Pilgrim Pathways: Notes for a Diaspora People

Incarnational Discipleship

The Heart of God is Love: A Sermon for Trinity Sunday 2012

Scriptures (Read by different members of the congregation, beginning and ending with 1 John 4:7-8.):

Deut. 6:4; I John 4:7-8; John 1:1-5; Matt. 28:19; 2 Cor. 13:14; I Peter 1:2.

Trinity: The Heart of God is Love

At the heart of Christian faith is the Trinity, the Tri-unity of God, but preaching on the Trinity is one of the hardest tasks of any preacher.  It is a mystery, not in the sense of a “Whodunit,” which one can solve by following the clues, but in the sense of a phenomenon that, the more you understand one or more aspects of it, the more you realize there are other aspects you don’t comprehend.  So, today, I want you to hold onto one central concept if you remember nothing else: The Trinity is important because GOD IS LOVE.  Love is relational. The word “Trinity” names the fact that God is already a community of giving and receiving love IN GOD’S SELF. Creation comes out of the overflow of that love; God does not just learn to love after God has become Creator. We’ll come back to this, but if nothing else makes sense about today’s sermon, please remember that “Trinity” is another way that Christians say God IS love.

How did this strange idea of Tri-unity in God come about? It doesn’t seem self-evident.  My mother always complained about theology in general and the Trinity in particular as too complicated. She prided herself on having “simple faith” and wanted simple ideas about God to go along with it. Well, our faith may be simple in the sense of simple and pure trust in Jesus as our Lord and Savior—which is what I think my mom meant. But wanting a simple theology is like wanting simple astrophysics—it can only be as simple or complex as the reality we seek to describe. We don’t have to be needlessly complicated for complexity’s own sake or to make it seem as if we are smarter than we are, but when we think about God and the gospel we should expect that sometimes it will be hard thinking, headache material.

Let’s start by saying that neither the word “Trinity,” nor any developed teaching or doctrine about it is found in the Bible itself. It took the church centuries to work out a teaching on the Trinity—with many fierce debates—and theologians still work on it, today.  But the Scriptures we read today, and others, started the thinking and debating process that produced the concepts we call the Trinity.

It began with the fact that all the earliest Christians were Jews.  We read today from Deut. “Hear, O Israel, the LORD your God is One Lord.” Jews call this “the Shema,” from the Hebrew word for “Hear.” It is the heart of Jewish faith—There is only one God, the Deliverer from slavery in Egypt who embraces Israel in covenant at Mount Sinai and whom the covenant people come to see is also the Creator of the entire universe.  Israel’s constant temptations were the temptations of empire: to renounce the liberated Jubilee life God has shown them in the covenant to return to patterns of oppression and slavery like they had known in Egypt, and to abandon faith and loyalty in God for the many gods of empire.  The Exile from the Land cures the latter problem. From the time of Israel’s return from Babylon and the other nations where they were scattered to the Land of Promise, several centuries before Jesus, they fiercely guarded against idolatry. (Oppression was a harder habit to break.)

So, what would make Jews, like the disciples and the earliest Christians, begin the process that would lead to our teaching about the Trinity?  Some have claimed it was a mistake. That it resulted from the early split between synagogue and church and Christianity becoming a mostly Gentile religion. Had the Church stayed largely Jewish, they claim, no pagan, Greek philosophical ideas would have infected us with a semi-return to polytheism, the belief in many gods.  Count me among those who disagree.  The earliest Christians KNEW that God is ONE, but they also experienced Easter and Pentecost. They encountered God in Jesus and in the Spirit that Jesus had promised God would send.  Jesus typically referred to God as “Father,” and taught his disciples to pray that way, too. (We’ll address feminine images for God later. For now, because we have enough on our plate, let’s stick with the traditional, admittedly patriarchal, language of “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”)  Before long, Christians, mostly Jews, were using words for the risen Christ that were usually reserved for God. They even began to pray to Jesus and to the Spirit, although the usual New Testament and early Christian pattern was to pray TO the Father, in the NAME of Christ, and by the POWER of the Spirit.

Experiencing God in Jesus and in the Spirit got the ball rolling toward Trinitarian faith. Christians remained monotheists, believers in one God, but, unlike the other Abrahamic faiths, Judaism and Islam, we are not SIMPLY monotheists. Count me among those who believe that Jews, Muslims, and Christians all worship the same God, the true and living God. But we understand God differently. For different reasons, Jews and Muslims both believe that Christians have compromised our monotheism in holding to the Trinity. We are tempted to minimize our differences in interfaith dialogue—and to build bridges of understanding, we SHOULD start with our common ground—One God, the God of Abraham and Sarah, of Isaac and Ishmael, of Jacob,  of Moses, Aaron, and Miriam—and of Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro, priest of Midian, whose monotheistic faith bears many similarities to Islam.  But, not even for the sake of solidarity with our Jewish and Muslim sisters and brothers can we downplay the differences—in Jesus’ life, teaching, death, and resurrection, we have met again the One God of Liberation and Covenant. And in the promised Spirit, named in Scripture as both the Spirit of God and the Spirit of Jesus, we live, move, and have our very being IN God.  Christian life is life in the Spirit. Christian life and worship is INEVITABLY Trinitarian in shape.  The way the doctrine worked out was shaped by Greek philosophy because that is the culture in which the debates took place. Doubtless the terms and shape of our faith would look different today if the early Church had first flourished in India or China. (Much of it did flourish in Africa, but parts of Africa already influenced by Greek and Roman culture.) But I am convinced that, regardless, SOMETHING LIKE the Trinitarian teaching would have developed because of Easter and Pentecost.

Now, as I said, the details took centuries of debates to work out—and the arguments have never ended. We won’t go into them all here.  To even cover the basics would take a long sermon SERIES on the Trinity.  Today, I will just mention a few key points, some ancient, and some very contemporary.

1)      The “persons” of the Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are equal. It’s not that the Father is REALLY God and Christ and the Spirit are secondary. Already in Col. 1:19, Paul states that in Christ, “ALL the FULLNESS of God was pleased to dwell.”

2)      It’s not that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are “masks” for God or roles that God plays.  The church rejected this teaching as “modalism.”  But many Christians are unknowingly Modalists. But this ends up with either denying the Incarnation—that God was fully in the human Jesus of Nazareth, or it ends with believing that the baby Jesus is guiding the stars and planets from his crib! Jesus wasn’t talking to himself when he prayed. Jesus doesn’t turn into the Spirit after death and resurrection.  One form of Pentecostalism, the United Pentecostals, embrace this modalism, believing that “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” are merely “titles” for Jesus and baptizing only into Jesus’ name and not in the Trinitarian formula of Matt. 28:19 which we heard read. They have a kind of “Unitarianism of the 2nd Person.” No, each of the 3 persons is fully God.

3)      We also see that our congregation’s doxology [which uses “Creator, Christ, and Holy Ghost”], while fine as a doxology, does not say everything that needs to be said. No song can do that, nor sermon, nor book. But our doxology, BY ITSELF, can give the impression that only the Father is Creator, that only Jesus is Redeemer, and only the Spirit is Sustainer. Look at your bulletin cover. See the symbol there [see picture at bottom] and how the 3 points also connect and intersect? That very ancient Trinitarian symbol points to something called by the Greek word “perichoresis.” You don’t need to remember the word, but what it means, is that each person of the Trinity participates in the life and actions of the other.  Remember our Scripture from the Gospel of John—in which the Word, Christ, is not only affirmed to be God, but is creating, too—without Whom nothing was made that is made.  In Genesis 1, the Spirit hovers over the chaos waters as God begins to create.  Likewise, Jesus Christ the Son is not the only agent in salvation. GOD was in Christ, reconciling the world to God’s Self. And the sustaining and empowering and sanctifying work of the Spirit is also the work of Father and Son.  Each participates fully in the work we primarily identify with another “Person” of the Tri-une God.

4)      There is much, MUCH, more that could be said, but let me finish our reflections today with the question of how the Trinity relates to feminine images for God.  My prayer life reflects my theology—among other things, no doubt.  As a young Christian, I primarily addressed God in prayer as “Papa,” believing that this was the Southern cultural equivalent of Jesus’ “Abba.” When I began to realize the importance of the Trinity, I adopted the early Christian pattern, especially in public prayer, of praying to the Father, in the Name of Jesus the Son, and in the Power of the Spirit. Then, as a seminary student, I encountered the feminist critique of all-masculine God-language.  Now, let it be said that it is NOT true that the ancient Christian theologians who formulated Trinitarian doctrine believed that God was literally male. Some modern TV preachers may believe that, but Athanasius, and Augustine, and the Cappadocians, specifically and repeatedly affirm that both male and female humans are made in the image and likeness of God, just as Genesis 1 says. But it is true that the constant use over centuries of Father, Son, and Spirit language, while ignoring feminine imagery for God in the Bible gives the impression that, to say the least, men are more in the image of God than women are. This false belief has fed sexist patterns of male supremacy in home, church, and society. So, I came to my teacher, Dr. Molly Marshall, and I asked her, “Is it possible to be a thorough Trinitarian and still embrace the feminist critique of all-masculine God language? Can one be a Trinitarian feminist?” She got that twinkle in her eye that we students came to associate with her sharp sense of humor, “Oh, yes, Mr. White,” she said (I was still single, then), “But you will forever after be condemned to using very complex sentences.” So it has proved.

God is not male. We are free to call God “Mother,” as well as “Father.” We can refer to God as “She.” In ancient Christian art, the Spirit was often depicted as feminine.  The Wisdom tradition of the Hebrew Scriptures, what we Christians often call the “Old Testament,” depicts the Wisdom of God as feminine (see Prov. 8)—and it is that Wisdom tradition that is the background for John’s calling Christ “the Word.”

Now some disagree on both sides. Some theologians, like Donald Bloesch and David Jenson, while acknowledging feminine imagery for God in Scripture insist that “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” are the way the New Testament teaches us to NAME God. So, we can’t call God “Mother” they say. I disagree.  If that were so, the New Testament writers and other early Christians would have used ONLY “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” language for God and never any other images, but this is not the case. On the other side, feminist theologian Sallie McFague thinks the Trinity is a category mistake that comes when metaphors become hardened into idols. She wants to replace the metaphors of “Father, Son, and Spirit,” with “Mother, Lover, and Friend.” I have no trouble using any of her terms for God, but not as replacements.  Two feminist theologians have worked hard to reaffirm the tradition while still incorporating the feminist critique of all-masculine God language. If you’re up for some DEEP reading, I highly recommend Catherine LaCugna’s God For Us: The Trinity and the Christian Life and Elizabeth A. Johnson’s, She Who Is: Feminist Theology and the Mystery of God.

We do have to insist that Jesus of Nazareth was biologically male. That is the scandal of particularity. He was also Jewish and spoke Aramaic. Incarnation is in the particular. But the pre-existent Word is also Wisdom and the risen Christ, though usually referred to as Son, can also be given feminine imagery. If humans, both male and female, are made in GOD’s image, then ALL of God, each member of the Trinity, embraces both feminine and masculine aspects—however difficult that is to say in a baptismal formula or doxology.

We have barely scratched the surface and our time is up.  We end where we began. Trinity is another way of saying “God is LOVE.” “One God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit,” “Mother, Child, and Holy Spirit,” a community of love in God’s Self and pouring out that love in Creation, in Sustaining and empowering the universe, and in salvation, liberation, redemption.  In the words of Catherine LaCugna, Trinity means that God is GOD FOR US. Amen.

June 3, 2012 Posted by | liturgy, theology, tradition, Trinity, Trinity, Trinity Sunday | Leave a comment

A Few Good Books on the Trinity

This Sunday, like so many around the world, I will be preaching on the Christian doctrine of the Trinity–the Tri-Unity of God. After, I’ll post that sermon here. For now, I thought I would list a few excellent theological works on The Trinity.


For beginners in theology:

Alister McGrath, Understanding the Trinity (Zondervan, 1990).

Roger E. Olsen and Christopher A. Hall, The Trinity. (Guides to Theology Series). (Eerdmans, 2002).


Modern works on the Trinity:

Leonardo Boff, Trinity and Society. Trans. from Portuguese by Paul Burns. (Reprint Wipf & Stock, 2005).

Elizabeth A. Johnson, She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Discourse10th Anniversary Edition (Crossroads Publishing, 2002).

Catherine Mowry LaCugna, God For Us: The Trinity and the Christian Life(HarperOne, 1993).

Jürgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom (Fortress, 1993).

Karl Rahner, The Trinity (Milestones in Catholic Theology).

There are many others, but these should keep you busy for awhile.




June 1, 2012 Posted by | book reviews, liturgy, theology, Trinity, Trinity, Trinity Sunday | Leave a comment

A Prayer for Pentecost

This prayer can also be sung as a hymn.  It works well with the tune of “The Servant Song” composed by Richard Gilliard copyright 1977 Maranatha Music.


Holy Spirit, come with power, breathe into our aching night.

We expect you this glad hour, waiting for Your strength and light.

We are fearful, we are ailing, we are weak and selfish too.

Break upon Your congregation, give us vigor, life anew.

Holy Spirit, come with fire, burn us with Your presence new.

Let us as one mighty choir sing our hymn of praise to You.

Burn away our wasted sadness and enflame us with Your love.

Burst upon Your congregation, give us gladness from above.

Holy Spirit, bring your message, burn and breathe each Word anew

deep into our tired living ’till we strive Your work to do.

Teach us love and trusting kindness, lend our hands to those who hurt.

Breathe upon Your congregation, and inspire us with Your Word.

May 27, 2012 Posted by | ecclesiology, Holy Spirit, liturgy, Pentecost, prayers, theology, worship | Leave a comment

Hymn for Pentecost #2 “Send Down the Fire.”

Words and tune by Marty Haugen. Copyright 1989 by GLA Publications, Inc.

The refrain is to be sung before each verse and then once more in conclusion after all verses are completed.

Send Down the Fire


Send down the fire of Your justice,

Send down the rainse of Your love,

Come, send down the Spirit,

Breathe life in your people, and

We shall be people of God.

1. Call us to be Your compassion,

Teach us the song of Your love;

Give us hearts that sing,

Give us deeds that ring,

Make us ring with

the song of Your love.

2. Call us to learn of Your mercy,

Teach us the way of Yourpeace;

Give us hearts that feel,

Give us hands that heal,

Make us walk in

the way of Your peace.

3. Call us to answer oppression,

Teach us the fire of Your trugh;

Give us righteous souls,

‘Til Your justice rolls,

Make us burn with

the fire of Your love.

4. Call us to witness Your Kingdom,

Give us the presence of Christ;

May Your holy light

Keep us shining bright,

Ever shine with

the presence of Christ.

May 27, 2012 Posted by | blog series, Holy Spirit, hymns, liturgy, Pentecost, theology, worship | Leave a comment

Hymns for Pentecost #1 “Spirit Blowing Through Creation.”

Words and tune from Marty Haugen. Copyright 1987 by GLA Publications, Inc.

Spirit Blowing Through Creation

1. Spirit blowing through creation,

Spirit burning in the skies,

Let the hope of your salvation

fill our eyes;

God of splendor, God of glory,

You who light the stars above,

All the heavens tell the story

of Your love. (To verse 2)

2. As  You moved upon the waters,

As You ride upon the wind,

Move us all Your sons and daughters,

deep within;

As You shaped the hills and mountains,

Formed the land and filled the deep,

Let your hand renew and waken

all who sleep. (To refrain).

3. Love that sends the rivers dancing,

Love that waters all that lives,

Love that heals and holds and rouses

and forgives;

You are food for all Your creatures,

You are hunger in the soul,

In Your hand the brokenhearted

are made whole. (To verse 4).

4. All the creatures You have fashioned,

All that live and breathe in You,

Find their hope in Your compassion,

strong and true;

You, O Spirit of salvation,

You alone, beneath, above,

Come, renew Your whole creation

in Your love. (To refrain).


Spirit renewing the earth,

renewing the hearts of all people;

Burn in the weary souls,

blow through the silent lips,

come now awake us,

Spirit of God.

May 27, 2012 Posted by | blog series, Holy Spirit, hymns, liturgy, Pentecost, theology, worship | Leave a comment

The Craft or Practice of Theology: Branches of Theology

Following clues in the work of the late James Wm. McClendon, Jr. (1924-2000), I have been describing theology as a practical discipline, investigating, interpreting, and transforming the convictions of a convictional community (e.g., the Christian church or some branch of that Church). I have sought to spell out theology’s character as pluralistic (or contextual), narrative based, rational, and self-involving.  I have tried to indicate briefly how academic theology is a secondary discipline and related to the primary theologizing the churches do through their practices (preaching, worship, hospitality to strangers, instruction of the young and of new Christians, evangelism, service, nonviolent witness and love of enemies, CreationCare, etc.).  Whole books could be (and have been) written about each of those aspects. (Keeping these posts brief has not been easy!)  It is time to say something about the “branches” of (Christian) theology.

Biblical theology.  All Christian theology, of course, will seek to be informed by and normed by Holy Scripture.  However, Biblical theology seeks to describe and interpret the theological dimensions of the Biblical texts themselves. (This is sometimes divided up further into Old Testament Theology and New Testament Theology.) In the ordinary life of the Church, this is done whenever a believer (or Sunday School class, congregation/parish, etc.) attempts to summarize the “message” of the canon as a whole, or some section of it. In academic circles, this task is usually done by people who have degrees in biblical studies, but not all biblical scholars are capable of biblical theology.  Some biblical scholars are simply historians or archaeologists or literary critics. The biblical theologian will be informed by skill in Hebrew, Greek and cognate languages such as Aramaic, Ugaritic, Akkadian, etc., will consult archaeological findings, historians of ancient Palestine or of 1st C. Greco-Roman society, use linguistic analyses or sociological insights, etc.  But the biblical theologian must go beyond all this and must seek to encounter these texts on a theological level–the only level in which the Church’s ancient confession that these writings are, in some sense, the “Word of God” makes any sense.  It is a synthetic task–and not an easy one.

Historical theology studies what the Church (and churches) have taught throughout the ages–or in some particular time and setting.  This is done not just for antiquarian interest, but because the historical theologian is convinced that voices from the past, witnesses to the churches’ life and thought elsewhen, may have significance for the church today.  Some branches of Christianity are more influenced by certain periods of the past (e.g., Eastern Orthodoxy focuses supremely on the Patristic writings and especially the work of the Ecumenical Councils of the not-yet-divided Church), or by certain theologians more than others (e.g., Roman Catholicism returns constantly to the work of St. Thomas Aquinas; Reformed Christians give special consideration to the thought of Huldrych Zwingli and John Calvin; Methodists are especially attentive to the writings of John Wesley and the hymns of Charles Wesley, etc.) It is a rare historical theologian who can convey most of the full sweep of the Church’s life and thought through the ages (the late Jaroslav Pelikan is the only one who comes quickly to mind).

Philosophical theology (called by some traditions “fundamental” or “foundational” theology, though I believe such a designation is a mistake) engages the major thought forms of the day in dialogue, or even debate.  A wider theology of culture, engages not only the philosophical currents in one’s context, but the arts (visual, musical, etc.), sciences, political ideologies, other (rival?) religions, and much else. This branch of theology is closely related to the missionary practices of the church–for in all good mission work one listens and learns as much as one teaches.

Pastoral theology focuses closely on the pastoral tasks of the church and its members (not just on a the tasks of the pastor or pastoral team). This is sometimes called “practical theology,” but, again, I think this is a mistake. Properly understood, all Christian theology is rooted in the practices of the church and serves them and is thereby “practical.” “Impractical theology” would be theology cut off from church life and would, Christianly speaking, be useless.

The most daunting branch of theology is also its most normative:  Systematic Theology is its most common name since it tries to bring all these tasks together and state, for this time and place, what the church must teach to be faithfully the church of Jesus Christ, and do so in a fairly orderly fashion. But the term “systematic theology” can give the impression of forcing the Word of God into a systemic straightjacket of human origins, reducing it to an ideology.  So, some prefer the term Dogmatic Theology, but in North America “dogmatic” has come to mean “narrow minded,” so this term, too, is not without its problems.  A recent term that many use is Constructive Theology.  I have no preference between these terms and tend to use them interchangeably.

I must stress, however, that systematic or dogmatic or constructive theology is not just about doctrine, but also about ethics. Neither can do without the other and both are essential to the theological tasks of the church.

I want to get feedback from readers on the series so far before I attempt another post showing why ethics is as much a part of theology as is doctrine.

May 21, 2012 Posted by | blog series, liturgy, theology, tradition | Leave a comment

The Craft or Practice of Theology, 2: The Science of Convictions

If theology is a “science of convictions,” then we need to say more about what convictions are.  McClendon distinguishes them from opinions.  [See James Wm. McClendon, Jr. and James M. Smith, Convictions: Defusing Religious Relativism (Wipf & Stock, 2002)–a revision and expansion of McClendon and Smith, Understanding Religious Convictions (University of Notre Dame Press, 1975).] Opinions are easily formed and easily changed. Forming them may require investigation or logical reasoning, but they do not involve much more than the intellect. We often know exactly how and when we formed opinion X and when it changed to opinion Y.

By contrast, convictions are deeply a part of us. We are very emotionally invested in them. They are not formed easily and they are not changed easily.  They cannot be changed at all without the individual or the community holding them becoming a significantly different individual or community.  In a sense, we are our convictions and, thus, changing them leads to our becoming someone new (or a different community).

Consider some examples.  And here, just for fun, I will tease some prominent theology bloggers and bibliobloggers by using them in the examples.  Imagine, if you will, a Jim West giving up a Zwinglian “pure memorial” understanding of the Lord’s Supper for a Lutheran belief in eucharistic “consubstantiation,” or some other “real presence” sacramental view.  Such a change would not be simply an exegetical or theological change of mind, but a type of conversion and the results would give us a very different Jim West from the one we know (and love?)–but he’d probably still keep calling Chris Tilling “the devil.”

Or imagine D. W. Congdon rejecting universal salvation. Surely that would be a conversion! (Actually, considering that Congdon is a Wheaton alumnus come to Princeton, this would probably be a re-conversion to earlier convictions.) Or what would Guy Davies be like if he came to embrace Arminius’ or Wesley’s views on prevenient grace and free will?

Waxing more serious, I know that my rejection of the view that Christians could use lethal force and serve in national militaries, and my embrace of Christian pacifism (gospel nonviolence)  was not a simple change of opinion, but a conversion. Since I was in the U.S. military at the time, it involved me refusing to don my uniform or pick up my rifle and applying for a conscientious objector discharge.

The same is true for communities:  Consider those churches in the 16th C. that, under the influence of Zwingli or Luther or Calvin, embraced the Reformation–and were no longer Catholic but Protestant churches.  Or consider those early followers of Zwingli–Conrad Grebel, Felix Mantz, Georg Blaurock, etc. who followed the logic of Zwingli’s early teaching on baptism and then decided that Scripture had more authority than the Zurich city council and became the first Anabaptists.  Convictions are not changed easily–and they  cannot be changed at all without the individual or community holding those convictions becoming significantly different than before.

Therefore theology not only involves struggle for truth amidst error, but also the risk of conversion and change (not least from the theologian).

Now, all of us hold some beliefs, even some religious beliefs, at the opinion level rather than the convictional level.  Perhaps one definition of “fundamentalism” (whether conservative or liberal in orientation) is that all or nearly all beliefs are at the convictional level–nothing is adiaphora or even of secondary importance, everything is life or death, nothing is not a “test of fellowship,” that separates out true believers from heretics.

Next time: The branches of theology and how this relates to the practices of the Church and churches and the task(s) of theologians.

May 21, 2012 Posted by | blog series, liturgy, theology, tradition | 1 Comment

The Craft or Practice of Theology, 1

I began these reflections with the definition of theology given by the late James Wm. McClendon, Jr. (1924-2000), “the discovery, understanding or interpretation, and transformation of the convictions of a convictional community, including the discovery and critical revision of their relation to one another and to whatever else there is.”  The particular convictional community we Christians are concerned with, of course, is the Christian Church, the universal Body of Christ, the People of God.  The convictions we are dealing with, unlike some whose convictions are about “girls, guns, and gold,” (to use a traditional and sexist motto from the Old West), are convictions about the Triune God, about Jesus of Nazareth as the Christ of God, about the Holy Spirit, about creation, humanity, sin, and salvation, about discipleship, and the hope of new/re-newed heavens and earth.

The church’s primary instruction in these moral and doctrinal convictions we might call “primary theology” (unless some reader has a better term).  This is what we find in hymns, confessions of faith (e.g., the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds), church covenants, catechisms, sermons, evangelistic presentations of the gospel, Sunday School lessons, liturgies, etc.  More formal or “academic” theology is a secondary practice of the Church–but just as necessary for that.  In this practice, theologians investigate these primary theological (i.e., moral and doctrinal) teachings–”discovering, and interpreting” the convictions of the Church (or a part of it, e.g., Orthodoxy in post-Communist Ukraine, Pentecostalism in South America, post-apartheid Reformed faith in South Africa, etc.).  But the (secondary/academic) theologian has a normative task, too.  S/he tests these convictions in their current form:  are they faithful? adequate? biblical?  The theologian’s task, as McClendon puts it, is to hold up a mirror to the community in which the community recognizes itself not just as it is, but as it should be, must strive to be, in order to be what God is calling it to be.

We see the practical nature of theology:  Rooted in basic Christian practices (worship, prayer–both individual and corporate, preaching, evangelism, the saints’ mutual service, hospitality to strangers and enemies, etc.), theology is also to serve those practices.  A biblical example may be in order:  When the apostle Paul writes to the church gathered at Corinth, they are celebrating the Lord’s Supper (Eucharist, Holy Communion) with a full agape meal–but the rich are gorging themselves and the working poor, arriving later, are going hungry.  Paul leads them to see that their practice of the Supper is distorted, not just morally, but doctrinally–in so mistreating the poor, the Corinthian Christians “failed to discern the Body of Christ” not just in the meal but gathered in Corinth.  Their distorted liturgical practice was wrong morally and doctrinally–revealing flaws in the Corinthian Christians’ eucharistic doctrine, ecclesiology, soteriology, and even Christology.  Paul’s instruction in liturgical reform (from now on, skip the full agape meal, eat at home, do nothing to dishonor the poor made in God’s image–who are also your sisters and brothers for whom Christ died) is also doctrinal correction. In terms of our definition, this is the transformation of the community’s convictions, displayed in their practice.

Next: More on convictions; branches of theology.

May 21, 2012 Posted by | blog series, liturgy, theology, tradition | Leave a comment

Labor Day: A Prayer by Ken Sehested

Labor Day:

A Communal Prayer by Rev. Ken Sehested

Creator God, we give thanksthis day for work:

for work that sustains; for work that fulfills;

for work which, however tiring, also satisfies

and resonates with Your labor in creation.

As part of our thanks we intercede

for those who have no work,

who have too much or too little work;

who work at jobs that demean or destroy,

work that profits the few

at the expense of the many.

Blessed One, extend  your redemptive purpose

in the many and varied places of our work.

In factory or field, in sheltered office

or under open sky, using technical knowledge

or physical strength, working with machines

or with people or with the earth itself.

Together we promise:

To bring the full weight of our intelligence

and strength to our work.

Together we promise:

To make our place of work a place of safety

and respect for all with whom we labor.

Together we refuse:

To engage in work that harms another,

that promotes injustice or violence,

that damages the earth or otherwise

betrays the common good;

or to resign ourselves to economic

arrangements that widen the gap

between rich and poor.

Together we refuse:

To allow our work to infringe

on time with our families and friends,

with our community of faith,

with the rhythym of Sabbath rest.

Together we affirm:

The rights of all to work that both

fulfills and sustains:  to just wages

and to contentment.

Together we affirm:

That the redeeming and transforming

power of the Gospel, will all its

demands for justice and its promises

of mercy, is as relevant to the workplace

as to the sanctuaries of faith and family.

We make these promises,

we speak these refusals

and we offer these affirmations

as offering to You, O God–

who labors with purpose and

lingers in laughter–in response

to your ever-present grace, as

symbols of our ongoing repentance

and transformation, and in hope

that one day all the world

shall eat and be satisfied.


From Ken Sehested, In the Land of the Living:  Prayers Personal and Public (Publications United, 2009).

September 4, 2011 Posted by | liturgy, prayers, worship | Leave a comment

Hymn: Cuando El Pobre ( “When the Poor Ones”)

My congregation sings hymns from all over the world.  One of our favorite is a Latin American hymn from 1971 (early Liberation Theology era, when most of Latin America was under rightwing dictatorships, many of them actively supported by the U.S. guns and money) written by A. Oliver and Miguel Manzano.  The English translation is by George Lockwood.  They hymn is a meditation on Matt. 25: 31-46.  I haven’t figured out how to print music on this blog, but this is sung in unison in 6/8 time.  The tune is challenging but the powerful words make it worthwhile. I will give both the Spanish and English of all 4 verses.  Enjoy.

Spanish original:

  1. Cuando el pobre nada tiene y aun reparte, cuando el hombre pasa sed y aguano da, cuando el débil a su hermano fortalece,  [Estribillo] va Dios mismo en nuestro mismo caminar, va Dios mismo en nuestro mismo caminar.
  2. Cuando sufre un hombre y logra su consuelo, cuando espera y no se cansa de esperar, cuando amamos, aunque el odio nos rodee, [Estribillo] va Dios mismo en nuestro mismo caminar, va Dios mismo en nuestro mismo caminar.
  3. Cuando crece la alegria y nos inunda, cuando dicen nuestros labios la verdad, cuando amamos el sentir de los sencillos, [Estribillo] va Dios mismo en nuestro mismo caminar, va Dios mismo en nuestro mismo caminar.
  4. Cuando abunda el bien y llena los hogares, cuando un hombre donde hay guerra pone paz, cuando “hermano” le llamamos al extraño, [Estribillo] va Dios mismo en nuestro mismo caminar, va Dios mismo en nuestro mismo caminar.

English translation:

  1. When the poor ones who have nothing share with strangers, when the thirsty water give unto us all, when the crippled in their weakness strengthen others, [Refrain] then we know that God still goes that road with us, then we know that God still goes that road with us.
  2. When at last all those who suffer find their comfort, when they hope though even hope seems hopelessness, when we love though hate at times seems all around us, [Refrain] then we know that God still goes that road with us, then we know that God still goes that road with us.
  3. When our joy fills up our cup to overflowing, when our lips can speak no words other than true, when we know that love for simple things is better, [Refrain] then we know that God still goes that road with us, then we know that God still goes that road with us.
  4. When our homes are filled with goodness in abundance, when we learn how to peace instead of war, when each stranger that we meet is called a neighbor, [Refrain] then we know that God still goes that road with us, then we know that God still goes that road with us.

August 14, 2011 Posted by | hymns, liturgy, worship | 4 Comments