13 November 2009

Good Book Groups Make Good Pastors

"God is utterly committed to set the world right in the end. This doctrine, like that of resurrection itself, is held firmly in place by the belief in God as creator, on the one side, and the belief in his goodness, on the other. And that setting right must necesarily involve the elimination of all that distorts God's good and lovely creation and in particular of all that defaces his image-bearing human creatures. Not to put to fine a point on it, there will be no barbed wire in the kingdom of God. And those whose whole being has become dependent upon barbed wire will have no place there, either."
Bishop N.T. Wright
Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven,
the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church

There are days when being a pastor doesn't involve much. On those days, you find yourself tending to the details of administrivia, as a few of my blogger friends have put it; picking hymns, moving around the building and putting things where they belong, thinking about the nuts and bolts of the day-to-day operation and administration of a community of faith. You buy communion wine, make sure someone's baking the bread, pick up some napkins from the store, figure out what kind of donut holes you should have for Bible Study on Sunday morning. And, for God's sake, don't forget the coffee. :-) Like most jobs, these kind of days make up a lot of what I do - they are unremarkable, but generally enjoyable as well.

Then you have days like today. Days like today are what make what I do a vocation, not just a job. We have a group of folks meeting at University Lutheran Center every Friday to read and discuss books. I call it Theology for Lunch, though in truth there's only a few of us who eat and the group predates my time here, so it's more a title to go on the calendar than anything else. Currently we're reading the book quoted above, and after almost three months of slogging through introductory stuff, today we finally hit the meat of the matter. My heavens, was it ever a good conversation today.

There are a lot of reasons to love a group like this. For one thing, we can disagree without demonizing, a rare commodity. Granted, we're a fairly cohesive group politically and theologically, but we do have varying opinions on matters, and, more importantly, a few members who are unwilling to let generalizations and poorly-explained arguments slide. You better bring your "A" game to this group, and it better be good. At the same time, we've been together long enough that we can confess to ignorance, stereotyping and frustration with certain aspects of our lives. The combination of willingness to argue and agreement to respect makes for a lot of good discussion.

In the chapter we read for today, "Purgatory, Paradise and Hell," Wright really made some spectacularly cogent arguments toward what I think is a more fruitful understanding of, as he calls it, "life after life after death." I especially connected with the idea that even though God is indeed determined to right the wrongs of this world, God is NOT interested in maintaining the divisions we so painstakingly construct between ourselves. When we were discussing the paragraph quoted above, there were a number of different images people admitted came to their minds: the U.S. Mexican border and our problems dealing with immigration, gated communities, and, most importantly, I believe, Christians who seem to base their entire existence on proving they know exactly who is in and who is out when it comes to salvation. Any time the idea of heaven and hell get weaponized, Wright argues, we're missing the whole point, and I agree wholeheartedly.

One of the reasons I remain an ELCA Lutheran is because in our theology I find precious little evidence of walls and barbed wire constructed for their own sake. The Augsburg Confession, our "constitution of faith," if you will, states that preaching of the gospel and administration of the sacraments are all that is required for the unity of the church. Everything else is adiaphora, matters about which we are free to decide what seems best in our local ministries. This can lead to an ungodly mess at times - witness the current brouhahas brewing over sex and money in our denomination. But these things are not the pillars upon which the church stands or falls, contrary to what some will say. So long as we have only the gospel and the sacraments, the preaching and the presence of Christ in His church, we have all that is necessary.

One of the things that got Jesus most in trouble with the authorities in his day was the way he kept tearing down walls they had built to increase their power. It seems to me God's been doing that for quite some time: we find ways to box God in so we can be in control, God gets busy busting loose and tearing down the spiritual barbed wire we've so painstakingly used to imprison ourselves. Frost was right: "Something there is that doesn't love a wall," and today it seems to me that God, also, doesn't love a wall. "...no barbed wire in the kingdom of God." Sounds good to me.

Grace and peace,

1 comment:

  1. Good Afternoon,
    I just wanted to say thanks for pointing to the pillars of Lutheransim so plainly.
    It's about time we start to see that our faith stands and falls on the word and the sacraments. We have so many reified audiophorans, you've got a much better term "theological barbed wire", that are being used to isolate and seperate one member from the rest of the body of Christ today.
    I remain an ELCA Lutheran because other Lutheran bodies I've seen have added more imparitives to the Gospel. My prayer for the ELCA is that we don't start adding imperatives of our own.
    John, an Unlikely Pastor.