Shuck and Jive

Saturday, September 30, 2006

Song of the Fish People

I really like this poem by Pat Boran (picture above). It has a place in my "loose-leaf" Bible.

“Song of the Fish People”

Give us legs and arms
to run and fight and kill,
then give us other skills
to plant and farm.

Give us warm blood
to feel the variations
of temperature, the patience
to untangle bad from good

while the known world spins,
and give us the desire
to create, and the fire
to destroy. And take the fins.

But leave us always tears
that we may not forget
the salty depths
of our formative years.

--Pat Boran. New and Selected Poems
(Cambridge: Salt Publishing), 2005

In the spirit of locating good writing, I recommend the following article by Robert Jensen. Mr. Jensen was admitted to membership of the St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church in Austin, Texas, a church in many respects like the one I serve. Both churches are affiliated with The Center for Progressive Christianity .

Mr. Jensen's membership was challenged by others in the presbytery because of his unorthodox views. I won't say any more about that. I will let you read his story. It is exceptionally well-written. I think it relates through a personal account exactly what I am attempting to do on this blog and in my ministry. In my view, Christianity is changing and it needs to change. The honesty, intelligence, humility, and passion of folks like Robert Jensen is something to cultivate and celebrate in the life of the church. So do take the time to read this. It is well worth it.

Here are his opening paragraphs:
This past year, after decades of steadfastly avoiding churches of all kinds, I returned to church. Ironically, and completely by coincidence, I returned to a Presbyterian church, the denomination in which I was raised and to which I swore -- in both senses of the term -- I would never return. But return I have, prodigally perhaps, depending on one's position on various doctrinal issues, which we will get to tonight in due time.

I don't want to be overly dramatic, but my early experience with church had been life-threatening: I was bored, nearly to death. For me, growing up in a middle-of-the-road Protestant church in the Midwest, religion seemed a bland and banal approach to life -- literature, politics, and philosophy seemed far more fruitful paths to explore. As I have confessed to my pastor, in my entire life I have cheated on only one test -- the exam to pass confirmation class so I could fulfill that requirement imposed by my parents and be done with the whole enterprise. For that sin, I have neither sought nor been granted absolution.

So, my friends and family were somewhat startled [when] I joined--of my own free will, being of sound mind and body--St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church in Austin, TX....

Read more here...

The Struggle Over What It Means to be a Christian Today: Finding My Way Back to Church and Getting Kicked Out

Next time (maybe) a look at the pre-Hebrew creation myths to set the context for reading the creation myths in the Bible.


Friday, September 29, 2006

The Bible and the Modern World

Roy Hoover compiled this helpful chart of the difference between the biblical view of the history of the world and human life and the modern view of the history of the world and human life. This will be helpful as we construct a theology for the 21st century. More on Creation next time!

The Biblical View of the History of the World
and Human Life


The Modern View of the History of the World
and Human Life

1. The origin of the universe

God created the heavens and the earth and all of the forms of life in the in six days by commanding them into being (Genesis 1). God rested from his creating work on the seventh day, thus establishing it as a day of rest for as long as the world lasts.

1. The origin of the universe

The universe came into being fifteen billion years ago, or so, following a “big bang.” Life on earth in its many forms has evolved and developed across hundreds of millions of years.

2. Space

The earth occupies the center of the whole cosmos. The sun, moon, and stars circle around it.

2. Space

Space is many light years in extent and seems to be still expanding. The earth is one of several planets orbiting the sun in a solar system that is part of the Milky Way galaxy.

3. Human origins

God created human beings in his image, made them male and female, commanded them to propagate and fill the earth, and delegated to them authority over and responsibility for the care of the plants and animals God had created (Genesis 1:26-31; 2:15).

3. Human origins

Human beings emerged comparatively late in the history of the earth from earlier forms of life and continue to be sustained by the whole ecosystem of the planet.

4. God

God is the world’s lord and king; he rules over it from his throne high in the heavens.

4. God

God is the symbolic term we use to refer to the ultimate reality and mystery with which we have to do. Theology is and always has been the constructive work of human beings and is useful only insofar as it succeeds in depicting the way things really are and in pointing out how we may live humanely amid the realities of the world.

5. History

God is directing the course of history to its final consummation which he determined for it from the beginning.

5. History

Human beings are characterized by self-conscious, self-transcending intelligence and imagination. This capacity gives us the ability to create culture and to shape history. It also gives us the inclination and ability to search for and recognize the meaning of our experience in the world, which we often express in the form of a religion.

6. Bible

God revealed, through Moses, the basic law by which human life is to be ordered, and sent prophets, apostles and other messengers to communicate his will to humankind. These revealed truths, recorded in scripture, make the Bible the Word of God.

6. Bible

God [esp. the rule of God] is the principal subject of the Bible, not its author. The writings—of priests, prophets, wisdom teachers, psalmists, anonymous gospel narrators, and apostles—that have been collected to form the Christian Bible are an irreplaceable source of information about the origins of the characteristically Jewish and Christian ways of viewing the human condition and a primary resource for theological reflection and public worship.

7. Jesus

God sent his only son, Jesus Christ, to preach the gospel and to die on the cross to save us from our sins. God raised Jesus from the dead and will likewise raise all who believe in him. This incarnation of the eternal son of God marks the beginning of the consummation of all things, which is even now playing out under God’s providential direction.

7. Jesus

Jesus of Nazareth was the pioneer and exemplar of a new form of ancient Israel’s faith that emphasized its universal rather than its ethnic meaning. The message Jesus preached was about “the Kingdom of God,” a vision of life ruled by the union of power and goodness. The political and religious establishments of that time regarded the threat to their legitimacy posed by this vision sufficient reason to execute him.

8. The future

The resurrected Jesus will return on the clouds of heaven at the end of history when God will defeat the powers of sin and death and bring into being his kingdom which will have no end.

8. The future

The literal statements about the resurrection lost their literal meaning when the modern view of the world displaced the ancient. The real core of ancient resurrection faith is the recognition that justice and moral virtue are indispensable for a truly human life, and that human life can be transformed in the direction of greater fulfillment.

Prepared by Roy W. Hoover
February, 2003
Some of the phrasing is drawn from Gordon D. Kaufman, In Face of Mystery. A Constructive Theology.
Printed from the January-February 2004 issue of the Fourth R, p. 3

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Creation: Part 1

I am not really sure how to go about articulating a theology. I imagine that what I write will be at times random and inconsistent. I may repeat myself. I will leave questions unanswered. Yet there is one thing I need to keep in front of me. The number one question is: why do I feel the need to do this?

Here is my answer to that question: I have two great-nephews and two great-nieces. What will the world be like when they reach my age (about 40 years from now)? What will our world be like in 2046? I care about that. I cannot think of a more important theological question than that one. I and you and everyone has a part to play today in what will happen in our future. If I were a medical doctor, teacher, whatever, that would still be my central question. I would seek to use my skills toward a positive future.

Because I am a clergyperson, theology is what I do. My role is a small one. I am simply trying to understand humanity and humanity's place in the cosmos in such a way that my theology can empower me for positive change. I believe the theology we have inherited is inadequate for the task we face. It is inadequate in function and in its understanding of the universe. You may disagree. That's good.

I do not engage in this to provide answers for others. It is my project, but I invite others to participate with me. You may decide to travel with me for a while then find your own path. I am going to raise some difficult issues. This theology is not mere speculation. If it cannot deal with the toughest issues humanity faces in 2006, then, to use an image from St. Paul, it is dung.

I begin with Creation. We go to Genesis chapter 1 for the creation story. We notice that it is Earth-centered. I will talk more about the various creation myths in the Bible, but the point today is that an Earth-centered creation myth is too small. A twenty-first century theology needs a Universe-centered creation myth.

Here are some basics (as I see them):
  • The Universe is between 12 and 20 billion years old.
  • Earth is but one planet revolving around a sun that is one of billions in its galaxy that is in turn one of billions of galaxies in the Universe.
  • Humankind has evolved from lower life forms in a process on Earth that began about four billion years ago.
  • The arrival of homo sapiens on Earth is so new as to be virtually incomprehensible in relation to the scope of time of the origin of Earth, let alone the Universe.

Theologically speaking, God must be at least as big as the Universe. God has been at work far longer than humans have been making up myths about Her and in places farther than humans have as yet ever imagined.

The birds of the air and fish of the sea have known God far longer than we.
I touched on this in a sermon entitled: "Theology is Earth Science".

A doctrine of Creation must take into account the vastness of the Universe and our Evolutionary process.

I have only begun!


Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Systematic Theology

Hi Friends,

I said I was going to take a stab at a 21st century theology that takes into account our context as folks who are Americans and Christians. Wikipedia offers this definition of systematic theology. I am interested in going through some of the topics. Here are some, again from Wikipedia...

"...Christian systematic theology will often touch on some or all of the following topics: God, revelation, creation and Divine providence, Theodicy, Theological Anthropology, Christology, soteriology, ecclesiology, sacrament, Pneumatology, Christian life, Heaven, and interfaith statements on other religions."

Supposedly, you can begin with any topic and move from topic to topic.

I think I will begin with Creation. This will include looking at texts from the Bible as well as looking at the 21st century understanding of the Universe. I will also include wisdom from the PCUSA confessions. Creation narratives from other faith traditions ought to be considered as well.

Creation from a theological perspective seeks to provide meaning for us. It gives us a narrative as to who we are, our nature, and our place in the cosmos.

If you have thoughts regarding other things that should be included in a doctrine of Creation, do let me know!

Remember, I am no professional. Anyone can do this. In fact, everyone should do this--that is to have a theology. It should be something you can say in your own words and (in my opinion) it should be able to be understood by other non-professionals, particularly (again in my opinion) someone with, say a high school education.

So if my language gets too technical, call me on it!


Monday, September 25, 2006

The Semi-Pelagian Narrower Catechism

I found the following here.
This will be funny for you if...

You have some familiarity with the Westminster Shorter Catechism (hopefully, if you are a Presbyterian you might have at least heard of it) and if you have ever hung out with the Campus Crusade for Christ Crowd.

The Semi-Pelagian Narrower Catechism
1. Q: What is the chief end of each individual Christian?
A: Each individual Christian's chief end is to get saved. This is the first and great commandment.

2. Q: And what is the second great commandment?
A: The second, which is like unto it, is to get as many others saved as he can.

3. Q: What one work is required of thee for thy salvation?
A: It is required of me for my salvation that I make a Decision for Christ, which meaneth to accept Him into my heart to be my personal lord'n'saviour

4. Q: At what time must thou perform this work?
A: I must perform this work at such time as I have reached the Age of Accountability.

5. Q: At what time wilt thou have reached this Age?
A: That is a trick question. In order to determine this time, my mind must needs be sharper than any two-edged sword, able to pierce even to the division of bone and marrow; for, alas, the Age of Accountability is different for each individual, and is thus unknowable.

6. Q: By what means is a Decision for Christ made?
A: A Decision for Christ is made, not according to His own purpose and grace which was given to me in Christ Jesus before the world began, but according to the exercise of my own Free Will in saying the Sinner's Prayer in my own words.

7. Q: If it be true then that man is responsible for this Decision, how then can God be sovereign?
A: He cannot be. God sovereignly chose not to be sovereign, and is therefore dependent upon me to come to Him for salvation. He standeth outside the door of my heart, forlornly knocking, until such time as I Decide to let Him in.

8. Q: How then can we make such a Decision, seeing that the Scripture saith, we are dead in our trespasses and sins?
A: By this the Scripture meaneth, not that we are dead, but only that we are sick or injured in them.

9. Q: What is the assurance of thy salvation?
A: The assurance of thy salvation is, that I know the date on which I prayed the Sinner's Prayer, and have duly written this date on an official Decision card.

10. Q: What is thy story? What is thy song?
A: Praising my Savior all the day long.

11. Q: You ask me how I know he lives?
A: He lives within my heart.

12. Q: And what else hast thou got in thine heart?
A: I've got the joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart.

13. Q: Where??
A: Down in my heart!

14. Q: Where???
A: Down in my heart!!

15. Q: What witness aid hath been given us as a technique by which we may win souls?
A: The tract known commonly as the Four Spiritual Laws, is the chief aid whereby we may win souls.

16. Q: What doth this tract principally teach?
A: The Four Spiritual Laws principally teach, that God's entire plan for history and the universe centereth on me, and that I am powerful enough to thwart His divine purpose if I refuse to let Him pursue His Wonderful Plan for my life.

17. Q: What supplementary technique is given by which we may win souls?
A: The technique of giving our own Personal Testimony, in the which we must always be ready to give an answer concerning the years we spent in vanity and pride, and the wretched vices in which we wallowed all our lives until
the day we got saved.

18. Q: I'm so happy, what's the reason why?
A: Jesus took my burden all away!

19. Q: What are the means given whereby we may save large crowds of souls in a spectacular manner?
A: Such a spectacle is accomplished by means of well-publicized Crusades and Revivals which (in order that none may be loath to attend) are best conducted anywhere else but in a Church.

20. Q: Am I a soldier of the Cross?
A: I am a soldier of the Cross if I join Campus Crusade, Boys' Brigade, the Salvation Army, or the Wheaton Crusaders; of if I put on the helmet of Dispensationalism, the breastplate of Pietism, the shield of Tribulationism, and the sword of Zionism, having my feet shod with the gospel of Arminianism.

21. Q: Who is your boss?
A: My boss is a Jewish carpenter.

22. Q: Hath God predestined vessels of wrath to Hell?
A: God hath never performed such an omnipotent act, for any such thing would not reflect His primary attribute, which is Niceness.

23. Q: What is sanctification?
A: Sanctification is the work of my free Will, whereby I am renewed by having my Daily Quiet Time.

24. Q: What rule hath God for our direction in prayer?
A: The rule that we must bow our hands, close our heads, and fold our eyes.

25. Q: What doth the Lord's Prayer teach us?
A: The Lord's Prayer teacheth us that we must never memorize a prayer, or use one that hath been written down.

26. Q: What's the book for thee?
A: The B-I-B-L-E.

27. Q: Which are among the first books which a Christian should read to his soul's health?
A: Among the first books which a Christian should read are the books of Daniel and Revelation, and The Late Great Planet Earth.

28. Q: Who is on the Lord's side?
A: He who doth support whatsoever is done by the nation of Israel, and who doth renounce the world, the flesh, and the Catholic Church.

29. Q: What are the seven deadly sins?
A: The seven deadly sins are smoking, drinking, dancing, card-playing, movie-going, baptizing babies, and having any creed but Christ.

30. Q: What is a sacrament?
A: A sacrament is an insidious invention devised by the Catholic Church whereby men are drawn into idolatry.

31. Q: What is the Lord's Supper?
A: The Lord's Supper is a dispensing of saltines and grape juice, in the which we remember Christ's command to pretend that they are His body and blood.

32. Q: What is baptism?
A: Baptism is the act whereby, by the performance of something that seems quite silly in front of everyone, I prove that I really, really mean it.

33. Q: What is the Church?
A: The Church is the tiny minority of individuals living at this time who have Jesus in their hearts, and who come together once a week for a sermon, fellowship and donuts.

34. Q: What is the office of the keys?
A: The office of the keys is that office held by the custodian.

35. Q: What meaneth "The Priesthood Of All Believers"?
A: The Priesthood Of All Believers meaneth that there exists no authority in the Church, as that falsely thought to be held by elders, presbyters, deacons, and bishops, but that each individual Christian acts as his own authority in all matters pertaining to the faith.

36. Q: Who is the Holy Spirit?
A: The Holy Spirit is a gentleman Who would never barge in.

37. Q: How long hath the Holy Spirit been at work?
A: The Holy Spirit hath been at work for more than a century: expressly, since the nineteenth-century Revitalization brought about by traveling Evangelists carrying tents across America.

38. Q: When will be the "Last Days" of which the Bible speaketh?
A: The "Last Days" are these days in which we are now living, in which the Antichrist, the Beast, and the Thief in the Night shall most certainly appear.

39. Q: What is the name of the event by which Christians will escape these dreadful entities?
A: The event commonly known as the Rapture, in the which it is our Blessed Hope that all cars driven by Christians will suddenly have no drivers.

40. Q: When is Jesus coming again?
A: Maybe morning, maybe noon, maybe evening, and maybe soon.

41. Q: When the roll, roll, roll, is called up yonder, where will you be?
A: There.

42. Q: Hallelu, hallelu, hallelu, hallelujah!
A: Praise ye the Lord!

43. Q: Praise ye the Lord!
A: Hallelujah!

44. Q: Where will we meet again?
A: Here, there, or in the air.

45. Q: Can I hear an Ay-men?
A: Ay-men.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

D.F. Strauss: A Heretical Hero

"Yet his basic claims—that many of the gospel narratives are mythical in character, and that "myth" is not simply to be equated with "falsehood" — have become part of mainstream scholarship. What was wildly controversial in Strauss's time has now become one of the standard tools of biblical scholars."
--Marcus Borg commenting on D.F. Strauss

In 1835, D. F. Strauss published "The Life of Jesus." At the time one reviewer said that the book was "the most pestilential book ever vomited out of the jaws of hell."

Marcus Borg takes a different view. Borg published David Friedrich Strauss: Miracle and Myth in the Fourth R in 1991. If you have ever wondered how to read the story of the feeding of the 5000 in the gospels, we could take a lesson from D.F. Strauss.

Many people do not realize that higher criticism has been around for quite some time. It is not, for example, an invention of Robert Funk, Marcus Borg, or the Jesus Seminar.

Perhaps the time has come when the church can take seriously this scholarship and use it to energize worship and Christian practice rather than view it as a threat.


Saturday, September 23, 2006

Emo's Perception

I thought you might like a break from the heavy theology. Here is a joke from that spiritual master, Emo Phillips.

Have a great weekend!


I was walking across a bridge one day, and I saw a man standing on the edge, about to jump off. So I ran over and said "Stop! don't do it!"

"Why shouldn't I?" he said.

I said, "Well, there's so much to live for!"

He said, "Like what?"

I said, "Well...are you religious or atheist?"

He said, "Religious."

I said, "Me too! Are you christian or buddhist?"

He said, "Christian."

I said, "Me too! Are you catholic or protestant?"

He said, "Protestant."

I said, "Me too! Are you episcopalian or baptist?"

He said, "Baptist!"

I said,"Wow! Me too! Are you baptist church of god or baptist church of the lord?"

He said, "Baptist church of god!"

I said, "Me too! Are you original baptist church of god, or are you reformed baptist church of god?"

He said,"Reformed Baptist church of god!"

I said, "Me too! Are you reformed baptist church of god, reformation of 1879, or reformed baptist church of god, reformation of 1915?"

He said, "Reformed baptist church of god, reformation of 1915!"

I said, "Die, heretic scum", and pushed him off.

Emo Phillips

Friday, September 22, 2006

The History of the Historical Jesus

"After the rise of biblical criticism, pietists tended to harmonize the differences and discrepancies by inventing explanations to account for them. Recently, a televangelist explained to his listeners that the bible does not contradict itself. As an example, he chose the death of Judas Iscariot. According to Matthew (27:3), Judas rejected the thirty pieces of silver and hanged himself. In Acts (1:18–19), Judas bought a field with his silver coins and later swelled up and burst open so that his bowels gushed out. The televangelist took the view that hanging and evisceration are two accounts of the same event: Judas hanged himself, then swelled up as he dangled in the air; since Jews were forbidden to touch a dead body, someone had to cut the rope, at which point he dropped to the ground and burst open, his bowels pouring out on the ground. The evangelist did not explain the contradiction involved in Judas both returning the coins and buying a field with them. In television land, the defense of the bible as an infallible source of history goes on unabated, as though historical criticism were the invention of the devil."
--Robert Funk

I get many questions about the historical Jesus. What is this all about? Is not the Jesus of the Gospels historical? Rather than answer that question directly, I refer you to an article by the late Robert W. Funk, entitled "Milestones in the Quest for the Historical Jesus" in the Fourth R.

(Shameless advertisement: If you get a membership to Westar you will receive the Fourth R plus get a discount on events and books and tapes!)

Getting a grasp on the history of scholarship of the Bible is key to helping us understand and make use of it today.


Thursday, September 21, 2006

Jesus the Tweedy Professor

"Thus liberals will tend to construct a liberal Jesus, conservatives a conservative Jesus, pietists a pietistic Jesus, radicals a radical Jesus, and atheists an unattractive Jesus. Scholars who believe Jesus was like a cynic philosopher will tend to reject as non-historical any data that suggests otherwise. When the cynic school prevailed, for example, in the voting at the Jesus Seminar, the apocalypticists quit coming; this further skewed the vote. The Seminar is denied the fresh perspective that liberationists and feminists might bring since there are almost no women or non-Caucasians in the group. So the picture that is emerging of Jesus is remarkably like that of a tweedy professor interested in studying Scripture." --Walter Wink

As many of you know, I am affiliated with Westar (The Jesus Seminar). I am on what is called the Leaders' Seminar which is interested in how scholarship impacts faith communities. This is why I shamelessly promote the Jesus Seminar. I am involved in it!

Walter Wink was involved in the Jesus Seminar for a time. He took a different direction. His latest book, The Human Being, is quite interesting. I was fortunate to attend a seminar with Walter and his wife, June Keener Wink, at Kirkridge in Pennsylvania while he was working on this book. I was impressed with the event. He involved us in his exploration of the phrase, "the son of the man" and how that applied to Jesus. We also shouted the Lord's Prayer at the top of our lungs and made pottery and danced. It was a wild week! It was spiritually formative for me.

The Jesus Seminar can come across as dry and white and male. Walter added a spiritual spice. The following is an article he wrote that offers a critique of the Jesus Seminar. He tells his story in Write What You See.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Easter Faith

"For Simon and the others, "resurrection" was simply one way of articulating their conviction that God had vindicated Jesus and was coming soon to dwell among this people. And this interpretation would have held true for the early believers even if an exhumation of Jesus' grave had discovered his rotting flesh and bones." --Thomas Sheehan

Easter is central to Christian conviction. The earliest affirmation of faith was "Jesus is Lord." In fact, that statement is the only thing we ask those who join the church to affirm. "Is Jesus your Lord and Savior?" We let individuals interpret that however they can for themselves.

I affirm it wholeheartedly. My life's joyful duty will be to unfold what that affirmation means and how it calls me to live. You can read one of my previous posts that suggests some of what that affirmation means to me at this point in my life. But that isn't the point.

The point I wish to make today is that we have lost so many people to what John Shelby Spong coined "The Church Alumni Association" largely because literalism has entombed the faith with simplistic and incredible dogma. By literalizing the Gospel, we have robbed it of its power. As a minister I find myself helping people get rid of their beliefs because their beliefs are not helping them. In fact, their beliefs inhibit growth. To shake off simplistic dogma you have to rattle the cage.

I rattled the cage with my first post on this blog, What If We Found the Body of Jesus? My point was to raise the question, what is Resurrection? What did the earliest followers of Jesus mean when they said, "Jesus is Lord"? Thomas Sheehan, professor at Stanford University, wrote an article entitled: "How Did Easter Originally Happen? A Hypothesis." In this article, Sheehan offers a sidebar entitled: Chronology of Jesus' Alleged Easter Activities. All he does is to take the accounts regarding the post-resurrection stories of Jesus in the gospels and put them in order. It is impossible to do, because the accounts contradict each other. For instance, when exactly did Jesus ascend?

The point of picking at these things is not to destroy people's faith. Literalism has already done that. Thinking people have been avoiding the church in droves. Others doggedly hang in there, hoping that the preacher might say something that makes sense. They put up with the simplistic banter because they like the music and the community. Yet others are interested in growing but are afraid of being ostracized by the "true believers". They read books by Elaine Pagels and Marcus Borg in secret.

I find that to be a sad state of affairs. It is sad because I believe in spiritual communities. I believe in what Jesus called the domain of God. I believe we need faith in a god who is big enough to enable us to grow and to respond to the needs of Earth and Earth's inhabitants.

I find it heartening that there is a progressive movement taking shape both within and without established churches. The Center for Progressive Christianity is one such expression. Our congregation has affiliated with it. If you are curious what progressive means, you can read these eight points. This is not a "creed" of course, more of a spiritual orientation (whatever that means!) They are not meant to be dogmatic or to replace the particular historic confessions of any church.

When Hal Taussig and Perry Kea come to our congregation in November, we will be talking about the power of early faith communities and progressive movements in our time. Have you registered yet?

A question to ponder: As you reflect on Sheehan's article, what is Easter faith in light of the issues we have been discussing (energy, economy, ecology, empire, entitlement, exceptionalism, evolution, cosmology, war, etc.)?


Monday, September 18, 2006

Peddling Antiquities

"Those who insist upon the unaltered retention of traditional forms of religious understanding and language and who retreat from the challenge posed by the actual world after Galileo want to direct the Christian community into the confines of a sacred grotto, an enclosed, religiously defined world that is brought completely under the control of scripture and tradition; and they want to turn the ordained clergy into antiquities dealers.
--Roy Hoover

I realize now that I am in the process of reforming my theology. This blog is a means to that end. This is a personal exercise yet I am engaging in it publicly. I have no delusions of grandeur about this. I don't expect anyone else to care or to take notice. I am not a scholar. I am a simple country preacher who recognizes that the god we inherit is too small for the world we inhabit.

I didn't plan it this way, but I see now that my previous posts are attempts to set our context as 21st century Christian Americans (or American Christians), in particular, and in general, as inhabitants of Earth. Cosmology, ecology, energy, economy, evolution, empire and so forth should not be relegated to the "seminary elective" category of Christian Ethics. These concerns are central to formulating a theology that can speak to us and enable us to participate in God's unfolding vision of Shalom.

This will mean that I will need to articulate an understanding of God, Jesus, the Bible, the Church, Hope (Eschatology), Sin, etc. that not only makes sense to our condition and context, but that can also raise our level of consciousness and inspire us to positive action. Your questions, challenges, resources, and ideas will be helpful to me and maybe to others. Maybe this personal yet public exercise will spark your creativity as well.

The above quote is from an article in the Fourth R by Roy Hoover (co-author of The Five Gospels with the late Robert W. Funk) entitled Tradition and Faith in a New Era. I invite you to check it out and to offer your critique!

Not content with peddling antiquities,

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

More Details on the Jesus Seminar

It is time to tell your friends about the Jesus Seminar coming to Elizabethton, November 3rd and 4th. Do register yourself.

Here is how:

1) Go to the church's website.

2) Scroll down to the yellow box.

3a) Click "Details and On-Line Registration" in order to register on-line or

3b) Click "Registration Form", print it and mail it to Westar (with your registration fee).

4) Joyfully anticipate a great weekend!

5) Invite your friends! Check out the printable poster by clicking "Poster"

6) If you know of places I can contact by mail or e-mail or of a place to put up a poster, let me know!

Monday, September 11, 2006

Remembering 9/11/2001

(Hi Friends,

Five years ago, on September 12th, 2001 we held a service at the church I served at that time, The First Presbyterian Church of Billings, Montana. It was a service to acknowledge the shared grief of the events the day before. At that service I shared these words. It was called A Meditation After a Day of Violence I offer them here to honor the memory of those who lost their lives and to honor our quest for peace. John)

"This is a day of mourning for the victims of the unspeakable violence yesterday in New York City and at our nation's capitol. We stand with those who have lost loved ones with deep sorrow. Our sorrow will never reach the depths as that which has been experienced by those who have lost fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, wives, husbands, life partners, children, loved ones.

The act of terror and violence against innocent people is inexcusable. There is no reason under heaven for an act so cowardly and so despicable as violence against innocent men, women, and children. Violence at this magnitude is beyond horror. It is not justified now, nor ever. The scars will remain with us for as long as any of us here will live as well as with the lives of our children and our children's children.

In response to this we feel justifiable rage. The Psalmist echoes our feelings even as we may not dare to speak the words aloud: "O daughter Babylon, you devastator! Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us! Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock! (Psalm 137:8-9)

Our anger and sorrow is deep and will grow deeper still as we hear more about the victims and as we absorb the anger and the anguish of the nation. It will be tempting--so tempting--for us to seek vengeance quickly, something, anything, to soothe the rage.

It is at this point at which we need God. It is at this point at which we need to express our rage and anger toward God. We direct it toward God not because God caused it, but because God receives it. God became one with us on the cross in Jesus Christ for our anger and for our rage and for the injustice of the suffering. We must give our rage to Christ, for only Christ is large enough to receive it and to melt it.

The enemy is not the Muslim people or the Arab people. The enemy is violence itself. Violence bred by injustice and uncontrollable rage which has turned to hatred. The answer will not be more violence bred by more rage and more hatred and more injustice. This will only lead to the deaths and to the suffering of more innocent people and it will not bring peace to our world.

Yet, we must bring the perpetrators to justice. This is not an attack on the American people. It was an attack on the very fragile spirit of human life and morality. Violence is the evil. Justice will only come as the world itself puts the perpetrators of violence on trial. Virtually every nation has condemned this act of terror, including the Palestinian people. Muslims, Christians, Jews all have condemned this evil.

Now it is time for Muslims, Christians, and Jews, to seek peace. We must together seek peace with justice. We must work together for justice. We must work for a justice that will put these doers of violence on trial so the world may speak with one voice against violence and any who enacts violence. It is not the way to solve conflicts.

We must also work for a justice that is not blind to the cries of suffering and oppressed people. We may have the opportunity now to ask ourselves: "Why are so many of the Arab people so angry at America?" Asking that question in no way justifies or excuses the unspeakable acts of evil and terror that have been committed. But if we seek justice with peace for all people on this fragile globe we must truly seek the answers with openness and a desire for truth. It will take a miracle for this to happen. It will take a miracle of God for us to work for a true and lasting peace with all of our neighbors.

We must pray for that miracle. Else I fear for the survival of the human species. I do not think that I overstate that concern. Our technology and our weapons of destruction and our vulnerability to misuse them is so great that we human beings could make for our own destruction unless we learn the difficult, the courageous, the humble, the Christ-like way of peace.

To love our enemies does not mean that we do not do everything in our power to end violence and to bring the doers of violence to justice, and sometimes that requires force. Force blessed and enacted by the agreement of nations united for peace. To love our enemy means that we recognize that we become the enemy we despise when we let that hatred and rage consume us. We are to love our enemy for ourselves as much as the enemy.

I read passages from the Hebrew Psalter, the Muslim Qur'an, and the Christian Gospel to demonstrate that these three great and peaceful religions are just that--great and peaceful. The people who faithfully pray and practice their beliefs around the world all want the same thing we do--to live in peace with neighbor, to seek happiness, to enjoy life, to live freely. We must not let those few who insist on violence to destroy that hope of peace and freedom that God has planted within our souls.

In these critical days and weeks to come, the leaders of our nation and of the world need our prayers to work a miracle. May we pray for that miracle each day. As followers of Jesus we can do no less."

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Trusting the Universe

(Hi Friends,

This was my sermon for today. I thought I would post it. It reflects what I have been thinking and feeling lately. It relates to some of the things I have talking about on this blog. It will be posted in a few days on the church web page. The audio will be there as well. Many Blessings! John)

Trusting the Universe

John Shuck

September 10th, 2006

First Presbyterian Church

Elizabethton, Tennessee

Jesus said:

‘Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!

Matthew 7:7-11

After the death of Hugh T. Kerr, former editor of the Princeton Theological Seminary Journal, Theology Today, a collection of his editorials were collected in a book entitled: Our Life in God’s Light.

For over twenty years Kerr edited the journal. He wrote consistently about the message of the Gospel, the Light in which our lives are illuminated.

Our Life in God’s Light.

Faith, religious practice and reflection, spirituality, whatever term strikes your fancy ought to enable us to see (even if it is just a glimpse—even if it is in a glass darkly) our lives reflecting a larger light.

This Light gives us perspective. We realize that we participate in something much, much larger than ourselves. It helps us to realize that our individual struggles, our problems, our mortality, our pleasures, our sufferings, our tasks are not ends in themselves. They are not all that life is. They are a part of a much larger, brighter Light that surrounds us all. “The Light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.” John 1:5

Our Life in God’s Light.

We can think of this using another metaphor.

Our story as a chapter of God’s story. God’s story of creation of the universe begins at least 15 billion years ago and this story of amazing creative vitality will continue billions of years after our bodies breathe their last. We are a part of that grand story. We can even participate now in telling it.

We need to be reminded of that everyday. We need to give ourselves more waking moments so we can remember who we are as part of a larger story, and see our lives as wrapped in God’s light.

When we forget that, we tend to get lost in our own struggles, so much so, that we can lose our sense of peace and joy. We lose our ability to see farther than our own problems. We become smaller. We forget that there is power and creativity within us. That Divine Light is everywhere! It is within us too!

We do forget. We don’t need to feel bad about forgetting. We need to remember. Everyday: your life is in God’s light.

Of course, so is everyone else, every living being, all matter and energy, the Universe itself is in God’s light— even Pluto.

I am having an emotional struggle with the demotion of Pluto. The astronomers have declared (rather coldly I might add) that Pluto is no longer a planet. Apparently its path doesn’t meet the astronomers’ standards for proper, normal paths that planets should have around our sun.

I just want you to know, Pluto, if you are listening. Don’t worry about those astronomers and how they categorize you. You are the same. You haven’t changed. You keep on spinning and revolving and being the best Pluto you can be. The Divine Light surrounds you.

We need to remember. We need to remind ourselves or allow ourselves to be reminded everyday that our lives are in God’s light.

A difficulty that some of us may have has t do with our conception of God. That word, G-O-D is loaded with meaning and baggage and symbols and fears and who knows what all.

So sometimes I try different words. Divine is one. But when I say Divine I can’t help but think of Bette Midler.

The Universe. But that seems rather impersonal. However, God should be at least as big as the Universe. That is really part of our problem:

The God we inherit is too small for the world we inhabit.

Our conceptions of God are often not big enough to shine Light in our lives.

Some people respond to this by shrinking their conception of the world to fit their conception of God. If God is restricted to a book or a doctrine or a church denomination or a nation-state then anything that might challenge that conception of God cannot be true. Not only is it not true--for some it must be evil.

That’s why my heroes have always been heretics.

The heretics were called such by the orthodox because they challenged orthodoxy’s god. “Your god is too small,” the heretics said. And they were usually right. Although it took burnings at the stake and in many cases hundreds of years before the church caught up.

My favorite heretic is Jesus of Nazareth.

Jesus was executed for two reasons. The Roman Empire executed him because he was considered a trouble-maker. He challenged the authority of the Empire of Rome with what he called the Empire of God. Through his parables he unfolded an empire that was no empire at all, but a celebration of a feast for all people without hierarchy or violence or fear. They didn’t really understand what he was talking about. “He is a trouble-maker,” they said. “Hang him up with the others.”

But, according to the Gospels, Jesus was handed over to the Empire by the religious authorities. Jesus challenged them by saying, “Your god is too small. Your god hurts people and doesn’t help them. You have so many rules about who is in and who is out that you forget justice and mercy.” That didn’t go over so well. “Jesus is challenging God’s authority,” they said. They turned him over. Of course, it wasn’t God’s authority that Jesus challenged, but the religious leaders’ conception of God. A god who was too small and too provincial.

Jesus, gentle, meek and mild? Hardly. He was a heretic and a trouble-maker.

The important thing is that the Gospels do not end with Jesus getting squashed by Empire and Religion. The mystery we call resurrection at least refers to his spirit living on in the lives of those who got what he was talking about. They saw a glimpse of the God Jesus saw. A God whose Light was bright enough to illuminate their lives. A God who filled them with joy, peace, and courage.

A God who is so present that Paul and Silas sing hymns while in prison. A God whose music is so bright and joyful that you have to dance.

We need to remember everyday that our lives are in God’s Light.

If we have trouble doing that, it could be that our conception of God is too small. We may need to let go of some our ideas and beliefs about God. Jesus said today in our text from Matthew: ask, seek, knock. Ask questions. Keep searching. Knock on those closed doors. That is how we expand our vision. It will be a rewarding adventure. Trust the search! Jesus found a god big enough to deal with whatever he had to face.

This leads me to the third movement in my sermon.

Is your God big enough to help you to deal with what you have to face?

Is our God big enough to help us to deal with what we have to face?

When I began my search for my next congregation, almost two years ago now, I filled out a resume. On these resumes are standard questions. One of them was “What is the most important theological issue for you?” or something like that.

I wrote something along these lines:
“I am 42 and my great-nephew, Hunter, is 1.
The biggest theological issue for me is this:
what will the world be like for Hunter when he is 42?”

I cannot think of a bigger theological issue than that one. What are we leaving for our children? It used to be funny a few years ago when retired couples would place a bumper sticker on the back of their Airstream trailers:

“I’m spending my children’s inheritance.”

That isn’t funny, anymore.

Is our God big enough to help us deal with our children’s future?

Is our God big enough to enable us to ask, seek, and knock regarding these questions, without resorting to denial or despair?

The answer is “Yes!”

God is big enough!

Even if we turn Earth into Mars through global warming or nuclear war, Earth will still spin on its axis. It will still revolve around the sun at 19 miles per second. God will still be God and will say, “Hmm. Human beings. That was an interesting evolutionary development.” And the Universe will go on.

I, personally, would like Hunter to have a part in this Universe.

Jesus trusted in God. But that didn’t make him passive. He was active. He spoke boldly and wisely and acted boldly and wisely. He inspired others. He was considered a trouble-maker and a heretic. We need to take the risk and follow that path.

We need to ask, seek and knock.

We need to ask questions that are patriotically incorrect. Questions such as:

Why are we really at war?

We need to seek solutions to our energy and environmental concerns.

We need to look at the hard realities of world oil supply and demand and how we can prepare now for this reality.

We need to knock on the doors of the Pentagon and the White House and Congress and demand that they be honest with us about what they know. We need to demand that the heads of all nations work together to address the basic needs of Earth and its inhabitants.

Big issues.

Is our God big enough? “Yes!”

Our lives are in God’s light. God has given us the chance to make good choices.

I have breath today. I have a voice. So do you. Trusting in God means that we live without concern for ourselves.

You might be saying, “These issues are so big, what can I do?”

What you can do will come. I am not talking about simply doing things. I don’t know what you need to do. No one can answer that question for you. There is no alpha male or alpha female to provide answers or direction. Find yours!

What I am talking about is this: we must see our lives in God’s light. No matter what happens we are surrounded by God’s light. Trust that.

Secondly, each of us must commit ourselves to enlightening every living being even if you are the only person who will do it.

You are not the only person of course. But we must have that commitment. I commit myself to truth, compassion, enlightenment, love and well-being for all of Earth even if I am the only one.

Finally, each day remember and be joyful, peaceful, and hopeful and be awake for God’s surprises.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Empire, Paul, Silas, Jesus, and Us

Paul and Silas in Prison

Hi Friends!

(I sure love to read and respond to your comments on this blog. Most of them that is. However, some of the comments read like this:

“You are violating your ordination vows!”


“How can you possibly be a Presbyterian Minister!?”


“Where is your confessional integrity?!”

I find comments like these tiresome, boorish and always off topic. How to respond? I certainly want to acknowledge the folks who write them and note their sacred worth even though I have no further intention of engaging in that line of conversation.

I have been introduced to a delightful phrase while living in the South. It seems perfect for this and almost any occasion. It goes like this:

“Bless your heart.”

Isn’t that marvelous!)

You may be saying to yourself, “John, you are really bummin’ me with all of this discussion about oil, ecology, empire and what not.”

I hear ya. That is why I like to play the Galaxy Song every now and then!

But you know. Reality is reality. Preparation is 90% mental. We are going to work our way through this with our heads held high and a sparkle in our eye. We are going to make a difference. You are going to make a difference. You have the divine light in you. So get that light out from under that bushel and let’s deal with this!

You know what the Apostle Paul and his pal, Silas did to pass the time when they were put in a prison cell together?

You guessed it! They sang happy tunes! Confident that nothing (not even their own deaths) could separate them from Divine Love, they put feathers in their caps, a whistle on their lips, springs in their steps, and smiles on their little plump faces.

It is a good anti-Empire story.

We are going to sing happy tunes as well. We are going to wake up and live authentically. The first step is to seek and to speak the Truth.

Here is a great film. It will take you 45 minutes to watch it on your computer. It will go by fast. It is funny and smart and to the point. You can watch it alone or with someone you love. It is Robert Newman’s “History of Oil.”

Let’s talk about Jesus. Do you know what his favorite phrase was? I think it was his favorite because he said it a lot.

Basileia tou Theou

“Looks Greek to me, John,” you say. Very good. It is Greek. It has been translated as
Kingdom of God, Realm of God, Divine Realm, Domain of God, Commonwealth of God, and Empire of God.

I think that Jesus used this phrase to counter the Empire of Rome. Through his parables and his teachings and by his example of open table fellowship he gave his disciples of glimpse of what the Empire (or Commonwealth) of God is like.

We need to talk about Empire such as American Empire so we can seek an alternative. Tell me about the Commonwealth of God. What would life be like if we lived out the vision of Jesus?

A new book has been published by Westminster John Knox Press. It is entitled: The American Empire and the Commonwealth of God: A Political, Economic, Religious Statement.

The authors David Ray Griffin, John B. Cobb, Jr., Richard A. Falk, and Catherine Keller offer their analysis of the American Empire, speak of alternatives to it, and offer religious reflections.

I am impressed with it. It gives those of us who don’t like the way Jesus, God, and the Church have been co-opted by the religious and political right hope and direction. I will be talking about some ideas raised in it in future posts as well as other things!

Bless your heart!


Thursday, September 07, 2006

The Sixth “E”: Empire

Several posts ago, I made the claim that three issues (ecology, energy, and economy) need attention. I stated that our nation is failing at all three. Industrialized nations, (including the U.S.) cannot sustain their current standards of living. We will face either an ecological collapse or an economic one due to Peak Oil.

Part of our failure in dealing with this globally threatening issue is that we have grown accustomed and even feel entitled to our current standard of living. As George H. W. Bush said in 1992: Our American way of life is non-negotiable.”

Not only do we feel entitled we also think we are exceptional. No nation is better or more god-blessed than America. Christian Fundamentalism links itself with American Exceptionalism. The missionary emphasis of Christian Fundamentalism often connects with American Imperialism. An evangelical in the White House (or at least one who speaks the language) really packs a one-two punch.

In a sermon I preached during Lent entitled, Tempted by Empire, I quoted a former United States Senator from Tennessee:

We’re the strongest nation on Earth militarily. We’re the most moral nation on Earth. We are an example to the rest of the world, even that part of the world that doesn’t like us much. …You realize that even our most vocal adversaries really in a way are expressing an envy for America, for our ability to create wealth and distribute it as equitably as has ever been known in history….We are the greatest nation on Earth, but we have the greatest obligations of Earth.”

(Former U.S. senator Howard Baker. Net News service, Johnson City Press, Wednesday, March 1st, 2006, p. 1.)

“The most moral nation on Earth.” That is American Exceptionalism.

I wonder if our friends in Spain would agree? Or Canada? Or Egypt? It is an absurdly arrogant statement, really. That statement is not meant for people in other countries. It is for us to believe about ourselves. We are not like any other nation or empire or military power. We engage in preventive-preemptive wars in order to spread morality.

Baker is correct to say that we have the strongest military. We spend more on our military than the next 20 nations combined. We have over 700 military bases in 130 countries. Why? To spread morality?

There could be another reason. We make up four percent of the world’s population yet consume 25% of the world’s oil. If Peak Oil has arrived or will arrive shortly, and the global supply of oil will rapidly diminish, then we will need more than 25% of the world’s oil if we wish to continue our non-negotiable American way of life. We will need 30% then 40%, 50%, 75%, even 100% just to maintain our standard of living.

Other nations might want some of that oil, too.

So…we need to secure it for ourselves.

Enter the Project for the New American Century (whose membership includes Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, Jeb Bush, and Paul Wolfowitz, among others. This is their mission statement:

The Project for the New American Century is a non-profit educational organization dedicated to a few fundamental propositions: that American leadership is good both for America and for the world; and that such leadership requires military strength, diplomatic energy and commitment to moral principle.

There is that “moral principle” again. You see, Americans don’t like to think that their government is simply so rude as to go to war over worldly things like oil. After all, we put Native Americans on reservations and enslaved Africans in order to civilize and Christianize them. You know, make them moral.

But the hard truth is that economy drives war. We are engaged in a long-lasting war for the world’s remaining oil reserves. This will not be good for America or the world. It could end in a nuclear war. No one will win this war including most higher forms of life.

But Americans do not like to think that, especially an America that has a Bible-believing good Christian man in the White House. If we admitted the truth, we would lose the self-perception of our innocence. We are exceptional, right?

So our leaders (and we let them do it) are engaging us (on our behalf—the American way of life—our standard of living) in a war for the remaining oil reserves while at the same time we let them convince us that we are “spreading democracy” and fighting evil-doers.

American Empire is the short-term answer. It is not a good answer. What we need is global cooperation. That means every head of state recognizing the problem and working together to power down and to focus on the basic needs of all people as we face the coming energy crisis.

We can do this. The people when we wake up can demand it.

I will offer alternatives to Empire next time.