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Friday, January 25, 2013

Your Body, A Temple

If only Jesus had pointy ears.

The Weight of Theology

I was at church once (a Sunday, if you’re wondering), when the preacher said something that caught my ear. He said, “Today, we’re going to do a little theology.” Normally, this is the kind of statement that perks me up, invigorates me, gets my brain running a little higher than usual. I love theology. In fact, the subheadings for both the blogs I run indicate their abiding interest in all things theological. One of my favorite things to do with people is sit down and discuss theology, even if (sometimes especially if) the people there have no “official” training in the area. I enjoy the exchange of ideas, sharing stuff I’ve learned or am learning in school, and engaging my mental capacities for the sake of the church.

But on that Sunday, when the preacher said, “Today, we’re going to do a little theology,” it was not so invigorating. He made this statement with something like regret or apology, almost like he prefaced it with, “It kind of sucks that we have to go through this, but…” And when he said it, there was an audible groan in the congregation. Granted, that groan came from a friend of mine who was sitting next to me, and he was doing it to be funny. I did not find this out until a while later, but I was not mistaken in the expressions on the people’s faces. You know the look of a teenager who is told to clean her room, and her reaction is something like, “But that’s so unfair!”? That’s how it felt. And there’s a problem here.

I don’t know where I got it, but I feel like I was trained growing up that theology, really deep Bible-study, was for pastors and ministers. Where I grew up, it was really only the preaching minister who was supposed to filled this role. My dad, who was the youth minister at the time (it’s officially out in the open; I’m a minister’s kid!), sought to go deeper, but often was not supported in this because “that’s not something youth ministers are supposed to do.” I get the feeling that there is some element of this in the congregation I attend now, but it feels true to a lesser degree than at my original church home. This could be because the elders (at least those I know personally) actually study the Bible, teach classes, and engage with all kinds of people in a great number of circumstances. This is a wonderful undertaking, in my opinion.

My problem is that we have tended to think theology is for theologians. I’m an aspiring theologian (though I’m uncertain at what point I can actually say, “Hi, I’m Reed, and I’m a theologian,” at the Theologians Anonymous meetings), but I truly enjoy talking to people who would never use that title for themselves. An extension of the problem is this: we think theology is for theologians, but have forgotten that theology is for the church. Theology and church have an intricate relationship with one another. If theology is done primarily in community rather than by scholars sitting in corners with ancient texts (which I am finding more and more true all the time), then in what community does it happen?

Though many have found theology oppressive, or have been abused by it or those misusing its power, it is within the church and the people who exist within it that theology is created. It is a burden that falls not just on the shoulders of those who have degrees, but on the everyday people and situation where God is at work. For those keeping a running count, that was the first time I’d mentioned him in this post. But I would like to deal more with God’s role in theology in the next post. For now, let me suffice it to repeat that theology is for the church. Theology is not a dirty word. But let’s not avoid bad theology by avoiding theology altogether. Either we’re all in, or there’s not much of a point to it.

And, for your consideration, a bit of satire called "Shallow Small Group Bible Study." Enjoy.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Forts, Temples, and the Grand Meta-Narrative

Last night, at a youth-group gathering, we built forts. Blanket forts, more specifically. We were invited back into our early childhoods to construct protections against the oncoming disaster ("The floor is lava!"). First a few small forts, then everyone grouped together to build a mega-fort for everyone to enter. We shared our fears, and about the people or things we knew could alleviate those fears when we were kids. I was scared of all sorts of things, but I knew my mom could make anything better. And we ultimately agreed that, despite all the hard work, blankets, clothes pins, and duct tape, our fort wasn't exactly sturdy. We were proud of it, but none would call it flawless.

We moved into a discussion of why we build forts. We create these places to be safe-havens, protection from the outside world. But what's the difference between a fort and a temple? A fort is defensive: there is a position, and you must protect it. It's strategic, meant for battle, and expects an onslaught. A temple, on the other hand, is a place of worship. No matter the religion, it is a gathering place for people. For some groups, it is an encounter with the divine; for others, it is a place to face yourself.

The text the youth minister used was Ephesians 2, where the author discusses Christ as the chief cornerstone of God's household. On the foundation of the apostles and prophets, the temple of God is built. It is of neither stone nor wood, but of people.

For those who are unfamiliar with the concept of a meta-narrative, here's a primer. A meta-narrative is the idea that all the stories of all the people who have ever existed are connected. My story does not stand on its own, but only makes sense in light of all the stories leading up to mine and the connections my story has with every other story currently happening. It has been said that the Bible is a meta-narrative about God: every story, prophecy, proverb, and revelation only makes sense insofar as they are about God.

The Ephesians text is a good example of this. We are being built together into the temple of God. We're a bit like individual bricks, but every brick has a story. Every piece which God has placed in the floor, the wall, the ceiling is its own story. But each brick on its own is nothing particularly special. Only in the whole do they find their importance.

The temple is not yet complete. With every story, a new piece of the structure is revealed; a new beam is set in place, and the House of the Lord is coming into view. We're not a blanket fort, which is awesome but ultimately without worth or purpose; we're not a military fort, set on the defensive alone. We are a temple: a place of worship, a dwelling for God, millions of stories all pointing to the glory of the builder. May our stories, our bricks ever reflect our fashioning.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Your Doctrinal Limits

Something occurred to me today that I had not seriously considered before, but that may have to go on my list of things to consider seriously. What are my doctrinal limits? What is it that draws me to the church group of which I am part, and what would repel me from certain others? This is a difficult question for me, because I know so little about so many kinds of Christianity. I would like to think I'm able to give most groups at least a chance, but there's bound to be a line I find difficult or impossible to cross.

Take some time, and ask yourself the same questions. Leave your thoughts in the comments, and perhaps we can have some healthy discussion!

Grace and peace,

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Psalm 137

This semester I'm taking a grad course on preaching biblical genres, the genres at hand being the Psalms and Wisdom Literature. It's a hybrid, with 2.5 days of in-person, intensive interaction. One of the requirements is to preach a sermon on a psalm when we arrive, and I chose 137. I have to admit, I had never read or heard this particular psalm. If you haven't either, check it out here. It's pretty short, so it shouldn't take long.

The first time I read it, I enjoyed it. But the more times I read it, the more my reaction moved from excitement to sorrow. I was listening to it on an audio Bible, and the anguish in the voice of the woman who reads it is apparent. Now understand, I don't cry if I can help it. I hate crying, and not because I'm trying to be manly (as it were, no one has ever accused me of being manly). I just dislike the sheer vulnerability of such emotions. Even so, after listening to and reading Ps. 137 however many times, it brought me to tears. 

In any case, it's not a pleasant psalm. It is a lament through and through. It remembers destruction, cries out at oppression. It is the plea of a tormented people who seek not just justice, but vengeance. It would be great if it ended something like this:

But you, O LORD, are gracious and merciful. 
     Deliver me from my peril,
     From my torment, rescue me.

Let us sing a song to the LORD,
     A song of joy, a song of Zion!
     We will weep no more,
          For your mighty hand has brought us justice.

Wipe away our tears, O LORD.
     Lead us by your river of life,
     By the rivers of Zion guide us.

But it doesn't end that way. It ends with a violent curse, and mentions God only once (which is done as if in passing). It's not inspirational. It's not happy. It is hopeless, vengeful, anguished.

I've done a bit of research into Jewish lament, and when I wrote that particular paper, I realized how many Christian traditions have lost the ability to lament, to grieve, to suffer. That's why I picked Ps. 137 to preach on. It'll be something like preaching on Hard Mode, but it's something we need to hear. It's something I need to hear.

But what will the church do with such violence, such suffering? Where do we go when we hear this? This sermon will be hard, yes. But it is easier than suffering itself. Many have suffered, but we must learn to suffer together.

Transformative Work

I've been a Christian for a while. I believe sometime in the next year I will have reached the point of being a Christian for half my life. This time has been chaotic, peaceful, treacherous, filled with love, perilous, and beautiful.

I've been a biblical studies major for a while. It began with a desire to do youth ministry, and evolved into the hope of a professorship. I was transformed from religious conservative to relational liberal. I began to question everything, and regret none of it.

One of the interesting things about these parts of my life is that they overlap, yet somehow seem at odds in my mind. If I had grown up in a home with no god, had not attended church or Christian schools my entire life, then a degree in religious studies and ministry would appear to conflict with my past. But the two are actually quite similar, which is why their opposing natures are strange to me.

Perhaps the reason they do not stack up with each other is because a fundamental shift happened inside me during my undergrad years. I grew up in a pretty conservative Church of Christ, where I distinctly remember having classes taught on why Baptists and Catholics weren't Christians. I taught a "Bible" study (which had very little actual Bible in it) on the validity of Young Earth Creationism when I was a Senior in high school to a few other members of the youth group. I was enveloped in a system where the Bible was a sort of rule book which fell out of God's lap onto the earth, and the way God loved us was nothing like any kind of love I'd ever heard of—in fact, he was downright harsh and sometimes cruel (though those words were never used to describe him). Instruments were evil, women were to keep their mouths shut, and a "God said it, I believe it, and that settles it" mentality was normative. Then came college.

I encountered views completely alien to me: of the physical resurrection of people and the remaking of the entire world at the end of times; of imperfect people who compiled texts for worship, transformation, and community; of Gnosticism and other fun historical heresies; of Catholics who loved Jesus more than I did, baptists who worshipped more earnestly than me, churches with authority structures which seem to work; of a God who reveals himself throughout time and continues to do so; of a God who may not be strictly a "him" at all. And, most importantly, of a God who loved us with a love like nothing I'd ever heard of.

What happened? I am not the same person who was baptized by his father at a summer camp when he was 12 years old. I am not this boy who got so upset at the immorality of others that I found them utterly repugnant. I am not one who despises those who call on the name of the Lord in a way different than my own. So what happened?

I believe God happened. I believe God placed in my life people who would challenge me.

He placed a Michael in my life who could point out that Jesus is seen differently by different people and different books of the New Testament, who could show just how beautiful the Gospel is and how marvelous the Gospels are.
He placed several Marks in my life. One to show me simplicity is not such a bad thing. One to reveal just how much God can use really goofy people. One to show how the kindness of a few people can bring out the best in others, and that the Old Testament is not worthless to Christians.
He placed a Steve in my life to tell me the way we relate to people, the endless complex connections that make up human relationships, are important because God experiences these connections with us.
He placed a Brandon in my life explain that God's love is bigger than any evil, that the Bible is about God and not about me, and that true wisdom comes out of often painful experiences.
These are but a few, and there are so many I have not mentioned. And I thank God for all of them.

Take a moment to consider the people God has put in your life to transform you. Some of them will be wonderful, God-fearing people. Others may make you wonder whether God is listening at all. Some will lift you up, and others will tear you apart. But consider how God uses any and all of them to enact his redemptive work in you, in your community, in your world.

Know that God seeks to transform, to gather together, to cleanse, to purify. And he hasn't stopped yet.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Time for Change

One of the things I love about blogging is that I am pretty much free to do and write what I will. But I think it's time for some change. My thought it this: maybe it's time to split up this particular blog into two. For those who happen to stumble into this website, there are many different genres of literature found here, and they seem only loosely connected. The posts range from academic to pastoral, absurd to well thought out.

So here's the plan. I intend to separate them out. For those who are interested in the research, linguistic, and otherwise academic aspects, I shall create another blog. This one will be left as a place for discussing life as a Christian and "practical" theology. The other will be my place of working out the... more difficult things I enjoy (Greek translation and that kind of stuff).

If you want to offer suggestions for the new blog's name, leave them in the comments. I don't have any solid ideas yet, so have at it. Or if you have ideas for future posts or series, let me know.

Grace and peace,