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.

Posted in musings, politics, religion, society, theology, writing | Leave a comment

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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Pictures from my walk

After some rough starts and rough patches this summer, I’m trying to get back to regular exercise.  I’m easing in with some fast walking, 3.75 miles this morning, up to Horsethief Canyon Park.  With this, one of my goals is to take more pictures, taking at least 1 a day of things I notice for whatever reason. I want to start moving my body and noticing more. Here is what I noticed on my walk this morning.





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The Hope of Holiness

I teach theology. I have a PhD in theology.  In common parlance, that makes me a theologian.

Yet, more often than I’d want to admit, I get those accusing, dismissive voices in the back of my mind, “Who are you?  You know who you are? And you pose as someone who can talk about God?”  Often accompanied by a short, or long, list of ways that I am presumptuous for thinking that.  Ways that clearly don’t mark me as a man of God.

Things I’ve done, or not done, in the past.  Fears and anxieties and misplaced hopes in the present.

That’s something writers get too. For other reasons usually. The idea that I have something to say is one of the biggest reasons people don’t write or try to share what they write.

Our pasts, our memories, our sense of self have much to say on our potential sources of insight or wisdom.  Mostly what it says is, “Don’t bother.”

Who am I to talk about God? Or pursuing the spiritual life?

This is a Saturday question as well.  Our pasts have caught up with us. Condemned and situated us in a place of judgment.   We are confronted with our weakness and stupidity and bad decisions made in stressful times, and bad decisions made when there wasn’t even a reason to make any decisions.  We ruined possibilities, friendships, respect, favor.  What hope do we have?

Who am I to talk about God?

Really, that’s why I pursued theology. To answer questions about hope and about God.  To find paths that left the muck and mire and pointed towards light and life.  Yet the muck and the mire remains.  Dirty, fouled, broken.

The result of past mistakes and past decisions and past missteps.

On Saturday, Jesus is dead and I’m left with myself, my past, my embarrassments.

On Saturday, there is still hope.  Hope that in the Promise there is still a potential for life that goes beyond what has been determined by my past. Hope that speaks into a future that is about God’s grace. Despite my steps, God still calls.  Despite my discouragements, God still loves. Despite my mistakes, God still seeks me to live, work, forgetting what is behind and pressing towards what is ahead each day.

What is ahead for Christ Jesus is ahead for me.  On Saturday, that is still risk. Risk that there’s something more. Risk that when I speak about theology, it is not predicated on my past, but on Christ’s future.

Am I determined by what I have been or what I have done? Or am I determined by who Jesus is and what he is doing?

I don’t see that in full yet.

I don’t see that for me or for others. The promise is still the same. The promise is still risk.

What someone else has done does not define them either.  Who someone has been or the mistakes they have made or the missed chances that populate their past is not, in light of the cross, who they are or will be.

Do I risk that?  Dare I hope for those who I have lost hope for?

Peter denied Jesus on Friday.  Jesus embraced Peter on Sunday.

How did Peter feel on Saturday?  Hopeful? Destitute?  Abandoned? Traitorous?

The past is determined by how we live on this Saturday.  Either the past is victor, and the cross is the end of the story. Or the future is victorious and on this Saturday we wait and we risk that the story continues on Sunday.  We wait and we risk together.

We wait for Easter and we risk in Easter.

What is the story we live in? What is the story we put others in?

That is Saturday, the Sabbath, the day of rest where there is no rest unless we have faith that there’s something more to this story, to our story, to the story of others.


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Time between Times

This is one of the more unusual days in the religious calendar. Friday is the crucifixion, that day in which we say that our sins were cleansed by the sacrifice of the Lamb. He took on the burden so we would not.

Tomorrow we celebrate the resurrection, the time in which death itself lost its sting, so that we who are of the Faith fear Sheol no more. To live is Christ, Paul says, and to die is gain. Death is but a transition from life to Life.

Saturday, today, is in between. Why didn’t Jesus come out on the Sabbath? Was it out of respect for the Law? Sunday had no special relevance until he made it so. Yes, the prophecies mention three days… why? Christ is not beholden to the prophecies, they are beholden to him. A curious consideration, and unknowable.

What were the disciples thinking? The Twelve, the others? Years of their lives had been spent with the man now dead. They could not return home, for traveling was forbidden for the most part. So they stayed, their lives lost, dead even though still alive. Already Christ had died on this day, he had not yet risen. They didn’t know he would. He told them, but they didn’t understand.

How many cursed Christ on this day for being deceitful? How many felt really bad about it after he rose again?

We live in the middle of the three days of the Passion, the time between times, Christ has come, Christ will come again. Already, not yet. Hoped for realities which are not apparent, no longer slaves to sin though sinners indeed, free and not free, alive and not alive, strong and weak, hopeful and fearful, that is our state. Yes, keeping the eye on the end is what helps us through the now, transforming our perspective even in the present so as to anticipate the future, letting us see time beyond time while we walk through time.

But we are living in the Saturday, the day between a day and a day, in which we expect everything and feel the loss of everything. Christ has told us what to expect, but we don’t really understand or believe it… just look at our lives, our hearts.

Saturday is an awkward day, neither here nor there. And so, it is a day of rest.

For a lot of reasons Holy Saturday is my most precious religious holiday. It is the one which I live with and the one which suits my soul. This is Holy Saturday. This is the day that reflects the present stanza of my inner liturgy. My whole life thus far is lived on this Saturday. Christ has died. May Christ be resurrected in my life, in the life of those around me. May the peace of God come into our hearts, and help us wait patiently for the fullness of Christ to enter our world for all eternity. Amen and amen.

It is Saturday, however, and all we have on this day is a promise. Such is our lives, such is my life. Praise be to the Three-in-One.

This post was something I wrote in 2008

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Between Yesterday and Tomorrow

It is Saturday, between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. This day has more and more meaning to me as the years go by, some of which I’ve written about in other places, some of which still I reflect on.

This being a journal of my spirit and soul I think it’s good to say how much I identify with this day more than tomorrow or yesterday. I feel forgiven, I have no guilt, I do not feel the weight of my own sins. They have been released and I am a slave to nothing. And yet, I do not feel resurrected. The weight of life’s difficulties weighs on my soul, my doubts and confidence balance each other out, each gaining sway for their own time. I taste of new life, I do not dwell in new life. Much has begun, nothing is resolved. I live in utter faith that the work God has started in me will be finished, with wonderful results. There is no actual indication this is the case.

Indeed, with all of the pomp and celebration of Easter, I feel myself distant from it, not because I do not understand the significance of the day, I just wait for my own Easter, along with the ultimate Easter. Today is my day.

Because I’ve been saturated in the Christian world for so long I wonder if it is simply overexposure. I was born into the church, and have no memory of not being a Christian. Thus that transition is missing for me. So, the joy and celebration of Easter is something I taste, but have more contrived emotions in celebration than real excitement.

Of course I live the Easter life in part, the presence of the Holy Spirit in me is a result of Easter. Had Christ avoided the cross or not risen, the Holy Spirit would not have been sent. So, that is a consideration.

But, too much of me now identifies with those dark words of Wesley and others, who miss God even as they seek him the most. It is Saturday, and all I have to do is wait, and pray, and continue to believe. Christ, we say tomorrow, has risen indeed. So too he rises in each of our lives. That is the wonder of Biblical prophecy and imagery, it means more than it means, though it does not mean less. Christ and Easter are the history, the depth of the theology of the Faith, and yet they still speak to us, meaning more than just what they meant 1,970 years ago.

The disciples sat together in someone’s house, weeping and remembering, hoping that something would happen, not yet fully without hope, still lost in the sudden change. Saturday is the Sabbath. They were not allowed to work. So they waited. The women were ready to go to the tomb as soon as it turned light the next day, to do what they could, the next step they saw. That’s all I can do, the next step before me, whatever it is. For one day, I will be going about my tasks, and Easter will come, a power beyond me, changing all in an instant. He does make all things new, is making all things new.

Some thoughts I wrote in 2004

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If you write for God, you will reach many people and bring them joy.

If you write for people — you may make some money and you may give someone a little joy and you may make a noise in the world, for a little while.

If you write only for yourself you can read what you yourself have written and after ten minutes you wish you were dead.

~Thomas Merton

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Curious-George-ReadingCurious George, though universally included within the taxon of monkey, referred to as such within the body of literature which contains his various adventures, does not in fact have a tail.[1]

Thus, it is more accurate to refer to the inquisitive primate as an ape.[2]


[1] As portrayed in a selection of books and animated series, George does not have a tail.  See, for instance, N Di Angelo and Mary O’Keefe Young, Happy Valentine’s Day, Curious George! (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010)

[2] Larry, “The Monkey Song,” notes, “If it doesn’t have a tail, it’s not a monkey, if it doesn’t have a tail, it’s an ape.”–szrOHtR6U [accessed March 11, 2014]


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Obedience is better than Sacrifice

Spoke on the atonement this morning. Flew up to Nampa, Idaho to join in with the Wesleyan Theological Society. Good time. Good people.

I’ve never really been all that interested in doctrines of the atonement. I was raised in a Christian family and so never had a dramatic conversion. And the other popular interest in atonement theories almost always are about drawing divisions in Christianity, using the cross as a bludgeon to attack people who don’t measure up to a perceived, generally parochial, orthodoxy. The conference theme was on atonement so I started thinking about it last Summer, and once that started, I got very interested in where my studies were taking me. So, over the last 2.5 weeks I wrote a 25 page paper as a beginning exploration of what I think is a somewhat novel approach. Well, novel in theology, it’s entirely throughout Scripture. That’s my argument and evidence at least. Got it down to 10.5 pages to present this morning. Seemed to go well.

Anyhow, here’s my intro:

Over the last half-century, there has been a shift in how we think about God’s eternal nature and work in this world. This relational turn in theology emphasizes a social model of the Trinity and with this a sociality of God’s kingdom rather than a political or hierarchical model. This is not, to be sure, a new conception.

The terminology of perichoresis—God’s eternal dance—has, for instance, been a key model especially in the Christian East for many centuries, dating back to the early church. In what follows, I will propose a model of the atonement that derives from this emphasis on God’s relationality. This is a preliminary exploration for what is a much larger project certainly in need of further refining and development. For the moment, I will propose themes and lay the groundwork for this approach that can be honed in future works.

A theology of the atonement involves two extremely important underlying questions. The first asks what is sin? Is it a violation of God’s honor as Lord? Is it corruption that leads to death? The tendency to establish a scapegoat? The devil’s capture of us in enslavement?

These questions point to the second key question. What is God’s primary pattern of interaction with this world? In the late twentieth century there was a shift of understanding of the human condition away from a strict legal construction and towards understanding sin as more of a disoriented identity that results in relational violations.

Such a view on the human situation is key in the theology of many contemporary theologians such as Wolfhart Pannenberg and Jürgen Moltmann. They both assert that attempts to establish our identity in a person, cause, activity, or goal other than God results in dis-integration—with God and with others—as nothing other than God can sustain identities into eternity. Such dis-integration requires re-integration.

However, models of the atonement have not derived, for the most part, from the starting point that Pannenberg and Moltmann, and others, suggest. This gap highlights the need for a new model, one that better incorporates contemporary understanding of the Trinity and anthropology.

This may also become a model that can include other models within its scope as it suggests the underlying priority, expressed through different themes, of God’s work throughout the Biblical narrative.

My initial conception is this: The relational trust between God and humanity that allowed for relational intimacy was broken through sin. God’s initiating movements then created contexts of obedience or disobedience as particular people chose where they would put their trust.

The expressions of obedience were insufficient both as a sustaining and as a fulfilling expression. The judgment of God expresses a relational displeasure, a response to betrayal and falsehood in attempts to instantiate ourselves through alternative means.

The cross becomes the ultimate expression of obedience and thus trust, denying false forms of identity and embracing the fullness of God’s promise. This act of obedience becomes the avenue of trust for humanity and the avenue of trust for God, who trusts those who trust the Son.

Such trust is first an ontological restoration as it orients a person within God’s field of force, his perichoretic substantiation that we call justification. This then re-initiates those who trust in the cross into a new transformative path of obedience, a new birth that re-constitutes the human identity and leads it to a path of identity reformation, which we call sanctification.

I’m not posting the whole thing because I’m considering what I want to do with it. It’s at least a book project, maybe my summer project now, but I may work on submitting the initial version as an article.

Posted in academia, education, Scripture, speaking, theology | Leave a comment