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Think on These Things

Weekend Fisher’s post from last night was a refreshing palate cleanser for my soul:

Finally, brothers, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honorable, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there is anything of virtue/excellence, and if there is any worthy of praise, think on these things. (Philippians 4:8)

When I read this, I have often been shamefully dismissive of it. There is a cynical part of my mind which sees it as wishful thinking, or a sort of determined naivety. The more open-minded voice inside me recognizes and acknowledges the value — and then wants credit merely for speaking up against the cynicism, without actually doing what we are here encouraged to do.

She then goes on to reflect on some of these things in her life on which she is led to think. Below is my list, following her example:

  • What is true? Gravity.
  • What is honorable? Conversations held in confidence.
  • What is just? Saying “please” and “thank you” to folks in the service industries.
  • What is pure? A choir of children singing “Silent Night.”
  • What is lovely? An athlete who’s in the zone.
  • What has a good reputation? Hard work.
  • Is there anything of virtue? Mothers and fathers who sacrifice so their children can have a better life.
  • Is there anything praiseworthy? People who use their gifts in humility.

Fostering, and Formalizing, Friendship

Scot McKnight reviews Wesley Hill’s book Spiritual Friendship (Brazos, 2015). Vowed, formalized, celibate, same-sex friendship was a real thing in the Middle Ages. Hill sees it as something that needs to be recaptured.

The Amazon summary reads,

Friendship is a relationship like no other. Unlike the relationships we are born into, we choose our friends. It is also tenuous–we can end a friendship at any time. But should friendship be so free and unconstrained? Although our culture tends to pay more attention to romantic love, marriage, family, and other forms of community, friendship is a genuine love in its own right. This eloquent book reminds us that Scripture and tradition have a high view of friendship. Single Christians, particularly those who are gay and celibate, may find it is a form of love to which they are especially called.

Writing with deep empathy and with fidelity to historic Christian teaching, Wesley Hill retrieves a rich understanding of friendship as a spiritual vocation and explains how the church can foster friendship as a basic component of Christian discipleship. He helps us reimagine friendship as a robust form of love that is worthy of honor and attention in communities of faith. This book sets forth a positive calling for celibate gay Christians and suggests practical ways for all Christians to cultivate stronger friendships.

And McKnight closes his review with this quotation:

I find myself wondering which is the greater danger—the ever-present possibility of codependency, sexual transgression, emotional smothering (and other temptations that come with close friendship) or else the burden, not to mention the attendant temptations, of isolation and solitude created by the absence of human closeness ? A great company of saints witnesses to the fact that we can indeed flourish without romance, marriage, or children; I don’t know of one who witnesses to the possibility of our flourishing without love altogether (41).

Banana Pudding Discipleship

Mike Ruffin is making me hungry.

Occasionally I am brought up short by the realization that some people have never had real banana pudding. If you are wondering what I’m talking about, you are one of those people.

My heart breaks for you.

On the True Meaning of Chanukkah

Nice reflection by Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman:

There really are miracles.

Ask children, too young to look cynically at birthday candles, bubble baths and cushiony piles of autumn leaves; ask adults old enough to appreciate the gift of each unfailing sunrise and another day on earth. I’m not talking about the sun standing still or the Red Sea parting, or even the odd case of spontaneous remission from deathly illness that, admittedly, happens to some people (but not to others). The miracles I look for are not breaks in the natural order; they are simpler things, like human decency where we least expect it and the everyday moments that evoke deep breaths of gratitude just for the privilege of being.

Do read it all.

Just Not Being Fed

Ircel Harrison makes several points worth pondering:

How often have you heard someone say, “I’m just not being fed” as they left your church to join another?  I have always thought that such a statement was a bit humorous.  After observing my own children when they were young and receiving a refresher course in recent years with grandchildren, I have learned that youngsters learn to feed themselves pretty quickly.  In fact, there seems to be an inherent drive for them to learn to feed themselves.  This doesn’t always mean that they make wise choices, but they do want to ingest food. This leads me to some observations.

The Fruit of the Spirit Is Not…

Last night Jack Caldwell led a very stimulating Bible study on the question “Is Our Church Spiritual Enough?” His text was Galatians 5:22-23, which discusses the fruit of the Spirit. Jack provided a handout listing the various fruits along with a suggested opposite:

Love Hatred
Joy Gloom
Peace Strife
Patience Intolerance
Kindness Cruelty
Generosity Stinginess
Faithfulness Infidelity
Gentleness Roughness
Self-Control Indulgence

I commend Jack for leading an excellent, humorous, and thought-provoking discussion. Of course, I never know when to leave well enough alone.

While Jack asked us to think of examples where our church may have exhibited (or failed to exhibit) these godly characteristics, my mind raced over to the left-hand side of the handout. I wondered if spirituality, or the lack thereof, could really be captured on a continuum with two end points, one obviously preferable to the other. Is it not possible, I thought, to misconstrue what these positive qualities are all about and overshoot them completely? For example, might we think we’re being loving when in fact we have settled for being merely sentimental?

Rather than seeing each of these pairs as the ends of a continuum, I wondered if we might really be dealing with the three points of a triangle. The base would be made up of two “inauthentic” qualities. (For example, in my example from the previous paragraph, these would be “Sentimentality” and “Hatred.”) The truly godly attitude would be at the apex of the triangle—above them both, and often uncritically claimed by people who are actually situated nearer to the base.If so, then maybe I can slightly adjust Jack’s table to something like the following:

Sentimentality Love Hatred
Giddyness Joy Gloom
Impassibility Peace Strife
Enablement Patience Intolerance
No Personal Boundaries Kindness Cruelty
Indulgence (Others) Generosity Stinginess
Zealotry Faithfulness Infidelity
Passivity Gentleness Roughness
Asceticism Self-Control Indulgence (Self)

What do you think? Does this advance the conversation, or does it merely provide cover for people’s excuses when it comes to spiritual development?

Resisting the Gospels

Good stuff from Tim Gombis. Well, not good, but worth reading:

It goes beyond unintentionally cultivated habits.  I think that reading the Gospels for what they’re really saying threatens to upset and destabilize our church community dynamics that have become predictable and comfortable.  Contemporary Christians—evangelicals included—are too threatened by the Gospels to read them for what they’re actually saying.

Harry Potter and the Communion of Saints?

In May I’ll be teaching a Sunday school class at my church on the Communion of Saints. I know, that’s not really a hot topic for Baptists, but strangely enough that is what they wanted me to talk about. So I’ll take a couple of weeks to look at how the dead were remembered and reverenced in ancient Israel and the surrounding cultures, unpack a bit of church history about the development of early Christian devotion to the saints, and cap it off by trying to raise questions about how twenty-first-century Protestants might think about all of this in fresh ways while remaining true to their theological convictions.

Probably because I’ve been reading (for the second or third time) Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince with my daughter for the last few weeks, I began to notice a couple of days ago that the Boy Who Lived himself might provide some help in shaping that last session.

Maybe I’m the last person in the world to notice this, but the Harry Potter novels actually have quite a bit to say about how the living can interact with the dead, and the benefits that accrue such relationships. For example:

  • We can draw strength generally from the memory of what they mean to us, as with Harry’s Patronus (and Snape’s). Need I mention that patronus is Latin for “patron [saint]”?
  • We can imaginatively relive their experiences to gain wisdom and insight, as with Dumbledore’s Pensieve.
  • We can keep around us reminders of their former presence, which still speak to us in their customary tones. The talking, moving paintings that adorn the halls of Hogwarts are the prime example.
  • Finally, we can interact directly with whatever part of them remains accessible to the living, as with the Hogwarts ghosts or the “shadows” invoked by the Resurrection Stone.

I’m thinking only the last of these may be theologically problematic for traditional Protestants.

Thoughts?

Dayyenu

Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman imparts some Seder wisdom for our time:

But think of it. When is it normal to plead, “Enough”? Not when we don’t deserve something, but when we don’t really want it. It is as if, at each step, we pleaded, “Enough already! Please, God, no more.”

Dayyenu should be read alongside the well-known midrashim that emphasize how little Israel wanted the responsibility of being a chosen people. God, we are told, first offered Torah to other nations, who refused it altogether. We agreed to shoulder its burden only after God lifted Mt. Sinai over our heads and threatened us with extinction otherwise.

Looking back, we might find good reason to have been wary. Given the task of Torah and the history of being Jewish, we can well imagine our ancestors pleading, “Enough already. Who needs being chosen?” Every single redemptive step implies further obligation. Wouldn’t just a little obligation have been enough?

We know how it ends. We did not short-circuit salvation. God did it all, and so must we.

Repost: Joseph of Nazareth, Pray with Us

To the extent that it is possible for a lifelong Baptist to have a patron saint, Joseph of Nazareth is one of two that I will claim. (The other is Vincent of Lérins, whose feast day is May 24.) I’m drawn to his story as a loyal, humble husband and father. I know what it’s like to need to find a new place to live—and in a hurry! Here are some of the lessons Christians can learn from Joseph:

1. Meat-and-potatoes spirituality. Joseph was not a prophet, priest, or rabbi. He was simply a “righteous man” who tried to do what was right, based on the laws and traditions of Israel. He ensured that Jesus was properly received into the Jewish community through circumcision and the ceremony for the redemption of the firstborn. He participated in at least some of the pilgrimage feasts in Jerusalem. Even his early inclination divorce Mary discreetly when he suspected she was unfaithful grew out of his commitment to the Torah. People who make their living with their hands don’t as a rule have much time for abstractions, but they can be very good at a lot of old-fashioned spiritual disciplines like honesty, generosity, consistency, and hard work.

2. Openness to mystery. All this does not mean, however, that Joseph merely went through the motions of his religion. It is clear that he was open to hearing something fresh from God. On a number of occasions, angels delivered important information or instructions through his dreams.

3. Family as a vehicle for devotion. We remember Joseph because he took care of his family. That is his spiritual legacy: not sermons, miracles, epistles, or missionary travels. In a lot of depictions of the Nativity, Joseph is portrayed with a worried expression on his face. Even at the incarnation Joseph, we are led to believe, was wondering how he was ever going to take care of his wife and her newborn son. He may not have been the most pious or well-educated man in Israel—and he was certainly not the richest—but he gave his all to the people he loved.

4. Actions, not words. There is not a single recorded word of Joseph in the New Testament. There is no Magnificat when the angel announces that Mary’s son is the promised Messiah—or even a bewildered “How can this be?” There are no gentle words to Mary when he tells her he has changed his mind and wants to go through with the wedding. Nor are there any bold challenges to any who would question Mary’s honor. We know what Joseph is like not because of anything he says, but because of what he does.

O God, who called your servant Joseph to be the faithful guardian of your incarnate Son, and the spouse of his virgin mother: Give us grace to follow his example in constant worship of you and obedience to your commands, that our homes may be sanctified by your presence, and our children nurtured in your fear and love, through the same your son Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.