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

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.    

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Monday, February 5, 2018

Reformation at 500.


The Reformation tried to be about restoring the New Testament church.  Instead it refitted Western Christianity to suit the Modern Age.  We ended up with a church supremely suited to express people’s faith in the 16th through the 20th centuries.  And that’s why we’re having so much trouble now: those days are over.  

The question becomes: what do to with a church designed to function in one era when that era ends.  One answer that is getting a lot of traction these days in many circles is: adapt!  Meaning, adapt to the new situation.  Adapt to what people are used to today.  Adapt to new technologies, new economic realities, new music, new social norms, new demographic realities.  In other words, pay attention to what is going on all around us and institute major changes in the church’s life to keep up with the changes.  In the place of a church designed for Modernity, let’s redesign the church for the new era that is now emerging, and which doesn’t even have an agreed-upon name.

I get that.  I really do.  I have written about how the new church will be decentralized, flat, distributed, networked, open-source, nimble, flexible, and so on.

The danger is that in moving into the future we will engage in a reflexive rejection of the past.  This was a problem for the Reformation, which tossed out some things simply because they were “too Catholic.”  Thus we lost many important elements of the faith, impoverishing our spiritual lives for centuries.  Mary, the sign of the cross, the saints, monasticism, and church unity all got dispensed with, not because they did not express the biblical faith in Christ, but they had been abused in the middle ages and did not fit into a Modern sensibility.  Instead of reforming and recovering them, we got rid of them.

The insightful observer of the religious scene, Phyllis Tickle, noted that the church goes through a “rummage sale” every 500 years.  We are in one of those periods now.  As with any rummage sale, the questions are: what have we found in the attic that we will decide to keep?  What is sitting in the middle of the living room that is no longer appropriate or useful?  What do we not have room for these days?  What makes no sense anymore?  Indeed, what is offensive?  And what do we need to add that we don’t now have?

Every church is having to answer these questions today, including ours.  In coming to these decisions about what will help us going forward, we do need to keep one thing in our minds and hearts: that is the mission of Jesus Christ.  What does Jesus Christ want for us today?  How do we best obey and follow him?  The church will always have before it one main task, which is discipleship.

On the one hand, we will have to be ruthless in our willingness to get rid of things that do not serve this purpose.  For there are things among us — from ideas and practices to objects — that actually detract from Jesus’ mission.  At best they distract, at worst they counteract and obstruct.  These things need to be identified and purged from our modest.

On the other hand, we will have to be radically open to the movement of the Spirit showing us new directions, new practices, new ideas, and new ways of discipleship.  Some will have a venerable history in the church and just be new to us.  Others will be things we never imagined, or even assumed were not fitting for us.

One characteristic of this new era is that “one size fits all” is over; there are and will continue to be many different expressions of Christianity among us.  Our task will be to discern our own, and to welcome, accept, and learn from — and yes, sometimes challenge and question — others’ ideas, practices, and perspectives.

Allergy to change and addiction to the past are simply not going to work.  At the same time, we do need to immerse ourselves in our history and tradition to find authentic things that will work.  This is the most exciting time to be a Christian in 500 years!  Let’s dive into this with all our hearts, depending on Jesus Christ to lead us by the power of the Spirit!
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Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Living in Fulfilled Time.

The first words Jesus utters in the Gospel of Mark proclaim that “the time is fulfilled.”  On one level this may mean that the 500 years since the building of the Second Temple, after the return of the people from exile, have passed.  Some non-canonical writings, like the Book of Jubilees, seem to predict that the Messiah would appear at this time.

But on a deeper level the Lord proclaims a radical understanding of time itself.  Instead of living in the linear time which the Greeks called chronos, and which has always characterized secular, imperial, economic time, the time in which memories of the past and fears/desires for the future dominate present existence, Jesus talks about time as already fulfilled.  Fulfilled time — the Greek words used by Mark are pepleirotai ho kairos — indicates a unified, coherent, interconnected, and undivided view of time.  In other words, fulfilled time sees time all together, not cloven into lost past and unknown future.  This kind of time presents itself as kairos, which means time as opportunity, grace, openness, transformation, destiny, and origin.

We see fulfilled time in the places where the Scriptures describe God as the One “who was, who is, and who is to come”.  It has to be stated in this somewhat awkward manner because human languages (at least English) don’t have a way to talk about time in a unified way.  Chronos infects even the way we speak and therefore think.

We see fulfilled time as well in God’s seminal self-identification to Moses in Exodus, as “I Am Who I Am,” which in Hebrew includes “I was who I was” and “I will be who I will be”. 

What would it mean to think and act in terms of this fulfilled time?  Can we even imagine rising above history, which is the record of how humans persistently choose to live in lies, tragically resulting in our inflicting violence and injustice on each other?  Our literally chronic misunderstanding of time-as-divided spawns human sin.  How much does fear about an unknown future determine our whole existence?  It leads us to concoct self-serving interpretations of the past, which dump us into the classical deadly sins.  In these practices we mangle, corrupt, debase, and destroy the world and people.

If we could lose our misconceptions and come instead to understand time in a unified way, especially coming to see the future as a beautiful and beneficent reality available even now, and which no amount of ignorance and violence can prevent, we may emerge into what Jesus calls “the Kingdom of God.”  We may realize in our own lives and relationships the glorious presence of God.  We may come into focus, while the rest of the world, still chained to the broken vision of chronos, falls out of focus, and appears as ultimately unreal.  

This sense motivates Christian worship and spirituality.  Centered on Baptism and the Eucharist, we see how everything works to change our way of perceiving and thinking — a process called repentance (metanoia = new mind) — so that we may live according to the truth — the values, practices, insights, vision, and wisdom — of fulfilled time, the Kingdom of God, the Real.

The Eucharist in particular explicitly places us in Jesus’ fulfilled time.  Jesus gives us this specific way to “remember” him, but this does not mean looking back into the past.  This kind of re-membering brings the past into the present.  The Eucharist both re-presents Jesus’ offering of himself on the cross, and presents his coming again, making him spiritually present and available in the community and in the elements of bread and wine.  Jesus makes himself present in the Sacrament, and we feed on him.  Thus we literally become him, sharing in his Presence, his eternal life, his fulfilled time.  In this Sacrament, then, God delivers us from our broken and distorted world of chronos to the real, unified, integrated world of kairos.  Thus we do not remember his saving death just as a historical event.  Nor do we merely wait for his coming again in the future.  Rather, we participate in his being lifted up for the life of the world, living the new life of resurrection and eternity, now.

God gives the commandments — reimagined and intensified in Jesus, especially in his Sermon on the Mount — as the shape and pattern of this life in the Kingdom/Kindom/Realm/Reign/Commonwealth in eternal/fulfilled time.  (And, frankly, embodying this in actual structures and procedures is the purpose of ecclesiastical polity.)

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