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Loving Catholicism from the perspective of a neighbor April 2, 2013

Posted by Alien Drums in Christianity.
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Catholicism looms on the religious horizon as this giant monolith with an almost magical hold on its members. At least, that’s how it looked to this thoroughly Protestant soul in his earlier days in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s.

But something began to happen in the ’80s; I began to learn and experience more. Catholicism still seemed to be a giant institutional monolith, but it seemed to be more. It became apparent that a deep root of life nurtured the Church.

As a Baptist, our roots did not seem so deep. While we had always stressed that we were a “people of the Book,” meaning the Bible, it became apparent that many of our ideas had surfaced in the past couple of centuries. At times it seemed that our Baptist perspective was more pioneering American in nature than deep-rooted world Christianity.

Catholics, I began to realize, had deep spiritual and intellectual roots that provided help for the questions that emerge with maturing life. We Baptists, it seemed, were swimming in a shallow pool while Catholics were paddling in the deep ocean of life.

An opinion piece by Gary Gutting on The New York Times web site reminds me of some of this religious journey of mine and some of the strength I sense in Catholicism. I don’t have much time, but I want to point out a couple of things in Gary’s article.

After Gutting explains his “attachment” to Catholicism, he says this:

“Careful readers will note that these three convictions do not include the belief that the specific teachings of the Catholic Church provide the fundamental truths of human life. What I do believe is that these teachings are very helpful for understanding the human condition.”

The word “fundamental” is familiar to Baptists. It appears that people who stress traditional understandings of the “fundamentals” of Christianity, whether they be Catholic or Protestant, miss something that is essential. When we stress such fundamentals we can fail to allow the Christian faith to help us actually understand the human condition. They can get in the way and blind us from broader truth.

And here’s another quote from Gutting:

“Traditional apologetics has started with metaphysical arguments for God’s existence, then argued from the action of God in the world to the truth of the Church’s teachings as revealed by God and finally justified the ethics of love by appealing to these teachings. I reverse this order, putting first the ethics of love as a teaching that directly captivates our moral sensibility, then taking the history and metaphysics as helpful elucidations of the ethics.”

In the process of simply living life and thinking about life I have come to a similar conclusion, though I could not have stated it as clearly as Gutting has in the article.

Starting with Christ’s ethic of love changes everything about how we understand life and people and the God of it all.

Is it time to abandon church buildings? February 10, 2013

Posted by Alien Drums in Church, Jesus.
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Most Christians are familiar with the story of Jesus overturning the tables of the money changers in the temple. It’s a story that shows up in all four gospels, so it must be important.

Enrique Nardoni has an interesting thing to say about Jesus’ outburst of anger, if I may be so cavalier as to express it that way.

“Although abrupt and brief, this action was a powerful gesture, probably symbolizing the destruction and replacement of the temple, since it was connected with another of Jesus’ authentic says, referring to its destruction.” (Rise Up, O Judge, p.190)

Here’s the thought triggered in me by that comment: What if Jesus was saying we no longer need official places of worship. In other words, what if church buildings, like the temple, tend to promote corruption? Tend to get in the way of genuine relationship with God?

The New Testament says the human body is now God’s temple. So, why do we build church buildings? We don’t call them temples, but they function like temples. The “sacrifices” are different, but they are still a ritualized and often perverted expression of what should be faith.

Jesus threw the moneychangers out of the temple. What if he now wants to throw the religious out of their church buildings.

The church was its most “successful” in the first few centuries after Christ died when there were no church buildings. We are still changing money in the “temple,” and one suspects Jesus may still be mad about it.

Wondering about something new January 15, 2012

Posted by Alien Drums in Theology.
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I’m a follower of Christ, but sometimes the Bible leaves me scratching my head. This is not the place to go into all the details that cause that scratching, but I want to surface a thought.

First, there was the Hebrew Bible, what we Christians now call the Old Testament. It told the story of a covenant between God and “His people.” Then there came Jesus, who said he did not come to do away with the law of the past, but the New Testament clearly indicates Jesus brought about something very new, even a new covenant.

My question: If the first testament and covenant were from God and the second testament and covenant were from God, could there possibly be a third testament and covenant?

The first two seem to be a product of their times. Can we rule out that there might be a third that could be a product of our time or some time to follow?

I have wondered this for some time, but I’m reading a book about New Testament theology that is very traditional, and some of what the author says about the biblical book of Hebrews brought these thoughts back to mind. The book is I. Howard Marshall’s A Concise New Testament Theology.

Marshall said that in the Old Testament “God interacted with his people through his messengers, the prophets; through the agency of Moses …; through the angels and the law that they mediated; through the promises of God; specifically through the sacrificial system; and through their faith.” But this “setup” is no longer valid after the death and resurrection of Christ. “The new covenant has succeeded the old, but the way of faith is still the same.” (242)

In short, two covenants, one faith. It makes one wonder about three or more covenants, one faith. Could Christ reveal more to humanity in today’s context? Or has God already revealed more to humanity in other contexts through, let’s say, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and others? I suspect Marshall would answer the questions with a ringing, “No.” But one wonders if a simple “no” is required.

More from Marshall:

“The old setup provides the pattern for interpreting what is going on now. We learn what a covenant is from the old covenant. Understanding Jesus’ work as sacrificial depends upon drawing analogies from the Old Testament system to apply to Jesus’ work. … The old covenant had something wrong with it, or else it would not have needed to be replaced (Heb 8:7).” (242)

He opens the door of possibilities even wider, it seems. What if the first two covenants provide patterns for interpreting new ones? What if something was wrong with the second covenant, just as it was with the first, so that it, too, needs to be replaced?

More from Marshall:

“… [T]he relationship between the old and the new system is not simply one of contrast. There is also a strong element of continuity. This is provided by the concept of faith.” (243)

I think I need not ask questions; the application of possibilities seems obvious.

And, then, to shift gears a little within the same theme of new possibilities.

“At the same time the writer [of Hebrews] can tell his readers that they have come to the heavenly city, so that there is the characteristic Christian blend of the ‘already’ and the ‘not yet’.” (243)

That surely is an accurate discription of the early Christian community, and there is a real sense in which all Christian theologians recognize the “already” and the “not yet” character of the Christian hope. This hope, however, is always within narrowly defined borders set by the New Testament. What if the “not yet” turns out to be as different from the second covenant as second was from the first? Not that there would not be a tie that binds, but that many of us, especially the religious leaders, might not be accurately anticipating what it will look like. We might be as surprised by God’s continuing revalation as the Jewish religious leaders were during Jesus’ time.

I surely do not know if this is the case. Many Christians would call this heretical, but they thought that of Jesus. I am no Jesus, that’s for sure, but I do wonder if the next big thing that God does will surprise us. Will we then see a foreshadowing in the Old and New Testaments that was not entirely clear to us before that new revelation?

Faith, of course, is what would tie such an eventually to the past–not faith in the past but faith in the God of the past, present and future.

The Lost Symbol is … October 19, 2009

Posted by Alien Drums in Books.
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(I promise not to spoil the story.)

Today, I finished Dan Brown’s newest book, The Lost Symbol. This story is not as engaging as The Da Vinci Code, but it’s a fun read that causes the reader to think.

Brown slapped easily offended Christians in the face with his fiction about Jesus and Mary and such in The Da Vinci Code; now he will be loved by many of them. On second thought, he will not. While some characters express some warm fuzzies about Christianity, some readers are not going to like. …

Oh, I almost forgot I promised not to spoil the story.

I can say this: While the story has some flaws as a story (that “national security” line doesn’t work), it may provoke many to think about some things they have not thought about before. And I’m in favor of thinking.

Credit card stupidity October 14, 2009

Posted by Alien Drums in Finances.
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Credit card dept is stupid, and I have way too much of it. I can defend myself by saying very little of it went for consumer purchases; there were medical bills, house repairs, a child’s college education. Also, I have great interest rates that are locked in because I transferred balances back when credit card companies were clamoring for our money. Also, I always pay my monthly payment on time and am bringing down the balances. But, still, it’s stupid of me to have so much.

Big banks who back these credit cards can also be stupid. Take Chase Bank for example. I have three Chase cards, and if they dug into their detailed numbers they would say this Drums guy is a great customer. He always pays on time, so while we’re not making the big bucks off of him, he’s still making us a fair return on investment.

But Chase is looking at a much bigger picture than Mr. Drums’ accounts, and they must need money badly or just don’t like making little bucks off of me. They couldn’t raise the interest rate, so they decided I would have to pay 5 percent of the balance each month, thus more than doubling my payment amounts.

My wife called; they didn’t care. I paid the greater amount a couple of months, but then our property tax bill came and I realized I couldn’t keep up with all of it.

So, goodbye, Chase Bank. I have moved my money elsewhere. You would never get the big bucks from me, and now you will not get the little ones either. And, unless I get really desperate, I don’t plan on you ever getting any of my money again.

You think these guys who are getting paid so much would have more sense. It’s just greed. I can understand that, but I will not reward it.

The best life October 14, 2009

Posted by Alien Drums in Contemplation.
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A college professor got my attention more than 30 years ago in an Introduction to Political Science course. He used the word, “contemplative.”

I had, of course, heard the word before, but he spoke in a way that arrested my attention. Rather than putting the accent on the “-pla-” syllable, he put it on “-tem-“. Now that seems a rather minor distinction, one supported by my dictionary, but that simple change woke me from my classroom slumber and made me listen.

The professor said the contemplative life was the best life, according to the ancient Greeks. I forgot most of what I heard in college, but I never forgot that and it has proved true in my own life. Life is best when contemplation is central part of it.

Now, it seems, there is a lot of talk about contemplation. That may seem to be the case because I’ve been reading Richard Rohr a good bit. Then comes this e-note from Richard’s Center for Action and Contemplation this morning:

“The contemplative mind is really just the mind that emerges when you pray instead of think first. Praying opens the field and moves beyond fear and judgment and agenda and analysis, and just lets the moment be what it is—as it is.”

I think I’m not alone when I confess that praying before thinking is very counterintuitive. Thinking is what I tend to do most. My wife has even accused me of over-thinking; and I grudgingly concur. So how can I pray first. I don’t know.

Richard says this:

We really have to be taught that mind. We now are pretty sure that it was systematically taught—mostly in the monasteries—as late as the 13th and even into the 14th century. But once we got into the oppositional mind of the Reformation and the rational mind of the Enlightenment, the contemplative mind pretty much fell by the wayside. The wonderful thing is that it is now being rediscovered across denominations, and there is no select group that holds it or that teaches it. Catholics still use the word ‘contemplation,’ but usually have not been taught the practice, even monks and nuns and priests.”

Adapted from the CAC webcast, Nov. 8, 2008:
“What is The Emerging Church?”

So, there’s some food for thought, for contemplation.

Let’s fill in the swamp October 13, 2009

Posted by Alien Drums in Ethics.
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Rushworth Kidder had a good piece yesterday on congressional ethics. He hearkened back to Nancy Pelosi’s 2006 commitment to “drain the swamp” of Congress and clean up ethics violations. Republicans were the primary sleeze merchants in the news then. Now that Democrat Charles Rangel is sleeze news, Pelosi has slowed the draining.

But criticizing Pelosi is not what I liked about Kidder’s column; it is the three points he makes.

“First, politics on either side of the aisle isn’t a dismal swamp. It’s a set of interpersonal relationships. If a few are putrid, many are not. To broad-brush the opposition so contemptuously may win you high-fives from fellow polarizers, but it sets you up for a fierce attack when next they see you compromising — as they saw Pelosi doing in the Rangel affair.

“Second, as homebuilders know, it’s often harder to change a landscape by draining it than by filling it with the rock, gravel, and sand that eventually displaces the mud. Real change, topographically as well as politically, often comes by addition, not subtraction.

“Third, in the age of environmentalists who recognize marshes, bogs, and wetlands as vital to our ecology, this is a startlingly unpropitious metaphor. There’s little argument, these days, that wetlands are not something to exploit but to protect.”

Great words. I especially like the positive direction of the second point — change by addition. We can all add some integrity to this world in our interpersonal relationships and in exercising our responsibilities.

Breathing life into dry bones October 11, 2009

Posted by Alien Drums in Holy Spirit.
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“I saw a great many bones that were very dry,” Ezekiel wrote. And the Spirit of the Lord asked him, “Son of man, can these bones live?”

He was not talking about the church of recent years, of course, but he could have been.

Those who know the Ezekiel story, know that the answer to the question was a resounding “yes.” The prophet did as the Lord commanded and said, “Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe into these slain, that they may live.” The result: “… breath entered them; they came to life and stood up on their feet–a vast army.”

John Shelby Spong has something special to say about the breath of God, the wind of God, the Holy Spirit — though he would not say it thus.

“The task of spirit was always to give life,” Spong writes. “In this ancient understanding, the spiritual person was not the pious person or the religious person, but the vital, alive, whole, and real person.” (Why Christianity Must Change or Die, p.105)

“Jesus was a ‘spirit person’,” Spong says. “He was alive. He gave life to others. His life was expansive. It was not bound by traditional limits. Thus those who were touched by his spirit also came alive and began the expanding process of entering the limitless dimensions of their own lives. That was the experience to which the word spirit pointed.” (p. 106)

Spong is pushing for a God-less understanding of reality. I don’t know about that, but I think he’s right about spirit and Jesus — and therefore us in relation to them.

The breath of life is upon us to give life in a new and profound way. If we do not understand it completely, and I do not; that’s OK. Experience it as best we can.

Looking at life from both sides September 29, 2009

Posted by Alien Drums in Evolution.
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It’s strange when a Christian throws another Christian an idealogical curveball and then equally strange when a athiest gives the believer something about which to say a hardy “amen.”

My first reading of John Shelby Spong accounts for the Christian curveball. I love his questions, his probing of conventional Christian wisdom; but sometimes he makes big jumps of seeming logic. In other words, sometimes he says A + B = C, but you’re not so sure.

It reminds me of being in geometry back in high school. The teacher kept talking to us about using the proper “proofs” to solve a problem, but it all seemed a bit arbitrary to my mind, which loved algebra. (Geometry caused me to cancel my plans for calculus and trig, and I’ve always blamed my geometry teacher; surely my struggles were no falt of my own.)

I’m going to blame Spong, as well; surely it’s not me. When he says evolutionary theory pulls the rug out from under traditional Christian notions of an external, personal God, I’m just not sure it does. I think I can deal with that reality if evolutionary theory really does what he says, but, convince me. To be fair to Spong, I’m not through reading the book, Why Christian Must Change or Die, but he didn’t have me from “hello.”

Then comes famed aitheist Richard Dawkins in the Oct. 5 issue of Newsweek, and he gives me a little unintended affirmation. In a Q&A titled “Darwin’s Rottweiler,” Lisa Miller asks him, “Are those incompatible positions: to believe in God and to believe in evolution?”

Dawkins: “No, I don’t think they’re incompatible if only because there are many intelligent evolutionary scientists who also believe in God. …”

That, to me, is a pretty weak proof since intelligent people are not the same as inerrant people, but I’ll take it. I’m not an intelligent evolutionary scientist, but I think there must be something to this evolution stuff and I have no problem seeing truth in it while also believing in God.

So, thank you Richard Dawkins, for helping me have faith for another day.

An encounter in the woods August 27, 2009

Posted by Alien Drums in Friendship.
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A quent little restaurant in a charming little town can be the scene of a very special encounter. My wife and I met another couple in such a place a couple of weekends ago.  It’s in a town in the deep woods of East Texas that is hardly even a town. Edom is more like a crossroads than a town. No slight intended; I’m just trying to be true to the story.

We met for breakfast. Almost three hours later, we said goodbye but probably should have just ordered lunch.

Why was this a special encounter? More than one reason could apply, but I will highlight two.

First, it’s nice to just share time in conversation and caring with two other folks. You’re sitting there with your life-partner with two others who are life-partners. You talk as four, but you also talk as two because each couple shares so much joint history. Such conversation is one of the finer joys of life.

The four of us also share something else in common. We’re all seeking to be followers of Christ. One of us is pretty traditional but still hsa deep sense of disconnectedness — pardon the cumbersome word, and there’s another — regarding the faith walk. The other three of us could not be described as traditional, at least not in an evangelical sense. We’re not thinking new thoughts, because after 2,000 of Christian history it’s really hard to come up with anything new; but we’re moving outside the dominant evangelical Christian approach to viewing God and His relationship to us. I believe our two friends would accept that description.

And it was this common and uncommon faith that provoked much of the conversation; that’s the second thing that made the encounter special. It is deeply rewarding to discuss with others the most important things of reality, even when you don’t agree on everything. And, I must add, it was a completely civil and decent conversation. Some tears were shed, but they were not tears of hurt or anger but of emotion, an emotion that arises out of deep feeling and care.

Treasures like this are part of what makes life like the burning bush of Exodus. God’s fire burns in the encounter and you get a sense that the divine is speaking to you through the ordinary. Holy ground. But we didn’t take our shoes off; maybe we should have.