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

Friday, August 23, 2019

Free Stuff.

Jesus is all about free stuff.

His ministry is characterized by his giving away free health care.  There is no record in any of the gospels of Jesus presenting anyone with a bill for healing them.  Neither does he have any kind of means test or other set of requirements before he will heal someone.  Nobody even attempts to pay him.  The most he will say, and this only to some, is that they should come and follow him.  The only requirement for him to heal someone is that they are sick.  Usually, they come to him, but not always.  He heals several people at long distance.  He heals at least one person because his friends dragged him to him.  Sometimes they have to believe in him, but not always.  He heals some people who just happen to be there in the same place at the same time.

He converts six jars of water into free wine for a wedding reception.  Free wine!

Several places he suggests, or even demands, that rich people give their wealth away to the poor.  He doesn’t qualify “poor” with “deserving” or “working.”  No.  The only criteria that the recipients have to meet is that they are poor, that is, they have less wealth, fewer assets or possessions, than most people.  In other words, Jesus feels these less-well-off people are entitled to free stuff, just because they are less-well-off.  In other words, the rich should give free stuff to the poor.

In this, by the way, he is only echoing the requirements of Leviticus 25, in which all wealth is redistributed downward every 50 years.  It’s called the Jubilee and Jesus comes to proclaim it.  Free stuff.

In one of the few stories included in all four gospels, Jesus gives away free food.  They have the option of going to the store and buying food for themselves.  That’s the disciples’ idea, that they should all go find a Quick Chek.  A market-based solution.  Jesus has none of that.  He produces and gives away food, so much food that there is a lot left over.

In one of his parables a landowner pays people who worked for one hour the same amount as those who worked a full day: free stuff.  

In another a wealthy person places money or property in the possession of tenants or servants.  It doesn’t work out very well, but still: it’s about free stuff, with the qualification that it should be used in the way God intended.  Which is to give it away.  

In one of his most famous and characteristic parables, a father throws a great banquet for a son who squandered his inheritance: free stuff.  When the older brother complains that the father never gave him free stuff, the father is flabbergasted, and tells him that he has always been surrounded by free stuff he could take whatever he wanted whenever he wanted. 

Jesus has no concern about “personal responsibility.”  God made the whole place and offers it to everyone, as much as they need and more.  If you think you worked for what you have, that’s a self-serving lie.  The truth is that sinful humans have engineered a system by which some are allowed to hoard some of God’s stuff, and make you work for them to get some of it.

That’s not God’s plan.  That’s not what we see in Jesus.

God’s plan is… free stuff.

Jesus implements a system in which everyone contributes what they have and receives what they need.  We see the church actually doing this in Acts.  Freely have we received; freely must we give.    

God creates the universe and declares it very good.  God makes sure there is always more than enough for everybody.  All we have to do is make sure it is distributed so that nobody has too little, and nobody has too much.  All we have to do is make sure the Earth continues to be able to sustain the many, many forms of life that the Creator placed here.   All we have to do is give thanks and share.

How are we doing on that?

Jesus gives his life for the whole world on the cross.  And his life is free.  It’s a matter of grace.

And the main thing do when we gather, aside from hear God’s Word, is give thanks and share his Body and Blood.  At no charge.  It’s free.

And therefore so are we.

Free stuff is the mission of the church, God’s people.

Let’s do it.


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Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Sin and Mercy.

Possibly the oldest Christian prayer is simply, “Lord, have mercy.”  It is based on the appeal of a blind man in Jericho named Bartimaeus in Mark 10:47.  It has been an integral and essential part of Christian liturgy ever since.

Unfortunately, this prayer, appears to be a problem for some folks.  I am told the words are too negative.  The criticism is that begging for mercy and calling oneself a sinner only reinforce the kind of oppressive, self-flagellating religious expressions that Christianity is infamous for.  It is especially disempowering for those victimized by religious imperialism, like women.  Not only do practices like this keep people under the thumb of the authorities, but such self-hatred tends to get expressed in acts of misanthropic violence.  Finally, there seems to be an assumption that God is always ready to punish and afflict, but can be dissuaded by our pathetic pleas for mercy.  Surely we can do better than morose and depressing, chest-beating, guilt obsessed begging for God to forgive us.  So the argument goes.

First of all, modern people don’t like to talk about “sin” at all.  We see it as a guilt-trip.  Surely it is better to awaken to our original blessing, than to wallow in misery about our sins. 

The fact that sin has become a rejected category for sophisticated, modern people indicates not so much a healthy self-esteem as a deliberate reticence to face the wall-to-wall mess we have made of the planet and its people, including ourselves, over the last 500 years.  We have reduced the word “sin” to refer to somebody else’s sexuality, when actually it denotes a comprehensive breakdown of relationships.  

Talk about “sin” simply recognizes that we humans, in our egocentric condition, are functioning as if separated from God, creation, others, and even our true selves.  Calling ourselves sinners does not mean we are essentially bad people who do not deserve to live.  It means, as in the first of the 12 steps of recovery, realizing that our life is unmanageable, and that we are indeed complicit in all kinds of evil.  

This is what it means to be “woke.”  When we do awaken to our original blessing and goodness, one of the first things that happens is we understand how far our words, thoughts, and actions had drifted away from that.  Awakening means realizing that we had been, in effect, asleep, and taking responsibility for what we did when we were not as fully conscious.  
Awakening causes us at the same time to see the wreckage we have left behind us in the world, in our relationships, in our own bodies and souls, with clarity and honesty.  It is not that we are bad, but we have done bad things, usually inadvertently, unknowingly, or rationalizing that they are actually good.

Secondly, the prayer is about mercy.  Mercy is the recognition of our original blessing and goodness.  Awareness of mercy — that is, of forgiveness, compassion, peace, acceptance, wholeness, and welcome — is awakening.  

Mercy is not just something we receive and then keep for ourselves, like a commodity.  Mercy, like so many of the qualities Jesus talks about and embodies, is something in which we participate by sharing it.  To receive mercy is to give it.  If we do not become merciful, we will not receive mercy.  Mercy is a flow.  It goes through us.  We only have it only to the extent that we give it away.

Therefore, “have mercy on me, a sinner” emphatically does not mean, “don’t punish me for being such a terrible person.”  It means rather, “Let the flow of your mercy, goodness, and blessing overwhelm and transform me and my world through me.”  It means “Let me be your mercy, your compassion, and your forgiveness in the world.” 

And yes, it includes the implication that we have a way to go in realizing this, but at least we are hopefully making progress.  The sign of this progress is that we have the sense to pray for mercy.


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Friday, July 19, 2019

Bugs.

Bugs.

When I was a kid I remember going on long drives with my family.  We always had a lot of bugs get smashed on the windshield.  Sometimes we even had to stop at a gas station to squeegee them off.

That doesn’t happen anymore.

I didn’t even notice it until I was told about a study from Britain that actually uses windshield counts to measure the insect population.  In fact, apparently the number of insects on the planet is crashing.  40% of species are in serious decline.  [https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/2019/02/why-insect-populations-are-plummeting-and-why-it-matters/]

While this may not bother many of us — indeed, some may feel it is a benefit — the fact is that insects do have a role in the global ecosystem, from pollination to feeding birds.

This caused me to pay attention to my own practice regarding bugs.  Like just about everyone in this culture, I think nothing of killing insects.  Indeed, the more I could slaughter, the better.  Especially in the house.  I might leave them alone outside, but the house is my domain and will not be infected with bugs.

But as I become, however slowly and incrementally, more woke, I am coming to appreciate and respect life.  All of life.  Over the past few months I have grown more tolerant of insects to the point that I will only rarely kill one intentionally.  If I find one in the house I seek a way to either ignore it or release it outdoors.  (Mostly the latter: ignoring insects in the house can lead to them becoming much less ignorable.)    

God creates insects In Genesis 1:20-23, on the Fifth Day.  They are called “swarming creatures.”  They are an integral and essential part of creation.  Biologists know this.  Without some pollinators humanity basically perishes.

The other day I saw an atheist cartoon.  It depicted God talking to someone, who asks whether God made mosquitoes.  When God says yes, the other person lists the devastating effect of mosquitoes on humans, including the fact that mosquitoes have, by transmitting Malaria, caused the death of more people than anything else in history, by far.  He concludes by remarking to God, “You must really hate those people.”

From the point of view of an atheist, that is a radically anthropocentric perspective in which everything is valued by its relationship to humans, or more precisely, me today, God does look like an evil monster for creating mosquitoes.  

At a recent church picnic someone asked me why a good God would create such a pernicious life form as mosquitoes.  My response at the time was to ask, “Perhaps you’d rather live on a planet with an atmosphere made of ammonia or sulfuric acid?  With crushing gravity or baking heat or sub-zero temperatures?  You live in the most beautiful and abundant place in the universe!  Deal with the bugs already!”

The acquisition of the Holy Spirit gives us an increasingly heavenly — which is to say broad, inclusive, and universal — perspective.  We realize that it’s not all about me or even us.  The humans are not the be-all-and-end-all of creation.  The presence of mosquitoes should help us get a grip on this and develop some humility and respect.  This is not our house, it’s the Creator’s.  And if the Creator has determined that mosquitoes have a place in it, who are we to whine about it?

Now I do not underestimate the deadly nuisance that some bugs can be.  I have had Lyme disease.  I have been in places where I had to wear netting to prevent being eaten by Black Flies.  I have had to have my home “bombed” to get rid of cockroaches.  I understand the problems caused by fleas and ticks, and so on.  

But we are seeing that humans have been far, far more destructive to the garden than mosquitoes ever were or will be.  They may have killed a lot of us.  But no species has ever gone extinct because of mosquitoes.  Our ravaging, predatory exploitation of this planet is on a scale beyond the entomological imagination.  

The existence of mosquitoes tells us that God cares much more about the well-being of this whole place and everything in it than God cares about one particularly noxious and destructive species, no matter how smart they think they are.

Anyway, trying not to kill insects has opened my eyes to the value of all life.  


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Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Waking Up Hurts.

The reason why so few people wake up is that it is so profoundly painful.  The reason it is so painful is that to wake up means accepting responsibility for so much of the world’s pain.  Maybe this is why suffering is such an essential aspect of enlightenment.  Tears are often considered a gift, even a necessary sign of one’s enlightenment.  These tears prove the depth of our awakening, that it is not merely imaginary or mental but felt in our bodies.

I am using “awakening” and “enlightenment” to talk about what Christianity means by resurrection.  Resurrection is uprising.  It is the emergence of the True Self — Christ — and the letting go and falling away of the false self — ego.  

The false self does not fall away without suffering.  It is embedded within and attached to the True Self, extending its tentacles through it.  It does not detach easily.  Which is why contemplatives equate the process of detachment from it with death.  The false self has to “die,” which feels like actual death to the person who is totally identified with it.

The false self dies when we realize the damage we have done under its influence.  This damage is to ourselves, to others, and to creation.  The false self dies when we take responsibility for this damage and feel the pain it has caused.  It dies because it deserves death as a matter of justice.  It “dies” because it was never really alive or even real.  The false self is an invention and projection of our ego based first on fear, and then on anger and shame.  What dies is our addiction to it, which is to say, our pathological identification with it.  That is to say, our presumption that the false self is who we are.

This only happens when we reject the three temptations: money, fame, and power.  And that only happens when we feel the pain of those we have harmed in our obsessive drive to acquire for ourselves money, fame, and power.   We don’t wake up until we feel the damage.

There is an old M*A*S*H episode where a bomber pilot ends up in the unit, and meets a little Korean girl badly hurt by aerial bombing.  At first he tries to avoid responsibility by asking whose planes did the bombing.  Hawkeye’s answer is basically that we don’t know and what difference does it make?  The bomber’s subsequent discomfort is the beginning of his awakening.  He’s not happy about it.  No one wakes up happy, at first.

In the 12-step system, the addict must make a fearless inventory of the harm they have done to others, and then seek to personally make amends to those harmed.  This is what healing means.  This is how healing happens.  It is astonishingly painful and humiliating, even sometimes personally dangerous, to admit such wrongdoing.  But it is the only way to real healing.

None of us wants to face or admit the harm we have done.  This is true with individuals, as well as with larger organizations and institutions.  It is true of nations and whole civilizations.    

But acknowledgement of harm and making amends for that harm is the only way to cut away the false self and allow the True Self to emerge.  Acknowledgement of harm is repentance; making amends is discipleship.  The former is a change of direction; the latter is actually to move in that direction by acting differently.

If the church is missionally ineffective it is because it does not understand that discipleship is making amends.  It is repairing the world… based on the recognition that we are the ones who wrecked the world in the first place.  To proceed without this recognition is to blame victims for their own pain and make yourself — your false self — the savior.  The false self only acts out of self-interest.  It only acts out of what it stands to gain.  When the church is not making amends it is only seeking to gain members, money, or influence for itself.  It takes the superior position of a generous benefactor, forgetting that it needs and must seek forgiveness in humility.  

Ultimately, waking up is a joy.  Once the false self has fallen away, what emerges is the True Self.  The false self was collapsed in on itself, lost in a funhouse of self-reference, self-obsession, self-righteousness, and self-gratification.  The True Self is connected outward.  It is one with everything.  It gives thanks in all circumstances.  It knows that everything is working together for good.  It prays constantly.  It lives forever participating in the true life of all.        


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Friday, June 21, 2019

Wisdom/Sophia as the Voice-print of God.

The reading from the Hebrew Scriptures on Trinity Sunday was from Proverbs 8.  It is about wisdom’s role in creation.  Since the word for wisdom in Greek is sophia, the text talks about a female character.  “Does not wisdom call, and does not understanding raise her voice?  On the heights, beside the way, at the crossroads she takes her stand [saying] ‘The Lord created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of long ago….’”  And it goes on to describe Sophia/Wisdom participating and delighting in God’s work of creating the world.  And there are more interesting passages about Wisdom — including a whole book by that title — among the apocryphal books that are not included in many Protestant Bibles.

The place of Wisdom in Christian theology has always been ambiguous.  Some virtually equate her with the Holy Spirit.  There are references in the tradition to Jesus as Wisdom as well.  Protestants have tended to practically ignore her altogether.  But the greatest cathedral of the Christian East is named after her: Hagia Sophia in Istanbul.

Interest in Wisdom has perked up in the last 100 or so years, largely due to her emergence in Russian theology, especially by a writer named Sergius Bulgakov.  Bulgakov influenced one of the greatest American Christian thinkers of the 20th century, Thomas Merton.

It is unlikely that I completely understand Bulgakov’s theology; however, he seems to be saying that Wisdom is like the voice-print of God on creation.  God, of course, creates by speaking in Genesis 1.  Speech is both Word and Spirit (breath), which is to say that creation is inherently trinitarian.  Bulgakov’s view appears to insert Wisdom into the process as sort of the vibratory signature of the triune God which is imprinted on creation, giving creation its character and relating it all to its Creator.  It is a way of talking about Christianty’s panentheistic understanding of creation, that is, God is not identical with creation (which would be pantheism), but is somehow in creation.  Wisdom/Sophia is how God is in creation in the form of God’s identifying voice-print.  That’s the best I can do with Bulgakov for now.

The reason this is all more than theological doodling is that it tells us the nature of wisdom, in the sense of what it means for people to be wise and act wisely.  Basically, wisdom means thinking and acting in accordance with this basic voice-print by which God is present within creation.  That is, wisdom means seeing God’s shape and mark on and in everything, beginning with ourselves, and extending to all creation, from grains of sand to supernovae.  We act wisely when we treat everything with awe, wonder, respect, gratitude, and humility, because everything participates in God’s nature, as revealed to us in Jesus Christ.  Everything is a transcendent miracle.  There is no such thing as a mere, inanimate object which we may dispose of as we please.  Rather, everything is imprinted with God’s name as belonging to God (Psalm 24:1).  

Wisdom/Sophia thus provides an otherwise missing connection between God and creation.  Without her, it is possible to believe that God generated the creation without leaving any echo or identifying mark of divinity in or on it.  In which case it would indeed be a neutral object, a blank slate, a set of “resources” and commodities for humans to dominate, defile, degrade, and destroy.  And this includes other people.  Unfortunately, this is the way humans have behaved for almost all of our history, a sorry circumstance for which we are beginning to pay dearly.  Messing with what belongs to God never ends well; it is the surest way to experience the transcendent love of God as blistering wrath.

Only waking up to Wisdom, that is, a knowledge that God is present with and in the creation, which includes us, will give us a pathway out of this catastrophe.  If it is not indeed too late already.

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Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Ascension Means Jesus Is Everywhere.


One of my favorite little snippets of Scripture is Acts 1:10-11.  It is the passage about Jesus’ ascension into heaven after his resurrection.  The disciples are with him as he rises into the air and disappears behind a cloud.  Then it says, “While he was going and they were gazing up towards heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them.  They said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up towards heaven?’”

First, I love the advice that the disciples are not to waste their time gazing into the sky, waiting for him to come back, like dogs staring out the window looking for their master to pull into the driveway.  Neither are we supposed to be pouring our mental energy into figuring out exactly when he’s coming back.  Jesus has earlier told them that it is not for them “to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority.”  In other words, the specific time-table for the return of Jesus is not their concern.  

We have in the last few years witnessed some Christians misled by idiotic proclamations of the exact date.  This happens in every generation, which is part of the point.  We are to live the the urgency and immediacy of God’s imminent Presence.  God and God’s Kingdom is always near.  Indeed, Jesus says it is within us! (Luke 17:21 KJV). 

Secondly, The implication is that there is work to be done down here!  Jesus says to the disciples, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”  He’s talking, of course, about the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, 10 days later.  The church is given an assignment, which is to be living witnesses to the good news of God’s love for the world revealed in Jesus.  That witness has to go out to everyone on the planet.  Get to work!

Finally, the question arises as to where exactly Jesus goes.  I mean, the more cynical and literal among us might observe that, had Jesus gone into the sky at approximately 3 miles an hour, he would not yet have reached the orbit of the moon.  The text says that “a cloud took him out of their sight.”  Now, there are places in the New Testament where the church is referred to as “a cloud of witnesses.”  I am wondering if Luke is telling us that Jesus’ mortal, visible form kind of gets dissolved into the gathering of his disciples as they go forward in continuing mission in his name.  Then they ruminate on this for over a week and then his Presence is activated by the Spirit, and the church explodes in missionary activity.

The angels’ last word to them is to say that Jesus will come in the same way as they saw him go into heaven.  Can this mean that the Lord will eventually reappear out of the community, the cloud, and be somehow directly visible once again?

In the meantime, Jesus dwells “in heaven.”  This does not of course mean at some coordinates in the atmosphere or outer space, but in a sense everywhere.  Maybe Jesus becomes omnipresent in a way akin to how astrophysicists say that anything attaining the speed of light expands to fill the universe.  As the Light of the World, perhaps we may think of Jesus ascending into all things.  He becomes one with all, and immediate to all, but at the same time not as recognizable and distinct as he was during his earthly, mortal existence.  We know him now not as a distinct and separate person, but as the One in whom we trust, whose teachings we obey, validated and inspired by the Holy Spirit.

While present to us in this subtle form, the Lord does make his presence more directly felt in the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, in prayer, and in the gathering in other ways.  We carry out his mission of compassion, healing, forgiveness, and hope, confident that he does emerge again into a more directly sensory form, in the end, when we will see him face to face.

In other words, the Ascension does not mean that Jesus goes away and is now distant from us, and we carry on in his absence, awaiting his return.  I find it more fruitful to imagine the Ascension to describe the way Jesus — God’s love — is invisibly present in all things, with it being the job of those who trust in him to show this presence in their actions.  He has not abandoned us; but now he is closer to us than we are to ourselves.
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Thursday, April 25, 2019

What to Do with Communion Leftovers.

Antidoron.
Or: What to Do with Communion Leftovers.

I know this is going to sound somewhat odd, especially for Presbyterians.  But as my eucharistic theology evolves I have been thinking about the bread and the wine.  (I am using “wine” to refer to fermented and unfermented grape juice.)    

I was in a conversation with my Russian priest friend the other day, when he indicated that we can identify one’s eucharistic theology simply by noticing what they do with the leftover communion elements.  

In “high” liturgical churches — Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Anglican, and perhaps some Lutheran — they are first of all careful to only consecrate enough of the elements for the number of people who will participate.  Then anything that is left over is consumed by the priest, or sometimes may be reserved for a future service.  In some places I even think leftover elements are buried. 

But, first of all, I have a problem with the practice of only preparing “enough.”  One aspect of the Sacrament is a witness to God’s abundance and generosity in creation and salvation.  This is hard to imagine when we have just a small amount of the bread and wine before us.

For instance, I get frustrated by baptisms that use as little water as possible.  I witnessed one baptism in which the pastor barely dipped his finger in the water and then shook it (!) so that by the time his hand reached the head of the person being baptized it must have barely been damp.  Presbyterians already have enough of a problem with matter and symbol and anything sensory.  We need to emphasize the water and use a lot of it.  We need to get wet!  By the same token the elements of the eucharist are not incidental.  It doesn’t have to be about the volume of bread and wine consumed, but it should be clear that God has provided more than enough!   

I mean, in nature, God is ridiculously promiscuous.  A single oak tree can produce like 10,000 acorns in a year.  So I don’t like the optics of just preparing enough for those present.  It makes God look cheap.  I don’t have a problem with having leftovers.  The issue is what to do with them.  

Now, I certainly don’t hold to the Roman Catholic view of “transubstantiation,” in which the elements somehow become physically the Body and Blood of the Lord.  One problem with transubstantiation is that it identifies realness with physical materiality.  I do hold to Calvin’s view of the “real presence” of Christ in the Sacrament.  For Calvin this is spiritual presence and therefore more real than mere limited, physical presence.  

At the same time, I do believe that the elements — and the people — are indeed changed in the Sacrament.  On the one hand, the elements become more than just ordinary bread and wine simply because of their use in the rite and that the sacred words have been spoken over them.  On the most basic level, this is like when a particular baseball becomes special when it was the one your child hit for a home run in Little League.  But this is even more special than that because we are saying words Jesus told us to say and doing things Jesus told us to do.

The bread and the wine are changed into more than special bread and wine.  While the elements certainly remain bread and wine, they do in some sense become, at the Lord’s command — “this is my body;” “this is my blood” — his Body and Blood.  This does not happen in terms of physics, but spiritually; not outwardly so much as inwardly.  

Jesus goes into this in some detail in John 6, where he states that “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” (v. 53).  The Lord clarifies this teaching few verses later, when he says, “It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless.  The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life” (v. 63).  

When we remember that the inspiration for this discourse is the actual feeding of the hungry crowd on the hillside, we realize that the physical bread serves to ground and focus analogically and metaphorically the real bread which is Jesus’ presence and words.  The bread is not incidental and disposable any more than is the water of baptism.  Through these elements we remain rooted in creation.  Matter and bodies are valued precisely because of the sacramental freight they bear, showing us that God comes to us in and through what God has made, and not by means of some gnostic, anti-material, psychic fantasy.

Therefore, the elements do indeed become charged with God’s Presence for their sitting on this particular Table and having these particular words spoken over then, and being offered to these people with this intent and this these thoughts focused on them.  This change is fulfilled when the bread and the wine are actually consumed and interact with each participant.  Yet even the bread and wine left behind still carry this charge, even if unreleased.  

We do need to be conscious and careful about what we do with the leftovers, because my priest friend is right: it expresses something about what we believe about the bread, the sacrament, creation, and Jesus.   

Presbyterians, unconsciously influenced by Zwingli (at best) and a knee-jerk antipathy to everything “Catholic” (at worst) tend to dispose of the leftover elements by three methods.  
  1. The worst practice, in my view, is to throw the bread in the trash and pour the juice down the drain.  This is wasteful and ungrateful even for normal bread and juice.  Who would dispose of perfectly good food this way in their homes?  This is a sign of our sinfulness, that we would take a gift of God — especially something he has made significant in our specific obedience to him — and simply decide it is now worthless and relegate it to the category of garbage.  If your child bakes you a cookie you thank them and at least pretend to eat it.  You do not toss it in the trash in front of them.  At the very least, let’s treat the leftover communion elements like the real food they are.  To throw them out in the face of a world hungry for both food and grace, is an abomination.    
  2. Another practice is to leave the bread outside for birds, and pour the contents of the cup out on the ground.  This is a little better, if done with gratitude, prayer, and consideration, in that it shows some respect for the elements and semi-ritually returns them back to nature.  On the other hand, in my experience birds are not always interested, and the bread just sits there getting weathered.  This can easily be seen as careless disposal, little better than throwing it in the garbage.  After all, “for the birds” is what we sometimes say about something we don’t value.    
  3. Still better is when the elements are either consumed or sent out with the representatives of the church to be shared with homebound people in the congregation.  Here is a good use.  But most churches would not do this every time the sacrament is celebrated.  (One church I served did send the deacons out with the elements after every celebration; I never hesitate to commend them.)  
The Eastern Orthodox have something called the Antidoron.  The Antidoron is bread that is blessed but not actually consecrated in the eucharist.  (They don’t use much bread in the actual eucharist.  The priest chops it fine, mixes it with warmed wine, and literally feeds it to the people by a small spoon.)  In some churches the non-consecrated bread is cut into cubes and sent out with the people.  The Antidoron may be given to anyone, therefore it is also a way to include non-Orthodox around the edges of the sacrament.

Once when I attended an Easter liturgy at an Antiochian Orthodox church, it was clear to the congregation that I was a visitor.  Parents must have pointed me out to their children as a worthy recipient of Antidoron, for several kids, after having received communion themselves, took some pieces and gave them to me on their way by.  By then end of the service I had almost more Antidoron in my cupped hands than I could handle.  I felt very welcome!

Would it  not be inappropriate to use a strategy like this with our communion leftovers?  That is, what if we Presbyterians encouraged participants to take some pieces of the communion bread with them as they leave and give it away as a sign of blessing and inclusion?

Taking the bread to shut-ins in the congregation is one obvious use.  We could also offer it to others whom we meet.  Who can say that this kind of sharing of the literal bread might not inspire some recipient to wonder and ask about the true Bread of Life, Jesus Christ?

Such a practice would indeed reveal something about our theology.  Giving away the bread reflects what we know about Jesus, who gives his life for the life of the world.  It would speak of God’s abundant love overflowing in creation.

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Wednesday, April 24, 2019

White Walkers.


Like many Americans, in our house we are spending our Sunday evenings watching the new and, apparently final, season of Game of Thrones.  The growing threat for most of the series has been the “white walkers,” an army of the dead which is gathering in the far north and moving inexorably south with the coming of winter.  The last few episodes have been about a) convincing the leaders of Westeros that this threat is real and not a fairy tale, and b) figuring out how to get the characters to set aside the complicated and vicious personal and family vendettas to unite and face this existential threat from the north.  The problem is that characters would rather cling to the stupid and petty nonsense that defines their lives and gives them a reason to keep killing each other, than let that go and deal with something that could destroy their whole world.

The author of the books upon which the series is based, George R. R. Martin, has noted the parallels between his work and the threat of climate change.  It is a sad fact of history that leaders tend to focus on short-term personal gains and successes, while ignoring or denying larger problems, even those that threaten the lives and well-being of everyone. 

Climate change is our white walkers: a comprehensive threat to our whole civilization.  Our leaders often deny this existential liability.  Even the ones who don’t deny it appear powerless to address it.  We continue our squabbles, competition, business, and wars.  We even press on with the very economic practices that caused the problem in the first place, at best convincing ourselves that the same thinking that got us into this mess can somehow extricate us.   

There is in the Bible — and in history — a repeated pattern that also applies here.  Idolatry produces injustice which produces disaster.  We see it with what happens to the Egyptians when they enslave the Israelites and so bring down those ten mostly ecological plagues upon themselves.  We see it when Israel and Judah, in turn, sink into idolatry which results in societal injustice and inequality.  The consequences of that are the destruction of Israel by the Assyrians and the exile of the Jews by the Babylonians.  And so on.  

Thus I don’t have to read the voluminous scientific literature and mountains of data to understand the threat of global warming.  I just have to notice the breathtaking idolatry of a global economy that puts money, growth, and the wellbeing of owners first, and how it spawns terrible injustices in terms of violent exploitation of people and planet, to realize that this will not end well.  Such circumstances have always brought down catastrophe.

The most granular and comprehensive examination of this is found in the book of Revelation, which we are now walking through together.  It is an immensely sad book, detailing the ultimate consequences of human idolatry and injustice.

And yet, at its core is a profound hope, which is finally realized in the last chapters of the book.  For the good news is that God and life and love and joy always win in the end.  And because they will in the end, we may participate in that victory in advance all along the way.  We can dissociate from the bad things happening around us, and witness instead to the Truth of God’s love revealed in Jesus, letting his power sustain us.

This is what is going on in the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.  This weekly participation in God’s life, given for the life of the world, grounds our faith, opens our eyes, and strengthens our witness to God’s love.  For this meal is the antidote to idolatry.  In it we connect in a very tangible and visceral way to two things:  First, we encounter the cross of Jesus, and through him identify with all the victims of injustice and terror, all the scapegoats, all those whose lives were taken in the name of someone else’s power and fear.

Secondly, and at least as importantly — and this is why we are doing this during the joyful season of Resurrection — the Sacrament is how God gives life to us.  It is, after all, a meal, a place where we are fed and a nourished, where we receive the energy we need for repentance and discipleship.  As the disciples’ eyes were opened to recognize in the breaking of bread the presence of the risen Lord with them, so may our eyes be opened to understand the living presence of Christ in ourselves and even in all things.  For he makes us one with each other, and with all.

Only this sense of oneness in love will get us through.  Expressed in acts of forgiveness, simplicity, acceptance, compassion, welcome, justice, and love, the body of Christ, which we both consume as individuals and are as a community, means that we present a different kind of life to the world. 

I do not know if the white walkers will be defeated on Sunday nights.  I do not know if we will avoid the dire consequences of climate change.  I do know that no matter what happens we have to live according to Jesus’ example and commandments.  That is, we have to approach everything with gratitude, gentleness, and wonder.  If that’s what we receive in the bread we break on Sunday mornings, we will be okay. 

Only Jesus’ life will save us.  So let’s live that life.
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Wednesday, April 3, 2019

The 6 E's.


In Matthew 11, some of the disciples of John the Baptizer come to Jesus to verify that he is indeed the promised Messiah.  Apparently his message and ministry are different enough from what John was expecting that they felt this question had to be asked.

In response Jesus simply has them look around at what he is actually doing.  They should then answer their question for themselves.  What Jesus says they will find is that the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor receive good news.  These are the activities that Jesus and his group are doing and they validate his ministry as the Messiah.

Jesus is giving us here 6 marks of his ministry.  And his work is more than a health clinic.  Yes, people certainly are healed physically.  At the same time, these categories may be taken metaphorically for the kind of spiritual growth and wholeness that he brings into people’s lives.  

By extension, these 6 marks also summarize the healing work of the gatherings of his disciples, the church.  We need to be doing all 6 of these.  When they happen literally and physically, that is wonderful!  And it is at least as important that we focus on bringing these kinds of healing into people’s lives in still deeper and more comprehensive ways.

To help understand this, I propose 6 words that express how each mode of healing may be expanded to embrace the inner life and therefore an even more profound wholeness.  These are the 6 E’s:  

the blind see enlightening 
the lame walk empowering 
the lepers are cleansed embracing 
the deaf hear  educating
the dead are raised enlivening  
the poor receive good news enriching  

A church needs to be enlightening in the sense of opening people’s eyes so they can see the Truth.  Sometimes it involves facing harsh and difficult facts about ourselves, and therefore coming to see ourselves more clearly.  At the same time, it is revealing the Truth of God’s love for the world in Jesus Christ, and coming to see the world as a place of goodness, blessing, hope, and joy. 

A church needs to be empowering by enabling weak, disenfranchised, paralyzed, and “stuck” people to move.  This may be interpreted socially in terms of advocating for human rights for all, and also psychologically as getting people to change, move, develop, and grow in their own lives.  Here we could add a 7th E: emancipating: bringing the liberation and freedom from bondage, whether it be those in actual incarceration, or people suffering from psychological and other forms of slavery, like addiction.

A church needs to be embracing in making a point of including and welcoming people who are often otherwise excluded, rejected, barred, or isolated.  A church is a place of contact, intimacy, and embracing, where we care for each other and hold each other in love.  Indeed, a church reaches out to the outcast.

A church needs to be educating by telling the story of God’s love.  When heard, this story has the power to reshape what we hear.  Part of this is also about shutting out voices of hatred, bigotry, violence, exclusion, and falsehood.    

A church needs to be enlivening by drawing people up out of different kinds of lifelessness, despair, and fear.  In the name and by the power of our risen Lord the church is a source and agent of life.  Resurrection means uprising!  We witness to the wildness of God’s Spirit in the face of forces that would keep us docile and compliant as corpses.     

Finally, a church needs to be enriching by first of all allocating necessary resources to people who are in any kind of need.  The good news to the poor has specific content; it is not just words but also whatever they need for their physical needs, like food, shelter, health care, clean water, and other necessities, including money.

Here we have the Lord’s six marks of a faithful community living in the power of his Name.  I think all of these are expressed first of all in our worship; then the Light needs to shine forth from there into all the world, as we act by the power of God’s Spirit to bring change into people’s lives.

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