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

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Communion Prayers for the Eve of the Nativity


These are the prayers I have composed for the Sacrament of the Lord's Supper on the Eve of the Nativity. They are part of a longer service which includes more prayers, readings, and music.

Offering


To the Lord belong the Earth
and everything in it.
the world and all its inhabitants. Psalm 24:1 (REB)

*Doxology, “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence” 5

*Prayer of Dedication

O God,
what shall we give in return for your gift
of coming into our lives and our flesh in Jesus Christ?
You have no need of anything we have;
indeed everything belongs to you from the beginning:
our bodies, the Earth, and matter itself.
Yet we offer to you these signs of our trust in you,
for the ministry of your peace, justice, and love in the world.
With these gifts we give to you Mary’s answer:
let it happen to us according to your Word.
Amen.

Invitation to the Lord’s Table

This is our communion meal with Christ our God;
it is a foretaste of his coming commonwealth,
it is our thanksgiving for God’s abundance and generosity.

Jesus Christ welcomes us to his Table.
He invites those who trust in God’s love revealed in him
to participate with him in the feast which he has prepared.

Here we become his body in the world,
taking on his ministry of peace,
sharing his message of hope and love,
and spreading his life to all.

The Lord be with you.
And also with you.
Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
It is right to give our thanks and praise.

O God,
on this blessed night
we lift our voices in praise to you
for your great act of reconciliation in Jesus Christ:
Your Word, by whom you made all things,
now becomes flesh to dwell among us,
sharing our body and our history.
In him you, O God, become one with us,
so that we may become one with you,
and one in ministry to all the world.

And so we join our voices to the choirs of creation,
past and future, within and without,
in singing the song of praise and glory:

Holy, holy, holy Lord
God of power and might:
Heaven and Earth are full of your glory,
Hosanna in the highest!
Blessed is he,
O blessed is he
who comes in the name of the Lord!
Hosanna in the highest,
Hosanna in the highest!

In the beginning, O God,
you created all things by your Word and Spirit.
Tonight your Word becomes flesh to dwell among us,
bringing together prophecy and hope
in a pure act of living Presence:
Jesus Christ, born of Mary.
He reveals once and for all your love for your creation.

By his birth in Bethlehem to homeless, migrant, refugee parents,
abused by the government, and given no room by business,
by his recognition by women, poor shepherds, and faithful old people,
though the rulers were blind or resistant to his coming,
by his healing and teaching,
his exorcisms, and his raising of the dead,
by his lifting up of the poor and the powerless
and his including of the outcast,
by his preaching of justice and love,
and his nonviolent resistance to evil,
by his critique of wealth and hypocrisy,
and his zeal for the Temple as a house of prayer for all nations,
by his gathering of a holy community of disciples,
and his sending them out in service to all,
and finally by his execution at the hands of fearful human authorities,
and his defeat of the power of sin and death in his resurrection,
he fully revealed your saving love for the world,
and opened the way for us to life in union with you.

As you offer Christ to us as your living Presence
and our pure and shining example and Master,
we make our offering to you, O God.
Transform us for his sake.
Send to us your Holy Spirit,
your beautiful gift to those who trust in you,
and sanctify us and these elements,
drawn from your creation.
May we discern here and now your Presence.
Empower us to follow Jesus Christ,
that as he takes our life on himself,
so may we take his life on ourselves.

The Lord’s Prayer

O God,
in Jesus Christ you revealed yourself first to Mary,
who bore you into the world you came to save.
And so we are bold to pray in the words Jesus taught us,
saying:

Our Father….

The Breaking of Bread

On the night when he was born
Jesus Christ, the Word of God,
became human flesh and blood,
revealing the depths of God’s love for the world.

And on the night before he died,
he gathered his disciples for the Passover meal.
He took a loaf of bread,
blessed it, broke it, and said:
“This is my body. Mark 14:22

The celebrant breaks the bread.

Here we share in Christ’s Body,
God’s living Presence,
given to us that we might be his body,
his living community,
witnessing to God’s love in all the Earth.

And after supper he lifted the cup, saying,
“This is my blood.” Mark 14:24

The celebrant pours the juice into the cup.

Here we share in the Blood of Christ,
the very life of God,
given to us and spread over all the world
blessing and a binding us in love,
restoring the connection between Creator and creation.

Now as often as we share this meal,
we proclaim with joy
that our Creator is now with us in Jesus Christ,
in our mortal flesh,
in our life and our death,
bringing us and all creation from death to life.

It is a sign of the new covenant of peace
in which we remember Christ,
participate in Christ,
and await Christ’s coming.

The Holy Communion of the People

Therefore,
I invite you to come to the Table
with hearts overflowing with love and joy,
in humility and thankfulness,
and receive the life of God.

The people come forward to share in the Body and Blood of the Lord.

Closing Prayer

Gracious God,
you came to us at Bethlehem.
We have come to you at this Table,
and you have given us your life in this sacrament.
Send us out into the world in peace,
sharing that life in ministries of justice and love.
And gathering together
your new community of blessing.
Amen.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Jubilee.


Jubilee is a very basic theme in Scripture. Rooted in the laws of Leviticus 25, Jubilee is affirmed by Isaiah and prominently mentioned by Jesus at the outset of his ministry.

Jubilee has two important meanings. The first is justice. In Leviticus it is about not allowing the accumulation of wealth among God’s people. Periodically, the economic system is deliberately reset. Debts are cancelled and property reverts to its original owners. Unlike the exploitative system the people had just escaped from in Egypt, there was to be in Israel no widening division between rich and poor. It is explicitly designed to undercut economic “growth” that allows some to grow fabulously wealthy at others’ expense.

The second purpose of Jubilee is indicated by its connection to Sabbath. Jubilee is really a super-sabbath. And Sabbath has to do with resting as well as justice. (In Exodus 20:8-11, the emphasis is on resting; in Deuteronomy 5:12-15, it is justice.) I don’t think it is too big a leap to connect Sabbath resting with the practice of contemplation and the spiritual life. The various manifestations of Sabbath in terms of periodic cessations of economic activity have the benefit of being times of focus on God’s Presence. I would say that this is done in deliberate meditation, quietness, listening, and prayer in which that Presence is “practiced” and experienced.

Jubilee thus encompasses the two foci of a faithful life. On the one hand, we have the very concrete concern for the “outward journey” of lived and practiced justice in the structures and relationships of society. Jubilee is a way of living in the economic world. On the other hand, we have the contemplative “inward journey” side, which has to do with being, presence, contemplation, meditation, and prayer.

I think that Jesus intends the Kingdom of God to refer to this dual focus Jubilee life. The Kingdom is a social network, a community of peace in which justice, simplicity, and non-violence are practiced in actual inter-personal relationships. And at the same time the Kingdom is practiced in more interior ways through prayer, worship, ritual, Sacrament, and contemplation.

Thus it is not the case that the inward focus of “navel gazing” contradicts or draws energy away from the outward “activist” focus on actual relationships; the two movements inform and define each other. Indeed, each needs the other for authenticity. The two movements are not disconnected. They are more like inhalation and exhalation, or the back and forth movement of something vibrating.

The two are brought together in the life lived in intentional community.

1) A contemplative community is by nature and necessity a community of justice. The “resting” of contemplation/meditation explicitly excludes consumption and exploitation. When one is just sitting one is not in any kind of adversarial relationship with anything. I suspect that all the monks on Mt. Athos put together have a smaller carbon-footprint than I do.

Without justice, contemplation is not contemplation but a self-indulgent escape, or masturbation: like the false contemplation of comfortable people vacationing at an exclusive, expensive spa. Real contemplation is engaged.

2) A community ordered by principles and practices of justice must also practice contemplation. Justice is impossible without presence. Presence feeds justice by keeping it connected to what is real and true. It counteracts the fears, thoughts, desires, and memories that distort our normal functioning by making us not present. In them we dwell in a dead past or a non-existent future.

Trying to make an outward journey without being rooted in inner awareness is to be subject to every principality and power, starting with one’s own ego. This is the tragic failure of every revolutionary, from Cromwell to Mao. It is a forcing people to be good without any understanding of goodness beyond the arbitrary will of the one with the most power. This inevitably results in a reign of terror. Real justice is (for want of a better word) dispassionate or detached.

Jubilee/Sabbath is one place where a detached justice and an engaged contemplation flow together. The emerging called/gathered/sent community of Christ-followers will be jubilee people.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

History.


First of all, I love history. I like to read history and biography. I enjoy exploring historical sites and can spend hours in a trance reading every piece of information in a museum. History is very valuable and interesting to me.

I have never served in a church that did not lead with its history… but I have learned that this is often a big problem. As I peruse Church Information Forms, almost all of them mention somewhere prominently the date of the church’s founding. Now, I can understand why churches do this. They want to establish a sense of continuity and stability, proving their effectiveness and faithfulness over time. Like a business attesting to its own trustworthiness, churches are proud to have been around “since 1886,” or whatever.

But one of the biggest problems in established main-line churches today is nostalgia. Presbyterians often have this mindset that dwells on the past, viewing it in rosy and idealized tones. Compared with the “glory days,” our work today seems weak and inconsequential.

The most intense focus of this nostalgia is the 1950’s, when sanctuaries and Sunday Schools were overflowing and we couldn’t build churches or educate new ministers fast enough. For so many churches the tacit expectation of a new minister is to make it 1956 again. Much of the “church growth” industry feeds on this vain hope. Churches have sacrificed their very souls for the promise of full pews and abundant budgets, caving in to advertizing gimmicks and slick, pop “worship,” designed more to attract spectators than to cultivate disciples.

But this problem is deeper. For the whole edifice of Christendom has changed dramatically over the past few decades. I fear that the more we are identified – in our own minds and in the minds of others – with our past, the less able we are to communicate the gospel to today’s world.

In the first place, the past is a distraction. It may be interesting to us to celebrate a church’s colonial heritage or its revolutionary war history, or even to make a big deal out of the Reformation. But how does this emphasis serve the church’s mission today? What does that focus say to unchurched people today, except to proclaim how “yesterday” we are? We may veer very close to the mentality of museum curators or historical reenactors, as if the church were sort of a religious Colonial Williamsburg.

Too many of us think of our past as a golden age of splendid faithfulness. But there is an awful lot in our past not to be particularly proud of. The church of yesterday often supported and encouraged racism, militarism, nationalism, violence towards indigenous peoples, economic injustice, and environmental depredation. Eighty years ago parts of New Jersey were hotbeds of Klan activity, whose leadership included Presbyterian ministers! Some of our past we only lift up in shame and confession.

On the other hand, there are elements of our past that might be worth dusting off and placing front and center. In my first parish in far upstate New York they told the story of how their church was a last stop on the Underground Railroad. There was even a network of tunnels connecting the church basement with nearby homes, so escaped slaves could be hidden before being shepherded across the nearby Canadian border, in perfect violation of Federal law. There is a quality of active and risky faithfulness to be proud of!

But even these positive historical memories can be counterproductive if they simply remind us of how domesticated, timid, complacent, and reactionary, is a church’s mission today.

My point is that, in framing our history as a church, we need to be intentional and conscious that what we are communicating to people today. If we look like we have more to say to people and issues of one or more centuries ago, people are going to notice that and find us and our message hard to relate to.

The good news of God’s love for the world, revealed in Jesus, is timeless. It speaks to each generation. It is always new, fresh, wild, and amazing. When we sift through our past in articulating our identity, we need to lift up the times when our forebears were most faithful at the greatest cost.

And we need to be always seeking to speak and live this faith in terms intelligible to people in our own time and place. We need to lead with what God is doing with and among us today.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Double Predestination.

“By the decree of God,

for the manifestation of his glory,

some men and angels are predestined unto everlasting life,

and others are fore-ordained to everlasting death.”

Westminster Confession of Faith, III.3.

According to this piece of the Westminster Confession of Faith, God created some people for “everlasting death,” whatever that is. I assume it means eternal torture in the fires of hell. But I suppose a generous reading could indicate these people never popping into life in the first place. Are they just a theoretical set of people who never really exist? I don’t think so. Clearly the framers of Westminster thought they were discussing some actual humans. Perhaps these individuals could even be identified….

The idea that God loves some people and hates others --- indeed, that God created some people purely for the purpose of hating them --- is so foreign to the life and teachings of Jesus as to be outside the boundaries of Christian faith. It simply raises to the level of theological dogma a particularly sinful practice of humans. As if God were nothing more than an ordinary jerk, but with infinite power.

It is people who act this way. They reject the inept and ugly while fawning over the stylish and beautiful. If you are in the latter class you generally get what you need and want. But those in the former class have to make due with want and abuse. According to double predestination (the official name for the doctrine quoted above) there are some people whom God is “just not that into.” Like a vivisectionist who raises animals purely for the purpose of experimenting on them; or the child who acquires or makes toys just to destroy them in ever more cruel ways.

If God is really like this, why bother living? Why hope to have a relationship with such a vile and shallow being? Not to mention violent and unjust. If “God” is simply the way we refer to the way the world is and the way people treat each other… is that supposed to give us comfort?

I admit that sometimes I have trouble believing God is not like this. Certainly humans are. Too often, it doesn’t matter what you do, many people are going to like you or not on the basis of some arbitrary and accidental categories. Like that commercial in which all kinds of incompetence and boorishness are forgiven because the man is wearing a nice suit. According to double predestination, God gives some of us the nice suit and some of us an orange jump-suit, and that’s that. God loved David and hated Saul, even though both were sinners and David’s sin was arguably the worse. Some people seem to get what they need just by showing up. Others invest a lifetime in good deeds and selfless sacrifice and still don’t get what they need, if what they need depends at all on other people. God sees the heart, which is apparently where one’s preordained suit is.

If this is true I have wasted my adult life in service of such a god.

Fortunately, it is not true. The great insight of Neo-orthodoxy is that “Jesus Christ, as he is attested in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God.” (Theological Declaration of Barmen, II.1.) Therefore, Jesus Christ is the way we know who God is. Since double predestination is utterly foreign and contradictory to the God we see in Jesus Christ, it is a false doctrine. It doesn’t matter how many apparent biblical warrants can be stacked up in its favor (and there aren’t that many anyway), it is Jesus Christ who is the Word, and it is he who determines the meaning and content of Scripture. If we find something in Scripture that contradicts Jesus we are probably reading it wrong.

I write this because all Presbyterian ministers have to be examined when becoming a member of a presbytery. In that examination they are often asked if they have any “scruples,” or departures from the “standards” put forth in the Constitution, which includes the Westminster Confession of Faith. Most just happily shake their head that they are fine with everything in the Constitution, assuming that the subtext in the question has to do with whether they are willing to adhere to G-6.0106b (the prohibition against gays in leadership), like that’s the only really mandatory part of the Constitution. I am distressed that no one ever seems to have a problem with Book of Confessions, 6.016 (quoted as the epigraph above).

I sometimes wonder if it isn’t time to put aside whatever strange issues the Puritans were dealing with when they put this stuff on paper. It’s not the 1640’s anymore for crying out loud. This part of our heritage has been an embarrassment, practically since the ink with which it was written dried.

Friday, October 16, 2009

A Celtic Way of Evangelism.

Here's something from Brad Culver's blog, "Living Water From an Ancient Well." It describes a way of evangelism quite different from what many of us are used to.

E.H. Broadbent describes the Work of early Celtic Monastic Communities :


Their method was to visit a country and, where it seemed suitable, found a missionary village. In the centre they built a simple wooden church, around which were clustered school-rooms and huts for the monks, who were the builders, preachers, and teachers. Outside this circle, as required, dwellings were built for the students and their families, who gradually gathered around them. The whole was enclosed by a wall, but the colony often spread beyond the original enclosure. Groups of twelve monks would go out, each under the leadership of an abbot, to open up fresh fields for the Gospel. Those who remained taught in the school, and as soon as they had sufficiently learned the language of the people among whom they were, translated and wrote out portions of Scripture, and also hymns, which they taught to their scholars.

They were free to marry or to remain single; many remained single so that they might have greater liberty for the work. When some converts were made, the missionaries chose from among them small groups of young men who had ability, trained them especially in some handicraft and in languages, and taught them the Bible and how to explain it to others, so that they might be able to work among their own people. They delayed baptism until those professing faith had received a certain amount of instruction and had given some proof of steadfastness.

They avoided attacking the religions of the people, counting it more profitable to preach the truth to them than to expose their errors. They accepted the Holy Scriptures as the source of faith and life and preached justification by faith. They did not take part in politics or appeal to the State for aid. All this work, in its origin and progress, though it had developed some features alien to New Testament teaching and Apostolic example, was independent of Rome and different in important respects from the Roman Catholic system (Cited by Tucker).


Source "the pilgrim church" by E. Broadbent

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Losing It.

Since February I have lost 25 pounds. People have remarked about it and asked me to say how I did it, which I am taking as an opportunity to reflect on this whole experience. I am especially wondering if it has anything to teach me about any other areas of my spiritual/psychological/somatic life. There will be at least two parts to this reflection. This first part simply tells what I did.

In terms of the weight loss, I had no prescribed “plan.” Certainly nothing from a book. I started with a very simple strategy, based on rudimentary knowledge and a little past experience, which was basically to cut my consumption of carbohydrates and increase the fiber in my diet. For the first two weeks I cut the carbs way down by avoiding pasta, bread, rice, and potatoes, and reducing my sugar to the honey in my morning tea (and whatever was in the fruits and vegetables I ate). I also started eating yogurt with two tablespoons of wheat germ in the morning. My goal was to lose five pounds by my birthday, February 27. I wanted to see if I was on the right track. It worked.

After this I began to set more ambitious goals. I added back a moderate amount of carbs, but some things, like soft drinks, I eliminated for good. I reduced the size of my lunches. The weight continued to drop off, but much slower. I made my goal of losing ten more pounds by Easter, and another five by Pentecost. A final component is that I became a compulsive self-weigher, taking a reading at least once a day (in the morning). This gave me some idea of what I could or couldn’t do that day.

Then I hit a wall. The strategy was not working for the last five to ten pounds. I stayed around the same weight through the summer. Then this past month I focused in on further carb reductions and that did the trick.

Meanwhile, I continued doing yoga, attending a class once-a-week, and doing sun salutations most mornings. I also got into taking morning walks and even running for about half a mile, but this has become sporadic.

So much for the weight thing. I will also say that a bunch of other events happened to me over this seven month period. Like, I had an operation in April to clear out and drill open my sinuses.

More importantly, I regularized my daily Scripture reading and prayer/meditation routine, something I have been trying to do for years. Part of this has been consistent use of the labyrinth at my wife’s church. Along with the physical discipline I was able to add a spiritual component… but I haven’t decided how they relate to each other. Certainly it hasn’t been conscious; I never mentioned in my prayers explicitly anything about eating or not eating. There is a confluence in the walking/labyrinth/prayer piece.

At the same time, I was almost daily using these “releases and affirmations” relating to my enneagram type. Some of these speak generally to issues of the body, which is an important element for my type to integrate. It may be that on some deeper level this was helping me develop the strength to do what I was doing elsewhere in my life.

Anyway, that’s how I did it, fwiw. Now to keep it off, which I think I can do by not falling into old bad habits and continually monitoring where I am.

This whole thing has been a tremendous boost to my sense of personal power and integrity. The place where I ended up seemed impossible seven months ago. And I had frequently depressed myself by taking on huge goals and falling short. I would have been happy to have lost only ten pounds, to tell the truth. I am getting the sense that with the right attitude and methodology I can do… well, not anything, but I can certainly open up some areas of my life that had been mired in inertia and paralysis for decades.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Iftar.

Last night we attended an iftar dinner at the home of a Muslim family. We know these folks through Susan's church, which has been developing a relationship with a group of mostly Turkish Muslims in our area. One family invited us to their home for the dinner that ends the daily Ramadan fast.

During the month of Ramadan, in commemoration of the days during which the Koran was revealed to Muhammad, Muslims fast from food and water during daylight hours of the day. Each evening they break the fast with a family meal to which it is customary to invite friends and other guests.

So we drove into New Brunswick to the home of a young family where we sat down to a delightful, informal meal. There were our host and hostess and their adorable baby daughter, two international students at Rutgers, my son Daniel, my wife Susan, and me.

We learned a lot about Islamic practices and holidays. This led to interested questions about Christian holidays. Our friends apparently didn't know much about Easter, which they asked us to explain. Susan gave an excellent summary of Jesus' life, why he was killed, his resurrection, and the foundation of the church at Pentecost. (I provided the color commentary.) I should know better in this post-Christendom, global age, but it still surprises me when I come across people who have never heard this before.

We also talked about Muslim holidays, which appear to be few. The emphasis is on the 5 daily prayers and the "5 pillars:" the confession of faith in One God and the Prophet, the daily prayers, giving alms, the fast, and the Haj (pilgrimage to Mecca). The meal at the last evening of the Ramadan fast seems to be the most important holiday for Muslims.

Our conversation ranged across a lot of other topics. But the main things we experienced were a gracious hospitality, a gentleness and simplicity, and an inquisitiveness, along with a deep and comfortably held faith.

We are looking forward to returning the hospitality and inviting this family to our home.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Wiki-theology.


My son has a children’s book I used to read to him. It is an old African folktale called The Story of the Three Kingdoms. The three kingdoms are the air, the water, and the land, and each was ruled over by a particular animal: the hawk, the shark, and the elephant, respectively. These rulers were harsh tyrants who lorded their power over other animals, including the emerging new group of beings, called “the people.” In order to tame these powers and open up a safe place for their own life, the people developed a strategy. They would gather around the campfire each night and share their experiences, “warming them over” in conversation, until an innovative and imaginative solution was found. Then, one by one, the people were able to subdue and negotiate with these rulers. But the key is that the people found creative responses and approaches by bringing their disparate stories together in conversation around the fire.
This could be called an “open source” approach to problem-solving. I think that in this approach we are seeing the future of authority in the church.
We see an open-source method as well in Ernesto Cardenal’s classic account of liberation theology in practice: The Gospel in Solentiname. In this book, Cardenal recounts the weekly Bible studies he held with the local Nicaraguan campesinos. They would read a chapter of the gospels and then discuss it around the circle, “warming it over” in conversation. Each person brought her or his life-experience and knowledge to the discussion. They bowed to no learned commentaries and relied upon no theological “experts.” There was no sense of an authorized or official interpretation which was handed down for the people to swallow.
The open-source idea is a prominent one in information technology. A “wiki” is an oen-source internet website, which means that it allows contributions from just about anyone. Sometimes they have a system for editing and organizing the information, but mostly a wiki is supposed to be self-correcting. The most well-known example of a wiki, of course, is Wikipedia.com.

Wikipedia is an open source, on-line encyclopedia. The entries are written and corrected, sometimes very frequently and passionately, by anyone who cares to make a submission. And I mean anyone. They don’t have to have any reliable knowledge about the subject at all. They could just be making stuff up. But it still appears on Wikipedia, at least until someone submits something different.
It is the community, warming this disparate date over in conversation, weighing and evaluating all the options, perspectives, and information, that then decides what is reliable and what courses of action would be most beneficial.
In the Modern Age and throughout the whole regime of Christendom — roughly the 4th through the 20th centuries — authority in the church was mostly imposed from above. A common framework of belief was felt necessary to unite the Empire. Therefore, a single interpretive model was directed, which was basically people getting the “correct” information from a single teacher. Ultimately, in the West at least, the single teacher was the Pope. Even after the Reformation, when the source of authority shifted (for Protestants) from the hierarchy to the Scriptures, the church still maintained strict and explicit parameters for interpretation. Authority still came “down” from ecclesiastical or academic authorities. Mainline Protestant churches developed authoritative confessional documents and required subscription to them as a way to regulate the interpretation of Scripture. These interpretations had the desired effect of providing for social unity and propping up the economic and political order.
Phyllis Tickle has pointed out how we now face one of history’s periodic crises of authority. The authority of traditional ecclesiastical interpretation of Scripture is being challenged. For one thing, the system stopped making sense to people. It was not matching their actual experience of life.
Like any scientific revolution, anomalous data began to accumulate which increasingly questioned the validity of the traditional doctrines and interpretations. Tickle uses slavery and women as two examples where people realized that the traditional authoritative line was simply wrong. This happened with other issues as well. The authorities has assured us that all other religions were forms of devil worship or primitive superstition. But now that the adherents of other religions no longer live on the other side of the planet where they could be caricatured, stereotyped, and demonized, this view is harder to maintain; now these people are our neighbors. The authorities also insisted that our culture was the height of human progress and enlightenment. But we discover that horrible atrocities have been committed in our name and with our support and approval. We discover that our culture is no less corrupt, violent, unjust, oppressive, exploitative, and venal than most others, and worse than many. As our confidence, triumphalism, and certitude wane in the face of obvious and clear facts, our faith in our established authorities also crumbles.
Not only that, but when Christians started to read the Bible without the blinders of established doctrinal authority, many began to realize it doesn’t necessarily say what we were always told it said. Not only is the Bible not a document written to undergird the Powers-That-Be in society, it is actually a wall-to-wall anti-imperialist tract in which the emperors, from Pharaoh to Caesar, are the villains, and the heros are mostly slaves, migrants, refugees, exiles, ecstatic prophets, fishers, and campesinos. Rich people and kings are usually viewed with great suspicion; the Messiah is born, not in a palace, but in a barn, the son of a poor carpenter; and he is executed by the authorities for blasphemy and sedition. There is probably no more revolutionary, subversive, anti-establishment work in all of ancient literature than the Judeo-Christian Scriptures.
The old authority has been deflated. The new and emerging authority shows signs of being “open-source.” This is what Walter Brueggemann is getting at when he talks about a “dialogical” approach to Scripture study. He perceives a decreasing need to identify one authoritative and consistent set of answers in the Bible. Rather, we are learning to live and learn from the tension and ambiguity that presents itself all over the text. We feel the need to bring the divergent views within Scripture into dialogue, as opposed to choosing winning and losing texts. It may be that a community will come down here or there, but it will be with considerably less certitude and arrogance.
This way of operating is already advocated by many in the emerging church. The need to have everything wrapped up in neat, catechetical categories is diminishing. We are seeing more openness to other, previously ignored or marginalized, voices in Scripture and in the church. The conversation may even embrace previously excluded or condemned perspectives. For instance, we have to realize that the Bible includes explicitly universalistic passages which balance those better known parts that make more exclusive claims.
Some are already worrying that an open-source or wiki approach means that “everything is up for grabs” all the time, as if truth is completely relative and dependent on whomever has the loudest voice. It does depend on the sense and intelligence of the participants and their commitment to the community and to the search. Different views would have to be weighed and evaluated around the circle of the participants. The respective “agendas” of people would have to be exposed and critically examined as well. In the end, the fruit is a result of a common conversation and dialogue in which the best wisdom available to the whole group is taken into account. It may be that the findings of this group would be offered to the conversation in an even larger and more inclusive group, revealing a more embracing insight, and so forth.
The “open-source” approach happens to reflect the situation of the early church, when the faith was in considerable creative flux, before it was doctrinally nailed down. It also may relate to the way Judaism, without the burden of having to provide a consistent ideological foundation for a secular Empire, has always addressed the Scriptures and tradition.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Wendell Berry Quote

Here's a great quote from Wendell Berry, which I am stealing from Carl McColman's site. I think it is important to remember, as we receive the news of the Presbyterian Church suffering its largest membership loss ever in 2008, that the church is failing because it is unfaithful to its Lord. Instead, it has been promoting "the state and the economic status quo." That only gets us so far with only certain limited classes of people... and draws us farther from the Creator. Berry is a great contemporary prophet. His words should form part of whatever new creed we take into the future.

“Despite its protests to the contrary, modern Christianity has become willy-nilly the religion of the state and the economic status quo. Because it has been so exclusively dedicated to incanting anemic souls into heaven, it has, by a kind of ignorance, been made the tool of much earthly villainy. It has, for the most part, stood silently by, while a predatory economy has ravaged the world, destroyed its natural beauty and health, divided and plundered its human communities and households. It has flown the flag and chanted the slogans of empire. It has assumed with the economists that “economic forces” automatically work for good, and has assumed with the industrialists and militarists that technology determines history. It has assumed with almost everybody that “progress” is good, that it is good to be modern and up with the times. It has admired Caesar and comforted him in his depredations and defaults. But in its de facto alliance with Caesar, Christianity connives directly in the murder of Creation. For, in these days, Caesar is no longer a mere destroyer of armies, cities, and nations. He is a contradictor of the fundamental miracle of life. A part of the normal practice of his power is his willingness to destroy the world. He prays, he says, and churches everywhere compliantly pray with him. But he is praying to a God whose works he is prepared at any moment to destroy. What could be more wicked than that, or more mad?

The religion of the Bible, on the contrary, is a religion of the state and the status quo only in brief moments. In practice, it is a religion for the correction equally of people and of kings. And Christ’s life, from the manger to the cross, was an affront to the established powers of his time, as it is to the established powers of our time. Much is made in churches of the “good news” of the gospels. Less is said of the gospel’s bad news, which is that Jesus would have been horrified by just about every “Christian” government the world has ever seen. He would be horrified by our government and its works, and it would be horrified by him. Surely no sane and thoughtful person can imagine any government of our time sitting comfortably at the feet of Jesus, who is telling them to “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them that despitefully use you and persecute you…” (Matt. 5:44).

— Wendell Berry


Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Quote for the Day

Here's a great quote from Carl McColman's blog:

My own experience in a variety of contexts suggests that the number one problem, the most common source of resistance to both evangelization and spiritual growth in Christian terms, is the angry, punishing father-god of patriarchal oppression. It is something of a mystery to me that this God concept, so foreign to the actual contents of the gospel and Jesus’ picture of his Abba, should be assumed by so many to be what in fact Christianity offers, and the degree to which it remains embedded in Christian literature and art. Furthermore, I find this problematic image deeply infecting all “brands” of Christianity, from the most anti-ecclesial charismatic/evangelical to Catholic to liberal. I do not mean they all deliberately teach it, but rather that all are somehow infected by it, one way or another, indeed have embraced it, even in rejection of it. Many have abandoned or rejected Christianity because their affective and intellectual development has rendered this notion of God intolerable, and they do not know and indeed often cannot imagine that Christianity has something else to offer. Intellectual conversion will mean, as Shug says to Celie inThe Color Purple, first, you gotta get that angry old white man out of your head. It will then mean finding truer images of God in the tradition itself. For most of us this will obviously also include some psychological sorting out of our own family/childhood issues.

— Robert Davis Hughes III, Beloved Dust:
Tides of the Spirit in the Christian Life

Conflict of interest?


Why we are in decline. Reason #584.

Presbyterians seem to be particularly allergic to what we like to see as conflicts of interest. We get nervous if the people involved in making a decision have something at stake in that decision. We have this apparent bias towards “objectivity,” believing that the people best equipped to make a decision are those who have nothing to gain or lose. We feel that they are more likely to make a better decision since they won’t be swayed by their own self-interest.
I suspect that this approach is rooted in the doctrine of total depravity, which we inherit from some elements of the Reformed tradition. Everyone is perverted by sin and will have a natural bias towards their own self-interest. In decision-making, they will do what benefits them personally and not care about what is best for the whole group, let alone the mission of the church.

To reinforce this allergy we look at the examples of corrupt judges and politicians. And of course there are plenty of examples from the church as well. It’s not like it doesn’t happen that people pervert the system by their own self-interest.

Thus we seem to have this attitude that church groups should be as neutral as possible, kind of like juries in our judicial system. Any interested connection to the parties actually involved in a decision is considered suspect.

We have ignored two problems with this way of thinking and acting. 1) There is no such thing as objectivity. Objectivity is a false myth of modernity. Just because people may not have a visible personal stake in a matter doesn’t make them objective and unbiased. They undoubtedly have personal stakes in some of the issues and personalities involved. They come from somewhere; they have accumulated baggage/wisdom which will be applied in this case. Our bias towards supposed objectivity is itself a huge bias that blinds decision-making groups to the interests they do have. Often these interests are in caution, inertia, precedent, and so forth, which means that committees often have a bias towards the status quo.

2) What is the wisdom in asking people to make a decision who don’t know or perhaps even care about it? This is what can happen when we exclude stakeholders at the outset. Often what happens here is that the group, not having any interest or passion in the matter, refer to the advice of staff people, who have their own agendas.

We see this in the church all the time, and it is a recipe for paralysis. We become legalists who stick to the letter of the law, because it is easier and seems safer than taking a risk on something new and different. And by all means let’s bracket and exclude the people who care the most about something

I am having less and less of a problem with allowing those who are interested, passionate, invested, and excited about something to be involved in the decisions affecting it. Who else? These are the folks who are going to implement the decisions. Why not include them systematically in the decision-making process?

Friday, June 12, 2009

Fair and Balanced?

When I was in Boston in the mid-1980's we had a presbytery meeting in which the relevant committee made a presentation concerning the wars then ravaging Central America. Their presentation was sharply critical of U.S. policy, which at that time was supporting brutal dictators and death squads. After this talk someone at the meeting stood up and complained that the presbytery was not being even-handed or balanced. They pointed out that only one “side” of this matter was presented, and that we had heard nothing from the other point of view.
My question at that point was whether we were really supposed to invite a representative of the contras to address us and give us this other side. Is the church required to give equal time to murderers, terrorists, torturers, and other purveyors of wanton violence? Are we even supposed to hear from the U.S. government so they can explain their policies?
This question continues to emerge when the church is thought to be one-sided in its approach to social and political issues. The church takes a stand. But then those who disagree with that stand complain that the other side was not heard or addressed.
My question is: What other side? Since when is the church supposed to be even-handed and balanced? Did Jesus exhibit this kind of balance? Of course not. Do the prophets allow equal time for those who favor idolatry and injustice? No.
If a group is invited to speak to Christians about climate change, are we somehow also bound to hear as well from the “dominionist” perspective, or to engage someone paid by Exxon to give us their propaganda? If Christians express concern about a particular oppressed group and seek to assist them, are we supposed to hear from their tormentors as well? Are we to allow someone to suggest that there perhaps some good reason for the violence being done to people? Are we even to support “Christians” in any acts of violence against others? Or Protestants against Catholics? Is there any conceivable oppressed and abused group of people whom we do not stand with in solidarity and support, in Jesus’ name, no matter who is doing violence to them?
Jesus did not care about labels or even one’s past life. He healed and saved people because of their pain and disease, period. It didn’t matter to Jesus whether one was a Roman Centurion, a tax collector, a prostitute, a Pharisee, a Jew, a Samaritan, a Syrophoenecian, or any other category of person. He healed them just the same on the basis of their suffering.
He did not listen to the other side. He did not listen to any voices that might have suggested that this or that suffering person deserved it, brought it on themselves, or wasn’t really suffering. He certainly never suggested that a person deserved to suffer because the person afflicting them had himself suffered grievous harm in the past.
Neither should we. God and Jesus are not fair and balanced. They are wildly biased towards the afflicted. No matter who they are or who is afflicting them.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Cheap grace vs. works righteousness


I think the church is always faced with a tension between two poles.  On the one hand there is cheap grace.  On the other there is works righteousness.
Cheap grace is when we dispense God’s grace with no expectation that it will change lives, and certainly no requirement that behavior be altered because of it.  It simply blesses, accepts, and forgives.  Grace is everything; works mean nothing.  
Works righteousness is when we say that God’s grace is what we earn by our good works.  Our good works are everything, and God’s grace is the reward.
Both of these are toxic ideas leading to disastrous practices with catastrophic results.  
On the one hand we have the spectacle of people worshiping in church on Sunday, and driving trains to Auschwitz on Monday.  There is a total disconnect between what we say we believe and what we do.  It does not occur to us that these ought to be in relationship.  
On the other hand, we have people burning themselves out dreaming up things to do supposedly to deserve God’s favor, when this is impossible.  The worst of works righteousness is when the works aren’t even particularly meaningful, such as the mindless repetition of rote prayers or ritual actions.  But if we think we will save ourselves by our own initiative and actions, we are mistaken.
Protestantism has always, since Luther, been particularly allergic to works righteousness.  But as Bonhoeffer pointed out, this has made cheap grace a dangerous liability.  It is our natural tendency to think so highly of grace that we forget how costly it is.  
Cheap grace flourished under Christendom.  It was very convenient to hear about God’s grace and receive it.  It would have been very inconvenient, not to mention economically, politically, socially, and militarily unacceptable to hear that grace was supposed to change your behavior at all.
Works righteousness also flourished under Christendom, as a way to control people.  (I have often wondered how a faith that supposedly celebrated “grace alone” ended up contributing to the “Protestant work ethic.”
As Christendom crumbles, it occurs to me that if I had to choose between these two extremes (even though neither is truly faithful), I would have to say that works righteousness is the lesser of the two dangers.  I will more gladly be accused of advocating works righteousness.  At least then there is a possibility of faith intersecting with real life.  But if it were demonstrated that I preached cheap grace I would reevaluate my ministry.
Either way, healing is necessary.  Grace needs to be preached... but in such a way that it transforms lives and changes behavior, alters lifestyle and shifts commitments.  And works need to be advocated and accomplished... as a result of the grace of God at work in our lives.  Without works, grace is empty and unrealized.  Without grace, works can become a mindless and destructive activism with no root in God’s living Word.    

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

TYMUR Theology


There is, though, a form of Christianity far worse than just being a fan of Jesus.  There is the practice of using Jesus as an emblem or mascot or figurehead to justify your own agenda, even when that agenda is utterly contrary to everything Jesus was about.  This makes the image of  “Jesus,” detached from the actual teachings, life, and ministry of Jesus, into an idol.  

Like the infamous (and unsolved) Tylenol murders of 1982 (the FBI code name for which is TYMURS), this form of Christianity uses the name of Jesus on the outside of the bottle, but inside the capsules has been placed a deadly poison.  We accept something calling itself “Jesus,” but instead of the life he lived as attested in the gospels, we find ourselves poisoned by this toxic mix of nationalism, militarism, violence, fear, anger, greed, bigotry, exclusion, and rabid self-righteousness.  

The tragedy is that many people assume that this murderous and hateful concoction that oozes out of the capsules labeled “Jesus” really is what Jesus is about.  This is how Christianity is experienced by a large part of the world.  It is a Christianity that has nothing to do with Jesus, and everything to do with propping up, maintaining, justifying, and spreading the values of Empire.  It is a container with "Jesus," on the label, but refilled with something deadly.   

This practice is something we inherit from Christendom, which basically projected a false picture of Jesus whom it claimed to worship and follow.  In reality this “Jesus” was often a facade behind which stood the principalities and powers of, at first, imperial Rome.  As history wore on, different secular orders used the same tactic.  But they all have in common the use of Jesus’ name and image to justify acts and policies and ways of thinking that are radically contrary to what Jesus himself was actually about.

One example of this sort of thing happening today is found in the recent article in Harper’s Magazine called “Jesus Killed Mohammad.”  

http://www.harpers.org/archive/2009/05/0082488

Here, journalist Jeff Sharlet chronicles the rise of evangelical “Christians” in the U. S. military. It becomes clear that, whatever these people believe, it has nothing to do with the Jesus Christ who is attested in the Scriptures.  They justify war, torture, conquest, bullying, and other things clearly out of the range of WJWD.  They have apparently made it an acceptable practice of bait Muslims in Iraq by spouting the motto, “Jesus Killed Mohammad!” (you can almost hear the infantile refrain, nyah-nyah-na-nyah-nyah) on their vehicles and spray-painting crosses on the walls of mosques.  

Christendom was always “Christianity with a fake Jesus,” and these military fanatics are merely a contemporary manifestation of a vile tendency that has a long history.  The Crusades and the Inquisition are the best known instances of this.  .

Christian faith is only maintained in its integrity by the persistent fact that we do still have the gospels.  And occasionally people bother to read them and listen to them... rather than use them in other ways — weapon, doorstop, credentialing device, litmus test, doctrinal checklist, etc.  

(This is why I have zero patience with people like Bart Ehrman, who make it their business to undermine the authority and integrity of the gospels.  Such projects may actually give aid and comfort to those who would utilize the gospels in their own projects of violence and bigotry.  I can think of lots of people who would love to hear that they may cherry-pick the parts of the gospels they like, and dismiss the rest.)

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Fan or Follower?

In her talk to the recent Emerging Church conference in Albuquerque, Alicia Torres-Fleming mentioned the difference between being a follower of Jesus and a fan.  A fan is someone who sits on the sidelines and roots for someone's success.  A fan of Jesus would be someone who is enthusiastic about Jesus, but who is mainly a spectator in actual Christian living.  Fans “follow,” but only in the sense of watching and keeping informed.  We can be fans of particular musicians by enjoying and advocating their music.  We can be fans of a sports team by watching and rooting for them.  There is often an element of psychological transference that is going on with fans.  We attach our hopes and dreams, even our self-image, to this other figure whom we then sort of live through.  There is a vacarious element here as well: the figure of whom we are fans is the one who works, produces, struggles, and accomplishes the victory or the performance.  Fans only observe, participating at best by being encouraging.  But there is always some distance. 
A follower, in the sense of a disciple, is different from a fan.  A follower literally follows.  That is, they go where the leader goes, they learn to do what the leader does, they actually take steps to live the life of the one whom they are following.  
It is one thing to be a Christian in the sense of rooting for Christianity or for Jesus, while still sitting comfortably at home maintaining a conventional existence.  That is a fan.  It is another thing altogether to leave home and take up the life Jesus lived.  That is a disciple or follower.
Torres-Fleming was challenging and encouraging people to move from being mere fans of Jesus, to engaging in actual discipleship of Jesus.  Discipleship is something that must be done with one’s body, not just with words and thinking.  It walks in the same steps as Jesus. 
In her life it involved leaving a good job in downtown Manhattan, and going back to the ghetto in the Bronx to work with the poor.  In the life of Shane Claiborne, another speaker at the conference, it meant living in community in the inner city.  Others may understand Jesus’ call in different ways.  But in every case it must express what we know about Jesus’ own life.  He lived in community.  He walked lightly on the Earth.  He lived in extreme simplicity, poverty, and frugality.  He followed the way of non-violence.  He healed people and cast out demons.  He taught about God’s love.  He embodied forgiveness and acceptance.  He placed himself among the outcast and rejected.  He rejected the values of the religious, political and economic establishment.  And he sacrificed his own life for others.  
We can admire Jesus for all this, but if our admiration does not become real in our actually living like he lived, we just stay fans.  A disciple is one who actually takes on those characteristics of Jesus’ life and lives them.  A fan might place a WWJD? bumper-sticker on their car.  A disciple actually looks at their life, asks “What would Jesus do?”  Then, in the power of the Spirit, takes the crucial step of changing their thoughts, words, and actions to reflect what Jesus would do.  
      

Monday, May 18, 2009

Jesus the Holistic Healer


In one of his books on the historical Jesus, John Meier points out that Jesus was known by his contemporaries primarily as a healer. That was his reputation.  The main things people knew Jesus for were healing, exorcizing, and preaching/teaching, probably in that order.  
I wonder if his disciples didn’t understand themselves to be continuing this kind of ministry after his resurrection.  Certainly, when he sends them out on a mission he gives them instructions that have to do with exorcism and healing (Mark 6:13; Matthew 10:8).  His disciples continue to heal after his resurrection.  In other words, was Christianity originally a healing movement?  What if healing was the core purpose of the church?  How would that change the way we operate now?
Many would rightly suggest that the core purpose of Jesus and the church has to do with salvation.  The word for salvation in the Greek language (in which the New Testament was written) is sozo.  One of the meanings of sozo, along with save, rescue, keep from harm, and liberate, is heal.  We have a classic hymn that praises God who has “ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven” us.  These words sum up what salvation is about.
In his own preaching, the main theme to which Jesus returns repeatedly is the Kingdom of God. This is his vision of the saved world: ransomed, healed, restored, and forgiven by God. 
Salvation in a cosmic and universal sense is what Jesus finally accomplishes in his death and resurrection.  This giving of his life to the world heals the relationship, which had been broken by sin, between God and humanity.  
So, what he did for individuals in his healing and exorcizing ministry, he does for the whole creation in his death and resurrection.  And because he does it for the whole creation, the church now ministering in his name may witness to this salvation and extend this healing into the lives of people here and now.
The fact that Jesus talks about it as a kingdom indicates that Jesus also understands this healing to have a central political element.  One of the indications and causes of the disease and illness which Jesus came to heal was a disordered and unjust political and economic system.  This system was a big contributor in making people sick.  It was oppressive, exploitative, terrorizing, and designed to make the rich richer and the poor poorer.  Many of his healings of individuals also had a pointed metaphorical dig at Rome, like when he healed a man possessed by a “legion” of demons.  A legion was a unit of the Roman army.
We know very well that a sick society produces sick individuals.  So Jesus’ healing ministry extended into the development of healthy communities based on justice and peace.
In other words, Jesus’ healing ministry was holistic in the sense that it was not limited to just one aspect of human life — eg. physical, emotional, political, or economic.  He was concerned with healing the whole person, the whole community, and the whole creation.
Unfortunately, the church has largely lost sight of this healing aspect of Jesus’ ministry.  Most churches don’t explicitly talk about themselves as healing centers, and it doesn’t often occur to people that if they need healing the church is a place to go for it.  
For Jesus, healing was not just a matter of repairing someone in body or mind so they could participate again in what we call the rat race.  It was far more comprehensive and encompassing than that... and demanding.  He knew that people would not stay healed if they immediately fell back into a corrupt and debilitating system.  He knew that the system itself had to be replaced.
The church was supposed to be this new community: a place of healing, forgiveness, restoration, acceptance, inclusion, liberation, beauty, joy, justice, and peace.  Somehow we need to get back to these core values.  We need to remember that salvation is about healing, and that this healing extends from the cosmic reconciliation of the creation itself, to the formation of creative, loving communities, to the healing of individuals and their physical, emotional, spiritual brokenness and pain.


Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Evil

I am copying this from Michael Granzen's site and sending it out because it is so important.

THERE'S A WORD FOR THIS


The Bush administration put relentless pressure on interrogators to use harsh methods on detainees in part to find evidence of cooperation between al Qaida and the late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s regime, according to a former senior U.S. intelligence official and a former Army psychiatrist.

Such information would’ve provided a foundation for one of former President George W. Bush’s main arguments for invading Iraq in 2003. No evidence has ever been found of operational ties between Osama bin Laden’s terrorist network and Saddam’s regime.

The use of abusive interrogation — widely considered torture — as part of Bush’s quest for a rationale to invade Iraq came to light as the Senate issued a major report tracing the origin of the abuses and President Barack Obama opened the door to prosecuting former U.S. officials for approving them.

Let’s say this slowly: the Bush administration wanted to use 9/11 as a pretext to invade Iraq, even though Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11. So it tortured people to make them confess to the nonexistent link.

There’s a word for this: it’s evil.
Paul Krugman

Saturday, April 18, 2009

900 Pound Gorillas in the Room


There are two 900 lb. gorillas sitting on every page of Scripture and we ignore them at our peril. They are rarely mentioned explicitly, but they are there like black holes, shaping the gravity field and even bending the light.  

1.  One is Empire.  For the New Testament this is obviously Rome, but the whole Bible is influenced by the critique of imperialism, beginning with Pharaoh, if not earlier.  It may be said of the New Testament in particular, but also of the Bible as a whole, that it is an anti-imperialist tract.  The Bible becomes incomprehensible --- and badly interpreted --- unless this backdrop is articulated.  

2.  The other is the mythology, symbolism, and ritual of the Temple.  For over a millennia, the Temple shaped and reflected the spiritual/religious life of the Israelite/Jewish people.   The people worked out their relationship to God in its light (or shadow).  Prophets, priests, sages, and kings all had to know intimately what it was about.  Temple imagery and vocabulary permeate the whole Bible.

There are probably others, but two 900 lb. gorillas is enough for one day.

Reading Forward Not Backward


I have to admit that for years my approach to biblical and theological questions has been to look backward.  That is, I would examine the "history of interpretation."  Find out what Barth, Calvin, Augustine, and the Fathers said about a passage or an issue.  Notice the hermeneutical trajectory relative to the specific time and place of the interpreter.  Discover how a passage has bee used by the church from era to era.  That sort of thing.

One of the things that Rohr said at that conference a few weeks ago -- and one of the reasons I have been so interested in Margaret Barker --- is that I am learning that this backward-looking approach is less fruitful now.  Whether it was ever so is a question... looking back through centuries of interpretation is interesting... but it probably tells us more about the interpreters and their times than shedding much light on Jesus or the Scriptures.

Rohr suggested that we need a hermeneutical approach that is more conscious about looking ahead...  This to see a theological issue or text from the perspective of the history that produced it.  That means viewing the New Testament from the perspective of what was going on in Second Temple Judaism and all that preceded it.

As an example, I started thinking about the Atonement.  One approach would be to examine the theology and theories of the Atonement throughout Christian history.  But I found it more fruitful to ask what people in Jesus' day would have understood by it.  How is it presented in the Hebrew Scriptures?  

I am convinced that Jesus and the early church did not invent Christianity out of nothing. Neither was it a product of Greek categories applied later.  It is not important for me to hold that Jesus was so utterly unique that his actions and teachings, and the theology based on him, were unprecedented.  To the contrary, Jesus' authenticity is shown in his continuity with what was already fermenting in the Judaism(s) of his time.

My Holy Week sermons for the past two years have been trying to apply this approach.  One sermon tries to get to the bottom of the Greek word 'uper, which is often translated "for," as in "Christ died for us."  But "for" is kind of ambiguous in English and has allowed for substitutionary thinking to insert itself.  'Uper could also be understood to mean "over."  How would that reading change our understanding?  Thinking this way gets more poetic: to say Christ died "over" us means he died "because of" us... but also could it mean he died in some way "above" us in the sense of a mediator between us and heaven?

I also talked about blood, which in our usage often means violence, death, pain, and horror. But for the Hebrew Scriptures blood was life.  It was holy.  It was something divine that was offered back to God and not for our consumption.  When the priest sprinkled and spread the blood of a sacrificed animal it was for purification and a kind of reconnection to God.

The Hebrew word that often gets used for atonement is kpr.   Kpr means "cover" or perhaps "mend" (by patching or resewing).  (See Mary Douglas.)   

My point is that in none of this do we find the idea of redemptive violence that often gets associated with atonement in Christianity.  Ideas of divine punishment and substitution are not necessary either.  (Some of this was probably added later by Gentile Christians who may not have fully understood the Hebrew/Jewish context of the New Testament.  Not that I do....)

So, when 1 John 2:2 says, "He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world," do we really know what that means without putting ourselves into the mindset, as far as possible, of Second Temple Judaism?  Is it not quite possible that all of Christian theology, flavored so strongly by its Greek condiments, didn't get it?


Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Great Prayer of Thanksgiving for Maundy Thursday

This is my Great Prayer of Thanksgiving for Maundy Thursday.  It is a dialogue between the minister and the people.


Great Prayer of Thanksgiving     

The Lord be with you.
And also with you.
Lift up your hearts!
We lift them up to the Lord.
Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
It is right to give our thanks and praise.

Our greatest joy is in giving you thanks and praise, 
O Lord our God.
In the beginning you created the universe
and this holy Earth to be our home,
a paradise overflowing with life,
a place of communion and grace.
Into this garden you placed us,
to dwell with you and each other in love.
Yet we fell into temptation,
seeking to grasp too much,
and grew separate from you, the Creator,
and fell into self-centered disobedience,
manufacturing for ourselves a world of violence and death,
power and poverty.
Redeeming and renewing your holy creation
you cleansed the world in the waters of the flood,
giving righteousness and justice a new beginning.
You called the family of Abraham and Sarah
to be a blessing to the whole Earth.
Yet we in our blindness instituted systems and policies
that infected the world with oppression and exploitation,
and your people, who fled to Egypt as refugees,
came to languish there in slavery.
A new king arose over Egypt.  
He set task masters over the people with forced labor.  
The Egyptians embittered our lives with harsh labor 
at mortar and brick and in all sorts of work in the fields.
This night is different from all other nights,
for we mix our bread with the bitter herb  
in remembrance of our time of bondage and suffering.
We cried to you, O Lord, 
the God of our ancestors, 
and you heeded our plight, 
our misery, and our oppression.
You heard our moaning, 
and you remembered your covenant 
with Abraham’s family, 
and you sent your servants 
Moses, Miriam, and Aaron,
by whom you challenged Pharaoh’s power.
Ten plagues were the result of Pharaoh’s injustice,
the Earth itself rebelled against his cruelty.
At Passover you delivered your people,
bringing them through the waters of the Red Sea,
delivering them to life 
and the freedom to serve you.
And you gave us your holy Law
to shape our life together
in the way of justice and peace,
to limit the accumulation of wealth and power,
and to exhibit your Kingdom.
Forever we witness to your saving, unconquerable love.  
Therefore we praise you, 
joining our voices with all of nature, 
with the heavenly choirs, 
and with all the faithful of every time and place, 
singing to the glory of your name:

Holy, holy, holy Lord,
God of power and might!
Heaven and Earth are full of your glory,
Hosanna in the highest!
Blessed is he,
O blessed is he,
who comes in the name of the Lord.
Hosanna in the highest,
hosanna in the highest!

You fed us manna in the wilderness,
and delivered us to the Promised Land. 
You showed us how to worship you,
preserving and sanctifying creation.
You sent prophets to remind us of your love and goodness,
and to warn us of the consequences 
of falling into idolatry and injustice.
And in the fullness of time
you sent the long-promised Savior,
Jesus Christ the Lord,
who proclaimed your Kingdom.
He healed the sick, 
cast out evil spirits,
welcomed the outcast, 
and taught us how to live in the light of your love.

The Lord Jesus 
on the night when he was betrayed 
took a loaf of bread, 
and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, 
“This is my body that is for you.  
Do this in remembrance of me.” 
In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, 
“This cup is the new covenant in my blood.  
Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” 
For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, 
you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. 1 Corinthians 11:23-26

Now he is with us as we gather in his name,
and in this bread and this cup,
an offering representing the life of our Lord,
given for us and for all the world.
He suffered death because of human sin
at the hands of the principalities and powers.
And he rose on the third day
defeating death forever
and exhausting its power over us.
In Jesus Christ you restored paradise
and adopted us into Abraham’s family.
He calls on us to be a blessing to all nations,
and sends us out to proclaim the good news of your infinite love
for all creation in Jesus Christ.
Therefore, O God, 
we ask that you send your Holy Spirit upon us, your people, 
and upon this our thanksgiving offering: 
that this bread may be for us the Body of Christ, 
and this cup the Blood of Christ;
that your transforming Spirit 
may change us, heal us, renew us, save us,
and fill us with your resurrection life.
Through Christ, 
with Christ, 
in Christ, 
in the unity of your Holy Spirit,
all glory and honor are yours, almighty God,
now and forever.
Amen.

O God, 
like a mother hen you are always gathering your children.
And so we are bold to pray as Jesus taught us:

The Lord’s Prayer

The Breaking of Bread

Therefore, 
just as this bread was once many grains of wheat, 
which were gathered, 
ground into flour, 
and kneaded into a single loaf of bread, 
so we, who were once isolated individuals, 
fending for ourselves in a harsh world,
have been gathered and worked into one body.

Baruch ata Adonai Eloneinu 
melech ha-olam, 
ha-motzi lehem min ha-aretz.

The minister takes the loaf and breaks it in full view of the people, as the people say:

When we break the bread, 
and share it together,
do we not participate with each other
as one body of Christ?

Agnus Dei

Behold the Lamb of God,
Behold the Lamb of God,
Who takes away the sin,
The sin of the world.

The people pass the unleavened bread. Please hold the tray for the person from whom you received it.  When you take a piece of the bread, dip it into the bitter herb before partaking of it. 

We are blessed by God in the fruits of the Earth.
Soil and sunlight, water and air, 
nourish the fruitful vine.
As the sweet life flows from the crushed grapes,
so life and joy flow from this cup,
representing the new covenant of peace 
between God and humanity.

Baruch atah Adonai Eloneinu 
melech ha olam, 
borei p’re ha-gafen.

The minister fills the cup and lifts it in the view of the people, as the people say:

This is the cup of blessing.
Is it not a sharing in the life of God,
given in the life-blood of Jesus Christ?

We sing the hymn during the passing of the cup.  We keep the cup so we may all commune together after the hymn.

Communion Hymn, “Come, Risen Lord”                              503

Prayer After Communion

God of grace, 
your Son Jesus Christ gave us this holy meal,
the bread and the cup 
by which we share his Body and Blood,
as a way to remember him
and participate in his life.  
We celebrate it 
as a sign of your redemption of the world in him,
our liberation from the powers of death,
our healing from brokenness and despair,
and our empowerment to live in peace and justice,
witnessing to your saving love.
Send us out into the world,
even as we follow Jesus in these three days,
that we may show in our lives the fruits of redemption,
calling all people to live together in peace; 
through Jesus Christ our Lord, 
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, 
one God, now and forever.  
Amen.