Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Meditation on Psalm 32--Happiness in God

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Book Review: The Fate of Man in the Modern World by Nicolas Berdyaev

In 1935, the Russian philosopher Nicolas Berdyaev published his prescient The Fate of Man in the Modern World (Ann Arbor, MI: U of Michigan Press, 1935). As Hitler increased his grip on Germany, the exiled Russian foresaw the natural outcome of National Socialism. He recognized Hitler as a dictator. But, Berdyaev was not an apologist for capitalism. He writes, “Capitalism uses man [sic] as goods for sale” (p. 15).

The book is an overwhelming critique of humanity’s foibles. Berdyaev begins by looking back. He writes a judgment on history, focusing on World War I. Humanity attempted self-destruction.  He writes:
The very fundamentals of human existence are being shaken. The war was a revelation of the evil, the hatred and jealousy which had been accumulating in humanity: it objectivized the evil which had previously remained hidden, if the expression is permissible, subjective rather than objective (p. 13).

History is a continuing string of revolutions. New ideas replace old ones. People who consider revolution a crime, Berdyaev argues, would view history as a crime. If someone would prefer not to have a revolution, then he feels that the person should seek the Kingdom of God. In this conclusion to chapter one, readers see Berdyaev’s theology creep into the text.

The second chapter focuses on dehumanization. Mechanization and industrialization dehumanize the worker. His criticism brings out an underlying personalism. For Berdyaev, human life has value. He sees economic systems and so-called progress as eroding human value. He compares humanity to the animal world. In the animal world, creatures do not devalue one another beyond a pecking order. This brief reference could go further. Instead, he focuses on the fallen state of humanity.

The centerpiece of Berdyaev’s philosophy and theology is freedom. From the fallen state of the world, he shifts to freedom. He writes, “Freedom in social life presents a paradox which gives rise to a whole series of contradictions” (p. 40). While he holds freedom as of paramount importance, he also sees its boundaries. The nature of freedom is giving and receiving. It is a willingness to surrender. He writes, “Freedom is the eternal basis of human intercourse: to be true communion it must be free” (p. 45). It is a gift and a sentence. Each person faces this paradox.

Freedom is one of Berdyaev’s favorite subjects. He returns to it again and again. So, it is no surprise that he spends the better part of chapter two on it here. The theme comes up again and again, often in subtle ways. Each political and economic system works against and with freedom in different ways.

The third chapter explores “new forces” in humanity. During the first half of the twentieth century, democracy spread. Populism also spread. And, communism spread. In each case, public involvement increased. How does Berdyaev’s worldview respond to mass involvement that yields different outcomes? The responses often confront his personalism. For example, he writes, “A capitalistic economy is deeply anti-personal” (p. 80). Humanity responds to freedom, populism, and other issues with two tendencies: individualization and universalization. These two tendencies lead to the various political and economic systems and the way people react to them. Berdyaev’s commentary is insightful. But, it is also specific to a time/place.

The final chapter addresses culture and Christianity. He moves beyond his critique and emphasizes the movement of the Holy Spirit and mystery. He writes, “Religion was the meeting-place of the masses…” (p. 114). The faith journey provides a positive response to his cultural criticism. In the end, he sees a kind of Christian socialism as a response to the extremes of populism and dehumanization.

Berdyaev is a readable philosopher. The book is a joy to read. It has a timeless feel to it. And, the critique seems as fresh today as it was in the years preceding World War II. Some of his comments about the populist need for autocracy sound like he is describing the world today. It is a short book (131 pages). I would encourage anyone who is interested in philosophy or Berdyaev to read this book.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Seeking to be a Sailboat Church (Part 1)

Since our earliest days, we Christians have used a boat as a symbol for the church. In Sailboat Church (Louisville, KY: WJK, 2014), Joan Gray picks up on this symbol. She draws a distinction between two types of churches. (1) a sailboat church, and (2) a rowboat church. The Holy Spirit powers a sailboat church. Human desires, pushing the oars, powers a rowboat church. They go through the waves, battle currents, and fight the wind. What is your church?

Kilmarnock Baptist Church began 2017 with study groups. We, as a congregation, are seeking to be a sailboat church. That is, we envision a bright future, with the Holy Spirit driving everything we do. We are not looking at our past. We are looking at our present and dreaming the future. Starting in the first week of January, four groups began meeting weekly.

As they study Sailboat Church, they are beginning to draft a new vision. The groups use the book and the Bible for guidance. They imagine Kilmarnock Baptist as it could appear in the future. What could it look like 10 or 20 or 100 years from now? Each person listens. The Holy Spirit speaks and guides them. The new vision will be both inspirational and aspirational.

The study will last ten weeks, coinciding with the ten chapters of Sailboat Church. It concludes at the beginning of March. Each week, worship kicks off the study week and includes themes from the chapter for the week. On March 1, the church will begin 40 days of prayer, before finalizing a new vision statement.

Gray calls the first chapter, “Created to Sail.” She writes about early Christians as “God-powered, God-led, and God-resourced” (p. 1). As the church grew, it has always had an uneasy relationship with power and resources. This was especially true after Constantine converted. In other words, when the church has something to protect, it can be more self-powered, -led, and -resourced. The goal is to return to God.

Distinguishing between a sailboat church and a rowboat church can be difficult. Both can be successful and growing. They can be liberal or conservative. Rowboat churches are human organizations. When they are going well, it is easy to give God the credit, even if there were other reasons for the success or growth. Note well: God can work in all kinds of circumstances. Neither Gray nor we who seek to sail with the spirit think that God only works in sailboat churches.

Gray cites John 15:5. Jesus is speaking. He says, “Without me you can do nothing.” Without Christ, the church is lost. It wallows in the waves, dependent on itself. She writes, “Rowing means that we are in control” (p. 5). People like to be in control. Part of seeking God’s vision for the church means giving up control and recognizing the need for Christ.

Life together as a church is a journey. This, and the following entries, will explore this journey for Kilmarnock Baptist Church. So far, six week in, the journey is exciting and full of the Holy Spirit!

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Making Sailors--Making Christians

You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else. But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.
Ephesians 2:1-10

Many years ago, I took a class from the American Sailing Association to become a certified sailing instructor. Duncan Hood taught the class. His goal was to teach us, a group of experienced sailors, how to make more sailors. From the start of the class, he had a mantra, “Let’s get out on the water!” He asked, “How do you start teaching?” People responded with aspects of teaching sailing.
Someone said, “I begin with vocabulary because we all must speak the same language.” Duncan said, “Sure. Let’s get out on the water and talk about the parts of the boat and the words we use while we’re sailing.” Someone else said, “I start by going over the techniques.” Duncan replied, “That’s great! Let’s get out on the water because there’s no better place learn what being in irons is than when you experience it.” On and on it went, until he got to me. He said, “How do you start teaching, Matthew?” I said, “Let’s get out on the water because there’s no better place to make sailors than on a sailboat.”
As Christians, we learn our faith by practicing it. We do not have a lab where we work out all the kinks and then try them in the real world. We learn our faith while we are doing it, and while we learn, there are traps along the way. In Ephesians, we see these traps described as being dead in our sins. This is not judgment; calling us dead in our sins is recognition of our need for God while we are becoming sailors. How do we get to God? Ephesians 2:5 says, “Even when we were dead… God saves us by grace.” Salvation was free. Grace comes from the Latin word, gratis, meaning free or for nothing. We do not earn God’s grace.
Many people approach God and approach life doing what Frederick Buechner describes as trying to “beat and kick [their] way through a door that had stood wide open the whole time.”[1] Sinfulness is the state in which we are separate from God. We live to ourselves, but do not even realize that we are doing it. We are free, but the Russian philosopher Nicholas Berdyaev points out that freedom is a paradox, a gift with a price; we must choose how to exercise our freedom.[2] Being separate from God is like walking along terra firma without realizing that sailing exists. Many who are separate from God do not realize that God exists; they do not realize that the door to a relationship is wide open and in front of us.
Joan Gray writes, “As we come into a trusting relationship with Jesus, we learn that everything that could ever separate us from God or condemn the world to eternal darkness is being wiped away.”[3] Eugene Peterson’s paraphrased version of Ephesians 2, puts it this way:
It wasn’t so long ago that you were mired in that old stagnant life of sin. You let the world, which doesn’t know the first thing about living, tell you how to live. You filled your lungs with polluted unbelief, and then exhaled disobedience. We all did it, all of us doing what we felt like doing, when we felt like doing it, all of us in the same boat.[4]
We are in the same boat. When we think about all of humanity, we share far more in common than we have differences. Sure, many people look different from one another; we have different beliefs, preferences, and so on. Some people prefer Beyoncé, whereas others like Abba; I prefer Pat Metheny, but some like Poulenc’s “Gloria.” And, we can often focus on our differences more than what we have in common. Our universality is brought to the fore in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, when the moneylender Shylock gives a great sympathetic speech, asking:
[Are we not] fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer…If you prick us, do we not bleed? …If you poison us, do we not die?[5]
As human beings, we are in the same boat. And, from God, we have a similar calling—to leave the life of sinfulness behind and enter a relationship with God through Jesus Christ. Using this sailing metaphor, “Christian sailing is a way of life that involves a committed, personal relationship with Jesus Christ. We sail because Jesus calls us to be sailors.”[6] And, Christ is the key to being Christians. Buechner calls Christ, “the key to the key.”[7] Jesus makes us alive, even when we are dead in our sinfulness. Left to our own devices, we cannot accomplish anything, let alone achieve eternity. However, with Jesus Christ, we can enter into communion with God. Just like we cannot become committed, growing Christians on our own, few people turn out to be good sailors on their own.
I began sailing by going out into a boat and to see what would happen. I raised the sail and the boat began to move. I had little control and did not realize what would happen as I moved the tiller. One of my early experiences was moving the stern through the wind. Any sailor knows what would happen next—the wind catches the trailing edge (leach) of the sail and it moves to the other side of the boat rapidly; this is called an accidental jibe and it can be quite violent.
To become Christians, we do not go out in the boat alone. We go with other Christians; we go with our church family. Other people warn us, so we do not accidentally jibe. More importantly, they help us see the way of Christ. God makes Christians through other Christians.

[1] Frederick Buechner, Beyond Words: Daily Readings in the ABC's of Faith  (New York: HarperCollins, 2009), 302.
[2] Nicolas Berdyaev, The Fate of Man in the Modern World, trans. Donald A. Lowrie (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1935), 40ff.
[3] Joan S. Gray, Sailboat Church: Helping Your Church Rethink Its Mission and Practice  (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014), 40.
[4] Eugene H. Peterson, The Message  (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2003), Ep 2:1-5.
[5] William Shakespeare, The Plays and Poems of William Shakspeare  (London: R. C. and J. Rivington, 1821), 75.
[6] Gray, Sailboat Church, 40.
[7] Buechner, Beyond Words: Daily Readings in the ABC's of Faith, 303.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Inauguration Words: “America First”

In Donald Trump’s world, there are winners and losers. From his words, he seems to lack as sense of mutuality. Thus, his slogan-like call for “America First” should not surprise anyone. But, what does this mean? What does it mean to him? What does it mean to the U.S.? And, how does God view the idea of “America First”?

This is my third installment in a series. These entries explore words from the President’s inauguration speech. Some of the words have deeper implications than he might have considered. My purpose is not to criticize Trump. My purpose is to provoke thoughtfulness.

Trump said, “From this day forward, it's going to be only America first. America first. Every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs will be made to benefit American workers and American families.”

In Matthew 20:1-16, the parable about the laborers in the vineyard transmogrifies winners and losers into a communal gathering. Each person receives what they need. Is the parable about salvation? Yes. Is it only about salvation? Probably not. Faith connects with every aspect of life. If faith in Christ were only about salvation, then Christians could set aside faith matters in daily living. One could do as one pleases and trust that God has no ethical or behavioral expectations on a Christian’s life. Scripture does not support this hedonistic interpretation. Instead, the Bible is explicit; faith connects with action (James 2:14-17). God has expectations (Micah 6:8).

What about the laborers in the vineyard? Were the people who showed up to work all day losers because they did not earn a greater wage than those who arrived at the end of the day? What about this “America first” mantra? Salvation is for all, not the winners. Life is for everyone, not just Americans.

A few chapters after the parable about the laborers in Matthew, Jesus tells a Pharisee about the greatest commandment. In Matthew 22:37-40, Jesus says, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

Jesus’ comment, “hang all the law,” adds gravitas to a loving statement. He does not describe some namby-pamby love. This love is powerful. It transcends boundaries, even borders. Elsewhere he answers the question, “Who is my neighbor?” In the gospel, the neighbor is a foreigner! A Samaritan, of all people! Thus, I ask, how is a Mexican different than a Samaritan, if, in this analogy, Americans are the chosen ones of Israel?

“America first” misses the mutuality of the Christian faith. It falls far short of “love your neighbor as yourself.”

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Inauguration Words: “Eradicate Completely”

Today’s blog entry continues from yesterday’s. Yesterday, my post was about phrases from President Trump’s inauguration speech. Over the weekend (1/21-22), I thought about the transition from one administration to another. As I thought about the transition, the new president’s words came to my mind. Several phrases jumped out at me. So, I read his speech. Some of what he said was troubling. Let me explain why.

Trump said, “We will reinforce old alliances and form new ones. And unite the civilized world against radical Islamic terrorism, which we will eradicate completely from the face of the earth.”

Proposing to “eradicate” a belief system “from the face of the earth” suggests genocide on those who refuse to give up their beliefs. Invoking the label “genocide” might sound dramatic, but words matter. “Eradicate” means destroy completely. To ‘eradicate poverty’ means ‘to put an end to poverty.’ Thus, to “eradicate completely” means total destruction of “radical Islamic terrorism.”

Unfortunately, attacking terrorism inspires some people to join the terrorists. For example, bombing a village where terrorists are hiding might lead non-radical Islamic villagers to become sympathetic to the terrorists. Terrorists are successful when they invoke terror. Getting frightening and thoughtlessly fighting back responds on the terrorists’ level. It is like fighting fire with fire.

The President should choose his words carefully. Carelessly tossing off words like “eradicate” to sound tough might inspire some people, but when taken seriously, “eradicate” harkens to darker times. So, how can the U.S. respond to terrorists?

First, we can identify the causes of terrorism. Poverty, inequality, cultural changes, and religious fanaticism. When people address poverty, inequality, and cultural changes, religious fanaticism has more trouble recruiting adherents. How do we address poverty? We can buy fair trade, focus on development and education, and ease away from “America first” ideologies. I will treat “America first” later.

Second, we can develop partnerships with countries who are already engaged in fighting terrorism. Regional partners will be more effective than drones and bombs. I do not know the intricacies of defeating Daesh (aka ISIS). But, a thoughtful response will lead to greater success than bombing the entire area or attacking terrorists’ families, as Trump has suggested.

Third, we must not be afraid. Fear is the currency of terrorists. Big talk, like “eradicate,” reveals inner fear. Instead of playing into their hand, we must rise above it. The Bible assures us that God controls the world. If Christians believe it, then we have nothing to fear.

Words matter. Let us engage in thoughtful discourse about complicated problems and avoid vacuous platitudes.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Inauguration Words: “Civilized world”

As I reflect on the peaceful transition from administration to another, the differences are striking. The Obama and Trump administration have dissimilar approaches. Even the way and they look at the world is unique. In this blog, I would like to look at some of the words and phrases Trump used in his inauguration speech.

The inauguration speech provides an opportunity for a new president to set the tone for his/her administration. In the case of Trump’s speech, he revealed a clear worldview—one that is consistent with his campaign rhetoric. Trump views the world as a zero-sum game. There are winners and losers. To be a winner means beating someone else. Instead of cooperation and mutual gain, Trump sees individual gain. Somewhat ironic, this view is antithetical to trickle-down economics. Trickle-down economics proposes that when the rich get richer, they spend more and the situation improves for everyone. In other words, a rising tide raises all boats.

One phrase jumped out at me. Trump said, “We will reinforce old alliances and form new ones -- and unite the civilized world against radical Islamic terrorism, which we will eradicate completely from the face of the Earth.”

I will treat the phrase “eradicate completely” at a later date. Right now, I want to focus on “civilized world.” What did he mean? The countries of the North Atlantic? Europe, the United States, and Canada? What about Australia and South Africa? N. B. Each area I listed has a majority of white/Caucasian people. Does he include South Korea and Japan as civilized? What is the President’s view of Bhutan? It is the only carbon-negative country in the world. Of course, he has called climate change a hoax. So, being carbon-neutral or carbon-negative would not be noteworthy to him.

By saying the words “civilized world,” we learn that he holds the antiquated view of some of the world as uncivilized. I can hardly believe that this needs treatment. 

If Trump was referring to Africa, a continent of 54 countries, he does not understand the nature of civilization. The 1.1. billion people of the continent have produced 22 Nobelauriates. Four of the ten fastest growing economies in the world are on the continent. One out of every three people who live on the continent are, actually, middle class. Sure, the continent has issues of poverty, inequality, and injustice. But, so does the United States.

We can relegate a phrase like “civilized world” to old books. When we read them, we can overlook it. These words are a relic of a Eurocentric or colonial worldview, like the sexist mankind, instead of humanity or the racist negro, instead of African-America.

Some of Trump’s most ardent followers long for a golden heyday of the United States. They seem to long for something like the world portrayed on Leave It to Beaver (1957-63) or The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet (1952-66). Both television shows portray an idealized America of the 1950s. However, both shows miss the cultural richness of America, even within that era. Neither show portrays the depth of Appalachia and the Southern literature tradition. Both miss the Southwestern mix of a Latino culture growing in the United States. Neither touches African American or Native American culture. And, neither shows the diversity of American cities, like New York and Chicago.

There is no civilized and uncivilized world anymore. We live in a postcolonial world. We live in a world of pluralities and differing viewpoints. We recognize various cultures for their richness and what people can learn from one another. Referring to the “civilized world” and longing for an idealized past might play well with white supremacists, but it means nothing to those of us who feel blessed to live in a diverse land. These phrases miss the truth, beauty, and goodness of seeing other nations succeed with the United States.

The Bible is full of verses supporting helping others and seeing them as sisters and brothers, not uncivilized foreigners. As a Christian, my motivation for calling out this phrase is tantamount to God’s calling in Matthew 5:16, “Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”