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

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Why Neither Technical Nor Adaptive Change Is Enough for Today's Church.

Beyond Technical and Adaptive.

The PCUSA today needs more than a superficial, technical adjustment.  It also needs more than to adapt to a changing environment.  The denomination basically needs a complete overhaul from the ground up.
When we hear talk of a “new Reformation,” and if it is going to be more than merely commemorating the Reformation of 500 years ago, we need to do in our time what the Reformers did in theirs… only better.  For even though in effect the Reformation was a massive adaptation of Christianity to the new context of Modernity, what the Reformers thought they were doing, and intended to do, was to reground Christianity on its original foundation.  They wanted to recover in their own time the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic faith of the New Testament.
The results were spotty at best.  
    • First, they did not have the critical tools to discern when they were really following the gospel, and when they were just going along with the flow of history.  Thus what was presented as the real and original faith, ends up really being a decidedly middle-class, European, colonialist redaction of Christianity.  
    • Secondly, they tended to discount Jesus Christ because they maintained an inherent bias in favor of Christendom.  That is, they were committed to maintaining the Christian State.  This meant that Jesus’ most challenging and radical teachings and practices were marginalized, rationalized, or ignored.  
    • And thirdly, they had inherent bias against almost anything smacking of Roman Catholicism.  This meant that even something completely coherent with Jesus’ teachings and the practice of the early church could nevertheless be dismissed and banned for appearing too “Papist.”  Probably the most egregious example of this is the denigration of Mary, the Lord’s mother.  
Therefore, the Reformation didn’t go far enough.  It ended up being mainly a religious expression of, and justification for, Modernity and its rationalism, individualism, colonialism, racism, nationalism, classism, secularism, and reductionist objectification of everything.  By its nadir in the early 20th century, Protestantism was little more than a moralistic chaplaincy sucking up to the Modern State. 
The PCUSA has this Modernist bias embedded in its very DNA.  If we are going to be more than an anachronistic historical relic, we are going to have to excise it, and get back to the original intent of the Reformers, which was to recover the gospel of Jesus and the early church.
Briefly, it means that:
    • Seeing that all perspectives, including ours, are culturally conditioned, it is harder for us to universalize our own context and ideologies.  That being said, we are freed to release all such loyalties and rest in “Jesus Christ, as he is attested for us in Holy Scripture” (Barmen).    
    • We have to get past any reflexive loyalty to Christendom.  We are gaining a better understanding of Jesus’ life and teachings as being inherently and essentially opposed to the accumulation of power and wealth.  The Way of Jesus Christ is anti-imperialistic, egalitarian, inclusive, mystical movement based on simplicity, forgiveness, justice, shalom, and love.
    • We are able now to draw from all of history and human culture elements that express the good news of Jesus Christ.  This intentionally includes whatever good things emerged from Modernity, as well as what we find in earlier and non-European contexts.  We may even locate and appreciate resonances with other world religions, recognizing the Cosmic Christ transcending culture and history.     
I don’t see this happening by means of minor adjustments in our polity or theology.  It will only happen by putting everything on the table in a courageous act of confession, penitence, and renewal.  We need to subject everything to a wall-to-wall reassessment, holding it to the standard of Jesus Christ.
In other words, what we need today is apocalyptic change, change that, after embracing disintegration, reconstructs the church from the original blueprint in the New Testament.  We have to let go of everything out of synch with Jesus Christ, and emerge into his Image which is already within us.

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Wednesday, July 26, 2017

What to Wear.


The question of clerical garb came up in a Facebook exchange the other day.  This may seem pretty trivial.  But if everything the church does is supposed to be missional, what does that mean in terms of something everyone who attends a worship service sees?  What the leaders of worship are wearing will communicate a great deal about the theology, priorities, and approaches of that church.

The extremes are obvious.  A good friend of mine is a Russian Orthodox priest.  He wears full Byzantine-style vestments for all church services, and a black cassock all day during the week.  The opposite extreme is another friend who wears normal, secular business/casual attire when on the job, whether leading worship or sitting in her office.  

Some pastors wear Hawaiian shirts in worship.  Others business suits.  But I still think it is the case that most wear some kind of special garb for worship, whether it be an alb and surplice, a Geneva gown, or some other kind of cassock or robe.  Most will wear a stole of the appropriate liturgical color.  Few pastors wear a collar when not leading worship (though anecdotally this number appears to be rising).  

Here are some considerations:
  • As far as we know, Jesus himself wore the garb of a simple Palestinian peasant, which would be an ankle-length, natural colored, probably linen outer robe, often with a rope for a belt.  Under that people generally wore what we would call a long t-shirt, stretching to below the knees.  
  • At the same time, Jesus is said to have worn a “seamless” garment (John 19:23) which is a possible reference one of the robes of a priest in Exodus 28:32.  
  • Beginning in the 4th century, much of traditional Christian liturgical dress was based on the clothes worn by Roman officials.
  • Monastics and priests generally wore simple robes.
  • In the 16th and 17th centuries, the Reformed tradition abandoned Roman vestments for a simple academic gown.  In other words, they wore what they, as scholars, wore every day.
  • In the last 500 years, as secularization intensified and technology advanced, robes that might once have been worn every day became specialized ceremonial clothing.
What is going on theologically when we decide what to wear?  Do we want to blend in, or be set apart?  Why?  Surely what we wear should reflect our ecclesiology and missional theology.  We represent the Kingdom of God, which means perhaps we should look and dress differently from everyone else.  Does worship have an inherent formality to it that should be reflected in what participants and celebrants wear?  I suspect that we have to balance both tradition and contemporaneity, expressing the presence of God who is both transcendent and incarnate.  The sacrament is both sacrifice and meal; its leaders are both priests and hosts, representing Christ.  Jesus himself has a dim view of leaders who wear long robes merely for show (Mark 12:38).     

I am coming to the view that there is not necessarily one single answer to these questions.  More and more I am deciding “it depends,” and “both/and,” are more honest and responsible.  I exclude some things as always inappropriate, based on the gospel itself.  For instance, when leading worship, I avoid looking like a person of wealth and power.  I rarely wear a suit and never a tie.  The last thing I want to look like up there is a banker or a lawyer.  It has to be about integrity, authenticity, humility, beauty, and simplicity.  It has to focus attention on the Lord, not me.

My strategy relies on a rhythm and balance in worship, where the style and format shifts with the season.  Some holidays and seasons are more formal and “high church,” while others are considerably less so.  

In Advent and Lent, I will wear a Geneva gown or just a black sweater, with a blue or purple stole.  Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost are the three main festivals of the church.  I will wear a white Russian cassock and a white chasuble on those days, and the service is pretty formal.  After Easter and after Epiphany I wear the white cassock without the chasuble.  After Pentecost (a season that can last half the year) the service gets looser.  I might wear a blue Latin cassock; in the summertime I will often opt for a blue silk shirt, untucked.  None of this do I rigidly enforce; local considerations factor in, as do sacraments and other occasions for which I might want to dress up or down.  And I always use a stole.

There are other considerations: the Geneva gown was a gift from my parents when I graduated from seminary.  I was married in the blue shirt.  The white cassock, though Russian, reminds me of the Celtic monks with whom I resonate deeply; I think of them as my tradition.  The blue cassock, all my stoles, and the cross I wear nearly every Sunday were gifts; some of the stoles belonged to my father.  Thus some things have more meaning because they were given to me, or have some other connection.

This is my practice.  Others need to do what works for them.  It’s all about balance, integrity, and keeping the focus as clear as possible.  No matter what I wear, it’s going to get noticed.  I hope I can deflect at least some of that attention beyond myself to what we are all doing together in worship.
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Thursday, May 11, 2017

Ascension Into Heaven.


Yuri Gagarin, in the first flight of a human into space, is said to have reported that he saw nothing up there that could be mistaken for heaven.  This reminds me of another quip that if Jesus ascended into the sky at a rate of 3 miles per hour he would not yet have reached the orbit of the moon.  Clearly, a literal understanding of terms like  “heaven” and “ascension” does not make sense today.

This does not render these concepts meaningless, however.  Losing the literal meaning opens us up to a deeper understanding.  Words like “heaven” and “ascension” talk about getting “higher.”  The higher we go, the more we see.  The more we see, the more we can participate in and relate to.  Scripture refers to God as “Most High:” God sees and loves everything and everyone everywhere.   

Heaven is therefore a way to talk about the necessity to broaden and widen our vision so that it becomes infinitely inclusive.  It counteracts our chronic human limited vision which is the source of our ignorance and therefore of our fear, which leads us into sin.  We sin, or literally “miss the mark,” because our consciousness is boxed in by the minuscule proportions of our perception.  Our five senses only go so far.  Beyond that we project and imagine, or hypothesize based on reason and experience.  Consequently, we fall into a reflexive selfishness and ego-centricity.   Moving through the world in this condition is analogous to driving a car in a dense fog or blinding blizzard, unaware of anything more than a few feet from our headlights.

When Jesus proclaims the Kingdom of Heaven, he is saying that there is more out there that we cannot see unless we have our vision expanded so we can see — and therefore participate in and relate to — more widely and inclusively.   We need somehow get “higher.”  Indeed, he offers us in himself an opportunity to see from God’s perspective.  He shows us an all-embracing viewpoint which loves, accepts, celebrates, forgives, and gives thanks for everything.  

In her classic song, “From a Distance,” Julie Gold describes a world in which “we all have enough and no one is in need.”  Perhaps it is based on that iconic photograph of the Earth from space by Apollo astronauts.  A spinning jewel of blue in the vastness of darkness and cold, our home planet evokes compassion and love in the hearts of all who see from this vantage point.  Gagarin was looking for the wrong thing.  Had he looked down it might have occurred to him that there are no borders, no ideologies, no races, and no historical-materialist processes visible from where he was.  These things are all in the shallow and all-but-blind brains of the very tiny inhabitants of this orb.

My point is that “heaven” in  a sense means everywhere.  When Jesus ascends “to sit at the right hand of God,” he doesn’t go away.  He doesn’t abandon us.  He is one with the Presence at the heart of creation.  The One who creates the universe by Word and Spirit is no farther from that creation than any of us are from our own breath and sound.  By the Spirit, Jesus’ Ascension means he doesn’t go somewhere… he goes everywhere.

All talk of heaven means this expansion and radical inclusiveness of vision.  When our mortal bodies finally give out, we who have lived by the  inclusive, forgiving, compassionate, and loving shalom revealed and given by the Lord Jesus, expand into him.  We have begun to dwell within and anticipate heaven.  We move into an eternal life we have already started to know in the wideness of our vision in Jesus.  

This is why the church, which is the body of those called into this heavenly Kingdom, is way too big for anything indicating a narrow, shallow, constricted, limited, and fearful vision.  Our faith is too expansive, it explodes all ignorance or falsehood, hatred, fear, violence, or exclusion, judgment or condemnation.  If we are not witnessing to heaven here and now, however haltingly, we will not see it in its fulness.  If we are not living according to God’s inclusive and welcoming love which cherishes and gives thanks for all things now, we should not expect to have that vision after our physical bodies give out.
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