Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Lectionary: 2/3/2013 - 4th Sunday after Epiphany (C)

Prayer of the Day 
Almighty and ever-living God, increase in us the gifts of faith, hope, and love; and that we may obtain what you promise, make us love what you command, through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.

The biggest theme to the readings this week is love.  God's love for us, our love for God, and our love for each other- not to mention how all that plays out in our lives. The New Testament reading this week continues straight on from last week, when Paul was writing to the people of Corinth about spiritual gifts in community.  The gift he's talking about this week is love, and this is one of the best-loved wedding readings from the Bible, despite it having nothing to do with romance.  The Gospel reading also continues from last week.  Jesus had just read a few verses from Isaiah to his home congregation, and then claimed that he fulfilled them, and now we see what happens afterwards.

Jeremiah 1:4-10
Now the word of the Lord came to me saying, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” Then I said, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” But the Lord said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you, Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord.” Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the Lord said to me, “Now I have put my words in your mouth. See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.” 

I cannot begin to tell you the number of times I've had someone tell me an echo of Jeremiah's statement here- I can't make a difference, I'm not good enough, old enough, smart enough, I can't do it, not me, I don't have money, talent, I'm not nice enough, no one likes me that much, really you don't want me to sing.  Over and over again, just like Moses did it when God told him he would be a leader, we think we cannot possibly do God's work, not us.

And here we have God's answer for us.  God has always known us, God has always been with us, and God will stay with us.  Immanuel- God with us- promises Jeremiah here that words will be put in his mouth and he will upend nations.  Now, certainly, that may not be the future for all of us- I hope not, that would be a very rocky world to live in- but as we heard over the last two weeks, each of us has been given gifts, and here we are reminded again that God is with us through our lives, and knows perfectly well what we can do.  Perhaps our gifts aren't that easy to see compared to others- maybe we have patience, or stubbornness, or a talent for speaking the truth in hard places, or conviction towards justice.  Maybe we can knit or sit with the dying or convince a frightened child they are finally safe.  But we have been given these gifts, and God will be with us when we use them.

Psalm 71:1-6
In you, O Lord, I take refuge; let me never be put to shame.
In your righteousness deliver me and rescue me; incline your ear to me and save me.
Be to me a rock of refuge, a strong fortress, to save me, for you are my rock and my fortress.
Rescue me, O my God, from the hand of the wicked, from the grasp of the unjust and cruel.
For you, O Lord, are my hope, my trust, O Lord, from my youth.
Upon you I have leaned from my birth; it was you who took me from my mother’s womb. My praise is continually of you. 

How often do we need a refuge, a safe place?  How often are we desperate to feel calm and rescued and hopeful?  Physical safety is something that many of us take for granted, but not all of us can.  Emotional and spiritual safety is something we require to thrive and to grow, but some of us do not even have that.  The Psalms are the prayer book of the Bible- the book where we talk back (or often sing back!) to God.  And a lot of the Psalms have images like this and pray for safety.  God is where we have turned for safety for generations, and while God has never promised that faith or service will make us safe, we have been promised, as in the previous reading, that God remains with us, wherever we go.  We are not alone.

1 Corinthians 13:1-13
If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

So for the last two weeks Paul has talked at great lengths about spiritual gifts- and that we all have different ones but they are from the same God, and their use in communities and for God's service.  And then we have this reading, which a lot of people have heard, frequently, at weddings.  But when we read it in context of what Paul's been talking about for the last two weeks, it becomes clear very quickly that the love he's talking about isn't the romantic love between people getting married.

In the first paragraph he talks about the importance of love to an individual.  It is the primary spiritual gift- without it, no other gifts are possible, nothing else matters.  In the second paragraph he talks about love in relationship- and certainly all of what he says is true both in human relationships and our relationships with God.  God is not petulant or irritable or abusive or fickle, and the love present in our relationships with each other leads us away from those actions, when we follow it.  And when all things end, and our other spiritual gifts are no longer needed, still love will bind us together, and we will be with God.

Luke 4:21-30
Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” He said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’” And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way. 

So, Jesus gets up in front of a worship service and claims to be God incarnate.  Now, that happens to be true, so when we look at it from a couple thousand years removed, the reaction of the town looks pretty radical- but if someone you'd known for years did that this Sunday at church, what would your reaction be?  So sure, that's one way to get yourself rejected from your home.  The people in the synagogue weren't taking Jesus very seriously after he'd said that.

But then we have Jesus pointing out that the prophets have not been able to heal or help everyone- that, in fact, people have gone on dying and suffering and sometimes starving while God's chosen messengers were right nearby.  And claiming to be the Messiah, the deliverer of the Jewish people, as Jesus just has, and then saying that- well, I'm guessing that leads to a whole different type of rejection entirely.  One that apparently involves cliffs.

But while he may not have been very diplomatic about it (and Jesus could certainly be very diplomatic when he chose to be, Luke abounds with stories about that) he was essentially pointing out something we already know to be true.  Trusting in God, and God's word, and God's word through the prophets, does not necessarily mean you'll be healed, or be made more safe than your neighbors.  The one promise God has made us- in the other readings today and, more implicitly, in this one- is that God is with us.  This is how God shows God's love for us, by being with us- by coming down and becoming human, and experiencing life, joy, grief and death as one of us.

Go in peace, serve the Lord.  Thanks be to God!

Monday, January 28, 2013

Book Review: God's Politics

God's Politics is by Jim Wallis, best known for his work at Sojourners.

I tried really hard.  I promise.  But I only got about halfway through.

Look, I can tell that this was a great book, when it was written.  But the world that it's talking about is gone.  The political realities that it speaking to aren't here anymore, they've been replaced.  When this book was written, we'd just gone to war in Iraq, 9/11 was very recent, and President G.W. Bush was in his first term.  There was no Tea Party, and the Republicans and the Democrats still seemed to believe themselves to be existing, if not in the same neighborhoods, at least on the same planet.

I tried.  But... I have to say it was weirdly similar to reading a science fiction book about another planet.  I could recognize certain trends in behavior, but it wasn't from where I was living.  Honestly, the difference freaked me out pretty badly.  I mean, I was an adult when this was written.  I remember the events he talks about.  But I can't make the jump to reading what he's talking about as though it's still relevant- because all of his reasoning is based so heavily in the world he was writing in.  It was, I can tell, a very timely book, but it isn't timely anymore.

Now, if he were to update this, say every ten years- that would be awesome.  I would love to read that.  There were things I read that I agreed and disagreed with him on, and I would absolutely be up for reading updated arguments.  (Actually, once I'm ordained, I look forward to subscribing to Sojourners.)  But for the moment, I have other things to read.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Lutheran Look: Why can Christians eat pork?

So, if you've ever spent a few moments flipping through Leviticus (hey, you might have!) you've noticed there's a whole lot of laws there.  Those laws are called the Holiness Code, and while you may have thought the Ten Commandments were a lot to memorize, these total up to about 613 laws!

And many of them sound strange to Christian ears.  We are told not to eat pork, or shellfish, or a wide variety of "unclean" animals.  It says not to wear cloth of made of two kinds of fibers (so no poly/cotton blend shirts) or plant more than one crop in a field, or boil a lamb in it's mother's milk.  (I... wasn't really planning on doing that last one anyway.  That just seems mean.  It is where the best known rule of "keeping kosher" that many Jews still follow, of not having dairy products and meat in the same meal- so no cheeseburgers- comes from though.)

These aren't laws that Christians, by and large, follow.  Perhaps you've wondered why?  Jewish people still follow most of them (the ones about Temple offerings can't be followed, as currently there's no Temple) and Muslims don't eat pork either.

 Remember a couple weeks ago, when, during the lectionary post for the wedding at Cana, I talked a bit about Jesus having come to fulfill the law?  That's where this is going.  Now, Jesus did not come to abolish or destroy the law, he's very clear about that (see Matthew 5:17-18)  Fulfilling the law was quite the opposite.  He didn't hate or destroy the law, or make it so the law never existed- instead he brought it to completion by following it fully, to his own death (and resurrection!).

This is all explained rather nicely in Galatians 3:23-26: "Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith."

Before Christ, the way to "justify" yourself with God- make your relationship with God right, find salvation, etc.- was to follow the law, because you could not, back then, be justified (made right) by your faith.  But then Jesus came, and because of Jesus' death and resurrection, which fulfilled the law, we are not subject to the law in the same way, because we now are justified through faith.

If you're still concerned about food in particular, we have Acts 10:9-16,where Peter has a dream about unclean foods after Jesus' time.  "About noon the next day, as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. He became hungry and wanted something to eat; and while it was being prepared, he fell into a trance. He saw the heaven opened and something like a large sheet coming down, being lowered to the ground by its four corners. In it were all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air. Then he heard a voice saying, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ But Peter said, ‘By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.’ The voice said to him again, a second time, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ This happened three times, and the thing was suddenly taken up to heaven."

And right after this, a centurion named Cornelius comes to stay with Peter, having been directed to Peter by the Holy Spirit, with some other people.  Cornelius is also Christian, but was never Jewish- a Gentile Christian.  And the next time Peter preached (just a verse or two later) he talked to the crowd how, as a Jew, he shouldn't have let a Gentile stay with him, but as a Christian, because of his dream and how God had spoken to Cornelius, it didn't matter anymore.  And then Peter goes on for quite a bit about how God isn't partial to any nation, he treats them all the same.

This is not to say we don't follow any laws!  We certainly do.  We follow the Ten Commandments, and the rules that Jesus gave us in the Gospels (there are a bunch of those, but not 613!) and most importantly what Jesus called the two Greatest Commandments- to love God with all your heart, soul and mind, and to love your neighbor as yourself.  We read the Bible, and try to figure out which rules that people in it followed because they wanted to "get right with God", which isn't something we use rules for anymore, and which ones are good rules for society and to keep good relationships with each other.  (That usually helps our relationship with God a lot, if you haven't noticed that yet.)  That's part of why we have so many Christian denominations- we have different ideas about which are which.  I'll certainly be talking about some more of them in these Lutheran Look posts, down the line.

I hope this helped!  God bless.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Lectionary: 1/27/2013- 3rd Sunday after Epiphany (C)

Prayer of the Day
Blessed Lord God, you have caused the holy scriptures to be written for the nourishment of your people. Grant that we may hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that, comforted by your promises, we may embrace and forever hold fast to the hope of eternal life, through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. 

The theme this week is the Word of God as Scripture, particularly when read in worship services.  There's also an underlying theme of God's laws for us and Jesus' fulfillment of the law.  The New Testament reading this week continues from last week, and talks about spiritual gifts and Christian communities and relationships.  Last week, we saw Jesus' first miracle at the wedding at Cana, this week we see him return home for the first time since the beginning of his ministry (and we also return from John to the gospel of Luke).

Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10
...all the people gathered together into the square before the Water Gate. They told the scribe Ezra to bring the book of the law of Moses, which the Lord had given to Israel. Accordingly, the priest Ezra brought the law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could hear with understanding. This was on the first day of the seventh month. He read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the law.  And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was standing above all the people; and when he opened it, all the people stood up. Then Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God, and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” lifting up their hands. Then they bowed their heads and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground.  So they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.
And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law. Then he said to them, “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” 

In case you're worried about verses four and seven, they're gigantic lists of names that don't add much to the story, so for lectionary purposes, they've been skipped to make the readers' lives easier.  If you're really worried about them, just know Ezra was standing on a wooden platform at the start and the people in the lists helped the other folks understand the law. Or you could look it up.

There were a couple periods of time where the Jewish people did not have access to their scriptures, during the time covered by the Bible.  In this case, they have just returned from what we call the Babylonian Exile.  Generations before, armies from the nation of Babylon came and destroyed Israel, and took thousands of captives back to Babylon, where they lived as slaves and could not worship as they had before.  Now they've been released (which is another long story) and many returned to Israel, and they're rebuilding.  And since these folks have never had access to their Scriptures before (though tradition was passed down as well as they could manage without it) they go and hear Ezra, the priest, read "the law" (probably the first five books at least of the Hebrew Scriptures, also called the Torah or the Pentateuch) in the square.

It's shown elsewhere that the people are stunned by how much they've forgotten while they were in exile, and that's why they began to weep.  And so the leaders reminded them that this was the Sabbath, God's day, and they could rejoice at what they had found again, and worship God, and give thanks (by eating and drinking good things and giving to the poor).

So here we see why we read the Bible during a worship service- to remind ourselves of what it says, so we don't forget.  To worship, to rejoice and give thanks.  And let's not forget that last bit about giving to those who have not- that is also a way to give thanks and rejoice and even to worship, and Jesus repeats that constantly as well.

Psalm 19 
The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard;
yet their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world. In the heavens he has set a tent for the sun,
which comes out like a bridegroom from his wedding canopy, and like a strong man runs its course with joy.
Its rising is from the end of the heavens, and its circuit to the end of them; and nothing is hid from its heat.
The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul; the decrees of the Lord are sure, making wise the simple;
the precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the Lord is clear, enlightening the eyes;
the fear of the Lord is pure, enduring forever; the ordinances of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.
More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey, and drippings of the honeycomb.
Moreover by them is your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward.
But who can detect their errors? Clear me from hidden faults.
Keep back your servant also from the insolent; do not let them have dominion over me. Then I shall be blameless, and innocent of great transgression.
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.

The word "firmament" isn't one we use a lot anymore, sadly- it just means "sky".  It comes from a Latin word that meant "to prop up" which is why the "firm-" part is in there.  The idea of the ancient world was that the sky propped up the heavens, which kept the earth and the heavens separate.  Here we read that the heavens and the sky speak without words of the glory of God, so we do not "hear" their "speech", but we understand the point anyway.  God has planned out even the way the sun moves across the sky, and if that's the case then the laws God has given must be equally carefully planned and wise.  Can't the laws give us even more understanding of God than the heavens and sky and sun, which can't use words?  So we try to follow them.

The last verse, on another note, is often used as a prayer all on it's own.  Very common among pastors before a worship service, for example, or as a morning prayer.  It's also easily rewritten if you want something in more ordinary language.
1 Corinthians 12:12-31a
For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot would say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear would say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many members, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it. Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers; then deeds of power, then gifts of healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership, various kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? But strive for the greater gifts.

Ever notice that the Gospel and Old Testament readings seem to match up okay, in terms of a theme, but sometimes the New Testament reading comes out of left field a bit?  The lectionary we use is called the Revised Common Lectionary- common because it's shared among several denominations (including Roman Catholics, with a few minor changes here and there), and revised because this is the second one.  The first one, the CL rather than the RCL, didn't have a New Testament reading, and when they were added in, the decision was made to organize them so that week after week we get continuous readings from a book, rather than by theme (except on some special Sundays where a theme is stuck to).  So sometimes they match the week's theme, but sometimes they're a separate thing.

This week we have a passage that comes right after the passage from last week, which also talked about spiritual gifts.  Last week the big point was that there are many kinds of spiritual gifts, and none of us have them all, but we can figure out which gifts we have and use them to worship God and to help others.  This week, the focus is much more on how we treat each other than how we feel about ourselves.

When we are in worship, and when we are being truly Christian with one another, we treat each other as perfect equals in the eyes of God.  The eyes of society- what we're wearing, how much money we have, what we did last week- don't matter.  In the eyes of God we are God's beloved baptized children, blessed by the same Holy Spirit, sprinkled with (or immersed in!) the same water for the same purpose.  And we continue to work with our gifts and seek out new ones, for the good of the church and the glory of God.

Luke 4:14-21
Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone. When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” 

And here, Jesus goes home for the first time since the start of his ministry, and is invited to read the Scripture for the day and interpret it, and makes quite a splash.  (If you want to know what happens afterwards, look it up and keep reading!  Sometimes I think the people who set up the lectionary left cliffhangers for just that reason.)

So, go ahead and read that bit quoted from Isaiah again, I'll wait.  Release of the captives, freedom to the oppressed, does that sound familiar?  Ring any bells from the Nehemiah reading a minute ago?  The Babylonian Exile and the return from it were such huge events in the history of the Jewish people that there are references to them all over the Bible, and this is another one- Isaiah talks about it quite a bit, actually.  Even the sight to the blind part reminds me a little of the reading of the Scriptures to the people who'd never heard it read out before.

And all of these things are things which Jesus will continue to do during his ministry- certainly healing and proclaiming the Lord, but, while we don't have any stories of him getting people released in prison (though he certainly reminded us to care for prisoners and visit them) he did proclaim our freedom from the law.

To explain that a little more- you've probably heard preachers on TV or the radio talk about God's laws and that you have to follow them in order for God to love you.  Well, Lutherans are different from a lot of Christians in a variety of ways, and this is one of them.  We believe that Jesus' death and resurrection freed us from that need to earn God's love by following laws.  God has declared that God loves us anyways, despite the fact that we are not perfect.  We try to follow the laws that God has laid out, yes, but because of our gratitude and thankfulness to God, rather than fear, and because those laws are good for our communities and our lives and relationships.  I have a whole list of "Lutheran Look" post ideas for Fridays, and a few of them talk about this sort of thing, so you'll be reading more about that eventually.  (I hope!)

Go in peace, serve the Lord.  Thanks be to God!

Monday, January 21, 2013

Book Review: The Alchemist

The Alchemist, by Paul Coelho, gets a lot of great reviews.  Let me warn you now: this will not be one of them.

Upon reflection, I've realized that a lot of the people who suggested this book to me personally also, by happenstance, tend to be people who describe themselves as "spiritual but not religious".  And that explains a lot.  Because I like these people, I really do, we can talk about all kinds of things.  But I tend to think of the difference between "spiritual" and "religious" in those cases as being "I want to acknowledge the numinous/ethereal/sacred without having to deal with the messiness of mixing in relationships with other humans with it" and "I may or may not find the numinous/ethereal/sacred in my relationships with other people, but I certainly value having the reality check they provide when exploring that aspect of the universe."  This book has a lot of issues that may have been fixed had the author had a community to hold him accountable.

People who avoid the reality checks provided by relationships with other people that involve acknowledging the sacred, are not people from whom I should be accepting reading suggestions for allegorical fables that lift characters and plot elements from the Bible and A 1001 Nights, while advocating a mix of Gnosticism and Manichaeism that would make Martin Luther tear out his hair and St. Augustine want to set things on fire.  Not that that would take much.

Gnostics believe you can be saved by having "secret knowledge" (from the Greek gnosis, to know), it's the sort of thing secret societies tend to go for.  In this case, the main character is given the knowledge of how to focus properly on what he wants fairly early on in the book, and uses that knowledge to advance himself.  Manichaeists believe that in the universal battle between good and evil, what is numinous/ethereal/sacred is good, and what is material is bad.  That is, thought/prayer/austerity is good, and anything having to do with taking care of your body or enjoying the world is bad.  The main character ends up with quite the ego after a bit, and a certain disdain for people who don't have the secret knowledge, and therefore still have to worry about material things like putting food on the table, and this leads to a certain amount of Manichaeism as the book goes on.

The general gist of the book, as far as I can make out, is that good things will happen to you and you will advance as long as you know what your goal is and focus exclusively on it.  And by "happen to you", I mean fall into your lap for no apparent reason.  The main character wandered around a lot in the desert with a variety of people, including some clearly lifted from the Bible, and a bunch of stuff happened to him, just like that.  I realize that the book was originally written in Portuguese, and I certainly hope that there were some translation issues- I read Doctor Zhivago once, a not-great English translation, and whole speeches fell very flat in ways that resemble parts of this book.
Also, there's the treatment of Muslims and the entire continent of Africa as being helplessly exotic and less than real. Along with the bonus sexism of men having dreams of travel & adventure, but women only dream of falling in love & waiting for their man.  (That bit was especially thoroughly spelled out.  I would have thrown the book across the room if I hadn't been reading it on my Kindle.  A problem I did not see coming with ebooks.)  This was written in 1988.  And it's still touted as insightful and wise?  I had hoped we'd gotten a little better at this by now.  Shelve this with The Secret, please, and keep it far away from me.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Les Misérables: Law and Gospel

My husband and I just got back from seeing Les Mis.  (Spoilers for book, movie, and musical abound, obviously.)  I had never actually seen the musical before- I've rarely lived in places with access to good theater- but I've listened to a cast recording I have a lot over the last several years.  So I thought I knew the plot pretty well.

Imagine my astonishment when I realized there was a major, ongoing, and surprisingly Lutheran theme I'd missed entirely.

The only two characters who we follow from the beginning of the story, Valjean and Javert, epitomize two very different approaches to life, and to faith.  They both speak frequently with God, they both take actions based directly on their faith, they both try their best to be "good."  And yet their approaches could not be more different.

Valjean, an ex-convict who hates God and humanity after a cruel and lengthy prison sentence, experiences unexpected forgiveness at the hand of a bishop early in the movie.  Because of this, he divorces himself from the strict regime of laws he'd been abiding by (that is, rips up his parole papers) and seeks a place where he can help others who had also suffered.  He starts a factory where he can employ people who would otherwise have no hope, and feels a clear responsibility to them and their well being.  After this, he continues to embrace the Gospel over and over again.
  • He saves the life of a man trapped under a cart- despite the chance that Javert will see him and recognize him by his unusual strength, shown at the prison previously.
  • He rescues Fantine- to whom he felt he owed a debt for failing her earlier- from the authorities and makes sure her last hours are spent in comfort.
  • He turns himself in to the authorities (well, he intends to do so permanently, but it winds up being temporary) to save a stranger from unjust imprisonment.
  • He raises Cosette, Fantine's daughter, as his own.
  • We see him giving to the poor over and over again, in montages as the scenery changes, and he remains generous to those in need.
  • He saves Javert's life, despite the promise that Javert will continue to chase him down.
  • He saves Marius's life, under very... unpleasant conditions.
And in contrast, we have Javert, who, coming from a similar background, has embraced the Law- free of grace or forgiveness- as the way to God (and the good life).  Over and over again, he is given the chance to be merciful- towards Fantine, Valjean, the Thénardiers, the students at the barricades- and he never, never does.  He sings again and again of those who "fell as Lucifer fell", the "faltering and the fallen", and holds that mitigating circumstances are worthless and that people cannot change- those who have broken the Law once will only go on doing so and cannot redeem themselves or be redeemed.  There is no Gospel in his world view at all.

And then we come to the climactic scene of their relationship, where Javert tells Valjean, who is holding Marius's body, that if he takes one more step, Javert will kill him.  And Valjean walks away, and Javert cannot bring himself to fire on the man who had saved his life hours before.  Unable to handle the difference between his civic duty- to bring Valjean in, or kill him if necessary, for breaking his parole- and his moral duty- to pay back his life debt to Valjean- and with no Gospel to bridge the gap, he cannot go on, and commits suicide.

Personally, I tend to think of this as Javert's "Norman" moment, but it's entirely possible that's just me. In some ways it could be a stronger story if he was talked through this scene and didn't commit suicide, but, frankly, that would make a very long story even longer (and I've read the unabridged English translation), a very long movie even longer, and probably ruin the whole "everybody dies" theme they've got going, so.

I would also like to make it very clear, at this point, that I do not condone breaking one's parole (parole in the USA being a very different thing than in post-revolutionary France), shooting people in general, armed revolution in particular, bribery, perjury, robbery, or certain various other actions Valjean takes and considers in this story.  He is a flawed character- and if he wasn't, he wouldn't be the proper vehicle for the Gospel theme anyway.

Javert is an illustration of the limitations and inability to cope with the realities of life that living by the Law can bring.  The Law, in this movie, is designed to work best under ideal circumstances, but it cannot cope with unusual or less-than-ideal realities.  It has no mercy for those who have made mistakes, no grace for the unexpected, no room for change or growth.

Valjean is the epitome for the changes that the Gospel can work in the world.  He saves lives, he gives second chances and what redemption he can offer, he is merciful and giving.  This is not a Prosperity Gospel that he's following at all- he ends up fairly well off but perpetually on the run, he knows friendlessness and despair.  But he acknowledges the true suffering in the world, does what he can to mitigate it, remains at the side of those who go through it, and never considers himself "above" another person.  No wonder an old friend of mine found enough Gospel in this story for a sermon.

An even the narrative allows enough Gospel for Javert to join the others who have died "at the barricade" at the end, reaffirming the author's choice between Law and Gospel.  Thanks be to God!

Friday, January 18, 2013

Lutheran Look: What do you have to do to become a pastor? (Before Seminary)

I hope that these Lutheran Look posts can address a number of questions I commonly get about the Lutheran point of view on various things.  That might include why certain things are or aren't included in a worship service, theological positions, looking at various Bible passages (not included in the weekly Sunday readings), and random thoughts on how the church works as an organization.  I'm going to do my best, when it's necessary, to keep separate my thoughts from official positions held by the ELCA, but don't expect me to be perfect on that score, please.  (Or any other!)

This seemed like an appropriate question for my first Lutheran Look post, because I'm nearing the end of the process of becoming a pastor myself.  Obviously requirements are different between denominations, but I can certainly talk about what you have to do along the way in the ELCA.

First, you have to have the call to ministry.  A pastor's work is not easy, and isn't something you can take up lightly.  It's a long road to get there, and that old joke about a pastor working one hour a week is actually not that funny, thanks.  If you don't feel that God is calling you to be there- if you don't feel like that's where you belong and what you're supposed to be doing- you won't last, and you'll have put a lot of years of your life (and probably a lot of money) into a degree for a career you can't stick with.

How do you know if you have the call to ministry?  There are a lot of ways that people "hear" the call- sometimes it's a person, or a lot of people, who tell you you'd be good at it.  Sometimes it comes through prayer.  Sometimes it's that your life lacks something, and when you go looking for what's missing, you're led to ministry.

In the case of a friend of mine, it was a pastor who walked up to him, handed him some books about Biblical Greek, and said, "Here, you'll need these when you go to seminary."  That will probably not happen to you.

In my case, I was fifteen years old, and yelling at God (as one does), and God yelled back.  And lo and behold, here I am.  (God didn't stop telling me, by the way- sometimes it's a yell, sometimes a whisper, sometimes a swat to the back of the head, but the call stays with you, it isn't a one time thing.)

So, if you're wondering if you're called to ministry?  Talk to your friends, your family, your pastor and other pastors (seriously, go out of your way to talk to more than one- and in denominations that aren't yours, if you can).  However much you're talking to them, talk to God more.  Get used to prayer being a normal part of life, it's only going to become a bigger part of your life as you go.

When you're ready?  Well, first there are some basic educational requirements.  In order to get into seminary, you have to have a four year college degree from an accredited institution.  ("Accredited" means you didn't print the "diploma" out yourself on your printer.  Look up your local synod's office phone number on and ask them if you're concerned about yours.)

If you haven't gone to college yet, I can offer some advice about what to do when you get there.  This first part is going to sound weird- don't major in religion.  Seriously, I mean it.  Seminary will teach you what you need to know when you get there, and you will want a reasonably broad background so you can relate to your congregation.  This is not to say that you shouldn't take any religion classes- I suggest ones that focus on practical stuff, pastoral things like how to deal with grief and things like that, which will give you a good idea of what being a pastor as an everyday sort of thing is like.

There are a lot of majors that could be really useful to a pastor, but really, take something you like, something you can nerd out about.  And preferably, leave yourself a lot of room for electives, things outside your major.  Take a basic Accounting class if you can- church budgets can get weird.  Act in a play, or take an acting class, or at the very least take a public speaking class- pastors not only have to preach, but very often, have to have a decent sense of timing (and a sense of theater helps keep people paying attention).  Take some history- particularly non-USA, non-Western European history, and all the Middle Eastern history on offer.  Learn Spanish, or another language that is in regular use in whatever area you're planning on working in.  Take an Intro to Philosophy class and learn how to construct and critique an argument (and I'm not using "argument" in a "yelling at each other" kind of way).  Take all the Psychology classes you can, pay particular attention to the bits about old people, young people, and the problems that people with mental illnesses face in our society.  Sociology and Social Work classes are also good for that, and a Human Resources or a Business class couldn't hurt.  Take a science or math class that sounds cool- you will have a lot of science and math people in your congregations to talk to, and a lot of confirmation students wondering why they have to take science and math.

You see why I said leave yourself a lot of room for electives, now?  Know exactly what the requirements for a degree are before you get on campus, if at all possible, and plan ahead as far as you can.  Get to know as many different kinds of people as you can- foreign exchange students are awesome, adventurous people (did you leave your country, and likely your native language, to go to college?) and can give you a wonderful perspective on how Americans are seen elsewhere.  Talk to atheists, agnostics, Muslims, Jews, Sikhs, Wiccans, etc., and Christians of all stripes, and treat them all like human beings, and get to know them and what they think about things that aren't religion.

Be very, very careful about how much debt you rack up along the way, by the way.  Get scholarships, work a lot, whatever- pastors make okay money but student loan debt can haunt you and no one gets into this field for the paycheck, okay?  ELCA pastors are not the ones that live in the gigantic houses and drive BMWs, we are not (generally) televangelists.  If you graduate college with more than $30,000 of student loan debt, your synod will worry about you.  It won't keep you out of seminary, but they'll want to be sure you're financially stable.  And these days, it is really easy to rack that much debt up.  Don't take any loans you don't have to.

In seminary you will have to take some classes of Biblical Greek, and possibly Ancient Hebrew as well, depending on which one you end up going to.  Anyway, if you have any chance of doing Greek or Hebrew while you're still in college, do it.  (Not Modern Greek or Modern Hebrew, they are very different.  There is also Homeric Greek, and Ancient or "Attic" Greek, and they are both different from each other and from Biblical "Koine" Greek, but they will likely help you some, while Modern Greek really, really won't.)  If you're not that great at foreign languages and you haven't chosen your college yet- pick a college that offers at least Biblical Greek.  All the seminaries offer "Summer Greek" (better known by the people who've taken it as "Suicide Greek") to get you up to speed if necessary, but if you can, avoid it.

There are 8 ELCA seminaries (and while technically you can go to a non-ELCA seminary and become an ELCA pastor, it's a weirder, harder road, and most of the people I know who've done it wouldn't recommend it unless you have a really good reason) and they're scattered around.  Three on the East Coast (two in PA, one in SC), four in what I'd call the Midwest (OH, IL, IA, MN) and one in California.  Geography will likely play a role in your decision, as will money.  They do all have reputations of focusing on different things, but they are all good schools and will give you the education you need, if you're willing to work for it.

If you went to college awhile ago, and are now thinking of entering the ministry and changing from your current career path, congratulations!  You are what we refer to as a second-career pastor, and while taking a few years out of your working life is going to be very hard, congregations tend to love second-career pastors for their life experience.  You may want to look into studying a bit of Greek before you go- call the seminary you want to go to and ask them for help on finding materials.  Fifty bucks for the books and a few months of hard work before going to seminary can save you a lot of grief.

When you start seminary, you'll enter Candidacy (ask your synod about that) and agree to live by Visions and Expectations, which is a document that outlines the basic life rules for pastors, and I believe you can download it off  I suggest looking at it now.  During seminary is certainly worth another post, it looks like, so I'll do that another day.  God bless!

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Lectionary: 1/20/2013- 2nd Sunday of Epiphany (C)

Prayer of the Day
Lord God, source of every blessing, you showed forth your glory and led many to faith by the works of your Son, who brought gladness and salvation to his people. Transform us by the Spirit of his love, that we may find our life together in him, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.

The overarching theme this week is the love of God for God's people.  The main way this is illustrated is by characterizing this love as the love which a bridegroom has for his bride- which, I admit, as a happy newlywed, strikes me as a little odd, but I'm going to try to take it in the manner in which (I pray) it was intended.  A secondary theme is that of God's love shown to the people of God by spiritual gifts and a miracle.  Last week we heard of Jesus' baptism, this week we see his first miracle- performed at a wedding, as a favor to his mother.  This is also the last time we see his mother really get him to do something, so while she appears often later, this week's Gospel reading is a bit of a transition into adulthood for Jesus.

Isaiah 62:1-5

For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest, until her vindication shines out like the dawn, and her salvation like a burning torch. The nations shall see your vindication, and all the kings your glory; and you shall be called by a new name that the mouth of the Lord will give. You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord, and a royal diadem in the hand of your God. You shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate; but 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.

Zion is another name for Jerusalem, which is very commonly used in the Bible.  Jerusalem is the name of the city officially speaking, but using the name Zion also implies its special status in the Hebrew Scriptures as the city which has been chosen by God for the Temple, and references the promises for the future that God has made regarding it.  Speaking of names, Hepzibah means My Delight Is In Her, and Beulah means Married.

And here we read some of those promises.  The Jewish people had already been through a lot of pain and persecution by the point that this part of Isaiah was written, and that's why the Hebrew Scriptures speak so strongly of God being with them despite their trials and tragedies.  Israel hopes for vindication before the nations that have assaulted and occupied her, and salvation from her enemies which have persecuted her for a long time, and that is what God promises here.

As I mentioned earlier, the comparison of God's love for the children of God (and, later on in the New Testament, for the church) to a marriage strikes me as a little odd.  But let's take a moment to remember that in those days when this was written, marriages were not contracted very often because two people fell in love.  They were more often business contracts between families, or even nations, and tools to build a strong community.  For a bride and groom in those times, marriage was a sign of adulthood, a status of honor (because someone else's family found you good enough to ally with), and almost always a promise of future security and comfort.  All of those line up nicely with God's promises to Zion, don't they?

Psalm 36:5-10
Your steadfast love, O Lord, extends to the heavens, your faithfulness to the clouds.
Your righteousness is like the mighty mountains, your judgments are like the great deep; you save humans and animals alike, O Lord.
How precious is your steadfast love, O God! All people may take refuge in the shadow of your wings.
They feast on the abundance of your house, and you give them drink from the river of your delights.
For with you is the fountain of life; in your light we see light.
O continue your steadfast love to those who know you, and your salvation to the upright of heart! 

When the congregation recites the Psalm together this week, we affirm God's love and faithfulness with images of what God has created around us.  The sky, clouds, mountains, seas, animals and our fellow humanity are all reminders of God's power and love for us.  We could not live without the atmosphere that gives us the sky, or the water that forms and falls from the clouds.  The mountains and seas give the world variety and beauty.  Our community comes from our fellow humans and, for those of us who have pets, animals.  God's house is all of Creation, and from that fountain springs life.

In fact, if I remember anything from what I was taught about how our eyes work and optics and the like in science classes, "in your light we see light" is even scientifically true, given that God created light.  What a wonderful reminder of the care God took in the way the universe is ordered!

1 Corinthians 12:1-11
Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed. You know that when you were pagans, you were enticed and led astray to idols that could not speak. Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says “Let Jesus be cursed!” and no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit. Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.

Here Paul is writing to the Gentile Christians of the city of Corinth- the word "Gentile" means not Jewish, so they were not Jewish before they were Christian.  Because of that, they have not learned about the spiritual gifts that God gives before (and a whole bunch of other stuff), and when Paul says they were pagans (that is, they worshiped other gods), it's a reference to that.

Here he educates the Corinthians that the many gifts people have come from the same God, and that our many activities with those gifts are inspired by God.  He lists some of the gifts.  Some people speak wise words, and other people speak with knowledge- perhaps they overlap, perhaps they don't, but those are two different gifts, aren't they?  Some people have gifts of faith, or healing, or working miracles (like Jesus, and several other people in the Bible).  Some people can prophesy- and in the Bible that has two meanings, sometimes it means "to tell the future" like we often use it today, but it also means "to speak the will or words of God".

The discernment of spirits, and speaking and interpretation of tongues, aren't really gifts we talk about a lot as Lutherans.  It's possible that the "tongues" are just another way to talk about languages, in which case, I certainly know people who are gifted in both speaking and interpreting many languages, but I'm not really one of them.  But it's also possible that the "spirits" and "tongues" talked about here are a way of talking about possession/exorcism and "speaking in tongues", which are popular activities related to worship in some Christian communities.  From what I understand, the Lutherans don't really go in for them more because we're concerned that they can be and have been faked so easily.  There may be occasional genuine cases, certainly, but that's very hard to judge and faked cases can hurt people and a community very badly.

John 2:1-11
On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to them, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. He said to them, “Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.” So they took it. When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.” Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.

The Lutheran church runs on a three year lectionary- that is, arrangement of verses for Sunday and special services- of which, we are in year C (thus the (C) in the post title).  Year C focuses on readings from Luke for the gospel readings, years A and B focus on Mark and Matthew, and readings from John are scattered through all three years.  So that's why we occasionally hear from John, like this morning.

The "third day" bit at the beginning is a reference to the verse before, it just means that this is the third day after the previous verse (that we don't see.)  We find that Jesus, the disciples (who don't really play much of a role here), and his mother (Mary, of course, but her name isn't mentioned once in this passage- happens to a lot of people in the Bible, but most often to women) are at a wedding.  And, a wedding then being quite a bit like a wedding now (even if the marriages often started out for very different reasons than they would today) they were having some wine, and ran out.

Keep in mind that the steward, who we'll meet in a moment and was the head of the servants, was likely responsible for the wine running out.  Anyway, Jesus has to be talked into performing a miracle by his mother (I kind of wonder if that bit was included to explain why Jesus, who otherwise mostly did miracles that healed people and the like, would have done a miracle like this) and sends some servants to fill some giant water barrels.

These water barrels were already empty, you'll notice.  That's because the water in them wasn't drinking water, it was for the Jewish rites of purification, which had already happened.  (There are several Jewish purification rites, but this water was probably for washing hands before a meal.  Since the wine had run out, probably everybody had already eaten, therefore they'd washed their hands before that and the barrels were empty.)  Isn't it interesting that Jesus, who came to forgive us our sins and "fulfill the law", as it's phrased in other passages in the Bible, takes the water used for a religious ritual of the law and turns it into a celebratory drink?  Very suitable for a first miracle, wouldn't you say?  And of course this wine was better than the ordinary wine, just as the celebration that Jesus will bring (that is, Easter) is the best of celebrations.

Go in peace, serve the Lord.  Thanks be to God!

Monday, January 14, 2013

Book Review: Megillat Esther

I recently read Megillat Esther, by JT Waldman.  This is a graphic novel interpretation of the book of Esther.  The author is Jewish, and the pages include calligraphy of the Hebrew text woven in with the English.  The artwork is evocative and moving, and the English translation is accurate, tightly written, and a quick read, though you will find yourself pausing over the artwork again and again.

But even more importantly, the book itself is a retelling of the story with all the bits I never learned in Sunday school.  For example, do you know why the king really dismissed his first wife?  There are tidbits from Jewish tradition, nuances that don't quite make it in the usual English translations, and references to other stories in the Hebrew Scriptures which frame and give context to the story itself.  Details hidden in the artwork hint at the wider setting.

And normally I never suggest this, but this is one of those books where you do have to read the introduction.  It's all of two pages long, but it gives some instructions that you'll need to continue reading the book after a certain point.  It's a fascinating authorial choice, and I hope it doesn't put off too many readers.

I found this book fascinating.  The artwork is not always suitable for very young readers (and neither is the story in the English translation, for that matter- several bits of the Bible are PG-13 or considerably higher) but it wasn't meant to be.  This is a book for teens and adults looking for a better understanding of one of the best known, but least understood, women of the Bible.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

City of God: Book 1

So, as I mentioned in my Introduction post, I'm participating in a read along of Augustine's City of God, over the course of the year.  We have a place to discuss it among ourselves, but I have a feeling I'm going to want a place to discuss it at more length.

I'm not going to worry about spoilers here, because it isn't fiction, and I'm not going to worry about putting anyone off reading it, because let's be honest- you are either a person who's going to read it, or you aren't.  This isn't a book people pick up for fun.  It's really long, it's fairly heavy theology, and while some non-religious philosophers might find it interesting, most people already know if they're going to wind up reading it one day or not, if they aren't required to.  (I am a helpless religion and philosophy nerd, of course I knew I was going to get around to it one day.)  So I don't know if I'm going to do a post for every book, but I don't intend to pull punches or leave things vague when I do.  Feel free to skip or skim these posts, of course.

So, for some basic context: Augustine was a bishop in Northern Africa, around 400 AD.  I've read the first half, I think, of his Confessions, and while it was awhile ago I do not remember being very impressed with anything besides his issues with his mother, which were pretty epic.  This is the guy who once famously prayed "God, grant me chastity and continence, but not yet."  (Continence, we fervently hope, in this case meant self-control.)  It is entirely possible that part of my various problems with him is due to the fact that I am still burned out on reading dead white guys tell me women suck, but I figure this is probably the only chance I've got to get through the book, so I'll take a chance.  Anyway, he wrote the book over the course of several years, in response to the invasion and sacking of Rome.

I'm going to start with the fact that I knew I knew a bunch of people who'd tried this book and didn't get through the first fifty pages, and now I know why.  Well, okay, the start is pretty dry, fine- but there's about twenty of the first fifty pages that kind of horrify me.  Look, he wrote this in response to the pillage of a city, fine, I expected some pretty gut-wrenching talk about evil and violence and whatnot.  But he's just so bad at it.

I mean, I realize I've been spoiled by growing up in this lovely time, where people actually occasionally get called out when they blame a rape victim for the rape.  Occasionally.  And we have some level of understanding of PTSD and depression.  Occasionally.  But Everlasting Gobstoppers, his total and entire lack of compassion is just stunning.

So, I'll warn you now, if you don't want to read rage-inducing pontificating about torture and rape, you don't want to read these quoted passages.  (I have to quote them.  Because I am still amazed they exist.  And I am praying for any survivor of torture, rape or not, who has read this over the last 1600 years.)  Just skip on down to the next regular paragraph, beginning with "Anyway, before all that...."
  •  In chapter 16, he seeks to comfort the afflicted by saying that injury of the body doesn't affect the soul, and so rape doesn't ruin a woman's chastity. Then he goes on... "But as not only pain may be inflicted, but lust gratified on the body of another, whenever anything of this latter kind takes place, shame invades even a thoroughly pure spirit from which modesty has not departed,—shame, lest that act which could not be suffered without some sensual pleasure, should be believed to have been committed also with some assent of the will." Read that bit after the double-hyphen again.  If not for that bit, I wouldn't mind him making this point- while it might not be the first thing to come to a survivor's mind, it might help down the road.  The problem is, this is the only point of comfort he ever tries to offer.
  • In chapter 18 he goes there again, this time talking to men.  "For if purity can be thus destroyed, then assuredly purity is no virtue of the soul; nor can it be numbered among those good things by which the life is made good, but among the good things of the body, in the same category as strength, beauty, sound and unbroken health, and, in short, all such good things as may be diminished without at all diminishing the goodness and rectitude of our life.  But if purity be nothing better than these, why should the body be perilled that it may be preserved?  If, on the other hand, it belongs to the soul, then not even when the body is violated is it lost."  Okay, great.  Still not one word of "God is with you in your suffering" or "you did not deserve this", though.
  • And then a bit later on, he decides to use the associative property from algebra to turn it around and take a potshot at everybody else.  "Let us rather draw this conclusion, that while the sanctity of the soul remains even when the body is violated, the sanctity of the body is not lost; and that, in like manner, the sanctity of the body is lost when the sanctity of the soul is violated, though the body itself remains intact."  Lovely pastoral manner, there, Augustine.
  • Finally, in chapter 28, he basically says that God must have allowed the raped women of Rome to be raped because they were too proud and puffed up about their virginity.  I'm not going to quote that bit because he goes on about it for a very, very long time.  This, however, seals the deal for me....  "Moreover, it is possible that those Christian women, who are unconscious of any undue pride on account of their virtuous chastity, whereby they sinlessly suffered the violence of their captors, had yet some lurking infirmity which might have betrayed them into a proud and contemptuous bearing, had they not been subjected to the humiliation that befell them in the taking of the city." Seriously, what?  Not once does he imply men who were tortured deserved it or needed it.  In the case of a well known military leader, Augustine points out he probably expected to be tortured, but that's as far as it goes.

Anyway, before all that, he does some interesting things about what it meant that people who ran to Christian shrines were spared, which hadn't really happened before (and later grew into the sanctuary movement, where people seeking safety could claim sanctuary at Christian altars and churches).  It was a little esoteric, and I'm not sure he's finished his case about that yet, so I think I'll wait to comment on it further.

He does show compassion once.  There's a fairly extended piece about why we bury people and show some level of respect to dead bodies, but that ultimately if someone dies and remains unburied, it's okay.  This certainly would have been an issue people were worried about after a sacking of a city, and still today, and he handles it with care and compassion that I have to say I was kind of surprised he had.  There's a particularly lovely bit where he quotes Lucan, "He who has no tomb has the sky as his vault."  What a beautiful and comforting image to give a grieving family.

Most of the last part of Book 1 is him going on endlessly about suicide, and we're back to the lack of compassion.  I'm not going to do quotations for this because my brain won't let me.  Basically his theory is that there is nothing bad enough that can happen to you to warrant taking your life, and there's no compassion towards or mention of the grieving families left behind.  And apparently the only reason a rape survivor would suicide is because she couldn't live with the "outrage done her" and the loss of her honor, and the only reason a person would kill themselves to escape torture or death at the hand of another is to keep the enemy from their victory.  Seriously?  He does comment once that possibly someone with a "feeble mind" might consider suicide.

Augustine lived in a violent area, in a violent time.  He knew people who had been in Rome and other sacked cities, and people who had been in wars.  Some of them must have had what we now call depression and PTSD- those certainly did happen back then, there were just different or a lack of terms.  I don't care what year it was, he could have done better.  My only hope at this point is that the book isn't over, perhaps he'll get to the Gospel eventually.  Being one of the "greatest Christian theologians" I would hope so.  He certainly hasn't found it yet.

Velveteen Rabbi Liebster Award Questions

Velveteen Rabbi posted a list of questions in connection with the Liebster Award, and while I'm obviously not anywhere near 200 readers yet, they sound fun.

1. What's your favorite book?
 Not counting the Bible, in terms of "what book do I take with me on road trips because I know I'm almost always willing to open it to a random page and read awhile", the answer is Dune, by Frank Herbert.  Though I can't stand the sequels.  I'm still finding new layers in it, having read it first over ten years ago.
2. With what fictional character do you most identify?
...right this second?  Because that answer changes regularly.  Lately I've been identifying a lot with the gifs on the "Everyday I'm Pastoring" Tumblr.  I suppose Nita Callahan, from the Young Wizards books?  There are so few female clergy, and they're never married, and clergy in general are usually incompetent or evil, and if not, they're old men.
3. If you could throw a dinner party and invite five people, real or fictional, from any moment in human history, who would you invite?
I've always wanted to see what Elizabeth Bennett, Anne Shirley, and Jane Eyre would make of each other.  For a bit of a modern addition I'd throw in Katharine and Audrey Hepburn, I think that'd be a fascinating dinner conversation.
4. What's your favorite place to pray / meditate / engage in spiritual practice?
Anywhere with stained glass windows.  I'm something of an iconoclast, but wow, I love stained glass windows- the really good ones from years ago, not the ones that got made a lot in the '90s and tend to look a bit like a child's tissue paper art project.  They add such warmth and reverence and charisma to a worship space.
5. What's something you're hoping for in 2013?
I hope to be ordained!  God bless!

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Lectionary: 1/13/2013 - Baptism of Our Lord (C)

Prayer of the Day 
Almighty God, you anointed Jesus at his baptism with the Holy Spirit and revealed him as your beloved Son. Keep all who are born of water and the Spirit faithful in your service, that we may rejoice to be called children of God, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

The main theme this week is baptism, with a lot of Holy Spirit imagery, naming, and promises from God.  We jump back into the chronological order of Jesus' life in the Gospel readings this week.  A few weeks ago was Christmas, and Jesus was born.  Then the second Sunday of Christmas was Jesus as a twelve year old child, asking a lot of questions.  Last week Epiphany, which always falls on January 6, happened to fall on a Sunday, so we got the story of the wise men giving Jesus gifts, which put Jesus back as a baby again.  (Epiphany always falls the day after the twelfth day of Christmas, and the night that might otherwise be known as "Epiphany Eve" is called Twelfth Night.  If you think you've heard that phrase before, it's likely thanks to Shakespeare.)  And now Jesus is an adult, and chooses to be baptized by John the Baptist.

Isaiah 43:1-7
But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. I give Egypt as your ransom, Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you. Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you, I give people in return for you, nations in exchange for your life. Do not fear, for I am with you; I will bring your offspring from the east, and from the west I will gather you; I will say to the north, “Give them up,” and to the south, “Do not withhold; bring my sons from far away and my daughters from the end of the earth— everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.”

This text is full of baptism imagery.  The waters and rivers remind us of baptismal waters, and fire has been a symbol of the Holy Spirit since the beginning (see the story of Pentecost, or the symbol of the United Methodist Church, which has a cross with a flame around it- also, many churches give out candles to people when they're baptized).  Here God declares the promises God has made to God's children, which brings to mind the promises that guardians and sponsors make at a person's baptism, and the promises which God and the church make to that child at the same time.  All of these promises are repeated when we do an Affirmation of Baptism during a regular worship service, at confirmation, and also at a funeral- which is of course the end of a baptismal journey.

In the days before government records, a child's baptism was when they were officially named.  And still to this day some people refer to a (Christian) child's first and middle names as their "Christian name", that is the name given at baptism.  Very often when clergy bless someone- for healing, or at baptism, confirmation, or a wedding- they will do so using the person's first or Christian name.  The implication is that what family a person belongs to, and whether that family is rich or poor, well-known or disliked, does not matter to God.  God knows each of God's children as individuals, by the name they were baptized with.

Psalm 29
Ascribe to the Lord, O heavenly beings, ascribe to the Lord glory and strength.
Ascribe to the Lord the glory of his name; worship the Lord in holy splendor.
The voice of the Lord is over the waters; the God of glory thunders, the Lord, over mighty waters.
The voice of the Lord is powerful; the voice of the Lord is full of majesty.
The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars; the Lord breaks the cedars of Lebanon.
He makes Lebanon skip like a calf, and Sirion like a young wild ox.
The voice of the Lord flashes forth flames of fire.
The voice of the Lord shakes the wilderness; the Lord shakes the wilderness of Kadesh.
The voice of the Lord causes the oaks to whirl, and strips the forest
bare; and in his temple all say, “Glory!”
The Lord sits enthroned over the flood; the Lord sits enthroned as king forever.
May the Lord give strength to his people! May the Lord bless his people with peace! 

When the congregation recites the Psalm together this week, we remind ourselves not only of the power of God, but of the power of God's voice.  We have been called by God to different lives and vocations (from the Latin vocare- to call) and may have heard the voice of God in our lives in many ways.  One of the times when God speaks to us is at our baptism, when God names us a beloved child, and here we again have the baptismal images of water and fire.

Acts 8:14-17
Now when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them. The two went down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit (for as yet the Spirit had not come upon any of them; they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus). Then Peter and John laid their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit. 

The name Samaria may be remembered from the story of the Good Samaritan.  Here we see Peter and John go into a community of people who once had been Jews, but had split off and formed their own temple, and for this reason had been rejected by the Jews of their time, and looked down upon.  Christianity breaks societal boundaries in the name of Christ, just as Christ and the apostles did in their time.

This text is one that Lutherans refer to when explaining why we baptize in the name of the full Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, rather than only in the name of Jesus, as some Christian groups do.  We also only baptize once (you'll note this text doesn't refer to what Peter and John are doing as a second baptism, it really sounds like they're finishing one that's already begun) for reasons I hope to go into further on one of my Friday posts.

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people. But Herod the ruler, who had been rebuked by him because of Herodias, his brother’s wife, and because of all the evil things that Herod had done, added to them all by shutting up John in prison.
Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

So John the Baptist (as in, one who baptizes, there was no Baptist church back this far) was called by God to wander the desert and baptize people for the forgiveness of sins.  And the Jews he met, who were (as Jews today still are) waiting for their Messiah prophesied in the book of Isaiah, and elsewhere, where wondering if he was that Messiah.  And we hear his answer.  Interesting that he doesn't point directly at Jesus, who seems to be there, and is only implied (in this Gospel) to have been baptized by John, unlike other Gospels where it is spelled out.

Herodias, the woman mentioned in this text, is at the center of one of the major "sub-plots" (for lack of a better term) of this part of the Bible.  She was originally married off to one of her half-uncles, Herod II, with whom she had a daughter named Salome.  She reportedly divorced her husband (that information isn't in the Bible, but is found in other sources) and then married another one of her half-uncles, Herod Antipas.  (She, both of her husbands, and a lot of other people who pop up in Christian history were all named after her grandfather, who was also her husbands' father- Herod the Great.)

It's this second Herod (Antipas) who is mentioned in this text, and he is also the one who will later send Jesus to Pontius Pilate.  John the Baptist, we see here, had denounced their marriage as against Jewish law, as Herod Antipas had also divorced his first wife in order to marry Herodias, and both he and Herodias were Jewish.  Though of course how observant they were religiously speaking we'll never know.

Anyway, a while from now, Salome will dance to entertain Herod Antipas (her stepdad, basically) and his guests at a banquet (and despite traditions in the Christian church which say otherwise, there really isn't any evidence that this was a seductive dance), and Herod Antipas will be incredibly impressed and offer her pretty much anything she wants as a thank you.  She asks her mother, Herodias, what to ask for, and Herodias tells her to ask for the head of John the Baptist on a silver platter.  Which is where the phrase "head on a platter" comes from, and also tells us just how irritated she was by John's denouncement of her marriage.  Thus John the Baptist dies.  (But not quite yet!  That's later!)  Apparently Herod Antipas didn't really want to kill John, but couldn't take back his promise to Salome.  (Though he did already have John locked up, so he wasn't entirely thrilled with him by any means.)

And then we have the lovely bit of God declaring Christ to be the son of God, in front of a crowd of people, and the dove (a very popular Holy Spirit symbol for jewelry, as if you wear a necklace with a fire symbol people will ask some very awkward questions) descends.  In the same way, we are declared children of God at our baptism.

Also, John's baptisms were for forgiveness of sin, and later when Jesus and the apostles baptized people so were theirs, so that's why baptism is a sacrament in the Lutheran church.  Like Holy Communion, it conveys grace (that is, forgives sin), it has a physical element to it (the water, the wine, the bread), and it is commanded in Scripture (elsewhere, the Great Commission at the end of the Gospel of Matthew, for example).  Those are the three requirements for something to be a sacrament in many of the "mainline" Protestant denominations.

Go in peace.  Serve the Lord.  Thanks be to God!

Friday, January 11, 2013


Hi, my name is Kay, and I've recently been approved for ordination in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA, or, the really big Lutheran denomination in the USA).  I look forward to starting to interview at churches for a call starting in March, or thereabouts.  My husband and I live in Minnesota and hope to be staying fairly nearby so he can keep his job.

The name of this blog comes from my favorite Bible verse, Romans 8:21.  The first time I remember reading that verse I was reading the NKJV, so while I normally prefer the NRSV translation, the way the verse is phrased in that more old-fashioned translation remains stuck in my head: "...because the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God."

The creation is us.  Thanks be to God.

Anyway, I'm a big fan of liturgy, theology, hymns, and all sorts of other things.  I'm not really sure how I'll be using this blog yet.  I'm currently in a year-long read-through of Augustine's City of God, so I may wind up pontificating on that here.  When I have an office again and can unpack my books, I can go through and do some reviews.  (I'm particularly looking forward to getting out my Phyllis Tickle books and taking another shot at praying the hours.)  We'll see.