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

Friday, December 31, 2010

Was Jesus Born to Die?

            There is an old Christmas spiritual which begins: “I wonder as I wander out under the sky, why Jesus the Savior did come for to die.”  The reason we wonder about it is because it doesn’t make any sense.  So we think we have to leave it as a divine mystery and just accept it on faith.  It is after all what some preachers have been telling us for over a thousand years. 
            Well, we can stop wondering.  Jesus came to announce, embody, and bring to people the Kingdom of God.  He did not, therefore, come to die.            
            If Jesus was “born to die,” Herod’s soldiers could have taken care of it when Jesus was a baby, which they were fully prepared and indeed ordered to do (Matthew 2:16-18).  We could then worship the baby Jesus (like Ricky Bobby in the film Talladega Nights), and remember how he “died for us,” without having to be inconvenienced by anything he did or said as a grown-up.    
            There is more to Jesus than his death.  Statements like this “born to die” thing reduce Jesus’ actual ministry to meaninglessness.  AND they undermine the importance of the resurrection. 
            In truth, Jesus himself says that he came to inaugurate and establish on earth the Kingdom of God (Mark 1:15): which is the healed and reconciled relationship between God and people, and people and each other.  He was born to live and show us how to live together.  He was born to bring us eternal life. 
            In order to do this he had to give his life (John 3:16).  And the life he actually lived is an integral part of this initiative.  Otherwise we would not know what kind of life he gives us.  He gives us his life in his ministry.  His ministry culminates in his death and resolves in his resurrection.  It is all one integrated movement.
            If he did not live the kind of life he lived his death would not matter.  Indeed, his death on the cross wouldn’t have even happened, since how he lived is what offended the authorities and caused them to have him executed.  It is his life, his actions, that demonstrate and prove his Messiahship (Matthew 11:2-6).  His life is able to be a “ransom for many” (Mark 10:45b) precisely because it had value in some demonstrated content in the way he lived: “not to be served but to serve” (Mark 10:45a).
            Excessive concentration on Jesus’ death is always a way to avoid the challenges of his life.  We can then focus on “what he did for us” while ignoring what he calls us to do for others.  The empire always gets more mileage out of a dead Jesus than a living one.   One thing crucifixes communicate is: “Worship him… but don’t follow him or this could happen to you.”

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Families With Young Children.

            I have read enough Church Information Forms in the last year, during the time of my under-employment, to realize that most old-line churches are in decline… but they still think everything will be fine when they start attracting “families with young children” again.  So they seek a minister who can help them do this.  Indeed, the quest for “families with young children” is the epitome of the mindset we in the church inherited from the 1950’s.  Our vision for the future of the church is a replica of the remembered past, when the church was filled with families with young children.  We imagine everything would be great if only we could get back to those days!
            In reality (a place many churches avoid like root-canal) families-with-young-children is not the same demographic it was 50 years ago.  We have fixated on the classic nuclear family of a man and a woman of the same race, married to each other, each in their first and only marriage, with two or three natural offspring, living in the same house together.  Ideally, the man has a decent job and the woman is a full-time mother and homemaker, with lots of time to do volunteer church work. 
            Now, there are still people like this out there.  But if they were ever the norm they are not now.  These folks represent, to say the least, a shrinking demographic.  In addition, those of this category who do exist today are not necessarily attracted to the traditional experience of church.  Which means that churches are actually aiming the bulk of their “evangelistic” efforts at an even tinier and more precipitously declining demographic: “families-with-young-children, -who-enjoy-traditional-church.”
            I suspect that almost all of these people who do exist are already active members of churches.  To try and attract them to a church is, except when considering newcomers, inherently and necessarily a matter of “sheep stealing.”  (That’s the epithet we give the practice of one church trying to take members away from another church.)  How many churches that have shown explosive growth by attracting this demographic have largely drawn them from other nearby churches?
            Some churches have widened the demographic somewhat by making the church experience more user-friendly.  They go to a format more like The Tonight Show, with rock music, breezy and light monologues, and almost nothing “religious” in sight.  This worked (if by “working” we mean it got people to come, sit, and watch) for a while for some.  But even this has also maxed out and leveled off.      
            In short, the bid to center a church’s evangelistic efforts on families-with-young-children is, at best, a lateral movement within the larger church, where members shift from smaller churches with fewer programs, or churches undergoing conflict, to larger churches that offer more programs and are at least at the moment healthier.  At worst, this emphasis is a suicidal waste of resources.  It attempts to attract people who are simply not there.
            So, if these people are not out there, and the general population has increased over the past half century, it follows that there are lots of other people who actually are out there.  But, because they do not fit the fantasy of the church that wants to be what it once was, they are invisible.
            Which brings me to Jesus’ own understanding of evangelism, as he states it in some detail in the Parable of the Sower.

            Jesus said: “Listen! A sower went out to sow.  And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and the birds came and ate it up.  Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and it sprang up quickly, since it had no depth of soil.  And when the sun rose, it was scorched; and since it had no root, it withered away.  Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain.  Other seed fell into good soil and brought forth grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirty and sixty and a hundredfold” (Mark 3:3-8).

            The first thing that strikes me about this parable is how sloppy the sower is.  He does not take care to cast the seeds only at the good soil.  He throws it everywhere, all over the place.  His profligacy is out of control.  Everybody gets a chance to receive and nurture the good news. 
            This flies in the face of church growth experts who talk about churches targeting their outreach efforts at certain populations.  Churches are advised to undertake expensive demographic studies and analyses of population groups in the neighborhood around the church.   Then the idea is to shape the church’s message to appeal to the church’s selected target group. 
            But would Jesus do this kind of thing?  Do we ever find him re-engineering his message to attract or resonate with this or that interest group?  No.  While consultants advised churches to use a hook with bait designed to attract a very specific species of fish, Jesus casts a wide net intending to pull in a variety of fish (Matthew 13:47).
            The second thing that occurs to me about Jesus’ parable is that the seed is sent into the different kinds of soil.  It does not stay in the sower’s bag, with the sower somehow expecting the soil to come to him.  This is not an invitational approach.  This is not “if you built it they will come.”  The soil goes nowhere.  The seed is thrown onto it.  We in the church have been spending almost all of our energy trying to get people to come to us, as if we were retail outlets waiting for customers.  We have built expensive silos in which to store the seed of the word, expecting apparently to distribute it to those who show up.  But if we follow Jesus’ example we should be investing in seed spreading technology.  
            The third thing I notice here is that the church has chosen to target its seeds mainly on a certain kind of soil:  the elusive, mythical “families with young children.”  The church imagines this is “good soil,” but, as I have suggested above, it isn’t.  If it were good soil it would have produced the kind of lives Jesus inspires (Mark 4:20).  It hasn’t.  For instance, the “children” in the families-with-young-children who were so prevalent in the 1950’s, are largely gone from the church.  Focusing on this group back then did not result in the exponential harvest Jesus talks about.  Churches today are full of elderly people whose children and grandchildren find no reason to accept the good news.  
            Which means that the church has been busy intentionally and deliberately pouring nearly all of its seeds into bad ground.  And, because the good soil does not look like the church’s fantasy of the way things were in 1956, the church is assiduously ignoring it.  And then we wonder why the past 50 years of evangelistic/church growth strategies and tactics haven’t produced any significant fruit (except for church growth consultants).
            Jesus interprets the parable himself.

            “The sower sows the word. These are the ones on the path where the word is sown: when they hear, Satan immediately comes and takes away the word that is sown in them.  And these are the ones sown on rocky ground: when they hear the word, they immediately receive it with joy.  But they have no root, and endure only for a while; then, when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away.  And others are those sown among the thorns: these are the ones who hear the word, but the cares of the world, and the lure of wealth, and the desire for other things come in and choke the word, and it yields nothing.  And these are the ones sown on the good soil: they hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirty and sixty and a hundredfold” (Mark 4:14-20).

            The unproductive soil is described in three ways. 
            First, there is the road or path.  The seed just lies there until “Satan” comes and takes it away.  These are folks who just don’t get it.  The word bounces off of them and makes no impact.  It doesn’t sink in.  They forget it and move on. 
            Second, there is the rocky ground, where the seed is under constant challenge from “trouble or persecution.”  Its roots can’t go deep, and the new plant remains weak and eventually dies from overt hostility. 
            Third, there is the ground already covered in thornbushes.  The plants trying to sprout there may gain some root, but they can’t go higher because of the competition from shrubbery, cutting off the sunlight and giving no room.  These plants also die.  Jesus explicitly says the choking bushes are like “the cares of the world, and the lure of wealth, and the desire for other things.”  It is not hostility but the distractions of prosperity that kill this plant.             
            I wonder if there is any class of people more likely to be distracted by these kinds of concerns than families with young children.  If this demographic is so golden, why did the church of the 1950’s and 1960’s deflate so profoundly?  Clearly, this was not a good foundation upon which to build even then.      
            Notice that Jesus never says the word should not be sown in these unproductive kinds of soil anyway.  He remains a profligate and generous sower.  No one will be deprived a chance to embrace and respond to the word.
            In Jesus’ own ministry, he found the good soil in unlikely places.  “Tax-collectors and prostitutes” represent Jesus’ followers.  The religious elite generally classed these people as “sinners.”  Among outcasts, workers, slaves, women, the diseased, the possessed, the broken, the poor, and otherwise marginalized people… this is mostly where Jesus found good soil for the word.
            Which leads to where the church needs to go today.  We need to lose the fixation on attracting “families with young children.”  Obviously, the church will extend the good news to them.  But we also want to aim much more broadly, as Jesus did, and bring his message and practices to everyone. 
            That includes a lot of people whom the church has largely ignored: single parents, blended- or step-families, adoptive and foster families, and GLBT parents with children; and singles, disabled people, ethnic and economic minorities, empty-nesters, retired people, unmarried couples (Gay and straight), college students, the un- or underemployed, migrant workers, institutionalized people (in prisons, jails, nursing homes, rehab centers)….  And so on.
            Maybe we’d get more traction if we followed Jesus’ advice and example and started sowing the seed of the good news a lot more widely.

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Mission to Suburbia.

            The church has to stop thinking of suburbia as prime real estate for church growth.  After over a century of mission, suburbia has become a very difficult context in which to follow, and encourage others to follow, Jesus Christ.           
            The expansion of the church into suburbia in the first half of the 20th century turns out to have sprawled townships wide… and only about a millimeter deep.  It really exploded for just one generation, that of the men returning from World War II.  But their church-going habit did not get passed to their kids, the Boomers.  Successive generations continued this drift away from the church.  Now in the second decade of the 21st century, the church must realize that suburbia is a very challenging mission field.
            Church officials still look at new developments of condos, tract-housing, or large “McMansions,” and imagine that any conventional church nearby will automatically thrive by the usual quantitative measurements.  That may have been the case fifty or sixty years ago, when these kinds of places were filled with young families looking for churches.  But the few people who fit that mold today have mostly already found their church homes.  Everyone else, that is, everyone who isn’t in a family-with-young-children and seeking a church, which is to say most of the people by far, are not going to be interested in, much less attracted to, the church down the road.  Suburbia is littered with failed and declining churches.
            One way to make a church in this environment thrive according to the standard measurements is to play to the market and give people what they want.  Hence, many churches are not shy about their embrace of causes, practices, worship styles, and attitudes they assume will be popular with most suburbanites.  Even this once famously effective mega-church strategy now shows signs of losing steam.
            An increasing number of people living in suburbia now see churches in a negative light.  There was a time when having a house of worship in the neighborhood was considered a plus.  But judging from the resistance churches now attract when they try to build or expand, many suburban residents view churches as a nuisance.  We have to get through our heads and into our actions that much of suburbia is now indifferent, or actually hostile, to Jesus, his message, and his church.
            The mission of the church in suburbia, as in any other place, is to witness to the love of God by following Jesus.  But discipleship in suburbia looks particularly subversive and eccentric.  Therefore, it will take significantly more discipline, intentionality, and courage to undertake mission in suburbia than we have ever imagined.
            Jesus’ life and message stand in stark contrast to the values and practices that often define the suburban context.
            - Where suburbia values individualism and independence, Jesus comes to establish a new community of mutual dependence, accountable to him. 
            - If suburbia is often about affluence, Jesus exemplifies simplicity and selfless generosity. 
            - Jesus’ would have his followers not be anxious about acquiring and keeping material things.  But gaining and protecting a “treasure on earth” is important for many in suburbia (Matthew 6:19-21, 24-34). 
            - Jesus’ call to work in solidarity with the poor, the sick, the outcast, and the alien challenges the suburban economic homogeneity.
            - In suburbia, forests and farms are wiped away for the sake of houses, highways, and malls.  Jesus, on the other hand, would have us walk lightly on the earth, generate less waste, and appreciate untamed environments.
            - If suburbia thinks of itself as a meritocracy, Jesus preaches the boundless, unmeritable grace of God. 
            The church in suburbia is called to be an alternative community.  It will witness to and express a lifestyle that is often contrary to what prevails.  It will necessarily undertake practices profoundly different from, and indeed perceived as critical of, what is considered normal.

            Of course, no people, and no region, is outside of the reach of God’s grace.  There are segments of the suburban population that could be nutrient-rich soil for the good news of God’s love in Jesus.
1.            First of all, we find many lonely, hurting people in suburbia.  The suburban lifestyle can be isolated and isolating.  This is not necessarily healthy for human beings.  There are casualties.  Therapists abound.  Many in suburbia seek healing and deeper community.  That’s why Twelve-Step groups draw such large numbers. 
            Jesus’ mission will benefit from presenting him as the healer he was, and showing how his community remains a place for real healing in his name. 
2.            We also discover, sprinkled among the population, a certain percentage who are open to spiritual practices.  Suburbia has many who would define themselves as “spiritual but not religious.”  Yoga, Tai Chi, and assorted martial arts are popular.  While they appeal at first as techniques for improving physical health and well-being, a spiritual element is inextricably embedded in most of them.  Suburbia is fertile ground for things like holistic medicine and organic gardening.  It is not a majority of the people, by any means, who are into this sort of thing.  But there are spiritual seekers in suburbia.  Right now they are listening to voices and learning philosophies and practices from other parts of the world.  Without disrespecting these traditions, we have to present Jesus as one of these voices and show why he, and his philosophy and practices, may be beneficially followed.  Jesus and other faiths are not mutually exclusive.
            Suburbia may therefore be receptive to exploring the “mystical” heart of Christianity: things like Taize worship, meditation, labyrinth walks, spiritual discussion groups, and “emergent” liturgies, may readily take root.   
3.            People in suburbia tend to be educated.  Many are open-minded, informed, thoughtful, humanistic, and aware of the larger world.  We should not downplay the intellectual integrity of our faith, but demonstrate how following Jesus’ teachings is essential for bringing justice and peace into our lives. 
            On the other hand, educated people are often likely to have reason for a particularly negative view of the historical church.  They see the image of Christians portrayed in the media as violent, hysterical, hypocritical, and bigoted.  This fits with what is often taught about Christianity in secular universities, where the focus is on things like the Crusades, the Inquisition, and religious wars. 
            We need to acknowledge this history and honestly admit the awful atrocities that have been committed in Jesus’ name.  But at the same time we should strenuously separate ourselves from that foul part of our tradition.  The church has always had a mystical, contemplative, social-justice, inclusive, and healing side;
every age has had Christians who actually sought to follow Jesus.  This is the spirit we want to embody today.
4.            Suburbia is becoming more multi-cultural.  The percentage of suburbanites who are Asians, Latinos, Africans, and African-Americans is increasing, as is that of people who practice other religions, like Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Sikhism.  While this aggravates the xenophobia and racism of some, many in suburbia are coming to know these “different” people as friends, neighbors, coworkers, and in-laws.  We should emphasize our witness to Jesus as one who welcomed aliens by reaching out in inclusion, conversation, and celebration of different voices in our midst.  Highlighting interfaith activities and conversations would be one way to do this.
            A largely invisible and underestimated class of “support” people also exists in suburbia: like housekeepers, nannies, gas station attendants, security guards, health care providers, and landscapers.  Many of these folks are non-European in extraction.  The church is compelled by Jesus’ example to locate and befriend these people.  Some of them “live in;” many commute to work from somewhere else.  Ministry with these folks should be an essential aspect of the church’s mission. 
5.            There are some good “secular” people in suburbia.  We should partner with those who coach soccer, serve on civic committees, collect for the Cancer Society, give to disaster relief, volunteer with Habitat for Humanity, go on work trips with churches, and so forth.  Anyone who follows Jesus even a little, even without explicitly acknowledging him, is the ally and friend of his people.  Jesus himself said, “Anyone who is not against you is for you” (Luke 9:50).
6.            Finally, we may find invisible sub-groups in suburbia which could be open to hearing and living the good news of Jesus.  Disabled people, different tribes of young people, non-traditional families, Gays, empty-nesters, etc., etc., have particular  spiritual needs and desires.  The church needs to be imaginative and open its eyes to who is really here and find ways to welcome and journey with them.
            All these people put together may not be most of the population in suburbia; but they are enough to form small, healthy, and vibrant communities of serious and active disciples of Jesus Christ.  Jesus called his disciples leaven (Matthew 13:13): a small cadre of activists who influence the whole society in a positive way.  This more subversive and subtle approach may be the way to undertake a faithful and effective mission to suburbia.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010


I have been reading a lot of poetry lately.  Ashbery, Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, Snyder, Levertov, Bly, Mary Oliver, Billy Collins, Peter O'Leary....  It seems to be helping me make sense of things.  I read "Howl" while I was in Louisville for the Fall Polity Conference.  "Howl" is a spiritual descendant of the book of Revelation.  In that context of wild almost incomprehensible juxtaposition -- the minutiae of ecclesiastical polity and comprehensive cultural disintegration -- where do you think I felt closer to God/reality/truth?

I apocalyptic times I wonder if poetry isn't the only intelligible medium.  The prophets of ancient Israel/Judah were poets.  Every other form of discourse has been coopted, bought, sold, and impressed into service for commercial purposes.  Yesterday's music of insurrection is the background for a car advertisement today.  Let's see them make a commercial out of "Howl."

Liturgy is supposed to be poetry, as is prayer... which is perhaps the most primal form of poetry.  Too often our liturgies are overburdened with agendas: educational, doctrinal, political... political in the sense of catering to the sensitivities, biases, desires, and ego-images of the listeners.  [It's Mothers' Day so I have to mention mothers, or I will hear about it; same for Veterans' Day... someone will complain if I don't congratulate the Giants on their victory last week... or if I pray, or not pray, for the President....]

Especially in this season where we are supposed to provide the nostalgic sentimental background music.

I am waiting for the day when a church celebrates Advent by putting quotes from the poet, John the Baptizer, on the message board.

Anyway, gotta go.


Saturday, November 27, 2010

Prayer for the First Sunday of Advent

God of liberation
who overthrows Pharaohs
and outsmarts emperors
and outlasts Caesars
and outlives kings and dictators
and overcomes bosses
and drains the powerful of their power
in every generation,
and lifts up the lowly in every age:

we gather in the increasing cold
and the deepening darkness,
still sated with the feast of our own harvest,
still impressed with the profligacy of our own productivity,
still aglow from the warm embrace of our own family.

And we turn our hearts again
to Bethlehem.

Even as catalogs cram our mailboxes
and the urgency of sleigh-bells ring in every commercial,
and the pressure is on to buy and spend:

We turn our hearts again
to Bethlehem.

To a pair of homeless refugees
jerked around by government,
rejected by business,
unrecognized by family,

who journey on their way
to Bethlehem.

Keep us focused
on the One who emerges
out of everywhere,
who is already here
in the eyes of needy children
in the places of poverty
in the brokenness of the broken
and the loneliness of the outcast
in the sorrow of grief
and the horror of pain.

Who takes it all on himself
who swallows it all
into his purifying infinity
and transfigures it
into new and blessed life

Make our communities,
gatherings of ones who trust
in him, into fruitful beds of
blessing and healing
for the world.

May his love radiate through us
healing disease and injustice
hatred and fear
anger and hurt
by our kindness and compassion
in his Spirit.

May we serve as witnesses
to the infinite joy
and the blossoming of new life
and the spectacular radiance
of presence
of wholeness
of goodness
of blessing
of everything.

May we get busy.

Monday, November 1, 2010

How to Vote.

No, I’m not going to suggest for whom we should vote.  But I do want to recommend what kinds of things Christians take into consideration when casting a vote, by looking at Psalm 72.   
We don’t have a king, of course.  In a democracy it is supposed to be the people who are sovereign, and the people elect representatives to govern them.  When the Psalm refers to "the king," I hear it talking about the people and their representatives.  So I do believe that what Psalm 72 says applies to leaders in a democracy.  I hope that what we look for in our leaders reflects the values lifted up in this Psalm.

Give the king your justice, O God, and your righteousness to a king’s son.
May he judge your people with righteousness, and your poor with justice.
May the mountains yield prosperity for the people, and the hills, in righteousness.
May he defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy,
and crush the oppressor.

There is a connection between the way we and our government treat the poor and oppressed, and the prosperity we enjoy as a people.  If we are hard-hearted and careless towards the needy, it will eventually bounce back to harm everyone.  If we allow greed and inequity to flourish, it undermines the whole economy in the end.  We have seen this basic principle working itself out before our very eyes these last few years.  Clearly, godly leaders watch out for the weakest among us... and that benefits everyone. 

May he live while the sun endures, and as long as the moon, throughout all generations.
May he be like rain that falls on the mown grass, like showers that water the earth.
In his days may righteousness flourish and peace abound, until the moon is no more.

These natural images remind us of at least two characteristics of good leaders.  In the first place, the benefits of good government effect and lift up everyone.  As Jesus says, God has the rain fall on the righteous and the unrighteous.  Good government is like the balanced system of nature, providing to all what is necessary for life to thrive. 
Secondly, it is important to note that wise policies last forever.  Each generation learns from them and incorporates them into its program.  Lifting up the poor and empowering the powerless today, will mean having more people participating in the system tomorrow.  We look back with pride and thanksgiving on leaders of the past who challenged the status quo and the conventional wisdom by assigning resources to everyone’s benefit, and gave assistance to the poor and the outcast.

May he have dominion from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth.
May his foes bow down before him, and his enemies lick the dust.
May the kings of Tarshish and of the isles render him tribute,
may the kings of Sheba and Seba bring gifts.
May all kings fall down before him, all nations give him service.

A good leader is recognized and celebrated far and wide.  Some of the most effective leaders of our age remain role models for people everywhere.  We look up to our own leaders or those of other nations when they show courage, resist evil, and do what is right in God’s sight.   None of them are perfect and flawless, of course.  But good leaders are not vilified but respected and celebrated around the world because good leadership does not benefit just one tribe, race, family, or nation.  It benefits everyone. 

For he delivers the needy when they call, the poor and those who have no helper.
He has pity on the weak and the needy, and saves the lives of the needy.
From oppression and violence he redeems their life; and precious is their blood in his sight.

Once again, the psalmist repeats, that good leadership is measured by the way the poor, helpless, weak, needy, and oppressed are treated.  Nothing is more clear from Scripture than that this standard is primary.  A government’s approach to the lowest in society is the main measure of its goodness.  If this approach has to do with deliverance, salvation, redemption, and help, then that government is faithfully representing God’s will.  If not, it is running counter to God’s way and slated for ruin.    

Long may he live!  May gold of Sheba be given to him.
May prayer be made for him continually, and blessings invoked for him all day long.
May there be abundance of grain in the land; may it wave on the tops of the mountains;
may its fruit be like Lebanon;
and may people blossom in the cities like the grass of the field.
May his name endure for ever, his fame continue as long as the sun.
May all nations be blessed in him; may they pronounce him happy.

Caring for and protecting the needy is a policy that God will reward.  Which is to say that God intends people to live in justice and peace, and when people live this way they are also living in harmony with the planet God made and placed in our care.  Injustice invariably draws down upon itself destruction; but justice and peace serve to heal the Earth and allow its resources to benefit everyone, not just the wealthy and powerful.

Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, who alone does wondrous things.
Blessed be his glorious name for ever; may his glory fill the whole earth.
Amen and Amen.

The Source of all goodness, peace, justice, and righteousness, not to mention prosperity, is God.  In the end, God is the only true and good leader.  Our human leaders always fall short.  But we know that some fall more or less short than others.  The beneficial government is one that follows the Lord’s commandments and values, blessing God by instituting policies that reflect God’s will.  In Jesus Christ we know God’s will to be for healing and justice, peace and forgiveness, living in love with each other and with God’s creation. 
We hope and pray that whatever government we have will reflect God’s goodness and not God’s judgment upon us.  And the sure sign of this will be whether the resources of God’s creation will be cared for and used for the benefit of everyone, especially those on the bottom, or whether we will call down destruction upon ourselves by persisting in an existence characterized by fear, anger, greed, and violence.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

New and Old.

            Here is a direct quote from an actual Church Information Form (the form Presbyterian churches use when they are searching for a new minister):

“We are seeking [to be] a new church, but one patterned by tradition.  By blending the emotional comforts of the past with the benefits of modern conveniences, we envision _PC as a ‘New Old Church.’  Traditions will be honored as they illuminate our path to change and transformation….  We are looking for change, but want it tempered by custom which is honored and valued as it illuminates our path to growth in an ever-evolving world.”

            My first thought was that this is complete nonsense.  Is what this church wants even possible?  How exactly do traditions “illuminate a path” to growth, change, and transition?  What does that look like?  “Blending the emotional comforts of the past with the benefits of modern conveniences”?  Find me a place where the Lord Jesus advocates comforts and conveniences.  This appears to be a fitting example of committee-speak, in which we devise sentences that are completely contradictory and don’t make any sense, but satisfy the needs of disparate interests of individuals in the committee that wrote them.
            But let me give this committee credit for talking about change and transformation at all.  This in itself is far more than most documents like this are interested in.
            The relationship between new and old has always been an issue in Christianity.  Jesus is a change-agent.  He preaches a radically transformative message.  He has primarily to do with the breaking in of the “new.”  Hence, he makes famous statements about new wine and old wineskins, and a new, unshrunk piece of cloth, sewn onto an old, already shrunk, garment.
            Yet at the same time Jesus expresses a strong continuity with his own Jewish tradition.  “Do not think that I have some to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill” (Matthew 5:17).  He references the Hebrew Scriptures all the time, and he clearly sees himself and his ministry as the fulfillment of earlier prophecy.
            So his is a new message, firmly rooted in the old.  Is this tradition “illuminating the path” forward?  Or is it the path forward, in terms of himself, illuminating and reframing the tradition?
            Jesus talks in several places about the relationship between new and old.  Clearly it was a hot topic then as well. 
            “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old”   (Matthew 13:52).  This image reminds me of Phyllis Tickle’s remark about how the church (and culture) declare a rummage sale every 500 years.  A rummage sale involves cleaning out the attic and the basement, giving a reassessment to “what is new and what is old.”  Some new things are let go.  Some old things are rediscovered and kept.
            Jesus also says: “No one tears a piece from a new garment and sews it on an old garment; otherwise the new will be torn, and the piece from the new will not match the old.  And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the new wine will burst the skins and will be spilled, and the skins will be destroyed.  But new wine must be put into fresh wineskins.  And no one after drinking old wine desires new wine, but says, ‘The old is good’” (Luke 5:36-39).  People like the old, comfortable, seasoned, ways. 
            But Jesus contends that new teaching cannot be easily received by people whose minds have already been shaped by old teaching.  (See for a wonderful rabbinic analysis of this passage.)  That’s why he chooses for his disciples not Torah scholars, trained rabbis, and experienced priests, but common people who do ordinary work.  They are able to receive the “new wine” and the “new garment” of his teaching, where people who are already invested in the old paradigm are generally not.
            What this means for the church is very challenging.  What I hear him basically saying is that people raised in the old paradigm of church life, what we call “Christendom,” in which the church was the spiritual arm of American/Western culture, are simply not able to hear his new message.  The “fresh wineskins” are new people, people not now in the church, who have not been tainted by old theologies and doctrines, who approach the message of Jesus with openness and freshness.  They are not burdened with the “the old is better” bias.
            Jesus says that the tax collectors and prostitutes, the sinners, who follow him are advancing into the kingdom of God more readily than the pious, upright, holy people of his day, the scribes and Pharisees.  In our day it is the drunks and drug addicts, meeting in 12-step groups in church basements, that are advancing into the healing that characterizes the kingdom of God before the well-dressed, respectable, responsible church-people.       
            So, on the one hand the new and the old do not mix.  But, on the other, Jesus says the Kingdom of God exhibits new and old being drawn from the same treasure.  So, for Jesus, it is the new that has priority.  Not just any new thing, not novelty for its own sake… but his new.   The central fact of his mission is the reconciled relationships with God and others he proclaims, calling it the Kingdom of God.  This reconciliation is really very old and original, going back to creation itself.  But it feels new to people whose minds are just now being opened to perceive and realize it.  What Jesus announces as “new,” was also announced by the prophets, and is the good news at the very heart of the Torah: God’s liberating presence in the world.
            When Jesus says, at the beginning of his ministry, that “the time (kairos) is fulfilled” (Mark 1:15), he means that this kind of time that is always new is where we are called to live.  The old way of thinking is one that did not understand or accept this, but stayed boxed into traditions and habits that had been superimposed by people, powers, and culture.   
            Venerability is not a value in itself; neither is novelty for its own sake.  The point is to get into the flow of God’s kairos, God’s living present.
            This has meaning for the church today because so much of what passes for “change” is just trivial window-dressing.  It is getting on the latest trend in “church growth strategies.”  The real questions we need to face about change have to do with whether and how what we are doing actually serves Jesus Christ and the Kingdom of God now.
            So the balance between new and old that this church apparently wants to strike is beside the point.  The new that Jesus calls upon us to follow is his vision of justice, peace, healing, reconciliation, and love.  These are the criteria that determine the character of our discipleship.  I favor a Christ-based approach that subjects everything a church does to the test of faithfulness to Jesus.  Some very traditional practices will certainly pass muster; some very new and contemporary practices will not.  It is not about how long something has been around but how well it reflects and expresses Jesus’ teaching and actions.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Raising the Dead.

            One of the things that Jesus’ disciples are supposed to do is “raise the dead” (Matthew 10:8 & par.)  This seems a little, well, demanding.  Certainly Jesus brings dead people back to life in several cases.  However, literally bringing someone who has died back to life is not something that the church normally considers within the realm of possibility, let alone something it is supposed to be out there doing.  We do not have many examples of this even from the lives and legends of the saints throughout history.  It does happen, here and there.  But we hardly think of this as a mark of the church, as Jesus apparently did.  When John sent messengers to verify that he was indeed the promised Messiah, Jesus gave as proof, among other things, that the dead were being raised (Matthew 11:5 & par.)
            Is this one of those remarkable things that we are to relegate to Jesus alone?  Are we to assume that he does not want or expect his followers today to be involved in raising the dead?
            Jesus did not reduce his language in this case to the literal.  It included the literal, of course, but he also talked about death metaphorically and figuratively.  He would occasionally talk about death as “sleeping” (Matthew 9:24 & par., John 11:11-14).  (Paul talks this way too.  He says “fall asleep” meaning “died” at least 11 times in 1 Corinthians and 1 Thessalonians.)  Jesus has the father in the Prodigal Son story talk about his wayward son as having been “dead.”  But the son was not literally dead; he had lost his way.  He had lost himself, and it is when “he came to himself” that his life turns around.           
            While not discounting the possibility that Jesus means it literally when he tells his disciples, including us, to “raise the dead,” that is not all he means.  We should not consider ourselves off the hook if we fail to accomplish this literally.  For Jesus himself understood that there is a figurative meaning here.  He could also mean to wake those who have “fallen asleep.”
            Neither does he necessarily intend this to be taken simply literally either.  He does not mean go into people’s homes at night and wake them up out of slumber.  “Falling asleep” and “dying” are metaphors for, well, not getting it.  They refer to a state of consciousness that is mired in delusion, futility, absence, and unawareness.
            The great Armenian spiritual teacher, G. I. Gurdjieff also, like many other teachers, understood what we consider normal, waking life to be really a form of sleep, or even death.  The state of consciousness in which we are lacking in self-awareness, and hence thoroughly immersed in the fantasies, fears, delusions, and self-image of the ego, is a kind of sleep.  One popular image for this is that of zombies, the living dead who wander senselessly through the world with no sense of who or where they truly are, and who do violence all the while.  This is especially apparent when we compare this low state of consciousness with more advanced levels of self-awareness.  If we are so captive in “normal” consciousness that we cannot even imagine anything higher, we exist in a living death.  We are zombies.  We are slaves to the ego and its projections, its self-serving narratives, and its terrors.  We exist under the power of fear, hatred, and anger, and it doesn’t occur to us that there is any other way to live.
            When Jesus tells his disciples to “raise the dead,” he is also instructing them to aid people in “waking up” from this state of delusion, and opening their minds (metanoia) to a broader, higher, fuller, and more inclusive perception. 
            Jesus comes into the world and gives us the complete example of what humanity can be, is intended and created to be, if we wake up.  He is the fully evolved human being, a vision of our future, our destiny with and in God.  This is what it means to call him “fully human.”  He is also “fully God.”  But he is not so remote from us that what he does is something to which we may only be spectators.  He calls us, beginning with his earliest disciples, to participate in his life.  He calls on us to wake up.
            Even as he was about to be arrested, his disciples were still sleeping.  They still didn’t get it.  It is not until the resurrection that their minds are exploded and they begin to perceive what Jesus was really about, and how they were called to participate in him, in his life, in his ministry and mission.
            The church is still called to “raise the dead.”  This in truth a mark of the true church, that we help people “wake up.”  Part of our mission has to be bringing people up from this low level of consciousness, which creates a society based on violence, greed, and self-centeredness.  We are called to help people become more self-aware, and at the same time advance of a broader, more inclusive, and higher perspective on the world.  This is the healing of the soul.  It is one of the things the church is supposed to be doing: waking people up from the “death” of unconsciousness and delivering them to new life in the Spirit.
            It is part of the church’s calling that has been neglected.  To say the least.  Clearly we need to resurrect resurrection as a central task of the church.  In my own life I have found two paths that are effective in doing this: the 12 steps, and the enneagram.  (Both have Christian roots.)  The 12 steps program has liberated many people from the bondage/death of addiction, and brought them to new life.  The enneagram is a system of spiritual growth designed to bring people out of the “sleep” or “death” of unconsciously following the dictates of their ego, to a broader, wider, deeper, and higher perspective.  I have written before on how combining the two could be fruitful.  The 12 steps could be used as a way to progress up the healthy levels of the enneagram.
            In any case, “raising the dead” is something the church needs to be doing if it is going to be the church.