Posts by Shawn Wamsley

I love my family. love the world of education. I love theology. I love video games. I love the outdoors. I love having an imagination.

Easter IV – 2013: John 10:22-30

 

John 10:22-30

I vividly remember the first time I felt completely unprotected.  In fact, as an adult reflecting back on the event, I am more horrified than I was experiencing it as a child.  It’s one of my earliest memories; I was just three or four years old.  My father, who was then a young man in his twenties, had a friend who was over, showing off a new convertible sports car.  A sports car that my father, in all of his paternal wisdom, had refused to let me near.  They were saying their goodbyes, and I, a willful child that had spent the better part of the day begging for a ride in the two-seater, decided it was time to take matters into my own hands.  My father’s friend had not understood what the big deal about the car was, so when I climbed into the small space between the driver and passenger seats as he was leaving, I remember him saying, “Let’s have a little fun with your old man.”

The engine roared to life, the car jumped forward, and then swayed lithely from side to side as the air around us filled with the screech and stink of spinning tires.  As a child that spent life drifting little matchbox cars around imaginary race tracks in my mother’s yard, I was in ecstasy.  I felt my stomach hug my spine in an awkward embrace as the tires grabbed the asphalt and the car surged forward.  The moment was testosterone fueled bliss until I turned to look over my shoulder at my dad, thinking he would be just as excited as I was.  My father was shrinking quickly, but the look of panic was growing.  Of course, all my little eyes could interpret on my father’s face was anger, so I began immediately to plead with his friend to turn around and take me back.  He said, “Sorry, I’m already on the road, and I have a quick errand to run.  I’ll bring you back later.”  I remember feeling vulnerable, helpless, and completely convinced that the look on my father’s face meant bad things for me.  So, I did what any reasonable terrified child would do.  I lashed out like a cat trying to dodge a bath.  I kicked, screamed, bit, and pulled hair. 

Today, I think back and am amazed that he was able to keep the car on the road with a feral preschooler attacking his face.  Needless to say, I made it home and was not permanently harmed in the incident, though, I never saw my dad with that friend again.  For me, the enduring lesson of that day is that there are circumstances that will leave us feeling unprotected and out-of-control.  It was obviously a powerful moment for me as a person, because it was the day that the childhood illusion of safety was broken.  All things considered, though, it is a nice story to tell because it is also a safe lesson.  There was no lasting harm.  We might even be able to enjoy the humor of visualizing a raging toddler wrapped around the head of a man driving down the road in a convertible.

The unfortunate reality that this world is not a safe place remains, however.  It is harsh, but nonetheless true, that many people learn that they can be made vulnerable in violent and horrific ways.  Some are made vulnerable by having their source of protection snatched away by accident or illness. 

And, of course, we all gather today with a sense of questioning and grief.  We are concerned, and we contemplate the losses that we as a nation have suffered because of recent events.  Around our country this week, (and I assure you around the world,) so many innocent people learned that they can be made vulnerable – that this world can be an unsafe place.

We have the happy coincidence of a Gospel reading that addresses these exact issues this week.

Of particular interest, especially in light of recent tragedies which include the bombings at the Boston Marathon, is the fact that John utilizes an exchange between Jesus and “the Jews” in the Temple at the Feast of Dedication to illuminate a new paradigm.  This feast is probably better known to us as Hanukah.  It is significant that the Jews ask a question about whether Jesus is the Messiah at the Temple during the Feast of Dedication, because this is the very Temple Judah “the Hammer,” or Judas Maccabeus, defeated the Seleucid army, winning back the Jews’ right to worship freely.  It’s an event retold in your Bible in the book of 1 Maccabees.

As a result of his heroics, Judah “the Hammer” earned a spot among other beloved leaders in Jewish history.  He stood out along with the likes of King David as a warrior-leader, and many began to wonder whether he was the promised Messiah.  We know from other passages in the Gospels that some near Jesus expected that he would fulfill their desires for a warrior-king in likeness of King David or Judas Maccabeus.  They waited for a courageous leader that would lead the Jewish faithful in an uprising that would bring down an oppressive Roman occupation and elevate Israel to its former glory.  It’s likely that these Jews in John chapter 10 had a similar hope in mind when they ask Jesus to demonstrate plainly whether he is the Messiah during the Feast of Dedication.

Jesus’ response, then, might have come as somewhat of a shock when he explains that he has already demonstrated clearly that he is the Messiah.  They sought proof of an insurrection, but he calmly explains that one of Yahweh’s other promises has already been fulfilled in their midst.  Jesus recalls imagery of the promised shepherd of Israel in his response.  While many throughout the Jews’ history were intended by God to fulfill the role of protector and nurturer, they all had failed.  Jesus points out that the signs and teaching he provides are proof positive that he is the Good Shepherd of Israel.

It is somehow fitting, during this terrible week that we read a passage where many Jews found themselves under oppression, yearning for the justice and retribution that a military hero would bring, only to find a Messiah that planned to bring about a different reality, a Messiah that promised to fill a different need.

This passage in John provides an opportunity for even deeper reflection, though.  Present in this passage is a demonstration of the early church’s struggle with the person of Christ.    For the first few centuries of Christianity, scholars and church leaders wrestled with the paradox of Jesus’ dual natures.  It was their struggle, and interestingly enough, it remains one of our struggles.  Just how should we understand the person of Jesus Christ?  How does Jesus exist as the eternal God that became truly human?

The answer comes in part from how St. John handles our Gospel reading today.  When Jesus claims to be the Messiah by fulfilling the promise of the Good Shepherd he does so by giving a simple equation with a surprise twist that shocked the Jews.

Jesus tells them, the answer that they seek has been plainly revealed, but they don’t believe, because they do not belong.  Here’s how he says it works: the Father sent Jesus, the works Jesus does in the Father’s name testify about his status as the one being sent.

Jesus’ ability to work signs is God’s ratification of his ministry and status. God’s ratification comes, because Jesus is a righteous, loving, obedient son.  According to Jesus, all of this is possible in the first place, because Jesus the Son, and God the Father are One.

In John, Jesus declares that we can know what God is like by seeing what Jesus does.  In his declaration as Messiah, Jesus drops a bomb and essentially says, “Your promised deliverer isn’t just sent from God, He is God.”  Further, Jesus explains that his purpose in coming is to make the Father known.  And here is an essential lesson in our theology.  If you want to know what God is really like, look at what Jesus does.

Up to this point in Jewish history, God’s chosen people have relied upon the Old Testament to be a demonstration of God’s true nature and will.  This is a difficult thing, even for the Jews, because the Old Testament is comprised of many documents that are in tension with not only each of the other documents but also within themselves.  For centuries, the Jews were left puzzling out what God was like through the way they saw him acting in their own history.  Consequently, as they texts of the Old Testament follow the historical events of the Israelites, you see how the people interpreted their experiences in relation to God.  When they were obedient and victorious, God was a bloody warrior-king or a majestic-mysterious presence right in their midst.  When they suffered oppression for their sinfulness as a nation, God was distant and indifferent to their plight – he was an absentee father or a scorned lover.

Regardless of the ways these texts point to how God was acting in Jewish history, one huge problem remained for the Jews (and remains for us).  God was transcendent.  He was distant and enormous.  He was “out there,” even when he was acting on their behalf or sitting in the holy of holies.  God remained utterly unknowable and totally unassailable.

But in our Gospel reading Jesus promises that God can now be known, because he is here in the flesh.  Working backward through Jesus’ own statements; if he and the Father are one, then the works that demonstrate his Messianic identity are also the works of the Father.  We need Jesus to show us what God is like in terms we can understand.  God, being eternal and transcendent, becomes knowable through his own humanity.  Consequently, we have a clear way to understand what God is like.  We just have to look at Jesus.

It is a powerful declaration, then, that when pressed in the temple at the Feast of Dedication to prove whether he was the Messiah (you should understand this to mean, “If you’re the Messiah we expect, then it’s time to get with the military campaign”) he prefers to be the Good Shepherd and not the Warrior-King.  When faced with the plight of humanity and the oppression of the Israelites, Jesus chose to be a protector, healer, teacher, and priest – a suffering servant.  He did not choose to incite rebellion, to call down angelic armies, or debilitate the regime of the oppressor – he is not, here, a conquering hero.  All of this is particularly significant, because he expects us to receive his actions, miracles, and signs as a direct expression of what God is like.

 

Many of us will struggle with this, especially in light of recent events.  We want evil to be eradicated criminals to be apprehended, and perpetrators to be punished.  When we are robbed of security and peace, we want the thing that disturbed our lives to be removed, abolished, or controlled.  These are exactly the kinds of things the Jews wanted their Messiah to do for them.  Instead, he taught with patience, healed with compassion, loved with no boundaries…

In the midst of shocking realities like the fact that Jesus represents God in the unity of the Holy Trinity or that his purpose as Messiah would be to deal with the hurt of humanity through love and healing, we might just miss the promise in this morning’s text.  So, let’s read it again…

“My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.  I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.  What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand.”

We find that all of this is happening in our own lives within the larger context of Eastertide.  So, what should we do in light of the Resurrection?  Of all the metaphors that Jesus’ uses for his relationship to the world, you’ll find many of them rely heavily on a notion of companionship.  Among others he is the Vine that abides, the Bread that sustains, the Water that quenches, the Light that endures, and (here) the Shepherd that is known by his sheep.  Why do the sheep know his voice?  Because they know him, and because they abide with him.

It is because of this, and because as Christians that intentionally follow the pattern of Christ’s life year in and year out, that we understand that walking with Christ in his suffering, in his death, and in his resurrection means that we ought to do those things that he has done.  By participating in his life, and doing those things he gave us to do by example, we are enacting the will of God in this world.  We become participants in the building of his kingdom, energized and enabled by the power of the resurrection.

Therefore, we could not have hoped for a more clear indication of how to respond to the evil we see in this world.  In being shepherded by the Good Shepherd, we learn what it means to be a shepherd to others – to protect, to guard, to love, and to serve others.  These are the actions of God himself in the face of suffering, pain, and evil.

So, what exactly does shepherding others look like?  I know it has become somewhat kitschy to quote at this point, but as the British wartime adage goes, “Keep Calm and Carry On.”

It’s simple.  It’s succinct.  It points to the fact that many of you have spent lives dedicated to bringing about good.  Just because evil rears its ugly head in horrific ways, it doesn’t mean that your work is in vain.  It means that we must continue to do good work, to continue to train others to do good work, to support and love those that have not yet learned how.  It means that we continue to shepherd in our own small ways, in spite of pain or trouble.  Keep calm and carry on in your good work.

Allow me to suggest that you already know the voice of the shepherd, and in turn know what to do to shepherd others.

First, you should pray.  I learned quickly this week that I did not want to spend a lot of time reading news reports on the internet, especially the comment sections.  One commenter, presumably of some faith or other, stated early that she was praying for all those in Boston.  Another person, presumably of no faith, commented back, “Yeah, sure, pray…great way to make yourself feel like your doing some good without actually doing anything.  What a waste of time.”  I have to admit that my initial reaction was, “well, there might be a point there” and it bothered me – but, the more I reflected on it, I began to realize nothing was further from the truth.  When we engage in genuine prayer, we are not only petitioning action from our God, we are also making a concerted effort to humble ourselves and be changed by the Holy Spirit.  If everyone in this world made a genuine effort to purge their lives of selfish ambition, pride, and all those things that drove us to act only in our own interest and not in the interest of others, this world would indeed be a different place.  WE would be a different people.  Pray.  Pray for yourself and pray for others.

Second, you should give.  I know the immediate thing that jumps to mind is giving economic resources, and it’s logical.  We constitute a physical people in a physical church with physical needs.  We all give in order to continue the ministries of this church.  But, please, do not stop there.  Do not underestimate how much it means to others in this community when you give of yourself.  When you volunteer your time, your talents, and energy, you are giving sacrificially.  It is a personal sacrifice that is meaningful, valuable to the community.  It is a sacrifice that is pleasing to the Lord, and beneficial to your own growth.  Give.  Give out of your resources.  Give out of your time.  Give out of your abilities.  Give of yourself and give to others.

Third, you should worship.  Our personal acts of worship are for the glory of God, but there are beneficial to us personally and to our congregation.  When we bless God and each other with our worship, we both demonstrate and proclaim that the light of the world cannot be overcome.  When violence seeks to silence, we should sing louder.  When despair tries to darken, we should shine brighter.  When evil threatens to steal our hope, we should trust our Savior and throw ourselves at his feet with abandon.  When we come together to worship we encourage and strengthen each other.  I must confess that I was eager to get to church this morning – both to check on you and to connect with you.  Your presence here is valuable.  Your hugs, your smiles, and your interactions make this a wonderful place to be.  Your worship helps the light of Easter to shine more brightly.

In seeing the actions of Jesus we know the character of God; and in sharing the power of his resurrection we are enable to so behave.  Because he is the Good Shepherd, we are able to shepherd others.  These are the basis of our ability to see the weak and the vulnerable protected.  They are the foundation of our confidence that the light of good, that the light of Easter, will continue to overcome the darkness in this fallen world.  Alleluia! Christ is risen!

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It Really Is All About Sex: A Theological Exploration of Those Creatures We Call Human, Their Bodies, and Their Politics (Part, the First)

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I have always thought that those who teach ought to be both experienced and broadly knowledgeable.  I have also long thought that those who teach ought to be exemplary students – humble, curious, and open-minded.  Consequently, when I am challenged (in an honest and fair way) I don’t slink off to lick my wounds.  When I am challenged (by faithful friends) I don’t lash out in anger at having been contradicted.  When I am challenged (especially by students), I pause and retrace my steps, regarding the situation in question; and then I try to re-explain the concept.  I believe I am a humble, curious and open-minded kind of guy – at least, in regard to some things.

So, when I was challenged regarding some questions that I had about the Roman Catholic Church, Contraception, and the Obama Administration’s health care bill, I was relieved to have the help of a friend that could direct my study along the appropriate lines of inquiry.  Based on my exploration of Papal encyclicals, some rather dense philosophical content, and some slightly less dense theological writing, I am not left with much alleviation from my original perplexity.  However, I have a whole hell of lot more questions…of course (If you’re interested, I’ll link to the stuff I have been reading at the end of this post.  It will give you a sense of what I “know” and it may be helpful in guiding your own foray into the topics at hand).

As such, this post constitutes a first attempt to distinguish some important questions.  I still clearly see two issues: one civil and the other theological.  I am not saying that the theological issue has no bearing on the civil issue or vice versa.  I am saying that the theological issue somehow precedes the civil issue for me.  Therefore, I will spend some time doing two things: First, I will sort the theological issue from the civil issue (where possible); Second, I will explore the foundational ideas upon which the theological issue rests.

First, the issue of sorting the civil from the theological – here, I mean that I want to deal with loyalties to God and church without diluting that inquiry by mixing in national or governmental loyalties.  This stems from a personal belief that Christians are called to be loyal to Christ and the Christian community via the Christian ethos of citizenship in a heavenly kingdom ‘before’ or ‘above’ all other loyalties.  Namely, l feel like my faith ought always to be able to critique the State, and that they should not blend into a singular loyalty.  Yet, I have to acknowledge that while I can separate myself from the State, I cannot necessarily separate myself so cleanly from my place within society. 

It is a problem that seems to be addressed in what Andrew Shanks calls a civil religion or “Civil Theology.”  In his words, civil theology is “a ceaseless critical back-and-forth” that juxtaposes citizenship with Christian living in a kind of self-examination where one is “able to criticize one’s given identity as an adherent of that tradition, on the basis of one’s solidarity with one’s fellow citizens – including those of other faiths and of none.”  The ultimate result or goal being that a civil religion that transcends the confessional vocabulary of any single world religion would emerge as the status quo.  So, while I still maintain a certain Christian autonomy from governments past and present, I do acknowledge that there is the difficulty of living the Christian life as the citizen of a government in this present age.  Some might be tempted to quote Jesus here, “be in the world but not of it” or some such thing.  Provocative as Shank’s appeal to a new civil consciousness that utilizes the absolutism or authority of religion without allowing a singular religious confession to ‘rule’ the populace happens to be, I think it represents the very thing I am trying to sift out here.  In my opinion, a ‘civil theology’ must either come after or as an addendum to a theology (proper) of the Christian faith.  A civil theology would expound the ways in which the Christian faith interacts with society at large and the other articulates the actual content of Christian faith. 

And so, in my brain, being precedes doing and these kinds of issues raise questions about the ‘being’ of Christianity.  While I understand that much of the conflict between President Obama’s Administration and the Roman Catholic Church has to do with government interference in religious practice (and I don’t mean to downplay this element in saying so), I am currently more interested in establishing why there is an established and enduring theological position against contraceptives.

Finally, I arrive at the belated and ultimate point of the post.  The foundational theological issue underlying the cognitive dissonance I am having is one of anthropology.  Generally, how does Christian theology inform what we know about being human; and, specifically, how does Christian theology inform what we know about human sexuality?  It really does seem that in our generation, it all boils down to one protracted fight over sex.  I have done my best to read primary sources, to establish foundational systems of thought, and to evaluate arguments in their proper context.  Consequently, I am happy to pause here and hear from our community of readers about where I have gone astray, if anywhere.

Before I leave it to you, however, allow me to trace my thoughts.  I think the initial distinction remains important.  I think the voice of the Church will be a voice that speaks from a perspective not just inspired by the “spirit” of the Christian tradition, but also ‘Inspired’ by the Spirit of the Christian tradition; and this inspiration remains in tension with whatever broader social consciousness Christians all over the world may find as their context for living.  However, and this is important, I think you can expect Christian men and women to have differences of opinion regarding how to discern where that inspiration is leading.

Next, after reading Humanae Vitae, I think it is clear that while human sexuality is ultimately the issue at hand, the method for evaluating the appropriateness of human sexuality (and bodily function by proxy) is St. Aquinas’ robust view of natural law.  In fact, I have read many commentators that dismiss detractors in an out of hand sort of fashion, claiming that one merely has to have a background in Natural Law in order to see the unassailable truthfulness of Humanae Vitae.  I have found this to be a bit irksome, because it seems a bit arrogant to wave off nearly 750 years of development in philosophical and theological thought like it is an uninterrupted string of people who just do not ‘get it.’   As such, one of the initial concerns I have about a Church document like Humanae Vitae amounts to learning just how reliant it is on natural law theory.

I plan future posts in the series to deal with several things which Humanae Vitae involves, including but not limited to: Natural Law Theory, the ‘Majority Report’ received by Paul VI, Human Sexuality, and issues that subsequently seem related.

Here’s that list of some of the things I have been reading:

Humanae Vitae

Civil Society, Civil Religion

A Summa of the Summa

The God of Faith and Reason

What Isn’t Said in Humanae Vitae, Schott Steinkerchner, O.P.

Contraception: A Symposium

An Analysis of the Majority Report “Responsible Parenthood” and its Recommendations on Abortion, Sterilization andContraception

Lent 2012

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Lent approaches with a different urgency this year.  My life, in many ways, continues to improve.  Yet, more now than ever, my life is a whirling tempest.

My wife and I have dealt with the impact that serious illness can have on a family.  Thankfully, that illness has not been borne by either my wife, my children or by me.  This, however, proves to be some of the difficulty.  Is it worse to be the person suffering or the person going through the suffering with you?  Suffice to say, when someone is seriously ill in a family, everyone suffers.  The pain of finding a “new normal” is experienced by all; still, I imagine it must alienate the afflicted more than those that love the afflicted.  This pains me, because I understand the sense of alienation that my wife and I have felt through it all and cannot wrap my mind around how to deal with it being worse.  As I articulate those feelings, there is a certain sense of shame that arises – how selfish I must be to wallow in my own feelings while another suffers.  But, I think that is the point, when we all participate in the suffering, we all feel the pain, and it would be wrong of me not to weed out the roots of selfishness and bitterness by examining closely how I feel.

My discernment for vocation and calling in the Church continues; and, while peace abounds in the process, the decisions God calls me to make put me at odds with very many important people in my life.  There is no doubt that my spiritual life has been transformed.  As my perspective grows, though, the tensions I have with certain ideologies and practices grow as well.  I perceive that some of these tensions will bloom into outright contentions.  Contentions that will cost me relationships and alliances.  In short, faithfulness to Christ and his Church are going to drive some wedges in my life.  While that is a situation that is prescribed by Christ in the Gospels, it is no less painful.  I can see how some, after hearing the call, “Come, follow me” turned in sorrow.  We tend to shake our heads in disappointment at these characters, but I think they knew as well as any what was at stake.  How do we deal with loyalty and with faithfulness?  Apparently, being loyal is to be commended, but being loyal to the wrong thing or person is folly.

Consequently, this season of repentance takes on a starkly corporate reality for me, meaning I feel more prominently my role in the corporate body.  In the past, Lent has had a personal tone.  In the past, I have been turned inward for the sake of purging a personal indulgence that prevented me from being faithful to my vows.  This year, I feel the Holy Spirit driving me to purge weakness of heart.  Some of us need to examine the ways in which we are happy to compromise the Gospel for the sake of ease.  It is a simple thing to believe we have the “right answer” and then to sever ties with people that disagree.  It is a much different thing continually and faithfully to engage people that disagree with us in love.  We have grown weary in accountability, well – at least, I have.  Lord, give me the strength to do the hard work of the Gospel.  Give me the strength in affliction real or perceived to love as you loved on the cross.

Book Reviews In Short and At Length – Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace

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In Short

This is a book that many readers will enjoy “living with.”  Volf’s stated purpose for the book is to encapsulate the whole of Christian living within two axiomatic concepts.  In other words, what does Christianity really look like when it is lived in a contemporary life?  In Free of Charge, Volf’s answer follows two principles – one that flows from the nature of who God is and, by way of extension, another that reveals the heart of the Gospel.  According to Volf, the Christian life can be summarized by participating with God in giving and forgiving.  Because God’s nature is so bound up in his ability to give purely, forgiveness becomes the backdrop of all of his interactions with a creation marred by sin.  If we truly follow, then our lives must mirror such giving and forgiving.

As such, the book serves as a wonderful devotional tool.  While it is deeply theological, it is admirably accessible.  He does not drown the text in technical writing or lofty language.  I have many friends that started reading this book a long time ago.  Often, in eager anticipation of their thoughts on the book, I’ll ask how it is going.  They always reply, “It is so good, but I can only get so far before I have to put it down and reflect on it.”  In this sense, this book is not only a wonderful resource for those that want to practice generosity or forgiveness, but it might just be the kind of reading experience that drives self-reflection in order to help those who struggle with selfish ambition or unforgiving hearts break those chains of bondage.

At Length

In Volf’s own words, the book does four things.  First, it is an examination of whether the landscape of Christian perspective can appropriately be viewed through the lens of giving and forgiving.  Honestly, while some will have no issue with such a conceptualization, I think there will be many others that will not be ale to fit all of their theological identity under both of these concepts – especially, not the way that Volf visualizes forgiving.

Second, the book is an interpretation of Paul’s theology.  This, however, is likely to be a perspective that is widely accessible and acceptable.  He confesses that he has not taken any scholarly stance, referencing the recent fighting going on over Pauline discourse (think N.T. Wright and John Piper).  It turns out, that this kind of spiritual rumination over Paul may be much needed medicine for the soul.  Honestly, though, I’d be surprised if those unfamiliar with theological discourse are not quite able to appreciate the nuanced way that Volf interacts with the primary source.

Third, we get a glimpse into Volf’s academic work on Martin Luther.  At every turn in the book, he interacts with Luther on important points of Protestant theology; namely, Luther’s time honored perspectives on grace and faith are explained in the context of practical Christian living.  I don’t want to spoil any of the content, but much of Volf’s interaction with Luther has the same freshness that his atypical approach to Pauline theology has.  The book is a beautiful demonstration of how deeply careful theological inquiry can impact our every day lives.

Finally, the book was selected by the Archbishop of Canterbury to be used as the church’s official Lenten reflection in 2006.  The spiritual formation facet of the book is perhaps best attested to by the fact that I have seen several friends carrying this book around with their Bibles for weeks on end.  The book deals with not only the deep things of faith, but also the deep things of life – which, ironically, are not concomitant in Christian writing often enough.

In my estimation, the greatest value of this book is the practical advice it provides on giving and forgiving as spiritual disciplines within the Christian life.  I have not seen many other books with a straightforward process for giving and forgiving.  Volf provides clearly defined and well thought out processes for each.  Consequently, the careful reader can come away with a list of things detailing what pure giving and true forgiveness really look like, as well as a process for disciplining oneself into becoming that kind of pure giver and true forgiver.

I must also confess, though, that there are stories in this book, the stories of real people and real hurt, that tore at my heart.  It is, at times, difficult to read, especially if you tend to put yourself in the place of the people in the stories you read.  Not once do you read Volf using a petty or trite situation as an affirmation of his points.  The issues he deals with are the real issues of humanity, the gut-wrenching issues – and he interacts with them in courage and a true sense of compassion.  There is no “feel good” theology going on here.

Perhaps the greatest praise I can give any book, I can give Free of Charge with out qualification.  I will come back to this book again.  It is worth reading over and over.

President Obama Is Between a Roman Rock and a Republican Hard Place

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I am not much of a political writer.  I don’t really like arguing about politics, because I feel ill-informed most of the time.  I feel like I am ill-informed, because much of the information in our “news” media is biased (most likely for the purpose of stirring controversy in order to boost ratings and advertising revenue – but, that’s another rant).  I feel like the available information regarding politics and politicians is biased, because politics is an industry that puts some in control and makes many wealthy.  Oh, for Pete’s sake, I think you get the point – I digress.

 

In any case, however, I am occasionally stirred to write about political goings on.  Today, I have finally been agitated enough that I need to pose a question to the public, just to make sure I understand the facts (And you, out there in cyber-space, are as public as it gets – a well kept secret that someone should let the general population under the age of 25 in on some time).  I am talking about the recent brouhaha surrounding the Obama administration’s determination that health insurance plans ought to cover birth control – this, of course, includes health insurance plans provided by charities, hospitals, and universities.  This, of course, sets off the Roman Catholic Church (and probably others), because they run many charities, hospitals, and universities – institutions that belong to the church and employ Christians under the spiritual jurisdiction of the church.  Necessary qualifications should probably be made.  For instance, I am sure these institutions employ non-Christians.  However, I am too lazy to go looking for all such qualifications on a Thursday afternoon.  This is why I have you.

 

As I understand things, the Republican field of presidential candidates smells blood in the water, and has lunged at the opportunity to snatch up the Conservative Christian vote in the primaries.  They have spent a couple of days now relentlessly attempting to draw a mental association between President Obama and religious intolerance.  They are declaring that another term under the Obama administration will herald an age of Christian persecution at the hands of the federal government.  They intimate that another term will mean that more babies will be aborted, more people will be on welfare, and that the quality of life that all Americans experience will be diminished – all because the Obama administration wants Catholic (nay, ALL) women to have access to free birth control.

 

All of this causes me to gape stupidly.  First, I might be mistaken here, but where are all of these Roman Catholics that actually follow the church’s instruction not to use birth control?  Second, I might be mistaken, but doesn’t this equation follow logic: more birth control = fewer pregnancies; fewer pregnancies = fewer abortions; fewer abortions = better lives for women and the country as a whole?  So, somehow more birth control equals more abortions, and an open attack on religious freedom.  Third, doesn’t the following equation also follow logic: Fewer unwanted children = women that are healthier, happier, more productive; women that are healthier, happier, more productive = half of our nation being a more positive influence than when they are saddled with unwanted children;  preventing the conception of unwanted children = a better alternative to people being irresponsible (and in some cases criminal) and having an abortion as a way to deal with irresponsibility (or criminal behavior)?  Last, I am an educator at a private institution, and we get to set the agenda for our mission.  As some of the American Bishops have complained, the new rule violates their ability to decide what their instititions are “about.”  Well, point of order here, when private institutions accept federal money, they are giving up the right to call the shots exclusively – federal government’s money = federal government’s rules.  Are these institutions taking federal money?  I don’t know about all of these questions, so I am asking you, the people of the internets.  Help a brother out.

 

The Elephant Room 2 – Still Missed One or Two

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I have now spent several days ruminating over the Elephant Room, Round 2. I have what amount to two reactions that I feel comfortable making in a public forum. First, I am left with the same major objection after the telecast that I had before the telecast: Exactly what qualifies as a “diverse” perspective to the reformed Evangelical crowd represented by MacDonald and Driscoll? The guests certainly didn’t (and still don’t) seem all that diverse to this Pentecostal turned Episcopalian. Second, while my convictions as an Evangelical have been waning over the last four years, I think the Elephant Room (as a concept and in execution) provides a silver lining to the otherwise gloomy outlook I have had.

I work at an interdenominational school with nearly 1,500 students and over 100 employees. I am a member of the Bible faculty; administratively, I run various programs, head up staff and student projects, provide professional development training and serve as the spiritual director. We have students and staff that span the three branches of Christianity (Protestant, Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox), and we have students that have no Christian affiliation. In short, I understand pastoring a diverse crowd of folks, and it was my idea to take our Bible faculty to this conference. I was excited for the opportunity, and excited to have another chance to spend time interacting in a meaningful way over our commonalities as a teaching staff.

The Elephant Room 2 line up consisted of James MacDonald (Harvest Bible Chapel), Mark Driscoll (Mars Hill), T.D. Jakes (The Potter’s House), Jack Graham (Prestonwood Baptist Church), Steven Furtick (Elevation Church), Crawford Loritts (Fellowship Bible Church), and Wayne Cordeiro (New Hope Oahu). Now, what you should read in the line up is probably fairly obvious, “Our round table discussion between ‘diverse’ perspectives involves seven pastors – of them, seven are Conservative Evangelical Protestants, two are reformed, two are Pentecostal/Charismatic, and two belong to the SBC.” Now, I traveled in Pentecostal circles long enough to understand that diversity is a rare commodity for organizations that are in the midst of what we might call “institutionalization.” They are trying to secure their brand, guarantee their lineage, solidify their influence, etc. – I get it. Nonetheless, I looked at the lineup and had to reread the website’s “about” page, because I was sure I had missed something. Nope, there it was again, “The Elephant Room features blunt conversations between seven influential pastors who take differing approaches to ministry. No keynotes. No canned messages. These are ‘the conversations you never thought you’d hear.’”

While I know many of our readers will agree with me on this point, there is, apparently, a storm of controversy brewing over how outrageous it was for Macdonald to invite certain pastors to his “blunt conversation.” Many of Driscoll and Macdonald’s colleagues in the Reformed tradition are beside themselves over the interactions with T.D. Jakes (see here, here, here and here). For me, though, the attempt was not daring enough. Why didn’t we get to see ministers like Bishop N.T. Wright, Fr. Alberto Cutie, Fr. Miguel Diaz, or Rev. Tom Brock mix it up with these elite seven? I don’t mean to be too snarky, but I think the answer is obvious when halfway through the conference T.D. Jakes quipped that pastors needed to “quit being superman, and start being Ms. Lane” (the point being, that sometimes pastors need saving too), Driscoll almost reverted to high school locker room antics, shouting and posturing about how he’s not into “that stuff” (which, perhaps, was only bested by his sage observation that often we put too much focus on the failure of the men when pastors are guilty of sexual sin. He said that we never pay enough attention to the guilt of wives when pastors go outside of the marriage) I was disappointed that the groundbreaking conversation of the day was how to racially integrate congregations, and not how to take the hateful edge out of the militant Evangelical agendas against women and the GLBT community.

It wasn’t all that bad, though. Which, you may not believe, I mean with all sincerity. Something that did emerge, proving to be quite encouraging, was the emotional tone at the close of the conference. Macdonald was quite clear (and most of the others agreed heartily), that he was done with the Evangelical ethos that demands Christians be defined by what they are against instead of what they are for. He reflected on the day, then asked the others to share their gleanings, and the result was a blissful moment of transparency and vulnerability where some of America’s most influential Evangelicals said, “Yeah, you’re right, my church needs to accept all who claim Christ, not just the ones that want to sign my doctrinal statement” (all, except for Monkey-boy, who declared that the day’s conversations amounted to a whole lot more “fun” than he expected he’d have). Some even lamented the fact that the day’s proceedings had not been influenced by an even wider array of Christian leaders.

So, in short, the conference was a little disappointing, because the Evangelical notion of theological diversity is still quite narrow. However, there were great moments where it was obvious that the Spirit of God was driving these leaders to a broader ecumenical vision – that part was really exciting, actually. Consequently, a few parting thoughts on the periphery of my memory: I respect Driscoll less than when I started, I love T.D. Jakes (who knew?), I still can’t believe that Jack Graham opened by saying that the SBC isn’t a denomination, rich white guys that run churches (like the rich white guys that run congress) still have no connection to what the poor, disenfranchised or minorities of America are dealing with on a daily basis, Steven Furtick is my new man-crush (seriously, he is bad ass – I want to be his friend, or watch him cage fight Mark Driscoll), and I see a future where a whole lot of angry little bloggers get a lot of mileage out tired theological fights like “modalism.”