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

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Dead Canaries.

We are surrounded by the unmistakable signs that we have mangled our environments — ecological, social, moral, economic, political, psychological — beyond repair.  We are unable to respond effectively to the inevitable coming catastrophes because over the last 500 years of Modernity we have systematically maimed our spiritual capacity by enslaving ourselves to ego at every turn.  We have elevated sins into “virtues” in an economic system that declares greed, lust, gluttony, envy, anger, pride, etc., along with every form of selfishness, to be good.  We have valorized wanton consumption, mindless pleasure, and irresponsible theft from both creation and the poor, marginalized, and vulnerable.  And we have deliberately mocked and thrown away every tool for real transformation and real freedom.  We will not avoid the consequences; they have already begun.

We are ankle deep in dead canaries and still insist on hacking away at the same shiny lode.  We are addicted to egocentricity, and we have forgotten, denied, or rejected any alternative.  We will kill the planet for the sake of our own self-gratification, which means, we know, suicide.  

Is there a better definition of nihilism?

Friday, February 1, 2019

Nostalgia vs. Relevance?

It seems to me that the church loses its direction and purpose when it becomes a church of yesterday… or of today.

If we are always trying to recover some perfect past, we are on the wrong track.  Many Christians fall into this pattern.  We lift up the ideally remembered church of some bygone decade or century and strive to reconstruct the church now on the basis of what was going on at that time.  Usually this involves a somewhat romanticized perspective on the past.  But this kind of church is all about, well, nostalgia.  If only we could get back to The Way We Were.  The Old Time Gospel.  A religious Colonial Williamsburg.

On the other hand, there is the church that wants to reject the past and retool for now.  It looks at its present context and seeks to shape its message and ministry to suit the needs, proclivities, desires, habits, and practices of people today.  Often this involves a somewhat romanticized perspective on the present, as if we are the vanguard of progress.  This kind of church is all about relevance.  It’s the Church of What’s Happenin’ Now.

The war between nostalgia and relevance has characterized the church for my whole lifetime. It was acute in the 60’s and 70’s; it spawned the “worship wars” of the 80’s and 90’s.  Indeed, this is a fault-line slicing through the church since the beginning.  Paul’s opponents in Galatia were all about nostalgia for Jewishness; his opponents in Corinth were all about relevance to their Gentile context. 

In my view, both sides of this battle are wrong.  Both the relevance and the nostalgia parties capitulate to culture.  One capitulates to the culture of today, the other to the culture of yesterday.  Often this is expressed in the way each group valorizes the media and technology of the period they want to relate to.  The media — that is to say, the worship styles, music, iconography, vestments, language, theology, moral and political views, organizational practices, missional strategies — replace the message.  They can even become the message.  There are stained glass, organ, choir robes, hymnal churches; and there are praise band, projection screen, coffee-serving, Hawaiian shirt churches. 

Both the Church of the Way We Were and the Church of What’s Happenin’ Now have in common that they let themselves be defined and governed by externals.  What rules in them is the world.  And the world, in the most negative way the term is used in the New Testament, is dominated by ego, sin, and death.  That is the world Jesus overcomes and conquers.           

But neither of those manifestations of church is really about the gospel, which is that the Kingdom of God has come near to us in the Word of God, Jesus Christ.  The Kingdom of God is always about the future and it always presents a challenge to human kingdoms, yesterday or today.  The Kingdom of God is within us, says Jesus, and to connect with it we will have to go within.  That is, instead of looking around us at the world and trying to shape ourselves, our message, our mission, our ministry according to what we imagine will appeal to or reflect the spirit of whatever age we are interested in, we will have to respond out of an awareness of who and whose we truly are in Jesus Christ.    

To go within is to connect with our deepest identity and destiny.  It is to connect with the Kingdom of God and the life of the world to come.  It is to be neither nostalgic nor relevant; it is rather to live in anticipation of the coming Reign of God, bereft of the divisions, injustices, violence, inequalities, and other products of our ego-centricity.

At their best, this is what the early church, and all reformers thereafter, sought to accomplish.  Not to recover an old thing; not to do a new thing; but to anticipate something that is coming.  Not to relate to this world, of today or yesterday, but to the world to come.  They were not always successful.  Too often they did just try to resuscitate the past or appeal to the present.  But the best reformers were not about the world of the past or the present, but the Kingdom of God.