This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations or presbytery I serve.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Recovering the Means of Grace to Renew the Church.

The Means of Grace.  I.

In the church, change that does not well up from below is going to be pointless.  More than anything else we need to start by having our churches become places of healing, transformation, joy, hope, and compassion.  They need to be places where people meet the living Jesus Christ and learn to follow him.
This will be done through better attention to the traditional “means of grace,” which are: (1) the Word of God, Jesus Christ, and the Scriptures that attest to him, (2) worshiping and celebrating the sacraments together with integrity, knowledge, and conviction, and (3) deepening of our prayer lives both corporately and individually, including giving new attention to meditative practices like Centering Prayer.    
It will be objected that I said nothing about mission or service.  That is because the means of grace have priority in the formation of disciples and provide a necessary foundation for the mission of the church.  Before it can be missional, the church has to be contemplative.  Before it can go out and make disciples (the Great Commission in Matthew 28) or serve the needy (Matthew 25), Christians need to be aware of who and whose they are.  Before we can be active witnesses in the world the church and disciples have to be in relationship with the One who sends us.
In other words, we have to go inward before we can go outward, but the going inward is for the sake of going outward.  Faithful advocacy has to be based on the invocation of the Spirit.  
One danger right now is that the Presbyterian Church, in its new, more explicitly “progressive” form (having lost much of its conservative-evangelical wing), will advance with a shallow social activism that has barely any root in an experience of God’s saving Presence.  This leads on the one hand to burn-out, and on the other to a reductionistic faith in political power and a toxic identification with a particular party or faction.  Evangelicalism is now completely discredited by its drinking of the Republican — and now Trumpian — Kool-Aid.  This must not be allowed to happen to a progressive church.  Focusing anew on Jesus Christ and the means of grace will prevent this.  An active, progressive, missional church needs a strong foundation in the Word, sacraments, and prayer.  The social justice that is inherent and essential to the gospel has to be energized and nourished by a profound and rich spirituality.    

  1. The Word.  In too many churches, Bible study is shallow, weak, compromised, and so flavored with evangelical literalism and sentimentality as to spawn in congregations a reactionary knot of resistance to change… which, of course, is exactly the opposite of what the Bible is about.  We need to promote and even mandate Bible study resources that deal with context and present the Bible as the revolutionary and transformative document it is.  Presbyterians understand Scripture in and through Jesus Christ and his ministry, which is about compassion, forgiveness, inclusion, equality, and healing.  We need to require elders to have a minimum of Bible knowledge from this perspective.  
  2. Sacraments.  In too many churches worship is geared towards what the current attendees want, like, and are used to, rather than towards God.  Instead of plugging into the Christian tradition in worship, with attention on the sacraments that incorporate disciples into the life of Jesus Christ, we have worship more reflective of the 1950’s or a sentimental evangelicalism, permeated with bad, self-serving theology.  There is little of mystery, wonder, majesty, or depth in Presbyterian worship these days.  At its worst it is nationalistic, individualistic, antiseptic, irrelevant, overly informal, and spiritually empty.  And the Sacraments are habitually performed in a superficial and obligatory way.  What we need is worship that brings people into God’s Presence and forms them for responsible discipleship.  Our worship should have integrity, coherence, substance, direction, purpose, and meaning.          
  3. Prayer.  In too many churches prayer is completely disregarded, assumed, left to the minister, not taught, and limited to a vague “talking to God.”  It is chatty and self-centered.  We give God a “to-do” list of concerns that need to be addressed, but leave no time or energy for a conscious relinquishing of our ego-centricity and falling into an awareness of the eternal life Jesus promises.  It is “off the top of our heads” rather than delving into the depths of our souls.  The idea of listening to God is unfamiliar, and any kind of meditation practice is dismissed as un-Christian and even dangerous.  Presbyterian churches need to be places of prayer and mindfulness, where the Spirit becomes real in our lives.  We need to plug into the Christian contemplative tradition in intentional ways.  
If we want renewal in the church, we are going to have to start with the basics: bringing people into an awareness and experience of the living God, revealed in Jesus, by the Spirit.  That is what the means of grace are designed to do.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

It Is Time for Churches to Consider Standards for Membership.

A Covenant of Commitment for Members.

The Book of Order says that “No person shall be denied membership for any reason not related to profession of faith” (G-1.0302).  This provision is intended to prevent sessions from denying membership to people on the basis of categories like ethnicity, sexual orientation, or mental/physical capacity.  These have nothing to do with Christian faith and should not influence a session’s decision about whether to receive someone as a member.  (My mother used to tell a story from the 1950’s about a woman rejected as a church member because she wasn’t D.A.R.  I’m serious.)  

Unfortunately, we have often taken this to mean that sessions may not apply any standards or requirements to active membership at all.  This waters-down membership to a merely verbal affirmation, turning faith into mere cognitive opinion, and separating it from the actions that necessarily embody it.  This is our Presbyterian version of Bonhoeffer’s “cheap grace.”  It’s well-meaning and inclusive… but it has huge unintended consequences.

For one thing it encourages the corrosive belief that faith doesn’t matter in the real world, that it is just a private, personal hobby that has no impact on our relationships or commitments.  By thinking this way Christians have become nearly indistinguishable from anyone else.  Our faith is invisible, unobtrusive, and insignificant, with less of an effect on our daily life than if we were to declare ourselves  “fans” of Jesus.  Worse, we may imagine that we can follow Jesus and at the same time live a life doing and supporting exactly the things he opposes: like racism, violence, injustice, arrogance, and inequality. 

I see Book of Order G-1.0304 as an attempt to mitigate this.  It gives 12 specific actions that do embody faith and membership in the church.  Thus we have established the principles that (1) faith is expressed in behavior and (2) that the church may articulate what kinds of actions it looks for in a member.  

Here they are:
  1. proclaiming the good news in word and deed, 
  2. taking part in the common life and worship of a congregation, 
  3. lifting one another up in prayer, mutual concern, and active support, 
  4. studying Scripture and the issues of Christian faith and life, 
  5. supporting the ministry of the church through the giving of money, time, and talents, 
  6. demonstrating a new quality of life within and through the church, 
  7. responding to God’s activity in the world through service to others, 
  8. living responsibly in the personal, family, vocational, political, cultural, and social relationships of life, 
  9. working in the world for peace, justice, freedom, and human fulfillment, 
  10. caring for God’s creation,
  11. participating in the governing responsibilities of the church, and 
  12. reviewing and evaluating regularly the integrity of one’s membership, and considering ways in which one’s participation in the worship and service of the church may be increased and made more meaningful. 
I believe that sessions may get even more specific and build on those 12 categories by identifying positively or negatively, particular actions on the part of members.  

For instance, a session can say how often worship attendance is expected.  It can require participation in a Bible Study class or other small group.  It can recommend levels of giving.  It can add something like “reducing one’s carbon footprint” or even “not using styrofoam” to number 10.  And it can interpret number 12 in terms of a “covenant renewal” practice in which everyone, in effect, periodically applies to rejoin the church.

In fact, even if they don’t go as far as specific requirements for membership, I wish every session would add something to each to these categories, interpreting how they understand it.  What do we imagine that “a new quality of life” looks like?  What do we actually mean by living responsibly in our relationships?   

A session would want to be in close consultation with the rest of the congregation when developing membership requirements.  Such conversations could bear good fruit in helping us understand how faith is embodied and actually lived, and not just something we think about.  

Such standards would be applied with grace and gentleness, not to exclude or judge and certainly not to divide churches.  Indeed, at least numbers 3, 5, 6, 7, 8, and 12 have to include humility, patience, and openness as values for disciples of Jesus.

I hope churches start considering what would make membership in the church more meaningful and consequential.  At least we could give examples and suggestions about ways of expressing in our lives the 12 points of G-1.0304.  Churches would only benefit from talking honestly and faithfully about how our faith may be translated into action.


At least one small church has been experimenting with this idea.  Christ Presbyterian Church, in Martinsville, NJ, has used a “covenant of commitment” with “eight core spiritual practices” ( ) to guide its understanding of membership for several years.  (These were developed before the categories above appeared in the Book of Order and therefore do not reflect them.)  Here are their practices:
  1. On-time weekly worship.
  2. Undertake an inward journey including at least thirty minutes of daily prayer with an emphasis on listening.
  3. Participate in planned study of the Bible, theology, ethics & Christian spirituality.
  4. Demonstrate responsible stewardship honoring God’s earth, its resources, people and all creatures.
  5. Give sacrificially, proportionally and regularly to Christ Presbyterian Church beginning with 3% of income as a minimum goal and generous in-kind giving.
  6. Discover one’s spiritual gifts and unique call to mission with the aid of the community.
  7. Commit to participating in a mission group consisting of people with a shared calling and common passion to serve Christ through a specific ministry.
  8. Be accountable to a compassionate spiritual partner for these practices.  
The church is entirely gracious about this; there is no enforcement.  The standards are still relatively general.  And people are asked to sign on to some, but not necessarily all, of them.  The church’s mission provides pathways for people to keep the covenant, like having resources available for discovering one’s own calling, and providing opportunities for study.

Considering requirements for membership also impacts how we think about membership.  CPC has developed an understanding of membership which includes “covenant members" (who are participating in the covenant) and “worshiping members” (who have not made that commitment but still participate in church life).  The former group is the one identified with “active” members in the Book of Order.  



Thursday, February 15, 2018

Get Real.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus lays out three primary practices that define fruitful spirituality: almsgiving, prayer, and fasting.  There is no point to doing Lent unless it is to strengthen these central areas of our spiritual life.  

Regarding all three Jesus criticizes “hypocrites,” that is, people who superficially go through the motions of pious acts, but whose main concern is the benefit they believe they will receive from being seen doing them.  In other words, they are doing these things, not out of a sincere trust in God, but for show.  They think other people will see them and admire them.

Jesus insists that we keep to ourselves with our spiritual life, not letting the left hand know what the right hand is doing.  By rejecting any notion of receiving recognition or reward for our behavior in this existence, Jesus says our reward is a treasure “in heaven.”   

It makes me think of how much we do “for show,” from choosing what to wear in the morning to deciding what purchases to make.  Indeed, in America a lot of what we do is an expression of our inner fantasies about ourselves.  We don’t just do things for other people to see, but “for show” to ourselves, to convince ourselves we are really living this or that dream.  Like when we buy a car that is designed to travel over the open landscape, thus feeding our fantasy that we are adventurous wilderness explorers, when in reality the car will never leave pavement. 

Jesus wants us to get real.  The false, superficial, public narratives we tell ourselves need to be relinquished.  We need to get to the bottom of who we are.  That’s what’s going on when we reflect on the ashes of Ash Wednesday.  Ashes are basically carbon, the primal element of all life.  The phrase that is spoken when ashes are imposed is: “You are dust and to dust you shall return.”  This may serve to oppress us with guilt, remorse, or feelings of worthlessness.  But this is not an exercise in self-abuse of self-hatred.  Rather it is about honesty.  We are reminded of what we are at our most basic and physical.

Our false, old, ego-driven, small self doesn’t want to remember this.  It projects delusions of grandeur about ourselves.  Just like we don’t want to be reminded of our own death, or even our aging.  

But dust and ash are more than reminders of our mortality.  They also represent our connection and integration into all of life and all that is.  I believe it was a Joni Mitchell song from the 1960’s that included the line, “We are stardust.”  The elements of which we are made are created and used by God in the beginning to form life.  They were taken on by God in becoming flesh in Jesus.  Dust is what God speaks to in creating each one of us.  It is not bad, it is not neutral; it is explicitly and exceedingly blessed!

Lent is about getting back to basics and fundamentals.  It is about clearing out the clutter and silencing the noise of our existence.  This means abandoning what we do because of  what we calculate we will get out of it, and instead emptying ourselves so that God may use us as raw material of a new creation. 

Lent is therefore a joyful time!  To be connected back to our original nature is to realize that we are made in God’s Image.  It is a time to discover who and whose we really are, and to embrace that as the priceless gift that it is.  For while the dust is what we are reduced to after our bodies give out, dust is also what God breathes life into in creating us.

In actual practice this means taking on tasks that return no profit, gain no reward, and accrue no earthly credit.  Indeed, it means taking on tasks of selfless service that society frowns on or even punishes.  For in these we quietly affirm a common humanity with each other and with Jesus.