January 25, 2010

Love and Virtue

by Mark Ryan
I Corinthians 13:1-13

I have never found it easy to move from scripture to theological concepts like virtue when I am teaching. A gap seems to grow up within the flow of my thinking. Kenneth Kirk, a former Anglican bishop of Oxford, noted in a work on the Christian moral life that “from the Bible alone we can choose any one of innumerable different passages or pictures as a groundwork…” He names parts of the Old Testament, the Gospels, and the “hymn of love” (1 Cor. 13) as good choices. “Yet it is to be noticed… that Western theology, at all events… has on the whole chosen to base its picture of the Christian ideal not on any one of these scriptural foundations, but upon a pagan classification of virtue.” I find solace in Bishop Kirk’s ability to move beyond this paradox to discuss the cardinal virtues. He does so, however, emphasizing that, though they remain recognizable as the pagan virtues, they also undergo a transformation in Christian usage.

My belief is that the association of virtue with scripture can only be justified if it can help us to read scripture well at a given time and place. I propose a moment’s meditation on virtue as a help to getting Paul’s hymn on love back from the greeting card to the struggling church as its setting. The “return to virtue” has been helping some of us late modern folk get beyond the unattached (“Teflon”) self of an “efficient” way of life by reminding us of ways that our actions presuppose a political (communal) setting. Perhaps nowhere has this self been more distorting than in its effects on our use of the term “love.”

Virtue-talk can be a further aid to what the lectionary is trying to do in teaching us to read 1 Corinthians 13--that is, in trying to teach us not to extract this passage for an embroidered framing on the wall, but to note its place in Paul’s ongoing exhortation aimed at the disciplining and building of the church at Corinth. (We recall hearing last week how Paul tried to get each of the Corinthians to see that by dint of baptism they are all, whether they like it or not, members of a single body that is Christ’s.) Many have suggested a modification of the lectionary, so that the reading begins at 12:31, in order to properly situate Paul’s remarks on love. That Paul’s attention, his critical attention, here is on the church itself, and not the world, is evidenced by the fact that the qualities he singles out for critique—speaking in tongues, prophecy, taking up one’s cross—are all ones highly regarded by both Corinthian Christians and Christians today.

What is ‘love’, that it can cut through such esteemed activities, showing them up as mere “religion”? As Paul says, even if “I hand my body over (to be burned) so that I may boast but do not have love, I gain nothing.” In the following section, Paul describes love using language that combines motivations and actions. “It is not jealous, boastful or inflated…it bears all things.” It is not far from a disposition to act, or a virtue. Love is furthermore a key virtue in the building up of the polis called church. But one must be careful here. In speaking of love, not only the sentimentalizing so common in our day lies in wait, but also the cultural reification of “religion”, however well-intentioned. How do we help ensure that in adopting the strange concept of virtue we do so, as Kirk says, “not in a slavish spirit of imitation,” but rather transform them to be of good use?

The key I would suggest comes in the sense of time Paul has in the next passage, verses 8-13. “If there are prophecies, it will be brought to nothing; if tongues, they will cease; if knowledge it will be brought to nothing. For we know partially and we prophesy partially, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away.” As Stephen Farris notes in a commentary, this passage sets up a series of contrasts between “now” and “then.” We would do better to reverse the order to “then” and “now”, for it is the “then”—that is God’s future already pulling upon our present—that is determinative for Paul. When we try placing love in this frame of time, we are reminded that even the qualities we rightly admire are passing away, just as childhood is transformed into maturity.

In summarizing the Aquinas’ adaptation of the cardinal virtues, T.B. Strong writes, “Fortitude is still the cool steady behavior of a man in the presence of danger, the tenacious preservation of that which is dearer to him than his life. But its range is widened by the inclusion of dangers to soul as well as body; it is the bravery of one who dwells in a spiritual world. Temperance is still the control of the bodily passions; but it is also more positively than negatively the right placing of our affections. Justice is still the negative of all self-seeking, of all angry conflict with the interests of others; but the source of it all and the ground of its possibility lies in giving God the love and adoration which are his due. Prudence is still the practical moral sense which chooses the right course of concrete action; but it is the prudence of men who are pilgrims toward a country where the object of their love is to be found.”


January 21, 2010

Let’s Talk About Haiti

by Brent Laytham

As I wrote in our monthly newsletter, I’m confident we are already praying for the Hatian church and people "with our hands and feet, our sweat and tears, our time and money." This way of putting things, and deep wisdom about natural disaster, are found in Debra Dean Murphy’s eloquent blog.

With agrarians like Norman Wirzba and Ragan Sutterfield in our midst, I’ve been mindful that Haiti’s crisis was made over centuries of political and economic injustice, culminating in decades of ecological devastation. Things didn't first go wrong when the earth shook last week, but in the last few decades as deforestation made the soil slide down the mountains and as the best arable land was expropriated to service foreign debt. For now the earthquake is the crisis of the moment, and we must pray and care with immediacy and focus. But Haiti needs more than triage for a sudden crisis. Let our praying and caring have enough perspective to see the larger ecological and economic problems in Haiti, and enough patience to stay engaged long after the Red Cross has moved to the next emergency.

I suggested Prichard's article(in the Evangelicals for Social Action newsletter) for some perspective, and because it links to an organization, Plant with Purpose, which has been attending to Haiti’s ecology for quite a while. Endorser Andy Johnson writes that his Sunday School class has been sponsoring a village in Haiti through Florestra, a Christian non-profit which works to reverse deforestation and poverty. So let’s talk about Haiti. Are there other organizations you would recommend to your fellow EPers? Have you


January 18, 2010

The Word Read

by Janice Love
Psalm 19; I Corinthians 12:12-31a; Luke 4:14-21

“Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer.” (Psalm 19:14)

Not acceptable to me,
not acceptable to us,
not acceptable to others.
Acceptable to you, O LORD, our rock and our redeemer.

Because the words may very well, if faithful, make us weep in remembrance of who we have been and who we really are. Because they may at first be sweet as honey, but later bitter to the point of making us want to try to pitch Christ off the nearest cliff.

We have such rich texts to host this week in anticipation of Sunday’s liturgy. In the middle of Nehemiah, which can sometimes read like a campaign for re-election, sits this gem, chapter 8. There has been a great build up, literally, to this point. Nehemiah, made governor of Judah by King Artaxerxes of Persia, has heard of the vulnerability and trouble of those Israelites left behind when the elite and learned of Judah were all carted off to Babylon. Nehemiah’s heart is powerfully moved. He roots out corruption and unites the people in the rebuilding of the wall that surrounds Jerusalem. The culmination of this comes when all the people gather together into the square before the Water Gate. They tell Ezra, priest and scribe, to bring the book of the law of Moses, which the LORD had given to Israel. Now, anticipation builds. The book sits above the people, when it is opened the people stand, the LORD is blessed and worshipped. The book is read from for the entire morning. The words read in Hebrew and interpreted into Aramaic, so the people might understand – something not done in Jerusalem since the exile to Babylon. The people weep. Bittersweet tears? For what they have endured; for the reminder of who they are:

You are a people who mark and celebrate the holy days of Yahweh.
You are a people who provide for others.
You are a people whose strength is in the joy of the LORD.

I am reminded of a clip from James Moll’s documentary, “The Last Days.” A woman, who survived Auschwitz as a child, returns to the ground of her captivity and remembers a time when she and a fellow girl realized that day was the Shabbat. They begin to sing the traditional song to welcome the Sabbath and, like a magnet, the song draws many of the other children who also join the song. A holy moment in time, amidst horror, reminds them of who they really are.

I am reminded of the Eucharist performed outside places of torture in Pinochet’s Chile, as described in William Cavanaugh’s Torture and the Eucharist. A holy moment performed to speak of the true reality of God’s intentions.

I am reminded of the pictures this week from Haiti of Christians gathered, amid such devastation, singing their prayers of hope for new life.

Word read and ritual performed until our bones can sing as to who we are and what God, in Christ, is up to.

In Luke, the Word incarnate reads the word. He is handed the Isaiah scroll in his hometown synagogue. He does not choose the scroll to read from (would it have mattered to the one who was and is The Word?) but he chooses the text. It is a revelation of what kind of mission Jesus, named The Beloved Son in his water baptism, is initiating. There is a great sense here of held breath, of anticipation as the word read becomes the Word of the Lord, for the sake of the whole of Creation: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

In the Water Gate of our baptism, we join the company of the church, the Body of Christ, on this continuing mission of our God. Christ calls his church out of its present day captivity, in all its myriad forms, to remember who we are, as Paul so well reminds us.

You are a people who have need of one another.
You are a people that share the joy and suffering of one another and the world.
You are a people gifted individually and arranged together by God for God’s purposes.

We remember this together as we read the word, as we mark and celebrate holy days, as we provide care for others – in Haiti, in the Sudan, in our own families – bringing good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind and freedom to the oppressed.

And it is Jesus, the Christ, the Word incarnate, setting out on his Spirit-led mission, who is for us the joy of the LORD, our strength. Sweet. Sweeter than honey.


Peace to God's People and Earth

by Tobias Winright

Pope Benedict XVI's World Day of Peace Message for January 1, 2010, was "If You Want to Cultivate Peace, Protect Creation." Initially published on December 15 to coincide with the international climate gathering in Copenhagen, this brief reflection builds on a few paragraphs concerning the environment that were included in his social encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, which was issued last summer.

If you have read Ragan Sutterfield's EP pamphlet, "God's Grandeur: The Church in the Economy of Creation," you may be interested in reading the pope's statement. While there is not a whole lot that is new in this World Day of Peace Message, its linking of peacemaking and care for the environment is indeed noteworthy, with both stressed as positive moral obligations impingent upon Christians.

In advance of this papal statement, I presented a short reflection on a more theological approach to sustainability, anchored in biblical shalom, at a conference on "Sustainability and the Catholic University" in October 2009 at the University of Notre Dame. There are also other papers at this website, such as one on "Liturgical Cosmology" by Notre Dame's David Fagerberg, that may be of interest to EPers.

I suspect we can expect to see much more on the topic of theology and the environment in the year ahead.


January 12, 2010

The Joy of Not Being in Charge

by Ragan Sutterfield
Isaiah 62:1-5; Psalm 36:5-10;
1 Corinthians 12:1-11; John 2:1-11

Norman Wirzba, in his book Living the Sabbath, follows the medieval rabbi Rashi in saying that the divine work was not completed in six days, but in seven, and that what remained to be created on the seventh day was menuha: “the rest, tranquility, serenity, and peace of God.” Wirzba writes that God’s rest “when understood within a menuha context, is not simply a cessation from activity but rather the lifting up and celebration of everything. Here we see God…like a parent frolicking with a child and in his joy and play demonstrating and abiding commitment to protect, sustain, encourage, and love into health and maturity the potential latent within the child.” It is this sort of menuha delight and care that is proclaimed in the lectionary this week.

First we have Isaiah, announcing that “The nations shall see your vindication”; “you shall be called a new name”; “you shall be a crown in the hand of your God”; “You shall no more be termed Forsaken”; “but you shall be shall be called My Delight Is in Her.” There is no “we hope” or “we pray” here—the promise is firm “you shall.”

This sense of God’s love and delight, His joy and celebration also comes through in the portion of Psalm 36 appointed where God is praised for saving “both man and beast” and inviting his people to feast upon the abundance of [His] house” and “drink from the river of [His] delights.” God is here seen not only as one who delights but also as one who provides delight to His people.

We see a hint of this delight again as Paul tells the Corinthians that, “To each are given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” God’s spirit is working in us and through us to manifest His truth and presence in the world. What can be more delightful than that?

And then we have perhaps the greatest delight of all as Jesus extends a celebration that had run out of alcohol with more to drink—extending the delight of the kingdom with good wine and a longer party.

So what is it that gives us this delight? If we are to pull a common answer from this week’s readings it is not only the goodness and abundance of God’s gifts, but also, in this season of celebrating the Kingship of Christ, the joy of not being in charge. Why we always want to be in charge is a bit of a mystery to me (albeit a mystery I participate in). There is great joy in not being in charge and in allowing the king to do good and for us to participate in that. Perhaps we like to be in charge because we don’t like the direction that others might take us in, we don’t trust that they have our best interest in mind, but with God we can set those worries aside. With Him we should worry more about ourselves not taking ourselves in the direction we should go or in not having our own best interests in mind. If we only give up trying to make ourselves happy or to take control, there is a banquet table of delights we could never imagine ready for us to come to and sit down.


January 08, 2010

God, in Christ, has Earned it For Us

by Halden Doerge
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

To many the baptism of the Lord has always seemed like something of an oddity. And if it mysterious to us why Jesus underwent baptism at the beginning of his ministry, we should remember that it was no less mysterious to John the Baptizer. What we do know about the Lord’s baptism, though, is that it occasions an extremely radical divine event: the Father himself speaks and the Holy Spirit is seen in physical form. This is nothing to be trifled with. Here the whole Trinity is seen, speaks, and is spoken to in the presence of a great many flabbergasted individuals.

Our Lord’s baptism is seen, in Luke’s Gospel, as the first proclamation of God about the identity of Jesus. The verdict that will be affirmed and vindicated in the resurrection is proclaimed for the first time here, by God’s own voice. This is the Son. This is the one who speak for God, who does God’s will, who brings about God’s work. This is the one that all of you have been expecting (cf. 3:15). All human eyes are on Jesus. All divine speech points to Jesus. This is the one and no other.

Notice that this revelation happens following John’s words concerning Jesus. John sees Jesus for who he is, the apocalyptic messiah who is going to bring the Holy Spirit, judgment, and the kingdom of God. And John’s words receive the best validation one could hope for, the very voice of God.

Everything about this scene is pregnant with anticipation, anticipation of God’s own action. We, like John and the onlookers are precisely that, witnesses. What’s about to go down is not something of ours, something we can help along, or bring about. What’s about to go down is something utterly other, something completely new, something we can only point to as say “Behold the Lamb of God!”

What we are given, in the scriptural witness to Jesus beginning the work of salvation is simply to watch, to witness, and in witnessing to follow. The vocation we are given is to see and in seeing to be made anew. To join in Christ’s baptism, to be translated into his own mode of being, his way of being human. And this way that Christ embodies, this fully human life, lived completely in the mode of love, this changes everything. The status quo can never be the same, but neither can our revolutions. In Christ we are invited to see something completely new. Something that unsettles all old antagonisms and power games. We are invited to see the beloved Son, the one who is for us the very image of God. We are invited to know a truth, one we have shut our eyes to all our lives about the nature of God, the radicality of God’s agape.

And in coming to see and taste the truth of who Christ is, we are let in on a mission, a journey of discipleship, a calling. And this calling is to be witnesses, who like John never proclaim ourselves, but Christ. We do this in word and deed, limping along after the way that Christ goes on from his baptism to show us. In the words of Will Campbell (a John the Baptist-like figure if I’ve ever seen one):

Yes, we know something they do not know. We know that God so loved the world, with all its people, their sins and problems, that he became like one of us and dwelt among us and died that we might all be one people—his people. We know that God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself and breaking down all barriers and walls of hostility which separate us from one another and from him. We know that God, in establishing the Church, has enlisted us to proclaim that message of reconciliation. We know that we are called not to build a kingdom, but to bid men to enter one already established, here and now, in which race is as irrelevant a category as redhead, baldhead, fat man, lean man. We also know that Jesus fed the hungry and healed the sick and bade his followers do the same.

That is what we know, and that is the evangelical message we must now proclaim to both revolutionary and defender of the status quo. And to those who say we have not earned the right to preach to the revolutionaries, we can only say “God, in Christ, has earned it for us.”