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