Theology Feed

Quest for the Living God

Quest for the Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of GodQuest for the Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God by Elizabeth A. Johnson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Johnson is a captivating writer of theological prose. This book could serve as an excellent introduction to the major trends in theology the last eighty years, but it is also richer than that. In this time period modern theism has been replaced by a wide diversity of new, global perspectives on God, brought together in conversation in this volume. For more some sections reviewed people and movements I was already deeply informed about, while other chapters were fresh and surprising and gave me long reading lists for the future.

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Moltmann on Nationalism

Jurgen Moltmann calls the rise of national a setback for humanity.   

Of course he has personal experience growing up under the Nazis.  An excerpt:

He challenged Christians to reject nationalistic ideas.

"The church of Christ is present in all the people on earth and cannot become 'a national religion'," he said.

"The church of Christ ecumenically embraces the whole inhabited earth. She is not a tribal religion, nor a Western religion, nor a white religion, but the church of all humanity."

He added: "The church of Christ is not national, but it is a church of all the nations and humanity."


Praying As Believing

Praying As Believing: The Lord's Prayer And The Christian Doctrine Of GodPraying As Believing: The Lord's Prayer And The Christian Doctrine Of God by Timothy Bradshaw
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was my second time to read this insightful theological study of the Lord's Prayer. I read it first in the mid-Aughts and used it then to shape a youth Sunday school series. This autumn I re-read it while preaching a sermon series on the Lord's Prayer. The book uses the phrases of the prayer to explore a wide-range of theological concepts, mostly centered on the nature of God.

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The End of Memory

The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent WorldThe End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent World by Miroslav Volf
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A profound theological exploration of remembering and forgetting.

Volf was at one time a prisoner of the communist forces of his native Yugoslavia, where he underwent interrogation that was a form of psychological torture. What should he do with those memories? What should all people do with memories of pain, trauma, and suffering?

A deeply personal book that draws from the rich wells of the Christian tradition, literature, and philosophy, Volf considers how we should remember and remember well and when and how we should forget, including how forgetting is connected to forgiveness and reconciliation.

Volf's ideas are filled with hope and healing for a broken world. I found the book not only intellectual stimulating, but personally helpful.

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Heiwa

Heiwa

Mark 12:28-34

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

11 August 2019

 

            Could you use help in figuring out how to live with challenging people?  How to defend yourself and love yourself with integrity without bringing harm upon other people?  How to speak truth in difficult times but still in a way that advances peace and love?

            Today’s Gospel lesson is a familiar passage, wherein Jesus engages in a conversation with a scribe about what are the core teachings of the faith.

Mark 12:28-34

One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked Jesus, “Which commandment is the first of all?”  Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’  The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’  There is no other commandment greater than these.”  Then the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘God is one, and besides God there is no other’; and ‘to love God with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’ —this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.”  When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”  After that no one dared to ask him any question.

For the Word of God in scripture,

For the Word of God among us,

For the Word of God within us,

Thanks be to God.

 

            No surprise that Jesus puts the focus of the faith on love.  He draws upon the ancient teachings of his Hebrew faith that the greatest commandments are to love God and to love neighbor as ourselves. 

            The curriculum for this year’s summer camp, which Katie and I are drawing from for this worship series “Peace Works: Summer Camp at First Central,” focused on how we balance the love of God, others, and self and how this balancing is itself essential to peacemaking. 

            One of the fun features of the camp’s curriculum was that every day focused on a word and concept from a different culture in order to highlight aspects of peacemaking.  Today’s word is Heiwa.  Please say that with me, “Heiwa.”

            Heiwa is a Japanese term that means peace.  The two characters that make up this word can be translated “smooth” and “harmony.”  So peace is a smooth harmony in Japanese thinking.  The camp curriculum described it this way: “The Japanese concept of heiwa invites us to . . . look within as we work for peace, putting harmony over competition . . . .”

Last week we focused on how peacemaking begins with acknowledging that our own humanity is intimately connected with other people, and how that acknowledgment leads us to treat every other person with kindness, generosity, and respect. 

Peacemaking also begins within our own personality, as we cultivate an inner harmony and balance that is not easily knocked off center.  This personal development is difficult work for most people.  Consider questions such as “What are the tools we need to develop in order to be more peaceful people?”  “How do we engage in actions that create more peace?”

 

Raleigh Freeman died this week.  He wasn’t a member of our congregation for very long, and he had spent the last couple of years in a nursing home.  I first met Raleigh out on the sidewalk.  He lived in an apartment here in the neighborhood and since I too live in the neighborhood, we had met as neighbors.  He was a kind, friendly, soft-spoken, gentle man.  And a great example of neighborliness.  One of my fondest memories of him was on a spring day a few years ago when our church participated in a neighborhood clean-up effort.  Raleigh and I ended up on the same crew, walking Harney and Dewey streets picking up trash.

A couple of years ago Raleigh surprised me.  He came to my office one day to talk about how angry he was.  His loss of hearing had robbed him of vibrant interactions with other people.  He missed conversation and was lonely.  He had just been diagnosed with cancer and feared that this meant the beginning of the end.  Rightly, as it turned out.  When I told him I always thought of him as gentle and kind, he informed me that yes he tried to be that.  But as an aging, ill African-American man he had much to be angry about.  Being gentle took work.

Preparing this sermon, I thought of Raleigh.  To me, he was a peaceful soul, a peace maker even.  Yet his own testimony was that this came out through personal effort to overcome anger and be kind, gentle, and loving.

 

In the Gospel lesson about faith, love, and neighborliness, we might miss a crucial aspect of the story—the way Jesus responds when challenged.  Quoting from the camp curriculum,

Jesus is challenged by a lawyer—one who has been listening to previous questions and answers between Jesus and the religious leaders.  He has heard the give and take and comes to challenge Jesus.  Is he coming to learn or show how much he knows?  Is he trying to win the battle or grow deeper?  The context seems more combative than curious.  The lawyer seems to be raising himself up by pulling another down.

So, how does Jesus respond?  The curriculum’s description of the story continues:

Jesus does not attack the man’s motives, but instead restores balance.  Jesus calls on the deep wisdom of the Jewish tradition, . . . then lifts up loving neighbor as self.  The response critiques the lawyer’s actions and motives without attacking him personally.  Jesus has no need to win, but neither does he retreat.  Jesus holds his own center and invites the lawyer to grow . . . .

 

            This story of the disputation about the core values of the faith can serve for us as an example of how to remain peaceful in the midst of conflict.  Of how to keep our balance, our heiwa.

           

            To explore this idea further, I recommend a Christian thinker who wrote about how we find integrity in the midst of conflict—the theologian Howard Thurman.

            Thurman lived and worked and wrote in the first half of the twentieth century.  He was a deep influence upon Dr. King and the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement.  His major work is a small book entitled Jesus and the Disinherited.  He proclaims that “fear, hypocrisy, and hatred [are] the three hounds of hell that track the trail of the disinherited.”  Fear, hypocrisy, and hatred each attempt to knock us off balance, to rob us of our peace, our harmony, our integrity.  What can we do?

            Thurman believed that the teachings of Jesus provide the answer for how not to be overcome by the hounds of hell.  Even in the worst cases of oppression and suffering, we can draw upon Jesus’ example and learn not to be fearful, not to be deceived, and not to hate.  In a situation that attempts to rob us of our integrity and our dignity, we can learn to love.

            Thurman wrote of Jesus, “He recognized with authentic realism that anyone who permits another to determine the quality of his inner life gives into the hands of the other the keys to his destiny.”  He continued, “If a man knows precisely what he can do to you or what epithet he can hurl against you in order to make you lose your temper, your equilibrium, then he can always keep you under subjection.” 

Wow, those are powerfully wise words.  Let me repeat them.  “If a man knows precisely what he can do to you or what epithet he can hurl against you in order to make you lose your temper, your equilibrium, then he can always keep you under subjection.”  Let us take those words to heart in this age when we are easily angered.

            Thurman was aware that we can only develop inner peace and the love that flows from it with “painstaking discipline.”  It is “made possible only by a personal triumph.”  Nor is it something intellectual and abstract.  It has to be discovered in real life situations.

            Our good friend Raleigh expressed the same wisdom.

           

 

            On Tuesday morning the world learned the sad news that Toni Morrison died on Monday night.  She was the greatest American novelist of our time and a perceptive voice in understanding our flaws and calling us to our better selves.  Her death this week was particularly painful, in this climate of rising white supremacist violence.  A vital voice, a wise leader, was taken from us at this critical hour. 

            I was directed to an essay she published in The Nation in 2015, in which she described our troubled times and how we should respond.  Way back in early 2015 (and how long ago that now feels), she described our political discourse as “shredded by an unreason and hatred so deep that vulgar abuse seems normal, disaffection rules.  Our debates, for the most part, are examples unworthy of a playground: name-calling, verbal slaps, gossip, giggles.”

            She had felt unable to write, but a friend had admonished her that “This is precisely the time when artists go to work—not when everything is fine, but in times of dread. That’s our job!”

            Toni Morrison came to agree with the friend.  She concluded her 2015 essay by saying, “I know the world is bruised and bleeding, and though it is important not to ignore its pain, it is also critical to refuse to succumb to its malevolence.  Like failure, chaos contains information that can lead to knowledge—even wisdom.  Like art.”

 

And so we face the challenge of peacemaking—not to succumb to the malevolence of the times in which we live.  To maintain our smooth harmony, our heiwa.  To remain people of integrity and dignity who do not succumb to fear, deception, and hatred.  To be agents of love, especially in the midst of conflict.   To be gentle, despite our justified anger.

I close with this prayer:

God, help us find our center.  Help us find our balance.  When we are too wound up, settle us down.  When we are apathetic, set our hearts on fire.  When we are too self-centered, remind us of others’ needs.  When we are not taking care of ourselves, remind us how precious we are.  Amen.

 

 


Ubuntu

Ubuntu

I Corinthians 12:12-27

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

4 August 2019

 

            What are your summer camp memories?

            I first went to church camp as a preschooler when my parents were youth directors.  Attending children’s or youth camp was an annual tradition in my upbringing.  I have fond memories of the Grand Lake Baptist Association’s campground outside Grove, Oklahoma.  I especially remember the giant weeping willow tree, sadly no longer there, which was fun to hide inside.  And there was another tree, near the First Baptist Miami cabin, where I always sat for my personal prayer and Bible study time. 

            In June I participated in the Faith and Fine Arts camp at Kaleo, our United Church of Christ/Disciples of Christ campground on the North Loup River in the Sandhills near Burwell.  Going to camp again, for the first time in many years, has reawakened my memories and affections.

            This year at Kaleo the curriculum used every week of camp was entitled “Peace Works.”  There is a double meaning to that title.  If peace is to be achieved, it takes work, particularly work on our part.  The title also means that peace works in the sense of it is effective, capable, and successful.

            The curriculum explored this theme through a variety of concepts that originate in various cultures—Aloha from the Hawaiian Islands, Heiwa from Japan, Shalom from Judaism, etc.  Each day at camp there was a word for the day, and the campers learned about these concepts and what they can teach us as tools for peacemaking.

            I really enjoyed this curriculum and so when I got back from Kaleo I said to Katie, “Let’s do a worship series with it.”  Katie had directed Senior Camp this year, so she had worked with the curriculum as well.  We sat down to brainstorm and quickly put together a worship series, ideas for Sunday school with the kids, and we thought of various camp-related activities we can do during the series like hiking, kayaking, tie-dying, etc.  Aloha will be the word of the day for our Homecoming Sunday, so I encourage you to wear Hawaiian shirts to our annual picnic.  On Sunday, September 8 Erin Heckeroth-Brown, who taught the art group at Faith and Fine Arts camp this summer and also created a beautiful new art piece for Kaleo, will be with us and we will create a new art piece for our courtyard.  Our series will conclude with our children taking over worship as they share what they have created from the theme Peace Works.  We hope you’ll enjoy this experience of Summer Camp at First Central.

 

            Today’s word is Ubuntu.  Please say that with me, “Ubuntu.”

            Ubuntu is a Nguni Bantu word from Southern Africa.  Its simplest translation is “humanity,” but the word contains a richer sense of the quality of what it means to be a human.  This is conveyed in a common phrase “Ubuntu ngumtu ngabanye abantu,” which translates “A person is a person through other people.” 

Or, to put it more simply, “I am, because you are.”  Who we are, our identity, is intimately connected with other people and vice versa.  To be a human is to be in community with other people.

 

From this core idea an entire philosophy and theology of Ubuntu developed.  One of its key proponents has been Archbishop Desmond Tutu.  Ubuntu ideas helped to shape his fight against apartheid in South Africa and his leadership of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission when apartheid ended.  In 1992, Archbishop Tutu described Ubuntu:

 

Ubuntu refers to the person who is welcoming, who is hospitable, who is warm and generous, who is affirming of others, who does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for [this person] has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing they belong in a greater whole, and know that they are diminished when another is humiliated, is diminished, is tortured, is oppressed, is treated as if they were less than who they are.  What a wonderful world it can be, it will be, when we know that our destinies are locked inextricably into one anothers.

 

            A proper understanding of our humanity, our selfhood in community, then leads to right action.  When we are kind and generous toward others, we embody Ubuntu.  As one website I read stated, “A person who behaves in these ways . . . is a full person.”

            To be a full person, then, is to be someone who behaves well toward others.  To treat others with dignity, kindness, and respect is an expression of our humanity.  Someone who disrespects other people, therefore, is not fully a person.  When we disrespect and mistreat others, we are actually harming ourselves, robbing ourselves of our full humanity.

            So one way we work for peace is by gaining a proper understanding of our humanity and the obligations to right behavior that flow from it.

 

            Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth develops similar ideas to this traditional African concept.  Paul writes that God’s people are the Body of Christ.  We, each of us, have different gifts and positions, yet we are all needed; we must cooperate together in order to be effective and faithful.  If you dishonor or disrespect someone else and their unique gifts, then you bring harm to the entire body.  This hurts God’s work in the world. 

            The camp curriculum explains,

 

we need each other . . .—in mutual relationship—not only for the common good, but indeed, to survive.  When we each bring our open-minded, open-hearted, diverse gifts and talents to build communities, we become something more.  We know that we are always in the process of becoming, having never completely fulfilled our potential.  In partnership with others and with God, we do our best to fill God’s world with beauty.

 

            Archbishop Tutu helps us to tie these ideas together.  In the contemporary lesson for today that Marilyn read, Tutu proclaims that to disrespect another person is not simply wrong, it is also blasphemy, for it violates who we are created to be in the image of God, a divine fellowship.

 

            And, so, I invite you at the start of this series on peacemaking to do three things.  First, to recognize your own value as a human being created in God’s image, and how your identity and worth are interwoven with others. 

            Second, I hope you will commit yourself to the building of community in all your relationships with other people.  In what ways can you be kind, respectful, generous, and hospitable with everyone you encounter?

            Finally, let us experience our shared joys and challenges.  When others are joyful, that is ours to share.  When others are in pain, that is also ours to share. 

            Peacemaking doesn’t have to involve the big, grand, society-wide projects.  It begins with the simplest acts of human kindness.  As Archbishop Tutu has preached, “What a wonderful world it can be, it will be, when we know that our destinies are locked inextricably into one anothers.”

 

 


Call It Grace

Call It Grace: Finding Meaning in a Fractured WorldCall It Grace: Finding Meaning in a Fractured World by Serene Jones
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Serene Jones has written about the life of faith as a prominent theologian, combining personal and family stories and experiences with the intellectual concepts of the great theological thinkers. A beautiful exploration of how those of us who study Calvin, Barth, Kierdegaard, Cone, etc. make sense of our lives and integrate the intellect with experience. This book will be particularly good for those who don't understand theology, not because it is an intro to theological thinking for it is not, but becuase it describes how the theological imagination works.

Jones is a fellow Oklahoman, so I was drawn to how central the Oklahoma experience is to her theological reflection. I have been slowly working on a project for the last 13 years or so to develop a theology of plains, first focused on Oklahoma but then expanded to include Nebraska when I moved in 2010. Her chapter on Prairie Theology was fun to read.

Large parts of the book are memoiristic, but they are not strictly memoir. As someone who has published a memoir, I felt there were places that her innovative genre allowed her to avoid some of the hard work of memoir. One can't and shouldn't always move to lessons and morals from one's experience. Also, she was able to pick and choose from her experience in a way that papered over some, probably because they didn't fit the genre she had created. I also felt some experiences and relationships were insufficiently examined. But many of these criticisms are somewhat nitpicky.

But I was bothered by two times when she got her facts wrong. The first was when she described leaving her Tuesday morning class and then learning about the OKC bombing (a key event in her narrative). The bombing occurred on a Wednesday. The second was the time of death for Timothy McVeigh. She only got that one wrong by an hour. But what puzzled me is that she didn't doublecheck her memory for these central stories. Nor did any of her readers or editors correct her. Nor did her editor look up all the look-up-able facts as my editor did. Strange.

While it suggest sloppy editing, it also demonstrates the way trauma scrambles our brains.

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Robinson on Puritanism & Liberalism

Speaking of Liberalism, a fine essay by Marilynne Robinson defending the liberal history of Puritanism, along the way pointing out the illiberalism of the Lockian tradition.  

In a fun aside, she mentions that interpretation of Walt Whitman should begin with an understanding of Puritan theology.

The closing paragraph is fine; here are the final two:

Our heavily redacted history has meant the loss of many options. The idea of a good community, one whose members are happy in the fact of a general well-being, is not native to us, natural to us, possible for us—or so we are to believe. It is too far left. It is downright socialist. Hugh Peter [a Puritan divine] speaks in terms of practical enhancements, crowned roads to help prevent flooding, for example. He proposes that all advocates and attorneys should be paid by the public, that no one should be above the law. He proposes that artists and craftsmen of modest income should not be taxed. There is nothing sectarian in his list of reforms, assuming that most of us would be pleased to have improved infrastructure, equal justice before the law, a creative environment that acknowledges the social value of art.

We know our penal system is unfair and inhumane, that our treatment of immigrants threatens the ideal of a just nation. Why are we paralyzed in the face of these issues of freedom and humanity? Why are we alienated from a history that could help us find a deep root in liberality and shared and mutual happiness? Those who control the word “American” control the sense of the possible. Our public is far more liberal than our politics. Our politics must change if there is to be any future for representative democracy.