Parables vs. Promises

Happy Moltmann Monday! Today’s selection comes from God in Creation where Moltmann distinguishes the difference between a parable and a promise:

It is theologically necessary to view created things as real promises of the kingdom; and it is equally necessary, conversely, to understand the kingdom of God as the fulfillment, not merely of the historical promises of the world, but of its natural promises as well. There is more than merely a parable here. A parable points to something different, and presents the other thing by way of ‘the pointer’, the image. But a promise points towards its own fulfillment and anticipates a future still to come. The promise is caught up and absorbed in its fulfillment; when what has been promised is realized, the promise is discarded.

Okay, I don’t mean to pit parable and promise against one another. It’s not really parables vs. promises, like it’s a boxing match (though I couldn’t figure out how else to title it). The question is how parables relate to promises, and how they differ. Why does this matter? Well, because how we read Scripture matters, and how we interpret Scripture matters a TON. And we can’t be sloppy about confusing things like parables and promises, because they are distinct and have different purposes. They are both meant to instruct us, but not in the same kind of way.

Parables are meant to give us hints, to give us glimpses into something that is far too big of a mystery to state plainly. How do we describe the kingdom of God? Well, it’s so big, it’s so beautiful, that what we can do is hint at it, show little pieces of what it’s like so that we get an idea of it. It’s not unlike what I wrote about a couple of weeks ago when talking about praying in the name of Jesus. There’s an inhabiting, a presence-ing, that happens in a parable. It’s like a man who bought a field… It’s like a woman who has ten silver coins and loses one… None of these parables are meant to be turned into doctrines. They are not straightforward statements, so the last thing we’d want to do to honor what they’re trying to teach us is to turn them into that. We’d lose the hint, the glimpse, the intuition, the whole POINT of the parable itself. We can’t extrapolate one meaning from a parable’s message. They aren’t bullet points. They are doorways into another way of seeing the world.

A promise is something else entirely. A promise has, as a central part of its nature, something concrete and real and tangible to it. If a dad promises he’s going to take his kids to the park, that isn’t an idea of a world where dads take kids to parks. That’s a concrete declaration that this dad is going to take these kids to the park. If that never happens, it’s a broken promise. It’s a promise unfulfilled. Promises sometimes require us to wait. The kids might have to wait another hour while their dad finishes up the laundry; or another week until their dad is back from a business trip. For us, we might have to wait a very long time for God’s promises to come to fruition. In the meantime, we have hope, and we have trust, because we believe that God will, indeed and in fact, do what God said God would do. If God said God would take us to the park, God will. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but one day, we will get there. (How is it that the park has now become my metaphor for the kingdom? I’m not sure, but I kind of like that idea. The kin-dom of God as playground is one way to think about it, right?)

The reason I think this is interesting is that I think this is where so much talk about the future of God gets confusing. Some people, often more progressive/liberals, tend to veer only toward the parable, and consequently don’t really say anything concrete about what God will do in the future. Some people, often more conservative/evangelicals, tend to say only the concrete, and sometimes push even the parabolic into the concrete, in ways that really confound the mystery and the end-purpose of it all.

As is often the case, a third way is best, which seeks to hold both together. The parable reminds us that we know what the kin-dom is like, but we don’t know the specifics and can’t demand it to fit into doctrinal statements. The promise reminds us that, though we may not know exactly the what, we can, indeed, trust in the Who. As we seek to figure out what it means to walk toward the future of God, I’d love to see us become people who know how to dance well with both parable and promise, trusting that we are indeed moving toward something sure and true.

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Two Parenting Books Worth Your Time

This summer I was doing research for a project I’ll be working on this year and next, and part of that research was getting the lay of the land on parenting books and information that’s out there. So, in typical Danielle fashion, I read every last parenting book I could get my hands on. I read all of them. Really, just about every last one of them. You, I’m guessing, are a more normal, sane person, who doesn’t binge on books with fearful regularity, and therefore, I thought I’d share with you parents my summation of all those books: there are two, and maybe three, that are worth your time. I know your time is valuable. You are a parent. If you have any time to read, you probably would like to read something for pleasure, or maybe in relation to your work, and not a book that isn’t going to tell you anything you don’t already know and don’t already stress enough about being a parent. Most of the books out there repeat things you already know, or take 100+ pages to say something that could have been an article-turned-FB-meme. Ain’t nobody got time for that.

I’m pretty convinced the world needs more sane parents. Well, the world needs more sane people, but parents are creating an environment in which their kids are also learning how to be people, so focusing on parents has a good trickle-out effect. (See what I did there, with the out instead of down?…) ANYway. Without further ado, here are my hearty recommendations:

The Blessing of A B Minus by Wendy Mogel. She also has a book called The Blessing of a Skinned Knee, which is geared for children rather than teens. I didn’t read it because I was in a race to conquer a large stack of books, and I figured I knew what she was going to say. However, I’m sure I’d recommend that one, too. Mogel is sane, and centered, and she provides much needed perspective for parents who, in this day and age, tend to helicopter-hover. I also personally loved all of her tie-ins to Judaism. That’s probably because, if you don’t already know, I’ve been sort of in love with Judaism since studying Hebrew for 4 years in college, but even so, they are great anecdotes and approaches that people of any faith tradition should find compelling and worthwhile. You certainly shouldn’t let that keep you from reading the book. You’d be missing out. If you want to get a taste of her style, check out her 24 tips for Overparenting Anonymous.

Teach Your Children Well: Parenting for Authentic Success by Madeline Levine. She shares much in common with what I liked so much about Mogel. Centered, calm, aware but reassuring. Like Mogel, she spends her time giving the reader a sense of what we’re seeking to achieve as parents, not just quick, dry solutions to common problems. She reminds us that we are creating an environment in which our children can grow, mature and succeed, and we dictate how they do that and how they determine what that looks like through what we choose to focus on, reward, encourage, and hold out of bounds. She’s not shy in telling parents how to be parents, but neither Levine or Mogel approach parenting like dictating from on high, either. We come alongside our children as their champions, but part of that means we set clear boundaries and expectations along the way.

Interestingly, or serendipitously, these happen to be the two most recent books my children’s school has suggested as summer reading for parents. After surveying the landscape, I couldn’t imagine them choosing better books. If you’re one of those parents who goes to school with me and hasn’t read them, well, you’ve heard it twice now: do it! They are worth your time. In these two books, you’ll get everything you need from all the other thirty-some-odd parenting books I read over the summer, and you’ll do it with far less eye strain.

I’ve just barely started a third book that I will possibly add to this list, and that’s The Conscious Parent by Shelfali Tsabary. I got it late in the summer and have been busy writing since school began, so it’s gotten knocked down the reading list as I’ve turned my attention to other books. But so far, so good, and the premise sounds very much in line with the kind of approach Mogel and Levine encourage so well. She encourages parents to understand why they react to their children and what triggers them, which is something I think all middle school/high school parents absolutely MUST learn to do. I usually refrain from recommending a book before I finish it, because you know you’ve read books that have started out really promising and then at the end were filled with 50% fluff? Yeah, like I said, I hate that. Tsabary doesn’t seem like a fluff person to me, so I imagine the book will finish strong. If you’ve read it, and you want to share your thoughts, I’d love to hear them in the comments.

(just a note: I didn’t get paid or asked to recommend these books. Just wanted to pass on my thoughts as someone who happened to have the time…and insanity…to research what was on the shelves. I do use affiliate links.)

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Why So Many Adults Are Reading YA Fiction

It seems like a good half of my friends were commenting last week on A.O. Scott’s article in the NY Times: The Death of Adulthood in American Culture. It is a fantastic, thought-provoking article. It could perhaps be summed up best in these two sentences:

Something profound has been happening in our television over the past decade, some end-stage reckoning. It is the era not just of mad men, but also of sad men and, above all, bad men.

What all of these shows grasp at, in one way or another, is that nobody knows how to be a grown-up anymore.

I couldn’t agree more. It’s the reason I’ve all but eschewed everything with the label “independent” on it, which, as far as I can tell, these days simply means “another story of an adult who is mopey, whiny and perpetually regressive.” (Well, that or “I couldn’t come up with an ending so I’ll just label it ‘indie’ so I can leave it unfinished.”) No thanks. But then again, this kind of character has become so mainstream that there’s really nowhere else to go.

What we see on screens big and small these days are people who cannot get their act together, as if this is the only acceptable character to portray anymore. Remember when Superman came out? (And Captain America, too, though he got away with some of it by being so “vintage” that he didn’t know better.) People said how 1950’s he was, how he wasn’t a believable character because he’s so squeaky clean. Never mind that we’re discussing an alien from outer space who can fly and see through walls. What really seemed too farfetched for us was his virtue, his do-gooder attitude. He wasn’t “relatable.” (Hear more about how I feel about that in this post.) No, the stories of the day seem to be guided by the idea that misery loves company. How many more people is Don Draper going to pull into his constant mess of crazy? Let’s watch and find out.

Honestly, Scott makes this point more eloquently than I ever could, so that’s all I’ll say about that. What I wanted to say is this: I think Scott misunderstands the reason adults are reading YA fiction. Which is funny, because I’m the first to admit being a book snob. I’m not going to defend ALL YA fiction, and I’m not remotely going to defend the level of writing in many of these books. For Pete’s sake, a couple of years ago I wrote an entire blog post rant on how badly they’re written. I haven’t changed my mind about that. (But please, please stop putting JK Rowling in that group. She is a phenomenal writer. Read the first 50 pages of The Casual Vacancy and tell me she isn’t one of the best writers we’ve got today.) But I have spent a lot of time wondering why so many people are attracted to these stories, and I think Scott gets it wrong.

Adults are reading YA fiction because they’re longing for heroes. In a world of Tony Sopranos and Don Drapers, and in a waking world where nobody knows how to be a grownup anymore, adults find themselves drawn to a teen named Katniss who doesn’t mind standing up to the Empire and struggling to figure out how to honor the dignity of human life when she’s a pawn in a killing game. They’re drawn to dystopian stories where the whole world is at stake, where everything counts, where our actions matter. We aren’t reading these stories to escape. We are reading them to find ourselves. 

This is what all good children’s literature does. It provides a world in which adults are not present or cannot be counted on, so that the children learn how to figure things out for themselves. Why do you think Hansel and Gretel has been around as a story for so long? A cruel stepmother and a father who’s too scared to stand up to her? That’s the very dynamic Scott discusses in his article. The kids are on their own. If they’re going to survive, they’re going to have to figure it out themselves. And what happens when they stumble onto the next adult, who’s living in a childhood fantasy house made of candy? Well, they realize she’s not to be trusted either, stuck in her power-crazed, manipulative, greedy little world in which she gets whatever she wants. The adults are all suspect. The kids are going to have to grow up.

This is true for every good (and not so good) piece of children’s and teen literature. The kids in Narnia go through the wardrobe and discover that only the sons and daughters of men can sit on the thrones. Of all the creatures in Middle Earth, young Frodo is given the ring. Even the great Dumbledore cannot defeat Voldemort, but must rely on the courage of young Harry Potter. And yes, Katniss, whose mother can’t keep herself together after her husband’s death, takes up the parent role, providing for her family, volunteering to take her sister’s place. Children’s and teen literature give us characters who can see what the adults can’t, or have forgotten to look for entirely. The young people are the ones who have the insight, who have the courage, who have the audacity to try to change things.

Even in the YA fiction stories I don’t find as “good,” at least I can say they’re struggling with big questions. They may be doing it badly, but at least they’re engaging them. What do you do when you’re a vampire who wants to honor the very human life you crave? I’ll never stop saying how tragic it is that this question didn’t fall to someone more deft at writing its answer. It’s a great question. It’s a great debate of desire, and love, and longing, and the sanctity of life. Say what I may (and boy, do I) about Twilight, I can’t say it didn’t begin by asking big questions. Which is more credit than I can give to the vast majority of adult contemporary fiction I’ve read in the last year, whose protagonists are stunted and confused and stuck in terrible relationships and have no arc toward growth by the end other than a tiny whimper of irony. Much of contemporary adult fiction has the same childish, stunted characters Scott’s pointing out in his article. They’re rudderless and lost, and after I finish reading their story I’ve learned…nothing. Nothing more than the most basic insight of all, which is that we’re often a mess. That isn’t a storyline. That’s a starting point.

So what I’m trying to say is this: In a world where our adult heroes are high school chemistry teachers who turn into drug dealers, maybe the most mature thing in the world is to turn to a teenager who’s willing to take on the system. In an adult world that is often preoccupied with petty problems, maybe it’s a sign of maturity to be drawn to epic stories of fantasy, of good and evil, of corruption and the power of the human spirit to overcome it.

Maybe we’re reading YA fiction because we’re trying to grow up, after all.

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Moltmann Monday: On Belovedness

Happy Moltmann Monday! I was THRILLED on Friday when Moltmanniac posted a video from Yale of a discussion between Moltmann and his student, Miroslav Volf. You can watch the video and read the entire transcript here. (You should watch the video, because he’s the cutest.) I wanted to highlight one of Moltmann’s responses (italics mine) and share some thoughts:

I think the intention of love is the happiness of the beloved. So love’s intention is not to own the beloved but to have the beloved happy. Therefore, love sometimes supports the beloved, and sometimes taking oneself back to let the beloved gain freedom. So both actions are actions of love. We are not loved because we are so beautiful and good, but we are beautiful and good because we are loved. And this is true for interpersonal relationships, and also true with the relationship of God who is love, as we say with the New Testament. And so he wants to see his beloved children on earth happy and joyful.

I love how in five sentences Moltmann tells us all we need to know about what love looks like in a healthy relationship. This is what real love is: seeking the happiness, the joy, of the beloved. All those verses about “submit yourselves to one another” and “love does not envy” and “do not think of yourself more highly than you ought” and “love one another as I have loved you”- all of those are signposts to the kind of love that seeks the joy of the beloved. Not for any manipulative reason. Not for some weird form of control. No, because it brings you joy to bring your beloved joy.

And how do we do that? Well, it encompasses basically two things. Sometimes it means we support the beloved. We come behind them or beside them or surround them. We show up. We cheer. We encourage. We are right in the middle of it, because what’s important to the beloved is important to us. But other times, it means that we step back and give our beloved some ROOM. We let them shine without us remotely near the spotlight. We let them do their thing, which is completely and entirely separate from our thing. We don’t expect constant, endless overlap. We give our beloved room to grow and change when necessary.

The second thing I want to point out is what I put in italics. We are not loved because we are so beautiful and good, but we are beautiful and good because we are loved. That is the ground of our being, right there. God loves us. God just does. There’s nothing to earn and no way to lose. God loves us. Period.

That kind of love makes us beautiful and good. God looked at what God had made, male and female, and they were very good. And when we become aware of that? Well, that’s when transformation really takes off.  We realize that we are God’s beloved. God is in our corner, seeking our joy, cheering us on, and also giving us room to grow and change and become. God delights in our becoming, because God wants to see God’s children happy and joyful.

At the end of the interview, Volf said, “So joy in the end wins?” And Moltmann answered with a smile, “Yeah. I’m convinced of that.”

Me too.

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What the Church Can Learn from the U2/Apple Mistake

image: Justin Sullivan/Getty

Two days ago, Apple and U2 came together to upload U2’s new album free to its 500 million users. It magically showed up in our iTunes libraries, where all one had to do was download it from the Cloud. Despite the fact that I’m what easily could be called U2’s core audience, even I found this to be invasive. So I wasn’t surprised when it got immediate pushback. My brother and I laughed this morning about how this entire debacle is an indication of how old we are, because most people who tweeted about the matter had absolutely no idea who U2 was, and certainly didn’t want their album in their iTunes folders. (You can get an idea of the overall reaction from this New York Magazine article.) I wondered how U2 must feel about this: they just spent all this time and effort and gave 500 million people a free gift. How can that backfire?

I’ll tell you why. Because they didn’t stop to ask themselves if this was a gift anyone actually wanted. They simply assumed that people did. And they. were. wrong.

Churches are often guilty of making the same mistake. Well-intentioned, even generous acts are just plain misguided…especially with young people. Here’s why, and what churches can do instead:

Don’t assume you know what people want or need. Look, if this is true in healthy relationships, it’s definitely true in relation to total strangers. I can’t think of any one artist/band that literally everyone likes. I certainly know plenty of people who vehemently dislike U2. Those young people on Twitter don’t even know who U2 is, and they certainly didn’t want some gray-haired white guy deciding they should listen to them. If you’re a gray-haired white guy and you find that unfair, consider how you’d have felt if Apple decided to upload the new One Direction or Nicki Minaj album onto your phone without asking. Who knows, maybe you’d be tickled pink about that. AND THAT’S THE POINT. I don’t know you. I have no idea what music you want on your phone. You should be able to decide that yourself. Who died and made Tim Cook or Bono king?

Churches make this mistake so often. They assume they know what people want or need without ever taking the time to ask, or get to know them. They think that because what they’re offering is something they love and care about, something they believe everyone should have, it follows that everyone will then want to have it. It doesn’t work that way. It never has, and it never will. You can disagree with people for disregarding your message, but that still doesn’t change the fact that they have a right to do just that.

Don’t be patronizing. Apple/U2 not only assumed that everyone wanted U2’s new album. They also assumed that 500 million people weren’t capable of deciding how to get the album if they wanted it. What, we all of a sudden don’t know how iTunes works? We aren’t capable of downloading this ourselves? That is unbelievably offensive.

I actually think this might be one of the biggest turnoffs the church does. Time and again, we waaaaaaaaaaaaaaay underestimate the people in the pews. We don’t give them enough credit for being bright enough to follow what we’re saying, or know what to do with the information, or have input into what the church’s response to something should be. We are all too often helicopter pastors, rushing behind our congregants on the playground because we don’t think they can climb the steps by themselves. They absolutely can. And if they can’t yet, they sure won’t learn how if we’re doing all the work for them all the time or assuming they’re incapable. TRUST your people. Don’t coddle them.

Invite, don’t impose. In today’s society, you have to let your audience determine how much connection they want with you. Every last one of us is overwhelmed with requests for our attention and our time. If someone keeps shoving themselves in our faces unwarranted, we’re going to start shutting that person out, even if we originally were interested in what they had to say. When I first moved to Texas, we would get these multi-color, glossy/flashy big postcards in the mail all the time from this one church. I could not believe how much bulk mail they sent out. In addition to the fact that I found it to be terrible stewardship, it was also pushy. Even if I originally might have considered attending, the onslaught of in-your-face postcards was a turnoff. Today’s equivalent of that is the person on Twitter who tweets and retweets and retweets again until  you think you might punch them if they show up in your feed one. more. time.  I unfollow those people. I don’t want to be forced to hear from them every hour. In my estimation, young people have a much lower tolerance level for that kind of thing than people 35+. But all of us have a threshold.

There’s a fine line between letting people know what you’re doing, giving people an opportunity to stay connected and stay up to date, and spamming them with unwanted advances. Nobody wants to visit a church and get singled out as a guest. Literally. Nobody. I have never once run into someone who said they liked or appreciated that. And nobody wants to get called or emailed a bazillion times after they visit, either. This is an awkward analogy, but perhaps a good rule of thumb is to consider how you’d treat someone you’ve just started dating. Do you call or text them a million times? Uh, not if you don’t want to come across as desperate and/or pushy. Check in with people. Share far and wide what it is you’re up to and how people can get involved. Communicate who you are and what you care about and invite people to join in. And then leave them be. Let people decide for themselves IF they want to connect, and if they do, let them decide how often they want to hear from you.

I can tell you this much: very few people want you to show up uninvited. U2 is learning that lesson the hard way, and I fear it’ll tarnish their chances with the fans they hoped to gain.



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About this “In Jesus’ Name” business…

Over the last decade, as I’ve spoken with and pastored many evangelicals/pentecostals/post-evangelicals, I’ve come across this notion, time and again, of the absolute necessity of praying “in Jesus’ name.” If you, like me, did not grow up evangelical/pentecostal, allow me to explain by recapping the first conversation of this kind I remember, with my friend Z, who grew up in Mexico as a devout pentecostal:

Z: “You’ve got to pray in Jesus’ name or it doesn’t count.”

me: “What do you mean, it doesn’t count?”

Z: “Like, it only WORKS if you pray it in Jesus’ name.”

me: “So, if I’m praying, and I really mean it, and I’m praying TO Jesus, but at the end I forget to say ‘in Jesus’ name,’ it doesn’t count?”

Z: “Yes.”

me: “Like, Jesus just ignores me, just won’t even hear what I have to say, because I didn’t specifically say that it was in his name, even though we could assume he KNOWS I was praying in his name?”

Z: “Right. Because it’s like a formula. And it won’t work unless you say those words.”

me: “So it’s superstitious. It could be, in other words, that you have to turn around three times at the end for your prayer to get heard, and it would be the same kind of thing.”

Z: “Well, yeah, I guess so.”

me: “So, even though this person praying actually believes that Jesus is God, and believes that Jesus is the Messiah/Savior of the world, and obviously finds Jesus capable and worthy of being prayed to, if she doesn’t say those three words…”

Z: “Doesn’t count.”

me: “What if you pray in God’s name? Or in the power of the Spirit?”

Z: “That’s good, but you still have to pray it in Jesus’ name or it’s not enough.”

me: “So the Trinity doesn’t matter? The fact that you call upon one, it’s kind of a package deal? Like the fact that they’re three-in-one?”

Z: “Doesn’t matter. Gotta say Jesus.”

me: “Okay, there has to be a reason for this. Like, where did this come from? What is the justification for this idea?”

Z: “In John, when Jesus says that if you ask the Father anything in his name, he will do it. And what is the Father’s name? Jesus. Jesus is the revealed name of God.”

me: “OK but that’s not what that means.”

Z: “It also comes from ‘no one comes to the Father except through me.’ You have to use Jesus, or it doesn’t get there.”

me: (facepalm)

So… you would be totally shocked by how often I run into this. I remember one time, and this is probably the saddest, most depressing example I have, I was pastoring someone who was going through some really difficult stuff, and she was so upset, and she said, with tear-filled eyes, “I guess I didn’t pray enough in Jesus’ name.” Like this whole situation could have been averted, had she been more specific at the last three words of her prayers. Like Jesus just up and deserted her to be miserable and to be without any help because she didn’t pray right. I just…I can’t even….

So, a few things:

1. Jesus is not some Type A, dogmatic jerk.  Seriously, what kind of creepy power trip do you have to be on to demand something like this? “Forget all I said about grace, guys. You do this prayer thing wrong, and I’m outta here.” Jesus is not an a-hole, guys, no matter how many Christians make him out to be one. If you ever call out, pray, cry, whimper, internally whisper, inaudibly sigh, Jesus has got you.  Being that his name is Emmanuel, God With Us, I’m pretty sure we can safely say he goes with us, wherever, whenever, however. Neither height nor depth nor principalities and powers NOR FORGETTING TO PRAY IN JESUS’ NAME will separate us from the love of God.

2. Jesus does not work by formula. There’s an aspect of this that is superstitious, like we can work a system to get what we want. Jesus isn’t much for being bullied into doing anything, if you haven’t noticed. And he’s also not so weak as to need special permission from us to do something. He is not a genie stuck in a magic lantern that needs special words. He goes where he wants to go, and Emmanuel chooses to be God With Us, not God-Until-We-Call-Him-Correctly.

So- is there anything to this notion of praying in Jesus’ name? YES. Absolutely, yes. And, for the love of all things holy, let’s recover it and put aside this other business once and for all.

There are a few different aspects of what this means. To pray in someone’s name is to stand in his authority, to act by proxy. It’s a form of power. It’s the same type of phrase used when messengers of a king would read a letter aloud to its recipients. They would read the letter in the name of the king. We have been given this same kind of authority by Jesus. So, if we are praying, and we are calling the universe toward something more whole than what it’s showing, we are doing so in the authority of its Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer. We are setting the world in relation to the God who loves that world. This is what the passage in John means. Asking God for something in Jesus’ name means being aligned with what God wants to happen. When we pray on behalf of the broken world, we are doing it in Jesus’ name, not because we spoke three words, but because we are seeking to be the kind of people who seek the world’s wholeness. Praying in Jesus’ name means being about what Jesus is about, not saying a formula. It means that we are, in a very real way, joining the work of God to bring the world to shalom. We are entering into that work as followers of Jesus. Being “in Jesus’ name” is a posture, not just a prayer. It is a way we travel through our days.

A name is the very essence of a person, the very heart and soul and mind and strength that makes a person who s/he is. We usually pick names based on fads or family tradition, but in Scripture, names are chosen with great care. Names literally embody a person. Jesus’ name means “God saves.” That is the essence of Jesus. We have so many names for Jesus, we lose count, because that’s how big his reality is: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace, Word of God, Image of the Invisible God, Son of God, Son of Man, Messiah, Savior, Light of the World, Redeemer, Rabbi, friend, brother. All of these titles are present when we say the name Jesus. He encompasses all of it.

So, of course, there is something appropriately worshipful and glorifying to use the name of Jesus, because in his name, like, INSIDE it, is this entire WORLD of reality that is good and beautiful and grace and truth and light and redemption and new life. The name is a way to call forth the whole reality, but the way we do something in Jesus’ name is by abiding in him. We abide in his name. Sure, sometimes we speak it, sometimes we pray in it, but at all times, we abide in it. We have made our home with him. Wherever we go, we are abiding. This reality moves with us and among us and before us and within us. So the idea that we could pray anything at all and be “outside” of his name? Nah. We might be outside of his will, but his Name envelops us.

So if we’re going to talk about the name of Jesus, let’s not play small. Let’s not be petty. The name of Jesus is not something to be dogmatic about. It doesn’t demand literalism or legalism. It calls for our devotion. It is to be spoken of not literally but poetically, calling to our mind the vast reality that God saves us, and has chosen to save us through the person of Jesus of Nazareth. So by all means, pray in Jesus’ name. Use the words if you want to do so, because you enjoy the melodic sound of it, and because it reminds you of all that is being made holy, and of all the love that surrounds you. Know that whether you say the words or not, you’re praying (and living) in Jesus’ name. Trust that Jesus hears you, and that Jesus is with you. Know that wherever you go, the Savior abides. Whatever you do, don’t pray it because you think that’s how it “works” or because you won’t get heard otherwise. That’s like giving up the glory of the night sky for a reality the size of a thumbtack.


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Word and Spirit

Happy Moltmann Monday! Today’s selection is from The Source of Life. He’s talking about the life of creation, and I love the picture he gives here of the interconnection of Word and Spirit:

According to Wisdom literature (Ecclesiastes, for example), this creative Wisdom can also be called God’s Word or God’s Spirit. But what is meant is always the presence of God immanent in the world and present in all things. If all things are created by one God, then a transcendent unity precedes their diversity. If they are created by God’s Wisdom, then their diversity is also grounded on an immanent unity. Through Wisdom the community of created things is formed, a community in which they exist with one another and for one another…

Where God’s Word is, God’s Spirit is, too. According to Genesis 1:2, the vibrant energies of God’s Spirit precede creation through the Word. God creates all things through his words, which name, differentiate, and judge. That is why everything is individually different, ‘each according to its kind.’ But God always speaks in the one same breath of his Spirit, which gives life…The Word specifies and differentiates; the Spirit binds and forms the harmony. When human beings speak, the words differ, but they are communicated in the same breath; God speaks through individual created things and ‘breathes through all creation.’

The story of creation is not only found in Genesis, of course. We hear echoes of it in John 1 (In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God) and in Revelation (Behold, I am creating all things new!). In these poetic acts of creation, we see the Trinity at work: God sends forth, the Spirit hovers and breathes upon and into creation, the Word dwells and distinguishes. Lovely.

What we often miss, and what Moltmann points out so eloquently here, is the reciprocal relationship of Word and Spirit, of naming and distinguishing with binding together in harmony. You see, if we do only one of the two, we are going to be lopsided, and something will be missing. We cannot be nameless, or without shape. We can’t live without any sense of judgment, any sense of “what’s what.” But if we only live there, if we ONLY name and differentiate and judge, it can become a lifeless place. It’s often known by the name of legalism.

Similarly, if we live only in the binding and the harmony, if there is only togetherness and there is no distinction, problems abound there, too. What about the person who needs to set healthy boundaries between him and his oppressor? What about the teen who is becoming an adult and needs to separate from the parent? What about all the things that make us uniquely who we are? Smooshing us all together without thought is careless and it mutes the very beautiful diversity God’s creation was designed to show.

So, then, Wisdom tells us, we meet where the two join together. The Word, who names us with love, and the Spirit, who binds us together even in our differences. They are both true; they are both real. We can’t lose sight of what makes us “us.” But we can’t lose sight of Who holds all of this together, either.

That’s why I love this picture Moltmann gives of a person speaking words but breathing with the same breath. No matter the language, or the age, or the mental capability, words are words, distinct and different. But even in the most distinguishing situations, we all breathe the same. We all are sustained by the breath which brings tone and sound and life to our words. We are distinct, but even in that distinction, we are held together by a reality bigger than our own.

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Loving Our Enemies

Happy Moltmann (Tuesday)! I hope your Labor Day was relaxing and enjoyable. Today’s excerpt comes from The Politics of Discipleship and Discipleship in Politics It’s in a chapter discussing how to follow Jesus in a time of nuclear war. The whole chapter is worth quoting, but I’ll limit myself today to a section where he discusses Jesus’ admonition (and example) to love our enemies (bold mine):

When we engage an enemy on the basis of the law of retaliation, we enter into a vicious circle from which we can no longer escape. We become enemy to our enemy and horrified by our own fear. We threaten what threatens us and we hate what hates us…When evil is retaliated with evil, then there arises one evil after another, and that is deadly. We can be freed from such vicious circles only when our orientation to the foe ceases and another one becomes more important to us.

The love which Jesus puts in place of retaliation is the love of the enemy. The love of friends, “mutual love,” is nothing special. it is only retaliation of good with good. The love of the enemy, however, is not recompensing, but is rather an anticipating, intelligent, and creative love. Whoever repays evil with good must be really free, strong and sovereign. The love for the enemy does not mean surrender to the enemy, submission to his will. For rather, he or she is no longer in the stance of reacting to the enemy, but seeks to create something new, a new situation for the enemy and for him/herself. He/she follows his/her own intention and no longer allows the law of actions to be prescribed by the foe. 

The first few sentences give a clear description of what’s known as the cycle of violence. If we are trying to get a result other than violence, it’s going to take something besides violence for us to get there. This is why so many of us who are pacifists disagree with the idea of going to war to make peace. War never makes peace, or keeps peace. War is violence, and peace is not. Sometimes we go to war to scare our opponents out of doing certain actions. That’s not peace. That’s bullying. Granted, there are sometimes this kind of action is necessary, but let’s all be clear: that isn’t what making peace is about, and that certainly isn’t the ideal Jesus calls us to follow when he says for us to love our enemies. Buying ourselves a cease-fire is a temporary solution. It may get us less violence in the meantime, but it promises violence in the future because it keeps the retaliation wheel spinning.  The only lasting solution comes from the creative power of a love that transcends violence.

That kind of love is made known to us in the life of Jesus, who, as Moltmann said, “did not die with a curse upon his enemies but rather with a prayer for them.” He lived an anticipating, intelligent, creative love that can bring forth life even from death, peace even from violence. He did that because he did not let the actions of others determine the kind of person he chose to be. He disentangled himself and made choices freely, based on his highest ethic. He did not get anxious or fearful or angry to the point that it kept him from being who he wanted to be- he stayed centered, grounded, resolute in love.

I love how Moltmann puts this in terms of intention. How do we practice the love of our enemies? By disentangling ourselves from our enemy’s anxiety and fear and hatred. We have to set ourselves apart from it. We have to decide that instead of reacting to our enemy, we are going to choose our own way instead, and we choose love. We no longer allow our actions to be decided by the very person we don’t want to imitate.

If we are truly free in Christ, we have the ability to love our enemies. We can be intentional about what actions we take and how we respond to people and by what values we decide to live. We can always choose the creative, powerful, life-giving, peace-creating force of love.

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