Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Repentance in Pentecost?

We are still in the season of Pentecost, absorbing and seeking to live out the awesome implications of being filled with the Holy Spirit, which first descended like tongues of fire on believers gathered "with one accord in one place" in New Testament times. One often wonders whether in our case the fire is in danger of going out. Surely God offers it no less, for his Spirit is eternal. What then can one say about Pentecost seeming so distant, so improbable in today's religious world?

Samuel Miller, in his penetrating book on The Dilemna of Modern Belief (Harper & Row, 1963) sees the fault in us. "We domesticated God, stripped Him of awe and majesty, trapped Him in nets of ideas, meticulously knotted in a thousand logical criscrosses; cornered Him ecclesiastically, taught Him our rules, dressed Him in our vanity, and trained Him to acknowledge our tricks and bow to our ceremonial expectations.

"After some time," Miller continues, "it was difficult to see any difference between God and what we believed, what we did, what we said, or what we were. God and our church, God and our morals, God and our belief, God and our class, God and our feelings, God and our scruples, God and our vanities--all were one."

Miller is so bold as to claim that even "atheism usually appears in the world as the void left by inadequate representations of God."

May it be time this far removed from the first Pentecost to repent from our penchant for thus delaying another? Has Miller catalogued anything in his stinging analysis that may be true of you and me? Are we without guilt, in no need of repentance?

Self-satisfaction is nowhere more dangerous than when equated with spirituality. To pray for the coming of the Holy Spirit among us is fruitless apart from our willingness to repent of any sinful attitude that stands in God's way.

How grateful we can all be be that our Triune God is as patient and loving as he is. Ever creating new life and providing for its redemption in Jesus Christ, he also still sends his Spirit to speak to each of us in our own language.

May he open among us every window we tend to want closed and break down all the walls behind which we so often hide, that we may once again experience together the joy of our salvation and the fresh, renewing winds of his Spirit!

Friday, April 25, 2008

Can America Face Its Faults? Can You? Can I?

In the mailstrom of American political life these days, one senses both a profound weariness and deep frustration. Political rhetoric is part of that, the planting and corrupting of images to serve private ambition and gain public support. So also is 24/7 media coverage, ostensibly aimed at uncovering every bit of minutia along the way to serve the public interest, yet often bound itself, one feels, by an almost consuming need to gain personal advantage over competing media in search of ratings.

While there is justifyable reason to be weary of it all, it would be presumptive to lay the blame entirely on politicians and the media. There is enough to blame in the body politic as well, which includes all of us. How often do you and I, in hurling epithets at others, do so to gain personal advantage and score points for our own benefit and point of view? And why are the politicians and the media acting as they are if not to find a way to serve our self-interest and thus promote their own?

One wonders, in fact, if the greatest issue before us as Americans is one of political persuasion or who wins and who loses. In the deepening American fascination over image-making we are, all of us, whether we recognize it or not, prostituting our character as a nation.

Can America face its own faults? Only if you do, and I do, privately and publically. Scripture makes no promise that a nation in many ways favored by God will continue in his favor if it squanders its inheritance in selfish living. We need to repent, all of us, of every stubborn prejudice that feeds our present political malaise. Christians, especially, must lead in this, lest we be untrue to the character God has shown us in Jesus Christ.

Monday, April 21, 2008

The Power of One Little Transitional Word

"You now have sorrow; but I will see you again and your heart shall rejoice, and your joy no man shall take from you" (italics mine). Time stood still for me on hearing that one little word repeated twice--aber in German, but or however in English--sung by a soaring soprano introducing the fifth section of "A German Requiem" by Johannes Brahms.

The performance earlier this evening by an enlarged Salem Choir accompanied by two pianos, harp, and timpani, was stunning! An extended introduction to the piece by our director, Beverly Scripter, was very helpful in setting the stage, especially in explaining why it was important to sing it in German, with the English translation alongside, line by line. Her musical insights and notations also whetted our appetite for what was to follow.

Among the many things that struck me, too many to note here, was the dramatic repitition of that aber, so central in my mind to the dynamic character of the Christian faith. We will all die, Brahms affirms with Scripture, and our journey through life will evidence pain and reasons for sorrow and grief. Here, far from having an abiding city, we can only seek one that is to come. But (there's that strong word aber once more!) repeated forcefully and dramatically transforms all life by announcing Christ's resurrection promise, "I will see you again and your heart shall rejoice."

Little could I know, moved as I was in that moment, how healing and energizing that one little transitional word would be for me through the rest of the day and into the night. Surely none of us, short of playing games with reality, can deny that we continue to know pain and sorrow and grief. But (Aber again!) the staying power of all that has been broken for us by God and his Word. He has issued an eternal promise that he will never leave us or forsake us, and that "he who has begun a good work among [us] will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ" (Philippians 1:6). Hallelujah! So be it! Amen!

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Discord and Harmony

Early this evening, after supper, the wonderful harmonies of stereophonic music are bringing peace and joy to my soul. What a relief from all the discords of cable TV, so totally absorbed these days with endless shufflings and reshufflings of our discordant political landscape.

Weary of watching, Alyce and I decided to fill the air with music this evening, while she engages upstairs in making new curtains for our living and dining room and I am down in my study writing. Speakers in both places surround us with sound that somehow clears our minds for labors we each love. Togetherness does not require our being in the same room. To be home and spiritually engaged--in sewing as in writing--unites our spirits and creates a harmony between us not unlike that in the music that accompanies our labors.

The place of music in our lives is enormous, far too massive to catalogue here. Everything from the songs we grew up with--sacred and secular--to singing in choirs, attending concerts, listening to a wide variety of records and CDs, to performing together as soloist and pianist, has added to the richness of our pilgrimage through life.

Thank God that not withstanding the discords we all are required to face, there are harmonies everywhere that can renew our perspective and give us hope. One needs occasionally to shut out the noise of life to be enveloped again with its harmonies. And as one is thus enveloped it is important to reflect the harmonies in the midst of the discord.

In Colossians 3 the Apostle Paul puts it well: Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth... With gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him (vv. 2, 16b-17).

Tuesday, April 15, 2008


"What will heaven be like?" I happened in on a study group of women at Salem Covenant in New Brighton who were wondering. The question caught me a bit off guard, and I have been pondering it ever since.

There are a whole lot of things to be said, I suppose, drawing on Jesus' frequent words, "The kingdom of heaven is like...." Mustard seed came particularly to mind--a thing of hardly any consequence given its diminutive size, yet amazingly powerful when properly sown, as intended, on earth.

The more I thought about it, the temptaion to think of heaven simply as a place--which it is, awaiting us after we die--trying to figure out what it will be like "over there," is probably to miss the essence of it, here and now, present among us. "If it is by the finger of God that I cast out the demons," Jesus said, "then the kingdom of God has come to you" (Luke 11:20).

Really? Come to us? Here and now? Indeed! Not in its final form to be sure, yet actually--for all with eyes to see and ears to hear. God appearing to Moses on the mountain and Isaiah in the temple; Christ taking on our human flesh, and the Spirit descending to earth at Pentecost--all seeds of what both is and is to come, what theologians have called for a long time "realized eschatology."

"Don't wait and wonder," I said in essence, both to the women and to myself. "Experience it now, for in Christ it is all around you and, indeed, within."

The key, I have come to see in a fresh new way, is to view the kingdom not first as a place but as the power of relationship to God and others given us by his grace. Whether here today or there beyond tomorrow, the wonder of the kingdom of heaven lies in accepting God's coming to us so that we may come alive in him.

The Apostle Paul said it well: "We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord's. For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living" (Romans 14:7-9).

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Roots and Wings

I walk before the Lord of the living (Psalm 116:9)

They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship,
to the breaking of bread and the prayers
(Acts 2:42)

Father Abraham, Scripture says, "journeyed on my stages" (Genesis 12:9). Don't we all? Faith is a pilgrimage from start to finish, rooted inevitably for each of us in where we have come from and who we are as persons winging our way to "a land we know not where."

Every stage along the way is marked by our humanity-the good in us God's image and the bad in us our sin. Soren Kierkegaard wrote a whole book about Stages on Life's Way, in a new edition of which (Princeton University Press, 1988), Howard and Edna Hong write:

No writer can totally expunge his experience from his writing, but, as Paul Sponheim observes, it would be an error to regard Stages 'as an exercise in biography' or autobiography. Just as a creative writer transmits whatever leaden elements of experience enter into his imaginative work, the assiduous hunter after autobiographical data tends to reverse the process from gold to lead. A better approach is given by Emanuel Hirsch, who points out that Stages is the work of one who. out of his suffering and thought. seeks to guide a reader to a personal understanding of penitence and faith (p. xv, underline mine).

Through all the stages of my life, from infancy on through childhood, the teenage years, college and seminary training, marriage and family, pastoral work, and journalistic engagement, it is clear to me looking both backward and forward that what has mattered most and still does is not the detail of my life but its essence at every stage along the way. What personal experiences of penitence and faith have marked that pilgrimage? Where has God been in my life through the years, and where is he now urging me on?

Gathered by history--my own as well as the whole story of God's people--I want also to be gathering others like you, that together, out of our roots and life experience, we may move forward thoughtfully and purposefully, in penitence and faith, under the wings of God's Spirit.