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

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Why Bless Animals?

            The practice of blessing animals, while it might be new and unusual for Presbyterians, actually has a long history in Christianity.  It goes back at least to Francis of Assisi, which is why many churches choose early October to bless animals.  Francis’ day is October 4.
            Blessing animals recognizes the larger community of creation and our place in it as humans.  Animals and humans were created on the same Sixth Day of creation in Genesis 1.  The “dominion” God gives humans over the animals is something that has to be exercised after the example of the Lord Jesus.  That is, dominion means faithful stewardship and loving care.  It does not and cannot mean a careless and violent domination, for we do not see that kind of thing in Jesus.
            Animals (as well as birds and fish, creatures of the Fifth Day) appear in Scripture in many places.  Often they appear subtly but significantly.  At his baptism, the Presence of God appears as a dove, and immediately thereafter, in the wilderness, he was accompanied by angels and wild beasts (Mark1:13).  In Jesus’ life, a donkey traditionally conveys him and his mother to Bethlehem before he is born, and then to Egypt when his life is threatened.  Of course, a donkey is also enlisted to bear the Savior into the holy city of Jerusalem, according to prophecy.  Jesus himself is often referred to as a “Lamb,” bringing to mind the sacrificial lamb of Passover, and the two goats of the Day of Atonement.
            Jesus used animals and birds as images and signs of God’s Kingdom in several places, indicating that we may see God’s saving Presence at work in God’s creatures.  In this he is building on the tradition we find in Psalms 104 and 148, the two great creation Psalms.  All of creation was made to praise God!  Finally, animals are specifically blessed by God in Psalm 36:6, where they are counted with humans among those whom God “saves.”  (The same Greek word is used in the New Testament to talk about salvation.)   
            We bless animals now to demonstrate our communion with and responsibility to care for God’s creation.  This is a particularly important practice in our own time, when creation is so jeopardized by our rapacious economy.  Human carelessness and greed are not only kicking the atmosphere out of balance by massive injections of carbon, not to mention countless other pollutants, but we have also sparked a wave of extinctions that may eliminate from the earth half the life forms God made and placed here.
            In blessing animals we set ourselves with Jesus and his creation, and against the objectification, abuse, and commodification of animals (and everything else) that our economy, a systematic super-amplification of  human avarice, demands.  It is therefore a revolutionary act in favor of God’s life in the face of a culture of death.   
            In blessing animals we willingly accept our role in caring for, preserving, protecting, and loving God’s creation, this beautiful vineyard God has placed in our stewardship.

Friday, September 19, 2014

18 Characteristics of the Future Church.

Here is what I am seeing.  Most of these are already happening in small or large ways.  Almost all of them are welcome advances beyond our current situation.

1.                      The “one-size-fits-all” approach is over.  Every church will shape its mission to fit its own context.  There will still be thriving  “traditional” congregations, but fewer of them; at the same time we will see an expanding diversity of churches, worshiping communities, missional outposts, and gatherings of disciples, with different structures, criteria for ministry, purposes, and leadership.

2.                      The diversity in ministry-styles will broaden far beyond the old, conventional model – at least one full-time, in-residence pastor per congregation – and include more part-time, non-professional, non-residential, and unpaid leadership.  There will be more shared and collaborative leadership as well, and more leaders serving multiple gatherings.  Different oversight models will evolve, eg. one trained professional overseeing multiple gatherings served by theology students, lay preachers, part-time pastors, etc.

3.                      The traditional “roll of active members” will become decreasingly relevant; gatherings will have fluid forms of participation and involvement.  Some may adopt covenants of shared spiritual practices as criteria for identifying members.  This will necessitate a change in (among other things) the way churches support themselves financially, moving from pledging to a variety of fund-raising strategies.  These may include fees for services, dues arrangements, rental income, and production of goods for sale.  Many denominations/networks will have to change the way they collect assessments to support the hierarchy/bureaucracy.

4.                      The old denominations will remain… but continue to shrink (eventually hitting something like “terminal velocity,” I suppose).  Within and outside of these denominations, disciples and gatherings will form new networks for mission and support, across denominational lines.  New semi/post-denominational alliances will form.  Connectionalism will become more voluntary and temporary.  Regional denominational bodies will grow weaker and have to compete with less formal networks.

5.                      Coercive strategies for forcing compliance and loyalty (by, say, claiming control over property or pastors) on the part of regional or national denominational bodies will collapse.  Voluntary arrangements based on mutual benefits will emerge.

6.                      The church will become more democratic and less controlled by specialists like clergy or even elected representative elders.  At the same time, churches will have to take more care to establish meaningful criteria for membership and participation.

7.                      The “neighborhood church” will decline as the primary local ecclesiastical model; there will be more gatherings that draw from a wide area based on missional emphases, worship styles, and particular programs an opportunities.

8.                      Suburbia will recede as the center of church life, and be regarded more accurately as the moral and spiritual wasteland it is.  The church will seek to evangelize suburbia by recognizing it as basically an “un-churched” zone requiring: a) witnessing to the diversity of Christ’s body, and b) strategies to redistribute wealth out of suburbia to places of need.

9.                      The church will get poorer.  This is because the 99% will continue to get poorer, until something dramatic is done to address the inequalities of wealth in our country and the world.  Sucking up to the 1% is always an option, but it is usually toxic to the church’s identity.

10.                  Fewer gatherings will own property, choosing to rent, lease, meet in free spaces, like homes or public places.  Disciples will realize that resources sunk into buildings are robbed from mission.  Those that do own property will see it as a source of income while meeting missional needs in their community.

11.                  Seminaries will shift from being graduate schools to serving the needs of the church.  Field education will expand in importance and prominence.  More students will be commuters and part-timers.  Regional councils will place less emphasis on academic degrees from accredited institutions, and more on actual expertise and skill in ministry.  Hence, ministry experience will become an important criterion for seminary teachers.

12.                  Those doing ministry at every level will find support in various ad hoc groups and networks.  These will cross denominational lines; some may even be interfaith.  Such connections will also be used for credentialing and discipline.

13.                  Worship will explode into a nearly infinite variety of expressions, from drumming circles to family dinners.  It will generally be more sensory, somatic, emotional, and less cerebral.  The use of organs will decline dramatically.

14.                  Doctrine will become “open source” and focus on spiritual practices.  Disciples and gatherings will be informed by theologies from across the spectrum, not just those historically associated with a particular sect, or even historical Christianity.  Some will remain consistent.  But most churches will weave together strands of theology, ecclesiology, and spirituality from the entire Christian tradition, and beyond.  And it will all be about effective practices of liberation and reconciliation, both inwardly in terms of the individual soul, and outwardly in terms of social justice and peace.  

15.                  We will decreasingly use the term “Christian” and seek words to describe ourselves that have less baggage from Christendom.  We will be “followers,” “disciples,” “friends,” etc., of Jesus, Yeshua, Christ, the Word, Wisdom, the Messiah, the Way, etc.

16.                  We will pay exponentially more attention to the Holy Spirit than was ever the case before.

17.                  Scripture will remain central in importance.  At the same time it will be interpreted less literally and historically, and more mythically, symbolically, figuratively, spiritually, and metaphorically.  We will be more concerned to discern the living truth in Scripture, and less interested in facts or historicity.

18.                  It will be highly unusual to see a national flag in a place where followers of Jesus Christ gather for worship.  Disciples will realize that there is no good theological reason for such a thing, and plenty of very bad reasons.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Islands of Misfit Toys.

            A minister-friend of mine reports that the members like to refer to their congregation as “The Island of Misfit Toys.”  I like it. 
            The phrase, of course, comes from the animated version of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” which gets lot of TV airtime every December.  Crafting a half-hour program out of a song that lasts about 1.5 minutes, the writers had to add a lot of material.  Part of the augmented plot has to do with a fictional island near the North Pole where toys that are all imperfect or defective in some way have apparently been dropped off to fend for themselves without the love of a child.  In the end, Santa, aided by Rudolph, retrieves them for delivery on Christmas Eve to children who will appreciate them.
            When I was a kid, the idea of a church billing itself as an “Island of Misfit Toys” was unheard of and nearly incomprehensible.  Church was hardly for misfits of any kind.  It was full of well-dressed, middle-class, successful people who sat in pews as happy families.  I’m sure there are still a lot of churches like this.  I am also sure that many churches want desperately to be that again.
            But a lot of congregations just do not look like that any more.  The church of Christendom, where powerful, successful, and contented people associated and made their gracious appearances, has downsized dramatically.  And often the folks who show up now are those who really need the Lord Jesus and the communion of his disciples.  Increasingly, the people who appear at church are those who do not fit in to the definitions of success rampant in our culture.
            That is, the church is more and more populated by low-wage workers, the unemployed, the divorced, the physically or developmentally disabled, people in recovery from addiction, immigrants, cancer survivors, adoptive families, and singles, along with some more traditional families that are themselves, in the context of our society increasingly unusual. 
            Hence, some church people look around at their own congregation and notice, with some affection, how well the label, “island of misfit toys” seems to describe them.  And this is actually a very hopeful sign.  For these are exactly the types of people the Lord Jesus himself attracted and welcomed into his new community.  As it turns out, there are far more “misfit toys” out there in our society than there are of the illusory “young families” that have become the Holy Grail of church growth.  What if churches retooled their evangelism efforts specifically to welcome the misfits around us?  What if we gave up trying to attract the attractive, and reached out to connect with those who need the good news of Jesus Christ?
            I am waiting for the first church to actually, officially call itself “The Island of Misfit Toys” and put that on its sign.  But for now, it will be enough for churches to start realizing that we were never supposed to be bastions of the successful in the first place.  From the beginning, the gathering of Jesus’ followers was always mainly the failures, the losers, the rejects, the broken, and the struggling.
            And the Lord’s example is a good thing because in our communities there are way more people like this than there are “successful” people.  Indeed, these are the vast majority, limitless acres of fields ripe for the harvest, as Jesus says.  We all know – or are – folks battling with something: debt, addiction, depression, grief, illness, aging, divorce, children in trouble, dead-end-jobs or no job at all, domestic abuse, sexual identity, personality disorders, incarceration, and so forth.  To such as these God offers in Jesus Christ a community of acceptance and welcome, and a message of healing, liberation, and hope.   
            Indeed, even we who are already in the church have to realize that it is our weakness, brokenness, and confusion that God cherishes, because these are places where God’s truth may take root, unobstructed by our ego-centric, personality-driven delusions.
            So the church of Jesus Christ, when it is being true to his vision, is a veritable archipelago of misfit toys, a broad and expansive network of losers and rejects, all ready to receive, and beginning to experience the joy and peace of life in God, and be sent into the world to share God’s love.