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

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.