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

Friday, February 21, 2014

The Post-geographical Church.


     The mandate that there should be only one ecclesiastical jurisdiction in each geographical area was the first canon of the Council of Nicaea in 325.  It was part of the wedding of the church to the Roman Empire.  Just as, in an empire, there cannot be more than one political jurisdiction in any geographical area, it was thought that this principle should be extended to the church, for the sake of unity.
     This regime lasted for well over a thousand years, until it disintegrated with the rise of secularism.  Secularism’s separation of church and State led to denominationalism: the practice of having more than one Christian ecclesiastical jurisdiction within the same geographical area (for example, Presbyterians, Methodists, Lutherans, Romans Catholics, Baptists, etc.).  It is in fact rare for a town in America to have churches of only one denomination, or even religion.  Most denominations have recognized this fact and learned at least to coexist, and often cooperate.  A few extreme and eccentric denominations do still claim to be the One True Church; but these are mostly dismissed as the cranks they are.
     Most denominations also abandoned “parish boundaries” – the practice of everyone in the same geographical district attending the same church – long ago.  We recognize that there can be two congregations of the same denomination in the same geographical area.  It is not unusual for Presbyterians to drive past one or more Presbyterian churches to get to the one they prefer… not to mention all the churches of other denominations they pass.  It would be unthinkable to somehow require people to only attend the church serving the geographical area to which they belong. 
     So the principle of non-geographicality is already established both by the existence of many denominational jurisdictions in a single geographical area, and the disappearance of parish boundaries even within denominations.  Indeed, in the Presbyterian Church (USA) we have several non-geographical presbyteries now.  These serve specific ethnic and linguistic communities (Koreans and Native Americans).  But the principle is now established that geographical jurisdictions are not necessary and may be overridden by missional concerns. 
     Why can’t we extend this principle to congregations and their relationship to presbyteries, and to presbyteries and their relationship to each other?  Why can’t we encourage churches to work formally together and relate to one another even across denominational lines?
     Why, for instance, can a church not align itself for mutual support and encouragement with other churches that understand, appreciate, and share the same missional approach?  Why should a church be regularly stifled in its mission because the other churches of its denomination in its region don’t understand or support what they are doing?  Especially in close packed urban areas like New Jersey, why should a presbytery have geographical boundaries, when there might be missionally like-minded congregations all over the State who would do better working together?  Why should we not work with churches from other denominations?  And why should presbyteries, or whatever we might call such intermediate gatherings of churches from several denominations, not relate to each other nationally according to their missional needs and opportunities?
     In other words, what is the big deal about geography that it should override the requirements of effective mission?  Is not geographical unity a holdover from the imperialist model?  Or, at best, from a time when transportation and communication options were far more limited, and distinctive denominational identities more secure, than they are today?
     Yes, if we were to de-geographicalize the church, many denominations would cease to exist in their current forms.  But that’s happening anyway.  What would emerge is a looser, more fluid system of connections between churches.  Each network would agree to its own rules and ways of operating and affiliating.  Certainly there would be traditionalists persisting in more conventional arrangements.  And there might even be congregations living in disconnected independence, if they choose.  The days of ecclesiastical one-size-fits-all approaches are officially over.
     In any case, this is already happening.  Many Christians are finding a lot more juice in attending conferences with like-minded disciples from across the denominational spectrum, than in official, denominational meetings.  The latter often tend to be so “diverse” in terms of every measurement that their vision and mission are chronically compromised, and they wind up aiming for the lowest common denominator.  Which can be pretty low.  Many main-line denominations have been paralyzed by a debilitating and inconclusive debate over the status of GLBT Christians for 40 years.
     The danger, of course, is that like-minded missional gatherings will become over-specialized, homogenous ghettos, deaf to other voices of creativity and balance.  This liability is largely remedied by having smaller networks engage in larger, more inclusive, “higher” gatherings.  I hope that someday all the followers of Jesus would be organically connected in this way.  Separating from geography might thereby even serve the larger cause of Christian unity.
     So, maybe it’s time to make the jump to an ecclesiastical model where alliances and relationships are formed according to missional considerations, rather than by the fact that churches happen to inhabit the same geographical area.

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Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Walking In Jesus' Footsteps.



            Christian pilgrims have come to the Holy Land for centuries, hoping to gain some spiritual benefit from walking in Jesus’ footsteps.  I am learning that it is a very powerful experience to see the places where the Lord lived, taught, healed, preached, died, and was resurrected.  In spite of the weight of history and all its convulsive changes, and in spite of the radically different context of Jerusalem today, it is still possible to feel in the landscape and the people a deeper understanding of Jesus’ context and world.
            Trusting in Jesus, however, is not just an exercise in memory.  Sometimes the subsequent layers of history can separate us not just from Jesus, but from our own present.  We meet Jesus Christ here and now, or we do not meet him at all.  So the idea of walking in Jesus’ footsteps has to be more than following the Via Dolorosa, or looking at this or that rock upon which he might have stepped.  We have also to walk today where, and with whom, he walked back then.  This means finding the places and people among whom Jesus’ presence is manifest today.  As he associated with the poor, the outcasts, the sick, the oppressed, the hungry, and the sinners in his own time, so he calls those of us who follow him to identify with the same kinds of people today.
            We miss the point if we walk in his historical footsteps by visiting these holy sites, while at the same time ignoring (or worse) the people we meet today who represent those with and for whom he conducted his ministry.  Reverence for the past is counterproductive if it prevents or distracts us from continuing his mission today.
            In these days, visiting Palestine, I am finding that I am meeting the Lord in the holy places.  Praying at the synagogue in Nazareth, or on the hillside near the Church of the Beatitudes was a deep spiritual experience.  I felt the holy Presence praying with Jewish sisters and brothers today at the Western Wall.
           I am finding as well that I am meeting Christ at least as profoundly in some of the people I am meeting.  Mostly I am recognizing him in the suffering, the dignity, the hope, and the patience of the indigenous people of this land, the Palestinians.  Talking with individuals who have endured such abuse and constant pressure from an oppressive, conquering, extractive regime, gives me much hope. 
            We all know that Jesus was a Jew; what doesn’t necessarily occur to us is that he was also a Palestinian.  I am discovering the face of Christ here in his own people.  Like the villagers whose town was destroyed by the Israeli army decades ago, yet whose descendants keep a daily vigil in the village church, which has somehow survived.  Or the young man whose brother’s 16 year-old best friend was shot by soldiers.  Or the Bedouins we met today whose simple homes are routinely demolished, and who have been forcibly relocated from their traditional land in the Negev desert.  Or the dozens of men I have met who have done repeated terms of jail time, even including torture. Or the people for whom merely driving to the next town can be a major hassle, if it is allowed at all.  Or the farmer who is always in danger of having his ancestral land confiscated, and who must suffer constant threats from foreign squatters.  (“How long has your family farmed this land?” I asked him.  “Eight-hundred years,” he replied.)
            Jesus knew what it was like to live in a conquered land, where the basic human rights of the people were not respected.  He gives wise and direct counsel for how to deal with abuse from soldiers of the occupation.  He teaches that he is present among those who suffer.  He blesses the poor, the grieving, and the gentle.  He heals the sick, frees people from bondage, welcomes the outcast, and feeds a hungry crowd on a hillside.
            I have repeated often that all Jesus appears to be concerned with is the mere fact of a person’s suffering.  He never asks whose fault it is, or tests people on their theology or moral character.  He never refuses to heal anyone who comes to him.  He heals for soldiers, police officers, Gentiles, Pharisees, rich and poor, friends and enemies.  He only cares about alleviating suffering wherever he finds it.  Certainly today, and here, Jesus is with anyone who suffers – Israeli, Palestinian, Christian, Muslim, Jew, native, settler, or visitor/tourist/pilgrim. 
            When God heals this land, it will be by way of Jesus’ good news of God’s love for the whole world, on the basis of the justice, equality, and peace for all, which is the heart of his message and that of the Bible.  In the meantime, I offer my own energy on behalf of those whom I see bearing the brunt of the world’s violence. 
            I heard today that some newly planted olive trees, near the ones we planted on Monday, were uprooted by settlers who are trying to push out the indigenous farmers.  It doesn’t matter to us.  Tomorrow, as an expression of hope for this land, we will go out and plant more olive trees... walking in Jesus' footsteps.
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