Tuesday, January 26, 2010

a rebirth of the imagination

Recently there have been a lot of interviews with folks involved with new film based on the life of Charles Darwin, Creation. It is a film adaptation of the biographical novel, Annie's Box, by Randal Keynes, Darwin's great-great grandson. Annie is the name of Charles and Emma Darwin's daughter who died at the age of 10. Keynes, the film adaptation of his book , and many Darwin scholars agree that the tragic death of Annie to chronic illnesses was a turning point for Charles Darwin in his relationship to the Christian faith. Always very dubious of Christian doctrine, Darwin seemed to decisively step away after losing their daughter. As I listened to Randal Keynes talk about this last week on NPR my first response was that is probably exactly what I would have done; I might have had that empathetic thought before becoming a father - not sure - but now as a father I think my empathy for his response is more profound. I was thinking about all of this as I was preparing for our homily this past week which dealt with the powerful metaphor of new birth.

In 1 Peter, Peter talks about our relationship with God in this way: "By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead". Joel Green in his commentary on 1 Peter suggests that we think of new birth as a conversion of the imagination: "life events do not come with self-contained and immediately obvious interpretations, we conceptualize them in terms of imaginative structures we take to be true, normal and good...". In other words and put a bit differently, we tend to look at our lives and the world according to the story of the world we take to be true, normal and good. Some may say they do not subscribe to any narrative which could offer insight into the course of history, the future, or our individual lives. That certainly may be the case looking at it from one point of view, but is it not also the case that we all make decisions about what to do based on what we think in the moment is the right thing to do? Do we not also look for meaningful perspectives by which to evaluate major events in our lives? Many of those hearing Peter's words proclaimed in worship had just suffered a profound identity crisis (see previous homily recap). They had converted to the Christian faith from their pagan world and had been promptly ostracized by Roman society. Roman society had no place for Christians and ostracizing would eventually lead to out-right persecution. It is within this context that Peter tells his people the true story of what God is doing in the world. God's story of the world is grounded in an ancient promise to a band of nomads: the promise that God would always be their God and that they would always be his people. In the making of this promise to Abraham God also purposed that through his relationship with Israel he would bring salvation to the world. This salvation is pictured in the prophets as forgiveness of sins, redemption, the making of all things new, the conquest and eradication of evil, and the bringing forth of shalom, God's new peace for this fallen world. In short hand fashion Peter tells us that this story has come to a climax in the life, death and (especially) the resurrection of Jesus Christ. This story of what God is doing in the world speaks directly to the question of life's meaning, purpose and direction for those in Peter's original audience and for us. Jesus brings God's purposes to fruition in the world in a way that the powers that be in the world refuse to see as good news. Strength, grace, mercy, and victory, are brought forth through the suffering of Jesus: not a story we like to call our own. And when we think of the world according to limits of human reason and our fatigued imaginations we don't want to see God reveal himself in this way either. Yet this is God's way of talking about hope and what he is doing to bring redemption to us and our world: hope comes to us by the promise of resurrection and resurrection comes to us through suffering.

For those who lost everything to become Christians, for those of us who suffer from the thorns and thistles of this fallen world, for those who suffer profound loss (e.g. Darwin's story of loss above), the gospel confronts all other stories of the world which would deny hope or offer hope falsely. The radical and paradoxical power of the gospel story is not simply that God brings hope in spite of suffering but that he does it through suffering. This is the story that tells us the truth about our lives and the life of this world. May God grant us a revivification of our imaginations that we would live in the light of this truth.

1. Though this is not right at the heart of our homily from this week I think it is an important question so I am putting it out there for your consideration: do you regard empathy as an important attribute and one that reflects the heart of God as shown in the gospel? If not, why not? If you do, do you think very often about becoming more empathetic or asking God to make you more empathetic? Do you think becoming more empathetic could help you tell God's story more authentically to those who do not yet accept it their story?

2. How would you tell God's story of what he is doing in the world to someone who had just lost a child or loved one. Imagine that they had asked you to talk to them about where you get your hope from? How, in your own words, would you answer them: presuming that they do not yet accept God's story of the gospel?

3. Does coming to see our trials in this world in light of Jesus' story mean we must be able to say what specifically we have "learned" from our experience of suffering? What are we supposed to "learn" from suffering?

4. What are some stories we are often tempted to believe in our socio-cultural setting that are not the gospel and try cheaply to take the place of the gospel story in our imaginations?

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

God's Great Band of Beloved Nomads

This past Sunday at Grace we began a study of 1 Peter. There is good scholarship and tradition to support this letter as written by the same Peter we meet in the gospels as a disciple of Jesus. If Simon Peter is the author of the letter then it was written sometime before his martyrdom in 64 or 65 AD. We understand the letter to be a circular letter to the churches in Asian Minor, modern day Western Turkey. As a circular letter it would have been read in the different churches by those early church leaders who would have also helped unpack its meaning.

At the beginning of the letter Peter introduces the themes which will dominate the rest of epistle. This letter, perhaps more than any other in the New Testament, is concerned with how Christians are to understand their identity in relation to the culture in which they live. The words that Peter employs to help these relatively new converts to Christ understand their new identity are borrowed from the Old Testament. Aliens and sojourners of the diaspora is evocative of the period in the life of ancient Israel when God's people were dispersed throughout Babylon, after Babylon had defeated Israel in war. In this context, the designation of alien status did not carry a positive connotation but was a designation to get shed of as soon as possible. However, in Peter's hands, the status of alien becomes a positive metaphor of identity with Christ in his Kingdom and suggests a dignified vocation of living as Jesus' representatives to the pagan world: a world which Peter calls Babylon (his byword for Rome).

Peter's presentation of alien status as a position of honor would have been a gospel-paradox of tremendous encouragement to those pagan converts in the churches to whom he wrote, because upon their conversion they had lost their status, honor, and identity as Romans. This is difficult for us to understand from our point of view. Pluralism within Western Democracy has allowed many of us to suffer relatively little social ostracism as Christians even if we converted later in life. Also, many of us think of status in relationship to relative degrees of wealth which was not how status was meted out in the ancient social world in which Peter's flock converted. In Peter's Roman world, status and honor was wrapped up in being a good Roman citizen. But to be a good citizen meant that one must at least give lip service to worshiping Caesar and confess him as savior and lord. Refusing to take place in public confessions and civil worship would result in at least ostracism if not worse - eventually the worse would come in the form of the great persecutions. Once honor was lost through ostracism, there were no avenues left within Roman society to regain honor as confessing Christians. One was left to move on the periphery of normal society. This is why Peter's paradox - that the freshly minted alien status of his parishioners was actually itself a position of high honor - was such a profound word of encouragement. This is also, partly, why he begins his letter by talking about the issue of Christian identity.

Given our distance from Peter's world, what are some take-away applications for us?

* Because we are not ostracized in the same way these 1st century Christians means that we have to be careful to think imaginatively about how our basic personal identity is in Christ and not in any social category created for us by this world or our society. This is a tall order and there is not a simple, one-size-fits-all, description of what this looks like.
* We must be careful as privileged Western Christians to find ways to identify concretely with our sisters and brothers who are ostracized or persecuted by their societies in other parts of the world.
* We must take great care to find our identity in Christ and not in some manifestation of Christendom
* We must refuse to allow the status afforded to someone based on their socio-economic standing in this world to determine our relationship to them. Whether a fellow human being who does not share our faith or a sister or brother in Christ, we must always approach her based on our identity with Christ and from the point of view of our own alien status.

Questions for application:

1. Do you feel marginalized by others because you are a Christian? How can you tell if it is because of your faith or if it might be for some other reason? Is coming to understand your position of honor as an alien representing Christ to the world an encouragement to you? If so, how? If not, why not?
2. Can you think of an occasion when you alienated yourself from someone in the name of Christ but later came to realize that you alienated yourself for other reasons but blamed it on Jesus?
3. What is an example of mis-locating one's identity in some manifestation of Christendom rather than in Christ? What harm comes from this mistake?
4. How does this discussion challenge you when you think of those in our own setting and around the world who are marginalized from society because of their faith or for other reasons?

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The Grace of God has Appeared

Titus 2:11-14:
This week I want to come back again to these verses in Titus. We remarked last week that this passage has long been associated with the liturgy of Christmas Sunday. The wording of the verse invites us to contemplate the wonder of the incarnation - the Grace of God has appeared, it has been unveiled to us in the incarnation of the Son of God. In this one shorthand phrase, the grace of God has appeared, Paul is summarizing the promises of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob: his promise to renew the covenant, to bring the good news of salvation to all peoples. On Christmas Sunday we considered the context in which Paul wrote these words. Good history and tradition point to Paul writing this letter to Titus who was planting churches on the isle of Crete. In the religious traditions of Crete it was claimed that the Greek god, Zeus, had been a man before he was a god - a man who lived and died in Crete and whose tomb was known. This great man was made into the god Zeus after he died, promoted to deity, because of his great deeds of benevolence as a human being among the Cretans. Into this culture which knew this religious story of how Zeus came to be Zeus Paul brings the gospel of the God who reveals himself in Jesus. The connection between deity and humanity, arguably a universal human longing and which was so fancifully imagined in the Cretan story of Zeus, is met by the proclamation that the great creator God has taken on human flesh, "the grace of God has appeared". Whereas the story of a man who is promoted to deity because of acts of benevolence is met by the proclamation that God lives to freely give himself to others, "he it is who gave himself for us" in order that those who know him and grow in his grace may become a people who come to resemble God's son in their thoughts, desires and actions.

New Testament commentators have also wondered whether Paul's interesting way of talking about the grace of God being that which trains us to become more like Jesus ("the grace of God has appeared..... training us...." 2:11...) might also be worded with the Cretan context in mind. Earlier in the letter he cites the 6th century Cretan philosopher and poet, Epimenides, who said of Cretans that they were always liars, vicious brutes, lazy gluttons" (Titus 1:12). The description of Cretans as vicious brutes, or as wild beasts - as some translations have it and as Epimenides said it - liars, and idle bellies is certainly confrontational language but it is not the language of one who demonizes those who are outside the community of faith. Rather, Paul with the motivation and heart of an apologist and evangelist, cites a voice from within the culture who cries out against moral bankruptcy in order to establish a contact point between the gospel and the culture. The gospel message from Paul and the other evangelists in the New Testament always clearly points out that sin is the heart condition shared by all of us and that no one is any better than anyone else. Moral bankruptcy and beastliness is the way of the human heart apart from God's grace. It is to this shared human condition that the grace of God comes, to train us and make us new. It was not uncommon within the religious mind of the ancient Greek speaking world to think and speak about moral formation accompanying the passage of boyhood to manhood where the "wild beasts" are tamed and formed into men. In the ruins of the city of Gortyn (the Cretan city which Christian tradition holds to be the first site of Titus' missionary activity) there is found in the iconography of one of the temples a goddess holding in both of her hands wild beasts. In her hands they are perfectly tame. Among the votive offerings to her are little statues of young male warriors - wishing from her to be tamed, disciplined or trained into manhood. We, of course, don't know if Paul or Titus would have had this specific thing in mind when they spoke together of the grace of God and its power to tame the beast in all of us but we do know that it would not have been uncommon in that thought world to talk about moral formation as training received from gods and goddesses. And so Paul the evangelist and Paul the apologist come together to suggest and answer this question: by what or who and how can the beast be tamed? By goddesses or gods? By a man who became a god? Paul says no. The beast is tamed through the power, love and grace of the God who became a man so that human beings could become more like God: God's grace has appeared in Jesus Christ, "training" human beings to become more like the God who gave himself for us.

Questions for discussion:

1. We have suggested above that we should not demonize people who do not share our faith no matter how offensive we might find their moral life and choices. Name some bad things that come from demonizing people, especially those who are do not share our faith? Perhaps in your answer, think about what it might do to you, and what impression it might give about Christ and Christianity to those on the outside looking in.

2. The grace of God training us to renounce sin and embrace God's love and life suggests a process of interaction with God's grace over time and suggests that we must stive to be disciplined in our "training" regimen. What does it mean to be disciplined with regard to our participation in God's gracious provisions? Can you think of discipline without either cringing on the one hand (for those of us who are not terribly disciplined by nature) or without, on the other hand, being proud and self-congratulatory (for those of who are very regimented by nature)? How do grace and discipline dance together so that love is what is felt?

3. Is it a comfort to you to think of our connection with God as resting on God's gracious provision in the incarnation rather than imagining that we need to reach up to God in order to have a contact with the divine? How can this profound truth encourage you when you are deep in the throes of temptation's darkest hour?

4. By what impoverished means do we try to tame our beasts? What sort of means do we employ instead of God's rich grace in the gospel? How can we more surely abandon those impoverished means and rely more fully on God's grace?