Monday, April 21, 2014

Praying

What is praying like, for me?

The short answer is that I talk to God. I trust that God hears me, that God will always hear me, and that God who hears my prayers will answer them.

But that leaves out a lot. That's what praying is, not what it's like, for me.

I close my eyes. Closing my eyes, I feel like I become more open, almost in a literal sense, like the space I'm in with my eyes closed opens up toward God more than when they're open. But it's still my space. It's still inside my head.

I address God. Sometimes with words, sometimes not—like when you walk up to someone you know and just start talking to them. I don't know if I'm actually addressing God; I don't really have any sense of success or failure here. But it is what I mean to do, it is the direction my thoughts are trying to go: to God. And I trust that God who is always present, and who always hears, recognizes the start of a prayer when one happens.

I try to be clear, in my mind, what the situation is that I'm talking to God about. It's not as simple as saying what it is. There's more in my head, more about what it is, out to the fuzzy and inchoate bits around the edges, than I can say in words. But I can think it, because the "this" that I want to talk to God about is in my thoughts, it's in my mind as completely as I know anything about it. And if I'm praying about it, it's the "this," and not any one request about it, that is most important for me to convey to God.

That may sound silly. God, of course, knows far more about anything I might be praying about than what fits in my mind regarding it. But that's a slippery slope. Why pray at all? Wouldn't a good God simply do what was needed in every situation? Too far in that direction, and what you have isn't a god, but a force of nature, a reality of the world that makes prayer irrelevant, because the way the world is, is either obviously what God wants, or God can't do anything about it. And since none of this is true, it matters that I convey to God what I am praying about. It matters that I am clear about it, and that it also comes with all of the fuzziness of my unclarity. It matters that I pray about it, and it matters that God hears me, and will act.

Of course, I also do ask God for specific actions. I'm not sure that's the most important part, and I am absolutely sure that God isn't a wish-granting genie—but if I'm the one praying, and it's important that I pray, then by God I'm going to give the situation the best nudge in the direction of "better" that I can possibly imagine. I know that God, who knows far better than I do, will find the best way to act. But prayer isn't about the optimal thing happening, any more than it's about what I want happening. Prayer is about God caring for us, and us talking to the God who does in fact care for us.

Being me, of course, I also keep rolling the thing over in my mind, and sometimes I take back what I've asked and try to ask something better. When it's a hard thing to pray about, there's a lot of wrestling involved in the praying about it. Not so much with God, as between me and the thing.

There's really no neat ending to prayers like this. Sometimes it's an easier prayer, and it takes very little time; sometimes it's a harder prayer, and it takes much more. And sometimes I simply don't finish praying before I have to do something else.

I also have formulaic prayers. I also do say prayers, in more obviously "normal" ways. And with those it's always a struggle for me to mean them, to make them anything like as deeply grounded in my praying as when I "really" pray. (The liturgy is much the same.) Formal prayers do help, of course. It's useful to have a form in which we say the kind of thing that, on reflection, we're supposed to want. But I feel like formal prayers are more about conforming me to what I should want, giving a shape to my life as a person who prays in this way. That's still praying, but it's a different kind of thing from what I'm trying to describe.

Anyways...

Monday, March 24, 2014

No Right to "Religious Expression"

As a theologian and a Christian in the United States—but not a lawyer, so I'll be glad to be corrected by those better trained in the field—I'm about to suggest to you that something you may think sacrosanct doesn't actually exist. You have no right to the protection of "religious expression."

Not under the First Amendment to the Constitution, and not even under the poorly-conceived Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993—which was quickly ruled to be such an overreach of legitimate Congressional authority that it could not be applied to the states. (At which point Congress enacted narrower laws to do what it meant to do in the first place: protect the lands and practices of First Nations peoples.)

But the freedom of "religious expression" is exactly the line being pushed today, and for the past several years, as though Christians had an unquestionable Constitutional right to express and act on their opinions without threat of censure or punishment. It's a popular idea, and I get the popularity, but it's one successfully refuted by the struggles of generations of conscientious objectors. There's a reason why it looks so much like trying to create a new right that doesn't actually exist: it doesn't! And that's exactly why it keeps getting smacked down in the high courts.

Let's have a look at what you do have, instead—and what, in point of fact, every other citizen regardless of their religion, race, gender, sexual orientation, or political alignment also has, to the exact same degree. Let's look at what the saeculum in which you exist is designed to protect for everyone in it.

Friday, March 21, 2014

No Property of the Church: Eph 1:15-23

Well, with my theology work all going elsewhere (or nowhere yet), I seem to be in full-on Biblioblog mode lately. And today is no exception. Having run the translation for Ephesians 1:15-23 for Ascension, I'd like to comment on it, and that's something that readily lends itself to blogging. So I'll start by giving you my translation of the text, and we'll jump into it from there:
"Because of this, having heard about your trust in the Lord Jesus and your love for all of the saints, I also do not stop giving thanks on your behalf, making mention of you at my prayer meetings, so that the god of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, shall give you the spirit of wisdom and revelation in His recognition, the eyes of your heart being enlightened so that you see what is the hope of God's calling, the wealth of the glory of God's inheritance among the saints, and the sheer hyperbolic magnitude of God's power for us who trust, according to the activity of God's mighty strength, which has been active in Christ since God raised him from the dead and seated him at God's own right hand in the realms above the sky—above every leader and authority and power and lordship, above every name that is given, not only in this age but in the one to come—and subordinated everything under his feet, and gave him as head over all things in/to/for the assembly, which is his body, the complement of the one who fulfills everything in all times."
This is a fun text, especially in that its excellent Greek often makes for very poor English. In the Greek, this is all one long sentence, which is how I've given it to you. And "one long sentence" is really just a thing we say, having added our own punctuation to it, when all it means is that nothing here breaks from carrying forward the main idea. In this way, a good, high-level Greek sentence is like a good English paragraph.

It's no exaggeration, therefore, to say that there's a lot going on in this sentence. And not all of it is, I feel, adequately captured by the NRSV. (Or the NIV, or the ESV, or the NET, ...) So, rather than dive into one critical issue, I'm going to walk through the passage bit by bit. Along the way, we'll find more reasons to distrust the "objective genitive," as well as some heavy historical questions about what the Church has assumed from this passage. Come on along!

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Acts 1:2—a bequest?

I've been given a preaching opportunity well in advance, for Ascension. Which is forty days after Easter, which is forty days away from this week. But it's never too early to translate the texts and get them "under my fingers," so to speak. And, frankly, to get critical exegete brain out of the way of gospel preacher brain!

Today, of course, is a "critical exegete" day. As so many are. But this will be a brief note (by my standards), rather than the usual treatise.

So: your average English translation of Acts 1:2 suggests that Jesus commanded his chosen apostles. Which is not what the Greek says, unless it is very clumsy Greek indeed. And among the things you've got to ask yourself is, did Jesus actually issue commands to his disciples by means of the Holy Spirit? Is that what the Spirit does? (Besides which, is that what actually happens at the end of Luke?)

Monday, February 24, 2014

... As Your Heavenly Father Is

Two weeks ago, we had the beginning of the section on law in Matthew's "Sermon on the Mount." Jesus declared that Torah and the prophets would endure to the end of all things, with every detail intact. He declared that what Torah and the prophets entail, what God commands through them, even in its smallest detail, constitutes the basis for one's participation in God's rule over the heavens. And last week, Matthew's Jesus went on to show what it means to fulfill these injunctions—rather than to engage in strategies of mitigation, relaxing the law here and there to make it a better fit to the people.

And what does it mean? Reconciliation with those you have wronged; respect for women as equals; the refusal to objectify and subject the people around you to your own will; the protection of others from the working out of your own sinful desires, at whatever cost to yourself; and the requisite humility to only promise what it lies within your power to do. This is the law, and the prophets. These are the demands of the justice of God's rule over the heavens. You could look at them as working out the two greater commands: to love God, and to love the neighbor as equal with yourself before God.

Now, this week, Jesus continues the theme. In fact, this week it gets worse! Don't look for compensation for wrong done to you; turn it into good done for your neighbor. Outdo your enemies in generosity. Give them, freely, more than they would take from you. Love and pray for even your enemies, because they are your neighbors. Be like God in this way. There is nothing more demanding. "Live a just life, as God is just."

And who could doubt from this that God wills good to every creature—and that God is in fact good to every creature, regardless of their belonging to this or that group? Regardless, even, of their actions? These commandments are not the prerequisites of God's grace, by any means! They are not instructions on how to merit salvation. That is never what "heaven" means in this context. Heaven is that realm of creation that is already properly subordinate to God, whose creatures already cooperate in doing God's will.

It is quite obviously another matter, here on earth. And so these commandments are instructions on how to participate fully in God's actions in the world. Torah and the prophets do not stand across the path that leads to God's grace. There is nothing of merit here. God's grace is already given, and given abundantly. And beyond that, as grace on top of grace, God is merciful and patient with us as we struggle to live up to that grace. God already is exactly the way God would have us be! These commandments are the shape of a way of life for a people already aware that God is so gracious to them. The emulation of God is the shape of our gratitude. And that shape is what God calls "justice."

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The Problem With Salt

It's time I preached some gospel again. But last Sunday's texts were more about ethics, so I'll do that, first. This past Sunday was the fifth in Epiphany, for which in the year of Matthew the NT lessons are 1 Cor 2:1-16 and Mt 5:13-20.

So let's start with the texts. A text well-translated is halfway to being preached—which is to say that these are activities which it is nearly equally hard to get right, laborious devotions of attention to the text and the audience, both of which aim to reveal the message of the text for the upbuilding of the audience. The best we can do is one message, one facet of it, for one situation. Which is what I will attempt here, today.

To that end, here's the reading from Corinthians:
And when I came to you, siblings, I did not come declaring the evidence of God to you according to the eminence of the message, or using creativity—for I chose not to know anything among you except Jesus, the Messiah, and him crucified. Using weakness and fear and great trembling, I became for you both my message and my preaching. I did not use persuasively creative speeches; instead, I used the exhibition of the Spirit and of power. Why? So that you would trust in the power of God, rather than in popular wisdom.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Christian Ethics and the "Holocaust"

It has been suggested that the "Holocaust," or Shoah—Hebrew שׁואה, for "ruinous devastation" in the wake of some horrible event, preferable by far to the cultic implications of the Greek ὁλόκαυστον, "whole burnt offering"—should be a central theological and moral datum in the wake of its happening. And, for generations, we have tried to do something like that. To do theology and ethics in the wake of this particular ruinous devastation, however we accommodate it.

With Judaism being thematic to this year's Barth conference at PTS, I've been reading the intersectional work I can find, including some pieces that have been on my list for quite a while. Of recent vintage, that includes the work of Mark Lindsay, whose Barth, Israel, and Jesus: Karl Barth's Theology of Israel is focused on this theme. Barth, "antisemitism," and the Shoah might be a better listing, and it's certainly not a bad goal to figure out what a Barthian has to work with that's of any real use for redeeming ourselves from our own horrible failures in this area. Still, before one gets to Barth, there are questions about the area that have to be answered.