Archive for November, 2010

On Divine Abandonment: The Psalms in our Worship 14

by   |  11.30.10  |  Uncategorized

Last night, I sat in a piano recital in which my son and seven other college piano majors played some of the most gorgeous pieces ever written (Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, Debussy, and some others).  They were intense as they brought together months of work and passion into a single distillation of beauty and pathos for us to hear.  At such times, my mind tends to settle down from its almost constant restlnessness and frenzy (a state born of the need to perform and achieve at all times).  I become calm and peaceful and attentive to the sights and sounds and smells around me.  For a few moments, I do not feel alone, but rather part of a much larger whole that loves me and wants me to be whole.  Music pulls me to God.

But why I do need to be drawn to God, if God is always present and available?  This question bothers me.  The answer must surely be because God is not always present or available, but often seems terribly absent.  The composer of Psalm 22, on which I wish to reflect a moment, knew this.  This poignant lament became famous to Christians because Jesus fittingly prayed it on the cross, thereby joining the great parade of sufferers that have made up the human race since its tragedy-filled beginnings.  A fitting psalm for a moment of agony — “my God, my God why have you abandoned me?”

Like other laments, this one follows a fairly recognizable structure:

1. A cry to God (v. 1-2 [Hebrew 2-3])

2. A statement of the problem (vv. 3-18 [Hebrew 4-19])

3. A petition for help (vv. 19-21 [Hebrew 20-22])

4. A commitment to praise God (vv. 22-31 [Hebrew 23-32])

Parts 2 and 4 are especially interesting to me.  What does the psalmist lament?  It is not merely the physical pain or social dislocation he or she experiences.  Rather, it is the loss of God, the sense that God has disappeared, contrary to all expectation or human longing.  The psalmist describes a time of cognitive dissonance, in which the old religious verities (“our ancestors trusted in you” or “they cried out to you”) have crumbled to dust, leaving not brave new worlds of liberated humankind but a sense of lostness and pointlessness.  God’s disappearance, far from allowing humanity to come to maturity as some modern thinkers have hoped for, leads the psalmist to face the utter hopelessness of human existence, its irreducible meaninglessness without God.

This dislocation from oneself can be experienced in different ways, but for the psalmist the key idea is social dislocation: “those who see me mock me,” “I am a worm” (which does not mean that he is worthless or sinful, as the language has come to mean in our guilt-ridden form of Christianity influenced by American evangelicalism, but that he or she has lost human identity in the eyes of other people, who regard him as a parasitic, distasteful, horrifying creature), and so on.  Without God, we are no longer quite human beings, and vice versa.  The chain of being has been snapped.

The fourth part marks a reversal of all the tragedy.  The psalmist, as one must do in a proper lament, turns to praise for God’s reversal of fortunes.  By reentering the community and singing again its holiest and most gorgeous songs, the psalmist has found God again.  Or maybe the causal chain is the other way round, but in any case, there is a connection between God and the songs of the community about God.  No longer is the psalmist ashamed, because the poor, of which the psalmist is one, are not put to shame (v. 24).  The normal social hierarchies in which some humiliate others in order to exalt themselves, come under divine judgment and so are destroyed.  And, in fact, the only concrete thing that is different when God intervenes, other than the attitudes of the people, is the fact that “the poor eat and are satisfied” (v. 26), surely a reality we in our great wealth would find almost trivial.  And all of this reversal occurs because Yahweh owns kingship (v. 28) over all the world and thus orders it according to the principles of righteousness.  By the end of the psalm, the cognitive dissonance has resolved itself in a harmonious way (my music metaphor again!).

Perhaps it is useful that this exquisite lament is so famous.  In praying with the most famous pray-er of Psalm 22, we may enter into the suffering of the world and find in our discordant singing the resources for a more glorious hymn that will evoke a new world in which we “come and tell of Yahweh’s righteousness to the people to be born, because he has acted” (v. 31).  Because God has acted.  Because God has acted.  Amen.

Ghana Benefit Concert

by   |  11.30.10  |  ACU, Christianity, College of Biblical Studies, GST Events, Worship

Ghana Benefit 2.0(3)

A free Christmas Benefit Concert for Heritage Christian College of Ghana, West Africa will be held in the Chapel on the Hill on December 6th, 2010 beginning at 7pm. This event is being sponsored by United By Faith.  The fund raising goal is $5,000.00 to help Heritage Christian College complete their building program. Many in the ACU Graduate School of Theology community will be participating in the Concert, and everyone is welcome to attend!

Theology, Technology, and Innovation

by   |  11.29.10  |  ACU, College of Biblical Studies, David Kneip, Learning, Students, Theology, Video

ACU Graduate School of Theology, the Department of Marriage and Family Therapy, and the Department of Bible, Missions, and Ministry (DBMM) are all a part of the College of Biblical Studies at Abilene Christian University.  In the video below, DBMM instructor David Kneip speaks about theology, technology, and innovation at ACU.

Contextual Immersion in New York

by   |  11.23.10  |  Contextual Theology, Contexual Education, Mission, Mission of God, Students, Video

Carol Mendoza and Penny Peng, GST Students

In January, ACU GST students Carol Mendoza and Penny Peng will arrive in New York City for a seven month Contextual Immersion experience. During their time there, Carol and Penny will work closely with Jared Looney (Bronx Fellowship) who will serve as their Contextual Supervisor. They will be engaged in the life of the city and God’s mission in the world. Though not exclusively, Carol will move in relationship to the Hispanic Diaspora in New York and Penny the Chinese community. During the seven months, they both will earn nine hours toward their degree programs.

Sounds cool. What does this mean?

Contextual Education is at the heart of how we are forming students for ministry and mission in the Graduate School of Theology. This means we want our students’ learning and formation to be connected to the life and mission of God in the world in its particular expressions (contexts, if you will). From their first semesters in the GST, students are not only thinking about this notion, but actually participating in a particular context as “situated learners” (see Jean Lave & Etienne Wenger, Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation).  Students’ participation in a particular context stretches across the span of their degree program and deepens as they move through through it.  At the center of this deepening relationship is Contextual Immersion – something like the seven month immersion experience that for Carol and Penny will take place in New York.

While we who teach and administer in the GST have been conceiving of a “new curriculum” for some years now, it is students like Carol and Penny who are helping us bring the potential of it to fruition.  Penny and Carol have created a video that tells a bit more about them. 

Also, they are raising funds to make this experience possible.  If you are able to help them, you can make a contribution online here.

Dr. Stephen Johnson
Director of Contextual Education
Associate Professor of Ministry
ACU Graduate School of Theology
Abilene, TX 79699
General Editor, Academy 
of 
Homiletics 
Website

The Gospel of God for the World of God

by   |  11.22.10  |  Ministry, Preaching

Tim Sensing, DMin, PhD, Professor of Ministry and Homiletics, Director of Academic Services for the GST

The following sketch concludes my series of sermons: The Gospel of God for the World of God
Acts 17:16-34
1. Some cities evoke particular ideas and images. Just down the road, Nashville is known for Country Music. Nashville is also known as the Athens of the South. Athens-culture, architecture, education—as a city, Athens is a museum of grandeur of Greek culture and philosophy. Paul notes two such philosophical groups:

  • Epicureans: 300 BC, and for them sense perception was the only basis for knowledge. What you could see, handle, taste, smell, and hear.
  • The Stoics emphasized moral conduct. An immoral life comes from the lack of judgment and discernment. The only way to control life was to control passion and emotions. The way you controlled your emotions was through logic and unbiased thinking.

2. Yet, Paul is able to describe in six verses (16-21) the culture around him.

  • Paul’s situation in Athens was negative. The city was full of idols and philosophies and Paul’s spirit was provoked/stirred (v. 16). He was agitated.
  • And yet, notice how positive Paul sounds when he takes the opportunity to talk. He commends the Athenians as “very religious” (vs. 22-28). Paul compliments their literature by citing their own poets. “We are God’s offspring.” From that truth, Paul connects the Gospel to you and me.
  • God created in our hearts three universal needs that all humans have that can only be met by the Gospel of God.
    • Significance—we all want to be needed. We want our lives to count.
    • Community—we were created to live in community.
    • Transcendence/immanence—we all want to know that there is something out there bigger than us. And this is the place that Paul connects to the Athenians. “We are God’s offspring.” Therefore, we know that there is a Divine Force out there that calls us into relationship.
  • For God intended that through our co-participation in the rhythm of creation, work and rest, the beauty of creation would flourish. From Genesis to Revelation, the one true God who created all humankind from one person is now reuniting all throughout the earth in one people of God. God is working to unite all people in Christ, crossing national and language boundaries, social and economic barriers, political ideologies, and ethnic distinctions.

3. And Paul proclaims that God offers you significance, transcendence, and community. God is creator, God is independent, God is the source of all, God is close yet far off, God is our father. Paul begins with the Athenian’s understandings and longings for transcendence in order to introduce them to the God of Jesus Christ. Because creation shows God’s fingerprints, humans seek God. As their own poets said, “we are God’s offspring.”

  • In creation, God is not inert but dynamic, vibrant, and full of promise. God created beauty, delight, goodness, and truth that are full of potential. Although sin has marred creation, God’s image is still imprinted and the possibility of goodness is vibrant.
  • Gives us a model for evangelism…The Gospel of God preaches even in a secular culture. God’s Gospel proclaims that the Creator seeks relationship with the creation.

4. Paul’s Conclusion in Acts 17 (29-34): This is the Gospel of God!

  • Since humans are God’s offspring, then God is not of human making. God is God, and you or anything you make is not.
  • God calls all people to repentance.
  • Judgment with justice will come by the one God appointed.
  • God gave proof of this by raising Jesus from the dead.

God desires to be relationship with you. God provides you significance, community, and transcendence.

The Gospel of God for the People of God

by   |  11.16.10  |  Ministry, Preaching

Tim Sensing, PhD—Director of Academic Services, Professor of Ministry, Graduate School of Theology

Below are sermon notes from the Gospel Meeting I preached in TN this summer, the fourth of five that I will post: The Gospel of God for the People of God
Acts 13:13-52

In this series on the Gospel of God, I’ve been talking about the power of story. Stories work. [Student who in my class tells a story unrelated to the text. When questioned why he told the story, he responds, “I don’t know, but it works.” What the student failed to understand is that the story worked.] We do not need human stories to carry the weight of the Gospel. Stories do work. Often times those stories work against The Story.

Personal stories: Story enables us to get to know folk. Your sitting in a hospital waiting room and you strike up a conversation with woman sitting next to you. Where do you work? How many children do you have? You come from that hometown, do you know so and so? —We are asking questions about their story.

God has a story too. And in our text today (Vs 13-16 the Gospel of God for the People of God) a portion of God’s story is told. Without retelling the whole, Paul uses the power of allusion to rehearse the powerful stories of God. Expanding on Paul’s basic outline, hear again the story…

↓ Eternity/Fellowship–From fellowship to fellowship. In God’s being existed community. Trinity. God’s Self living as one in perfect community.
↓ Creation. Like marriage, where two who are one flesh and desire to multiply as a family, God too, out of love desired for community to become larger. God created because God desired to expand God’s love to even a larger family.

Broken Fellowship–Redemption is a means to an end. Redemption leads to Fellowship.

Therefore: Restoration
↓ Patriarchs
↓ Exile & Return
↓ Torah
↓ Judges & Kings & Prophets
↓ Exile & Return
And they wait for the promise messiah of God
↓ Incarnation
↓ Message of Jesus
↓ Ministry of Jesus
↓ Vs. 26: the people of Jerusalem and the leaders did not recognize Jesus
→ DEATH & RESURRECTION—THE CENTRAL EVENT—VS. 30: And God story reaches its zenith→Jesus. The climax of the story is found in the middle.
↑ Ascension
Between The Times—This is where we find ourselves. Jesus is still reigning at the right hand of God. And we wait “until he comes”
↑ Return
↑ Eternity/Fellowship. At this end of eternity, community is restored.

***And we are witnesses. Paul’s own story changes because he beholds the story of God and chooses to participate in it.

As reported in Aristotle’s Poetics, most stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Plots begin with conflict. The plot thickens through complication. The tension rises to a peak in the climax. And then the resolution comes. God’s story has a different shape. The climax of the story is in the middle. All that comes before anticipates the middle. All that comes after remembers the middle.

God’s Gospel Story culminating in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Jesus is the culmination, the conclusion, the climax, the telos, the pinnacle of God’s Story.

  1. And it was well received (13:42-43). Those who heard God’s story wanted to continue in the story.
  2. However: God’s Gospel Story culminating in the resurrection of Jesus Christ does not always capture the imagination. The next week (13:44-48), those who heard God’s story rejected it. Israel is not replaced; Israel is divided between those who continue in God’s story and those who don’t.

Listen to the conclusion again—vs 38. It makes all the difference in the world.

Is God’s story, our story? Here in this place is God’s story our story? We can be included in God’s story or we can try to write our own script. But our own script will not get published. God’s story of redeeming fellowship from eternity to eternity can be your story too.

The Gospel of God Enacted (Sermon Notes)

by   |  11.12.10  |  Ministry, Preaching

Tim Sensing, PhD—Director of Academic Services, Professor of Ministry, Graduate School of Theology

Below are sermon notes from that Gospel Meeting, the third of five that I will post: The Gospel of God Enacted

Isa 56:1-8; Acts 10:23b-43
Recall the story of a 4th Grade election. I was the only one in my class who lost—rejection, left out in the cold, excluded, humiliated. There are incidents when all of us can recall feeling excluded. A simple Google search reveals multiple experiences of exclusion:

  • everyone is asked to lunch but you
  • you are not copied on the email sent to all your colleagues
  • you are not recognized for your service
  • your child is not invited to any outside of class functions
  • Some are not included because of their social situation like being single, being unemployed, having a disability, or a thousand other possibilities.

    Throughout my life, I have been a member of 10 congregations and associated with many more. From my perspective, all of them have practiced an open door policy, hospitality, and inclusivity. That perspective comes from an insider and my not being aware of how outsiders feel. I grew up in a middle class family. My parents were highly involved in various leadership roles. I’m Caucasian. I’m male. I attended men’s business meetings. For 5 of those congregations, I was the pulpit preacher. Being on the inside creates a feeling of warmth and acceptance. When I look down the pew, I assume everyone else feels as I do. When I look across the aisle, I believe we all feel accepted.

    But for others, attending church can be the loneliest hour of their week. It is not that they are being excluded, but they are not being included. They do not believe they belong. Insiders do not intend to overlook them; they are simply unaware or assume that others are doing just fine. The bigger the church; the greater to problem. Here is a letter posted in a Christian blog:

    There was an appreciation program this past Friday at our church banquet. When the nursing home ministry volunteers were honored, the pastor named off everyone that was involved with that, even mentioning some of those that weren’t there that night. But didn’t mention me being involved with that ministry. Nobody mentioned me when they brought up cleaning the building either, even though everyone on the staff knows that I help with that. It’s not that I want recognition or attention for anything that I do, but I feel so unappreciated by not being recognized in all that I do at my church. It makes you not want to do things if you feel unappreciated.

    Are we an inclusive community; a place where no one is excluded? Do we set boundaries, or are we extending the borders so that everyone is welcomed, honored, and loved?

    1. Isaiah 56 presents God’s vision for an open and hospitable community. “Thus says the Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, I will gather others to them besides those already gathered.”

    • For all who do justice and righteousness and hold fast to the divine covenant are God’s servants. Whether you are inside or outside, highbrow or outcast, politically acceptable or socially taboo, God casts arms wide open. God’s vision for an open and inclusive community calls God’s people saying, Maintain justice, and do what is right, for soon my salvation will come, and deliverance revealed (56:1).

    2. However, It was not always so in Israel. Israel has a long history of excluding others.

    • The outcast within community…
    • The outcast outside of community…
    • God’s openness expressed in Isa 56 was rarely seen in Israel.

    3. But just because that is the way it was always done in Israel, does not mean that is the way it always will be among God’s people. Judah returned to Jerusalem after a long and dreary night in exile.

    • God’s covenant redefines boundaries. [56:2-3].
      • But now, Isaiah tells us that a person’s heart is the new criteria for protecting the purity of the whole community.
      • But now God gives all those who are undocumented in the land an assured place in the meeting house of God because they bind themselves to God and worship him.
      • But the question remained for them—Would they be the people that prided themselves in being God’s chosen people while engaging in idolatrous practices, while neglecting the needs of widows and fatherless, while fostering a legal and economic system that disadvantaged the poor, while following a corrupt religious and political leadership? Or would they be true children of Abraham who would become a blessing to the nations and light unto the Gentiles?
    • Judah returned to the land, but now they would be defined differently. Now, God’s covenant community will be defined by a person’s faith commitment and not according to their pedigree, genetics, official papers, or portfolio. God’s vision of justice called them to live as God intended.

    Peter addressed Isaiah’s concern in his sermon addressed to Cornelius’ house. The same story could be told about any sin… This story is about hate.

    • World Cup report on HDNet’s “Dan Rather Reports” addressed racism in European soccer. Such hatred is socially ingrained, deeply rooted, woven into the fiber of their being. And many of these groups claim Christianity as their faith. But for them, racism is greater than baptism. A similar report on the tribalism in Africa reviewed the causes of the genocide in Rwanda. The waters of baptism did not overcome hate. In Rwanda back then, politics and tribalism are greater than baptism
    • So too in Israel … the hatred for the Gentile was known. These hatreds have carried forward into the Middle East today. And the 12 are not immune. Jesus’ interactions with Gentiles in the Gospels do not paint the 12 in a good light. …
    • Yet, Peter proclaims the central points of our faith at the house of Cornelius. “You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, telling the good news of peace through Jesus Christ” (vs 36). This is God’s sermon to the world. It is upon these historical realities that all human hopes are founded and all human needs are met.
      • The Identity of Jesus (One Anointed) (vs 38a); The Ministry of Jesus (vs 38b-39a); The Cross—Central Event of God’s Peace Plan (vs 39b); The Resurrection (the death of death) (vs 40)
      • God appointed Jesus as judge of the living and the dead (v. 42);
      • And everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name (v. 43). It truly is good news. The one who will judge us is also the one who saves us.
      • And that is the GOSPEL: What God does on your behalf that you cannot do for yourself that brings about a hopeful and redemptive future.
    • Here is a story about the sin of hatred, favoritism, and racism. And this story is real; it is a common story, your story, and my story. The Gospel of God gives us a new story to tell. The Gospel of God makes a difference in our relationship with the two greatest force we face as humans: sin.
      • Whether the sin is hate or something else, the gospel of God is greater. There is no sin more powerful than the blood of Jesus. Hatred, racism, and favoritism… the list is longer: adultery, greed, consumerism, etc. The gospel of God in Jesus Christ provides you freedom and grace to forgive you of your sin.
      • Tell me the story of your life… As a Christian, you tell that story differently, don’t you? That is the Gospel of God Enacted. The Gospel of God changes lives.

    To interact more with my musings about homiletics see http://blogs.acu.edu/sensingt/

    The Grace of Declaration: The Psalms in Our Worship 13

    by   |  11.08.10  |  Psalms, Worship

    The core claim, or at least a core claim, of Judaism and Christianity is that the One God loves and cares for all the creation.  Unlike Gnosticism, which believed that the world was a big mess from which God must rescue the few worthy humans in whom specks of cosmic light had somehow become embedded, the faiths that came from Israel believed that God created a universe, pronounced it “good,” and filled it with all sorts of splendid beings, including one species made in the divine image (you and me, as it happens).  From this central cluster of ideas a great many others hang.

    In such a world, divine grace is pervasive.  Mercy is an ever-present reality giving color and meaning to all existence. Divine justice is the good news that mercy will prevail over the corruption and self-serving behavior of some of the creatures.

    Psalm 19 celebrates such a world.  The psalmist gives two basic sets of reflections, which turn out to be one.  Verses 1-6 (2-7 in Hebrew) announce the universe’s announcement of the splendor of God.  All the cosmos seems to be joining in the party, which is much like a wedding in its all-out exuberance.  The psalmist knows that this idea is highly metaphorical (no one hears the voices of the celestial bodies, literally speaking), but their celebration is evident nevertheless.

    Verses 7-9 offer a series of propositions that turn out to be essentially equivalent.  Six manifestations of wisdom exist: the law of the Lord, the testimony of the Lord, the instructions of the Lord, the command of the Lord, awe before the Lord, the judgments of the Lord.  They have six results: restoring life; enlightening the naive; gladdening the heart; giving light to the eyes (i.e., giving insight — even our English word helps us here!); offering permanence; and constituting total rightness.  It would make just as much sense, I think, to rearrange the results, matching them to the manifestations of wisdom in all possible permutations.  So, for example, all six things can restore life or gladden the heart.  The order is somewhat arbitrary.  Admittedly, v. 9a’s “awe before God” is more about what we do, while the other five are about what God does, but the distinction isn’t hard and fast.  Justice is both a divine and a human activity, for example.

    The end of the psalm talks about both how wonderful these qualities of God’s world are, and how wonderful it is for human beings to participate in them, that is, to join the rest of creation in its celebratory dance around the divine throne.

    Frankly, I like thinking of the ways of God in this way.  We have, for some odd reason, come to think of divine command as a burden, and joyless duty imposed for reasons not always easily discernible.  What a wrongheaded understanding!  Wouldn’t it make more sense to celebrate the sort of meaningful order imagined by Torah, or in more Christian terms, of Christ’s pattern of life that we imitate as disciples?  The freedom from anarchy and the phony pursuits of the worldly achievement surely should be sources of joy.

    The point to remember, of course, is that not everything we have imposed on ourselves over the years were really either wise or connected in any way to the divine.  We often make laws on topics that God seems quite uninterested in.  We worry about who says what in church, for example, forgetting the fact that for any of us to say anything is a miracle, and that we reduce God to a petty being indeed who cannot listen to all human beings equally.  How badly we’ve squeezed the joy out of our life as community by our obsession with rules that Scripture doesn’t really make!

    There is much more to say.  Psalm 19 is rightly one of the most famous.  But for now, we will pass to others.  Just don’t forget to come back.  The dance will go on with or without us!

    Works, Merits, and Grace: The Psalms in Our Worship 12

    by   |  11.03.10  |  Psalms, Worship

    What must we do to be saved?  Pure religion is visiting orphans and widows….  Blessed are the peacemakers….  On and on it goes.  The Bible pervasively talks about faith coming to life in action.  Hands and hearts move together toward God.

    It has taken me quite a long time to figure out how human activities and divine grace connect to each other.  (In the interests of truth-telling, let me say that I still don’t have it figured out and don’t expect to, since only God knows these things.  But still, trying to understand pays off immensely.)   Like many others, I have had to move from a works-righteousness orientation to one that acknowledges the mercy of God (prevenient, sustaining, eschatological, all at once).  In this way of seeing things, human activity becomes an expression of God’s mercy in two senses: we are sustained by God’s grace and mercy, and our actions come to imitate that mercy as we extend grace to others.

    The author of Psalm 18 (equals 2 Samuel 22, more or less) see things this way, too.  The psalm itself consists of several parts (vv. 1-3 an address to God; vv. 4-5 a statement of prior distress and impending death; vv. 6-19 a description of God’s dramatic actions of salvation, phrased to sound much like the deliverance in Exodus; vv. 20-24 an oath of innocence (to which I’ll return); vv. 25-45 a meditatation on the surpassing nature of God; and vv. 46-50 a final praise of God — at least that’s one way to organize it, and there are others).  Each part contributes to an overall image of a God who acts decisively to bring about righteousness in the world. The God who acts must take sides in the human situation because, while all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, some of us have fallen a lot more than others, and our behaviors are more destructive.

    This realistic appraisal of the human condition leads to the first of two big ideas, each underpinning this psalm, to consider.  That is this: in the Bible, the justice of God is not seen as something to balance against God’s mercy, but as essentially tantamount to mercy and grace.  God does the right and brings about a world in which the right is done, and this fact is very good news.  At least, it’s good news for everyone who seeks the right.  Gone is the popular idea among evangelical Protestants that somehow justice is a diminution of love or even its opposite. All those sermons promoting cheap grace in the name of ending legalism can just go out the window.

    The second idea appears in vv. 20-24.  Here the psalmist talks about works.  Someone trained in the pop-Calvinism of contemporary American religion might find such statements as “Yhwh rewarded me according to my righteousness, compensated me because of my clean hands” a little too self-important or even highly dishonest.  But the psalmist does not see it that way.  He or she is not claiming moral perfection in every little thought or attitude, but rather a basic disposition toward life.  This disposition is characterized by a desire to “keep the ways of Yhwh,” which is equivalent to both “avoiding evil before God” and carefully assessing one’s life in terms of God’s judgments (acts of justice, v. 22) and placing one’s life before God for evaluation (v. 23, “I was blameless before him”).  The psalmist thinks that human behavior can form a pattern that is commendable, not that we are irremediably sinners who must always hope that God can ignore reality and pretend we are not what we are.

    The trouble with the opposing view, the one very popular in church, is that we run the risk of saying that God doesn’t care about righteous behavior.  And we run the risk of turning God into a sloppily sentimental rich uncle of the human race who ignores our faults even when they hurt us.  The psalmist wants to take us another way.

    I thought about all these things this week when reading a charming little book by Arthur Kleinman, a medical anthropologist at Harvard.  His book, What Really Matters: Living a Moral Life Amidst Uncertainty and Danger (Oxford University Press, 2006), chronicles several lives as men and women experience mental health issues that ultimately derive from moral failures of one sort or another.

    Here are some of his conclusions, which relate to the narrative that the psalmist tells.  “… moral mentoring can intensify danger unless it enables individuals (and collectivities) to break out of local dialects of moral experience that underwrite violence by mobilizing inhuman responses to threats to what we mistakenly hold to be most at stake.  Moral responsibility is not itself enough; it must be balanced with critical imagination” (p. 192)

    How do we break out of our own limited language for moral experience and enter into a broader one (which for Christians means, the language of Scripture and the church)?  Let’s take that up next time.