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

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Living in Fulfilled Time.

The first words Jesus utters in the Gospel of Mark proclaim that “the time is fulfilled.”  On one level this may mean that the 500 years since the building of the Second Temple, after the return of the people from exile, have passed.  Some non-canonical writings, like the Book of Jubilees, seem to predict that the Messiah would appear at this time.

But on a deeper level the Lord proclaims a radical understanding of time itself.  Instead of living in the linear time which the Greeks called chronos, and which has always characterized secular, imperial, economic time, the time in which memories of the past and fears/desires for the future dominate present existence, Jesus talks about time as already fulfilled.  Fulfilled time — the Greek words used by Mark are pepleirotai ho kairos — indicates a unified, coherent, interconnected, and undivided view of time.  In other words, fulfilled time sees time all together, not cloven into lost past and unknown future.  This kind of time presents itself as kairos, which means time as opportunity, grace, openness, transformation, destiny, and origin.

We see fulfilled time in the places where the Scriptures describe God as the One “who was, who is, and who is to come”.  It has to be stated in this somewhat awkward manner because human languages (at least English) don’t have a way to talk about time in a unified way.  Chronos infects even the way we speak and therefore think.

We see fulfilled time as well in God’s seminal self-identification to Moses in Exodus, as “I Am Who I Am,” which in Hebrew includes “I was who I was” and “I will be who I will be”. 

What would it mean to think and act in terms of this fulfilled time?  Can we even imagine rising above history, which is the record of how humans persistently choose to live in lies, tragically resulting in our inflicting violence and injustice on each other?  Our literally chronic misunderstanding of time-as-divided spawns human sin.  How much does fear about an unknown future determine our whole existence?  It leads us to concoct self-serving interpretations of the past, which dump us into the classical deadly sins.  In these practices we mangle, corrupt, debase, and destroy the world and people.

If we could lose our misconceptions and come instead to understand time in a unified way, especially coming to see the future as a beautiful and beneficent reality available even now, and which no amount of ignorance and violence can prevent, we may emerge into what Jesus calls “the Kingdom of God.”  We may realize in our own lives and relationships the glorious presence of God.  We may come into focus, while the rest of the world, still chained to the broken vision of chronos, falls out of focus, and appears as ultimately unreal.  

This sense motivates Christian worship and spirituality.  Centered on Baptism and the Eucharist, we see how everything works to change our way of perceiving and thinking — a process called repentance (metanoia = new mind) — so that we may live according to the truth — the values, practices, insights, vision, and wisdom — of fulfilled time, the Kingdom of God, the Real.

The Eucharist in particular explicitly places us in Jesus’ fulfilled time.  Jesus gives us this specific way to “remember” him, but this does not mean looking back into the past.  This kind of re-membering brings the past into the present.  The Eucharist both re-presents Jesus’ offering of himself on the cross, and presents his coming again, making him spiritually present and available in the community and in the elements of bread and wine.  Jesus makes himself present in the Sacrament, and we feed on him.  Thus we literally become him, sharing in his Presence, his eternal life, his fulfilled time.  In this Sacrament, then, God delivers us from our broken and distorted world of chronos to the real, unified, integrated world of kairos.  Thus we do not remember his saving death just as a historical event.  Nor do we merely wait for his coming again in the future.  Rather, we participate in his being lifted up for the life of the world, living the new life of resurrection and eternity, now.

God gives the commandments — reimagined and intensified in Jesus, especially in his Sermon on the Mount — as the shape and pattern of this life in the Kingdom/Kindom/Realm/Reign/Commonwealth in eternal/fulfilled time.  (And, frankly, embodying this in actual structures and procedures is the purpose of ecclesiastical polity.)


Monday, January 8, 2018

Presbyterian Bishops?

One of the more unbiblical things that the Reformation seems to have done was get rid of bishops.  The New Testament clearly says that the early church had an office of episcopos, which literally means “overseer” or “supervisor.”  (See Philippians 1:1.  There are several other mentions in the Pastoral Epistles.)  The tripartite shape of ecclesiastical ministry — bishops, elders, and deacons, in addition to the laity — was articulated very early in church history, in the work of Ignatius of Antioch.  The Reformers would have been wrong to dispense with bishops altogether.

They were no doubt reacting to what bishops had become in the West, which was all too often tyrannical, corrupt, mercenary, hypocritical men swathed in ridiculous pomp.  Bishops had too much power and some of them abused it horribly, which caused the whole institution to be debased and defiled.  The very word has been radioactive to many Protestants ever since.

Even today, bishops seem to imagine themselves to be ecclesiastical CEO’s and allow all kinds of benefits, honors, compensation, and privileges to accrue to themselves.  We Presbyterians don’t have bishops, but we do have “Executives” who sometimes see themselves in the same way.  They can become exactly what the Reformers were trying to unload, as if all that were offensive about being a bishop were the title.  Of course, it's about the power.

But if we look carefully at Presbyterianism, we may see that we did retain a kind of  episcopal office reimagined in a different form and given a different name.  We drained the office of as much corrosive power and venality as possible, even hiding every connection to what bishops had become so well that what I am about to say will surprise most Presbyterians.  The episcopal office emerges in Presbyterianism in the role of the Moderator.

Our polity makes a point of preventing Moderators from degenerating into knots of corrupt power, at least at the presbytery and synod levels.  In our current practice, Moderators are unpaid.  They usually serve one-year terms.  The Book of Order gives them almost no explicit power of disposition or decision-making.  Moderators oversee and preside over meetings of councils, and they represent councils in ordaining and installing elders.  Often they have a seat on whatever board manages the council’s work.  

I believe we do not pay enough attention to Moderators.  We do not recognize their authority or the continuity of their office with the biblical episcopacy.  We treat the role as little more than an honorific.  Sometimes it’s almost like an onerous job people get by turns, if we can convince them to do it at all.  

But I have found Moderators to have amazing and remarkable wisdom and insight.  Most have been active and committed presbyters for many years, and they have invaluable knowledge of the community and institution.  I have learned to trust and defer to Moderators at the presbytery level, even when they seem to be doing things “out of order.”  They can have a kind of moderatorial intuition from the Holy Spirit.  Because even if we don’t take Moderators seriously, God does.

In my view, we denigrate Moderators when we make them adhere to imported and non-Christian procedures that demand adversariality, foment divisiveness, and drive to premature decisions.  Moderators should embody the principles of inclusiveness, openness, mutuality, and equality embedded in our polity.  They should have a missional sense about what a council is doing.  They should be about fostering honest and civil communication, discerning the body, and finding real consensus.  They should be trusted.


Saturday, January 6, 2018

Why the PIF is a flawed and faulty tool for evaluating ministry.

As many Presbyterians know, “PIF” stands for Professional Information Form.  Ministers fill out this long document when they are open to receiving a new call. 

The content and process of our PIF ensures that our call system has the dignity of a beauty pageant, the sensitivity of speed-dating, and the spiritual depth of an episode of American Idol.  It is a routine in which we are encouraged and even required to place on display our most ego-centric, personality-driven, shallow, superficial, achievement-oriented projection of our selves.   

After completing it, I craved nothing so much as a two-week silent retreat and a full-body cleanse.  

Apparently, if the PIF is to be believed, Presbyterian congregations are interested mainly in being served by ministers who are exceptionally good self-promoters.  Humility is not considered a positive trait. 

Imagine Calvin having to fill out this PIF.  How about Dorothy Day?  Any saint of the church would simply roll their eyes and shake their head when confronted with this absurd bureaucratic instrument.  They would wonder where, in God’s Name, these Presbyterians came up with such leadership values.      

The heart of the PIF is the set of four essay questions.  They address success and fulfillment, growth, leadership, and change.  Apparently, these are now the most important categories that all ministers and churches have to relate to.  Maybe we think that if we can get ministers to refer to and define themselves in such terms then these things will somehow start happening in our churches, and that that would be a good thing.   

And yet, strangely enough, these words are not prominent in the New Testament.  One searches in vain for much talk about “success” and “fulfillment;” neither word appears in the NRSV at all.  “Growth” shows up in Scripture mainly regarding nature or the body, or as a synonym for “become.”  The New Testament does talk about “change” a bit more, but when it isn’t used eschatologically or about Jesus’ transfiguration, it means repentance.  I wish the PIF was talking about this kind of change of thinking and direction, then we might be getting somewhere.  But it clearly isn’t.  And while the epistles do have a handful of references to leaders in the church, in the gospels, the “leaders” are almost always Jesus’ enemies. 

While Scripture may not care about success and fulfillment, they are important categories in our culture.  We use these big words for building up the individual ego.  They stereotypically define the meaning of life for most Americans.  When the PIF wants me to relate a “moment” in my recent ministry when I felt good about myself and something I did,  it wants me to wallow in and polish what feeds my personal self-esteem.  Like that matters.  Like that is anything but spiritually toxic.

The PIF asks me to describe the ministry setting to which I believe God is calling me.  We understand that God’s call comes through and to a particular place.  But if I am only looking in one direction for one kind of ministry, does that not make it more difficult for me to hear if God calls me to something else?  This question asks us to lose ourselves in a fantasy about our “dream church.”  It could easily prevent us from developing a relationship with a real situation.  God almost never calls us to the familiar, desirable, and the perfect.  What if a committee reads what I have written and decides, “Well, we’re not anything like that.  It is pointless to contact this guy”?  What if that’s where God wants me to be?  Maybe God calls churches and pastors out of their comfort zones to work and build something new together?  I have seen this happen repeatedly.

Another PIF question wants me to talk about the “areas of growth” have I identified about myself.  The virtue here, presumably, is self-improvement.  The minister is encouraged to show off her/his ability to spin shortcomings into strengths, a skill that apparently our churches feel they need in a pastor.       

Finally, the last question is about when we have “led change.”  There are two things going on here.  

First of all, the word “led” raises that question of leadership.  The Book of Order lists the qualities and tasks of a pastor.  Significantly, “leadership” isn’t one of them.  This is because there is only One Head of the Church, Jesus Christ.  Pastors are disciples just like every other member of the church.  Some disciples may be a little farther along the Way.  This makes them good examples and possible teachers.  It does not make them authoritarian “leaders” with coercive power.  Ministers lead by asking questions, encouraging, suggesting alternatives, sharing expertise, and speaking out of their experience.  They do not lead by having a goal — change! — and manipulating others to attain it.  We are sometimes called “teaching elders,” not “leading” elders.

Secondly, we see here again our fetishizing of “change.”  We assume that the church needs change more than anything.  It doesn’t even matter what kind of change we are talking about, we seem to be at the point where any change is better than keeping what we have.

How often do churches want to hear about the real change that Jesus is about?  That kind of change involves, well, taking up your cross, renouncing your life, and giving up all you have.  At most they seem to want advice about how to adapt to a changing religious marketplace.  By “change” they mean moving to guitars in worship, or improving the church’s use of social media.  How do we attract millennials?  How do we change without alienating the older people who donate the most?  Churches mainly want to know how they can avoid real change by making these provisional, superficial adaptations.

What does it mean that Louisville can come up with PIF categories that bear no reference to the New Testament or even the Book of Order?  Why do we have to conjure things like this from scratch, relying on the imaginations of GA entities or people sitting in offices in Louisville?

What if we started evaluating ministers based on something related to Jesus, like the Beatitudes?  Does this person exhibit poverty of spirit?  Purity of heart?  Is she a peacemaker?  Does he hunger and thirst for justice?  What does that look like in their ministry?

What if we discouraged ministers from talking about themselves, but relied on how their vocation is perceived by people they have served with?  Congregants and colleagues might provide a better measure of someone’s faithfulness.

Such a strategy might work for the twin document, the MIF (Ministry Information Form) that churches are asked to complete, which has identical problems.  Only these are filled out by a committee.

It comes down to the basic question for a post-Christendom church: are we going to adapt ourselves to the standards of a secular and pathological society, or to Jesus Christ?