Sunday, July 31, 2016

John Cobb's "Jesus' Abba: The God Who Has Not Failed"

I enjoyed the experience of reading this book very much, even though at times I found Cobb's arguments to be a bit over the top. I especially liked the way he described God as involved but not coercive, and his use of Jesus’ worship and God-relation as a model for our own.

I was less impressed by his characterization of the contemporary worldview in only highly positivistic terms. To my mind, his argument that the modern world—well, at least the university—cannot conceive of humans as agents, but only as billiard balls set in motion by past events, is a straw  argument. And the further conclusion, that this makes it impossible for all of modern society to take God and God’s dreams for humanity into account, is overreaching. I get that there is a strand of militant atheism that preaches this; but I’m also impressed by the many philosophers (especially continental—but not all, witness Plantinga, for example), theologians, post-modern critics, and even Marxists who have a much greater appreciation for human agency, if not always for God’s agency. His turn to highly contentious figures on the fringe of today’s philosophical discussions (Robert Sheldrake) and Lamarckian evolutionary ideas (not to be totally dismissed given recent findings, but still controversial, and if relevant, then only in a minor way), and even parapsychology, is disappointing.

When he turned back to his main thesis—that God is more like an Abba, one whose power is for freedom rather than coercion--his writing is much more thoughtful. His musings about what this might look like in politics, in churches, and in society as a whole are very suggestive and helpful. I found his personal testimony about his retirement community to be quite touching and hopeful. It isn't that no one else has said such things before. But coming from Cobb nearer the end of his life, as a testimony almost, they have power and immediacy.

I struggle a lot with what to make of God in a world so divided by power, class, wealth, war, and ecological disaster. I’ve been aware of Process Theology answers more on the fringe of my consciousness than as a studied alternative. I think this is because I was, for so long, immersed in Reformational/Kuyperian thinking, and then later in post-modern musings. I will have to take a closer look at this alternative, and will do so. Cobb was obviously a good place to start. I’ll dig a bit deeper now.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Wait till September!

I should have said so earlier, but I'm on a vacation hiatus till September. See you then!

Monday, June 13, 2016

Orlando and the Christian Reformed Synod

         While perusing Facebook today I was overwhelmed by the outpouring of both love and hatred that attended the massacre of forty-nine gay people in Orlando. We all feel like President Obama, I suppose. We feel like we’ve seen this sort of tragedy too many times. We fear that powerful forces beyond our control, from Congress to mental illness to guns to xenophobia conspire together to make change impossible. 
         But that’s not all I saw on Facebook, though I’m going to get back to what happened in Orlando. I also noted that yesterday, a sermon at the beginning of the Christian Reformed Church’s (CRC) annual synod was titled, “Maintain the Bond of Peace.”

Delegates at the CRC Synod, 2016
        The text was Ephesians 4:15, but it could just have easily John 17:23, where Jesus prays, “May they brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me.”

         Of course, Jesus’ prayer to God was not answered in the affirmative. Through the ages, the church has not maintained anything like the bond of peace. When not persecuting minorities or heretics, the church has been torn apart by schism—often violent ones. The reality of Christendom, today, say most experts, is division into tens of thousands of denominations. Fortunately, (or not), early theologians came up with a notional fix for this problem, the “one holy catholic church,” that is, an “invisible” church of true believers divided among the world’s true and false denominations. Are you in or out?

         The preacher at synod said, “As our part of the church faces storms of the present day, God’s Spirit animates and guides us as we speak the truth to each other in love with the power of the Spirit and the bond of peace.” With such an anchor, he added, “How can we possibly go wrong?”

         Well, a lot actually. If the church’s track record on the bond of peace doesn’t worry you, then the reality of this year’s synod agenda should. What’s that?

         Gays. What do we do about those gays?

         Of course, the CRC doesn’t put it that plainly—denominations, like most institutions, are not known for plain speak. The report is actually titled, “Committee to Provide Pastoral Guidance re Same Sex Marriage.” This report is supposed to explain how Christians can be pastorally sensitive to gay people while nevertheless insisting that gay relationships are sinful--evil. It doesn’t make any practical sense, of course. It is sort of like asking someone with a pair of lungs not to breathe, or someone who is healthy to break a leg.

         Many people in the Christian Reformed Church, including many pastors and leaders, know this. After I wrote a book—while a CRC pastor—that argued it was past time for the CRC to open its doors to gays, I heard from many, many such leaders who agreed. At the same time many wrote to say they dared not make their convictions public. People—their people, their tribe, not gays—wouldn’t understand.

         On the other hand, many people don’t agree with changing the church’s stance. And given the raw emotion (rather than enlightened exegesis or just plain common sense) that attends this issue, it will be hard for the CRC to maintain that bond of unity no matter what it decides, exactly.

         In fact, is it even possible? I don't think so, ultimately. Especially since the peace the CRC wants to keep is denominational peace.

        In spite of all the energy put into founding denominations (usually through schism) and keeping denominations true and pure, they have no real Biblical warrant. When the Bible was written there were churches in different geographical areas, like Rome or Jerusalem. There were churches that met in different homes and there were churches founded by different apostles. But, perhaps naively, perhaps because of the positive outcome of the first Synod of Jerusalem, there is an underlying sense in scripture that there is only one church.

         I don’t know for sure how long this lasted. We know from many sources that there were what we now consider heretical sects early on. Several heresies are identified in scripture, and each surely had its own party within congregations, and throughout the empire.

         In scripture, there are basically only two kinds of churches—the one church that Jesus prayed (unsuccessfully, it would seem) would remain one; and individual congregations.

         After having moved from one denomination to another, and after having served (briefly) on an ecumenical committee of the CRC, and after having worked at an ecumenical seminary and been president of a Christian Graduate School at the ecumenical Toronto School of Theology, my observation about denominations is that they may be more trouble than they’re worth.

         Have you been part of a denomination where people in the pew are asking regularly what’s going on at headquarters? Have you been part of a denomination where excitement for the shared mission means donations are going up? Have you ever belonged to a denomination where its doctrinal confessions have lived in most people’s hearts, just needing to find expression on their lips (rather than in a catechism book rarely opened and poorly understood)? Have you been part of a denomination that isn’t tearing itself apart or trying to lasso and throw out some undesirable minority?

         Many denominations hold their doctrines not so much out of conviction anymore, but rather, out of a sense that tribal unity is paramount. There is safety in numbers, in shared customs, in family interactions and connections. Ethical stances, more visceral than intellectual, tend to become the actual rallying points for experiencing tribal unity over time and space.

         And right now, it's the gays on the receiving end.

         I’m not sure what the answer is. In my heart, I guess I’m a Congregationalist. In the United Church I should be in good company on the score, since the Congregationalists were one of the founding branches of my current denomination.

         But that also merely kicks the problem down one step of the ladder. My intuition, though, is that these sorts of issues are better handled on the local level.

         Perhaps a better answer is losing our sense of tribal belonging so that we as individuals feel freer to join a local congregation that matches our hopes, dreams, and convictions. But then you’d expect someone with a history of changing denominations to say such a thing!

         In the meantime, the Synod of the CRC—and any other synods meeting this summer—will meet under the pall of 49 murders of gay people in Orlando. And I think the CRC is going to have a very hard time figuring this one out. 

         Because ultimately, one cannot be pastorally sensitive to gay people in Orlando or anywhere when what you really want to say is that what they do is evil.

Monday, May 9, 2016

The "Song of Songs," as a Mother's Day Message

Yesterday was Mother's Day. One of the new realities I've come to enjoy in the United Church is that on these sort of secular holidays I can preach a secular, topical theme. I don't have to go with the lectionary, or the exegesis of some unrelated text. On the other hand, these Sundays can come with surprises too. In this case, it was a solo sung by Kimberly Briggs based on the Song of Songs, "Arise, My Love, and Come Away" (Mark Hayes). 

So the challenge is tying together a secular holiday for mothers with a passionate text about the joys of making love. I had fun with this one!

            When it comes to life, we all understand that there is both an ideal we dream of, and the reality we muddle through. Take sex, for example.

            The sexual ideal is beautifully described in the Bible’s Song of Songs, a selection of which Kimberly just sang. Here the lover—much like Romeo under Juliette’s balcony—the lover is pictured standing outside a bedroom, peering in through the lattice work. He whispers, “come away with me. Flowers are blooming, turtle doves are cooing, juicy figs are growing—and he means, “let’s do the same, let’s ride this wave, let’s enjoy the fruit of our own vineyards.” 
Meinrad Craighead's Song of Songs

            Nothing is said or sung here, in the Song of Songs, about life-long vows, nothing is said to exclude the love of a man for a man or a woman for a woman, nothing much is said here, in the Song of Songs, except, “God, I adore you, let’s make love.”

            The Song of Songs celebrates a sexual ideal. “I am a rose of Sharon, a lily of the valley. My lover browses among the lilies, he is like a young stag on my gentle hills.” You can see it. “Dark am I, yet lovely.” You can savor it. “Let my lover come into his garden and taste its choice fruits.” You can smell it. “My lover is to me a sachet of myrrh resting between my breasts.” And you can touch it. “I arose to open for my lover, and my hands dripped with myrrh.”

            No wonder that, over 100 years ago, an old Calvinist theologian named Cornelis Vanderwaal wrote of the Song of Songs that it is about how “the beginning of eternal joy can already be tasted in one’s sexual life.” At least, that is the ideal.

            Unfortunately, no matter how sweet our own first introductions to love were—if in fact, they were sweet; no matter if our lover is as beautiful as Helen of Troy or handsome as Ryan Gosling, the reality of a lifetime of sexual love rarely lives up to The Song of Song’s poetic climax.  

            As we grow older, our hormones ebb and the intensity of our passions subside. Our children stay up later and their busy activities leave us exhausted. We have headaches or want to watch The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. Perhaps our partner snores or has hot flashes so we move to twin beds or maybe even another room. When we stand before the mirror, we realize, one day, as hard as it is to believe, that we are not as impressively sculpted as we surely once were. So the nature of our intimacy evolves. We discover that instead of “falling” into each other’s arms, in bed, we’re making appointments; instead of acrobatics we are cuddling; and instead of “making it,” we’re making tea or spreading jam on biscuits for each other.

            Life is like that. We all dream of experiencing the perfect ideal. Some of us may even have a few days or months where such dreams come true. But then life goes on . . . and we discover that it’s not so bad.

            Our family lives are like that too—a mix of the mundane and the ideal. We live, even now, in the shadow of the fifties ideal—mom and dad, one son and one daughter. Dad has a good job and mom looks after things at home. Eldest son goes off to college to study engineering and young daughter snags a boyfriend who has a great future in plastics.

            In some ways, this notion of being able to have an ideal family hasn’t changed much over the years. You see, the notion of an ideal family has always been and still is, imaginary. The truth is we all have children who struggle in school, marriages that are in need of frequent repair, and finances that are challenging. We all have family members who struggle with depression or addiction or debt. All of us belong to real, rather than ideal families.

Peruvian Madonna and Child
            It was much the same for Jesus. There is the imaginary ideal, seen in a million paintings from the past two thousand years, a pretty Mother Mary with a beautiful haloed baby Jesus on her lap, Madonna and child, blessed forever. What an incredible family!

            But if the gospels are to be believed, that ideal is imaginary. The truth is, Jesus was born in a stinky stable because Joseph didn’t properly plan ahead. When Jesus starts doing miracles, his brothers refuse to believe in him, says Matthew. When Jesus starts preaching and drawing a crowd, his mother and brothers, according to today’s scripture in Mark 3, try to whisk him away from there, because they think Jesus is crazy. Jesus’ family, in short, doesn’t believe Jesus is special, do think he really ought to keep his mouth shut, and would have institutionalized him in a minute if that was possible.

            So is that all there is to life? A flash in the pan—that fleeting moment when you have it all? A moment or two of sublime satisfaction in bed and then a long decline? Is that all there is, a family occasionally firing on all cylinders, and always putting on a good show? But mostly a family that just muddles along from one minor catastrophe to the next? Is that all there is? One perfect day each year, Mother’s Day! But every other day a rat race, a struggle?

            I hope not. In fact, I don’t believe it for a minute.

            Look, the ideal, when it comes to the Song of Songs, is lovely. But its vision of romantic love is especially lovely as one gem in a string of pearls, each pearl of human experience lovely in its own way. There is that sexual high that many of us remember and treasure in our hearts, and still experience from time to time—but everything else that goes with romance is lovely too, and gives romance a structure and beauty that does not have to fade. From holding hands, to knowing ahead of time what the other will say, to being a safe place for your lover to reveal what is really on his or her heart, to raising children real romance, including the pleasures of sex as one facet of committed, enduring love—romance is just one of a string of experiences that bind two people together and sustain them for life.

            It is much the same when it comes to family life. We all like to portray ourselves as belonging to ideal families, and once in a while all of us are, in fact, supremely happy with our family life. But the truth is that our families are always as flawed as we are personally. Kids and parents argue. Husbands and wives can’t agree on discipline. Daughters act out. Sons choose not to go to dad’s alma mater. We all juggle diaper rash and spilled milk and financial setbacks and boyfriends that scare us and illnesses that put the fear of God in us. That’s family life.

            But family life is also a large part of the only life we have, a large pendant hanging from our string of pearls. We ought to seize that life, those moments and days, and embrace them, because this is the only life we have.

            Living merely for the mythical ideal is a trap. When it comes to family life, we don’t need a red carpet and exploding flashbulbs to enjoy the company of the one on our arm. We don’t have to earn a million dollars and finally buy that Maserati to be loved by our children. No, each moment we live together, even when it is a moment of deep struggle, is a prerequisite to every other moment in the chain of being, including those occasional Hallmark moments. But all moments should be embraced as a gift.

            Of course, when the ideal falls into your lap, momentarily, or even by design, it is a special moment; the lovers of the Song of Songs are living the dream. Dedicate your life only to such dreams, however; live only for the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, and you will be mostly, bitterly, disappointed.

            Today is Mother’s Day. We all have mothers, some of us are mothers—whether because we’ve had biological children or because we’ve adopted, legally or spiritually, children and disciples and crowds of people who listen to us. And what all our mothers have taught us is that along with all the other beautiful and ideal things mothers may do—break glass ceilings or be the life of the party or become famous like Margaret Atwood or Sophie Gregoire—along with all the other beautiful and ideal things mothers may do they all confess that there is nothing quite as wonderful as falling exhausted into bed at the end of the day, knowing that they have done their best to love a partner, clean a child’s nose, and make the home a safe place all who enter. It wasn't all ideal, but it was altogether lovely.

            This living in the moment, living for those you are with, living with those you love, muddling through when things are not ideal, but muddling through none-the-less, this is doing the will of God that Jesus mentions in our text. Doing this is what makes us brothers and sisters of Jesus, too.

            And the Spirit of God suggests, whether this is an ideal moment or a muddling-through moment--the Spirit of God suggests enjoy it, and give thanks. For all of life, both the ideal climaxes and the less scenic, mundane stretches--all of life is a divine gift.