Friday, January 30, 2009

What Makes A Prayer Christian, Or....

Before President Obama's inauguration people wondered what the prayers would be like. Three very different Christian pastors, Robinson, Warren, and Lowry, had been asked to pray. Specifically, some people wondered if Pastor Warren would end his prayer in a very common way among evangelical Christians, saying something like, "In Jesus' name we pray. Amen."? Some people would be offended by such a prayer finding it too exclusive. Others would be offended if he did not end his prayer this way. All of this started me thinking. What makes a prayer a certain kind of prayer?

Is it the content of the prayer that makes it a certain kind of prayer? Is it the person who originated the prayer, for example Jesus in the "Our Father," that makes the prayer a certain kind of prayer? Is it where the prayer is first found that makes it a certain kind of prayer? Is it the intent of the prayer that makes it a certain kind of prayer? Is it the formula with which the prayer begins, or with which it ends that makes it a certain kind of prayer? Is it the person who prays the prayer that makes it a certain kind of prayer? Is it all of these? Is it none of these? Is it something else?

I heard that at one Jewish rabbi remarked that the "Our Father" was a Christian prayer because it was found in what Christians call the New Testament. Yet I, as a Christian pastor, remarked to my wife that the most common prayer prayed by Christians in many congregations every week is a prayer taught by a first century Jew named Jesus, one whom we Christians proclaim as Lord, Savior, true God and true man. There is nothing in the prayer, with perhaps the exception of the words, "Our Father" which might be construed as being strictly Christian. The prayer does not begin with a formula often identified with a Christian prayer, and it certainly does not end with the formula often associated with a Christian prayer. So, again I ask, "What makes a prayer a certain kind of prayer?"

Is a Christian prayer one that is prayed by a Christian, non-ordained or ordained, with, or without a specific formula? When Bishop Gene Robinson opened his prayer with "O God of our many understandings" was he praying a prayer that was a Christian prayer? There were some people who insisted Bishop Robinson's prayer was not a Christian prayer. He certainly did not begin with a common formula of "In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit," or "Gracious and loving God." He ended the prayer with a simple, "Amen." "Let it be so." Again I ask, "What makes a prayer a certain kind of prayer?"

One might argue that it is the content of a prayer that makes it a certain kind of prayer. Thus, a Christian would/could not pray for the death of one's enemy. After all Jesus said to pray for one's enemy, to bless those who persecute you, and not to return evil for evil. What about during times of war? Did the Christian chaplains on the USA side pray for victory over, and the death of enemies during World War II? What about Christian chaplains in the German army? "What makes a prayer a certain kind of prayer?"

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Down to the Last Week in the USA

It doesn't seem quite possible, and yet it is. I arrived in the United States from Malaysia on November 26, 2008. I stayed overnight in San Francisco before going on to Denver. On the 7th of December I flew to the Detroit area, and on the 10th on to Chicago. From December 11-18, I had meetings in Chicago, and on the evening of the 18th I returned to my home in Denver. Since then I have been in the Denver area.

Now, however, the clock is ticking, the days are passing by. On the 15th I will leave for my return trip to Kuala Lumpur. Soon and very soon I will be back in my "home away from home," Shah's Village Hotel in Petaling Jaya. It will be good to be back with friends there. It will be sad to leave family and friends here. Such is life. A student who once worked with me during the 1970s once say, "Life is bitter sweet." That's true, as anyone paying attention to their personal life, and the events around the world can affirm.

I hope to be posting more blogs in the future. There are a couple of different issues I want to reflect on. One is what difference starting points make. When I was teaching full time I would tell students they needed to be clear on their presupposition and their telos, their starting point and their goal. The second issue I want to reflect on is what I have begun to call "touch starvation." Until then....

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Close Encounters

In 1977 Steven Spielberg made the term "Close Encounters" popular. It was not until doing some superficial research that I discovered there are Close Encounters of the First Kind; Close Encounters of the Second Kind; and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. All of these deal, in some way, with unidentified flying objects. For those who want to do some superficial research on their own I refer you to Wikipedia.

I do not know why, but the idea of close encounters came to my mind as I reflected on a recent happening in my life. My close encounter had nothing to do with UFOs. My close encounter had to do with people, real, living human beings. Further, my close encounter involved three of the world's living faiths: Christianity; Islam; and Hinduism.

A few nights ago a Muslim friend introduced me to a young man from India. I sat down with the young man and we talked. We talked about many things. We talked about his being away from home for the first time in his young life. We talked about how difficult it is for him to not only be away from family and friends, but how difficult it is for him to get food to eat. He is a vegetarian. While India may be an easy place to live if you are a vegetarian, Malaysia is not. We continued to talk about his life, his difficulties living here, his longing for his family and friends. I asked him where in India he was from and learned he was from Punjab. This has particular relevance to me as our son-in-law's parents are originally from Punjab. We talked about many things that evening. I asked him if he was a Sikh. "No." He said. "I am a Hindu." I asked him if he had found a Hindu Temple yet. Again, he said "no." I told him I would help him find a Hindu Temple where he could go for prayer. I also gave him my card which had my name, phone number, and my responsibility for theological education in the Asia Pacific Region.

A couple of days later my new acquaintance came to talk with me in my room. As we talked, almost out of the blue, he asked, "Do you believe in God?" I said, "yes." He reached out his hand to shake mine and said, "So do I. I believe that we all believe in the one true God, although we have different understandings of this one God." We continued to talk. He asked me another question, "Do you believe in reincarnation?" I told him "No. I believe in the incarnation of God in the person of Jesus Christ." Then my new acquaintance said, "I have never been to a Christian service. I would like to go some day." I told him I would take him.

Why do I tell this story of a Christian, a Muslim, and a Hindu? Because I think it reflects something very important, at least about me. As I understand Christian evangelism, it does not begin with trying to convince people to become Christian. It begins by becoming a friend, someone who will share with the other person their life, their story, their hopes and dreams, and allow the other person to do the same. Those of us who are Christians believe that God has created all creation, and in a very real sense we are all sons and daughters of God, sisters and brothers to each other. As Christians we believe that for the sake of all God's creation Jesus lived, died, was raised from the dead, and ascended. In the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, Christians believe that God has inaugurated God's reign, God's kingdom, which will be brought to fulfillment and completion in a material new heaven and a new earth. Indeed, as John 3:17 reminds us, "God sent the son into the world not to condemn the world, that in order that the world may be saved through him."

The questions I have been thinking about, and which I invite you to think about as well are: "Are we interested in being friends with those who are different from us; different religiously; different socially; different in whatever way?" "Are we interested in being friends with others, not in order that we might change the other person, but that in our being together we both will, by God's actions, be changed, transformed, made new?" As Christians, we have a story to tell, a story which brings meaning to our lives, and which integrates all that we do. However, non-Christians also have a story which brings meaning to their lives, and which integrates what they do.

When I was teaching in the seminary I usually asked the students about to graduate, "How difficult would it be for you who are Christians, to give up being a Christian and become a Buddhist; Hindu; Muslim; Sikh, or something else?" Invariably, they would answer that they could not give up being Christian. Being Christian was what gave meaning to their life. I then asked, "What makes you think that it is any easier for a non-Christian to give up the story which gives meaning to them and integrates their life?"

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Glimpses of Hope

This morning I was invited to bring greetings, and to say a few words at Bangsar Lutheran Church in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. I told the pastor and congregation that it was a very dangerous thing to ask a retired pastor, and a retired seminary professor to say a few words. Pastors and seminary professors do not know what a few words are. I did, however, try to keep what I had to say short. If there was a theme to what I said it was, "Glimpses of Hope."

Little did I know that my thoughts would be so appropriate, with songs sung which underscored the theme. One of the songs had in it the words,

Open our eyes, Lord, we want to see Jesus....
Open our hearts, Lord, that we might receive you.
Open our spirits, Lord, and teach us to worship.
Open our lips, Lord, and teach us to praise you.

Anglican Bishop N.T. Wright, in his book, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church, reminds Christians that we are a people of hope. Our hope is not for a heaven beyond the sunset, where we sit on clouds, and play our harps. Our hope, based on the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ, is that the reign, the rule, the kingdom of God which was ushered in in Jesus Christ will come to fulfillment in a new heaven and a new earth. In the meantime, Wright suggests, we are a people who both give glimpses of this future hope in our present life, we also look for glimpses of hope in the here and now.

I told the people at Bangsar Lutheran Church that I wanted to tell them of four glimpses of hope I have seen in the last three months that I have been in SE Asia. Two of the glimpses of hope have taken place in Malaysia. Two of the glimpses of hope have taken place outside of Malaysia. I then told them of the three Thai women who had become HIV/AIDS positive from their husbands, and how that they were not angry, and furious at their husbands. They harbored no animosity. I said that the women accepted their husbands and forgave them. I told the people gathered the fascinating thing was these women were not Christian. They were Buddhist. I went on to say that I did not know too many Christians who would have been as forgiving. The three Buddhist ladies were glimpses of God's forgiveness. I said the women reminded me of what is said in the scripture, "While we were yet sinners, Christ Jesus died for us."

The second glimpse of hope was the recent election of Barack Obama as President of the United States. I said that while I was an Obama supporter, the glimpse of hope came not as a result of his election, but because of something else. I said that as late as 1967, sixteen states in the United States of America said interracial marriage was illegal. Here, in the recent election a man was elected President of the United States, and whose parents' marriage would have been illegal in those same sixteen states. I went on to say that there was hope for me in that. I told the people that when we moved to South Carolina in 1996, my wife and I had been married for over twenty-nine years. Nonetheless, as late as 1996, our marriage was still illegal in the state of South Carolina. The law against interracial marriage was still on the books in South Carolina at the time of our moving there. While my wife is 100% German, maybe 200%+, my great grandmother was Native American. A glimpse of hope that things might be changing.

The third glimpse of hope, as well as the fourth glimpse of hope have happened here in Malaysia. I arrived here on the 22nd of August. In September some people were arrested under the ISA law for speaking against the government, destabilizing it. I reminded the people that the ISA law had its roots in the former British rule when under that law people of Chinese heritage were put into "new villages" (concentration camps) for fear that the Chinese were working with the communists to overthrow the British government. I said that while a few people had been arrested, at least there were not new villages being set up to put people into. A small, perhaps, but still a glimpse of hope.

The fourth and last glimpse of hope happened a couple of Sundays ago. The Lutheran Church in Malaysia and Singapore dedicated and opened a new congregation. What was unusual about this was this was the first ministry of the Lutheran Church in Malaysia and Singapore which was not started in a rural area. This new ministry is in the heart of the city, in the Golden Triangle, within sight of the Petronas Twin Towers.

Glimpses of hope and reassurance. God is active. God is alive. God is active and alive in and through the lives of God's people. What glimpses of hope have you seen, and where?

Open our eyes, Lord, we want to see Jesus....
Open our hearts, Lord, that we might receive you.
Open our spirits, Lord, and teach us to worship.
Open. our lips, Lord, and teach us to praise you.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Prepared or Unprepared: What Does It Mean?

I was just reading on Yahoo news an Associated Press article about Billy Graham. In an interview with Franklin Graham, Billy Graham's son, Franklin is quoted as saying, "He's always been ready to die. But nobody's prepared him for getting old." That set me thinking about life, death, being prepared, or unprepared. I am not sure I really know what it means to be prepared or unprepared about living, getting old, or dying.

A few years ago my wife and I did taught some parenting classes. One of the things we often said about parenting was that it is one of the most important roles we will ever have in life, and one for which we have so little preparation. Most of our parenting skills, or lack of them, has, for good or for ill, come from our own experiences of having been parented. We may read books about parenting, but reading books about parenting, even participating in parenting groups, is different from being a parent. We can learn some things from others, things to do; things to avoid doing. Yet, at the end of the day, it is in parenting that we learn what it means to be a parent. Is it similar in being prepared to live, grow old, or die?

Is it in the living of life that we are being prepared to live? Is it in the growing old that we are being prepared to be old? Is it in the dying that we are being prepared to die? There was a time which I could answer with some degree of certainty what it means to be prepared to live, to grow old, or to die. I can do that no longer. I'm not sure that means I have grown any wiser through the years. I think it is more a willingness to admit I do not know.

When I talk about being an old man, I think, in part, this is my way of working through my feelings about aging. Whether I feel it or not; whether I like it or not, I am seventy years old. This is fact. I am no longer a young man. I am no longer a middle aged man. I am chronologically an old man, even if I don't act my age! Given the life expectancy of men in the United States today, I am about thirty years past middle age. For me growing older, or even growing old, is not a bad thing. It is a normal, God-given reality that I am powerless to change. The only thing I can do is decide how I will live my life as fully as possible, given the constraints that being seventy brings. Believe me, I do live my life to the fullest extent possible, willing to try some new things, willing to avoid others and not feel guilty about it.

I cannot say with Billy Graham that I am ready to die. I'm not ready to die. At this point in time I will fight death all the way to the death. I will die. I know that. I do not know when. I do not know how. I do not know where. I only know some day, some where, in some way, I will die. If acceptance of this as reality is being prepared, I guess I'm prepared. And, after death, then what?

Bottom line is that after death I do not know with absolute certainty what follows. I believe, I teach, and I confess, that whether I live or die, I am in the hands of a good and gracious God who has claimed me and named me, and who has promised to never let me go -- not in life; not in death. Is this what it means to be prepared to die? If so, I am prepared to die.

Prepared or unprepared: What does it mean?

Thursday, November 6, 2008


It has sure been a couple of days of contrast. In the United States there was the election of Barack Obama as President of the United States. The election brought joy and elation to many; sorrow and dejection to others. Here in Malaysia it was greeted with joy. Yesterday morning when I saw the front page of The New Straits Times it read, "CHANGE HAS COME. Now for the hard part....NOW Barack Obama must validate the hope and deliver the change he promised." By contrast, this morning's front page read, "THE BIGGEST & MOST EXPLOSIVE BOND OF ALL! Gritty & Spectacular Action! JAMES BOND: QUANTUM OF SOLACE 7."

In North America the contrasts were almost as radical as the headlines in the newspapers here. On the one hand, Barack Obama, cast by many people as a liberal, some even suggested a socialist, won the presidential election by a healthy majority. On the other hand, the states of California, Arizona, and Florida all passed constitutional amendments defining marriage as heterosexual only. Change? Yes. But, not too much? What to make of the contrasts? I do not know.

On the one hand, I can tell you that what I heard around this part of the world is people are very happy about the outcome of the U.S. presidential elections. I can also tell you that, given the religious and political context here, most of the people would agree with the actions taken by the electorate in California, Arizona, and Florida.

The actions taken in these states set me to thinking. Who defines what marriage is? Does the church, if you are Christian? Does the political system? Do both? In the United States, in 1862, the Morrell Anti-Bigamy Act was passed. This Act made bigamy a punishable federal offense. The passing of this Act was followed by a series of federal laws which worked toward ending polygamy in the United States, in spite of the fact that polygamy was practiced by one religion. What about the separation of religion and state? In 1877, in a US Court ruling, Pennoyer v Neff, it was declared, "[T]he State...has absolute right to prescribe the conditions upon which the marriage relationship between its citizens shall be created, and the causes for which it may be dissolved." (cf. Wikipedia article on polygamy)

It appears, at least in the United States, marriage is a legally defined entity, more than a religious one. Thus, the voters in the states of California, Arizona, and Florida had the authority to define marriage. At the same time, just because a relationship has legal standing does not mean the church has to bless that relationship. For example, as once happened to me, if a clergyperson believes the relationship will be an abusive one, does she or he have to officiate in the ceremony, even if the couple has a valid marriage license? It seems to me a clergyperson has the responsibility to refuse to participate in a marriage which she or he believes is not consistent with God's desires, even if the couple shows up with a valid marriage license.

In the denomination of which I have been a member for the past forty-six years it has been said that while the government has the power to define marriage, the church has the responsibility to say what relationship could be blessed, and what relationship could not be blessed. The issue becomes muddied in the United States when a clergyperson officiates at a marriage. At such a service the clergyperson is wearing two hats, that of the church, and that of the state. It is the state which determines who allowed to officiate at a marriage.

With respect to the state, the clergyperson is to determine whether the marriage is in accord with the state laws. This is a fairly easy one to determine. At the same time, the clergyperson wears the hat of the church, praying the prayers of blessing on the relationship, and for the two who have become united in marriage. Is it possible to bless a relationship which has no legal standing? Is it possible to refuse to bless a relationship which has legal standing? Um....what to make of it all.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

This and That

Many things are going on in the world today. There were the recent elections for President of the United States in which Barack Obama was elected. There continues to be fighting and killing, sometimes of innocent civilians, in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere in the world. Fighting has once again come to the Congo. At a hotel here in Kuala Lumpur, Lutheran theologians from SE Asia have gathered to talk about "Marriage, Family, and Sexuality." Unfortunately, because I got sick, I have not been able to attend.

As I have thought about these, any many more things, including things I've written in the past, I have begun to ask if we have started our thinking in the wrong spot. There has been a tendency for some Christians to begin their discussions by asking either, "What does the Bible say about such and such?" or, "What would Jesus say, or do?" Those are not irrelevant questions. However, I am not sure they really help all that much.

First, I am not sure these questions help because to ask "What does the Bible say?" implies that there is only one thing the Bible says about marriage, family, sexuality, war, or whatever. If that were the case, it would be easy to answer questions which arise. Open the Bible. Read what it says. However, it is not that simple. All of us go to the text with our own set of ideas, our own ways of interpretation, our own questions, together with those of the religion, or religious affiliation we espouse. There are varieties of ways in which texts can be read and interpreted. Second, I am not sure to ask, "What would Jesus say, or do?" helps. We can only speculate; read back into the texts, draw tentative conclusions to what Jesus might say, or do. About many things Jesus is silent. He never addresses, for example, the issue of polygamy. What then might we do?

I would suggest that it might be more fruitful for Christians to ask, "What does it mean to be a baptized Christian and to try and live out my life faithfully in relationship to _____?" What gives identity to the Christian is our baptism. The response to the question, "Who am I?" is, "I am a baptized child of God. My name is Christian."

What does it mean to be a baptized child of God who happens to be heterosexual and married to one woman? What does it mean to be a baptized child of God who happens to be heterosexual, and married to several women? What does it mean to be a baptized child of God who happens to be an ordained clergyman, or clergywoman? What does it mean to be a baptized child of God who is trying to faithfully raise children in a context where sexual behavior during teenage years is the cultural norm? What does it mean to be a baptized child of God who is trying to understand what to do in relation to birth control; abortion; capital punishment; same sex marriage; war; or any of a host of other things?

What does it mean to live my life as a baptized child of God who is trying to be faithful to the God who has claimed me, and named me? In answering this question, there is no easy, quick answer. Yet it is the question with which we all need to wrestle. Good wrestling.