Saturday, December 10, 2011

2012 Return, Link, etc.

Between a new baby at home (the adventures of whom you can follow on Jessica's blog) and Advent/Christmas preparations at Arlington UMC (check out the church's webpage for Christmas service times if you're in the Nashville area), I haven't had a whole lot of time to put together fully formed blog posts. After feeling guilty about this for a while, I just decided to accept my limitations and let it slide for the rest of the year.

The Truth As Best I Know It will return in 2012, when I'm sure I'll be having lots of thoughts about the Presidential race, the sure to be many "end of the world" predictions, Claire being baptized in the same church as her dad, and maybe even a theological/spiritual thought or two.

I know most of the readers of this site (hi Mom!) enjoyed the Project Israel series I did earlier this year, and my friend and colleague Rev. Jill Howard and her husband, Corey, are leading a Holy Land pilgrimage right now and blogging about their experiences. Their site is called Memorial UMC in the Holy Land, and it's a great look at the settings of the biblical narratives, particularly at this time of year. Check it out.

See you in 2012!

Monday, November 28, 2011

Advent Devotions from Arlington UMC

The people of Arlington UMC collaborate each year to produce an Advent devotional book, and this year's product, "The Best is Yet to Come" is outstanding.

You can read each day's devotion on Arlington's homepage, and if you're in Nashville, you can come by the church for a hard copy.

Each day's reading contains a brief scripture passage, a reflection or memory, and a brief prayer. We hope that this devotional guide is a blessing to you in this season.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

An All-Saints' Angel

On this All-Saints' Day, I was blessed with the gift of another angel in my family. Claire Moriah Kelley came into the world (unofficially #7,000,000,001 on earth) at 10:21pm at Centennial Hospital in Nashville. She weighs 6 pounds, 15 ounces, and is 20.5 inches long.

Thanks to everyone for the prayers and good thoughts that have been coming our way. They've been felt and appreciated.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

An actual day off. Huh?

I've turned in all my ordination materials, which I've been working on since June. This coming Sunday is Laity Sunday, and a very gifted member is preaching the sermon. So if Claire doesn't decide to come before Friday, I'll actually have a day off that doesn't involve doing church work. I'm having trouble processing this concept in my brain. So I ask you, dear reader, what should I do? How shall I spend a true sabbath?

Monday, October 17, 2011

Cool Stuff up for Auction!

I think it's blog protocol to put up an apology/excuse if one has gone more than a few days without a post, so sorry I haven't been blogging much lately. I know the literally tens of people who read this have been starving for more of my musings. #sarcasm

The truth is that I'm knee-deep in finishing ordination papers, which I'm hoping to have turned in before Claire arrives. You'll be seeing lots of coverage of her birth (the cute parts, not the gross parts) here and on Jessica's blog.

But there is something cool for you to check out right now! As part of Arlington's Harvest Celebration, we're auctioning off donated items to raise money for building repairs. One of the items is so cool, we just had to put it out there for everybody to have the chance to get.

It's a basket full of CMA stuff, including four tickets to the taping of the CMA Country Christmas Show at the Bridgestone Arena on November 10.

We have two of these baskets and we've put them up on Ebay, and you can check them out and make a bid on the Ebay widget we have on the Arlington homepage, or right here!

Monday, October 10, 2011

Columbus Day Images

No commentary (for once). Just some things to ponder.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Little Town of Bethlehem Special Screening

Arlington United Methodist Church will be hosting a special screening of the documentary film, Little Town of Bethlehem on Sunday, October 9, at 6pm.

From the film's website: Little Town of Bethlehem, a documentary film, follows the story of three men of three different faiths and their lives in Israel and Palestine. The story explores each man’s choice of nonviolent action amidst a culture of overwhelming violence.

This is an extremely powerful film, and if you're in the Nashville/Middle TN area, I encourage you to attend. If you're interested, see my Project Israel posts from earlier this year to see what I experienced firsthand in this region.

If you have any questions, please feel free to leave a comment here or message me privately.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Budrus- streaming today only!

I've shared my feelings about the relations between Israel and Palestine on a number of occasions, and I've begun and deleted at least half a dozen blog posts this week about the issue of Palestinian statehood coming before the UN's current session.

But here's something that will speak about these issues better than any of my words ever could. A documentary about nonviolent resistance to the Israeli occupation in Palestine called "Budrus" (the name of the village where this particular movement originated), is streaming for free online for anyone in the US today (September 21) only.

Unfortunately, I can't embed the Mubi player here, but go over to the page and you can watch it. Do yourself a favor and discover a side of this conflict that we in the US rarely ever hear about.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Romans series week 8- Overview and Wrapup

This week we will be wrapping up our eight week series on Romans, "Grace is for Everybody", and we'll be reading Romans 15:14-22 in the worship service.

Paul is beginning to wind down the letter, having made all of his major theological points, and now he’s talking a bit about himself and how he perceives his role in the rapidly expanding Jesus-movement. Here we see Paul affirming again (as he did in chapter 1) his confidence in the Roman church. He isn’t writing this letter to them to fix specific problems, even though he addresses number of general issues happening all over the place. Paul talks about his desire to go to Spain, which we don’t know if he ever did, but it’s likely that he never made it past Rome, where church tradition says he was martyred in a wave of persecutions under Nero, as was the apostle Peter.

This week’s message won’t dive too deeply into the text. Instead, we’ll be recapping the different things we’ve covered in the past seven weeks, but I do want to put some questions out there, nonetheless.

Given that Romans covers such a wide range of topics, how do we do a coherent summary in one sermon?

Repeating the question we began with, what do you see as the overall theme of Romans?

Are there passages or issues in Romans that we’ve skipped over that you wish we had covered? It’s still possible that we could hit them.


New podcast- Grace is for Everybody pt. 7- People with Different Needs

The latest episode of the Arlington UMC podcast is live. This week is part 7 of our eight week series on Romans, "Grace is for Everybody". This week we're considering Romans 14:1-17. The message is titled "People with Different Needs".

You can listen in the media player below, on Arlington's webpage, on, or subscribe to us on iTunes. If you're on iTunes, please rate us and write a review so they'll promote our podcast!

Check back later today for notes and questions on the final installment of our series on Romans, where we'll be recapping all the things we've been talking about and asking "now what?".

As always, comments are always appreciated.


Thursday, September 15, 2011

Romans Series pt. 7- notes and questions

We're down to the next to last week in our eight part series on Romans, "Grace is for Everybody". This week we're reading Romans 14:1-8.

Chapter 14 is the “beginning of the end”, not in the apocalyptic sense, but Paul is wrapping up his theological commentary, and spends the last half of chapter 15 and all of chapter 16 with final greetings and whatnot.

Last week we saw Paul talking about communal ethics, both for those in the church and how to deal with outsiders, particularly those who weren’t friendly. This week we see more ethical discussion, with Paul focusing in on the fact that people in the church come from extremely different backgrounds. Although the words “Jew” and “Gentile” aren’t used, the context of Paul’s comments suggests that’s what he’s talking about, particularly when he talks about what one chooses what they eat. Paul uses the phrases “the strong” and “the weak”, but they aren’t necessarily stand-ins for Jews and Gentiles, respectively.

The context of meat and vegetables has to due with Christians who chose to keep the Jewish food laws, specifically that it was often difficult to know if the meat one purchased in a market had been used in a pagan sacrifice, so some people in the Roman church evidently felt that eating such meat, even if they weren’t aware of whether it was sacrificed or not, was participating in idolatry, and therefore a sin. For others, that wasn’t an issue, so Paul is exhorting the people not to pass judgment on one another because of these differences, and appreciate that people can be very faithful in very different ways.

The same idea applies to the days one considers holy described in verse 5. Jewish Christians usually observed the different Jewish festivals, whereas Gentile Christians often did not, and were often giving up other festivals they used to observe before they became part of the church. A Gentile Christian might well get upset with a Jewish Christian because he had to give up his festivals, whereas the other did not. Paul is telling them to get over it. We’re all on the same team here, and eating meat and observing certain holy days is not a deal breaker.

One does not have to belong to one particular cultural form to faithfully follow Jesus- something that many Western missionaries in recent centuries have forgotten, often to the detriment of native cultures. 

Later in chapter 14, after the passage we’re reading Sunday, Paul encourages his readers/hearers to not “put a stumbling block in your brother/sister’s way”, knowingly doing something that would make another’s faith journey harder.

The most immediate example that comes to mind is alcohol use. When I was in college, the Campus Crusade group said that ever having a drink anywhere could possibly be a stumbling block to someone else, so you should never do it. While I can appreciate the care that demonstrates for others, I think the obsession with alcohol is more indicative of the hangover (pun intended) that our culture has from the prohibition era than in alcohol being a major issue in God’s eyes.

Here are some questions:

Paul clearly believes there are areas where people of faith can disagree and neither be wrong or right. Do you share this view? Why or why not?

What areas are ones where people of faith can have differing views. Are there issues you think we all have to agree on? If so, what?

What are some “stumbling blocks” that could be difficult for people today? Are there some instances where we should yield our own preferences or desires for the good of someone else?

Anything else of interest that I haven’t brought up here? Discuss...

Monday, September 12, 2011

New AUMC Podcast- Grace is for Everybody part 6

The latest episode of the Arlington UMC Podcast is online. This message is part 6 of our eight week series on Romans, "Grace is for Everybody". It's called "The Renewed Creation" and is based on Romans 12:9-21.

Being the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, that event is discussed in light of the biblical text.

You can listen on the media player below, on Arlington's webpage, on, or subscribe on iTunes. In fact, if you're on iTunes, could you take the time to rate our podcast and write a review? That will increase the chances that iTunes will promote our podcast.

I'm at Duke for the Full Connection seminar, so I'll get notes and questions for week 7 up as soon as I can. Until then, comments are always welcome!

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Romans series Week 6

This week we're reading Romans 12:9-21 in worship. The tentative sermon title is "Marks of the Renewed Creation".

This week, the context in which this sermon is preached has a major effect on how it will be shaped. That’s always true to a certain extent with any sermon, but this Sunday is the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, so the question, “what does this text have to say to us today?” is especially important.

Chapter 12 begins the last major section of Romans, where Paul’s theology gets practical in exhortations about ethical living. Instructions about specific attitudes are the content of the passage we’re focusing on this week. NT Wright argues that Paul doesn’t have the nuanced concepts of later philosophers distinguishing individual morality from that of the community, so, Wright says, what Paul is talking about here is more properly called “ecclesiology”, which is seminary-speak for how the church is supposed to live together as a community formed by Christ.

Paul uses two different words for “love” in Greek, agape and philadelphia, both of which are used interchangeably elsewhere in Paul’s writings, so we know he’s talking about the deep, gut level love that is more than just warm fuzzies or raging hormones. Again, this reinforces the idea that Paul’s exhortation is communal in nature.

He then gives some advice on how to live amongst those that are not part of the Christian community, who may not share these values and might even be hostile to them. The appropriate response to people hostile to Christians is to bless them, and not to curse them. Televangelists who proclaim God’s judgment against their personal enemies list might want to read this passage carefully. As do those who argue that Christians have to self-segregate to avoid any temptation to sinning. Paul concludes by encouraging people to let God dispense justice.

Before we get to the questions- a quick aside. This is one of the few places where Paul is echoing the teachings of Jesus, almost word for word in this passage. Paul’s letters were written before the gospels, which is often pointed to as the reason Paul never quotes them as such. But the stories in the gospels were being told before they were written down in the form we have them now, so it’s reasonable to assume that Paul was familiar with the stories and teachings of Jesus, even though he focuses almost exclusively on the suffering and death of Jesus, and the cosmic implications of it.

Now for the questions:
What might the ethics Paul is advocating look like in the church today? Give a specific example (don’t name names, though) if you can.

How do we deal with those we perceive to be hostile to us or our understanding and practice of our faith?

Since this passage is divided into two different sections, do you think there are separate standards of ethics for how Christians treat those inside the community and those outside of it, or are we supposed to treat all people the same?

How does this passage and these issues resonate with us in light of the anniversary of 9/11 and all the ways our country and our world have changed since then?

Anything else about this passage stand out? Discuss

Thursday, September 01, 2011

Nonviolent Resistance in Palestine

One of the questions I've heard lots of people ask me since my pilgrimage to the Holy Land (you can check out my Project Israel posts for the rundown of the things our group saw and did) is why the Palestinians don't engage in nonviolent resistance. Several people have even said, "they just need a Palestinian Martin Luther King, and this whole thing would get solved".

While that particular statement is probably oversimplifying the complexity of the issues, the short answer is that there is lots of nonviolent resistance to the Israeli occupation. One example I saw firsthand is the Tent of Nations project. We in America just don't hear about these things very much.

This is the point where someone typically blames "the media", and to a certain extent there is some truth to that finger-pointing, because stories about death and destruction tend to attract more readers/viewers (the whole "if it bleeds, it leads" concept), and these organizations are businesses.

But I do think there's something else that lies beneath the surface. Seeing resistance to the Israeli occupation that doesn't involve bombs or guns interrupts the convenient narrative of Israeli good guys vs. Palestinian/Arab Muslim terrorists we've constructed. To consider that Israel might be treating Palestinians unfairly, and that not all Palestinians want to "drive Israel into the sea" requires us to think more deeply about the issue. It might even force us to ask some hard questions of ourselves and wonder if our country is always the good guy in the white hat, since Israel and the USA have so many close ties.

The video below is from a TED conference, by a filmmaker that tries to remedy the lack of attention paid to nonviolent resistance in Palestine. Watch it, and consider for just a moment that complex international issues might not be as black and white as we've been lead to believe.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Romans Series Week 5 Notes and Questions

We are now in Week 5 of our eight week series on Romans- "Grace is for Everybody". This week we're reading chapters 9 through 11, specifically Romans 11:1-2a, 13-24.

This passage caps off another section of Romans that, like chapters 5 through 8, some scholars think to be a precomposed unit unto itself. If one took these three chapters out, the line of argument going through chapter 8 could flow straight into 12. Given how much Paul jumps around and frequently stops mid-sentence only to come back to the same idea after going down a totally different path, the incongruity of these chapters isn’t all that surprising, given what we know about the writer. Whatever the case may be, these chapters are here, and people have had a lot of opinions about them.

The central question is, given what God has done in Jesus the Messiah, how do we understand Israel’s role in what God is doing?

Some writers have posed this question slightly differently, asking now that Jesus has come, what is Israel’s purpose? That question, framing it in terms of time, rests upon the assumption that Israel’s sole purpose is to produce the Messiah. But as many messianic promises and foreshadowing as we Christians tend to read into the Old Testament, we never see such a thing expressed as part of God’s covenant with Israel.

The covenant language we read in the first books of the Old Testament talk about Israel being a “holy people” and “priestly kingdom” whose purpose is to demonstrate to the world who God is. Christians believe that this is what happens in the person of Jesus, being the definitive (but not final) revelation of who God is, but this doesn’t mean that this is the only way Israel goes about proclaiming God’s identity.

When discussing the relationship of the Judaism and Christianity (which, at the time of Paul’s writing, were not two separate religions as we understand them today), there is an 800 pound gorilla sitting in the corner that has not been there for most generations encountering this text: the Holocaust. Obviously mass genocide is not the context in which Paul is writing, but it is part of the context in which we interpret what this text means for us, so while the actions of Adolf Hitler have to come in to the discussion, they don’t need to set the agenda.

We should also note that the current popularity of Dispensational theology (the Left Behind novels, etc.), with its insistence that the reestablishment of Israel as a political state (which has, of course, happened) and the building of a third Temple (which has not) are necessary for the “second coming” of Jesus, plays a role in how many people address this question today.

NT Wright claims that the story Paul is setting up in these chapters is intended to be a counter-narrative to that of the Roman Empire. Rome points back to Romulus and Remus, traces its heritage through great rulers, all culminating in Caesar sitting on the throne as lord of all creation. Paul, in turn, takes the shape of that same story, points back to Abraham, whose descendants become Israel, culminating in Jesus, who is “Lord of Lords and King of Kings” (a title taken by the Caesars). So rather than explicit supersessionism, Paul is likely being politically subversive against the theological claims of the Empire. As a citizen of the current most powerful nation in the world, this gives me pause to examine the stories we tell about our own nation and what God’s role is in our rise to dominance. Perhaps we should back off on our claims of God’s unquestioned approval of all our government’s (or one particular party’s) actions.

Like last week, the whole “predestination” thing rears it head in these chapters, particularly chapter 9, and we likely won’t be addressing that issue this time around. Perhaps it merits coming back to for another sermon or series as part of a larger discussion about who God is and what salvation is.

Paul laments of Israel’s “unbelief”. Since he, himself, is a Jew, and never renounces that identity, he desperately wants the rest of his people to experience what he is experiencing. This is not, necessarily, because he thinks they will go to Hell if they don’t get on board. I have never read any examination of what, if anything, Paul believed about the concept of Hell, but I’m sure it’s out there somewhere. If any New Testament scholars want to point something out, I’d be grateful.

In spite of Paul’s lament over Israel’s rejection of Jesus as the Messiah, he emphatically states that God has not abandoned Israel (11:1, 11:11, etc). In the part of chapter 11 that we will be reading on Sunday, Paul is warning Gentile Christians against falling into the same trap that some of the Jewish Christians had- assuming they were superior because of their ethnicity. This is the part I’m most interested in, because one of the biggest temptations that human beings experience is to assume that they are better than someone else because of any kind of external factors, instead of seeing that the image of God in all people makes us all of equally sacred worth.

The image of branches grafted on to an olive tree is a very vivid one, even if it doesn’t represent what horticulturists would actually do, blending wild and cultivated vines in the way Paul describes. There is empty space left by cultivated branches that were intentionally broken off, and those spaces are filled by the wild branches. If the vine represents the Kingdom, is there some implication here that space is limited? I hope not!

There’s also a certain messiness implied in the grafting of branches from one tree on to another. While they’re similar enough to coexist, they’re different enough that the mingling can easily go wrong, so there has to be a lot of tending and care for it to work. Does that say something for us about diversity in the church and how we handle cultivating the meeting and mixing of different cultures?

I’ve thrown out several questions in the above paragraphs, so feel free to comment on those or anything else you feel relevant. Then tune in next week to see how this came to fruition in the sermon.

New AUMC Podcast- Grace is for Everybody part 4

The latest episode of the Arlington UMC podcast is up. This message is part 4 of our eight week series on the Book of Romans- "Grace is for Everybody". It's called "Nothing Can Separate Us", and is based on Romans 7:15-20; 8:31-39.

You can listen on the media player below, on Arlington's webpage, on, or subscribe on iTunes. In fact, if you're on iTunes, could you take the time to rate our podcast and write a review? That will increase the chances that iTunes will promote our podcast.

Check in later today for notes and questions on Romans chapter 11.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

I'm "Them"

When I was in college, I was a political science major, and I couldn't get enough of campaigns and debates. I had cable news on all the time, and I was actively engaged in whatever they were talking about.

Maybe it's because I'm a little older, or more cynical, or that I have more responsibilities, but those things that used to invigorate me now just wear me out. Particularly all the scapegoating we see going on. Everything that happens is somehow proof that whomever is speaking's agenda is correct, and any problem is always somebody else's fault.

I get that that's the game when it's one candidate or political party vs. another, but what really amazes me is when we point to things like "the economy", "the market", "the media", or "the voters". All these terms are simply the sum total of actions taken by members of the groups of which we are a part, but very few people seem to own up to their participation.

(Sidenote- the irony that the biggest ratings giant in cable news is the one who most frequently villifies "the media" is simultaneously awesome and highly depressing)

So I'll go ahead and own up to it. I'm part of "them". I'm part of the problem.

I'm part of "the economy" because I'm a middle class American that consumes way more than my share of the world's resources.

I'm part of "the market" because I'm saving for my retirement and my kids' college tuition using the stock market, with the sole goal of making money on my investment.

I'm part of "the media", not because lots of people read my blog (they don't- I'll show you the metrics), but because, like everyone else, I'm much more likely to look at a story about a sex scandal than I am one about monetary policy, famine in Africa, or someone making a positive difference in the world. Media organizations are businesses that are almost entirely dependent on ad revenue, so the more eyeballs they draw, the more money they make, and they know what we will consume.  In fact, I'm more guilty than most because, as Homer Simpson said, "I'm a white male between the ages of 18 and 45. Everyone cares what I think!"

I'm part of "the voters". I vote, even in midterm elections. I communicate my concerns to my representatives and to my best to talk about issues with others in a respectful manner. I have yet to create a sign that puts a Hitler mustache on anybody. So maybe I'm not so much part of the problem in this respect.

I try very hard to be part of the solution, but at the same time I continue to be part of the problem. Perhaps if we spent more time examining our own role in large, complex problems, and less time pointing fingers at the list of usual suspects, we might make some progress in solving them.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Romans series week 4- notes and questions

This week we're focusing on Romans chapters 7 and 8, specifically 7:15-20 and 8:31-39.

I’m going to go ahead and admit a bias upfront. The last few verses of Romans 8 is my absolute favorite passage in the whole Bible. It’s one of the most profound expressions of how limitless God’s love and grace are, and my temptation is to structure the entire sermon around just that. But there is a lot of theological red meat in chapters 7 and 8.

Paul’s “I” in chapter 7 is likely a rhetorical device, personifying one of the fundamental contradictions of the human conditions- having a sense of the way things, including ourselves, should be, and the disconnect we see in within us and the world. As such, Paul is likely using hyperbole in saying that there is absolutely no good in him, and is not articulating a doctrine of “total depravity”. That’s one that has its roots in Augustine, several centuries later.

To be fair, though, there are plenty of people who have thought that Paul was speaking in the first person and that he was establishing said doctrine. In his extensive Lectures on Romans, Luther states very matter-of-factly that Paul is speaking for himself and on behalf of all humanity. Luther’s chief source to back up his conclusions is Augustine.

The verses that come just before the section we’re reading from chapter 8 have been the subject of much discussion and debate over the years. Paul uses words that get translated in English as “foreknew” and “predestined”, leading some people to conclude that God has decided beforehand who will be saved and who will be damned. This idea has found its fullest expression in the work of John Calvin, but Karl Barth has also put forth the solution of “universal predestination”, whereby everyone is saved, whether they like it or not.

John Wesley preached quite eloquently against said doctrine, saying “if this be so, then all preaching is in vain” (in his 1739 sermon, “Free Grace”). Mr. Wesley, following the lead of Jacob Arminius, thought that if one’s eternal destination were predetermined, then we should all just do whatever the heck we want, and churches shouldn’t bother doing anything, since they can’t affect it. We likely won’t be dealing this issue in the sermon this week, but feel free to comment on it if you’re so inclined.

NT Wright says that Romans 5-8 is one sustained argument, which Wright titles “God’s People in Christ as the True Humanity” that possibly had been composed beforehand and then inserted into the letter. Preachers do this kind of thing with favorite sermon illustrations, throwing them in over and over again whenever it fits the context. The final part of chapter 8, which is included in this Sunday’s reading, is the great crescendo of the sermon, kind of like the repetition of “let freedom ring” in Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream”.

Paul rounds this section out by articulating his unshakable assurance that God’s love trumps all.

So, here are some questions: Do you think that human beings, whether corporately or individually, are completely incapable of good? What do you make of this paradox Paul is talking about?

It’s easy to say that nothing separates us from God’s love, but how fully do we believe that? Are there things we hold on to because on some level, we don’t believe that anyone would love us if they knew?

Unfortunately, the way Christians act towards others preaches a very different message than what Paul is saying at the end of Romans 8. How might the church look differently if that was our core belief?

Pastors Like Football, Too

Even though we work on Sundays, lots of pastors are football fans. In fact, plopping down on the couch in front of the game can be the perfect way to unwind from a long Sunday morning.

With this in mind, I've created a Fantasy Football league for clergy, seminary students, church professionals, and anybody else who wants to play. The league, "Touchdown Jesus" (no affiliation with Notre Dame) is run through the Sports Illustrated app on Facebook, and it's public, so you anyone can join. Click here if you want to play.

Monday, August 22, 2011

New AUMC Podcast- Grace is for Everybody part 3

The newest edition of the Arlington UMC Podcast is up. This is part 3 of our eight week series on Romans- "Grace is for Everybody"

This week, in addition to Paul's text in Romans 6, we also brought James 2 in the conversation about Law and Grace.

You can listen on the media player below, on Arlington's webpage, download it from, or subscribe on iTunes. If you're on iTunes, please rate us and write a quick review so they'll promote our podcast.

Check in tomorrow for notes and questions about Romans chapters 7 and 8.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Romans series Week 3

Check out how your comments on last week's post made their way into Sunday's sermon by listening to the podcast. Now we continue with Week 3 of "Grace is for Everybody" by reading Romans 6:1-4, 15-23.

This week we’ll be focusing on the relationship between Law and Grace. This is another huge theme in Paul’s writings, and the whole thing isn’t encapsulated in the brief passages we’re reading on Sunday, so please read the chapters around this to get a feel for Paul’s rather lengthy argument.

For starters, “Law” refers specifically to the keeping of the Laws of Moses, and also stands more broadly for doing any good or righteous actions. Paul’s contrast of the Law with God’s unmerited Grace have led some Christians to conclude that the Jewish people’s understanding of the Law was that their actions earned them God’s favor. Other scholars, particularly those in the “New Perspective on Paul” school (a name that none of them created or really claim), point out that the Law was given to help the people understand how to live faithfully as part of the covenant God had already made with them.

Given that Law and Grace is such a major issue, particularly in the birth of the Protestant movement, major Christian thinkers have written volumes on it, and of course we can only begin to scratch the surface here. So here are a few brief snapshots of how some of the most influential Christian theologians have interpreted Paul on Law and Grace.

Augustine said that without God’s grace, no good work or adherence to any type of Law gets you any points. In one of his sermons on the Psalms, he says, “believe in Him who justifies the ungodly, so that your good works may really be good works. For I should not call them good as long as they do not proceed from the right foundation.” Augustine’s own life story and the strength of his experience of conversion led him to have a very low opinion of human nature, thus any attempt on the part of humans to be “good enough” for God was not only a waste of time, but an insult to God.

Martin Luther reads Paul as saying that the Law only serves to make people understand that they can never live up to the standards God has set for them. In essence, Luther is saying that God has set us up to fail. In his Preface to Romans, he claims that those who keep the Law do so “out of fear of punishment or love of gain”. Like Augustine, Herr Luther clearly does not have a high opinion of human nature.

John Wesley was a self described “Bible bigot” and held that all scriptures, including the Mosaic Law, were the fundamental norm for all Christian doctrine and practice. But as hard-headed a biblicist as Wesley could often be, even he recognized that the texts by themselves do nothing without the work of the Holy Spirit, thus grace being necessary to fulfill any law.

Karl Barth views God as fundamentally free, unconstrained by anything, even sets of laws given directly by God. In his commentary on Romans, Barth says that “God speaks where there is law; but he speaks also where there is no law. He speaks where law is, not because it is there, but because he wills to speak.” For Barth, God’s choice to speak to us is itself grace.

Paul Tillich, a contemporary of Barth’s, makes no comment specifically on the Laws of Moses, rather he talk about “law keeping” as one of the misguided human attempts at “self-salvation”, assuming that receiving any set of laws is itself a revelatory experience. Tillich is careful to mention that attempts at self-salvation happen in all religions, including Christianity, but that does not mean these religious traditions are of no value.

In NT Wright’s commentary on Romans 6 in New Interpreter’s series, he emphasizes Paul’s usage of the word “slavery” (usually rendered as “servanthood” in more PC translations) to describe all human existence. We’re all slaves to something, it’s just a question of what. Paul realizes that the analogy isn’t perfect, adding “I’m speaking in human terms because of your natural limitation”. His use of “your” instead of “our” suggests he has a rather high view of himself, and that he can understand things other people can’t. Wow.

Paul’s rather massive ego aside, he has a point in saying that we all serve something. We all have things that drive us, things that factor into every decision we make, even if they’re things we can’t necessarily name. The aforementioned Tillich called that “ultimate concern”. Or as Bob Dylan sang, “you’re gonna have to serve somebody”.

All that being said, here are some questions:

If “the Law” stands in for any moral standard, set of rules/practices, etc., what is the value of following them. What do we gain?

What effect does viewing God’s grace as completely free have? Does it give us license to do whatever we want with no consequences? Or does it have a different effect? In other words, how do we respond to grace?

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

New AUMC Podcast- Romans series part 2

The newest edition of the Arlington UMC podcast is live!

This weeks' message is the second in our eight week series on the book of Romans, "Grace is for Everybody". This message is called "The Righteousness of God", based on Romans 3:21-31.

We're inviting collaboration on this series. Later today I'll be posting notes and questions for week 3, focusing on Romans 6:1-4, 15-23.

You can listen on Arlington's webpage, on the media player below, listen to/download the file from, and you can subscribe in iTunes.

If you are on iTunes, please rate us and write a review so they'll promote our podcast!

As always, feedback is gratefully appreciated.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Dads are Parents, too

Warning: a rant is about to commence.

The title should seem obvious, but in the last two and a half years, I've noticed a serious double standard when it comes to moms and dads.

I first experienced this when Kate was a few weeks old, after Jessica had gone back to work but before we put her in day-care, and I spent about six weeks caring for her by myself during the work day. Since I was pastoring a church, I couldn't just stay home, so she spent a fair amount of time in her car seat during that time.

I had her with me when I was doing sermon prep and meeting with someone at a local coffee shop, and a lady came up to me just beaming about how I was doing "such a good job" with her, in a tone that sounded like she was talking to a child. Would anyone have said something like that to a woman out by herself with an infant?

Other times people asked me if I was "babysitting" or "being dad today". No, I'm parenting, and I'm her dad every day, regardless of whether she's with me during work hours! Again, would anyone ask a woman if she was "being mom"?

While this apparent double standard is clearly gender-based, I'm not going to call it sexist, because it's only a mild annoyance, and nothing compared to to challenges and discrimination many women face every day.

Still, next time you see a man in public with his children, don't demean him by acting like he's doing something special or incredibly difficult. He's simply doing his job and carrying his share of the load so his wife's life is a little bit easier.

OK, rant over. Thanks for reading.

Monday, August 08, 2011

Romans series Week 2

Here are my notes and questions for week 2 of Arlington's eight week series on Romans, "Grace is for Everybody". The passage is Romans 3:21-31.

The term “righteousness” is a major topic for this week’s passage.

Paul seems to be saying that all righteousness begins with God. The Law and the Covenant (not a word used here, but seems to be the subject) are not ends unto themselves, but things that point to a larger reality.

Paul emphasizes that what God has done in Jesus is the fulfillment of the promises made to Abraham. In other words, it’s a continuation rather than a reboot.

NT Wright believes that the Greek phrase usually translated “the righteousness of God” (dikaiosyne theou) is not a status that people have before God. Instead, it is a way of describing God’s whole being. The word “dikaiosyne” can also be translated as “justice”, so justice and righteousness are intertwined when one is talking about the nature of God.

Along similar lines (although I imagine Bishop Wright takes issue with him on a number of points), Karl Barth spills quite a bit of ink talking about how the “righteousness of God” is central to Romans. One of Barth’s recurring themes in his work is that everything begins with God’s choice to reveal God’s self to the creation, so this term is the way Paul talks about God’s divine self-disclosure. Barth writes, “the righteousness of God is the meaning of all religion, the answer to every human hope and desire and striving and waiting, and it is especially the answer to all that human activity which is concentrated upon hope.”

Martin Luther, on the other hand, sees righteousness primarily as status before God, almost as coterminous with justification. Luther’s term is “alien righteousness”, meaning that which is clearly not produced of any human effort, bestowed entirely by God’s will. Luther then talks about “our proper righteousness”, which flows from the alien righteousness bestowed to us by God.

Wright makes a very interesting point about v. 22, taking issue with the phrase translated “faith in Jesus”. The Greek word “pistis” (faith) here is not referring to a confessional faith that you or I might have, but instead the faithfulness of Jesus. While changing that one preposition may seem like a small detail, it takes away the likeliness of this verse being used as a proof-text for the type of insider/outsider mentality that Paul strongly opposes in this letter.

Speaking of proof-texts, we find one of the most often yanked-out-of-context verses in this passage, v. 23- “for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God”. In darn near all of the evangelistic tracts I’ve ever seen, this verse is used to “prove” that everyone is completely separated from God, and therefore incapable of doing anything good. The context this statement appears in, though, seems to rebut that idea, since Paul has spoken extensively about God’s righteousness having been revealed, which would be impossible if we were completely separate.

One more thing regarding proof-texts. In v. 25, Paul references the righteousness of God being revealed in the sacrificial death of Jesus, which is often used as “proof” for the “Penal Substitution” atonement theory (the word “atonement” may not be the best translation from the Greek here, but that’s a long discussion and I’m not proficient enough in Greek to articulate it well), where Jesus gets the punishment we deserve. While this understanding certainly has a strong biblical basis, it is not the only way to understand how the suffering and death of Jesus is part of God’s redeeming work for the creation.

OK, this commentary has gone on a lot longer than I expected. Thanks for those who read the whole thing through. Here are some questions:

What comes to mind when you hear the term “righteousness”. Does it have a positive or negative connotation?

How do you conceive of the relationship between God and humanity? How does this relationship get complicated (if at all) by human actions?

We talk a lot about Jesus showing us who God is. How do you understand Jesus revealing God to us (again, if at all)?

Feel free to take on anything not mentioned here. Discuss...

New AUMC Podcast- Romans series part 1

The newest edition of the Arlington UMC podcast is live!

This weeks' message is the first in our eight week series on the book of Romans, "Grace is for Everybody". This message is called "I'm a Sinner, You're a Sinner",based on Romans 1:18-26 and 2:1-6.

We're inviting collaboration on this series. Later today I'll be posting notes and questions for week 2, focusing on Romans 3:21-31.

You can listen on Arlington's webpage, on the media player below, listen to/download the file from, and you can subscribe in iTunes.

If you are on iTunes, please rate us and write a review so they'll promote our podcast!

As always, feedback is gratefully appreciated.

Monday, August 01, 2011

Romans series Week 1

This week at Arlington we're beginning two months spent in Paul's letter to the Romans. The overall theme for our series is "Grace is for Everybody".

Each Monday I'll be posting notes from my own research and reading on the passages for the week, as well as some questions for discussion. Your comments will be a big part of my sermon preparation process. All opinions are welcome, but keep it respectful. Comments attacking others will be deleted and you will be blocked from commenting ever again.

So here's my notes and questions for Romans chapters 1 and 2, specifically Romans 1:18-23 and 2:1-6. The tentative sermon title is "I"m a Sinner, You're a Sinner".

Two preliminary notes. One, we’re going to try our best to read Paul as a first century person and a first generation follower of Jesus. We can’t simply pretend Augustine and other interpreters don’t exist, but we can acknowledge their influence and try to sort out whose voice we're hearing.

Two, there is a problem in Romans that exists in nearly all English translations of the New Testament, specifically the use of the word “Jews”. The Greek word Ioudios more accurately translates as “Judeans”. The Second Temple was still standing at the time of Paul’s writings, and the Judean faith that centered on Temple worship is so very different than the Rabbinic Judaism of today that using the term “Jews” in a New Testament document can be misleading, and can even make Paul seem anti-Jewish, which he's not because he's a Jew! The problem of anti-Judaism is especially sensitive in light things that have happened in the last century, so we’ll be using the term “Judeans” for our discussion here.

Paul’s proclamation of God’s judgment is universal. Judeans don’t get off any easier because of the covenant.

Without doing a lengthy family history, I should say that my parents and I have both had negative experiences with evangelicals who lean heavily on passages like this to convince you you’re hopeless and make you desperate for grace. So I have to acknowledge my own bias and desire not skip over passages that sound very condemning.

Is Paul doing “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” here, or does his polemic about everyone being a sinner utterly dependent on God’s more an acknowledgement than a condemnation?

note- “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” is perhaps the best known “hellfire and brimstone” sermon in the English language. It was preached by a guy named Jonathan Edwards (no relation to the 2004 Democratic Vice-Presidential candidate) in July of 1781, during an era in American history known as the Second Great Awakening. If you’ve never read this sermon, check it out.

Paul talks about no one being in a position to condemn, but when he’s putting out his laundry list of sinful acts and attitudes, he certainly sounds like he’s doing just what he’s telling us not to do. Is that Paul’s genuine voice we’re hearing there, or is it the voice of others whose judgmental attitudes we dislike?

We're intentionally skipping last part of chapter 1, because the “God gave them up” stuff drags us into arguments about sexual orientation, which aren’t unimportant, but for our purposes here would distract us from a larger discussion about sin and grace.

John Wesley's "heart-warming" moment at Aldersgate came as he was listening to someone read Martin Luther's Preface to Romans, which is not exactly a heart-warming document. Luther's clear intent is for you to feel like an awful, hopeless sinner. What do you make of this? (I have my own theory, but I'll hold back for now).

My overall take on these first two chapters is that Paul’s long polemic serves the purpose of reminding us that we’re all in the same boat. None of us is perfect, and we all stand in need of grace. His intent is more about getting insiders off their high-horse than making outsiders feel bad for being outsiders.

Agree? Disagree? Discuss...

Sunday, July 31, 2011

New AUMC Podcast

The newest edition of the Arlington UMC podcast is live!

This weeks' message is called "Asking for Wisdom", and it's based on 1 Kings 3:5-12.

You can listen on Arlington's webpage, on the media player below, listen to/download the file from, and you can subscribe in iTunes.

If you are on iTunes, please rate us and write a review so they'll promote our podcast!

As always, feedback is gratefully appreciated.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Romans Series- slight tweak and reading schedule

After reflecting some more, I think the sermon series title "Jesus is for Everybody" might be misleading and suggest some kind of Christian exclusivism. Jesus did not come for his own sake, and I don't think Jesus is as preoccupied with his own glory (nor is God, despite what some suggest), so while Jesus is a huge part of what Paul is talking about in Romans, Jesus is not the ultimate point. The radically inclusive, barrier-breaking nature of God's grace is.

So we're going to call this series "Grace is for Everybody".

Also, as promised, here is the schedule of scriptures and tentative sermon titles for Arlington's two months reading through Romans together. On Monday, I'll post some initial thoughts and questions regarding the passage for the following week. Your input here will be part of my sermon preparation.

In the absence of a physical sermon discussion group the way I did at Bethlehem (and I hope to do at Arlington), we'll go virtual for this one.

August 7- Romans 1:18-23; 2:1-6 (I’m a sinner, You’re a sinner)

August 14- Romans 3:21-31 (Righteousness by Faith)

August 21 Romans 6:1-4, 15-23 (Law and Grace)

August 28- Romans 7:15-20; 8:31-39 (Nothing can Separate Us)

September 4- Romans 11:1-2a, 13-24 (Branches Grafted on to the Tree)

September 11- Romans 12:9-21 (Marks of the Renewed Creation)

September 18- Romans 14:1-8 (People with Different Needs)

September 25- Romans 15:14-22 (What We’ve Learned)

The following Monday we'll be posting the podcast of the final product, so those of you who aren't able to worship with us in person at Arlington (if you're in Nashville and not currently part of any church, come check us out!) can see how your input affected the sermon.

Tune in Monday as we begin talking about the first two chapters of Romans.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Theme of Romans Is...

not quite that easy to pin down.

As I've reflected more on what I want to be an overarching theme for a sermon series, it's occurred to me that the concept of there being a thesis around which Romans is wrapped is a very modern one.

Paul's epistle is not a work of systematic theology, so we can't read it like we do Aquinas or Barth. In fact, I suspect that if Paul was a Divinity School student, Romans would not get a very good grade.

Instead, Paul is writing very much stream of consciousness, addressing the problems in the Roman Christian community as he understands them. So while the question of a central thesis is one that I don't really think Romans is trying to answer, I do think there are some ideas that keep coming up in Paul's writings that reflect what he thought was most important about being a follower of Jesus.

As the "apostle to the Gentiles", Paul spent a lot of time thinking and arguing with others about just what new thing God was doing in Jesus. Paul did not cease to be Jewish, and thus probably didn't see Christianity as a separate religion the way we do today, but neither did he believe that one had to go through all the steps of conversion to Judaism, such as circumcision, to be part of this new thing God was doing. So as hyper-critical as Paul can be of others whose ideas or practices he disagrees with, Paul's vision of what God is doing is radically inclusive for his time.

So, all that being said, the theme for Arlington's upcoming two months exploring the Book of Romans is

"Jesus is for everybody"


Monday, July 25, 2011

Shameless Self Promotion- Christmas in July Edition

It's Christmas in July week over at Ministry Matters, and I've contributed an article about presenting the Nativity story using first person monologues. The article covers both the process of collaboratively producing the dramas, as well as some examples that I've used in worship services before.

There are lots of other great Christmas in July articles being posted all week, especially one by Mike Slaughter- "Santa Claus Jesus". Keep checking back during the week for more great stuff!

As always, feedback is always appreciated, either on Ministry Matters or here.

New Podcast

The newest edition of the Arlington UMC podcast is live!

This weeks' message is called "Wrestling With God", and it's based on Genesis 32:22-31.

You can listen on Arlington's webpage, on the media player below, listen to/download the file from, and you can subscribe in iTunes.

If you are on iTunes, please rate us and write a review so they'll promote our podcast!

As always, feedback is gratefully appreciated.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Response to Romans Question

Wow, I'm amazed at how much traction my simple question from yesterday's post has gotten. My little corner of the intranets usually goes unnoticed by most people, so this is kind of fun.

There have been several very thoughtful comments left on this blog, and a number on James McGrath's blog, who put the question out there as well. Tim Gombis (a NT scholar whose work I am now just discovering), blogged his own response.

One of the reasons I put the question out there is that there are some folks at Arlington who like to make altar displays and other visuals to enhance the sermon theme, and they are thinking of making one big display for the whole Romans series, so I'm hoping to state the overarching theme in a way that could be visually represented.

While we're on the subject of visuals, if you're in Nashville, come worship with us at Arlington UMC tomorrow, where you'll see a cool altar display (and hopefully hear a decent sermon) about Jacob wrestling with God.

But back to the question at hand. What do you see as the overarching theme of Paul's Epistle to the Romans?

Friday, July 22, 2011

Help for an upcoming Romans Sermon Series

Paul's epistle to the Romans occupies much of the lectionary this summer, so I'm going to be preaching on Romans for eight weeks, through August and September. Since I know that at least one colleague is going to be doing the same thing, and since I haven't yet started some kind of sermon roundtable at Arlington (it will be forthcoming, though), I'm going to use this blog for some collaboration.

I'll be covering roughly two chapters a week, although we won't be reading the entire text aloud in worship. I'll post a schedule as soon as I have it finalized, but I'm wondering if I should have some kind of overarching theme.

So my question for you all today is whether there is an overarching theme in Romans. Any and all ideas are welcome, but please be more creative than the old "Romans Road". That's just shallow proof-texting, and we're going to be diving deeper than that.


Sunday, July 17, 2011

New Podcast- The Long and Winding Road

The newest edition of the Arlington UMC podcast is live!

This weeks' message is called "The Long and Winding Road" (please don't sue me, Paul McCartney), and it's based on Genesis 28:10-22.

You can listen on Arlington's webpage, on the media player below, listen to/download the file from, and you can subscribe in iTunes.

If you are on iTunes, please rate us and write a review so they'll promote our podcast!

As always, feedback is gratefully appreciated.

Friday, July 15, 2011

A Prejudice I Didn't I Know I Had

I haven't been blogging much lately because I've been adjusting to my new congregation and trying to figure out how to structure my day and my week. It's a work in progress, but I'm determined to keep posting for my dozen-ish loyal readers (hi, Mom!)

I have prejudices. We all do. Unlike Stephen Colbert, we see things like race, gender, clothing, body size/type, etc, and we automatically make assumptions about people based on our previous experiences of people with similar characteristics. Sometimes these snap judgments are correct, sometimes they're not, but we all make them. I've come to believe the key to not letting these things control us is to acknowledge they're there so we can get to know a person, and perhaps have those snap judgments proven wrong. Prejudices are only dangerous when we don't realize that they're there.

So I was surprised recently to discover that I had a prejudice I didn't even know was there. One of the things that I love about Arlington is that we have a food pantry that is open every weekday. When I'm in the office, I try very hard to go out and talk with the folks that are coming for food assistance, and I've found myself being very surprised at who is coming.

Some of the folks coming to the food pantry have the "homeless look" (a very bad stereotype we need to purge from our culture)- shabby clothes, haven't showered in a while, etc. But a surprising number of folks coming for assistance don't look like they're homeless or even poor. They're not someone that you'd pass on the street and think that they didn't have enough to eat.

Thankfully, I've been smart/lucky enough to keep my mouth shut and not say something stupid about them not looking like they need help or question the sincerity of their needs. I've seen the statistics about how many people in our country don't have enough to eat, but I think I understand them now in a different way. We pass people every day who don't have the basic necessities of life, and most of the time we don't bother to notice that someone is suffering right before our eyes.

I was reminded of this again not long after when I was driving home and saw a vendor selling The Contributor at an intersection. (for non-Nashvillians, The Contributor is a newspaper sold by homeless people who are trained and assigned a "zone" where they can sell the paper as a way to make money other than begging)

I have friends who are very involved with The Contributor and other homeless ministries here, and I've heard them complain when people won't buy a paper from a vendor because they don't "look homeless". The reason they don't have the "look" is because selling the paper has enabled them to have enough money to get a place to stay and begin to build a life off the streets. The reason many of the vendors don't "look homeless" is because The Contributor is succeeding at getting people off the streets!

All of this reminded me that we don't know what is going on with somebody by their outward appearance. Someone who doesn't appear poor or homeless might still be in need of assistance. Someone who looks like they have their whole life figured out might falling apart inside, just waiting for you or I to ask how it is with their soul. Poverty, be it economic, emotional, or spiritual, is all around us, even if we don't see it on the surface.

I'm grateful to my new church and my city for helping me see a prejudice I didn't even know I had.

Monday, July 11, 2011

New Podcast

The latest Arlington UMC sermon podcast is live!

This week's message is called "A Story of Seeds and Soil" and is based on Matthew 13:1-9- 18-23.

You can listen on Arlington's webpage, listen on and/or download the file from, and you can subscribe on iTunes.

If you are on iTunes, please rate us and write a review so they'll promote our podcast!

As always, feedback is gratefully appreciated.

Monday, July 04, 2011

Arlington UMC Podcast

The inaugural episode of the Arlington United Methodist Church sermon podcast is live on the web. Each Monday (probably some weeks it will be Tuesday) we'll be bringing you the audio of the sermons from Arlington's 10am worship service.

This week's message is called "A Church Like That", and is based on Ephesians 2:19-22.

You can listen on Arlington's web page, listen on and/or download the file from

Sermon Network is kind enough to host our podcast and those of thousands of other ministries, and has a very user friendly database for sermons on all kinds of scriptures, topics, etc.. Big thanks to Rev. Jill M. Howard for directing my attention to this site.

You can also subscribe to our podcast on iTunes.


Happy Birthday to my best friend, the best wife and mom anyone could ever hope for. The world has been blessed by thirty years of your presence here, and I can't wait to see what the future holds. I love you!!!

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Shameless Self Promotion- Independence Day Edition

I have a new article up on Ministry Matters, "Praising America More Than God", discussing the place of patriotism in the church in light of the July 4 holiday (Independence Day, not Jessica's birthday). A sermon referenced in the article is attached.

Comments are always appreciated!

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Julian of Norwich- Eighth Showing

This post is part of my meditative reading of Julian of Norwich's Revelation of Divine Love during my renewal leave.

Julian’s eighth showing is an extended meditation on the suffering and death of Jesus that includes a lot of very specific (some might say graphic) detail and the effect it has on the one who contemplates this image. My knee-jerk reaction was not positive, mostly because of the negative associations I’ve had in the past with those who talk endlessly about the suffering of Jesus (as a friend of mine likes to say, “swimming in the blood”) and never talking about the Resurrection. I think that negative reaction deserves its own post.

My experience of this showing began to change, however, when I quit reading the text like I would a work of systematic theology and tried instead to slow down and hear it in my head as if Julian was speaking these words out loud. Imagining the tone of her voice made these words sound very different in my head. Instead of laboring the point of Jesus’ suffering to make the reader feel guilty and get them to pray a magic prayer, Julian is meditating on this ugly, horrifying image and finding incredible beauty in it.

I am particularly struck when she talks about feeling Mary’s pain and how her suffering was worse than that of any of the disciples. As a parent, causing me physical pain would be infinitely preferable to seeing my child in pain for even one second.

Just when the reader begins to imagine Julian inhabiting some other plain of existence where masochistic love of pain and suffering is totally normal, she says several times how she regrets asking to experience the pain and suffering of Christ because she didn’t know what she was asking for. At this point, perhaps she’s thinking there would have been an easier way to get such insight into the mind of God.

Many people I know who take their faith very seriously and have made major life decisions based on their best understanding of God’s will for their life have said that they are glad they didn’t know what they were in for when the signed up for this, because they probably would have said no!

Since Julian has a strong sense of God orchestrating all these things ahead of time, perhaps she’d say God keeps us from knowing what we’re asking for for our own good.

Wild Goose, etc.

Yes, I know I'm doing a ton of posting today, so I'm sorry if this is clogging your Google Reader, FB blog page, or whatever else you use to read my musings. I'm mostly trying to catch up on my reflections on Dame Julian's text, which I'll likely still be working on after my renewal leave ends next week.

I also have a post I've been working on since I got back from the Holy Land, and I've been inspired to finish and post it because I've been reading about the experience a group of university students is having there thanks to J Street. Hopefully that will be up tonight.

Tomorrow through Sunday, Jessica and I will be at the inaugural Wild Goose Festival in North Carolina. I know of some folks who are going, and I'm looking forward to sharing the muddy, humid weekend with friends old and new. If you're going, please tweet at me (@matthewlkelley) so I can be sure to catch up with you. I especially want to hang out if we haven't met in person yet!

Julian of Norwich- Seventh Showing

This post (my 350th!) is part of my meditative reading of Julian of Norwich's Revelation of Divine Love during my renewal leave.

In the seventh showing, Julian experiences an emotional roller coaster that one might today see as symptoms of manic depression or bipolar disorder. In her depression, Julian acknowledges that while the comfort of God’s promises was there, it wasn’t terribly helpful when she found herself in so dark a mood. That might be another way of saying she knew those things in her head, but at the time her heart just couldn’t get on board with it.

Julian’s depression doesn’t last long, however, as she finds herself on a spiritual high of total certainty in God’s protection. She concludes that “it is profitable for some souls to experience these alternations of mood” so that they can know how God sees them through everything they experience, even when that experience seems like separation from God.

As someone who suffers bouts of very bleak depression, I can identify with Julian’s feelings of hopelessness and her conclusion that God walks with us through those dark places. I differ with her, though, in her belief that God causes such emotional states so that we can learn something about the nature of God. Suffering is an unfortunate fact of living in a fallen world, and it is not God’s desire that we go through it. God works to make the best out of even the worst situations, but that doesn’t mean God wanted it to happen in the first place. Still, Julian’s conclusion that coming out on the other side increases one’s gratitude for God’s sustaining grace is right on.

Julian of Norwich- Sixth Showing

This post is part of my meditative reading of Julian of Norwich's Revelation of Divine Love during my renewal leave.

In the sixth showing, Julian sees “three degrees of bliss” that await God’s servants in heaven. The first is being delivered from pain as part of God’s gratitude for being God’s servant in life. The second is the “glorious thanking” where God makes known all the servant’s good deeds while on earth. The third is the joy of knowing that this state free of pain and full of glory will last forever.

The “second degree of bliss” really intrigues me, because the idea of having to make an account for all one’s deeds after life is over is usually used as a scare tactic and to convince people that they’re awful sinners. The idea that one’s good deeds are also noticed and remembered (as Jesus promises in the Sermon on the Mount) is a very comforting counter-point to such scare tactics.

It hadn’t occurred to me until meditating on this showing that for all Julian’s talk about human sinfulness, she doesn’t say it with any scorn or condescension, as if she’s better than anyone else. She sees us all as in the same boat, all equally in need of grace.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Julian of Norwich- Fifth Showing

This post is part of my meditative reading through Julian of Norwich's Revelation of Divine Love during my renewal leave.

This showing begins with Julian looking at God for a “measurable period of time”. She says nothing of God’s appearance, but notes this because there are no words at first. After a while, the very act of beholding God tells her what she is meant to know. This builds nicely on the meditation on divine self-giving from the previous showing.

What Julian realizes here is that God and the devil (whom she clearly believes to be a conscious entity rather than a projection of human brokenness and sinfulness) are fundamentally different. She says that the devil is full of malice and contempt- things that lead one to try to defeat their enemy through violence. But God doesn’t overcome evil through force, but through loving self-sacrifice. In fact, Julian says, “there can be no wrath in God”. God does not fight fire with fire, as it were.

The way for us to live out the Kingdom of God in the world is to realize that it operates by a fundamentally different set of rules than human kingdoms. It doesn’t simply play the game better than they do, it changes the game entirely. God doesn’t conquer human kingdoms or human hearts through coercion or violence, but through self-giving love.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Julian of Norwich- Fourth Showing

This post is part of my meditative reading through Julian of Norwich's Revelation of Divine Love during my renewal leave.

In the fourth showing Julian briefly explains how God showed her that God chooses to wash us clean with blood rather than with water. At first this sounded a bit macabre to me, but after meditating on this passage for a while I saw a different side.

Julian talks about how God created water for many purposes out of love for us, but that his blood is simultaneously more precious and more plentiful than water.

As I thought more about this, it struck me that water is a created thing, just as we are. So of course God could use created things to redeem other created things, but in the Incarnation we see God inserting God's self into the created order. Jesus is God's ultimate act of self-giving.

Perhaps this is because as a created thing, I can possess and give all kinds of other created things and maintain the illusion that I am somehow in control. One of the reasons that religious institutions get so twisted and toxic is that we begin to believe that we are in control, and we leave God out of the process. But when God gives God's self, there can be no mistaking who is doing the giving, hence there is no mistaking who is in control.

Although Julian doesn't mention this, God choosing to redeem us through self-giving as opposed to through a created thing calls to mind the sacrament of Holy Communion. Celebrating Communion (both as celebrant and congregant) has always been very meaningful to me, because recalling the story of the Last Supper and proclaiming the elements to be infused with the real presence of Christ helps me temporarily forget the limitations of finite people and things and see everything as interconnected and animated by the living presence of God.

Until meditating on this showing, I wasn't sure I was going to be able to find the beauty that Merton and others found in her text, but I may be beginning to see what they see.

Julian of Norwich- Third Showing

This post is part of my meditative reading through Julian of Norwich's Revelation of Divine Love during my renewal leave.

In the third showing, Julian is shown a concept directly instead of arriving at it through a particular image God is showing her. This showing concerns God's omnipotence, and she claims that God is the first cause of all things and that nothing happens outside of God's will. Julian says that anything that seems to us to be an accident or outside of God's will only seems so because "our blindness and lack of foreseeing".

I can't get on board with this particular assertion, as beautiful a description of God's infinite power and goodness as it is. Perhaps it was easier for Julian to avoid the plethora of questions this assertion raises about God's character because she was cloistered in a cell beside a church for much of her life.

I wonder, though, if the priest of that parish would be able to say such a thing so easily, having sat with the sick and the dying, consoling parents whose children died senselessly, and trying to reconcile the goodness of God with a world full of suffering. Then again, maybe the priest would have said the exact same thing. I don't really know how the common fourteenth century priest handled questions of theodicy. Any scholars of medieval theology care to enlighten me? (I know theodicy didn't exist as a theological category at the time, but the question still has to have occurred to people)

In the introduction, del Mastro said that each showing built upon the previous one, so I'm trying to make sense of how this relates to the first two showings of Jesus' passion. Perhaps this is her way of working out why God would will such pain and suffering to happen to his own son in the larger context of suffering and evil in the world. Or perhaps it will make more sense in the next showings.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Jon Stewart on Fox News Sunday

Jon Stewart was on Fox News Sunday this morning, and the interview blew my mind.

What's hilarious is that Chris Wallace does not get that The Daily Show is a comedy show. It seems like he and the Fox News take themselves so seriously that they can't conceive of anybody not playing the exact same game. So since Stewart lampoons them on a nightly basis, he must have as militantly a partisan agenda as they do.

They don't get the joke.

The only analogous situation I can think of is evangelical Christians who rant and rave about the "homosexual agenda", insisting that people of other sexual orientations are out to convert others to their way of life. That's what they do, after all, and they assume everyone else is playing the same game.

What if people who disagree with us or are just wired differently than us aren't at war with us? What if the majority of people in the world don't have a "kill or be killed" mentality about everything? What if it actually is possible to respectfully disagree, peacefully coexist, and perhaps even have our horizons broadened by those who are different?

The sooner Fox News and the establishment they represent ponder those kinds of questions, the sooner they stand a chance of actually being "fair and balanced".

Friday, June 17, 2011

Julian of Norwich- Second Showing

This post is part of my meditative reading through Julian of Norwich's Revelation of Divine Love during my renewal leave.

In the second showing, Julian is focusing her attention on the crucifix on the wall when she sees Jesus’ face becoming discolored. Perhaps what she is seeing is what modern medicine would tell us happens as the result of gradual oxygen deprivation, as a crucified person is less and less able to take full breaths. That is what makes crucifixion such an agonizing death, and the discoloration shows Julian how the image of God is distorted by the sinful cruelty of humanity.

She reflects on the Trinity and how God created all human beings in God’s image, and how in the Incarnation God shows us “as a man might be if he were without guilt”.

Julian also reflects on the difference between “seeking” God and “seeing” God. Seeking after God is something all people do to one extent or another, although Julian emphasizes that even that cannot be done without the leading of God’s grace. Seeing, however, is something that happens entirely independent of human effort. Julian’s visions are “seeing” God in full as God wills God’s self to be seen, and all she can do is be still and marvel at what God is showing her.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Julian of Norwich- First Showing

This post is part of my meditative reading through Julian of Norwich's Revelation of Divine Love during my renewal leave.

In the first showing Julian witnesses the “crowning of Christ”, where the crown of thorns is pushed onto Jesus’ head so roughly that the thorns cause blood to flow quite freely. The modern reader will likely recall Mel Gibson’s “Passion” film that seemed to delight in every gory detail of Jesus’ torture and execution.

Far from finding the image gruesome or repulsive, Julian is filled with joy because she is so aware of how she is a “sinful creature living in wretched flesh”, and God chose to endure this for her even so. The image also causes Julian to think of the oneness of the Trinity, but she doesn’t make the connection explicit. My guess is that the contrast of God’s ultimacy and humanity’s smallness makes her marvel that God chose to experience everything we experience, but I don’t know if that’s how she’s coming at it.

This showing also causes Julian to think of St. Mary, again contrasting God’s ultimacy with humanity’s smallness and how Mary marveled at the fullness of God dwelling within her. Not being Catholic, I don’t normally give as much attention to Mary as I do to some other people in biblical stories, but being a parent has given me lots of new things to think about. The holiest and most joyous moment of my life was when my daughter was born, yet it occurred in the midst of a lot of blood and pain (blocked by some excellent drugs). Jessica will tell you the same thing, and she has more ground to stand on because it was her blood and her discomfort in that holy moment.

Julian’s first showing reminds us that God can be profoundly experienced in the midst of the messiest human circumstances.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Julian's Prologue

This post is part of a journal I'm keeping as I prayerfully read through Julian of Norwich's Revelation of Divine Love during my renewal leave.

By way of prolegomena, Julian briefly describes each of the sixteen showings. She then pulls back and describes the things she asked God for that occasioned the revelation. She asked to “enter into the spirit of Christ’s passion”, a “bodily sickness so severe it would bring (her) to the point of death”, and the “three wounds” of “true contrition, natural compassion, and full-hearted longing for God”. It is the second of these “gifts” that she elaborates on before describing the first showing, which is also the one that intrigues me the most.

Julian became very ill when she was about thirty years old. She languished for several days and was then given last rites, which meant that she and everyone else thought she was done for. She mentions that she forgot that she asked God for this, because I guess if she remembered that if she asked to go the brink of death without actually dying, it would kind of defeat the purpose. Being sick to the point of dying would make one truly let go of all earthly things and focus solely on God. Some of the most inspiring interactions I have had as a pastor have been with people who knew they didn’t have long to live. They knew what was really important.

The skeptical side of me wonders about how much of her own vision Julian determined beforehand. She appears to have had a really awful fever, and when that happens, the things people see are tied to what is on their mind or buried in their subconscious. Since she lived in a cell on the side of a church and dedicated her entire life to prayer and contemplation, Jesus is the foremost thing on her mind, so it’s not surprising that it’s what she sees in a delirious state.

A possible psychological explanation of her vision doesn’t mean that God was not involved, of course. But the modern reader does have this extra difficulty that a contemporary of Julian’s would not have had.

I’m hoping this won’t continue to be an obstacle, and I’m guessing it won’t since Julian has remained very popular and influential even into modern times.