contextual incarnation

If I really wanted to live as Jesus lived in my context I would move up to Lake Tahoe and go around to various parties and such, getting to know people and telling them how hard it is to pursue God, but that it’s still terribly worth it. And then I would spend a lot of time in the forest alone because I didn’t like crowds. I would also be supported by rich women, as I gave up my full time job in order to go around and talk with people.

A few times a year I would come down to Los Angeles and raise a ruckus for a week or so, then walk back to Tahoe.

Of course to make it completely analogous, California would have to be ruled by China or Iran or something like that making the whole lot of us Californians a mite bit rebellious and looking for some practical freedom.

Incarnational ministry is always described somewhat different than this.

Something I wrote in 2006, and came across. It made me laugh, which is good.

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hope in faithful insecurity

“When a community lets itself be guided in its growth by the cry of the poor and their needs, it will walk in the desert and it will be insecure. But it is assured of the promised land–not the one of security, but the one of peace and love.  And it will be a community which is always alive.”

~Jean Vanier, Community and Growth, 142ff.

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experiencing the Kingdom of God

A transformative experience led the earliest Christians to become transformed in the power of the Spirit of resurrection and respond to the world as transformative people.[1]

This orients life within a “horizon of expectation.”[2] God’s people become oriented within the process of his eschatological work, while continuing to experience the contradictions of determinative history in their contexts—yet the hope in the transformative work of God allows them to live within the word of promise, which gives meaning to their participation and contexts.

The expectation, then, is not in vain but in keeping with God’s creative interaction and commitment, a commitment that seeks complete correspondence with heaven and earth.[3] The resurrection is, then, a “historical hope for the future” that is concerned with “the future in the lives lived by those who belong to the past.”[4]

The resurrection is not, however, a spiritualized hope, a vague embrace of otherness that imbues people with a sense of security in the midst of transitory, and often unfortunate, reality. Christ lives. This is a bodily resurrection that orients toward a physicalized salvation. The experience of the Risen Christ points toward a process of transition, one oriented eschatologically and experienced within its processes.

This is the Way. “Just as Moses led the people of Israel out of Pharaoh’s slavery into the liberty of the promised land, so Christ leads humanity out of the slavery of death into the liberty of the new creation.”[5] Those who participate with Christ participate in this way, entering into the process of God’s renewal of all life and becoming a liberating presence of Christ.

The praxis of Christ leads to the praxis of the Spirit in the praxis of the people. This is the experience of resurrection hope. This praxis is the expression of love realized in the flesh, the “transcendent perfecting of love.”[6] This love is itself the orientation of the resurrection, leading life to be expressed in love and it is this life of love “that will rise and be transfigured.”[7]

Such love is oriented by the Spirit, opening up, steering, even limiting the way toward the fullness of life that is expressed, making what is not present or even seemingly possible come into being.[8] The energies of the Spirit is the power of the resurrection among us, and the new way of living initiated by Christ is “the anticipated rebirth of the whole cosmos.” A life lived without expression of this resurrection is a life that is devoid of the horizon of expectation that includes the resurrection of Christ.

[1] See Moltmann, Way of Jesus Christ, 236–45.

[2] Ibid., 238.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 239 and 240.

[5] Ibid., 257.

[6] Ibid., 262.

[7] Ibid., 263.

[8] Ibid. Molmann writes, “The horizon of expectation make the sphere of experience accessible.”

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holistic theology

“The task of reflection performed by theology interacts with the praxis of practitioners, one not dominating or dismissing the other, but rising like incense to the heavens, carrying with it a sweeter aroma of God’s holistic work in our holistic existence

This method, then, assumes that a particularly Christian theology must be a theology that is with and for the church, listening and speaking, and so with this in mind I argue that such a theology must include elements that are not traditionally seen as systematic theology.

For systematic theology to be truly systematic about its role, however, it must relearn how to communicate with the church, and for the church to regain its theological moorings so that it has integrity with its history and its context, it must find a way of reintegrating the insights of systematic theology.”

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Foundations of a Transformative Church

“To live is Christ,” Paul wrote to the Philippians. While this statement may take on various elements of meaning, I argue that this is not merely an ethical exhortation or a religious orientation. This is an ontological transformation in those who are participants in Christ through the Spirit with the Father. We do not lose our identity, we gain it.

In becoming transformed into the likeness of Christ we become most fully who we truly are, our identity enlivened inasmuch as it is rooted in the source of all identity, that of God. The process of this ontological transformation is the process of salvation and sanctification.

The mode of this transformation is participatory and communal, initiated by God, oriented by God, inviting us toward responsibility in responding to this transformation.

It is participatory in that we are not passively formed but formed through our contextual practices, practices that shape our response to this world, to God, to ourselves in ways that either lead us toward fulfillment in God or dissolution away from God.

This is not a salvation by works. Grace continually sustains and orients us, a free space within which we can find real freedom of being.

It is communal in that our participation is never isolated but always involves other people, and it is only in the context of other people that we learn what it means to be free as a person in the fullness of God’s identity.

~from Patrick Oden, The Transformative Church, 9-10

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the road to resurrection of people’s gifts

I often find in communities members who are suffering because they feel they have been put aside; after years of carrying responsibility, they have difficulty finding their new place in the community. They are grieving the loss of responsibility. These people have to discover that we are all in community not because it is wonderful and brings human fulfillment, but because we are called by God.

It is to be hoped they will discover that through their pain they are being called by Jesus to a new and deeper intimacy with the Father, and that this is their gift to be lived at this particular time. Is this not finally the ultimate gift for each person?

If they do not realize their new gift; if they do not discover the road to resurrection through humility and inner pain, then they may remain simply in the bitterness and humiliation of the cross.

Sometimes when people are taking on responsibility ‘successfully’, and when the yare admired and looked up to, they may forget that communion with Jesus and the Father is our goal, our source of peace. They can in some ways by-pass a certain quality of trust in God; they can replace God by community. Community is then no longer a place of love flowing from God and to God, manifesting his life, but becomes an end in itself. This manifestation of the life of God always flows through our own poverty and feeling of helplessness.

But of course community leaders and councils must not spiritualize their own error and injustice or lack of love by saying that these people who are suffering must obey, bear their cross and pray.

No. Leaders must learn to rectify their errors and injustice if they have committed them; they must see that these people find the spiritual help they need, and the opportunity to continue to exercise their gifts. For this, leaders need to be truly compassionate and creative.

~Jean Vanier, Community and Growth, 55

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Pannenberg (1928-2014)

I heard today that Pannenberg has died.  He lived a long life, a full life, a life that most people have never heard about. Even still, so many who have never heard of him have been affected by his work because of the radical shifts he helped to bring in the 1960s and beyond.

When I was in seminary, a theology professor noted that one of the better ways to become proficient in the field was to become familiar with either Jurgen Moltmann or Wolfhart Pannenberg.  Why?  Because they offered sweeping discussions of the topics, their knowledge masterful as they develop their themes, so by getting to know their works, a person would become familiar with the theological conversation.  Another reason was because they came of theological age in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when theology was dominated, and seemingly concluded, by the works of Karl Barth.  Many thought, and some still do, that Barth said all there was needing to be said.

Yet, fissures were seen.  Questions were asked. Both Moltmann and Pannenberg knew Barth’s theology as well as any of their age, and with that they realized there were still more questions, questions arising from much of the events of the mid-20th century and the failure of Modern scholarship in response.  Moltmann was considered by many to be Barth’s successor in the field of theology, but his early turns were questioned, and still are.

In an essay on Karl Barth, Moltmann wrote: “One does not honor a teacher by regurgitating his thoughts and quoting his texts or even blaming him for his thoughts so as to be able to get them from him again with greater authority. One honors a teacher by independently attempting to recognize and express an issue with which he too was concerned.”[1]

Like Moltmann, Pannenberg honored his teacher by questioning, though he noted that Barth himself did not like being questioned by his students. Pannenberg had gone to Basel to study with Barth, asked too many questions it seems, and departed to study Barth’s work from afar.

These two scholars, students of Barth’s theology, worked together for a while from 1958-1961 at a small seminary in Wuppertal, where they were given immense creative freedom to explore the bounds of Christian theology.  They  both realized the way forward in Christian discussions was through the shared themes of eschatology and hope.1190

Eschatology is often understood in terms of “end-times,” but that is a very simplistic (and not very biblical) way of understanding it.  Eschatology might better be understood as relating to God’s perspective, not in time, not committed to linear experience of past, present, future.  That which is ahead of us in our experience of time is not so for God. The future, in fact, is already reality, and this future invades our present and transforms our past.  We have hope because the God who promises is the God who fulfills, as God himself is making known in our experiences that which is already fully realized in his perspective.

Hope is transformative. For Pannenberg, this affects our perspective on history.  History had become suspect and unusable for revelation by many who sought to talk about God.  Pannenberg argued that God premised his self-revelation by what he did, and we know who God is by his work in our experience of time.

We have hope because the God who promised and fulfilled his promises, promises still and will fulfill what he promises. Indeed this is a condition of his own identity, he is revealed as God by his fulfillment of his will.  So, in promising us salvation, we can hope with a hope that is more than about us, it is about God’s being true to himself.

The moments of history that point to God’s ultimate fulfillment were seen as proleptic, anticipating moments that carry a part of the future whole.  History, then, is both knowable and a significant element of God’s continuing work.  Revelation in history is a revelation of hope, hope that God is exocentric, always orienting in love towards others, within the Trinity and in his redemption of the world. We are to be free in this as well, no longer securing our own ego but living in light of the fullness of God’s promises that free us to be whole people with and for others.

In my PhD studies, I took my professor’s advice seriously, which was good because he was now my doctoral advisor. I read and became proficient in the theology of both Moltmann and Pannenberg, who shared common themes but approached them with different methods and often with different practical conclusions, often falling on different sides in political questions. “Nevertheless,” Moltmann wrote in his 2008 autobiography, “in a strange way our ‘old ties’ have remained at a deeper level.”

Their friendship is a model, to be sure, to those of us in the church whose different experiences, priorities, and passions lead them to different votes, yet often based on a shared faith. We let politics divide rather than awaken a substantive conversation based on valuing each other.  They valued each other and together contributed a holistic path of theology for the late 20th century and into our present.

They opened my eyes to the work of the Spirit, the third Person, the “field of force,” who awakens our perceptions of God’s wide work and demands we leave behind narrow cultural boundaries in seeking the work of this Spirit everywhere, the voices of many and the transformed lives taking on many tongues and expressions in a global chorus.


Pannenberg argued that theology was not a private conversation as the resurrected Christ was not resurrected in spiritual isolation, but died in public and was raised in reality.  The Creator God was lord of all, and so theology must also embrace all that is known in conversation. That makes theology a public enterprise.

I’ve heard it said that Pannenberg knew everything about everything, a seemingly dubious claim unless you’ve tried to read his works, where his depth of knowledge in so many ways is constantly enlightening and intimidating.  While it still may not be accurate to say he knew everything, he was closer than one might expect could ever be possible.pannenberg

He pointed towards a new way of understanding God’s work in the past, a new way of experiencing this work in the present through transformative hope, and a new way of seeing the future as something that defines us. The God who is ahead of us seeks and transforms our realities even now in light of what he is going to do, what he already has done in the future.

For Pannenberg, this future, our future, is now his present. His life’s work now coming to fruition, as he experiences the everything of everything in the presence of God.

Like Pannenberg and Moltmann with Barth, we who seek to press on in the theological conversation are honoring him by taking his questions seriously. Pannenberg was monumental in helping me to recognize and express the issues of our era. Even though I never met him in person and do not always agree with him, he was and is one of my greatest teachers.

Rest in Peace does not sound quite appropriate.  What was proleptic in finite life, you see face to face and know fully. There is rest. Oh, there is certainly peace. But there is so much more.  Celebrate in fellowship, delight in Love, Wolfhart Pannenberg.


[1] Jürgen Moltmann, History and the Triune God: Contributions to Trinitarian Theology (New York: Crossroad, 1992), 125.

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first conversation about death

Vianne is playing  in our atrium (an open-to-the-sky room in the middle of our house).

Vianne calls me in and says there’s a spider on her basket, pointing to it.

It’s not a spider, it’s a bee, I tell her.

“Spider” covers a lot of ground in her mind.  But the bee was crawling on the side, not flying, so I get what she was thinking.

I pick up the basket and take it outside, and shake it so the bee falls off.

I would say set the bee free, but I think the bee was on its last wings.   Our Atrium is a bee graveyard for some reason.  Every week or so, I’ll find a dead bee. If I haven’t looked for a while, they start adding up.  A quick look around showed six bee carcasses.

Vianne saw one nearby.

Is it going to fly away, she asked.

No, I said, it’s dead.

She looked confused.  Is it going to fly away, she asked again.

Death has never come up. So, now I get to talk about death for the first time with my 2 year old.

No, Vianne, it’s not going to fly away.  It’s dead.

Like you? she asked me.

Now I looked confused. Took me a second.

No, I told her, I’m dad. The bee is dead, and I am dad.

The conversation continued a bit more successfully after that.

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Summarizing contemporary politics and “ethics”

Just finished reading Niklas Luhmann’s Introduction to Systems Theory.  First, I’ll say this might be the most difficult book I’ve read.  Partly because I don’t have a background in sociology, mostly because Luhmann is a very dense and meandering writer.  But, I think there’s something in what he writes that is worth considering, and that really describes the state of society as well as any other.  The trouble is that the state of society should not itself be a model for Christians or the church. Yet, far too often Christians attach religious justification for acting just like the people around them are acting.  Both sides do it, and that embeds conflict within what should be a unified voice in Christ.

The Kingdom of Heaven is not a system within the world, but too often the language of the Kingdom is used in ways to perpetuate the systems of the world. Neither is the Kingdom of Heaven a later, supernatural reality. It is the expression of the Lordship of God in and through our whole lives, God’s will be done on earth as in heaven put into practice in daily and particular situations.

This has been part of my frustration with a lot of Christian ethics over the last many years and always pops up again when there is some kind of national news that highlights the conflict.  Those in the Church do not offer a unique voice (like Jesus did) but far too often position themselves among the established sides.  Jesus never dodged questions but he did reinterpret the underlying reality that should be addressed. Far too often, we (and I’ll include myself) take the contemporary systems at face value, adopting their forms of truth and priorities and values, then become more aligned to others within that system than with those who share the same supposed confession in Christ.

Anyway, this came to mind because of something Luhmann wrote near the end of his text:

The key statement for this purpose is my claim that conflicts themselves are systems. Conflicts are systems because one creates a situation that limits the bandwidth of variation concerning the other, if one treats him as an opponent and acts in a correspondingly aggressive, defensive, or protective way in his presence. He can no longer proceed at will. Of course he can (if he really can) walk away, shrug his shoulders, and say that all this is of no interest to him.

In typical social situations, however, when one does not have the option of leaving, the notion that there is in fact a conflict, or even a mere insistent “no’ as an answer to repeated interpretive offers, is a motive that produces a system, which is to say, a motive that organizes connectivity.

For instance, it may lead to the creation of coalitions, to the search for resources, and to the idea that everything that is to the other’s disadvantage is to my advantage. A friend/enemy relation is formed, which is an extreme simplification of the real situation…

Here, the organizing power of conflicts can be seen in social coalitions as well as in their themes. If someone contradicts a partiuclar point I have made, I generalize his opposition and suspect that he will also contradict me on other issues. From this viewpoint, moral perspsectivs serve to generalize conflicts. After all, if someone has shown himself to be ignominious, he is so in every respect and not just hte one that I happned to notice.

Whenever I argue morally, I have the tendency to generalize conflicts! The formula is that conflicts are an excellent principle of system formation…

The question is whether such a formed system can be justified in light of Christ’s work.  Even when pacifism finds empowerment in this system of conflict, there is a self-contradiction at work that suggests a less than thoroughly Kingdom oriented ethic.  Or, when supposed Christians insist on establishing the inerrancy of the Bible through the embrace of this conflict established system, they too are self-contradicting the supposed example we see in the New Testament Gospels and letters.

When we embrace the system of conflict in the cause of Christ, we are taking the name of the Lord in vain, taking up God’s cause but rejecting his method, his model, his Kingdom that is not the peace of Rome but the peace of Christ.

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there is only to continue

We are in the mountains, surrounded by forest and forest creatures, yet we are not far from the urban meadows of Los Angeles, which spreads from ocean to desert, with but momentary lapses of attention.

The night is dark, only scattered porch lights illuminate nearby, not enough to give bother. But, I did again notice the light pollution to the south, where millions sleep, where artificial light does not, casting its glow high into the sky.

Still, though not secluded, sitting for a spell underneath those continuing lights of above, I taste of something, something which always resided within my soul, giving me that longing, unquenchable, that distance, that assurance of something grand just beyond our view. It is this which causes me to wander from weddings into a barren desert, or wander from the suburban chase to mountain reclusion.

Sometimes, in those quiet moments when everyone has gone to bed, when the wind lightly stirs the cedar branches or brings a twinkle to a distant star, I taste it stronger, it comes to the fore, and I am filled with the sense of the eternal, that constant river in which we barely participate, yet which calls us always, in and through all things, to lay down our selves and take the great leap within its gentle and powerful current.

Words escape, prayers replace, and I sit in solitude, at tune with the world around, feeling myself a beginner, but a beginner who knows, who has begun. There is only to continue, for tasting of this, being given this gift, is not something which can be left behind. It lingers, in the moment, in the constant, so that one is drawn back to the song, risking one’s own soul if not pursued.

But it is restful, peaceful, a melody which gives ease to the innermost being, a harmony of all things resonating within and without. All is well, it sings. And so it is.

(something I wrote on this date in 2004)

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