Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Quote: St. Maximilian Kolbe

No one in the world can change truth. What we can and should do is seek truth and serve it when we have found it. The real conflict is within. Beyond the armies of occupation and the hectacombs of the extermination camps, two irreconcilable armies lie in the depth of every soul. And of what use are the victories of the battlefield if we are defeated in our innermost selves?

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Quote: Thomas Merton

The beginning of love is to let those we love be perfectly themselves, and not to twist them to fit our own image. Otherwise we love only the reflection of ourselves we find in them.

Why to love the lectionary

A couple of weeks ago, Dan Clendenin of Journey with Jesus had a good post at emergent, Lovin' the Lectionary. It's not too surprising as he features a lectionary essay, what I usually call a reflection, on the week's readings. He says that he has come to love the lectionary for four reasons:

Liberation: Pastors who follow the lectionary are forever freed from the onerous burden of dreaming up a sermon topic for every Sunday. The weekly readings decide that for you. Your creative energies are thus directed toward interacting with Scripture rather than wondering how or where to start. With four readings every week, there is also flexibility that allows for one's personal inclinations.

Discipline: When you follow the lectionary you can't "cheat" or cut corners by gravitating toward favorite passages, avoiding unpleasant texts, or choosing Scriptures that you consider more relevant or clear. Instead, you're forced to deal with the "whole counsel of God" that, in my experience, we honor only with lip service---from John 3:16 to Hosea 13:16 and the butchering of babies and pregnant women.

Thoroughness: When you follow a three-year lectionary cycle you will read and grapple with almost the entire Bible. Imagine what a lifetime of lectionary devotion might do to our churches or to our very own souls as we work through all Scripture every three years.

Community: Most Christians in the world follow the lectionary; those who do not find themselves in the minority. I love identifying myself with the communion of saints around the world who are all studying the same Scriptures at the same time. Together we read, meditate, and pray through the rhythm of the Christian year---Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter, Pentecost, and all the so-called "ordinary time" in-between feast days.
The last point is of particular note. Because so many Christian groups use some version of the Revised Common Lectionary, resources such as Textweek can exist.

The RCL and the lectionary put out by the US bishops for Catholic use a very similar, the main difference lying in the Old Testament lessons. All this grew out of the first new lectionary published in 1969 following the liturgical reforms of Vatican II. Other groups found the idea attractive, and ecumenical meetings around this topic grew into the Consultation on Common Texts. The bishops reserve the right to issue a specifically Catholic lectionary, but support a significant Catholic presence, with at-large Catholic members in addition to the two official representatives.

I grew up in the Episcopal Church, and still remember the prayer book with the Sunday lectionary lessons included. (Throw away missalettes still feel strange.) In my early 20's I attended many services with evangelical friends, and never could get used to not having that set rotation moving you steadily through scripture. As I work on reflections today (and yes, I have missed a couple from lack of time), I greatly appreciate the work that has gone into the lectionary, in its various versions and revisions. The commonality that we have achieved, where many Christians are hearing the same Gospel lesson preached on the same Sunday, is a true ecumenical achievement.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Quote: Flannery O'Connor

I write the way I do because (not though) I am a Catholic....I think that the Church is the only thing that is going to make the terrible world we are coming to endurable; the only thing that makes the Church endurable is that it is somehow the body of Christ and that on this we are fed. It seems to be a fact that you suffer as much from the Church as for it but if you believe in the divinity of Christ, you have to cherish the world at the same time that you struggle to endure it.

Just too busy

Why no posts or links? I've simply been too busy at work, and I have my final New Wine paper to finish. More when things slow down a bit in a week or two -- sporadic posts at best until then.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Quote: Galileo Galilei

I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Prayer: Teilhard de Chardin, SJ

Prayer for the Grace to Age Well

When the signs of age begin to mark my body
(and still more when they touch my mind);

when the ill that is to diminish me or carry me off
strikes from without or is born within me;

when the painful moment comes
in which I suddenly awaken
to the fact that I am ill or growing old;

and above all at that last moment
when I feel I am losing hold of myself
and am absolutely passive within the hands
of the great unknown forces that have formed me;

in all those dark moments, O God,
grant that I may understand that it is you
(provided only my faith is strong enough)
who are painfully parting the fibres of my being
in order to penetrate to the very marrow
of my substance and bear me away within yourself.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Quote: Lewis Smedes

You are deep, unfathomably deep.
You cannot be a shallow person; God does not make shallow people. You can, if you choose, close your own mind to the depths within you.
But you cannot be shallow.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

So much for that

The Comment-Spammer-Never-To-Be-Named dropped three little pieces of joy into the combox on the immediately preceeding post. Comments, of course, are still on, but you will have to type in that distorted word first.

I will not call this progress.

In memory of Nick Barnes

Those of us who work in detention ministry around here got some shocking news last Friday morning. Stanley "Nick" Barnes, senior chaplain at US Penitentiary, Atwater was killed in a head-on collision while driving home Thursday night.

For a year, while the Bureau of Prisons was searching for a Catholic chaplain, I was one of the volunteers keeping some kind of Catholic presence at USP Atwater, and its associated minimum security camp. (I no longer work there -- we concentrate our time at another facility. For security reasons, I would rather not post about any facility I currently visit.) In a federal maximum security prison, volunteers are escorted in and out of the facility, and often Nick was our escort. There are facilities where the various Christian chaplains from different denominations feud. I think that is scandalous, and unprofessional. We volunteers never had a problem with Chaplain Nick or his staff, and they were often very helpful with the difficult task of trying to put together a consistent program with volunteers. He remains an excellent example of what a prison chaplain should be: a person of deep faith who remains true to their own faith tradition by making sure that all inmates have access to pastoral care appropriate to their own individual beliefs.

May light perpetual shine on him, O Lord, and bring comfort to his family.

Quote: Bruce Sterling

When they work well, new words like spime are like new brooms. They're good for getting rid of the old words that have turned into dust. New words can sound silly or dangerous, like empty buzzwords, gobbledygook, hype, but this should be understood as the innate nature of language in fast-changing circumstances. Hype is a system-call on your attention. If hype clearly aimed straight at your wallet, you are right to worry. But hype is only bad for you if you drink it unthinkingly, by the barrel and case. If you soberly track its development, hype is very revealing. Even mistaken and obscurantist hype shows that people are stupid and trying to hide something, which are always good things to know.

In politics, the opposite of hype is political reality. Political hype is BS, it's a campaign speech, it's meant to deceive the listener. But in technology, the opposite of hype is not the truth. The opposite of hype in technology is argot. It's techno-jargon. Argot is not reality, jargon is not the truth. Argot is a super-specialized geek cult language that has no traction in the real world. Argot is the deliberately hermetic language of a small knowledge clique. A small clique likely doesn't have enough people in it to successfully name its own inventions and practices, especially when those inventions and practices emerge from their lab and spread widely throughout a general population. It takes a whole lot of people to manage a popular language. If you know how to watch you can see them at work. You can even just join right in.

address at Emerging Tech Conference, 2006

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Quote: Martin Luther King, Jr.

May I say just a word to those of you who are struggling against this evil. Always be sure that you struggle with Christian methods and Christian weapons. Never succumb to the temptation of becoming bitter. As you press on for justice, be sure to move with dignity and discipline, using only the weapon of love. Let no man pull you so low as to hate him. Always avoid violence. If you succumb to the temptation of using violence in your struggle, unborn generations will be the recipients of a long and desolate night of bitterness, and your chief legacy to the future will be an endless reign of meaningless chaos.

In your struggle for justice, let your oppressor know that you are not attempting to defeat or humiliate him, or even to pay him back for injustices that he has heaped upon you. Let him know that you are merely seeking justice for him as well as yourself. Let him know that the festering sore of segregation debilitates the white man as well as the Negro. With this attitude you will be able to keep your struggle on high Christian standards.

from Paul's Letter to American Christians, delivered November, 4, 1956 (with thanks to Natala)

Links: 3/15/2006

Don't beware the Ides of March, beware the links:


Well, it finally happened. I got my first piece of comment spam. It had to be a particularly stupid bot to post here, considering the low traffic this blog gets. I looked at it for a minute, considering it in the same light as the first scratch on a new car. Then I deleted it.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

From the mountaintop

The lessons for the second Sunday in Lent are:

  • Genesis 22:1-2, 9a, 10-13, 15-18
  • Psalm 116:10+15, 16-17, 18-19
  • Romans 8:31b-34
  • Mark 9:2-10
When you or I go off on vacation or retreat, and have some intense and memorable experience that seems to reveal meaning about the rest of our lives, we tend to call it a "peak" or "mountaintop" experience. The Gospel lesson today recounts such a experience, known as the Transfiguration, and we need to explore together why such a peak experience is important for us during Lent. To do that, we need to look at more than just this story by itself, we should look at why Mark put this story where it is in the Gospel record.

The lectionary takes the Sunday Gospel lessons this year generally from the Gospel of Mark, and during the year we will cover much of this book. During Lent, however, we are zooming in on particular stories concerning our own journey to the cross and Easter. The lesson last week, the first Sunday in Lent, was from the first chapter, immediately after Jesus is baptized and we experience God confirming Jesus's ministry. In that lesson Jesus is then driven out into the desert where he is tempted and returns proclaiming the Kingdom of God. This week we jump to the middle of Mark, from the first to the ninth chapter, and there are only 16 chapters in this, the shortest, simplest, and probably oldest of the Gospels.

The eighth chapter, the one just before our lesson this week, contains the "hinge" of the Gospel of Mark. Just before the story of the Transfiguration, Peter declares that Jesus is the Messiah, Jesus begins to teach of the suffering and resurrection to come, and Jesus rejects Peter's attempt to turn him away from that path. For the first time, Jesus teaches not only that the Kingdom is at hand, but the way to the Kingdom also leads to the cross. From this point forward, Mark is telling about the journey of Jesus to Jerusalem, and Golgotha.

The very next thing to happen is the Transfiguration:
After six days Jesus took Peter, James, and John and led them up a high mountain apart by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no fuller on earth could bleach them. Then Elijah appeared to them along with Moses, and they were conversing with Jesus.

Then Peter said to Jesus in reply, "Rabbi, it is good that we are here! Let us make three tents: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah." He hardly knew what to say, they were so terrified. Then a cloud came, casting a shadow over them; 4 then from the cloud came a voice, "This is my beloved Son. Listen to him."

Suddenly, looking around, they no longer saw anyone but Jesus alone with them.
For just a moment, on top of this mountain, the reality of just who Jesus is becomes visible. We again, just as at Jesus's baptism, hear the Father declare Jesus his son. By appearing with both Elijah and Moses, Jesus is revealed truly as the anointed one of God, the Messiah. And the change in appearance foreshadows the change that will come with his resurrection and ascention.

The disciples present are terrified — and who can blame them? In just a few days their world has been turned upside down again. In answering Jesus's call, they have already left behind much. But now they discover their new path will take them places they never dreamed about. This is not just some good teacher or intinerant miracle worker, Jesus is the One foretold by the prophets. This is not a matter of incremental change, becoming better, more moral, nicer people. These disciples were just told that nothing short of complete commitment, complete transformation will do. And now, this mountaintop experience confirms that.

And that is where we are today, this Lent. We often prefer a more rational, more reasonable Jesus. A wise teacher whose words we can ponder, and carefully apply to our lives where feasible. We want God to be on our terms, in a way that we can understand. We must be reminded, again and again, that nothing short of our whole lives, cast before the Son of God, will suffice. And we must learn again, as these disciples learned, that we must follow him, even to the Cross. That is the journey we are on this Lent.

Quote: Andrew of Crete

It is ourselves that we must spread under Christ's feet, not coats or lifeless branches or shoots of trees, matter which wastes away and delights the eye only for a few brief hours. But we have clothed ourselves with Christ's grace, with the whole Christ - "for as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ" - so let us spread ourselves like coats under his feet.

Monday, March 13, 2006


Welcome, new arrivals from Open Book! You're just in time for one of the local traditions - links:

The beer is in the bathtub -- feel free to stick around a while!

Not an easy question

I am behind on everything, particularly posting, but I could not pass up this SFGate story. As some know, I am a detention ministry volunteer at a nearby California state prison. This story points out some key questions about how we both need to and choose to treat those convicted of crimes. Some try to see them as monsters, some as victims and some as heroes in stories like this. It's not that simple, easy, or risk free for anyone involved.

Fair warning -- this is a long one, because I am including some big sections of stories you need to read. This morning, SF Chronicle staff writer Demien Bulwa recounts the most recent event in this story:

James Tramel awakened Sunday in a prison cell. He went to sleep Sunday night in the rectory of a church he will help lead.

It was a day of transformation for Tramel, 38, who is believed to be the first prison inmate ordained as an Episcopal priest. He was convicted more than 20 years ago of murdering a homeless man in a park.
What he did

The first thing you have to do is face up to what some people really have done. This is an extended excerpt from a Steve Chawkins story in the LA Times:

In 1985, Tramel and David Kurtzman, both 17, were students at Northwestern Preparatory School, a school that sent many graduates on to the military academies. Tramel was the son of a former Green Beret and had been provisionally accepted at the Air Force Academy. Kurtzman was an Eagle Scout who aimed to attend the U.S. Naval Academy.

One August night, members of a Latino gang had gotten into a confrontation with some of their classmates. The next night, Tramel and Kurtzman led a group that went out looking for the gang. According to his own account, Tramel egged on his friends, instructing them in martial arts moves. When Kurtzman wanted to bring along the 6-inch folding military knife he would sharpen during idle moments in the dorm, Tramel readily agreed.

After hours on the prowl, the band of avenging angels came down to just Tramel and Kurtzman, clad all in black.

They found no gang members, but returning to school for their 1 a.m. curfew, they cut through Alameda Park, where music wafted from a radio beside a man bunking down in the gazebo.

For a brief time, the pair chatted with him. The homeless man was Michael Stephenson, 29. He was not Latino. Tucked inside his sleeping bag, he was anything but hostile. As Tramel leaned against a railing with his back to Stephenson, they talked about the cold weather.

"Several seconds later, I heard Michael say, 'No, my friend,' and then I heard what sounded like coughing," Tramel wrote in an account for his 2005 parole hearing.

"When I turned around, Michael was on his hands and knees, and Kurtzman was leaning over him. Then Michael suddenly collapsed onto his side, I saw the knife in Kurtzman's hand, and before I could say or do anything, I saw Kurtzman cut Michael's throat. My body froze in horror, and I gasped, 'Dave, stop!' Kurtzman looked up at me with a crazed look in his eyes, and he was trembling."

Kurtzman gave an account at his trial that mirrored Tramel's. Earlier, he told investigators that killing Stephenson was like slaughtering a pig. Kurtzman stabbed him 17 times.

Back at the dorm, the two swore their pals to secrecy, and Tramel promised a skeptic $50 if their story turned out to be a hoax. Their disbelieving friends visited the park later that morning and called police.

Tramel's first trial ended in a hung jury. He was convicted of second-degree murder in the second. Both he and Kurtzman received sentences of 15 years to life.

"The prosecutor made a good analogy at my trial," he told the parole board in October. "Kurtzman was a gun that I had loaded and cocked…. That makes me culpable for what Kurtzman did; that makes me responsible for Michael's death."
I remember this case -- it got a lot of coverage at the time, and became an iconic event for those concerned about violence against the homeless. Buttons displaing Michael Stephenson's last words, "No, my friend, no", were worn by many in the Santa Barbara area as a protest against such crimes.

How to react

There isn't much question about how to react to the crime — horror and outrage at the act as well as sorrow and compassion for the family of the victim seem about right. The real problem is how to react to the person responsible for such a crime a couple of decades later. I have it easy as it is unusual for me, as a volunteer, to know much why someone is in prison. One can guess some of it, just by observing the person and knowing how long they will be inside. But we don't see the inmate's files, so there is a lot we don't know. Of course there are exceptions to this, as some inmates will tell you and sometimes you recognize their case. (I remember my first "celebrity" inmate, at a Christmas Day Mass. I would never have guessed . . .) We deal with inmates where they are now, which is a good thing. You are dealing with the person in front of you, and not your reaction to what they did.

But some people, even rather good people, find this difficult. I remember the reaction I got from one of the very best priests I have ever met when we talked about detention ministry: "I couldn't do that." His block was feeling unable to put what the inmates might have done out of mind, and he thought the overwhelming majority of inmates deserved to be where they were. An honest reaction like that I can understand and deal with, even though I think that some of it comes from lack of contact with real inmates, as opposed to ones you see in movies or in the news.

It's also understandable that people are concerned about whether a released convict is a threat, or wonder about "jailhouse conversions". You hear all sorts of things while inside, and you learn to be careful about what you believe. Inside prison is a strange place, very different from the outside world. To cope, people will do what they have to, and lying to you can be part of that. It's crowded and stressful, but it is at the same time a very structured environment. Adapting well to prison does not mean that you can adapt well to life outside. Unfortunately, there are many inmates that cannot handle either well.

And in the end, past behavior really is one of the best predictors of future behavior, alowing for circumstances.

In this case, Governor Schwarzenegger blocked Tramel's parole in 2004, but chose not to object to it this time. To his credit, the Governator and his staff have really tried to find some fixes for the throroughly broken prison system here, even if the results are pretty thin at this point. The previous Governor, Gray Davis, rarely if ever would let someone convicted of homicide be paroled no matter what the circumstances, and the political motivations of that policy were well known. Schwartzenegger has not been slack by any means, but has chosen to let a number of paroles go through. I think it has been the right policy.

This particular case

As for Fr.James Tramel, time will tell. There are some real challenges ahead for him, considering that he has been inside prison for his entire adult life. (When he got there, he was the youngest prisoner at San Quentin.) Any life change is stressful, and combining release from prison (which is much, much more stressful than you would think) with a new job, and even marriage can add up to a heavy load.

But I think he has some real advantages in this case, some of his own making, and some supplied by God and his people. He seems to have faced up to what he did, and does not minimize that terrible act in 1985. The job and support community that has been waiting for him are very important as well — apparently everyone at his new parish in Berkeley knows what he did, and there has been extensive contact between him and that community in preparation for release. That kind of community and job connection is a decent predictor of sucess on the outside.

Maybe the most important point is that James Tramel does not have a history of being personally violent. He was involved in, and was responsible for someone being killed, and I don't think his sentence was improper for what he did. But an extablished pattern of violent behavior, minor or major, is one of the biggest danger signals. There are many people in prison for minor charges (just what they happened to be caught at) that are much more dangerous both in and out of prison than most murderers. It all depends. The act you are sentenced for can either be the worst thing you will ever do on the worst day of your life, not to be repeated, or the reasonable consequence of the life you have been living for some time. Sometimes therapy can help these truly violent people. Just not every time. Tramel has little sign of being a habitually violent person. Both the correctional staff that know him and the prosecutor that put him in jail agree that he should be paroled, which is very unusual indeed.

The family

Michael Stephenson's family does not agree with this, and that is not unusual either. Members of that family have said that Tramel should never be released, and if he has converted, fine, he can do ministry inside.

It can be easy to say that someone needs to forgive someone else, needs to just let some horrible piece of the past go, in order to put some kind of life back together. But it is not easy to actually do it, and some find it impossible on their own. Even those who make the decision to forgive, find that it is a decision that they have to keep making for the rest of their lives. I cannot condemn someone who cannot forgive such a crime, I can only pray for them. Michael Stephenson's murder was a horrifying act against an innocent person, someone with basic human worth that should never be forgotten. Such an act has consequences beyond any human ability to repair. That some close to the victims do find a way to forgive such crimes only shows that God is present in this sometimes dark and terrible world. These are the true miracles of our time, and those who can really do it are in a special way holy signs to the rest of us. May God in his unlimited mercy grant this family grace and healing.

But should a grieving family have a permanent veto power over a parole? In this case, I don't think so. It is true that so many people who have had contact with this man testify that he has truly changed and deserves the chance for parole. It is also true that they could all be wrong (it has happened before), even though the risk is small. But there is a time to take that risk, or throw our own humanity away. As Christians we have to remember that we are called to a risky and costly path, to work for true reconciliation in this fallen world. To coin a phrase, "Success is not one of the names of God." This is one of those times to take such a risk. I will be praying both for James Tramel and the family of Michael Stephenson.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Links: 3/10/2006

Start your weekend out right with links:

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Links: 3/9/2006

The world is not getting any more normal, apparently . . .

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Amateur Status

I am proud to report that I have been recognized as an Amateur Catholic. The proper logo will appear on the right. Yep, I'm proud to be on the second string . . .

Quote: Walter Brueggemann

The Bible is essentially an open, artistic, imaginative narrative of God’s staggering care for the world, a narrative that will feed and nurture into obedience that builds community precisely by respect for the liberty of the Christian man or woman.

Links: 3/8/2006

Strugging to the surface, more links:

A special link: Amy is now blogging from Rome, and all of it is worth reading. For example there is this post busting some myths about Rome.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

The Call to Discipleship

Bonhoeffer begins his look at the call to be a disciple by examining a number of the stories of Jesus' early ministry recorded in the Gospels. He first points out the peremptory nature of that call — that in each case there is no "explanation" as to why someone responds toJesus's call. The call asks for a complete and immediatecommitmentt simply to follow. It is not a matter of calculation or evaluation but of obedience personally to Jesus himself.

While it would be rather conventional to say that such obedience is a result of belief, Bonhoeffer asserts that the converse is true as well. Neither is prior to the other: only he who believes is obedient, and only he who is obedient believes.

Since then we cannot adequately speak of obedience as the consequence of faith, and since we must never forget the indissolubleunity off the two, we must place the one proposition that only he who believes is obedient alongside the other, that only he who is obedient believes. In the one case faith is the condition of obedience, and in the other obedience is the condition of faith. In exactly the same way in which obedience is called the consequence of faith, it must also be called the presupposition of faith.

Only the obedient believe. If we believe we must follow a concrete command. Without this preliminary step of obedience, our faith will only be pious humbug, and lead us to the grace which is not costly. Everything depends on the first step. It has a unique quality of its own. The first step of obedience makes Peter leave his nets, and later get out of the ship. It calls upon the young man to leave his riches. Only this new existence, created through obedience, can make faith possible. (pp. 69-70)
Nothing easy about this, but I can understand it from my own life. There have been changes to my internal spiritual life that have lead to changes in behavior, to reconsidering decisions made and directions aimed at. But just as, or perhaps more often, it is the change in behavior, the decision to obey as best I understood in some area of my life, that has changed me internally and spiritually. It has never been a matter of becoming perfect, but of being willing to take the one step visible to me, then stepping out. I have been longer on belief than obedience, and Bonhoeffer points out that may not be really believing at all.

How much of what we see as faith really is empty, or as Bonhoeffer puts it, cheap?

Later: Bonhoeffer stresses that there is nothing in the Gospel text to indicate that any of the disciples knew Jesus personally at all before they were called. There are current scholars (such as John Pilch at Georgetown) that would disagree, saying that based on an understanding of First century CE Mediterranean culture and the environment in a place like Capernaum or Nazareth, we can assume that Jesus was well known to the disciples, and the call was just the end of one process and the beginning of another. And I think this may be true, for as far as it goes.

But I think Bonhoeffers basic point here still stands. This culural analysis is what we bring to examining this story. But we must remember that the one thing that the Gospel writers and the early church found important to record and remember in this story is simply that Jesus called, and the disciples obeyed, nothing more.

I will recall

The lessons for the first Sunday in Lent are:

  • Genesis 9:8-15
  • Psalm 25:4-5, 6-7, 8-9
  • 1 Peter 3:18-22
  • Mark 1:12-15
Not much chance for a detailed reflection this past week (work has continued to be crazy) but I do have a couple of thoughts to kick around. Call them notes toward the beginning of a reflection.

In these first Lenten Sunday lessons, the key ideas are covenant, baptism, kingdom -- ideas that really do go together, especially as we learn to read Scripture as a single (but complicated) story. Persons were brought into the original covenant that God made with Israel by birth, or marriage, and only rarely by conversion. Baptism by itself was not all that new, but it became a new sign for the restoration of covenant relationship, the establishment of a new covenant that would be the basis for the renewed reign of God.

If I remember correctly, archaeologists have found suzerainty covenants in ancient documents. These contracts between a ruler and a vassal nation set out, in a form quite similar in some ways to the ten commandments in Exodus, the responsibilities of the vassals toward the ruler, or suzerain, and the commitment by the ruler to protect the vassal city or country. In creating the covenant with Israel, God chose to use a familiar legal structure to describe this relationship. John the Baptist called those already under the original covenant back to their responsibilities, and God's willingness to enter into relationship with Israel. In declaring the coming of the kingdom of God, Jesus reveals that this relationship is entering a new phase, and that, as foretold, it is to be with the whole world.

Just some notes, in a week where I have let myself get too busy. Ah well, let's try for something better this next week.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Links: 3/6/2006

Monday, all day long, and if we aren't lucky, well into tomorow"

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Technical progress

A few fast tech notes -- things aren't quite finished yet.

  • Some of the formatting anomalies have been fixed -- but not all of them.
  • The style sheets (CSS) pass muster with W3C, but no joy so far with HTML.
  • There is a separate style sheet for printing, that is about 75% there -- with some exceptions it is just the text with titles and notices.
  • The Creative Commons license has been brought up to date.
  • You can see some changes on the blogroll to the right -- more coming.

Links: 3/4/2006

Onward to the links:

Friday, March 03, 2006

Cheap Grace (2)

So, how did the church in Germany (and many other Christians as well) go off the tracks so badly? Bonhoeffer says that one reason was making grace "the data for our calculations" instead of the sum:

At the end of a life spent in the pursuit of knowledge Faust has to confess:

"I now do see that we can nothing know"

That is the answer to a sum, it is the outcome of a long experience. But as Kierkegaard observed, it is quite a different thing when a freshman comes up to the university and uses the same sentiment to justify his own indolence. As the answer to a sum it is perfectly true, but as the initial data it is a piece of self-deception. For acquired knowledge cannot be divorced from the experience in which it is acquired. The only man who has the right to say that he is justified by grace alone is the man who has left all to follow Christ. Such a man knows that the call to discipleship is a gift of grace, and that the call is inseparable from the grace. But those who try to use this grace as a dispensation from following Christ are simply deceiving themselves.(p.55)
Bonhoeffer is a theologian himself — he is unlikely to think proper theology a minor thing. But there is a key difference between knowing about Jesus, even in a most detailed way, and following him. Bonhoeffer states that while the church he belongs to is quite orthodox, he cannot be sure if it is still following Jesus. There is a point in the Christian life where experience does trump knowledge. And this points us to the basis of what valid Christian religious experience is. It must be rooted in discipleship, in obedience to God.

From here, Bonhoeffer wants to outline just what real discipleship is, by looking first in the second chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, and moving through the next few chapters.

Links: 3/3/2006

Links without meat, for a Lenten Friday

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Cheap Grace (1)

The first chapter of The Cost of Discipleship is it's best known, "Cheap Grace". To Bonhoeffer, the cause of the church's ills in Germany, if not everywhere is that while we can do nothing to earn or buy God's favor and grace, that grace is not without cost. If grace alone does everything, everything can remain as it is, we can live just like the rest of the world. It is a grace that is cheap instead of costly, and justifies sin instead of the sinner.

Cheap grace is

the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance,
baptism without church discipline,
Communion without confession,
absolution without personal confession.

Cheap grace is

grace without discipleship,
grace without the Cross,
grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.

Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye that causes him to stumble, it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him

Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives man his only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: "ye were bought at a price," and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God. (pp. 47-48, reformatting mine)
It would be possible for a Catholic to be a little snarky at this point. (I originally wrote "easy" instead of "possible", but no comment can be made easily against such words, from such a speaker.) Such a comment would include some reference to the idea that works really are important after all. But that would be in error -- this is not a matter of faith vs. works. It is a matter, as we shall see, of who is in charge of your life, you or God? And it is clear that there is no shortage of cheap grace in the lives of many Catholics. This particularly includes myself.

Part of the challenge, or even adventure, of reading this book this Lent is finally getting past this chapter. In fact, I wonder if many readers have ever read past this chapter — such words from such a man better bring you up short, make you assess your own life. I have tried to read this book three times before, and each time was, to be honest, scared off. What could be waiting further in, with this beginning? It is not that I am any better Christian at this point in my life, but that the call to ministry drives me to confront many of these questions now. Bonhoeffer worked hard to make sure that his reader understood the consequence of ignoring these issues.

(Note: page numbers are from The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Collier Books paperback, 1963)

Links: 3/2/2006

It may be Lent, but you still get links:

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

An Introduction

Just getting started, this first day of Lent, with my Lenten reading, The Cost of Discipleship (Nachfolge, auf Deutsch) by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. (And yes, I am reading it in translation — even when I lived in Wiesbaden my German was never up to this.) Just to start off, I think that there are a couple of points to consider.

Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran pastor and theologian in Germany between the two World Wars. Then, as well as now, both the Lutheran and Catholic Churches recieve the bulk of the so called church tax collected by the state. Bonhoeffer was dealing with an established church facing Hitler. In 1933, the Nazi government started to alter or combine many institutions, in order to take control of them. One of them was the so-called Protestant Reich Church, which was intended to swallow up all non-Catholic Christians. (The Nazi Party was always much more explicitly anti-Catholic, but many Nazi's tried to keep their ties to churches where they could, if these churches could be cleansed of so-called "foreign" or "non-ayran" elements.) Bonhoeffer was a leader in the Confessing Church movement, that attempted to keep an independent Protestant church alive in Germany. As I will bring up some other time, his oppostion to the Nazism took other forms as well. But it is true that the issue of how a Christian could work out the sometimes competing calls of Scripture and the institutional church, especially an established one. His answer was radical discipleship:

When the Bible speaks of following Jesus, it is proclaiming a discipleship which will liberate mankind from man-made dogmas, from every burden and opression, from every anxiety and torture that afflicts the conscience. If they follow Jesus, men escape from the hard yoke of their own laws, and submit to the kindly yoke of Jesus Christ. But does this mean that we ignore the seriousness of the demands? Far from it. We can only achieve perfect liberty and enjoy fellowship with Jesus when his command, his call to absolute discipleship, is appreciated in its entirety. Only the man who follows the command of Jesus single-mindedly, and unresistingly lets his yoke rest upon him, finds his burden easy, and under its gentle pressure receives the power to persevere in the right way. The command of Jesus is hard, unutterably hard, to those who try to resist it. But for those who willingly submit, the yoke is easy and the burden is light. "His commandments are not grievous" (1 John 5:3). The commandment of Jesus is not some sort of spiritual shock treatment. Jesus asks nothing of us whithout giving us the strength to perform it. His commandment never seeks to destroy life, but to foster, strengthen, and heal it.
The nature of true discipleship is a fundamental topic of this book, which makes it perfect for Lent, when we try to return to a closer relationship with Jesus.

Quote: Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Fear nothing and never be afraid; and don’t fret. If only your penitence fail not, God will forgive all. There is no sin, and there can be no sin on all the earth, which the Lord will not forgive to the truly repentant! Man cannot commit a sin so great as to exhaust the infinite love of God. Can there be a sin that would exceed the love of God?

Think only of repentance, continual repentance, but dismiss fear altogether. Believe that God loves you as you cannot conceive; that he loves you with your sin, in your sin. It has been said of old that over one repentant sinner there is more joy in heaven than over ten righteous men.

Now go, and fear not. Be not bitter against men. Be not angry if you are wronged. Forgive the dead man in your heart what wrong he did you. Be reconciled with him in truth. If you are penitent, you love. And if you love, you are of God. All things are atoned for, all things are saved by love.

If I, a sinner even as you are, am tender with you and have pity on you, how much more will God. Love is such a priceless treasure that you can redeem the whole world by it, and expiate not only your own sins but the sins of others.
the character Father Zossima to a penitent in Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov