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

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.  



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.


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.  


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.

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.  


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!
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.  


Thursday, July 26, 2018

National Missions.

The church remains subject on many levels to confusion about what it’s mission is.  In the past few decades in the Presbyterian Church, we have seen a division between two understandings.  
One is based on Matthew 28:18-20: “Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.  And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’”  Some took this to mean “Go out and win souls for Jesus.”

The other focuses on Matthew 25:31-46, Jesus’ long parable of the Last Judgment when nations are assessed according to their service to the needy.  Here’s how it ends:  “‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’  Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’”  Some took this to mean “Go out and serve the needy.”

In spite of the obvious fact that the same man says both of these things within a few days, the church has managed to completely miss the point and choose up sides over which one to follow to the exclusion of the other.

But maybe, just maybe, Jesus intends for his church to do both.  Maybe we are to make disciples and serve the needy.  Maybe they are not mutually exclusive, but two sides of the same coin.  Maybe we get people to follow Jesus by serving the needy; maybe we serve the needy by getting people to follow Jesus.  

One of the things both passages have in common is that they concern “the nations.”  In Matthew 28 the nations are the target of Jesus’ mission; in Matthew 25 it is the nations that are judged by their ministry to the needy.  “Nations” (in Greek, ethne) is a term used in the New Testament to refer to the various peoples who had been conquered, subjugated, and colonized by Rome: regional ethnic groups which were repressed by the reigning superpower of the time.   

This undercuts the view that Jesus is not about “politics,” that he was only talking to individuals, which means we have no business extending his teachings into national policy.  Jesus, of course, did not live in a context in which the people had a formal say in government.  Nobody got to vote for the Emperor; Rome was not a democracy.  And certainly he did not start by addressing imperial policy, which would have been pointless and ridiculous.  Yet he is always talking about politics in the sense of how we live and make decisions together.  Jesus gathers communities with specific characteristics like equality, sharing, compassion, welcoming, forgiveness, and healing.  In other words, Jesus advocates the opposite of Roman policy, which was inequality, division, exploitation, and repression. 

So, in Matthew 28 Jesus is saying, in effect, “Go to all these oppressed and exploited peoples and teach them to gather together in alternative communities, to follow my way of service, sharing, and equality.”  And in Matthew 25 he is saying, “In the end, nations will be judged according to how well they implemented my way of service, sharing, and equality towards the needy.”  

In other words, oppressed nations had first to accept their humiliated, conquered, defeated status, and minister then to the victimized and destitute in their own midst.  They had to identify, not with Rome in envy and denial, but they had to see themselves in the needy losers among them.  In this Jesus is just extrapolating on the basic fact of the Hebrew Scriptures, that they were written by and for escaped slaves.  The Bible gives a voice to the lynched, defeated, bereft, and diseased.  If the nations received and adopted Jesus’ teachings and practices, they would thrive and endure.  If they reversed course and sought not to be as strong and violent as Rome, but ministered instead to their own broken siblings, they would have God’s life.  If not, they would burn, as is the sad fate of all societies that do not live by God’s justice.

In light of all this, the mission of the church is focused on discipleship that welcomes and serves, heals and forgives, gathers and sends.  I do not believe we have to choose between conversion to Christianity and merely doing social welfare work.  We have to do both simultaneously.  “Making disciples” does not mean merely getting people to join the church or become Christians; it is to bring people to participate in our work of serving others.  Neither is attending to the needy a spiritually neutral responsibility; it is an expression and reflection of faith in Jesus.  

Finally, it is important to note that the “others” with whom Jesus is most concerned are those who are not regularly served by social institutions.  The nations must have been ignoring “the least of these,” or Jesus would not have brought them up.  Some hurting folks are well-served by our civil institutions already.  We pray for and sympathize with them.  But Jesus calls us to give most of our attention to those others who are not getting help elsewhere.  


Tuesday, July 24, 2018

PCUSA GA 223 + The Last Days.

This Assembly reminds me of the movie, Awakenings.  In that film we see a group of people so mentally ill as to be catatonic and unresponsive.  But due to some new medication, they all wake up and lead normal happy engaged lives… for a short time.  Eventually the medicine stops working and the sink back into their original vegetative state.
The debate on “The Way Forward” was mind-numbingly oppressive, in spite of attempts to make it seem like The Answer to Everything.  As if turning our money over to the purported adults in the room to administer wisely is going to renew and invigorate the whole denomination.  The Way Forward does little more than rearrange the corporate bureaucracy, adding another layer in the process, while taking toys away from the PMA and its board.  (They have still to explain their flushing $2M down the toilet of high priced lawyers for no apparent reason, in the “1001” debacle of 3 years ago, a circumstance which probably more than anything else brought them to this imposition of an ecclesiastical time-out.)
Had there been a real alternative the discussion might have been interesting.  But in a choice between the incompetent PMA and the “new idea” of giving them corporate overlords, the assembly went along with the latter, at least in part out of universal cluelessness and confusion over how this denomination really works.  Or not.

Just as the Lord Jesus says that we may not serve two masters, but must necessarily choose to follow either God or money, this General Assembly is trying to choose between two mutually exclusive “New Ways Forward.”  
One of these ways was in evidence on Tuesday, with the amazing and powerful movement of the Spirit in the march to the jail.  I really thought the new PCUSA was being born there and then.  
But there was always this other putative way “forward,” which is really backward.  That was the drag of gravity and inertia back into a constricted, constipated, complacent, and corporate institution, concerned mainly with nostalgia, quantitative gain, and self-preservation.  
On Thursday, we apparently turned the management of the denomination over to a corporate board of trustees.  This seemed like the only way to solve a protracted and debilitating mess at the top of the bureaucracy.  We are assured that they are only going to allocate resources more efficiently, and that this will set us free to do mission better.  We’ll see.  Fiduciaries tend to focus on profit, in my experience. 
On Friday, however, the Old Way Backward was resoundingly affirmed as the assembly kept a firm grip on its “seat at the table” by retaining its support of, and continuing to profit from, the worst industry on the planet.  Thus it remains the case that the thousands of deaths, the extensive degradation of land, air, and water, the acceleration of destructive climate change, and the radical inequalities, injustices, and disorder that is the essence of the fossil fuel industry’s business plan, remain on us.  
As glorious as it was to be a Presbyterian on Tuesday, it is shameful to be one on Friday.
When this denomination finally folds up and withers with a confused whimper and vanishes into an obscure footnote in church history, let it be known that its ignominious end was guaranteed at 2 pm on June 22, 2018.  For that is when we had the opportunity to turn and follow the Creator, and chose instead to give Jesus the finger and follow the money instead.  We chose the way of the Sadducees, selling our birthright for a seat at their table, and giving a lie to all the now mostly meaningless verbiage of the rest of the meeting.
A lot more ended today.  The once hopeful initiatives like the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy and especially the group called Mission Responsibility Through Investment, have lost all credibility.  I remember when these groups were imaginative and radical efforts to bring silenced voices into the conversation.  But now their legacy is the craven and cowardly selling-out to power we saw today.  If it occurs to our new corporate leadership that “adaptive change” means terminating the expensive existence of these impotent entities, that will be fine with me.
In choosing a seat at the table soaked in blood, tears, glacier-melt, and petrochemicals, we have chosen the ideology of lies and scarcity, extraction and colonialism, inequality and extinction over the truth of the gospel.  We have embraced and invested in the Doctrine of Discovery with an enthusiastic vengeance.  
At this point, why should we stop here?  The same arguments we heard today about the fossil fuel industry could be — and indeed once were — made about the tobacco, firearms, and alcohol industries, and companies profiting from the oppression and murder of Palestinians and South Africans.  Why not get ourselves back at those tables while we’re at it?  Indeed, why not invest in pornography, which is apparently really profitable?  Imagine that table!  Since it’s all about the money, why not figure out a way to invest in illegal drug cartels?  
If MRTI et al deign to finally recommend divestment in 2020, it won’t matter.  Their gig is over.
This week we’re talking a lot about “Kindom.”  Apparently, it’s just talk.  In reality we’re with the Empire: Pharaoh, Caesar, and ExxonMobil.

One little but bright light at the General Assembly is that we are now firmly with the Palestinians.  Even something that could be controversial, like the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, was affirmed with such a large majority in committee that it was passed in plenary on the Consent Agenda.  When many on the committee departed for the march on Tuesday, the remaining members managed to insert words critical of Hamas in a resolution on Gaza.  On Friday the plenary resoundingly removed them and made it clear that the massacres of civilians in the permanent siege of Gaza are entirely Israel’s responsibility.  The pro-Israeli lobby doesn’t even bother with us anymore.  
Four short years ago in Detroit this was armageddon.  Today, it’s over.  It was not easy to get here.  MRTI stood in the way for years on this as well, defending the profitability of check-points and the torturing of children.  But we can, apparently, oppose colonialism and apartheid.  So there is that hope.  That we can on occasion follow Jesus, eventually.

Finally, after arguing and fighting over sex for half a century, this denomination has also reached a consensus on that.  Two years ago, when support for same-sex marriage blew through the plenary with a substantial majority, it was clear that we were in a new place.  Votes on these issues used to be hard-fought and razor-thin.
Of course, this happened because the right wing largely departed in many local property battles.  
The question is now what?  In Detroit and Portland it seemed like the next fault line was going to be Israel-Palestine, an issue that split the left.  This year, not so much.
We are a denomination in which most churches are small, but most members are in large churches.  Look for the corporate leadership to ally with bigger, richer congregations.  (Frank Spencer, the President of the Board of Pensions, referencing his preface to the new book by former Stated Clerk, Gradye Parsons, practically proclaimed this strategy as he channelled Steve Jobs in his talk early in the week, after we all dined on steak and salmon.)  
So, I anticipate a wave of small church closures, with the assets going to support the already rich ones.  Expect a wave of mergers, making churches and presbyteries large enough to support corporate staffing models and make hefty per capita payments.  The vision (I guess) is of vibrant large churches as regional hubs of mission.
My fear is that this vision is another manifestation of The Old Way Backward, as we try to resuscitate the corpse of the Christendom model.  For some of us this was exemplified by the Big Presbyterian Church on the Green we still see situated in many towns.  Spencer draws a broad swath from Washington DC to Dallas, insisting that this is the region we need to cultivate since it is growing and people there still go to church.  If this is anything more faithful than mindless and sterile nostalgia for the glory days of the PCUS I will be surprised.
  What this model will do to our diversity is anyone’s guess.  But there is no alternative vision right now.  And we have seen at this assembly what happens when only one solution is presented to a problem.
(But then perhaps there is hope in the multicultural stew that may be beginning to bubble in the Northeast….)              

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

The Jesus Prayer Finally Shows Up in a Presbyterian Resource.

The new edition of the Book of Common Worship came out a few weeks ago.  On page 448 of the “Daily Prayer” edition is a paragraph called “Contemplative Prayer.”  Here we find the brief text of the classic Jesus Prayer, followed by a succinct history and explanation.

Thus finally emerges, more or less officially, into the Reformed tradition a core practice of Eastern Orthodox spirituality, one that has the power to transform individuals and the whole church.

The Jesus Prayer, in its most common form, has 12 words (in English):  “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” 

I have personally used this prayer regularly in my own spiritual life since I discovered it about 40 years ago.  It has been my mantra, my refuge, my lifeline, and my bedrock.  It is the home in which I rest, especially when everything around me is disintegrating.  It is my castle.

There are times now that my mind will clear of the extraneous detritus and chatter, and I will discover the prayer already there, flowing on in some subterranean level of my soul, like a clear stream.  Its flow reassures me of its, and therefore my, ultimate connection to the Sea of God’s infinite compassion.

The prayer is not magic.  It will not protect and preserve one from all confusion or harm.  It hasn’t done that for me, at any rate.  My mortal existence still has many characteristics of a train wreck.  But the prayer sort of functions like the reminder and hope that Jesus gives in the second phrase of each beatitude.  That is where we hear, balancing and blessing the losses and the offerings, about the comforts and rewards of God’s Kingdom.

The prayer is ultimately about mercy.  Not in the sense of a retribution withheld, though there is that, God knows.  But this is more the mercy that spreads like a safety net beneath us all, the outflow of compassion that holds the world in a strong embrace, the divine love at the heart of all things.  

Most importantly, it is not a prayer of lack or scarcity.  It does not ask for something we do not have.  But it asks that I rest in the Truth of a love that is already here and everywhere, but which I usually don’t see.

Finally, the prayer is a repetition of the Name of Jesus.  The shortest version of the prayer is simply that, “Jesus.”  He is the One who embodies and expresses God’s love, pouring it into our hearts by the Spirit.  We are praying for his Presence to awaken within us as our true selves.  We are praying to become who we really and most deeply are, finding our True Humanity in him by his Name.

So, here it is, Presbyterians.  The Jesus Prayer.  It’s the almost absurdly uncomplicated doorway to Life.  Use it.      

Friday, June 29, 2018

PCUSA General Assembly 223 + Day Five.

Day Five.

I got up early on Wednesday to attend the Peace Breakfast, an event which has been happening at GA for decades.  No one really knows how long.  The Peace Fellowship has been around since 1944, though.  I have attended this one every time I have been to GA.  When I started I would sometimes note that I was the youngest person in the room… and I was like 40 something.
This morning I was among the oldest, not just because I have aged, but the room was packed with people in their 20s and 30s.  It was full of good energy, faithful intelligence, brave imagination, and profound love.  What used to be a sleepy, aging, pacifist ghetto, is now near the center of our denominational life.
We gave an award to Rev. Abby Mohaupt, a young pastor who leads a group called Fossil Free PCUSA.  And we heard an incandescent barn-burner of a sermon from former co-Moderator Rev. Denise Anderson.
As her preaching was washing over and through us, it occurred to me that this is what it must have been like in the first century church, with preachers and “prophets” railing against Roman oppression and offering the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ as the redemptive answer of God to the suffering of the people.  The earliest church, of course, had no New Testament, no set theology, and no detailed doctrinal consensus.  They wouldn’t even have had much Scripture at all.  What they had was the good news of Jesus, the Jewish Messiah who had been executed for sedition by Rome, who nevertheless did not stay dead, but continued to live in and among his disciples by God’s Spirit.  This is the core message the church had.  This is how the church grew.  
But if people are not sharing a common bad experience of the predatory and extractive Empire, if indeed people are enjoying privilege and power in that Empire, such a message is not going to inspire hope, but fear: fear of losing the status, stability, safety, and security that accompany loyalty to the Empire.  
The Lord Jesus would have us identify with the members of the oppressed ethne, the nations conquered by Rome.  If we don’t understand ourselves to be among the disenfranchised, defeated, disinherited, discredited, and discarded, the gospel is not going to make much sense to us.  We would have to invent a different gospel, one that privileges the wealthy and powerful, and can be pressed into service in the name of social stability and enforcing the economic and political status quo.       

The highlight of the afternoon plenary session was the beginning of the long process to include Martin Luther King’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail” in our Book of Confessions.  We want to place such courageous words at the core of our identity, and this is a very good thing.  We had the obligatory debate about whether this is formally a confession or something else, and whether it should be in a different category, but still in the book.  I heard no argument against including it somewhere and somehow.  In the end, they left it up to the regular process we invoke for such documents, which is careful and lengthy.
One of the frustrating things about General Assembly is the propensity for making grandiose pronunciamentos about the issues of the day, which sound really good, but have very little traction in our actual life.  At worst, they purport to instruct the government about what to do, while ignoring the fact that the church itself continues to do the very same things.  (Plus, the government, especially the current one, is long past caring what we think about anything.)  
Today the assembly approved high-sounding words once again rejecting The Doctrine of Discovery, the 15th century declaration by one of the worst Popes ever about how Europeans could carve up the newly discovered lands in the Western Hemisphere as they saw fit.  The Doctrine continues to be legal precedent in the USA, which should surprise no one.  The Doctrine of Discovery is truly execrable and evil; rejecting it is something we should have done centuries ago.  But it didn’t even occur to us until recently.  
I doubt if we are fully aware of the consequences of rejecting it.  We will see this tomorrow when the assembly will affirm its actual participation in the Doctrine by a rather large majority.  So we reject it verbally, but we are fine with continuing to propagate it and especially profit from it. 
We are failing to realize the pervasiveness of The Doctrine of Discovery as the very foundation of our whole nation and economy.  Like true Protestants, we assume that because we say something we have actually done something.    
What about land stolen from Native peoples?  What about the resources within and under that land?  This has to be more than simply proclaiming that the Doctrine was a Bad Thing.  We continue to enjoy the benefits, and others continue to suffer the liabilities, of this legal atrocity.  This assembly will have opportunity to put some teeth in its rejection of this Doctrine.  It will fail to do so.  It will take the money instead.