Epiphany: The Journey of the Magi

epiphany.jpgEpiphany means a manifestation. In the Christian year, Epiphany is the celebration of that revelation of Jesus as Messiah in the eyes of the nations. The moments of Jesus’ life most clearly connected with Epiphany are:

Epiphany begins on the twelfth day of Christmas (you always wondered what that song was about) and continues until the beginning of Lent on Ash Wednesday.

I love poetry and here is one of the greatest poets of the 20th century, T. S. Eliot, reading his poem “The Journety of the Magi,” to help us enter into the celebration of Epiphany.

Cities and Christ’s Mission with Jacques Ellul

milwaukee-skyline-2016-1492622665How are we to understand the tension within the Christian Scriptures related to cities?The Hebrew prophets are often critical of cities and many of the destructive promises within the Scripture are aimed at cities, not just groups of people. At the same time, we cannot escape the moving words of the prophet Jeremiah calling God’s exiled people to seek the welfare of the city (Jeremiah 29) or the call of Jesus to his disciples to go to the cities to proclaim the gospel message (Luke 10).

Jacques Ellul addresses this tension in his book The Meaning of the City. Here is an excerpt from the end of chapter two, “Thunder Over the City.”

When we understand what the city represents, we understand better both the order Jesus gave his disciples to go into the cities, and this other curious reference to the city as the center of crisis: “Go to the cities . . . . Shake the dust from your feet against the cities . . . when you are persecuted in one city . . . .” It is in and because of the city that the critical point of preaching is reached. There are of course many valid critical explanations of these texts, but they are not exhaustive. To me it does not seem sufficient to limit Christ’s words to the twelve (or to the seventy in Luke) and to speak of a temporary and exceptional mission of the apostles….

The message of the cross must be carried to the center of man’s autonomy. It must be established where man is most clearly a wild beast. Its goal is less the total umber of men, than the entity man. Christ’s sending his disciples out into the cities of Israel is their most dangerous mission, for it is directed against the heart of the world’s power and betrayal….

It is only by seeing in these texts a shaft aimed at the city that we can bring the various meanings back to one. For undeniably Jesus was here showing what would be the Christian’s attitude and position concerning the city and his work there. It is not for nothing that Christ’s unsettled status is mentioned (“The Son of man has no place to lay his head”), and that immediately afterwards he sends his disciples into the place of man’s stubborn establishment (Luke 9:57 and 10:16). It is not for nothing that he asked his disciples to go through the cities of Israel, fleeing from one to another, putting each one of them in a position of choosing, in a position of responsibility (Matt. 10:23). It is not for nothing that he showed that the departure of the disciple was most serious, that their departure, by shaking the dust from their sandals, was decisive in the order of condemnation (Matt. 10:14-15). In fact, all that we found in the Old Testament texts is here in résumé. The situation of the people of God in Babylon is the exact situation of the disciples in the city. This dialectic between staying and leaving, preserving and judging, is centered in the preaching of the Gospel of the kingdom. The entire doctrine which we have so far discovered and received is illuminated by these few brilliant words from Christ’s lips. Nothing has been changed, but what was announced is being fulfilled. What was described is being lived. And from this vantage point one can look back and understand the rest.

The disciples’ mission is outside the country, in the cities where God’s people, Israel, may be found living, in those cities where these people have entered into slavery, where they have shut themselves up in refusal and disobedience, where they have betrayed their vocation. God’s Israel has now become the church. Around her, the same battle is raging. She is bogged down in the same mud and must take up the same work, a work never finished because the city is the city. Go through all the cities of Israel, comes the command, brining judgment and forgiveness. Your work will not be done until the Son of Man returns. Even Nineveh converted is still Nineveh, and you, as ever in danger in her midst, can expect nothing other than the Lord’s lot (Matt. 10:24) – expulsion from the city.

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The Elusive Midwestern Identity

Grant_Wood_-_American_Gothic_-_Google_Art_ProjectThis past May I traveled to a Pastor’s Conference at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia, as part of my sabbatical. While there, I had numerous opportunities to answer the question, “Where are you from?” Since most of the attendees were from western Canada or the Pacific Northwest, it was always entertaining to explain where Milwaukee is (‘just north of Chicago’) or what it means to be from the Midwestern region of America. What is the Midwest, anyway, and is it really unique to be from there?

That topic is exactly what Phil Christman explores in his article, “On Being Midwestern: The Burden of Normality,” in the latest edition of The Hedgehog Review.

After my Texas-born wife and I moved to Michigan—an eleven-hour drive in the snow, during which time itself seemed to widen and flatten with the terrain—I found myself pressed into service as an expert on the region where I was born and where I have spent most of my life. “What is the Midwest like?” she asked. “Midwestern history, Midwestern customs, Midwestern cuisine?” I struggled to answer with anything more than clichés: bad weather, hard work, humble people. I knew these were inadequate.

As a lifelong Midwesterner I thoroughly enjoyed Christman’s exploration of the stereotypes, artistic representations, self-deprecating humor, and perceptions of the Midwest. Referencing Fargo, Abraham Lincoln, Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, and social commentary over the past one-hundred years, Christman addresses the burdens of life in the Midwest. What burdens, you may ask?

What does it do to people to see themselves as normal? On the one hand, one might adopt a posture of vigilant defense, both internal and external, against anything that might detract from such a fully, finally achieved humanness. On the other hand, a person might feel intense alienation and disgust, which one might project inward—What is wrong with me?—or outward, in a kind of bomb-the-suburbs reflex. A third possibility—a simple, contented being normal—arises often in our culture’s fictions about the Midwest, both the stupid versions (the contented families of old sitcoms) and the more sophisticated ones (Fargo’s Marge Gunderson, that living argument for the value of banal goodness). I have yet to meet any real people who manage it. A species is a bounded set of variations on a template, not an achieved state of being.

Give it a read here.

Excerpts from Henri Nouwen’s The Way of the Heart

The Way of the Heart - NouwenDuring my sabbatical, I re-read a book for the fifth time. That’s not a very common occurrence for me, but Henri Nouwen’s book The Way of the Heart is that sort of book for me. As I was looking through my sabbatical journals, I found excerpts from this book over a long stretch. So, as much for me as for anyone else, I am pulling them all together here in one place. Maybe one or two will particularly impact you. If so, I’d love to hear from you about that. If not, well, there are certain books that speak to us in ways that no one else understands. Since I first read this during college, The Way of the Heart has helped an active achiever like me step into the silence and stillness with God.

Solitude is the place of the great struggle and the great encounter — the struggle against the compulsions of the false self, and the encounter with the loving God who offers himself as the substance of the new self (26).

Ministry can be fruitful only if it grows out of a direct and intimate encounter with our Lord (31).

The goal of our life is not people. It is God. Only in him shall we find the rest we seek. It is therefore to solitude that we must return, not alone, but with all those whom we embrace through our ministry (40).

As ministers our greatest temptation is toward too many words. They weaken our faith and make us lukewarm. But silence is a sacred discipline, a grace of the Holy Spirit (56).

In order to be a ministry in the Name of Jesus, our ministry must also point beyond our words to the unspeakable mystery of God (59).

The question that must guide all organizing activity in a parish is not how to keep people busy, but how to keep them from being so busy that they can no longer hear the voice of God who speaks in silence (65).

Hesychia, the rest which flows from unceasing prayer, needs to be sought at all costs, even when the flesh is itchy, the world is alluring, and the demons noisy (70).

‘To pray is to descend with the mind into the heart and there to stand before the face of the Lord, ever-present, all-seeing, within you.’ – Theophan the Recluse (76).

They [the Desert Fathers and Mothers] pull us away from our intellectualizing practices, in which God becomes one of the many problems we have to address. They show us that real prayer penetrates to the marrow of our soul and leaves nothing untouched (78).

 

Bonhoeffer on Praying the Psalms

dietrich-bonhoefferIt’s no secret that one of my favorite theologians is Dietrich Bonhoeffer, author of Discipleship and Life Together. I encountered his writing very early in my faith and while in high school picked up a slim book by him, The Prayerbook of the Bible, I found while browsing a Christian bookstore. That book transformed my reading and praying of the Psalms. As we make our way through the Psalms of Ascent, I wanted to share a few of Bonhoeffer’s introductory remarks on the psalms and prayer.

Praying certainly does not mean simply pouring out one’s heart. It means, rather, finding the way to and speaking with God, whether the heart is full or empty. No one can do that on one’s own. For that one needs Jesus Christ….

If we want to pray with assurance and joy, then the word of Holy Scripture must be the firm foundation of our prayer. Here we know that Jesus Christ, the Word of God, teaches us to pray. The words that come from God will be the steps on which we find our way to God.

Now there is in the Holy Scriptures one book that differs from all other books of the Bible in that it contains only prayers. That book is the Psalms. At first it is something very astonishing that there is a prayerbook in the Bible. The Holy Scriptures are, to be sure, God’s Word to us. But prayers are human words….

In Jesus’ mouth the human word becomes God’s Word. When we pray along with the prayer of Christ, God’s Word becomes again a human word. Thus all prayers of the Bible are such prayer, which we pray together with Jesus Christ, prayers in which Christ includes us, and through which Christ brings us before the face of God. Otherwise there are no true prayers, for only in and with Jesus Christ can we truly pray.

If we want to read and to pray the prayers of the Bible, and especially the Psalms, we must not, therefore, first ask what they have to do with us, but what they have to do with Jesus Christ. We must ask how we can understand the Psalms as God’s Word, and only then can we pray them with Jesus Christ….

The Psalms have been given to us precisely so that we can learn to pray them in the name of Jesus Christ….

Whenever the Psalter is abandoned, an incomparable treasure is lost to the Christian church. With its recovery will come unexpected power.

[Quotations from “Introduction” of The Prayerbook of the Bible, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 5, pages 155-162.]