Thursday, December 29, 2005

30 December 2005

Now in "Hopeful Imagination" Walter Brueggemann links the poetry of 2 Isaiah and that of Jesus.

Jesus' way of teaching through parables was such a pastoral act of prophetic imagination in which he invited his community of listeners out beyond the visible realities of Roman law and the ways in which Jewish law had grown restrictive in his time. Like 2 Isaiah Jesus does this precisely out of the tradition itself... (The parables) are specific, but they are open-ended... The stories intend to characterize an alternative society which he calls the "kingdom of God," but the stories do not offer blueprints, budgets, or programs. They only tease the listeners to begin to turn loose of the givens of the day and to live toward a new social possibility... Jesus invites his listeners to a homecoming,for he insists that this kingdom is in fact one's true home. Every other place no matter where, is a place of exile and alienation.

So is this vision or this community or this kingdom always just beyond us? Is it meant to keep pulling us from the places in which we find contentment and comfort into a greater vision of comfort in which we will find life that will always - without a doubt - surpass the life we presently live? In some ways I want to say "Yes." And yet, that can sound a bit hopeless. Can we not be there...yet? Well, yes...and no. Yes there will be comfort and new life and the forces and powers of oppression will not have the last word....but there is always that "meantime." It is like the green seasons of the church year. There are no festivals, as such, and yet it is the time when we move along and keep to the story and are forever telling the parables and other stories that point us beyond where we are even if it is a place we would like to reside forever. Truth is, our sight is limited and we need to change lenses now and again in order to more clearly see what God promises to us in each and every age. Yes, we are always welcome home and yet home has many faces to it as we expand our understanding of community and neighbor and resurrection.

Connection: Brueggemann notes that every other place outside of this promise of home is a place we know. It is that place and time of "restless hearts" and "social unrest." We would do well to be in touch with those times in our lives and to speak of them to others. For in the midst of others, we may begin to find rest and see new ways to peace.

Again and again, O God, you do not let us stay in the places of our liking for it is so easy for us to never see the worth of any other place. We give you thanks for setting our eyes on the domain of your love and peace that is not yet in place but always awaiting our arrival. Amen.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

29 December 2005

We continue with poetry and imagination in "Hopeful Imagination."

The poetry does not describe what is happening. Rather it evokes images and invites perceptions in Israel that were not available apart from the poetry. The poetry is not aimed first of all at external conduct, as though the poet expected people immediately to start packing for travel. Rather, the poetry cuts underneath behavior to begin to transform the self-image, communal image, and image of historical possibility. The rhetoric works to deabsolutize imperial modes of reality... The outcome of such poetry is hope. It is hope which makes community possible on the way out of the empire.

The poet from 2nd Isaiah through to poets today are quite like gardeners. They plant, they tend to the soil, they talk to the plants that cannot be seen, they add compost and mulch...they do whatever is necessary to provide a place for the future to blossom. This is so important when the present is oppressive and/or the people cannot see beyond the predicament in which they live. Hope is such a powerful force in life. Hope that comes from visions of what is not yet a reality can help us to make our way through the mire in which we may find ourselves. Hope can ease our anxiety and help us to begin imagining something more to life. Maybe that is why the prophet offers to the people those wonderful words: Comfort, Comfort, ye my people!

Connection: Do you have people in your life that serve as the poet for you when you are stuck? I could be that you do...but you have just not considered them as such. They may simply be friends, co-workers, neighbors...who knows! Listen.

You bring into our lives, O God, this comfort that penetrates the turmoil of the day to touch us and assure us of the life you still have in store for us. When we are anxious, help us to breath and wait and begin to listen to your word of hope that plays all around us. Amen.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

28 December 2005

The poetic imagination of 2nd Isaiah is again before us with insights from Walter Brueggemann.

The poetry (of 2nd Isaiah) is not derived from external historical experience... Poetry here is not simply code language for political events. Rather, the poet appeals to the old memories and affirmations in an astonishing way to jar the perceptual field of Israel and to cause a wholly new discernment of reality. The poetry opens with a heavenly scenario in which the voices of members of the divine council fashion a new proclamation (40:1-8). This is immediately followed by a rhetorical act of enthronement (40:9) in which Yahweh, who had seemed weak, is now placed triumphantly at the head of a grand procession (40:10-11).

In some ways, it is like saying "This is the God we were told about...the God who is just as the poet announces." The poet is already making manifest what is not visible. It is like calling forth words like "all (men) are created equal..." and then, pressing forward as though that is what will indeed be the case among us. We pull it from words and images we know and yet the experience of those words has been lost or forgotten or overturned. Therefore, the words and images must be announced again as though it is a reality about to break in and a reality that cannot be stopped by any power. There is that imagination that does not let the world go on as it is. This is the kind of imagination we are missing within our own nation. We are afraid to imagine what we could be. Instead we settle for the easy road of empire building. This is a road that takes no imagination. It simply demands adherence to the ways of the biggest in the neighborhood. These have always been roads to destruction and ruin. Why can we not follow the ways of it too frightening...or are we simply ready to settle for immediate images and pictures that the poetry of a new world?

Connection: Even within our families and communities, we can benefit from stepping out beyond the rhetoric of what is and what we think we can handle. Living organisms, like groups of people, need something of substance to help us grow beyond ourselves.

Just as the prophet Isaiah announced the coming of the Lord to an oppressed people, O God, so do we need to hear how you will come to encourage us and lead us along pathways we have yet to walk...but we can be so slow to move and so unsure of the way ahead. Take us by the hand, O God, and deliver us. Amen.

27 December 2005

Walter Brueggemann continues writing about imagination toward what will be in "Hopeful Imagination."

The practice of such poetic imagination is the most subversive redemptive act that a leader of a faith community can undertake in the midst of exiles. This work of poetic alternative in the long run is more crucial than one-to-one pastoral care or the careful implementation of institutional goals. That is because the work of poetic imagination holds the potential of unleashing a community of power and action that finally will not be contained by any imperial restrictions and definitions of reality.

I have a large piece of artwork in our living room on which I have written a number of quotes from a variety of people. It just so happens that when I stepped back from the piece years ago, I realized that all of the quotes dealt with hope. As I read this comment by Brueggemann, I thought that part of it would fit well on that piece of "hopeful" art. In some ways, I think it would be grand if within the one-to-one pastoral care or in the implementation of institutional goals there was always the presence of this kind of poetic imagination. For people in crisis, there can be nothing better than the ability to envision something beyond what it causing the tumble into crisis. This means that people must begin to re-define what is possible and attempt to see things as they cannot see them within the condition they now find themselves. There are so many ways that we are ruled by and run by "imperial restrictions and definitions of reality" that we do not let ourselves open our eyes to focus on that which is not a part of the world we have been handed or the world in which we have been nurtured to see. As is so often the case, I think some people have the gift of poetic imagination but most of all, I think that many people need this imagination to be created through the voice of a community - with a little help from my friends...and enemies.

Connection: If you have a tough time seeing beyond your world in which you are walking everyday, try to find others whose view is outside your daily patterns of life. There may be some conflict and there may also be some wonderful discovery.

Too often, O God, it takes more courage that we have to step into the images of life that are often spun from the pen and mouths of poets. But we trust that you give us that courage as you bring within our lives the people who help us to see new places to walk with you. Praise and thanks to your, O God. Amen.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

23 December 2005

Another adventure in 2nd Isaiah with Walter Brueggemann in "Hopeful Imagination."

It was the peculiar vocation of 2 Isaiah to construct poetic scenarios of alternative reality outside the prosaic control of the empire. These fresh alternatives liberated Jewish exiles to think differently, act differently, speak differently, and sing differently. In the end Babylonian definitions of reality lost their absoluteness and their authority because this poetry served to subvert the absoluteness.

I read this piece again after I watched a brief segment on the national news about churches that are encouraging their people not to come to worship on Christmas Day. The focus was specifically on the "mega-churches." People could pick up videos or come to one of the shows (sorry) times of worship before Christmas so that they could stay at home with family. You remember, Christmas is all about wait. That's not true. That's a part of the schmaltze that is too often cast as Christmas. Worship is at the center of the incarnation of our God - the nativity of our Lord. Worship is not a "family event," it is a community event. It is a counter-cultural event that is at the very heart of shaping the everyday lives of a counter-cultural people! It appears that - like business everywhere else in our consumer culture - numbers make up the bottom line. So, if it appears as though there may not be many folk taking the time to come to worship this Sunday (it happens to be Christmas Day) then let's cancel it. Let me get this right. If I (or let's say we as in family) have other things to do...that we think are family important...then, any Sunday...hell, every Sunday, is an opportunity to be with family. Isn't that what God would want - me and the family home making sure we are comfortable and having a special time with ourselves?!? The answer: No. Sunday we gather together with strangers, enemies, friends, neighbors, the good, the bad, and the ugly...and we praise our God...from whom all blessings flow. We have to sing differently than the culture even if the culture has come and bought up the soul of some of the places called "church" and turned them into feel-good places of individual piety. It is hard enough to build a community of love and mercy and kindness with a small bunch of people let alone have to deal with "church" being driven by the culture of numbers and money and empire...again.

Connection: Come and worship,come and worship, Worship Christ, the the new born king...this Sunday, December 25, 2005.

Now that you have called us to be set apart from the world, O God, give us the courage to live as though we have a different view of how we live and what bring life to the world in which we live as your saints. Amen.

22 December 2005

More on being exiles from "Hopeful Imagination" by Walter Brueggeman.

The exiles were securely and perhaps despondently exiles. They could not imagine any other status. They accepted Babylonian definitions of reality, not because they were convinced, but because no alternatives were available... The exiled community was in despair because it accepted Babylonian definitions of reality and did not know any others were available. That is, they were hopeless. They did not believe Yahweh could counter Babylon.

Hopeless is not a good place to be. A person can be in a situation that appears to be hopeless, and indeed it is...and yet still not be hopeless. When we are faced with a living situation that is run by powers greater than us, it can become quite overwhelming. Rather than have a sense of worth and substance it is so easy to let the powers around us define us. When that is the case, if we do not follow the rule of the day or the patterns of the day, then we can be judge (by others and ourselves) as worthless and insignificant. What the prophet brings to the people of God who are in Babylon is a word that seems to have no visible reality. It is as Brueggemann has said, a poetic imagination that carries good news without having to be stamped with the approval of the reigning powers. This word is the beginning of the creation of an alternative reality. It is not merely imaginary. It begins with our imagination but it moves into concrete living that is not in step with what has appeared to be the power that dictates how life is to be lived. Alternative visions make for alternative communities with alternative values and practices and life patterns. It is not the goal of such a community of imagination to conquer the world. Rather this kind of imagination that counts on our God to rule among us begins to bring worth to all who come within its reach and hear its word...even the whole creation.

Connection: Do not be afraid of the sounds of a new world. Instead, listen for what it is saying about how God's gracious action will lift up the lowly and bring to the world the healing of all things. This may sound strange but it is never too strange to enter.

Come, O God, and lift us up so that our imaginations may be stirred up by your living presence among us. Amen.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

21 December 2005

Walter Brueggemann continues to discuss the poetry of 2nd Isaiah as he looks at exile and homecoming in "Hopeful Imagination."

(The poetry), as such, is not explained either by theological conviction or by political analysis, but by an inventive, creative act of poetry that means to speak this community out beyond present circumstance by the force of the poetic word, which is offered as the fresh decree of God's own mouth (46:11; 55:10-11). I am assuming that the power of language to shape reality and not just describe reality is true for us as well as for this poet. The poet does not only describe a new social reality but wills it. The very art of poetic speech establishes new reality. Public speech, the articulation of alternative scenarios of reality, is one of the key acts of ministry among exiles.

Wow. These words of the prophet and words of prophetic poets in every age can have that power "to speak this community out beyond present circumstance by the force of the poetic word." This is so vital for the community of faith to remember. It is also critical for the community of faith to return to the words of poets whenever we are in places of exile and need to return to home to a ground on which we will find new life and meaning to the work and life and play of this day. When the poet "wills" a new social reality, it is placed before us as a possibility. It may not be present in full form, but it is present in word. When it is present in word, it is present with a power that can see itself through defeat and exile and loss...because the word keeps painting that reality that is yet to be among us. Therefore, we can act now as though this new social reality is present. There may be reactions from others when we live in this new reality...people may not honor the truth and power of this new reality...but it is there for us to enter...and once it has been announced, there is no shutting it down.

Connection: We are invited to always begin the day by returning to this word of promise for new life. It may be easy to return to this word to hear it...but we are also invited to trust it as though it is the eternal truth. From there, the day can start from a whole new point of view.

By your Word, O God, you bring new seasons of life to us when we are facing times of utter brokenness. By your Word, you lift up our heads so that we are able to see what we so often forget is within the realm of this day. Abide with us, O God, and be our Word of life. Amen.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

20 December 2005

Today we will blend Walter Brueggemann's metaphors of "exile" and "homecoming."

The use of these two metaphors, exile and homecoming, is an act of remarkable evangelical imagination. The homecoming metaphor makes sense only where the metaphor of exile has been accepted as true. Second Isaiah's poetry of homecoming id precisely imaginative poetry which liberates. It is not based in political analysis, though the poet obviously knew what was going on in his world. It is an imaginative act of speech that intends to evoke reality and lead this community out beyond their present situation. The poetry is grounded in a theological conviction of God's sovereignty (40:9-11; 52:7). It is also informed by political analysis (45:1-6).

So the poet sees the world through at least two lenses - theological and political. There would be, I would think, a bit of flexibility to say what needed to be said to bring attention to both the day at hand and the possibility of what was not yet the case. I find this description of the poet to be quite like that of the song writer. Both are poets and both keep their eyes and ears fixed on what is and what is not yet. In that way, songs and poems can serve to lift up the audience to see and hear what is so regular in a very new way. Painting possibilities within a situation that is limited and confined is the beginning of liberation...for the heart begins to live in what is not and therefore, what is - oppression, exile, discrimination - slowly loses its power to control life. The "imaginative act of speech" that was the voice of Isaiah is a voice that is not only heard in the day in which it is spoken. It carries a vision that can and will serve to awaken those who live in exile in any place and time.

Connection: Before the season of Advent is gone, listen to some of the hymns of this season. They carry a note of resistance and also a call to new vision. We can all use a bit of that tune.

Stir up our hearts, O God, so that we will be able to hear your voice calling us to come and share in your life no matter what may be the shape of the life we now hold. Grant us courage and grant us wisdom to be lifted up to view your gracious Reign. Amen.

Monday, December 19, 2005

19 December 2005

This week we continue with work on second Isaiah by Walter Brueggemann in "Hopeful Imagination."

After writing about being in "exile" Brueggemann turns to a second theme - "homecoming."
Thus Isaiah 40:1-11 envisions a great procession led by Yahweh as exiled Jews come home. Yahweh will gather into the land of Zion all those who had been scattered in exile. The watchmen on the walls of desolate Jerusalem watch with eager longing for some news of a fresh possibility. When they receive word of Yahweh's triumphant return from exile, they rejoice. As a result, the fallen city will be rebuilt. There will be a rebuilding and a gathering . Judah has been hopeless but now will be safely at home. It is for this reason that new songs of joy, celebration, and buoyancy can now be sung.

The mention of a "new possibility" is powerful. Too often, when life is just going along as it is going...when life is a rut in which we have simply learned to live because we have been able to see no other option, a new possibility is the beginning of a new life. Even though the possibility is not realized yet, just the fact that it has come to mind and is now a part of how we look at what is to come in our lives, produces hope and energy for living. Some of these beautiful texts in Isaiah are still able to stir up in our hearts, a sense of new life. That image of homecoming is also an image of liberation and freedom. Those are quite basic needs that are able to kindle a flame of hopefulness in those who have not been able to see beyond the patterns of life already known.

Connection: New possibilities do not need to be grand in order to bring hope and renewed interest in the life we are handed. I would think that homecoming is important for people in exile in so many ways. At the same time, we often don't know that we are exiled at all. Maybe it would be good to think a bit about what home means for each of us.

Lord of Liberation, because you are with us always, we know that you long for us to be free from the oppression of life that attempts to steal away our hearts. When we are far from you, we long to be brought home and once again welcome into your promised life. O Lord, be our liberator. Amen.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

16 December 2005

Walter Brueggemann continues to use the metaphor of "exile" in regard to how the church needs to look at itself in his book "Hopeful Imagination."

If the church is in fact in exile...then to try to do ministry as if we are practicing imperial religion robs us of energy. ...honestly facing exile as our real situation generates energy for imaginative and faithful living. Exile in the ancient world or in our own situation is not an obvious, flat, social fact. It is a decision one must make. It is a very specific, self-conscious reading of social reality. There must have been many Jews in Babylon in the sixth century who settled in, made it home, assimilated, and did not perceive themselves as exiles. Such an accommodation is a possible stance for faith, in ancient Babylon or in contemporary America. I should only say that such a pragmatic decision against exile excludes one from the imagination field of this literature of exile. "Exile" is not simply a geographical face, but also a theological decision.

The voice from exile - the one that understands it is in exile - is not a loud voice. It doesn't get much play over the radio and television airways. But for those who can see and have experienced the events of exile, this is a voice that forms a foundation of hope that places a check on all things presently taking shape around us. Brueggemann writes of the imperial religion that can rob us of our energy. Of course it is so contrary to the way of the shalom of our God that as we try to be a part of it, we become the agents of its discontent and superficial goals. Remember that the voice in the wilderness that brings good news of homecoming is speaking to a people who are at ease in the middle of the empires in which we live. When we are content with the structures of power around us and when we begin to define ourselves according to those structures, they become the places in which we pitch our tent...and yet, they are not home. Home is a promise. Home is where we are safe to imagine something beyond what is presently available to us. Home is a vision and we make a decision to be at home no matter where we might be - even if our actions and our life are contrary to the culture and people around us.

Connection: Many times within this day we will make decisions about who we are and those decisions will shape how we interact with the people around us. I would suggest that we prayerfully consider whose we are and how that will immediately put us at odd with so much of the culture around us. Look for signs of being in "exile."

Lord of All That Is, heal us and save us. Take us by the hand and lead us beyond where we are so that we can see more clearly the way your gift of life is so different from the life the world attempts to hand us. In the meantime, open our hearts to your Word of promise and hopefulness. Amen.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

15 December 2005

We continue to look at being in "exile" through the eyes of Walter Brueggemann.

The metaphor of exile may be useful to American Christians as a way of understanding the social context of the church in American culture. The exile of the contemporary American church is that we are bombarded by definitions of reality that are fundamentally alien to the gospel, definitions of reality that come from the military-industrial-scientific empire, which may be characterized as "consumer capitalism." In a variety of ways the voice of this empire wants to reshape our values, fears, and dreams in ways that are fundamentally opposed to the voice of the gospel.

When the "word" of the culture is so powerful and so pervasive, how do we keep the Word of God alive among us? This year there are so many people arguing about the language of Christmas as though we are arguing about the faith. In some ways we are. Those who are bent out of shape by the cultural use of "holiday greetings" don't seem at all bothered by how the nativity of our Lord has been turned into anything but a religious feast day for years. It has been owned by the culture of consumerism for as long as I can remember. Therefore, as followers of Jesus we don't even need to enter into the fuss. We simply go to worship. We praise our God. We listen to the story of the incarnation of our God...and we go off into the world following our Lord, Jesus. Let the powers who love to make this a consumer feast day have their way. We are called to be a witness to something other that what the gods of the culture and the civil religion want and demand of us. Our story does not have to be accepted and adopted by the culture. We listen to this voice crying out in the wilderness...and we continue on our faithful adventure.

Connection: Don't let anyone define your reality. Rather, as followers of Jesus, stay in touch with those who will help define the way of God's Reign as it is breaking in every day.

Stir up our hearts, O God, and lead us into your land of new life and hope. Encourage us to be faithful to the way of your Beloved and be critical of all the voices that try to catch our ear. Amen.

14 December 2005

Exile is a valuable term even now according to Walter Brueggemann in "Hopeful Imagination."

The metaphor of Babylonian exile was used by Martin Luther who argued that the gospel had been exiled in his time by the Babylonian captivity of the Roman Catholic Church. Thus he intended exile to be a very harsh metaphor to suggest that the shaping influence of the Roman Catholic Church of his time was alien and hostile to the gospel. We do not need to pursue Luther's particular handling of the metaphor to see it potential for our own interpretive situation.

We will be shaped by what is around us. We need only look at our own families. As much as we might love or hate or be indifferent to the people who are a part of our families, we become them in many ways. If the Jews in Babylon found only the Babylonian culture and religion pressing them every day, it soon becomes the expected way of living. We fall into patterns quite easily if we do not know how to resist them. So it was for Luther and his criticism of the Roman church. The practices and the institution set up to enforce those practices were oppressive and the oppression was coming from the people who were called to be liberators - messengers of Good News. When our lives are being lived out separate from the the liberating, forgiving and complete redeeming power of the gospel, we will live according to that separation. We will reflect that which is not a part of us anymore.

Connection: Stay connected to this Word of grace that is the core of who we are. There will be many other words that will quickly fall into our vocabulary and begin to rule us...we must be a people of resistance.

Brilliant Light of Love, we long to have you lead us this day through all the many turns in the road that would often send us away from your invitation to come home to you. Be for us that light of new life that pulls us into your living presence as we prepare again to hear the story of the nativity of our Lord. Amen.

Monday, December 12, 2005

13 December 2005

From Walter Brueggemann in "Hopeful Imagination."

The poetry of 2 Isaiah is shaped by powerful poetic metaphors. The social, historical setting for this poetry is exile... The words grow out of and are aimed at an alienated community (cf. Psalm 137). The central fact of the community of 2 Isaiah was the power and authority of Babylonian definitions of reality (cf. Isaiah 39:1-8). Babylonian cultural voices in many ways shaped Jews just as they succeeded in shaping everything and everyone else in the empire. In as many ways as possible, it was the ideological intent of the empire to talk Jews out of Jewish perceptions of reality and into Babylonian definitions of reality, to define life in terms of Babylonian values, Babylonian hopes, and Babylonian fears.

The shaping of people's lives by the empire - this sounds like an ancient activity. It is ancient and therefore, empire has had quite a long time to perfect its work. The voice of the empire is set to a level that will permeate the lives of as many people as is possible so that the message of the empire become a part of the very pattern or fabric of the people. In the days of the Jews in exile in Babylon the empire was able to control so much of the way people are shaped because the Jews were literally taken away from their roots and planted in the center of the empire's voice. Today, empire rules and molds and dictates from many and various voices and methods. Just yesterday I thought it was frightening to listen to U.S. President Bush say that if he knew back before the invasion of Iraq what he knows now, he would have still invaded Iraq. That is the voice of empire. You can tell because we all just sat back and that was it. What he said is just like saying he lied about why we went into Iraq. Previously it was all about weapons of mass destruction. Now, it is about what it is about - whatever empire wants to call it. And what is worse, we continue to back it or simply ignore the fact that we are a warring nation who initiates war at a whim...the whim of Empire.

Connection: The prophet keeps trying to open our ears when we have been taken into exile and find ourselves living there. What are the signs of exile around us that show us today how we have been taken from the Reign of God to participate in the practices and mind of empire?

Lord of All Creation, we need you Spirit of hopefulness to set our eyes in a new direction and bring focus into our viewing of the world around us. Help us to break the bonds of the powers in our lives that attempt to win us over into their ways. Amen.

12 December 2005

In these weeks prior to the Nativity of our Lord, we will turn to comments about the message from 2nd Isaiah (chapters 40-55) by Walter Brueggemann in "Hopeful Imagination."

Second marvelously filled with promises. But those promises are addressed only to people in exile who have seen the city fall (40:2) and have suffered the loss of their entire world of faith... The promises are not available to us or effective for us while we are people who cling to the old city and to the old organizations of reality. To use the poetry of homecoming without the prior literature of exile is an offer of cheap grace. It is important that the "new thing" of 2 Isaiah comes after a long season of exilic discontent.

It is so important to remember that one hears promises of new life after one has gone through life situations that have caused us loss or injury or disappointment. These are experiences that we have all had...but some people are not able to connect with their own losses and therefore they run from perceived victory to perceived victory. The words of second Isaiah will often not make sense. They make for great music - as in Handel's "Messiah" - but not as a word of comfort since no word of comfort is needed. Few people ever go through the cultural, societal, and faith trauma as did those folks who were uprooted from Jerusalem and sent into exile in Babylon. But if you are able to connect to moments and times and places within your own life where part of your life was taken from you or simply lost, these words of a "new thing" may help to bring vision for what will be. I would suggest that even those who are not able to recall or face loss within their own lives, what Brueggemann brings into view through the words of the prophet will give us the opportunity to review the present situations of our live and everything we call reality as it presently is.

Connection: The words of a prophet may be specifically addressed to a people in one place and time. And yet, we who listen in from another place and time may be surprised to see what they have to say to us. We need only listen again - with our hearts and through a lens that will allow us to see ourselves truthfully.

Liberating Lord, it is by your grace that we who are damaged and at loss for how to move into this day, find in the words of your prophets comfort and vision. Be with us again as we enter into the promises that you make to all your people. Amen.

Thursday, December 8, 2005

9 December 2005

Stephen G. Ray, Jr. continues to discuss the tie between the sin-talk surrounding homosexuality and the devastating spread of AIDS worldwide in "Do No Harm."

By condoning the oppression of gay persons, both before and during the nascent stages of the epidemic, many churches became complicit in the plague that is sweeping throughout much of the underdeveloped world. Ironically, even now, when many churches - even very conservative ones - are engaged in various sorts of AIDS ministries, they continue to carry partial responsibility for the ravaging that is taking place in communities around the world.

When we use the language of the faith to designate something or someone as "dirty" or defiled or being less than human, it does not take much time for our designations and our "sin-talk" to become a factor in the destruction of those people or things. While reading this piece I thought of the way the U.S. threatens to withhold money to countries on the African continent if there is use of condoms rather than abstinence as a way of preventing pregnancy. Preventing pregnancy by way of condoms becomes demonized because it allow for "sinful" behavior - sex outside the bounds of marriage. And yet, what happens is that this kind of "sin-talk" allows for even greater wrongs within those communities...the spread of HIV/AIDS...more young pregnancies...more cases of women being abused and mistreated by men. How long will we continue to swing the bats of our fears around without thinking of the ways we destroy lives even though we think we are simply playing our own little games.

Connection: When we throw stones, something gets broken and too often, we do not think about how our language becomes like stones in a glass house. Glass can be replaces...but lives ruined by the sin-talk cannot be so easily healed and can never be replaced.

When we speak, O God, guide our choice of our our our guide and our companion so that we will walk gently and humbly along the way of your Beloved. Amen.

Wednesday, December 7, 2005

8 December 2005

Stephen G. Ray, Jr. presses the point of defilement by continuing to say it becomes a part of the persons existence. He says it like this:

The problem is not what the homosexual does, but that the homosexual exists at all.
The damaging effects of this view of same-sex relationships have been and continue to be profound... One example of the social harms produced by the exclusionary logic of this form of sin-talk is the modern day reality of HIV/AIDS. Throughout much of the gestation period of this plague, the entire issue was treated by society and by much of the church as a purely moral issue - because of its association with an "immoral lifestyle" - and not as a medical issue... During the early stages of the epidemic when proactive research and educational intervention could have made the most significant impact, resources were made scarce. Because it was a disease associated with sinful people, it ws not as aggressively treated as it should have been.

In some ways we could say that society and the church were so enveloped in their own dis-ease that the world was left without the power of the one of the greatest gifts we have as humans - the ability to create community and the willingness to be sacrificial as we care for others without judgment or discrimination. That could be the greatest sin in all of this talk about homosexuality in the church. We too often would rather live separated from "them" and throw our stones of damnation at "them" and in doing that, we become the ones who live in sin - that is - living in separation from others and in that in separation from God. That is not the best description of the Church that is called to be a light to all people...and a community whose love is seen through sacrificial living for the welfare of the other...any of the others. We must keep pinching ourselves so that we will wake up and resist this dis-ease of humanity that we let rule us so easily. This "rule" is always less that the community into which we have been grasp by our God.

Connection: Maybe a good bit of homework would be to read the Magnificat in Luke's gospel (1:46-55). It is a good word for all of us when we are slipping into the dis-ease that comes with any form of power that forgets the least among us and those in need.

Come, O God, and stir up our hearts. It is not easy to keep focused on the vision of your Reign. Instead, we too easily fall for much less and when that takes place, everyone stumbles and none of us have the time to care for one another. Stir us up so that in this day we will be awake for your coming even now. Amen.

Tuesday, December 6, 2005

7 December 2005

Again from Stephen G. Ray, Jr. on sin-talk in "Do No Harm."

Yesterday we were led through a traditional way of viewing same-gender sexual relations that fits in with what Ray calls a category of sin-talk, that is, defilement/essentialization. He continues:
...homosexuals are depicted not only as doing bad things, but also as inherently corrupt in their being, in their "old nature." Far from being simply good people acting irresponsibly, they are "polluting the natural order." Not just their acts but their existence is considered repulsive. In many cases, this depictions suggests that because they offend the natural order of human relations, they are somehow less than humans.

Actions can be excused...and most people can excuse actions. That is why this sin-talk is so brutal and so destructive. It works to destroy the very being of people. It is so much like the way blacks were depicted in the U.S years ago and...for some...even now. In this way, the people can be ignored and the personality of the people can be ignored and the substance and character of the people can be ignored because there is ...this sin...that is the only aspect of these people...and it trumps all other views and images. I would suggest that such a view of homosexuals is a movement that I would call anti-Christ for it denies the essence of the Christ whose love breaks down and put to an end all the dividing walls. I would also say that the only people that have any choice in regard to homosexuality are those who "chose" to turn them into objects and non-persons and chose to do whatever is possible to eliminate them.

Connection: Objects are things we can choose to play with during the days of our lives. People are gifts from God and a part of us as we are a part of the whole human family. Beware of how quickly we can make objects of people and how quickly we can then discard many and various ways.

Lord of All Creation, how is it that you can love all of your creation and make no distinction between any of your beloved children and yet, we your children love to play the games of life that cause us to run from one another rather than greet one another in peace and love? Remind us again in this day of your love that is also ours. Amen.

6 December 2005

Stephen G. Ray, Jr. continues to talk about the impact of sin-talk when we attempt to discuss sexual orientation in "Do No Harm."

Ray notes that until recently mainstream Christian tradition has been nearly univocal: Same-gender sexual relations are an abomination; they are unequivocally wrong. This positions is concisely summarized in the following statement... "Jesus asked, 'Wilt thou be made whole?' to such a question, which the Savior still asks today, the homosexual sincerely desiring help must admit the sin of his past life, repent, accept forgiveness, and begin the struggle against his old nature." In statements such as this, one find ample evidence of what I have described as a defilement/essentialization model of sin-talk. In this context, homosexuals are depicted not only as doing bad things, but also as inherently corrupt in their being, in their "old nature."

I heard this attitude most clearly on the floor of a Synod assembly one year. At one of the microphones, a pastor tried to argue that we must "love homosexuals by being tough with them. We must help them stop what they are doing...we must call them into a new life." This meant, don't have them be full members within the church until they stop "being" who they are. In fact, it also was saying that homosexuality is a sin before we even begin talking about any action...and that reality, in and of itself, was enough to "dirty" the community. If that is all people can see in a person who is gay or lesbian bisexual or transgendered (GLBT), then there will be no conversation...there will be no coming to the table and sharing a dinner and each of us being able to share the love of Christ with one another. For when a person views GLBT people in such a way, how do they deal with seeing the love of Jesus exhibited in word and act by those who are supposed to be a defiled people. Do they simply disregard it as acting? Does that then mean that they disregard the power of the Holy Spirit to act through the waters of baptism to make all people children of God without any qualification? Is that not then, a stance contrary to the Holy Spirit. Well, for now I will stop.

Connection: Again, simply learn to listen to how we qualify sin within our religious life and within our society. I would submit that it is frightening to actually hear it...and it happens quite a bit.

My Lord, what a gift you have given us that we are called into community to experience the fullness of the way you present humanity to the world. Within the form of our own being, we must face the diversity of your creation that we often want to avoid. Lead us past our limited vision. Amen.

Sunday, December 4, 2005

5 December 2005

Using Stephen Ray's idea of sin-talk we will now make a transition explore the model of sin as defilement/essentialization through looking at homophobic accounts of homosexuality.

While there are are many similarities between the ways in which the welfare queen and the homosexual are constructed in our contemporary culture, the topic of sexual orientation differs from welfare in that many homophobic accounts of homosexuals depict them not only as abandoning social responsibility, but as defiling and corrupting the natural order of things. ...the rhetoric of defiling nature comes to the fore with exacting force. The example of sexual orientation also differs from welfare in the degree to which explicitly theological reasoning is used to support depictions of defilement and pollution.

As Ray leads us, once you enter the topic of "the homosexual" there is an intensity that cannot be matched by the conversations and judgments made against the "welfare queen." If you want an example, simply look at what is the burning issue of the day. I think it is William Sloan Coffin who notes that prejudice against homosexual is the last acceptable prejudice. It is made all the more powerful by the fact that people take hold of the scriptures and try to use it as a suitable battering ram that will attack the fortress of homosexuality in order to "clean it up" so that "they" will not continue to defile society. What I find unfortunate in all this is the many people who do not take the time to meet, greet, and converse with people who are homosexuals. That doesn't happen because gays and lesbian people are see as having such a bad influence on society and families and churches and organizations that some people will not move close to them for fear that in doing that, they too might become defiled in some sort of way that I have yet to understand. Finally I find that with the "welfare queen" people simply move away from them or do not go to place where they will see her. In the case of the homosexual...they may be the neighbor, the family member, the other person in my club, and they even....get into church. Therefore the opportunity for "defilement" is a greater issue.

Connection: What makes someone "dirty" in your eyes? More important, where did you get that image within your own upbringing...where do you get it today? With any group of people or even individuals, there is a way of saying "yes" and "no" to how someone behaves...and that is without any sense of condemnation.

How quickly we let our anxiety and fear rule over our hearts. Precious Lord, be the one who Reigns over our hearts so that our lives may be open to the fullness of you love that has already promised to bring all your children home. Amen.

Friday, December 2, 2005

2 November 2005

The week ends with more sin-talk from "Do No Harm" by Stephen G. Ray, Jr.

It is important to note the implicit-and less than obvious-discourse of sin. That is to say, the conceptual form and currency of the welfare reform discussion are directly related to a Christian discourse of sin and morality. So, while words like responsibility and values are used, sin is nevertheless implied in a subterranean manner.

The image that surrounds what Ray has been calling the "welfare queen" is one of sin. Of course, as he writes, people will use words like "responsibility" or "irresponsibility" in discussions about welfare reform, but what never gets to the surface is the implied sin. This is especially the case when we are dealing with government welfare concerns. We never use sin-talk in legislation or from the floor of the halls of congress or state houses, but if you peel back our clean-up language, there we will find the finger-pointing words of sin-talk that can turn people into objects and then even into objects that can be discarded - some may even say must be discarded. Therefore, there can be wonderful talk about what we "value" in the lives of our citizens (like good hard work, respect for self) but we really do not value all the citizens. We give ourselves reason, thanks to what can be the subtle nature of sin-talk, to come up with ways to disregard the worth of the poor for the sake of coming up with a programs that are made more to suit the views and perceptions of the general public.

Connection: Poverty is a huge reality among us. It is not a situation caused by someone else's sin. It it because of "our" sin. Until we all look in the mirror and see the face of the poor, we will continue to add nothing to the conversation and work that is needed to bring forth a new vision that will take into consideration the welfare of the entire community.

In this day, Lord, bring us your peace - your peace - your wholeness, for we long to see more than we let ourselves see and we long to be a part of your Reign that continues to come but so often seems so far away. Amen.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

1 December 2005

From The Sins of Sin-Talk in "Do No Harm" by Stephen G. Ray, Jr.

Today we continue with the discussion of the "welfare-queen.
...the conditions of grinding poverty that many in our nation endure are spuriously attributed exclusively to the pathological communities of the welfare queen and her scions. The problem is thus framed in terms of dealing with the irresponsibility of the welfare queen and not in terms of the need for society to interpret what equality and opportunity mean in a postindustrial age.

It is as though we work at missing the point. As long as there are people we can "label" and there are those who actions we can dirty with our talk of sin, we do not need to deal with the real needs within our society. It is so easy to point at the so-called "welfare queen" than it is to make sure we as a society look after the welfare of all. I am always amazed that even when there are attempts to discuss and then plan for ways to deliver such basics as a consistent and thorough healthcare system, there are still those who laugh at the conversation. This is done by simply spending time developing a system of sin-talk that will show us why it cannot work because we will have so many of "those" people taking advantage of the program because that is what they essentially do. It simply may be to difficult for us to turn our backs on the power we can try to take when we have someone else that we are able to put down or upon whom we can place the sins of society. Christian love is a love that begins with a vision...and that vision is the face of Christ in the face of all those we encounter.

Connection: One way to deal with sin-talk that puts a heavy weight on those around us who become the victims of such talk is to counter that talk with talk of one's worth and dignity and the image of God.

Lord, make us those instruments of peace that begin to draw us together into one people who are blessed by our diversity and blessed by your power to bind us together for new life. Amen.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

30 November 2005

Sin-talk continues to be a powerful force in Ray's book "Do No Harm." We continue with the constructed images of the "welfare queen."

The irresponsibility of the welfare queen is taken as a given; the job of the society, in this account, is to figure out how to make her "responsible." Within this depiction of a social reality, we clearly see the discursive construction of a social margin...
I am highlighting the way a liminal social space is constructed and persons are essentialized into it: The very terms that become the referent to this figure create a situation in which the only discourse possible is one that is purely negative psychosocial analysis.

Again, we must see that there develops a sense of "I and "it." Those people marked in such a way become objects that are kept at a distance. When that happens, all we do is turn the "it" into a negative object...a nobody...a pest...a negative force in society. Do you see how quickly it moves to making "them" appear to be destructive to the life of the society. And yet, it is fed by nothing more than "talk." Yes, there are "welfare queens" and they come in all colors. But not all poor folk fit into the stereotype. Unfortunately the word is already out there and the word is associated with "sin" and the sin is something that we can avoid or attempt to eliminate...somehow. The next thing that happens among us is that we build wall around our homes, family, social groups...and worst of all...our hearts. We will not allow "them" to have a place within our hearts...a place in which we can see them in the image of God so that we will have a new and inspired way of making them our brothers or sister...and not merely objects at which we point or walk away.

Connection: Always attempt to define the "them" and put real faces to "them" and talk directly to "them." It is an exercise that may turn "them" into real people...real parts of the whole image of God alive in the world with us - as is promised.

We know that you are always present with us, Abiding Lord. We need help to recognize you when your face is wrapped up in the lives of those we would sooner forget. Help us to see you present in the many ways you come to us in all your people. Amen.

29 November 2005

Today we look a bit closer at how sin-talk spins the image of the "welfare-queen" in "Do No Harm."

One writer notes that the images of the welfare queen cast her in the role of sinner.
First, there is the image of the sexually irresponsible woman, which brings along with it the image of unsacramentalized sexual activity ("children out of wedlock"). Second, there is the image of aberrant matriarchy. ...these women preside over weak families who are prone to misanthropic social behaviors, that is, families who produce offspring better termed urban predators than children.

It is so important to realize how quickly these thoughts can move through the minds of people who have been hearing years of sin-talk directed at these women. Without thinking...simply at a glance, often woman of color or women quickly seen as being poor whites are underfire. This is the worse kind of fire under which one can fall because it not only damages the one woman, it is a part of the ongoing degradation of other woman who may fit into a stereotypical picture. In a glance, we damage many. Unless we break through the aura presented by sin-talk, by actually meeting and spending time with these women, that image built up through our sin-talk will win the day. This is the reason people in the Church must keep pushing ourselves beyond our own kind. We must, at all times, find ways to move through and over and around the words that have become the death of a whole group of people...and unjustly so.

Connection: Yes, there are people like the ones depicted in a stereotype. That is how stereotypes get made. But, our use of sin-talk expands that vision to all. Is there any way to reach through that wall today...reach through and see things in a new way?

Within all your children, O God, is your face. And yet we become lazy and resist the opportunity to see how your face takes on different textures and shapes and comes out of life situations that are not our own. Give us the gift of seeing with the eyes of your blessed Reign. Amen.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

28 November 2005

Stephen G. Ray, Jr. enters into a discussion about Sin-Talk and the Drama of the Welfare Queen in "Do No Harm."

During the 1980's and 1990's, headline accounts described the problem the nation faces as the abandonment of responsibility. According to this depiction of our nation's "sin," society has abandoned its responsibility to create self-sufficient citizens by establishing an artificial environment in which whole segments of the population are "taken care of."
...In their dependent state, they lose any sense of social responsibility. While this particular discourse could have used a number of images, it is instructive to note that the central image that has come to symbolize this pathologically dependent person is the welfare queen - a sexually irresponsible, young, urban (code word for non-white) woman on welfare.

And...may I ask...places this label on people who are within the welfare system - Those who have enough and those who want to keep what they have. Unfortunately, that is all of us. If we don't say it we think it and even worse, we say nothing when it is inferred or even said aloud. People with power and wealth (yes, even the most modest wealth) tend to keep silent and let the sin-talk about poverty and irresponsibility rule the day. As followers of Jesus, we are all the more called to speak up. Yes, there are always people who are willing to pick up stones and begin to put to death those people who do not fit within our well-kept society. And yet, we, the followers of Jesus, must follow Jesus and put an end to the abusiveness of a well-groomed system. No matter if there are abuses in that system of tangled bureaucracy, remember that there are people caught in that system and they are like us....made in the image of God. How dare we speak of them as though they are less than us...unworthy of the honor and respect due to all who present the face of God to us. I know that it always takes time for me to sort through my quick judgments. And yet, it is necessary to do that. It is necessary to give myself the opportunity to think again...pray again....and then come with new eyes to those I too often judge as being worth less than me.

Connection: Take a second look...take a second or two...take time to prayerfully consider the worth of the "other" as we all stand before our God. We may begin to have a new sense of vision.

Come, Lord of All, be for us the power for life that pulls aside the curtains and walls that attempt to divide us. When we become intoxicated by the drug of separation and status, remind us of the cross and the life that comes through that way you walked among us. Amen.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

23 November 2005

This being the week of Thanksgiving in the U.S., we will make this the last posting for this week. Again it is from "Do No Harm" and looks at sin-talk.

...demonization depends not on an observation of how people actually live their lives, but only on how their essential identity is rendered in public discourse. So for the set of relationships represented by the idea of defilement/essentialization, what we have is a depiction of persons who, because of the way their very being is discursively rendered, are deserving of extraction from the social body.

We must realize that we all who do things...actual expressions of our original sin...actual sins, that need to be addresses in each of us. Often that means that someone helps us...becomes our mirror...our confessor...or serves to take on the task of an intervention in order to help us turn from our ways that are harmful to others and self. But here, Ray is talking about "those" people who become "those" people because they have been labeled that way by others within the everyday talk of life. For example, have you ever heard the comment about someone who was able to bring a price down from what was an asking price. When I was growing up, we simply said - without thinking about it - "I jewed them down to...." It became so common in our speech that I didn't even know I was using it until someone pointed out the use. This is just a small example of another way we depict people in a way that defiles them in language we don't watch. Imagine what happens when we intentionally take our sin-talk learn to project images of hatred and defilement on a group of people. I find it frightening - even as I look in the mirror.

Connection: Language can shape how we look out at the day but it can also bring ideas and images into the minds of others. Therefore our language needs to be something to which we direct our attention along the way.

Remind us, O God, of the many ways we see one another. Remind us of how we are to hold all people as beloved and honor their lives as we would honor our own. Remind us also to not be afraid to talk of sin but to be wary of how that talk has and will continue to damage the lives of whole groups of people and it will be done quite often in your name. Forgive us and inspire us. Amen.

23 November 2005

22 November 2005

Today from "Do No Harm" the topic of sin-talk is defilement - by Stephen G. Ray, Jr.

The perceived disruption of the moral order caused by the defiling presence of an "unnecessary" group is of the gravest significance can result in a situation where "the blessing is withdrawn, and the power of the curse unleashed," leaving only "barrenness, pestilence, confusion." The upshot of this presumption is that persons who, by their mode of existence, disrupt the moral universe are presented as a danger not only to themselves, but to the whole of society. Consequently, it becomes a significant moral responsibility of society to police, and in some instances destroy, those who defile the social order by disrupting the moral order with their presence. This responsibility holds even when the persons or communities so identified are apparently contributing members of society. We see this phenomenon in situations like the Jewish citizens under the Nazi regime or gay Christians in contemporary North American Protestant church life.

Today's reading needed to be longer in order to let the defining situations unfold. Ray will go on to say that the demonization doesn't depend on how these people actually live their lives, but only on how their essential identity is rendered in public discourse. In that discourse, they can be wiped out verbally and that can then become the case essentially. The Nazis tried to eliminate the Jews and other groups they labeled as defiling their "race" and the church in many places is working very hard to remove brothers and sisters in Christ because of their sexual orientation. Again it must be emphasized that the actions are not taken because of what a person actually has done or what they have allegedly done. Rather, it is simply about who they essentially are...their being. Their sheer being is drawn into question and their worth is considered less than others. That is a bold and demonic step. And yet, remember that it is usually done by people who think they are helping to rid the world or the society of "bad" elements in order to protect the society as they have painted it. Their self-defined righteous actions actually become the most heinous of actual sins. They become what they say they abhor.

Connection: Again, we are back to listening. There will be people or groups that really do things that harm others. Then there are those who simply are bundled into an imaginary monster presence. It happens over time. It is as though its happening is right and good. Look again.

We count on the power of your Holy Spirit, O God, to lead us into the way of truth so we will be able to do battle with the lies that we so often find as a part of our lives. Lies that damage everyone and yet cost some groups of people their essential dignity of life. Forgive us and continue to call us into your loving Reign. Amen.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

21 November 2005

We will continue in "Do No Harm" by Stephen G. Ray, Jr. and how he deals with the false attributes of defilement/essentialization.

...defilement/essentialization relies on a powerful presumption... This presumption is that there are those persons and groups within society who by the very way that they exist, apart from any activities they may engage in, exemplify social and moral decay and disruption. Their presence is one that challenges the presumptive moral order of society, and hence is viewed as unnatural and dangerous.

I want to stop short on this quote and I will pick up the rest tomorrow. But here, already, we have this casting of social stones at those whose existence can be and is depicted as dirty, wrong, and out of place among us. This is the kind of nonsense that is cast in the likes of some strong voices on the religious right who tried to blame 9/11 on feminists or gays. It is as though there are people who can be discarded and, as some might suggest, be eliminated because of the threat they are to society just by their being. It is this kind of sin-talk that reveals that the one who cast these stones, in the name of "good religious life," are really dabbling in blasphemy...attempting to be the eternal judge and savior of the "good" people and those they say are people of "faith." I often laugh at these accusation because it simply shows how little they trust in the power of the one they call Lord. What Lord, needs to be protected. The one we call Lord can live among us even when we are not sure of what is at hand. Instead though, some like to throw around sin-talk as a way of controlling the situation and trying to play at being God...when really they are loud-mouth gods.

Connection: Before you go on into this day, give thanks to the God whose grace is wider than we can imagine...and then...imagine yourself and those around you -all of them- within bounds of that grace. I might have an impact on who you are today.

Lord of All, as we wonder about how your blessed Reign will take shape among us, we long to be a a part of its life now. Lead us and guide us into this life even as wander through this day. Amen.

Friday, November 18, 2005

18 November 2005

In "Do No Harm" Stephen Ray, Jr. is having us look at sin-talk. He has used two pairings of false attributions that will play heavily in his work. They are irresponsibility/marginalization and defilement/essentialization. Yesterday we linked welfare and sexual orientation to these pairings. Today we'll hear a bit more on this first pairing.

...irresponsibility/marginalization...relies on the presumption that there exists two primary groupings of persons within society: those whose presence is necessary and who therefore contribute to the well-being of society, and those whose presence is ambiguous and who therefore are potentially harmful to social well-being. Typically, those in the first group are persons who generally occupy places of social and economic privilege, while the latter designation is reserved for those on the bottom rungs of society's ladder. ... More often than not the fissure between the "necessary" and the "not necessary" groups is mediated not in the language of class, but rather in the discourse of social morality - values. So the moral fabric of society is what is understood to be at issue when this distinction is drawn.

Just think about the difference in how a middle class teen and a lower class teen are treated when one becomes pregnant or is found to be having sexual relations. One is trash...the other is just feeling his/her youthful "oats" as young people will do. Even when we look at a upper or middle class neighborhood and a lower class one. The two often do not come together because of the difference in values or the lack of morality that comes with being from "that" neighborhood. Several years ago, we put up two basketball courts in our church parking lot. One of the issues that generated the biggest comment had to do with some of "those" people from over "there" are going to be driving through our neighborhood. It was almost as though the morality of the neighborhood was going to go into the pit. Little did some of the complaining people know. Their "middle class" kids in our neighborhood were not acting with such a high standard of morality or values. Expensive clothing and a flash of money doesn't strengthen one's morality or give them good values.

Connection: We have all kinds of names that we use for people who are simply from an lower end of the economic spectrum within our society. We all know them. Resist the images and the use of those degrading labels. This will be the beginning of dealing honestly with one aspect of our sin-talk.

In your eyes, O God, you see your children. In your eyes, we all are embraced by your love and blessed for the day at hand. Help us to see through those eyes and to imagine the image of your face upon the face of our neighbors and the strangers around us. Amen.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

17 November 2005

Stephen G.Ray, Jr. continues with sin-talk in "Do No Harm."

After noting that sin is increasingly focused on the actions of persons who have the least social power Ray writes: This means that the "sinners" of our popular imagination have been those least able to contest the labeling of themselves and their social environment as sinful. Two examples of this are the current public discussion of welfare ands sexual orientation - discussions in which people who receive welfare and gay people have frequently been silenced or discounted.

Ray goes on to say that sin-talk regarding these two groups focuses on irresponsibility and then disease, corruption and defilement. These are heavy weights put around the necks of these people. In addition, these tend to be people who do not have the power to brush that sin-talk away. Rather, we let it stick on them as though we must find someone on whom we can push our notion of sin and keep it away from ourselves. It someone is seen as being irresponsible, trust can easily be withdrawn from them. If they are poor, it is much easier to withdraw from them than if we we dealing with the powerful who often are very irresponsible...but we let them get away with it. The same happens with defilement. Someone seen as being dirty as in "dirty in regard to sexual activity" is easily isolated. But the dirty hands of politicians and corporate executives rarely are considered. We simply joke about it and let it continue. Sin-talk can and does destroy lives when we use it for just that reason. And nothing is easier to destroy than those with no power...and it gives people the satisfaction of having done something to put an end to "sin." What a joke.

Connection: Keep your eyes open to the many ways the brokenness, the sin within our world finds its way into so many levels of life. Sin-talk is good when we remember how it is a part of us all and all of us need to face up to that quite natural way of living in the world - claiming to be a god of sorts.

Come, Lord Jesus, and teach us the ways of your peace. When we walk that road, it is more likely that we will walk humbly with one another and be able to face up to our own brokenness and shine a light on the brokenness of our world wherever it takes place. Amen.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

16 November 2005

In "Do No Harm" we continue a look at the sins of sin-talk.

In the history of the doctrine of sin, there is a consistent tendency for sin to be downwardly localized. For example, the cultural discourse about sin has increasingly focused - often subtly and imperceptibly - on the actions of persons and groups within society who have the lease social power and are therefore especially vulnerable to social and economic injustice.

It is easy to label as "sinners" the marginalized of our world. For example, we put people of color into prison much more routinely - and for minor crimes - than we do white collar criminals. In fact, we rarely use the word sin or criminal in relation to politicians and corporate executive. They simply did not use good discretion...they cannot lumped in with "those" people who are sinful in what they do in society....common criminals and the like. When you have no voice or little voice within the a culture or society or even the church - watch out. When we need someone on whom we can blame the troubles of the world, you will be the will be the one around whom the word and the image of sin will be thrown. Some people must live with the identity of being "bad" or "sinful" even when those labels make no sense and are false. But when you have no power, it is simply amazing what the powers of our world can make stick to you.

Connection: Look again at sin and the powers around us. Watch the news and read the paper and try to figure out at whom the sin-talk is being directed and what it is doing to them.

Lord, you make us all in your image and yet we cannot and will not see how all of us fit within your blessed image. Instead, we cast stones and they hurt...and even kill others. Save us from ourselves and from the powers that seek to divide us and treat some people as gods and others as "nothing at all." Amen.

16 November 2005

Monday, November 14, 2005

15 November 2005

More from "Do No Harm" and conversations on sin-talk.

...the impulse to act against sin harbors deeply destructive potential. Douglas John Hall captures this dimension of sin-talk in his signaling of the potential dangers that attend Christian views of sin. "The vocabulary of Christian faith suffers from misunderstanding as every turn, but no term is as badly understood in both society and church as the little word, 'sin.' Nor is this misconception an innocent or merely 'religious' affair. Lives are ruined by it. Sometimes it destroys whole communities."

It doesn't take long to come up with a list of people (individuals or groups) whose lives have been shaped by those who have cast upon them the word "sin." There may not be a better way to create cast-offs. There may not be a better way to remove people from our presence. There may not be a better and "cleaner" way to throw others into the garbage heap of humanity. In other words, the word 'sin' or 'sinner' can ruin lives...destroy them. Sometimes sin-talk is not even about actions done by others. Sometimes it is simply about a person's or a people's being! And yet, it is enough to destroy them. It is quite odd that there are only some sins or sinners that really grab our imagination and allow us to do things that literally destroy their lives. Systemic sin is often overlooked. In fact, we have been able to clean it us so well that it is down right respectable and becomes a part of the powers that make the rules about what is sin and who should be condemned for being "sinful." We will get into more specifics as the week marches on.

Connection: Spend a little bit of time today remembering those people and groups whose lives have been sent into the fiery furnace of condemnation because of how they were associated to the sin-talk of the day. The faces may change...but they are always the beloved of God. Somehow we choose to forget that and listen only to how they can be cast in a demonic light. Let's lift them up in our prayers today.

Lord of All of Creation, within the brokenness of our lives you call us to forgive and live with those who may not be like us. Encourage us to approach all people with your eyes of love and justice so that we are drawn to them and with them instead of against them. Amen.

14 November 2005

We continue with work by Stephen G. Ray, Jr. in "Do No Harm."

...theologians have long been aware that getting it (sin-talk) wrong can be a serious matter. Why? Because of two claims deeply embedded in the Christian worldview - sin destroys, and God punishes sin. Sin-talk is therefore serious business because once the source of social sin is named, the impulse to stigmatize it is strong and the desire to destroy it even stronger. In this regard, how we define sin in concrete terms strongly determines the character of our social actions against it.

If we can push someone or some group of people to the edge of our community by pointing at them and using sin-talk to describe "them," then it seems that we have put up another divide between us. This action does little or nothing to heal the separation created by what we have labeled sin. We would do well to remember that sin is not simply what a group of people want to call a "bad" thing to do. Sin is that which separates us from God and one another. Unfortunately, we use sin-talk as Ray says, "to stigmatize" it...but then we also seek to destroy it. We stop short. We do not allow ourselves a way to understand the life situation of those who have been labeled with the talk of sin. In that way we don't give ourselves the opportunity to see and hear if what we have called sin is really what we have called it...or is there something more that needs to be addressed...something that may be bigger and more ubiquitous than what we first attempted to call sin.

Connection: When it comes to sin-talk, it is good to simply ask: What is the sin that is being pointed out here? How is it sin? Is sin-talk in this case being used to create greater division between people? Even, what would be good for me to know about those we are trying to stigmatize? Who, if anyone, benefits from talking sin about someone else?

Lord, as you attempt to bring your people together as one, we know that we are a people at war with one another. We are also the ones who fight against your power that unites by being a power that divides and separates even as we use your name among us. Forgive us and let your Holy Spirit guide us into the ways of your blessed Reign. Amen.

Friday, November 11, 2005

11 November 2005

A selection from "Do No Harm" by Stephen G. Ray, Jr.

...sin-talk is a challenging business. While theologians often have no problem defining sin in the abstract, when actually describing sin in concrete terms they find its subject matter more elusive. Once defined, sin seems neither univocal in nature nor transparent in character. When the term is applied to lived experience, there always seems to be a nagging voice saying, "Hold on a minute! Is it really that cut-and-dried?" It is precisely this cautionary voice that reminds us that while as Christians we must engage in is a precarious enterprise - it frequently misses the mark. We are prone to get it wrong. Our experiences resist it.

When we throw out that word sin and try to pin it on an action or a person or group, it is quite easy for us to become what we want to pin on others. Ray's remark about how our sin-talk "misses the mark" is another way of saying it is sin itself. Sin is described as unfaith but the Greek word for sin is also one that carries the image of "missing the mark." Our sin-talk, especially when we do what we like to do - talk about the sin of others - becomes an activity quite worthy of being the topic of our talk...Sin. How quickly the self-righteous and the observers of sin in the world slip down the slope into a position of being the poster child of sin defined "in person." And yet, some may say that all they are trying to do is show what sin is. Well in that sin-talk, we have a history of revealing how we are able to damage others with our talk and we become the first ones damaged.

Connection: It is good to listen how sin-talk is carried out by those around us (for we do it also). If you have the opportunity, listen to what we say and what power it has when we link the word sin to a people or a specific action. It is not that we should not use sin-talk, it is simply that it would do us all well to listen to what it can and does do...That may not be the good use of such talk.

We find that sin is such a big aspect of our lives that we often try to find a way to narrow it down to a people or an action that is outside of us. On the other hand, some try to limit it to our own person and simply the actions of my life. Help us to rest and be calm and trust in how you "take away the sins of the world," O God. For when we see your power redeem us, we begin to see the world with new eyes. Amen.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

10 November 2005

Stephen G. Ray, Jr. writes about social sin and Christian responsibility in "Do No Harm."

I begin this book about sin-talk by bringing attention to the eye because sin, and our discourse about it, has everything to do with how we see the world and one another. What we name as sin, how we respond to it, and the culpability that we ascribe to the sinner correlates strongly with the interpretive framework through which we see those persons and their actions. If we otherwise think well of certain sinners, their sin likely gets a different sort of scrutiny that does the sin of persons to whom we are less well disposed.
...the behaviors of societies, peoples, and churches are conditioned by the types of assessments they make of sinners in their midst. There are very real systematic and material consequences to the way that sin and sinners are named.

I read this page in the introduction and decided I needed to press on into the rest of the book. Investigating something like sin-talk is very different than writing about sin. It appears as thought sin-talk may become destructive to the lives of people within a community and therefore, this sin-talk becomes that which breaks apart community and relationships. How we see someone and how that seeing agrees or disagrees with how we view sin can have a great impact on how we live in community...or with whom we choose to live...or worship...or commune. We have a group of 39 people going to see the newest Harry Potter movie in a few weeks. I know that there are some people in churches that think this is though we are handing ourselves over to the powers of evil. Harry and his friends are primarily seen as wizards and witches. That instantly puts them in a category of people that are to be outside of our contact. Even if the characters are fictional, we cannot associate with them...even though they are only in books...or a movie. Some good religious folks can view some things and people as so deeply a part of their definition of sin that they cannot see anything else but what their eyes have been trained to see. A more horrible example would be the people who live around us whose skin is a different color or they live in a different part of town or go to those schools. They are viewed differently than our "own." Therefore, we cannot see and will not see who they are....just what they are....and that vision quickly turns into sin-talk.

Connection: It is good to ask another person what they see. It may often help us to see things in a new light. Then, ask someone who is quite different from yourself what they may be quite different and we can then begin to talk about the wider picture of how we see the day.

Lord you give us a way to view others. That is not always simply by seeing with our eyes. We also see with our heart and emotions. In all the ways of our seeing, help us to be gracious and able to see your children in a new light...the light of your Blessed Reign. Amen.

Wednesday, November 9, 2005

9 November 2005

A last word from Richard Jenson on preaching and the doctrine of the "indwelling of Christ" (theosis) as seen in Luther's writings. (Currents in Theology and Mission)

Proclamation, the heart of the sermon, announces a promissory event of God. God's word so announced is a creative word. God's word is always creative! It creates what it promises (Isaiah 55:10-11). It is a word that can make humans divine. It is theosis. The sermon focuses on divine agency, not human responsive agency. I lean toward the idea that preaching effects transformation of human agency; teaching is the community at work discovering ways in which people who have been divinized might best give shape to the new life that has taken root within them. (p.437)

First it is important to note that the announcement of "a promissory event of God" is at the heart of a sermon. There may be other things in the sermon, but that Word of promise is what is proclaimed loudly and clearly. It is the action of God who is for us that transforms us. We do not transform ourselves to fit into the shape or mold of God's people. That Word that does that must be put out for the hearing of the gathered community. This is why as we talk about stewardship, we do not focus simply on our response. Any group of people involved in any organized group can do that - fundraisers abound. But for those who are called to be stewards of life within the Reign of God, there is promise...there is God for us and never cutting and running from us...there is the very breath we breathe. What is...draws out whose we are and who we will be. Stewards have been divinized and their lives are made new before we act. Therefore, the responsibility of being a steward of the Reign of God is simply a part of what the proclamation of good news does to us.

Connection: So, good stewards, welcome into the gracious unfolding of the Reign of God.

For the welfare of your creation, O God, we give you thanks. You create and you entrust us with the ongoing work of this creative process in which we become a part of your blessed work. Continue to encourage us with your promise of new life so that we do not fear walking into it and living as your stewards each day. Amen.

Tuesday, November 8, 2005

8 November 2005

Richard Jenson writes of the word and sacraments as the means of grace. He uses Luther's words about the sacraments in the small catechism to speak of preaching in "Currents in Theology and mission."

In preaching, the word is associated with the finitude not by the presence of earthly elements but through the presence of the human preacher who with his/her bodily voice brings Christ into the lives of believers and deifies its recipients. (Jenson then quotes Dietrich Bonhoeffer.) "The proclaimed word has its origin in the incarnation of Jesus Christ himself. As little as the incarnation is the outward shape of God, just so little does the proclaimed word present the outward form of a reality; rather, it is the thing itself. The preached Christ is both the Historical One and the Present One...the proclaimed word is not a medium of expression for something else...but rather it is the Christ himself walking through his congregation as the Word." (p.436)

It must be very clear that Jenson and Bonhoeffer do not say that the preacher is the Word. Rather Bonhoeffer refers to the proclaimed word as Christ walking through the congregation. The voice brings the Christ and the voice enters the life of the recipients. In all that we have been saying about the indwelling of Christ, it is here as the Word cuts us to the heart that our entire being is transformed. In past days we have talked about divinization taking place. I would like to push that a bit and come around to the notion of how we are stewards of the life within the Reign of God because that life...that Word for life...has been passed among us in the mere speaking of the truthfulness of the Light of the World. The Word may be the Christ walking through the congregation, but the congregation is also, you could say, the Christ walking through the world as we take the story that grasps us and changes us and we then become that life changing word all along the way.

Connection: There are so many ways to be stewards of the Reign of God. It may begin by simply hearing any of the stories of how God rescues and saves God's people simply because God has this love for us that will not end. All of the sudden, we are handed that word and we become a part of its life unfolding within...yes, the ordinary stuff of this day.

Our hearts long to be fed by your promises that enable us to live with confidence so that we will never be afraid to be vulnerable to others just as the Word was so vulnerable, it became flesh among us. Breathe on us, O God, and let your Spirit take us and make us as one with you. Amen.