December 30, 2006

Lutheran Liturgy: Confession and Forgiveness of Sins

Filed under: Random Stuff — Bob Gifford @ 3:28 pm

Just for fun I thought I’d start a series on the Lutheran liturgy, specifically that contained in the Lutheran Book of Worship used by the ELCA and ELCIC. In this first post, I’ll start at the beginning of the liturgy with the Confession and Forgiveness of Sins.

My apologies up front, because I’m doing this from memory (I don’t have a copy of the LBW here at home, and it’s not available on-line). After a few preliminaries, the heart of the confession is the following:

We confess that we are in bondage to sin, and cannot free ourselves. We have sinned against you in thought, word and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart, we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. For the sake of your son, have mercy on us. Forgive us, renew us and lead us, so that we may delight in your will and walk in your ways, to the glory of your holy name. Amen.

This is spoken by the entire congregation, including the Pastor. In fact, the Pastor is not standing up front facing the congregation, but is turned around facing the cross along with the rest of us. We are not confessing our sins to the Pastor, but the Pastor is confessing his/her sins along with everyone else to God. As we say it to the cross, we are acknowledging that it is by way of the cross that we even dare to ask for forgiveness. And it is through Christ’s death on the cross that we receive it.

I love this. Sure, it may not be seeker-friendly to those that don’t like to think about their own sinfulness, but this confession is so levelling. By this I mean that everyone of us admits, right up front, that we are sinners and in need of forgiveness. It reminds me of the practice in 12-step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous – when someone speaks, the first thing they say is something like “hi, I’m _____, and I’m an alcoholic”. This strips away any facade the speaker might have that they are any different, any better, than anyone else in the room. Anything they say following this statement is said in the context of the fact of their alchoholism. They can’t preach down, put on airs, or pretend that they’ve licked their addiction to alcohol. No matter who they are, they are still powerless over their addiction.

The confession in the Lutheran liturgy serves the same purpose. Everything that follows during the service is said and done in the context of this confession. We are all sinners (even those officiating at the service), we are all powerless over our sinful condition, and none of us can pretend otherwise. We all need grace.

I often wonder why we say this in the first person plural instead of the first person singular. By saying “we”, it allows a pretense that I’m participating in this confession on the part of those other poor sinners in the congregation even though I personally led a sinless life this week. Instead, notice how more powerful and personal this is:

I confess that I am in bondage to sin and cannot free myself. I have sinned against you in thought, word and deed, by what I have done and by what I have left undone. I have not loved you with my whole heart, I have not love my neighbor as myself. For the sake of your son, have mercy on me. Forgive me, renew me and lead me, so that I may delight in your will and walk in your ways, to the glory of your holy name.

On the other hand, it loses the communal feeling of the original, and after all, we are confessing our sins not just alone but also in community, so the first person plural is appropriate. But I try to keep in mind both the I-ness and the we-ness of the confession as I say it.

This is followed by a declaration from the Pastor (now facing us) to the congregation:

God, who is faithful and just, forgives us all our sins. As a called and ordained minister in the church of Christ, I declare to you the forgiveness of all your sins, in the name of the Father, and the son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The Pastor doesn’t forgive our sins, she/he declares to us the forgiveness of our sins by God. I have often wondered why this declaration is preceded by the Pastor’s credentials: “as a called and ordained minister in the church of Christ”. If the officiant is not called and ordained, would I be any less forgiven? Does it take an ordained Pastor to tell me, to remind me really, that Christ’s death and resurrection have given me the means of grace? I understand that Pastors are called by God, and that they have gone through a long process of education, discernment and ordination, and for that I’m grateful. But I’ve never been clear on why that needs to be stated at this particular time. Perhaps it’s meant as a further assurance that the promise of forgiveness is true, but I’m forgiven regardless.

And ultimately it’s this forgiveness that allows the liturgy to continue. Having communally and individually admitted that we’re all sinners, and having heard the assurance that we are forgiven, we can then get down to business: praise and thanksgiving.

Park Service Won't Tell Grand Canyon's Age

Filed under: Random Stuff — Bob Gifford @ 2:18 pm

Update: It turns out the claims made by PEER are entirely bogus. For a complete debunking, see the Skeptics Magazine here. I apologize for getting duped.


Sure, some things have changed since the mid-term elections, but some things stay the same:

Grand Canyon National Park is not permitted to give an official estimate of the geologic age of its principal feature, due to pressure from Bush administration appointees. Despite promising a prompt review of its approval for a book claiming the Grand Canyon was created by Noah’s flood rather than by geologic forces, more than three years later no review has ever been done and the book remains on sale at the park, according to documents released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).

“In order to avoid offending religious fundamentalists, our National Park Service is under orders to suspend its belief in geology,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch. “It is disconcerting that the official position of a national park as to the geologic age of the Grand Canyon is ‘no comment.’”

Compared to federal funding for abstinence-only programs to combat AIDS in Africa, this is small beans. But it’s so symbolic of the Administration’s pandering to a small special interest group. Young-earth Christians are a minority of a minority – these fundamentalists reject even intelligent design, because it acknowledges the earth is more than 6,000 years old.

There are plenty of conservative Christian views worthy of theological refutation, but this isn’t one of them. As Pope John Paul wrote, “truth can not contradict truth”. Young earth creationism isn’t theology, it’s heresy, a doctrine that separates us from God. This doctrine forces a false choice: acceptance of a demonstrably erroneous proposition, or unbelief in God. If these were the only two choices, I’d have to go with unbelief in God. Young earth creationism denies the glory of God’s creation, of God’s divine work. It does this by promoting a literal reading of the Bible where none is necessary, negating a deeper appreciation of God’s creative act.

I guarantee you that Bush is not a young-earth creationist. But this is a political pay-off to a powerful special interest group that propagates this particular heresy. 2009 can’t come soon enough.

(Via Political Animal.)

December 26, 2006

Postmodernism Vs. Critical Realism

Filed under: Random Stuff — Bob Gifford @ 8:47 pm

I came across an interesting excerpt from a biography of William James:

A great philosopher may sit in his study and deny the existence of matter: but if he takes a walk in the street he must take care to leave his theory behind him….

Pyrro said that there was no such thing as pain; and he saw no proof that there were such things as carts, and wagons; and he refused to get out of their way: but Pyrro had, fortunately for him, three or four stout slaves, who followed their master, without following his doctrine; and whenever they saw one of these ideal machines approaching, took him up by the arms and legs, and without attempting to controvert his arguments, put him down in a place of safety.

We may believe anything for a moment, but we shall soon be lashed out of our impertinences by hard and stubborn realities. (4, 7)

Exploring Reality: The Intertwining of Science and ReligionThis is the trouble I have with post-modernism. I am very sympathetic to all things emergent, but I don’t buy “pomo”. John Polkinghorne, former physicist and current Anglican priest, writes in Exploring Reality: The Intertwining of Science and Religion:

[Science’s] findings are held simply to be the products of the communities that propose them; its theorisings are supposed to be more about the exercise of power than about the attainment of veracity. For the extreme postmodernist, there are not really quarks and gluons as the constituents of matter, but the idea of them is a construct of the invisible college of physicists, who have simply colluded in seeing the world in a quarklike way.

As with many other reductive and dismissive accounts of human activity and human nature, these critiques are based at best on no more than quarter truths, whose scope is then exaggerated in the attempt to promote them into the pretension of total explanation. (p.2)

Brutal. Polkinghorne calls himself a critical realist, which I suppose describes me as well.

December 24, 2006

Merry Christmas

Filed under: Random Stuff — Bob Gifford @ 1:33 pm

December 23, 2006

Living Inbetween Relativism and Fundamentalism

Filed under: Random Stuff — Bob Gifford @ 9:37 am

Via Melissa Rogers, an interesting article on relativism vs. fundamentalism by Peter Berger. Read the whole thing, but my abridged version of his thesis is as follows:

Contemporary culture (and by no means only in America) appears to be in the grip of two seemingly contradictory forces. One pushes the culture toward relativism, the view that there are no absolutes whatever, that moral or philosophical truth is inaccessible if not illusory. The other pushes toward a militant and uncompromising affirmation of this or that (alleged) absolute truth. There are idiomatic formulas for both relativism and what is commonly called fundamentalism: “Let us agree to disagree” as against “You just don’t get it.”

Beware of concluding too quickly that both can be legitimate components of civil discourse: Imagine the first being the response to an interlocutor who favors pedophile rape, the second uttered by someone who favors the mass murder of infidels. Rather, both formulas make civil discourse impossible, because both (albeit for opposite reasons) preclude a common and reasoned quest for moral or philosophical agreement.

But why is this such an issue in our times? Pluralism:

Through most of human history, most people lived in communities in which there was a very high degree of consensus on basic cognitive and normative assumptions. [… W]hile pluralism is not a uniquely modern phenomenon, modernity has enormously increased its scope and accelerated its impact. Today it is a global phenomenon.

[…]

There is now a veritable market of worldviews and moralities.

[…]

But pluralism also has profound consequences for individual life. As ever-wider areas of life lose their taken-for-granted norms, the individual must reflect upon and make choices among the alternatives that have become available. Indeed, modernization can be described as a gigantic shift in the human condition from one of fate to one of choice. […]

The net effect of this transformation can be summed up as follows: Certainty becomes much harder to achieve. […] For many people, at least at an early stage of the process, this change is experienced as a great liberation—as indeed it is. But especially after a while, it may be experienced as a burden from which one wants to be freed.

So pluralism and the resulting free market of worldviews leads to two different but related responses: moral relativism on the one extreme, or fundamentalism on the other. Berger’s solution is to reject the extremes and find someplace in the middle. In this regard, he mentions a characteristic of Protestantism:

[…] the readiness to have faith without laying claim to certainty—from the sola fide of the Lutheran Reformation to Paul Tillich’s “Protestant principle.”

There it is: doubt. Doubt occupies an important place in my religious life, because embracing doubt is what leads to faith. Unlike the moral relativists, those of us inbetween the extremes understand that we must make moral judgments. Unlike the fundamentalists, we understand that many moral questions are not black and white, but fall in the ambiguous gray zone. This isn’t to say there are no absolutes – God’s will is certainly absolute – but our ability to perceive God’s will is anything but absolute. So we make our reverent best guess, while understanding we may get it wrong.

But doubt means we have to give up the idea of certainty. It seems this is the way God wants it. God could reveal God’s self fully and indisputably, but chooses not to. It seems to me that God is far more interested that we undertake the journey rather than arrive at its ultimate destination. That’s the point of free will, which after all is a gift from God.

Opus: Happy Secular Holidays!

Filed under: Random Stuff — Bob Gifford @ 9:20 am

In this time of the “War on Christmas”TM, let’s celebrate Opus’ example and all just get along…

(Click the image to see the full comic.)

December 20, 2006

America Has Changed

Filed under: Random Stuff — Bob Gifford @ 2:54 pm

I have come to the conclusion that America has changed, and for the better.

After the election, I wrote about the change in the media perception of the Christian voter to a more moderate, compassionate view. Since then, it’s become even more apparent that this is the case. Articles like this one in the Christian Science Monitor are getting more frequent:

On World AIDS Day, Dec. 1, Evangelical superstar Rick Warren – author of the runaway bestseller “The Purpose Driven Life” – hosted an AIDS summit at his California megachurch. The keynoter? Sen. Barack Obama (D) of Illinois.

[…]

In recent decades, the political profile of white Evangelicals has been fairly predictable: strong allegiance to Republicans and focus on a few social concerns. James Dobson, Jerry Falwell, and Pat Robertson form the familiar trinity of the Christian Right.

Although embryonic, a remarkable trend is emerging among Evangelicals today: the embrace of a social agenda that includes not only abortion and marriage, but poverty, AIDS, the environment, and human rights.

To be clear, Evangelicals are not turning into liberal Democrats en masse. But I’ve never been hoping for that. All I’ve ever wanted is to see the authoritarian choke-hold that a very small number of politically minded conservative Christian leaders have had on the public conversation regarding Christianity end. Many articles have been written in conservative magazines (as well as comments on this blog) stating emphatically that true Christians can not be liberal. Of course many of these same people are now calling Richard Cizik, David Kuo or Rick Warren liberal apostates from the one true Christian faith. But no one believes them anymore. Joel Hunter, the megachurch pastor who turned down his appointment as president of the Christian Coalition rather than abandon a broader social agenda, can’t be dismissed as a liberal. Barack Obama, who clearly is a liberal, can’t be dismissed as less than Christian.

In retrospect, the Christian right’s authoritarian leaders (Falwell, Robertson, Dobson et al) never spoke even for all conservative Christians. But somehow the whole country acted as if they did. Their agenda became “the Christian agenda”. Dissent from their leadership among conservative Christians would supposedly harm the fight against godless secular humanism, so better to be quiet than be found on the side of Satan. They stoked the fear of secular society as the enemy, and pushed the imminence of the Rapture, to make sure the Christian troops didn’t stray from their battle plan. And conservative Christians complied, internalizing the message that to be Christian means accepting the entire conservative Christian orthodoxy as a package. Straying from this orthodoxy in part meant rejecting it in full, so the discipline was total.

This authoritarian discipline, it seems to me, has fallen apart, thanks be to God. But we also have to thank some very visible conservative Christians, people such as Warren, Kuo and Cizik. Then there have been Christian progressives, foremost among them Jim Wallis, but also Jimmy Carter, Bill Moyers and many like them, who preached a different gospel.

In a much darker sense, though, this fracturing of the conservative Christian base was inevitable. Bush’s compassionate conservatism turned into a morally failed war in Iraq while humanitarian needs have been starved for funds. His conservatism has been shown to be neither compassionate nor Christian in its impact. It’s become too difficult to pretend the emperor has clothes. But there have been other disasters — Terry Schiavo and Ted Haggard come to mind — that have made many Evangelicals question the conservative orthodoxy.

This doesn’t mean we Christian progressives can pack up our bags and go home. There are lots of fights yet to come. Conservative Christians are still pushing failed abstinence-only education in Africa, and working to block gay marriage and stem cell research. But my sense is that, now that the authoritarian orthodoxy has crumbled, we can have a much more open and respectful conversation with many Evangelicals about these issues without having the door closed in our faces before we even begin. The hard right is still clinging to the failed orthodoxy, but many others will be peeled away, persuaded by Christ’s call to care for the most vulnerable rather than the old Christian conservative leaders’ call to fight the culture wars.

December 19, 2006

The Gifford Lectures On the Internets

Filed under: Random Stuff — Bob Gifford @ 1:36 pm

I have long had a particular interest in Adam Lord Gifford, who bequeathed an endowment to four Scottish universities for public lectures on natural theology. Lord Gifford stated in his will and testament dated 1885:
Lord Gifford

I having been for many years deeply and firmly convinced that the true knowledge of God, that is, of the Being, Nature, and Attributes of the Infinite, of the All, of the First and the Only Cause, that is, the One and Only Substance and Being, and the true and felt knowledge (not mere nominal knowledge) of the relations of man and of the universe to Him, and of the true foundations of all ethics and morals, being, I say, convinced that this knowledge, when really felt and acted on, is the means of man’s highest well-being, and the security of his upward progress, I have resolved, from the ‘residue’ of my estate as aforesaid, to institute and found, in connection, if possible, with the Scottish Universities, lectureships or classes for the promotion of the study of said subjects, and for the teaching and diffusion of sound views regarding them, among the whole population of Scotland[.]

This endowment began the Gifford Lectures, which have become a treasure of unimaginable intellectual wealth on the intersection of science, philosophy and theology. Past lecturers include scientists such as Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg, Freeman Dyson, Carl Sagan, John Polkinghorne and Noam Chomsky, and theologians such as Albert Schweitzer, Karl Barth, Reinhold Neibuhr, Paul Tillich and Stanley Hauerwas.

The Gifford Lectures are being put online. Again from Lord Gifford’s will and testament:

The ‘patrons’ if and when they see fit may make grants from the free income of the endowments for or towards the publication in a cheap form of any of the lectures, or any part thereof, or abstracts thereof, which they may think likely to be useful.

Obviously, the internet fulfills Lord Gifford’s request for a cheap form of publication. Frustratingly, only a few are online , but there are promises for much more to be added over time.

So enjoy.

December 5, 2006

LA Times: My Neighbor, Child Molester

Filed under: Random Stuff — Bob Gifford @ 8:28 pm

The Los Angeles Tiimes has a riveting story on its front page today:

MY neighbor was a child molester.

I know because of the signs.

Michael Miletti’s face, name and address appear on posters lining Wapello Street in Altadena, with the admonishment: “Leave Our Neighborhood Now Child Molester.” Up since May, the signs are staked into lawns, taped to trash cans and nailed to tree trunks.

I live around the corner with my wife and 7-year-old daughter. Suddenly, an issue that had seemed abstract became deeply personal.

The article is written by Peter Hong, who lives around the corner from Miletti. As he says, his account isn’t abstract, it’s deeply personal. It’s also morally ambiguous: should someone who has served his time in prison be forced out of a neighborhood without any evidence that he presents a danger? Miletti was convicted of abusing his daughter and served his prison time. When he married a widow in Altadena (next door to Pasadena), he registered according to the requirements of the California sex offender laws. Since then, his neighbors have been trying to force him to move out of their neighborhood. Recidivism rates for sexual offenders is 40%, but Miletti maintains that he isn’t a pedophile (he says he began abusing his daughter for emotional and psychological reasons following the sudden death of his wife).

This is such a compelling story because both sides are right. Hong hasn’t painted this in black and white, but shades of gray. Here’s the side of those that want him to leave:

More than 30 houses line Miletti’s block, and most of them have signs calling for him to leave. One of the homes at the end of the block belongs to Erik Hargrave, 40. He recalled the day he and his wife received the mailer. It came on his daughter’s second birthday. His wife, who had recently given birth to their second child, burst into tears.

Hargrave and about a dozen neighbors met at Farnsworth Park’s Greek-style amphitheater. There was anxiety over having a sex offender on a block with so many young children. They also discussed the potential effect his presence could have on property values and decided both to post the signs and create an e-mail distribution list.

Another of the anti-Miletti organizers, Joseph Llorens, the father of a 12-year-old boy, lives across the street from Hargrave. A manager for a utility company, Llorens, 44, had actually been a friend of Miletti’s wife; he had joined her and her then-husband for Thanksgiving dinner a few years ago.

“I do not want him to harm children in our area,” he said. “I cannot protect the whole world; my goal is just to get him out of our area.”

Then there are those on the other side of the debate:

Some of those who are most against vilifying Miletti live closest to him.

Wayne Weiss, 58, a documentary filmmaker who lives across the street, said he finds the signs unsightly. He thinks they so dominate the streetscape that the neighborhood could end up defined by them.

“They’ve got Christmas Tree Lane over there,” he said, gesturing across Lake Avenue to the neighborhood famous for its holiday light displays. “Is this going to become Pedophile Lane?”

Hari Nayar, 48, and Ruth Landsberger, 47, who have two children ages 9 and 6, also live across the street. The couple don’t know Miletti and his wife, and they don’t feel their children are endangered. Sexual abuse typically is inflicted by family members or friends, they believe, as it was in Miletti’s case. The state’s Megan’s Law website confirms their view, noting that 90% of child victims know their abuser, with almost half the offenders being a family member.

As they discussed their views with me, their 6-year-old listened in while their 9-year-old sat nearby reading “How The Grinch Stole Christmas.”

The sign campaign “may not be teaching these guys good values,” Landsberger said. “It is not teaching tolerance. It’s more like vigilantism.”

I appreciate the ambiguity, the shades of gray in this story, because it requires us to be humble. We often think our legal system is able not just to judge a person’s guilt or innocence, but their soul as well. The theological argument is that governments are acting as God’s agents on earth, and when judges impose a sentence they are meting out God’s own justice. Thus, God is on our side, and we are free to judge as harshly as we see fit.

Bunk.

No legal system can judge a person’s soul and deliver the punishment they truly deserve, nor the grace they truly deserve. Jesus tells us that we aren’t to judge others, but are to leave judgment in God’s hands. What our justice system can do, and do well, is to deter crime. By imposing consequences on criminal behavior, we create a disincentive for those behaviors, and hopefully dramatically reduce their frequency. The purpose of these deterrents is to protect our selves, our families, and our property, but not to deliver judgment in God’s stead. If we are truly to follow Jesus’ commands, we should forgive, and even love, the sex offender even as we sentence them to prison for their actions. There is no conflict between the forgiveness and the punishment – we do what we have to do to protect society, all the while recognizing that redemption is available even to the child molester.

So when we look at a convicted child molester in our midst, the same thiinking should pertain. We can’t judge the man’s soul. He is a sinner, but then so are we, and we all need forgiveness and grace. If the job of judging is lifted from our shoulders, then all have left to do is to protect our children and love our neighbor. So the question in this situation isn’t the state of Miletti’s soul, but whether he is still a danger to children, and if so how to protect them.

Here’s the part that bothered me:

Llorens and Hargrave once got into a heated exchange with Miletti over their signs. The two raised their voices in anger, while Miletti remained calm.

Llorens felt Miletti wanted to bait him or Hargrave into hitting him so he could make some kind of claim against them, he said. No blows were struck. Miletti also offered to tell his story, Llorens recalled. “I said I don’t even want to know. How can you justify doing that to a 6-year-old?” Llorens told Miletti to go home, which he did.

Mr. Llorens is not interested in learning more about Milietti so he can determine whether he is still a danger. It’s all judgment, with no door open to grace. The least his neighbors owe Miletti is to hear his story. With this article, now they have.

And what about the author? He concludes:

I did not enjoy meeting Michael Miletti. I wanted him to show more remorse. I thought a father who had harmed his child ought to outwardly display torment. Forever.

But perhaps his behavior reflected his having had 13 years to come to terms with his sins, while my expectations were based on learning of them only months ago.

In any case, Miletti’s obligations are to the law, not to me. I know he has paid for his crime and has led a law-abiding life ever since. Yet I will keep my child away from him. That is good enough for me.

I know it’s not enough for some of my neighbors. The signs remain on Wapello Street. Those who want Miletti out are planning pickets outside his house. They will not stop, they say, until he leaves.

Jesus’s commandment that we shouldn’t judge others is incredibly difficult to follow, as is his commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves. And the first commandment is the corollary of the second – we do not want others to judge us, and especially not before they’ve heard our story. The residents of Wapello Street owe Mr. Milleti no less.

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