“Opinions”

Lectio: Romans 14:1-12

Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions. Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables. Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat; for God has welcomed them. Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand. Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike.

Let all be fully convinced in their own minds. Those who observe the day, observe it in honor of the Lord. Also those who eat, eat in honor of the Lord, since they give thanks to God; while those who abstain, abstain in honor of the Lord and give thanks to God. We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living.

Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God. For it is written, “As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall give praise to God.” So then, each of us will be accountable to God.

Meditatio: “Opinions”

What if that’s all they were, just opinions? How often we have communion; what songs we sing during worship; which clothes we wear on Sunday mornings (or Sunday evenings, or Saturday evenings, or Saturday mornings, or…); whether the preacher is behind an ornate pulpit or an old music stand. What if that’s all they were, just opinions?What if that’s all they were, just opinions? Whether the small group should spend the first fifteen minutes praying, or talking about the football game Friday night; whether the women’s circle should give their money to the church fund, or to the woman down the street whose husband is in the hospital; whether the youth group paints the home of the neighbor who doesn’t come to our church, or paints the youth room? What if that’s all they were, just opinions?

The Christian college I attended was a dry campus, no alcohol or drunkenness permitted. This, of course, was a great comfort to many concerned parents, and a great bother to many of my peers who insisted that “freedom in Christ” gave us license to participate in any sort of behavior we wished. But does it? Does our “freedom in Christ” really permit us to behave any way we wish? I’m not sure, but I do have an opinion. I’m sure you do, too.

Paul doesn’t give us his opinion. This sort of surprised me, because he hasn’t been afraid of giving us his opinion all letter long. But he does instruct us to not judge one another, nor to quarrel over opinions. There is a Judge in heaven whose job it is to condemn those He will, and to pardon and welcome those he will. Our job, then, is simply to “live to the Lord,” and “die to the Lord.”

Oratio

Lord, remind us always of your wide embrace of the sinner, the poor, the outcast, and the weak: of us. And let the memory of our adoption drive us to welcome and care for our outsider neighbors. Grant us the patience of your provision and the peace of your protection to welcome and love people as they are, and to live and die to You.
Amen.

Contemplatio + Incarnatio

The Good and Beautiful Life: Putting on the Character of Christ

“The Good and Beautiful Life: Putting on the Character of Christ,” by James Bryan Smith. The second book in the “Apprentice of Jesus” series.

There are two primary reasons we judge others: to fix people or to make us feel better about ourselves. (These two often occur at the same time.) Though we may say we have good intentions, when we judge others we demonstrate that we care more about ourselves than the person we are judging. If we really cared, we would adopt another approach…

Condemnation engineering. When we see someone who is at fault, caught in sin or behaving badly, we often turn to the method the world commonly uses to “fix” people: condemnation engineering. A verbal assault, we think, will set them straight, and it appears to work. We reason, If I give so and so a good talking to, they will shape up. It is a very powerful weapon in our arsenal. The people we judge or condemn often shrivel, get angry or cry when under our judgment. Once in while a person makes some changes, which reinforces the narrative that this method works.

Seeing it work increases our confidence in the power of condemnation as a means of correction, and it has become the primary method people use all over the world. Parents, educators, coaches and bosses take this route to fix the people under their authority. Many people believe it is the only way to help others change…

Condemnation engineering fails because it doesn’t come across as loving, it doesn’t allow the person to own the need for change, it doesn’t offer help toward change, and it may be entirely inaccurate…

If we really want to see people change, we have to be willing to come alongside them and participate with them, to make sacrifices of our own time and energy. I am so thankful that I have the privilege of prayer and the resources of the kingdom of God.

~ from The Good and Beautiful Life, by James Bryan Smith

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“Enemies”

A Prayer for Seminarians, at the Start of a New School Year

Lectio: Romans 12:9-21

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Meditatio

This week is the first week of classes at the seminary, and the first “first week of classes” I will not be attending in 20 years. It’s strange. I love school, and I excel in that environment, so I am sad to not return. At the same time, I graduated in May: I have achieved what seminary has offered, and the skills and education that I have received have a purpose, a trajectory, an end — ministry. I am somehow finished with formal preparation, and I stand on the verge of entering formal (read “full-time, ordained”) ministry. I am ready and excited and anxious and retrospective.

As I read Paul’s instructions to the Christian communities in Rome, I can’t help but hear them as instructions for the Christian community I am leaving behind (and, of course, the Christian community I will soon be leading).

city of godOratio

Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; God-in-Unity,

Let love reign at Western Theological Seminary this year. In classrooms, offices, and library study carrels, let love for you, love for one another, and love for your Word and your people guide and go before faculty, staff, and students.

Proclaim your Good News every morning in Mulder Chapel, through the voices of middlers and emeriti alike, so that all members of the Western community might outdo one another in holding fast to what is good, and persevering through the weekly tasks of readings, papers, grading, and meetings. Send your Spirit upon them all, so they do not lag in zeal, but serve you diligently. Let them rejoice during breaks, be patient during exams, and persevere in prayer for one another always.

Thank you for all those who have been involved on summer maintenance crews, and who are eagerly working to provide housing to new students. Protect and provide for those who care for the buildings, for the internet and other technological resources, and for the coffee in the bookstore. In your hospitality toward them, move the students, staff, and faculty to extend hospitality to the strangers who frequently share this space.

And in those moments when frail human love fails — when blessings turn to curses; when hospitality is withheld; when institution comes before individuals; when grades are a tyrant, rather than a servant — go before and go between those who are hurt. Interpose your grace, that all may receive it, and give it to one another, and forgive one another. Raise up advocates and counselors and listeners, who might rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep. Let your love guide the members of the body of Western to live in harmony with one another, and live peaceably with all.

Where Satan sows the temptation to be relevant, to go along, to be popular, remind them of the sufficiency of your grace as the font is filled each morning. Let assimilating and conforming cease, and foster by your Word and by your Spirit a community where no one feels they must surrender their differences to belong or be valued.

Where Satan sows the temptation to perform, to compete, to impress, remind them of the sufficiency of your grace as the bread is broken each Friday. Let posturing and presuming cease, and foster by your Word and by your Spirit a community where no one feels they must claim to be wiser than they are.

Where Satan sows the temptation to oppose, to malign, to be against, remind them of the sufficiency of your grace as the cup is poured each Friday. Let gossiping and demonizing cease, and foster by your Word and by your Spirit a community where no one feels they must repay anyone evil for evil.

Surprise Western Theological Seminary with these sacraments, where the wrath of God pours out against all enemies to unity and love in small, simple ways. Overcome the subtle and secret evils among the community with your good gifts.

For all of these things, and for all the ways you stand ready to lead and love Western Theological Seminary, we pray with thankful praise and eager anticipation. In our Lord Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.

Contemplatio

Reading Romans after Watching “The Giver”

Lectio: Romans 12:1-8

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.

Meditatio: “Members One Of Another”

The Giver (2014) PosterMy wife and I went to see “The Giver” this past weekend. My junior high education was incomplete, as I had not read this book in 7th grade, and so I spent all last week reading it beforehand, and found that I liked it far more than I thought I would. I anticipated being bored, mostly because the dystopia genre is getting pretty tired. But this turned out to be a pretty fascinating story, told simply and honestly.

As I read and reread Paul’s letter to the Romans, I am reminded of what should have been a utopia in Lois Lowry’s book. The community has a real sense of its unity and interdependence, and each person’s role is clearly understood to foster unity, rather than threaten it. But in the end, utopia sours for Jonas (the protagonist, assigned the role of “Receiver of Memory”), as he discovers — remembers? — that their unity is really “Sameness,” and all major differences (races, religions, colors, languages, expressions, even climates) had to be sacrificed to achieve this unity.

The community was made to conform in order to preserve “Sameness.” Paul has in mind a unity far more costly and far more precious than mere sameness, when he calls the Romans to “be transformed” into “members one of another.” It can be tempting to hide away in like-minded enclaves, in a world so fragmented. We go to those places or churches or internet sites where we know we can find people like us, who like what we like, who like us. We avoid or ignore the “other,” in order to feel secure. Paul, and Lowry, challenge this cheap, easy understanding of “unity.” A unity without differences is not unity, after all, but only “sameness,” and is somehow hollow and colorless.

It’s hard work to be “members one of another” with those who are different: with people who have more or less money than you do; with people who pursue different ideas of “the good life” than you do; with people who grew up — and raise their children — to have different values than you do; with people who look or think or act or love differently than you do. This is hard work, and often feels impossible. There are few places anymore where we naturally come near such differences, in a world so fragmented. But the hard work is made easier when we hear Paul’s invitation: “be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2). We are not called to become like others, or make others like us. We are not called to sameness. We are called to Christ-likeness. Renewing our minds, being transformed, following after Christ, all point us away from the dividing lines we so often fixate on. This is hard work, but all the heavy lifting is done by the Holy Spirit, once we start looking the right way.

Oratio: “Unity, Purity, and Peace”

At the end of The Giver (at least, the film adaptation), Jonas leaves the community, in order that they remember the memories they have been hiding in their “Receivers of Memory,” “back and back and back.” Jonas, no longer a member of his community, finds home. Christmas carols drift from the warmly lit cabin. It’s a pretty hopeful ending. Jonas discovers over the course of the film that feeling and experiencing and giving love is worth all the pain and conflict that such vulnerability has come with.

I attended my friend’s installation into the office of Minister of Word and Sacrament this afternoon, and the congregation he will be serving promised “to labor together in obedience to the gospel for the honor of our Lord Jesus Christ, the unity, purity, and peace of the church, and the welfare of the whole world?” This is an echo of the promise they — and everyone in my denomination — make individually when they publicly become members of the local church. How are we laboring together for “the unity, purity, and peace of the church”? The recent fervor for “missional churches,” or “communities on mission,” or whatever jargon your church is using to get people to do more, is all well and good, but if it comes at the cost of training people in righteousness to live together in unity and peace, then it misses the mark. How are we working toward answering the prayer Jesus prayed?

“I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” (John 17:20-23).

Contemplatio

Lord, make us one, as you and the Father and the Spirit are one. Grant us peace in the midst of all the changes and transitions and differences and conflicts that plague your world. Draw us to seek the deep purity that comes from hearing and obeying your Word, rather than the cheap purity that comes from sameness. Let the world see moments when we bear each others’ burdens and forgive each other and give grace easily, and see you alive on earth again. And bring us home again in your kingdom, where love and grace and hope thrive and flourish, and create new life every morning. Amen.

“The Word is Near You”

Lectio: Romans 10:5-15

 Moses writes concerning the righteousness that comes from the law, that “the person who does these things will live by them.”

But the righteousness that comes from faith says, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’ ” (that is, to bring Christ down) “or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’ ” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say? “The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved.

The scripture says, “No one who believes in him will be put to shame.” For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”

Meditatio: “The Word is Near You”

Lectio Divina is very difficult, I find, when dealing with a familiar passage. All the words have become both freighted with over-interpretation and, at the same time, made hollow by familiarity. It takes a great deal of extra concentration and openness to the let the Spirit speak where so many have spoken already.

Nevertheless, the Spirit speaks, sometimes even through the voices of the preachers and teachers and readers and Christian witnesses who have spoken in the past. It is more and more important for me to honor those through whom the Spirit has spoken in the past, rather than disregard them or discredit them (because I’ve been to seminary, and know what this all really means). Such arrogance and, to quote C. S. Lewis, “chronological snobbery,” closes me to what the Spirit wishes to say.

Lectio, is, for me, one of the ways that “the Word is near.” The Spirit can lift up and use any one of my remembered Sunday School lessons, or sermon I’ve heard, or seminary lecture, or conversation, or the Spirit can put all of them aside and speak in a new word. The key is humility and openness.

Oratio

Holy Spirit, Companion and Comforter,

Thank you for using the remembered and written words of thousands of years of Your people to speak still today, in new and fresh ways.

Amen.

Contemplatio & Incarnatio

I can’t help it. I have to include these excerpts from Karl Barth’s commentary on Romans, because they are a challenge and a call to me to reflect more on my view of the Church, its task, and the its relationship to words and The Word. Read at your own risk.

The Church is the place of fruitful and hopeful repentance; it is nothing else. When the Church crashes up against this point, it is overwhelmed with disgust at its convulsive attempts, at one moment to “ascend into heaven,” at another to, “descend into the abyss;” it is appalled that it should have tried to be both “height” and “depth,” to occupy them, speak of them, point them out, and apportion them. There is a certain horror at all attempts to bring about the work of God, to effect the incarnation of divinity or the resurrection of humanity, by employing the dynamic, demonic power of the Church’s own word. The Church may refine its liturgy; popularize its technical language; broaden the basis of the education of its clergy; see that its administration is made more efficient; yield hurriedly to the demands of the laity, however doubtful they may be; encourage theological journalism; approximate more closely to the uncertainties of the “spirit of the age,” to romanticism, liberalism, nationalism, and socialism; may, in fact, “bring Christ into the picture”! But when He is brought into the picture, it is discovered that we cannot introduce Him thus, either by bringing Him down, or by bringing Him up. For Christ is not the exalted and transformed ideal man. He is the new man….

Once this were perceived, the Church — and in the term is included every conceivable little conventicle which passionately denies that it is a Church — would be the place where, contrasted with all other places, the proper, inexhaustible distance of “height” and “depth” would be apprehended, set forth, and maintained.

Then the Church would be able to express itself. The Church is not bound to be silent…For silence before God gives meaning both to our silence and to our most eloquent speech. Then the Church would be the place where men receive the message of joy and the positive Word of God. For it would be the place where — distinct from all moralizings and sentimentalities — the supreme negation of the Word of the Cross could be heard without the disturbance of other words….

A Church capable of retiring from all its sacred heights and depths, from all its extensive and intensive ecclesiastical possibilities; a Church determined to retrace its steps from every distant country, in order that it may move in the “nearness” of the lives of men and in the ambiguity of their existence, would thereby embrace its true task, and in its own misery and responsibility would encounter Him, who has ordered human affairs that in them He may be nigh at hand.

In thus describing the resignation of the Church and its severe concentration upon the matter in hand, we are not describing some new “reformation.” Rather, we are thinking once again of [the True Church], of the Church in the desert; we are thinking of miracle and faith, of the impossible possibility, which is beyond our observation, and which, therefore, we cannot think of in terms of some new movement of reform or of some new school of thought. We mean that which is everywhere and always present in every possible Church as soon as it in any way takes itself seriously.

The retirement of the Church upon its inner lines is not a maneuver which we can plan, set in motion, and accomplish. The retirement of the Church is the strategic significance of its already existing maneuvers — a significance which already exists and which occurs without any preparatory circulation of orders, without any practical consideration whatever, and without any increase of establishment. What we mean is the new orientation of all possible human activity, the step from hope to tribulation and from tribulation to hope, the eternal advance, which accompanies or does not accompany, which assists or hinders, all human progress. Set over against all human possibilities, it is the “Wholly Other;” and because it is this it is the possibility that is always and everywhere open — the possibility for the living, Unknown God to be what He is.

Now, this open possibility means that behind and above and in [the False/Visible Church] — however degenerate and priest-ridden it may be — is [the True/Invisible Church]. When we say that “the Word is nigh thee,” we are simply speaking again of the righteousness of God, ever awaiting our serious consideration, ever waiting for us to hear it and proclaim it, ever ready to display its efficacy in causing us oppression and in setting us free. Yet, because it is the Word of Christ, it is beyond our hearing and beyond our speaking; for, to hear it and proclaim it — we must wait…Far too transcendant, far too important, far too full of significance, is the Word of God by which the Church is constituted! We cannot endure it — even though it be heard by human ears and proclaimed by human lips!…

The Word is nigh unto us….

But here we must not forget to reckon with impossibility. For impossibility is, as such, nigh at hand, ready at our elbow, possible. Impossibility presses upon us, breaks over us, is indeed already present. Impossibility is more possible than everything we hold to be possible. The light shineth in the darkness.