Archives For Karl Barth

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Jason Micheli —  September 9, 2018 — 3 Comments

I kicked off our fall sermon series, “The Questions God Asks,” by looking at the first question God asks us in scripture: “Adam, where are you?” In Genesis 3.

Let’s not dicker around. 

Let’s get right to the heart of the matter. 

Let me give to you the gospel, distilled and straight up:

As a called and ordained preacher in the Church of Jesus Christ, and therefore by Christ’s authority and Christ’s authority alone, I declare unto you— every last one of you— the entire forgiveness, the full and complete remission, the entire forgiveness of all your sins.

Every last one of them.

You are forgiven in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Amen.

There you go. 

Everything else I could say is just a footnote to the gospel. 

From beginning to end, from Genesis to Revelation, everything in the word is about God finding us and forgiving us of our sins because the one Word of God, the Word God speaks to us, is Jesus Christ. 

He’s the Word of God, who came declaring the forgiveness of sins and who confirmed that announcement of our atonement by his cross. 

So then, having given you the gospel, here’s my question: Why are you hiding?

———————-

Why are you hiding?

Everything has already been done; all your sins are forgiven. 

So why are you hiding?

Whereas Adam and Eve hide from God behind some trees in the garden (not real smart), we hide everywhere (even dumber). From the all-knowing, all-seeing, all-powerful Lord who knows the secrets of all our hearts, we hide all the time. Pretty stupid.

Some of you— maybe all of you— are hiding right now, here. 

Just as Bruce Wayne is really Batman’s costume, we hide behind the selves we project in public. Just as Bruce Banner is never not angry, we’re never not hiding in plain sight. 

Our true selves— they’re the ones we tell Google. 

In an article from the Guardian last month entitled “Everybody Lies,” U.S. data analyst Seth Stevens writes about what our Google search history reveals about us, about who we are when we think no one is looking. Google may not be God (yet), but Google knows to be true what we discover about ourselves in Genesis 3. 

As Seth Stevens begins his essay: 

“Everybody lies. Everybody’s hiding. People lie about how many drinks they had on the way home. They lie about how often they go to the gym, how much those new shoes cost, whether they read that book. They call in sick when they’re not. They say they’ll be in touch when they won’t. They say it’s not about you when it is. They say they love you when they don’t. They say they like women when they really like men. People lie to friends. They lie to bosses. They lie to kids. They lie to parents. They lie to doctors. They lie to husbands. They lie to wives. They lie to themselves. And they damn sure lie to surveys.

Many people will underreport embarrassing, shameful behaviors or thoughts on a survey— even an anonymous survey— it’s called social desirability bias. We want to look good; we want to be counted good. So if we think someone is looking at us, we hide. We lie.”

And so, for example, in one survey Seth Stevens conducted 40% of a company’s engineers reported that were in the top 5%. And in another survey, 90% of college professors say they do above average work. It’s not just professors and engineers. We learn to lie and hide young. You might say it’s original to us. Over one-quarter of high school students, for example, will say when surveyed that they are in the top 1% of their class. I mean, I was…(but was I?). 

Whenever we think someone sees us, Seth Stevens writes, we hide. 

We lie. 

The only way to truly see someone— to see their true self— is to see them when they think no one sees them. In this regard, Stevens writes, Google’s search engine serves as a sort of “digital truth serum.” It’s online. It’s alone. And no one will see what you search (you think). 

Says Stevens:

“The power in Google data is that people tell the giant search engine things they might not tell anyone else. Google was invented so that people could learn about the world, but it turns out the trail our search history leaves behind our reveals more about us. Our search history reveals the disturbing truth about our desires and insecurities, our fears and our prejudices.”

For example, the word that most commonly completes the googled question “Is my husband…?” is gay. In second place, cheating. Cheating is 8 times more common a search than the third most searched question: alcoholic. And alcoholic is 10 times more common than the next most common, depressed. 

Proving the point about our private and our pretend selves, the most popular hashtag on social media using the very same words is the hashtag #myhusbandisthebest. 

Is my husband cheating?

#myhusbandisthebest

We filter out the truth from the self we post in public.

But Google knows us better than Facebook. 

For example, Google knows that no matter how many fitdad #s you use on Instagram, odds are you’re worried about your Dad Bod. 42% of all online searches about beauty or fitness come from men. One-third of all weight loss seaches on Google come from men. 

This will surprise you if that doesn’t: one-quarter of all Google searches about breasts (calm down) come from men wanting to get rid of their man-boobs— and only 200 of those searches were from me.

We hide everywhere except the place that isn’t anywhere, the internet. Google’s search engine knows our true selves, and survey says: we’re sinners.

For example, one of the most common questions we ask Google— brace yourselves, it’s not pretty— “Why are black people so rude?” 

And the words most often used in searches about Muslims: 

Stupid

Evil

Kill.

In fact, according to Google’s seach history:

The phrase “Kill Muslims” is searched by Americans with the same frequency as “Migraine Symptons” and “Martini Recipes.”

I’ve got a headache and need a drink just trying to digest that ugly fact. 

It gets worse. 

Every year— evey flipping year— 7 million of us (that’s 7 MILLION OF US, 7 million AMERICANS) search “nigger” in Google. Not counting rap or hip hop lyrics, 7 million searches. The Google searches are highest whenever African Americans are in the news, spiking with President Obama’s first election and Hurricane Katrina. 

Says Seth Stevens in his essay:

“Google’s data would suggest the real problem in America for African Americans is not the implicit, unintended racism of well-intentioned people but it is the fact that millions of Americans every year continue to do things like search for nigger jokes.” 

It’s not just our prejudice we hide. 

Stevens notes how after President Trump’s election the most frequent comments on social media in liberal parts of the country were about how anxious progressives felt about immigrants, refugees, and global warming. On the contrary, the Google search history in those same parts of the country suggests progressives aren’t at all as anxious about immigrants, refugees, or global warming as they want their peers to think. Survey says they’re more worried about their jobs, their health, and their relationships.

Survey says we’re sinners. 

We lie. 

And we hide. 

In 2015 after President Obama’s speech about inclusion and islamaphobia following the San Bernandino shooting in which 2 Muslims killed 14 of their coworkers, searches about how to help Muslim refugees plummeted almost by half. Meanwhile, negative searches about Muslims rose over 60%. 

Obama telling Americans what they ought to do better elicited the opposite effect. 

In an interview about his work and essay, Seth Stevens says: 

“I had a dark view of human nature to begin with. Working with the Google data, it’s gotten even darker. I think the degree to which people are self-absorbed is pretty shocking; therefore [pay attention now], we can’t fight the darkness by turning to ourselves. We’re the problem.

We can only fight the darkness by looking outside of ourselves.” 

———————-

And that brings me to my first point. 

I know, I haven’t preached any 3-point sermons here yet, but we’ve been dating long enough for me to get to second base with you.

So, my first point: we are lost. 

If your search history doesn’t indict you (and odds are it does), then scripture does indict you. If Google doesn’t confirm it for you, God already did in the garden by that first question he asked us: “Adam, where are you?”

Where— God’s question is about location. 

Meaning, our problem is about lostness. 

Notice, the Almighty doesn’t ask what any of us would ask. God doesn’t start off by asking any what, why, how, or who questions.

Who are you?! I thought I knew you, Adam!?

How could you have betrayed me, Adam?!

What did you do?!

Why did you do the one thing I asked you not to do?!

God asks: Where are you?

God doesn’t ask what they did or why they did it or how come they did it. God doesn’t ask about the sin; God asks where they are, which means our lostness isn’t about guilt. It’s about shame.  Guilt is when you’ve done something wrong. Shame is when you believe that you are the wrong you’ve done.  And so you hide.

That’s why “love the sinner, hate the sin” is a crappy cliche because from Adam on down we sinners think we are our sins. We can make no distinction between who we are and what we’ve done. We are lost in shame. 

And notice what our shame produces. No sooner has he swallowed the fruit than Adam goes from declaring breathlessly of Eve “Bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh…” to grumbling to God: “This woman you gave me…” Adam manages to blame both Eve and God in a single sentence. Meanwhile, Eve tries to explain herself with a long run-on sentence of 55 words. In other words, our shame begets blame and self-justification. 

And what’s the Hebrew word for blame?

Satan. 

Our shame turns us into a kind of satan, blaming others and justifying ourselves. 

Our lostness— our shame— it turns God into a kind of satan too. Ashamed, we run and hide from the God whose given absolutely no reason for fear. And we’ve been hiding in the bushes ever since. 

Shame and fear are our chronic condition. Where Adam and Eve had a choice to trust and obey God, we do not. As St. Augstine said, the choice available to Adam and Eve is no longer open to us. 

This is why it’s incredibly dumb to debate whether or not this story literally happened in history. It doesn’t matter where on a timeline Adam and Eve may or may not fall because the point is that they are us. 

As the 39 Articles of John Wesley’s prayerbook puts it: “The condition of humankind after the Fall of Adam is such that we cannot turn and prepare ourselves by our own natural strength to God.”

We are lost and our lostness is such that we cannot turn to find God (or even seek God) on our own. When it comes to faith and the things of God, Wesley’s prayerbook says, our wills our bound. We require help from outside of us: “Adam, where are you?” 

We are lost in our shame— shame that produces blame and self-justification. We require an external word. For us, this external word is the gospel. It’s the word from outside of us that God gives to us through the Word, through water, and through wine and bread. 

You see, God is a loquacious God. 

The God who spoke creation into being is a God who is constantly interrupting our creation, searching us out with his gospel word. 

This is why people need the Church. This is why people need a Risen Lord. Because without the Church, without Christ using the Church for his word, people are lost. They’re hiding in the bushes, dead in their sins. So forgot that nonsense attributed to St. Francis: “Preach the gospel. If necessary use words.” Even if St. Francis had said that (he didn’t) it’s wrong.  Just as St. Paul says, what was true of Adam and Eve is true today for all of us. We’re lost so faith— salvation— it comes by no other means but words. Salvation comes from what is heard: “Adam, where are you?”

————————

     And that brings me to my second point. What God’s first question reveals about you is that you are sought. 

I know some of you think I’m obsessed with grammar but that way of putting it is important: you are sought. 

You are not the subject of the sentence.  God is not the object of your seeking. I know lots of churches like to have what are called “seeker services,” but let’s get real. We’re hiding in the bushes. 

Go to Google if you find Genesis hard to swallow. On our own, left to our own devices, whatever is at the end of our searching might be a little-g god but it will not be God the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth. 

You are sought. 

We do not seek out God. We seek out a hiding place from him. We do not search for God. God searches for us. 

And this is important, this distinction between seeking and being sought, because it shapes how you read scripture. 

Every other religion in the world is about you seeking after God (and doing what you ought to do to get closer to him), but the strange new world of the Bible, Karl Barth says, is that it tells, from beginning to end, of God’s search for us. 

If you’re looking to the Bible for insights into history or politics, Karl Barth says, you’d do better to turn to the newspaper because those are not questions the Bible tries to answer. If you’re looking for teachings on morality, ethics, justice, virtue, or just everyday practical advice, good luck with that, Karl Barth says, because you’ll find large swaths of scripture useless and Jesus Christ has absolutely no interest in your everyday practical life. 

If you go to the Bible searching for how you can find God, you’re only going to walk away frustrated, Barth says.

Because—

The Bible does not tell us what to think about God; it tells us what God thinks of us The Bible does not teach us what we should say about God; it teaches us what God says about us. The Bible does not show us how to seek God; it shows us this God who searches us out those who will not come to him.

The Bible, says Barth, is God’s search history not ours. 

———————-

  And that brings me to my final point. 

“Adam, where are you?” God’s first question to you reveals to you that you are found. 

Barth again— Karl Barth says that Adam and Eve aren’t just the first humans, they’re the first Christians. They’re the first Christians, for they are the first ones to receive the gospel promise of the forgiveness of sins. 

And what this question from God conveyed to them, it conveys to you: the entire forgiveness of your sins. Because remember— God’s word works; that is, God’s word in scripture always accomplishes what it says. 

For you nerds, you can put it this way:

There is no ontological distance between what God says and what God does. 

God says “Let there be light” and there’s light.

God says “It is very good” and it is. 

God in Jesus Christ says “Your sins are forgiven” and therefore, as surely as his word hung the stars in the sky, you are forgiven.

God’s word works. It accomplishes what it says.

So, to have God ask you “______, where are you?” is to already be found. 

To have God search for you is to already be found. Even though you’re still hiding in plain sight, still estranged in shame and sin, still you are found. 

———————-

Back to my original question— Why are you still hiding?

Or, instead of why maybe the better question is how: How do we come out of hiding? How do we who have been found already no longer linger in our lostness? 

In his essay in the Guardian, Seth Stevens notes how there was one manner of speech in President Obama’s addresses about islamaphobia that had a measurable effect on driving down American’s sinful Google searches. 

Recall Stevens’ findings that President Obama’s San Bernadino speech about how we ought not fear Muslims had the opposite effect. The more Obama argued that we ought to do better about being more loving and respectful of Muslims, the more the people he was trying to reach became enraged. 

The Google data confirms it, Stevens writes, the more you lecture angry people the more you fan the flames of their fury. The more you exhort them about their prejudice the more their prejudice will persist.

But one form of words worked

According to the Google search history, what reduced people’s rage and racism, Stevens notes— what reduced their sin was whenever Obama spoke about Muslims being our neighbors. And what had an even greater change on people was when Obama spoke of Muslim neighbors who served in the military and what had the greatest change upon people was when Obama spoke of Muslim American soldiers who gave their lives as a sacrifice for us, who died for us.

In other words, to put it in St. Paul’s words, the survey says the way to get sinners to change— it isn’t the Law. It’s the Gospel. 

The way to get sinners to change isn’t by admonishing them about what they ought to do. 

It’s by telling them what has already been done, for them. 

God’s gospel word works.

In other words, the gospel isn’t a word about something that God did. 

The gospel is the word by which God does. 

That’s why everything we do here—and especially in here— needs to be surrounded by and bookended by the gospel because it is the power God works in the world, says St. Paul. 

The way we come out of hiding is by hearing not the Law (what we ought to do) but by hearing the Gospel (what has been done). 

We change not by hearing what Adam and Eve did wrong that we must do better. We change by hearing how God sought out Adam and Eve and found them in their naked shame and— what did God do?

God gave them animal skins to wear. 

Medieval paintings always show Adam and Eve leaving the garden naked and in tears, but that’s not what happens in the story. God clothes them in animal skins. 

Where God created from nothing, their forgiveness costs God something. 

Their forgiveness costs God a part of his creation. God sacrifices for their sake.

And then one day, in the fullness of time, your forgiveness cost God too.

God became your neighbor. 

God sacrificed. 

God gave himself for you. 

In order to clothe you— once, for all— with his Son.

God clothes you with Christ’s righteouness. 

Though the survey says you lie and hide like the First Adam, you don’t need to— no matter what you’re searching online— because the Father has dressed you in the righteousness of the Second Adam. 

He searches you out, and when he finds you, he chooses to see not your sin or your shame but his Son.

The search history that defines you is not the search history that shows up on your screen.

The search history that defines you is the search history that begins here.  With “Adam, where are you?” Given what Google says about you and me, that’s good news. It’s news that faith alone— only faith— can corraborate.

I first heard about a theologian named Karl Barth when, having been a Christian for just more than a year, I was a freshman at the University of Virginia. I dumped a class on Chaucer and added something called ‘Elements of Christian Thought’ taught by David Bentley Hart. DBH and, through him, KB changed my life just as profoundly as Woodlake UMC had in the time leading up to college.

For the uninitiated, Karl Barth is inarguably the most consequential theologian of the 2oth century- at least the 20th century. His theology, starting with his commentary on Romans, declared NEIN to the modern liberal theolgy in which he’d been schooled and in which most Protestant denominations today still exist. He synthethized Luther and Calvin in a way that bypassed the evangelical fundamentalism of his day and ours. He resisted Nazism not through political means but through insistence on Jesus Christ as Lord and as the One Word which God speaks. All the wihle, his personal life personified his insistence on the primacy of grace over law.

Barth reframed sanctifcation as ‘vocation’ in a way, I believe, that allows those in the Wesleyan tradition to reclaim their place in the Protestant family.

I think you’ll enjoy the conversation I had with Mark Galli about KB. Mark is the Editor of Christianity Today, the most read Christian magazine. Also an author, Mark recently wrote an introdcutory biography about Karl Barth for evangelicals. You should know, evangelicals have always cast a suspicious eye towards Barth, who was neither a biblical literlalist nor an unabashed subscriber to a penal substitionary understanding of the atonement. Barth’s marriage (you’ll hear in the podcast) was but another reason to dismiss him. Still, Barth has exercised enornous influence over pastors and theologians of recent decades so, by default, he’s influenced congregations as well.

Barth’s massive work is the long form of, a pupil, Stanley Hauerwas’ maxim:

Jesus is Lord, and everything else is bullshit.

Check out Mark’s Author Page. 

Before the interview…Help support the show! 

Go to Amazon and buy a paperback or e-book of Crackers and Grape Juice’s new book,

I Like Big Buts: Reflections on Paul’s Letter to the Roman. 

With The Donald in the White House provoking moral outrage and righteous indignation in degrees that are both justified and knee-jerk partisan, I hear a lot of my clergy colleagues talking about how they plan to be prophetic in the pulpit.

Listeners to our podcast, particularly our Fridays with Fleming episodes, will know this to be a horse I’ve beaten to Walking Dead level evisceration, but, nonetheless, the fervor of the cultural moment demands repetition.

Stanley Hauerwas says when Methodists use the word ‘grace’ they have no idea what they’re talking about.

The word suffers from overuse (especially among pastors who like to think their battles with stubborn, unenlightened, wayward laity are somehow analogous with John the Baptist’s ministry).

The same could be said for the word ‘prophetic’ when it comes to preachers and their preaching.

Before The Donald provoked outrage at an hourly tweeted rate, in my own Christian tribe, United Methodism, I most often heard ‘the need to be prophetic’ in relation to the tradition’s language about sexuality.

Too many preachers, and I count myself among them, have felt the burden or compulsion to be prophetic in their preaching role.

So common is this compulsion it’s curious that those who God has actually called to be prophets (Jeremiah, Isaiah, Amos et al) comprise a relatively small- and unpensioned- group of the human community.

If theology should be done on the slant from the pulpit, then I think prophetic preaching should be done on an even slighter slant.

The prophetic should be used sparingly in the pulpit, if at all.

The danger of confusing the preacher’s own hubris with God’s will is too great.

So is the danger of giving a particular issue greater attention than is warranted.

As is the risk of inflaming your congregation unnecessarily.

Very often, what seems to necessitate prophetic preaching in the moment recedes in urgency with the passage of time.

Just as often, the rough, unspoken translation of ‘being prophetic’ actually means ‘My congregation isn’t as theologically sophisticated as me.’

Still more often, preachers claim the mantle of ‘being prophetic’ when, in reality, they’re wrapping themselves in the red and blue dross of the Democratic or Republican parties.

Rather than a word received from the Lord and offered only grudgingly, it becomes a word derived from the preacher’s own worldview, which he or she is more than eager to put forward.

Back to Hauerwas (and I suppose Karl Barth): in a world that knows not God, the most prophetic thing we can do as Christians is to gather together in worship of God, to hear the Word read and proclaimed, and to be sent out in loyalty to a homeless, dead Jew we proclaim as raised from the dead. Our Risen Lord who resides on neither Penn Ave nor Wall Street.

In confusing ‘being prophetic’ for simply being political, we preachers forget that our confession of the Lordship of Christ is already and ultimately a political act more interesting than anything followed by a #resist hashtag. And because Jesus sits at the right hand of the Father, it’s a more impactful political act as well.

It’s more real.

Back to Barth again, here’s the crux of the prophetic problem –

 The very grammar of choosing to be prophetic is to misspeak the language we call Christian.

The posture of prophetic conjugates scripture’s testimony into the past-tense, rendering God passive (or dead) and the preacher the only active agent. 

Contrary to the pretense at “prophetic preaching” scripture is not a sourcebook but is a living witness. It’s not an inanimate object but is the means through which Christ elects to speak. Scripture is not the word of God, bound in the past; scripture is the medium by which Jesus Christ, the Word of God, reveals himself.

To say that God is at work in the world is to say, for Christians,                       the Word of God is at work in the world.

Jesus Christ, as the Risen Living Lord, is the agent of revelation NOT the object of revelation. The Risen Christ is the Revealer not what is revealed. As followers of a Risen, Living Lord we as preachers can never *choose* to be prophetic. Rather, we can only find ourselves, by way of hindsight, to have been chosen by the Word of God, the Risen Christ to be used in a prophetic manner.

To say ‘I’m going to be prophetic this Sunday’ is to say, knowingly or not, that the Word is not Risen and the Living(?) God no longer elects to speak in freedom.

We can never choose to be prophetic, even for the most faithful of intentions, because the Word of God, Jesus Christ, is alive, encountering us, calling us, transforming us, and choosing to speak.

Scripture is not the record of how God met us in Christ upon which we can pitch our partisan tent. Scripture is the ground on which the Risen Christ elects to meet us and from which the Risen Word elects to speak to us today. You can’t ‘choose’ to be prophetic in the pulpit. You can only see in hindsight and,  like Jeremiah, lament that God has so used you.

maxresdefaultIn this episode, Teer and Jason talk with Joseph Mangina. A professor of theology at Wycliffe College in Toronto, he is the author of Karl Barth: Theologian of Christian Witness, a great intro to Barth for all you newbies out thereas well as the recent Brazos Theological Commentary on the Book of Revelation. He also serves as the editor of Pro Ecclesia, a journal of Catholic and Evangelical Theology.

We’re rapidly approaching our 50th Episode!

Who knew we’d make it past our crappy pilot episode or that early installment where Teer didn’t realize his mic wasn’t muted to become one of the fastest growing, Methodist-flavored theological podcasts on the interwebs.

For our 50th Episode, we’d like to do a special Listener Call-in/Fan Q& A episode.

We’ll respond to any questions you’d like the C&GJ Team to address. We’ll respond to any feedback about the podcast or our guests that you’d like to offer. Here’s how you can participate:

  1. Go over to the new brand spanking new Crackers and Grape Juice website Teer built for us and click on the SpeakPipe widget on the right side of the homepage. It will let you use your computer to leave us a voicemail message.
  2. Go over to Facebook Page and leave us a written question or feedback. You can do so on Twitter too.
  3. Email me directly at jamicheli@mac.com
Okay, here’s the episode:

Portrait Karl BarthI’m actually preaching last Sunday’s Jeremiah lection this weekend, but I did notice this Sunday’s Gospel lection is Luke 15.1-32, a trifecta of parables about lost objects and creatures ending with the Parable of the Prodigal Father.

Or is it the Prodigal Son?

I can’t let the Luke 15 parable pass on the lectionary without mentioning what I take to the best interpretation of it from my Mt Rushmore theologian, Karl Barth.

Barth creatively tackles the parable in Part 2 of Volume 4 of the Church Dogmatics, The Homecoming of the Son of Man. Already by the title you can that Barth is framing the parable in terms of atonement or what he terms the Doctrine of Reconciliation. Obviously, to make this parable a story of the homecoming of the “Son of Man” is contrary to how we often treat it, but Barth argued (both creatively and, I think, correctly) that every parable warrants a proper Christological exegesis; that is, every parable Jesus tells is on the first order self-revelation, making every parable about Jesus before it’s about God generically or any of his listeners.

Barth begins his interpretation of Luke 15 with John 1:14, “The Word was made flesh and lived among us.”  Barth writes that the word “flesh” is a statement about God:

“We say – and in itself this constitutes the whole of what is said – that without ceasing to be true God, in the full possession and exercise of His true deity, God went into the far country by becoming [human] in His second person or mode of being as the Son – the far country not only of human creatureliness but also of human corruption and perdition.”

In other words, it is Jesus, who is and remains fully God, who goes into a ‘far away country’ by becoming fully human.

“Without ceasing to be man, but assumed and accepted in his creatureliness and corruption by the Son of God, humanity – this one Son of Man – returned home to where He belonged, to His place as true man…”

Says Barth, the atonement is where God in Christ “goes into a far country” and humanity in Christ “returns home” to the Father’s House. In other words, when Jesus is reconciled with God all of humanity is reconciled with God because Jesus, as ‘fully human,’ is “true humanity.”

David Fitch, in Prodigal Christianity, takes Barth another step by suggesting that Barth’s reading of Luke 15 provides us with a framework for what it means to be missional. Fitch believes that the point of the parable is that God radically sends God’s own Son into the far country to bring back all who are lost. The journey of the Son reveals the radical missionary nature of God, that the Father has sent the Son into the far country to redeem the world and that the Church are those sent out- prodigally- into world by the Spirit to join in the Son’s work of returning all that belongs to the Father to his feast.

13502037_1615405398788080_7321135075900787492_nThe summer has been a busy time, and it’s been a while since my Crackers & Grape Juice co-conspirators have all recorded a podcast together. Morgan, Teer, and I recently got up at the butt-crack of dawn to discuss the Confessing Church Movement and just how we understand the Gospel.

In this episode, I rib Morgan for being on the Confessing Church’s mailing list in the first place and later I rant about the Confessing Church Movement co-opting their name from those few Christians who resisted the rise of Nazism in Germany.

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wesley-420x320-whiteI just spent the last two weeks teaching a class at Wesley Theological Seminary on the Theology and Practice of Mission to a group of about 30 licensed local pastors from around the northeast. They were a great group of people and I had fun engaging them, to the extent I engaged them. I’m definitely not called to teach, but I enjoyed it.

These were my key ideas for each our two hour classes:

Mission Not Missions

The Church only has one mission. It’s singular not plural. In fact, the Church does not have a mission, the Church is missional by its very nature. Mission is joining the work of the Father’s Son who forsakes his royal inheritance and journeys prodigally into the far country of Sin to bring all that belongs to the Father back to the Father’s home. Mission is thus characterized by prodigality, risk-taking, sacrifice and sent-ness.

Mapping the Far Country

The Son, as the One through whom all things were made, knew the far country into which he ventured. What’s the ‘far country’ into which God is sending the Church? In order to announce and embody the Gospel to our culture, we must be able to articulate how that culture manifests itself in our local context, realizing that the primary mission for the Christian Church today is not Asia or Africa but North America.

The Message Creates the Mission

The announcement of the Gospel creates Christians. The announcement of the Gospel makes the Risen Christ present and wherever Jesus is present, Jesus sends his people into the world. God is active agent of mission not the Church. As Karl Barth says God created through speech, and God still creates through speech, choosing in God’s freedom to be present in the words we speak about the one Word. Proclamation, primarily in preaching but also through the practices, creates mission.

Cultural Liturgies vs. Church Liturgies 

Why do we have a gate around many of our altars? Why are sanctuaries structured like lecture halls? Why does the pastor hold the cute little baby who’s been baptized and not a congregation member who just took a vow to that baby? Why are so many of our songs and hymns sung in the first person singular where God is the object not subject? Much of the Church’s practices and proclamation reflect our Christendom heritage and the individualistic culture in which we’re located. To be missional the Church needs to reshape its practices to send its people out to join the Son’s work in the world.

Practices Not Programs 

The Church is the social space of Christ’s Lordship. The Church does not build the Kingdom it discovers the Kingdom as it joins God’s work in the world through the Holy Spirit. The Kingdom is present in the announcement and enactment of the Lordship of the Risen Christ thus mission isn’t done in the generalities of bumper stickers but in the concreteness we find in Jesus’ own ministry. Mission is not projects or programs, or writing checks to faraway places or raising your hand at a meeting, but discovering needs along the way of extending the practices of Christ: eucharist, gathering at table, reconciliation, welcoming the stranger, being present with children and the poor, anointing the sick, exorcising the captive, praying for the Kingdom.

With Not For

The poor are not a project. They’re not even ‘poor.’ Mission in submission to the incarnational model of Christ is a relationship of accompaniment in which we do ministry ‘with’ the poor not ‘for’ them; so that, we empower them to realize their hopes and we realize our own poverty. Jesus preaches the Kingdom belongs to the poor now not far off in the future. Mission is making “the poor” agents of the Kingdom rather than just recipients of our Kingdom work.

Making Disciples 

The priesthood of all believers is the great unfunded mandate of the Protestant Reformation, an impoverishment exacerbated by the Mainline Church’s captivity to corporate models of leadership that substitute committees for commitment. Mission engagement is a primary way the local church makes disciples…of their own people.

A Non-Anxious Presence  

The Gospel is that the world has already been changed, atonement has been made and the Principalities and Powers have been defeated, and God is even now finishing the transformation begun in Christ. Mission is not about changing the world so much as it is about witnessing through our life together the change already brought by Christ.

officer-involved-shooting1I’m not preaching today. It’s the last day of my vacation.

It’s probably a good thing I’m not preaching today. In light of Philander Castile and Alton Sterling and the Dallas murders and Micah Xavier Johnson’s rage, it would be hard to stick with the biblical text. I’d be torn. I’ve always admired the way Karl Barth preached in Germany throughout the rise of Nazism and then in Basel throughout WWII without nary a mention of either in his sermons.

I agree with Barth that to comment too much on current events in the sermon risks making the event at hand seem more determinative to our lives than the gospel event.

It risks luring us into amnesia, forgetting that, no matter how grim the world appears, it’s not our calling to save the world. Rather, the Church is called to witness to the news that it’s already been saved in Jesus Christ through cross and resurrection.

My admiration and agreement with Barth’s homiletic notwithstanding it was difficult for me to notice this Sunday’s assigned lectionary readings and not grasp at the convicting connections.

In the Gospel lection from Luke, Jesus tells the almost hackneyed parable about the ‘Good’ Samaritan.

Here’s the point about the parable that gets missed in most sermons on it: Jesus told this story to Jews.

When Jesus tells a story about a priest who comes across a man lying naked and maybe dead in a ditch, when Jesus says that that priest passed him on by, none of Jesus’ listeners would’ve batted an eye. NO ONE in Jesus’ audience would’ve reacted with anything like ‘That’s outrageous!’ EVERYONE in Jesus’ audience would’ve been thinking ‘Ok, what’s your point? Of course he passed by on the other side. That’s what a priest must do.’ Ditto the Levite. They had had no choice- for the greater good.

According to the Law, to touch the man in the ditch would ritually defile the priest. Under the Law, such defilement would require at least a week of purification rituals during which time the priest would be forbidden from collecting tithes. The tithes are for alms, which means that for a week or more the distribution of charity to the poor would cease.

And if the priest ritually defiled himself and did not perform the purification obligation, if he ignored the Law and tried to get away with it and got caught then, according to the Mishna, the priest would be taken out to the Temple Court and beaten in the head with clubs.

Now, of course, that strikes us as archaic and contrary to everything we know of God. But the point of Jesus’ parable passes us by when we forget the fact that none of Jesus’ listeners would’ve felt that way. As soon as they see a priest and a Levite step onto the stage, they would not have expected either to do anything but what Jesus says they did.

If Jesus’ listeners wouldn’t expect the priest or Levite to do anything, then what the Samaritan does isn’t the point of the parable.

In Jesus’ own day a group of Samaritans had traveled to Jerusalem, which they didn’t recognize as the holy city of David, and at night they broke in to the Temple, which they didn’t believe held the presence of Yahweh, and they looted it. And then they littered it with the remains of human corpses- bodies they dug up and bodies killed.

So, in Jesus’ day, Samaritans weren’t just despised or ostracized. They were a lot more than heretics. They were Other. Less than human.

Just a chapter before this parable, an entire village of Samaritans had refused to offer any hospitality to Jesus and his disciples. In Jesus’ day there was no such thing as a Good Samaritan.

That’s why when the parable’s finished and Jesus asks his final question, the lawyer can’t even stomach to say the word ‘Samaritan.’ The shock of Jesus’ story isn’t that the priest and Levite fail to do anything positive for the man in the ditch. The shock is that Jesus does anything positive with the Samaritan in the story. The offense of the story is that Jesus has anything positive to say about someone like a Samaritan.

It’s not that Jesus uses the Samaritan to teach us how to be a neighbor to the man in need. It’s that Jesus uses the man in need to teach us that the Samaritan is our neighbor.  So when Jesus says ‘Go and do likewise’ he’s not telling us we have to rescue every needy person we encounter. I wish. Unfortunately, he’s telling us to go and do something much worse.

Jesus is saying that even those we regard as Other care for those in need; therefore, they are our neighbors.

No, even more so, Jesus is inviting us to see ourselves as the one in the ditch and to imagine our salvation coming to us in the Other.

And if they are potentially the bearers of our salvation, then we have no recourse but to love them at least as much as we love our more proximate neighbors.

Like you, all week long I’ve watched Americans choose the hashtag that most represents their tribe and communicates their worldview. I’ve read the social media shaming accusing those who are silent about these complex issues as being no better than the perpetrators. I’ve seen white friends post pictures of cops being ‘nice’ to kids in their community (as though that nullifies systemic racism and does anything but inflame those angry at our ignoring it) and I’ve read exhausted, rage-filled posts from black friends. I’ve noticed the NRA being slow to defend 2nd Amendment rights when a concealed-carry permit carries a black man’s name on it and I’ve listened to (white) opinion writers naively wonder what is happening in America that so many black men are gunned down by police- as though it’s the occurrence of such violence and not the videoing of it that is the new development and as though such violence was unrelated to the scores more black men wasting away in our prisons.

My point is that all of us- white, black, and blue, left and right, pro-gun and pro-gun control- have a propensity to see others as Other.

This propensity is what scripture calls Sin and it is what Paul, in today’s other lectionary reading from Colossians, refers to as the “darkness” from which Christ has transferred us but to which we are all still stubbornly inclined.

Speaking of Sin, it wouldn’t have been lost on Jesus’ listeners that when it came to #jewishlivesmatter and #samaritanlivesmatter neither party was without sin. All had done something to contribute to or exacerbate the antagonisms between them.

All were sinners because all are sinners.

Into our tribalism of hashtags and talking past points, Jesus tells a story where we’re forced to imagine our salvation coming to us from one who is absolutely Other from us, from one we would more likely see as less than human. Jesus would have the Black Lives Matter protester imagine their salvation coming to them in the form of a card-carrying NRA Member. Jesus would invite the white cop to envision Alton Sterling as the one coming to his rescue and the finger-wagging liberal to see salvation coming to them from someone wearing a Make America Great Again cap.

Jesus tells this parable about people like us to people like us and if he were telling it to us after this week,  I wonder if instead a general ‘Go and do likewise’ he would challenge us to go out into our local communities, seek out someone who is Other, and learn their freaking first name. For as long as the Other remains a general, generic category to us these issues of racism and violence and ideologies will persist. We need to take this story and make it for us the “Parable of the Good Samaritan named __________”

Such concreteness of relationship- of listening, of naming sin as sin, of repenting and reconciling- is the only thing that will lead to peace precisely because it is the way of the One who has already brought peace by his cross and resurrection.

Earlier this month the United Methodist Church continued its decades-long impasse over homosexuality.

Like guns, drugs and electric chairs, the United Methodist Book of Discipline states that homosexuality ‘is incompatible with Christian teaching.’

Part of my frustration that we cannot affirm the basic humanity of homosexuals is due to my belief that we should already be on to other topics as it relates to homosexuality.

Namely, ordination.

Ministry.

Our baptismal summons.

Allow me to elaborate by way of my hero, Karl Barth.

rp_images1.jpegIn the mid-20th century, Karl Barth wrote a surprising critique of infant baptism at the conclusion of his massive work Church Dogmatics.

Barth’s experience from having seen Germany and the German Church capitulate to pagan-like nationalism in two world wars eventually convinced him that the practice of infant baptism- though perhaps theologically defensible- was no longer practically tenable. In his about-face on infant baptism,

Barth reiterated the fact:

there is no explicit scriptural basis for infant baptism in scripture while there is a clear prejudice towards adult baptism.

More urgent for Barth was his belief that infant baptism had led to the malignant assumption that one is a Christian from birth, by virtue of having been baptized- quite apart from any appreciation of conversion.

In Barth’s view this had the effect of cheapening the grace won by Christ on the cross but, even more, it wore away at the eschatological character of Christ’s Church; that is, infant baptism helped create the circumstances wherein Christians no longer remembered they were set apart by baptism to anticipate Christ’s Kingdom through their counter-cultural way of life lived in community.

Perhaps its the cogency of Barth’s theology or the integrity of Barth’s lived witness (he was one of the few Protestant leaders in Germany to oppose from the beginning the rise of Nazism), but from time to time I dip in to his Church Dogmatics again only to find myself empathizing if not agreeing with Barth’s view- or at least agreeing with Barth’s diagnosis that the Church has lost its foundational, Kingdom-embodying point of view.

I never had the courage to admit it in the ordination process, but whether or not you agree with Barth’s conclusion his critiques are spot on.

rp_barth-224x300.jpgToo often debates about adult and infant baptism focus on the individual baptismal candidate and obscure what was central to the early Christians: baptism is initiation into a People. Christ intends the gathered baptized community to be a social and political reality.

We neither baptize to encourage sentimentality about babies nor do we baptize to secure private, individual salvation.

We baptize to build an alternative polis in a world where all the other Kingdoms care not about God’s Kingdom.

What’s missing in baptismal liturgies, adult and infant, is the sense of awe, or at least appreciation, that God is slowly toppling nations and planting a new one with just a few drops of water. That baptism doesn’t only wash away an individual’s sins but washes away the sins of the world because through baptism God creates a People who are his antithesis to the Kingdoms of the world.

This is what Paul conveys when he writes about how those who are one in Christ through baptism are now no longer Jew or Greek, male or female, slave or free. Baptism is a social reordering. Baptism sets apart a community that challenges and critiques the social hierarchies of this world.

Baptism makes Church a community where the class distinctions of Rome no longer matter and where the familial distinctions of Israel no longer matter.

Whereas in Israel priestly service was reserved for the sons of Aaron, baptism creates a community where we are all priests now because every one of us bears the investiture of the Great High Priest’s death.

This is why the question of baptism, not marriage or ordination, is more interesting theologically when it comes to the issue of homosexuality.

If baptism commissions us to service in Christ’s name and if marriage and ministry are but forms Christian vocation take, then the Church should not baptize homosexuals if it’s not prepared to marry or ordain them.

I’m not suggesting we refuse homosexual persons baptism.

I’m suggesting that a fuller understanding of baptism changes the stakes of what is otherwise a tired cultural debate.

Baptism not only relativizes cultural and religious hierarchies, it relativizes- or it should and once did- blood lines. At baptism, you’re not just saying ‘I do’ to Jesus you’re saying ‘I do’ to everyone else there. The waters of baptism make Church our first family- a scary proposition because often it’s a family every bit as strange and dysfunctional as our family of origin.

rp_barth_1_3-300x250.jpegOnce we’re baptized, Jesus ambivalence becomes our own: ‘Who are my mother and my brothers? Those who do the will of God the Father.’ The baptismal covenant should always caution Christians against making a fetish of ‘family values.’

 

rp_Untitled101111-683x1024-683x1024.jpgFor the past 18 months, I’ve been working on writing a catechism, a distillation of the faith into concise questions and answers with brief supporting scriptures that could be the starting point for a conversation. The reason being I’m convinced its important for the Church to inoculate our young people with a healthy dose of catechesis before we ship them off to college, just enough so that when they first hear about Nietzsche or really study Darwin they won’t freak out and presume that what the Church taught them in 6th grade confirmation is the only wisdom the Church has to offer.

You can find all the previous posts here.

III. The Son

21. What does it mean to proclaim that God raised Jesus from the dead?       

Resurrection means vindication.

By raising Jesus from the dead, God vindicate’s Christ’s vision of and fidelity to the Kingdom of God.

When we profess that God resurrected Jesus from the dead, we mean that God declared with the rumbling of the earth and a verdict as loud as an empty tomb that Jesus is the life God intended for us from the very beginning.

The cross shows Jesus’ commitment to his teaching of the Kingdom. He doesn’t repay evil with evil on his way to Calvary. He turns the other cheek all the way to the cross and, from the cross, he forgives his enemies and even prays for them with his dying breath. The empty grave shows God’s confirmation of Jesus’ Kingdom teaching. God’s vindication of Jesus.

“But God raised him up, having freed him from death,*because it was impossible for him to be held in its power.” – Acts 2.24

22. Do We Have to Believe in a Literal Resurrection?

No.

Not unless you’re a Christian.

If Jesus was not raised from the dead, then there’s nothing transformative and death-defeating about his teaching. It just got Jesus killed. Death had the last word (and still does). If God did not raise Jesus from the dead, then God did not vindicate Jesus’ way of life.

Apart from the vindication of Easter, there’s nothing special about Jesus’ teachings. They lead only to crosses, and corroborate the rumor that true power lies with the cross-builders of the world not with the cross-bearers.

 

“If Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and our faith is futile.”  – 1 Corinthians 15.14

Holy-Spirit-1024x682This weekend Christians celebrated Pentecost, a climactic Christian holy day rendered bland and uninteresting by the propensity to refer to it as the ‘Church’s Birthday.’

Pentecost marks the promised arrival outpouring of the Holy Spirit who in fact has been active throughout the disciples’ time with Jesus.

 

 

Catholics and Protestants speak alternately of the Holy Spirit as the ‘bond of fellowship between the Father and of the Son’ and the Spirit being the ‘Spirit of Christ.’

That’s all the little Latin word, filioque, means ‘…and of the Son.’

A millennia ago the Son’s universal Church split in two (Western, i.e. Catholic and Eastern, i.e. Orthodox) over the rightness of that little Latin word. To this day the Orthodox insist that the Holy Spirit ‘proceeds’ from the Father just as the Son whereas Catholics and the Protestants they spawned argue the Spirit is sent by the Father and the Son.

The_Holy_Trinity

 

Were it not for this theological impasse the Catholic Church might today have married priests with thick beards and off the charts testosterone.

Celibacy seems a stiff (no pun intended) price to pay so it’s worth wondering: which perspective is the better one?

I use to think the Eastern- which is the original- view was soundest. After all, to confess that the Spirit comes from the Father and the Son has the effect of making the Spirit seem less God than the Son and the Father.

But lately I’ve been wondering if I and my Eastern brothers and sisters are correct, or rather I wonder if there’s not another worry on the other side, a danger to thinking the Spirit is sent by God the Father alone.

While the danger with the filioque clause is that it can, seemingly, demote the Holy Spirit to function rather than divine person of the Trinity, the danger of believing the Spirit is sent by God the Father and not also the Son is that it can demote the Spirit from the divine person of the Trinity to the idol of our own interior wants and desires.

mark-burnett-and-joel-osteen-an-epic-meeting

I don’t know which version of the Nicene Creed you recite on Sunday, but what the filioque clause aims to prevent is a trespass most of us commit all the time.

We appeal to the Holy Spirit as the source of our individual experience, which becomes but a way of granting authority to our own subjectivity.

Any ‘spirit’ we feel move us can then be chalked up to a movement of the Holy Spirit. Of course as the Old Testament ably and often demonstrates there are many ‘spirits’ in this world which can move us- frequently more powerfully than God- that have nothing to do with God the Holy Spirit (see: calf, golden).

When you do away with the filioque clause, when you untether the Holy Spirit from the Son I think you release the Spirit from the content and character by which our sinful selves can reliably discern a genuine work of the Spirit.

By ‘content and character’ I mean the words and witness of the Word, Jesus Christ.

That little Latin word, I think, gives us 4 Gospels worth of tools with which we can test the spirits to see if any truly of the Holy Spirit.

If the Spirit does NOT proceed from the Son too, then the Spirit’s work today no longer must conform to the Son’s work in the past. God the Son preached ‘Blessed are the poor and woe to you who are rich…’ but now the spirit can move us with the belief that God wants all of us to be wealthy and prosperous.

In other words, we’re free to baptize our own subjectivity with divinity regardless of whether or not the work we’re attributing to God bears any resemblance to the God we meet most decisively in Jesus Christ (see: Osteen, Joel).

JoelOsteen_FINAL_COLOR_ongrey

That little Latin word, I believe, keeps us- who are always in danger of doing so- from confusing the Spirit of the Father and the Son with the spirit of this world or ‘the human spirit’ whatever that may really mean.

rp_images1.jpeg

As Karl Barth wrote when the Holy Spirit becomes “the spirit that obviously lives in us all faith is enlisted in an alien service, that of Mammon and even nationalism.”

By professing that the Holy Spirit is sent by the Father and the Son, we profess that it’s the Spirit’s charge to make Jesus Christ known in the world today.

And in so professing we remind ourselves that we can know if it’s truly the Son that the Sprit is revealing by checking it against the Son, Jesus Christ, as he’s revealed to us in scripture.

That little word, filioque, makes sure that Jesus Christ is the grammar by which judge our speech about the Holy Spirit.

4371604984_6212ed3d58_zOily Evangelicals, mockery of Ted Cruz, and coitus jokes- and people accuse me of being off-color. Bishop Will Willimon dishes all this and more as he discusses his new book, Fear of the Other: No Fear in Love.

You can download the episode and subscribe to future ones in the iTunes store here.

We’d love for you to give us 4 Stars and a good review there in the iTunes store. It’ll make it more likely more strangers and pilgrims will happen upon our meager podcast. ‘Like’ our Facebook Page too. You can find it here.

We’ve already got several episodes worth of interviews in the bag, including NT Wright and Todd Littleton. 

Speaking of interviews, the Crackers and Grape Juice team will be joining forces with Kendall Souled for a Pub Theology event in Roanoke on Thursday, June 16.

If you’re in the driveable area, check it out and come out. Information here.

Again, special props to my friend Clay Mottley for letting us use his music gratis. Here you go:

Portrait Karl BarthReading Karl Barth is like chewing sunflower seeds. It’s salty and hard and it cuts you in little ways that hurt and linger for days. The past couple of weeks I’ve posted some critical reflections on the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, the doctrine which professes that Scripture, the Word of God, is illuminated to us by Tradition, Reason, and Human Experience. The church that first made me a Christian was Wesleyan, United Methodist. The theologian who made me a nominally interesting Christian, however, was not John Wesley but Karl Barth.

I’ve taken some shit for those previous posts from other Methodists wondering why I’m exalting Barth at Wesley’s expense. It’s true they make queer (don’t worry, I don’t mean gay!) theological bedfellows; in fact, Barth had Methodism particularly in mind when he brutally attacked the pietism of his day. Nonetheless, I think Barth is a helpful voice for Methodists in the 21st century as Barth’s eyewitness stand, in both World Wars, against the dangers of cultural Christianity makes him a prescient guide in post Christendom. What’s more, Wesley himself looked well outside of his own Enlightenment Anglican tradition. Those of us who just parrot Wesleyan theology and stay within our particular denominational stream are doing something very un-Wesleyan.

Still, if there’s a discontinuity between Barth and Wesley on anything it’s the fourth vantage point of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, Experience. I hardly need to link to any stories about the issues presently dividing the larger church and point out how Experience is given a priority in negotiating those debates. Experience is often the primary perspective at odds with Scripture and Tradition. Beyond these debates, for many in our post-everything world our personal experience is the only authority to which we’ll submit. The primacy of Experience is undisputed in our world today and in Wesleyan theology it’s validity is unquestioned. Barth however would challenge us to consider whether our Quadrilateral should not instead be a Triangle, doubting that our personal experience is even an appropriate vantage point from which to receive revelation, the Word of God.

Barth takes a dim view of Experience in general, believing that the subjective turn to the individual’s experience of God obscures the objective, once-for-all, reality of Christ. We believe in Jesus Christ, Barth says over and again, not in our experience of Christ. Our experience is not salvation; salvation has been achieved through cross and resurrection quite apart from any experience we may have of it. It’s true- you’re saved, in other words, whether you ever believe it and experience it personally or not. This, I digress, is what allowed Barth to have such a hospitable and non-anxious presence towards unbelievers.

Barth does not share the sunny Wesleyan assessment of Experience, for it implies, more generally, that an encounter of God is somehow given in human nature, that we are, as creatures, wired to apprehend our Creator. For Barth, it’s true we’re predisposed to long for and apprehend the divine and, to him, nothing could be more idolatrous. Barth nods along to Fuerbach’s critique that most of our theology is only anthropology. Our ‘experience’ of God, Barth judges, is most often only an experience of ourselves projected onto god; therefore, the only true experience we can have of God is the experience God gives to us. Experience of God is received it is not self-derived.

And this is where it gets tricky for the Quadrilateral because, as scripture attests abundantly, the experience God gives us of God frequently contradicts our personal experience of the world.

Think Saul on the way to Damascus or Peter receiving a mystical Spirit-given dream that upends his religious categories.

Our experience in and of the world is not a reliable means of discerning and illumining revelation because revelation is most often received as an intrusion upon our world. Grace does not confirm our experience of the world; it disrupts our experience of the world, and because we’ve made a world that pretends Jesus is not King that grace is most often felt as a kind of violence to our world and our experience of it.

The Spirt seldom confirms our personal experience of the world; it instead convicts it and sometimes condemns it.

For Barth, any appeals to ‘the Spirit led me to…’ should be met with skepticism if they do not lead the led to tears.

995790_828275210634911_6003199688436457051_nTomorrow is Earth Day- my boys told me.

They also told me via their National Geographic for Kids magazine that the best way to celebrate Earth Day was to make every day Earth Day.

Cheesy, I know.

True, I know.

And naturally I responded by telling my boys that the best way to celebrate Earth Day is to celebrate Easter.

Really celebrate it- not as 19th century liberals where we’re supposed to believe the disciples let themselves be crucified for a subjective metaphor- but as the literal, actual, physical, bodily resurrection of Jesus, which is a foretaste of our own.

At least since the Enlightenment, Christians have neutered the Church’s original Gospel message: ‘…you/we killed him but God vindicated him by raising him from the dead and enthroning him in heaven to rule Earth…forever’ (Book of Acts, Handel’s Messiah.)

In its place, Christians have spiritualized the ancient Easter proclamation into empty allegories and similes. ‘Christ is Risen! He is Risen Indeed! becomes ‘[It’s as though] Christ is Risen [in our hearts]! He is Risen Indeed [if we remember him and live ‘resurrected lives’].

Even rhetorical violence is not without casualty.

Spiritualizing Jesus’ resurrection leads to spiritualizing of the general resurrection.

Now, somehow- even though there’s no scriptural warrant for so supposing- Easter is seen as a sign that ‘eternal life’ is the union of our soul with God in Heaven. Easter then is a sign of our evacuation, of human creatures from creation and of our ‘soul’ from our body.

Which leaves the Earth a temporary occasion for God-fearing awe and wonder that will be disposed of once this ‘world is not my home.’

And if this world is not your home, how much effort are you going to spend keeping clean?

I mean, really, how well do you treat a hotel room?

If the body is not something the soul fundamentally, eternally depends upon then neither is the Earth something the Body of believers fundamentally, eternally depend upon.

If God didn’t save Jesus from death, there’s no reason to steward the Earth from it.

Any right celebration of Earth Day starts with Easter, with the physical resurrection of Jesus.

Think again to the Easter Gospel stories.

They go out of their way to tell us that Jesus still has the nail marks on his hands and feet. In other words, his resurrected body is the same as his earthly body.

They go out of their way to assert that Jesus is not simply a ghost. In other words, his resurrected body really is a body, and not a disembodied soul.

They even bother to point out that Jesus gets hungry. Jesus eats fish. That means the sheer stuff of creation still has a necessary part to play in resurrected existence.

‘Heaven’ then is less an ethereal, spiritual other world and more like the perfection of this world.

The Easter witness of the Gospels, that God raised Jesus from the dead, literally and physically, doesn’t just say something about Jesus’ body. It says something about bodies.

If the resurrected Jesus is a real, physical body, a body similar to his earthly body, a body that engages with the environment around him by eating fish, then the Earth itself is necessary to our identity and our relationship with God.

Resurrection doesn’t mean our soul will evacuate our earthly bodies for heaven.

Resurrection means will heaven will come down to Earth one day, on the last day; therefore, Christians should celebrate Earth Day every day.

Of course, if God didn’t really raise Christ from the dead there’s no basis to believe God will redeem Creation.

And if God isn’t (really) going to redeem Creation one day then our every effort to ‘protect it’ today, while noble, is ultimately futile.

9781501824753Several years ago the church I serve opened the doors of its youth wing to welcome the members of a local mosque. Their own facility was undergoing construction and they needed a place to offer their Friday Jummah prayers. Even though many of the Muslims who came to pray in our building were the same people who drove cabs in our neighborhood, owned the service stations that inspect our cars, cared for our aging parents in the nursing homes, and cleaned our locker rooms at the gym, many from the community greeted the worshippers with fear.

As the Other.

The members of my church council voted unanimously to show hospitality to our Muslim neighbors; the gesture was not so unanimous in the larger congregation. Many church members and families left over the decision. Few of them spoke with us before leaving. I can say confidently that we are a stronger congregation for having shown such hospitality to our neighbors not only because it taught us, as a congregation, how to experience conflict and work through it together, something our United Methodist itinerant system too often prevents, but also because it reminded us as Christians that, no matter what the church vitality books tell us, not all congregational conflict is bad. By many measures conflict should be an expected consequence of working with Jesus in a world that still seeks to operate as though Christ were not Lord.

I believe our church is stronger too because, with hindsight, we know it was the right, faithful step to take. We’re stronger as a church because we showed courage, which, as Will Willimon writes, “…is not the absence of fear but rather having a reason for doing the right thing in spite of our fear- fearing, revering, and honoring something more than safety.” In my sermon the Sunday after we decided to welcome our neighbors-who-were-taken-to-be-Other, I said:

Scripture doesn’t teach that after we welcome them the stranger will cease being strange to us or that our differences are insignificant. Scripture doesn’t teach that by loving our enemies our enemies will cease to be our enemies.Scripture doesn’t teach that by visiting the prisoner we’ll convince the prisoner to swear off crime. Scripture doesn’t teach that in feeding the hungry the hungry will show appreciation to us or that in caring for the needy we won’t find the needy a burden to us. Rather, in a world of violence and injustice and poverty and loneliness Jesus has called us to be a people who welcome strangers and love enemies and bring good news to prisoners, feed and cloth the poor and care for those who have no one. We do this because this is the labor Christ has commanded us.

Admitting how the concerns around global terrorism were real and the policies with which to address it best were vague, we attempted to stress that the command of Jesus was stark and clear. We’re to welcome the Other, and, as Christians, we take our marching orders not from our Party’s talking points or Fox News but from the Risen Lord who warned us that one day we’ll judged on just this count.

Will Willimon, in his new book Fear of the Other: No Fear in Love, expresses the same sentiment but frames it better than me: “Today we’re more likely to fear for the plight of our bodies than our souls…we ought to fear displeasing God more than we fear the censure of others.” In a political culture marked by pervasive and often nasty fear, Christians instead should be afraid that we’re ignoring God, who took flesh, got uncomfortably particular in Jesus of Nazareth, and commanded us very specifically to love our enemies and welcome the stranger.

Says Willimon:

Today we’re more likely to fear for the plight of our bodies than our souls…we ought to fear displeasing God more than we fear the censure of others. Our problem, in regard to fear, is that we fear the Other more than we fear the God who commands, “Love each other.”

If we are not sure that Christians and Muslims worship the same God, I am certain that we cannot worship God who is Jesus Christ without also being under compulsion to encounter and embrace [the Other].

Willimon begins Fear of the Other with a characteristic theme; namely, the peculiarity of our baptismal identify in Christ and the distinctiveness of Christian discipleship. Like Stanley Hauerwas, Willimon reminds his readers that the American We in “We must build walls along our borders” and “We must keep Muslims out of our country” is not a ‘we’ that can include the followers of Jesus Christ.

Keeping the linguistic metaphor, Willimon observes the simple and obvious fact that Christian speech will not allow us to say certain things about strangers, aliens, or enemies. In a climate of fear Christians have no recourse but to remember that the only One whom we’re called to fear, the Lord, commanded us repeatedly “Do not fear.” Accordingly, in the very first paragraph of Fear of the Other, Willimon aims his little book at those presently stoking our fears to their own advantage and to our own tribal satisfaction. Almost as a dedication, Willimon writes:

Thanks to fellow Christians Donald Trump, Ben Carson, and Ted Cruz. If not for them, I would not have been asked to write this book…Let the politicians do what they must to be elected by people like us, though I think they are selling us short. My job is not to worry about opinion polls or what nine out of ten Americans can swallow without choking. My peculiar vocation is to help the church think like Christians so that we might be given the grace to act like Jesus.

From that TNT of an opening salvo, Willimon approaches Fear of the Other from a Barthian angle, arguing that as residents of the Far Country, the would-be-judged were it not for the Judge judged in our place, we are the Other to God. And by concealing himself in the flesh of a carpenter from Nazareth, God comes to us as the Other. Our posture of welcome and hospitality towards the Other is rooted in the Gospel awareness that apart from Jesus Christ we are all enemies of God.

As Willimon puts it: “Any Christian move toward the Other is based upon Jesus Christ’s move toward us: ‘We were reconciled to God through the death of his Son while we were still enemies.’”

That the prejudice towards Other love is incontestable in both testaments leads me to wonder if the fear and xenophobia so rampant today, where majorities of evangelical Christians support Ted Cruz and Donald Trump whose policies defy the very commands of God to Moses on Sinai, is due to a lack of Gospel proclamation in our churches. Are we in the fearful, ugly state we’re in now because we long ago traded the kerygma for an individualized therapeutic gospel for survival in Christendom?

Willimon hints at a connection:

An important function of Christian preaching and church life is to render me into the Other. I am the enemy of God. I am the one who by my lifestyle and choices make myself a stranger to my sisters and brothers. I’m free to admit that because, in spite of my hostility to God, Jesus Christ has received me as friend.

Something must account for the disconnect between what scripture compels of Christians and how how so many of us Christians feel compelled to act in the public square. Unlike so many of the hot-button political issues that divide us, on this issue scripture is univocal. We can honest about the practical challenges our enemies and the Other pose to our society, but “Christians ought to admit that in debates about the Other Christianity’s default position is hospitality, even as we received hospitality on the cross of Christ.” 

In what I take to be the most delightful passage in the book, Willimon skillfully exegetes the word for stranger in scripture, xenoishowing how the New Testament reports Jesus warns us that we will be judged according to how well we welcome and care for xenoi, how Judas, according to Matthew, was buried in a field reserved for xenoi, and how Paul in Ephesians proclaims that what has been accomplished through cross and resurrection is that xenoi are no longer xenoi but family in the household of God.

Only when we recognize ourselves as a Judas at the Table of our Lord can we welcome the xenoi amount us. And that’s a recognition we cannot accomplish by our own lights. Only the Risen Lord’s own work of revelation can so transform us that we see ourselves as a fellow betrayer of Christ. That the welcome we’re commanded to extended is likened to someone such as Judas is echoed by Paul in Romans, the point with which Willimon concludes Fear of the Other.

In Romans 11; Paul uses the phrase para phusin to describe God’s radically offensive act of adopting Gentiles in to the household of Israel. God’s inclusion of the Gentiles into the People of God, Paul says, is “against nature.” God’s grace is such that Christians owe their salvation to God’s extravagantly unnatural hospitality.

Christians have been adopted so unnaturally we must be a people of hospitality to both Jews and the Other. Because we are saved by such a strange grace, the welcome of strangers is a necessary posture for Christians. The salvation of Gentile Christians by the God of Israel proves that no work of welcome towards the Other is beyond this God’s unnatural grace.

Willimon’s a hard, needful word in an election season where many Christians seem more captivated by their Party’s story of America than by the Gospel story. Fear of the Other thus strikes the very Barthian chord that not only are Christians required to forgive and love our enemies, we’re expected, by our faithfulness to this Gospel, to create enemies who are worth forgiving and often those enemies will not be the Other outside of the church but those of us inside it.

karl_barthDuring Lent, as many of my professional Christian colleagues were forsaking sugar, shots, and selfies, I was instead taking on an additional discipleship discipline:

Reading Karl Barth’s Dogmatics.

After a year of stage-serious cancer, I shouldn’t have to give up shit for Lent, for I’d already suffered longer than Jesus did in the wilderness. I theologized. Plus,  reading Barth is not penitential at all.

Last week, on a whim, I brandished my reacquaintence with Barth against that most cherished of United Methodist idols, the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, the doctrine which professes that Scripture, the Word of God, is illuminated to us by Tradition, Reason, and Human Experience. Through a Barthian lens, I suggested that the Quadrilateral inevitably conjugates scripture’s testimony into the past-tense and that, according to Barth, Scripture is not the record of how God met us in Christ. Scripture is the ground on which the Risen Christ elects to meet us today.

But, from Barth’s perspective, that’s hardly the only problem with the Quadrilateral that we attribute to Wesley. Saying, as the Wesleyan Quadrilateral does, that the Word of God can be illumined by our Tradition, Reason, and Experience suggests that Scripture’s address to us is lying there in the text, waiting, for us.

Not only does this construe Scripture as the texts in which God once spoke rather than the medium by which God speaks today, it falsely promises that God’s Word will be heard in Scripture so long as we approach it with faithfully our Tradition, Reason, and Experience.

Or, to put it differently, Experience, Reason, and Tradition are the means by which we get God to speak to us through Scripture.

For Barth, though, Revelation by its very nature- no matter how many prayers for illumination we utter- cannot be guaranteed precisely because Christ is Risen.

God is not dead, and Jesus is a Living Lord; therefor, the Word of God is no less free today than in the pages of scripture. Just as with Hannah and Sarai, just as in Mary’s womb or Christ’s empty tomb, God is always free to surprise and reveal in ways we’re not expecting and, in this case, God is free NOT to reveal in ways we’re expecting.

God is free to show up, as to Moses at the Burning Bush, and God is free not to show up, as in the 400 years preceding the Burning Bush.

It’s no accident that when God condescends to us in the logos, Jesus Christ, we push him out of the world on a cross. The Word of God intrudes upon our world, as almost a kind of violence, and so is not tied to it. It cannot be calendared or calibrated for it never ceases to be grace, a gift we can neither earn nor expect.

Too often the Wesley Quadrilateral implies that revelation is latent within the text of scripture and that our use of Reason, Experience, and Tradition are the keys by which we unlock it. Barth however insists that the God we find pursuing us in scripture is self-objectifying. God seeks after us; we cannot seek after God- any god we discover in our seeking is not God but a god. There’s no such Christian thing, in a Barthian sense, as a Seeker Service. All of us are only and always the sought.

To say God is self-objectifying is to assert, against so much of our liturgical assumptions, that God wills at specific times to be the object of our speech, eating, and prayer, but other times God wills not to be our object, which means a more proper response to scripture in worship is to say: ‘This is the Word of God for the People of God. We pray. Thanks be to God.’

Likewise, the great thanksgiving is not a magic incantation recited by a shaman that guarantees God’s presence in the eucharist. The Holy Spirit is invited to pour out upon the table; the Holy Spirit is not compelled to condescend. The Great Thanksgiving and the Prayer for Illumination are just that, prayers, pleadings, petitions for God to reveal God’s self. They are not methods but practices of faith. Hope and trust.

For Barth, we cannot approach, apprehend, know, or even believe in this God through any means other than God’s own present and ongoing revelation. God must elect to come to us in our speech and bread, as in Mary’s womb it is no less in the pulpit or at the table. God doesn’t always elect to reveal himself to us for when God does reveal it is always necessarily a miracle.

I suppose some might see in this bad news, that revelation isn’t 100% fool-proof predictable, but I think Barth would point out that good news of this free, electing, self-objectifying God is so much better; namely, that God does not consider it beneath God to rest on the lips and in the hands of creatures, like us, of such low estate. 

We’re only yet into Eastertide, the season where for 50 days Christians remind ourselves that Jesus Christ, raised from the dead once for all, is, despite the Church’s best efforts to render him otherwise, a Living Lord.

There’s no better time than the season of resurrection to wonder if the Wesleyan Quadrilateral can bear the weight of our Easter God.

For those of you who have not had to pledge allegiance to it for Methodist ordination exams, the Quadrilateral describes how Wesleyans conceive of the doctrine of revelation. Calling it the Wesleyan Quadrilateral is an anachronism but we can attribute it to him honorifically for Wesley did practice the methods of the Quadrilateral in his preaching and teaching. It’s popular to analogize the Wesleyan Quadrilateral to a three-legged bar stool, an ironic analogy for a people who once foisted tee-totaling upon America.

3-legged-stoolImagine Scripture as the seat of the stool, on which we/the church/the world (it’s never clear) rests. The three legs of the stool, which equally support and balance it, are Tradition, Reason, and Experience. In other words, we Wesleyans deploy the creedal tradition, our mental faculties, and our experience of the world to illumine the bible.

It’s common today to praise our particular Wesleyan approach to scripture as a perspective perfectly suited for the contemporary world; in that, it avoids the dangers of fundamentalism on the one hand and an unmoored mysticism about the bible on the other.

Having recently dipped back in to Karl Barth, the theologian on whom I cut my teeth, I’ve wondered what sort of theological Kung Fu Barth might wreak upon the Quadrilateral.

The tendency in United Methodism to remodel the stool so that Scripture becomes no longer the base but a fourth leg equivalent to Tradition, Reason, and Experience, underscores, I think, a latent deficiency in how the Wesleyan Quadrilateral treats scripture and, more importantly, the Living God who freely chooses to speak through it.

I expect Barth, whose massive Church Dogmatics are best understood as a theology of revelation, would object to our Wesleyan Quadrilateral on that specific ground. We Methodists, reared on Enlightenment liberalism, approach scripture not unlike archaeologists armed without excavation tools, Reason, Tradition and personal Experience, in order to extract some meaning or truth from the text. Such a posture, Barth would argue, unavoidably conjugates scripture’s testimony into the past-tense. We ask with Experience, Tradition, and Reason what the biblical text meant in its original context, what God said, and it’s up to us, using those same tools, to infer an application for today.

Contrary to the Quadrilateral, Barth insists that scripture is not a sourcebook but is a living witness. It’s not an inanimate object but is the means through which Christ elects to speak. Scripture is not the word of God, bound in the past; scripture is the medium by which Jesus Christ, the Word of God, reveals himself. John Wesley was an Enlightenment era priest so it’s not surprising perhaps that the Quadrilateral attributed to him reflects the modernist tendency to begin with ourselves instead of God. If he was feeling punchy, I imagine Barth might imply that we Wesleyans with our Quadrilateral actually betray docetic tendencies with scripture. It only ‘seems’ like revelation but isn’t really to us for it requires us to yield any word.

Against us, Barth proclaims again and again that Jesus Christ, as the Risen Living Lord, is the agent of revelation NOT the object of revelation. The Risen Christ is the Revealer not what is revealed. And, I wouldn’t have admitted this when I applied for ordination, I think this is the view of revelation the contemporary world- or, at least the mainline church- needs today.

For Barth, Jesus is not only a Living Lord but he’s free. Our knowledge of God, our faith in God, is in God’s hands not ours.

Our Tradition, Reason, and Experience will deliver us nothing of God unless God so elects.

The word of God, for Barth, isn’t waiting in the pages of scripture, dead and dormant, waiting to be sought. You can only seek a god who is dead. The Living God seeks after us.

The Word of God, Jesus Christ, is alive and discovering us. Truth isn’t just sitting there in the pages of scripture waiting to mined by our lights; Truth is a resurrected person moving outside of scripture, encountering us, calling us, transforming us.

Scripture is not the record of how God met us in Christ.

Scripture is the ground on which the Risen Christ elects to meet us today.

IMG_1680 (2)

My wife complains that I have too many mistresses.

At the beginning of Holy Week this year, Ali and I snuck away to Quebec City for a romantic getaway at the Frontenac, overlooking the icy St. Lawrence river. Just the two of us…and Karl Barth.

…and Brian Zahnd’s new theological memoir, Water to Wine: Some of My Story

Ali says she’s tired of sharing our bed with Barth.

I could be watching Tiny House Hunters instead, I tell her. She was watching Jessica Jones.

In Water to Wine, full-time pastor, sometime author, and frequent voice in my earbuds, Brian Zahnd, describes three dreams God gave him during his mid-life theological crisis. Each dream, Zahnd believes, revealed a further step along his theological journey out of the shallow, ‘cotton-candy’ Christianity of his upbringing and success and into the rich, robust vintage of the ancient Church fathers and mothers.

Like the patriarchs of scripture, Zahnd received a dream communique from the Almighty, not of ladders traveled angels but of shoe shopping- yes- in Zurich with the late Swiss theologian, Karl Barth. Zahnd takes the dream to mean that God encourages him to try on the different shoes available to him in the Zurich marketplace; that is, God blesses his quest to move beyond the thin choices of his American pop-evangelical tradition to taste and see (and try-on) the living tradition of the global faith.

This dream of shoe-shopping with Karl Barth piqued my interest, for, as it happened, during our romantic getaway, I had returned to Karl Barth’s Dogmatics even while reading Water to Wine.

Hearing of Zahnd’s dream I wondered, for the first time, how Barth, on whom I cut my theological teeth, might respond to Zahnd, the preacher most often in my head while I exercise.

No doubt Barth would approve heartily of Zahnd’s emphatic insistence that ours is a God who speaks. In the present. For Barth and Zahnd, the God of Israel is not the moribund god of modernity but a Living God who reveals himself.  On the loquaciousness of this God, I expect Barth would fist bump Zahnd against the settled nature of so much Christianity in the West. Indeed I suspect both share more in common than either do with my own Methodist, mainline tribe where God is most often either a character in an ancient text, from whom we can by our own light and volition derive practicable principles for daily living or is the object of our own subjective, emotional feelings. In neither case is God a living, active subject of verbs that work on, move on, and sometimes include you and me.

On the talkativeness of God, I think Karl Barth would commend Brian Zahnd for retrieving wine where so many Christians are sated by the water of mission trip ‘cry nights’ and 3-point sermonic slides.

Still, reading some of Zahnd’s story I couldn’t help wonder how Karl Barth would respond to the quote most often attributed to Brian Zahnd, and truly it’s a frame of reference, a precis, for all of Zahnd’s theology. I’m not judging. I’ve cribbed from it myself in plenty of posts and preachments:

“God is like Jesus.
God has always been like Jesus.
There has never been a time when God was not like Jesus.
We have not always known what God is like—
But now we do.”

On the one hand, I’d wager that Karl Barth would find much to affirm in this slight but bold assertion. Barth, I’m sure, would raise his pipe or brandy in approval at the conviction that God is revealed most decisively in Jesus Christ, that in Jesus we discover all of God there is find. Jesus Christ, as Barth says, is the one Word God speaks. Even on Zahnd’s suggestion that ‘God has always been like Jesus’ Barth would concur, for Barth went further than Zahnd, positing that the very ontological nature of God was/is determined by the incarnation such that Barth could speak of the ‘humanity of God’ and argue, accordingly, that Jesus Christ is the only sacrament of God, the absolutely singular visible, material sign of God.

On the other hand, I suspect Barth would pushback that Zahnd’s thesis statement is not sufficiently dialectical. Barth would caution Zahnd against any easy or obvious correspondence between God the Father and Jesus, God made flesh. Perhaps, the word ‘obvious’ is most important in reflecting upon the correlation between the Father and the Son.

For Karl Barth, our ability as (sinful) creatures to apprehend or know God is not available by any innate aptitude in human nature nor is derived from anything in the created world. Quite the opposite, our ability to know God is always- always and everywhere, as we say at the Table- a gift of God. This isn’t only a past gift given, as in the incarnation happened 2,000 years ago, but it’s always a present and future gift. We literally cannot know God apart from God revealing himself. Any God discovered apart from present revelation is a god not God and belongs to what Barth derides with a prophet’s anger as ‘religion.’

Because knowledge of God depends upon present, ongoing revelation by God, belief in the incarnation for Barth is not as simple as supposing that “God is like Jesus.”

For Barth, incarnation names not the obvious 1-1 correspondence between the Father and the Son but the mystery that God is both unveiled and veiled in Jesus Christ.

Even in the act of revealing himself most decisively in Jesus Christ, Barth says, God simultaneously conceals himself.

While affirming the identification of Jesus with God all the way down- the humanity of God, as Barth puts it, we cannot say that there is no God to be known behind the Jesus of the Gospels because, as Christ, God was never self-evidently God.

As Jesus, God was never in any obvious way, to any one anticipating his advent, the Messiah. And God still is today this God-for-us; therefore, God comes to us yet in the selfsame counterintuitive, revealed-but-concealed ways. God was always veiled in Jesus and, as Will Willimon admonishes, we ought not tear away this veil in our preaching or theologizing lest we imply there’s any way to approach this God other than by God’s gracious gesture towards us. Even in the Gospel scripture itself, says Barth, we can only know this God who comes to us as Jesus not by the text itself by the present day proclamation of it, and then only if such preaching is ‘conceived by the Holy Spirit.’

I suspect Barth would rebut Zahnd’s summary statement that “God is like Jesus.” Such a clear equation obscures how, for Barth, the unveiling but veiling of God in Christ is the revelation we call incarnation. God is absolutely vulnerable before us in the incarnation; God’s absolute otherness, as in the burning bush, remains. For Barth, the pattern of revelation revealed in the passion abides today. God’s unveiled yes to us in the incarnation is at the same time God’s no. As Barth says: ‘The Yes itself means a No, that in the very closeness to God our distance from him is disclosed.’

Barth’s dialectic of veiled/unveiled secures a continuity to the Old Testament’s depiction of God that I think Zahnd’s thesis statement at best elides and at worst supersedes but also I believe it allows a place, where Zahnd doesn’t, for those moments in the Gospels when Jesus comes across more like the angry God of Hosea than we like to countenance.

The very point at which I think Barth and Zahnd would agree provides their point of departure: God speaks still. For Barth, this means that revelation is always a gift. It’s always God’s act. As in the incarnation, God’s revelation remains opaque to us, unveiled but veiled still, far off from our expectations. Only by grace do we apprehend.

What held true at Calvary holds true today, even in revelation:

God comes to us but, as the spiritual sings, ‘we didn’t- we don’t- know who you was.’

Knowing God is like Jesus, we still don’t know who God is.

It has to be that way, Barth might say to Brian.

Otherwise, we no longer require God to know God.

Portrait Karl BarthI’m not a liberal, I said in a post last week, in which I attempted to distinguish between theological liberalism and political liberalism. People tend to see the earring, tattoo, and beard and make assumptions about me.

But I’m a post-liberal.

I don’t believe anyone can simply be a Christian nor do I think anyone can cleanly subscribe to any of the theologies of the ancient Church Fathers or even to more contemporary founders of Protestant strains like Martin Luther or John Wesley. Everything that comes to us does so by being filtered through particular lens and schools of thought, to say nothing of cultural prejudice. So, I happily acknowledge my Christianity is filtered through the lens of postliberalism.

Postliberalism was first articulated by Hans Frei, who was inspired by the work of the theologian Karl Barth (above), in The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative.

Frei argued that modern conservative and liberal approaches to the Bible undermine the authority of scripture by locating the meaning of biblical teaching in some doctrine or worldview that is more foundational than scripture itself.

Prior to the Enlightenment, Christians read the Bible primarily as a “realistic” narrative that told the story of the world. That is, the coherence of the scripture story made figural interpretation possible. Jews and Christians made sense of their lives by viewing themselves as participating within the story told in scripture.

Frei argued that during the Enlightenment this sense of scripture as realistic narrative was lost. People’s own rational experience increasingly defined for them what was “real.” As a result, theologians sought to understand scripture by relating it to their own supposedly universal “reality.” They sought to determine the truth within scripture by translating it into the truer language of their own world.

Frei argued that because of the Enlightenment, Christians overlooked the narrative character of scripture.

Liberals looked for the real meaning of the Bible in the eternal truths about God and humanity, while conservative evangelicals looked for the real meaning in the Bible’s factual references.

Both lost sight of the priority of scripture as narrative. Scripture was no longer a story by which Christians narrated their lives. The Bible was turned into a source of support for modern narratives of progress or for doctrinal propositions.

As Frei writes:

”Interpretation was a matter of fitting the biblical story into another world with another story rather than incorporating that world into the biblical story.”

Postliberalism seeks a third way, apart from Protestant liberalism and from conservative evangelicalism, which itself is also theologically liberal.

Postliberalism asserts the the primacy of scriptural narrative for theology. The word narrative is key.

Scripture, after all, is primarily told through story not propositions; therefore, the truth conveyed in scripture isn’t rational- or rather its non-rational.

We’re story-telling animals made in the image of a God who communicates narratively and ‘truth’ is best apprehended through story not ‘fundamentals’ (Evangelicals) or rational facts universally accessible to all (Mainline Liberals). The ‘universally accessible’ point is key too. Postliberalism denies that such a thing as universal reason exists.

Religion is like language not math.

Christians and Muslims speak two different languages in which the words we use signify different things not the same, universal reality. The word ‘God’ for example connotes something much different to a Hindu than it does to a Jew.

This stress on language comes from George Lindbeck, who argued for a “cultural-linguistic” understanding of religion as opposed to the “cognitive-propositional” (Evangelical) and “experiential-expressive” (Mainline Liberal) approaches that have, he said, dominated theology during the modern age.

Liberal theologies are experiential-expressive in that they seek to ground religious language upon universal claims of human experience.

Evangelical theologies are cognitive-propositional; they claim that doctrinal statements directly or “literally” refer to reality.

Lindbeck pointed out how no religion can actually be understood in those terms. Religious traditions are historically shaped and culturally conditioned. They function instead, he said, more like language. So, christian doctrines should not be understood as universalistic propositions or as interpretations of a universal religious experience.

Doctrines are more like the rules of grammar that govern the way we use language to describe the world. Christian doctrine identifies the rules by which Christians use faith language to define the world in which we live. Quite simply, a non-Christian has no idea what Christians mean by the word ‘grace’ until they’ve been taught to speak Christian.

Because of this, rational arguments for Christian truth claims aren’t possible until one has learned through spiritual training how to speak the language of Christianity.

Incidentally, this is why my children’s sermons are never ‘object lessons’ but always a retelling of the scripture text.

They’ve got to learn the language before they can extrapolate ‘lessons’ from it.

Rather ‘translating’ scripture into secular categories- as liberalism does- postliberalism seeks to redescribe reality “within the scriptural framework.” If Christians allowed the story of the Bible to become their own story, says postliberalism, they would be less preoccupied with making Christianity relevant to the non-Christian world on non-Christian terms.

Like liberal theology, postliberalism takes for granted that the Bible is not infallible and that historical criticism of the bible is legitimate. Like evangelical theology, postliberalism emphasizes the uniqueness of Jesus Christ.

Because of its stress on the particularity of the scripture narrative, postliberalism emphasizes the role of the Church in forming people according to the story.

Because of its stress on the absolute saving uniqueness of Jesus Christ, postliberalism emphasizes the inherently peculiar, countercultural nature and mission of the church.

And this retrieval of the inherently counter-cultural nature of the church is how someone who is not a theological liberal may occasionally end up advancing what sounds like a politically liberal position. Put another way, it’s how someone who is not a theological liberal is not always reliably politically conservative.

To put it in post liberal terms:

Christians are people who speak a different language than the rest of the culture and country; therefore, it’s impossible for us to consistently fit into the categories culture and country give us.

Letter to Seminary Me

Jason Micheli —  September 22, 2015 — 4 Comments

rp_lightstock_70038_small_user_2741517-1024x683111111.jpgSeptember 10, 2015

Dear Jason,

The leaves are beginning to yellow and the morning air starting to cool, which means you still have years to go. You’re only a few weeks into your seminary experience and already- trust me, I know- you’re overwhelmed.

By feelings of inadequacy. Suspicions fed by the fact that all of your classmates appear to hail from either Texas or Wheaton (sometimes both, in succession) and, thus, were called by God to the ordained ministry when they were still carrying their Hardy Boys lunch boxes with them to the second grade.

And you- I won’t tell anyone- you’re still not sure if you’re called.

In fact, the word itself, ‘called,’ secretly embarrasses you, smacking as it does of certainty and solid conviction.

I won’t lie, Jason, and tell you you’re more than adequate for the ministry. You’re not, truth be told and the intervening years between you and me will only bear that out in sometimes painful ways. In the years to come that sense of inadequacy will revisit you every time you catch the congregation’s reflection in the rounded edge of the brass communion cup or whenever you realize how fleeting and short-lived are sermons. Ministry will strike you often as ill-fitting as your oatmeal colored robe which weekly will make you feel like an imposter, play-acting at someone with more faith and virtue than you.

The truth is, however, you’re more adequate for ministry than you are for Teach for America, law school, or working on a dude ranch out west- endeavors for which you’ll be submitting applications before your first semester of seminary comes to a close. No seriously you will, convinced as you are that ministry is a terrible mistake, either God’s or your’s.

I may not know you as well as I think I do (you’ll soon discover that’s painfully true of almost all clergy), but I do know you better than any other creature so I know you’re going to be less eager to hear this than I am to confess it: you’re not perfect. And here’s the deeper cut: you’re not nearly as smart as you think.

You’re going to make mistakes. Lots of them.

It’s the furthest thing from your radar now, given that in a few weeks you’ll be checking to see if your LSAT scores remain viable, but in a few months time the bishop, who will be up shit creek without any other options, will ask you to pastor a small but actual church.

Doubtless you’ve already heard the cliche about seminary, about how seminary doesn’t prepare you for ministry. It’s true in the spirit in which the critique is made. Seminary equips you to parse pistis Christou and to unpack bold-faced but dusty terms like perichoresis, yet seminary is surprisingly mum about the practical, nuts and bolts of herding a church and, more vexing, church people to the next step in their life.

Allow me.

Perhaps you can learn from and avoid the gaffes I’ve made. 

For example, if kindly old ladies with good intentions but palsied hands insist on filling those ridiculous little communion cups themselves, then suggest they need to do so at the altar instead of far away in the sacristy. Their shakey hands carrying stacks of tiny cups from such a distance all but guarantees that some of the wine- I mean, grape juice- will spill, sealing the heavy brass lid to the trays containing the cups.

When you preside at the table the next morning and solemnly attempt to lift the lid from the blood or our savior you will, for a chilling second or four, lift high both the cross-topped lid and 5 brass trays of thimble sized chalices until the collective weight of the messiah’s blood breaks the sugary seal, spilling red off-brand Welch’s all over the embroidered white altar cloth and making it appear as though you’d just repeated a once-for-all sacrifice and desanguinated Christ on that very table.

Speaking of the sacrament-

When you allow your congregation to don bathrobes and perform a Holy Thursday drama ‘for the community’ (i.e., their wives and grandchildren) against your instincts (it is a bad idea) then at the very least insure that the bread if not unleavened is not from the crunchy, dreadlocked, organic bakery adjacent to your church. For when Jesus, the soon-to-be-fatally-betrayed Passover, takes that bread and delivers his lines and breaks the bread, the somber mood of self-sacrifice easily will be ruined by the ping, ping, ping BB sound of 15 varieties of seeds, nuts and flax falling from the honey lacquered crust onto the silver tray.

You’re going to make mistakes.

When you get to be my age, Jason, you’ll realize that some of your missteps aren’t so much mistakes as things just look different with a longer view of them.

Give it a dozen years and you’ll see how an even bigger cliche than the one about seminary not preparing students for ministry is the cliched anti-institutionalism that determines so much of your cynical posture towards the big-C Church.

By the time you’re my age the curtain will have been pulled back and you’ll be forced to admit that the big-C Church is led by people no different than you and who may be even more well-meaning than you. Of course, don’t tell anyone I told you. The last thing the big-C Church needs is more accommodating company men who mistake the organization for the mission.

Even some of what seminary does teach you, it does so only partially.

Seminary will prepare you to offer words other than ‘it’s going to okay’ the first time you encounter a sobbing mother holding her third grade boy in his hospital bed as the reassuring beeps on his monitors grow ever longer.

Seminary will teach you even how to reflect on why ‘it’s going to be okay’ is a profoundly unChristian lie to tell, but seminary won’t prepare you for how overpowering will be the temptation to offer some such lie that will at least comfort you.

If even this warning isn’t enough to avoid the lie when the moment comes to you, then brace yourself for the slap that mother rightly will deliver across your scared, shit-eating grin. Really, maybe its best if you don’t avoid what I could not, such humbling I suspect is necessary if you’re to depend upon what you insist your parishioners give in their own lives: grace, a mercy and kindness that’s in no way deserved.

Don’t worry. Not all your gaffes will be so heavy.

For instance, when the psych test required by the ordination process raises a so-called ‘red flag’ by implying that you ‘may have difficulty working with women’ its probably best if you not reply to the ordination committee that you ‘get along great with chicks and can work fine with the dames so long as you don’t have to beat them off with a stick.’ 

And when you see the equal parts horror and disgust register across their collective gasp, don’t try to make it better by opining that ‘a self-serious lack of sense of humor could also be a red flag…’

I’m giving you pearls here, Jason.

And when you’re inspired to write a blog post one day (you’ll learn what a blog is) about the audacity of the doctrine of the incarnation entitled ‘Jesus Farts,’ don’t.

Even if the offense taken and the pious outrage feigned registers all the way up to the bishop and only goes to prove your point that docetism is a heresy alive and well in American Christendom, the juice is not worth the squeeze.

And when an exiting worshipper smiles and, for the first time in your ministry, tells you ‘Your sermon was great…you remind me of Joel Osteen…I just love him’ I’d suggest you just smile and thank her.

Just like Joel O would do.

As ridiculous as the comparison is (I hope), it won’t be the only time you’ll receive such feedback and, take it from me, most people don’t know how to react when you respond with ‘Joel Osteen is a crypto-pagan, heretical snake oil salesman only the worship of America could produce.’ 

Live and learn, Jason, but don’t kid yourself about the big mistakes.

They’re not seminary’s fault.

The truth is you’ll become a pastor not long after you became a Christian. You’ll still be working out your faith even as people look to you for answers and, more ridiculously, pay you to sound like you know what the hell you’re saying.

As a result, in the beginning at least, you’ll put on the role of pastor like an ill-fitting costume and play at someone you think you’re expected to be rather than be yourself.

You’ll search for a pulpit voice to go with that robe and underneath both you’ll stash away your authenticity. You’ll avoid expressing your actual thoughts and opinions. You’ll bite your tongue on the words, four lettered and all, that come quickest to you. You’ll hide the scars that could be lessons to teach others. Because, you’ll presume, that’s what pastors do.

Pastors put on Christ and, in putting him on, they cover up their true selves.

Only after you’ve spent enough time in one place, where of course the real you eventually will seep out, will you realize how people (even- especially- church people) seem to prefer the real you. Prefer pastors being real.

I’m not sure the world needs more pastors, no matter what the demographics say, but I am convinced the world does not need more inauthentic ones. I’ve learned that the hard way. Perhaps you won’t need to now.

Another result of your ordination following so soon after your confirmation is that it’s only after you’ve lived for a dozen years or so as a Christian that you’ll begin to have the appropriate patience for others who’ve done the same or longer. Only then will you cease being so judgmental and uncompromising about the faith (you are), for you will have learned that if Christianity could be lived in this world fully and without compromise or corner-cutting then we wouldn’t need Christ.

In that due time you’ll realize that when Christ commands you to love your enemies he’s not primarily speaking of those abstract enemies on the far side of the world whom you’ll only ever encounter on the pages of the Washington Post.

I think he’s meaning someone like the parishioner who will write complaints about you to the bishop and pass around petitions against for the bishop but who nevertheless will put one hand in the other and reach out to receive the host from your hand. The former form of enemy love requires only finger-wagging moralism and maybe a political ideology that’s already comfortable for you. The latter, to your chagrin,  requires discipleship.

Cross-bearing.

But in time you’ll discover a willingness to carry it because you’ll accept that, as Stanley Hauerwas says:

‘…the church is constituted by ordinary people. By ordinary I simply mean people who [attempt to] keep their promises. They are ordinary people keeping ordinary promises, and it is just such people who make the church the church.’

It wouldn’t be my plan for the salvation of the world, but it’s apparently God’s plan and it requires patience, on his end and ours.

Knowing you as well as I do, Jason, I’d say patience isn’t a bad catch all bit of advice for you as I have it on good authority (your future wife) that you can be a know-it-all jackass.

One of the effects of your smarty pants bearing, of believing you always have the right answer and thinking you know how best to express it, is that in the years to come you’ll be impatient with those unlike you. And in ministry you’ll often grouse about how so few church people can articulate what they believe about God and where God’s work (aka: the Holy Spirit) intersects with their own lives.

Let’s be honest, Jason, the last place you’d ever want to work is a church where people are aggressively articulate about their faith, where they hyperventilate ‘Fatherweejus’ prayers and volunteer how ‘the Lord laid it on my heart…’

And, regardless, eventually you’ll wonder if maybe all this time you’ve mistaken people’s reticence about their faith for a lack of thoughtfulness or conviction. Maybe the opposite is the case. Maybe all those people you judged to be inarticulate already knew something you will only learn once you learn you have cancer. Maybe, as Peter DeVries writes:

‘…only the superficial and the slipshod have ready answers’ when it comes to suffering and God and his evidently incomplete work in the world.

I know what you’re thinking: ‘WTF? Did he just drop the C-word on me and then move on, without comment, to a cryptic quote from an obscure book I’ve never read?!’ 

I did, sorry.

But you will. Read it. After you learn you have it.

You’ll read just about every cancer book you can find. You’ll pore over them like you’ve just made an unexpected career change from ministry to cancer because as soon as you hear you’re stage serious sick and just after your oncologist tells you for the first time ‘There’s no cure…the best we can hope for is a long remission’ it will seem as though you’ve been given a job you’re completely unqualified and unprepared to perform.

Actually, there’s no ‘as thoughs.’ That’s exactly how it feels.

I know. As Rob complains to his Mom in High Fidelity: ‘That’s some cold shit.’ Sorry to bear bad news to you, but I think it’s better if you hear it from me first than from the kindly, clumsy doctor who first broke the news to me in stuttering, half-step sentences that set off weeks of panic attacks in me.

Breathe.

And then try not to worry too much about it. You’ve got plenty of time before then. Besides the doctors all tell me there’s absolutely nothing you can do to prevent your particular brand of cancer; trust me, I must’ve asked them a hundred times by now. So don’t go raiding the vitamin aisle or eating organic.

It’s just one of those things. Explain it how you will: a defect ground down deep in the DNA, the will of God, bad luck or bad karma, shit happens. Either way, the game of life has dealt you a piss poor card, but yours can still be a winning hand.

Silver lining-

When the sword does fall and the C-word jumbles all the puzzle pieces that comprise life as you will know it, you will meet that day with few meaningful regrets. If not now then later that will strike you as gravy.

More so than the stab of regret, what cancer will inject into your life is perspective, as fresh as it is swift.

The philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach, perhaps the ablest critic of Christianity, charged that we view God through the eyes of our tribe, our culture and tradition, and our personal wants and needs; so that, God becomes the personal projection of our id in the sky, believing what we believe, blessing those causes we support, cursing those we curse, abiding the contours of our independently achieved ideology.

Karl Barth, who by next semester will become one of your Mt Rushmore theologians, found Feuerbach’s critique sound. Sinful as we are, when Christians speak of God, Barth concurred, we’re most often speaking of ourselves in a loud voice.

Like Barth, Feuerbach’s criticism will strike you immediately as revealing more truth about Christianity than Christians would like to confess.

There is much self-love (to say nothing of self-justification) disguised beneath much of our love of God talk.

Feuerbach is right to charge that much of our theology is actually anthropology, and Barth is right to thunder that in remaking God according to our image we forsake the true God who loves in freedom, whose power is weakness, and who cannot be found but must find us.

They’re both right so far as it goes, yet lately I wonder if there’s weakness latent in both their indictments.

I wonder if a more positive construal of Feuerbach’s critique could be to say that our personal experience gives us a vantage onto God to which we wouldn’t be privy otherwise. A view that others from their perch maybe cannot see.

Rather than fashioning God in our image, I wonder if you could argue instead that each of us sees a piece of God from our patch of the world he’s created and from the front seat of the life he’s unfolding for us.

Cancer, in other words, gives me a perspective on my faith I didn’t have prior to it.

Rather than remaking God in my likeness (though I’m with Barth- I do that plenty), I think my experience these past 8 months, 7 nadirs and 40 odd days of chemo-poison allow me to see something of God I could not have seen before.

Something you cannot see yet, Jason.

Without intending it, in the years to come, you will shortchange the significance of Christ’s suffering on the cross, emphasizing in its place the prophetic, social justice work that landed Jesus there.

If you’re honest (you won’t be) your selective focus will owe in part to the fact that you don’t think the world or the Church needs another preacher preaching ad tedium on the blood of the cross, and, less defensible, your emphasis will owe to the most loathsome sort of tribalism. You won’t want to be counted among those kinds of preachers. Those kinds of Christians.

The be-all of discipleship isn’t inviting Christ in to your heart. Its end-all isn’t your personal salvation. The means to get there, discipleship or heaven, isn’t by contemplating the suffering of Christ…you will preach in some form nearly every Sunday.

Discipleship, you will press and not let up, is about doing the things that Jesus did in the way that Jesus did them: feeding the poor, clothing the naked, lifting up the lowly and forgiving the enemy, dispensing grace and speaking the truth to power and using words (only) when necessary.

Discipleship, you will preach and teach, requires rolled-up sleeves and dirty hands, for following Jesus is all about stooped-over foot washing. And you’ll emphasize this definition of discipleship not just in your preaching but in how you allot your time, how you design programs for the church and how you conceive of its mission.

Now that I feel a shell of myself, with thinned out blood and an off balance brain and verities I once took for granted gone, I can see how incomplete and partial has been my take on the faith.

In admitting I’ve shortchanged the significance of Christ’s suffering on the cross, I’m not suggesting that Christ’s cross is a symbol for the ineffable mystery of suffering. I don’t believe there’s anything inexplicable at all about the cross.

It is simple. He lived a fully human life, the life God desires of each of us, and we- the world, the Principalities and Powers, humanity, you and me- killed him for it. There’s no mystery there, or, at least, not the mystery we like to ponder before the cross while quieting exonerating ourselves from it.

Here’s what I mean when I say that I’ve shortchanged Christ’s suffering and here’s what I can see from the chemo chair:

How do the ill participate in the ministry of Christ?

Or the dying?

Because if we take seriously the fact that we’re baptized into Christ’s suffering and death- not just deputized to continue his earthly (healthy) ministry- then those 3 hours on the cross are every bit as integral to discipleship as the compassionate, prophetic ministry that landed him there.

Only now, with stage-serious cancer, do I recognize how for over a dozen years I’ve circumscribed discipleship in such a way that excludes people like the person I presently am.

When it comes to you, Jason, this question will hit with the equal and opposite force of that aforementioned mother’s slap:

How do the sick participate in Christ’s ministry?

Never say Jesus lacks a sense of humor- even if his followers frequently do- because I think the answer for how we think of discipleship lies in your least favorite chunk of scripture: 1 Corinthians 12 and 13.

“For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body…For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body…”

In the years to come, you will spend considerable time attempting to dissuade brides and grooms from using this passage in their wedding ceremonies, especially the ‘love is patient…’ pericope which concludes it. You’ll point out how Paul’s not speaking to individuals in 1 Corinthinans and especially not to love stuck couples about to be married. Paul’s addressing the gathered community, the church, the Body of Christ.

When it comes headstrong brides and indifferent grooms, 9 times out of 10 your persuasive efforts will prove futile.

But as much time as you will expend steering people away from this passage, you will spend surprisingly little time reflecting on it, which I can now see is a shame. Because if each of us are parts of Christ’s Body only, individual, discrete parts- a hand here, an ear there, an eye- then it stands to reason that we’re called to, responsible for, just a part of Christ’s ministry, imitating that part of Jesus’ life our situation in life allows.

Let someone else speak Truth to Power.

Someone else can roll up their sleeves and clothe the naked.

I’ve freaking got cancer.

I don’t have the energy to feed the hungry.

And, frankly, I don’t have the peace of mind right now to be a peacemaker.

But if Paul’s right, then me facing my illness and suffering with my imperfect approximation of Jesus’ ‘Father, into your hands, I commend my spirit’ is every bit an authentic expression of discipleship as serving at a homeless shelter or extending grace to a prodigal.

Instead of saying we’re only responsible for a part of Christ’s ministry, perhaps its better to put it this way: God doesn’t need us to live Jesus’ life; Jesus already lived the life God gave him. We’re called to live this life, our particular life, the life God’s given us, as Jesus might live it if he were us.

The question is not: how can I be just like Jesus given the particularities and pressures of my life?

The question is: who would you be if Jesus were you, with all the particularities and pressures of your life?

Who would you be if your life (with cancer and fear, pain and panic attacks) was the life God gave Jesus to live?

In time, Jason, you’ll discover how that’s as relevant a question for pastors as it is for every one else.

Blessings,

Jason