Tuesday, January 27, 2009
David Kelsey, a theologian on faculty at Yale Divinity School, has written a tremendous little book entitled, Imagining Redemption. He does not use the word imagine in the sense that many think of it as it relates to the ability to create fiction. What he means by imagining is to be able to see the world and our lives through the lens of God's redemptive promise. He wrote the book because he wanted to bring powerful theological ideas to bear on the messy and ugly situations that we find ourselves in. He urges that each of us needs to learn to recognize what we need redeeming from and then begin to imagine what God's redemptive promise can mean for us in the midst of the mess. More specifically, he exhorts us to to imagine what difference Jesus can make to us in this world in the midst of our messy lives while pointing out that far too often we think of redemption as mainly what awaits us in the world to come.
One important point that Kelsey brings out in his discussion is that part of growing in the knowledge and grace of Jesus Christ entails growing in our ability to imagine the world and our lives as the landscape of God's redemptive actions. He suggests that we need an interpretive guide, a kind of heuristic, in order to be able to see the world in this way. For instance, when we look at the evil that is still loose in the world - that we are sometimes profoundly impacted by and sometimes participate in - it can be hard to see the world or our lives as pregnant with God's redemptive promise. All we can see is hopelessness: a hopelessness that can come to distort our identities. Kelsey makes the helpful point that the resurrected Jesus Christ is present in our lives at all times and that he is the embodiment of God's redemptive promise; hence, God's redemptive promise is present to us, lovingly, as we go through the dark storms that otherwise look hopeless. Here is my silly illustration of what it is like to imagine Jesus' presence with us as God's redemptive promise. More than once or twice I have been in a coffee shop that is new to me and noticed something going on behind the scenes with the baristas at the espresso machine. From a distance, in line, it looks as if they are confused, don't know what they are doing, bickering even, as they pack the espresso, pull shot after shot, and then pour each one down the drain. Meanwhile the line lengthens and customers become impatient wondering when these incompetents will actually make someone a drink. However, as an espresso nut I can see from the back of the line that what they are doing is adjusting the grind, through a certain degree of trial and error, in order for the shots to come out the way they should. What looks like chaos to some looks like hope to me because I know that they know the difference between a shot well pulled and the alternative. I see something some others do not.
When we experience the horrors of evil and observe horrific events we can either see all of it as irredeemable or we can learn, through the lens of the gospel, to see these events in the context of what God has done, is doing, and will do through the person of Jesus; for, Jesus was a human being who experienced chaotic, horrendous evil but received God's redemptive promise of resurrection. To put it in the words of the creed:
"For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures"
So, Jesus comes to us in the midst of what needs to be redeemed as God's promise of redemption, bridging this world with the fully redeemed world to come and setting our lives in a new context. Because he knows these truths often remain too abstract for us to think about them in mundane categories Kelsey teaches this in his book in the context of the life of a family who underwent horrendous suffering. Here is a bit of their story as told by Kelsey:
"Just as he turned eight, a boy I will call Sam became totally paralyzed and spent three months on a respirator in a coma. The rest of the year he spent in a children’s rehabilitation hospital. He emerged with minor brain damage, learning disabilities, complex emotional problems and severe behavioral problems.
Under the strain of trying to cope with Sam, the family began to disintegrate. His mother suffered a psychotic break and was briefly hospitalized. At first when she returned home she was very depressed. Because neither the public school system nor his family could manage him, when he was 12 Sam was placed in the first of a series of residential schools that combined academics with programs of behavior modification. Several weeks after Sam’s mother returned home from the hospital her depression lifted enough that she felt she could take a part-time secretarial job. She continued in the care of a very able psychiatrist and seemed to be managing increasingly well. Then she killed herself.
Twelve-year-old Sam was certain that his mother had committed suicide because she was upset by his bad behavior that, he believed, had caused him to be sent away to school. He began acting out in dangerous ways, was deemed suicidal himself and was placed in a children’s psychiatric hospital. He lived there, attending the hospital school and fortunately being helped by a skillful therapist, until he was 15. The mother’s suicide, of course, was also deeply traumatic, if in less dramatic ways, for Sam’s two sisters and his father."
Over the years the family became to see their lives as defined by these horrible tragedies. Their identities became one with what had happened to them. Something that each of us would probably do if in their shoes. Kelsey goes on with the story and gently teaches us that seeing one's life in this way is a distortion and puts us in a situation where we do not acknowledge properly the redemptive presence of Jesus. Again, Kelsey:
"A problem with defining personal identity in the way Sam and his father do is that it distorts one’s identity by binding it to horrible situations in the past. The problem lies not so much with the horror as with the pastness. If what justifies one’s life and shows that it is indeed worth living is surviving a set of horrendous events, then everything that happens later and everything one does later must be interpreted and shaped by reference to those past events. One’s future is defined by, and so is in bondage to, an event in the past.
So, for example: As Sam slowly becomes more capable of managing his owi~ affairs, he still cannot allow himself to live more autonomously because of who he is. He has defined his identity as that of one made dependent on others by his disabilities. When possibilities arise that could expand the range of his life, he leaves them unexplored because they don’t fit his definition of who he is. When he gets part-time jobs for which he longs, he sooner or later sabotages himself by faking seizures. Although he wants to work the way everybody else does, and looks forward to the little bit of extra income it brings in, working does not fit his definition of himself as a person disabled by horrendous events. After a certain number of seizure episodes, his employers always let him go.
Sam shows some artistic talent. But when he is admitted to the school system’s adult education art class, he fakes seizures and is asked not to enroll again. He lives as though he must keep his self-definition as a survivor of horrendous events continually in the public eye. His old identity must not be eclipsed by the appearance of a new identity as "ordinary worker" or "talented young adult." As he matures in his ability to make and keep friends Sam does not form a social network for himself, for it is essential to his identity that he is one who has lost family. "Lacking a support system" is part of his identity.
So too with Sam’s father. Even when in young adulthood Sam’s life is supported and structured by a network of social agencies, his father continues to organize his own life in such a way that everything else is arranged around the edges of his perceived responsibility for Sam. Being endlessly responsible for Sam defines who he is.
Neither Sam nor his father could imagine or allow any new joyful event, any new creative accomplishment, any new friendship to be more definitive of who he is than the terrible events to which his identity has been bound by definition. Theirs are distorted identities, frozen in time and closed to growth."
For me, the most helpful point that Kelsey makes in his book is that we often lack the sanctified imagination to be able to focus our hopes on "the difference that Jesus makes" in our lives here and now - in the midst of the messiness of working out our salvation in a fallen world. Here is Kelsey again:
"The difference that Jesus in his passion can make to Sam’s and his father’s distorted personal identities can.... be imagined in terms of "the fellow sufferer" if we follow the Evangelists’ description of Jesus’ personal identity. It is important to stress that God’s fellow suffering in, through and under Jesus’ passion is not just God’s way of understanding what we go through. It is God’s own odd way of going about loving us, God’s concrete act of loving us in the midst of the most terrible circumstances we can go through. It is just that love that can redeem personal identities like Sam’s and his father’s from their distorting bondage to past events, for it is God’s love for them that grounds the worth of their lives. Neither the excellence of what they do as measured by some set of rules nor their awesome survival of horrifying events can do that. It is only God’s concrete act of loving them in the midst of the most appalling situations that makes their lives worth living. That alone can justify the time, space and resources they take up in living."
Questions for discussion:
1. Can you think of ways in which your identity has been distorted by events of the past in subtle or profound ways?
2. Can you imagine how God's redemptive presence to you in the person of Jesus can help you be open to the future in a redemptive way?
3. Does this discussion help you think about you relate to other people who also need to experience God's redemptive presence? How does it help you sympathize with them?
Monday, January 19, 2009
This Sunday we came specifically to the topic of redemption. In the meditation which led us to the communion table we noted that it is often the case that Christians think of their need for redemption in two separate and distinct categories. Category One: we need redemption from because the world is broken; evil pollutes to varied extents all that there is, acting upon us and effecting our lives simply because the world is a fallen place and we live in it. Category Two: We need redemption from our sin, our failures for which we have responsibility. Though this two category approach is helpful in reminding us that there are sins we commit and for which we have responsibility to repent, it is unhelpful in other ways. The situations we find ourselves in which cry out for redemption most profoundly often exist partly because of our sins and partly because of evil that is done to us. Over analysis with regard to what percentage of the blame lies with us directly and what percentage lies at the feet of cosmic evil can lead to more mischief in the long run; many times it is best for us to simply cry out for redemption and ask God to make a new way for us to live in relationship to the mess from which we need to be redeemed. Theologian David Kelsey in his book, Imagining Redemption, puts it this way: ".... people actively sin in some particular circumstances. As often as not those concrete circumstances are themselves evil situations that, having befallen them, distort and break their lives. Those circumstance are the conditions of their sinning, not the consequences. It is not necessary to claim that the circumstances in which peple sin excuse them of responsibility for that sin in orer to acknowledge that, however much their sinning requires redemption, their circumstances do also. Conversely, people who undergo the most horrendous suffering....must respond to that suffering.....If they respond in sinful ways, then once again, a situation that needs one sort of redemption has become the occasion of the need of redemption of the other sort also."
We continued in our homily to ask ourselves what we are wishing for when we hope for and ask for redemption. Knowing what God promises in redemption helps to shape our lives and refines our pursuit of God. Knowing what God promises in redemption helps us to look at, if you will permit the metaphor, the landscape of our lives in light of the in-breaking of the landscape that is the world to come. Sometimes it is helpful to recognize the uniqueness of what something is by realizing what it is not:
Redemption is not realizing more deeply the sympathy of God. It is, of course, a profound truth revealed in the gospel that Jesus sympathizes with us but this is not the most important part of what it means for God to promise redemption. Nor is redemption a putting back in place that which was lost the way it was before (God promises new creation - not a rolling back of everything to Eden). Neither is redemption simply the hope that everything will be OK after we die (Jesus had promised to make a difference in this world, even as he is the first-fruits of the world to come).
Redemption is the experience of the risen Lord Jesus Christ in such a way as we experience newness of life even in the midst of our ugly circumstances; in order for it to count as redemption it must make a redemptive difference in our circumstances, wherein we are changed and made more like Christ. The next two homilies are devoted to exploring what this free but costly grace looks like in the midst of our broken lives.
Questions for discussion:
1. Do you find Kelsey's point about needing "both kinds of redemption" in almost every situation that needs redemption to be helpful. If so, why? If not, why?
2. If you equate redemption with God's sympathy and sort of leave it at that what problems might this cause you and those with whom you have to do?
3. If you equate redemption as being mainly about what happens to me after I die what sorts of problems might this cause you and those with whom you have to do?
4. What is wrong with seeing redemption as God simply putting back together that which is broken the way that it was before?
Monday, January 12, 2009
During our time of teaching and preaching this Sunday we reflected on the theological meaning of the visit of the wise men. First, we noted that Paul taught that the mystery revealed in the gospel is that God's promise of salvation is as much for Gentiles as it is for Jews (Ephesians 3:6). This is what is pictured in the visitation of these strange men from the East. Likely astrologers and advisers from the Persian royal court these royal Gentiles honor Jesus as King and so fit into Matthew's overall message - God's salvation is meant for all peoples.
We spent the rest of our time thinking about what it means to reflect God's love in words and deeds to the whole world. Bringing the gospel to others raises the question of how we are to go about this mission in the context of our cultural setting. In this regard we urged that we ought first to consider what the gospel teaches us to think about other faiths. Here, we found Rowan Williams' comments helpful:
"Christian identity is to belong in a place that Jesus defines for us. By living in that place, we come in some degree to share his identity, to bear his name and to be in the same relationships he has with God and with the world. Forget ‘Christianity’ for a moment – Christianity as a system of ideas competing with others in the market: concentrate on the place in the world that is the place of Jesus the anointed, and what it is that becomes possible in that place.
There is a difference between seeing the world as basically a territory where systems compete, where groups with different allegiances live at each other’s expense, where rivalry is inescapable, and seeing the world as a territory where being in a particular place makes it possible for you to see, to say and to do certain things that aren’t possible elsewhere. The claim of Christian belief is not first and foremost that it offers the only accurate system of thought, as against all other competitors; it is that, by standing in the place of Christ, it is possible to live in such intimacy with God that no fear or failure can ever break God’s commitment to us, and to live in such a degree of mutual gift and understanding that no human conflict or division need bring us to uncontrollable violence and mutual damage. From here, you can see what you need to see to be at peace with God and with God’s creation; and also what you need to be at peace with yourself, acknowledging your need of mercy and re-creation." http://www.wcc-assembly.info/po/tema-questoes/documentos-de-la-assembleia/2-plenary-presentations/christian-identity-religious-plurality/rowan-williams-presentation.html
If I read Williams right, then what he is suggesting is quite profound - the gospel tells us how and what we should think about views of God and Christ that differ profoundly from our own. While remaining Jesus' loyal disciples we are not to seek power, manipulation, or control over those who see things differently; nor are we to insult, belittle, or antagonize the "other". It would be tragic indeed to act violently to others in the name of the one who, to paraphrase Luther, took his cross as his pulpit.
We continued the homily by cautioning against treating Jesus as a brand to be marketed. Tyler Wigg-Stevenson, writing in Christianity Today, observes that many approaches to bearing witness to the gospel have been adversely influenced by the cultural values of individualism on the one hand and consumerism on the other:
"The de-churched nature of our theology makes evangelism hard to do without seeming salesy, because churchless evangelism unavoidably promotes a consumerist soteriology. When it's just you and Jesus, you (the consumer) "invite him" (the product) "into your heart" (brand adoption) and "get saved" (consumer gratification).... So, given this cultural setting, any salvation that needs a sophisticated sales pitch is a salvation that won't really do anything. It will make you holy the same way a new pair of Nikes makes you athletic—which is to say, not at all. It only changes your religious brand. Yet this is the only kind of evangelism possible when we separate salvation from life in the redeemed community, because it's in the redeemed community that God has ordained the enduring demonstration of his power, against which nothing can prevail." http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2009/january/10.20.html?start=1
So, we concluded our time of teaching on Sunday by asking God to enable us to faithfully bear witness to Jesus as a church community. We asked God to enable us to be loyal to Jesus, invite others to come into our community to hear and witness the gospel at work, pray for our conversion and the conversion of the world, and be respectful of those with other faiths.
Questions for discussion:
1. What does Williams mean (see above) when he says that we should not see the world as a territory where systems compete?
2. We noted that Epiphany is the time of year when we think a great deal of what it means to bear witness to Jesus as king and redeemer of the whole world. As one who follows Jesus in faith and repentance, how do you bear witness to Jesus as king and redeemer of the whole world? What does the summons to bear witness to Christ to others look like in your mundane life? How does the thought of being in a Christian community help you think about what your responsibility to bear witness to Christ looks like?
Tuesday, January 6, 2009
This Sunday we began a series of homilies that will roughly follow the theological themes presented in the Nicene Creed. We began by considering some of the implications that follow from our confession of God as the creator of all there is, including us.
Implication 1: We know who we are and what it means to be human because we know why we were created. God created us because of his love.
No one can speak for God and explain fully his reasons for creating. We do, however, get some hints when we consider creation in light of the gospel. It seems that when it comes to talking about God's motivation in creation, the most we can say and the most helpful thing we can say is that God created because he loves; and, because he desires to share his love with others and through others. That God creates because of his love, for the sake of his love, and in order to spread his love tells us something profound about our purpose as those created in his image. First, we are to understand that God loves us because he made us - this is the foundation of the gospel. I have a fountain pen that is probably worth over $100. It was a gift of a friend of mine. I dropped it and bent the nib over 7 years ago and I keep forgetting to replace the nib. However, I can tell you exactly where that pen is - not because it is expensive (sadly, I lose expensive stuff as easily as I do cheap stuff) - I can tell you where it is because I have affection for it because of the reason it was given. Similarly, God cherishes us and wishes not to lose us because of the value we have to him, simply because he made us for himself and his love. Let me expand a little bit on this. When I say that the foundation of the gospel is based on God's love of his creation I am asserting that the purpose of redemption is the fulfillment of God's love for what and who he has made. This is different from the way we sometimes think of redemption. For instance, we often think of redemption in such individualistic terms (e.g. I am a sinner; God please redeem me) that we imagine God's love for us to be contingent on a decision he made in response to our groveling. Nothing could be further than the truth. He initiates redemption with us from the same heart that created - a heart full of love for the other.
Implication 2: God's not finished with his work of creation - a reason to get up in the morning.
I am not a morning person and don't think I ever have been. Being a father has made me one though. I hear our little girl and I rarely want to sleep in, even when my wife offers to let me. When we understand God's relationship to his creation and our role in his ongoing care of the universe we can find even greater motivations to get up in the morning. Sir John Polkinghorne, British physicist turned Anglican Priest, points out that many Christians think of God's creation as a fixed score written by a master composer. He suggests for theological reasons (and because of hints he sees about the nature of reality through his study of quantum physics) that we see God's relationship with his creation as more dynamic than that. He suggests that a more helpful metaphor for God's relationship to his creation is that of a masterful composer who, to be sure, has a score, but is improvising throughout its performance. At the heart of Polkinhorne's suggestion is that God has included his creatures in his governance of the universe. Our prayers matter to God and he takes them into account. Our repentance matters to God and he responds to us when we repent. Our invoking of Jesus' presence in a poor neighborhood through the deeds of the gospel matters to God and he works through us to bring his love to others. Our work matters to God because God will bless others through our work. All of these collaborations with God are real and genuine because he is moving creation along to the goal of new creation, including us in a call and response rhythm which grounds our faithful actions in God's ongoing care of his creation (Colossians 1:15-20)
The resurrection is the greatest example of God's benevolent improvisation because the resurrection joins creation and new-creation together (2 Cor. 5:17 NRSV). As Polkinghorne puts it, there is every reason to believe, according to what is known through the physical and biological sciences, that carbon life and the universe that is its home will come to an end. If the universe is to find new life, if people are to find new life, there must be a resurrection of that which will die. The resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead grounds this world in the world to come and gives a delightful example of God's dynamic and renewing relationship with his creation.
Questions for discussion:
1. We said during the homily on Sunday that God loves us because he made us. Why is this foundational to our understanding of the rest of the gospel? What sorts of misunderstandings of the gospel occur when we don't recognize that new creation is grounded in the first creation?
2. Do you believe that what you do and what you believe play a partnership role in God's works of creation and new creation? Is this thought an encouragement to you? If so, why? If not, why not?
A HYMN TO THE CREATOR
by William H. Vanstone
Morning glory, starlit sky,
Leaves in springtime, swallows' flight,
Autumn gales, tremendous seas,
Sounds and scents of summer night;
Soaring music, tow'ring words,
Art's perfection, scholar's truth,
Joy supreme of human love,
Memory's treasure, grace of youth;
Open, Lord, are these, Thy gifts,
Gifts of love to mind and sense;
Hidden is love's agony,
Love's endeavour, love's expense.
Love that gives gives ever more,
Gives with zeal, with eager hands,
Spares not, keeps not, all outpours,
Ventures all, its all expends.
Drained is love in making full;
Bound in setting others free;
Poor in making many rich;
Weak in giving power to be.
Therefore He Who Thee reveals
Hangs, O Father, on that Tree
Helpless; and the nails and thorns
Tell of what Thy love must be.
Thou are God; no monarch Thou
Thron'd in easy state to reign;
Thou art God, Whose arms of love
Aching, spent, the world sustain.