Michael Ramsey on goodness and prayer

Michael Ramsey (1904-1988) was the 100th Archbishop of Canterbury in the Church of England and held the office from 1961 to 1974. Ramsey was engaging many of the issues we are facing today early on. If you read the Wikipedia entry (!) about him and find him a kindred spirit, I recommend  ‘Through the Year with Michael Ramsey’ edited by Margaret Duggan. Below are two things he has said.

“God’s purpose is like a stream of goodness flowing out into the world and all its needs. But it is our privilege as God’s children to help this stream of goodness to reach other people, becoming ourselves like channels. Our good actions can be channels of God’s goodness, and so too can our prayers.  ….We do not bombard God with our desires; no, we bring our desires into tune with His, so that He, waiting upon our cooperation, and using the channel of our prayers, brings the stream of His good purpose into the parched deserts of human need.”

and

“Our service in Christ’s name to those who suffer is not something that we do to try to advertise Christianity as a good, useful public show. Our service to people who suffer is just a natural outflowing of our love of God, of our love of others.  ….Every Christian congregation should, as a true part of Christian discipleship, be setting itself deliberately to the task of helping and caring for those who suffer.”

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The Point of Holiness

NT Wright has expended considerable ink in saying that the point of Israel was not for Israel itself, but for the whole world. Israel was chosen by God to be the vehicle through which He blessed the Gentiles with the knowledge of the One True God. Copious amounts of OT scriptures can be cited. Most Christians and Jewish folk themselves agree with this reading of the OT. Israel did not exist as an end in itself – all nations were to be blessed through Abraham’s descendants. Israel was called for the sake of the Gentiles.

In the same way, Christians living a holy life  – a human living as the kind of creature she or he was made to be – is not an end in itself. It is for the sake of the whole creation: reflecting the image of God into the world around, something the entire Creation is standing on tiptoe waiting expectantly for according to Romans 8:19. As Wright says of 8: 26-27 “…this is no incidental reference to prayer and the work of the Spirit. The whole point is that when we pray we are not merely distant or feeble petitioners. We are starting to take up our responsibility as God’s image-bearing human beings, sharing God’s rule over creation.”*

Paul’s climax in Romans 8, overlooked in the Western tradition for a thousand years, is not that we are holy and get to go to heaven, but rather that God’s plan is coming together: holiness as humans finally leading the way expressing God’s rule to the whole creation as His stewards in the way it was always meant to be. Holiness is not an end in itself, in the sense that it is for itself; no, it is for the sake of the whole Creation. God’s world can only be put right when its masters are right. And saying we can’t finish the job of New Creation is no way to shirking our calling and duty, anymore than saying I can’t resurrect my own body so it doesn’t matter what I do with my body!

The holiness tradition that I grew up in, and I think our Pentecostal & Charismatic cousins, missed something vital here. Holiness, as I was growing up, was a goal in and of itself, something you aimed at for its own sake. Once you had it, you had sort of arrived, and now just needed to help other people get it. It was because God wanted people to follow a certain standard… this is how God is, this is how you should be. But the why and for what sake was often left out. Connecting it to the larger story in Scripture was left out… or just seen as part of getting to heaven… we were good at quoting “without holiness no man shall see the Lord”. In the end it was self-serving. That’s because we had virtually no theology of the Creation and ecology. Back then people would have laughed out loud at the thought that holiness was for the sake of the planet. That’s because our Hal Lindsay / Left Behind theology had us thinking God intended to burn the planet up and throw it in the trash. Yes, God’s “very good” Creation extolled throughout Scripture.

Instead of repeating the latest idiotic responses of the Far Right, US evangelicals need to read and consider carefully the theology they will learn when Pope Francis releases his encyclical on the environment. It’s time for us to grow up. Just as Jesus-generation Jews mistaked their calling thinking it was only about Jewish folk rather than the nations, so modern Christians need to stop the mistake of thinking our calling is only about humans, rather than the whole created order.

 

*Wright, N. T. (2014-06-03). Surprised by Scripture: Engaging Contemporary Issues (Kindle Locations 1364-1366). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

Chopping down Louisiana’s forests to meet Europe’s energy goals

Humanity’s original vocation in Scripture (never rescinded) is to steward God’s property, the planet. As a can’t-get-enough hunter and fisher, backpacker, gardener and all around nature lover, I’ve always been interested in our world’s biomes and their health. It’s one of the reasons I did an MA in International Development.

Western Europe wants green energy. Good so far. They’ve decided wood pellets are green. They call it “biomass energy.” Problem: Western Europe doesn’t have jack for forests. So they’re getting their wood pellets from the southeast USA. 2.5 million tons in 2008, which jumped to 9 million tons in 2012. They want 20 million tons annually by 2020. That 20 million tons annually is planned to come primarily from the US and Canada.

That’s a lot of clearcutting.

And as far as following established limits, in 2008 activist Dean Wilson traced bags of cypress mulch at Walmart and Home Depot labeled “sustainably harvested” back to the Atchafalaya Basin. The Basin’s cypress swamps serve as a hurricane-absorber for the coast, and are a refuge for all manner of wildlife. Due to the past, when Big Business says cypress aren’t being cut down, environmentalists are leery to believe it again. Plus, clear –cut areas can rejuvenate, but the biome for wildlife is catastrophically altered overnight, and the hurricane-mitigating abilities are wiped out until it grows back.

One questions is, how “carbon neutral” are wood pellets when used on this kind of scale?

Well, eventually, when the trees grow back, but it’s the next 50 to 100 years environmentalists are VERY worried about in terms of carbon in the atmosphere. It’s the tipping-point effects of the carbon affecting the planet’s temperature that we are concerned about now, not when the trees are sucking carbon at the rate they are now, 60 to 80 years from now.  For example, get the Ross Ice Shelf sliding faster off the Antarctic land mass than it already is… well, if that baby hits the water in one big slide, expect sea levels to go up at least 3 meters immediately. Result? Among other things, several billion people as refugees around the world, and US Senators will lose their beachfront homes.

To a large number of  American evangelicals, many of whom expect the Second Coming any minute since President Obama won a second term and their kids listen to rock music, the whole global warming/climate change discussion is a conspiracy for communists, the UN, or the Anti-Christ (or all 3) to take over the world. As a result, they’ve opted out of any serious engagement in the climate change issue, citing that they still love nature “I like going to the lake as much as the next guy…”

But for those of us Christians concerned about environmental issues, as for the wood pellets in Europe:  Is this an example of what we want to call ‘green’?

You can read the story here:

http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2014/1/16/green-energy-demandineuropemaybethreateningamericanforests.html

Very Happy for Rob Bell

So my postmodern, emergent, half-hippie son was home for the holidays with his fiancée and since he keeps up with such things, he knew that pastor/writer sensation Rob Bell was airing the first episode of his new TV show on the Oprah Network. (The fact that I just actually typed the words ‘Oprah Network’ is strange in the extreme to me.) So, he says to us, back over Christmas break, “The new Rob Bell show is on tonight!” So there we were taking it all in.

And I am very happy for Rob Bell. How good it was to see him doing something he is so good at, and obviously enjoys. The show is like a long, extended Nooma video: Rob doing what he does best, talking to people creatively and in ways that resonate, about the deepest longings and pain in their lives, and how God comes into all that. I am delighted to see him doing something like this with his time.

Those who hate him, vilify him and thrill to the word “heretic” will, I am sure, expend lots of valuable Kingdom time talking about how horrible he is. Despite the fact that the only identifiable moment in the hour in which a self-appointed heretic hunter could possibly cry about was when Rob spoke about ‘the Universe wanting you to be whole’, instead of saying “God” or “Jesus,” I am confident people will delight in finding tons of things to count as awful heresy or motive throughout his show. It’s so overboard and boring to hear people go on about how awful he is, it’s ridiculous.

But in terms of “the universe,” the Wisdom literature explores personified wisdom at God’s side during creation delighting in His work and in mankind. Wisdom is the power through which God makes the Universe, according to extended passages in the Proverbs; what the Greek philosophers called the underlying rational principle of the cosmos, the divine logos. Both John and Paul described Jesus as precisely this – the logos, through which the universe was created and in whom all things cohere, hold together, sustaining the universe’s existence, the very wisdom of God. If John had any idea what the meaning of the word logos meant, the underlying principle in the universe, which can be connected to and conformed to, then it is indeed accurate, in a way, to say ‘the Universe’ wants you to be whole. Or, at least to say ‘the underlying principle the universe is held together with… wants you to be whole.’

Cheers, Rob.

Structuration and Christian Theology PART THREE

CS Lewis said this about scientific theories – once enough externalities (he didn’t use the word, but it means things unexplained by the current theory) pile up so high that the current theory can’t sustain the weight, people go hunting a new theory that will be able to carry the freight of the externalities. It’s not, Lewis argued, that the new theory is actually more true than the old theory, but it serves the questions or discoveries of the current generation better in explaining what they see.

I think what Lewis said about scientific theory is also true about theology. That’s why it changes.

I believe God’s Spirit at work in this interplay, responding to the ways human society develops in its freedom. It’s a much more  “responsive” picture of God’s interaction in His world, rather than a controlling, deterministic one. (This kind of picture of God  doesn’t mean God doesn’t intend to do some things He said He will do, but it looks more to kairos moments rather than chronos pre-scheduled ones). So, a Structuration look at theology would say: as human societies have developed and advanced they have developed their theology to keep up. It’s a parallel view to progressive revelation’s view of the Bible wherein the Mosiac Law gives a deeper understanding of God than Abraham had, which is in turn deepened by the relational insights of the Psalms, developed further –with a deeper level morality – by the Prophets, and finally revealed far, far more accurately in the “mirror image of the Father,” Jesus. Just as the view of progressive revelation says God revealed more of His nature (or the Israelites came to understand more) as time went by across the pages of the Old Testament, and finally most definitely in Jesus, so in Structuration theory we would say our theology understands more about what God is like as time goes by, or at least apply what we know better to our century’s specific issues.

As to the question: “is our theology getting better, more accurate?” Well, in certain areas, hopefully. For example, I do believe that our theology that “Slavery is bad. Period.” is better than theological systems that allowed for slavery. We have a better theology of slavery than the Bible does. Period. Does anyone want to argue that?  We have worked out the implications of the  Bible’s theology of women further than the people in the Bible did.

However, in general, although the development and survival of societies should typically tend to direct their theology in ways that promote well-being, (as I think has happened for both women and slavery), as Lewis said about scientific theory, I don’t know that our theology is necessarily always truer than former ones, but it serves the current generation in more wholesome ways than ones from eras which no longer work, no longer answer pressing questions we have before us. Theology will continue to morph and change in ways, hopefully true to the Gospel, but also answering the questions of each generation in meaningful ways, as time goes on.  Christians with a huge variety of theology have been in love with God and trying their best to do what Jesus says to, for 20 centuries. This is why changes in theology don’t bother me overmuch.