This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations or presbytery I serve.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Today's Prayer

Gracious God,
we await the end of the world.
We have always prayed that you would “quickly come!”
What we await is not the destruction 
of your beautiful planet
and not the annihilation 
of your precious and beloved children,
but the fulfillment of our world’s true purpose
revealed in Jesus Christ.  
It is he,
and the shining, glorious, 
eternal, invincible love which he embodies,
who is the end — 
the goal, destiny, purpose, and meaning — 
of our world, and of our lives.
He is the One we are waiting for.

Help us, by the power of your Spirit,
to wait with wisdom,
keeping our lamps ready,
immersed in the good work you call on us to do.

As a church 
let us live in the light of your promised coming,
serving others, 
doing justice, 
cherishing creation, 
gathering together, 
forming communities of peace and acceptance, 
forgiveness and delight, 
where every individual is heard and encouraged, 
loved and respected.

Let us separate ourselves 
from the reign of death and violence.
Let competition and envy,
greed and gluttony.
The need to be first and have more,
gain no traction among us.
But let us walk simply and gently
upon the Earth,
as Jesus did.
Leaving no wake or footprint
except love, joy, and peace.

We pray that your peace 
may extend through us
into our world.  
We pray especially for those
whose lives were disrupted
by the terror attacks in Mumbai last week.
Our hearts go out to families and friends
of those who died.
We pray for those enduring terrible violence and warfare
in the Congo, Iraq, and Afghanistan.
Help us to follow the One 
who comes as the Prince of Peace, 
responding to violence with love and forgiveness, witnessing to the power of your cross to save.

We pray, O God, for those who suffer among us
pain of body, soul, or spirit.  We especially lift up....
Restore them to wholeness, O God,
by the power of your Spirit.
Let your light shine upon and within them
knitting back together what is broken,
restoring what is lost,
banishing what is evil.

We thank you for the life of....
And for all in her/him that is good, and kind, and holy.

Help, save, comfort, and defend us, gracious Lord,
in the communion 
of all who have gone before us in the faith 
and all who will come after, 
we commend ourselves, one another, 
and our whole life to you, 
O Christ our God, 
and to you we render glory, 
now and forever.  

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Why Margaret Barker is important.

One of the topics my wife and I get into what passes for a heated discussion about is Margaret Barker.  She even refers to Margaret as “the other woman,” since as soon as Barker’s latest book comes out I may be found curled up with it for days.  Barker is deeply interesting, but as Susan continually points out, Barker is vulnerable to the “so what?” critique.  This is what I will try and answer. in these three entries.

Margaret Barker is an Old Testament scholar who has written several books, all pertaining to what she calls “Temple Theology.”  Temple Theology seeks to discover the influence and symbolism of the Temple, main the first Temple, built by Solomon, and show how it pervades the Scriptures, even undergirding much of Christian theology.
Put in historical terms, Barker’s thesis is that the religious “reform” in Jerusalem instigated by Josiah and Hilkiah in the 7th century bce was actually a purge carried out by one particular faction of Judaism which then nearly wiped out much of what had been the religion of Israel and the Temple.  The original religion was suppressed and many of its adherents were scattered.  
In her earlier work Barker identifies the hints and vestiges of this lost religion in various shreds of tradition and text both within our canonical Scriptures and in a wide variety of other sources.  Her theory is that this tradition went underground but was carefully maintained in places like the Enoch/apocalyptic and Wisdom streams.  
(Much of her evidence for all this is admittedly circumstantial and anecdotal; but she amasses so much of it that it is hard to disregard.) 
She holds that the older, suppressed religion was still around in coherent enough form to provide much of the underpinnings of Christianity.  In fact, I think Barker would say that Christianity was in many ways a resurrection, reconstitution, revival of this older and nearly lost Judaism.  Her theories would be only mildly interesting did they not provide coherent answers to several of the major puzzles of the New Testament and early Christianity.
For instance, I was working with my confirmation class a couple of Sundays ago.  We were considering the question of why it is important that Christians claim that Jesus was God.  What did that claim mean to first century people?  How is it possible?  Why is it a scandalous claim to some?  Where did the early church get this idea?  What possessed them to imagine Jesus could be worshipped and prayed to as God?  As I am reflecting with them on this I hear a voice in my head saying that if only I could get them to read Margaret Barker.  Instead, I have to sort of settle for feeding them the standard party-line.  But Barker insists that the idea of two Gods in heaven was not new to the Jews of Jesus’ time.  We see it in the distinction between Elohim and YHWH.  Furthermore, it was not unheard of for God to become a person and vice=versa.  It was already part of the older tradition that a human-being, the high priest, would “become” YHWH in the Temple ritual.  Part of the liturgy of the Temple was “becoming” angels, like Enoch becomes the heavenly being, Metatron. 
What we understand as Judaism today is really an evolved form of one particular of many sects of Judaism at the time of Jesus.  Barker holds that as Rabbinic Judaism was forming, in tension with emerging Christianity, it took steps to adjust the Scriptures, removing or changing passages that the Christians were using to support their ministry and theology.  The most public and obvious example of this is the change in the Hebrew Masoretic Text in the wording of Isaiah 7:14, from “the virgin,” a reading that remains in the Septuagint, to “a young woman.”  The Septuagint wording reflects an older Hebrew text that was not available to us until copies of it were dug up at Qumran, showing that the original had been altered.  The Septuagint wording has obvious importance for Christians who were confessing Jesus to be born of a virgin.  Barker goes on to talk about how the child to be born and called “Emmanuel,” “God-is-with-us,” referred to the role of the king as representing YHWH to the people.  And that it was not just a virgin, but the Virgin, as in a long-lost semi-Goddess tradition within Judaism.  It emerges in Revelation 12:1-6 as “the woman clothed with the sun,” and obviously gets reinterpreted in terms of Mary as theotokos.  
The effort to repress the older form of Jewish faith, replacing it with the emphasis on Moses and Torah, is something that continued among the community returning from the exile, and was then imposed on the local people when they got back to Canaan.  We see vestiges of this conflict in Third Isaiah.  We also find direct hostility towards the Second Temple and its priesthood among the sectarians at Qumran.  
And we see it reflected in the New Testament where there is explicit talk about getting away from excessive or exclusive focus on law/Torah/Moses.  Paul and Jesus both lift up the older faith of Abraham as a counter to this movement to mosaicize the faith.  Even the term “Jews” may often refer to the mosaic parties like the Pharisees, not all Israelites.  Communities loyal to the older religion may have referred to themselves by other names.  Jesus has some negative things to say (and do) concerning the Temple.  Stephen’s final sermon in Acts deliberately downplays Moses and critiques the Temple.
The early Christians talked about Jesus as God, Lord, and Messiah.  They worshiped him.  They prayed to him.  And they remembered texts showing that he had to suffer and die, and be raised.  Barker says that they were accessing and reviving something already existent within Judaism.  Standard scholarship has had to find/invent Greek influences for this direction.  I have always found this hard to believe since it happened so very early and among people who were not educated Greeks.  But Barker says there was a preformed, deeply Jewish, theological framework that the Christians adopted, adapted, and activated.  This framework was the liturgy and theology of the original Temple.
Furthermore, Jesus may have had far more detailed and comprehensive understanding of his own mission, and one much closer to what the early church would claim about him, than has been realized by many scholars to date.  It is no longer necessary (if it ever was) to rip out of Jesus’ mouth and attribute to later writers the things Jesus says (or allows to have said) about himself as God and Messiah, and about his own suffering, death, and resurrection.  Barker’s view makes the Jesus of the gospels more plausible than any of the reconstructed imaginary Jesuses which  emerge from time to time from the academic community (least of all that of the The Jesus Seminar).  Under Barker’s framework, there is no reason why Jesus could not have known who he was (Lord, God, Messiah) and what he came to do (proclaim the Kingdom of God, establish the new community, and give his life as a sacrifice).

Friday, November 21, 2008


To vest or not to vest?

I have heard the arguments on both sides.  On the one hand, vestments appear to set apart the "clergy" as a special class above the rest of the church.  They separate and distinguish one class from another.  This is pretty explicit I think in Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism, with hierarchical implications.  

Christian vestments are originally based simply on the garb of officials in the Roman Empire.  

On the other hand, what do I want to look like up there?  A corporate executive?  A lawyer?  That's what the alternative --- a business suit --- implies.  Why don't I just look like what I am which is a pastor, and wear the robe?  

Or I could wear something really loaded with baggage, like workers' clothes, or even, my favorite fantasy, the orange jumpsuit of a prisoner.  Wouldn't that make a statement?  

My wife, Susan, made another point the other day.  In some ways vestments tell a story and need to indicate the one wearing, keeping, telling, sharing the story.

The wearer of the vestments represents both the story and the people.  He/she is the interface between story and people.  

This relates a little to the role of vestments in ancient Israelite worship.  The High Priest wore the white robe of the angels when he was in the Holy of Holies, but when he was in the other courts he wore a robe of the same fabric and pattern as the veil: blue, purple, red, and white, representing the whole creation.  It was as if, coming out through the veil, the colors and the character of the veil glommed onto him.

(Surely this relates somehow to the "putting on Christ" Paul talks about.)

Anyway, I can go with a robe if it represents not a special, uplifted individual, but rather a role one undertakes as the story keeper/teller/interpreter.   


Thursday, November 20, 2008


It used to be enough to just point to a text in Scripture to settle a theological dispute among Protestants.  That doesn’t work anymore.  In her book, The Great Emergence, Phyllis Tickle points to the slavery dispute in the 19th century as the time when this consensus began to fall apart.  It was no longer enough to identify biblical texts that tolerated slavery as a justification for the practice.  I suspect the problems with the proof-text approach to Scripture go even deeper and farther back than that.  In any case, she shows how a succession of social issues served to undermine Scriptural authority, as the church learned to accept divorce, women in ministry, and now struggles with gays in ministry.  

My view has been that the church was led by the Spirit to a broader understanding of Scripture and its authority.  But I am beginning to wonder about the authority thing as well.  The Reformation replaced the authority of the ecclesiastical hierarchy with that of the Bible.  Tickle says we are at another hinge point in history and when the dust clears we will end up with a different understanding of authority.  While some will continue to hang on to sola scriptura, many will find this severely inadequate.  Many already do.  

Sola scriptura is collapsing, and it’s not just because of external cultural pressures.  It is also because of the different voices that emerge from Scripture itself.  Walter Brueggemann points out that Scripture is best interpreted dialogically.  Which is to say Scripture is always in dialogue, if not contradiction, with itself.  One of many examples of this is the disagreement in the post-exilic period between the Ezra/Nehemiah/Deuteronomist exclusivist position, and the Third Isaiah/Ruth dissenting inclusivist position.  Under Christendom the Church had to choose a single dominant narrative, and relegate other narratives to a subsidiary or even disregarded place.  Society would not bear mixed messages.  But now we are allowing ourselves to hear these other voices within Scripture.    

The need for having a monolithic and consistent message emanating from an established and unquestioned authority is probably part of the Christendom model of doing things.  In the imperial State Church it was essential to have one authority imposed hierarchically.  The Reformation did little more than adjust this authority from the Church to the Bible.  But the necessity for having a single authority and a single interpretive schema remained.  Hence the Reformed Confessions which spelled out the official, authoritative interpretation of Scripture for Reformed churches.  Hence the enthusiasm among some Presbyterians historically for requiring subscription to certain confessional standards.  Under Christendom any deviation from the standard party-line was considered a dangerous threat to the whole society.  

But our post-Christendom world means that what-is-good-for-society-as-determined-by-those- who-run-society is no longer the main consideration.  Increasingly, the Church sees something else as the main consideration.  This is its own calling as disciples and apostles of Jesus Christ.  Society’s rulers have always understood the Church to be subservient to their agenda.  Thus the Church was to bless government policy, instill productive values and loyalty in people, and administer social welfare efforts on the State’s behalf.  Now the Church is free to serve, not the State, the society, the will of the people, the economy, the ruling class, etc., but the God of love revealed in Jesus Christ.

A single, hierarchical, objective system of doctrine, imposed and enforced from “above,” is not necessary in a post-Christendom arrangement.     

I am prognosticating that the emerging authority will reflect a post-Christendom context and be non-centralized, contextual, non-standardized, non-hierarchical, and non-objective.  While the authority in the Middle Ages was the Church, and in the Modern Age it was the Bible, I am suggesting that the authority for the next age will be a more fluid and dialogical interaction involving three elements: the Word, the gathered community/ecclesia, and the Spirit.  

1) The Word of God is Jesus Christ.  The Bible is indeed not less than the Word of God, but it is so only derivatively and secondarily by virtue of its unique and authoritative witness to Jesus Christ.  The Bible is the Word of God when and because it witnesses to Jesus Christ.    

2) The gathered community is the locus for interpretation and application of the Word.  The gathering centers on Scripture as the primary medium through which they come to experience and know Jesus Christ and themselves as his body.  There is no question of the kind of individual and private interpretation towards which Protestantism always veered.

3) The movement and inspiration of the Spirit is known in and actively guides this process by driving participants out of themselves and continually offering challenges to conventional and comfortable readings.  The point of the dialogical approach is not to paralyze the gathering because one consistent, exclusive way forward cannot be identified.  It is to involve the gathering in the drama, an ongoing conversation happening among the Trinitarian God and the people.  The Spirit is the Presence of Christ leading the ecclesia towards and in himself.   

This means that not every gathering will have exactly the same theology or practice.  Ecclesial relationships will be less hierarchical or corporate and more network-like and fluid.  It will mean authority is exercised less legally and more as a matter of rhetorical persuasion.  Which is frankly more like the situation of the earliest ecclesia.  The Apostle Paul did not have the power of a hierarchy or a Book of Order or a denominational bureaucracy — or even a canon of Scripture —  behind him, let alone the force of army, police, or judges.  He had the power of his own experience, vision, theology, and ability to communicate effectively the narrative of salvation.

I foresee fluid and reforming networks of gatherings which change and shift and evolve according to the present and emerging missional requirements.  Yet I also see an imperative need to articulate and maintain the basics, the essentials, the characteristics that signify a shared faith. 

One necessary discipline will be to keep in communication with those who have different views.  The tendency will be to form coalitions of the like-minded.  The challenge will be to be continually challenged by the unlike-minded.  So this model of authority could blow apart by centrifugal force if it is not tempered and shaped by some kind of covenanting.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Yoga for Christians

My wife and I just got back from yoga class.  We try to go weekly, and do at least some sun salutations every day, or at least a few times a week.  

There was a very brief debate on CNN a while back on whether Christians should do yoga.  (You can see it on this blog:  The two contestants John MacArthur, the pastor of “Grace Community Church” (a middle-aged white guy in a suit) and Doug Pagitt (who looks about 30, wearing an open blue work shirt).  Pagitt is one of the leaders/authors in the “emerging church” movement.  

The argument against Christian involvement in yoga is that it is an expression of pantheism that focuses people on a “false” deity within, while distracting from the “true” deity above.  MacArthur articulated a disembodied, mental, and verbal understanding of faith: assent to some theological propositions and God will save you.  Summarizing MacArthur’s opinion: You need to go to the word of God, embracing in faith Christ’s sacrifice.  Then God comes, regenerates you, transforms your life, and you’re saved, you’re on your way to heaven. In short, you need to fill your mind with biblical truth and focus on the God who is above you; but yoga tries to find the God inside of you, which is a false religion.
Pagitt really didn’t present adequate theological responses, except that he knows people who do yoga who are also faithful Christians who are not harmed by it so it must be okay.

I have studied yoga off and on over the last 30 years.  My involvement with it was more than the purported health benefits of stretching exercises, which is why most Americans who do yoga do it, I think.  I have always been explicitly interested in the spiritual side of it.  It is part of my own personal search for an authentic and comprehensive spirituality.  More specifically, it represents an interface between the spiritual and the physical that interests me as a Christian for whom the Incarnation is a central doctrine.

The evangelical party-line that MacArthur spouts has never worked for me.  It smacks of what Bonhoeffer called cheap grace.  It limits faith to a cognitive opinion that bears fruit in nothing more than mouthing a few words.  What someone then goes on to actually do in and with their life is immaterial.  There is no connection between soul and body.  This teaching heads clearly in the direction of gnosticism.  

In fact, there actually are bodily postures connected with prayer in Christianity.  The Bible recommends two basic physical attitudes for prayer: kneeling (eg. Psalm 95:6) and standing (eg. Psalm 24:3).  Lifting hands and bowing down are also mentioned.  (No warrant for sitting on one’s butt in a pew or chair to pray, you notice, nor, to be fair, sitting in a lotus position.)   In the Orthodox church worshipers may perform prostrations during the Liturgy.  A prostrations is a form of bowing in which a person ends up face down on the floor.  One may argue that the yogic “sun salutation” is really just an elaborate and embellished form of a prostration.  I have never heard anyone in the Orthodox community argue that there is any health benefit to performing prostrations; it is all about submitting yourself to God in a physical, visible way.  And in the Philokalia we do find rudimentary guidelines for bodily positions enhancing prayer.  (On the negative side I would be remiss not to mention practices like self-flagellation which do attend to the body by punishing it.) 

Standing, kneeling, lifting hands, and bowing down are all part of yoga... as is sitting.  

Protestantism sought to purge nearly everything physical, multi-sensory, and bodily from Christian worship.  In what might be its most extreme and pure form, Puritanism, the congregation is literally boxed into pews, remaining motionless, using nothing more than their auditory sense.  They might stand to sing, but that’s about it.  The minister doesn’t hardly move either.  It is probably as asomatic a practice of worship as has ever existed among humans.

Even when I was a kid, growing up in Presbyterian churches, the physicality of worship was extremely understated.  It was still limited to standing and sitting, singing and listening.  Even the unavoidably physical aspects of worship, like the sacraments, were severely circumscribed.  Like the nearly water-free baptisms that still happen, or the pre-prepared tiny pillows of bread and mini cups of grape juice we still use and serve to people sitting unmoving in rows.  Liturgical dance still scandalizes.  Churches might pass the peace, choirs might process, but even these halting attempts at physical movement are not always welcomed by traditionalists.

The extremely head-centered approach to religion is neither faithful to the gospel nor attractive to people today.  The doctrines of the Incarnation and Resurrection make the physical, somatic dimension of central importance for Christians.  Beyond the health concerns, Christians involved in yoga may be trying to augment from another world spiritual tradition a piece that has always been woefully underdeveloped in Christianity.  Yet it is consonant with Christian doctrine.  The implications of the Incarnation and the bodily Resurrection have not been systematically addressed in the Christian tradition, especially in Protestantism. 

The truth of the gospel is that in Christ the living God becomes flesh to dwell among us.  Yoga is about putting some of our attention on our own “flesh” as a balance to excessive rationalism (in my case).  It gives us an authentic way to manifest the balance and integration between body and soul, flesh and spirit, earth and heaven, that is integral to Christianity but underemphasized for centuries.