Monday, June 29, 2009

A few words about wisdom

If there is a universal sense that wisdom exists in the world (especially a universally accepted wisdom), I am certain it is not found in the Holy Bible. Its not enough to cite the Book of Job as the primary example of the failure of Scripture in this matter. Nor is the lack of wisdom relegated to the odd passage or two found in Proverbs, such as Chapter 31: “Give strong drink to one who is perishing, and wine to him whose life is bitter. Let him drink, and forget his poverty, and remember his trouble no more.” (vs. 6f I don’t remember this verse being cited at my twelve-step meetings.)
It might seem odd for a confessing Jesus groupie to admonish Scripture for its lack of problem solving advice, but the whole of Proverbs, which seemingly contradicts the entire premise of Ecclesiastes, is fraught with untruths masquerading as Solomon’s moments of lucidity. Who ever believed that “the righteous is delivered from trouble, but the wicked takes his place.” (11:8) How about 19:5, that states “a false witness will not go unpunished, and he who tells lies will not escape.” Perhaps in the spiritual sense, though most politicians seem unconcerned with spiritual integrity.
In fact, Abraham lies and gets away with it, Jacob lies and gets away with it, Joseph tells lies of omission and gets away with it. Not only do they get away with it, they have the divine blessing. As for the righteous being delivered from trouble, I would love to hear the apostle Paul exegete that passage after delivering cash to the Church at Jerusalem or having an audience with Caesar. Perhaps Paul did not feel he was righteous enough, though I have a sinking feeling he privately knew he was the most righteous of all. He was humble enough to be whipped for Jesus, but he was hardly humble about the way the heavenly box score would read after martyrdom. I do believe, however, that he was outdone by Ignatius. Who else had a victory parade in honor of an impending execution.
Yet for the most part, the story of Israel and Jesus and the Church has much to do with foregoing conventional wisdom and taking the risks generally attributed to fools. Loving one’s neighbors may be wise in Solomon’s estimation, but loving one’s enemies might seem like foolishness all the way to the cross. It seems wise to pay the prescribed tribute to the political powers that be (in many parts of the modern, as well as the ancient world). It fails wisdom to suggest that the failed political movement of an oppressed minority, one who suggested that its dead leader was king, would be a threat to empire. Especially in the context of loving enemies.
This whole idea of resurrection as the vindicating event for this king who loves his enemies, however, is a notable exercise in foolishness, from the first century through to the twenty-first. It is sad, I believe, that folks might commit themselves to such folly. After all, conventional wisdom suggests that reason, democracy (or Marxism), and nuclear weapons are the sure ticket to salvation. Of course, those who are wise (or at least well educated) assure us that we need no salvation, that the nation state can not account for, through bureaucratic distribution of blessing and mercy, or, in other contexts, redistribution of wealth. Who needs resurrection when Medicare might pay for eternal life-support. Indeed, who needs rebirth when our younger years are marketed to us as nostalgia, keeping us forever in the backseat of 79 Nova. (Alas, I reveal too much) However, the sages of free-market may be the answer to our prayers. Conventional wisdom has it that after we enjoy this supposed resurrection of the saints, we won’t have to worry about accruing interest on late credit card payments. Torah usury laws are still in effect in heaven.
Forget about wisdom, I’ll take the foolishness of the cross…

Sunday, June 28, 2009

A few words about grace

“Grace expresses the character of God.” So states Martin Marty in his contribution to The Handbook of Christian Theology. Yet, it is left to the body of believers to define how this character is made known to an unbelieving and broken world. Thus, according to Marty, “Grace is conceived as personal, a movement from the being of God to the drama of human experience. He also suggests that grace, as it is known in the Christian Church, is a primarily New Testament concept. Marty apparently follows the “Lutheran” assumption that ancient Judaism was a religion of works related righteousness, while Paul conceived of a concept of the “free gift of grace.” (Romans 5:15)
I contend, however, that grace is apparent throughout the canon, and especially in the Hebrew Scriptures. The Exodus event and the election of Israel is clearly an act of grace, unearned by anything the descendents of Abraham and Sarah might have done towards achieving such status. The giving of Torah at Mt. Sinai is similarly an act of grace, as YHWH makes fully known what the appropriate response to God’s love is, and how Israel might order a community that reflects such a love. The prophets are insistent upon the fact of grace. Ranging from Isaiah to Jonah to Hosea, the Creator is just and covenantally righteous, yet also inconceivably forgiving. If ancient Hebrews were sure of anything, it was that YHWH would be faithful despite the nation’s own unfaithfulness and disobedience. Thus, grace is an ever-present and constantly revealed aspect of God.
The primary question, in fact, may be the question of why some people seem to be the recipients of grace, while others languish in brokenness, guilt, or victimization. There is an old saying in Alcoholics Anonymous that seems to insist that grace is not balanced evenly upon the scales of cosmic justice. When a sober alcoholic sees someone under the influence, they might say “there but for the grace of God go I.” While this rightfully suggests that God’s grace is the reason for sobriety, is it incorrect in suggesting that God’s grace has not been made available to another person for reasons that are not readily evident? Does the God of grace play favorites. Is that what election really means?
I believe that God’s grace can only be made known through communities of believers that live their lives in a manner that exemplifies grace. When brokenness needs healing, loneliness needs attending, or empty stomachs need filling, God acts most evidently through those communities and individuals that believe the Creator is indeed a God of grace. Such communities heal victims of abuse, reconcile broken relationships, care for the widow and orphan, and feed the hungry. If a community does not practice such an ethic, than there is no evidence of a God who delivers the marginalized from the abuses of life. Such is a God whose wrath must be appeased in order that post-mortem grace might be hoped for, if not actual liberation from oppression in the temporal realm.
Cheap grace, however, becomes no one, and does an injustice to God’s character. Grace can be, and often is, rejected by those who disavow the creator God, the peculiar people, and the power of relationships that bear a commitment to reflecting God’s desire for humanity. To agree with Marty for a moment, he confirms my belief by writing that “in an often grace-less world, more and more believers have stressed the wonderful and rare character of divine grace and have urged that it be responded to more than it is precisely defined.”

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Let's talk

I am somewhat of a streaky person. I'll post for a few weeks, then go on a year-long hiatus. I'll publish something, then think, "Oh yeah, the blog." I have no idea what's going on in the blogosphere with Quakers or anyone else over the past year, so I feel like I'm starting new - from scratch. The reason I am publishing today is because I have an essay in Freinds Journal and I am wondering if I'll get any comments on my claims that Quakerism need be identified with a Christ-centered faith if it is to be relevant - or successful - in our future. I am looking forward to beginning some conversations with other Friends who disagree, or agree, that Jesus of Nazareth is integral to the Quaker faith. This post is an invitation to have such conversations, and I hope I get a response or two. Blessings, scot miller