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

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.


  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.


Why Freedom Means Justice for the Powerless.

Power Changes Everything.

“Freedom of speech” often assumes an equality that does not exist, both among the people and the ideas.  Sometimes the people who most loudly claim freedom of speech are the ones with the loudest most well-funded voices.  This is especially true in a country where the courts have arbitrarily and self-servingly declared that “money is speech.”  
Jesus makes a point of lifting up and privileging the powerless, marginalized, disenfranchised, and voiceless/silenced.  For his followers, freedom of speech can only mean doing the same in our cultural discourse.  In other words, we amplify the voices of weaker people and intentionally diminish the voices of the strong.  It means squashing calls for violence, repression, domination, and silencing of the marginalized, while at the same time giving new privilege and space to voices of arising from situations of oppression, exclusion, powerlessness, and victimization.  
Following the example of the Lord Jesus, his church goes to the places of weakness, disease, brokenness, exclusion, and pain, with messages and practices of healing and welcome.  It also disregards or even casts out the influence of powerful, established interests.  (See Matthew 23:1-36, Luke 1:47-55; 4:18-19; etc.; John 2:13-16 and parallels.) Indeed, beginning as the record of a band of escaped slaves, the whole Bible inherently and reflexively sides with the victims, the losers, and the marginalized. 
“Freedom of religion,” therefore, can never be used by followers of Jesus to victimize or impose their will on others who are weaker.  To use freedom this way is a categorical rejection of Jesus.  
The Scriptures realize that this kind of “freedom” only leads to a further congealing of power among the already powerful.  Hence the rules for life given by God to the people have the effect of preventing the accrual of power in the hands of a few.  That was the regime from which they were delivered in Egypt.  The Torah, especially in a chapter like Leviticus 25,  explicitly provides for the periodic redistribution of wealth — and therefore power — downward.
Freedom isn’t real unless everyone is free.  The only way for everyone to be free is for those who have too much power to lose it, and those who have too little to gain it.  


Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Six Words Describing My Theology.

Six Words Describing My Theology

These are not in order of importance, but stations in a circle of interaction and connection.  They balance each other and move together.  These are very brief sketches, to be filled out in future posts.
  1.  Celtic

I am inspired by the vision and practice of the Christians based in Ireland who worked mainly on the western fringe of Europe from the 5th through the 12th centuries.  The flavor of the mission was decidedly different from that of the Roman mission, which would eventually take precedence.  The Celtic movement was decentralized, centered on nature, rooted in spiritual practices, incarnational, communal, and inclusive.  In many ways the Celtic mission anticipated not only some themes of the Reformation, but now finds remarkable resonance among 21st century Christians.  It is a road-not-traveled by which we may not only reconnect with our Christian origins, but speak with integrity to our world.
“Celtic” today means more for me than a recovery of ancient history, but paying attention to the theologies emerging from the fringes, the edges, and outside of the mainstream, but which are also fed by roots driven deep into the biblical and Christian tradition.

(We Presbyterians also have a Celtic connection from our Scottish heritage; much of the energy in this Celtic revival emerges from places like Iona, Scotland.)   

   2.  Orthodox

I am grounded in the doctrines and outlook established by the Orthodox church as a continuation and articulation of the faith of the apostles, the New Testament, and Jesus Christ.  Discovering the theology and spirituality of the Eastern Church early in my education kept me Christian; I daily rely on the insights of the early fathers and mothers of the church.  Along with the affirmation of the Trinity and Christ’s two natures, I also have embraced the doctrine of “Theosis” which talks about how humans become by grace what Christ is by nature, and participate in God’s reality.  This mystical grounding feeds, informs, and orients my faith.    

(It also means that I move decidedly away from theories of the atonement which involve Jesus having to die to satisfy the honor or wrath of an angry Father.)  

   3.  Reformed

I believe the church requires constant reforming and reimagining according to the Word of God, who is Jesus Christ.  As he is attested in Scripture, Jesus Christ is the One Word of God to whom we belong and whom we must worship and serve in life and in death (Barmen).  The Scriptures are the unique and authoritative witness to him (C-67).  Constant self-critical vigilance is required for the church to resist wandering after the lure of wealth, privilege, and power, and remain faithful to the Lord Jesus and his life of humility, service, healing, justice, peace, and love.  Being Reformed is more a matter of faithfulness to this general approach of the Reformers than it is about trying to apply in our time their specific solutions to 16th century problems.    

   4.  Presbyterian

The church is organized according to two principles: a. responsibility rests with the elders, and b. elders bear that responsibility by gathering in councils.  Leadership is at once concentrated among those who have demonstrated a commitment to discipleship, and at the same time diffused in a group so that no individual becomes central.  The responsibility of elders gathered in councils is to discern and follow the will of Jesus Christ, who is the only Head of the Church.    

   5.  Progressive

Human beings are caught between the true world in which we are created by God as spiritual beings destined for eternal life, and the false world of delusion, sin, ego-centricity, and personality which we have invented.  Christ calls us to repentance: the process of awakening to a different way of seeing, thinking, and acting.  In repentance we resonate with Christ and increasingly perceive according to his perspective.  We come to see the reality of God’s love revealed in Jesus Christ in our hearts and souls, and the extend it into our social and ecological life.  Changed people change the world.  The more Christlike we become, the more we reshape our world according to Christ’s principles and values.  Nothing is more imperative for the future of humanity and creation than that people follow Jesus’ Way of non-violence, humility, equality, inclusion, simplicity, generosity, forgiveness, and walking lightly on the Earth.  That, by the way, is the urgency behind our evangelism. 

   6.  Contemplative

Contemplation is a centering, grounding awareness which we experience in prayer and meditation, and which we express in connection and compassion.  In contemplation we experience Presence, the fullness of time, immediacy, the eternal now.  Through the depth, silence, and sensation of contemplation we learn to see from ever higher, broader, and more inclusive perspectives.  By looking inward we become more open, identifying with others.  Because it gives us access to realities far larger than our minds or senses can comprehend, contemplation knows by means of ritual, symbol, story, metaphor, archetype, poetry, and imagery.  Contemplation connects us, however subtly, with the ultimate source of energy, light, and life.  It funds, energizes, and feeds our work of discipleship in doing justice, loving kindness, and walking in humility with the living God.       

Monday, January 9, 2017

VR Goggles as a Metaphor for the Spiritual Life.

VR goggles are a very good image for the spiritual life. 
We humans are placed in a world of wonder, blessing, joy, and abundance, created by God and declared very good. 
Yet, due to the limitations of our consciousness we develop an ego-structure which functions like goggles, presenting us with a false projection of reality, which we proceed to live by. 
So we we flail around reacting to whatever our goggles are showing us, and unwittingly crash into others, whose goggles are instructing them to react.
And here we are.
The spiritual life, which is to say repentance, is about removing the goggles.
Maybe this is what Jesus means when he says what he says about eyes. Like: “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away,” and “the eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light, but if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!”

Thursday, January 5, 2017

What Is Truth?

Suddenly, words like “post-fact,” “post-truth,” and “fake-news” have come into our national conversation.  Not only do different political factions have different opinions, they now appear to rely on different facts and even different “truths.”  What is ridiculed and rejected as fake-news for some, is revered as the basis of others’ whole outlook.  What’s going on here?

When I was growing up, we all shared a basic understanding of history and values; we spoke the same language; we agreed with the same general outlook on life.  There were terrible, profound, and even violent disagreements and arguments.  But all our lives were built on the meta-narrative of the post-enlightenment West.  (A meta-narrative is an overarching story that presents a comprehensive framework for understanding various events, experiences, and phenomena, based upon supposedly universal truths and values.)  

We had only disgust and amazement for any views outside this framework, such as when Communist governments issued what were to us bizarre statements about events that we labeled “revisionist history.”  They were not telling the facts but skewed, cynical, self-interested lies made up to support their twisted and oppressive ideology.  The nadir of this approach was the 1959-1961 famine caused by Mao’s agricultural policies.  It turns out that the laws of biology supersede ideology.  Who knew?  But we would never do such a thing.  We were all about truth and real facts.  That was until scientific truth threatened our own lifestyle and economic order.  This is now happening with global warming.  Senator James Inhofe’s statement that he used to believe in global warming, until he realized “what it was going to cost,” is a perfect example of this.  Global warming deniers today are as revisionist and ideological in their refusal to accept scientific facts as Mao was.

So we see that our commitment to scientific truth and real facts eventually undermines the very meta-narrative we live by.  One classic example of this is the decline of Christopher Columbus from the heroic explorer and discoverer I learned about in school, to the depraved murderer, torturer, and enslaver of Native peoples, subsequent research has shown him to be.  Indeed, the whole superstructure of Western civilization is crumbling under the weight of the facts we are unearthing. 

One way to deal with this collapse would be to renounce (implicitly or explicitly) our commitment to scientific truth and facts, and proclaim and enforce an arbitrary ideological framework.  This is what global warming deniers are attempting to do.  It would require at least as massive a project of violent purging and enforcement as anything the Soviets or Nazis ever did.  

Another approach would be to separate into distinct cultural enclaves based on the particular constellation of truths and facts that each finds helpful and acceptable.  This would foreclose on much meaningful conversation and dialogue, since each interest group explicitly rejects the facts and methodology upon which the opinions of others are based.  If you don’t believe global warming is real, and you reject all evidence of global warming as a hoax, and rationalize whatever evidence you have to so it fits your ideology, then how do you have a conversation?  This would at best mean splitting a society into distinct, coexistent interest groups.  At worst it means civil war, as groups seek to impose its facts on others, and wipe out the ones whose lives are based on “lies.”

Post-modern philosophy has noted the fallacy of “objectivity,” pointing out how inherently ideological and biased is even the most “scientific” meta-narrative.  Often, claims to objectivity and universality are oppressive attempts by an elite to impose its self-interested perspective on society.  In our history it was the privileging of Anglo-Saxon culture as the pinnacle of human advancement.  All such top-down meta-narratives are violent, reductionist, lies designed to enforce social conformity and cohesion, cementing the elites’ privileged position.  But they are not true.  Indeed, some post-modern philosophy seems to question whether there is any single truth at all for us, and not just infinite different perspectives.

Which brings us to the question raised by Pontius Pilate in John 18:38, “What is truth?”  He, the official of the occupying Roman magisterium, cynically dismisses any “truth” except what his own weaponry can enforce by sheer terror.  The hearer knows that the real truth is standing there in front of Pilate: the beaten, tortured, humiliated, bleeding loser: Jesus of Nazareth.  He is “the way, the truth, and the life,” the only gateway to God (John 14:6).

We do not ever find the truth revealed in the self-serving, grand, ideological meta-narratives imposed by imperial fiat, sustained by State institutions, funded by its economic regime, and maintained by popular loyalty.  We only have access to the truth in the immediate and the embodied, particularly in those who suffer from the callous and gratuitous violence required to generate and hold up the false meta-narrative.

Jesus presents an alternative narrative, from below, in which coercion is replaced by compassion, retribution by forgiveness, diseases and disabilities by healing, scarcity by abundance, and institutional violence by God’s shalom.

So, as our society splinters into competing “truths” and oppositional sets of facts, it is up to the community of Jesus’ disciples to bear witness to his truth by living according to his example and teachings.