Advent In-Sight: The Magi’s Window

It comes as a surprise to some to discover that astrologers were the first persons to be told that the King of the Jews was going to be born, and even more, that they saddled up (complete with valuable gifts) to make their journey to his birthplace and pay him homage.

Through them, we are invited to look at Advent through the creation window, for the Babe of Bethlehem is none other than the Cosmic Christ–the Lord of all creation–the one through whom all things came into being.  The Son of God–second person of the Holy Trinity–became flesh, and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.

These astronomers received their first glimpse of this incarnation as they read what saints of the ages have called “God’s first book.”  And still today, many first sense God’s reality by observing creation–whether it be a day at the beach, a hike on a mountain trail, or sitting almost breathless before an amazing sunset. The God who was satisfied to use the stars to get the Magi’s attention, is still pleased when creation becomes a window through which we look to see the divine.

“O Little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie.  Above thy deep and dreamless sleep, the silent stars go by…”

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Journey: Holy Evolution

Read:  “The Great Conversation”

As we move from the Old Testament into the New Testament, McLaren wants us to make the transition realizing that “we make the road by walking” as a people whose experience is unfolding and maturing.
As a hermeneutical principle, it means what E. Stanley Jones often said, “I am a Christian under construction. God isn’t finished with me yet.”

Just as we can see changes taking place in the Israelites as we read the Old Testament, we must read Scripture with a willingness to allow God to change us along the way.  Otherwise, we become fossilized in a singular view that was not itself intended to be a once-for-all experience.  From story to story, God was shaping the people of God, and God continues the same formative process in us.

This is not relativism, it is what theologians call progressive revelation.  It means that the message God wants us to have in the present is the accumulated wisdom that has evolved over the centuries and not what a single story found somewhere in the Bible may have to say.

McLaren readily admits that to read the Bible in this way “presents a morally complex and dynamic world where the best of us can do wrong and the worst of us can do right.”  So, by its very nature, the Bible will not us allow to isolate one view from others, and it certainly will not approve our using an isolated view as ammunition against someone else.  But sadly, we do this all the time–and part of the reason we do it is because we have lost sight of the progressive revelation which is in Scripture itself.

We must, says McLaren, allow all five voices in Scripture inform and form us : priests, prophets, poets, sages, and storytellers.  He calls this dynamic “the great conversation,” and challenges us to keep it going today.

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For the Bride: Special Report

Since last April, when I wrote ‘For the Sake of the Bride,’ I have read more on the subject of human sexuality than during any comparable period in my life.  Maybe it is the scholar in me, but I have intentionally read across the spectrum: Non-Affirming (e.g.Michael Brown, Robert Gagnon, Albert Mohler), Moderate (e.g.Stanley Grenz, Richard Hays, N.T. Wright), and Affirming.  I continue a reading plan that increases both my depth and breadth.  That is not only fair; it is a mandate for me as I seek to have a credible voice on the subject.

I want to focus this post on the Affirming authors, because I recently took note of a Conservative source that implied–again–that it is impossible to hold a non-traditional view and be orthodox, and certainly not evangelical.  Well, this is another of those myths that keeps maintaining a life of its own, despite the fact that it is not true.

I know that what follows will not change the minds of those whose binary thinking only gives them two categories to work with: biblical/unbiblical.  But for those of you who sincerely want to read and ponder the works of credible (even esteemed) scholars who hold together their orthodoxy and affirming convictions, I offer the following resources…

(1) Dr. Mark Achtemier, ‘The Bible’s Yes to Same-Sex Marriage’

(2) Dr. James V. Brownson, ‘Bible, Gender, Sexuality’

(3) Dr. David P. Gushee, ‘Changing Our Mind’

(4) Dr. Jack Rogers, ‘Jesus, the Bible, and Homosexuality’

(5) Dr. Dan Via, ‘Homosexuality and the Bible: Two Views’

I have intentionally kept this list short and focused on scholars in the academy.  But I would hasten to recommend the books and writings of Matthew Vines, Ken Wilson, Kathy Baldock, John Shore, and Rachel Held Evans–again, to name a few.

Whether your exploration of these resources changes your mind, at least it should put to rest the notion that you have to choose between being orthodox and being affirming.  You do not.

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For the Bride: The God Window

Continuing our exploration of hermeneutics, we come to realize that our concept of God largely determines how we view the Christian message.  If we view God as essentially angry with us (even if it is righteous indignation), we will almost certainly gravitate to the passages where wrath and judgment are the dominant themes.  The message will be more “get right with God”—repent!  God is Judge.  The court room is the playing field.

If we see God as essentially favorable toward us, we will highlight those places in the Bible where God’s goodness and grace are found.  The message will be more, “draw near to God”—return!  God is Love!  The path to the Father’s house is the playing field.

Of course, the Gospel includes both; I am only describing the leading edge of the message–an edge which is observable over a period of time–an edge which recipients of the message feel more than we do as we send it to them. We might call it a theological first impression.

For this reason, some think of hermeneutics as little more than a religious version of “pick and choose,” a hopeless victim of subjectivism.  But that is not true.  Instead, hermeneutics is an act of faith–a response to our dominant view of Who God is, and an ordering of the Christian message that is a sacred bet our version of The Story is the way God means for things to be.

Two implications immediately arise from this view of hermeneutics.  First, we must come down somewhere.  There is nothing to be gained by going no farther than saying, “There are a number of ways to interpret this passage.” Of course there! But instead of this, we must move from reporting to witnessing by prayerfully and carefully choosing our vantage point and then preaching/teaching/living it with as much wisdom, passion, and integrity as we can.

And second, we must carry it all to a round table, where iron can sharpen iron–where everyone can contribute and where everyone can learn.  Three things happen when iron sharpens iron: some of our iron flakes off and falls away, the remaining iron gets better, and sparks fly that get a fire going: what Christians before us have called “the fire of love.”

In other words, hermeneutics serves a higher purpose than creating a point of view we can retreat into, or one we can use to judge everyone else with.  It exists to give us a view to hold–one to carry to the place of holy conversation where edification for all can occur.  When this happens, hermeneutics reveals everyone had some iron–that no one was carrying lead, straw, wood,, or paper.

Standing at the God window, we can sing, “And I think to myself, what a wonderful world!”

(If you do not have my book ‘For the Sake of the Bride’ on which these weekly writings are based, here is the Amazon link for it:

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In -Sight: Gratitude

I am not a fan of cliches, or bumper-sticker slogans.  But when I pay closer attention to them, I can see that they sometimes arise from, or point to, something larger.  And so it is this year as I see and hear the cliche, “Thanksgiving is thanks living.”

I pause over this phrase and instead of being left with, “Oh, no!  Not again!” I walk through the words like a doorway and find some important things to recover and to use in my spiritual formation.

First, I remember that gratitude is the primary response to grace.  Thanksgiving is living with the spirit if appreciation alive in my soul. Gratitude is a sign that I no longer consider myself to be the center of the universe, but rather understand that I am the blessed recipient of God’s grace and the generosity of others.  Thanksgiving is thanks living in response to grace.

Second, I remember that thanksgiving can exist in the dark places, tight spots, and tough situations.  Why?  Because God is with us!  And because (as the saints put it), God uses everything.  I learn and grow through consolation and desolation, through good times and bad.  Thanksgiving is thanks living open to the whole of life.

And third, I remember that what I have received can be shared with others.  Others can drink from the wells God has enabled me to dig on my journey (cf. Psalm 84:6). I am not on the earth for myself alone.  Thanksgiving means thanks living for the sake of others.

Next week, we will celebrate Thanksgiving with friends and family. A cliche cannot do it justice, but it’s not a bad place to start.

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Journey: The Stuff of Story

[Note:  I have realized that our meditations are not in sync with McLaren’s envisioned plan to read Chapter 14 the first week of Advent.  So, as a way to achieve that synchronization, I am skipping Chapters 9, 10, and 11–and moving us to Chapter 12 today.]

Read: “Stories That Shape Us”

When I began this book, I wondered how McLaren could possibly cover the time before Jesus in thirteen chapters, but I intentionally did not read ahead and try to find out prematurely.  I figured the answer would emerge from following the journey week after week, and so it has.

After rooting us in the creation reality and the early Old Testament story, McLaren moves from history to hermeneutics–from simply recounting the centuries leading up to the birth of Jesus and drawing transferable concepts from them, to teaching us how to encounter the rest of the Old Testament with benefit.

And in this week’s chapter, McLaren says we need three elements to continue reading the Old Testament, and the rest of the Bible for that matter: science, art, and heart.  Science stands for observation.  Art stands for interpretation.  And heart stands for formation.

In other words, we must first be sure we have studied a passage well.  Then, we must take from it a meaning larger than the historical/literary account itself.  And finally, we must receive that larger message as a mandate to live faithfully in our time.

In this way, we remain alive in the creation (McLaren’s first section and emphasis), which means being alive in the realities of revelation rather than in some vague attempt to spiritualize everything.  Creation (the tangible story and text) is the stuff out which faith is made.  In this way, McLaren can declare that these are the stories that shape us.

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For the Bride: Inevitable Vantage Points

Last week, I introduced the theme of hermeneutics–an indispensable topic if we are to understand the basis of our contemporary debate regarding human sexuality.. What hermeneutics rightly tells us is that the issue is not about who is “biblical,” but rather how a particular group is interpreting Scripture. That’s hermeneutics.

The first insight we receive from hermeneutics is that there are multiple vantage points which Christians have used over the centuries in creating their version of the Christian message.  Richard Hays does an excellent job in describing this in chapters 11-13 in his book, ‘The Moral Vision of the New Testament.’ He provides examples of the multiple modes and models that create differing views as to the meaning of biblical passages. This is inevitable, but often overlooked (or denied) when people are viewed as right/wrong–or–biblical/unbiblical.

A look at Church history further reveals the diversity. Protestantism illustrates the point. Lutherans view the Gospel from the vantage point of the Cross and justification by faith.  Reformed Christians use the sovereignty of God as their interpretive angle.  My tradition, Wesleyan theology, leads with grace that’s expressed as an order of salvation.

Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians similarly have hermeneutical angles.  These are often expressed through various religious orders, and they may sometimes be connected to the countries and cultures where Christians live.  In other words, hermeneutics are multi-faceted means for determining truth.  There is no one-size-fits-all vantage point.

I had an experience in the Louvre Museum in Paris that illustrates what I am saying.  As I approached the Venus de Milo, I was struck by actually being in the presence of this ancient masterpiece.  But I will also never forget seeing the artists who literally encircled the statue.  They had set up their easles and were capturing the masterpiece from their vantage point–and doing so in their preferred medium.

Every angle provided the artist with a unique view, a different mix of light and shadow.  Moreover, an artist using charcoal was able to depict the statue one way, while an artist painting in water color was presenting another rendition.  And a literalist style was not the same as those drawing or painting more abstractly.  But every artist from every angle was looking at the same masterpiece!

This is hermeneutics.  It is setting up our easle in a particular place, gazing at the Masterpiece, and capturing it in our preferred medium.  In the coming weeks I will show you the painting which has emerged from my vantage point.

(If you do not have my book ‘For the Sake of the Bride’ on which these weekly writings are based, here is the Amazon link for it:

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