Saturday, March 22, 2008

Congratulations Are in Order

This past week I consulted my doctor about some shoulder and neck pain. His nurse checked my weight, temperature, and blood pressure. She congratulated me on my blood pressure. (As to the weight, well, she was discreetly silent.)

My wife also has good blood pressure. Actually, it is remarkably low blood pressure.

Since we're about to celebrate our 40th wedding anniversary, I was delighted to read this morning that happily married couples have noticeably lower 24-hour blood pressure than either singles with excellent friendship networks or unhappily married couples who also report having supportive circles of friends. (The basic AP report is here. And there's more detail here from Science Daily.)

"Marriage may literally be a matter of the heart," quipped the Science Daily writer.

“There seem to be some unique health benefits from marriage,” said [psychologist Julianne] Holt-Lunstad, whose findings will be published March 20 in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine.

I'll take those benefits and testify to a lot more.
* * *

The study has two co-authors who worked with Holt-Lunstad when they were undergraduates at Brigham Young University: Wendy Birmingham and Brandon Jones. The study is titled “Is There Something Unique about Marriage? The Relative Impact of Marital Status, Relationship Quality, and Network Social Support on Ambulatory Blood Pressure and Mental Health.”
Read more!

'Father, Into Your Hands I Commit My Spirit': What Jesus added to David's cry.

Sorry I haven't been blogging for the past ten days. Preparations for Holy Week and the intense schedule of services and rehearsals predictably took my attention. But here's something I can share from Tuesday night.

At the annual performance of Franz Joseph Haydn's
The Seven Last Words of Christ at the University of Chicago's Rockefeller Memorial Chapel, I joined other Chicago area religious leaders in giving spoken meditations on Jesus' sayings on the cross, interspersed between the exquisitely performed musical meditations by the 18th-century composer.

Jesus called out with a loud voice, "Father, into your hands I commit my spirit." When he had said this, he breathed his last. (Luke 23:46)

Jesus' spiritual life was bathed in the language of the Psalms of David. He was a descendant of David and was hailed on Palm Sunday as the Son of David (Matt. 21:9). The Psalms reflect the rough emotional terrain of Jesus' famous forebear's turbulent life.

Like a leitmotif in a Wagnerian opera, the theme of trust in the face of doom returns, repeats, reasserts itself in the Psalms of David: "They conspire against me and plot to take my life. But I trust in you, O LORD; I say, 'You are my God'" (Ps. 31:13b-14).

In his most trying moments, in his dying moment, Jesus reached into the depths of his experience for the words of his archetypal forebear David. He brought forth Psalm 31:5: "Into your hands I commit my spirit." His dying moment was a moment of trust.

It was also a moment of intimacy. The two belong together: trust nurtured by intimacy; intimacy nurtured by trust. The intimate word Jesus added to the words of David was Father. "Father, into your hands I commit my spirit."

David cried out to his God: "O Lord," he would say, "You are My God." In David's time, such language was radical. The Psalms of David personalize the spiritual life in a way that earlier biblical literature did not. But Jesus took it even further. He consistently spoke of and to his Father. And to his disciples he said, "When you pray, say, 'Our Father … '" This language of intimate converse with his Father he shared with his followers.

Just before his final expression of trust, Luke tells us, the heavy curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. Interpretations of this event vary widely, but I see this as a sign of newly opened access to God. The structures of worship are both barrier and bridge. They both separate worshipers from and connect worshipers to the divine. But in the tearing of the temple veil we see that the formal separation between worshipers and the Worshiped One is destroyed as Jesus himself provides free and open access. He is, in his own words, the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

In our last moments, may we too be given the gifts of trust, intimacy, and an open door to the Father.

* * *

Reflections from previous years of the Rockefeller Chapel Seven Last Words concerts are compiled in Echoes from Calvary, edited by Vermeer Quartet violist Richard Young. The book includes two audio CDs.

Read more!

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Washington Post: Don't Sell Me Something at Church; Put Me in Touch with the Mystery of God

Last weekend, the Washington Post's Jacqueline Salmon highlighted the Ancient-Future trend among evangelicals in her story "Feeling Renewed by Ancient Traditions." The story was subtitled: "Evangelicals Putting New Twist on Lent, Confession and Communion."

Salmon quoted patristics scholar Dan Williams, one of the theological editors of the Call for an Ancient Evangelical Future, "Evangelicalism is coming to point where the early church has become the newest staple of its diet." This is, in Williams's words "a sea change."

Part of the reason for the article was the cover story by Bethel Seminary's Chris Armstrong in the February 08 Christianity Today, "The Future Lies in the Past," which traced the 30-year
history of this movement from some of Bob Webber's earliest agitations to the present.

I spoke with Salmon while she was reporting the story and recommended that she talk to Chris and to John Witvliet at Calvin. (Dan Williams had referred her to me, and she already had Chris and John on her list, I discovered. Way to go, Dan!) Here are the key comments from Chris and John.

According to Chris, the young adults who are attracted to things Ancient Future are

still in love with their Bible. They're still in love with their God. They still see the Bible as their primary authority .... But their experience is one of churches that look too much like the rest of the world -- a little bit too much like malls or rock concerts.

John's quotable comments help to set straight those who worry that Ancient Future is all about surface elements like incense, candles, and calendar. It is about the inner person and the mystery of God:

I definitely sense a hunger for acknowledgment of life's mysteries and of the mystery and beauty of God .... There's a hunger for deeper engagement -- "Don't just sell me a product at church, but really put me in touch with the mystery and beauty of God."

When the church not only feels like the mall, but acts like the marketplace, we feel like consumers. But God seeks worshipers--not consumers--and so John W. has really put his finger on it: "Don't see me a product at church... put me in touch with the mystery and beauty of God."

Thanks to John, Chris, and Dan for steering the Post's Salmon down the right path. Read more!

Sunday, March 2, 2008

History Lesson: Positively Protestant

Last summer, I received an essay from a friend—a leading Evangelical intellectual—who said that the label Protestant should fade out in favor of the label Evangelical because, in part, Protestant was “negative.”

In many people’s minds, it certainly is. It sounds like it is about dissent and disagreement. It evokes images of picketers carrying poorly made signs back and forth in front of a factory. Indeed, it sounds disagreeable.

More recently, another friend published an engaging account of his exploration of Catholicism. The book is Jon Sweeney's Almost Catholic, and you can read an excellent review of it on my wife LaVonne’s blog.

The book is a good read, but its argument rests in part on his contrast between the “universal” character of Catholic faith and the negative Protestant alternative:

To be Protestant is to define yourself as protesting against certain forms of religion. ... there is little need for Protestants anymore. What are we still protesting? The Reformation of the sixteenth century was a European event.

So many seem to think that the essence of being Protestant is to conscientiously object to what is or was Roman Catholic. A little history and a little linguistic research shows Protestant to be a much more positive word, referring to what the original Protestants stood for rather than what they stood against.

* * *

Sweeney rightly ties Protestant to the Second Diet of Speyer (1529), and the response of the German evangelical princes to its decision to restrict their freedom. But he misleadingly labels Protestant “a political moniker,” when the cultural context thoroughly mixed religion and politics. The word religion certainly existed, but it remained for the Enlightenment to create it as a distinct category of thought and experience. Sixteenth-century people were more likely to think in concrete terms of the overlapping authorities of king and pope, bishop and prince, priest and magistrate. Neither religion nor politics was an abstract category for them.

What do the major historians of Protestantism say? Like almost all their colleagues, John Dillenberger and Claude Welch link the origin of the word Protestant to the ‘Protestation’ of the German evangelical estates in the second Diet of Speyer. But they see in that term “the duality of protest and affirmative witness.” That protest, they write, was

from the standpoint of affirmed faith. Few churches ever adopted the name “Protestant.” The most commonly adopted designations were rather “evangelical” and “reformed.” ... [W]hen the word Protestant came into currency in England (in Elizabethan times), its accepted significance was not “objection” but “avowal” or “witness” or “confession” (as the Latin protestari meant also “to profess”).

That meaning lasted for another century, say Dillenberger and Welch, and it referred to the Church of England’s

making its profession of the faith in the Thirty-nine Articles and the Book of Common Prayer. Only later did the word “protest” come to have a primarily negative significance, and the term “Protestant” come to refer to non-Roman churches in general.

* * *

Writing about the second Diet of Speyer, the esteemed Luther biographer Roland Bainton called the word Protestant

unfortunate as a name because it implies that Protestantism was mainly an objection. The dissenters in their own statement affirmed that “they must protest and testify publicly before God that they could do nothing contrary to His word.” The emphasis was less on protest than on witness.

Diarmaid MacCulloch, professor of the history of the church at Oxford University, traces the history of the term. From 1529 until 1547, Protestant was limited to the sphere of German politico-religious life, identifying those princes who followed Luther or Zwingli and who in 1529 “issued a protestatio, affirming the reforming beliefs that they shared.” The term entered English in 1547, when the officials who were organizing the coronation of Edward VI listed “in order the procession of dignitaries through [London].” There, in that list, was a place for “‘the Protestants,’ by whom they meant the diplomatic representatives of [the] reforming Germans.”

* * *

When Edward VI was crowned, the word still had a positive connotation. On the CultureVulture blog for the Guardian, Sean Clarke notes that it was 60 years from the introduction of Protestant in English until its first use in the extended sense of "object, dissent, or disapprove.” That (according to the Collins Etymological Dictionary) was first recorded in English in 1608. The Online Etymological Dictionary places the first use of protest to mean “statement of disapproval” in the year 1751—another century and a half. Through much of that history and well after, protest continued to mean “avow,” “affirm,” “witness,” or “solemnly proclaim.”

Poor, misunderstood protest has had a history something like that of another word—apology. That word has gone from its positive, head-held-high sense of “a formal justification or defense” (as in “the essay was an apology for capitalism”) to something tinged with shame and remorse (“a statement of regret or request for pardon”).

We need to recover the positive sense of protestant. It denotes things that we stand for: the authority of Scripture, salvation by grace through faith in Christ alone. It’s a matter of principle. And because it is about standing for truth, Catholics can be protestants too.

* * *

Works cited

Roland H. Bainton, The Reformation of the Sixteenth Century (Enlarged Edition, Beacon, 1985)
John Dillenberger and Claude Welch, Protestant Christianity Interpreted Through Its Development (Scribner’s, 1954)
Diarmaid MacCulloch, The Reformation: A History (Viking, 2003). Read more!