annual ritual of watching a groundhog dart in and out of a hole speaks to our lingering and latent desire to move from darkness to light, from the old to the new, from the chill of winter to the warming beams of spring.  As today’s brooding and dripping clouds remind us, this dark season is certainly in control.  But, as Phil’s prediction attests, winter’s reign is but for a season, a season shortening by the day.

To honor winter’s presence while, also, looking forward to spring, I offer this poetic reflection on this season.  Enjoy the poem by Matthew Holloway, keep warm, and share with me a hope for the coming of spring, a hope that lengthens with each day’s gentle celestial turn.

Peace and see you along the way.

“Ode to winter”

Ode, ode to the winter
What music plays to sonnet
While a world drifts to sleep
Leaves curl and flowers bow
Birds take flight to a further place
A touch of frost creeps in
Stealing the landscape of its colour
Soon all shall be held motionless
In the still of a winters season
Now in all its changing
The beauty and perfection of life
Is left open to be witnessed
Savoured by the eye of an artist
To feed the soul, nourish the heart
This melancholy season
This changing landscape
What beauty it reveals
In an ode to the winter