Hello, again.

2010/12/08 at 3:02 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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Dare I retry the blog?

Japan as a society values peace more than the U.S., I believe.  Not only in cities like Nagasaki and Hiroshima, which actively pursue global nuclear disarmament, but even in the manner which people talk with one another.  Its just not argumentative.

And so, part of the reason I had felt so conflicted with the blog was that it had become a much too easy avenue to blast news and opinions I had serious problems with.  Although this can be useful, I just didn’t feel like it was really peace-seeking. So I might retry.  As I work on the process of academic writing especially, my aim is to write for the things I stand for, but without the bombastic and inflammatory rhetoric.  Or, as some people say, sarcasm.  But primarily, I want to be a writer of peace.  So!  Here goes.  I think….

Introducing myself to Lutheranism in Japan

2009/10/26 at 6:23 pm | Posted in Religion | Leave a comment
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Yesterday was Reformation Sunday.  I was asked to deliver a message for the English service at Kumamoto Lutheran Church, the second sermon I’ve given since arriving in late August.  The text was John 8:31-36.  This is (more or less, because I loosely followed my written script), what was said:

Well, welcome to Reformation Sunday!  There has been a lot to reflect on this year, both politically and theologically.  For example, the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall to the 500th anniversary of John Calvin’s birthday.   But until this year, I had not been a part of a church that formally recognized Reformation Day, and so it’s both an honor and slightly overwhelming to be connected to that heritage, to remember an incredibly powerful event.

For those of you less familiar with the story, on October 31, 1517, Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses in protest against church practices.  Now, Luther was hardly the first protester, not was his aim to split the church as we see it today.  Luther did, however, take advantage of the latest technology, specifically the printing press, to give serious weight to the movement: the Protestant Reformation.  In certain ways, the event that we remember today is a date that contributed to a revolution of thought and belief across Christianity, extending to the world beyond.  Many of the key ideas still undergird Western philosophies today.  So it is this legacy I’m struck by tonight, because I hear a lot of Luther in this text.

I love the gospel of John.  The author writes in beautiful metaphor, we have deep theological statements and some of the most profound words that Jesus says.  It can also be quite a challenge.  So first, we should walk through some of the words and phrases of the passage together- to understand what is going on in the text and then the scripture will come into a clearer light.

Right away, I want to try some audience participation, if you don’t mind.  The Bible version we have available as you walked in is the bilingual Today’s English Version.  Does anyone have it still opened to John 8:31 and could you read it aloud?  [A person in the audience read John 8:31]  Does anyone have another translation and mind reading that? [Someone else read the same verse from the New Revised Standard version]  You may have noticed in that translation it says, “… the Jews who had believed in him….”  A decent amount of translations do use the phrase “the Jews” pretty often in John.  This phrase catches our contemporary ears as far as what makes us uncomfortable.  The Greek word here literally means, “Judeans.”  So yes, it is a group of Jewish people, specifically from Judea.  With the passing of history, we cannot forget that this was written by Jewish people for Jewish people.

So Jesus is here speaking to a crowd of followers from Judea who had believed in him- who trusted him, who put their trust in him, who committed themselves to him.  In verses 31 and 32, he says, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples,” and, “you will know the truth.”  So placing faith in Jesus, then, is to follow his words as his disciples- or, as pupils to commit our lives to following his teachings.  And the result?  We will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.  It seems that this is one of the most widely quoted passages of Scripture.

But his audience doesn’t fully understand.  See, the Ancient Near East was filled with systems of indentured servitude: slavery.  It seems unlikely that slaves would have been able to be part of a crowd following Jesus around.  No, they were probably working elsewhere and this traveling group of Judeans were probably free.

But the gospel of John is also known sometimes as the most evangelical gospel, a text written to persuade people to believe in and join this movement of Jesus’ followers.  Could this be part of the early evangelist writings?  I think if we look at the context, it could be.

The gospel of John was probably written around the turn of the first century [CE].  That places the writings about 25 to 35 years after the destruction of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem, by the Roman Empire.  When the temple was destroyed, the Jewish people must have felt fragmented, because Jerusalem was the center of Jewish religion, similar to the Vatican for Roman Catholicism.  Furthermore, where the Jewish people somewhat got along with the Roman Empire previously, this destruction of religious practice- so central to Jewish identity- had to produce fear.  So I imagine in this passage a parallel to the text- the Jewish people had been free before, but that freedom was in jeopardy.  What to do with this fear and unrest?  The answer?

Jesus!

“If the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.”  Those who follow and believe in Jesus will know the truth, and the truth will make them free.

Ok.  So Jesus is the answer, yes, but really what does all of this mean?  What does it mean to know the truth and to be made free?  If this passage was indeed written with the purpose of evangelizing and bringing new believers into the fold, it would seem that the whole thing hinges on truth and freedom.  You could argue that this is also what Luther was searching for.

What is truth?  A daunting question.  I certainly grew up like many thinking that right was right, wrong was wrong, and through Christianity I had absolute answers.  As I became older, I began to see things as less black of white and more grayscale.  Morality cannot be simply logic- after all people used the Bible to condone slavery and racism.  I would never deny truth, rather, I have come to see it as a complexity.  Truth is not simple, but requires searching for.  In our biblical text, the word that Jesus uses for truth comes from the Greek word “alethes,” which literally means “not concealing.”  The truth that Jesus is talking about is what is revealed or uncovered.

What truth was revealed?  Back to the context of first century Judaism, I think Jesus was talking about truth that reveals sin for what it was.  Truth in the style of the Hebrew prophets that named injustice and oppression.  Yes, Jesus’ truth revealed God’s love for the world, so that all who believed in him would not perish but have eternal life.  Jesus’ truth revealed the kingdom of God.

This kingdom of God is a popular motif through the gospels- Jesus announces it and its coming as a disruption of sin, pain, suffering, and evil of this world.  The kingdom of God disrupts and frees us from slavery and sin.  So now we have come full circle in this passage.  To continue in Jesus’ word and life is to be disciples, students of God’s love for all.  When we act out of this infinite, bold love we participate in the truth of the kingdom of God!  This love sets us free- we are no longer slaves to sin!  The cycle of anger can be broken, the cycle of hatred can be broken, the cycle of violence can be broken, the cycle of lust and addiction can be broken.  Cycles of hurt, loneliness, abuse, and emptiness can be broken.  Cycles of politics that disregard poverty can be broken.  The truth CAN and WILL set us free!

You see, I think this is the power of Reformation Sunday.  Luther, continuing in Jesus’ word, spoke the truth to set the church free from some of its sins.  Luther believed that the truth could set a person free and make them whole.  Reformation… transformation….  Luther did always remind me of the Apostle Paul, who wrote, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God- what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

Let us be disciples of Jesus, continuing in his word.  For when we know and live the truth that reveals God’s love, we will not be conformed to this world, but instead transformed in the freedom that is Christ’s.  May that peace and comfort be with us always. [amen]

It would be Labor Day, except I’m in Japan

2009/09/07 at 6:58 am | Posted in Religion | 1 Comment
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I type these notes as I sit and listen to the chanting and traditional songs coming from the community house in the park next to the apartment.  It is at once serene and yet a jolting reminder of my own foreign-ness.

The New York Times recently ran an article on a prosperity gospel conference.  There are many things to be said about the prosperity gospel in its most recent incarnations, namely that I am skeptical of preachers who aren’t forthcoming about their wealth, or simply that have massive wealth in the midst of this economy at all particularly when their followers are in debt.  (Furthermore, I considered calling the followers “parishoners,” but thought better of it considering these pastors aren’t overly concerned about care of a parish).  Regardless, prosperity preaching has not ceased in popularity because it does in some way meet people’s needs or satisfies what they crave.  Therefore, it should not be dismissed lightly because it is a very serious phenomenon in contemporary social religious landscape.

What brought this to my attention, however, was a verse in Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount” that stood out in a way I had not recognized before: “So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.” (Matt. 5:23-24, NRSV)

What strikes me here is exactly what I do not hear in churches.  Very often there are messages of giving freely and cheerfully, usually in order to receive God’s blessing.  Or I have heard a similar sentiment to this passage but in relation to the commands of 1 Corinthians around communion and reconciliation.  So Jesus’ words here caught my attention because how often are others considered before giving?  First, it seems that if this were common practice, there would not be a prevalence of self-focused giving (ie: “I will give only in order to see material wealth given back to me”).  Second, it might discourage corrupt and selfish ministers from hoarding as they themselves consider others and perhaps begin to overcome this moral audacity of personal aircraft in the face of homelessness.

Most importantly, though, what Jesus seems to be saying in the context of this passage is the incredible need to be in right relationships with others as hand in hand with the divine.  This is reminiscent of the Hebrew Prophets like Amos, who preached that injustice rendered the worship of the people worthless.  It is acknowledging the divine within others that allows us to fully know the divine ourselves.

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