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

Friday, September 29, 2017

Standing and Kneeling.

As a follower of Jesus, my main concern is discerning how he would respond to situations we face today, and acting accordingly.  Hence, in a controversy like this one over whether professional athletes should stand for the playing of the National Anthem, or “take a knee” in protest, considerations like “respecting the flag” or “free speech” don’t mean that much to me.  I have to consider what the Lord Jesus would have me do based on what he himself does and teaches.
  1. In the New Testament I find no record that the Lord Jesus ever participates in displays or rituals of patriotism.  Did he stand in respect every time a Roman army unit went by?  As a Jew he could not possibly have accepted or recognized the graven images of eagles that they carried.  What we do know is that he was criticized by establishment figures for his lack of patriotic fervor in adhering to the Law that constituted his own people’s national identity.         
  2. He was forced to stand when he was on trial before the Sanhedrin, Pilate, and Herod.  But his words to them, if he speaks at all, reflect and express humility, dignity, honesty, courage, and trust in God.  He pointedly denies their authority over him, even as they engineer his death.
  3. He says that if you want to participate in the emperor’s system you should expect to be made to pay what the emperor demands (Luke 20:25a).  But we should rather worship and serve God alone, not conceding the Emperor’s claims at all.  “Give to God what belongs to God” (Luke 20:25b) he says; and it all belongs to God (Psalm 24:1).
  4. The Lord says that his followers should, when someone in the gospel community offends them, bear witness to the offense privately.  If there is no restitution, the matter should come before witnesses, culminating with the entire group.  In other words, if someone in the church comes and tells me I am harming them, I am bound to repent of what I was doing and make amends (Matthew 18:15-17).  Extending this to society generally would mean that if my neighbor testifies to an injustice I am committing, I am bound to take their word for it and change my ways.  Arguing with them and/or changing the subject are excluded.
  5. We know that Jesus always sided with the violated, oppressed, excluded, sick, disenfranchised, and abused.  Always.  (Eg. Matthew 25:31-46)  
We’re talking about football and other sports.  These are spectacles of entertainment, competition, and sometimes violence.  (It reminds me that for early Christians attending gladiatorial events was forbidden.)  The practitioners are often well paid, at least at the highest level.  In some sports, especially football, they incur some physical risk.  Many came out of poor backgrounds, or are members of minority groups.

We’re also talking about the arbitrary addition of a patriotic ritual to these events, which has nothing to do with anything about the game itself.  It is a mystery to me why we do this, except that it became a tradition sometime in the early years of baseball, probably around the time of World War I, is my guess.  And once you start doing something like this it immediately becomes nearly impossible to stop doing it without offending someone.  (Churches know this all-too-well, as national flags started appearing in worship spaces around the same time.)  This worked, I suppose, when a majority and their leaders could impose a common story on everyone.  

The problem we have now is that this common story is unraveling.  It is unraveling because of the facts which are now allowed to come to light, which had been suppressed.  The main fact, according to the testimony of Mr. Kaepernick, who began this silent protest, is rampant bias and brutality against members of the African-American community on the part of the American criminal justice system.  This is undeniable.  It is also nothing new.  But technology has advanced to the point that we now witness it on a regular basis.  Obviously, the  communities victimized by it always knew about it.  But now everyone does.

In a choice between participating in an arbitrary display of patriotism, and identifying with oppressed people, there simply isn’t any question at all which side Jesus is on.  The New Testament offers zero instances of the former, while Jesus does the latter all the time.  Not only that, but he is himself a victim of the same kind of brutality on the part of law enforcement that is chronically inflicted on poor and minority communities (Mark 15:17-20).

At the same time, it is hard to imagine Jesus having any interest at all in professional sports (although he has deep compassion for the people involved).  But he could very well suggest that, like with Caesar’s money, if you’re going to participate in Caesar’s spectacle you should expect to pay Caesar’s admission fee.  Even so, he sides with the hated and reviled, rejecting the claims of power and pride.
+++++++

      



Friday, August 25, 2017

Where Is the Urgency?


The problem with many mainstream Protestants today is that we don’t take this Christianity thing seriously enough.  Having wisely dispensed with the fear of hell-fire as the major motivator for faith, we replaced it with… well, nothing.  We have no urgency to our proclamation of the good news.  We convey the view that it really doesn’t matter to you or anyone else whether you follow Jesus or not.  Church is our little private hobby, and you are welcome to join us.  But it’s unlikely to make much of a difference in your life beyond having some nice new friends.

We see this lack of seriousness all over.  Like when we dole out the Sacraments with scant preparation, understanding, attention to detail, or investment of time.  Or when we treat church like one of many options for spending our leisure time, or a matter of personal convenience.  Nurturing our faith is at the bottom of our to-do list… and deservedly so, because we don’t feel we are getting enough out of it to make it a priority.  When we assume sermons are for entertainment and comfort, or when we assume church is mainly for the upholding of the past and not for transformation, we are making it irrelevant, not to society but to Jesus himself.  

When church is at best something to “think about” all week, but not put into practice, then it is mostly a waste of time.   

Consequently, we have devolved into the assembly of the nice whose main goal is affirm you in doing your thing, whatever that is.  That seems to be the only urgency we can muster.  God forbid we should ever tell anyone, especially ourselves, “no.”  Which means we don’t open ourselves to any of the really important things to say “yes” to.     

I suggest there is a greater urgency that we are conveniently ignoring because it would cost us too much.  Following Jesus actually means something; it has definite consequences and effects on ourselves and others.  It changes your life, and because it changes lives it changes the world.  Following Jesus has specific behavioral content; it is to live rather differently from the mainstream.  Not just for the sake of being different.  But because people’s lives and the life of the whole planet are at stake.

So here’s the urgency: if we don’t follow Jesus and his Way, characterized by simplicity, generosity, compassion, forgiveness, acceptance, non-violence, humility, justice, healing, love, and joy, then our planet, our world, our communities, our families, our relationships, and even our health will continue to degrade and disintegrate.

The alternative to Jesus’ Way is injustice, environmental degradation, an economy that worships and inspires greed, and a politics based on boasting, hubris, bluster, and ignorance.  It is extraction and acquisition.  It is waste and hoarding, while many go without.  It is terrible inequality.  
  
The alternative to Jesus’ Truth is lies.  It is spin, “fake news,” propaganda, and language totally conditioned by whomever paid for it.  It is fear mongering and hate-speech.  It is words detached from facts… but more importantly from compassion.     

The alternative to Jesus’ Life is death.  It is poverty, misery, disease, addiction, hunger, and powerlessness.  It is war, revolution, genocide, terrorism, and crime.  It is racism and white supremacy; it is mass incarceration, bigotry and oppression.

We don’t follow Jesus in order to “avoid hell and get to heaven.”  We follow Jesus to manifest heaven here and now and keep from turning the world into hell.

It is in truth the most important and urgent thing that people, no matter what their religion, culture, language, race, or status, follow Jesus.  The life of the world world depends on it.
+++++    


Saturday, August 19, 2017

Why the Church Must Address Privilege.

Privilege.

One of the ways colonialists control a conquered nation is by giving privileges to some groups but not to others.  This divide-and-conquer tactic generates resentment among those left out.  The genius of it is that people often don’t perceive the privileges they are getting.  So if anyone ever tries to establish equality, the privileged feel like they are losing and the others are gaining at their expense.  Colonialism thus depends on imposing a zero-sum mentality on people.  And, while groups of conquered people are distracted by maintaining, gaining, reducing the special privileges of some, the elite leaders and their cronies are quietly continuing to increase their own wealth and power.  Which is the whole point of colonialism.

This was the situation facing the early church.  The apostle Paul recognized it more clearly than most.  Some scholars, reading the New Testament in the context of the Roman Empire, suggest that this is the basis of his argument in Galatians.

Paul was inspired to write his letter to the Galatian congregation because they had been visited by a group telling them that in order to be complete as Christians they must formally convert to Judaism and keep the Jewish Law.  This was not merely a dispute about religious practices religious.  It had to do with privilege.

Jews in the Roman Empire had one important privilege: they were exempt from the requirement to worship the Emperor as a god.  It was mandatory for everyone else in the Empire to demonstrate loyalty to the State and express unity as subjects of the Emperor, by offering this regular worship.  Jews didn’t have to do this.  (Part of the deal was that the priests would pray for the Emperor in the Jerusalem Temple.)  

As long as the newly founded communities of Jesus-followers were considered Jews, they came under this legal exemption.  But with Paul converting increasing numbers of Gentiles to the faith, and not requiring them to be circumcised or to keep kosher, a rift developed.  The Jewish establishment was less and less inclined to accept as Jews these Gentile believers in Jesus.  If the Christians were not considered Jews, then they will lose the exemption, and face the requirement to worship the Emperor like everyone else, which of course would be a violation of their faith.

So the people who came to Galatia, whom we traditionally refer to as “Judaizers,” would have made the argument that the new Christians had a choice.  Either they could accept circumcision and the Law, remaining under the exemption from Emperor-worship, or they could be dismissed from Judaism.  In which case they would have to worship the Emperor or suffer the consequences, which could be severe.  The argument was very tempting: “Suffer a little pain now, and undertake the discipline and morality of Jewish Law, and you too can separate yourself from Rome.  Jesus himself was a Jew who kept the Law.  You can be one too.  We’re forming a new, liberated society according to God’s Law, as fulfilled in Jesus Christ.”  In other words, they probably sold Judaism as a way of resisting Rome, but within the system.

Paul’s whole mission to the Gentiles is anti-Roman to the core.  He is preaching about a man whom Rome executed on a cross, which was the penalty for sedition, but who did not stay dead, but is now risen and alive, and working spiritually in the lives and congregations of his followers.  They are worshiping a traitor to the Roman order.

Paul’s missional strategy included identification with the ethne, the term used for the many nations and peoples conquered and subjugated by Rome.  But he realized that the followers of Jesus could not identify fully with the people of the Empire if they grasped the privilege that came with being Jews… precisely because of who was deigning to grant them that privilege: Rome.

Jews were, Paul realized, just as conquered and subjugated as everyone else.  This is obvious in the Romans’ willingness to execute on a cross one whom they identified as “King of the Jews.”  The Jews were not God’s special people as far as Rome was concerned.  Rome’s treatment of Jesus — not to mention thousands of others — revealed that the Jews were just another victimized nation.  The State’s granting of an exemption from Emperor worship made them seem different and blessed.  But in reality this exemption was nothing less than proof that they were bought and paid for by Rome.

Participation in such a deal with Rome and acceptance of Rome’s exemption wedded the Jewish establishment to Rome.  It was to sell-out to the Empire, accepting the Empire’s gracious exemption, in return for loyalty.

If Gentiles started becoming officially Jewish, they would not be witnessing to a new world or the Kingdom of God; they would just be accepting privileges from Rome, separating them from everyone else.  It would be toxic to Paul’s mission.

Paul insisted that the way to follow the King of the Jews, Jesus Christ, was by rejecting all privilege, wealth, and power from the manipulative hands of the Roman conquerors.

Fast-forward to today.

Many white Christians are waking up to the privilege we have always enjoyed under Western Civilization and Christendom.  We white people didn’t even know we had these privileges.  We accepted the Modernist, liberal ideology that everyone is equal and everyone has the same opportunities, and if you’re not a success in this society it’s your own damn fault.  We have assumed the privileged status of Christianity, especially Protestantism, in our country.  We simply accepted it when we got off with warnings, light sentences, or low fines when we broke the law.  We believed that everyone can live where they want, shop where they want, buy what they want, drive where they want, and go to school where they want.

And so on.

For many reasons, this set of convenient and self-serving lies is beginning to crumble.  We are realizing that we have been and continue to be beneficiaries of a system steeply stacked in our favor.  And we also realize that this system has been routinely and reflexively manipulating privilege to pit different kinds of poor and working people against each other, to preserve and increase the wealth of the elite. 

Now what?

I think the missional example of the apostle Paul is that, first, followers of Jesus have to live like and with the oppressed, marginalized, exploited, rejected, incarcerated, conquered people Jesus comes into the world to save.  We have to reject our exemptions and privileges, and stand as accomplices with those who never had them.  Second, we have to build solidarity among oppressed groups in the spirit of Galatians 3:28, recognizing none of the divisions and pecking orders imposed by the elite.
+++++++             






Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Why Neither Technical Nor Adaptive Change Is Enough for Today's Church.

Beyond Technical and Adaptive.

The PCUSA today needs more than a superficial, technical adjustment.  It also needs more than to adapt to a changing environment.  The denomination basically needs a complete overhaul from the ground up.
When we hear talk of a “new Reformation,” and if it is going to be more than merely commemorating the Reformation of 500 years ago, we need to do in our time what the Reformers did in theirs… only better.  For even though in effect the Reformation was a massive adaptation of Christianity to the new context of Modernity, what the Reformers thought they were doing, and intended to do, was to reground Christianity on its original foundation.  They wanted to recover in their own time the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic faith of the New Testament.
The results were spotty at best.  
    • First, they did not have the critical tools to discern when they were really following the gospel, and when they were just going along with the flow of history.  Thus what was presented as the real and original faith, ends up really being a decidedly middle-class, European, colonialist redaction of Christianity.  
    • Secondly, they tended to discount Jesus Christ because they maintained an inherent bias in favor of Christendom.  That is, they were committed to maintaining the Christian State.  This meant that Jesus’ most challenging and radical teachings and practices were marginalized, rationalized, or ignored.  
    • And thirdly, they had inherent bias against almost anything smacking of Roman Catholicism.  This meant that even something completely coherent with Jesus’ teachings and the practice of the early church could nevertheless be dismissed and banned for appearing too “Papist.”  Probably the most egregious example of this is the denigration of Mary, the Lord’s mother.  
Therefore, the Reformation didn’t go far enough.  It ended up being mainly a religious expression of, and justification for, Modernity and its rationalism, individualism, colonialism, racism, nationalism, classism, secularism, and reductionist objectification of everything.  By its nadir in the early 20th century, Protestantism was little more than a moralistic chaplaincy sucking up to the Modern State. 
The PCUSA has this Modernist bias embedded in its very DNA.  If we are going to be more than an anachronistic historical relic, we are going to have to excise it, and get back to the original intent of the Reformers, which was to recover the gospel of Jesus and the early church.
Briefly, it means that:
    • Seeing that all perspectives, including ours, are culturally conditioned, it is harder for us to universalize our own context and ideologies.  That being said, we are freed to release all such loyalties and rest in “Jesus Christ, as he is attested for us in Holy Scripture” (Barmen).    
    • We have to get past any reflexive loyalty to Christendom.  We are gaining a better understanding of Jesus’ life and teachings as being inherently and essentially opposed to the accumulation of power and wealth.  The Way of Jesus Christ is anti-imperialistic, egalitarian, inclusive, mystical movement based on simplicity, forgiveness, justice, shalom, and love.
    • We are able now to draw from all of history and human culture elements that express the good news of Jesus Christ.  This intentionally includes whatever good things emerged from Modernity, as well as what we find in earlier and non-European contexts.  We may even locate and appreciate resonances with other world religions, recognizing the Cosmic Christ transcending culture and history.     
I don’t see this happening by means of minor adjustments in our polity or theology.  It will only happen by putting everything on the table in a courageous act of confession, penitence, and renewal.  We need to subject everything to a wall-to-wall reassessment, holding it to the standard of Jesus Christ.
In other words, what we need today is apocalyptic change, change that, after embracing disintegration, reconstructs the church from the original blueprint in the New Testament.  We have to let go of everything out of synch with Jesus Christ, and emerge into his Image which is already within us.

+++++++ 

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

What to Wear.


The question of clerical garb came up in a Facebook exchange the other day.  This may seem pretty trivial.  But if everything the church does is supposed to be missional, what does that mean in terms of something everyone who attends a worship service sees?  What the leaders of worship are wearing will communicate a great deal about the theology, priorities, and approaches of that church.

The extremes are obvious.  A good friend of mine is a Russian Orthodox priest.  He wears full Byzantine-style vestments for all church services, and a black cassock all day during the week.  The opposite extreme is another friend who wears normal, secular business/casual attire when on the job, whether leading worship or sitting in her office.  

Some pastors wear Hawaiian shirts in worship.  Others business suits.  But I still think it is the case that most wear some kind of special garb for worship, whether it be an alb and surplice, a Geneva gown, or some other kind of cassock or robe.  Most will wear a stole of the appropriate liturgical color.  Few pastors wear a collar when not leading worship (though anecdotally this number appears to be rising).  

Here are some considerations:
  • As far as we know, Jesus himself wore the garb of a simple Palestinian peasant, which would be an ankle-length, natural colored, probably linen outer robe, often with a rope for a belt.  Under that people generally wore what we would call a long t-shirt, stretching to below the knees.  
  • At the same time, Jesus is said to have worn a “seamless” garment (John 19:23) which is a possible reference one of the robes of a priest in Exodus 28:32.  
  • Beginning in the 4th century, much of traditional Christian liturgical dress was based on the clothes worn by Roman officials.
  • Monastics and priests generally wore simple robes.
  • In the 16th and 17th centuries, the Reformed tradition abandoned Roman vestments for a simple academic gown.  In other words, they wore what they, as scholars, wore every day.
  • In the last 500 years, as secularization intensified and technology advanced, robes that might once have been worn every day became specialized ceremonial clothing.
What is going on theologically when we decide what to wear?  Do we want to blend in, or be set apart?  Why?  Surely what we wear should reflect our ecclesiology and missional theology.  We represent the Kingdom of God, which means perhaps we should look and dress differently from everyone else.  Does worship have an inherent formality to it that should be reflected in what participants and celebrants wear?  I suspect that we have to balance both tradition and contemporaneity, expressing the presence of God who is both transcendent and incarnate.  The sacrament is both sacrifice and meal; its leaders are both priests and hosts, representing Christ.  Jesus himself has a dim view of leaders who wear long robes merely for show (Mark 12:38).     

I am coming to the view that there is not necessarily one single answer to these questions.  More and more I am deciding “it depends,” and “both/and,” are more honest and responsible.  I exclude some things as always inappropriate, based on the gospel itself.  For instance, when leading worship, I avoid looking like a person of wealth and power.  I rarely wear a suit and never a tie.  The last thing I want to look like up there is a banker or a lawyer.  It has to be about integrity, authenticity, humility, beauty, and simplicity.  It has to focus attention on the Lord, not me.

My strategy relies on a rhythm and balance in worship, where the style and format shifts with the season.  Some holidays and seasons are more formal and “high church,” while others are considerably less so.  

In Advent and Lent, I will wear a Geneva gown or just a black sweater, with a blue or purple stole.  Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost are the three main festivals of the church.  I will wear a white Russian cassock and a white chasuble on those days, and the service is pretty formal.  After Easter and after Epiphany I wear the white cassock without the chasuble.  After Pentecost (a season that can last half the year) the service gets looser.  I might wear a blue Latin cassock; in the summertime I will often opt for a blue silk shirt, untucked.  None of this do I rigidly enforce; local considerations factor in, as do sacraments and other occasions for which I might want to dress up or down.  And I always use a stole.

There are other considerations: the Geneva gown was a gift from my parents when I graduated from seminary.  I was married in the blue shirt.  The white cassock, though Russian, reminds me of the Celtic monks with whom I resonate deeply; I think of them as my tradition.  The blue cassock, all my stoles, and the cross I wear nearly every Sunday were gifts; some of the stoles belonged to my father.  Thus some things have more meaning because they were given to me, or have some other connection.

This is my practice.  Others need to do what works for them.  It’s all about balance, integrity, and keeping the focus as clear as possible.  No matter what I wear, it’s going to get noticed.  I hope I can deflect at least some of that attention beyond myself to what we are all doing together in worship.
+++++  

                    

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Ascension Into Heaven.


Yuri Gagarin, in the first flight of a human into space, is said to have reported that he saw nothing up there that could be mistaken for heaven.  This reminds me of another quip that if Jesus ascended into the sky at a rate of 3 miles per hour he would not yet have reached the orbit of the moon.  Clearly, a literal understanding of terms like  “heaven” and “ascension” does not make sense today.

This does not render these concepts meaningless, however.  Losing the literal meaning opens us up to a deeper understanding.  Words like “heaven” and “ascension” talk about getting “higher.”  The higher we go, the more we see.  The more we see, the more we can participate in and relate to.  Scripture refers to God as “Most High:” God sees and loves everything and everyone everywhere.   

Heaven is therefore a way to talk about the necessity to broaden and widen our vision so that it becomes infinitely inclusive.  It counteracts our chronic human limited vision which is the source of our ignorance and therefore of our fear, which leads us into sin.  We sin, or literally “miss the mark,” because our consciousness is boxed in by the minuscule proportions of our perception.  Our five senses only go so far.  Beyond that we project and imagine, or hypothesize based on reason and experience.  Consequently, we fall into a reflexive selfishness and ego-centricity.   Moving through the world in this condition is analogous to driving a car in a dense fog or blinding blizzard, unaware of anything more than a few feet from our headlights.

When Jesus proclaims the Kingdom of Heaven, he is saying that there is more out there that we cannot see unless we have our vision expanded so we can see — and therefore participate in and relate to — more widely and inclusively.   We need somehow get “higher.”  Indeed, he offers us in himself an opportunity to see from God’s perspective.  He shows us an all-embracing viewpoint which loves, accepts, celebrates, forgives, and gives thanks for everything.  

In her classic song, “From a Distance,” Julie Gold describes a world in which “we all have enough and no one is in need.”  Perhaps it is based on that iconic photograph of the Earth from space by Apollo astronauts.  A spinning jewel of blue in the vastness of darkness and cold, our home planet evokes compassion and love in the hearts of all who see from this vantage point.  Gagarin was looking for the wrong thing.  Had he looked down it might have occurred to him that there are no borders, no ideologies, no races, and no historical-materialist processes visible from where he was.  These things are all in the shallow and all-but-blind brains of the very tiny inhabitants of this orb.

My point is that “heaven” in  a sense means everywhere.  When Jesus ascends “to sit at the right hand of God,” he doesn’t go away.  He doesn’t abandon us.  He is one with the Presence at the heart of creation.  The One who creates the universe by Word and Spirit is no farther from that creation than any of us are from our own breath and sound.  By the Spirit, Jesus’ Ascension means he doesn’t go somewhere… he goes everywhere.

All talk of heaven means this expansion and radical inclusiveness of vision.  When our mortal bodies finally give out, we who have lived by the  inclusive, forgiving, compassionate, and loving shalom revealed and given by the Lord Jesus, expand into him.  We have begun to dwell within and anticipate heaven.  We move into an eternal life we have already started to know in the wideness of our vision in Jesus.  

This is why the church, which is the body of those called into this heavenly Kingdom, is way too big for anything indicating a narrow, shallow, constricted, limited, and fearful vision.  Our faith is too expansive, it explodes all ignorance or falsehood, hatred, fear, violence, or exclusion, judgment or condemnation.  If we are not witnessing to heaven here and now, however haltingly, we will not see it in its fulness.  If we are not living according to God’s inclusive and welcoming love which cherishes and gives thanks for all things now, we should not expect to have that vision after our physical bodies give out.
+++++++ 

     

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Why We Need to Re-Imagine Presbyters.

Presbyters.

  1. The Eldership in Crisis.
Presbyterianism lodges power and authority in a select group of people called elders (presbyter in Greek).  Rather than having decisions made by all the members of the church (which is congregationalism), or by a single authority figure (as in much of episcopal polity), the Presbyterian church locates responsibility in gathered groups — councils — of elders. 
We might think that Presbyterians would have a highly developed theology of eldership, the presbyterate, and we would have the dynamics of effective conciliar discernment down cold.  We don’t.  We have failed to educate ourselves very well concerning the role, function, place, selection, and authority of elders in the church.
Hence, like almost everything else in the church, the institution of elders/presbyters is in crisis right now.  For Presbyterians, this is a big, even existential, deal.  The Presbyterian Church is only as faithful, healthy, and effective as the presbyterate, the eldership.
Sadly, we habitually import our understanding of leadership into the church from secular society, and reduce elders to the equivalent of board members or trustees of non-profit corporations.  This mentality often means that elders bring into the church the values, outlooks, skills, and approaches judged to be successful in the world.  They act like fiduciaries and custodians of a religious institution which takes its place among the other institutions of the American cultural landscape.  The elders thus become cautious asset-managers, charged with maintaining and preserving homogeneous, and change-averse congregations.
While this kind of leadership may work elsewhere, to the church of Jesus Christ it is toxic.  For we have only one Head and Leader, who is Jesus Christ; and it is only from him that we have our model of responsibility.  And he clearly and explicitly exhibits a very different kind of leadership.

“You know that among the Gentiles 
those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, 
and their great ones are tyrants over them.  
But it is not so among you; 
but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 
and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.  
For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, 
and to give his life a ransom for many” 
(Mark 10:42b-45).
  
After [Jesus] had washed their feet, had put on his robe, 
and had returned to the table, he said to them, 
“Do you know what I have done to you?  
You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am.  
So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, 
you also ought to wash one another’s feet.  
For I have set you an example, 
that you also should do as I have done to you.  
Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, 
nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them.  
If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them” 
(John 13:12-17).

The leadership given to the church by the Lord is not that of a superior to subordinates, but one who leads by intentionally gravitating to the lowest place of service.  Thus, after Christ example, leaders in the church are not trustees or fiduciaries; still less are they masters, owners, or executives.  
In Christ we see that a real leader implements the will of a higher authority by showing how the “highest” authority is most fully present in the lowest, humblest, poorest, most broken, vulnerable, and empty places.  The true leaders in Christ’s Way make themselves open, clear, unobstructed channels for God’s goodness and blessing to flow through them into the world.  In a sense, they let their ego-centric, personality-driven existence die.  For, as Jesus says, “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24).     
If the Presbyterian church has any future, we are going to have to reimagine the presbyterate in such a way that we start reflecting and expressing more intentionally and directly the life and teachings of Jesus Christ.  The elders in the church are to guide the church in Jesus’ Way of self-emptying love.  And they can only do this by realizing it themselves.  Indeed, the realization is the guidance.
When people live this way, Jesus calls it the Kingdom of God.  The Kingdom of God is where Jesus is Lord, and participants in this Kingdom realize his Lordship, and their own, by emptying themselves of all that separates them from God.  It is when the broken are made whole and the lowly lifted up, and it is when the privileged and powerful move to take the lowest place.  Elders are the leaders in this race to the bottom; they seek to be examples in outdoing each other in generous, compassionate love.        

II.  Elders Are the Vanguard and Guardians of a Radical Insurgency Called the Kingdom of God.    
  
Christianity is an insurgency.  The Lord Jesus talks about his disciples using images like “salt” and “leaven,” things that work subtly from within to flavor and reshape a larger whole.  
An insurgency requires a leadership team committed to the principles, practices, and goals of the movement.  In the Jesus Way these are the elders.  They excel in expressing Jesus’ self-emptying, emancipatory, empowering leadership.
I mention this as a counter-argument to those who complain that presbyterianism is undemocratic in locating power in a select group, rather than in the whole.  It is precisely because of the radical and insurrectionary nature of Christian faith, that it cannot be left to popular whim.  The early church instituted “apostolic succession” to ensure that the faith did not get coopted, and watered-down, by other elements, like “the people” or the State.  There were strict requirements for membership, and high bars for leadership.  Without this, the church is liable to dissolve into the culture, becoming indistinguishable from it.
The integrity and authenticity of the church depends on leaders who “get it.”  The elders above all have to be thoroughly committed to the faith and the mission.  They cannot be doing this in their spare time, after their commitments to family and work have been satisfied.  Most of all, they can’t be bringing into the church ways of thinking and acting that make for success in the Empire.  They have to follow Jesus and seek first his Kingdom.
Here are some considerations for the church in recovering a higher functioning of elders.
  1. When followers of Jesus gather to organize God’s mission, discerning and implementing Christ’s will is the first, if not only, order of business.  A session or presbytery meeting ought to be nearly indistinguishable from a Bible Study or prayer/meditation group.  Meetings are primarily an encounter with God’s Word and Spirit.  The “business” is incidental and derivative.
  2. Elders represent God’s will, epitomized in God’s self-emptying love in Jesus Christ. Therefore, the way elders are chosen, and the insights they realize, will be based on the same self-emptying, seen in the “preferential option for the poor” at the heart of the Scriptural message.  Elders are the guardians and executors of this revelation.  This first means becoming spiritually poor in disciplines of repentance by which they are increasingly conformed to the mind of Christ.  And secondly it means serving the disenfranchised, suffering, and destitute in society, giving special attention to the most victimized and reviled individuals and groups.  Elders “speak for the trees” in advocating for God’s creation and all of life.  Elders have to recognize in Jesus’ Beatitudes both themselves and those they are sent to serve. 
  3. Beginning with themselves, and serving as examples to others, the elders are to isolate, critique, and dissolve every congealing infection of privilege, inequality, superiority, exclusion, and self-righteousness, every knot of fear, shame, or anger, every ego-centric, hypocritical, acquisitional, extractive urge, and every obstruction in the flow of the grace, goodness, and glory of God in Jesus Christ, pouring into the world.  Instead of procuring, protecting, and preserving, the elders need to be about spending, sharing, investing, giving, and losing, especially when it comes to buildings and money.
  4. Elders need to be known for their personal generosity, forgiveness, simplicity, humility, repentance, wisdom, contemplation, and love.  They are people of deep prayer whose lives engage Scripture, and who are regular fixtures in the Sacramental and worship life of a particular congregation.  Wealth, worldly power, privilege, and social status are disqualifying.  The more successful by the world’s standards, the less eligible someone should be to serve as an elder.  Success is mainly an indication of compromise.  
  5. Elders courageously guide the church in Jesus’ self-emptying Way of life, showing the Lord’s justice, non-violence, and acceptance.  Elders create space for a community of honesty, acceptance, integrity, authenticity, and forgiveness.  Constantly engaged in the Word and prayer; elders demonstrate Jesus’ Way by cherishing life and creation, welcoming all, especially the least, receiving and sharing the Holy Spirit, and living into the Kingdom of God in joy and thanksgiving.
  6. Congregations recognize elders by their gifts, and call them to serve on the session subject to regular reconfirmation.  They should not fix by rule the number of elders, as this creates the perception of slots that need to be filled. 
  7. The elders lead the witness of the church in being sent into the world as agents of God’s peace and justice.  The expression of good news in a broken and oppressed world is evangelism.  It seeks to extend the truth of God’s Kingdom into the systems, relationships, institutions, and practices that characterize the prevailing economic and political order.  They speak and act in society in favor of the inclusion, welcome, equality, healing, generosity, humility, non-violence, forgiveness, and reversal that the church intentionally lives.  They engage in acts of service to those in need, especially with communities and people that are at risk.
  8. The witness of elders is essential in leading the whole people of God, beginning in the gathered community of those who trust in the Lord Jesus.  As all the members grow in the Spirit, they also infuse Christ’s life into their own relationships and into society, acting as leaven, salt, and light. 
  9. Ruling elders “rule,” not by themselves governing, least of all according to the domination model of secular power, but by applying a Ruler, in the sense of a measuring instrument, which is Jesus Christ, the living Word of God.  The elders evaluate themselves first, and then the mission of the church, according to Christ’s standard and model.  Is the church’s mission keeping to the “ruled” lines giving the shape of Christ?  Or does it waver and wander from Christ’s pattern of humility, generosity, acceptance, non-violence, and justice?  Does the congregation look more and more like Jesus Christ? 
  10. Teaching elders — also called Ministers of Word and Sacrament — teach, impart, relate, interpret, translate, apply, and exemplify the biblical story of God’s love revealed and poured into human hearts and all creation in Jesus Christ.  They oversee and counsel regarding the enactment of that story in mission and ministry.  They tell the story in the interpretation of Scripture and celebrating the Sacraments.  They convene and moderate the gathering of elders in a local congregation.  They seek to “pray constantly” themselves, as they also lead the people in prayer.  They display in their own lives the self-emptying love of God shown in Jesus by living in simplicity, humility, honesty, piety, and even poverty.  They are basically “elders for oversight,” or episcopoi (that is, bishops) in a local missional/worshiping community.
   
III. Reforming the Eldership.


  1. Institute specific covenantal requirements, standards, and criteria for ordination and installation as a ruling elder.  These have to identify someone in relationship with Jesus Christ as reflected and expressed in life-style, attitudes, values, practices, knowledge, and reputation.
  2. Provide for an annual review of all elders, with the provision that someone may fall away from being an elder.  This is done by other elders. 
  3. Require continuing education, and spiritual development, from all elders.  This will include retreats and spiritual direction relationships, as well as courses and workshops.
  4. Lose term-limits, but only after the eldership has been thoroughly reformed.    
  5. Take seminaries out of the hands of trustees, and give them to elders appointed by councils to run.  
  6. Overhaul the system of accreditation so that it reflects ecclesiastical and missional priorities, not those of academic professionals.  
  7. Develop new templates for gatherings of councils.  An ecclesiastical gathering should not be mistaken for a corporate board or stock-holders’ meeting.
  8. Organize sessions so that divisions of labor are more fluid and missional, rather than the traditional categories which reflect a corporate mentality, as if the elders were “division heads” or something. 
  9. Organize councils differently.  Get rid of all titles, job descriptions, and expectations imported from the business world.  No “executives.”  No “heads of staff.”  No “trustees.”  No “Personnel Committees.”  And so on.  Look for biblical titles related to justice and service.    
  10. Organize presbyteries as integrated partnership networks of congregations and elders engaged in mutual support, encouragement, discipleship, and oversight.  Reconsider geographicality and boundaries; make them more open, fluid, and responsive to missional needs.  
  11. Organize compensation and benefits so that there is no income inequality in the church.  

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Why Global Warming Has Nothing to do with Genesis 8:22.

On Genesis 8:22.

I am told that some of those who deny global warming assert that it can’t be happening because of Genesis 8:22.  Apparently, they are reading Genesis 8:22 to mean that human beings do not have the power to alter the Earth’s climate at all.  They say it would be arrogance to make such a claim, because in Genesis 8:22 God says the climate can’t be changed.  Case closed.
So I read Genesis 8:22.  Here it is.

As long as the earth endures,
   seedtime and harvest, cold and heat,
summer and winter, day and night,
   shall not cease.

Genesis 8:22 appears at the end of the story of Noah and the Great Flood.  After that comprehensive disaster, God promises not to do it again.  Destroy virtually all life on the planet, that is.  
There is no scientific scenario associated with global warming that indicates that it will destroy the Earth or wipe out all life.  Genesis 8:22 says that seasons will continue.  Global warming does not threaten the seasons, which are a result of the angle of the Earth as it orbits around the sun.  Even if the temperature of the Earth reaches the maximum predicted by scientists, and the icecaps and glaciers all melted away to nothing, and sea level rose the predicted 64 meters or so, and so on, there would still be “seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night.”  
Nothing in scientific global warming predictions contradicts Genesis 8:22.  Seedtime and harvest will be different in terms of timing and geography, cold and heat will be distributed differently, summer and winter will be changed, and of course the recurring pattern of day and night isn’t even in question.  But they will all still happen.  Genesis 8:22 doesn’t say these things shall not change.  It says they shall not cease.
The Bible makes the point that changes in weather and climate do continue to happen without violating Genesis 8:22.  There are droughts.  There are localized floods.  There are earthquakes and volcanoes.  There are famines and plagues.  Disasters still happen.
So the Genesis 8:22 thing is a red herring.  It is not relevant to global warming.

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