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

Monday, March 23, 2009

Emerging Church Conference, Albuquerque. IV.

I know I am a few days behind here, which kind of defeats the point of “live blogging....”

But anyway, Friday night we heard from Richard Rohr, who spoke of the rediscovery of the contemplative tradition in Christianity.  He feels this tradition had largely been lost, even within monasticism, since like the 16th century.  They still had the language, but lost the direct experience and how to cultivate it.  By the 20th century, Rohr reports that Fransisco de Osuna’s aphorism about “thinking without thinking” was repeated and dutifully learned, but not understood or applied.

Rohr drew a distinction between dualistic and “non-dual” thinking.  Infinity, love, death, suffering, freedom, God, etc., cannot be addressed dualistically.  These approaches are always looking for someone to blame, winners and losers, insiders and outsiders, us and them: the self is the reference point.  The glory of the Christian gospel is intuitive consciousness/non-dual thinking.  Jesus invites us into his own experience: God is one, reality is one, truth is one.  

I noticed here how Rohr addresses another piece of Jesus’ inaugural proclamation in Mark 1:15.  If McLaren was all about the Kingdom of God, Rohr focused on metanoia.  Metanoia is usually translated “repentance,” but the Greek literally means a change of mind.  Rohr is saying that this change of mind has to do with moving into a non-dual approach which then enables faith/trust in the good news of the Kingdom.

He continues to talk about moving from a belief-based to a practice-based understanding of faith... but Someone Else, ie. God, is always the doer.  “We can only second the motion.”  All we are is the instrument (Francis of Assisi).  We pray not to but through Christ.  The Spirit prays in us.

I like Rohr a lot.  He quotes Einstein, who said that no problem can be solved by the same consciousness that created it.  The Kingdom of God requires a change in our consciousness in order to be perceived and inhabited.  If this is the contemplative, inward movement, the next two speakers will address the activist, outward movement.

Saturday began with Alexie Torres-Fleming, a community organizer from the South Bronx with an amazing story that read like something from the saints... and I say that without a hint of irony or overstatement.  Torres-Fleming even had what some in the tradition would call “the gift of tears.”  Her faith is very traditional Catholic, but expanding in the encounter with injustice and the lives of the poor... and the remarkable things the Spirit is doing in her life and neighborhood.  

“God doesn’t call the qualified but qualifies the called.”  

“Are we followers of Jesus, or just fans?”

“We have to be careful about feeling good if we forget who we are.”

“It’s not that there’s not enough bread, it is that it is poorly divided.”

“Whatever we have that we don’t need doesn’t belong to us.”

Torres-Fleming moved towards saying that it is not enough for the church to serve or help the poor... especially if we then expect them to be humble and grateful.  But that the church has to become poor.  If God redeems what God assumes, why would it be any different for the church?

Shane Claiborne spoke next, as another example of faith meeting life on the street.  Claiborne lives at the Potter Street Community, in Philadelphia.  He listed 9 of 12 distinguishing marks of emerging communities.  He says the church needs to stop complaining about the church we’ve experienced and start becoming the church we dream of.

These characteristics include a movement to the marginalized and abandoned places, economic sharing, hospitality, reconciliation and peacemaking, weaving together different traditions in prayer, creation care, and non-violence.  My take-away from his talk was how the church needs discontent and recklessness.

My reflection on this, as a presbytery Stated Clerk, is that our polity is usually used in a way that positively and even aggressively militates against recklessness and risk.  I think there is sometimes room for new and very different expressions to emerge, but such things are met with suspicion and resistance.  And our rules often prohibit them outright.  By legislating general rules based on feared worst-case-scenarios or a few actual abuses, we have foreclosed on things the Spirit might be trying to do in our midst.  I am not sure how one of these communities would fit into the Book of Order.  I do think it could be done, but trying to move such a thing through the inertia, suspicion, and low trust levels embedded in our system would be an exhausting challenge... to what purpose?        

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Emerging Church Conference, Albuquerque. III.

Yesterday, we went in the morning to view the petroglyphs.  These are ancient figures scratched (apparently) into the volcanic boulders scattered in this canyon north of the city.  Some of them were of birds, dancers, snakes, and faces.  And some were not easily identifiable.

There were also holes from bullets and buck-shot, scratchings of people’s names, and lots of broken glass around.  This testified to the work of more recent visitors to the canyon.  

To me it’s all a part of the history.  Innocent and beautiful images from Native Americans... and destructive and violent effects of their conquerors: us.  It turns our that our cab driver told us that as teenagers he and his friends used to go out into these canyons and “shoot our shotguns.”  This is before the area was declared a national monument and anyone thought these petroglyphs interesting or important.  He seemed like a pleasant and gentle man now, patiently waiting for us as we browsed the visitors’ center. 

Perhaps the landscape is also “open source.”  It includes various voices with distinct agendas, approaches, and priorities.  To sanitize it would be dishonest.

Anyway, McLaren went on to give what I thought was one of the key images of the conference, that of a tree.  A tree grows by adding another outer ring each year.  This outer ring is where the energy happens.  If Christianity is like a tree, and each tradition is a side of the tree (eg. a Catholic side, a Reformed side, an evangelical side, a Lutheran side...), then it might be reasonable to talk about how folks in the outer, growing edge might have more in common with each other, no matter which side they are one, than they do with others on the same side but several layers further inside.  In other words, emergents of different traditions might have more in common with each other than with more traditional Christians of their own traditions.

McLaren’s main point had to do with the recovery of Jesus’ message of the Kingdom of God, which he interprets as an anti-Empire polemic.  The Kingdom is a new order in this life, which makes it a threat to the present authorities.  

He finished with a look at the hymn in Colossians 1, which concludes with how Christ was “Making peace through the blood of his cross.”  This turns upside down the way Caesar made “peace” through the blood of countless victims tortured on countless crosses.  Christ’s shedding of his own blood was an act of suffering and forgiving, expressing the love of God.  It was the ultimate act of resistance to the domination system.

In a final quote from Vincent Donovan’s book, Christianity Rediscovered, about missionary tactics, he says “go with them to a place where neither you nor they have ever been before.”  “Jesus is always on the move,” concluded McLaren.  
If the Atonement is one of the things that needs to be rethought in this age of transition, as Tickle said, then we have to reflect carefully on McLaren’s take on Colossians 1:20.  

On another topic, I am not a complainer but the worship has been unsatisfying, which is surprising.  I have always held that the emergent movement was originally a worship renewal movement.  Perhaps I am mistaken in this.  In any case, the worship has been non-participatory and not particularly integrated.  The music has been good between speakers.  But tonight’s evening worship had no continuity or focus, veering from praise song to a poem to an unrelated song by one of the musicians.    

The conference is huge —  953 participants —  which makes it difficult to get any kind of conversation going with the leaders.  We are limited to reflecting with the others at our tables.  There are no other small groups.  Attempts to organize networks on the basis of geography or tradition were half-hearted.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Emerging Church Conference, Albuquerque. II.

The second speaker was Brian McLaren.  He began with a short video of two groups of people tossing basketballs to each other, one in black t-shirts and the other in white.  We were instructed to count how many times the ball changed hands in each group.  After the video the audience reported how many exchanges they counted.  McLaren then asked “How many of you saw the gorilla?”  It turns out that in the middle of the film a person in a gorilla suit walked through the ball-tossers... but only a small fraction of the audience noticed.  We were all too busy concentrating on counting the ball tossings.  McLaren’s point being that we don’t see what we are not looking for.  What you focus on determined what you miss.

Christian traditions have tended to focus on this or that view of Jesus... but missed other very obvious aspects.  Some of these have been opened up and brought into view by recent Jesus research.  Emerging Christianity will use an comprehensive and inclusive understanding of Jesus.

In an informal poll, McLaren asked people who the most Christlike people they could think of were.  Names like Gandhi and the Dalai Lama topped the list.  Then came Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, and Desmond Tutu.  But when he asked about famous Christians, the list began with Jerry Falwell and deteriorated from there.  Clearly the separation in people’s minds between Jesus and Christians is a major problem.  McLaren has even suggested elsewhere that we might benefit from using a different name.

I will finish this tomorrow.  I am running out of gas.


Emerging Church Conference, Albuquerque. I.

We are in Albuquerque attending a conference on “the emerging church.”  The assembly hall, a hotel ballroom, is filled with people from a wide variety of Christian traditions, all of whom share an interest in what the church is becoming and can become at this pivotal point in its history.

The first speaker was Phyllis Tickle, whose book, The Great Emergence, is an examination of this pivotal point in history, especially with reference to other pivotal points in history.  Her thesis is that “every 500 years or so, the church has a giant rummage sale.”  Old and useless junk is cleaned out, some old treasures are rediscovered and brought back into prominence, and room is made for the new.  Tickle points out that the last time this happened was the Reformation.
The current era, which she refers to as The Great Emergence, is part of a much larger cultural shift which includes such things as urbanization, globalization, and computerization.  We do not yet know how to define this new paradigm, but we do know that it is post-denominational, post-Protestant, and post-Christendom.
Each of these pivotal ages had to figure out how to answer one central question: Where now is our authority?  In our time, this manifests itself in three areas: What does it mean to be human?  How can Christians live in a polity with others of different faiths?  How do we talk intelligibly about the Atonement?
In the Reformation era, the central authority shifted from the Pope to the Bible.  This meant a sharp rise in literacy; but also divisiveness, as different interpretations led to the formation of different churches. 

She did not indicate where the authority will come from in the church that is now emerging.  

Susan and I discussed this at dinner.  I have a hunch that it is going to have something to do with the word “wiki,” which, as I understand it, can refer to an “open source” model in developing computer software.  “The open source model of operation and decision making allows concurrent input of different agendas, approaches and priorities, and differs from the more closed, centralized models of development” (Wikipedia, “Open Source”).  Translated into ecclesiology, it means that authority in the church will be found around the circle of gathered believers, each with their own agendas, approaches, and priorities, struggling together with the Word.  
I am reminded of Ernesto Cardenal’s The Gospel at Solentiname.  That book is basically transcripts of a Bible study Cardenal held with people in the village of Solentiname, Nicaragua.  The villagers grappled with the Biblical texts in light of their own context.  I think authority in the church will be like this, as each circle of believers encounters the Word in Scripture.  The role of the minister will be to provide insight into the original context and perhaps the history of interpretation.  Another role for the leader would be to check self-serving, self-indulgent, self-righteous interpretations as they arise, compelling the group to be challenged by the text. 

Anyway, we’ll see.    

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Yoder on Apocalyptic

Quoted in

The point that apocalyptic makes is not only that people who wear crowns and who claim to foster justice by the swords are not as strong as they think…

It is that people who bear crosses are working with the grain of the universe. One does not come to that belief by reducing social process to mechanical and statistical models, nor by winning some of one’s battles for the control of one’s own corner of the fallen world. One comes to it by sharing the life of those who sing about the Resurrection of the slain Lamb.

— John Howard Yoder

Jenkins Continued....

One last thing from Jenkins' book.  Christianity seems to have fared best in places where believers were not members of a single class or social group.  Rather, where the faith is spread broadly throughout the population, it remains strongest.

The example here is north Africa.  In Egypt, Christianity became identified with the whole people, originally the Copts.  Thus it was harder to stamp out; the faith remains relatively strong in Egypt today, compared with other countries in the region.  But in the rest of north Africa, Christianity was wiped out early and completely.  This is because the faith never got out of the cities and into the countryside, and it was identified with a particular class of people, and didn't take root in the general population.

There is no automatic and easy application of Jenkins' insights to our situation.  Presbyterians and "main-line" Protestants have experienced breathtaking declines over the past 40 years.  (It may be argued that this "decline" is only after an anomalous period of growth in the 1950's, and that we are now resuming the longer and more gradual decline that had already been happening earlier in the century.)  

Be that as it may,  we face some of the same dynamics that other Christian groups have had to deal with in other parts of the world.  

We experience no overt persecution, but do have to face a tempting alternative ideology/philosophy (secularism/Modernism) which subtly and not-so-subtly overwhelms the integrity of churches.  

We do have a persistent identification of the church with a particular class, generation, race, or social group.  

We do have in the minds of many the identification of the church with a particular nation and often its policies and interests.  

This interestingly cuts both ways.  Christianity seems to flourish more when it is thoroughly indigenized, as in Egypt.  But there is a danger of becoming a "national church," which was the downfall of European Christianity over the disgrace of World War I, with "Christian" nations slaughtering each other at a ghastly rate.  And: is the nominal Christianity identified with a particular people or nation really faithful to the gospel of Jesus Christ, or is it just a religious prop to a national self-identity? 


Thursday, March 5, 2009

The Lost History of Christianity

(Forgive me if this is posted twice.  Some kind of error....)

Philip Jenkins' new book, The Lost History of Christianity, chronicles much of the history of the church in Asia.  It is sobering because it tells a story of a very long decline of what was once a rich and vibrant tradition.  It reminded me of William Dalrymple's book, From the Holy Mountain, which is a tour of dying Christian cultures in west Asia.

As recently as a hundred years ago, there were strong Christian communities in Iran, Iraq, and Turkey.  But now they are all but dead, due to a variety of causes.  These range from outright genocide, as with the Armenians in 1915, to systematic persecution as a result of wars, as in Iraq in the last decade.

In its prime, Christianity had missions, churches, and even metropolitan sees all the way into central China.  There were bishops in Tibet and India.  Most of these were of the non-Chalcedonian "Oriental Orthodox" traditions, to which little attention was paid by European scholars and ecclesiastics.  But these missions were strong, had venerable roots in the Middle Eastern cradle of Christianity, and constituted the majority of Christians in the world when evangelization in Europe had hardly begun.   

First, the book calls into question Tertullian's famous motto, that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.  In the cases of these churches the blood of the martyrs didn't buy them a future.  It appears to have swirled down the drain of extinction.  

Second, the reasons for the long, slow decline have a strong political component.  Christian communities were often identified with foreign powers, which incurred the hostility of the local States.  China and Japan expelled Christians for this reason.  Christians made alliances with the invading Mongols, which sparked a harsh reaction from their Islamic host States.  Many Christians were identified with Byzantium or Rome or European powers, and were oppressed as potential traitors in places where these were considered the enemy.

This identification with particular States and empires ought to give us pause.  Yes, it feels good to have the sponsorship of secular powers... but when these powers fall or lose influence, it leave the church vulnerable to attack by the ascendant adversaries of these powers.  

This is not an idle question even today.  To identify the church with any particular State or political system is extremely dangerous, and tends to backfire over time.  We need to be careful about making sure the church relates to its context and becomes indigenous, and is not simply the expression of imperialism.   

Finally, while Christianity may formerly die out in a particular place, its echoes and influences remain in the culture in different ways.  

The area in question, stretching from Egypt to China, is largely Islamic today.  On the one hand, Islam was initially cordial to Christians.  But intermittent and systematic persecution, sometimes extremely harsh, gradually wore down the churches.  More and more adherents were lost to conversion, emigration, or just plain slaughter.  (And when they had the means, Christians were not much more tolerant of Islam, it must be said.)

We American Christians do not view the world from the perspective of this kind of loss and defeat.  It is easy to talk about what an advance it is when aboriginal religions are overcome by a powerful Christianity.  But what about when Christianity is slowly ground into dust and replaced by another faith?

Christians from the Middle East are now becoming our neighbors.  Perhaps we can learn from them.  Often diaspora looks like disaster, but eventually may become the seed for new growth.  (Ask the Dalai Lama or Russian Orthodox.  See Acts 8:1b & 4.)

But I am reminded to keep in our consciousness the words of the Confession of 1967: "The church that identifies the sovereignty of any one nation or any one way of life with the cause of God denies the Lordship of Jesus Christ and betrays its calling" (9.45).  

Monday, March 2, 2009

Eucharistic Prayers for Lent

Prayer of Dedication

Blessed are you, God of all creation; 
through your goodness we have these gifts to share.
What we keep we lose,
but what we give away we have forever.  
Accept and use our offerings for your glory 
and for the service of your kingdom.  

Invitation to the Lord's Table

This is the joyful feast of the people of God!
They will come from all the world,
from every race and language,
men and women,
young and old,
to sit at table in God’s Kingdom.

This is the meal of paradise!
The foretaste of the blessings coming to us,
a sign of abundance and generosity,
forgiveness and deliverance. 

This is the Lord’s table.
Our Savior invites those who trust in him
to share in the feast
which he has prepared.

The Story

On the night 
when he was betrayed by his friends 
and arrested by the authorities,
the Lord Jesus celebrated the Passover meal 
with his disciples.

After supper he took some of the bread.  
He blessed it, broke it, and gave it to them, saying: 

“This is my body, broken for you.  
Do this in remembrance of me.”

In the same way he took the cup of wine, saying:

“This cup is the new covenant sealed in my blood,
shed for the forgiveness of sins.  
Whenever you drink it,
do this in remembrance of me.”

Every time we eat this bread and drink from this cup,
we proclaim the saving death of the risen Lord,
until he comes. 

The Great Prayer of Thanksgiving

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

We give you thanks, O God,
for all we have and are,
for you have given us everything.

We lift up our hearts to you
raising our thoughts 
above negative words and images,
abandoning the ideologies of scarcity and death,
fear and violence,
that dominate our lives in the world.

We recognize and celebrate your saving Presence 
with and within and among us,
granting us your peace,
establishing among us your justice,
bathing us in goodness and blessing,
straightening us in righteousness,
gathering us in community.

In this holy season we strip off 
all the extraneous accretions of our existence:
the useless and trivial thoughts,
the vain fantasies of our imagining,
the empty daydreams of our longing,
the sour rantings of our deepest horror,
the cheap chanting of our most ancient pain...
And we bid them be silent
in the face of your contradicting love.

In your cross and resurrection
we see what we are worth.
We see who we truly are in your eyes:
blessed, holy, good, and precious,
the culmination of your creation
made to bless and be a blessing to
everything you have made.

And so we join our voices 
with those of all your people
in every time and place,
in the angels’ song of praise to you:


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

Gracious God of life,
by your Word and Spirit
you created the universe and declared it very good.

You called a holy family to bless the Earth.
Liberated from Pharoah’s bondage,
you gave your people a law by which to live in peace.
You sent prophets to remind and recall them
to this purpose.

And from that family in the fullness of time 
you came among us in your Son, Jesus Christ.
He walked lightly on the Earth,
healing, teaching, and blessing,
casting out evil spirits,
preaching the good news,
establishing your new community, 
and showing us your holy way of love.

Murdered by the organized violence that rules our world,
resurrected by the power of your infinite love,
he spreads his life over the whole world,
healing, purifying, and protecting, 
restoring the balance and integrity of creation,
reconciling us to you, to each other, 
and even to our true purpose and destiny,
and gathering a holy people
in your Spirit.

Send your Spirit, O God, upon your holy people,
called out from the world and gathered together,
and upon these holy gifts,
fashioned from the fruits of the Earth,
revealing here and now 
the living and saving Presence of Jesus Christ
with us, within us, around us, and among us.

Empower us to share together in your mission,
showing your love and justice in all we do.

O God,
like a mother hen you are always gathering your children,
and so we are bold to pray the prayer that Jesus taught us,

The Lord’s Prayer

The Breaking of Bread

Because there is one loaf, 
we, many as we are, 
are one body; 
for it is one loaf of which we all partake.

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

When we break the bread, 
is it not a sharing in the body of Christ?

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

When we give thanks over the cup, 
is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ?  
1 Corinthians 10:16-17

These are the gifts of God
for the people of God.
Take them in remembrance 
that Christ has given us his life,
and may his life of thanksgiving, joy, peace, and justice
become our life
as we are sent into the world as witnesses
of his saving love.

The Holy Communion of the People

Closing Prayer 

Gracious God of life,
we thank you for this supper
shared in the Spirit with Jesus,
and with all believers,
and all creation.
Send us out,
empowered and energized
by your Body and Blood,
that we may witness in all things
to your saving love
that fills all things.