Tuesday, April 28, 2020

In Which I Say Nothing About Ear Lobes, Thumbs, And Big Toes

As we continue our online "services" and "gatherings," I find myself wondering why we call our gatherings, services to begin with. That question led me to this post by Anthony Smith. His comments led me to work up this definition.
Just as the Lord called Israel out of Egypt to serve him, and just as the priests served by offering sacrifices, so now all believers serve as priests in offering the sacrifices of praise. We gather together to perform this service. (cf. Exod 10:3; Lev 7:35; 1 Pet 2:5; 1 Tim 2:1;  Heb 13:15)
We don't think of ourselves as preserving the Levitical-ritual tradition when we gather on Sunday morning. Maybe we sometimes think about the Psalmic-festival tradition; let us come into the house of the Lord, enter his gates with praise, that kind of thing. The closest we get to Leviticus is communion. Rather than making any blood sacrifice, we remember the only sufficient blood sacrifice.

I look forward to once again gathering physically in the same place to perform services. Or, perform might not be the best word. We don't want to hold performances and call them worship. Let's just say we long to gather together to serve.

Might we do well to soften the division between worship and service? Maybe we'd congratulate ourselves less if we called cleaning up the playground a worship project. Maybe we'd approach worship more seriously if we saw ourselves as Aaron's sons and daughters.

I'm saying nothing new here. It's only the idea that the servant on the back row should have the same spirit as the servant in the choir. We cannot make that happen. But, if we can do anything to make it more likely, our return to offline service gatherings would be great timing!

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Chuck Klosterman and Stanley Hauerwas at McDonald's (No, Not Really)

When you google Chuck Klosterman with Stanley Hauerwas, you don't find much besides Brett McCracken's description of Christian Hipsters (link below). To me, that's really weird. Then again, to me it's weird that people go to Starbucks. Still, the lack of Klosterman-Hauerwas dialogue on the internet is even weirder. So, here's an attempt to correct that deficiency, if by just a little.

I recently read something from Klosterman that I think Stan would appreciate. It's from the beginning of his report on eating nothing but McNuggetts for a week (several years before the Supersize Me documentary).
We are a nation obsessed.
American culture is nothing more than a pastiche of fixations. We are obsessed with health. We are obsessed with pleasure. We are obsessed with speed. We are obsessed with efficiency. In simplest terms, we are obsessed by the desire to accelerate every element of our existence in a futile attempt to experience as much life as we can in the shortest possible time. We have all entered a race to devour the largest volume of gratification before it kills us.
Keeping this in mind, I ate nothing but McDonald's Chicken McNuggets for seven straight days. (Chuck Klosterman IV: A Decade of Curious People and Dangerous Ideas, page 58)
This assessment reminds me of Stan's maxim on wanting to get out of life alive.
We live in a death-denying world that seems determined to develop technologies that will enable us to get out of life alive. Yet the more we strive to be free of death the more our lives are shaped by the death-determined means we create to try to free ourselves of death. Even more paradoxical, the means we use to free ourselves from death only serve to increase our isolation from one another. (Stanley Hauerwas, A Cross-Shattered Church Reclaiming the Theological Heart of Preaching, page 87)

Survive The Dollar Tree

Hauerwas considers healthor, at least staying aliveour greatest obsession. We might conflate their thoughts by saying Hauerwas defines Klosterman's gratification as survival. We want all the safety-health-security we can get our hands on or get out of anyone else's. We're even ok with it killing us so long as it keeps us alive. (a la Chris Carrabba, "I'll die in here just to be safe.")

Klosterman also connects our gratification-lust with the fragility of life. He begins and ends his followup to the McNuggets essay with the following comments:
Staying alive is complicated. It's the single most difficult thing every single person does every day. There is just so much in this wicked world that can kill us: cancer, avalanches, liver failure . . .
And life is dangerous. Like I said, staying alive is complicated. But I'll take my chances.

Something Else

So, what's the alternative, besides just taking our chances? For Hauerwas, it's the bread and wine.
The devil would have us remain fixated on death, but in sharing this meal [Eucharist] we learn to gaze upon Christ, who makes it possible to view our lives and deaths through the power of the resurrection. Death has been undone.
Klosterman reaches no comparable conclusion in his two-part McDonald's essay, and, granted, that wasn't his aim. Several years later, however, he said something that at least admits the possibility of life beyond staying alive until staying alive kills us.
There are so many things we don't know about energy, or the way energy is transferred, or why energy (which can't be created or destroyed) exists at all. We can't truly conceive the conditions of a multidimensional reality; even though we're (probably) already living inside one. We have a limited understanding of time, and of the possibility that all time is happening at once. So while it seems unrealistic to seriously consider the prospect of life after death, it seems equally na├»ve to assume that our contemporary understanding of this phenomenon is remotely complete. (But What If We're Wrong? Thinking About the Present As If It Were the Past, pages 11–12)
So Klosterman and Hauerwas agree that the popular understanding of death as the final end is at least possibly incorrect. That's a pretty solid starting place for conversation. They really should get a cup of coffee sometime—at McDonald's, not Starbucks.

Christian Hipsters

Follow the bikes to the book!

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

The Kingdom of God: Now, Or Later?

The kingdom of God keeps popping up. I don't mean that as a theological claim, but as a report on my work. For instance, when I taught a Sunday school lesson on Mark 2, I wondered about the following:
And he was preaching the word to them. (Mark 2:2b)
What was the word Jesus was preaching to them? In trying to answer that question, I landed on Mark 1:14–15 for my best guess.
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.”
And, so it seemed to go. A question would lead me to the kingdom of God, but, what is the kingdom of God?

Even coming from a tradition with no catechism, you might think I would've learned a standard answer to this question. If I was supposed to, I don't remember it. It's always been an idea that seemed obvious in its implication—that there is life as we know it, and there is something other, called the kingdom of God. But, to say there is something other, and to say what that something other is, are two different things.

The Rule and Reign of God

My church's senior pastor likes to say the kingdom of God is "the rule and reign of God in the hearts of his people." I may be splicing his definition with John Piper's. I don't disagree with this definition, but neither do I find it fully satisfying. (Granted, we'll likely get a fully satisfying definition for the kingdom of God as soon as we get one for the Trinity.) What I find lacking is some acknowledgment that the kingdom of God is not fully a here-and-now thing. It is in some regard a here-and-later thing.

Of course, that's just the older way of thinking—that the kingdom will come on a certain day in the future. Everyone will see it. There will be no denying it.

Ruling and Reigning for God?

On the other end of the spectrum we have the thought that, with the right social policies and what not we can bring the kingdom to fruition as soon as enough of us make it job one. This idea may draw support from passages like Matthew 13:33.
He told them another parable. “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened.”
The leaven is spreading continually. It's a gradual growth rather than an instant event. The Piper definition accommodates this idea. The kingdom comes gradually as God rules and reigns more and more in the hearts of more and more people. Still, there has to be a future element, right? Remember what Jesus says about the cup.
Truly, I say to you, I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God. (Mark 14:25)
That day cannot be this day, can it?

Crossing the River

Of course, the answer is both. The kingdom is already and not yet. Maybe you've heard that one before. We put our hope on the not yet and our hands on the already. We live with the tension. We take it one day at a time.

What About Right Now?

Oh, yeah, I almost forgot—coronavirus, pandemic, quarantine, all that. Where is the kingdom of God now? The leaven analogy speaks to that question. It's growing all the time, even when (especially when?) we don't see it. Each day is one day closer to that day, whether we're sitting down in groups of 50 or hiding in the upper room.


It just occurred to me that the children have already finished the school year—they're home for summerbut not yet completed it—they're still doing work. Ha!

Monday, April 6, 2020

Presence and Purpose: Reflecting On Pandemic Responses

Last week, a local pastor told me, "People are hungry right now." We're looking for voices we trust to say something meaningful in these days of disorientation. All of us are separated from people and places where we usually find meaningfulness.

Most of this post relates indirectly to that hunger. I've just been curious how certain influential voices would respond to this moment. Now that some of them have spoken, I'd like to share with you summations of their comments. Further below, I try to synthesize their thoughts and draw out something that relates more directly to our shared hunger. Here we go.

N. T. Wright 

Christianity Offers No Answers About the Coronavirus. It's Not Supposed To

Mansplaining Acts 9 to Tom Wright.
Professor Wright warns against adopting common answers to why our world has this pandemic. Instead, he promotes we recover the biblical practice of lament, which he defines as asking the question why, and not getting an answer.

Wright points us to the Psalms as the handbook on lament. He notes that God, too, laments—as when he observes the violence in Genesis 6; and as when Jesus weeps at the tomb of Lazarus.

He concludes that now is the time to wait; to focus on God's love wherever we can; and, to look for this challenging time to breed "new possibilities, new acts of kindness, new scientific understanding, new hope," and new wisdom for our leaders.

Walter Brueggemann

God's New Thing

In his brief comments, Brueggemann says God can be at work through the pandemic without being its cause. The crisis exposes our societal systems, usually thought to be unassailable. Breuggemann concludes with reasons for hope. He points out unusual measures of compassion in the midst of crisis. He hopes this heightened compassion will become the new normal, and he relates this hope to Isaiah 43:18–19.
“Remember not the former things,
nor consider the things of old.
Behold, I am doing a new thing;
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness
and rivers in the desert.

John Piper

Coronavirus and Christ

John Piper emphasizes God's hand in the onset of the virus. Like the other voices, Piper avoids guessing why God sent the coronavirus. Instead, he encourages us to trust that God knows why, and that God is always working for good.
The secret is this: Knowing that the same sovereignty that could stop the coronavirus and doesn’t, is the very sovereignty that sustains the soul in it. Indeed, more than sustains — sweetens with hope that, for those who trust him, his purposes are kind, even in death.
Piper says God is working—not just in the coronavirus—but by it. God has a purpose for it. Our role is to worship and cherish the One who purposes all things, even this.

Stanley Hauerwas

You're Not Accepted (Podcast), Episode 6

The brief conversation in Stan's recent appearance on You're Not Accepted is kind of all-over-the-place. He mostly laments the absence of gathering (physically) for worship.

When asked about God's whereabouts, Hauerwas warns against using God as an explanation. After that, I'm not sure I understood his response. He seemed to say we can't pick and choose what events God is behind and which ones he isn't. I think that's what he meant.

He said more clearly that to understand God's interaction in history we need to start with his choosing Israel. He also recommends reading the Psalms if we want to contemplate God's relationship to earthly events.

Can any fruit come from this crisis? Stan hopes that a universal problem will ultimately lead to unity in thanksgiving.

The Presence of God

The one thing these guys most agree on is the presence of God. Tom Wright sees it in the fellowship of lament. Brueggemann sees it in remarkable compassion. Piper sees it in the virus, itself. (Maybe that's unfair. Read his letter to judge for yourself.) Stan sees it in the possibility of everyone realizing we are all God's children. (He says that more expressly than I alluded to above.)

They disagree on the matter of whether God authored the virus and the crisis. Hauerwas rejects the question. Piper says yes. Brueggemann says we don't know, but God can work in it regardless. Wright hints that God instigated the virus, and encourages us to draw near to God in faith with our question of why—even while understanding God does not owe us an answer.

O Lord, Be Gracious to Us

What is the way forward here? One thing we can do is to remember that now is not the first end of the world as we know it. It frightens us. It's fresh. It's closer to home than historical crises of such magnitude. But, we have always known that God is present. He is working in the world. He is altogether good. His ways and thoughts are higher than ours.

The contributions surveyed above all engage one or more of the following: lament, Psalms, and Isaiah. All three have much to tell us at this time, and we find the influence of all three in this simple prayer.
O Lord, be gracious to us; we wait for you.
Be our arm every morning,
our salvation in the time of trouble. (Isaiah 33:2)