Posts Tagged theology

Theological conversations are not just for theologians – Rev. Dr. Molly Marshall

Theological conversations are not just for theologians, ministers and seminary students –


Molly Marshall

People are talking theology all the time without really knowing that is what they are doing. Every time they reflect on human identity, a particular view of God, the world, or Richard Foster’s un-Quakeresque trilogy – money, sex and power – there is an implicit theological perspective in play.

It is not only seminary students wrestling with questions into the night who are “talking theology.”

Recently I got to do one of my favorite things – convene a theological conversation in a congregational setting. In this case, it was with adult Sunday school participants at Smoke Rise Baptist, a vibrant church in the suburbs of Atlanta. There’s something wonderful about demystifying some of the “verities” alongside thoughtful students of the Bible who are eager learners about how what we believe shapes our lives. We talked about how our embedded theology must give way to deliberative theology as our beliefs collide with new experiential realities. When an issue begins to wear a face, unexamined assumptions shift.

“I wished I had taught students more about how beloved they are by God.”

Colin Harris, retired professor of religious studies at Mercer University, opened his Sunday school class so that the two of us might have a freewheeling conversation about things of importance. He then invited class members into a larger engagement of ideas and practices that puzzle and challenge us. It was a lively time, and we had to end much too soon.

He and I began by reflecting on what we wish we had taught students more of in our early years of teaching. I suggested that I wished I had taught students more about how beloved they are by God, especially as many came to seminary battered by the judgmentalism of their churches or the dysfunction of some of their homes. Most of us carry shaming ideas that we “are not enough” and that God is there to remind us of that.

I also suggested that human agency is the primary means of God’s work in the world, so just as we count on God, God is counting on us. This grants significant dignity to our sense of vocation.

Dr. Harris wisely suggested that if we think of human participation in this way, it reconfigures our understanding of God. I agreed, observing that the “omni-attributes” which accord all power, knowledge and presence to the divine have to be qualified by God’s choice to be in relationship with us, even as God dwells in the eternal flow of trinitarian relations. To be in relationship means that God does not hold all the power, determine all the knowledge, or even coerce how we experience divine presence. God invites our participation, indeed, that of the whole community.

One of the interesting exchanges with a member of the class had to do with the kind of hierarchy he perceived between ordained and non-ordained. The questioner wondered why one has to be an ordained deacon to serve communion and why only ordained ministers could baptize.

I responded that there is no theological reason for this, only traditional Baptist conventions in discrete churches. Actually, a church may authorize whom it chooses to perform these ministry functions, giving demonstrable reality to the statement that “every member is a minister.”

So why do we ordain?

“Human agency is the primary means of God’s work in the world, so just as we count on God, God is counting on us.”

The tradition of ordaining deacons and ministers arises out of the conviction that “setting apart” leaders for particular functions strengthens a congregation. A deacon demonstrates what mature discipleship looks like, and the ministry she or he provides multiplies the church’s impact.

Ordaining ministers is a recognition not only of gifts for pastoral leadership, but also acknowledging that formal theological education equips them to be reliable guides as they proclaim, administer the sacraments and shepherd their flocks. Ordination does not require hierarchy; rather, it places the ordained in the posture of servant, which is thoroughly Christological.

Another question had to do with what really distinguishes Christian theology from humanism. In the desire not to be tethered to dogma, have we let go of essential concepts?

Christian theology would be unrecognizable without the earliest kerygma that proclaimed: “Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again.” Actually, dogma or doctrine does not have to be a deadly, cerebral concept that demands compliance; rather, it is what the church must teach now in order to be the church, in the words of Baptist theologian James McLendon Jr.

Another fruitful aspect of our conversation was our thinking about how a church enacts the Body of Christ as it mobilizes spiritual gifts in service to a larger vision of justice. Smoke Rise, for example, cares about interfaith relations, significant investment in mission pursuits and refugee work. That is incarnational theology at its best.

The clinker question came from an impudent class member who asked Dr. Harris, “How did you manage to keep a job so long and our friend, Dr. Marshall, has a rather checkered career?” It was a one word answer: “Gender.”

Baptists continue to have this theological conversation, also, for which I am grateful.



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Looking Forward with Faith by Barrett Owen – BaptistNewsGlobal

Fri, September 11, 2015

Faith is awe in the face of mystery.

We gazed silently alongside an uncountable amount of people.  The oddity was not in the differences of those of us present but in the symmetry of what we all felt. We were moved by something awe-some. The Grand Canyon is awe-inspiring, and it moved us by its mystery.

God is the same way — always more than we can comprehend, “holy other” to our imaginations.

Rudolf Otto once said people intersecting with mystery respond in one of two ways: with fear or awe. What he means is that when we bump into what we do not understand, it is both terrifying and awe-inspiring, and we either push it away or lean into it.

The same is true for church.

We all know people who have run away from the institutional church. They believe the church’s packaged answers no longer satisfy their complex context. They want mystery, but the church gave them fear. This fear manifests itself by ensuring a theology of certainty and, sadly, misses out on encountering the “holy other” nature of God.

Churches that want to connect and grow have to do what Otto describes: stare into the mysteries of the universe (God, theology, hope) with awe and, then, see what happens. They must figure out how not to package, name, or control that moment. It has to remain a mystery.

Faith is not a set of beliefs. It is not a system of theories, conservative or liberal worldviews, nor is it doctrinal creeds. Faith is willingness to stand on the precipice and stare out with a sense of hope that God is there. It’s as Otto says, “. . . awe in the face of mystery.”

And this is where the church must invite people into each Sunday morning. We need more mystery. We need opportunities to stretch our faith, to look out onto the horizon and believe that God has gone ahead of us. We need church to be the place that instills hope and not fear into our hearts.

I stand on this precipice every time the organ hits the opening hymn during Sunday morning worship. I look out at the congregation and am moved by the holiness of the moment. I see how the mysteries of God manifest themselves through corporate worship, and I think, “Surely God is in this place.”

Also at our church, we have a discipline of silence that follows the sermon. We sit for minutes in silence and let the spirit of the living God move. For us, this moment is a primary place where we can experience awe and be reminded of God’s mystery.

Worship is the best barometer for how much faith churches allow others to experience, but it is not the only way. Sunday School curriculum, small group topics, Wednesday night Bible studies, and children’s sermons all reflect how much faith or how much fear we have.

A church that leaves room for mystery, that teaches the “holy other” nature of God, is a church willing to look forward with faith. They can let go of the fear that says all of life’s questions are answerable. They can let go of the lie that says everything we need to know is only written in the pages of scripture. It can, rather, open its worship, its theology, its doors to a world that is hungry for mystery and transcendence.

If we do this, our future and the church’s future will be awe-some. Here’s to looking forward with faith!

Barrett Owen is the senior pastor at First Baptist Church in Waynesboro, Virginia.

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Pope Francis: Christian Unity – No Competing for Souls

Rome, Jan 25: Pope Francis has laid out his formula for fostering Christian unity: resist competing for souls and make concrete gestures of acceptance and dialogue. Francis celebrated vespers today evening in a Rome basilica along with Anglican, Orthodox and other church leaders to cap an annual week of prayer for unity of Christians. He told the church leaders that “our shared commitment to proclaiming the Gospel enables us to overcome proselytism and competition in all their forms.”

Francis said getting to know “those who are different from ourselves can make us grow.” He also cautioned about “subtle theoretical discussions in which each side tries to convince the other.” Referring to Christians being persecuted in the Middle East and elsewhere, Francis described their suffering as a kind of “ecumenism of blood.”


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Community, Intimacy, and Sovereignty – Chautauqua Institution – June 30, 2014

By Mary Lee Talbot

Deep theology and humorous asides characterized the sermon by the Rev. Raphael G. Warnock Sunday at the 10:45 a.m. morning worship service and sermon. “If I were at Ebenezer [Baptist Church] this morning, I would say, ‘Let the Church say, Amen,’ ” Warnock said. The Amphitheater congregation responded “Amen,” and he said, “Y’all did pretty good.” The title of his sermon was “Our Father in Heaven,” and the selected Scripture was Luke 11:1-2 and Matthew 6:9a.  The “Lord’s Prayer” will be the subject for his sermon series this week. Warming up the congregation, Warnock said that he was grateful to be back at Chautauqua and talked about trying to describe Chautauqua to his friends. “I tell them about the programming that goes on, the friends I have met and the lively conversations, but none of this captures the place. The best I could come up with is that Chautauqua is a vacation for nerds.” He continued, “What am I going to talk about? I am not at Ebenezer — I am at Chautauqua, so I am going to talk about 10 to 15 minutes. I am going to talk about the Lord’s Prayer, specifically the first line, ‘Our Father in Heaven.’ ” Warnock characterized the prayer as the great prayer of the Christian faith, taught by Jesus at the request of his Disciples. It is prayed across all denominations in all nations. “This is the ‘Abba Father’ prayer that reveals an intimate relationship with God. God is not far from any of us; we pray to Dad, Daddy, ‘Yo, Pops.’ God is not far from us,” he said. “Father” is not a reference to maleness but to the parent- hood of God, he said. God is spirit, and any anthropomorphism can’t contain God. “ ‘Our Father’ points to and about God; God as protector and provider,” he said. “This is not maleness or patriarchy but closeness.”

Warnock said that many Christians recite the Lord’s Prayer but do not really hear it — memorize it, but don’t know what it means. Sing it, but “do we really mean it?” In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus is praying, and the Disciples ask him to teach them to pray. “This was simple but significant. Whatever they saw arrested them and they would not let go of it. Of all the things they saw Jesus doing, they asked to learn how to pray,” he said. Jesus’ Disciples witnessed a lot, he said. They saw Jesus take two fish, a loaf of bread and open a fish shop and bakery and feed the multitude without charging them a penny, but they did not ask Jesus to teach them that. “Jesus took spit and dirt and made contact lenses in less than hour, but they did not ask him to teach them that,” War- nock continued. “Jesus healed lepers and the lame, walked on water and, at a wedding, made plain water blush into wine. “They witnessed all that, that we would bottle and sell for a dollar, but they would rather Jesus teach them to pray,” he added. “They asked Jesus for that ‘thing that makes you do what you do when you do that thing.’ ” Warnock noted that Jesus’ Disciples often looked two steps behind and bumbling in the Gospels, but here they were onto something. They wanted to learn where Jesus got his power.

“Prayer in the human breast is the breath of God coming into us,” he said to the congregation. “It is deep calling to deep. It is a text message with the eternal. It is antivirus soft- ware, prayers enables us to be who God is calling us to be. “Jesus deliberately began his prayer with ‘Our Father in Heaven,’ ” Warnock said. “He could have begun with ‘my father,’ but ‘our father’ guards us against a narrow, individual parochialism and chauvinism. We are all God’s children no matter where we are born. “We are overwhelmed by hyper-connectivity yet we are isolated from one another,” he continued. “What used to be ‘ours’ is now ‘mine.’ Four people sit in a car, each talking to someone else. Everyone in the house has their own TV, computer, iPod, iPhone, email. We used to take group photos at weddings and graduations. Now, we take selfies of ourselves — by ourselves. “We used to watch Tom Brokaw. Now, on YouTube, we have our own channel broadcasting stuff no one should have to see. We are foolish to think we can do the faith thing by ourselves,” he told the congregation. “This is not the perspective of the Gospels. Faith is personal, but not a private journey. If you really want to be a Christian, then you have to hang out with other Christians  because grace can only flourish when you meet the ungracious; healing only comes from hurt; strength comes from struggle.” Warnock continued, “God is our authentic connector to each other. We have to reach up to reach out beyond our comfort zone. God does not hang out inside your box. You may possess God, but you don’t own God. You may possess a husband or wife, but you don’t own him or her. You may possess a house, but if you pay a mortgage you don’t own it. Just try missing a payment or two and find out the bank owns it. Your name may be on the life insurance policy, but cash it in and your name is not on the list of beneficiaries. “God is bigger than individual churches, denominations or traditions,” he continued. “Jews do not recognize Jesus as the Messiah; Muslims don’t recognize Jews as the only chosen people. Protestants don’t recognize the Pope as their spiritual leader, and Baptists don’t recognize each other in the neighborhood liquor store. God calls us to transcend our own tribalism — the particularities of our own traditions.” Warnock recalled a conversation he and Robert Franklin had with their waiter at the Heirloom Restaurant at the Athenaeum. He asked the young man what he wanted to do with his life. The waiter said his mother was in law enforcement and he thought he might go into law enforcement.

“Dr. Franklin asked him, ‘How about going to law school?’ It had never occurred to him yet here were two men responding to the talent he so obviously possessed.” Warnock continued, “God is bigger than our whole imagination and looks beyond our needs. God dreams dreams for us until we dream them too. I am so glad that I have a God I can call and not talk to the secretary’s secretary. God still answers when we are disappointed. This is the God of the universe, and you are in the company of the God who refuses to be without you. “If the ‘our’ in the prayer means community, and the ‘father’ means intimacy, then heaven means sovereignty,” Warnock said. “Heaven is not a geophysical place. It is not an eschatological category. The one who is in charge, the one who we can call father or mother, is in charge.” Warnock said that young boys in his neighborhood, wrestling with each other, would pin each other, and then “ask each other this profound theological question, ‘Who’s your daddy?’ and the response had to be: ‘You’re my daddy.’ ” “Life may have you in a headlock,” he continued. “You may have a problem you are trying to figure out, and God is asking you this theological question, ‘Who’s your Daddy?’ ” The God who created exnihilo, who moves the ocean currents, who makes the planets march to the drumbeat of eternity, who makes the rain fall on the just and the unjust, is the one who is asking, Warnock said. “Are you here all by yourself, all alone, struggling for your own self, or do you have cosmic companionship? You have a friend — Our Father in Heaven.”

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