Twice a month I skype with a view other pastors about Walter Brueggemann's The Word Militant. As we were discussing the chapter today a line struck about the world of Job. Brueggemann describes the world in terms close to ours and opens the door for us to see the world as it is before us, and yet still offer up doxology.
Today the world was greeted with wonderful news that Sufjan Stevens has a new album arriving in March. It's preordered and ready to arrive. Below is the description of the album from his webpage and I'm excited by the themes he'll be exploring on this record. To live in an age of indignities, without myths or miracles, provides a realm for a kind of art that bring us out of our current haze. An album that seeks to present wisdom but also respond to our loneliness is beautiful concept and I'm really excited to hear it in March.
I'm also kind of hoping it turns out to be a concept album on Oregon. His 50 state project is dead but with songs titled "Eugene" and "Death with dignity" (our infamous law) it seems possible.
This icon is one I shared as part of my sermon this morning. You can see the watery chaos that God's Spirit brings life and order out of in Genesis 1. Jesus is one who gets into the chaos, that the Spirit descends into, and brings new creation out of it.
One of the things that has been instrumental theologically for me is long sustained reads of difficult and challenging texts. One of favorite classes in seminary was guided by my favorite professor, Dr. Jo-ann Badley, around reading all of James McClendon's three volume Systematic Theology. Today I was involved in discussion about what the Christian community is called to be, as well as discussions about the future of our denomination, but when I got home another pastor has posted a selection from McClendon's amazing work. This section is an exploration on the theme of authority and it struck me as relevant to the day discussion and informative for my own life. At the end he summarizes his point as this:
And to that, I say, Amen.
Unapologetic by Francis Spufford is a book worth reading. It's the kind of book that lifts up your faith, challenges you, and sparks great disagreements. I'm sure I'll write about it at some point. But this post is about Jars of Clay.
Jars of Clay, a Christian band that has been around long enough to release a 20 years anniversary album, has been a constant in my life. From Flood's release in High School (now I'm old) to every time I stumble over a different album or tune, they've been writing songs along my journey. They haven't all been great but one song, Worlds Apart belongs in any 10 greatest CCM songs list. But Oh, my God is a song that almost belongs in that category. It's a song that rages and laments. It builds into anger without clear resolution and leaves you in its wake.
What connects this recent book and the song is the lyric "what makes me so badly bent." Francis presents this understanding sin that “the human propensity to f@$! things up" or HPtFtU for short.. He goes into great detail how this is one of the true things we know clearly from looking at the world, from us to everything and everything back to us. Spufford presents clearly is a notion of a humanity as something badly bent. But he doesn't see as beyond repair and his primary image for what Jesus does for us is mending, a fixing, a restoring, In a word that we are bent, and sometimes, badly bent. The Jars of Clay song reaches deep into the HPtFtU as well. It displays all the bents, but not as an empty complaint, but as directed to the one who can mend us, repair us. Thinking through this lament as well as this repair is the kind of thing that brings me to pride.
Below are the lyrics to this amazing song, and I encourage you to check out Unapologetic.
At the moment I'm reading a book on writing by Annie Dillard. It came at me from the recommendation of a friend and I thought I'd dive in. While you can read it quickly it is not a 'quick' read. Last night I read a passage on chopping wood that didn't seem like much at the time, but kept me thinking all day. Below is the quote where she talks about how she finally came to understand cutting wood and the chapter moves on. At the end of the chapter she returns to it as metaphor for writing, but as a metaphor it expands past writing to task of living, being, and in some sense to our call to holiness. We don't get there by aiming at holiness, we have to see past that to aim at Jesus, and from there we get into holiness. "Aim for the chopping block" she says, "If you aim for the wood, you will have nothing. Aim past the wood, aim through the wood; aim for the chopping block."
Given that yesterdays post was on our relationship to time and my process of scheduling my week, today I thought I would share a quote that continually hangs at the front of calendar from Eugene Peterson. I don't remember where exactly the quote came but it reminds me that my call is both more than what I consume, but also the ordinary nature of this joyous calling,
Tonight as I was taking some time to fill in my weekly calender I came across a blog post written on the occasion of a fortieth birthday. The post contains a quote from theological muse, Karl Barth, that remarks about questions of life. It starts with Karl talking about the allotted time we have and brought to mind how filling out weekly schedule can be done with eye towards the one who is origin of life or the prison bar lines on the page. This question obivously goes beyond the weekly planning but perhaps it starts here as well.
Here is the quote but I encourage you to check out the post as well.
Lately I've been trying to preach without notes but just the text and a couple of post-its. Here's a recent example from a sermon on Christ the King Sunday:
The process has been interesting and it has freed up to speak more extemporaneously. It does seem that most people enjoy this format better than when I use a script or an outline but sometimes it loses the well crafted sentence and the tightness of a script.
One of the reasons for this foray is the wonderful podcast SermonSmith, a collection of interviews with preachers. The host of the podcast, John Chandler, is an acquaintance from seminary and many of the guests have been people I admire. The most recent one is my friend Meghan Good from Albany Mennonite. It's a great collection of interviews from people who are seeking to make the Bible alive in different contexts through different styles and engagements with text. John does a great job at asking questions so you can the different ways each person approaches the sacred task of preaching and the dynamics it involves. If you're someone who preaches on a regular basis I encourage you to give it a listen and see what creative avenues it leads you down.
Given this is the start of a new year I decided I would at least do more to share ideas that ruminating around in my head. Hopefully this will lead to writing more.
During my time on sabbatical this summer I read Being Christian by Rowan Williams. It's a wonderful short and meditative book that reflects on four themes from the Christian life: Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, and Prayer. Given that this week liturgical Christians will mark the Baptism of Jesus Rowan offers great reflections on baptism and Genesis (both lectionary readings). In offering this reflection between the watery chaos of creation and the waters that we join Jesus in baptism he writes:
Toward the end of last year, I took the long hard dive into reading Donna Tartt’s latest novel, The Goldfinch. As I read through this novel, I was drawn into her language around paintings and art. It gave me a desire to connect to paintings despite the fact that I have no real knowledge of the art world. But on a trip to Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon I pressed myself to find the art section and explore it in hopes of finding at least one book. As I wandered lost among the shelves of books of fine art I remembered an artist that I wrote a crummy paper on in seminary. I wasn’t sure where I had come across his art before but when I had seen some of his simple images, they ripped open a whole new place inside of me. They are, as one friend put it, haunting. Knowing his last name began with a ‘Rou’, I gave up exploring the whole art section and settled on finding his book.
The artist’s name is Georges Rouault. He was born in France in 1871 and passed away in 1958. One of the things that drew me to Rouault as an artist is the intertwining of life with his art. He once wrote, “My life and my art make a single whole”. Rouault was raised in a poor family, but more than that he was someone who saw the horrors of both World Wars as well as the Franco-Prussian war. His family was poor and destitute in many ways and it was the prompting of his grandfather that encouraged him to become an artist. I haven’t researched much of Rouault’s early life, but as he grew up he at times referred to his body as a “carcass”.
“And I'm hoping there's some larger truth about suffering here, or at least my understanding of it - although I've come to realize that the only truths that matter to me are the ones I don't, and can't, understand.
What's mysterious, ambiguous, inexplicable. What doesn't fit into a story, what doesn't have a story. Glint of brightness on a barely-there chain. Patch of sunlight on a yellow wall. The loneliness that separates every living creature from every other living creature. Sorrow inseparable from joy.”
Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch
Was revisiting some of my notes today from this amazing novel I read last year and was struck by this one all over again.
I don’t have a bone in my body that understands certain parts of evangelicalism. I deeply appreciate many things that I have learned from evangelicals and the witness they have been in my life, but at times I feel lost. It seems often times when confronted with certain evangelicals I’m being challenged to admit something is a problem so then we can agree with the evangelical answer to the problem. The greatest example of this is, of course, the debate of creationism and evolution. But another example is something I picked up from growing up in a mainline congregation and its understanding of sin.
Often I tell people I was raised in a church that taught me to take sin seriously by not taking it that seriously. That is, if sin is really a striving after nothingness, the lack of anything creative, and something that is completely overcome who in Jesus is, we have the ability to take it seriously by not taking it that seriously. Obviously, this can have problems, but looking at the alternative narrative in churches that take sin to a level of seriousness it begins to be seen dualistically.
What got me thinking about this was a quote posted at After Existentialism, Light. This quote comes a book of discussions with the great theologian Karl Barth. Here he is being asked if his theology lack any room for victory because he doesn’t take the opponents of God (sin and Satan) seriously enough. In his response he says this:
But because there must be room for the victory of Christ, you cannot be so anxious and pitiful and sad. Go on, explain the Work and Word of Christ, and you are above! We cannot deny the reality of evil and the Nothingness, but in and with Christ we are above these mysteries. It is not wise to be too serious. We must be serious, of course; life is hard. But we are not to take Satan as a reality in the same sense that Jesus is real.
This past year I didn't write here much, or at all. However, during that time I've had the chance to my writing to appear in a couple other places. Having my writing helped, shared, and worked over by others has been a real blessing. Here is a collection of links for some of the essays from the past year and I'll try to keep more active on this page over the next year as well as continuing to share my writing elsewhere.
In January I offered a look at Darwin Barney's 2012 errorless streak with the Cubs along side the book, The Are of Fielding that appeared in the Bleed Cubbie Blue Annual.
In the spring Jen Wise offered me the chance to write Home and Exile for her website Restoration Living.
In the fall of 2012 I started editing a section at The Other Journal. This was deeply rewarding this past year and it gave me the chance to review Baseball as Road to God by John Sexton. This essay most likely contains my personal philosophy on being a baseball fan.
And finally, the gracious editors at Fare Forward gave me venue for exploring my thoughts on Kanye West's recent tour.
Do you ever find yourself looking for the ‘high,’ the next motivational piece, spiritual experience, athletic technique, gardening tip, automotive gear, nature experience, or cellphone case?
This week the Lebanon School District had their annual group meeting and it’s one of the only chances Superintendent Rob Hess has to talk to all the school district employees at once. Rob had invited me the last two years to come listen to him but I had been unable to make it. This year he invited all the pastors and I happened to be free. Over dinner the night before Kelli told me how it is the big pep talk for the year and leans heavy into motivational territory. In response I remarked that Dr. Hess should really listen to all the interviews football players give about the big, high energy, speech a coach gives before the game. In most of those interviews the players say that the speeches are a lot of fun but that the high normally wears off by the end of the opening kick-off. While I merely said that to make a point, Kelli asked, “So what do they do after that?” It’s a good a question and thinking back to all those NFL Films I realized I knew the answer, “Practice.”
Practice is one of those things that seems so stale and dry. Most of us don’t get that excited about the idea of practice. Sure we’d sign up for the next big thing, the thing that will bring us to a high, to a peak, but the long slow work of practice isn’t really what we want.
This is true in our spiritual lives as well and it’s a temptation I face as a pastor to both provide and seek for myself. But as we all know, the high wears off, and we go back to daily life. But what if we reverse the trend? What if take the time to learn our scales by reading the bible, praying, fasting, and seeking connection with other and Jesus. What if we bring ourselves daily to the things that slowly shape us and make it possible for us to still have the highs, but that see daily life, the going to work, the taking care of the kids, the regular Sunday, and the regular rituals of life, as where things really happen? It’s a challenge to get out of the motivational mindset, and it certainly is needed at times, but if we open ourselves up to the practices and the disciplines that can shape us daily, we give God more opportunity to enter into our days. And it is in our daily life that is the place where God is going to come up to us, to call us to die to ourselves, and follow him.
The point of this volume is simple enough: to live is to give up and give away parts of ourselves. This is not just a comment about the social character of our lives. Giving up parts of ourselves fuels our very being as persons: it is how we learn, it is how we think, it is how we grow, it is how we make decisions, it is how we love. In giving up, of course, we are also gaining something new, although that is not entirely obvious, just as it s not always clear what we are losing as we live, at least not until the very end of this or that process. To live is to give up parts of ourselves, and to live fully is to give ourselves away fully. This is the simple Christian corollary of the fundamental character of human living, and it is not a novel claim in the least: "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Ephraim Radner, A Brutal Unity, p. 1
Patheos was nice enough to give my a copy of A Brutal Unity as long as I wrote a short blog post about it (see previous post). Since I am always game for free books I liked the idea but the real reason is that I find Radner's writing to be a challenge for me in the places I live. For instance, the quote above from the opening paragraph is one I haven't be able to stop think about since I read it. It is a simple quote but its one that cuts to the heart. It gets me asking about what it means to give up, and the knowledge that is how we live, we learn, and most importantly, love. The idea that giving away of ourselves is fundamental to our living is a difficult truth but one that me must live with. It pushes me into prayer. Prayer being the place where we can learn the ability to what it means to give oneself away, and also to know where we can find ourselves again.
“In this life that is God’s, any Anglican—or Roman Catholic or Methodist or Lutheran—can be a Pentecostal; any Catholic Protestant can be an evangelical Protestant; any member of one church can be a member of another that from the first; any Roman Catholic can be a Protestant. Any Christian can do this not because standards of truth have been cast away but because the standards can be suffered, in their very contradiction by the place where he or she will go with Jesus.” (p. 447)
This past Sunday I had the privilege of being ordained into the pastorate by my denomination, Mennonite Church USA. One of the questions for ordination has to do with upholding the Confession and Standards of the Mennonite church. Since I am an ecclesial mutt, raised Presbyterian, discipled by evangelicals, interned for Southern Baptists, helped by the Emergent, married by Episcopalians, schooled in a nondenominational setting, then finally arriving in the Mennonite church, this was one of the harder vows to take on. Not because I have plans to break them, but because of Ephraim Radner.
Before I confronted Ephraim Radner’s work in lectures at Seattle Pacific, which lay out much of the argument of the book, I had already been dissuaded from attempting to find a ‘true’ church, or the right ecclesial structure. However, Radner’s work in A Brutal Unity doesn’t attempt to dissuade from that search but to call out that finding correct expression of the church but that even in finding it you’re not exempt from the dimensions of the discipleship. For Radner, this comes to direct head in Philippians 2:
The ‘one mind’, the ‘same mind’, the ‘same love’, the ‘full accord’ of which Paul speaks…cannot refer to such unified agreement. Rather, oneness of mind is received through have the “mind of Christ,” which is the one who gave up the form of God for that of a slave and emptied himself into death. Paul’s words do not constitute a denial of God, but point instead to a suffering of the contradiction between obedience in unity with the world that is filled with “tribulation” and seemingly mastered by one who is not God (cf. John 16:11,33). And it gives rise to the exalted life of God’s redemption. (P. 446)
While reading the book I thought of a lot about how it would connect to different Pastors, but one in particular who ran a well-known reformed blog. His blog was reformed in that “young, restless, reformed” way and it demonstrated the Spirit of one who had supposedly found the correct doctrine and church. But then his opinion of the Solas changed to the point where he felt he had to resign his ministry to join the Catholic Church. I don’t feel he knew that his first call was not the right doctrine and ecclesial life to the very people whom he was connected with. For Radner staying would not have meant the denial of the correct doctrines he had found, but the suffering of them for the community and relationships he had been called to.
So to put it concretely: I’m an ordained Mennonite pastor. But I, the Mennonite pastor, can be faithful to that call by possibly becoming something else because I’m a Christian, by suffering that very contradiction to go the places I will let Jesus take me. For “Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood. Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore. For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.” (Hebrews 13:12-14)
A Brutal Unity is in fact brutal. But it’s brutality is much like Pandora’s box that when everything that is evil has come out, we find hope. This is the hope we find in Jesus who gives “himself over to something that is not God.” (p. 12-13) Let us hand ourselves over as well.