Monday, December 31, 2012

Reading the Bible

I was inspired to write this post based on a Facebook question crowd-sourced by my cousin Kelsey.  She asked, "I would like to read the Bible in one year.  Please friends, give me suggestions on any good resources for this goal, plans that are online or in print.  Have any of you completed this yourself?"

I used to tell everyone that I really disliked reading the Bible.  But that was never actually true.  I hated what people do to each other with the Bible.  How it is used as a wedge and a way to divide us instead of a place for conversation and a way to look at what brings us together.  I actually love the Bible and because of my love for it, I react strongly when people use it as a weapon.  So Kelsey's question got me thinking, why read the Bible?  And how?

I have read pretty much the entire Bible and the apocrypha.  Not in any particular order and not in one sitting or even one year.  But now, halfway through seminary, this is what I have learned about reading the Bible and what I offered to my cousin.

The most important place to start is by asking, what Bible?  There is not one Bible.   There are many, many different translations.  Some are undoubtedly better than others, but we have something to learn from each of them.  Catholics use a different canon than Protestants who use a different canon than Orthodox Christians.  It is really important not to limit yourself to only one translation.  And this might come as a shock, but the Bible is not chronological and not entirely a historical record of human history.  It is human-generated, divinely inspired, record of God's action in the world.  The Word is a gift given by God, inspired by the Holy Spirit, to nurture us in faith and in life.

Next, don't forget the apocrypha.  The day that I learned that these books of extra-Protestant-canonical literature existed, my mind was blown.  Reading them might feel frightening to some people, but I can only see their potential for enriching the entire experience.

Throughout the various eras in human history in which the biblical canons were formed, the majority of people of faith were illiterate.  Really, the scriptures were not available for the common people to read until the invention of the printing press and the translation of the Bible into the language of the people at the time of the Protestant Reformation by Martin Luther.  Therefore, "reading" the Bible for one's self is a relatively new phenomenon.  That is why I suggested reading the Bible aloud in community with others.  The real advantage here is that we all hear different things in the texts, and we can hold each other accountable in our study and interpretation.  This is why I also suggested the practice of lectio divina a form of reading and meditating on the scripture.

One of the most fascinating things to me is the history behind the formation of the Biblical canon.  So I suggested to my cousin that she do a little research behind different parts of the Bible.  One of the places where this is most interesting to me is in the formation of the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke).  In literature as ancient and revered and redacted as the Bible, nearly every word is included for a specific reason.

Finally, I suggested to my cousin Kelsey that the most important thing in reading the Bible is that you are actually reading a library, a collection of individual books, and not a singular whole.  The Bible contradicts itself, some parts are downright ugly and awful, but there are really beautiful parts too.  It is far more enjoyable if you let it live for what it is, instead of attempting to make it into a composite idealistic whole that does not actually exist.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Returning home... not always what it is cracked up to be.  On Christmas Eve I visited the church I grew up in, Hope Lutheran, in Bozeman, MT.  It was terrible.  I have never felt so lonely in a worship community.  My family was a huge part of this church even ten years ago, and now, I didn't know a soul in this church and have never met either pastor.  This congregation built a huge new building about four years ago or so, and the space is pretty cold.  Literally and figuratively.  There are also four screens that project images and text (like a megachurch), a drum set, a sound booth, a big clock on the back wall.  In other words, I didn't even recognize it.  I was very impressed that the pastor was a non-manuscript preacher, but otherwise, nothing really stuck out.  It was sad.  There was even a wall of name tags in the foyer.  They sang a praise and worship song during communion distribution.  Ick.  No one greeted us.  No one seemed to care that we were there.

The whole experience of worship at this church was not anything that I could remember from the church I grew up in.  Everyone seemed to be completely isolated and interested only in what was being fed to them from the projection screen.  It felt like the audience (because it definitely didn't feel like a congregation) was just waiting for the next slide so that they could sing the song or read the text.  They even projected the announcements and instructions about how to light your candle during Silent Night. The more things change...the more they still change.  I will not be returning to this congregation for worship.  In other news, I attended the other ELCA church in Bozeman and absolutely loved it.

Friday, December 14, 2012

How long O Lord, how long?

Kyrie Eleison.  Evil came to an elementary school today in Newtown, CT.  Preliminary news reports indicate that a shooter came to an elementary school, focusing most of his attention on a single Kindergarten classroom.  A Kindergarten classroom.  My mother is a Kindergarten teacher and a ton of my relatives and friends are teachers as well.  If this can happen in an elementary school, it can truly happen anywhere. And it needs to stop.  Right now.

Reports indicate that there are about 26 people who lost their lives, as well as it is reported the shooter's mother was a teacher at the school, and reports indicate that she was a Kindergarten teacher.

How long O Lord, how long?

How many more times does this have to happen before we really and seriously talk about gun control?  There is no argument that can justify the fact that someone who is crazy enough to shoot up an elementary school should be able to get within 100 miles of a gun.  The gun rights lobby opposes all efforts to regulate gun usage, saying, "people kill people, guns don't kill people." Crazy people who have no business getting their hands on guns use guns to kill people.  No, you cannot legislate crazy, but you can make it harder to get guns.

This is the second shooting this week.  Sunday there was a shooting in a mall in Portland, OR where two people were killed while Christmas shopping.  It is time to have this conversation.  Those of us who live in communities that have been ripped apart by gun violence, and who know people whose lives have been changed forever by these public acts of terror, know that it is too late for this to be a conversation.  We need action.  I have yet to set foot in a movie theater since the shooting this summer.  And now, thousands and thousands of children are going to be afraid to go to school.  It is not okay.  Something needs to give and I think it is access to guns.  This is the final straw.  Below is a portion of a friend's facebook status, who was in the Aurora movie theaters this summer during the shootings:

"None of you know what it's like to see the devastation of a crazy person with a gun. None of you know what it's like to be covered in the blood of a strangers body that's been ripped apart by bullets."

Kyrie Eleison.  Hug your families a little closer today.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Teaching the Commandments

Along with the fine distinction of law and gospel, comes subtleties in teaching the law, or the 10 commandments.  Here is another excerpt from my final exam in my systematics class.  

The first three commandments are intended to inform our relation to our creator as creatures.  Lutheran teaching of the commandments occurs on three levels, first, what God wants from his creatures, next the resistance that God encounters from these creatures, and finally, what God does in the end.   The First Commandment and its appendix dictate that the human creature is to have no other gods.  Martin Luther teaches “To have a god is nothing else than to trust and believe him with our whole heart” (Book of Concord 365) and “that to which your heart clings and entrusts itself is, I say, really your God” (365).  I believe this commandment is often only partially taught in most confirmation classes.   Indeed, trusting the God of Israel for one’s existence is commanded, but the other side of this commandment is that the creature is not to make an idol of any other thing in this temporal life, which can include money, knowledge, job, relationships, etc.  Luther writes, “We are to trust in God alone and turn to him, expecting from him only good things…” (367).  The sinner’s resistance is that we prefer our own invented Gods.  In the end, God gives faith and God provides justification through no doing of our own. 

The Second Commandment prohibits us from calling upon the name of God in vain.  This obviously applies to deliberate use of God’s name when supporting falsehood, but applies more subtly to false preachers and others who attempt to justify themselves.  Luther defines this as “…it is either simply to lie and assert under his name something that is not so…” (373).  This is why it is important to have a preacher, to hear what God is doing, so that one might hear the true word.  In baptism, we receive God’s name for our use.   It is also important to note that it is appropriate to call upon God’s name in time of need or in praise, or when in service to others.

The Third Commandment pertains to time set aside for worshiping God. Luther states that Christians need not concern themselves with the literal application of this commandment according to Jewish law, but rather recognize that it provides the time and opportunity for rest and worship that might otherwise be filled with other things (376).  Luther also teaches that the day itself is already holy, because it was created by God, but “it becomes holy or unholy on your account, according as you spend the day in doing holy or unholy things” (377).  This is important teaching in congregations who have made an idol out of Sunday morning worship.  Worship happens when one is in the place of hearing the Word of God, but also learning and retaining it.  This intentional time set aside on a regular basis (and not just Christmas and Easter!) is what God is commanding.  God sends a preacher to help us ponder the Word and how it continues to live. 

Theologian of the Cross and Theologian of Glory

From time to time I like to post some of what I am working on in seminary.  The following is an excerpt from my final exam for my systematic theology class at Luther Seminary.  One of the major distinctions that we worked on this semester was the difference between law and gospel and between a theologian of glory and a theologian of the cross.  

The theologian of glory and the theologian start out from a very different place in their paradigm.  The theologian of glory assumes that we “fell” from a high place of glory and we are destined to return to that place, and to do so, must only follow the law (doing the prescribed “right things”).  A theologian of the cross knows that we were born sinners from the very dawn of creation and that we are constitutionally incapable of saving ourselves, we need the actions of a radical incarnate God who would sacrifice his own son on the cross. 

The theologian of glory desires to activate the will to do things and reads scripture as a series of precepts (if you do this…you will receive this…).  This theologian believes it is entirely possible to return to glory eventually and will engage in this relentless striving until their death.  They believe that their spiritual aspirations, and all associated actions, will draw them closer to God.  They also believe that they can understand what God is doing and see the cross as making up for their failures along the path of glory.  The theologian of the cross knows that their own actions are futile in salvation and only the justifying act of the cross saves.  A theologian of the cross is always at risk of becoming a theologian of glory, for this is the natural temptation of the human creature.  The glory story is addictive, because it becomes about me and what I want and what I believe I am capable of doing.  The theologian of the cross understands that the law was not given for us to return to glory, but rather to maintain order in this old creation, while we are yet dying.  A theologian of the cross knows that the law and our attempts to justify our lives through it were forever put to death on the cross, and acknowledges that there are no more loopholes in this justification by faith alone.  

Wednesday, December 05, 2012


I am sitting in a coffee shop off Broadway in Denver starting to write my final exam for my Systematics class at Luther Seminary.  So naturally I am doing everything possible to postpone starting this project.  I have a huge stack of textbooks next to me, and a woman sitting nearby struck up a conversation and asked what I was studying.  When I said that I was working on my MDiv and what I planned to do with it, I got the most interesting response yet, "That is so brave."  I told her that I had never had that response before, and she said, "I think that is the sort of thing that we need to change the world.  Keep doing it."

Sometimes it feels foolhardy and next to impossible to follow this calling, but other times it feels just right.  So that is where I am today.

Monday, December 03, 2012

Waiting for transformation

Su Teatro, on Dios de Los Muertos
 Denver.  A. Hanson 2012.
Yesterday marked the start of Advent.  Our guest preacher at church was James, the HFASS contemplative in residence.  He raised an idea in his sermon that I am still thinking about today.  He remarked that we are waiting in the darkness, waiting for transformation.  I think that is really what Advent is all about.  We are waiting to be born again in the sure and certain hope that comes in the incarnate Christ, yet, we do not understand that for which we wait.  So we wait impatiently.  For a transformation that we could never enact for ourselves.