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

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Christmas Vacation.

My favorite Christmas movie is “Christmas Vacation,” in which Clark Griswold devotes himself to producing the “perfect family Christmas,” based on his rosy  childhood memories.  His aspirations collide with reality and the film gets hilariously crazy.  A lot of us can relate to Clark’s sentimental wishes for the holidays.  I remember and cherish the beautiful and happy family Christmases I knew when I was a kid.  

At the same time, I wonder if those memories aren’t more sweet and warm than the reality was.  At one point in the movie Clark’s dad confesses that he got through those fondly remembered family Christmases of yore with “a lot of help from Jack Daniels.”  I experienced Christmas rather differently when I was a student, parent, and pastor than when I was a child.  

In the church we seem particularly prone to nostalgia.  I suspect that this is because the church is often a place that people expect to be immune, or at least highly resistant, to change.  In church the tendency is to do things the way they have “always” been done (even if it has only been for the last few years).  The surest way for a pastor to get fired is not to do the candlelight “Silent Night” thing at the end of the Christmas Eve service.  If any institution is about preserving the past, it is supposed to be the church.  Right?  Can’t we at least depend on that?  

Well, no.  The church is always and only about Jesus Christ, whose ministry was hardly about conserving, maintaining, preserving, and sustaining the traditions, laws, and institutions of his time.  He got himself crucified for being an alternative to the religious and political establishment.  If you wanted comfortable and familiar religion, Jesus was not the guy to hang around with. 

The irony here is that the Advent and Nativity seasons, from the perspective of Scripture and the church, are about the future.  They are not nostalgic reveries concerning something that happened in the distant past; they are signs of the world to come, which Christ reveals and brings.  Many of the traditional Scripture readings for Advent are about the end of the world, for heaven’s sake!

The familiar creche scene, while it depicts a past event, points to a different, upside-down world in which the true King is born of a virgin in a stable, worshipped by poor shepherds and foreigners, and opposed by the supposedly legitimate rulers.  That is a vision of a different world that has yet to be fully realized among us.  But it is the truth to which we aspire and in which we trust.

Jesus calls us to a new life of love and justice.  Rather than Clark Griswold’s unrealizable fantasy of the “perfect family Christmas,” maybe we need to embody Jesus’ vision of a new world of compassion, healing, forgiveness, and peace.  It would be like taking a permanent Christmas vacation from the broken and violent world as we know it.  

So what would that look like? 

I wonder if it wouldn’t involve witnessing to Jesus’ economy of “give what you have, receive what you need.”  

What if it is about: 
  • blessing without judging?
  • healing without blaming? 
  • generosity without indebtedness?
  • welcoming without borders?
  • giving without spending?
  • sharing together in a new a future, rather than grieving over the past?
  • celebrating diversity, rather than enforcing uniformity?
  • cultivating hope and joy, rather than stoking fear and anger?
  • Jesus Christ?    

Maybe the best greeting for the Advent and Nativity seasons is a line from an old song by REM: “It’s the end of the world as we know it… and I feel fine!”  


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Tuesday, December 18, 2018

What to Say.

The other day I was solemnly informed that if I wish someone “Happy Holidays” I am explicitly denying Jesus Christ.  I am supposed to say “Merry Christmas,”  which is now some kind of faith-statement, apparently.

I find that to be alarming and sad, not to mention ridiculous.  

With this mindless argument about what we are supposed to say, we are adding, to an already often difficult season, this rancid layer of political sludge.  It effectively mucks up much of whatever joy and hope remained.  How did wishing each other well become such a minefield? 

When I worked for Barnes and Noble in the mid-80’s, the manager told the staff that we were to say “Happy Holidays,” as customers paid for their books.  It didn’t occur to me to be bothered about this at the time.   I needed the job; so I did as the manager instructed us.  

Plus, as a minister I knew that what goes on in the mall in December has nothing whatever to do with Jesus or his birth.  What, exactly, does Jesus, a poor 1st century Palestinian Jew who preaches simplicity and compassion, and never approves of a market-based approach to anything, have to do with Black Friday?  Isn’t he the guy who kicked the money-changers out of the Temple?  What is particularly Christian about saying “Merry Christmas” at a cash register to people who buying the latest Danielle Steel or Stephen King novel?  How does selling reflect life and teachings?  Am I missing something here? 

I admit that I have this eccentric idea that Christianity needs to have something to do with Jesus Christ as he is attested in the New Testament.  Just because some find it convenient and profitable to slap Jesus’ name on something, does not make it Christian.  That is actually a form of taking the Lord’s name in vain.   

Now that it has been twisted into a political slogan, I have pretty much stopped saying “Merry Christmas.”  It just doesn’t feel like a way to wish people a blessed and meaningful spiritual celebration.  I don’t sense that it inspires or encourages real discipleship. 

In the end, it is not about what we say anyway.  What we do is what matters.  The best way to communicate “Merry Christmas” is to live according to the commandments and example of the One whose birth we are remembering.  We don’t welcome the Light into the world by merely talking; we let that Light shine in and through us by our actions, so that we become ourselves the light of the world, as he teaches.

Rather than arguing about what should be said, let’s set ourselves in this season to expressing the compassion, generosity, welcome, forgiveness, peace, and joy of Jesus Christ.  He is the Presence and the love of God, he is God-with-us.  In his Spirit, we need to be Christ for each other.


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Thursday, December 6, 2018

"We Didn't Know Who You Were"

There is a Christmas carol called “Sweet Little Jesus Boy.”  Mahalia Jackson used to sing it.  It’s been recorded by a lot of people since then.  (My family had it on the Andy Williams Christmas album.)

The song has always made me uncomfortable because of the repeated line, “We didn’t know who you were.”

I hear in that an implication that had we only known Jesus was the Lord God we would surely have given him a better welcome.

This strikes me as somewhat disingenuous.  Yeah, maybe God is incognito in Jesus.  But that is a fact that reveals how we treat everybody, especially poor, refugee babies.  I mean, seriously: we are separating infants from their mothers at our own borders as we speak.  We sure don’t appear to have any idea that these are human beings with rights and value.  We most certainly do not see the presence of God in these people who have been defamed as violent lawbreakers.

The point is not that we didn’t know who Jesus was; we don’t know who anybody is!  We don’t treat hardly anybody with the decency, grace, acceptance, and welcome we now decide Jesus deserved.  It’s not like we’d be off the hook if only people back then treated this one kid like the royalty he is.  Not if it didn’t change how we deal with others who are like him today.  

Lately, I noticed the middle verse that gets a bit more to the point:

The world treats you mean Lord
Treats me mean too
But that's how things are down here
We don't know who you are.

Changing the phrase to “We don’t know who you are” opens us up to the fact that this is not just about Jesus, a long time ago.  It is about how we treat people now.  We are failing to see Jesus Christ in everyone, every child, today.  

When some godless congressman complains about how “we can't restore our civilization with somebody else's babies,” it makes my point.  If we don’t know who he is, that sweet little Jesus boy is nothing more than “somebody else’s baby” who threatens “our civilization.” 

We need to start seeing the sweet little Jesus boy in every child, especially those tossed into the meat-grinder of our political and economic dysfunction.  We need to see Jesus in the refugee boy washed onto the Mediterranean beach, or the kids blown up by a Saudi bomb in their school bus, or the 40% of American children who live in poverty, or the Palestinian children arrested by Israel, or the children forced to kill as soldiers in Africa, or the Rohingyan babies that Myanmaran soldiers threw into fires, and so on.  Until we start welcoming and treasuring and protecting and serving them like we know who they are — precious and miraculous children of God — we should stop pretending we care so much about the sweet little Jesus boy.

So if you put a nice little manger scene on your lawn this December, but still tolerate or even advocate for the oppression of “somebody else’s babies,” I submit you still don’t know (or care) who the sweet little Jesus boy really is.  You’ve reduced him to an excuse to have a big dinner and max out your credit card on Amazon.

In Advent, we have to start with repentance.  Like at the end of that song where it asks for forgiveness.  Wake up and start with that.  Go.


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Sunday, December 2, 2018

Advent as Sabbath.

I hope to experience the Advent season as a shining, quiet, open, and expectant time of wonder and joy.  In Advent, we consciously and intentionally make room for the coming of Christ into our lives.  We do this by divesting ourselves of the clutter, the detritus, the non-essential, the superficial, the busy, and the exhausted.  We are making an open space into which the Lord may emerge with, within, and among us.    

Maybe Advent is a kind of Sabbath: a time liberated from the demands of the economy and productivity; a time dedicated to God’s transcendent peace/shalom.
A time anticipating the End of time, the fullness of time into which the Lord Jesus comes.

Instead of a hectic, over-scheduled, frantic, exhausting time, how can we use Advent as an opportunity to clear our schedules.  Slow life down.  Pay attention.  Look, listen, watch, feel.  Go deep.  Simplify.  Enjoy.  Give thanks.     

Marie Kondo talks about doing an inventory of our possessions.  When evaluating something, she advises giving thanks for it…  and then letting it go.  If something does not give us joy, we should let it go.

What if we didn’t do anything this season that did not bring us joy?  
What if we undertake to see that whatever we do take on this season does bring us joy?
Not a superficial sugar-high of satisfying every craving… 
Not the usual addiction to consumption… 
but joy:
An inner contentment and peace.

I am reading about “Swedish death-cleaning”.  In Sweden, this is something older people do, to make life easier for those left behind when they leave the planet.  It is about preparing for the end.  Losing our baggage.

In Advent we are preparing for the End of the World: Jesus Christ.
He is the world’s end, goal, purpose, meaning.

So:
What can we lose?
What can we give away?
What can we share?
    • Old clothes?
    • Junk from the junk drawers?
    • Excess books?
    • Other stuff we will never use again?
What if we used Advent to do a thorough house-cleaning? 

What can we let go of? 
    • anger
    • fear
    • resentment
    • negativity
    • bitterness
    • criticism
    • judgment and condemnation
    • greed
What if we took a break from the news, or from social media?
What if we tried not to use the car?

What can we not consume?
What if we didn’t even require someone work for us, cater to us, serve us?
Or made a point to recognize and appreciate and thank those who do!
Who collects our trash and recycling?
Who delivers our mail, newspapers, and packages?
Who works for water, sewage, utility, and cable companies?
Who serves our food? 
Who pumps our gas?
Who repairs roads and works in our yards?
Who educates or cares for our children?
Who works in retail?

What if we devoted more time to serving others?

How can we be open to the spiritual meaning of mundane and boring practices like, well, raking leaves?

And if Advent is about receiving Jesus Christ,
how does that happen?
If he is the One we are making room for,
what does that mean?

He is the One who comes
when we make room for him.

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Friday, November 2, 2018

Now It's "Theory U," Apparently.


At the recent Presbyterian Mid-Council Leaders’ Gathering in Chicago, we learned about “Theory U.”  This is seems to be the latest fad from the academics who write about leadership, change, and management, mostly for businesses.

As I am listening to presenters go on breathlessly about the value and virtues of Theory U, it begins to occur to me that this is really at least rooted in basic Christian spirituality.  In fact, Theory U could be boiled down to the traditional categories of Purgation-Illumination-Union.  In any process of spiritual growth one will have to lose their old, ego-centric self in disciplines of repentance (purgation).  This results in one being awakened to their true Self, the Christ within (Illumination).  And finally, one lives in the light of that knowledge (Union).  Christians have been practicing and writing about this for two-thousand years.  Theory U presents this visually as a letter U, where one descends to a point of illumination and then ascends in a changed life. 
My first question is, Why is this presented as some new, innovative, creative development which we have now to learn and apply?  My second question is, Why do we not listen to this kind of thing until some professor from someplace like the Harvard Business School writes a book about it?
These are largely frustrated rhetorical questions, because I know the answers.  It is, in the first place, that we Presbyterians generally have no clue about the larger, wider, deeper Christian spiritual tradition.  For us, church history began in 1517.  We have cut ourselves off from the Western spiritual heritage and remain ignorant and unaware of Eastern Christianity altogether.  At our best we may have some knowledge of Augustine.  But of the earlier, deeper, and, frankly  saner and more biblical Greek tradition we know nothing.  We don’t talk about it because we don’t know about it.
And, part of being a liberal denomination welded to if not positively alloyed with Modernity is that we don’t trust anything that doesn’t come to us from a secular, “scientific,” source.  Unless it’s somehow vetted by atheists and agnostics, or at least academics with tenure and so forth, we don’t pay attention to it.  Instead of theological language, we insist upon the language of business and psychology before we will listen to anything.
Can you tell that I am tired of this?
I know I’m delusional.  But I hope for the day when I can go to a Presbyterian function and hear someone discuss Gregory of Nyssa, Maximos the Confessor, Meister Eckhart, or Teresa of Avila.  These and many other people not only provide the roots of many of these theories about adaptive change and transformation, but they also understand how central Jesus Christ is to any such process.  

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Friday, October 26, 2018

Jesus Is From the Future.

Too often we want to restore a romanticized and largely invented past.  But Christianity is about manifesting now the future Kingdom of God.  Rather than looking back at a comfortable and sentimental lie, Christianity looks ahead to the truth revealed in Jesus.  In order to enforce a lie, violence is required, but to live in the truth all we need is love.
Nostalgia has been a virulent and ubiquitous disease in the church for my entire 37 year career as a pastor.  We have to deal all the time with people who idealize and idolize the-way-things-used-to-be.  This became a crisis in the 1970’s when the so-called mainline churches began hemorrhaging members, a situation that has continued unabated for four decades.  The generations that remember it are dying off now, but the memories of full churches and Sunday Schools continues to haunt us.
The 1950’s were not the Kingdom of God, in America or the church.  We had enforced segregation and regular lynchings.  We had women thoroughly relegated to second-class status.  We had environmental depredation and degradation increasing.  We had a nuclear arms race that was driving the world to the brink of annihilation.  We had colonialism oppressing people around the world.  We had bad and foolish policies that were planting the seeds for the terrorism and wars that are killing people now.  And we had a Christian establishment defending, rationalizing, and blessing all of it, even though it was categorically contrary to Jesus’ life and teachings.
  Churches may have been full.  Indeed, we were even building new ones all the time.  But our faith was revealed to be weak, shallow, and hollow.  Our complacency, privilege, self-righteousness, and ignorance eventually corroded our superficial “success.”  The gods we really worshiped were nationalism, capitalism, and racism.  We stoked our own egocentric fear, anger, and even hatred.  Like the Israelites with their golden calf, we pretended that these deities were the true God.
All those children in Sunday School in 1960?  Where are they?  If those days were so great, why did the message not stick?  Why did my generation abandon the church as soon as it could?  During the years of decline, it has became a reflex to find some nefarious element to scapegoat for this.  Conservatives blamed liberal caving in to pop culture; liberals blamed conservatives’ irrelevance.  But the church was itself to blame because it was not witnessing to Jesus Christ.  It had allowed itself to become little more than a vague religious justification for America and Western Civilization.    
I am in the tiny minority that stayed with the church.  That only happened because of the Holy Spirit and my reading of what Jesus really calls the church to be.  I hoped that some miracle would happen and the church would start living into his vision.
The Lord Jesus is not about the past.  Nowhere does he paint a picture of some long-ago perfect time that he has come to restore.  More to the point, Jesus is emphatically not about lifting up our nation, race, family, or even ourselves as individuals.  These are usually the categories that were supposedly doing so much better back in our days of past “greatness.” 
Jesus is about the future.  He is, in a sense, from the future.  How many times does he talk about “that Day”?  The gospel is inherently and necessarily apocalyptic in the sense that it is a revelation of what is, in the End, true and real.  His message is the nature and destiny of human beings and the creation.  Those of us who follow him are living in advance — the theological word is “proleptically” — the life of eternity.
The character of this life, which we see in him, is compassionate, generous, humble, self-emptying love.  It is the life of God which Jesus gives to us, models for us, and calls us into.  Jesus Christ is about this seemingly other world which is always being born among us.  
Trying to live in or bring back the past is only going to make us frustrated, angry, resentful, and violent.  To worship the past is to embrace extinction and drag as many down with us as we can.  It is to follow a lie, which never ends well.  (This valorization of a mythic national past, by the way, is the very core of fascism.) 
But turning to dwell together in God’s certain future revealed in Jesus Christ… that is true life.

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Friday, October 19, 2018

Resistance Is Futile.

The problem with “resistance” as an approach, for all its echoes of ordinary people courageously fighting the Nazis in 1940’s Europe, is that it lets the agenda be set by what we are resisting.  It assumes that everything is basically fine except for this malignant aberration we have to resist.  It also is a basically negative idea, saying only what we don’t want, but nothing about what kind of a world we would like to see.  Resistance is too vague; people can claim to be part of a “resistance,” when all they are resisting are matters of style and personality, not policy.
The New Testament knows nothing of resistance.  Jesus even says, in his Sermon on the Mount, that we should not resist evil.  Commentators will point out that the verb refers to violent resistance, allowing for the possibility of non-violent resistance.  But the Lord is less about any kind of resistance than he is about actually neutralizing and overthrowing evil.  He goes exponentially farther than mere resistance or even revolution; he preaches and institutes the apocalyptic emergence of a totally different kind of order. 
The New Testament is perhaps the most thoroughly anti-imperialist document in all of ancient literature.  But it’s agenda is not about resisting Caesar and his regime so much as seeing it replaced by something completely different: the Kingdom of God.  
The Kingdom of God is not just a “meet the new boss, same as the old boss” political regime change.  It turns the whole system inside out and upside down.  And it is not just political and economic (and it most certainly is political and economic, make no mistake); it begins in human souls.  The Kingdom of God is an anti-empire that starts with changed ways of thinking and acting, and emerges as a new way of living together in a beloved community. 
Jesus’ announcement of the Kingdom of God happens directly following his rejection of the three temptations offered to him by Satan.  However, we choose to view Satan, he represents (or works through) the human ego, as seen by the three things he hangs in front of Jesus.  He is asked to manifest bread, create a popular spectacle, and grab earthly authority.  I boil these down to money, fame, and power.  These are three things our egocentricity is always trying to get us to embrace, usually with great success.  Jesus is saying that the Kingdom of God is not realized in us or among us until we have rejected these three temptations.
This is why the Kingdom of God is the anti-empire.  Empires are based on the enthusiastic and aggressive pursuit of those three goals by individuals and by societies.  And that is true for empires and social orders of the “right” and of the “left.”  Jesus accepts no such choice, and offers a completely different alternative.  He proposes a social-economic order based on the rejection of money, fame, and power as values.  In other words, he values poverty of spirit, humility, and gentleness, in addition to the other values he talks about at length in his teachings, especially in the Sermon on the Mount.
This order, which he calls the Kingdom of God, cannot be imposed by law from “above.”  It can only be built from below by people who know God’s grace and live by God’s Spirit and Jesus’ teachings and example.
It is important to remember that this is not some new thing Jesus invents.  He is talking about the Kingdom of God as the true and original order of the universe and human life, something deeply within us and embedded in creation itself, which we have to discover and live into by trusting in God.  The Kingdom is already here; it is we who are living in ignorance of this truth and need to be awakened to it.
The church is supposed to be the manifestation of this Kingdom.  We see glimpses of it in the communal nature of churches in Acts.  Yet our call to trust in the good news of the Kingdom is not to some romanticized past, but to the sure hope of God’s ultimate resolution in the future.  
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Wednesday, September 26, 2018

On Not Doing Time in the Church.

The church tends to lose its orientation.  Instead of following Jesus Christ in everything, other influences weasel their way into our life.  We start doing things according to what people are used to, especially at work.  Thus the church gets infected with all kinds of nonsense imported from the business and corporate world.  As if ministers punch time-clocks and sit in cubicles 8 hours a day, 5 days a week.
One of these is the practice of measuring pastors’ “hours”.  This is becoming more and more prevalent now that we are seeing an increase in “part-time” ministry.  What normally happens is that we reflexively assume that full-time is 35-40 hours a week (which is idiotic in itself), which must logically mean that a part-time pastor serves like 20 hours a week.
This is so ridiculous as to be no more than a unfair and meaningless metaphor.  It simply opens pastors up to unjust criticism by people motivated (usually by malice) to count their hours.  Is this the best we can do?
Counting hours is foolish mainly because time is flexible in the church.  Some days, weeks, and seasons are simply more labor intensive than others.  A week can include a lot of hospital calls, or not.  Holy Week is going to demand more time than the second week of July.  Even particular functions are not time specific.  How long is a session meeting?  How long is a counseling appointment?  How long does it take to prepare a sermon?  Some responsibilities in the church can last from a few minutes to several hours.  Is someone supposed to simply stop working when they reach the 20 hour point, even if the sermon isn’t done and the hymns not chosen for the coming Sunday?  Are they supposed to find busy-work to do if that mark has not been reached in a week?
Then there is the question of what exactly is “work.”  Everything relates to ministry.  Does time reading a novel or the newsfeed, or watching a movie, count as work, when they could be sources of sermonic material?  Am I working when I am “on call,” which is most of the time?  Am I working when I mow the lawn or shovel snow or repair the toilet of the house I live in, which is owned by the church?  What about going to a party and getting into a theological conversation with a stranger?  Is that considered working?  Do I count those hours?  
The counting hours thing has an even more pernicious side, which is that a church may arbitrarily peg a pastor’s hours at 19, to avoid having to pay benefits which kick in at 20 hours.  Many ministers know that a reduction from “full-time” to “three-quarter” time is just a cynical fiction designed to save the church money, while the minister is expected to do just as much work as before.
Then the Board of Pensions maintains this increasingly irrelevant distinction between Installed and non-Installed pastors, allowing some churches to get away with not giving benefits to the latter.  (How many churches that “can’t afford” minimum salaries and benefits for their pastors, also manage to shell out ridiculous amounts of money on buildings too large for them?  But I digress.)
And so on. 
In a time when many churches are moving to part-time, commuter pastors, they need to realize that they are not going to get the level of service they once received from a full-time, resident, Installed pastor.  But instead of measuring this in hours, it would make much more sense to to look at functions and responsibilities.  
Instead of defining a ministry in terms of “10 hours” or “three-quarter time,” what if we had ministers and sessions/PNC’s negotiate what they need and can expect from a pastor at the level of compensation they are offering.  
The core of pastoral ministry is based on the traditional “means of grace:” the Word, the Sacraments, and prayer.  If circumstances require that some other roles and functions of a pastor be relinquished, these three will always remain the core of pastoral responsibility.  
This also means that more responsibilities have to be taken over by the members of the church, and that is not necessarily a bad thing.  Indeed, it may energize a congregation.  Congregations need to be made aware of the responsibilities of members listed in G-1.0304.  Fobbing these off on the paid professional is no longer an option for many churches; it was probably not a good idea to begin with.
One of the titles of a pastor is “teaching elder.”  The teaching function is even more important now as members need to be instructed and enlightened about how to takeover areas of ministry that the pastor used to do.    
I have found that what we call 1/2 time often gets a church the following: a weekly worship service with a sermon, session moderation, hospital visitation, and a Bible Study or other adult class.  What they don’t usually get is attendance (let alone leadership) at every meeting of every board, non-crisis home visits, attendance at every church (or even church family) function.  There will simply be a lot of stuff the pastor has nothing to do with except offering prayers and encouragement.  A pastor has to determine whether she needs to attend specific committee meetings.  
But the members of the church are going to have to get used to handling things like fellowship, facility maintenance, stewardship, the Deacons and a lot of pastoral care, Christian education, and perhaps even the Nominating Committee, with a minimum of pastoral input or feedback.
This all needs to be spelled out in a covenant of agreement.  And flexibility is necessary as situations and needs change.
My point is that it is not about hours.  Ministry is about functions and tasks.  That’s what we need to be looking at when establishing pastoral relationships.
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Friday, August 24, 2018

Is Jesus the Only Way?

I recently read a story about a Presbyterian seminary graduate who chose not to become a part of the PCUSA denomination because he thinks that in the PCUSA we don’t affirm Jesus as “the Only Way.”  First of all, all the official documents, statements, and confessions of the PCUSA do make this affirmation.  But his complaint was that there are people in the PCUSA who are uncomfortable with calling Jesus the Only Way, and the denomination does not generally ferret these people out, demand they recant, or boot them for heresy.
The people who have this discomfort are mainly reacting to the bad ways such exclusivist claims were used historically.  That is, the affirmation of Jesus as the Only Way has been used to consign to eternal perdition and torment lots of people who did not "accept Christ” as the church presented him to them.  It has been abused as a tool of domination, exploitation, genocide, torture, and conquest.  Since those heathens are going to hell anyway, we might was well kill them and take their stuff, is the argument.  
Some of us have a problem reconciling that kind of self-righteous, self-serving, arrogant, heartless violence with the actual life and teachings of Jesus.  Jesus does say no one comes to the Father except by him, and that those who do not believe in him are condemned.  But what does it mean to “believe" in him?  Who is he really?
I do affirm that Jesus Christ is indeed the Only Way to life and salvation.  What this means first and foremost is that I have to follow him by living according to his compassion, justice, shalom, healing, acceptance, forgiveness, and joy myself.  It would be hypocritical of me to demand that Jesus be the Only Way for someone else, when I am still working so hard to make him the Only Way for me.  Indeed, the better disciple I am, the more likely someone else will be drawn to follow him as well.  The better disciple I am, the less likely I am to act without compassion or forgiveness.
Secondly, the confession that Jesus is the Only Way, far from making us superior, dominant, privileged, and powerful, means just the opposite.  It is about Jesus Christ, who empties himself to give his life for the life of the world.  He rejects power, wealth, and “success” as defined by the world.  To use his name in the service of the domination and exploitation of the earth and others actually comprehensively rejects him and God. 
Finally, I confess Jesus Christ as the bearer and revealer of the True Humanity in which we all share, consciously or not.  The Name of Jesus is the center of my prayer life and spirituality; I do not discount or water-down its importance.  His name is more than some letters, syllables, and words; it is his essence and life which does indeed live in everyone, a truth that even many Christians are unaware of.  We have to be the Name, not just mouth it.
So when someone smugly huffs about how Jesus is the Only Way, I will agree that this is true.  But “Only” is about Jesus’ Way.  The only purpose of life is following Jesus’ Way of compassion for all, not judgment or condemnation.  His Way is the Only Way because when we do follow Jesus our life together in God’s creation is made more secure and fruitful; in him our life opens up to embrace God’s eternity.  

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Tuesday, August 7, 2018

The Cross Is Inherently Anti-Rome.

There is a lot going on in the New Testament that is not directly expressed in the actual words of the text.  Recent studies reveal that we have largely ignored or been ignorant of a major aspect of the context of these writings: the Roman Empire.  The Empire casts such a pervasive shadow over the text that we rarely if ever noticed it.  But once we notice it, we realize it is everywhere.
For instance, Paul’s writings don’t seem on the surface to be particularly anti-Rome.  But once we understand that crucifixion was a method of execution mainly if not exclusively reserved for political crimes like treason, sedition, terrorism, and anti-Rome activities.  Everyone would have known this at the time.  The gospel writers may have considered it so obvious as to be not worth mentioning.  This means that people would have understood immediately that any claim that a man crucified by Rome was nevertheless now alive, undercuts Rome’s whole strategy to maintain power.  It meant that their application of ruthless terror had failed, and their will controverted. It meant that, according to the graffiti of the day, “Jesus is Lord!” and therefore Caesar isn’t
This is not something that is readily apparent from the text.  Christian interpretation therefore went in different directions over the centuries, bottoming out in the “penal substitution” interpretation in the 11th century.  
Maybe the message of the cross was “an offense to Jews and folly to Gentiles” (1 Corinthians 1:23) for reasons different from what we normally assume.  I was always taught that this is because they thought the idea of a suffering and dying god was either abhorrent or crazy.  But it is now not at all clear that they did believe that.  Greek gods could and did die.  There is even evidence from Hebrew tradition surrounding the First Temple that the anointed king represented YHWH, yet could, in some sense, die.

  Maybe the offense and folly had more to do with how unwise it was politically to challenge Rome by saying that crucifixion didn’t work in deterring sedition.  Maybe the Jews of the time were offended because, along with being a minority/heretical view of what the Messiah is supposed to do, it also unnecessarily antagonized Rome, with whom the Jews had negotiated a deal for survival.              

Thursday, August 2, 2018

Uzzah Was a Fiduciary.

There’s an obscure story in the Hebrew Bible about a guy named Uzzah.  Uzzah was given the job of escorting the Ark of the Covenant, which was bring carried on an ox-cart into Jerusalem after David conquered the city and made it his capital.  On the uneven road surface the cart was getting jostled around, and, in an act of responsible stewardship to prevent the ark from falling off the cart and possibly smashing on the pavement, Uzzah reaches out his hand to steady it… and God immediately strikes him dead on the spot.
I remember hearing my dad read this story in church when I was a kid.  It flabbergasted and upset me.  Here was Uzzah doing the right thing for the right reason, and getting hammered.  Here was a person being given authority and carrying it out thoughtfully, attentively, carefully, soberly, and reverently, exactly the qualities that I assumed that church was about cultivating in people.  Here was a man protecting what is good an holy from the accidents and liabilities of the world.  And wham!
Woah.
The story teaches us that we do not protect, manage, control, provide for, or otherwise support God or God’s mission.  It is not our job to shepherd a delicate and vulnerable God through the vicissitudes of a dangerous and unstable world.  God made the world!  We are not called to be responsible for God or God’s mission.  We are not called to build God’s kingdom.  We are called only to get our ego-centric selves out of the way and participate humbly in what God is already doing.  We do not need to worry that it might be God’s purpose to smash the Ark of the Covenant on the pavement in Jerusalem.  If it is, then that is what we need to participate in. 
Under the corrosive regime of Christendom, the church embraced the self-centered, control-freak vocation of Uzzah.  God was treated like our private and personal idol we carried around on our cart pulled by our oxen at our expense, which we had to protect and for which we would receive a great reward if we did.  Our success was when we delivered the cart and its precious contents intact to the next generation so they could do the same.  We called this “responsible stewardship.”  We even have a fancy name for the people charged with this sober task.  We sometime call them “fiduciaries.”
Too often people with this approach adopt an Uzzah-like approach to the church:  they’re trying to protect and support God.  They emote this condescending, patronizing, smug, self-righteous noise about how we need “business acumen” so the church will have a future, and they are just the ones to graciously provide it.  At the same time, the people who are concerned with the actual mission of the church, with discipleship, and with not supporting or profiting from mass, global, murderous evil, get labeled naive and pathetic dupes who just don’t know how the world works, who would not have the luxury of such immature and idealistic views did not their lives depend on the informed and courageous wisdom of the fiduciaries. 
Even worse, people seeking to follow Jesus are called “hypocrites.”  Because if you drive a car, or use plastic, or work on a computer, or drink wine, or “live in a free country,” you are a walking contradiction if you don’t want to invest in the industries that produce these things.  Indeed, you are apparently a misanthrope because you want to "take jobs away” from people who work for these corporations, even if they do damage the earth and its people.  
These days whenever I hear the words “responsible stewardship” I reach for my Bible.  Because I find therein no support for the idea that it is our job to invest the church’s money in whatever industry, no matter how evil its business plan, with only profit in mind.  As if Psalm 119 does not ask to turn our hearts away from gain.  As if Jesus does not repeatedly and consistently preach against wealth, markets, hoarding, and various forms of institutionalized theft.  As if the love of money were not “the root of all evil,” as 1 Timothy says, but the prudent and responsible way to support the church.
Hello!!!?  Does Jesus not say flat out that “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other.  You cannot serve God and wealth” (Matthew 6:24)?  That seems pretty unambiguous to me.  
However, some appear to imagine that they are, by investing with the sole purpose of making a profit, not, technically “serving” wealth.  They’re not serving it, they’re using it responsibly, is the argument.  Which is semantic nonsense, but it is at least as sincere as Uzzah in their desire to be “helpful,” ie. controlling.  (Richard Rohr suggests that the opposite of faith is not doubt, but control.)  
Jesus’ attitude towards money and wealth is pretty clear: don’t hold on to it, use it for good, share it, give it away to someone who needs it more than you do.  I can maybe see the point to having enough savings for emergencies.  But the practice of investing church resources in the most profitable industries possible no matter how destructive, and then refusing to spend much of it on mission, is contrary to Jesus’ teachings.  

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