Saturday, January 07, 2012

Skepticism regarding "Youth Ministry"

Young Christians leave the Church in droves, yet the only institutional answer seems to be that we need to pour more resources into "youth ministry." Perhaps youth ministry is the illness, not the cure. I don't think Christians should reject all aspects of youth ministry as facilely as we currently embrace it, but I think some honest assessment of the fruit and effectiveness of youth ministry is far overdue.

I dare say that the church has never seen the commitment of time, attention, and resources to youth ministry as we have seen over the last fifty years. And yet the pace at which youth drop out of the church seems only to have accelerated during this period.

To be sure, we need also to consider the possibility that youth would have dropped out at a much higher rate in the absence of youth ministries in churches, but that is a claim that also needs to be demonstrated rather than assumed.

Below is a skeptical documentary. I think it expresses too much assurance in its criticism of youth ministry, but it does set the ground for a discussion.

Thursday, January 05, 2012

What we're listening to today

Been in sort of a Glass mood. There's a lot I like. I like Floe from Glassworks quite a bit.

And also Pruit Igoe from Koyannisqatsi. It gets really good just before the midpoint.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Imprecatory Prayer in the Psalms

I posted these thoughts previously, but a thought during Sunday school brought them back to mind, so I thought I'd repost. . .

I don't want to "get around" imprecatory prayers for sentimental reasons. I also reject C.S. Lewis’s idea that they exist in the Psalms as examples of the way we shouldn’t pray. I also don’t want to mitigate the problematic nature of these prayers merely by “spiritualizing” away the problem.

But it did strike me a while ago that that I pray imprecatory prayers against myself all the time, and I welcome others to pray imprecatory prayers against me as well. In his small catechism, Luther talks about us drowning the old Adam in us daily, that a new man should daily emerge. What is this but a prayer of imprecation against the old Adam in us?

God kills the old man (Col 3.3, Ro 6.2,6, Gal 2.20, 6.14,). This is the only “me” that exists prior to baptism, and this is a real death, it is a death more real than physical death. After all, in physical death the spirit separates from the body; the death of the old man is the extinction of this self.

I pray imprecatory prayers against myself, and welcome others to do so as well: I pray that every remnant of the old man would be cut off from this world. I pray that every remembrance of the old man would be forgotten, I pray that every cent of the old Adam's wealth be taken away and given to the new man, I want the entire legacy of the old man to die with him. Indeed, I bless the name of the one who dashes my Old Adam's little ones against the rock – for the rock is Christ (Mt 21.44) and, like me, they are killed in baptism so that the new man may emerge.

But if I want all of that for myself, then how can I deny it to my enemy, whom I am commanded to love as myself? So I pray that God would kill them as well through baptism, that the new man may emerge.

More so, isn't the prayer, "God forgive them, they know not what they do," in principle, a prayer of imprecation? After all, isn't it a prayer for the destruction of sinful man?

To be sure, God may destroy without converting. But that's his business. We are to take as our example God's actions in sending rain on both the good and the evil (Mt 5.45). So I pray that God drown the old man daily. I pray it zealously for myself, for his church, and for the whole world. The prayer for grace and forgiveness is a prayer of imprecation against the old, evil man.

More generally, God and his people are engaged in a holy war against Satan and his people, and the tools of this holy war are the Word and sacraments, and sacrifice on behalf of the world. Ironically, of course, and it is a delicious irony, God kills the evil one's people by giving them life.

"Nothing but a breath, a comma, separates life from life everlasting"

A great discussion of several topics from Professor Ashford, a character in Margaret Edson's play, Wit. In the "it's-about-'life-after-life'" category and not "life after death" is Ashford's comments about the punctuation in the last line of a poem by John Donne. "Nothing but a breath, a comma, separates life, from life everlasting." Wonderfully put.

"A Little Allegory of the Soul" -- "The Runaway Bunny" in "Wit"

We watched the HBO production of Wit last night. (Meg and I watched it originally over 15 years ago.) The Pulitzer-winning play is by Margaret Edson. This production starred Emma Thompson. The penultimate scene has Vivian's mentor (actually, her dissertation advisor) visit her during her last minutes. Her mentor reads The Runaway Bunny to her, making a few trenchant observations about the story while doing so. Well worth viewing (as is the entire play).

Friday, December 16, 2011

The Global Entry Program

I recently enrolled in the U.S. Customs and Border Protection's Global Entry program. It was a lot easier and quicker than I thought it would be.

Global Entry allows you to bypass the regular immigration line when flying into the U.S. from overseas (not including Canada or Mexico) and enter using your passport at a Kiosk (plus a scan of your fingerprints). After immigration, you can still get searched at customs, of course, but CBP puts a "CBP" sticker on your passport that's supposed to show the custom's agent and help move things more quickly there as well. We'll see.

Maybe because I lead such a boring life it's clear from the get-go that I'm a "low-risk traveler." But it took me maybe a week from application to approval - and it would have taken even a shorter time if I had been able to get to a major airport sooner than the week after I applied. (At the CBP office at the airport they took my fingerprints and my photo.)

The application asks for somewhat more information than, say, a credit card application, but it's a lot shorter than, say, a mortgage application. It took me maybe 30 minutes to fill out the application on-line.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Award Nomination for Prison Ministry

This week I quite unexpectedly received a letter from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice informing me that the local prison unit where I lead the "New Man" program had nominated me for “one of the prestigious Governor’s Criminal Justice Awards.” A nomination does not of course guarantee selection – indeed, I believe that there are much-more involved volunteers out there who deserve the award much more than I, and I hope and expect that they will receive the actual award. But, to say the least, I was flattered – and totally surprised - that the Unit would even think of nominating me.

"Coming on the clouds" = Ascension in Mt 26.64

First, for the moment let's ignore the question of whether Jesus is explicitly quoting Ps 110.1 and Dn 7.13 in Mt 26.64.

Whether or not there's an intertextual reference, it would seem that Jesus says in the verse that "sitting on the right hand of the might one" and "coming on the clouds of heaven" describes a single set of events, not two separate sets of events that are separated by thousands of years (or tens of thousands, or more, of years).

There are two items in the verse that seem to suggest that. First, note the timing of when Jesus says that the high priest and the Sanhedrin will "see" Jesus. Secondly, note the connection between sitting on the throne and coming on the clouds. I.e., the "and."

NIV: "From now on, you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven."

ESV: "From now on, you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven."

NAS: "Hereafter, you will see the son of man sitting at the right hand of power, and coming on the clouds of heaven.”

So whatever Jesus is referring to here, it would seem that he is describing two aspects of one thing, and this one thing will be "seen" by the high priest and the Sanhedrin starting very close in time to the point at which Jesus is then talking to them. ("From now on"; "hereafter.")

Secondly, now let's take the intertextual move. The reference to being "seated at the right hand of power" would seem to be the more obvious reference in the verse. As I understand it, first century Judaism understood Ps 110.1 to speak of the expected messiah. Hence the Sanhedrin's reaction when Jesus identified his claim to be the messiah (under penalty of perjury) by applying Ps 110.1 to himself.

Whether or not the members of the Sanhedrin understood Ps 110.1 to speak to anything like the ascension as it fully occured with Jesus, it certinaly does speak to an exaltation that provoked the Sanhedrin. And this exaltation is consistent with Jesus' actual ascension. Further, on the day of Pentecost, Peter expressly invokes Ps 110.1 as fulfilled in Jesus' ascension (Acts 2.34).

So we know that Ps 110.1 speaks to Jesus' ascension.

Now return to Mt 26.64. Given that Jesus refers to the seating at God's right hand AND his coming on the clouds in glory as coterminus events that would soon start, and continue, to occur, then I would submit that the "coming on the clouds" would have been understood by the Sanhedrin to refer to the same thing that the Sanhedrin would "see" when they saw Jesus seated at the right hand of power - namely, his ascended position.

Given the language, there is no reason to push up the timing of Jesus' "coming on the clouds" to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., let alone pushing it thousands of years into the future (so far) to refer to Jesus coming at the end of history.

This undertanding would seem to be fortified by Dan 7.13, where one "like a son of man" "comes" "with the clouds of heaven" and is presented before the Ancient of Days.

So we know that the "coming on the clouds" language does not have to refer to Jesus coming back to hear on the clouds, but can refer to this son of man coming to heaven for presentation before God the Father.

Given Jesus' statements in Mt 26.64, I'd suggest that the reference to Jesus presentation before the father would be the most reasonable understanding of his statement, and that that would be the way the Sanhedrin understood it and responded to it: Given that Jesus identifies himself in Mt 26.64 and throughout the Gosepls as the "son of man" and given that Jesus was taken up in the clouds in his ascension (Acts 1.9), and given that Jesus' ascension is the point he invokes by referring to Ps 110.1, and given that the "coming on the clouds" is linked temporally and in signficance to being "seated at the right hand of power," and given that this heaven-ward movement of the "son of man" is discussed in Dan 7.13, then it seems reasonable to understand Jesus' reference to the son of man coming on the clouds of heaven to be a reference to his ascension as well, and to think that that's what the Sanhedrin understood Jesus to be saying in his sworn testimony to them in v. 64 as well.

Monday, December 05, 2011

Your eternal life with God has already begun – So start living it!

We hear it all the time – that the Christian hope is that we go to live in heaven forever with Jesus when we die. While there is a shade of truth to that statement, it misses a lot; it misses most of how Christians live in eternity.

The idea that Christianity is about going to live forever in heaven when you die not only focuses on a very minor part of our lives in the Age to Come, but it also creates a wrong sort of heavenly mindedness. It invites Christians to think that our eternal lives do not start until we die. In so doing it has us miss the big point that Jesus brought with him: that heaven has already invaded earth in Jesus Christ. Our eternal lives have already begun; we have already become heavenly people. And this realization cannot help but dramatically affect the way we live today. We are to live as the heavenly people that God has already created us to be.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Let’s first discuss a narrower point before launching into the broader implications.

The narrow point: The eternal hope for the Christian is not, and has never been, to be a disembodied soul living eternally in heaven. The Christian’s eternal hope is the reunion of body and soul. To be sure, between our deaths and the resurrection of our bodies there is a temporary period of time in which Christians live as disembodied spirits in heaven. But Christians don’t live that way eternally. The Christian expectation is that we live eternally as souls embodied in resurrected physical bodies in a new physical heaven and earth (see, e.g., 1 Co 15.20,23, Jn 5.28-29, Rev 20.4-6, 13, Acts 24.14-15). This is the “resurrection of the body” that the Church has affirmed for millennia in the Apostles’ Creed.

But there’s a bigger point at stake than playing “gotch ya” with theological language. Talking about spending eternity in heaven with Jesus after we die obscures the fact that our eternal lives have already begun; we don’t need to wait until we die before we begin living it.

Jesus brought heaven to earth not so that humanity could inherit heaven at some distant future time, but so that people could start living with God now.

While verses could be multiplied, just consider what Jesus tells us in the Gospel of John, “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears My word, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life” (John 5.24).

Note the verb tense. Jesus does not say that the believer “will have eternal life” when the believer hears his word and believes God. Jesus says that the believer “has eternal life” and “has passed out of death into life.” This is what the believer has now.

This is critical. We are God’s people, now. Jesus restored our lost fellowship with God, now. God has given us eternal life, now. Eternal life is not something that we begin after we die. Eternal life is what we have already been given, now.

And since this is true, now, then it cannot help but dramatically affect how we live, now.

We exist now as a new humanity (Eph 4.24, Col 3.10), bearing as children the image of the new Adam (1 Co 15.45, Ro 5.14) of the new Creation (Ro 8.29, 2 Co 5.17), himself the very image of very God (2 Co 4.4, Col 1.15). We live now as a heavenly people on and in earth (Eph 2.6, Phil 1.27, 3.20, Col 3.1, Heb 12.22) being Spirit-filled temples of God (1 Co 3.16), being the points at which heaven now meets earth. We live now as people of the Age to Come. In Christ, we, the church, now are the intruders in this fallen age. The New Creation has already been birthed in the midst of the old.

So our eternal lives have begun already, and we do not need to wait for our life-after-death to begin. Indeed, since God kills and resurrects us in baptism, in the most real sense our life-after-death has already begun. (Physical death, after all, is a piffle compared to spiritual death – from which we have already been resurrected, Mt 10.28.)

Talk about Christians doing “good works” doesn’t really capture the full picture here. Given that we are already a heavenly, eternal people, just what would we expect to be doing, except heavenly and eternal things? There is no hunger in the age to come, so we feed the hungry here. There is no nakedness in the age to come, so we clothe the naked here. There are no prisons in the age to come, so we go into prisons to visit the Christians there as we would visit Christians on the outside.

Yes, these things are “good works.” But they are perhaps more importantly just a reflection of who we are as an already-created heavenly people. The Age to Come is inaugurated already in the Church and in the Christian.

None of this is intended to push an overly-realized eschatology. Christians in this age struggle to drown the old Adam daily. But by pushing the start of our eternal lives as a new humanity into the future after we die, I believe that we sell short the new man that God has already created us to be in Jesus Christ now. This is to fight the old Adam with one hand tied behind our backs.
The Christian’s eternal life has already begun. We don’t need to wait to die to start living it. We are already living our eternal lives.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Tribute to British Soldiers who Died at Kohima

Gerhard Weinberg quotes this verse honoring the British soldiers who died fighting the Japanese in India at the start of his 1994 book, A World at Arms:

"When you go home
Tell them of us, and say:
For your tomorrow,
We gave our today."