The Sacramental Interpretation of Scripture & the Renewal of the Church — Earth and Altar

Blogging / Religion

There’s a reconnection with Holy Scripture during this time of quarantine. People are joining to read the Office on Sundays, and clergy and lay people are gathering online to read the Daily Office in record numbers. All that scripture needs to have some sort of interpretive framework.

James Stambaugh, writing on the site “Earth and Altar” delivers. He sets out a proper Barthian style hermeneutic and grounds it in the historical method of interpretation that goes back to the very earliest days of the Church.

There’s a full meal of teaching here – and this paragraph is just a taste:

The Sacramental Interpretation of Scripture & the Renewal of the Church — Earth and Altar:

What we lack is an emphasis on the spiritual food of Scripture.  For too long we have treated Scripture as an archeological dig; an academic exercise that has little or nothing to do with spiritual reality.  Historical-critical dalliances sometimes function as padding to soften any moral claims Scripture makes on us by finding a convenient loophole in the “original intent” of the author or the “context” of the original audience.  It’s like wrapping the Sword of Truth in a pool noodle so no one gets hurt.  In this attempt to buffer ourselves from the discomfort and conviction of reading Scripture seriously, we also buffer ourselves from its healing balm and sacramental power.  For Scripture to nourish us sacramentally we must acknowledge its spiritual claim on us.  This entails recovering a spiritual, sacramental way of reading Scripture that opens us to the experience of God’s grace.  A sacramental reading understands the words of Scripture as outward and visible signs that are transformed by the Holy Spirit to be inward and spiritual grace for us.  The words of God and God’s people recorded in Scripture are sacramentally transformed into the Word of God, living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword (Hebrews 4:12).

Go check out the whole article. When you read the office today, or recite the psalter, see if you can find Jesus in the readings. See if you can find a spiritual insight for you today as well as a greater general meaning as well. Reading this way transforms your engagement with scripture. I speak from my own experience here.

Off ‘ya go! 

Bad theology has turned deadly

Current Affairs / Reconciliation

There are consequences when Christian people try to make accommodation with political power that coerces compliance. In our country right now those consequences are killing black people.

In a difficult to read, but profoundly prophetic piece, William Lamar explains what is happening and lays the blame at the feet of the white evangelical Christians.

William H. Lamar IV: It’s not just the coronavirus — bad theology is killing us | Faith and Leadership:

Political systems require a theological system. Constantine glommed onto Christianity to strengthen Rome. The French, British and Dutch empires all used the signs and symbols of Christianity to plunder and to pillage. Norman Vincent Peale and Billy Graham were largely quiescent in the face of American warmongering abroad and racialized violence at home. (Integrating revivals is hardly enough.)

From what I can see, their purpose was access to power, not its conversion to the ways of Jesus. Even Vladimir Putin deploys the deep, symbolic well of Russian Orthodoxy to strengthen his dictatorial machinations.

The political order that presides over the United States would fall overnight if white evangelicals withdrew their support. But they will not.

The Center for Reconciliation here in Providence, a ministry of the Diocese of Rhode Island is working on responses to the killing of George Floyd and the resulting civil turmoil. There’s much hard work to be done. But it really has to start with a whole lot of us repenting of bad theology and its consequences.

Rhode Island Faith Leaders on Reopening

Current Affairs / Religion

We recognize that congregational worship has high risk of spreading COVID-19 and could jeopardize the safety and well being of our congregants and our clergy members.  All of our traditions prioritize the care of the most vulnerable as a cornerstone of our values.  We are ever grateful for the right to freely worship and know that with it comes the responsibility to safeguard the greater good.  We yearn to be worshiping together in our traditional worship space, but that time has not come.

We therefore resolve to continue our essential work from the safety of remote worship in combination with a slow, incremental and cautious reopening for public worship.  We recommend this caution out of concern for our own faith communities and the broader community given the CDC guidelines. 

We are proud of the creativity and commitment of our faith leaders who have not let social distancing be spiritually alienating.  We commit to continue our worship in these innovative ways and go forward with our plans for a slower reopening in concert with the guidelines provided by our individual movements and faith traditions. 

We are grateful to Governor Raimondo and her staff for their judicious and meticulous use of medical science and data to drive their decision making processes while reopening Rhode Island. We are thankful for her trust in us as faith leaders and look forward to our continued partnership for the greater good of our state.

In faith and hope,

Rev. James Hazelwood
Bishop, New England Synod, ELCA Lutheran

Rev. Marilyn B. Kendrix, 
Bridge Conference Minister, Southern New England Conference, UCC

The Right Rev. W. Nicholas Knisely
Bishop, Episcopal Diocese of Rhode Island

Rabbi Sarah Mack
President, Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island

Rev. Elizabeth Lerner Maclay
Minister, the First Unitarian Church of Providence

Rev. Don Remick
Bridge Conference Minister, Southern New England Conference, UCC

Rev. Kent Siladi, 
Bridge Conference Minister, Southern New England Conference, UCC

Rev. Chontell Washington
Interim Executive Minister, Rhode Island State Council of Churches

Rev. Dr. Tom Wiles
Executive Minister, American Baptist Churches of Rhode Island

Trust Me, This Summer Is Going to Be Tough – The Atlantic

Current Affairs

Thanks to Rob Anderson for sharing his experience with the dilemma of picking our collective way through the challenges of this summer in pandemic season.

Trust Me, This Summer Is Going to Be Tough – The Atlantic:

I run a restaurant in a seaside town. I’m not an epidemiologist or a fortune-teller. But as I’m forced to make what could be life-and-death decisions—with little official support or guidance—I’m left no choice but to pretend I am.

This. And it’s the same for clergy and church leaders right now too.

Acres of the Dead: Memorial Day 2010

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Current Affairs / Travel

I wrote this back in 2010 – and thought today was a good day to repost it.

In 2003 my brothers, father and I began a series of tromps around western Europe. The excuse was that my brothers were both living in Europe at the time. My middle brother was planting a church in Poitiers in France and my little brother’s MASH unit was attached to the 3rd Infantry Division stationed at the time in Wurzburg, Germany. But while visiting them was the excuse, the real reason was to spend time together and to try to get to know one another again. We had drifted apart over the years, and after the the death of our mother, we realized that without her to keep us joined as a family, we were likely to drift further.

My grandfather served in World War 1 and my uncles in World War 2. (My father is a Korean War vet.) Grandpa had never really talked about what he had experienced in France. He had graduated from Yale with a degree in civil engineering, joined the army and served as a captain in the Field Artillery. We did think we remembered him saying that he had been at Verdun at one point during his service. We know he had been gassed – and the mustard gas had left him with only partial lung capacity for the rest of his life. My most common memory of him as a child was of him sitting in his sunlit study, filled with his elephant collection (he was committed Republican) and breathing through a rubber mask attached to an oxygen tank.

We decided to see if we could retrace the steps of his time in France during one of our weeks in Europe. My youngest brother borrowed an Army history of WW 1 from the base library and we used it to try to determine where he had been. Looking at the Infantry division patches, we recognized the patch of the 79th Infantry Division which had been on his uniforms. We think we recalled that his artillery unit had been attached to the 313th battalion. Reading the history, it appeared that his unit had been instrumental in the taking of Mount Falcon, a battle which was to some degree the turning point of the Battle of Verdun – one of the, if not *the* bloodiest battle of WW 1.

So we drove to Verdun and found our way to Mount Falcon. There were any number of monuments along the road to the 79th ID and to the 313th. We even found a plaque on the top of Mount Falcon that talked about the exploits there of the 313th along with a young colonel named George Patton.

6a00d83451b57769e200e54f6c910e8834-500wi.jpgAnd then we came across the cemeteries. I’d heard of the military cemeteries of Europe, but I never really had understood how big they were. There were acres and acres and acres of crosses marking the bodies of people killed, ground up in the brutal trench warfare stretching from one horizon to another. It was quite breathtaking. And quite heartbreaking. You can see a photo meditation I created of the experience linked at the upper left of this blog.

I grew up near Gettysburg. I know what battlefield cemeteries look like. I thought I was prepared for the experience. I wasn’t.

The experience of *those* cemeteries, many of them, filled with American, British, French and German war dead still haunts me today.

World War One never really needed to be fought. Some historians argue that the war ultimately stemmed from a German mis-reading of French intentions. And the German war plans were so complicated that once the mobilization order was given, there was no way to stand down. And that once the Germans realized they couldn’t easily win, they decided to fight a war of attrition, betting that their countryman could accept horrific causalities to a much greater extent than the French or the British. They were wrong, tragically wrong.

The whole generation of European young were ground up between the teeth of two war machines which couldn’t find a way to stand down. Because of people who refused to surrender. People who thought the answer to violence was more violence, and the winning strategy was to take the violence to a level that the enemy simply could not countenance.

It would be a lovely thing to believe that such a thing couldn’t happen today. But only a fool would think such a thing.

It seems to me that the Church has to do everything in its power to make sure though that it doesn’t. I’m not a pacifist per se, but I have a growing sympathy for their stance. Perhaps it’s time for me to get out my copies of Hauerwas’ and Yoder’s writing and spend some time with them again.

Rene Girard suggests that the only way to break out of the cycle of violence, whether obvious or hidden, is to reorient our desires away from earthly things and toward Christ. It’s in the imitation of Christ and not each other that we have the best chance to fully enter into the Shaloam of the Kingdom of God.

On this Memorial Day, as we remember those who have served this country, and especially those who have died in its service, let us do what we can to make their sacrifice on the altars of war an historical event and not a current affair.

Public Health: Hyper-Capitalism vs the Common Good

Current Affairs

Julian Long, who always gives us a gift when he blogs, reflecting on his father’s military service and the present pandemic, writes (in a lovely longer essay):

out the backroom window | commonplaces, travel, advocacy, occasional photos, at home in St. Louis . . .:

[T]his memorial day I am thinking again about my father and about this very fine polemic by Marilynne Robinson in the June 11 issue of The New York Review of Books. I cannot know what my father would have made of our present crisis in America, but I like to think he would have recalled his own years in the United States Public Health Service in some meaningful way, for public health as an idea, as a dream, points steadfastly at the same truths Robinson asserts in this essay. Our notion that a system of authentic human flourishing could be based on a competition for wealth could never have been sustained. Such a competition inevitably leads to the vast inequalities we now see as the system collapses around us leaving some of us well off and others destitute, or near destitute. It is at this juncture, when deaths by virus and deaths by despair may be seen to converge. For public health cannot be sustained by a winner-take-all casino economy such as ours. A public subjected to the tyranny of the marketplace is by definition unhealthy. Any public will be sustained in health either by a generalized good will or not at all. And that good will in turn must be sustained by an economy that puts no one in want. Our problem as Americans is that we have subscribed to a zero sum economic ideology that requires poverty in order to generate wealth. We are presently living with a public health system that is characterized by manufactured scarcity, and in that environment “for [many] ordinary people there is no success, no benefit” no means to a healthy life to be had from the common cost benefit analyses to which we are traditionally accustomed. This present might lead us to a common perception of human fragility not unlike my own. Robinson hopes it will, to a revaluation of human nature that might enable us to see again both how fragile we are and how wonderful. As the psalmist knew, we are both ‘fearfully and wonderfully made.’ But there is a sequel to this essay, that I’ll not write today. It might begin (or may) with Robinson’s perception that given our present chaos, and “allowing for regional variations, to the degree that democratic habits persist, the country will get by.”

Julian is right. This pandemic is highlighting the consequences of the choices we have made in the age of the hyper-capitalism of the sort Ayn Rand imagined in her fevered dreams. What we have is not sustainable, it is not just and it will not endure.

This Memorial Day, when we remember those who gave their lives in service of an idea, who sacrificed for the Common Good rather than personal, maybe we can take a moment to imagine what it would like to get off the road we have been traveling. The sooner we do, the sooner we can move onward to the perfection of the dream and ideals we have held imperfectly for so long.

Coronavirus: How Will We Ever Be Safe Inside? – The Atlantic

Current Affairs

Quick post to point people to this article in The Atlantic. Derek Thompson collects the best and most recent information about how the coronavirus is spread. He points to what South Korea learned studying a particular spreading event in an office building:

Coronavirus: How Will We Ever Be Safe Inside? – The Atlantic:

In its conclusion, the Korean CDC writes that the spread of the virus was almost entirely limited to the one floor “despite considerable interaction between workers on different floors in the elevators and lobby.” This would suggest that the main facilitator wasn’t common touch points, such as doors and elevator buttons, but rather common airspace. When people talk—or sneeze or cough—they produce respiratory droplets that can come to rest in other people’s mouths, noses, and lungs. Talking for hours in close quarters, in an unventilated space, can create an ideal petri dish for COVID-19 transmission.

It would be irresponsible to use the Korean study an an illustrative example if it were an outlier. But its main finding is fully in line with the emerging scientific consensus. On Thursday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its summary of COVID-19 transmission to clarify that the virus “does not spread easily” from touching surfaces or objects—like, say, elevator buttons. Instead, they wrote, “the virus is thought to spread mainly from person-to-person … through respiratory droplets.”

He goes on to suggest some steps that offices can take to cut down the virus spread among workers. Some of those changes, particular upgrades to HVAC systems are going to be out of the reach of smaller businesses already struggling. That’s why our staff is working remotely for the rest of the summer. (We’ll see where we are in September and make a decision about the rest of the year then.)

The article continues with a discussion of restaurants and public entertainment. There are lessons for faith communities in both. Nothing terribly surprising, but we’re going to need time to think about what has to happen next to keep people safe. Go read the article. It’s helpful.


Current Affairs

TEOTWAWKI. “The End of the World as we know it” is an old meme. You can read countless sci-fi novels (I have!) that use a moment of cataclysmic change to frame the narrative arc of the hero’s journey (a la Joseph Campbell). Watch Star Wars, watch the Avenger’s Movie series, etc and you’ll see what I mean.

So does this present season of pandemic presage a turning of the age in human history? Maybe? Likely not. At least not in the sense that we’re going to reset the board, reconstruct our economy on new ideas, and give up all the destructive behaviors (whatever you happen to think those are) that have gone before. There have been pandemics before. There have been two or three in the last few decades (SARS, Ebola, AIDS). Most of those have happened in places or to people who were marginalized in the zeitgeist of the West and so we didn’t imagine that they presaged a TEOTWAWKI moment.

The last couple of pandemics in the United States, Polio and the “Spanish” Flu changed things in this country, but didn’t reset the board or wipe the slate clean. It’s worth taking a look at the impact the 1918 epidemic had. Yascha Mounk does that in The Atlantic framing the conversation in terms of the idea of “chronocentrism”.

After the Coronavirus, Prepare for the Roaring Twenties – The Atlantic:

When confronted with disaster, believing that everything will change is all too easy. How is it possible to write poems after Auschwitz, to enjoy a Sunday stroll in Lower Manhattan following 9/11, or, indeed, to dine in restaurants after a pandemic kills hundreds of thousands of people in the span of a few cruel months?

In 1974, the sociologist Jib Fowles coined the term chronocentrism, “the belief that one’s own times are paramount, that other periods pale in comparison.” The past few weeks have, understandably, confronted us with an especially loud chorus of chronocentric voices claiming that we are on the cusp of unprecedented change. Academics, intellectuals, politicians, and entrepreneurs have made sweeping pronouncements about the transformations that the pandemic will spur.

Do read the article.

And then keep a question in front of you. Clearly things have been changing. Given the rise of the cyber network and the virtualization of work and experience, as well as the pressure of Climate Change, we are heading into a future that will be different. But will the different happen in an eye blink over a few generations? Will we, like the Romans living at the end of their Empire (as denoted by historians looking back) notice that things have come to an end and a new thing begun – or is that only possible with hindsight?

For the Church, I guess I’m cautious about imaging now is the time for bold, paradigm shattering responses. I know that things need to change, but I’ve been around long enough to know that people have been telling me that everything will be different next year for years. Things will change, but over decades not months. The good news is that we will have time to adapt. The bad news is that unjust structures will continue to exist longer than we had hoped and prayed.

One of my favorite passages in the Bible is in 13th chapter of Matthew: the wise person, fit for the new reign of God is the one who uses old wisdom and new insights to inhabit what is breaking in upon us all. (My paraphrase). This seems particularly apt for a moment like this.