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

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Get Real.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus lays out three primary practices that define fruitful spirituality: almsgiving, prayer, and fasting.  There is no point to doing Lent unless it is to strengthen these central areas of our spiritual life.  

Regarding all three Jesus criticizes “hypocrites,” that is, people who superficially go through the motions of pious acts, but whose main concern is the benefit they believe they will receive from being seen doing them.  In other words, they are doing these things, not out of a sincere trust in God, but for show.  They think other people will see them and admire them.

Jesus insists that we keep to ourselves with our spiritual life, not letting the left hand know what the right hand is doing.  By rejecting any notion of receiving recognition or reward for our behavior in this existence, Jesus says our reward is a treasure “in heaven.”   

It makes me think of how much we do “for show,” from choosing what to wear in the morning to deciding what purchases to make.  Indeed, in America a lot of what we do is an expression of our inner fantasies about ourselves.  We don’t just do things for other people to see, but “for show” to ourselves, to convince ourselves we are really living this or that dream.  Like when we buy a car that is designed to travel over the open landscape, thus feeding our fantasy that we are adventurous wilderness explorers, when in reality the car will never leave pavement. 

Jesus wants us to get real.  The false, superficial, public narratives we tell ourselves need to be relinquished.  We need to get to the bottom of who we are.  That’s what’s going on when we reflect on the ashes of Ash Wednesday.  Ashes are basically carbon, the primal element of all life.  The phrase that is spoken when ashes are imposed is: “You are dust and to dust you shall return.”  This may serve to oppress us with guilt, remorse, or feelings of worthlessness.  But this is not an exercise in self-abuse of self-hatred.  Rather it is about honesty.  We are reminded of what we are at our most basic and physical.

Our false, old, ego-driven, small self doesn’t want to remember this.  It projects delusions of grandeur about ourselves.  Just like we don’t want to be reminded of our own death, or even our aging.  

But dust and ash are more than reminders of our mortality.  They also represent our connection and integration into all of life and all that is.  I believe it was a Joni Mitchell song from the 1960’s that included the line, “We are stardust.”  The elements of which we are made are created and used by God in the beginning to form life.  They were taken on by God in becoming flesh in Jesus.  Dust is what God speaks to in creating each one of us.  It is not bad, it is not neutral; it is explicitly and exceedingly blessed!

Lent is about getting back to basics and fundamentals.  It is about clearing out the clutter and silencing the noise of our existence.  This means abandoning what we do because of  what we calculate we will get out of it, and instead emptying ourselves so that God may use us as raw material of a new creation. 

Lent is therefore a joyful time!  To be connected back to our original nature is to realize that we are made in God’s Image.  It is a time to discover who and whose we really are, and to embrace that as the priceless gift that it is.  For while the dust is what we are reduced to after our bodies give out, dust is also what God breathes life into in creating us.

In actual practice this means taking on tasks that return no profit, gain no reward, and accrue no earthly credit.  Indeed, it means taking on tasks of selfless service that society frowns on or even punishes.  For in these we quietly affirm a common humanity with each other and with Jesus.    


Monday, February 5, 2018

Reformation at 500.

The Reformation tried to be about restoring the New Testament church.  Instead it refitted Western Christianity to suit the Modern Age.  We ended up with a church supremely suited to express people’s faith in the 16th through the 20th centuries.  And that’s why we’re having so much trouble now: those days are over.  

The question becomes: what do to with a church designed to function in one era when that era ends.  One answer that is getting a lot of traction these days in many circles is: adapt!  Meaning, adapt to the new situation.  Adapt to what people are used to today.  Adapt to new technologies, new economic realities, new music, new social norms, new demographic realities.  In other words, pay attention to what is going on all around us and institute major changes in the church’s life to keep up with the changes.  In the place of a church designed for Modernity, let’s redesign the church for the new era that is now emerging, and which doesn’t even have an agreed-upon name.

I get that.  I really do.  I have written about how the new church will be decentralized, flat, distributed, networked, open-source, nimble, flexible, and so on.

The danger is that in moving into the future we will engage in a reflexive rejection of the past.  This was a problem for the Reformation, which tossed out some things simply because they were “too Catholic.”  Thus we lost many important elements of the faith, impoverishing our spiritual lives for centuries.  Mary, the sign of the cross, the saints, monasticism, and church unity all got dispensed with, not because they did not express the biblical faith in Christ, but they had been abused in the middle ages and did not fit into a Modern sensibility.  Instead of reforming and recovering them, we got rid of them.

The insightful observer of the religious scene, Phyllis Tickle, noted that the church goes through a “rummage sale” every 500 years.  We are in one of those periods now.  As with any rummage sale, the questions are: what have we found in the attic that we will decide to keep?  What is sitting in the middle of the living room that is no longer appropriate or useful?  What do we not have room for these days?  What makes no sense anymore?  Indeed, what is offensive?  And what do we need to add that we don’t now have?

Every church is having to answer these questions today, including ours.  In coming to these decisions about what will help us going forward, we do need to keep one thing in our minds and hearts: that is the mission of Jesus Christ.  What does Jesus Christ want for us today?  How do we best obey and follow him?  The church will always have before it one main task, which is discipleship.

On the one hand, we will have to be ruthless in our willingness to get rid of things that do not serve this purpose.  For there are things among us — from ideas and practices to objects — that actually detract from Jesus’ mission.  At best they distract, at worst they counteract and obstruct.  These things need to be identified and purged from our modest.

On the other hand, we will have to be radically open to the movement of the Spirit showing us new directions, new practices, new ideas, and new ways of discipleship.  Some will have a venerable history in the church and just be new to us.  Others will be things we never imagined, or even assumed were not fitting for us.

One characteristic of this new era is that “one size fits all” is over; there are and will continue to be many different expressions of Christianity among us.  Our task will be to discern our own, and to welcome, accept, and learn from — and yes, sometimes challenge and question — others’ ideas, practices, and perspectives.

Allergy to change and addiction to the past are simply not going to work.  At the same time, we do need to immerse ourselves in our history and tradition to find authentic things that will work.  This is the most exciting time to be a Christian in 500 years!  Let’s dive into this with all our hearts, depending on Jesus Christ to lead us by the power of the Spirit!