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Sinning Boldly

A poor sinner reflects on life, Lutheranism and the pursuit of justice

Updated: 2017-11-18T18:13:16.416-08:00




He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’
And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’
-Luke 4:17-21

This was the text for today on Sacred Space. It's an old friend, one of my favorites. I've always understood Jesus to be referring the text to himself, but today I was struck by another possibility.

Jesus says "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing." What if the "Spirit of the Lord" is upon those hearing him, and it is those hearing him who the Lord is sending to proclaim release to the captives? It's a very non-standard reading, but I think it fits with Jesus' teaching.



I was thinking about the story of Zaccheus this morning.

Zaccheus tells Jesus he will give half of his wealth to the poor and pay back four-fold anyone he has defrauded. Jesus replies, "Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham."

A standard Protetestant reading of this event is that because Zaccheus has come to faith in Jesus he has been saved. The fact that Zaccheus doesn't say anything about having faith in Jesus isn't really a problem because his actions demonstrate it. Obviously no Christian (Protestant or otherwise) would interpret this as saying that Zaccheus is being granted salvation because of what he has promised to do.

But what if the thing he is being saved from is his old lifestyle? "Today salvation has come to this house," Jesus says. Whatever has happened, Zaccheus' salvation has just taken place. In John 3:19 Jesus says, "And this is the judgement, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil." Can we say that Zaccheus has been "saved" from that "judgment"? It seems to me that it fits.

So all that was just floating around in my head today. This afternoon I took a minute to look up the story and read it. This is a much richer story than I had previously appreciated. The first verse floored me:
He entered Jericho and was passing through it.
I don't know how I have not noticed this before, but "Jericho" and "passing through" appearing together make for some serious allusion. In general, whenever I see a mention of Jericho I think of the Israelites' entry into the promised land and the specific phrase "passing through" draws my mind to the crossing of the Jordan through parted waters, which itself draws in the crossing of the Red Sea. Maybe I'm reading too much into this particular translation of the Greek διήρχετο, but then again maybe not. The Bible does tend to do things like that.

Next it says,
He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not
Ain't that the truth! How often does "the crowd" keep us from seeing who Jesus is? Maybe that's just me.

Here's my favorite bit though. Jesus says to Zaccheus, "I must stay at your house today." The crowd says, "He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner." But we're in Jericho. The spies that Joshua sent into Jericho stayed in the house of Rahab, the prostitute. Wouldn't you think the people living in Jericho would know that story?

Following Christ


We had a reading yesterday in church of an excerpt from Kierkegaard on the topic of being a follower of Christ and not merely an admirer. This is a subject that frequently weighs on my mind. Quite often I suspect that most of Christianity has contented itself with a pale, bourgeois idea of what it means to be a follower of Christ. We'll do (or at least say we'll do) whatever can reasonably be expected to fit into a standard 21st century American life, but certainly no more. We don't want to be religious fanatics, after all. But weren't Jesus and his disciples religious fanatics?

The danger, I think, is that when most of us want to be more religious, we think in terms of being more strictly moral. I'd be the first to agree that moral fanaticism is an awful thing. But that's not what I see when I look at the life of Jesus.

What does it mean to be a follower of Christ? How do I do that in my life? Do I live the way Jesus would live if he were an upper-middle class American software engineer with a wife and two daughters? Or is that already a contradiction?

Paul says somewhere that we're to live out the life we had when we were called to be Christians, so I think that means the wife and kids can stay (lucky for me!) and probably the job I have too. But from there it's so easy to slide all the pieces of my life back into place from my spending habits to what I do with my free time. What if Jesus were an upper-middle class American software engineer with a wife and two daughters who wasn't terribly financially responsible and spent all his free time riding a bicycle or watching TV?

Part of my problem is ADD. I'm immobilized by big tasks. I don't know where to start. This weekend I had to pack all the junk in my garage. I began by standing out there for a while feeling overwhelmed, not knowing where to start. But this is something I've been working on recently, so eventually it clicked -- pick something up and put it in a box.

And I guess that's what I need to do with following Christ. I'm not likely to strip naked and change my entire life in an instant the way St. Francis did. For me, I think, it's going to require listening for Jesus' call and doing one thing. I'm not satisfied with where that gets me, but at least it gets me somewhere.



I visited the Sacred Space site today. I was looking for something, some connection to God. I've always loved Sacred Space, but I haven't been there in years. I visited today. God was in it.

The prayer for the day today said this:
Lord, I cannot find you in time past or time future; only in this present moment. ... It is no use looking before and after and pining for what is not. The now is all that I have.
I'm not generally a fan of scripted prayers that are directed to the mind of the one praying rather than to God, but this one struck a chord.

I have been pining for the past lately. I've been lamenting the spiritual habits I used to have. I said last week that I think I'm as close to God as I ever have been, but today I think that's not really true. I can feel that I'm missing something I used to have, and I've been looking back trying to find it. But the prayer from Sacred Space reminds me that God is not in the past. God is here and if I'm not finding God here and now, it's most likely because I'm looking somewhere else.

This Is Gonna Hurt


I've been reading David Lose's book Making Sense of Scripture recently. It's a pretty good book, and I'm getting more out of than I expected to.

Yesterday, I was reading the part where Lose is talking about Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection as the center of scripture. He addresses the three main types of atonement theory briefly, but then suggests that it will be more helpful to think about the Cross and Resurrection in terms of what it tells us about God and our relationship to God. I like that.

He starts by saying that the first thing it shows us is that God is holy and we are not or something to that effect. I was put off by this and a bit surprised. It's traditional, sure, but throughout the book Lose had been presenting a more post-modern approach to things.

Then he brought together a bunch of references to explain what he meant, beginning with John 3:17-20
Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgement, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed.
OK...not what I was expecting. He goes on to connect this with the story of Adam and Eve hiding from God after they ate the apple, the story of Isaiah worrying about his unclean lips when he sees God in the temple and the story of Peter asking Jesus to leave his boat because he (Peter) is a sinful man. Those were what I was expecting, but the reference to John 3:17-20 had changed my perspective.

Perhaps it's not so much that we can't live in God's holy presence as we don't want to. And the Isaiah story, along with John 3:19, suggests the reason. We don't want to have a burning coal pressed to our unclean lips, even if that is the gateway to the presence of God. It makes me think of the way my daughter would rather walk around with a splinter in her foot than submit to the tweezers that would pull it out.

On the cross, Jesus takes all our sin and brings it into the presence of God. It's not pretty. He comes out the other side shining like the sun but still bearing scars. What does this tell us about the God who rescues the world with a flood, who recreates Israel by sending them into exile, who saves us all by sending his Son to die?

When angels appear to people in the Bible, the first thing they say is "Don't be afraid." Maybe the next thing they should say is "This is gonna hurt." Faith, I think, is the art of trusting the first part, even while knowing the second, and the cross is a picture of that kind of faith.



A few years ago, I was fairly satisfied with my spiritual life. That may sound good or bad, depending on your theological slant, but generally I was happy with it. Then sometime, maybe five or more years back, it started to unravel.

I'm not having a crisis of faith or anything. I think I'm as close to God as I've ever been. What I've lost is religious practices. I don't go to church often. I don't read the Bible often. I don't pray often. And when I try to re-establish these practices, it doesn't stick.

Blogging isn't a very traditional spiritual discipline, but it's been very helpful to me in the past as a way to organize my thoughts about religion and about God. It's another indicator of how my religious discipline has been. I've tried to re-establish the habit a few times, but without much success.

I'm trying again -- not just with blogging, but the other spiritual disciplines as well, beginning with prayer.
Let us arise, then, at last,
for the Scripture stirs us up, saying,
"Now is the hour for us to rise from sleep" (Rom. 13:11).
Let us open our eyes to the deifying light,
let us hear with attentive ears
the warning which the divine voice cries daily to us,
"Today if you hear His voice,
harden not your hearts" (Ps. 95:8).
-Rule of Benedict, from the Prologue

New Blogging Venture


I know, no one blogs anymore. If I'm going to be doing something new I should be doing it on Twitter or Facebook or something, right? But I like the blogging format.

Contrary to all reason, I'm attempting something that will, to some extent, rely on participation from other people for its success. Since you're reading this, I'm hoping you'll be one of those people.

A while ago, I was listening to Rob Bell's Velvet Elvis. Somewhere in there he says this:
I don’t think any of the writers of the Bible ever intended people to read their letters alone. I think they assumed that people who were hearing these words for the first time would be sitting next to someone who was further along on her spiritual journey, someone who was more in tune with what the writer was saying. If it didn’t make sense, you could stop the person who was reading and say, "Help me understand this."
I really like that. It occurred to me that most of the time when I've blogged about the Bible here, I've been sharing what I think it means. I decided it would be a good idea to try blogging about the parts that I don't understand.

That's where you come in.

What I think I'm going to do is follow the weekly lectionary and every week blog about whatever question or doubts I have about it. I'm hoping some good people will stop by and share what they do understand, or at least ideas that they have.

Here's the address of the new blog:

Please stop by.

"He Became Sad"


But when he heard this, he became sad; for he was very rich.
-Luke 18:23
There's a barrel outside the locker room where I work. I pass it at least twice a day as I change in and out of my bike clothes. It doesn't have much explanation, just a sign saying you can donate shoes to The Ethiopia Project by putting them in the barrel.

As I was walking by one day recently, I gave it some thought. Like everyone, I like the idea of helping out those less fortunate than myself. African countries seem to have a particular tug on American heart strings. Yet I knew that it didn't make sense, from a humanitarian perspective, to spend $50-$100 on a pair of shoes just to give them to someone in Ethiopia. The money could provide more help in other ways.

Then I thought about my old worn-out shoes that I haven't thrown away yet. But no one wants shoes like this as a donation. It would be an insult to the dignity of the recipient, right? At this point, I thought about the fact that there must be more people than I could bear to consider around the world whose lives would be improved by even my old, nasty, worn out shoes. This took my mind to the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus -- Lazarus, "who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man's table" (Luke 16:22).

I realized, with something like horror, that I was the rich man. Of course, this idea wasn't new to me. It is fairly standard American progressive rhetoric. We all know it. What caused the horror was that for the first time, I sort of understood why the rich man didn't do something for Lazarus when he was alive. He was too deeply entrenched in his own way of life to see an alternative. Even if he wanted things to be different, he couldn't see how they could be. Would it help for him to be poor too? Of course not.

This inability to see an alternative to a privileged way of life connects the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus in Luke 16 to the story of the rich young ruler in Luke 18.
A certain ruler asked him, "Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?"

Jesus said to him, "Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: 'You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; Honor your father and mother.'"

He replied, "I have kept all these since my youth."

When Jesus heard this, he said to him, "There is still one thing lacking. Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me."

But when he heard this, he became sad; for he was very rich.
This man wants to follow Jesus' teaching. He wants to live the way Jesus is telling people they should live. The trouble is, he can't do it. He can't, and it makes him sad.

I looked up The Ethiopia Project today. It isn't terribly humanitarian. They want to give running shoes to aspiring athletes in Ethiopia to see if they can become elite, world-class runners. They don't want my old, worn-out shoes. I have a pair of running shoes that I don't use that are in pretty good shape. Maybe I'll give them to the project.

I still don't see a way out of being a financially privileged American.

Carl Braaten


A number of years ago, I wrote a blog post in response to an open letter that Carl Braaten wrote to then ELCA presiding bishop Mark Hanson. To my utter astonishment, that post started turning up whenever anyone search for "Carl Braaten" on Google. As of today, it is the third result Google offers, and I've seen it as high as number one (maybe just for me, I don't know what Google does behind the scenes). In any event, this was the top search result that led people to my humble blog until it was recently surpassed by "Can Jesus Microwave a Burrito?" (The Internet is a strange place, and Google models that strangeness well.)

Anyway, for some time now, I've been intending to offer something useful to those who stumble across my blog looking for actual information about Dr. Braaten, but it turns out that such information really has been hard to find. Recently, I enlisted the help of Dwight at Versus Populum, who was able to provide me with enough information to offer the rough biography that follows. I'll also be posting this at Wikipedia, which had a very terse entry, so if anyone knows more and would care to elaborate, please go there and do so.

So, without further ado.....


Carl Braaten has been one of the leading theologians and teachers in the Lutheran church for the past 50 years. He has authored and edited numerous books and theological papers, including Principles of Lutheran Theology (Fortress Press, 1983), Mother Church: Ecclesiology and Ecumenism (Fortress Press, 1998) and In One Body Through the Cross: The Princeton Proposal for Christian Unity (Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003).

Along with Robert Jenson, he has been an influential figure in developing and restoring the catholic roots of American Lutheranism.

Braaten was born on January 3, 1929. His parents were Norwegian-American pietists, who served as missionaries in Madagascar, and he received his early spiritual formation in that context. After finishing high school at Augustana Academy, a Lutheran boarding school in Canton, South Dakota, he attended St. Olaf College, Luther Seminary, Heidelberg University and Harvard Divinity School. where he studied under Paul Tillich and earned his doctoral degree. He was ordained by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in 1958.

At that time, he began serving a parish in Minneapolis and teaching at Luther Seminary. In 1961 Braaten, together with Robert Jenson, Roy Harrisville, Kent Knutson, James Burtness and others, founded the journal Dialog, which he continued to serve as editor until resigning in 1991. In 1962, Dr. Braaten accepted a position at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, where he taught as Professor of Systematic Theology until 1991 and where he is still recognized as Professor Emeritus.

In 1991, Braaten and Jenson founded the Center for Catholic and Evangelical Theology and established a new theological journal, Pro Ecclesia.

Lutheran Irony (no, not that kind)


There's a concept known as "Lutheran irony" which refers to the characteristically Lutheran idea that whenever we are behaving most religiously (striving to be pious) we are at our most vulnerable spiritually, because our pride weakens our dependence on Christ. That's not the topic of this post.

I noticed something else last night that involves Luther and those who have followed him spiritually and seems to me to be rather ironic. That's what I want to talk about.

I was reading David Brondos' book, Fortress Introduction to Salvation and the Cross, specifically the chapter on Luther. Brondos writes:
For years, Luther wrestled with deep-seated feelings of guilt and with his enemy the devil, convinced that he needed to overcome the powers of sin and Satan in himself in order to achieve the standard of righteousness demanded by God for salvation. Yet no matter how hard he tried and how harshly he disciplined himself, he felt that his efforts were in vain and that he remained under God's wrath. Finally, however, through his study of the Scriptures, most notably Paul's epistles, Luther encountered another God, a God who forgave sins and accepted sinners out of pure grace and mercy through his Son, Jesus Christ.
That's a fairly standard and, I believe, accurate summary of Luther's major transformation.

The thing that occurred to me as I read this was that a very large number of people who see themselves as Luther's spiritual heirs -- not only, or even primarily, Lutherans, but evangelicals in general -- seem to have a theology that assumes that the young Luther who lived in fear of God's wrath was basically right. The common evangelical theology presumes a God who, apart from the sacrifice made by Jesus Christ, would be a wrathful judge who condemned every living person for failing to meet the perfect moral standard of the Law.

What's up with that?!?

That's about as far as I got last night in Brondos' book, so I don't know what he's going to say about it.

Thinking back on my own reading of Luther, I'm not sure that the post-tower-experience Luther would have completely agreed with this idea. When he talks about looking upon God "naked" -- as opposed to clothed in Christ -- it might seem like he would agree, but he constantly tells us that we shouldn't attempt to know or understand this "naked" God. I'm not sure he would have agreed that God is "really" like that.

But regardless of what Luther thought, why would we still be carrying around that medieval image of God? Is this the image of God that Jesus offers us? I really don't think so.

Now someone will say that most mainline denominations don't employ or endorse this sort of thinking. That may be so but (a) too often they don't offer anything substantial in its place (i.e. they just don't talk about salvation), so (b) many of the people in the pews pick this up from other sources.

Beyond that, what really surprised me as I thought about this is that while I have a strong reflex reaction against it, I don't think I've completely cleared it from my own theological closet. I think I still have it in there somewhere, like a box of stuff I'm keeping in case I need it some day.

But it's wrong, isn't it?

The Gospel, The Church and Churches


Andy Kaylor has become unstuck in church.This happens to me from time to time. I'm a member of Generation X, so dissatisfaction is part of my stock-in-trade. That's nothing unusual. Wherever I am, whatever I'm doing, there's also something I'm not quite happy with. That's normal -- normal for everyone, I suspect, but in particular normal for me. But from time to time, the general background noise of dissatisfaction bubbles up to become a full blown crisis. That's happening to me now.I've been told that the Holy Spirit is a disrupting presence in the Church, so maybe this is for the best.Right now, one of the chief things I'm dissatisfied with is the Gospel. Well, that's not quite right. I'm not dissatisfied with the Gospel per se. Rather, I feel like I've misplaced it. I've looked around, and I can't seem to find it. This is also something that happens to me from time to time.The standard Lutheran definition of "the Church" is this: "The Church is the congregation of saints, in which the Gospel is rightly taught and the Sacraments are rightly administered." (Augsburg Confession, Article VII) I had to look up the precise wording, and it surprised me. It's wrong! The Church is where the Gospel is preached, not where the Gospel is taught, right? Maybe that's part of the problem.Anyway, I haven't been to church in a while, and when I was going, I didn't often feel like I was hearing the Gospel. That's not to say it wasn't being preached necessarily, but I wasn't hearing it. Maybe it's me.The trouble is, I'm not sure what the Gospel is. What's more, I probably don't believe that you know either. Sure, "God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son...." and "Christ died for our sins" and so on. But, if I can bring Chaung-Tzu into such a hallowed discussion, "The men of old took all they really knew with them to the grave. Their words are only dirt they left behind." Or, perhaps more irreverantly, to paraphrase Inigo Montoya, "You keep using those words. I don't think they mean what you think they mean."Rod Rosenbladt tells the story of one of his mentors explaining to him what the Church is. He was told, "When the pastor hands you the bread and says, 'This is the body of Christ, given for you,' that is the Church." I like that. It's the place where the Sacraments are administered and the Gospel is preached (not taught). At this simple level, while I still may not know what the Gospel is, I hear it, I feel it, I receive it. Maybe I just need to find a church which celebrates the Sacraments more often.Several years ago, I told myself in this blog, "To me, the Gospel is that in the person of Jesus Christ the kingdom of God has begun to break into this world. In Christ Jesus, God has begun to fulfill his promise of new heavens and a new earth." That's not bad. I feel my heart strangely warmed to hear it.My complaint, I guess, is that I'm not finding that in church. Too often I find myself in churches where you'd think that Jesus' preaching began with, "The Counsel of God is at hand. Rejoice and listen to the Good Advice," and ended with, "All insight in heaven and earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, and make church members of all nations, inviting them to drink coffee and join small groups, and sharing with them many of the things that you may deduce from what I have taught you." That doesn't work for me.Perhaps I shouldn't be so cynical. Maybe I should go to church.[...]

Can Jesus Microwave a Burrito?


A friend recently shared a link to some funny results you can get with Google's suggested search feature. The idea is that you start typing something into Google's search box and watch what it suggests. One of the results (try it yourself if this isn't what brought you to this blog) was that if you type "Can Je" Google guesses that you might be wondering "Can Jesus microwave a burrito?" I was skeptical when I saw this, so I tried it myself and sure enough, there it was. I'm sure by now it's solidified as a meme. The question is shortened from "Could Jesus microwave a burrito so hot that he himself could not eat it," which is obviously a variation of the old "Could God make a rock so heavy that he himself could not lift it?" conundrum. Near as I can tell, this form of the question became popular when Homer Simpson asked it of Ned Flanders in 2002, but Google has a page in its data banks that it claims is from December 1, 2001 on which it is attributed to someone named Laura Sharp. Good work, Laura.So, I was thinking about this, and nerdy as I know it is, my first response was to appreciate the dichotomy between the orthodox theological answer to the question and the implied knee-jerk reaction of believing Christians. The whole thing reminded me of this painting, which my cousin Nick comissioned.Anyway, it stuck in my mind and I realized the immense potential for humor still untapped in this question. What follows is my humble attempt to mine some of that humor. As you read it, keep in mind the scene in Bruce Almighty where Morgan Freeman as God says, "Now, I'm not big on blasphemy, but that last one made me laugh." If that doesn't help, go look at some "Jesus Laughing" "artwork".So, without further ado...Q: Can Jesus Microwave a Burrito?The Chalcedonian ResponseWe, following the holy Fathers, all with one consent, teach people to confess one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood; truly God and truly man, of a rational soul and body. Now then because Jesus is both truly God and truly man he is simultaneously able and not able to do this. Touching his Godhead, he is omnipotent and nothing is beyond his abilities, whether it be microwaving burritos to unimaginable temperatures or consuming burritos of unimaginable temperatures. However, eating burritos is not a thing of God but a thing of man, and in as much as Jesus is truly man now and forever, he is certainly able to eat a burrito as we would eat a burrito, and we all know that burritos can be too hot to eat. Amen.The Enthusiastic Believer ResponseOf course Jesus could microwave a burrito so hot that he himself could not eat it. He's Jesus! He can do anything! He wouldn't even need a microwave to do it. He could make a burrito appear out of thin air that was so hot that no one could not eat it. But you know, I was talking to my cousin Joe about this last week, and he said, "Well, then Jesus isn't omnipotent because he couldn't eat the burrito." And I was like, "Duh! He's Jesus. He can do anything. Of course, he can eat the burrito." I don't understand why people try to make things so hard.The Academic ResponseThe Gospel of Luke is replete with stories of Jesus eating, so when we think about Jesus eating a burrito, that would be where we should look. The unknown author of Luke's gospel does not specifically address Jesus' cooking skills because that's not what she or he is interested in. Instead of asking whether Jesus can microwave a burrito, we should be thinking about the much more important question of who Jesus would eat a burrito with, and the third gospel does indeed help us to answer this question. Jesus would gladly share a burrito with the stoner who has the munchies. He would gulp[...]

Caring For the Poor


I know we're not actually a Christian nation, but it's usually the liberals and the libertarians who emphasize that. My Christian values do lead to my personal political positions.

I decided today that I must be the most liberal man in the country.

I was offended this morning by the vehemence with which Joe Biden denied that President Obama's health care proposal would provide coverage for illegal aliens. I'd like for illegal aliens be covered.

My father-in-law once told me a story about feeling led by God to read the book of Leviticus. And so he read it and felt like he didn't get anything at all out of it. And then he felt led by God to read it again, so he did again, and again he didn't get anything out of it. That was the end of his story. I find that story encouraging whenever I read Leviticus. I've read Leviticus several times. I retained enough to be able to find the following verse with the help of a Bible search engine:
The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.
-Leviticus 19:34
I can almost hear my Uncle Gary muttering, "You long-haired, commie, pinko...."

Harry Potter What If


I'm a big fan of the Harry Potter series. It's entertaining, and it explores some interesting questions. I've been thinking lately though that it would have been more interesting if the Sorting Hat had put Harry in Slytherin. Could Harry have still foiled Voldemort year after year?

The way I imagine it, the only thing necessary to get him in Slytherin would have been for him not to have met Ron on the train the first year. Then he could have become friends with Draco Malfoy instead. Would Malfoy have turned Harry toward evil, or could friendship with Harry have brought out a better side of Malfoy?

I like how J.K. Rowling develops the idea that Harry can't do any of what he does without the support of the people around him. But could he do it with Malfoy and Pansy Parkinson at his side instead of Ron and Hermoine, Professor Snape watching over him instead of Professor McGonagall, and (gasp) Filtch as his inside connection instead of Hagrid?

Granted, none of this would have any appeal if you didn't already know the story as it actually does unfold, but one of the things that bugs me about the story is that, in spite of a few hat tips to the idea that people aren't either all good or all bad, it's not at all hard to tell who's good and who's bad, with the notable exceptions of Snape and, to a lesser extent, Kreacher.

On the other hand, there's a certain way in which precisely this makes Harry's story a fitting model of the Christian life (and I'm guessing this is true of other moral/ethical systems as well), because Harry himself is the one character we see struggling with good and evil. And, as Harry looks out around him, all the other "good" people are pretty uniformly good, and it's generally only in "bad" people that he can see anything bad. It's my experience that life feels like that, though I've long since come to terms with the fact that it's an illusion.

So maybe, just maybe, the story with Harry in Gryffindor can be seen as an allegory for the way life looks from the inside looking out, and a rewriting of the story with Harry in Slytherin could be an allegory for life as it actually is. Which forces me to ask again, would the "good guy" win in that scenario?

Justification by Faith: A Case Study in Biblical Authority


In my previous post, I explored the idea of the authority of the Bible. I suggested that the authority of the Bible is more like the authority of wine than it is like the authority of a constitution. That is, its authority lies precisely in its ability to transform the reader and that for purposes of authority it should not be treated as an objective document which may be consulted and from which judgments may be derived.I can't remember if I said that this is the authority the Bible should have or that's the authority the Bible does, in fact, have. It occurred to me last night that the latter is most certainly true, whether we pretend the Bible's authority is something else or not. It also seemed to me that a brief case study was in order.I'd like to look at the question of justification by faith during the Reformation.Although there are those who would rather die than admit this, there is a growing consensus that Luther was wrong about his idea of imputed righteousness. If this is indeed the case, would we then conclude that the Protestant cause in general was wrong? No.Look at the way the story of Luther is always told: Luther was a diligent monk, struggling against a troubled conscience. In great fear over the certainty of his salvation, he wrestled over and over with the scriptures, until one glorious day while wrestling with Paul's letter to the Romans he discovered the glorious truth that it is by God's righteousness, and not our own that we are justified (insert sound of angels singing here).Now granted that Luther was wrong, he was wrong precisely here at this most pivotal moment in the development of his Reformation insight. But consider, the above story is based entirely on how Luther himself told the story after his theology had completely gelled. Of course, the truth was more complicated than that.I'm saying that Luther's actual discovery was more basic than what he later claimed. I'm saying that the heart of Luther's insight was that God loves sinners, not (only?) the righteous. And in this regard he was completely correct. Having received this light, Luther was totally transformed and invigorated enough to challenge the theology of his day to bring this good news to all who would listen. A movement was formed and "the Word of the Lord grew mightily and prevailed" as Acts 19:20 says.Of course, there were those who held a vested interest in the theology of his day, and they immediately set people to the task of figuring out what was wrong with Luther's reading of the Bible. Now, as these scholars were studying to prepare their opposition, they latched on to the truth that God transforms sinners, and they propagated this Biblical truth to all who would listen, and again "the Word of the Lord grew mightily and prevailed" in a movement now known as the Counter Reformation (or Catholic Reformation, if you prefer).It turns out that both of these basic insights were Biblically sound, and so both could be defended by referencing the Bible as though it were a dogmatic document, but both were cast in theologies which were not quite so Biblically sound, and so neither was unassailable from that same perspective. And so the "Bible-as-document" model of Biblical authority left us with a huge gaping wound in the Church.However, in spite of this, because the Bible actually exercises its authority through transformed lives, both sides of this gaping wound thrived and grew and brought renewal to the Church, at least until the leaders who affiliated themselves with these movements managed to use the conflict as an occasion for deadening the faith of many.[...]

Biblical Interpretation and Authority.


A friend recently dropped me a note in response to some thoughts I had shared with him about biblical interpretation. Like me, he's from a Protestant background but loves the Catholic tradition. He said he's basically torn between "believing that Petrine doctrine is the only way out of the theological mess" or "agreeing with Luther that individuals reading the text with the guidance of the inner light is the only way to subjectively legitimize interpretations."Now, I'm not sure Luther really felt the need for "the guidance of inner light." As I read him, he seemed to think that the literal meaning of scripture was plain for everyone to see and anyone who didn't read it like him was clearly succumbing to the leading of the devil. Luther was easy to get along with like that. On the other hand, my friend is a scholar of comparative religions, and I know he doesn't really believe the Petrine doctrine in a literal way any more than I do.So that had me mulling things over again. What does the Bible really mean, and who says so?On the one hand, I'm a bit of a Luther fanboy, and I tend to agree with him on the fact that the meaning of scripture is plain enough. On the other hand, fanboy or no, I disagree with him on an awful lot of the fine points of his reading, so it's kind of silly for me to agree with him on simply reading the plain meaning. On the third hand, the backdrop to the above mentioned discussion was a comment I had made of a bit from the Foreward of Pope Benedict's book Jesus of Nazareth in which he talks about the process by which the community gathered around the sacred texts reinterprets the texts, and how this is good and reasonable because the text created the community and the community created the text and so the text was somehow open to the reinterpretation all along. So there's something there of an ecclesial authority in interpreting the text which I believe and accept.But the more I think about it, the more I think the problem is with how we try to locate authority relative to the Bible. We say the Bible is the final authority on matters of faith and doctrine, which I hope we understand to really mean that God speaking through the Bible is the final authority on matters of faith and doctrine. But the really big problem is that our interpretation of the Bible tends to become the de facto authority which we are trying to follow.That is, we recognize the authority of the Bible and tip our hat to it, and we try as diligently as we are able to uncover the meaning of the Bible, and then we effectively legislate our behavior on the basis of the meaning we arrive at as our best guess at the meaning. This is essentially the logical outcome of the Protestant model, and I'm going on record right now saying it's wrong.So what's the alternative? First, let me suggest that in try to arrive at the meaning of the Bible, we're already a bit off track. The Church has long recognized multiple meanings embedded in Scripture. Some of these have been dismissed in modern times as silly, pious imagination. Nevertheless, as modern reading has given way to post-modern reading, we've been forced to acknowledge the simple fact that words, inspired and otherwise, tend not to have a single meaning.And so I think we do well to look back at the history of how the Church has read various passages and see what may be gleaned from it. I think we also do well to consult Jewish traditions. And we do well to try to come at the text fresh (as if such a thing were possible) and hear it with new ears and respond. In all of these ways we will find many treasures, old and new (Matthew 13:52).Does the Bible really mean all th[...]

The Pope Taught Me to Pray


I've never been quite comfortable that I really understood prayer, or perhaps it would be better to say that I've always been at least vaguely aware that I didn't understand prayer. Prayer obviously has many aspects and different traditions emphasize different facets, but none of them have seemed to quite fit with me.Something about prayer of petition always seems off to me. I mean obviously the Biblical support to ask for what we need is there, but I can't help feeling that prayer is often used like some magic incantation to achieve a desired result. And I'm not even talking just about the recent "name it and claim it" trend. I'm thinking of the kind of church meeting where you make a bunch a plans and then someone says that you need a group of people praying for the effort so that it will be successful. Does it really work like that?On the other end of the spectrum, you have prayer as mysticism. Now this has always appealed to me in a certain way. I am, like it or not, a child of my age and so the "spiritual" feel of mystical prayer has something going for it. But the problem I have with this type of prayer is that it hasn't seemed to me to have any particular connection with Jesus' teaching.Well, today I got some help with this problem from Pope Benedict XVI. No, I wasn't granted an audience with His Holiness. Rather, I've been reading his book, Jesus of Nazareth. This morning I began the chapter on the Lord's Prayer. In about three pages, he explained something about what prayer is that had never quite clicked with me before.Listen to this:The more the depths of our souls are directed toward God, the better we will be able to pray. The more prayer is the foundation that upholds our entire existence, the more we will become men of peace. The more we can bear pain, the more we will be able to understand others and open ourselves to them. This orientation pervasively shaping our whole consciousness, this silent presence of God at the heart of our thinking, our meditating and our being, is what we mean by "prayer without ceasing." This is ultimately what we mean by love of God, which is at the same time the condition and the driving force behind love of neighbor.This is what prayer really is--being in silent inner communion with God. It requires nourishment, and that is why we need articulated prayer in words, images or thoughts. The more God is present in us, the more we will really be able to be present to him when we utter the words of our prayers. But the converse is also true: Praying actualizes and deepens our communion of being with God.Click!I don't need to pray for God to support and nourish my marriage in order for God to support and nourish my marriage. I don't need to pray for God to come to the aid of my neighbor in order for God to come to the aid of my neighbor. And so on. But, if I want these things and I don't bring them before God, then I am not welcoming God into those parts of my life. And if I do bring these things before God, I am deepening my communion with God in these aspects of my life.This perspective also makes sense of the more mystical forms of prayer. Seeking union with God, then, isn't about just attaining the experience or escaping from material life, but rather is a means of connecting God to our lives.I don't think there's anything here that I hadn't heard before, but today it fit together and made sense to me in a way that it hadn't before. I don't think I had previously seen how all these things are connected.[...]

Quo Vadis?


This morning as I was on my way to work, I was thinking about what Christianity means to me and what I need for my faith to thrive. I'm a bit dissatisfied with my religious life right now, and I was trying to figure out what to do about it.I'm focussing on the gospels right now. I'm trying to understand what was at the heart of Jesus' teaching. In short, I'm trying to be a disciple.I'm not convinced any of the traditional interpretations really capture the essence of Jesus' teaching. At least, none of the traditional interpretations seem to be telling me what I need to hear from Jesus. Obviously, it is very deeply rooted in the Judaism of the time, and yet it has to be somehow radically different. So I'm applying the traditional core Bible study questions to the gospels in the broadest scope: What does it say? What does it mean? What does it mean for me?As I thought about that, I was asking myself a series of questions. Q. What does the Lord require of me?"He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?" (Micah 6:8)That's been the heart of my faith, and I think it's the core of what Christianity has received from Judaism. But if that were all Jesus came to teach us, he wouldn't have found much opposition in Israel. I think perhaps it's only a first step, a starting point.Q. What does the Lord ask of me?I don't know the answer to this question. Another way to phrase it is "What is the Lord calling me to?" This is what I'm trying to discover.Q. What does the Lord want for me?This is a type of question that's quite popular in Christianity these days. There's a movement that says what God wants for me is better than what I can imagine and want for myself. I don't doubt that there's truth in that. I'm certain that following the Lord's calling leads to a fulfilling life. Yet there's a temptation in this way of thinking. It's driven (or at least can be driven) by self-seeking. And so my answer is, "Get behind me, Satan!" And I return to the previous question, "What does the Lord ask of me?" I find that this drifts into:Q. Where am I going?This, at last, gets to the point of what drove me to update my blog today. As I pondered this question, I recalled the ancient story of Peter fleeing the persecution in Rome. As he is fleeing, he meets Jesus on the road, and Jesus asks him, "Where are you going?" (In Latin, "Quo vadis?")That's what was going through my mind. But then I realized what the reader who knows this story has perhaps already realized. I had the story wrong. It's not Jesus who asks Peter, "Quo vadis"? It's Peter who asks Jesus.Peter, fleeing the persecution of Christians in Rome, sees the Lord on the road and asks him, "Lord, where are you going?" And Jesus answers, "I am going to Rome to be crucified in your place again." Peter realizes his mistake and returns to Rome, where he is crucified.I'm not fleeing persecution anywhere, and I don't think that's in my calling. What I got out of this is that I'm pointing my questions in the wrong direction. I was prayerfully seeking God's help in finding the answers to the questions, but they were the wrong questions. So from this morning, I got a new question, "Lord, where are you going?"There's an old Buddhist teaching that says, "if you see the Buddha on the road, kill him." The Buddha is not to be idolized, nor may he be allowed to interfere with one's own practice of the dharma. Christianity is different. If you see Christ on the road, follow him.So now I'm looking for him. Wher[...]

Praise Music and Palm Sunday


After my last post, my wife asked me to say more about my idea that doubt and faith are more closely related than certainty and faith. I've been intending to do just that, but it's a big enough job to have caused a bottleneck in my blogging. Maybe tomorrow.

In the meantime, I've got something else to say. It's still related to my previous post. In that post, I was trying to put my finger on what I don't like about the praise music that's so prevalent in non-liturgical churches. I said, this music "tends to begin with, 'Let's all stand and sing praise to our mighty God,' and stays there."

As I was on my way to church yesterday, it occurred to me that the emotional tone of this music is perfect for Palm Sunday. Palm Sunday, coming in the middle of the great penitential season of Lent as it does, is a bit tricky to get right. It's too obvious that the praise and hosanna of Palm Sunday is hollow. And that's exactly how I feel about traditional praise music.

Praise music is overflowing with "God is great" and "we offer our full devotion" and so on, and I know as I sing it that it just isn't true, BUT it's perfect for Palm Sunday. It helps me play my part in the annual drama. So for me, the perfect Palm Sunday worship service would be filled with praise music of this nature, interrupted only by a strong sermon reminding me that I can't really back it up and a good send-off into holy week.

I know I'm coming across as very down on praise music, and I don't mean to. There's an awful lot of good to it. For one thing, the introduction of contemporary musical forms into the worship setting is fantastic. This music also helps a lot of people connect with and find expression for the difficult emotions of praise and worship. But it can't hold the weight of the full expression of the Christian life.

What the Church desperately needs right now is talented musicians with a strong sense of the emotions of the liturgy and the flow of the liturgical year. I know there out there. I pray that we will find their work.

I Can't Get No Dissatisfaction


My wife and I were listening to Sinead O'Connor's album "Theology" today as we drove to the Oregon Coast. Earlier in the day at the grocery store I had heard some Bruce Springsteen song (don't know which one) with a religious theme. It occurred to me that I really like works like this with a religious theme. Too many U2 songs to count would fall in this same category, but most notably "40", and, extending beyond music, the treatment of religion is one of the things I like most in the TV show "House".

Now, you may say to yourself, "So a guy who writes a religious blog likes religious stuff, where's the revelation in that?" The thing is, as a rule, I really dislike "Christian music" -- that is, the stuff that you hear on a Christian radio station. And for that matter I'm not too crazy about a lot of the music that gets sung in non-liturgical Christian churches on a Sunday morning. (I should divulge at this point that I attend a non-liturgical church which I very much love, in spite of the music.)

So, I got to wondering, what is it about Sinead O'Connor and Bruce Springsteen and U2 and "House" that I like so much when they wax religious that I don't like in your average Christian radio station music? Without "House" being in the list, you might attribute it simply to the quality of the musical composition, but "House" was specifically in the list my mind made for me and integral to the pattern my subconscious had identified, so I had to dig a little deeper.

The thing that I came up with is dissatisfaction. The average praise song is generally OK with the state of the world, usually even pretty happy about it. But when Sinead or Bruce Springsteen or U2 sing a religious song, they're generally not satisfied with the way things are, often starting with religion, even their own personal faith. That draws me in. It makes it accessible to me.

The thing is, I think this is profoundly Biblical. The people in the Bible from Abraham to Moses to Jesus(!) in Gethsemane are constantly struggling with God. And if I'm reading it correctly, that's the way God likes it. God doesn't want to be surrounded by yes men.

Now I'm going to take this a step further and go from talking about Christian music to talking about specifically Christian worship. The traditional liturgy begins with "Lord, have mercy" and brings a broken world before God and only then receives it back transformed. Non-liturgical worship tends to begin with, "Let's all stand and sing praise to our mighty God" and stays there. It's got too much "Gloria in Excelsis" and not enough "Kyrie Eleison".

Now if you've read this far, you may have noticed that I've completely muddled the two distinct ideas of dissatisfaction with the state of the world and dissatisfaction with worship and religion. I'm OK with that. I think there's one thing beneath them both, and that's uncertainty.

I need uncertainty to nurture my faith. I am convinced that faith has more to do with doubt than it does with certainty. A religion based on certainty forces me almost immediately into a conflict between that religion and my experience of the world. A religion based on uncertainty leads me almost immediately into engagement with God, even if that engagement is in the form of wrestling.

A Man Called Matthew


As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, "Follow me." And he got up and followed him.
-Matthew 9:9
I'm always suspicious of interpretations that rely too heavily on the precise wording of the Bible, but today I was inspired to try one. The text here doesn't say Matthew was a tax collector. It says he was sitting at the tax booth. Of course, he was sitting there because his job was collecting taxes, but the text doesn't define him that way. It describes him simply as "a man called Matthew."

The typical treatment of this story is to say how because Matthew was a tax collector he was basically the scum of the earth in his culture and then to marvel at the fact that Jesus is willing to have him as a disciple anyway. But this treatment (yes, I've sketched it harshly) really involves a judgment of Matthew that Jesus doesn't make. Matthew is a man. He has his faults, and his choice of careers may be one of them, but we don't know what his life has been like and why he made the choices he did.

As I was trying to apply this to my life, I thought about my neighbor. He's the manager of a local strip club. I've never met him, but I have met his wife and his son. They seem nice enough. My daughters are friends with his son. Thinking about this man in the light of this verse in Matthew I think I see what's required for me to see him as a man apart from his occupation.

Foxes and Birds Three Ways


And Jesus said to him, "Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head."
-Matthew 8:20
This is one of those verses that I normally have no idea what it means, so when it came around as the passage I was going to focus on for the day, I wasn't sure what to expect. As I started to ruminate on it, I drew the expected blank. But I stuck with it. To my surprise, I came up with three possible interpretations. If these are any good, they were inspiration from God. If not, they're all mine.

The first thing I noticed was a connection with verse 18, "Now when Jesus saw great crowds around him, he gave orders to go over to the other side." The crowds are gathering. Things are no doubt getting hectic. So Jesus sends his disciples to the other side of the lake so they will have space. But Jesus himself is the attraction. If he goes to the other side, the crowds go too. Jesus gives his followers rest, but he does not rest.

Then I moved on to how it relates to verse 19, "A scribe then approached and said, 'Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.'" The connection here is obvious. The scribe will follow Jesus anywhere, and Jesus appears not to particularly like that. Is there nowhere he can go to get away from this guy? But why does he want to get away from him? Doesn't Jesus want us to follow him wherever he goes?

So here's what I thought about that. When Jesus calls his disciples he says, "Follow me," and they follow. But this guy has called himself. He steps up and say, "I will follow you everywhere." The only problem I can see is that he's trying to be the one in control. The follower needs to take his cues from the one he's following.

There were a couple of ideas, but neither was entirely satisfying. I thought there must be something more there. So I looked closer at verse 20.

"Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests"

What do fox's holes and bird's nests have in common? They aren't homes, like we think of homes. They are places to raise their young and keep them safe until they are mature enough to take care of themselves. And once the young are ready, the whole group moves out and into the world.

But the Son of Man has no such protective place. His children are in the world, like sheep among wolves. This scribe has come to follow Jesus, but Jesus warns him about what that will entail. It won't be easy. It won't be safe.

I think this third interpretation is the best. In particular, it's the one that seems most applicable to my day-to-day life. With this interpretation in hand, I can look at what my life in Christ is like, and it helps me to understand why it goes the way it so often does. I'm not learning to be a Christian in a nursery. I'm learning in the wild.



I was listening to Radiolab on NPR yesterday. The show (or at least the part of it that I caught) was on emergence (a really old episode, apparently). Specifically, they were talking about how the organized behavior of an ant colony emerges from the random behavior of individual ants.

One of the show's hosts, talking about ant colonies, says, "Buried in the system is a rule, a sense of direction, but how do you see that rule?" Scientist Deborah Gordon responds, "That's the wrong question, and that's what's so uncomfortable. The instructions aren't anywhere. The instructions come out of the way that the colony lives and behaves."

They didn't talk about the idea of the Emergent Church at all, but that was naturally where my mind was going, particularly after the above exchange. Churches seem to like instructions. They want plans for how to do things, and I think that's why it's so hard to find a good emergent church. You can't lay out a plan for replicating the church. If you have a formula that says, "Use candles, provide couches, play this type of music, focus on that type of sermons, etc." then you've already blown it. You imposed the "rule" and tried to get a church to emerge on the blueprint.

But to be emergent, an emergent church needs to arise spontaneously from a rule that is internal. You can't know ahead of time what it's going to look like.

And yet, I think this is obviously the right way to do church. All churches should be "emergent" in this sense, and I would bet that the best products in the history of Christianity have been emergent in this way. The Franciscan movement, for instance, was emergent. It grew up around an internalized "rule" working itself out in the context of 12th century Italy.

Unlike in the case of the ants, we can say what the "rule" is -- not exactly perhaps, at least not in a way that isn't culture-bound, but we can say. The "rule" from which a good church emerges is the Gospel.

One of the great blessings and geniuses of Christianity is that the Church has never codified a single articulation of the Gospel. The Gospel which can be spoken is not the true Gospel. It is a culture-bound artifact of the Gospel. But the Church "knows" what the Gospel is in exactly the same way that an ant colony knows the rule which guides the ant colony. The Gospel is the rule that created the Church. To paraphrase Dr. Gordon, the Gospel comes out of the way that the Church lives and behaves.

Having Authority


Now when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes.
-Matthew 7:28-29
These words are typically interpreted as being an indication of Jesus' divinity. I don't believe it. I think Matthew here is making a more general statement about the authority of the people of God. I think it's about a new way of looking at God, the Bible and religious tradition. God is empowering people to act apart from the authority of tradition.

Doing the Will of God


Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.
-Matthew 7:21
I was pondering this word today, trying to figure out what it says to me. It's always easier to imagine a word like this speaking to someone else. I can stand beside Jesus and listen to him tell the hypocrits that putting his name on their big shows won't get them anywhere, but I'm a big fan of Jesus' teaching, so I'm OK, right?

But I know that's all part of the shell I need to crack to get to what God wants to say to me through the Bible. I know if I really want to hear it, I can't be pointing it at others. I need to look deep into it as it faces me.

To do that, I had to extend the list Jesus offers. On that day, many will say to him, "Lord, Lord, did we not pray in your name? Did we not go to church? Did we not read our Bibles? Did we not love your teaching?" These are all good things, all commendable. The last one on my list drove the point home for me. "Did I not love your teachings?"

I do. God knows, I do. My love for Jesus' teaching is why I'm a Christian. Yet I'm afraid sometimes (too often) my love for his teachings far outpaces my actual performance of his teachings. "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven." To "know" Jesus, and to be known by him, is to do what he says.

Don't get me wrong. I try to be a follower. I intend to be. What this drove home for me today is that I need to watch myself and make sure I don't lapse into simple admiration. I need to be a doer.