A Thanksgiving Prayer by Walter Brueggemann
At Thanks Giving
Amid football, family and too much food,
we pause quickly and without inconvenience
to remember and to thank.
We remember ancient pilgrims
who followed dreams of alabaster cities and financial opportunity;
We remember hospitable first nation people
who welcomed them, and then lost their land;
We remember our family times
filled with joy and
filled with anxiety, and
old scars still powerful.
We thank for this U.S. venue of justice and freedom,
and are aware of its flawed reality;
We thank you for our wealth and our safety,
and are aware of how close to poverty we are
and how under threat we live.
We gather our impulse for gratitude today,
grateful to you and our ancestors,
grateful to you for our families, our health, our government,
our many possessions.
We gladly affirm that
"All good gifts are sent from heaven above,"
But we yield to none in a sense of self-sufficiency,
our weariness in needing to share,
our resentfulness of those who take and do not give.
Your generosity evokes our gratitude,
but your generosity overmatches our gratitude.
We are ready to thank, but not overly so;
We remember our achievements, our accomplishments,
our entitlements, and our responsibilities
that slice away our yielding of ourselves to you.
Move through our half measure of thanks
and let us be, all through this day,
more risky in acknowledging
that we have nothing except what you give.
You have given so much
not least your only Son.
Give us the gift of dazzlement and awe
that we may rejoice in our penultimate lives
and keep you ultimate all the day long,
relishing the wonder of your self-giving love.
- Walter Brueggemann, Prayers for a Privileged People
A Thanksgiving Prayer by Walter Brueggemann
The world is changing. It should come as no surprise. The world and the people that inhabit it always change. You are different than your grandparents. They were different than theirs. While someone looks back at their past idyllic self and circumstances from yesteryear, there's another person that when yesteryear was present thought, "If only we can return back to the good old days." While each progressing generation has their struggles and injustices to confront, there should also be sufficient reason to celebrate the advances that have happened over the last many years. Medical science is improving. Racial relations, in American and many other places, is improving. Equality for women has made drastic progress. There is evidence that shows many countries are making significant economic gains proving that poor countries do not have to stay poor. This includes Chile, Turkey, Malaysia, and Gabon, among others. There are many tragedies happening in this world, but there are other achievements and advances which cause us to celebrate as well.
But, what about the future progress of the Church? Is there sufficient cause to lament the future of Christ's covenant community in this world? Is there cause to be hopeful? Harvey Cox, retired Harvard Divinity professor, theologian and scholar, has accumulated much research to shed light on the trajectory of the Church in America. For some, it will be reason to celebrate. For others, there may be sufficient cause for sorrow.
Cox's book The Future of Faith seeks to address this question: What does the future hold for religion, and for Christianity in particular? It's a book that leverages bits of sociology and theology. Through the first few chapters, I am trying to determine if it's accurate and prophetic or misguided. My hope, should I feel the proper motivation, is to blog through some of the highlights of this fascinating book. The leadership at State Street has had ongoing conversations about the future of faith and how it effects the way in which we minister in LaPorte.
CHAPTER ONE: An Age of the Spirit: the Sacred in the Secular?
Cox begins the book by noting three qualities that mark the world's current spiritual profile that will effect how religion will be practiced in future generations. It's important to note that Cox is not suggesting that these things NEED to happen, but have ALREADY happened. These qualities are:
- The unanticipated resurgence of religion in both public and private life around the globe. It's important to note that Cox isn't suggesting that there's a resurgence of a particular form of Christianity, but religious values as a whole. It's the recognition, that for whatever reason, there is something more than the self. It doesn't look much like the religiousness of the last thousand years in the Western world, but there are still theological, ontological, and philosophical commitments being made. This resurgence comes at a surprise to many. He states,
"Scholars of religion refer to the current metamorphosis in religiousness with phrases like the “move to horizontal transcendence” or the “turn to the immanent.” But it would be more accurate to think of it as the rediscovery of the sacred in the immanent, the spiritual within the secular. More people seem to recognize that it is our everyday world, not some other one, that, in the words of the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, “is charged with the grandeur of God.” The advance of science has increased the sense of awe we feel at the immense scale of the universe or the complexity of the human eye. People turn to religion more for support in their efforts to live in this world and make it better, and less to prepare for the next. The pragmatic and experiential elements of faith as a way of life are displacing the previous emphasis on institutions and beliefs."
- Fundamentalism is dying. Fundamentalism, as a religious and political movement, is coming to an end. It may take a generation or three, but it is dying out. This is why religious fundamentalists [Christian, Muslim, Jewish, or otherwise] are digging in their heals and fighting with such fierce zealousness. To protect their neatly packaged beliefs, fundamentalists feel they have to fight ideologically [or in some parts of the world, militarily] with those who will threaten the shell of the facade. Cox notes,
"Fundamentalisms, with their insistence on obligatory belief systems, their nostalgia for a mythical uncorrupted past, their claims to an exclusive grasp on truth, and—sometimes— their propensity for violence, are turning out to be rearguard attempts to stem a more sweeping tidal change."In my conversations with the emerging generation [which I may be a member myself], truth is very important. Many falsely believe that members in these developing generations do not believe in absolutes in morality and ethics, but that is largely not the case. They do, however, have a harder time admitting that they believe everything absolutely. "There are absolutes," they might say, "but I don't know if my perception of truth is absolute." This is not relativism, as some may claim. It is ideological humility. It is true, however, that the umbrella of what is and is not absolute may be much different among emerging generations than the generations before them.
- A profound change in the elemental nature of religiousness. Cox suggests that this might be the most important in understanding this paradigm shift. What does it mean to be "religious"? He comments,
"Not only has religion reemerged as an influential dimension of twenty-first-century life; what it means to be “religious” is shifting significantly from what it meant as little as a half century ago. Since religions interact with each other in a global culture, this tremor is shaking virtually all of them, but it is especially evident in Christianity, which in the past fifty years has entered into its most momentous transformation since its transition in the fourth century CE from what had begun as a tiny Jewish sect into the religious ideology of the Roman Empire."He goes on to dissect the important difference between belief and faith. Faith is deep-seeded confidence. Beliefs are more like opinions. In Cox's words:
"Beliefs can be held lightly or with emotional intensity, but they are more propositional than existential. We can believe something to be true without it making much difference to us, but we place our faith only in something that is vital for the way we live. Of course people sometimes confuse faith with beliefs, but it will be hard to comprehend the tectonic shift in Christianity today unless we understand the distinction between the two."Christianity has done well at forming our beliefs into concise and treasured pillars through the historic creeds. However, these beliefs are not what has made the Christian community thrive throughout the last 2000 years [nor was that ever their intention.] The creeds have given a sense of form to an already-demonstrated conviction through faith. Cox suggests a needed paradigm shift.
"Eliminating the spurious use of “belief” to define Christianity has another advantage. It recognizes that often people who call themselves “unbelievers” have episodic doubts about their unbelief . “Believers” go through similar swings. Beliefs come and go, change, fade, and mature . The pattern of beliefs one holds at ten are not identical with the ones one holds at fifty or seventy-five. To focus the Christian life on belief rather than on faith is simply a mistake. We have been misled for many centuries by the theologians who taught that “faith” consisted in dutifully believing the articles listed in one of the countless creeds they have spun out. But it does not."To profess something as true is entirely different than living as said proposition is true. Hypocrisy happens when our confession do not match up with our convictions. Modern apologetics has taken a hit partly because of this phenomena. One of the larger growth movements within American Christianity is that of Eastern Orthodoxy. Perhaps this is caused by the Orthodox's adherence and valuing of awe, wonder, and love in light of the more binary view of faith that apologetics often professes.
Cox finishes the first chapter by discussing three [uneven] periods or ages within the history of the church.
- The Age of Faith [first 350 years of the Church]: In Cox's words: "It began with Jesus and his immediate disciples when a buoyant faith propelled the movement he initiated. During this first period of both explosive growth and brutal persecution, their sharing in the living Spirit of Christ united Christians with each other, and “faith” meant hope and assurance in the dawning of a new era of freedom, healing, and compassion that Jesus had demonstrated. To be a Christian meant to live in his Spirit, embrace his hope, and to follow him in the work that he had begun." As this initial group of Christ-followers evolved, the initial tension between faith and belief became apparent. "Emphasis on belief began to grow when these primitive instruction kits thickened into catechisms, replacing faith in Jesus with tenets about him."
The Age of Belief. [350AD - modern era]: "The turning point came when Emperor Constantine the Great (d. 387 CE) made his adroit decision to commandeer Christianity to bolster his ambitions for the empire." The empire became "Christian," or perhaps Christianity took on the narrative of the empire. Right beliefs in line with the newly minted Christian empire become essential. In 385 AD, a synod of bishops condemned Priscillian of Avila for heresy, and by order of the emperor Maximus he and six of his followers were beheaded in Treves. The ones behind beheaded just 300 years earlier were the ones now doing the beheading. Power struggles, political influence, and religious persecution of those within the ranks became common. Cox summarizes, "The Age of Belief lasted roughly fifteen hundred years, ebbing in fits and starts with the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, the secularization of Europe, and the anticolonial upheavals of the twentieth century. It was already comatose when the European Union chiseled the epitaph on its tombstone in 2005 by declining to mention the word “Christian” in its constitution."
The Age of the Spirit. [Moving forward...]: Cox suggests that we are now entering a new age of Christianity and, perhaps for the first time, one that is not defined by the experience of those in the West. "Despite dire forecasts of its decline, Christianity is growing faster than it ever has before, but mainly outside the West and in movements that accent spiritual experience, discipleship, and hope; pay scant attention to creeds; and flourish without hierarchies. We are now witnessing the beginning of a “post-Constantinian era.” Christians on five continents are shaking off the residues of the second phase (the Age of Belief) and negotiating a bumpy transition into a fresh era for which a name has not yet been coined." He contends that, in the Age of the Spirit, people will be more influenced by the experiential elements of Christianity more than the doctrinal elements of the religion.
Cox concludes the first chapter with this paragraph:
As Christianity moves awkwardly but irreversibly into a new phase in its history, those who are pushing into this frontier often look to the earliest period, the Age of Faith, rather than the intervening one, the Age of Belief, for inspiration and guidance. This should not be surprising. There are striking similarities between the first and the emerging third age. Creeds did not exist then; they are fading in importance now. Hierarchies had not yet appeared then; they are wobbling today. Faith as a way of life or a guiding compass has once again begun, as it did then, to identify what it means to be Christian. The experience of the divine is displacing theories about it. No wonder the atmosphere in the burgeoning Christian congregations of Asia and Africa feels more like that of first-century Corinth or Ephesus than it does like that of the Rome or Paris of a thousand years later.
Einstein’s Snuffed-Out Candles: Awe, Wonder, and Faith
We start a new series at State Street on Sunday. We'll be spending the next two and a half months going through the book of Revelation. Some approach John of Patmos' book in great fear and trepidation, some in confusion and dismay, some just ignore it in total. I don't think any of those reactions are necessary in building a right and responsible reading of the text.
If you want to study the book of Revelation a bit more in-depth, I want to invite you to pick up any of these helpful resources. Starting next Thursday at 6:30am at Rocky Mountain Cafe in LaPorte, the State Street Book Club will be going through one of these books [Apocalypse and Allegiance] to ask good questions and to seek answers about any confusion we may have.
Here's the list of books I'm reading right now for this series:
- Apocalypse and Allegiance: Worship, Politics, and Devotion in the Book of Revelation by J. Nelson Kraybill: Kraybill is the former President of Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, IN and currently serves as the President of the Mennonite World Conference. [Amazon]
The Revelation of John: A Narrative Commentary by James L. Resseguie: Resseguie is Distinguished Professor of New Testament Emeritus at Winebrenner Theological Seminary. [Amazon]
- The Theology of the Book of Revelation (New Testament Theology) by Richard Bauckham: Bauckham is a New Testament scholar who teaches at Cambridge. [Amazon]
- Reading Revelation Responsibly: Uncivil Worship and Witness: Following the Lamb into the New Creation by Michael J. Gorman: Gorman is Professor of Sacred Scripture and Dean of the Ecumenical Institute of Theology at St. Mary's Seminary & University in Baltimore, Maryland. [Amazon]
- The Pith of the Apocalypse: Essential Message and Principles for Interpretation by Paul A. Rainbow: Rainbow is the Professor of New Testament and Sioux Falls Seminary. [Amazon]
- Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church by N.T. Wright: Wright is the former Bishop of Durham in the Church of England and is now serving as the Chair of New Testament and Early Christianity at the School of Divinity at the University of St. Andrews. [Amazon]
- The Good News of Revelation by Larry Helyer & Ed Cyzewski: Larry Helyer is Professor Emeritus of Biblical Studies at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana. Ed Cyzewski is a freelance writer. [Amazon]
- Reversed Thunder: The Revelation of John and the Praying Imagination by Eugene Peterson: Peterson is the former James M. Houston Professor of Spiritual Theology at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia. He is now retired. [Amazon]
- The New Testament: Introducing the Way of Discipleship by Wes Howard-Brook and Sharon E. Ringe: Howard-Brook is an author and professor at Seattle University. Ringe is Professor of New Testament at Wesley Theological Seminary. [Amazon]
- The Drama of Scripture: Finding Our Place in the Biblical Story: by Craig G. Bartholomew and Michael W. Goheen: Craig G. Bartholomew is the H. Evan Runner Professor of Philosophy at Redeemer University College. Michael W. Goheen is the Jake and Betsy Tuls Professor of Missiology at Calvin Theological Seminary. [Amazon]
I might add some more to this as we go, but this is a start. Many of these were recommended to me by other pastors/friends/scholars, and some I just stumbled upon. All of them have helped in grasping the critical nature of the text.
Wendell Berry should be the patron saint of those who are against GMO's and feel like sustainable farming is crucial to the world's success. Unfortunately, however, most evangelicals that I've come across know little about Wendell or his agrarian values. He is a tremendous novelist, poet, and farmer, among many other things to other people. When I feel the need to have a more cohesive theology of the land, he has been my source of inspiration. The following is a poem of his that he published in the 1970's. I find it beautiful and redemptive. Perhaps you will as well.
MANIFESTO: THE MAD FARMER LIBERATION FRONT
by Wendell Berry
Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.
Denounce the government and embrace
the flag. Hope to live in that free
republic for which it stands.
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion – put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
So long as women do not go cheap
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep
of a woman near to giving birth?
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie down in the shade. Rest your head
in her lap. Swear allegiance
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn’t go. Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
This is the word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: “Stand at the gate of the Lord’s house and there proclaim this message:
“‘Hear the word of the Lord, all you people of Judah who come through these gates to worship the Lord. This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: Reform your ways and your actions, and I will let you live in this place. Do not trust in deceptive words and say, “This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord!” If you really change your ways and your actions and deal with each other justly, if you do not oppress the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow and do not shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not follow other gods to your own harm, then I will let you live in this place, in the land I gave your ancestors for ever and ever. But look, you are trusting in deceptive words that are worthless. - Jeremiah 7:1-7 NRSV
I wonder how many times the audience of the biblical narrative was left wondering, "Are you serious?" In the above Jeremiah text, the prophet speaks to Israel about their future destruction by the hands of the Babylonians. Privilege, power, and comfort is most disturbed by exile. The Israelites were familiar with the Abrahamic covenant of rich blessing of a peculiar space and vocation. They understood that they were God's chosen people in a special land. It was as much a part of their communal DNA as anything else. Yet, the prophet's words speak about a striking discord between a once blessed people whose knowledge of the right beliefs met a cursed future. But why? The Israelites seem to know the right things to say, "This is the temple of the Lord!" There's more to it than their cultic expression of location, though. Jeremiah is standing at the gate of the temple [YHWH's space] proclaiming the message that Israel's beliefs had once again not translated into a particular action. It is the dance of faith that all must learn; how does our orthodoxy [right beliefs] affect our orthopraxy [right practices] and orthopathos [right feelings]?
There is so much to love about the prophet's message, especially if you find yourself being oppressed, poor, or disenfranchised. For those in power, there will surely be consternation. The prophets make it clear that YHWH will be found with those sorts of people [the fatherless, the foreigner, the widow, etc], not just those that just speak the right language or visit the right places or know the right people. It was, after all, YHWH's covenant with Abraham that set the social standard with Israel; you will be a nation that is blessed by God so that you may bless the entire world! Israel's God makes it clear that though He has not abandoned Israel, He will not compromise the tragectory of justice, righteousness, and holiness especially in light of a selfish, bloated, and unfeeling people.
We tend to love the prophet's message because it helps to create a world in which we want to live. It's redemptive and holy. God is taking the cause of the oppressed serious enough to see to it that those who are oppressing will get their due diligence. YES! The patterns of brokenness and exploitation will be confronted. That which is broken is being restored. All will be made right in the unjust and uncivil world. I like that message.
Then there's Jesus and the part where my patterns of brokenness are confronted as well.
Matthew 25:31-46 KNT
“When the son of man comes in his glory,” Jesus went on, “and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be assembled in front of him, and he will separate them from one another, like a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will stand the sheep at his right hand, and the goats at his left.
“Then the king will say to those on his right, ‘Come here, you people who my father has blessed. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world! Why? Because I was hungry and you gave me something to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger and you made me welcome. I was naked and you clothed me; I was sick and you looked after me; I was in prison and you came to me.’
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Master, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you a drink? When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and come to see you?’“Then the king will answer them, ‘I’m telling you the truth: when you did it to one of the least significant of my brothers and sisters here, you did it to me.’
“Then he will say to those on his left hand, ‘Get away from me! You’re accursed! Go to the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels! Why? Because I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat! I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink! I was a stranger and you didn’t welcome me; I was naked and you didn’t clothe me; I was sick and in prison and you didn’t look after me!’ “Then they too will answer, ‘Master, when did we see you hungry or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and didn’t do anything for you?’
“Then he will answer them, ‘I’m telling you the truth: when you didn’t do it for one of the least significant of my brothers and sisters here, you didn’t do it for me.’“And they will go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous will go into everlasting life.”
Once again we have God dealing with a people who refuse to understand the social implications of His sacred movement in this world. And, again there are consequences to a disobedient and obstinate people who refused to locate God correctly. I've been meditating lately on this question, "Are you serious, Jesus?" If so, there are huge implications for those of us who claim to be a part of this redemptive, Jesus-following movement.
Growing up fairly poor with a single mother and three siblings, this section of Scripture gives me an incredible amount of hope. It’s almost vindicating. Our struggles weren't ignored by God. Christ is on the side of the struggling mothers who are working to put food on the table. Christ is on the side of those who can't afford a coat in the midst of an unforgiving Northwest Indiana winter. Christ is with the lonely, the poor, the destitute.
There's another part of me (most of my 225-pound, 6'4" self) that is firmly located in my own selfishness. I don’t live in a trailer any longer. I have more than one coat in my closet. We get groceries every week and fill our cupboards, often with so much food that it expires before we can eat it. My life is accustomed to not going without much.
If Christ is serious, then should I not be the person that seeks to meet him in the faces of those oppressed and hungry and destitute? I'm often looking for a great sign in the sky to awaken my spiritual apathy, but what if He's located squarely in the people that will cost something to do life with? Stanley Hauerwas puts the charge rather plainly, "All people, whether they are Christians or not, know all they need to know to care for "the least of these." The difference between followers of Jesus and those who do not know Jesus is that those who have seen Jesus no longer have any excuse to avoid "the least of these.””
[Sorry, Dr. Hauerwas, I have an earned Ph.D. in excuse making. I lettered in it my senior year.]
It's a good question, though. Have I found excuses to ignore this teaching of Jesus? Was that Israel's problem as well?
I'm busy. (who isn't!)
I'm tired. (always!)
I already know a ton of people. (I do!)
This person smells (yes, I've said it!)
This person doesn't have much in common with me. (they don't even know Arcade Fire! Neanderthals!)
This person makes poor decisions. (unlike me, I'm perfect!)
This person requires something out of me. (sacrifice is great, when someone is doing it for me!)
It reminds me of what John Wesley wrote in one of his fine sermons [On Visiting the Sick, Sermon 98], "One great reason why the rich, in general, have so little sympathy for the poor, is, because they so seldom visit them. Hence it is, that, according to the common observation, one part of the world does not know what the other suffers. Many of them do not know, because they do not care to know: they keep out of the way of knowing it; and then plead their voluntary ignorances an excuse for their hardness of heart." John Dubya's not playing around, folks! We can avoid those people and situations that make us feel uncomfortable if we so choose.
Being skilled at avoidance, I can estabilish many reasons to not do life with the poor, widow, and orphan, finding ways to make these reasons seem like they don't come from a selfish place. Yet, deep down, I'm left wrestling with the seriousness of Christ's warning in Matthew and feeling that my avoidance does not come from a just or holy place. Avoidance rarely does.
[side note: it seems like so much time is spent in books and blogs arguing whether Paul truly wanted women to be silent in the assembly or the right interpretation of John's apocalyptic vision or the complexities of God's foreknowledge, yet I find such a small demographic concerned with whether Jesus was serious about His sermon on the mount or taking care of the poor, widow, and orphan. Why is that?]
Allow me to confess that part of my fascination and obsession with being a community with social initatives to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and love the lonely is that I fear what we will become if we don't. There's some eschatological uneasiness for me. Like Israel, my brokenness and selfishness is confronted in this teaching. Unlike the turnabouts that plague South Bend, there's no way for me to get around this. The orthopraxis seems evident. What if, after all, Jesus IS serious? What if James the Just is serious about proclaiming that the foundation to the religious life is found in caring for orphans and widows in their distress, and keeping oneself unstained by the world? What if?
What if I've been looking for Him in all the wrong places? Or, better yet, what if I've been looking for Him in the faces of all the wrong people? I'm serious.