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

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 http://www.bethimmanuel.org/articles/new-wine-and-old-wineskins-parable-luke-536-39-re-examined 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.