Tuesday, January 29, 2013

A Constructive Critique of Children's Bibles: St Francis Students Weigh In

A while back on the blog, in "A Quasi-Muppet Theology of Creation," I shared the conversation by which the students of St Francis House decided to study children's Bibles in order to identify and evaluate the essential parts of the biblical narrative, as we tell them to our children. 

At the time we began the study, I wrote about my mostly cynical response to the students' proposal:

I admitted that, as the father of two children, 1 and 3, I consider myself something of an expert on children's Bibles, and that I mostly hate them. I tire of improvising around clumsy stories (water into grape juice, anyone?) just before bed and when I am tired and not wanting to keep on my theological toes. And yet, I told them, all the more reason to pay attention to the ways we Christians tell the story to our children. Right?

Now we have a semester of study under our belts, and I need to admit that the process has been unexpectedly fruitful. The insights and honesty of the students have illuminated nuances of Scripture and the faith we live as Christians in ways for which I am grateful. I feel honored to have been part of these discussions.

Even so, I was not prepared for our conversation of a week ago, circled up in a small coffee shop at Union South. We had been looking at a table of contents from a children's bible - a sort of step back for perspective from our week to week studies - and going around the table with a mix of critiques, questions, and eye-rolling disbelief. We cited a felt-obligation toward forced morals and over-glossed descriptions (pithy platitudes) of God as obstacles to a children's Bible faithful telling of the Christian story. 

One of the students even wondered out loud if, by these children's Bibles and the things they don't contain - "let the dead bury their own dead," for example - we seek to protect not our children, but ourselves, from the resulting questions our children would ask us about the story we tell and the (at least sometimes) incongruous lives that we live. Um...

But then, as we ended, this question: "Okay, then, what would you add to make a children's Bible for faithful, more true?

Some silence. I volunteered my answer first, saying that I would add a section called, "Songs God's People Sing," which, I explained, would include some representative psalms, modeling the idea that faith is not just about our moral goodness or what we think about God; faith is embodied and, first and foremost, faith makes us people of praise. This reflection comes from my firsthand experiences with my daughter, whose endless requests for "one more hymn, Daddy," have been my delight as her dad.

What else, though. What would you add?

The answers:

More Church. And the understanding that, in Christ, we have been made a part of it, animated by the Holy Spirit.

Community. The idea that we are not in this alone; that God calls us to learn from and rely on others. That asking for help is a good thing for God's people.
More death. Because the story as it is has plenty and is more honestly connected with our mortal nature.
More tax collectors and prostitutes. With the observation that Jesus came to redeem humanity, not to save humanity from the need for redemption.
The cost of discipleship. Including Jesus' teachings on wealth, the poor, and other "hard sayings." Again, who are we protecting?
An appendix of talking points and additional resourced for parents. We observed that at least one children's book included a lot of rhetorical questions, like, "Noah sent a dove. Can you find the dove?" Most able babysitters (to say nothing of parents) do not need these inane promptings. Significantly, though, these kinds of questions function to relieve the adult reader of genuine interaction. What if children's Bibles functioned instead to reinforce and equip that interaction, encouraging conversations after bedtime is over?

I left the coffeehouse that night energized by the students' insights and excited for the students' desire for encounter with the God who is, rather than the one we wish we'd gotten instead. I also left our time together deeply hopeful for the creative imagination of these students for engaging the faith we've received in its fullness and penning the story in its depth, breadth, and wonder. Thank God: better Bibles for children are coming.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

God's Promise Made Present


I want you to think with me a moment (dangerous, I know) - think back to any one of those mostly surreal occasions in life, when a moment for which you had waited, long planned for, and dreamt suddenly arrived before you - it’s here! - with a nonchalance that took nothing away from the excitement of the moment, but rather, by its very matter-of-fact-ness, beckoned you to stand up, step up and step into the previously impossible, undeniably factual, thoroughly upended world for which you had dreamed.  

The acceptance letter comes in the mail, and you wonder by what colossal administrative error this great thing has come to be. He find himself down on his knee, palms sweaty, ring in hand, realizing she just said, “Yes.” With tears in her eyes, she finds herself having spoken the words she has known for years needed speaking. “I’m sorry.” And the tears in his eyes tell her her prompting was true. 

Moments for which our hearts had longed, suddenly upon us, and in a twinkling we were transformed from people with grand ideas about who-we-would-like-to-be-some-day-yonder into men and women now face-to-face with the far-off promise come near. Far-off promise become present reality. And our joy overtook our fear.

Luke’s gospel tonight unfolds just such a moment before us in the life of the people of Israel. It happens so quickly, the ordinariness amazes his listeners, catches their longings by surprise. Jesus sits down in the midst of the assembly and applies the lesson just read in the worship of the synagogue (from Isaiah) to himself. He captures the congregation’s imagination and attention when he says, “the scripture you just heard is about me; equally, I am all about it. Because I am here, the long shot, far-off, promise you learned to dream in Sabbath School is your present reality. It’s here.”

[Quick aside: experienced sermon listeners will know that when Jesus says “this scripture is about me,” his is at best an unconventional preaching strategy, and one not recommended to aspiring preachers not named Jesus.]

But if Jesus is a bad preacher, he is still a good Savior, because the words he has spoken about himself are true. In him, God’s promised future is present. It’s here.

So the words Jesus takes for himself today tell his disciples, and us, all they need to know about the promise of God, the person of Jesus, and the present action of God. In our context, this is the year we read Luke’s gospel in our lectionary; virtually everything that follows will issue from - and point back to - these words, this promise, and its fulfillment in Christ.

Enough with the build up. Substance. What is the substance of the promise that Jesus makes present in Luke’s gospel tonight? Look with me at five imperatives: 1) bring good news to the poor, 2) proclaim release to the captives, 3) proclaim recovery of sight to the blind, 4) let the oppressed go free, and 5) proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.

The first four charges direct our attention: the poor, the captives, the blind, the oppressed. Whatever Good News the Gospel is must be Good News for these, and so the Good News must be social, must enter the world of poverty and wealth, the lessees and the landlords, the captives and the creditors, the blind and the blinding, the oppressed and oppressors. The world of Guantanamo Bays and domestic abuse. Whatever Good News the Gospel is must be tactile Good News for Jews going on 300 plus years of foreign occupation.

The first four commands give us direction, illumine a social dimension, but the fifth command - proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor - is less self-explanatory. For this reason, the fifth imperative suggests that the other four might yet be nuanced by the context of the fifth. What is the year of the Lord’s favor?

Sometimes called the year of Jubilee, the year of the Lord’s favor is a very old idea that first shows up in Leviticus. (So Jesus is quoting Isaiah is quoting Leviticus in this passage from Luke.) The year of the Lord’s favor was a commandment to the people of Israel as they wandered the wilderness and prepared to enter the Promised Land. The essence of the command was that, in the fiftieth year of Israel’s new life as the people of promise, after seven sets of seven years, the people were to hit a kind of reset button with respect to what we now call personal property rights. Land was to return to original owners. The heritage of each tribe was to be restored. Slaves who had entered slavery of financial necessity, poor planning, and personal failings, were to be set free, go home to their families. Prison sentences were commuted; debts were forgiven. 

Now - the commandment of Jubilee may seem like irresponsible or untenable economic policy to our capitalistic eyes and ears. But see the honesty and compassion of the commandment, how it recognized the effects of power, poor choice, and exploitation in the lives of God’s people; how the command named the truth about the opportunistic nature of wealth with respect to the weak and the vulnerable. As Amy Poehler quipped at last week’s Golden Globes, “Nobody has plans to do porn, Tina!” Nobody plans to be enslaved. Thus the commandment for the Jubilee year sought to embody forgiveness grounded in the provision of God. That is, the Lord gave the command of the Jubilee year because Israel, as a people, had once been slaves in Egypt, but the Lord had set them free. 

So when Jesus picks up the scroll and says, “I am this,” he takes the year set aside for forgiveness and fresh starts and God’s will for the flourishing of God’s people and says, “I am this.” I am freedom for the captive. I am sight for the one who can’t see the way out. I am abundance. I am Jubilee without end.

Jesus comes like a second Moses to set God’s people free. Suddenly, abruptly, the dream is here, with a nonchalance that takes nothing away from the excitement of the moment, but rather, by its very matter-of-fact-ness, beckons the people stand up, step up and step into the previously impossible, undeniably factual, thoroughly upended world for which the people had dreamed. Jesus is anointed for this.

And not just Jesus. You. You were not made a spectator by virtue of your baptism; you also were anointed. For baptized Christians, to understand the present promise of God is also to understand your calling. At your baptism, just after the assembly covered you with prayer, you were washed clean with water, you were set free when you passed through the waters, were baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus, and then the priest smudged a small cross of oil on your head, anointed you, and said, “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.” 

And, in a twinkling, you were transformed from a person with grand ideas about who-you-would-like-to-be-some-day-yonder into a woman or man now face-to-face with the promise come near. Far-off promise become present reality, and you were simultaneously set free and given the proclamation of freedom. Freedom. Generous. Abundant. For others. Embodied. Forgiven. Free. May our joy overtake our fear.

Let us pray.

Give us grace, O Lord, to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ and proclaim to all people the Good News of his salvation, that we and the whole world may perceive the glory of his marvelous works; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

[Sermon preached @ St Francis House Episcopal Student Center, 1.27.13.]

Saturday, January 26, 2013

"Be the Episcopal Church in the World"

Friends, a superb sermon from this season of diocesan conventions. I would be very interested to hear your thoughts. (Here is fine; coffee or supper, even better.)

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Wedding We Did Not Expect

Frozen Lake 590x331 

One of the most compelling images from my first winter in Wisconsin (so far) is of frozen lakes and the people who learn to skate on them, dance on them, and, God help us all, ice fish on them. The most striking (and obvious) thing about these frozen lakes is that they stop their constant motion; they stand still. Or at least appear to. As someone who spent the last three years on the ocean’s coast, where waters never stop their striving, I find these exceptions to that rule startling and beautiful.

Of course, the waters don’t stop their moving altogether. The ice fishers know this – that’s why they come out all – keenly aware as they are that life, movement, continues just beneath the surface. They seek out the place where life is.

Similarly, there is a powerful intimacy in John’s gospel tonight, riding quietly beneath the surface of a hard and somewhat impersonal veneer. Like unseen waters churning beneath the frozen surface of a Sconnie lake in winter, the interplay between this unseen intimacy and its colder surface, yields subtle tensions, some suspense, and, in the end, a joy we did not expect.

The impersonal exterior, the crust, is evident the moment we arrive in Cana and realize we don’t know whose wedding this is, that nobody thought to tell us. If the mind-numbing sagas of Manti Te’o and Lance Armstrong have taught us anything this past week, it is that we, as a society, don’t like not knowing. But here we are at this wedding, along for the ride with Jesus’ posse, and we don’t know if this is an old college roommate we’re celebrating or simply a far off, once-estranged member of the family whom Jesus is honoring as a favor to Mom. As the story unfolds and the young couple goes on, unnamed, one gets the impression that almost anybody’s wedding would have done; the who, inconsequential.  If it were my wedding, I might have felt insulted. It all feels rather cold.

On another level, of course, it makes perfect sense that when we stand before Scripture, Jesus occupies center stage. It is He whom we have gathered to meet, in Word and Sacrament, learning about God, from God, with the help of God, to be nearer to God. So the Gospel teaches us to understand ourselves and all the others characters, rightfully, as supporting actors in the story that belongs to God. This is the story of God.

Less theologically, more practically, if you have ever been to a wedding, you know that it is simply not possible to be there, at the wedding (again, it matters not whose), with all the pageantry that weddings bring – bridesmaids, weeping parents, flower girls, groomsmen and all the rest – without having one’s own heart, one’s own longings and desires, deeply felt. Weddings are paradoxically anonymous and intensely personal spaces. And that’s where they are: Jesus, his mother, the disciples. 

The plot is familiar to us:

The bridegroom is out of wine. After prodding from his mother - whom Jesus calls, “woman” (another haltingly impersonal affront) - Jesus supplies new wine, from water, and only the disciples and the servants see it. (Score one, at least, for intimacy.) Later, the steward pulls the bridegroom aside and says, “You went and saved the best for last” (cue Vanessa Williams and every middle school dance I ever attended). And again, a reminder at this point that the story does not belong to the newly married couple – or to us, for that matter – for while it is surely the end of the wedding and so also a best-for-last finish with respect to the wine, the real story, as they say, is only beginning. This is the first of Jesus’ signs in the Gospel of John. We’re only two chapters into the book. Jesus’s hour, as he reminds his mother, has not yet come.

The disciples had no way of knowing, from this odd wedding’s ending at the very beginning, that John was proposing Jesus as the new wine and consummation of the long-awaited marriage between God and God’s people. After this party, the disciples are left, and we join them, looking for the new wine for which this moment has taught them to long.

Fast-forward seventeen chapters later: they find it, and there’s a flag in the story meant to connect us back to this beginning, so that we won’t miss the wine the disciples have learned to anticipate in the time since that first sign. The flag is the other occasion in John’s gospel in which Jesus calls his mother, “woman.” It’s a considerably less festive scene than the first one: Calvary, this time, from the cross, as in, “Woman, behold your son.” Moments later, the One who turned water to wine at a wedding in Cana says, “I thirst,” before he surrenders his spirit and a centurion pierces his side, from whence blood and water flow. And early artistic representations of this moment will show angels around the crucified Savior, one with a chalice filling with the blood from his side: the wine of the wedding feast of the New Jerusalem.

This is the flood beneath the frozen surface of the wedding of the couple whose names we don’t learn. And these are the raw, untamed waters over which the Spirit first brooded in the very beginning. The same Spirit who, three days before this wedding, descended on Jesus as a dove, a voice from heaven speaking, “This is my Son, my beloved...” And we remember this language, beloved, from the Song of Solomon, this great, relentless, sensuous, blush-inducing love that is the heart of the Trinity and the hope of God for God and humankind. We remember the Prayer Book’s description of marriage as signifying the mystery of the union between Christ and his Church. And we remember the promise of Isaiah, read tonight, which has taught us to long for this union:

...you shall be called My Delight Is in Her,
and your land Married;
for the LORD delights in you,
and your land shall be married.
For as a young man marries a young woman,
so shall your builder marry you,
and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride,
so shall your God rejoice over you.

A minor miracle tonight at an unknown couple’s modestly well-attended wedding, so that people will have wine to not appreciate because they’ve had too much to drink already. On the surface, hardly compelling. Beneath the surface, there, in deeper waters, the announcement that the love that first moved the sun and the stars is wooing his Beloved, breaking in the new kingdom, supplying the feast, fulfilling the dream of God which is joy with God’s, their joy made complete.

Tonight, another seemingly minor gathering of supporting characters. January 20, 2013, a handful of us gathered from out of more than 40,000 of our closest friends before a semester so new it hasn’t started in the presence of God to, one more time, break bread together, share the cup of that wine…On the surface, eccentric at best.

Beneath the surface, the announcement that the love that first moved the sun and the stars is wooing his Beloved, wooing the world, wooing us, breaking in the new kingdom, supplying the feast, fulfilling the dream of God which is joy with God’s people, even you, that your joy would be complete.

If you didn’t hear it last week, hear it now: you are beloved of God. In you, God rejoices. Be reminded, tonight, you who have come to taste of this wine, the wine of the wedding of God’s People and their God, Christ himself, you who long for God, remember that you are made one with Christ, and you stand at the center of God’s longing and joy.

And do not fail to see the power of these moments: still moments, on the surface, nevertheless carried by the waters of deep waters of baptism: moments of faithful, supporting actors in the story of God becoming breadth and depth for the imagination of God, visibly witnessing, waiting for, announcing, pointing with their lives to the victory of God, which is everyone, all people, gathered at the feast, delighting in the joy of the Lamb. Like ice fishers, even: seeking out the place where life is.


Tuesday, January 15, 2013

On the Birthday of Martin Luther King Jr.

From the Common Prayer website, on the anniversary of MLK Jr.'s birth. (Parenthetically, I was especially moved in the context of morning prayer today by the saints who dream Scripture. In the words of the hymn that some love and others love less: "God [help me] to be one too.")

"Martin Luther King Jr. preached, "I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, that rough places will be made straight and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together."

"Lord, as we wake from another another night's slumber, we are reminded that your dreams are given to us and not merely conjured up by our imaginations. Help us understand both that your dreams come at a price and that their rewards are immeasurable. Amen."

Saturday, January 12, 2013

8 Great Books

Last year, the blog posted a record 162 times, more posts than in the previous three years combined. It was a lot of fun, a lot of work, and the conversations shared with you, faithful readers, along the way made the year on the blog immensely rewarding.

Alas, it is January 12 of 2013 and this is the first post of the new year. If you suspect that I am not aiming to make 162 again this year, you would be right. I am very excited (and challenged) by the reason, and wanted, briefly, to share it with you.

The goal: eight great books in 2013.

Reflecting over some year-end downtime and inspired by my friend's 2012 goal - 50 Books and 50 Hikes - I've set out on a goal of my own that will both 1) pose a formidable challenge and 2) prove more satisfying than the drivel that constituted the bulk of my reading in 2012. Don't get me wrong, I read a lot of good books (1), but also way too many espn.com articles. A lot of Facebook notes. So many quasi-news stories. So much and so little. Fragmented. Commercialized. Incomplete. Abrupt. Toward the end of the fall semester, I had developed a sizable hunger for the kinds of books that have always proven difficult for me to read because of the commitments they require. I wanted to read great books. And books whose vocational benefits are not obvious.

Great books take time, and eight great ones will probably take a year (for me). Thus my decreased presence on the blog, Facebook, and other online places - though the blog will still post at least once a week (homilies) and, I hope, occasionally more, with the benefit of the substance of these books.

So that's what's up. Like I said, I hope to post updates, and I hope you enjoy following my progress. Keep me honest, and wish me luck!

The list:

The Age of Anxiety (Auden)
The Brothers Karamazov (Dostoevsky)
Crime and Punishment (Dostoevsky)
The Idiot (Dostoevsky)
Middlemarch (Eliot)
The Bible (Reading God's Story, Guthrie)
Les Miserables (Hugo)
The Way We Live Now (Trollope)

(1) Highlights would include the Garrison Keillor Great Poems Anthologies, Nudge, Silence and Honey Cakes, and Rabbit, Run.

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