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

Friday, October 17, 2014

The Name of Jesus.


            I am a little frustrated and tired of attending ecclesiastical events where Jesus is barely mentioned, if at all.  It is a residual symptom of Christendom that we in the church can all just assume that Jesus Christ is what we are about, without actually having to mention his name.  If we are disciples of Jesus, and if this is the core of our identity, especially in his church, then it seems to me that we ought to be referencing his life, work, teachings, death, resurrection, and Spirit all the time.
            Now, I am certainly not in favor of dragging Jesus’ name into every event in some token or obligatory way, as trivial window-dressing.  Fundamentalists are quite proficient at attaching Jesus’ name to every atrocity and obscenity they advocate and perpetrate, no matter how utterly contrary to Jesus' life and teachings.  
            But disciples should frequently and regularly refer to, and be challenged by, the one they claim to follow.  No?
            Recently I attended a semi-mandatory “boundary training” event offered by our presbytery.  It was generally very good.  But well into the second half I began to get grumpy because I had heard zero references to Jesus.  And when, in the Q & A, someone asked about Jesus, reminding us that he was if anything an inveterate boundary breaker, the presenter merely quipped that Jesus “didn’t have a very long career.”  The implication being that following Jesus may be fine for some, but maybe not for mature professionals working towards a happy retirement.  Not for churches that wanted to be around in five years.  As if, when the question is one of congregational and ministerial longevity, following Jesus is not a very good idea.
            Seriously?  This kind of off-hand, patronizing quip makes me understand why some of our sisters and brothers are considering leaving the denomination altogether.
            It is depressing how often this happens.  Our denomination and the leadership of our presbytery are pushing a church renewal program called “New Beginnings.”  My assumption is that any effort to renew the church would necessarily involve at its heart a consideration of what the Lord Jesus had to say and what he did.  Yet here again, one searches the web-site and Powerpoint presentations in vain for any but the most perfunctory mention of Jesus Christ or the Holy Spirit.  It’s all marketing, demographics, context, and the newly adopted term, “sustainability”… which is little more than a contemporary translation of what older Bibles called “mammon.”  Apparently, “New Beginnings” is a quick and dirty way to assess and enhance a church’s sustainability without the inconvenience of having to crack open a Bible or waste valuable time in prayer.
            To be fair, some of the stories of congregations that used this process indicate real spiritual renewal and revitalized mission.  But this appears to be because they brought to the program a concern for actual discipleship that is largely absent in the program itself.  Much of "New Beginnings" would work in principle for almost any retail business trying to relate to its context and set goals.
            My point is that sometimes the church is so thoroughly corrupted and bought out by Modern, imperialist America that it substitutes without much thought its practices and values for those of Jesus Christ.  So when we consider boundaries, we look to the therapeutic professionals.  When we consider evangelism we look to marketing professionals.  When it comes to polity, we find out what the latest trend is in the corporate world.  When deciding how the church should respond to political issues, we choose: Democrat or Republican.  And when we have to grapple with economic questions we are far more concerned for working within capitalism than we are with listening to what Jesus and Scripture say with rigorous intensity and consistency.
            I suspect that we are slow to mention Jesus Christ because, a) we don’t want to sound like fundamentalists who use his name as a wedge and a weapon, and b) we would prefer to keep his demands at arms length.  He explicitly threatens everything we hold dear.  And it would never occur to ask whether we are holding the wrong things dear.
            But Jesus Christ is the hope and future of the world, and if we who claim to be his disciples can’t bring ourselves to refer and defer to him even when we are gathered together with each other – let alone when we are engaging with the world into which he sends us – then we have neither hope nor future.
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Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Why Bless Animals?


            The practice of blessing animals, while it might be new and unusual for Presbyterians, actually has a long history in Christianity.  It goes back at least to Francis of Assisi, which is why many churches choose early October to bless animals.  Francis’ day is October 4.
            Blessing animals recognizes the larger community of creation and our place in it as humans.  Animals and humans were created on the same Sixth Day of creation in Genesis 1.  The “dominion” God gives humans over the animals is something that has to be exercised after the example of the Lord Jesus.  That is, dominion means faithful stewardship and loving care.  It does not and cannot mean a careless and violent domination, for we do not see that kind of thing in Jesus.
            Animals (as well as birds and fish, creatures of the Fifth Day) appear in Scripture in many places.  Often they appear subtly but significantly.  At his baptism, the Presence of God appears as a dove, and immediately thereafter, in the wilderness, he was accompanied by angels and wild beasts (Mark1:13).  In Jesus’ life, a donkey traditionally conveys him and his mother to Bethlehem before he is born, and then to Egypt when his life is threatened.  Of course, a donkey is also enlisted to bear the Savior into the holy city of Jerusalem, according to prophecy.  Jesus himself is often referred to as a “Lamb,” bringing to mind the sacrificial lamb of Passover, and the two goats of the Day of Atonement.
            Jesus used animals and birds as images and signs of God’s Kingdom in several places, indicating that we may see God’s saving Presence at work in God’s creatures.  In this he is building on the tradition we find in Psalms 104 and 148, the two great creation Psalms.  All of creation was made to praise God!  Finally, animals are specifically blessed by God in Psalm 36:6, where they are counted with humans among those whom God “saves.”  (The same Greek word is used in the New Testament to talk about salvation.)   
            We bless animals now to demonstrate our communion with and responsibility to care for God’s creation.  This is a particularly important practice in our own time, when creation is so jeopardized by our rapacious economy.  Human carelessness and greed are not only kicking the atmosphere out of balance by massive injections of carbon, not to mention countless other pollutants, but we have also sparked a wave of extinctions that may eliminate from the earth half the life forms God made and placed here.
            In blessing animals we set ourselves with Jesus and his creation, and against the objectification, abuse, and commodification of animals (and everything else) that our economy, a systematic super-amplification of  human avarice, demands.  It is therefore a revolutionary act in favor of God’s life in the face of a culture of death.   
            In blessing animals we willingly accept our role in caring for, preserving, protecting, and loving God’s creation, this beautiful vineyard God has placed in our stewardship.
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