Category Archives: Miscellaneous

A Humble Re-Opening of My Blog

If you’re like me, you love this world.  Its people and landscapes sometimes take your breath away.  And, seriously…did they really think that I would buy into this “you have a heavenly home, so don’t worry about this one” formula?  You will find none of that here.

Thriving Among the Lilies is a tapestry of local inspirations and lessons hard learned.  What does it mean to live locally as a global citizen?  What does a radiant life look like in a post-Christendom, post-industrial city?  How can I live simply in tune with the sacred earth? What does it mean for a human to fulfill their destiny?  That’s what I think about on a daily basis.

I have seen more places on this earth than most old men.  I wake up every morning thinking about building vibrant global community.  I work all day sometimes catching glimpses of it. I am launching into a PhD on Early Christianity, having just finished the equivalent in Formative Spirituality. And let’s be honest, trying to maintain our radiance, living in 3D, often leaves a wake of disappointments and debunked expectations.

So in my few years, I have collected a few things in four subject areas that I’d like to share with you.  I hope you take the opportunity to share back.  Lovers of Nature. Students of Scripture. Global Citizens.  Authentic Spirituality.

I also invite you to write a post-card and link into my events.  Write me a post-card on your thoughts about all of this.  Submit a message, or send me a picture (send these to my email: kmjagger@gmail.com).  If possible, I will either post the note on the front page or use the picture in a blog post.   And, on my Events page, you can link into some of my upcoming speaking arrangements and presentations.

One Scripture to Rule them All

I am often amazed at the power of scripture in our society. As a scholar of religion and as a practicing Christian, I dwell in these texts as words valuable to interpret and which interpret me. Buried in the pages of ancient holy writ, I often loose sight of their potent force in today’s culture. Like a father who spends every day with his growing child, great beauties lose their mystery in the mundane.

So, when during the inauguration events (a rare moment of cultural display in the U.S.) both Rick Warren and President Obama referenced “the scriptures”, they had my attention.

To quote Krister Stendahl, “God may be one”, but there are many scriptures, and the Bible is one permutation among many existent writings. More so, when you say ‘scripture says’ rather than ‘the Bible, or Koran, or Zohar says’ you are saying something quite specific about the set of writings you reference. You are moving beyond the particulars of some collection of ancient human writing. You have appealed to that writing as authoritative at least in its direct ability to speak to and guide us and at most as a transcendent text given to us from the spiritual and divine beyond.

So, for the pastor and the president to both appeal to the ‘scriptures’, we must ask: how did, on that day, the Bible find its place as an authoritative text, and what does it mean for us living in this pluralistic post-Christian society?

In his invocation prayer, we expected Pastor Rick Warren to appeal to the Bible as scripture. Regardless of your personal impression of his performance or content, we must observe how strange it seemed to have Christianity cozied up against the U.S. Government. And for all those who misunderstand the separation of church and state, this was not an instance of government sponsored religion, though I could see how it seemed so. No, it was President Obama’s free choice, religious or political, to express his religious convictions by appointing Warren. And yet, strange it seemed.

Warren, in his opening, began by saying, “Scripture tells us ‘Hear oh Israel, the Lord is our God; the Lord is one.’ And you are the compassionate and merciful one, and you are loving to everyone you made”. He began with that foundational section of Moses’ sermon ushering his people into unwavering monotheism (though that’s not how things turned out). He also chose to leave out the second half of Moses’ point which Jesus reinterprets: “You shall love your God will all your heart, mind, spirit, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourselves”. Warren replaces this second half with his conviction that God is compassionate and merciful to everyone he made. I have no doubt that Warren meant “to the horizons of humanity”: every living person. Rather than placing responsibility on humanity to react and relate correctly to God and humanity, Warren used the opportunity to say more about the character of God.

So, Warren appealed to the scriptures as if it were an autonomous voice: “Scripture tells us”. In his view, scripture (in this case Jewish and Christian scripture) speaks to us and offers some piece of sage advice that we would do well to take into account. After all, the Hebrew word for ‘hear’ carries the meaning of ‘listen, obey, understand, test, or examine”. Warren was inviting, like Moses, his audience and particularly the now President Obama, to embrace, try on for size, just see what happens, if you give the Jewish and Christian God a chance. And his emphasis was on the character of that God. Incidentally, Warren believes that the God of Israel created all humans.

So, Obama and Warren, by giving Warren the chance to pray, exercised their freedom of speech and religion on one of the biggest national televised events of the decade. I understand Warren’s move, though it did make me feel a little awkward. Because I value the freedom of religion and its ability to allow me to freely worship whomever I please, and knowing that the line between sponsorship and expression is very delicate, I get uncomfortable when we are on that line. So what seemed expected and uncomfortable with Warren turned into a strange surprise when President Obama himself appealed to ‘scripture’. And again, it was an appeal to the Christian scriptures.

President Obama is a Christian and is able to choose his own religion just like everybody else. But when he used ‘scripture’ to appeal and persuade this nation, my ears immediately perked. Here’s what he said:

“We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things, to reaffirm our enduring spirit, to choose a better history, and to carry forth the promise that all are equal, free, and deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness”.

Our President appealed not to Paul, or the Bible, but to Scripture. He chose a less forceful understanding of scripture. Rather than it containing its own voice that we would do well to try on for size, he presented Scripture as ‘words’ for us to examine and explore. Of course he was referencing Paul’s great oration on love in I Corinthians 13. After Paul muses on the true nature of love (versus the Corinthians’ version of Spiritual Power Playing), he begins to talk about the judgment day.

A great day will come, says Paul, when everything will be exposed for what it truly is. In the case of Obama’s vision, a lazy and weak spirit will be revealed for what it is even if we pretend we are now strongly enduring. If we have chosen the low road in this age of globalism and terrorism, says Obama, one day we will not be able to pretend that it was the highway. And if we as a country have renigged on our promise of equality, freedom, and the open road to happiness, then we might be able to pretend for now that we are the beacons of liberty in this world; but, a day will arrive when we will be exposed for what we truly were, the greatest perpetrators of inequality, captivity, and oppression in the world.

Obama does not make this case; he does not go that far. He merely implies that we shouldn’t fool ourselves into believing that we are something we are not. We should become what we say we are. We should walk the walk of liberty, rather than talking the talk.

Now, for Paul, coming of age symbolized the end of days. So to mature was not something we do on our own, but happens to us when God makes all things new. And his point is this: some day God will set things right. You will be known better than you’ve ever been known. Many things will fade away: injustice, pride, broken relationships. Our temporal faith and hope will morph into some thing else. If now we have faith without sight, then we will believe because we see clearly. If now we hope in a hopeless night, then we will hope in the fullness of day. But, one thing will not change: love. So, let’s go about learning to love immediately, because it is the only way we can bring heaven to earth in the here and now. And Paul thought we could do so. Paul thought we should do so. Paul encourages us to bend our minds to learning the way of love.

Does Obama’s vision match up to his reference in scripture? Perhaps. Equality, Freedom, and Happiness (the root of this virtue being holiness), will stem from a society of great lovers. But will our political and national vision of human greatness bring about God’s kingdom. Perhaps not. If we could match Obama’s political vision in step with a national movement of genuine love, perhaps. But then again that would be the derailment of the American dream of manifest destiny and replacing it by embracing our destiny to serve.

In the end, both men appealed to scripture in an authoritative way. Warren did so to highlight the character of God, to acknowledge Jesus before humanity. President Obama did so to persuade us to become our higher selves and to begin to walk the walk of freedom, equality, and happiness. Both did so with the help of scripture. The difference is that Obama appealed to the heart of a society once Christian; Warren appealed to a world ‘not yet so’.

What does this mean for our nation? Perhaps we are not as far beyond our Christian heritage as Christians and evangelicals now lament. Perhaps there is still room for Christians to appeal to the Bible as a valid authority and make their case. Maybe they should do so with creativity and care, but there might be room yet. And perhaps this means that the authority of the Bible might just endure through the era of enlightenment and critical scholarship, maybe because it speaks directly to the human experience in a profound authoritative way.

For Warren, his way was noble, but was not, I dare say, our beacon of hope. Warren, even with relativized prayer, “as far as his conscious would allow”, still seemed to be saying: “You need to know this merciful God; but you can’t know him except through us”. We need a larger vision of God’s work in this world far beyond our perceived borders, far beyond the work of our hands. Paul was indeed right when he said to the Romans that God had worked upon the heart of all who have lived. We must join him there.

Mostly, this all says to me that there exists, in our midst, a book of wonders. At least we should mine its pages for the wisdom of those who have gone before us. For others, we should consider more seriously its potential to guide our civilization down the path of truth and justice. At most we should consider its logic as that which springs from the mind of the creator God who did, it seems, create us all.

Genesis: As a Book

Can I just say that the first three texts of our scriptures are BEAUTIFUL works!

Genesis, Exodus, and Leviticus weave together a story not mainly about humanity and Israel, but of God; we just happen to be a major character. Genesis is primarily about God’s activity in “descending” humanity, especially those who descend directly from God. Exodus and Leviticus are primarily about God’s speaking to humanity, especially to Moses. God speaks/reveals to Moses an order of society, one which ensures extreme providence to the God-ordered community: both in terms of God’s presence among his community and the land’s wholehearted embracing of the people. At center stage, we find God at step with humanity as he himself works unceasingly to reveal himself, care for a constantly fragile new creation, and perpetually speak life and redemption into his descendants. (I’m sure that Numbers, Deuteronomy, and the rest of the scriptures add similarly to this narrative; I just haven’t read them yet, this time around).

I’m writing in 2006, which means that before I go any further I have to answer some pertinent questions about how I am reading these texts. I am reading under the assumption that to some high degree God continually speaks through the cannon of Christian scripture. I am interested in how God has worked in this world, and I believe that the First Testament has some pertinent and historical answers. I am mostly attempting an objective reading of the texts: one that is interested in what the text primarily says. Regardless of our growing cynicism towards all things “objective”, our post modern friends still haven’t toppled everything scientific. As all things objective to some degree fail, I do understand that some degree of personal bias will influence the “meaning of the text”. And since some of our current audience still thinks that we can’t come to some focused conclusion concerning the intended meaning of the texts, I have to wonder if these critics will ever really read the Bible; or will they continue their assault, through wide sweeping rejections, on all things universal.

As for what I think the scriptures are, I will only say two things. Firstly, that these texts find themselves in a tension between history and story. Without such tension, one falls into the perils of fundamentalism; furthermore, without such tension, one strips the beautiful meaning from the texts. Secondly, I am fairly comfortable with redaction and its influence upon the text. When the dust settles, I remain all the more interested in what the Bible says and how it influences my actions and relationships.

So, with that out of the way I feel fairly comfortable jumping in to Genesis.

Key Verse of Genesis:(Gen 50:18-20)

“Then his brothers also wept, fell down before him and said, ‘We are here as your slaves,’ But Joseph said to them, ‘Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today.’”

From Joseph’s mouth we understand the emphasis of Genesis: Despite our malcontent God has intended good, to create and preserve a bustling people of influential blessing. In fact God has not held back; no, he continues to fashion good things despite our evil and violence. This message weaves throughout the book from the turbulent beginning:

“I have produced a man with the help of the Lord”, proclaims the new mother Eve; and after things go terribly wrong, “God has appointed for me another child instead of Abel, because Cain killed him” (4.25).

God treated the first family with the care given to a newborn child, despite its internal violence; the tree lead to death after all. And God’s heart grew as heavy as the violence in the earth:

“Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence. And God said to Noah, ‘I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence because of them; now I am going to destroy them along with the earth.

But I will establish my covenant with you; and you shall come into the ark.”
(Gen 6.11-18).

God would not let his dreams wither. Long has he tilled human society forming it in the image of his rule. Just when human ways engulf his revelation, God preserves a remnant who upholds the ways of God. Yet, as a flower in long bloom, God reveals himself; in fact, only when Adam’s grandson opened his new eyes, ‘At that time people began to invoke the name of the LORD’ (4.25). It was Adam and Eve’s family that produced Noah, a line safeguarding knowledge of Eden and perhaps preserving the righteous life.

The earth became a new Genesis after the washing. From this vantage point we must understand Abraham; Egypt, Babylonia, Canaan, all sprung from Noah’s sons. The world would engulf God’s revelation with images of birds and beasts and earthly kings. Yet the descendents of Noah also produced Abraham, a son of Babylon, a son of Lamech of Shem. Joseph’s words echo of Abraham’s story. God has been “preserving a numerous people”:

“God brought Abraham outside and said, ‘Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them’. Then he said to him, ‘So shall your descendents be.’ And he believed the LORD and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness.” (15.5-6).

We cannot understand Genesis without understanding God’s intention to preserve a numerous people; people coming through hell and high water. And all along, God slowly reveals himself,

“No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you” (17.5-7).

Finally, if Genesis would bear any meaning for us today we must understand the relationships between the brothers: Cain and Abel, Ishmael and Isaac, and Esau and Jacob. I have begun to wonder if we are supposed to relate to Cain, Ishmael, and Esau, rather than the victim, the chosen child, and the blessed one.

For in Cain we find our response to God’s rejection: a bitter surge of violence. In Cain we find our punishment: the very land we toil rejecting our needs. In other words, we’re stripped from our identity; all that was familiar and comfortable utterly forsaken.

In Ishmael we find the wild ass of men that we are, living at odds with our kin. God’s favor seems to rest on us, but Isaac has God’s full attention. (I thought it was interesting that we find both brothers burying their father Abraham, “His sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah, in the field of Ephron”.)

In Esau we find our struggling attempts to be the chosen one, “When Esau saw that the Canaanite women [his new wife] did not please his father Isaac, Esau went to Ishmael and took Mahalath daughter of Abraham’s son Ishmael to be his wife in addition to the wives he had” (28.9). We also find our haunting mistakes, “Have you not reserved any blessing for me, bless me also, father! And Esau lifted up his voice and wept. Now Esau hated Jacob because of the blessing with which his father had blessed him” (27.41).

Finally, Joseph’s brothers despise him for his self-glorifying attitude and ship him off to Egypt so that no such younger brother would rule over the family. But,

“God sent me before you to preserve life. For the famine has been in the land these two years; and there are five more years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God” (45.5-8).

In the end, God continues that work which he began. He creates and sustains people who live a life of mysterious communion, a people who walk with God; a righetious people who slowly learn what the reader learns in the beginning: that this person who won’t leave humanity in violent peril is the God who created the heavens and the earth and all that lives.

Holy Love: Wesley On Mercy and Justice

Wesley’s Conjunctive Work with the Poor

Many who have attempted to explain Wesley have highlighted his ministry to the poor. Citing various Wesley maxims and popular quotes they have pictured Wesley’s ministry to the poor as his central theme. Furthermore, it has been popular to emphasize the actions of the early Methodists without trying to understand their motivation. Such a portrayal is unbalanced, and it distorts Wesley’s important teachings on ministry to the poor. With this in mind and in order to understand Wesley’s holistic emphasis on the poor, I will ask three questions: What did Wesley do, why did he do it, and to what end?[1] As I will show from the answers to these questions, Wesley emphasized acts of mercy and justice in conjunction with and in subordination to inward religion.

I turn first to the actions of the Methodists. What did Wesley actually do to help the poor? The list of activities is quite long and includes an array of foci. On the one hand Wesley advocated for the temporal needs of the poor. He fed and clothed poor children, supplied jobs for the jobless, gave loans to those who were financially struggling, visited the sick and prisoners, and generally provided food, clothing, money, shelter, books, medicine, and other important rudiments to those in need.[2] Wesley also raised money for the poor. Some have named Wesley’s fundraising ‘begging’. Indeed Wesley did go from house to house asking his rich acquaintances for money, but his begging was not akin to holding a tin can on the street corner. Still, the early Methodists were engaged in a wide variety of ministries to the local poor. We must note, though, the communal or ecclesial nature of their activity. Not only did the rich members of the congregation (rich meaning that all their basic needs were met and they had some left over) spend time assisting the poor as a community, but the funds on which they operated came from the excess of the congregations savings.[3] In such a way, the early Methodists not only gave to the poor, but received spiritual freedom by giving of their own wealth.

On the other hand, Wesley and the Methodists sought to provide for the spiritual needs of the poor. Wesley observed that the poor not only needed clothing, food, and shelter, but redemption of their souls as well. Once the temporal needs of the poor were met, Wesley urged that the poor were to receive sermons and the option to receive the renewing work of Christ in their lives. Ministers were first and foremost working to save souls.[4] Like any other person, the poor man or woman was worthy of receiving the good new. Liberation from the guilt and power of sin was no more for the rich than for the poor.[5] Ultimately, the Early Methodists worked with diligence to provide for the temporal and spiritual needs of the poor in their community.

As I stated above, it is not enough to only survey the actions of the early Methodists. We must understand their motive to see the full scope of their works of mercy and justice. At the core of Wesleyan thought consists of holy love and vital religion. Works of mercy were less important to Wesley than, say, inward religion. This is not to diminish Wesley’s emphasis on works of mercy and justice, but to uplift in a clear way that Wesley’s motivation of virtue and obligation.[6] The Methodists believed that helping the poor was part of living a sanctified life and being sanctified oneself. In this way, Wesley warned of the danger of riches on one’s eternal soul. The rich were not evil in and of themselves, taught Wesley. Still, riches strike at the heart of true religion. Furthermore, amassing riches act as a hindrance to love of neighbor and grow a love of self. Such a disposition, wrote Wesley, stifle zeal for acts of mercy such as feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and visiting the sick.[7] Works of mercy naturally flowed out of the Wesleyan mandate to live simply for the state of one’s own soul and for the essential love of neighbor.

Second, the Methodists were motivated by their call to stewardship. Here I might throw in the famous Wesley maxim, “Gain all you can, save all you can, and give all you can”. While Wesley wanted to give sound economic advice, he did so for three reasons. First, Christians should steward well, because God has given all in the first place. Second, stewardship must directly issue in love of neighbor. Finally, stewardship is good for the soul of the steward.[8] The Methodists were ultimately motivated by vital religion and holy love for their neighbors.

As we have seen, the Methodists participated in range of works to help the poor. They were motivated not only by a general love for neighbor, but also by love for God and with zeal for vital religion. Though works of mercy and justice did not encompass true Christianity, the Methodists affirmed that works of mercy and love of God and neighbor worked cyclically. “In other words, the love of God and neighbor issue in works of mercy which in turn enhance the love of God and neighbor”.[9] Ultimately, and as far as work of mercy were concerned, Wesley and the early Methodists strove to give material gifts as well as spiritual. Such work was evidence of the sanctifying graces of God in this world. At the center of all efforts was holy love, both for God and for neighbor.

[1] See Collins, pg. 1.
[2] For a discussion of how Wesley’s activities were abnormal for such a person in his day see Heitzenrater, pg. 49.
[3] Collins, pg. 12.
[4] Ibid. pg. 15.
[5] Ibid. pg. 16.
[6] See Heizenrater, pg. 52.
[7] Collins, pg. 4.
[8] Ibid. pg. 8.
[9] Ibid. pg. 18.