Category Archives: Theology


Roland H. Bainton’s classic, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther, is one of several Luther biographies I have on my shelf and it is a classic work, even if it is a little dry to read. I want to focus in on an insight from one of the last chapters called ‘The Struggle for Faith’ in most of what I write below but first I’m going to indulge a bit of nostalgia since this was also the first book on Luther’s life that I read many, many years ago while I was in middle school. I remember giving a presentation, it was required that we do a biography on a historical figure, and since I knew very little about this person so important they named the denomination I grew up in (and continue to be a part of) I remember finding this book and choosing it from the library. I also remember my verdict on the book, it was boring (to a middle schooler much of the impact of the theological debates was lost). Still over three decades later I find myself once again returning to this classic bio of Luther and finding a new insight from it.

Anfechtung, the spiritual struggle that Luther endured throughout his life which included both elements of depression and self-doubt combined with a struggle for faith, was a continual if frequently unwanted partner in Luther’s life. Luther’s struggle to find a gracious God would provide strength and hope for many people but it also came at a high cost for Luther. Luther’s impact and talent were prodigious and he became an inspirational figure of faith for countless people and yet in his personal life he was in a continual struggle for faith. He proclaimed that God was always good and yet he struggled to accept this gospel for himself. He until the very end felt unworthy of the grace he proclaimed. A quote from Luther and then Bainton that I found helpful:


If I live longer, I would like to write a book about Anfechtungen, for without them no man can understand Scripture, faith, the fear or the love of God. He does not know the meaning of hope who has never been subjected to temptations. David must have been plagued by a very fearful devil. He could not have had such profound insights if he had not experience great assaults. (Luther)


Luther verged on saying that an excessive emotional sensitivity is a mode of revelation. Those who are predisposed to fall into despondency as well as to rise into ecstasy may be able to view reality from an angle different from that of ordinary folk. Yet it is a true angle; and when the problem or the religious object has been once so viewed, others less sensitive will be able to look from a new vantage point and testify that the insight is valid. (Bainton, 283)


I have sometimes admired those for whom faith is simple, who seem to be unquestioning in their trust but that is not my experience of faith. I have often questioned my own struggles of faith, depression and have occassionally viewed them as crippling to my ministry. Yet, perhaps what may be an excessive emotional sensitivity may also be a critical part of my hermeneutical insight, my pastoral presence and my preaching’s relevance. Perhaps it is the vulnerability that allows questions and doubt that allows grace to enter in through my own weakness. Perhaps it is this quality that makes the Lutheran theological tradition resonate with me even today.

Theological Influence: Ralph Quere


Professor Ralph Quere was one of my teachers at Wartburg Theological Seminary in Dubuque, Iowa who died last week. As an incoming student with a degree in civil and environmental engineering and several years as an officer in the army, I had very little background in the types of thinking that I would need for the study of theology that are part of the formation of pastors. Ralph was one of my early teachers who had the challenge of helping me learn how to think differently. He didn’t normally teach the two semesters of church history that make up the first year of seminary, but due to the other church history teacher being on sabbatical he taught my year. Additionally, I would have Ralph as a teacher for Lutheran Confessions, and then in my final year I took electives studying Jaroslav Pelikan’s five volume The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine as well as a jointly taught course as a dialogue between Presbyterian and Lutheran confessions and teachings.

One of the impact he made on me had less to do with the content of his teaching and everything to do with his attitude towards his students and life in general. He was a person who genuinely seemed to enjoy teaching, care for his students and that could make even a normally dull topic more engaging. I still remember some of the ways he illustrated the difference between the way Luther and Calvin understood communion, or some of his ways of explaining the early church’s wrestling with the two natures of Christ or the language around the Trinity. Seminary is a very challenging experience for most people because it forces you to re-examine what you believe and why you believe it. While I enjoyed many of my other classes, it was those semesters on the early church and reformation era history that helped me stay grounded by encountering the way the church had struggled with how to talk about God and faith. Ralph introduced me to the writings of Ireneaus, Augustine, Luther and many more of our ancestors in the faith and helped me to become curious about the story of Christianity. He helped me to understand the confessional tradition that the Lutheran church was formed by and how these five-hundred-year-old documents still inform the life and faith of the church. He helped me appreciate the witness of Martin Luther and the other early Lutheran teachers and writers. He forced me to rememorize Luther’s Small Catechism which continues to be a useful part of my ministry today as I can easily call to mind the words Luther intended for parents to use to teach the faith to their children. In his own subtle way, he gave me the tools to transition from thinking like an engineer or a military officer to thinking theologically. He broadened my horizons of how to think about the church and how to approach my faith and for that I am grateful.

Theological Influence: Miroslav Volf

One of the projects I have decided to do is to catalog in some small way the influence of

Miroslav Volf, Henry B. Wright Professor of Theology at Yale University

Miroslav Volf, Henry B. Wright Professor of Theology at Yale University

some of the major thinkers who have influenced my growth as both a Christian, a pastor and as an individual as I reengage some of their work in my reading. Since I just finished rereading After our Likeness by Miroslav Volf I will use him as the first, (well other than my beginning of a similar document of the work of Martin Luther). I have only met Professor Volf once in Tulsa, Oklahoma where he was speaking and yet as an author his works from the first one I picked up in my final year of seminary in 2004 (Exclusion and Embrace) have probably done more than any other modern theologian to challenge and shape me over the past twelve years. I have not read everything Volf has published but what I have read has been very fruitful and thought provoking.

after-our-likenessAfter our Likeness: The Church as the Image of the Trinity. (1998) This works started out as a Habilitationsschrift, one of the dissertations that Volf had to submit for his doctoral degree from the University of Tübingen. This is probably the hardest to read of Volf’s work and the most abstractly theological. He attempts to bring a Free church ecclesiology into conversation with a Roman Catholic and Orthodox ecclesiology represented by Cardinal (Joseph) Ratzinger, who would after the publication of this be elevated to be Pope Benedict XVI, from the Catholic Church and Metropolitan John D. Zizoulas from the Orthodox church.  Volf’s ambitious project attempts to deal with issues that deal with both the concrete forms of individual churches as well as the catholicity of the church. He begins his contribution to this dialogue with John Smyth’s position (based on Matthew 18:20) that where two or three or more saints are joined together that there is the church.  The individual church in his model is joined by the action of the Triune God to the church universal.

work-in-the-spiritWork in the Spirit: Toward a Theology of Work, (1991) This volume also evolved out of Volf’s doctoral studies, this one out of his dissertation evaluating Karl Marx’s understanding of work from a theological perspective. Within Work in the Spirit he takes this dialogue with both Karl Marx’s understanding of work and Martin Luther’s concept of vocation and tries to apply these to our context where work is far more dynamic than in Luther’s or even Marx’s time. Volf highlight’s the idea of charisms or gifts of the Spirit as a departure point to attempt to imagine a theological view of work that is not limited to Marx’s view of the alienation of work or Luther’s more static view of vocation. Because this flows out of his doctoral work this still is a little more formal than some of Volf’s later works.

exclusion-and-embraceExclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation (1996) This is the volume that introduced me to the work of Miroslav Volf and from the first page of the preface, where he lays out what is at stake in this theological exploration, through the final chapter on Violence and Peace it is a passionate and articulate formulation of a theology of the cross for our time. Volf is able to be both honest about the challenges of reconciliation while holding before the reader the dream and hope of embrace as the end for which we are called to work. He powerfully weaves together theology, scripture and personal experience into a work that I have gone back to multiple times in my own ministry.

free-of-chargeFree of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace (2005) This was written for a less academic audience but keeps Volf’s profound insight into the nature of forgiveness and his honest reflections about the struggle to forgive. Volf addresses many false views of both God and forgiveness in this beautiful little work that continues to delve into the vision of reconciliation he began in Exclusion and Embrace.

end-of-memoryThe End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent World (2006) Volf continues his reflections on reconciliation by exploring memory and the way our identities are formed by what we remember. Bringing together theology, psychology, sociology as well as personal experience and reflection into a cohesive reflection on how memory and forgiveness can live together. Another profound work that continues to work towards the goals of reconciliation laid out in Exclusion and Embrace.

against-the-tideAgainst the Tide: Love in a Time of Petty Dreams and Persisting Enmities (2010) This is a collection of short essays, many originally appearing as a column in Christian Century. Like all collections there is benefits and challenges: this is not a cohesive work like his other volumes but it is a collection that you can pick up a three-page reflection and then put down without losing a train of thought. There are some gems in this work and it probably would be best as more of a reflection type reading rather than a volume to read straight through.

captive-to-the-word-of-godCaptive to the Word of God: Engaging the Scriptures for Contemporary Theological Reflection (2010) I don’t remember this volume as well as many others of Volf’s. Like Against the Tide it is a collection of (longer) essays from a span of sixteen years on how to read the scriptures. Volf presents a way of not only reading scriptures theologically in a pluralistic world but also makes the point that ultimately theology should lead beyond a way of thinking to a way of living.

flourishing-volfFlourishing: Why We Need Religion in a Globalized World (2015) One of the things I love about Volf’s writing is that he asks good questions that need to be wrestled with. The question for this book is fairly simple: What is a life worth living? And what does religion (specifically but not limited to Christianity) have to contribute to the answer of this question? This is a measured and wise beginning of the answers to those questions. Volf engages both the ancient wisdom of books like Ecclesiastes and Job and the questions they prompt that still resonate in our lives.

An Ongoing Reference to Luther’s Works

Martin Luther (1523) by Lucas Cranach

Martin Luther (1523) by Lucas Cranach

I am a Lutheran pastor but not a Lutheran scholar and the breadth of Luther’s works makes them a staggering task to approach. As a part of my study of various books of the scriptures I have also made it my practice, recently, to attempt to go through Luther’s works interpreting scriptures which may not be as concise as many of his theological works but give me as a reader some exposure to the evolution of Luther’s thought and theology in conversation with the Word that he cherished. I also think it is useful as we approach each volume to honestly look at what Luther’s interpretation over 500 years ago in his earliest works might have to still contribute in our time (and some books will be better handled by Luther’s theology than others).

Luther’s Works, Volume 9- Lectures on Deuteronomy (1523-1525)-This volume was written five years after the 95 theses and Luther’s theology and his Christocentric and preference for a plain text reading of scripture are beginning to emerge. Luther in this work is still heavily dependent on the allegorical methods of interpretation he learned in his earlier work, but we see a hermeneutic beginning to evolve. Luther, due to the subject matter, also speaks a lot about his view of the law and its purpose in the life of the believer. Those familiar with Luther’s theology would see his first and second uses of the law reflected in the theological approach to adopting Deuteronomy. One of the other unfortunate things one sees in this volume is a heavily anti-Jewish tone which Luther becomes famous for in some of his late writings. Those who want to confine Luther’s anti-Semitic comments to those later works will be disappointed in the way they occur frequently in his exegetical work. Luther for all his gifts is a man of his time.

Luther’s Works, Volume 10- First Lecture on the Psalm, Psalms 1-75 (1513-1515)- This is a pre-reformation Luther and so his methodology is still heavily dependent on the allegorical methods taught in the renaissance university. Luther is beginning to exercise the linguistic and explore some new hermeneutic roads but his theology has not developed yet. It is amazing how far Luther will come within a few short years after these lectures. There is not a lot in these lectures that are going to be enlightening to a modern reading of the Psalms or that will shed much light on Luther’s later theology. This is probably best used as a reference to understand where Luther’s theology begins before it fully develops.

Luther’s Works, Volume 11- First Lectures on the Psalms II, Psalms 76-126 (1513-1515)-Like the previous volume, this is a pre-reformation Luther and these lectures on the psalms will be strange to any modern reader unfamiliar with the allegorical and typological readings of the renaissance and earlier. There is not a lot of Luther’s developed theology in these works. The Psalms are mainly read from a Christological perspective and many of the readings are deeply critical of the Jewish people and faith. As with volume 10 there is not much that will be enlightening to a modern reader of the Psalms and should really be viewed as a historical document to understand the early theological perspective of Luther and how is evolves.

Luther’s Works, Volume 12- Selections from the Psalms, contains Luther’s Commentaries on Psalms 2, 8, 19, 23, 45, 51 (1524-1536 depending on the Psalm) These are later approaches to the Psalms by Luther and they reflect his more developed theology. These are primarily Theological/Christological approaches to the Psalms. Luther still relies heavily on an allegorical approach to reading scripture which places each of the Psalms as either spoken through Christ or talking about Christ. Other times the Psalms become launching points for Luther to expound upon the Reformation theology. Some of these expositions can become very lengthy and he can discuss a single Psalm for a hundred pages, but there are some good insights into Luther’s Christological approach to scripture and his more developed theology in this volume.

Luther’s Works, Volume 13-Selections from the Psalms, contains Luther’s Commentaries on Psalms 68, 82, 90, 101, 110, 111, 112 (1521-1535 depending on the Psalm) These continue to show Luther’s theology and way of reading scripture developing as well as illustrating some of the conflicts he was engaged in. You also see Luther the preacher in the expositions on the psalms using very earthy imagery and simple illustrations and proverbs. Luther’s reads the psalms through a very Christocentric lens, and many of the psalms he interprets as either applying directly to Christ or the Lord’s Supper. Luther continues to be verbose in his exposition, covering seven psalms in four hundred pages, and some of these expositions were multiple sermons or teachings. Even as Luther’s theological interpretation of scripture develops it would still be strange to most modern interpreters.

Luther’s Works, Volume 15- Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, The Last Words of David 2 Samuel 23: 1-7 These are three separate works joined together in one volume and so I will treat each one separately.

Ecclesiastes (Initial lectures 1526, published in 1532)- Luther enjoyed Ecclesiastes and we see him begin to utilize a more plain text reading. There are still times where he falls back into allegory, but there are also times where he has a very lucid reading of the text that would be echoed in some modern commentators. Luther prefers to call this the Politics or the Economics of Solomon and within the later chapters one can see some of Luther’s own political theology (with its respect for temporal authority) being given voice as he wrestles with Ecclesiastes. Luther grasps the way in which our yearning for future things is in his words ‘a part of the depraved affection and desires of men’(8) and reflective of the ‘inconstancy of the human heart’ (10).

Song of Songs (Delivered 1530-31, published in 1539)- Luther, like most classical interpreters of the Song of Songs, reads this work allegorically as an illustration of the relationship between God and the people of God, or specifically for Luther between Christ and the church. Many of Luther’s concepts (law/gospel, two kingdoms, etc.) play into the interpretation and explication of the allegory. It is interesting to see the sexual language of Song of Songs explained away into something ‘purer’ and although Luther does a good job of drawing out an allegorical reading his overall interpretation in not as insightful as many of his other works.

Last Words of David (1543)-This is a polemical work and it bears the same ugly language of On the Jews and their Lies which appeared in the same year. This is the dark side of Luther’s Christocentric way of approaching scripture. If you want to learn about Luther’s later views on the Jewish people and Muslims this is one of the places where his anti-Jewish views are clearly exhibited. Luther spends a lot of time revisiting the Christological debates of the early church and attempting to argue in a way that would be unlikely to convince anyone who wasn’t already a Christian. Perhaps he was trying to erase any perception that he could have been an ally to the Jewish people from some of his earlier writings, but this is really an ugly piece.

Luther’s Works, Volume 21-The Sermon on the Mount and the Magnificat

The Sermon on the Mount composes the majority of this volume and reflects some of the developed theological themes of the Lutheran reformation. Particularly the division of the two kingdoms (the kingdom of God and the secular kingdom) and the division of law and gospel are apparent in Luther’s exegesis of the Sermon on the Mount. The Magnificat is a much shorter work, on a smaller piece of scripture, written for Prince John Fredrick and perhaps most remarkably in this work is Luther’s favorable, for the 1500s, treatment of the Jewish people at the very end of the work.

Treatise on Good Works (1520) This is a part of the Annotated Luther Study Editions published by Augsburg Fortress in preparation for the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation. A good translation of Luther’s 1520 treatise in a good visual presentation. Luther uses the ten commandments as the basis for this treatise to talk about the place of good works in relation to faith. It reads like a series of sermons or some of his other teachings. There are some good theological insights but it is a 1520 document and reflects the thoughts and language of that time.

The Annotated Luther, Volume 4: Pastoral Writings This is a part of the Annotated Luther Study Editions published by Augsburg Fortress in preparation for the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation. The volume is visually attractive to read and well put together. Several of the works are excellent examples of Luther’s creative and pastoral thought including: Selected Hymns, the Small Catechism, and Whether One May Flee From a Deadly Plague. Some of the works like the Little Prayer Book could’ve been left out, but they do show a development of Luther’s thought and style. Overall a good collection of Luther’s writings directed towards his pastoral theology and actions.

The Need to Remember Rightly


On a day when there will be a number of calls to ‘Never Forget’ I want to add a caution that we need to be willing to remember rightly. The destruction and violence of September 11, 2001 cost the 19 hijackers and 2,977 victims their lives and impacted the lives of many others physically, emotionally and economically. Remembering rightly we can pause and remember the emotions of the day, the sadness the confusion, the fear and the desire to put things right that many people felt, in fact you cannot remember an event rightly without the emotion that goes with the event. However, sometimes the call to ‘Never Forget’ can be transformed into a call to ‘Never Forgive’ and as a follower of Christ that is a place that I cannot remain. In Christ I am called to love my enemies, to pray for those who persecute me so that I may live into my identity as a child of God. (Matthew 5.44f) ‘Never Forget’ can also become transformed into ‘Never Again’ where any numbers of actions are justified by the fear of some other entity or individual causing harm or destruction. Remembering may have the function of a shield to protect us from easily allowing harm to come to us again, but as Miroslav Volf insightfully says:

It is because they remember (emphasis original) past victimization that they feel justified in committing present violence. Or rather, it is because they remember their past victimization that they justify as rightful self-protection what to most observers looks like violence born of intolerance of even hatred. So easily does the protective shield of memory morph into a sword of violence. (Volf 2006, 33)

If we are to remember, to grieve, to mark the day then let us also remember who we were on that day. The events in our life matter to our identity but we should never allow an act of senseless violence to transform our identity into something different. We have had a dozen years of acting on the memory of September 11, 2001 and having the memory act upon us, of stealing our attention for both good and ill. But we do not need to allow the beast of this tragic memory to shape us in its image or allow it to impact our own ability to interact with others, to love and to trust. If we do that terror has won, and in attempting to ‘Never Forget’ we become trapped into a cycle of violence. If we remember September 11, 2001 we also need to reflect upon our own reactions to that day as a people. In our responses in many ways (militarily, economically, security, etc.) we need to examine: are we allowing the fear that the events of that day to transform our identity as a people into something different?

Our memories and stories define us as individuals and as a people and as important as the events of September 11, 2001 are they are not the central events in either our nations’ story or specifically to me as a Christian and as a pastor to the story of our lives in Christ. To allow the memories of September 11, 2001 to take over that central part of our identity would be to neglect the other central stories of our identity. Within my own calling I follow a God who is both just but who justifies the ungodly, who can love me and my enemy, who meets me most concretely at the very point of injustice and rejection (in the crucifixion). As Martin Luther said in The Freedom of a Christian:

A Christian lives not in himself (sic), but in Christ and his neighbor. Otherwise he is not a Christian. He lives in Christ through faith, in his neighbor through love. By faith he is caught up beyond himself into God. By love he descends beneath himself into his neighbor. Yet he always remains in God and in his love. (Volf 2006, 198)

So as we remember this day may we remember in the light of love and reconciliation. May we remember rightly in light of our own identities and not allow the terror of the day to redefine who we are.

purple rose 01 by

What I learned about myself, life and God from my child on the Autistic Spectrum: Part 4

Autism by 1 footonthedawn(

Autism by 1 footonthedawn(

This is my final installment on this for the time being. There are certainly more things I have learned but for now this is enough to say.

8.  Familial Image of God, this comes more from the experience of being a father in general, rather than the father of my son in particular, but being a father made me realize the amount of personal investment I have in my own son—and that would not be something I would be able to walk away from, nor would my son be able to end his relationship to me as his father. Aren will always, no matter what he does throughout his life, have a place in my heart and nothing will change that. There is nothing he could do that would make me disown him. So long as I live I will not give up on him. I will always attempt to support him as best I can. On the other hand, he is his own person and I want him to grow up and continue to develop his own personality and identity. I want him to have the ability to follow his own dreams and make his own mistakes. I want him to have the freedom to fail, to stumble and to get back up and I think that is part of what the concept of grace is all about. Who he is as my son will never change, he will always be that, but who he is as a person I want him to determine on his own, and I will be his biggest cheerleader throughout that process but I will not force him to follow in my footsteps. The more I encounter God, the more I think there is something to this picture of God as a Father who is not uninvolved, but who is gracious. A God who wants us to find our own identity, but we also never lose our identity as children of God.  I try to as best I can to be the type of father who models the way Martin Luther talks about God the Father who want us to come to him as loving children come to a loving father.

9. Dealing with the dark side of reality. I have been accused of being the eternal optimist, that even in the darkest experiences of life (which I have had my share of) I still seek for the gift in the suffering, the lesson in the pain and I know this does not come immediately, yet my son wrestles with the self destructive and environmentally destructive nature of humanity with a very different lens. One of the most profound conversations I have had with my sons a couple times over the last year is , “With all the evil that people do, what right do we have to exist?” No otherworldly vision of Christianity has an answer to this, yet the faith of the early Christians was very worldly, and they took very serious the reality that God indeed loved the world, and in strong contrast to many modern Christian belief systems the entire purpose of life was not to escape the world (actually that was the worldview of one of the early Christian heresies called Gnosticism) but rather that as followers of Christ (or more generally God) they were caught up in the dream of God for the renewal and reconciliation of the world.  Both the Jewish people and early Christians had the audacious view that they were a part of God’s plan for the renewal of creation, this is the reason Paul can write in Romans that “the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God.” The dark side of reality is present, real and painful and yet part of the Christian hope is that it is not the final answer and in hope we yearn (and work) for something better.  

10. The reality that even when we are unable to receive love, love is still given. I think most parents have times throughout their childrens’ lives where they have trouble connecting, where the advice, care, support and love are not able to be accepted because the children themselves are in a process of growing up and becoming their own selves. My son in his own way is navigating the early teenage years where his journey is different than mine was, and yet there is definitely a change. He no longer needs or honestly wants the same level of attention, he is becoming more self sufficient and I am proud of him for that. Are there times I grieve the type of relationship we had earlier, yes, but I try to let him know that he is loved and valued but there are times where he doesn’t seem to want to hear this anymore.  I think many of us go through this in our relationship with others and with God as well. I think many, and I certainly did, go through a phase where we have to figure out who we are as individuals, and individuals trying to negotiate different and new relationships and sometimes (at least for a time) the old relationships get put to the side and the ones that are valued are come back to. I also have had several points in my own journey with God where I have had to argue something through, I’ve gone through several difficult things in my life that I had to make sense of, and part of making sense of that was arguing with God about it for me. In those times when I may have been arguing with God and may not have always wanted to hear what God had to say, when I may have wanted to push God away I found God waiting patiently through the process.

purple rose 01 by

Two Excerpts for Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail


Fifty years ago today Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote and incredible open letter in response to eight white clergymen in Alabama who had written “A Call for Unity”. The letter still rings true even fifty years later when we read it. Here are two excerpts from the letter itself, you can read the letter in its entirety here.

…Rather, I have tried to say that this normal and healthy discontent can be channeled into the creative outlet of nonviolent direct action. And now this approach is being termed extremist. But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: “Love you enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” Was not Amos an extremist for justice:”Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.” Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: “I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” Was not Martin Luther an extremist: “Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God.” And John Bunyan: “I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.” And Abraham Lincoln, “This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.” And Thomas Jefferson: “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal…” So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will be be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? In that dramatic scene on Calvary’s hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime—the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.

Yes, these questions are still in my mind. In deep disappointment I have wept over the laxity of the the church. But be assured that my tears have been tears of love. There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love. Yes, I love the church. How could I do otherwise? I am in the rather unique position of being the son, the grandson and the great grandson of preachers. Yes, I see the church as the body of Christ. But oh! How we have blemished and scarred that body through social neglect and the fear of being nonconformist.

There was a time when the church was very powerful—in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators.” But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were “a colony of heaven,” called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be “astronomically intimidated.” By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests. Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent—and often even vocal—sanction of things as they are.

But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.

purple rose 01 by

What I learned about myself, life and God from my son on the Autistic Spectrum: Part 3

Autism by 1 footonthedawn(

Autism by 1 footonthedawn(

5. We often value people for very superficial reasons part 1: There are a whole set of criteria that people are judged by constantly by those around them including, but not limited to: physical appearance and dress, weight, proportions, muscle tone, skin coloration, the manner in which a person carries themselves, appropriate social interactions and even smell plays into game of subconscious evaluation of others based on appearance. In less formal language we quickly determine who is cool and who is not within a group of peers, which people are noticed for being popular, who are the geeks, who are the outcast and who are the invisible members of a group. One of the gifts of learning to see things through my son’s eyes is that none of these things matter to him, he would say that he honestly doesn’t care about other’s evaluation of him even though he is entering an age where these things are very important to his peers. I found it interesting that his first real friend at his current school is another student who is also very smart but has Cerebral Palsy, and so is also unable to interact in the same manner as many of their peers. In fact Aren finds most of the social games played by his classmates as not only distracting but annoying. To me one of the gifts of the Christian tradition is the practice of communion or the Lord’s Supper where we gather around the table with others who have been drawn to be a part of the fellowship we share in Christ and around the table none of the typical valuations matter. All come on an equal footing to share in the foretaste of the feast that God promises us God’s kingdom. In the community I serve we have a number of people who may not rank very high on the social ladder for many of the reasons listed above and yet they are all people of value in the body of Christ.

6. We often judge people for very superficial reasons part 2: I am a very smart, tough and capable person and throughout my experience in schooling, the army and even within the church I learned quickly to judge a person based upon how competent they were. Competence looks like different things in different environments but this reduces a person’s worth to their functionality. My son is a very smart and capable young man but in a world that judges by physical attraction and social interaction he is at a disadvantage, on the other hand he tends to view the world even more harshly in terms of functionality than I ever did. There may be ways in which we use metrics to measure a person’s competence at a skill or a task, this is the whole world of testing in both the academic and business world, but we should never confuse competence with value. People have value regardless of their level of competence or physical or social traits. Within the world of competence also falls status, wealth, education, political power and fame which we also learn increase the value of a person in our eyes, yet this is precisely the type of valuation that Christians should be immune to (but apparently even the early church struggled with this due to the frequency it is addressed in the letters within the New Testament). I have on my wall a plaque that Nate Frambach, my advisor in seminary, gave me upon my graduation which states, “Neil Eric White, you are a baptized child of God, whatever else you are remember you are that for that is the basis of all that you are.” My valuation comes not from my own personal competence, wealth, power, physical appearance, social prowess or any other measure-it is a gift from God that I am valued (and not only me, and I would argue not only Christians).

7. Just because someone doesn’t seem to be paying attention doesn’t mean they aren’t listening and watching what you are doing. Now this applies to people regardless, but I mention it because in learning to see the world through my son’s eyes I realized that not everyone has to look to pay attention. I was always taught (and yes, I realize this is a very masculine way of approaching things) to look a person in the eye when they talk to you and by extension that if a person did not look at you they weren’t paying attention. The eyes for most of us take in a lot of the information that we interpret in our brains and in a world where eye contact is not only a symbol of paying attention but at times a symbol of confidence (in contrast not looking a person in the eye was perceived as either dishonesty or lack of trust in one’s ability). Most autistic people do not like to make direct eye contact, it is uncomfortable for them, and they may be involved in one task that seems unrelated to what is going on around them yet be able to see, hear and perceive everything that is being said. In fact for my son he actually listens better when he is not directly looking at something. That being said he watches and listens to everything. I remember Nate Frambach once sharing, “don’t worry that your kids aren’t listening to you, worry intensely that they are watching everything you are doing.” Over the past ten years I have become increasingly aware of the number of ways that people listen and process information and I have learned to become much more aware of my own biases in the ways I learned to communicate.

Still not done, so stay tuned for at least one more installment

purple rose 01 by

What I learned about myself, life and God from my son on the autistic spectrum: Part 2

Autism by 1 footonthedawn(

Autism by 1 footonthedawn(

This is part 2 of a reflection in honor of Autism awareness month.

3. We live in an incredibly complex world and human communication is even more complex. Because of what I do, as a pastor, I am constantly interacting with other people in various formats. I, like most people, took the process of communicating for granted because I naturally picked up the ability to read eyes, body language, vocal tone and inflection, pay attention to the environment selectively in addition to paying attention to the words being said. I am actually a fairly gifted watcher and listener, and this comes in particularly when I am counseling people (so much so that some people have remarked I am almost clairvoyant in reading not only messages but people). The entire process of communication involves knowing what to pay attention to and what not to pay attention to, and as I tried to understand the process of communication from my son’s perspective I began to realize how many incredible functions my eyes, ears, other senses and ultimately my mind was taking in, sorting and analyzing and responding to. For example, Aren has difficult understanding many types of verbal humor because it involves the way something is said as much as what is said  One example of how easy it is to misunderstand communication came up when he was in elementary school and we went to meet with Aren’s teachers because Aren felt he was being picked on by one student when this student had been wanting to play with Aren and Aren never responded (he is quite happy being on his own) and the student, who couldn’t understand this at this point, kept asking to play with him. This has made me more sensitive to the polyvalent character of communication, one group of words can have several sets of meaning based on context, environment, vocal inflection, body language and so much more. As an interpreter of texts, I have become increasingly aware of how important the reader’s predisposition is to what is actually being said, and we necessarily impose meaning on words to give them a broader picture. When I was growing up, one of the churches I attended tended to approach reading the Bible in a way that was flat and conveyed no emotion, so as not to impose meaning on the text (unfortunately they did impose meaning on the text, but it was a meaning that it was flat, dull and emotionless). People also have very different abilities to hear and to communicate, some have a natural talent for this and in general women are better at reading and responding to communication than men-yet everyone has something to contribute.

4. Spirituality is a function of imagination. This is a huge statement and something I am wrestling through and before people get up in arms about it let me explain what I am attempting to say. Spirituality (not religion, per se) involves the ability to wonder and to try to understand the world in a way that is not based entirely on empirical observations. A person in the modern world can understand the world, their existence and their values based entirely upon a scientific worldview and feel no need for anything more (this is not a new phenomenon). I find it interesting that both atheism and religious fundamentalism there is a huge need to convert others to their dogmatic view of the world and I believe that part of the common issue is a need to lock everything within a concrete system which often leaves little room for questioning and wonder. My son struggles with the concept of God (which is interesting and at time challenging as a pastor) but I also am aware of many autistic children and adults who are fundamentalist Christians who find great comfort in the dogmatic worldview. There is a desire for simplicity that is simply not there in the world (nor the Bible for that matter) and there tends to be less openness to a sense of spirituality which can doubt, question and wonder. I am by no means an expert at the relationship between imagination, wonder, doubt and the ability to ask questions that challenge preconceptions but my theory is that they are related. (Perhaps something to explore, another good question) We live in a world where imagination is viewed as a function of childhood, and therefore something which is not highly valued, but I believe that imagination is more vital part of our lives than we often understand. What I do know is that it is difficult for my son to understand and approach the world in the way I have learned to do, especially in the last couple years. This doesn’t make him any less valuable than me, but his view of spirituality will be different than mine (like the manners and ways in which he expresses emotions, love and communicates). My spirituality and the imaginative act of understanding God and the world doesn’t force me to be confined within my understanding. I have also learned to value those who feel more comfortable within a more rigid view of the world, much like the compression my son needed for emotional and cognitive stabilization when he was a child his worldview provides comfort for him in his life.

More to come…

purple rose 01 by

Remembering Bonhoeffer: The Powers of Good

Four of the ten 20th Century Martyrs above the west door of Westminster Abby, installed in 2000. From left to right: Grand Archduchess Elizabeth of Russia, Martin Luther King, Jr., Bishop Romero, Pastor Bonhoeffer

Four of the ten 20th Century Martyrs above the west door of Westminster Abby, installed in 2000. From left to right: Grand Archduchess Elizabeth of Russia, Martin Luther King, Jr., Bishop Romero, Pastor Bonhoeffer

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed at Flossenberg Concentration Camp on April 9, 1945, and at some other point I am sure I will share more reflections since his writings have definitely shaped me in many ways, but today I am just going to share one of his lesser known poems. Many people will share his famous “Who Am I” poem, but this is one of my favorites (and if you look back at Golgatha you will probably see some resonance):

Powers of Good (December 28, 1944)


With every power for good to stay and guide me,

comforted and inspired beyond all fear,

I’ll live these days with you in thought beside me,

and pass, with you, into the coming year.


The old year still torments our hearts, unhastening;

the long days of our sorrow still endure;

Father, grant to the souls thou hast been chastening

that thou has promised, the healing and the cure


Should it be ours to drain the cup of grieving

even to the dregs of pain, at thy command,

we will not falter, thankfully receiving

all that is given by thy loving hand.


But should it be thy will once more to release us

to life’s enjoyment and its good sunshine,

that which we’ve learned from sorrow shall increase us,

and all our life be dedicate as thine.


Today, let candles shed their radiant greeting;

lo, on our darkness are they not thy light

leading us, haply, to our longed-for meeting?

Thou canst illumine even our darkest night.


When now the silence deepens for our harkening,

grant we may hear thy children’s voices raise

for all the unseen world around us darkening

their universal paean, in thy praise.


While all the powers of good aid and attend us,

boldly we’ll face the future, come what may.

At even and at morn God will befriend us,

and oh, most surely on each newborn day!

(Bonhoeffer 1953, 400f)

purple rose 01 by