Friday, December 31, 2010

Looking Backwards and Forwards

It's the last day of the year 2010 and time to say goodbye to a bittersweet decade. The last ten years have brought us 9/11, the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the economic downturn of 2007, Facebook, the ubiquitous cell phone, climate change, natural disasters in Haiti, Indonesia, Pakistan, and China, and finally, global pandemics like SARS and H1N1. Governments have been changed through the peaceful process of elections (eg. Canada, USA, Great Britain, Ukraine, and Brazil). But civil war still rages in places like The Congo, Sudan, and Somalia.

Western Christianity has also changed radically. John Paul II died and Benedict XVI was elevated to take his place. While African, Asian and Southern Hemisphere churches grew rapidly, mainline church denominations in the West witnessed the dramatic loss of members and finances from internal struggles over issues pertaining to same sex marriage, physical and sexual abuse, and environmental neglect. On the intellectual front, the so-called "New Atheists" led by prominent scientists and thinkers like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and others denigrated religious thought as both ignorant and dangerous. Evangelical churches continued to debate the place of Scripture, build new buildings and move into areas using the latest technologies.

However,   a re-examination of what church is about has also led to the formation of new spiritually grounded communities embedded in socially and economically deprived areas, a return to ancient patterns of worship, and a greater appreciation for creation care. Social responsibility, a sense of adventure and a willingness to endure privation for the greater good has led many to change careers and pursue spiritually fulfilling vocations. New ideas and a renewed vision have led to renewed energy and mission.

Young people are faced with a rapidly changing world in which the traditional patterns of work and reward are no longer assured and the assumptions of meaning and traditional values within an ordered and privileged society no longer obtain. And yet there is an optimism which I find exciting and hopeful! As a dear older friend said last weekend as we contemplated the changing times and the place of our children in them, there are so many positive and wholesome choices being made in the face of great temptation and cynicism by our young people, that we cannot help but be hopeful about the future. If we as churches will listen and be open to changing the wineskins, the wine will not only remain but it will also get better.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Christmas Poetry


This is no time for a child to be born,
With the earth betrayed by war & hate
And a comet slashing the sky to warn
That time runs out & the sun burns late.

That was no time for a child to be born,
In a land in the crushing grip of Rome;
Honour & truth were trampled by scorn --
Yet here did the Saviour make his home.

When is the time for love to be born?
The inn is full on the -planet earth,
And by a comet the sky is torn--
Yet Love still takes the risk of birth.

Madeleine L'Engle


All after pleasures as I rid one day,
       My horse and I, both tired, body and mind,
       With full cry of affections, quite astry;
I took up in the next inn I could find.
There when I came, whom found I but my dear,
       My dearest Lord, expecting till the grief
       O pleasures brought me to him, ready there
To be all passengers' most sweet relief?
O Thou, whose glorious, yet contracted light,
       Wrapped in night's mantle, stole into a manger;
       Since my dark soul and brutish is thy right,
To Man of all beasts be not thou a stranger:
        Furnish and deck my soul, that thou may'st have
        A better lodging, than a rack, or grave.

The shepherds sing; and shall I silent be?
                          My God, no hymn for thee?
My soul's a shepherd too; a flock it feeds
                          Of thoughts, and words, and deeds.
The pasture is thy word: the streams, thy grace
                          Enriching all the place.
Shepherd and flock shall sing, and all my powers
                          Out-sing the day-light hours.
Then we will chide the sun for letting night
                          Take up his place and right:
We sing one common Lord; wherefore he should
                          Himself the candle hold.
I will go searching, till I find a sun
                          Shall stay, till we have done;
A willing shiner, that shall shine as gladly,
                          As frost-nipped suns look sadly,
Then we will sing, and shine all our own day,
                          And one another pay:
His beams shall cheer my breast, and both so twine,
Till ev'n his beams sing, and my music shine.

George Herbert, The Temple

Monday, December 13, 2010

Anabaptist View of the History of the Church

It is not hard to sympathize with the 16th century Anabaptist impulse to write off more than a thousand years of church history. The Anabaptist reformers looked back to the pre-Constantinian era in which the church as a persecuted diaspora engaged in unprecedented mission activity as a source for inspiration and imitation. In his latest magnum opus, Diarmaid MacCulloch's has written a comprehensive history of  Christianity from its Hebrew origins to its present expansion throughout the developing world. His monumental Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years is a fascinating and yet somewhat dispiriting history of Christianity. It is fascinating in the sense that the history of Christianity is peopled with characters of all kinds, from the merely venal to the pious to the utterly diabolical. All this is the stuff of humanity and humanity is inherently fascinating. From saints to villains, from monks to kings, from women to men, the "rogues' gallery" of the Christian church compares with any other religion. No, the church through the ages described here never was the fellowship of the pure nor the remnant of the righteous no matter what the intentions of pious individuals were. That is not the dispiriting element about MacCulloch's book. What is dispiriting to me is his description of the cynical use of power and position by the crown and ruling class to co-opt the church in their quest for influence, prestige and power. Not only that but then the Church then develops its theology and church government as a way of enlarging its own political, economic and spiritual domination over not only nations and rulers but over the simple peasants who looked to it for spiritual direction and hope. The Church learned its lessons well. MacCulloch's description of the medieval church and the development of sacramental theology to extend the grip of the clergy into every facet of one's life suggests a calculating, power-hungry institution. Even the "heroes" I had in Christian history, Augustine of Hippo, Jerome, Gregory the Great, seemed to have less charity then I remember.

I can well imagine the Anabaptists, the spiritual "step-children" of Luther, Zwingli and Calvin looking at the incredible edifice of the Church and wondering how in God's name that beast grew out of the words and life of Jesus. No wonder there arose the hue and cry to return to the Scriptures. Anabaptists believed that the Scriptures should be read in a thorough-going way in which not only one's spiritual destiny was addressed but also one's life. They wanted not the "half-hearted" readings of the other Reformers which stopped before the level of praxis, leaving ecclesial power still concentrated in the hands of the state and spiritual power in the hands of the clergy. Rather they wanted a deep and wholistic reading which took the claims of Jesus seriously and offered a new vision of the spiritual life, the life of a disciple following Jesus. Of course, the Anabaptists weren't entirely successful either. Their spirituality was not pristine; far from it. But their call to return to the documents of the origins of Christian faith, the Christian Scriptures, was long overdue and it is a call which I maintain still echoes today.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Atonement and Punishment

The Confession of Faith from a Mennonite Perspective (CFMP) has not included any notion of punishment in its understanding of atonement (Article 8. Salvation). While the consequences of sin are death and separation from God, punishment for sin is not seen as a prime cause for the need for atonement. We are our own agents of punishment, refusing to accept God's gracious invitation and provision for reconciliation, thereby dooming ourselves to eternal separation from God. As well, I find it noteworthy that neither "the wrath of God" or God's holiness are mentioned in this article. It is the love of God that draws the sinner and the reconciling work of Christ which redeems the believer. This process is called "the new birth." We were once enemies of God but God was and is never our enemy. Any response other than a loving response by God is seen as" God taking revenge" as the explanatory note four under the article indicates. God's only desire is that we respond to his love and receive the new life promised to us by Christ redeeming work on the cross.

Peter Berger in his celebrated little book entitled Rumors of Angels describes five signals of transcendence which naturally orient humankind toward some aspect of transcendent reality, a greater being, life after death, etc. One of these signals is punishment and the possibility of punishment after death. It satisfies the intrinsic human need for justice and the potential for an appropriate response to heinous evil. On an emotional level,  there is I believe an appropriate human desire for at least some proportionate response to genocide and mass murder. Eternal punishment as God's holy response to evil and people who commit overtly evil acts goes at least some way to address this issue. The inclusion of punishment in the theology of atonement at least attests to the severity of evil. The Mennonite response in recent times has been to refer to the Amish people extending their forgiveness to the gunman responsible for the Nickle Lake, Pennsylvania killings of the young defenseless Amish school-girls. Is this enough?

Friday, December 3, 2010

Books on Sermons

I'm not sure how many pastors like or read books of sermons but I do. Some of my favourite writers of sermons are Stanley Hauerwas, Herbert McCabe, Rowan Williams, N. T. Wright, Barbara Brown Taylor and Frederick Buechner. But two I've recently come across are also high on my list. Speaking the Truth: Preaching in a Pluralistic Culture by Samuel Wells and The Word in Small Boats: Sermons from Oxford by Oliver O'Donovan are excellent collections from two scholars at their rhetorical and prophetic best. Samuel Wells is the Research Professor of Christian Ethics at Duke University and the Dean of Duke Chapel. Presently at the University of Edinburgh, Oliver O'Donovan was for many years the Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology at Oxford University and a Canon of Christchurch.

At the moment I'm finishing Samuel Wells' volume and I've decided the the sheer oddness of it is why I like it. Having heard variants on the "Three Point Sermon" for most of my life, Wells comes as a significant exponent of "narrative preaching." His eye for details, his creativity in speaking to culture and the ability to hear "the strangeness of Scripture" is a tonic to preachers who sometimes feel jaded or recycle old ideas. Moreover, as a primer to Wells' theology, I can think of no better or accessible a book.

This being Advent, here is a sample of Wells' sermon on Matthew's account of the virgin birth of Christ.

   "The Bible is the story of salvation, but it starts with the story of creation that we call Genesis. The Gospel is the story of salvation but it begins with the story of creation that Matthew calls "genesis."
   What that word genesis means is that the conception of Jesus is the beginning of all things. Not chronologically, maybe, but the conception of Jesus names God's decision never to be except to be for us in Christ - and that decision is the beginning of all creation. of all life, of all salvation, of everything that matters. And so we see that creation itself is a kind of virgin birth because it was creation from nothing, and it was brought about by the Holy Spirit. And the virgin birth is a new creation - or perhaps even the original creation - because it, too, is brought about in some ways out of nothing, by the action of the Holy Spirit, although this time, gloriously, with a woman at the center of God's action. We have been brought out of nothing to be made for relationship with God, and God has made a home among us to unite our hearts with his. Creation is a virgin birth. A virgin birth is creation. As we say in North America, "How about that?"
   Maybe it's time believing in the virgin birth came into fashion."

Samuel Wells, "The Action of God and Miracle" in Speaking the Truth

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Orthodoxy, Chesterton, and Hyperbole

I've just finished rereading Gilbert Keith Chesterton's justly famous Orthodoxy in time for our book club. Again, what a wonderful experience! Chesterton's enthusiasms and "extraordinary" writing style make this little exercise in apologetics an experience one can't forget. The image I get from the book is the good knight Sir Gilbert, mounted on his steed, looking for dragons to slay, and when he thinks he's found one, it's a hoop and a holler, a big belly laugh and on to the battle. Chesterton loves the thrust and parry of debate and it shows by the grandiose language and nothing left half-said approach that he uses.

For the most part I am sympathetic to his larger agenda which is to speak for a world which is congruent with the claims of Christian doctrine. This world is created, flawed, in need of salvation and offers clues to the reality of transcendence, clues which in turn give witness to God. The "modern" alternatives such as evolution, scientific rationalism, progress, and pragmatism, are dead ends, unable to deliver what they claim: individual free will, rational thought, salvation, and freedom. For Chesterton, it is only the Christianity which delivers all that humanity desires and needs and more besides. (Note the idea of "joy" which echoed throughout C.S. Lewis' account of his own turn to Christian faith in Surprised by Joy.

And yet there the places where I take great exception to Chesterton's tone. For example, Chesterton's unbridled appreciation of Christendom and his enthusiasm for Empire wear a little thin in the light of subsequent historical analysis. He is patronizing, arrogant, somewhat racist (in that imperial British superior way), and sometimes cruel, especially to proponents of alternative points of view. But he is always cheerful! When I read sublime passages like the one which concludes the book, I am ready to forgive (almost) all.

"Joy, which was the small publicity of the pagan, is the gigantic secret of the Christian. And as I close this chaotic volume I open again the strange small book from which all Christianity came; and I am again haunted by a kind of confirmation. The tremendous figure which fills the Gospels towers in this respect, as in every other, above all the thinkers who ever thought themselves tall. His pathos was natural, almost casual. The Stoics, ancient and modern, were proud of concealing their tears. He never concealed His tears; He showed them plainly on his open face at any daily sight, such as the far sight of His native city. Yet he concealed something. Solemn supermen and imperial diplomatists are proud of restraining their anger. He never restrained His anger. He flung furniture down the front steps of the Temple, and asked men how they expected to escape the damnation of Hell. Yet He restrained something. I say it with reverence; there was in that shattering personality a thread that must be called shyness. There was something that he hid from all men when he went up the mountain to pray. There was something that He covered constantly by abrupt silence or impetuous isolation. There was some one thing that was too great for God to show us when He walked upon our earth; and I have sometime fancied that it was His mirth."
                                                                                                     G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Reflections on cross-culturalism in film: "Cooking with Stella" directed by Dilip Mehta

Having recently seen the movie "Water" written and directed by the Indo-Canadian director Deepa Mehta, I looked forward to seeing "Cooking with Stella" this time co-written by Deepa along with her brother Dilip who also directed it. Set in New Delhi, the movie's premise is the clash of cultures which begins when a young couple from Canada flies in to New Delhi's Canadian embassy to begin a new diplomatic posting and moves into the Canadian government housing where Stella happens to be employed as their new cook and housekeeper. I was not very impressed by the story or by the acting but I came away from the movie asking a number of questions. For example, why do movies or books tend to trade in stereotypes even when the audience should and usually does know better? Are the new and developing relationships between countries of differing economic development always predicated on what one or the other can get away with? Do the new relationships between developed and developing countries necessarily involve a clash of ethics? Put differently, is stealing always stealing, or lying always lying? And just because people can afford to lose money or possessions, is stealing them then justified? The director Dilip Mehta describes this film as being "very iron fist in a velvet glove." I just found it tedious and driven by stereotypes. I also felt sorry for Maury Chaykin, a wonderful character actor, who recently passed away. I hope this was not his last film.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Atonement Theology in the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective

The first impression I get from reading Article 8 is that none of the atonement models is given primacy of place. The Christ-as-Victor model describes the victory of Christ over the powers and forces of evil and death which have enslaved humanity. The Substitutionary model describes the debt owed by humanity now paid for by Christ’s sacrificial death on our behalf. The Moral-Influence model suggest the example of Jesus as inspiring humanity to receive and live out the love and grace of God in the new life opened for them. Each of these three types is given a positive role to play in describing the dimensions of Christ’s atonement for humanity. While each by itself is insufficient to describe the immensity of atonement, together they form a fully-orbed description of what Christ achieved on the cross. Thus the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective (CFMP) attempts to steer a middle course between the Scylla of doctrinaire conservative fundamentalism and the Charybdis of sentimental liberalism, preserving the Anabaptist notion of the Atonement as having both objective and subjective aspects. This all-inclusive quality results in what Robert Friedman described as the effect of not just declaring us righteous but also, through the new birth, making us righteous. Not only is our salvation achieved by Christ’s “alien” work, it is made effective by the “creative” work of the Spirit transforming the inner person.

A second impression is that the Spirit’s work of transformation corresponds quite closely to the more traditional doctrine of sanctification which both Luther and Calvin articulated in their theological writings. For both Luther and Calvin though the difference was that the effects of atoning work of Christ could be separated into distinct aspects conceptually even if not existentially into justification and sanctification. For the Anabaptist/Mennonite tradition, however, the two aspects were inseparable from the outset. To be justified meant to be made righteous. In Anabaptist/Mennonite theology, to separate the two could lead to indifference in the life of the believer and, more seriously, to a reliance on the “objective” work of Christ on the cross to the neglect of discipline and discipleship in one’s response to follow the call of Jesus.

The third impression I have regarding this Article 8 is that the omission of the penal substitutionary model of the atonement is deliberate. There is no mention of the wrath of God which needs to be appeased or some quid pro quo arrangement of a perfect sacrifice to be made in exchange for humanity to escape the finality of death and everlasting punishment of hell. The biblical texts which have been used to describe this view are nowhere in sight. In fact, there is no mention of hell at all. The atonement frees humanity from sin, death and the powers of evil, but not from hell.


Monday, October 18, 2010

Book and Movie Night at Covenant

Our church congregation had its annual Book and Movie Night last Friday. Each of those who come together for the evening are asked to share one book title and one movie title which has significantly impacted them over the past year. In previous years I have shared books like Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, Gilead and Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson, and Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky. This year I chose two: Home by Marilynne Robinson and Hannah's Child by Stanley Hauerwas.

Marilynne Robinson is such an intelligent writer! She writes with deep understanding of the male psyche and the nature of family dynamics. Home is a sequel of sorts to Gilead. A retelling of the Parable of the Prodigal Son, Home is a study of the relationships of a father with his children and the many ways he can (and often does) burden them with lifelong burdens and neuroses. Things said and unsaid, expectations met and unmet, events explained and unexplained, and hopes realized and unrealized, all combine to leave this family demoralized and estranged in spite of the best intentions of everyone. I was challenged as a parent to reflect on my own practice of parenting and the many things that may or may not add to the burdens my children have to carry. For a child to emerge unscathed from a family even if the parents are well-intentioned is quite a miracle. And yet the novel is not hopeless . There is a lot of forgiveness in the book and more is needed at the end but who knows, maybe...And so I continue to hope and pray.

Hannah's Child is Stanley Hauerwas's autobiography. Full of insight into Stanley's character and iconoclastic theological writings, Hannah's Child is never dull. The threadof his own personal life weaves its way through his theological development and career. Names are dropped, friends and influences warmly embraced, and personal pain and suffering unstintingly shared. I enjoyed it immensely not only as Stanley's attempt at self-explanation but also as a tribute to the way in which the church is called to be the church sometimes from within and sometimes from without. Stanley was (is) one of those rare gifts to the church in which God's use of an unlikely instrument brings renewed vision and hope.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Mennonite atonement theology

As I said in an earlier post, I propose to examine different atonement theologies in light of the Confession of Faith from a Mennonite Perspective. The statements from the C(onfession) of F(aith) from a M(ennonite) P(erspective) are contained in Article 8 "Salvation". They read: "God so loved the world that, in the fullness of time, God sent his Son, whose faithfulness unto death on the cross has provided the way of salvation for all people. By his blood shed for us, Christ inaugurated the new covenant. He heals us, forgives our sins, and delivers us from the bondage of evil and from those who do evil against us. By his death and resurrection, he breaks the powers of sin and death, cancels our debt of sin, and opens the ways to new life. We are saved by God's grace, not by our own merits."

In the commentary, the explanation given for human appropriation of salvation turns on a particular interpretation of the phrase "justification by faith." This justification by faith is "reckoned" to humankind as salvation by its experience as a covenantal relationship with God. The faithfulness is God's, not ours. The just or righteous person has received the offer (of salvation), lives according to (the terms of the new) covenant, and trusts in God's faithfulness. The justification by faith and obedience to the (new) covenant are sides of the same coin. They are inseparable. A second image is used to interpret the experience of salvation and is described as "the new birth." The new birth signifies the change one experiences when salvation occurs. Through sin, human beings became children of the devil and forfeited their identity as children of God. Through salvation, human beings are "born again" and adopted into the family of God.

In an earlier section of the commentary, three views of atonement are given as forming the substance of the Mennonite atonement theology: the Christus Victor model, the substitutionary atonement model, and the moral-influence view. All three are seen to be integral to the overall theology of the Mennonite perspective. None are predominant but all say something important about the nature of Christ's atoning work. I will look further at what each says in the next post.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Homily – September 12, 2010

Text: I Timothy 1: 12-17

For all of its supposed benefits, the cult of the individual has eroded many of the commonly-held values of western society. Rowan Williams, in his book, Lost Icons: Reflections on Cultural Bereavement, has described three of these values, childhood and choice, charity, and remorse, and suggested that at the turn of the millennium, we are the poorer for it. As a society, he states, we have lost something of our humanity over the last few decades, leaving in its place, pain and suffering. We are he says, lost souls. Love, the willingness to risk, the desire to be present to one another in speech and act have in many ways been lost. “Lost souls: that is what the “lost icons” of the title point to. The skills have been lost of being present for and in an other, and what remains is mistrust and violence.” (Rowan Williams) Mistrust and violence. Such is the consequence of the gradual erosion of the self which we now find at the turn of the millenium.
Individualism has developed to its present state over the course of many years. Some attribute this development to religion. For example, the Reformation emphasized the importance of the individual in matters of faith and the need for personal decision. Others have located the problem within the recent development of social structures themselves, which have turned persons into consumers or objects and emptied them of moral capacity or standing. Whatever its cause, the fact remains that individualism as a social phenomenon is a significant presence among us within the church. And yes, its cumulative effect on society and the church has been mostly negative. But I want, today, to suggest that there is a way to think of the individual in a more positive light and that is the way St. Paul does in this his first letter to his young protégé, Timothy.

Our text is located in the beginning of 1Timothy. Paul aim in writing this letter is to instruct Timothy on how to approach those in Ephesus who presume to be teachers of the gospel but are in fact leading their followers back into a slavery of sorts. They advocate a return and diligent following of the law. Paul saw the danger and reminded Timothy of it. The law may be a way to discern sin, Paul says, but it is not a way to offer new life. The only way to do that is through Christ which is the heart of the Gospel. Using himself as an example, Paul says that the message of salvation is based on mercy, the boundless mercy of God who in Christ came into the world to save sinners “of whom I am the foremost.” Paul remembers out loud what that meant. “A blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence.” Even then Paul gratefully acknowledges that through Christ he (Paul) he was adjudged to be faithful and worthy of appointment to the service of God.

Note that Paul uses the words “I” or “me” 12 times in these few verses. It might seem that Paul is exaggerating the importance of his individual self. But exactly the opposite is true. Rather than put himself forward as the paragon of virtue or the pre-eminent example of true discipleship, Paul describes himself as the foremost recipient of God’s grace and mercy. In other words, Paul would have you think that “no one needed saving like I needed saving.” And why does he do this? So that others would see the grace of God in him and thereby be encouraged to seek God’s grace and mercy themselves.

And so in the remainder of this letter he is offering these instructions to Timothy so that he too can realize the fulfillment of God’s call on his life just as Paul understood them to be the foundation of his own calling. As Paul writes in verse 16, so that Jesus Christ “might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life.” Paul is an example to Timothy; Timothy is now to become an example to those in the church.

Our text is Paul’s way of saying, “let your life speak" (to adapt the well-known title of Parker Palmer’s book of the same name). By modeling the mercy and grace of Christ, your life is a witness to the saving work of Christ. By being the undeserving recipient of God’s salvation, you are a sign of hope to the world around you. Let your life and words testify to the gracious love of God. Just as the shepherd leaves the safe 99 sheep and looks for the lost 1 until it is found, so God looks for the one sinner who repents. Just like the woman who loses 1 silver coin but still has the other 9, will carefully sweep and clean her house until she has found it. Yes, the many are important but the one is just as important.

Yes God has come to save the world; but God has also come to save me and you. That is why we continue to search out the unlovely, the lost, the street person, the hurting one, the one who hurts others. We seek them out one by one because God sought us out one by one. The other person is equally deserving of God’s love because we, each of us, has been loved. And because each of us is loved, we have been welcomed into God’s family where the “me” turns into an “us” and we are not alone any more.

I spoke earlier of a loss of childhood, charity and remorse in contemporary society. All of these values and others as well have contributed to a loss of the recognition of ourselves in the faces of others. We personally turn evermore inward and increasingly see people around us as impersonal abstractions. It is only as we begin to understand that it is a personal God who has come in the person of Jesus Christ, who bids me to come and follow him and then immerses me in grace and mercy such that I am able to say Yes to God’s Yes, that I will be able to look at my neighbours, see myself and Jesus in their faces and say God’s yes to them, showing them the grace and mercy offered to me, and so begin the journey of faith with them in the company of our Lord Jesus Christ. Thus we also say with Paul: To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honour and glory for ever and ever. Amen.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The End of Summer

For me the end of summer came today. The reality that both my children have not only left the home but also the province, the sobering realization that the weather is cooler, the leaves are changing colour and the garden is spent, and the noise of school children on their way to school have all left the indelible conclusion that summer is over. Not that that is a bad thing, in and of itself. Rather, it is more of a sadness or wistfulness which distance between loved ones and the passing of the joyful colours of spring and summer invites.

But there is also the pride and joy which accompanies the wistfulness in seeing the younger generation moving forward with skill and purpose toward their own place in the world. There is much in the world that needs attention. May they find their niche and place to share their gifts and themselves.


Some ask the world
       and are diminished
in the receiving
       of it. You gave me

only this small pool
       that the more I drink
from, the more overflows
       me with sourceless light
                          -R. S. Thomas

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Atonement Theology in the Church

Recently I engaged in an internet conversation with other Mennonite pastors over the issue of atonement theology and evangelism. The responses were significant and not surprising. Most had real trouble with the substitutionary penal model. A simplistic rendering of this approach is that because God hates sin, God's wrath and judgment are directed toward that which is sin or sinful. Humankind sinned at the beginning by disobeying God's commandment and thereby comes under God's wrath and judgment. Jesus' death turns God's wrath away from sinful humanity by taking the penalty of human sin, which is death, upon himself and absorbing God's punishment in the place of humankind thereby reconciling humankind with God.

There was a strong reaction against this notion of the appeasement of an angry God. For some, it suggests that God needs to be placated like a divine and arbitrary bully and therefore pastorally difficult to apply positively to those coming from abusive or self-destructive backgounds.  Others saw it as contrary to a non-violent God whose love for humankind is expressed in Jesus' action of self-sacrifice. And for others there was too much of an individualistic sense about it outside of the community of faith, and an 'alien' work of God as it were, a forensic declaration but not a transforming reality. As Robert Friedmann would describe it in his book A Theology of Anabaptism, too much 'gerechterklaerung' and not enough 'gerechtmachung.'

In the next number of posts, I hope to write more about the atonement in the Anabaptist/Mennonite context.  Books like J. Denny Weaver's A Non-violent Atonement and Scot McKnight's A Community Called Atonement are recent attempts to address these issues. Other models such as the 'Christus Victor' or the 'Exemplar' models have also been advanced recently and have distinguished theological and historical pedigrees. How can we engage in this conversation profitably and without tearing ourselves apart? Next post I propose to look at the Confession of Faith from a Mennonite Perspective.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

One of the facts of life is that I'm getting older. For those who insist that "we're not getting older", we're getting better", I beg to differ. Take two titans of the 20th century, both of whom lived to a grand old age - Leo Tolstoy and Winston Churchill. I've recently seen two films, The Last Station, a story of the last days of Leo Tolstoy who is played powerfully by Christopher Plummer, and The Gathering Storm, the more-or-less historical account of the years leading to World War II and the ascent to power of Winston Churchill played to perfection by Albert Finney. Politically, there is little in common between them: Tolstoy is an anarchist and Churchill is a Tory. But in other ways there is much similarity: both have incredibly large egos; both are beastly to their wives and their families; both are unremittingly selfish and both have objectionable personal habits. Other then that, they have a vivid sense of their place in history and an near-mystical appreciation of the responsibility they have to fulfill. I enjoyed both films very much. But I disliked the faint conclusion that getting old means becoming unreasonable or insufferable. Perhaps these presentations serve a purpose when they remind me that fame, fortune or power is never an excuse to become an angry, frustrated and unreasonable old man.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Here Goes Nothing!

To begin my foray into the blogosphere, here are two poems by the wonderful Welsh poet, R.S. Thomas:

            The Musician

A memory of Kreisler once:
At some recital in this same city,
The seats all taken, I found myself pushed
On to the stage with a few others,
So near that I could see the toil
Of his face muscles, a pulse like a moth
Fluttering under the fine skin
And the indelible veins of his smooth brow.

I could see, too, the twitching of the fingers,
Caught temporarily in art's neurosis,
As we sat there or warmly applauded
This player who so beautifully suffered
For each of us upon his instrument.

So it must have been on Calvary
In the fiercer light of the thorns' halo:
The men standing by and that one figure,
The hands bleeding, the mind bruised but calm,
Making such music as lives still.
And no one daring to interrupt
Because it was himself that he played
And closer than all of them the God listened.


Yes, that's how I was,
I know that face,
That bony figure
Without grace
Of flesh or limb;
In health happy,
Careless of the claim
Of the world's sick
Or the world's poor;
In pain craven -
Lord, breathe once more
On that sad mirror,
Let me be lost
In the mist for ever
Rather than own
Such bleak reflections,
Let me go back
On my two knees
Slowly to undo
The knot of life
That was tied there.