I have returned...

I quit writing in this blog back in late August, just before I began classes at seminary. The semester went well and I am glad I have been led back to seminary. I foresee it as being the best decision I have made in a long time.

This past weekend I went to a Cursillo. It was quite an experience. The leaders were exceptional and the whole thing was an impressive display of grace and support. I can see how, if led poorly, it could be a difficult experience. I can also see, if not managed effectively, how it could be divisive in the individual church. Mostly, though, I was impressed with the talks (rollos), the support from so many people (palanca) and the integrity of the people involved and participating. Some of the individual theologies were a little weird to me, but then I settled into the realization that we were all Christians in a single place and that was what was most important. I would recommend the weekend for anyone wishing to energize their faith or learn about the "Christian life" more deeply. I also think there are other ways to get the same thing in different ways. All that said though, it was a beautiful time with some exceptional people and by the time it was done I was proud to call myself a follower of Christ.

I have spent January reading ahead for my spring classes. I have a systematic theology class focused on Creation and one of the books I have to read is called "She Who Is" by Elizabeth Johnson. It is an examination of feminist discourse and the mystery of God. I am all for deconstructing the prevailing mindset and cultural worldview. I am all for reframing the Gospel and our images of God in order to better understand them relative to our culture. But so far, what I am getting is something equally monolithic and unrelenting as the patriarchy she criticizes. For the record, the patriarchy should be criticized. So should the nacent matriarchy, the prevalent nationalistic oligarchy, the judicial legalisms of hierarchy and the empty spirituality of our church "archys". In other words, replacing the patriarchy with matriarchy will get us no closer to realizing the New Jerusalem, the Kingdom of God. Instead, maybe if we let all our personal, nationalistic and religious human attempts at control and power dissolve into the overwhelming love of Christ, we might come closer to entering that Kingdom. Maybe she will come around.

I am also reading Christian Dogmatics by Braaten and a bunch of other heavy hitting Lutherans, a couple of books on pastoral care and some Old Testament criticisms by Bruggeman and Fretheim.
Peace to all!


The Lurking Abyss

I had a week off with my family. We stayed home and just spent time together. My daughter is 8 and we have never done this before. What was I thinking? Actually, we have never had the time, the finances or the ability to take the time. It will now become a tradition for the family.

As it has been said by someone somewhere, "It is done." I passed my Greek final and am green-lighted to take New Testament classes at Luther Seminary. I start in just a few days. I am looking forward to the adventure. The whole project fills me with the feeling of standing on the edge of a very high cliff and looking way down into a canyon that seems familiar but I am not sure why.

I have just finished reading a book by John Newport called The New Age Movement and the Biblical Worldview. It is extremely well-written and thorough in its examination of the New Age movement. I found his analysis fair and reflective, given that he is an evangelical scholar. He also has a lot of on the ground experience with numerous groups.

Having spent much time in the New Age arena, I can verify his accuracy and confirm his analysis. The group I was involved with had an agglomeration of Eastern mysticism, Goddess worship, some Near Eastern/Sufi practices and a large dose of psychotherapeutic techniques. Once I began to regain my own thoughts, I began to see huge holes in the thinking and worldview. On a personal level, I began to see that much of the New Age thinking I was exposed to implicitly suggested that there is a heirarchy of more enlightened or less enlightened, better or worse, people. There was a hyper-relativism with regard to truth and right and wrong, but invisible rules and outrageous judgments against those who did not act in accordance to "life/the goddess/the tao". This did not make sense to me. As the belief system began to come apart, it was painful and difficult for myself and my family.

But I also began to think clearly again. I began to see that some ideas are in fact better than others. I began to understand that all people are equally capable of great horror and great glory and that, if it were possible for someone to become "more enlightened", most of us would have chosen that and acted accordingly. Instead, we do the same old stupid things we have always done. As a teacher of mine once said, "You can be the world's most enlightened person and still be a complete asshole." And ultimately, I realized I am not personally capable of acting to the good of myself and others without outside help - which leads to a singular decision: Either there is no hope and no God, or there is. For a long time, I opted for the former rather than the latter and learned what C.S. Lewis learned, that, for me anyway, atheism is a one-way ticket to despair. And I was incapable on my own to make any sort of difference in my own life much less the life of others.

That is a round-about way of saying that the New Age works great if 1) you can afford it, 2) you can maintain the worldview without massive cognitive dissonance and 3) you can stand sloppy thinking for extended periods of time. Plus all the focus on Me, I and myself became incredibly dull. But I also learned this: What works is not always what is true. The New Age worked for a while, but it is not true. I would rather deal with a truth that "works" some of the time than an untruth that works all the time.
Peace to all.


Greek Begets Prevenient Grace, or the other way around...

The former senior minister at my church once did a sermon on Prevenient Grace, that great Puritan ideal that the grace of God precedes all human creation in such a way as to motivate us toward His Glory, since, as depraved sinners, we are utterly incapable of finding our way towards salvation. He spoke of his seminary professor using the phrase and no one knowing what it meant in the class. His answer was something to the effect of "you are saved before you yourself know you are saved". It is a beautiful theological idea and there is something about it that restores to us a sense of innocence in the face of God.

With that in mind, I am literally days away from being done with online Biblical Greek at Luther Seminary. If I did not believe in prevenient grace before Biblical Greek, I do now. Since the class has been online, I have been without the benefit of a class to reflect on my mistakes or progress. The only point of contact have been emails with my professor, who is an exacting Greek scholar. I have to reflect on his corrections, which are numerous and somewhat frightening in terms of how wrong I can be relative to the Greek text, and then do my best to take them to heart and hope I remember everything. It is a very self-referential process.

Early on, though, my professor said something in an email which has stuck with me. After some particularly heinous errors in translation caused by an adolescent reliance on a Greek-English concordance, he wrote, "We are not seeking a good English translation. This is not about a well-constructed translation, it is about finding the truth of the translation." It is all about truth. Forgoing my concordance, I actually did worse in the class, but still was passing. Then a slow improvement began to take place. Learning was happening. I actually have a high degree of confidence that I will pass the class. I find that surprising and hopeful. Not that I didn't think I was capable, but that I have made it this far. Walls that should have been large barriers even a couple years ago now melt away. I am not foolish enough to rest on that experience - I maintain a wary outlook.

But it would be equally foolish for me to not recognize the starting point of this whole journey. That is the point where I decided I couldn't live in a world without God. Everything has unfolded since then with a depth and grace I have never experienced before, and I am grateful. Was it me making the decision and then grace being shown as a result or the presence of grace already here that I simply responded to? I am opting for the latter.
Peace to all!


Where oh where did my confidence go...

Today I was reading various Calvinists on the web. Everyone has something to say and they are very certain about it. Some of them express themselves very well and I even like what they have to say...But I don't really agree with them. Maybe parts of it, but I run into a selfish thought whenever I read about Calvin's 5 points. Before I talk about that, though, let me just say that Calvin's 5 points are not Calvin's. These are points people have pulled from Calvin, and I have a sneaking suspicion that what they think he says is not what he actually says, but I need to read him first. And they probably need to as well. So on this point, Calvin's 5 points, we are removed from what Calvin actually said. Calvin himself is commenting on what he has read, both of others and of the Bible. So we are now 3 levels back from what the Bible said - the 5 points are a commentary on a commentary about the Bible. Not that we cannot draw valid conclusions from such a removal, but it is a little like the "post hoc ergo prompter hoc" fallacy. That is the "after the fact knowledge proves the before the fact point" fallacy. I am not certain this fallacy has been committed by the 5 pointers, and I am certainly not sure about Calvin, but it is something to consider when thinking about these things. Am I trying to fit the Bible into what I hope it says about the human condition, salvation, the Cross; or am I allowing myself to be molded by the Bible? And how do I know the difference?

Now for my selfish concerns: I am pretty certain that if the criteria for Calvinism are true, then I am in trouble and am pretty certain I don't have much of a chance to pull out of the spiritual nose-dive. But if grace is infinite, then there is nothing preventing my salvation. I just don't feel particularly assured of it much of the time. I know it is not about feelings though. What I feel is a separate issue than what we are discussing here.

My other selfish reflection is not so much about me, but a sort of sentimental fantasy I have about Jesus. When I read the NT, I don't see him in any of his direct interactions ,acting on the basis of these Calvinist qualifications. It is entirely likely that I have misunderstood Calvin, but I see a Jesus that unrelentingly offers peace, salvation, healing and truth to all. I also see a Jesus in a few places actually learn something about the nature of the salvation he offers, as with the Canaanite woman in Matthew. He doesn't even acknowledge her and then when he does, he insults her by referring to her as a dog. She does not back down and instead says, in effect, "So what if I am a dog to you. Dogs still eat the scraps you throw from the table." Jesus then heals her daughter and is impressed with her faith. I also see in this a universalizing moment in the Gospel, not in the sense of universal salvation, but in the sense that salvation is available to everyone. Is this why Jesus goes to be alone on the mountain right after this?

I don't want to be left out and I am pretty certain, given the conditions that the Calvinists set forth, I would be left out. Maybe it is a non-issue, given that I believe and it is merely a doctrinal discussion, but it sometimes seems more important than mere doctrine.
Peace to all.


Apocalyptically Apocalyptic about the Apocalypse

This article by William Marvel at Intervention Magazine paints a dire picture of the very near future. He is a historian, particularly of the Civil War. His point is not about policy, as I perceive it, but more about our accelerating proclivity to use up resources and that most wars, and especially the Iraq War, is a war of resources cloaked in the language of freedom. I don't know if I agree with that since we have no resources to show for the war, and if it was a war of resources, we would have simply taken over the country. But sloppy as it is over there and as God-awful a mess it is, we are not taking it over and nor do we control any of the oil from there. It is unlikely that we will as well.

But the article got me thinking. How do we understand our proclivity to use up resources, or claim resources for our own from a Biblical perspective? I am terrible at memorizing verses, so I apologize for not having close references. I see two conflicting visions here, and as a Christian, I opt for the vision that implies the gift of Grace. Both visions are true, but they collide at the level of life on Earth. The first vision is the depraved human scenario. We are like rodents, raccoons that dig in the trash and leave a bigger mess than when we came. This is our biological claim to fame. All that we build is an excuse to use up what we have, pollute what we have, destroy each other and their stuff. We evolve new ways to do these things. Given nothing except ourselves to rely on, we tend toward the worst possible behavior. Warfare and environmental destruction and a culture of hate are the perpetual outcome of that self-reliance.

In the other vision, we are given incredible gifts: a beautiful planet which is ours to cherish; bodies and souls to perceive and enjoy that beauty and glorify the One who has given it to us; and the Grace of forgiveness - the opportunity to create even more beauty as a practice of worship and as a possibility of ever renewing hope, faith and love for and in all things. Those gifts also take advantage of our capacities to build and change the world. It can be seen in soaring architecture and beautiful works of art, a Gorecki sonata or the tripping emotion of Chet Baker, the Dostoevski novel or the William Carlos Williams poem. Not to mention all the "soul things" we are capable of - work with the poor, communities coming together to care for the sick and the broken-hearted, the simple presence of a friend or family member who loves you.

The power of Christianity is that it does not shy away from high ideals. We are created in our souls in the image of God and just a little lower than the angels. In other words, we are capable of doing what we have been gifted. We have proof of this in the Garden, in the covenant with Noah, in the Israelites being led into a land of milk and honey, in numerous places in the Prophets, particularly Isaiah, the teachings of Jesus, and most of all, the fulfilled promises of Jesus in the crucifixion and the resurrection. This vision ends in a reflection of the freedom granted to the people of Moses, with the great golden city with streams of living water pouring from her. It is a very high vision with great expectations, both of what is believed and what we need to do.

My point is this: both of these visions are true. Eventually, at least in the Christian tradition, we must choose one of these visions. It is possible to wait too long and the Marvel article suggests we have waited too long. He may be right. It sounds awful and disturbing and, since I have a young daughter, deeply depressing. We are capable of turning it all around. I don't know how much of global warming is human caused, but I do know that much of the poisoning of the fish, the collapse of the fish population in the ocean, the toxicity of our rivers and lakes, the drastic rise in asthma in children, the massive stress our culture of work generates is human caused. What does it take to make that leap of faith in the higher possibilities we are also capable of? Why wait?
Peace to all.


Couch jumping

About 8 years ago, I used to work for chiropractors. Back then, I was studying Tai Chi and various meditation and awareness disciplines. The chiros I worked for were all Scientologists and the sales training workshops I went to every month were all run by Scientologists. They had people outside the workshops who were called "Bridge Administrators". They were the people who bridged between the workshop and the Scientology octopus. Fortunately, I was never confronted by them, but I spent enough time with the Scientologists to realize a valuable lesson from them. And that is the power of language to alter our perception of reality.

Once I started using their language - words like "clear", "get agreement", "down tone" - everything would tend toward using that language. I think we all do this in the communities of which we are a part, but I noticed that if I did it once, I was doing it everywhere. Once I stopped working for the chiropractors, it took me about 2 years to stop the linguistic habits of Scientology, which also murder sentence structure and syntax.

As I am getting deeper into the Christian life again, and going back to seminary in the Fall (no pun intended...see, the season Fall and Adam and Eve...never mind!), I am aware that this does not happen as much in the Christian fellowships I am a part of and for that I am grateful. But I am also aware of how dangerous it is to allow one's mind to be hijacked by language and poor thinking. Critical thinking, a certain skepticism and doubt become allies here and, instead of derailing faith, can actually support it and create a stronger net in which to become a fisher of hearts.
Peace to all.


Even now, it is still Biblical Greek to me

Since the first week in March, I have been studying Biblical Greek. It is a prerequisite for my seminary and I chose to take the class online. At first, it went very well. I was learning the language quickly and doing great on the quizzes I emailed into my professor. And then I hit the participles. Participles are sentence constructions where the verb acts as an adverb or noun, as in:
"Jesus, the one who has saved us all, will come again."

…the one who saved us all…is the participle. It is very confusing because the participle can be in the beginning of the sentence and act as my example, or it can be at the end, after the verb, and act to modify the verb. As with everything in Greek, context and case endings are the key. This is all way more technical than I intend for this post…

Suffice it to say, I made it through the participle situation and was going along pretty well…until I started to translate Luke. Maybe it is just Luke himself, the good doctor using difficult Greek. But more likely it is me. I have to be done with Greek by the end of August, so I have a limited time frame to finish the class. I am nearing the end, but I am struggling. It is a hard language. Maybe it has something to do with being a dead language. In fact, at one point in our history, there is a legend that only one person was left on the planet who knew Greek. His name was Boethius, a brilliant man who got caught up in a power struggle in 524 A.D. and was executed, thereby making him a martyr to the faith. It wasn't until 100s of years later that the West regained knowledge of Greek, or so the legend goes. This is not confirmed by the Catholic Encyclopedia at www.newadvent.org. Only his brilliance is confirmed.

I would rather be in a class learning the language. I think I would be learning it better there. And it is a beautiful language so I hate not being able to do it justice in the rush to finish before fall term starts. In writing, I therefore commit to keep studying Greek even after I am done with the class, if only to honor the legend of Boethius.
Peace to all.