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Blog has Moved!

All content is now at www.liveedgetheology.wordpress.com

I will remove this blog/domain in a month or so.

 

Thanks,

Justin

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Michael Barber on Pope Benedict’s critique of rationalistic biblical criticism:

 

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The Absence, Patience and Judgement of God
By Rev Michael Harper
An address given in St John’s College Chapel, Cambridge on November
23rd 2003
St Luke 20:9-19
The parable we are to look at this evening describes a landowner who
plants a vineyard, and then leaves it to others to tend the vines and
harvest the grapes. When he sends his servants to collect the rent or its
equivalent, they are abused and return empty handed. Then he sends his
son, who is thrown out of the vineyard and murdered. So the landowner
returns and destroys the tenants and gives the land to others.
If the Dean had asked me to choose a parable, this one would not have
been high up the list. It can hardly be described as a “top of the pops”
parable. If we were to take a poll, my guess is that parables like the
Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan would be both the most popular, as
well as the best known. But in the 1st Century it was different. This
parable is the only one which is mentioned in the three Gospels of
Matthew, Mark and Luke, and all roughly in the same context, though
with some differences in the text. And there is yet another testimony. In
1945 some Egyptian farmers looking for fertiliser in the ruins of the
cemetery at Nag Hammadi in upper Egypt discovered a jar containing
papyri amongst which was the Gospel of Thomas. In this Gospel can be
found this same parable in a slightly shortened form.
In passing it might be worth reflecting on why this parable, regarded as so
important in the 1st century should be treated so differently in the 21st
Century. The reason may be that it raises difficult issues, rather than
presenting easy answers. It refers to the apparent absence of God, rather
than His presence, – a topic much preferred in our generation. Even more
relevant, it deals with the judgement rather than the salvation of God.
Helmut Thielicke points out in his book The waiting Father that all the
parables of Jesus dealing with nature breathe peace, safety and order, but
“wherever man occupies the centre there is always an element of
dramatic tension, conflict, doom, and downfall”, of which this parable is
an apt example. God is not seen as the kind Shepherd, the good
Samaritan or the forgiving Father, but as our Judge, and the judgement of
man is not today exactly flavour of the month.
This parable shines light for us on three aspects of God – His apparent
absence, his patience and his judgement.
The “absence” of God
We are told that the owner of the vineyard “went to another country for a
long time”. This was a frequent practice in the Middle East in those
days. Landowners did not like to get their hands dirty. In Christ’s day, as
the theologian Jeremias points out, a large section of this part of the
Middle East was in the hands of foreigners.
So here we see an emphasis on absence, rather than presence. The
Greek word in the text is apodemia. We can even, as C.H.Dodd points
out, see God here as an alien. This parable is an interesting contrast to
the parable of the Prodigal Son. In that Parable it is the son who goes
into the far country, whereas in this one it is the Father who absents
himself “for a long time”.
I have said the apparent absence of God because theologically it is
impossible ever to imagine God as absent. God is always present,
everywhere and at all times. But it certainly is possible to suggest an
apparent absence, or an absence which springs from human failure. H B
Swete, a former Professor of Divinity here in Cambridge, in his book on
the Parables, writes of this absence that “it represents the distance which
actually existed between the religious leaders of Israel and the God of
Israel, a distance which seemed to them to be the result of His withdrawal
into the furthest heaven, but which was in truth due to their own
withdrawal from him. The absence which was really theirs, seemed to
them to be God’s; they thought Him far off from them because they were
in fact far off from Him.”
If we are thinking of this “absence” or “presence” in terms of human
experience, we need to be careful. The seeming absence may be what
some have called “the dark night of the soul”, something to be endured
prayerfully, yet resolutely, knowing that in time night will turn to day.
But it may also be as Professor Swete describes it – an absence because
of our failures – our prayerlessness, our unbelief or our rebellion.
The Patience of God
The second image we get from this parable is of a patient landowner. He
does not retaliate at the first whiff of rebellion. Having sent one servant,
he sends another and yet another, and only then sends his beloved son.
We need to be careful not to look at parables factually, but in many
details as figurative accounts. God is by no means limited in his patience
to three servants. In the accounts in the Old Testament He was constantly
sending leaders and prophets to draw His people back to Himself. The
parable merely underlines the patience of the landowner in the face of
constant rebuffs.
Helmut Thielicke asks the question, where would one ever find a person
so long-suffering, especially in the Middle Eastern context? He sees the
purpose of the parable as illustrating what he calls God’s
“incomprehensible” concern for man, “the lengths God will go to keep on
man’s track and maintain contact with him despite his stubbornness and
his blind delusion. We may behave as madly and pigheadedly as we will,
and yet God’s faithfulness is greater than our folly. We may play dead
like a dog and treat God as if he did not exist, we may be blasé and ignore
him, but God still sticks to us and will not let us out of his sight.”
The same writer describes this parable as “the secret of the gospel in
human terms”. The gospel is the message of the divine initiative; it is the
venturing of a new beginning, a fresh start in the midst of human chaos
and degradation. God takes the initiative. He sends his servants over and
over again. But supremely He sends his Son. It is the message of the
faithfulness and patience of God – pressing past our feeble excuses and
human posturings to the divine answer in His Son Jesus Christ.
We are really here talking of forgiveness – God’s readiness to forgive,
which is grounded and implemented in His initiatives. But it is intended
to be part of the human scene also. In both the Lord’s Prayer, and other
teaching, Christ linked the two together. In fact He made it clear that the
divine forgiveness was contingent on the human acts of forgiveness. The
war against terrorism will never succeed by force alone. Forgiveness
needs to be part of the answer also. The way of forgiveness is God’s
road map for us all.
The Judgement of God
Clearly this parable was spoken by Christ against the Jewish leaders of
his day. They were deeply offended by the thought that the vineyard of
Israel is to be given to others. “Heaven forbid” they cry – an exclamation
which – other than in Paul’s writings, is only to be found here. Christ
then speaks of the judgement coming upon them, and of the stone which
is going to crush them.
This is one of the texts which some would like to remove from the New
Testament because of its anti-Semitic overtones. But such an accusation
is only justified if applied only to Jews. It should be applied to the whole
of humanity. H B Swete discusses this in his book on the Parables. He
writes, “no people, no nation or Church, has any permanent right to the
Vineyard of God. It is in possession of the vineyard for only so long as it
renders the fruits to the owner. When this ceases to be done the
Vineyard will pass to other farmers”
When we study a passage like this we sometimes miss important nuances
because of the vagaries of modern translations, and the difficulties of
understanding the culture from which the words have come.
In verse 13 of this passage, when the landowner describes the sending of
His Son, the modern Revised Standard Version translates it “what shall I
do? I will send my beloved son; perhaps they will respect him”. In all
Syriac and Arabic
versions it is translated “it may be they will feel shame before men”.
The importance of the concept of shame in the East is partially indicated
in that there are special words for “shame” and “sense of shame”.
In passing I would stress the urgent importance in the current conflict in
the Middle East of a sensitive understanding of the clash of cultures
between the East and the West.
Two key books on the Parables of Luke have been written by Kenneth
Bailey, and are called Poet and Peasant and Through Peasant Eyes. The
author has lived for over twenty years in the Middle East, and so
understands the cultural implications of texts like this.
Kenneth Bailey writes this about the culture out of which this Parable
originally came. “Middle Eastern Culture is a shame-pride culture, ie. a
particular pattern of social behaviour which is encouraged by appeals to
shame.” In the Middle East the parent does not tell the child “that is
wrong Johnny” – with an appeal to a standard of right and wrong; but
“that is shameful Johnny” with an appeal to feelings of shame or of pride.
One of the sharpest criticisms in the Middle East is mia jikhtashi, which
literally means “he does not feel shame.”
One finds the same sentiments in the Prophet Jeremiah. He prophesies
that “the wise men shall be put to shame” (Jer 8:9), and of the false
prophets and priests he asks the question “were they ashamed when they
committed abominations? No, they were not at all ashamed; they did not
know how to blush” (Jer 8:12).
This adds enormously to the importance and relevance of this Parable to
our day, because we live in a society which is increasingly losing its
sense of shame, or in the words of Jeremiah, “does not know how to
blush”. In 1999 the well known journalist and TV personality
John Humphrys wrote a book called Devil’s Advocate. One chapter of
the book was devoted to this same subject – shame. He exposes the
absence of shame in our national life. He wrote, “self-justification is
usually the message: you are the victim or you are making a claim of
absolute right to pursue your own selfish interest. That’s why it always
seems so shameless, because it literally is. Self-justification is the
antithesis of shame, and self-justification before millions is
shamelessness with knobs on”.
But self-justification is not only a form of shamelessness, it is also a
rejection of the judgement of God, which is the crowning message of this
Parable. We live in a society suffering from a kind of schizophrenia. On
the one hand there can be strong condemnation of any form of criticism
or judgement, while on the other there is a national disease of judging
others, of which members of the Royal Family are obvious victims at the
present time.
In our society there can be a strict code of morality asserted in certain
areas, often neglected in the past. One could quote racism, sexism and
anti-semitism as examples. But people’s sense of shame falls far short in
other areas, of which the most important and serious is the rejection of
Christ, the One who, like the son in this Parable, was sent by the Father to
bring us back to God.
But the bad news that this Parable ends with – the judgement and the
punishment of those who have rejected the advances of the landowner –
needs to be seen in a fresh light. The late Metropolitan Anthony Bloom
draws our attention to this in a meditation he once wrote on this Parable.
He says quite starkly, “we proclaim judgement as good news”. He goes
on to quote various verses such as “lift up your heads for your
deliverance is nigh” (Luke 21:28). He also quotes from the prayer of a
young man, “I love you, Lord; if your victory means my destruction, let
me perish, but may your victory come!”.
Another young man, a student in Korea, whom I have known since he
was a child, e mailed me recently about his new delight in Requiems.
He comments on the Mozart Requiem, “it is really admirable, grand,
pleasant, thrilling. . . especially when it comes to the Dies Irae, the wrath
of God and Tuba Mirum part. I love the soloist’s warm voice. When the
baritone sings Tuba Mirum it is a bit awkward that he is singing the very
last judgement, but the melody is so calm and warm.” So Mozart did not
seem to see the judgement of God as all “gloom and doom”.
Yes, the judgement is good news. It is something we can and should
welcome. It will be the complete vindication of Christ. It will be the
final overthrow of all his enemies, of which the last is death itself. It will
be the end of pain, sickness, poverty and all forms of inequality and
injustice. There will be a new heaven and a new earth.
And God, who may seem to some of us as absent and uncaring, will close
the gap of time and space, and be present with us in all his glory and love.
Surely for that we can all cry, “Amen, come, Lord Jesus”.
END

 

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The Rhythm of it All

Mark 9:2-29

Victor Shepherd

Available here

The human heart fills up with blood, expanding as it fills. Then it contracts, sending blood throughout the body. A second later it happens again. Blood is gathered into the heart, blood is expelled from the heart, over and over. With some people, however, the heartbeat becomes irregular. The rhythm is upset. These people have a lopsided pulse. Their condition is known as arrhythmia. Plainly their heart needs medical attention.

There’s a heartbeat of a different kind that regulates the Christian life. There’s a normal pulse that indicates a healthy balance between input and output. And in the Christian life as well, arrhythmia points to an irregularity. Arrhythmia here should be checked out too.

The truth is, most of us tend to suffer somewhat from arrhythmia in the Christian life. Some of us are doers. We emphasise output. We are eager to fix the world, and invariably find ourselves unable to turn down any request for assistance. In fact, we don’t even have to wait for a request. Any suggestion that we might pause and take stock we dismiss as indifference or laziness or heartlessness.

On the other hand, some of us are contemplatives. We emphasise input. We meditate. We ponder. We cultivate inwardness. We are more concerned with what is going on in the recesses of our hearts and heads than with what is happening in the wider world. But both these conditions are arrhythmic; both indicate an irregularity in the Christian life.

As we reacquaint ourselves once more with the story of the Transfiguration we shall hear the regular, rhythmic heartbeat of discipleship. And hearing it in the old, old story, we shall find, by God’s grace, that our own heartbeat has been normalised; our own heartbeat is corrected by the master himself, just as he first corrected the heartbeat of the apostles before us.

I: Jesus takes Peter, James and John up a mountain with him. Right away our ears should perk up. Having been exposed to scripture for decades we should know that mountains, in scripture, are the venue of revelation: Mount Sinai, Mount Carmel, Mount Zion , the Mount of Olives, the “hill” of Calvary ”, “The Sermon on the Mount.” “Mountain” always points to God’s self-disclosure and the change within those who are beneficiaries of it. As soon as we hear that Jesus has taken Peter, James and John with him up a mountain, we know that an epiphany is occurring whose truth and reality will stamp itself indelibly upon these men and upon all, like us, who receive their witness and therein find the same epiphany occurring again. While the three men are with Jesus on the mountain, Jesus shines before them with a luminosity they can neither explain nor forget. He is highlighted in such a way as to leave them knowing that he is the effectual presence of God. They are startled yet also satisfied; taken aback yet also contented. They know that once more, on this mountain, they are standing on holy ground not because of anything about the ground but rather because of him who has shone before them.

All of us have had similar experiences at the level of the merely creaturely, the merely human. There must be, there has to be, some situation where the human love that spouse or friend or child or parent has poured over you for years suddenly staggers you, overwhelms you in one way or another and leaves you “spaced”, as teenagers like to say. You are startled that anyone should love you that much; startled even more that this person in particular, who knows you inside out, should love you that intensely and intentionally, that freely and forgivingly. As startled as you are, however, you aren’t the slightest bit sceptical or suspicious. You simply glory in the glow of someone’s all-enveloping love for you.

There must be, there has to be, some situation where truth has broken in on you. It broke in on you like a wave breaking on the beach and running up the shore. Before it all receded, and your surprise with it, it soaked into you. The fact that it was hidden within you; the fact that no one else was aware of what had happened; the fact that the truth that now seized your mind and heart you didn’t have words enough to articulate; none of this diminished in any way your conviction and the difference it made to you from that day.

There must be, there has to be, some situation in which Jesus Christ ceased to be a problem or a perplexity or the occasion of more questions than answers. He loomed before you as bedrock reality on which you could stand and from which you could gain perspective on the mirages and deceptions that had beset you and kept you off-balance, confused and nervous. As startled as you were, however, you weren’t frightened. In fact this time your shock was also the end of your fear.

Usually we say little about such occasions. We don’t want to appear a religious “spouter” or worse, a religious exhibitionist. We don’t want to appear as tasteless as those who blab marital intimacies at a cocktail party. Still, we know that something has established itself so deep within us that words will never do justice to it. Words will never do justice to it, to be sure, but some words, at least, come much closer than others to doing justice to it; such as the matchless words of Charles Wesley:

O disclose thy lovely face,

Quicken all my drooping powers;

Gasps my fainting soul for grace

As a thirsty land for showers:

Haste, my Lord, no more delay!

Come, my Saviour, come away!

When Wesley penned these lines he had in mind verse 13 from chapter 2 of the Song of Solomon:

Arise, my love, my fair one, come away.

The Song of Solomon is a love-poem of undisguised eroticism. Wesley found the imagery there expressing his longing for his Lord together with that longing fulfilled. No doubt he had read the Song of Solomon a dozen times per year for years beyond counting, and then one day words written for a different purpose became the vehicle of his heart’s greatest longing and its fulfilment as the lover of all men and women lit up before him.

One Sunday evening in Aberdeen, Scotland (at one time I was a postgraduate student in Aberdeen), I was in an upside-down mood: depressed, miserable, petulant, fed up and frustrated over a professor who had encouraged me for two years to go to Scotland to study under him. Ten days after I had arrived he had left without ever informing me of what he had known for months he was going to do. In my upside-down mood I knew I wouldn’t be any company for Maureen, and so I hopped on a bus and went to a small downtown church tucked away at the end of a narrow, winding street. The president of the Methodist Conference of Great Britain and Ireland was to speak. I went expecting nothing. “O disclose thy lovely face, quicken all my drooping powers….” It happened. And I can’t remember one word of the sermon.

When I was a younger minister I thought that parishioners should be able to take home huge chunks of the sermon week by week. After all, I had spent many hours working up this material; surely the least they could do was remember it. Then one day a parishioner questioned me about the sermon I had preached three Sundays ago, and I realised I couldn’t recall the sermon. From that moment I ceased expecting worshippers to be a blotter. From that moment instead I wanted not information blotted but fire struck. I wanted some aspect of worship, whether prayer or hymn or anthem (although the sermon would do too) to become the event of self-disclosure where Jesus Christ lights up and we are startled and moved yet also contented as truth and love and fathomless profundity steal over us, confirming both him and ourselves in him.

When mediaeval Roman Catholics were visited with such moments they spoke of them in the language of vivid visions. Such language strikes many people as exaggerated, even grotesque. When our Protestant foreparents were visited with such moments they spoke of them in the language of poetry (hymns), which language strikes many people as overblown, even saccharine. But the vision and the poetry aren’t exaggerated at all for those, like Peter, James and John, before whom Jesus Christ has loomed illumined. No language I speak to my wife or she to me strikes either of us as exaggerated. It would be exaggerated to someone who had never been in love and therefore had never lived in that world. Once we are in love and do live in that world, we know that the most intense love-language falls far short of the heart’s surge. “O disclose thy lovely face….” And when our Lord does precisely this? There are only two responses: say nothing inasmuch as no word is adequate, or say something knowing that every word falls short.

II: What next? Peter wants to freeze the moment, preserve it before it disappears. Who doesn’t? Nevertheless, to try to freeze such a moment is to kill it. (Frozen fish, we must remember, may be preserved indefinitely but they certainly aren’t alive.) Much as we want to, we can’t seize the moment that has overtaken us, grasp it and try to hang on to it. If we grasp at it, we are grabbing the gift-wrapping when we should be glorying in the gift, for the gift is simply the giver himself. To try to freeze the moment is to try to prolong the ecstasy when we should be looking to its author.

What’s more, we should always remember that God has something for us beyond ecstasy. When Peter tries to freeze the moment on the mountain, a cloud appears (clouds, in scripture, are a symbol of God’s presence), and out of the cloud a voice comes: “This is my beloved Son; listen to him.” “Listen”, for the Hebrew mind, always has the force of “obey.” If we don’t obey we haven’t heard.

Only hours earlier Jesus had told the twelve he would have to suffer. “Can’t be” they had shot back. Undeterred, Jesus had insisted even more persistently that his vocation entailed suffering, and because his did, theirs did too. He had told them they must deny themselves: self-renunciation was an aspect of discipleship. He had told them they must shoulder their cross; not his, to be sure, but theirs nonetheless, sacrifice being as essential to discipleship as paint to a painter. Their Lord had told them they must never, simply never, be ashamed of him and his truth and his way – not when they were mocked; not when they were slandered; not when they were hammered. Everything that Jesus had shared with them only hours earlier and which they had forgotten already, so intense was their moment of ecstasy; all of this was brought back as ecstasy gave way to sobering voice: “This is the Son I’ve appointed you to hear and heed. Listen to him.”

We can’t freeze the moment of God’s self-disclosure. We shouldn’t even try. We must rather allow it to lead us to God’s claim on our obedience.

III: Peter, James and John accompany Jesus back down the mountain. They are returning to the turbulent, treacherous world whose trouble is unrelenting. Immediately they come upon a boy with epilepsy. A distraught father has brought the boy to them. The youngster can’t stop convulsing and foaming. A crowd gathers, crowds always gathering at the gripping spectacle of human distress. In the midst of the boy’s neurological seizure and the crowd’s psychological seizure, a knot of religious hair-splitters is having an argument.

Everyone’s world convulses from time to time. Families convulse, societies convulse, denominations convulse, and occasionally there’s a convulsion inside us so terrible that we foam. And amidst it all there are perverse people with shrivelled hearts who relish religious strife as they relish nothing else.

The disciples endeavour to do something for the boy and discover that they can’t. Once they have owned their helplessness Jesus comments, “This sort of thing can be driven out only by prayer.” We know he’s right. Of ourselves, what can you and I do for convulsions within and without? Of ourselves, what can we do for others that doesn’t end up increasing their burden and perplexity and pain? Only by prayer can all of this be dealt with.

Yet prayer doesn’t mean magical incantation. It doesn’t mean a religious formula, the mere reciting of which brings sure-fire success. It doesn’t mean “abracadabra” repeated over and over with the name of Jesus tacked on the end to make it “work.” It means, rather, a patient, disciplined waiting on God. It means a self-exposure to God as persistent as our self-exposure to human need. It means a sensitivity to the heart of God commensurate with our sensitivity to the heart of our fellow-sufferer. It means a glad and grateful, non-defensive willingness to be corrected by other Christians who are walking the Way with us.

IV: As God takes us from mountaintop down to a valley of trouble we mustn’t shirk the crossbearing to which he has appointed us. Yet our crossbearing must have about it no trace of resentment.

Our faithfulness to Jesus Christ amidst ceaseless turbulence certainly entails self-denial. Yet our self-denial must have about it no trace of sourness or self-righteousness.

In a world that is already riddled with deviousness and deception we must stand by and stand up for that truth which our Lord has planted amidst falsehood. Yet our boldness here must have about it no trace of aggression or arrogance.

To be sure, our activity on behalf of Jesus Christ and his people will always unfold amidst religious strife. Yet we must exalt our Lord without magnifying fruitless controversy. And of course we must never become so taken up with argument, even edifying discussion, that we fail to see people who are in pain.

It’s only by prayer, says Jesus, that all these distortions and disfigurements can be driven out of us and render us fit instruments of the master’s word and touch. It is only as we betake ourselves to him, to his word, to our fellow-believers that we shall avoid the impotence that the twelve knew in the face of overwhelming human need.

When we come back down the mountain, what are we going to find? We are going to hear the world’s bleating. (Sheep without a shepherd, Jesus said the people were.) We are going to hear the religiously argumentative who never quit in any case. But over all of this we are going to hear someone here, and another person there, who cry out to us, “I believe a little. Won’t you and your congregation help me believe more?”

Those who cry out to us in this manner are those who’ve come to admit that life can’t be domesticated. They used to think that life could be tamed, and now they see it can’t. They used to think that only neurotics and weaklings were fragile; now they see that fragility is the human lot. They used to think that any reflection on death was morbid; now they know that life is short and death is sure.

Sometimes these people begin with a request of us, sometimes with a bitter accusation, sometimes with a grope as they try to grasp anything that will stop their spinning and quell their nausea. Often they begin with a perplexity which, on account of their pain, has moved from their head (perplexities in the head are harmless) to their heart (perplexities in the heart are distressing.) At this point they look to us and say, “I do have some struggling faith; can’t you help it grow?” This is what we find when we come down the mountain.

The pulse of the Christian life should be like the pulse in the body: rhythmic. It becomes arrhythmic as soon as we neglect any aspect of the Christian life, thereby rendering our discipleship lopsided. In fact it’s not difficult to keep it rhythmic. It’s just a matter of going up and down the mountain, up into moments of our Lord’s self-disclosure, glorious and satisfying at once, then back down with him into a world whose pain makes it writhe – doing this over and over until that day, says Charles Wesley, when our Lord’s ultimate self-disclosure obliterates all pain, and all God’s people are forever lost in wonder, love and praise.

Victor Shepherd February 2007

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I can still hear the sound of thundering guns telling me that somewhere nearby people are dying. Ever since we left the village I feel as though something has been shattered inside me. We have lost everything. Our house was burned. My books were torn to pieces. Our furniture was stolen. But what is more important is that the soft nights and the fresh mornings in the village are gone and with them I have lost my roots and have become “like grass blown by the wind,” as the Psalmist put it.

Time is no longer the unending chain of hours and minutes, marked by the hands on the huge clock at the entrance of my grandfather’s house in the village. The big clock, with its rhythmic sound, that kept track of every heartbeat throughout the house, is broken. And time on it is standing still. For me, time used to be the time of sleeping and of waking up and of working in the fields -the time of life. But now time has left me. It belongs to the one who stands behind the thundering gun. It is the time of death.

One night early in September our village was shelled and we fled. We hid in a cave near our small brook waiting for the mad night to subside. But the guns did not stop so we fled again through the valley until we reached Beirut.

We thought we had escaped, but the dark night caught up with us in all its madness. Am I living through a nightmare? Has time really stood still ever snce the big clock was broken on the wall of my grandfather’s house in the village?

One day someone came and told us that our house in the village (my grandfather’s  house) was looted and burned. The young men burned it after emptying it together. My anguish grew into hatred. Hatred is strange for it takes many forms. For me it is like a boil. It took root within me and sowed the seeds of death in my heart. It grew and spread like a boil with nothing but pus inside.

I woke up at the sound of the big guns and asked myself, “How can a young man stand behind a gun and fire all those rockets around us?”. I thought of that young man and to me he acquired the face of that other young man who looted and burned my grandfather’s house.

Then in the midst of the sound of the thundering guns, from the depths of my despair and pain, I finally understood. “If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels and have not love,” I am but a sounding brass like the empty shell cases of the big guns. Love alone can bear the burden of the living for it bears all things. It bears this young man who is standing behind the gun, and that other young man who burned my grandfather’s house.

We carry our dead with us like open wounds. All of us have such wounds. Life is different. Life is the realm of love which overcomes death. I pray that the living Lord may reign in our lives, and not our dead.

– Hanna Haddad, 14 years old, at the height of the Lebanese civil war of 1984

(quoted by Kenneth Bailey in Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes, pp. 384)

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Eighteen years ago, this fellowship of Evangelical and Catholic pastors, theologians, and educators was formed to deepen the dialogue among our communities on issues of common concern, to explore theological common ground, and to offer in public life a common witness born of Christian faith. Since our founding in 1994, we have addressed, together, such important public policy questions as the defense of life, even as we have proposed to our communities patterns of theological understanding on such long-disputed questions as the gift of salvation, the authority of Scripture, and the call to holiness in the communion of saints. We hope that this collaboration has been a service to both Church and society; it has certainly drawn us closer together as brothers and sisters in Christ, and for that we are grateful to the Lord of all mercies.

At the beginning of our common work on behalf of the gospel, it did not seem likely that religious freedom would be one of our primary concerns. The communist project in Europe had collapsed; the commitment of Christian believers to defeat totalitarianism through the weapons of truth had triumphed; and throughout the world, a new era of religious freedom seemed at hand.

We are now concerned—indeed, deeply concerned—that religious freedom is under renewed assault around the world. While the threats to freedom of faith, religious practice, and religious participation in public affairs in Islamist and communist states are widely recognized, grave threats to religious freedom have also emerged in the developed democracies. In the West, certain religious beliefs are now regarded as bigoted. Pastors are under threat, both cultural and legal, for preaching biblical truth. Christian social-service and charitable agencies are forced to cease cooperation with the state because they will not bend their work to what Pope Benedict XVI has called the “dictatorship of relativism.” …

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