Friday, October 30, 2015

Reformation Day and John Calvin

Tomorrow is Reformation Day ... and it means something to me ... because history means something to me ... the stories told by the past, and the stories we tell about the past ... to try to figure out who we are, and if there’s something worth standing for (dangling participle, I know!).

I’ve read Calvin’s “Institutes,” in their entirety, at least 5 times, in preparation for teaching a one-year course on them ... in bits and pieces, countless times, since my first selective reading at, where else, “Calvin College.”

At one point, while working on my D. Min, I wrote to a half-dozen or so Calvin scholars and asked for some sense of what they thought his genius might be, and each replied with a slightly different take on him.

Which is to say, Calvin was about as multifaceted as anyone of us can be.

His “Institutes,” of course, a theological distillation of years worth of work ... combined with his letters, often deeply pastoral, his pissy attitude toward those who challenged him, his endurance in the face of criticism and threat, his openness to science, his affirmation of politics as a high calling, his concern for education, and a decent sewer system in Geneva - make Calvin fully human, and a man worthy study.

But more than anything else, his regard for God ... yes, a sovereign God whose love prevails in all matters, a love that will see this world through all sorts of travail and sorrow to bring it to the place where it belongs.

Double-predestination and all (take a deep breath here), which is nothing more than Calvin’s affirmation of God’s hand upon us all, in such a way, as to insure, and to assure, this business of salvation, and, for Calvin, this business of damnation.

For me, omit the damnation part, and we’ve got something worth while.

In a world of change, where things often go upside down, full of misery and war and hate, the love of God prevails.

Rob Bell says it well, Love Wins!

That’s about as Calvinistic a thing as any writer could offer.

Which is to say, I like Calvin - always have and always will, likely.

Did he make mistakes?

Indeed - when he should have kept his mouth shut, he didn’t. He spoke of things in a loud voice when hushed whispers would have been better.

But who hasn’t screwed up on this score?

But screw-ups and all, Calvin loved God, and understood that God’s love for us was a powerful love, an effective love, that would see us through, and the world with us, to the appropriate end.

I like that kind of faith.

It’s all about courage to keep on keepin’ on ... because love wins. So don’t give up, don’t retreat, don’t run away.

Stay the course, because God stays the course.

Of course.And on this score, Calvin was right, and if that’s only thing he was ever right about, that’s enough, to insure his place in the pantheon of Christian Thinkers who yet deserve our attention and our gratitude.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Praise God and Take Up the Sword

Psalm 149 ...

Who knows what the writer intended, when it comes to two-edged swords, vengeance and punishment.

It’s accurate, I suppose, to think that the author had literal swords in mind, given the bloody history of Israel and Judah and Jerusalem. 

Yet, to read it literally today would clearly violate the spirit and intent of Jesus who eschewed the way of the sword and made clear that his followers do the same.
Nevertheless, and you knew that was coming, can it be read metaphorically? Or should it not be read at all?

Well, it’s part of the the Psalter, and we’re stuck with it.

Perhaps a literal reading at least reminds of us how easily human beings take up the sword in “righteous causes” linked to faith and the gods. Ever since Cain killed Abel, we’ve been killing our brothers and sisters at a horrendous pace - in personal crimes against one another and with state-sanction killing - capital punishment and war. Protest as much we do, our killing of one another is not about to end. 

Which perhaps reveals the importance of a metaphorical reading of the Psalm.

1) The praise of God always is linked to political behavior (v. 5). Whether it be the monk in his cell or the average pew-sitting Presbyterian, what’s offered up to God ends up being offered horizontally to the world, for good or for ill, and likely some tragic mix of both. But like it or not, this is how it is.

2) The “sword” is wielded to restrain the power of kings and their nobles, and is there a king anywhere who doesn’t need to be retrained? And what of all their nobles, sycophants mostly, singing their praises, inflating the king’s ego? It’s a deadly system that needs to be constantly challenged, for such power, as kings accrue, and their nobles bless, is charged with obsession and cruelty. Left unchecked, such power always ends badly, for everyone, including the innocent, i.e. the people, or specifically, the biblical triad of need: the widow, the orphan and the alien.

As for the original intent, it’s safe to say, “literal.”

But a metaphorical reading reminds the reader of the link between spirituality (praising God) and political ethics (striving to restrain the power of the powerful on behalf of justice). 
It is this linkage, then, that is “glory for all the faithful ones” (v.9b).

And one last thing: it’s a messy world in which we live, and the lines of “good and evil” are rarely clear. Which is to say, that no one has the option of opting out of the world - to praise God without a political link is no praise at all, but a cursing of God, a rejection of God’s world, and God’s commitment to the world. and all of its mess, and a forthright abandonment of our covenantal commitment to the “widow, the orphan and the alien” and the concomitant responsibility of restraining power.

So, indeed, praise God.

And then take up the sword (metaphorically speaking) ... on behalf of those who have no sword of their own, and as a favor to the powerful, who are likely to strangle themselves on power, lest other powers give them the gift of restraint. It’s messy, for sure, but necessary.

Praise God and take up the sword.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Pastoral Prayer, October 11, 2015

First Congregational Church, Los Angeles

Eternal God, bless us we pray, with the mind of Christ … 
That we might be the light of the world and the salt of the earth.

This day, O God, we pray for a great strengthening of our faith … to embrace the opportunities that stand all around us … opportunities for good, kindness, transformation … to lift a clear voice for the sake of the oppressed … to come to the defense of the poor … to stand firm against violence … the violence of fear and hatred … the violence that fails every test of trust and violates all the conventions of human kindness.

The world is a great sorrow, O God, … but we will not turn away from it … we will not hide in our homes, nor in our religion, neither in our work nor our play … for you have called us to great responsibility …

We pledge to you, O God.
The resources of life.

We promise to learn and grow.
Engage and serve.
Sign up and sign on.

We will add our strength to your strength, O God.
We will add our love and our hope.
Our time, talent and treasure.

We will read and study.
Ponder and pray.
To learn more of our world.
And of your ways.

Eternal God:
Your glory leads us.
Your mercy surrounds us.
Your purpose compels us.
Your love is everywhere.
Heaven beckons us onward.
And the saints cry out to us:
“Finish our work!”

Amen and Amen!

Monday, October 5, 2015

Pastoral Prayer, October 4, 2015 - First Congregational Church of Los Angeles

Holy God, forever faithful to your creation …

Your love is at work in all things for good … and toward the good we strive: the welfare of all creatures, great and small … the holy communion of all that lives and breaths upon the face of this earth.

But our hearts are heavy, O God.

We cry out on behalf of our nation and the community of Roseburg, Oregon … the horror of yet another shooting … and how many more times, dear God, will we have to say, “yet another shooting,” how many more deaths will we have to count, how many more shattered families to support, until our nation comes to its senses about violence and guns and the rhetoric of hate that fills our souls with wretched thoughts and compels some to take up deadly ways.

Our minds are whirling, O God - our own Garden of Gethsemane: we don’t want to be here, anymore than Jesus did … we say: “let this cup pass from me” … we want peace and quiet, stillness and calm … yes, give that to us here, O God, in this gracious place and time … but we’re you’re people here and now … no one else to make the decisions, no one else to bear the burdens, and care for your earth. 

Give us a few moments of respite from the trials and tumult of the world; feed us, we pray, with the bread of heaven and refresh us with the cup of blessing … and then send us, we pray, as you sent Elijah: back to our world, to our tasks, to the hard work of salvation - to be an offering of praise and goodness, for the wellbeing of the world. 

On this World Communion Sunday, O LORD, we catch a glimpse of what can be … a world gathered around a Table, a table big enough for everyone, set with enough bread and drink to satisfy the deepest hunger and the most pressing thirst.

All around the world, dear God, people gather in the name of their gods and goddesses, uttering prayers and seeking life in an endless variety of tongues and traditions … we give thanks for every bit of it … 

Because we’re all in this together, dear God, frail and fragile as we are, given to impulses sometimes less than good, dreaming dreams of a better world … learning how to use our abilities, O God, never to conquer, and always to console; never to abuse, but only to enhance … never to degrade, yet always and forever to bless.

In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen!