Monthly Archives: January 2011

Reconciling in Christ nationwide celebration

The “Reconciling in Christ” movement functions  as an ancillary activity of Lutherans Concerned North America (LCNA), which is the well-organized and successful Lutheran LGBTQ advocacy group.  From the LCNA website:

The Reconciling in Christ (RIC) Program recognizes Lutheran congregations that welcome lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) believers. The complete Reconciling in Christ Roster now exceeds 450 settings, including congregations, synods, colleges, seminaries, and other organizations.

Yesterday, January 30th, many RIC congregations celebrated their RIC status.  What follows is a sampling of blogosphere comments from RIC folks around the country.

From St. Andrew Lutheran Church of Parsipanny, New Jersey.

About ten years ago, our congregation voted, UNANIMOUSLY, to adopt a statement that we would be open and welcoming to ALL people who seek to know Christ, regardless of any discriminating factor, including their sexual orientation or gender identity. We became part of a community of believers, affiliated with Lutherans Concerned/North America, to adopt this statement. By doing so, we became a Reconciling in Christ (RIC) Congregation.

This one of the things I love about my congregation. We voted unanimously to become RIC because it is part of the culture of who we are. There were no dissenters. We all knew this was the right thing to do. We were already living it; we should just say it out loud. All are welcome here.

[W]e really DO care. We DO care that you are here with us. We DO care that you feel welcome here. We DO care that you find a relationship with God and work to draw closer to Him. We DO care that you should not feel judged by the people here. We DO care that your gifts and talents are recognized and valued here. We DO care that you find fellowship with the other members of the body of Christ who worship here. We DO care…because you are a child of God… our brother or sister in Christ Jesus.

From St. Michael’s Church of Philadelphia:

Not only for once a year on “Reconciling in Christ Sunday”…but for everyday!  A message we at St. Michael’s proudly uphold:

“All Are Welcome, All Are Welcome, All Are Welcome…Welcome Here”

A South Carolina newspaper reported that Reformation Lutheran of Columbia is becoming rejuvenated, along with its inner city neighborhood:

… an influx of urban pioneers, many of them gay and lesbian, began buying up the arts-and-crafts cottages and other homes that had fallen into disrepair.

The congregation decided to reach out to its new neighbors but found that many were suspicious of the church. That’s when the congregation underwent a series of conversations that let it to become a congregation intentional in its mission and outreach. Now the church, with 150 members, is a vital part of the community.

My wife and I were privileged to attend the celebratory service at St. Paul-Reformation Lutheran Church in St. Paul, Mn.  For those who know the history of LGBTQ advocacy within the ELCA, St Paul Reformation is an iconic congregation.  It was the first RIC congregation dating to 1984.  It is the parish of Pastor Anita Hill, a national figure in the ELCA movement toward gay inclusion.  Other prominent members include the lesbian couple, Ruth Frost and Phyllis Zillhart, who made history in San Francisco nearly twenty years ago, and Emily Eastwood, the executive director of LCNA.  Click here for an earlier post about the recent Rite of Reception for Hill, Frost, and Zillhart which officially welcomed them to the clergy roster of the ELCA.  We greeted all of these folks yesterday.  Frost delivered the sermon, her first since becoming rostered (her current call is to a hospice ministry), and she told me that she and Phyllis will return to their former San Francisco congregation on February 27th for an historic celebration in which the St Francis congregation, once expelled, will formally return to the ELCA. 

I was honored to play a small part by addressing the adult forum.  We discussed the apostle Paul’s struggle with the Jerusalem leadership of the early Jesus movement and their “yes, but” attitude toward Gentile inclusion in the early church and the parallels with the current struggle for full inclusion of the LGBTQ community.

The Road to Damascus

Tuesday, January 25th marks the conversion of Paul, according to the Revised Common Lectionary. 

Wikipedia suggests a “Religious conversion is the adoption of a new religion that differs from the convert’s previous religion.”  In this sense, the term “conversion” is actually an anachronism disliked by scholars because at the time of Paul’s Damascus road experience, neither he nor any others of the fledgling Jesus movement anticipated or intended a new religion.  Perhaps “transformation” is a better choice.

Paul on the Road to Damascus by Richard SerrinWhat happened that day on the road to Damascus?  In Paul’s own writings, the only reference to Damascus is the following understated account from his letter to the Galatians:

But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with any human being, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before me, but I went away at once into Arabia, and afterwards I returned to Damascus.   Galatians 1:15-17 (NRSV)

By the time the author of Acts told the story, a generation or more later, dramatic flourishes had been added:

Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one.            Acts 9:3-7

Paul conversion by RubensApparently forgetting what he had written earlier, the second telling of the story by the author of Acts reversed the seeing and hearing.  In the first passage, the companions of Paul heard the voice but saw nothing; in the second, they saw but did not hear.

While I was on my way and approaching Damascus, about noon a great light from heaven suddenly shone about me. I fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to me, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’ I answered, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ Then he said to me, ‘I am Jesus of Nazareth whom you are persecuting.’ Now those who were with me saw the light but did not hear the voice of the one who was speaking to me. I asked, ‘What am I to do, Lord?’ The Lord said to me, ‘Get up and go to Damascus; there you will be told everything that has been assigned to you to do.’         Acts 22:6-10

Finally, the third version contained within Acts significantly expands the conversation between Paul and the voice: 

when at midday along the road, your Excellency, I saw a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, shining around me and my companions. When we had all fallen to the ground, I heard a voice saying to me in the Hebrew language, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It hurts you to kick against the goads.’ I asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ The Lord answered, ‘I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. But get up and stand on your feet; for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you to serve and testify to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you. I will rescue you from your people and from the Gentiles—to whom I am sending you to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.’    Acts 26:13-18

current copyIf you are a regular reader of this blog, you probably know that my novel about Paul, entitled A Wretched Man, was published around ten months ago.  How should I depict the scene on the Damascus road?  How could I describe an event that is believable to my readers yet account for the profundity of Paul’s experience?  As I wrestled with my choices, I also wondered, to what extent was Paul’s experience of the presence of the divine, his theophany, different from the times in my life when I felt God’s touch?  Or, from a more intellectual perspective, I wondered about the famous 19th century book by William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, which a late 20th century reviewer lauded for its “penetration into the hearts of people.” 

In my novel, I foreshadowed the Damascus experience in a scene with Paul’s fictional mentor, Eli the sage.

“The Prophet Ezekiel describes the God who is indescribable. How do we see the God that is beyond sight? How do we know the God who is beyond knowing? The absolute holiness of God is greater than a mere human can bear and more than we can comprehend. These are words beyond words with meaning beyond meaning.”

“I understand,” said Paulos.

Eli scowled. “Do not be overconfident, my young friend. Self-doubt is the blossom of wisdom. When Moses faced God in the burning bush, he asked, What is your name? We must all pursue the same question,” Eli said, and then his voice dropped to a whisper, “but we err if we believe we have the answer.”

The oil lamp flared and briefly chased the shadows, but then the flame died, leaving the room dark except for the shaft of light that fell across the scroll in Paulos’ hands.

“As soon as we name the one whose name is unknown, we create the one who created us,” Eli said. “Ezekiel the prophet painted colorful pictures that point to the truth, but they are untrue.”

Paulos squinted into the nearly blind eyes of the old man. Had the fuzziness that coated his eyes reached his mind? Paulos began to doubt his mentor who spoke in silly riddles. He tugged on his nose and his gaze returned to the written words. His finger traced the scribed marks with care not to touch the holy scroll. He read aloud, “This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord.”

The wizened old man rhythmically tapped his willow cane on the tile floor. First, he offered a promise. “One day you will see the glory of the Lord.”

Tap. Tap. Tap.

And then, he issued a challenge, “What words will you speak when you tell the tale? What picture will you paint?”

Tap. Tap. Tap.

And finally, he uttered a warning, “But retain your humility and self-doubt. Do not pretend to answer Moses’ question or paint truer pictures than Ezekiel. Do not commit idolatry.”

In the end, how did I write the Damascus scene?

Evangelicals and gays

Tony Perkins of the American Family Council, gay-basher in chief, not only doesn’t speak for all Christians, he doesn’t speak for all evangelicals.  Nor do Charles Colson, James Dobson, or Tim LaHaye.  It would seem there is a younger crowd, a new generation, that is raising questions about the traditional evangelical intolerance toward gays.  Yes, the move toward gay equality is advancing at all levels of religious and secular society, even within the quarter most associated with rigorous opposition.

A small but growing group which calls itself Evangelicals Concerned offers support for gays seeking reconciliation of their faith and their sexuality:

Organizations or churches with Evangelical roots have traditionally been the most condemning, exclusionary and antagonistic to Christians who identify as GLBT. This bias has produced untold levels of damage to many children of God and has caused many to abandon their faith traditions or commit suicide. Evangelical organizations are responsible for virtually every attempt to convert GLBT people. EC has challenged the conversion therapy notion for 25 years, standing in the gap and providing healing and safety to thousands of Christians.

The Gay Christian Network (GCN) also consists of mostly evangelical members.  Earlier this summer, I met one of their leaders when we both happened to be workshop presenters at the Lutherans Concerned Convention in Minneapolis.

The Gay Christian Network is a nonprofit ministry serving Christians who happen to be lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender, and those who care about them.

Like many Christian mothers, Sandy was completely unprepared to learn that her son was gay.

How could he be? Everything she had been taught in church had led her to one conclusion, that gay people were sinful, that they had turned from God, and that they were ultimately condemned to hell. Yet none of that fit the profile of her beloved son. He was a good son, and he loved God. How could he be gay?

For five months after learning of her son’s sexuality, Sandy was a wreck. She was sure that homosexuality was not of God. Yet she loved her son. She needed answers, but she didn’t know where to turn.

Then she found GCN.

FalsaniAn article in the Huffpost this week questioned, Is Evangelical Christianity having a Great Gay Awakening?  Author Cathleen Falsani suggests that she struggled to accommodate traditional evangelical Biblical ethics with the reality of the gay relationships in her circle of friends. 

That was my answer: Love them. Unconditionally, without caveats or exceptions.

I wasn’t sure whether homosexuality actually was a sin. But I was certain I was commanded to love.

For 20 years, that answer was workable, if incomplete. Lately, though, it’s been nagging at me. Some of my gay friends are married, have children and have been with their partners and spouses as long as I’ve been with my husband.

Loving them is easy. Finding clear theological answers to questions about homosexuality has been decidedly not so.

Falsani then discusses a book by none other than Jay Bakker, the son of the famous televangelists of a generation ago, Jim and Tammy Fay Bakker, called Fall to Grace: A Revolution of God, Self & Society.

“The simple fact is that Old Testament references in Leviticus do treat homosexuality as a sin … a capital offense even,” Bakker writes. “But before you say, ‘I told you so,’ consider this: Eating shellfish, cutting your sideburns and getting tattoos were equally prohibited by ancient religious law.

“The truth is that the Bible endorses all sorts of attitudes and behaviors that we find unacceptable (and illegal) today and decries others that we recognize as no big deal.”
Leviticus prohibits interracial marriage, endorses slavery and forbids women to wear trousers.

ScrollBakker’s exegesis is quite right, and he could have gone further.  When I have presented workshops interpreting the so-called “clobber passages” of the Bible, I point out that these ancient Hebrew regulations were religious rules and not universal ethics, loosely akin to the modern day ritual of meatless Fridays, formulated from a consistent pattern of Hebrew rituals of boundaries, markers, and insularity.  Don’t do as the Gentiles do.  Don’t mix with the Gentiles.  Don’t mix unlike things.  Don’t mix seeds in your field.  Don’t mix different fabrics in the same garment.  Don’t cavort with the temple prostitutes of the Gentiles (male and female).  Don’t follow the sexual practices of the Gentiles.  Don’t eat meat from animals that confuse their category.  A shellfish doesn’t have fins or swim like a fish; it is an abomination.  Don’t eat shellfish. 

Here is the preface to the chapter in Leviticus that contains the infamous clobber passage:

You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt, where you lived, and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you.

Leviticus 18:3

Ritual regulatory rules of behavior for the ancient Hebrews are complicated, which cannot be adequately addressed here, but perhaps that is the essential point; it’s not as simple or as black and white as the literalists would suggest.  When we understand the context of their ancient formulation, we recognize a ritualistic and symbolic system of separation of a besieged peoples, anxious to preserve their identity against the dangers of assimilation by the empires that dominated them militarily and politically.

Falsani also discussed Bakker’s interpretation of the New Testament, Pauline “clobber passages”, and Bakker again is accurate when he suggests:

Examining the original Greek words translated as “homosexual” and “homosexuality” in three New Testament passages, Bakker (and others) conclude that the original words have been translated inaccurately in modern English.

What we read as “homosexuals” and “homosexuality” actually refers to male prostitutes and the men who hire them. The passages address prostitution — sex as a commodity — and not same-sex, consensual relationships, he says.

Roman art depicting pederastyIn my workshops, I dig deeper.  Modern day Bible versions that include the word “homosexual” are anachronistic at best and political at worst.  Paul used two Greek words, arsenokotai and malakoi, which do not otherwise appear in the writings of the period; thus, it appears he may have coined them himself.  Bakker’s suggestion that the terms refer to prostitution may be correct, but I think the better interpretation is that the terms refer to the Greco-Roman practice of pederasty, involving an aristocrat and a young man or boy, which was fairly common in the period.  Again, attempting to make sense of Paul’s two-thousand year old writings is complicated, and there’s more to it than fits in this blog, but the essential point is that Paul’s writings were conditioned by a 1st century context.  The issues facing Paul were not the same issues we face today. 

Falsani’s experience—“Some of my gay friends are married, have children and have been with their partners and spouses as long as I’ve been with my husband”—persuaded her that the traditional application of the Biblical “clobber passages” didn’t fit for her and for a growing number of her evangelical friends.  She concludes:

Only time will tell whether more evangelical leaders — Emergent, emerging or otherwise — will add their voices to the chorus calling for full and unapologetic inclusion of homosexuals in the life of the church.

But I’m sensing a change in the wind (and the Spirit.)

A Good Man is Hard to Find

A Good Man is Hard to Find is the title of a short story by the renowned “southern gothic” fiction writer of a generation ago, Flannery O’Connor.  O’Connor was a devout Catholic, and her stories were tinged with religious symbolism that some would find macabre and nearly all would find barely translucent.  To put it another way, her writings take some getting used to and also require some help at deciphering her meaning.  But, her writings are typically ranked among the very best 20th century literature.

In this short story, the “Misfit” is an escaped criminal who ultimately murders the entire family of the protagonist, a grandmother.  In the last lines of the story, she too is felled by the assassin’s bullet, and he exclaims:

“She would of been a good woman,” The Misfit said, “if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”

According to the prevailing interpretation of this bizarre story, this was O’Connor’s way of saying that in the moment of darkest despair, there is God.  In death, God’s grace was most present.  In a perverse way, the Misfit murderer was an instrument of God’s grace.

This short story occurred to me this morning as I processed the Tucson Memorial Service that I watched last evening, and especially the speech of President Obama.   He spoke to the soul of America last night, with words of comfort and consolation but also soaring with hope.  Last night, he was America’s preacher, and his words were a stirring sermon in the very best sense.  He consoled the nation’s grief but also dared to speak to our anger with words of forgiveness and encouragement to heal and not to wound. 

“At a time when our discourse has become so sharply polarized … it’s important for us to pause for a moment and make sure that we’re talking with each other in a way that heals, not in a way that wounds,” Obama said. He later added, “If this tragedy prompts reflection and debate — as it should — let’s make sure it’s worthy of those we have lost.”

Joe Scarborough, a former Republican Congressman who hosts “Morning Joe” on MSNBC, this morning called it a transformative moment in American political discourse.

And this brings me back to O’Connor and the Misfit.  Will good come from the tragedy of Tucson?  Will new life and hope arise from death and destruction?  Will a deranged shooter ultimately be the occasion for transformation?

Tucson speechThere is a secondary application of this title also.  As I watched the President speak, I couldn’t help but think that America doesn’t appreciate how fortunate we are to have this grace-filled man of eloquence as our leader. 

A good man is hard to find.

January figures of ELCA departing congregations

I just received the latest email from the office of the ELCA secretary.  The numbers show a definite decrease in activity in December, probably reflecting the holiday season.  Bottom line: through the end of 2010, a total of 353 congregations had voted twice to sever ties with the ELCA (as required by constitution).  Out of 10,500 or so.

Here is the email:

Here’s the update on congregations that have taken votes to leave the ELCA.  As of 1/6/11, 686 congregations had taken first votes to leave the ELCA.  These 686 congregations have taken a total of 726 first votes.  (The greater number reflects that some congregations have taken multiple first votes.)  Of the first votes taken, 504 passed and 222 failed.  351 congregations have taken second votes (and two congregations have taken two second votes!)  Of the total of 353 second votes; 334 passed and 19 failed.

The demise of Sarah Palin

Tea PartyRecent polls suggest that President Obama would handily defeat the Grizzly Bear mom from Alaska if she were to be the Republican nominee in 2012.  Obama fares well in these polls against all comers but Palin appears to be the weakest of his potential  opponents.  So, her moment in the sun as a serious national candidate was already waning before the shocking shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, but the backlash against the over-the-top rhetoric of the ridiculous right may prove to be the tipping point that relegates Palin to the status of former politician without portfolio.  To the extent that this shooting incident is seen as a logical and foreseeable consequence of the anger inflamed by Tea Party politics, Palin may be the biggest loser.

Why Palin?  Because of the graphic below, which appeared on Palin’s website during the last election.  The gun sight cross-hairs over the districts of targeted Democrats, including Representative Giffords, will become the iconic proof of politics gone too far.  In the next few days, expect the national conversation to be dominated by blowback against the politics of hate that has been the hallmark of the Tea Party.  But, as they say, a picture is worth a thousand words, and this graphic provides the eloquent testimony that will be the undoing of Palin, especially when coupled with her irresponsible call, “don’t react, reload.”

At the time this graphic appeared on the Palin website, Representative Giffords’ own response was chilling in light of the shooting.

“We’re on Sarah Palin’s targeted list,” Ms. Giffords said last March. “But the thing is the way that she has it depicted has the cross hairs of a gun sight over our district. When people do that, they’ve got to realize there’s consequences to that.”

Beyond the tragic consequences in Tucson this weekend, one would hope that the long term consequences will be the demise of the politicians who have been too willing to reap political benefit from hate-mongering.

Sarah Pac

Here is an early sampling of the blowback of which I speak, and this is not some rambling of the liberal media of the east coast.  These are the words of the sheriff on the scene and of the Congressman from the adjacent Congressional district in Arizona.

‘When you look at unbalanced people, how they respond to the vitriol that comes out of certain mouths about tearing down the government,’ Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik told a news conference.

‘The anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous.

‘And, unfortunately, Arizona I think has become sort of the capital. We have become the Mecca for prejudice and bigotry.’

He added: ‘That may be free speech. But it’s not without consequence.’

And here is the report about the statement of Congressman Grijalva:

Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), who represents a district adjacent to Gabrielle Giffords’s, said that Saturday’s shooting is a consequence of the vitriolic rhetoric that has arisen over the past few years among extreme elements of the Tea Party.

“The climate has gotten so toxic in our political discourse, setting up for this kind of reaction for too long. It’s unfortunate to say that. I hate to say that,” Grijalva said in an interview with The Huffington Post. “If you’re an opponent, you’re a deadly enemy,” Grijalva said of the mindset among Arizona extremists. “Anybody who contributed to feeding this monster had better step back and realize they’re threatening our form of government.”

Grijalva said that Tea Party leader Sarah Palin should reflect on the rhetoric that she has employed. “She — as I mentioned, people contributing to this toxic climate — Ms. Palin needs to look at her own behavior”.

In Remembrance

We pay homage today to a pair of clergy leaders in the LGBTQ movement for equality, inclusion, and respect.  To call them icons would be incorrect because that term implies a well-known public face, and these two were quiet crusaders, both of them straight allies.

Paul EgertsonSeventy-five year old Paul Egertson, ELCA pastor and one-time bishop in California, died at his California home yesterday.  Lutherans Concerned North America (LCNA), the LGBTQ advocacy group within the ELCA , issued this statement honoring Bishop Egertson’s memory:

While bishop of the ELCA Southwest California Synod, he participated in the 2001 ordination of Pastor Anita C. Hill of St. Paul-Reformation Lutheran Church, St. Paul, Minnesota.  For this act, he subsequently resigned his position as bishop, and tirelessly advocated for the policy change that finally occurred as a result of the decisions of the 2009 Churchwide Assembly.

Emily Eastwood, Executive Director, Lutherans Concerned, said, “Paul Egertson stood up for us and in opposition to the discrimination of the church against us when that was neither popular nor safe.  His witness to Christ’s redemptive grace and his commitment to helping the church see the error of its position are a shining beacon of prophetic righteousness in the face of determined opposition – and he did it with grace and eloquence, as befits a follower of Christ.  He was a friend and mentor — always available, with words of calming wisdom.  He made a profound difference.  He will be missed.”

Under a blog post titled We’ll Take it From Here, blogger Casey, an ELCA seminarian, wrote of being a young student of Egertson without knowing his history.  She regrets her sophomoric attitude then but now treasures his advocacy with the benefit of a maturing, retrospective point of view.

But as I continued in the Religion department and spent time with professors in discussion outside of the classroom, I found that this man was interesting.

He was a progressive voice in a generation that would not hear him. As the generation that has heard him, it is our responsibility to go forth into the ELCA that he has helped to shape, and to continue to fight along the lines he laid down. I am proud to have been a student of his, and to be joining the ranks of ordained clergy in the ELCA, in order to effect the same kind of change.

Of course, the ELCA and the Episcopal Church are currently in the forefront of progressive Christian denominations that have moved toward full inclusion of the LGBTQ community.  A generation earlier, the United Church of Christ (UCC) became the first mainstream Christian denomination to openly affirm their gay members

RevJuneNorrisBut even before that, a Christian denomination was formed expressly for the purpose of ordaining and celebrating gay inclusivity.  This denomination is known as Metropolitan Community Churches, (MCC), and the second person we honor today is Pastor June Norris who died this week at the age of eighty-eight.  Norris was the first straight person and second woman to be ordained to the ministry of MCC.  From a San Diego Newspaper:

She grew up in a Baptist family in Illinois and married at age 15. She had three children by the time she was 20, divorced after 28 years of marriage and moved to California to seek a new life.

Friends and family said she was a soft-spoken, tenderhearted crusader for equality. “She was nonjudgmental and extremely compassionate,” said her sister, Ruth Mahan. “She accepted people as they were.”

Nephew Ted Sweet, who introduced her to MCC, said he and his aunt agreed to attend her church on Saturday and go to his church on Sunday. “I took her to (MCC) and she never left. The people were so receptive to her and welcomed her,” Sweet said. Rev. Norris would later say she felt called to the ministry at the L.A. church.

Sweet said Rev. Norris had a gift for helping people. “She had one of the most soothing voices in the world. No matter how upset I was, I just had to talk to her on the phone and I’d feel better,” he said. “She just had a way of communicating that took all the pain and hurt away.”

We conclude with the sentiment expressed by blogger Casey.   With thanks for these early leaders, Casey promises, “We’ll take it from here”.

St Olaf College: Boe Memorial Chapel Talk

This morning, I was privileged to be the guest speaker for morning chapel at St Olaf College here in Northfield, Minnesota.  I spoke to 50-100 students, faculty and staff assembled in the magnificent Boe Memorial Chapel.  Here is a link to the archived video stream, and the text of my talk appears below.

Sisters and brothers, our business here is learning.

In these historic buildings of Minnesota limestone, the liberal arts are heaped in healthy measure, a smorgasbord of intellectual delights. Will you fill your plate to overflowing? Will you dare a second helping?

Tevia is the main character in the musical play, A Fiddler on the Roof. This Jewish farmer in pre-Revolutionary Russia exhibits a vibrant faith and a willingness to engage God in discussion, even argument. In one of the opening songs, Tevia wonders why he was made poor and not rich, and he fantasizes–“if I were a rich man”. After considering various possibilities, he concludes:

If I were rich, I’d have the time that I lack

To sit in the synagogue and pray.

And maybe have a seat by the Eastern wall.

And I’d discuss the holy books with the learned men, several hours every day.

That would be the sweetest thing of all.

Serious study in dialogue with learned folks. The sweetest thing of all.

It is the hallmark of a liberal arts education that we learn how to think rather than being taught what to think, and this premise permeates the biology lab, the recital hall, the library and classrooms, and even here in Boe Chapel. The scholastic Thomas Aquinas spoke of faith seeking understanding. University professor Martin Luther argued that conscience must be informed by Scripture and reason.

Like many of you, perhaps most, I am a Lutheran but I pursued graduate theological studies with the Benedictine monks of St John’s Abbey and University, where I was treated with great hospitality. One day, one of the professors, a brilliant monk with theological degrees from Harvard and Yale, asked if my Lutheran confessional background inhibited free thinking. Confessional, in this sense, implies that Lutherans subscribe to a certain set of dogmatic beliefs, a confession of faith that defines who we are as Lutherans according to certain creedal statements. Our Sunday liturgies often include a statement such as “let us confess our Christian faith in the words of the apostles’ creed”. So, yes, we Lutherans come from a confessional tradition.

Was the monk right, does that preclude imaginative, outside-the-box thinking? Or, as others suggest, is confessionalism an inherently exclusive, boundary building exercise that elevates dogma over grace, a species of works righteousness in which we achieve our standing before God by believing the right doctrines?

You will note that the two Scripture readings today are questions: probing, open-ended, and deeply theological. “What is your name?” Moses dares ask of the God of the burning bush. “Who do you say that I am?” Jesus queries his disciples, and his question resonates through the centuries and challenges still. Don’t jump too quickly to the answers of Peter and the disciples. Linger for awhile with the questions. Wrestle with them. Hear these questions as a call to dialogue, an invitation to join the journey, encouragement to embrace the wonder and mystery.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote these words over fifty years ago:

Wisdom comes from awe rather than shrewdness. It is evoked not in moments of calculation but in moments of being in rapport with the mystery of reality. The greatest insights happen to us in moments of awe. A moment of awe is a moment of self-consecration. They who sense the wonder share in the wonder.

This is not confirmation class. This is not rote learning or memorization. This is not a test. Allow the questions to seep inside you, to absorb you, to rile you up. Be unsettled. Let the spirit blow where it will. Hear Heschel’s call to sense the wonder in order to share in the wonder. Ask hard questions of your faith and allow your faith to ask hard questions of you. Don’t accept the confession of faith that has been handed down without question, without scrutiny, but let this wisdom of the ages be the starting point, a sounding board, the schoolmaster who stirs your imagination. Be a dwarf standing on the shoulders of giants. Let the giants lift you up, but dare to see what you see.

It is the start of interim term. According to the college website, Interim “is a time when unique teaching and learning styles can be utilized in rather traditional courses or when unique subjects can be studied in some international or off-campus domestic location.” Non-traditional subjects or non-traditional methods may result in an epiphany of understanding.

Some who aren’t here today have journeyed to a far place, some of you may journey across the Cannon River to Carleton College this month, and I hope all gathered here appreciate the sense of journey and adventure as you embark on a month of outside-the-box learning. Let this be your dessert from your smorgasbord of Liberal Arts.

Along with the start of interim term, this is also epiphany week in the church calendar. The secular world has borrowed this term, “epiphany”, to mean “a sudden, intuitive perception of, or insight into, the reality or essential meaning of something”. Intuitive perception. Insight. Reality or essential meaning. The term comes to us from the Greek of the New Testament meaning appearance or manifestation and especially the self-revelation of God in Jesus the Christ.

During the festival of epiphany, it has become church tradition to read the Biblical story of the magi. Three wise men on a journey. Three seekers. Three who wondered. Three who sought the presence of the incarnate God, Immanuel, God with us.

And this is our prayer, that as learners in various disciplines, our journey will lead to new insights and understandings and as religious seekers, we will encounter a near and present God along the way.

Sisters and brothers, our business here is learning.

Apocalypse now: will the end times begin on May 21?

The first Christians expected that Jesus would return during their lifetimes.  It is generally accepted that the earliest book of the New Testament is the letter of Paul the apostle to his community in Thessaloniki circa 50 C.E.

For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first.  Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air: and so we will be with the Lord forever.

1 Thessalonians 4:16-17 (NRSV)

A generation later, as the world as he knew it was collapsing around him, as the Roman legions encircled Jerusalem while a bloody civil war raged between the Jewish factions, as the Holy Temple was about to fall, the compiler of Mark’s gospel, the first of the four New Testament gospels, devoted a full chapter to his apocalyptic world view.

When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come … then those in Judea must flee to the mountains, the one on the housetop must not go down or enter the house to take anything away; the one in the field must not turn back to get a coat.   Woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing infants in those days! …  Then they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory … So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates.  Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.

Selections of Mark 13 (NRSV) written circa 70 C.E.

Of course, it didn’t happen and subsequent generations of Christians generally interpret these passages metaphorically or spiritually or simply accept that the expectations of the first Christians were erroneous.  But, there has always been a fringe that accepts a literal interpretation coupled with bizarre calculations based upon obscure Old Testament passages that they interpret as secret code.  In the two millennia since the 1st century, numerous apocalyptic sects have dotted history with their expectations of the imminent end times.  Perhaps the most famous was William Millers’ sect that gave away possessions before waiting for the rapture in 1844, resulting in the “Great Disappointment.” In our generation, authors Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins have become multi-millionaires with their fictional “Left Behind” series premised on a soon-coming “rapture” in which non-believers will be “left behind”.

ApocalypseAn associated press feature story today reports on the latest in a 2,000 year string of apocalyptic sects.

If there had been time, Marie Exley would have liked to start a family. Instead, the 32-year-old Army veteran has less than six months left, which she’ll spend spreading a stark warning: Judgment Day is almost here.

Exley is part of a movement of Christians loosely organized by radio broadcasts and websites, independent of churches and convinced by their reading of the Bible that the end of the world will begin on May 21, 2011.

The person responsible for “decoding” the Bible to determine this May 21 date is eighty-nine year old Harold Camping, a former civil engineer.  The AP article didn’t explain his particular rationale, but he was quoted as saying, “Beyond the shadow of a doubt, May 21 will be the date of the Rapture and the day of judgment.”  A brief perusal of the website wecanknow.com doesn’t reveal the methodology either but offers an anti-church message and encourages purchase of the books and study materials promoted by the website.

I think I have a fishing trip planned that day.