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

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Growth and Life.


            A colleague of mine whom I respect said something the other day that made me wonder.  He said that living organisms grow and dying organisms contract.  He was talking about the church.  By this he meant that the church is dying because it is losing members and therefore needs to start gaining members now if it is to recover life.  It sounds like a reasonable and airtight analogy from nature.
            Is it true that visible and quantitative decline is an inexorable slide into death?  If true, is it always a bad thing? 
            When I was in college an exchange student from Africa came to our church in upstate New York.  His name was Taboh.  When he arrived it was winter.  Riding to our town from the airport he looked out the window in great concern and asked, “Why have all the trees died?”  We explained to him the phenomena of winter in the northern hemisphere and deciduous trees.  Don’t worry, we said.  The leaves will come back in the spring.”
            Just because they have lost their leaves doesn’t mean the trees have died.  So, in nature: loss does not always precisely equal death.  Things can stop growing, even appear to be dead, and yet still be alive.  Deciduous trees are one example.  Better examples might be caterpillars and butterflies, and acorns and oak trees. 
            Shrinkage and loss are not always bad.  It doesn’t always mean extinction.  Sometimes populations in nature need to be thinned for the sake of their own survival and future thriving.    
            Nature is decidedly non-linear.  Circles, spirals, and waves are more descriptive of the way nature works, than inexorable straight lines.   Furthermore, individual life forms in nature, even whole species, may pass away; but the biosphere itself as an integral, coherent system, remains.  Any child who has seen The Lion King knows that even death is part of the circle of life. 
            So: just because the Presbyterian Church is in a long, slow decline in terms of membership and influence, does that mean it is dying?  And even if it is dying, is that a bad thing, in the larger scheme of things?  Or is it a sign of approaching metamorphosis?  Or even resurrection? 
            I suspect the Presbyterian Church as a centralized, corporate denomination, probably is finished.   This particular ecclesiastical manifestation was not that venerable or original anyway.  It has only lasted several decades, and most of that time it was in decline.   Before we adopted this corporate model, we followed a different model, and a different one before that.  The original Form of Government from the 17th century was wildly different and breathtakingly shorter than the one we use today.  Presbyterians around the world adhere to very different ecclesiastical structures.  If we consider Christianity generally the breadth of different kinds of order and government is even more spectacularly wide and inclusive.
            Yes, our particular manifestation of church organization has been shrinking at a good clip for 40 or so years.  This has been causing us no end of institutional panic… but not enough to actually get us to change very much.  It is demoralizing.  It has incited an endless cycle of blame between left and right.  But neither side has seemed very willing to adjust their approach, until very recently.  It may be that we are losing our old leaves so that new ones may grow in when the time comes.  It may be that our form of doing church is obsolete and slated for extinction.  It may be that we are in the deconstructing chrysalis, slowly being reformed into something new and heretofore unimaginable.  It may be that this is the slow deflation of an artificial balloon that quickly inflated from 1945-1970, and that we are getting back to “normal.”
            Churches have to be small enough to grow.  Jesus used a seed analogy in several places.  Seeds are small but full of life and potential.  A small group of committed disciples is much better placed to witness to the good news effectively than a larger group that includes a high percentage of members whose commitment to Jesus and the good news is low or non-existent.  When the church is burdened by distractions like building maintenance, not offending this or that person or group, divided loyalties, nostalgia, and so forth, then it is not giving its full attention and energy to following Jesus.  Even if such a church is “successful” by the world’s standards, it will not necessarily be a potent witness to the good news. 
            If losing members helps us follow Jesus better, then we need to lose members.  And vice-versa: receiving, listening to, and being influenced by new members might make us all better disciples too.  The purpose of the church is not to grow in terms of gaining members and money.  It is to follow Jesus.  I think that if we follow Jesus, we will grow in quantitative terms.  Jesus himself promises this.  The early church demonstrated it.  But what the church needs to do right now is to put all its energy into following Jesus.
            God is unconcerned that we maintain our institutions, our theologies, our traditions, our heritage, our labels, our budgets, our membership rolls, our careers, and our other ego-centric baggage.  God wants only one thing, which is that people follow the One sent into the world to be our example, liberator, healer, and life.
             

Monday, February 14, 2011

Five Women.


            In the genealogy of Jesus in the gospel of Matthew, the line of descent is traced through the men.  But woven into the text we also find five women mentioned by name.  They are all famous figures whom Matthew’s readers would have known.  And they all have in common a certain tension with the normally accepted mainstream of the Bible.  We can only wonder what Matthew was thinking by including them.  I think he wanted his readers to understand quite clearly that this Messiah, while emerging from the mainstream of Scripture – indeed, among Jesus’ ancestors are all the kings of Judah beginning with David – Jesus would also pointedly include the subtle yet tremendously important minority views represented by these women: Rahab, Tamar, Ruth, Bathsheba, and Mary.
            At least three of the women are non-Israelites: Rahab, Tamar, and Ruth.  Another, Bathsheba, was married to a foreigner.  The fact that they are included here indicates a resistance to the ethnocentrism and xenophobia of books like Ezra and Nehemiah.  The book of Ruth was likely explicitly written to balance the excessive anti-foreigner impulses going on at the time.  “They tell us not to marry foreign women, but, guess what, the great-grandmother of the great King David was… a foreign woman!” 
            All these women had some kind of moral issue.  Usually this was a sexual transgression against the law or cultural standards.
            Tamar pretends to be a prostitute, luring Judah into a sexual encounter (Genesis 38:1-26).  But in doing so she demonstrates far more loyalty and dedication to Judah’s family than he.  He had been remiss in allowing her to provide offspring for his sons.  Indeed, Tamar’s act actually changes the whole trajectory of the narrative.  Before it, the sons of Jacob were disunited and even sold one of their own family into slavery.  After Judah realizes what he has done and is shamed by this woman into seeing the importance of his own family, the story takes a turn to where the brothers are eventually reconciled with Joseph, the one they had sold.  Tamar sins; but her action reveals a greater sin on the part of Judah.  In the end, Tamar is commended.
            Rahab was a prostitute.  She earns her place in Israel by sheltering and giving information to the spies Joshua sent in to Jericho.  Of the whole city when it is destroyed, only this prostitute and her family survive.  (See Joshua 2:1-24.)   Not only did her moral life not preclude her election into the people of God, it was the main reason for it.
            As for Ruth – well, what was happening on the threshing floor (Ruth 3:7)?  Arguably it was pre-marital intimacy.  If this is a sin she is not punished.  She becomes ancestress to David and all the kings of Judah.
            Then we have Bathsheba.  Certainly King David was at fault (2 Samuel 11:1-27).  Technically, she is an adultress, married to Uzziah the Hittite, but sleeping with the king in the palace.  But instead of being permanently punished and rejected for this sin, she becomes the mother of King Solomon. 
            And finally Mary with her mysterious pregnancy.  Her husband-to-be is ready to call off the wedding, until he is approached by God in a dream (Matthew 1:18-25).  Mary, far from being rejected for her apparent wrongdoing, becomes the mother of the Messiah.
            In each case the Bible contradicts itself by lifting up an obvious lawbreaker as a positive example.  Their sins are almost universally sexual.  What this tells us is that we must be very careful when we start to use the Bible as a weapon against minorities or sinners, especially sexual ones, which are our favorite to prosecute.  The larger point is that whenever we try and identify a single, specific, unified message in the Scriptures, we are in danger of over simplification and reductionism.
            Under Christendom, the empire needed a unified, simple moral code to be extracted from the Bible and imposed on the people.  This meant ignoring parts of the Bible that may have contradicted or balanced that moral code.  Thus these five women have been sitting there in this text for at least two-thousand years, and were barely noticed.  Occasionally they were observed as women, but rarely as foreigners, and almost never as sexual sinners, until the late 20th century.  Those values would undermine what the empire needed the church to be saying.
            (To their credit, the church never removed these women from the text.  This is what would have happened if some scholars were right in their view of the Scriptures as hopelessly perverted by an imperialistic church.  If it was the agenda of the early church to excise all anti-imperialism from the Scriptures, they did a miserable job of it.  With the exception of some more obscure apocalyptic writings, the Bible remains the most anti-imperialistic text in all ancient literature.)
            My point is that the Bible is not monolithic.  It cannot be reduced to one simple meaning.  One single, consistent moral system cannot be extracted from it.   The Bible is full of, “but on the other hand….” And we have to learn a both/and, inclusive, dialogical approach to Scripture study.  Instead of seeking answers, we should be seeking conversation.  Instead of wielding the text as a weapon against others, or using it as a means of social conformity and control, we should be more discerning, holding different texts in balance, seeking to grow from the interaction.  In this encounter there are several parties: text, community, the individual, and their various contexts, all under the Holy Spirit.
            These five women insist that there is more to the Bible than a set of written rules for life.  They insist that all so-called rules are conditional and situational, and that sometimes keeping the spirit of them means breaking the letter.  The larger truth is the movement of God’s love, peace, justice, and healing in the world.  And this is what Jesus is about all along.
                

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Call No One Your Father.

            We find in the gospels a passage where Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life” (Mark 10:29-30). 
            Notice that Jesus lists six different relationships as having been “left” by his disciples: house, brothers, sisters, mother, father, children, and fields.  Then, these disciples receive six things in return: houses, brothers, sisters, mothers, children, fields, and persecutions.  The two lists are slightly and significantly different.  The former includes “fathers,” while the latter does not.  The latter includes “persecutions,” while the former does not.  In other words, the disciples exchange fathers for persecutions.
            Jesus says that there will be no “fathers” in the Kingdom of God.  In Jesus’ culture, the father was the absolute ruler of the household.  He owned all the property and had all the rights.  Wives, children, and servants were hardly more than property.  When Jesus says there are to be no fathers in the Kingdom of God, he means there will be no dominating central power.  No boss.  Certainly no tyrant.  No single knot of power and authority.  All these other relationships will be retained.  Disciples will have shelter and work, they will have sisters and brothers.  They will even have mothers!  But no fathers.
            Then, perhaps because there are no fathers, and the social system of the gathering of disciples will have no central authority and will therefore be eccentric, unintelligible, and even offensive to the rest of society, the disciples will also have to deal with persecutions.  Without the protective function of the father, the gathering is vulnerable. 
            Jesus thus deliberately breaks the social contract in which people habitually trade in their freedom for security.  That kind of security, the security that comes from violence, retributive justice, coercion, and an endless feeding of militarism, is rejected by Jesus.  The resultant vulnerability is a small price to pay for the freedom to follow Jesus and live together in peace.
            The gathering does receive immeasurable benefits.  They do get shared property.  They do receive manifold relationships.  They are blessed with maternal nurture and support.  (Jesus dismisses fathers and keeps mothers.  The argument could even be made that Jesus is advocating a matriarchal system here.)  They are given meaningful and good work to do.  If acquiring these benefits means alienating the powers that dominate the world, so be it.  If it brings their paranoid wrath down upon them, so be it. 
            The gathering of disciples will not exchange the wonderful blessings of the new community for an oppressive and violent security.  Such security is far too expensive.  It is a protection racket, guaranteeing the wealth and power of the few who are already wealthy and powerful.  It is a conspiracy of ruling classes by which they keep each other in power by demonizing and threatening each other.  It is not true security at all, since it leaves the people under the domination of the rulers.  They ask us to believe that being subservient to our own rulers is somehow better than being subservient to the rulers from somewhere else from whom they are supposedly protecting the people.
            The gathering will not have any earthly, human “fathers,” but the gathering will not be fatherless.  Jesus says: “And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven” (Matthew 23:9).  The point is that all the people are equal, children of the one God who is the only “father” in the sense of a source of authority and security.  Earthly and human fathers are negated and overridden by the heavenly Father.  God is not a human father in capital letters.  God is not the projected perfection of the qualities we find in human fathers.  Still less is God a father in such a way that validates or authorizes human fatherhood.  No.  God is the anti-father.  God turns the institution of fatherhood upside-down.  (Neither is this a referendum on our actual human fathers.  My dad was great.)  God, as  “heavenly Father” actually negates and undermines the authority and power of human fathers, which is to say all human systems of domination, control, coercion, punishment, and violence. 
           Unfortunately, the church quickly fell from this understanding and practice.  They started propping up various kinds of “fathers” very early.  At first, as with the desert fathers, I think it was a matter of holding teachers and mentors in the highest respect.  But this degenerated into a sense that these human figures were somehow representatives of God’s fatherhood among the people.  Then it became a simple and easy thing to mistake for God’s fatherhood the controlling, dominating, shallow, violent fatherhood of humans.  Certainly the best abbots, presbyters, bishops, and priests understood the servant/sacrifice model of fatherhood we see in Jesus.  They understood God alone as the true Father.  But many, many more became little tyrants, lording their ego-centric wills over their flocks like abusive fathers.
            In any case, Jesus is here saying that his new community will not have dominating leaders, but will be “flat” in the sense of a gathering of equals.  Some will be “mothers,” perhaps in the sense of providing resources, stories, wisdom, consolation, and blessing.  The rest of us will be siblings, learning together the practices of discipleship.